TWIST OF FATE

by Lorraine Anderson

May 12, 1980

"...keep her big fat nose out of my business!"

If there was anything Sam hated most, it was arriving in the middle of a conversation. "Yeah," he said neutrally, then took stock. He smelled stale popcorn. He was in a bed - an uncomfortable bed. He was wearing a summer nightgown, which seemed to suggest - to his disappointment - that he was supposed to be a woman.

He opened his eyes and looked around. He was in a small, semi-dark room. There was a desk attached to the opposite wall with two chairs at it. He felt the walls. It felt like an old paint-covered cinderblock. Posters covered the wall beside him, and there was a brown and gold banner that said "WMU". There were white blobs on his bed that felt like stuffed animals.

He was in a dorm. No doubt about it.

"I mean, I don't know why she does things like that. He's not hers anymore. She should just butt out."

"Yeah." He concentrated on the voice coming down from the lump in the bed above him. It seemed to be a young female - of course, she'd be young, he corrected himself. Who else would live in a dorm?

Besides himself. The world's oldest dorm rat. He sighed.

His "roommate" looked over the side of the bed. She had long dark hair, and she squinted at him, which seemed to suggest that she wore glasses. Or was it the darkness? "Oh, I'm sorry," she said. "You had that big test today, didn't you? Did you pull an all-nighter?"

Sam grinned ruefully. "Yeah. Most of last night." This was true. He was up all of last night - in the last leap.

"Well, I didn't mean to unload on you." She pulled her head up. "Phew. That made me dizzy. How do you think you did?"

"All right, I guess." He wondered whether he could get away with suddenly falling asleep. Probably not. "You can talk if you want," he said, then yawned suddenly, surprising himself. Actually, he was pretty exhausted.

His roommate above him chuckled. "I think you're going to fall asleep - and if you fall asleep, then I'll be talking to myself, and I do that a lot anyway."

"Yeah," Sam said sleepily. The bunk didn't seem so uncomfortable anymore.

The head appeared over the side of the bed. "You didn't have to agree with me!"

Suddenly, the two heard a rustling at the door. They looked at each other. "I think I know what that is," his roommate said ruefully. "Can you...?"

"Ok." Sam got up and felt around the door, hoping to find the light switch. He winced at the illumination when he turned on the light, then looked down. There was a folded paper pushed under the door, almost under the rug that covered the brown tile floor. He picked up the letter and inspected it. It was addressed to "Margaret Lovett", and Sam looked at it stupidly, wondering whether Margaret was himself or his roommate.

"Let me see," his roommate said, reaching down to the windowsill and grabbing her glasses. Sam handed her the letter. She swore, then opened it. "That Sharon," she said bitterly, looking down at the letter. "See what I mean? When is she going to learn that he isn't hers anymore?" She handed it to Sam.

The letter was written in big block letters, and it was unsigned. The paper was dirty. The note said, "Stay away from Jim or you will regret it for the rest of your (short) life."

Sam winced. "She sounds unhinged," he muttered. Not to mention homicidal, he said to himself. But maybe he was reading too much into it.

Margaret snorted. "She is. Did I tell you that she transferred schools so she could stay near him?"

Sam raised his eyebrows. "I think so," he said cautiously.

She took her glasses off and laid them on the windowsill. "Well, I can't do anything about her tonight - except maybe think of revenge."

Sam yawned. "Maybe we'll dream up something." He turned off the light and groped back to the bed.

"Yeah," Margaret said. "Goodnight."

"Goodnight," Sam yawned. He turned over once and was fast asleep.

#

Al stood over the bunk bed, watching Sam sleep. God knew Sam needed the rest after staying up all night to save those stranded hikers. Al knew that he had, but it had been three days ago for him. Three glorious days. Three days with Tina, getting his frustrations with... everything... settled.

He smiled, then shook his head. There was time for daydreaming later. Besides, he prefered daydreaming like this in front of Sam. It kept Sam amused... and, more importantly, kept him distracted from the situation he was in.

He sighed and looked at the clock by the bunk. He was tempted to let Sam sleep, but "Mr. Morals" would never forgive him if he didn't wake him up to go to class. Al had already wasted some time... um... exploring the dorm. "Sam," he said loudly. "Sam..." He saw Sam open his eyes slightly and smiled. Time for some ribbing...

#

"You look sweet in your lacy pink nightgown," Al said.

Keeping his eyes closed, Sam turned away from him. "Go 'way."

"I don't think so, Sam," Al drawled. He punched his hand link. "You've already slept through your alarm, and you have your first class in an hour."

Sam turned onto his back and looked up. The lump was gone from the upper bunk. He looked around the room, but all he saw was Al. "Meg is already gone," Al said. "According to Debra - your name is Debra Ward - Margaret's first class was at 7:30."

Sam looked at the clock on the stand by his bed. It was 7:35. With a groan, he sat up, then rubbed his back. "I had forgotten just how bad dorm beds were."

"My sympathies." Al grinned.

"Sure," Sam groaned, stretching. "Rub it in. You and your heated waterbed."

Al ignored him. "You're an Education student at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Spring semester." He smiled. "Oh, yeah." He sang a snatch of "I got a gal in Kalamazoo." "I always liked that song. Sang it to my second...no, third wife...oh, I can't remember." He looked thoughtful. "That was one of the contributing factors of our divorce - she came from L.A."

"Did you?"

Al did a double-take. "What?"

"Have a girl in Kalamazoo?"

Al thought a second. "No. Not at that time." He pointed carelessly. "Your clothes are laid out over there."

Sam looked at them. Jeans, T-shirt, tennis shoes, and underwear. "Rather a minimalist dresser, isn't she?" He sighed and got up and looked at the desk. There was a watch, a heart on a chain, and a pair of pierced earrings laid out.

"When are you ever going to pierce your ears?" Al quipped.

Sam glared at him, then got a whiff of himself. "I think I better take a shower first."

"Out the door and down the hall... to the right." Al lit his cigar.

"Usually down the hall in these places..." He looked at Al. "How did you know?... Never mind, it's obvious." He searched around for a bathrobe, and found an orange terrycloth robe on the farther edge of his bed, almost falling off. "What am I here for?"

Al started punching at the hand link. "Oh, well, I hadn't gotten that far. I got... distracted."

"Uh-huh." Sam slipped on the robe.

"Doggonit." Al frowned down at the hand link.

Sam had a sinking feeling. "I'm here to keep Meg from being murdered, right?"

"Right." Al did a double-take. "How did you know?"

Sam looked around and saw the letter in the wastebasket. "Look at this," he said, pulling it out.

Al looked at the letter dangling in front of his face. "Oh."

#

Sam looked in dismay at the showers. At the very least they gave a modicum of modesty - heavy green shower curtains hung from guide wires attached to the walls. Still, there was no way he was going to avoid seeing...

He rounded the corner, and found himself staring at a naked girl towelling herself down. "Hi, Debbie!" the girl said, looking up.

"Hi," Sam said, and ducked into a shower... which was, unfortunately, occupied by another naked female washing her hair. "Sorry," he said, and moved into the next shower cautiously. Thankfully, it was unoccupied. He sighed quietly.

Throwing his towel and his robe over one of the guide wires, he stepped to one side and turned on the shower, experimenting with the knobs. Finally, he found a good temperature and stepped into the water.

"You know," Al said, sticking his head through the shower curtain. "It's not like they know you're male."

Sam made a grab for his towel. "What are you..." Al looked puzzled. "Oh. Yeah." He grimaced and turned around. "I know you think that I go after anything female, but you're not that beautiful. Kind of scrawny, actually." He looked at Sam, then at the hand link. "Besides, I usually have the Body Image Clarifier turned on. I see you as you right now."

Sam heard the hand link squawk, and he frowned at him. "So why are you peeking?"

Al swiveled his head forwards. "Peeking? Me?"

"You."

"I wouldn't do anything like that, Sam."

"Uh-huh. I would feel better if you were in the next stall."

"Ok." Al moved towards the other occupied stall.

"The other side," Sam hissed.

"Spoilsport." He walked into the other stall.

"That's better. What did you find out?" He lathered up, then heard a toilet flush, then...

"Yow!" He jumped forward and glared at the shower. Al snickered. Sam glared at the curtain, then he tested the water cautiously. "I forgot," he muttered, "that the shower and the toilets were connected."

"Did you get burned?" Al said.

"Close." He eased back in the shower cautiously, then looked around the curtain edge at Al. "Find out any more?"

"Not much," Al said, regretfully. "Meg was found dead about four weeks from now just off a jogging trail on campus. The jogging trail is in a wooded area about a half mile from here. She was in a shallow grave."

"How did she die?"

"A blow to the head. A girl named..." He poked at the hand link, then slapped it on the side. "...Sharon Watling was initially blamed for the murder, but she...disappeared.

Oh. She lives in this dorm, too."

"Sharon Watling," Sam said. "That must be..."

Al nodded. "...the one who sent that letter. Right."

Sam washed his face, then wished he could shave. But unless he could do it by touch - which would be a little difficult - he didn't think he better try in such a public place. He sighed. Well, he could shave in the next leap.

He hoped. Or maybe duck into the bathroom in the middle of the night.

He washed his hair, rinsed, then wiped himself off and put on his robe. Al was looking at him, and Sam sighed. "Don't you have anything else to think about?"

Al smiled. "Well, not much else worthwhile." He punched a button on his hand link. "Spoilsport."

Sam shook his head. "There are other things besides

sex."

"Really. I hadn't heard. What else is there to think about?" Al grinned.

"Well, you can tell me where my first class is, so that Debra doesn't flunk."

Al sighed. "You always were conscientious. I, on the other hand, always made skipping an art form."

"Creative Skipping 101?" Sam grinned.

"Of course." He punched the hand link. "Um...her schedule doesn't seem to be in here. Want me to ask her?"

"No...maybe the schedule is in the desk." He moved out of the shower.

A girl was looking at him. "Do you often talk to yourself in the shower?"

He flushed. "Beats singing. I...um...was trying a speech for one of my classes. Seeing if it sounded right."

"Ok. Whatever you say." She moved into a cubicle.

Al laughed.

Sam rushed out of the bathroom and back to the room and looked through the desk. He found the slip of paper stuck on the wall behind the desk along with Meg's schedule. "Beginning Art. Sangren Hall."

Al punched at his hand link. "Just across the street." He looked up. "Sounds dull. You'll probably be drawing bowls of fruit or flowers or that kind of stuff."

Sam found Debra's art notebook and flipped through it. "You got it."

Al yawned. "In that case, I'll just take a break and come back later."

#

Sam's mouth dropped open. "This is Beginning Art, isn't it?" he murmured to his neighbor, trying to make the question sound rhetorical.

The guy had his eyes on the female disrobing in front of the class. He swallowed once, his eyes wide. "That's what my syllabus said," he said, his mouth dropping open again.

The naked female draped her robe on the table, then crawled on top of it, seemingly bored. She sat, one knee up, the other leg bent on the table, draping one arm on one knee, the other back to give her support.

Sam heard nervous titters around him, which, at the very least, reassured him he was in the right class. He looked around. The class, to a person, looked red-faced. He glanced forward again, and wished he hadn't picked a desk in the middle.

Was he ever going to get away from naked females? Well, at least he was given the full picture, for once. He winced at the thought, and wondered where that awful pun came from.

"We'll be having timed sketches today," the tall, bald teacher announced. "The first one will be two minutes. Draw as much as you can, and don't worry about details. Ready, go."

Sam started. After the timing was up, he realized that he had started to think of the female as a piece of furniture rather than something to be embarrassed about. He glanced at his neighbors. They looked like they thought the same way.

The hour went fast. Close to the end of the hour, he heard a wooshing noise behind him. He looked back. Al was standing directly behind him with his mouth wide open, and his cigar drooping from his fingers. "Oh, my," he managed to say.

Sam grinned.

"Have you...all hour?" Al pointed.

Sam nodded.

"Oh, jeez," Al said. "I just spent an hour with Gooshie and missed this?"

Sam, busily drawing, nodded again.

"Oh, jeez."

"Time's up," the teacher said. The woman on the table glanced at the clock, got up off the table, and put on her robe.

Al stamped his foot and whirled. "And I missed it. Oh, jeez."

"For the next class," the teacher said. "I want you to draw your hand. Class dismissed." Sam noted the assignment in the notebook and hoped that Debra would see it - if he Leaped before then.

The class started cleaning up. In the bustle, Sam whispered, "Well, she wasn't that good looking, anyway."

"So?" he looked again. In the robe, the woman looked frumpy. "Well, I guess. No use crying over spilt milk."

"Yeah."

"No matter how much I would like to."

Sam looked at him, then folded his notebook up, stored the pencil in his purse, then exited the class. Just as he and Al were going out the door, somebody bumped into him.

"Oh, sorry," the girl said. She was a pleasant looking teenager, short and thin, with black hair.

"No problem," Sam smiled.

"Can you believe class today?" the girl said. "I can't believe he brought a nude model in."

"Me, neither," Sam admitted. "Certainly gave me a shock."

"Me, too," Al said regretfully. "Darn it."

"Yeah." The girl walked a little further down the hall, then grinned. "We should tell him it's sex discrimination."

"'Discrimination'?" he parroted, then he grinned. "Oh, you want a nude male model."

"Yeah," she said. "Wouldn't that be fun?"

"Sure," Sam agreed, with as much enthusiasm as he was able to muster.

"Oh," the girl said. "I guess I should introduce myself. I'm Sharon Watling."

Sam stiffened and looked at her sharply. "You're Sharon..." he said involuntarily.

"Sharon Watling," Al said, startled. He started punching the hand link.

Sharon looked at Sam. "That's my name."

Sam chewed his lip. "I'm Debra Ward," he said, finally. "Margaret Lovett's roommate."

Sharon started. Her face turned red. "Oh." She started walking away from Sam.

"Wait a minute," Sam said, walking. "We need to talk."

"What is there to talk about?" Sharon hissed over her shoulder. She pushed through the door and went outside.

"Hey," he said, running to go through the doors. "Did I do anything to you?"

Sharon seemed to think that over. "Well, you're her roommate."

"Can I help it that I'm her..." he started, then paused.

"I have another class," she said coldly. "Just tell your roommate to stay away from me. And the same goes for you." She walked swiftly across the street to the Student Union, barely avoiding being hit by a car.

He stared at her. Something didn't quite scan. "Hey, wait a minute!," he shouted, running after her.

"Stay away from me," she shouted over her shoulder. "I mean that!" She disappeared through the Union doors.

"Let her go, Sam," Al said, appearing beside him. Sam started. "She's not going to listen."

"Al..." He noticed some students staring at him, so he started down the sidewalk back to the dorm. "Al, she just doesn't seem like the murdering type."

"Most murderers don't," Al said.

#

"Are you sure she murdered Meg?" he muttered to Al while he fumbled for the key to open the security door.

Al fumbled with the hand link, walking absent-mindedly through the door. "Well, she was the only one with a motive."

"But Sharon said..." His voice died as a young man pushed through the door from the other side just as he was putting the key in the lock. He smiled at the teenager, then ducked through the door.

"Don't encourage them," Al grinned.

"What?" Sam stared at Al as he started up the stairs.

"You smiled at him," Al explained with a twinkle in his eye. "High hormones at that age, you know. And you're not a bad looker."

Sam snorted. "Smiling at a man is not an invitation to go to bed. Besides, you said I wasn't that pretty."

"Not to a man of experience. At that age, a nice smile was all I needed." Al smiled reminiscently.

"Anyway," Sam said quickly, going down the hall towards his room. "Sharon's words were 'Stay away from me', not 'Stay away from my boyfriend.' It doesn't seem that a jealous girlfriend would state it quite that way."

"I think you're grasping at teeny, tiny straws, Sam." Al shrugged. "Do I need to run it by Beeks?"

Sam unlocked the door to his room. "Probably wouldn't hurt." He opened the door wide, and Meg looked up. "Oh, no, not again," Sam muttered under his breath.

Meg was standing in the middle of the room, pulling her shirt off. Her jeans were already on her bed. Sam ducked in and closed the door, but Al walked in through the wall.

"Thought I better take a shower before I go to English. It's hot out there. What wouldn't hurt?" Meg asked, unclasping her brassiere.

"Oh, boy!" Al said. Sam shot daggers at him with his eyes, and jerked his head. Al looked up to heaven, then punched a button on the hand link. "Some guys have all the fun," he sputtered as he walked out the Imaging Chamber door.

Sam crossed the room quickly and dumped his books and his purse on his bed. "Uh...I was talking to myself," he said, straightening his pillow. Out of the corner of his eye, he noted that she had put on her robe, so he sat down on his bed and looked at her.

"Talking to yourself, again?" Meg shook her head with a twinkle in her eye. "Next you'll be living in South Campus."

"South Campus?" Sam asked, checking Debbie's schedule.

"The funny farm...the psychiatric hospital." Meg looked at him oddly. "You knew that...what's wrong?"

Sam looked at her and sighed. "Did you know that Sharon Watling was in my art class?"

Meg stiffened. "No. I didn't."

"I didn't either."

"What did you do?"

Sam wrinkled his forehead. "I didn't do a thing. We were talking, she introduced herself, then I introduced myself, then she stalked off. She told me to stay away from her."

Meg snorted. "Sounds typical of that sort."

Sam sat back. "Meg, she acted very reasonable until I introduced myself as your roommate."

Meg picked up her shower bucket and put her comb in it. "Jim says she's always acted that way. She's very possessive."

"I don't know, Meg." Sam chewed his lip. "My gut instinct says that there's something more to this."

"There's nothing more to it!" Meg glared at her. "Are you questioning me now? I mean, I know you've never really liked Jim, but whose side are you on, anyway?" She exited the room, slamming the door.

Sam looked at the door, astonished. "I wish I knew," he muttered, flopping down on the bed.

#

"Sam's not going to like that," Al said, looking up at Ziggy's interface unit. He was not in the best of moods. After he left Sam in the morning, he found he had to meet yet another Senator and give a "Grand Tour". He was still annoyed by the stupid questions. He was beginning to wonder whether any of them were educated.

"Facts do not lie, Admiral," Ziggy said. She sounded peeved, and Al winced. "I copied the article precisely onto the printer. If you would prefer to go to Kalamazoo yourself...?"

Heaven help him from temperamental computers. "Ziggy, I said that Sam wouldn't like the contents of this newspaper article. I was not, repeat, not criticizing your performance."

"And I did not think you were," Ziggy said. "I was simply stating that the article was fact." She was silent a second. "I have just corroborated it with current Kalamazoo Police files."

Al rolled his eyes, and Gooshie grinned. "Ziggy," Al said. "You don't have to prove yourself. I believe you. Don't go into a snit."

"I am a computer," Ziggy said. "I do not have emotions."

"Like hell you don't!" He looked at Gooshie. "You're the programmer. You tell this tin-plated, overgrown, transistor radio..."

Gooshie shrugged. "She was programmed with a... um... certain personality in mind, but she's not supposed to have emotions. Technically."

"And I'm a space cadet."

"Yes," Ziggy interjected. "You are."

Gooshie laughed.

Al gave Ziggy a slow stare. "Gee, thanks, Ziggy."

"You were an astronaut, Admiral, were you not?" Ziggy said calmly.

"You knew what you said the first time," Al grumbled. "I gotta get out of here. Gooshie, can you get this... machine to center me on Sam?"

"Yes, he can. That's one of Gooshie's functions," Ziggy said.

Al stepped up to the Imaging Chamber door. It remained shut. He sighed heavily and stomped his foot, and Gooshie laughed again. "Will you tell this... computer... to do it right now?"

"Oh," Ziggy said. "Is that what you meant? You must learn to talk more literally, Admiral."

"No emotions," he muttered as he walked into a college cafeteria...

#

Sam sat at supper, eating automatically. He was worried. He hadn't seen Meg all day - and worse, he didn't have a clue where to look. He attended Debra's other class

- Children's Literature - but he spent the time staring out the window and fidgeting. He had already looked though the dorm a number of times, he had roamed through the Student Union twice, and he had even discovered the library and searched through all of the floors. He was hot, he was sweaty, and he was rather annoyed.

"I see you're having the hockey puck tonight," Al said, looking distastefully at the plate. Sam started, then looked at him. "Breaded fish," Al explained.

"It was the best thing in the cafeteria," Sam muttered into the plate.

Al snorted. "Usually is."

"How do you know?

"Hey, I went to college, remember?"

"Oh. Yeah." Sam took a bite, trying not to think about what he was eating. "I could've used you today. I can't find Meg."

"Well, it wasn't my fault this time," Al frowned. "I had to play tour guide again to another Senator... I'm getting real tired of these Brownie scout tours."

Sam sighed.

"Ok, I'll check on her and be right back. Gooshie," he drawled. "Center me on Meg." He punched a button and disappeared.

He reappeared almost as quickly. "Haven't been to your room lately, have you?"

Sam rolled his eyes to the ceiling. "No."

"Well, she's safe. She's just getting up from a nap."

"Good." Sam took another bite, changed his mind, then started on the salad. "So, what did you dig up?"

Al looked at him.

"Um...poor choice of words."

"You're getting as macabre as I am. Actually, something was dug up. A couple of days ago. It was just in yesterday's - my yesterday - Kalamazoo Gazette. Ziggy picked it up off the Newspaper On-Line. He was reviewing the paper, just in case."

"What did he find?" Sam was sure he didn't want to know.

Al chewed his lip. "Sharon Watling's corpse. Some poor student found it under a fallen tree in the woods. The police figure it had been buried there since 1980."

Sam put his head in his hand. "So I'm looking for two murderers now."

Al expelled his breath. "I really don't know. They couldn't tell if the tree was what killed her or what. I mean, if a tree fell on her..." He looked across the dining room, then smiled grimly. "Don't look now, but your boyfriend's coming."

Sam looked. A big, chunky man with dirty, scraggly blonde hair, wrinkled shirt and jeans and a pair of big boots was walking towards him and grinning.

"Sam...I didn't think they fed the homeless in here."

"I don't think they do," Sam mouthed.

"Deb." The man said slowly, smiling broadly. His teeth were dirty. "Fancy meeting you here."

Sam decided to take a hard line. "I come here when I want to eat."

The man grinned and sat down beside him. Sam sniffed, then wrinkled his nose. "Oh," Al said. "Another time when I should be glad I'm a hologram?"

Sam nodded, pointed his eyes up to the ceiling, then closed them.

"Hey...maybe that's Jim!"

Sam wrinkled his forehead and looked alarmed at Al. "Probably not, huh?"

Sam shook his head, then continued supper. It was the supper from hell. All the big man talked about was Dungeons and Dragons. He ate and talked with his mouth open. D&D was something that Sam had only a cursory knowledge about - the whole game seemed rather pointless to him - and he didn't dare reveal that knowledge because he wasn't sure how much Debbie knew about it. And when Sam tried to ask him about his classes, all he got was monosyllables. He considered moving to another table, but he was afraid the man would follow.

He was rather glad that Al stayed. Al hated Dungeons and Dragons, and he was vociferous in his comments. It kept an unbearable supper seem amusing. It was too bad that the other man couldn't see Al. Maybe Al would have driven him away.

Sam was just about through with supper, when he heard somebody yell "Deb!" Sam looked up. A good looking young man was working through the tables towards him. He sat his tray on the table on Sam's left side. "Oh, hello, Barney."

Al looked disgusted as the man on Sam's right acknowledged the greeting, spewing corn all over his plate. He went back to spooning his meat into his mouth, dribbling tartar sauce on his chin.

"How's graduate school, Barney Smith?" the young man grinned. There was a satirical tone in his voice.

"Oh, all right," Barney grinned, his mouth open, so that Sam had a good view of half-eaten food. Sam turned his head, quickly.

"That guy's a graduate student?" Al said, shaking his head.

"Deb," the young man was saying. "Where's Meg? I haven't seen her all day."

"I, uh...think she's back in our room," Sam said. "We have a date tonight, you know," he said, daintily cutting his fish into pieces.

Sam was looking at the precision the young man was using, and almost missed his last comment. "Oh, you do?" Then this must be Jim.

"She didn't tell you?"

"She doesn't tell me everything," Sam said neutrally.

"Oh, yeah?" The young man was condescending. "You guys have a fight? I thought you guys told each other everything."

"Should we?" This man was seriously beginning to annoy Sam, and he wasn't sure why.

"Most girls do," the man said with a snicker.

Sam pinpointed why he was annoyed. The man reminded him of his sister's first husband. "How do you know?" he said shortly.

"It's a well-known fact, Debbie-girl," he said, looking at her.

"Not to this...woman." Sam emphasized the last word by spearing a bit of fish and chewing it angrily. Jim seemed to be completely serious.

"Hey, I'm just quoting common knowledge," the young man said, chewing daintily on a bit of fish. "Geez, Deb, what's wrong with you tonight? On the rag?"

Al's mouth dropped open. "What a scumball," He finally said.

Sam was speechless. Meg was going with this no-account? No wonder Debbie didn't like him!

Barney stiffened a second, then put his spoon down. His eyes seemed to brighten.

Al's hand link beeped, and he looked alarmed at it, punching and slamming it against his open palm. He looked up, glanced at Barney, then his eyes widened. "Sam?" he gasped, looking back and forth between Sam and Barney.

Sam looked at Al, puzzled, then back at Barney. He wondered what Al's problem was, but he didn't dare ask here.

"I believe it's time for you to leave the table, Jim," Barney said in a low voice.

Jim looked at Barney, then dismissed him. "Barney, just in case you didn't notice - and I know you rarely do - I just started supper."

"No, Jim," the man said. "I believe you just finished." He stood up slowly, then moved to the back of Jim's chair, looming over him.

Jim looked up at the man. Sam looked over at Al, who was looking puzzled at the hand link, then at Barney.

"You're right," Jim said slowly. "I think I am finished."

"Take your tray and go," the man said.

"Hey, Deb," Jim said, picking up his tray and glancing at the man looming over him. "I'll see you later."

"Not if I have anything to do about it," Sam muttered as Jim moved off. Barney looked at him, amused.

"Thank you," Sam said, as the big man gathered up his tray. "I couldn't think of a good retort."

"I know," Barney said. "You would do the same for me in a pinch." He smiled, as if at a private joke. "Well, I'll see you later." He looked up beyond Sam, grinned, then moved off.

Sam looked up at Al. He was biting his lip and looking at the retreating man, then looked at the hand link. "What's wrong?" Sam muttered.

Al's face went blank. "Why, nothing, Sam," he said, looking at Sam. "Why do you ask?" He looked up over Sam, looked surprised, then his face went blank again. Sam looked. Barney was exiting the cafeteria. He looked up at Al, who looked at him and shrugged. "I just thought I saw someone I knew. Impossible, of course."

Sam raised his eyebrows at him. "Of course."

#

Al exited the Imaging Chamber, muttering. "What the hell is going on in that cafeteria?" he spouted. "Do you know what happened in there? Right after that no-account sat down, I saw two Sams!"

"Am I supposed to know what's going on?" Gooshie said. "But Ziggy did tell me something. She said that Dr. Beckett... another Dr. Beckett... Leaped into Barney." He looked puzzled. "I would not have thought that time would allow a paradox." He smiled at his inadvertent joke. "Para- docs. That's cute. Pair of Docs."

Al ignored him. "Not only that, I think I saw myself." He shuddered. "He waved at me."

"Admiral," Ziggy interrupted. Her voice sounded petulant. "There is no paradox. Or, rather, there is no more of a paradox than usual." She paused. "Although this makes it harder to track our Dr. Beckett."

"What do you mean?" Gooshie said. "How can Dr. Beckett be Debra Ward and Barney Smith at the same time?"

Al said slowly. "Well, obviously, the Sam that's in Barney Smith is from the future. Our future."

"Yes, Admiral," Ziggy said.

"And if he can be two places in one time, there's no reason why he can't be in three or four."

"Yes, Admiral. Or more."

"Wait a minute," Gooshie said. "I thought Dr. Beckett's calculations indicated that this couldn't happen."

"His calculations were incorrect," Ziggy said calmly.

Al sighed. "And he has to accomplish something that... uh... 'our' Sam can't accomplish alone."

"Yes, Admiral."

"Do you know what that is?"

"No, Admiral," Ziggy said. "But we will know by the time Dr. Beckett Leaps into Barney."

"Ziggy," Al grumbled. "That's obvious."

Ziggy went on, ignoring Al's remark. "In the interim, we shall have to watch what 'Barney' does. But," she added. "It would be best if you would keep around Dr. Beckett. You should not tell him anything of this or a paradox may be created."

"Which Sam?" Al said, grinning.

"Our doctor," she specified impatiently. "I am sure you do not wish to run into yourself, do you?"

Al mused a minute. "Depends on whether he can tell me about where Tina went last week..." He glanced at Gooshie. "Well, no. I guess not. I think."

#

When Sam got back to the room, it was empty. A pile of clothes covered Meg's rumpled bed. Sam sighed. He had hoped to talk to her before she left. "Al," he said. "What can you tell me about Jim? Anything I should worry about?"

"Besides the fact that he's a scuz?"

Sam snorted. "Besides that. Any possibility that he may be the murderer?"

Al repeated the question for Ziggy. "No. Ziggy said that he has an almost ironclad alibi." He shook his head. "And, apparently, he's been clean since then." He frowned. "Too bad. Mental abuse can be worse than physical abuse."

Sam went over, looked out the window, and watched the wind ripple the ivy crawling up the side of the dorm. "Struck you that way, too, huh? He could use a little sensitivity training."

"He could stand an uppercross to wipe that smirk off his face."

Sam smiled. "That, too." He looked out the window again. "I think you should follow them. I don't dare, if I'm to keep Meg's trust."

"Oh, no, Sam," Al protested. "I'm not going to be their chaperone!"

Sam turned and looked at him. "They can't see you. You're not their chaperone."

"Even worse. That would make me a peeping Al. I don't get my jollies by watching other folks on dates, Sam."

Sam sighed. "But if I follow them, Meg would be even madder at me."

Al made a face at him. "Oh, all right. Gooshie, center me on Meg." He disappeared...

...and came back, grinning. Sam looked at him, puzzled.

"They already have a chaperone."

"Oh, yeah?"

"Barney. They're at a movie, and Barney looks like he might've invited himself along. Jim is looking awfully frustrated."

Sam snorted. "I don't blame him. But it still might not be a bad idea for you to go along."

"No..." Al said thoughtfully. "I think Meg is in good hands." He caught the look on Sam's face. "Just an expression!"

#

Al sighed as he exited the Imaging Chamber. Not only was the future Sam on that date, so was his own future self. He liked the irony, but it gave him the creeps to be waved off the case by himself, and to be told to get some sleep. It was almost like seeing your own ghost.

He didn't feel this way when he talked with his younger self last year. But, then, there was a spread of forty years experience between the two. This was a matter of a day, maybe two.

He shivered, then decided to take his own advice. He hoped he knew what he was talking about.

#

Sam woke up the next morning, sopping wet, all of the covers off the bed. He quickly glanced upward. There was a reassuring bulge in the upper bunk, and the soft steady breathing of just...one? He got up and looked in the upper bunk. Yes, just Meg. Well, he probably would have woke had two climbed up there, but it was better safe to be sorry.

"Summer in the midwest," he muttered to himself as he wiped his forehead off and peered out the window. The haze was almost visible. It already felt close to eighty.

He glanced at the clock. It was seven. He looked at Meg, puzzled, then looked at her schedule behind the desk. "Meg," he said softly. He got a soft snore for an answer. He walked over and pushed on the bed. "Meg." The girl turned over. "Meg," he said louder.

Meg slowly opened her eyes and looked at him. "What?"

"You're going to miss your class."

"No, I'm not." She closed her eyes.

"It's five after seven."

"So?"

"Don't you have a class at 7:30?"

She turned over and put her arm over her head. "Do you know what time I got in last night?"

"No. Why? Does that have some bearing as to why you're skipping class?" He paused. "What time did you get in?"

"None of your business."

Wonderful, Sam thought. She's still mad at me. "I just have your best interests in mind," he said.

"Best interests...ha! Is that why you had Barney follow us?"

"Barney?" Sam tried his best to sound surprised.

"He sat right behind us at the West Main theater, he followed us down to Penney's on the mall. Then he actually caught a cab and followed us over to the Final Curtain! He was tailing us, ok?"

"How could I tell him where you were going when I didn't even know?"

Meg sighed. "I told you two days ago. Remember?"

Oh. Oops. "I didn't tell him to tail you."

"Bull. Jim told me what happened at dinner last night. Barney even threatened to hit him."

"What? Barney said nothing of the sort!" Sam looked away. "He may have stood over Jim's chair..."

"That's not what Jim said."

He had a feeling this wouldn't work, but he had to say it anyway. "Did it ever occur to you that Jim may be...not exactly truthful?"

Meg turned over and looked him in the eyes. "When you want to move into Sharon Watling's room, I'll help you move." She turned back over and faced the wall.

Ouch. Still, it had to be said. Maybe it would start her thinking. "I...uh...think I'll take a shower." Perhaps a strategic removal would help. He grabbed Debra's shower bucket and her robe and keys and rapidly exited the room.

Al was waiting out in the hall. He looked tired. Even his silver coat looked fuzzy. "Don't tell me," Sam said. "You had a late night, too. Am I the only one who got some sleep?"

Al rubbed his eyes. "Probably."

"Care to tell me about it?"

"Um...it was personal-type business. I'll tell you later."

Sam started walking down the hall, then had a sudden thought. "Al...can Barney see you?"

"Barney?"

"Barney...remember?"

Al snorted. "Yes." He seemed amused.

"He's more mentally ill than I thought." Sam turned into the bathroom and missed the expression on Al's face.

After a second, Al followed him in. "Sam? Ziggy... has come up with new calculations. She's positive that the murder will take place this afternoon."

Sam was emerging from a stall. He looked around to make sure no-one else was in the bathroom. "She's that positive? She didn't sound that positive before."

"Well, some new evidence came in." Al shrugged. "I believe her."

"Ah." Sam looked sharply at Al. "So what does she say I should do?"

"Go to class this morning. After you get out of Children's Lit, drop off your books and go to the jogging trail in the woods in the valley behind Sangren and sit. I'll probably meet you before then, but I want to make sure you're down there just in case I don't show." He looked suddenly nervous, like some thought just occurred to him. "But I should show up."

Sam looked at him. "You're sure I should leave Meg alone that long."

"Meg will be... fine."

Sam looked at him oddly and chewed the back of his lip. "Ok..."

Al sighed and punched at his hand-link. "Good," he said cautiously. "Go take your shower. I'll see you later."

"Yeah." Sam ducked into the back shower.

Al walked out into the hall, went to the stairway and walked out the back wall in mid-air. He looked down into the courtyard and nodded. "But Sam," he said, looking down. "What if I don't show up this afternoon? We're dealing with our own timelines here, you know. I don't want to disappear into a paradox."

Barney lifted his eyebrows. "You'll show. Don't worry about it." He sighed. "I had better get back to Carrie."

"Yeah," Al said. "I guess I'll worry about the last leap later." He lowered himself to ground level, and the pair walked down the sidewalk.

#

"Yes, Donna, Sam's fine... no, no Leap yet... I'll call you when it happens. I really don't think he's in danger on this leap... Right. We never know. Are you having a good time?... How's Sam's family? Good... Yeah. I know. I wish I could tell them more, too. Yeah. Have a good time... Goodbye."

Al hung up the phone with a smile and sat back in his chair. He looked at a picture of Sam and Donna on his office wall. He had almost forced Dr. Elisi on the plane. She was getting almost ragged around the edges, waiting for Sam to return. She was a strong lady, but she was being tested almost beyond her limits. A good vacation in Hawaii with Sam's mother would do her wonders.

It wasn't great on his nerves, either, but he had other ways of coping. Not only did he see Sam almost every day, there were... other pursuits.

He leaned back in his chair and considered those other pursuits for a minute with a smile on his face. Then, with a quick movement, he picked up the hand link. It was time to get back to work.

Gooshie looked up as he entered the room. "How's Donna?" he said.

"She's fine." Al considered a second. "Gooshie, center me on Sharon."

"Sharon?"

"Yeah. I still don't buy that she's innocent."

"You have a suspicious mind, Admiral," Ziggy interjected.

Al glared up at the machine. "Keeps me out of trouble."

Gooshie shrugged. "Ok. Your shot." He punched some buttons on the panel. "There you go."

The Imaging Chamber door opened into a dorm room. Al stepped in. Sharon was at her desk, studying. Al circled her, trying to picture her as a murderer... and failing. "Maybe Sam is right."

Sharon rubbed her head and closed her eyes, then looked out the window. Suddenly, she got up and stared. Al looked over her shoulder. Meg and Jim were walking down the hill towards the wooded area.

Sharon sighed. "Damn them!" Apparently coming to a decision, she shrugged on her coat and walked out of the dorm room. Al followed her, hoping that she was not following the couple.

She started down the hill, and Al punched his hand link, almost resigned. "Gooshie, center me on Sam."

#

It was a frustrating hour of class. Sam attempted to talk to Sharon, and in fact, even sat down beside her. She moved her books to another table, and Sam followed her. She glared at him, then moved again. Sam sighed and stayed where he was. Unless he tied her down, obviously it was futile to try to talk to her.

He fussed around in the Student Union, feeling useless. After his second M&M bag, he gave up and bought a newspaper and tried to put the impending murder out of his mind. He grinned a bit at Jimmy Carter's picture, then sighed and trotted to Children's Literature, where he sat and fumed.

It was extremely hot when he got out of Children's Literature. He walked to the dorm to drop off his books and noted that Meg had finally gotten up. Looking out the window of the dorm room, he saw some dark clouds to the west, and hoped Al knew what he was doing. He locked his door and walked down the hall...

"Sam!"

Sam jumped. "Don't do that!"

"Ok," Al said. "Next time I'll knock. But you have to go to the park, now."

"Why?"

"Sharon is following Meg and Jim into the woods. This may be nothing, but..."

"Right," Sam said, suddenly energized. "Maybe this is it." He thought a moment. "Wait a minute. You told me this morning to go down to the park unless you met me." He looked at Al closely. This Al was wearing a bright red shirt and no jacket. Not only that, he didn't seem nearly as tired. "You're wearing different clothes. You didn't..."

"Sam... I just got to the Project about a half-hour ago. I had some business in town, then when I got here, I checked on Meg, first." He looked puzzled. "I asked you to... Oh!" Suddenly his face looked blank. "That's right, I did ask you to..." He shook his head. "I think I better walk with you."

"Yes," Sam said slowly. "You've been acting rather suspiciously. I think you should come with me."

"Me?" Al said. "Acting suspiciously?" He put on his most innocent face.

The pair walked swiftly to the park in the valley. He looked around. Rather nice. There were a few sunbathers on the opposite shore of the pond, but they were gathering their things up and looking at the sky nervously. He looked up, himself. If Al hadn't made such an issue about it, he would be inside, himself.

"Over here, Sam!"

The hologram beside Sam made a half-strangled sound. Sam felt chills go down his spine. Al... the Al with the silver coat... was standing at the head of the trail.

"No time for explanations," the other Al said, looking nervously at the hand link. "We took longer yesterday than I thought we did."

Sam looked between the two. His Al was glaring at the other man. The other hologram made a gesture of impatience.

"I'm from his tomorrow, ok? Now, get going, Sam!" He pointed down the trail.

"I know you're me," Al growled, "but I really don't like it."

The other hologram glared at him. "Well, neither do I, but this is how it worked out."

Sam decided that this was no trick and started jogging down the trail, his Al trailing him. The other one punched his hand link and disappeared. "What's going on, Al?"

"I'm supposed to know? Ask him!"

Sam heard a scream, and started running in earnest. The wind started picking up.

"Hurry, Sam!" he heard ahead of him. He swerved off the trail into a small clearing.

Meg was on the ground, bleeding profusely from a head wound. Jim was standing over her, shock on his face. He was saying something to himself over and over again. Sharon was rising out of a bush, pale faced.

"You killed her," she said slowly.

His Al ran over to Meg. "She's still alive," he said.

He glared at the other hologram. "Now what are we supposed to do, smarty?"

"You know I can't tell you," the other hologram said. "Paradox."

"Oh, great," his Al muttered. "Now you're worried about a paradox."

Jim's eyes were unfocused as he looked into the woods. "She was asking me about Sharon. She's not supposed to ask me about Sharon. They're supposed to argue about me." He picked up a branch and bent over Meg again. "I'm going to have to start over."

"Argue about you?" Sharon said. "What do you mean?" She came towards Jim.

Jim's eyes focused on her. "What are you doing here?" Jim said. He paled, and an almost fanatical expression came on his face. "It was a mistake for you to be here." He moved towards her. "I can't let you go. I can't go to jail."

"No!" Sam yelled. He interposed himself between Jim and Sharon. The sky overhead turned dark, and the wind started moaning through the woods. Or was it sirens? The leaves started whipping around.

"But I can't drop out of college," Jim said, almost helplessly.

"Jim," Sam said. "Listen to me. You don't have to kill her."

"But..." He continued advancing. His eyes looked empty.

Sam lashed out and caught Jim in the stomach. He went down, gasping, but tried to get up. Sam hit him again, and he went down.

"Good job, Sam!" both holograms yelled, then his Al glared at the other hologram.

Another man came running into the clearing. "You can't take both of them. I'll take this one," Barney said with a smile. "You get Meg."

Sam looked at him, a puzzled look on his face. "It will all be clearer later," Barney grinned. "In the meantime, we have to get these three out of the woods. A tornado is coming."

Sam looked up. He had known that, subconsciously, but it hadn't sunk in. Now he heard the sirens. A horrendous wooshing sound was approaching. "We're not close enough to any building."

"The tornado will go north of us. We just need to get them out of the woods. Hurry!"

Sharon, who was following this exchange with a puzzled look, shook her head. "You're getting weirder by the minute, Barney." She looked up. "But I think you're right. I'll help you. Much as I hate to," she muttered to herself. "But something is going on here and I have to find out what it is."

Rain started pouring down, and the wind picked up even further. The trees started bending towards the group. "Thanks," Barney said. Barney picked Meg up gently and started down the trail. Sam grabbed Jim's torso, and Sharon grabbed his legs. They started down the trail behind Barney. Behind them, Sam heard a tree crash to the ground.

"That tree must've been about ready to fall," Sam yelled to Al.

"Yeah," Al said, trotting beside Sam. "That's probably the tree that was going to kill Sharon." Al looked ahead, then looked bemused. Sam looked forward. He saw the other Al, urging them on.

They burst out of the woods and onto the bridge crossing the pond. The wind blew Sam against the East side of the bridge.

His Al looked up and braked suddenly. Sam flew ahead of him and swerved slightly. He caught a glimpse of something ahead of him. It was the other hologram. "Over here, Sam," he yelled.

"Over there," Sam repeated, and he and Sharon trotted over to a bank, dropped Jim on the ground, and fell to the ground beside Barney and Meg. He looked back. Al was glaring at something on the bank.

He looked. The other hologram was standing over him. "That's it, Sam," he said, talking to Barney. "We saved all of them!"

"And Carrie, too?" Barney said.

"She's fine, too," the man in the silver coat said.

"Wait a minute," Al protested. "Who is Carrie?"

"You'll find out soon enough."

"You're frustrating," Al spouted. "You know that?"

"You should know." The silver-coated hologram grinned. Barney laughed and nodded, then stopped, and a puzzled look came on his face. "What'm I doing here?" he said, looking around.

"Never mind," Sam said, looking at Barney. He realized what had happened. The other hologram had disappeared. "Wait until the tornado is gone!"

"Tornado!" Barney yelped. He buried his face in the bank.

Meg stirred beside Sam. "What happened?" she said slowly. She got up on her elbows, moaned, then looked over at Jim, who was still out. "Jim hit me!" She started towards Jim, anger on her face.

Sam pulled her down. "Don't worry about that now!" Sheets of rain started hitting them, and a lightening strike lit the sky.

Al had been punching the hand link, but was still glancing at the bank suspiciously. "Sam," he said slowly. "I think Jim was the one writing the poison pen letters. He must be some sort of control freak. Probably fed his ego to have two women arguing over him."

"I think so, too." Meg and Sharon looked at Sam. "I think...Jim was the one writing the poison pen letters," Sam said, covering his lapse. Meg and Sharon's mouths dropped open. They looked at each other, then glared at the prostrate form between them. He looked up, looking guilty.

"Neither one of the two press charges," Al said, bemused. "And Jim goes in for intensive counseling on his own. All three of them are going to be fine!" He paused and looked to the East, watching the storm move. "Too bad we couldn't have saved more people. A lot of people were killed here. And I guess we know where your next leap is."

Sam looked over at Barney. He remembered the supper where Barney suddenly defended him. "Yuch," he said softly to Al.

Al shrugged his shoulders and nodded.

"Oh, boy," he said, then he Leaped.

END