Fata Morgana by Julie Fortune

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Fata Morgana by Julie Fortune

Fata Morgana cover

Fata Morgana

By Julie Fortune

Disclaimer: I have absolutely no right to use these characters, just an abiding admiration for the creative work of the cast and crew of X-Files. All rights to all characters within this story are owned by Fox (that’s television, not Mulder) and the fine folks who created and slaved over this series. Although the story is original, it is a “derivative work” and I claim no copyright. No profits are made in any way in the writing or distribution of the work. It is written solely for creative enjoyment.

XXXX

From a great distance, she heard Fox Mulder scream.

Dana Scully jerked awake and in the same second knew Mulder hadn’t screamed, wasn’t dying, his blood wasn’t on her hands. Just a dream, another damned dream. The breath she sucked in tasted like blood, but then that faded and it was only the stale cigarette-ghost smell of the rental car. When she moved her feet, fast food bags crunched like dry leaves. She was shaking, chilled, and under her hair the back of her neck was damp with sweat. She leaned back into the seat, aching with the vibration of the road, and tried to slow down her pounding heartbeat.

Mulder was watching her. He was watching her more than the dark, empty road that stretched out in the headlights.

“You okay?” he eventually asked. She nodded. The yellow line snaked into curves, and he had to put his attention back to it, correcting their slide into the oncoming traffic lane with a gentle push to the right.

Because he was Mulder, because he knew her as well as anyone could know her, he didn’t push. The silence was a kind of caress between them, as intimate as the way two other people might have shared secrets.

Her throat felt dry, scratchy with unreleased screams. She reached down for her soft drink, still in the cupholder between them. Mulder held out his hand in a don’t-do-it shake.

“Water with Diet Coke flavoring. You’ll just end up making that face, and then I might drive off the road into a tree.”

“How long was I asleep?” It hadn’t seemed long, a couple of minutes, maybe a half-hour. Mulder’s dark eyes slid sideways toward her but didn’t quite connect.

“Three hours,” he said. Which meant she’d slept through her shift in the driver’s seat. He shrugged at the silent accusation. “You looked like you needed it.”

She wished she could talk to Mulder about her dreams, but even though she knew he’d listen, knew he’d give her the benefit of that brilliant mind and all his psychological training, she didn’t really want Mulder looking inside her head that way. He saw too much as it was.

“How’s our time?” she asked, and peered at her watch.

“Good. We should be in Gallagher in another hour or so, and believe me, the first stop is for coffee.” He stretched, as much as a tall long-legged man could in a mid-size rental car. She was struck with the thought that Mulder was just as tired as she was. He’d been rousted out of bed, too, and gotten stuck with six hours of night driving on back country blacktop.

“Hey, Scully,” he said, and drew her gaze. His never left the road, but she felt the warmth of his attention. “You know if you want to tell me about it — “

She shook her head mutely and looked out the window at the shadows of trees, the clouds scudding overhead, the harsh white moon. Part of her was still in the dream, sobbing, screaming for rescue, screaming for Mulder. She couldn’t let him know that.

Ever.

###

“Civilization at last,” Mulder said, deadpan. Gallagher, Ohio was a wide spot in the road, brightened by the neon lights of a 7- Eleven store and a single Exxon station. Everything else was dark — but then it would be, at 2 a.m. Gallagher probably closed up shop, except for the all-important Wal-Mart, at nine o’clock. Mulder’s priority of coffee was rapidly being replaced by an urgent need for a men’s room. He headed for the 7-Eleven.

“I hope there’s a motel,” Scully said. “I hope it’s better than the last one.”

Mulder devoutly hoped so too. Finding used condoms under the bed had not been his finest moment of the trip, especially given Scully’s arch expression. Not even a smile when she said fast work, you’ve only been in town an hour.

“Sheriff Potter said there was a place just outside of town. Family-run.”

“So was the Bates Motel.”

Mulder pulled the car in to a coasting stop in the convenience store parking lot, killed the engine and stretched. On second thought, he decided he could wait on the men’s room. What he could see of the store interior didn’t look very inviting. “Tell you what, buy me a coffee and a Twinkie and I’ll stand guard while you shower.”

She gave him a dark look. On reflection, given the strange emotional territory between them, he decided he’d better not push it on the innuendoes. Since that near kiss — it had been nearly a kiss, not just wishful thinking — she’d withdrawn from him, been much more rigidly Agent Scully and far less Dana. He understood that. He just flat-out hated it. He hated that his hormones had gotten in the way of a partnership that he needed, desperately, to work.

He mostly hated that she wouldn’t even tell him what was making her whimper and flinch in her dreams, because she no longer trusted him that far.

“Scully.” She paused, her door slightly ajar, and an alarm chimed softly to give him a music cue. “Listen — “

“Later.” She bailed on him, slammed the car door and strode up the door of the convenience store. A green and white height scale reminded him how small she really was — tiny, really, to hold that much force of personality. That much pain. He had to get her to talk about it, somehow. He just hadn’t figured out how to casually work the subject around … hey, Scully, let’s have a latte, rap about those serial killer mutilation nightmares you’ve been having …

He rolled down the window and called after her, “Hey, don’t forget the Twinkies!”

She was still shooting him a dirty look when she reached for the door handle and behind her Mulder saw a flash of movement in the store.

The barrel of a gun.

It all happened so fast.

So unbelievably fast.

The plate glass exploded in a crystal shower. The sound of the shotgun blast sounded like the whole world exploding. Mulder lunged across the seat, threw open Scully’s door, landed on the harsh oil-streaked gravel and clawed his gun free of its holster.

And then he had time to think, just for a bare second, Scully was standing in front of the door …

He could see her lying there on the other side of the car, half-off of the concrete slab in front of the doors. One of her hands lay outstretched, the fingers turned up like flower petals. They were trembling. He couldn’t see her face, only the wild flare of her red hair and the pale line of her neck.

The shotgun roared again, shattering the other glass door. Get to Scully. Get to her now!

But he couldn’t. The cold fact was that if he tried he was dead. Mulder took a deep breath, got his legs under him and launched himself from the car into the hard brick shadow of the side of the building. That was worse. He could see her now in the bright lights from the store, her eyes open and wide, staring up at the empty sky.

He could see the blood soaking her blouse and jacket and beginning to spread out on the filthy concrete around her.

He dragged his gaze away from her and risked a quick look into the store. No one in sight. Maybe he could reach out and hook her pants leg —

He slammed himself back against the wall when a flicker of shadow moved across the lights. It was possible — just — that the gunman didn’t know he was there. If he didn’t know, he might get careless.

A footstep scraped on broken glass.

The gunman was coming out.

Mulder brought his weapon up, turned sideways and waited, waited like a lion at the waterhole as the slick black barrel of the shotgun emerged from the store, lifted to test the air like a living thing. Come out. Come out, you bastard.

Scully gasped in a breath and blinked her eyes. Blood leaked out of the corner of her mouth. She wasn’t looking at the gunman, wasn’t looking at anything, really, except the pale uncaring moon overhead.

The shotgun lowered to focus on her.

Mulder knew that he was going to watch that shotgun blast apart her ribcage at close range.

He heard himself scream, from a long distance away, “Federal agent, throw down your weapon!” At the same time, he pushed away from the building, looking for an angle on the shooter, anything at all. He was exposing himself to fire, but it didn’t matter anymore. Nothing mattered anymore.

The gunman brought the shotgun up, startled, and for a second Mulder felt the hot stare of it right on him.

And then he fired, the explosion loud in his ears, the kick of the gun like a hard punch. He fired five times and it was only as he pulled the trigger for the last time that he realized the boy he was firing at couldn’t have been more than twelve years old, just a kid, just a goddamn kid.

And then the boy was dead, lying on the polished store floor, half his head gone.

###

“Agent Mulder?”

Shock had come and gone, left him feeling aches in every muscle. It was mid-morning now, and he hadn’t slept; his eyes felt like globs of jelly rolled in broken glass. When he reached out for the cup of coffee being held out to him, his fingers shook badly.

The man who’d brought the drink sat down next to him. Fit, neat, and well-scrubbed, dressed in the standard dark suit and tie with his FBI ID prominently displayed. No, not a man, a kid, couldn’t have seen the dark side of thirty yet. On a normal day, Mulder might have made a joke about that.

There were no jokes in him now.

“I’m Agent Vernon,” the kid said. “Joe.”

It took Mulder a second to realize that he was expected to shake hands. He did it without feeling as if he’d actually touched anything at all. Everything seemed wrapped in plastic, the light just a little off, reality not quite real enough.

“Special Agent Mulder,” he said. Vernon nodded.

“Yes sir, I know. Listen, your AD sent me up from the Resident Agency to give you some help. He’d have come himself, but he’s in the middle of congressional hearings.”

Skinner. Mulder closed his eyes. He couldn’t think about all of the bureaucracy, all the paperwork, all the whispers. Skinner, he trusted. Nobody else. And Skinner wasn’t here.

“Thanks,” he said aloud. “Nothing really to help me with, though. Just have to wait.”

“Well …” Vernon sounded as if he really didn’t want to say something obvious. “There’s the shooting.”

“What about it?”

“Well, Agent Mulder, you shot and killed a thirteen year old boy.”

He’d actually succeeded in forgetting that. He’d been wallowing in the misery of having sent Scully alone into that store to die, and he’d forgotten about the kick of the gun in his hand. The wide-eyed look of innocent astonishment on the face of the boy as a nine millimeter bullet blew his heart in half, and blew chunks of skull and brains out over the floor.

Memory came roaring back with the force of a piledriver.

“I killed a criminal who’d already killed the store clerk and gravely wounded another agent.” His lips felt numb when he said it. There wasn’t anything he could think about safely. Not Scully, not the shooting, nothing.

Vernon shook his head. “He was thirteen years old. You don’t think the extremists are going to be all over the Bureau for this? Nobody’s forgotten Ruby Ridge and Waco. FBI agents killing kids are news. Big news.”

Mulder finally raised his head and looked at him. Vernon was a local boy, he figured, somebody born and raised in the Ohio Valley. Open, honest features and enough naivete to fill a swimming hole.

“It’s going to get ugly,” Vernon said. “Very ugly, sir. And you need to be prepared.”

Mulder almost laughed. There was a feeling in his chest, something like panic and terror and rage all twisted up together.

“You don’t know the half of it,” he said. “Agent Opie.”

Agent Opie opened his mouth to protest, but just then the double doors at the end of the hall hissed open and a gaggle of doctors in bloodstained greens walked out. They were walking slowly, not talking; nobody looked happy. Mulder rose slowly to his feet as the doctors broke up into separate groups.

One of them met his eyes and headed his direction. A woman, medium height, overweight, with light brown hair and tired eyes that had seen too much.

“Dr. Reislinger,” she said, and extended her hand. “Agent Mulder, right?”

“How is she?” He couldn’t stop the question. The doctor’s face seemed unnaturally guarded.

“Does she have any family …”

“How is she?” Too much volume. His hands were shaking again. The coffee Vernon had handed him was gone, he couldn’t remember what he’d done with it.

“Let’s sit down, Agent Mulder.” She somehow got him to do that, sat next to him in the worn maroon chairs and leaned forward in a way he knew was supposed to inspire warmth and credibility.

“Is she dead?” There, he’d asked it, the worst out first. Her dark eyes met his, and for a breathless second he thought she was going to gently tell him yes.

“No,” Dr. Reislinger said. “No, she’s alive, but she’s critical. She lost a lot of blood, and she sustained damage to her spleen, liver and intestinal tract. She also sustained a very serious skull fracture when her head hit the pavement, and there’s swelling in her brain. Should she recover from that, the other problems are survivable, but there is also damage to her spinal cord. It’s possible that she may lose the use of her legs.”

The doctor’s face went out of focus, and Mulder felt lightheaded, as if the whole world had just taken an express elevator down a hundred stories. He breathed in, but there didn’t seem to be any oxygen. No gravity, no oxygen, no hope.

Just pain.

“What now?” he managed to say, just as if there was a future somewhere out there on the horizon, as if the sun was going to go down and come back up in the morning and there would be another day of normal life.

“If Ms. Scully has any family, I’d suggest that you consult with them,” Dr. Reislinger said. “There are some decisions that may need to be made for her, and only her family can make them. Unless you — “

“No. No, I’m not family.” Mulder was conscious of Vernon’s eyes boring into him, and swallowed what felt like a mouthful of acid. “I’ll get hold of her mother.”

Not family. He wondered what Scully would say to that; what they’d been through together in the past seven years made mere blood relatives seem like nodding acquaintances. He knew her brother resented him for that, and he sometimes thought Scully’s mother did too. He’d taken Scully away from them.

Now he’d taken her away for good.

The doctor said some other things that were probably meant to help, and finally went away. He sat in silence, staring at the textured wall, until Agent Vernon physically shook him out of it.

Vernon said something Mulder didn’t bother to hear. Mulder turned, looked at him, and told him to fuck off. He thought he said it fairly calmly, but Vernon flinched and backed away to huddle with his cell phone and whisper. Mulder stood up and fished for his own phone. As he looked at the screen he saw that the last call he’d made on it had been a speed dial to Scully’s home number. Hey, Scully, you up for a midnight drive to Nowhere, Ohio?

He sat down again, fast, and put his head in his hands. Tried to breathe.

He was still sitting there, in exactly the same position, fifteen minutes later when he heard somebody call him by name.

“Mulder?”

A woman’s voice, soft. Scully. He jerked upright and saw her standing in front of him for a split second before she morphed into a taller, older woman with honey-blonde hair caught in a ponytail at the base of her neck. A face with experience and strength.

A cop’s hard, guarded eyes.

“I’m Rowena Cooper,” she said. She didn’t offer her hand, only the badge. “Detective Cooper, Ohio State Police. We need to talk. Follow me.”

###

He’d killed someone whose last picture had been a seventh- grade school photo.

Mulder stared down at the smiling face and saw that the boy’s teeth were a little crooked, his hair not quite smoothed down. It made an appealing combination, a kind of Huck Finn effect complete with freckles across his nose. Dark hair, green eyes. Mulder remembered the eyes, vividly.

“His name is Russell Thomas Travers,” Cooper said. “His father’s an accountant with Goodyear, his mother’s a graphic designer working for a consulting firm. Two sisters, six and four.”

He didn’t want to know, but for some reason he felt like he should know. How could you kill a kid and not know his middle name? His favorite baseball team?

But how could you know and stay sane?

“Did the kid have a criminal record?” Agent Vernon asked. He sounded hopeful. Cooper crushed that hope like a cockroach under her sensible shoes.

“He was clean as a whistle. In fact, he was an A-B student, active in the honors program, played trombone. Never talked back to the teachers. Never disciplined at home. No drugs. Nothing except your testimony that this otherwise perfect kid went on a shotgun spree.”

She was angry, Mulder knew. She had a right to be. She was the one who had to look the parents in the eye and explain that their little Russell had shotgunned a store clerk to death, nearly killed an FBI agent, and taken five rounds in the chest and head.

Thirteen. Mulder knew it was true, but somehow he couldn’t quite connect the dots yet. There was the memory in his head of the kid dying, there was this cute school photo in his hand. The two didn’t match.

Except they did.

An honor student died for — what was it? — one hundred thirteen dollars and seventy-eight cents. It had been in the pocket of his jacket, soaked with blood from his chest wounds.

A Cleveland Indians jacket. Now Mulder knew his favorite baseball team, too.

“I’d like to hear your version of events,” Cooper said. She’d brought him a cup of coffee, too. Everybody was bringing him coffee. He thought wildly about the Twinkies he’d sent Scully into that store to get. He could suddenly taste the cloying sweetness, and it tasted like rot.

Agent Vernon tried to referee while he struggled not to gag. “Hold on, let’s not get adversarial, detective. Agent Mulder’s been through one hell of a night, and his partner’s barely clinging to life.”

She ignored Agent Opie and focused hard on Mulder. “Why were you in Gallagher?” she asked.

“We were assigned a case,” Mulder said. “We were supposed to interview a man named Kevin Lowe.”

“About?” Cooper’s tone was carefully neutral. She was taking notes.

“About the unexplained healing of at least four accident victims at the local hospital three weeks ago. One of them had already been pronounced dead, two were not expected to live, and the fourth had sustained so much damage that they had tagged him for organ harvest. And four hours later, all four of them went home.”

Cooper had a good cop face. It didn’t so much as twitch.

“That’s an FBI matter?”

“That’s what we were sent to find out,” Mulder said. “We left Washington at eight p.m. last night and drove straight through until we stopped at the convenience store in Gallagher. We were planning to book rooms at the motel outside of town and start the interviews tomorrow.”

Cooper made a long scritch-scratch of notes. He watched her do it. She glanced up at him, then back down at her pages. Here it comes, he thought. And here it came. She said, “Go on. Let’s talk about the convenience store.”

He recited it faithfully, factually, as if it was just another case report. He only broke stride once, when he looked down and saw that there were still dirty brown crescents of Scully’s blood under his fingernails.

“Agent Mulder?” Cooper prodded him. He folded his hands together on top of the table.

“I only had one chance to keep him from killing Agent Scully while she was down,” he said. “I put myself in his line of fire and I returned fire. Five rounds.”

“Five rounds,” Cooper repeated. “Four to the chest, one to the head. I saw the wounds, Agent. He couldn’t have presented any kind of a threat after the shot that exploded his heart, given that the kid weighed about 80 pounds soaking wet.”

He knew how that was going to play on the evening news. And CNN. And in the Washington Post. Cooper got tired of waiting for his defense, and said, with cool precision, “I talked to some people I know. Word is that you and your partner have been in and out of disciplinary hearings for years. You’re been reprimanded more than any other agent in the Bureau who still has a badge.”

Silence was still the only possible answer. She was fishing for a reaction.

“You were in a mental institution, weren’t you, Agent Mulder?”

He shut his eyes briefly, opened them, took a deliberately slow sip of coffee. “Detective Cooper, he may have been thirteen, but he tried to kill my partner. For all I know, he succeeded. Nothing we’re going to say will change what happened yesterday.”

“Today,” Detective Cooper said. He stared at her blankly. “It happened at two a.m. today.”

Not even twenty-four hours.

The kid was barely cold.

He sipped coffee again and suddenly his stomach clenched violently, he felt hot and dizzy and revoltingly disoriented. He mumbled something and stood up. Cooper tried to stop him. He shoved her out of the way, made it out into the hallway, found the bathroom more out of some primitive instinct than from a real cognitive process.

When he was done expelling coffee and bile, he ran his head under cold water until he stopped shaking, until he could get his breathing under control and stop the tears that kept coming and coming in waves, like a drowning sea.

He was still wiping moisture from his face when Agent Vernon looked cautiously in the door, nodded to him, and said, “The doc wants to see you.”

Mulder already knew it wasn’t good; Agent Opie just wasn’t cut out for secrets. He nodded, folded the paper towel carefully into a neat packet, and followed the other man out into the hallway.

Dr. Reislinger was back, looking severe and tense. She nodded to Mulder and said, “Mind if we walk?”

“Fine.” He fell in beside her, leaving Vernon and Cooper behind. Reislinger was a relative short woman, but she set a brisk pace, and he didn’t have to moderate his stride too much. “Where are we going?”

“I don’t know about you, but I need some coffee.”

He almost smiled. “I’ll pass.”

She led him to a small alcove that was obviously the jealously guarded domain of hospital staff; not a patient or family member in sight. She poured herself a cup of what looked like tar. He was glad he’d exceeded his maximum coffee requirements.

“You didn’t walk me down here for cappuccino,” he said. Though he didn’t want to hear it any more than he sensed she was eager to say it. She fiddled with her coffee, added cream, added sugar, stirred. Didn’t sip.

“It’s bad,” she said bluntly. “We lost her pulse three times in the last hour, and we’ve had to intubate to keep her breathing. We shocked her back, but it took longer each time. I’ve been doing this a while, Agent Mulder, and I have to tell you that I can’t be very optimistic about her situation. She’s weak and getting weaker, and the swelling in her brain is seriously compromising her autonomic functions.”

“She’s dying,” he said. He wasn’t looking at Reislinger. Wasn’t especially looking at anything at the moment. Nothing seemed very important.

Reislinger didn’t confirm, but she didn’t deny either. He pulled in a sharp, hurting breath and said, “I guess I’d better call her family.”

“I’ve already talked to her family,” she said. “That’s why I’m talking to you. I don’t think they’ll let me keep you updated once they arrive. In fact, they didn’t want you to be allowed to see her at all.”

“They?” Mulder asked numbly.

“Her brother.” Reislinger’s dark eyes were sharp and gentle. “Speaking for the family.”

God, it was amazing how much that hurt. He tried to swallow it. “I understand. I’d better go — “

“You’d better go in to see her,” Reislinger corrected quietly, “before they arrive. I’ve been doing this long enough to know who’s family and who isn’t, Agent Mulder. No matter what the legal realities may be.”

He couldn’t help it, he leaned over and kissed her gently on the cheek. She smelled of strong soap and a light ginger perfume, and when he straightened up he saw a slight flush gathering in her cheeks. She looked severe and not quite sincere about it.

“Thanks, doc,” he said, and went to see Scully.

###

It was worse than he expected. There was no Scully under those bandages, those tubes, that swollen discolored flesh. He’d seen her in a hospital bed before, God, too many times, but never like this. Never so … damaged.

When he held her hand it was hot and dry, as if her engine was redlining.

He didn’t speak. He couldn’t. There was nothing he could say that she didn’t already understand. He put her hot, limp hand to his cheek and held it there, feeling the thin pulsebeat, listening to the losing struggle of her heart.

I’m losing you, he thought. Of all of the things he’d faced in his years with the X-Files, all the monsters and aliens and sheer human evil, this was the bottom of the depths of pain.

I’m really losing you this time.

He reached in his pocket for the coarse brown folded towel he’d saved for the occasion, and didn’t fight the grief any more.

###

He left before the nurses reminded him more than twice that his visiting allotment was up. Detective Cooper and Agent Vernon hovered waiting like spiders ready to pounce. Cooper stepped forward in his path.

“Let’s go, sir,” she said. He headed for the elevators, but she tugged on his arm to stop him. He looked down at her with a kind of blank annoyance. “I don’t think you want to go out the front. Press.”

He nodded, understanding at last how bad this was going to get.

Or so he thought.

###

Detective Cooper drove through the loading dock area, out through a restricted emergency vehicle only lot, and from the side window Mulder caught the view of the mob at the front of the hospital steps. His stomach clenched.

“Congratulations,” Cooper said tightly. “Seventeen news trucks, last I counted. Maybe thirty, forty reporters. We haven’t had anything like this in Gallagher. Ever.”

She picked up her radio and reported they were coming in. Agent Vernon leaned forward, too late to stop her, and said, “They’ll be monitoring your frequencies.”

“Shit.” She didn’t sound very sorry about it, Mulder thought. “We’ll take you in through the back.”

She meant, through the prisoner entrance. There were a lot of network news crews; they’d know where to set up their second camera. There was no escaping it.

Mulder glanced at Vernon, then shook his head. “I’ll go in the front.”

Cooper didn’t turn her head, but he saw her cold eyes glance at him in the mirror. Skinner wouldn’t approve, but the hell with it, Mulder knew his career was over now, and anyway it wasn’t his career he was thinking of now, but Scully’s life, and a boy’s grieving family. It was cowardly to duck and cover.

He’d been a lot of things, but he’d never been a coward.

“I’ll go in the front,” he repeated, and settled in for the short drive.

###

A montage of screaming faces, shouted questions. Individuals dissolved into the boiling mass of suits, microphones, cameras. A few of Gallagher’s finest tried to shove the press back in line, but they’d never dealt with this kind of thing before, and the news teams knew it.

Mulder went up five steps, turned, and faced the mob. Beside him, Detective Cooper looked more like an arresting officer than a liaison.

“I have a statement,” he said. He didn’t say it very loudly, but he got their immediate attention. Cameras clicked and whirred, and a hush descended. “At two a.m. this morning, my partner, FBI Special Agent Dana Scully, was gravely wounded during the robbery of a convenience store. She had no warning, no chance to defend herself. Her assailant tried to kill her while she was on the ground, and I was forced to fire to protect her. I deeply regret the pain that the family of Russell Thomas Travers is feeling right now, and if there had been any other option, I would have taken it.”

He paused. Flashbulbs strobed in a steady disco rhythm. He picked one face out of the abstract swirl and pointed at her, a slender African-American woman with makeup too perfect to be anything but network news.

“Special Agent Mulder, did you talk to the boy before you fired at him? Did you ask him to surrender?”

“Yes,” Mulder said flatly. “He came out of the store with his shotgun aimed at my partner’s chest, and I identified myself as a federal agent and asked him to drop his weapon. He tried to fire on me instead.”

A scruffy-looking fellow who fit the mold of newspaper reporter better than television anchor pressed into the gap. “Is there any truth to the rumors that there were no fingerprints found on the shotgun lying beside him, and that it’s a model commonly used by law enforcement officers?” Implying, of course, that it was a throw-down. Mulder, even numbed as he was, felt a twinge of angry outrage. He pushed it away, because the worst thing he could do was look angry right now.

“I’m not involved in the forensic aspects of the investigation,” Mulder said. “I can tell you that FBI agents carry sidearms but not shotguns during routine investigations.”

“Isn’t it true that you were recently under treatment for mental illness?”

“That’s enough,” Agent Vernon said, and stepped in front of him. “We’ll give you another statement shortly. Thank you.”

It set off a firestorm of protest. Cooper hustled him up the remaining stairs, into the relative calm of a generic 1970s institutional lobby, deserted except for some sagging chairs and aging magazines. Cooper stopped and regarded him for a few seconds, then nodded.

“That went about as well as it could,” she said. “Follow me.”

They passed through double doors, into a bullpen area with the Sheriff’s Department logo done in governmental splendor on the wall. A few men and women hovered and tried to look as if they weren’t gawking. Cooper walked him straight back to what was unquestionably an interview room. He looked the room over and chose the chair that he knew they wanted him to take, the one where the hidden camera and one-way mirror would have the best view of him.

Vernon didn’t come in. He’d stopped to talk into his cell phone again. Mulder spread his hands flat on the table, looked at Cooper, and said, “I understand you’re angry at me. I understand you feel like I’ve come into this town and ripped it to pieces. But I only came here to find the truth.”

“The truth?” She looked at him oddly.

“About what happened over at the hospital the other night. When those people were healed.”

She laughed, but it was sounded like a dry and choked her into silence. She shook her head, and turned away from him. He glanced at the two-way mirror and wondered for whose benefit they were playing the scene.

“What can you tell me about the people who were injured?”

Cooper shook her head. “You’re kidding me. Your partner’s breathing through a tube and you’re still asking questions like this?”

I have to, Mulder thought. Otherwise it’s all just insanity. Scully dying for nothing. He didn’t say it to Cooper’s hard, unyielding face.

“Who are you protecting?” he asked. That cracked her shield a bit, and this time she glanced at the mirror. “Who sent you to get me?”

A soft three-count knock on the blind window, and Cooper’s head turned that direction, then quickly back to him. “Wait here.”

She went to the door, but someone got there first. An older woman with elegant iron-gray hair, clear eyes the color of a winter sky but with a glint of humor and gentleness. Laugh lines at her eyes and mouth. Middle age hadn’t diminished her sense of dignity and beauty.

She spare Cooper a smile and a squeeze of her hand, and walked over to the table to take a seat. Mulder looked from her to Cooper, then back again.

“Mrs. Cooper, I presume?” he asked. She smiled.

“My daughter told me you were here to investigate Dr. Lowe.” The smile faded. “I’d like very much to help you.”

“With respect, ma’am, how can you help me?”

She took a picture out of her pocket and passed it over. Mulder found himself looking at a middle-aged man, not very striking. Nothing of any note about him at all.

“Kevin Lowe,” she said. “That’s the man you came to Gallagher to investigate.”

Mulder nodded, looked up, and waited for the rest.

“You were looking for the four people that came out of his clinic miraculously healed,” she said. “Rowena? Would you mind?”

Detective Cooper passed over a battered manila folder thick with reports and photographs. Mulder opened it on an overexposed color picture of a tangle of wreckage, a rainy road, sputtering flares.

“Five cars involved,” Mrs. Cooper said. “Nobody’s fault, really. The truck blew a tire, hit oil on the road, and spun out into oncoming traffic. Poor Mr. Jarrison — the driver of the truck — was killed instantly. The four patients you’re talking about came out of this wreck.”

He turned the page, and the names caught his eye before Detective Cooper — Cooper the younger — even began to speak.

“Russell Thomas Travers and his father were two of them.”

Mulder’s lips formed a word, but he didn’t let it out. She continued to watch his face, and said, “The driver of the rental car was Gareth Appel. Look at the next page.”

The next page was a police report. He scanned it as Rowena gave him the highlights.

“Appel went into the hospital with a massive chest injury and an open skull fracture, good as dead, and he walked out with nothing but bruises four hours later. He was fine. Then two nights ago he stabbed himself to death in front of a crowd of witnesses at the Dairy Mart. No warning. No reason. Just — ” She stopped, driven into helpless silence.

Across the table from him, her mother looked down at her hands. Mulder turned the page, flipped past the body photo of Appel with the handle of a carving knife still protruding from his eye. He paused at the next photo, the one that showed the smashed wreckage of a car and two bodies being pulled from it. One of them had no head. The other one —

He had a cold premonition about what she was going to say before Detective Cooper said it.

“My father died instantly,” Cooper said. “My mother flat-lined on the way to the hospital.”

“Mrs. Cooper — ” Mulder began. She held up a hand to stop him.

“Sophia, please,” she said. “Dr. Lowe brought me back, he healed me, the way he healed Gareth Appel and Russell Travers and his father. I was dead, Agent Mulder. And he healed me.”

There was more dread in her voice than awe. He looked at her hands. They were trembling. She closed them into solid fists, but they still shook.

“Gareth was the first. Last time I talked to him, he told me he had these nightmares — visions. Feelings he couldn’t control. That was less than three hours before he killed himself. And that poor, poor little boy — he wasn’t a killer, Agent Mulder. I’ve known him all his life, and I know his gentleness and kindness. There’s something wrong. There’s something wrong with us. The four of us.”

Mulder let out his breath. “I need to talk to Dr. Lowe.”

“I’d like to talk to him too,” Detective Cooper said. “Unfortunately, Dr. Lowe doesn’t want to talk to me. He hasn’t answered any pages, and he’s on down time from the hospital. I’ve tried his home and office. Nothing.”

“How do you feel?” Mulder asked Sophia Cooper bluntly. She looked back at him out of those cool, clear eyes.

“Afraid,” she said. “Strange. Maybe I’m just waiting to feel something that’ll never happen, maybe it’s all just paranoia. But it wasn’t paranoia the night I died, Agent Mulder. I remember what it felt like. I remember feeling something in my head, something awful. And I can’t help but feel that it hasn’t gone away. I think it’s just biding its time.”

Rowena Cooper leaned over her mother and put her arms around her. Sophia pulled in a deep, wavering breath and managed a brave smile.

“Mom stays here,” Detective Cooper said. “I want her where people can keep an eye on her. The two of us can go see the fourth victim. Mr. Travers.”

“The three of us,” said Agent Vernon. Vernon had come in quietly — for a farm boy from Iowa, he was lightfooted. He handed his cell phone to Mulder. “AD Skinner for you.”

It was a short conversation, not very warm. Mulder hadn’t expected it to be. Skinner couldn’t blame him, but he was tense and worried and on the edge of not believing his story. Mulder understood that. He might not have believed it himself, at the other end of a phone line.

“Do you want me out there?” Skinner asked at last. “Show of support?”

“No, sir, better to keep your distance. Just in case the Good Ship Mulder finally goes down with all hands.”

As the Good Ship Scully was sinking, sinking into a darkness where light wasn’t even a hope or memory.

“Stay afloat, Mulder,” Skinner said. “She needs you.”

Skinner hadn’t asked about Scully. Mulder knew that he would have already been on the phone to the hospital, finding out the truth. Finding out that Scully was going to die.

No goodbyes. There seldom were, with Skinner, lack of manners or simple laser intensity. Mulder folded the phone and handed it back to Vernon. No thanks, no apologies, no sympathies, no goodbyes.

There were times when he missed those luxuries.

Scully, I need you.

“Let’s go,” he said.

###

Lewis Travers looked less like an accountant than an end-stage junkie, or at least that was Mulder’s immediate impression when the man opened the door of his neat little brick home. Dressed in a threadbare robe, white t-shirt and boxer shorts, Travers stood and looked at them and — there was no other word for it – – vibrated. Mulder had seen PCP users who’d been calmer.

Travers’ eyes were raccooned, like a man who hadn’t slept for days, maybe weeks. A dark stubble of beard roughened his face, but it was those eyes — burning, Nostradamus eyes — that gave Mulder such a chill.

That, and the blood on his hands.

“Lew?” Detective Cooper had gone very pale, very still. She drew her sidearm in a gentle, quiet motion and held it down at her side. “Lew, it’s Detective Cooper. Is that blood?”

“Huh?” Travers looked around. A red drop glittered on his glasses, slid down and dripped on his white t-shirt. “Where?”

“On your hands, Mr. Travers.” Mulder had drawn his gun, too, but he followed Cooper’s lead and kept it pointed down. “You have blood on your hands.”

He looked down, shrugged, and wiped them on his t-shirt. Bright red smears, handprints. When he was finished, Mulder’s chill had become a real cold shiver down his spine.

“It’s okay,” Travers said. “It’s not mine.”

He turned and walked away, into the house. Cooper exchanged a stark look with Mulder, then nodded and opened the screen door to follow. Gun up, Mulder noted.

“Jesus,” Agent Vernon said quietly.

“If only,” Mulder said, and followed Cooper in.

It took a couple of seconds for his eyes to adjust, because the house was dim. No lights, just what filtered in past drawn blinds and curtains. He saw Cooper’s pale jacket up ahead and took like strides to catch up. It was a closed hall, no doors, so he could afford to move quickly.

“My boy’s dead,” Travers said. His voice echoed strangely along the polished wood floor. Mulder came to a halt next to Cooper and blinked as Cooper switched on the overhead light.

They were looking at what, a few hours ago, had probably been a comfortable family room. A gas fireplace in the corner, a big- screen TV, modest stereo system, lots of books. Comfortable furniture with signs of use and abuse.

In the middle of the floor, a golden retriever lay in a darkening pool of blood. There was a carving knife on the carpet next to the body.

“My son’s dog,” Travers said, still in that eerie, empty voice. Still fidgeting, jittering like a man cranked up on coke, even while sitting on the couch. He bounced his leg, bounced it faster, his heel keeping time to an invisible rhythm. “He loved that dog. Taught it to do everything except stop digging up my wife’s roses.”

Cooper was, if possible, even paler than before. “Lew, where is Pam? Where’s your wife?”

“At the hospital,” he said. His eyes bruised, glittering eyes shift to the clock and back again. “She went to look at the body. I told her it was a waste of time. It’s all just a shell, isn’t it? It’s what’s inside that counts.”

He stood up and took a step toward them. Mulder felt Cooper tense up, heard the quick breathing of Agent Vernon behind them. A lot of guns in a small enclosed space. If Travers went for the knife …

But he didn’t. He knelt down in the blood around the body of his son’s dog, and patted the golden head. Pressed his hands into the blood.

“It’s what’s inside that counts,” he repeated.

Mulder saw his muscles tense, and moved first, kicking the carving knife out of reach. Travers screamed and went for him, but Cooper got in the way, neatly avoiding a punch and using Travers’ own momentum to swing him around and face down on the carpet. She put a knee in his back, handcuffed him, and then hesitated. She looked up at Mulder and he wasn’t surprised to see torment.

“What do I do now?” she asked. She wasn’t asking about Travers, not exactly. Four miracle patients, and three of them had gone insane. The fourth was her mother, sitting quietly at the police station and waiting for them to bring her good news.

Mulder didn’t know. It was moments like these when Scully would have come up with the idea, made the clean logical connection that would take them where his intuition couldn’t. Rowena Cooper wasn’t Scully.

He stared back at her mutely until she shook her head and muscled Travers to his feet. She and Vernon wrestled him down the hall, out into the sunlight. As he followed, Mulder realized that Travers was leaving naked bloody footprints on the clean white sidewalk. Surreal, he thought again. Bright green grass, a nice little small-town neighborhood … bloody footprints on the sidewalk.

He locked the door to the house on his way out. As he joined Vernon and Cooper at the car, a cell phone rang. He grabbed his, but it was blank. Cooper swore, got Travers in the back seat, pushed blonde hair back from her face with one blood- smeared hand, and answered her cell.

“Detective Cooper,” she said. Her face went blank, then pale. Her eyes met Mulder’s.

Another express elevator ride to hell. I’m sorry, Agent Mulder, but your partner is …

What Cooper said was, “Dr. Lowe is at the hospital.”

Mulder had a sudden, ice-cold premonition.

“Get me there,” he said.

###

Detective Cooper drove like an Indy racer. She blew through red lights, down two streets, weaving around the few cars and trucks as if it were some kind of offensive driving obstacle course. Mulder, trapped in the back seat with a growling, unnervingly jittery Travers, could only be grateful for the fragile protection of his seatbelt.

She screeched to a halt in the emergency entrance. Mulder was out of the car and inside the sliding doors before Cooper could switch off the engine. He flashed past surprised nurses and startled doctors, goggle-eyed patients trailing IVs like pets. Elevators … too slow. He found the stairs and ran up them two at a time, three on the last flight. His heart was pounding, and as he slammed open the fire door and ran down the long dimly lit hallway the only thing he could think was please, please, please … and he wasn’t even sure what he was pleading for, or with whom.

The door to Scully’s room opened before he could reach it. Dr. Kevin Lowe came out, and Mulder slid to a halt at the sight of him. Lowe looked radiant. Beatific.

There was a scalpel in his hand, and he was drenched in blood. It dripped from his shirt, his chin, the creases of his pant legs. The hem of his lab coat.

And still, on his face, that incredible look of peace. Of satiation.

Mulder took a hesitant step toward him, then another. It was like trying to push through a solid wall of shock to move toward him — it — at all.

And then it broke like a physical snap of bone, and he hurtled forward, slammed Dr. Lowe against the wall, twisted his hand until the scalpel hit the floor with a musical, moist chime. He was dizzy with the hot stench of blood. It flooded into his mouth as he sucked in a breath and screamed, “Jesus, you bastard, what did you do to her?”

Lowe continued to grin stupidly at him. All a big, bloody joke. Mulder had a vision, as if it had seeped through Lowe’s skin, of Scully lying still on the bed, her ribs spread, her skin flensed from her bones, the slashed remains of her flesh bleeding into the linens …

He drove his fist so far into Lowe’s stomach he through he might hit the wall behind him. The urge to rip and tear at this man was unbelievably strong, because Lowe just kept smiling and the smell of Scully’s blood was —

“Mulder!”

Scully’s voice. It stopped the universe, froze it in a second that held a drop of blood glittering in the air before Mulder’s eyes. His hand was sore. He’d hit Lowe again, in the face, and the blood was …

“Mulder!”

Time snapped back into place. Mulder let Lowe go. The doctor left a bloody smear on the wall and sat limply in place, staring down at his crimson hands. Smiling.

Mulder turned.

Scully stood there, pale and perfect and utterly alive. Dressed in a crooked hospital gown that had no trace, no drop of blood on its surface.

And then he had her in his arms. For a precious few seconds he just held her, reveling in the warm press of her body, the clean smell of her hair and skin. She was saying something to him but he couldn’t understand it until she shoved him back and the words caught up to him, too late.

“Look out!”

When he turned, he saw Kevin Lowe rushing toward him with the scalpel in his hand, something insane and twitchy in his face. No grin now, more of a grimace of desperation.

It was the oddest thing, but Mulder had a clear memory — didn’t he? — of Lowe having been covered in blood, dripping with it. There were only a few spots of it on his clothes, a few stains on his lab coat.

He had time to note that just before Lowe lunged at him, and Detective Cooper’s bullet took Lowe in the chest and knocked him down.

Inexplicably, Scully fell to her knees next to the man, pressed her palm to the wound. No, not inexplicably, of course, she was a doctor, she was expected to do that kind of thing, no matter what had been done to her.

Mulder felt slow and stupid and horribly revolted, as if he was seeing something obscene. But it wasn’t obscene. It was a doctor struggling to save a man’s life.

It was Scully, struggling to save a man’s life.

Cooper joined him, watching Scully. “Is he dead?” she asked tensely.

Scully didn’t look up. Her flame-red hair slid forward as she bent forward and pressed her fingers to Lowe’s neck. Feeling for a pulse.

“No,” she said. “He’s alive.”

“Good,” Cooper said. “I want to know what he did to my mother.”

Scully sat back on her bare heels as doctors and nurses arrived, flanked by security. Mulder helped her up and out of the swarm as Lowe was lifted to a gurney and whisked away.

Mulder’s eyes were drawn to the wall next to Scully’s room, where a thick smear of blood still shimmered wetly. Then to the floor, where Lowe had fallen.

There was hardly any blood.

Hardly any at all.

And there was none on Scully’s hands as she clenched them into fists, staring after the gurney and its unconscious cargo.

“Scully?” He wanted to touch her, wanted with a wild kind of fury to kiss her. But he didn’t. Her eyes were too wary and shell- shocked. “Are you okay?”

She didn’t seem to really see him at all. A frown grooved itself between her eyebrows. “We were — stopping for coffee. Then — “

“Then?”

“You wanted Twinkies.” A sudden flash of connection between them, and he saw the fear in her eyes. “There was a little boy with a gun.”

She put a hand to her chest, mapping pain. Her fingers were shaking.

“He shot me,” she said. Mulder nodded. “And then — the dreams — “

Dreams of blood and pain, he thought. He remembered the vision he’d caught like a virus from Kevin Lowe, of Scully’s body violated and mutilated.

And healed.

She blinked and said, without any conviction, “I’m all right.”

A woman appeared next to her, looking pale and grim. It took Mulder a few seconds to place the face. Dr. Reislinger.

“I’ll be the judge of that,” she said. “Let’s get you back in bed.”

###

It took two days for them to deliver the verdict. Two days of tests, isolation and fear.

It was almost a relief when Dr. Reislinger, looking grim indeed, had called Mulder and Scully in for an update. They weren’t alone. They had Agent Vernon for a shadow, and two business- suited men who had the hunted look of hospital administrators.

In the small wood-paneled room — meant, Mulder knew, for grief counseling — they sat and watched Dr. Reislinger stalk back and forth with her hands knotted behind her back. Scully was dressed in proper FBI attire again, a little wrinkled but apparently no worse for wear — victim of clothes trapped in a suitcase, not a maniac with a knife. Vernon looked blank. The hospital suits had decided, apparently, to leave it all up to the surgeon.

Scully looked composed and self-contained, and Mulder couldn’t tell at all what she was thinking. She had kept her own counsel for two long, torturous days.

“It doesn’t make any fucking sense,” Reislinger said, and then threw them a quick, apologetic look. “Pardon my Old English, but I’m damned if I understand the least bit of what’s happening here. Agent Scully, you were as close to death as anybody would ever want to get, and there was absolutely nothing I could do to stop your slide. And then Lowe — he was covered with your blood, but you have no wounds to account for it. And Lowe’s clothing was saturated with it, Agent Mulder said, when he threw him against the wall, but there was virtually no blood at all on Dr. Lowe when we removed his clothes in ICU. Almost no blood from the bullet wound, either, and he healed incredibly fast — within minutes.”

“So he’s not going to die,” Scully said. Reislinger shook her head.

“He’s in stable condition, but he’s taking a lot of units. It’s as if he’s hemorrhaging inside, and yet we can’t find any internal injuries.”

Scully said, “He’s consuming the blood.”

It was a peculiar way of putting it. Very precise. Mulder looked at her — Reislinger, too, stopped pacing long enough to give Scully a stare of cautious surprise.

“We’ve had some conversations about that,” she admitted. “But it doesn’t make any sense. Neither do his blood results.”

Nothing moved on Scully’s face or in her eyes. “After I was shot, I went in and out of consciousness. I don’t remember much, but I remember waking up and feeling this … terrible pain. As if somebody was cutting me open without anaesthetic. There was blood. Blood everywhere.”

Reislinger said nothing. She was watching Scully with bright, birdlike intensity.

“It was Dr. Lowe,” Scully said. “I remember him putting his hands inside of me. Into the blood. I remember him touching me inside.”

“Jesus,” one of the administrators said, white to the lips. “Did Lowe have privileges here?”

“What’s our exposure here if he — “

“Shut up!” Mulder snapped. He felt as if he’d been torn open himself, violated in places he hadn’t known could be vulnerable. He couldn’t imagine how Scully felt.

“Agent Scully, that’s not possible,” Reislinger said slowly. “It must have been some kind of unusually vivid dream, maybe caused by the pain medication. I examined you thoroughly. You don’t have any cuts, no scarring, nothing to indicate — “

“I don’t have any scars from the shotgun blast, either,” Scully said. “Do I?”

Reislinger opened her mouth, shut it, chewed on her thoughts. Mulder asked, “Scully, what do you mean, he consumed the blood?”

“I mean he absorbed it,” Scully said. “Drew it into his skin like water into a sponge. I thought I was going to die, and then it was as if — there was something inside of me, moving through my body, up into my brain. When it was over, I — “

She stopped. They all watched her, unmoving. She stared away into the distance.

“I was healed,” she said softly. “Totally … completely … healed.”

She looked down at her hands, the same hands Mulder remembered, small and clever and deceptively strong. She lifted her right one and held it out toward Reislinger.

“I put my hand over his chest when he was shot,” Scully said. “And I felt it happen to me, too. I was going to staunch the bleeding, but it was as if it just jetted right into me, almost — sexual. When I took my hands away it was — there was — “

Mulder said, “There was no blood on your hands.”

“No,” she agreed. “It was inside of me. I absorbed it through my skin.”

She turned her palm over again and stared at it, as if the ridges and whorls of her fingerprints might spell out the answer. Reislinger wet her lips and, finally, sank into a chair.

“That’s not — possible,” she finally said. “Skin does have some absorptive properties, but — “

“It’s possible,” Scully interrupted.

“I know what you think you felt, but — “

“It’s possible! I felt it happen!”

The raw desperation in her voice made Mulder ache. He wanted to touch her, but he couldn’t. Part of him knew she’d reject it; some atavistic part of him was afraid to touch her at all, as if what she had was contagious.

Hell. For all he knew, maybe it was. Maybe it was blood contact that transferred it, and he’d been covered in blood from wrestling with Dr. Lowe. But he’d had to wash it off. It hadn’t wormed its way into him like black oil.

“You have to quarantine Lowe. And me, and all of the other victims,” Scully said. Reislinger and the two suits pulled in sharp, argumentative breaths. “You have to. We have to study it, try to figure out its vector and delivery system. Who else has been exposed?”

“Two more alive,” Mulder said. “Lew Travers, the father of the boy who shot you. Sophia Cooper — ” He shot a look at Reislinger.

“She’s here,” the doctor said. “She’s not showing any symptoms, and her blood work looks normal, too.”

“We’re handling all the samples as hazardous material,” one of the suits offered. “Surely there’s no need to overreact about this thing. There’s no evidence that it’s contagious … “

His voice trailed off, because he was staring straight at the evidence. Scully.

“Bodies,” Scully said. “They’ll have to be quarantined, too. The boy. Gareth Appel. If it’s spread by contact with body fluids, we have to get everyone who touched the bodies as well — ambulance attendants, mortuary personnel, everyone.”

“I don’t know if that’s possible,” volunteered the other suit.

“Make it possible,” Scully said grimly. “You have no idea what this thing is. Or what it does. Don’t underestimate the danger of this situation.”

She stood up, and for the first time she looked into Reislinger’s eyes. “I’m going to need some secured cleanroom autopsy facilities, what’s available?”

Reislinger looked startled, then defensive. Then argumentative. She was spare the need to answer by the Second Suit, the taller one, who stood up and leaned over the table to make his point.

“Now, just a minute! This isn’t the big city, Agent Scully, we usually send our bodies over to the local mortuary for autopsy, or to Cincinnati if it’s really important. Look, Appel’s body has already been embalmed and buried. The boy’s still in the mortuary, but — “

Scully said, “I’ll take the mortuary. Tell them to shut it down. Send everyone home, I don’t want anybody but myself in there. You can quarantine me there. I’ll give you a list of the lab equipment I’ll need. I’ll also need an Internet connection, fax, and phone.”

The suit stepped back. He left sweaty handprints on the wood of the table. Mulder said, laconically, “That’s FBI for ‘please’.”

He pulled his badge out and put it on the table. The suits stormed out. So did Reislinger. Agent Vernon, who hadn’t said a word the whole time, uncrossed his gangly legs and said, “Nice to have a demonstration of how the big boys from Washington do things.”

He uncorked his cell phone and wandered out, probably to report them back to Skinner. Skinner’s blood pressure was probably hovering somewhere around the mean temperature of Mercury, between his rogue agents and the pressure of an oversight committee asking him to explain expenses for chasing little green men.

He looked at Scully, and the vibe between them came back — invisible, indefinable, invincible. She managed a smile. So did he. There was probably something he ought to have said. Instead, he reached down and took her hand.

“You okay?” he asked. Of course she wasn’t, but she needed him to think so. She nodded.

“I need to work,” she said. “I need to beat this.”

He squeezed her fingers. She squeezed back, so hard his fingers tingled and went numb. When she let go, he glanced down at his hand — all the fingers were still there — and then froze.

Scully saw it at the same time. He raised his hand and spread the fingers out.

Where she’d touched it, the capillary blood vessels near the surface had burst, spreading out starfish bursts of crimson across his skin. The shape of her fingers, etched in blood.

Scully raised her own hand. There, just beneath the surface, there was a red blush that faded to pallor as Mulder watched.

“Oh God,” she whispered. “Oh my God.”

He tried to touch her on the shoulder, where his hand would be protected with cloth. She flinched away and darted for the door.

Kevin Lowe had done this to her. Ripped her apart, rebuilt her in his own image.

It was time to have a talk with the bastard.

##############

It took six hours of argument to arrange to see Kevin Lowe, after Scully was removed to her new mortuary lab.

The hospital attendants dressed Mulder in something that reminded him of spacewalks — hastily borrowed from the local Fire Department and still bearing the name tag of FEMA, it still had its original creases and new-plastic smell. It was just barely long enough for him, given that the booties had to seal into the legs and the gloves into the armholes. The helmet left him feeling instantly claustrophobic, and his breath steamed the plastic in a wet smear until he managed to control his heart rate.

“You’re ready,” the nurse said from some vast plastic distance, and tapped him on the shoulder. He had a self-contained breathing apparatus, and the air blew cool on his sweating face. He nodded and lurched toward the doorway, which had been sealed with some kind of silicone strips. No way to make it a true airlock, of course. They’d evacuated the top floor of the building, in a little-used section, and that was as far as prophylaxis went in Gallagher, Ohio.

Mulder pushed open the door and entered the world of Kevin Lowe.

Dr. Lowe was held to his bed by thick restraints, and he looked totally different from the red-faced man who’d stumbled out of Scully’s room, literally drunk on blood. He was the color of bleached paper.

“I remember you,” Lowe said. He sounded like a normal, rational human being, but he was chewing his lower lip to rags and licking up the welling blood. Mulder flinched at the sight of his red-stained teeth. “You were in the hallway. How is she?”

The memory of Lowe covered in Scully’s blood, stumbling out of there like an addict after a fix … the vision of Scully’s body so horribly violated. It all tumbled through Mulder’s mind again, and he thought he could smell the blood again, sense the satiation.

Not a drug addict, after all. Lowe’s face had been that of a man who’d just had the best sex of his life.

Mulder wanted to kill him. Instead, he leaned over him and said, “Do you know what this thing is? Do you know how to stop it?”

Lowe sucked on his bloodied lip and swallowed. Sucked and swallowed. “Like drinking your own urine,” Lowe said conversationally. “Not much nutrition, but it can keep you alive. For a while.”

Mulder leaned harder on the bed, to keep himself from slamming a gloved fist into a restrained prisoner. “Tell me what this is. What you know about it.”

Lowe blinked. His eyes looked oddly metallic. Where his arms were restrained on the bed, Mulder realized he couldn’t see any veins at all — just pale flesh stippled with hair. No sign of circulatory action whatsoever.

“It’s a gift,” he said. “I can heal the sick. Raise the dead, so long as the blood hasn’t cooled too much. How can it be anything but a gift?”

“And who gave you this gift?” Mulder asked. Lowe’s smile spread across his face like melting butter.

“Maybe it was my wife,” he said. “Maybe it was God. Maybe it was Fate. Do you know what a fata morgana is? I saw one, once. In her eyes.”

“I heard you killed that boy I saved,” Lowe said. Mulder snapped back to focus on him. Lowe looked sad and critical. “He wasn’t trying to kill anybody. He would have healed them, after. He was just hungry.”

“Why? Why did he shoot them?”

Lowe cocked his head. “The blood. The hungrier you get, the less able you are to draw the blood to the surface and filter it through. It’s easier if the blood is readily available. Pooling. Flowing. Listen, it doesn’t matter. They heal right up, and they hardly even remember.”

Mulder straightened up and stepped away from him. Physically away, unable to stand being so close to him. It. Whatever this thing was now.

Lowe’s head turned to follow him, metallic-polished eyes shimmering in the harsh fluorescent light. White as the bed linens, except for the blood on his masticated lips and smeared teeth. Even his tongue was pallid as it darted out to lick up drops.

“Is she hungry yet, Mr. Agent?” he asked. “Your friend? She will be. There’ll come a moment when she’ll do anything to get at the blood. Anything at all. Maybe you might even be looking forward to that.”

Mulder found he was standing against the door, shoving his back against it. Staying in this room was a physical impossibility. He turned, opened the door, and escaped outside. The air inside his suit tasted thick and rancid with his own sweat. He felt a sudden conviction that if he looked back he’d see Lowe creeping along behind him, eyes like ball bearings, fingers sharpened into scalpels —

He turned. Lowe was still on the bed, head slightly raised to watch him go.

Mulder closed the door, wrenched off his helmet, and sank down to a crouch to take deep, shuddering breaths.

That thing had cut Scully open. Put its hands inside —

They hardly even remember. How many people? How widespread was it, if a creature like this could torture and mutilate and heal its victims as if nothing happened?

“Agent Mulder?”

At the end of the hall, Agent Vernon stood behind the DO NOT CROSS line and waved. Mulder handed over his helmet to the nurse and let her help him out of the suit.

He had the feeling there was more bad news to come, and then it stepped around the corner.

Assistant Director Walter Skinner, fresh from congressional hearings.

“Better and better,” Mulder muttered. He wiped sweat from his face and went to join them.

###

“Dr. Kevin Lowe,” Skinner said. He looked as if he’d bitten into an apple and found half a worm. “Not exactly on the Nobel short list for his achievements. He’s been reprimanded four times by the state for unethical medical practices.”

“I guess he’d have to do a little vivisection demonstration before they actually revoke his license,” Mulder said. He had finished catching Skinner up on events, and as usual, there was something a little comforting about the way Skinner took things. As if discovering an unnatural mutilating skin-sucking vampire was more of a personal inconvenience than a reason to panic.

Skinner slid a file across the table to Mulder, who opened it up and looked at the face of Kevin Lowe. Before, presumably, being made an unnatural mutilating skin-sucking vampire, because he looked like a normal human being, pleasant, not too bright.

“Kevin Lowe doesn’t have a wife,” Skinner said. “He had an ex, but she turned up dead in some lab accident earlier this year.”

“What did she do?” Mulder asked. He skimmed the folder. Nothing about the wife beyond her name, Sarita.

Skinner’s silence stretched on long enough to draw his attention. Mulder looked up. Skinner raised his eyebrows expressively.

“Black box,” Mulder guessed.

“Her name came up on the mainframe search in connection with something called Project Anodyne.”

“Which is?”

“Not something we can get the details on, but it was underwritten out of FEMA funds.”

They both knew what it was, and that it was a dead end. They fell silent. Skinner drank some coffee and looked squinty-eyed and the cup, and finally said, “What you told me. It sounds — “

“Incredible? Stupid? Unbelievable?”

“Vile,” Skinner finished grimly. “What if Ted Bundy could have kept his victims alive and kept killing and torturing them over and over? Gacy? Any of them?”

“What if surviving it just meant that you were bound to do it to others?” Mulder asked. Skinner shook his head. “Lowe said that Scully was going to get hungry. Hungry the way he did.”

Skinner’s stare was frozen on the coffee cup.

“I don’t want to see it come to that, sir. I don’t want to have to — “

“No,” Skinner agreed. “Neither of us wants that.”

###

One advantage to working with the dead: she was no threat to them. Scully gloved up — double gloved — and assumed her usual full autopsy attire, including the face shield. No assistants. She’d ordered the funeral director and all of the mortuary attendants out before the bodies were delivered, and ordered the ambulance drivers to be examined by Reislinger before being allowed to go back to the hospital. They’d have a week’s quarantine period, too. Like Mulder, Reislinger herself, anybody who’d come in contact with the bodies or prisoners or the original accident survivors. She supposed it would be better to quarantine all of Gallagher, but she couldn’t authorize that against the arguments of the hospital staff. Her judgment could well be impaired. She certainly was suffering from a monster headache, and hands that shook. She couldn’t seem to keep still, some part of her always moving to burn off excess nervous energy.

At least the dead didn’t require a steady hand.

She looked at the boy first, and the pathos of it hit her instantly. He looked very small and cold, wrapped up in black plastic. Only one eye was present. The other, and most of the upper left quadrant of the skull, had been removed by Mulder’s bullet.

She hesitated before touching the boy’s skin. Cool, damp, dead skin. No reaction from whatever was lurking inside of her. Apparently, cold blood wasn’t attractive.

She breathed a sigh of relief and set to work gathering blood samples.

There was no sense of time in the mortuary. No sound, no outside lights. She lost track of the hours, concentrating so hard that it was an imposition to visit the bathroom. She only had to do it once before her urine output fell to nothing.

She didn’t notice.

She had no idea what time it was when her cell phone rang. She stripped off one slimy layer of gloves to answer it, suddenly aware that her back and feet hurt and the clock ticking silently on the wall showed she’d been working for more than seventeen hours straight.

“Scully?” She couldn’t describe the warmth that flooded through her at hearing Mulder’s voice. “I’m outside. Can I come in?”

“I — ” She tried to force her brain to think logically. “No. No, you’d better not. Why aren’t you in quarantine?”

“Reislinger had me brought over in a Petri dish. Listen, I need to talk to you,” he said. “Let me in, Scully. Please.”

She walked to the front and unlocked the door. He eased inside, tall and shadowy in the deliberately dim lights. She locked the door and said, “What?” more sharply than she meant to. At least she was still wearing gloves. She could allow herself to touch him, maybe. A little.

“How are you?” His voice was too gentle. She wanted him to be safe and well away from her, because all she could think about now was how warm he was. How … warm. She felt cold enough to shatter.

“Fine,” she said. “What is it?”

“Lowe said his wife gave him the disease. Skinner says she died earlier this year. I’ve got Langley working on tracing her, if she’s still alive — maybe we can get you a Patient Zero.”

God, she was shaking all over now. Her muscles felt cold and tight and overstrained, and she fought the urge to fidget.

“I’ve managed to culture something out of the blood samples,” she said. “It’s an enzyme, it acts like a binding agent, something that literally forces red and white blood cells to stick together on contact and then dissolves the clumps so there’s no arterial blockage. Theoretically, it should kill within minutes. Practically, what it does is free up the serum channels for another kind of cell to travel.”

“What kind of cell?”

Scully eased down in a red padded chair. She was, she realized, looking through an open door at a viewing room, where a closed casket sat awaiting mourners. The flowers looked tropically overgrown, less a tribute than a jeer. Or maybe that was just her state of mind.

“Let’s call it a — a needle cell. Normal red blood cells are like lozenges. These are more like needles traveling at great speed through the circulatory system, and there are a lot of them, Mulder, literally thousands to every blood cell. They rise to the highest capillary levels, burrow through into the contacting skin of the other person, and hijack the red blood cells by piercing them and then bringing them back. Like — spearfishing.”

Mulder pulled a chair over, too. He managed to block her view of the funeral-in-waiting.

“They’re manmade, Mulder. There’s nothing like them in nature. They’ve been genetically engineered, and they’re highly aggressive. It takes about 24 hours, as best I can tell, for them to completely replace white and red blood cells. Within hours, the infected body is nothing but a walking receptacle for these needle cells. And they have to feed.”

She looked down at her gloved hands. The latex was a good barrier. She’d tested it already and found the needle cells were unable to penetrate it. I’ll spend the rest of my life in a full-body condom, she thought. But the truth was, if that was the outlook for the rest of her life, it would only last as long as it took her to find privacy and a loaded gun.

Mulder said, very quietly, “What’s the infection vector?”

“There’s a small risk with every interaction,” she said. “But the more invasive the interaction, the bigger the risk. It’s when the host makes direct contact with the victim — skin to blood contact, or blood-to-blood — that the infection is massive and unstoppable. When I — when I held your hand, some of the needle cells entered your system and started producing the binding agent, but not enough to win the war. Your antibodies must have attacked and destroyed it already.”

“How can you be sure?”

She pointed to his hand, and the livid dark-red bruising that indicated burst capillaries.

“There wouldn’t be any bruising,” she said. “And the capillaries would have been healed. The needle cells steal DNA from red blood cells in the marrow and use it to launch massive repairs of the body. A damaged body can’t be an adequate host. It fixes things. A pretty amazing process, it’s like time lapse photography. It literally rebuilds according to a template.”

He was quiet for a while, and then said, “Scully …”

“No,” she said. “I’m going to find an answer to this. I will. I’ll be all right.”

Her leg was jittering uncontrollably now, her fingers jerking as if connected to current. What was this? What was happening?

And then she looked at Mulder, and she knew. She saw it in his eyes, too.

She was hungry. Starving. Her exposed skin looked milk-white, the veins totally invisible. She’d used up all her own red blood cells, and she needed more.

She looked away and tried to make her voice sound cool and businesslike. “I’ll need some things from the hospital. O positive blood, I’m not sure of the compatibility factors. I’ll try to make it last.”

“There isn’t enough, Scully.”

“What?”

“There isn’t enough blood at the hospital. They ran out a few hours ago, trying to keep Lowe and Travers alive and still treat critical patients. There was a massive accident in town. They had four trauma cases.”

He took her hand in his. She tried to draw away, but he was very strong, and part of her didn’t want to fight at all.

He carefully pulled off her latex glove.

“Mulder, no, not this way — ” It dissolved into something wordless and breathless as he pressed her palm to his and interlaced their fingers.

Warmth. Heat. Cascading into her, through her, into her. His blood flowed through the hot contact of their skin, and she gasped and shook and almost fainted with the pleasure of it. It was an orgasm that went on and on, a storm inside her head, and for the first time she understood why Lowe had become a monster because she wanted to tear Mulder’s flesh open, sink down into that lovely red warmth, be a part of him in a way that no sexual act could ever duplicate.

As those images washed over her, she ripped her hand loose from Mulder’s grasp. He looked gray and sick, and there was a single drop of blood in the center of his palm.

She couldn’t stop herself. She leaned forward and put her lips to the blood and licked until the taste was gone.

When she came to her senses, she was sucking on Mulder’s palm, drawing blood through the skin like a thin stream. His palm was already discolored and bruising. She jerked backwards and saw Mulder watching her.

So much in his eyes. So much pain, so much despair, so much love and loathing.

So much desire.

She had blood on her lips. She resisted the urge to lick them clean and wiped them on the edge of her coat.

“How long will that keep you?” Mulder asked hoarsely. She didn’t know what he felt. In a way, she didn’t want to know, any more than she wanted him to know how incredibly sensual the experience had been for her. She tried to steady herself.

“I don’t know. Several hours, at least. I don’t have enough evidence. Lowe — Lowe’s not responding to blood anymore, is he?”

“No,” Mulder said. “They have him on a wide-open IV and it won’t hold him. He’s starving to death.”

Lowe’s condition was as much as six months old. She had time.

Plenty of time.

She wanted, so badly that it shook the very foundations of her, to do it again, and she refused to look Mulder in the face again because she was very afraid that she would see the same thing in him.

“Go,” she said. “Get out of here, Mulder. Right now.”

He shifted slightly in his chair, a stiff rustle of fabric on velvet, and then stood up. She stared fixedly at his knees.

“I don’t want to leave you here alone,” he said. “If something happens — “

“I have a phone. I’ll call you if I need y — if I need anything.”

She felt him touch her, very gently, on the shoulder. It was all she could do not to grab his wrist and drink in that warmth again, no matter what the cost to Mulder.

She closed her eyes and listened for the sound of the door unlocking and closing before she dared follow him to lock it back shut.

###

Outside the building, Mulder put his back to rough brick and sank down to a crouch. It was a cool night, the moon drifting in clouds overhead; he caught the smell of blooming roses. The mortuary lawn was as carefully manicured as a cemetery; there were even some sample headstones tastefully arranged under a tree about 50 feet away.

He moved his hand and hissed in pain. Moonlight showed him livid discolorations, both on the back and front; it was, he expected, going to look like he’d slammed his hand in a door five or six times. It certainly felt like it.

He had a tactile memory of Scully’s lips on his palm, and let his head fall back against the brick hard enough to make him wince.

God, it had felt so good. It had taken every ounce of strength he’d possessed to stand up and walk out of there, knowing she was hungry, knowing that the pain was part of the pleasure of it.

“Damn,” he whispered, staring up at the moon. “Damn, damn, damn.”

He couldn’t come back again. If he did, he knew what would happen.

Even if she didn’t.

###

Back at the hospital, Skinner looked harassed. It was a normal expression for Skinner, at least when faced with X-File cases and investigators, but Mulder sensed this went beyond the usual.

He was right.

“We’re locked in,” Skinner said bluntly. “FEMA called a complete quarantine of Gallagher. Nobody comes in, nobody goes out. They’ve got the CDC in their pocket on this one, and we’re surrounded by the Ohio National Guard.”

“Jesus,” Mulder said. He sat down and reached for one of the sandwiches on the tray between them; they were old, the edges dry and curling, but he ate it anyway. Left-handed, hiding his bruised right in his lap. “The city fathers must be pleased as punch. So, does FEMA know they’ve sealed in news crews from all of the major cable outlets with us?”

“They know. If it weren’t for CNN’s satellite hookup outside, I think they might have already dropped a neutron bomb on us.”

“Nuke the site from orbit,” Mulder said joylessly. “It’s the only way to be sure.”

Skinner eyed him doubtfully, not understanding the reference. “As far as we’ve been able to tell, there are only four active cases. Lowe, Travers, Cooper, and Scully. According to Scully, the two bodies we have — Appel and the Travers boy — have dead needle cells. Apparently, brain damage is the one thing the damn things can’t repair. Not that it gets us any closer to a cure.”

Mulder swallowed a dry bite of roast beef and bread. “I thought Sophia Cooper wasn’t showing any symptoms.”

“She isn’t,” Skinner said. He looked tired. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “The doctors are running enough tests on her to qualify her for the space program, but so far there’s just no explanation. She’s just plain not sick, and not infected. What we have to do now — urgently — is to make sure nobody else gets this infection.”

Skinner put his glasses back on. The lenses caught the overhead lights in a flat white shimmer, and then Skinner leaned forward and slid a Coca Cola can across the table at Mulder — slap shot speed. Mulder, surprised, grabbed for it before it sailed off the table.

With his right hand. He winced as it connected with the spectacular mottled bruising on his palm.

Skinner said nothing. Mulder opened the top and drank fizzy sweet foam, tried for a nonchalant tone. “Scully needs to examine Cooper. Maybe she can see something Reislinger can’t.”

Skinner said, “You want to tell me what the hell you think you’re doing?”

“No, sir, because the truth is I don’t know what I’m doing except trying to help her survive this.”

A shadow of a smile on Skinner’s austere face, a flash of respect in his eyes. When he spoke again, his voice was quieter. Less the boss, more the friend. “How is she?”

“Bad,” Mulder said. “She’s the color of bleach, and she’s got the jitters. She’s starving over there. If there’s any way we can send her blood supplies — “

Skinner nodded. “Dr. Reislinger just sent word that she’s taking Lowe off of transfusion; it’s not having any effect anymore.”

“He’s dying?”

A dark look from Skinner. “We wish. It’s as if whatever crazy train he’s on is just picking up speed. He’s chewed his lips completely off. Maybe he’ll die when she stops the blood supply, but Reislinger doesn’t think so. She thinks it might take a long time. She’s trying sedatives and pain medication, but nothing works on him. Nothing.”

Even though he wasn’t up to feeling sympathy for Kevin Lowe, it gave Mulder cold chills to think of Scully lying up there in that bed, gnawing her lips away in a futile search for blood.

Dying by inches, insane.

There had to be a way to stop it. Sophia Cooper had to be the answer. He was about to open his mouth and say so when there was a knock on the door, and Agent Vernon looked in.

“Sirs, I think you’d better get down here.”

“What’s going on?” Skinner wasn’t waiting for the update, he was already halfway to the door. Mulder followed.

“It’s Detective Cooper,” Vernon said. “I think she’s got the disease.”

###

What Detective Cooper had was a loaded gun and an alarming willingness to point it at people. Skinner had his weapon out. So did Mulder, and Vernon, and two cops lurking near corners. Cooper had Dr. Reislinger in a headlock, and the doctor looked frankly terrified.

No bloody stigmata on her where Cooper was holding her, though. Mulder exchanged a look with Skinner and lowered his weapon.

“Detective Cooper,” he said, and stepped forward. Her gun moved to cover him. “Want to tell me what all this is about?”

“My mother,” Detective Cooper said. She was sweating, blonde hair sticking untidily to her face and neck, but her gun hand was rock steady. “I want to see my mother, now. I’ve heard what you people are doing to her.”

“Detective Cooper, we haven’t done anything to her but tests, medical tests, to try to see what’s wrong with her,” Reislinger said. Her voice was high and tense, but she managed some remarkable poise, given the conditions. “Please, if you’ll let me go, I’ll take you to her. You can talk to her yourself, see how she’s doing — “

“Fine,” Cooper said. She let Reislinger go and pushed her away, then instantly pointed the gun at her head. “I’ve been begging for two days to see her, and you kept telling me no, she was in quarantine. Now it’s all okay? Is that it?”

“I just want to reassure you,” Reislinger said. She took a cautious step back. “You don’t need the gun. I’ll take you upstairs to see her.”

“Sure you will.” Cooper slid the safety off with a click. “Do you think we don’t know about all the troops outside of town? They shot Pamela Myers, Jesus, she was just trying to leave town with her kids and they shot her! I don’t trust you! I don’t trust any of you!”

“And you shouldn’t,” Mulder said. He put his gun away and held his hands out, palm up. “Rowena, you’re right, this is all out of control. Everybody’s scared. Nobody understands what’s happening, us included. Let the doctor do her job. I’ll take you to see Sophia, she doesn’t have to be the one. You know me. You know I won’t double cross you.”

Cooper’s thin lips hardened into a bitter smile. “Yeah? How exactly do I know that?”

“Because if I’d wanted to, I could have dropped you from twenty feet away,” he said. “My partner’s becoming one of them, like Travers and Lowe and the kid. I want to know what’s happening to your mother as much as you do.”

She believed him. It took long, torturous seconds, but she lowered the gun and put it away. Skinner let out a held breath and holstered his weapon, too. The cops tried to move in; Skinner waved them off. He looked at Mulder.

“I guess you intend to keep your word?”

“Don’t I always?”

He, Cooper and Dr. Reislinger went up the stairs, into the quarantine hall, and opened the door to Sophia Cooper’s room.

It was empty.

Sophia Cooper was gone.

###

It was unsettling to discover how much time the little things of life absorbed. Eating, drinking — they were so usual that Scully had ceased to even consider them, but now she found time without them increasingly heavy on her hands.

There was a different kind of eating she could do, but she was putting it off as long as possible. Even warming up the bagged blood to room temperature made it barely palatable, a subsistence-level experience. She was barely absorbing enough to keep herself functional. Her hands shook constantly, and her whole body twitched and tingled with sparks of pain. Needle jabs. The thought was weirdly funny, but she had no desire to laugh.

She was standing at the picture window in the receiving room of the mortuary, looking out at the moon, when she saw the emergency vehicle lights begin to strobe over at the hospital. Lots of them. A mass exodus of police vehicles, ambulances, everything, fanning out all over town.

Something had happened. She pulled out her cell phone and dialed Mulder’s number.

When he answered, she could barely hear him over the wail of a siren.

“Scully?” he shouted. “Sophia Cooper disappeared. Walked right out of the hospital, so far as we can tell, but we don’t even know when. Could have been hours ago. We’re conducting a grid search — at least we know she isn’t leaving town. We’ve alerted the National Guard cordon to be watching for her just in case.”

“She never got sick,” Scully said. “But something scared her off. What?”

“We don’t know.”

“What kind of tests were they running on her?”

“Blood tests, urine tests, CAT, you name it.”

“No, what was the last test they ran on her?” Scully asked. She was fidgeting her leg, drumming the heel of her shoe into the carpet in a fast jazz rhythm. Close enough for jazz …

“Hold on.” He consulted with someone else. “Reislinger says it was the CAT. They had the MRI scheduled for in the morning.”

MRI. Magnetic resonance.

The cells were artificial. Maybe the frequencies used by MRI could affect them. But how would Cooper know that? The cells didn’t have any intelligence, just mindless instinct. Besides, Cooper hadn’t shown any evidence at all of harboring the needle cells.

Maybe they were hiding. Maybe that was their programming.

“But somebody programmed them,” Scully said aloud. Mulder made a questioning sound. “Mulder, what if the cells in Lowe weren’t working properly? What if that defect got passed along, like a genetic mutation, to everyone he infected?”

“What?”

“Think about what the cells do! They heal tissue. They require DNA templates to do it, and energy to do it with, but Mulder, I think their principal purpose is healing. Consumption of blood is the fuel that drives the engine, not the engine itself.”

“Slow down, Scully. You’re saying these things are medical?”

“Yes! Yes, that’s exactly what they are. Developed to heal damaged tissue from the inside. They’ve just gone wrong.”

“That’s not going wrong, Scully. That’s going bad.”

“I’ve got to go,” she said. “I’ve got to check something.”

She slapped the phone closed and turned from the window, almost running in her haste to get back to the lab.

Someone stepped out of the deep mortuary shadows into her path.

An older woman, one Scully had never seen. She didn’t really have to ask.

“Sophia Cooper,” she said. The woman smiled slightly and inclined her head. “Dr. Sophia Cooper, I presume.”

“Once. A long time ago.” There was a luminous quality to her, even in the shadows, that made Scully realize her bloodless pallor was just a pale imitation of what the cells could do. “I’m very sorry for all this. Really. I had only the vaguest idea of what had gone wrong until Kevin — Dr. Lowe — infected you as well. This wasn’t meant to be, Miss Scully.”

Scully realized the phone was still in her hand. It felt as obvious as a red-hot glowing sign, but Cooper gave no indication of having noticed.

“You can save us,” Scully said. She tried to feel the buttons on the face of the phone without looking obvious — was that one redial? Or that one? Could she muffle the noise it would make in the folds of her lab coat? She risked it and talked over the tone. “You can save people, can’t you? That’s what gave Lowe the idea — he saw you healing in the hospital, somehow he got infected, and he thought he could heal others the same way. Was that it?”

Cooper’s head tilted slightly, either hearing the electronic note of the call going through, or just absorbing what Scully had said. She lifted her hands slightly, palms up, and let them fall. Too elegant to be called a shrug.

“Lowe had the bad luck to cut himself with a scalpel and contact my blood after the accident,” she said. “Maybe he did it deliberately, I don’t know. It wouldn’t have been dangerous, except that he was also exposed to the MRI machine immediately beforehand. A one in a million disaster.”

“You knew you’d be found out, when we put the connection together about the accident victims. You thought you’d better put it forward as if you were scared but willing to help,” Scully said. “Only you couldn’t mimic the symptoms.”

A strange, compassionate look crossed Sophia’s face, and she said, gently, “Nor would I want to, my dear. What’s been done to you — all of you — is terrible. It never should have happened.”

“Then help me stop it! Tell me what to do!”

If it was possible, Sophia looked even more compassionate. She stepped forward and quickly laid her hand flat against Scully’s cheek. Scully gasped and tried to pull away, but Cooper grabbed and held her.

There was no reaction. None at all. Scully felt none of the sucking intensity of her body absorbing blood.

“My cells act as antibodies,” Cooper said. “They repel yours as invaders. Likewise, yours attack mine. Impasse, my dear. I can’t save you. I didn’t come to, in any case.”

Cooper turned away. She strolled across the deep carpet to the windows, where she looked out at the blinking emergency lights. A police car cruised by, its beam probing the bushes and angular shadows.

“They’re looking for you,” Scully said. “They’ll find you. There’s no way out of Gallagher.”

“There’s always a way out,” Cooper said. “I’ve already taken care of Kevin and Mr. Travers. Now there’s just you and I. I am so very sorry, you know, but I can’t take the risk of this going any further. There are others at risk, too.”

“Who?”

An enigmatic smile on the pleasant, patrician face. “You know I can’t possibly tell you that, Agent Scully.”

Sophia Cooper looked out on the town of Gallagher, sighed, and turned back to Scully.

She pulled a gun from her coat pocket and pointed it at Scully’s head. Behind it, her eyes were as cool and emotionless as a winter sky.

“I’m so very sorry,” she repeated, and pulled the trigger.

Her eyes widened at the dry click of an unloaded gun.

“It’s my gun,” Scully said hoarsely. “I unloaded it. I didn’t want to get hungry enough to start shooting innocent people. The bullets are in a trash can somewhere on their way to a landfill.”

Sophia was still staring at her in astonishment when the front door shuddered and blew open from the force of Mulder’s kick.

“Mulder no!” Scully shouted, but it was too late. Sophia was swinging the gun on him, and had a split second to make the decision.

He held his fire.

A.D. Skinner, standing next to him, didn’t. Scully watched as the bullet took Sophia cleanly between the eyes and exited in a dark spray of blood and matter from the back of her head.

Sophia stood for a few seconds, blinking, and then fell to her knees.

Scully caught her as the life faded out of her winter-gray eyes. She was still alive. Barely. One pupil had blown wide open, a slack black circle with a thin edge of gray; the other eye focused on Scully’s face.

Her lips shaped a word.

“Don’t.”

But Scully knew, in that instant, what Sophia had tried to conceal from her. She’d given it away in telling her about Kevin Lowe. He cut himself with a scalpel and came in contact with my blood.

Blood contact.

Scully reached out, grabbed a small ornate Chinese vase from a table and smashed it into pieces. Picked up a sharp-edged fragment and slashed down her forearm deep enough to tear large vessels.

Then she put her arm under Sophia’s head, where the blood flowed from her shattered skull.

Blood contact.

Sophia’s one good eye studied her blindly. It took Scully almost a minute to realize that the woman was dead. She pulled her arm out from under Sophia’s head and saw that it was healed, entirely and completely healed without a mark.

Warmth built into heat. Into incredible, withering pain.

She cried out and fell back. Someone caught her, Mulder or Skinner, and for a time she couldn’t feel anything at all except her body convulsing, fighting itself. Fighting to live against a deadly invader.

And then it was over.

She opened her eyes and saw Mulder close to her, Skinner standing foreshortened a few feet away. She licked her lips and tasted blood.

It tasted repulsive. Oh, thank God, it tasted horrible.

Her hand was resting on Mulder’s bare arm. They both looked at it at the same moment.

No bruises.

She closed her eyes and wondered why Sophia’s last words had been apology.

###

1995.

Clyde Bruckman and Scully sit in a dimly lit room, cards in hand. Clyde has aces and eights … a dead man’s hand. He frowns at it and doesn’t miss the significance.

“So,” Scully says, continuing a conversation she knows he is only half following, “Ahab mistakes the prophecy and as a result, dies. A similar fate happens to Macbeth.”

Bruckman shoots her a look over the top of his cards. “Still, you’re not the least bit curious?”

For a second neither one of them move, and then Scully’s eyes flicker in relief at the sound of a knock on the door. Mulder’s back, and just in time. She lays her cards down, stands up, and heads for the door.

And then she veers off, comes back to Bruckman, sucks in a breath and says, “All right. So how do I die?”

The look he gives her is curious — gentle, pitying, and more than a little puzzled.

“You don’t.”

###

“It’s the strangest thing,” Dr. Reislinger said, handing Scully a printout that made Mulder’s eyes water to see all the numbers on it. “I can’t find anything in your blood. Nothing. No needle cells, active or inactive. Nothing but healthy red and white blood cells in perfectly normal percentages, with perfectly normal values. It’s as if you were never sick at all. I’d still like to do a marrow test —”

“Not necessary,” Scully said.

“Then the only other thing is the MRI.”

“I’m fine.” Scully scanned the figures and handed the paper back. Reislinger inserted it into a thick expandable folder marked SCULLY, D. in black marker.

“The bodies?” Scully asked. Reislinger drummed her fingernails on the wooden table.

“FEMA and the CDC took them away. They also got copied on all of your medical records, and confiscated all the samples. So far as Gallagher is concerned, it’s as if five people just vanished into thin air. Nothing but headstones and empty graves.”

Kevin Lowe and Lew Travers had died in the hospital the night of Sophia Cooper’s escape. The official cause of death, for both, was heart failure. As Scully had often noted, it was a diagnosis that never got anyone into trouble.

The police report showed that Sophia Cooper had gone on a violent spree just like the others.

No one knew what to make of Scully’s recovery. Mulder had the unshakable feeling that if he and Skinner and Agent Vernon hadn’t been around — backed by CNN — to watch her back, Scully might have disappeared as thoroughly as the five dead.

“So I’m free to go,” Scully said. It had been a long, tiring week of examinations and tests that were double-checked and triple- checked by the CDC. She looked exhausted, and likely felt worse. “You’re sure.”

“I’m sure,” Reislinger said. “Everybody’s signed off. Ah … agents? For your own sake, I’d recommend not coming back to Gallagher any time soon.”

Mulder paused in the act of picking up Scully’s suitcase.

“Small towns,” Reislinger explained. “Long memories. Sophia Cooper had a lot of friends here.”

Mulder wondered, just as Reislinger turned away, if he saw a hint of a metallic shine in her eyes.

“Let’s get out of here,” Scully said. He held the door open for her, and for once, she didn’t argue with him about it.

###

Scully slept, again. It was dark when she woke up, and Mulder was still driving, sipping on a gigantic cup of coffee courtesy of a truck stop in Laughlin.

They had not stopped in Ohio. At all.

“Skinner’s still behind us?” Scully asked. Mulder gave her a crooked half-smile.

“Walter ‘Hot Wheels’ Andretti blasted past us six miles out of town and I haven’t seen him since,” Mulder said. “I’ve been hoping he ran into a big Highway Patrolman with no sense of humor, but no such luck.”

Scully reached out for her cup, sipped cautiously, and was gratified to taste fresh soda.

“Dollar twenty-five,” Mulder said, deadpan. “You owe me big time. There’s nothing worse than warm watered diet soda.”

“I don’t know if there’s nothing worse.”

“How’d you sleep?”

“Fine.” And to her surprise, she had. No nightmares. No sweating, panicked premonitions. For the first time in a long time, she felt whole. “Pull over.”

He reacted instantly, sliding into a rattle of gravel on the shoulder, jerking the car to a halt as he turned to look at her. “What’s wrong?”

She popped open her door and got out. He got out too, watching her, as she walked around to the back of the car. She stood there, leaning on the trunk, and breathed in the cool night air, scented with pine and grass and damp earth. Wind tugged her hair; it slid cool and silky over her skin, and she put her head back and looked up at the moon. A beautiful, bright moon just coming out of the clouds.

Mulder joined her, leaning on the trunk, looking up. After a moment, he looked down at her face. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” she said. “My turn to drive. Just give me a minute.”

He nodded and walked around to the passenger side. While he was occupied with racking the passenger seat back to its fullest extension, she reached down and sorted through pieces of gravel until she came up with what would inevitably be found on the side of the road.

A sharp, twisted piece of metal.

She pulled it slowly along her palm, watching the blood flow black in the moonlight.

In less than a minute, the cut was closed. Healed. Scully let out a long breath and bowed her head.

He told me. He told me this would happen. I didn’t believe him.

Now all she had to do was keep the truth from Mulder. Forever.

“Hey,” Mulder called from the car. “Have you read the statistics on alien abductions on deserted mountain roads, Scully? Maybe we should get rolling. Present a moving target.”

She dropped the metal, wiped her clean, unmarked palm on her pants leg, and got in the car.

“Amen,” she muttered. Because she knew, sooner or later, just as Sophia had said, they would be coming for her.

### end ###

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