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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
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
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
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
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
ďAl,Ē Verbena warns, her voice urgent, snapping out of my
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
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.
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.
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
ďOf course I do, youíre my best friend, always have been.Ē
Offering one last smile I reopen the chamber door and step
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