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Part Three

Al

I donít know where this guy is getting his information from, but Iím sure as hell not going to give him anymore. So what if he knows a few things about Sam and me. We were friends after all. Still are, I remind myself, and then stop mid-thought, disappointed that I just let myself think of him in the past tense. Itís been a rough few weeks though, and I know I donít need to be adding anything else to the long list of things I already have to beat myself up about.

I let the thought go as best I can, knowing I will pay for it somewhere down the line.

The man wearing my best friends face appears pretty pleased with himself and I feel my anger increase, threatening to overwhelm me if I donít get a handle on it.

Verbena is no help. I can tell she thinks there is something to his story. I canít say I blame her. Samís been missing for weeks and everyoneís getting a little antsy. Weíve all been looking for ways to reassure ourselves that heís okay -- wherever the hell he is.

Anyways, heís right, whoever he is, and the imaging chamber is what I have in mind.

Turning my attention back to the handlink I let Gooshie know that I will need the chamber brought online then feel myself frown as Verbena appears to see something I donít. Our visitor isnít looking so good I realise, and her mother hen approach has her reaching out before I work out exactly what is going.

ďYou should sit down,Ē she is saying, already turning him around and leading him back to the table.

Itís only a few steps, but I finally get with the program and take hold of his free arm, helping the rest of the way. Letting go as soon as Verbenaís got him settled I wonder if we should try to get him to lay down again. Iím about to suggest it to her, but the monitors start up as soon as contact is made with the table, registering our visitors presence once more, and after years of learning what they mean I donít need to be told that thereís a problem.

I look over at the wall, examining the display as it changes colour a number of times and then at Verbena. Understandably her focus is on our guest and she doesnít return my gaze.

ďCan you tell me whatís happening?Ē she inquires.

Samís broad shoulders are hunched now and his head bowed, his longer than usual hair obstructing his face so itís hard to see whatís happening or tell if heís trying to answer or not. There is a definite tremor radiating throughout his body however and I lean forward to get a better look at him, attempting to identify the cause of that at least.

It takes me a second or two to work out whatís going on; to understand what heís looking at and I steel myself for inevitable shock.Most visitors have a little trouble adjusting to seeing themselves for the first time.Itís not that Sam isnít good looking, but itís got to be a disconcerting to find yourself in the body of someone else. I skip over the changes to his appearance since the last time I saw him and concentrate on the here and now instead.

The trembling is pretty intense now, the monitors indicating his heart rate and blood pressure are both above normal. Itís not a good sign. Our eyes meet in the tableís reflective surface, his searching, questioning and finally accusing.

ďWhy didnít you tell me?Ē

Its Sam voice, a little hoarse perhaps, but the tone is completely alien to me even after years of hearing countless strangers use his vocal cords to communicate with us and I recoil, pulling back to look directly at the man beside me.

ďTell you what?Ē I return.

Usually Iím a little more understanding; try to convince our visitor to just stay calm and I would do my best to explain, except this guy is pushing all my buttons in the worst possible ways.

I can see Verbena glaring at me over his rolled shoulders, reminding me to be patient. I want to tell her that under the circumstances I think I doing well not to just pop him, but I donít get a chance to say anything as he straightens suddenly, blocking my view of her.

ďThat I had gotten so old,Ē he clarifies, his tone no less accusing, ďJesus Al. How long have I been gone?Ē

I can feel my own blood pressure rising and my heart pounding wildly in my chest. There is no way to answer his question and I shake my head, keeping up my clueless act. I know it canít last but I donít have anything else at this point.

Verbena hasnít left his side and I know sheís getting concerned. I need to change tact. Keep my frustration under control and turn on the charm. I take a breath. ďNow,Ē I say letting it out.ďDoctor Beeks here thinks you should sit down. Better yet, why donít I help you?Ē

I am ready to reach out if thatís what it takes, but something about the way he is looking at me stills my hand.

ďWhy donít you remember us?Ē

I blink, trying to reconcile what Iím being asked. A hundred different scenarios immediately presenting themselves for review. Glancing down, then up again I take in knuckles turned white in an effort to hold himself up right and the continuing shaking of Samís less than steady frame.

Pain and grief, both by the way are more Verbenaís area than mine, roll off of him in waves. Iíve seen torment before, far too much of it in fact, but this is something else. The word betrayal comes to mind. I donít know why, it just seems to fit. God knows Iím doing my best to deal with all of this, but there is a lump forming in my throat and nothing I do seems to dislodge it. I look at him again, really look, trying to find anything that makes this different to the hundreds of other times when there is visitor in the waiting room. Its Sam face, his same green eyes and apart from physical changes to his appearance his colour had been reasonably good, pale but thatís understandable when you consider how long itís been since he was last outside. Now though his skin is flushed red, marred only by the tears that slide down his cheeks.

I know I must look like some kind of an idiot, standing there watching a grown man cry but something about the sight wonít let me look away.Itís mesmerising almost and I feel a shift or fold perhaps -- the room slowly dematerialising before my eyes.

ďCome on Sam, donít cry, please itíll be okay.Ē

I want to say youíve still got me and that maybe we should just get drunk and forget all about her, but I decide against it. Heís a terrible drunk and Iím on the wagon again.

God, this is hard. Itís not like Iím expecting conversation, or for him to somehow find a way too miraculously stop the flood of tears currently cascading down his flushed face, but I want to help and I am fast running out of ideas.

Getting too close is a bad idea, I know it even as I stand and take the couple steps that brings me into his personal space. Reaching out and touching him is also playing with fire, especially when heís so vulnerable and Iím not sure exactly what Iím doing. His eyes are full of pain though, turning to look at me as I sit beside him, pleading with me to make it stop. Itís my final undoing and I edge closer. His hair feels like silk as it slips through my fingers, his skin warm and inviting where I gently thumb the tears from his face.

Time stretches and slows, the events of the afternoon disappearing along with the rest of the outside world. I utter nonsense throughout, words that are meant to calm and reassure and eventually the tears subside and the intermittent sobs of abject loss and uncertainty cease altogether.

Weíre still far too close and somewhere in the back of my mind warning bells are ringing, telling me to back off.I know I should listen; be grateful I seem to have been able to help after all. I shouldnít be taking advantage of him this way, but the pull to close the remaining distance between us is too strong and while I am still at pains to admit it, Iíve been in love with him for too longÖ

I blink again. The distance call to succumb to unspoken temptation vanishing as the waiting room and all its limited content re-emerge around me. Everything is back where it should be from what I can tell with only the briefest of assessments. Still, Iíll damned if I know whatís just happened or why on earth I would be thinking of Sam in that way. God, was I going to kiss him?

ďAl,Ē Verbena warns, her voice urgent, snapping out of my reverie.

The look she gives me makes it clear that itís not the first time she has tried to get my attention. Iím still confused though and I glance down. The handlink is squawking in my hand. I donít understand how I didnít hear it but there is no time to even consider the possible reasons. The earnest sound of the monitors changing their pattern once again alerts me to the imminent danger to our visitor.

I donít wait for permission. Taking hold of the hand he has been supporting himself with I sling his arm around my shoulders then hoist him up and on the table.

Itís not the gentlest of deliveries; nevertheless I manage to achieve my goal. My arms are still around our guest when I hear rather than see the wall open behind me. Hurried footsteps following close behind. I know I need to make room for whoever has come to help and I extract myself as carefully as I can, mumbling an apology of sorts as I straighten and let go. Samís bright eyes and tear streaked face turning to watch me as I back away and others take my place beside him.

As much as I know I should, I canít stay and watch. The handlink has fallen quiet again and I raise it to let Gooshie know I am coming out.There is no doubt in my mind that Verbena will make sure everything is taken care of and I turn to leave.

There is still a certain amount of commotion going on when I exit the waiting room and enter the Projectís hub.I ignore the questioning glances I receive from those waiting for news and I cross the floor as I have a hundred times before as I make my way to the imagining chamber. Gooshie is standing behind Ziggyís controls and he looks up as I pass by, his mouth already open in preparation of asking me something that I already know will be completely inane. I donít have the time for it though.

ďJust centre me on Sam,Ē I tell him. Thankfully the manís had enough first-hand experience of pushing me when I am obviously not in the mood for conversation to forestall whatever he was going to say. I see him close his mouth again and direct his attention towards the control panel in front of him.

I take the few steps up the ramp and position myself in the middle of the room, the chamber door closing silently around me. Grateful for the small amount of privacy I let out a breath I didnít realise I had been holding and try to slow the thundering in my chest. I have no idea what is happening in the waiting room or the current status of our guest. I only know that I need to find Sam and I concentrate on calming myself.

It takes a minute or two before I note the characteristic whirls of the chamber beginning its program and I hear Gooshieís hesitant voice crackle through the audio system.

ďDo we have a date Admiral?Ē

Fuck. Thatís a damn good question and I mentally kick myself for not thinking of this beforehand. ďJust give me a moment,Ē I tell him.

More often than not the visitor is able to provide us with sufficient information about where they have come from for Ziggy to fill in the blanks. I am still not comfortable with the man currently inhabiting Samís body, or much of what he has had to say so far, but I donít have anything else to work with.

ďSeptember 3rd 2000,Ē I announce.

Not surprisingly there is a pause, the audio falling silent during which time I suspect Gooshie is trying to decide if risking my annoyance is worth it or not and then the distinct sound of the line being reopened. ďJust to clarify Admiral, you want me to use todays date to locate Doctor Beckett?Ē

I sigh and pinch the areas between my eyes, some days I swear I am working with morons.

ďYes,Ē I grit out.

Gooshieís nervous acknowledgment is the last I hear before the connection falls quiet again and itís only a handful of seconds later that a succession of random images come into view, swirling around me at a rate too fast to keep up and I know from experience it is better if I donít try to. Not that is has always worked, but I have learnt to just keep my eyes fixed on one point until a location is found. The visions eventual slow in much the same way an elevator does when it reaches its destination and finally stops. The whole process can take up to several minutes and has on occasion made me physically sick. Astronaut training has nothing on this and anyone who says it canít be much different hasnít a clue what theyíre talking about.Itís not so bad this time however, and I raise the handlink and punch in the code to open the imaging chamber door once the whirling stops -- my focus immediately shifting to what is unfolding as I step through it.

I am not sure what I am feeling exactly. I have seen enough over the years to know that absolutely anything is possible. Still, I canít say I actually believed we would find Sam this way and nothing prepares me for the fear I feel slowly seeping into my bones as I take in the scene before me.

There is a hive of activity surrounding the man on the waiting room table and the panel that usually conceals the emergency equipment has been opened to reveal the various apparatus and supplies, much of which seems to be in use. The other section of the wall, the one that contains the generally unseen monitors that provide basic information about our visitorís medical status as long as they are touching the table, is eerily dark. I feel my chest constrict and my head spin, the reality of the situation taking shape.

My knees are threatening to buckle even as I force myself to move forward, the slow painful steps bringing me closer to what if I had ever let myself imagine this, is my worst nightmare.I can see Verbena standing out of the way now, her brow deeply furrowed and her arms folded protectively against her chest as other are grouped around Sam, trying to help him.

I donít want to think about what has actually happened or how I have been treating him, I just know Iíll never be able forgive myself if heís not going to be alright.

Another step brings me into the very middle of the proceedings, the holographic nature of my presence means I donít need to worry about distracting anyone or getting in their way and I pass right through the small throng to get to him.

Samís Fermi suit has been cut open to expose his chest, arms and legs. A cannula has been inserted into one arm and the portable ECG set up alongside and connected via numerous points on his body. The display is at an awkward angle and unreadable from my present position. His colour is better and thankfully he is conscience and appears to be communicating with Kate Baker, one of our medical team.Iím relieved beyond words and I find myself breathing a little easier, though my heart still seems to have a mind of its own.

Most of what Kate is saying to Sam I donít understand but I gather he does. I feel a familiar sting behind my eyes. I still donít know the prognosis, but I know he is in safe hands. That he is finally home.

ďSam?Ē

The small almost undetectable twitch at the corner of his mouth is all I need to tell me I have been heard. Too bright eyes shift to regard me and in a moment I know I will never forget, Sam returns my smile.

The sting has become too much to ignore and I use the back of my hand to wipe my eyes. ďWelcome home, buddy.Ē

I want to say more but he still looks pretty worn out, old in a way I never imagined him.

ďIím right outside,Ē I tell him. ďIím going to go and come back in okay? You hold tight and let everyone take care of you until then.Ē

I am trying to sound comforting, but Jesus, much more of this and I know I am going to end up blubbing like a baby. There are tears rolling down his cheeks again. Nevertheless he nods, indicating he understands and I pull back, planning to do exactly as I have just said.

ďAl.Ē

Itís only one word and itís likely that most of the people gathered around him think heís asking for me. In fact there is only one exception. Never one to miss much I see Verbenaís interest is piqued, her arms unfolding as she steps forward to investigate. She canít see me, only Sam and I lean forward again to find out what he wants.

ďWhat is it Sam?Ē

His expression is heartfelt now, hopeful I would say.ďDo you remember us?Ē

He asked me this before and I canít say I understood it any better than I do now. It doesnít seem to matter though, it is clear he wants me to say yes and I am not about to disappoint him, not after everything heís been through.

ďOf course I do, youíre my best friend, always have been.Ē

Offering one last smile I reopen the chamber door and step through it.


 

Part Four

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