mgowriter's notes: Quantum Leap has always been a personal/private thing for me, so I've had some doubts about posting a story, but I'm really glad I finally did it! I hope you enjoy it :)


I


Looking up more than six stories at the windows that peered into the nighttime sky, Al found it hard to believe he had actually arrived. It had taken him the better part of two weeks to talk his way onto the guest list of the Senator's Ball, an annual black-tie event that masqueraded as the largest impromptu congressional session of the U.S. government. The Great Hall of the National Building Museum had been transformed into an elegant ballroom with rich accents of crystal and gold. Deals were made, laws passed, and alliances built or crumbled in one night. The top political players of the nation were all here, and Al Calavicci, director of project Star Bright, needed to convince no less than 40 million dollars out of them.

He stood in an immaculately pressed Navy dress white uniform, next to one of eight massive marble pillars that towered from floor to ceiling. A slow sweep of the crowd landed his eyes on a familiar face. Christopher Long, an old friend from his NASA days, was alone at the far end of the room. Al smiled to himself. His recent string of bad luck was changing already. The last he heard, Chris was a congressman for Nevada and one of the leaders of the Future Technologies Committee. His influence in scientific funding endeavors was quickly growing and it just so happened he owed Al a big favor.

Al approached the man in the black tuxedo.

"Al?" the other man said in recognition. "No way. Is that really you?"

"Chris," Al smiled in response. "It's been too long. How the heck are you? And what the hell have you been up to? Don't give me that space reconnaissance program crap because I know it's just a cover."

"Jeez Al," Chris replied good-naturedly. "It's good to see you, too. Cutting right to the chase, huh?"

Al shared a chuckle with his friend. "Well I could comment on how you look, but you aren't getting any prettier with age."

Chris, holding a glass of scotch in his right hand, motioned in mock submission. "We can't all have the Calavicci genes, right?"

Al was momentarily caught off guard by the flash of amber liquid against the crystal tumbler. His taste buds tingled as he updated the tally in his mind. He had been dry for the past twelve hours, a record in recent memory.

"Al?" Chris's voice pulled him back to the party.

"Hmm?"

"How's Maxie doing? She still wants to join the roller derby?"

"She's uh…you know, I don't really know. We divorced about a year and a half ago. She ran off with a brick layer, if you believe it."

Chris looked at his friend in surprise. Maxine was Al's fourth wife and now fourth divorce since he first met the man. She was good for him, though, unlike the one before. She had a crazy streak of adventure and passion that matched Al's almost perfectly. He remembered a yearlong stint when they would go to Vegas almost every weekend to "renew their vows." Chris shook his head. He had often wondered why Al went through so many wives. True, the guy was an unabashed womanizer, but he was also the most loyal person that probably every lived.

"Chris, I don't mean to seem like a jerk," said Al, "but I've gotta meet someone tonight and I don't know anyone in his circle, except you."

Chris considered this. "You're in some sort of a bind?"

"You could say that."

"Star Bright?"

It was Al's turn to look surprised. "That's classified."

"I know. I only caught a glimpse of the project's budget, accidently and off the record, but it had your name all over it. Looks like you're not exactly doing space station operations research, either. The government doesn't spend 200 million dollars a year on that."

Al was silent for a moment. "You know, sometimes I feel like a chess piece in this game. Move forward a step, and skip back two; just a couple of pawns doing the dirty work. How the heck did we end up here?"

Chris waved him off, holding onto his drink. "It'll get better, trust me. Pretty soon you'll be looking down from the ivory tower. Besides, we can't help it. We're space boys. We've got the discovery gene turned up high." He paused to scan the floor. "So who is he? Which unfortunate guy is gonna to get an earful of you tonight?"

"Senator McKellan."

Chris gulped the sip he took hastily. "And what makes you think I hang out with the head of the most powerful family in Washington?"

"I saw you talking to him five minutes ago. The guy's got some kind of human wall around him. There're at least ten, fifteen people circling him at all times. Three of them look like thugs for hire. He's impenetrable."

Chris nodded. "You're absolutely right. But, I don't know him. I was only introduced myself a couple of minutes ago."

Al's brows furrowed in disappointment. "By who?"

"His daughter, Alice." He motioned towards a young woman standing about twenty feet away. She was facing away from them, talking excitedly to the woman next to her. "She heads the energy research facility in Prescott. Our two divisions just started working on a project a couple of weeks ago."

Al's face brightened visibly. He saw his way in before Chris could protest.

"No, Al, c'mon, she's like twenty-six years old. And not just a dumb blonde, either. What are you pushing, forty-six now?"

Al's gaze remained on the younger woman. "Have you ever seen a girl I haven't been able to get?"

Chris shook his head. He wasn't going to win this argument. When Al had his sights set on something, even something as unlikely as circling the Earth from outer space, he always found a way to get it. The truth is, he really hadn't seen a girl that didn't fall for the man in the end. Al had a profound appreciation for the female half, but they loved being around him even more. He didn't need to divide and conquer, as it were. They usually threw themselves at him in swarms.

"Just…don't go too far, okay? She's not a bad kid. There's more to her than just the family name."

"Relax, Chris. I'm not gonna harm your girl. I just want a meeting with Daddy, that's all."

Chris sighed. "All right. But you'd better be polished on your science. She tends to catch you off guard."

Al waved him off as he walked towards the waiter closest to where Alice stood. He grabbed a glass of champagne from the tray and took a sip. It tasted terrible to his trained tongue, but the alcohol content was undeniable, and it sparked a small flame inside. He set the glass back down. Careful, Calavicci. His attention focused on the voices to his left.

. . .

"I can't believe he actually had the nerve to say that at the meeting yesterday," Alice said to the other woman. "I mean, we're going to be in the middle of an energy crisis within the next thirty years, and he thinks nuclear is the way to go? I should've asked him what he was planning on doing with all that waste. Maybe we could build a dumpster in his backyard."

The woman laughed at the image. "You know that's what most of them are thinking, though. Nuclear is our best bet right now. Tim was talking about building containers to shoot it into space."

Al saw Alice's jaw drop from the corner of his vision. Perfect timing.

He turned to face the two women, and despite Chris' warning, was briefly caught off guard. Alice fully lived up to her reputation. She was nothing less than stunning, with perfectly manicured features, framed most noticeably by her dark blue eyes. They reminded him of the ocean, on days when you could stand at the bow of a carrier and see miles and miles of water in every direction. The flowing black ball gown she wore hugged her curves with delicate precision and contrasted nicely with her golden hair. It took him a moment to clear his mind.

"I think," he smiled casually to the two women, "that you're absolutely right. Nuclear power won't fulfill our demands in thirty years. We have to think of something more sustainable."

Alice turned her gaze toward Al. He noticed the automatic suspicion in her eyes. This must happen a lot, he thought, men showing up at her doorstep.

"Hi," he extended his hand. "I'm Al Calavicci."

"Alice McKellen," she replied coolly, shaking his. "Do you have your bets on solar, then?"

Al shook his head. This was a test. "Not even combined with wind. I think hydrogen is the way of the future."

She tilted her head in curiosity, not expecting many people to know about the newer technology. "By water electrolysis?"

Another test. Al replied with confidence, knowing well how to play this game. "No way. That's a 1.5 to 1 ratio of energy expenditure. The best thing to do is to continue using fossil fuel reserves for now, while we develop a better system, most likely by reaction with a sodium or potassium metal. There's no point in using up resources to convert to a new system if it isn't sustainable." He knew he had her full attention now. "Can you imagine the possibilities? Energy to weight ratio, reduction on pollution, ease of production, the effects on global warming? They're endless."

Alice considered his comments and smiled for the first time. "How does a naval officer know so much about hydrogen energy?"

"I was introduced to it during my MIT days. We studied it extensively in the astrophysics department. I worked for NASA after that, and they were equally as interested, but also looking at helium."

Her eyes widened with surprise. Alice obviously preferred smarts to looks or charm. Al, well, he could offer any of the three.

"You were at NASA? Did you work operations or were you in the space program? What was it like?"

Al grinned inwardly. "I'd love to tell you. Do you mind if we grab a table?"

. . .

After an hour of conversation touching on subjects ranging from subatomic particles to missions to Venus and Mars, Al saw his opportunity approaching from the corner of his eye. Senator McKellen and his entourage arrived at their table.

"Alice, my dear," said the older man. "Your mother has been looking for you. What have you been up to?"

Alice stood from her seat, along with Al. "Dad, I'd like you to meet someone. This is Admiral Al Calavicci."

Al extended his hand. "It's a pleasure, Sir."

The senator's lips remained pressed. His eyes scanned every inch of Al's uniform in the time it took to return the handshake. Al didn't blame the man. He had a beautiful daughter.

"Al used to fly missions for NASA," Alice said. "He's on the space station project."

"Ah, a fellow scientist," the senator replied. The smile never reached his eyes. "I hope Alice hasn't been talking your ear off all this time."

"Not at all," said Al. He hesitated, knowing it was the only chance he would have. "In fact, I was just about to mention a side project that I've been working on. Star Bright. Have you heard of it, Senator?"

McKellen raised his eyebrows, the only indication of surprise. "I'm vaguely familiar with the name. It hasn't come across my desk for review."

Al knew for a fact McKellen knew more about the project than he was letting on. The promises were big, if the technology came through. Better, smaller, faster computers capable of networking and building a collective data base, making every unit a smarter version of itself without the need for updating hardware or software. The military applications alone were worth the investment. He hoped the hook was sharp enough to catch McKellen's interest.

"If you're interested, sir," said Al, "I'd like to fill you in on some details."

McKellen nodded. "Why don't you give my office a call. Have my assistant set up a meeting."

"Thank you, Senator. I'll do it tomorrow morning."

McKellen gave Al one last look before turning to his daughter. "Go see to your mother, dear. Don't keep her worried." He nodded at Al and was gone as quickly as he came, disappearing into the crowd that surrounded him.

. . .

After bidding goodbye to Alice, Al finally allowed himself to relax the tension in his shoulders. He was on the path to saving the project, and the more than 200 people who depended on it for their jobs. The fact that the senator was a ruthless businessman and politician didn't bother him. Back in his circus days, he had once sold a terminally ill elephant to a traveling salesman who was trying to sell him a vacuum cleaner. Freddy, the ringmaster, said if he could do that, then he could sell anything. He just had to work on his pitch very, very carefully. He was about to light a celebratory cigar when he felt a familiar hand on his shoulder.

"You old dog! I can't believe it. Do you know how many people have tried and utterly failed to get in with the old man?" Chris asked with a grin. "Thousands. No, probably tens of thousands."

"It was no big deal," said Al with mock nonchalance. He rocked on the balls of his feet. "Nice girl, though."

"Too good for you, huh?" Chris bantered back, pointing out the obvious empty space beside him.

"Nope," Al countered with a grin. "Too good for her."

He was reasonably sure he could have gotten the younger woman to spend the night with him, but he wasn't feeling up to much of anything tonight. He would've usually welcomed the thought, if only to feel a warm body on the other side of the bed. He couldn't pinpoint what was bothering him exactly. It was something about the city; the every-man-for-himself boxing arena was really starting to wear on him.

Chris rolled his eyes. "Right, well, speaking of too good for you, I have someone I want you to meet. Now, she's the wife of a friend, so don't get any ideas, okay? But she says she was former Navy and stationed in San Diego for a while. Isn't that where you were, back in '68 or something?"

Al looked up from the lighter he was playing with. "Yeah, I was stationed there twice, actually. The women in California are a whole different breed." He grinned, enjoying the back and forth with Chris.

Chris looked at him sternly.

"Okay, okay," he said, motioning with his hands. "No ideas. Just conversation. I promise I'll behave."

Al decided it wouldn't hurt to at least try to be more social. By the rate he was going, he'd need a whole new set of friends to ask favors from, soon.

Chris led him towards the middle of the ballroom. They walked up behind a stunning figure standing in a blue silk dress with a plunging back. Her dark brown hair was in an elegant updo. She had a hand on her chest, and was leaning forward with laughter. The people standing next to her were chuckling at the same joke.

Chris tapped her on the shoulder. She turned around, still smiling. "Oh hi, Chris," she said. "You just missed the story of the party."


II


Al's breath catches in his throat at the sound of the familiar voice. He feels his body recoil involuntarily. He can't yet see her face, but is afraid to decide if he wants to.

"Glad you're having fun, Elizabeth," Chris replies. "I have someone I want you to meet." He motions toward Al.

The smile that lit up her eyes moments ago disappears quickly into a look of shock. She stares at the man standing before her in disbelief.

"Al?" she questions softly.

He returns her searching gaze, unable to pull away. He tries to speak, but only half of a breath filters out. His vocal cords are paralyzed.

Chris, staring at the pair, interjects, "You know each other?"

"We were married, once." Beth looks down at the floor, uncomfortable at the silence.

Chris turns to Al in astonishment. He doesn't have the chance to ask before Beth speaks again.

"Can we talk…somewhere private?" She looks at him with questioning eyes, trying to decipher his silence.

He nods, and finally whispers, "Sure."

. . .

The open bar is spared no expense for the party. A row of ten bartenders stand at almost military attention behind the counter, dressed in impeccable service tuxedos. The wall of alcohol behind them is displayed in small, square windows, at least 20 feet high. A ladder stands off to one side to reach the top tier of spirits, if requested. One of the bartenders approach as they take their seats.

"Good evening, sir and madam. How may I serve you tonight?"

"A bourbon, neat, for me, and a vodka martini for the lady, two olives." Al recites the drinks from memory. The bartender nods, and begins to prepare their drinks.

Beth smiles, the gesture reaching her eyes. "I haven't had that drink in ages."

Al looks up at her from the table as his mind struggles to process everything he's seeing. She is almost a perfect match to his last memory of her, with slightly longer hair, and maybe a few more fine lines. He feels her warm, almost hazel eyes study his features carefully, trying to read what he's thinking. He travels down her delicate nose, lingers at her full, soft lips, and perfect chin. She's beautiful in a way that makes him forget the past, if only for a moment. He wants to reach out and touch her more than anything else.

Her cheeks color under his intense scrutiny, but he can't help himself. His eyes won't peel away. The two small dimples below the upward curve of her lips are exactly where he left them.

Their drinks arrive and he's finally forced to look away. She takes a sip of hers. Her hands are shaking slightly, reflecting ripples in the clear liquid.

"I never thought I'd see you again."

Al takes a moment to answer. "What a coincidence, huh?"

She nods, tucking a strand of hair behind her left ear. He watches her fingers and remembers the thousands of times he's seen her do the same thing before. His gut aches at the thought that he hasn't seen this simple, perfect motion in twelve years.

A flash on her ring finger catches his eye as she sets her hand down. The gold band he gave her on their wedding is replaced by what had to be at least four karats of diamonds.

Al takes a swig of his bourbon, slowly downing the drink in one motion. The burn as it slides down his throat is familiar and comforting. He signals the bartender for a second, a double.

"You look…well." She's a little unsure of her statement, taking another look at Al. His eyes, lined by dark circles, are somehow unfocused when he looks away, missing the light they used to hold. His physique is surprisingly thin, barely filling out his uniform. "I saw you on TV, during the space flights. You always said you'd go up there someday. I can't believe you made it. And look at you, you're an Admiral! A real horse's ass."

"Yeah," Al replies with an attempt at a smile. "Who would've thought."

"Look at us," she laughs, feeling her nerves begin to calm. "We're old now."

He shakes his head. "You haven't changed at all."

"Now you're just being nice," she says. "Well, you're still as handsome as ever, Al Calavicci." She reaches out and absently touches the hair close to his temples. "I like the gray. It makes you look more distinguished."

He tenses from the unexpected contact. A surge of electricity runs through his skin. He has imagined her touch for so long that the real thing is too…much.

She pulls away quickly. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have—"

"It's okay," he interjects. "I just…wasn't expecting it." He takes a long drink from the new tumbler in front of him. This is harder than he imagined.

. . .

"Who's the lucky guy?" he motions to her ring, to change the subject.

She looks down at her hand. "His name is Dirk Simon. He's a senator for Massachusetts."

Al nods, finishing the last of the remaining alcohol. He sets the glass down and motions for another double. He can feel the flame turning into a full-blown fire. "Any kids?"

"Two girls," she says with pride. "They're wonderful, and not quite in the teenage rebellion years yet. You'd like them."

The service is quick. He downs a big portion of the new poison, letting the last statement sink in. "I bet you're a great mom," he says.
"How about you? Did you ever…get married again?"

He looks up into her eyes again. They're mesmerizing, alluring, but at the same time seem to be searching for something. He can stare at them for hours. Almost subconsciously, he reaches for the glass and finishes his third drink. He signals the bartender again.

"Al," Beth cuts in, her voice laced with concern. "That's a lot of alcohol for one night."

"I'm a big boy now," he says, pulling out a cigar from his pocket. "I can handle myself."

The concern doesn't leave her face as she watches him light the cigar. "Are you really okay?" she asks.

Before he can answer, a man dressed in an impeccably tailored tuxedo approaches Beth from behind, places his hand on her back, and leans in to kiss her cheek.

"Hi honey," he says, "who's your new friend?"

Beth reacts with surprise, looking up at her husband. She doesn't expect him to return so soon from his private conversation with Senator Ulrich. "Dirk, this is…Al."

Al stares at Dirk's possessive smile and fights himself from rolling his hands into fists. His body resumes the tension from earlier as his grip tightens on the glass.

Dirk smiles at Al. The past connection between the stranger and his wife is obviously lost on him. He extends his hand in greeting. "Nice to meet you."

Al rises determinedly from his seat, fueled by the liquor and fully intent on a physical confrontation. He feels Beth's hand on his arm before he has a chance to square up his opponent. He turns to her. Her eyes are pleading. Please, don't.

He looks away, angry, at him, at the both of them, but mostly at himself.

"I was just leaving," he states, as he pointedly ignores Dirk's extended hand.

He turns swiftly from the pair, heading toward the exit. He's sick of the city, its people, the politics, and most of all, the bullshit. It has just worn out the last of its charm. He passes the doorman wishing him a good evening and inhales the sticky, humid summer air. He feels sick to his stomach. A cab that's making its rounds rolls down the street with perfect timing.

"Al." He turns to see Beth catching up with him. She stops in front of him and surprises him with a hug. "I'm sorry. I should've stayed in touch."

The stopped cab honks with impatience.

"Promise me you'll take care of yourself." Beth steps back from the embrace. Her eyes are moist with tears.

He nods, neither a promise nor a refusal. "Goodbye, Beth."


III


If Al learned one thing over the years from working in a secret government project with top-level security and extensive monitoring systems, it was how to hide the fact that he was, more often than not, under the influence of alcohol.

His drinking, which started after he came home from the war, had steadily increased in the past decade. Occasional thoughts of alcoholism sneaked into his consciousness, but he brushed them aside with ease. As a man who survived three beatings a day and life inside a tiger cage for five years, he would never consider the problem something he couldn't handle. He could quit whenever he wanted.

Three drinks at the Dulles airport bar didn't even slow his brisk walk to the check-in counter; the customer service representative scanned his ticket without a second thought. The flight attendant succumbed early to his smile and happily served him watered down cocktails for the entire flight home. But by the time the plane landed in Los Alamos, even Al couldn't hide the unsteadiness he felt. He stepped into another cab, and arrived at the project somewhere substantially past buzzed, on the fast track to completely drunk.

. . .

Al leaned against the door to his quarters. He fumbled for the keypad and placed his thumbprint until a flashing green light unlocked the door. He stumbled into the darkness, threw his suitcase aside, and groped his way to the desk. He opened the last drawer on the right. The smile that appeared on his face was unmistakable as his hand closed around the familiar glass bottle. Al was fully intent on drinking himself the rest of the way to sleep. He pulled the bottle of whiskey out of the drawer and frowned at how light it felt in his hand. He shook the contents. There was the faintest sound of a splash; not enough for a real night cap.

Defeated, he sat down heavily in the leather chair. His stomach growled, to his surprise. Al tried to remember the last time he ate something substantial. It must've been breakfast, at the hotel. He remembered looking down at two perfectly poached eggs. His stomach turned at the thought, protesting the alcohol coating he'd been subjecting it to for the past six hours. He sighed, and moved to dig up some loose change from the back of the desk.

Al was thankful for the twilight hour and deserted hallways. The last thing he needed was one of Senator Lindstrom's planted employees catching him in the act. He reached his destination, the cafeteria five floors down, with relative anonymity. The colorful selections in the vending machine blurred in and out as he tried to focus on the individual packages. He pulled out a couple of coins from his pocket, and placed a dime into the machine. The coin slipped into its proper slot, but the balance on the screen remained at zero. He swore. The image of Dirk Simon kissing Beth—his Beth—merged with his own reflection on the thick, plastic panel before him. It taunted him, as if to say, this is what you could've had, but look at you now.

Al dropped the rest of his change, barely aware of the clinking sounds against the tile floor. He unclenched his fists and grabbed the machine in an attempt to unhinge it. "You useless piece of sh—"

An idea struck him. He turned around, eyeing the rest of the corridor. There was a gray door to his left that displayed the words "maintenance room." He thumbed the finger pad and entered the room. The large, rectangular space was lined by rows of metal shelves filled with everything from spare light bulbs to a month's supply of toilet paper for the entire project. He searched around until he found what he was looking for—a metal hammer lying on top of a yellow toolbox. He grabbed the handle and headed for the vending machine with renewed vigor.

"You think you can eat my dime?" Al said loudly. "Let's see how you like this, buddy."

He took a big swing and smashed the hammer into the heavy plastic. A large crack radiated out from where his weapon struck, erasing the image of Beth and her husband. It took him a couple of tries to loosen the hammer, which only fueled his anger. His second hit struck the original target almost perfectly, and broke through the thick panel with a satisfying give.

Al grinned widely in his drunken state, claiming his victory over the machine. He reached for a bag of chocolate chip cookies on the top shelf.

"Hey!" Someone shouted from the end of the hallway. In his triumph, he hadn't heard the elevator beeping a second ago, signaling a stop on this floor. He turned to see the blurred image of a man running towards him. Surprised at the sudden movement, Al pulled his arm out of the machine, too quickly. A piece of jagged plastic caught on his right arm, slicing cleanly through his uniform and the skin underneath.

He inhaled sharply at the pain. His white uniform sleeve turned pink almost immediately, then red from within. It took him a few seconds to recognize that it was blood, not dye, and the blood was coming out of him, at an alarming rate.

The man from the end of the hallway was now in his face, grabbing him by the shoulders.

"Are you okay?" He heard from a distance.

He felt his body being shaken, and wanted to say stop it, of course I'm okay. Al opened his mouth, but his lips refused to work in sync with his thoughts. The man before him started to come in and out of focus, a particularly dizzying effect for Al. The last thing he remembered before surrendering to the spinning hallway was a pair of worried, unblinking green-blue eyes staring into his.

. . .

The first sensation he felt was a sharp, prickling pain, radiating from his right arm. He groaned deeply, trying to open his eyes. The hallway was too brightly lit, but he managed to peek through the glare. He was sitting with his back against the vending machine, the evidence of his vandalism surrounding him in pieces of plastic.

Another tug of pain turned his attention to his arm. A hook had just been placed underneath his skin, and neatly threaded through the opposite side of the gash, closing the two halves with a piece of string. Gloved hands twirled the suture material around a hemostat, and tied it skillfully against his skin. He followed the hands up the arms, past the shoulders, and arrived at the same unfamiliar face. The green-blue eyes were now set in concentration, cutting off the last suture with a pair of medical scissors.

"There, that should do it." The stranger sounded confident. "Sorry if you felt the last one. There wasn't much local anesthetic in the first aid kit. Seven stitches, but not too bad. I think it'll heal just fine."

Al stared at the man who now looked at him with the same concern as before. He had a friendly face, with intelligent eyes and what women would consider boyish but handsome features. His light brown hair was a little too long, brushing just below his eyebrows.

"Who are you?"

The younger man smiled. "Sam Beckett. It's a pleasure to meet you, Admiral."

Al refused to be fooled by his friendliness. He didn't remember seeing a Sam Beckett before. The man looked like a lab tech, without the usual uniform of lab coat and coffee in hand.

"Do you work here? How do you know who I am?" His speech, although slurred, was understandable enough.

"Just hired today, actually. I was unpacking and got hungry. The rest…you can probably figure out." If nothing else, the man was patient, waiting for Al to process the information in his inebriated state.

Al considered his response for a moment, but something didn't seem right. He looked down at his arm. The sleeve was cut in a precise vertical line, leaving good access for the wound. It had been cleaned with iodine. He saw the open bottle sitting back in the first aid kit on the floor. The stitches were perfectly executed, seven small ones in a straight line.

"You're a doctor?"

Sam shook his head. "I'm the new quantum physicist. I'm going to be working on the chromodynamic problem."

Al shook his head. It felt foggy with the imminent onset of a headache. "I would've seen you before. I do all the interviews."

Sam stood up from his kneeling position, brushing off his hands. "I was assigned by Senator Lindstrom."

Al tried to hard clear his mind. None of it made sense. The chromodynamic problem was unsolvable. They had some of NASA's best people on the job, trying to figure out a way to build parallel computers. What was Lindstrom doing sending him this kid who looked like he stepped right out of a farmhouse, anyway? And how did he know how to do stitches?

"Here's my ID if you don't believe me." Sam pulled out his wallet and handed the plastic card to Al.

Al took the card with his left hand, wincing a little as the change in position affected his opposite arm. It read, "Samuel Beckett. Level 1 Clearance. Blue team." The image of the same man smiling back at him clicked the final connection in place.

Samuel Beckett. Boy Genius, Eighth Wonder of the World. The ID picture looked almost identical to the one on the cover of TIME magazine. He was projected to be the new Einstein, but better, faster, and with a truly photographic memory. He could have any job he wanted. What was he doing here? And why didn't Lindstrom tell him the news?

Al knew the answer before he finished the thought. Beckett was here to replace him. He finally drew the last straw. He wanted to laugh. But don't you see? I'm back in the game. I talked to McKellen today, and he's going to give me enough money to fund this program for the next two years.

Al felt the physicist's eyes still scanning him, no doubt watching for signs of psychotic breakdown or alcoholic rage. He forgot the kid was a medical doctor. Hell, he had eight graduate degrees. And what was Al? A washed up drunk. He couldn't even bring himself to raise the argument about keeping himself on the project.

Al decided that all this thinking was making his throbbing headache worse. Whatever the consequences, it could wait until morning. He managed to hoist himself halfway up against the broken panel before his feet started to give out under him. A strong hand caught his good arm and helped him up. He was annoyed to find that he had to look up to talk to the kid. Brains and height. They sure picked a good one.

"I can't let you go back to your quarters," Sam said seriously.

Al thought he heard incorrectly. "What?"

"You're drunk, really drunk. And the wound isn't small; it could start bleeding again. I need to watch for signs of alcohol poisoning," he said simply.

Al was beside himself. Who did this kid think he was?
"Try and stop me," he replied, as he headed off toward the elevator, steadying himself against the wall.

Sam sighed. "I can't, but I can call an ambulance here to have you checked out, and then they'll want to keep you overnight in the hospital. It's your choice."
Al growled but stopped in his tracks. He was right. Lindstrom would find out, and that would really be the end of his career.

"What do you want from me?"

"Let me work in your quarters tonight while you sleep it off. I get work done, and can keep an eye on your medical condition at the same time. This way no one knows what happened and things can get back to normal tomorrow. What do you say?"

Al considered this. The kid was logical to an annoying degree, but he was sticking his neck out for him. His photographic memory should've remembered from reading the employee manual that failing to report an incident like this could cost him his job. He looked back at Sam.

"Fine, but you're gone in the morning."

He smiled broadly, like he was just given a big bone to chew. Al would've said something to squash this unending enthusiasm, if his head didn't hurt so much. He motioned for Sam to follow him to the elevator. Even though he was annoyed and justifiably so, somehow, because of something he couldn't quite put his finger on, he had a funny feeling about the kid.