Title: Aftermath 4
Category: Adventure, some MSR
Summary: Will science or magic free Mulder?
Written: October 1999
Archive: Yes, but keep my name and email on it, please
Disclaimer: Of course Chris Carter has plans for Dana Scully, Fox Mulder, and the X-Files. They are, I admit, his property, and that of 1013 Productions, and Fox. But six months is too long. Herewith my version. Many hours poured into this; not a cent earned.
This is a continuation of Aftermath 3.
Aftermath 4 (and final!!)
Saturday 4 pm
Dana Scully sat on Mulder's leather couch turning her weapon over in her hand. It was useless as a means to get what she wanted -- to rescue her partner. Even if she had tried to shoot Diana, it wouldn't have saved him. Nothing would work until she did as Hosteen said. Abandon her science and find the magic. There would be another science inside the magic, one she couldn't grasp, perhaps, but... Her thoughts were broken by a knock at the half-open door. Walter Skinner hesitated then entered, holding the hand of Gibson Praise.
"He said you'd be here." He looked around. "Where's Mulder? Did you find him?"
She nodded and put her gun back in her holster. "Found him and lost him. I let him go with Diana."
"Diana? I would think she's the last person…"
"She is. But I still can't help him. I need the artifact or all our efforts, everything, will be for nothing."
"I think I can help you there, Agent Scully. I know who has the artifact."
His face betrayed no emotion, except maybe an earnest sincerity -- or an attempt at it. Everything about the face was so familiar to her yet so ambiguous at the same time. So damned careful. He had saved himself time and again by supressing what he felt, by putting on the bland face of competance and command. His eyes held hers. Which Skinner was she seeing now, she wondered. If it was their old ally, why wait 'til now to tell her what he knew? Or was it still the new Skinner whose motives she could not fathom? She shifted her eyes from his face to Gibson's.
"Is it Krycek, sir?"
"Mulder told me. But Krycek doesn't have the whole thing. Mulder knew that, too."
"I'll radio my men to catch up with him and Diana." He pulled his cell phone from his inner jacket pocket and started to punch in numbers.
"I'm sorry. I doubt you'll find them unless you had men stationed in the street twenty minutes ago."
He paused, then snapped his phone shut. "I didn't get that kind of warning. You know that. If you had told me what you were doing, yes, I could have had men here. We could have prevented this. Again."
She rubbed her hand along the table, feeling the nicks and scratches, and tracing around the white rings, residue of Mulder's inability to care about his physical possessions. Skinner was right, but it wouldn't have made a difference. She had a feeling, right at the end, that Mulder was leaving in order to protect her. He took Diana away and not the reverse. Gibson let go of Skinner's hand and came over to sit next to Scully. She put an arm around his shoulders.
"Don't you think I feel guilty enough already, sir? Do you think this is part of my plan? I haven't been able to help him. He counted on my science and I failed him. I can't prove what he wants to believe, I can't dispel the things that torment him. Now I can't help him regain his mind."
"Regain his mind?"
"I'm not giving up." She squeezed Gibson a little and let go. "Thank you for finding me, Gibson. It almost worked."
Skinner walked over to Mulder's desk and started hunting through the top papers. For a minute the silence was broken only by the sound of his fingers flipping up the pages one at a time, pages that she knew would reveal no new truth to Skinner. Finally, he turned to the two figures on the couch. "Scully, I think we have to agree to cooperate on this."
"Tell me, then, who was in your office that night? Who's been behind this the whole time."
"Krycek? The same Krycek who kept Mulder captive? Who withheld the artifact he needed?" She put her hands to her temples and closed her eyes. "What would give Alex Krycek the least bit of credibility, sir?"
"It's not a matter of credibility."
"Then what *is it? Why would you betray Mulder? Krycek doesn't outrank you after all." She fought to keep her anger under control.
"In a way he does. You may find this far-fetched, Agent Scully, and unscientific, but he holds the power of life and death over me." Suddenly he looked more drained than cross. The tightened jaw relaxed, pulling his face downward and his eyes lost some of their glint. She couldn't remember ever noticing the lines cuving around his mouth.
"Your illness? Your miraculous recovery?"
"Krycek poisoned me with those particles. He controlled them electronically." Skinner made a flicking gesture with his thumb as though he were changing channels. "I don't begin to know how. But he turned them on, turned them off." He looked up at the ceiling and continued in a softer voice. "Let me live. Made me die."
"Damn it." She whispered the phrase although she wanted to stand and shout it and throw things around the room. "If only you had trusted *me with this information. I think he has done something similar to Mulder. That means he has the technology to bring him out. Good God."
"Wait, wait, Scully. I don't think it was the same. I never heard voices and…"
Gibson tugged on her sleeve. She had almost forgotten he was there. "Mr. Krycek didn't want your partner to be like that. He wasn't controlling it."
"You're sure? He might have tried to trick you."
"I'm sure. People have a hard time keeping their minds on their tricks. They start thinking about how clever they are." She smiled at him, then turned back to Skinner.
"Sir, your illness may give us a clue. Please get hold of Krycek. Find out what he wants."
"I've never had to get in touch with him. He always reaches me."
"Then while we wait, I think we need to get Gibson to a safe place. "
"I can put him in custody with guards around…"
"Who can you trust absolutely, sir? Anyone? I'd prefer to keep him with me." And despite your intentions, she continued to herself, do you really think you can resist Krycek if he comes to you? Gibson looked up at her in surprise, then went back to tracing little circles on the table.
"Do you think that's safer? You can't help Mulder and protect Gibson at the same time. They'll come after you, Scully. They've probably tracked you the whole time."
"Then throw them off my trail." She rose from the couch and stepped toward her superior. "Excuse me."
She disappeared into the bedroom and emerged five minutes later. "You come with me Gibson. Sir, would you try to find Krycek?"
Skinner looked from Scully to Gibson and back. "I'm going to see if Diana has gone back to her apartment. That would be the simplest way to end things."
"It wouldn't really end anything at all…" Her voice trailed off. "Yeah, see if you can find her."
Scully stepped out of the doorway of Mulder's building and looked up the street. The maples were in full leaf after a rainy spring, casting deep afternoon shadows over the cars parked across the street. She shaded her eyes against the sun and slowly skimmed the vehicles looking for movement, a flash of white sleeve or a pinkish face dipping out of sight. On the near side of the street, a yellow Volkswagen pulled away just as a barefoot young woman in khakis and a wrinkled tank top came running up behind it. She pounded her fist against the rear fender and shouted an obscenity. A grandmother pushing a sleeping child in a stroller turned the corner and walked slowly by, humming a lullaby or maybe a hymn. A tall runner in gray shorts and a loose Knicks jersey came up quickly behind Scully, nudging her shoulder slightly as he puffed past and ran down the block, not bothering to pause for the stop sign before crossing the street. She held her breath. For an instant, he had looked just like Mulder, lean muscular body, dark brown hair slicked back, feet slightly splayed as they hit the ground in a smooth motion racing away from her.
She motioned to Gibson through the etched glass panel of the door.
"It's as clear as it's likely to be for a while," she said as they hastened to the Taurus. She dropped her keys trying to jam the wrong one in, but Gibson had already found the other door unlocked. He slid into the passenger seat while Scully went around the back to stash the envelopes of evidence in the trunk. Lowering the lid halfway, she watched Gibson as he struggled with the seatbelt. The buckle had to catch just so and even a satisfying click didn't mean it had locked. Mulder always complained about it and one day had insisted that she return the car for one that wasn't booby-trapped. The belt flew out of Gibson's hands and she watched the boy pull it back down for another try. After everything he had experienced, it seemed ludicrous to imagine that even a working seat belt could keep him safe. She slammed the trunk and walked around to the driver's side. Looking up and down the street once again, she slipped the gun out of her rear holster and ducked in the car.
"You okay, Gibson?"
"Yeah." He was trying not to stare at the gun.
"Gibson, I have a favor to ask." She lifted the corners of her mouth, hoping that she didn't sound too patronizing. "Would you hold onto this for me?"
Gibson's eyes widened and he sat up a bit straighter "Do you expect me to fire this?"
"No, not particularly. But I want to have it handy."
"You think they'll follow us?"
"I don't want to take any chances. Right now I'm not sure who is involved or where they are or what the precise danger is. But you're hunted. We need to be ready."
He took it from her awkwardly, holding his index finger out straight to avoid the trigger. Placing it on his lap, he studied it, then picked it up and turned it so the barrel faced his door. "I'd just as much prefer if you fired it."
"Sure, if it comes to that," she said, snapping her seatbelt. "Probably just paranoia on my part." She glanced at him as she turned the key in the ignition and realized that he saw right through her reassurances. Okay, she thought back to him. I keep forgetting that I can't put anything over on you.
"I don't want you to get killed on my behalf."
She smiled a little to herself. "Gibson, honestly. I am not planning for either of us to get killed." As she pulled out of the space, she looked back at Skinner who now stood at the entrance to Mulder's building slowing scanning the parked cars. He was speaking on his cell phone. Her stomach clenched and a primitive part of her brain screamed for speed.
Scully drove for two blocks without speaking, checking the mirror every three seconds. No one seemed to be following. "We need to find Mulder and release him from these... I don't know what to call them. Voices? Tell me, what did he say to you?"
"He didn't say very much. He was pretty angry…" Gibson nervously pushed his glasses back up his nose and developed a sudden interest in the gun. She stopped at the red light and watched him rub his hands over his trousers to dry them off. His clothes were specked with bits of food. She wondered when anyone had last brought him clean clothes or cut his hair properly. His skin was pale and the first signs of adolescence were troubling his face.
"The light's green, Agent Scully."
"I know that. What's wrong, Gibson? What are you afraid to tell me? Did you hear the same voices?" Her heart had begun to beat faster, picking up Gibson's fear. "Gibson?"
He shrugged. "It's hard to explain. You'll think I'm crazy. You don't believe in them, so why would you believe me?"
"Are you sure you know what I think? Are you sure you know what I might be willing to consider?"
He shrugged again. Scully was trying to keep half an eye on him and watch the road. A car shot out from a side street, a small red mustang with tail pile bouncing, suspended, it appeared, from a wire coat hanger. She swore and swerved to the left, narrowly missing a black pickup waiting to turn left. Gibson gripped the door handle and sucked in his breath.
"Sorry, Gibson. Look, I need to know what you know. When we get to where we're going, we won't have time to talk."
"Where am I going?"
"Some friends are going to take you to a safe place. Someplace where I can find you later. Assistant Director Skinner is right. You might not be safe with me."
"Why do you think your friends can keep me safe?"
"They're going to move you around until they're sure there's no tail, then they know about a place in the mountains. Honestly, Gibson, it's the best I can do. There aren't many people we can trust right now." The Gunmen had to be clean. They *had* to be.
"Do they know about me?"
"Yeah, but I bet they'll forget to protect their thoughts. Don't tell them I said so, but they're a little geeky. You know, Gibson, I'd like to go with you. You could tell me what really goes on in their heads…" He didn't return her smile. She continued, "Hey, if you think anything is wrong when you meet them then you can stay with me. Deal?"
"Now tell me about Mulder. No, tell me about Krycek first. What does he really want?"
"He wants to kill the aliens. He wanted Agent Mulder to do it for him."
"Mulder? That doesn't sound like something he'd do."
"That's what he said. But maybe he should, you know?"
"Because they want to kill us. They want to dissolve our minds. That's what they're doing to your partner."
Scully's stomach felt like it was going to drop out of her body. It was what she had been denying all along…that they were somehow absorbing him. He had started out reading thoughts, then was overwhelmed by a cacaphony of voices, and now that same power was draining him of himself.
"Why are they doing this? Do you know, Gibson?"
"It's how they grow. They want what we know. But they don't want us."
"How…how do they do it?"
He pushed the button to lower the window, then raised it again. "I don't know. I only understand them when they tell me something. Otherwise it's just sounds. Agent Mulder was trying to tell me what he felt."
Mulder would do that, she knew. Try to explain the impossible even as it was happening to him. Try to make sense. Try to fit it into his quest, even as the truth was killing him. She had known when she saw him that they were trying to kill him and neither he nor she could stop it. Could Diana? It would be worth anything if she could…if she had a way in to the healers. Diana's voice still taunted her with its sneering, "so much wasted emotion." Yet, there was no choice, really, when it came to Mulder. Whatever it took to heal him. With whatever consequences for their partnership.
"The light's green again, Agent Scully." Gibson was looking at her strangely and she wondered if he had followed along with her thoughts. He opened the glove compartment and took out the manual for the car, suddenly intensely interested in mechanics.
"So what is Krycek's role in this? Why did he capture you and Mulder?"
"He wants you. He wants you to get the artifact for him."
"Me? What makes him think I would do that for him? Just because once he helped me escape…hell, that was probably all orchestrated to make me feel some debt to him."
"No, he thinks you'll do it to save Mulder. That's why he let me go."
"He told you to find me?"
"More or less."
"How does he think I can help Mulder? Tell me quickly, we're here." They had been driving through Rock Creek Park and pulled into a small parking lot. An old Volvo wagon, gray, bulky, and apparently vacant parked across two spaces.
"That's them, Gibson. Tell me quickly, how will it help Mulder."
"I don't know how. Krycek thought it would get someone into the alien ship. That's why he wanted it. So Mulder could poison them."
She put the car in 'park' and looked out the windshield without seeing the trees and bushes, the slope up the other side of the ravine, the trash caught in the weeds along the side of the lot, or the obscenity on one of the larger rocks. Nothing in the scene mattered. None of this is real, she told herself. The real world is someplace else.
The other car flashed its lights once, and Gibson cleared his throat. "If that's your friends…"
"Oh. Yeah. Let's go. If you need me tell them to call. I should have my cell wherever I am." She looked around carefully at the cars driving by on the main road, then pulled up to the left of the other car. The back door of the other vehicle opened mysteriously. "Wait. Give this to them." She pulled an envelope from under the seat. "Now, dash over there and stay out of sight. Remember, I trust them completely." Gibson nodded. She grabbed his arm again, "Tell them I said to get you some new clothes, ok."
"Yeah. It'll be ok." He opened his door, slipped out and was gone. The door of the other car closed and a short man in sunglasses and a baseball cap backed up and drove slowly away. Wait, she wanted to call to Gibson. How do you know the aliens are doing this? How do you know it's them and not some trick? How do you know there is a 'them'?
Saturday 7 pm
As Scully opened the door of her apartment building she heard footsteps pounding up behind her. Reflected in the glass was the figure of Walter Skinner, his tie flipped back over one shoulder and his jacket flapping to the sides.
"Agent," he said simply. He followed her down the hall and into her apartment. She dropped her purse on the table and shut the door behind him. With a finger to her lips, she walked around the room looking for signs of disturbance: dust to indicate that an electrical outlet had been opened or a mark where a lamp had been moved. She unplugged her phone from the wall. "I'm not sure it's safe to talk here, sir."
"There's nothing much to report. Nobody home."
"Of course. When no one responded to the knock, I feared that a crime might be in progress…" he stretched out the word 'crime' and tipped his head slightly to the left, "so I took appropriate action to protect possibly innocent parties." The expression on his face told her that he knew exactly which rules and procedures he had violated.
"I could not help but notice some potential evidence." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of small items: a wadded up sheet of paper that he had smoothed, more or less, and folded. Cigarette butts wrapped in his handkerchief. The business cards of several officers at El Rico Air Force Base. A container of vicodin, the outside of which was tacky, as she lifted it to see how many painkillers remained. A small piece of filigree jewelry. A vial containing several tiny chips. A list of phone numbers in Skinner's handwriting. A metal cylinder, six inches long. Although flawlessly smooth to the eye, when Scully picked it up the surface tingled softly against her fingers like the bristles of a baby's hairbrush. The items spread across the table suddenly made her feel like her mother must have when Bill Jr. or Charles brought her little offerings after they had torn up her flower beds in a raucous football game or broken a vase playing indoor frisbee. She unfolded the crumpled paper, saw that it was a letter to Mulder and set it aside.
"I don't think she took him back there. It did appear that she had recently packed. Her clothes were piled up on the bed except for a spot with indentations from her suitcase."
Scully nodded, turning the jewelry over in her hand. "Do you know what this is?"
"A pendant? It looks like a hand."
"It comes from a Muslim country, I think. It's called a hand of Fatima. The Prophet's daughter." She rubbed her thumb over the tarnished silver and admired the filigree swirls between the lines of the fingers.
"You surprise me, Agent Scully."
"I had a friend in college who had a necklace like this. I asked her about it once."
"So, it's religious, do you think? Diana never really struck me as religious, much less Muslim."
"Popular religion, superstition more likely. It protects the bearer against the evil eye." She turned it again then looked up to find a question on Skinner's face. "So it's said, sir. Where did you find this exactly?"
"In her desk. Probably a souvenir of sorts."
"Of sorts. Could be from Tunisia. Has Krycek called you, sir? "
"No. I'm surprised actually."
"What has he asked you to do?"
"So far, to report on your and Mulder's progress on this artifact. He was, well, I'm sure you've figured out that he was the one who wanted you on this case." He was standing now, his back to her, looking at the ceiling. "I'm sorry, Agent Scully. I would never have assigned you if I'd had any idea…"
"I thought you and Mulder would be able to thwart Krycek's plan, whatever it was. I said to myself, now Alex has blown it." He shook his head.
"Sir, there's nothing you could have done to stop this…"
"Don't excuse me for my mistakes. It gets neither of us anywhere."
She nodded at his request. "Okay, then. Has Krycek told you anything? What does he think this artifact does?"
"He hasn't said anything at all. Just requests. I've gone over them again and again looking for a pattern, trying to figure out his plan."
"Nothing beyond the obvious."
"He has the artifact, though. He helped me that once, when Diana led me into Old Smokey's trap. But he's always playing his own game. Knowing what he did to you, how could we ever consider him an ally?"
"As you say, he has the artifact. How picky can we be if we want to save Mulder?"
"It must have been Krycek who killed Sandoz for his piece of it… And Barnes. Is he in league with Barnes? Did he kill Mermallen, too? How can we…"
"I'm not sure there's a clean position in this affair. What did you find in Africa? Is that where the rest is?"
"No, not there. I can't say what exactly I found, but it wasn't the artifact. It was… it was too big."
"Did you tell Agent Mulder about this?"
"Not completely. But I think he understood."
"And did he have any ideas?"
"Sir, he wasn't really in any shape…"
"It could be anywhere. We don't really know how it came apart and how it came to be dispersed. We don't even know who created it or why." She poked at the items on the table and spread them farther apart. "Isn't this supposed to be the point when you produce a key to a public locker that has all the secrets we've been looking for."
"It must be on my other key ring, Agent."
"I think maybe I need to get some rest, sir. We still have quite a lot to figure out."
"You'll tell me what you learn?"
"I'll tell you what I can."
He lingered at the door, looking, it seemed, at each object in her living room. She wondered whether her flowered sofa, family photos, cd's and china would give him some clue about the future. Or maybe he had simply never been at her place before. As he stood silently by the door, she picked up the phone numbers. "Sir, if you could have someone check these for me." He nodded. "And ask Cabrini to test your blood. I think he'll understand."
He shut the door softly behind him. She was grateful that he did not say the things that had to be on his mind: that their task was likely impossible, that it might already be too late to save Mulder, that they were both putting their lives on the line this time. That this apartment was a shrine to a kind of life that might already be in the past tense. She didn't need to be reminded and suspected that in any case, he didn't want to float such pessimistic words into the air where they might take on independent reality.
Too tired for a bath, she stood under a pulsing shower, steam rising and fogging against the ceiling. She adjusted the dial for a little more heat to shake off the chill she had felt since she let Mulder leave with Diana. A part of her was glad to have Diana unmasked. Another part missed the old Diana, the one with presumed designs on Mulder, who would have cared more about his fate. He had made her stay back, asking her to save him. His real reason, she was now certain, was that he sensed some danger to her from Diana. "I should have gone," she said aloud. "I can't believe I turned him over to her." All on the strength of that crazy dream about feeling him here. Swept up in a feeling, a sensation, a wish. What was I thinking?
Her blue silk pyjamas hung on the back of the door. She pulled them on, misbuttoning the shirt and then not caring when she noticed in the mirror. Climbing into bed, she turned off the light without even trying to read Orlando, the book she had been working her way through one page per night. She couldn't remember how it began or why or where some of the characters came from. It had become a quest in its own right, connections lost in the jumble of her life. Each page held a surprise or potential clue, lost by the next reading.
She pulled the covers up to her chin. Something is wrong with nature, she told herself. This room, the lab reports, the objects Skinner had brought her. None of this seemed part of the same reality she had seen through Mulder's mind. Which was true? Time shifts, infections operated by remote, aliens gestating in bodies and in minds, a race that does not die? Could we really know so little of nature? She pulled the pillow over her head.
A friend of hers in Medical School had told her to relax her muscles one at a time, starting from her toes and working up to her eyes. On the nights before exams, she let the tiredness creep over her body in this way, sleep overcoming her before she reached her shoulders. Tonight each muscle tensed for some undone task, her hands for experiments, her feet for the places she might seek Mulder. She turned her clock face down, a thin line of blue light escaping from underneath. Once, she got up to double check the locks, a second time to fetch a flashlight from her bag, and a third time to wash the glasses sitting in her kitchen sink. She drifted off at last waking an hour later, her senses instantly alert for signs that he might be there. What if he had always been a projection from the future? What if the past five years were a hallucination within her own abduction? Each time she fell asleep, she woke a short time later, willing his presence, demanding an impossible reassurance. Finally, at 2:30, she got out of bed, dressed in jeans and a sweater, threw her toiletries, evidence kit, and business clothes into her weekend bag, and left.
The door of Mulder's building was locked and she stood exposed under the bright light fiddling with the key. Upstairs, she paused in front of 42, straining in the silence to pick out any sound. She was tempted to play out her irrational hope and knock with her eyes closed then open them to see him holding the door, a quizzical smile on his sleepy face as he waved her in with his arm. Knocking would just irritate his neighbors, she told herself, and they already put up with an amazing amount of aggravation. The building was a couple standard deviations beyond the norm for homicides and emergency calls.
Gun drawn, she opened the door to precisely the scene she had left eight hours earlier. The place in which she had turned him over to Diana was now drained of color and life. Dim light entered through the blinds and threw black and white stripes on the wall, bars of an incorporeal prison. The bookcase was still pulled away from the wall, a couple of paperbacks that must have been stacked on top now thrown onto the floor. A biography of a basketball player she'd never heard of and Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time. Funny, she thought, she hadn't remembered anything falling as they debated her dream of him. She set her purse and carry-all on his coffee table and closed the blinds, then walked into his bedroom and surveyed the disarray, knowing now what she had not realized before: that it was a crime scene. Obviously, someone had already disturbed it before she arrived the previous afternoon. Someone had removed the camera and strewn his things around the room as they searched. His clothes were draped over the chair next to the bathroom. The left arm of his leather jacket was inside out as though he had ripped it off in a hurry. As she ran her hands over it, she heard the faint crackle of paper in the pocket. It was a rough sketch of the glyphs and across the top in his handwriting the words "truth of the story, not truth of the facts." She pulled on a pair of latex gloves and dropped to her knees, flashlight skimming the surface of the carpet: an Air France boarding pass dated three weeks earlier in the name of Mme. N. Stewart. The name was not familiar and she doubted that Mulder had time for a secret girlfriend. If it was an alias for Diana, perhaps the ticket would tell them where to find him.
Scully retreated to the living room and placed out the two new pieces of paper on the table. From her bag, she pulled the drawing she had found on her own bed. She laid it next to Mulder's sketch and slowly rotated it. There was no question that what he had drawn and what he later delivered to her were adjoining parts of the same object. A diagonal break, splitting several glyphs, fit together perfectly, restoring the sense of it. But where had he found this piece and where was it now? Had he just seen in Krycek's mind? She rubbed her hand across her eyes. It was 'way too late to be figuring things out. She dragged a blanket into the living room, flopped onto the couch, and pulled it around her. "This is where we sat," she said to herself. "This is where he believed me about the speaker and leaped up to check the molding. This is where he told me about superimposed realities. This is where I wanted to believe his vision so badly, but could not find the intellectual door to let me in. This is where we hoped to find our way out." She fell into a fitful sleep.
At seven she woke to the sound of her cell phone. Her immediate reaction was panic.
"Scully." Her voice was barely a whisper.
"Agent Scully." Skinner's voice prompted an enormous, irrational relief. "Where are you? I tried your apartment and was distressed…"
"I had to stop by Mulder's apartment. A final search for evidence. I'm afraid I was distracted yesterday."
"I found a boarding pass for a flight from Tunis to Paris about a month ago in the name of Mme N. Stewart. It may be Diana's alias. If you could have someone trace her…it was flight 729 on June, Air France. She must have a passport and If she was there or has gone back or used that name with Mulder, it might give us a lead. There seems to be a group from the Consortium somewhere in Tunisia, but I don't know more than that."
"Do you think she took Mulder to Tunisia?"
"I suppose it's possible. But it didn't seem to me that he was in any shape to get on a commercial flight. But, if she took him there, he'd be out of our scrutiny. I can make," she picked up her watch, "a noon flight if you find anything. No, wait. I have to see someone about the monkeys. I'm going to be late as it is…"
"Scully, don't let yourself become obsessed. You can't follow every lead."
"Sir, did you get your blood tested? Go to Cabrini and tell him you want him to check the nanoparticles. Also, can you see to it that the monkeys in Dr. Sandoz's lab are sequestered and tested. If he can get the blood, I think they may have an interesting story for us. And ask him to draw two sets of samples for me."
Scully found a parking place in front of Harris Hall on the Johns Hopkins campus in Baltimore. She consulted the slip of paper on which she had written Ted Marchek's office number and entered the building. There was a guard at the entryway, a new touch, she thought, having to do with the value of the new technologies now being developed by people like Ted. He had entered medical school with her, but soon grew bored of the clinical work. His mordant jokes about the patients wearied his classmates, so no one was disappointed when he announced his transfer to a program in bioinorganic chemistry. After he took off for Stanford, the women sighed in relief, glad to be rid of his constant overtures and stealthy touching. Occasionally gossip reported one of Ted's scientific triumphs, and Scully had seen references to his work. When Cabrini told her about the samples, she recalled an article that caught her attention a few months previously. She would have flipped past it had his name not jumped out. Now she hoped that he might look at the samples without asking too many questions.
His office was functional but not spartan. The walls were covered with awards and photographs. Scully recognized some of the prestige names that he had predicted for himself just before he left medical school. Dreyfus and Packard Fellowships and a young investigator award from the American Chemical Society. Fifteen or twenty pictures of his lab group showed a steadily growing team. He always seemed to have an arm around one of the women. The large, flat-screened monitor of his computer dominated the desk, colorful folders piled neatly to one side. At the center of the room were a large oval table and six chairs. Ted had cleared away a pile of journals and a pair of safety goggles to make room for her to put her tray of blood samples.
He smiled and gestured to a chair. "Dana Scully. You can't imagine how surprised I was to get your call. I'd heard you joined the FBI, so of course, it made me a little nervous." He held out his hands, vibrating them. His straight brown hair was cut long in back, brushing his collar. Behind tortoise-shell glasses, his blue eyes were sharp and probing; she always considered them his best feature. He'd put on a little weight, but it looked good on him. Made him look prosperous. She was surprised to see a wedding band and wondered who had finally fallen for his lines.
"You've done well, Ted."
"Is that regret I hear?"
"No, I'm satisfied with the life I've chosen."
"Satisfied is fine. The work is meaningful…"
"Dangerous? Thrilling? Erotically charged? I must admit I don't know any other secret agents. Tell me all." He flashed her another smile and settled into the chair at the head of the table.
"Dangerous, but you learn to live with that. There are things I want to finish. That's why I'm here."
"Ah yes. The Favor. So, you think there are some metallic compounds in the blood?"
"I don't know if they're metallic or not. They seem to be carbon compounds of some sort…"
"Carbon is naturally-occurring in the body. But you know that."
"Not like this. Not that I've ever seen."
She waved her hand over the tray of vials, fourteen in all, each labeled with a code number. Ted rose and carefully carried the tray into the adjoining lab. He returned a few minutes later, settled in his chair, picked up a pen and spun it between his hands.
"I asked one of my postdocs to set up some tests. What is it you want to know exactly?"
"Composition. Whether the various samples are identical. Where it comes from. Whether it is natural or synthetic. Effects. Counteragents."
"In short, all the secrets of the universe. You always were ambitious as well as being smart and damn good-looking, Dana. Still are. You haven't told me what kind of project this is. Hush-hush government stuff?"
"Yeah, you could say that."
"Then why not use hush-hush government labs? Just flash your Gman badge and the great green federal machine is yours."
"I, um, wanted an independent opinion. It's a highly unusual substance and I didn't know that we had the expertise."
"And you just happened to want to look me up?" He waggled his brows.
"Honestly, Ted, this is business. " She felt herself coloring. "I knew you were the best. I saw your name in Nature a couple months back attached to a lead article on self-assembling molecules. I figured if you couldn't answer my questions…"
"No one could. Ah, Dana, not the freshest line, but it still sets my heart aflutter. What do you say we go out for a drink while Amir whips up a little profile of your compound. I know a cozy spot a few blocks from here."
"I thought you'd want to look at it yourself. It's mysterious and complex, and…"
"There's something else mysterious and complex I'd rather look at."
"You think this is all a come on, don't you?"
"Sure do. The reserved and reticent Dana Scully. Why not the indirect approach? A little offering up front, like spilling coffee on a guy to get his attention, only you've got a lot more style. Bring him the chance to be a hero. Come on, really. Amir needs some time to set up the equipment. I'll have a look at your little mystery when we get back."
"It's just that this is so important…"
"Cup of coffee if you aren't ready for wine. Real stuff, not the crap that scorches on Mr. Coffee all day."
"Okay. I think I can handle you with a little coffee under my belt," she laughed. Ted got his jacket from behind the door and flecked something off the lapel. "Academic chic," he said. "Gotta keep up the absent-minded image or I'll lose tenure."
"I'm sure there's no danger of that. You're far too brilliant."
"See, there you go again. I'll never be able to resist you." He put his hand at the small of her back to guide her out the door and a shiver shot through her body. Her hands went ice cold.
"Hey, what's wrong?"
"Nothing. Nothing at all. Maybe I need that coffee more than I thought."
"Ted? Ted, you ought to see this." A young man wearing large safety goggles stood at the door. From his face with its dominant nose and smooth brown complexion and his black hair slicked back with some kind of pomade, Scully thought he might be Pakistani. He had had no accent, though. He stood at the door to Ted Marchek's lab, waiting.
Scully surprised herself by humming in the shower. For the first time in weeks, she had begun to feel optimistic about Mulder. Ted had told her that he thought he could decode the matrices and, in fact, regarded it as a point of honor to do so. Normally she would have laughed at his flamboyant self-confidence -- he really should have been a surgeon, she told herself -- but now it just elated her. Once decoded, then there had to be a way to tear the structures down. He had promised her some preliminary results if she would dine with him, and when she hesitated at the "date," as he had called it, he promised her the secrets of the universe. She had laughed again and agreed. His arrogance seemed much more amusing than it had a decade earlier.
Head wrapped in a fluffy white hotel towel, she emerged from the bathroom to the sound of her cell phone. The incoming number was suppressed.
"Well, look who's in a good mood." She recognized Frohike's voice.
"You can tell just from the way I say my name?" She hadn't realized that they paid such close attention to her moods. "Actually, I've just had a break on the black oil. I hope you're going to give me more good news. How's Gibson?"
"Yeah, well, he's great. That's one good-looking kid with a natural aptitude for programming."
Scully laughed at the thought of Frohike with a young protégé. What had she gotten Gibson into?
"That's not really the news," the Gunman continued. "I was able to make some sense of those documents you gave me, Scully. Turns out there's a lot of trafficking in illegal stuff along with the monkeys."
"Stolen artwork. Archeological objects, drugs, some diamonds smuggled in from Sierra Leone."
"And who does this go to?"
"That's where our little genius hacker comes in. Picked up right away on how to decode shipping records. It's all out there. Near as we can figure, the stuff goes to a legit researcher who ordered the monkeys. The other stuff gets thrown in as if it were a mistake. Then after delivery, somebody calls explaining that their shipment was 'mistakenly' sent to the university. They volunteer to pay the cost of the whole shipment in return for a little discretion with the customs people and then arrange to pick up the stuff. Very nice. They never hit the same people twice."
"So, have you…"
"Maybe. We tracked the shipments to Sandoz, one of which must have included the artifact. Then we checked the other shipments about the same time. There were four match-ups."
"What did you find?"
"The first two we talked to, a primate center in Oregon and a medical research facility in New York were really spooked. Afraid to talk to us. The first guy hung up as soon as he found out what he wanted. The guy in New York said he'd been threatened, but he didn't remember seeing what I described."
"What about the other two?"
"There's one we haven't been able to reach. Some place in Arizona."
"Yeah, a private company. I've got the name here someplace. The number we have isn't working and…
"Wisconsin Primate Center in Madison. A Dr. James Henderson. I called him and confirmed that he had received a mixed shipment."
"What did he say?"
"Said there was a lot of miscellaneous goods. Looked like mostly junk to him, some broken stuff. He confirmed that some guy called him, but by then it was too late."
"Why? Don't tell me he dumped it."
"No. Someone had already determined that the stuff was radioactive. They had to isolate it and there's nothing he'd like to do better than for it to disappear. Way he talks, he's got a major headache because he hasn't got permits for radioactive stuff and without the permits to have it, he can't get a permit for its disposal. That's where you Feds come in."
"I'll take it off his hands. Tomorrow. I can get out there tomorrow. Or I could probably leave now, but I was hoping to learn some things at dinner…"
"Stop. Not you. You can't do everything, Scully. Don't you know that? And someone's bound to be hot on your tail. One of us will handle the pick-up for you."
"You're not going to send Langley?"
"Langley as a narc." Scully heard someone in the background shout 'What?' Frohike continued, "Much as I like the idea, it'll probably be Byers. He's got the wardrobe and he talks the talk."
"I'll get you the papers tomorrow."
Scully rode down the hotel elevator to the pub restaurant off the lobby. The room was divided into booths with dark wooden seats and maroon velvet cushions, a Tiffany lamp over each oak table. Ted arrived five minutes late as Scully was scanning the menu. He settled into the seat across from her, parking his briefcase next to him.
"So tell me. How is it that someone as gorgeous as you isn't involved with anyone?"
In the shower, she had toyed with what might happen if she let herself bask in his lavish compliments, then quashed her curiosity with memory of her mission. And of his wedding ring. She decided not to give him an opening. "Well, I am, in a way."
"In a way. Sounds fascinating. And where is Mr. In-a-way? Why isn't he here defending your honor from a lusty old classmate?"
All right, she said to herself. Should I tell him that Mulder is a prisoner of an alien race bent on wiping out humans and replacing us with hybrid slaves? "He's out of town, actually."
"How convenient. No chance for me to look him up."
"You think I'm lying."
"The elusive Dana Scully? We all dreamed of being the one to bed you, but none of us ever had a shot. Does the winner have a name?"
"He's not…Yes, he does." She hesitated as if pronouncing his name would commit her to something from which she could never extract herself. It seemed so odd to tell Ted something she had never had the courage to tell her partner. Not straight out. If Mulder knew, it was only because he had learned to read her gestures and signals, but even so, as he had told her at the Gunmen's, it didn't count unless she said it.
"Let me put it this way: Do you *remember his name?" Ted persisted.
"Sorry. I'm sorry. His name is Mulder." She turned her water glass slowly in its little puddle of water.
"Mulder. Is that a first name or last?"
"You call the love of your life by his last name. Right." His sarcastic tone made her wince. Even if she wanted to explain, how would it make any sense to him?
"I didn't say he was the love…It's very complicated, Ted."
"Dana, I smell a rat, as they say in the movies. Come clean. All this cloak and dagger science has to do with him, Mr. In-a-way Mulder, doesn't it?"
"There's no reason to think that."
"Come on. Blood samples, mysterious illnesses, personal visit to an old schoolmate, all this skulking around outside official channels. Your beau has picked up a strange disease and you're trying to protect yourself. It doesn't look like any STD I've ever seen, if that reassures you."
She frowned. "Ted, please! That's not what's at stake here. Oh, hell. Think what you want. Just help me, won't you? I don't have anyplace else to turn."
He pulled his head back and blew out a breath. "Sorry, I didn't mean to be flippant." He reached across the table and put his hand over hers. "I know you're trying to help him."
She withdrew her hand to her lap, uneasy that some part of her just wanted to be held and comforted. Was that so disloyal? Avoiding his eyes, she took her napkin and slowly wiped away the water. "Well, you guessed it. One of the samples comes from him."
"Then I hate to tell you that your Mr. Mulder is in deep trouble."
Chills ran down her arms and she rubbed her hands together in her lap to warm them. "What have you found?" she asked, trying to keep the panic out of her voice.
"Several things. First, the carbon structures. I unearthed -- hope you'll excuse the pun -- some information on an interesting strain of bacteria two miles deep in the gold mines in South Africa. These bacteria live in veins of oil. Here," he opened briefcase and pulled out a manila folder. "The popular press hasn't picked up on this, but the Journal of Microbiology had a research report a couple weeks ago. Several unknown strains, anaerobic, of course, never before encountered. They live under conditions of great heat and pressure and probably go back a couple billion years."
"A record of the early days of the planet.'
"Maybe. Or an alternative evolutionary sequence. Here's the interesting part. They live on radioactivity."
Scully grabbed the article. "Who found this? When?"
"Well, that's not clear exactly. This is the first scientific team to collect pure samples, but of course the mines have been in operation for years. Who's to say who might have first scraped up some of the oil."
"The bacteria eat the oil?"
"My friend hypothesizes that they live in the oil, but live off some of the minerals and the radioactivity."
"Well, the bacteria actually bio-remediate the radioactivity, convert the substances to non-radioactive materials and extract the energy for themselves. In the process, you see, they precipitate out other materials, leaving matrix-like structures. Here. Here's the diagram."
"My God." She lifted her eyes from the diagram to search his face. All business now, his eyes betrayed the excitement of the new discovery.
"Well, exactly. The diagram at least bears a striking resemblance to the samples you left me."
"And the bacteria. Are they harmful?"
"In what sense?"
"You mean if you injected them."
"Hard to say. As you know, it's not usually a good idea to inject bacteria into the bloodstream. There's no trace of bacteria in the samples you gave me. Just the matrices."
"But could the bacteria possibly be used them to purify the blood? You know reverse the process? This oil, can you get a sample?"
"Maybe. I know Simpson, one of the P.I.s on this thing. Maybe I can get him to send me a few ccs."
Scully reached across the table, all smiles, and grabbed his hand. "Please. I mean, thank you."
"I'd like to take this moment of gratitude to sweep you off your feet, my dear, but I can't. I told you. There's bad news, too. The carbon material we isolated from the blood samples is entirely foreign to the human body. There are slight differences in the structure and in quantities seen. It appears that one structure may be able to replicate itself, the other not. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"One is alive?"
"If we redefine life, yes. The process is so close…In ten of the samples the amount of carbon was small and the matrices appear to be inactive, but in two there was so much I don't know how it entered the blood stream in quite these quantities. Are you sure the samples aren't simply contaminated?'
She nodded. "I'm reasonably sure, yes."
"Now, what appeared to be happening in the other two cases was that the carbon structures were precipitating other elements from the cells in order to create the matrices. The material of the matrices bonds in such a way that there is a smooth side and a sticky side. Then it folds. If the smooth side is out, it's just a lump of foreign matter that the body might be able to eject. But if it folds sticky side out…"
"The blood vessels would rapidly clog, causing a heart attack."
"Well, you know better than I. Fascinating stuff. Sorry about your friend. I'm assuming he was either sample 10 or 11."
"No. No, he wasn't. Ten is another victim, but are you sure the other was eleven?"
"Eleven was my control."
The next morning, she kicked off her shoes in the entryway of Mulder's apartment, parked her overnight bag next to the couch, and settled in at his computer. She'd set up her own files on it now and protected them with a password that she hoped only Mulder would guess. <<Emily>> If he ever comes back. She rubbed her hands to disperse the chill that shot through her. <<Emily>> He knew what that meant to her. He knew that she lived with it, unspoken.
She stood up to remove her jacket and draped it over the back of the chair. She stacked the notes from Ted's lab to the side. What did it all add up to? Matrices of carbon, black oil, bacteria two billion years old that lived on radioactivity. There are your extraterrestrials, Mulder. Old bacteria thriving two miles deep, the product of some ancient celestial collision. Not the weapon of an alien race, but all the same a lethal threat. But the ship? Where did the ship come in?
She began typing. "The government must have obtained samples of the bacteria from the South Africans back in the days when we tolerated apartheid in return for access to their strategic minerals. The project probably started as a scientific curiosity, but like everything in those days, soon turned to the purpose of winning the Cold War. Whom did they experiment on and how did they intend to deploy this biological weapon? Did they find a way to control it?"
But the ship. How does it make any sense? She typed faster now, pouring her jumbled thoughts onto the page. "A ship crashed, spreading the black oil of the aliens as they died, the monkeys came in contact with it. How else would they have it in their blood? Unless Sandoz was injecting it…but there's no evidence that he ever knew about the black oil. But how?" Her fingers idled over the keys. The ship. The blasted ship she didn't believe in. "The ship went down and some virus or bacteria escaped. It generated its own black oil. That's what Mulder has. That's what was in the monkeys. " She paused, breathing quickly, reading what she had just written and trying to make sense of what eluded her. She moved the cursor back up to where she had written, "A ship crashed…" and highlighted the paragraphs that followed. She was about to hit 'delete' when the buzzing of her cell phone interrupted.
"Dana, this is Ted. I'd like to know what the hell you got me involved in."
She held the phone away from her ear for a second. "What do you mean?"
"I mean Amir has been beaten within an inch of his life and my lab's been trashed. Those samples you brought me have disappeared and I can't help but conclude that they are the reason for this attack. That must be one hell of a disease your boyfriend has. How about sharing the truth with me?"
"Oh, God. I don't know how to make sense of this. Ted, this isn't just about his disease. It's…" she looked at what she had just written on the computer screen. "There's a massive government conspiracy. It's deep in the government. That's why I came to you. We have to come up with an antidote or it won't be just Mulder lying in a coma…"
" What are you talking about Dana? A 'massive' conspiracy to inject ancient bacteria into law-abiding citizens? Assuming your boyfriend is a law abiding citizen and I don't know that I should. Excuse me for thinking that you are either paranoid or an outright liar."
"The very fact that your lab was up-ended should tell you that I am neither… Ted, I can get more samples. We have to get to the bottom…"
"Maybe you didn't get my meaning. I don't want more samples. I've got a friend in a coma, too. People don't come into my lab to put their lives on the line. I think I deserve to know why you think you can drag me into some underworld thing. I didn't choose to work for the FBI, you did."
"Please, listen. This is too big…too… I'm sorry I didn't try to explain it yesterday. Ted, there's a chance that the matrices are an extraterrestrial product that could wipe out or enslave the human…"
"Right, uh-huh. Now you want me to believe that little green men are running around injecting people in their sleep. And monkeys, too, from what Amir told me about the samples. The aliens are enslaving monkeys as well? Maybe they can't tell the difference? We earthlings all look the same?"
"I know it sounds unbelievable."
"That's it. That's exactly the word I was looking for. You're too smart to be dishing out fantasies like this. You should know that I am too smart to believe them. It was nice to see you again. I can't help you."
"Ted, you saw them. What about the bacteria? The matrices? How can you explain those?"
"They could have been a contaminant for all I know. Don't call again."
After Ted slammed down the phone, she sat looking at the computer screen and slowly started typing again. "They are on my trail, Mulder. They are trying to stop me from helping you. Who are they and why do they want you dead? I'm not stopping, Mulder. I promise."
Traffic slowed and gradually came to a complete stop just as she was crossing the 14th Street Bridge leading into the District. She rolled down her window and attempted to see the length of the jam, but the large black Navigator ahead of her and the red minivan in the left lane completely blocked her view. From ahead came the sound of horns. She turned on the traffic channel, but the news was all about a pile-up on 395. The SUV rolled forward about ten feet and she eased her foot off the brake to follow.
The phone buzzed again. She flipped it open just as the Navigator pulled ahead and the van next to her forced its way into the gap.
"Agent Scully. I thought you'd want to know that Agent Fowley has been located."
"Is she in custody?"
"She's under guard. She's in Bethesda. Seems to have a rare blood disorder."
"Have you seen her?"
"Can't get in. She's quarantined."
"You know what this is."
"Not exactly, but I figured you do. Perhaps you could…"
"Yeah. Yeah, I think I can get in. Can you try to find Cabrini? I haven't been able to reach him since yesterday. There's something important. Urgent."
"I'll check around. Is this about your experiments?"
"Yeah. It's about the truth, too."
Scully pushed open the door to the hospital room. The woman in the bed was facing away, apparently asleep. The hum and beep of machines dominated, and a ventilating fan whooshed the contaminated air through filters. In the hall, two nurses in white murmured softly; soft strains of Mozart came from one of the other rooms. The woman in bed was hooked up to an IV and the little plastic tubes along the side of her head were surely part of her oxygen mask. Scully reached instinctively for the chart, but found none on the door or the counter worktop where the doctors and nurses would normally spread it out to jot the latest readings and injections. Scully tightened her facemask and called softly, "Diana."
The woman turned. Her eyes reflected darkly against sallow skin.
"May I come in?"
Diana nodded and raised herself a little on her elbows. Under the covers she flexed her knees slightly and pushed herself back with her heels. "I'm surprised to see you here." She choked a little as she spoke and Scully realized that the deterioration must be on the inside surfaces of her body as well.
"I'm working on something that may neutralize the clusters causing your problem. It's... I don't know if I can draw the right analogy, the problem is almost mechanical. I think there's a way to invert the corrosive molecules and allow them to pass out of the bloodstream. I can't promise it will be tomorrow…"
"It doesn't matter any more. It's too late. There's been too much damage."
"What happened to the healers? The reason you took Mulder."
"Looks like I got left behind." Her pupils were fully dilated. "You're smart, Dana. The kind of woman who should have gone far in the Bureau. Why did you go along with all this?"
"With all what? I wasn't aware…"
"All his crazy theories. Fox's delusions that he could find out the secrets. Why didn't you just opt out? You must have realized it was a lost cause."
"I guess I never thought of him or it as lost."
"Come on. After your abduction you didn't realize what you were really up against? It was all so unnecessary, all your suffering." Diana crossed her arms and Scully felt as though she was being tested.
"After my abduction, I wanted answers."
"Maybe not like him."
"So you don't buy into the ever-elusive Truth?"
"I didn't say that." Scully turned the IV bags around to read the labels: saline, nutrients, antibiotics, steroids, morphine.
"Have you ever been betrayed? Really betrayed?" Diana rubbed her fingers in a clear jelly and rubbed them over the oxygen tube. "I don't think you have. You can't imagine what it's like, what sort of vacuum forms around the betrayal. It sucks in everything it can and still it's a vacuum. Let's face it. You can't understand me. You can't understand Fox."
She started coughing and spilled the water she tried to pour into her cup. Scully took the pitcher from her and finished the task. "Where is he, Diana?"
"He's gone to his sister and you can't follow. That's what he really wanted. Now they can live happily ever after." It wasn't really what he wanted, Scully thought. Not like that. "Next time you see him, he'll be one of them -- like her. Absorbed into their consciousness. A projection of their minds."
"Where *is* he?"
"Forget about it. Go out and find yourself someone else. Find the life you abandoned when they snagged you into this. You were never his type. But you know that already."
A nurse walked in, mask over her nose and mouth, hair covered by a paper cap, latex gloves already on her hands. "Excuse me, ma'am. No visiting."
"I'm a medical researcher…" She pulled the papers issued by the hospital commander.
Without glancing at them, the nurse continued, "Then you can wait outside while I tend to Ms. Fowley. There's a lounge down the hall." A pink sweater covered all but the edge of the nametag. Scully made out the letters "Pr."
"How long will you be, Nurse Pr…?"
She ignored Scully's prompt. "A few minutes. Someone will get you."
Scully left the room but stepped off to the side. She heard the nurse say, "He sent me."
Diana's voice was weaker. "You're a healer, then?"
Scully peeked back around the door, hoping that the dim light in the corridor would help conceal her. The nurse's back was to the door. It appeared that she had pulled down her mask in violation of quarantine rules. She held a syringe in the air testing it, then pulled down the sheet and lifted the gown. She plunged the needle into Diana's hip. Diana gave a little snort and coughed twice, gripping at the nurse's arm. She seemed to be trying to say something, but no words were distinguishable. Scully saw her head loll off to the side. The nurse pulled up her mask and pushed past Scully who rushed into the room. She grabbed Diana's wrist, but there was no pulse. The syringe had disappeared with the nurse.
Scully ran out of the room and paused at the nurses' station to say only, "She's flat-lined. Somebody help her. She's been poisoned with something. Hurry." Then she shoved through the double doors at the end of the quarantine ward. Ahead, almost at the elevators, was the nurse in her pink sweater, walking calmly, looking neither right nor left. Scully shouted at her to stop and took off running down the corridor, but the woman walked on, unperturbed. Finally, when she caught up with her, Scully grabbed the woman's shoulder and pulled her around. She dropped back in astonishment, seeing that the nurse was Diana Fowley. She reached for the nurse's face, but the woman threw her tray at Scully and was gone around the corner by the time she could get her gun loose from her holster. When Scully reached the corner, no one was in sight.
Later that afternoon
She paused at the door of their office and ran her finger over her partner's name: Fox Mulder. If she closed her eyes and wished, could she find him sitting at the desk, lost in some daydream of the paranormal? Her key turned easily in the lock; no one took her fears seriously. Or it was all part of a plan? The office smelled of dust and disinfectant; shadows swallowed the corners of the room. She walked slowly around to the desk, pulled out the chair, sat down, and covered her face in her hands. Diana dead, not dead. Imposter. Substitute. Whichever, her secrets were out of reach. Where was Mulder now? Not with the healers. Cancerman. Cancerman, who had always wanted to possess him. The office phone rang three times before she answered.
"Scully." It was almost a question.
"Scully. I got your message about Diana. Do you have any idea what happened?"
"No, sir. As I told your secretary, a nurse came in and injected her with something which stopped her heart almost immediately."
"Do you know what it was?"
"The forensic officer at Bethesda will perform the autopsy. I asked him to relay the results of the toxicological tests, but I have a feeling that the substance is not going to show up."
"And the nurse?"
"She seems to have escaped. I left a description, but it was based on clothing. She had a mask over her face…" I can't tell him it was Diana. I can't.
"Look, there's something more important right now. Krycek called. I've arranged to meet him in an hour. Scully, I can't promise this is on the up and up."
"I understand. What does he want?"
"Something about the artifact. He wasn't his usual cocky self. I don't know if this is a trap or what."
"Are you sure it was him?"
"I'm not sure of anything now. I don't know if telling you is just dragging you further into his plot against Mulder or what."
"Where will you meet him?"
"Drive into the parking garage at L'Enfant Plaza. Third level down. I'll be there."
"Excuse me, sir. Someone is at my door." The raps were firm and the doorknob rattled softly.
She walked around the desk and put her ear against the wood. "Who is it?"
"It's Skinner. I've got to talk to you. Something strange is going on."
She opened the lock and looked out warily. "Sir? I…"
He put his finger to his lips and motioned her into the hallway. "Agent Scully, we're going to have to put some additional protection on Gibson. Where is he?"
"I don't know."
"They must have told you."
"No, we agreed not to…" she looked down and swallowed, "not to do anything that might result in a leak."
"Well, then you know how to get hold of them, surely."
"Look, Scully, you and I have to cooperate. I have word that Krycek's been captured. Barnes and our smoking friend are holding him. Alex knows that Gibson was coming to us. It's only a matter of time before he tells. How hard will it be for them to chase after him?"
"Sir, I want to tell you, but…"
"I just don't have the information you need."
"Scully, you have to trust me on this. For Mulder's sake. Don't let yourself be tricked. Whatever you do, don't trust Krycek. If he's gone over to them, anything you do is just going to contribute to the takeover and Mulder's death."
"But Kryek is the only one who has what will save Mulder."
"Find some other way, Scully. Don't trust anyone. Don't trust *me unless you can see me in person. Unless you can see that there's no one with a gun to my head, all right? Find Gibson. Everything depends on it."
"Yeah. Let me see if I can reach them. I'll call you."
"In person, Dana, only in person."
She closed the door and leaned against it for an instant. "Now Skinner," she said, and punched his extension. His secretary picked up. "Denise. This is Dana Scully. Is Mr. Skinner in his office?… Please, could you open the door and check?… Yes. No, I don't need to speak with him. Thank you." She hung up, breathing quickly. Grabbing her briefcase, she ran out the door.
Half the lights on the third level of the garage were out. Scully turned her headlights on then quickly turned them off, circulating in the darkness, flicking her flashlight for an instant to check the plates on dark-colored sedans. Skinner's black Camry was in the darkest corner; she pulled into the adjoining space and blinked her lights once. There was no acknowledgment. Without turning off the motor, she got out of her Taurus and walked around to the other car, gun drawn. Inside, a man slumped onto the passenger seat. As she opened the door, the overhead light illuminated the unconscious face of Walter Skinner. Leaning forward to check his pulse, she heard a small scrape behind her in the instant before the blow landed at the back of her head.
The right front tire dipped into a pothole at high speed, tossing Scully against the door.
"Ow." She opened her eyes to find the road rushing at her. Instinctively, her foot slammed on the brake just as she realized that someone else had just driven her through a red light.
"Guess again. I couldn't save both your hides. We had to get out of there."
"What happened?" Even by the dim light of the dashboard, she could see the bandage across his temple and the brace covering his lower arm. He looked across at her and she thought she saw a large black bruise around his eye. The car smelled like a locker room.
"I don't know, you were both out when I arrived. If you had anything valuable they probably got it."
"The old man. Christ. Don't you realize that his thugs have been on your tail the whole time."
"I guess I knew that." She pressed her palm against the back of her head and winced. "What happened to you?"
"How the hell do I know? I sent you to get him."
She pitched forward as he suddenly braked for a sharp turn. "Diana took him."
"Then he's with Smokey. That was her job. Reel him in. Deliver him to the fathers."
"That's what they call themselves."
"Krycek, we still have to save him."
"You, Scully, not me. Look, people are disappearing. I don't know what's going on. Barnes is gone, so's his secretary."
"I didn't know that. She had a lot to answer for. That's got to mean someone else is trying to take over."
"Who are you with, Krycek?"
"I'm a poor lonesome cowboy,.."
"What's that supposed to mean? You don't strike me as a save-the-world type."
"I'm just trying to save my hide. Anyone else gets saved in the process, it's not my business."
"Anyone else dies…" She thought of Merkmallen, Sandoz, Skinner, Mulder, herself.
"That's not my business either."
"Where are we going? Why shouldn't I just jump out of the car right now?"
"You're my only hope right now and I'm yours, that's why."
"I don't trust you, Krycek."
"What is this thing about trust that you and your batty partner are so big on? Trust has nothing to do with it. If you want what you want, you have no choice."
Krycek killed the headlights and turned onto a winding side road, still at high speed. Scully braced one hand against the dashboard as they bounced along, half on the shoulder. Suddenly Krycek pulled off to the right into a grove of trees and turned off the motor.
"Where are…" He slapped his hand over her mouth. They sat in silence, listening for approaching traffic. Scully pressed the light on her watch. Ten forty-five. She had gone to meet Skinner at six-thirty. Five minutes passed in silence.
"Have you got the rest of the artifact?" he asked.
"When, for God's sake? You expect me to believe that you haven't poured your soul into this?" He pounded on the dashboard, then wiped the side of his hand against his leg.
"You have the rest?"
"I did. Christ only knows if it's still there."
"Where we are going now, before anyone else figures it out."
"What does this thing do, Krycek?"
"It gets you into the ship. It was supposed to be Mulder, but now it's you."
"Me? Why are you so sure I'll go?"
"Oh, you'll go all right. It's the only way to get Mulder out. I assume that's what you want."
"It's one of the things."
"Well, there's one condition. You have to take the poison in with you."
"It's a reformulation of the black oil. It mirrors of the structure. The surfaces of the molecules fit together and lock up. Instead of feeding those creatures, it feeds on them. Their fatal weakness. The old man's scientists discovered it then tried to suppress it."
"You understand the risk in releasing anything related to the black oil?"
"Do you understand what's certain to happen if we don't? I'll go with simple risk every time." His words were bantering, a little sarcastic, but his face was serious. "Open the glove compartment."
The container looked a little like a box for a diamond necklace or fancy gold pen set. She opened it, removed a six inch long metal tube, and held it up to the moonlight. Would Mulder agree to this? she wondered. Would he destroy the mystery that had driven him for so long? She closed her eyes and pictured him behind the wheel, light in his eyes and passion defining his voice. He would tell her that knowing these aliens would help us see who we are and where we came from and what strange pieces fit together to make us human. What defines our minds and bodies and how some slip over that line makes us superhuman, subhuman, or merely grotesque. And she would shake her head and counter that once we knew those things, would there be any hope? Would we become them or would they become us?
"That's it. Jesus, be careful. That's all I've got."
She put it back in the box and snapped the lid shut. "Where are we going, Krycek?"
"To pick up the rest of the artifact, before it's too late. I just got word that Marita's gone. Sooner or later someone's going to clean out her locker. I'd rather it be you."
"Marita. Mulder's informant?"
"I had her tucked away in a medium security prison. The artifact is stashed in the central office with her possessions. But somebody got to her."
"I said gone. Who knows?"
"Wouldn't she tell them?"
"Marita? No way. Believe me, she's got no love for them, not after what they did to her. She'd die first. Once we get this thing, I turn it over to you in return for your promise on the oil."
"You trust a promise?"
"I trust what it is you want. You may hate dealing with me but it's the only deal you got, honey."
She looked out the window. What it is I want, she said to herself. Everyone is so sure they know. Blue-white light blazed ahead, and as they crowned the hill, a parking lot surrounded by high intensity mercury vapor lamps came into view. A chain-link fence lay just beyond. "I want one more thing."
"The device you used on Skinner."
He laughed. "You drive quite a bargain, Agent Scully." He parked away from the other vehicles and turned off the headlights. "Actually, I'm glad to be dealing with you rather than your partner."
"Yeah, I can count on you to see the sweet light of reason."
One hand on the wheel, Scully dialed the contact number and left her coded message. Frohike hadn't told her more than that, and she wondered just how much the Gunmen were making up as they went along. The road passed close to a large electrical substation, its huge transformers and web of high tension lines starkly isolated behind a high wire fence. She pulled into the parking lot, hoping that the electromagnetic fields might interfere with eavesdropping. Five minutes later, the phone rang.
"We got it."
"No. Byers got that thing."
"Look, you have to get Gibson out of there. Don't trust anyone, not Skinner, no one. Don't believe your eyes. Or ears."
"What's going on?"
"I don't know. There are imposters, impersonators, doubles. I don't know who they are." She wiped the hair off her forehead and looked both ways down the road. A strange buzzing rose from the phone.
"… me say that Byers got it?"
"Good, good. Listen, just get out of there and drive."
A car approached from the left, she dipped down below the dashboard.
"We got a call from Mulder."
"Can we trust Mulder?"
"God, I don't know. He's well? Is he free?"
"He just gave us a message and a code word. Told us to check the word with you. You would know whether it was legit."
"What was it?"
"Yeah. What is that?"
How could he possibly know? "It was him," she assured them, certain of it in her heart without understanding how. "Where was he calling from?"
"He didn't say."
"Couldn't you do some kind of trace?"
"The trace said the call didn't happen, Scully."
"Do whatever he told you."
Later on Thursday
She sat on his couch, head tipped back, cell phone in her hand. Her shoes lay under the coffee table, one black pump on its side, the other upside down. Her jacket hung on the back of his desk chair. Cursing and blessing Mulder's computer, she had searched through the files and records to see if anyone had hacked in. It was clean, as far as she could tell, and in any case, she had disconnected the modem from the jack that morning. It made no rational sense. Her imagination conjured up shadows skimming across her sleeping face, then stealing over to the computer to drain her secrets. Tingling rather than ringing brought her back to consciousness. She opened the phone and took one deep breath before answering.
"Mulder, where are you? Are you safe?"
"Scully, please. You have to believe. Please. This once."
"Believe what? Just tell me what."
"The portal, Scully. Now."
A rush of sound, a screech, and then a click signaled that the connection was cut. She frantically punched in the code for caller id, only to learn that the last incoming call was hours before. Impossible, she told herself. I heard him. It was his voice. Not a dream. Definitely not a dream. She dialed Bureau headquarters and demanded a trace, waiting on hold, letting her mind replay his message. Believe. A deceptively simple act. And if she believed the wrong thing? The sound of Mulder's phone only gradually broke through her thoughts. She let the answering machine pick up.
"Agent Scully. I know you're there. You may as well answer. We have something important to discuss. I assume you are still interested in the fate of Agent Mulder."
"Damn him," she said aloud. She lifted the receiver. "How did you know I was here."
"Consider it a lucky guess. I'm glad to see you're hard at work. Our project demands your best efforts."
"You're mistaken in thinking there is an 'our' in this. Now, if you will…"
"Fox Mulder. You are well aware of his difficulties. We are finding the problem intractable. You perhaps believe you have the answer. I am prepared to let you help. I think the time has finally come for you to fulfill the mission you were originally assigned to do."
"To debunk Mulder? I fail to see…"
"No. The real mission. Surely you figured it out?"
"And what would that be?"
"We wanted to keep Agent Mulder isolated and I think we've done that very nicely. But the real goal was to make him so frustrated that he'd come back to us as the only way to get the truth -- and his sister. Your mission was to drive him into our arms by showing him the dead ends of his own work. Didn't work out quite as we hoped. Still I haven't lost faith in you."
"That's awfully presumptuous…"
"Aren't you ours, then? What about the implant? How much free will do you think you have if we decide to pull you in, Dana? I can call you Dana, can't I? But never mind. I much prefer your eager cooperation now that we are finally allies. We both want Mulder out of this coma."
Coma, she thought. But he just… "You must be mistaken."
"Mistaken. No, not at all. One of my men is waiting downstairs to pick you up. He will take you wherever you need to go to pick up the materials you've prepared."
She walked over to the window and separated the slats slightly. On the street below, a man stood beside a black sedan, double-parked, in an argument with a policeman. The driver was waving his arms. The policeman was writing a ticket and talking into the mike on his lapel. She leaned against the blinds to peer down the block where a flashing light reflected off the windows of the parked cars. Bless Skinner, she said to herself.
"I'm sorry," she continued into the phone, "but I need a few more days to work. We haven't perfected the antidote."
"You'll need to remain in our protection…"
As she hung up, her cell phone rang.
"Agent Scully. There's been no call to your number since 3 this afternoon."
High clouds drifted across a sky lit by a waxing moon. The stars in the west were blacked out by clouds edged in silver. Scully had doused the headlights as soon as she saw the padlocked gates and pulled onto the shoulder, tires crunching on the gravel. The air was sticky and smelled of brine. Standing next to the rental car, she flapped the neck of her t-shirt to generate a breeze before opening the door to the back seat and pulling out her duffle. She unzipped it and shook out a thin black nylon shirt and pants. They trapped the humid warmth as she pulled them on over her shorts and t-shirt.
"Scully." It was almost a hiss. A flashlight blinked once in the dark overhang of the bushes back along the high chain link fence. She approached cautiously, fumbling for her gun. "Frohike? Gibson?" The Gunmen climbed out of the drainage ditch and Byers turned to give the boy a hand.
"He told you where?" she asked.
"Yeah, that was the message. He called you, too?"
She nodded. "I'm going down to get him. You have your piece of the object?"
A low rumble sounded from down the road, increasing rapidly in volume.
"The ditch," Frohike barked.
A minute later, a black sedan pulled to a halt. A tall figure emerged from the car and stood, arms on the roof. As he turned his head looking around the deserted space, the moonlight glanced off his glasses. "Scully," he whispered loudly. "I know you're here."
"Walk away from the car, sir, and put your gun down." She spoke without rising from the ditch. "Put both of them down and your hands up."
Skinner walked slowly toward her voice, bent over and placed something on the ground. He then removed another object from under his trousers and placed it alongside. Her flashlight illuminated the weapons. "Back up." She waited while he took four steps backwards. "You followed me here."
"What did you expect? I'm not about to let one of my best agents run off on a suicide mission."
"Not suicide, sir, rescue." Half-crouching, her gun trained on him, she advanced to where his weapons lay on the ground. She picked them up and tossed them toward the ditch. "Those policemen outside Mulder's apartment. They weren't protecting me, they were your spies."
"Sometimes that's the only way to protect you. Look, I can have a team of agents here in an hour, maximum two. If you have evidence that Mulder is being held here, there's a good chance…"
"There's a good chance the entire thing will evaporate. No. My way. Come on guys. Time to go." She tucked her gun in her waistband, and picked up her bag.
"Wait." Skinner's feet slapped the pavement as he jogged behind her. "We need to do this in an orderly fashion."
She stopped without turning around. The silence was broken only by the sounds of the others gathering the things they had brought.
"What makes you think Mulder is here?"
"I just know that he is. This is where he was trapped before. It's logical that they would return..."
"That's how you know? This is ridiculous." Skinner threw his hands in the air and turned to the Gunman. "That's it? You believe this?"
"Actually, he called us," Frohike admitted in a grudging tone.
"He called you? Mulder is being held by forces unknown and has access to a phone. Listen to yourselves. I don't suppose you got the number?"
"He rang Scully, too, I wager," said Frohike to justify his belief.
Scully shifted the bag to her left hand and continued walking toward the gates. Skinner was two steps behind. He persisted. "Look, with no traffic, no sentries, no sign of activity but … what did you say?" He turned back toward the Gunmen at the sound of Langley's voice.
"Encrypted communications. I've been listening for the past couple hours," said Langley.
"An undecipherable transmission. Could be military, could be some sort of automated system, maybe even something left on by mistake. That's the beauty of encryption; it slows your enemies down." Skinner took Scully by the shoulders and turned her around. She shrank back, dropping from his reach. "Scully, there's no evidence that anyone is here. It doesn't seem likely that Mulder is someplace clearly abandoned."
"To the contrary," she insisted. "I think it's the most likely place. This is the portal. The way in." She looked behind him and bent over slightly. "Come over here, Gibson." She held out her hand and he gripped it tightly. "I just need your help for a bit. Come over by the fence." They walked forward the remaining five yards to the gate and she pressed her head against it as if she could hear better by putting her ear to the gaps in the chain links. "Can you hear them, Gibson? Are they here?"
The boy stood completely still, and she wondered again how he sorted through all the messages reaching his brain. "I can't hear anything special. It doesn't carry very far, you know. Not if there are things in the way. I'm sorry."
Frohike rubbed his hand through Gibson's hair. "That's fine, kid." He held up a small tool kit to Scully. "You ready for me to open the gate."
She answered him by pulling a fisherman's vest out of her bag. She flicked a small flashlight on and off, then tucked it in a front pocket. Batteries went into another along with a spool of insulated wire. A pair of hypodermic needles made her pause in her preparations. The caps were secure, but the safety of any injection would depend on what she chose to put inside. She slipped them into a waist level pocket that would fit tight against her body once she put the belt on. On the opposite side, she slipped in a bottle of steroid solution. From her duffle she pulled out the odd tube Skinner had found at Diana's and then the device she had demanded from Krycek. She held the remote up to Skinner and shined the light on it.
"But why…" he started. Had the light been good enough, she would have searched his face for the emotions this man was so reluctant to reveal. But the darkness respected his privacy.
"I don't know what is going to free Mulder."
Langley stepped forward with black plastic box the size of a pack of cigarettes. "This is the jammer. It's got a frequency control and volume. You're going to have to experiment. Watch your own ears at some of the settings. If you feel pain, turn it down."
"Thanks. I didn't know if you'd be able… Thanks."
Finally, she lifted out the jewelry case Krycek had given her. She placed it on the ground and slipped down to her knees. Skinner crouched next to her. "What's that?"
"The beginning or the end, sir. I'm choosing to believe the former." She lifted the tube from the case and ran her fingers over it before zipping it into an inner pocket. "I just wish I had one thing I really understood. One thing where the scientific principles could give me real confidence." She stood and shrugged her shoulders to settle the weight of the vest comfortably.
Frohike, looked at the faces his fellow Gunmen. "You know Scully, Skinner's right. You should reconsider. Mulder said it was a video game in there."
She glanced at him for just a second as she slipped on protective gloves and tightened a pair of goggle. "Computer-constructed reality were his words."
"Yeah, well his words were also that it could shift and disappear and block you in. You've got no control."
At the bottom of her bag was a bundle wrapped in a lead-lined x-ray shield Krycek had pilfered from somewhere. "We got out last time. Where's the other piece?"
Byers stepped forward with a lead-lined case. Together they opened it and Scully removed the wrapping. "I think everyone should stand away. We don't know what's going to happen." Skinner ushered the others back, then took several steps toward Scully.
She unwrapped the small piece from Byers' case and for a moment, held it up with one hand, illuminating it with her flashlight. The glyphs were exactly as Mulder's diagram had shown, the shape exactly as she had pictured it. As she held it aloft, it began to pulsate, sending tremors down her arm. Involuntarily, she released her grasp and it hovered, spinning, slowly at first, then faster. An answering hum came from Krycek's portion. Then, suddenly, without being able to discern which piece had moved, the artifact had rejoined itself, lying on the ground. Scully stooped and put her hand on it and felt the vibrations through her body.
"I'm ready now."
"Look," Skinner jumped back in, "no one knows what, if anything, is down there. If there is something, it could easily be a trap. We don't know who it belongs to. Did you find that out last time?"
She looked away from him, scanning the buildings on the other side of the fence, recalculating the coordinates of the place she had entered and left some months before. "Mulder thought it was probably Military Intelligence because of the connection to Diana. But, no, we never found out. I just know it's the path in."
"And that thing. We have no idea of its powers or its dangers."
"We haven't got time to test it…"
"It surprises me to hear you say that, Agent. You normally show a proper respect…" He put his hand on her arm and continued, his voice soft and with an edge of desperation. "Scully, the risk is too great. We have to find another way."
"I appreciate your concern. I understand that it is not part of your job description to order me to go." She refused to meet his eyes.
"It is not part of *your job description to commit suicide."
"Good, then understand that it is my choice to go."
"You could easily die before you get fifty feet past that gate."
"If I don't go, my life and everyone else's won't matter, will they?" She backed up toward the gate and looked at them one at a time.
Frohike broke into the conversation, "Mr. Skinner is right. You might get killed. That's not what Mulder would want."
"Maybe this isn't about what he wants. Maybe it's about what I want."
The ventilation shaft still gave access to the tunnel. Inside, it smelled of raw metal and electrical synapses. Her knees slid along the surface, finding no grit or seam or imperfection, and the only sound was the slip-slip-slip of fabric on metal. In the dark, she stopped and ran her hand along the floor, up the wall and across the ceiling, taking the dimensions of the space. It was four feet high at most and about as wide. She'd be able to drag Mulder out, if it came to that. Skinner was right. This might be a trap. There was no way of knowing whether Mulder was here. Only that he had summoned her and begged her to believe. The artifact might protect her or might doom her. As if reading her fear, it started giving off a blue light and the tunnel seemed to pulsate in response.
Which world is real? she asked herself. The one I can explain by scientific principles or this one, pulling Mulder away from me? The passage curved around to the right; it seemed to her that it had been straight before. Still she continued. At the entrance to the main room, the tunnel opened up four feet above the floor. She swung her legs around and dropped. The room was precisely as she remembered it: the high ceiling receding into darkness above steel beams. Machines along the walls, silent and blank. The device in the center where Mulder had been trapped. She walked cautiously across the floor, scanning the walls for the telltale red dots of security beams. She reached out with her foot to test the gateway, first poking with her toe, then pushing with the sole of her boot, then pouring out her anger on the imagined surface. As before, the air was solid. Solid, invisible, silent under the kicks. She flexed the fingers of her left hand inside the heavy gray glove, then lifted the artifact with both hands and touched it to the barrier.
There was a flash of vivid white light, blinding like a magnesium flare, and she she was spun instantly to the other side, landing on her hip. Fighting back a wave of dizziness and nausea, she blinked her eyes as her vision slowly returned in shades of dark gray giving way to a silvery brown glow. The gateway was gone as were the mute machines. The walls shone now, like burnished bronze, reflecting the flashes of color given off by the artifact, blues, yellows, reds, and gaps in the sequence where it must have flashed light undetectable to the human eye. All other illumination had disappeared. She pulled her goggles up to her forehead. The ceiling receded, black, invisible, too high to see beyond where the walls themselves rose into the darkness. She stood on glass; walls receding downward to the point of invisibility. She stooped down and pulled off one glove. The floor was like the gateway: solid, unyielding but with the sensation of touch pushing against air. The air itself was warm and slightly liquid, as though great sheets of silk wrapped around her hands and face, caressing and suffocating at the same time. Breathing now with her mouth open, she turned slowly in a full circle, seeking any flaws in the smoothness of walls, as physically perfect as time itself. The inevitability of capture, she told herself. The transience of knowledge. The absence of escape. She turned again and lost any sense of direction. Direction had become meaningless, source and destination canceling out each other. Her eyes drifted half shut, then suddenly a shimmer across the walls brought her fully to attention. She lifted the artifact once again and touched it to where the lights were dancing. A door suddenly opened, and she stumbled down the first few stairs, only the blue light of the artifact showing her the path downward, a stairway imagined beyond the three steps just ahead. The air had turned from silk to sound, all sensation in her ears. The music, at first a lullaby or hymn, sweet in its tune, slowly twisted and distorted, notes doubling back on themselves and piling up in forbidden combinations, warring with each other, tearing the tune apart. It grew loud and a pain that started in her ears stretched to the bones across the back of her head.
She stumbled downward, not caring where her feet fell, seeking only to disappear into the darkness before her. The bottom step ended at a wall, cold and slightly damp. She ran her hand along its perfect smoothness, following to the right stooping as the ceiling dipped, then crawling and finally slithering through an opening that stretched valve-like against the contours of her body. On the other side, open space. She flicked on her high beam flashlight. Windows lined the room, and as the beam glanced across them, lights came on inside, one empty space after another. Finally, in the fifth, Mulder lay on a table, eyes closed. Behind him, a column stretched from ceiling to floor, marked with glyphs. She put her hand against the window and thought at him, but he did not respond, so she lifted the artifact and put it to the glass. The barrier melted like jelly into a puddle at her feet. She stepped across and approached the bed. He was wrapped in a sheet. She stood at his side, suddenly talking in a rush.
"Mulder, it's me. Can you hear me? I came. Mulder, I can't promise I have an answer, but I'll try. We'll get you out and fix this. Time is all I need. Can you hear me? Look, I've brought some things. A jammer to interfere with the thoughts, and the remote that Krycek was using on Skinner. Wait, you don't know about that or did you read it in Krycek's mind? But never mind, it might work on you, and some steroids to boost your heart, and…and…and something I'd rather not use, but can you trust me? I believed you and now I'm here. Can you believe back? Can you believe in what I'm trying?"
She touched his arm and suddenly she saw herself from outside, as though she, not he, were lying on the table. Her face fractured into a hundred pieces, a hundred Scullys in kaleidoscope, moving in circles around herself. She was trapped in a grid, squeezed into a thousand little hexagons flickering in unison, changing shape, a flash of red in each tiny chip. She closed her eyes and it had no effect; the vision remained: herself, clear as day. The image exploded now, exceeding her field of vision, one Scully growing so large a tiny patch of chin filled her brain. And now shrinking, shattering into a thousand shards and disappearing into black. Still she held onto his arm. Sounds welled up. Not a tune but an insistent note, flat surrounded by the sound of rushing air, a hum, a buzz, a sound like oscillating rhythms of life support struggling against fate. A couplet of the body, rhyming with itself. Now the sound resolved into pulse and beat and out of the rhythms she heard her own thoughts coming back at her, the sound of promises bouncing off the inside of her head, mingling with and taming the music, the sound of words putting chaos in its place. She opened her eyes. The kaleidoscope was gone. Mulder lay on the bed before her, his eyes wide with astonishment. Her hand gripped his arm so hard her knuckles pushed white and sharp through the skin. His lips shaped the word "now" and her mouth rounded out the word in silent echo. In unison, they watched as she lifted the artifact and inserted it into the glyph-marked column behind his head.
The room exploded into light then washed completely black. The feel of Mulder's arm was the only thing that assured her she was still alive. From a tiny fleck a tornado of color spun closer and closer, enveloping them in a brilliant spiral, strobing their faces into blue tics and yellow blinks. The tornado spun out wider and wider, cutting through the walls, shattering them into a thousand crystal fragments, whirling out of control like a boomerang on speed, crystal drops of every hue hanging in the air before vaporizing in threads of silver that rose, paused and streaked out of sight. And then the scene began to spin and Scully felt herself flying through air so thick it clung to her body and trailed behind her as she twisted and rose, eyes open, yet blinded by a sensation that was neither light nor dark but absence. And then, all at once, she was on the ground, crumbling a clod of dirt in her tightly clenched fist. She panted, smelling the earth. The sky was now darkened with clouds, a handful of lonely stars twinkling in the east. "Mulder!" She jerked upright. "Mulder!" A groan sounded to her left and she crawled, her hand out, feeling for him. A cough replaced the groan and she rose to a crouch to hurry over. He was half-buried in the dirt. She brushed it away from his face and neck and took his pulse. Fast, but strong. She slapped her pockets for the things she had brought to help him, but everything had been ripped from her in the maelstrom below.
Mulder coughed again and propped himself on an elbow. "Scully." His whisper was low and harsh. "Where are we?"
"I don't know. In a field somewhere, but… the base. Oh, Mulder, I still can't…" She was unable to tell him of her failure and sat down beside him, denying herself the reward of touching him.
"Are you here, Scully? I can't hear you. I can't hear your thoughts. Where…" His voice rose, he turned to the side and reached out, seeking her.
"Here. Here I am. I just…you can't hear me when I think?" She paused, waiting for him to probe her mind.
"Nothing. It's so quiet. I can barely hear my own thoughts."
She tipped forward on her knees and stroked his arm, rubbing for warmth. "I don't see how... Could you hear me there?"
"The artifact, somehow, must have reversed… It's gone now, the music is gone, too."
"I don't see how it's possible. We'll test you when we get back."
"I saw things, Scully. I know how they do it. I saw Samantha there. And Cassandra. I saw how they had hooked her up to the machine. I tried to get them out, but the, the…" He lay back on the dirt, both hands on his head. "How did we get here, Scully? Where's Sam? Where are the others?"
"I don't know. There was no one else there. Just you."
"Then, what happened? They went back to their own real time?"
Scully looked off toward the horizon, but all was dark under the heavy clouds. A light breeze brushed against them, bringing the scent of rain. Far off to the right a pair of headlights flicked on.
"That makes as much sense as anything. We'll find out where we are in the morning. Just lie down and wait for dawn." She pushed his hair away from his forehead and he covered her hand with his own. No tests, she thought. Not this time. No test would answer the mystery. He was back and that was sufficient.
For an optional shippier end, click here. Mulder returns to his apartment.