He looked over at his wife, at that familiar, beloved face resting next to his on the pillow, and suddenly, for no reason, he wanted to scream. He could feel it rising up from deep inside his chest, surging up his throat and flinging itself at the backs of his teeth, battering them like prison bars, desperate to be free. He didn’t scream, of course – the urge was illogical and bizarre, and giving in to it would only distress his family. It would frighten and upset them, and would achieve no positive purpose that he could see, wouldn’t make him feel any better – how could it? He felt just fine as it was – and he was able to squelch it back down to where it came from. He’d had plenty of practice. There had been days in the jungle when not screaming was the only satisfaction he had, the only thing keeping him sane (and days, of course, when he couldn’t stop, but that was beside the point).
So he blinked, and took a deep breath, and banished the urge before it overwhelmed him. And things were fine again.
Beth smiled faintly in her sleep and turned her face towards his.
He had to look away.
“...and, as these numbers indicate...”
The voice of the committee member droned on, spouting facts and figures, but Al tuned it out. He didn’t need to keep listening; he knew what was coming next.
They’d decided to close down the project.
“...to the graph on page 36...”
He’d fought against it as long and hard as he could, with every weapon in his arsenal – begged, borrowed, blackmailed, cashed in every favor he’d ever been owed, gave countless speeches before committees like this one that plumed depths of eloquence that he’d never dreamed he’d possessed – he’d thrown open the floodgates of his soul and poured himself out until he reached this point, here, now, and there was nothing left.
It had been five years since PQL had last had contact with Sam, and Al had nothing left to fight with.
“...fiscally irresponsible to continue...”
Nothing except the simple truth, and God knows that had never gotten anyone anywhere in Washington.
“We can’t shut down the Project,” he said, cutting the babbling bean counter off mid-sentence. Al ignored him, speaking directly to Weitzman; he was the one who mattered. “We have to keep going.”
Weitzman leaned back in his chair and looked down on him. “Why?” he asked, and the tone of his voice was as flat and final as a death knell.
“Because,” Al said. His eloquence deserted him, and he groped for words to express the only truth he still knew. “We owe Sam. We can’t abandon him out there.”
And Weitzman looked at him with something like pity in his eyes. “Admiral,” he replied. “He’s the one who abandoned you.”
He sat in his office under the mountain at Stallion’s Gate, listlessly filling out the paperwork that would dismantle his life’s work. It needed to be done, and he refused to foist it off on anyone else, even though just looking at the rows of innocuous black type made his heart bleed. It was his responsibility, his duty – he was the Admiral, he was in charge, and he was Sam’s friend; if anyone was going to pull that trigger, it should be him.
The radio on his desk sang softly. He put his pen down and closed his eyes, trying desperately not to think, not to feel – to just turn off his brain and mentally disappear for a little while. He didn’t want to think. He didn’t want to remember.
It didn’t have to be like this.
It hadn’t always been like this.
But it was like this, and there was nothing he could do to change it, so he closed his eyes, and took deep breaths, and tried not to think about the man who loved him so much that he sacrificed his life on the altar of giving Al everything he thought he wanted.
No. No. That life wasn’t real. This was the life he had now, so this was the life he needed to be living. The time for anything else had passed, vanished as if it had never been. And it never had.
He opened his eyes, picked up his pen, and began to write. The radio was playing a Beatles tune, funky and upbeat: “Get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged...”
Al didn’t realize he had moved until he heard the radio shatter against the far wall.
He’d abandoned the paperwork and was moving purposefully through the halls instead, walking with a steady, determined beat. Finally, he thought, a little wildly. He was finally moving forward. He’d spent his whole life looking back, scrabbling with tooth and claw to cling to a half-dreamed, half-imagined past where everything was safe and he was loved, a past that had already left him behind. His mother, Trudy, Beth, and, God, even Sam – they had all moved on and left him alone to mourn what he had lost. But he had left them first, hadn’t he – they had lived in the present, while he lived only in the past, never realizing what he had until it was gone; and the cycle would start all over again.
No wonder he’d found the idea of time travel so intriguing.
Could he possibly use the Accelerator to go back in time and kick himself in the ass?
Sam wasn’t coming back. Not ever. He’d understood long before Al had – he’d realized that there was no going back. Not even with a time machine. Even if you managed to find that place where you had once belonged, you would still be unhappy. You belonged there once, but no longer.
He’d outgrown his past. That’s what the past was for. He couldn’t go back.
He rounded a corner and came to a halt in front of a door with the words “Accelerator Chamber – Do Not Enter” painted on it.
He couldn’t go back. But he could go forward.
“I’m sorry, Sam,” he murmured, hardly aware that he was speaking. “I’m sorry it took me so long to figure it out. But I’m ready now. I’m coming. Hang on, I’m coming.”
He opened the door and stepped forward into the chamber, ready to find the place where he belonged.