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I wrote this fic some ten years ago, and originally posted it to the Senfic mailing list. Later it was published as a print zine through Agent with Style. I am uploading it now as-is, including the author's notes, without edits or any alterations from the fic as originally posted. ~X-parrot, Feb. 6, 2009
This fanfic is dedicated to my sister, without whom it never would have been started. Sibling, reader, co-writer, best friend—this is for you. Though I hope others can enjoy this crazy thing! =)
It is, to my knowledge, the first attempt ever to cross The Sentinel, Quantum Leap, and the Real Ghostbusters. If you think that sounds insane...well, you're probably right, but I have to live up to those X's in my nomicker. If this thing works it will take some astonishing sleight of hand—but hey, that's why the 'magical' is there!
As far as this story goes, regarding that sleight of hand mentioned above—don't try to figure out the timelines. Trying to make three shows converge, when none of them were all on the air at the same time...well, I didn't try. RGB suffered the most from this temporal suspension; there's a little trickery going on with the 'busters. Okay, a lot of trickery, probably enough to justify it being an AU. But it's for a good cause, you'll see.
Caveat schizophrenic: let the reader be paranoid.
You're still here? Okay...I probably shouldn't do this, but I'll let one thing slip. I wouldn't write a death story without clear warning—this isn't one. Beyond that, all bets are off. If you do go ahead, I hope you enjoy it.
So let it begin.
Dr. Sam Beckett had leaped before, a dozen times, a hundred—a thousand, he had lost track, or lost the memory if he had ever known. But of all those various experiences, he never recalled any leap-in feeling remotely like this one.
One minute he was in the limbo that existed between leaps, a hazy indistinct zone without form or foundation. He never remembered that place, unless he was there. Then there was the flash that always preceded a leap, the shocking of his body and mind back into full awareness—
For an instant it felt as if he were being torn in two. Something screamed, not his own voice; it was animalistic, the cry of a great cat or some other creature fighting for its life, a desperate battle. He thought someone grabbed his hand, or was he grabbing theirs, and then they were wrenched apart—
The brilliance faded and he found himself flying backwards through the air. He hit something—not the hard ground he was expecting but a softer form, a living body, and they both tumbled down. For a moment he was paralyzed by the sheer shock, wondering if he should move, wondering if he could move.
His mouth at least was working, and moving his lips he silently mouthed, "Ooooh boy."
Rolling off the still figure below him, Sam struggled to his feet. Everything was vaguely shadowed—not blurred vision, he realized, but the effect of the dim yellow lights. Scarlet flashing in the background, emergency lighting. He was in a room, no, a hallway. One dark florescent tube dangled from the ceiling overhead, and the walls were streaked with black ash—scorched, it appeared. Judging from the lighting, the smoke, and the alarms wailing in the distance, the damage was recent.
Crouching by the man he had landed on he pressed two fingers to his throat. Pulse strong and steady, but he was unconscious. Probably had hit his head on the floor as he fell—feeling behind the close-cropped skull he felt the lump starting to form. A quick examination found no other damage but Sam couldn't be sure how bad the concussion was.
His examination turned up two other items of interest—the man's wallet, and the holster on his hip, loaded gun tucked inside. The badge in the wallet explained the weapon—James Ellison, Detective, Police Department of Cascade, Washington. Useful information, since Al had yet to appear and give him what he needed to know. He returned the wallet to its unconscious owner and reached into his own pocket. Blair Sandburg, his driver's license read, and the picture showed a long-haired, bright-eyed, smiling young man.
Blair, Sam mouthed silently, committing the name to memory. For the duration here he would be Blair Sandburg, and must respond when so called. Looked like a pleasant enough guy. As for his reasons for being here...the wallet had another card, designating him as an official Police Observer. Observing Detective Ellison? A third card, student ID, even gave him a clue as to why; probably working on a research project for his degree. Either masters or PhD, guessing from his age. Well enough; Sam had no fears about playing an academic. If he was working with the police Blair was probably a psychologist or sociologist, not Sam's chosen fields, but he was pretty sure he had at least one doctorate in the social sciences. Al might be able to tell him more, maybe spark a few memories.
Al hadn't shown yet, though. Left on his own until his Observer arrived, Sam verified that Ellison wasn't showing signs of serious trauma and walked down the hall. The doors had apparently been locked, for fire prevention, maybe. This was a partly-secured facility, a hospital? The off-white walls fit that idea. He reached the end of the hall, heard something banging against the double doors. A voice called, "Detective Ellison? Mr. Sandburg? I know you told us to stay back and keep this area off-limits for the time, but we heard—an explosion? Are you all right? Detective?"
Sam turned the latch and threw open the doors. "We're fine," he said, "I think it's safe, but Detective Ellison's been injured, if you'd come," and he led them down the hall. The regular lights came on about halfway there, and the two doctors and nurse gaped at the damage done to the walls.
Ellison's eyes were open and he was sitting up. Gently but firmly Sam pushed him down again, "No, detective, don't try to move."
The man complied but raised his eyebrows, "'Detective'? Awfully formal there, Sandburg—anything I should know?"
He glanced at the other doctors. One immediately reassured both of them, "No, you're going to be fine. Just take it easy for a moment, so we can be sure."
"Okay." Ellison closed his eyes, opened them again immediately, "You are all right, Chief?"
"I—I'm fine..." He hesitated, went out on a limb, "Jim."
"Good," answered Ellison, satisfied. Shutting his eyes once more he spoke over the doctors' ministrations, "What happened?"
"I'm not exactly sure—what do you remember?" Sam hoped that sounded more like a test of Ellison's memory than his own curiosity.
The detective grimaced. "I remember you saying that the damn experiment wouldn't take more than an hour—should've known better than to think we could go to the hospital without one of us winding up as a patient."
"You do seem to have taken care of the problem, though," one of the doctors chimed in. "Thank you, detective—what was that thing?"
"Haven't a clue...Sandburg?"
"No idea," Sam was forced to admit.
"Come on, in all that anthropology there's not one tribal myth of little glowing balls of light wreaking havoc on hospitals? Didn't you say something about will o' wisps before?"
"Umm..." Sam dredged his memory, "they're the souls of dead children...?"
Ellison winced. "Yeah, I remember that part. Any better ideas? More logical than ghosts?"
"'Sokay, Chief. Guess we can't expect you to know everything." Ellison sat up again and this time the doctors didn't stop him. Must not be that serious. Sam heaved a mental sigh of relief. Obviously these two men were fairly well-acquainted, and having a friend dying was not a good way to start a leap. He grabbed Ellison's arm and helped him stand.
Upright the detective was as tall as Sam, blue eyes piercing even in the florescent lights. His sharp gaze locked onto Sam's, and the leaper had the disconcerting impression that for an instant Ellison was looking into Sam's eyes, not those of his friend's aura. "You sure you're all right, Chief?" he asked again. "That wasn't the smartest thing I've seen you do, trying to touch it—that blast could've hurt you."
"I'm fine," Sam repeated. Ellison nodded but didn't turn his eyes away, reaching out to run his fingers over Sam's brow, checking for injury.
As soon as he touched, however, he drew back, and Sam swore for an instant his pupils dilated until they almost obscured the blue. They snapped back to normal size so swiftly he couldn't he sure it had even happened, but there was something in Ellison's look that made him uneasy. The concern he had exhibited before had vanished, replaced by...suspicion? Fear? Anger, or worse?
"Come on, let's see if Captain Banks has heard of this yet," the detective said, turning away and gesturing for Sam to follow. "We'll get back to you on this, doctors," and they marched away.
But as soon as they passed through the double doors and were alone in the hall, Ellison spun around, grabbing Sam by the shirt collar and slamming him into the wall. "All right, who the hell are you?" he growled. "Where's my partner? What have you done to Blair?"
Sam stared. He knew several forms of martial arts, but Ellison's stance implied he had training himself, and he probably was stronger than the scientist. Military bearing in his posture, too; Sam recognized it well enough from what Al displayed on occasion. And the naked aggression in the detective's eyes was intimidating in its own right.
He tried the reasonable response, "Ellison—Jim, I'm right here."
"Like hell," Ellison spat. "That's what I thought, but when I really looked—you don't look anything like him; when I listen, you don't sound like him. And right now you don't feel like him—unless Blair gained about thirty pounds since the last time I did this."
Before Sam could interpret that Ellison shook him, hard enough to smack his head into the doorframe behind him. "What did you do—you looked just like him at first, and the doctors know him but didn't recognize you—what the hell is going on? If you've done anything to Sandburg..." He trailed off, but the blue fire in his eyes spoke volumes of the threat he posed to any who would mess with his partner.
There wasn't any other way, at least none that Sam could come up with in the next five minutes, no matter how high his IQ was. "Blair's fine," he told the detective. "He'll be back eventually. I'm not responsible and I'm not here to hurt him, or anyone. I'm here to help."
Ellison's eyes narrowed. "Say that again," he said at last.
"I'm here to help. Your friend—your partner isn't hurt. He's...he's elsewhere, for the time being. I've been...sent here, to help with something. To keep something from going wrong."
Slowly Ellison lowered Sam to the floor, took a step back and regarded him. Confusion warred with suspicion on his face. "Why does it sound like you're telling the truth?" he asked, and it didn't sound like a rhetorical question. "Why should I believe you?"
"I am telling the truth." Sam took a deep breath, calmed himself. "Look, I've done this before. It almost always works out. I replace someone for a little while, do what I need to do, and then I go and they come back." He didn't mention that usually he managed this completely undetected. Except by animals, children, or the mentally unstable...Ellison certainly was an adult, and he sounded fairly sane, if upset by his partner's predicament. Something else must be going on here, another factor they hadn't yet encountered.
He wished Al were here, so Ziggy could begin figuring out the mystery. Where was his Observer, anyway? Al usually had appeared by now...maybe it was night at the Project. His friend was probably picking out appropriate attire.
"So," Ellison stated. "You swear Blair is okay, and he'll be back, when?"
"Shouldn't be too long," Sam assured him. "A couple weeks at most. He won't quite remember what happened to him, but he'll start to believe what I did, he did...you won't even notice anything's wrong." You wouldn't normally, anyway. "I promise."
"And why are you here again?" The detective, while not sounding entirely trusting, neither looked as if he planned to shove Sam into any more walls, for the moment at least.
"I don't know yet—to help. To put something right," he explained. "I should know more soon."
"All right." Ellison ran his hand through his hair, seemed to consciously relax himself, though his stance remained at attention. "All right, I'll go with it for now. If I find out you're lying, though...." Again he allowed his glare and Sam's imagination to supply the actual threat. "So, while you're here, I pretend you're Blair—and nobody notices?"
"What do I call you the rest of the time, when we're not acting? Have a name?"
The leaper nodded. "Sam Beckett." He held out his hand.
Ellison took it, shook firmly. "Jim Ellison," he introduced himself, though he must have noticed Sam had already known. He gave no other greeting except, "And if you're going to be 'playing' Sandburg, call me Jim. Now, how do we find out what you're supposed to be doing here, and get it done?" And get his partner back—though he didn't say it aloud, the final qualifier was clear on his face.
Beckett was waiting for someone. It took Jim a while to notice, but he caught the signs eventually, casual glances to the side, moments that he seemed to be listening for an absent voice. The man said nothing about it, but Jim put two and two together and guessed that whoever it was probably had the answer they both wanted.
Blair would return when Beckett got something done, a mysterious task he was unwilling to elaborate on. He did seem experienced, falling into Blair's role with an ease Jim found disconcerting. No one else seemed even to notice something was amiss, not the doctors or nurses who had encountered Sandburg enough times before, not even the detectives of Major Crimes, who had known him for years.
And why not—Jim hadn't even seen it at first. Blair acted a little out of it, maybe, but Jim had just been grateful he was okay. The burst of energy that glow-thing had emitted, when Blair's hand contacted it...the first thing he had thought of was a nuclear reaction. He had half-expected to find his partner disintegrated, atoms scattered across the globe. That he hadn't so much as sustained a bruise was a minor miracle, especially considering Sandburg's luck.
Or had he? Jim wasn't clear on the details of this whole switching thing. Beckett was unwilling to elaborate on that, either, but it sounded as if Blair had been transported elsewhere, and Beckett immediately deposited in his place, with the image of Blair over him. His aura, he had said at one point, and it sounded like he was referring to something more tangible than Naomi's concept. So perhaps Blair could be hurt—he was fine, Beckett had insisted, but as he didn't even know why he was here, how could he be sure?
"Something wrong, Jim?" Simon asked.
The detective broke out of his thoughts, realizing he had been staring blankly as his captain talked. "No—sorry, sir. Nothing's wrong."
He couldn't help glancing outside the office, where Sam Beckett sat at his desk, Blair's seat. Simon caught the look and frowned. "Anything up with the kid?" he asked quietly. "More happen yesterday than you let on?"
"No," Jim replied, hoping he sounded convincing. "He's—Blair's all right." He damn well better be.
He didn't like Beckett at the loft, in Jim and Blair's home. Last night he kept hearing him breathe, making it difficult to sleep. The rhythm was wrong, slightly slower than Sandburg's. If he focused on the pulse that was off too, not the heartbeat he was accustomed to. Strange to reach out and not find it there, nowhere in his range—disturbing, actually, and annoying. Like being off-balanced, and whenever he tried to steady himself the floor tilted under him. He hadn't fallen. Yet.
At the same time it was hard not to like Beckett himself; the man had a sort of guileless intelligence about him. His hazel eyes were honest, his voice earnest, his entire air the demeanor of a man who would do all he could and more. And his heart rate hadn't wavered when he told Jim what was actually going on. Not a single sign he was lying. If Blair was present the Sentinel would instinctively trust Beckett, accept any assistance he offered with gratitude. If Blair were here to back it up.
"Good," the captain's voice snapped him back to reality once more. "Jim, I've read the report you gave me, but I want the details straight from the horse's mouth—or the Sentinel's, as it is. What happened yesterday?"
"Sandburg wanted to run a couple tests on my senses," Jim began, "so he talked me into going to the hospital with him for a couple of hours; he'd negotiated with the doctors to set it up. We'd gotten to the room and then I heard someone shouting that something was flying around the basement. One of the doctors said it looked like a big insect—I thought it looked more like a lightbulb, only it was floating in the air, and I didn't see it hanging from anything—anyway, Blair—" He broke off as he looked outside the office again.
Beckett was no longer in the chair; he was standing in urgent conversation with a man next to him, a man about Blair's height and wearing a suit of the tackiest shade of green Jim could imagine, topped with a matching bowler. His tie and the ribbon around the hat were an equally shocking magenta. He held something which looked kind of like a lightbulb itself, or a miniature neon sign.
Before Simon could ask him to continue Jim had bolted from the office, charged over to his desk and demanded, "Who's this guy?"
Sam and the man both stared, and then the man made a strangled sound and stepped backward. Through Brown's desk, Jim noted, and then a wall of light slid up and down again, swallowing him whole.
"Who the hell was that?" Beckett only blinked at him. Behind him he could hear Simon's door opening again, the captain's measured footsteps approaching. "Jim?"
"Who was he?" Jim repeated with all the patience he could muster. "Did he have anything interesting to say?"
Beckett glanced from Jim to Simon, and then his eyes shifted to where the stranger had disappeared. "Uh..." He seemed to realize that a straight answer was required, "he didn't get to tell me anything..."
"Hold it." Simon held up both hands. "Anyone planning on clueing me in?"
Jim refused to look away from Beckett's face, outwardly calm but nervous tension deep in his eyes. Suddenly they darted to the side. Jim followed his line of sight, spotted the man again, outside in the hall and waving. He ducked out of view when he saw the detective frowning at him.
"Why don't you go out there," Jim said, fighting to keep his voice calm, "I want to talk with Simon for a minute alone."
"Thanks," Beckett murmured, sliding past them to hurry into the hall.
Jim turned to his captain. "Sir," he said, "I know this is going to be hard to believe, but I think you should know..."
He saw Banks wince but began to explain regardless.
"Al!" It was all Sam could do not to shout his friend's name. "Where the hell have you been—"
"Sam!" Al replied, just as worked up, "where have I—do you have any idea how worried—we couldn't—did he actually see me?!" The Observer was craning his neck, trying to peek through the window without being glimpsed himself.
Sam addressed the last question first. "Probably. Almost definitely. He can see me—"
"They usually can; you're not a hologram."
"No, he can see me," Sam corrected, pointing to his chest. "As in me, Sam Beckett. He knows I'm not Blair Sandburg, he knew the moment he touched me. But I didn't feel anything, he's not another leaper..."
Al was punching codes into the handlink, smacking its side as he chewed on his unlit cigar. "No, I don't think he is—Ziggy doesn't have any ideas, but she's on the case now."
"Good." It was a comfort to share the burden, and the supercomputer was the most capable...individual he knew to handle this dilemma. "It's about time, where were you?"
"Where was I?" Al rolled his eyes. "Where were you? I got here as fast as I could! We were starting to get concerned, we knew you'd leapt, but we couldn't find you..." Sam realized that Al's brilliant suit was creased, as if he had been sleeping in it. And there were dark patches under his eyes, hinting that he hadn't actually slept after all.
He knew that as difficult as leaping was for him, in some ways it was harder on his friend, forever forced to stand on the sidelines, observing, advising, and hoping, hardly able to do more. When he couldn't even watch he tended to worry. "Sorry," Sam apologized.
"It's not your fault," Al brushed it off. "Ziggy finally locked on, that's the important thing. I'm here, we can get going."
"Why didn't you just ask Blair where I was?" Sam wondered, knowing that was the normal strategy. The impression he got from Jim of Blair Sandburg hinted that he'd cooperate without trouble, especially if it might help his partner.
But Al glanced down at Ziggy in a too-familiar manner, that hesitant concerned expression he got only when things were going very badly. And Al generally was a good judge of how wrong something was. This didn't bode well. "That's what I needed to talk to you about," he mumbled. "Blair Sandburg never showed."
"What?" Sam lowered his voice with effort, seeing Ellison in the other room glance sharply in their direction. Keeping below the detective and captain's range of hearing he hissed, "What do you mean?"
Al shrugged helplessly. "The Waiting Room's been empty for the last twenty-four hours. No one ever arrived; if Ziggy hadn't been monitoring we wouldn't have even known you'd leaped. As it was it took us forever...we only just found you. So like I said, I got here as fast as I could."
"And you haven't figured out where Blair is?" Al shook his head. "But you know where I am—why I'm here?"
"Well..." Al fiddled with the link. "This is Cascade, Washington, just north of Seattle—you gave a talk at Rainier University here once, Sam, don't know if you remember that. The year—"
"I've seen the paper," Sam whispered, "I know the date and place. But the people, and why—"
He caught Al's hesitation though the Observer made a distinct effort to hide it, stalling, "Well, you appear to be Ellison's partner, you're researching the police for some—"
"Al!" Sam hissed. "Do you know why I'm here? Honestly?"
Al lowered his head, not meeting his friend's eyes. "No," he confessed. "We can't get the scoop on the workings of this place, because we don't have Blair. And Ziggy..."
"What's wrong with Ziggy?"
The hologram fidgeted. "Gooshie's not sure," he finally admitted. "She's going crazy spitting out data, and it's for this time, but the locale is wrong—I dunno, maybe she got her circuits crossed with a tourist computer. Everything she gives us pertains to New York—and there's a lot going wrong in the Big Apple, let me tell you. It's impossible to figure out what you might be here to fix, especially since you're here and NYC's there—but just try explaining that to her! That machine..."
Sometimes Al joked about Ziggy's various predilections and decidedly unique disposition, amused by the whole idea of a sentient supercomputer, and a female one at that. He wasn't smiling now, though. They both understood too well the dangers of not knowing anything more than the next man—what was the point of exchanging with someone, if Sam didn't know what he was to alter? If he were here to save Sandburg's life there would be no way to tell what he might be able to do differently, to keep himself from falling into the same danger.
They both knew this, but Al kept his cool, simply asked, "So what is going on here?"
"Besides Ellison knowing everything?" Al shook his head at that, and Sam proceeded to describe what he had pieced together of the events immediately preceding his appearance. "Apparently I leaped in the instant before he touched that thing..."
"And you don't know what it was? You didn't see it?"
Sam denied any knowledge. Al punched keys on the handlink, smacked it a few times, then squinted at the readout. After a moment he rocked back on his heels, chewing his cigar with more vigor than before. Sam didn't like what he saw in his friend's expression. "Al?"
"Could be wrong," the Observer muttered, "she's not exactly working on all thrusters..."
"What?" He tried to crane his neck over Al's shoulder and read for himself.
Al snatched back, hand over the tiny screen. "You know the rules, Sam. And this is a mistake anyway...Ziggy's gloating, though. She swears this is why it was relevant, she's found a crazy report—in New York—from a couple years back. Seems there was a similar ball of light sighted..."
Al sighed, glanced up at his friend and licked his lips. "And it killed the guy who touched it. Zapped him or disintegrated him or something—the body was never found. And the light disappeared..." He hit the link soundly. It gurgled but apparently the readout wasn't altered. "There was possibly another sighting, and another death, but there's no official confirmation." Looking up he met Sam's eyes, "You sure you touched it?"
"I think..." It hit him then, like a punch to the gut, precisely what Al was suggesting. "Al, I leaped in, how could I leap into someone who wasn't there?"
"If it was the exact moment...Sam, is leaping instantaneous? You never proved that one way or another," Al pressed urgently, "but it might be in the theory, Ziggy's not sure...is leaping instantaneous? Or could there have been a split second..."
Sam squinted his eyes shut with the effort to remember. "I don't know," he was forced to admit. "Possibly...if I had started leaping, but hadn't actually arrived, and then..." He faltered, unwilling to state the obvious conclusion aloud.
"That's what Ziggy's saying," Al murmured, shaking his head. "She...she says the odds are about ninety-eight percent that Blair Sandburg is dead."
Jim would have been more convincing if he had put his full attention on explaining the truth to Simon, but he couldn't help keeping an ear cocked on Beckett and his newly-materialized associate. Al, Sam called him several times. As in Alfred, or Albert...he looked vaguely familiar, Jim decided. He had met Al, sometime, somewhere—not wearing anything that gaudy, though, and Jim was pretty sure he hadn't been walking through desks, either.
"Jim," Captain Banks said, slowly and with a great deal of patience, "you're telling me that that's," and he pointed outside the office, "not Blair Sandburg."
Jim nodded. He didn't know if this would work. He wouldn't have believed it himself, if he hadn't seen it...but Simon deserved to know. He was their friend, Sandburg's as much as Jim's. Besides, Jim wasn't sure he could handle this particular secret on his own.
"But—to me, at least—he looks exactly like Blair Sandburg, sounds like Blair Sandburg, dresses like Blair Sandburg—what is he doing?" Simon squinted through the window, where 'Blair' was gesticulating as he spoke.
"Talking to Al."
"You can't see him, either," the Sentinel sighed. "Look, Simon, I know, this is a leap...but you have to trust me."
"Jim, you know that usually I'd trust you to—" He lost whatever else the captain was saying, listening to the conversation in the hall. Whoever Ziggy was, his report was enough to flash a look of pure panic across Sam Beckett's face. They were speaking in undertones, but Jim cranked up his hearing and heard Al's final declaration.
Two seconds later he had his hands around Beckett's collar again. The only reason he hadn't slammed him into the wall was that he needed the man conscious in order to explain. His insubstantial friend yelled and attempted to shove Jim back, but his hands went straight through him as if the detective were a ghost.
Or rather, as if Al were.
Shaking off that shiver, Jim ignored him and addressed Beckett, "What does he mean?"
Beckett looked him straight in the eyes, and Jim was surprised to see no fear there, only surprise and...understanding? "We don't know for sure," he said levelly. "I'm sorry—we don't know any more than you do."
"But—but it's possible?" He heard his voice falter, forced it back to full strength.
Al was tapping the object in his hand, which responded in squeals and squawks. "How did he—Sam, did he hear—"
"Yeah, and I can see you too," Jim told him, though his eyes never left Beckett's face.
"See who? Jim, what the hell is going on?" Simon demanded, hands on his hips as he glared at the group. "Sandburg—"
"He's not Blair," Jim insisted. "Beckett, tell him."
The other man lowered his head. "Captain, he's telling the truth. I'm not Blair Sandburg."
Banks stared at him. In the pause that followed Al cried, "Sam, what do you think you're doing?"
Jim wouldn't let him answer. Not when there were far more important issues at stake. "You told me Blair was fine. You told me he was safe. Now...I heard what he said," jerking his head toward Beckett's associate. "What was that?" He felt rage building in him and fed it eagerly. It was all he had to hold himself together. "What did he mean?"
"I'm sorry," Beckett repeated, and the sincerity in his voice was hard to deny. "I don't—we don't know for sure. But the chances are good that Blair Sandburg...that he died. Before I arrived."
"What?" Simon lunged forward, narrowly missing passing through Al. "What's this about..." The shock across his face reflected his sudden belief. Beckett hadn't sounded at all like Blair there, no matter how he might look.
Seeing his captain's surreptitious glance, Jim realized his own expression had probably been the deciding factor. He couldn't imagine it himself, but from the way none of them seemed to be able to meet his eyes it must be a fairly accurate reflection of his emotional state. Losing it here, Ellison...
Clenching his jaw, he beat down the coldness threatening to engulf him and said evenly, "You said a chance—but you're not sure. How do we find out?" If he wanted to...of course he did. Sandburg could beat any odds he was offered; he always had in the past.
Jim was aware he was grasping at straws and chose to ignore it. Beckett seemed willing to go along, and for that the Sentinel was grateful. "We need to know more about the process, and whatever that thing was. It's—very possible that the energy burst it released interfered with the leap in some way, misdirected your partner so that he never appeared. He might be trapped out of time. Al?"
Al began shaking his head, then glanced to Jim and back at his friend. "Yeah, it's possible. I'll get Ziggy on it right away. It would help if we knew more about that...whatever..."
"A will o' wisp," Jim murmured, remembering Blair's suggestion. "A ghost."
Al shivered, strange reaction for one who exhibited distinctly phantom-like properties. "God, I hope not," he muttered, but began punching buttons on his florescent calculator—or more likely his link to Ziggy, Jim decided. Whoever the hell Ziggy was.
"You said something about New York?" Beckett prodded.
Simon examined him closely. "...Blair?"
Beckett sighed. "I'm afraid not. My name is Sam Beckett. I'm sorry."
The captain's eyes widened but he stood his ground. "All right. I'm Captain Banks. What about New York?"
"You can't see him," Jim broke in, "but Beckett's friend is standing right here, and he mentioned a similar case in New York City not too long ago."
"Standing right here?" Simon turned a complete circle, obviously not seeing the slightest sign.
"He's a hologram," Beckett offered. "He's tuned to my brainwaves; usually he's only visible to me." He glanced questioningly at Jim but the Sentinel was in no mood to give explanations himself.
He could hear Simon's heart-rate jump another notch higher but the captain stayed outwardly calm. Instead of asking further questions he drew the inquisition of the others by remarking, "If it's ghosts in New York, then I have a suggestion."
Simon dialed the number cautiously, hoping it would still go through. He hadn't talked to his cousin in a few years, but this was just the job for him, at least from what Simon had picked up at the last family reunion.
As he picked up the receiver he observed the two men in his office. Ellison and Sandburg, the pair most likely to be in with him, and nothing seemed amiss, not at first glance, at least. Not even when he looked closely, but if the watcher was experienced, and knew the right signs...then, then the wrongness was all too clear.
Sandburg was too still to begin with, quietly sitting in his chair—sitting, mind you, not perched on the arm—and his hands folded sedately in his lap. His flannel shirt, long hair somehow staying behind his ears of its own accord, all seemed in place, except that the blue eyes gazing boldly out of his face were not right in some indefinable way. The gaze was sharp, but the intelligence behind it was different. Not in any manner Simon could qualify, and he wasn't sure he would have noticed if he hadn't been looking for it, but it was there nonetheless.
On the other hand he never would have missed Jim's state. As opposed to his partner the detective could not sit still. He paced the office like a caged tiger, never going anywhere, but very active within that short space. Occasionally he would pause, look at either Simon or his partner or into empty space with a peculiar intensity indicating there was more to the air than met the eye.
Apparently someone was there, a third man. Friend to the man inside Sandburg's body, or aura, or whatever they called his appearance—because apparently Blair had vacated. And Jim knew. Simon shouldn't have been able to believe it, but when he looked at Jim, agitated beyond all reason and with a naked terror occasionally flashing to the surface...he couldn't doubt him. Only one thing could disturb Ellison so greatly, and while it looked as if Sandburg were perfectly safe and present, the Sentinel knew otherwise. And 'Blair' wasn't protesting, agreeing with Jim but making no attempt to calm him or even talk to him.
That, Simon thought, was the most telling part of all.
So now he had a frantic Sentinel, a ghost in his office, a case of what sure the hell sounded like possession, and a friend in some seriously hot water. He had heard what Beckett had suggested, but until he had absolute, undeniable confirmation he wouldn't write off Blair Sandburg. The kid had more guts, willpower, and sheer determination than just about any full cop Simon could think of. He could make it through this, but he was relying on his friends to help him out of it. And Simon was doing his part.
The phone was answered after two rings, relieving a bit of the suspense. "Hello, Winston Zeddemore speaking."
"Winston, good morning. This is Simon. Banks."
"Hey, yeah, Simon!" Winston responded instantly. "How's it going, my brother? Haven't heard from you in too long—still a lieutenant?"
"Captain," Simon corrected with a degree of pride. "When was the last time, Aunt Mickie's—"
"Eightieth birthday party! Yeah, I think so. We got into that argument over the last piece of cake and she hauled off at us both. Made me dread her turning ninety. Man, it's been a while."
"Yeah..." Simon almost regretted returning to business—then he saw Jim's face and knew it couldn't wait. "Winston, sorry about this but I'm on company time here. We've got a problem—a case, and I was wondering if you could help. You still working with that paranormal group?"
"No." Three thousand miles away he could hear his cousin's mood shift, ebullience fading as if a switch had been flicked. "No, I haven't been with that for over a year."
"Sorry," Simon apologized, sensing a raw nerve and unsure how to proceed. He wanted to ask what happened, remembering Winston's enthusiasm at the reunion, discussing his job, his coworkers—it had all sounded completely insane and he had admitted this freely, but Simon had met few people more content with their lives. What could have changed that...but he didn't want to ask, not after that reaction. "Never mind, forget it."
"No." Winston took a breath. "No, Simon, you called for a reason. I may be out of that but I remember most of it. I might be able to help, if it's important."
"It's important," Simon confirmed, looking at his detective. Jim had paused in his tracks, had that peculiarly distant expression that indicated he was hearing every word Winston said—probably the man's breathing and pulse as well. The Sentinel wasn't about to take chances. And neither was his captain. "Someone's life may depend on it—one of my men."
"In that case, shoot. I'll do what I can."
Simon began giving the basic report. He stopped after three sentences when Jim's expression shifted subtly, and even with normal ears he could hear his cousin's sharp intake of breath. "He tried to touch it?" Winston asked. "And now he's..."
His cousin exhaled slowly. "Simon," he said after a long pause, "I think you and your detective should come to New York, as soon as you can. I don't know if I can help, but there's someone you should meet..."
"I haven't explained everything," Simon protested, glancing at Sam Beckett under Blair's image and the imperceptible presence of his associate. "There's some others involved..."
"Bring them too," Winston instructed. "You'll understand." There was a note of command in his voice, paired with a quiet, heartfelt plea.
Jim nodded. "I'll be seeing you soon, then," agreed Simon without a second thought. He hung up and regarded the three men in his office, hoping the invisible one was looking in his general direction. "Pack. We're going to New York."
The man who answered the apartment door identified himself by smiling and pounding Captain Banks on the back. "My brother! That was even faster than I'd expected." He stepped back. "So, these guys are..."
"Detective Jim Ellison," Simon introduced him. "And...Blair Sandburg, his partner." Not quite sure how to play this. "This is my cousin, Winston Zeddemore."
"Nice to meet you," Winston greeted them. "Now, where's the weird stuff?"
Jim fielded that one when Simon hesitated. "This is Al," he introduced the hologram. Winston squinted in the indicated direction but to Sam's relief apparently saw nothing. He didn't comment, though. "And this man is not Blair Sandburg," the detective continued. "He's Sam Beckett. To you who looks like my partner—but he's not here. Beckett's taking his place for the moment."
To his credit Winston did not stare at either Sam or Jim. He nodded thoughtfully, remarking with no trace of sarcasm, "I see."
"And you believe it?" Sam couldn't help but ask. The few times he had tried to explain his situation had netted far less believing looks, and these were odder circumstances than usual. Such as usual was for him.
Simon's cousin smiled faintly. "What's not to believe? My man," he said, "compared to what I used to do, everything you guys said sounds pretty run of the mill."
Sam exchanged a doubtful glance with Al, noticing Jim and Simon giving one another the same look. Winston shrugged, apparently not insulted. Simon finally turned to his cousin, "Thank you. I think we're all feeling better about coming—now about that."
"Yeah." Winston ran his eyes over the group. He even looked at Al, though obviously he was inferring his presence as opposed to actually seeing him as Ellison could. Such casual acceptance of the mysterious...Sam found it unnerving. But if the man could help he would be the first to side with him. "So, Simon, which one of your men is in danger?"
The captain pointed to Sam. "The—the real Blair Sandburg is missing. We don't know what happened to him when Beckett here replaced him—"
"And they don't know either," Jim cut him off. "They have some theories but nothing concrete. You made it sound as if you had something relevant." His tone was intimidating, not quite threatening but he was not entirely succeeding at reining it in.
It wasn't anger driving him as much as fear, terror for his friend emerging as hostility. Sam had seen it before, in his myriad leaps having wide experience with all forms of dread and grief. But never quite to this extent, either in its almost complete suppression or the underlying emotions themselves. The briefest glimpses Sam caught slipping through Ellison's shields were almost more terrible than the occasional glares Jim shot at him, whenever the detective remembered the stranger in his partner's place.
That somehow he might be the cause, that he might be the reason for that pain, shook Sam to the core. "It's not your fault, Sam," Al had hissed, recognizing the look on his friend's face when they were still on the plane. Banks and Ellison were dozing, and Al had taken the time to fill Sam in when he probably wasn't being observed. He knew Sam too well, however, and as usual tried to convince him that the weight of the entire world's wrongs was not his burden to bear. No matter that God, Time, Fate, or whatever seemed to believe otherwise.
Sam hadn't had to say a thing, only looked at the Observer, who rolled his eyes. "Sam, as far as we can tell, if you hadn't leaped in that kid would have been dead as it is. And I don't think Ellison would've dealt with that a hell of a lot better. This way there's at least a chance of hope...maybe that's why you're here." Al frowned down at his link, jiggled it as if trying to cajole the truth from the blinking lights. "To... I dunno. Hold him together while he gets through this."
"Al, leaps are to do something—not just make do." Sam didn't want to consider what it might mean if Blair were actually dead. He didn't know if he could hold Ellison together—from what he had seen of the man, he didn't know if anyone could. "Besides, he knows I'm not Blair, so it doesn't help." He leaned his head against the stiff cushion. "Does Ziggy have any ideas on that yet? Does she even know why I'm here?"
"No." Al continued to frown down at the link. "She won't give me a damn thing about Cascade; she's still infatuated with New York. This is no time to become a tourist, you dumb—" He raised his hand, lowered it when the link squealed. "All right, all right, I'm sorry. I trust your judgment. Happy? Just judge a little faster, throw us a bone—Sam could really use your genius about now."
He eyed the readout that materialized. "Anything?" Sam whispered.
"No." The Observer glared at the link, fighting to hold down his temper. "More on that stuff in New York...she's insisting it's relevant."
"Well, the captain's cousin seemed to think so—give her a chance, Al. What are you getting?"
Al sighed. "Okay. We've found a couple articles from nineteen months ago. They mention something that sounds a little bit like the...ghost...Ellison described. Apparently both the men it got were supernatural investigators or something—Ghost—" He slapped the link, shook his head. "No, that's got to be a typo. Anyway, they were experts on ghosts and the supernatural—and they were scientists, Sam! Guess you're not all so skeptical..."
"Al, all I know is I've never seen a ghost." That he could recall, at any rate.
"Maybe these guys could convince you—except they both vanished. Missing, presumed dead, since there's been no sign of them since. The first was a Dr. Raymond Stantz; a couple weeks later his colleague Dr. Egon—Egon? Spen—Spencer? Spengled—" Again he gave the link a hard whack, "Spengler. Egon Spengler."
Sam frowned, trying to place the name. "You might know him," Al prompted, "says here he was a physicist. Before he disappeared. You know, I think we both met him once, at a chaos theory conference..." The Observer trailed off, looking over at where Detective Ellison slept, neck angled awkwardly against the seat. Sam resisted the temptation of nudging him into a more comfortable position, not sure how he'd take it should he wake.
"You know, Sam," his friend's voice brought him back on track, "I think I've met him before, too. Ellison, I mean. Where was that...must have been years ago, before the Project—" He broke off, attention returned to the link. "Hey, this is interesting. The disappearing doctors ran that ghost-battling firm, right? Well, one of their coworkers was Winston Zeddemore."
Sam sat up at that. "The captain's cousin?"
"Looks like, unless there's another Winston Zeddemore in the Manhattan phonebook. Now I'm really interested in what he might have to say..."
As fit his words, he was paying close attention indeed to Winston now that they had met him. It was good that the man couldn't see the Observer's surveillance; Al's focused stare might have discombobulated even that remarkably cool individual. Jim at least seemed uncomfortable having his line of sight blocked by a presence unnoticed by others. Sam, who had had far longer to get used to it, ignored his friend and listened to Zeddemore.
"I don't know how much I can help you myself," he explained. "But I have...a friend. He knows more about this. Given what you told me over the phone—you should at least see him, if he'll talk to you." He mumbled the last qualifier, but Sam heard it, just as he noted the hesitation when Winston referred to him. Not exactly a friend—an associate? Or someone he had once known and didn't now...
His next words confirmed this. "I don't know where he is exactly, but I'm pretty sure he's still in the city, and I know someone who should know." He took them back outside and on a tour through the city to the heart of downtown Brooklyn. There they maneuvered down narrow streets to a short office complex wedged between two corporate skyscrapers.
The secretary, a cute redhead, glanced up from her crossword and then sprang up, a smile brightening her face. "Winston! Long time no see!" Tossing an 'out to lunch' sign onto her desk she came around and jumped into his arms.
He willingly returned the greeting. "Janine, how's it going?"
She made a face. "Not so great, but I'm hanging on. Sure was a lot more fun, back with..." Then she swallowed, paling before continuing, "You know, the standard office thing, boring as calculus but not hard. My boss snoozes most of the time, I think—he's probably snoring now. He won't mind if I step out for a sec, I'll just reroute the calls to him." This she proceeded to do, then straightened up with a bright smile and said, "Now, introduce me to your friends here! And tell me how that pricey mechanics gig you've got going is doing."
"The gig is paying the bills," Winston told her. "And my friends here are why I came, actually." He introduced them, giving Sam's real name but leaving out Al. The Observer hardly noticed, his attention having changed focus when the secretary entered the picture. As Janine and Winston chatted he circled around them, examining her slender form from every angle as if selecting the most appropriate point of view.
"Al!" Sam hissed fiercely, calling him to order. Al shrugged, not in the least abashed. Sam caught Jim's narrow look and tried not to blush.
Janine greeted them all, "Hi. You mean you didn't come just to see me?" with an assumed pout.
"Definitely—but I also was wondering if you knew where Pete is."
"Dr. Venkman?" Like that she froze, drawing back from Winston. Suddenly her manner was all business, coolly professional and with all the emotion of a computer—a desktop machine, not Ziggy.
Winston nodded slowly.
"Haven't seen him. Sorry," and she flashed an apologetic grin that didn't reach her eyes.
"Janine, please," he plead. "This is important. These men came here from Cascade—as in Washington state—about this. They've got a problem. I think Pete might be able to help them."
"Winston, I haven't seen him," she said. "I haven't seen Dr. V since a week after you left, when we were closing up—when he walked in, handed me my last check, and told me to go." She swallowed. "I—I told him, I don't know, something about how sorry I was, that it was over, that...everything. And I told him I knew how it felt."
She crossed her arms over her breasts, squeezed her eyes shut for an instant, then threw back her head and met Winston's sympathetic gaze. Her voice sharpened, though somehow the accent diminished. "And he told me that I couldn't know, and I had no right to suggest that I did, and that I should get out before I drowned him in false sympathy."
No mistaking a direct quote, obvious in the hard bullet-like way she shot back the words. They must have been burned into her memory. Winston winced under the fire, and then unexpectedly he reached out and pulled her into his arms again. Just as unexpectedly—for she had sounded colder than ice—she melted into his embrace, pressing her face into his shoulder. "So I left," she finished, voice muffled by his shirt but not by tears, though her shoulders were trembling. He rubbed her back and held her close.
In a moment she remembered the others, drew back and wiped at her eyes. "Sorry, I'm sorry about that. I know you guys hate watching women cry, I didn't mean to..."
They all responded with sympathetic understanding. Sam doubted anyone could react differently—except perhaps the man responsible for her pain. To speak so to someone grieving...he felt an unfamiliar anger rising at such deliberate cruelty. Winston patted her arm, murmured, "No, I'm sorry, I should come just to visit more often. We've all fallen apart."
"Not like there's that much to keep together," she answered, and then closed her eyes when he winced, not much more accomplished at hiding his own feelings. "But you're right, Winston. You should. Anyway..." She looked around at Sam and the two other visible men. "So what do you guys want with Dr. Venkman?"
"It's what he might know," Jim stepped in. "A couple days ago we ran into something—we don't know what—"
"A ghost," muttered Al, and jumped when the detective frowned at him.
"Maybe a ghost," he conceded, and was rewarded by Janine's instant and complete attention. "It looked like a glowing sphere of light about this big," and he measured out something the size of a football in his hands, "and it was causing problems at a local hospital. It sure didn't look like ball lightning, it was awfully small for a UFO—my partner suggested will o' wisp, and while I don't believe in ghosts, this thing wasn't normal. We were investigating it, Blair—my partner—was guiding me in looking—"
Abruptly he broke off, swallowed what he had been about to say and went on, "When it...noticed us somehow, it just stopped. Hovered in place, and I didn't see any strings, didn't hear anything unusual—it was almost like it wasn't actually there, except I could feel it...anyway. Blair—he's a scholar, he sometimes is a little too curious, and he—he reached out, toward it..." Unconsciously Ellison extended his own arm in imitation. "It zipped forward, there was this flash, and...he was thrown back against me. Knocked me out when I hit the floor. Only it wasn't Blair, actually, it was..." He trailed off, unsure of himself or perhaps only unsure of how far to go.
It wasn't necessary. The secretary was staring at him, her eyes enormous. "Oh man," she breathed.
"You see?" Winston urged. "Pete should know this—do you have his address? A number he can be reached, at least?"
Janine turned back to her desk. "Yeah," she said, "yeah, I have it somewhere..." From the depths of a file drawer she withdrew a ragged notebook, began flipping through it. "Not like I have that many people in the V's, couldn't afford to erase it...hmm, no, that's his father—here it is. His latest place, I think. He's got an office downstairs, some private consulting thing—I don't know. Far as I've heard he's been living off the royalties, hasn't done anything for more than a couple months. Anyway if he's home he should be there." She scribbled the address on a post-it note and handed it to Winston.
He thanked her with another quick hug, then headed out the door, the rest following him single-file. Sam glanced back as they walked out, at Janine seating herself back behind her desk. She caught his look, waved slightly. "Bye. Nice meeting you. Say hello to—" As if she hadn't realized what she was saying she swallowed, then lifted her head and looked Sam square in the eye. "Say hello to Dr. V. for me," she said firmly.
He nodded and continued after the others. Just as the door closed behind him he heard her final mutter, "If he'll give you the chance..."
Simon wasn't sure how he should be handling this. He suspected that though he might be managing fairly well, given the circumstances 'fairly well' wasn't going to cut it.
At least Winston was dealing. Actually that was part of the problem. He knew his cousin had some experience with general weirdness, but this absolute and total acceptance, as if it were not simply believable but approaching blase...he had hoped for a little support. Winston was very understanding and sympathetic, but not quite the fellow spirit the captain had wished for.
He wasn't quite the man Simon remembered from a couple years ago, either. Maybe it was his recollections that were flawed, but Simon's memory of his cousin had a brighter, more ready smile, and a sharper attitude. It wasn't as if it were dulled so much as obscured, clouded somehow. Gentler yet darker at the same time.
Quite a fair sight better than Simon's other associates, however. If Jim didn't relax his captain was probably going to have to slug him to get him to sleep tonight. The Sentinel wasn't obviously overactive, but he didn't walk, he strode like a man late for a major date, shoulders thrust forward and eyes on the ground. And he couldn't seem to speak without snapping, something Simon would have called him on, had he not been able to see the pain twisting deep in his detective's eyes.
On the other hand Blair was abnormally calm—supernaturally calm, he supposed, given that it wasn't actually Blair. Something he saw confirmation of every time the man whispered to empty air, or looked at a friend who was clearly not there. At least not as far as Simon could tell. If he didn't have Jim occasionally glancing in the same direction he wouldn't have been able to buy it at all, but he had almost become accustomed to the Sentinel observing what was lost on him. Almost.
Quite a crew they made. Simon would have felt like the last sane man in an asylum, except for the minor detail that he was a participant in their quest. Sandburg had better appreciate it.
Sandburg had better be okay.
The address the secretary had given Winston brought them to the door of a Manhattan apartment. The building was an venerable old place which at one time must have been quite chic but by now had seen better days. The tastefully stained lintel had been carved with hearts, flowers, and graphic sexual expletives.
His cousin rapped on the door, knocked a second time when there was no answer. Simon was about to suggest that their target might be out when it opened. The responsible party examined them from the threshold, tall brown-haired man with eyes like green jewels. Or ice, Simon amended, when that frozen gaze swept over him.
Winston took one step forward. "Pete?"
Peter Venkman's eyes flashed to his former associate. "Yeah?" If there was recognition it was nothing like Janine's pleasure at seeing an old friend.
"Mind if we come in and talk for a bit?"
Again his gaze flickered over them—like an emerald laser, Simon couldn't help but think, even as he winced at the analogy. He was certain that the man was going to slam the door in their collective face.
One shoulder lifted, fell. "Be my guest," Venkman said, and stepped aside to allow them entrance.
Once inside Winston made the introductions. His style was markedly different from when he had shown them to Janine. "This is my cousin, police captain Simon Banks from Cascade, Washington. And these are two of his men, Detective Jim Ellison," Jim nodded stiffly, "and the image of his partner, Blair Sandburg. Sandburg's aura is around Sam Beckett, while Blair himself is elsewhere. Sam's associate Al is also here, I'm not sure where exactly—"
"There," Jim and Sam replied simultaneously, both pointing to the same corner of the room.
Winston nodded. "There. And this is Dr. Peter Venkman, founder of the Ghostbusters."
"Hello," Simon said awkwardly, speaking for all of them. "We've—come a pretty long way to see you."
"Lot of good it will do you. I'm retired." Venkman tilted his head toward the door. "Hopefully you remember where the exit is."
"Hold on, Pete," Winston broke in. "Did you hear what I said about these guys, my man?"
"I heard," he replied flatly. "It concerns me how?"
"You haven't heard everything yet."
"I haven't heard why I would want to."
"Look, man," his cousin changed tactics. "I know we're not 'busting anymore, but I thought you still were doing private consultations."
Again he looked them over. Simon forced himself not to shiver. "I seriously doubt any of you can afford my fees. Even after you've cracked your kids' piggy banks."
In answer Ellison pulled out his badge and shoved it in the doctor's face. "This gold good enough for you?" he growled. "I don't have the time to put up with your bullshit; my partner's life is on the line. You're going to talk to us—"
"Or what?" For the first time life sparked in Venkman's frigid eyes. "You try anything and I'll have a lawsuit on you so fast you'll choke on that shield." Before Jim could move he yanked the fold from the detective's hands, squinted at it. "Cascade PD, huh, how come New York doesn't sound like your jurisdiction?" He tossed the badge back to Ellison. The Sentinel snatched it from the air, glaring.
Winston stepped between them, holding up his hands placatingly. "Pete," he addressed his former friend. "Just stop it, okay? We didn't come for the attitude, my man, we just want some advice from the expert. Sorry the detective got to you, he's a little stressed. Nothing personal."
Venkman ran a hand through his hair, ruffling it into disorder. His eyes were very bright. "Yeah. You'd think I'd be used to cops being assholes, right? It just goes with the job." Even Sam reacted to that, though Winston had positioned himself so that none of them could get past him to reach the doctor.
His cousin spoke to them next, very levelly. Simon couldn't tell if he were actually calm or simply skilled at holding his temper. "Detective Ellison, tell him what you saw. Tell him what happened to your partner."
Jim did. He hadn't gotten past describing the thing's appearance when Simon heard a choked gasp.
He looked over but it wasn't his cousin. Venkman had gone white, a pasty shade more suited to ghosts than living men. Winston grabbed his arm, led him to the cheap false leather couch against one wall. He moved like a robot, sitting only after Winston pulled him down, though he swayed when standing.
Jim finished his account amid total silence. When he was done Venkman swallowed, glanced at Winston. He had regained some color, pale but no longer bleached. "Did—do they know?" His voice shook badly.
Zeddemore shrugged. "Don't know. I didn't tell them anything, but they might have found out anyway—they agreed to come pretty quick."
"We know." Jim glanced at Beckett and then the empty spot next to him. "We got at least some of the story from the papers."
"Your colleagues..." Sam began, trailed off when Venkman snapped around to stare at him. "We know what happened," Beckett finished uncomfortably. "I—I met Dr. Spengler once. I'm sorry..."
"Yeah, I know, a terrible loss to science," Venkman shot back. "They didn't even get to save his brain." His eyes narrowed to glittering green slits. "Beckett, Dr. Samuel Beckett? I've heard of you. Spe—" the name caught in his throat; he changed it, "Dr. Spengler mentioned your name before. Time travel, right?"
"Yes," Sam admitted, much to Simon's surprise.
Venkman, on the other hand, did not even seem interested. "That why you're here? You're over a year late if you wanted to do anything. Better get back to the drawing board." He pressed his fingers to his temples. "If you already knew...what happened to them, you know as much as I do. Take my advice and leave, before I start charging for it."
"Hold it," Simon protested. "Forget the fact that I have no clue what happened—you can't dismiss us that easily. Not before we hear the story firsthand, at least. We need all the details—that thing got one of my friends, and we're going to—"
"What?" Venkman demanded. A thin bloodless smile crossed his lips, a frightening sight; it had absolutely no emotion in it. "Write a touching memorial? Want the facts straight for his epitaph?"
Jim stepped forward. He was fighting so hard to control his anger that his hands, curled into fists, were trembling. "I want to know what happened," he said quietly. "There is a chance he's still alive. If that's true, I'll find a way to bring him back. And you might know how, even if you don't realize it. We need to know what happened to those two men—I need to know."
For a long moment the doctor was silent. Then slowly he stood. Erect he was tall enough to look Jim in the ice blue eyes. "This partner of yours, is he a good man?" His tone was entirely changed, cool and almost soothing.
"Yes," Jim said.
"Good friend, good cop—all around good guy? A hero—not a superhero, a real hero, the type that can make you proud to be a human being?"
"Yes," Jim replied instantly, and Simon confirmed, "One of the best."
Venkman's eyes sparked; it was the only warning before he lashed out, "Then he's in Hell, given the way the universe works—that's where the good ones all go, straight to the bottom. If he's as great as you make out then he's probably in the ninth circle, personal manservant to Satan himself, whipped by scorpions by day and having his heart ripped out for dinner every night. That's the way it falls, folks—the good ones are damned and the bad ones are honored. He's dead, he's gone, and you'll never see him again, that's it. Those that most deserve to live, die; those that should die...."
Jim rocked back on his heels as if he had been physically hit—hell, Simon swore, that probably would have been kinder. His face showed such naked shock that there was no room for anger. Which was all right; Simon had enough rage for the both of them. He saw red and Venkman was in the center of the bull's eye.
He grabbed for the man but Winston was faster, blocking so hard he stumbled out the door and into the hall. Shaking his head Simon started back inside, only to have his cousin shove him against the wall with the same degree of force Jim had used earlier on Beckett. "Calm down, man," Zeddemore ordered.
"Calm?" Simon pushed him away. "You heard what he said—God, did you see Jim's face? I don't believe—"
"Neither do I," Winston muttered. "But I'm not gonna let you touch Pete."
"What?" Simon stared. "Winston, how could you be friends with that son of a bitch? So you used to work with him. He's a bastard, he's got to get what's coming to him—and I'm going to give it, if I have any say."
"You don't," Winston replied, and the captain was amazed by the fury in his cousin's words. Directed not at Venkman but Simon. "And he got what was coming—he's paid, my brother, more than he ever deserved. Peter Venkman's a good man—one of the best, like you said." There was no sarcasm in his tone, no sign of a joke.
Simon blinked. "What the—Winston, you're crazy. That man's the most cold-hearted, sadistic sociopath I've seen in a while, and I'm a cop."
"He's a psychologist," Winston spat back, and then smiled slightly as if even he could see the irony. "And he may act like a bastard—but he's my friend. Nobody's gonna lay a finger on him—even you, cuz."
"I must be missing something," Simon muttered, taking a step back.
Winston suddenly stepped close, hissed in his ear, "Yeah, you are. I saw your detective there, Simon. Big macho guy, and he's about this far," he held up two fingers a millimeter apart, "this far from losing it completely. I saw his look. He and his partner, they're close, I've picked up?"
Warily Simon nodded. "Yes." He hesitated, admitted, "They're best friends, in and out of work. Do everything together. You wouldn't guess it to look at them, they seem so different outside, but inside...they're brothers. Closer than brothers." And that wasn't all of it, though he wasn't about to add Jim's Sentinel abilities to the list of things Winston wasn't surprised by. "I don't even understand it myself, and they're some of my closest friends."
"Yeah." His cousin was nodding. "Yeah, I know what that can be like." He tilted his head toward the closed apartment door. "You know why? Because of that man. Those two scientists that disappeared—they weren't just coworkers. We were a team, cuz. They were the best friends I ever had.
"But close as I was to all of them—they and Pete, they were closer. The three of them had been together for years, since college—half the time I swear they could read each other's minds, that's how in tune they were. They were brothers, like you said—and like you said, I didn't get all of it. But they let me in anyway. Enough to make me feel almost part of them.
"When Ray—" he swallowed, "when Ray...died, Pete almost lost it, and then Egon...he, I don't know, Pete died, too. Where it counted. The man you just met—he's not my friend, no. But he's all I have left of my friend. And I won't let that go, Simon. Not for you, not for anyone. They were as close as my real family—they were my brothers, forget the color. He's still my brother. And you're not going to hurt him, no matter what he might do to you." Winston's tone was low, composed, and not to be contradicted.
Simon had heard that tone before in his own voice, usually when defending his two best detectives from those who would divide the civilian and the cop, the neo-hippy and the ex-army man, the Guide and Sentinel. Those who didn't understand. "I get it," he said, subdued. "Let's go, then.
They went back inside. Venkman stood in the same place as before. He smirked at Simon, but the expression was as empty as his smile. Beckett hovered protectively close to Jim, looking so identical to Blair that Simon swallowed a fresh stab of pain. "Jim," he said quietly, "come on."
He touched his arm and for a moment was afraid the Sentinel might have zoned, but Jim lifted his head, blinked at Simon. "Yeah," he nodded jerkily.
"We should go. He can't help us. Maybe Winston's got another idea." Shooting a look at his cousin, who took the suggestion and essayed a confident smile.
"Y'all come again now," Venkman said as they departed, his parody so bitter it could have been satire. "I'll send you the bill, Zeddemore."
Winston, behind Simon and the last one out, turned back. "Goodbye, Pete," he said softly. "Be seeing you." He closed the door behind him. Simon thought he saw something glittering in the corner of his eye, but when he looked Winston's face was schooled into a calm mask, ready to offer what assistance he could.
They got a couple hotel rooms, took up their luggage and then sat there, wondering what to do now.
Actually Simon and Beckett handled the negotiations, signing them in, finding their rooms. Once inside Jim laid his suitcase on the bed and took the chair next to it, staring blankly at the straps. He listened to Beckett pay the bellboy and supposed he should be grateful someone was taking care of things, but he couldn't muster enough emotion to feel gratitude, let alone express it.
Not their last hope, they kept saying. Al had left to explore options wherever he called home was—the future? And Winston insisted there were other people he could contact who might be able to help. As if Jim couldn't tell they were lying; even without Sentinel senses, he knew Simon too well. The captain was putting on a brave face to hide the dark reality. Venkman had been their last hope, a slim one, but, before they had found him, one they could hold out upon. Now that had been shattered.
Jim thought he might have been shattered, too. He was too numb to tell.
He should be angry at Venkman at the very least, but he had looked into the man's eyes, and nothing was there, not malice, not cruelty. Only truth, hard and sharp-edged as crystal. Truth was more painful than lies, far more harmful.
Not something Blair would agree with, a scientist of the humanities is still a scientist, he'd insist, and truth was the ultimate holy grail for any scientist. It didn't help or hurt, it just was.
His absence now was a truth, the only truth, and it hurt like hell. The truth was that it very well might be permanent, and that was a pain so sharp he couldn't even feel it, not really, only a blank space where his heart should be. That it could have happened at all—and not like this. One moment Blair was bouncing alongside him, a presence in his life so solid Jim had begun to build a new foundation on it—
Then he was gone, silent flash, blink of the eye, and nothing. No good-byes , no chance to look backward or forward, no chance to tell him somehow, even jokingly, what having Blair as a partner, as a friend, had meant to him. Just gone, dropped from his life as abruptly as he had appeared. Only now he left a hole, and Jim could all but feel himself falling into it.
He jerked up, realizing he had almost slipped from his chair. Dark spots blinking before his eyes, afterimages from the glitter of lights on his suitcase buckles. Zone out and he hadn't noticed, though when he drew a breath he choked on the air rushing into his starved lungs.
Simon hadn't seen it, to Jim's relief; he didn't know what the captain would have done but he couldn't leave now, couldn't quit. Even when there was nothing to be done. Even when—
A harsh trill rang out only a few feet away, and he clapped his hands over his ears. Simon strode by, frowning at him as he answered the telephone on the bedstand. "Simon Banks here."
Putting his hand over the receiver he looked to his detective, "Can you take a call, Jim?"
The Sentinel nodded, closing his eyes for a moment and visualizing the dials—turn them down, turn them all down. He could almost hear Blair's voice saying it and slammed that door shut before it could overwhelm him. Hearing reduced to a normal range, he reached for the phone.
"Detective Ellison," said the voice on the other end. He stiffened, recognizing who Simon had not. Dr. Venkman.
"Yeah?" Coolly as he could manage.
"Can I meet you?" A difference in the psychologist's tone, almost desperate, a plea. More emotion than he had exhibited a few hours ago, at least. "There's a park at the end of the block. I'll be there in half an hour."
Jim agreed and hung up. Standing, he was surprised at how steady his legs were, and his voice. "I'm going for a walk. I'll be back soon."
Simon nodded understandingly. "Who was that?"
The detective shrugged. "No one." He left before he could be asked any more questions, or ask them of himself.
The park in question was little larger than an average lot, but it was well-tended. A couple kids climbed one of the scrawny trees, most of the leaves fallen and those few still clinging brown and dead as the grass. Probably was pretty in the summertime, though. The small fountain was currently dry, presided over by a bronze statue of a man, some lesser general. No one too famous; he didn't even have a horse. Jim seated himself on one of the benches, the cold of the metal slats seeping through his jacket. He lowered his perception since it wasn't chill enough to be harmful.
Footsteps heralded the other man's approach. Venkman was in a dark longcoat, collar turned up against the wind. He stopped in front of Jim, gazed down at him for a moment. The detective waited.
At last the doctor drew a breath. "Thanks for coming," he said. "I just wanted to say—I wanted to apologize. My behavior, what I said to you there—that was inexcusable. I was out of line, especially as a psychologist."
"You need a degree to know when you're being a bastard?" Jim asked skeptically. Then regretted it when Venkman hunched his shoulders, closing his eyes as if awaiting a blow.
"Okay," he said. "You get that one—I had it coming." Green eyes flashed, and not with humor. "Try another and I'll take payback." He didn't just mean verbally, not with his hands clenching to fists. Almost as tall as Jim, and though his build was slightly more slender the Sentinel could see the wiry strength of his motions. Coupled with the unfocused, repressed rage simmering below the frigid surface of his gaze—no, this was not a man Jim would like to tangle with.
"Sorry," he relented. "Must be the cop in me."
Venkman's eyes narrowed. "You want to prove it? I know some—" He shook his head, shoulders drooping as the energy drained from him. "Look, I didn't come here to trade acid. I wanted to see you on neutral ground, no one's turf, so we didn't get defensive—we got off badly." Raising his palm, "Yeah, I know, I screwed up. I'm sorry. You surprised me, and Dr. Venkman's not into surprises. If we can start again..." He held out his hand. "Hello, I'm Peter Venkman, PhD in Psychology and Parapsychology."
Jim regarded the offer suspiciously, but there was something earnest in the man's voice, something fragile. Slowly he stood, accepted his grip and shook firmly. "Detective Jim Ellison, Cascade PD."
Venkman exhaled, a long shuddering breath. "And you're here about your partner. Honestly, detective, I'm not sure I can help you. I'm pretty sure I can't, actually. But...I'll tell you what I know."
Jim frowned as the psychologist sat down next to him. "Why?" he couldn't help but ask. "You didn't seem especially willing before..."
Venkman shoved his hand through his hair, adding to the disorder brought by the wind. "Yeah, well...this is now. It feels less like an interrogation by an entire police force here; just don't remind me you have a badge. And..." he hesitated, finally went on, "And I saw your eyes, when I said...what I said. Took me a little to place it—but when I did, I had to come. Talk to you. I've seen that look in the mirror too many times to be able to get it out of my head." Especially when he was responsible for it, though he didn't go so far as to admit that.
Jim waited. Venkman looked out over the park, avoiding his sharp gaze. When he began his voice was soft and toneless. The Sentinel raised his hearing a notch and listened. "It happened about a year and a half ago. A normal day, completely ordinary. We were called for a bust in an old Manhattan business—place had spirits lining the walls, if they'd ever let us clear it out...but no, they just called us whenever a spook got rambunctious. It was a pair in that case, couple of nasty yellow goopers, both class six."
He caught Jim's dubious expression and shrugged. "Take it you're not a believer. Neither was I, at first. I don't have any way to prove it now, but they're real. There's lots of things going bump in the night in the city, and they're not all cat burglars and stranglers. The ones that caused trouble—we busted them."
Venkman nodded. "That was the name of the game. Take it or leave it, I don't care." When Jim stayed attentive he went on, "Class six are pretty powerful specters, capable of complete materialization, can be physically dangerous. We'd fought worse, we weren't afraid. Cornered one when we came through the door; Ray...Dr. Stantz and I stayed behind to trap it, while Winston and Egon chased the other upstairs.
"The thing was sucked into the trap, smooth as silk, and we high-fived and were going to help the others when we saw it. This thing—just like you described. A ball of light just big enough to slam-dunk, floating around like it was looking for someone to follow home. I'd never seen a ghost quite like it; Ray..." Venkman closed his eyes briefly, swallowed. "Ray thought maybe will o' wisp, like your partner. He...he was fascinated.
"You had to know Ray. We did all this crazy, dangerous stuff—some of it was fun, but it could be lethal—and he always had the time of his life. He thought ghostbusting was the best thing since sliced bread and more exciting than a rollercoaster. And Ray loved 'coasters. He—my first impression, when I first met Ray Stantz, I made a snap diagnosis of hyperactivity. All enthusiasm—he always seemed younger than he was. Almost so you'd forget how smart he was, how educated. He was an occultist, knew more about spooks and ghoulies than I wanted to hear half the time. But he could make it interesting, just because he was so excited about it—you couldn't help but get a bit excited too, talking to him."
"I know someone like that," murmured Jim.
Venkman barely seemed to notice. He leaned forward, elbows on his thighs and squeezing his hands together. "Anyway, when Ray saw this thing, he had to investigate. Took a PKE reading and found it registered pretty low, around class three, but it wasn't ectoplasmic. Not a ghost. So of course that got him going about magic, and I wasn't paying attention. I should've been, but Egon came on the radio to report how they'd gotten the other gooper, and Ray said it was harmless, according to the readings..."
The words tumbled out so fast Jim could barely follow them. He listened closely, knowing he wouldn't get a chance to hear it again, "Next thing I know I look over and there's Ray, reaching out to touch it. I might have said something, I don't know. Then the flash and Ray was gone. I never saw him again.
"We looked, but we couldn't find the thing. At first—you have to understand, in our line of work, this wasn't unprecedented. We'd dealt with possession, transformation, getting zapped to other dimensions—we thought there was a chance, like you did, a chance that we could get him back somehow." Venkman lowered his head, eyes fixed on his hands as he twisted his fingers together. The knuckles whitened. "It must have been a week later when it hit me. I woke up, Ray wasn't there, and I remember thinking to myself, this is how it's always going to be. He's never going to be there again."
Jim wondered if he would ever awaken to that same epiphany. If he could ever accept it, or would a part of his mind always be turning to a partner who wasn't there, listening for a heartbeat forever absent. No.
He was about to ask Venkman to go on when the doctor started again, "Dammit, though, I should have been paying more attention, I should have realized...Egon was good at hiding his feelings, too good. We used to call him Mr. Spock in college, because he was all scientist on the surface, a pure logician, but he wasn't actually like that at all. Killer sense of humor if you listened to what he said, and...and he felt, as deeply as anyone. More. But you could only see it if you really knew him—I knew him. I should have noticed, should have known, losing Ray hit him just as hard—he introduced us. He knew Ray even longer than I did...
"I didn't think—Egon could be just as impulsive, in his own way. Methodically, logically, scientifically impulsive. He thought—God, I don't know what he thought, I never could understand just how Spengs's brain worked. But I should have suspected. He built something—he couldn't accept it, that Ray was gone, and he was trying to look for him. Holding onto that hope, same as you and your friends. He created a device to help him, and when...
"I was there. I don't know why I let him do it. He turned it on, and then it appeared—the ghost again, the light. This time it didn't wait for anyone to touch it, it just darted forward...and that was the last time I saw him. No chance to react, or shout, or say go—nothing. It was over. It's over.
"Wait," Jim said. Venkman twisted his head toward him, face impassive and green eyes slit against the wind. "Why close the Ghostbusters? Aren't there still ghosts? Or did they stop..." He knew it was wrong, and yet the man's story was so vague at the same time it was clear. He wanted to find holes in it. He wanted it to be false.
"They're are still out there," the doctor agreed. "But...there's not much two men can do about it. And without them—Egon had the technical expertise; Ray had the knowledge, and the know-how to build what Egon could dream up. Winston's a good man, he was the backbone of the team, but without their support he...it's too much to do alone."
Venkman laughed, or tried to. "Me? I was the publicity man. I got us the jobs and the paychecks. Not a hell of a lot of use for me, with the rest of the team on the sidelines."
Jim nodded. He found himself growing uncomfortable under the doctor's steady gaze, turned and looked over the park, onto the street. Autos rushing past at regular intervals, stopping and starting in tune with the traffic lights. Tiny red reflections in every window, changing to green an instant before everything moved, cars shifting forward, halting again as the light went yellow, then returned to scarlet. Evening was approaching and half the cars had their own lights glowing, more glowing to life as drivers realized how dark the sky had become over the skyscrapers.
He was going to thank Venkman, even if his knowledge couldn't help, but the doctor spoke first. He too was watching the city, and his words seemed addressed more to that apathetic entity than to Jim. "Every day," he said, "every morning, when I first wake up, I lie in bed for a minute before I open my eyes. I lie there and I think about what I have to live for." He drew a long, shuddering breath. "It's good when I'm working, because then it's the job...an appointment to get to. People I have to advise. Money to make. A date.
"Sometimes, though—sometimes, on weekends, when I've lost interest in whatever I'm supposed to be doing...I lie there, and I tell myself, I still have my health. I'm not that old, I'm in good shape—I still have my health." He might have laughed, might have sobbed. "And when I'm sick, well, it's a pretty damn hard question to answer then. I don't know why I bother asking at all.
"I'm sorry about your partner." Jim glanced over, startled. Venkman was watching him, and the sympathy in his green eyes looked genuine. "I'm sorry it happened, however it happened, however that thing found you. If I—if I had known one was still around..." He rubbed his face with his hands. "It still hurts, I dream about them every night, I dream it's like it always was, and then I wake up, and it's not real, and it hurts. Every day, when I want to tell a new joke to Ray, show an idiot psychology article to Egon. When I want to go somewhere or do something or talk or play some dumb prank—it hurts.
"I wish I had kept in touch with Winston. He was a good friend, one of the best. I wish...I destroyed that. You can only push someone so far. I'd like to apologize. If I could."
He didn't say anything more for a while, and Jim was quiet. He didn't need to ask why Venkman had told him that; he knew. More than the psychologist's need to talk, share the least of his grief—he did it because he knew Jim would understand. Because he had realized in Jim a kinship of loss, a comrade in pain. No chance to shout or say goodbye, just an empty hole where a partner, friend, brother, should be.
And perhaps too he was trying to help, to warn Jim. Pushed too hard—don't push his own friends away, the way he had. Zeddemore, and the secretary, too...except he hadn't. Jim wondered if Venkman knew, that Winston still cared in spite of everything—that Janine did as well; the Sentinel had heard her last words to them. Peter had closed himself so tightly off that he couldn't see out anymore than anyone else could see in.
Yet he had opened himself now, and Jim could see the price it paid on him, in the bow of his shoulders and the lines of his face. They were marks of pain, not time, and he seemed young despite them. He wanted to help this man somehow, for all he'd done, take away that grief, as if in comforting him some of his own anguish could be assuaged.
Venkman saw his scrutiny and straightened under it, rebuilding his barricades. "I'm sorry," he apologized. "I'm sorry I couldn't help...for using this as an excuse to dump on you."
"It's fine, man," Jim assured him. "If you're a psychologist you must have it thrown at you sometimes."
"Yeah, and I get paid by the hour for it." The Sentinel could almost see his eyes crystallize. "If you don't separate the office from your life you spend all your time knee-deep in other people's garbage. Guess you live with that yourself, as a cop."
The barbs didn't sting, not when he understood too well what lay behind them. "I don't separate. I can't, most of the time, anyway. Trouble has a way of finding us, no matter where we go. Can be annoying, but I wouldn't change it—I do my part. Whatever it takes—if I can help people, protect them, save them, I do it. Whether or not I'm getting paid for it."
He would have felt almost guilty for saying that, if he hadn't known Venkman had been lying. He knew the man, in this short time he had come to understand him, and he knew that money or a career or fame wasn't driving him. There was a decency in him, a fundamental belief in what was good, what was right, and he'd do it, damn the consequences. Nothing obvious about him said that, nothing Jim could point to—but he knew it was true. He had learned long ago to trust his instincts, and they were telling him now that Peter Venkman was someone he'd want on his side, as part of his team. In spite of himself. Just because he ignored his own worth didn't mean he wasn't valuable.
Green eyes watching him intently. With sudden discomfort he wondered if Venkman had grasped as much about him—the man was perceptive as well. Behind that incisive tongue was an intelligence to match his partner's. "Blair's like that too," he found himself saying. "Probably why we get along, in spite of ourselves. I still get people trying to figure out why we're together—cops all sympathetic that I'm 'stuck' with him as a partner. I don't think they believe me when I tell them I wouldn't have it any other way.
"Maybe at first—when I first met him...you saw what he looks like. He talks to match the image, too. A flower-child for the '90's, minus the drugs...but if you speak with him for five minutes you know that's all surface. He was the most competent rookie I ever chaperoned, even if he's a civilian and won't even carry a gun. He's smart, he catches on quick, he gets along with people...he got along with me, though I tried my damndest to keep him at a distance. Didn't work."
Venkman wasn't saying anything, but he was listening, absorbing every word, every expression. It was getting darker but the streetlight overhead made a circle of false day around their bench, and once begun he couldn't stop. "He likes honesty, and openness, and at first I was uncomfortable with it, and now it's so comfortable that I can't think of it any other way. He helps me—" Jim caught himself just in time, "he gives me advice, on heath food and basketball and women, not that that's been especially helpful. I make fun of him and he gives as good as it gets; hell, he even won my captain over, still don't know how he did it. I've saved his life a couple of times—but he's saved mine, in every way. It's crazy," he shook his head, "totally nuts, but I depend on him. He's my partner, but that's not just on the job, it's everywhere. My work, my life—before I met Blair, my work was my life, period. Now...it's all tangled up. I can't unsort it. I don't want to."
Outside the ring of the streetlight white headlights streamed endlessly past. He watched them progress in fits and starts, one always coming forward to replace the other, so he really only had to focus on one place, a light in the distance. In the center of the glow was a strand of pure brilliance, the filament, shifting positions as the cars changed. So small and distant, but in his vision it was huge enough to wrap around him, stretching over him—
"Detective. Detective! Jim!" Hand on his shoulder, shaking him slightly. It wasn't Blair, was his first thought, and immediately following that, so where the hell is Sandburg, and then before his mind could fully articulate that he remembered, and was furious for slipping. He held onto the anger. Anger was better than the darker feelings which could swallow him. Anger was something he knew well, and could almost control.
Anger was the route Peter Venkman had taken, and been devoured by. He looked over. The doctor's hand rested on his arm, green eyes examining him with a touch of concern. "Are you all right? For a moment you seemed catatonic."
"I'm fine," Jim said, harsher than he intended, but the other man was not disturbed. "I didn't mean to—forget what I said, I'm tired, I'm not trying to..." Dump on you, though that was exactly what he'd done, turned around and thrown out a confession to match Venkman's. Opened his own heart, without meaning to, without any reason, except that he wanted to...to what? To give him a taste of what he himself could lose, let him know how much was at stake. Try to force the man's hand—appeal to that better side he hid, and punish him for not being able to do more...
"It's all right," Venkman murmured, rubbing his shoulder. That gesture was too much like another's, too familiar; Jim couldn't keep from shuddering. The doctor withdrew his hand, but his tone remained almost sympathetic. "Like you said, I'm used to hearing it." But he made no comment about payment now. Instead he stood, stuffing his hands back into the pockets of his coat. "It's getting late. I only swim with sharks when there's a steel cage to protect me, and I left my wetsuit at my apartment anyway. Come now and I'll give you a ride—it's not far, but believe me, you don't want to walk these streets alone. Even with a badge and packing."
When Jim didn't at first react he repeated, "Come on, the meter's running." But he didn't leave the circle cast by the streetlight until the detective stood.
"You could have let me walk," Jim pointed out, once in his car.
"Why would you care if something happened to me—I probably wouldn't get killed, only roughed up, and it's not as if we're friends." He tossed off the comment with a casual air but he had chosen his wording carefully.
Venkman shifted in his seat, though it was hard to read his expression. But he took a while to answer, "Saves time if you're accessible—the sooner I show you everything the sooner I can get back to my life."
Jim went still. "What do you mean?"
He might have imagined it, but there seemed to be a smile playing on Venkman's lips. A real one, one that nearly reached his eyes. "When you were talking there—something occurred to me. I don't know if it'll do much good, but since you're grasping at straws anyway another haystack couldn't hurt. I told you Eg...Dr. Spengler designed something, something that summoned one of those things. And then he..." He didn't go on, broke off as he pulled the car up in front of the hotel.
Jim waited. Venkman tapped his fingers on the steering wheel, eyes fixed on the minivan parked before them. "I never touched the thing, didn't understand it. There aren't a hell of a lot of people who could. But your friend's possessor—Dr. Beckett. From what little I've heard of him, if anyone has a chance of figuring it out, he's the guy. Convenient coincidence that he's available and ready—but there you go."
Jim could hear the blood rushing through the vessels in his ears; he froze, as if moving would erase the doctor's suggestion. Something rose up in him, phoenix from ashes, fiercely powerful and triumphant. Automatically he said, "I don't believe in coincidence." One of the first rules of detective work.
"Neither do I," Venkman replied with a bloodless grin. "I'll take you over tomorrow." He pulled away from the curb, the sports car roaring into the city night. Jim turned and allowed the doorman to usher him inside with a cheerful good evening. He strode to the elevator and something felt different, in the way he moved, in the simplest action of pushing the button for his floor. Purpose. He had a reason to go somewhere now. To his room, to his bed, sleep, and then the investigation began anew in the morning.
Hope. It was more than enough to live for.
Less than five minutes after Ellison walked out the door, Al stepped through the wall, peering around the hotel room. "Jim just left," Sam told him. "We can talk."
The Observer breathed a sigh of relief. "Sorry, Sam. But having him watching gives me the heebie-jeebies—he must have heard me on the plane, too, when I was talking about Venkman's friends. Thought he was asleep. Is it just me or can he hear through walls?"
Sam shook his head. "There's something unusual about him, beyond the fact that he sees us. Ziggy have any ideas?"
"None, zip, nada." Al frowned. "She's thrilled you're here, though. Still insisting New York is the place to be—but why, she's working on it."
"I have a hunch," he said. His instincts were often correct, they had learned. Leaps went better if he paid attention to them, though Ziggy's advice was equally helpful. Balancing the two could be tricky, but if one resource was floundering the other could help. "I think it might involve Peter Venkman."
"Venkman?" Al raised his eyebrows skeptically. "You're here to help that nozzle?" He keyed the data into the link, commenting, "I'll check, but I hope you haven't dropped in just to brighten his day. There's a good reason why you're the leaper and I'm the hologram—if I'd been here I would've pounded that jerk into the floor."
"I didn't see a jerk," Sam said quietly. "I saw a man in a lot of pain."
Al squirmed. "And that's the other reason," he admitted. "You've always been better than me at seeing peoples' good sides, if they have them..." He trailed off, remembering.
Sam wondered if he still had all the memories himself. Some he could recall. It hadn't been such a great thing; it hadn't taken much to see Al's potential, the true self behind the troubled life. But somehow Al had been blind to it. And he would always feel he owed Sam a debt for bringing it to light. No great thing. But on it rested a friendship beyond anything Sam could have imagined or built or tried to win. He wondered at it, and he enjoyed it, and now he depended on it. The single constant factor of an ever-changing existence, when even time was variable. He couldn't think of life without his partner's presence.
And neither, it seemed, could Jim Ellison. He had caught a glimpse of the man sitting there before the call came, face drawn and blank, eyes fixed on nothing. That much deeper into the abyss before him. He had shaken himself free of it on his own, but Sam resolved to act the moment he noticed it again. He had a terrible feeling that if Ellison were drawn much further down he wouldn't be able to resurface.
They had come to New York because Jim had pushed; Sam hadn't missed the signals he had sent his captain. Simon understood too, probably better than Sam did, and he had come for the sake of his detective, and for Blair. A good man; a good friend. Sam was glad that Jim appreciated him. But Banks was worried. He stayed close to Jim and Sam had noticed the looks he kept shooting at the detective. Waiting for something—a breakdown, maybe, if the truth about his partner became clear one way or another.
Let it be all right, Sam sent a silent prayer to whatever it was that guided his leaps. Let me be here to save him. I don't want to be responsible for his death. For two deaths—because if Blair was dead, then his partner very well might follow him, in heart if not in body. Simon knew it; he was frightened for both his men. And Sam, who understood people all too well and was accustomed to putting that insight to use, right now could only stand back, watching and waiting. He didn't know how Al could handle it.
"Does Ziggy have anything on Blair?" he couldn't help but ask.
Al slapped the link. "Don't think so. She's been dividing her time between so many possibilities—even a supercomputer has a limit to multi-tasking. Picked that up from her daddy, I guess. I never could figure how you managed to have three papers in progress at once and still practiced piano, until I learned you didn't sleep. One thing about this leaping, it's given you more gray but at least there aren't bags under your eyes all the time. Here it is...no." He shook his head sadly. "Still an eighty percent chance Sandburg's dead."
Sam paused. "Eighty percent?"
"Yup. Looks—" Al rechecked the number. "It was higher before, wasn't it? I was pretty sure..."
"You said ninety-eight percent," Sam confirmed.
"Now it's 81.28527...whatever. You must be doing something right—dammit, Ziggy, why didn't you tell me it changed?" The link squeaked, and Al rocked back on his heels, pursing his lips. "What the—listen, you metal—"
"She says it hasn't changed." Al shook his head. "She swears up, down, and sideways that it's always been eighty-one. And is getting very huffy that we'd suggest otherwise—idiot bucket of bolts, it's not just me, ask Sam! You gonna tell your creator he's remembering wrong, eidetic memory and all—and he hasn't leapt yet, so he didn't swiss-cheese it."
"Al," Sam said slowly. "If it changed, but Ziggy doesn't know—then I didn't do it."
His friend started. "One of the other leapers..?" They had encountered a counterpart to their project before—an evil set of leapers.
Sam hadn't seen any sign of them, however, much to his relief. "No, but it might be because there's so many people—practically everyone I've met knows who I am and what I'm here for. That's never happened on a leap that I can recall."
"No, it hasn't. But it shouldn't matter," Al argued. "If they're doing something different because you influenced them, then you're still responsible for the change. And Ziggy should have picked up on it. Something weird is going on here, Sam. I don't like it." He never liked it when things didn't go the way they should.
Sam didn't care for it himself, but he had learned to manage. "At least it's in our favor," he pointed out. "The odds are up to twenty percent that Blair's alive."
"Or not dead, at least...I'm not sure that's the same thing," the hologram muttered. "If he's—" The link beeped. Al attended to it, inclining his head thoughtfully. "Looks like you were on the right track after all. You are here for Venkman."
Al hesitated, and Sam knew he wouldn't like what his friend had to report. "Ziggy says there's a eighty-nine point oh chance you're here to save his life." He took a breath, went on, "Peter Venkman dies six months from now, in an accident a block from his apartment. Totals his Volvo against a brick wall. The papers all say there was a steering problem, or the brakes failed, but Ziggy found the police report...looks like his blood-alcohol content was way over the limit. Happens four o'clock in the afternoon. No damage except to the auto and the bricks, no one else is hurt, Venkman is the only one in the car—he's pronounced dead on site."
"No." Sam closed his eyes. He could too clearly picture the man; what Al described fit him far too well. But it was only one possible future; there had to be other, better ones. Routes that Peter Venkman lost that fractured, frozen look; paths that Jim Ellison's eyes did not take on the same property. Ways that put everything right, and kept those men whole, made them whole...
Maybe he couldn't fix everything in the world that was broken. But he could sure the hell try. Al, who had known Sam for long enough to recognize the determined set to his jaw, only nodded. "We'll do it," was all he said, and his confidence was enough to guarantee their success.
He left when Ellison arrived. Sam caught the change in the detective immediately, didn't understand it until Jim explained his meeting, what Venkman had said and where they were going tomorrow. Simon frowned and Sam could tell what he was thinking, but neither of them said anything to undermine his hope. It might not be unfounded. Certainly Sam resolved to do what he could, now that he had the chance.
Al reappeared shortly before he turned in. Sam explained the newest revelations eagerly, and Al coughed and expressed similar misgivings as Simon. Sam briefly wished for some way his friend and the captain to interact; he suspected they'd get along better than one might expect.
He went so far as to suggest this. Al shook his head, muttered something about sadists, institutions, and Sam didn't remember leaping into a Sam Bederman, did he? He was relieved to learn that Sam did not, and wondered in passing if Banks had mentioned anyone in his family being into psychology.
"The only member of Simon's family I know of is his cousin," Sam told him, "and I don't think Winston's a psychologist. Just his friend. Do you have anything new on Peter?"
"Don't think so..." Al entered the inquiry. Then blinked, stared, and slammed the link against his palm a couple of times. "I don't believe this—Sam, I'm gonna have to give this thing to Gooshie for new spark plugs or something. I think it's finally died."
Not surprising, considering the way he treated it, but aloud Sam only asked, "What?"
"I can't get the police report I had before. Or the articles. Ziggy's still insisting that you're here to save Venkman, but now she's not giving me any evidence to support it."
"So what happens to Peter—did I change it already?"
"I don't know." Al held the link to his ear and shook it as if expecting it to rattle. "No data—no data? You're telling me that you can't find a single lousy edition of the New York Times published after today?"
Sam asked, "What about Blair?"
"No change, seventy-four percent chance he's dead. Seventy fo—that's a change! Seven percent is definitely a change! What the hell is going on here, Sam?"
"Al," Sam said carefully, "when you checked it before, it was eighty-one percent, and Jim had just left to meet with Dr. Venkman. Now he's finished the meeting and made plans for tomorrow. The odds changed again, and so did Venkman's future. And you still haven't been able to access anything from Cascade about him and his partner, right?"
"No," Al admitted. "What are you saying—he's another leaper?"
"No. I would have known when I touched him—but that's when he found out about me, when he touched me. I learned nothing..."
"So what are you saying?"
"I don't know," Sam said. "But there's something here we're not getting, and I'm not sure we're supposed to get it. Whatever else he is, he seems to be on our side."
"Good," Al said, though he looked far from comforted. Sam wasn't entirely happy with it himself—but he suspected they were going to need all the allies they could get. Even when he didn't know exactly where they were coming from.
"You better get some sleep now," the Observer remarked, "sounds like tomorrow's going to be work. Good luck."
"You're going to be there, right?"
"Wouldn't miss it," Al assured him. "Been too long since I've seen you flex those physicist brain cells. I'm just hoping you remember your lambdas and sines—want me to bring a cheat sheet?"
Sam grinned. "What if Ellison notices I'm copying your answers?"
"Just make sure he doesn't tell the teacher. But I wouldn't worry—no one at MIT was ever caught copying from my tests."
"Because you wouldn't let them or because they weren't seen?"
"Sam," Al pretended affront, "I followed the honor code; I wouldn't help anyone to cheat...except that cute brunette who sat behind me, with the—"
"Kidding!" Al rolled his eyes exaggeratedly. "I didn't need to let her, she was the only one to come out of advanced field theory with a GPA higher than mine—think she's there teaching it now. Wonder if she'd remember me..."
"Good night, Al," Sam said patiently.
"Goodnight, Sam," Al said with a smile, and vanished, leaving nothing but the promise of his return. He might have implied that his night would be spent seeking his old flame, but Sam knew the odds were far better that he'd stay up researching Cascade, finding all he could about Jim Ellison and his partner. He wouldn't let this go until Sam knew what he was dealing with. Al wouldn't let him down.
Backed by that trust, Sam climbed into bed and immediately fell asleep. All this time and his body was still in the habit of grabbing rest whenever it could.
It was a dreamless sleep. If he dreamed, he never remembered it; he wondered if he even did. His conscious mind experienced enough unusual and unique situations that his subconscious had no reason to manufacture new ones. He didn't mind. His life was almost a dream; skipping them when he slept made the nights pass quicker, bringing him all the more swiftly to what he needed to accomplish to leap. For a career leaper like Sam Beckett, nothing imaginary could be so satisfying as that real confirmation of righting a wrong.
Jim Ellison had two different types of dreams. The first were the kind everyone had, a hodgepodge of the day's experiences, summer blockbusters, childhood traumas and senseless fears. The unconscious mind spewing forth its own brand of entertainment, letting off steam and keeping everything running sane and smoothly for the waking world. He rarely remembered those dreams, vague flashes of nightmares and the occasional odd recollection.
The other way of dreaming was much rarer, but he didn't forget it when it happened. If it was his unconscious, it was his unconscious speaking to him in a distinct and steadfast voice, calling on archetypes from a past far separated from his current life. Meaning shaped from memories of the dark jungle nights, lit by the fires of the Chopec tribe. And if those messages came from somewhere beyond his own mind...he saved that speculation for Blair.
But this dream, he couldn't figure out which it was. He wasn't in the jungle; the streets of Cascade were their own wildness but could never be mistaken for the warm blue depths of Peru's forests. He was walking down the sidewalk, his partner at his side saying, "Oh, there you are."
Jim replied, "Yeah, Chief."
Blair asked, "Did you see that?" but when Jim looked he hadn't seen it. "It was the black jaguar, I think," voice rising in excitement. "I've never seen the panther before—do you know what this means?"
"No," Jim said, because he didn't.
Blair smiled, shrugged, "Neither do I, but I'm sure it means something. It's the first time I've shared your vision since the fountain, and neither of us are dying now."
"I thought..." and then Jim stopped, not sure what he remembered and what he dreamed. "This is a dream, isn't it?"
"I think so," the dream Blair said, "I wouldn't want that to be a real panther. Simon would probably ask us to catch it and I bet you're allergic to cat fur."
"Probably," Jim agreed. They kept walking, and eventually they reached the end of the street, and Jim still hadn't seen the panther. Blair said something to this effect, and wondered if he had really seen it after all, and Jim told him he might have.
Sometime after this he woke up, but he couldn't remember the whole dream, only fragments. Rolling over he dropped into a deeper sleep, below REM, where there were no dreams or jaguars and his partner still was gone.
Peter Venkman dreamed.
He had grown used to his dreams, almost welcomed them. Every night, always different but always the same, he was there and Ray and Egon were back, and it was just like it used to be. Sometimes they were in college, partying and attending classes and living up "the best years of their life" in the ways which suited them—all of them. Sometimes they were back on the job, doing the only thing he had ever truly enjoyed, ghostbusting. Slime, nasty goopers, annoying clients, the works. He liked those dreams the best, when he could feel the proton pack on his back and ectoplasm splashed over his old jumpsuit. Ray would go on and on about a unique spectral property or another and Egon would correct his more outlandish hypothesizing while he and Winston rolled their eyes and grinned.
At times he would find himself reliving old busts, tracking Egon into the Netherworld, or going up against Nexa, or the Boogieman, or the Sandman, or the rest. Sometimes it would get all jumbled and they'd be against all of them at once, or rows and rows of class eights, and they'd set their packs on overload and wait to be blasted to kingdom come. He always awoke before it happened.
And occasionally they were somewhere unique, like a retirement home years down the line, or in Tahiti, or on Mars. Sometimes there would be ghosts to bust, or other obstacles to battle, and sometimes they'd be sitting around talking, eating dinner, vegging in front of the tube—nothing special, nothing to dream about, except he did.
Plain wish fulfillment. As a psychologist he could come up with half a dozen different terms and explanations for it off the top of his head, more if he dragged out the diagnostic manual. Labeling it didn't change a thing. Every night when he closed his eyes he found himself there. Back together again. Always.
At first he took it as a sign, hoping that somehow Ray and Egon were reaching him, calling out through the bond they had always had. But every night it happened, and every night he was with them, and never once did they ask for help, or was he trying to save them, or did he find a way to bring them back. If it was truly them and not just his mad subconscious torturing him, then it was no more than a trace, a distant gift—a curse, when every morning he opened his eyes and realized what was reality, what was only dream.
Tonight was different, though. Tonight he dreamed the only thing worse than the reminder of their absence. He dreamed of their loss.
The call came in, and they were rushing to the site, and it wasn't until he saw the bulbous yellow monsters floating overhead that he identified the situation, the recognition a sick burning in his belly. He tried to say something, but his lips wouldn't move—like a dream, this was a dream, not even able to admit his knowledge of the future.
They got one, though not before it lobbed a healthy dose of ectoplasm at them, drenching him and Ray. Egon and Winston headed upstairs after the other. Peter tried to call them back, but instead of shouting he turned to Ray, trying ineffectively to shake the slime from his hands, "Remind me again why I willing go out to get covered in this?"
"Um, the pay?" Ray suggested, but his attention was on the slime, flexing his fingers through the golden goo. "Hey, this is different—" He waved his PKE meter over the ectoplasm, grinning when it started to beep. "It's charged!"
"Psychically?" Peter asked suspiciously. They had had bad luck with psycho-reactive slimes in the past. Externally he glared at the ectoplasm.
Inside himself he screamed, an endless shriek Ray couldn't hear. He hadn't heard. "I don't know—I think it's reacting to something in the area. I'm picking up a slight psychic field—hey! Look at that!"
No, Peter tried not to, no no no no...but he turned his head despite himself and saw it, hovering only a few feet away, a sphere of light. "What the—"
"It's registering as class three," Ray reported, scanning it eagerly, "but not ectoplasmic—it's not a ghost! Looks like some kind of energy matrix, bound by space—"
Peter's communicator buzzed, Egon's voice calling him, "Peter, are you there?" Mechanically he grabbed it, and his voice was light, "Yeah, you get the gooper?" while all he could really hear was his own wail, trapped too deep in his throat—
Ray reaching out, all wide-eyed curiosity. He couldn't look, except peripherally, because he hadn't looked, he hadn't noticed, except to warn, "Watch it, Ray, you don't know where that thing's been."
"It's harmless," Ray told him, "it's not powerful enough to hurt me—" Hand extended as if to beckon the light.
"Egon," he said, and he had partly turned away, why had he moved, he could barely see, only out of the blurry corner of his eye. "Get down here, there's something you'd want to see—"
Ray touched it. Flash of brilliance so bright it could swallow the sun, wave of energy surging out and knocking him to his knees. He blinked back the spots in his vision, but he didn't want to see, he wanted to close his eyes and not open them again.
"Ray?" Voice steady, for all that his mind was screaming over and over and over, NO, as if the denial would be any more effective than his actual words, "You okay—Ray? Ray?"
Footsteps on the stairs, Egon and Winston tramping down to join them, smoking trap in hand, and he was kneeling on the rough carpet, "Ray?" Where is he, Winston asked, and Egon seconded the query with a puzzled frown, and Peter stammered that he didn't know. They searched the area, and then they scanned it, and then they went to look outside.
They didn't find him. You won't, sobbed Peter, but it was in his head and he was the only one who could hear.
A day slipped past, a week. The search became increasingly desperate and he was yelling, Janine barricading reporters at the door. Major bust, another class six that couldn't wait, and there was only three of them. More journalists there, and Peter answered their questions calmly, yes they usually were four, no, he didn't know, if he was dead or missing he didn't know. "Good work, m'man," Winston congratulated his cool, and Peter nodded stiffly. When they got back to the firehouse he went to his office and stared at the desk blotter for a while before hefting his paperweight and throwing it at the wall. The glass ball shattered when it hit but Janine had gone home by then and Egon was in his lab and Winston was tending to Ecto-1. He swept up the pieces, and then he took a long shower and went to sleep. When he woke up he stared at the ceiling, tried not to look at the fourth empty bed, and told himself, he's dead. He's gone. Ray's dead.
Slimer had taken to sleeping on Ray's pillow, like a puppy missing its master. Peter walked to his bed and stood over the ghost, until its orange eyes popped open and it floated up, spindly green arms outstretched, "Peeeterrrr?" Asking as it had been, "Where Ray?"
"He's gone," Peter told it, "he's dead. He's not coming back."
"Raaaaay!" the ghost wailed, and tried to wrap its slimy self around Peter, but he fended it off, "Get out of here." Something different in his tone because Slimer obeyed, dodging into the wall with hardly a splash.
Winston came up a little while later, "Pete, you okay? Slimer..."
He was on his bed, staring at his shoes, picturing himself lacing them and unlacing them. String woven through the holes, a choice of patterns, over over or over under or under under—"Pete?" Winston asked quietly.
"He's gone," Peter said, as if it were the greatest of revelations, "Ray's gone, I saw it happen, I saw him vanish. We aren't going to find him. We shouldn't keep looking."
"Oh man," Winston breathed, and then he sat next to him and put his arm over his shoulders. "I..." He didn't try to deny it, because he knew it was true, probably knew for a couple days but hadn't dared suggest it. And because he had wanted to hope, or wanted the others to even if he couldn't. "I'm sorry, Peter, I'm so sorry."
And then he was crying, which was a shock, because Winston didn't cry, he was the solid, steady one, balance to the mad scientists he worked with and lived with and called his friends. Now he mourned the loss of one of those friends. Peter put his arms around him, and held him, and was the steady one for a little while. He was the rock, that was his namesake, wasn't it, Peter, even without the degree. That was why he had gone into psychology, because he had found he could support people, that people would lean on him whether he wanted them to or not. Winston needed that support now, and he gave it freely, because this was his friend and it was all he could give, and if he was crying himself Winston couldn't see it through his own tears.
It was Winston as well who reminded him, "Egon needs you, too," and that mixed the old grief with the fresh he was reliving, an agony so sharp it almost blinded him. He went to his friend's lab, stood in the doorway and watched him, and the incessant voice of memory whimpered, watch closely, a few more days and he'll too be gone.
"Spengs?" he asked aloud. Egon turned, and Peter was thrown again by how thin he looked, more than usual, and paler too. He hadn't been eating, he never did when involved in a project, but Peter hadn't been watching out for his friend this time and now he saw his negligence in the gaunt frame and hollowed cheeks. Bruised circles behind the glasses, dark against the pallid skin.
He didn't know what to say to those blue eyes, couldn't manage goodbye though he tried. All that emerged was, "What are you doing?"
"I am..." Egon glanced down at his hands, like he needed the visual cue to remind him of a task interrupted only moments before. "Recalibrating the meter..." He faltered, as if it were unclear even in his own mind, though nothing ever was. "If I can differentiate the correct polarities, I may be able to extend the scanning range beyond our current catalogue of universes to investigate..."
Peter walked over, took the scanner from the physicist's unresisting grasp and laid it on the table. "We don't have any evidence that he's in another universe. There was no sign of a dimensional rift, gate, or portal—you confirmed that six times over. There was a psychic surge—you verified it was powerful enough to...break down molecular bonds." Disintegration, like a proton beam to the tenth power. He probably hadn't felt a thing. It was a feeble comfort. "Egon, you've been studying this for the past week. What are the chances—what have you calculated the odds to be that Ray is alive, well, and we'll be able to find him and bring him back?"
For a long time he didn't answer. Peter waited, knowing his friend's love of precision, his faith in probabilities and the truth of mathematics. "Four point six oh four," he finally whispered, "to the negative second power." Infinitesimal. Peter couldn't grasp numbers with that same certainty, but he understood the gist of those odds. Too small to matter. Too small to lose a second friend trying to beat them.
"I may have miscalculated," Egon stated, not looking at Peter, no need to see his expression when he knew it already. "I can be too conservative, when..." When his friends were involved; when the people he cared about were at stake, he reacted with even greater striving for objectivity, and failed.
"I think you should go by the numbers on this one, Spengs," Peter whispered. Egon shook his head blindly, and Peter reached down, put his arms around the sloped shoulders. Egon stiffened, and then he shifted in his seat to turn into the embrace and accept its comfort, pressing his head against his friend's chest.
"I can't," he gasped, "I can't, not yet, there's still a chance, I have to try...there still might be..." And Peter held him and murmured, "Try, then, I'll help you, whatever it takes...I'm here." He was still here, and Egon was, and if they held each other tightly enough then perhaps they could keep all the pieces in place long enough to heal.
They closed the business for the next few days at least, stopped taking calls, contacted Ray's Aunt Lois and began planning...the memorial, the wake, he didn't know what to call it. No body to bury, so not exactly a funeral. The goodbye. Egon still spent much of his time in his lab, but Peter made certain he was dragged out for meals and visits from sympathetic friends. Janine kept her distance with more sensitivity than he would have credited to her aloud, but she had her own support to give and Egon could use it as much as he depended on Peter and Winston.
Peter felt time slipping, moments flowing through his fingers like water, memories rushing past. It had gone slower when he actually had lived them, hours taking forever, he submerged in work, preparations, anything to keep out of his head the last image of Ray's face, all alight with curiosity as he reached toward his destruction. If he had stopped him...he didn't know if he could have done anything, it might have gone for him even if Ray had tried to avoid it. Guilt was pointless, when no one blamed him, and there were people relying on him to hold it together, to hold them together.
And then he awoke, late in the night, and he knew what was to come and still he couldn't stop himself. Looked over and there were two empty beds, as he had known there would be. Silently he crept through the hall to Egon's lab, the physicist hunched over the counter, fiddling with a tiny box of electronics before him.
"Egon," he said sleepily, though behind his drooping lids he was wide awake and screaming. "It's four in the morning, get some sleep." Tomorrow was the wake, but he couldn't bring himself to say that.
Egon started, as if he hadn't heard Peter until he spoke, and then he turned. In the flickering florescent light his eyes sparked blue flame, wider than they ought to be, something manic dancing in their depths. "Peter," he gasped, "I was just going to get you, I didn't think this could wait—I've been a fool, a terrible fool, I was blind but I may understand, I might be able to see—"
"See what?" Peter frowned, approached him. For all his dedication the physicist had not exhibited such excitement since Ray's disappearance.
"Ray might be alive," Egon announced. "If I am right—but I may be wrong, that's why I have to test this, you see, I have to know, and once we have confirmation it may be—"
"Confirmation of what?" he snapped, then berated his temper, but his friend hadn't even noticed. More calmly he asked, "What test?"
"You'll see. It wasn't a ghost, he said—I have the PKE readings here, and tonight I saw them in a new light, something I hadn't considered. It was drawn to you and Ray, and I think I know why, and that's what I'm testing. I have to see it for myself to verify my hypothesis."
"All right," Peter agreed, while inside he writhed and begged this to end, knowing what was to come, and dreading it. "What do I do?"
"At this time, only observe. I'll need more assistance later." He reached across the table to a hastily-constructed array, flipped switches and turned the dial. "This will generate a field that, if I'm right, should draw another here for me to study."
"Another what?" demanded Peter, though even the first time he had guessed. But he was not entirely awake, and misjudged his friend's devotion, never would he have thought Egon would take such a risk—perhaps he had underestimated their capacities, or perhaps he thought it was worth the chance.
"Another—" and the answer came in the form of the thing itself, spinning over their heads, a brilliant globe.
"Egon," Peter whispered urgently, "what is it?" Death, he answered himself, it's death it's the end it's over—
Egon squinted at the PKE meter half-disassembled on the counter, nodded, "I believe it is—" and then it moved, before either of them could react, before Peter could do a thing to stop it or block it or at last resort take his friend's place. It swooped down and in its light Peter saw Egon's face, eyes wide and mouth opening in astonishment as it brushed his forehead.
A soundless burst of light and energy threw Peter against the door of the lab, knocking equipment aside and setting the meter clicking wildly. He picked himself up off the floor, whispered to the empty room, "Egon?" but of course there was no response.
Gasping, Peter Venkman jerked awake. He blinked around the room, shadowed forms coming into focus as his eyes adjusted. For the briefest instant he thought he saw the high ceiling and off-white walls of the firehouse, could almost hear the soft snores of his friends in their beds—
No. The walls were close and papered with a flowered print. He was alone, in his own bedroom, and it had all been a dream, but a true dream. Drawing up his knees he dropped his head into his hands, felt his hair spiky and damp with sweat. His throat was raw and it took a few minutes for his breathing to slow, body shuddering uncontrollably with reaction. Just a dream.
All that damn detective's fault, showing up with his entourage and his questions and that too too familiar look in the back of his eyes. He hadn't needed to be reminded, he should have just slammed the door in their faces. Should have done a better job of telling Zeddemore off, so he'd go and forget about Peter, leave him alone as Janine had finally done. It wouldn't make the memories disappear, but without the reminder he wouldn't be so likely to re-experience them at the whim of his unconscious.
Cant't handle the truth, Venkman, he berated himself savagely. You'd rather dream your little fantasies at night than remember what really happened—one of the first steps of healing, to acknowledge denial, to overcome it. Accept what life gave and move beyond it.
Tomorrow. He had agreed to show the detective their old base of operations, let his physicist associate poke around and see what he could learn. If he could find solid evidence to convince Ellison of the reality of his partner's loss, then he'd go. And maybe he'd fully convince Peter too, and he could see about getting on with his life. Such as it was.
Flopping backward onto the mattress he closed his eyes and tried to return to sleep, but flickering under his lids was Egon's expression of shocked surprise, and Ray's eager intrigued look, and overlaying those older memories was the recent one of Detective Ellison's blank face when Peter had told him off. He hadn't yet made amends for that cruelty, for all his clumsy attempts later.
With a groan he reached out, flicked on the bedstand lamp and rummaged through the drawer until found his goal, the little brown prescription bottle. Prying off the cap he shook two white pills into his hand, tiny oblong capsules. He regarded them for a moment before dry-swallowing. Dropping the bottle back in the drawer, he switched off the light and sank his head into the pillow, staring into the darkness, waiting.
As a psychologist he knew that drugs, though at times beneficial, were rarely the answer to a problem. But sometimes he needed sleep without dreams, without memories, without anything but oblivion. He monitored his intake carefully, and as it took him months to go through a single bottle his psychiatrist acquaintance had no hesitation about filling out a new prescription when required. He said it was for a client but they both knew the truth; borderline ethics perhaps but they hadn't broken any codes, legal or medical.
He wondered if the psychiatrist would be less willing if she knew the bottle was kept in his bedstand and not his medicine cabinet. If she knew of the few times, late in the night, when the day before had been too long or the dreams had been too vivid, and Peter would take out the pills and count how many he had left, and wonder how many could he swallow at one time. With or without a glass of water; he wondered too if that would make a difference.
Sometimes he would select two and gulp them down. Sometimes he would pour them all back in the bottle and lay staring up at the ceiling, until the alarm rang to tell him a new day had come.
Needed sleep tonight. Big day tomorrow, back to the station, and he had to be awake for it, alert, in control. Always in control, because if he slipped there was no one to catch him, and if he fell apart there would be no one to even try to put the pieces back together again. The sedative was dragging him down; automatically he resisted, and lost. It stole through his mind, smoothing it all into a flat dark expanse where nothing could stand, not even memories.
Blair wasn't sure if he were dreaming or not.
One minute he was in the white hallway, dancing ball of light before him, cautiously reaching toward it...
And then he wasn't.
Where he now was, and what he was doing, were currently matters of some debate. For a time there—a couple of times?—he had been walking with someone, someplace familiar and comfortable, and it all made sense, but that tumbled away. When had that been, surely only a few minutes ago, he really hadn't been here all that long. Seems like just moments before he had been elsewhere, joking about the minor miracle that they were both in the hospital but neither of them injured—neither of them, both of them, he and...Jim!
He grabbed onto the name and grimly refused to let it slip away, knowing it was necessary. Jim, build a picture to match the name, not short, taller than he was, blue eyes, shorter hair—jacket, gun, badge, Detective Jim Ellison—Sentinel!
Triumphant, he swirled the memory around in his mind, savoring the details which flooded through him. He wasn't sure what good they would do, precisely, but there was precious little else to occupy him here, and if he wanted to retain any semblance of sanity he was going to have to cope. Jim seemed an important key, his partner...
God, where was Jim? Was he here? Somewhere in this light darkness, dazzling void...the Sentinel, he reminded himself, and his senses would go haywire in a place like this. Not good. "Jim?" he asked, and was startled to hear his own voice, sounding remarkably normal.
No answer, though. Don't get too relieved yet, he might be the only one who could hear what he said; how'd he know if he were actually hearing his voice? His mind could as easily give him the illusion of speech...it was all in his mind. Was that where this was? His mind? Geesh, he thought he was a little more creative than that; this bland emptiness hardly suited him...did it? He was active, his partner was always ragging him about bouncing—
His partner! Jim! Hold that thought, Sandburg—with both hands, so a team of wild horses couldn't drag it away. And don't get sidetracked by mixed metaphors. There's nothing here but you and your thoughts, and those seem none too constant. Sounded like a retreat Naomi would pay to go on—Naomi, your mother, and don't you forget it.
Okay. Void, emptiness—was this his mind? If that was the case then where was his body—he could feel it around him. When he looked down he could see it, extended his arms out before him and regarded them suspiciously. Looked normal enough, down to the plaid flannel shirt he had been wearing when this had happened.
The shirt was a comfort. This was his body after all. He didn't think his spirit alone would dare approach the Pearly Gates in the ragged thing—it'd be embarrassing. Surely he'd be in white robes, or at the very least a classy tux, with his hair neatly tied back. Like when he and Jim went out with—Jim! Damn, he'd let it slip away again.
Concentrate on that. Jim, if he wasn't here, must be looking for him. If he was indeed somewhere that he could be found, and not, say, lying in a coma and dreaming this all. In that case Jim would be by his bed, as he had sat up with him that time with the Golden, talking, ordering him to wake up. "You're missing a great Jags game, Sandburg." He could almost hear his partner saying it.
Maybe he was hearing him, registering it subconsciously. "Jim? I'm still here, keep waiting—are you there? Jim?" No answer, but what had he been expecting?
He must be worried sick either way. "Don't blame yourself for this one, Jim," Blair spoke tentatively to the emptiness. "I got into this mess all by myself. But if you can figure a way to get me out of it, I'd really appreciate it..." He swallowed. How long would it take?
How long had he been here, anyway? What was he doing here—where was here to begin with?
Blair wasn't sure if he were dreaming or not...
Venkman turned up outside the hotel at nine o'clock sharp. Winston had arrived a few minutes before and seemed surprised by his former colleague's punctuality, but only shook his head, saying nothing.
The psychologist was bright-eyed and wide awake, greeting them with a nod and a curt, "Good morning." He was dressed in neat business casual, sweater and slacks under the longcoat, brown hair carefully combed to the side.
He looked like hell. To Jim's practiced eye Venkman had the air of a man who had walked away from a plane crash—outwardly calm, inside already in shock. His face had the distant, desperate look of someone who had questioned fate and not yet received an answer.
To them he only said, "Come on, can't keep the cobwebs waiting," and impatiently tapped his foot while Simon brought over their rental.
While they stood there Winston leaned over and murmured into Venkman's ear, low enough that Jim had to raise his hearing, "Pete, you sure you're up to this?"
Peter glared, opened his mouth and then shook his head, anger draining from his countenance as he whispered back, "Yeah, I'll be okay. Don't worry about Dr. Venkman."
"No sweat, m'man." Winston clasped his arm briefly. "Just remember, I'm here."
"I know." In the bright morning sun he was pale, face drawn. "Thanks."
Simon came and they piled in. Venkman led in his own car and they followed, though it was hardly necessary with Winston to direct them. Jim caught Sam craning his neck a couple times, frowning at the psychologist's vehicle ahead, or maybe it was his driving that interested him. When Jim mentioned it off-handed he only shook his head, but there was a troubled look to his eyes that concerned the Sentinel.
They pulled up in front of a dilapidated brick building—an old firehouse? It sure looked like one, an impression confirmed by the long fire pole Jim could see through a crack in the boarded windows. The door was padlocked but Venkman produced the key and led them inside.
If they had truly been in the business of busting ghosts this would have been the place to find them. It was as silent as a tomb, their footsteps echoing on the floorboards. Despite Venkman's comment about cobwebs everything looked well-tended, floors swept, furniture covered with white sheets. On the front desk an older model computer sat in silence, wrapped in plastic. Clean and tidy, but there was such a feeling of loneliness about it, oppressed isolation, that Jim all but shivered.
"Never understood why you kept the place," Winston remarked in a hushed voice, affected as well. Probably even more so; he knew the building when it had been an active business, people in the halls, phones ringing.
Venkman shrugged. Jim noticed he kept his eyes on the ground, no so much as glancing at the draped furniture or closed doors. "Never know when the property value might go up again."
"Morning, Sam, so this is the—what the heck is that?"
Jim turned. Al had appeared a few feet away from his friend, wearing a silver and red pin-stripe jacket, with maroon pants to match. The object of his interest was not the flashing device in his hands but apparently something at the bottom of the stairs he was peering down. "Sam, I'm picking up some crazy energy readings from this, maybe—"
"What's in the basement?" Jim asked bluntly.
Al swung around and saw the Sentinel, groaned. "Uhh...good morning, detective."
Peter, of course blind to the brightly-attired man next to him, turned to Jim. The faintest smile played around his lips. "Why do you ask?"
Before he could be stopped the detective strode over, looked down the stairs himself. He immediately spotted what had gotten Al's attention. From this angle he couldn't tell if it was a safe or a nuclear reactor, but whatever it was it was big, complicated, and emanating an energy that made the hairs on his arms prickle. Probably not a normal reaction...but then, that thing was hardly a normal piece of business equipment. "What is it?"
"That," Venkman said, passing Jim and starting down into the basement, "is the other reason I kept the place. Making sure the power's maintained so it functions."
Winston joined the detective at the top of the stairs. "Holy—I almost forgot about that. The containment unit."
As they followed him down Simon quizzed his cousin, "What does it contain?"
Zeddemore hesitated, glancing thoughtfully from his old coworker to the other men. It was Venkman who answered. Standing before the unit, arms crossed, he stated evenly, "Ghosts."
Al, who had sidled up to examine the thing's control panel, jumped back as if he'd been bitten. Simon blinked at his cousin, and Jim and Sam exchanged looks of equal measure curiosity and skepticism.
Winston shrugged. "No joke, guys. We caught 'em; we had to do something with 'em."
"There wasn't a big market for caged ghouls," Venkman appended. "Can't imagine why not."
"You..." Simon dared walk forward and lay his hand against the thick metal shielding. Jim wondered at his impetuosity; he had no desire to get near the thing himself. Ten feet away and it still set his teeth on edge. "You actually captured them—and incarcerated them?" He couldn't tell if his captain was buying into it or just humoring his cousin.
"Yeah." Venkman would have sounded less convincing if he had evinced the slightest interest in the proposition. As it was he spoke with such ennui that it was difficult to doubt him. "Stuffed them all in here until the end of time or until we found a better solution. Which isn't likely, now."
"Not all of them," Winston corrected quietly. "A few...went away on their own. And some of them weren't making trouble—they're not all bad, actually. Matter of fact..." Suddenly he glanced around as if recalling something. "Pete," very carefully, "what did happen to the spud? If he were around it'd be easier for them..."
"Slimer?" Venkman waved in an indeterminate direction. "He went away." At Winston's expression, "No, not like that. He just...left."
"You didn't..?" Zeddemore looked meaningfully toward the containment unit, suspicion heavy in his tone.
Irritation burned in the psychologist's eyes. "No," he snapped, "he left before I could get around to it. Some people—things are smart enough to know when they're not wanted." He ran his hand through his hair, obliterating the neat part, and exhaled in a shaky laugh. "Besides, you can't just stick people in front of a gooper and make them believe. If they're stubborn enough it'll just be another hoax." He looked at the others. "Either they'll come around eventually, or they won't, but it's their decision. Don't try to mess with people's beliefs, you'll just make yourself nuts. I should know. I'm a professional."
He strode forward, through Al, who had apparently overcome his fear of the supernatural enough to scan the unit. The hologram sent a quick glare at the unaware psychologist, then grumbled to Sam, "Man knows there's ghosts all over the place and still doesn't watch where he's going," before returning to his task. Jim caught Sam suppressing a grin and felt a sudden pang, observing the familiarity between them, a camaraderie that could only have developed from years of friendship.
Fortunate that Venkman couldn't see it; as painful as it was for Jim the reminder would have stung him far more, loss weighing so heavily on the man. Oblivious to the sympathy the psychologist announced, "You came to look at Dr. Spengler's equipment, right? His lab's on the second floor, first door on the right. I imagine you want to check it out as soon as possible."
They started upstairs. Jim noted that Venkman waited until the others were ahead before following them; he had also observed how he had maneuvered himself between the containment unit and his guests. Terribly protective. In the middle of the stairs he waited until Venkman set his foot on the bottom step, asked in an undertone, "What happens if that thing is turned off?"
Venkman stared up at him, replied slowly, "Then it's off—and open. School's out," and he pantomimed an explosion, spreading his arms wide. "It did happen once, when we were first starting up. Took us a while to clean up the mess—and we've got a lot more in there now."
His teeth flashed in a twisted smirk. "You know, occasionally I think about coming down here and yanking the plug. There's safeguards, but I know what switches to pull. Just a couple buttons and goodbye, ghosts. Put an end to it once and for all. Maybe then people would stop calling, wondering if there's anyone available for just one bust—they get desperate and once in a while manage to track me down, no matter where I go. The unit going up in smoke would be a big enough 'out of business' sign for even those idiots to read."
"Exactly what would happen?" Jim demanded.
"Well..." Venkman glanced over his shoulder at it. "The unit itself would go up in smoke, like I said. The building too, maybe the whole block; I'm not clear on the exact physics. And every ghost, gooper, ghoulie, and goblin trapped inside would come out to play—after being cooped up for so long, they probably have some real interesting games in mind." With a final look behind him he started up the stairs again. "Don't worry your pretty little head about it, detective; I haven't done it yet, have I?"
Jim stared at him as he passed. He hadn't missed the subtle emphasis on the 'yet' in the man's last sentence, nor the odd gleam in his emerald eyes. He also hadn't missed that Venkman had neglected to mention what would happen to himself, were he indeed at ground zero when it shut down. It wouldn't be pleasant, the detective surmised.
He wished Blair were here. His partner's degree might be in anthropology, but he had a natural ability when it came to handling people. A far sight better than this psychologist, at least, doctorate or not...that wasn't fair to Venkman. The way Winston treated him, Janine's responses—all alluded to a very different man. He had gotten a glimpse of that last evening, the compassion which had briefly surfaced.
Blair was far better equipped to draw that out. His partner could almost invariably find the good in people, and once found would not let it be re-hidden. He had lost most of his naivete, the innocence he had when he had first started working with Jim—he was less willing to trust, no longer thought that everyone's motives were inherently pure. But he had never lost his desire to see them as good, and would work to make them so. To save them—Jim had benefited from that himself. Where would he be without Blair?
In a mental ward, of course, raving about heightened sensations with no medical explanations. Only Blair had known that it wasn't all in his head. But even if his senses had never resurfaced, even if he had never needed support as a Sentinel, Jim would still have needed Blair. He might never have found him, of course—and that was a chilling thought—but no other partner would have ever measured up to Sandburg. He was unique, something Simon would say with a shake of the head and a barely suppressed smile. But it was absolutely true, and the captain knew it as well as anyone.
Jim knew what he had been like before Blair had entered his life—he hadn't needed Sentinel ears to overhear what had been said behind his back at the station. He didn't want to return to that, the job and nothing else, empty loft, empty calendar, empty life. Even if his senses still functioned without guidance—something much in doubt—he wouldn't be half the detective he was without Blair's insight and advice and backup when things got tough. And no one could fill that spot but Sandburg. However he might force himself to accept another partner, they would never be able to mend the gaps Blair would leave.
Don't need to dwell on that now. You'll get him back—they're upstairs now, finding the way. Sam said he leapt into people to put things right; no matter what he managed to accomplish it wouldn't count for much if someone like Blair died for it. He'd come back. He even might be able to help Venkman's attitude a bit...though even Sandburg wasn't a miracle worker. Still, he could accomplish some amazing things, given half a chance. Including getting out of situations tighter than this one. He'll come through.
With a deep breath Jim climbed the rest of the stairs, trying to forget he could be wrong.
He was getting terribly tired of this. For the—first? Tenth? Thousandth?—for yet another time, Blair shook himself and tried to remember where he was. Why he was. Who he was, a detail that persistently escaped him. Every time he recaptured it he experienced a moment of sheer panic. Is this what it's like to go mad? Or had he already done so, and everything he might remember from before was a dream...
Something happened then, like a wave moving over him, invisible, inaudible, but when it came he couldn't breathe or speak or move. Paralyzed he hung there until it passed, leaving him gasping. Smothered by a non-existent blanket, that was a new one.
No. It had happened before, he was positive. Almost positive. Possibly but not quite sure. Lost it again...he flailed, mentally and physically, until he had a sudden vivid memory of his partner waking him out of a similar nightmare. Partner. Jim. He had it back.
Was Jim here? He suspected he had already checked, but it couldn't hurt. Throwing back his head he shouted, "JIM!" No response, of course he had known there wouldn't be. Can't blame a guy for trying. You could get pretty bored in a place like this, no one to talk to except yourself.
No one...his thoughts dipped down a tangent he couldn't recall covering before. Jim wasn't here, but that didn't mean he was alone. Somebody might have been behind that recent strangulation attempt, for instance, and if he was going to be persecuted it would be interesting to see his tormentor's face.
Tentatively he said, "Hello? Anyone around?" When that got the expected lack of response, he threw all caution to the wind and screamed into the void, "Is anybody out there?!"
And damned if there weren't people. Two of them, two men, some distance ahead. He could hear their voices clearly, but they didn't seem to notice his presence. No matter; for the moment he was content simply having a diversion outside of his own head.
One of them lunged forward, gasping, and Blair wondered if he had fallen prey to whatever had struck before. The other man caught him, held him while he calmed, breathing slowing. "Are you all right?" he inquired, bass voice veiled with ill-disguised concern.
"I...I was falling—I couldn't breathe!" he panted. "I couldn't move, I couldn't..." he trailed off, mumbling under his breath, then repeated it several times in a steadier voice, like a mantra, a name, "Peter, Peter, Peter..."
"He isn't here," the other man answered, shifting so he wasn't holding his friend so tightly but not yet releasing him.
"I know," he said, twisting, not enough to break from the embrace. "I know that, it's just...every time I wake up, I say it."
"I know," the deep voice quiet.
"I have to," he insisted. "I have to, I'm so afraid I'll forget, everything falls away, who I am, who you are, but I don't want to forget him. I won't."
"Nor will I," seconded his friend with low intensity.
"Do you—" his breath caught in his throat but he mastered it, "do you have any ideas yet where we are?"
"No." Reluctantly the other pulled back, still resting a hand on his shoulder. "Not yet."
"I wish I had Tobin's Guide," he murmured. "If this is a nether realm, any of them...I wish I had a PKE meter. I wish I had a video game. I wish I had something!"
"A meter might do us the most good," remarked his friend. "Though I would be fine with a cup of cocoa and a scientific journal—or the video game. Anything would be better than nothing."
"We've got plenty of nothing," he agreed.
"And Gershwin had no idea what he was talking about when he wrote that."
He actually laughed aloud, a surprising sound to break the stillness. Happily pointing out, "I have you, though!"
"And I, you. I don't know if I could manage at all, without your company."
"You would have," he assured his friend. "I did, for a little while." He frowned. "At least, I think I did...." The silence hung heavy for a few minutes.
Well, if they had exhausted their repetoire, he had more to add. Drawing himself up—attempting to stand was pointless; he might have already been standing, or perhaps merely floating—he waved his arms, shouted, "Hello! Over here! Can you—"
They jumped the moment he opened his mouth, peered in his direction. The taller of the two squinted through his glasses and called out, "Hello—is someone there—"
Before he could respond it crashed over him again, abruptly as before, and it lasted longer. When the paralysis ended at first all he could do was cough. Clutching his chest, he glanced around, then wondered what he was looking for. Had there been something...
He almost grabbed it, but weasel-like the thought slid from his mind and scurried into the void. Very close, though, he had almost caught it, and next time perhaps he would be ready to hold on tightly enough. Hold it until Jim came—because Jim would come, of that he was sure. Trust in his Sentinel. What was the good of a partnership without trust—he wouldn't know, because this was the only one he was in. And he had that trust.
See, he smugly informed the empty air, I've got it. Jim Jim Jim, James Ellison, my partner, my friend, who's coming for me. And I'm going to make sure that memory doesn't go anywhere. I'm learning. I'll beat you yet.
He hoped it would do him some good.
Sam Beckett's mouth dropped open when he sat before the lab table and saw what was spread out there, under the transparent plastic. With Jim's help he drew the cover aside to examine the equipment more closely. From the doorway Venkman observed the process, his face betraying nothing, if he were in fact feeling anything at all.
Some of the objects were inherently obvious as to function. That was an energy meter of some sort—what the antennae were for was a matter of debate. That was a basic generator, though there were some bizarre modifications attached to it. And that was a probe, also adjusted for a particular purpose. To Sam's practiced eye everything was designed with a very specific goal—relating to energy fields, a particular type of energy, though he hadn't yet deduced precisely what type was under investigation. Not nuclear, not electromagnetic..."This is incredible." Some of these things were pure genius—Sam recognized his own talents clearly enough in others. "Did Dr. Spengler make all of these?"
Winston shot a glance at Peter, answered when it was clear he wouldn't. "Egon designed them, I think. Ray actually built most of them—though I think Egon made some of this stuff after..." He swallowed, "After."
"And before he split too," Al finished for him, leaning over Sam's shoulder for a better look. They all were staring with varying degrees of interest, but Al was probably the only one who could appreciate any of it. "Hm, looks like some of the stuff you used to doodle in margins, even if you never built most of them. Think you can make some sense out of this?"
"Maybe." He was aware of everyone's eyes on him. Dividing their attention evenly between the fascinating gizmos and the man that might be able to do something with them. Only might...but he didn't want to break their confidence that quickly. "I...it doesn't look completely unfamiliar. It would help if I had somewhere to start—do you know what any of this is?"
Winston came forward again. "That," pointing at the antennaed scanner, "is a PKE meter."
"Psycho-Kinetic Energy," Venkman volunteered from the doorway before Sam could ask. "The power generator is taken from a proton pack, originally used to make a high-energy particle beam. I don't know what he was using it for. The box on the far left corner is a ghost trap—same general principle as the containment unit, but temporary." He fell silent again, seemingly oblivious to the looks of surprise he had garnered.
"You guys really were serious, weren't you," Simon muttered, not clear who he was directing the comment to. Good point, however. Sam wasn't sure if he could accept this or not; he had never been one to believe in the supernatural, but during his leaps he had encountered certain still-unexplained phenomena. And if a physicist with the skills Spengler had possessed had bought into it, there must have been something to the idea.
Al, of course, had no trouble whatsoever believing everything they said. The Observer had gone bug-eyed at the explanation of PKE, and now was regarding the ghost trap as if he expected a boogieman to come flying out any second now. Sam glanced at it, then turned back to the objects at hand, as they appeared to be—
He whirled in a classic double take, spying what sat on the floor before the table between the trap and the meter. It was all he could do not to rub his eyes and pinch himself. "Al, do you see that?"
Al tore himself away from the fascination of the trap, followed Sam's gaze and almost dropped the link. Cautiously he approached, as if his holographic steps could somehow disturb it. "Sam..."
"Al, is that—is that what I think it is?"
Al circled it once, inspecting from all angles, and nodded slowly. "Looks like." His eyes were round. "Ziggy hypothesizes it's working model..."
"What?" Ellison's sharp query brought Sam back to his senses. Snapping toward Winston and Peter he demanded, "Do you know what that is?"
They shook their heads. Winston began, "I never saw it before—"
"Egon made it." Venkman's tone could have splintered crystal. "Sort of a pet project he started a while ago. He was working on it the last night."
"What is it?" Jim asked.
Sam blinked at him, knowing it wouldn't mean anything. Except, perhaps, the solution to everything. But there was no way Ellison would understand that; Sam wasn't sure he did himself. "It's a quantum accelerator," he explained anyway. "It's how I leaped..."
Three hours later Jim still hadn't a clue what Beckett was talking about. The physicist had taken a few minutes to himself tear away from the device on the floor, the accelerator. Then he had bent over everything laid out on the table and began to tinker. His single-minded intensity was familiar to Jim, though Blair tended to focus more on scholarly papers and artifacts than high-tech gadgetry.
After watching him with growing confusion they had come to a mutual decision to leave the physicist in peace and had relocated downstairs. Winston and Simon sat on a sheet-covered waiting room couch and began catching up on what they had missed in their respective lives. Winston periodically made an attempt to draw Peter into the conversation, but Venkman answered only in monosyllables. He wouldn't sit down, leaning against the doorway with his arms crossed. Occasionally he would glance up the stairs to the lab.
Jim's own attention was focused there as well. Fortunately Simon noticed his detective's ears were elsewhere and didn't try to speak to him, though he kept looking in his direction. Checking that he wasn't zoning. Jim sent a silent thanks to his captain and kept listening.
It would have helped if he understood half of what they were saying. Odd attire and hologramatic state aside, Al must have been educated at some higher institute. Jim couldn't comprehend most the vocabulary they bandied about. Quantum energies and singularities, spontaneous production/materialization of tachyon particles—theoretical physics sounded worse than cultural anthropology. A lot worse. If ever he had wondered why Blair hadn't gone into the hard sciences...
Something beeped, loud enough to make him jump. Fortunately no one noticed him reacting to an inaudible sound. In the lab Sam said victoriously, "That's it, this PKE meter's working again—I think. Hey, it registers you!"
"What?" Al sounded annoyed or anxious, hard to say which. He disliked being perceived by anyone but Sam, Jim had observed.
"It's registering you, low-level energy. Class two, I think it's reading. But this is more important, it has a recording function—I think it was on when Dr. Spengler—" He broke off. After a moment he resumed, "It recorded the...whatever it was when it came, captured the actual transition, and then short-circuited. Al, look at this reading."
Another pause as the Observer looked, which lengthened into an unreasonable silence. Jim listened all the more closely, wishing he could see. There must be some excuse to go up there... Al coughed. "Sam..."
"That is it, isn't it?" Sam's tone was oddly sharp. "The same frequency, exactly the same. At least if the equations were halfway accurate. Were they?"
Long gap before Al finally replied, "Yeah. Yeah, they were. And that's it—that's the same frequency we got when you leaped."
"Which means..." Sam hesitated. Say it, Jim silently implored. If they were suggesting what he thought they were...He didn't, though, instead asking, "Al, I've been in New York before, I know I have been. When was the last time—when was the latest leap here, before now?"
Al sounded as if the words were dragged from him. "I can't tell you that, you know I can't, it's against the rules—"
"Dammit, Al!" Uncharacteristic impatience in his tone.
His friend sounded more taken aback than disturbed, "Sam, you know the way it works—you set up these codes! What you can remember, I can confirm, but I can't offer anything direct about the project—I'm surprised you even remembered that frequency—"
"You remembered it well enough," Sam pointed out.
"Yeah, well," Al sounded uncomfortable, "I haven't forgotten much of that night, Sam. But this...I can't give you information about past leaps."
"Al," and there was no mistaking the anger, "when I wrote those rules I had no idea what I was getting myself into. You know that. I wrote them, I can break them—"
"It doesn't work like that—"
"Al, a man's life is at stake here!" When Al did not respond, he continued in softer tones, "Maybe three lives. Maybe more. If what I'm thinking is the case—"
"You were here." Al's voice was just as quiet, almost without intonation. "You wouldn't remember, it was a nothing leap, almost four years ago, our time. You leaped into a stockbroker for about fifteen hours." He gave the date and the address. Little over a year and a half ago, at odds with what Al had said regarding 'our time'. The address was in downtown Manhattan.
"What happened?" Sam pushed.
"You did what you were there to do and leapt out again, as usual. Something about calling his daughter, getting them back together—Sam, I hardly remember it myself! I didn't, until I checked Ziggy's databanks just now...but it was right across the street. The office building opposite you had some supernatural troubles, they called the Ghostbusters..."
"And that's when Dr. Stantz vanished," Sam breathed. "Al, do you get it?"
"Sam," Al sounded almost frantic, "there's no way to be sure, we can't prove anything—"
"It's circumstantial, maybe," Sam agreed, "correlation does not necessarily imply causation—but it's awfully coincidental, don't you think? What are the odds—the frequency was the same, the visual phenomenon sounds fairly similar...Dr. Spengler reached the same conclusions, Al, and he didn't know about the project! He had it all set up, he just didn't have the chance to activate it. But I know what he was trying to do—it wouldn't be too difficult to replicate it. If I could—"
"Sam!" and the desperation in his voice was impossible to mistake, "the last time you tried this you never came back!"
"And if we don't try this then neither will Blair Sandburg."
"I think we should check how they're doing," Jim announced, lunging to his feet. Simon opened his mouth, closed it upon catching sight of his expression and only nodded agreement. Venkman would have led the way but Jim brushed past him, charging up the stairs to bang through the door. "Got anything?"
Sam jumped, turned to face them. Al stood behind him, worrying his unlit cigar and looking decidedly unhappy. "I may," Beckett answered slowly.
"It's dangerous," Al stated, meeting Jim's gaze with more openness than before.
"There is a risk—" Sam began.
"If there's a risk I'll take it," Jim broke in. "Just tell me what to do."
"Hold on," Simon interrupted. "If this is dangerous—"
"Simon, he's my partner."
"And you're my detective," the captain shot back. "I'm responsible for both of you—" Jim saw Winston smile wryly at Peter. Venkman came close to returning it.
"Sir, I think that in this—"
"It doesn't matter," Sam cut them both off. His own expression was peaceful, belying the directness of his words. "Neither of you could do this. For the simple fact that none of you leapt into Blair. I did. There's a chance I can fix that."
"If it works," muttered Al.
"If it works," Sam conceded. "I'm willing to take the chance—there's a good possibility I was responsible for this to begin with. All of it." His eyes slid over to Venkman, still on the threshold. "I'm sorry." Quietly, but worlds of sincerity in the simple phrase. "I want to put it right."
"There's a chance?" Jim questioned. "How big?" He ignored Al, who was looking toward him imploringly. Didn't take a Sentinel to hear his thoughts—he didn't want to risk this. But Beckett was willing...no. If it was a suicide mission then he couldn't agree to it and still trust in his own integrity. He wouldn't bargain lives. Though he had to steel all his resolve against the voice inside commanding they go through with it this instant, damn the consequences.
"It's hard to be sure," Sam admitted. "Fairly high odds, I'd say. And the danger isn't that great. The chances are best that nothing will happen at all...but it's worth the try, at least."
"Let's try, then," Jim said, and avoided Al's eyes. The hologram lowered his head, shaking it ruefully. "What do we do?"
"Watch, mostly," Sam told him. He handed Jim a keypad attached to the accelerator by means of several tangled wires, instructing him as to which buttons to press and when. The sequence was easy enough; either the device was not as complex as it looked, or Beckett had simplified it tremendously. Almost definitely the latter. He was taking a big risk, Jim realized—if something happened, the only one who'd have any idea what to do would be Al. And as the hologram couldn't physically affect anything he wouldn't be any help, unless he could explain a solution very quickly. No wonder he was on the verge of panic.
Sam, on the other hand, was the picture of calm. He nodded a final time when Jim confirmed his understanding, walked over to the accelerator and put his hands, finger splayed, over the small silver dome topping it. His voice was steady, "If this works, I'll leap out of here. In that case—goodbye. It's been...interesting working with you. I'm glad I got to meet you." As himself, Jim realized, rather than in someone else's form and position. Not something that happened very often; it must be special.
"Goodbye," Jim told him, and was echoed by the others. He had liked Beckett himself; in other circumstances he would have wanted to know him better. Now, though, he was anxious for this to be over, more than ready to have his partner back at his side.
At Sam's nod he pushed the button. The dome began to glow, a faint high-pitched hum emanating from it. Beckett closed his eyes, bracing himself. Al stared, fascination almost beating out the apprehension in his eyes. Jim couldn't see the others but he could hear their breathing quicken.
He pressed the second button, then nearly cried out when the dome flared, brilliance pouring from it, painfully bright. Through pinprick pupils he could make out Sam's form outlined in cobalt flame, his silhouette too dazzling white to see. Around him the others exclaimed in varying tones of amazement; he couldn't hear Al among them.
Counting carefully, three one-thousand, four one-thousand, five—he hit the first button again. The brilliance went dark. With a final blue flash the fire vanished, and Jim forced his pupils to dilate, adjusting to the laboratory lighting, dim compared to the former blaze.
A figure still stood before the accelerator, hands pressed against the gray dome. When the energy had entirely faded he sagged as if his own power had been cut as well.
Jim shot forward in time to catch Blair before he collapsed.
For an instant he feared he was holding a corpse, so still was the body in his arms. Then Sandburg gasped, inhaled hugely and out again, the air hissing from his lungs. Carefully Jim lowered him to the floor, kneeling to support his head.
With breath came awareness, and suddenly he was clutching at Jim, struggling against the floor. "Easy, Blair." Jim wrapped his arms around him and held his partner close, Sandburg's curls brushing his chin. They had been in this position before and that had been a close one, the drug Golden almost killing him before he had recovered. But his pulse wasn't slowing so drastically now; instead it was evening out, falling into a rhythm he knew as well as his own.
This was Blair, truly; he could never mistake that heartbeat. It jumped again as he became aware of his surroundings. "Jim?"
"Right here, Chief," he affirmed.
Blair squirmed around to blink up at him, shook his head and abruptly pushed away to sit under his own power. "Sorry, man, no idea..." He broke off as other details of his environment became evident, eyes wide as he stared around at the lab, Simon watching him closely, Winston and Peter more ambivalent. "Uh..."
Gathering his legs under him he made an effort to stand. Jim jumped to his feet and pulled him up, hooking an arm under his elbow to brace him. Leaning on the lab table on his other side Blair managed to keep upright, his strength improving as he asked, "Do I want to know what happened?"
"Can't say, Chief," Jim said blandly. "Do you?"
"Is that you, Sandburg?" Simon demanded. "You really there?" He squinted as if he could see through the aura to the man beneath it.
"Uh...yeah, Simon, I think I am."
"It's Blair," asserted Jim. "Sam's gone." As was Al, he noted. They were back to leaping—wherever. The future; the past, too, if what Jim suspected was the case. He wished them all the luck in the world, content with what had been recovered.
As usual Blair could read far more in his words than what he said. "Who's—" he began, then interrupted himself, "Okay, what is going on? Where are we? That skyline," he gestured toward the window with one hand, Jim still grasping the other, "doesn't look like Cascade's."
"It's New York," Winston told him, stepping forward. "Welcome to the Big Apple—nice to meet the real you. I'm Winston Zeddemore, cousin to your captain here."
Blair shook his hand, frowning. "Hi. Blair Sandburg. Do you know what's going on?"
"Not a clue," Winston confessed.
"I was afraid of that. Jim? Simon?" Looking from partner to captain, "I'm getting the feeling this is going to be a long story."
"Let's start from your end," Jim requested. "What's the last thing that happened, that you remember?"
Blair put his hands to his temples, closing his eyes. "I...we were at the hospital, right, Jim? And there was this—thing there. I think. It glowed. Did you—was it there?"
"It was," confirmed Jim, clasping his partner's shoulder.
"It didn't seem to be fire, though; it wasn't warm. I tried to touch it..."
"Yeah, Chief." Jim cuffed him lightly. "Do me a favor and keep your hands yourself next time."
"Sorry, man!" Then, as if he could see more in Jim's face than the detective thought he was expressing, he repeated, "Jim, I'm sorry," in a far more reserved and private tone. Drawing a nearly steady breath, "Next thing I knew I was—I don't know. There was nothing there, I was sort of floating in a void. So empty..."
"Were you alone?"
Blair's head snapped around at Venkman's low question. "Whoa, sorry, man, didn't see you. Hello."
"This is Dr. Venkman," Jim introduced him, not giving the man the chance to snub his partner.
"'Doctor'?" Blair latched onto that rather than Venkman's curt nod. "Something here I should know about? This doesn't look like a hospital."
"It isn't, for once," Simon told him. "He's not here for that. He's a psychologist."
"A psychologist!" Blair's eyebrows shot up into his hair; then he considered this in a more logical light. "Well, I had guessed it might be something like that, though since you saw it too, Jim, I was hoping..." Abruptly he paused, then snapped his fingers. "Hold it. I know that name—Dr. Venkman? And you're Dr. Zeddemore?" He didn't give Winston the chance to protest, rushed on, "I knew that sounded familiar—oh man. You're the Ghostbusters, aren't you! I had this friend a few years back who loved you guys, must've seen the movie a dozen times, clipped every article he could find. Not that there were many in Cascade, but..." He coughed. "I thought it was all a publicity stunt, to be honest, but given that light we saw—you're for real, aren't you!"
Leave it to Sandburg to identify the defunct group. Zeddemore hung his head, lacking the energy to face Blair's eager inquisition. Venkman was impossible to read; he didn't move a muscle, though his green eyes locked onto the anthropologist with dangerous intensity. Oblivious, his partner rattled on, "Then that thing was a—oh man. What'd it do to me, possession? Did you bring me here to get examined by the experts? Dr. Peter Venkman himself, parapsychologist extra—" He frowned, gaze suddenly turning inward.
When he resumed his voice was distant but gaining certainty. "Peter...that's what he said, that was the name. You got to be him! Can't be a coincidence—in my...dream, whatever it was, wherever I was. I heard about you somehow, Dr. Venkman—this just popped into my head, at one point someone else was there. These two men, I couldn't see them clearly, but I could hear them. One of them said 'Peter', over and over—he didn't want to forget it, that's what he told the other one."
Winston swallowed; Jim could hear his throat work before words actually came. Venkman might have been a photograph tacked to the wall for all the motion he made. At last Zeddemore got out, "What's they look like?"
"The men?" Blair closed his eyes, trying to conjure up the memory. "One was tall, blond I think. The other was stocky, darker hair—he had a friendly voice. The first man sounded very intelligent from the way he spoke, not that his friend didn't seem bright, but the language he used—he had glasses, too. That might be why I'm thinking intelligent." Always the anthropologist, conscious of social stereotypes. "His voice was low, restrained."
"Egon," Winston breathed, almost too quiet to be heard.
"The other guy, he sounded pretty stressed, like it was getting to him—don't blame him, all that nothing was getting to me, too." Jim patted his shoulder to assure him he was out of it. Assuring himself of the same. "But then he was almost cheerful, wouldn't let it bring him down. Fighting it and winning. Like he was going to be happy or else."
"Ray," whispered Winston. He dropped onto one of the lab stools, dark skin gray. Simon grasped his cousin's arm to keep him from sliding off his seat. Blair reached out, concern in his face, "Hey, man, what's wrong?"
Jim looked, but Venkman was no longer in the doorway. He was not in sight when Jim stuck his head out of the lab and glanced up and down the hall. With a muttered oath the Sentinel opened his hearing and scanned. Four heartbeats in the lab, including his and his partner's. None in the hall or down the stairs but behind one of the doors, and over the rapid pulse he heard ragged breathing. Jim strode in that direction.
This place must have been their bedroom, when the team had still lived in the firehouse. Four beds, two against either wall, were tied and covered with the same white cloth as the rest of the furniture. The only illumination came from the windows, sunbeams slanting through the room and stirring faint whirls of dust in the air.
Peter Venkman had his back to the wall at the right of the door, eyes closed against the light. As Jim watched he sank to the floor and buried his face in his hands.
The detective purposely scuffed his shoes as he entered. Venkman's head jerked up, eyes dry for all that his breath caught in his throat. He looked toward Jim but the green was clouded, unseeing. "They...they're alive. He saw them, Ray, Egon. They're alive."
"Yeah," Jim agreed, crouching beside him.
Peter stared at his hands as if trying to see something invisible held between them. "They're alive," he repeated, and his voice shook.
Carefully Jim reached out, put his arm over the trembling shoulders. "Oh God," Venkman moaned, and then he began to sob, muted yet every gasp sounded like it would rend him in two. Jim held on as he huddled there, not trying to embrace him fully, knowing he couldn't share the grief, but enough that Peter would know he was not so alone after all, that he would not be rejected for his pain.
Quiet footsteps, hand on his own shoulder. He glanced up into his partner's blue eyes. Blair said nothing; Jim questioned him with a slight tilt of the head toward Peter. "Simon told me," Blair mouthed, compassion clear on his features. He squeezed Jim's shoulder and backed away. At the doorway Jim could see Simon and Winston hovering, Simon glowering anxiously, Winston's gaze harder to interpret. While Simon retreated with Blair Winston remained, watching them.
When the soft sobs subsided he cleared his throat, "Pete?"
Venkman slowly lifted his head and met his eyes. "Sorry," he mumbled, either to Jim or Winston or both at once. Heaving a great breath, he scrubbed his hands over his face and made a half-hearted attempt to smooth down his hair. With the wall behind him for support he struggled to his feet, said again, "I'm sorry," tonelessly.
Winston grabbed his arms, steadied him. For an instant they stood like that, locked in gesture and stares boring into one another. Then Blair poked his head through the door, said brightly, "There you are. From what Simon's been telling me, Jim, we have some things left to take care of."
"That's right," Jim said, looking deliberately at Peter. "There's a couple men out there who need our help to get back where they belong."
"Do you..." Peter stopped as if he dared not ask the question.
Winston heard it anyway, fiercely replied, "Of course we can do it, m'man. We're the Ghostbusters! This is just one more problem to bust."
With a forceful nod he headed after Blair. Jim's partner's voice could clearly be heard as they returned to the lab, "This is just so awesome! The real Ghostbusters—Simon, I'm disappointed, you never told me there were Zeddemores in your family tree. 'Banks' was too hard to spell?"
"My mother's maiden name was Zeddemore," Simon growled back, "got a problem with that, Sandburg?"
"Uh, no, no sir—"
Peter glanced at Jim. "Is he usually, so..." Searching for the word he illustrated, vibrating his hand up and down, "energetic?"
Jim grimaced to hide the grin. "Yes, usually." He shrugged. "But what can you do? He's my partner." And friend...can't live with them, can't imagine life without them.
"We better not let him down, then." With the faintest of smiles he started out the door, Jim by his side as they proceeded to the lab.
Blair was waiting outside the door. He gestured furtively, nodded to Peter and then pulled his partner aside. "Jim, listen, Simon's kind of filled me in on what happened to me and the two Ghostbusters. Dr. Venkman's friends. It sounds terrible—I was there for those couple days, even if it didn't feel that long. I can't imagine...we have to get them back."
"I know," Jim agreed. "We will. We got you back, right, Chief?"
Blair ducked to keep his partner from mussing his hair further. "Yes, but there's a problem now. As far as I've gotten it, when I was gone I was being...possessed, by this man—Sam something?"
"Yeah. Anyway, he was a physicist, I've picked up, that's how he figured out how to work the device in there and switch with me. But that's the trouble—he did switch. He's gone. Do any of you know how to work that thing? I've almost got my PhD but it's not in physics. Nowhere near." His eyes were worried. "What are we going to tell him, Jim? We can't do anything more than they've done already!"
"We'll think of something," Jim responded mechanically, though in truth he had been trying not to, hoping that something would come to him on its own. It had occurred to him the moment after he had ascertained Blair had survived the return. Now there was no choice but to face it head-on.
He squared his shoulders, preparing to enter the lab and confess. Between all of them they could come up with a solution. They had to. Beside him Blair also straightened to his less-than-considerable full height.; what he lacked in that dimension, however, he more than made up in the size and strength of his will. They were together again, and Jim had grown accustomed to accomplishing whatever they set out to do. They couldn't fail this time, and they wouldn't.
This conviction was reinforced when a possibility presented itself as they crossed the threshold. Jim walked right into it. More accurately he walked through it.
Al was still in the red pinstripe, but his expression in no way matched the merry colors of his suit. He looked agitated to the point of frenzy and terrified besides. Or perhaps that wild-eyed stare was more horror than fear. "Jim! Detective Ellison! Can you see me?"
"Yes," Jim nodded, "I can see you..." Wondering why he could. Hadn't Al left with his friend?
The hologram answered that quickly enough, "Thank God! You've gotta help us, Jim," voice hoarse with insistence. "You have to help Sam."
"What?" Though he had a terrible suspicion he already knew. The others were staring at him, the same question on their lips, though directed at him rather than to the man they couldn't see.
Al might have been equally blind to them. His attention was all on Jim, a desperate focus as he waved his arms about. "He's gone!" he cried. "He leapt out of here and into nowhere, we couldn't track him or find him through time—he's gone. And as far as we can tell, you're the only chance we have of getting him back!"
Sam was lost. He had been through this more than enough times before; he knew the nothingness as intimately as a lover, as familiar as his multiplication tables—
But this was not the void he knew. Not the vacuum he recognized. Impossible to define that difference but there it was. Helplessly he stared around at the confines...confines. Restricted, that's what it felt like, as if beyond that hazy emptiness were walls. The air was stagnant, stale, not the caressing, healing light he could remember when here...
But he could remember. That was a difference as well. It wasn't easy, things came and went, but he wasn't a blank slate. He knew who he was, Al—Al, who could never follow him when he leapt, who he had forgotten the first time he had, and swore never to do so again when he at last remembered. He had kept that promise, as far as he knew. And he was keeping it now...
Which he wasn't sure he had been able to before. All right. Confined. You know this void is only the perception of something your senses aren't equipped to perceive, the brain trying to assign meaning to what couldn't be understood. A mental interpretation of fourth-dimensional space. You can't have enclosures in fourth-dimensional space, any more than you can keep birds behind a fence. They can always fly over it. He always could leap.
So why would he perceive walls, an incarceration? Because...the solution was obvious. He couldn't leap. The energy potential wasn't great enough to push him back into normal space. His wings had been clipped.
It fit perfectly with what he had theorized, the nature of their "ghosts"--manifestations of the leaping state itself, quantum energy given form by whatever powers the Ghostbusters manipulated with their equipment. Ghosts indeed—ghosts of Sam himself, the residuals he abandoned every time he leapt out of the third dimension. He had built the accelerator with safety in mind, far more power than he had calculated needing, to ascertain that a person leapt completely. He had hoped the residuals so generated would function as anchors, drawing him back to his original place and present, but instead they had followed him through time, converging wherever he appeared...
And then he had appeared in New York, and there had been another force to contend with, one that could project them into normal space, for a little while at least. Long enough to leap another—but not completely. No rubber band effect to draw them back to the world, pushed just past the threshold of normal space into a fourth dimensional bubble, unable to leave, either leap ahead or return.
But in that case all three traces would have had the same quantum coordinates. Dr. Spengler's accelerator hadn't had anywhere near the power of that of the Project. Sam hadn't fully leaped after all, only exchanged places with Blair Sandburg, who presumably had been sent where the others also had, the same level...which meant...
Throwing back his head, Sam bellowed—figuratively, since none of this was real in the same respect as normal space and was all in their minds in a very true way—but at the top of his lungs nonetheless, "Dr. Spengler! Dr. Stantz!"
And there they were. Staring at him, two very different faces but the expression of shocked amazement on both was identical. Sam smiled at them, though he felt a pang of guilt—trapped here for so long without even knowing what was going on, and all his fault...he pushed it aside for the moment. "Hello."
"Hello," they replied in unison, and then the shorter one stepped forward, indistinct glow shimmering on his auburn hair, to ask him, "Are you real? Are you actually there?"
Sam reached out and grabbed his hand, pleased to find he perceived it as solid. "Yes. I'm Dr. Sam Beckett."
His firm shake was eagerly returned by the other man, who broke into a wide smile. "Dr. Ray Stantz, call me Ray—wow! This is great! Isn't it—" He waved his friend over, "This is Egon, Dr. Egon Spengler."
Spengler nodded and cautiously extended his own hand. When he learned they could in fact contact one another he too smiled, though with more reserve than Ray. "Pleased to make your acquaintance. You aren't the man here before, are you?"
"Who?" Sam asked.
"We didn't see him, exactly," Ray explained, "but he called out to us, right before...well, we missed him. That wasn't too long ago, I don't think. We don't know if he was real or not, though; sometimes here you have...dreams..."
"I don't think that was me. But—" Sam considered it and decided it was very likely—"it might have been Blair, Blair Sandburg. I've...replaced him, he was here before, I believe."
"But you're Sam Beckett." Egon adjusted his glasses. "Considering our circumstances, I take it you're the physicist, not the playwright?" Sam agreed, and the other scientist remarked, "I've read your later theories about the nature of time; I thought they showed great investigative potential. But you haven't published anything recently..."
"That's sort of why I'm here," Sam admitted. "To be honest...that's why you're here."
"Ah," said Spengler, as if he had been expecting it.
"Because of your theories?" Ray looked only momentarily confused. "I'm not up on higher physics, but I've heard Egon mention your name before. Time travel—so is this a manifestation of fourth dimensional space we're caught in?"
Sam caught himself from staring. "Yes," he answered, "I believe so. Do you remember how you got here?"
"Of course—" Ray began, and then he and Spengler frowned at each other. "You too..?" Egon nodded. Ray shook his head, "Now this is odd—I'm not complaining, but still...we've had a really hard time remembering anything here, usually. Everything sort of...slips, right before you recall it. It's hard to even hold a conversation, when your mind is like—"
"Swiss cheese," Sam said, and under their curious eyes elucidated, "When I first leapt...through here, I couldn't even remember my own name. My colleagues and I started calling it the swiss cheese effect, because my memory was so full of holes. Like the, uh, cheese."
"But why would this effect abate?" inquired Spengler.
"I don't know," Sam confessed. "I've been wondering about that myself—it might be because this isn't the 'regular' void..." Quickly he explained his hypothesis regarding their confined fourth dimensional bubble and his inability to leap. Spengler grasped it quickly, as was to be expected considering he had already reasoned much of it out already; but Sam was surprised at how swift Ray was to assimilate it. Either he had a physics degree as well, or such a close acquaintance with Egon that he had picked up the concepts and terminology by osmosis.
Perhaps some of both. There was no mistaking the two as friends; their interaction was too smooth to have evolved from anything but long familiarity. If one spoke the other listened, and then returned the courtesy so neatly it hardly was apparent. When Ray was confused by Sam's explanations he turned to Egon for clarification; the physicist had only to murmur a few seeming non sequiturs and his friend's eyes would alight with instant comprehension.
And yet for all their coordination there were odd gaps, moments that their half-intuitive communication would falter, pauses as if each were expecting the other to interject a comment that never came. A missing element to their association. They always picked it up again but Sam did not miss the looks exchanged between them.
"So," Ray said finally, laying it all on the table, "the will o' wisps were actually manifestations of your leaping state, made tangible by exposure to either the ectoplasm, our particle beams, some other factor of the Ghostbusters, or a combination of all of the above."
"When we contacted them," Egon picked it up, "we were pushed—leaped, you call it—into a pocket of fourth dimensional space—time, rather—but without the energy potential to leap out again. From the normal space perspective, we vanished without a trace."
Ray swallowed. "Yeah..." He glanced at his friend. "Did you guys—did you know? Or did you think I was..."
"I figured it out," Egon murmured, patting his shoulder, "that's how I followed you here, isn't it?" While handicapped by the swiss cheese effect they apparently had never discussed the circumstances around Ray's loss and Egon's arrival here, or otherwise had forgotten. Sam wondered if Ray realized the physicist was not being completely honest, at least not giving the whole truth.
If he did he wasn't commenting. "And the same thing happened a little later to this Blair Sandburg," Ray continued, "only you leapt into him as it happened, which allowed you to track down Egon's research and use his accelerator to leap into him, getting him back and bringing you here. Where hopefully we can do something about it. I don't know about you, but I'm getting sick of this place and am really looking forward to getting home." He received heartfelt agreement from the others. "Okay, so if that's it...there's one thing I don't get. Sam, why did you leap into Blair to begin with—what directed you to leap at all?"
"Well—" Sam opened his mouth to tell his story, having not yet mentioned the unpredictable side effect of his experiment—
The universe wrinkled, and they were trapped in the fold. It was the only way he could conceive it. Through a breathless agony he saw Egon lock his arms around Ray, who in turn reached out and grabbed Sam's hand, squeezing so tightly it would hurt could he have felt it through the other pain.
After a seeming eternity it passed. Sam gasped in the wake, "What was that?"
Egon straightened, resettling his glasses on his nose. "We don't exactly know, but they're been occurring more frequently. You don't..?"
"I've never experienced anything like that here," panted Sam. "It felt like I was being stretched until I tore." His eyes widened as he realized, "Or if time was...that's it! This bubble," and he waved around, "is unstable, or destabilized—it's collapsing around us!
Egon understood. "Meaning when the last energy holding us here goes, we'll simply fall apart—the only reason we can survive at all is presumably the energy from leaping, allowing us to hold at least a partly three-dimensional form in a fourth dimensional matrix—"
"That doesn't sound good," Ray said shakily. "If it's true—when is it going to go?"
"Depends on how unstable it is." Sam frowned. "You say it's been happening more often lately? How much?"
"Hard to say; we can't really keep track of time," Egon explained. "Between the lack of any frame of reference and the swiss cheese effect..."
Sam blinked at them, a sudden thought occurring to him. Carefully he asked, "How long do you two think you've been here?"
Ray glanced doubtfully at Egon. "Well, I got here a little before him...a couple weeks, maybe?"
Egon's brow wrinkled in concentration. "Judging from the transitions to dreaming and how long I know Ray was...absent...Possibly as long as a month. At most five weeks, though that's a liberal estimate—"
"Try nineteen," Sam said, knowing of no easy way to break it to them. "Nineteen months. You've been missing, presumed dead for over a year and a half. I'm sorry..."
Ray looked stricken but it was Egon who reacted, cool scientist's manner blown to oblivion by the shock of the revelation. His face went white, and had not Ray grabbed his arm and gently helped him sit he would have fallen. The physicist hardly seemed aware of his attending friend; through the red frames of his glasses his eyes were wide and blank. "Over a year," he whispered. "Peter..."
"He's all right." Ray's own tone was none too steady. "You know Venkman, Egon, he's fine." Looping an arm over his friend's shoulder he squeezed him slightly, "He's got to be..." Voice cracking on the last phrase.
"I saw him," Sam hastened to reassure them. "He's still alive, don't worry. He's...all right." Hoping they missed his hesitation.
The avowal was what they needed. Egon inhaled deeply, shoved back his glasses as if he were pushing himself in place with the gesture. Ray smiled, wide enough to split his cheeks. "See? Told you," he grinned, "Peter's strong. We just have to get back now, I bet he's starting to miss us."
"I'll say," Sam seconded involuntarily. Ray was too busy encouraging his friend to hear, but Egon's gaze snapped to him. He caught the intensity of that blue stare and knew he had been too well understood, what he had not said as much as what he had.
But Egon made no comment, instead rose stiffly and asked, "Do you have any ideas on getting back?"
I wish, Sam almost said, but caught himself. "I was hoping to discuss that with you. This looks like as good a time as any," and he essayed a smile.
Egon returned it, but it wasn't until Ray started beaming that it became convincing. "Come on," the younger man said, "get those synapses crackling, guys—I'd rather not hang around here any longer than we have to!"
"Have you considered the traps..." Egon began, and they settled down to business. Intellectual exercise as Sam hadn't had since the days of working on Project Quantum Leap, when it was only a theory and not a way of life. He might have enjoyed it more if he hadn't been too aware of the clock ticking overhead.
This place was going to go soon. And when it did, if they hadn't found the right solution, it was going to take three lives with it. Four, Sam corrected, remembering what Al had said about Peter Venkman's future.
Even if his wasn't one of those lives, he couldn't allow that. Not if it was anywhere within his power to stop it. He only could pray that it was, because otherwise his project would be responsible for those deaths. Undeniably, murdered as surely as if he had shot them in cold blood.
And there was no way he could justify that. No way at all.
Blair was developing a raging headache. He wondered if Simon had any aspirin—the captain complained enough about the migraines Sentinel and Guide gave him; it was a sure bet he had pain relievers on him. But Blair didn't want to worry Jim any further.
His partner was...not hovering, precisely. Keeping a reasonable distance, but every few minutes he would glance over, squint as if making sure Blair really was who he seemed to be. Or brush his hand against his shoulder, assuring himself he was physically there. Even listen to his heart—he knew that distant look of a Sentinel focusing on another sense to the exclusion of vision.
He hadn't said anything about it, of course. Blair had only been gone a couple of days, after all, and Beckett apparently had told him, more or less, what had happened. It was the more or less, Blair suspected, which had Jim so rattled.
Had it really been that close? Or was it that they simply hadn't known...all they could have been sure of was that Blair was gone. As far as Jim had been able to ascertain, no matter what Sam Beckett had told him, his partner was missing. No longer in this world—hell, no longer in this dimension, as it turned out. Blair still was trying to wrap his mind around that concept. Jim hadn't had any easier a time of it, it seemed.
He shuddered, thinking of that place, that formless forgetful void. Nothing to grasp except himself, nothing to hear but his own voice. So utterly empty, entirely lonely, except for those others he had barely known were there.
Two years. He almost shivered again. To have been trapped for so long...they had had each other, but scant comfort compared to the color and volume of life. Without conscious thought his eyes slid to the doorway of the lab. Dr. Venkman, watching hawk-like, unwilling to enter but unable to leave them alone in a place so personal.
His aspect was protective of the room itself, not just the equipment but the memories only he knew. A guardian's eye, observing every detail, listening to every word said—it reminded Blair of Jim, actually. Jim could be equally possessive, dominating without dictating. Except Jim never had that fiery ice in his glare, burning as it froze, paralyzing as it consumed. Maybe when he had first met Blair, when his senses had first re-emerged and he had feared for his sanity...no; even then, he had been angry, yes, frightened, even desperate. But not so close to that edge, one foot over the unknown and about to tumble down.
Venkman caught his look and something flared in those cold green eyes. Blair was glad to have an excuse to turn away, Jim's sudden growl, "What are you suggesting?"
The Sentinel had spent the last half an hour in urgent discussion with a man who wasn't there. Blair would have been more disturbed by this had not everyone else accepted it with such equanimity. Even Simon—he would've expected the former Ghostbusters to be perhaps a bit gullible, but not their rational captain. It was decidedly odd, though; comfortable as he was with Jim's abilities, conversation with invisible—holograms?—was well beyond his sphere of knowledge.
Now Jim was listening to the inaudible Al, his expression far from happy. A couple times he opened his mouth but apparently was interrupted before he could speak. Finally, and from the way his voice rose it sounded like he was speaking over the man, "You're saying you can't even be sure, and you want to try anyway—like hell! From the way you carried on before this was dangerous to begin with..." A pause, then "No! I won't allow it!"
"Jim?" When his quiet call didn't get the detective's attention Blair went over and nudged him in the ribs. "Jim, hey, what's up?"
His partner looked down at him, fear there for all the ire in his tone. "Forget it, Sandburg. You don't want to know—"
"Yes, I do," Blair told him, equally firmly. "Give."
Jim shook his head. "He," waving toward empty space, "wants to use the accelerator, see if you and Sam can switch again. Apparently he and his cohorts theorize that Sam is trapped like you were, and they want him back—" Another rapid shake, denying a statement Blair couldn't hear. "They think that Sam might be able to do something from this end, get everything straight so he's leaping and you're back for good—they say there's a chance—a small chance," with a pointed glare at nothing, "that you're not quite stabilized here, that you too could leap—be prone to people leaping in to you. Leap-ins? Who? Don't tell me Sam's not the only one bouncing around in time—you don't know? God damn it—"
"Jim," Blair said quietly. "Don't beat up the messenger. This isn't his fault. If you," he nodded uncomfortably in what he hopped was Al's direction. "think that this is the best way, then I'm willing to try."
"Hey, it worked before, right?" His jaunty tone fell flat but the idea came across.
"Sandburg, no. No. I won't allow it."
"Jim—" He hesitated, grabbed his arm. "Look, can we talk about this for a minute? Alone?" He was aware of Al's observation, even if he couldn't see it.
And he could see Peter Venkman's eyes, the psychologist's too sharp gaze aimed straight at them. No telling what wheels were turning behind that verdant stare. He had his own stake in this, and Blair couldn't talk openly, not before his silent presence.
When Blair dragged Jim out of the lab he stepped aside without a word, but his eyes tracked them down the hall. Blair had found a small study behind one door. The bedroom would be equally private but he didn't want to risk stirring up any old ghosts, psychological as much as supernatural. The one brief look he had gotten of Peter there, huddled against the wall and devoured by his grief, had struck him to the core.
He was proud of how his partner had handled it, Jim who could come across so tough and threatening. In truth the Sentinel had a compassionate streak a mile wide, why he could be as good a detective as he was, but often he hid it well. Not when it was necessary, though; not when there was someone so deeply in need of mercy without reservation or price. But the sympathy that had transformed his partner's face, the understanding—as if he knew that pain himself, as if that loss was something he too had faced...
"I'm going to do this," Blair said, getting right to the point. "It's my choice. I know it might be chancy—"
"Chancy!" Jim exploded. "It's nuts! Al's as good as told me they can't know exactly what will happen—it could switch you back but it could leap you permanently, into someone else or into nowhere. It could even ki—" The word caught in his throat.
"Kill me?" completed Blair. "I know. I guessed, at least. Part of the job—Jim, I've seen you put your life on the line for odds worse than this. Because there were other lives to consider—there are lives to consider now. And I'm considering them."
"Chief, I won't allow it. I'm not going to stand back and let you—"
"That's my decision! You're my partner, but this is my choice to make, whether or not I want to risk..." He stepped forward to get a closer look at Jim's hooded eyes. "That's what this is really about—before, Jim. Simon said Sam told you I was okay—but that's not true, is it? You didn't know, did you. You thought..."
"At first," Jim said huskily. "At first he said you were all right, but then Al came and it turned out they didn't know. And we...when we met Winston, and then Peter, and what had happened to their friends, how they were gone...Damn it, Sandburg, I tried, I tried not to give up, but I didn't understand what had happened. I still don't. All I knew was what I saw, and sensed, and...and there wasn't any sign of you. Anywhere. You were gone..."
And it had cost him, was costing him now to even speak of it. It must have been terrifying, just coming to terms with how it affected him—to acknowledge that another could hurt him so deeply. Jim didn't take loss well; every time he grew close to someone he knew how dangerous it could be, how greatly it would hurt should they leave. Blair was honored that Jim had opened to him as much as he had, had allowed him as close as he was. But now that he understood the risk...
"Jim, I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm sorry..." How could he recompense for that?
Suddenly Jim's arms enfolded him, to comfort or to reassure himself of his partner's reality, Blair didn't know which and didn't care, returning the embrace with equal vehemence. Jim's chin moved against the top of his skull, "Just don't do it again, Chief..."
"But I will." His own voice was muffled by his cheek pressing against Jim's shirt. "I have to."
Tightening his grip as if to hold Blair in place, "You don't—"
"Yes, I do." Jim released him and reluctantly he drew back. "I've been thinking—when Sam used the accelerator to bring me back, was that a sure thing? Did you all know it was going to work, or was there some chance, like there is now?"
Jim sighed, said at last, "We didn't know. The risk was probably higher, because we didn't even know if you were..."
Still alive. Strange how Jim couldn't quite seem able to get it out...or maybe not that strange after all. "So he just went into this blindly, no idea what he was getting into, only aware that he might be able to help me—and he doesn't even know me!" He couldn't help but wonder at that. Just when he began to believe that the inherent good of humanity that his mother had taught him was all crock, the universe showed him differently... "He'd never met me, but he went through with it all the same."
"You don't know him," but Jim knew how weak an argument it was.
"I know what he did for me, risked for me. What kind of man would I be if I just ignored that and let him rot? I do know what I'm getting into, I know where I'll end up if it works. I can take it. I couldn't take looking into a mirror and seeing myself, knowing I didn't do all I could. Besides, from what Al told you this might be helping me as well as him." He paused. "How did Al feel about Sam going?"
Jim grimaced. "He was...about as happy with it as I am with this."
Blair had expected as much, just from listening to Jim's side of their conversation. "You see? He's counting on me now, same as you were counting on Sam. I can't let him down now, can I?"
"No." Jim looked like he had bitten into a particularly sour lemon, but he was convinced. Now, Blair thought, all that's left is to convince myself...
Not so very difficult, when there were cards he hadn't even played. "Anyway, Jim, I don't think I have much choice in the matter. I think you've gotten know Dr. Venkman better than me..."
Jim stiffened, this striking a deeper chord than anything he had said before. Blair saw it. "How do you think it would go, if we give up now, if we walk away and there's no chance he'll ever see his friends again? I saw them..." He swallowed, "Jim, they still remember him, even in that place. Same as I remembered you, though it was damn hard to keep it. There's a chance here to recover them, a chance Dr. Beckett could bring them back. I won't just ignore that for the sake of my own safety. I can't."
"I know, Blair." Quiet but not defeated. Unhappy, because he knew his partner was right and disliked the truth he presented, but supportive all the same. "Let's get the others and do it."
Simon seemed equally unhappy, accepted it only because Jim did. Winston tried not to look satisfied for his cousin's sake, but there was a spark lit in his eyes at the chance they were presenting. Peter only nodded, arms still crossed as he watched from the door, though there might have been warmth kindled in the depths of that green crystal.
Blair of course could not see Al's reaction firsthand, but he could deduce it from the way Jim almost smiled, reflecting the man's excitement. So overall the response was positive, everyone was behind him nearly one hundred percent. He took a deep breath and hoped Jim wasn't listening to how fast his heart was thumping in his chest. Another long exhalation, breathe out all the tension, and he placed his hands on the smooth dome of the accelerator.
Quick grin to everyone present, keeping a brave face. You're being the hero here, Sandburg; might as well act like one. He caught Jim's eyes and for a moment was locked in place by the azure intensity. Forcing himself to tear away, he made up for it by subvocalizing at a level only a Sentinel could hear, complete with the Schwartzenegger accent, "I'll be back."
Glimmer of his partner's answering smile, and then Jim raised the control, punched the first button. The accelerator warmed his palms, a glow not hot enough to burn but with a furry tingling, like static on plastic sheets. He gazed steadily into the light, and then there was a flash, final edge of the sun before it sets, swallowing him whole and dragging him over the horizon.
When the brilliance faded this time Sam Beckett was in Blair's place. He sagged; Jim put out a hand to steady him. Al peered in close, "Sam?"
The physicist shook his head, leaning gratefully on Jim's arm. "I'm here, Al," his voice strained but improving. Rubbing his forehead he blinked several times, eyes widening as they took in his surroundings. "I didn't think that felt like a normal leap—you reversed the polarity—"
"No," Jim said, "we just leaped Blair..."
"What?" Sam squinted at him, glanced over to his friend. "Al, you didn't—"
Al began to pace, an interesting maneuver as he ignored the lab table entirely while striding through it. "Sam, we couldn't find you anywhere, you were lost in time and Ziggy was saying you hadn't leapt, she was panicking—do you know what that computer's like when she's in a panic? We thought there was a chance, if you had exchanged with Blair, that instead of leaping you could've gotten trapped wherever he was, and we didn't think you could've done much good there. So Ziggy tracked down Jim here again, it was a damn difficult feat, let me tell you, projecting me without your brainwaves to lock onto—"
His explanation poured out in one long breath but Sam seemed to have no trouble following it. Crouching, he examined the accelerator, shook his head again as he held up his hands. "Okay, let me get this—it did work? Blair returned here?"
"Yes," Jim confirmed. "He seemed fine."
"Good. Good. Except..." He rapped his fingers against the accelerator dome. "Al, have Ziggy scan this, tell me what she comes up with for the inter-temporal configuration." Standing again he strode to the lab doorway, met Peter's eyes. "Dr. Venkman? I saw your friends, both of them—they're alive. They were leaped—"
"I know," Peter said, low but there was an energy to his words that had been absent before.
Sam stared. "You—"
"Blair saw them," Jim told him. "He described them well enough to identify them."
"He remembered?" Now why should that surprise Beckett as much as it did? He had recalled it easily enough, it seemed.
"He remembered," replied Jim. "Sort of hazily, but enough."
"Uh, Sam?" Al interrupted. "Ziggy's got the reading..." He spewed off a series of numbers and Greek letters that meant nothing to the detective but quite a bit to Sam. At least the physicist's mouth dropped open for a moment; then it closed in a flat line as he considered the problem.
"That's what I thought," he said at last. "Al..."
"It shouldn't have worked." Al scratched his chin thoughtfully. "Something's off here."
"What?" Jim was rapidly losing patience with their enigmas. "What shouldn't have worked?"
"In layman's terms?" Sam asked. "This. Me being here, now. Either nothing should have happened when Blair was leaped, or nothing should have happened when I originally tried it. Or..." He hesitated.
"Or he should've just leaped," Sam said. "Worst case scenario—Al, I can't believe you would've allowed it—"
"It worked to bring him back!" Al cried. "I didn't think to check it."
"Check what?" Jim snapped. He felt the bottom of his stomach dropping away. "Are you saying Blair's—lost? Again?"
"No!" Sam hastened to reassure him. "No, on the contrary, since it did work it will work again, logically—if I go into the accelerator again I should be able to exchange again—"
Suddenly Peter stepped forward, breaking through the intangible barrier to enter the lab and grab Sam by the shoulders. "You can exchange again?" he demanded. "Can you bring...others back?"
"There's a possibility—"
"Possibility?" Peter shouted into his face. "How big a chance, can you do it—"
"Pete." Winston came up to him. He and Simon had been standing quietly by, watching and trying to understand as well as they could, considering they had no scientific background and could not see or hear one of the principle speakers. Now Zeddemore took Peter's arm, gently pulled him aside. "Easy, play it cool, m'man." He glanced back at Sam. "So what are the chances?" Fighting to keep his own cool.
"I don't know," Sam said honestly. "As good as I can make them—from this end there might be something I can do. I hope. But it will mean that Blair will have to stay there for the time being..."
He bowed his head to Jim, and the Sentinel realized he was almost asking for his permission...but it wasn't his to give. "Blair is his own man," he stated. "He chose this; he wanted you to do what you could to help. He knew you were better equipped to handle it." His eyes bored into Beckett's. "You can bring him back, right?"
"Anytime," Sam promised. "I'll want to exchange anyway, to speak with Dr. Spengler." Had Winston not been beside him, Jim was certain Peter would have fallen, floored by the thought of someone conversing with a friend he had long feared dead. If Sam noticed he tactfully said nothing, went on, "We'll figure this out." It was a guarantee.
"Great." Jim meant it sincerely, nonetheless growled, "Now what's the problem—why should none of this be working to begin with?"
Helplessly Sam sighed. "This is a simple, prototype accelerator—I built a couple myself, before the project, never dared use any of them. There's no way to set it—the first time I leaped, I didn't have a particular location in mind, I was only trying to prove it would work. But the Project's quantum accelerator, in theory, could be programmed to leap a person to a particular place and time.
"The problem is that this one wasn't set; it can't be. When I used it, the only reason I knew Blair might return was because there's some psychic resonance between him and his aura, his place, his time. It was a chance—but I shouldn't have exchanged with him. I should have just leaped, as usual, and he should have leapt back. There should be no inherent connection between me and here—"
"So there's no reason why, when Blair leaped, you came back," Jim finished, hoping he understood.
"Exactly," Sam affirmed. "Nothing should have happened—this accelerator doesn't have the power to leap someone completely. According to my theory, anyway. Scientifically it doesn't make sense..."
Al coughed; Sam's gaze flicked aside for an instant. "All right, what aren't you telling me?" the detective called them on it.
"Scientifically," Sam confessed, "most of what's happened to me doesn't make sense. The randomness of my leaps, which aren't random at all—there's an order to it."
"Only it's not a scientific order," Al muttered. "God at the craps table again..."
Sam smiled weakly. "Einstein said God doesn't play dice with the universe. But something, some force we can't understand, has been playing with us. With me, leaping me to change things for the better. Now it looks like God, Time, Fate, or whatever might have..."
"Adopted Blair as a new game piece." Jim frowned. Everything had been so coincidental, from the mysterious appearance of the "ghost" at the hospital, to Sam's leaping into Blair just as he might have vanished for good, to them so swiftly contacting the only people who could have been of any help. Now it looked like even getting his partner back had been a stroke of luck. And he had a quantum physicist telling him that as far as they knew, God himself was running the whole deal. If ever he met his maker they definitely were going to have some things to discuss. "Why? Why Blair? And what is he supposed to do?"
Al answered, Sam offering nothing aloud, for reasons which became clear, "If Ziggy's right, then Sam—and your partner—are here to save Peter Venkman, possibly his friends, too. Actually," he glanced at his own partner with some trepidation, "Blair seems to be here to put right something that went wrong when Sam leaped..."
"It was my fault," Sam said, so low that Peter couldn't hear him but the condemnation in his voice was punishment enough. "Your 'ghosts' were off-shoots of my leaping process—"
"Which you couldn't have predicted," returned Al forcefully, no need for him to be quiet, "and which only materialized when they were exposed to the Ghostbusters."
"This is moot anyway," Jim cut in. "It happened, no one did anything on purpose, there's no crime—so let's fix it, and get back to what we're supposed to be doing." Which in his case did not involve screwing around with space, time, and phantoms invoked by such experiments. And Blair had no such involvement either, at least not regularly...he had better not start now. Jim doubted his nerves could take much more of this.
Peter Venkman's definitely couldn't. Winston had managed to calm him, at least enough for him to be halfway reasonable, but Jim had doubts about Sam's efficiency working under that emerald glare. He knew that he wouldn't be comfortable with it.
Simon came through then, as he so often did. "All right," he announced abruptly, "it's already evening, none of us have eaten anything all day—"
"I had a donut," Venkman said, in a tone Jim hardly recognized.
"Great, Pete, you turning into a cop on me?" Winston retorted. "Don't we have enough of them here already?" And yet he was smiling, a wide beam that his friend's flippancy hardly deserved.
Except that it had been so light, a layer of darkness sloughed off. A glimpse, Jim thought, of the man who had lived before, resurrected with his friends, their chance his as well. He couldn't fault Blair's choice. He didn't have to like it, but he could appreciate it all the same.
"Real food," Simon intoned, "we're going to have an actual meal while Dr. Beckett figures this out. Winston, know any good take-out Chinese around here?" Promising to bring a plate to Sam, they descended, discussing menu choices. Peter even made a few suggestions.
Jim was the last down. Out of habit he listened to Sam fall into conversation with Al, and though he was prepared to be confused by the physics jargon, what he could make out concerned him. "There's something else," Sam murmured. At Al's troubled query he explained, "I don't want to worry them, but there's a time limit here..."
He dropped into a technical manifesto of the problem, of which Jim could only understand one word in three and those were mostly articles and conjunctions. It concerned the unstability of a temporary fourth-dimensional null-energy bubble...no wonder he was worried. It worried Jim, and he hadn't the slightest idea what they were talking about.
Give them a little time, he decided. A few hours to work out some kind of solution, and then he'd confront them about it. Having to explain how he knew would be a worthy price if this were as bad as it sounded.
"We might have something." Beckett's exhaustion was beginning to show in his voice. Simon felt a pang of sympathy for the man; he had been hard at work for the entire day, discounting the brief hiatus when Blair had returned. His progress was mostly intangible, the result of thinking, not producing, but as a detective Simon knew how much directed thought and theorizing could take out of you. He hadn't even stopped to eat, conferring with his invisible observer around mouthfuls of lo mein noodles. Hard to find a more driven man...outside of Simon's precinct, anyway.
There were a few others out there, though. "What?" Venkman had begun to take an active part in recent events, no longer content to lean back and observe with that supercilious, dead expression. The life sparking in his eyes was an improvement, but hard on those he directed it at. If it were any indication of the man Winston had formerly called friend, he must have been hell on wheels. "What's something?"
"Do you want the full mathematics or should I give it to you in grade school algebra?" Sam put his hand over his mouth the moment after the words slipped out, ostensibly to block a yawn but it looked more as if he were trying to keep anything else from coming. From what Simon knew that snap was as out of character for him as for Blair. It did help discriminate them further, though.
Seeing Sandburg back in his own body—aura, whatever—had been a shock, heightening the differences between them, to the point that Simon didn't think he could mistake them. No matter who they appeared as. He wondered what Beckett actually looked like, the real man Jim could see. Taller, Simon had deduced from where Jim's eyes fell when speaking to him, but other than that he hadn't a clue. Jim heard a different voice, too, which came through Blair's vocal chords a little; Sam didn't sound quite like Sandburg, more like a good mimicry, and the articulations themselves were all wrong. "Look, it's complicated," he was saying now. "I've adjusted the accelerator; I want to ask Dr. Spengler about attempting a few other modifications. It's possible, if I can boost the power, that I may be able to leap with enough excess energy to initiate a second leap-out, and with the ghost trap open to exert a psychic 'pull'--like I said, it's complicated. But it might work, at least to an extent..."
So they went with it. Again Jim operated the accelerator, push of a few buttons and that same bright flash. Simon wondered if it were possible to get used to that brilliance; it still shocked him, the sheer white intensity. Jim was the only one able to stare straight into it for the entire process, and Simon knew that was only because with his Sentinel control he could lower his perception to a tiny fraction of the light's full exposure. He doubted Blair would approve of the risk but Jim seemed to need to watch.
When the captain turned back he caught a glimpse of Venkman's face, open-mouthed and eyelids clenched tight, but he hadn't ducked or covered his eyes with his hands. Proving something that no one but he would know. Small wonder he and Jim had bonded.
Jim was instantly beside the figure left in place by the faded glow. Definitely Blair once more; Simon could tell from the solicitousness of the detective's support. Sandburg didn't keel over this time; he looked wobbly but recovered rapidly to ask, "I'm back? Did it work?"
"You're back," Jim confirmed, "but about it working..." Quickly he summarized the new developments. Simon didn't know what to be more amazed by, Jim's grasp of the bewildering situation, or Sandburg's immediate acceptance of it.
"So Sam wants to exchange with me again in an hour? And he and Dr. Spengler are going to figure out what's going on—I saw them again," Blair remarked, glancing at Venkman. "They're...they wanted me to tell you something if I did make it back."
Peter straightened, one hand gripping the lab table. "Yes?" he asked evenly.
"Both of you." Blair included Winston in his nod. "They wanted you to know that they're missing here but it hasn't been too hard on them. They're not hurt; they're fine. They...they didn't know how much time had passed, they're both sorry about that—don't know why they should be since it wasn't their fault. Oh, Winston, Ray specifically wanted me to ask you about...'Ecto One'?"
Blair's confusion was not shared by Simon's cousin. "Yeah," he said with a grin, "when you get back there, tell him Ecto's fine. Been keeping it in my garage, just, well..."
"He also wanted to know about a 'Slimer'?" Blair shrugged. "All he said was, 'Peter will know what I mean.' He seemed a little worried..."
Simon interpreted Peter's look to Winston as a mix of concern and desperation. "You tell him the spud's all right," Winston stated firmly. "Pete didn't do anything to him."
"No problem." Blair continued, "Egon didn't have much to say, he was hoping Sam would exchange back—apparently he has some ideas. He did ask one thing, though." He approached Peter, ignoring their difference in height to meet his eyes. "He told me to tell you that it wasn't your fault, any of it—direct quote, 'I wasn't thinking clearly; I wasn't thinking at all, and you couldn't have done anything to stop me, any more than you could have known to stop Ray.'" Sandburg's tone shifted as he imitated the physicist's inflections, returned to normal to finish, "And he wanted me to make sure that you believed it. I don't know how to do that, but I'm giving it my best shot."
Peter couldn't meet that earnest blue stare. Dropping his eyes he said huskily, "Tell Spengs I believe it. If he says so."
"Good." Blair didn't look quite convinced but went with it for the moment. Turning to the others he remarked, "So how long do I have? Forty-five minutes? Is that enough time to grab a bite, do you think—all this quantum cannon-balling makes me hungry!"
"There's Chinese," Jim told him, "come on, Chief, let's get you refueled." He led his partner downstairs, asking, "Since you seem to be remembering more about that place—what's it like?" All the easiness of his words couldn't quite negate the underlying concern, but the readiness of Blair's answers were reassuring. Simon couldn't make out what he said, only his bright tone.
He wasn't entirely inclined to believe it—Sandburg's talent at obfuscation was second to none when he deemed it necessary. The kid might be going through six kinds of hell but he wouldn't peep if he thought it would disturb Jim. The Sentinel needed optimism now more than honesty, and Blair as usual was providing. Besides, it couldn't be that bad, or Sandburg wouldn't be so chipper. His active state contrasted with Sam's fatigue, strange to see him so subdued one moment and bouncing the next.
Two people, one appearance. It was damn confusing. At least they weren't appearing simultaneously—two Blair Sandburgs was one more than Simon could contemplate. And images like the one that thought conjured up were enough to make him realize how tired he himself was. Beckett wasn't the only exhausted man here. They'd probably all be better off with some rest.
He didn't suggest it until after Blair and Sam had exchanged again. Nerve-wracking in itself, how quickly that had become routine, how easily he accepted Beckett in Sandburg's form. Becoming as run of the mill as Winston found it. He must be tired.
"Okay," Sam said right off the bat. "We think we have a plan, and since now we can keep track of time in the bubble we're going to implement it in six hours. Egon and Ray will explain to Blair what he has to do, and it should give me enough time to make the modifications."
"That gives us six hours to catch some shut-eye," Simon pointed out to the others. "The way we've been running we should net it while we can."
"He's right," Winston immediately seconded. He sighed at his cousin when unsurprisingly the other two men protested. "Come on, Pete," and he dragged his friend from the lab, while Simon handled his detective.
Jim was already entrenched in discussion with Sam, and apparently Al as well from the odd gaps in the conversation. Damn tricky to keep track of a discussion when he was missing a third of it, and Beckett's technobabble didn't help much. It wasn't a comfort that Jim didn't understand much of it, either; he was still determined to listen and puzzle it out. If the safety of his partner had more often depended on higher physics, Ellison would have already gotten his degree in it, Simon was sure.
Half an hour later Winston appeared in the lab doorway. With a sigh Simon bid Jim goodnight and followed his cousin. Winston glanced back, "He's not coming?"
"Maybe later. I think he figures if Sam doesn't need sleep then neither does he."
"I think Sam would disagree." Winston scratched his close-shaved skull. "Pete's crashed on a couch in the study. Soon as I got him to lay down he was out, but I think if a pin drops he'll be up again. Hope he can catch a few winks undisturbed, though...I don't think he sleeps well these days."
"He can join the club. I don't think Jim slept for more than an hour straight last night—he kept waking me, getting up to pace, go to the can, just toss and turn. For that matter he's told me about the nightmares Sandburg has, beyond this crisis..." Sam shook his head. "Cop's life, I guess. I'm pretty sure that there was a time I could get a full nights' rest."
"Yeah, well, you're not a psychologist," Winston replied.
"What do you mean?"
His cousin had led them down the hall and opened the door Peter had fled to before. He indicated the sheet-covered beds. "I don't think it would hurt if we sacked out here for the night. It's been awhile...I miss the place."
Simon sat on one of the them, not the four-poster but a simpler affair. Good mattress, and it was warm enough not to need blankets, to his relief—he never cared for sleeping in other peoples' beds, but on top of it for one night would be livable. Winston took the adjacent one, settling on it with an almost inaudible sigh—this had been his home, Simon was reminded. His room, his bed. His friends who should have been sleeping in the other three.
"What did you mean about Peter being a psychologist?" he asked his cousin.
Dropping his head into his hands, Winston replied, "I don't know for sure. I'm just...I worry, you know? He's a psychologist, he knows doctors—he can get stuff that would be illegal if you bought it on the street."
"Do you have any hard evidence of substance abuse?" Simon queried, the cop in him coming to the fore.
"No. No soft evidence either, if you want to put it that way—it's just a thought I've had before." Winston leaned against the bedpost. "If you had known Pete...he's changed so much. It's not drugs, it's everything that happened, out here and in his head. Except I don't know what happened in there, I just...well, I'm no psychologist, but I've known enough people to know that something's got to give, after all that. And something did.
"And now you're here, Sam and Blair—and they're alive?" His voice almost cracked. "Egon and Ray...Jesus, Simon, I've thought that they were dead for so long—I can't even imagine what this is doing to Pete. I don't think he knows himself...and if this doesn't work, if we lose them anyway..."
"It will work," Simon tried to reassure his cousin. "I know Jim and Blair—they don't fail, when they're determined to succeed. And I've seen enough of Beckett to think he's the same way."
"If it doesn't, though?" Winston shook his head. "I'm trying not to think about it, there's nothing I can do and if I don't get my hopes up then they can't fall. But Pete...this is it, you can see it in his eyes. He won't take losing them again.
"God, Simon, he's my friend. I tried, when they—when they disappeared, I did what I could, but I didn't know what to do, really. If I had been there for him, maybe I could have kept him from...I don't know. He was trying to push me away, that whole asshole attitude he kicks up, but I'd seen Pete pissed before. I should've stayed anyway...
"He gave me the keys to Ecto-1 a week after Egon went, told me it was mine and wished me luck finding a new job. I tried arguing with him, keep the Ghostbusters going—there's still ghosts in this city. Don't give me that look, cuz, not until you've seen all the weirdness I saw. They're still out there, and we could've had our pick of recruits...he wouldn't, and I didn't want to, either, but I had to suggest it."
"I don't remember what he said, but man, it was harsh, because I remember how close I came to slugging him. You've heard him—he can get under your skin when he tries, and it's damn near impossible to ignore. I should have been tougher, though; instead I slammed Ecto's door and high-tailed out of there. When I calmed down a couple days later he had already moved out, and when I tracked him down he didn't want to speak with me. Couldn't get three civil words out of him...I stopped trying. I don't know why I did, he was my friend, but until yesterday I hadn't seen him for months.
"Now it's going to happen all over again, unless this actually works—I'm sorry, Simon, I can't buy into it until it does. If it doesn't...I don't give Pete a snowball's chance in hell. And there's not a damn thing I can do about it." He lay down on the mattress, staring up at the ceiling as if seeking answers in the tiles.
"Winston." Simon waited for his cousin to roll his head toward him. "I'm sorry about yesterday. When I nearly lost it with him and you had to stop me. It wouldn't have helped anything; I didn't mean to put you in that situation."
"You were right." Winston shrugged. "He was being a bastard. But it wouldn't have done anything except make it worse. At least now..." He put his hands to his eyes. "God, that was only yesterday, wasn't it? Feels like half a lifetime ago. It's been one hell of a day."
Simon agreed with that sentiment wholeheartedly. "And it's not over yet. If it helps...I know exactly where you're coming from, cuz. Remind me to tell you what goes on with Jim whenever something happens to Sandburg..."
"I've already seen for myself," observed Winston.
"You haven't seen nothing," Simon said wryly. "There isn't anyone for Jim to blame this time, for instance. For that matter, Sandburg is a terror if Ellison's in danger. I try not to think about what would happen to either one without the other—I have nightmares about it. They are my friends, and I'd do whatever I could, but like you said—I wouldn't really know what to do. And it probably wouldn't be enough."
His stomach always twisted into a knot at the random times that occurred to him. It wasn't something he generally admitted; he couldn't tell Jim or Blair, certainly, and there were few enough others who could understand. But his cousin knew that feeling all too well, and while he had no solutions, at least he was not alone in his inadequacies.
Al showed up as Winston and Peter were leaving. Sam hardly had a chance to acknowledge his presence, crouched by the accelerator and examining the power leads. Yes, just as Egon had described—all this time and he had still had the exact blue-prints in his head. Sam suspected he had once been the same way, before leaping had scrambled his brains. Now he could barely recall what the Project's quantum accelerator even looked like, except for brief remembrances sparked by this one before him.
He heard Jim and Al exchange wary greetings. It hadn't taken too long for them to become adjusted to one's awareness of the other, fortunately; it made things easier on Sam. And he could use all the breaks he could get, this leap.
The fact that their memories and trains of thought had been so clear in the otherspace worried him. Possibly a result of things becoming more solid there, energy decreasing as the bubble's collapse became imminent. He had asked Al to have Ziggy run calculations on that process, but he didn't want to discuss that in front of Jim.
Al knew this, of course. Sam glanced up from the generator after Simon left to see the detective striding out the door. "Where's he going?"
"To bed," Al told him. "I convinced him to go downstairs and catch forty winks while he could—promised to wake him in three hours. We need to talk and he needs the rest. A good soldier listens to a superior officer, even from another branch. I figured out where I knew him from, Sam."
"Oh, where?" Sam knelt by the accelerator, checked the circuitry again. He wished he could ask Al to hand him the pliers; this would be easier with some able assistance.
But a hologram couldn't do anything but observe, and talk. "Took me a while to place him because he is an acting civilian now. He's loosened up a bit, too. I checked Ziggy, though, and she confirmed it—I can check his past records, actually, it's only in the last few years that she gets knocked for a loop. Anyway—this is kind of funny, Sam—I interviewed him for the Project."
"What?" Sparing a glance away from the equipment, Sam frowned at his friend. "He doesn't seem to know—"
"He doesn't," Al attested. "He's not a physicist; I was looking into security men at the time, and one of his commanders sent him over. Captain James Ellison, recently recovered from a tour mission that had gone straight to hell. His plane went down in Peru; he was the only survivor. Accomplished his mission anyway, but when they finally got him out he was...a little off. His debriefings are mostly classified—Ziggy's working on that, she'll crack it soon.
"The general who recommended him said he was a straight arrow, very dependable, thorough—just what we needed for PQL. When I met with him I had the impression that this was all true, but I couldn't take the man himself. He might have been shell-shocked, but at the time he came across like he had an iron yardstick rammed up his—"
Sam coughed. "--his jacket." Al grinned, occasionally fond of so needling his more proper friend. "Never once cracked a smile, and I poured on the charm just to see if I could get one. Not the sort of guy I wanted to work with, so I looked elsewhere and he went home to become a cop."
"Not the sort of guy one would expect to be partnered with a civilian grad student," Sam remarked, rocking back on his heels to ponder this for a moment. "Unless Blair is the tame, conservative type—and I don't get that impression from what I see in the mirror."
"No," Al agreed. "More like your average liberal fireball. What I saw of him at least. The funny thing is, they seem really close—buddies, not just partners. And I'll tell you this much, the detective's a different person when Blair's with him. A lot easier to get along with—just like now, he's a lot better than he was when I met him. If I had interviewed that Ellison," and he jerked his thumb toward the door, "I would've hired him on the spot with a bonus." The Observer smiled. "You know, the way they acted, reminded me of us, Sam. Upstanding ex-military and maverick scientist—"
"The trouble-making wisecracker and the sane, sensible type," Sam chuckled.
"Exactly! Except you don't make that many wisecracks—" He dodged a swat that couldn't touch him anyway. "Seriously, though," and he allowed sincerity into his tone, "they're not a pair I would have put any money on, but it works. Pretty damn well, from what I saw."
"Yes, and that's why I'm here," said Sam. "To make sure that doesn't fall apart..." He crossed to the table and retrieved the ghost trap. "What's Ziggy's prognosis on the bubble's collapse?"
Al fooled with the handlink. "It's got about a week before it goes entirely and takes whoever's inside with it. I hope this plan is good—we don't know how much longer you're here, since we don't even know what you're supposed to change."
"If I'm right, I have all the time I need for this—this is my fault, Al. I've got to make it right. What we've come up with should work, to an extent at least...we can get one of them out."
"Which one?" Al inquired quietly.
Sam sighed. "That's what they have to decide. From what I heard before I leaped back, it's going to be quite an argument—Egon insists Ray is the logical choice, Ray thinks Egon has the more valuable expertise."
Al rolled his eyes. "Scientists."
"Nope. Friends." Sam rechecked the accelerator's circuitry, wondering if it would help if he had his fingers crossed. He didn't need to look at his partner to know that Al's were already.
A few minutes later he rubbed his eyes, trying to clear blurred vision. Al stepped into the machine to get his attention. "Sam. Sam! You're as bad as Jim—I saw Captain Banks yelling at him yesterday."
"Yeah, so did I. He seems to experience these fugues—maybe that was the real reason for his discharge. What is it?"
"You're going to bed, that's what. It doesn't look like you have much more to do—"
"I don't, but—"
"I'll get you up in four hours," Al told him. "Sam, you've been staring at that connection for two minutes now—I counted. You've been working like a maniac since we got here this morning, your brain is shot, and you're not as young as you used to be. To bed. Sleep now and you'll still have another hour and a half to work out any bugs—which you'll see a lot better when you're awake."
"All right, Mom." Sam stretched, winced when his backbone crackled. "Just like old times, huh?"
"Just like old times, kid." Al smiled slightly. "Except I can't hide your diagrams now—"
"Or lock me in the bedroom." Sam shook his head. "You really were a parent!"
"You needed one."
"Maybe. Who's mothering you, though? When did you last sleep?"
Al grimaced. "He shoots, he scores. I'll sleep if you will. Just need to check on a couple of things first..."
"Like?" Sam prodded.
"Ziggy still hasn't given a straight answer as to why Ellison can see me. I'd like to know. It's not causing problems now but if we encounter someone else who can—not a risk I want to take if we don't have to. I was thinking those fugues you mentioned might be related—it would help if we could get data from Cascade. She's still having trouble accessing anything there."
"Just go to bed when you're done, Al. Can't have a tired Observer, either." Under Sam's watchful eye his friend complied.
Before the door slid down again Sam said, "Goodnight, Al. And thanks. For everything."
"Anytime, as always. G'night, Sam." Al vanished.
Sam tiptoed down the hall and to the main bedroom. Simon and Winston were on the beds but had yet to fall asleep; he caught the end of their conversation, Simon's concern, not knowing what to do, "And it probably wouldn't be enough."
Not his business—but he had been interfering with other's businesses so long he couldn't stop now if he wanted to. And this was something he had to address. "You're their friend," he pointed out quietly. "That's always enough."
Two pairs of dark eyes met his through the dimness. "No, man," Winston contradicted, not with anger but regret. "Sometimes it isn't. Sometimes you just have to stand back and watch..."
"I know. And that hurts, but there's nothing you can do. You do all you can, and that's enough. Because it's all you can do. It's enough that you tried."
"And if you fail?" Simon, wearily.
"It was enough. You have to accept that...they're your friends, but you can only do so much. They have to do the rest—they choose to do the rest, and you can't make their decisions for them."
"Are you telling us something, Sam?" Winston inquired without heat. "About what you're going to try in a couple hours?"
"No..." He hadn't even been thinking of that, making excuses if their idea failed. He was positive it would succeed—not that there wouldn't be more to overcome at that time. But it was the only plan he could come up with...he just prayed he had the solution to what would follow.
His thoughts had been on something different when he had spoken now. "No. I just wanted you to know that it's true. We can't blame ourselves for everything that happens to our friends, and we can't always do something about it. And sometimes it is their decision...you can do all you can, but sometimes it's not in time, or it doesn't work. You still did enough, because you tried, for them. For your friend.
"I know someone who was too late to stop his friend from doing something, maybe a terrible mistake...I think he still blames himself for it. Keeps wondering if he had been a little faster that night, if he could have read his friend's mind—maybe then he could have stopped him. But he wasn't, and he couldn't, and the truth of the matter is that it would have happened anyway, no matter what he had done. That he tried, that was enough." Though Al would probably never accept that...Sam knew it all the same. He knew how determined he could be, and there hadn't been any way Al could have kept him from stepping into the accelerator, no matter how soon he had come or how much he had known.
Just as there was no way Al or anyone else could keep him now from what he planned, even if they did guess. Which they wouldn't; even Ziggy couldn't be sure. He couldn't be positive himself—but he was fairly certain his predictions were accurate. It was the only chance they had, though. And no matter what his friend might protest should he find out beforehand, he wouldn't be able to prevent Sam from doing what was necessary.
He laid down on the third bed, leaving the four-poster to itself. On top of musty sheets, in full clothing, and he was asleep before he could resolve more than two thoughts. This was what he had to do. And if it didn't work out, he could only hope that Al wouldn't blame himself for what happened.
"How much longer?" Blair asked after the latest wave passed them over. They rode it out in necessary silence, gripping each other's arms to make sure they didn't slip away. When the smothering agony subsided, however, it left no trace; easy to take a deep breath and return to the more important matters at hand.
Egon adjusted his glasses, a required step of his recovery process, it seemed. "About an hour and a half."
"I count two hours," Ray corrected. "Is it just me or are those...moments coming closer together?"
"They are," Spengler replied, "which I accounted for; that explains the discrepancies in our estimates. This place is going."
"Within a week, you said." Blair folded his arms. "Which is why we gotta see about vacating, exciting as it is here. Have you guys worked that out yet?"
The two scientists exchanged glances. "We haven't come to a decision," Egon admitted.
Blair wasn't especially surprised. "You have an hour and a half. I don't want to push you, but time passes a lot faster in here than it does outside..."
He saw Spengler wince at his imprecise and unscientific nomenclature, but he hated saying "third-dimensional space" or whatever they wanted to call it. Science fiction was all very well when it came to movies and tv shows, but he preferred things a little more down to earth when he was actually living them. Of course the scientific mind probably found comfort in ascribing exact labels to situations...could be a paper in that. Maybe he should have gone into sociology after all.
Ray, who seemed to take things less methodically for all he understood them, heeded Blair's point. Lifting his chin he announced, "We'll decide, then. Egon is going back with you."
"Ray." The physicist peered at him narrowly through his lenses. "We have made no such decision. Half the vote is mine—and you are returning with Blair."
Blair wisely said nothing, wondered if he should suggest a quick match of rock, paper, scissors. Maybe not. But they had been going back and forth like this for the past four hours; he had nothing else to contribute to their argument. In another hour and a half—probably hour and fifteen minutes by now, the way time flew here—he was just going to grab whoever was closer, if they hadn't chosen. Dr. Spengler had made it clear that this was a one-shot deal; the accelerator might burn out from the power surge.
Which begged the question of how they planned to get remaining man back. Something that hadn't yet been attended to, Blair suspected...which explained the vehemence the two were arguing with now.
"Egon." After so long Ray was beginning to sound worn down. No less determined, however. "You know I don't know higher physics or anything about the accelerator—if you go back you might be able to do something, fix it..."
"Mechanically you're more skilled," Egon retorted. "If anyone would have a hope of repairing it, you would. You know enough about it to make it work, at least; there wouldn't be time to build a new one as it is. You're the better prospect."
"Fine, but I'm still not going." If it would have had any effect here he probably would have stamped his foot. "If you're staying, then so am I."
Egon got no further than opening his mouth when another ripple swept through them. They all clasped hands, Blair fighting the urge to breathe when he'd only choke on the vacuum, teeth clenched against a scream that wouldn't be heard anyway. For an instant he almost thought he could see the walls closing in around them, exerting their awful, formless pressure.
It ended. "Ray, that's absurd," Egon berated his friend as if there had been no interruption. "If there is a chance for one of us to escape, then we have to take it."
"Fine," Ray snapped, clearly reaching the end of his rope, "then take it!" His face was not suited for glaring, especially not at old friends, but he managed it admirably. "Otherwise I'll just stay here with you, until it collapses."
Dr. Spengler of course was not perturbed. "A remarkably selfish attitude," he observed. "Maybe we should be looking for a way to bring Peter and Winston in to join us—"
Ray's horrified expression stopped him in his tracks. "I'm sorry," he murmured, gripping his friend's arm comfortingly. "But the analogy holds. If we try to do nothing it's as good as killing ourselves."
"Why don't you just go, then?" He sounded as if he were stifling a sob.
"Because logically, you are the better choice." Egon's tone was even but compassionate, cool though not uncaring. "Staying behind isn't automatically death; there's still a good chance that I can be rescued before the bubble collapses. You've seen the accelerator; you can fix it in time, if it even needs to be. Probably better than I could myself. I don't know enough quantum physics to do much good." Arching an eyebrow at his friend, "Don't tell Peter I admitted it, though."
Ray did not quite succeed at returning his smile. "Of course not."
"You'll get to see him again, Ray. You can convince him to reopen the Ghostbusters—I don't know if I could do that, either, but I know you can. You won't give up. You won't let him give up, and that's why you need to be there...will you?" He stared down into Ray's hazel eyes, blue eyes intense behind the frames. "Will you go, for me, and for him?"
"I..." Ray started to shake his head, then nodded once vigorously, face twisting as he fought to contain his emotions and lost. Lunging forward he wrapped his arms around his friend, burying his face in his shoulder. Without hesitation Egon returned the embrace, rubbing the other's shaking shoulders gently and resting his cheek against the auburn head, eyes closed, in peace or in sorrow Blair couldn't tell. "Thank you," he murmured.
Ray's voice quavered, but his tone was forceful all the same. "We'll get you out of here," he swore. "We'll rescue you. We'll find a way to get you back."
"I know," Egon said. His expression implied that he knew no such thing, however. Blair wondered at the grimness of it; what did the physicist know that he and Ray did not? He didn't comment on it, though. It would only make for more trouble, and this was so clearly what he wanted that Blair was wary to disrupt his designs. Calm as the tall man acted he was not one to be crossed.
Another wave hit then. Egon stretched out his hand and snagged Blair's just in time. He hung on grimly, waiting for it to pass, waiting waiting waiting—and it was gone like it had never been. The air hissed out of his lungs in a long, tiring exhalation.
"How long?" Ray mumbled, voice muffled as he wiped his tan sleeve over his eyes.
"About forty-five minutes," Egon reported tonelessly. There didn't seem to be much to say after that; they sat in silence until another wave swept past them.
When it was over Egon straightened. "Quarter to, approximately. We should prepare. Ray?" He put his hands on his friend's shoulders. "Say hello to Peter for me."
"I'll tell him you'll be coming shortly," Ray replied. "As soon as I get there I'll look at the accelerator, I'll be able to fix it. We'll get you back, Spengs. I—Dr. Stantz guarantees it," with a shaky smile. Apparently he had decided that was the one way he could handle this, convince himself it would work. Blair understood how he felt. As must Egon, for he did nothing to disturb it.
Instead he said, "Thank you, Raymond, for all our time here, for your companionship. I am sure..." There might have been a twinkle deep in those blue eyes. "I can't imagine a better person with whom to be trapped in limbo.
Ray smiled broadly, though there were tears behind it. "Neither can I, Egon. I'm glad I was trapped here with you—I mean, I'm glad you were with—I mean, I'm glad I wasn't alone—"
"I understand," Egon assured him solemnly, and then looking into his damp eyes drew him into another hug. After a moment he patted Ray's back, gently extricated himself from his friend's hold and nudged him toward Blair.
"It's all right, man, I promise not to bite," he joked, trying to lift the darkness weighing down for all the pervasive light of their surroundings. Ray nodded with a tiny smile, appreciating the attempt. They locked their hands around each other's forearms, stared into one another's eyes and braced themselves for the coming shift.
Blair wondered how accurate Egon's timing had been, feeling a bit silly, but before he could become embarrassed he felt the tingling that preceded a leap, the buildup of invisible energies around him. Ray's eyes widened enormously—he felt it too. It was working. Blair grinned widely, saw Ray echo the gesture.
Radiance increasing around them, and through the glow he could make out Dr. Spengler, watching closely while he mouthed, "Goodbye." There was such terrible finality and grief in his face that Blair realized he had been right; Egon knew there would be no escape for him. If there had been anything Blair could have done he would have, but he had no choice now except to hold onto Ray, the brilliance glowing into being around them as they quantum leaped.
Jim wouldn't have known anything was up, had he not heard Sam's pulse double as he approached the accelerator. The Sentinel wrote it off to nerves; they weren't sure if this would work, after all. Outwardly he seemed calm enough. Besides, Winston's and Peter's hearts were both hammering fit to beat out of their chests, though they too had the semblance of composure.
He was tense himself, for that matter. Shifting the control pad to wipe his palms on his jeans, he took a deep breath, inquired, "Time yet?"
Simon glanced at his watch and Al at his link; together they confirmed it. "You ready?" Jim asked Sam.
The physicist nodded, placing his hands on the dome. "Goodbye," he said quietly.
"See you later," Jim replied, raising the pad. He pressed the first button, watched the dome begin glowing. Sam closed his eyes before it became too bright, but Jim swore he glanced up once, looked straight at Al with an indefinable expression. The hologram, focused on his handlink, didn't notice.
"Eight one thousand, nine one thousand, ten," Jim subvocalized, and hit the next key as he stamped his foot on the pedal. The small metal doors of the ghost trap snapped open. Again the brilliant flash, brighter than ever, so powerful now that even Jim was forced to close his eyes. Through the lids his vision flamed orange, inverse of the blue shine. Three stripes of it, the low smudge of the accelerator and two taller forms of light, fiery afterimages burned into his retina.
Carefully he waited the interval Sam had instructed, then removed his foot from the trap's trigger and punched the first button twice. Double click, flip it off and on again—Sam had been clear about that; the accelerator should stay activated if possible. Jim waited for the orange under his lids to darken to a chestnut, then opened his eyes.
The light was taking longer to fade, but he could make out two figures within it, and two hearts beating. One his partner's, instantly recognizable; the other slightly slower and entirely unfamiliar.
The others were lowering their hands from their eyes, slowly turning back to face the accelerator. No need to ask them who the red-haired man across from Blair was; it was immediately obvious, from the way Winston's breath caught. From the way Peter stopped breathing entirely.
Far an instant they leaned into one another; then Blair staggered backward, steadied himself against the lab table. Without that prop the other man would have toppled had not Winston moved, dodging forward to throw an arm around his shoulders and carefully help him to the floor. Jim, knowing Blair was all right and seeing Simon step closer to attend to him, drew back to stand beside Peter. Venkman seemed in danger of collapse himself, knuckles bleached as he clutched the doorframe.
His lips shaped a single name, but no breath would come to pronounce it. Winston asked it instead, when the man he held blinked, pushed himself into a sitting position. "Ray? Is that you, my man?"
"I—I--" Rapidly he opened and shut his eyes a few times as if checking the authenticity of his vision. He glanced at Blair, who grinned and nodded as if understanding exactly what he was wondering, then looked to the man behind him. "Winston?" Almost disbelieving. "Is it—am I—"
"Ray!" Winston cried in a joyful shout, and hugged him, or maybe he was the one being hugged, hard to say who was more enthusiastic. They both were laughing out loud.
The display resolved something in Peter. "Ray?" he said clearly, and Ray twisted around, saw Venkman by the doorway, paused with one foot in the lab.
Ray's eyes grew wide enough to swallow his face and he struggled up, tripping on his feet in his haste. Automatically Peter stretched out to steady him. Ray grabbed his hand, used it to brace himself and then to pull his friend into a bearhug tight enough to crack ribs.
For a moment Venkman seemed paralyzed, white face reflecting only a frozen panic, and Jim wondered if the shock had finally overwhelmed the man. Then suddenly he flung his arms around his friend, almost a convulsive reflex, and clung so fiercely it would have been impossible to separate them.
"Peter," Ray was gasping, sobbing, "Peter, Peter, it's you, is it really you?"
"It's me," Peter whispered. He relaxed his grip enough to bring up one hand and stroke his friend's auburn hair. "Dr. Venkman, in the flesh."
Ray's hiccup might have been a chuckle. Peter pressed him even closer. "That you, Stantz?"
"Doc—Dr. Stantz, present and accounted for," Ray confirmed, stuttering between choked breaths. For a moment he seemed content to lean against his friend in silence, eyes closed in weary satisfaction.
Then they snapped open. "Peter, we have to—Egon's still there!"
Peter stiffened, relaxed with a long exhalation before Ray could notice. Over his bowed head Venkman's face was still, only his narrowed eyes betraying the strain. "I know," he said calmly. "We should do something about that."
"Yes!" Ray drew a shuddering breath and stepped back, Peter's hand against his back stabilizing both of them. Together they headed to the accelerator, Winston converging toward it as well. The three stared down at the dome, still softly glowing.
Jim took the opportunity to sidle over to his own partner, nudged him. "You okay?"
"Fine, Jim," Blair assured him, but his attention was on the men surrounding the device. Ray tested the frame, running his hand over the hemisphere. Peter jerked, withdrew his own hand before he seized Ray's and scowled at his reaction.
Stantz hadn't noticed, concentrating as he was on the device. "Looks like it's still working..." he said hopefully. "It wasn't blown out after all! Maybe if we..." Thoughtfully he trailed off, nibbling the corner of his lip.
Winston punched his shoulder lightly. "You'll figure it out, my man! We have, what, a week? That's more than enough time to work this out." Peter closed his eyes; Winston grasped his arm, shook him. "Hey, homeboy, you're not giving up on Ray already, are you? You know he's not gonna leave Egon hanging there any more than you will."
"We'll get him back, Peter," Ray said earnestly. "He's fine for now—we're going to bring him back!"
He smiled, a most infectious grin. Even Venkman wasn't completely immune. The corners of his mouth turned up, "Well, if you say so..."
"No, he's not fine!"
Jim jumped at the shout directly behind him, though no one else blinked. He whirled, spotted Al waving his arms frantically. At the grim set to the Observer's mouth his heart sank. "What?" he hissed as softly as he could manage.
Of course Blair heard, and snapped around. "Al's here?" he whispered, equally quiet, eyes darting around as they searched for the hologram.
Jim was too intent on Al to respond. Sam's friend was bouncing on his toes in his haste to explain, "It's wrong, it's gone all wrong, dammit, I should have seen it, I should've known—"
"They're in trouble," Al confirmed his fears. "Sam and Dr. Spengler—they're not only trapped. The bubble was completely destabilized by Ray leaving; it's collapsing now."
"How long do they have?" Jim demanded in an undertone, but Blair picked it up, eyes widening as he deduced the nature of the query.
"Three or four more hours—Ziggy says eight, tops, before it's totally gone." Al ground his teeth together. "Sam must have known, there's gotta be something he can do—"
"We can find out—" Jim began, shot a look at his partner and broke off. This destabilization and coming collapse sounded even more dangerous than the comparatively regular leaping.
Too late, though; Sandburg had caught his glance. "What's wrong?" Leaning over to whisper in his ear Jim summarized the situation. Blair nodded, paling. "All right. Sounds like we need Sam here."
"We don't have time to go through this again, Jim." Raising his voice, "Okay, Ray, that accelerator's still functioning, right?"
"Yes, Blair," Ray agreed with a smile. "It's still on, even—"
"Sam told me to keep it running," Jim interrupted to explain. "Like a beacon, a way to lock onto this place, if they can get something worked out on their end..."
Ray nodded vigorously. "Sounds right, should do that, I think—Dr. Beckett's amazing! I bet he and Egon have something worked out already." It wasn't completely clear if he believed that or was saying it for Peter's sake.
Venkman was not sharing his confidence, at any rate. He had one hand on Ray's shoulder as if afraid that letting go entirely would lose him again. "Anything up that we should know about?" he inquired levelly. "I'm guessing Al's here?" Nodding more or less in the hologram's direction.
"Yeah," Jim said. "He's here, he thinks...we should bring Sam back for the moment."
"He's here?" Ray craned his neck, trying to see. "Sam told us...he's a hologram, right? Only supposed to be visible to him, you've been confusing them, Detective Ellison—say, we never were introduced. Blair told me about you, sorry, I'm—"
"Ray Stantz," Blair presented him hastily, "yeah, sorry, we should do this now. If it's working."
"It's working," Ray acknowledged as he stepped back, brow wrinkling slightly at Blair's haste. Sandburg flashed him an apologetic grin, took his accustomed stance before the glowing accelerator.
Peter, still at Ray's side, frowned over his head at Jim as he picked up the keypad. "All right, what's with the rush?"
"Yeah, Jim," Simon seconded, "they do know it worked, right? Can't we..."
"No," Jim said, tightening his jaw. Blair nodded sharply to him, gave him a thumbs up as he put his hands to the done. Jim hit the button.
Everyone made various sounds of protest at the brilliance, Jim ignoring them to count the requisite five seconds. He pushed the other key with more force than necessary, and immediately realized something was wrong.
Meeting his partner's gaze he saw the same worry reflected there. Blair withdrew his hands from the accelerator's dome, shaking them as if wringing off water. "Not good, man," he murmured.
"Was that a leap?" Ray asked eagerly. "That was incredible—are you Sam now?"
Blair shook his head, rubbing his temples. "No," Jim corroborated flatly. "It's still Blair." He looked behind him.
Al's expression was a terrible mix of anger and consternation. "I was afraid of this," he growled. Bringing up the handlink he punched the glowing cubes. It squawked, and the color left in his face drained from it. In a toneless voice he reported, "The energy in the bubble has dropped too low to facilitate leaping. We can't do the exchange anymore."
Looking up he met Jim's gaze, fear smoldering in his dark eyes. "That's it. They're trapped there."
"You knew this would happen, of course, " Egon observed, when Sam felt the tug of the leap begin but the light never materialized.
He released the breath he hadn't realized he was holding. "Yes. Just as I knew that removing one of you would drop the energy below what was required to maintain cohesion. Same as you knew. I'm estimating we have about five hours?"
Egon acceded, "My guess as well. At least the waves have stopped."
"Only goes to reason," Sam shrugged. "No more fits and starts—when it goes, it'll be all at once now."
"We didn't have much choice." The other physicist sounded hardly disturbed. None of this was revelation for either of them. "If we had waited any longer, the energy level would have fallen so far that there would have been no chance of a double leap. At least this way..." He hesitated, barely. "He would have made it back, correct?" Unsuccessfully trying to suppress the anxiety in his tone.
"Ray?" Egon nodded. Sam said honestly, "We can't be certain—but almost definitely. Leaping itself isn't dangerous if the location is assured; the trap's energy sink would have pulled both of them back. And it must have succeeded, or they would have tried to leap me sooner."
The logic convinced the other physicist when emotional fervency would not have. He pushed his glasses further up his nose, glanced around himself thoughtfully, "It should be a remarkable experience, at least. I can't recall ever reading a case of a conscious human being ripped apart by the fabric of space-time itself."
"It's certainly unique." Sam paused long enough for Egon to look at him before going on, "But you won't have to experience it."
"How so?" The man frowned at him, for once unable to follow his thoughts.
"Check my calculations," Sam requested, not one he made often. There were few enough scientists, even other physicists, who could follow his theories. "I quantum leap regularly, always passing in and out of this dimension. Between that and the power of my initial leap, I've built up a high ambient energy. Residuals of which were charged to make the 'ghosts' which leaped you, Ray, and Blair here to begin with."
He wished he could pace; it made it easier to relate his ideas. He settled for gesturing formless shapes in the void instead. "But that energy should give me a doorway out of here. The only reason I'm staying is because I haven't completed the task I leapt in to do—and I haven't failed, either. The change which will trigger the leap hasn't occurred yet.
"When this bubble goes, one way or another that's it. I should leap, and the last energy released into the continuum by the collapse will push me on my way. Unless...I transfer it." He clasped Egon's wrist. "Physical transference worked for Ray, from Blair and me. I understand enough about leaping that I could effect it here, I'm almost positive. If you leap, you're still linked to your place and time, and the accelerator should be there and running. It will draw you straight back. Straight home."
Egon yanked his wrist free, staring at him. "And what about you?" His raised brows indicated he already knew, however.
"I won't leap, obviously," Sam stated, uncomfortable under that sharp stare. "There isn't nearly enough energy to leap both of us. Like you said, it will be a remarkable experience..."
"No." Egon folded his arms, drawing himself even taller. "Absolutely not."
"It's the only way," Sam argued. "This is my fault; I'm not going to let you die—"
"And I won't let you. You're proposing suicide, Dr. Beckett."
"Dr. Spengler, I'm proposing the one chance to not only save your life, but get you back where you belong!"
"And I'm refusing."
Sam glared at him. "So was Ray, but you must have convinced him in the end that it was in his best interests—in everyone's best interests—for him to go."
"The situation was different," Egon disputed with impeccable logic. "One of us could leave, or we would have both been trapped. It would have been idiotic for neither of us to take the chance while we had it. In this case one of us will escape—you'll survive, if your calculations are correct, and I'd vouch for them."
"That doesn't explain why it was Ray instead of you," Sam pointed out.
Egon shook his head, face suddenly ashen. "It had to be Ray," he murmured. "He was...the logical choice. He's younger, more years to live. Just as capable with the equipment, and his knowledge is essential to the Ghostbusters. Besides, it wasn't his fault he was caught here..."
"And he's your friend." Sam waited until Egon nodded. Not something he could deny. "It wasn't your fault you're here, either," he said. "You couldn't have been prepared."
"My...device brought the trace," Egon insisted. "I suspected, but I didn't take the proper precautions. If I had looked before I lea—" he coughed, "rather, if I had been more careful, taken longer to prepare, I might been able to use the accelerator to bring him back, rather than ended up here with him..."
"I've been meaning to ask you that." It wasn't so much he wanted to change the subject as that didn't think he'd get another chance. "Where did that accelerator come from? Why'd you build it to begin with—I'm guessing you couldn't have just invented it for this..." It would be surprising to say the least, not to mention somewhat depressing, considering how many years it had taken him to bring the project to fruition.
But Egon almost smiled. "No, I didn't. Originally it was based on your work, Dr. Beckett—you published a few of your early diagrams, and I wondered what could actually be done with them. Ray helped me with the actual construction; then he became involved full-time with the occult and pulled the rest of us into it. But I kept tinkering—it related to our work. The containment unit and the traps tie into your quantum string theory. And cross-dimensional shifting is tricky; I thought leaping might be a safer route.
"It never occurred to me, when Ray first vanished, that he might have leaped. There weren't any normal readings, but eventually—can't imagine why it took me so long—I recognized the temporal indicator on the PKE recording." From a paper read how many years before? wondered Sam, but didn't interrupt. "I was so anxious to see if it was right, that Ray was alive, that I just went ahead..."
"That might have been the best choice," Sam said quietly. "The trace very likely would have faded before you could have intensified it, had you waited. You couldn't have known it would react like it did—it was drawn to people, to human brainwaves. When I leaped in so close, originally, the trace was charged by your equipment—high psychic energies, and you were living beings giving off some of those energies..."
"Our proton packs," Egon agreed, "and Peter and Ray both were slimed—concentrated ectoplasm, over a living source."
"Yes. Ray was just unlucky enough to be closest; the most powerfully charged trace leapt him. The others remained, and when you began generating the power to re-energize them..."
"We knew this already," whispered Egon. "I understand." Too well, from his haggard face. He cast it off to remark, "One part still confuses me, however. We've explained our appearance here, but why did Blair come? Where did the trace that leapt him originate?"
It was precisely the question still bothering Sam. "Al and I hypothesize I leap to Cascade or the Washington area in some future date—my future, not theirs. From my calculations there are three primary residuals—"
"Corresponding to each of the three dimensions of so-called normal space. Reasonable," the other physicist approved. "But why would the third spontaneously materialize?"
Because God, Fate, or something else had decided it was time for Sam to fix this wrong, and thus had handed him the perfect opportunity. Not a terribly scientific explanation, and not a very accurate one, either. Whatever the force behind him was, it rarely operated directly—or he wouldn't be needed. There had to have been a logical reason for Blair's leap. For the moment, though, he gave Egon the only answer he had: "I have no idea. Maybe that's something you can find out, when you get back."
"That would be possible only if I were going back," Egon rejoined, the sidetrack not delaying his denial.
Rather than continue the cycle of insistence and refusal, Sam retreated to what had gotten the most response. "Look, why are you being so stubborn about it? You convinced Ray—"
"Because it was the best solution at the time, which you can't convince me this is. Why should my life be worth more than yours?"
"Why was Ray's?" Sam tapped his fingers against his crossed arms. "We all have a right to live. I'm not going home to live my life regardless, but you can. Why did Ray have more of a right to return than you?"
"He was the logical choice," Egon breathed, "the necessary one, if either of us it had to be him."
"Why?" Sam pressed, not quite accepting the answers he had listed before.
And Egon didn't offer them. "Because it wasn't his fault, because it was an accident, because...of Peter..."
"What do you mean?" He kept his tone gentle, sensitive to the emotion in the low voice.
Shaking his head blindly, "I, I left him, my fault, he thought we were dead for two years because I had been too stupid to tell him...I could have told him Ray was alive, but I wanted to make sure, I couldn't risk being wrong. I was too concerned about my own precision to give him even that hope...and then I left. And if I had gone back, and Ray was still gone, there would have been nothing I could have done. At least with Ray—Ray can help Peter, Ray's like that, but...after Ray was gone, I couldn't do anything for him, I didn't even try. I didn't go to him and I should have, he was my friend. I knew what it was doing to him and yet I couldn't go...He came to me, and I couldn't give him what he needed, not help, not hope, nothing..."
"You hurt too much yourself," Sam murmured, not condemning, understanding. A private man was this, an immensely personal soul who was frightened by the depth of his own feelings, frightened that they were inadequate to his friends' love for him. Terrified that there was nothing he could do for them, while understanding all they did for him. "But you were there," he reminded him.
"And then I left," not a sob but a cry wrenching far deeper. "Peter needs Ray, not me, Ray won't leave, and he'll give him what he needs, everything, the support, the friendship..."
"Not everything," Sam told him, thinking of those chill green eyes and the gaping holes in the soul behind them. Ray could fill some, of that he had no doubt, and it was true that Peter might use him as a crutch to heal. But there would always be an emptiness, unless he could fix it. "He needs you. Your friendship, your love. As best as you can give it. Which is what you always gave, and all he ever needed."
Egon lowered his head, and for a long moment there was only the empty silence of the void. Barely disturbed by his low voice when he spoke, "And no one needs what you can give?"
"I—" Sam opened his mouth, closed it again, mind racing to find words. "I can't go home, I can't see my friends or family again as it is, I help people but they'll never know if I stop..." Except for Al, who would know what had happened even if Egon said nothing, and would he ever be able to accept that there had been nothing he could have done differently this time, or last time, or any time...
"If we're both needed," Egon stated, voice gaining strength as he lifted his head, "then one of us has no right to life over the other, and there is no reason why I should allow you to die when I've already been dead for the past two years."
Stalemate. Sam sighed, knowing he had to convince him, not knowing how. This was right, this was what he was here to do, to save this man, but if he couldn't get his agreement within the next few hours then this leap would be a failure.
He wouldn't fail. Not this one, with so much at stake. Not when it was his fault. He couldn't.
Life, thought Peter Venkman, which had been so regular, routine...stagnant; life, which he had been on the verge of giving up on, had suddenly become very interesting again.
He tried not to think about the fact that Egon might be gone—Egon who was alive, even if they couldn't reach him, not for very much longer now, but he lived. He knew not to get his hopes up, battened them down and tried not to imagine the future one way or another...and yet every time he looked at Ray—
Ray, Ray, just as alive but present, fooling with that insanely complex piece of equipment like a kid with a ham radio. Smiling a little because Ray nearly always smiled, hard to disrupt the good cheer filling him...Ray, alive. He hadn't forced his mind around that concept yet. Reached out and gripped his shoulder, just to be sure it was there; Ray turned and beamed up at him.
If the confidence in that grin was strained, it was real nonetheless. He drank up the optimism, and the life shining in those hazel eyes, and this might have been a dream. Except that Egon wasn't here. This was real. This was real and Egon still was gone and always would be—but Ray was here, Ray was back, and looking at his bright smile it was impossible to believe that Egon wouldn't return as well.
"Done playing with that yet?" Wondering at his own tone, so light, so calm, with none of the bitterness it always seemed to have. He had never been able to prevent it before, but he couldn't let Ray hear that vicious angry voice, not if it might hurt him. For Ray he could sound happy; for Ray he could smile, and know it was in his eyes as well as on his lips.
"I don't know, Peter." Ray rocked back onto his heels, weariness in his drooping shoulders. Even the smile seemed to sag. "I don't really understand all of it...most of it...any of it, really."
His hand resting on Ray's shoulder, and Winston's hand came down gently on the other. "We'll figure it out," he assured them both. "One of us." Looking over to their other hope.
Peter glanced at them as well. The police captain stood off to the side, attentive to his detectives but not really part of the discussion. Jim was the center of it, voice rising and falling with his temper. The intervals were somewhat disconcerting, half the argument inaudible to all but Jim. Blair seemed to be contributing nonetheless, throwing in the random comment here and there. Strange how he could debate when he was as deaf as they were to Al's side.
Odder still his effect on his partner. Jim's tone would go up, frustration building; then Blair would murmur something, nudge his arm. And Jim would relax, instantly, though he barely glanced at him, engrossed as he was in the discussion. On the converse side, once Blair went off on what was clearly a tangent, waving his arms about and gaining a remarkable resemblance to Ray, in attitude if not appearance. It didn't seem likely he'd shut up, but Jim tapped his forehead and like that, he was quiet. Not hurt by the cut-off, accepting the check on his excitement.
It was bizarre and terribly familiar at the same time, all those times their peers had teased him and Ray and Egon in college, accused them of having a single group mind spread between three. Then later, on busts, when a cock of the head and a furtive gesture could convey the entire plan to the rest of the team.
God, he missed that, the coordination, the excitement—not the slime, maybe, but everything else. Out of nowhere he was hit with an intense wave of longing. He wanted it again, all of it. He wanted to go home; he wanted them all back.
I need you, Egon. Don't mess this one up.
So violently did he slam the lid down on that plea that Ray gave a soft exclamation of pain. Peter relaxed his grip on his shoulder, couldn't quite bear to release it, though. Staring down at the dome of the accelerator something occurred to him. "Al?" he asked, raising his voice. Louder when he failed to get their attention, "Hey, Jim, Al, over here!"
Jim spun around, "Yeah?" Blair's hand on his arm and the aggravation flowed from his face as if it had never been there. Patiently, "We're listening, what do you have?"
"I was thinking, I don't know much about this leaping stuff, but from what I picked up Sam uses a different accelerator, right? A bigger, more powerful one?"
"Hey, yeah, right!" Ray's eyes lit up, and even if his idea was completely, embarrassingly wrong, it was worth it to bring back that shine. "Why didn't I—you should be able to reset it, use it to—"
"He says no," Jim reported Al's response with a sigh. "He says..." Relaying the explanation in fits and starts as he heard it, "the project is top secret, we wouldn't be able to get clearance, especially not at this time—this time? Oh...because they're in the future. Right." With some doubt, but continuing regardless, "We'd need to use the accelerator from this time, and even so it would be doubtful, since they haven't yet worked out a retrieval program..."
Ray's whole aspect folded in on itself. "Oh," he said in a small voice. "I get it. Good idea though, Peter," a useless compliment, but well-meant.
Peter ignored it, focusing on what Jim had said. "How much time is left?"
Jim looked back to the empty space where Al stood. Peter saw his expression change, wished he could leave before he heard the actual answer. "They've gotten more precise readings. About an hour, give or take fifteen minutes." He and Blair both shook their heads, the motion synchronized. It might have been humorous if they weren't relating a death sentence.
Peter tried to find something to say; in the old days he had always been the one to fill those awful silences, but nothing would come, his mind a blank. "There...there's still a chance," Ray began, to his friend's eternal gratitude, even if he couldn't go on.
Then Jim snapped around, "What?" Obviously listening to Al. "What do you mean—what about the accelerator? You said we couldn't—no, what are you saying! Please—don't—what are you trying—" The detective stepped back, staring at thin air. "He's gone," he announced finally.
"What did he say?" Winston demanded. "Is he coming back?"
"I don't know." Jim shook his head. "He said something about the accelerator but I couldn't tell what he was talking about. Since he made it clear we couldn't do anything with it..."
"He's got a plan!" Ray cried, as if it made all the difference in the world. "He's going to do something." Firmly, like his conviction would make it so.
Maybe it could, at that. If anyone could change the nature of the universe by sheer determination it would be Ray Stantz. Peter knew his optimism was dangerous. When it didn't work, when Ray was proved wrong, when they lost Egon once and for all...but he couldn't bear to disillusion him. Not yet. Not when there was an hour left of hope.
His own drained away as the minutes ticked by, so slowly, because there was nothing they could do, and nothing that he wanted to. Except maybe go back to bed, stretch out on the couch and sleep and not wake up. No. Ray was here now. Ray would need him, as much as he had needed Ray. Together they'd get through this, no matter how deeply it hurt. It always would, but he would live, they would live.
Winston came over, put an arm around each of their shoulders. "It'll be all right, guys," he said, and there was unshakable certainty in the simple words. Peter could let himself believe that, at least.
He glanced over, saw that the three detectives had gravitated into a cluster as well, not quite touching, but supporting one another nonetheless. They didn't have anything at stake here themselves, Blair back for good, standing quietly at his partner's side. And yet when Peter searched himself he found no resentment, no anger at the sorrowful resignation in their faces. They were mirroring his own heart and they had no right to simulate that which was so real in him and his friends, and yet he felt only gratitude. They understood; while they might not feel it directly, they knew it all the same, and were paying their respects to that grief. Not pity, not condolences, but a compassion and an understanding he could not help but appreciate.
Jim noticed him, met his gaze and nodded once, slowly, a salute. Of respect, of recognition, of awareness so full that he had to turn away, closing his eyes. Can't let tears fall, not yet, not when Ray had still to give up.
The dome flashed. He didn't have to check his watch—give or take fifteen minutes, Al had said. Take, apparently. The accelerator, still active, was reacting to the energy loss wrenching apart the pocket of temporality. The last of their private limbo, heading down to hell.
Ray made a tiny, inarticulate whimper, lids closing over the tears filling his eyes. Winston sighed, all the weight of the world in the exhalation, protecting his vision with one hand.
Peter made no attempt to block it, staring into the growing brilliance, though it burned like the sun. Worth the risk to his optic nerve. He wouldn't see anything but it was the closest he could come to watching; Egon, his friend, dying alone in a place not of this world, torn by forces only he and few others could even understand. Goodbye, he mouthed, not daring to speak aloud for fear of Ray hearing. Goodbye, my friend. You were the best of me, you and Ray. Thank you for bringing him back. Thank you for everything, all I could say and didn't, and all I never could say and you heard all the same. Thank you for your friendship.
He would give anything to say that, and more if he did not have to say goodbye.
Couldn't keep his eyes on it; he flinched away, nearly cried out with the pain, and then he heard a voice over the accelerator's soft hum. Sounded like Jim, couldn't tell what he was saying—
The brilliance was gone. It was over. He tried to force back the spots filling his vision, couldn't quite keep back the tears as well, but he held it together.
At least until he heard Winston's muted, "My God..." That almost undid him, but there was something odd to his tone, incomprehensible. Everything was blurred, flashing with dark splotches, but he swore there was a figure, standing by the dim device, a man who had not been there before...
He would have thought it a hallucination, had he not heard Ray's joyful, "Egon!"
Peter blinked, shook his head violently. Caught the briefest glimpse of Jim and Blair, and again they had matching expressions, open-mouthed surprise this time. Winston murmured it in disbelief, "Egon?"
But he couldn't believe it until he saw it for himself, vision finally clearing, tall man leaning on the accelerator, blond hair, red-framed glasses too low on his long nose, blue eyes blinking confusedly through them as he assimilated his surroundings. Not falling over but legs not quite steady, either.
The world tilted sideways, most inconsiderately ignoring Peter while it reordered itself. At any rate he managed to trip over his feet, not because he moved but because the floor did, and everything was flipping upside down.
When it righted he found there was a warm presence on both sides: Ray on his left, holding him up; and on his right, peering worriedly into his eyes, inquiring, "Peter, can you hear me?"
"Of course, Spengs," he said brightly, "I'm not deaf, you know. You planning to get back anytime soon?"
"Peter," Egon replied, so seriously, "I am back."
"How'd you do it, Egon?" Ray asked eagerly over Peter's head. "When it collapsed, did you feel it, what did you perceive—"
"It didn't collapse," Egon said with that puzzled look he got whenever the universe didn't make sense, that is to say all the time, in their line of work, but he never lost the look. How many years later and he still hadn't lost it.
"Hold it," Peter managed to get his tongue to move, with a little luck the words might even make sense, "why could you get back at all, I thought there was a moratorium on leaping."
Egon shifted his position but didn't release Peter, for which he was grateful, because his legs hadn't quite learned how to stand in this strange new world, old world, recreated world where everything was in its place instead of scattered across the known universes and the fourth dimension, too. "I don't know," confessed the physicist. "I shouldn't be here."
Peter could have said something about the mouths of gift horses, or wonder that he didn't go back in that case, but all that came out was, "We're just lucky, I guess." Then everything went a sort of hazy gray, pretty color really, soothing, and he could afford to lose himself in it, because there was someone to watch him, two of them, always one to save what the other missed.
He had been arguing with Egon, privately vowing to simply seize him when the deadline arrived, when out of nowhere the man began to glow, paralyzed by the energy gripping him. It didn't make any sense, it wasn't time for the collapse, not yet. And yet he appeared to be leaping, even without Sam's intervention.
Sam didn't dare touch him for fear of interfering. He didn't understand what was happening until Egon vanished, his tall figure replaced by a shorter, stockier man, blond hair darkening to black—he should have guessed. It was obvious, in retrospect. And yet all he could do was stare, mouth hanging open, at Dr. Spengler's replacement..
Admiral Albert Calavicci, of course.
"It worked!" the Observer crowed triumphantly, once the brilliance died. "What a kick in the butt!"
"A—Al?" Sam stammered. Approaching him, "Is it—you actually—what are you doing here?"
"What am I doing here? What are you doing here?"
"I took Blair's place," Sam answered inanely.
"And I took Egon's," his friend replied, sounding very smug. "So, here I am."
To test that Sam reached out, and though he had already guessed it came as a shock when his hands, instead of going through an illusory hologram, contacted a solid form. With a stilted gasp he put his arms around his friend, and Al returned the hug whole-heartedly, pounding him on the back. The tightness of his grip was the only hint of how much he had missed this, and a slight gruffness to his words, "Hey, good to see you too, Sam."
"So," Sam charged, not quite letting go yet, "you reset the accelerator and leaped into Egon—Al, how could you? Do you have any idea the risk—"
"Yeah, and it was quite a lot lower than when you first leaped," Al reminded him. "You think I'm that crazy? Ziggy made sure the odds were very high that Dr. Spengler would leap right back to where he belonged. Which presumably he has."
"And what about you?" Sam drew back enough to glare down at his friend.
Al shrugged. "The energy I came in with should be enough to push me out again when this thing goes, same as you—we have about half an hour, by Ziggy's latest calculations. Unlike some people I could name, we had a retrieval program worked out before trying this—I should leap right back to the project."
"And if not," worry making his own voice rough, "you could leap to God only know where, or not leap at all..."
"Yeah, but the odds are pretty good I'll go back as planned. I made it here, I've already beaten the worst of 'em."
"What are the odds?" When Al did not immediately answer, "Al, what were the odds of success?"
"Nothing to worry about," Al wrote it off. When Sam's glower made it clear that wasn't acceptable, he coughed, "Ahh...above fifty-fifty. I told you, no worries—"
"How much above?"
"Um...almost two percent?" At his friend's wide-eyed look, "Hey, it worked out. Remember, we got some heavy-duty reinforcements on our side," and he cocked a thumb toward the void overhead. "I wasn't too nervous, and now that I'm here the risk that I won't get back is significantly lower."
Sam decided he didn't want to know that risk. Al was scientifically trained, as he was; significant differences, statistically speaking, often weren't all that significant. "Why'd you do it?" he demanded. "Al, how could you take that chance—"
"How could I—have you ever heard what they say about folks living in glass houses?" Al rocked back on his heels. "You leapt in here, using a model accelerator we had no guarantees about, not knowing where it would bring you or if it would work at all, to save Blair Sandburg's life. So I get a chance, with far better odds, I might add, to save Egon—you think I'm not going to jump at it? You don't have the monopoly on good deeds, Sam. Once in a while I like to get a warm fuzzy feeling too." He smiled to take any sting out of his words. "I've been watching you leap around the planet all these years, putting things right, meeting interesting people, kissing the girls—let me have a little of the fun!"
Sam shook his head, understanding, but still frightened by how close it might have been, the danger. Trying not to think that it wasn't over yet. The theory was sound, they should both leap at the collapse, but what if he were wrong...that a mistaken theory could mean his death, that was his risk as a scientist, one he had accepted long ago. But if it killed others—if it killed his best friend—"Al..."
"Besides," Al said, and he was no longer smiling, black eyes locked with Sam's hazel, "I know you. You weren't about to let Egon or anyone else die here—except maybe yourself. If it were necessary. And that was the one risk I couldn't take." He waited, sighed when the denial didn't come. Sam couldn't make it. Al did know him, too well.
"Al, I..." 'Thank you' was an appallingly insufficient response. You do what you can...he couldn't do anything, not for Al at least, and yet his friend stayed by his side regardless, and did so much for him. "I'm sorry, I would have, I had to, but—"
"I know, Sam," Al assured him patiently. "You couldn't let him die here, anymore than you could have left Blair stuck here, anymore than I could've left you in the lurch. There is a reason why we're in this business; it's not random chance. We've all got this idiotic idea that if we try really hard we can make the world a better place. The good news is—we can!" He pumped his fist in the air. Sam couldn't help but match the gesture, laughing with him. In spite of everything glad it had worked out this way.
"Incidentally," Al commented, "I have some data on our favorite Cascade cops. In particular an explanation of why Ellison could see you and me. Since Ziggy wasn't giving I called in for hard files, direct from the source, and they arrived a few hours ago. I'm going to need to do some more reading, but I skimmed the major item—Dr. Sandburg's dissertation. Interesting piece of anthropology...he's studying something called Sentinels. 'Tribal watchmen'--warriors, people with heightened senses to sense danger before it poses a threat, and give them an advantage when it comes to doing something about it."
"Yup," Al nodded. "Better hearing, better vision, better noses—everything. I don't have all the details but it sounds like they can see and hear things most people would miss..."
"Jim Ellison," stated Sam.
"Looks like. So what does that make it now?" Al counted off, "Animals, young children, mental patients, people with very similar brainwaves to yours—"
"And Sentinels." Holding up five fingers, "Better choose the wardrobe carefully, Al. You never know who might be watching—how common are these 'Sentinels'?"
"I always choose my wardrobe carefully!" Al protested. "Anyway, they're pretty rare, from the sound of it—Blair had discovered only two by the time of publication, Jim and a woman institutionalized in Mexico. Jim's the only modern working Sentinel on record."
"Well, that explains something," Sam said. "Though not why Blair was the one leaped, or why the trace materialized near them at all..."
"We're working on it," Al assured him.
"I know." Sam sighed. "By the time you figure it out, though, I'll have leapt and will be lucky to remember any of this..."
Al patted his shoulder, grinning when his fingers touched instead of going through his friend. "I'll remember," he promised, "and I'll tell you. When we get you home."
"Thanks, Al." Sam hesitated, not wanting to raise his hopes unduly but this was probably his only chance to tell him. "Figuring out how Jim and Blair played into this might help with that, too. I've been thinking—we don't know how it was done, how he got back. There was a link created between this bubble and normal space, and I think he might have been the key. As if something in him was tied to something back there...and..."
Al was the only one he dared randomly speculate with. "This is a bit far-fetched, but I think that Blair's presence stabilized the bubble. The energy flux from his leap in off-balanced it enough to set it collapsing, but I don't think it became coherent just because it was shrinking."
"You're suggesting the kid might have had something to do with it?" Al frowned. "Sam, that's an awful big leap in logic. If you'll excuse the expression."
"Nevertheless—Egon and Ray were here for nineteen months, and couldn't clearly recall any events in that time enough to know how long they'd been gone. Blair seemed far more aware of the passage of time, of what was happening here—Al, I've leapt in and out of here I don't know how many times, and I never remember it. But Blair came back, the only memory loss he'd sustained had been that time here, and he even recalled most of that. When Ray got back, was he swiss-cheesed?"
"No—that doesn't prove anything, though; you could argue it both ways."
"I bet Egon isn't any worse off, either. That's why he was brought here, Al—however it actually happened, that's the reason Blair was needed. Because he had some kind of link, and some kind of control over this..." Terribly frustrating that he had never met the man. He would have liked to watch him and Jim in action together.
Sam had grown accustomed to never seeing the results of his deeds, however. He didn't like it, but he was used to it. "How do you think Peter will do now?" he asked.
Al, who had been pondering Sam's unusual concepts, tore himself from his thoughts to smile at that. "Fine," he said. "Ziggy got all the data back a little after Ray leapt in. He's still alive and well by our time. And with Egon's return Ziggy postulated a ninety-nine percent chance that they'd return to ghostbusting within the year, to the relief of New Yorkers everywhere."
"Al," Sam remarked skeptically, "you can't actually believe that—"
Everything flickered, as if the universe's fuses were about to blow. Al jerked, glanced overhead and muttered, "Looks like this is it."
Sam took a deep breath. "Looks like. Al..."
"I'll be fine, Sam," his friend assured him. "There's just one thing you can do."
"What?" The ambient glow was fading, and there was a distant pressure on his lungs, not enough to make breathing difficult but noticeable. "Anything, Al." Anything I can manage, at least, and he prayed he could.
"I've been waiting years for this," Al said, raising his hand through the thickening void. "Gimme five, partner."
"Right here, Al," Sam replied with a grin, and they slapped high, just as the brilliance descended over both of them, leaping them out as the last energies spread back into the general limbo. Al returning to the Project, where he would help his friend every way he could, and Sam out into the world, where he would help everyone he could, however he could, as long as it was necessary. Knowing that he wasn't alone, not in his missions and not in his quest, because there were others out there doing their part as well, and having undid his wrong they now could return to whatever was planned for them. Detectives and scientists, Ghostbusters and Sentinels, each working to set things right. He wished them all the luck in the world.
Not that they'd need it. He had helped bring them together again. And Sam suspected that, like him and Al, in the long run that was all they required to succeed.
Although Blair couldn't say for sure, he suspected that the second time Peter nearly passed out it wasn't so much he was losing consciousness as that he wanted confirmation of his friends' presences, feel their support on either side. Not that Ray or Egon seemed to mind. They looked like they'd be arguing over the right to hold him if they weren't so concerned for him.
Blair wasn't as worried because he could see the faint smile on Venkman's lips, unlike any expression he had seen on the man before, but one that perfectly fit his features. A tiny, mischievous, boyish grin of the sort that Blair himself had been known to don on occasion. As if becoming aware of his own indulgence Peter drew himself up, then before they could release him pulled both Egon and Ray into a three-way embrace. The contentment on all their faces was enough to brighten Blair's as well.
Peter shattered it by frowning, jerking back from his startled friends to pronounce, "Wait, hold on, something is seriously wrong here." Darting forward he snagged Winston's wrist and none too gently yanked him into their circle, the other two closing in to envelop him in a tremendous group hug. "There," Venkman pronounced from the center with unsurpassable satisfaction.
Looking over Blair saw his partner had broken out the smile, the real one he reserved for those rare moments when both inside and out were at peace, everything going just as it should. He leaned toward him and Jim automatically slid an arm over his shoulders, acknowledging his presence while watching the others. Simon had his arms folded and was regarding them all with an almost proprietary complacency.
The peace lasted for approximately one minute, and then the knot of Ghostbusters exploded into a babble of questions and comments and confused explanations. Jim winced at the sudden noise but couldn't quite lose the smile. Blair concentrated, trying to follow the discussion. He soon concluded it was impossible; how four men could carry on ten simultaneous conversations was beyond him, but none of them seemed to have much trouble with it.
Little snippets emerged, "Did you believe—" "--must have leaped—" "--didn't know it was so long, I—" "--wasn't worried for a second—" "--way to go, homeboy—" "Welcome back!" The last came through loud and clear, but it was impossible to say whose voice it was or to whom it was addressed. To all of them, perhaps. The Ghostbusters, making a triumphant return.
"Welcome back," he whispered, and though they didn't hear Jim grinned, squeezed his shoulder as if to second the motion.
The accelerator crackled, dome flashing and showering sparks before darkening to slate gray. Ray and Egon glanced at it, then each other. "Well, that's it," Egon finally stated.
Ray nodded, subdued. "Do you think Sam..?"
"He would have leapt out," Egon said firmly. "As I was saying, he was going to leap anyway. Why I returned I'm not sure, but it wasn't his doing."
Blair felt Jim tense, relax when Egon confirmed Sam's safety. The quiet confidence in the physicist's tone was hard to deny. As was Peter's murmur, "He's fine, Ray. He got you guys back—he managed that, he can manage anything."
"You got that right," a gruff voice suddenly rasped. Blair jumped, not recognizing the speaker.
Jim did, however, staring forward at a particular patch of nothing. "Al?" he muttered. "You're a little fuzzy."
"Taking all Ziggy's got to keep me here," came the voice, out of nowhere. It didn't seem to have location, as if it were directed straight into his ear. Blair rubbed his eyes, trying to make out the man presumably standing before him. Nothing. But he heard him fine, "Just got back, and this leap's technically over—"
"Back from where?"
Al didn't answer Jim, continuing, "--but I thought you'd want to know, before Ziggy loses these coordinates, it all worked. Will work out, whatever."
"Jim," Blair hissed.
"Just a second, Sandburg, Al's here—"
"I know! I can hear him!"
"What?" Momentarily he had his partner's full attention. "What?" echoed the disembodied voice in dismay. "You can—"
"I can't see you, man, but I hear you fine," Blair confirmed.
Al groaned. "Great. I'll add that to the list. Sorry we can't talk longer, but the connection's fading even with all our power on it." Indeed the voice buzzed with static, like radio interference. "Just wanted you to know, Sam made it out before it went, he hasn't leaped in yet but it looks like everything's green. And there shouldn't be permanent effects from your time in limbo. For any of you."
Blair looked over to the Ghostbusters, again embroiled in their conversations. He saw Peter's eyes on him, probably aware of Al's presence, and gave him a thumbs' up. Venkman grinned, startling to see it spread across his mouth; then he ducked his head and rejoined the verbal free-for-all.
"Don't get a chance to say this often," Al was commenting, "but nice working with you, detective. And you, Dr.—er, Mr. Sandburg. Maybe we'll do it again sometime—"
"Under better circumstances, I hope," Jim muttered.
"Me too," Al agreed fervently. "Goodbye, Jim, Blair, and thanks, from both Sam and me. Oh, and good luck with the Sentinel thing."
"What?" Blair cried, but Jim put a hand on his arm.
"Sorry, Chief, he's gone." With a smile at that parting shot. Raising his voice for everyone to hear, he reported, "Sam made it out, he and Al are fine and back doing—whatever it is they do." Blair happily joined the cheer that followed that pronouncement. Surprised, however, that Peter Venkman's was the loudest voice of all.
With the accelerator's role decidedly ended—Ray experimentally tapped the dome in passing, wincing when it clanked—they relocated from the lab to the more comfortable study down the hall. Egon, Peter, and Ray settled on one of the sofas, Winston took the armchair next to it, and Jim, Blair, and Simon sat on the other couch. Jim described Al's visit in more detail—"He looked out of breath, but smirking like Sylvester after swallowing Tweety—" leaving out Al's last remark, of course, but including Blair's newly improved hearing.
"I'd like to test that," Egon commented after a moment, blinking owlishly behind his glasses, "see if there's any reason you could see and hear him, detective."
"Sam seemed a little worried about it—" Ray began, only to be interrupted by a yawn wide enough to crack his jaw. "Excuse me..."
Simon leaned over to whisper to his two men, "Sandburg, don't tell me this Sentinel thing is contagious."
"No, sir," Blair averred. "Though it might be related somehow, I don't know. I'll want to test—"
"Chief, if you recall, last time we went for a test we—we ended up here!"
"Yeah, not so bad, is it," Blair grinned. "Honestly, Jim, that had nothing to do with it, you know that. Anyway, this tests would be on me. I know I don't have any superior senses, I examined myself thoroughly when I first got into this research, so it must be something else—"
"Hey," Winston's soft, concerned tone cut into their private communication, "is anything..."
He wasn't asking about them, Blair realized, but his three friends. Peter's head was slumped against Egon's shoulder, the physicist's head leaning against his in turn, glasses askew and blond hair tangling with the brown. On his other side Peter's arm was draped over Ray's shoulders, his friend's auburn head tipped back against it, mouth open and snoring faintly. They were all sound asleep.
Blair smiled, then ineffectually blocked the yawn threatening to split his face in two. "Nope, nothing's wrong. They just haven't gotten a good night's rest in a couple years, is all...I feel like I haven't slept in a couple days myself," realizing how difficult it was becoming to keep his own eyes open.
He stood, propped up by Jim when he swayed. "Then you should sleep, Chief," his partner remarked.
"Thanks, Jim." With another yawn, "Where would I be without you to tell me these things?"
"Probably up trying to figure out why you're so tired, instead of being helped to a nice, warm bed."
"Good point." He allowed himself to be steered to the door.
"You can take the bedroom," Winston told them, rising with Simon. "I don't think we should bother waking them..." He started to accompany the detectives out, but when he switched off the light Peter's eyes snapped open, bright green and wide awake.
"Hold it," he whispered, keeping his head still so as not to disturb its position as Egon's pillow. "Where are you going, Zeddemore?"
"To bed. Goodnight, Pete."
"Winston...there's a whole couch here," Peter pointed out. "Probably in better condition than that musty mattress. Sheets, an afghan, a couple cushions, the works..."
"All right." With little reluctance Winston returned to the study, stretched out on the other sofa. "Happy?"
"Yes," said Peter, closing his eyes again and shifting to draw Ray a little closer. "Thanks. Goodnight, Winston."
"G'night, Pete. Though tomorrow night can we see about trying out those musty mattresses? Considering sleeping is what beds are intended for?"
"Considering that," Peter agreed drowsily. "Make the guests use the couches. Just like old times. Sounds pretty good to me..."
"Me too," Winston murmured, and then silence reigned.
With a sleepy smile Blair stumbled the rest of the way down the hall to the bedroom, Jim assisting. He tumbled into the first bed, a soft four-poster affair, and barely had time to kick off his shoes and curl up his legs before sleep claimed him. Through the fog he felt a warm blanket covering him, corners carefully tucked in, and managed to mumble, "Thanks, Jim," before dropping off completely. And may they all have good dreams tonight—after all this, they most definitely deserved them.
Even Jim slept through sunrise an hour later, despite the light shining through the windows and the ever-louder traffic on the streets outside. Late as it was when he finally opened his eyes, he was the first one up. Taking in his surroundings and once assured of his partner's even breathing in the next bed, he stretched, rubbed his face. Stubble on his chin, needed a shave. His razor was back at the hotel—pity they had paid for an extra night when they checked in, but Simon had put it on the official budget anyway. It had been work, after all. Keeping Sandburg safe was a full-time occupation.
He blinked at his watch. Quarter past ten; he had been more tired than he had thought. Yesterday had been quite a day—it really had been only yesterday. Little more than twenty-four hours ago they had arrived at the firehouse, not knowing if Blair was dead or alive...again he glanced over to the other bed, assured himself visually and audibly that his partner was very much living and present, if currently dead to the world.
Or not so unconscious after all. When Jim got up and went downstairs Blair soon followed, joined him in the kitchen to debate for a couple of minutes about breakfast versus brunch. At last they ventured out to the corner shop together and purchased some of the necessary amenities, arguing companionably over whether or not Vitamin C, beer, green tea, and bacon bits were to be considered necessary. By the time they returned Winston, Simon, and Peter were up and about. After enduring the expected joshing about housewifery and accepting Peter's sincere, if teasing, thanks, they set about preparing the morning meal, and the scent of breakfast sausage finally roused Ray and Egon.
After they ate Simon announced his intentions to fly home that afternoon. "Don't want to leave Taggart holding down the fort on his own for too long; you know what Rafe and Brown can be like." He informed Jim and Blair that they had the next two days off for personal leave, to do with as they please. Privately he took Jim aside, "The kid could use a break, and you're ready for a vacation anyway. I think we can manage without you two for a little while."
Jim suspected his captain was more than anything anxious to get back to regular, routine, ordinary reality. He was looking forward to the return as well, and said as much. Simon eyed him, "'Normal life?' You and Sandburg?" and refused to explain why he started chuckling. "Anyway, they could use help getting this place up and running again. Do it as a favor for my cousin, okay?"
The Ghostbusters were putting their business back in order, preparing to reopen as soon as possible. And they could use the assistance. Blair appreciated Simon's concession at least, cheerfully throwing himself into the work. While Jim and Winston busied themselves with cleaning, removing the furniture covers, and prying boards off the windows, Blair and Ray acted as gophers for Egon, taking measurements and checking on all the various equipment scattered about the place. This entailed much dashing up and down the stairs—or up, at least; they tended to take the firepole down. At times hyperactivity and a degree of childlike enthusiasm could come in handy.
Peter surveyed the process, giving advice and relaying tasks; Jim didn't realize he wasn't actually doing anything until Winston shoved a mop into his friend's hands and ordered him to get cracking on the kitchen floor. "I went through how many years of higher education for this?" Venkman whined, but he smiled as he worked.
They had another pair of hands. At noon, after Simon left, the six of them gathered around Jim's cellular. Winston made the call, taking a few minutes to establish his composure before dialing. In the most serious tone he could manage he intoned, "Janine?"
"Winston?" Jim heard the secretary answer. "Anything up? Did you see Pete? What happened to those guys, your cousin and all?"
"Janine, could you please come to the firehouse? As soon as possible?" He had to pause in order to swallow his grin. Ray had his hand pressed over his mouth, eyes wide with the effort not to giggle, and Peter's expression was positively evil. Egon only rolled his eyes.
"What is it?" Janine demanded, worry suffusing her voice. "Why are you there, what happened?"
"You'll...you'll see. It's hard to explain," glancing at his newly-retrieved comrades. "Could you please..."
"Oh God, is it Peter? Dr. V's all right, isn't he?"
"Peter's..." Winston offered the phone to him; Venkman shook his head rapidly, not trusting himself to keep the surprise. "Just come, Janine, okay?" Zeddemore plead in his most convincing tone.
"Winston, tell me, I gotta know, if something—if something's happened to him—"
Abruptly Egon plucked the cellular from his friend's hands and brought it to his mouth, "Janine, Peter is fine. Could you come as soon as it's convenient?"
"Eeeeeeeeeeee—!" Egon winced, held the phone away from his ear. Jim automatically clapped his hands over his own ears, but even so he heard the clatter at the other end of the line. When the shriek had faded Egon tried again, "Janine, will you—Janine?"
"I think she's on her way," Jim offered, hearing a door slam and the click of retreating heels vibrating the fallen receiver.
Fifteen minutes later screeching tires outside validated his report. The padlock was already removed so she had no trouble entering, and they were ready for her, carefully arranged around the door. Though she must have guessed what was awaiting her, Janine dropped her purse upon walking in. "Omigod." Staring at each Ghostbuster in turn, she squeaked, "You...you guys are back? For real?"
"For real," Egon solemnly confirmed.
After taking a second to process this, Janine smiled hugely, waved to Winston, hugged Ray, and then flung her arms around Egon's neck, sobbing. Jim noticed that despite the physicist's seeming stiffness he had no trouble holding her, stroking her back comfortingly.
Finally she pulled away—with some reluctance on both sides, he observed—and marching to Peter stood before him expectantly. His head was down, not quite able to meet her eyes. "I...Janine..." Gathering his aplomb he spoke in one short breath, "Sorry for the prank and everything and will you consider coming back with a raise?"
"Uh...we'll have to see, what's minimum for a secretary these days—"
Her eyes widened, staring at him with inscrutable intensity, and then she cried, "Dr. V, you are back!" and threw herself at him as well. For a moment he was taken completely off-guard, and then he put his arms around her, settling into the embrace with the ease of experience, with either comfort or women. Lowering his head he whispered in her ear, "Janine, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry..." too quietly to by heard by any but her.
"It's all right," she murmured back, just as discreetly, "try it again and I'll kick you into the Vienna Boy's Choir, but it's all right..." Lightly she kissed his cheek and stepped back, beaming.
The smile he returned was just as heartfelt. "So...you'll come back?"
"I don't know..." her gaze sliding over to fix on a certain tall, blond physicist. "Do you really want me..?"
"Ahem," Egon coughed, when Ray elbowed him in the ribs. "Janine, it wouldn't be the same without you."
"We need you," Ray affirmed, and Winston added, "Please?"
Looking at their four earnest faces she took all of a quarter of a second to reply, "Oh, you guys—of course I'll come back!" Sidling to Egon's side, "I wouldn't want you to miss me, Dr. Spengler..."
"In all honesty I would, Janine," he admitted. His panicked protest when she joyfully pounced on him again did not match the contented look on his face as his arms snuck around her.
Blair, always one to admire another's technique, caught Jim's gaze and grinned. He had been eyeing the redhead with the same interest Al had exhibited, if more subtly since he was visible. The appreciative look in his eye was identical to the hologram's, however. Jim mouthed, "table leg," to which Blair stuck out his tongue, not the least abashed.
"Come on," Peter interrupted any further reflection, "we've got work to do, people. Here, Janine," and he handed her his mop. She rolled her eyes but didn't hesitate to join in, though Winston insisted that Venkman finish the chore he had started. On his own.
Half an hour later Ray and Blair were examining the proton packs in the entryway when Janine's purse trilled loudly. Fumbling with its clasp, Ray withdrew a cellular, cautiously answered, "Hello? Janine Melnitz's phone, Ray Stantz speaking—"
Blair winced sympathetically at the irritated yammering that issued from the speaker. Ray held the phone at arm's length, shouting into it, "Yes, she's here—we'll get—" Having overheard, Jim summoned the secretary, who retrieved her phone and responded to the irate caller in monosyllabic affirmatives and negatives.
"I think it's her boss," Ray whispered, garnering the instant attention of his three colleagues. Work forgotten they gathered in the entryway, trying to look as if they weren't eavesdropping and anxiously awaiting the outcome. Jim, attending to both sides of the conversation, didn't think they had much to worry about.
Finally Janine punched the button to disconnect, folded the cellular shut and blinked at it. "You better not have been lying about that raise, Peter. I need the cash, and it looks like this is my only opportunity..."
"What happened?" Blair inquired considerately, while the four Ghostbusters grinned with relief.
She shrugged. "I, uh, walked out on my other career. When you guys called, I sort of was hoping you might need a secretary again, and my boss didn't want me going right then, so I said I quit...and now he says I'm fired, so we're even."
"Aw, Janine, that's wonderful!" Ray cheered, then gasped, "I mean, that's awful, I'm sorry—"
Janine smiled, "No, Ray, it's fine, it was a lousy job—this is lots more fun. There's just..." she hemmed and hawed. "See, I let it drop where I was going, and he apparently heard, and he's got this friend...uh, Dr. V?"
"Yes, Janine?" Patiently.
"This guy has an office uptown he swears is haunted, you see, and now my old boss has told him we're back in business—" Her phone rang. "That's probably him now." Glancing to them, "Are you ready for a bust?" and she answered the call.
Peter regarded his three colleagues. "Well, are we?"
"I am," Winston said firmly. "It's been too long, m'man."
"Yeah, it'll be great!" Ray enthused.
"I concur," Egon stated, and then gripped Venkman's arm. "Peter, are you sure..."
Peter narrowed his eyes. "Tell him it'll be two thousand up front," he instructed Janine. "And he signs the full contract, we're not accountable for any damages or secondary manifestations, only the one he wants us to get."
She nodded, relayed this, then put her hand over the receiver, "He says he'll pay, and he sounds really grateful. It doesn't sound like much, though, not even Slimer—I mean, not even a class five, I don't think. Easy stuff for you guys."
"Then we'll take it," Peter agreed, and Jim guessed he might have done so just to see Ray's face light up, and for the clear relief which flashed across his other friends' features. He turned to the detectives, "So, you guys want to come along?"
"On a ghostbust? Really? Cool!" Blair exclaimed.
Jim hesitated, "What exactly..."
"Come on, it'll be fun," his partner wheedled.
"It'll be nothing," Peter assured him, "this shouldn't be dangerous. We don't have enough proton packs for you to help but you can stand back and watch." When it looked as if Egon might protest he overrode him, "Come on, Spengs, we can't have them go back to Washington thinking we're all out of our minds, can we?"
"And a bust will convince them otherwise?" but he was smiling.
Janine scheduled them at two o'clock, giving them time to rack the closets and find their old uniforms. Baggy jumpsuits, a different color for each member, which they scrambled into in record time. Over them they strapped on the proton packs, readied the particle throwers. Egon commended their condition—dust-free and in perfect working order; they might have been stored yesterday, not a year and a half past.
As far as Egon and Ray were concerned, this practically was the case. They secured the equipment onto their backs with experienced dexterity. Winston hesitated, then allowed his fingers to work for him, automatically guiding everything into proper alignment. Smiling at the recovered familiarity.
Peter closed his eyes as he hefted his proton pack. For a split second, so short only Jim might have caught it, he did nothing, only held it, his expression so distant as to be uninterpretable. In that instant the Sentinel saw exhaustion, pain, the effort of every word he said and every action he made showing in the lines of his figure and face.
Then Ray jostled him and Peter snapped out of it, eyes opening and mouth curving up to erase all but his good humor. If it were assumed, it was impossible to tell from his conduct. Jim wondered if anyone else noticed. Not the two newly returned, of course; they had no way of knowing the difference—except he saw Egon's slight frown and wondered.
Properly attired, they all piled into Jim and Blair's rental and headed to Winston's garage, where they picked up their old vehicle. 'Ecto-1' read the license plate; the automobile attached to it looked like an unholy cross between a police cruiser and a hearse. Blair was almost as excited to see it as Ray was, "My friend had a model, never thought I'd see the real thing!"
It ran well, Jim had to admit, though the annoying sirens were totally nonregulation. Winston had kept the vehicle in top condition—never quite given up after all, no matter what he might have said otherwise. The other thing that surprised Jim was the reaction of people, both in other cars and pedestrians on the sidewalks: more than a few cheered as they wailed by. Peter grinned, reached over Ray to honk the horn and wave back, reveling in the attention. His demeanor was so altered that Jim exchanged a doubtful glance with his partner, vaguely wondering if it were possible Venkman had been leaped along with Sam. Maybe there was a new man in his place—
Or maybe just the original man in a position too long left vacant. Ray and Egon didn't seem to find anything unusual in his behavior. Winston surreptitiously observed every move he made, an unavoidable smile creeping across his face each time he set eyes on his friend.
The office was located in a sleek skyscraper, not the sort of place one would expect to be haunted. The moment they pulled up the Ghostbusters were all business, powering up the proton packs, Ray throwing a couple of the so-called ghost traps over his shoulder, Egon wielding one of the crazy antennaed PKE meters—psychic-kinetic energy, hadn't Venkman said? Jim eyed the whole procedure with some suspicion. They seemed to take it seriously enough, but...ghosts?
Blair of course was thrilled, all but quivering with excitement as they rode the elevator to the fifteenth floor. The moment they stepped out Jim paused. Colder here, not the chill wind outside, not air conditioning...his skin temperature didn't change but it felt like his blood dropped a couple of degrees. And the hairs on the back of his neck were standing on end.
"I'm picking up PKE readings," Egon murmured, pointed down the hall. "Nothing too big, but..."
Ray lifted his weapon—particle beam thrower?—and suddenly grinned. "Guys, let's get this gooper!"
"I thought that was my line," Peter complained, but he couldn't hide his own excitement, fingers tapping an eager rhythm on the thrower's grip. Proceeding down the hall, Egon still focused on his meter, they froze before a door. "There it is," Ray whispered.
Jim and Blair looked. Then dropped their jaws. No less than ten feet away, hovering in the center of the hall and staring at the six of them with enormous violet eyes, was a ghost, a translucent, long-fingered, wispy-haired specter, its body trailing off into white mist. "Full-torso sporadic apparition, class four," Egon muttered. "Janine got it on the nose."
"Bust it!" Winston shouted, and their weapons flashed to life, beams of energy shooting out to strike the apparition. It howled and dove into the wall, and the four Ghostbusters charged through the nearest door after it.
Jim looked at Blair, his partner staring right back at him. "Was that—"
"It looked like—"
"I sure the hell sensed something!" Beyond the door he could hear the thing's screams, over the shouting of the Ghostbusters and the startled cries of office personnel receiving a most unusual diversion.
It glided out of the wall again, glanced around frantically, then splashed through the opposite wall, leaving an oozing cerulean stain on the striped wallpaper. An instant later Ray, Winston, and Peter raced past, Egon behind them waving his scanner and bellowing, "Guys! I think there might be another—" They were through the other door, raising more surprised clamor on the other side. Smoke billowed out from the offices they had exited.
Jim could hear their eager voices, "That's it, we got you now!" and the crackling of energy beams mixing with the ghost's screeches. He felt another wave of internal cold, turned to his partner, "Chief, did they say something about more than one—"
It was bigger, and meaner looking for all its translucency, the fingers tipped with good-size claws. Plunging down from the ceiling it headed straight for them, screaming to raise the dead, or living as the case was. Jim couldn't think over the racket, difficult to even cover his ears, let alone try to dodge. But Blair moved, slamming into his partner to knock him out of its path.
They tumbled to the floor. The specter brushed past, its trailing end flowing over Blair and coating his head and shoulders with sticky pale blue goo. As he shouted it circled and came in for another pass.
His partner's yell roused Jim from the pain of its vocalizations. He leapt up, saw it coming, and not knowing what else to do raised his hands to ward it off.
With an even more terrible shriek it veered to the side, avoiding them entirely. Behind him he heard a shout, Ray's voice, "Trap out!" and something clattered into the hall, snapped open. There was a brilliance to rival that of a quantum leap and the specter screamed as it was dragged down by the sheet of light. The box slammed shut behind it with an electric spark and a final wisp of smoke.
In the sudden silence and warmth of the thing's disappearance Jim crouched beside his partner, "Blair? Are you—"
"I'm fine," the observer spluttered, then choked, "what the hell is this?" Running his fingers through his hair left them dripping with blue goo.
"Ectoplasm," Egon supplied.
"You've been slimed," Peter added helpfully, "welcome to ghostbusting." His own hair was plastered to his head with more of the stuff.
"How do I get it off?" Blair demanded, voice rising with every syllable.
"A hot shower," Venkman told him. "But I call first dibs!"
"Peter, they're guests," Ray argued.
"All right, all right—but I get it next, as the other victim. You'd think, on the first job in how long, they'd have the common courtesy to leave me alone, but no..."
Ignoring him, Winston asked, "What happened? I though we got it before it could come near you guys."
"There were two," Egon explained. "The second targeted Jim and Blair." He frowned at them. "From what I saw it was another class four, only a bit stronger, but there were higher readings..." Jim didn't care for the fascinated gleam he saw in the physicist's blue eyes, aimed straight at him.
Shrugging it off, "So what are you going to do, since you have two and you were only hired for one? Release one?"
"Nah," Peter replied, "we'll just charge extra. I've been thinking, what with inflation, we could score another couple hundred per bust at least..."
"And we'll have plenty of business," remarked Winston, "if you read the papers—there's spooks popping up all over the place lately, it's almost as bad as when you guys hired me."
"Really?" Ray's eyes took on their own interested shine. "That could mean that another dimensional rift is in the works—"
"Just don't tell me how big a twinkie it is this time, I don't want to know," Winston requested, much to his friends' amusement and Jim's confusion.
Blair wasn't paying attention, fruitlessly trying to wring the slime from his hair. At last he gave it up as a lost cause, pushed the sodden curls out of his eyes, and pitifully looking up at all of them requested, "Can we go home now?"
Jim was as startled as his partner when even Peter laughed out loud.
With a dazzling flash Sam Beckett leapt from formless limbo to normal space, returning to earth cloaked in another aura. Good, this wasn't...who? It fell through the holes of his mind, some past host, something that had gone well after all. He remembered Al celebrating with him, a high-five—no, that would be a memory from before he ever leapt, since he couldn't slap a hologram's hand.
He straightened up, pushing out past remnants of memory to focus on this new leap, orienting himself. Heavy coat, cool outside, he was on the street...small, heavy object in his pocket. Felt like a cellular phone; he was in fairly recent times then. Just like the last leap, and this was a city, different one, though. Similar...no, hadn't it been New York? Or elsewhere; these buildings did look somewhat familiar.
A rattle behind him; he jumped, spun around. Down a narrow alley, oblivious to him, two men were fighting—had he misjudged the time? No, those were definitely the lights of tall skyscrapers nearby, that was definitely a cellular in his pocket...and those were definitely swords. One looked like a classic knight's broadsword, the other a narrower, fiercer weapon, a samurai's blade.
It didn't look like a practice match somehow, and under the cover of darkness...both participants were in black, blond man in a turtleneck with his broadsword and the dark-haired man defending himself with the katana. What sort of ritual was this..?
No ritual, because suddenly the dark-haired man lunged, knocked his opponent to his knees, and then as Sam watched in horror, not believing this could ever happen on modern city streets, even at night, even in the worst part of town, he brought the sword down, severing the blond—
"Oh boy," Sam moaned, and very nearly was sick.
They were all late to bed that night, exhausted but with the exhilarating, enjoyable fatigue of hard work and jobs well-done. Ray sank into his own bed with a happy sigh, echoed by Winston, "Man, I should've come back and swiped this mattress months ago."
"No need now, though," Egon remarked.
"Nope, none," Winston agreed, grinning broadly as he dozed off.
Peter was silent. Not asleep, though, and when the others started snoring he rose, bed creaking as he rolled off it and padded downstairs.
Egon, who had not yet fallen asleep, followed him when he did not immediately return. Venkman was sitting on the couch in the dark living room, squinted when his friend switched on the lamp. "So what do you have, Spengs?" he inquired, as if he had been expecting him.
"What do you mean?"
"Our new buds." He gestured toward the study door. "Jim, Blair, and their ghostbusting skills. I saw you switch off the PKE meter during the bust—I know it's been a while, but that's not normal procedure that I recall. Unless it's going to overload for some reason..."
Egon settled next to him on the sofa. "I scanned both of them at several different points today. They both have a reading, approximating a low class three, negative valence of course since they're alive. Blair's is to be expected, for the same reason all of us have a significant measurement—his time in 'limbo' imbued him with a residual energy. That might fade. But Jim...Peter, has he exhibited any signs that would lead you to believe he's psychic?"
Peter shook his head. "Not exactly. Except for seeing Sam and Al...there's been a couple other things. Not psychic under the normal definitions, but he has awfully sharp eyes and ears. And did you see his hackles rise when we got near those goopers today?"
"I did," Egon acknowledged. "And there was something else—as you noted, at one point on the bust I deactivated the meter. It was suddenly measuring an extremely high rating—class eight or nine, at least."
Peter whistled, low enough not to wake anyone. "You don't say." That was on par with a demon or a demigod—a big one.
"There's more. It was a quick burst, so brief it didn't burn out the meter; I turned it off in case it happened again. But that one reading appeared to have a negative valence. It wasn't a ghost; it was corporeal. Possibly alive. And it spiked right about the time Jim and Blair were assaulted."
"Hm." Peter mulled this over. "Something alive...or two somethings? Can readings combine?"
"Even if it were possible, they both register as only class three," Egon reminded him. "And not too strong at that—if Jim is psychic, then it's latent, if one is to trust your observations. As I do," he added before Peter could protest that one way or another. "So they couldn't add up to a class nine."
"Unless their whole is greater than the sum of its parts," Peter murmured. "Egon? I'll tell you something. Those two...there's something screwy between them. Sam was talking at one point about Blair getting back, it shouldn't have worked, it sounded like..."
"Yes," Egon confirmed. "Scientifically—"
"Before we start debating whether or not psychology counts as a science, let me say this is an unscientific theory, based on my own, in this case extremely subjective, opinion. The reason Blair Sandburg came back was because his partner needed him back. It's that simple. Or that complex. But I swear, that's why it is. Don't know if it was Jim's choice, or his choice..."
"Or both," the physicist murmured. "But if that's so, then how did we..." He trailed off. Peter didn't need to answer, watching him through hooded green eyes. "If it was related," Egon said slowly, "certainly was my desire to return, and Ray's."
"And Winston's. And mine." His hand found his friend's, squeezed the long fingers briefly. "Janine's too, for that matter. And maybe Jim's, and Blair's, and Sam's...our thoughts shape the universe. I heard that somewhere once, and I never believed it, but I never could forget it, either. You don't know..."
"Sam believed it," Egon whispered. "He—we were wondering why the bubble kept its cohesion as well as it did, and the only conclusion was that we were in part holding it together. And then it had a more solid form, near the end, we could cogitate better...it wasn't because it was shrinking. Sam thought that Blair's arrival might have been related—that Blair himself somehow brought order."
"What?" Peter blinked at him. "You're saying the kid regulated it?"
"Hardly a 'kid'," Egon corrected. "He's a graduate student only a few years younger than Ray."
"Who is most certainly a kid. I rest my case." Peter smiled. "Grad student, so what is he studying? I don't think they offer lucid dreaming at any respected university—they wouldn't let me teach it, at least, though I had eight or nine coeds signed up—"
"He's an anthropologist." As was at times necessary ignoring his friend. "I wonder in what field, though, and if he has had experience with certain tribal communities. The Australian Aborigines with their Dreamtime, for instance. Ray knows more...shamans have a degree of mastery over spirit realms. I'd be interested to know if he has had such training, whether or not he was aware of it."
"Ah, now that's a question." Peter leaned forward. "Do we mention any of this or not? I'm not sure how well they dealt with the goopers today, don't want to weird them out too much—I like them, Spengs. The kid's got guts, even with a sliming; and Jim..." He hesitated. "He'll make a good friend."
"And an excellent Ghostbuster—I believe he sensed the ghost as accurately as the PKE meter. We have to tell them something. The spike in the readings—that energy was high enough to have materialized Sam's trace, it's probably why Blair leapt to begin with. That's no longer an issue, but if there are any hauntings in Cascade it would be helpful for them to know their advantages—"
"Egon, they already know," Peter assured him. "Not about all of this, but some of it—I bet if we told them they'd act more surprised than they really would be. I'm not accusing them of anything, except for keeping a few secrets...and since we're doing the same it's only fair. But trust me. They know."
"I wonder if we could learn precisely what Blair is studying," Egon mused.
"Ask him tomorrow. Haven't met a grad student yet who wasn't dying to tell his thesis to anyone who'll listen." Venkman yawned. "Should get to bed."
"We were," Egon pointed out. "You were the first to get up. Most unusual behavior," he teased, though there was a current of concern under the joking tone. "Before dawn, even!"
"Yeah..." Peter shook his head. "It's nothing, just...had some thinking." Leaning back against the couch he pressed his palms his face. "All right, I'm going to hate myself for this later, but...could you come up with something to find Slimer? Summon him, track him, get him here somehow?"
Egon raised one eyebrow. "Peter? You want..?"
Peter squirmed. "No, I don't want...but for Ray, it won't be the same without the spud. He's gonna start missing him soon, I bet he already does. It'll make his day—make everything that much more normal. Can you do it?"
Slowly the physicist nodded. "I think, very probably, yes. It's likely he stayed in the area as it is, it will be a simple matter to..." Rather than get technical he left it, "Yes, I can do it."
"Good." Venkman rocked forward again, clasping his hands loosely over his knees. "That's one; now we just have to see about Winston..."
"What about him?"
Peter shook his head. "I'm not—have you seen the way he's been watching me? Like he won't look away, unless I look at him. Won't meet my eyes, he doesn't want to talk to me, but he doesn't want to leave me alone, either. Every time I speak to him he hesitates. I know, we haven't seen each other in awhile, but I fell back in with you and Ray fast enough, we should...he's not angry with me, I thought that might be it but it's not. He'd have damn good reason, but he isn't. It's more like he's..."
"Guilty," Egon whispered.
"Yeah." Peter dropped his head into his hands. "I don't know—that's the impression I'm getting, too."
"Because he wasn't here." Egon leaned forward to mirror his friend's pose. "Because he feels that he let you down, wasn't there for you when you needed him..."
"Yeah." Green eyes lifted up, wide. "God, he shouldn't...Egon, he did so much more than he should have. If you had seen him, taking the business down, clearing everything out—he was incredible, so patient, so careful. I kept the deeds but he's the one who made sure this place was closed properly, boarded the windows, the locks to keep out looters—he's the only reason everything's in as good shape as it is. Hell...he's the only reason I'm in as good shape as I am. I don't know what I would have done—he was there, even when I tried to keep him away, he kept coming back, long after he should've just let me..."
"But you..." Egon didn't finish, treading uncertain ground, not knowing, only surmising what might have occurred in their absence. He let his friend talk, careful not to interrupt him, not when it was so crucial he did relate it.
"I...it wasn't his fault," Peter breathed. "It was—I had these dreams." His voice went monotone as he strove to keep emotion from it. "Every night you were back, you and Ray. I couldn't tell him about them, I couldn't tell anyone...I thought I was losing it, and God, you know how much that frightens me. But that wasn't Winston—there wasn't anything he could've done about that, no matter how he tried, and he did. He was the only reason I listened to Jim and Sam at all—he forced me to, he's the only reason that any of this...that we got you... I don't know what I ever did to deserve a friend like Winston Zeddemore, but damn," he exhaled in a shaky chuckle, "it must've been something noble."
Egon inhaled deeply. "You had...dreams..?"
"All the time," he confirmed, "nightly, we'd be back on the job, or elsewhere—always you and Ray and I, Winston too."
"Peter," Egon shuddered, "in that—in the limbo, Ray and I, we dreamed as well. That we were returned, and with you..."
"And I bet if we compared what little we remembered it would match up." Peter's eyes were bright. "We were connecting."
"I'm sorry," his friend whispered. "We didn't—"
Peter groaned, "Don't you start, too. I doubt there was anything you could've done about it—for all you know it was my mind reaching yours, not you reaching out. Give me a little credit! It confirms something, though," and he smiled, "we are linked—those jokes about group minds in college might not have been so far out after all. That'd be quite a parapsychology study, wouldn't it? Wonder if Jim and Blair experienced anything similar."
"Egon. I'm fine. Dr. Venkman survived the bad dreams, okay? Sometimes...sometimes they were all I had. All I wanted—" He shut his mouth, spoke with care when he opened it again. "It wasn't that bad," he tried to assure his friend, "we had some fun times, even, and if we both remember them that kind of makes them real, right? At least as far as we're concerned. And they let me have a little hope, too, that you were alive, that you might be out there somewhere—I might have given up sooner, if I hadn't..." Pausing, he sat in silence before saying at last, "So neither you or Winston have any grounds for heading off on guilt trips, okay?"
"All right," Egon agreed.
"Good. Thanks, big guy." The grin he flashed was simultaneously familiar and alien, neither the easy smirk of past times nor the dark, almost anguished look that had flickered across his face a moment before. "I'm so glad...I can't talk about this with Winston, obviously, and Ray...Ray would be trying to cheer me up or something, I don't know, he couldn't just let me shoot off. He'd pay too much attention—I love him, but sometimes I just need to...what I'm trying to say here is thank you, Egon. Thanks for being here...for coming back. God, I missed you." He swallowed, caught himself. "Sorry..."
Egon examined him closely. "Why?"
"Because—because it's stupid!" Peter raised his arms in a gesture of futility. "You're back, you're fine. It's what I've wanted for so long, there's no reason for me—"
"Except that you thought Ray and I were dead. For a year and a half." Regarding him with quiet certainty, "I may not be a certified psychologist, but I would be more concerned if you were feeling nothing."
He shook his head, denying both emotions and reason, stark fear in his eyes. Egon understood, too well, knowing his friend, knowing for all his loud complaints and lamentations how deeply he could bury real pain. He wouldn't have ever let it surface, couldn't risk it, but now, when there was no reason for it, it was too central in his soul to throw away without another thought. No matter how he might wish to, or try..."Peter, it's all right," carefully, slowly. "We are back. We're here. You should—you can feel whatever you have to."
Again he shook his head mutely, closing his eyes. Egon reached to his shoulder, tugged him back, and after a moment of resistance he gave in, leaning against his friend's arm. "I've been...trying..." So hard, to pretend that nothing had changed, to pick up where they had left off. All that time, a year and a half; he might never have lived it, had never wanted to live it, if only he could lose it now...
His throat worked, another harsh swallow, and then before he could prevent it a sob escaped, followed by another, and another. He tried to turn away, blindly pushed back as he fought the tears, but Egon wouldn't allow him to move, instead guided his head to rest against his chest and gently held him there.
And he could let himself go, after so long, allow himself to drop, and once he let go he couldn't stop himself, not as he was falling. The only thing he held onto was the certainty that someone would catch him, someone would break his fall, and when it was over his friends would still be there, again and always, not only in dreams but in life as well.
He didn't know how long it lasted, didn't care, knew it didn't matter. At last he lay exhausted in the warm circle of his friend's arms, feeling the ribcage cushioning his head rise and fall as Egon breathed. His throat hurt and his lungs ached and he hadn't been so comfortable in longer than he could remember or imagine, more content than should be possible. Safe, not from the world with all its frights and trials...safe from himself, though; safe from the darkness beginning to melt away and drain from him. Knowing there was always someone who would accept him with all his flaws and uncertainties, friends around him once more, who could love him in spite of himself, and who would, and who did.
"What's not to love," murmured Egon, and he heard it through the ear pressed to his chest, realized he must be mumbling his ranging thoughts aloud but couldn't bring himself to control them, not when there was no reason for it. Tomorrow he'd deny everything, and Egon wouldn't acknowledge a word of it, but tonight, here and now, he could let all of that slide. Tomorrow, like every morning, would be the beginning of the rest of his life. Tonight, they four were here, and Egon was alive, and so was Ray, and everything else could wait until dawn.
In the study, also anticipating morning without either regret or impatience, Jim rolled over and settled himself to fall back asleep, now that things were quiet on the floor. They had never been loud, but to a Sentinel even the proximity of the heartbeats was enough to rouse him.
He saw a glitter through the darkness, focused and met the open eyes of his partner on the couch adjacent to his. Wondered how much of the quiet conversation he had heard.
Blair answered that, whispering through the dark room, "Should we tell them..?"
Jim shrugged, replied in an undertone, "Don't see any reason, Chief. Unless we really need to know why any of this happened..." Which he was curious about, but he didnít know if he'd like the reasons. And was unsure if Blair was ready for everything he had guessed. Probably best to let the question be for the time being. "We're leaving tomorrow anyway—unless you want to bust some more ghosts."
Blair grimaced, causing his partner to smirk, not that he'd see it. "No thanks, man. Do you know how long it took me to get that stuff out of my hair? I'll leave it to the experts; right now I'm looking forward to Cascade, normal life, just your average run of the mill street gangs—"
"Terrorists...yeah, that's what we need," said Jim, "some nice, relaxing criminals."
"Better than bouncing around through time and space. It's no fun, life as an interdimensional ping-pong ball. Wish I could've met Sam, ask how he managed it...but I'm happy just be back where I go. Less confusing that way."
"Amen to that, Sandburg," Jim seconded. "The one thing harder to understand than the criminal mind is quantum physics, I've decided. Well, that and the mind of an anthropologist, of course. "
"Har har. Though..." He sat up, arms around his knees, a dim silhouette in the near blackness. "Yeah, this wasn't much fun, and yes, I want to get back to the loft, my classes, everything. And I'm not saying I want to try it again anytime soon—they're nice guys, but still...some things can be too far out even for me."
"Really?" His skepticism was only partly in jest.
"Really. But," and he sounded serious, "all the same, after everything we went through, limbo," he shivered at the thought, "not understanding what was going on—man, I hate that—and getting thrown all about the unknown universes...even after that, I'm glad it happened. I'd do it again. What we helped do—what we put right—"
He reached out his hand, trusting his Sentinel to see it through the blackness. Jim obliged, catching it and returning the grip, and the sentiment.
"You know what?" Blair said softly in the dark room. "It was worth it."
Listening, he could make out his pulse and Sandburg's, and throughout the firehouse four syncopated rhythms, and somewhere in the world or in limbo Sam's heart kept its own unique cadence, Al's close by.
"Yeah, Chief," Jim agreed, saw his partner grin, and though Blair wouldn't be able to see his smile he would hear it in his voice. "After everything...we did good." And that, in the end, was reason enough.
To date this is my longest story, and, I have to admit, one of my favorites as well. I've had a blast! =) It's the first time I've played with the Real Ghostbusters; I only discovered them a month ago, and most of this was written before I saw any eps. If there are RGB fans who made it all the way, please tell me how I did; I'd love to hear what you thought of it.
A sincere 'thank you' to those who supported me on this journey, especially and always my sis, and everyone else who e'ed encouragement. Wouldn't have managed it without you guys. Integrating three wonderful shows, ten great chars—whew! Fun but tricky, don't know if I succeeded or not but I gave it my all. If you liked this thing, please let me know. At any rate, thanx for reading, I hope you enjoyed it!
~XmagicalX, March 27, 1999
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