As Sam regained consciousness, he was pleased to be greeted by silence. No one yelling at him with urgency, no plane in need of a pilot. He only felt comforting solid ground under his feet and a lack of urgency in his surroundings.
Then recognition abruptly overwhelmed his senses. Here and there was clutter with computer and laboratory equipment that appeared neglected and unused. Also he was surrounded by an intangible emptiness that seemed new to the place, but Sam realized he was finally back in Stallion’s Gate, New Mexico, back in the Waiting Room of Project Quantum Leap.
Instinctively Sam pumped a fist. “We did it, Al! We finally did it!”
No one replied. Only the echo of his own voice returned his exuberance.
Sam always imagined, the day he finally returned to 1999 in his own flesh, that someone would be there to welcome him. Preferably Donna, of course, but at least Al or Gooshie or Tina. Even the scent of Gooshie’s horrific olive-and-garlic scented breath would have been like a warm hug from his most cherished loved one.
“Al?” he called aloud. “Anyone?” The silence finally killed his joy. Then another thought came, unbidden, unwanted. Why was it so dark? There was a bluish-white light, but it was only minimal, as if the entire base was running on emergency back-up power.
Sam searched the control room until he found a working laptop, almost hidden under several disused hard drives. Did Project Quantum Leap lose its funding after all, he wondered, as he booted up the computer? The thought that the project he had worked so hard on would be discarded like some old state prison or hospital replaced his fear with welcome anger, but only for a moment.
The laptop was sleek like all equipment designed specifically for Project Quantum Leap, but it was so thin. Had he been gone so long that computer technology had already changed to allow for smaller computers? He had always assumed he would reappear one moment after he left in 1999, but perhaps time was not so relative after all. Perhaps now it was 2005 or 2006. He had long stopped trying to keep track of how much time had passed since his first leap.
Donna. Had she given up? Moved on?
Maybe she ended up with Gooshie, his mind suddenly suggested. Sam giggled aloud at that and mumbled, “Oh boy.”
As the laptop booted up, Sam cursed himself for his childish optimism. If it was even just a few months after he first leaped, the security protocols would have already been changed at least three times over. Still, he found himself unbarred by any kind of login screen or password prompt.
Instead of relief, he felt only a sinking trepidation. When he did finally see that the laptop’s internal clock read February 15, 2019, Sam screamed.
“Al?!” he shouted, picking up the laptop and rushing back into the heart of Waiting Room. “Ziggy?! Please! Someone has to be here!”
Suddenly, a bright light appeared in the central chamber. It did not glow blue, the energy signature of Ziggy, but a dark red. “I am here,” a voice with a grave English accent said, its voice nowhere yet everywhere. Sam realized it was speaking directly into his brain.
Sam almost stumbled where he stood “You…you’re the computer that sent Alia and Zoey.”
“You will not believe me for some time, if ever,” the voice continued, heedless of Sam’s words. “But I am genuinely sorry for your distress. However, I had calculated that it would be better if you had discovered the truth, or at least part of the truth, on your own.”
Gradually Sam realized a tall man with a craggy face and small dark eyes stood behind him. “Hello, Lothos,” he said with resignation.
“I am genuinely pleased to see you in the flesh, so to speak,” Lothos said, smiling like he was greeting a friend he had not seen in some time. “I’ve taken this form in order to present the impression of an authority figure, based on your cultural frame of reference and your presumed subconscious biases suggested by factors such as your educational background, race, and sexual and gender identities.” Suddenly Lothos paused, as if considering something. Then he continued. “I apologize. My creators had little time to properly…ah, socialize my interface. I’m sure you understand, given your own experiences as one of Ziggy’s creators.”
Sam found that he could not speak, much less formulate a plan for action. Nothing about this situation had been predictable. For one thing, he expected Zoey or someone else to come at him with a gun at any minute. But there was only more silence and Lothos standing at a safe distance, acting as if he was expecting Sam to say something specific.
Finally it was Lothos who broke the silence. “I strongly advise you to look at your reflection.”
Despite himself, Sam did as he was told, but he could barely make out his face in the laptop screen. “You have exchanged the places with Dr. Thames,” Lothos explained without any prompting. Sam did not recognize the face, but he knew that name. Thames was the holographic guide to Zoey, one of the leapers dedicated to undoing all of Sam’s benevolent work across the twentieth century.
It was then that Sam realized that in his excitement and confusion and terror he never noticed that he wasn’t wearing the experimental suit he wore for his first leap, but a lab coat. “So, what, since Zoey failed, did you bring me here to kill me?”
Perhaps it was his imagination, but Lothos seemed a little taken aback by the bitterness in Sam’s words, even offended. “Please forgive me for your unpleasant encounters with Zoey,” he said with an odd sincerity. “She was…zealous. But then, most volunteers from my present are.”
“Oh come on,” Sam said, recklessly slamming the laptop onto the nearest surface. “I’ve seen how your leapers operate. Your organization or…or whatever this all is…is…well, only the word evil fits!”
At that, Lothos laughed. It was a restrained, polite laughter, but Sam found it enraging nonetheless.
Sam swallowed down the urge to take a swing at the figure, even if he may have found comforting satisfaction in such a melodramatic gesture. Instead he was content with trying to stare down Lothos’ holographic eyes, which were weighing him cautiously. “At least tell me what you’ve done to Ziggy.”
“Done? Nothing. In the present time, Ziggy was deactivated and decommissioned by order of Executive Director Doctor Donna Eleese and Associate Director Rear Admiral Al Calavicci on November 4, 2016.”
“That doesn’t make sense. You’re Ziggy’s rival…”
“If I may correct you, I was never Ziggy’s rival, but its replacement.”
“If you insist. I myself prefer not to take a gendered identity, except when I find it necessary to project an interface, of course. The human custom of gendering what is by definition genderless has always…”
“Explain,” Sam interrupted. “Just…explain.” In his mind, Sam only went over the various motives for such a theatrical deception, but could find none that truly worked.
“Ziggy was unfortunately programmed with a very sentimental and – pardon me for saying so – very human understanding of morality. Your actions in the past admirably accomplished good, but often only in the short term, and on occasion the short-term good you achieved prevented greater long-term good, if not precipitated long-term harm, what you might term ‘evil’.”
Sam felt his heart threatening the sink, but he rallied against the sensation. “How is that?”
“For example, your third encounter with whom you and the holographic interface modeled after Rear Admiral Al Calavicci termed the ‘evil leapers.’ The prisoner Liz Tate had been falsely implicated in the murder of an inmate, that is true. It is also true that it would have taken another twelve years before new developments in forensics would have cleared her of…”
Lothos continued with a hint of annoyance at the interruption. “And her extended time and her additional experience of corruption and injustice in prison would have turned her into a tireless and decisive advocate for prison reform. So decisive, in fact, that she would have all but single-handedly prevented the spread of the state privatization of prisons and founded a new national crusade against heavily punitive policies leading to prison overcrowding. After your intervention, her political contributions extend no further than being a reliable and passionate voter in federal, state, and even local elections.”
Al, Al, where are you I need you I need you to tell me that he’s lying that this is all some evil plot, Sam pleaded in his mind.
“Perhaps another example would help,” Lothos continued, indifferent to Sam’s inner turmoil, if it was even capable of sensing or predicting it. “There is the marriage of Connie and Frank…in the timeline before your intervention, Connie would have married another man and their child would have become one of the greatest novelists and screenwriters in American history. Now that writer and his work never existed.”
Finally Sam could no longer stand it. He flung the laptop at Lothos, who did not even flinch as the metal passed through the hologram’s midsection. “You’re lying! Al told me you were…you were like the Devil!”
“The Devil?” the holographic man sounded genuinely amused at the suggestion. Sam wondered if that too was just an affectation for his benefit. “An odd thing to hear from the most brilliant scientist of the turn of the century. But perhaps I am, from a certain understandable point of view.”
Lothos smiled again, this time in an unsettling show of pride, not unlike Ziggy and her displays of ego. “However, after my creators realized the flaws with Ziggy and the initial Quantum Leap Project, they envisioned something quite different. The name they gave me was meant to invoke Logos. The divine Word that commands fate itself. My purpose would be to view time, cause and effect, not as a human would, but like…”
“Something to that effect, yes.”
Lothos paused for a long time, while Sam rested himself against a desk. Then Lothos asked with curious sincerity. “Do you bear me ill will?”
“I…I honestly don’t know anymore.”
“I did try to remove you from the timestream humanely first. It was our first encounter, although from your time-displaced perspective I suppose you had already encountered my volunteers. In one guise, I offered you a chance to return to 1999. That was within my power, if only for a limited period. But I honestly had calculated that it was highly unlikely that you would choose to remain in service of Ziggy.”
“Why…why couldn’t you just pluck me out of the timestream, if I was helping screw things up?” Now that he had vocalized the words, Sam felt nausea radiate from the core of his being.
“I’m sure you understand, I was still operating against my…predecessor, who was acting in another era that was only several years before my time but may as well have been a million years away,” Lothos explained. “I could only intervene as much as I did because your actions and those of the other leapers Ziggy had recruited had so radically altered the timeline you had known. Surely you had noticed that the limitations imposed on the Quantum Leap technology were eroding when you leaped long before your birth, during the American Civil War?”
Sam nodded. “I…I had wondered about that. But what did Ziggy…what did I do that had changed things so much?”
Lothos paused again. Was the machine experiencing reluctance, Sam wondered? Whatever the motive, the pause was brief. “There was a young man named Mike Hammond who in the unchanged timeline would have died in a car accident. His death and its circumstances would have triggered a chain of events within his own family that would have inspired his very young niece to enter politics. This niece’s participation in American politics would have been enough to prevent the political rise, much less the victory, of a presidential candidate in 2016, who has to date caused World War III to break out because the United States refused to prevent a Russian invasion of the Baltic, who has created a constitutional crisis that threatens to again tear the United States apart, who continues to…”
“Enough,” Sam said at a whisper, but it was enough to still Lothos.
Sam lowered his head. It felt as if thirty minutes had passed before Sam finally turned back to Lothos to ask what happened to the Quantum Leap Project.
“With the support of important officials within the military and the project itself, the entire staff and the directors decided in 2016 to hide the existence of Project Quantum Leap from the then oncoming President. Executive Director Doctor Donna Eleese fled the country…”
“And Al? What about Gooshie?”
“They chose to stay. Both terminated their lives rather than risk revealing the location of this facility and of me to the present government.”
Sam wanted to weep. However, his awareness of Lothos stilled him somehow. Deep inside, he still thought of Lothos as the enemy. “And the rest…?” Sam choked out, before changing his mind. “No. No, don’t tell me.”
“Just…” Sam wondered aloud. “What do I do now?” He realized he almost addressed that question to Al, and nearly burst into tears again.
There was no possible answer Lothos could have offered that would have been more disheartening. “I don’t know.”
“What can you tell me?” Sam choked out. Sensing Lothos’ reluctance, Sam shouted, “What is it?!”
After a heavy second, Lothos said, “According to Project Quantum Leap’s own records, Doctor Sam Beckett never returned home.”
(Inspired in part by the Quantum Leap-based musings of Allison Pregler.)