Table of Contents
- Blood of Angels (1/18)
- Blood of Angels (2/18)
- Blood of Angels (3/18)
- Blood of Angels (4/18)
- Blood of Angels (5/18)
- Blood of Angels (6/18)
- Blood of Angels (7/18)
- Blood of Angels (8/18)
- Blood of Angels (9/18)
- Blood of Angels (10/18)
- Blood of Angels (11/18)
- Blood of Angels (12/18)
- Blood of Angels (13/18)
- Blood of Angels (14/18)
- Blood of Angels (15/18)
- Blood of Angels (16/18)
- Blood of Angels (17/18)
- Blood of Angels (18/18)
This R-rated story—which took me the entire summer to write—is meant as a paranoid fantasy of Carteresque proportions. Although it contains no overt spoilers, a bare-bones knowledge of the basic ‘mythology’ of the past three seasons would be rather helpful. I wouldn’t spend too much time worrying about the plot, though; just think of it as a very dense, very complicated, very black comedy. How black? Read the first three paragraphs and see.
Send all e-mail to , and, as always, enjoy.
August 20, 1996
Red neon light bled across the concrete. Scully lay splayed on the sidewalk, breath imperceptibly ragged, eyes darting behind closed lids. Kneeling, Mulder pulled a cigarette from the front pocket of his blazer, poked it tremblingly into Scully’s unconscious mouth and lit it with a flaring snap of thumb against flint. The shaft jutted loosely up from her lips, smoldering.
He checked his watch. Frowned. Watched, careful not to inhale, as a thin tendril of greenish-gray smoke curled up from Scully’s nose and was lost in the dense urban night. No tobacco there: oxyphenylcyrine. Burning, the chemical became a potent acetylcholine inhibitor, entering Scully’s lungs and, instantly, her brain, rendering her peripheral nervous system inactive—and killing her within seconds. With luck.
The characteristic reflex—a twitching of occipital muscles around the eye—told him it was over. His partner’s body stiffened against the pavement, her cigarette fluttering to the ground. Scully was dead.
If her soul passed by, he did not feel it.
Straightening up—the sweat pouring down his face, his flesh-toned makeup dripping—Mulder glanced quickly left and right. The street stretched emptily to either side, neon dangling down from overhanging rooftops in hellish frequency, scarlet light spread across the asphalt like strawberry jam. Had to be timed perfectly. Counting the seconds, staring down at Scully’s motionless form, he groped in his other pocket for the syringe, disguised as a ballpoint pen; finding it, he pressed the clip—heard the click of a spring—and saw the needle glisten in the darkness. Counted: eight…nine…ten seconds into death. Time.
Dropping to his knees, he rolled Scully over, her body limp and unresponsive. She was wearing a tight vinyl streetwalker’s dress, black, slit partway up the thigh, fishnet stockings crisscrossing the slimness of her legs. Her hair was pulled back tightly from her forehead, held at the nape of her neck by pink barrettes of vague sluttishness; shaking, Mulder’s fingers skittered over her shoulder blades, tore her tank top, exposed mid-back. He began counting vertebrae.
Seventeen seconds had passed. Mulder—temples thudding dully—found the proper juncture, placed the needle against Scully’s spine, waited for the twentieth second and rammed it in, depressing the hidden plunger as he did.
Scully’s arms flew to her throat. Pseudo-Thornburn position, a routine reflex. Indicative of nervous system function. Dropping the syringe, he took her cool wrist between his hands, feeling for a pulse. She had been dead for precisely twenty-five seconds. Her fists were clenched.
“C’mon, Scully,” he muttered. “Just a little bit more. You can make it.” Thirty seconds. Movement: Scully’s left leg scraped against the cold cement, her knee lifting, spike-heeled shoe slipping from foot and falling to the sidewalk. Mulder felt the whisper of blood in her veins. He riveted himself to that hint of life, seized it, focused on it, massaging the blue pump of her upper arms, murmuring, “It’s been long enough, Scully, you can come back, you can come back…” For a split second he allowed himself to consider what might happen if she failed to awaken, if her brain suffocated and she died like a hooker on this dirty New York street, all for the sake of a secret so monumental, so unimaginable, that he hardly credited its existence…
August 19, 1996—One day earlier
Call it force of habit: whenever unseen hands deposited an unmarked manila envelope in Fox Mulder’s office, he opened it. Today was no exception.
His eye kept returning to the 8×10 glossy of the murder scene. The second murder, not the first. It showed a woman slumped against a thin prison mattress, dead from asphyxiation, the fabric of her white blouse pulled up to reveal her abdomen, upon which had been printed—according to the handwritten caption—twenty-three English words. That is, he assumed they were English; the lines of text were blurred and indistinct in the photo. The scrawled annotation noted that each letter in each word was approximately one-fourth of an inch tall. Autopsy had indicated that the apparition was psychosomatic in origin: the woman’s brain had somehow caused the capillaries in her skin to break in such a pattern as to create recognizable, coherent English sentences on her abdominal wall. Unusual, but not impossible. Mulder knew of several well-authenticated cases of Christian penitents manifesting Bible verses on their chests or foreheads, usually in conjunction with stigmata; although obvious hoaxes abounded in the literature—faux-saints branding themselves with fire or dry ice, placing crude stencils over the skin and splashing them with acid—some could not be explained away so easily. This seemed to be a bona-fide case. But there was no indication as to what the words said.
In addition, this woman was no saint. A prostitute, she had been strangled to death while being held in a New York maximum security correctional facility on charges of first-degree murder. A prison guard found her lying dead in her cot, a shoelace—not hers—wrapped thrice around her neck. The body was still warm. No possible suspects had been found.
There were further complications. First of all, the woman, Abby Janneson, was accused of murdering a man whose name Mulder recognized: Josef Kaun, forty-three-year-old theoretical physicist, veteran consultant to the Pentagon—and notorious sexual hedonist. According to the police report, Kaun had been staying in Manhattan on undisclosed official business when he propositioned the streetwalker for sex. Minutes later, he was shot in the head by an unknown assailant, possibly the hooker, possibly someone else. Police found Janneson hiding in an alley two blocks from the murder scene, face and hair spattered with Kaun’s blood and brains, clutching his thick eelskin wallet in one shaking hand, huddled behind a row of garbage cans. She proclaimed her innocence; they charged her anyway. Three days later, someone strangled her.
Secondly, Abby Janneson was a dead ringer for Dana Scully.
Each autopsy photo only strengthened the impression. He marveled at the resemblance. The dead prostitute’s features were a little harder-edged, perhaps, and her nose was more blunt, lips thinner—but there was no denying the similarity.
Mulder was tempted to call Scully. Sitting here alone in the melancholy darkness of the office, the glowing hands of his watch softly reading 9:28, it was all too easy to imagine that these photographs showed his partner on a mortuary slab, red hair tinged with formaldehyde: Dana Scully, recently dead. He reached for the phone. Stopped, his hand in midair. Reached for the receiver again. Paused. Vacillated. He argued with himself, taking the stance of common sense: he knew that Scully was in South Carolina over the weekend, visiting her brother Charles, and no one would be home. He could try her cell phone, but—well, Christ, it was a moot point. The woman in the pictures was not Scully. Best to not even pretend otherwise.
But, dammit, it looked just like her.
Perhaps it was a message from the future, a tangible premonition slipped across time. This woman, Abby Janneson: who could say that she was not Dana Scully? A wraith. A double. A doppelganger that foretold—
Stop. These were crazy thoughts. Night thoughts. Mulder, stiff-necked and sore, realized for the first time how late it was. Why, he asked himself, did he stay so long in the office when Scully was away? It was a habit, a grim habit; years ago, in the bleakest time during Scully’s abduction, he had eaten, slept and worked in this office for days on end, driven by salt and caffeine and loneliness…. Did the memory of those days still linger? Written here in these walls?
Rubbing his eyes, Mulder flipped the casefile closed—and remembered his appointment at the cathedral. Tucking the folder beneath his arm, he grabbed his jacket and stepped into the slicing hallways of FBI Headquarters’s lowermost level, his shoes clicking in the darkness. These basement halls were tightly wound labyrinths, less than four feet wide in some places, turning in on themselves like the coils of a rectangular serpent. It was, Mulder mused for the thousandth time, similar to the third floor of the Holocaust Museum: narrowing walls symbolize the narrowing choices of the Final Solution—or of the vise of government incest—until the walls squeeze in so tightly that they might be a clenched fist. Or a tomb.
Night. A dueling network of shadows played across the Gothic facade of Washington National Cathedral, intricate razors of night, shattered black glass, lacerated buttresses knifing across the stone; stepping into the cool marble dimness, directly across from the wooden narthex, Mulder felt like an alien in unfamiliar territory. Indeed, the cathedral seemed like a mausoleum to a universe where humanity was only an afterthought. The pews were sticks of kindling strewn among the grandeur.
The 8:40 weekday compline had drawn to a close long before, but stray parishioners still filed out of the great double doors, passing Mulder without meeting his gaze, hands in their pockets, not speaking. Organ music undulated from the altar in palpable waves. He felt pressure on his skin.
Mulder moved forward into the church, passing through great shadows that split the floor like tongues of ebony. He felt a presence behind him. Turned. Saw the familiar face, draped in secrecy, the voice beckoning him to follow. He did. The pair walked silently until they stood beneath the great blue-and-purple stained glass window on the right-hand side of the cathedral, circular, depicting the wonders of the Space Age in lead, copper foil, lapis lazuli, sapphire.
X spoke first. “You received the casefile.” It was not a question, merely a declaration.
“Yes,” Mulder said, indicating the folder in his right hand. He looked into the depths of X’s shrouded face—cruelty balanced by intelligence, eyes glinting like obsidian—and decided not to ask any questions yet.
The pair moved further into the cathedral umbra, darkness stifling the stone beneath the windows; their footfalls were crisp, knifing, on the thin parquet. Said X, “I’ll come right to the point. Agent Scully is in danger. Perhaps you can infer why.”
Mulder remained silent. They came to a small door, lying nearly flush with the altar canopy, bordered with marble and an unlit EXIT sign. Locked. X produced a key and opened it, revealing a trim garden path and the cool night beyond.
Stepping outside, not waiting for Mulder to follow, X said, “Let me ask you a question: why do you think the FBI continues to fund the X-Files?” The door clicked shut behind them. They strode along the path at a brisk pace, X glancing to either side with quick birdlike movements. He said, “You’ve experienced extreme official prejudice. You’ve been stifled, denied, discredited. There have been attempts at termination. Abduction. Extortion. And yet—”
“—we continue to be given new assignments,” Mulder finished. “New casefiles.”
X nodded. “The Bureau pays for your transportation, allows you to use official research facilities, provides you with the means and resources to fully investigate the cases to which you are assigned—only to categorically deny your work when all is finished. Why? What do they have to gain?”
“You tell me,” said Mulder.
The pavement gave way to cobblestones, then dirt. This was one of many gardens on the cathedral’s vast acreage; to one side lay a broad configuration of hedges that had recently been trimmed into a chi-rho shape, the ground littered with leaves and coniferous debris. A crystalline gazebo loomed in the distance. X said, “Knowledge is power. Do you think that you and Agent Scully are the only individuals in the United States government paid to research paranormal phenomena? Hardly. Every government organization of any size has its own division of the X-Files. FBI. CIA. NSA. Not just intelligence, either: NASA, for example, has used certain unorthodox discoveries to good effect—”
“—and the Secret Service used psychics to apprehend the six trainees at Quantico who tried to kill Clinton in 1995.”
Mulder stopped. “I never heard about that.”
“Of course you didn’t. It’s just business as usual. Nowadays, the government uses so-called ‘paranormal’ methods—clairvoyance, psychokinesis, telepathy—side by side with more conventional intelligence-gathering techniques. They don’t give a fuck about why it works, so long as it does.”
“It’s all competition, isn’t it?”
“Exactly. Every organization for itself. Ever since our current subdivided intelligence community emerged during the Cold War, we’ve been racing to keep up with each other in various fields. A few decades ago, mind control was the hot item; now it’s alien technology. In a few years it’ll be lycanthropy, or time travel. But it’s all the same, Agent Mulder. It’s all knowledge. Knowledge is currency.”
They reached the gazebo. Unlit, with wooden benches enclosing a hexagonal inner deck. X sat across from Mulder, facing the cathedral, settling himself in the darkest corner. He continued, “We don’t care whether a piece of information is orthodox or heterodox, so long as it confers an advantage. Fealty to the Bureau comes first. We send you to investigate these cases because if we don’t, someone else will—and reap whatever rewards are to be found.”
The casefile weighed heavily in Mulder’s hands. Sitting, he dangled the folder between his knees, looking down at the wooden floor of the belvedere. “So what does this have to do with Agent Scully?” he asked, speaking to the boards.
“I’m getting there,” said X. He paused. To Mulder, looking across at him through the chill night air, it seemed that X hesitated, searching for the right words; simultaneously, though, he seemed impatient with himself, weary of reciting Bureau history but aware that certain things needed to be said. “Think back to November 1963. After Kennedy’s assassination, the government scrambled to find answers—because even if Dallas was the result of a coup d’etat, Agent Mulder, the very organizations in question—FBI, CIA, Secret Service, Treasury Department, the entire military-industrial complex, even the Mafia—didn’t know exactly what had happened. They didn’t know whether their hands were bloody, or whether they had pulled the trigger. Understand? There were cabals within cabals, conspiracies whose members weren’t even aware of their own involvement. There were other factors as well. Unknowns. It was a big fucking mess in Washington.”
“What does that have to do with this?” Mulder asked, raising the casefile. As he did, a photograph slipped from the folder, falling to the ground, face-up; the black-and-white image of Abby Janneson’s stomach, swaddled by a white blouse, was half-visible in the dimness. Mulder reached down to pick up the photo, but X swept it up first, leaning forward and taking the picture from the floor. He glanced at it cursorily, then tossed it back to Mulder.
“Have you ever heard of Operation Palimpsest?” he asked.
Something about the name made the hairs prickle on the back of Mulder’s neck. “No, I haven’t,” he said, slipping the photo back into the file.
“Operation Palimpsest was a loose consortium of specially trained agents from a number of intelligence agencies, including FBI and CIA; it was one of many operations formed during that time. Understand, Agent Mulder, that the Warren Commission was just a distraction, something to satiate the masses. In reality, no fewer than twenty-seven separate commissions were initiated to investigate the assassination, and many of them achieved far better results—using much less orthodox means—than the Warren Commission ever did.”
“Including paranormal methods.”
Clearing his throat, X looked past Mulder. Beyond the gazebo, the rear of the cathedral towered high above the gardens, stone surface nearly black, gargoyles etched across the ebony, contorted, scratching at the sky. Mulder’s watch beeped; it was exactly ten o’ clock. “Tell me what you know about the so-called ‘mysterious deaths’ of JFK witnesses,” X said finally.
Shrugging, Mulder replied, “Conspiracy theorists have suggested that certain individuals who knew too much about the Kennedy assassination were silenced by a federal murder squad. Supposedly more than one hundred such people have met such mysterious deaths—more than chance would allow.”
“Do you believe that?”
“I’m not sure. Even if the deaths aren’t coincidental—and they might well be, given the vast numbers of people with circumstantial connections to the assassination—the pattern of killings doesn’t make sense. You’d expect key witnesses and conspiracy theorists to be first on the list, but almost all of them are still alive; most of those who died had very tenuous connections to Kennedy or Oswald. I’m tempted to write it off as someone’s imagination.”
“Well, you’re right. Mostly. Most of the people invoked by the theorists died of natural or unrelated causes.” X stood, crossing to the steps of the gazebo, and paused beneath the overhang. He extended one large dark hand and placed it against the wood, head down. “On the other hand,” he said, almost conversationally, “nineteen individuals connected to the Kennedy assassination were indeed killed as part of Operation Palimpsest.” He fixed Mulder with steely gaze. “The conspiracy buffs tell you that these people were murdered. What they don’t tell you is that more than half them manifested words like that“—he pointed to the folder in Mulder’s hands, indicating the photo of Janneson’s belly—“somewhere on their bodies. Words that appeared, psychosomatically, following their deaths.”
“What? But why?”
“It was an obvious stratagem,” X said, almost ruefully. “The two major participants in what took place on November 22, 1963—the President and his assassin—had both been killed. And around this time, certain parties were beginning to weigh the political advantages of being able to communicate with the dead.”
Mulder almost dropped the casefile. “You’re kidding.”
“I never kid, Agent Mulder. Operation Palimpsest was an attempt to communicate with Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald from beyond the grave. The attempt did not succeed, not entirely. So far as I know, neither of the principals were ever contacted.” X’s voice was haggard. “But others were.”
“Others.” Mulder’s mind recoiled from the implications. “Others—in the afterlife?”
X nodded. “Back then, they didn’t understand what they were doing. No more than we understand it now. It took much trial-and-error research before they arrived at a method that yielded workable results. The method involved murder: to contact the dead, another death had to take place—the death of someone close to the intended contactee.”
“A next of kin, perhaps. Or a good friend. Or simply a bystander who happened to be near the person when they died. What happened was this: Palimpsest operatives killed their target in a strictly clinical manner, using an acetylcholine inhibitor that shut down the peripheral nervous system. Twenty to twenty-five seconds after death, a psychosomatic manifestation would appear on the victim’s epidermis. Usually it was a meaningless bruise pattern. Occasionally words or pictures or symbols would develop. These apparitions were then subjected to analytical tests—stylometry, psycholinguistics, even graphology—to determine their source.”
Moving idly to the other side of the gazebo, X continued, “Although none of the individuals killed by Operation Palimpsest developed a spiritualistic connection with Kennedy or Oswald, some of them did appear to receive messages from their own dearly departed. A deceased uncle. A spouse recently dead from cancer. Even, in the case of one unlucky individual, a friend that he had killed and dismembered three years previously—the message left on his stomach told where the body was buried. It was like playing roulette. You never knew what was going to come up.”
“This is incredible,” Mulder said, his head pounding with possibilities. “And you’re positive that these are messages from the…the other side?”
“Tests supported their veracity. That’s all anyone can say.” X was silent for a moment, then resumed speaking at a clipped pace. “As you can imagine, this technique proved highly useful in years to come. Over the years, Palimpsest perfected its methodology, so that now, seven times out of ten, it is able to contact the desired dead. This means that the organization—existing independently of any other government bureau—wields tremendous autonomous power. Understand, Agent Mulder, that this ability is utilized countless times each year by the highest echelons of government. Consider it: the ability to speak with deceased personages of power, dead Presidents on downward. Messages from the next world, written in flesh. The political advantage is unimaginable.”
“So Abby Janneson was killed by Palimpsest operatives in an attempt to contact—”
“—Josef Kaun, the Pentagon physicist whom she allegedly murdered,” X confirmed. “She wasn’t strangled; the ligature marks were made to hide the puncture wound at the base of the neck. Kaun knew secrets, you see. Contact with him would have been highly profitable.”
X paused, checking his watch. “So this brings us to the matter at hand: Agent Scully. You’ve noticed the unusual resemblance between her and the Janneson whore. I’m not going to bullshit you any longer: if you don’t act soon, Agent Scully will be slain by Palimpsest agents for various reasons—and I don’t want that to happen.”
X’s eyes glowed in the dark. “I want you to kill her for me.”
10:30 PM—Craneo, South Carolina
They had been sipping lemonade on the balcony, gazing at the stars and talking of silly things, when Dana turned to Charles and said, “Excuse me, brother dear, but there appears to be a midget to see you.”
“Eh?” Charles asked.
She pointed down. A naked fluorescent bulb was set above Charles Scully’s front door, casting an opalescent circle of light onto the porch. In the midst of that circle stood a very small man. Although it was difficult to tell from this angle, he appeared to be about four feet tall, and was spectacularly dressed. A large white derby, spangled with silver sequins, sat on his head at a jaunty angle. A sky-blue cravat was tied beneath his chin. The remainder of his clothes were lime-green, including his overcoat, trousers, vest, dress shirt, and suspenders, all stretched over a surprisingly burly frame; his shoes were shined, slacks neatly pressed. In front of him—reaching nearly to his chin—sat a large cardboard carton sealed with strapping tape, rim lined with holes the size of silver dollars.
“Eh, excuse me, sir?” Charles shouted down. “May I help you?”
The little man tilted his head back. Dana saw that the word (name, perhaps?) “CUSO” was sewn onto the front of his derby in bold scarlet thread, raveling at one corner—a homemade job. Those sequins were quite blinding. Placing a hand on the hat to keep it from falling off, he called up to Charles: “Might you be Dana Scully?”
“No, that’s me.” Dana raised her hand, not quite processing the incongruity of the situation.
“Ah! So it’s a woman’s name!” Digging into his pockets, the little man produced a much-folded piece of yellow paper, which he smoothed out and consulted briefly. “Ah yes. Right. Dana Scully. Should have recognized the face, silly me…” He straightened up, cleared his throat. “I have a package for you.”
This was beyond strangeness. “A package?” Dana felt a surge of old instinctive mistrust in her veins.
Smiling, the small man said, “When you say ‘package’ you’re obviously thinking ‘bomb.’ But it isn’t! Trust me!”
“What’s in the box, then?”
“An albino kangaroo. And sixteen tubes of sunscreen. So long!” The small man quickly spun on his heels and waddled off into the darkness—quite literally waddled. Dana, doctor that she was, quickly diagnosed achondroplastia, a genetic type of dwarfism characterized by lumbar irregularity and orthopedic problems.
Not that this explained much. “Wait!” Dana cried as the two Scullys turned and tumbled through the sliding glass door of the balcony into Charles’s second-story living room—rushing to the staircase—Dana rapidly trying to remember if she’d learned anything at Quantico about handling mysterious packages… They took the stairs two at a time, reached the front door, flung it open. The package still sat on the porch. Dana ignored it for now, sidestepping the box and running into the street, glancing left and right for any indication of where the dwarf had gone. Nothing. The street was empty, or so it seemed; the small man could be hiding anywhere, though, in any patch of shadow large enough to conceal a small child or even a cat…
She realized that she was still holding her glass of lemonade. Taking an absent sip, she jogged a short way down the block, kneeling to peer beneath parked cars, behind garbage cans, searching for some sign of the dwarf’s passing—a scattering of sequins, lime-colored thread hanging from a scrabbling claw of tree branch—but finding nothing. It was pointless to continue the pursuit further; the Craneo streets became a twisted maze beyond this point, curving sinusoidal between hillsides and housing developments, offering any number of routes for escape. The dwarf had vanished.
Damn. In this moonlight, it was impossible to see anything: the light was almost autumnal, ripe and red, rendering the details of the street virtually anonymous. Things blurred. Asphalt was the color of old marmalade, blank newspapers blown through gutters by the breeze. It could have been any street. In any city.
Suddenly the scent of black tar was overpowering.
For a split second, Dana forgot about the dwarf. Forgot about the package. Forgot where she was. She felt herself shift sideways like a section of film cut from one reel and spliced into another, the scene before her dimming, wavering. Her head pounded; she blinked uneasily. Knees wobbled. Standing among suburban hedges and parked cars, she felt herself overtaken by sudden, uneasy vertigo, mouth filling with the taste of lemons—
—and she saw the future. Behind the facade of this street lurked an infinity of possible streets, or perhaps just one, a street on which she
(might lay splayed on the sidewalk, breath imperceptibly ragged, eyes darting behind closed lids, arching against the pavement, occipital muscles fluttered, twitched—cigarette—wearing a tight vinyl streetwalker’s dress, black, slit partway up the thigh, fishnet stockings crisscrossing the slimness of her legs, she gasped, cold like stone, and she)
shook her head. Shivered. The moment passed. The street coalesced back into the mundane.
“Just a fugue,” she muttered, a trifle shakily. It was nothing. The chase had left her tired, cold, dizzy. She’d suffered a nervous reaction, a psychological cold pocket. Meaningless. After a minute, she forgot about the pseudo-premonition, drained her glass, and turned back to the house.
The porch. Seeing Charles crouching alongside the mysterious box, she was curiously reminded—or perhaps forced herself to think—of how much her brother had changed since she had last seen him. He’d turned thirty only two weeks ago, but his hair was already thinning at the back, lines of pink scalp visible through the reddish strands; he was also veering dangerously close to pudgy, elbows and clavicles padded with soft good-natured flesh. She thought he looked nice this way.
Now, though, he poked his plump fingers through the holes in the carton—and withdrew them almost instantaneously. When he looked up, his face was pale. “There’s something alive inside.”
Dana steeled herself, still uneasy. “Well, we can’t leave it here forever.” She dropped to her knees beside him, digging into her pockets for her Swiss army knife. Unfolded a small blade. Hesitated. The apertures punched in the cardboard exuded an odor that she couldn’t quite identify, somewhere between fresh straw and dry pellets; she could hear no sounds, no breathing, and there was nothing about the box’s design that hinted at a violent purpose. The carton’s edges were not reinforced, simply taped. She pushed the box slightly across the concrete, estimated that whatever was inside did not weigh much more than a small dog.
Nothing they couldn’t handle. They slit the tape. Lifted the cardboard flaps. Saw what lay inside.
Their jaws dropped.
An albino kangaroo poked its head out from the carton, blinking its pink eyes confusedly in the light. Snout quivered. It was young, just a joey; its pelt was damp and whiter than snow, hair wiry and straight along the flanks but curling and soft at the belly. Nose and ears were strawberry-pink and lightly furred. It had long lashes, heavy lids opening and closing with almost human sleepiness, as it bobbed its head and peered at the two Scullys with marsupial trepidation.
“Holy mother of God,” Charles said in awe. “Dana, explain this one.”
She couldn’t reply. The kangaroo climbed further out of the box, extending one slender forepaw in their direction. Dana saw a layer of chopped hay packed tightly along the bottom of the carton, some of it dusting the kangaroo’s hindquarters. Nestled in among the fodder, true to word, were many tubes of sunscreen, still wrapped in plastic. SPF 50.
The kangaroo stretched. Opened its mouth, licked incisors and lips. Perked up a pair of long rabbity ears.
And it leapt out of the carton. The movement was sudden, startling: an uncoiling spring, a scattering of hay, the box falling over on the porch—and the kangaroo bounded through Charles Scully’s open front door. Large hind feet thumped on the rug as it landed. It held itself perfectly parallel to the ground as it jumped once, twice, into the foyer, onto the living room couch, upsetting an end table, sending a lamp and lampshade crashing to the carpet with a swish of heavy tail. The lamp shattered, bulb breaking, and the room was plunged into near-darkness.
Charles shouted incoherently and scrambled after it. The joey paused for the briefest of moments in the center of the room, tensely down on all fours—and then they heard it hop from the floor to the love seat, cushion springs squeaking. From the love seat, it leapt—a white blur—to the coffee table. From the coffee table, back to the foyer. There was a muffled thud as its tail hit the linoleum.
But wait: somewhere along the way, the joey had picked up something in its mouth. Something small and black and expensive-looking.
“Oh God, my phone!” cried Dana. She made a leap for the kangaroo’s mouth—then cursed when she heard plastic crunch.
Mulder’s mind whirled. No, fuck that: it spun like a frictionless top, dizzy and charged with kinetic motion, tip digging down like a stiletto, gyroscoping and ready to topple. He sat, numbed, in the innermost heart of the cathedral. A fallen speck of the Eucharist lay at his feet—although perhaps it was just dust. X sat next to him, highly animated, talking more than Mulder had ever heard him talk before, as if any fear of discovery had been wiped away by this odd, reptilian excitement.
This building was full of secret passages. X had led him to a door half-hidden by kudzu vines, set into the ground a hundred yards from the cathedral, that swung open on silent hinges when unlocked. Stepping within with only a moment’s hesitation, Mulder found himself in a dry, cool, rather musty-smelling catacomb, apparently recent in origin, with luminescent arrows painted on the brick flooring. He was not surprised: Washington D.C. abounded in such cthlonian secrets. Tunnels ran between the White House and the Treasury Annex. A hidden monorail connected the Capitol to outlying buildings. An underground world, a secret world: a side of the capital that tourists never saw.
Moving along the passageway, stooped, Mulder and X came to a trapdoor caked with light mildew. Mulder opened it and, astonished, found himself within the elaborately carved wooden sanctuary behind the altar, standing uneasily among delicate webbings of oak, pine, sandalwood, carved Christs, unvarnished Madonnas, dead scrollwork leaves.
Behind the largest crucifix was a kind of raised stump, a wooden pillar extending to knee-height. It was, evidently, a chair. Settling himself into the makeshift seat, Mulder realized that although his vantage point offered a nearly complete view of the now-empty church, the arrangement of icons around the stump hid him from anyone looking into the sanctuary. Sit, and he was concealed to the point of near-invisibility. Stand, and the illusion was broken.
X spoke. “I brought you here for a very specific reason. There are a handful of places in Washington where American history has repeatedly hung in the balance—and no one knows it except a select few. The soundproof conference gallery beneath the Capitol dome, for example; or the pay phone in Union Station with a direct link to Strategic Air Command. This is another. You wouldn’t be able to imagine the secret meetings that have taken place at this very spot. Three weeks ago, I conferred here with Dr. Josef Kaun while Mass was performed less than ten feet away.”
Mulder said, “Wait, listen. I still don’t understand why Scully is in danger. She never knew Kaun; she only looks like the hooker who was with him when he died.”
“Sometimes, Agent Mulder, that is enough.” X absently placed his hand on the head of a wooden lamb that lay curled by his feet. The lines of fleece were carefully shaved into the wood, large blank eyes staring up at the beneficent Christ that loomed behind them, right arm raised, conferring a blessing upon the empty hall. “Understand, Agent Mulder, I’m only talking to you in such detail and at such length because I have to. Usually, I’m content to give you a small amount of information to start with—”
“If that,” Mulder said.
“—and let you work from there, but now, that won’t suffice. There’s a time conflict, of course, but the more pressing problem is that Operation Palimpsest never existed. Not officially. It isn’t like trying to track down information on the Kennedy assassination or abductions or even Roswell: those are events that affected scores of individuals, any number of witnesses, leaving trace evidence in our government’s coffers that anyone can find. The Palimpsest consortium, on the other hand, consists of perhaps a dozen hardened intelligence officers, many in their sixties and seventies, who deal with the same people again and again. They keep to themselves. It’s tight. Incestuous. Your usual channels of information are useless now.”
“All right,” said Mulder, “all right, I understand. But please: tell me why Scully is a target.”
“All right,” X echoed darkly. “Listen carefully. No one knows how Palimpsest’s methods work, least of all the operatives themselves. They have no time for philosophy or pure research: they need results. For this reason, the scientific rationale—if there is one—behind this apparent transfer of information between the dead and the living is completely unknown. The advancements they have made over the years are the result of blind experimentation.”
“On human beings.” Mulder shifted forward in his seat. The shadow of the crucifix fell across his face.
“Yes,” X conceded. “But Palimpsest’s work led to several important advances over the past three decades. The first came in 1969, in the wake of internal troubles that threatened to destroy the operation.”
“Troubles? Such as?”
“There are obvious practical difficulties to their standard procedure. It requires, first of all, that a close relation to the deceased—whether through blood, friendship or circumstance—be killed off. Repeated contacts are often necessary. After a while, as was the case with the initial JFK attempts, people are going to notice a pattern to these deaths.”
“Which is the last thing Palimpsest wants.”
“Precisely. It also presents certain other problems: for example, it is nearly impossible to kill a relative or close friend of a deceased President without attracting attention. As they learned with Kennedy, you can’t just use a casual link. You can’t use a bystander or a face in the crowd; you need someone whom Kennedy knew personally, someone whom he would recognize.” X clasped his hands around the wooden lamb’s neck, leaning forward, flexing tired arms. “A spiritualistic connection is a two-way street: not only must the victim be attracted to the spirit, but the spirit must be attracted to the victim.”
Mulder understood. “The murders are bait. Luring these dead souls out into the open.”
“Right. A friend is bait; a relative is bait. In Kaun’s case, even Abby Janneson was bait. They were alone together when he died; she was the last thing he ever saw.” Leaning back in his sanctuary seat, X’s broad shoulders brushed the legs of the oaken Christ figure that towered behind him; sensing a backrest, he reclined more firmly against those legs, tilting his head so that it rested on the Savior’s handcarved abdomen. “Anyway,” he said, looking up at the Gothic ceiling, “Palimpsest eventually realized that whenever you have bait, you also have a potential bait and switch.”
“What do you mean?”
“Figure it out for yourself. Think: what are the usual characteristics of a ghost?”
Sitting here among the spectral Mysteries of the Incarnation, Mulder had little trouble coming up with a few: “Well, according to modern spiritualist beliefs, ghosts are psychic shadows or entities, usually formed by some violent loss of human life. Their physical nature is still debated: a Kirlian fingerprint, perhaps, an aura somehow burnt onto the astral field; or perhaps they are the product of a skin-level electromagnetic fluctuation interacting with atmospheric phosphors; or perhaps ectoplasm…”
“Nice textbook recitation—did you learn that in catechism?”
“Fine. But what do ghosts usually look like?”
“Ghostly, I guess. Shadowy, insubstantial. They often wear the clothes they wore when they died, and some of them are still bleeding from mortal wounds inflicted years before…”
“Exactly,” said X, silencing Mulder with an raised finger. “Exactly. That’s the crux: ghosts retain their physical appearance at the time of death. Same clothing, same eyeglasses, canes, shoes, hats, rings—same fucking hairstyle. Doesn’t that strike you as odd? Christian dogma”—he gestured at the mute icons that sat around them like oversized chess pieces—“talks about the immortality of the soul, the trappings of the body shed like a chrysalis, and yet it seems that your scars and fat and leisure suits are given equal weight in the hereafter, preserved for eternity: ugliness or beauty, deformity or transcendence—either way, your face is scorched onto the astral plane. If you are ugly, you remain so until Armageddon.”
“Well,” Mulder said, “it does seem strange.”
“But not to Palimpsest operatives. To them, it only began a long chain of associations. If the spirit body is due to some kind of discharge—ectoplasmic, aural, whatever the fuck you want—at the time of death, then it can be thought of as a kind of radiation. A ghost is an image produced by this energy.”
“Like an X-ray.”
“And how do X-rays work? Different radioactive particles penetrate materials to different degrees. Visible light is stopped by skin; X-rays penetrate skin and flesh but are stopped by bone; beta particles pass completely through the body. The nature of an image depends upon the level of penetration.”
“So…something similar happens during a murder. A violent death produces this hypothetical radiation, passing through some things, like cloth; blocked by others, like hair and skin…”
“…and the result is a shadowy image,” X said. “A photograph, an apparition. With the passing of the soul, a doppelganger is formed.”
With slow dread, Mulder began to see the significance of Scully’s resemblance. “Go on,” he said.
X began to speak more quickly, as if conscious of the passage of time. “Palimpsest realized that a victim’s appearance was vitally important. Perhaps spirits in the afterlife recognize each other in the same manner as the living do: visually, based upon the face, the movements, the clothing. If you passed Abby Janneson on the street, wouldn’t you think she was Agent Scully?”
Mulder admitted that he would.
“Agent Mulder, the reason that fly fishermen don’t use live bait is because it isn’t necessary: an artificial colored lure that looks like the real thing works just as well. Similarly, if you want to attract a dead President just long enough to obtain a message, it doesn’t matter whether your victim is his brother or cousin or best friend, so long the look is convincing.” X turned to Mulder, his gaze mild. “The dead can’t tell the difference, no more than you could casually distinguish between your partner and this whore.”
“This simplified things enormously. No longer was it necessary to kill someone close to Lee Harvey Oswald to trigger a response from his soul: now Palimpsest could simply find a random derelict with a passing resemblance to Marina Oswald, drug her, perform roughshod plastic surgery on her face, cut her hair in a Russian upsweep, dress her in appropriate clothes, drag her to Dallas and kill her then and there. And it worked. God help us, it worked.”
“Usually they search the DMV photo archive,” X went on. “Their face-recognition software is very sophisticated; they have an algorithm for everything from color of hair to ratio between lip and eye width. They find someone with the desired looks, track them down, fake a disappearance or a kidnapping, then kill them in their ritualistic fashion. Very high success rate. It’s a lucrative game.”
“And Scully is their next target,” Mulder finished.
“Yes. Janneson yielded a connection to Kaun, but only briefly; they received some psychosomatic text, but not nearly enough. Agent Scully is the next logical victim, because of her resemblance, of course—but also because the DMV search is costly, can take days, and isn’t necessary in Scully’s case. Do you understand why?”
Mulder did. “They know her already,” he said. He leaned forward, placed his hands on his face, ran his fingers through his hair, staring at the floor of the sanctuary with slowly gathering horror. “They know her.”
“Correct. They got lucky. The two of you are infamous at certain levels of government. They know her face, they know where she lives, and they know that using her to contact Kaun—”
“—will kill two birds with one stone.” Reaching inside his coat, Mulder fumbled out his cell phone, flipped it open, dialed Scully’s number: there was a monotonous beeping, no ring. Either her phone was turned off or out of batteries or damaged. Christ. He began a feverish search of his pockets—Scully had given him a slip of paper with her brother’s home number written on it—he’d pocketed it, he was sure he had, and it was here somewhere… “Dammit,” he said under his breath. He’d waited too long, should have called her as soon as he saw the picture of Janneson…
X continued, oblivious to Mulder’s agitation. “Warn her. Fine. But it won’t end there. They’ll keep looking for her—and for you—and eventually they shall succeed, and kill you both. Unless.” He didn’t trail off, simply stopped in midthought.
Mulder glanced up quickly. “Unless what?” His fingers found the paper with the number, unfolded it. He dialed tremblingly, bringing the phone up to his ear with spastic quickness.
“Unless you do exactly what I tell you. There is a great deal at stake, much more than one woman’s life. When I spoke to Josef Kaun three weeks ago, sitting at this very spot, I made an attempt to buy the information he possessed, but he spurned me, rightly: what he knew went beyond any attempts at bribery or coercion. It is a secret that I would pay dearly for. I would kill Agent Scully for it, if I had to—but I don’t,” he said. “Not if you follow my directions to the letter.”
The phone rang. Once. Twice. “What was Josef Kaun researching?” Mulder asked, heart thumping.
“You couldn’t imagine,” X said levelly. “This is the most important Palimpsest operation in more than a decade—and they will not accept failure. Neither should you.”
The fifth ring. Mulder waited, his fear increasing with every second that the phone remained unanswered. X regarded him with apparent coolness, but his gaze cut like carborundum: Mulder knew that X wanted Scully alive for his own reasons, wanted her as bait, a worm on his spinning hook, impaled between shaft and barb… Beset on all sides by cruciform wood and unfeeling Virgins, Mulder closed his eyes. Hoped. Seventh ring. Tenth ring. Twelfth ring.
On the sixteenth ring, someone answered. “Hello?”
Mulder heard crashing in the background, oaths, collisions. “Scully? Are you all right? What’s happening there?”
There was a brief pause. “Guess,” she said.
After a few moments of harried searching, Dana found one of Queequeg’s old leashes beneath the front seat of her car. Although the collar was small, it would fit snugly around the kangaroo’s swan-like neck, a slim leather strap buckled to the nape; the only difficulty would be in getting the joey to wear it.
She slammed the car door and jogged back up Charles’s driveway, leash in hand. Reaching the still-open front door, she winced. Although the living room was unlit, enough moonlight seeped within to illuminate a scene of utter chaos: tables overturned, cushions leaking feathers, small bits of porcelain peppering the carpet, a dot-dot-dash of faint muddy footprints along the rug. Bending down, she picked the cardboard carton up from the porch, tucking it beneath her arm, straw and tubes of sunscreen rolling around within.
The sunscreen served an obvious purpose. All albinos, human and animal alike, are extremely susceptible to sunburn; the most sensitive organisms sustain severe blistering after a few minutes of exposure to UV rays. Albino kangaroos are especially at risk. Although they instinctively seek shade when confronted with direct sunlight, they’re accustomed to the climate of the sunny Australian outback and don’t know that overcast skies—which do not block the more dangerous radiation—also pose a hazard. In the cloudy region of the Carolina coast, this is a definite cause for concern. The kangaroo would need to be smeared with the SPF 50 lotion whenever it ventured into daylight. Assuming that they kept it that long.
Setting the box down on the living room floor, Dana took the one unwrapped tube, uncapped it and squeezed a small amount onto the palm of her hand. She frowned. It wasn’t sunscreen. A semitransparent ointment, it had a jelly-like consistency and smelled strongly of ammonia. She wiped her hand on her jeans and slipped a second tube out of the plastic wrapper. Squeezed it. The familiar white lotion oozed out. Odor of bananas. Apparently the first tube was the only strange one.
A sudden noise from the kitchen distracted her. Taking the leash and tubes, she found Charles crouching by the stove, a rolling pin in one hand, several slices of Wonder Bread in the other. The kangaroo perched on the counter across from him, sitting above the sink. It regarded her brother with a mixture of curiosity and amusement, head cocked to one side, pink eyes wide and innocent.
“Little bastard,” muttered Charles. He turned, noticed his sister, tossed a slice of bread in her direction. It landed at her feet. “Use this for bait.”
“Wait a minute.” She moved to where the phone sat on the floor, receiver lolling off the hook. Picking up the handset, she said, “Mulder? Are you still there?”
His voice was fuzzy and confused. “Yeah. Uh, Scully, getting back to what you said before: your brother has a what in his house?”
“An albino kangaroo. Hold on a second.”
“An albino—” She put the phone down, not hearing the rest. Five hundred miles away, still sitting in the cathedral sanctuary, Mulder placed his hand over the mouthpiece, turned to X and said, “I don’t think either of us expected her to say that.”
Back to the joey. Dropping the sunscreen tubes, she picked up the Wonder Bread and held it temptingly at arm’s length, leash hidden behind her back. Charles reached surreptitiously in her direction, took the leash, and began to work his way around the periphery of the kitchen, crabstepping across the linoleum with the collar unbuckled in his hands, rolling pin beneath his arm. The kangaroo shifted its gaze back and forth between the two of them, leaning slightly forward on the counter so that its forepaws touched the spigot of the sink, arching its back and resting its front legs on the faucet like a gymnast on a balance beam. It slipped slightly on its perch—and brushed the cold water tap. A thin stream of water trickled down, filling the sink. Another distraction. It nuzzled down, extending a pink tongue to taste the liquid.
Charles chose this moment to strike. Darting forward, he took the frontal assault, letting the pin fall rolling to the floor, dropping the bread, going blindly with the collar for the joey’s neck.
Neither of them quite saw what happened next. With a flick of its tail, the kangaroo somehow jumped sideways across the kitchen and landed on the range of the stove, sending salt and pepper shakers skidding. Charles ran bodily into the sink, bumping his head on the cupboard above; Dana made a lunge for the joey, slipped on a pepper shaker, managed to regain her balance but then stepped solidly on the rolling pin, slipping again and falling beside the telephone. The kangaroo stayed where it was.
She took the receiver, aiming for nonchalance. “So, Mulder, what’s the occasion?”
“Scully, you’re in great danger. Get out of the house. Now.”
Dana looked across at the kangaroo; it stood upright on the stove, exposing a pouchless belly, and sniffed at a roll of paper towels. Her partner’s words didn’t register immediately. “What? Mulder—what are you talking about?”
“I don’t have time to explain. Please—just trust me—when’s the soonest you can get back to Washington?”
“Um—I don’t know—we’ve got a bit of a problem on our hands here…” The kangaroo was eyeballing her from across the kitchen. She realized that she still clutched a slice of Wonder Bread in her other hand, clawlike, and hastily tossed it midway down the floor. It plopped near where Charles sat on the linoleum, listlessly rubbing a red spot on his forehead, casting suspicious glances in the joey’s direction.
“Believe me, Scully, this is more important than…” Mulder trailed off. Faintly, she heard him put his phone down, speak briefly to someone else in the room, a quick back-and-forth exchange of hushed words. He picked the phone up again, said, “Explain the albino kangaroo.”
“I will, but…” A sudden surge of hot suspicion flooded her veins. “Mulder, who’s there with you?”
“Someone with an interest in the case. He, um, contacted me this afternoon, told me that you might be in danger.”
She wasn’t stupid. “Mulder, is it X?”
“It doesn’t matter.” As good as confirmation. “Listen, Scully, I’m not kidding: there’s a certain group of people, killers, assassins, I don’t know—and you’re their next target; I have no idea how close they are to Craneo, but I want you to leave the house right now.”
His words were punctuated by a crash. The joey leapt down from the range, landing heavily on the kitchen floor, tail whipping like a length of raw dough. Licking its lips, it inched toward the Wonder Bread. Its large rear feet brushed a plastic bread bag, catching it briefly between its slender toes, uncrumpling it and revealing some red lettering—which, oddly enough, reminded Dana of the scarlet word embroidered on the dwarf’s derby hat: CUSO.
The smell of ammonia wafted up from the sunscreen tubes—and she made the connection. CUSO. Ammonia. Obvious in retrospect.
Dana dropped the phone. Stood. Took the tubes and went back into the living room, back to the kangaroo’s box, uncapping the strange ointment and squeezing it onto her hands. She rubbed her hands together, feeling the stickiness, palms tingling, knelt—and began to spread the salve on the carton. She coated the cardboard, the sides, the lid, ammonia fumes stinging her eyes. She inverted the box and daubed the bottom with the greasiness, smearing the translucent sticky chemical emollient on all six surfaces: and then she stopped.
Words began to appear on the lid and sides. It was a fascinating special effect, the words fading in like a slowly developed exposure, first in light khaki against the darker khaki of the cardboard, then tan, light brown, darker brown, maroon, amaranth, then deep rich scarlet: words like blood. Words written in copper sulfate—CuSO4—that were colorless, invisible, when first written and dried, but quickly turned red when doused with ammonia fumes.
Invisible ink. All over the front, back and sides of the carton, the same phrase, scrawled again and again in dripping letters:
HE’LL KILL YOU HE’LL KILL YOU HE’LL KILL YOU
“Skin,” said X.
Mulder glanced up, face pale. Scully had just returned, telling him of the message on the box and attempting to explain the circumstances of the albino kangaroo. She and her brother were endeavoring to capture it and somehow leash it to something, after which further plans could be made; the noise of their attempts—crashes, grunts, falling cutlery—could faintly be heard. Scully had switched the conversation to speaker phone; at the moment, however, only muffled thuds and mutterings emerged from the handset.
Now Mulder placed his hand over the mouthpiece and said, “Excuse me?”
“Skin. It’s an obsession. Not just for Palimpsest, but for any number of other government agencies. Understand, Agent Mulder, that many organizations were formed in the wake of Palimpsest’s initial flush of success, attempting to duplicate its achievement. It was unthinkable, obviously, that so stunning a power as the ability to communicate with the dead might be restricted to a single group of individuals: the political stakes were enormous. A vast web of technological espionage was thus put into play, attempting to steal Palimpsest’s knowledge.”
“Yes, yes,” Mulder said irritably, “you’ve already explained this.”
“No I haven’t. I need you to ask Agent Scully something.”
“Ask her if she sees any small white scars on the kangaroo’s knees and ribcage.”
Removing his hand from the mouthpiece, Mulder relayed the question. After a few moments, the fuzzy reply came: “Yes,” said Scully, “it does. About an inch long, running beneath the patella and sternum, these small—oof!—puckered scars. Why?”
“Um, I’m not sure.” Mulder turned to X. “Why?”
X motioned for Mulder to cover the mouthpiece again. After he did, X said, “This confirms a suspicion of mine. That kangaroo was sent to Scully by one of the groups acting in opposition to Palimpsest—and it means that she’s at the center of an enormous struggle between cabals.”
“Explain. Explain it now.”
“All right. After news of Palimpsest’s triumph became known to an extremely small minority of government officials, attempts were made to appropriate its knowledge. This meant the formation of new groups, all devoted to spiritualistic research. FBI had one. So did most other agencies. Think of it as a subsidiary of the universal X-Files program: scores of competing pseudo-Palimpsest groups, all trying to outdo and outperform each other and the original innovators. Hot property, Agent Mulder. Winner takes all.”
“Okay, I understand.”
“So these new groups spied on each other. They dug up the corpses of individuals that Palimpsest had used, usually in vain—in the rare cases when decomposition had not gone too far, the psychosomatic manifestations had been doused with acid, obliterating them and any trace of their origin. Autopsy notes were often useless, usually clandestinely destroyed. I was only able to obtain those Janneson photos”—he gestured towards the folder still in Mulder’s hand—“through bloodshed and luck. And the new groups were still unable to get usable results. They were missing something, doing something wrong, something that Palimpsest had seen and anticipated. After a while, they forgot espionage and began their own research. Plowed their own paths into the unknown.” X shifted in his seat, bumping his elbow on one of the sanctuary effigies. “What they eventually realized was the importance of the skin.”
“Think about it: the manifestations appeared only on the epidermis. Why not the duodenum, or the pancreas, or the inner lining of the brain?”
“There was something special about skin itself, something in its properties that was conductive to spiritualistic transfer. If the X-ray model of spirit formation was true, then skin-level characteristics determined the nature of the spirit body. Something in the collagen,” X said, clenching his hand in a fist and releasing it, “something in the tissue, the cutis, the derma. They focused their research on the skin. The nature of psychosomatic manifestations. The pattern of blood vessels, nerves, sebaceous glands. Perhaps that was the correct route to the dead: perhaps skin contains the soul.”
“And so this explains the albino kangaroo?”
“Experimentation with albinism was the first thing that occurred to the new groups. They speculated that melanin—skin pigment—could be used to form manifestations; ghosts, after all, are pale, sickly, so perhaps something in melanin is consumed or transformed during the spiritual transfer. They used tissue cultures, albino humans and albino animals, exposing them to different stimuli, deadening the nerves, trying to bridge the gap.”
“But why kangaroos?”
“Test animals were bred ectogenetically, the embryo grown in an artificial womb. Kangaroos are ideal for this technique because of the marsupial life cycle—the immature fetus crawls out of the birth canal after a few weeks of gestation and develops further in the mother’s pouch. This process can be easily modified for ectogenesis. Placental mammals are far more difficult to raise in this manner.”
“And the scars…?”
“One side effect to their primitive ectogenetic apparatus was that the organisms were born with knees and chest fused together. Some kind of irregularity in the development process; I’m not sure of the details. But surgery was necessary to correct the deformity. Simple.
“Now,” X continued sharply, “listen to me very carefully. Evidently one of these groups is attempting to contact Agent Scully, warning her of the threat to her life. The kangaroo is part of the message. Under no circumstances is she to let that kangaroo out of her sight.”
“All right, but…”
“Secondly,” X said. “As soon as I leave, I want you to hang up your cell phone. If you wish to divulge any sensitive information to Agent Scully, you’re to do it on land lines. Keep off the airwaves; use only phones that you know to be safe. Anyone could be monitoring these frequencies. In all likelihood, Palimpsest has been listening—and now knows Agent Scully’s whereabouts.”
“Shit.” Mulder knew X was right. Even hobbyist radio scanners could receive cellular transmissions. Christ, of all the stupid mistakes… “Why didn’t you warn me?”
“Think of it as an impetus to move quickly. Last point: I don’t want Agent Scully to return to Washington. She is to proceed to Manhattan, and you are to meet her there at a time and place specified by me.”
“Manhattan?” Mulder looked into X’s eyes, trying to detect a glimmer of purpose. “Why?”
“You know exactly why, Agent Mulder. There are already two groups attempting to contact—or kill—Agent Scully, presumably for the opportunity to communicate with Josef Kaun. There will soon be more. She’s a commodity, pure and simple: they’re weighing her, evaluating her, deciding whether to inject the poison in the back of the neck or the base of the spine. But I want that goddamned information,” X said. “And I will obtain it.”
“How?” Mulder asked, voice cracking. “By having me kill Scully?”
“There are alternatives, I assure you.” In a sudden non sequitur, X inquired, “Agent Scully said that the kangaroo was delivered to her door by an achondroplastic dwarf—is that right? A word of advice: read the April 10, 1983 issue of the journal ‘Clinical Abstracts.’”
X stood abruptly and opened the trap door on the floor of the sanctuary. Turned to Mulder. “Consider this. Psychosomatic manifestations usually appear on the bodies of Palimpsest victims twenty to twenty-five seconds after death—physical death, that is. The brain, on the other hand, can survive without oxygen for several minutes. Therefore, it is theoretically possible to quickly and cleanly kill the victim, await the appearance of a message—”
“—and then resuscitate them immediately,” Mulder said, understanding.
“You’re beginning to catch on, Agent Mulder. I plan for you to do exactly that.” X lowered himself into the trap door, a few steps away from entering the bowels of the cathedral.
“For Christ’s sake,” Mulder said, looking down, “the human body doesn’t have an On-Off switch—you can’t kill someone and resurrect them without the risk of brain damage or embolism or permanent dehabiliation….Do you really expect me to take that risk with Scully?”
“It’s up to you. I won’t lie; there are dangers involved—dangers that are more psychological than physiological.”
“What do you mean?”
“When Palimpsest victims are resuscitated after being used to contact the dead, some residue often remains. Mental residue. The entire process is akin to possession, after all; in some cases, subjects begin to take on personality tics and quirks—unusual speech patterns, for example—that belonged to the contactees, as if some of the foreign soul had poisoned their own brains, permanently. Small things, but profound. This explains why Palimpsest usually doesn’t bother with resuscitation.”
“I can’t let that happen to Scully.”
“But Palimpsest will not offer you the choice. They’ll just kill her and take the message and obliterate her skin with acid.” X paused at the threshold to the catacombs. “Besides. If you knew what Kaun was working on, you would not hesitate.”
“Then why won’t you tell me?” Mulder demanded.
X tilted his head slightly, as if about to answer—and then ducked into the darkness. The trap door slammed shut behind him. Halfheartedly, Mulder tried tugging on the handles, but the portal was locked securely. The meeting was over.
Dimly, Mulder heard Scully’s voice, heard her say that Charles had collared the kangaroo, that he had wrapped the leather leash around the handle of the refrigerator door and tied it securely, making sure that the joey could not venture from kitchen. Mulder raised his cell phone to his ear, was about to reply, when he happened to glance down at the wooden seat upon which X had been sitting.
On the seat—cradled in the shadow of the crucifix above it—sat two objects. Left for him. One was a slip of yellow paper, folded once. Words written in permanent marker, the ink bleeding through: Mulder could see a time, a date, a place in Manhattan.
The other object was a pack of cigarettes.
“All right,” Scully said. “Summarize. Cliffs Notes version.”
Mulder took a deep breath; they’d gone over this ground before. Following X’s departure, he had exited the sanctuary, found a pay phone that stood some distance from the cathedral grounds, and redialed Charles Scully’s number. Huddled in the booth, overcoat wrapped around his slender frame, he spoke as quickly as he could: “Okay. This group, Palimpsest, communicates with the dead using selected lookalike victims. They’re after you because you resemble a prostitute who allegedly murdered a physicist with a profitable secret—a secret that they might be able to obtain by killing you and reading whatever manifestations appear on your epidermis. Meanwhile, for an unspecified reason, an opposing group has sent you an ectogenetically-raised albino kangaroo as a message or warning. And X wants me to kill you in Manhattan and then bring you back to life. Simple, right?”
“Right.” Scully was tossing suitcases around the living room, packing her clothes in one, throwing sunscreen and makeshift kangaroo food—starches and grains, or, more accurately, bagels and Rice Krispies—into the other. She slipped her S&W 1076 into her shoulder holster and checked her watch. The decision had been made to drive to Manhattan: she doubted that she could sneak an albino kangaroo through airport security. “Charles has a pet carrier in his garage,” she said, “I think it’ll be large enough to accommodate our kangaroo friend, at least until we get to New England.”
Their conversation was taking place in her brother’s absence—he was outside, getting the car started. Dana was still debating over how much to tell him. “I’m concerned about Charles’s safety,” she murmured.
“Bring him to a safe house, then. Let him stay there for a few days. Remember, Palimpsest will take pains to capture you alive—when they kill you, it’ll be under clinical conditions—but they have no such obligation in your brother’s case.”
Mulder’s voice betrayed his impatience. Nearly half an hour had passed since his first warning, and Scully still hadn’t left the house. “Listen, just get out now,” he said for the dozenth time. “I’ll send a field agent to take care of Charles. Bring the kangaroo, take the interstate to Manhattan—if you start driving now, you should get there by noon…”
The front door banged open. Charles stepped inside, walking quickly past Dana into the kitchen. The kangaroo was still leashed to the refrigerator, curled up on a warm spot on the linoleum, eyes open, staring blankly at the side of the dishwasher. Its ears flickered as Charles reached over gingerly and cracked open the refrigerator door, peering inside and examining its contents. He called, “Dana, how old do you think this joey is?”
Dana snapped the suitcase closed. “Under a year old, I would say.”
“Then it’s going to need plenty of milk, right?” He emerged from the kitchen with three plastic jugs—two of whole, one of skim—and slipped them into a paper bag. The kangaroo perked up and tried to follow, tugging fruitlessly at its leash, biting at the strap without effect. Glancing nervously over his shoulder, Charles set the bag by the front door and turned to his sister: “So—are you ready to put the joey in Louie’s cage?”
“Ready if you are.”
Louie. A golden-faced cocker spaniel, well-remembered and dearly-departed, he had been Charles Scully’s only live-in companion for more than ten years before succumbing to a case of Kibbles ‘n’ Botulism. The pet carrier—made of hard molded plastic, green grille door swinging on hinges—had lingered in limbo ever since. Now, though, Charles scooped it up by the handle and carried it to the kitchen, setting it a few feet away from the joey. Dana tossed a few slices of bread into the carrier and carefully undid the kangaroo’s leash, bracing herself for the worst—but, to her surprise, the joey went for the bait immediately, bending its head docilely, as if used to cages. (Perhaps it was, she reflected. Even if it had been bred ectogenetically—in a spongy neoprene womb, she imagined, lined with amniotic fluid and rubber nipples—the marsupial instinct made it seek out small cozy places. Pouch, carrier, cardboard box: all were one and the same.)
Snuffling slightly, the joey went all the way in, tucking tail between legs. Charles closed and latched the door behind it, exhaling audibly. “Whew,” he said. “That was pretty damn simple.”
“Don’t relax yet.” Hefting the cage, Dana carried it into the next room, shifted her grip and lugged it outside. The kangaroo remained silent. She reached the car, opened the front door and slid it into the passenger’s seat. As an afterthought, she took the seat belt and looped it through the handle, buckling it securely to the backrest with an offhand tenderness. Charles brought her suitcases, then turned back for the milk; she followed him inside. Returning to the darkened living room, she found the phone and said, “Mulder, I’m leaving now.”
She could hear his relief: “About time.” There was a rustling of papers, a sound of unfolding. Mulder said, “Do you have the address I gave you?”
“Yes, got it.” The yellow slip of paper left behind by X had named a certain street corner in the reddest sector of Manhattan where she and Mulder were to meet tomorrow night. He had promised to check out the rendezvous-point beforehand, making sure that they weren’t being entrapped. “Eight o’ clock tomorrow evening, where X said. Mulder, I’ll see you there.”
“Listen. I want you to call me tomorrow morning. At ten o’ clock. Just so I know you’re safe.”
“All right. What number should I use?”
“Call me at this pay phone.” Mulder glanced at the number printed above the keypad, rattled it off twice. “Got it?”
“Got it. Ten o’ clock exactly.”
He paused; she heard him clear his throat embarrassedly. “Take care of yourself, okay?”
“I never do otherwise.” There was a moment of awkward silence; Dana hung up softly, then stood. A salty ocean wave of weariness suddenly swept across her. Nerve endings felt dull. Powdery. It was only 11:30 and the flesh beneath her eyes was already sore; in all likelihood, another sixteen hours would pass before she could even consider sleep.
God. Standing there in the unlit living room floor, cushions and kangaroo footprints scattered all about her, Dana Scully felt rather like a marsupial herself: pouchless, homeless, and denied placental comfort, ready to begin the long crawl from canal to crevice. A bit of jelly with legs.
But Lord: how she relished the feel of a Smith and Wesson at her side. “Here we go again,” she mumbled. “God help me: here we go again.”
She turned and marched to the door. Taking her coat from its hook, shrugging the familiar fabric across her shoulders, she glanced outside and saw her brother carrying the jugs of milk down the driveway, paper bag clutched heavily to his chest: awkward, pudgy, ever faithful. She smiled slightly, suddenly swimming with sisterly affection. Charles’s hair was ruffled, clothing mussed. One shirttail had come untucked.
Dana sighed, stepped onto the porch.
Then, again: pop.
It could have been her imagination. It could have been a minor blip of blood in eardrum, something in her head—a small, quiet fingersnap, a firecracker, a champagne cork. But Charles had heard the sounds too—he was looking around, standing motionless in the middle of the driveway, brow furrowed, still holding the paper bag in his arms—and Dana was about to call out when she saw.
A thin stream of milk was pouring down from the bag. More than a stream: a jet. It gushed in a white arc, finger-width, splashing on the concrete and puddling by Charles’s feet, a shimmering tail of milk shooting from a perfectly circular hole, the kind that a child makes with a sharpened pencil on a sheet of paper….For the briefest of moments, brother and sister stared together at the stream, united in unspoken sibling awe. They stood stock-still as the thick droplets splattered on the pavement—
—and as, with startling suddenness, the stream turned red.
Charles gasped, pulled the bag away from his chest, saw the front of his shirt soaked through with blood. He stayed on his feet, dropped the bag. Staggering, he managed to shamble sideways to the open back door of the car, falling halfway within, legs protruding. The ground was a mess of blood and milk, streaking the cement, mixing into pink ropy strands where the two liquids touched: red and white, a Rosicrucian smear of death. She could smell blood. Gunpowder.
Dana dropped to her knees, fumbling out her pistol. The shots had come from the left. She oriented herself in terrified bursts of perception. In front of her was the driveway, empty except for the paper bag spilling jugs and puddling milk; the car sat alongside the curb. A low hedge separated her from the next yard, two feet high. Scant protection. Enough to crouch-tumble to the middle of the driveway where the bag had fallen, gun in ready position, cocked. Her knees scraped against the concrete. She was shaking. Low, above the sound of her own heartbeat, she could hear Charles breathing steadily in and out, breath not ragged, no sucking sound—good, the bullet had missed his lungs—but in obvious pain. Scratch of tennis shoe soles against sidewalk; she heard him try to crawl further into the car, cursing softly beneath his breath. He climbed all the way onto the seat and slammed the door behind him.
Footsteps. From above and to the left. Dana crouched down in the driveway, back brushing the needles of the hedge, and heard men coming, two distinct sets of feet. Oh God. Scent of pine sap filled her nostrils. She thought rapidly—couldn’t shoot two men at once, didn’t want to—Palimpsest would want to keep her alive—but what about Charles? Dana placed a hand on the paper bag, found an intact jug. Pulled it out with soft rustling. Footsteps came closer—within two or three yards of the shrub, a moment within view. No time to think. She hefted the jug. Whole milk. Heavy and cool, rimmed with runny refrigerator frost. Pistol in other hand, she held her breath, only half-sure of what she was doing, feeling the milk’s weight, gauging the distance, waiting until the footsteps came within…
Now. No thought. No weighing of options. Conscious only of the fact that she needed to act now, get Charles to a hospital, Dana rocketed to her feet and whirled in the direction of the footsteps. For a single thunderclap of a second she saw two shadows, men in black standing right there in the next yard—within touching distance—drawing guns lightning-quick in response to her movement.
She saw them. They saw her.
Dana threw the milk jug into the darkness. Raised her gun. Fired point-blank.
It was no contest: the bullets were mushrooming wadcutters, designed to flatten on impact. The jug exploded in midair. Milk burst outward in fine cold droplets, spattering Dana, spattering the men, blinding all three of them for an instant. The milk felt like chilled blood, needlelike, in her mouth, eyes, nose, hair, ears—she was covered head to foot—but before she could think she was scrambling down the driveway, bumping her head on the doorframe as she pulled herself across the front seat, over the pet carrier with the whimpering kangaroo and into the thrumming driver’s side. She was in the car.
The world cleared. Her hair was slimy, skin streaked with white. She floored the accelerator, car shrieking and lurching from the curb, called back for her brother to hang on. God, the milk was everywhere. Her eyes flicked to the rear view mirror. The two men ran after her in the middle of the street, guns drawn. There was a metallic ping, another—bullets peppered the trunk, the bumper, the chrome—and she swerved spastically to the wrong lane, making a hairpin turn on the twisty Craneo street. She overcompensated, grazed a row of parked cars. Yellow sparks showered on her left. Aluminum squealed against aluminum.
Her sticky hands sliding across the steering wheel, Dana screeched onto a side street, hoping to lose her pursuers—but a leonine engine roared, high beams flared in the night, and a black Impala came barreling down the dividing line. “Jesus holy almighty Christ,” she hissed, hunched down low in the seat, belt unbuckled, pressing the pedal as far down as it would go—passing fifty-five, sixty miles per hour in this residential neighborhood, trees and trash cans flashing by, the whine of tires rising to a frenzied crescendo—and praying for a widening street.
She got the opposite. With terrifying suddenness the houses disappeared, the asphalt narrowed and began to climb—this area of Craneo sat upon some of the hilliest terrain in the Blue Ridge Mountains, streets and houses following the curvature of the soil: the road rose, fell, making her stomach lurch. She buckled up hastily. Behind her, Charles moaned and lifted his head from the seat, hand still pressed convulsively on the leaking hole in his stomach, bleeding all over cushions and floormats. Grim balance: back seat coated in blood, front seat coated in milk. Dana felt more like a marsupial than ever, buried halfway between menstruation and lactation.
A second later, the analogy was underlined. The car took a hump in the road too quickly, the front wheels losing traction with the ground, rear wheels lifting completely from the cement: and the car hung suspended for a nerve-jangling second in thin air, landing with a bone-jiggling crunch an instant later. She lost control and the car strayed onto the shoulder. Only a railing stood between it and the sheerness of the hillside. “Shit-shit-shit,” she muttered, yanking the wheel all the way to the right, brushing the dirt embankment that bordered the lane. She glanced quickly over her shoulder. The Impala still followed, taking the curves like a professional. Firecracker bursts came from the windows of the pursuing car, pinpoints of light, and Dana’s rear view mirror—six inches from her left hand—was struck by a bullet, shattered, tore cleanly off. Next to her, the kangaroo whined. She shushed it, teeth clenched in adrenaline fever. She heard its claws scratch the inside of the carrier, feet thumping in agitation, tail whipsawing back and forth in the confined space.
The speedometer passed seventy. Twin lights blossomed on the road ahead: oh God, an oncoming vehicle. Blue Volvo station wagon. Dana swerved to miss, grazed the hillside again. Horns blared; she checked the mirror, saw the Volvo and the Impala bearing down on each other like bullocks in a rage, the station wagon braking sharply, the Impala smashing through in a burst of crumpling headlights. Darkness fell on the street behind her, but only briefly. Engine gunned, wheels spun and caught on asphalt. One of the Impala’s lights flickered back on, blazing yellowly—and now a cyclopean Chevrolet howled along the roadway.
Dana tried to get her bearings. If she continued in her current direction, she would eventually come to level ground, and from there could quickly reach Craneo Boulevard and proceed to the hospital: at the moment, however, she was more concerned with staying on the road. Charles coughed in the back seat. She turned, flashed a passable smile, said, “Don’t worry, we’ll—”
A bullet shattered the rear window, spiderwebs bursting across the glass. Cold night air suddenly filled the car, the sucking sound of rushing wind multiplied a hundredfold. Charles shouted hoarsely, “What’s happening? Who are these people?”
“Don’t talk, Charles, please, don’t talk.” Dana turned back to the road and said, “I’ll get you to a doctor as soon as I can.”
“Hurry…God, Dana, I’m bleeding to death…” Charles held up his fists, full of blood. He seized the back of the seat to keep from falling off.
“Don’t die, okay?” Still high on the hillside, they reached a brief section of uncurving road—and Dana allowed herself to take a chance. Rechecking the steering wheel, she kept her foot on the gas and turned all the way around in her seat, drawing her gun and shouting, “Charles! Duck!” Her brother fell back on the seat, hand slipping. Aiming carefully, she squeezed off two shots at their pursuers. Flash: flash: the interior of the car blazed as brightly as if someone had taken a picture. The cracks were deafening. The bullets passed through the gap where the rear window had been; one glanced off the roof of the Chevy; the other penetrated the windshield, punching a hole in the glass. The Impala slowed, weaved slightly—and began to fall behind. Perhaps she’d hit the driver.
Dana turned back to the wheel and tossed her gun onto the dashboard. Glancing into the mirror, she saw the Impala drift still farther behind, slowing perceptibly, straying to the shoulder. She allowed herself to breathe for the first time in minutes, inhaling the thick stench of cordite and warm milk. “Almost,” she murmured. “Almost there.” Only a mile or so left until zero elevation, until downtown Craneo. Until the hospital. “God help me, Charles, I think we might make it.”
They turned a corner, and her hopes were dashed.
A second Impala straddled the road. Four men, all in black, stood before the makeshift roadblock, guns drawn and carefully aimed. Silhouetted in the glare of headlights, they loomed in shadows, construction paper cutouts. Features etched like onyx. Sig Sauer pistols jutted out of the gloom.
There was no escape. Dana slid the car to a stop, numb with despair. The men blocking her way began to walk silently forward, guns still raised, approaching the car like barracuda lured by the scent of blood. She heard the Impala pull up and brake behind her, doors opening. More footsteps. Her forehead pounded, energy draining from her arms and legs in sickening deflation, failure beating down with every heartbeat.
In the back seat, Charles groaned. Muttered: “How steep is this hillside?”
Interesting question. Dana glanced along the side of the car. The asphalt ended a few feet away and became dirt, a corrugated steel railing separating the road from the precipice beyond. Tangled brush and loose soil descended from hill to valley at a fairly steep angle, interrupted by boulders and outcroppings of rock—perhaps eight hundred feet of rough limestone scrub. Far below lay a highway.
A dramatic descent—but not suicidal. Not completely. Which meant…
Again, she didn’t allow herself to think. Skewing the wheel all the way to the left, she revved the engine and roared straight for the hillside. Shouts—dark shapes scattered, men falling to the ground—a volley of shots peppered the sides of the car—and for an instant, one of the men in black was caught full in her headlights. She saw his face. Recognized it. Her brain tried to supply a name.
But there was no time. The car blundered from paved road to soil—front tires kicking up dirt—and collided with the barrier. Steel tore; the hood crumpled; the wheels howled in protest, caught the fence and nearly brought it down. There were more gunshots. One passed through the rear window, buried itself in the roof of the car an inch from Dana’s head. She swore, backed up a foot, rammed the fence again. One more chance. The car gave a pained, elephantine lurch, chassis straining over the barrier—Dana willed it across, mouthing silent words, jaw clenched so tightly her fillings ached—and it tumbled down and over. Front wheels hit the scrub. Rear wheels followed with a thunderous crunch.
Suddenly they were on the hillside, plunging down the slope at seventy miles an hour.
Except for the lights of cars far below, the depths of the ravine were in utter darkness. Dana kept the wheel straight, arms rigid, teeth clattering as the car jounced over rock, sand, soil, brush. Its bumper caught a low twisted tree head-on, trunk smashing across the hood and windshield, shattering the headlights. Everything became black velvet chaos. She tried the brake to no avail. The car crashed into a mound of dirt, somehow kept going, taunted by gravity—the tires skidded, car beginning to turn sideways—and now they fell almost laterally down the hillside, great ropy clouds of dust raised by their descent.
Dana’s airbag inflated like a marshmallow. She beat it down, straining to see. Lost hold of the wheel for a second, the car spinning crazily. They began to go even faster, the bounces growing more and more violent, wheels thudding earthshakingly, only the seat belt holding her onto her seat, and Charles—what about Charles? Her brother clung, knuckles white, to the back of the seat. His wound had reopened, his face pale with agony. “Maybe…” he managed. “Maybe…this wasn’t such a good idea.” A shrub struck the window above his head, cracking the glass. He winced, coughing hard.
The car began to spin more wildly—and suddenly Dana found herself facing the top of the hill, the men in black silhouetted against the lights above. They were sliding backwards down the slope.
“C’mon…c’mon.” She closed her eyes tightly, hands still gripping the wheel. The rear tires of the car struck an outcropping of limestone, jackknifing the trunk, wheels parting company with the ground, soaring for an eternity, finally burying itself in soft soil and continuing to tumble. The jolt of the landing jounced the pet carrier in the front seat, breaking the plastic hinges of the door with a snap—and the albino kangaroo poked its head outside, mewing like a cat, ears plastered flat in fear. Bounce. Another. Dana cut her forehead on something, didn’t know what, and the blood ran into her eyes, stinging. The milk on her skin had all but boiled away with sweat. They had been falling forever.
And then, abruptly, the descent slowed. The ground leveled out, brush gripping the walls of their tires. The bouncing ceased. Dana heard the engine again. Still moving backwards, the wheels gripping the ground solidly for the first time, still sliding, covered with dirt and scrub and dust and milk and blood: the Scullys ground to a stop less than twenty feet from the edge of the highway.
Charles immediately vomited out the window. After a moment’s consideration, Dana decided to join him. She opened the car door and tumbled out, body racked by chills, eyes fixed on the dusty ground at her feet, oblivious to the stares of passing motorists. Her hand gripped the doorhandle tightly, convulsively, to keep from trembling.
Standing there, head down and pounding, Dana suddenly remembered the moment before they had gone over the edge. One of the men in black had been illuminated in the glare of her headlights, caught like a deer, face spotlighted in a flash of visibility. She had seen him clearly then; she saw him clearly now. She recognized him in a moment of complete incomprehension, breathing hard, face hot, the milk dried to a membrane on her forehead.
It had been X.
For many minutes after the cars had sped away, the house of Charles Scully stood silent. The front door swung on loose hinges, still open, casting a rectangle of cool yellow light onto the Jackson Pollock web of blood and milk and gore-streaked footprints that oozed across the driveway, beneath the hedge. The street was dark. Silence reigned, complete and utter silence, no passing cars, no wind, the pumpkin moon casting garish black-on-black shadows—
—as It emerged from Its hiding place behind the hedge.
It had lain there for nearly an hour, flat on the pavement until Its legs had gone to pins-and-needles. When Dana Scully had crouched there, panicking, gun in hand, listening to the men in black approach—well, It could have reached out through the shrubbery and caressed her trembling face. Seized her by the throat. Ended it then and there.
But It hadn’t.
When It wished, It could become near-invisible, fading back into the shadows until It blended in with the foliage like a jungle tiger. Neither Scully nor the men in black had seen It pressed flat on the concrete—and the men in black had looked directly at It, looked through It, their eyes slipping off Its frictionless shape, not seeing, not knowing. Their ankles had been only inches from Its hands. It could have seized them, killed them all—
But again, It hadn’t.
It had held back—and now, rubbing Its elbows, rising unsteadily to Its feet, It felt excitement. Grinned in anticipation of the chase ahead.
As It ascended the steps of Charles Scully’s porch, It was momentarily caught in the glow of the doorway. Although Its face remained in shadow, everything from the neck down was briefly illuminated, revealing an unmistakably human form, dressed in black—and forearms covered with spirling red letters, words, not English, snaking up and down Its skin, a dense scarlet text that terminated only at wrist level. Glancing briefly down, It saw Its familiar stigmata. Frowned darkly, hazel eyes blazing. Pulled Its sleeves down to hide the disfiguring marks.
“Coming for you, Dana Scully,” It muttered.
“I’m coming for you…”
“If only Agent Scully could see me now,” Langly said. He tossed one of X’s cigarettes across a zinc dissection tray. Stretched latex up to his elbows. Flashed a scalpel. Sliced the cigarette longitudinally open, letting the contents spill across the dish. “Let’s see…Unmarked cigarettes in red cellophane package, no label, wrapped in standard tobacco paper. Filled with several grams of fine green powder.”
“Plus some white crystals and charcoal in the filter,” said Byers, using a ballpoint pen to stir the mixture into three separate piles. He glanced up. “This isn’t my area of expertise, but the powder looks like oxyphenylcyrine.”
Langly nodded. “Harmless when stable. When it burns, though, and passes through the activation agent,”—he prodded the sugarlike substance with the tip of the blade—“it transmutes into some very nasty stuff.”
Byers looked sharply at Mulder. “You didn’t smoke these, did you?”
Mulder, peering over their shoulders at the anatomized cigarette, answered, “No—of course not.”
“Good. Otherwise…you’d be dead.”
The three of them sat on stools in the rigorously cluttered Lone Gunman headquarters, illuminated brilliantly from above by a pair of recently-installed carbon-arc klieg lights. (“We had our fluorescent fixtures removed last week,” Langly said. “Tubes emit high levels of UVB rays. Cause cancer, cataracts. The FCC denies it, but we know better.”) The luminescence was truly blinding; Byers wore sunglasses, and Langly’s forehead shone like a jack-o’-lantern as he explained the nature of X’s cigarette: “This is the Virginia Slims model of a charming assassination tool we call the ‘Fidel.’ Company brand. They were originally packaged as Cuban cigars, destined for the lungs of you-know-who.”
“Back around the time of the Bay of Pigs,” Byers said, taking a swig of coffee, “the CIA made numerous attempts on Castro’s life. Some of their methods were a trifle…unusual. Poisoned cigars were only the beginning.”
“Actually,” said Langly, slipping off the gloves, “you should ask Frohike about this stuff. Black ops are his specialty.”
“Where is he, anyway?” Mulder asked.
“At home—asleep,” said Byers. “Where I should be. We don’t all drag ourselves out of bed at one o’clock in the morning to serve your whims.” He gestured at himself and his colleague. Langly wore an oversized Metallica T-shirt and purple sweatpants, blonde hair even more tousled than usual; Byers had pulled his trademark suit jacket over a silk pajama top, beard uncombed.
Mulder grinned despite himself. “It’s barely past midnight,” he said. “Just tell me more about the Fidels, and you can go back to your wet dreams of Jean Hill and the Babushka Lady…”
“You want to know more?” asked Langly. “Okay. Here’s what happens. You light the cigarette. Inhale. The oxyphenylcyrine becomes gaseous, passes through the activation agent in the filter and is immediately destabilized. It goes into your lungs, passes to your brain, invades the rest of your body. The OPC binds to acetylcholine—the neurotransmitter that sends nerve impulses between the spinal cord and the muscles—and inhibits it instantly. You’re completely paralyzed. You can’t breathe. Your heart can’t beat. Within ten seconds, you’re deader than Timothy Leary.”
“In other words,” Byers said, “it’s only slightly more dangerous than your average cigarette.”
Langly snorted laughter, added, “The characteristic reflex is a spasm of muscle around the eye.” He put his hands to his head, Junior Birdman-style. “When you see that, you know that your victim is long gone.”
“So how do you reverse the process?” Mulder asked, imagining what it would be like to administer such a cigarette to Scully.
“It’s actually pretty simple,” said Byers, sifting the powder into a plastic bag and sealing it tight. “Which is, I suppose, the reason why the Fidel was never especially popular as a termination device. You simply inject a shot of adrenaline into the victim’s spine between the sixth and seventh vertebrae. The shot will trigger an automatic Thornburn reflex—”
“Also known as the JFK reflex,” Langly added, bringing hands to neck and flinging his elbows wide in the manner of the Zapruder film.
“—which acts as a kind of kick-start to the nervous system. If you’re lucky, your victim will fully recover.”
“And if you’re unlucky?”
They shrugged simultaneously. “Why?” Langly asked. “You planning on using these?”
There was a brief pause. “No,” Mulder finally said. “No, I don’t think I am.” He repocketed the softpack, checked his watch. Said: “Um, over the phone, I asked you about a few other things…”
“Oh, right,” Langly said, switching on a computer monitor. The screen wavered, undulating briefly in purple shades, then coalesced into the image of a singularly drab web page: “The ‘Clinical Abstracts’ site,” he said. “Comprehensive and cheerfully dull. Lucky for us, some poor drone scanned in all the back issues for the past fifteen years.”
“Including April 10, 1983?”
“Printing as we speak.” Langly clicked a keyboard shortcut; the inkjet murmured in reply, beginning to drum out a dozen sheets of closely printed text.
“As for your other question…” Byers began.
“Right,” said Langly. “Dr. Josef Kaun.” He bobbed his head at Mulder, grinning. “You know, for the past few months, we’ve had a running office pool on how long it would take you to ask us about this guy. Frohike won, though he doesn’t know it.”
“Let him sleep,” said Byers, yawning. “We’ll tell him in the morning. Maybe.”
The printer squealed and ground to a halt. Mulder scooped out the pages, flipping quickly through the stack, scanning the dense lines of text. Nothing leapt out. “I already know a few things about Kaun,” he said, slipping the hard copy into a folder. “The usual tabloid junk.”
“Ah,” said Langly, hair shining like fire beneath the klieg lights. “The amazing sexual conquests. The notorious appetites. The seemingly endless bevy of gorgeous women, one of whom he allegedly seduced atop the M.I.T. cyclotron…”
“Really,” Mulder said, taking a sip of coffee.
“The same day, he claimed to have discovered a new particle. Called it the ‘in’ quark.”
“Heh-heh,” said Byers. “Too bad it turned out to be an experimental glitch.”
“I’ll bet,” Langly said. “But that was just about the only mistake he ever made.”
“Look at his credentials. He studies biophysics at Cornell and Princeton, is hired by the military-industrial complex the same day he receives his doctorate, immediately goes into service for the Pentagon. Doing what? No one knows. Eighteen years later, he’s shot to death in New York City under hazy circumstances. Just two days ago, as a matter of fact.”
“The other mistake,” said Mulder.
“Like I said, we don’t know the exact nature of his work—but we can make some good guesses,” Byers said. “He published exactly one paper per year. Officially, at least. However, he was never the primary researcher—his name was always buried halfway down the list of contributors—and many of the papers were published by a biotechnology lab called XenoTech, a mundane research company with which Kaun had no known association. Dull stuff. Logistics of protein synthesis, that kind of thing. In all probability, it was all a front.” Byers tossed the remains of the oxyphenylcyrine cigarette into a filing cabinet, slammed the drawer closed. “No, Kaun’s real work was highly classified—and important enough so that, even after three sexual harassment lawsuits and numerous public peccadilloes, the government kept him within a heartbeat of the Big One. Majestic-12.”
Mulder choked, spitting coffee. “Majestic…? Kaun worked with aliens?”
“In a way,” said Byers, absolutely deadpan. “He had sex with them.”
The Scullys lurched into the darkened hospital parking lot like refugees from a holocaust, the car smashed beyond recognition, rear and side windows shattered, mirror shot away, bulletholes peppering doors and trunk, hood crumpled, headlights obliterated, air bag hanging in tatters, tires streaked with mud, suspension creaking, muffler dangling. The engine roared from a phlegm-choked throat. Dana steered one-handed, keeping the broken door of the pet carrier closed with the other. The albino kangaroo scratched at the grille.
Charles lay in the darkness of the back, pale but still alive, bleeding not so much as before but wincing with each speed bump. He muttered through clenched jaw: “Just drop me off near the ER.”
“Are you kidding? I can’t just leave you here.”
“Yes you can,” Charles said stubbornly. A streetlamp briefly illuminated his face. In the harsh white light, his mouth made a hard line of determination, his hair plastered to his forehead with blood. “I’m not going to die—the bleeding’s almost stopped—and I can walk myself inside.”
“Charles, stop talking like—”
“Listen. If you take me in, they’ll detain you for hours. Paperwork, insurance, Blue Cross, legalities. They’ll want to know what the hell happened.” He managed to sit upright, sweat beading his brow. “I have time for that. You don’t.”
“I’m not going to abandon you.” She turned into the ambulance bay and coasted to a stop, the car wheezing with a relieved sigh of pistons. They idled near the glass doors of the emergency ward, gurneys and mint-green floors visible beyond. The gas gauge was an eyelash away from E.
“I’m going in alone,” Charles said flatly. “Bye.” He tried to open his door. Couldn’t—the interior latch was jammed. He rolled the window down, reached outside, tugged on the exterior handle. It came off in his grip. He tossed it away and slid over to the other door, trying to open it from the inside. No dice. Reached gingerly through the broken glass, found the handle—and it clicked open. Grinning weakly, he repeated: “Bye.”
He flung the door open and immediately fell out onto the pavement.
Dana stepped outside, concerned. “I’m all right,” he yelled, staggering away from her. “I’m all right.” He stood shakily, bloodsoaked hand pressing hard against the wound at his belly. “Listen, Dana, just leave me alone. I have the feeling that I’m one hell of a lot safer when you’re not around.”
She stopped. Her brother looked like a savage, outlined redly against the parking lot lights, warpainted, standing semi-akimbo on the concrete island—but there was logic to what he said. “You’re…you’re probably right.” Dana laid her hands heavily across her face. “None of this would have happened if I hadn’t been here.”
Charles nodded, splattered with his own fluids, pressing his left hand further up into his wound, almost to the knuckles. He grimaced with pain. “Dana, just remember that these men are after you, not me. They don’t care who I am. They’re just treating me as an obstacle, something in their path, something…something to be shot away.” He shook his head. Droplets flew. “Just let me go.”
They couldn’t argue any longer. Defeated, Dana heard herself say, “All right. Go in alone.” Her voice trembled. “Stay as far away from me as possible.”
Running a gore-streaked hand through his hair, her brother coughed and turned away. Staggered to the glass doors. They slid smoothly open; he entered, leaving bloody footprints across the asphalt-tile threshold, weaving unsteadily, every detail of his haggard form etched mercilessly in her memory by the soft light. He did not turn back.
The distance between them was unimaginable. She stood in the penumbra beyond the border of the lights, taking refuge in darkness, arms folded, watching as a passing intern dropped his clipboard and rushed to her brother’s side, supporting him, shouting questions. She saw Charles shake his head wearily, make a bored gesture. His lips moved. Silent. Slurred. He and the intern drifted down the corridor, arms around each other in a slow-motion waltz, the doctor’s green scrub suit runny with scarlet. They turned a corner—and were gone. A brown stenciled sign on the wall—barely legible from this angle—read TRAUMA ROOM.
Trauma. She knew about trauma.
Wiping her eyes, she turned back to the car—and saw the joey’s head silhouetted in a rear window. It had escaped from the carrier. The kangaroo stood erect in the back seat, slipping and sliding on Charles Scully’s blood, nose high, ears twitching. “Stupid thing,” Dana muttered, walking quickly to the rear of the car. She flung the door open and seized the joey without ceremony, wrapping her arms around its fragile white ribcage, holding it tightly. It kicked, mewed, legs thumping wildly in midair as she dragged it out from the car, carrying it like a cat, opening the front passenger door and shoving it back into the cage. She unbuckled the carrier and turned it so the grille lay flush with the back of the seat, trapping the kangaroo inside. A temporary solution.
Dana slammed the front door and went to the driver’s side. Got in. Revved the engine and tore out of the ambulance bay, angry at her brother, angry at Mulder, angry at X, angry at the kangaroo, angry at the men in black, angry at herself. The night was cold. Grim. Unforgiving.
Eight minutes later, the night silence was shattered as a one-eyed Chevy Impala roared through the hospital parking lot. Rearing like a pitch-black stallion, it took a turn too fast, skidded, screeched to a stop less than ten feet from the bulletproof glass of the ambulance entrance. Doors flew open. The car unfolded like a crustacean. Black-suited men poured out, four in all, one sporting a spigot in his chest that trickled blood.
The three unwounded men strode into the ER, the fourth slumped gasping against their shoulders. One flashed a badge. “Federal Bureau of Investigation,” he said to the nearest orderly. “We’ve got a man down.”
Goggling, the orderly shouted for help. Within seconds, three green scrubs rushed into the corridor, the doctors in their starched white coats surrounding the men in black in an oddly monochromatic ballet: they herded the wounded man into the trauma ward, found an empty waiting bed, laid him down, cut away the heavy cloth to reveal the fragility beneath. Stainless steel scissors flew from hand to hand. So did comments.
“Christ, big sucking chest wound here…”
“Get an endotracheal…”
“Type and cross four units STAT!”
“Cover that wound up—suction him out!”
“Two units of uncrossed heme…”
“Prep for a pericardiocentesis…”
One of the doctors glanced up. “What happened here?” he asked, glasses fogged with sweat, glancing back and forth between the men in black. They stood a few feet away, impassive, their arms crossed, only an occasional twitch of facial muscle betraying any concern. Two of them wore sunglasses.
The nearest one spoke. His words were clipped, brisk, but he kept his eyes on the man in the bed. “We were engaging a suspect in a high speed chase. Gunshots were exchanged. Our man was wounded through the windshield.”
“Your man. What’s his name?”
The man in black hesitated. “Neumann,” he finally said. “Pio Neumann.”
“When was he shot?” The doctor took Neumann’s pulse. Barely palpable—he’d lost at least four pints of blood. The wounded man opened his mouth, swayed his head from side to side. He was perhaps sixty years old, a hale and robust sixty, hair gone silver-gray, face tanned and deeply lined, lips nearly white with agony.
“It’s been about fifteen minutes. We couldn’t get here any faster.”
“Is the shooter still at large?”
Again, the man hesitated. “No. He was apprehended. A drug-runner who was shipping crack in from Maryland.”
A nurse swabbed Neumann’s arm and inserted an IV, taping it firmly to the skin. She noticed that he began to bruise almost immediately, a purplish discoloration spreading out from the puncture, expanding to the size of a dime. Touching the doctor’s arm, she said, “We’d better get him into surgery right away. He may have autoerythrocyte sensitization.”
“Great. On top of everything else.” Autoerythrocyte sensitization meant that the man might be allergic to his own red blood cells; small injuries could lead to widespread bruising and inflammation. Large injuries, on the other hand…. The doctor cursed silently. That hole in Neumann’s chest whispered like a leaky gasket; the lung was ready to collapse. He gave the order: “Tell OR to prep for a gunshot wound. Get Dorfmann.”
The nurse, glancing nervously at the men in black, whispered, “Dorfmann’s busy, remember?”
“Shit, that’s right.” The doctor tugged at his blood-splattered sleeve, checking his watch. The balding redhead with the bullet in his gut had staggered in less than ten minutes ago. Chief Surgeon Dorfmann was probably up to his elbows in him by now. Jesus. “Who else is here? What’s the name of that new cardiovascular guy?”
“Johnson? I’ll get him over the intercom.”
The nurse scurried away. Following her lead, orderlies seized the sides of Neumann’s bed and wheeled him out of the trauma ward, tubes trailing behind like tentacles. Two of the men in black left as well; the third, the one without sunglasses, turned to the doctor. His face was red with exertion, but his eyes were oddly expressionless, gaze calm. He seemed at least sixty years old, his teeth too white to be anything but false. Blocking the doctor’s way, he asked, “How soon will Agent Neumann be ready to leave?”
“At the soonest? Not for several days. We still don’t know the extent of the damage to his left lung. He may not fully recover.”
“Damn.” The man spun on his heels, great black overcoat swirling like the wings of a bat, and stormed down the corridor. The doctor could feel his rage, impatience. No real concern, though. Typical government asshole.
He shook his head, reaching for a clipboard. Mother of God. Two bullet wounds in the same night. That chubby redheaded idiot, shooting himself in the belly while cleaning his own pistol, only to be dropped off at the hospital by some other brain-dead who hadn’t even bothered to stick around; and this FBI agent, this Neumann, whose colleagues were pissed because a sucking chest wound wouldn’t heal itself on schedule. Made him nostalgic for the days before cheap drugs and handguns had invaded Craneo.
The doctor scratched his head. Coughed. Looked down at his scrubs, streaked with red Rorschach fingerpainting, runnels of blood—and strode into the staff room for a change of clothes.
Several hours later, both Charles Scully and the man identified as Pio Neumann were wheeled, minus bullets, out of the OR and into the inpatient ward. Sliced open and stitched up, bloodflow staunched, sutures itching, hazy from anesthesia, the two men were placed into adjacent beds, separated only by a curtain of green plastic. Neither knew that the other was there.
Not yet, anyway.
Lying ramrod-straight on his living room couch, staring up at the darkness, Mulder tried to sleep. Couldn’t. His eyes were dry, mind buzzing like a nest of wasps.
His ears perked up. A sound came from outside his apartment door, from the hallway—a footstep, a leather heel scratching against tile. Distinct, unmistakable. He sat up jerkily, going for his gun, toppling from the sofa. Rushed to the doorway. Peered through the eyehole, saw no one, then flung the door open without hesitation. Jutted his pistol into the corridor, arm rigid.
Nothing. An empty hall.
But there was a package at his feet. Wrapped in brown paper, tied with twine, too small—thank God—to contain a kangaroo, it was the size of a cake box, unmarked. For now, he stepped over it, ran to the stairwell. Peered down, nosing his gun around the corner first. Again: nothing. Not even an echo of retreat.
Heart thudding rapidly, Mulder lowered the pistol and turned back to his apartment. To the box. He knelt to examine it. There were no airholes or apertures of any kind. No address. No writing or marks. He picked it up thoughtfully, hefting its weight: heavy enough to be a bomb, he supposed—but explosions weren’t X’s style, or Palimpsest’s, not when they could shoot you cleanly or inject you with oxyphenylcyrine. He ran his hands over the paper, sniffed it, tilted it so the surface caught the light. If there was invisible ink—copper sulfate or otherwise—then it was well-concealed. Carefully, he flipped the package over. The underside was as blank and featureless as the rest.
“Brown paper packages tied up with string,” he said. “Jeez.”
He brought it inside, set it on his coffee table and tore away the wrapping. Inside was a thin white cardboard box, the kind that contains department store clothing. Edges were taped shut. He worked a finger between lid and bottom, broke the cellophane and lifted the top away. More layers: several wads of tissue paper. Pulling them aside, letting them drift to the rug like half-formed wishes, Mulder saw what lay beneath.
First: a blue ballpoint pen. He took it out gently. The cap was glued on. He found the clip, pressed down on it with his thumbnail—and a hypodermic needle shot out of the pen like a proboscis, two inches long, sharp and gleaming in the darkness. Mulder flinched, nearly dropped it; then, gingerly, he pressed the clip again, triggering some hidden spring mechanism. The needle slid back inside. Frowning, he unscrewed the base of the pen, separating it completely. A small ampoule of straw-colored liquid fell into the palm of his hand. Adrenaline. The second half of the oxyphenylcyrine ritual.
Next: two pink barrettes. They puzzled him at first. He took them out, examining the clasps, the fine comblike teeth. Then he pulled out the next item—and the next—and the next—and when the box was empty and its contents were scattered at his feet, Mulder didn’t know whether to laugh or succumb to hysteria.
He held the black vinyl miniskirt in his hands for a long time. A shiver of fetishistic horror ran down his spine as he felt the stretchiness of the fabric. Smooth and slippery. Designed to ride high on the hips. Slits ran partway up the thighs, dividing the dress into two tonguelike flaps. Like skin. Warm, almost feverish, it frightened him in a dark, inexplicable way, a standard of sadomasochism, unhealthy sex, dark street corners: red neon light.
Then there were the fishnet stockings. Dangling garter straps, shiny buckles, limp silk tentacles. Crisscrossing threads. He set them aside quickly.
Slightly frayed pink tank top. Red spike-heeled pumps. Junk jewelry in a Ziploc bag, dangly tortoiseshell earrings, bracelets. Finally, a pair of oddly childlike cotton panties that Mulder didn’t want to handle. God. He wished he hadn’t touched any of it. The tank top was faded, had been recently washed—but it still had light mottled stains running across the front, almost imperceptible amber blotches, gray blotches, lighter than watercolors.
Dead woman’s clothes. What Abby Janneson had been wearing when Josef Kaun died.
He knew what those stains were. Oh yes.
Mulder stood, walked unsteadily to the kitchen. He stuck his arms into the sink and turned on the cold water, letting it run across his hands, chilling the skin into unfeeling numbness, turning it pink, trembly. He shivered. Thought of Scully in those clothes. Simple enough procedure. Dress her like a whore, lead her to the street corner, light the cigarette, watch as she spasmed, fell to the concrete, letters unfolding on her belly, turn her over, find the pen, jam the needle into her spine…
“Holy shit,” Mulder said, retching. His esophagus convulsed, stomach turning in on itself, and he threw up in the kitchen sink. “Fuck,” he muttered through wet lips. The vein in his forehead pounded. He washed the vomit down the drain, grabbed unseeingly for a glass, filled it, swirled the water around in his mouth. Spat. The back of his throat felt like sandpaper.
He couldn’t do it. Sweet relief washed over him as he made the choice, saw the obvious, realized that there was no way he would ever kill Scully. No way he could expose her to such risk. Not just death, but something even more obscene…
What had X said? When Palimpsest victims are resuscitated after being used to contact the dead, some residue often remains. Mental residue. The entire process is akin to possession, after all; in some cases, subjects begin to take on personality tics and quirks—unusual speech patterns, for example—that belonged to the contactees, as if some of the foreign soul had poisoned their own brains, permanently.
He couldn’t poison Scully’s brain—not with Kaun’s personality, anyway. Screw X. Screw Palimpsest. He would create his own solution. Mulder grinned, still tasting bile in his throat, gripping the edge of the kitchen counter with moist hands.
But, he reflected, staring down at the black unblinking pupil of the drain, his problems were the same as before. X expected him to kill his partner, then bring her back to life; Palimpsest would simply kill her, without any added courtesies; and he didn’t prefer either alternative. He turned on cold water again, splashed his forehead, face, the back of his neck, flesh stinging from the chill, the drops lingering and running down his collar. Keeping the tap on, looking at the water’s glasslike thickness, watching as it was sucked down clockwise into the depths of that unseeing eye, he asked himself: What, really, is at stake here? He remembered something else X had said in the cathedral: If you knew what Kaun was working on, you would not hesitate.
All right. Think. What was Kaun working on?
The Lone Gunmen had voiced their own suspicions, told him the rumors, the conjectures, but he knew things they didn’t, could assemble incoherent details into something resembling fact, could piece things together, get a working knowledge of the situation. Now, though, his brain boggled. He thought of something Langly had said in passing, a stupid joke: “Bet you always thought MJ stood for Majestic, huh? Nope. Masters and Johnson.”
Because Kaun had been working with xenoeroticism. Sex and aliens.
Returning to the living room, lying wearily on the couch, Mulder tried to put everything together. Pieces of a puzzle. Jigsaws. Assembled, the picture was something dark, something hooded: insect eyes, bulbous foreheads, thin gray skin, scrabbling hands—all confined in darkness.
He began with what he already knew.
Following the 1947 Roswell crash, a group of Nazi scientists—geneticists, specialists in eugenics, selective breeding, mutational studies, biological temurah—had been secretly brought to the United States. Working from genetic information obtained from smallpox vaccinations, men and women and children had been abducted, their DNA unzipped, blood extracted, cells ruptured, sperm and eggs mutated, samples of tissue and flesh cultured, homunculi grown, genotype violated: their genes had been merged with alien chromosomes, and these Paper Clip Nazis had succeeded in creating a hybrid. A chimera. Strong, nearly superhuman, but green-blooded and hexanucleotidal—and half-alien.
Mulder had been directly told some of this, inferring the rest. He knew that Scully’s abduction—and his sister’s—had been part of some such experiment. He knew that his father had been involved. As had others. Dark, veiled figures, supremely dedicated to the hybrid concept but content to linger in the periphery, the shadows, giving orders from smoke-filled rooms and Pentagon desks weighted down with gold.
Had Kaun been one of these men?
Flashback. The Lone Gunman headquarters, carbon-arc lamps beating down from above. Langly with his gleaming forehead, Byers in his sunglasses, grinning like a pair of fraternity brothers. Mulder, sputtering: “Majestic…? Kaun worked with aliens?”
Byers: “In a way. He had sex with them.”
Langly: “Well, not exactly. Listen, these are murky waters, and I don’t want to engage in idle speculation—”
“—but look. Examine Kaun’s career from the beginning. His PhD thesis was entitled ‘Orgone Metaphysics Reinterpreted in a Quantum Context…’”
Mulder interrupted. “Orgone? As in Wilhelm Reich?”
“Exactly. You know Reich. German scientist, crony of Sigmund Freud, made great advances in psychoanalysis and the study of neuroses, fled his homeland when Hitler came to power, went from Denmark to Sweden to Norway to Maine. Became controversial for his studies of sex and the orgasm. Later fell from grace with the US government, was hounded by the FDA on trumped-up charges. In 1957 his books—years of research, an entire lifetime of work—were burnt in a public incinerator. You understand? Book burning. In America. He died in prison that same year.”
“Of course,” said Byers, “Reich’s most enduring legacy is the supposed discovery of orgone energy. It was part of his orgasm research. He found that sexual pleasure produces a small electric charge at skin surface, a release of energy measurable on conventional instruments. This is established stuff. Orthodox studies confirm it. However, Reich dug deeper. Wondered where that energy came from. He eventually concluded that a bioplasmic energy—orgone—exists everywhere in the universe, the archetypal ‘life force.’ He supposedly isolated this energy in the form of bluish-green particles, similar to organic plasmids, which he called ‘bions.’ Although these experiments were ostensibly done under sterile and tightly-controlled conditions, the traditional medical establishment dismisses Reich as a quack…”
“As he probably was,” said Mulder.
“Perhaps,” Langly said. “But Kaun found him interesting enough to base his doctorate upon his research. He argued that many of Reich’s conclusions could be supported, with modification, by current astrophysical concepts—current, that is, back in 1973.”
“Unfortunately,” said Byers, “he was wrong. One of his central arguments was based upon a model of black hole behavior that Stephen Hawking independently disproved three months later. So it all came to nothing.”
“What’s the point?” Mulder said.
“The point is that Kaun never gave up. He continued to pursue his research of Reich’s ideas. This may have been why the Pentagon hired him so quickly.”
“Listen,” Langly said. “Reliable accounts maintain that Wilhelm Reich had numerous encounters with UFO’s while researching orgone energy in Maine. This began in 1951, when visitors noticed strange dark shapes in the sky above Reich’s 260-acre estate; a year later, Reich noticed an alien black substance growing on boulders.”
“Right. Scraping it away only excited it. The stuff destroyed rocks, caused nausea, pain, dizziness, cyanosis, thirst in whoever came in contact with it. Trees on his property withered and died. Reich eventually concluded that he was at bioplasmic war with some unknown alien force.”
Mulder shook his head. “This is a tad extreme.”
“There’s more,” Byers said. “The UFO’s were apparently attracted by Reich’s experiments with orgone. They were drawn to it. Aroused. Lured. They were, perhaps, powered by a similar energy—the light surrounding the objects was bluish-green in color, exactly like the bions, and the UFOs moved in a spinning wave pattern identical to that of orgone oscillation. In short, it seemed that Reich’s work acted as bait to the hostile alien craft.”
“Eventually, the Pentagon realized the possible merit of his research,” Langly said. “They put a team of specialists to work on the problem: could Reich’s techniques be used to communicate with alien life? Kaun was one of these men. And the answer was yes.”
“So where does sex come into it?”
“Everywhere.” Byers folded his hands behind his head. “You need to look at it from the Pentagon’s point of view. Officially, orgone energy doesn’t exist; Reich is still considered a crackpot in reputable circles, and any admission of merit in his work would absolutely destroy science as we know it. His results contradict everything from cell theory to the Second Law of Thermodynamics.”
“But there was no denying that something in Reich’s work was attracting those alien spacecraft,” said Langly. “Something he was doing in Maine, part of his research, part of his studies. So if the Pentagon couldn’t accept orgone, then they needed to find something else.”
“That ‘something else’ was sex,” Byers said. “Part of Reich’s work involved actual couples engaging in intercourse. He would attach galvanometers to skin and genitals, measure electrical potential, chart fluctuations, find patterns. Very controversial stuff. The Pentagon concluded that this was what attracted the extraterrestrials.”
“Wait. Wait. Wait,” said Mulder. He gave an incredulous laugh. “What’re we talking about here? Alien voyeurs?”
“Exactly,” said Langly. “Hell, after a thirty billion light-year voyage, you’d be looking for a little action, too.”
“It actually makes sense when you think about it,” Byers said.
“Help me out,” said Mulder.
“Think about horror movies—when do the gruesome eye creatures from outer space attack? While the teenagers are necking in the car. Always. And reality supports the cliche: abductions do tend to occur in a sexual context, or a context that can be interpreted as such.”
Langly: “Moreover, when you examine the abduction literature, you find that there are dozens of reported instances of xenoeroticism.”
“Close encounters of the sexual kind. For example, in 1957, a Brazilian farmer named Antonio Villas Boas was abducted by a group of small large-headed aliens—apparently Type C Grays—and brought aboard a spaceship, where he was then stripped, coated with liquid, and forced to have sex with a beautiful nude woman with blue eyes…”
“Forced. I’ll bet.”
“She probably wasn’t human,” said Byers. “Instead of kissing, she bit him repeatedly on the chin. No kidding.”
“Jokes aside, there are numerous similar cases,” Langly said. “It makes perfect sense from a colonization perspective: procurement of sperm, eggs, exchange of genetic information…”
“…and it appears,” Byers continued, “that aliens are sensitive enough to be attracted to the similar activities occurring at Dr. Reich’s ranch. We conclude, therefore, that Kaun’s mission was to determine how this sensitivity could be used in our government’s favor—in service of interplanetary diplomacy. Sex as a liaison between species.”
Mulder remained incredulous. “Do you have any evidence of this? Do you know the specifics of what Kaun was doing?”
Langly shook his head. “Nope. Even our influence only extends so far.” He hazarded a sardonic grin. “I’d guess that Kaun enjoyed his work, though.”
“Perhaps a little too much.”
But now, lying broodingly on his living room couch, Mulder reflected that the nature of Kaun’s work could have been quite different than the Lone Gunmen suspected. Their information had limits. They didn’t know about the hybridization. The experiments. The clones. The genetic freaks, the hexanucleotidal half-aliens. The Lone Gunmen postulated a kind of sexual communication, a way of summoning or speaking to aliens through a language that was literally universal: copulation, reproduction, procreation. But if aliens and government were as closely intertwined as Mulder suspected they were—as the Gunmen couldn’t possibly know—then such efforts would be superfluous. Useless. The communication would already be there.
Attempts at cloning, on the other hand…at hybrids…
Kaun’s research might have found application there. Perhaps after his sexual liaison work no longer became necessary, they’d transferred him to the genetic labs. To xenobiology. DNA. Orgone. Whatever strange orgasms aliens had. These were momentous secrets. Secrets that Kaun—and Kaun alone—knew. Secrets that, perhaps, could only be obtained by murdering Scully with oxyphenylcyrine and reading her stigmata.
And what if it was true? What if it was possible to hear the voice of the dead?
Familiar names, familiar faces, washed over him again: people whom he and Scully had lost. Spirits who might be summoned through Palimpsest’s murderous techniques. Mulder understood the tempation. He asked himself: if it weren’t Kaun—if it were Deep Throat or Melissa Scully or Bill Mulder—would his hesitation be any less?
No, he answered firmly. Never. He would never kill Scully. Not for anything; not for anyone; and not for any secret.
So thinking, Mulder drifted off to uneasy sleep.
Dawn. Sunlight bled across the sky, oyster-pink. Scully’s eyes were puffy, rimmed with red; she had been driving for nearly four hours. After abandoning her shattered hulk of an automobile—muffler hanging, windows and headlights smashed to pieces—two miles from the Craneo hospital, she’d found a Hertz agency, rented the first car she saw, and driven back to where she’d left the wreck, luggage and kangaroo still lying within. She’d transferred her belongings, strapped the joey in securely, repaired the carrier door with a bit of wire—and begun the drive to New York.
At this hour, traffic on the interstate was smooth. She made good time. The kangaroo remained silent, occasionally sniffing the inside of the cage or thumping feet against plastic walls—an odd rat-a-tat of percussion, a marsupial invocation against danger ahead. She felt its uncertainty. Sympathized. Decided—more out of psychological necessity than anything else—to render her mind a complete blank, no thought, no contemplation of what lay ahead: she kept her eye on the road, on the progression of stripes down the pavement, the hypnotic thrum of wheels against rough asphalt, moonlight, darkness. Anxiety departed. She no longer feared her destination; she no longer worried for Charles’ safety; she no longer wondered how X could have been among the men in black when he had been in Washington minutes before. She simply drove.
For several hours, it worked. But then dawn came, along with the necessity to pull over soon, let the kangaroo out, smear it with sunscreen, perhaps feed it and let it take care of business. Scully began looking for an offramp. She wasn’t sure where she was—somewhere in Virginia, past Richmond—and the landscape seemed oddly unfamiliar. She’d driven this route before, many times, but the curve of hillside and grass beyond the freeway seemed almost lunar in the light of sunrise—gray, cold, alien. Even the clouds seemed strange. Sparse but foreboding. The sky became more blue, more retreating. Brighter.
Best, then, to move quickly. She left the freeway at the next exit, found herself on a broad country road slicing through the fields. Grass grew tall on either side, waist-height, the blades long and curved like scimitars from the wind. Wind: it whistled across her open windows, borne down low against the grass, humming through the grass, pressing the grass flat. In the distance, a finger-width of dirt led away from the roadway. It widened as she drew near. Barely wide enough to accommodate the car—as she turned, the thick blades of grass rubbed against the doors like brittle anemones—so she drove slowly, crawling forward at fifteen miles per hour until she lost sight of the main highway. Scully carefully eased the car onto the shoulder, crushing a rectangle of grass beneath her wheels.
She was swallowed by the field. It stretched in blank monotony to all sides, an ocean of unceasing tussock, wild grass, lawn, esplanade. Absolutely featureless. The weaving, uncut rows were gray in the dawn.
Opening her door, Scully literally waded out into the field’s embrace, the stalks reaching past her thighs and waist, soaking her legs with dew. The wind blew in a ceaseless murmur. She shivered, looked up. In a few moments, the sun would be high enough to pose a danger to the kangaroo’s fragile albino skin. She needed to slather the joey’s vulnerable areas, let it run around for a few minutes, defecate, whatever—always on the leash, of course. After that, she could drive until ten o’ clock, then find a telephone, call Mulder at the number he’d provided, and let him know she was all right.
By early afternoon she would be in New York. By evening she would meet Mulder on the street corner that X had specified. And then, perhaps…
Scully shook her head. That was all in the future. Until then, she would handle matters one thing at a time. First. She walked unsteadily around the back of the car, denim slacks sticking wetly to her calves and hips, and opened the trunk, rummaging through packages and suitcases until she found the bread and SPF 50 lotion. Then she moved to the passenger’s door and flung it open. The kangaroo heard her, became excited; it drummed its paws against the door of the cage, punctuating each impact with a catlike mewing. “Shhh,” Scully said, halfway soothingly. She briefly pondered what to do next, decided for blind aggression; she unwired the carrier door, let it swing loosely open, waited just long enough for the joey to poke its white head out from the confines—and collared it, holding the leash firmly near the neck. The most vulnerable areas to sunburn, she saw, were the ears, nose and eyelids, as well as the toes and parts of the underbelly. Gripping the cap of the tube in her teeth, she unscrewed it, squeezed too hard, and ejaculated creamy sunscreen across the interior of the car.
Most of it hit the dashboard. Scully kept a tight grip on the leash, reached across the kangaroo’s head to slather her fingers in the spilled lotion. She coated her fingertips, brought them to the joey’s ears, tried to spread the sunscreen on the tender pink flesh—but it bucked, twisting its head in her grasp, resisting, smearing useless blobs across its wiry fur. Scully swore. Tried again. Scooped up more lotion, managed to coat half an ear, got more on herself and the nape of the kangaroo’s neck. Repeated. Again. And again.
This went on for several minutes. By the time Scully finally managed to coat the joey to her satisfaction, she’d been slimed to the elbows—both arms—and her grip on the leash was slippery, lubricated. The joey sensed this. It tugged, fur bristling. The thin leather strap slid through Scully’s fingers like a siphon through a greased bunghole—whizzed through—and before she could react, the kangaroo sprang loose, leaping over her startled shoulders out into the field. It landed in the grass with a rustling thump. Hopped uncertainly away from the road and vanished into the tall growth.
“Oh God, not again…” Scully spun from the car and plunged into the field, wading through the grass as quickly as she could. The stalks were coarse, rough, with serrated edges; a blade scratched the inside of her wrist, a thin line of pain rising livid from the skin. An unseen stone caught her foot—she tripped, fell heavily. Pressed on. She couldn’t see the kangaroo, but she could see the vortex it made, an inverted V of trampled grass, like a dinghy pressing through rough waters. As she followed, she saw white smears of sunscreen spattered on the blades: the lawn acted as an enormous scouring pad, rubbing away the lotion from the joey’s ears and face, leaving a snail’s trail of SPF 50 in the kangaroo’s wake. Wiping it clean. The stench of bananas was thick. Scully followed it like a bloodhound.
Light suddenly broke through the clouds—and hot rays touched the back of Scully’s neck. Dawn had passed. The sun was high above the horizon. “Darn it!” Albino animals fried fast; although the grass would provide some protection, Scully knew that if she didn’t corral the kangaroo within two or three minutes, enough sunscreen would rub off to allow serious burns. “Stupid thing deserves it,” she muttered.
But she kept moving. Already she could feel the kangaroo beginning to slow, sensing that something was wrong: the vortex held still, uncertain, hesitant. Scully heard a whimper. She drew close, feinted to the left—but the joey bounded off too quickly for her to get her arms around it. Breathing hard now. She was tired, deathly tired. It seemed too surreal, too strange to care: chasing an albino kangaroo through a gray Virginia field, following shreds of spattered sunscreen like an olfactory fetishist. The pursuit continued for another minute, another, the sun rising with every passing second. Now the kangaroo mewed pathetically with each leap: it was burnt, no doubt about it, but it kept moving, driven by some stupid protomammalian fleeing instinct. Dumb thing.
Breeze gusted into her face. She was downwind from the kangaroo, her sounds and odors wafted away. Now was the time to move. She saw the vortex. Crept toward it. Approached close enough to look down, see the kangaroo huddled among the grasses, ears and nose stained a fierce tomato red. Jeez—in a few minutes, they would blister. Moving silently, holding her breath, she came within inches of the joey, arms outstretched—and flung her arms around its thin furry torso. It yelped, tried to buck free, but she held it firm. Lifted. Pressed it to her chest like a papoose. Staggered backward, kangaroo in arms, toward the car, by now a hundred yards away. The joey had been shitting madly in the grass; she could smell the dry thick stench of droppings.
Scully was only a few yards from the car when she happened to glance down at the kangaroo’s ears. Gasped. Almost dropped the joey. “Holy…what in the name of…” The kangaroo’s head was just beneath her chin, its snout pressed hotly against the curve of her throat. Its ears were upright, trembling. Burnt.
And on the inflamed flesh, words had appeared.
Words. White letters, standing out clearly against the red hairless ears. Perhaps they were carefully patterned injections of calcium, or opaque melanin, or near-colorless synthetic tattoos—anything—it didn’t matter: they were invisible when the kangaroo’s ears were their normal whitish-pink shade—but strikingly apparent when the albino skin was burned darker. Like invisible ink. Copper sulfate in reverse: white on red.
The words on the joey’s ears read 1527 K STREET. An address.
Scully wondered what might be there.
Two dozen yards away, crouching behind row after row of knife-bladed grass, It spied on Scully with Its clear hazel eyes. Motionless. Invisible. Breathing softly and regularly, It watched as Scully stuffed the joey back into the carrier, slammed the door, walked around to the other side of the car, slid into the driver’s seat, roared the engine, steered back onto the road—and disappeared in a puff of dust.
After her departure, silence hung over the field like a shroud. Even the birds were still; the only sound was the the rustling of wind over grassy tussock. Whispers. Like the tumultuous voices of the dead.
It listened to these voices.
And resumed Its pursuit.
Bam. Bam. Pounding on Mulder’s door. Heavy knocks rattling the wood. His dream—a vague, tangled web of images, associations, dark forces, scrabbling fingers, concrete, nightmarish cigarettes—vanished from his brain like dew dissipating from Virginia grass; he rose from his couch, muscles creaking, mind a headachy blur of thirst and fear. Stood too quickly, the blood rushing to his head. Slipped on something, half-fell, banging his hip against the coffee table.
Slinking to the door, pistol clasped loosely in hand, he checked the peephole, saw who it was, set his gun on the coffee table—within easy reach—and swung the door open.
X stood there, holding a red balloon in his fist. It was really quite comical. The balloon had a cheerful yellow star set against the red latex: a sixth point, and it might have reminded Mulder of the Warsaw ghetto. The string was a length of silvery ribbon, tied loosely at the balloon’s mouth. It bobbed and fluttered like a ripe persimmon.
Mulder asked, “Been to the playground today?”
His contact was not amused. “Shut the fuck up and listen,” X said, stepping into the apartment. “There’s been a major catastrophe. No phone lines are safe. Palimpsest has uploaded your voiceprints to the IPSD.” X glowered as if he expected Mulder to recognize the reference.
He disappointed him: “The what?”
“The international phone system database.” X shut the still-open front door behind him, lowering his voice. “NSA set it up in ‘91. Very sophisticated. All telephone calls made within the contiguous United States are monitored by computer, and, if necessary, recorded.”
“Recorded—?” It was too early for Mulder to handle new paranoia. “You mean they’ve been wiretapping every single telephone conversation for the past five years?”
“No, of course not—not entirely. Listen. You know that your voiceprint is unique, as unique as a fingerprint—”
“Yes, yes,” said Mulder impatiently, running a hand through his sleep-stiffened hair.
“Five years ago, the NSA equipped the entire microwave phone system with software that recognizes individual voiceprints. You understand? If your voiceprint is stored in the database, when you make a call—no matter what phone you use, so long as it goes through the normal lines of communication—they know where you are. Like that. It only takes a word or two for the system to recognize your voice. Once it does, they’ve begun recording and pinpointed your location within seconds. NSA knows exactly where you are—and Palimpsest has instant access to that information. You’re screwed every which way.”
“Right. No phone line is safe, not even land lines.”
“Holy God.” Mulder sank down on his sofa, mind reeling. No phone was safe—any contact could be used against them—but was Scully already doomed? Where was she? Was she all right? He asked none of this, but only the question that bore heaviest upon them all: “When was my voiceprint placed in the IPSD?”
“According to my sources, your voice—and Agent Scully’s voice—was uploaded to the database at approximately 3:00 am. Five hours ago.”
His heart slowed. “Thank God.” The surveillance hadn’t been put into place until after he’d last spoken to Scully. They were still safe…unless, of course, Palimpsest had been listening while he called her from his cell phone. And even if this were a groundless worry, problems still loomed: “But how can I contact her now? How can I bypass the database? Make sure she’s all right?”
Instead of answering, X gave an odd, reptilian grin—a smile that barely cracked his dark stony features—and placed the red balloon into Mulder’s hands.
He understood. “You gotta be kidding me.”
“I wish I were,” X said.
Hurtling down the freeway, hands moist on the wheel, Scully’s head throbbed in a ceaseless staccato mantra: 1527 K STREET. 1527 K STREET. A Washington address, no doubt—but to what? And from whom? Strapped into the carrier alongside her, the kangaroo whimpered, nursing its burnt ears, newly-slathered with sunscreen; Scully didn’t know whether it would soothe the inflammation or not. In any case, if she wished, she could peer through the slats of the carrier door at any time, looking carefully at the joey’s reddened ears, reexamining the message for the thousandth time, barely visible beneath the new layer of lotion. 1527 K STREET. Not so much a message…as a summons.
Too many unknowns. Balancing mysteries against fact, Scully knew that the scales were tipped on an unfair fulcrum: countless unanswered questions choked rational thought. The dwarf’s identity. Who the dwarf had been working for. Whether her brother was safe. Palimpsest. How X had been with Mulder in Washington—only to be in South Carolina less than twenty minutes later. Why the kangaroo had been sent, when the message could have been conveyed in a dozen other ways.
Finally, there was the message itself. The address.
It was nine-thirty. She was past Virginia, past Washington, somewhere in Pennsylvania, beyond Harrisburg. Two hours ago, she had been tempted—Christ, how she had been tempted—to take a secret detour to Washington, go to K Street, perhaps find Mulder. Forget X’s orders. Forget Manhattan. Forget Kaun’s ghost and Abby Janneson’s ghost and everything else Mulder had told her: just try to make an end of it.
But that would be suicide. Palimpsest would watch Mulder’s office and apartment like vultures; they’d cordon him off. Going to him would be like walking into a duck blind.
All she could do, really, was pull over at the next pay phone, wait until ten o’ clock, telephone the indicated number and hope Mulder answered. Hope that he had somehow managed to elude the Palimpsest agents who—she knew—would be watching him night and day.
Exited the interstate. After a few minutes, she found herself in midst of a Pennsylvania suburb, hot, muggy, air radiating from the pavement, everything red brick or orange sandstone. Scully drove down the sparsely-populated boulevard, asphalt and lawn all filmed with a thin sheen of sweat. Noontime would be murder. She blasted the air conditioner, the sudden rush of fans startling the joey. It coughed once, sneezed, fearful—even in the relative darkness of the carrier, a few rectangles of yellowish sunlight shone through the bars, making it wary. The glass of the windshield blocked most burning UV rays, but it didn’t know that; it only coughed and sneezed and flitted nervously, cramped, in the confines of the cage.
Scully wanted someplace quiet, private. Turning off the main street, she wandered aimlessly down side roads. Residential districts. After ten minutes, she saw a promising place: a pay phone sprouting from the sidewalk like a toadstool, a vacant lot on one side, a quiet Episcopalian church on the other. Deserted. Perfect. She pulled over and got out, leaving the kangaroo inside the car. It was precisely 9:45.
She would contact Mulder soon—but needed to call elsewhere first. Information had the number. A long distance call. After a moment’s hesitation, she punched in Charles’s phone card number—use of her own code might be under observation, but she doubted that anyone would think to monitor her brother’s. Dialed the number. The phone rang once, twice.
A pleasant female voice answered. “Good morning, Craneo Community Hospital.”
“Hello, I’d like to check in on the condition of one of your patients, Charles Scully—he was admitted late last night because of a bullet injury…”
“May I ask who is calling?”
“His sister. I—” Scully hesitated. She didn’t know what Charles might have told the hospital, what explanation he might have given for the shooting; she didn’t want to give any information that would conflict with his version of events. Best to keep quiet. Play dumb.
“Well, let’s see…” Rustling of papers, insurance forms, patient records. “Here we are. Charles Scully went into surgery around midnight—said he’d shot himself while cleaning his own handgun, and was dropped off at the emergency room by a friend of his…”
“A friend? Did he say who?”
“There’s no name here; I’m not sure.”
“How’s he doing? What’s his status?” Unconsciously nervous, Scully wrapped the silvery metal cord of the phone around her thumb, twisting it convulsively tight.
“Signs are stable. He came out of the OR nine hours ago. I think he’s still sleeping. With luck, he could be released as soon as tomorrow morning.”
“Was there any permanent damage?”
“The doctors removed his spleen—he didn’t need it anyway. They repaired the damage to his stomach during surgery. The bullet chipped one of his ribs. That’s all. He’s lucky; the slug lodged three inches from his backbone.”
“So he should be all right.”
“Barring any unforeseen complications, yes. At the moment, it looks like he’ll be just fine.”
Relief. Her brother was out of danger. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you very much.” She hung up, cutting off the hospital receptionist before she could ask any questions.
She did not hear the soft digital murmur at the other end of the line.
Charles Scully no longer had a spleen, and most of his other organs seemed to have vacated the premises as well: heart, lungs, liver, intestines, diaphragm, pancreas and all the rest had been replaced by numbness and dull pain. Slippery aching. His chest was a hollow cavity, weighted down with bricks. Breathing took an effort. Instead of sleeping, he stared up at the ceiling and tried to count the pinholes in an acoustic tile. The first time, he managed to get to twenty-nine before a gut spasm forced him to close his eyes and start over; after that, he never got past twelve.
He lay in bed like a survivor on a desert island, isolated, sleepless, bordered on all sides by draperies the color of ocean waves.
Several minutes passed before he noticed the mumbling. Slurred words from an anesthetized throat, soft, insinuating: “Gaaaa…Doanwait fomee…Go wai….Doanwait fomee…Getter….”
Curious, Charles turned his head slightly in the direction of the noise, to the left. Another sterile green sheet stood between him and the neighboring bed, blocking his view, but there was a foot-high gap between it and the floor, and he could hear just fine: whoever lay next to him was talking in his sleep, words snaking up from delirium. Thick-lipped. Probably on the opiates—morphine—that Charles had refused. Sighing, he turned away, looking back up at the ceiling. His head sunk down low into the hot puffiness of his pillow—too hot, soaked with sweat—hair damp with perspiration. Began counting holes in the tile again.
More sounds. They became clearer, less fuzzy, although still strained through cheesecloth: “Goer way…Doant weight fermee…Getter…Get her…”
Was anyone with the man in the other bed? Any visitors? Charles listened carefully, closing his eyes. No sound except his own haggard breathing, the beep of a distant electroencephalograph, a rustling of sheets, more rough gasping from beside him—and the mumbles. Nothing else. Both he and the man beside him were alone. He guessed that there were probably other beds stretching to either side, a long row lining the hallway, but most of them felt vacant, silent: Craneo was a fairly quiet suburb, after all, and its inpatient ward was unlikely to be crowded in early morning.
Of course, Charles reflected, he didn’t know what time it really was—it felt like morning, but he couldn’t be sure. No clock. He hazarded a movement, bringing a hand to his face, feeling his cheeks and chin and upper lip. Some stubble, not more than a day’s worth. Close to what he sometimes felt at ten or eleven o’ clock.
“Go away…Don’t wait for me…Get her…Get her…”
Charles’s eyes opened wide. The mumbles had cleared, as if the speaker had broken through a mental haze, cleared his throat, drawn his lips back from his tongue. Go away. Don’t wait for me. Get her. The voice of an old man. The words were still slurred, although less than before—like a senior citizen speaking through a clotted throat. Senile? Christ: the last thing Charles wanted was to lie here listening to the mutterings of some old alter kocker—
“What?” The word was ripped from Charles throat before he could stop it. He didn’t like the way he sounded. His voice was sandpaper. “What did you say?”
“Fuggin kannawo. Fukin kanaroo. Fuckin’ kangaroo.” This was not a response: the man was still asleep, in drug-induced mistiness. Charles, on the other hand, became suddenly and painfully lucid, the world’s clashing colors taking him by force. He stared at the gray ceiling. Listened. The man continued to yammer: “Kangaroo. Whatsername? Shkully. Shkully. Get Shkully, forget me…”
“Oh God,” Charles whispered to himself. “Oh God, oh Christ, oh mercy.”
It was the man in black. Lying less than five feet away in a narcotic stupor, in a bed just like this one, wired to IV’s, tubes up his nose: Charles saw the scene as if he were hovering by the man’s bedside. Right there. They had spent the night together.
Last night. Charles squeezed his eyes shut, tried to think. He dimly recalled Scully shooting through the rear window of the car—squeezing off two bullets at the cyclopean Impala—perhaps hitting someone, the driver, slowing the pursuit…. But why in God’s name would the men in black take this risk? Why would they bring one of their own to a public hospital? Questions would be asked. Names taken. They would be exposed, perhaps damagingly.
He opened his eyes. Turned his head until he saw the celery-colored plastic of the dividing curtain. Fixing his gaze upon it—as if he could see through the laminated material, see the man in black, look upon his face—Charles wondered what to do next. With shocked bemusement, he realized that he could feel his heart again. It thudded like a grandfather clock. His chest was intact again. Lungs. Belly. Gut. A flood of hot anxiety filled all his organs.
“Goddamn kangaroo…Don’t wait for me…Kaystreet…It…It…”
First: he needed to make sure he was right. Wondered if he could stand. His legs felt like rubbery sticks, brittle and trembling at the same time. He shifted them beneath the bedclothes. Pain in his intestines. He could feel the gauze and plaster and plastic staples wrapped around his abdomen, keeping everything securely in place. Try harder. Bring legs to edge of mattress. Thin cot, covered with polyethylene. His foot hovered at the edge; with fixed concentration, he began to bring it down in slow gradients, inch by inch, until his bare sole touched the floor. Icy. Then the next foot…
Bit by bit. Minute by minute. Charles Scully was on his feet before he knew it.
Standing unsteadily, he looked down. He wore a thin blue hospital gown, tied loosely at the back, leaving spine and ass exposed. His legs were pale, fuzzed with red hair. Thin. Covered with Band-Aids, wounds he hadn’t noticed before, probably scratches from the downhill tumble in the car; he had been tossed around the back seat like a rag doll, cutting himself on chips of glass from broken windows. He briefly wondered where they’d put his clothes.
Took a step. Another. Parallel to the curtain. Charles teetered, kept his balance with an effort of will. Needlepoints of hot pain lazed through his stomach, one hot ulcer—a wormhole size of a .357—throbbing maddeningly in his abdominal wall. He could feel his juices sloshing around inside. Again and again, he told himself: Just get to the edge of the curtain, draw it aside, take a quick peek—and then decide what to do next.
Suddenly, he could go no further. He glanced down, saw the reason: intravenous tubes trailed from his forearm, taped in place, translucent ducts transporting fluids to and from his bloodstream. Six feet long, they leashed him to an IV stand—bedecked with plump bags of clear liquid—that stood beside his bed. Two choices: either rip the needles from his arm or take the stand along with him. He chose the latter. The stand had squeaky wheels, gritting along the smooth tile—
—and the mumbling from the other bed, which had continued softly this entire time, abruptly stopped. Midsyllable: “Kanga—” Then nothing. Silence.
The man in black was awake. Charles could feel it. He sensed—in some pain-sharpened extrasensory corner of his brain—the man’s eyes opening, squinting in the cool light, darting back and forth, scanning the curtain, looking through the gap between plastic and floor, seeing the IV rig and the bare feet of Charles Scully. He felt the man in black’s mind; the man in black felt his. They stood there, silent on either side of the divider, running their mental eyeballs over the other’s rapt inspection.
Move. Move. MOVE. But what could he do? Find something he could use. A tool. A weapon. Charles looked around desperately. He couldn’t use the IV stand as a bludgeon—too obvious—if a nurse saw him clubbing the man in black, what explanation could he give? Pillow—smother him? Wrap a bedsheet around his neck? His heart began to beat faster—he heard rustling from the next bed. The man in black was stirring, trying to rise. Sensed danger. Oh yes. Like a predator, feral, alert to the barest scent of fear. The man smelled him.
Charles saw a small blue wastebasket by his bed, plastic-lined. He craned his neck, examined the trash within. A few sterile wrappings, crumpled and airy. Some strands of thread.
And a strip of brown pasteboard. He hesitated over this last item. Knew what it might have contained. With a quick sideward glance at the curtain, he knelt down, quickly stuck his fingers among the garbage, rummaged through the wrappings and tearstrings. Bits of cellophane, static clinging lightly to the back of his hand.
He almost cut himself when he found the razor blade.
Brushing aside the surrounding deitrus, he saw the silvery gleam, rectangular and sharp. Just a regular razor, not sterile or surgical. The kind used to slice open cartons. He pinched it carefully between thumb and forefinger and took it out, holding the blunt side firmly. Stood. Judged the edge with his thumbnail—dull, but it could still slash. Charles regarded the blade thoughtfully for few moments. Deep inside his face, his teeth were clattering like maracas—he wasn’t sure he could do anything with the razor other than bluster and bluff—and for what?
Answers. Plain and simple. Someone had been trying to kill him and kidnap his sister. He wanted to know why.
Drawing aside the curtain, blade in hand, Charles Scully looked down, looked deep into the hollow eyes of the man in black—and stepped forward to face his destiny.
Mulder stood on the fire escape for a few bare seconds, silhouetted against the gray sky, wind rustling his hair, and gazed down at the pavement four stories below. Checked his watch. 9:10. He gripped the railing and descended, feet rattling the narrow corrugated aluminum of the steps, holding the red balloon in his other hand. The updrafts made it dance like a bobbing apple, the only spot of color along the entire sun-faded side of the building—a ripe bloody pustule on the back of a giant. He held the balloon carefully, near the neck, the ribbon wrapped tightly around his fingers.
Despite his care, the fire escape clanged. Cold sweat on his forehead. Nervous. The streets were crowded; anyone could look up from the sidewalk and see him.
But Palimpsest’s agents would not—with luck. X had explained quickly. Conventional espionage wisdom dictates that three men are necessary for adequate surveillance—two on the ground, one at an elevated position. Triangulated sights. An impenetrable arrangement. Not an option for Palimpsest, however, which was suffering from the Achilles’ heel of all government agencies, covert or otherwise: a lack of warm bodies. Quite simply, it lacked sufficient manpower to keep Mulder visually pinioned. The majority of its agents were pursuing their true target, Agent Scully; Mulder was little more than an afterthought. For this reason, there was no triangulation. Only two agents watched his apartment. And both of these men had blind spots—areas through which Mulder could walk without being seen, hidden from view by the building itself.
In some places, the blind spots coincided. X had been explicit. One of Palimpsest’s men sat at a park bench across the street. The other stood at the rear of the apartments. If neither of them moved—and they had been standing in the same positions for more than two hours—then each had blind spots on either side of the building. Specifically: there was a four-foot-wide swath of concrete, angling away from the flank of the building, that was invisible to both.
From there, Mulder could come and go as he pleased. Indeed, if he was careful, he could make it all the way to the sidewalk without being seen. Trying for his car would be too risky, but he could take a bus to Washington and be at the designated pay phone before the clock struck ten.
Which was exactly what happened. Reaching the lowermost balcony of the fire escape, he swung himself down and dropped heavily to the cement, careful not to pop the balloon. He landed squarely in the blind spot. According to X, it ran from one side of the building nearly to the street, where a row of garbage cans, placed there for the occasion by X himself, made up the remainder. Mulder crouched low. Shambled to the cans, not straying an inch from the chosen path. Made it to the sidewalk—and found himself a free man.
Moving quickly away, he glanced back over his shoulder, saw that it would be easy to take the route in reverse: one simply jumped back onto the fire escape, mounted four stories, and climbed into the window at the far end of the fourth floor hallway. He assumed that this was how X had entered and exited without being seen.
Mulder was momentarily tempted to circle back around the block to catch a glimpse of the men who were watching him. See the faces of the agents of Palimpsest. Mark them. Know them. But it was already a quarter past nine; if he was to make it to the phone in time, he would need to hurry, leave now. Find a bus. Make it to the cathedral before Scully called.
And so he did.
Forty minutes later, Mulder stood at the corner of Massachusetts and Wisconsin, balloon in hand, guarding the pay phone and waiting for it to ring. 9:58. His mind had played tricks on him all the way there; sitting aimlessly in the bus, staring out the window, he kept seeing Scully in Abby Janneson’s clothes, having a seizure on the dirt-encrusted Manhattan street, cigarette falling from her lips, poisonous smoke clogging her lungs into paralysis. A premonition. He saw it clearly. Even if he trusted his own resolve, knew that he would never hurt his partner in any way, the vision had an eerie plausibility. Compelling. It brought out the gooseflesh.
Worry throttled him. He fought it down, braced himself for the challenge ahead: no matter what, he couldn’t let Scully speak. A one-way phone call is difficult when the other party isn’t in on the joke. Difficult—but essential. One word from Scully, and Palimpsest would be on her like lightning. So Mulder psyched himself, let the adrenaline course freely through his veins, stomped his feet on the ground, worked himself into a frenzy of anxious anticipation, getting ready for what he had to do.
The phone rang. Mulder jumped. It rang again, the shrill whine stabbing his heart like a needle. No doubt about the timing—ten o’ clock exactly—but still he hesitated, wary, not quite ready to untie the balloon and have a go at it. Another ring, another. He found his resolve. He took the ribbon, which was wrapped around the balloon’s neck like a shoelace, and undid it, tightly pinching the neck shut with his fingers to keep any helium from escaping.
He put the balloon to his lips and inhaled deeply. Felt the cold gas enter his lungs. Lightheaded. He saw the receiver through a cool metallic haze, bronchial tubes chilled, full of alien gas. Helium. He gripped the phone, yanked it from the cradle and spoke into it as quickly as he could, the words spilling out one after the other:
“scully, it’s me, mulder—do not talk—trust me—do not talk. keep silent, please, scully, it’s mulder—just stay quiet, this line is bugged, don’t talk, all right? repeat: this line is bugged. i know i sound strange, but don’t talk—just listen—be quiet. all right? don’t talk. don’t talk. do not talk.” He paused, heard breathing at other end of the line. Scully’s? Irony indeed: he couldn’t be sure.
So. The helium made his voice high, strange, cartoonish. Chipmunk talk. He sounded like Steamboat Willie. Ridiculous—but such a modification altered the frequency of his voiceprint, the pitch, the amplitude of the graph, confusing the NSA computers and allowing him to talk safely without being recognized. Sounding like a mechanical castrato was only a slight inconvenience.
Taking another lungfull of helium, he began again. Speech remained squeaky, high-strung Mickey Mouse, but there was nothing humorous about it: tense and harried, his brain felt like a rubber band ready to snap. “okay, scully,” he said, “listen. there have been complications. no land lines are safe.” He explained quickly about the NSA computers and Palimpsest’s access to them; then he took another toke of gas, said, “if you ever want to talk on the phone, you’ll need to use a balloon, like this.” More silence on the other end. Good. Eerie, though. He could still hear her breathing. More gas. “all right,” he squeaked. “the meeting is to go ahead as scheduled. eight o’ clock tonight, in manhattan; i’ll be flying there as soon as i wrap up a few loose ends in washington. are you all right? do you think you can make it to new york in time? tap once on the mouthpiece for yes, twice for no.”
A slight pause—then one tap.
“good.” He gassed himself again. His head was beginning to throb from lack of oxygen. “let’s see…” Think: what else did she need to know? “i’ve found out some stuff about kaun. i think he was working with majestic-12. with aliens. either details of cloning or interspecies communication. this explains why x and palimpsest are so eager to obtain his information. valuable stuff.” Gas break, then the most important part of his message: “i’ve done a lot of thinking…and i’ve decided that i can’t do what x wants. i’m not going to hurt you—it’s too dangerous, even if he says that you’ll be all right. forget the palimpsest method. we can elude them, find another way to get kaun’s information. it just isn’t a risk i’m willing to take.” He paused, took half-a-dozen heaving breaths, filling his lungs with pure air, oxygen: the thunder of blood in his brain eased slightly, clearing his thoughts. Again, helium. “all right…i’m trying to think of a way we can communicate…. do you know morse code?”
He strained to hear. Silence at the other end of the line—and then, faintly, light hissing, puffs of air: Scully was blowing into the mouthpiece. One long puff…one short puff…two long puffs in succession. Pause. Long-short-long-long meant Y. Brain scrambling to piece the letters together, Mulder listened, heard another short puff, pause—the letter E—then three quick puffs. S.
Y—E—S. Scully knew Morse code.
“great,” he tweeted. “is there anything you need to tell me?”
More puffs. A message being spelt out painstakingly, letter by letter. The first grouping—one short puff followed by four longs—threw him off until he remembered his numbers. Three more digits. Three letters. And she was done.
Mulder inhaled more helium. The balloon was nearly empty, soft and collapsing in his hands. “one-five-two-seven-k-s-t.” Dizzy and lightheaded from the gas, he didn’t trust his memory, jotting the message down on a scrap of paper. “k-s-t?” he repeated shrilly. “kist? what is that, some kind of serial number?”
Long puff, short puff. N. No.
Long-short-long-long. Y. Yes.
“1527 k…street? k street? here in washington?”
“okay. do you want me to check this place out? go there? is it important?”
“all right.” Mulder tucked the piece of paper in his pocket, glanced at his watch, took another breath of gas—and suddenly he felt his lungs freeze up. Christ. He was a heartbeat away from passing out on the sidewalk. “scully, i have to go.” He coughed, felt his brain shudder from cyanosis. Of all the stupid things to do. “my helium’s almost gone. i can’t see straight. i—oh jeez.” He fumbled with the handset. Managed to hang up the phone, his fingers numb. Fell to a half-kneel by the telephone, scraping his knee on the concrete, the world disappearing before his eyes in shades of red and brown and maroon—fuck, one fuck of a headache. God. He’d be paying for this for the rest of the week. Needed aspirin. Tylenol. At least half the bottle.
The balloon fell from his fingers. The last gust of helium spurted out through the nozzle, sending it streaking across the street like a red UFO—brrrrrp—where it fell in the gutter and was taken by the wind. In a moment it was gone.
Scully hung up the phone, her mind ablaze with questions and fears and concerns…but before she could think, before she could absorb the consequences of her actions—Jesus, she’d called the hospital, talked for more than a minute, given the omniscient NSA computer more than enough time to hear and mark her voice—something happened that was so unexpected, so startling, that she gave a defensive little shriek. Someone tapped her on the shoulder.
A voice: “Special Agent Dana Scully?”
She whirled. Behind her stood a young woman. Dressed in a long-sleeved floral dress, blonde hair tied back in a pony tail, dark skin freckled and slightly sunburnt, the stranger smiled, stuck out her hand. “Hi. I’m Sera. I sent you the joey.”
“The joey.” Scully paused.
“Yes,” the stranger said. “A member of my organization delivered the kangaroo to your door last night.” She stood before Scully with her hand still extended, smiling broadly, eyes shining. “You received it, didn’t you?”
“Of course,” Scully said. “Of course, the joey. I’m very pleased to meet you.” She thought quickly. Made the decision.
Giving a warm and affectionate smile, Scully took the stranger’s outstretched hand. Shook it once.
And savagely yanked Sera’s arm, bringing her down, jerking her forward. Shoved a knee into her stomach. The woman crumpled to the sidewalk, gasping. Scully’s gun flew from her shoulder holster, went in one smooth motion to the side of Sera’s head. She pressed her foot down against the woman’s neck, pinning her to the concrete. It all took less than three seconds. They stood there like a tableau, hand on trigger, muzzle against temple, cheek on pavement.
“All right,” Scully said evenly. “Who sent you?”
Quickly, lips almost touching the dirty street: “The group. The organization. We sent you the kangaroo.” The woman—Sera—was breathing heavily, hands flat against the sidewalk, fingers spread. Her hair had come undone.
Adrenaline giving her eyes an elated, angry glow, Scully pressed the snout of the pistol harder against Sera’s skull, sliding it down to her cheekbone. “Goddammit, tell the fucking truth. Don’t lie to me.” She thumbed the safety latch. Click. Sera flinched. “You’re a Palimpsest agent—aren’t you? Answer me!”
Trembling, Sera tried to shake her head, moved it imperceptibly side to side beneath the pressure of Scully’s gun. “No—that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you—listen to me. Please. Listen. I’m not armed. I just need to tell you something…”
“What? Talk quickly.” Scully glanced rapidly left and right. The street was still empty—but it was only a matter of time until someone drove by. She needed to move. Decide. She uncocked the pistol, removed it from Sera’s cheek, but left her foot on the back of the woman’s neck, keeping her sights carefully aimed. “Talk. You’ve got ten seconds.”
She talked, mouth close to the ground: “Palimpsest doesn’t exist.”
Scully kept the gun where it was. “You’re lying.”
“No. It’s all a trap, a trick. Palimpsest doesn’t exist. It’s a lie—a lie.” Sera bit her lip painfully; a spot of blood trickled down her chin. Her eyes flashed fear and anxiety and honesty. She was truly terrified.
After only a moment’s hesitation, Scully took her foot away. Didn’t put the pistol down. Said slowly, “Stay on the ground. Put your hands behind your head. Don’t get up or I’ll shoot you in the face.” Backing up to the car, she put her hand on the trunk, fumbled out her keys, opened it and searched quickly through her luggage, not looking away from the woman’s prone form. The sun beat down, hotter than hell. In the inside pocket of her suitcase, Scully found what she was looking for, a chinking of metal, a gleam of steel. She slammed the trunk. Quietly: “Put your hands behind your back. Get up on your knees. Back slowly up—on your knees—to the car. Feel the door handle. Hold onto it. Good. Stay that way.”
With quick snap of bracelets, Scully handcuffed Sera to the passenger door. Now the woman squatted at the curb, dress rumpled and dirty, hands cuffed behind her. Her mouth was bloody, chin scraped raw. Scully lowered the gun. She sat on the sidewalk across from Sera, pistol dangling loosely between her legs, eye to eye with the stranger. “Okay. Now tell me what you wanted to say.”
Leaning uncomfortably against the car, Sera said for the third time, “Palimpsest doesn’t exist.”
“X is lying to you.”
Scully tightened her grip on the gun. “How do you know about X?”
“We were monitoring Mulder’s phone when he called you last night. We’ve known X for a long time. By a different name.” Sera licked her lips nervously. “We knew he was dangerous. He has his own agenda…”
“But why would he lie?”
“To kill you. To get rid of Mulder. X isn’t on your side. Never was. When you die, it’ll be right on schedule. He’ll make sure that you drop dead exactly when and where he wants you to—without any blood being left on his hands.”
Giving no sign of belief or denial, Scully said, “Go on.”
“X is afraid of being exposed. You and Mulder are far too close to the largest secrets—the sanctum sanctorum, the holy of holies, deals in which X has his career and reputation at stake. Your interference could cost him everything—which means that he needs you dead, or out of commission.” Resting her head against the flank of the car, Sera said, “The problem is to avoid ending up with a pair of martyrs. Mulder has connections. If the two of you were to die under mysterious circumstances, anyone with half a brain would stamp conspiracy all over it, investigate, and X would be left with an even bigger mess than before. No: he needs to eliminate you in a manner that precludes martyrdom.”
Crossing her legs, Sera continued. “Consider the scenario. Manhattan. Dark alley. You’re dressed as a hooker; Mulder kills you, Palimpsest style, is just about to bring you back—and then, bam! X springs a dozen cops on the scene. You’re dead and gone. Mulder’s caught red-handed. First degree homicide. He goes to jail for life, to Death Row, or—most likely—to a sanitarium, spouting insane ideas of conspiracies and ghosts and secret societies and psychosomatic stigmata. Problem solved. X goes home and toasts a job well done.”
Scully stayed silent. It was credible, just barely credible—but she wasn’t willing to trust this woman yet. “If Palimpsest doesn’t exist, then what organization are you from? Why should I believe you?”
“Perhaps I’ve misled you,” Sera lisped, her lip visibly swollen. “Palimpsest did exist at one time. It was a real government consortium, formed and funded by the intelligence community to investigate the JFK assassination. It always produced credible results. After a while, it became an independent agency. Offered its services to the highest bidder. So dummy organizations—including my own—were set up to duplicate its work. Spent millions of dollars on neurological studies, near-death experiences, psychosomatics—the whole bit. All for nothing…because we found that Palimpsest’s work was completely faked.”
“What do you mean—faked?”
“Faked. Fraudulent. Palimpsest was a confidence game from the very beginning. For years, gullible officials in extremely high levels of government were convinced that they could communicate with the dead—but it was all invention, a charade: Palimpsest agents were no better than the spiritualist charlatans of the nineteenth century, con men, bamboozlers. They wrote their own ‘messages’ from the netherworld, submitted them to eager clients, told them that they were bulls from Abraham Lincoln or FDR, and thus managed to exert a mindboggling influence on all United States policy of the past thirty years. But it’s all just a game.”
“It’s no game.”
“Listen. Palimpsest uses oxyphenylcyrine to kill their subjects. What do you know about this drug?”
“It’s an extremely deadly synthetic poison, first manufactured in 1964. Causes complete nervous system shutdown within fifteen seconds.”
“Do you know what the breakdown products are?”
Scully shrugged. “Organic substances, small molecules. Easily absorbed by the bloodstream—which is why oxyphenylcyrine poisoning is so difficult to trace.”
“Organic substances, right. One of them is ammonia.” Sera tilted her head back, stared up at the sky. “There are only two symptoms of OPC poisoning. The first is a spasm of facial muscle, usually around the eyes. The second is profuse perspiration in the moments before death. The sweat contains dissolved ammonia gas.” She smiled haughtily, with bloody teeth. “You’re a smart girl. Figure the rest out for yourself.”
“Oh God,” Scully said. The implication was obvious. “They use copper sulfate, don’t they?”
“Exactly. Using copper sulfate, Palimpsest spells out the message—whatever they want to say—beforehand on the victim’s body. After the OPC is administered, ammonia in the death-sweat turns the invisible ‘ink’ bright red. It fades in slowly, on the hands or feet or belly or whatever skin surface is chosen—and to the untrained eye, it looks just like autoerythrocyte stigmata. Good enough to fool any ‘official’ observers who might be watching. Brilliant illusion, really.”
“But…but why would Palimpsest do this?”
“I’ve already told you. Power. They were able to determine virtually all important American policy of the past three decades. Reagan and Ford, especially, ate out of their hands. When the fakery was exposed, we’re talking monster backlash in Washington—put Watergate and Whitewater together with Iran-Contra and Teapot Dome, and you might get some idea of the depth and breadth of the scandal. Things fell apart. Most of Palimpsest’s illustrious operatives were privately executed. As of 1991, the organization no longer existed.”
“So where does X come into all this?” Scully asked.
“Use your brain. He wants you and Mulder dead or out of the way. Eventually, he comes up with the perfect solution: have Mulder convicted of the murder of his partner and best friend—namely, you—and sent to an asylum for the rest of his life. The problem is achieving the killing. A simple frame-job doesn’t suffice; Mulder needs to be the one to pull the trigger or administer the injection or give you the poisoned cigarette. Which means X needs to supply a motive. Something convincing, something that Mulder would take as the gospel truth. A vast conspiracy, for example. An imagined threat to your life. A threat that could only be vanquished if he were to kill you first.” Sera coughed, spat a wad of bloody saliva. She glanced at Scully. “Could I get a tissue or something?”
“Okey-dokey. Now, listen carefully: there were some facts stirred into X’s nefarious stew, simply to improve the taste. Dr. Josef Kaun, well-known Pentagon aide, was indeed shot down in Manhattan several days ago, and the primary suspect was indeed a prostitute named Abby Janneson, who was later strangled in prison—my guess is that X did it himself. Janneson probably bears no real resemblance to you; the autopsy report and photographs given to Mulder are clever fakes, your face superimposed on an anonymous cadaver’s body. Think about it. If Palimpsest really existed—if they were truly clever and powerful—do you think that an autopsy would have been allowed at all?”
“I suppose not,” Scully said. “They would have poured acid on the message, as they usually did…”
“Right, to obliterate signs of copper sulfate. The whole idea of an independent autopsy is ridiculous. Everything in that report is an ingenious forgery, meant to convince Mulder of the reality of the Palimpsest threat, spur him to do something foolish, something dangerous—and it may have already succeeded.”
“But if Palimpsest was dissolved in 1991, and no longer exists, then who chased me from my brother’s house? Who shot my brother in the stomach? Who were those men?”
“Part of the illusion. Those men aren’t with Palimpsest. If they’d truly wanted to kill your brother, they’d have shot him in the head; if they’d really wanted to capture you, they would have. Your escape was part of the plan. It was all theater. Don’t you understand? They work for X.”
Scully’s eye twitched involuntarily at this statement—and Sera saw it. Understood what it meant. “You saw him there, didn’t you?” Sera asked, grinning. “You saw X among the men who pursued you.”
Nodding, Scully said, “Explain this to me. How could X be in South Carolina and in Washington D.C. within a matter of minutes?”
“Obviously, there are two X’s—and one is an impostor.”
“Which one?” Scully demanded.
Sera’s smile became even wider. “That’s a good question, isn’t it?” Then she closed her eyes and leaned against the car and refused to talk anymore, even when Scully threatened her and drew her gun and put it against her head until she got nervous and bit her lip a second time.
Charles looked down at the man in black—except he wasn’t in black anymore, he was draped in a blue diaphanous hospital gown, thin and scrawny and old, his face pale, chest bandaged tightly, breathing harsh and dazed, eyes clouded from painkillers. A pathetic figure. But he was awake. He stared back at Charles, his pupils spiked with chips of gold, sclera spotted with silver—and there was murder in those eyes, and animal cunning, and Charles knew that he was looking at a man who would fight savagely until his final agonized gasp.
“How you doing?” Charles asked, razor blade in hand.
“Can’t complain,” the man in black wheezed. His voice was thin and reedy, channeled through tubes. He coughed.
“You know who I am.” Not a question; a statement.
“The other men—they’re gone?”
“Tell me what I want to know.”
The man in black laughed. “Go fuck yourself,” he said—and, with surprising suddenness, fell back asleep. His eyes closed. Muscles relaxed. Breathing became more regular, the color in his face improving—and the man in black slipped into unconsciousness. One second, awake; the next, snoring. Charles was startled by the change. An internal switch had been flicked, a neural circuit interrupted, and the man dozed in an instant. It was the narcotics. They had jumbled his rhythms, keeping him on the boundary between slumber and awareness; the slightest nudge could push him to either side. He muttered something in his sleep.
Frowning, Charles bent down. Extended a cautious hand to nudge the man awake.
Eyes opened again. “You still here?” the man in black asked. “I thought I told you to go fuck yourself. Step to it, boy.”
Charles flashed the razor like a stiletto. The man saw it. Snorted laughter. “Don’t be stupid, son. We both know that you won’t do anything except bluff and bluster—so save yourself the embarrassment and put that toy away.”
Charles kept the blade where it was. It felt greasy in his hand, his thumb sliding over the metal. Sweat. He asked quietly, “Who are you?”
“Who am I?” The man in black laughed again. “Son, if you can’t figure that out for yourself, you’re even stupider than you look.”
Then Charles remembered: the bedside chart. It was looped over a hook at the end of the sickbed, several sheets bound loosely together, surgical data and carbons of patient admittance forms, but mostly a list of hourly checkups by the nurse, fluid intake, things like that, all initialed and duly noted. He took the chart, flipped to the first page. Searched for a name. “Pio Neumann?” he said disbelievingly. “What kind of a name is that?”
“What the fuck kind of name is Charles Scully?” Neumann shot back. “Don’t piss me off, son. I may be leaking like a ruptured gasket, but not all my strength is gone.”
“What are you going to do, old man—bleed on me?” Good comeback—but his voice quavered. He kept reading the chart. Neumann had been wheeled into the OR last night, a bullet plucked from his chest, a sucking wound covered and sewn shut, a bit of the anterior lobe of his left lung removed. The nurse’s notes indicated that Neumann’s recovery had been uneventful so far. There were nine initialed reports on the sheet, one for each hour that Neumann had been out of surgery. Except for the very first entry, which was initialed “P.W.,” each had been signed with the letters N.L.—the name of the current nurse, Charles presumed. The last one had been at 9:48.
Neumann called from his bed, “Interesting reading?”
“Yep,” said Charles. “You’ve been peeing regularly. Good for you.” He put the chart down. “So you were abandoned here?”
Shrugging, Neumann said, “I asked my colleagues to leave. They had more important things to do.”
“Like killing your sister. Which I expect they’ve already done.” Neumann let his head fall back into the plump softness of his pillow, dozing again. A second later, he shook himself awake. “Yes, Charlie boy, I expect that any minute now, word will come that your sister has been executed as planned. An ambulance will arrive to take me to where I can observe the aftermath.” He inhaled deeply through his nose, nostrils flaring. “And rest assured, young man, that you shall not outlive your sister long.”
Son of a bitch. His blood running hot but mercury-sluggish, Charles said, “What are you after?” Voice was strange, forced.
“The prize, of course.”
“And…what is the prize?” He spoke in a studiously low voice, teeth clenched, enunciating each syllable.
“At the moment, it appears to be your sister’s death.” Neumann blinked his golden eyes, forehead crinkling condescendingly, almost sympathetically. “Do you know anything about the nature of her work?”
Letting the razor fall to his side, Charles said wearily, “She works for the government, the FBI. Her work’s mostly classified.”
“No shit, sonny. Fact is, her death will achieve far more for the United States of America than anything she might have accomplished while alive. It’s in the national interest, son; I wouldn’t be talking to you if it wasn’t.” Neumann nodded slowly—then glanced away, as if bored. Looked at his hands, liver-spotted and white. “It doesn’t matter,” he said offhandedly. “I’m going to die anyway. I can feel it….”
“Then hurry up and die.”
“Fuck you, son. I plan to stick around until my ride comes. I know the routine—this isn’t the first time I’ve been shot in the line of duty—and I know that my men may dump me at this goddamned shithole of a hospital for a few hours because they’re too busy chasing your sister to do anything more, but eventually they’ll send an unmarked ambulance to bring me to a safer place. The ambulance will be driven by a low-level FBI asshole who’s never seen my face and will never see it again…but he’ll do what I say. He’s obliged to follow orders. And I’ll be sure to tell him—with my dying breath, if need be—who you are and why you should be killed. I’ll see you in hell, Charles Scully.”
Ignoring the rest, Charles focused in on one statement: “So you work for the FBI?”
“Hell no. The FBI works for me.” Neumann smiled lecherously. “Along with the CIA, the NSA, the Justice Department, the Joint Chiefs, the…um…the NSA…the CIA…” The recitation of names became a hypnotic litany. “Department…of Agriculture…Christian Coalition…Palim…Palim…” Neumann’s voice became slurred—and then he dozed yet again: the drugs came and went in eddies, swirls of narcotic slumber, darkness creeping over him like a rhythmic tide. Now, though, he retreated into a deeper sleep, eyes fluttering back and forth beneath closed lids, dreaming uneasily: “F…B…I… Secret…Service…” His mouth closed with an audible smack. His face was pale.
Staring down, Charles wondered what to do. He held the razor loosely in his hand, fingers numb and slick with perspiration. Let the blade drop to the floor, falling to the tile with a barely audible clink. The man was right. He wouldn’t be able to use it. All he could do was bluster and bluff.
So now what? Go back to bed, lie down, and wait for Neumann’s CIA lackey to suffocate him with a pillow? Hardly. Kill Neumann? No. Not only did he doubt his resolve, he knew that there would be zero evidence to justify his actions when the crime was discovered—and besides, the man in black’s death would solve nothing. Would, in fact, probably complicate matters. Neumann had information. If he died, that knowledge would die with him.
If only he could get some hard evidence! Some documentation, some proof that Neumann was part of this conspiracy, whatever it might…
Wait just a goddamned minute. Charles held his breath. An idea blossomed in the back of his head, unfolding, beguiling. A plan. Clenching his fists, standing barefoot and bare-legged in his thin blue gown, Charles chased down the idea. Caught it. Held it tight—and felt it bloom into full fruition.
Standing alongside the bed of Pio Neumann, his belly bandaged and aching terribly, Charles Scully grinned like a jackal, eyes gleaming with the sheer insanity of what he might try to do. Jesus. Even if he succeeded, it would be near-impossible to talk his way out of…but at the moment, it was the only course of action he could envision. The only way.
Because if he pulled it off perfectly, he would be able to get his hands on Neumann’s papers, wallet, identification, badge: everything.
If he pulled it off.
No time to think. If he was going to succeed in this subterfuge, he needed to act now: a minute too late, and all would be for nothing. Bracing himself, Charles tore his own IV tube from his arm. Knelt and picked the razor blade up from the floor. Set it on Neumann’s bedside table. Paused for a moment, weighing his options—then stepped briefly back to his own bed, fishing a pillow out from the tangled bedclothes, and turned back to Neumann. Hesitated, holding the pillow in both hands. Looked down at that whisper-thin figure, a pale old man, less menacing than pathetic while he slept, hands weak, chest held together with staples…but Charles knew what Neumann really was. Knew what was at stake. And did what he had to do.
He gritted his teeth and placed the pillow over Neumann’s face, suffocating him. Sweat ran into his eyes. He felt Neumann awaken. Scrawny body writhing in panic, legs kicking—voice muffled—shouting obscenities that were softer than whispers beneath the cushion. A cold hand closed lightly around Charles’s wrist, encircled it in a grip of iron, trying to pull the pillow away—but as the seconds passed, Charles pressing down even harder on Neumann’s mouth and nose, the hand grew weaker, began to slip from his wrist, fishy fingers trembling. Neumann was dying.
Panicking, Charles tried to judge the time. Ninety seconds, no more. He waited, shivering uncontrollably, his arms aching from the downward pressure. His hands were slippery—he almost lost hold of the pillowcase—and the blue gown stuck wetly to his back. Christ. Christ. He felt the man in black slip away, hand falling to mattress, clawing briefly at the bedspread—no, don’t take the pillow away yet, wait, wait—skin beginning to lose color, fingernails turning bluish…
Now. He removed the pillow, looked at Neumann’s face. Lips streaked with spittle, eyes closed and streaming tears—but the man was breathing, very softly, and the color was returning to his face, a ruddy dusk creeping across cerulean skies. Still alive—but in deep unconsciousness. Good. Perfect. He tossed the damp pillow away. Drew aside Neumann’s sheets, took a quick look at the ravaged body, wrinkled gown, bandages visible beneath the thin fabric. Judged his own strength. His stomach and sides ached deeply from the exertion, his arms were weak, weary, bleeding from the IV needle—but he thought he could pull off the rest.
Charles thought rapidly, weighing the situation. Tubes ran from various parts of Neumann’s exposed body, conjoining him to hospital paraphernalia like a marionette: a nasal tube, an IV needle, a catheter. Without faltering, Charles yanked them out. An unpleasant business. When time came for the catheter to be removed, he closed his eyes and groped blindly, finding the siphon between Neumann’s legs, withdrawing it in a long smooth motion, wiping his hands on the sheets. “Fuck,” he muttered. “No way I’m putting that motherfucker back in.” Now Neumann lay on the mattress, connections severed, mortality exposed, just a bit of flesh in a hospital robe.
But now…the most difficult part. Charles prepared himself for the exertion. Felt the fire in his belly. The gauze that encircled his abdomen was soaked with sweat, was coming loose, but the pain was somehow less than before, duller, throbbing. “All right,” he said softly, wiping his brow with a sleeve. “Do it and get it over with.”
He stooped down, slipped one arm beneath Neumann’s lolling neck, the other beneath his knees—and lifted the man in black. He was light, desiccate, but an inferno of pain tore through Charles’s belly nonetheless, bringing tears to his eyes. His back ached. He pirouetted with Neumann in his arms, turned to his own bed. Staggered forward and laid Neumann heavily down on the mattress. Thank God. Almost done.
Charles grabbed his own IV stand, wheeled it silently to Neumann’s side. Found the needle. Inserted it roughly into Neumann’s old puncture wound. The man winced in his sleep, but did not regain consciousness; Charles taped the needle down. Noticed that a dime-sized bruise had spread out from the wound. Pulled the sheet up to Neumann’s chin, tucking it in firmly.
Good. He stepped back, admiring his handiwork.
Now came the final step. Charles went back to Neumann’s old bed. Lay down on the mattress. Drew the blankets over him. Winced at the sweat-soaked sheets. He closed his eyes. Bit his tongue to keep from crying out. Took Neumann’s IV needle, was about to stab it into his own arm—
—when his eyes opened wide, a terrible thought occurring to him. “Holy shit…” he said. “What if this asshole has AIDS?” Trembling from the realization of his near-mistake, he carefully broke off the IV needle and threw it in the garbage. Thinking briefly, he taped the tube to his inner wrist as if it were connected to a vein, letting the clear fluid dribble down his arm. An acceptable substitute. If all went as planned, no one would get close enough to see through the illusion.
The nasal tube was more difficult to manage. Coughing, choking, unable to insert it more than an inch into his right nostril, Charles took the razor blade, cut away the first few inches, and stuck the remainder up his nose. Another acceptable compromise. All right.
He wasn’t even going to try the catheter.
Now all he had to do was wait. Lying back in Neumann’s bed, tubes itching crazily, Charles reviewed his logic, turning the plan over and over in his head, looking for flaws.
Here was his reasoning. During the years his sister had attended medical school, Charles had spent countless hours listening to her complain about her internship schedule. Specifically, he knew that all large hospitals operate on a three shift system. Dana had always bitched over the fact that she was assigned night duties more often than any other student in her class—and Charles remembered that the graveyard shift usually ended at either nine, ten or eleven o’ clock in the morning, at which time the daytime staff took over. A completely different set of physicians and nurses was rotated three times a day.
Looking at the notations on Neumann’s bedside chart, Charles was able to obtain an approximate idea of the hospital schedule. The first entry had been made at 1:41 by “P.W.” From 2:05 to 9:48, however, a different nurse—with the initials N.L.—had been signing in. This implied that the graveyard shift lasted from 2:00 to 10:00, assuming that it was exactly eight hours in duration.
And this meant that, when Neumann was next observed, it would probably be by someone new. The day nurse. Someone who hadn’t seen Neumann before…and who didn’t know what he looked like.
Which meant that Charles could impersonate the man in black. Pretend to be Pio Neumann. Get his wallet, his papers, hard evidence—and then decide what to do next. Beautiful. He marveled at his own sagacity.
He didn’t have time to think any further, though—because at that moment, the curtains surrounding his bed were flung open. The light blinded him—and when the world cleared, a male nurse in a green smock was smiling down.
Charles’s confidence disappeared. His heart began to thud convulsively, a clammy fist squeezing his aorta. Stared blankly into the nurse’s eyes. Prayed silently. Prayed over and over that he not be discovered, that he pull this off, somehow, please, somehow…
“Hello Mr. Neumann…” the nurse said, glancing down at the bedside chart. “How are you feeling today?”
Thank God. Charles exhaled deeply—then gathered his blankets defensively around his chest. Affected an uncooperative pout. “I’m not going to take any tests or give any blood or be observed at all until I get my things,” he said rapidly. Too rapidly: his nervousness made him incoherent.
“Huh?” the nurse asked. “Could you say that more slowly?”
Groping blindly for possibilities, Charles said, “Get my things. I want my wallet. My clothing. My papers. Everything I had when they brought me in.”
The nurse smiled broadly. Ingratiatingly. “All right, Mr. Neumann, I’ll see what I can do. Just let me check your IV first.”
“No,” Charles said stubbornly, retreating as the nurse approached the bedside, bringing the sheets protectively up to his chin. “You go and get my stuff and bring it here. Bring me everything. I need it now. Then, maybe, we’ll talk.”
Nodding sympathetically, the nurse said, “I understand, Mr. Neumann. I’ll see what I can do. No promises, though.” Turning on his heels, the nurse strode away from the bed, closing the curtain behind him, plunging the sickbed back into translucent dimness—and was gone.
Jesus. He’d done it. He’d actually done it. Charles grinned goofily in the darkness, his makeshift nasal tube nearly dropping out, his bandaged sides smarting from tremors of silent laughter. For the first time in nearly twelve agonized hours, he actually felt good. Self-assured. He was well on his way to finding some answers.
A few minutes later, the nurse reappeared. Charles quickly regained his composure, frowning as the nurse handed him a white paper bag with a wallet, keys, a small memo pad and some stray papers inside. He was thrilled at the success of his ruse, but instead demanded, “Where are my clothes?”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Neumann, but I’ve been told that your shirt and coat were cut away during surgery, and everything else is too bloodsoaked to be worn again. And I’m afraid we can’t give the handgun back yet. Hospital policy.” The nurse cocked an eyebrow in sympathy. “I hear you got involved in some kind of drive-by drug shootout. Crack dealers, was it?”
“Um, yeah,” Charles said after a moment, trying to maintain the bluff. “Yeah, crack dealers. Hell of a thing.” Said loudly, “Now, please, go away for a few minutes. Please. I want to look over my things in private. You can come back when…what time is it, anyway?”
“Quarter to eleven.”
“Come back in fifteen minutes. Please. Do me this one favor.”
After a moment’s hesitation, the nurse said, “All right.” He grinned goodnaturedly. “Just don’t tell anyone, okay?”
“Got it.” Charles blessed the nonconfrontational emergency room ethic of the nineties. Afraid of being sued or even killed by unruly patients—an occurrence which was becoming all too common in the nation’s larger hospitals—doctors and nurses acquiesced to all but the most unreasonable patient requests. Thank God for that. As soon as the nurse was gone, Charles dumped the bag’s contents onto the bedspread, sifting through the objects with his fingers. A wallet. A keychain with four keys. A folded sheet of notebook paper. A slim black memo pad. A ballpoint pen.
First, the wallet. Charles saw the FBI identification first, a temporary card with no picture, name simply given as Pio Neumann, no title or middle initial. He removed the card, ran his fingers over the lamination, held it up to the light. Seemed real. If it was a forgery, it was damned good. Ditto with the credit cards, all in Neumann’s name. Visa. AmEx. MasterCard. Five one hundred dollar bills were tucked into the billfold.
The keys were unmarked. Two of them appeared to be for the Impala, one for doors, one for ignition. The others were small, silver, anonymous.
Notebook paper. Charles unfolded the sheet. Saw what it said—and shuddered. Fingers numb, he turned it over, looked for anything else, but it was completely blank except for three lines of penciled text in the middle of the page: CHARLES SCULLY—21062 GARY DRIVE—CRANEO, SOUTH CAROLINA. His own name and address.
“Christ,” he said. “God almighty Christ.”
Next: the black book—not really a memo pad—bound in leather, unmarked, sealed with a golden clasp. Opening it, Charles saw that the pages were thin and perforated, the first twenty or so torn away, eleven remaining. Each page was numbered consecutively—the first intact page bore yesterday’s date—and each contained a list with perhaps six dozen items, a succession of brief words or phrases, each followed by a number: AbortMission—55894; AlternatePlan—00083; ApprehendSuspect—99867; and so on, all the way down to Evacuate—54547 and ZeroSumGame—59031. The same list was repeated on each page, with only the numbers varying. Charles had read enough spy novels to understand that he was looking at a one-use cipher pad.
Ballpoint pen, the cap glued in place. Charles fiddled with it idly, noticed that the clip was oddly hinged, slid it this way, that way—and was utterly unprepared when the needle shot out.
“Jesus!” He dropped the pen, syringe glistening, staring up from the bedspread like a poisonous mosquito. “Jesus,” he said again. A hypodermic. God knew what drug it contained. Gingerly, he picked it up again, slid the clip back in place. The needle retracted. Trembling, Charles unscrewed the pen’s lower half, let the hidden ampoule fall into his hand. Green liquid. Labeled in tiny letters: OXYPHENYLCYRINE.
And a skull and crossbones.
He popped the ampoule back into the disguised syringe, then returned everything—wallet, papers, book, keys, pen—to the paper bag. Sat silently, pondering what to do next. Point for point. The notebook page alone constituted good evidence against the men in black, and might be convincing enough for the hospital to detain Neumann for questioning. On the other hand, he’d already lied about shooting himself while cleaning a handgun, and any drastic change in his story would seem implausible, especially considering his current predicament. In any case, of course, he couldn’t keep the deception up much longer; when the nurse noticed that the IV was broken and neither the nasal tube nor catheter seemed to go anywhere, playtime would be over.
Best to confess now. Show the nurse what he’d discovered—the incriminating notepaper, the cipher pad, the ballpoint hypodermic—and hope for the best. Charles began to rehearse what he would say—
—and was suddenly robbed of his solitude. Light filled Charles’s vision as the curtains parted. The nurse entered, smiling apologetically, clipboard in hand.
Protesting, Charles said, “Oh come on, it isn’t even eleven o’ clock yet…”
The nurse nodded briskly. “I know. I’m sorry to bother you again, Mr. Neumann—but there’s an ambulance here. For you. They say it’s extremely urgent that you be transferred to another hospital. Immediately.”
“I—” Charles shut his mouth. Oh shit. Neumann’s ambulance. Oh shit oh shit oh shit. “Listen, I need to tell you something…”
“Wait a moment,” the nurse said. “There’s someone here to see you.”
A man whom Charles had never seen before stepped through the curtain, moving past the nurse, who exited wordlessly. He was thin and pale, dressed all in white, a lock of brown hair falling across his forehead. Nervous eyes. He smiled edgily. “Hello, Mr. Neumann,” the man said, approaching the bedside. “I’m here to take you to the rendezvous point.”
Staring dumbly, Charles realized that his deception had been much too effective: the stranger didn’t seem to realize that anything was amiss. He searched the man’s face for some indication otherwise. Found nothing. No trace of irony or amusement or recognition: only vague boredom, fidgetiness, the face of a man given an unpleasant assignment.
In short, the courier was a nobody. A bottom-feeder whose only instructions were to pick up a package named Pio Neumann at the Craneo Community Hospital, no description, just the name: information on a need-to-know basis. Charles remembered what Neumann had said earlier: The ambulance will be driven by a low-level FBI asshole who’s never seen my face and will never see it again…but he’ll do what I say.
And Charles realized—with a sick feeling in his stomach—that his only option was to play along, to continue the charade, hoping that no one realized that the real Pio Neumann was lying in bed only five feet away.
“Are you from the FBI?” he asked, scrambling for a foothold on this new development.
The courier ran a hand through his hair. “I used to be an agent. Now, however, I’m no longer affiliated with any intelligence agency.”
“What’s your name?”
Stealing a glance at his watch, the young man offered a tight, hermetic smile. “My name is Alex Krycek,” he said. “And I think we’d better be going.”
When Mulder finally found 1527 K Street—stepping down from bus to sidewalk, head still pounding from too much helium—he felt confusion and mistrust and sheer disbelief flood his senses, staring up at the devastation, inhaling the embers of old smoke. The address was here, painted onto the curb. There was no mistake.
He stood before a vacant lot covered with thick flaking ash, the cloying scent of burnt pine tar heavy in his nostrils. Fire’s ghost lingered, haunting these newly-desiccated, smoldering ruins.
“Goddamn,” he said under his breath. “Goddamn.”
From the look of things, the building that stood at 1527 K Street had burned down less than a week before. Nothing remained except cinders and a skeletal framework, metal rafters. A chain-link fence, hastily erected, separated the wreckage from the sidewalk.
Hands in his pockets, Mulder walked from one side of the lot to the other. Two hundred paces. At one time, it had been an enormous building. Mulder saw splinters of melted glass that had run along the ground and refrozen in convoluted shapes, the remains of windows, sliding glass doors. Everything else had been reduced to homogenous black dust. It made his eyes burn.
He hooked his fingers through the links of the fence. Glanced quickly left, right. Traffic was sparse; the street was nearly empty. Taking a deep breath, Mulder reached high, clung to handholds, hoisted his feet, rattling the fence, and was up and over in a second. Leaping down, he landed heavily in ankle-deep ash. Fell to his knees, blackening them with soot.
The lot stank like the inside of a crematorium. Standing, Mulder wiped his hands on his already dirty trousers and looked up at the scorched scaffolding. He stood beneath a tall metal arch, the remains of a doorway; scattered outcroppings of brick sat in piles on either side, burnt the color of charcoal. Mulder walked up to the arch. Extended a cautious hand. Metal was cool to the touch.
Stepping through this symbolic portal, feeling like a salamander, Mulder found himself in the midst of the ruination. Partitions still stood, smoke-blackened walls, remains of offices or dormitories. A bare metal desk stood alone in an ocean of grime, burnt clean and white. Mulder tried the drawers, discovered they had been welded shut by the heat. He knelt alongside the desk, found a charred remnant of carpet. Peeling it away exposed the concrete foundations, cracking in places, clean and still warm. No indication of the building’s nature or identity.
He stood and kept walking, covered head to toe in soot. His fingernails were grimed and dirty, head throbbing, eyes squinting shut from the endless trails of dust and old smoke; his throat was sore from breathing it in.
A moment later, he stumbled upon a piece of information. Literally. His foot caught on something—the lip of some rectangular object projecting an inch above the ground—and he was too late to catch his balance; pirouetting his arms, he tripped and fell heavily, sending up another somber puff of powder and staining his knees, chin and forearms a deep Mammy blackface. The edge of the object chipped his shin as he went down, just enough to make it bleed. Exquisite pain—“Oh Christ,” he swore, rubbing beneath his knee—but then curiosity, glancing back at the source of his mishap: his fall had exposed some lettering. Etched in stone. He had tripped over some sort of tablet.
Brushing away the ash with both hands, Mulder read the words. It was a kind of marble plaque, two feet by three, the kind that would hang in the lobby of a government building, just above the receptionist’s desk. Fire had discolored the stone, turning it from caramel-tan to sickly yellowish-gray and filling the engraved letters with grime; it was split in several places by ugly cracks, fragments broken from the lower edge; it had evidentially fallen from a wall and been buried under debris, only to be uncovered again as the fire calcined and burnt and incinerated everything else in sight, leaving it intact.
But the plaque was still readable. XENOTECH, it shrieked. BIOTECHNOLOGY FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY.
1527 K Street was the headquarters of XenoTech Labs.
“Oh my God,” Mulder said, disbelieving. “Oh my God.”
Byers, on Kaun: He was never the primary researcher—his name was always buried halfway down the list of contributors—and many of the papers were published by a biotechnology lab called XenoTech, a mundane research company….In all probability, it was all a front.
But was it? The coincidence was too extreme. Mulder tried to connect the dots, reconstruct the events as they occurred. Judging from the nature of the cremains, the fire which consumed 1527 K Street had taken place less than a week ago. A few days later, Josef Kaun, whose connection with the lab was already established, flew to Manhattan and was killed, supposedly by Abby Janneson.
Supposedly. That was the key word. It had never been definitively proven that Janneson had pulled the trigger. Kaun’s work was sensitive enough so that any number of individuals—government and otherwise—would have reason to kill him…and torch the company that published his papers.
Perhaps he was being hasty. Perhaps Byers was right. Perhaps the Kaun/XenoTech connection was nothing more than a front, a blind meant to disguise the nature of Kaun’s true work for the Pentagon. Perhaps XenoTech was of zero logistical significance. Perhaps it was all just a red herring, a coincidence.
But if life had taught Mulder only one thing over the past few years, it was that there were no coincidences: there was only conspiracy.
Mulder stood, leaving the plaque where it was. Returned to the fence and clambered over noisily. He dropped to the concrete. Walked away unsteadily.
He did not see the man—dressed all in black—who hid behind one crumbling section of XenoTech wall, watching Mulder, crouching in the ashes, taking picture after picture.
The kangaroo was in the rear; the woman who called herself Sera was in the front, handcuffed to the back of the seat. Her hands were folded behind her head, fingers interlocked, hiding the metal bracelets. Her mouth had stopped bleeding, but she still spoke with a painful lisp as she glanced nervously between Scully and the interstate, watching as Pennsylvania fell behind them and they were swallowed by the freeway: “Aren’t you curious about 1527 K Street?” she asked.
“Actually, I’m more curious about the kangaroo,” Scully said, driving. She kept her pistol on the dashboard, tucked beneath a magazine, hidden from view but within easy reach. “Tell me why it was sent.”
“If I do, will you uncuff me?” Sera asked.
“To begin with, 1527 K Street was the headquarters of a company known as XenoTech Labs. Josef Kaun was listed among its resident researchers, although his actual function was hazy and extremely obscured; Kaun ostensibly worked with biophysics, biotechnology, the logistics of protein synthesis, gene sequencing, that sort of thing. Mundane stuff. In reality, however, XenoTech was a Pentagon front.”
“‘Was?’” Scully asked, questioning the past tense.
“Seven days ago, XenoTech headquarters burned to the ground, leaving nothing behind—no trace as to the nature of its work, no evidence of anything, just ash and smoke and soot. It was wiped off the face of the earth. Erased. As if it no longer existed.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Sera said. “But to be completely honest, the entire incident reeks of conspiracy. The sprinkler systems failed. Fire engines were inexplicably delayed, arriving at the scene only after four-fifths of the building had been consumed. The fire itself was incredibly hot, incredibly fast: even if it wasn’t arson, the incendiaries and propellants involved were…unearthly.”
“Unearthly.” Scully glanced at Sera, studying her bruised, impassive face. “What was XenoTech doing?”
“Attempting to perfect a method of ectogenesis. Organisms grown outside the womb.”
“Like the kangaroo,” Scully said.
“Exactly. This kangaroo,” Sera said, nodding over her shoulder at the carrier, “was born, grown, and developed in an artificial uterus at 1527 K Street. It’s a test-tube creature. Your joey had no mother, no father—only anonymous sperm and egg, conjoined and allowed to divide within an artificial amnion, a mix of chemicals, a synthetic umbilicus, until the embryo was transplanted into a rubber pouch and further matured. XenoTech grew thousands of animals in this fashion.”
“Why would they want to do that?”
“Because ectogenesis is the technology of the future!” Sera said enthusiastically. “It can assist infertile couples in conceiving, provide instant livestock for underdeveloped Third World countries, revolutionize the food industry, the space program…” She paused. Grinned. “You aren’t buying any of this, are you?”
“Nope,” Scully said. “After what I’ve seen, I seriously doubt that the Pentagon would perform such covert—and expensive—experiments for purely altrustic reasons.”
“Good call. What’s your own hunch, then?”
“Well, X told Mulder that those albino marsupials were used in Palimpsest-type experiments. By groups like yours.”
“X spoke the truth,” said Sera, ruefully. “We spent years attempting to communicate with the dead through albinism, searching for a means to receive spiritualistic messages via the skin. None of the experiments worked, of course. However, these failed attempts were the basis for a professional partnership between XenoTech and ourselves. Which is the reason we’ve taken such a vested interest in this case.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“Look. X fed Mulder the Kaun story because it was convenient. Timely. X knew that if Mulder was going to kill you, he would need a good reason, a monumental reason—or a reasonable facsimile thereof. Something that would provide sufficient motivation. Got it?”
“Well, Kaun and Palimpsest provided that motivation. It’s a marvelous story, isn’t it? A hint of JFK paranoia…secret societies…men in black…communication with the dead…cloning…even UFOs and aliens. But in reality, the story could have been about anything. X could have included werewolves, demons, Bigfoot, mutants, precognition, psychic powers—anything that would give Mulder a hard-on. It’s a seduction, plain and simple: he’s seducing Mulder with the sheer implausibility of it all, wearing him down, making him consider—just consider—the possibility of killing you to find the truth.”
“I don’t think Mulder ever would,” Scully said. “He told me that he’d decided to defy X.”
“But he’ll be having second thoughts,” Sera said. “Did you tell him about 1527 K Street?”
“Yes…” Scully admitted.
“Then you’ve only assisted X in the seduction. Mulder will dig deeper, discover the ectogenetics, the connections between Kaun and XenoTech and the kangaroo and everything else. If he does his homework, he’ll find that Kaun was linked with Reichian metaphysics, orgone, xenoeroticism, covert genetics, MJ-12—more than enough to convince him.”
“Convince him of what?”
“To kill you. X has created his own version of the truth, a fantasy built upon fact—and is waiting patiently for Mulder to take the bait.”
“Then Kaun and Palimpsest and XenoTech are decoys.”
“To X. He doesn’t give a damn about any of it; he only wants you dead. In his position, any secret will suffice.”
“So none of it really matters.”
“I didn’t say that. A lot of it matters. The reason X built his story around Kaun—as opposed to, say, the Abominable Snowman—was because there was enough genuine weirdness there to make the story convincing. It was an excellent lie because much of it was real. Kaun was real. XenoTech was real. Palimpsest was once real. And the real part is as beguiling as any invented conspiracy.” Sera lowered her voice, continued: “Just because X falsified the truth doesn’t mean there is no truth to be found. There is. And we want to know more.”
Scully understood. “X is sending us a wild goose chase—but your organization wants the goose.”
“Exactly. We want Kaun’s research, not because of any hidden agenda, but because it may be useful to us. Genuinely useful.”
“Why do you care?”
Sera smiled. “Ectogenetic animals are valuable in more ways than one. Think about it: your kangaroo was built, cell by cell, according to XenoTech’s exact specifications. With the right tools, you can tamper with the DNA, create biologically perfect specimens, tinker with physiology from the nucloetides up. You understand? Life becomes a changeable text. You can edit nature like a word processing document.”
“But why should that interest you?”
Her smile widening, Sera said, “Agent Scully, even after Palimpsest’s work was exposed as fakery, my organization continued to pursue the possibility of communication with the afterlife. We never gave up. In the beginning, it was cynical work, rote research to keep the grants coming—but we eventually decided that perhaps Palimpsest wasn’t so wrong. That speaking with the dead was indeed possible.”
“How do you figure?” Scully asked.
“Two words: genetic memory.”
Scully raised her eyebrows. “Go on.”
“You’re familiar with the concept: genetic inheritance is not limited to physical traits alone, but also applies to memories, knowledge, behavior. Perhaps parents can pass acquired wisdom and life experience directly to their offspring, via DNA. Their memories might live on in the chromosomes of the newborn. The knowledge of entire generations might be propagated in this manner, each gene becoming an intellectual legacy.”
“Is it? Agent Scully, you know that only ten percent of all DNA is read during cell synthesis; the rest is shapeless ‘junk’ DNA with no known purpose. But what if junk DNA provides a medium for genetic memory? And what if we found a way to read it?” Sera was becoming excited. “It would be like speaking to the dead—because we could access the recollections of ten thousand years of unbroken genetic lineage.”
“With ectogenesis,” Sera continued, “you can take the genetic memory as far back as it can go—it’s merely a matter of triggering the right sequences during development. From the sperm of a California businessman you can reincarnate an Anglo-Saxon warlord. You can take cells from Lisa Marie and come up with Elvis. No limits. No fakery. Just the resurrection of the dead.”
Scully interrupted. “Even if such a thing were possible,” she said, “you still haven’t explained why I was given the kangaroo.”
“Don’t you understand? The kangaroo is absolutely essential. My organization had been trying to discover XenoTech’s secrets for years; when the labs were consumed by fire, its research obliterated, we were forced to start from scratch. The kangaroo—one of the few survivors of the K Street inferno—is a crucial specimen. It’s a vessel: the last remaining repository of XenoTech’s work. “
“But why give it to me?”
“Figure it out for yourself. X was forcing you and Mulder to investigate Kaun. My organization decided to take advantage of this situation. Even if the investigation was a sham, a con game, it was very possible that you might uncover some valid facts along the way. Do our work for us. X may not give a damn about XenoTech—but we do. We can tell you what we know. See what you may turn up on your own. The kangaroo is intended to assist you in your efforts.”
“But why should I help you?”
“Because you can benefit. We can offer protection.”
“The name of the game, Ms. Scully, is evidence. Think about it. After your murder, X wants Mulder arrested with nothing but wild tales and lunatic statements to explain his actions. All physical evidence must disappear. The fake Janneson autopsy photos will probably disintegrate after a few days. Information about Kaun’s research will be erased. Mulder must have nothing to support his story.
“But the more evidence you and Mulder accumulate,” Sera continued, “the harder it will be for X to suppress. His entire plan rests upon the assumption that, when Mulder is apprehended, he will be considered a dangerous paranoiac—nothing more. But evidence as damning as the kangaroo can’t be so easily dismissed. Police will start to wonder. Ask questions. And if X decides that it is impossible to censor all such inquiries, he will reject the plan entirely—and you will be allowed to live.”
“If we get enough proof. Enough information.”
“Right—which will also benefit my organization. It’s a win-win proposition, Agent Scully. All you have to do is accept.”
Still suspicious, Scully asked, “So where would I begin?”
“Take my advice: proceed to Manhattan. Play along with X.”
“Examine Kaun’s actions. After the K Street building is destroyed, he immediately flies to New York City on ‘official business.’ Why New York? We aren’t told. But the implication is obvious: Kaun flew to Manhattan because XenoTech kept a second divison there. A building where the ectogenetics work could be continued. A second laboratory.”
“A second lab? Where?”
Sera smiled, wrists raw and sore from the handcuffs. “I don’t know,” she said. “But the kangaroo might.”
It was ravenous, but It counseled patience. It desired blood, but It kept Itself in check. It watched and waited, keeping close to Scully, closer than she could ever have guessed, accompanying her wherever she went: Its pursuit was literally effortless, Its hazel eyes unblinking, watching as Scully drove along the freeway, hands grasping and ungrasping the wheel, signaling, glancing over her shoulder—looking directly at It but not seeing, not aware—moving to another lane, continuing to drive. It noticed everything. The smallest detail. The gun on the dashboard, beneath the magazine. Seeing the concealed pistol, It felt a momentary flutter of fear—for as invincible as It was, bullets could still harm It. It would not allow Itself to be harmed. It must not.
The fear passed quickly, as it always did.
It marveled at Its new powers, Its ability to watch Scully without her knowledge. Close. Terrifyingly close. Nothing else mattered to It; It hardly glanced at the Other in the car. It only waited for the right time, the right moment. The time to strike.
In all Its excitement, It didn’t notice that It had been seen.
Climbing back into his building from the fire escape, Mulder slid through the hallway window, turned, and closed it securely behind him. As he thumbed the latch shut, he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the glass. Smiled. Covered with soot, his face gray and caked with ash, he looked like Wile E. Coyote after an Acme explosion, nose and cheeks the color of burnt toast. He spat into his hand, tried to rub away the worst of it. Didn’t succeed.
As soon as he reached his apartment, Mulder headed straight for the bathroom. Ran hot water in the sink, fogging the mirror, scrubbing his hands and face and arms and neck with soap. In a few minutes, his skin was rosy-pink and tingling, the porcelain dirty beyond belief. He left black handprints on the towels.
Back to the living room. Gather the necessary items. He spent a few moments debating whether to take the oxyphenylcyrine cigarettes or the adrenaline syringe. Leaving them behind would cement his resolve to not harm Scully—indeed, would make it a moot point—but they might prove useful in other situations. Besides, if he saw X again, he would have to produce them…so, not without some misgivings, Mulder pocketed the Fidels and stuck the pen into his shirt pocket.
Moved on to other things. The Janneson/Kaun casefile. The still-mysterious copy of Clinical Abstracts.
Finally, the cardboard box containing Abby Janneson’s clothing. The black vinyl dress. The stockings. The jewelry. Circling the room, Mulder tried to remember where he’d put it. Last night, he’d unwrapped the carton on the coffee table, letting the brown paper and twine fall to the floor, before staggering to the kitchen, becoming violently ill, collapsing on the couch and falling asleep. He hadn’t touched the box since, hadn’t even looked at it.
But it was gone. The coffee table was bare. The crumpled paper and string still lay beside the sofa—but the carton with Janneson’s clothes was missing.
“Jesus,” Mulder said. He checked beneath the table, behind the couch. Searched his desk. The kitchen. The bathroom. The bedroom, his apprehension growing. He rechecked the living room with fresh eyes, hoping that he’d somehow overlooked the box before, that it was hidden in plain view.
No good. The clothes had vanished.
Mulder tried to think. Had he seen the box this morning? He lay back onto the sofa, straining to mentally retrace his steps. He’d been awakened by X’s knocks, had stood up unsteadily to answer the door—and had lost his balance, slipping and falling across the coffee table, banging his hip. The memory was clear: his thigh was still tender from the impact.
The table had been empty. He remembered it distinctly. The table had been empty. Which meant that someone had been here during the night. Hours ago. Someone had broken in while Mulder slept, coming within inches of the couch, stealing the clothes—and disappearing without a trace.
Why? he wondered. Why?
“To get your fingerprints,” X said.
Mulder whirled. X stood in the doorway, black overcoat buttoned to the chin, hands in his pockets. He stepped into the apartment, leather shoes clinking softly on the parquet. “I didn’t deliver that box here,” he said, entering the living room. “Palimpsest controlled Janneson’s body and all her belongings; obtaining her clothing would have required influence beyond what even I possess.”
“So who gave me the clothes?” Mulder asked, bewildered. “Palimpsest?”
“That is correct. The syringe in your front shirt pocket was also provided by them.”
Mulder glanced down, saw the ballpoint pen. Jerked his gaze back up, eyes projecting a mixture of confusion and mistrust: “Tell me what’s going on,” he said. “Why would Palimpsest give me Janneson’s clothing? Why the syringe?”
“Because Palimpsest wants to frame you for Agent Scully’s death.” X shook his head, corrected himself. “Perhaps ‘frame’ isn’t the right word. Palimpsest wants to make certain that, when you administer the oxyphenylcyrine to Scully, she will stay dead—and you will be arrested and convicted of her murder.” He gestured towards the pen. “That hypodermic doesn’t contain any adrenaline; it’s morphine, a lethal dose—the coup de grace, if you will. Using it to resuscitate your partner would be like fighting a fire with gasoline. If the oxyphenylcyrine doesn’t kill her, the morphine will.”
“I…I don’t understand.”
“If Palimpsest kills Scully in the usual manner—an injection to the spine by an anonymous man in black—it stands a very good chance of being exposed. Scully has connections. She’s extremely well-known in certain conspiracy circles—almost as well-known as you are—and if she dies mysteriously, people are going to wonder why.”
“So they want me to do their work for them,” Mulder said, horrified.
“Exactly. They know everything. They’re aware that I’ve ordered you to kill and resuscitate Scully. They know where the meeting will take place. You’ll give Scully the OPC, attempt to ‘revive’ her with the morphine—and then Palimpsest will spring the police on your ass. They get the message from Kaun, Scully gets an early grave, you get the electric chair.”
“And the clothes…”
“They’re making sure that your fingerprints are on everything, even the panties. The New York DA will slap you with first-degree murder and sexual assault—possibly rape, if Palimpsest gets its hands on a sperm sample.”
“So I’m the fall guy.”
“Correct. They’re using our own plot against us—”
“—because they can’t kill Scully,” Mulder raged. “But I sure as hell can.” He felt monumental anger building up inside him, making his head pulse even more painfully—before an objection suddenly occurred to him. “But why don’t they simply kill and resuscitate Scully themselves?” he wondered. “Let her live? That way, there’d be no suspicious death, no questions, no damaging exposure; they could hypnotize her, make her forget the entire incident…”
“That’s impossible,” X said sharply. “The risk would be even greater. Even if Scully was somehow brainwashed into docility, the psychosomatic stigmata from the OPC would linger on the skin for weeks afterward; Kaun’s secrets would be visible on her flesh to anyone who cared to look.”
“That makes sense,” Mulder conceded. At the same time, however, he had a sudden flash of insight: X was lying. Even if it was impossible for Palimpsest to revive Scully, X wasn’t giving the real reasons. He was hiding something. Something important.
Mulder quickly concealed his suspicions: X was holding out something, a small, gleaming cylinder of plastic. He took it automatically, weighed it in the palm of his hand. It was an ampoule filled with straw-colored liquid.
“Adrenaline,” X said. “Real adrenaline.”
“Are you kidding?” Mulder asked. “I can’t go through with this now! You just told me that Palimpsest knows everything, that they’re just waiting to set me up…”
“How many times do I need to tell you, Agent Mulder?” X said impatiently. “You haven’t got a choice. If you don’t play along with Palimpsest, they’ll just find another way of killing Scully and leaving you with the bag. They’ve got your fingerprints on Janneson’s clothes, and they’ll make sure that Scully is wearing them when she dies.” X turned. Headed for the door. Paused at the threshold and delivered a final appeal. “Agent Mulder, if you’re the one giving Scully the cigarette and administering the adrenaline, there’s a good chance that she’ll survive. If it’s Palimpsest, she’ll die. Plain and simple. Those are your options.”
X began to walk down the hall, toward the fire escape.
“One last question,” Mulder called after him. “What was going on at XenoTech Labs? What was Kaun working on there? Why did the K Street building burn to the ground?”
Opening the window, X climbed outside. He turned back to Mulder. Smiled.
“Think of it as interplanetary warfare,” he said blithely.
And he was gone.
There was a mirror set into the ceiling of the ambulance, a shatter-proof rectangle of polished steel, and as Charles Scully lay strapped into the gurney, staring up at his reflection, he marveled at how old he seemed. His face was crossed with lines and weary marks that hadn’t been there a day ago. Skin was sagging, ashen-colored, pale, weak. He studied himself detachedly, mind withdrawn and oddly abstracted, like a man analyzing a dream within a dream, marking each unfamiliar detail and marveling at the feeble ruination of his body: arms bound to his side by snug leather straps, hands loosely clutching the brown paper bag filled with Neumann’s things, torso and legs wrapped in white sheets, a fresh IV tube trailing from one wrist.
He blinked. The image in the mirror remained the same.
This was no dream. He was lying helpless in an ambulance bound for an unknown place with a stranger at the wheel, impersonating a sixty-year-old man of whom he knew nothing. Things had gone smoothly thus far—incredibly so, as if some guardian angel had been leading him by the hand—but the ruse could only continue for so long. Sooner or later, the ambulance would coast to a stop, he would be removed, identified as an impostor—and probably shot where he lay. He could see it. A premonition, perhaps. Those mean-looking Sig Sauer pistols. Up against his forehead. No chance for begging: just quick click of trigger and anticlimactic annihilation. He wouldn’t even hear the bang.
And the procession was inexorable. Rapid. Rushing down the highway at seventy miles per hour, casting silently-spinning streamers of red across its own rear windows, the ambulance flew over a bump. The gurney bounced; Charles bumped his head on the mattress. Almost dropped the bag. He clenched it closer to his chest, feeling its contents through the brown paper: pen-syringe, code book, wallet, notepaper, keys. His only resources.
He needed to buy some time—or, at least, find out how much time remained. Raising his head from the gurney, Charles-as-Neumann called weakly: “How much longer?”
From the front of the ambulance, the man who had identified himself as Alex Krycek responded. “We should be there by midafternoon, Mr. Neumann.”
Charles ventured his ignorance: “‘There?’”
“The Virginia bunker,” Krycek shouted over the din of the freeway. “I don’t know much else, only the destination. They didn’t tell me very much.”
“What else do you know?”
“Just bits and pieces. I heard them say that Scully—Dana Scully, I suppose—will arrive in Manhattan by sundown; they expect that she’ll walk right into the XenoTech labs, where they can apprehend her easily.”
Trying to downplay his own ignorance—XenoTech? Virginia bunker?—and his odd sense of apprehension, Charles asked, “You know Dana Scully?” He tried to keep his voice casual, only vaguely interested, as if he were just making conversation.
“We’ve met.” Krycek paused; Charles thought he might be smiling. “I also made the acquaintance of her sister.”
Melissa? Charles fought the temptation to ask further questions. “You’ve discovered a lot,” he said.
“Only what they told me. If you don’t mind me saying so, security seems rather lax; a few of your men were almost talkative.”
Charles was about to respond…when the shrill electronic whine of a cellular phone sliced through the air. Tilting his head as far back as it would go, he caught a quick glimpse of Krycek taking a phone from the dashboard, pressing a button with his thumb—cutting off the ring in midwarble—and bringing it to his ear. “Yes?” he answered. A pause. “Yes, this is the ambulance.” Pause. “No, I think the number stays the same. This is the only one you knew? Yes, it doesn’t change like the others. It—” He broke off. “Hold it, slow down, slow down. You’re who?” A longer pause. Krycek said something else, in a lower voice, muffling it at the last second—but Charles heard it. Heard it clearly:
And suddenly Charles was filled with dread, complete and utter terror. Because the game was up. He knew it. Tasted it. Felt the change in Krycek’s demeanor.
Even if it wasn’t Pio Neumann at the other end of the line, then it was someone else, someone who had discovered the ruse and was telling Krycek what he needed to know.
Charles had been exposed.
The hushed conversation continued for several moments more. Krycek’s replies were low, inaudible; Charles strained to listen, to hear what was being said, but he only heard isolated syllables, soft and meaningless and terrifyingly calm. Indeed, the pounding of his own heart seemed louder than anything else: any second now, he expected Krycek to hang up, remove a gun from some hidden compartment in the front of the ambulance, step into the back and splatter Charles’s brains all over the inside of the sickbay.
But when the conversation ceased, no such thing happened. Krycek thumbed the button again. Replaced the phone on the dash. Continued to drive. He did not say anything, did not offer any comment as to who had called or why….
But then Charles heard a dry, periodic click resounding with clockwork precision from the front of the ambulance: the turn signal. The ambulance descended as Krycek exited, took the next offramp. They slowed. Steadied. The view through the rear windows abruptly changed from concrete to lush forest scenery—and Charles immediately understood what was happening. Krycek was taking him to place of greater seclusion, of privacy.
Someplace where the sound of a gunshot would be muffled.
Charles needed to act quickly. He worked rapidly, frantically trying to free his arms from the gurney. He managed to get one hand free. Reached over, unbuckled the strap, slid it away from his chest. Sat up. Quickly freed his legs, fingers numb and stiff. Still sitting on the mattress, Charles briefly thought about flinging open the rear ambulance doors and jumping out—but that wasn’t an option. Even if he survived the fall to the pavement—and given his current physical condition, he wasn’t sure he would—Krycek probably had a gun. He couldn’t outrun a bullet.
The only option was to fight back. Strike first. He desperately searched the interior of the ambulance for weapons, sharp edges, anything, but the bandages and scalpels and equipment were stored in clear plastic cabinets which he couldn’t smash, locked securely shut, row after row of tongue depressors, bone saws, Sam splints, pressure pants, oxygen canisters, hypodermics…
Hypodermics. Christ. Neumann’s pen-syringe. It contained a poison, Charles was sure of that, marked with a skull-and-crossbones and the label OXYPHENYLCYRINE—but what kind of poison was that? How quickly would it work? Could it be used in the heat of an emergency?
No matter: it was his only chance. He opened the paper bag with trembling fingers, accidentally tore it, spilling the pen and wallet and keys and code book across the floor of the ambulance. In the front, Krycek heard. “Shit,” Charles hissed, stooping, picking up the pen. He climbed back onto the gurney, lying flat on his stomach. Found the clip, pressed it, triggered the hidden spring. The needle shot out. Charles stared at the proboscis, saw a single drop of clear green fluid glistening at the very tip, then lowered it, holding the syringe ready by his side.
The ambulance moved over rough terrain. Taking a quick glance over his shoulder, Charles saw the tips of pine trees through the rear window, snatches of blue sky, of sunlight. They were somewhere in the woods, tumbling along a dirt trail, needles scratching along the side of the vehicle and rubbing intimately against the doors. He could hear nothing except the grating of wheels against soil. Engine. In the front seat, Krycek was absolutely silent.
Slowing…crawling…coasting to the side of the road. The ambulance jerked to a stop. The rustling of needles ceased. Charles heard Krycek set the emergency brake. Shut off the engine. Unbuckle his seatbelt. Take something from the glove compartment—
—and then Krycek stood before him, sneering, an ugly-looking black pistol in hand. His face was flushed, but he grinned. Said: “Sorry, Mr. Scully, but playtime is over.”
And Charles buried the syringe into the soft flesh of Krycek’s thigh.
It penetrated the cloth of the trousers easily. The needle broke off. Krycek grunted in shock, raised the gun, pulled the trigger. Charles ducked, burying his face in the padding of the gurney, flailing out with his hands, trying to deflect the path of the gun—BAM!—single shot, unbearably loud and resounding in the close confines of the ambulance, deafening him—and then, hot, agonizing pain. The bullet had missed his head, but only barely: it nicked the upper lobe of Charles’s right ear, nipping off a crescent-shaped bit of flesh as neatly as if it had been severed by a pair of nail-clippers—before ricocheting off the ambulance wall just beyond him, zinging off at an angle, striking the ceiling like a pinball, then the opposite wall, before finally burying itself in the floor less than two inches from Krycek’s left foot. The agony in Charles’s ear was hot and concentrated, as if he had been lazed by a blowtorch—blood began to trickle slowly down—but he was oblivious, terrified, waiting for the next shot to come.
He didn’t know how much time passed—probably no more than a few seconds, but it felt longer—before he glanced up from the bloodsoaked sheets of the gurney, wondering why Death was being so unhurried about things. The first thing he saw was Krycek’s belt buckle—still at eye level—and, yelping, he hid his face again. Flinched. Waited for a final blow—or something—or anything. But nothing happened. Blood continued to flow warmly down the side of his face; he could hear his own breathing; his heart thudded rapidly against the gurney; but nothing happened.
He hazarded a second look, peering up from the mattress. Krycek’s belt buckle still hovered motionlessly at bedside, right where it had been before. Less jumpy now, but still cautious, Charles saw a small spot of scarlet blood, no larger than the head of a pin, welling up from the place on Krycek’s thigh where he had plunged the hypodermic. As he watched, the blood continued to spread—it eventually grew to the size of a dime—but Krycek remained stock-still. Motionless.
But still standing.
Bracing himself for the worst, Charles looked up—and his fear was quietly sublimated by a kind of bemused wonder. Mouth open, he gazed upward in awe. Amazement. Because although Krycek still gripped the pistol tightly in one hand, arm dangling uselessly by his side, and although he was still standing, he was dead. His head drooped, eyes half-open, gazing down listlessly. His face was pale.
Charles was astonished: Krycek had literally died on his feet. His body did not seem to be leaning on anything, but his shoes were planted fairly far apart on the ambulance floor, lending him stability. He swayed lightly, standing like a cleverly balanced action figure. A statue. By now, his head and neck were very pale—almost the color of his white starched shirt—as the blood began to drain from his upper extremities down into his feet and legs. The expression on his face was one of dull surprise.
“Jeez,” Charles said softly. “Jesus almighty Christ.”
Just to be sure, he prodded Krycek lightly in the chest—and the dead man’s trigger finger tightened convulsively, discharging the gun, firing a bullet straight down into the floor. It hit, bounced, ricocheted upward with a sharp metallic whine, retracing its path almost exactly, blowing away Krycek’s thumb in a spray of red droplets and smashing into the ceiling, where it remained.
After a few moments, Charles managed to reswallow his heart—only to notice that the blast had upset Krycek’s precious balance. That, in fact, the dead man was tipping precariously forward. In his direction.
“Oh God,” he muttered. Scrambled to catch the corpse before it hit the gurney. He raised his hands, managed to get one on Krycek’s face, tried to push upward—but the body folded like an accordion, the spine flexing into parenthesis-shape, and Charles soon found himself with a very dead body lying clumsily in his arms.
Now the reality of the murder finally hit home. Charles was violently and noisily sick, only barely managing to avert his head and avoid insulting Krycek’s body even more. He felt slimy all over. Weak. The effort of such sudden reverse peristalsis had reopened the wound in his stomach. His ear was still bleeding. Fuck. What a situation.
He didn’t even notice the markings on Krycek’s chest until later.
In all of Washington D.C.—in all of America, perhaps—there was only one telephone that X truly trusted, one telephone which he knew would never be corrupted by traces, taps, eavesdroppers or IPSD mainframes: a silver telephone that sat bolted into an iron box inside a fireproof safe in a concrete bunker on the banks of the Potomac. To casual passers-by, the facility looked like a boating house, lying as it did above a wooden pier where boats lay trussed and the river lapped languorously against the massive docks; but on the inside was an array of sophisticated computer equipment, shortwave scanners, radios, NSA code-blockers, scramblers, microwave transmitters, silicon sculpture and fiber-optic macrame, all centered around that silver telephone: the Only Safe Line in the United States.
Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the Booth—as it was called by its patrons—was manned by a single operator, usually a CIA or FBI trainee with little curiosity and a spotless disciplinary record. For security reasons, a single individual rarely manned the Booth more than three or four times in a lifetime—a new face could be seen there nearly every day. Because of this broad but shallow pool of recruits, half the graduates of Quantico or the Farm could attest to having spent a weekend working there, but none of them could safely say what they’d done or what purpose it had served.
The Booth functioned in a simple manner. Any telephone—secure or otherwise—could be used to place a call to the bunker. This initial call was always brief—only a ten-digit passkey, a number and a few names were uttered—and it set a rapid series of events into motion: the operator on duty would verify the passkey (which was changed daily) and page the intended recipient of the message. The recipient was given an hour’s time to arrive at the Booth; after that, the authorization was automatically nullified, and a second call would need to be made. For this reason, the Booth was only useful for contacting individuals within or close to the District of Columbia—and even then, using the Booth was such a pain that it was employed only rarely. On special occasions.
So when X was summoned by the Booth on his way out of Mulder’s apartment—the digital face of his pager displaying the ten-digit code known by less than nine dozen operatives in the American intelligence community—he knew that something was up. Something big. He drove from Alexandria to the Potomac bunker at breakneck speed; when he slammed the car door shut and stepped out onto the pier, his eyes were narrow and sharply focused. He strode quickly down the dock. Saw the familiar bunker, leaning precipitously over the very edge of the river, wind-whipped, stained by moisture.
Or so it seemed from afar. X knew that the Booth was intentionally disguised as a homely shack, boards nailed up haphazardly, pitted with carvings and graffiti and water damage—but it was all a facade, an illusion; on the inside, the Booth was lined with carbon steel, a single window set into the ceiling, crossed with bars. He knew, even before inserting a key into a hidden hole and turning it firmly, that the door would open onto a cramped, drab office, dreary yet somehow high-tech, set with computer monitors and gadgetry and unimaginably advanced bug-detecting equipment.
As usual, the operator was reading a comic book. None of them knew what they were doing, X reflected; none of them could work the computers or check the apparatus or do anything more than the most rote bookkeeping activities. Get password; check it; confirm it; page target. Simple. There were rarely more than one or two requests per day. One might as well spend the remaining time reading Carl Barks.
X gave the day’s code without looking at his pager. “5-1-0-5-3-7…”
The operator—a skinny kid with slicked-back orange hair and glasses—nodded. Said: “Today’s combination is—”
“—07-36-14. Next time don’t put the damn combo in plain sight.”
“Sure,” said the kid, noticing the slip of paper that lay uncovered on his desk. “Sorry, sir.”
“Whatever.” Stepping past the poindexter without another word, X entered the soundproof cubicle that held the Phone. As always, the room was small and almost ascetic: it contained nothing except a chair, a desk, and an iron safe, its dimensions less than six feet by eight when the door was closed. X spun the dial—seven—thirty-six—fourteen—and twisted the handle, revealing a metal box, cold and smooth and heavy. Opened it. Lifted out the Phone.
It was silver inside and out, gleaming and well-polished, although there were fingerprints on the receiver from its last use. X wore gloves. There was only one button, yellow. He pressed it. Held the Phone to his ear. Listened to a series of whirs, clicks, buzzes, as the Booth automatically scrambled the channels, purged the airwaves, cleared the wavelengths, making the line free for covert conversation. Sonic cleansing.
When it was done, the Phone finally began to ring.
And when the man at the other end answered, X didn’t recognize the voice, for good reason; the Booth subjected all sounds to compression and distortion and reassembly, doing mechanically what a little helium would accomplish just as well: all voices sounded like robots, exactly the same.
But X knew who it was.
“I’ll be brief,” the robot-voice said. “There’s big trouble. You have overstepped your boundaries and jeopardized the entire mission…”
X listened for several minutes, letting a noncommittal comment fall every once in a while. The Booth’s filter rendered all speech devoid of emotion, at a fixed volume, so it was impossible to tell if the individual at the other end of the line was shouting or whispering, sarcastic or serious, or even male or female, although X knew that the former was true: the man’s voice was computerish and androgynous, artificially smoothed and completely soulless. X knew that he sounded the same way. So he was able to distance himself from the complaints and pleadings of the man at the other end; he heard everything patiently, with no real surprise—except when he heard that It had been tailing Scully—and offered various comments, as well as his own share of information.
When the conversation was over, X hung up slowly and replaced the Phone in its holy of holies. Although he wouldn’t admit it, he was rather disturbed by the news.
It. That was something that he hadn’t counted on.
Because It was still a mystery. An undecided factor.
In the days since Its unwitting creation, X had never heard It referred to by anything but that ominous pronoun. It. No name. No identity. No indication of either. X knew only the barest details of Its nature or origin. All he knew, indeed, was what they had chosen to tell him.
First: It could be identified by the red hieroglyphics tattooing Its forearms and upper torso.
Second: It could impersonate a human being perfectly when It wished.
Third: It subscribed to no agenda but Its own.
This last item, at least, was unquestionable. X had seen the pictures. Two men had been killed by It after It arose from Its oxyphenylcyrine trance, a third permanently disabled when It blew a hole in his chest.
After which, It had escaped. Its whereabouts had remained unknown—until now. And, hopefully, now that It had been drawn to Agent Scully—or perhaps to Agent Scully’s companion—It could be killed. The ideograms on its arms could finally be read and deciphered. And this entire nasty business could come to an end.
X slammed the safe door shut. Stood. Left the Booth without a backward glance at the operator, who had set down his comic book and was watching him expectantly—X was aware that it was considered good luck to tip the operator on one’s way out of the Booth, but he wasn’t about to give this sorry fuck any cash. He stepped wordlessly out onto the dock, sliding the camouflaged entrance shut behind him. Glanced briefly over his shoulder. Once again, the Booth was nothing more than a rotting kiosk on the banks of the river, anonymous and of zero interest to anyone; one’s eyes slid over it. With luck, he wouldn’t have to return there for a while.
X was halfway to his car when he noticed the lone figure leaning against the bumper.
A stranger. He was dressed in a dark blue overcoat, double-breasted suit, blood-red tie, flapping tongue-like in the wind. His head was bent, face hidden; he seemed to be looking down at the river, the throbbing currents of the Potomac, his hand resting lightly on the hood of the car. He did not seem to be aware of X’s presence.
Drawing his gun, X slowed his pace, began to approach the car sideways, glancing in all directions, seeing no one else within one hundred yards. If this was an ambush, it was either amateurish—or unspeakably professional. He kept his arms rigid. Put two pounds of pressure on a nine-pound trigger.
It wasn’t until he got within ten feet of the car that the stranger turned—and X recognized him. Let the gun fall to his side in hollow disbelief.
It was himself.
His twin—or, if not, someone who had been surgically rebuilt in his image. It was like looking into a slightly cruel, slightly distorted—but no doubt accurate—mirror: the scars of recent plastic surgery were still evident around the eyes, the ears, the base of the chin, the cheeks. The nose; the throat. Even the teeth had been rebuilt; when the man smiled, it was X’s own smile that peered from between the lips. Exactly the same, down to length of hair and beard. His Palimpsest clone. His double.
And X knew that one of them was going to die.
Noticing that the needle of the gas gauge was tipping precipitously towards E, Scully exited the freeway and began looking for a service station. She wasn’t sure where they were—probably somewhere in lower New Jersey—and the landscape was gray, industrial, lined with factories that seemed hewn from solid granite. Smog lightly glazed the sky. In the back seat, the kangaroo breathed softly, dreaming, its tail thumping lightly against the inside of the carrier.
Sera stretched her numb arms, handcuffs digging into her wrists. Said conversationally: “You know, that kangaroo is vitally important.”
“Hm?” said Scully, half-listening. She frowned. Whenever she tried to find a way out of this industrial maze, each road simply led to another, the coke ovens and pistons hemming them in on either side. “Pardon me?”
“If you want to locate XenoTech’s Manhattan lab, the kangaroo will lead you there.”
“Have you ever heard of the metatherian instinct? The embryonic diapause? How much do you know about the marsupial life cycle?”
Scully sighed. If she didn’t find a way out soon, their gas would be gone and they’d be stranded in the morass; at the moment, discussing the finer points of kangaroo courting was not a priority. “Not much. Only what I learned in college-level biology.” Her words were brisk, harried.
Sera either didn’t notice or deliberately ignored Scully’s tone of impatience: “Well, you know the basics. All marsupials are born mere weeks after conception, completely helpless—they’re little more than crawling embryos with strong little arms, but they manage to migrate the few inches from the birth canal to the pouch.”
“Every schoolchild knows this.”
“But not every schoolchild understands how alien the process is. We look at marsupials and compare them to rabbits or mice or teddy bears, but in reality, their bodily structure and life habits are so foreign to placental mammals as to be almost totally unimaginable.”
“Listen. After a female kangaroo gives birth, she often mates again, almost immediately. Understand? While the first unformed young is still clinging to the pouch, she’s already conceiving a second time. Maximizing her reproductive potential. It makes evolutionary sense: because of the extreme shortness of the gestation period, a kangaroo can afford to remain pregnant for virtually every moment of her mature life.”
“But not feasible. Although the actual gestation period only lasts for a few weeks, the postpartum pouch development can continue for much longer. Even if the female bore new young on a monthly basis—as she probably could—her pouch would soon suffer from overcrowding; it simply isn’t possible to have more than a certain number of young suckling at once.”
“So why does the female mate again so soon?”
“Several reasons. First of all, the newborn often doesn’t survive very long. It’s nothing more than a little worm, you know: pink, hairless, weak, no larger than your thumb. Many of them die before reaching the pouch. So it’s practical to have a pregnancy at all times; even if a dozen of your young can’t make it, perhaps the thirteenth will. Law of averages.
“But sometimes,” Sera continued, “a kangaroo will become pregnant when she already has a viable newborn in the pouch. Which means trouble. She can’t simply give birth again: a uterine traffic jam would occur.”
“So what happens?” Scully asked, not very interested.
“The newly conceived embryo goes into stasis.”
“What do you mean?”
“Exactly what I said: stasis. Suspended animation. It’s known as embryonic diapause. The embryo stops dividing, stops developing, simply sits lifeless in the uterus. Waiting. Eventually, the already-born young will die or be weaned, and the pouch will be vacant again. At which time, the fetus reattaches itself to the uterus and continues gestation as if nothing had happened.
“Now, consider it,” Sera said. “Consider it very carefully. This period when the embryo hovers between life and death. Completely isolated from its mother, from the womb, from the rest of the universe. Alone. A clump of cells in an endless sea.”
“So what?” Scully was getting vaguely pissed; the road seemed to be taking her in circles.
“Compare it to what happens when you inject someone with oxyphenylcyrine. Their nerve endings short-circuit. Spinal cord shuts off. Muscles relax. Weaken. They feel nothing—can’t breathe—can’t think—can’t even perceive their own predicament. In moments, they’re dead—but not before having experienced another moment of complete isolation. They’re alone, completely alone, for perhaps the first time in their lives. To them, the world has ceased to exist. Nothing can be felt; there is no pain, no emotion, no perception; everything is suffocated and purified through an OPC haze.”
“Oxyphenylcyrine?” Scully asked. “But you said that the OPC method was falsified.
“It was. But although Palimpsest’s work was flawed and faked, a grain of truth remained: when you isolate an organism from all physical stimuli, you increase its sensitivity to the supernatural, to the afterlife. The unknown. A bit of jelly in a marsupial womb, or a bit of humanity on a concrete sidewalk: it’s all the same. Seclusion. Loneliness. A vacuum that can only be filled by a higher state of awareness. You can interpret it any way you wish: either the organism is invaded by some higher power, a spirit from the netherworld, a ghost, a dybbuk—or it somehow manages to tap into its own genetic memory. It reads the tapes. Grasps, in its unimaginable solitude, the secrets of its own DNA.”
“And you believe that this happens to marsupials in embryonic diapause?”
“I know it. When that embryo is severed from its mother’s embrace, it becomes a literal palimpsest: a manuscript that has been written upon countless times, erased, redrawn, reinscribed—but incompletely so; the old words can still be read. Theoretically, accessing the genetic memory of such an embryo would be child’s play. What my group was trying to do, in cooperation with XenoTech, was to extend that period of diapause. To lengthen it—if possible—to the complete lifetime of the organism. To help the organism retain that peculiar sensitivity, be able to detect those unknown forces—whether from genome or Gehenna—that contain the secrets of the world. That kangaroo,” Sera finished, “may have such a sensitivity. It may have powers.”
“Psychic powers?” Scully asked, incredulous.
“Not exactly. But it may possess a sensitivity to the womb, to the pouch, to its place of origin: if my guess is correct, that kangaroo should be able to lead you and Mulder directly to—”
Scully slammed on the brakes, jerking the car to a halt. Sera flew forward, her seatbelt locking, banging her head against the roof. “Ouch!” she said in a little girl’s voice. “What happened?”
“I don’t know,” Scully said. Her eyes were narrow, suspicious. “I saw something in the road. Something strange. Wait here.” Flinging open the car door, Scully stepped outside, taking her pistol from the dashboard and holding it ready by her side. Sera watched from the front seat, an expression of concern unfolding across her face. There was a spot of reddened skin on her forehead.
Alone, Scully knelt by the front tires. Examined what had made her brake so abruptly. Wondered why it had inspired such sudden dread on her part.
Because it was just a box. A cardboard box, tied with heavy string, wrapped in plain brown paper, lying in the midst of the asphalt, in the very center of the right lane, edges aligned neatly with the sides of the road. Placed there deliberately. Meant for her. She knew it…because a single tube of sunscreen lay atop the carton.
Hands shaking, careful not to upset the box more than necessary, Scully took the tube. Unscrewed it. Sniffed the cap—and felt an eerie sense of deja vu as the stinging scent of ammonia flooded her senses.
“What is it?” Sera called from inside the car.
“You mean you don’t know?” Scully shot back. “It looks like your handiwork.”
“Trust me,” Sera said quaveringly. “I have no idea what this is.”
“Trust,” Scully muttered, kneeling in the road. “Right-o.” She squeezed the familiar ammonia liniment onto her hands; it melted slightly, softening, when it came into contact with her warm fingers. She rubbed it over the brown paper wrapping. The top. The sides. She avoided the bottom, fearful that tipping the box would trigger some sort of bomb.
The message took only a few seconds to appear. When it did—only a single sentence, running across the right-hand side of the carton—she couldn’t suppress a smile, remembering what the dwarf had said the night before:
IT ISN’T A BOMB! TRUST ME!
“Trust,” she said again. Rolled the word around in her mouth. Pondered what it meant. Decided to go for broke—and ripped away the wrapping, tore the string with her fingernails, pulled aside the paper and let it fall by the roadside. She opened the box, looked within. Her smile disappeared. Heart began to thud.
Vinyl miniskirt. Fishnet stockings. Pink tank top. Red spike-heeled pumps. Junk jewelry. Cotton panties. Scully knew. She had no idea that Mulder had already seen and touched and handled these few scraps of clothing—but she knew nonetheless.
But how in God’s name had they managed to bring Janneson’s garments here, of all places? Why had they left them in the middle of the road, leaving their discovery to fate?
It was then that Scully realized: they wouldn’t leave anything to fate.
Which meant that she was being watched.
Someone had seen her leave the freeway and enter the industrial area. Seen that she was lost, that she was going in circles. Had looked down the way, calculated her direction of travel—and placed the box where she was sure to find it. In the middle of the road. Which implied at least two people: one vulture-like, observing from a high point, peering down with binoculars and following her with his eyes; and an accomplice by the roadside, someone with access to a car of his own, who could speed down the path, leave the package and disappear soundlessly.
Great. Just fucking great. Scully stood, turned slowly around and around, taking in the desolation. These surrounding plants and factories appeared to be long-dead, rusting, primeval: only a few trails of green vapor ascending from smokestacks gave any sign of activity. The sky arched above, breathtakingly blue but clouded with pollution. The road stretched to a vanishing point on either side. In between, anyone could be hiding, anywhere, above or behind these metal-gray walls: these were not factories, Scully understood, but caverns, cathedrals, monuments to death.
And she had driven right into their midst.
“What’s in the box?” Sera ventured timidly from the front seat. “What’s going on?”
Casting another wary glance over her shoulder, Scully said, “I think we’ve got company.” She pulled a random piece of clothing—the vinyl dress—from the box. Showed it to Sera. “Recognize this?” she asked.
Sera craned forward, striving to see. Her eyes widened. “Jeez,” she said, awed. “Janneson’s dress.”
And then she smiled. Genuinely, radiantly. The grin cut to the bone, disturbing Scully more than anything else—more than the package, more than the suggestion that she was being watched—this odd smile, strangely beautiful: Sera grinned so widely that her lip threatened to split open again. A single droplet of blood squeezed its way out, round and glistening, like a scarlet pearl.
Shifting, Sera strained further in her seat—but because she was cuffed to the headrest, the only way she could inch forward was to bring her elbows together, straightening her arms, sticking out her neck. The long sleeves of her blouse wrinkled slightly, traveling up to her elbows.
And Scully saw them. Saw the words.
Hidden until now by the sleeves, red letters—hieroglyphics, ideograms—ran up and down Sera’s forearms. Bleeding up from the skin. Some unknown language, psychosomatically writ upon the flesh—or was it copper sulfate?—that Scully could not take her eyes from, looking at that scarlet text, terminating just above the wrists.
Sera noticed that Scully had seen. Smiled even more, looking at the black vinyl skirt that Scully held in her hands.
Deep inside Sera, It awoke.
“I’d like a one-way ticket to Manhattan, please,” Mulder said absently, going through the familiar ritual: No, he didn’t have a reservation. No, he’d be paying cash. How soon would it be leaving? Aisle seat, please. Non-smoking. The cigarettes in his shirt pocket? He didn’t plan to smoke them. Honestly.
He carefully counted out the bills, pushed them across the counter. “Thanks,” he said, absently taking the ticket.
“You’re welcome, sir,” the woman said. “And…sir?”
“If you want to wash your face, there’s a restroom just around the corner.”
“Oh,” Mulder said, puzzled. “Thanks.”
Turning away from the TWA counter, Mulder checked his watch. His flight would be leaving Dulles in fifteen minutes, but he was in no hurry, had no baggage to check; his only luggage was a slim manila folder, carried beneath his arm, and a few subsidiary items, all easily concealed. The oxyphenylcyrine cigarettes rode heavily in his shirt pocket, along with both pen-syringes; he’d kept the morphine, intuiting that it might be useful, distinguishing it from its adrenaline-filled cousin with a sliver of masking tape. (God knew that he didn’t want any confusion as to which was which.)
Speaking of confusion…
Taking into account what the woman had said, Mulder rubbed his nose, glanced at his fingertips—and felt a moment of odd surprise. The pads of his fingers were blackened with soot. “That’s strange,” he said aloud; he thought he’d cleaned his face pretty thoroughly back in the apartment. Walking quickly to the men’s restroom, he pushed the door open, stepped inside. Saw his reflection in the mirror. Couldn’t believe his eyes.
His face was covered with ash again. Not so thickly as before, but there were dark, unmistakable smudges across his cheekbones, nose, chin, forehead…. Frowning, he tossed his envelope onto the counter. Ran hot water, scrubbing with the pink powdered hand soap. In a moment, all of the smut had been washed down the drain, black swirls trailing across the porcelain of the sink.
A glance in the mirror was sufficient to convince him that he was spotless again. He dried his face with a handful of paper towels, pondered the strangeness. But it was no big mystery. Some residual grime had probably rubbed off when he’d changed clothes prior to coming to the airport; his shirt had been caked with dust from the K Street fire. He smiled. Of course. If the woman hadn’t said something, he might have gone all the way to New York looking like a chimney sweep.
Leaving the restroom, he walked several hundred yards along the airport concourse, finally arriving at his gate. Collapsing wearily into one of the plastic chairs that lined the terminal, he opened the manila envelope and pulled out the sheaf of printed pages that comprised the April 10, 1983 issue of Clinical Abstracts. Flipped to the front. Began to read. And read. And read.
It wasn’t until the plane arrived that he found the item which (he thought) X had meant for him to see. Rising, he gave the attendant his ticket and boarded the plane, continuing to read as he made his way to his seat. He reached the end of the article, saw the list of contributors. Nodded with satisfaction. One of the authors was a researcher at XenoTech. When the stewardess began the safety lecture, he only half-listened, concentrating on the subject before him.
He read the article a second time. A third. In dry, scientific language, it detailed the manufacture of a kind of artificial skin, intended for burn victims and other patients whose injuries required major physical reconstruction.
What had X said? Skin. It’s an obsession.
But the article noted that XenoTech’s synthetic skin was virtually useless, due to one glaring flaw: prolonged exposure to UV radiation would collapse the plasma membranes of the cells, wrinkling the flesh, turning it gray and hard and inflexible. It reminded Mulder, obviously enough, of the albino kangaroo—except that, instead of mere sunburn, the UV rays caused much more dramatic deterioration of the tissue. Skin became scaly, almost reptilian. Fishlike. Clearly worthless for any clinical use.
If it were kept in the dark, though…
The plane taxied to the runway, accelerated, took off. Mulder’s eardrums popped, but he hardly noticed; as the airplane climbed, his thoughts climbed with it, straining for handholds, for a means of assembling everything he had discovered thus far. Kaun. Palimpsest. Wilhelm Reich. XenoTech. The kangaroo. The dwarf. The artificial skin. The smoldering ruins at 1527 K Street.
After a while, the plane leveled off, and the seatbelt light was dimmed. Unbuckling, Mulder glanced briefly to either side. On his left, the aisle. On his right, a blue-suited businessman, pecking at a laptop spreadsheet. Beyond was the small window, and the soupy clouds, and the threads of blue sky crisscrossing the haze. Looking outside, Mulder saw—far beneath them—the shadow of the airplane itself, cast onto a layer of stratus below, a dark gray blob that skated along the clouds like an amorphous ghost.
Oddly, Mulder was suddenly reminded of the phantoms of the Brocken. For centuries, large, shadowy spirits had been seen at the summit of the Harz mountains in Germany, towering hundreds of feet high, dark, gray, ominous; the populace believed them to be spirits of the dead that congregated annually on the steepest peaks. But less than a century ago, the apparitions had been satisfactorily explained: climbers who ascended Mount Brocken would cast shadows onto the clouds, silhouetted by the setting sun. Just before dusk, these shadows would grow to Brobdingnagian proportions. Nothing supernatural. Only a minor quirk of natural phenomena, quickly elevated to the status of folklore by superstition and ignorance.
Sitting there, gazing out the window, Mulder reflected that perhaps he had been making a similar mistake. Mistaking shadows for reality. He’d been living in Plato’s cave, he realized: Kaun, Janneson, the kangaroo, XenoTech, Wilhelm Reich—they were only mirages, symptoms of a deeper truth, something that he was overlooking, something as obvious as climbers on a mountainside. He’d been prowling in the shade this entire time. Ignoring the big picture.
Because something was casting these shadows, dammit. There was an explanation for it all. A neat, tidy explanation that would tie everything together—
“Excuse me, sir.” The voice jerked Mulder from his reverie: a stewardess, bending down and smiling. “Would you like a towelette?”
“A…towelette?” Mulder asked. “Why?”
“You have a little dirt on your face, that’s all,” she said brightly. “I can get you a towelette, if you like.”
Mulder paused. Indeed: he froze, trying not to let his imagination run away with him, trying to take this calmly. With studied casualness, he said, “No thanks. I’ll just tidy up in the restroom.”
“Very well, sir.” The stewardess smiled again, straightened up, and walked away towards the cockpit. Nice derriere, but Mulder was in no position to notice. Leaving his papers where they were, he stood quickly, excused himself, strode quickly towards the bathrooms at the rear of the plane. Found one that was unoccupied. Slid the door open. Stepped within. He did not look into the mirror until the door was shut; even then, he was almost afraid to open his eyes.
When he did, a long, stifled moan escaped his lips.
The soot had returned. It wasn’t as widespread or noticeable as it had been in the airport restroom, but there were still traces on the bridge of his nose, his chin, beneath his eyes: dark, smutty ash that came away when he rubbed it with his fingers. As he stared into the mirror, he imagined that he could almost see the smudges spreading. Growing, ever so slowly.
He looked at his hands. Clean. His neck. Clean. He quickly removed his jacket, undid his tie, unbuttoned his shirt, examined his chest. Clean. Only his face, it seemed, was affected by the strange black stain.
Because it wasn’t ash. He was damned sure about that now.
More water, more soap. As always, it vanished down the drain almost as soon as it became moist: he was in no danger of being permanently overgrown—but he had no idea how long it would be before the smudges reappeared. If they reappeared.
He could afford to wait. Mulder put his shirt and tie back on, splashed more water onto his face, then stood gazing intently into the mirror. He would bide his time for a few minutes, watch his reflection. See if the soot came back.
So: Mulder stood like that for nearly six minutes, breathing slowly and steadily, eye to eye with his own haggard face. He waited…and waited. The stains did not return. He remained perfectly still, not moving a muscle, concentrating intently on his own visage—but his thoughts were free to go wherever they wished, roaming idly over the lies, suggestions and troubling conjectures that he had encountered in the last fourteen hours—and the more he thought, the more disturbing his conclusions became.
Voices. From the past.
Byers: The UFO’s were apparently attracted by Reich’s experiments with orgone. They were drawn to it. Aroused. Lured.
Langly: Reich noticed an alien black substance growing on boulders. Scraping it away only excited it. The stuff destroyed rocks, caused nausea, pain, dizziness, cyanosis, thirst in whoever came in contact with it. Trees on his property withered and died. Reich eventually concluded that he was at bioplasmic war with some unknown alien force.
X: Think of it as interplanetary warfare.
Was he thirsty? Nauseous? Dizzy? No. Not physically, anyway, not because of anything he had come in contact with…but the implications of these ideas made his head spin.
Kaun had been working on something at XenoTech. Something big. Something involving the Majestic-12, something involving orgone energy, biophysics, skin transplants, protein synthesis. Aliens. Cloning.
What if 1527 K Street had been destroyed—burnt completely to the ground—in some kind of cosmic alien retribution, similar to what had occurred at Wilhelm Reich’s ranch in 1951, except more drastic? What if the “alien black substance” which Reich and others had described had been in the ashes of the K Street building?
And what if it was growing on him at that very moment?
Mulder lowered his eyes from his reflection and turned on the water again, immersing his hands in the hotness until they were red and stinging. Added cold water, soap. Tried to remain calm. Think clearly. Shutting off the taps, drying his hands, he glanced back at the mirror—and felt his heart leap convulsively into his throat.
It was there again. A bit of blackness—no larger than a dime—in the very center of his forehead. It hadn’t been there a second ago. And a shuddering tidal wave of horror washed over him, making his knees wobble, as he understood the truth: the substance only grew when he wasn’t looking.
Jesus Christ. It was sentient.
Someone knocked impatiently on the bathroom door. Mulder jumped, startled. Hands shaking, he washed his face for the last time, dried it, took a dozen paper towels from the dispenser and folded them into a small bundle. Stuffed them into his pocket. He exited the restroom, moving quickly past the man who stood outside, almost tripping in the aisle as he hurried back to his seat.
For the remainder of the flight, Mulder cleaned his face with the towels every other minute, scrubbing until the skin was raw. The businessman sitting in the next seat looked at him curiously, as well he might: it was, he reckoned, the first time he’d ever been near an actual obsessive-compulsive.
Poor sick devil.
For several seconds, X stared at his double…and his double stared back. A grin split the doppelganger’s features. X saw that every facial muscle had been painstakingly laid into place, every wrinkle, every scar, every fold of skin. Even the hands looked the same as the doppelganger reached into his coat pocket and produced two cigarettes, lighting one with a wooden match, offering the other to X, who declined. Despite his apprehension and growing rage, however, he could not suppress a kernel of admiration at the job Palimpsest had done. He was impressed. Marvelous piece of work.
Too bad he’d need to put a bullethole in it.
When doppelganger finally spoke, even their voices were alike—X guessed that some reconstructive surgery had been performed on the man’s sinuses and vocal cords, perfecting the timbre and locution to an uncanny extent: “So you’re the man whose face I’ll be wearing,” he said, and his voice was X’s own.
“That’s right,” X said levelly. After a moment’s consideration, he decided against shooting the man. Reholstered his gun. Rebuttoned his overcoat. “What can I do for you?” he said with mock-civility.
“You can listen. I have an offer to make.”
As the doppelganger began to speak, X’s eyes moved busily over the double’s body, spot-checking the correspondences and finding that they coincided to a remarkable extent: width of shoulders, legs, thickness of forearms, thickness of torso—although he guessed that the added bulk was less likely muscle than collagen or silicon gel. X thought he saw traces of the same in the doppelganger’s nose and earlobes. Injection marks. A few stray lines of scalpel, places where cartilage or slivers of bone had been removed. Like the marks of a paintbrush: contours, slight grooves, almost imperceptible. At the moment, the man’s new face was still tender, with signs of chiseling; a week from now, however, the remnant scars would be completely healed—and the deception would be undetectable. Again: impressive.
“I’m not going idly to my death,” the doppelganger said.
“No you don’t.” Clenching his fists, the doppelganger craned his neck to the sky. “They took everything from me. They took my life, my identity, my face. They made me a monster.”
“I’m sure you don’t mean to be insulting…”
“Listen to me, for Christ’s sake. I had a family. A home. These men—Palimpsest—they took me away in the dead of night, took me from my wife and daughter, tore my face apart and put it back together so I looked like you…”
“But you resembled me already, didn’t you?”
The doppelganger laughed humorlessly. “All niggers look alike to those WASP sons of bitches. They ripped out my teeth. Gave me new ones. I can’t feel half my body anymore. My legs are jelly, my arms…Jesus. Not even my voice is the same. You can’t even begin to imagine what I’ve lost.”
“I can sympathize, but—”
“Listen!” the doppelganger shouted, slamming his fist against the roof of the car. “I’m not a fool. I know that there are others like me—others who were abducted and given new faces. Ordinary men and women. American citizens, for Christ’s sake. And I know that Palimpsest kills them all—and they end up with these red markings on their skin. Messages from the dead.”
X raised an eyebrow. “You discovered all this?”
“I told you: I’m not a fool. Others may accept their fates without any protest—wait for them to stick needles in their necks—but I’m not going to give up so easily. I want my life back.”
“Think it can be returned to you?” X asked mildly.
“I don’t think,” the doppelganger said. “I know.” He slipped a hand into his pocket. X tensed momentarily, then relaxed: the man removed a black ballpoint pen of familiar design, his finger positioned clumsily on the clip. Holding it all wrong. Awkwardly. If the man tried to inject him, X could easily deflect it. “Palimpsest took my face away,” the doppelganger continued. “With their technology, I know they can give it back. They took my life; well, they can give that back too.” He smiled with an odd radiance. “I only need something to bargain with.”
“My life?” X asked without concern.
“I know why they want you dead, you see,” the man murmured, fondling the pen. “Vietnam. 1971. You were there, weren’t you? You killed one of them.”
That got X’s attention: his doppelganger was more well-informed than he’d realized. “How did you become aware of these things?” he asked—but his mind was suddenly elsewhere. Specifically: the right sleeve of his bulky overcoat. He drew his hand into the opening, slowly, subtly, working upward with his fingers. Paused only when he felt the leather knife-case strapped to the inside of his forearm.
He unsnapped the sheath with his thumb. Waited.
“I kept my eyes and ears open,” the doppelganger was saying. “I wasn’t stupid. When the first chance came, I bolted.”
“Palimpsest’s security was that lax?” He let the knife slide into the palm of his hand. Placed his finger lightly on the button. Remembered that he had an oxyphenylcyrine syringe in his left coat pocket.
“They’ve been around too long. They’ve grown weak, undisciplined, too confident. They weren’t expecting their victims to protest, much less escape.”
“And you did.”
“And took a hypodermic along,” the doppelganger said. “I knew that if I gave them the information they wanted, they’d spare me…so I went looking for the man whose identity I had been given. You. Because if killing me would get the necessary information, killing you would be even better.”
X smiled. “Aren’t you worried that I’ll kill you first? You should have shot me from afar, then injected me with the poison before I died.”
“You and I both know better,” the doppelganger shot back. “I can’t shoot you—too much tissue damage. The message would be partial, incomplete, even nonexistent. This is the only way.”
“I could kill you,” X said simply.
“With your gun in its holster and your overcoat buttoned?” Grinning, the doppelganger said, “I’d like to see you try.”
There was a moment of utter silence. The two regarded each other calmly—eye to identical eye—unmoving, oddly relaxed, listening to the mad rush of the Potomac beneath them. Those metallic gray currents, licking at the rough-hewn roots of the docks. Far-away sounds of traffic, pedestrians. Birds. The doppelganger fingered the clip of the syringe. X fingered the knife’s chrome button.
—and the doppelganger ejected the needle, went for the back of X’s neck—and it wasn’t even dramatic, not really, because X chopped the man’s forearm savagely enough to snap the bone, forcing him to drop the syringe to the pier, where it rolled a few feet and disappeared through a crack in the boards—and the six-inch blade flew from X’s sleeve, shining brightly in the noontime light, as he gripped the mother-of-pearl handle tightly and drove the knife into the doppelganger’s throat. Blood gouted. It flowed warmly over X’s hand, forearm, coat; the doppelganger fell to his knees; X placed a foot on the man’s chest, kicked, toppling him back. Withdrew the switchblade. Tossed it aside, the boards slick and slippery beneath his feet, groped for his own syringe, found it, ejected the needle, drove it home. Injected the OPC. Muttered: “My deepest consolations to your wife and child.”
The doppelganger only looked up at the sun and did not respond.
X tore away the man’s clothing. Overcoat. Jacket. Tie. Shirt. Undershirt. As the doppelganger squirmed on the pier like a dying fish, X sat back on the hood of his car, wiping his hands on his trousers, looking down. Waited for words to appear.
He didn’t have to wait long.
Smog and dust hung heavily in the air. Sunshine blazed. Scully continued to kneel alongside the cardboard carton, wondering frantically what to do, the sweat streaming down her face: her mind whirled, scrambling to understand the implications of the words on Sera’s arms. The only possible explanation, she thought grimly, was that Sera had been lying. Utterly, absolutely lying. The words—psychosomatic or otherwise—meant that she was in league with Palimpsest, or with an organization very much like it; in complete collaboration, she’d brought the agents directly to Scully.
There were other possibilities, but Scully forgot to consider them.
Trying to maintain an attitude of calmness, she replaced the vinyl skirt into the box, refolding the lid. Gathered the scraps of brown paper, folded them neatly. Listened for any movement. Nothing.
Head bent, she could not see inside the car. Even though she knew that Sera was cuffed to the back of the seat, she remained nervous. Apprehensive. Palimpsest could be anywhere. She felt eyes sliding over her. Watchers. Peering down from abandoned factory walls, snipers, crosshairs lingering for a prolonged fraction of a second at the base of her neck…
Her pistol. She had set it down by the front left tire. She reached for the gun, for where she had left it in the dust—
—but it was gone.
“Oh,” Scully said softly, staring at the impression in the dust where the gun had lain. A soft breeze blew across the asphalt. Murmuring. She forgot to panic, immersed in the unreality of the situation.
A pair of extremely sensible patent leather shoes stepped into Scully’s vision. When she raised her head, she raised it very slowly.
Sera stood above her, wrists bleeding heavily, gun in hand.
Silently, they regarded one another. For a single pregnant moment, they stood stock-still, Scully kneeling on the ground, Sera with the pistol aimed at her face, the sun beating down, the dust rising in waves from the blistering concrete. Brief, unspoken communication parried between them. Their eyes met. Locked.
And Sera’s eyes changed.
There was no doubt about it: they changed. The hazel coloration disappeared, like sunshine suddenly clouded by nightfall. Became cold and hard and alien. No pupils, no irises: only black circles of India ink. They looked like holes that had been drilled into her skull, utterly nonreflective, portals gazing onto a region of soul-curdling blackness, an unimaginably distant region where God was crucified a thousand times over, where the infinity of space made demons of men and drove all intelligence to insanity…
Then Sera blinked, her eyes going back to normal—and she lunged smoothly forward, jamming the snout of the pistol into Scully’s temple, hard enough to leave an ugly bruise that would linger for days.
Bringing back her foot, Sera kicked her in the stomach. Scully doubled over, toppling heavily to the street, scraping her chin on the pavement. Bit her lip, the pain bringing tears to her eyes.
“Now we’re even,” Sera said lightly, cocking the trigger. “Pick up that box, and get moving.”
Bleeding from the mouth, lying in the street, Scully asked thickly, “What are you? Where are you taking me?”
“Someplace,” Sera said—but her voice was no longer hers—it roughened, thickened, grew throbbing undercurrents of metal and steel and burnt engine oil: “Anyplace. Pick up the fucking box.” Stentorian, unimaginably loud. It erupted from Sera’s throat, threatening to tear the vocal cords apart with its violence.
Hands and face scraped raw, Scully placed her hands on the cardboard carton. Encircled it with her arms, clutching it tightly to her chest. “Now what?” she whispered.
Sera—or the thing that had once been Sera—said, “Stand. Very slowly.”
Scully heard the kangaroo yelping from inside the car, pounding on the carrier door with its feet. Rattling the cage. She stood, clinging to the box, shifting her arms so she carried it from beneath. Her lip was still bleeding heavily; the redness trickled down her chin, its coppery taste making her numb and dizzy. Individual sensations became monumental. Kangaroo yelping. Taste of blood. Faraway sound of clanking pistons.
Pain. Sera thrust the gun into the hollow of her throat. Said more softly: “Now. Turn around and walk twenty yards to the nearest building. When you get there, drop the box and fall to your knees. Got it?”
Scully nodded mutely. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the front seat of the car. The handcuffs still dangled from the headrest, the bracelets slimed with red. Sera’s blood. She’d managed to pull her hands out.
Turning, Scully began to walk, holding the carton before her. Sera followed close behind, pistol pressed firmly against the back of Scully’s head, trigger still cocked. No chance for escape or heroics. Just follow orders, hope for a miracle. Her jaw ached as if it had been flayed. She saw that they were heading directly towards an age-old building with walls of sheet metal, an iron overhang plunging the threshold into dark obscurity, beetle-browed glass windows gazing down. Her feet moved of their own accord. Right foot. Left foot.
Before she knew it, they were in the shadows.
It swallowed them. She knelt. The ground was bare soil. It was appreciably cooler here, dim; the line between this darkness and the sunlight two feet away was extremely well-defined, as if it had been laid down by a ruler. Sera lowered the gun, leaned against the side of the building. Smiled. Her teeth gleamed. “Listen carefully,” she said. Her voice was retreating from its inhuman extreme, becoming more human, less overtly alien: “I want you to remove all of your clothing—and put on everything that is in that box.”
Scully’s mouth felt like cotton. “Why?” she asked, wiping her chin with the back of her hand, studiously avoiding eye contact, keeping her gaze fixed on that nearby division between light and dark.
“Because I’m asking you nicely,” Sera said, her voice nearly normal. “Please put on Janneson’s clothing.” She gestured to the box with the gun.
Kneeling there in the dirt, Scully obeyed. She shrugged off her blouse, pulling it over her head and letting it fall beside her. Shoulders bare, she searched, shivering, through the box, found Janneson’s pink tank top. Was about to put it on—when Sera stopped her.
“Your bra, too,” she said, sounding almost bored, her voice betraying no trace of emotion. “Take it off.”
Scully complied, face reddening. After she had undressed completely from the waist up, she put her arms into the sleeveholes of the tank top, pulled it over her head, tugged it down to her waist.
It fit perfectly.
She put the barrettes into her hair, drawing it back from her forehead. Donned the tortoiseshell earrings, the necklace, the rings, the bracelets. Kicked off her shoes, wriggled out of her jeans, glanced up at Sera for further instructions.
“Forget the panties,” Sera said. “Just the hose and miniskirt.”
Her hands were trembling so violently that it took several tries to buckle the fishnet stockings to the garter belt. Suspender clips gleamed silver beneath her fingernails. She tugged at the elastic, drawing it smooth over calf and upper leg. When it came time for the skirt, the vinyl hugged her hips snugly, like a flat rubbery fist, ending halfway down the thigh, slit even further up. It was like wearing a layer of tightly-wound Saran wrap.
Finally: the red high-heeled shoes. When she stood, she wobbled on four-inch spikes. Sera regarded her appreciatively, her eyes running over every inch of Scully’s form without apparent bashfulness—as if she were memorizing it, cataloguing it, comparing her to something in her mind’s eye. Nodded with approval.
But Scully felt dirty all over, half-naked, like some preschooler’s idea of what a comic book slut would look like: humiliated, she asked, “Now what?”
“Now we wait,” Sera said, and suddenly, for the first time since her eyes had changed, there was genuine emotion in her words. Her voice was sad, almost regretful, looking at Scully in Janneson’s clothes, the gun held loosely in one hand. She uncocked the trigger. Her eyes were moist. Distant.
“Wait for what?” Scully asked.
Sera only answered with silence. The two of them stood there, beneath the overhang, Scully’s clothes scattered at their feet, listening to far-away noises half-muffled by the breeze, sunlight burning cruelly down. Neither said anything. Each waited, in her own different way, for something to take place: an event whose outcome was known from the very start.
They both waited for the miracle to come.
And when it did, it was very sudden.
One moment, Sera was standing there, calm and clear-eyed, smiling oddly in Scully’s direction—and the next, her chest disappeared in a spray of blood and bone. Only then was the roar of the gunshot heard, sound rushing to catch up with the bullet: the silence was split asunder, the blood pouring out, Scully’s eyes bigger than saucers. Sera looked down, saw the gaping hole right above her left breast. Tried to smile again, but the grin was forced. She dropped Scully’s gun. Remained standing. Scully could only watch, paralyzed with horror.
Another hole appeared in Sera’s stomach. Again: the belated gunshot. Rifle blasts. Now blood jetted from two different apertures—then three, as Sera’s shoulder was shot away, the splintered clavicle gleaming whitely as she fell to the ground, body jerking. This broke Scully’s spell: she flung herself down, covering her face, drawing herself into a tight little ball. Listened, panicking, for the next shot—heard it—and felt hot steaming droplets spatter across her hands and forehead. Sera. Sera. Shot to death by some unseen sniper.
After a few seconds had gone by without another blast, Scully peered through her fingers, ears ringing from the rifle cracks. Two feet away, Sera’s torso was a shapeless mass of gore—but incredibly, she was still alive. Trying to sit up. Looking down as she bled her last few droplets.
“Damn,” Sera said faintly. “This is my roommate’s dress.”
And she died.
Time passed. Scully’s face was frozen in a rictus of terror. She rolled onto her side, vomiting out dry air and nothingness. Checked herself. She was alive. Unwounded. She trembled like a dry leaf—
—and, looking up, she saw—wide-eyed—a man standing on the roof of the building across the street. A sniper in a dark overcoat, rifle slung over his shoulder. He noticed her. Seemed to hesitate—but turned away. Disappeared without a trace.
Two hours later.
Tucked into one corner of the Manhattan airport, just beyond the gate where the Dulles flight disembarked, was a small drugstore, stocked with expensively-priced magazines and toothbrushes and aspirin. Also makeup. Mulder hastily purchased two bottles of flesh-toned liquid foundation, a tin of cold cream, some face-powder, a steel mirror and a small cosmetic sponge, paying cash and heading immediately for the airport men’s room. His face was sore and tingling, but—he saw with satisfaction—still clean. Mostly, anyway. Looking into his own small mirror, he noticed a darkish-gray smudge, crescent-shaped, running across his chin like a five o’ clock shadow. He rubbed it with a dry towel, and it disappeared. Must have missed it on the plane.
He opened one of the stalls, sat down on the toilet. Brought out the makeup supplies and mirror. Working deliberately, carefully, he moistened the sponge in the foundation and applied it to his cheekbones, temples, forehead, chin, nose, jawline, blending it down past his collar. It was slow, tedious work. The color of the pancake makeup didn’t quite match his own skin, made him look unnaturally tanned, shellacked. He added powder, tried to soften the effect. No good. He looked like a goddamned soap opera star.
Finally, he finished. Mulder regarded himself in the mirror, checking for any noticeable smudges. Christ. He didn’t know what was worse, being covered with the black substance or with this sticky cloying shit…but at least the soot was hidden. For now, anyway.
But he didn’t like to think about what was spreading beneath.
The taxi driver had trouble finding the office of the Chief Medical Examiner—at First Avenue and 30th, it was a drab and unimposing building—but Mulder gave a generous tip anyway, hoping to assuage any suspicions: the cabby had been glancing at him oddly in the rear view mirror, as well he might—it was a hot, sweaty New York afternoon, clouds of steam bubbling up from the concrete, and Mulder’s makeup had begun to drip.
Ascending the steps, Mulder felt his face, judged the runniness. Glanced at his fingertips, saw they were clean. Good. If he didn’t melt any more, the cosmetic job would probably pass muster; the makeup was barely noticeable in artificial light, and the blue-tiled lobby of the ME’s office—visible through a large picture window—hopefully had air conditioning.
Mulder prayed for such graces, because the black substance was growing—spreading—beneath the foundation. He could feel it. Christ. It was a deep-seated itch, a numbness, that frightened him and made him wonder what might be revealed if the makeup were washed away. He thought of ergot. Of Dutch elm disease.
Time to go for broke. He only hoped that the ME would cooperate.
He stepped through the doors, approached the front desk and flashed his badge. “Special Agent Fox Mulder, FBI. I need to speak with the Chief Medical Examiner as soon as possible.”
The receptionist was standing with one arm in the sleeve of a light jacket, obviously about to leave for lunch, and seemed annoyed at this ill-timed intrusion: “Do you have an appointment?” she asked, shrugging the jacket around her shoulders, not even bothering to feign interest. She wore glasses and had honey-blonde hair.
“No, I’m afraid I don’t. If the ME is busy, I could talk to one of the dieners…”
Slinging a purse over her shoulder: “May I inquire as to the nature of your visit?” Rote inquiry.
“It’s part of an ongoing investigation,” Mulder said, repocketing his ID. “Several days ago, this office autopsied a woman named Abby Janneson. I’d like to speak with the man who performed the postmortem, and, if possible, view the body.”
With that, the receptionist’s face took on a completely different expression.
Mulder was surprised by the abrupt change his words wrought. Before, the woman had regarded him with vague disdain, boredly pegging him as just another in the long string of dull, low-level official visitors that the coroner’s office encountered each day. Homicide detective, mayoral representative, plainclothesman, FBI agent: all the same. Best to shut him up, hand him a proverbial magazine, and leave him for the afternoon shift to handle.
But with the mention of Janneson’s name, she became courteous and deferential—almost awed. “I’ll see what I can do,” the receptionist said. Her eyes were wide. Picking up the phone, she spoke softly—inaudibly—into the receiver, stealing curious glances at Mulder the entire time. He caught only scattered words: Yes. Yes. He wants to see the body. Janneson. No. Yes. All right.
Mulder began to feel even more nervous. Heart pounding, sweating—makeup was probably running in rivers. He thought of the possibilities. Who was she calling? What if Palimpsest had anticipated his arrival and planted agents in the ME’s office? Jesus. What if they were here right now? It made sense from a tactical point of view: cover all bases, block all avenues of investigation, place men wherever Mulder might go, plan the strategy, knit the web. Wrenchingly obvious, now that he thought about it. Danger. Danger everywhere. Best to escape while he still had the chance, he thought dazedly, walk out, say he was stepping outside for some fresh air and run, run from the office of the Chief Medical Examiner like a cadaver given jerky animation, leave everything behind, go to Central Park and sit on a bench for six hours until his appointment with Scully. Even better, just fade away into the woodwork. Forget the appointment. Forget X. Lie low until it all blows over. Scully would be all right. She’s always all right. She’s blessed. But him? No matter how things went, he’d probably end up facing a murder charge. Show up for his indictment with a big black fungus growing all over his face. How would that motherfucker look on Court TV?
No doubt about it: paranoia made the minutes zoom by.
Someone tapped Mulder on the shoulder. He turned. Kindly old face, a good-natured ghoul in a white coat: “Excuse me, Agent Mulder? I’m the ME who examined Abby Janneson.”
The world solidified again. Everything was all right. His makeup was still intact. There was no conspiracy within these walls. Mulder shook the ME’s hand, said, “Thanks for seeing me. Is Janneson’s body still on the premises?”
“Of course,” the ME said, his manner gracious, if not exactly cheery: “The bodies are kept here for at least fifteen days after arrival. If you like, we can examine Janneson’s remains now.”
“That would be just fine,” Mulder said genially—and his suspicions returned with a vengeance. Dammit, this ME was being too nice, too accommodating. Any D.C. coroner would have let him cool his heels for at least a quarter of an hour before even seeing him, and even then, he probably wouldn’t have viewed any corpse until his credentials had been rechecked twice and a barrage of questions had been asked; here, though, it was practically walk-in service. Things were moving too quickly. As if they had been expecting him.
“We’ve been expecting you,” the ME said.
“Really?” Mulder said. Alarm-bells buzzed in his brain. “In what way?”
A puzzled look came over the ME’s face. “Actually, it was rather odd. A man identifying himself as a high-ranking FBI official phoned here yesterday evening, notifying us that an agent named Mulder would be arriving soon to view Janneson’s body. That’s why we delayed the cremation.”
Yesterday evening? Mulder frowned; his decision to come here was only an hour old. “An FBI official?”
“We assume; he didn’t give a name. He seemed knowledgeable regarding many intimate details of the Janneson case, however, and we decided to take him at his word.” The ME cocked his head. “You wouldn’t have any idea who called us, would you?”
X. It had to be X. Mulder replied vaguely. “Not really. It could have been one of any number of Bureau officials.”
The ME nodded. “I see. Publicity-shy, I suppose.”
Mulder gave a noncommittal response, then made a show of checking his watch and suggesting that they view Janneson’s body. The ME agreed, beckoning him to follow. They turned, exited. As they did, Mulder noticed the Latin inscription engraved into the far wall of the lobby: TACEANT COLLOQUIS EFFUGIAT RISUS. HIC LOCUS EST UBI MORS CAUDET SUCCURERE VITAE. Do not speak. Do not laugh. This is where death delights in helping the living.
Smiling grimly to himself, Mulder thought: Palimpsest couldn’t have put it better.
A succession of doors. A white-tiled hallway. A flight of stairs. A room lined with fluoroscopes and steel sinks. One more door—and they entered the autopsy room proper. The smell hit them first; Mulder was awed in spite of himself. The threshold was crammed with corpses on wheeled gurneys, lying within partially-unzipped body bags, mostly male, mostly black, complete with grease pencil markings on their foreheads. Sidestepping the grim clinical carnage, he managed to enter the gray-and-white dissection room, which was equally packed. Dead outnumbered living by a two-to-one ratio. A three-year-old girl lay on one table, blue and bruised, surrounded by white-robed acolytes with scalpels and bone saws.
Wait: the ME was saying something. “Hm?” Mulder asked, not paying attention.
“I said we’ll have to view Janneson’s remains in the locker. There isn’t any room for another body.”
“Jeez. Is it always like this?”
“Not always. This is a good day.” Grinning mirthlessly, his pantomime of solicitousness largely discarded, the ME made his way to a stunningly vast grid of stainless-steel doors in the midst of the room—at least one hundred thirty separate compartments, probably more. He checked the serial numbers, found the one in question. Unlocked it. Swung it open, puffing thirty-eight degree air out at Mulder’s face. Cold.
He slid out the slab. It grated. Mulder’s heart grated with it.
Because for that first fraction of a second, the blue-tinged corpse that lay on the slab was not Abby Janneson: it was Dana Scully. The resemblance was exact. Heartbreaking.
In his tour of duty with the X-Files, Mulder had seen hundreds—if not thousands—of bodies, some decomposing, others decapitated or mutilated or deformed or not even recognizably human: but of them all, this was the worst. By far. Because the woman on the slab was Scully.
The ME continued to roll the body out of the locker, revealing it up to the waist—and then, seeing, Mulder gripped the man’s wrist. Ordered him wordlessly to stop. Because even if he had been expecting this—even if he had known from the very beginning that this was what he would find—just to see it, to touch it, came as an added shock. His eyes bulged. He felt the anger, old and intoxicating, come bubbling up to the surface.
Janneson’s belly had been completely obliterated by acid. The skin was stained a harsh, angry red, burnt and blistered and streaked with necrotic whiteness. It looked like an uncooked section of beef. Forget writing, forget psychosomatic stigmata: not even the cadaver’s navel could be seen. “Jesus Christ,” he whispered through clenched teeth. “What in God’s name happened here?”
Pursing his lips, the ME said, “I’m truly sorry—it was a silly accident on the autopsy table. One of my dieners—my assistants—spilled an entire jar of sulfuric acid onto the cadaver’s stomach. We use the acid to clean teeth for dental comparisons and molds, to soak the enamel, and the cap had somehow come loose…. It was a silly, regrettable mistake.”
Eyes blazing, Mulder turned to the Medical Examiner. Seized the man’s shoulder. “Bullshit,” he said, in a low, almost conversational voice. “Who told you to obliterate the markings? Who covered up the stigmata on Janneson’s skin?”
“Stigmata? I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the ME said calmly. “What in the world do you mean?”
Mulder hesitated. He had the Janneson autopsy photos in the manila envelope. Could use them as evidence. Blackmail. But, no, that would be tipping his hand too quickly: if this man was part of the conspiracy, then nothing would be gained by revealing the evidence he held. Indeed, much might be lost. Those photos were his only ace in the hole. A deep, stinking, impenetrable hole.
He let go of the man’s shoulder. Turned back towards Scully’s corpse. No: Janneson’s corpse. Janneson’s corpse. Janneson’s corpse. He muttered, “Sorry. I must have been thinking of something else.”
“Quite all right,” the ME said expressionlessly. “Do you have any further questions?”
“Not at the moment…” Mulder said vaguely. He paused. Wondered what to do next. “I was wondering if I might have a few minutes alone with the body,” he finally said.
“If you like. I’ll be next door, if you need me.” Turning away, the ME left the room, leaving Mulder alone with Janneson’s body. Alone, that is, except for a dozen other open-air corpses and a handful of living men and woman, all still gathered around the little dead girl on the adjacent autopsy table. Even in this abattoir, Mulder supposed, the death of one so young was still cause for horrified fascination; in a twisted way, it worked in his favor, allowing him to examine Janneson unobserved. No one was looking in his direction.
But again, it had been too easy. He was being humored. Toyed with. And not without some good reason: he saw immediately that all evidence on the body had been well-concealed. The acid had erased anything that might have been on the stomach. The ligature scar around the neck—made, he remembered, with three twists of a prison shoelace—was wide and raw; lifting her head gingerly, he saw that any syringe or needlemark would be utterly hidden by the abrasions.
Which left him with nothing. Almost. He noticed that, alongside the main locker which held Janneson’s body, there were several smaller compartments with stainless-steel doors but no locks. Compartments for accessory evidence—personal effects, clothing, and the like.
Glancing quickly over his shoulder, he went to work. Opened the first door. His prize: a white prison jumpsuit, slightly torn. White? He’d seen it in the photographs, of course, but it still struck him as incongruous: he’d been under the impression that the New York penal system stayed away from fine washables when dressing its inmates. Gray or blue denim, maybe. White fabric? He doubted it. What did it prove, though?
Next door. A cardboard shoe box labeled with Janneson’s name—probably the items that she had been carrying upon her admittance into prison. There was no jewelry, of course—X or Palimpsest or whoever had given him the box of clothing had taken it—but there was a wristwatch and wallet. The watch was cheap, with a faux-leather band. The wallet was eelskin, with a heavy magnetic clip. He opened it. No cash, which would have been confiscated. Some credit cards. A driver’s license, which he removed and studied, seeing that it was in the name of Abigail Janneson—
—but wait just a goddamned minute. Mulder caught his breath. Glanced back and forth between the license and the corpse on the slab and back at the license. Disbelieving. Shocked.
Abby Janneson didn’t look like Dana Scully.
Not in the DMV photo, anyway. She might have held a vague resemblance—akin to a distant relative, a second cousin once removed—but nothing even close to the woman on the slab, who was Scully’s absolute twin. The license mug shot depicted a woman whose face was too broad to be Scully’s, the nose too long, mouth too narrow, eyes a different width and shape, skin a different shade, hair a different tint; if he’d seen this woman on the street, he wouldn’t have even thought of Scully.
How could this photograph and the cadaver before him be of the same individual?
He looked at the corpse again. Its skin was lightly filmed with condensation, droplets produced when the body had been wheeled from the freezer into the warmer air beyond; he wiped the moisture away, getting a better look at Janneson’s face. And he saw them. Clear, unmistakable, now that he regarded her with fresh eyes.
The marks of plastic surgery. Scars. Puckerings.
Sometime since this DMV photo had been taken, Janneson’s face had been surgically modified to resemble Scully. There was no question about it.
But that didn’t make sense! According to X, Josef Kaun had been killed while attempting to proposition this random prostitute, who had later been slain by Palimpsest in an attempt to contact Kaun. The communication had been inconclusive, however, and Scully had been selected to die because of her uncanny resemblance to Janneson. The facial similarity was crucial. Scully had been in danger because she looked like this woman.
Or so they had thought. But Janneson looked nothing like Scully—she had been surgically altered, changed, resculpted, to give the impression of being so. Which meant that everything was upside-down; everything had to be reconsidered. Throughout this entire investigation, Mulder had assumed that the affinity between Scully’s face and Janneson’s face had been mere coincidence. Chance. An incredible fluke.
But now he realized that Scully hadn’t been selected because of her resemblance to Janneson; Janneson had been selected because of her resemblance to Scully.
What was going on?
What in God’s name was happening?
Charles gripped Krycek’s body beneath the arms, locking his hands around the corpse’s chest, straining to lift it bit by bit. Rigor hadn’t quite set in—indeed, the body was disturbingly warm, its temperature only a few degrees colder than his own—but it was still a difficult job; he couldn’t strain for more than a few seconds before his ruptured stomach protested and he was forced to set the body down, resting briefly against the side of the ambulance wall until the shrieks in his belly had subsided and he was able to resume his work.
His ear still throbbed where the bullet had nicked it. After finally managing to break the lock on one of the plastic cabinets, he had bandaged his bleeding ear with gauze and taped it securely to the side of his head. This simple procedure had taken more than forty-five minutes; his hands had shaken so badly that he’d discarded the first three bandaging attempts as too messy, and he’d become terrifically sick—dry-heaving and spitting bile—on two separate occasions. The first instance had been triggered by the simple pain of the procedure; a crescent of flesh the size of his thumbnail had been sliced from his ear, after all, and the dull agony of disinfecting and dressing the wound had brought tears to his eyes.
Then, a few minutes later, he’d become nauseous again when Krycek’s body—long dead—had belched. The memory was still vivid: he’d been standing over the gurney, laboriously trimming a wad of sterile cotton with a pair of folding scissors, when the corpse at his feet had burped, its lips smacking. Startled, he’d dropped the scissors. Indeed, Charles had been about to flee the ambulance in panicky terror—sour phlegm gathering in his throat—when he remembered that most bodies released intestinal gas after death, often several hours afterwards. Perfectly normal. Dana had told him that once.
But this only served to remind him of a crucial fact. He didn’t know how long he might be stranded here. Upon walking outside, he’d seen that the ambulance was parked in the very midst of some dense coniferous woodland, the pines pressing in on all sides, blocking out the sky; Krycek had chosen the location randomly, driving the ambulance off the road and several hundred yards into the brush, and he was far from any commercial campsite. So what now? Given the condition of his abdomen, he certainly wasn’t about to walk back to town. He could use Krycek’s phone to call for help, but to do so would mean explaining the presence of this stolen ambulance and the cadaver in the rear.
For a long time, he had been sorely tempted to flee the area, convinced that some elite wetworks squad would descend upon him at any moment. After all, he didn’t know who had tipped off Krycek. If Neumann had awakened in the hospital and called the ambulance himself, well, that was bad enough; but if Neumann had managed to notify someone else, it was much worse. Charles realized that any number of hardened intelligence agents might be aware of the deception. Agents who would waste no time in tracking him down, hungry for blood.
However, there was one encouraging sign. After Krycek’s death, Charles had crawled into the front of the ambulance, searching through the glove compartment and beneath the seats and everywhere else that might hide something valuable. In addition to a mean-looking .32 PPK automatic, several rounds of ammunition, a topographic map of Virginia, a plastic baggie filled with ten dollar bills, a half-eaten deli sandwich and the cellular phone, Charles found a small blue envelope, sealed shut with a blob of wax. On the front of the envelope was the name NEUMANN.
Breaking the seal with his fingernails, he pulled out a 3×5 index card upon which had been typed three phone numbers, each labeled with the name of a city: Norfolk, Manhattan, Washington. The flip side of the card bore the additional legend: (MIDNIGHT AUGUST 20)—(MIDNIGHT AUGUST 21.)
Suggestive. Staring at the numbers, Charles remembered what Krycek had said to the person at the other end of the line. Yes, this is the ambulance…No, I think the number stays the same…This is the only one you knew?…Yes, it doesn’t change like the others.
Charles thought carefully. It was obvious that Pio Neumann was part of a well-financed intelligence organization that was extremely secretive, extremely paranoid—and so obsessed with security that it utilized one-time cipher pads for routine communication. Were its phone numbers also changed daily? It certainly seemed that way.
Therefore Neumann, who had been unconscious since yesterday night, wouldn’t have known the new numbers. Upon awakening, he’d been stranded. Isolated. He’d dialed Krycek’s cell phone (which, Charles guessed, was passed from one secondary agent to another) because the number remained the same throughout—serving, it seemed, as backup in case the Manhattan, Norfolk and Washington numbers were unavailable. Charles didn’t know exactly what had passed between Neumann and Krycek during their brief conversation, but he didn’t think that the current numbers had been exchanged—the seal on the envelope had been unbroken. So perhaps Neumann had been unable to notify anyone else of his predicament.
And if that were true, it meant that Charles was safe to stay here. For the moment, anyway.
But if was going to stay put, he didn’t want Alex Krycek’s body lying on the floor beside him, blood drooling languidly from the stump of the corpse’s severed thumb, eyes staring up. (He’d tried closing them several times, but the lids always slid open again, revealing glazed sclera and iris and pupil bit by bit, so Krycek began by peering through slits, then squinting, then glaring, then seeming half-asleep, until finally his eyes were as wide as ever. Accusatory. By the time Charles thought of using adhesive tape to cement the lids shut, it was too late: he needed to get the body out of the ambulance or risk going insane.)
Due to his weakened state, simply hefting Krycek over his shoulder was out of the question. In one of the cabinets, however, he found several tightly-rolled Mylar space blankets, the kind used to warm victims of hypothermia; laying the foil sheet across the floor, Charles rolled Krycek’s corpse on top, wincing as dime-sized red drops continued to fall from the body’s ruined hand. Thinking quickly, he slipped a rubber surgical glove over the worst of the damage. The empty thumb-hole was soon filled with blood.
Now the process became fairly simple. Charles would grasp one edge of the blanket in his hands, tug it a foot or so, rest for a minute, then tug it again, easing Krycek’s heavy body from its resting place. The worst part was getting the body out of the ambulance; the back doors were set several feet above the ground, and it was rather unsettling to yank on the sheet and watch as Krycek’s feet hung over the edge, then his knees, thighs, waist, protruding little by little, until he overbalanced and slid down the rest of the way, banging his dead skull on the bumper and crashing to the needle-strewn ground.
It was then that the lower hem of Krycek’s shirt flew up, seemingly of its own accord—and Charles saw the markings on the corpse’s belly.
Curious, he stepped closer. Lifted away the rest of the fabric. Regarded the inscriptions with awe, tracing their progression from Krycek’s abdomen to just beneath his left clavicle. Words. Sentences. Written in dark—almost brooding—red, the color of an cherry, overripe and ready to burst.
There were two distinct sets of text. The first was a dense hieroglyphic scribble, unfamiliar to him, that ran in crazy whorls and spirals up and down Krycek’s skin. The ideograms were harsh, sharply drawn, the pattern of lines laid down randomly within each separate character. It wasn’t Chinese, or demotic Japanese, or cuneiform, or Greek; they almost reminded him of footprints made on playground sand by a child on a swing—but there was nothing childlike about the marks. They were clipped. Mechanical. Precise in their randomness.
But the other words—they stunned him more. Much more. Because although the words spelled out a coherent English message and did not snake crazily across the dead man’s flesh, they shocked him anyway. Frightened him. They were written in a neat printed script, all capital letters. Calligraphic. Rather feminine. Rather familiar.
He recognized it.
It was Melissa’s handwriting.
SAVE DANA. CALL MANHATTAN. EVACUATE. NOW. DANGER. SAVE DANA. SAVE DANA.
There was no mistake about it. He’d seen his sister’s penmanship thousands of times, on sixth grade homework and insurance reports, on birthday cards and funeral guestbooks—and now on the flesh of this dead man’s chest. It had been less than a year since Melissa’s death, and as he stared, thunderstruck, at the scrawled red words, he felt the old grief and confusion and terror overwhelm him yet again. Along with a new emotion: awe.
Because this could only be a message from the dead.
Charles put two and two together. The Manhattan phone number in the blue envelope. The one-time cipher pad. He fumbled it out, flipped to today’s page, found the code: Evacuate—54547.
Krycek: I heard them say that Scully—Dana Scully, I suppose—will arrive in Manhattan by sundown; they expect that she’ll walk right into the XenoTech labs, where they can apprehend her easily.
If he managed to Evacuate the Manhattan facility—emptying it, purging it of Neumann’s men—would Dana be saved?
A rational part of his mind whispered: Don’t do it. If you call Manhattan, they can trace it. They’ll find you. Even if it’s on a cell phone, they’ll monitor the microwave transmissions, the digital noise, get you within a twelve yard radius. You’re committing suicide. These words mean nothing. It isn’t Melissa’s handwriting. Couldn’t be. It isn’t a message from the dead because there isn’t any afterlife, bunky: to know that, you don’t need to study Jean-Paul Sartre or have any of that existentialistic or atheistic crap on your side, you just need to look at the way Alex Krycek’s dead skull smashes against the bumper of the ambulance like a cassaba melon, at how stupid and sluggish his face is, at how his eyes are glazed and soft like a pair of hard-boiled eggs. They didn’t tell you this shit in catechism; you can say “Ave Maria gratia plena” a billion times and you still won’t bring that scrap of flesh back to life. Are you so anxious to join him? Don’t be more of an idiot than you already are.
But while that rational voice was speaking, Charles suddenly discovered that the telephone was in his hand. In his other hand, miraculously, was the 3×5 card. Manhattan: (212) 555-7459. Charles dialed the number with numb trembling fingers. The phone rang twice. Was answered. An unseen presence sat silently at the other end of the line, waiting for the caller to say something.
Charles whispered into the mouthpiece: “Five-four-five-four-seven.”
They hung up. No questions. No comments. No pressure for identification. No elaborate stalling while the phone-trace equipment was slid into place.
And it was indeed as if some benevolent outside presence had temporarily possessed Charles Scully’s mind—a guardian angel, a beneficent spirit, goading him into an irrational act that he would never have attempted under different circumstances. Expression oddly blank, he hung up the phone, let the index card flutter softly to the floor of the ambulance, and went back outside to Krycek’s body. He gripped one edge of the silvery Mylar sheet and continued to drag the corpse along the ground.
Within moments, he had completely forgotten the entire incident.
The kangaroo rammed its head against its carrier door. Again. And again. Almost before they had crossed the bridge into Manhattan, fighting the traffic beneath a steel-colored sky, the kangaroo had begun to rattle the cage, violently, almost masochistically, so hard that Scully worried it might begin to bleed. Its mews rose to a high, panicky crescendo. Thump of feet against the plastic. Scratch of paws against the grille. Scully caught a glimpse of the joey’s wide pink eyes and was struck by the intensity of their gaze, an almost human depth of emotion, as if the kangaroo somehow felt or tasted or smelled something in the air that her own senses could not detect.
Senses. She thought of Sera, of embryonic diapause, of the ‘marsupial instinct’—and then quickly derailed that train of thought. The memory of Sera—of the words on her forearms, of the way her eyes had changed, and especially of the manner of her death—still gnawed at Scully, refusing to let go, tainting her perceptions and making her wonder what had really happened back there among the smokestacks and industrial ruins. Only stark images remained. Flashes, burnt into her memory. Sera’s shoulder exploding. The sniper on the rooftop. Crawling back to the car and finding bits of blood and bone in her hair. Removing Janneson’s clothes, stuffing them back into the box. The way Sera’s body had looked when she drove away, crumpled against the side of the building like a paper doll assembled by uncaring hands.
She tried to gather her thoughts. Catalogue them. Bring some semblance of order to their randomness. But it was impossible. Nothing held together; whenever she tried to unravel the truth, the threads only became more knotted and tangled.
One thing was for certain: Sera had been lying when she denied Palimpsest’s existence. Those markings on her arms had been enough to belie her words; they were not copper sulfate, not pigment nor makeup nor tattoos, but patterned bruises that welled up from beneath the epidermis. Scully had taken Sera’s still-warm wrists in her hands, examined the skin of the forearms carefully, seen that the words could not be rubbed away or removed but had been engraved—or inscribed—deeply into the subcutaneous tissue by some unknown means, probably psychosomatic. The letters themselves were unfamiliar, sometimes resembling cuneiform, sometimes Linear B, sometimes Chinese, often none of the above: the strokes were complicated and often random-seeming, reminding Scully of a seagull’s footprints on wet beach sand. Deciphering them was an obvious impossibility.
Continuing her grisly examination, Scully had found a needle mark on the back of Sera’s neck—very fresh, perhaps seven or eight days old—and a second puncture wound between Sera’s sixth and seventh vertebrae. The signs were clear: sometime in the past week, Sera had been injected with oxyphenylcyrine and revived with a shot of adrenaline to the spine, presumably for the express reason of producing coherent stigmata. If it hadn’t been Palimpsest, it had been an organization with an indistinguishable modus operandi.
But then Scully had found something much more disturbing. A few inches above the injection mark in the upper neck, just beneath the bulge of the cranium, there had been a much older scar—a raised, pill-shaped cicatrix. Beneath it, Scully felt a small hard lump. A lump that she recognized, and for good reason.
It was an implant.
Sera had been an abductee.
Scully—who knew nothing of Kaun’s connections to Wilhelm Reich, of his possible links to the development of an alien/human hybrid, or of the more singular circumstances regarding the destruction of 1527 K Street—was taken completely aback by this finding. When it was combined with the previously-existing anomalies of the dwarf, the kangaroo, the mysterious appearance of Janneson’s clothing, the way Sera’s eyes had changed, the singular circumstances of her death, the sniper on the rooftop, and the words on Sera’s arms…well, it was no wonder that Scully felt more than a little bewildered.
And now, there was the kangaroo’s frenzied, panicked behavior to deal with. It hurled itself against the door of the carrier again, rattling the grille; at this rate, neither Scully’s hasty rewiring of the hinges nor the joey’s fragile head would last for much longer. She shushed it to no avail. Couldn’t understand its agitation. After all, the joey had traveled from South Carolina to New York City with little more than a requisite “mew” every hundred miles; now, unsettled beyond any previous extent, it was almost frantic. Delirious. Scully couldn’t see why.
Unless, of course, she accepted Sera’s explanation. That the kangaroo could somehow sense the location of XenoTech’s second laboratory, leading her to it by virtue of its metamammalian ectogenetic sensitivity to the rhythms of the womb. Diapause clairvoyance. Embryonic telepathy. Marsupial instinct. Whatever.
Scully supposed that she might as well give it a try. Even if Sera had lied about Palimpsest, her other ideas had still been suggestive.
It took her the better part of an hour to locate the street corner where Josef Kaun had died—the intersection where she and Mulder were to meet later that night. It was tucked into one of the most densely-populated sectors of Manhattan’s red light district, below Times Square, below 42nd Street, right in the stinking maw of the prostitution industry, where streetwalkers could be seen even in the middle of the afternoon; steam rose from the sidewalk, sunshine pouring down, skyscrapers and dull sandstone buildings pressing in on either side. Claustrophobic. Hot. Scully rolled down her windows, felt the air stagnate inside and out.
She passed the street corner. Circled the block, looking for parking. Cars were jammed in on both sides of the street, some double-parked; in the back, the kangaroo rammed itself against the carrier door yet again, splintering the plastic in two places. Scully swore. “Hold on,” she muttered. “You’ll get your chance.”
Finally, she found a space. Parked gingerly, squeezing her way between cars. Tried to gather her thoughts. If she was going to search for XenoTech’s Manhattan facility, this was the obvious place to start. After all, Kaun had last been seen in this area—he’d been killed less than a block away—and he wouldn’t have strayed too far from the lab, even while searching for hookers.
She shut off the engine, glanced into the back seat. The kangaroo seemed calmer; it peered through the slats of its carrier with its melancholy pink eyes, blinking long lashes, staring at her, plaintive, waiting.
“Christ,” Scully said, helpless in the face of such lugubriousness. “All right.” She stepped out of the car, reached behind the seat and unlocked the back door. As she opened it and slid inside, the kangaroo mewed in apparent delight, thumping its feet against the cage. “Enough of that,” she said.
She peeked through the grille, examining the sticky white smears along the kangaroo’s ears and nose. It had been ninety minutes since their last pit stop, and she hadn’t coated the joey with sunscreen since, but she judged that enough remained to keep it safe from sunburn, at least temporarily. It had already been fed. The collar encircled its neck snugly, slim leather leash dangling from ruff.
No excuses to delay. Now or never.
With some trepidation, Scully thumbed the latch of the carrier grille. Slowly, tamely, the kangaroo nosed its way out. Calm. Sides heaving softly. Its manner was unruffled, unhurried; it sniffed the dank Manhattan air, licked its lips, gazed expectantly up at her. Its agitation seemed to have completely disappeared.
“Good for you,” she said. “If you behave yourself, I’ll let you lead the way. All right?”
The kangaroo did not respond. Scully briefly wished that XenoTech had located its labs in a more isolated area—the street outside was densely packed, and a few people had already seen the joey through the window—but decided to go for it anyway. She got a got a good grip on the leash, swung open the back door—
—and the kangaroo was off and running.
“Christ!” It leapt from the interior of the car, toppled out onto the pavement, shook itself, scampered away with Scully in tow. Barely managing to slam the door behind her, Scully tried to tug on the leash, slow the joey down, but it hopped madly along the street, dragging her behind like a rag doll—“Out of the way!” she cried, waving her free arm. “Out of the way!” Before, the kangaroo had been loose in empty living rooms and isolated streets and barren fields, but this was a Manhattan sidewalk in the middle of the afternoon, and the pavement was a solid mass of people. Wide eyes, grinning mouths, arms, legs, clumsy feet. Bystanders gawked, laughed. A few extended their hands, fingers flailing, groping for a bit of fur or ear or tail or—failing that—buttock or breast. She pressed on through the crowd, tripping, nearly falling in some places. Comments were tossed in her direction—“Watch out, sister!” “Where’d you get that weird-assed thang?” “Damn, lady, check yo-self!”—but she ignored them, hair flying in her face, now literally sprinting down the street to keep up with the joey. She was tired, heaving. A stitch burned hotly in her side.
Incredibly, the kangaroo kept going. And going. And going. In less than twenty seconds, they’d gone nearly a block, were nearly past the curb and onto the street when the kangaroo suddenly turned the corner. Toenails clicked rapidly against the cement. It ran on. No rhythm was lost. Scully tried to brake, scraping her feet against the sidewalk, but she was forced to go even more swiftly or risk falling or losing the kangaroo or both. She puffed. Exhausted. Her shoes thudded against the sidewalk, soles snapping against concrete—sights and sounds and passing people were blurs, punctuated by an occasional razor-sharp image—and she was dead-tired. Dog-tired. How could she be sure that the joey was going anywhere? She doubted that the ‘marsupial instinct’ was good for much more than a few hundred yards—
—when the kangaroo suddenly slowed, changed direction, and bounced its way into a side alley.
Scully’s world returned to normal. Her heart still thrummed like a jackhammer, but the burning in her lungs subsided; and, to her immense relief, she saw that the alley was deserted. A few curious onlookers had followed her inside, but a single furious glance over her shoulder was enough to dissuade them from coming further. Her calves and ribcage ached.
Brick walls closed in on either side. Garbage covered the ground. The kangaroo pranced over discarded cigarette butts, scattering them beneath its feet as it bounded down the alley—approaching, Scully saw, some building’s rear entrance. Concrete steps, gray walls. A door with a cloudy oblong window.
The kangaroo jumped forward with unchecked enthusiasm, ascending the steps, pawing madly at the doorframe, nosing the drab wood. Scully just barely managed to get a hand around its belly, pull it back. Shushed it. Its tail whipsawed from side to side. Glancing around quickly, Scully wondered what to do next. The alley was empty. There was nothing here. No markings or indications as to the building’s nature. Nothing to welcome; nothing to threaten.
Just this door with its yellow rectangle of glass.
She was not surprised when the knob turned easily—but for a moment, Scully hesitated. Thought of Palimpsest. Thought of her brother. Thought of Mulder, thought of Kaun and Janneson, of the rooftop sniper, of 1527 K Street and ectogenesis and XenoTech, of stigmata, of X. She thought of albinism, of genetic memory, of copper sulfate. Of the kangaroo. Of how Sera’s eyes had changed. Of the unimaginable ranks of the dead, lined row upon row upon row.
Wagering it all, betting everything she had, Scully pushed the door open and let it swing back into darkness.
A musty smell—the thick odor of storage, of old newspapers, of moldering dust only recently disturbed—wafted out, making her cough. The kangaroo poked its snout inside, sniffing, considerably calmer. Its tail wagged slowly back and forth as it entered, pulling Scully along with it, leading her inside just a little too deliberately. She sensed a trap. Unholstered her gun, held it ready—and stepped over the threshold.
The darkness was absolute; the smell of old newspapers was all-pervading. The only sounds were the thud of her own heart and the padding of kangaroo feet on linoleum. She released the joey.
The kangaroo mewed softly, as if in response to some sound—and then Scully began to feel it herself: a deep thrum, a vibration, nearly inaudible, that issued up from the floor of the building, half-mechanical, half-organic. It hummed. Sang. Pervaded the air and the floor and the walls and the ceiling, as if the entire building had been transmuted into a tuning fork of unimaginable dimensions. It made the soles of Scully’s feet prickle. Her hair stood on end…
And she understood what it was.
The Womb. The murmur of ectogenetic machinery. Beneath the floor lay a great artificial gestation, infinite banks of tissue, fluids, blood, lymph, heme, cells, eggs, sperm. Churning. Mixing. Nearly inaudible to human ears, but the kangaroo had heard it from miles away, felt the change in the atmosphere wrought by this deep, all-encompassing Ur-sound. It sniffed the baseboards. Pressed its body to the floor, snuggling against the linoleum in infantile bliss.
No doubt about it. This was XenoTech’s second lab.
Feeling her way through the darkness, Scully’s hand brushed a doorknob. She froze. Wondered whether she should continue. Realized that she no longer had a choice.
The door was unlocked, as Scully knew it would be. Opening it a crack, she peered inside. More darkness, deep shadows: the only source of illumination was a Bunsen burner, mounted upon a small green table in the very center of the room, issuing a long, wavering flame, bright-yellow and softly singing. Surgical items were scattered beneath the burner’s searing light: a syringe, several alcohol swabs, a bottle of iodine, an assortment of sterile gauze pads. Several ampoules of a clear green liquid. Oxyphenylcyrine. The ampoules were lined up in a row, like toy soldiers.
Scully lifted her gaze. Her pupils contracted from the burner’s glare; it was difficult to see into the blackest depths of the room. She squinted. Probed the darkness with her eyes.
Finally, she saw that she was not alone. The room had one additional occupant—and when she saw what it was, she almost died from shock.
It was an alien.
It was suspended halfway between floor and ceiling, pinioned on a wheel-shaped steel scaffolding, arms and legs lashed to the spokes. Its skin was smoothly pebbled, gray, dry-seeming—with the exception of a startlingly white circle of flesh on its left shoulder, two inches in diameter. The circle had been prepped with iodine, streaked with reddish-orange. The alien was naked, with smoothly pebbled gray skin. No genitals. Large egg-shaped head. Ragged nostrils, lying flat against its oblate face. Only a slit for a mouth—and those sad insect eyes, lidless and black, gleaming wetly in the darkness.
The alien was less than four feet tall. Its hands opened and closed weakly as Scully approached, webbed, with froglike pads at the extremity of each fingertip. Coming closer, she saw that its skin was crisscrossed with fine wrinkles, lines, scales, scabs, like the hide of an alligator: around its eyes, the flesh grew surprisingly soft, clever little wrinkles—like laugh-lines—radiating from each corner. She could hear it breathing. Its nostrils fluttered, flared; its eyes grew less milky, harder, like obsidian. It saw her. Regarded her. She stared back, forgetting to breathe, heart beating sluggishly, mind an absolute tornado of wonder and awe and stunned terror.
The alien spoke. Its lips did not move, but there was no telepathy involved—the words were as clear as day: “For Christ’s sake,” it said, blinking its ebony mantis eyes. “Are you going to say something or just stand there gawping all day?”
Scully decided for the latter, her mouth dropping open with comic surprise—because she recognized the voice. Knew who the alien was…or had been.
It was the dwarf.
Or it once had been…because the dwarf was no longer recognizably human. Coming closer, Scully saw that the dome of his head was swollen and tender, rough amphibious skin covering naked cerebrum, as if the parietal bones of his skull had been broken to pieces, rewired and strung with cartilage, increasing the size of the cavity and transforming the head into an oversized monstrosity the size of a baby watermelon; his teeth had been removed, his cheeks sunken in and reshaped, his lips cut away and replaced with seams of alien integument; the cartilage and bone and ragged flesh of his nose had been extracted, leaving only the nostrils behind; most of his natural skin was gone, replaced with thick spongy fish-like tissue; and, most obscenely of all, his eyes had been removed, the sockets enlarged and fitted with artificial orbs of black fiberglass, blind, lubricated with the remnants of tears.
He had been castrated. Part of his pelvis had been taken away. Most of the flesh from his thighs and calves was gone, the skin collapsing tightly—anorexically—against bone.
Yet still he spoke. His ruined face—shattered and resculpted into this alien image—was still mobile; he was still cognizant; his unseeing glass eyes rolled slowly in her direction. She knelt by his side, stunned at the extent of the surgical deformity.
“It isn’t polite to stare,” the dwarf/alien said. His lips did not move; Scully wondered if the mouth she saw was only a veneer, a living, pulsating mask laid over the dwarf’s genuine throat and tongue, allowing him a unique variety of ventriloquism. Of course: it was all fake. This was not a complete genetic transformation—not an alien-human hybrid—but simply an alien doll made from human raw material. A costume of viable tissue, grafted onto the body, that devoured its host from the inside out.
“How did you know I was staring?” she finally managed.
Incredibly, the dwarf chuckled. “Could anyone not stare?”
Scully whispered, “Did Palimpsest do this to you?”
“Of course,” the dwarf replied, shifting his head a centimeter to one side. That, right there, was the scope of his possible movement: his neck was bolted to the scaffolding, arms and legs shackled by loops of metal, straps of Kevlar binding him further to the frame. He looked like an effigy of crucifixion taken to Baroque extremes: his entire body bore a crown of interlocking thorns. “Who else could have done it?”
“But why?” She felt sick to her stomach. This was an abomination. It was worse than anything she had yet encountered in her pursuit of Palimpsest, worse than anything she had ever seen or ever dreaded seeing: they had torn apart this man’s body, crushed and remolded him into this monstrous form—but to preserve his self-awareness, to leave his mind intact in the face of such unimaginable horror, was the greatest blasphemy of all.
“Why? Do you really want to know?”
“Yes,” Scully said firmly. “I want to hear the truth.”
“All right, then,” said that immobile reptilian mouth. “I have nothing more to lose.” The dwarf’s voice—pathetically, frighteningly human to be issuing from so alien a throat—became wistful; he closed his terrible eyes, inhaled deeply through inflamed slits. “What do you want to know?”
“What was at 1527 K Street?”
The dwarf reopened his eyes. They had been slimed with some unimaginable secretion, slick and shiny and milk-white; Scully saw her own face reflected in their smoothness, saw the weary lines around her mouth and nose, realized that she was nearing collapse. Her knees were weak.
The dwarf said, “You’re tired, Agent Scully. Why don’t you sit down?”
Amazed at how he seemed—eyelessly—to read her thoughts, Scully said, “How do you know these things? How did you know who I was?”
He cocked his head slightly, a strangely precise and delicate gesture: “Agent Scully, they’ve disabled all my nerves from the neck down. Completely. I can’t feel my arms or legs or chest or hands. I wouldn’t be able to tell if my heart stopped beating or my lungs stopped working. All I can do, really, is talk and listen.” The dwarf chuckled again. “In a way, I’m thankful for such small blessings: I can’t feel what they’ve done to me, can’t perceive the full extent of the damage. Understand? All of my connections have been severed. I’m blind, numb, paralyzed. I’m like someone who’s been given oxyphenylcyrine. Or an embryo in diapause.” Closing his huge, empty eyes, he spoke again—but his voice was stranger this time, roughened, metallic, almost corroded: “‘When you isolate an organism from all physical stimuli, you increase its sensitivity to the supernatural, to the afterlife. The unknown. A bit of jelly in a marsupial womb, or a bit of humanity on a concrete sidewalk: it’s all the same. Seclusion. Loneliness. A vacuum that can only be filled by a higher state of awareness.’”
Scully’s eyes widened. He was quoting Sera’s words exactly. “How…how…?”
“Can’t you understand? Don’t you get it?” The dwarf reopened his eyes, regarding her with orbs of stone. “History is not written in books, Agent Scully, but in an alphabet of human suffering. Every death leaves its mark upon the aether, burnt into the astral plane, scorched into the very fabric of the universe—a textbook accessible to any man who is willing to annihilate himself in its pursuit. History is a manuscript written on the clouds. Authored by the blood of angels.”
Shaking her head, Scully said, “I still don’t understand.”
“Don’t you?” Silence for a moment. A quiet hiss as the dwarf sucked in air through what remained of his nose. Scully realized that he breathed only a few times each minute, softly, almost imperceptibly. It was a concentrated effort, yet somehow automatic; she wondered if he was hooked to some hidden respirator, a machine operating his lungs in lieu of his orphaned brain, the only spark of unblemished life in an anatomy ravaged by uncaring hands. Revised. Genocide on the cellular level. His body had been demolished by outside forces, weeded by the pogrom.
Now the dwarf began to speak, slowly and carefully, choosing his words with obvious care: “In July 1947, an extraterrestrial spacecraft crashed in a remote field in the New Mexico desert, just outside the town of Roswell. Three of the aliens within the saucer were killed on impact; a fourth, who survived for several days, was brought to the Roswell AAF base, died under observation, and was dissected. The cadaver was frozen and shipped to Washington, inciting a secret war over rights to the remains—bureaucratic infighting, arguments over whom the body ‘belonged’ to. Eventually, a compromise was reached. The alien’s body was completely dismembered, its body parts scattered throughout the city. Its brain and skeleton went to the Air Force; its hands, heart and vital organs were claimed by the Pentagon; its eyes went to the Library of Congress; and so on. As we speak, bits and pieces of the original Roswell alien are still preserved in hundreds of specimen jars throughout our nation’s capital.”
Listening, Scully said, “That’s incredible.”
“Isn’t it?” the dwarf said. “Oddly enough, it reminds me of a story from the Battle of Hastings: King Harold was killed by an arrow through the eye, falling from his horse and collapsing to the mud of the battlefield. A foot soldier stabbed him through the heart; another man lopped off his head. A second later, someone else disemboweled the corpse, splattering his entrails across the dirt. And a fourth man—having apparently arrived too late for any greater share of the glory—satisfied himself by sawing off the dead king’s leg. Understand the analogy? Back in 1947, everyone wanted a piece of the alien. It didn’t matter if it was a pound of flesh or a scrap of skin: half the men in Congress ended up with a trophy to put on their mantelpiece.”
“Back then, it was, yes. The most important thing, though, was that a section of the alien’s hide—actually a few pieces of skin from the torso and legs—fell into the hands of a young research biologist for the Smithsonian. The man who later founded XenoTech Labs.” Clearing his throat, the dwarf paused for a moment. Carefully blinked his malformed eyes. Then: “Although Roswell was by far the most well-publicized of the crashes, it was only the first of numerous encounters that resulted in the recovery of a living alien being, an extraterrestrial biological entity. In this country alone, nine aliens were found before 1978; we have no idea how many were taken by the Communists.”
“All those spacecraft crashed?” Scully asked, disbelieving.
“Perhaps. Although some say we shot them down ourselves,” said the dwarf. “You see, for the first few decades following the establishment of Majestic-12, the consensus was that any surviving E.B.E. was a security threat—and must be exterminated immediately after capture. Killed. Many were. We were extremely cautious, extremely frightened of the possible alien menace. Later on, however, things changed.”
“The government began to cooperate with the aliens.”
“Right. In 1978, the first attempts were made to actively communicate with the extraterrestrials, for purely strategic reasons: not because of science, but because of politics. We didn’t know what the Russians might be doing. If the Commies were making deals with the E.B.E.‘s, it meant that they might reap the benefits of extragalactic technology before we did, giving them an unimaginable advantage in the Cold War. Such a situation could not be condoned.”
“So our government beat them to the punch.”
“Well, specifically, it was Dr. Josef Kaun.” The dwarf briefly explained Kaun’s interest in Reich, in the tactical value of orgone energy. “Using orgone—produced by any means, from laboratory experiments to sexual intercourse—you can attract aliens, communicate with them, develop a rough pidgin that lays the foundation for interspecies contact. Kaun’s work provided this foundation. Thanks to him, our government began exchanging ideas with the extraterrestrials in earnest. They were also able to revive the attempt of creating an alien/human hybrid that had been initiated following the Second World War. You’re familiar with that story, of course—Operation Paper Clip, with its utilization of Nazi scientists, elementary eugenics, genetic engineering, a carefully planned program of abductions…”
“Yes,” Scully said, “yes, of course.”
“The real progress didn’t began until a decade ago, when XenoTech got into the act. It had been studying the DNA from the Roswell sample for years, you understand, and when it revealed what it had discovered to Kaun, he immediately began collaboration with their scientists, combining his genetic know-how with their knowledge of ectogenetics. But all the same, it was a slow, laborious process. The human and alien genomes simply aren’t compatible: one has four nucleotides, the other six—and that doesn’t even take into account the considerable structural differences between the helices. Very difficult, very frustrating. It took years before the results started trickling in.”
“Results? What kind of results?”
“That kangaroo, for example. If you were to extract a sample of its blood and examine it beneath a microscope, you’d see what appear to be ordinary erythrocytes, red blood cells, and lymphocytes, white blood cells—but you’d also see large protoplasmic masses with no nucleus, an irregularly puckered silicon membrane and cytoplasm that was saturated with hexanucleotidal DNA. In other words, green blood cells. Alien blood.”
Scully said, thunderstruck, “You mean—the joey is a hybrid?”
“Correct. Approximately speaking, the kangaroo is ten percent extraterrestrial.”
“There are gradients, you see. It’s impossible to grow an alien, fully-formed, from a test tube—and even if you could, it would take forever; it’s much easier to simply graft sections of alien DNA to pre-existing marsupial chromosomes, allowing them to divide and develop ectogenetically, splicing the nucleotides until the division between mammal and extraterrestrial disappears altogether. You can mix the two however you like, within limits.”
The dwarf coughed again, flaring its puckered nostrils. “In any case, we’re digressing from the main point. I’ll be brief from now on.” He began to speak more quickly. “Here’s the crucial detail: to assist XenoTech’s attempts at hybridization, several E.B.E.‘s were kept at the 1527 K Street building.”
“Oh my God,” Scully said. “They kept aliens there?”
“That’s correct. K Street was a front, pure and simple, for XenoTech’s genetic research, done in complete cooperation with the extraterrestrials. Beginning in 1989, a group of three aliens lived and worked there in full collaboration—to an extent, anyway—with their human counterparts; Kaun’s rough system of communication had been enormously refined since its implementation ten years before, and our two species were able to work together marvelously. In addition, Kaun remained busy overseeing the genetic work itself, using his familiarity with orgone metaphysics to refine the hybrids and chimeras produced.”
“This is fantastic,” Scully said, mind boggling at the far-reaching implications of what she was discovering.
“No,” the dwarf said. “We haven’t gotten to the fantastic part yet. Listen. Much of XenoTech’s hybridization work involved the selection of viable human test subjects, an analysis of genetic records, smallpox vaccinations, that sort of thing. Individuals pinpointed as being especially suited to the DNA-splicing process were taken secretly from their homes and brought temporarily to the K Street building.”
Scully understood. “Abductees were studied there.”
“Exactly. It was a hotbed of such activity. For several years—between 1992 and 1995—more abductees were brought to K Street than any other xenobiological testing facility in America. Subjects were examined, probed, given implants, relieved of blood and semen and eggs and stool. Some of them were injected with alien DNA; others were exposed to mutagenic radiation. All of them, eventually, were pumped full of drugs and brainwashed until all memories of the experience had been carefully eradicated. Only then were they returned to their beds, none the worse for their experience. Usually.”
Trying to speak calmly, Scully asked, “Was…was I brought there?”
“We’ll be getting to that in a moment,” said the dwarf. “I just want to emphasize that, since 1989, thousands of abductees were brought to 1527 K Street each year. Alien and human worked side by side, relentlessly pursuing their common goal, subjecting countless of innocent people to a barrage of tests and genetic manipulation. It was the authorized rape of the American public, a rape that was repeated again and again until the scope of the crime transcended human understanding. Forget Holocaust eugenics: Mengele himself couldn’t have dreamed of the abominations perpetrated in that laboratory.” The dwarf paused, as if silently numbering himself among such abominations. “And the research was continuous, uninterrupted.” He paused again. “Uninterrupted, that is, until last week.”
“Right. When K Street burned to the ground, the resident aliens were killed instantly. Seven years of research, destroyed in the blink of an eye.”
“But what caused the blaze?” Scully asked.
“No one knows,” the dwarf said. “Not really. Of course, some neighbors saw blue-green lights in the sky, hovering, oscillating in place, just before the building caught fire….” He dwarf laughed again. “Who knows? Perhaps a second group of aliens was attracted by the orgone energy, observed XenoTech’s work from afar, disapproved of its experiments, decided to torch the place. The building was reduced to cinders in an instant, and I’m not exaggerating; in addition to the aliens, three dozen researchers died in the inferno. Not even their skeletons remained: they were calcinated, burnt completely to powder. We don’t have technology like that. It’s like taking napalm back to the Middle Ages.
“But,” he continued, “it doesn’t matter. The end result was the same: the building was demolished, the ectogenetic banks were destroyed, the aliens were killed. Only Kaun, a few lucky researchers and a handful of ectogenetic organisms survived…and they were left with their dicks in the wind. Completely ruined.”
“Why?” Scully said. “Couldn’t they just begin the research anew, here in Manhattan?”
“That was impossible for a very simple reason: without the aliens, any further progress was impossible. Kaun may have been the supposed foreman, the figurehead—but the extraterrestrials contributed most of the insights, did most of the work, kept most of their secrets to themselves. Their technology is indistinguishable from magic; if we tried to duplicate it ourselves—tried to continue where the aliens had left off—we’d accomplish no more than a South Sea cargo cult, trying to make airplanes from bamboo. We couldn’t do a damn thing without the aliens’ guidance.” Chuckling again, the dwarf said, “So—what could Kaun do? You know what he did.”
She did know. She understood. And now, sitting here by the feet of this faux-alien, eyes wide, she was staggered by the audacity of the final piece of the puzzle: “Kaun called Palimpsest,” she said numbly. “He wanted them to contact the ghosts of the extraterrestrials.”
“That’s right,” said the dwarf. “And Palimpsest soon found that the process was easier than anyone could have imagined. Usually, one communicates with the dead by administering an oxyphenylcyrine injection to someone resembling a relative or close friend of the deceased. In this case, that was obviously impossible; we can’t even comprehend the E.B.E. familial system, much less utilize it.” Although the dwarf’s alien mouth did not move, Scully somehow sensed that he was smiling. “But Palimpsest was in luck,” he continued. “They quickly discovered—and this is the crucial part—that the dead aliens were automatically attracted to the abductees they had examined during life. It was almost axiomatic: kill an abductee under the correct conditions, and an alien will respond.”
Scully did not speak. Could not. Her mouth was as frozen as the dwarf’s, unmoving, fixed in a permanent rictus of disbelieving shock: everything fell together in an instant, stunning her, rendering her absolutely speechless.
The dwarf continued, oblivious or—more likely—indifferent. “However, there was a slight problem. Logistically speaking, abductees are a tricky group to mess with; many are aware of their experiences, especially if they have been taken more than once, and literally thousands have come forward to declare themselves. Because of this, there are certain watchdog groups—conspiracy theorists, conscientious paranoiacs—who keep an eye on avowed abductees, looking out for anything unusual, a sudden death, for example, that might be attributed to a government murder squad. Killing one of these individuals under suspicious circumstances would be incredibly risky. Understand?”
“Yes,” Scully said. “It probably explains why I haven’t been silenced already.”
“Faced with this difficulty,” said the dwarf, “Palimpsest decided to do the standard search of the DMV archives. Find promising faces, people who might be surgically modified into the image of specific abductees. Eventually, they found Abby Janneson.”
“Go on,” Scully said.
“Agent Scully, during your 1994 abduction, you were taken to K Street and experimented on extensively. Exclusively. The dead aliens would recognize you—or a human being who looked somewhat similar to you—and send a message through your psychosomatic stigmata. Although Janneson’s resemblance was only slight, they were confident that she could be surgically remodeled in your image with a minimum of trouble. So Kaun flew to New York. Tracked Janneson down. And he was about to deliver her to the second XenoTech lab—when he was betrayed.”
“By Palimpsest. They killed him with oxyphenylcyrine, shot him in the back of the head to hide the puncture wound, then let Janneson take the fall.”
“Why?” Scully asked. “Why would they murder Kaun?”
“Because they wanted the extraterrestrial information as badly as he did, if not more so. You see, hybridization was only part of XenoTech’s work—they were also working on the process of shape-shifting. Through some mind-boggling application of fundamental psychosomatics, certain alien beings have the power to physically alter their appearance—height, weight, build, facial features, distinguishing marks, sometimes even clothing—whenever they wish, to appear as anyone, anything…”
“Yes,” Scully said, digging up some long-buried memories, “I’ve encountered that particular ability several times. Chameleon powers. “
“And XenoTech was attempting to harness it. To give human beings the shape-shifting faculty.” Strangely gleeful, the dwarf continued, “Can you imagine how Palimpsest must have reacted to news of this development? It was a procedural leap of staggering proportions: if you can impersonate anyone, then contacting the dead is the easiest thing in the world—just assume the proper shape, smoke an OPC cigarette and wait for the stigmata to appear. Simple as that.”
“So Palimpsest began to covet the extraterrestrial knowledge,” Scully said. “They killed Kaun to see if the aliens would leave a message on his skin, something useful. Did they?”
“In a manner of speaking. There was a message, but it was written in alien language, unreadable. Alien writing is absolutely nothing like the terrestrial forms of communication we’re used to: there’s no formal lexicon, for example, and the very shapes and components of each logogram change from place to place, as if the words were shifting, mutating where they sat, their meanings and very appearances dependent on the surrounding context; almost random-seeming, at least to our sublunar minds. It isn’t strictly impossible to read, but no one at Palimpsest had the necessary knowledge to do so. Therefore, they needed to commission an outside expert to decipher the message, someone who could translate the ideograms into coherent English. Which was when they turned to X.”
“X? X was in league with Palimpsest?”
“Yes and no. He was unable to read the message himself, but he agreed to arrange a meeting between Palimpsest and someone else who could. On the other hand, he had his own agenda to pursue: he was keenly interested in the information presented by Kaun’s research, and wanted his finger in the XenoTech pie. Unfortunately, he and Palimpsest disagreed on several key issues. X didn’t like the idea of contacting aliens through human beings. Thought it was impractical. Unruly. You couldn’t expect more than a few stands of gibberish. Even if they responded at all, their minds are so different from ours, even in death, that the chances of coherent communication were virtually zero.”
Scully nodded. “I assume that contacting the dead and contacting aliens are both fiendishly difficult; attempting to combine the two would increase the problems exponentially.”
“You’re very bright, you know that?” the dwarf said. “That’s exactly right. For such reasons, X disapproved of Palimpsest’s actions. He felt that killing Kaun was an especially costly mistake, since Kaun’s residual knowledge was far more valuable than anything that could be obtained through the oxyphenylcyrine stigmata. X insisted that Kaun be contacted as well.”
“So X was telling Mulder the truth.”
“Truth, untruth—what’s the difference? The fact is, Palimpsest misled X from the very beginning. X didn’t know, for example, that extensive reconstructive surgery had been required for Janneson’s face to resemble yours, and that this surgery wasn’t performed until after Kaun’s death—which means that you’re useless for contacting Kaun. X spoke to Mulder in full earnestness; although he kept many of the more crucial facts to himself, X truly believed that killing you under the correct circumstances would lure Kaun’s ghost.”
“But it wouldn’t.”
“No. You can only contact aliens. Which is why Palimpsest is so interested in obtaining your stigmata.” Again, the dwarf smiled his hidden smile, concealed beneath folds of alien flesh. “In the meantime, of course, Palimpsest had accidentally created It.”
“It?” Scully’s blood ran cold—because she instantly knew who the dwarf meant. She remembered how Sera’s eyes had changed. How her voice had become rough and metallic and unimaginably loud. The scars on her neck and spine, the implant at the base of her skull, the words on her forearms: Scully pondered all this as the dwarf spoke again.
“Sera,” the dwarf said, “was first abducted from her home in June of 1996. Like many abductees, she lived alone, kept to herself, was private and introverted and in excellent health—the perfect test subject. Actually, her career paralleled yours in many ways: she came from a military family, moved far away from her parents and siblings and worked as a clerical aide for the State Department.”
When Scully did not respond, the dwarf continued: “It was a typical abduction, quite uneventful. Sera was disabled by a flash of light, rendered unconscious, brought to K Street and subjected to a series of tests by the usual assortment of human and alien scientists. Routine business. She was given an implant, brainwashed and returned to her bed with nothing but a vague backache and a sense of missing time. The process was repeated several times; Sera was taken twice more in July and once in August, each time forced to undergo an additional barrage of experimentation. One thing which made her case unusual, however, was that Sera told no one of her experiences—not even when the aliens took her ovaries.”
Speaking carefully, Scully asked, “When was her final abduction?”
“August 12. The day before the XenoTech building was destroyed.” The dwarf cleared his throat. “For obvious reasons, she was an excellent candidate for Palimpsest. Reclusive, little-noticed, a recent abductee. If the aliens would respond to anyone, they’d respond to her.”
“So what happened?”
“Three days after the fire, Palimpsest kidnapped Sera and brought her to their primary Washington facility, an underground bunker three blocks northeast of Lafayette Park. She was dressed in white robes, identical to those worn by all K Street abductees, and carefully strapped to a steel operating table, face-down. Her neck and upper spine were exposed and carefully prepped with iodine. The syringes were readied.”
“Oxyphenylcyrine and adrenaline. Palimpsest wanted to see whether someone who had been used to contact aliens could be safely resuscitated. Usually, they didn’t bother with reviving their victims; this time, however, it was a matter of convenience, since they could perform their OPC experiments within the context of an abduction. The abductees—jaded by months, sometimes years, of continual experimentation—would see it as just another facet to the weirdness, not give it a second thought. Understand?”
“Right. So what happened?” Scully repeated.
“What you might expect. You’re aware, of course, that there are certain psychological changes that often manifest themselves in Palimpsest victims who have been resuscitated. Mental residue. The victims begin to sound like their deceased contactees, take on their quirks, some fragment of their personality, as if some of the foreign soul had possessed their brains…” The dwarf broke off abruptly, resumed his recollection. “Sera died instantly. The OPC went into her bloodstream, disabling all her peripheral nerves, paralyzing her heart and lungs and brain. Palimpsest waited precisely twenty seconds before injecting the adrenaline. Sera stirred. Her arms flew into Thornburn position. Markings—alien logograms—bled up from beneath her skin. She opened her eyes. And then all hell broke loose.”
The dwarf tried to explain what had taken place, but his words proved inadequate: all he could do was describe the events themselves, not convey the premeditation, the deliberate nature of the horror. He invited Scully to consider the scene. Small room, underground. Green walls, ceiling, floor: a parody of an operating theater. Sera, pinned to the central slab by leather straps encircling her legs and waist. Steel tray with surgical instruments lying alongside the table, within easy reach. Scalpels. Hypodermics. Ampoules of oxyphenylcyrine. Three men observing, one holding a syringe, one standing at the foot of the table with his arms crossed, one sitting in an armchair some distance away. Dim light. Digital clock on the wall, marking off the seconds.
00:00:01. One arm—now covered with ideograms—jerks up from the table, lightning fast. Seizes the empty adrenaline syringe from one of Palimpsest’s men and plunges the needle into his left eye. Drives him back. He screams, topples into the second agent’s arms, brings them both to the ground. The man in the chair begins to rise. Sera lies on the table, still strapped down, face still pressed against the metal: she ripped the syringe from the man’s hands and drove it into his brain without bothering to look up.
00:00:02. Quick metallic flash: she plucks a scalpel from the surgical tray, slits her bonds. Eyes lowered, she throws the blade with clinical precision. It pinwheels through the air. Buries itself in the second agent’s face. Blood snakes across the room in ropy whorls of red. The agent in the chair gropes for his gun, tries to pry it loose, forgets to undo the clasp across his speedloader. Sinks back down into the chair, eyes bigger than saucers.
00:00:04. Sera takes another scalpel, flings it to the ceiling, where it hits the naked fluorescent bulb dead-on. Sparks. Sputterings. The room is plunged into darkness. No sounds, except monotonous drip-drip-drip of blood. Panicked breathing. The man with the knife in his face still seems half-alive, squirming across the floor with his sinuses shoved into his frontal cortex.
00:00:06. She kneels, yanks the pistol from the dying man’s holster. Blows a hole in the third man’s chest without any preliminaries. The sound is momentous—resounding—in the close confines of the operating room. Others will arrive soon. She needs to act quickly. 00:00:10. She shoots the lock off the door. Finds herself in a dark hallway, her white robes spattered with blood: follows the sounds of traffic until she finds an unguarded staircase, disappears through the back way, passing within two feet of Palimpsest agents as she does so.
Moving with uncanny invisibility, she escapes. Is free. Disappears into the night, gun still in hand.
“But she was no longer human,” the dwarf said.
“Then what was she?” Scully asked. “An alien/human hybrid?”
“Nothing so simple. Hybridization—at least the XenoTech variety—is a purely physical process, an attempt to combine the finest qualities of both human and alien physiology. It affects the body, not the mind.” The dwarf’s voice became darker, more portentous. “But what happened with Sera…that was different. DNA wasn’t involved. It wasn’t tissue, or chromosomes, or genetic engineering: it was the soul, plain and simple, the immortal fucking soul. You can’t mess with something like that. When Sera was used to contact the ghost of an alien, her soul was poisoned, tainted.”
“She was possessed.”
“More than that. It was pure synergy. Human soul plus extraterrestrial soul equaled some unknown quantity, something indefinable, something more alien than anything that comes from outer space. Listen: When God breathed life into the dust, He conferred the spirit upon Adam; and He repeated the process an infinite number of times, on infinite worlds, with a different variety of spirit passing from His Godhead into the Flesh each time. When you tamper with the soul, you tamper with the sixth day of Creation. You can’t imagine the repercussions. When those two alien souls were combined into one being, a howl of anguish tore through fifteen billion years of infinite history. Sera was no longer male nor female, human nor alien: she became unnamable. She became It.”
Silence reigned for several moments. When the dwarf spoke again, it was to take up a different thread, pursue more comprehensible matters. “After this incident,” he said, “Palimpsest realized that there could be no resuscitation. No second chances. Dead was dead. They weighed their options, decided that they would best proceed by a systematic program of OPC killings, performed upon individuals who had been surgically modified to resemble abductees. The first, of course, was Janneson, whose face was altered to resemble yours. She manifested numerous alien markings after her death in prison, although their content remained unknown.”
“Was she really autopsied by the New York medical examiner?”
“Yes, although the message on her abdomen was obliterated with acid prior to delivery to the coroner’s office, and the ME was intimidated into silence. The photographs given to Agent Mulder were taken by Palimpsest itself, for its own reference.
“After Janneson’s death,” the dwarf continued, “Palimpsest performed another DMV search. They located a handful of usable subjects, kidnapped them and transformed them into abductee doppelgangers. Because of a shortage of manpower, they were also forced to use these subjects in more mundane ways, as errand boys, subsidiary agents. Very amusing. Not surprisingly, one of the doppelgangers escaped—with X’s face.”
“Yes, I saw him in Craneo. But why was X targeted by Palimpsest?”
“He’s one of two surviving men who, prior to 1978, killed an E.B.E. in Vietnam. Palimpsest often utilizes the murderer-victim dichotomy in selecting its targets; X was a logical choice.” Smirking again, the dwarf said, “Of course, Palimpsest probably wouldn’t mind if X took the OPC himself, if you know what I mean: they don’t get along very well. Different agendas, different objectives. And they’ve disagreed from the very beginning over how to handle you.”
“What do you mean?” Scully asked.
“Well, Palimpsest wants to use you in contacting the aliens—which means that you’re to be kidnapped, dressed in white and slain under certain highly specified indoor conditions. X, on the other hand, wants to contact Kaun, whose ghost he wrongly believes would be attracted to you.”
“But he wouldn’t.”
“No. Kaun only saw Janneson before her plastic surgery; the chances of him recognizing you are virtually nil. But because X wasn’t told this, he acted rashly on his own. He took copies of Palimpsest’s photographs of Janneson (carefully blurring the writing on her abdomen) and copies of the autopsy report (slightly falsified to include fabricated details of English writing on her belly), and gave them to Agent Mulder, telling him that Janneson had been used to contact Kaun.”
“Why did he lie about that?”
“Because although he wanted Mulder’s assistance, he didn’t want him to know of the extraterrestrial connection unless it was absolutely necessary. At the same time, however, he made a deal with Palimpsest. He knew that you couldn’t be resuscitated if they used you to contact the aliens, or you’d become a monster like Sera; on the other hand, he knew that you couldn’t be killed—for the very reasons that Sera told you.”
Scully nodded. “Mulder and I are too well known. He doesn’t want a pair of martyrs.”
“Or a crusade. Abducting you was risky enough; the repercussions of your death, on the other hand, would threaten to expose everything—Palimpsest, K Street, XenoTech, the hybridization experiments, the entire sanctum sanctorum. So what could be done? Palimpsest was bloodthirsty. X wanted the Kaun information. Eventually, they reached a compromise: Both Palimpsest and Mulder would kill you—but only Mulder would be implicated in your death.”
“I don’t quite understand.”
“According to the plan, X would tell Mulder the barest details of the plot. About Janneson, about Kaun. Just enough to entice Mulder, to draw him into the web. To make him consider killing you. When the time came, you would be dressed in Janneson’s clothing on the street corner where Kaun died—an abnormally deserted street corner, one which Palimpsest would have secretly partitioned off; Mulder would give you an oxyphenylcyrine cigarette; and then revive you with the adrenaline injection.”
“But…that wouldn’t contact Kaun.”
“Probably not—but X doesn’t know that. He’s putting you on that street corner because he thinks it will contact Kaun; Palimpsest is just playing along, humoring him, trying to secure his full cooperation for the second phase of the plan.”
“But why was his involvement necessary?”
“Because you and Mulder have to go onto that street corner of your own free will. That’s the object of the entire plan. Don’t you get it? Everything revolves around the establishment of that moment, that situation, where Mulder will kill you. The past sixteen hours has been one long confidence game, a trick: Palimpsest has always been in control. They’ve followed you everywhere, never let you out of their sight. Your ‘escape’ in Craneo was carefully orchestrated—you never really eluded them. They allowed Mulder to go to K Street. They’ve listened to all your phone calls, tapped your conversations regardless of how much helium you inhale, observed you twenty-four hours a day. Your freedom is an illusion. You have no choice in these matters. Sooner or later, you’ll do what Palimpsest wants you to do: die.”
Scully didn’t think about the implications of these words. Fought them down. Forced herself to tackle the remaining points. “All right. What’s the second phase of the plan?”
“Do you really want to know?” the dwarf asked. “Here’s the scene. You and Mulder on the street corner. You’re in hooker garb. He takes out the cigarette, sticks it in your mouth. You inhale, collapse, die. He rips away your blouse, inserts the needle between the sixth and seventh vertebrae—and all the while, Agent Scully, all the while, a Palimpsest agent in the distance is taking picture after picture after picture. Photographs. Dozens of them. Documenting the murder. Every bit of it, from the cigarettes to the adrenaline.
“After you’ve been resuscitated,” he continued, “you and Mulder see that no stigmata have appeared. It’s all been for nothing. So—now what? This is where the kangaroo comes in. You’ve already seen that the kangaroo is drawn to these XenoTech labs, through diapause clairvoyance or marsupial instinct—”
“—or simply because it hears the ectogenetic machinery,” Scully said.
“But the actual mechanism of its sensitivity is irrelevant. All that matters is that Palimpsest gave you the kangaroo so it would lead you here.”
“Here’s the plan. Prior to the rendezvous on the street corner, X contacts Mulder and casually suggests that the kangaroo might be useful in locating XenoTech’s second lab. Later—after you’ve been needlessly killed and revived—you and Mulder become extremely anxious, wondering what to do next. Mulder then tells you what X said. Since it’s the only course of action that seems feasible, you decide to go for it. You release the joey. Follow it to the XenoTech building. After a moment’s hesitation, you and Mulder enter the lab of your own accord.
“The second you step inside, however, Palimpsest overwhelms you. Captures Mulder, knocks him unconscious. Kills the kangaroo. They drug you, strip you, dress you in white, strap you to an operating table and kill you then and there.
“Afterwards, your skin is doused with acid to hide the stigmata and the needlemarks. Your body is dressed in Janneson’s clothes—and you’re dumped on the street corner again. The police find you the next day. Hardly a difficult case to solve: Mulder’s fingerprints are all over the clothing, inside and out; a bottle of sulfuric acid is discovered alongside the body, traceable to the FBI labs; and a sheaf of photographs is anonymously sent to Homicide the next day, containing dozens of pictures of Mulder administering the cigarette, watching as you fall to the sidewalk, and tearing away your blouse. (Needless to say, the photos of the adrenaline injection are not included.)
“Mulder is apprehended soon afterward. The official story is quite simple: Special Agent Fox Mulder, driven clinically insane by personal trauma, kidnapped his partner and forced her to participate in his paranoid delusions. He’d fabricated a huge imagined conspiracy, replete with secret societies, ghosts, demons and alien invaders, that revolved around XenoTech—which, the prosecution is quick to claim, is simply a legitimate research company with no ties whatsoever to the Pentagon. Completely innocent. However, Mulder became convinced that both XenoTech and his partner were part of the plot. He kidnapped her, took her to New York, dressed her suggestively, killed her using an elite government assassination tool, sexually abused her body and disfigured her with acid.
“Meanwhile, all traces of the real conspiracy are carefully erased. The joey’s carcass is cremated; all kangaroo hairs are vacuumed from the upholstery of your car; the pet carrier is removed and burnt; the Janneson autopsy photographs—as well as the body itself—mysteriously disappear; the XenoTech labs become an abandoned warehouse. All of Mulder’s fantasies—Palimpsest, the kangaroo, the dwarf, the connection to aliens—are absolutely unsubstantiated; he’s regarded as a lunatic, a paranoiac. Maybe a pyromaniac. Photographs of him rooting through the ashes at K Street are produced to provide a background to his obsessions, and they charge him with arson, too, just so no loose ends are left hanging. He’s confined to an institution—and Palimpsest wins.
“Just consider it. Palimpsest could have led you here by any means—but they chose an albino kangaroo. Anyone could have delivered the kangaroo to your door—but Palimpsest sent a dwarf wearing a white derby and a lime-green overcoat. Palimpsest did upload your voiceprints to the IPSD—but the means of ‘bypassing’ the system was completely fabricated. The point of all this lunacy, Agent Scully, was to make Mulder seem even more deranged. What’s he going to say? ‘A circus dwarf gave my partner a white kangaroo, which we then used to track down the aliens, and even though I eluded them by sniffing helium from a magic red balloon, they killed her anyway…’ You understand? Palimpsest intentionally did ridiculous things, only to make Mulder’s story seem all the more ludicrous.”
“But what about my brother?” Scully asked. “He’s a potential witness; he’d substantiate Mulder’s claims…”
“He probably would. Your brother has seen more than anyone realizes.” The dwarf smiled behind alien flesh. “Haven’t you been wondering why we’re all alone? Why all of Palimpsest’s agents have—so conveniently—abandoned me here?”
Scully admitted that the thought had crossed her mind.
The dwarf explained what Charles had done. How he had impersonated Pio Neumann, gone into the ambulance, killed Krycek—and called the Manhattan labs with the Evacuate code, clearing the area less than three minutes before Scully entered the building. “You were very lucky,” the dwarf said, deciding not to mention the familiar-looking stigmata on Krycek’s chest. “A few minutes earlier, and they would have captured you immediately. They would have let you escape, of course, so that you wouldn’t be late for you appointment with Mulder…”
“But…Krycek?” Scully asked. “Was it really Alex Krycek?”
“It might have been,” said the dwarf. “Or it might have been a Palimpsest doppelganger doing a passably good Krycek impersonation. Krycek spent much of his career in close proximity with several E.B.E.‘s of various kinds; he would have been an obvious choice for Palimpsest.” The dwarf did not mention the possibility that the death of Melissa Scully’s murderer might also have attracted a human soul; instead, he continued, “But rest assured that Palimpsest did not mean to spare your brother’s life. That gunshot wound was meant to kill him…and they’ll try again…and again…and again. When they finally succeed, ballistics will trace the fatal bullet to a 9mm Taurus automatic registered in Mulder’s name, completing the circle of incrimination.”
Horrified, Scully asked, “Is there anything I can do?”
“Do you really want my advice?”
“Then here it is: go to the street corner at eight o’ clock. Meet Mulder. Ask him to give you the cigarette, and allow yourself to die. Hopefully, should revive you without any difficulties.”
“It isn’t as great a risk as it seems,” the dwarf said. “Physiologically speaking, eighty-nine percent of all oxyphenylcyrine victims can be resuscitated with no ill effects whatsoever. The other eleven percent usually suffer a temporary loss of equilibrium, impaired hand-eye coordination, and an inability to perform delicate motor functions for a period of up to three weeks. All of these minor symptoms, needless to say, are preferable to death. As for the so-called psychological problems: we’ve already agreed that it is highly unlikely that you will succeed in contacting anyone under these circumstances. Therefore, the risk of any ‘mental residue’ or disfiguring stigmata is almost zero.”
“Let me repeat my question,” Scully said: “Why?”
“Here’s why. Palimpsest will be watching you. Constantly. And no matter what you do, they’ll keep looking for ways to kill you and frame Mulder for the crime. If you and Mulder don’t do as expected—if you don’t take the poison—then they’ll know that something has gone wrong; in all likelihood, they’ll disregard caution and kidnap you then and there, resorting to faked photographs and planted fingerprints to implicate Mulder in your death. If you follow X’s instructions, on the other hand, you’ve bought yourself a brief reprieve. It’s a choice between certain death and an opportunity for escape.”
“There is a good chance that X will not allow you to die. He seems to be regretting his choice to assist Palimpsest.”
“How do you know this?”
“I’ve already told you that I see things. Feel things. I’m like an embryo in diapause, or someone who has been given oxyphenylcyrine; I don’t know if you’d call it clairvoyance, or telepathy, or ESP, or something even more mystical, but it does afford me a certain amount of insight. And I can tell that X is having second thoughts; he’s given Mulder some inkling of what’s in store for him, although he told a false story about morphine syringes to conceal his own part in the conspiracy; and he hasn’t told Mulder about the purpose of the kangaroo. I can feel his confusion. His hatred towards Palimpsest. Especially now that he’s encountered his own doppelganger.” Scully began to ask about that; the dwarf closed his eyes impatiently, as if to tell her that it wasn’t important. “All you need to know is that X may intervene on your behalf. But he’ll only do so if he believes that you have contacted Kaun—which means that you’ll have to smoke the cigarette.”
After Scully did not respond for nearly a minute, the dwarf asked, “You still here?”
“Do you have any more questions?”
“I have three. First: what’s the significance of the messages in copper sulfate?”
“To perpetuate the myth of Palimpsest’s ‘rival’ organizations.”
“They don’t exist?”
“No; they never did. Everyone works for Palimpsest. I do. X does. You and Mulder do, although you may not be aware of it…. The entire fiction of Palimpsest’s ‘opponents’ served as a backup plan in case you and Mulder tried to flee the city; one of Palimpsest’s men, disguised as a member of that mythical rival group, would attempt to detain you, claiming that he’d sent the kangaroo. But it’s all an illusion. It’s a game.”
“Which brings us to my second question.” Scully briefly hesitated, then asked, “Why did Sera come to me? I understand that the sniper who killed her was working for Palimpsest—but why did she reveal herself at all? Why did she tell me all those things?”
The dwarf gave a dry smirk of discontentment. “That, I’m afraid, I don’t know; I have no insight into Sera’s psyche. The disfigurement of her soul conceals her.” Shifting his head slightly to one side, the dwarf said, “My best guess is that Sera wanted to upset Palimpsest’s work, to sabotage the plan. Petty mischief. She told you of the kangaroo’s hidden power, for example, to bring you here six hours too early; and she knew that making you doubt Palimpsest’s existence would only make it more difficult for Mulder to administer the OPC.”
“That makes sense,” Scully said reluctantly, although she was unsatisfied with the dwarf’s explanation. She continued anyway. “Third question: why did Palimpsest…do this to you? Change you?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” the dwarf said. “They’re going to kill me with oxyphenylcyrine, and hope that the aliens will respond to one of their own.” Strangely, horribly, he giggled. “It was a painful process. They removed all my skin, replaced it with artificial XenoTech flesh, and exposed me to radiation until I became wrinkled and gray. They crushed my skull, rebuilt it. They took my muscles. They took my eyes. I’m a decoy. I’m the contingency plan: if the abductees produce nothing usable when the stigmata is translated, then perhaps I will. It’s a carefully calculated gamble, Agent Scully, nothing more—and I shall go to my death not without some satisfaction.
“Because I have seen things,” the dwarf said sadly, ruefully, gazing out from those unseeing fiberglass eyes, speaking through that unmoving slit of a mouth: “I have gained more than any mortal could ever dream, even as my humanity is taken from me. I have read the writing of men’s souls. I have seen the blood of angels.” He closed his eyes again. “And I want to die.”
The dwarf did not speak further. When Scully prompted him into revealing more, he did not respond. His breathing grew slow; his hands went limp in their shackles. A single milk-white tear trickled from the corner of one malformed eye, fading away among the cracks and folds of his fish-gray skin: and his face hardened like stone.
Scully rose from the floor. Walked, her legs prickling with pins and needles, back into the hallway.
The kangaroo still lay against the linoleum floor, pressed against the source of the Ur-sound. Taking it by the leash, hauling it up from the ground, Scully briefly considered exploring the rest of the building, going down into the basement, walking among the ectogenetic tanks that she knew would be there…but decided against it.
When she stepped outside, the sunlight was harsh, painful, as if she had been in darkness for a thousand years.
The dwarf had made a mistake. He berated himself, letting the waves of anger and reprobation bleed through his veins, their dark burning currents substituting for the nerves he no longer possessed. Although he could not feel his own heartbeat, he knew that the muscle pumped hotly against the drumskin of his chest, only a thin gray membrane lying between it and the outer void; his clavicles had been removed, along with four of his ribs and a five-inch section of his breastbone; the loose flesh had been folded back and pinned into place; and all this had brought his lungs and heart close to the surface. An alien’s heart—or whatever analogous organ they possessed—was similarly located, just underneath the skin. So vulnerable. He didn’t know what ran through their vessels, though. Ichor? No. Green fluid. Hexanucleotidal silicon protoplasms.
His aorta fluttered. The artery was too constricted, pinned midway between extraterrestrial tissue and human guts; if he became too angry, too agitated, he might rupture his pericardium. Die. For a moment, he considered the option. Felt the anger squeeze his heart like a clammy fist.
He’d been mistaken. He’d been a fool. He hadn’t seen the obvious.
Surrendering himself to his unlikely powers, the dwarf let himself go. He felt vestiges of feeling cluster in the tips of his fingers, in the soles of his feet, in the cauterized stump where his genitals had once been: he let the waves of pain wash across him, sailed through thunderheads, tore apart fields of magnetism with invisible fingernails—
—and was plunged onto a hot dirty road. Kneeling. Industrial machinery clustering around him. He inhaled dust. Followed the two women beneath the shade of the overhang. Sera’s voice, oddly casual, ordering Scully to put on Janneson’s clothes. The tank top. The barrettes. The earrings, necklace, rings, bracelets, hose, miniskirt, heels. Scully standing, humiliated and terrified. Sera’s eyes running over Scully’s body. The first gunshot. The exploding redness. Sera dying, looking down: Damn. This is my roommate’s dress.
Why had Sera revealed herself to Scully?
Why had she gone so calmly to her own death?
The dwarf closed his useless lids, sighing heavily as the vision disappeared. He felt paralysis invade his body again, his flesh descending into stupid numbness. The tingling in his fingers ceased; the pain stopped; he knew nothing from the neck down, his head and shoulders floating three feet above the floor. His shackles had returned, binding him to an unseen ebony scaffold. His arms and legs were splayed like the spokes of a wheel.
And suddenly, he felt presences. Men entering the room. Dark shapes, passing the table with the Bunsen burner, flickering, casting shadows on the wall in a thousand lunatic shapes.
Thoughts floated through his brain at a languid pace. He knew that Sera possessed an intelligence—perhaps clairvoyance—far greater than any mortal mind could comprehend, a soul that was neither alien nor human but something undreamt of since the sixth day of Genesis. She was It. An abomination that would strive to propagate Itself at all costs. A cancer. A tumor. And It was well aware of its abominable nature; It knew that Palimpsest would try to hunt It down, purge the universe of Its blasphemy. Sooner or later, they would succeed. Its arms were covered with those damning marks, and even if It wore long-sleeved blouses, and even if the stigmata faded away after time, Palimpsest would find It eventually, and kill It with a bullet to the brain. There was no escaping this final conclusion. Axiomatic. Unavoidable.
Unless It took on another form. Another body.
And It, faced with such unavoidable annihilation, had been very careful to die according to Its own timetable. It had revealed Itself at a particular moment, to a particular person—and when It died, It made sure that Dana Scully (wearing Janneson’s clothes) was the last thing It ever saw.
Pausing in his thoughts, the dwarf listened. The men were closer now. He could hear their footsteps, smell the sour scent of their breath. One of them came close, whispered, harsh against the dwarf’s severed alien ears: “She came here, didn’t she?”
More words, directed to someone else in the room: “Get the OPC ready.” Random voices. Sound of syringes being prepped, ampoules being slid into place, needles being torn from their sterile wrappings. Additional footsteps. Closer. Cool breath on his cheek. Another set of smells. Two voices, bouncing back and forth in a soothing litany of sound.
“We’ll get her anyway.”
“No matter what you told her.”
“She can’t be saved.”
“We’ve been watching her.”
“You can’t tamper with fate.”
“Don’t you get it?”
“Don’t you understand?”
He did. Moments later, he felt the needle slip into his shoulder. It was very cold, like the lips of a corpse. After that, he didn’t feel much of anything.
The next six hours passed uneventfully.
August 20, 1996—7:58 PM
Red neon light bled across the concrete. Doorways like gaping mouths lay flush with the pavement, thresholds draped in shadow. Mulder chose a random stoop, ascended the low steps and disappeared beneath the overhang, retreating until he was completely swallowed by the darkness.
Only the scarlet glint of his weary eyes betrayed his presence.
The corner was abnormally deserted, he thought. Ominous. Letting his gaze roll from one end of the block to the other, taking in the emptiness—a soft wind licking at the sidewalk, blowing cans along the street, old newspapers, ashcan lids—Mulder trembled. Brought a hand to his face. Although the makeup was freshly applied and hadn’t lost its tackiness, his skin still prickled at the touch, flesh retreating from his fingers in mock-revulsion: he could feel it. His face had become alien. Under the makeup, he was blacker than pitch. The soot had grown thick and luxuriant beneath its shallow cosmetic veneer, creeping along his eyelids, the insides of his nostrils, into his ears, his lips, his sockets. A mold; a mask. His face felt tight and depleted, as if the blood was being siphoned away.
Clouds coagulated above the rooftops. A storm was gathering.
Footsteps. Clicking heels, quick, mincing, along the neon-soaked street. A moment later, Scully stood before him, dressed in Janneson’s clothes. When he met her eyes, they were intense and bluer than blue.
“Hi,” he said from the doorway.
“Hi,” she responded. “Give me the cigarette.”
“Scully…” he began.
“Mulder, listen,” she said, standing there in Janneson’s tank top, the pink fabric spattered with brilliant dots of Sera’s blood and old amber splotches of Kaun’s brain: “Please, just let me talk.” Her voice was firm, unyielding. “I’ve learned a lot today…seen a lot of things…and I’ve come to the conclusion that this is our only chance to be free of Palimpsest. I’m tired of running, Mulder. We don’t need to prolong the suffering; just give me the oxyphenylcyrine, and everything will be all right.”
“How can you be sure of that?” Mulder asked, emerging from the shadows. “Do you have any idea what you’re saying? What you’re asking me to do? You don’t know how dangerous this poison can be…”
“It’s no more poisonous than life itself. Don’t you understand?” Scully’s eyes shone, pupils burning with alien fire. “Palimpsest is everywhere. Everything we do is subject to their approval, their omniscience, their timetable: our freedom—our free will—is an illusion. Always was. Always will be. But we can escape, Mulder, you and I, if we finish this business now.”
Silence. He asked, “Where’s the kangaroo?”
“In the car. I parked around the corner.” Scully held up her hands in frustration. “Mulder, you have to trust me. This is our only chance. If you give me the cigarette now, X might be inclined to help us; if you don’t, then Palimpsest will kill me anyway, and the blood will be left on your hands. We no longer have a choice.”
Mulder asked in frustration, “Did we ever have one?”
“I doubt it. I’m already dead,” Scully said simply. “Nothing you do can change that.”
Mulder glanced quickly to either side. Saw the vast barrenness of the streets, the wind blowing albino-white shreds of litter along the asphalt. “This corner is awfully quiet,” he said. “I think it’s been cordoned off. Deliberately. We’re being watched.”
“Of course we’re being watched,” Scully said. “More than that. We’re onstage. This is all a performance, nothing more, with the audience waiting in the wings.”
“Mulder, I’m confident that I’ll be safe.”
“But Scully, listen,” said Mulder, his voice choked with pain. “Hurting you…it isn’t going to contact Kaun, or anyone else. I saw Janneson’s body today—Scully, she was given plastic surgery—”
“I know,” Scully said. “I agree. It’s pointless. Stupid. But unless you give me the cigarette now, I’m going to die, you’ll be arrested and institutionalized, and Palimpsest will have won. It’s our only chance. Trust me. Please. Don’t ask for reasons: just give me the cigarette.”
“Wait.” Up until then, Scully’s words had been clipped, deliberate; now, a shadow fell across her face; her eyes closed; she retreated slightly to the edge of the curb. “Mulder, I…I feel faint…” She trailed off, put a hand to her forehead. Wobbled unsteadily on high heels, her face suddenly pale and drawn, lipstick etched harshly against paper-white skin. Mulder stepped out from the doorway, concerned. She squinted up at him, her eyes widening in surprise. “Mulder—are you wearing makeup?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said, moving abashedly forward. “I have to. Something’s been growing on my—”
“No—wait—stay where you are,” Scully said quickly. She extended a hand, palm out, halting him in his tracks. Backstepped. “On your face, right? Something’s been growing on your face? Is that it?” Her voice became suddenly tense, confused.
“I can feel it,” Scully said, fear rising. “It’s strange…alien…I don’t know what it is…but it’s hurting me. I can feel it,” she repeated. “Mulder, it’s dangerous. More dangerous than the OPC.”
Stunned, gaping stupidly in the middle of the sidewalk, Mulder remembered what Langly had said: The alien black substance caused nausea, pain, dizziness, cyanosis, thirst in whoever came in contact with it. But he’d been many places since the substance had begun to grow—the airport, the ME’s office—and no one else had complained of any adverse effects. Why was Scully so sensitive?
Aloud, he asked, “What’s the matter? How do you feel?”
“I don’t know. Dizzy. Thirsty. I can’t breathe. Mulder, I…” Scully’s eyes rolled back. She began to topple forward, one of her heels breaking cleanly off—Mulder managed to catch her, but only barely, gripping her elbows in his hands, feeling the fever that pulsed beneath her skin as she pressed herself against him—and suddenly he felt his own face glow red-hot, makeup running, the alien blackness shrieking from his very pores, fire passing between their bodies, spots of magenta dancing before his eyes. He felt weak. Disoriented. His muscles fluttered; he tried to support her, but she continued to fall, went to her knees, scraping them on the concrete, her lips moving silently as she collapsed to the sidewalk: “Do it,” she whispered. “Do it now.”
And then she was gone. Unconscious, but still breathing. Crumpled at his feet.
Mulder stared down, terrified. His heart pounding. Her words echoing through his head. Do it. Do it now. What was he so afraid of? Physiologically speaking, oxyphenylcyrine poisoning wasn’t so dangerous. He had the cigarettes. The adrenaline. He could do it if he wanted to. She’d be dead for a few seconds, no more. She wouldn’t be invaded by any spirits; Kaun’s ghost wouldn’t be attracted to her; there would be no ‘mental residue.’ Think. Decide. At least pretend that you have a choice.
But Scully was right: they were onstage.
And if Palimpsest wanted him to dance, by God, he was ready to dance.
Scully lay splayed on the sidewalk, breath imperceptibly ragged, eyes darting behind closed lids. Kneeling, Mulder pulled a cigarette from the front pocket of his blazer, poked it tremblingly into Scully’s unconscious mouth and lit it with a flaring snap of thumb against flint. The shaft jutted loosely up from her lips, smoldering. The air crackled with tense electricity. He could hear his own heartbeat. Couldn’t believe he was doing this. It was like a dream. A nightmare where one’s course of action is determined from the very beginning. Mulder checked his watch. Frowned. Watched, careful not to inhale, as a thin tendril of greenish-gray smoke curled up from Scully’s nose and was lost in the dense urban night.
And suddenly, there it was. The characteristic reflex. A twitching of occipital muscle around her lovely eyes. His partner’s body stiffened against the pavement, her cigarette fluttering to the ground.
Scully was dead.
If her soul passed by, he did not feel it.
His brain short-circuited. It was one thing to anticipate this instant, to prepare for it, to obsess, to play and replay the possibilities in his mind—but now she was dead, truly dead, her body growing cold and stiff at his very feet…
Straightening up—the sweat pouring down his face, his flesh-toned makeup dripping—Mulder glanced quickly left and right. The street stretched emptily to either side, neon dangling down from overhanging rooftops in hellish frequency, scarlet light spread across the asphalt like strawberry jam. Christ. His head was pounding. Had to be timed perfectly. Please. Please God. Counting the seconds, staring down at Scully’s motionless form, he groped in his pocket for the pen-syringe; finding it, he pressed the clip—heard the click of a spring—and saw the needle glisten in the darkness. Counted: eight…nine…ten seconds into death. Time. Dropping to his knees, he rolled Scully over, her body limp and unresponsive. She felt dead. Wooden. Like one of the carved figurines in the cathedral altar. Shaking, Mulder’s fingers skittered over her shoulder blades, tore her tank top, exposed mid-back. He began counting vertebrae. Seventeen seconds had passed. Mulder found the proper juncture, placed the needle against Scully’s spine, waited for the twentieth second and rammed it in, depressing the hidden plunger as he did.
Scully’s arms flew to her throat in pseudo-Thornburn position.
Dropping the syringe, he took her cool wrist between his hands, feeling for a pulse. She had been dead for precisely twenty-five seconds. Her fists were clenched. “C’mon, Scully,” he muttered. “Just a little bit more. You can make it.” Thirty seconds. Movement: Scully’s left leg scraped against the cold cement, her knee lifting, spike-heeled shoe slipping from foot and falling to the sidewalk. Mulder felt the whisper of blood in her veins. He riveted himself to that hint of life, seized it, focused on it, massaging the blue pump of her upper arms, murmuring, “It’s been long enough, Scully, you can come back, you can come back…” For a split second he allowed himself to consider what might happen if she failed to awaken, if her brain suffocated and she died like a hooker on this dirty New York street, all for the sake of a secret so monumental, so unimaginable, that he hardly credited its existence…
And then his world exploded.
Men poured from the alleys, a thundering crowd of uniforms advancing thick and frenzied through the street. There were voices, muffled shouts. Thud of three dozen feet on pavement. Peering up from Scully’s body through a haze of confusion and fear, ears ringing from the sudden tumult, Mulder saw a squadron of police officers in starched blue, their broad faces the color of uncooked dough, guns drawn, running down the sidewalk in his direction, flanked by green-robed paramedics in red wraparound sunglasses, swinging blue medical kits in perfect syncopation—but Mulder passed over these men with disinterest, riveted upon the demons in black who led the charge, their eyes blank and expressionless, faces creased with stony anger, bearing down upon him like moths to a candle. Overcoats trailed behind them like the wings of carrion birds. They carried guns. Everyone carried guns. Snap. Click. Brekk-ekk-ekk. The sound of an entire 9 mm arsenal being cocked at once.
Beneath him, Scully gulped. Moved.
The men continued to close in. Mulder rose from Scully’s body, staggering backward on shock-clumsied legs, irrational, his right hand moving of its own accord and groping for his pistol—he would have willingly opened fire, committed suicide then and there—but he was seized from behind by a pair of unimaginably strong arms, pinning his own, holding him back.
Whisper in his ear: “I’m sorry, Agent Mulder. I’m truly sorry.”
X. Mulder kicked, flailed, tried to force his way back to Scully. “Goddammit, you set me up!” he spewed, trying to break X’s iron grip, pry back his fingers, futilely butting his head back into empty air. X remained silent, impassive, condoning Mulder’s struggles but not releasing him.
“There was nothing I could do,” X said.
Mulder watched helplessly as the paramedics surrounded Scully’s motionless form, a wall of sterile green bodies hiding her momentarily from his sight. Suddenly the ranks parted, making room for a wizened figure dressed in ivory scrubs, stethoscope dangling from his collar—and Mulder, with rapidly diminishing disbelief, recognized him. It was the ME he’d met that afternoon. The man who’d performed Janneson’s autopsy.
Kneeling alongside Scully’s body, the ME took a pulse. Frowned. Checked her vital signs, her heartbeat, raised an eyelid and examined the pupil. Took a bulb syringe, inserted the tip into her ear, squeezed—ostensibly ice water, used to test for a basic nervous reflex—but there was no condensation on the surface of the bulb. Mulder couldn’t see whether Scully moved or not. The ME shook his head, stethoscope swaying from side to side. “She’s dead.”
“No!” Mulder screamed. “No! She’s alive! I saw her move!”
The men in black, paying him no attention, encircled the paramedics, drawing closer to Scully’s body, their eyes impassive, filmed with exaggerated concern—and suddenly, Mulder understood. He knew what was happening and struggled even harder, X’s fingers digging into the meat of his biceps as he strained to wrench himself free, tendons standing out against his neck like ropy cords.
Because of the ME’s declaration, Scully would be deemed legally dead, with dozens of witnesses ready to implicate Mulder in her murder. Once the police had arrested him and cleared the scene, Scully would be zipped into a body bag, slid into an ambulance and hauled to the morgue—where Palimpsest could claim her, take her away, and use her however they wished. They had won. There was nothing he could do. He tried to wrest himself from X’s grip, wriggle free, a Herculean effort, but it was no good. His arms ached. His brain ached. Rage thundered through his body. He watched with desperation as police approached, jaws set into grim lines of condemnation. Flash of handcuffs. Guns drawn. He stopped struggling, knowing that if he were killed while resisting arrest, Palimpsest’s plan would be brought to perfect fruition; head lowered, he stared at Scully’s body as the bracelets snapped shut around his wrists, great shuddering currents of despair drowning him where he stood—
—and then Scully opened her eyes.
Her hand shot up from the ground. She seized the ME by the collar, ripping the stethoscope from his neck, pulling him to his knees until they were eye to eye. Face to face. Her voice was disdainful. She spat, “I’ve been pronounced dead by better coroners than you.”
She shoved him away. The ME fell back heavily to the sidewalk, gasping, glancing in disbelief between Scully and the bulb syringe in his other hand—and Mulder, in a flash of insight, realized that the syringe had contained some kind of synthetic opiate, intended to knock Scully unconscious until she could be revived by Palimpsest. It hadn’t worked.
And now Scully was standing, incredibly, she was standing under her own power, slightly unsteady but firm on her feet, her knees scraped and slightly bleeding. She extended a hand—and the flock of paramedics parted like water. She glanced in Mulder’s direction—and the policemen slowly withdrew from his side. His handcuffs clicked open, fell to the ground. X released him. Even the men in black seemed shocked, bewildered, as Scully staggered boldly towards her partner, her hair tangled, eyes wide and blue and utterly devoid of emotion.
He met her halfway. It was several moments before he could speak, gripping her by the shoulders, mouth opening and closing dumbly. Around them, the throngs of men seemed to retreat into the shadows, backing away, more silent than death, watching wordlessly as Mulder gaped and tried to find words.
It was then that Mulder saw the stigmata.
The message was written in letters no larger than the thumbnail of his little finger, redder than blood itself, running along the lower curve of Scully’s jaw, her neck, until they disappeared beneath one pink strap. Neat, crisp handwriting that he didn’t recognize. For a few seconds, the writing was blurred, unreadable, his eyes going out of focus…until words finally coalesced out of the sanguine neon haze.
The stigmata read: I’VE BEEN PRONOUNCED DEAD BY BETTER CORONERS THAN YOU.
“Scully…” Mulder croaked. “You’re all right.”
“Of course I’m all right,” she replied, raising a hand to her forehead and brushing back a stray strand of hair. As she did, Mulder saw more scarlet text running along the back of her hand, from the knobby bone of her wrist to the knuckle of her middle finger, spiraling and curving across her skin in psychosomatic calligraphy: OF COURSE I’M ALL RIGHT.
“What happened?” Mulder asked. He looked briefly away from the words on Scully’s body, glanced over her shoulder onto the street—and saw that they were alone again. Breeze gusted across the emptiness. The policemen, the paramedics, the men in black, even X: all had disappeared. “What’s going on?” he demanded. “Where did they go?”
“They can’t touch us now, Mulder,” Scully said calmly. “Trust me.”
Along the plumpness of her left shoulder: THEY CAN’T TOUCH US NOW—and then the strap intervened, hiding the remainder of the message. He touched the words lightly. They burned with a hot inner fire, tender, almost glowing. She winced at the pressure of his fingers, pushed his hand away—but when she looked back up at him, her smile was warm and affectionate and quite genuine, almost beatific, befitting the face of an angel.
And he saw that her eyes had turned black.
End of (18/18)
To be continued…
(This story is dedicated to Kavitha, who doesn’t watch “The X-Files.”)
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