QUANTUM BEAST:

The Waiting Room

by Lee Kirkland

 


Vincent trudged slowly homeward, another night of futile searching behind him. How many times now had he begun the evening in hope, only to end it in despair? How many hopeful hours had he spent in alleys and on rooftops, always alert, waiting, watching, listening for the slightest trace of Catherine? Yet he still had faith that she was alive somewhere, waiting. She had to be. And if he searched enough alleys, and stood silhouetted on enough rooftops, sooner or later he would find her.

For now, however, the night was over; the sun had risen, casting bright beams of light into the shadowed places, and it was time to go home. Pacing wearily, he closed his eyes for steps at a time, allowing his feet to trace the familiar path without conscious guidance. Sometimes he could almost feel Catherine walking beside him, her hand small and warm in his. He felt her now, and treasured the sensation, savoring it...

Without warning, it was as if he'd stepped into the Chamber of the Winds... something howled around his ears; he felt a tugging sensation, accompanied by a burst of dizziness. He fought to open his eyes, but they resisted his efforts... and suddenly all went black.

At last the dizziness faded and he managed to open his eyes. Light and shadow began to take shape around him, replacing the darkness.

As the shock of his surroundings drove the breath from his lungs, he gasped for air, simultaneously scrambling from a relaxed position to a wary crouch against a wall. Heart pounding, mind racing, he surveyed his situation. He was in a spare, functional room. Recessed overhead lights illuminated white-painted walls, making the room uncomfortably bright. On the edge of panic, Vincent ducked his head, reaching unconsciously behind for something to cover his face, but whatever he expected to find wasn't there.

He felt alert, not drugged, yet somehow he had been snatched from safety and spirited to this place without knowing it, without even the sensation of passing time. In contrast to his physical well-being, he was mentally disoriented and confused. There were images pressing against his mind, pieces of his memory he couldn't quite bring into focus... things like his own name...

With his back pressed firmly against the wall, he inched to a standing position, eyes darting as he searched for clues to his whereabouts and an escape route.

The room he occupied was neither large nor small, but somewhere in between. A door, firmly closed, shared the far wall with a large window. Fine wires ran in a criss-cross pattern through the glass of the window, but Vincent could not see beyond it because of the drawn curtains on the other side. To his right, another door stood partially open and Vincent was easing toward it cautiously, listening intently when a sound made him freeze. The knob of the first door was turning slowly, and he shrank back.

"...call Al," a woman said, pausing with the door ajar a few inches. "We've completed another leap." As she finished speaking to her unseen companion, the woman, carrying a clipboard and wearing a white lab coat, came a few steps into the room.

"Hello," she smiled genially. "This must all be very strange..."

Instinctively, Vincent's lip curled back from bared teeth and he growled softly. It sounded odd to his ears and he fleetingly wondered why, but had no time to dwell on it. The woman's eyes widened in shock and he growled again, more loudly. Again, his snarl sounded less menacing than he expected, but it had the desired effect as the woman stumbled backwards, yanking the door closed behind her.

Trembling, Vincent slid down to crouch against the wall. Despite his confusion, it was clear that this was some sort of scientific facility and he had no doubt that he was destined to be one of its most fascinating subjects.

As minutes passed and the door remained closed, Vincent resumed his cautious exploration of the room. Creeping forward quietly, he peered around the frame of the second, open door.

There was no escape route here, only a small, windowless bathroom, and after giving it a quick glance, Vincent turned his attention back to the larger room. It was furnished simply.

One corner held a bed with night stand and lamp beside it; another had a small, utilitarian table with two chairs. A commonplace beige sofa stood against one wall with a three-shelf bookcase beside it. A large clock with a square white face was mounted on the wall above the sofa. It was an impersonal, clinical room, comfortable but not welcoming.

Vincent eased forward to try the other door. As he expected, it was locked, and cautious testing showed it to be a solid barrier. Turning away and moving to the corner farthest >from the locked door, he crouched down to wait.

Passing minutes had stretched to nearly an hour when the door opened again. This time, it was a man who entered. Again, Vincent bared his teeth in a feral snarl, but this time the effect was different. Instead of showing fear, the man sighed heavily, closing the door behind him and leaning against the wall.

"You're not foolin' me with the gorilla act, Vincent," he said wearily. "I know you can talk."

Vincent's hands curled themselves into a threatening, talon-like position as he snarled again, even as the rational part of his brain seized on the name. Vincent. That is who I am. I remember.

"Come on," the man persisted. "I'm not scared of you. Quit growling."

Warily, Vincent subsided, his eyes never leaving the man who regarded him with guarded curiosity. Sinking into a chair, the man lit a cigar, waving it for emphasis in between puffs. "My name's Albert," he said. "Call me Al. I know you're probably wondering where you are... but I can't tell you that. It's restricted." He took another drag at his cigar.

Vincent watched him, wondering at Al's lack of fear and easy assumption that Vincent could understand him. It was not the reaction he expected, though he had no clear memory to tell him what he did expect. Instinct kept him from speaking and the man seemed to have a vast reserve of patience, which was reflected in kind brown eyes outlined by thick, dark eyebrows.

Al leaned back, placing his arms behind his head, and the movement drew Vincent's attention to Al's outlandish attire. A shocking pink shirt was complemented by a wide purple tie with a metallic silver stripe that matched his shiny silver racing jacket. Al shifted again, crossing his legs, exposing hot pink socks and silver high-topped tennis shoes. He reminded Vincent of a gift wrapped brightly in aluminum foil. Minutes ticked by as they watched each other... waiting.

At last, a light tap on the outer door interrupted and the man who called himself Al rose and went to open it. He spoke quietly to someone beyond the door and Vincent strained to hear.

"...rine Chandler," he heard, and tensed. The name was familiar... his brow furrowed as he tried to force the reluctant memory. Rine... rine... Catherine... He couldn't make the memory come clearly, but he knew the person they spoke of was someone dear to him. Just thinking her name aroused powerful feelings; fear, hope, longing. Who was she? Why couldn't he remember?

Al went out, shutting the door behind him and Vincent sank onto the couch, eyes closed as he searched his fragmented memory. He had been searching... for Catherine? Perhaps. He didn't know.

What is wrong with me? Am I ill? In his mind were faces without names and names without faces. He could picture places that filled him with a familiar longing, but had no idea where the places were. Voices echoed inside his head.

"She can only bring you unhappiness!"

The man's curt voice was replaced by a woman's, full of sad tenderness. "I love you."

"She can only bring you unhappiness!"

"I love you."

The voices repeated, faster and faster, until they began to overlap, drowning each other out.

The memory of another voice, one he knew instinctively was his own, broke in. "'For thy sweet love rememb'red...'"

With a low growl, he pressed his fists to his temples, rocking back and forth. He knew those voices, and knew the circumstances behind each phrase. He knew his own voice was quoting a poem, a sonnet. But who was the poet? What names went with those familiar voices? Why can't I remember?

Perhaps, if he put the pieces together, slowly, logically, it would all begin to make sense. He remembered her name... Catherine. He heard a woman's voice saying, "I love you." He was absolutely certain those words had been directed at him, though he also had the odd feeling it had not been a happy occasion. Still, the feelings her name evoked convinced him that she was someone very special to him... a lover, a wife? Someone who loved him despite... despite what? There was something, and Catherine loved him in spite of it, but what was the barrier between them?

He felt as if his memory was a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces scrambled into a jumbled heap, but one part, one small corner of the puzzle was piecing itself together. He had Catherine now. If he could not see her face, he could hear her voice. If he did not know precisely who she was, he knew she loved him and that he loved her. He knew... she was gone. Another piece fell painfully into place. Lost. Taken away from him. He had been searching...

He was struck by an anguished thought. What if this is the place where Catherine is? What if, somehow, they have forced her to betray our secret? He was suddenly certain that there was a secret, though he couldn't quite recall what it was. Heartache and fury filled him, imagining what they must have done to Catherine to force her to reveal the knowledge she had kept hidden for so long.

Agitated, he rose and began to pace. If Catherine was here, he would find her. Somehow, he would find his way out of this room, and when he found her, they would never be separated again. Suddenly, Vincent whirled to face the opening door. "Sorry," Al apologized breezily. "We're having a little trouble getting information from New York. Sealed files, or something. I had to make a phone call."

He made himself comfortable in the same chair and lit another cigar. "I gotta tell you, Vincent, you're a kick. I never thought I'd see someone like you!"

Never thought I'd see someone like you... like you... Al's comment echoed in his ears. "Yet you do not fear me," he said slowly. Strangers usually did fear him, though the reason for their fear remained stubbornly obscure.

"If the little girl wasn't scared of you, why should I be?" Al asked easily.

Vincent shook his head in an abrupt motion of confusion. "Little girl? I've seen no children here."

Al waved expansively, cigar ash fluttering. "Not here. The other place. Where you come from. What's her name... Samantha?"

Samantha. The name evoked an image... long dark hair, expressive dark eyes... a child not of these harsh, brightly lighted white walls, but of another place, one dimly illuminated by candles, their aroma faint in the air...

As he brought himself out of the memory sharply, he became aware of Al's heightened scrutiny. "How do you know of Samantha?"

"Saw her in the tunnel outside your room," Al said casually, his gaze intent. "The guy youcall Father was tryin' to convince her that you're all right."

Tunnels! The word brought a flashing memory of twisting rock corridors, connecting chambers hacked out of rock... And Father! With the name, he suddenly had a face, careworn and lined beneath graying curls.

How does this man know of that place? he wondered in sudden suspicion. I do not know him. Where could he have seen me and Father and Samantha?

"They should be concerned," he said reasonably, determined to learn whatever he could from this man. "I am not there."

"They don't know that," Al said. Looking guilty, he closed his mouth abruptly.

Vincent straightened to his full height. "Tell me what is happening," he demanded.

Al hesitated, and, across the space which separated them, Vincent could sense genuine regret. "Sorry, Vincent. I've said too much already."

That avenue of questioning was obviously closed, so Vincent changed course. "Tell me why I am here."

Al offered a wry grin. "You're waiting." He gestured with both hands, indicating the walls that surrounded them. "The Waiting Room. Your temporary home."

Vincent glanced around the functional room cursorily. "What am I waiting for?"

Stubbing out what was left of his cigar, Al pushed the ashtray away, crossed his arms and sighed. "That's always an interesting question to answer. In your case, I think you're waiting for someone to be found."

"Catherine," Vincent breathed. "Is she here?" The question was spoken almost before it was formed; it was not a wise question to ask now, but he ached to know.

To his mild astonishment, Al shook his head. "We aren't even sure who she is, yet," he said in frustration. "Computers are wonderful machines when they work, Vincent, but about half the time..."

Vincent left the comment unanswered. He knew what computers were, of course, but his knowledge of them was extremely limited and he didn't care much about Al's problems. What he wanted was... "Catherine..." Unconsciously, he breathed her name aloud.

Al's expression turned eager and he leaned forward, bracing elbows on knees. "Tell me about her, Vincent. The more I know, the better."

"You cannot truly think that I would provide you with information that would enable you to imprison her here, too," Vincent said in contempt.

Al looked surprised, almost shocked. "No, no, you have it all wrong! We're here to help!" Meeting Vincent's implacable gaze of disbelief, he went on, almost pleading. "She's lost, isn't she? We think we're supposed to find her for you."

"You think you're supposed to find her," Vincent repeated slowly. A dispassionate part of his mind observed that talking to Al was a little like talking to Mouse and automatically he began to offer the carefully worded questions he would have asked his strange friend. "Are you with the police?"

To his surprise and consternation, Al snorted back a derisive chuckle. "Not even close," he said.

"Who is it that expects you to find her, then?"

Al gave a quick glance upward. "Good question." He didn't elaborate.

"Why must you find her?" Vincent pressed.

Al shrugged. "It's what we do now. We fix things."

That line of questioning was going nowhere. "Who is we?" Vincent inquired, changing tacks. "You and the woman I saw earlier?"

Al laughed out loud. "Yeah, me and her and about two hundred and fifty more."

"So many?" Instinctively, Vincent shrank from the idea of so many strangers seeing him. He still didn't remember why. "What is your job, Albert?"

He was prepared to hear words like research scientist, or anthropologist, or even psychologist. Al's answer surprised him." Communications," he said with a cocky grin.

Vincent's brow furrowed. "I do not understand."

"It's simple, Vincent. There's someone, his name's Sam. He's the one who does most of the actual fixing... the rest of the crew is just back-up... but someone has to communicate with him. That someone's me."

Al seemed about to elaborate when a flat plastic box shoved carelessly into his shirt pocket beeped suddenly and began flashing colored lights. "Hang on a sec, Vince," Al said, pulling the device out and punching a few buttons on its front. He frowned at it. "Machines," he muttered, smacking the side of the flat box with an impatient swat. Evidently, the results of that action didn't satisfy him, because he rose and went to the door.

"Hey, Larry!" he shouted down the corridor. "What's Ziggy trying to tell me here? It's all futzed up!"

On his feet, Vincent had already considered and discarded the idea of escape, at least for now. Al was both a source of valuable information and a way out, since he had the ability to open the door from the inside. Each time Al had opened the door, Vincent had seen him press his palm against a flat gray box next to the doorknob and surmised that it was a very sophisticated type of lock.

"...got the file!" a disembodied voice called back, answering Al's shout. Vincent could only make out some of the words. "...rine Chandler, ...tant D.A. ...sing for six months... found...apartment... murdered..."

He had been creeping closer, trying to hear. The last word, echoing clearly down the barren corridor, made him freeze in horror. "No!" His whisper was one of shocked, stunned disbelief. Catherine dead!

Al whirled around at the sound, his face at once full of compassion and concern. "You weren't supposed to hear that," he chided gently. "I'll get the rest of the data later," he told the unseen man, and closed the door again.

Vincent forgot caution. "Catherine is dead," he said, hoping against hope that Al would refute his words. He had never known such agony. A flashing image of soft, luminous green eyes smiled up at him and were just as quickly gone.

Al nodded briefly, his eyes sad. "Sit down, Vincent," he invited kindly. "You shouldn't have heard that," he repeated. "I'm sorry."

"Where? When? How?" Vincent's voice shook with barely suppressed anguish.

Al hesitated, lighting up a fresh cigar and chewing on it nervously. He didn't bother to remove it from his mouth before answering the middle question. "Six years ago."

Vincent's head came up, his eyes wide. He knew that couldn't be right. "Six years?" Hope began to flow. Six years ago, he hadn't even known her; he was sure of it, even though part of him thought he'd known her all his life.

"In the fall of 1989," Al continued, watching him.

"No!" Vincent whispered in a mixture of agony and confusion. "This is the fall of 1989..." He was suddenly sure of that, too, but allowed his voice to trail away as a nightmarish thought came to him. Rip Van Winkle slept for twenty years... is it possible I've slept for six? As quickly as the thought came, he dismissed it.

Al shook his head sadly. "Where you came from, it hasn't happened yet," he explained slowly. "Gee, Vincent, I shouldn't be telling you this. It's a big no-no on Ziggy's list. They'll have my head if they find out..."

"What do you mean, it hasn't happened yet?" Vincent was grasping at straws, seeking something, anything, that would mean Catherine lived. "Please, you must tell me!"

In a gesture of defeat, Al spread his hands wide and began to speak slowly. His voice was barely audible. "You've gotten involved with a project called Quantum Leap. It's a time-travel experiment."

"Are you saying I've traveled through time?" Vincent's bewildered disbelief was growing by the second, contending with a helpless, grieving fury. He wanted to strike out at something, or throw back his head and wail his heartache. Instead, he fought down an outraged snarl, balling his hands into fists to control his rage. "Do you expect me to believe it?" he hissed through clenched teeth.

Al regarded him through a haze of cigar smoke. "No, I don't guess I do," he answered finally. "But then, I have a hard time believing in you."

"Where is Catherine?" Vincent demanded with complete disregard for Al's remark.

Al sighed. "I told you. She died, six years ago. I don't have the details yet. Our people here are still working on that. Ziggy thinks Sam's supposed to find her."

"If she is dead, how can this Sam find her?"

"You don't understand. Sam isn't here, now. He's back in your now. He's you."

That statement was absurd enough to make Vincent blink. For the first time, he began to wonder if this was all a fantastic dream, or nightmare. "He's me?"

"Yeah. Come here." Taking his arm fearlessly, Al pulled him around to face the wall behind him. A mirror, about three feet square, occupied part of it. "Look."

Vincent did, and, for the first time in his life, was utterly nonplused by what he saw. Two men stood reflected in the mirror. Groping, he tried to remember what he looked like... and swift images began to form. He recognized Al, but the other man...

Was a man. Completely human. No fur, no mane, no cleft lip or sharp teeth. And suddenly Vincent was sure he'd always had those things. Astonished hazel eyes peered back at him from under heavy brows. Short brown hair was highlighted at the forehead by a small patch of gray. Gingerly, Vincent brought his hands up to touch, and froze, staring first at the image of his hands in the mirror, then at the hands themselves. Like his face, they were human. Smooth hand slender with long, tapering fingers ending in blunt nails, they were without the dense fur and wickedly sharp claws he abruptly remembered. His eyes met Al's in the mirror. "How is this possible?" he asked hoarsely. "Am I dreaming?"

Al gave a brusque shake of his head. "Not dreaming. Come sit down and I'll try to explain."

Dazed, Vincent obeyed. "You're telling me the truth," he whispered. "Catherine is dead."

"Now she is. Back in your time, she isn't yet. Sam's got to find her before she's killed."

Suddenly Vincent was on his feet. "No. Take me back. I must find her."

"I can't do that," Al began.

Vincent's temper snapped. "You must! Do you expect me to leave Catherine's fate in the hands of a stranger? I can protect her!"

Al was on his feet, too. "You can't!" he shouted back. "You didn't! She died, Vincent! You didn't stop it!"

Helpless fury made Vincent raise one curled hand as his lip lifted in a snarl. He took a step toward Al before shocked memory reminded him that he no longer had the claws which served as his weapons. Again, he fought down his outrage, stepping back and lowering his hand.

"Please, Albert," he said, prepared to beg if necessary. "I sense you are a good man. You must send me back. She needs me."

Al looked uncomfortable and rubbed his eyebrow. "Even if I wanted to, I couldn't, Vincent," he tried to explain.

"Of course you can," Vincent argued forcibly. "If you brought me here, you can send me back."

"That's the trouble. We didn't bring you here, at least, not deliberately. We've lost control of the experiment."

A tiny part of Vincent observed again that talking to Al was a lot like talking to Mouse. "I don't understand," he said furiously.

Al sighed and reached for another cigar. "Neither does anyone else. Best we can figure is some higher power has taken over and is using Sam to correct things that once went wrong."

His rage suddenly exhausted, Vincent bowed his head. "Tell me about Sam," he said finally, softly.

Al leaned back in his chair. "Dr. Sam Beckett. The genius behind this project." His voice softened. "My best friend."

"He is a good man?"

"The best."

"How is it that this... experiment has gone awry?"

"Money," Al said flatly. "The government was going to halt funding unless something happened quick, so Sam, against all advice, decided to be the first to try it. He steps into the accelerator and poof! Next thing we know, somebody else is wearing his body." He made an all-encompassing gesture toward Vincent.

Vincent touched both hands to his chest. "This is Sam?"

"That's Sam," Al confirmed with a nod. "He's back in your time, looking like you."

Even through his bewilderment, grief and despair, Vincent was able to find a spark of humor in that. "I can imagine his surprise."

Al grinned. "When I left him, he hadn't found a mirror yet. He keeps looking at his hands, though."

"How is it possible that you're able to see him?"

"I told you. I'm his link with now. We communicate through brain wave transmissions." Seeing Vincent's blank expression, he sighed. "Look, it's very technical and complicated and I'm not even sure I understand it completely. Sam designed it, just like he designed everything else. We have a special room, called the imaging chamber, where I go to see him."

"Do you travel across time, as well?"

"No, I stay here. My image, my brain waves travel across time, and I appear to Sam as a hologram. He can see me and hear me, but he can't touch me. I can see and hear him, but can't touch him or anything around him because I'm not really there, I'm still here." He sighed. "I told you it was complicated."

For the first time, Vincent showed the ghost of a smile. "I think I may be starting to understand. Does your friend Sam come back here often?"

Al frowned. "He doesn't come back at all. We've tried, but we can't get him back. God, or whoever it is running things now, doesn't want to let him go just yet."

Vincent cocked his head curiously. "Why do you believe a higher power has taken control?"

"Because whenever Sam leaps, he ends up where somebody needs help, and as soon as he helps them, he leaps again. Ziggy... Ziggy's a computer... is pretty good at calculating why Sam is where he is, and he says there's a 96.4 percent probability that Sam's leaped into you in order to find Catherine Chandler before she's murdered."

Vincent couldn't help a small, involuntary flinch at the harshness of Al's statement.

Al offered a blunt apology. "Look, I'm sorry, Vincent. Fact is, you shouldn't know anything about any of this. You know what they say... ignorance is bliss."

Vincent spoke slowly. "I have been... ignorant of Catherine's fate for nearly six months. The pain of not knowing where she is, whether or not she is safe, is the worst I have ever known. I do not think that ignorance is bliss." The holes in his memory were filling rapidly now. "How will your friend Sam try to find her, when I could not?" he asked softly.

"He probably won't," Al answered, waving his cigar. "We will."

"How?"

"With the advantage of being six years in the future. When we get the people in New York to unlock the files, we'll find out where she died..." again, Vincent flinched involuntarily from Al's words... "and work backwards from there."

"What do you know?" Vincent asked intensely.

Al regarded him thoughtfully for a moment before pulling the small, flat plastic box out of his pocket again. It beeped and flashed in response to his fingers. Al looked at it and sighed. "Look, Vincent, are you sure you want to hear this?"

"Please," he said, his voice ominously quiet. "I must know."

Al sighed again. "Okay. Don't say I didn't warn you." He studied the flat box again. "Her body was found in her apartment, in her own bed. The mystery of how she got there has never been cleared up." He raised a questioning eyebrow in Vincent's direction.

"How did she die?" Clasped hands gripped between his thighs, he stared sightlessly at the floor as those wide, expressive green eyes floated just out of reach.

Al punched some buttons and slapped the side of what Vincent finally recognized as some sort of link with Ziggy, the main computer. "Morphine." He looked up. "A painless death."

"Small comfort," Vincent answered tersely. "What has she undergone during the past months?" It was a rhetorical question; he didn't expect or even want an answer. Suddenly restless, he rose and began to stride back and forth in the confines of the room. "What else?"

Al spread his hands and shrugged. "Nothing yet. We're still waiting for somebody in New York to give us access to their files."

"Will they?" Vincent asked, suddenly alarmed that some self-important bureaucrat, the kind of dogmatic paper-shuffler Catherine used to complain to him about, might delay too long.

Al appeared unconcerned. "We're a government-funded project," he explained. "We have all the top clearances. It just takes a little time for everything to be checked out. We should have the file by the end of the day."

"And how long does Catherine have?" Vincent asked, his borrowed voice sounding harsh in his ears. "Will there be time?"

"Day after tomorrow she's found, your time." Al assured him. "Sam has 'til tomorrow night."

"If he is me, then there are places he cannot go safely," Vincent warned. "He must cling to the darkness, travel the city only at night. It is dangerous for one who is so different." Isolated memories of slipping silently through shadows, pressing against alley walls to avoid being seen by casual passersby, invaded Vincent's mind. He shook them off impatiently. There would be time, later, for remembering. "He must go with care."

"Don't worry," Al said comfortingly. "He will."

The thought of someone who looked so very different venturing unknowing into the dangers of the world disturbed Vincent. "What will happen if Sam should be injured... killed while he is there?" he asked slowly.

Al looked grim. "We don't know, exactly. Probably one of two things. Either a leap takes place immediately and it's you that dies, or else Sam dies and you're stuck here. Forever."

Vincent was very quiet for a moment. "If a life is to be given, I wish it to be mine. No one else should have to suffer because of me."

"Not going to be our choice, pal, if it comes to that, which it won't," Al said, trying to cheer him up. "Besides, if you get stuck here, you're free! You can do whatever you want, go wherever you like! No more hiding underground!"

The silence which ensued was uncomfortable. Head down, Vincent brooded quietly. He could hear Al shifting nervously in his seat.

A life without Catherine... would be no life at all. A life without Catherine... He could not imagine so bleak an existence. There is still time, there is still hope, he reminded himself fiercely. Al seems to place great trust in his friend. All I can do is wait.

Waiting. It wasn't something he excelled at. He wanted to be there, taking part, using his physical gifts - his speed, agility, and strength - to assist in Catherine's rescue, and here he was, hemmed in by these four white walls.

"While we wait, what is Sam doing?" It was an innocent question, born of wanting to know, but Al looked momentarily uneasy.

"Reading," he said at last, uncomfortably.

"Reading?" Vincent questioned. It seemed a mundane occupation for one whose existence consisted, if Al could be believed, of saving others. Al's uneasiness made him probe further. "What is he reading?"

Al actually squirmed. "A journal," he said finally, lifting his eyebrows.

Vincent straightened slowly, his bearing regal as he gazed at the other man. "My journal?" he asked incredulously.

Al nodded gingerly.

Outrage warred with pragmatism; pragmatism won, barely. "Why?" Vincent asked faintly.

Al seemed relieved. "To learn about you. The more he knows, the better he'll be at being you. Besides, the information Ziggy digs up is never as good as stuff Sam gets first-hand."

Vincent lowered himself carefully into a chair. "Why did you not simply ask me what you want to know?"

The look Al bestowed upon him was one of rueful amusement. "You can't imagine how different you are from most of the people who go through this room."

"Can't I?"

Al snorted. "Not that kind of different. I mean you talk. You remember. Most people who come here have swiss cheese for brains."

"Swiss cheese?" Vincent questioned the analogy.

"You know... full of holes. Leaping through time does that, apparently. You don't seem to have any holes."

Many things were beginning to make sense. "The holes are there," he assured Al. "Not so many now as when I first arrived, but there are many things, simple things, I cannot remember."

"Really?" Al was interested. "Like what?"

"At the moment, I'd like to recall who wrote a sonnet that ends '...for thy sweet love rememb'red such wealth brings, that then I scorn to change my state with kings.'" Vincent's comment was wry.

"Beats me," Al said. "'There was a young man of Eau Claire, enjoying his girl on the stair; On the forty-fourth stroke, the banister broke, and he finished her off in mid-air...'" Al quoted with a cheerful leer. "That's all the poetry I know. You could check out the bookshelves later, though. Might be something there. What else can't you remember? We like to keep track of this stuff."

"Silly things," Vincent admitted, eyeing Al dubiously. "How old I am. My brother's name. The kinds of food I like to eat." His voice became soft, pensive. "Catherine's face..."

There was a light tap on the door and Al got up to answer it. After speaking briefly with the person outside, he turned to Vincent. "Our medical team needs to come in and run some tests and the shrink wants to ask some questions," he said. "Don't worry, they aren't going to hurt you."

Vincent's instinctive surge of alarm must have shown.

"Don't worry, Vincent," Al repeated. "Remember, they see you as Sam."

Even though the door to freedom stood open, Vincent made no move toward it, and he wondered exactly when his disbelief had turned to trust.

"I've got things to do," Al went on, oblivious. "I'll be back later."

Three white-coated technicians entered the room. One was the woman Vincent had growled at when he had first arrived, and all three approached him warily.

Fighting his natural aversion to inspection, he allowed himself to be coaxed to a chair, where he sat rigidly while the two medical technicians took his pulse, temperature, blood pressure, and checked reflexes and pupil reactions. A shudder swept him as another, fragmented, memory presented itself.

Strapped to a table... bright light shining in his eyes... a man poised above him, holding a syringe.... Lying on the floor of a cage, weak, desolate, alone.

"Are you experiencing any dizziness?" The question brought Vincent back to awareness sharply. "Any instances of blurred vision...? Difficulty hearing...? Ringing in your ears...? Do you feel disoriented...? Weak...? Lightheaded...? Any pain, especially in your head...?"

Guardedly, he answered the questions about his physical state of being, always aware of the third person, the woman who'd come in originally, perched on the end of the sofa taking notes.

When the medical techs were finished, they packed up their instruments and exited quietly, leaving the woman behind. She looked nervous. Vincent, remembering how he had growled at her, and compassionate as always, felt the need to reassure her.

"Don't be afraid," he said quietly. "I will not harm you."

She peered at him over pink plastic designer glasses perched precariously on the end of her nose and offered him a weak smile. "I'm Dr. Verbena Beeks," she said. "I have just a few questions to ask you."

Vincent nodded apprehensively.

"What is the last thing you remember before you leaped?"

Rising, he began to stray restively from place to place about the room. "I remember walking... searching..."

"Searching for what?"

When he answered, his voice was edged with frustration. "I don't remember."

"Do you remember your name?"

He looked at her. "Vincent."

"Do you know what year it is?"

Vincent looked up warily, remembering what Al had told him. "...1989," he answered cautiously.

"Good! Who's president?"

"Of the United States? George Bush."

"Where do you live?"

"...the City of New York." He braced himself, waiting for the next question.

"Often, people who have made these leaps find them disquieting. Would you mind sharing your feelings with me?"

Relieved that they centered on his present state of being and did not touch upon his home, Vincent answered her questions patiently. Perhaps she, like Al, assumed he could not remember. Whatever the reason, she was satisfied.

When he was finally alone again, Vincent began to pace restlessly. Fraught with concern, frustrated by his helplessness, he traveled the short distance between door and opposite wall over and over, his mind seething with questions and half-remembered answers. Catherine needed him desperately, and everything he was urged him to rush to her aid. He moved faster and faster until, suddenly furious, he turned and slammed his hand into the wall, welcoming the distraction of pain.

He stood still for a moment, cradling his hand and breathing heavily. Feeling more calm, he began to roam the room again. Attracted to the shelves of books, he went for a closer look. All the books were classics; none of the editions had been published later than 1950. He reached for a fat volume and tugged it from the tightly-packed shelf. "Shakespeare," he murmured, turning a few pages.

Well-known words and phrases leaped up at him. He read Shakespeare, and frequently, judging from the number of passages he recognized. Occasionally, he stopped to read a familiar section, smiling. At the back of the book were Shakespeare's sonnets, all 154 of them.

He skimmed slowly, stopping now and then to read a line, a couplet, or an entire sonnet. The opening lines of Number 3 made him smile.

'Look in thy glass, and tell the face thou viewest,

Now is the time that face should form another...'

Appropriate, he thought, touching the unfamiliar planes of his face with one hand. Following Shakespeare's advice, he set the book aside, moving to the mirror to view himself dispassionately. If Catherine could see me now, what would she think? he wondered. If I looked like this for always, would I be able to find the courage to move past my fears? He experienced a sudden, frighteningly vivid flash-memory of himself on the dusty floor of a darkened cave, locked in a torrid embrace with a woman. (Catherine!?) Alarmed, he shook it off. He and Catherine had never been intimate, he was sure... yet the intensity of the memory pervaded his thoughts. Could he have imagined it all?

Troubled, he returned to his inspection. Leaning closer to the mirror for a better look, he traced his nose slowly. It felt strange under his fingers, not flat and furry, but high-bridged and smooth. He tried a smile and the face in the mirror smiled back. It was a friendly smile, full of charm and good humor.

Al's friend Sam. He had a nice face, a nice smile. A good man, Al had said. A man who helped others, a man who would soon be risking his life to help a woman he had never met. Vincent smiled again, and this time the smile was for Sam.

Sam smiled back at him, and Vincent took a sudden, startled step backwards, alarmed by the abrupt certainty that someone was standing inches away, on the other side of the mirror. Armed with suspicion, he examined the mirror carefully. It did seem to have a certain smoky quality, but it was the strong sense of another's presence that convinced him that this was something he had only read about - a two-way mirror. Someone on the other side was watching him.

The concept of being watched made his skin crawl and he fought down an involuntary growl. Succumbing to rage would not accomplish anything. Forcing himself to retreat, he moved slowly to stand braced against the wall where he could not be seen. Gradually the sensation of being observed faded, and he knew that whoever had been behind the mirror was gone.

When the door opened, he did not look up. He knew without looking that his visitor was Al.

"They're watching me," Vincent observed, almost dispassionately.

Al didn't look surprised. "I know. I'm sorry. I can't do anything about that." He dropped into a chair. "How did you know?"

Vincent shrugged, his shoulders barely moving. "I knew."

Al seemed momentarily uncomfortable and held out a slim blue folder. "For you, Vincent."

The hand holding the folder did not waver, and Vincent moved slowly forward to take it. Opening it, he allowed the few curling, shiny-soft sheets of thin paper to slide into his hand."I got a newspaper in New York to fax these to us," Al said, his voice only a dim buzz, half-incomprehensible to Vincent, who was staring at the grainy, oddly textured reproduction of a photograph.

"You said you couldn't remember her face."

Vincent touched the paper lightly. How could he not have remembered this face when each feature was so indelibly imprinted on his mind? There were the eyes that had followed him so elusively the past hours. The angle of jaw, the nose, the soft mouth, all were as intimately familiar to him as his own hand.

"Which you weren't able to remember either," Al said, sardonically.

Vincent wasn't aware of having voiced his thoughts aloud until Al spoke. "Still, how could I have forgotten?" he murmured in reply.

"You really love her, don't you, Vincent?"

"She is my heart."

"She feels that way about you, too?" Al's question bordered on tentative. He did not meet Vincent's eyes.

"Yes." It was as much a question as a reply, but Al did not answer it.

"Listen, it's getting late and we can't do anything until tomorrow. Why don't you try to get some sleep?"

Vincent did not miss the trace of uncertainty. "Has something happened, Albert?"

"No, of course not. We're still working on the information we're getting from New York," Al explained too effusively, tugging on his ear. "Nothing will happen until tomorrow."

"Are you certain?" Vincent had the sudden, uncomfortable conviction that Al was hiding something.

"Absolutely," Al said brightly. "I'll see you in the morning, Vincent. Try to sleep."

Sleep. First Father, now Albert. They do not understand that I cannot rest while Catherine is in danger. Even now, when I am helpless... Vincent turned from his weary contemplation of the neatly made bed.

A tray of food, delivered moments after Al left the room, sat untouched, cooling on a table. Eat, he thought morosely. That is as impossible as resting. Restlessly he began to pace. Albert is hiding something from me. He has learned something that distresses him, and does not wish to share it.

Vincent sighed and stopped pacing. Do I trust Albert, or not? He gave the question the careful consideration it deserved. Do I believe in time travel?

He smiled, remembering how he and Devin had read H.G. Wells together and had tried to build their own time machine out of cardboard boxes, pop bottles, a discarded steering wheel from a 1949 Studebaker and miles of insulated wiring Devin had scavenged >from a junkyard. They'd stocked it with old wall calendars, broken alarm clocks, a world atlas, and enough food for a week. The machine hadn't worked, but had provided hours of imaginative fun.

There have probably been significant technological advances since then, he thought in amusement. What was impossible for us may well be possible now. So do I trust Albert? he asked himself again.

I do trust him, he finally decided. He is hiding something, but I can believe him when he says it is nothing that will change what is to happen. I must believe him.

Sinking into a chair, he rested his forehead against his hand. Whatever Al did or did not know was immaterial. For now, there were the long hours until dawn, empty hours, waiting to be filled.

The volume of Shakespeare still lay open on the table beside him and he reached for it automatically. Words printed on pages had long been both comfort and escape for him and even now, in a strange place, under uncomfortable circumstances, taut with fear for Catherine, the words maintained their bewitching power. All his concerns faded, for the moment, beneath the beauty of Shakespeare's poetry.

And then he came to the twenty-ninth sonnet. With the opening words, he knew this was the poem that had been fluttering on the edge of his memory all day, the poem that wanted so badly to be remembered. He read slowly, cherishing the feelings brought forth, knowing, without remembering clearly, that Catherine had understood, and had treasured this sonnet as much as he did. Gloriously, he lost himself in almost-remembering.

Morning brought another meal to be ignored as Vincent waited impatiently for Al to put in an appearance. The observers were back behind the two-way mirror. He could sense their presence but chose to ignore them. As time passed, his restless impatience grew and he began to pace the room, stalking >from one end to the other and back again.

Eventually the presence behind the mirror disappeared, and when the door finally swung open, Vincent whirled.

"I've been waiting for you," he told Al, trying, without much success, not to sound accusing.

"Sorry," Al said, not at all contrite. "I had to talk to Sam, tell him what we know."

"You've seen him? This morning?"

"Yeah." Al grinned. "He finally found a place where he could see himself."

Vincent paused. "What does he think... of himself?"

Al sobered. "I think he's really sorry he's not going to get to meet you. Your journals must be powerful stuff." He eyed Vincent speculatively.

"Your Catherine, she wasn't seeing anybody before she disappeared, was she?"

"Seeing anyone?"

"You know, dating. A man."

Vincent shook his head slowly. "No one."

"Except you."

"Yes. Except me."

Al sighed. "That's what Sam says. That you love her. That..."

"What is it, Albert?" Vincent prompted gently.

"She really loves you, doesn't she?"

"You asked that last night," Vincent said slowly. "Am I so terrifying to look upon that you cannot believe that anyone could care for me as Catherine does?"

"Sam thinks love conquers all, too," Al said, obviously torn between fascination and doubt. "I have to tell you something, Vincent."

"Something you've learned about Catherine?"

Al nodded. "Yeah. Something you'll need to know when you leap back home, so you won't be too startled."

"What is it, Albert?"

Al shifted from foot to foot, looking like a penitent schoolboy. "Maybe you'd better sit down, Vincent."

Bewildered, Vincent complied.

"You and Catherine, you spent a lot of time together, right?"

Vincent nodded apprehensively.

"And... and she was in love with you?"

Vincent exhaled sharply. "Albert, what are you trying to say?"

"Just... she's pregnant, Vincent. Sam thinks the baby's yours."

Again came the sharply defined memory of himself and (Catherine?) on the floor of the cavern, even as he shook his head in shocked denial. "No."

"No, she's not pregnant, or no, the baby isn't yours?" Al cocked his head inquisitively.

Vincent was on his feet, his thoughts spinning, unable to keep still. "No."

Al allowed him to pace for a moment before interrupting. "She is pregnant, Vincent. The autopsy report..."

He paused as Vincent stopped, every muscle taut.

"Look, I'm sorry, Vincent, but for now, she's dead, okay? The autopsy report says she had a baby just before she died. That part's real. I don't know who the father is. Nobody does. Sam says it's you."

Vincent's voice, when he finally spoke, was low and harsh. "Where is Catherine's child now... your now?"

"I don't know, Vincent. The baby disappeared and was never found."

Vincent felt as if he could not get enough air. "The person who... caused her death...?"

"Gabriel. He's dead. Found in a room with an empty crib. Shot in the heart." Al paused. "Funny thing. He had three parallel slashes across his cheek. Like he'd been mauled."

Vincent's head came up quickly as he dared to hope.

"Maybe you were there, Vincent," Al said quietly. "Maybe the baby's with you."

"And maybe not. Maybe Catherine's child is forever lost to me. Perhaps I do not even know of its existence." As he spoke, the hope in Vincent's heart flickered and died. "Perhaps I now have nothing."

Al leaned forward. "That's why you're not supposed to know any of this, Vincent. Because it might not happen that way. We know where she is now and we have schematics of the building. We're going to get her out."

Hope was rekindled. "Where is she?"

"In a building at 53rd and Sixth," Al said. "There's a room on the sixty-fourth floor."

"I've passed that building a dozen times during the past months," Vincent said softly. "How could I have been so near and not known?"

This was a day of waiting. Vincent sensed the occasional presence of watchers behind the mirror, and Dr. Beeks came to talk to him briefly, but he was largely left alone. Al was working with other members of the Quantum Leap team, preparing for the evening's rescue. These were, he had told Vincent firmly, preparations he could not assist with.

Vincent hardly noticed his absence. He was lost in his own thoughts which swung from one extreme to the other. Catherine was to have a child.

Whose child? he wondered in agony. Mine? Inwardly, he cursed the gaps in his memory that would not allow him to remember clearly. With the exception of that all too brief half-memory of the dark cavern, what Vincent could recall seemed to deny an intimate relationship with Catherine.

But if the child is not mine, then whose? He was certain that she would not have gone willingly with another man, and the mere idea of her having been - forced - made him feel ill. Whose child?

Vincent sat motionless, staring fixedly at the wall clock. Time was not a concept of great importance in his world, but now, in these new surroundings, he was strangely engrossed by the slow sweep of the second hand. Each revolution brought Catherine's life closer to its end.

His thoughts were interrupted when Al put in a reappearance. "Come on, Vincent," he said cheerfully, holding the door wide.

Vincent regarded him warily.

"Come on!" Al urged again. "As long as I'm doing things I'm not supposed to do, I might as well keep going."

"Where are you taking me?" Vincent asked faintly, approaching but not going through the open door.

"A surprise. I want to show you something. Hurry up before somebody sees us!"

Al's intent was vague, but his feelings were of excitement and anticipation, not betrayal, so Vincent stepped out of the Waiting Room for the first time. Al led Vincent cautiously down along, white-painted corridor whose walls were punctuated with only a few gray metal doors. A solid steel door sealed the end of the hallway and Al pressed his palm against the flat gray panel beside the latch. Silently, the door slid open and Al pulled Vincent through it.

"Here," he whispered, handing Vincent a laminated card that dangled from a small metal clasp.

"What is it?" Vincent whispered back, wondering at the air of secrecy Al carried with him.

"It's an I.D. - Sam's I.D. Put it on!"

Vincent's fingers fumbled with the unfamiliar clasp before he succeeded in suspending it from the pocket of the white jumpsuit he wore. Al pulled another card out of his pocket and fastened it to the lapel of his own jacket.

"Why do we need these here and not back there?" Vincent asked as Al started down another long corridor.

"That's the inner circle," Al explained. "Only a select few have clearance and we all know each other by sight. This pin," he displayed a metal insignia on his collar, "is the official clearance for that area, but anyone who saw you there would have recognized Sam and known something was up. There are a lot more people out here in the secondary area and all you need is an I.D. card."

A stranger was walking toward them and Vincent hesitated, fighting the instinctive urge to hide his face.

"It's okay, Vincent," Al said patiently. "You look like Sam, remember?"

"It is hard to break the habits of a lifetime," Vincent said, feeling a little sheepish. They were passed by several others and he fought hard not to shy away, finding that it became easier with practice.

"You still haven't told me where we're going," he said when he felt less awkward. "Does it have something to do with Catherine?"

"No. It has to do with I've seen where you live and how you live." Al stopped in front of a set of heavy steel doors and nodded to a uniformed guard. "When was the last time you stood outside in the sunshine, Vincent?"

Vincent's eyes widened. "Never."

Al grinned. "That's what I thought. Come on." He pushed the door open and stepped outside.

The sun was bright, blazing out of a crystal clear blue sky. The day was warm, but not uncomfortably so, for it was early spring. Vincent hesitated on the threshold and Al reached for his arm, pulling him forward.

Beyond the compound lay the desert, stark and barren. "It's very beautiful," Vincent said slowly, his voice as bleak as the landscape. He began to walk, his pace measured and steady.

Making his way across rocky, arid ground, he altered course now and then to avoid clumps of mesquite or cactus. He finally stopped beside a small rocky outcropping and seemed aware, for the first time, that Al had accompanied him.

"Thank you," he said.

Al sank down on a rock. "I was starting to think you were trying to go home!"

Vincent smiled faintly, taking a seat on another small boulder. "No," he said, almost wistfully. "Only walking."

Al pointed back the way they had just traveled. "Look how far we've come."

Vincent looked. The compound was small in the distance. "A mile?" he asked. "Two?"

Al snorted. "A mile, maybe, stretching it."

Vincent gave a small, bashful grin. "I am not accustomed to being able to see so far."

"No, I guess not," Al answered. He hesitated. "You know, Vincent, I only brought you out here so you could have a chance to see the great outdoors. I figured you'd never have another opportunity to visit a real desert."

"With real mountains on the horizon," Vincent said, pointing to a barely discernible, jagged purple line to the west.

"Yeah. And the cactus and mesquite are blooming, but you've hardly looked at anything. What's wrong?"

Vincent looked down at his outstretched legs and feet, studying the white leather and rubber of the shoes he wore, thinking distantly that he hadn't worn sneakers since he was ten years old.

"Today is the first day since Catherine disappeared that I have not searched for her," he said quietly. "The first day that I have not directed all my energies toward finding her. I feel guilt for that." He sighed. "It does not help to know that in this time, in this now, she is beyond my reach."

Al watched him closely, head tilted a little to one side. "You know, Vincent," he said suddenly, "Maybe you're placing too much emphasis on this one woman. I mean, take me, for example. I've been married five times... and then there's Tina, and Brenda, and Marguerite..."

Vincent looked up, allowing Al's words to draw him out of introspection. "For me there is only Catherine," he said. "Of all the women you have known, have you never loved deeply?"

"Aw, sure," Al said, waving his hands. "I loved all of 'em while I was with 'em." He paused, returning Vincent's patient look. "There was one... my first wife...." He turned his gaze to the desert. "Her name was Beth," he finished softly.

"You love her still," Vincent observed.

Al continued to stare, unseeing, at the mesquite. "It was a long time ago." He bent to scoop up a small handful of pebbles and debris and began tossing the larger bits at a nearby cactus." Can you not love that way again?"

Al's voice turned sharp. "Could you? If Sam fails tonight, will you find someone else?"

Vincent bowed his head. "For me, there is still hope, still a possibility...."

"And if the possibility is gone?"

"I do not know. I cannot think beyond the hope."

Al sighed. "Yeah. Well, I guess I understand that. I lived on hope for a long time, myself."

Vincent scuffed a line through the dust on the desert floor. "Albert," he asked, tentatively. "How great is the possibility that Sam will fail?"

Al put a strong hand on Vincent's shoulder. "He's never failed before."

Vincent met his eyes gratefully and stretched his legs, leaning back in the bright sunshine. "Tell me, Albert, about your time. What is happening in the world now?"

"Cars are faster, women are faster, and everything costs more. The Cleveland Indians still haven't won a World Series and the Denver Broncos just lost their seventh Super Bowl," Al said breezily, grinning. "On the plus side, we're finally recycling more aluminum than we throw away every year, and plastic bags are a big no-no!"

"Is that good?"

"Whaddaya mean, is that good? People are finally becoming environmentally conscious. Where have you been?"

Vincent ducked his head to hide a small grin at Al's vehemency. "I have been occupied with more immediate concerns."

"Oh, yeah."

"And you still haven't told me of your world today."

"Vincent, you know I can't do that. All that stuff's restricted."

"Okay, okay," Al went on, wilting visibly under Vincent's amused disbelief. "So I've gone way, way out on a limb already. I haven't told you anything that could get you into trouble. After all, you go home and start telling stories about traveling through time, they'll lock you up!"

"I doubt that," Vincent said, shifting to a more comfortable position. "And you've told me many things already."

"Nothing that you won't either know yourself tomorrow, or that won't be changed by then," Al answered. "Come on, Vincent. Knowing the future would be like knowing what your presents are before you open them. Takes all the fun out of it."

Vincent considered that and nodded slowly. "Still, it is difficult to know that I am in another place and time and not be curious." He looked out across the stark grandeur of the desert and the surrounding hills. "It is truly beautiful," he said. "I once thought I would never see beyond New York, never stand in the sunlight." He paused. "Catherine has opened more doors for me than either of us could ever have imagined."

He paused again. "Al, what will happen to me, to my world, now?"

Al raised an eyebrow. "That depends on whether Sam gets Catherine or not."

Vincent shook his head. "No, I mean now. Your now. What will happen to my world now that you know of its existence? When I go back, will there be only six years left of my world? Of me?"

"Five and a half years," Al corrected. "It's fall in your time. Here, it's spring." He leaned back on a casual elbow. "You're wondering if a horde of scientists is going to descend on the tunnels," he continued.

"You know our secret now," Vincent said softly. "The lives of many good people are in your hands."

"You know, I already thought of that," Al said slowly. "But what those scientists know is what I tell them and what Ziggy tells them. And they're just a small horde, anyway. Besides, they can't see back there. Ziggy's a computer, so what does he know? He tells them that Sam is in Manhattan, or, more precisely, below it, but they don't know where, and they don't know other people live there. As far as they know, Sam's all by himself, living in a subway tunnel."

"But Sam has been there. You have seen."

"Yeah. And we like what we saw. You, Vincent, you're special. How could we rat on you?" He shifted positions, squinting at the sun, which was low in the sky. "Don't worry, Vincent. Your secret is safe." Getting to his feet, he brushed loose sand from his trousers. "Come on, we need to get back. Sam'll need me soon."

The sun was dipping below the faraway line of mountains as Al and Vincent re-entered the building. The guard behind the desk took careful note of their I.D. tags and let them pass. Many of those who worked there had left for the day and the halls were largely empty.

Vincent dogged Al's steps, thinking that these long, intersecting hallways, despite drastic differences in color and lighting, were not unlike the passages of the world below. As they came to yet another turn, Al stopped.

"Get back!" he hissed.

Bewildered, Vincent stepped back, instinct taking over as he flattened himself in a doorway. "What is it?"

"It's Bartles!" Al hissed again. His expression altered to one of pleased animation. "Hi,there!" he called to someone out of Vincent's sight.

"Oh, Al," the someone called back. "Wait right there. I need to talk to you a moment."

"Sure thing!" Al's tone was a little too chipper.

"Who is it?" Vincent asked.

"He's one of the committee members," Al whispered rapidly, from behind an artificial smile. "He knows Sam! If he sees you, my goose is cooked!"

Vincent couldn't help a small, silent chuckle over Al's frantic despair even as an idea came to him. "I can find my own way back to the Waiting Room," he said softly.

Al brightened momentarily. "That'd be great... the doors..." He hesitated. "They'll open for you!" he said in astonishment, after a moment's thought. "You're Sam!"

"The gray plates on the walls? Sam can open them?"

"Sure! They're keyed to all of us authorized for the inner circle. Sam too." Al was effusive in his relief.

"You mean I could have gotten out of the Waiting Room at any time?" Vincent asked softly.

Al grimaced, amused. "Yeah. Guess that's something we'll have to fix." His gaze moved down the intersecting corridor. "Yes, what can I do for you?"

"I just have a question about..."

As Vincent watched from his place in the doorway, a tall, graying man came into sight and put a confiding arm around Al's shoulders, turning him away from Vincent. They walked off, talking energetically.

Vincent let them get halfway down the hallway before slipping around the corner. His memory for twisting, turning passages served him well, allowing him to retrace the path to the inner circle without hesitation. At one point, a woman came out of a room and he flinched inwardly, but she merely smiled and nodded without breaking stride.

Reaching the gray steel door to the inner circle, he placed his palm against the flat gray box as he'd seen Al do, and the door slid open.

This would be the most difficult part, because Al had said that everyone authorized for this part of the building knew each other by sight. If anyone saw him, they would recognize Sam and know something was wrong. Hugging the walls, ears straining for the slightest sound, he slipped toward the Waiting Room.

Once voices warned him of someone approaching. To his relief, he discovered that Sam's hand would open all the doors on this level, and he slipped inside an empty office until the voices' owners passed safely.

It was not that he feared for himself, he thought when he finally reached the sanctuary of the Waiting Room. Anyone finding him roaming the halls would probably march him straight back here anyway, but it was very important to Vincent that Al not suffer because of his kindness.

It was another ten minutes before Al put in an appearance.

"You made it," he said in relief. "I wasn't sure. It's easy to get lost in this place."

"Not for me," Vincent said.

"No, I suppose not. Sam's having a heckuva time at your place, though. Good thing that kid, Rat, is guiding him tonight."

"Rat? You mean Mouse?"

"Yeah, that's him. Strange kid, but knows his way around."

"Mouse knows a great deal more than that," Vincent said. "You would be wise not to underestimate him."

"Aw, he's Sam's to deal with," Al said, dismissing Mouse with a wave of his hand. "Listen, Vincent, I don't have much time. I'm sure Sam's wondering where I am. The leap will probably take place as soon as she's safe, and since I don't know when that will be..."

"We may not see each other again?"

"Well, not anytime soon," Al said. "Who knows, I may come visit the next time I'm in the Big Apple."

Vincent regarded him solemnly. "You will always be welcome in my home, Albert."

Al was suspiciously misty-eyed. "Yeah, well, I may just take you up on that."

Feeling a genuine sadness at the impending loss of this new-found friend, Vincent opened his arms.

After sharing a brief, hard hug, Al backed away, dashing at his eyes. "I don't go in much for this hugging stuff," he said gruffly. "Unless, of course, it's a beautiful dame."

"You've been a good friend to me, Albert. I thank you."

"You've been an experience, Vincent. I won't forget you."

"Good-bye, my friend."

As the door closed behind Al for perhaps the last time, Vincent found himself once more waiting. Right now... six years ago... and yet right now, Sam and Al and perhaps Mouse are making their way to the tunnels beneath the building where Catherine is being held.

Unable to help himself, he began to pace. In his mind, he traced each part of the journey, knowing the path Mouse would take. "Surely they are inside by now," he murmured restlessly. His feet continued to carry him relentlessly back and forth. After a while, he began to wonder if he would wear a path in the carpet.

The click of the door startled him and he whirled.

"We did it! We did it! Aw, Vincent, it was great! You should a been there! Sam was great! Roaring and everything! He's got her, Vincent, and they're on their way down the stairs, and I gotta get back in case they need me, but I had to tell you! Oh, and Vincent, I almost forgot! It is your baby! She told Sam!" Al was almost unintelligible in his breathless excitement, bombarding Vincent with rapid-fire facts.

"My child?" he asked in wonder.

"Yeah, she said so! I think she was scared to tell Sam... I mean you..."

"Frightened of what I would think? Did Sam reassure her?"

"I guess. He said something mushy about love making everything possible and she smiled. Boy, but she was awfully glad to see you!"

"She believes Sam is me?" Oddly, Vincent was a little disappointed that Catherine did not immediately sense the difference, though his primary emotion was joy. Catherine, safe! he thought ecstatically. "Will I leap now?"

"Doubt it, since you haven't yet," Al said. "Probably because they're still in the building. I've got to go!" He turned and collided with the closed door. "I forgot," he mumbled, embarrassed. "I'm not a hologram here."

More waiting. Elation battled with concern as he alternately rejoiced in Catherine's rescue and worried over possible dangers lurking between her and the safety of the tunnels. The blue folder, lying on a table, drew him and he opened it to gaze at her face. I'll see you very soon, my love, he promised. You'll be safe in my arms.

"What's taking so long?" he asked of no one. He began to pace again, waiting, anticipating the rushing sound and the tugging sensation that would herald his leap home, to Catherine.

The door flew open again. "She's in labor," Al gasped out. "They're resting, so I have a minute."

Vincent moved toward him quickly. "Is she well?"

Al waved his hands. "Seems okay. So far, she's walked down forty flights of stairs without trouble. Don't worry, Vincent. Sam's a doctor. He's taking real good care of her. Treats her like she's made of glass. Which reminds me," he said, leaping to another subject. "You're going to have some explaining to do.

"On the way up, Sam knocked out a few guards and tied them up," Al went on. "She seems to think that's strange. The one he clawed up didn't bother her, though." Reaching for the door handle this time, he paused and turned back. "I gotta tell you, Vincent, you've got great taste in women. She's gorgeous!" The door slammed on that parting shot.

More waiting and pacing. Vincent was beginning to think that he would spend the rest of his life going back and forth across this small stretch of tan carpeting when the door burst open for the last time.

"We did it! They're in the tunnels and you'll be leaping any second, so I gotta talk fast!" Al had his computer link in his hand and punched some keys.

"By the way, Vincent, Sam's carrying her, so don't drop her when you leap back in," he warned, watching the box in his hand beep and blink.

"Yeah! Right now, in 1995, Catherine Chandler is chief deputy to District Attorney Joe Maxwell. Her testimony helped indict and convict former D.A. John Moreno, and also took down the man known as Gabriel. She lives in a small townhouse on the Upper West Side with..."he grinned and glanced at Vincent, "her children."

"Children?" The air around Vincent was beginning to buzz.

"Yeah, two of 'em. A three-year-old girl and a five-and-a-half-year-old boy."

The buzzing was louder, and Vincent felt a mild tugging. Al's voice was fading.

"Their names are... Samantha and..." In a gesture Vincent had seen him use before, Al smacked the side of his computer link. He was fading from sight, his voice growing dim, but Vincent could hear his startled yelp. "...Albert!"

 

THE END