Stardust

by:  Jennifer Rowland 

 

Acknowledgements

On January 25, 1985, Dr. Samuel Beckett reported to Project Starbright.  The same day, one of the Project Administrators, Captain Albert Calavicci faced the dissolution of his fifth marriage.  Neither man could suspect that their paths would cross as one set forth on a new adventure in his career and the other tried to make sense of a life that seemed to be falling apart.

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Chapter One

 

Friday, January 25, 1985

 

“Call me as soon as you get there, Sam.”

 

“Mom!”  Sam Beckett, M.D., and holder of six Ph.D.’s including quantum physics, ancient languages, and music, glanced around the crowded airport in embarrassment.

 

Thelma Beckett smiled at her son.  “You’re all I have left, Sam, apart from Katie, that is.  I’m afraid you’re just going to have to put up with me babying you.”  She ruffled the shock of white hair above her son’s brow lovingly.  “You may be full grown, but you’ll always be my baby.”

 

Sam lowered his eyes, knowing how hard the loss of his older brother and father had been on his mother.  She’d had a hard time, too, during Katie’s abusive marriage to Chuck Fairbanks.  Sam saw red every time he thought about it.  He was furious with Chuck for beating his sister, with Katie for taking it as long as she had, and with himself for not being there to do anything.  He’d been pursuing his modern language degree.  Of course, Katie was now married to Jim Bonnick, who worshipped the ground she walked on as far as Sam could tell.  He looked at his mother again and wanted to drive the perpetual sad look from her eyes.

 

“I promise, I’ll call as soon as the plane lands, Mom.”

 

Thelma beamed at him, the sadness in her eyes sliding away.  “I’m proud of you, son.  Your father would have been so proud of you, too.  And Tom.  You know they were both at the Nobel Prize ceremony, even though none of us could see them.  They were watching you from above and just aching with pride.”

 

Sam swallowed hard, fighting tears.  Breaking into tears wouldn’t help his mother right now.  But he missed his brother and his father sorely.  Especially since he hadn’t been there for either of their deaths; Tom had been killed in Vietnam, and Sam had been pursuing another of his many degrees when his father had died shortly after the Beckett family lost their farm.  He’d never forgiven himself for missed chances.

 

“Mom, I wish things could have been different.  I wish I could go back and change them somehow.”

 

Thelma laid a finger to her son’s lips.  “No one blames you for anything, Sam.  Don’t be foolish.  You go out to this Project Starbright and you show them they made the right choice in appointing you.  Show them that brilliant mind of yours.”

 

“Flight 2189 now boarding at Gate 23A,” the scratchy loudspeaker announced.

 

“I’ve got to go, Mom.”  Sam enveloped his mother in a bear hug and kissed her tired cheek.  “I love you.”

 

He grabbed his carry-on bag and hurried toward the gate.  Looking back, he saw his mother waving to him.  If he squinted, he could see her the way she used to be--less gray, fewer wrinkles, and far less sorrow in her eyes--and imagine his father and brother standing on either side of her, encouraging him onward as they always had.  His entire future had seemed bright and promising then; it was no less promising now, but his own heart was filled with the same regretful sorrow that constantly drowned the spark in his mother’s eyes.  He’d work just as hard now to make Tom and Dad proud of him, even though they couldn’t be here to see it.  He blinked, and the image of his father and brother snapped away, leaving only his mother.  Sam waved again, and turned to navigate through the bustling crowd.

 

 

“Come on, Maxine.  You know I didn’t mean it.”  Albert Calavicci, Captain, USN, stood in the middle of a noisy thoroughfare, wheedling into a pay phone.

 

He stiffened at the words, which traveled through the phone lines.  “You don’t mean that.   . . .  Yes, I did get the papers.  I’ve had those stupid papers for a couple of months now.   . . . No, I am not that big of a fool, I thought you were bluffing!”  His grip on the receiver was tightening and tightening.  The skin strained white and taut over his knuckles.

 

When he spoke again, his voice was cold as ice.  “Fine, whatever you want.  . . .  No, I won’t try to get in touch with you again.”  His eyes clouded over with a surge of regret.  “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry, Maxine.”  He replaced the phone in the cradle and strode off, trying to feign confidence.

 

Al paused at a concession booth and ordered an iced tea, hoping to cool his anger from within.  It arrived with a pair of mint leaves floating at the top.  Al lifted the dripping leaves to his nose and sniffed them.  He closed his eyes and flung them against the counter, downed his tea in one gulp, and stalked from the counter after dropping a handful of change next to his empty glass.

 

‘Today marks a new era in the Age of Calavicci,’ he said to himself.  And we’ll usher it in at the Welcome Party for the new scientists at Starbright.’

 

With a determined and forced grin on his face, Al reached into his jacket and withdrew a silver flask.  As he walked into the bright sunshine, he tilted his head back and drank half of the flask’s contents.

 

 

“Welcome to Project Starbright, Dr. Beckett.”  The petite blonde dressed in blue jeans and a green sweater beneath a white lab coat strode forward.  She handed him his newly processed photo I.D. badge, and pointed to her own.  “The Committee doesn’t really enforce a dress code here, but they do insist we all wear our I.D. badges when we’re on duty.”  She grinned and gestured at her extremely casual attire.

 

Sam colored a little at the shocked stare he’d given her at such seemingly unprofessional clothing.  She laughed again.

 

“If you’re surprised by my outfit, I suggest you prepare yourself before you meet the captain.  He takes the relaxed dress code very seriously.  You know either you’re in trouble or the Project itself is if you see Captain Calavicci in uniform.”

 

Sam nodded, still unsure of what to say.  It was times like these that he still felt like a twelve-year-old farmboy.  He found himself staring at the I.D. badge clipped to her left breast pocket in an attempt to make out her name.  He colored deeper when she noticed his gaze.  The woman blushed and laughed again.

 

“I can’t believe I forgot to introduce myself!  I’m Shari Washington.  When I’m not playing the part of the welcome wagon, I work in the holography labs.”  She grinned.  “The day’s about to wind down, and the Welcome Party isn’t for a couple hours.  How about a tour of the facility?”

 

“I’d like that,” Sam managed to say.  “Could we start by finding my room?  I’d like to stash my luggage.”

 

“Sure thing.  Pay attention to the route, I might not be able to help you find your way back when you’re on your own.  It’s a little tricky.”

 

Sam didn’t say anything, but concentrated on committing the circuitous path to memory.  The walls were no architectural wonder, merely cinder block accented by the occasional bulletin board bearing announcements and notices of varying size, color, and importance.

 

“Dr. Washington,” he began when they reached his room.

 

She shook her head, the ubiquitous grin on her face.  “Uh-uh.  Off-duty, I’m Shari.  To my colleagues, I’m Shari.  To the big guys, I’m Dr. Washington.”

 

Sam grinned.  He had a feeling he was going to like this place.  “Just let me drop these bags.”  He tossed them on the bed and gave his quarters a cursory glance.  The large room was split into several areas:  a small living space sectioned off from the sleep area, a workspace beyond, and the bathroom near the back.  Well, what did you expect?  The Waldorf-Astoria?’  He shrugged, decided it must be standard form, and rejoined Shari in the hallway.

 

She chuckled as he locked the door.  “Quarters leave something to be desired?”

 

Sam grinned and shrugged.  “Not exactly what I’d pictured.”

 

Shari nodded knowingly as they left the residential area.  “I know, you figured a government project would be at a higher level than the freshman dorms at college.  It was a shock to me, too.  But you make do.  The cafeteria’s not too bad.  Neither is the lounge, but you’ve got to pay there.  The cafeteria is part of the deal, and you can use the money for the off time on the weekends.  It’s not a 24-hour on-duty thing here.  We do get off on the weekend.  Major holidays, too.  Of course, if we’ve got a sharp deadline or severe problem in the programming, we’ve got to pull extra hours.  And sometimes you get a Saturday scheduling.  I don’t mean to make it sound like the whole place shuts down.  It doesn’t.  Someone’s always on duty somewhere, mostly the guards though.”  She nodded toward a Marine guard posted before a Restricted Access doorway.

 

Sam found himself involuntarily straightening as he passed the guard.  “Is that a lab in there?” he asked.

 

Shari nodded.  “That’s one of the high-tech observatories.  They work so hard to get the scopes aligned that they don’t want them disturbed in any way.  You need a special badge to get in there.  Of course, I expect with your background you’ll be assigned there eventually, too.”

 

Sam flushed.  “When will I hear about my assignment?” he asked.  “I know they wanted me for my background in quantum physics, but they haven’t told me which labs I’ll be working in.”

 

“Your background in quantum physics, your background in computers, your background in everything, that’s what they wanted you for,” Shari answered.  “Don’t be surprised if your first few weeks are spent as a jack-of-all-trades.  They’ll probably shuffle you from lab to lab, sprinkling your pixie dust and getting this place all in order.  They were really impressed with you, Sam Beckett.”

 

Shari launched into full tour guide mode when they finally passed all the restricted laboratories and chattered almost non-stop about the labs, their purposes, and a few tidbits of information about the minor technical quirks of the machinery inside.  She was a very talkative woman and seemed to have a real handle on the place.

 

Sam finally broke in as Shari was telling him the wonders of the recreational area.  “If I might . . . who is this “they” that you keep talking about?  The Project administrators?”

 

Shari shook her head, straight-faced for the first time in an hour, though on her face, it was still a partial smile.  “No, the Committee is higher than the administrators even, though they do listen to them when it comes to things like new personnel and such.  You remember the captain I mentioned earlier?  He was very impressed by the vita Dr. LoNigro forwarded here.  He really pushed for them to hire you.  Captain Calavicci can be a character at times, but when he believes in something or somebody, he goes after it for all he’s worth.”  Shari lowered her voice.  “Word has it your application was merely a formality.  Dr. LoNigro’s recommendation clinched it for you here, and Captain Calavicci’s recommendation won over the Committee.  Your record speaks for itself, but Captain Calavicci made it speak a little louder.  It’s a shame what’s been going on with the captain the last few weeks.”  She caught herself, realizing she was about to cross a line, and returned to answering his question about the Committee.

 

“The Committee is direct from Washington.  They’re over the administrators, like I said, and it’s a group of senators, military men, and esteemed civilian scientists.  Mostly, the cream of the bureaucratic crop.”  Shari grinned before she continued, “They really monitor things closely here.  When they’re not down for one of their inspections, they have a liaison here.  And they call meetings for discussion of continued funding and such about once every three to six months.  Sometimes we get a bigger spell than others.”  She shrugged.  “Anyway, that’s the Committee, affectionately referred to as They.”  Shari laughed again.

 

Sam grinned.  He was beginning to understand.  He’d never worked for the government before, but he could draw some distinct parallels to the work he and Dr. LoNigro had done in quantum physics.  Their theory was so revolutionary they’d had a difficult time explaining it to grant committees.  But since the purpose of the grant was to allow them the time and facility access to refine the theory, it wasn’t as major of a problem as it might have been.  He could imagine that this Committee wanted to see results, and wanted to see that their money was being used as efficiently as possible.

 

Shari broke him from his train of thought.  “Ready for the rest of your tour?  I figure we’ll finish in plenty of time to change for the party.”

 

Sam frowned.  Shari had mentioned the party earlier, but he hadn’t really paid much attention.  “Oh, a party, I . . .”

 

“No way, Dr. Beckett.”  He couldn’t help chuckling at her insertion of his title after her insistence that they remain on a first-name basis.  “Phase one of your obligations as a member of Project Starbright is to attend the Welcome Party being held in honor of you and Drs. Lassiter and Nguyen.”

 

Sam raised his hands in defeat.  “Okay, you win.  I’ll be there.”

 

“With bells on?” she asked, giggling.  She laughed harder at his blushing and continued their tour when she regained her composure.

 

 

Al Calavicci adjusted his tie in the mirror.  Looking sharp, Calavicci.’  He practiced a jaunty grin and was impressed with the results.  He noticed red lines in his eyes and crossed to his bathroom.  He dispensed a few drops from a vial of eye drops and examined his face in the mirror again.  So far so good.  A few rinses with mouthwash and no one would know he’d taken steps to ensure he’d have a good time.

 

Al combed his hair again and tugged the back of his vest several times before turning around in front of the mirror to see the effect from all angles.  He intended to make the evening memorable.  He’d selected a pair of black slacks, an intense teal shirt, and a paisley vest incorporating both colors and threaded with silver.  A silver tie and the blue neon Starbright pin, which was his pride and joy, accessorized nicely, he thought.

 

He checked his watch.  The party had been going on for well over fifteen minutes.  Definitely time for Captain Al Calavicci to make his entrance.  Giving his reflection the grin once more, he turned and left his quarters.

 

The chatter of voices and blare of music greeted his ears as he neared the ballroom.  Admittedly, it wasn’t much of a ballroom, more a converted multi-purpose room, but the social committee was calling it a ballroom, and a ballroom it would be, at least for tonight.  Al had to admit that Joe and Nadine had done an excellent job of transforming the room into a social fantasy.  Streamers and balloons centered around a disco ball.  Al sighed in contentment at the sight.  He planted the grin on his face and sauntered in.

 

“Al!”  An elegant redhead flew into his arms and planted a kiss on his cheek.  “I’m so glad you came.  You’ll dance with me all night, won’t you?”

 

“Brenna, baby, I’ve got to share the wealth.  Besides, I need to welcome our new partners in crime.”

 

Brenna pouted.  Al drew his breath in sharply and kissed the pouty mouth.  “First dance goes to you, though, sweetheart.”

 

She brightened and traipsed off as Al wove his way through the mingling crowd.  Time after time, the incident with Brenna was repeated, with Patsy, Kenda, Vicky, and Dottie, to name but a few.  The well-practiced grin was emblazoned quite naturally by the time he reached Harold Lassiter.

 

“Dr. Lassiter, welcome,” Al smiled with his hand extended.  Lassiter seized it and shook it heartily.  “Albert Calavicci, I’m one of the administrators here.”

 

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Calavicci,” Lassiter said.  His companion nudged him sharply and the scientist flushed.  “I mean, Captain,” he stammered out.

 

Al chuckled.  “You’ll get the titles down eventually, Doctor.  But really, you’ll probably find that among your colleagues at least, you’ll be on a first name basis.  In social settings, I’m Al.”

 

Lassiter relaxed.  “Harold.”

 

“Well, Harold, welcome to Project Starbright.  Hope you enjoy the welcome we prepared for you.”

 

Harold grinned at the decorations, “Love it!”

 

Al smiled and moved on, spotting Dr. Karen Nguyen several yards away.  Admiring her petite figure and long blonde hair, he crossed to her, edging past chatting couples to reach her.  His intended friendliness diminished somewhat when he remembered she was married.  Looking to the left, he saw the accompaniment to the wedding band on her left ring finger--her husband, a stout Vietnamese man who was returning with a plate of snacks for the two of them to share.

 

Feeling the grin straining, Al walked up with his hand extended.  “Albert Calavicci.  Pleased to meet you, Dr. Nguyen.”

 

She grinned and shook his hand with a hearty grip.  Al was surprised at her strength.

 

“Hello, Captain, isn’t it?  This is my husband, Ralph.”

 

Ralph Nguyen gripped Al’s hand and stretched his pudgy cheeks in a smile.  Al smiled back weakly.  He made his way through inane chitchat for a few minutes before excusing himself and making a beeline for the refreshments table.

 

“Gary, how’s the punch tonight?” Al asked.

 

The scrawny man peered through his glasses.  “Made just the way you like it, Al.  The secret ingredient--my specialty.”

 

Al laughed and poured himself a cup of what the staff called Gary’s Grog.  Gary, despite his mousy appearance, nearly rivaled Al when it came to partying.  Two cups later, Al was ready to enter the mingling again.

 

“Once more into the breach, dear friends,” he quoted, the grin finally feeling at ease on his face again.

 

Sam and Shari entered the party together.  Sam had changed into a striped oxford shirt and grey slacks.  Shari was now wearing an emerald halter-top dress.  She laid her arm comfortably on Sam’s; introducing him to everyone they passed.  Sam relaxed to a minute degree as they drew near to the center of the room, but he was never fully at ease at mixers.

 

“Hey, Gary, meet Sam Beckett,” Shari yelled over the music.

 

Gary leaned forward and squinted through the coke-bottle lenses while he shook Sam’s hand.  “Ah, the new wonder boy!  Welcome!”  He poured a cup of Grog for Sam.  “Here, compliments of the house.”

 

Sam smiled and took a sip.  Seconds later he was choking and Shari was pounding on his back.

 

“Sorry, should have warned you.  Gary puts a ‘special ingredient’ in the punch.”  Shari took the cup from Sam and finished it herself.  “Here,” she poured him a cup of Coke from an untouched 2-liter.  “The soft drinks are always safe.”

 

Sam grinned as he took the paper cup.  “I’m interested in meeting this Captain you’ve been talking about.”

 

Shari stood on her tiptoes and cupped her hand over her eyes to stare across the room.   She gripped Sam’s shoulder to keep her balance and pointed.  “You see the center of attention?  That’s Captain Calavicci.”

 

Gary laughed.  “Al’s feeling pretty good about now.”

 

Shari glared at him, “Shut up, Gary!”

 

Sam wondered why Shari was getting so upset about Gary’s joke.  If Sam’s hunch was correct about what the “special ingredient” was, everyone who’d had some punch was “feeling pretty good.”  He followed her finger and caught sight of the short dark-haired man dressed in teal and black, dancing energetically with a woman a head and a half taller.

 

“I see what you meant about preparing myself for the captain’s taste in clothing,” Sam chuckled.

 

Shari’s tense shoulders dropped.  “Al’s pretty down to earth.”

 

Gary snorted.  “I wouldn’t think so.  I’d say he’s flying pretty high.”

 

Shari whirled on him.  “Yeah, well I don’t see you trying to make sure he stays down!  You’ve got some nerve, Gary Thomas!  Why don’t we see you stay away from your own Grog for the night, then you can talk!”  She grabbed Sam’s arm and led him away.

 

“What was that all about?” Sam asked.

 

She just shook her head.  “Nothing.  Gary just gets a little annoying sometimes.”

 

Sam didn’t see anything particularly inflammatory in what Gary had said.  He remembered how Shari had caught herself earlier, and decided there was definitely a story she wasn’t telling.  He wanted to ask a question, but Shari was talking again.

 

“Al is such a sweet guy, it really burns me up when Gary tries to be funny by picking on him.  Sure, he’s not perfect, but who is?”  She sighed and restored the bright expression to her face.

 

Sam decided Shari had a crush on the captain.  There was no need to pursue the subject further.

 

“Want to meet him?” Shari asked.

 

Sam nodded and followed her across the room.  Al was dancing with yet another woman; this one was shorter than him and had cropped black hair.  She gripped his back possessively and rested her head on his shoulder, eyes closed in contentment.  She frowned when the song ended and Al broke away.

 

“Ah, Carrie, I’ll see you later, gorgeous,” the captain promised.  He turned as if to walk from the dance area when he caught sight of Shari.

 

“Hi, Al,” she shyly grinned.

 

Al lifted her wrist and kissed the back of her hand, “Che bella!  Come un angelo!  He raised his eyes without moving from her hand.  “Would you dance with me?” he smiled.

 

Shari nodded breathlessly and shrugged at Sam as Al whisked her onto the floor.  Sam smiled awkwardly and shoved his hands in his pockets.  Captain Calavicci was certainly a ladies’ man.  Sam watched Shari and Al circulate the dance floor several times.  He glanced around the room in a desperate search for a familiar face, but even the administrators who had interviewed him were nowhere to be found.  Sam was so uncomfortable, he didn’t even notice the curious and interested glances many of the female staff members cast on him. 

 

He fidgeted and adjusted his shirt collar.  Finally, the feeling of awkwardness built to the point where Sam couldn’t stand it.  He tried to attract Shari’s attention with a wave, but her attentions were focused on her dance partner.  Feeling the effects of jet lag, he left the party and headed back to his quarters, never noticing the young ladies who’d finally built up enough nerve to cross the room in hopes of meeting the famous Dr. Beckett.

 

 

Wednesday, January 30, 1985

 

Shari had been right.  The first day of the week, Sam was assigned to the programming department.  He’d spent half an hour analyzing the program files and spotted a bug that had proved elusive to the rest of the staff for two weeks.  Two days and six programs later, Sam found himself assigned to the holography labs.  Shari greeted him enthusiastically.

 

“Sam!  I didn’t think we’d be graced by your presence for at least a week!”  She threw her arms around him and escorted him to his duty station.

 

“You know, the captain was pretty disappointed he didn’t get to meet you last week,” Shari informed Sam.  “Why’d you leave?”

 

“I told you, I don’t really like parties.  Besides, I’m sure the captain found more interesting people to talk with than me.”

 

Shari’s eyes darkened for a second before she realized Sam was speaking sincerely.  She grinned, “Well, you’ll probably run into him at some point.  So, how’s your week been going?”

 

Sam smiled back and told her some of the events of the past week.  All conversation came to a halt when the director of holography entered the room.  He waved his hand to acknowledge the attention and walked to Sam’s station.  The low rumble of different conversations resumed.  Shari patted his shoulder and scurried back to her station.

 

“Dr. Beckett, welcome to the holography labs.  I’m Dr. Underhill.”

 

Sam took the outstretched hand and shook it with more confidence than he felt.

 

“Pleased to meet you, Dr. Underhill.  I’m not sure exactly what I’m supposed to be working on.”

 

“Well, neither do we, to be honest.  We’re trying to perfect holography, to bring it out of merely being used to counterfeit-proof credit cards and making catchy National Geographic covers.  So far we’ve been able to get the projections improved.  But they still look like projections.”

 

Sam had a mental image of the “holographic projection” of Princess Leia from the Star Wars film and said so.

 

“Yes, exactly,” Underhill responded.  “But what we want to do is get it to a more realistic level.  Dr. Washington and Dr. Temple are hard at work on perfecting a static, but authentic, 3-D projection of that basket of fruit.”

 

Sam followed the pointing finger to a basket of wax fruit resting on a white table before a stark wall.  A nearby monitor displayed the projection for the entire lab.  It had a higher quality than the holograms Sam had seen, but it was far from realistic.  Bands of rainbow shimmers rippled across the projection, distorting it.

 

“So the goal is a hologram that can fool the naked eye.”

 

Underhill nodded.  “Precisely.  Ready to take a stab at it?”

 

In response, Sam nodded and grabbed the first of a stack of manuals resting on his desk.  He was soon absorbed in the trial and error documentation of the holography department’s pursuit of its goal.  He didn’t notice Dr. Underhill move on to his office.  His mind was cycling rapidly through possibilities to resolve the distortions in the fruit projection.  The back part of his mind, meanwhile, filed the holography project away as of possible use for enacting the string theory he and Professor LoNigro had developed.

 

‘Someday.  I know I can make it happen, someday.’

 

Sam turned another page and jotted out an equation on a legal pad conveniently located on his desk.  Five minutes later every space on the page was covered with cryptic symbols and numbers as Sam’s hand flew across it at a speed rivaled only by the tempo of his brain’s cycling calculations.

 

Dr. Underhill passed by and smiled approvingly and thankfully at the devoted scientist.  He didn’t speak, and left him to work in peace.  Sam didn’t even notice.  He turned another page of the manual and proceeded to attack another sheet on the legal pad.

 

‘I know I can break this puzzle.  I know I can.  It’s just a matter of striking upon the right combination of variables.  Lasers, quarks, something.  There’s something they just haven’t tried yet.  I’ll find it.’

 

‘And once I do, I’ll know how to make it better for my project.  If I can just work all this out, I’ll know how to make the string theory work.’

 

Sam’s hand scrawled faster.

 

 

Tuesday, February 5, 1985

 

“I’ve really got to leave, baby,” Al bent to kiss the woman’s forehead as he buttoned his shirt.  What was her name?  Helen, that was it.  Helen.’

 

“So soon?” she complained in a whiny voice.

 

Al winced, but didn’t show it on his face.  He’d become expert at hiding his emotions after all these years.

 

“I’m sorry, Helen.  I’m already late for work, baby.”  And I’ve got a hangover screaming for some aspirin.’  He caressed her cheek.

 

“Why don’t you just take the day off?  You’re an administrator, isn’t that a privilege?”  She propped herself up on her elbows.

 

“Honey, they’d have my head.  I don’t have time to argue about this.”

 

“Fine,” she pouted.

 

He kissed her forehead again.  “I’ll call you later,” he blanked on her name again, “sweetheart.”  He dashed from the motel room, tucking his shirttail in as he left.

 

“Yeah, right,” she muttered, tossing a pillow at the closing door.

 

Al heard her, and shook his head.  He didn’t have time to go back in and console her.  That’s how the trouble with Greta started, his mind reminded him.  Al ran a hand across his face, feeling the stubble on his cheeks, and tried to drive away the memory of his second wife’s tear-stained face as he hurried off to another evening with his friends, leaving her behind.  It had been too soon after Beth when he’d married Greta, Al knew.  Greta wanted him to stay home with her.  She wanted to start a family.  Al had felt too restricted and had lit out as often as he could.  He’d never cheated on her, but he hadn’t

been there for her, and that was almost as bad.

 

‘All right, that’s enough,’ he told himself firmly.  He needed to get his day in order, and fast.  He was supposed to have checked in half an hour ago.  He ran a hand through his tangled hair as he dashed to his car.

 

‘Damn.’  Al glanced at his watch when he settled into the driver’s seat.  He didn’t have time to stop at his quarters to shower or change clothes.  As it was, he’d be lucky if he made it to his office before it got any later.  He started the car with a curse and peeled out of the parking lot.  The New Mexico deserts were a grand sight, but Al was more intent on reaching the project property as quickly as he could.  He whipped into his parking spot and took off for the administration division at a dead run.  A corner before he reached the office, Al paused to take several deep breaths and compose himself.

 

Bob Jansen, Chief Administrator, frowned when he pulled open the heavy glass door leading to the administrative offices.

 

“You’re forty-five minutes late, Captain.”

 

“I realize that, Bob.  I’m sorry, it won’t happen again.”

 

“That’s what you said the last three times.  I can’t keep covering for you, Al.  This has got to stop.”

 

Al colored, anger slowly overcoming repentance.  “I said it won’t happen again, and it won’t.  Don’t call me a liar.”

 

In response, Bob glanced at Al’s rumpled clothes.  Being piled on the floor overnight never did much for appearances.

 

“Who was it this time, Al?” asked Bob.  He wasn’t asking to play the part of one of the good ole boys around the water cooler.  There was disapproval in his eyes.

 

Al stared back defiantly at the other man and stalked past him to his office.  He closed his door and sank into his chair.

 

‘This is not the start of a good day.’

 

He opened the bottom drawer of his desk and lifted a battered telephone directory.  Beneath it laid a bottle of whisky.  Al filled a glass with the liquor and leaned back in his chair.  He slowly sipped it, letting the disturbing events of the morning slide into a pool of sour mash.

 

When he felt the comforting cloud of numbness, he buzzed his secretary and began the dreaded work of flying a desk.  No matter how hard he tried, he just couldn’t pretend it was as important or as rewarding as flying a plane.  He wished he’d never been promoted.  He wished he’d never left the astronaut program.  He wished . . .

 

Al looked down and realized he’d covered an entire requisition form with Beth’s name.  He tore it into shreds and tossed it in the wastebasket, making a note to come up with an excuse to the department who’d issued the form as to why they had to fill out another.

 

 

 

Thursday, February 14, 1985

 

“Try adjusting it here.”

 

Sam pointed with a jeweler’s pick at a tiny chip within the projector.  If his calculations over the last two weeks were correct, this one minor technical adjustment would improve the holographic projections by at least 10%.

 

“This one?”  Ian Markham prepared to reach his white-gloved hand inside the machine.

 

“Wait,” Sam double-checked the manuals and his notes, not trusting his photographic memory on this occasion.  “Yeah, that’s the one, Ian.  Three degrees.”

 

Ian made the necessary correction and latched the small access panel.

 

“Well, fire her up, Shari.  Let’s see if Sam was right.”

 

Shari grinned and requested a drum roll.  The scientists complied by rapping their fingers against the lab tables while Shari reached for the projection switch.

 

Nothing happened.

 

A mass groan went up.  With a wicked giggle, Shari asked Ian to plug the machine back in.  Balled up pieces of paper bounced off his back courtesy of the annoyed scientists as he complied.

 

“Drum roll, ladies and gentlemen!” Shari demanded.

 

The rapping commenced once more.  With twice the ceremony as the first time, Shari flipped the switch.

 

The projector flickered twice and produced a hologram of the basket of fruit.  Though it was still not realistic, the shape was at least steady, the distortions drastically reduced.

 

A cheer rippled its way across the room.  Sam thought his back would fall to pieces from all the hearty thumps being applied to it.  This was the first breakthrough they’d had in weeks.

 

Shari planted a wet kiss on Sam’s lips.  “Pixie dust.  I told you you had pixie dust,” she laughed.  “So, what time should I pick you up for dinner?”

 

Sam’s jaw dropped.  “Dinner?”

 

“Underhill’s treating us all to the best Valentine’s dinner the cafeteria has to offer.  You’re the guest of honor, and I am your escort,” she sketched a deep bow.

 

Sam chuckled.  “Well, when you put it like that, I can’t see how I could say no.”

 

“And such a five-star establishment,” winked Shari.  “I’ll drop by your station at five o’clock.”

 

When he was alone at his desk, Sam shook his head in bemusement.  If his current pattern of assignment continued, he’d know everyone in the project.  He’d received a memo that morning informing him he was next being transferred to the astronomy division.  Surely they’d settle him down in one department and let him stay there.

 

‘Well, I’ve still got three hours here,’ Sam decided firmly.

 

He grabbed his battered legal pad and began making calculations again.

 

 

Al poked the cold green beans with his fork and rested his head on his hand as he listened to Bob Jansen lecture him.

 

“Al, I warned you, this has got to stop.  I don’t even see how you can function.”

 

“I function just fine, Bob.”

 

“Go ahead, make a joke.  This is no game, Al.  This is your career we’re talking about.”

 

“Oh, we’ve been talking about my career?  It sounded like you were attacking me personally.”

 

Bob frowned.  “At this point, Al, the two are almost inseparable.”

 

Al stared down at his plate with bloodshot eyes.  Was there movement in his rice?  He shuddered, thinking of rice that had moved once, rice he’d lived on and washed down with jungle rainwater, and shoved the plate away, rubbing his eyes furiously.

 

“Inseparable, huh?  So I guess there’s no need for me to leave my social side behind any more,” Al said.

 

“You don’t anyway.”  Bob reached down and lifted his briefcase.  He opened it in his lap and pulled out a nearly empty bottle of whisky.  “I found this in your desk.”

 

Al narrowed his eyes and spoke in a dangerous whisper, “What were you doing snooping in my office?”

 

“I was worried about you,” Bob answered.

 

“So that gives you the right to invade my privacy?”

 

“Al, you’re an administrator, for pity’s sake.  You’re a captain in the U.S. Navy.  I would have thought you had more discipline than this.”

 

‘Discipline.  Discipline.’  The word hissed over and over in Al’s mind.  A swirl of memories began to surface one by one.  A stern-faced nun.  An angry instructor.  A Vietnamese soldier with a gun.  Al shook his head.

 

“Apart from my being late,” he said through clenched teeth, “is there any other reason for this meeting?”

 

Bob glanced meaningfully at the liquor bottle before returning it to his briefcase.  Al ignored him.

 

“Just a friend asking a friend to start taking care of himself,” said Bob.

 

Al snorted and shoved his chair away.  “Some friend,” he said before he stalked away.

 

‘Were you talking about Bob, or yourself?’

 

Al had no answer for himself.  He walked blankly through the twisted passages leading to his quarters.  He focused his mind on the relief that awaited him.  It was the only way to be sure that old memories wouldn’t suddenly rise up.

 

Al leaned back against his door for several seconds after he closed it.  He stared across the room.  Just a few more feet.’

 

He pulled open a drawer and lifted out a gleaming bottle of bourbon.  Grabbing a glass, Al sank into the easy chair that had belonged to his father.  He leaned his head back against the battered leather and nursed the bourbon, welcoming the numbness and erasure of all conscious thought.

 

He fell asleep there, the empty bottle resting in his lap, and his right hand dangling the glass over the floor.

 

 

Tuesday, February 26, 1985

 

“Damn it . . . . piece of junk!  Give it back, you creep!”

 

Sam hesitated as he passed the open doorway.  The enraged shouts were accompanied by heavy thumping sounds.  Sam considered peeking into the room, almost afraid of what he might see.  It sounded like a fight to the death.  Well, he certainly couldn’t let the combatants tear each other apart.  He unhooked a fire extinguisher from its place on the wall near the lab and aimed the nozzle straight ahead.  Sam took a deep breath when he heard the multiple shatters of glassware.

 

“Now or never, Beckett,” he muttered.

 

He jumped into the doorway, prepared to douse the fight into peace with the white foam.  “Break it up!” he shouted.

 

The lone man in the room didn’t even pause.  He waded through the broken glass around his feet and advanced on a vending machine in the corner.  Letting out a battle cry, the man raised a claw hammer over his head and slammed it into the vending machine’s panel with all his strength.  The lights illuminating the word Coca-Cola flickered and died in a shower of sparks.  The man backed away from the machine with a curse.  “Give it back!” he bellowed.  He raised the hammer over his head and his body tensed in preparation for a rush.

 

Sam hurried into the room, flinging the fire extinguisher aside.  He caught up with the angry man seconds before he swung the hammer forward.  The wooden handle smacked into Sam’s hand.  He wrenched the hammer from the other man’s grip and tossed it aside.  Again, the other man didn’t notice Sam.  With single-minded determination, he attacked the vending machine barehanded, cursing and shouting.

 

“Hey, hey, stop!” Sam said in a loud voice.  He grabbed the man by the wrists and tried to pull him away.  The smaller, wiry man struggled to break free with a strength that surprised Sam.

 

“Let go of me,” he snarled.  He tried to jab his elbows into Sam’s ribcage.  When that failed, he bent forward and lashed back with his feet.

 

Sam sidestepped and tried to pin the angry man’s arms behind his back until he could calm the rage straining against his hands.  Rather than submitting to the restraining grip, the man tripled his efforts to break free.  Sam lost his grip on one of the wrists.  The man twisted in Sam’s hand and clawed at the single remaining restraint.

 

Sam was taken aback when he got a clear glance at the man’s face, contorted with his anger and frustration.  He recognized Al Calavicci, the captain who was one of the administrators of Project Starbright, and whose recommendation had weighed heavily in Sam’s appointment to the project.

 

“Captain, please calm down.”

 

Captain Calavicci didn’t slow his attempts to break free one bit.  His eyes blazed as he concentrated his attack on Sam’s hand.

 

“Let me go!” he screamed.

 

Sam lost his final grip as the captain’s flailing hand caught him on the bridge of his nose.  He felt his nose, relieved that it wasn’t broken, and kept a watchful eye on Al Calavicci.

 

The smaller man rubbed his wrists and darted his eyes to check all around him.  His breath came fast and furious, countered by his squared shoulders and tense body.

 

“Jerk,” he snorted.  He backed away from Sam, maneuvering until a table separated them.  His breathing did not calm and he gripped the table with white-knuckled hands.

 

“Captain, um, we’ve never really met.  I’m . . .”

 

“I know who you are, Dr. Beckett.”  The captain’s nostrils flared and his body quivered.  He took a step back as Sam came near the table.  “Don’t touch me.”  His eyes narrowed and tracked Sam’s every movement.

 

“I’m not going to, sir.  I’m just going to clean up this glass.”  Sam slowly walked to the corner and picked up a broom.

 

“It’s not your mess.  Leave it alone,” growled Al.

 

“It’s no problem.”

 

“I said leave it alone!”  Al slammed his hand on the table and glared at Sam.

 

Sam dropped the broom and raised his empty hands.  “Okay,” he smiled.  The captain did not smile back.  Both men stared at each other for several long seconds.  Al made the first move.

 

“Why don’t you just get the hell out of here?” he coldly suggested.

 

Sam hesitated, not knowing how to respond.  The captain took advantage of the moment to seize control.

 

“Well, go on.  Get out already.”  He gestured at the open door.  When Sam didn’t move, Al folded his arms across his chest.  With several deep breaths, he managed to gain control of his temper.  “It’s none of your concern,” he flatly stated.

 

The calm, cold man who stood before him might very well have been beamed down from an alien spaceship for all the resemblance he bore to the Captain Calavicci Sam had first encountered.  And both incarnations were nothing like the Al Calavicci who had appeared at the Welcome Party weeks ago.  That man had been friendly almost to the point of being bubbly, with an infectious grin.  Sam doubted that this man was capable of producing a similar one.  And yet, for all the anger and hostility, Sam couldn’t bring himself to turn away and leave.

 

“You’re right, it’s not,” Sam agreed.  “Except that next time I want a Coke, I won’t have too much luck.”  He grinned at the darkened machine, now humming erratically.

 

Al glanced over his shoulder and chuckled in spite of himself.  “It wouldn’t have made a difference.  You wouldn’t have gotten one anyway.”

 

“Oh?”

 

Al nodded.  “Damn thing ate my last dime.”

 

Sam couldn’t help it.  He started laughing.  “All this,” he gestured at the debris and the shattered panel, “for a dime?”

 

Al shrugged and picked up the broom.  He turned his back on Sam and began sweeping the broken glass.  The irregular shards clinked together almost musically in accompaniment with the swishing bristles.

 

Sam suddenly felt a pang of guilt for laughing at the captain’s rage.  He watched him clumsily try to arrange all the broken glass into a pile.  The man Sam had heard could land a fighter jet on a saucer without cracking it didn’t even seem able to control his own body.  He walked up behind the captain and put a hand on his shoulder.  Al immediately jerked away, rolling his shoulder to remove the sensation of Sam’s touch.  He shifted the broom so that it was a passive barrier between himself and Sam.

 

“Let me help clean this up,” Sam offered.  He noticed the captain’s bloodshot and dulled eyes for the first time.  “Have you been drinking, Captain?” he tentatively asked.

 

The sudden lowering of Al Calavicci’s eyes gave him an answer.

 

“Look, let me help you clean this mess and then how about we go for a cup of coffee in the lounge?”

 

Al shook his head.  He gripped the broom like a lifeline and resumed sweeping.

 

“Just go on,” Al said, focusing on the broken glass.  “I can clean this myself.”

 

“I’ll wait for you,” said Sam as he hopped onto an empty counter.

 

“Suit yourself.”  Al shrugged and shook his head.  Who did this guy think he was anyway?  This was just a kid.  He had no business interfering in Al’s life.  Yeah, what a life.’  His life was about as organized as the broken glass he swept.  What I really need is a drink, a great big glass of oblivion.  Then everything will be just fine.’  He refused to look up at the youthful face watching him sweep.  Maybe if he ignored the kid long enough he’d go away.  Al surreptitiously glanced at the young doctor who was idly kicking his feet against the cabinet doors as he sat on the counter and waited.

 

“Are you sure I can’t help you with that?”

 

“Will it get you out of my hair if I say yes?” demanded Al.  He leaned his cheek on the broom handle and stared at Sam.

 

Sam grinned and gestured toward a dustpan.  “You sweep, I’ll scoop.”

 

“All right, all right.  Geez.”  Al spread his arm wide.  “Knock yourself out.”

 

Sam scooted off the counter and snagged the dustpan.  In one smooth motion he knelt and positioned the dustpan to receive the glass shards.  Al clumsily pushed the glass toward Sam.  Unfortunately, when Sam maneuvered the dustpan to catch a few of the more elusive pieces, Al’s sweeping drove a sharp piece of glass into his thumb.

 

“Yow,” Sam whispered, shaking his left hand.  He promptly stuck his thumb in his mouth.

 

Al dropped the broom with a crash and knelt beside him.  “Oh, man, I’m sorry.  Is it deep?”

 

Sam imperceptibly moved back an inch from the alcohol-laden breath.  “Mm-uhm,” he shook his head, mumbling around his thumb.  He extricated his thumb to examine the damage.  Once removed from the cleansing, wet environment of his mouth, the tiny wound began to ooze blood again.  Al handed him a paper towel to wrap around it.

 

“You owe me now,” Sam said.

 

Al looked questioningly at him.  The older man seemed to have forgotten his anger.

 

“Coffee, lounge,” Sam prompted.  He raised his thumb with the mock bandage and grinned.  “I won’t accept no for an answer.  A wounded man’s last request.”

 

“Oh, well, I,” Al began to stumble for a protest that Sam couldn’t refute.  Realizing he wouldn’t find one, he smiled very slightly and resigned himself to the inevitable.

 

Sam felt so much promise from that tiny smile.  He dumped the contents of the dustpan and knelt to receive the remainder of the glass shards.

 

“You trust me to sweep some more?” Al asked.  He still seemed hampered by the effects of the alcohol.  In fact, Sam acknowledged, he wasn’t sure he wanted to be on the receiving end.  But he didn’t want to embarrass the captain.

 

“Sure,” Sam grinned.  “Besides, you only get nine other chances to stab me.”

 

Al laughed, the first joyous sound Sam had yet heard fall from those lips.  “Okay, but don’t forget I warned you.”

 

As the captain began to sweep, Sam smiled and considered allowing another finger to be punctured.  Maybe he could extract another social appointment from the man.  But the stinging of his thumb quickly drove that thought away.  He certainly wasn’t ready to damage another finger.

 

When they finished cleaning the disarray, Sam had an impulse to good-naturedly wrap an arm around Al’s shoulders.  He quickly stifled it, realizing it would neither be appropriate nor appreciated.

 

“I’m buying,” Al offered as they moved through the building toward the lounge.

 

“The deal was getting you to come.  I’ll buy,” Sam protested.

 

Al rolled his eyes and sighed.  Further arguments were forestalled as they entered the lounge.  The brightly colored placards listing the day’s menu greeted them before the glass cases displaying the entrees.

 

They moved through the line, each taking a steaming cup of coffee and a stale Danish left over from breakfast.  At the register, the argument over who would pay started up again.  Al won.  He pulled out his wallet with a triumphant grin and handed two bills to the girl behind the register.

 

“Keep the change, gorgeous,” Al said, winking lasciviously.  He grinned widely when she kissed the dollar before sliding it into her breast pocket.

 

“That’s Kenda,” Al chuckled when he and Sam slid into the least damaged unoccupied chairs.

 

“I didn’t realize you knew her so well.”  Sam had been slightly flustered by the flirtation between the two.

 

“Oh, yeah, very well,” Al winked.

 

A sudden awkward silence fell over their table.  Sam nervously poured sugar into his coffee and stirred, splashing brown droplets on the table.  Al raised his black coffee to his lips and sipped thoughtfully.

 

‘Well, you got him here.  Now what?’  Sam was at a complete loss.  Suddenly something Ian Markham had pointed out to him popped into his head.

 

“I, um, I noticed your car out in the lot the other day,” he began.

 

“Yeah, isn’t she a beauty?” Al beamed.  “Customized her myself.”  He lowered his head and his voice, “She’ll get up to 200, but you couldn’t tell from the speedometer.”  He chuckled, immensely pleased with himself.  “Closest thing to flying you can get on the ground.”

 

“Flying,” Sam gulped his coffee down.  He had a phobia of heights and hated flying.  Admittedly, it wasn’t nearly as bad to be enclosed in a plane, especially in an aisle seat where he didn’t have to look out a window, but knowing he was high in the sky petrified him.

 

“Oh, yeah.  Soaring above the clouds, moving faster than the rest of the world.  Leaving your troubles behind.”  Al sobered a little at the last words.  He shook his head and sipped his coffee again.  “Ugh, this really needs something,” he grunted.  “Cafeteria coffee is the worst, I don’t care who’s serving it.”  He slyly reached into his jacket and removed a silver flask.  Before Sam could say a word he had dumped its contents within his coffee cup.  He closed his eyes in contentment when he sipped the coffee.

 

“I don’t think that’s a very good idea, Captain,” Sam said.

       

Al glared at him.  “What’s your problem?  No one’s making you take any.”

 

“No, it’s just that, well . . .”

 

The captain spared him from struggling to find the words.

 

“Look, you asked me here for coffee.  I didn’t know you were going to start playing mommy to me.  I haven’t had a mother in years and I certainly don’t need one now.”  He stood, his fists angrily balled at his sides.  “Good afternoon, Dr. Beckett,” he said stiffly before turning and storming out of the lounge.

 

Sam ran his hands over his face and stared at the half-empty coffee cup and untouched Danish across the table.

 

“Well, that didn’t go very well, now, did it?”

 

No one answered him.

 

No one needed to.

 

 

Sam spent the rest of the day going half-heartedly through his work.  His mind replayed the incident with Captain Calavicci.  Sam knew he hadn’t handled things very well.  At the same time, he hoped for a second chance.  His mother had always told him he had almost a sixth sense when it came to people.  And that sixth sense was telling him that the captain was a valuable person, trapped beneath a cloud of alcohol.

 

‘I’ll apologize when I see him again.  Maybe he’ll talk with me.’

 

Sam glanced at his watch, for once hurrying the day along.  He wanted to find the captain again.  Dinner was his best bet.  He only hoped Captain Calavicci ate around the same time he did.

 

The tiny chime on the wall clock sounded.  Dr. Young was very rigid about time, and the chime had been his customization of his labs.  Sam slammed his notebook shut and switched off the light at his station.

 

He practically flew to the cafeteria.  Once there he stopped and scanned the tables for the familiar worn face.  He spotted it in the far corner.  Captain Calavicci was sitting alone at a table, smoking a cigar and dragging his fork through an otherwise untouched plate of food.  He seemed lost in thought, and Sam hesitated, suddenly not so sure this was such a good idea.

 

‘Come on, Sam.  Would Tom have hesitated?  Would Dad?’  Sam resolutely strode forward and stopped in front of the captain’s table.  It was a few seconds before he became aware of Sam’s presence.

 

Al looked up and blinked bloodshot eyes.  “Dr. Beckett,” he smiled weakly.

 

Sam clenched his fist in his pocket out of nervousness.  “Hello, Captain.  I noticed you sitting alone over here and thought you might like some company.”  He looked down for a second and raised his eyes to the reddened ones gazing at him.  “Besides, I wanted to apologize for this afternoon.  It was none of my business.”

 

Al opened his mouth to snap at the young scientist, but something stopped him.  He puffed on the cigar for a few seconds.  “Sure, what the hell, I could use some company.”

 

Sam smiled.  He started to sit down when the captain spoke again.  “Don’t you want to get something to eat?”

 

“Oh, yeah, you’re right.  I’ll be right back.”

 

Sam dashed through the lines as quickly as would still seem normal, not fully believing that the captain would be there when he got back.  But he was.  His plate still wasn’t missing a bite, but he was there nonetheless.  Sam plopped down in a seat across from Captain Calavicci and smiled awkwardly.

 

“I never did get to officially welcome you to the project,” Al said.  “How do you like it?”

 

“Oh, it’s wonderful work, Captain.  I’m glad to be a part of it.”

 

“Well, we’re glad to have you, Dr. Beckett.  Congratulations on the breakthroughs you’ve brought in your last assignments.  I had a feeling you’d do well here.”

 

“I, um, I understand you pushed for my acceptance here.  Thank you.”

 

Al waved his hand dismissingly, but was obviously pleased at Sam’s words.  He puffed on the cigar again and watched the food disappear from Sam’s plate.  “Healthy appetite,” he observed.  He looked down at his own relatively untouched plate and sighed.  He hadn’t had much of an appetite for quite some time now.

               

Sam grinned.  “Comes from being raised on a farm, I guess.  I, um, I don’t mean to intrude, but aren’t you hungry?”

       

Al swallowed a rush of anger at the question.  He knew Beckett was an M.D.

 

“I guess I’m coming down with a bug,” Al lied.  “I thought I’d be able to eat, but the thought of food makes me nauseous right now.  And if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s feeling like I’m gonna puke.”

 

“Maybe you should stop by the infirmary,” Sam suggested.

 

Al shrugged him off.  “It’s probably just a little bug.”

 

Sam backed down, not wanting another scene like the one in the lounge.  He finished his plate and leaned back in his chair.

 

“Shari said the food was horrible here.  It’s not that bad,” he said chattily.

 

“You must not have eaten at any of the restaurants in town yet,” Al countered with a chuckle.  “Maybe when there’s nothing else to compare this with, it’s all right.  But once you get a taste of real food, forget about this garbage.  The only thing going for it is that it’s free.”

 

“Captain . . .”

 

Al interrupted him.  “Listen, I’m off-duty right now, and I’d appreciate it if you called me Al.  I get really tired of hearing that title all the time.”

 

“Okay, Al.  I’m Sam.”

 

Al grinned, the weariness momentarily leaving his eyes.  “Sam.  Kind of nice to have a conversation without titles, isn’t it?”

 

Sam nodded.

 

“Well, what was it you wanted to ask me?”

 

“I have some ideas.  A theory, actually, that I’d like to bounce off of you sometime.”

 

“Related to the project?”

 

“Basically, yes,” Sam said.  “But also going a step further.  I’d be interested in your perspective.  I understand you went to MIT and did a lot of work in engineering.”

 

Al’s eyes narrowed.  “How did you learn that?  Have you been digging in my records?”

 

Sam flinched at the suspicion.  He hadn’t expected this reaction.  “No, I just . . . well, Dr. LoNigro and I have been keeping in touch and he came across your name in the alumni records, he teaches at MIT, you know.”

 

“Yes, I know,” Al said dryly.

 

“I guess you do,” Sam laughed nervously.  “Anyway, he was fascinated by your background and work there and recommended that I talk with you.”

 

“I see, so I’m a bit of an assignment now.”  Al was enjoying getting the young scientist flustered.

 

“No, I didn’t mean that.  I meant . . .”

 

“Sure, Sam,” Al relented, a wan smile on his face.  “Go ahead and tell me your ideas.  How about we go to my office?”

 

“Th-that’s fine.”  Sam dropped his knife from nervous excitement.

 

“Geez, you need to learn to relax.”

 

‘Like you do?’  The thought ran through Sam’s mind, but he bit his tongue.  If he gave voice to the words, he’d cement the tiny crack Al was opening to him.

 

Al stood and carried his full plate to the conveyor belt transporting the filthy dishes to the back.  Sam followed suit, his clinical mind noting the captain’s shaky hands.  If Al noticed Sam’s gaze, he ignored it.  Certainly he knew his hands were shaking.  He also knew what he needed to make them stop shaking.  He’d have to figure out a way to get a drink as soon as possible, and not make the mistake of drinking in front of the young doctor again.  What had he been thinking, doctoring his coffee right in the middle of the lounge?

 

‘You made a fool of yourself today, Calavicci.  Don’t do it again,’ he instructed himself.  Aloud, he said, “The administrative offices are this way,” and led the way out of the cafeteria.

 

He battled the urge to dart down the residential wing to get a drink.  Just hold it off a little while longer.’ 

 

Al reached in his pocket and pulled out his keys when they came to the main doorway of the administrative offices.  They jangled more than normal, since his hands were shaking quite visibly now.  He ignored the shaking as best he could, and Sam again didn’t say a word as Al unlocked the heavy glass door.

 

Al switched on the light, blinking a bit, and moved stiffly toward his office door.  The heavy walnut door bore the gold lettered sign “Captain Albert Calavicci, Associate Administrator” which caught the light as Al pushed it open.  He reached in and turned on a lamp near the door as he moved toward his desk.

 

Sam took a seat across from Al’s and patiently waited for the captain to signal his readiness to listen.  He nervously looked around the office to occupy his mind.  Unlike most offices Sam had been in, there were no photographs in Al’s office.  An abstract painting hanging on the far wall was the only decoration.  The bookshelves were sparsely stocked with engineering textbooks and science fiction texts by Wells and Verne.  Sam was gratified to see that Al shared his interest in the classic sci-fi themes of exploration and time travel.  A few scale models of aircraft took up the empty spaces on the bookcase, and that was the extent of Al’s decor.

 

Al clicked his lighter shut and puffed on the newly lit cigar for several seconds before he spoke.  “Well, Sam, what about these ideas you had?”

 

“Oh, yes.”  Now that he had an audience, Sam found himself briefly at a loss for words.  He gulped and poured out his words at a breakneck pace.  “I’m sure you know about my background in quantum physics.  I’ve been interested in it for years. “

 

“Really,” Al sarcastically interjected.  He wanted a drink.  This beating around the bush was pushing it further into the distance.

 

Sam colored.  “The point.  Okay.  I think I can use quantum physics to attain time travel.”

 

Al snorted and choked on his cigar smoke.  He dropped the cigar into his ashtray and coughed, beating his fist against his chest.  Sam held onto his arm, but Al shook him off.

 

“Time travel?” he coughed out.  “You’ve got to be kidding.  That’s science fiction.”

 

Sam nodded at The Time Machine.  “A taste I see you share.  I used to think so, too.  But I’ve been looking at Einstein’s theory of relativity and particle acceleration in tandem.  If I could expand a particle accelerator and incorporate it with the proper frequencies and a new kind of computer, I think I could do it.”

 

Al stared in disbelief.  The man looked sane.  “I don’t suppose you’d mind telling me how you figure this.  What, you plan on zipping back to witness the birth of Christ?”

 

“No, no.  It wouldn’t work that way.  That’s the problem with all the previous theories.  No limitations.”

 

“You mean the stuff of fiction.”

 

“At one level.  I suppose my theory might seem the stuff of fiction, but Dr. LoNigro and I have found the first key.  The string theory.”

 

“String theory.  Like a cosmic string?”  Al was getting intrigued despite himself.

 

“No, more like . . . well, let me show you.”  Sam reached down and untied his shoe.  He unlaced it and yanked the shoestring free.  He stretched it between his hands.  “Okay, let’s say this string represents your lifetime.  One end is your birth.”  He jiggled his left hand.  “The other, your death.”  The right hand jiggled.  “You tie the ends together,” Sam said, duplicating the words in action.

 

“Yeah, and you’ve got a loop.  So?”

 

“So.  Your life is now a circle.  Because it’s a circle, you can move around the circle if you can accelerate quickly enough.  Now, if you ball the loop, the days of your life touch each other out of sequence, making it possible for you to move from one point in your lifetime to another.  Time travel.”

 

Al stared at the looped shoelace in Sam’s hand.  At one level it made sense.  At another it seemed like an imaginative fairy tale.

 

“And you have documentation to support this?” Al asked, the hated administrator within him coming to the fore.

       

Sam was only too eager to continue.  “Pages and pages of equations.  Dr. LoNigro and I used Einstein as a jumping off point.”

 

“Jumping off point, indeed.  Right off the deep end.  It sounds like a great story, Sam.”

 

Sam didn’t back down.  “But, Al, you’ve got the engineering background.  Think about it.  If the theory could be actualized, could an accelerator work?”

 

Al thought about it for a long time.  His mind was distracted by the longing for a drink so he couldn’t make total sense of the theory, which in all fairness, was rather complex in and of itself.  “I’d have to see the equations before I could decide one way or the other,” Al finally said.  “This week isn’t a very good one for me, but stop by sometime next week and I’ll take a look at them, okay?”

 

“Of course.  After hours?”

 

Al nodded absently, suddenly obsessed with getting a drink.  “Sure.  This is rather extra-curricular, after all.  And I have a feeling this fairy tale is more involved than a break period.  Drop by my quarters next week.”

 

“Okay.  Thanks, Al.  I really appreciate it.”

 

“Yeah, all right.  Well, I’ve raised the electricity bill in these offices long enough.  Until next week, then.”  Al stood and gestured toward the door.  Sam took the hint and hurried out.  He expected Al to follow immediately.  When he didn’t, Sam peeked in the doorway again.  Al pulled a dictionary down from the shelf and opened it.  It was a fake book and Al extracted a bottle of whisky from it.  He sat down in his chair and pulled the top off, taking a long swig directly from the bottle.

 

Sam withdrew, pained by the sight.  With a heavy sigh, he left the administrative offices and went back to his quarters.  Once inside, he sat at his desk and picked up the letter from Dr. LoNigro again.  The enclosed newspaper clipping fell to the desk and Sam picked it up.  It was from USA Today, one of the few newspapers, which printed color photos, and it announced the appointments to Project Starbright.  Captain Calavicci was standing toward the right end of the line of administrators in the large photo.  Sam looked closely at the photo and saw the Vietnam service ribbon.  It was one of the few service ribbons he recognized, it having been awarded posthumously to his brother, Tom.

 

He picked up the framed picture of him and his brother and stared at his brother’s face.  Would you have ended up similarly if you’d lived to come home, Tom?  Would you seek solace from a bottle?’  Sam certainly hoped not.  He knew that the returning soldiers had received less than a sterling welcome, and that was putting it mildly.  The Becketts would have provided support for Tom.  Had Al had any support when he’d come home?

 

Sam read Dr. LoNigro’s letter again, more for the reassurance of seeing his mentor’s handwriting than a need to re-read the words.  His photographic memory knew what it said.

 

‘I’ve been helping the Alumni Committee lately, Sam.  Part of the interaction among departments, they tell me.  You won’t believe what I came across.  Albert Calavicci graduated from MIT with honors in engineering.  You will recognize the name, I trust.  He holds the position of Associate Administrator at your project, Sam.  Yes, I am speaking of the captain.

 

I’m going to take the chance of inflating your ego and tell you that Captain Calavicci wrote to me personally to tell me how impressed he was with you.  I now know those weren’t empty flattering words.  He knows his stuff, Sam.  If you get the chance, try bouncing your string theory off of him.  I think he could offer the practicality you need.’

 

“I hope you’re right, Professor,” Sam said aloud.

 

He stood and crossed to the tiny window overlooking the scenic view of the stark parking lot.  Sam stared out at the night sky, the first stars of the evening making their appearance.  A high-pitched giggle caught his attention and he looked down at the parking lot.

 

A blonde woman laughed as she neatly sidestepped a shadowy form.  The unsteady figure of a man shook his head and moved after her.  She giggled again and leaned against a light post.  The man followed, his features suddenly revealed in the bright light.  It was Al Calavicci, unmistakably drunk and chasing a woman Sam had never seen before.

 

He held on to the post, his arms on either side of the woman, to keep her in position as much as to hold himself upright.  She didn’t seem upset by her situation.  Her arms came up around him to pull him against her as she welcomed his kiss.  Sam turned away as the groping became more insistent.  He pulled the shade down and returned to his desk.

 

His self-appointed project suddenly seemed near impossible.

 

He looked down at his brother’s picture again.  Tom had managed to help one of his buddies from high school break free of a drinking problem, Sam remembered.  Tom hadn’t backed down, and neither would he.  He owed it to his brother to do the same for Al.

 

“Next week,” Sam said.  “I’ve got a standing invitation for next week.  I’ll take that opportunity.”  He got up, driven to look out the window again.  Al was standing alone beneath the light now; leaning against it for support while the woman got something out of her car.  “You’ve got a special person trapped in there, Al Calavicci.  And I’m going to help you find him.”

 

To Be Continued

 

 

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