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Memorial Day by Brandon D Ray & Shannono
By Brandon D. Ray and shannono
Header and Notes
Written February 18-May 6, 1999
SUMMARY: The Date is here …
CATEGORIES: X-file (mythology variety), Romance, Angst
KEYWORDS: Mytharc. Colonization. MulderAngst. ScullyAngst. Character death, but secondary. Skinner, the Lone Gunmen, Krycek, Spender, CSM, Diana … all those fun people. Oh, and MSR. Duh — what do you expect from Brandon and Shannon? No smut, tho … we’re so proud we refrained … 😉
SPOILER WARNING: Lots of ‘em. This story is set at the end of U.S. Season 6, and contains spoilers for numerous episodes, including the movie, airing up through that time. And not just the mytharc episodes, either. Note, however, that the final mytharc of Season 6 HAS NOT HAPPENED. This is OUR version of how those plot elements might play out.
RATING: Strong PG-13 (for language)
THANKS AND CREDITS:
None of this would have been possible without the tireless contributions of Team Beta: Susanne Barringer, Vickie Moseley, Stacey Oziel and Susan West. Special thanks also to our editor, Lena Quinn, for catching the remaining errors in the next-to- last draft, and to Sara Scott for helping work out some details. Chapter revisions by Shannon; spellchecking by Brandon. <g>
Anything cool and wonderful in this story must surely be at least partially to the credit of our great team of editors and proofers. Any shortcomings which remain must, of course, be laid at the doorsteps of the authors.
We also wish to express our deepest thanks to Nonie Rider for providing a detailed analysis of the history and possible motivations for Alex Krycek. Russian language help by Martina Voight. Thanks to Sharon Fetter for her insights into the Air Traffic Control system. Our informant on Fort Benning wished to remain anonymous. <g> All other location information came from our own knowledge and our trusty Rand McNally atlases, along with a few internet searches here and there. Any incorrect information should be written off as literary license.
A final note: For the most part, this story was written from two POVs — Scully’s and Mulder’s. Also for the most part, Shannon wrote Scully and Brandon wrote Mulder. But that’s not universal, so anything you don’t like can be blamed on both of us equally. <g>
DISCLAIMER: sigh Chris Carter, Rupert Murdoch and a bunch of other people with more money than they know what to do with own Fox Mulder, Dana Scully, Alex Krycek and various other characters in this story, as well as their backstories and other plot elements. But we own Andy Baker! So there! (And, of course, any other minor characters you don’t recognize …) Oh … and any literary and lyrical quotes belong to their creators. All this stuff is used without permission but with no expectation for compensation — other than feedback, of course.
So now you know what we’ve been up to for the past several weeks! When two highly prolific authors suddenly go into stealth mode you’ve gotta suspect that SOMETHING is up … and here it is.
This story came about as a result of another of those ubiquitous late-night sessions on AIM. I had emailed Shannon earlier in the day expressing my fears about how the Colonization thread introduced in “Two Fathers” and “One Son” might play out. Basically, I was afraid that everything in the show would change, and not necessarily for the better. We got to talking about this, and before we knew it we were outlining what we soon started calling “Memorial Day”, a novel length treatment of the Colonization threat. And the rest, as they say, is history …
Actually, the real reason for this story is to prove that we can do plot, too. <g> But beyond that … the story came about during the discussion Brandon mentions, when I made the mistake of suggesting we write our own version of the end of Season Six. No, no, it wasn’t REALLY a mistake … except, of course, that we then spent WAY too much time working out methods, reasons, motivations, etc., etc. In the process, though, we hammered out what we think is a pretty plausible scenario. We hope you think so, too.
Geez, Brandon, we sure are long-winded … maybe we should shut up and let the nice people read the story. <g>
A special note about Memorial Day for our “non-American” readers:
Memorial Day is a federal holiday in the United States, a day of remembrance designed as a tribute to those who have died in service to the nation. It is observed in nearly every state on the last Monday in May and is usually marked with ceremonies and cemetery visits in memory of the honored dead. Over the years, it’s also become a sort of kickoff for the summer, a day for picnics and other outdoor activities.
We DO write other stuff, too, you know …
Left Field — Shannon’s fanfic: http://xanadu.xffics.com/leftfield/ & Brandon’s fanfic: http://raytracings.xffics.com
“In the stars is written the death of every man.” — Geoffrey Chaucer
It began not with a bang, but with a whimper. No hovering ships, no mass abductions, no black plague sweeping across the land; but a stealth attack, stealing in through the back door in such a way as to catch us unaware.
It began on a sunny, late spring day in a quiet Southern town with a military base on its fringes, a town ripe with history and yet dotted with the pawnshops and adult entertainment that seem to gravitate toward the prospect of young Army men as customers.
It began in a quintessentially American venue, a minor league baseball park complete with a raucous mascot, a hot tub in the stands, and a playground for the kids.
It began on one of the most American of holidays, a day created as a way to honor the women who gave us life.
And with the beginning, came the specter of the end.
Golden Park, Columbus, Georgia Sunday, May 9, 1999 7:47 p.m.
“Now pitching for your Columbus RedStixx … number 42 … Scott … Turnow!”
Scott let the sound of the announcer’s overblown voice wash right past him as he took his last few warmup tosses, nailing the strike zone each time. As the ball arced back toward him from the catcher’s hand, he ran a quick mental check of the situation — down by a run, man on second, one out, top of the sixth. Make it look good, and maybe the boost to his stats would finally get him that callup to Kinston.
The sting caught him by surprise, inordinately painful for such a small thing, and he instinctively clapped his free hand against the side of his neck to crush the thing, just as the ball dropped into his glove. He brought his pitching hand down to glance at the black-and-yellow striped bee, then tossed it to the ground beside the mound and bent to pick up the resin bag, bouncing it on the back of his hand a couple of times. He dropped the bag and dusted off his hand on his uniform pants as the announcer called out the name of the River Dogs’ cleanup hitter.
He turned his attention toward the plate, and was hit with a wave of dizziness. He blinked several times, giving his head a quick shake, and looked in again. His vision blurred, cleared, and blurred again, and his knees sagged under him, not wanting to support his weight.
He heard a commotion building around him as his body slumped towards the red clay. Concentrating, he managed to look up and saw a cloud moving through the air, diving and swerving a few feet above the green of the field. He turned his head and saw teammates, opponents, fans, scattering, arms waving in a futile attempt to beat back the invaders.
And then his vision greyed, his head dropped, and he saw no more.
Alexandria, VA Monday, May 10, 1999 4:32 a.m.
Someone was pounding on the door.
Mulder stirred in his sleep and grumbled, pulling his blanket up a little higher around his shoulders. He didn’t want to be disturbed. It had been past two when exhaustion had finally overtaken him, and deep in his sleep-fogged brain he knew it couldn’t be morning yet. He just wanted to sleep …
The pounding returned, and Mulder felt himself gradually returning to wakefulness. He cursed sleepily, willing whoever it was to go away and just let him sleep.
Then he heard a key in his lock, followed by the sound of the door opening and footsteps approaching. His brain groggily registered the potential threat, but still he couldn’t make himself wake up.
And then a hand was on his shoulder, shaking him roughly.
“Mulder? Mulder, wake up.”
With a sigh of resignation he allowed his eyes to drift open and looked up at the shadowy form bending over him.
“Dammit, Mulder, wake up!” She shook his shoulder again, more sharply than before, and Mulder reached up and grabbed her wrist.
“All right,” he growled. “All right, I’m awake.” He blinked owlishly up at her. “What’s … what’s up?” As consciousness returned, it gradually came to him that Scully wouldn’t have come to his apartment in the middle of the night without a good reason. “Is something wrong?”
She was already moving away from the sofa; in another instant the lamp came on and Mulder winced automatically at the sudden intrusion of light into his dark world.
“We’ve got to get to Atlanta,” Scully said, her voice crisp and professional. “I tried to call you, but I guess you were so sound asleep you didn’t hear the phone.”
“Atlanta?” Mulder parroted, but she was already heading down the short hall towards his bedroom. By the time Mulder struggled to his feet and caught up with her, she had his pre-packed overnight bag pulled from the closet. She tossed the bag onto the dresser and zipped it open as if she’d done it a dozen times before. Which she had, he realized, as she started poking through the contents.
She pulled open the middle right-hand drawer of the dresser and grabbed two pairs of dress socks. “Where’s your weapon?” she asked as she stuffed the socks in the bag.
“Top left hand drawer,” he answered mechanically, watching as she retrieved his Sig Sauer, ejected the clip and checked the action with well-practiced movements. She dropped the pistol into his bag and zipped it shut again before finally slipping the clip into her jacket pocket.
Mulder simply stood at the doorway, as if rooted to the spot. He knew he should be doing something, helping her, but his brain seemed stuck in neutral, and he couldn’t make sense of anything yet.
Scully turned to see him still standing there, and sighed. “Go take a shower and get the rest of your things, Mulder, and I’ll fix some coffee.” Her tone was patient, but her movements remained brisk as she brushed by him and headed back up the hall. “Don’t dawdle,” she called over her shoulder. “Our flight leaves in less than two hours.”
Mulder finally managed to get himself in motion, and 20 minutes later, showered, shaved and in clean clothes, he was sitting at the kitchen table sipping coffee, while his partner reviewed for him the information she had so far.
“Killer bees, Scully?” he interjected as she stopped for a sip of coffee. The shower had helped wake him up, and the coffee was helping even more, but he was still short on sleep and he was having difficulty focusing on her words.
Scully nodded. “That’s right. Remember the case you investigated in Payson, two years ago?”
Payson, South Carolina. Yeah, Mulder remembered. Bees. Lots of them. And all those children …
He nodded as Scully went on. “Well, this is the same scenario, but on a larger scale. A swarm was released last night at a baseball game in Columbus, Georgia. About sixty victims confirmed as of midnight, but that’s a preliminary number; the count will almost certainly go higher. There were several thousand people in the ballpark.”
Mulder was completely awake now. “And the symptoms resemble smallpox?”
Scully raised an eyebrow. “Apparently, no,” she said, an edge of an emotion Mulder’s couldn’t quite identify in her voice. “Victims complained of shortness of breath, weakness in the limbs, pain in the chest, blurry vision, impaired motor skills …”
Mulder’s eyelids fluttered shut as his memory played back that exact collection of symptoms being reported in Scully’s fading voice as she collapsed in the hallway outside his apartment. “They’re restocking,” he said softly, his eyes still closed as his mind filled with images of tens of thousands of incubating hosts, frozen solid in a ship buried under the Antarctic snow.
Scully didn’t respond, and when Mulder’s eyes reopened, her gaze was fixed on her hands where they sat folded in front of her on the table. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly before she spoke.
“I managed to find out through the local police department that the victims were being routed to two local hospitals,” she said. “But neither would give out any information, and when I called the police back, no one would talk to me.”
Mulder wanted to ask why she hadn’t called him, but he still didn’t quite feel he had the right, not after the way he’d treated her three months earlier. He’d ignored her, denied her, done everything but call her a liar to her face, and their partnership still hadn’t recovered completely.
Besides, she was here now, and that was all that really mattered.
Instead, he asked, “How did you find out about it?”
Scully lifted her head to meet his intent gaze. “After I read the report on the Payson case, I subscribed to an Internet clipping service, using ‘bees’ and certain symptoms as keywords, among other things,” she explained, settling her elbows on the edge of the table and folding her arms in front of her. “I’ve added other information as we’ve learned more, and late last night, a very short report came in on the Associated Press wire. I got it when I checked my e-mail around 11, and it didn’t have that much information, so I made a few phone calls to find out more. Like I said, I didn’t get very far. But I did look up some of the old newspaper reports online, and Mulder, this looks like Payson all over again. Only worse.”
For a long minute Mulder sat looking at her, his lips pursed as he processed her statement. He felt a cold knot forming in the pit of his stomach. He didn’t want to face this. It was too soon, and they hadn’t had a chance to assimilate everything they’d done and seen over the past three months, in both their personal and professional lives.
But it didn’t look like they had a choice.
He expelled his breath in a rush. “Okay,” he said reluctantly, bracing his hand on the chair back as he rose slowly to his feet. “Let’s get going, then.”
Interstate 185 Western Georgia 9:57 a.m.
The drive south from Atlanta was monotonous but necessary. All connecting flights between Atlanta and Columbus had been either full or canceled, though repeated questioning at various counters had yielded no acceptable reasons.
Scully’s cell phone had been active most of the time since they’d settled into the car. She’d called the Centers for Disease Control, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the Columbus police again, and even the state patrol, but it seemed no one was in the mood to talk.
Her one success was in leaving a message for the reporter, an Andy Baker, responsible for that single, four-paragraph story. She gave both their names and cell numbers to the woman who took the call, adding Skinner’s office number as a backup.
A nearly deserted interstate and lack of law enforcement presence along the route allowed Mulder to adhere to his own internal 80- mile-an-hour speed limit, cutting a half-hour off the drive time. The road was flat and straight, and an almost cartoonish view passed by the windows, with what looked like the same set of trees and greenery simply repeated every few miles.
“We should be there before eleven,” Mulder said as Scully tossed her phone onto the seat in disgust following yet another stonewall. He glanced over at her, then returned his attention back to the highway in front of them. “Getting anything?” he asked.
She sighed. “Nothing. They aren’t saying a word. In fact, the more different people I talk to, the less they all seem to know.”
Mulder shrugged, his eyes still on the road. “About what we expected,” he said blandly. “Until they get a plausible cover story out, the official phrase of the day will be ‘deny everything.’”
Scully propped her elbow on the windowsill and lifted her hand to rub her forehead. She was trying to hide her concern over Mulder’s apparent disinterest in pursuing this case, but she didn’t know how much longer she could. She knew she’d roused him out of a sound sleep this morning, but sleepiness didn’t explain his continuing lack of enthusiasm. Six months ago, just the mention of the word “bees” would have had him spouting theories faster than most people could think.
But he had been unnaturally quiet during their trip, allowing Scully to handle the phone calls and make most of the suggestions. If he didn’t snap out of it soon, Scully didn’t know what she’d do. Much as the stalwart in her hated to admit it, she needed him with her every step of the way on this. Too much was at stake for him to lose his focus now.
She sighed and responded to his comment in an attempt to draw him out. “I’ve been trying to figure out what they could cover with,” she said. “Killer bees, I suppose, although they normally migrate northward, and there have been no reported attacks between extreme southern Texas and here. That ballpark had something close to 3,000 people inside, so we shouldn’t lack for witnesses. They might be able to cover some of the bee stings, or attribute them to a disturbed hive nearby, but there’s no way to account for the sheer volume of bees that story reported. A ‘cloud’ that nearly covered the stands?”
Mulder chewed at his bottom lip, an old habit Scully knew meant he was deep in thought. “They might attribute it to some type of bioterrorism,” he said, his voice gradually growing more certain as he spoke. “In fact, now that I think about it, I remember hearing a report a few months back about an anthrax scare in this area. We can find out what happened then; the official report on this could play to those fears.”
He didn’t even have to suggest Scully’s next call. She already had her phone back in hand and was punching in yet another set of numbers, this one more familiar. After a cryptic 15-minute conversation that started with the words “turn off the tape,” she hung up.
“Byers remembered the report, too,” she said without preamble. “He says it was an anthrax threat, but actually two of them — one in Columbus and one in Atlanta. No anthrax was ever found, but several buildings were evacuated in each city. He’s going to e-mail a copy of the story to my account and we can pick it up when we get to a landline.”
Mulder had started nodding halfway through her story and jumped in as soon as she stopped talking. “That would make a perfect cover story,” he said. “An air release like that would affect hundreds in the immediate area, maybe thousands, depending on the wind direction. Something like that would normally take at least a few days to uncover, but they could be still on a low-level alert because of the scare. So they could say they discovered it quickly and still be believable.”
Scully nodded once. “Anthrax does cause symptoms fairly quickly, so if they announced the diagnosis some time later today, it would be acceptable,” she said.
Mulder shot her a long look. “I’d really like to get a look at some of those medical records,” he said, his eyes focused and intense.
Scully nearly smiled in relief. He was back, at least for the time being.
But she simply returned his look, then turned her attention back to the flat highway before them.
Columbus Ledger-Enquirer offices Columbus, GA 11:12 a.m.
Mulder and Scully had agreed as they reached town to try the newspaper office first, since that’s where they’d gotten the only cooperation all day. Inside the building’s lobby, they approached the security desk in tandem, Mulder pulling his badge as they came to a stop.
“FBI,” he said in a bland tone. “We need the newsroom.”
The security guard, dark-skinned and sporting a shock of sharply contrasting grey hair, nodded quickly, his eyes wide. “I’ll need to call Mr. Pryor,” he said, reaching for the phone on the desk. “All visitors have to be escorted.”
Mulder’s eyes drifted as he waited, his gaze coming to rest on a nearby display of old front pages. He appeared to be reading the headlines with interest, but anyone who knew him could tell that his mind was actually far away.
Scully could tell, but she chose not to interrupt his thoughts. She had deliberately avoided using the word “colonization”; despite her own beliefs, she knew that was what Mulder believed the shadowy Syndicate had been working toward. She had her doubts, of course, but the whole idea was still a sore point with him, much as any case involving child abductions had always struck his Samantha nerve. His guilt over so nearly giving up his quest a few months back was still raw, and the last thing Scully wanted to do at this point was make things worse.
They waited only a few minutes before the elevator next to the counter chimed, the doors opening to reveal a young, dark-haired woman wearing a business suit. She smiled as she stepped toward them. “Hi, I’m Andrea Baker,” she said, holding out her hand.
Scully concealed her surprise as she and Mulder shook hands and introduced themselves. She’d been expecting a man from the name “Andy” Baker, but the reporter was instead a woman just a few inches taller than Scully, with short, curly brown hair and deep green eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses. Her movements were sharp and crisp, giving the impression of a military school cadet.
“Agent Mulder, Agent Scully,” Andy said. “I think I know what you want to ask me about, and I don’t know how much help I’m going to be, but I’m certainly willing to try.” Her eyes sharpened, her eyebrows lifting minutely, but she gestured nonchalantly, toward a pair of doors to her right. “Why don’t we go into one of the conference rooms, where we’ll have some privacy?”
She was moving toward the room in question before she finished speaking, and Scully exchanged a brief glance with Mulder before falling in behind her. Scully realized it was obvious Andy had something to tell them, but the open lobby wasn’t the place for it.
None of them spoke again until they were inside the conference room and seated, with the door closed. As soon as they were, Andy’s ebullient mask fell away completely, her expression transforming in a second from open and friendly to serious and focused — and just a bit wary.
“I don’t know what the hell’s going on around here,” she said, her voice hard and her eyes piercing. “But whatever it is, it’s big. I’ve been on the phone for the past two hours, and I can’t get a single person to talk to me. And for the past 45 minutes, I can’t even get a call into Fort Benning. With the number of victims I saw, I would expect them to bring in the Army medics and transports to help.”
Mulder leaned forward in his seat. “You were at the game last night?” he asked.
Andy nodded briskly. “I was doing some interviews for a story on a proposed new sales tax,” she said, sounding like nothing so much as a witness on the stand. “I finished a little after seven and was headed home when I heard the reports start coming in over the scanner. When I got back there, things were crazy. There were at least several hundred people who were stung, and probably a hundred fifty or so were complaining of the symptoms I listed in the article. I wanted to stay out there and check it out more carefully, but I had a deadline to meet, so I got as much information as I could in about an hour and came back here to get the story written in time for this morning’s editions.”
“That was the story that went to the wire service?” Scully asked.
“Right,” Andy said, nodding in Scully’s direction. “We send edited versions of most of our stories to the AP bureau in Atlanta, and they picked that one up and sent it out nationally.”
“And you’ve been trying to get more information,” Mulder prompted.
Andy nodded again. “I spent another hour on the phone after deadline last night, and came in early today to start up again. I’ve sent out a half-dozen Freedom of Information Act requests since nine, but they have three days to respond, so I haven’t really expected anything from that. The only thing I’ve gotten so far is that Columbus Medical Center treated about 120 people, so I was just about to head over there when Fred called up and said you two were here.”
She paused and smiled, a little sheepishly. “I’m afraid your phone message got a little lost in the shuffle,” she said, her eyes shifting back and forth between Mulder and Scully as she spoke. “And when I did get it … well, I called a friend in DC to check you out first. I haven’t been having the best luck with government agencies today.”
Mulder nodded and smiled briefly in acknowledgement as he leaned in again. “You said you can’t get a call in to Fort Benning?”
Andy returned her gaze to him. “No, and that’s never happened, not in the two years I’ve been here. No matter what was going on.”
Mulder turned to look at Scully. “Maybe now is a good time to get a look at those medical records,” he said pointedly.
Columbus Medical Center Columbus, GA 12:02 p.m.
Getting access to the medical records in question turned out to be easier said than done.
“I’m sorry ma’am.” The information clerk’s eyes flicked briefly from Scully to Andy to Mulder and then back to Scully again. “But I’m afraid I really can’t help you.”
Scully continued to hold her badge in front of the woman’s eyes, and for at least the thousandth time in their partnership Mulder couldn’t help but admire her calm, steady professionalism. She’d always impressed him in that regard, but ever since the nightmare at El Rico Air Force Base her sense of determination and purpose had seemed to double and redouble.
He supposed it was at least partly in compensation for his own emotional collapse at the height of that case, but they’d never really discussed it. The time had never seemed to be right.
Now, he wished they had made time for it.
“Access to medical records by law enforcement officers is a routine use exception under the Federal Privacy Act,” Scully was saying. “I can provide you with a written statement of need if —”
The clerk was looking nervous, but she was also shaking her head. “No, ma’am,” she interrupted. “You don’t understand. It’s not that I won’t give them to you; I can’t. You see, they aren’t —”
“Sheila, is there a problem?”
Mulder turned to see an older woman standing behind them. She was short, shorter than Scully, actually, with streaks of gray in her hair and a severe expression on her face.
“Mrs. Peters.” The relief in the clerk’s voice was impossible to miss. “These three are from the FBI, and they’re asking to see records of the bee sting patients from last night. I was just trying to explain —”
“That’s fine, Sheila,” the other woman responded. “I’ll take care of this.” She turned to the two agents. “My name is Marilyn Peters; I’m the Chief of Medical Information. How can I help you?”
Scully now extended her badge to Mrs. Peters. “I’m Special Agent Dana Scully; this is Special Agent Fox Mulder. We’re from the FBI, and we’re here to investigate last night’s incident.”
Marilyn Peters studied them for a moment, then glanced at Andy. “And you are?”
“Andrea Baker, from the Ledger-Enquirer,” the reporter said.
The other woman nodded briefly. “You’ll find the public relations office on one west,” she said curtly, and turned her attention back to Mulder and Scully. “Why don’t you come with me and we’ll discuss this in private.”
Mulder caught Scully throwing an apologetic look at Andy Baker, and then the two agents were following the Medical Information Chief out the door and down the hallway to another office, where they were motioned into two chairs in front of the desk.
“Now,” said Mrs. Peters, settling herself behind her desk. “Suppose you tell me why you’re here.”
Mulder remained silent, once again allowing Scully to take the lead, so in a few brief sentences she gave an edited version of their interest in the case, concluding with a reiteration of their authority to review the records under the Privacy Act. As she finished speaking, the other woman steepled her fingers in front of her and seemed to be lost in thought for a moment.
Finally, she said, “I’m sorry, but we’re not going to be able to help you.” She held up one hand to forestall any objections. “I didn’t say that we aren’t willing; I understand the law, and this medical center has always cooperated with the authorities to the fullest extent possible. However, in this instance we can’t help you, because the records you want are no longer here.”
Scully’s eyebrows shot up, and Mulder felt his own eyes widen. “Not here?” he asked. “How can they not be here?”
Mrs. Peters looked slightly uncomfortable, but replied, “The patients and their charts were transferred out early this morning.”
“Transferred out?” Scully repeated, her voice on the edge of incredulous. “You mean you transferred out copies, don’t you? You wouldn’t have sent the originals.”
The other woman’s lips tightened slightly. “In this instance we sent the originals.” She glanced briefly at a paper on her desk, then back up at the two agents. “There were 127 cases to be triaged. There was no time to make copies.” Again she compressed her lips, and Mulder realized then that she was not very happy with the situation. “I — we have been promised that the records will be returned in due course,” she finished.
“Where were they transferred?” he asked.
Mrs. Peters glanced briefly at him, and then away. “I’m sorry. I’m not at liberty to say.”
Mulder nodded slowly, and realized that down inside he’d been expecting something like this. He leaned back slightly in his chair, fighting a wave of hopelessness that threatened to sweep over him. They’d lost again. Less than 24 hours out from the event, and already the machinery was in motion …
“Mulder!” He looked up, and saw that Scully was standing in front of him shaking his shoulder. “Come on,” she said. “This isn’t over yet.”
He stared up at her for just a moment, drawing strength from her gaze. He’d been doing that a lot the last few months, and part of him hated the sense of dependency it created within him. But he couldn’t seem to help himself; he had nothing else left to cling to.
And after another moment he rose from his chair and followed his partner out of the room.
The pair stepped into the hallway, but before Scully could even voice her next suggestion — finding Andy and seeing if she had been any more successful — the reporter appeared from around a corner just feet away. She caught Scully’s eye and gave a tight little pull of her head, gesturing for the agents to follow her. Scully glanced at Mulder, Mulder glanced back … and they turned in tandem to follow Andy around the corner.
She whirled on them almost immediately, and nothing could have concealed the gleam in her eyes. “Fort Benning,” she whispered. “I knew it. They’re at Fort Benning.”
Scully leaned forward. “The victims? All of them?”
“How did you find out?” Mulder put in.
Andy grinned widely. “It always pays to make friends with the environmental services crew.”
Georgia Highway 520 East of Columbus, GA 1:22 p.m.
The smell of greasy hamburgers and French fries filled the car, steered one-handed by Mulder as he gulped down lunch between sentences. His speed was hovering right at 55 on advice from Andy, who said the base MPs loved to stop speeders.
“So if the air field is on the south end of the base, then they’d probably have triage set up in a hangar,” he said. “I’d expect that they’d be shipping at least some of the victims out. If it’s what we think it is, they’ll need to keep them cold.”
“Why?” Scully asked, pausing for a quick sip of her tea. “If they want incubators, why keep them cold? Why not just let them gestate?
Mulder shrugged. “That would raise too much attention,” he said. “It’s obvious they’re trying to keep this quiet. The last thing they need is a bunch of nasties running around.”
Andy’s voice came from the back seat, and the agents glanced back at her to see her eyes wide and her face pale. Her voice shook as she continued, “What the hell are you talking about?”
Mulder and Scully looked at each other for a long moment, coming to a silent agreement. Mulder turned his attention back to the road as Scully twisted in her seat to face Andy more fully. “This is going to sound, well, crazy,” she started.
By the time Scully finished her story, Mulder had pulled into the parking lot of a convenience store just beyond the military reservation. Scully had edited her explanation for caution’s sake, and she was careful to cover her and Mulder’s differing views, but she still included all of the most pertinent information.
Andy sat in stunned silence, still trying to absorb all she’d been told. “So the bees are carrying this virus, and if someone is stung, they grow this … creature thing inside them?” she asked, her tone skeptical.
Mulder shot Scully a crooked grin. “That sounds familiar, Scully,” he said, his voice teasing.
Scully ignored him pointedly and spoke to Andy. “I know it sounds incredible,” she said. “I didn’t believe it myself, and I still don’t agree with everything Mulder believes. But I do know there’s something big going on here, and I — we — are going to find out what it is.”
Andy sat up straighter. “Count me in,” she said firmly.
Mulder turned to look at her. “We should tell you, Andy, that this will be dangerous,” he said, obviously choosing his words carefully. “Scully and I are trained for this. And armed. I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to …”
“Marine Corps, four years, eight more on active Reserves,” Andy cut in. “My gun and license are at home. Take me by to pick it up and change clothes, and I’m in.”
Scully studied her for a long moment, then nodded once and turned to Mulder. “Let’s do that before we try the base,” she said. “Did you get all the information you needed in the drivethrough?”
Mulder nodded as he restarted the car. “Plenty of crossroads, and I think that second one will be our best bet,” he said. “Andy, you take a look on the way back through and tell me if anything seems unusual or out of place. There were a few streets closed off with concrete barricades, but they looked like they’d been there a while.”
“Okay,” Andy said. “There are a couple blocked like that all the time, but most of the roads are open. Did you notice any MP cars?”
“Plain white with blue lights,” Mulder confirmed. “Two of them, one headed each direction. Normal?”
“About so,” came the reply. “And we …”
A shrill trilling cut her off, and all three reached for cell phones. “Mine,” Andy said, pushing a button and answering with “Baker.” She paused to listen, then said, “Where?”
At the tone of excitement in Andy’s voice, Scully turned to look at the reporter, who was grabbing for a notebook. Andy scribbled something down, then spoke into the phone again, saying, “I’ll be there.”
She ended the call, then lean forward over the seat. “Keep going straight as fast as you can get away with,” she directed. “There’s been a bee attack at Riverwalk.”
Riverwalk Columbus, GA 1:57 p.m.
The drive to the site of the attack took longer than Mulder would have liked, but unless he wanted to totally disregard Andy’s advice, he had little choice. The few minutes they might have gained in the brief twenty mile drive would have been more than offset by a delay caused by an encounter with an anal retentive MP, and so he kept his speed down to a steady but excruciating 57 miles per hour.
Mulder was intent on not allowing this opportunity to slip between his fingers. He’d had a temporary funk in Marilyn Peters’ office but Scully’s determination and confidence had rejuvenated him, as always, and now he was finally starting to feel good about the investigation. Everything seemed to be falling into place.
By the time they arrived on the scene of the attack, emergency services vehicles were already present in abundance, including two ambulances and half a dozen squad cars from several jurisdictions. There was also a small crowd of perhaps two dozen spectators being held at bay by a pair of uniformed officers.
“Great! Looks like we’re the first ones here.” That was Andy, already climbing out of the back seat and whipping out her cell phone as she headed for the center of activity. Mulder went after her, Scully trailing along behind, and saw Andy punch one of her speed dials. After a moment’s pause, she said into the phone, “This is Baker. Tell Eddie I’m on the scene now….”
Mulder tuned the reporter out as he moved along after her, slowing his pace just enough to allow Scully to catch up. He glanced down at his partner and allowed his lips to quirk slightly as he nodded in Andy’s direction. “Looks like she’s in her element,” he remarked.
Scully shrugged, serious. “She has her job to do, just like we do, Mulder.”
“My name is Andrea Baker, and I’m with the Columbus Ledger- Enquirer.”
Mulder glanced back to the front to see Andy holding an open wallet up to a big, beefy sheriff’s deputy who was blocking her way. “I don’t want to interfere,” Andy continued, “but I do need to cover this story.”
The man was already shaking his head before she had even finished speaking — and then Scully stepped forward, badge in hand.
“I’m Special Agent Dana Scully,” she said, “and this is Special Agent Fox Mulder. We’re with the Bureau, and Ms. Baker is with us.”
Mulder saw the deputy’s eyebrows shoot up, and he felt his own eyes widen in surprise, but before he could say or do anything the other man was shrugging his shoulders and stepping out of the way, and then the two women were walking briskly forward and Mulder had to run a few paces to catch up.
“I love it when you’re forceful, Scully,” he said with a slight smirk, and was rewarded with an arched eyebrow before he turned his attention to the scene in front of them — and suddenly nothing seemed funny anymore.
There were three — no, four bodies scattered across the grassy slope leading down to the river bank. A paramedic and a uniformed officer worked on each of the victims, while another pair of officers hurriedly shuttled supplies and equipment from the waiting ambulances.
Scully was already hurrying forward, Andy in her wake, and once more Mulder had to run to catch up. One of the officers had spotted them and was moving to cut them off, but Mulder waved his badge at the man and again they were allowed to pass.
“I’m a doctor,” Scully said, kneeling down next to the first victim. “What have you got?”
The paramedic working on that case looked up briefly at Mulder’s partner, then back down at the victim — and Mulder saw that it was a teenage girl, perhaps fifteen years old, blonde and very pretty. She was lying face up, her eyes closed, and she was completely still — either dead or unconscious. Mulder looked a little closer and saw her chest rise and fall. Not dead then. At least, not yet.
The paramedic was shaking her head. “We’re not exactly sure, ma’am. She was reported to have been stung by a bee just before she collapsed — apparently there was a small swarm of them, somebody disturbed a hive or something. And at first it looked like anaphylaxis — cyanosis, tachycardia, dyspnea … absolutely classic presentation. But look at this.”
The paramedic peeled back the girl’s right eyelid, and Mulder bent over Scully’s shoulder for a closer look. He was shaken — but not surprised — to see a familiar black oily substance swirling and coruscating across the surface of the girl’s eye. He heard Andy gasp, and he murmured, “Well, I guess that settles that.”
Scully glanced up at him and nodded grimly, then looked back at the paramedic. “We’ve seen this before,” she said. “We need to get this girl to a hospital, stat. Put her on two liters of oh-two and prepare to transport. Radio ahead and alert the ER to be ready to induce hypothermia.”
“Just do it!” Scully snapped. “If I take the time to explain she could die.” And she rose to her feet and headed for the next victim, Mulder and Andy on her heels.
The second victim was a man in his mid-30s, his condition to all appearances identical to that of the teenage girl. Scully repeated her instructions, got the team assigned to that case moving, and then strode purposefully towards the third victim, a middle-aged African American woman lying a few hundred feet away.
Mulder spun about at Andy’s exclamation, and his eyes widened in shock at the sight of four olive-drab military trucks bouncing up over the curb and across the grass, scattering police and spectators alike and finally pulling to a halt a few feet from the first victim.
Teams of soldiers dressed in isolation gear and full combat kit leapt from the back of all four trucks and swept across the riverbank, brushing aside the civilian crews with ruthless efficiency as they gathered the four victims and loaded one into each waiting truck. Then the convoy rolled into motion again, and in another moment it was gone.
The convoy had barely started in motion before Scully was racing for the car. It took her a few seconds to realize she didn’t hear footsteps behind her; she slowed and glanced briefly over her shoulder, to see Andy, rather than Mulder, starting to follow her. Her partner was still standing where he had been when the trucks first appeared, staring after them in apparent shock.
Scully skidded to a halt by the driver’s side door of their rental and turned and yelled back to her partner. “Mulder! Move your ass!” She was gratified to see him jerk back to reality, and in another moment he was running for the car.
She turned her attention to Andy, who was halfway to the car. “Stay here and see what you can find out; We’ll call you in a minute.” Mulder had arrived by then, and she turned back to him. “Keys!” she demanded, and he wisely didn’t argue, tossing her the set from his pocket as he moved around to the passenger side.
He joined her in the car as she brought the engine to life, and she started talking as she peeled off in pursuit of the military convoy.
“Call Andy,” she said without preamble. “Her card’s in the outside pocket of my briefcase. Tell her to get as many answers as she can at the scene.” Mulder had dug out the card by then and was punching in the numbers on his cell phone as Scully continued. “They’ll probably have a cleanup in the works pretty fast, so if we don’t get the information now, we never will,” she said.
Andy answered just then, and Mulder relayed Scully’s message, then paused a few seconds and said, “All right.” He lifted the phone from his ear and covered the microphone with his hand. “She wants to talk to you,” he said.
Scully nodded. “Just hold the phone for me; I need both hands to drive,” she said. He lifted the phone to her face, and she said, “What’s going on, Andy?”
“That’s what I want to know,” Andy responded. “What is this thing?”
“I don’t know,” Scully said. “That’s why we need you to find out everything you can. Keep your phone free as much as possible, and we’ll call you as soon as we can. Don’t call us; we may not be in a good situation for the phone to ring.” She paused, then asked, “Are you okay to get where you need to go?”
“Yeah,” Andy replied. “I know most of the Columbus cops out here, so I can grab a ride to the office with one of them and get my car.”
“We’ll call,” Scully repeated, turning her full attention back to the road and the fast-moving convoy she was following. Mulder took the cue to shut off the call and tucked the phone back into his pocket.
But he remained silent, and after a few moments, Scully shot him a quick glance. Normally, he’d be rattling off theory after theory, many of them primarily aimed at getting her ire up. But right now, he seemed somewhere far away, and Scully didn’t like it at all.
She started to speak, hesitated, then forged ahead. “Mulder?” she asked. “Are you all right?”
“Hmmm?” Mulder’s reply was as distant as the expression on his face.
“Mulder!” Scully repeated his name, a little more sharply this time, and he jumped slightly. “I said, are you all right?”
Mulder’s eyes gradually refocused on her. “Yeah,” he said, his speech lethargic. “Yeah, I’m okay.”
Scully glanced at him again. “Are you sure, Mulder?” she asked, still unconvinced. “I’m gonna need you here with me on this one.”
He continued looking at her and nodded, slowly. “I’ll be fine, Scully,” he said, his voice a little stronger. “Really.”
Scully gave him one last sidelong look before turning her eyes back to the road ahead of them. “Okay,” she said. “So tell me what you’re thinking about all this.”
Mulder paused so long that Scully was on the verge of pulling over and checking him for shock. When he finally did begin speaking, his voice has an eerie, dreamlike quality that did nothing to settle her fears.
Neither did his words.
“Things fall apart, the center cannot hold … mere anarchy is loosed upon the world … the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned … the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity …”
His voice trailed off, and silence hung in the air for long moments. Scully’s heart clenched in her chest. She was losing him again, the despair and hopelessness that nearly drowned him three months earlier threatening to overtake him once again. She was tempted to abandon the chase, pull the car over and do something — anything — to snap him out of it.
But then he shifted in his seat and shook his head, as if clearing away cobwebs. And he began to speak again, as if nothing had ever happened.
“This is just what we expected, Scully,” he said, his words clear and precise. “A planned, controlled release of bees to infect the population with the virus. Victims taken away by the military, with no official record of their conditions. This secondary attack was probably unplanned, the result of a few bees that got separated from the primary swarm.
“The symptoms we’ve seen before, but not in quite this way. The people infected with the virus — purity — whatever it is — they didn’t seem to have any symptoms, at least not until …” His voice faltered here, but he finished anyway. “Until you were stung.” He paused, then went on. “They seemed normal, until they were threatened, and then they displayed unusual strength, and struck out against the threat.”
Scully nodded. “But these people did show symptoms,” she said. “And I didn’t … when I was stung, you didn’t see the …” She couldn’t quite say it.
“No,” Mulder finished, and Scully could feel his eyes intently on her. “You didn’t have that symptom, at least … not before …”
Jesus. They still couldn’t even talk about it.
Scully was disgusted with both of them, even though she knew she couldn’t really blame herself or Mulder. They both had good reason to want to avoid addressing the subject of her abduction nearly a year before, but they needed to talk out everything they knew if they were too have any hope of figuring this out in time to do any good at all.
“Mulder,” she started, having no idea what she was going to say next but knowing she needed to say something. “We have to talk about it. I don’t want to any more than you do, but we need to hash out everything we know about this virus or whatever it is, and than means we have to talk about … what happened to me last summer.” She paused again, then said, firmly, “We have to talk about how I reacted when I was stung, why I was abducted, how and where you found me, and what, exactly, that vaccine did.”
There. For the first time, it was all out there on the table. Now all Mulder had to do was jump into the game.
“…what happened to me last summer.”
Her words echoed and reechoed in Mulder’s mind, and again he felt his attention drifting away from matters at hand.
Last summer. Last summer had been a fucking disaster, one catastrophe following another, as seemingly inevitable and unstoppable as an avalanche or a tidal wave. And the crowning touch, the thing that had very nearly driven him to the self- destruction he’d always known was waiting for him, was when Scully had been taken from him. Again.
Mulder closed his eyes for a moment and tried to drive away the memories, but they didn’t want to go. They never wanted to go, they never wanted to leave him alone. Even when he was asleep they hovered around him, dark and menacing, always on the verge of overwhelming him, and now he felt them closing in again …
He was brought back to reality by Scully calling his name again, and he realized that the car was decelerating rapidly. He focused his attention to the front and saw that they were approaching a gate in a high chainlink fence, guarded by two men in full combat gear. A sign on the fence read, “Lawson Army Airfield — Restricted Access — Authorized Personnel Only.”
Scully pulled the car to a halt in front of the gate, and one of the soldiers approached her window, while the other stepped off to the other side, unslinging his rifle as he did so — and Mulder suddenly realized that the man was positioning himself so that the car would be in a crossfire if such became necessary. He turned to Scully to warn her, but it was too late; her window was already sliding down.
“This is a restricted area, Ma’am,” the soldier said. “I’m afraid you’ll have to leave.”
“We’re with the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” Scully replied. “I’m going to take out my badge, now. And we’re both armed, okay?”
The man’s expression didn’t change, but Mulder saw his gaze flick quickly to the other guard, and then back to Scully. He nodded slightly, and said, “Okay, Ma’am. Slowly.”
Out of the corner of his eye Mulder saw Scully nod in return and start reaching for her I.D., but the bulk of his attention was focused on the soldier who had not spoken. He knew that if the guards decided to shoot, he and Scully wouldn’t have a prayer, but he was determined not to go down without trying. Or, more accurately, he wasn’t going to let anything happen to Scully without making some effort to protect her, no matter how futile.
A moment later Scully was holding her badge out the car window so the soldier could examine it. He gave it a good long look, glanced up at Scully’s face and then back down at her picture again, and finally looked back up at her and nodded for her to put it away. “You’re still going to have to leave,” he said. “No one passes this checkpoint without proper authorization. Express orders from the base commander.”
“How long have those orders been in effect?” she asked.
“It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to say, Ma’am,” he replied.
“We’re looking for some trucks,” she said. “Four of them: olive- drab, with military markings. We think they came this way. They were carrying four people — patients of mine. I’m a doctor, and I was in the middle of treating these people when they were … they were taken from me. I have to find them. Their lives may very well be in danger.”
The soldier took a couple of steps back from the car and unslung his rifle. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave, Ma’am.”
For just a few seconds longer Scully and the guard stared at each other; Mulder could practically feel the icy rage in his partner’s stare. Finally she nodded, rolled her window back up and put the car in reverse. A moment later she had turned the car around and they were heading back up the highway towards Columbus.
Mulder slumped down in his seat again as the car sped down the highway back towards the city. He knew his partner well enough to be able to guess what must be going on inside her head, and he wasn’t at all sure he was ready to deal with it.
She was angry, of course — angry and frustrated at having been thwarted by the guards. But that was only on the surface, and it was the least important part of what he knew she must be feeling. Deeper down, in the place where Dana Scully really lived, he knew that she was afraid.
It was not a craven fear, of course. Mulder had never in his life known anyone as brave and selfless as this woman. But she was afraid, nonetheless, and he had known it for a long time, and it all centered on fear of losing control. And now, unless he was completely off-base, her fear was stronger than it had ever been in all the years he’d known her — and it was all because of his own inability to cope with the things life had been throwing at him lately. Something had to break. Soon.
He was drawn from his reverie by a change in the car’s motion, and for the third time in less than thirty minutes he dragged himself back to awareness of his surroundings. This time he saw that Scully had pulled off the highway into a rest stop. He sat in silence as she maneuvered past several parked semis, and finally brought the car to a halt. He waited for a moment longer, still not saying anything, hoping against hope that maybe this was just a bathroom break, even though he knew in his heart that it was not. And finally, his partner turned in her seat to face him.
“Mulder?” she said, very softly. “Are you in there?”
He nodded wearily and reluctantly. “Yeah, Scully. Yeah, I’m here.”
A flicker of relief passed across her face, and then was gone so fast he wasn’t even sure it had really been there. “Good. Because I’m … I’m really gonna need you, Partner.” She reached out and took one of his hands and squeezed it gently. “I can’t do this alone.”
He nodded again. He’d known this moment was coming. She’d been carrying him for nearly three months now, ever since El Rico, and he’d known all along that there would be a limit to her endurance.
“I … I know, Scully. I know you need me.” He squeezed her hand in return, and was surprised at the strength he was able to put into the gesture. “And I know you’ve been … doing a lot for me recently, and you have no idea how much I appreciate it.”
Mulder paused for a moment, trying to collect his thoughts, and trying to figure out just how much he wanted to tell her. Twice in the last year he’d opened up to her pretty much completely: Once in the hall outside his apartment, just before she was taken, and then as he lay in a hospital bed after she’d pulled him out of the Bermuda Triangle. She couldn’t possibly have missed his intentions, but she’d chosen not to act on them, and he didn’t want to push himself on her.
But there were still some things he needed to say to her.
“Scully, I …” He heard his voice trail off, and he shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know what to say. I know you need me, and I’m just … I’m overwhelmed that you’re able to tell me that; I know how hard it is for you to open up and admit something like that.”
He gave her hand another squeeze. “And I want to be there for you, Scully; there’s nothing in the world I want more. You’re the most —” He stopped in mid-sentence; that was a bit too close to the bone. Try again. “You’re very important to me, and I … value your friendship.” He shrugged again. “I’m trying, Scully; I’m really trying.” He shrugged a third time and closed his eyes.
Please, god … let it be enough, at least for now.
After Mulder fell silent, Scully pulled back out of the rest stop without releasing his hand. She continued to drive one-handed and soon heard the shift in his breathing as he fell into a light sleep. His grip on her right hand never faltered, though, and she didn’t try to extract it.
She reran Mulder’s little speech in her head several times, still a little shocked and amazed at how much he said in so few words. It might not have had the force or desperation of his declaration in the hallway outside his apartment, but without the imminent threat of her departure hanging between them … well, it was somehow even more meaningful.
She had a feeling there had been more he’d wanted to say, but something was holding him back. Not surprising; the two of them had held back so much from each other for so long that it took a real effort for them to open up. They’d been doing better over the past few weeks, but old habits were hard to break.
She was inordinately grateful — and reassured — that he’d been able to say as much as he had. If he was still focused enough on her, and his own feelings, to put them to voice, then he wasn’t gone completely.
But she was still worried. He was too close to the edge for her comfort, but she wasn’t sure what, if anything, she could do about it. She’d meant it when she said she needed him with her, and not just on this case.
She needed him with her all the time, even if she couldn’t quite bring herself to come out and say it to him.
Sighing softly, she headed back into the city, her mind focused on getting rooms in one of the motels she’d seen earlier. She also needed to give Andy a call to see if she’d found anything new at the scene.
Plus … she was getting hungry. That little hamburger and Coke for lunch just wasn’t holding up against her harrowing afternoon.
She spied a Holiday Inn Express on the left and carefully slid her hand from Mulder’s to make the turn, trying not to wake him quite yet. But the second her fingers cleared his, he jerked in his seat, his eyes flying open to land on her.
“Scully?” he asked, his voice raspy. “Where are we?”
“A motel, Mulder,” she replied, pulling the car to a stop outside the office and turning in her seat to face him. “You wait here while I get us checked in, and then we’ll see about some dinner. Okay?”
He nodded slowly. “Okay,” he said, closing his eyes and lowering his head back against the seat.
Scully watched him intently for another few moments, then climbed from the car and headed inside.
Holiday Inn Express Columbus, GA 6:34 p.m.
Mulder awoke to the sound of voices.
At first he thought he was back on the sofa in his apartment, and that the voices were coming from the television, but then the memories came flooding back. Georgia. They were in Georgia, on a case, and nothing was going right, and he had just collapsed on his partner. Again.
His eyes popped open and he struggled to a sitting position. He was in a darkened motel room, lying — now sitting — on one of the beds. The voices were coming from the other side of the room, and he shifted his gaze in that direction to see someone standing in the doorway. Two someones, and one of them was Scully. He felt himself relax, and only then did he realize how tense he’d become in the few seconds since he’d awakened.
“Scully? Is everything …” He let his voice trail off as he finally internalized the fact that there was another person standing next to his partner.
“Mulder,” Scully said, turning and flipping on the light as she stepped back into the room. “I’m sorry; we didn’t mean to wake you.”
Mulder squinted at the sudden illumination and realized that the other person was Andy Baker, still standing in the doorway. Automatically, he noted that she’d changed from her business clothes to jeans, a black t-shirt and a sleeveless black vest which was rather surprisingly bulky considering how warm the day was. A medium-sized shopping bag dangled from one of her hands.
Scully continued, “But I guess it’s about time you got up; Andy just got here, and we need to make some plans.”
Mulder nodded slowly as he finally regained full consciousness. There’d been the incident at the Riverwalk … the futile pursuit of the trucks … that damned one-sided conversation at the rest stop.
Fuck. He’d screwed up again with that little speech of his, hadn’t he?
He shook his head and pushed it all away; Scully needed him, and she needed him to concentrate on the present, not wallow in his mistakes of the past.
He glanced around the room and saw Scully’s suitcase sitting on the bureau; a few feet farther along the same wall the connecting door to the next room stood open. He felt himself flush slightly as he realized he must have fallen asleep in her room.
He felt a slight touch on his shoulder and turned to see that his partner was now standing next to him, her gaze locked on his. “It’s okay, Mulder,” she said softly. “You needed the rest; I didn’t mind.”
For a long moment neither of them moved or spoke, but to Mulder the silence seemed to speak volumes. She really did seem to understand. He knew that he had hurt her a few months back, and hurt her badly, and they were still working through that. But perhaps this afternoon they had made progress. Perhaps the few sentences he’d managed to stammer out hadn’t been so bad after all.
“Uh … guys?”
Mulder tore his eyes away from his partner’s and glanced back across the room to see Andy still standing just inside the doorway, looking as if she felt awkward and out of place. He tried to think of something to say to her, but nothing was coming to mind.
“Sorry, Andy,” Scully said, her hand still resting on Mulder’s shoulder. “Come on in and sit down.” She nodded toward the bag Andy held. “I take it you were able to get the things I asked you for?”
Andy smiled as she crossed the room and set the bag on the table. “Yep,” she confirmed. “Even the sunflower seeds.”
Scully glanced down at Mulder again, giving him a smile that seemed to say, “See, Partner? Someone’s looking out for you.” She squeezed his shoulder before removing her hand, then reached into the bag and pulled out the package of seeds and handed them to him. She then proceeded to remove half a dozen Chinese takeout containers and set them on the bedside table. As the smells from the containers started to permeate the room, Mulder’s stomach growled.
The three of them tore into the food as if they hadn’t eaten in days. To Mulder’s surprise, his partner chose to sit on the bed next to him rather than dragging over a chair, while Andy rather diffidently sat on the other bed. And for perhaps 20 minutes they were all too busy eating to do much talking, beyond the occasional request or offer to trade containers.
Finally Mulder set down his current container and leaned back against the headboard with a sigh of contentment. “God, that was good,” he commented. “I really needed that, and the sleep.” He glanced down at Scully, who had scooted up against the headboard next to him and was finishing off the princess chicken. “Thank you.”
She looked back up at him, and in the space of a few seconds he could see an entire series of thoughts and emotions race across her features, too quick and complex for him to comprehend. Then her lips quirked and she nodded slightly, and she leaned forward and pitched her empty container into the wastebasket on his side of the bed.
Glancing across at Andy, still sitting on the other bed, she said, “Well, I guess now it’s time to get down to business.”
Alabama Highway 165 West of the Chattahoochee River Near Fort Mitchell, Alabama 11:39 p.m.
The rental car was pulled up under the low-hanging trees, several yards from the side of the winding, two-lane road, and for once Scully was glad for the ubiquitous dark blue color of the Taurus. Made for better camouflage on these late-night raids, anyway.
She and Mulder pulled on their black gloves, his brand-new and hers borrowed from Andy, since neither had thought to pack for such an “adventure.” Both of them were dressed in black head-to- toe, Scully’s hair tucked under a baseball cap, also borrowed from Andy. Luckily for them, the night was relatively cool for mid-May.
Scully rechecked her weapon and tucked it into the holster at her back, then checked her flashlight; Mulder was doing the same in the driver’s seat. Scully then pulled out the pager she carried, also borrowed from Andy, and double-checked that it was set for vibration. It would be used for communication, since Andy would be staying in the car as a lookout while she and Mulder headed toward the base.
Finished, she turned halfway around in the seat to face Andy, who was checking her own weapon, a 9mm Beretta, the same kind she’d used as her personal sidearm in the Marine Corps. Mulder had taken a kind of perverse delight when he discovered she carried a “real” weapon; the bulky vest she wore had turned out to be a method of concealment.
The group had taken nearly two hours to hash out their plans for the evening, poring over several maps Andy brought with her and discussing their options. Their final decision was to approach the base from the Alabama side of the river, where Andy knew of a spot with a clear view of the airfield.
“You can thank my one-and-only blind date for that,” she’d said, her tone disgusted, when questioned about the information. “I went out with him as a favor to a friend a couple years ago, and he’d just gotten out of the Army. He was stationed at Benning for three years, and he couldn’t resist showing off all his ‘inside military’ information.” She grinned at Mulder. “He was pretty surprised to see my weapon, too, but not as shocked as he was when he got too friendly and I threw him flat on his back with one hand.”
Scully held back a grin at the image the story evoked, just as Andy finished reholstering her weapon and looked up at her. “You ready?” Andy asked, glancing at Mulder as well.
“Ready as we’ll ever be,” he replied, slipping his own flashlight into the front pocket of his black leather jacket. He picked up the brand-new pair of high-powered field glasses from the seat and reached for the door handle.
The three clambered from the car and met at the front, where Scully checked her watch. “Eleven forty-five,” she said, glancing at Andy, who checked her watch as well and nodded. “Ten minutes to the riverbank; we’ll call a half-hour after that to check in.”
“Good luck,” Andy said, and Scully shot her a quick smile before turning toward the river, Mulder beside her.
Sure enough, ten minutes later they were ensconced on the bank of the river, lying on their stomachs, eyes trained on the lights of the airfield, less than two hundred yards away. The river was at its narrowest point here, putting them half as far away as they would have been in any other position.
Mulder had the glasses out and was scanning the field, reporting everything he saw out loud, but softly. “Looks like five planes on the runway, pretty good sized ones, though I can’t see clearly enough to tell what kind. Transports, looks like. Lots of people milling around, a line of trucks along one side.”
He scanned further, and froze. His breathing caught; Scully was close enough to feel it. “What is it?” she whispered insistently.
He stayed motionless for another few moments, then sucked in a breath. “Carriers,” he rasped out. “For … they’re …” He paused and shook his head, then forced the words out. “Like the one you were transported in.”
Scully’s eyes widened in alarm. Mulder had pulled his head back from the glasses and was staring off at some uncertain point in the distance, his hand slack on the glasses. Carefully, she reached to take them from him and lifted them to her own eyes, training them on the grouping of planes.
Sure enough, sitting on the runway between the trucks and the planes were several gurney-like frames topped with cases of some kind, with clear covers. They were somewhat like the litters used to remove injured people from dangerous areas, like skiers from the sides of mountains, she thought, but these were larger.
The shape was reminiscent of a coffin, she registered, her mind automatically shifting into clinical mode. Tanks were hooked on the sides of the covers — for oxygen? — and as she focused in more carefully, she could see whiteness on the glass, either fog or ice.
She looked at Mulder sideways. “Mulder?” she asked gently. “When did you see the carrier?”
“In the ship,” he answered, in a dazed, too-controlled monotone. “Your clothes were in it. And your cross. I looked for you and found you near it. I used one of the tanks to break the glass.”
Scully reached out a hand, laying it on his forearm, intending to comfort him. But before she could say a word, she felt a sharp pain on her lower back and gasped out loud, her hand automatically flying to clamp down on the spot.
“Scully?” Mulder was suddenly fully alert and focused on her, his eyes wide. “Scully, what is it?”
“Something … my back,” she said, moving her hand slightly and feeling something under it. “Something’s on my back.”
At Scully’s words, Mulder went on autopilot, grabbing his flashlight and sitting up. He reached for her hand and pushed it gently aside, then pulled the tail of her shirt from the waistband of her jeans.
There, at the small of her back, sat a tiny, black-and-yellow bee.
And Mulder’s heart seemed to stop.
Oh god. Oh god. Not again.
“Mulder? Mulder, what is it?”
Oh god. Please god, make it not be happening. Please —
Mulder shook himself, and tried to force himself to focus. Focus. He needed to do something, he needed to take control. Focus. Scully. The bee ….
Almost as if acting of its own volition, his hand swooped down on the insect, snatching it from his partner’s back and crushing it savagely between gloved thumb and forefinger. His next impulse was to throw it away into the darkness, to deny its existence, but a small corner of rationality reminded him that this was evidence, their first real evidence, and so with a mighty effort of will he stuffed it hastily into his pocket. He then grabbed Scully’s elbow and slid down the embankment to the river’s edge, pulling her roughly after him.
“Mulder!” Her voice was a sharp hiss in the darkness. “What the hell are you doing?”
“We’ve got to get out of here,” he said flatly, starting to move along the river, still dragging her after him. The riverbank was about four feet high along this stretch, and so they had to crouch to avoid detection. They hadn’t gone more than three or four steps before she started to struggle in earnest.
“Dammit, Mulder!” Scully gave an especially sharp yank and managed to pull free of his grip, causing them both to stumble, but in opposite directions. Mulder maintained his balance by the barest of margins, and turned back to see his partner glaring at him as she struggled back to her feet from where she’d fallen.
“Scully, I —”
Her expression changed suddenly, and he stopped in mid-sentence as he saw her slap her hand against her left hip. No, god. No, this isn’t the reaction starting. Not again, god. Please …
“Mulder, we’ve got to get out of here,” she whispered, and suddenly she was moving past him and along the river’s edge, and Mulder had to hurry to catch up. “Andy’s pager just went off,” she explained over her shoulder. “Could mean trouble.”
Mulder nodded, but she’d already turned away from him again, and for a few minutes the partners hurried along together in silence. Mulder tried not to think about the bee; he tried not to imagine Scully suddenly collapsing, and the black oil roiling across her eyes. She was showing no symptoms, he reminded himself. She was fine, and she was going to be fine. They weren’t going to take her from him, not again. He’d die before he allowed that to happen again.
At length they reached the low point in the bank where they’d begun this little adventure, and in a matter of seconds both agents had scrambled up the embankment to level ground. They paused briefly to orient themselves, then headed in the direction of the car.
The urgency of the whispered command denied any possibility of disobedience, and Mulder was diving for the turf even before he’d identified the voice as belonging to Andy, burying his face in the dirt and wrapping his arms around his head. A fraction of a second later Scully landed next to him, and then the two agents held perfectly still, barely even breathing, as Mulder tried to listen for the threat which had prompted Andy’s order.
A minute passed. Two minutes. Three. Finally, in the direction of the river, Mulder heard a very faint rustling noise, no more than tall grass momentarily disturbed by a light breeze — but the air was perfectly still, and a prickle ran down Mulder’s spine as he sensed a presence only a few feet away.
Part of him was screaming to do something — anything. Crawl away, turn and attack, even get up and run. But his training at Quantico stood him in good stead, and he kept repeating to himself one of the basic rules all agents were taught: In darkness the human eye detects motion rather than shape or color. A man on the ground in the dark can remain undetected even if he is only a few yards from his opponent, so long as he remains perfectly still.
More time passed, but whether it was five minutes, or ten, or even fifteen, he couldn’t say. The rustling was not repeated, but still there was the sense of someone or something nearby … until suddenly it was gone, without any explanation or resolution. And still Mulder and Scully remained quiet and motionless, as more time trickled by.
Finally something moved in his peripheral vision, and Mulder’s muscles tensed as he prepared to reach for his weapon, but even as he was about to act Andy’s voice floated to him from the darkness. “I think we’re clear now. Come on.” And the shadow turned and moved away in the direction of the car, and after another moment Mulder and his partner rose to their feet and followed.
Northbound on Alabama Highway 165 Approaching Columbus, GA May 11, 1999 12:41 a.m.
“There were two squads of troops,” Andy was saying, her voice tense, as she guided the car back towards Columbus. “I think they were Rangers, but I couldn’t tell for sure. They moved like Rangers.” Her grip tightened on the steering wheel, and her tone turned hard. “And I wish to hell I knew where they came from, because they were just there. I never saw or heard a thing.”
“It’s okay, Andy,” Scully said from the front passenger seat. Mulder wasn’t quite sure how he’d ended up in back, but at the time the important thing had been to get away, and fast.
“They were obviously professionals,” Scully went on, “and you did the best you could. I’m just glad none of us was hurt or captured.”
Andy shook her head. “No, you don’t understand,” she said insistently. “I’m supposed to be good at this. This is what I was trained for. And I thought I still had it, and because I overreached I almost got the two of you taken prisoner or killed.”
Mulder opened his mouth to offer reassurance, but Scully beat him to it. “No, Andy — that’s not true,” she said, leaning toward the other woman. “You saved us. Without your warning we would have been cut off. It’s only because of you that we’re still free and alive and able to continue the investigation.”
Mulder glanced at Andy, who was shaking her head vehemently. “I fucked up,” she said. “Don’t try to sugarcoat it. I was the security detachment, and if I’d done my job right we would have been on the highway and on our way back to Columbus before those troops even got close.”
For a moment there was silence in the car. Mulder wanted to say something, he wanted to tell Andy that Scully was right, but he was exhausted, both emotionally and physically, and the words just wouldn’t come.
Finally Scully spoke again, very quietly. “Look, we’re all tired,” she said. “It’s been a long, hard day, and what we all need is to get some sleep. I’m sure after we’ve had a chance to rest things will look better.” Mulder saw her shoulders shift, and realized that she must have briefly touched Andy’s arm, lending energy to the other woman just as she had done countless times for him. He felt a thrill of pride at this knowledge; Scully was so strong, so very, very strong …
“I mean it, Andy,” she said. “I really mean it. So why don’t you just drop us at the motel, and we’ll all get some sleep. And tomorrow we’ll get together again and try to figure out what to do next.”
And after that it was silent in the car.
Room 204 Holiday Inn Express Columbus, GA 3:33 a.m.
Scully watched the red, glowing numbers of the clock change again, starting another long minute of this seemingly endless night.
She pulled the thin motel pillow more tightly against her chest, trying through sheer force of will to close her eyes and find sleep, but she was no more successful than she had been for the past two hours.
She could feel the tiny bump on her lower back as if it were the size of her hand, throbbing in counterpoint to the pounding of her heart. Even with all the things they’d seen that day, she’d never once considered that what she’d felt on the riverbank was a sting.
A bee sting.
It took until Andy left Mulder and her at the motel and they were back in Scully’s room for Mulder to finally force the words out and show her the tiny, crushed insect. And then she understood his reactions at the river — his frozen shock, followed by frantic retreat. She was just thankful he’d kept enough control to hold onto the bee; he’d confessed he’d nearly tossed it aside.
She had, so far, shown no symptoms, other than the raised mark at the sting site. But it had taken an hour for her to calm Mulder enough for him to return to his own room, and even then he insisted that the connecting door remain open.
After he had gone, Scully had proceeded mechanically through her regular nighttime activities — wash face; brush teeth and hair; change into pajamas; set alarm for morning. But once ensconced under the covers, she simply could not get her eyes to close.
Suddenly, every muscle twinge was the start of her collapse. Every hitched breath was the beginning of her end. And every external sound was an intruder, coming to take her away.
Irrational or not, the fear was real. And it would not let her sleep.
But neither would it let her move. She was too afraid that she would try to get up, only for her arms and legs to fail her. Or that if she strayed more than a foot away from the unholstered gun on her bedside table, some unknown person would swoop down and she would be gone.
It wouldn’t even let her think. Every time she tried to organize the events of the past day, put it into some sort of order, work through the facts and the theories and the possibilities, her mind would seize up, stuck on the bee and its implications.
So she was left to stare at the clock, watching the night pass in slow motion.
Room 206 Holiday Inn Express Columbus, GA 4:10 a.m.
Mulder couldn’t sleep, which was nothing new — but tonight even the babble of a late movie on AMC or an infomercial on FX wasn’t enough to distract him from his thoughts.
God. What a nightmare. What a fucking nightmare. And he still couldn’t get it out of his thoughts; he still couldn’t keep from replaying the image in his mind: The bee nestled against Scully’s lower back, triggering the terror that had haunted him since the previous summer, the terror that had finally after all these years supplanted his feelings of loss and failure over Samantha.
The damned bee.
He couldn’t stop thinking about her.
He turned restlessly in bed, and tried to avoid looking at the clock. If he looked at the clock he would just start obsessing on that, counting the minutes until dawn. Counting the minutes until he could see Scully again, and know that she was really okay.
His eyes fell on the dark shadow of the connecting door, left standing open at his insistence. She was almost certainly asleep by now; he hadn’t heard anything from her room in at least an hour, so she pretty much had to be.
He could probably go stand in the doorway without disturbing her. He could stand there for just a moment, long enough to pick out her sleeping form on the bed and reassure himself that she was still there and still breathing. He didn’t need to wake her. He just needed to look at her.
He slipped quietly out of bed and felt around on the floor until he found his jeans, pulling them on out of some sense of propriety. Then he stepped over to the doorway.
It was, of course, even darker in her room than it was in his, since she didn’t have her television turned on. Mulder stood patiently, waiting for his eyes to adapt, and slowly the objects in the room started to take on definition: The dark cavern that marked the bathroom door; the little tea table and two chairs by the window; and finally, at long last, the nearer of the two beds, and the rumpled roll of blankets that he knew must be his partner.
God, she was small. She was so tiny, and she looked so vulnerable. He knew she wasn’t, really; he knew she was tough and strong and courageous. But just at that moment she looked very slight and diminutive, as if she might be carried away from him on a light breeze.
“You can come in if you want to.”
Mulder jumped at the sound of her voice. Oh, god … he’d woken her up. Somehow, standing there in the doorway he’d managed to make a sound or something and he’d woken her up.
He tried to say something, to formulate an apology for having disturbed her sleep, but before he could get the words out she was speaking again.
“It’s okay, Mulder,” she said, very softly. Her voice had a distant, dreamy quality, a tone that sent a tingle down his spine. “I couldn’t sleep anyway. I’ve been lying here for the last half hour or so wondering if you were still awake, and wishing you’d come in to see me.”
Mulder felt a sudden lump in his throat. Had she really said that? Had Dana Scully really said that she’d wanted him to come to her? He knew she didn’t mean it in the way he wished she did, but even this much was more than she’d ever given him before.
“Come on, Mulder,” she said. “Sit with me for awhile?”
He could never refuse her anything she asked for in that tone of voice, and so a few seconds later he was sitting down gingerly on the edge of her bed as she slid over to make room for him.
The two kept their silence for several minutes, and Mulder just concentrated on listening to her breathe. Slow, steady, breaths. So purposeful and deliberate. So Scully. Everything about her was so perfectly Scully.
But still there was the fear in the back of his mind, the fear of the bee, the fear that she would suddenly collapse and be taken from him again. He knew it was irrational; he knew that if she was going to display symptoms from her sting they would have long since manifested themselves. But he couldn’t drive it from his mind; he couldn’t make the fear go away.
“Scully?” he whispered, wondering if maybe she’d finally dropped off to sleep.
“Yeah, Mulder?” Her voice sounded low and rich, and definitely wide awake, and again he felt a tingle run down his spine.
“Scully, can I see …” He let his voice trail off; he felt like a complete idiot for asking this, but it would help reassure him; he was sure of it. And then maybe, finally, they’d both be able to get some rest. Try again. “Can I see … can I see the spot where you were stung?”
She was silent for a moment, and for just an instant Mulder was afraid he’d upset her. But then he felt her hand on his shoulder and she was pulling herself to a sitting position, turning her back to him and bending slightly at the waist.
For a timeless interval Mulder simply stared at her, and suddenly he was having a flashback to that first case in Oregon. Only that time she had been the one who was afraid; she had been the one seeking reassurance.
He had given her that reassurance with two words: Mosquito bites. And then she had flung herself into his arms in relief, and they’d sat up half the night talking and getting to know each other. It had been the first real turning point in their partnership; hell, it had established their partnership, making it something real, rather than just words on a piece of paper.
And Mulder had a sudden premonition that tonight, perhaps, would be another turning point.
Her voice brought him back to the present, and he took a deep breath, then reached out with a slightly shaking hand and gently pulled up the tail of her pajama top.
For a moment all he could see was her skin, smooth and pale in the darkness. He couldn’t see the sting at all, and then he leaned a little closer and there it was: A small, red lump, barely noticeable even when you knew what to look for. He gently touched it with his forefinger, then drew his hand away. It was so small, so insignificant. It really was just a bee sting.
He was about to allow her clothing to fall back into place when he noticed something else, and he leaned a little closer. There was a scar there; a small scar in the shape of a ring, about three inches in diameter. It looked fairly fresh, too, as if it had just recently finished healing.
His brow creased in confusion for a moment … and then he realized what it was.
“I had it removed,” she said quietly. Mulder glanced up from his examination of his partner’s lower back to see her looking back at him over her shoulder.
He hastily dropped the shirt tail and straightened up. This was a bad subject, a very bad subject, and he needed to distance himself from it, fast. “S-sorry,” he said. “None of my business.”
Scully adjusted her clothes for a moment, then turned on the bed until she was sitting crosslegged and facing him. “Actually,” she said, “it is your business, and it always has been.”
The words hung between them for a long moment, while Mulder struggled to find something to say. Finally he said, “Scully … you don’t have to explain yourself —”
She raised her hand and gently pressed her fingertips against his lips to silence him, sending a not-unwelcome thrill along his skin. “No, I don’t have to explain myself,” she said. “But I want to. I’ve wanted to … to explain this to you for awhile now.”
Her hand dropped back into her lap, and she seemed to study his face for a moment. “I told you that not everything is about you, and that’s true enough,” she finally said. “But that … that was about you, at least partly.” She shook her head. “I had it taken off because that was one of the stupider nights of my life, and I finally decided I didn’t want any souvenirs lying around.”
“It must have hurt,” Mulder said softly. “Having it removed, I mean.”
She nodded. “It did. But not as much as it would have hurt to leave it in place.” She hesitated, then went on, “Mulder, I’m not bringing up a two-year-old incident just to rub salt in the wounds — for either of us. I’m trying to make a point, and the point is that we both have a tendency to hurt each other. That was one of the times I hurt you and … and I’m sorry.”
She fell silent for a moment, looking as if she wanted to say more, and then she sighed and said simply “I’d like for us to make a fresh start.”
Mulder sighed as well, softly. “But I hurt you, too, Scully. If I recall correctly I was a prize asshole that whole week.”
She nodded soberly in agreement. “But that doesn’t excuse what I did,” she said. “Returning hurt for hurt … that’s not a very grownup thing to do.”
For a few moments the two sat in silence again, while Mulder tried to process everything she’d just said. He was more than slightly stunned by Scully’s blunt statements. This wasn’t her usual style — hell, it wasn’t their usual style. But for some reason, tonight she was opening up to him in ways that she never had before. He had to respond; he had to say something to let her know how much he appreciated this.
And then in a flash he knew what it was he needed to say.
“Scully … about El Rico … and Diana …” He heard his voice trail off as he struggled to find the words. He dared to lift his gaze and look at his partner, and found nothing but caring and compassion in her eyes, and that gave him the strength to go on.
“Scully, I was wrong,” he said, his voice firmer. “I should have listened to you. I’m not saying I should have believed you without question, but I should have listened instead of shutting you out. My only excuse … hell, I don’t have an excuse. I was just blinded by my need to have someone I could trust and depend on.” He reached out with more confidence than he truly felt and took one of her hands in both of his. “And I was so blind and stupid that I never realized she was standing right there next to me the whole time.”
He felt a sudden lump in his throat, and swallowed it down with difficulty. “God, I’m so sorry, Scully. I’m so sorry I hurt you, that time and all the other times. The last thing I ever want to do is hurt you. If we can make a fresh start …. god, that would be more than I have any right to ask or expect. But I’d like to try.”
Time seemed to stop, and all Mulder could see was his partner’s bright eyes cutting through the gloom, her gaze roaming across his face. He felt himself being drawn into her eyes, he was losing himself in them, drowning in them.
He was suddenly short of breath, and his heart was pounding in his chest, and Scully was leaning slowly forward, her lips slightly parted, and he found himself responding, moving to help close the distance …
And her cell phone rang.
Scully blinked in surprise, and for the second time that night Mulder felt as if his heart was going to stop. For just a moment longer they remained where they were, poised … and then the phone trilled a second time, and all the energy that had been building between them seemed to vanish in an instant.
Scully reached out to grab the phone from the nightstand, punching a button with her thumb.
“Scully.” She paused for a moment and listened. “No, Andy, that’s fine; I wasn’t asleep. What have you got?” This time the pause was longer, and partway through he saw her eyes widen. Finally she said, “Jesus. When —” Again she stopped, and then she was nodding. “Okay, Andy. Okay. We’ll see you then.” And she punched the disconnect.
“What is it, Scully?” Mulder asked urgently. “What’s happened?”
She looked at him for a moment, and he felt a chill race through his system as he recognized the shock and apprehension which had so quickly and completely taken over her features. This was bad, he knew. Very bad.
And when she spoke, his worst fears were confirmed.
“There’s been another attack,” she said, her voice flat and emotionless. “In Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Last night. At another ballpark. Seventy victims so far, and the count is still climbing.”
Her voice dropped to a whisper. “My God, Mulder. My God. Maybe they’re not just restocking. Maybe this is the kickoff for the main event.” She closed her eyes for a moment, and then she opened them again and spoke the word, making it all real:
Room 204 Holiday Inn Express Columbus, GA 5:14 a.m.
The partners simply sat and stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity. Scully felt light-headed, uncertain whether it was from the lack of sleep, the news they’d just received … or the scene the phone call interrupted.
She finally shook herself free of her inertia and reached over to flick on the bedside light. She saw Mulder squint at the sudden glare and muttered a quick “sorry” under her breath as she pushed herself up off the bed.
She turned to face him again. “Andy wants to meet us for breakfast at six, so I’m going to take a quick shower and get dressed,” she said. A fleeting image of inviting him to join her flashed into her mind, almost making her jump in alarm, but she chalked it up to her fatigue and went on. “We need to decide what to do about this. One of us needs to go up there.”
At that, Mulder’s head jerked up, and one hand shot out to grab hers. “I’m not leaving you, Scully,” he said fiercely. His eyes were wild and unfocused, and Scully’s heart clenched in her chest.
She brought up her free hand to cover his. “It’s okay, Mulder,” she said soothingly, feeling his grip relax under her touch. “Let’s just get dressed and go talk to Andy, and we can work everything out. It’ll be fine.”
After a long moment, Mulder nodded slowly, slipping his hand from her arm. Scully gave his hand a final squeeze before releasing it, then took a step back. “Out, G-man,” she said lightly. “Go get dressed. We’ve got a busy day ahead of us.”
He shot her a half-smile as he rose to his feet, and she felt some of the tension leave her body. He moved to step past her but then paused and lifted one hand to run his palm down her arm from shoulder to wrist. He leaned in until his breath brushed her ear, and Scully had to forcefully suppress a shiver.
“Thanks, Scully,” he whispered.
A second later, he was gone, and she let out a shuddering sigh. Her senses were on overload, and the mix of too little rest and too much emotion was nearly more than she could bear.
But she had to bear it, not only for her sake but for Mulder’s as well. She knew he was barely holding himself together — hell, without her around, he’d probably have lost it completely by now — and she could not, and would not, let him fall apart. She needed him too much, and not just on this investigation. She just needed him, period.
Maybe it was time she told him that.
Now, however, was not the time for those thoughts. Forcing her mind to consider what their next move should be, she swung into her automatic morning preparations, gathering up clothes and toiletries and heading for the bathroom.
Silver Dollar Diner Columbus, GA May 11, 1999 5:49 a.m.
Scully and Mulder settled in across from each other in one of the many open booths. The diner was nearly deserted, as Andy said it would likely be until around 6:30. She was to meet them at six, but they’d left as soon as they were ready and had arrived early.
A middle-aged women with dry, bleached-blonde hair and entirely too much eye makeup approached their table within seconds of their arrival. Slipping silverware onto the table, she greeted them with a friendly, “Mornin’, y’all,” then reached for the order pad in the pocket of her apron. “What can I get ya?” she asked.
“Coffee,” the partners answered in unison, then smiled at each other. Scully added, “Make that three; we’re meeting someone.” She glanced at Mulder, gauging his mental and physical condition in a second, as she was so used to doing, and returned her attention to the waitress. “And two large orange juices, and I’ll have raisin toast with butter, and … Mulder? Two eggs over easy, bacon, hashbrowns and toast okay?”
He shot her a mock-evil look, then looked at the waitress. “What she said,” he said, grinning.
The waitress nodded, still scribbling down the order, then glanced at him. “It’s grits, though, not hash browns. That okay?”
Scully could tell Mulder was trying not to wince. “Sure,” he said, giving another grin, this one much more hesitant.
The waitress smiled again and headed for the counter, and Scully let out the chuckle she’d been trying to hold back. “And when’s the last time you had grits, Mulder?” she asked teasingly.
He shook his head with a wry smile. “Let’s see, today’s Tuesday, that would be … never?” he said.
Scully raised an eyebrow. “Well, you’re in for a rare treat,” she said. “Just be sure to add plenty of butter and salt.”
Mulder fixed her with an inquisitive look. “And when have you had grits, Agent Scully?” he asked.
She shrugged. “Mom’s family is from Virginia,” she said. “I’ve had them off and on all my life. Not my favorites, but they’re okay, as long as you never try to eat them plain.”
Mulder leaned back in the booth, stretching one arm out along the top of the seat. “So enlighten me,” he said. “What do they taste like?”
Scully leaned forward, her elbows on the edge of the table and her hands folded. “Well, plain, they taste about like they look,” she said. “Like little broken-up bits of Styrofoam.”
Mulder chuckled at that, and she went on. “So if you put enough butter and salt on them, they taste like … well, butter and salt, but thicker.” She paused, then grinned. “Kind of hard to describe, actually.”
Before Mulder could respond, the bell over the door rang as someone entered, and the partners looked up to see Andy coming toward them. Scully scooted over to make a place, and Andy slid in beside her.
The waitress returned then, coffee and orange juice being served in a flurry of activity — Andy had already eaten — and then they turned to the matter at hand.
“The body count is up to 83,” Andy said without preamble. Mulder sat quietly in his seat and sipped at his orange juice as he listened to the briefing. The reporter seemed poised, confident and organized; the Marines had been fools to let her get away.
“I just got off the phone with a guy I went to school with who works for one of the TV stations up there,” Andy went on. “From what he told me it sounds like a carbon copy of what happened down here: mass swarming, dozens of casualties, the whole nine yards. And now the victims have all disappeared, and no one seems to know anything about it. It’s almost as if it never happened.”
“But surely the media reports —” Scully began.
Andy shook her head, cutting Scully off. “There are no media reports. Seen the morning paper?” Both agents shook their heads. “Nothing. Nada. I wrote a mid-length followup yesterday afternoon, based on what we saw at Riverwalk. But my editor spiked it.” She smiled mirthlessly. “In fact, it’s not even in the paper’s computer system anymore. Apparently it was accidentally erased. Or something.”
“Or something,” Mulder agreed, glancing at his partner. “Scully, we should have been expecting this, and it’s just further evidence that this could be the real thing. Control of the media in the early stages would be essential to a successful operation.”
“You got that right,” Andy said grimly. “When I got home last night there was a message on my machine ordering me — not asking, ordering — to report to the office for an emergency conference. I went in at two in the morning expecting to meet with Eddie, my boss, but it turned out to be the publisher and his executive assistant. It seems there’s been pressure from the CDC to suppress the story, ‘in the public interest’.”
Scully shook her head. “And the paper’s putting up with that?”
Andy shrugged in apparent unconcern, but her words were bitter. “This isn’t the Washington Post. This is a smalltown newspaper on a tight budget. The local Wal-Mart says ‘shit’, we squat and ask them what color. And when it’s the government …” Her voice trailed off, and she shrugged again.
For a moment or two there was silence in the booth, and Mulder was uncomfortably aware that he and Scully were also part of “the government”. But Andy didn’t seem to be directing any anger at them, he reminded himself. Finally, he cleared his throat and said, “Well, that still leaves us needing to decide on our next move.”
He took a deep breath and caught his partner’s eye; he really didn’t want to get into this topic, but they had little choice. “I think we should both go to Iowa,” he said, as firmly and decisively as he could manage. “There’s nothing left here; the cleanup crews have done too thorough a job. Andy will be here —”
Scully was already shaking her head. “No, Mulder. No way. I know that I’m the one who usually complains about being left behind, but this time it has to be done. There’s still followup that needs to be done in Georgia.” She nodded at Andy, and continued, “With the CDC, if nothing else. I know a couple of people there, and I want to see if I can get any of them to open up.”
Mulder tried to interrupt, but she hurried on before he had the chance. “And one of us has got to get to Iowa, as soon as possible. The trail is already getting cold; by tomorrow morning there won’t be anything left at all, if that operation is as well organized as the one here has been.”
Mulder knew she was right, and he knew in his heart that he was going to lose this argument, but he had to give it one more try. “I hear what you’re saying, Scully,” he said, trying to keep his voice level and reasonable. “But dividing your forces in the face of a superior enemy is never a good idea.” He glanced at Andy. “You were in the military; you tell her.”
The reporter nodded slowly. “You’re right of course; concentration of force is one of the cardinal rules of planning a successful engagement. That’s one lesson they really drilled into us at OCS.” She paused and glanced at Scully, and then looked back at Mulder. “But sometimes you have to do what you have to do. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and all that.”
Scully reached across the table and laid a hand on one of Mulder’s. “It’ll be okay, Partner,” she said. “It’s only for a day or two, and we can be in touch by cell phone as often as … whenever we need to be.”
Now it was Mulder’s turn to nod reluctantly. She was right, of course, and he’d known it from the start. But that knowledge was doing nothing to alleviate the ache of foreboding he felt in the pit of his stomach. More than anything else he wanted to wrap his arms around her and protect her and keep her safe, but that just wasn’t an option. If they were going to see this through they were going to have to take some risks, and apparently splitting up at this point was going to be one of those risks.
Finally he said, in a very low voice, “Okay, Scully. Okay. That’s the way we’ll play it.”
Interstate 85 North of LaGrange, GA 7:44 a.m.
Mulder had prevailed on one point: Scully and Andy had relinquished the driving to him, at least until they reached the airport. The earliest flight he could realistically make was the 8:35 to Cedar Rapids by way of Minneapolis, and even that was going to be cutting it close. They’d had to stop back by the hotel to grab his overnight bag, and they still had a solid half-hour to go to get there.
His idea had worked, though, and both women were dozing now, Scully in the seat next to him and Andy in the back. He’d convinced them it was too early to start making calls, unless they really wanted to tick people off, and he’d suggested they try to sleep a little along the way.
The plan was for them to see him off at the airport — not really necessary, and he was mildly surprised when Scully didn’t object to the suggestion — and then continue downtown to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to see what they could find out. Mulder would look up Andy’s contact in Cedar Rapids when he arrived and see what he could learn there. They’d check in mid- afternoon via cell phone.
Mulder sighed softly in the silence of the car. He wasn’t really tired, after napping the evening before, and two and a half cups of coffee had sent plenty of caffeine into his system to keep him going. But the scenery was just the same as it had beeen the day before, only in reverse, and he’d already memorized it the first time. So despite his best intentions, his mind started wandering into places he hadn’t wanted to let it go.
He replayed the moment in Scully’s room early that morning when he’d realized she was going to kiss him — or let him kiss her, whichever. Her eyes were soft and glowing through the darkness as she looked up at him; her lips, soft and inviting.
It was only the second time they’d come so close to resolving this … thing that had been hanging between them for so long. Sure, they usually ignored it, sidestepped it, shoved it out of the way. From time to time, he could almost believe it was gone altogether, but then it would pop back up, usually at the most inopportune moments. Like this morning.
Why was it only when they were in dire situations that their mutual attraction surfaced? Why couldn’t it come up when things were relatively calm, when they might actually have a chance to follow through without interruption?
Mulder sighed again, a bit more loudly, then froze and held the next breath as Scully shifted in the passenger seat. He was afraid he’d wakened her, but she settled back in a moment, and he relaxed again.
But it was only a few minutes later when she shifted again, and this time she lifted her head and dragged her eyes open.
When she first came aware, she was disoriented for only a moment before she realized where she was — in the passenger seat of a rental car, with Mulder behind the wheel. A warm, comfortable feeling passed over her at the familiar circumstance, the product of countless long car trips in his company.
She moved slowly, pushing herself upright, and ran a hand across her mouth. “What time is it?” she rasped out, then cleared her throat.
“Almost eight,” Mulder replied, shooting her a glance. “Sleep well?”
She nodded absently as she reached to flip down the sun visor, checking her appearance in the mirror. She ran her fingers through her hair to straighten it a bit, then decided that was the best she was going to do and folded the shade back into place.
She could feel Mulder’s eyes still on her, only flicking back to the road every few seconds, and she turned to regard him. “Mulder, what is it?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Nothing,” he said. “Just … I didn’t wake you, did I?”
She knew he had more than that on his mind, but she let it slide for now. “No, I just woke up,” she said, glancing out the windshield at the steady flow of traffic. “Where are we, anyway?”
“About ten miles or so from the airport,” Mulder replied, smoothly changing lanes to pass a clump of slower-moving trucks. “I shouldn’t have any trouble making my flight.”
“Good.” The word ended on a yawn, and Scully saw Mulder frown.
“Are you going to be okay, Scully?” he asked, his tone cautious. “You didn’t get any sleep last night or much the night before …”
“I’m fine, Mulder,” Scully said automatically, only to see his frown deepen. Realizing he never quite believed those words from her mouth, she added, “I’m a little tired, but I’ll be okay. If I get too sleepy, I’ll let Andy handle the driving. She’s had at least a little more sleep than either of us.”
Mulder nodded, his eyes trained on the road as traffic continued to increase. “How long do you think you’ll be in Atlanta?” he asked.
Scully shrugged. “The rest of today, at least, and we’ll come back tomorrow if we need to,” she said. “I just talked to Cal about three or four weeks ago and everything seemed to be fine, so I’m hoping he’ll be willing to at least talk to us, even if he can’t give us much information.”
She didn’t add her own calculations of the odds against her old acquaintance providing anything useful, but she knew she didn’t have to. Mulder could certainly be pessimistic enough for the both of them when he put his mind to it.
They fell silent for a few minutes, until Mulder pulled the car into the exit lane for the airport. The deceleration roused Andy, who yawned and stretched comically as she straightened in her seat. “Are we there yet?” she mumbled, and Scully had to fight to hold back a full-fledged grin.
“We’re here,” she answered, half-turning in her seat to face the younger woman. She let the grin escape then, as she added in a teasing tone, “Sleep well?”
“Yeah, just not long enough,” Andy grumbled, still blinking slowly against the bright sunshine.
Scully glanced at Mulder, who was steering the car into an hourly parking deck by then, and saw he’d lost the battle against his own smile. Turning back to Andy, she said, “We only have about thirty minutes before Mulder’s flight, so we’ll have to hurry. You ready?”
Andy gave her a blank look. “I was just going to wait in the car,” she said. “I thought …” Her voice trailed off, and she glanced at the back of Mulder’s head. She leaned in closer to Scully and whispered, “I thought you two would want a minute alone.”
Scully’s eyes widened, and then she felt herself blush. She should be used to people mistaking Mulder and her for a couple, but now she wasn’t so sure it was a mistake any more. Or at least, she wasn’t sure it would be a mistake for much longer.
She managed to shake her head at Andy and whisper back, “It’s not like that.” She saw Mulder turn his head in her direction then, and she shifted back around in her seat, just as he swung the car into a parking spot and shut down the engine.
“All right, ladies, we’ve got to move it,” he said lightly, holding out the keys to Scully. She took them, and the three climbed from the car, Mulder pausing to grab his bag from the back seat.
They were inside in minutes, stopping only long enough to scan the arrival/departure displays and determine that his flight was on time. Security held them up a few moments. Andy had left her weapon in the car, and Mulder had removed the clip from his and pocketed it, the weapon slipped into his bag; a quick badge flip was enough for him. Scully kept her weapon with her, which necessitated a longer perusal of her ID, but she reassured the guards that she was only going to the gate, not boarding, and they finally waved her through.
The trio headed for the gate at a fast pace, down to twenty minutes before flight time. Luckily, Mulder’s gate was on the first concourse, so they arrived quickly, and the boarding pass only took a few moments.
As Mulder was finishing up at the counter, Andy tapped Scully on the arm and said, “I’ve got to run to the ladies’ room; I’ll be right back.”
She was gone before Scully could reply, and Scully had a feeling it wasn’t just a call of nature that had prompted Andy’s departure. The reporter had been serious about giving them a minute alone, and despite Scully’s protest in the car, she was glad for it. Her mind had been offering up a train of thought for the past few hours that she’d been trying to avoid, but now she let it have full rein.
She knew Mulder had been functioning at his peak over the past 24 hours or so only when he’d been able to focus on her for one reason or another. Now he was going halfway across the country, alone, and she was worried that he’d lose track again, and without her there to pull him out of it, he’d end up in trouble.
Problem was, she didn’t know what she could do about it.
Mulder was walking back toward her by then, dodging a few people hurrying past to their own gates, and came to a stop in front of her. “All set,” he said, grinning down at her. “Five minutes to spare.”
Scully smiled in return, her mind racing at a mile a minute. An idea had popped into her head, a way to send Mulder off with a firm, unambiguous — if intangible — piece of her to carry with him. She wasn’t sure if this was the time or place, and she didn’t know how much it would actually help … but she had to do something.
Besides, she wanted to do it.
And so she lifted one hand to rest on the side of his face, drew him down … and grazed her lips softly, gently across his.
She felt him freeze under her touch, not responding or reacting in any way for a long moment. She pulled back, suddenly uncertain that the kiss had been a good idea, only to face the stunned expression on Mulder’s face.
His eyes were locked on hers as his mouth worked wordlessly for a few seconds, and then he forced out, “Scully … you kissed me.”
Scully smiled, a little shakily, and replied, “Yep.”
Another second passed, and then Mulder was a flash of motion, scooping her up and pulling her tightly against him, one arm around her waist, the other hand cupping her head. His words were a whisper against her lips as he said, “I think we can do better than that.”
He kissed her then, still gently but with a greater sense of urgency, and she fell into his kiss willingly, if briefly, before drawing away.
His mouth followed her for a moment, but then he stilled, his eyes opening to meet her gaze again. Her heart was pounding in her chest, and she smoothed one hand across his hair. “I’m with you, Mulder,” she whispered. “Even when I’m not there.”
He lowered her back to her feet, his eyes never leaving hers, and his hands came up to frame her face gently. He bent to place a tender kiss in the center of her forehead, then pulled her into a gentle hug. “Be careful, Scully,” he whispered into her hair.
“You, too,” she answered.
They pulled apart reluctantly, their hands lingering as long as possible, and Mulder kept watching her as he walked sideways toward his gate. Scully’s eyes followed him until, at the last possible moment, he turned and stepped into the walkway to the plane.
Scully had no idea how long she’d stood there, her eyes trained on the spot where she’d last seen Mulder, when someone touched her arm. She jumped and whirled to face Andy, who was looking at her with an expression of concern. “Are you all right?” Andy asked.
Scully nodded quickly. “I’m fine,” she said, although it was an effort to steady her voice. “Let’s … let’s get going.”
And they headed back to the car.
Delta Flight 954 Somewhere over Kentucky 8:33 a.m., Central Daylight Time
Mulder snapped his laptop shut in disgust. Despite having spent the better part of an hour searching the Internet, he’d been unable to find any useful information on the attack in Cedar Rapids — or, in fact, any information at all, beyond the short synopsis they’d received from Andy early that morning.
He’d finally given up looking and sent e-mail to the Lone Gunmen, asking them to see what they could dig up, especially concerning military air traffic arriving at and departing from Columbus and Cedar Rapids during the preceding 24 hours.
Almost as an afterthought he’d requested they do a background check on Andy Baker. From everything he’d seen of her she seemed completely genuine, but Mulder had been burned once too often to take her totally at face value.
He’d hesitated to raise the issue with Scully, both because of the obvious friendship that was blossoming between the two women, and because his own track record on deciding who could and could not be trusted left something to be desired. But now that he’d left Scully alone with Andy, he couldn’t help but worry a little, and he hoped the Gunmen would be able to lay those fears to rest.
He closed his eyes and leaned back in his seat. Scully. She’d certainly given him a lot to think about this morning. From the almost surreal conversation in her motel room in the middle of the night to that surprising, wonderful kiss at the airport, she’d delivered one shock to his system after another. They were good shocks — definitely good shocks — but it was still a little overwhelming, and he knew it was going to take him some time to digest it all.
He wondered if she realized just how much he’d come to depend on her — and just how much she had rocked his world in the last six hours.
He caught himself sliding the tip of his forefinger along his lower lip. That kiss … that kiss had been … spectacular. Mulder had been kissed by other women whose intentions were more immediate and practical, but none of them compared to the intensity of those few seconds when he’d held Dana Scully in his arms at last. It had been the hardest thing he’d ever done in his life to let go of her and turn and walk away …
But he’d done it, and now he felt filled with vitality and energy, like a man who had been slowly bleeding to death and then been given a lifesaving transfusion.
That was it, he thought, nodding slowly to himself. That was exactly it. Scully had given him a transfusion, a new lease on life, as corny as that might sound. She hadn’t made things all better, of course; that only happened on television. But for the first time in at least a year — for the first time since before the X-files had been burned — he found himself actually starting to think proactively rather than reactively. The process was still rather sluggish, since those mental muscles hadn’t been used much in the last few months, but he could feel his thoughts starting to move in that direction.
It was wonderful. And it was all Scully’s doing.
Scully. He wondered what she was doing right now. She and Andy had planned to drive on into Atlanta, and try to pry some information out of an old friend of his partner’s who worked at the CDC. In all honesty Mulder didn’t expect that lead to amount to much, but he’d agreed with the two women that it made sense to try.
Mulder opened his eyes and glanced at his watch. Four more hours and he’d be on the ground in Iowa, and he still didn’t have anything much to go on when he got there.
With a sigh of reluctance, he pushed thoughts of his partner out of his mind and opened his laptop again. He’d have plenty of time to think about her later; right now he still had work to do.
Interstate 75/85 (Downtown Connector) Atlanta, GA 9:55 a.m., Eastern Daylight Time
Neither Scully or Andy said more than two words at a time for a good twenty minutes after leaving the airport, only speaking to check directions and traffic. As she drove, Scully could almost hear the gears turning in the other woman’s mind. She knew the question was coming.
And then it did.
“It’s not like that, huh?”
Andy’s voice was even and calm, with only a slightly teasing tone to it. Just the right tone to get the answer she wanted, Scully thought. She should have been a lawyer instead of a reporter.
Scully sighed. She knew she should answer the question. Heck, for once, she wanted to talk about it. Problem was, anything she said would sound either trite or misleading, or both.
It’s not like that.
It’s complicated …
Mulder and I don’t …
In the passenger seat, Andy chuckled softly. “Damned if you do …” she said.
Scully had to smile at that. “Pretty much,” she said, shooting a quick glance at the other woman. “I didn’t lie to you, Andy. It isn’t … well, wasn’t ‘like that.’” She paused, then plunged ahead. “That was the first time we even kissed.”
Andy stared at her. “Really?” she asked, her excited tone making her sound like a teenager.
Scully nodded slowly. “We started to, one other time … well, twice, actually … but we were interrupted both times,” she said. Then she grinned. “So I decided it was time to take matters into my own hands.”
Andy laughed out loud then, and Scully felt her grin widen. It felt good, she realized, to have a conversation like this. Really good, and not just because of the subject matter. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d enjoyed talking to someone like she enjoyed talking to Andy.
And then her smile faded. Andy, whom she’d only met the day before. Who had a lot of information about whatever was going on. Who now knew a good portion of what she and Mulder had learned.
Suddenly, Scully wasn’t enjoying herself quite so much.
“Dana?” Andy had stopped laughing, and her voice was low and concerned. “Are you okay?”
Scully shook herself free from her paranoid thoughts. I really have been around Mulder too long, she thought.
Out loud, she said, “I’m fine, Andy. Just drifted for a minute.” She shot the other woman a quick half-grin. “I guess I’m a little distracted.”
Andy laughed softly. “Wonder why? …” she said, her voice trailing off suggestively, and Scully had to laugh herself.
Andy sobered quickly, though, and turned slightly toward Scully. “So who is this guy we’re going to see? Someone from medical school?”
“No, undergrad, actually; we had some classes together,” Scully replied, her mind drawing up an image of Cal Danielson — short, stocky, ugly as a hound dog, and one of the funniest and most outgoing people she’d ever known.
“How long has he been with the CDC?”
Scully shrugged. “About three years, I think,” she said. “He started medical school, hated it, and switched over to pharmacology, so it took him a couple of extra years to finish up his doctorate.” She chewed on the inside of her lower lip, thinking for a moment, then said, “I talked to him about a month ago, just a social call, really. He looked up my e-mail address a year or so ago and we e-mail back and forth occasionally.”
Andy nodded. “And you called him yesterday?”
Scully blinked, and realized yes, it was just yesterday, less than 24 hours before, when she’d called Cal from the car on the way to Columbus. A yesterday that now seemed at least several lifetimes ago.
She sighed. “I called, but he was in the middle of something and couldn’t talk. I told him I’d call him back …” Her voice trailed off, and she glanced at Andy. “Which I guess I should do, if I’m just going to show up there. Could you get my briefcase out of the back seat? My phone is in the outside pocket, and there should be a small address book there, too. His number is in there. Oh, and I should probably call and make a car rental reservation for Mulder; he’ll probably forget all about it until he arrives, and then God knows what he’ll wind up with. He’s not good with paperwork.”
Andy unbuckled her seat belt and twisted in the seat to retrieve the briefcase, then dug out the phone and address book. She’d barely settled back in when Scully slammed on the brakes, sending them both hurtling forward until the shoulder harnesses caught.
“What the hell?” Scully exclaimed. Traffic had stopped dead, all five lanes, and as she looked further ahead, all she could see was taillights.
“Shit.” Andy’s voice was sharp, and she reached for the radio dial. “Atlanta traffic strikes again. Let’s see what we’re in for.”
Scully sighed and picked up the phone, using the temporary reprieve from driving to call the CDC. She ended up with Cal’s voice mail and left a quick message, telling him she was stuck in traffic but would get there as soon as possible.
And then they settled back to wait for the road to clear.
Eastern Iowa Regional Airport Cedar Rapids, IA 12:27 p.m., CDT
Mulder had actually fallen asleep on the short hop from Minneapolis to Cedar Rapids, and so he was one of the last passengers off the plane. He stood just outside the exit walkway for a moment or two, blinking sleep out of his eyes and trying to get his bearings. Finally he spotted a sign directing him to the main terminal and headed off in that direction.
A few minutes later he was handing his Amex card to the pretty young woman behind the Avis counter. She glanced down at the card, then looked back up at him and smiled.
“Mr. Mulder!” she said, pulling a small sheaf of papers from under the counter. “We’ve been expecting you.”
Mulder raised his eyebrows at her. “You have?” He’d completely forgotten to call ahead and book a car; logistics like that just didn’t come naturally to him, and he’d come to depend on Scully …
He broke off the thought and smiled. “Oh, of course.”
The young woman gave a knowing smile, and said, “I have to say, somebody is sure looking out for you, Mr. Mulder.” She shoved one of the papers across the counter at him. “Prepaid and everything.”
Mulder continued to smile as he bent to sign the rental agreement she’d put in front of him, and then he froze as he heard a voice coming from behind him. A familiar voice.
“Yeah, somebody’s always looking out for you, aren’t they, Mulder?”
Mulder closed his eyes for just a moment and waited for his breathing to steady. His weapon was still in his carry-on, of course, and the ammunition clip was in his pocket. The other man was no doubt armed — or at least, Mulder would have to act on that assumption. Which meant he was going to have to do his best to stay calm. Calm.
He opened his eyes, and with slow deliberation he straightened up, casting what he hoped was a reassuring smile at the clerk, then turned to face the man who had spoken.
“Krycek,” he said. “Fancy meeting you here. Such a pity you missed the weenie roast at El Rico. I’m sure you would have been the biggest weenie there.”
“I dunno, Mulder,” the other man replied, a slight smirk on his face. “There were some pretty big weenies in attendance, from what I heard.” He took a step closer and lightly fingered Mulder’s necktie for a second. “Nice tie.”
“I wore it just for you.” Mulder gave Krycek a hard shove, hard enough to make the other man stumble back a couple of steps. He then advanced after him, getting back into Krycek’s personal space and pressing his momentary advantage.
“Do you have a reason for being here, asshole?” he asked, giving the man another shove. “Because I’m sure there are some Marshals at the Federal courthouse downtown who would love to have a chat with you.” And he advanced again and gave his opponent still another shove.
This time Krycek stood his ground, and even shoved back. “Sure, Mulder,” he said. “Why don’t we do just that. Nothing I’d like better than to spend the afternoon talking to a bunch of cops.” He gave another shove, and this time Mulder was forced back a step or two. “Or we could just stay here and have a circle jerk.” One more shove, and Krycek smirked. “Of course, then you never would find out what I came here to tell you.”
Mulder stood perfectly still for a moment, muscles tensed and breathing hard. He wanted nothing more than to mop the floor with Krycek’s face, but unfortunately the man was a potential source of information, and Mulder didn’t exactly have leads coming out of his ears.
Krycek must have read the changing emotions on Mulder’s face, because he smirked again and said, “All right then. Let’s get the fuck out of here; I’m hungry.” And he brushed by Mulder and headed for the exit.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Atlanta, GA 1:30 p.m. EDT
Scully stared at the receptionist, stunned. “Excuse me?” she asked, not at all sure she’d heard correctly. Tired, hungry, and down to her last nerve after sitting in traffic for over two hours, thanks to what turned out to be a nasty tractor-trailer wreck, Scully did not want her hearing to be right. But it seemed it was.
“I’m sorry,” the woman repeated, with exaggerated patience. “But there is no one by that name in these offices.”
“But I talked to him yesterday,” Scully insisted, fighting the urge to shove her badge and/or gun in the woman’s face. She had been hoping to speak with Cal as quietly as possible, and flashing her FBI ID wouldn’t exactly be conducive to keeping a low profile.
But this woman was telling her that no Cal Danielson worked at the center, and none ever had.
Scully didn’t know what to think. Obviously, someone was hiding something, whether it was Cal, the CDC, or some unknown person or persons who did not want her to talk to Cal.
Andy shifted behind her, and Scully started to turn her head to shoot the other woman a glance … and saw a man watching them.
He was nothing noteworthy, really — standard suit and tie, no particular malice in his expression, no obvious look away when Scully spotted him. He merely continued to look in her direction a second or two longer before his eyes moved on, as if he was simply scanning the lobby, almost idly.
But the skin all over Scully’s body prickled in warning.
Keeping half an eye on the man, she turned calmly back to the receptionist. “I’m sorry,” she said, as evenly as she could. “I must have my information wrong. Sorry to have bothered you.”
She ignored the receptionist’s final words and swiveled carefully to face the door, catching Andy’s gaze before flicking her eyes toward the door.
The two women started across the wide lobby silently, though Scully could practically feel the waves of confusion coming from Andy, maybe mixed with a little fear. She didn’t blame her; she was experiencing the same thing.
In a conversational tone, Scully said, “So since we’re here, why don’t we try that new place downtown for lunch?”
She was relieved when Andy picked up the cue immediately. “Sure, I’ve heard it’s really good,” the reporter said, sounding completely normal.
They kept up the idle chatter until they were back in the car, but as soon as Scully pulled out into traffic, Andy was all business.
“What was that guy?” she asked, her voice tense. “I saw him right after you did.”
“I don’t know,” Scully replied tightly, her eyes glued to the road. “But I don’t think he was just there for security.”
Andy nodded. “He was there for us.”
It wasn’t a question, but Scully nodded once in confirmation. “Or for me, possibly me and Mulder,” she said. “Seeing you with me may have thrown them a bit. They probably didn’t expect that.”
Scully paused as a brief dizzy spell washed over her, and she shook her head lightly. She blinked several times, then focused her eyes on the dashboard clock. Nearly two, and they hadn’t eaten since six. Hunger, combined with the aftermath of the adrenalin rush from a few minutes earlier, she determined, flicking on the turn signal and heading across traffic toward the next fast-food restaurant she saw.
“Where are we going?” Andy asked.
Scully flashed her a half-grin as she pulled into the Arby’s parking lot. “Looks like that new restaurant will just have to wait for the next trip.”
Northbound on Interstate 380 Cedar Rapids, IA 12:45 p.m., CDT
“Crown Victoria, Mulder? You really are moving up in the world.”
“I’ve got frequent flyer miles coming out the wazoo,” Mulder replied, not bothering to keep the contempt from his voice. He glanced briefly at Krycek, who was sitting in the passenger seat and running his hand over the upholstery, then looked back at the traffic. “Now you got something to say, say it.”
Krycek chuckled. “You’ve always been so impulsive, Spooky.” Mulder gritted his teeth; he was determined not to let this man get his goat. “Where’re we going, anyway? I thought I told you I was hungry.”
“You can get out of the car anytime you want to,” Mulder said, pushing down on the accelerator just a little harder for emphasis. “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.”
“You’re going to see Amos Harter, aren’t you?” Mulder glanced at the other man in surprise; Krycek nodded. “Amos Harter, cameraman for KFXA and friend of Andrea Baker.” He looked at Mulder sideways. “Want me to tell you the license and engine block number on the car Agent Scully’s driving?”
Mulder tightened his grip on the steering wheel, willing his breathing to stay steady and even, and looked back to the front. “Do you have a point, Krycek? Or are you just here to fuck with my head?”
Again the other man chuckled. “Oh, I have a point — fucking with your head is just a fringe benefit.” He fell silent, and after a moment Mulder glanced over at him again, to see that his features had turned grim and a little introspective.
At last Krycek sighed. Very softly, he said, “This is the real deal, Mulder.”
The agent felt a prickle run down his spine. “What do you mean?”
Krycek shook his head. “Don’t play stupid, Mulder. You know what I mean, and we don’t have time for this. The Date is here. Colonization is about to begin. The operations in Georgia and here in Iowa were the final dress rehearsals, and everything went just fine. Trust me on this. Final preparations are underway as we speak.” He waved his hand so as to encompass roughly half the city. “None of these people will be alive a month from now.”
Mulder struggled to contain himself, fighting off both anger at Krycek and the despair which had been hovering over him like a cloud ever since El Rico. He had to stay focused; he had to concentrate, for Scully’s sake if for no other reason.
His voice carefully controlled, Mulder asked, “So why are you sharing all this with me, Krycek? You expect me to do something about it? These are your friends, not mine.”
The other man laughed. “Hell, no!” he said. “The ball’s already in play; it’s much too late for anyone to do anything to stop it, even if that’s what I wanted, which I don’t. No, I’m here at the request of a mutual friend. Someone who wanted to deliver a message to you. But he was afraid he might not be well-received if he tried to deliver it in person.”
Mulder snorted. “So he sent you instead? That sure shows a high level approach.”
“Yeah, they’re learning to think outside the box,” Krycek replied. “Look, Mulder, this is no joke. I know we’ve had our differences, but this is real. In the next 30 days more than five billion people are going to die, and there’s nothing you or anyone else can do to stop it. The last train is about to leave the station, and a certain old man wanted to give you one more chance to get on board.”
Krycek hesitated, as if he were suddenly unsure of himself. Finally he added, “Look, she wants you to come along, too.”
Mulder offered Krycek another brief look, and then refocused on the road and shook his head. “Not interested,” he said in a flat voice.
Krycek shrugged. “I told them that’s what you’d say.” He glanced out the window. “Just pull over anywhere along here and let me out.”
Mulder was silent for a moment as he maneuvered the car through traffic and over into the breakdown lane, finally pulling to a halt a few hundred feet short of the next exit ramp. It occurred to him that he shouldn’t just be turning this man loose again, but it hardly seemed to matter anymore.
He turned to Krycek curiously, and said, “Is that it? That’s everything you came to tell me?”
The other man shrugged again. “It wasn’t my message, Spooky. I promised to deliver it, but I never said I’d make much effort to sell it to you.” He reached in his pocket and pulled out a slip of paper. “You remember the old Batman TV show? Adam West? Burt Ward?”
Mulder nodded, trying to hide his confusion at the sudden turn in the conversation. “Yeah, I remember.”
Krycek grabbed Mulder’s hand and pressed the slip of paper into it. “Just think of me as the Riddler,” he said with a smirk, then leaned forward and whispered in Mulder’s ear, “Betcha wanna find ‘em.”
Before Mulder could react, Krycek had stepped out of the car and was gone.
Arby’s Atlanta, GA 2:03 p.m. EDT
Scully and Andy spent their lunch break poring over a city map, trying to find an alternate route back through town. Radio reports said traffic was still awful because of that morning’s wreck, and they both wanted to get back to Columbus as soon as possible. There might not be many leads left to follow up there, but there didn’t seem to be any at all here in Atlanta.
Directory assistance no longer had a home listing for Cal Danielson, and Scully suspected that his existence had been quickly and ruthlessly expunged. She intended to check further, but past experience with such matters did not leave her feeling hopeful. She couldn’t help wondering if Cal was even still alive.
On top of that, the presence of the man at the CDC had shocked her into realizing that someone was most likely always watching, and she didn’t like the idea of any of her or Mulder’s things lying unguarded in a hotel room. She knew they hadn’t left anything of significance there, just some clothes and toiletries, but she wasn’t taking any chances.
The two women were back in the car a half-hour after stopping, and Scully followed the route they’d picked, taking Candler Road south toward Decatur. The route would, eventually, take them back to I-285, the perimeter interstate circling the city.
Andy was quiet as they drove, and Scully glanced over to see the younger woman’s eyelids drooping. Scully actually didn’t feel tired at all, and she said, “Go ahead and nap if you can, Andy; I’m doing fine.”
Andy’s head jerked up, and then she grinned. “Sorry, Dana,” she said. “Too many late nights in a row.”
Scully shook her head, smiling. “Believe me, I know the feeling,” she said dryly. “But I’m wide awake, so sleep while you can. I may need you to drive later.”
Andy nodded. “It’s a deal,” she said, then let out a massive yawn that obviously surprised her. “Geez, guess I’m more tired than I thought,” she said, laughing, and then she leaned back in the seat and closed her eyes.
Scully watched the scenery pass as she drove, noting that the traffic lightened significantly once they passed Decatur. She watched with a smile as a line of at least a dozen various sport utility vehicles passed in the opposite direction. The things were obviously the status symbol for Atlanta drivers; they were everywhere.
Her amusement died, however, when she glanced in the rear view mirror and saw the black sedan roaring up behind her, and she barely had time to brace herself before it hit.
2:40 p.m. EDT
The first impact jolted Andy out of her light sleep and nearly out of her seat. “What the hell?” she barked, twisting to look behind them.
Scully didn’t even try to answer, concentrating on keeping the car on the road. She gunned the engine, pulling further ahead of the other car, but the other driver followed suit, slamming into the rental with more force this time.
“Shit!” Andy spat out, bracing one hand on the dashboard and leaning forward to snap the glove compartment open with her free hand. She’d stowed her weapon there as soon as they’d gotten back in the car, and now she pulled it out.
“Keep that out of sight,” Scully said, risking a glance at Andy. “If they don’t know who you are, they’re not likely to suspect you’d be armed. Better we don’t let them know until we need to; we might need the element of surprise. And call 911.”
Andy nodded and slipped the gun under her leg, keeping her hand on it. “Where’s your weapon?” she asked as she reached for her cell phone with her free hand.
“Holster,” Scully answered, jerking her head back and down to indicate her right hip.
Andy immediately dropped her phone in her lap, then reached over and shoved Scully’s jacket aside, yanking the weapon loose and slapping it down on the seat between them. Then she went back to the phone and punched in the three digits while she asked, “Where the hell are we, anyway?”
“Uh, Candler Road, south of Decatur,” Scully said.
Andy nodded, turning her attention back to the call, where someone had apparently just answered. “I have an officer in need of assistance,” she said, starting with a phrase sure to perk up some attention at dispatch. “Someone’s trying to run us off the road on Candler Road, south of Decatur. I’m the passenger, the driver is an FBI agent, and the car that’s hitting us is an unmarked black sedan with tinted windows.” She paused, then glanced around outside and said, “Uh, we just passed McAfee, I think.”
The car behind hit them again, more of a nudge this time, and Scully ground her teeth together as she slammed the gas again. “I’m gonna have to pull over,” she said, eyeing the road ahead for a likely spot.
“Hold on,” Andy said into the phone, then pulled it away to speak to Scully. “She says there’s a police precinct on Candler, a little further down.”
“How far?” Scully barked out as the sedan bumped them again. “I can’t face off with them forever.”
Andy’s eyes were scanning the road as she spoke to the 911 dispatcher again. “2357 Candler Road, it’ll be on the right, thank God,” she said. She paused again, then shouted “There!” and pointed.
Scully’s eyes darted from the road long enough to register the brick building with at least a dozen police cruisers in the parking lot. She waited until the last possible second before yanking the wheel hard, almost sliding the car sideways into the lot.
They came sliding to a stop just feet from the nearest cruiser, and Scully finally released her attention from her driving long enough to look back toward the road. The black sedan had slammed on its brakes when she’d made her frantic swerve from the road, but they apparently realized what the building was, and the car accelerated suddenly and was gone.
She could hear Andy still talking into the cell phone as she straightened the car out and pulled into a parking space, keeping one eye on the road all the time. Once the car was in place and the engine off, she reached for her weapon, still on the seat beside her, and tucked it back into its holster.
Andy ended her call and turned sideways in the seat. “So, any idea what that was all about?” she asked, the blunt wording of the question belied by the slight waver in her voice.
Scully closed her eyes and sighed. “Same shit, different day,” she said shortly, popping open her seat belt and climbing out of the car to inspect the damage to the rental.
Studios of KFXA-TV Cedar Rapids, IA 1:42 p.m., CDT
Amos Harter was dead.
Mulder sat quietly in his car in the parking lot of the TV station, trying to absorb that simple fact: Amos Harter was dead.
He’d died early that morning when his car had crashed through the guardrail of U.S. Highway 30 — a stretch of highway the cameraman had driven every day for the past seven years. A stretch where he must surely have been fully aware that the output of a nearby corn sweetener plant occasionally caused a nearly-impenetrable fog to blanket the road.
An accident, the receptionist at the TV station had called it. A terrible tragedy, the general manager had said. Another statistic, judging by the bored voice of the highway patrol officer Mulder had spoken to on his cell phone.
A damned fucking convenient statistic, Mulder thought. A statistic which had also resulted in the mysterious disappearance of all of Harter’s work materials from the TV studio.
The general manager had shrugged it off: The techies were always a little buggy, he’d remarked. Harter had his own extensive video editing equipment at home, and he’d been known to take work home with him from time to time. His tapes and notes must have been in the car with him, and the police said it was nothing but a burned- out shell.
No, the reporter who had teamed with Harter to cover the bee attack wasn’t available; she was in Des Moines for an interview with the new governor. She should have called in by now, but the interview must be running long. Politicians were like that; they loved to talk about themselves.
Mulder wondered grimly whether that phone call would ever come.
The upshot of all of this was that he had no further leads. Oh, he could — and probably should — drive over to the ballpark where the attack had occurred and check the grounds. But he knew without bothering to look that he wouldn’t find anything. This entire operation had clearly been professionally planned and smoothly executed, just like the one in Georgia.
Just like the one in Georgia.
For just a moment he wondered idly if Krycek wasn’t right, after all. Perhaps it was time to give up and just try to save himself and those he cared about. The one person he cared about, he corrected in his mind. If he could just find a way to save Scully, the rest of the world could go fuck itself with his blessing.
Except that Scully wouldn’t like that — and truth be told, he didn’t really like it, either. He didn’t like the person he would have to become in order to do that; he’d come close, so close, a few months before, and he still hadn’t gotten over that. He doubted he’d be able to live with that person very long, and although Mulder didn’t really expect to miss himself when the darkness finally claimed him, he clung to the knowledge that Scully, at least, would grieve, and be hurt, and that was unacceptable.
All of which meant that he needed to focus his attention back on the investigation, no matter how hopeless and futile it might seem. Scully would expect it of him, and his need for her approval and good opinion was really the one motivator he had at this point.
Unfortunately, the only real lead he had left was the slip of paper Krycek had given him.
Mulder hadn’t looked at the paper yet. He suspected it just contained some clue or other, perhaps an address or a phone number, which would allow him to locate Diana Fowley and C.G.B. Spender — or whatever the hell his name really was — just in case he should change his mind. He hadn’t looked at the note because he hadn’t wanted to be tempted — but he hadn’t been able to make himself throw it away, either, and now it nestled in his pocket like a snake, coiled and ready to strike.
Against his will, he found his thoughts flying back to that final night in Diana’s apartment. He had deliberately stayed away from her place since she’d returned from Europe, because he knew what an emotional risk he’d be taking with himself if he allowed himself entry into her personal space after so many years of absence. And also, deep in his heart, he’d known that the warnings Scully had been trying to give him contained more than a kernel of truth, even if he hadn’t been quite ready to face the reality of it.
Circumstances had finally forced his hand, however, as the rapidly escalating events concerning Cassandra Spender had joined with Scully’s ultimatum to point an unmistakable finger of guilt at his former lover. Just this once, though, Mulder had felt a need for hard, unambiguous evidence before reaching his final conclusions.
And so he’d gone to Diana’s apartment, hoping to exonerate her, but knowing deep inside that he was far more likely to convict her beyond redemption. As he had feared, back in the dark corner of his mind where he really lived, that visit had almost been his undoing.
Mulder shook his head sharply, forcing the memories away. That was the past; that was history. Diana was the past — an important part of the past, no doubt, but the past, nonetheless. Scully was the future, and for just a moment he once again traced the line of his lower lip with his forefinger. Scully was the future, and he had to remember that.
No matter how brief and painful that future might be.
With a sigh of resignation he reached into his pocket, pulled out the slip of paper Krycek had given him and unfolded it. For just a moment he stared at the handful of words scrawled there, and then he started to laugh.
That son of a bitch. He should have realized it wouldn’t be anything as simple and easy as a phone number.
“Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Gordon Lightfoot have this in common. And remember, your response must be in the form of a question!”
He was still shaking his head ruefully when his cell phone rang.
South DeKalb Police Precinct Decatur, GA 3:12 p.m.
Scully squinted against the late-afternoon sun as she stood just outside the door of the police station, her cell phone pressed to her ear. She could see Andy standing at the counter inside, filing a report with the desk sergeant on the bumping incident, though both women doubted the record would exist by tomorrow.
The connection took a few moments to go through, but the phone rang just once before it was answered: “Mulder.”
“Mulder, it’s me,” Scully said automatically, leaning tiredly against the brick wall next to the door. “Where are you?”
“Lovely downtown Cedar Rapids, outside the studios of KFXA-TV,” he replied. “And take a guess at what I found?”
Scully raised an eyebrow. “Well, if your day has gone like ours, I doubt it’s good news,” she said.
“Tell the nice lady what she’s won,” Mulder intoned. “To start with, our contact no longer walks this mortal coil.”
Scully snapped to attention. “Amos Harter?”
“Dead,” Mulder confirmed. “Killed in a traffic accident this morning on the way to work. And the reporter who covered the story with him is late calling in from an assignment in Des Moines.”
Scully sighed and lifted her free hand to rub her forehead. “That story sounds too familiar,” she said, turning slightly to glance back inside at Andy’s back. “Cal Danielson has disappeared. His phone’s been disconnected, and the reception desk at the CDC insists no one by that name has ever worked there, even though I left a message on his voice mail this morning.”
“This sounds entirely too familiar, Scully,” Mulder said, and Scully could hear the sounds of his car’s engine starting up as he continued talking. “Listen, there’s more I need to tell you, but I don’t want to do it over the phone. We need to meet somewhere as soon as we can.”
“Not here,” Scully responded immediately. “I don’t want to get into it either, but as soon as we’re finished where we are, Andy and I are going back to Columbus to clean out our motel rooms. I can get down there and back to the airport by …” — she paused to check her watch — “… by about 7:30 or 8, so I’ll call the airlines to see what’s available and give you a call back.”
“Sounds good,” Mulder said. “I’m going to head to Chicago, and that may be our best bet, so see if you can get a flight there. I’ll call and check on flights leaving from there, too, in case we need to go somewhere else. There’s not much to choose from here, but it’ll only take about four hours to get over to Chicago. And right now, I’d rather have a big crowd around me.”
Scully smiled at that. “Definitely,” she said, her voice softening.
There was a moment of awkward silence between them, and Scully tried to think of something to say to dispel it. But Mulder beat her to the punch.
“Scully?” His voice was gentle but a little ragged. “I … take care of yourself …” His voice trailed off hesitantly, as if he wanted to say more but wasn’t sure it would be well-received.
Scully could hear her heartbeat pounding in her head and forced herself to take a deep, steadying breath. She was trembling, she realized, and she wasn’t entirely sure if it was a result of the fading adrenalin rush, or of Mulder’s words. She’d rarely heard him sound so unsure of himself, and she said a quick prayer of thanks that she hadn’t yet told him of their run-in with the MIBs. He didn’t need anything else to worry about right now.
She swallowed and opened her mouth to answer him, but it took a second for the words to come. “I … I will, Mulder,” she managed. “You, too.”
“Talk to you in a bit,” he said, sounding more like himself, and then the connection was broken.
Scully ended the call on her phone, then leaned against the wall again, not entirely sure her legs were going to hold her up. She closed her eyes and forced herself to take deep, regular breaths, slowly calming her body’s autonomic reactions.
She felt much stronger when Andy reemerged from the building a few minutes later, and Scully turned to face her.
“Finished, for all the good it’ll probably do,” Andy said, then stopped as she got a better look at Scully’s face. “Hey, Dana, are you all right?” she asked, reaching out to lay a hand on Scully’s arm.
Scully nodded briskly. “I’m fine,” she said, shooting a quick smile. “I talked to Mulder, and we’re going to try to meet up tonight, probably in Chicago. He’s going to head that way, and I’m going to see if I can get a flight up there tonight.” She turned toward the car, Andy following, and continued speaking. “We can head back to Columbus so I can get our things, and I can call the airlines from the car.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Andy said with a grin as the two women climbed into their slightly-battered car.
Studios of KFXA-TV Cedar Rapids, IA 2:19 p.m. CDT
Mulder sat staring at his cell phone for several minutes after the conversation with Scully had ended. The call had not gone at all the way he had expected.
To be fair, he wasn’t entirely sure what he had been expecting. His partner’s words had been crisp, businesslike…and brief. Just as her words always were on the telephone. Just as his words always were.
That was the real problem, of course: Nothing had changed. Nothing had been different. Again, Mulder wasn’t exactly sure what could have or should have been different; nevertheless, he felt a certain lack of … something. An incompleteness. It was almost as if the scene at the airport that morning hadn’t happened — or that if it had happened, they were both choosing not to acknowledge or validate it.
He sighed and as he had on the plane that morning he pushed the topic from his mind. He didn’t have time for this; not now. Worrying about it would only serve as a distraction from the things that needed to be done. He would see Scully again soon enough, and then maybe they could sort things out.
He glanced at his watch: Almost 2:30. He just had time to check out the ballpark and still make it to O’Hare by a reasonable hour. Scully had said she expected to be back to the Atlanta airport by eight or so; assuming she could get a flight, and allowing for the time difference, that would put her on the ground in Chicago by 9:30 or ten. If he hurried, he could just about make it.
Interstate 185 South Near Columbus, Georgia 4:02 p.m. EDT
The argument started before the car cleared the Atlanta metro area and continued for quite some time. Since Scully was still driving, Andy made the calls to the airlines. And before Scully realized what was happening, Andy had reserved not one, but two tickets on the 8:30 flight to Chicago.
Scully was not happy. It wasn’t a matter of trusting Andy; despite her early qualms, Scully was as sure as she could be without extensive background checks that the reporter was completely on the up-and-up.
It wasn’t Andy’s role as a reporter, either. Scully had spent enough time around Marines while growing up to know that they took their oath of service very seriously, and she believed Andy could be trusted to keep the secrets that needed to be kept.
But the fact remained that Scully was a federal agent, and she did not feel she had the right to bring anyone, even a reserve Marine, into an ongoing investigation — especially one as dangerous as this one had already proven itself to be.
Sighing, she tried again. “It’s not that simple, Andy. This is a federal investigation, and …”
“And I am an officer in the United States Marine Corps,” Andy cut Scully off, sharply. “I have the right and the responsibility to act in the best interests of my country in matters of national security. And it is my judgment as a Marine that this is a matter of national security, and that the national interest will be best served if I accompany you to Chicago and assist you and Special Agent Mulder with your investigation.”
She paused, then continued in a slightly calmer voice. “Now, I would be more than happy to get in contact with my C.O. to secure an official assignment, but considering what we just went through in Atlanta, I doubt that you or Agent Mulder would want to rely on official channels. Am I correct?”
Scully shot Andy a long look, barely holding back the grin she so wanted to let loose. Scully knew that tone of voice well. She’d heard it emitting from her own mouth many, many times, starting with that first nerve-wracking encounter outside Ellens Air Force Base in Idaho, so many years ago.
And despite her negative words, she did want Andy on the case. The woman was no lightweight, and she had grasped very quickly just what they were up against. She might not know the whole story yet, but Scully had no doubts that when she did, she would only be more determined to help.
Sometimes, Scully thought, you just have to trust your instincts.
“All right, here’s a compromise,” Scully said. “We’ll go to Chicago and meet with Mulder. But I can’t let you into the investigation without clearing it through our superior, and he will almost certainly require a background check first. He is a former Marine himself, as a matter of fact.”
Andy nodded. “Deal,” she said, then held out the cell phone she still held. “Do you want to call someone to get that started?”
Scully glanced at the phone, then reached for it. Keeping one eye on the deserted road, she punched in the number for the Gunmen’s secure line.
Byers. Scully breathed a silent sigh of relief and said, “Byers, this is Scully. I need a favor.”
“Actually, I have some information here for you, Agent Scully,” Byers answered, and Scully could hear papers rustling in the background. “Mulder called earlier and said one of you would be calling back to get it. A background check on an Andrea Baker?”
Scully smothered a grin and glanced at Andy. “Yeah, that’s why I was calling,” she said dryly. “Mulder apparently beat me to it.” She saw Andy’s eyebrows arch as she made the connection.
“Well, she’s clean, as far as we can tell,” Byers answered. “No time unaccounted for, no unusual transfers, fairly straightforward. We’re still looking, but there doesn’t seem to be anything. Do you want me to fax the information somewhere?”
“No, that’s all right,” Scully said. “Just … call if anything changes, and we’ll let you know if we need anything else. And Byers … thanks.”
“No problem, Scully.”
When Scully ended the call, Andy was smiling. “I’d hazard a guess Mulder is the more paranoid of you two,” she said, not quite as a question.
Scully snorted delicately. “However did you get that idea?” she asked archly, as she decelerated onto an exit ramp and headed toward the motel.
United Airlines Flight 1189 Somewhere over Illinois 8:34 p.m. CDT
It was a short flight, less than two hours, so Scully knew better than to even attempt a nap. Not that she could sleep now, anyway; too many thoughts whirled around her brain. There was no room for sleep.
She sat in an aisle seat in the last row of the plane, having gladly turned the window spot over to Andy. Many things had changed in six-plus years, but one thing that hadn’t was Scully’s dislike of flying. She was no longer white-knuckled, but she still made every effort to avoid the window seat.
So she couldn’t sleep, and she wouldn’t watch the lights passing by below, as Andy had been doing for most of the flight. Which left only one thing of interest for her: A microcassette tape with her name on it.
The tape was the single item in a FedEx package waiting at the front desk of the Columbus motel when she went to check out. The address read simply “Dana Scully,” in care of the motel; the shipping date was May 10, from Kansas City, Missouri.
Scully had the tape in her microcassette player seconds after they’d gotten back in the car. But when she pushed “play,” she’d been sure she was losing her mind:
//Hello my baby, hello my honey, hello my ragtime gal Send me a kiss by wire — baby my heart’s on fire! If you refuse me, honey you’ll lose me, and then you’ll be alone Oh baby, telephone and tell me I’m your own!//
When the short song had ended, Scully and Andy had simply looked at each other for a few long moments, and then they’d burst out laughing.
Andy’d found her voice first. “Does this kind of thing happen often, Agent Scully?” she’d asked. “Because if it does, I want in!”
In her seat, Scully smiled to herself as she recalled the comment. They had played and replayed the tape, running all the way through both sides twice on the way to the airport, but the song snippet was the only thing on it. So now they were simply waiting until they arrived in Chicago and could compare notes with Mulder, hoping some kind of solid lead would coalesce.
Sighing softly, Scully shifted in her seat and leaned back. She allowed her eyes to slip shut and concentrated on relaxing, taking advantage of the time to rest, even if she couldn’t sleep. She could hear Andy’s deep, even breathing beside her and knew the other woman was either doing the same or had drifted off herself.
Before she knew it, she heard the flight attendant announcing their final approach into Chicago, and she opened her eyes to check her watch. Nine … no, eight forty-seven, she corrected herself, adjusting the watch to Central time.
As she finished, she glanced at Andy to see her following suit. Scully opened her mouth to speak, but the flight attendants were making their way down the aisle, checking for trash and seat belts in preparation for landing, and she thought better of discussing anything related to the case.
So, she shifted gears. “Where are you from originally, Andy?” she asked.
Andy shot her a look. “You didn’t get that from the background check?” she asked, eyebrows raised, but then she grinned to show she was teasing. “No, seriously, I was born in Valdosta,” she said. “My dad was in the Air Force then and was stationed there. But we moved to Columbus when he got out, when I was three. I’ve lived there ever since.” She paused, then said, “What about you?”
“Okinawa, believe it or not,” Scully said, then started ticking off on her fingers. “Then Norfolk, then San Diego, then Annapolis …”
The women laughed in understanding. “Ah, the life of a military brat,” Andy said, shaking her head. “I was lucky to avoid that, since Dad got out so soon. But in Columbus, of course, I had a lot of friends and classmates whose parents were in the Army. It was tough on them.”
Scully nodded slowly. “It wasn’t easy,” she said. “I was luckier than some, since I was the youngest and Dad was already in long enough that he had some choice in assignment. We were only in Norfolk for five years, but then we were in San Diego for twelve. Dad split time between the Yard and Miramar, so I ended up finishing school there and did a year at Berkeley before he got the transfer to Annapolis.”
“Do they still live there?” Andy asked.
Scully smiled softly, absorbing the tiny pain the question caused. “Mom does,” she answered. “Dad died five years ago.”
“Oh, Dana, I’m so sorry,” Andy said. “I shouldn’t have …”
“It’s okay,” Scully interrupted gently. “You couldn’t have known. It’s fine, really.”
Andy sighed. “But I know it must be hard,” she said, her voice soft. “I’m lucky to still have both of my parents, but my mother’s parents both died when she was very young. And my dad’s father died when I was in kindergarten. All I have left is my grandmother.” She glanced at Scully again. “Do you have brothers and sisters?”
Scully’s eyes fluttered shut, and she gave a rueful smile. Andy certainly didn’t know what she was letting herself in for by pursuing this line of questioning.
Opening her eyes, she focused on the seat in front of her as she spoke. “I have two brothers, and I had a sister who … was killed four years ago,” she said.
This time, Andy gasped. “Oh my God, Dana, I wish I could learn to keep my big mouth shut,” she said, covering her face with her hands. “I am so, so sorry for bringing all this up in the first place. Let’s just talk about something else. I won’t ask any more questions, I promise.”
Scully started to reassure the other woman again, but then she hesitated. She wasn’t upset with Andy for bringing up the subject, but she still didn’t want to dwell on it. So she changed tactics and asked, “Well, why don’t you tell me why you went into the military, and how you ended up working for your hometown paper?”
Andy relaxed noticeably as she went into her story, and by the time the plane touched down, Scully knew that Andy had chosen the Marine Corps for the GI Bill and College Fund. Her family had been unable to cover the costs of college, so rather than borrow heavily, Andy took the military route, which later paid her way through journalism school at the University of Georgia.
As the plane taxied toward the terminal, Scully found herself clasping and unclasping her hands, then wiping her palms along her pants legs. She forced herself to quell the nervous habits, and it took her a few minutes to realize what it was that had set her off.
Mulder was inside, waiting for her.
And she had no idea what to say to him.
O’Hare International Airport Chicago, IL 9:24 p.m.
Mulder paced in small, tight circles at the foot of the jetway, pausing briefly at the completion of each circuit to peer down the passageway.
Still nothing. What could be taking so long? The plane had arrived at the gate several minutes before, and he couldn’t imagine what could be causing the delay. He glanced at his watch and smiled ruefully. Four minutes; not so long after all. He and Scully really needed to have some sort of resolution to this … thing … between them, or he was going to be a nervous wreck.
After leaving the Cedar Rapids television station Mulder had driven over to Kingston Stadium, the site of yesterday’s bee attack. As he’d expected, he’d found no evidence, no clues — none of the employees would even admit to knowing anything about it, although they all had seemed jumpy and nervous.
He’d also tried calling the two hospitals in Cedar Rapids, as well as the major medical center complex at the University of Iowa in nearby Iowa City, but again he’d run into a stone wall: No records existed of so much as a single bee sting victim being treated anywhere in the area in the past 48 hours — let alone 83 such victims.
And of course, nobody he spoke to had any personal recollection of such a thing, either.
He was brought back to the present by the sound of Andy Baker’s voice, and he swung around to see the reporter just emerging from the jetway and heading in his direction. He craned his neck slightly and was rewarded by a flash of red hair behind her, and almost despite himself he felt a smile spreading slowly across his face.
“Glad to see me, are you, Mulder?” Andy said with a smirk as she came to a halt in front of him. She looked up at him for just a moment with an amused expression on her face, and then she stepped to one side and there was Scully.
God, she was beautiful. Mulder was stunned by the realization, and his mouth suddenly felt very dry. She was standing about two feet in front of him, a nervous-looking smile on her face, and in a blinding flash of insight he had an epiphany:
She was just as uncertain about all of this as he was.
Somehow that made everything easier to deal with. Mulder allowed his own smile to broaden, hoping like hell that it would seem warm and welcoming rather than desperate and idiotic. His hands twitched at his sides as he repressed the urge simply to reach out and grab her. Not like that, he told himself; not like that.
Abruptly he felt a shove in the small of his back, and he stumbled forward, his hands automatically reaching out to grab his partner’s shoulders for balance. He felt a slight touch at his waist, and realized that she was also holding him, steadying him, and now they were only inches apart, and he looked down into her eyes and was lost.
“Jesus. Don’t you have to pass some sort of intelligence test to get into the FBI?” That was Andy’s voice, but Mulder barely heard her; all he could see was Scully’s face, her expression sober and serious as ever, but now with something else he had rarely seen there before. Something soft and tender. Something feminine.
Without knowing quite how it had happened, he was kissing her. And this was not a quick peck like that morning in Atlanta; this one was deep and long and meaningful, and he felt her arms sliding around his waist even as his own arms were wrapping themselves around her shoulders, drawing her inward into an intimate embrace.
The world around them slowed almost to a stop, and for a timeless interval Mulder felt a sense of completeness and contentment which he could not recall experiencing in this lifetime. This was where he was meant to be, this was his true home; and no matter what might lie ahead, nothing and no one would ever be able to take this moment from them.
Finally they broke apart, and this time Scully’s smile was positively radiant. “I guess that settles that question,” she said, her voice very low and just a little rough.
Mulder chuckled and released her from the embrace, taking her hand as they turned to follow Andy towards baggage claim. “Yep,” he said. “I guess it does.”
Best Western Inn, Rosemont, IL Near O’Hare International Airport 10:48 p.m.
A little over an hour later Mulder lay sprawled on one of the beds in Scully and Andy’s room at the motel they’d found. Several open boxes of Chinese carryout were scattered here and there around the room, reminding Mulder rather vividly of the impromptu dinner the three of them had shared at the Holiday Inn in Columbus the previous day.
Jesus. Had it really been only the previous day? So much had happened since then, so much had changed — and not just concerning the investigation, either. He glanced across at Scully, sitting crosslegged on the other bed, and saw her looking back at him, an expression of gentle possessiveness on her face.
“Mulder? Are you listening to me?”
With a conscious effort, Mulder dragged his attention away from his partner and looked over at Andy, who was lounging on the floor and leaning against the connecting door to his room. “What’s that, Andy? I’m sorry … I was thinking about something else.”
“I’ll say,” she muttered under her breath, an amused smirk on her face. “Anyway, as I was just saying, Dana and I solved the case this afternoon on the way back to Atlanta. We phoned it in to your boss, and the SWAT teams are in action as we speak. We would have just called you and let you know, but Dana said she wanted to take in a Cubs game and hit the Museum of Science and Industry before heading back to D.C.”
For just an instant Mulder stared at the reporter open-mouthed, and then Andy suddenly burst out laughing. “Sorry, Mulder,” she said, glancing over at Scully — who was losing her battle against a smile — and then back at him again, still chuckling. “You two are just too damned cute for words. Honestly. But we do have some work to do, I think.”
Mulder couldn’t help but laugh in response; Andy’s good-natured sense of humor was infectious. He shook his head ruefully and said, “Okay, okay; I get your point. Let’s back up and start over.”
The two women proceeded to fill him in on the events of the day, trading the story back and forth seemingly by instinct, and breaking in on each other to fill in forgotten details. Mulder watched their performance with increasing awe as the narrative progressed: Not only had Andy been a loyal, dependable backup for his partner, but it was clear that the two of them had rapidly and seemingly without effort established a rapport which rivaled that which existed between Scully and himself.
He briefly tested the idea — and his own reaction to it — for any sign of envy or jealousy on his own part, but was relieved to find that there was none. Andy was not a threat to his relationship with Scully — not professionally, and certainly not personally. In fact, the reporter appeared to be filling some gaps in Scully’s life which he had been aware of for some time, but had been unable to do anything about himself. And that was all to the good.
At last the story reached the checkout desk at the motel in Columbus, and Scully described her surprise at finding an overnight letter waiting for her. “At first I thought it was from you,” she said to Mulder. “But then I realized it couldn’t be; it would have to have been shipped pretty late on Monday, and we were all still in Georgia on Monday. And then I saw the postmark….” Her voice trailed off and she shrugged. “I don’t know who it was from. And all that was in it was this.” She briefly held up a microcassette tape, then popped it into her player and pushed the start button.
The tape crackled in the machine for a minute, and then a familiar song started playing:
//Hello my baby, hello my honey, hello my ragtime gal Send me a kiss by wire — baby my heart’s on fire! If you refuse me, honey you’ll lose me, and then you’ll be alone Oh baby, telephone and tell me I’m your own!//
Mulder felt his eyebrows shoot up in surprise as the song ended, to be replaced only by the faint crackle of blank tape passing through the machine. Scully pushed stop and looked over at him again.
“And that’s all there is,” she said. We played the entire thing through twice, both sides. There’s nothing but that little snippet.”
Mulder shook his head. “Weird. Maybe it was a prank?”
His partner shrugged. “Maybe. Or a bit of misdirection. Or just a distraction. It would help us figure out what the purpose was if we knew who it was from.”
Mulder nodded thoughtfully. Time to add his own little enigma to the pot. He reached into his pocket for the slip of paper he’d received from Krycek, saying, “Well, I don’t know if this makes anything any clearer, but as I said earlier, I bumped into an old friend of ours this afternoon, and he gave me this.”
Taking the paper from his hand, Scully raised her eyebrows at him in silent inquiry. “Alex Krycek,” he explained. Glancing over at Andy, he said, “Krycek is a … well, a mercenary, for want of a better word. He’s a former Bureau agent. We’ve run into him from time to time in the past, and he seems to be connected somehow with the people we think were responsible for what happened in Columbus and Cedar Rapids the past couple of days.”
Scully had glanced down at the slip and studied it while he was speaking to Andy; now she looked back up at Mulder. “Lake Superior,” she said neutrally, and then her lips quirked slightly. “Excuse me: ‘What is Lake Superior?’”
Mulder felt his own eyebrows raise in surprise at Scully’s words. “Lake Superior?” he asked. “How did you get that out of it?”
She shrugged slightly. “Longfellow and Lightfoot,” she said. “It’s the first association that springs to mind.” Mulder shook his head and gestured for her to continue. “Well, you can probably guess what the Lightfoot reference is,” she said. “In the first stanza of ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ mention is made of ‘the big lake they call Gitche Gumee’, which is the Ojibway tribal name for Lake Superior — which is where the Edmund Fitzgerald was lost, of course.”
“Okay,” Mulder said, nodding, his gaze intent on her face. “I got that much. What about Longfellow?”
She shrugged. “Nothing earthshattering, but Longfellow mentioned Gitche Gumee as well, in ‘The Song of Hiawatha’.” She closed her eyes, and recited:
“‘By the shores of Gitche Gumee, By the shining Big-Sea-Water, Stood the wigwam of Nokomis, Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis. Dark behind it rose the forest, Rose the black and gloomy pine trees, Rose the firs with cones upon them; Bright before it beat the water, Beat the clear and sunny water, Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.’”
Scully opened her eyes again and glanced briefly at Andy before looking back at Mulder. “But that’s just the first association I came up with; it could simply be a coincidence.”
Mulder shook his head, his eyes drifting off and going slightly unfocused, as they tended to do when he was processing information. “I don’t think so, Scully,” he said slowly. “Those are two such diverse sources, and you spotted the correlation right off the bat.” He swiveled his head back to grin at her. “Besides, if coincidences are just coincident —”
“— then why do they feel so contrived?” she finished for him with a grin. “Yeah, I know.” Her features turned serious again. “But even if we assume that WAS the intended association, that still doesn’t help us much; Lake Superior is a big place.”
“I think you’re right, though, Dana.” Mulder turned in surprise at the sound of Andy’s voice; he’d almost forgotten that the reporter was in the room. “And we CAN narrow it down a bit,” she continued. “The Edmund Fitzgerald went down on the south side of the lake — pretty close to shore, as a matter of fact. Remember the lyrics? ‘The searchers all say she’d have made Whitefish Bay if they’d put fifteen more miles behind them.’ Whitefish Bay is on the south shore, pretty close to Sault Ste. Marie, and there’s even a shipwreck museum there. I was up in Mackinaw Island one summer, and we spent a couple of days driving along the coast of the lake.”
She colored slightly, and went on, “And this also ties in with the tape you got, Dana.”
Scully looked as surprised as Mulder felt. “It does?” his partner asked.
Andy nodded vigorously. “Sure! Don’t you guys ever watch cartoons, or even the WB network? That song clip is from a classic Warner Brothers cartoon: ‘One Froggy Evening.’ It’s about a singing frog named Michigan J. Frog. Michigan J. Frog, get it? He even sings ‘The Michigan Rag’ elsewhere in the cartoon.” She looked from Scully to Mulder and then back to Scully again. “So that just reinforces the idea that whatever it is we’re looking for it’s on the Michigan side of Lake Superior.”
“I don’t know,” Scully said doubtfully. “That sounds pretty —”
“— amazing,” Mulder said, cutting her off. “That’s simply amazing, Andy.” He could feel his mind going into overdrive as his investigator’s intuition kicked in, and he looked over at his partner. “I think she’s right, Scully. I think she’s hit the nail right on the head. At the very least, it’s a better lead than anything else we’ve got right now.”
Scully raised her eyebrows, then shrugged. “I should know better by now than to argue with you about something like this,” she said. But there was a hint of humor in her voice that took the sting out of her words. “And you’re right; it is the only real lead we’ve got at the moment.” She leaned forward and handed the slip of paper back to him. “So what did Krycek want, anyway? I assume there was more than just that,” she said, gesturing at the paper.
Mulder hesitated before responding, suddenly feeling uncomfortable at what he was about to tell his partner. Scully surely knew by now that he’d made his choice and was going to stand by her … but he still wasn’t very happy with how he’d handled himself during the Cassandra Spender case, and he was afraid that what he was about to say might reopen old wounds.
“He was waiting for me at the airport,” he began, hesitantly. “And he implied that he knew every detail about the car you were driving. Which suggests that we’re being watched very closely right now.” Scully nodded her understanding — and something in his face or tone of voice must have alerted her to what was coming, because she suddenly looked wary.
Mulder went on, “Anyway, he said he’d been sent to deliver a message.”
Mulder glanced at Andy, and she apparently had also realized that something big was about to come down, because she was studiously looking away from both of the agents. He sighed, and looked back at his partner. “Basically, the message was, ‘Come home; all is forgiven.’” And he stopped and waited to see what Scully was going to say.
“How did you respond?” she asked. Her gaze was even and level, but there was just the slightest hint of a tremor in her voice.
Mulder swallowed, and then said the only words he could think of. “I’m here, aren’t I?”
She seemed to study his face for a moment, and finally she nodded. Not in surrender of the point, but at least in provisional acceptance of it. “Yes, you are.”
“I’m where I want to be, Scully,” he said, his voice very low. His throat was suddenly constricted, and he was having difficulty forcing the words out. He wished Andy weren’t there; this was hard enough to do just in front of his partner. But there was really no alternative; he had to get this settled, once and for all.
“I’m where I want to be,” he repeated. “There isn’t anywhere else, and there isn’t anyone else. Not anymore. I’ve been stupid and thoughtless, but that’s past. When Krycek made that offer, I turned him down flat. It wasn’t even a close call.”
She continued to study his face for another pair of minutes, until at last he saw her features soften, just a little. “Okay, Mulder,” she said in a low voice. “Okay. I’ll … accept that.” She paused, then added, “And for the record, this is where I want to be, too. Wherever you are, that’s where I want to be.” She paused for another moment, and then she said. “So did Krycek have anything else to say, or was he just running errands for Spender and Fowley?”
“Yeah,” Mulder said. “He did have a bit more on his mind. He said what we suspected: This is the real thing. The attacks in Columbus and Cedar Rapids were what he called ‘dress rehearsals’, and everything is going according to plan. ‘The ball’s already in play; it’s much too late for anyone to do anything to stop it.’ Those were his exact words, Scully.”
Silence descended on the room, and for a pair of minutes nobody spoke. Finally, Andy spoke, a little hesitantly. “Uh, guys?” she asked. “Is it too much to ask to be brought up to speed on all of this? Which ball, exactly, are we talking about here? And what do you mean when you say, ‘This is the real thing’?”
Mulder thought about it a moment, then shrugged. They’d told Andy a little of what was happening on Monday afternoon, but they’d held back some of the more dire implications. Now, however, if she was going to be a player — and she seemed to be determined to do so — she was going to have to hear the rest of it. He glanced at Scully, and she nodded, almost imperceptibly.
Mulder took a deep breath and turned back to the reporter. With slow deliberation, he said, “We’re talking about the end of the world.”
Scully flinched involuntarily at Mulder’s somber statement, while Andy simply stared at him. His words had hit Scully harder than she’d expected; it was the first time he had put the situation in quite those terms. But that was exactly what they were up against, and they all needed to face it.
Scully managed to shake herself free from her shock and started to wrack her brain, trying to think of what they should say next. There was so much to explain, and she didn’t quite know where to start.
Andy saved her the trouble. “What the hell are you talking about?” she demanded.
Mulder’s mouth twisted into a parody of a smile, and he shot Scully an almost-apologetic look before he said, “Do you believe in the existence of extraterrestrials?”
“Mulder —” Scully started to protest, but once again, Andy beat her to the punch.
“Aliens?” Andy said, incredulous. “You think, what, we’re about to be invaded? ‘Independence Day’ meets ‘Swarm’?”
Mulder’s voice was calm. “I know it sounds insane,” he said carefully. “But all indications we have are that we are about to be colonized by a hostile race of extraterrestrials. Now, Scully and I have some difference of opinion over this, and we have very little hard evidence. But we do agree that someone is trying to take control, and that a lot of people are probably going to die in the process.”
Andy studied him, then Scully, as if she was trying to decode their expressions and figure out the puzzle of her life. Which, Scully realized, she was.
Scully decided it was time for her to speak up. “Andy, it sounds crazy, I know,” she said, her voice low but intense. “But we have seen bee attacks like this before, and seen some of the results. We think those bees were carrying a virus of unknown origin. One which is almost always fatal, and one for which no reliable cure exists.”
There must have been something in her voice; either that, or Andy’s observational skills were better than Scully realized. “You sound like you have firsthand experience,” the reporter said, her eyes sharp and zeroed in on Scully.
Scully hesitated, then nodded. “I was stung last summer,” she confirmed. “Mulder was given a vaccine to use, and it worked. But we don’t have the vaccine now, and we don’t know if it even exists any more.”
Andy nodded slowly, accepting this much of the explanation, then turned her attention back to Mulder. “So what, exactly, makes you think this is aliens?” she asked.
Mulder closed his eyes for a second, then reopened them and focused on Andy. “Because I’ve seen them,” he said simply.
Andy fell silent, her eyes on Mulder’s face. Mulder took the scrutiny silently, and Scully got the impression he was willing Andy to believe him.
Finally, without taking her eyes off of Mulder, Andy said, “Dana? You really believe all this?”
Scully hesitated, then nodded. “Not exactly as he does,” she clarified. “Mulder told you: We disagree on some of the … finer points. But the essence of the story is true.” She looked at her partner and saw that he was looking back at her, and there was no mistaking the open affection and gratitude in his eyes. “I’m sure of that.”
There was another moment of silence as Andy continued to study Mulder’s face. At last she nodded briskly. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll buy the takeover story, although I’m not convinced it’s aliens. It’s far out, but to tell the truth, I can’t imagine how or why you’d make something like that up.” She paused, then said, “The next question is, what the hell can we do about it?”
Scully had no idea what to tell her, and she could see that Mulder didn’t, either.
Thirty minutes later they still hadn’t found an answer to that last question, and as the hour approached midnight Scully finally called a curfew, insisting that they all needed to get some rest. For once even Mulder was not inclined to argue the point. Other than the nap on the plane he hadn’t slept since Monday afternoon, and he knew it had been even longer for his partner and Andy.
He looked over at Scully, still sitting crosslegged on the other bed, as she yawned and stretched. He wished that there were some way the two of them could get a few minutes alone together. So much had happened between them in the past 24 hours, so much had changed, and he had so many things he wanted to tell her.
But he hesitated to ask her for that time alone. She’d already given him so much today, and he didn’t want to push her faster than she wanted to go.
Abruptly, Andy was bouncing to her feet and moving towards the door to the outside. “Well,” she said, her words a little rushed, “I don’t know about you two, but I’m not going to be able to sleep soundly until I’ve checked the perimeter. All this talk of alien invasions and government conspiracies has made me just a little paranoid. Shouldn’t take long — maybe twenty minutes or so.” And before either partner could react to her statement she was out the door and gone.
Mulder found himself staring at the closed door open-mouthed — and then he heard a light chuckle from the other side of the room, and turned in that direction to see Scully grinning at him.
“I’d say we’ve just been set up, wouldn’t you, Agent Mulder?”
Mulder felt a slow smile spreading across his own features as he watched his partner climbing off of her bed and moving over to sit next to him where he still lay sprawled on the other one. “Looks that way, Agent Scully,” he said, and then he shivered slightly as she ran the fingers of one hand lightly through his hair.
For a few minutes neither of them spoke. Mulder simply lay on his back looking up at Scully, watching her as she watched him, tracing her features with his eyes even as she traced his scalp with her fingertips. He’d never allowed himself to look at her like this before, and now that they’d abruptly broken down those walls he didn’t know if he would ever be able to stop.
God, he needed to touch her, too. Her fingers were still idly playing with his hair, but it wasn’t enough — it wasn’t nearly enough. He knew they had to take this slowly — it was all so new and strange, and they both needed to take their time adjusting to this new aspect of their relationship. But perhaps tonight they could at least have a little bit more.
He allowed his hands to move forward until he was lightly gripping her waist. Scully flinched slightly at his touch, but then flashed him a reassuring smile and allowed herself to be drawn down. She pulled her legs around as she moved, so that she was lying on her side next to him on the bed, his hands still resting on her waist, her face now only inches from his own.
“I’ve wanted this for such a long time,” Mulder said at last, very softly. “Such a very long time.” He hesitated, not sure how far he should go, but then he forced his doubts and insecurities to one side. She would understand. She would have to understand. “But I wish … I wish it hadn’t happened this way.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, equally softly. But he could see in her eyes that she already knew the answer; she just wanted him to say the words out loud.
He drew her a little closer, taking comfort and reassurance from the warmth of her body. “I mean I never wanted this to happen in a moment of despair,” he said, and he had to swallow slightly to clear the lump that had suddenly formed in his throat. “Despair has driven so much of our time together, right from the very beginning. Despair, and grief. And loss. I wanted … I wanted this, with you, to be different. That’s one reason why I held back for so long. I kept waiting for the moment when we could be happy together.” Despite himself, he felt tears forming in his eyes. “But I kept waiting and waiting, and that moment never came.”
Scully nodded slowly, then leaned forward and brushed her lips lightly against his. “It’s okay, though, Mulder,” she whispered against his mouth. “It’s really okay. This may not be the moment we both wanted it to be, but at least it’s here. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.” And again she kissed him.
At length they reluctantly drew apart. During that last kiss Mulder had become acutely aware of his own physical need for her, and now looking down at her he saw that same desire reflected in her own eyes. It would be so easy just to give in to that and try to lose themselves in each other, even if only for a few hours. It would be so very easy, and he knew that she would not refuse him if he chose to pursue it. All that was needed was one more small shove to send them both over the edge …
And then her eyes changed again, and the moment had passed. Mulder allowed a wistful smile to creep across his lips, and he said, “Not tonight, I guess.”
Scully smiled back and shook her head before closing her eyes and allowing her head to fall back on the pillow. “Too much, too soon,” she murmured, her voice tinged with regret, and he knew that she was right. And in another minute her breathing had slowed and deepened, and he realized that she had finally given in to her exhaustion.
Mulder waited a few more minutes to make sure she was well and truly asleep, and then he gently disentangled himself from her embrace, climbed off the bed and covered her with the blanket before finally going to his own room. He flicked on the television and then stripped down to his boxers and crawled into bed.
For a few minutes his eyes followed the flickering images on the TV screen, but soon his eyelids began to droop, and within a few minutes more he too had fallen fast asleep.
Scully sat straight up in the bed when the knock sounded, going from deeply asleep to completely alert between one breath and the next. Her hand was grabbing for her gun where it lay on the nightstand almost immediately as her eyes tracked to the clock, and she caught sight of Andy doing the same thing in the bed next to her.
Scully took a deep breath to steady herself and whispered, “You ask who it is, but stay to the side of the door. I’ll cover.”
Andy nodded, and the two women slipped from their beds, Scully moving to stand to one side as Andy flattened herself against the wall, then edged carefully toward the door, gun in hand. Stopping several feet from the doorway, she called out, “Who’s there?”
A pause, and a male voice said, “I’m looking for Agent Scully.”
The voice sounded familiar to Scully, but she couldn’t quite recognize it. Moving closer to the door, she said, “Who the hell are you, and why the hell should I let you in?”
The pause was longer this time, and then the voice spoke again. “I need to talk to you, Agent Scully,” he said, slowly and distinctly. “This is Jeffrey Spender.”
Scully knew her mouth had dropped open in shock, but she was frozen in place for a few long moments. Andy’s voice finally shook her free.
“Who is that?” Andy hissed, her gun still at the ready.
Scully moved cautiously toward the door. “He’s an agent who disappeared without a trace three months ago,” she said in a low voice, sidling up carefully to peer out the peephole. “He was presumed dead, actually; his blood was found on the floor of … an office where he’d been working.”
Sure enough, outside the door stood a tall, thin, familiar figure, dressed in a suit and tie and draped with a black trenchcoat. His eyes moved from one side to the other, scanning for potential danger as he waited to be allowed entry.
Scully thought quickly. It could be a trap. She’d been fooled by a lookalike of Mulder before, and that had nearly gotten them both killed.
But if this was Spender, he had a hell of a lot of questions to answer.
She spoke through the door. “Get your hands up in the air where I can see them,” she barked, watching as Spender’s head swung around to face the door. He complied, lifting his hands, then placing them on top of his head.
Still moving cautiously, Scully stepped across the doorway, then glanced at Andy, motioning with her gun hand. “Back up over there and cover me,” she said, then paused and pinned Andy with a hard look. “But do not fire unless you absolutely have to.”
Andy’s face furrowed, and she opened her mouth as if to question, but then stopped and snapped her jaw shut. She planted herself near the beds, gun trained on the doorway, and nodded once to indicate she was ready.
Scully released the locks and opened the door carefully, stepping back while keeping her own weapon trained on the man outside. “Inside, over to the bed, sit down, and keep your hands on your head,” she ordered.
Spender shot her an annoyed glance but followed her instructions, eyeing Andy with some curiosity as she backed away from him. Scully closed and locked the door without looking, then walked back toward Spender, stopping in front of him but staying a few feet back.
“Okay, start talking,” she said. “And what you say better make sense damn fast.”
Spender sighed. “Can I put my arms down now?” he asked, almost petulantly.
Scully rolled her eyes. “Okay, but move slowly, and sit on them instead.”
Spender looked annoyed again but continued to follow Scully’s orders. Once he was settled with his hands under his legs, Scully looked at Andy, jerking her weapon and head in Spender’s direction. “Frisk him,” she said. “Carefully.”
Andy nodded, lowering her own gun to the far edge of the dresser before quickly and efficiently patting Spender down. She emerged with a handgun from a shoulder holster — and a small, silver, penlike item, which she looked at with some confusion.
Scully’s eyes widened when she saw what Andy held, and she immediately held her left hand out. “You keep the gun, but give me that,” she said. “If it’s what I think it is …”
“It is,” Spender said immediately, an edge of either anger or disgust in his voice. “And do you really think I’d show up with that on me if I was what you apparently think I am?”
“Why not?” Scully retorted, shifting the gimlet around in her hand to get a thumb on the trigger. “The second time I saw one, that Schwarzenegger wannabe had it on him.”
Her thumb landed on its target, and the switchpick opened with a swish, drawing a gasp from Andy.
“What the hell is that thing?” Andy demanded, throwing glances at it every few seconds, between keeping an eye on Spender.
“It’s a weapon,” he said in a flat voice, his eyes on Scully’s. “Used to kill when nothing else will do the job.”
Scully met his gaze. “You’ve used it,” she said, not really asking a question.
Spender nodded once. “Badly, at first,” he confirmed. “Better with practice, but still only a few times.” His voice hardened. “And even then only when absolutely necessary, Agent Scully. I took an oath when I became a Federal agent, and I didn’t do a good job keeping it then. But I’m doing my damnedest to keep it now, and that’s why I came to talk to you.”
Scully studied the younger man for a moment. “Why me?” she asked. “Why not Mulder?”
Spender shrugged, his eyes dropping to stare at his knees. “I considered it, and decided Agent Mulder was the one more likely to shoot first and ask questions later,” he said in a wry tone. “I thought you’d give me a chance to talk before you killed me.”
Scully relaxed minutely at that. “You’re probably right about that,” she conceded. “So what is so important that you’re willing to risk one of us shooting you?”
Spender’s head lifted, and Scully was taken aback at the hardness she saw behind his eyes.
“I’m here, Agent Scully, to tell you and your partner to stop letting yourselves be led around like trained animals,” he said sharply. “I know who Agent Mulder met with in Iowa, and I know what he was told. I also know that it’s a diversion, and that if you allow yourselves to be distracted, you will be too late.”
Scully frowned. “Too late for what?” she asked.
Spender shrugged. “Too late to save the world, of course,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone.
Silence hung the air for a few seconds before Andy finally broke it. “All right,” she demanded. “Quit the bullshit and get to the point. Why are you here, where have you been, and why the hell should we listen to you?”
Spender seemed taken aback by Andy’s outburst and stared at her. “Excuse me?” he retorted. “And just who the hell are you anyway?”
“Captain Andrea Baker, United States Marine Corps Reserves,” Andy snapped back. “Not that it’s any of your damn business. Now answer the questions, you punkass!”
Spender simply stared at her, his mouth hanging open a half-inch, and then slowly rotated his head back to look at Scully. “Where the hell did you find this one?” he asked.
If Scully hadn’t been so tense, she would probably have laughed at that. Instead, she said, “Never mind, Spender. Just speak your piece and I’ll decide if it’s enough to save your life.”
Spender held her gaze for a moment, then looked away and nodded. “All right,” he said. “Here’s the deal: The message you got is accurate, but it’s not important. They’re trying to distract you from what you should really be looking for.”
“Which is?” Scully prompted.
“I think you know,” Spender said.
Scully let out an exasperated sigh. “Cut the shit, Spender,” she said. “I’m sick of riddles and guessing games. If you want to tell me something, then just tell me.”
Spender sighed as well. “The victims, Scully,” he said. “Trace the victims and you’ll find what you need to find. You and Agent Mulder are letting yourselves be distracted, and that is the one thing none of us can afford right now. There’s no time.”
“Why?” Andy asked, taking a half-step closer. “You keep talking like we’re all under a deadline here. What do you know that you’re not telling us?”
Spender gave her a long look, then slowly turned back to Scully. “The date is set,” he said slowly. “Our time is up.”
Scully felt her blood run cold. “When?” she forced out, her voice hoarse.
Spender’s face was blank when he spoke again, but his words froze Scully’s blood in her veins:
At first Mulder wasn’t sure what had awakened him. His room was still dark, other than the flickering images on the TV screen, and the only sound was the muted murmur of voices coming from the same source.
Without moving, he cast his eyes around as much of the room as he could see, but there was nothing — and nobody — there, other than the shadowy outlines of the furniture and the sparse decor.
Still, something had awakened him — he was sure of it. He wasn’t quite sure how he knew, but he knew. It hadn’t been a dream, and he certainly wasn’t completely rested and ready for the day — not after only four hours. No, there had been some outside stimulus. Something … something …
A sound? Mulder concentrated, trying to bring back the fragment of a memory. A sound. A short, sharp sound. Too quiet to be a gunshot, but loud enough, apparently, to disturb him.
A door closing?
He rolled out of bed and onto his feet, and without turning on the lights he managed to find his slacks and pull them on. He then picked up his weapon off the bedside table, and walked quietly over to the connecting door to Scully and Andy’s room.
As he approached, he saw that there was a light showing from underneath it, and he drew in his breath — and just as quickly let it out again. Just because there was a light on in the next room didn’t mean that anything was wrong. Scully and Andy must have woken up for some reason, and they were sitting and chatting for a few minutes before going back to sleep. That’s all. Nothing to be alarmed about.
Except that he didn’t believe it for a minute. His professional instincts were quivering, and alarm bells were clanging in his head. Without consciously thinking about it he worked the slide of his weapon, jacking a round into the chamber, then slowly reached out and as quietly as possible opened his side of the connecting door.
Their side was still closed, but he knew it would be unlocked. For just another moment he paused and listened, but there was nothing but silence in the other room.
This was ridiculous; this was foolish. He was about to do a Rambo into his partner’s motel room, with nothing to justify it but a vaguely defined feeling that something was wrong. These two women were both quite capable of taking care of themselves, and they were both armed. There was no reason for him to be doing this; none at all.
But he couldn’t help himself.
He closed his eyes very briefly, praying that he was about to make a fool of himself. Then he opened his eyes, took a deep breath, and kicked in the door.
Scully would later thank God she’d had a few minutes to collect her wits after Spender’s departure. Because when Mulder came crashing through the door, she’d been no more than a hair’s- breadth away from pulling the trigger on him. Two minutes earlier, and she didn’t know if she’d have been able to stop herself.
Instead, she hit him with the residue of her anger, fear, and frustration.
“Mulder, what the fuck are you doing?” she demanded, her voice as harsh as her words. “Have you completely lost your fucking mind??”
He lay in an only half-dignified and virtually ineffectual lump on the floor, his gun pointed in her direction but tilted up toward the ceiling, where he’d moved it instinctively once he realized there was no danger.
He looked up at her, embarrassment warring with guilt for the upper hand in his expression. “Sorry, Scully,” he said sheepishly. “I heard noises and I guess I got a little carried away.”
Scully snorted as she secured her weapon and placed it on the dresser. “Now THERE’S an understatement,” she said, sneering. “What the hell were you thinking? Did you conveniently forget that this room was occupied by two well-armed and fully trained people who can take care of their own damn selves?”
Mulder had pushed himself to his feet as she spoke, wincing and rubbing his shoulder where he’d bounced off the door frame on his way into the room, but Scully was too angry to worry about any possible injuries. Instead, she lit into him again.
“It’s four-thirty in the fucking morning, and for all you know we could be in here talking or watching TV or getting ready to take fucking showers,” she ranted, pacing back and forth between the beds and the dresser. “And you come crashing in here with some hero complex and think you’ve got to rescue the poor damsels …”
“Dana.” Andy’s voice was firm and clear and served to cut through the layers of emotion coloring Scully’s speech.
Scully stopped in mid-step and mid-sentence, and as soon as she did, all the frustration and most of the anger and fear drained away, along with the adrenalin rush. Her knees weakened, and she moved carefully the two feet to the edge of the bed, lowering herself onto the mattress.
“Shit,” she muttered.
From the corner of her eye, she saw Mulder take a hesitant step in her direction, as if he was afraid his movement would set her off again. Her eyelids slid shut, and she took several deep breaths, trying to fight off the pounding headache that was taking root behind her eyes.
Spender’s words kept running through her mind. Memorial Day. Less than three weeks before everything went to hell. And the only lead they had was questionable at best.
Three weeks. In three weeks, they could all be dead. Her. Mulder. Andy. Their friends. Their families …
Scully’s mind brought forth an image from two weeks earlier. She sat on the sofa in her mother’s living room, drinking coffee and laughing, as Margaret Scully filled her in on the latest gossip from their extended family. She could feel the warmth of the room and the conversation deep inside her, and she struggled to hold onto that sensation as the memory started to fade from her mind.
She heard Andy speaking softly, but it took a moment for the words to filter into her brain. “Dana? Dana, are you gonna be okay?”
She opened her eyes to meet the concern in Andy’s. The younger woman was squatting on the floor next to her and was lifting her hand to Scully’s forehead.
“There you are,” Andy said with a small smile. “You drifted off there for a minute. Where were you?”
Scully shook her head sharply. “I’m … I’m fine,” she said, ignoring the low sound of derision she heard coming from Mulder’s direction at her words.
Andy nodded. “Okay,” she said softly. “Why don’t you lie down and see if you can sleep another couple hours or so before we leave? It’s not even five yet, and our flight’s not until 10:30 …”
“NO!” Scully’s head popped up. “We need to talk. We need to tell Mulder …”
“Tell me what?” Mulder’s voice cut in. He was at Scully’s side an instant later, sinking onto the mattress next to her as she turned, slowly, to face him. “What happened?” he asked, his eyes wide and anxious.
Scully opened her mouth, closed it, swallowed, and lowered her gaze to study the rumpled bedspread on which she sat. “We had … a visitor,” she said carefully. “He told us that the leads to northern Michigan were designed to lead us off the real trail, and …” Her voice trailed off, and she gave Andy a pleading glance.
Andy nodded in response, then looked at Mulder. “He told us that the date was set,” she said, but then she hesitated, and Mulder jumped in.
“Who was it? Krycek?” he demanded, and now he was up and pacing. “That asshole does nothing but run us around in circles. I knew I should never have let him out of that car …”
“Mulder!” Scully interrupted his self-flagellation. “It wasn’t Krycek.”
He stopped in mid-stride, much as Scully had a few minutes earlier, and shot her a glare. “Well, then, who the hell was it?” he snapped.
Scully met his angry gaze directly. “It was Jeffrey Spender,” she said.
Mulder’s eyes widened, then narrowed almost instantly. “Are you sure it was him?” he asked.
Scully let out a frustrated sigh. “Yes, Mulder, I sliced into his arm to make sure he didn’t bleed green,” she said sarcastically. “No, of course I can’t be sure it was him. But he didn’t try anything, and he had one of those weapons on him.” She glanced around and spied the switchpick on the nightstand. “That, whatever it’s called,” she said, nodding her head in that direction.
Mulder looked where she indicated, then stepped over and picked up the metal cylinder. He repeated Scully’s actions from earlier again, instantly finding the trigger and opening the weapon.
He looked at Scully. “This doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “They carry them anyway …”
“I know,” Scully interrupted, impatient. “But he didn’t try anything, and he left without the weapon. Or the clip from his gun, for that matter; we took that, too.”
Mulder’s gaze hardened. “You just let him walk out of here?” he demanded. “What the hell were you thinking?”
“What was I thinking?” Scully was on her feet and incensed. “You certainly are one to talk. What were you thinking when you let a federal fugitive out of your car in Iowa? Jeffrey Spender may be officially missing, but he is not a wanted felon by any stretch of the imagination. I had no just cause to keep him here against his will.”
She paused, then said in a calmer voice. “If I had, we might all be dead by now; we have no way of knowing who might be following him. We might all be dead in three weeks anyway, but at least this way …”
“Three weeks?” Mulder interrupted again. “What’s in three weeks?”
Scully hesitated, only then realizing that they still hadn’t told Mulder the date Spender had named. She reached out her hand to slip it into his, squeezing lightly, and watching his eyes dip to look at their hands before raising back to her face.
“Scully?” he asked softly. “What is it? When is it?”
She took a breath, then said, “Memorial Day.”
Whitefish Point, MI Wednesday, May 12, 1999 5:55 p.m. EDT
Mulder peered into the late afternoon sunlight and tried to blink the sleep from his eyes as he steered their latest rental car into the tiny hamlet of Whitefish Point in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The two women had fallen asleep almost as soon as they left the airport at Sault Ste. Marie, so he’d been left alone with his thoughts for much of the past two hours.
Despite good intentions, none of them had slept more than a couple of hours after Mulder had burst into Scully and Andy’s room in Chicago. The three of them had sat up for half an hour or so kicking around the implications of Jeffrey Spender’s visit without really getting anywhere before Mulder had finally returned to his own room and tried to go back to sleep.
But he hadn’t been able to sleep. He’d tossed and turned, trying to find a comfortable position, alternating that with propping himself up to stare, unseeing, at the television. But nothing had worked. The visions evoked by the day’s events simply had not left him alone.
Memorial Day. A little over two and a half weeks away. He’d known about this threat for years; could it actually be about to happen?
He’d felt himself being overwhelmed by a dreamy sense of unreality, as if he’d been falling from a great height and now the ground was finally rushing up to meet him. It all seemed so abrupt; it was hard to remember that the events leading to this moment had been building for more than half a century.
And that his own father had contributed to bringing it all to pass.
His mind had skittered hastily away from that line of thought. That was what had led him to the brink of disaster in Diana’s apartment in February, and he couldn’t afford to let it happen again. There was too much at stake now, and too little time. He had to maintain a grip on himself; he had to stay in control.
A part of him deep down inside, the part that just wanted to give up and die, was screaming against any attempt at self-control. That part yearned for the darkness, wanted to embrace the darkness and be embraced by it. As recently as 36 hours ago, after the bee attack at the Riverwalk in Columbus, that part had ruled him. But not anymore.
Not since Scully had thrown him a lifeline.
Scully. Just the thought of her was enough to make him abandon the memories of his fatalistic tendencies and bring him back to the present. It had worked earlier that morning, allowing him to doze for nearly a half-hour.
And it worked again now.
He briefly took his eyes off the road to glance at her as she dozed in the passenger seat next to him. Her window was cracked slightly open, and the breeze gently ruffled her hair as a lover’s fingers might. Her features were calm and relaxed, and a slight smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.
He wondered what she was dreaming about.
She had come to him around dawn that morning, not saying a word as she slipped into his room like a shadow and slid into bed next to him. He had not questioned her presence, just gathered her into his arms and held her. Neither moved nor spoke, and he simply lay quietly, listening to her breathing and her heartbeat.
At length her body had begun to shake, but still she had made no sound, and he had cuddled her in a little closer, matching her silence with his own as she buried her face against his shoulder and wept.
Finally she had seemed to wind down, and within a few moments more they had both fallen sound asleep.
“It’s the next left.”
Mulder was jerked back to the present again, this time by the sound of Andy’s voice. His eyes flicked briefly at the rearview mirror, and he saw that the reporter was now awake and leaning a little forward, her hands resting lightly on the back of his seat.
Mulder nodded in acknowledgement of her instructions and powered the car through the turn she’d indicated.
Two more turns and fifteen minutes later he brought the vehicle to a halt in the parking lot of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Museum.
Scully inhaled deeply as she stepped from the car and into the misty air of the lakeshore, only partly in an effort to shake off the last vestiges of sleep. She turned immediately toward the water, drawn as if mesmerized by the sound of the waves gently lapping against the rocks.
She had always loved the water, in every form, and the lack of salt in the air here did nothing to lessen the feeling of calm she felt, simply from looking out across the wind-chopped water. She was the child of a sailor, Starbuck to his Ahab; and whenever her soul needed restoration, she was always drawn to the shore.
The circumstances of this trip might be different, but the effect was the same.
She heard Mulder walking up behind her, could feel his eyes on her before they shifted to look out across the lake. His large hands settled gently on her shoulders, rubbing her stiff muscles lightly, and she smiled.
His head dipped lower and he murmured, “Beautiful” in her ear before moving to rest his chin on top of her head. She was about to respond when he continued, “And the lake’s nice, too.”
Her smile widened briefly into an abashed grin before she brought it under control. She lifted her right hand to her left shoulder, slipping her hand into his, and turned to face him. He kept his free hand on her as she moved, dragging his fingers along her back, then sliding them down her arm to grasp her other hand.
He was smiling gently at her when she met his eyes. “You should live on the shore,” he said softly. “You’re in your element here, aren’t you?”
Scully chuckled lightly and squeezed his hands, glancing back over her shoulder at the water. “I guess I am,” she said.
She released his hands just as Andy joined them, holding the huge road atlas they’d bought at the Sault Ste. Marie airport when they landed.
“Okay, Wonderboy, what now?” Andy asked. She’d adopted the teasing nickname for Mulder during the flight up from Detroit, after hearing a few of Scully’s comments about his often bizarre but usually correct leaps of logic. Scully knew Mulder had been a little wary when Andy had first used the moniker, so used to hearing derogatory comments from other agents. But he’d soon recognized Andy’s teasing as good-natured, and he’d come up with his own rejoinder.
“I don’t know, Mon Capitaine,” he shot back, grinning. “Any suggestions from the peanut gallery would be greatly appreciated.”
Scully couldn’t help it. She laughed out loud, and two pairs of eyes, one hazel and one bright green, focused on her, then moved to regard each other.
“What’s up with her?” Andy asked, as if put off.
“Who ever knows what’s up with any woman?” Mulder shot back with a grin, reaching out to snatch the atlas from Andy’s hand.
“Oh, you better watch it, Wonderboy; you’re outnumbered,” Andy replied, her voice teasingly ominous. “And we’re armed.”
“Ooh, I’m scared,” Mulder said, still grinning as he opened the atlas, flipping pages until he found the section focused on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Scully stepped up beside him as he spread the book on the still-warm hood of the car and started scanning the map intently.
Scully watched his eyes move for a moment before she spoke. “What are you looking for?” she asked, curious.
“A clue,” Mulder said absently, bringing up one finger to run across the paper and following it with his eyes.
Andy was leaning over from his other side by then. “Like what?” she said. “As far as I can tell, we’ve exhausted our clues. The question and the song got us up here; what’s left?”
Just then, Mulder’s finger stopped. “A-ha,” he said lightly. “A clue.”
Scully turned her attention to the map, then bent down and squinted slightly to see what he was pointing out. His finger rested on a small bay northeast of them, on the Canadian side, called Batchawana Bay.
Scully looked up at Mulder, confused, but before she could ask, Andy let out a short laugh, drawing both Scully’s and Mulder’s gazes. “I get it,” Andy said, her eyes dancing. “What that guy said to you, right?”
“Yep,” Mulder said, turning back to look at Scully. “‘Betcha wanna find them,’ remember?”
Scully rolled her eyes in exasperation at herself. “Okay, so I’m a little slow today,” she said grudgingly. “Just the kind of thing we expect from Krycek.”
“Yep,” Mulder repeated, planting his palms on either side of the atlas and staring down at it again. “Question is, what do we do about it now?”
The voice came from behind them, and the trio spun around in concert, only to come face-to-face with Jeffrey Spender.
Mulder felt his eyes widen as he realized who had spoken. It was one thing for Scully to have told him of Spender’s visit the night before; it was something else again to see the man standing in front of him, whole and alive.
If it really was Spender.
For a few seconds no one moved or spoke, and Mulder found himself studying the other man, trying to discern his identity. It certainly looked like Spender — the same thin, hawklike features; the same understated chin; the same curly black hair …
And yet there were changes, too. The man in front of him seemed leaner and more self-assured than Mulder remembered, and there was something hard and bitter in his eyes, something Mulder did not remember seeing there before. That could just be a sign of rough treatment, of course — or it could mean —
“What the fuck are you doing here, punkass?” That was Andy, breaking the silence and striding aggressively forward to invade the newcomer’s personal space. “I thought you’d said what you had to say last night!”
Spender’s lips quirked, and Mulder caught a flash of something he could have sworn was admiration in the other man’s eyes before they flicked over to Scully. With a sour look on his face — but without giving ground, Mulder noted — Spender asked, sarcastically, “Can’t you put a muzzle on this thing?”
Mulder didn’t even try to follow what happened next. Andy and Spender went down together in a flurry of arms and legs, and when the action slowed a few seconds later Spender was lying prone, with Andy straddling his hips and grinding his face into the dirt.
Part of Mulder wanted to cheer — even as another part of him almost felt sorry for the poor bastard.
“The next time you got something to say to me, punkass, you say it to me,” Andy snapped, leaning down so that her mouth was only inches from Spender’s ear. “You got that?” She waited a few seconds, and when he didn’t answer she jerked his head sharply up by the hair, and then slammed it back down into the ground again — not all that hard, but enough to make her point. “I asked you a question, shithead!”
Spender hesitated a second longer, then nodded sharply — but still he did not speak. Andy reached carefully underneath his body with her free hand and disarmed him, then climbed off him and backed away slowly, covering him with his own weapon.
“You can get up now, Ferret Face,” she said. “Oh, and if you’ve got another one of those icepick thingames, just toss it on the ground; it’ll save me the trouble of taking you down again.” She glanced briefly at Scully, and added, “I thought you guys had to go through Quantico. Punkass here wouldn’t last three days at Parris Island.”
“My name is Spender,” the agent said angrily, glaring at Andy as he struggled back to his feet and dusted himself off. “Former Special Agent Jeffrey Spender, Captain Baker. And if you’re quite through showing us all how big your dick is, I do have some business to transact.”
Andy’s eyes narrowed, and for an instant Mulder thought she was going to attack again. But then she snorted and shook her head, and ejected the clip from Spender’s weapon.
She spun on her heel toward the water, and Mulder realized she was barely keeping herself from scaling the gun out into the lake. She paused a moment, then shot one last murderous look at Spender before saying, “He’s all yours, Wonderboy.”
Mulder watched as she stuffed Spender’s gun in the waistband of her jeans, then turned and stalked over to stand next to Scully, arms crossed in front of her chest. He looked at the two women for just a moment longer. Andy was still fuming, and he could see that Scully was struggling to keep a smile from her lips. Mulder didn’t know which had amused her more — seeing Spender get his comeuppance, or watching Andy’s reactions to the other man.
Methinks the lady doth protest too much, he mused.
Finally, he set aside his thoughts and turned back to face the other man. “So, Jeff,” he said easily. “I see you took my advice and enrolled in that Carnegie course.”
Spender shook his head wearily. “Let’s cut the crap, shall we Mulder? None of us have time for this.” He glanced quickly at Scully and Andy and then back at Mulder. “I presume Agent Scully gave you my message from last night.”
Mulder nodded, then shrugged. “She gave it to me. What she didn’t tell me was why we should trust you — or what we could do about it even if we did believe you.”
Spender rolled his eyes and took a step towards Mulder — then stopped abruptly as Andy moved sharply forward to cut him off. “Jesus,” he muttered under his breath. Then, to Mulder: “Look, don’t you people ever listen? I said follow the bodies. Follow the fucking bodies. This … ” His voice trailed off, and he waved an arm to take in the surroundings. “This is just a red herring. You’re following someone else’s agenda.” He locked eyes with Mulder. “Again.”
Mulder felt a prickle of anxiety at the accusation, but quickly suppressed it. He couldn’t afford to fall victim to self-doubt, he reminded himself. Not now. Scully. Focus on Scully. He took a deep breath and shook his head, but before he could speak Andy had intervened, once again stepping up into Spender’s personal space.
“‘Follow the bodies,’” she mimicked. “‘Follow the bodies!’” She gave Spender a little shove, but again he stood his ground, and his eyes flashed, with anger and maybe something else. “Tell me, former Agent Spender,” Andy continued. “You say we’re following someone else’s agenda? Well what’s your agenda?”
She shoved him again, and this time he staggered slightly.
For a moment Spender stood perfectly still, glaring at Andy and making a visible effort to control his breathing. For her own part, Andy seemed poised, almost as if she were spoiling for a fight, leaning forward on the balls of her feet, arms held out slightly from her sides.
As Mulder looked at them, he had a sudden sense of something akin to deja vu. No, he hadn’t lived this exact scene before, but he had seen two people in a similar situation. As in, Scully and him. On more than one occasion.
And he supressed another smile at the thought. He knew what lay as the foundation of every heated discussion he and Scully had ever had, and it wasn’t hate, or even anger.
Passion, however …
At last Spender broke the silence, shifted his attention away from Andy and back to Mulder and Scully. “Look,” he said, an undertone of pleading seeping into his voice. “You have got to listen to me. You are wasting your time up here, and you haven’t got any to spare. You have got to —”
“Why us, Spender?” Mulder glanced back as Scully spoke for the first time, stepping forward and crossing her arms across her chest. “You seem to be following us around, backseat driving our investigation, telling us we’re on the wrong track. Why us?
“Why don’t you follow the bodies?”
When Spender didn’t reply immediately, Scully pressed on, her voice growing more sarcastic. “Come on, Spender, why aren’t you tracking the victims? You seem to have resources.” She shrugged one shoulder. “You certainly haven’t had any trouble keeping an eye on us. Surely you can find a few bee sting victims.”
Spender shook his head. “Believe it or not, I don’t really have that many resources,” he said quietly, his low tone a sharp contrast to his previously confident air. “It’s taking just about everything I’ve got just to keep an eye on the two …” — his eyes flicked to Andy, and he corrected himself — “… three of you. And I certainly don’t have the contacts you do within the government.”
“You still haven’t answered the question,” Scully persisted. “Why us? And what do you really expect us to do about all this?”
Spender sighed, then flicked his gaze around them, taking in the surrounding area. “Listen,” he said, his voice growing urgent. “I’ll tell you everything I know, but not here. We’re too exposed. We need to get under cover, and fast.”
Almost against her will, Scully found herself looking around, as Spender just had. They were in the middle of a large, open area, the only cover nearby their car and the structure of the museum itself a hundred yards away, the old lighthouse tower looming above the building. The museum was closed anyway; the sign at the entrance had listed the opening date for the season as May 15, still two days away.
She swung her head back around to look at Mulder. “He’s right, Mulder,” she said, forcing herself to push down the frisson of pleasure that welled deep within her as his gaze locked onto hers unerringly. “We’re too exposed out here. We need to find some place a little more secure to continue this,” she said.
Mulder nodded slowly and turned toward Spender. “In the car,” he said, jerking his head in that direction.
Scully was almost surprised when Spender didn’t speak, just followed orders. And then she saw the expression on Andy’s face, and she ceased to wonder. The younger woman looked as if she’d like nothing better than for Spender to give her a reason — any reason — to take him down again.
Scully knew the look. She’d used it on Mulder enough, to get him to back down. Only when it was important, of course, and it nearly always worked, even early in their partnership.
Seemed as if Spender learned quickly, too.
The four were in the car in a matter of minutes, Spender and Andy in the back, Mulder driving, Scully in the passenger seat. Scully turned to the side to keep an eye on the man in the back, even though she doubted Andy would need any assistance if he were to try anything.
Mulder waited until they were off the museum grounds and back on the road south to speak. “Okay, start talking,” he said, glancing at Spender in the rear view mirror.
Spender looked at Scully, and she merely raised an eyebrow. He did not, she noticed, look at Andy.
“All right,” Spender said, his eyes still on Scully. “I can’t look for the victims because I don’t have access. I’m not even supposed to be in contact with the two of you. You’re not even supposed to know I’m alive.”
“Why not?” Scully prompted.
Spender sighed and closed his eyes, exhaustion and resignation clearly written in the web of lines on his face. “You know something happened in the basement,” he said, his voice soft. “You saw the blood; you know it was mine. But you don’t know the whole story. Hell, you don’t know any of the story.”
“So fill us in,” Andy interjected. Her voice was closer to normal, and Scully glanced at the younger woman.
Andy sat half-turned in the seat, her eyes intent on Spender’s face. She held her body rigidly, as if reining in her emotions to keep herself from reacting. But her face was calm, and she seemed more open to Spender’s explanations than she had earlier, as if her anger had been either sated or exhausted.
Scully nearly smiled in relief. She didn’t know why Andy had reacted so violently to Spender, but she hoped she was past it. They needed to stay rational about this, and lashing out wasn’t helping anything.
She realized Spender was speaking again and focused on what he was saying.
“He was in the office when I got down there, after I left that meeting,” Spender said, his eyes still closed. “He was sitting at the desk, smoking, as usual. He said something cryptic about me disappointing him, I don’t know, I guess because once I realized what was going on, I refused to go along with it. I told him to get out, he stood up … and he shot me.”
Scully felt her eyebrows lift again, but before she could speak, Mulder broke in. “And, what, you just walked out of there?”
Spender’s eyes snapped open to meet Mulder’s in the mirror. “Hell no,” he snapped in reply. “He shot me in the chest at point-blank range. I wasn’t walking anywhere.”
Scully felt the hostility rising in the air again and tried to diffuse it. “Okay,” she said calmly. “Then what happened?”
Spender turned his gaze to her, then took a deep breath and exhaled before answering. “I was on the floor … and he just stepped over me and left,” he said, his voice dropping to a near- whisper. “I was dying, and I knew it.” He paused, then said, “But then another man came through the door. He stood there and looked at me for a minute, then came over and squatted down next to me. He put his hand on my chest, right over the wound … and then I passed out.”
Andy let out a snort of derision. “And when you woke up, it was just like you’d never been shot,” she said sarcastically.
For the first time since they’d gotten in the car, Spender swung his head around and looked Andy in the eye. “That’s exactly what happened,” he retorted. “I woke up in what I thought was a hospital bed, with a hell of a headache but no chest wound. I thought at first I’d dreamed the whole thing.”
Mulder cut in this time. “What convinced you otherwise?” he asked.
Spender’s gaze drifted back to meet Scully, and somehow, she knew the answer before he spoke. “Because the first person I saw when I opened my eyes was my mother.”
Southbound on Michigan State Highway 123 7:27 p.m.
At Spender’s words Mulder’s head snapped around, and for just an instant he found himself staring the former agent full in the face — until the blare of a horn yanked his attention back to the highway, and he had to swerve and brake sharply to avoid a head-on collision. By the time he’d regained control of the car and resumed his previous speed, Scully was speaking.
“Your mother? Cassandra? She’s alive?”
Mulder wondered if anyone in the car other than himself could detect the note of hope that underlay the overt disbelief in his partner’s voice. He knew that Scully and Cassandra had become close during their brief acquaintance the previous year, and that their friendship had been reinforced when Cassandra had resurfaced a few months ago during the crisis leading up to the El Rico massacre.
He also knew how hard Scully had taken it when Cassandra had been presumed dead after the slaughter at the air base — and for the first time in years Fox Mulder lifted a wholly sincere prayer: That the woman he loved was not having her hopes raised without good cause.
Spender, if it was really him, had better be telling the truth.
“That’s right,” Spender said, and in his mind’s eye Mulder could almost see the man nodding sharply. “She’s alive. I’d like to say she’s well, but that’s not entirely true.”
“What do you mean?” Scully asked.
A mirthless chuckle came from the back seat. “My mother is fine, Agent Scully. Physically fine. And she sends her regards — or she would have if she had known I was going to be here.”
Spender fell silent, and Mulder took his eyes off the road long enough to see that his partner was giving the other the cool, expressionless gaze she usually reserved for suspects — and then he heard Andy stirring in the backseat, and the former agent was speaking again.
“Physically, my mother is fine,” Spender said. “In other ways, she’s not so great.” He hesitated, then added, all in a rush, “To put it bluntly, she’s a prisoner.”
Mulder glanced at Scully again, just in time to see her eyes widen slightly. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“Just what I said,” the former agent replied, a note of irritation in his voice. “She’s a prisoner. And so am I, sort of.” Before anyone could interrupt he hurried on. “I told you she was the first thing I saw when I woke up. What happened was that when the … killings … happened at El Rico, she was spared. They took her prisoner, instead. We don’t really understand why, but what we do understand is that they need her for some purpose of their own. And because of that …” His voice trailed off, and when he resumed he spoke so quietly Mulder could barely hear him. “Because of that, she was able to bargain for my life.”
“Who are ‘they’?” Andy asked, her voice floating forward from the backseat. Mulder glanced in the mirror, and saw that the reporter and Spender were now turned slightly towards each other.
“That’s a difficult question to answer,” the former agent replied. “I don’t know how much Mulder and Scully have told you —”
“They’ve told me enough,” she replied, her voice surprisingly soft to Mulder’s ears. “They’ve told me about the shadow government, and the plans for a takeover. And some other stuff. I haven’t decided how much of it I believe, though.”
“You can believe it,” Spender said, his voice flat and imperative. “It’s all true. And there’s more: There’s also a, a resistance movement. Covert, of course. Partly human and partly … not. The resistance group works in opposition to the ones you’ve been told about. Unfortunately, the motives and ultimate goals of the resistance are not clear. But they’re the ones who have my mother.”
For a moment or two it was silent in the car, as each person seemed to contemplate the significance of Spender’s words. Mulder’s thoughts flew back to the previous year, and the events following the mass killings at Ruskin Dam — and he shuddered as he remembered how close he had come to losing Scully that time. Instinctively he reached out and took her hand and squeezed it gently, and she squeezed back; a quick glance at her face told him she was remembering the same things.
Mulder cleared his throat, and said, “Krycek said something to me once about a resistance movement. Are these the same people?”
There was a snort of disgust from the back seat. “You cannot trust anything you hear from Alex Krycek,” came the reply. “But yes, he was probably talking about the same group. As I said, it’s a sort of loose alliance between certain humans who are in the know and have chosen not to cooperate with the Colonists, and another alien species acting from motives no one really understands.”
“Jesus,” Andy said, very softly. “Just when I think I’ve heard it all …” Her voice trailed off, and Mulder could hear Spender shifting in his seat again.
“Believe me, Captain Baker,” the other man said, his own voice softening to match hers. “This is just as hard for me to accept as it is for you. Three months ago I didn’t believe any of this. I thought it was all crap — and I wound up trusting the wrong people and I did some pretty terrible things as a result.”
There was another long silence, and when Mulder glanced over at Scully he saw that she was watching whatever was happening in the backseat with an intensity she normally reserved for the autopsy suite.
At last: “Andy. My name is Andy.”
Border Crossing Motel North of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada 10:41 p.m.
Scully shut the bathroom door behind her, dropping her clean shorts, underwear and T-shirt on the closed toilet seat and moving to turn on the water. She adjusted the temperature, gathered towels, undressed and stepped into the bathtub and started washing, all without conscious thought.
Her mind was elsewhere. Too much had happened over the past four days, and she was still trying to process it all.
Right now, her mind was still stuck on hope — hope that Spender was telling the truth about his mother being alive, mainly. She was still justifiably wary of the former agent and his motives, but she somehow doubted he’d lie about Cassandra. Through everything that had happened, his love for his mother had never wavered.
She still wanted to see Cassandra, of course, to believe it. After the discovery of the burned bodies at El Rico, she had been convinced that the woman had died with others. She’d been taken from her bed at Fort Marlene, without her son’s knowledge or consent, and she hadn’t been seen since.
Scully’s eyes closed as she recalled her — and Mulder’s — frantic attempts to rescue Cassandra, going so far as to stand in the way of a freight train. When they’d finally made it to El Rico, it had been too late.
But if Cassandra was alive …
Scully shook her head. Whether Cassandra was alive or not mattered, but it wasn’t crucial to their investigation at this point. The rest of what Spender had told them, however, was.
Scully believed her recovered memories from Ruskin Dam now — or, at least, some of them. She’s said as much to Mulder before they spoke to Cassandra in the hospital. She’d seen the “faceless men” with their flamethrowers, and seen the carnage at Skyland Mountain and El Rico firsthand.
But she had thought those men were the enemies. Now she was being told that they were on the same side, despite theIr unsavory methods. Cassandra had said something to that effect, but somehow it was more convincing to hear the same information coming from the mouth of someone who not so long ago was even more of a skeptic than Scully had ever been.
Scully sighed and forced herself to stop thinking as she rinsed the last of the cheap motel soap off her body and shut off the water. The four of them were in two tiny, adjoining rooms in another rundown local motel, and Mulder had gone out to get dinner while Scully showered, leaving Andy to keep an eye on Spender. None of them trusted him enough yet to leave him completely unguarded.
When Scully had headed into the bathroom, Andy and Spender were sitting on the room’s two beds, on opposite sides, and Andy had been flipping through the half-dozen channels on the television. Scully didn’t know what to expect when she emerged — the same scene, the aftermath of a fistfight … or a makeout session in progress.
Scully shook her head, her mouth twisting into a wry grin. She knew full well what was happening between those two. She didn’t know how far it would go, or if it was simple infatuation or the start of something deeper. But Andy and Spender were undeniably attracted to one another, whether they liked it or not. Not that Scully was complaining; at least it meant they weren’t at each other’s throats every second any more.
Dried and dressed, Scully made a little extra noise opening the door just in case and stepped out of the steamy room. Looked like option number one; the pair were still sitting on opposite sides of the beds, although the remote had been discarded and they were talking in low voices.
Andy looked up and grinned. “Feel better, Dana?” she asked in a teasing tone.
“Much,” Scully replied, flopping into the one straight-backed chair in the room. “Your turn.”
“Good,” Andy said, hopping up and grabbing her own change of clothes from the top of the dresser. She turned toward the bathroom, then paused and glanced back over her shoulder. “You guys save me some dinner, now,” she said, though she was looking only at Spender, who smiled at her in response.
Scully bit back another grin as Andy disappeared into the bathroom. Before she could even come up with something to say to Spender, though, she heard a noise in the next room and was instantly on alert.
“Mulder?” she called, picking up her holster from the edge of the dresser and sliding her weapon out. “Is that you?”
“Mmmmph,” came the reply, and Mulder walked in, two bags in one hand, a drink holder in the other, and a third bag clamped in his mouth.
Scully laughed as she set her gun down and walked over to help him. “You could have made two trips, or gotten one of us to help, you know,” she chided lightly.
Mulder shrugged. “Hey, I made it, didn’t I?” he said, his eyes roaming the room before landing back on her. “Where’s Andy?”
“Shower,” Scully said, setting the drinks on the dresser.
Mulder’s eyes flicked back over to Spender. “You gonna run out on us?” he asked.
Scully looked at Mulder, then realized what he wanted — a few minutes alone. She glanced at Spender, raising an eyebrow.
Spender got it. “No,” he said shortly.
Mulder hesitated, as if uncertain, then nodded once and grabbed one of the bags. “Yours and Andy’s,” he said to Spender, nodding at the remaining bags. “We’ll be back when we’re through.”
Spender nodded, and Mulder looked back at Scully, who was already holding two of the drinks. He offered a half-smile and stepped to the side to allow her past, his hand falling to the small of her back as they crossed into the other room.
Border Crossing Motel North of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada 11:08 p.m.
For a moment the two partners stood just inside the closed connecting door, and Mulder was suddenly acutely aware both of the woman standing next to him, and of the two beds which filled most of the room. He cleared his throat, trying to find some witty comment to make, but before he could speak he felt Scully’s body shift slightly under his touch, and he thought better of it.
He looked down at his partner and saw that she was already looking up at him, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. “This is pretty silly, isn’t it?” he offered.
She nodded, and her smile broadened. “Yep.”
Mulder nodded in return, and despite continuing feelings of awkwardness he applied slightly greater pressure to her lower back and guided her over to the small table next to the window. He quickly and efficiently laid out two cheeseburgers and a package of French fries for himself, and a chef’s salad for Scully. Without looking up from these arrangements he took the two drinks from her and added them to the impromptu place settings.
For a moment or two he fiddled nervously with the food, trying to concentrate on it rather than on the woman standing less than a foot away. He wasn’t sure why he was suddenly so jittery; this was no different from what they had done countless times in the past, in countless motels scattered around the country.
But it was different.
At last he took a deep breath and turned to look at his partner. She was standing just slightly closer to him than he was accustomed to, looking back at him with an expression that could only be described as amused nervousness.
For another moment or two they both remained motionless, and Mulder tried to think of something to say that would move the moment forward again. But it was Scully who finally broke the silence.
“You know,” she said, seeming to choose her words very carefully, “when I was little my father always used to give my mother a kiss before everyone sat down for dinner each night. It was sort of a family ritual.”
Mulder swallowed and nodded. “A kiss, huh?”
He smiled, and said, “Well we wouldn’t want to let that tradition go by the boards, now would we?” And he took her in his arms and kissed her, and for a moment the rest of the world went away.
After a timeless interval their lips parted, but they did not release each other, and Mulder found himself falling into her eyes. He could get lost in those eyes, he realized, and he marveled that it had taken him so long to discover that.
Finally Scully stirred slightly in his arms and he let her go, and they sat down at the table to eat.
The first part of the meal passed in silence, as each of them concentrated on the food in front of them. As Mulder had expected, Scully stole nearly half of his French fries, a tradition that stretched back to the first year of their partnership, and which he’d become so accustomed to that he now barely noticed it — except, of course, that he noticed everything about Scully.
At last she pushed the remains of her salad away and leaned back and stretched. Returning her hands to rest on the table in front of her, she said, “So. What do we do now?”
Mulder smiled. “Are we talking about the case?”
She smiled back, a happier and more mirthful smile than he could remember seeing on her face in years, and said, “Yeah, Mulder — the case. What’s our next step?”
He shrugged. “Batchawana Bay, I guess. First thing in the morning. It’s not like we have leads coming out of our ears.”
She chewed her lower lip for a moment, as if she were trying to think how to phrase something. Finally she shook her head. “It’s not enough, Mulder,” she said. Before he could reply, she hurried on, “I don’t mean we shouldn’t check out Batchawana; we’re here, and it is the obvious thing to do, and it won’t take very long.”
She took a deep breath, and continued, “But it isn’t enough, Mulder. We need more. And I’m beginning to suspect Spender may be right — that we are being led on a wild goose chase. I mean, suppose we go out to Batchawana Bay and suppose we do find C.G.B. Spender and Agent Fowley. What will that give us, really? Do you think they’re just going to tell us what we want to know?”
Mulder shook his head. “No. So what do you suggest?”
Scully shrugged. “I don’t know. What Spender said, I guess: Follow the bodies.”
“Easier said than done,” Mulder replied. Then something clicked, and he cursed himself for not thinking of it sooner. Maybe he really hadn’t been getting enough sleep.
Without explanation, he pulled out his cell phone and punched speed dial number three.
It took Scully about three seconds to catch up with what, exactly, Mulder was doing. She’d seen what number he’d punched, and it took her brain that long to remember that the first two programs on the phone were her home and cell numbers. And that the Gunmen were number three.
Shit. She couldn’t believe both of them had forgotten to call the Gunmen back.
Mulder was talking by then, apparently to Frohike. “Yeah, we’re fine. It just hit me that we never called you guys back.” He glanced at Scully and grinned briefly. “We were hoping you might have something by now.”
He lifted the phone away from his ear as soon as he finished speaking, and Scully could hear Frohike’s indignant voice. “Have something? Man, we could have gotten you every single military flight in the country by now. What do you think we are?”
Scully stifled a chuckle, and Mulder was still smiling as he brought the phone back to his ear. “Calm down, Frohike,” he said. “I was just yanking your chain. So what DID you find out?”
Mulder tucked the phone against his shoulder and looked up at Scully, pantomiming writing. She nodded and stood, stepping over to the dresser to dig Mulder’s pad and pen out of his overnight bag. She handed them to him, then automatically started cleaning up the remnants of their meal as Mulder listened and scribbled.
The conversation lasted a good fifteen minutes, but Mulder did very little talking, so Scully didn’t get many clues. She was getting impatient by the time he finally ended the call, and she jumped in as soon as he punched “end.”
“Well?” she demanded, sliding back into the seat across from him.
Mulder grinned at her, but his eyes were distant as he spoke. “Eager, aren’t we,” he said, his voice not quite achieving the casual, teasing tone he was apparently trying for.
She frowned at him in warning. “Mulder …”
“Okay, okay,” he said, lifting one hand as if fending her off, then leaning forward in his seat, one hand idly twirling the pen he still held between his fingers. “Here’s what they found out, so far. Numerous flight paths from both Columbus and Cedar Rapids, heading north, apparently ending up at Camp Grayling, a National Guard reservation in north central Michigan. More flights from there, all heading generally northeast. Many, many more flights in all three cases than the airfields would normally see.”
Scully nodded. “And from there …?”
Mulder shrugged, his eyes intent on her face. “Nothing,” he said. “All those flights disappear from the records after Grayling. They dug up some air traffic control records showing them on Toronto radar, and then nothing after that. They’re working on some projected flight paths based on last-known speed and trajectory, but that’s gonna take a while.”
He paused, as if hesitant to say what came next, but one sharp look from Scully seemed to free his tongue. “There’s more,” he acknowledged. “Grayling has been receiving increased traffic not only from Iowa and Georgia but also from farther west. Oregon, it looks like. Frohike said they’re running several online searches, using some of the same keywords your search did, to find anything similar in the Northwest.”
Scully felt a leaden weight settle low in her stomach. “Another attack?” she asked.
Mulder nodded slowly. “It looks that way,” he said. “Probably another ballpark and a similar coverup to the two we’ve already seen.” He dropped the pen and picked up the notebook, flipping back a few pages. “I wish we could have gotten our hands on any of those medical records,” he said. “Or a victim. Even a bee. Something to do some testing …”
His voice trailed off, and his eyes shot up to meet Scully’s. She saw the same gleam in his eyes she knew he could see in hers, and she grinned.
“I seem to remember something about a bee,” she said, putting on a falsely casual tone. “I believe I have it in my briefcase, if I’m not mistaken.”
Mulder chuckled briefly. “Maybe we really DO need to start getting more sleep,” he said, shaking his head. “I can’t believe we forgot about that, too.”
“Me either,” Scully said, sobering. “And we were going to test my blood, too, and yours, to check for similarities — antibodies, if we’re lucky — since we’ve both been given the vaccine.”
Mulder nodded again, using his teeth to pull one corner of his bottom lip into his mouth. “So we need to find a lab, get the blood samples, and get them somewhere trustworthy for testing,” he said musingly. “I’d say the Gunmen would be the best bet; I don’t know if I trust the Bureau labs with this. Or we could do both, although we only have the one bee.”
“The question is, how do we get the samples to DC?” Scully asked. “I wouldn’t want to ship them; anything could happen en route. But we can’t very well pick up and go back to DC in the middle of this.”
“No, not now,” Mulder agreed. He hesitated, deep in thought, then went on. “I don’t think that’s the most crucial thing at the moment,” he said. “The primary goal of that kind of testing would, I assume, be to develop a vaccine. That’s going to take time, no matter what, and I don’t believe a day or two will make that much difference. What we’re tracking now is much more immediate, and we do have a deadline — if we can believe what Jeffy in there tells us.”
Scully leaned back in her chair. “I agree,” she said softly. “A vaccine would in all likelihood take much longer than two weeks to develop, and distribution would be a nightmare. Not to mention proving that the virus actually exists and is a true threat. We don’t have time for that now. If we get past this, then we can worry about the vaccine.”
“Okay,” Mulder said. “So we hold off at least a couple days on the samples, and stick to our plan for tomorrow.” He shot her another, slightly lopsided, grin. “Anything else we have to work out tonight?”
Scully arched one eyebrow. “Yeah,” she said. “Call Skinner.”
Thursday, May 13, 1999 2:11 a.m.
Mulder leaned back against the headboard of his bed and flicked through the channels on the TV remote. His partner lay curled up on the bed next to him, her arms wrapped loosely around his waist and her head resting against his hip. She was sound asleep.
They’d talked for a few more minutes after the phone conversation with Frohike, but reached no further conclusions, other than to decide that there was nothing of such urgency that it would justify calling the A.D. at home when it was nearly midnight. That call could safely be deferred until morning.
Scully had then gone into the adjoining motel room, intending to kick Spender out and go to bed — but she’d returned only seconds later, a wry look on her face.
“They’re asleep,” she’d announced. “Both of them.”
Instinctively, he’d shot her a muted leer. “Separate beds?”
“Yes, separate beds,” she’d said, rolling her eyes before focusing back on him, her demeanor serious but a little edgy. “Do you think I should wake them?” she’d asked.
It had taken Mulder only a few seconds to realize what question she was really asking, and he’d cleared his throat and asked, “Do you want to sleep in here?”
Scully had nodded solemnly, and without another word she’d climbed into bed, curled up next to him and dropped off to sleep in less than a minute.
Mulder had been sorely tempted to join his partner in slumber, but something had told him that the investigation had reached the stage where it would be prudent for someone to stay awake through the night. And so he’d settled down and started flicking through the channels. But the television had failed to hold his interest, as inevitably his thoughts strayed back to the investigation.
Oregon. Another attack in Oregon. He’d been shocked by Frohike’s news, and he could tell that Scully had been shaken, too. In retrospect he knew they should have been expecting it; the Colonists — or their human allies — had been ruthlessly efficient in covering their tracks, and the agents should have anticipated that there might have been additional incidents which had been completely hushed up.
But still he had been shocked.
Why had he ever thought that they really had a handle on this case? Let alone been in some sort of control? It was becoming clearer with each new lead they unearthed that Scully had nailed the situation perfectly when she’d said that perhaps Spender was right after all, and that maybe the two of them were being led around by the nose.
It was almost like the final minutes of a football game, he mused, with the team in the lead simply trying to run out the clock.
He was drawn from his reverie by a slight motion at his side, and he looked down in the gloom to see that Scully’s eyes now were open, and she was looking up at him. But her gaze seemed oddly unfocused, almost as if she was not really seeing him — or as if she did not recognize who he was, if she did see him.
Mulder hesitated a moment, hoping that she would close her eyes and go back to sleep, but she continued to stare at him. After a few more seconds he gently stroked her hair and whispered, “Shhh. It’s okay. It’s just me. You must have had a dream or something.”
His partner’s brow furrowed, as if she were concentrating on his words, trying to parse out their meaning. At last she slowly shook her head, and finally her eyes cleared. She licked her lips, and when she spoke her voice was rough with sleep … and something else.
“Yeah, Scully. It’s me.” He continued stroking her hair, letting his fingers run gently through the silky tresses, trying to soothe her with his touch. “It was just a dream, Scully.”
She shook her head again, and then struggled to a sitting position. “I … I don’t think it was,” she replied, her voice a little stronger. She sat next to him on the bed, staring up at him intently for another minute or two, taking slow, shallow breaths. At last her gaze drifted away, until it fell on the door to the outside — and Mulder felt a chill race down his spine as her hand slowly rose to the back of her neck.
“Mulder,” she whispered — and now there was an edge of fear in her voice. “Mulder … I, I think it’s happening again.” Her eyes flew back to meet his. “Like last year. At Ruskin Dam.”
No sooner had the words left Scully’s mouth than Mulder’s hand wrapped around her wrist in a just-short-of-bruising grip. Her eyes widened, but the blend of terror and determination she saw in his eyes cut off the protest she’d been about to make.
“You’re not going anywhere,” he rasped out. “They’re gonna have to come through me first.”
Scully’s heart pounded against her ribcage, and her free hand shook as she lifted it to rest atop his fingers where they held her in place. But her voice was steady and soothing as she spoke.
“No, Mulder,” she said. “It’s okay. I can feel it, but it’s … it’s weak. Like I’m out of range or something. Just the fact that I can even tell you about it, that I’m conscious of it at all, is enough to keep it from … from controlling me.”
Mulder’s eyes never left her face, but he gradually relaxed, his hold on her arm loosening but not releasing entirely. His rapid breathing began to slow, and he closed his eyes and took one long, deep breath before fixing his gaze back on her.
“Okay,” he said, his voice clearer. “I … I guess we should have expected this. If they’re restocking …”
“… then it makes sense to bring in people they’ve already had,” Scully finished matter-of-factly. “They know them, they have records on them, they can be contacted easily …” Her voice trailed off as another thought crept in. “And maybe …” She looked up at Mulder. “Maybe there’s more to it.”
Her mind raced as the idea took hold. “Mulder, we’ve both been exposed to this virus — Purity, or whatever it is. But we had very different reactions to it. I thought it was because you were given a vaccine before you were exposed. But what if …”
“What if it’s the implant,” he finished for her, his gaze sharp. “The implants, or the experiments, or some combination, weren’t just meant to develop hybrids. They were designed to prepare hosts, by activating the ordinarily inactive DNA in all humans.”
Scully’s skin crawled, but she nodded slowly. “And not just to take control,” she said. “But to … gestate. That’s the difference. People without implants, like you, and … well, Krycek, at least back then … the virus just takes control of them. But the ones with implants, like … like me …”
She couldn’t even finish the statement, but she didn’t have to. Mulder knew, she could tell. Knew what she was saying, and why she couldn’t say it.
They simply sat and stared at each other in shock for a few long moments, Mulder’s hand still wrapped around her wrist. When he finally spoke again, his voice was raw, as if he’d been screaming.
“We need to call Skinner,” he said. “We could be looking at another massacre. But I think it’s more likely it’ll be different this time.”
Scully’s forehead creased in confusion. “What else would it be?” she asked.
Mulder’s other hand came up to take her free hand, lightly intertwining their fingers. “A group abduction,” he said gently. “That’s what Krycek said they’d do. Mass abductions of former abductees shortly before colonization began. And if they’re looking for hosts — restocking, like we said — then it makes perfect sense.”
Scully didn’t nod, but didn’t shake her head either. Instead, in a small voice, she simply asked, “Then what do we do about it?”
And she could tell from the look on his face that Mulder didn’t have any more idea than she did.
Mulder punched the disconnect on his cell phone and set it on the nightstand, just as Scully reappeared in the connecting doorway to the other motel room.
“How’d it go?” she asked.
“Not too bad,” he replied, trying to suppress the sense of relief he felt at seeing her again. She’d only gone to the next room to wake the others and get everything packed up, he reminded himself. She’d also reassured him before she went that the strange compulsion had already faded out completely — and that it had never been very strong in the first place.
But he hadn’t been able to keep himself from worrying, which had made it difficult to concentrate during his conversation with the A.D.
He rose from the bed, walked over to her, and wordlessly gave her a hug, as much for his own peace of mind as anything else. Scully returned the embrace, and for a moment they just held each other before she finally pulled back a little and looked up at him.
“So what did he say?” she asked, picking up their conversation as if nothing had happened.
Mulder sighed. “He wants us to come back to D.C.,” he replied. “I managed to put him off for one more day, but he absolutely, positively insists that we catch the first flight Friday morning. He said he’d put Research on the job of trying to track down evidence of additional attacks, starting with Oregon.” He smiled slightly. “I sort of forgot to mention that we’d bumped into Jeff Spender. I figured that would just distract him.”
Scully chuckled and shook her head in mock exasperation, then closed her eyes and rested her head against his chest for a moment. “I swear, Mulder,” she murmured, “you get in more trouble than a classroom full of eight year olds.” But her affectionate tone belied the admonition.
Mulder laughed with her, but then he grew serious again, and he hesitantly raised one hand to lightly touch the back of her neck. “Scully? It really has stopped, hasn’t it?”
She opened her eyes and lifted her head from his chest to look up at him again. “Yes, Mulder,” she said softly. “Yes. It’s stopped. And it was never very strong to begin with, and I promise I’ll tell you the minute I feel the slightest twinge, okay?” She reached up to caress his cheek. “I’m very nearly as scared of this as you are.”
He dropped his hand from her neck and drew her into a tight embrace. “God, I hope not,” he said, his words muffled against her hair. “Because I’m fucking terrified.”
He stopped speaking for a minute to get his breathing under control. Then: “I can’t lose you, Scully. I just can’t. You’re the only thing left in my life that matters, and you have been for quite awhile now. I can’t lose you,” he repeated, as if by saying it over he could somehow keep it from happening.
“You’re not going to lose me, Mulder,” she said, her voice resonating against his chest. “I’ve told you before, but I’ll tell you as many times as necessary: I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere. Not without you, at any rate.
“And that’s a promise.”
Northbound on Ontario Provincial Highway 17 North of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario 4:23 a.m.
It had taken longer than Mulder had liked to get everyone organized, fed and on the road again, but at least they were finally moving. Sunrise was still nearly two hours away, according to the morning paper, and even allowing for the delay they’d be able to reach Batchawana Bay before then.
“Now that we’re on the road, can someone please tell me why you dragged me out of my warm, soft bed at this godawful hour?” Andy’s sleepy voice came floating forward out of the backseat.
Mulder chuckled as Scully turned to look back at the reporter. “We got a call from our boss,” she said. “We’d sort of been neglecting to keep him informed of our whereabouts, and he’s given us 24 hours to finish up here and get back to D.C. to report in.”
“Bureaucrats,” Andy mumbled. “How fucking typical. The end of the world is at hand, and they still want all the proper forms filled out.”
Scully laughed. “It’s not really that bad,” she replied. She glanced briefly at Mulder, and then turned to the back again. “Besides, we have other reasons why it’s desirable that at least one of us make the trip back. It’ll probably just be for a single day, and then we’ll be back on the trail again.”
Mulder’s grip on the wheel tightened a little at the thought that perhaps only one of them would return to Washington. That was a compromise which Scully had suggested while they were still getting ready to leave the motel, and he was not at all happy with the idea, and had told her so. The matter remained unresolved.
He and Scully had also discussed the question of whether to tell Andy and Spender about the compulsion which had awakened Scully in the middle of the night. At length they had decided to keep it to themselves for the time being, since they still didn’t really trust Spender, and their cramped circumstances would have made it difficult to find the opportunity to explain it to Andy in confidence.
“So how is A.D. Skinner?” Spender asked. His tone seemed casual, but Mulder thought he detected an underlying edge to the question.
“He’s fine,” Mulder replied briefly, keeping his eyes on the road.
“Just sitting up catching a late movie on AMC and decided to call his two favorite agents at two o’clock in the morning, huh?” the younger man persisted.
Mulder reminded himself that the former agent was not stupid; stupid people didn’t get appointed to the Bureau, by and large. But that meant this wasn’t going to be an easy conversation.
“He’d received a call from Research,” Scully said. Mulder glanced briefly at her in surprise. “It seems that there’s some evidence of a third bee attack, this time in Oregon. They haven’t narrowed it down any further than that, though.”
“Oregon,” Spender repeated, and out of the corner of his eye Mulder saw Scully nod. “And this came from the Bureau’s research unit, and Skinner passed it on to you.” She nodded again. “And naturally this caused the A.D. to ask you to return to Washington for a face-to-face.”
Mulder suppressed the desire to swear under his breath.
“Actually, the two were unrelated,” Scully said smoothly. “He said he’d intended to call us home in any case, but the news of the third attack made him decide he should contact us immediately.” She turned to look at Mulder. “And I must say I agree, don’t you, Mulder?”
Mulder smiled at her, secure in the knowledge that Spender couldn’t see his face. “Well, I can’t say I’m happy about it, Scully; I’d much rather continue to pursue the leads we’ve got in the field. Time is so desperately short, after all. But taking a day trip to D.C. probably won’t be a bonebreaker.”
“You people are unbelievable,” Spender said, and Mulder was relieved that he now heard nothing but annoyance in the man’s voice. “Everything — and I do mean everything — is about to come crashing down around us, and you’re all still playing bureaucratic games.”
There didn’t seem to be anything to say to that, so Mulder didn’t try, but simply pushed down on the accelerator a little harder. A few minutes later they were pulling into Batchawana Bay Provincial Park.
The park was dark and apparently deserted as Mulder navigated the rental car along the winding roads. All four of the car’s inhabitants were avidly searching the surrounding woods with their eyes, hoping for some flash of light or sign of movement to give them direction. The narrow road ran right along the northeast side of the bay, and the thick fog lifting from the surface of the water didn’t help matters.
Soon, though, they passed a narrow drive that headed slightly southwest, back toward the water. Without saying a word, Mulder pulled the car off the road and as close to the trees alongside as he could.
“I guess that means we’re here, wherever the hell ‘here’ is.” Spender’s sarcastic comment was the first thing said in the car since his outburst fifteen minutes earlier.
“Call it a hunch,” Mulder muttered, flicking his seatbelt open and climbing from the car.
Scully followed, striding around the front of the car to meet him at the edge of the road. He stood facing the driveway, hands on hips, chewing lightly on his bottom lip.
“They’re up there, Scully,” he said firmly. “I know it.”
Scully felt the arguments welling up in her throat — We can’t know that, Mulder … There’s no evidence of that … — but she forced them back down.
“Okay,” she said softly.
His head swung around, his eyes locking onto hers. She held perfectly still, carefully keeping her face calm, allowing her eyes to tell him what he needed to know.
She saw his shoulders lower just slightly as some of the tension left his body, and he nodded twice, one corner of his mouth lifting slightly. She returned the small smile, reaching out with her left hand to run her fingers along his right forearm before turning back toward the car.
Andy was leaning against the back fender of the car, looking in the same direction Mulder had been. Spender was still sitting in the car, turned sideways in the seat, his long legs stretched out with his heels resting against the grass. Scully couldn’t see his face at first, but then he leaned a little further forward, and she caught a glimpse of his eyes … focused on Andy.
Shaking that line of thought aside — no time for that now — she reached to her hip to check her weapon, still nestled snugly against the waistband of her jeans. Her movement caught Andy’s eye, and the other woman imitated her actions, her holster sitting a few inches further forward.
And then Spender followed suit, and Scully wondered for what seemed like the hundredth time whether giving him his weapon back had been the smart thing to do. They couldn’t in good conscience have let him go into the field unarmed, but still …
Scully turned back to Mulder, just as he glanced down at her again. Their eyes held for another long moment, and then Scully spoke, lifting her voice so that her words would carry to the other two, as well.
“Let’s go,” she said sharply, striding forward. Mulder was beside her before she’d gone three steps, and she left it to Andy to get Spender on the move, too.
The group kept close to the trees as they followed the deeply- grooved trail farther into the woods, the fog thickening around them as they moved. Scully’s eyes had adjusted to the dimness quickly, although she could see the first glow of morning beginning to rise in the east.
Even with the growing light, though, they were almost caught off guard by the sudden end of the drive. The treeline simply stopped, leaving a small clearing, and Scully pulled up, Mulder bumping into her lightly with a soft “oof.”
“Sorry,” she murmured, searching the clearing for signs of light. She couldn’t see anything at first, but then she caught a dim flash out of the corner of her eye, directly ahead of them and slightly to the right. Concentrating, she detected the outline of a structure in the center of the clearing; the light was coming from one side of it.
Motioning the others back with one arm, she backed up into the trees, moving them several feet away before she spoke, softly.
“There’s a building of some kind there, with a light on, to the west side,” she said, speaking primarily to Andy and Spender. “Mulder and I will approach the building, with you two staying back to cover us.”
“Right,” Mulder agreed. “If it’s who we think it is, they don’t know Andy, and they probably think Spender’s dead. In either case, they’re more likely to shoot first and ask questions later.”
Andy nodded. “Fine,” she said. “I’ll set up at the edge of the drive, and Jeff can move a few yards to the west, closer to where you saw the light.”
Scully flashed a quick look around, getting nods from the other three, then turned back toward the clearing.
She stayed close to the trees, Mulder two steps behind her, until she could see the structure more clearly. It was small, apparently a rustic cabin, with the flickering light apparently coming from a lantern sitting near a window. What looked like a sport-utility vehicle of some kind sat to the side, previously hidden by the building.
Scully slowed and came to a stop directly in front of the cabin, the fog having cleared enough that she could make out movement inside. She was about to turn to Mulder and signal for them to approach, when the cabin door flew open and Diana Fowley stormed out onto the porch.
For a moment Mulder stood perfectly still, staring at his former lover as she stalked across the porch and down the steps to the parked vehicle. As he continued to watch, she popped open the back of the car and threw in the suitcase she’d been carrying.
Mulder’s thoughts were in a whirl. The last time he’d seen Diana had been in her apartment the night of the El Rico massacre, and for awhile he’d assumed that she’d perished with the others. He’d grieved at her apparent death, but it had also been something of a relief — and when the forensics team had conclusively proven that Special Agent Fowley was not among the dead …
He felt a touch at his elbow, and looked down with a start at the woman standing next to him. Scully was the one, he reminded himself. Scully was the future, and he had to remember that.
His mind cleared somewhat under her soothing gaze, and he allowed her to take his hand and pull him a little farther back into the trees.
Mulder looked back towards the cabin and saw that the Smoking Man — C.G.B. Spender — was now standing on the porch at the top of the steps, hands on his hips and a look of anger on his face. Diana had turned back to face the cabin, which meant she had her back to Mulder and Scully, and so whatever she was saying was lost.
But her companion’s reply was not.
“I don’t give a fuck what you were told!” he said curtly. “It’s not time yet. When the time comes we will be notified through appropriate channels!”
Diana said something in return, but again her words were inaudible. Then she turned away from the elder Spender and walked to the driver’s side door, yanking it open.
“Come on,” Scully said sharply, pulling her Sig Sauer from her waistband — and Mulder had no choice but to draw his own weapon and follow as she stepped out into the clearing.
C.G.B. Spender saw them first, and Mulder could see the man’s eyes widen at their sudden approach. The Smoking Man started to reach for his coat pocket, but the motion was abruptly terminated as he apparently realized that both of the approaching agents were armed and ready.
Diana had turned to look at the elder Spender, as if waiting for some response to her last remark. Finally she seemed to realize that she no longer had his attention, and she turned her head — and then she froze, and her own eyes widened in apparent surprise.
“Fox!” she exclaimed. Her eyes flicked to Scully. “Agent Scully. What — What are you doing here?” Her gaze turned back to Mulder.
“We got your invitation,” Mulder said, struggling to keep his voice calm and level. “And since we were in the neighborhood we thought we’d drop in.” He desperately wanted to know how Diana’s companion was taking this, but he couldn’t seem to take his eyes off the former agent. He could only hope that Scully was paying closer attention to the other man than he himself was.
Diana’s brow furrowed, and she said, “Invitation? I don’t know what —”
“Let’s cut the crap, shall we?” Mulder said sharply. He suddenly felt fury rising within him. He had trusted her. Even after Arizona, when they lost Gibson Praise, he had trusted her. Right up until El Rico. And she had betrayed him, maybe even right from the start.
“We know you sent Krycek,” he went on, making no effort now to keep the anger and disgust from his voice. “And we know that you’re up to your neck in this … this …” He let his voice trail off, not being able to find the words to express his feelings.
“Krycek?” Diana looked even more puzzled. “Fox, I haven’t seen Krycek in months — since before El Rico.” She started to walk towards him, and Mulder felt himself tense — but then Scully stirred slightly at his side, and Diana suddenly froze in place.
“Agent Scully?” she said, now looking directly at Scully.
“Don’t move,” Scully said, and Mulder felt a chill run down his spine. To others his partner’s voice may have sounded calm and matter-of-fact, but he could hear the cold steel lying underneath.
For a moment there was silence in the clearing, and Mulder was at last able to force his eyes off of Diana to check on C.G.B. Spender. But the older man was still right where he had been, standing at the top of the porch steps, the smoke rising from the ubiquitous cigarette providing the only sign of life or movement in the clearing.
The standoff continued for a long moment, all four players in view seemingly frozen in place. Scully knew she and Mulder had the element of surprise on their side, but that didn’t help her figure out what to do now.
They could, of course, arrest both Diana and Spender — or whatever his name really was; they certainly had enough evidence to warrant bringing them in. And she and Mulder knew, as the others did not, that they had backup, hidden in the trees behind them.
Well, they might know of Andy, but she doubted they knew Jeffrey Spender was with them.
The logistics of bringing the pair in would be a nightmare, she knew. But it was worth a shot — after they found out why they’d been directed here.
Mind made up, Scully finally fixed her eyes on the man on the porch. “Get your hands up in the air, both of you,” she ordered. “And you,” she added, motioning toward C.G.B. Spender with her weapon, “Get down here, now. Move slowly.”
He obeyed, which immediately made her wary. Her eyes narrowed in suspicion as she watched him flick his cigarette to the ground and raise his hands, stepping on the smoldering butt before he descended the three steps to the ground.
When he reached the bottom, still a good six feet away from Diana, Scully ordered him to stop. Again he acquiesced immediately, and Scully felt her skin prickle.
He knows something, she thought. He’s waiting …
Diana’s voice interrupted her thoughts. “Agent Scully,” the woman said, her voice low. “Listen to me.”
Almost involuntarily, Scully’s eyes moved to focus on Fowley. The former agent stood near the car’s open door, the dome light shining from behind her making her face hard to see. But her words were clear.
“Let him come with me, Dana,” Diana said, and Scully could hear the note of pleading — desperation? — in the other woman’s voice. “I can save him.” She paused, and her next words were harder, almost derisive. “I could save you, too, but I know that’s too much to ask. Because you don’t really believe any of this, do you?”
Scully opened her mouth to answer, but Mulder beat her to it. “What Agent Scully does or does not believe is not the issue here, Diana,” he said calmly. “We’re here for one reason and one reason only. You’re going to tell us everything you know, and then we’re going to stop what we know is about to happen.”
Scully stayed silent, watching as Diana stared at Mulder in shock. “Stop it?” Diana asked incredulously. “Fox, nobody can stop it. It’s much too late for that. There’s only one way out now.”
“Like your last ‘way out’?” Mulder shot back sarcastically. “Tell me, Diana, which is better — death by colonization, or death by flamethrower? Because the way I see it, dead is dead.”
“Death isn’t the worst that can happen, Fox,” Diana said, her voice softer. “Not now. Living … living through it. That would be worst of all.”
Mulder didn’t answer, and Scully shot a quick glance in his direction. He was continuing to study Fowley, who remained still, hands in the air, eyes focused on Mulder and only on Mulder.
And before Scully could open her mouth to speak, the early-morning quiet was shattered by the sound of a single gunshot.
The sound of gunfire broke Mulder out of his consideration of Diana’s last statement, and he ducked down into a low crouch, automatically bringing his weapon around to his right, where the shot had come from. Then a second shot rang out, from somewhere behind him, and he dropped forward completely, flattening himself against the ground.
The sound of his breathing was harsh inside his head as he turned his face toward the spot where Scully had been standing a moment before. He couldn’t see anything at first, but then he caught sight of her form lying on the ground, several feet to his right. He couldn’t tell if she was moving or even breathing.
“Scully!” he choked out, starting to push himself up from the ground again. But her head swiveled in his direction immediately at the sound of her name.
“Stay down, Mulder,” she hissed. “I’m okay.”
Mulder slumped back down, his eyes closing briefly in relief, and then he reopened them and began scanning the clearing as best he could from his position. No further shots had sounded, but someone was still out there — maybe two someones — and he and Scully were sitting ducks, with no cover at all.
And then his eyes reached the spot where Diana had been standing, and he saw her sprawled out flat on her back, the light from inside the car falling across her body. One arm was twisted partially under her, and he could see a faint shimmer of something wet across her heaving chest.
He was up and moving before he realized it, only peripherally aware of Scully following him; she had apparently seen the same thing he had. His mind registered more footsteps, running past them, and he hoped it was Andy or Jeff Spender, because he was too focused on Diana at the moment to react otherwise.
He and Scully reached Diana’s fallen form at nearly the same instant, immediately falling to their knees next to her. Mulder’s eyes ran across her upper body, taking in the gaping hole in her blouse just below her left shoulder. Scully’s hands reached the blouse with gloved hands, prepared as always, and ripped the edges apart.
The wound was deceptively small, with bright red blood welling up from it at regular intervals, in time with Diana’s still-beating heart. The shot had obviously hit an artery, and Mulder knew with horrible certainty that even Scully’s medical skills had no hope of saving Diana’s life.
He looked up at Scully, hoping to see something in her face to contradict his own conclusion, but the compassion and bleak sorrow he saw there only confirmed his diagnosis.
Warring emotions gripped his mind and heart, and Mulder didn’t know what to do. Diana had, at one time, been very important in his life — his partner and his lover, the one who supported him when he first discovered the X-Files. But now he didn’t know if any of that had truly been her, or if she’d been serving another agenda all along.
He wanted to help her, offer some kind of comfort to her. She was dying here, alone, and despite her betrayal, she had once been important to him. His sense of compassion was screaming at him to offer her some final kindness.
He was frozen in place by his indecision, staring down at Diana, until a small hand came to rest on top of his. He looked up into Scully’s eyes again, and she gave him a small smile and nod.
Scully knew. She could see his internal conflict, and her sense of compassion was at least as strong as his. With her implicit approval, or permission, Mulder was freed from his inertia, and he sank fully to the ground, reaching for Diana’s free hand and wrapping his fingers around hers.
He was distantly aware of Scully’s voice, speaking into her cell phone to summon emergency services, as he leaned forward and brushed back the tangle of hair that had fallen over Diana’s forehead. He forced himself to give her a small smile as she made the effort to look at him.
“Hey,” he said softly. “It’s gonna be all right.”
His voice caught, and he couldn’t continue. He knew it was a lie; she knew it was a lie. And too many lies had passed between them already. He could not, and would not, let it all end on another lie.
So he just continued holding her hand and running his fingers through her hair as she gasped and coughed, drops of blood appearing around her mouth. He could see Scully still working feverishly, not forestalled in the least by either the identity of her patient or the hopelessness of the situation. Beneath his growing sorrow, he felt another surge of pride, that his partner’s depth of integrity and compassion would not allow her to give up, even on Diana.
Diana coughed again, and her hand tightened around his in an apparent effort to draw him nearer. He obligingly leaned in a little closer, and she heaved several ragged breaths before she spoke.
Her words were so faint and indistinct that it took him a moment to register what she had said. And in the next moment she convulsed, her grip clamping down tightly on his … and then relaxing completely as her breathing stopped, her eyes still staring up sightlessly into his.
It took Scully a few seconds to realize that the blood had stopped spurting forth from the gunshot wound. Her first instinct was to begin CPR, even though she knew it would be useless, but she glanced at Mulder first.
His eyes were trained on Diana’s face, and as she watched his hand moved slowly from her hair to brush her eyelids closed. The hand continued down to join his other where he still held her hand, and he rubbed softly across the knuckles for a few moments.
Scully remained still, simply watching, as he lowered Diana’s hand back to rest across her stomach. He sat back on his heels, eyes still on his former lover, and then he rose to his feet and turned away, head down.
Scully was torn, between continuing the futile effort to save Diana, and going to comfort Mulder. She believed that he really was over Diana, and she felt no residual jealousy toward the woman. Anger, yes; but she was no longer jealous. She knew that Mulder was not mouring the woman Diana had become, but the woman he’d known so many years before.
Her heart won over her medical training, and she rose to her feet, peeling the bloodied gloves from her hands and dropping them to the ground next to Diana. She took one step in Mulder’s direction, but was interrupted as she heard her name called from behind her.
Looking over her shoulder, she saw Andy approaching, her weapon still in her hand.
“Andy,” Scully said, relieved to see the other woman. “Are you okay? What happened? Where’s Sp … Jeff?”
“We’re fine,” Andy said, slightly out of breath. “Jeff’s on his way back. He’s checking down by the water again; that’s where the first shot came from.”
Scully felt her eyebrow arching up. “And the second?” she prompted.
Andy blew out a breath. “The second was Jeff’s,” she said. “He got off one shot at whoever it was, but we don’t think he hit anything. We haven’t found any blood. He knows it was pretty damn stupid of him, but he said he saw movement in that direction. There were some broken branches and a couple of cigarette butts over there, so I tend to believe him.”
At her last words, Scully’s head flew up, and she looked around. “Oh shit,” she said. “Where is he?”
“Jeff?” Andy asked, confused. “I told you, down by the …”
“No, no,” Scully interrupted. “Smoking … Spender. I mean, C.G.B. Spender. The man that was here with Diana.”
“Spender?” Andy’s eyes widened. “That man … he’s related to Jeff?”
Scully bit her lip, realizing this was a vital piece of information that had somehow never been relayed to Andy. “Yes,” she said simply. “He’s his father.”
Shock flashed across Andy’s face, quickly covered by carefully- controlled anger. “Okay,” she said, her voice level. “And he’s gone?”
Scully nodded as she glanced around again. “Somehow I doubt he headed inside,” she said sardonically. “So yeah, I imagine he got away while we were distracted.”
Her eyes landed on Mulder’s back again, and she spoke to Andy over her shoulder. “Give me a minute,” she said, and she walked up to stand in front of Mulder.
His eyes were distant, staring unseeingly at the forest, his teeth worrying ridges into his bottom lip. Scully reached out her right hand to grasp his left, and he latched on tightly, squeezing her fingers so hard she nearly gasped.
He seemed to realize he was hurting her and eased up, his gaze falling to land on her. His mouth opened and worked soundlessly, and then he said simply, “Scully.”
She moved forward then, wrapping her arms around him.
They held the embrace for a few minutes, Scully’s hands running up and down his back soothingly, until he drew a deep breath and slid his arms away from her waist. She took a half-step back, taking his hand again, and looked up at him. His eyes were damp but clear, and his voice was steady when he spoke.
“It’s deception,” he said.
Scully was confused at the seeming non-sequitur. “What?” she asked.
“It’s deception,” he repeated. “That’s what she said. Those were Diana’s last words.” He cracked a wry half-grin. “And hell if I know what it means.”
Batchawana Bay Provincial Park 7:42 a.m.
The sun had long since cleared the trees ringing the little clearing. Mulder stood off to one side, a short distance from the cabin, watching quietly as Diana Fowley’s body was loaded into the waiting coroner’s van.
She was really dead this time. He had seen it with his own eyes, and he had her blood on his clothes. No one from Forensics was going to call him up in a few days to let him know it had all been a mistake. She was dead.
He wished he knew how he was supposed to feel about that.
It was strange. He didn’t really have anything in the way of residual feelings toward Diana. Anything he’d felt toward her had pretty much died years ago, and disappeared entirely once he realized she’d betrayed him.
But the memories of that time they were together were still there. And Mulder had never let go of his memories easily.
He looked down at Scully, standing next to him quietly. She had not left his side since the Canadian authorities arrived, and he felt a fresh surge of emotion at this demonstration of her loyalty and support.
He knew that there was no love lost between his partner and his former lover; he also knew that he himself had not been completely honest with Scully concerning his past relationship with Diana. But she had not allowed those facts to prevent her from carrying out her professional responsibilities towards a mortally wounded patient — nor had she let her personal feelings towards Diana keep her from providing him with the anchor he so desperately needed right now.
Scully must have felt his gaze on her, for just at that moment she looked up at him, and Mulder caught his breath at the love and compassion he saw in her eyes. He started to speak, but she shook her head ever so slightly, and he realized that, at least for now, no words were necessary. And so he simply moved a little closer to her, until his hip brushed lightly against her side, and turned his attention back to the crime scene.
Jeff Spender and Andy had disappeared into the woods as the first sirens approached; it had seemed simpler than trying to explain the presence of a Marine Corps officer and a former FBI agent who was officially listed as missing and presumed dead. It was bad enough that the Canadians would soon discover that Diana herself was listed as missing by the Bureau’s personnel office. Scully had at least managed a brief call to Skinner to fill him in and ensure his backup on their story if it was needed.
The Canadian police had arrived close on the heels of the paramedics and were proceeding to take the cabin and surrounding area apart with a swift, thorough, professionalism that Mulder couldn’t help but admire. They seemed competent and earnest; it almost made him feel guilty over the fact that he knew they weren’t going to find anything.
He let one hand slide into his pocket, and lightly touched the slip of paper which was the only clue he and Scully had unearthed in their own quick search of the premises, before the authorities arrived. He had known it was a calculated risk to take the piece of notepaper, since there was a chance that he and Scully would be taken into custody as either suspects or material witnesses. But he had really had no choice in the matter; without this note, written in Diana’s careless, hurried script and found in her jacket pocket, they would have nothing at all to go on.
The paper read:
NW1478 1115 CIU YUL 7F866 0850 YUL YVP YWB
His mind had been automatically working on the puzzle the jumble of letters and numbers presented, but he hadn’t really had a chance to concentrate on it yet. He was fairly certain it indicated flight information, but he hadn’t gotten any farther than that when the local authorities had arrived and he’d had to put it aside.
“Agent Mulder? Agent Scully?”
Mulder was drawn from his reverie by the approach once again of the burly, middle aged detective who had questioned them earlier. Rogers, that was the man’s name, he remembered. Detective Jack Rogers.
The man had been suspicious at first, which was only natural given the circumstances, but that suspicion had seemed to fade fairly quickly as the questioning proceeded. When he found that Mulder and Scully were “vacationing” FBI agents, visiting a former colleague, his doubts had apparently disappeared entirely.
“Yes, Detective?” Scully replied, her voice calm and even.
“I’d just like to ask you a few more questions, if you don’t mind.” The man pulled a small, dog-eared notebook and the stub of a pencil from one pocket before continuing. “You said that you, Agent Mulder, are an old friend of the deceased, correct?”
“That’s right,” Mulder said, and repressed the temptation to sigh. He and Scully might no longer be under suspicion, but that apparently wasn’t going to stop Rogers from going through the usual interrogation procedure of repeating a line of questioning to check for inconsistencies. He apparently was going to review only the personal parts of the interview, however, not the questions regarding the possibility of an enemy from an old case targeting her.
“And what, exactly, was the nature of that friendship?” Rogers asked
“We were lovers, for a little over a year, ten years ago.” Mulder glanced down at Scully, but she still seemed to be completely calm, so he looked back at the detective. He was tempted to add something like, “I’m with Dana now,” but he and Scully had already decided it would be prudent to keep their budding personal relationship out of the picture.
The other man nodded and scribbled something in his notebook, then looked back up at the two agents. “And there was no … unpleasantness about this situation?”
Mulder shook his head. “No,” he said. “Diana returned to the States from an overseas assignment last year, but she left the Bureau several months ago and moved here. When Scully and I finished up our case in Michigan early, we decided to drive up for a visit before our flight back to D.C.”
The detective’s eyes flicked over to Scully, but his question was directed at Mulder. “You didn’t call?”
Mulder shrugged. “I didn’t think it was necessary,” he said. “She’s always been an early riser, so I wasn’t worried about waking her.”
Rogers nodded again, still looking at Scully. “And what was your relationship with Ms. Fowley, Agent Scully?”
Scully’s face was still calm when Mulder looked down at her. “She was a colleague and a friend of Mulder’s,” she said. “We had a professional relationship, but we didn’t socialize outside the office.”
“There was no animosity between you?”
“No,” Scully answered simply, then offered a tiny smile. “Really, Detective Rogers, I know where you’re going with this; we’re in law enforcement ourselves. But there’s nothing there. Diana and I were not really friends, but we weren’t rivals or enemies, either.”
Nicely worded, Mulder thought. Her statement ostensibly referred to any problems between her and Diana, but at the same time it could refer to any possible romantic involvement between Mulder and either — or both — of the women. As he so often did, Mulder found himself admiring Scully’s diplomatic skills. They were on the edge as it was, filling in the story with half-truths, so anything they could do to avoid adding to the deception was welcome.
Again Rogers nodded. “I understand, Agent Scully,” he said, a rueful smile on his face. “But I’m sure you also understand that these questions must be asked.” The smile faded, and he looked back at Mulder again. “Agent Mulder, my investigators say there is evidence of another person being in the cabin. Specifically, a man. Do you know anything about that?”
Mulder shook his head. “We didn’t see anyone else,” he said, hating the necessary lie.
The detective was now staring at him intently. “So the three of you were just standing there by her car, chatting, and suddenly a shot rang out?”
Again Scully intervened. “I know it sounds melodramatic, Detective,” she said softly. “But that’s exactly what happened. And then we were so busy trying to save her that I’m afraid neither one of us got so much as a glimpse at the shooter.”
“Could it have been a boyfriend?” The man was now looking at Scully with the same intensity he had been focusing on Mulder a few seconds earlier, and Mulder reminded himself once again that this man was a professional, and should not be taken lightly.
Scully shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. “As Mulder said, we didn’t see anyone.”
For a moment there was silence, broken only by the random noises of the ongoing search — doors opening and closing, voices as the other men called out questions and comments to each other.
At last, Rogers nodded and closed his notebook. “All right then,” he said, signaling to one of his men. “I’ve spoken to your Assistant Director Skinner, and he confirmed your account of your presence here.” He addressed the officer he’d summoned. “Jeffries, you can return their weapons to them.” Then he looked back to Mulder and Scully. “You’re free to go. Our office will be in touch later if we have any further questions.”
And he turned and walked away.
The interior of the car was quiet as Mulder drove back toward the airport south of Sault Ste. Marie. Getting out of the park had been a little problematic; Andy and Spender had ended up walking nearly a half-mile down the road, so Mulder and Scully could pick them up well out of sight of the locals.
They were now booked on an 11:15 flight back to DC; Scully had made that call as soon as she could get a clear line. She followed that with a call to Skinner’s office, leaving a message that she and Mulder would be in late that afternoon to explain themselves.
They had made a bit of progress, however. The slip of paper Mulder had found in the cabin contained, they had decided, flight numbers and either airline or, more likely, airport codes. They had no proof, of course, but that made the most sense. But they’d have to do some searching to figure out the route indicated, so they’d decided to turn that task over to the Gunmen.
What hadn’t been decided, however, was who would go where and do what when they arrived. Scully wanted them all to go to the Bureau to bring Skinner into the loop on the case, but Mulder had argued that they needed to stop by and drop off their growing stack of tasks for the Gunmen first. They’d finally agreed to hold off on a decision until after they’d had some food and, most important, coffee.
They were just leaving the outskirts of the city, a few miles from the airport, when Spender spoke up from his seat behind her. His voice was low, and Scully twisted in her seat, turning her head instinctively to catch his words.
“What time did you say the flight was?” he asked.
“Eleven-fifteen,” Scully replied, wondering why they were whispering. And then Spender’s eyes shifted, and she followed his gaze to see Andy curled up against the seat, sound asleep.
Scully half-grinned. Andy had the right idea, that was for sure. They were all still sleep-deprived, and Scully determined that she would insist all of them sleep as much as possible on the flight. She dreaded the idea of waking up cramped and sore, but that would be more than made up for if she got a few hours in her own bed on the other end.
Her gaze drifted back to Spender, who had leaned back against the seat as well, his head turned to his left. Scully first thought his eyes were closed, but then she saw a small gleam of light from under his eyelashes and realized he was watching Andy again. A faint line ran across the middle of his forehead, as if he was frowning, but the corners of his mouth were turned up slightly.
Scully slowly turned back around in her seat, catching the quick look Mulder shot her way. She met it briefly and shrugged, giving a small smile. Mulder’s mouth curved slightly in response as he turned his attention back to the road, pulling into the entrance to the airport.
Northwest Airlines flight 1478 Somewhere over Michigan 12:07 p.m.
Breakfast, tickets, security and luggage maneuvering had taken up most of the full hour and half the group had spent at the airport before their flight boarded, and faxing a copy of Diana’s notes to the Gunmen had consumed the rest. They would have a change of planes in Detroit to split the flight in half and would arrive at Washington National a little after three. All four had, on Scully’s recommendation, pushed their seats back immediately and tried to at least rest, if not sleep.
They were near the back of the plane, and with no meal service on the two short legs, they had little to disturb them. Andy was asleep ten minutes after takeoff, and from her seat across the aisle from them, Scully had covertly watched Spender watch Andy sleep for another good ten minutes before he slept as well.
Even Mulder appeared to be sleeping now, his head tipped over in Scully’s direction and his breathing deep and regular. But Scully couldn’t settle. Her eyes popped open within seconds every time she forced them closed, and her thoughts whirled so fast she was starting to feel lightheaded.
She’d held it together well at the cabin, thank God, handling the shooting and the investigation calmly and professionally. But with the rush of adrenalin behind her, all the jumbled emotions she’d shoved aside earlier welled up with a vengeance, forcing her to deal with them.
Abject terror was first on the list, from the moment of the first gunshot. She’d been lucky that Mulder had been in her line of sight when she dropped to the ground, so she didn’t have to deal with worry for him, as he had for her. But no amount of training would, or should, take away that flash of fear at the sound of an unexpected gunshot.
Shame followed closely, a remnant of her first thought when she’d realized Diana had been mortally wounded. Relief had washed over her, that Diana would be out of the picture for good, and she had immediately hated herself for even considering such a thing. It went against everything she was, everything she stood for, and she was ashamed that it even occurred to her.
Pain and sorrow were next, coming solely from her empathy with Mulder. She knew he was torn about Diana’s death, that he felt guilty for wanting to comfort her in her last minutes, both because of her betrayal and because of Scully. But Scully knew Mulder. He wasn’t operating out of residual love toward Diana; he was guided by the memory of that love, amplified by his own natural compassion.
And, yes, there was a little jealousy mixed in there, too. It wasn’t really directed at Diana herself; Scully was secure in the knowledge that Diana was out of the picture long before they’d even reached the cabin. No, she was jealous that any other woman had ever possessed a part of Mulder, that she hadn’t always been the woman in his life. She knew it was completely irrational of her … but she also realized it was entirely human.
There was some anxiety, too, about skirting around the truth about the shooting, and about the fact that they hadn’t found the shooter. And then there was the urge she’d had while the local authorities were on the scene to simply bury herself against Mulder’s chest and stay there for several hours. At least.
She let everything flow out of her, the whole range of emotions she’d pushed aside earlier, and to her surprise she felt her eyes fill with tears. Before she could stop them, a few drops spilled out and started down her cheeks.
She started to lean forward to get a tissue from her briefcase, but then she felt a touch on her cheek, brushing aside the dampness. She looked up into Mulder’s eyes as he cupped his hands around her face and whispered, “Scully, are you okay?”
She nodded wordlessly, her gaze locked with his, and then allowed him to draw her toward him, pulling her against his chest. She smiled tremulously, realizing this had been just what she’d been thinking about moments before, and she took a long, deep breath and exhaled as she relaxed against him.
She was asleep within minutes.
Washington, DC Office of the Lone Gunmen 5:52 p.m.
Mulder leaned back in his chair and munched contentedly on a slice of pepperoni pizza. He felt more relaxed, more in his element, than at any time since Scully had awakened him early Monday morning.
Byers sat next to him, fastidiously eating his own piece of pizza with a knife and fork, while Frohike worked his way rapidly through a bowl of jalapeno cheese poppers. In one corner of the room the blood samples taken from Mulder and from Scully whirled in a small centrifuge, while another device was subjecting the bee carcass from Fort Benning to tests which Mulder didn’t even understand that well.
Mulder idly turned his attention back to Frohike. The little man had not let Mulder out of his sight since Mulder and Andy arrived at the office, forty-five minutes earlier. He seemed to be studying the agent — for what reason, Mulder didn’t know, but he’d long since given up on trying to discern Frohike’s motives for anything.
Mulder shook his head and glanced across the room, to where Andy and Langly were bent over a computer console. At first he had been mildly surprised at how well those two had hit it off, but after thinking about it a bit he’d decided that it actually did make sense, in a weird sort of a way. Both of them were highly competent, and both of them were very focused when they were working on a problem. As work partners, he concluded, they made a good match.
He took a quick swallow from the bottle of Rolling Rock which Byers had brought him and grabbed another piece of pizza, and for just a moment Mulder let his thoughts drift.
The trip back to Washington had been completely uneventful, other than a couple of slight delays. Scully and the other two had slept most of the way, and Mulder had even found himself dozing off for awhile during the flight from Detroit to Washington National.
He’d been awakened by the announcement that they were about to make the final approach for landing, and discovered that Scully had very nearly crawled into his lap while they both slept. He’d gently nudged her awake, and after a few seconds of confusion a slow smile had spread across her face — and Mulder had thought in that moment that she looked younger and more contented than he could remember having seen her look in ages.
“She finally got to you, didn’t she?”
Mulder was dragged back to the present by Frohike’s voice.
“What?” he asked, more to give himself a few seconds to think than because he hadn’t heard.
“I said she finally got to you,” the little man repeated. “Agent Scully. She got to you.”
Mulder shook his head, not because he really expected to deceive his friends, but from an instinct that told him to play the game out. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
Frohike laughed. “Mulder, you are so full of shit it’s a wonder your eyes aren’t brown.” He picked up a piece of pizza from the box and stuffed it in his mouth, then proceeded to mumble around it as he chewed. “You walked in here looking like the cat that ate the canary. That can mean only one of two things, and you’d have told us by now if you’d found Samantha.”
Mulder blinked at the comment, but was surprised to discover that the jibe didn’t hurt the way he thought it ought to. He was spared from making a response by Byers’ intervention.
“Frohike, you may be the only person in Washington with less sensitivity than Kenneth Starr,” he said. Frohike’s face took on an indignant, wounded look, and he had just opened his mouth to respond when Langly spoke up from across the room.
“Mulder, I think we’ve got something for you.”
Mulder shot what he hoped was an enigmatic look at Frohike, then rose from his seat and crossed to stand behind Langly and Andy. Looking down at the computer screen, he saw that it was set to display a map of the north central United States, including Michigan and part of southern Ontario. A blue shaded area covered several states and parts of states in the region, and several colored lines emanated from a point in northern Michigan that Mulder identified as the location of Camp Grayling, where the Gunmen had previously reported the military flights from Columbus and Cedar Rapids had converged.
“We pulled some of this off the FAA’s web site,” Langly said. “It’s a display of the area of responsibility for Minneapolis Center, the air traffic control center for the upper Midwest. We’ve been working on this for several days; ever since we got your first call on this issue. The FAA’s computer network is not easy to crack, although it’s not as secure as they think it is.”
The lanky blond reached out and tapped a fingernail against the screen, indicating the network of lines centering on Camp Grayling. “Now these,” he continued, “we did not pull off the web. We got them by hacking into the ATC system’s computer network. These lines represent the flight paths of those military transports you had us check on, plus the additional flights from Oregon which we identified.”
Langly glanced up at Mulder, and his eyes glinted briefly; then he looked back down at the screen. “And this line here,” he concluded, indicating a single path which headed off from Camp Grayling to the north-northeast, “represents what looks like a continuation of those flights.”
Mulder nodded absently. “Okay, that’s a start. Any idea what their destination was?”
To his surprise, Andy picked up the story. “Not at first,” she said. “Military transports have tremendous range; and of course, they could have changed course after they left Minneapolis Center’s radar screens.” She paused while Langly’s fingers flew over the keyboard; the map display zoomed out to show most of North America, and the northbound line of departure extended itself until it finally came to a halt at the tip of the peninsula which separated Hudson Bay from the Labrador Sea, in extreme northern Quebec.
Mulder furrowed his brow. “That’s it?” he asked. “That’s their destination? How did you work it out?”
Andy glanced up at him and smiled. “It was your doing, Wonderboy,” she said. “Remember that slip of paper you found in Agent Fowley’s pocket?” She waited until Mulder had nodded, then continued, “Well, your hunch was right: Those were flight numbers and times, and airport codes. And when Langly and I traced them through the SABRE reservation system, we found this.”
Now she turned back to the screen and nodded to Langly; again his fingers flew across the keyboard, and one more set of lines appeared, this time leading from Sault Ste. Marie to Montreal, and then north until it rendezvoused with the line originating at Camp Grayling.
Langly said, “These appear to be the commercial flights Agent Fowley had booked for herself; the final destination is a town called Kangiqsujuaq, in northern Quebec, which just happens to be on the direct line of travel for the last known heading of those military transports. We haven’t been able to hack into the actual reservation system — yet. But the flight times and airport I.D.‘s match up exactly.” He looked back up at Mulder. “And unless I miss my guess, that’s where you’ll want to be going next.”
FBI headquarters 6:07 p.m.
Scully sat on the long sofa in Skinner’s outer office, fighting an urge to glance at her watch again or tap her foot with impatience. She’d been waiting for nearly fifteen minutes now, and she was ready to get this meeting over with and get back in contact with Mulder.
It had been nearly four by the time the group had left the airport, and Mulder had dropped her and Spender off at her apartment on his way to his own, so Scully could pick up her car. The division of labor had been arranged in the last few minutes before they landed, with the four of them agreeing that it made the most sense for Scully and Spender to meet with Skinner. Spender had been a little hesitant but finally acknowledged that his presence would go a long way toward driving home the importance of the investigation.
Scully had called Skinner’s office as soon as they got inside her apartment, learning from his assistant that he was in a meeting but should be out by six. She’d left a message that she would be there at six, then spent nearly an hour straightening up the remnants of her fast exit earlier in the week.
Spender had spent most of the time sitting in an armchair, silent. He sat almost gingerly, as if he was uncomfortable even being there, and truth be told, Scully was a little uncomfortable with him there, as well. But she did her best not to show it, offering him a drink, which he accepted, and pointing him down the hall to the bathroom.
She had felt better after washing her face, redoing her makeup and changing into a fresh suit, polished and professional again and ready to face her boss. But now she was cooling her heels outside his office, waiting for him to return from some upper-floor conference room.
“Agent Scully.” Skinner’s voice came from the doorway behind her, and she nearly jumped at the sound. She rose immediately and turned to face him.
“Sir,” she replied.
Skinner glanced around the room. “Where’s Agent Mulder?” he asked.
“That’s part of what I’d like to talk to you about, sir,” Scully answered, her voice level.
Skinner held her gaze for a moment, then nodded once and strode through the small room to his office door. He paused and glanced at his assistant as he passed, sending her a quick, “Go on home, Kimberly.”
Scully caught up with him as he reached the door. “Sir,” she said. “Could we possibly speak in Agent Mulder’s office rather than here?”
Skinner turned to look at her, his hand on the doorknob. “Is there a reason for this request, Agent Scully?” he asked pointedly.
“Yes, sir,” she responded.
He seemed to be expecting her to continue, and when she didn’t, he studied her for a moment before he finally nodded. “Fine,” he said. “Give me about ten minutes.”
“Fine, sir,” she said.
She remained in her spot as he stepped into the office, and then she turned and walked out, heading for the elevator. She and Spender had decided on the ride in that having Spender walking the halls of the J. Edgar Hoover Building might not be the best idea. So they’d taken the back stairway down to the basement, and Spender had been waiting in a storeroom down the hall from the office.
She felt a little guilty about leaving him in such an uncomfortable spot, especially considering how long she’d had to wait herself. But she was not about to leave Spender in the X-files office alone.
Five minutes after leaving Skinner’s office, Scully was unlocking the office door. She pushed it open and flicked on a light, then stepped back down the hall and knocked on the storeroom door.
“Coast is clear,” she said lightly, then turned and headed back toward the office.
She sat down at Mulder’s desk, placing her briefcase atop the small jumble of papers in the center of the desk blotter, and looked around the room. It was still small, still cluttered, but it was much more organized than it had been before the fire. Every surface wasn’t covered with papers and files, and things like pens and pencils were actually in containers or in drawers, rather than scattered across the desk.
She swiveled slowly in the chair and regarded the shiny new poster on the wall. It had been there when she came in the morning after they returned from California a month before, and she’d felt a sense of relief. She had strongly suspected that the package from Karin Berquist had contained her copy of the poster, and she’d been proven right. She had worried briefly that he’d be upset by it, but he’d apparently handled it well.
“Back to normal, I see.”
Scully twirled the chair around at Spender’s words to see him taking in the room, much as she had moments before. His mouth twisted slightly as he looked at the poster. “You mean they actually mass-produce those things?” he asked, his tone teasing but not derisive.
Scully smiled briefly in return. “Apparently so,” she said simply, then waved a hand toward the two chairs across the desk. “Have a seat,” she said. “Assistant Director Skinner will be here in a few minutes.”
Spender moved to take the seat on her right, still looking around the room. “A lot neater than before, too,” he observed. “You must be rubbing off on him.”
His tone of voice gave the innocent words a completely different meaning, and Scully got a sudden sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. She did not want to have to field questions from Skinner about the status of her relationship with Mulder, not now. Too much else was going on, and she and Mulder had not even discussed the possible ramifications if the Bureau higher-ups learned of their personal involvement.
But Spender seemed to sense her concern, and he caught her gaze, a glimmer of unexpected merriment in his eyes. “Your secret is safe with me,” he intoned gravely, and Scully was still biting back a grin when Skinner appeared in the doorway.
The A.D. regarded her seriously. “Something funny, Agent Scully?” he asked.
“No, sir,” Scully answered, rising and crossing the room. “Please come in.”
He did, and Scully shut the door firmly behind him before turning to face him. But Skinner had already discovered the reason for the subterfuge, and Scully could see the muscles working along his jawline as he growled out his next words.
“Jeffrey Spender,” Skinner said, a bit sarcastically. “I would say I’m surprised to see you still among the living, but somehow, it doesn’t surprise me at all.”
Spender had stood up and was now facing his former supervisor. “Sir,” he said formally.
No one spoke for a few long moments, until a chirping sound came from Scully’s briefcase. She crossed over and pulled the phone out, answering with her surname, as usual.
“Scully, it’s me,” came Mulder’s voice.
“Mulder, where are you?” Scully asked, glancing up at the two men standing across from her.
“I’m in the car, headed back to the airport,” he answered.
“The airport?” Scully repeated. “Where are you going?”
“Montreal,” he said. “The guys found out where Diana was headed, and it matches up with those military flight patterns. Andy and I are on the eight o’clock flight out, and I needed to know if you and Spender are going to be able to make it so we can get you tickets, too.”
Scully’s mind raced. It was 6:30 already, and the drive to National would take at least a half-hour, maybe more in late rush-hour traffic. And she still had to fill Skinner in on their activities of the last few days. She might make it at full-tilt speed, but it would be very, very close.
Mind made up, she spoke into the phone. “No, Mulder, you two go on ahead,” she said. “I assume the guys have your flight information?”
“Yeah,” Mulder replied. “It’ll be a hellaciously long day; we won’t get there until sometime mid-afternoon tomorrow. Our final destination is a little village in northern Quebec that I’m not even going to attempt to pronounce. The boys’ll have everything you need, except maybe a parka. I don’t want to have to share mine again.”
Scully almost grinned at his teasing tone, glad that they could at least joke a little about last summer’s Antarctic adventure. “Sure, Mulder,” she said. “We’ll get there as quickly as we can.”
“Okay,” Mulder said, his voice softer. “Be careful, Scully.”
“You, too,” she said, listening as the line went dead.
Ending the call, she set the phone back down on the desk and looked up at Skinner. “Sir,” she said, gesturing toward the seat behind her to offer him that spot, but he waved her off.
“Have a seat, Agent Scully,” he said, then glanced at Spender and added, “You, too.” He pulled the second chair forward and sat in it. “Now, which one of you is going to tell me what the hell is going on?”
Air Canada Flight 399 Somewhere over Pennsylvania 8:31 p.m.
Mulder stared out the window at the ground, 35,000 feet below. The sun had set an hour earlier, leaving the terrain itself in darkness, but the night was clear and so the lights of the towns and cities passing by were bright and distinct.
He was abruptly reminded of another flight he’d taken, two years earlier. That time he’d sat next to a Consortium agent, a man who had tried to persuade him … how was it he’d put it? Mulder closed his eyes and concentrated for a moment … and then he had it.
“Look out your window, Agent Mulder,” the man had said. “You see the lights? Now, imagine if one of those lights flickered off. You’d hardly notice, would you? A dozen … two dozen lights extinguished. Is it worth sacrificing the future, the lives of millions, to keep a few lights on?”
Mulder hadn’t been swayed by that argument; in fact, he’d been annoyed, and viewed it as a distraction, part of the man’s effort to retrieve the alien artifact Mulder had retrieved courtesy of Max Fenig. And then the Consortium man had been gone, along with the artifact, and Mulder was missing nine minutes out of his life. Again.
Mulder had tried to put the man’s arguments out of his mind, and he had for the most part succeeded. There was no denying that there was a certain seductiveness to the appeal, but even when he awoke sweating in the middle of the night, Mulder had been able to hold those thoughts at bay. Until the night he had been confronted by C.G.B. Spender in Diana Fowley’s apartment. The night of the El Rico massacre.
Again he let his thoughts drift back. Mulder had gone to Diana’s apartment trying to confirm or deny the allegations Scully had made against her. He hadn’t found anything concrete, but as he’d said to Diana herself later that evening, in the end the evidence had found him, in the person of the Smoking Man. And the words that man had spoken — those words had been devestating.
Mulder had very nearly been pushed over the edge that night. The personal connection he’d built up with the elder Spender over the years — indirectly, through the man’s association with Mulder’s father, and also on his own account — had given the the Smoker’s words a weight which those of the Consortium agent on the plane two years earlier had lacked.
Mulder had tried to resist, tried to fight back and insist on what he’d believed for years to be the truth. But in the end he had not been strong enough, and only Scully had been able to drag him back from the brink.
“Penny for your thoughts?”
He opened his eyes to see Andy looking at him curiously, with perhaps just a hint of concern in her eyes. He forced a smile. “I’m not sure they’re worth that,” he replied. “Just woolgathering.”
“Uh-huh.” She continued to look at him, a calculating expression on her face. Then: “Mulder? How did you get into all this, anyway? You and Dana?”
Mulder gave a rueful half-grin. “Scully’s involvement is easy to explain,” he said. “She was assigned to spy on me.” Andy’s eyebrows shot up, and he continued, “I mean it. Some people higher up in the government — or out of it, the line is a little hazy up there sometimes — some of those people apparently felt that I was making a little too much progress on the X-Files. So they sent her to report on my activities and debunk my work.”
“But she didn’t do it.” It was more of a statement than a question.
Mulder laughed. “Actually, she did — but not the way they intended. As you have probably noticed, Scully always takes her work very seriously, and she did the same thing with her assignment to the X-Files.” The corners of his mouth lifted in wry amusement. “Unfortunately for the people who gave her the assignment, she actually insisted on looking at all of the evidence and then drawing her own conclusions.”
Andy nodded. “That sounds like Dana,” she said, returning his half- smile with one of her own.
Mulder nodded in response, and suddenly found himself loosening up with the reporter in a way he hadn’t done before. It was good to have someone to talk to about all this, he realized. He’d been keeping too much bottled up for too long, and it needed an outlet. He was able to talk to Scully about most things, but he didn’t really have anyone to talk to about Scully.
“Anyway,” he said, “the short version is that I didn’t expect her to stay very long — none of my partners before had ever lasted more than a few months. I don’t think she expected to be there very long, either. But then … I don’t know. Things happened. There were … changes. And before I knew it she’d gotten inside, to the point where I found the idea of going on without her to be unthinkable.” He smiled ruefully, a little embarrassed at his openness. It certainly wasn’t like him.
Andy nodded again, and seemed to be lost in thought for a moment. Then she glanced back up at Mulder. “But what about you?” she asked. “You seem to have been the driving force in all this. How did you get involved? What’s your stake?”
Mulder looked at her intently for a moment, trying to decide what to tell her. There were so many levels to her question — more than even he himself had suspected as recently as a few months ago. He wasn’t sure which answer she was really looking for, and he didn’t want to mislead her with an incomplete response.
Still, it all came down to one thing in the end. As important as Scully was to him, as much as she had become the indispensable center of his life, Samantha had still been the impetus that got him into this in the beginning. And that was probably the best place to start.
He sighed, and quietly said, “It all started with my sister.”
Georgetown 9:37 p.m.
Scully let out a relieved sigh as she opened the door and stepped into her darkened apartment. Alone at last, she thought idly, quirking one corner of her mouth up in amusement as she slid off her heels and headed to her bedroom to change.
The hour-and-a-half meeting with Skinner had been grueling, to say the least, between briefing the A.D. on what she and Mulder had learned and explaining how and why both Jeff Spender and Andy Baker had gotten involved. Skinner had actually gone easy on her with regard to Andy, raising no further objections once Scully informed him of the reporter’s military position and the clean background check.
The meeting had also been useful in deciding what, exactly, she and Spender should do next. Skinner had, rather reluctantly, accepted the former agent’s explanation for his disappearance, agreeing that now was not the time to be concerned about protocol.
Flight arrangements were a bit more problematic. Scully got in a quick call to the Gunmen, only to find that the flight to northern Quebec Mulder and Andy were on the next day was the last until Monday. She would need to find alternate transportation for Spender and herself.
To her surprise, as soon as she brought up the subject, Skinner offered to help them take care of the necessary air charter. The A.D. even suggested providing Spender with a safe house for the night, but the former agent declined.
“I’d rather make my own arrangements,” he said simply, offering no further explanations.
And so Scully left the office alone, navigating the familiar streets between headquarters and her apartment with well-practiced moves. It almost felt like a normal day.
Except that nothing at all was normal about it.
As she reached her bedroom, Scully’s footsteps slowed. The last bit of information Skinner had provided had been the most disturbing to her privately.
Instinctively, her hand lifted to rub lightly across the tiny scar at the base of her neck as she recalled his report: Nearly two hundred cars had been found abandoned this morning in a remote area near Springfield, Illinois. Some of the cars had been left running, most with headlights still on, but no trace of anyone was found in the area — dead or alive.
Scully knew what the report meant. The missing people would all have been former abductees, perfectly primed to host whatever creatures it was that were being developed. She and Mulder had discussed the possibility, and they had apparently been proven right.
She wondered how many it would take to fully restock for their plans. And how long it would take.
Memorial Day was barely two weeks away.
Lost in thought, Scully continued into her bedroom, where she came to a stop in the middle of the floor, her gaze locked on the overnight bag sitting on the foot of her bed. The bag was part of a set her parents had given her for Christmas, the year her father died, and she used it more often than any of the other pieces. It was the perfect size to hold enough shoes, lingerie, toiletries, and other necessities for a week on the road, and like her garment bag, it was almost never empty.
That bag had been with her in Oregon, in Florida several times, in Kansas and Texas and New Mexico and California and even Bermuda. Her mind superimposed a mosaic of old-fashioned locale stickers on the soft leather, telling the story of years spent on the road, searching for the answers she so desperately needed to find.
Now, she was about to take it on what could very well be her last trip anywhere. Because if they were right about what was going to happen over the next two weeks, there wouldn’t be any more traveling after that.
God. Why did it have to finally sink in now, here, when she was alone in a dark, empty room? She usually enjoyed her periods of solitude, drew strength from time spent with herself. She’d been grateful at first to have at least a few hours to herself, unused to spending so many consecutive hours in the company of others.
But she wanted that company now. Craved it. Her imagination was drawing a cold, stark picture of devastation within her mind, barren landscapes populated with humans enslaved by creatures beyond her imaginings, and she did not want to be alone with her thoughts.
She didn’t want to believe. She didn’t want such a thing to be in the realm of possibility, even at its most extreme. It went against everything she had ever known, tore at the roots of both her science and her religion, and the idea that both could have been wrong or incomplete was enough to shake her to her core.
And she was alone. Isolated. Separated from the one thing that could help her keep her center in the midst of this chaos.
She needed Mulder. And he wasn’t here.
She knew she was being irrational. But that didn’t change the way she felt.
Forcibly pulling herself from her trance, Scully resolutely went about getting ready for bed. She changed clothes methodically, carefully hanging her barely-worn suit and blouse, tossing her hose in a lingerie bag, lining up her heels in their usual spot on the second shelf of her closet. She slipped on worn sweatpants and a soft t-shirt, then stepped into the bathroom to wash her face and brush her teeth and hair.
Her stomach growled as she lifted the toothbrush to her mouth, and she nearly laughed aloud. How could her body want food now, with her mind in such turmoil that her everyday activities had become a struggle?
But logic won out over worry, and she set the toothbrush down in favor of nourishment.
Motel Fleur de Lys Montreal, Quebec, Canada 9:59 p.m.
For what seemed like the hundredth time in the past four days, Mulder leaned back against the headboard of his bed and watched the images on the flickering TV screen across the room.
Their flight had arrived at Dorval International Airport 30 minutes earlier, and to Mulder’s surprise they had passed through Customs quickly and easily, not even their handguns causing particular difficulty. They had then caught a cab to the motel, and upon arrival Andy had gone straight to bed, pleading exhaustion.
Mulder was exhausted, too, but he doubted he would be able to sleep. Much as talking to Andy about Scully — and Samantha — had provided a certain release, it had also brought his emotions close to the surface, and left him feeling vulnerable and alone.
He closed his eyes and sighed in resignation. The only really good sleep he had gotten the last two nights had been when Scully had been sleeping next to him — and how was that for instant dependency? He’d gotten along fine for years sleeping alone — or, at least, he’d become accustomed to it. And now here he was, a little more than 72 hours after the first small but definite step that he and Scully had taken towards each other, and he felt like an incipient basket case because she wasn’t there.
Mulder shifted slightly on the bed. Tonight was really no different from any of hundreds of other nights he’d spent in the field, he told himself. Same rat trap motel room, same lumpy mattress, same thermostat that always seemed to keep the room too hot or too cold. Nothing different at all.
Which was, of course, complete bullshit. Everything was different about this case, from the dire consequences of failure, looming only a little more than two weeks away, to the fact that the wrong woman was sleeping on the other side of the connecting door.
A perfectly nice woman … but the wrong woman.
Without quite realizing how it had happened, Mulder found himself holding his cell phone in his hand, his finger poised over the first speed dial button. He ought to call Scully, he rationalized. He should let her know that he and Andy had arrived safely and tell her where they were staying, and he needed to get a synopsis of her meeting with Skinner.
It wasn’t that late, only a little after ten. Although none of them had slept much in the last few days, and it would be understandable if she had crashed at the first opportunity.
He continued staring at the cell phone for another minute before it hit him how ridiculous he was being. Four days ago he wouldn’t have hesitated to call her, even if he knew full well that she was asleep, or in a meeting, or otherwise occupied. Four days ago, he probably would have called her as soon as he reached the motel; in fact, it never would have occurred to him not to call.
Four days ago, though, they hadn’t just embarked on a love affair. That was the difference, of course.
Shit. He was being fucking ridiculous. He really did need to talk to her, both about the case and for personal reasons. She had crawled into bed with him last night, and the night before; surely she wouldn’t see a simple phone call as being overly intrusive.
Putting more determination in the gesture than he really felt, Mulder reached out and punched the speed dial button.
She answered on the third ring. “Is that you, Mulder?”
He felt a weight he hadn’t even been aware of lift from his shoulders. A dozen flippant responses flashed through his mind, and he rejected them all. “Yeah, it’s me,” he said. He paused for a second, then said, “I just wanted to let you know we got here. We’re at a fleabag called the Motel Fleur de Lys; you’d love it.”
He heard a chuckle at the other end of the line, but it sounded forced rather than genuine, and the hairs on the back of his neck prickled. Something was wrong.
He pushed the thought back down. How could anything be wrong? She was in Washington, probably in her own apartment. She was fine.
She had to be fine.
“So,” he said awkwardly. “How did the meeting with Skinner go?”
Was there a brief pause before she answered? Mulder couldn’t be sure. “It went okay,” she said. “Better than I expected, in some ways. We found out that the flight you and Andy are taking in the morning is the last one until Monday, but Skinner’s going to help us arrange a charter. For me and Spender, I mean.”
“That’s good.” Dammit, there was something wrong; he could hear it in her voice. Something had upset her, or was upsetting her. If only he could see her eyes …
“Mulder, I’m not doing very well.”
Mulder pulled the cell phone away from his ear for just a moment and stared at it in shock. Jesus! She really was opening up to him. He brought the phone back to his ear.
“Scully?” he asked, very softly. “What’s wrong?”
There was a moment of silence, and he wondered if maybe she was having second thoughts. Finally he heard a deep sigh at the other end of the line. “Mulder, Skinner confirmed what looks like a mass abduction, near Springfield, Illinois,” she said, sounding a little lost. “And I got back home, and was thinking I’d get something to eat and go to bed.” She paused, then went on, “Anyway, I was standing here in my bedroom, and it was dark, and …”
Her voice trailed off, but. Mulder remained silent, waiting for her to finish her thought. Finally, she blurted out, “Mulder, I’m just … I’m scared. And I … I miss you. I wish you were here.”
Mulder swallowed to force down the lump that was suddenly forming in his throat. He searched frantically for something to say; he’d been waiting for this moment for years, and he didn’t want to blow it.
“I wish I were there, too, Scully,” he said, finally. “And I wish I could tell you there’s no reason for you to be afraid.”
“I know.” Another moment passed in silence. At last she said, “Mulder?”
“This is really it, isn’t it?”
He hesitated, then replied, “Yes, I think it is.”
“So do I.” More silence. “Mulder, I don’t want to believe. Why does it have to be like this?”
“I don’t know, Scully. Just one of those things, I guess.” God, he wished he could be there with her. He wanted to take her in his arms; they both needed the comfort. But she was far away. Or he was.
“I guess so.” There was still another silence, and Mulder closed his eyes for a moment and listened to her breathe.
Finally she said, “Mulder, I think I’d better go. We both need to get some sleep.” After the very briefest of hesitations, and in the softest of voices, she added: “I love you.”
And then the connection was broken.
It was a long time before Fox Mulder was able to drift off to sleep.
Kangiqsujuaq, Quebec Friday, May 14, 1999 6:49 p.m.
As it turned out, the charter carrying Scully and Spender touched down just three hours after the last commercial flight for the week arrived in the small village. Scully glanced out the window as the small plane rolled toward the tiny terminal and caught a glimpse of a tall, dark, and handsome figure standing on the edge of the tarmac.
She felt a small smile playing at the corners of her mouth as she pulled out her briefcase and headed for the steps to the ground. Bright sunlight assaulted her eyes as she emerged, and she had to descend cautiously, watching the stairs.
She was on the bottom step when a pair of feet moved into her line of vision. Her head popped up automatically, and she met Mulder’s gaze, his face mere inches from her own.
And she barely had a chance to take a breath before she was in his arms and his mouth was on hers.
The kiss was deep but necessarily brief; Spender was still behind her on the stairs. But when Mulder drew back, he slid one hand up from her back to cup her face, dipped his mouth to hover near her ear, and whispered, “I’ve always loved you, Scully.”
She grinned at his words, finding her expression matched by his as he finally released her and took her hand to lead her toward the terminal. She finally tore her eyes away from his when they stepped inside, and she saw Andy standing a few feet inside, looking past the two of them.
Scully tightened her grip on Mulder’s hand and led him a little further across the room before turning back to face him. He looked puzzled, and she inclined her head in Andy’s direction.
“Just thought they might want some privacy, too,” she said. Mulder glanced over, and they watched as Spender and Andy stood close together, speaking in low tones.
Mulder shook his head as he turned back to Scully. “I have to say, I’m a little surprised by that,” he said, bemusement in his voice. “They certainly don’t seem like each other’s type at first glance.”
Scully felt her eyebrow lifting. “And we do?” she replied, drawing a low chuckle from Mulder.
“Point conceded,” he said, smiling as he bent down to drop another small kiss on her mouth. Then he grew serious again. “As much as I would love to just stand here and look at you, Scully, we need to talk logistics. Andy and I think we’ve figured out where we need to go, but we still have to figure out how to get there. And how to get back out.”
Scully looked up at him, a little surprised. “You found the … the base?” she asked.
“Kind of,” Mulder said, releasing her hand and digging in the pocket of his coat. He pulled out a rather crumpled map, then turned to a nearby row of chairs to spread the paper out, lowering himself to one knee as he worked.
Scully moved closer, bending down to see as he began to explain. “We got this map here, in the terminal right after we landed,” he said, glancing back at her every few seconds as he spoke. “It’s got a lot more detail than anything we could have found anywhere else. There aren’t that many roads up here, because it’s so sparsely populated. But then I didn’t expect to find a road leading us right to the front door.”
Scully nodded in acknowledgement but didn’t say anything. She knew Mulder would get to the point soon enough.
“Anyway,” he continued, “I wish I could take credit for this one. It turned out to be pretty obvious, and Andy and I both were kicking ourselves when she saw it.”
He brought up one finger and placed it on the map, about an inch to the left of Kangiqsujuaq. There, right on the northern coastline, was a tiny little dot labeled with the name “Deception.”
“Deception,” Scully murmured. “It’s Deception. That’s what …”
“That’s what Diana was trying to tell us,” Mulder finished, looking up at Scully, the corner of his mouth twisting. “Even her last words were a betrayal.”
Scully frowned. “Mulder,” she said, hesitantly. “If she was trying to tell us where we needed to go …”
“I didn’t mean a betrayal to us, or me, Scully,” he said, rising to his feet and starting to fold up the map. “I mean a betrayal of C.G.B. Spender or the Syndicate or whatever. She apparently never did hold loyalty in very high esteem.”
Scully had no answer to that, so instead she glanced over to see Spender and Andy walking toward them. She looked back at Mulder and said, “I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry. Is there some place we can get some food and talk strategy at the same time?”
Mulder nodded. “There’s a restaurant, a diner, really, attached to the one motel in the village,” he said. “We got two rooms there. The manager told us we were lucky; the place is so small that it stays booked up most of the time.” He quirked a half-grin. “Although I can’t imagine why this place gets much in the way of tourism. Seen one snowdrift, you’ve seen ‘em all.”
Scully obligingly smiled at the line, just as Spender and Andy stopped in front of them.
“Did you tell her?” Andy asked immediately.
“Yeah,” Mulder said. “We’re gonna go get some food and talk strategy.”
Scully glanced at Spender, who was only nodding; Andy had apparently filled him in as well.
“Well,” Scully said. “Let’s get going, then.”
Le Cafe Point du Nord 7:58 p.m.
“It looks like a little over 100 miles,” Mulder commented, leaning over the map they had spread out on the table in front of them. Scully sat next to him in the booth, while Spender and Andy looked on from the other side. The remains of dinner had been pushed to one side to make room for the map. “Probably 150 by the time you account for all the twists and turns the road takes.”
Spender reached out and touched his finger to the spot marking the location of Deception. “Are you sure this is the place?” he asked doubtfully.
Mulder looked over at Andy, who in turn looked at Spender and nodded vigorously. “As sure as we can be,” she said. “In addition to Agent Fowley’s last words, we nosed around the terminal this afternoon asking questions, and found that there’ve been a lot of inbound military flights in the last few days.” She shrugged. “Of course, around here one flight would be a lot. But there were so many that one of the groundcrew started keeping count, and she said thirty-seven military transports have landed at the airport here since Tuesday morning.”
Spender whistled softly and turned back to look at Mulder — and for the first time since they’d met in Michigan, Mulder thought he detected a glimmer of respect in the other man’s eyes. “It looks like you’ve nailed it, then.” He paused, then went on, “So what’s the plan?”
Mulder hesitated, then shrugged. “I’m not sure,” he admitted. “I suppose the first step would be to find the actual location. The installation won’t be in Deception itself, I don’t imagine, but it’ll be nearby. And trying to hide something like that is pretty futile, even in an area as sparsely populated as this.”
Andy nodded. “Yeah, I’m sure that if the installation really is somewhere close by, the locals know all about it. They may not know what’s out there, exactly, but they pretty much have to know something is out there.”
“So what do we do when we find this place?” Scully asked quietly — and Mulder was surprised to hear what sounded like a slight quiver of fear in her voice. He turned his head sharply to look at her, but her face seemed calm — except for her eyes. Something about this was really bothering her.
And then he had it, and he cursed himself for missing the obvious. The last time she had been at a place like this installation they were seeking she’d been a prisoner, and only Mulder’s intervention had saved her from being an incubator for one of the embryonic Colonists.
He caught her eye and nodded slightly, then slid his hand along the seat until it met with hers and gave it a reassuring squeeze.
“I suppose we start with a simple reconnoiter,” Andy was saying, as Mulder turned his attention back to the conversation. “Like we did at Fort Benning, but hopefully better organized.”
Scully gave a small sigh, but this time when she spoke her voice was steady. “So I guess our first step would be to find some transportation.”
Andy nodded. “That clunker Mulder and I rented sure isn’t going to be up to this sort of terrain; it’s strictly for in-town use.” She slid out of the booth and jumped to her feet, and Mulder was unsurprised to see Spender following suit.
“Look, why don’t you two go lie down and get some rest,” Andy went on. “Jeff and I will go see what we can find in the way of wheels, and the four of us can get back together around midnight. Sunset isn’t for another couple of hours yet, and we’ll want it to be plenty dark.”
She caught Spender’s eye, and for just an instant Mulder thought she was going to reach out and take the former agent’s hand — but then the two of them simply turned and walked out of the diner.
L’Hotel Point du Nord 11:42 p.m.
Mulder awoke slowly, in near total darkness. For a moment he was disoriented, and the feel of another body nestled against his side confused him even more — and then he remembered. Scully.
This time they had not even discussed the sleeping arrangements; Scully had simply followed him to his room. She had disappeared down the hall to the bathroom long enough to change into sweats, and then had come back and curled up in his arms and gone promptly to sleep. Mulder had quickly followed.
And he had slept. Well.
His partner’s voice brought him out of his reverie, and he looked down to see her peering up at him in the dim light. He smiled, and bent down and brushed his lips lightly against hers.
“Hi yourself,” he murmured, drawing her in a little closer.
Scully closed her eyes and rested her head against his chest, and for a pair of minutes Mulder simply held her and listened to her breathe. Finally, without opening her eyes, she said, “I had the strangest dream just now.”
Mulder remained quiet, waiting to see if she would continue. When it became evident that she was not inclined to do so, he said, “Do you want to tell me about it?”
“I think so.” She paused again, as if she were gathering courage, and Mulder gently stroked her back, trying to lend her strength. After another moment, she said, “We were standing in the hallway outside your apartment. You know. That day.”
Scully opened her eyes and looked up at him, a questioning look on her face. “Mulder?” she asked. “Why did we never talk about that? After I got back, I mean. After you got me back.”
Mulder hesitated. There were so many different answers to that question, and none of them were really satisfactory. Hell, he didn’t even really know which answer was the right one. He just knew that in those few moments when he’d thought she was leaving he had panicked and reached out for her — and then when all the dust had settled and they’d both been safe back in Washington, everything had seemed different.
He realized she was waiting for his response, still looking up at him with those beautiful blue eyes. He shook his head slowly. “I don’t know, Scully,” he said quietly. “Why do you think we haven’t talked about it?”
“I don’t know, either,” she said, and again she fell silent, and seemed to study his face. Finally: “I dream about that day a lot, you know. About that moment.”
“In the hallway, you mean?”
“Yeah.” She nodded slowly, and continued, “And it always ends the same. Or at least it always has. It always ends with me being stung, and then I fall and fall and fall, and nothing ever stops me. I keep waiting for something to stop me — I keep waiting for you to stop me, to catch me. But you never do. I just keep falling, forever.”
Mulder nodded slightly, trying to ignore the pain her words were evoking in his heart. “Is that what happened this time?”
“No.” His partner shook her head, and Mulder felt his eyes widen as he saw a look of wonder spreading across her face. “This time … this time you caught me.” She reached up with one hand and lightly touched his cheek. “You caught me, Mulder,” she repeated, and the tone of relief and joy in her voice brought tears to his eyes.
Before he could do more than utter her name she was kissing him, and Mulder felt himself rapidly sinking into a warm, golden haze. All other thoughts and feelings were banished; Scully was his entire universe, warm and soft and alive and gently moving in his arms. He tried to gather her in closer; he didn’t want any space between them at all …
At long last their lips parted, and Mulder pulled back from her just far enough to allow him to see her face.
God, she was beautiful. So beautiful. During the kiss she had rolled onto her back and pulled him along with her; now her head lay back on the pillow, eyes still closed and lips slightly parted, and her hair was splayed out around her like a crown of fire. And for the second time in as many minutes Mulder felt tears forming in his eyes …
Again her voice pulled him back to reality, and allowed him to focus. Her eyes were open again, and she was gazing up at him with a look of open adoration which he knew must also be apparent in his own features. He allowed his eyes to drift shut as he bent down to kiss her again — and there was a knock on the door.
Mulder swore softly and opened his eyes, to see his partner still looking up at him, but now she had a wry expression on her face. “We never seem to get any breaks, do we?” she murmured, pulling his head down for one more brief kiss before she released him and slid out of bed to answer the door.
Near Deception, Quebec Saturday, May 15, 1999 3:37 a.m.
As the Humvee bounced over another rut, Scully wished yet again that she’d grabbed a pillow from the motel room to sit on. The surplus military vehicle might be just perfect for handling the terrain, but it certainly wasn’t built for comfort — particularly for those in the back seat, where she and Mulder sat.
They’d been jostled around for nearly an hour now, and Scully was beginning to think they’d taken the wrong turnoff. Andy and Jeff had been doubly lucky when they managed to track down and borrow the Humvee; the owner, who was glad to let them use it for a nominal fee of only $500, was also a wealth of local information and dispensed his knowledge freely. He’d told them about the new ruts that had developed at a point about halfway between Kangiqsujuaq and Deception, and about the military trucks he’d seen nearby.
They’d found what looked like the right spot with little difficulty, which only served to make them all suspicious. But, as Andy pointed out from her position in the driver’s seat, they were in an extremely remote area. It wasn’t like their adversaries had to worry about tourists stumbling upon the base by accident.
The Humvee hit a particularly deep rut, sending Scully flying nearly a foot into the air, and she landed back on the seat hard. Pain shot out from her hip, and she let out an involuntary groan, automatically shifting to her right to get her weight off her left side.
“You okay, Scully?” She looked up into Mulder’s face, bent down near hers, and she nodded.
“I’m fine,” she said, successfully fighting the urge to rub the sore spot on her left buttock.
Mulder’s teeth flashed in the dim light as he grinned. Leaning in closer to her ear, he murmured, “Want me to kiss it and make it all better?”
Scully shot him a reproachful look, but he was unrepentant, his smile widening into a leer as he leaned back against the seat. Scully shook her head, a smile playing at the corners of her own mouth, as she carefully settled back down into the seat.
Andy’s voice came from the front seat. “Looks like there’s some lights up ahead,” she said, her voice low but intense. “I’m turning the headlights off.”
Scully leaned forward to look out the front windshield, the view much better without the glow from the headlights. The night was dark and clear, and she could plainly see a few small dots of light directly ahead of them.
“What do you think?” Andy asked, already slowing down. “Call for backup?”
Mulder slid forward in his seat immediately. “Backup?” he asked, his voice incredulous. “From who? And for what? We don’t have any way to know what we need until we get inside and see what’s going on.”
“We can’t go in blind,” Andy shot back.
“And we don’t have time to waste,” Mulder answered.
“It’s foolhardy,” Andy insisted.
Scully felt like she was watching a ping-pong game. “All right, enough,” she cut in. “Either we go in or we don’t. Can we at least discuss it rationally first?” She looked back and forth between Andy and Mulder. “Mulder,” she said. “Why should we go in?”
Mulder took one deep breath and exhaled slowly. “Okay,” he said, speaking slowly. “We already have an idea of what we’re going to find in there. But we have no idea how it’s laid out, what kind of security they have, or how fast things are running. Andy said it herself earlier — we need a reconnaissance of the place before we can justify bringing in anyone else. And reconnaissance means more than just finding where it is.”
Scully nodded once, then turned to Andy. “Okay, Andy, what’s your side?”
“Too risky,” Andy said bluntly. “Mulder said it — we don’t know how it’s laid out or what kind of security there is. Chances are we get in there and can’t get out, and that helps no one at all. We can’t just dive into this headlong.”
Scully nodded again, then glanced at Spender. “Anything to add, Spender?”
He shrugged, his eyes locked onto the lights in the distance. “We’ve come a long way to not even take a look, but it would be risky either way,” he said, his tone noncommittal.
Great, Scully thought. One for, one against, one abstention. Which left her to break the tie, or at least come up with a compromise.
“Okay,” she said, slowly, a little surprised at her own lack of caution. There was something bothering her about this whole situation, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was. She felt a sense of unease, and not just because of the danger involved.
“I think we should go in, but only a little way in,” she said firmly, leaning forward again to study the landscape. “It looks like there’s a hill or some trees over to the left,” she added, pointing in that direction. “Let’s pull over there and try to get closer on foot, get an idea of what things look like before we make any more decisions.”
She didn’t get any argument, and she couldn’t quite decide whether or not that was a good thing.
Mulder jumped down from the passenger compartment of the Humvee, stumbling slightly on the rough terrain. Then he found his footing, and turned back to the vehicle to find that Scully and the other two had followed suit, and were standing at the front of the vehicle, gazing off in the direction of the lights Andy had spotted a few minutes before. Mulder moved to join them, stopping next to Scully.
“What do you think they are?” he asked, bending his head down near hers and resting his hand lightly on the small of her back.
She glanced up at him, and he was unsurprised to see that the disquiet he’d noticed in her eyes while they were having dinner had returned. But when she spoke her voice was calm and level. Professional.
“We won’t know until we get there,” she replied.
Mulder studied her face for a moment, and for perhaps the thousandth time in their partnership he wondered what she had done to deserve all this. His own involvement went back decades, and had a certain air of inevitability to it. But Scully — she was really just an innocent bystander, sucked in by a chain of events that sometimes seemed very arbitrary and capricious.
“Mulder?” He blinked, and realized that she had reached up to lightly touch his cheek. “It’s okay, Mulder,” she said softly. “I’m where I want to be, remember?”
He hesitated, then nodded slightly. “Okay,” he answered, just as softly. “You just need to remind me of that sometimes.” He glanced up to see that Spender and Andy were studiously not watching them, and his lips quirked slightly as he increased the pressure on the small of Scully’s back, guiding her around the front of the vehicle and then in the direction of the distant lights. “Let’s get moving, people,” he said in a more normal tone of voice. “Lay on, MacDuff.”
For several minutes the four of them walked steadily towards the lights, the silence broken only by the sounds of their breathing and the crunch of shifting stones and gravel under their feet. It was the dark of the moon, and the only illumination came from stars, which made walking treacherous, but Mulder knew they’d be grateful for the darkness once they’d reached their goal.
At length they came to the top of a small rise, and Mulder saw that the lights they’d been approaching were actually set near the ground, like runway guidance lights. He dropped to one knee, pulling Scully down next to him, and was aware of Spender and Andy doing the same, slightly to one side.
For a long moment, none of them moved or spoke, and Mulder continued to study the scene. Now that they had a clear view of the lights, he could see that they stood on short posts, perhaps three feet high, and that the trail of ruts they’d been following led straight up to them. And beyond the posts lay the sea.
“Looks like a gateway of some sort,” Andy commented at last.
“Yeah, it does,” Mulder replied. He studied the scene for just another moment, then added, “Well, I don’t think we’re going to learn anything useful from here. Shall we?” He glanced at Scully, and she nodded briefly. The anxiety he’d seen earlier was still there, but she seemed to have it under better control now.
He looked over at Andy and Spender, and saw that they were already climbing to their feet, and a moment later the four of them were moving cautiously forward.
As they approached the lights Mulder realized that the ruts actually led between the posts and seemed to disappear off the edge of what he now saw was a bluff standing perhaps fifty feet above the water line. Moving past the lights and up to the cliff’s edge, he could see that the ruts turned sharply and followed what appeared to be a switchback leading down the face of the cliff.
He turned and beckoned to the others, who were standing back a few feet, examining the posts. “Come on,” he said. “The trail goes down towards the water.”
Scully and Spender started to move forward, but Andy hesitated. “I don’t know,” she said, her voice apparently causing the other two to stop and turn back towards her. “We said we’d go in a little ways, but there have to be limits.”
Mulder shook his head. “We still haven’t learned anything useful,” he insisted. “Nothing that would convince anyone of what’s going on here. We have to go forward.” He moved back to the others and stopped in front of his partner. “Scully,” he said, looking down at her. “We have to go forward. I know I’ve said this before, but I think this is really it this time. This is what we’ve been looking for all these years.”
Scully looked at him for a minute in the darkness, and then she finally nodded. “Mulder’s right,” she said quietly. “Let’s get it over with.” And she brushed past him and headed down the switchback.
The switchback descended quickly underground, into a tunnel sloping down rather sharply, and illuminated only by small, yellowish lights set into the wall every few feet. After a short distance Mulder had overtaken Scully, and now he led the way, Scully just behind, with all four of them staying near the left side of the passageway. The floor of the tunnel was rocky and uneven, making the footing treacherous, and the odd shadows cast by the inadequate lighting only made matters worse.
They had been walking only a few minutes when Scully saw a brief flash of light ahead. She stopped in her tracks, reaching forward to grab Mulder’s arm and stop him, and for a long, breathless moment they all waited to see if the flash would come again.
When nothing happened after several minutes, Scully released Mulder, who glanced back at her. She nodded, and they started moving forward again.
A short time later the tunnel began to widen, and soon the group was standing at the edge of a large room, well-lit enough for them to see it was filled with military-style vehicles of nearly every kind imaginable. Desert sand and jungle green camouflage designs alternated throughout the room, interspersed with the occasional plain olive drab.
Mulder’s voice drew Scully’s attention. “Your tax dollars at work,” he muttered.
Scully didn’t respond, still scanning the room carefully. A set of wide, industrial-style double doors sat along the wall opposite them, but she could see no other openings into whatever lay beyond. No windows, no smaller doors, not even any signs of ventilation, though she knew there must be some way for air to circulate.
Beside her, Mulder shifted again, and she glanced over to see him pulling his cell phone from his pocket. Her eyes widened in alarm. He wasn’t really going to try to use that thing here, was he?
It didn’t matter. Almost before the phone cleared his jacket, Andy was right there, snatching it out of his hand.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she hissed, eyes flashing.
“Calling for your precious backup,” Mulder growled back. “And here I thought you’d be thrilled.”
Andy snorted. “Sending out a beacon to whoever runs this place is more like it,” she said. “Ever stop to think just how any cell phone signal would get relayed out of this place? If the thing worked at all — which is a big ‘if’ — the relay stations would have been set up by whoever built the base. And somehow I think they’d notice if we tried to use them.”
Mulder seemed inclined to continue arguing, so Scully intervened. “She’s right, Mulder,” she said. “We need to get out of here before we try to call for backup. There’s no telling who might hear —”
The voice came from somewhere out in the garage, and the group froze in place. Scully’s gaze shot out toward the source of the sound, and she spotted a figure wearing green fatigues standing near the center of the room — and then the man broke and ran.
Scully realized in that instant that they had to do something about whoever this was. If he spread an alarm, not only would they likely never get out alive, but the base would also probably be disassembled and moved within days.
Andy had apparently reached the same conclusion, because when Scully glanced back at her the reporter was already drawing her weapon — but this time it was Mulder who immediately reached out and grabbed it away.
Before Andy could even protest, he said, “We can’t shoot anyone. We don’t know which ones might be hybrids.”
“So?” Andy’s voice sounded furious. “What the hell does that matter?”
Scully couldn’t believe they’d missed such an important fact in all they’d told her. She was urgently aware of the stranger’s rapidly receding footsteps, but she also knew that Andy had to understand this crucial point before they could proceed — and then Spender was stepping in, reaching out to place a hand on Andy’s arm.
“Their blood is toxic,” the former agent said, quietly and patiently. “If you shoot one, it’s much more likely to kill you than to harm … it.”
Andy’s eyes widened, but she didn’t protest again; she simply held her hand out for her gun. Mulder hurriedly passed it over, then turned and sprinted in pursuit of the stranger.
Scully hesitated for a fraction of a second, still looking at Spender and Andy, and then she took off after her partner — and in another instant she heard footsteps behind her as Andy and Spender joined in the chase.
Scully rounded a parked truck just in time to see the man they were pursuing pass through the doors she’d noted early. With only a second’s hesitation, Mulder followed.
As Mulder stepped across the threshold, he was struck by an intense feeling of deja vu — and he knew in that instant that this must be another spaceship like the one in Antarctica. Everything was the same, from the dim, blue-and-white lighting, to the strange, metallic architecture, to the ugly, functional retrofitting obviously intended to accommodate human needs.
All of this passed through his mind in a fraction of a second, and then he took a deep breath and firmly suppressed the panic attack that threatened to overwhelm him. He didn’t have time for this; not now. Already his quarry’s footsteps were fading into the distance, and that could not be allowed to happen.
Mulder took another deep breath and once again started running, and he was gratified to find himself rapidly gaining ground. The man he was pursuing had made the typical non-runner’s mistake of going all- out from the very beginning, and now Mulder’s even, steady stride was allowing him to make up the initial deficit as his adversary’s strength started to fade.
Mulder was distantly aware of other footsteps behind him, and knew they must belong to Scully and the others, but that was unimportant. All that mattered was the figure ahead of him, and the rapidly closing distance between them.
Since passing through the doorway they’d been running down a broad, dimly lit passageway. The rock and litter-strewn floor had been covered over by a metallic grating, which made the going much easier than it had been in the outer cavern. Now they rounded a corner, and the passage abruptly widened into a large open space, with the grating becoming a catwalk bridging over an immense emptiness. Only another ten feet separating them now …
Abruptly the stranger stumbled, and in an instant Mulder was on him and wrestling him to the ground. The catwalk jumped and shimmied as the two men fought, but Mulder forced awareness of their precarious situation out of his mind.
He quickly found himself straddling the man’s hips, holding him down, and the agent drew his fist back and struck his opponent in the jaw once, twice, three times, and finally the other man was still.
Mulder waited for a moment, to make sure the stranger wasn’t playing possum, but the man really did seem to be out. At last, chest still heaving slightly from the exertion, the agent took his handcuffs off his belt and snapped one end on the man’s right wrist and affixed the other to the catwalk’s guardrail. Then Mulder struggled awkwardly to his feet, keeping his eyes on the stranger as he did.
He backed away a couple of steps, and when he was sure he was finally out of lunging range he allowed his gaze to drift up from his opponent and take in his surroundings.
And his eyes widened in horror.
If Scully hadn’t known it was medically impossible, she would have sworn every metabolic process in her body had simply ceased.
She didn’t notice the slight sway of the catwalk where she stood. She couldn’t hear anything but the roaring in her own ears. Every sense, every nerve, every single part of her body was focused on simply absorbing the sight before her.
The room was vast; her brain would offer no other word for it. She could barely see the ceiling and far wall in the dim, blue-green light, and she could not see the bottom at all.
But she remembered it.
Her recollection of the events in Antarctica had been hazy at best from the very beginning. She knew she’d been cold, and that she and Mulder had climbed up a long way to get back to the surface. But her eyesight had been cloudy the whole time, and she’d even stopped breathing at one point. How could she be expected to remember anything clearly?
Now, she didn’t need to. She was staring right at it, on a smaller scale. The metal, lit with a surreal glow from somewhere within. The multiple levels of catwalks, just like the one she stood on. The pipes. The vapor in the air.
Scully could see these on a lower level, about a hundred feet down, lined up against the wall. Her view was obscured by the darkness, but she could tell the glass was coated with fog, or ice. These, she knew, were full. Others waited out of sight, she was sure.
Suddenly the scene before her was gone, and her vision filled with green. A horrible taste filled her mouth, and she began to shiver violently.
She could hear Mulder’s voice, could almost see his face, but her eyes would not focus in on him.
“Scully!” This time, her name was accompanied by hands on her arms, shaking her hard. She blinked once, gasped in a breath, then blinked again, and her vision cleared.
Mulder stood in front of her, fingers wrapped around her upper arms, staring intently into her face.
“Scully, are you okay?” he asked urgently.
Scully nodded jerkily. “Yeah … yeah,” she said, her voice raspy. “I’m … I’m okay.”
Mulder seemed reluctant to believe her, but she managed a small, shaky smile. “It’s okay,” she said, her voice stronger. “I’m okay now.”
Mulder stared at her a moment longer, then nodded slowly. “Okay,” he said, gradually releasing her arms.
Scully rolled her shoulders, freeing some of the tension that had built there, then turned to face the others.
Andy and Spender were standing a few feet away, watching her in silence. Scully offered another brief smile, then glanced down at the man lying nearby, still unconscious. She flicked a hand in his direction.
“We need to get him off in a corner or something, maybe gag him,” she said, hoping she sounded a little more like herself. “We can’t just leave him here —”
She broke off at a noise from the far end of the catwalk, and the four turned in that direction. A door was opening, and several men stepped out, shining flashlights around. One of them called out, “Carl? You there?”
“Shit!” Andy spat out, spinning on her heel. “Go! Go!”
The others obeyed without question, heading down the catwalk toward another set of doors leading further into the base.
The door at the end of the catwalk opened onto another passageway, similar in dimensions to the one which had led them into the ship in the first place. But where the other passage had been crudely retrofitted for human use, this one must have been completely made over with that purpose in mind, right down to the particle board veneer lining the walls and the thin nylon carpet underneath their feet.
Mulder paused for a moment and glanced first one way and then the other, trying to decide which direction to turn. There were no signs or other indicators, however, and his companions were already piling through the doorway close on his heels — and the sounds of pursuit were rapidly drawing nearer.
“This way!” Mulder snapped, arbitrarily turning to the left and heading down the passage at a fast trot. The others followed along behind, and for a moment or two the silence was broken only by the sound of their breathing.
As they jogged along the hallway, Mulder slowly came to realize that it was curving gradually to the left, and that the floor was sloping gently downward. There were doors set in the walls on either side every 20 or 30 feet, and from time to time he stopped to try a few of them, but they were all locked.
At least they seemed to have eluded their pursuers — for the moment, anyway. Mulder wasn’t quite sure how that had happened, nor was he sure why there hadn’t been a general alarm, but he wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth right at the moment.
One thing he did know was that they needed to get turned around, and fast. The passage they were following was continuing to slope downward — and if anything, the gradient was increasing the farther they progressed. That was not good; they needed to be going up, not down. No matter how quiet things seemed, Mulder knew it was only a matter of time before they ran into more trouble than they could handle.
Mulder spun around at the sound of Andy’s voice, to find that she was facing to the rear, and once again had her weapon out and pointed downrange. The reason was obvious: Two men dressed in combat fatigues were cautiously advancing towards the group from the bend in the passageway, automatic rifles at the ready.
“Jeff!” Andy said sharply. “Tell me again why I can’t shoot these motherfuckers.”
She never got an answer, because the soldier in the lead chose that moment to raise his rifle as if to fire. But Andy was quicker, and for a few seconds the sound of gunfire filled the corridor.
Too far away to do anything to help, Mulder could only watch in horror as Andy’s shots hit home — and instead of falling to the floor the man only staggered slightly. Then, a familiar green fluid began oozing from what should have been a fatal chest wound.
“Jesus motherfucking Christ!” Mulder heard the words reverberate for several seconds before realizing that it was he himself who had shouted them. Then he was slamming his shoulder up against the nearest door, trying to force it open, but to no avail. Any second he expected to feel the burning sensation in his eyes which he had last felt as he ran from the nursing home in San Diego …
“Mulder! Stand clear!”
Mulder barely had time to back away on hearing his partner’s command before her Sig Sauer was roaring into action, blasting the door’s lock into a dozen pieces or more. The door swung open, and Mulder grabbed Scully’s wrist and propelled her through entrance, following in her wake a fraction of a second later. He got only a brief impression of being in a medium-sized conference room — before his toe caught on something and he went tumbling to the floor, his head connecting solidly against the hard metal.
“Mulder? Mulder, are you okay?”
Mulder shook his head, and opened his eyes to see Scully kneeling next to him, concern battling with anxiety for control of her features. For a moment her face swam in front of him; then he blinked hard and it stabilized. “Are you with me, Partner?” she asked. And Mulder nodded and allowed her to help him to his feet.
“Where are Andy and Spender?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “You were only out for a few seconds, but —”
The two agents turned to see Jeff Spender standing in the open doorway, his arm around Andy’s shoulders, clearly holding her up. Her face was drawn and ashen, but even as they watched the color seemed to be returning. Scully moved towards her, but Andy shook her head.
“I’m okay,” she gasped. “Just a little woozy for a minute.” She looked up at Spender. “I wouldn’t be here at all if it weren’t for Jeff.” Her strength appeared to be rapidly returning, but she didn’t seem to be inclined to step away from the former agent’s semi- embrace.
“What happened?” Mulder asked.
Spender shrugged. “They were about to shoot,” he said, and held up his free hand to reveal one of the gimlet weapons. “I did what I had to do. There’s no toxin once they’re dead.” He half-smiled, grimly. “Good thing I always carry a backup,” he said by way of explanation, since Scully had taken one of the weapons from him before.
“What is this place?” Scully’s voice drew Mulder’s attention, and he turned to see that she had stepped over to examine a cork bulletin board at the far end of the room. As he moved to join her, he saw that there was a Mercator projection of the world pinned to it, with a series of dots in various colors sprinkled across it, seemingly at random.
“Look at this,” Scully said. She raised one finger and indicated a bright red spot in northern Quebec, which Mulder quickly recognized as their current position.
“That’s this base,” he said.
Scully nodded. “And over here,” she said, her finger traveling to a spot in north central Siberia, “is another one.” She glanced up at Mulder, and he nodded his understanding. She continued, “But those are the only red ones.”
Mulder peered a little closer to the map, and saw that she was correct. Then he looked a little closer at the other dots — some were blue, and others were yellow, and there were small notations written next to each one. There was a pattern there, but he couldn’t quite see it.
“Ruskin Dam,” Scully said suddenly, pointing at one of the blue dots. Her finger moved, and she said, “Skyland Mountain.” It moved again. “Kazakhstan.”
“The lighthouses,” Mulder murmured. “The abduction points from last year.”
Scully nodded, and in the background Mulder was dimly aware of Spender giving Andy a quick explanation of the significance of those points. There were more blue dots, but Mulder was no longer interested in those; he knew what they were. Now he leaned even closer to the map and studied the yellow marks — and he felt the hair stand up on the back of his neck.
“Columbus,” he whispered. “Cedar Rapids. Springfield, Illinois. Eugene, Oregon. Wichita, Kansas.” His gaze flicked across the map; there were easily a dozen more such dots in the Americas alone, and more in Europe, Asia and Africa. The small notations, he now saw, were dates. Some had passed, but most — like the one for Wichita — appeared to lie in the next two weeks.
He looked down at Scully, and she nodded soberly. “This really is it, then,” she said. Not that either one of them had any real doubt at this point — but seeing it laid out like this with military precision made it seem even more real, even more menacing.
And at that moment alarm bells started ringing, sounding to Mulder like the crack of doom.
Scully spun on her heel as the alarms sounded. “Dammit!” she yelled, running for the still-open door, where she could see lights flashing outside in time to the ringing bells.
She slammed the door shut, then realized the lock was demolished and there was no way to secure it.
Suddenly Spender was at her side, holding a long, metal rod with rubber tips at each end. “Here,” he said, reaching for the door. “Don’t know what this is, but it was over in the corner. We can set this to brace the door shut. It’s pretty heavy-gauge steel; should do the job for a while, anyway, until we figure out what to do next.”
“There’s another door over here!” Andy’s voice rang out, and Scully turned to see the reporter easing the door open and carefully looking out. In seconds, Andy turned back and said, “Looks clear this way!”
Scully checked back to see that Spender had finished bracing the bar, then looked around for Mulder. She spotted him at a table across the room, shuffling through piles of papers, and hurried over to join him.
“Mulder, we’ve got to go,” she said urgently. “We have to find a way out of here, and fast.”
“There’s got to be something here, Scully,” he said, not slowing in his search. “There has to be some kind of evidence we can use.” He looked up at her, his eyes wild. “We can’t let them get away with this. Not again.”
Scully reached out a hand to cover one of his, holding it still. “They won’t, Mulder,” she said. “Not if we get out of here and get backup. But we have to go.”
Mulder grabbed for one of the stacks and shoved several sheets in the inside pocket of his jacket, then picked up a few more and turned toward the door, where Andy and Spender were waiting.
Andy glanced at the papers he held, then paused and looked closer. “Those look like … are they in Russian?”
Scully looked at the paper as Mulder lifted it toward Andy. “I think they all are,” he said, his voice weary. “I was trying to find something in English.”
Andy reached out and took the top sheet, studying the Cyrillic characters for a moment. Then she pointed at a word. “Proekt,” she said. “That’s ‘project.’” Her fingers moved to another word. “This one is ‘merchandise’ — tovar. And there’s something about Siberia.”
Scully felt her eyes widen. “You know Russian?” she asked.
“A little,” Andy said, her voice sounding distracted as she continued studying the paper. Then she shook her head. “What the hell am I doing?” she barked out, shoving the paper into her own pocket. “We can worry about that when we get out.”
She yanked the door open, and the four stepped out into another hallway with the same paneling-and-carpet design as the previous one. The floor still sloped down, but this hall was narrower, with dimmer lighting. Scully could see flashes in both directions, apparently the same alarm lights she saw from the other doorway, but from farther away.
“Which way?” Andy asked immediately.
“Left,” Mulder said, already heading that direction and calling back over his shoulder. “That should take us back toward the main entrance, at least.”
No one argued, simply taking off after him. They ran for a few hundred yards until they passed another set of double doors on the left, and Mulder pushed his way through, the others following — and then coming to a complete standstill.
They had reached the lower level Scully had glimpsed from above.
And they were surrounded by incubators.
Scully sucked in one long, hard breath at the sight. Directly in front of her was a fog-covered carrier filled with a green, jelly- like substance. Behind the glass, she could see the face of a woman, frozen into a mask of terror.
Before she could react, though — before she could even move — the entire room shook violently around them.
“Holy shit!” Andy exclaimed, fighting to keep her balance. “What the hell was that?”
“I don’t know,” Mulder answered, turning back toward the door, “but I’d say it’s our cue to get the hell out of here.”
He flung the doors open … and standing less than ten yards away from him was a man who had no face.
Mulder froze, and for a second he was tempted to slam the door and turn back into the main chamber. The faceless man was half-turned away, so that Mulder could see only his profile; he was holding a long metal object which Mulder could only assume was a weapon of some sort.
And as he watched, the man’s arms lifted, and a sheet of flame shot from the far end of the rod. The paneling on the wall caught fire almost immediately, the orange-red spreading quickly toward the ceiling.
Mulder had only a split-second to decide what to do. He knew Spender had indicated the Rebels might ultimately be on the same side, but somehow he doubted they were stopping to check IDs as they went. Any moment, the man would turn and see them, and it would all be over — and so the agent did the only thing he could do.
“Run!” he bellowed at the top of his lungs, hurling himself at the intruder. His shoulder struck the other man’s back with a satisfying thud.
The blow barely fazed the faceless man, who simply staggered a few steps forward. Mulder had barely regained his own footing when the other man turned in his direction, moving slowly, as if unsure of his surroundings.
And then Mulder felt a hand on his arm, pulling him back, and heard Spender’s voice in his ear. “Mulder!” the former agent yelled, then looked toward the faceless man and yelled again, something completely undecipherable and definitely no language Mulder recognized.
The faceless man paused, then seemed to nod, and Spender began backing down the hall, pulling Mulder along with him. Mulder kept his eyes on the faceless man for another few seconds, before turning and running in the other direction, Spender at his side.
“That’ll only work once,” Spender yelled as they ran, before Mulder could even ask what the former agent said. “So next time, we just run!”
Mulder nodded as he caught sight of the two women, who were waiting a few dozen yards further up the hall. Andy’s hand was on Scully’s arm, as if holding her in place, but when they saw Mulder and Spender approaching, they turned and ran as well, following the corridor as it continued to curve slightly down and to the left.
Within a few steps Mulder found himself in the lead once again. His gaze whipped from side to side, looking for a chance to turn aside, but nothing was presenting itself. The regularly spaced doors and particle board veneer which they had seen further up the passageway had given way to plain metal walls, with bare fluorescent light fixtures providing the only illumination.
The ship rocked and heaved once again, and Mulder staggered as the floor moved beneath his feet. He bounced off one wall, then managed to regain his balance as Andy grabbed one elbow to keep him from falling. He flashed the reporter a grateful nod, and then they were running again.
Finally he rounded a bend in the passageway — and was forced to skid to a halt as the path dead-ended into a cross-corridor.
Mulder looked left and right, then paused as his eyes caught a glimpse of movement along the floor. And he swore.
“What is it?” Scully asked breathlessly as she came to a stop next to him.
“Water,” he said briefly, and knelt down to dip his finger in the water that was rapidly streaming into the intersection from two of the three branches of the corridor. It was cold, icy cold, and when he brought his finger to his lips it tasted of salt.
“Seawater,” he clarified, climbing rapidly back to his feet and looking around. “We’ve got to find another way out.”
He glanced back the way they’d come, then down the cross-corridor to the left, where he glimpsed what looked like a faint reflection of the flashing lights they’d seen earlier.
He stepped further down the hall, and realized there was another passageway there, a short distance ahead. This one appeared to be straight and ramped up, and Mulder didn’t hesitate.
“Here!” he yelled, leading the way up.
The rampway ran about a hundred feet to yet another set of double doors, and Mulder hit the doors at a dead run, bursting through into the room beyond. Immediately, he slammed on the brakes and bellowed out, “SHIT!”
Scully was just steps behind Mulder, and a loud humming sound assaulted her as she pulled up at the doorway and took in the situation. They were apparently back on the same level of the main chamber where they’d been a few minutes earlier, several dozen yards further around the edge of the room. There were no carriers in this particular spot, though she could see them lined up in both directions, curving around the wall. More hung from some sort of conveyor system, suspended in rows across the chamber from near where they stood straight across to the other side.
As she took in all that, Scully also saw that a series of narrow catwalks interspersed with short staircases stretched from a few feet in front of them all the way across the room to a doorway several levels above them. That doorway, she realized, was the spot where they’d come in — and the area around it appeared to be deserted.
Mulder was moving forward by then, heading in that very direction, with one hand hovering near the railing running on either side of the metal catwalk as he moved. He glanced back, and Scully started after him automatically, knowing none of them would ever make themselves heard over the noise, which was gradually increasing in volume.
She checked behind her once to be sure Andy and Spender were falling in line behind her, then kept her gaze focused on Mulder’s back as they navigated the narrow walkway.
They were almost halfway across when they were jolted violently again, and Scully almost lost her footing, grabbing with both hands to the railings to keep her balance. She glanced back and saw that Spender had one hand wrapped around the railing and his other arm around Andy’s waist; he caught Scully’s eye and mouthed “Go!”
Scully did, whirling back around and continuing after Mulder. And then, above the rising hum, she heard a horrible scratching sound to her left, and she looked in that direction.
And wished she hadn’t.
The sound had apparently come from one of the carriers, which she could see were starting to thaw. And inside she could see a … thing … creature … scratching at the glass, as if trying to break out of its cage.
Scully felt as if her lungs were being sucked out of her body through a straw.
Then she was being yanked back, and she stumbled, feeling herself start to fall toward the oblivion below.
Until a strong pair of arms wrapped around her, pulling her away from the abyss.
Mulder cursed as he and Scully teetered on the brink. The incubator chamber was spread out below them, and in those few frantic seconds he saw figures moving among the carriers, with plumes of flame erupting in at least half a dozen places. He knew that if he could just windmill his arms he could probably save himself — but that would mean letting go of Scully.
Somehow he managed to twist and lunge, and finally the two partners were stumbling back onto more secure footing. “Watch that first step,” he muttered, Scully flashed him a reassuring smile, and then they were climbing toward the doorway again, with Andy and Spender close behind them.
It was definitely growing warmer in the chamber, and as Mulder moved he could see the reason: The fires he had noticed earlier down on the main floor were spreading, and the air was rapidly filling with smoke. From time to time the catwalk trembled, and the humming noise which had been present when they first entered the room was now a deafening roar.
At last they reached the far side of the chamber, and Mulder threw open the double doors leading to the garage area and their way out — only to be confronted by another of the faceless men.
This time it was Spender who acted, diving forward and careening into the man. Again the creature was only staggered, but again it was enough, and Mulder grabbed Scully’s arm and dragged her past the faceless man and into the room beyond.
At Scully’s command he froze in his tracks and spun about, to see that she was looking back in the direction from which they’d come — and in another instant he saw the reason why.
Spender was now collapsed on the floor of the passageway, the lower part of his body engulfed in flame. As Mulder watched, Andy ripped off her jacket and dove on the former agent, attempting to smother the fire; but in another instant it wasn’t going to matter, because the faceless man was raising his silver tube and preparing to fire.
Then there was a flash of motion, and Scully was literally climbing the man’s back. Her arm rose and fell twice, and the faceless man collapsed on the floor — leaving Scully standing behind him, holding an unsheathed gimlet in her hand.
Scully didn’t wait to see the results of her desperate stab, but just the fact that she wasn’t feeling the effects of the toxin told her she’d been on target. She immediately turned toward Spender, who was apparently resisting Andy’s efforts to help him to his feet.
“Go, go!” he growled out, his teeth clenched tightly against the pain. “Get out of here!”
“Like hell I will!” Andy spat back, pulling his arm across her shoulders and struggling to get him up off the floor.
Scully moved forward to help the pair, Mulder joining her from the other side, and together the three of them moved Spender out into the garage. The floor shuddered and shook beneath them, and Scully scanned the room with her eyes, intent on finding a quick way out.
Her gaze landed on a nearby Humvee, much like the one they’d come in on, and she pointed at it. “There!” she yelled. “Andy, you drive! Mulder, help me get Spender in the back!”
Mulder took over for Andy, half-carrying Spender into the back of the vehicle as Andy climbed in front and started the engine with the keys that hung from the ignition. Scully scrambled in the back after Spender, Mulder jumped in the front passenger seat, and they headed back toward the tunnel where they’d come in.
Scully tried not to notice the shaking of the ground or the shower of dirt and small rocks pouring from the corners of the tunnel’s ceiling. Instead, she focused her attentions on seeing if she could do anything for Spender.
The burns, she was relieved to see, did not look as bad as she’d feared. His jeans were charred away in spots, and the skin she could see was blistered, from mid-thigh down, but she didn’t see much to indicate deep tissue damage.
“Shit!” Andy’s voice drew Scully’s attention, and she looked toward the front to see a cascade of rocks falling across the width of the tunnel just ahead. Beyond, however, she could see the light of the early-morning sunrise.
“Hang on!” Andy yelled, and Scully saw the reporter’s hands tighten on the steering wheel as she maneuvered through the rockfall and over the pile of debris that had gathered on the floor. Once they were clear, Andy stepped on the gas, sending the Humvee careening up the tunnel and out into the daylight.
Andy didn’t slow down, continuing along the rutted road as fast as she could. The ground continued to roll and shake, but the effects diminished the farther away they got.
And then a deafening roar went up behind them, and Scully swung around in her seat to see plumes of smoke and flame shooting from the ground in the distance as explosion after explosion tore through the base.
Then the shock wave hit them, bouncing the Humvee up off the ground and sending the four of them up out of their seats. Scully grabbed for the edge of the seat with one hand and Spender’s arm with the other, holding on for dear life as Andy fought for, and regained, control of the vehicle.
Once they’d rolled to a stop, Scully simply sat and stared, wide- eyed, out the back window at the destruction. Thick, black smoke continued to billow from the ground, with a few bursts of orange still popping up now and then, but the explosions seemed to have ended.
It took her a minute to realize someone behind her was calling her name.
“Hey, Scully?” It was Mulder’s voice, and she turned slowly back around to look at him, making a vague attempt at cocking an eyebrow as she did.
In return, he offered her a wan smile and said, “Your turn to buy.”
Baltimore, MD Monday, May 31, 1999 Memorial Day 9:47 p.m.
Mulder let the door swing shut behind him and stepped into Margaret Scully’s backyard.
He paused for a moment at the foot of the steps to allow his eyes to adjust to the dark. The night sky was crystal clear, and overhead the stars shone down like a thousand tiny diamonds — and Mulder found himself thinking back on the early morning batting practice he had shared with Scully a few weeks before. He smiled wistfully. That had been fun, and it occurred to him — not for the first time — that the two of them didn’t have nearly enough fun in their lives.
Nor was that likely to change in the near future, he reflected with a sigh. After their return from northern Quebec, two weeks before, he and Scully had been inundated by a flood of paperwork. They had thrown themselves into the chore with grim determination, recognizing its necessity even as they complained of the tedium — and by the end of the first week it had finally been done. Every observation and experience had been meticulously recorded, and for once the two partners were in perfect accord, down to the last detail.
They had filed their report with Skinner on the afternoon of Friday the 21st, and returned to their office to wait for the reaction. Ten days later they were still waiting, and the silence was becoming deafening.
Mulder sighed again, and he moved a few feet further out into the yard. In retrospect he knew he should have been expecting something like this — but this time he had been so sure. They had been so sure. But once again he had apparently underestimated the capacity of official Washington to ignore, suppress, and evade facts which it did not wish to acknowledge.
The only really good news during the past two weeks had been the official return of Jeffrey Spender to Washington. Mulder and Scully had been a bit suspicious about the former agent’s possible knowledge of or involvement in the Rebels’ appearance at Deception, but he seemed to be as upset as they at apparently having been used by the Rebels the entire time. The fact that he had saved Mulder’s and Scully’s lives more than once — and had been willing to die so they, and Andy, could escape the base — also stood as strong points in his favor.
And so Spender had arrived in Washington via air ambulance five days before, having spent the previous ten days in a burn unit at the U.S. Army hospital at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. He was now ensconced in a private room at Georgetown University Medical Center — with Andy Baker spending nearly every minute of every day by his side.
Mulder had to smile a bit at the thought of the reporter — former reporter, actually. Andy had turned in her resignation the day after Mulder and Scully had finished their official reports, flying back to Columbus to pick up what she couldn’t live without and make arrangements to sell the rest. She was ostensibly staying with Scully, although she’d been sleeping every night on a cot in Spender’s room, and eating her meals in the hospital cafeteria.
Andy’s commission was soon to go the way of her newspaper job. She’d been up for a new contract anyway, and had simply refused. She’d told Mulder and Scully she doubted they’d allow her to stay at this point anyway, but it didn’t matter; her own conscience wouldn’t let her continue, not with everything she’d learned.
She did have a job, though, at least temporarily. The Lone Gunmen had asked her to write a cover story on the case, based on “anonymous sources” to protect herself, Mulder and Scully, of course. In fact, if the Gunmen succeeded in getting some key funding, they might be able to offer her a more permanent position.
The first female Lone Gunman? Mulder could only smile at the thought.
Mulder was pulled from his reverie by the sound of the door opening and closing behind him, and he knew without looking that it was Scully. A few seconds later she slipped her hand into his, and then he felt the comforting warmth of her body coming to rest against his side. And for a moment the two partners simply stood together in silence and looked up at the stars.
“It’s Memorial Day,” she said at last, her voice quiet and reassuring — and with just a hint of wonder in it.
“Yes, it is,” he replied, his own voice equally quiet.
“We’re still here,” she added after another moment.
“Yes, we are,” he said, and he slid his arm around her shoulders and drew her just a little closer to his side.
“Skinner just called,” Scully said abruptly. “His contact at the NSA finally came through with the satellite data we requested.” She paused, and Mulder nodded his understanding — but still he did not look down at her. And when she continued speaking her voice sounded as if she were reading from an official report.
“The satellite photos reportedly show what Skinner’s contact described as ‘a significant thermal event’ in north central Siberia,” she said. “This occurred on the date we specified and was roughly centered around the coordinates we gave them. The NSA’s analysts have evaluated this ‘event’ as a forest fire, with a confidence level of five.”
Mulder laughed mirthlessly and shook his head. “Forest fire,” he murmured. “Where’s Smokey Bear when you really need him?”
Scully slipped her arm around his waist, but for a moment she remained quiet. Finally, very softly: “Mulder, we both know that report is bogus. But what can we do about it? At least the bee attacks have stopped.”
“For the moment, anyway,” he replied, making no effort to hide the bitterness in his voice. “But who knows when they might start up again? And there’s not a damned thing we can do about it. As usual.”
She made no reply to that, but simply moved a little closer and tightened her arm around his waist — and again the two of them stood together in silence. And when Scully finally spoke again, her voice was so soft he could barely hear her.
“Mulder? I was thinking I might like to go back to Washington tonight after all.”
Mulder felt his eyebrows go up slightly in surprise, and for the first time since she had joined him outside he glanced down at her. She was looking back up at him, her expression an odd mix of hope and anxiety — and Mulder had a sudden jolt of intuition as to what she was about to say.
“Why is that, Scully?” he asked, his voice even quieter than hers had been. He was almost certain he knew the answer already, but he desperately needed for her to say it. And after just the briefest of hesitations, she did.
“Because I’d like for us to make love tonight. If that’s okay with you?”
All other thoughts and emotions were abruptly swept away as Mulder felt a sudden rush of passion at actually hearing those words at long last. He’d dreamed of this moment for so long; it was hard to believe that it was finally happening. And after all that waiting, all that denial and frustration and fear and pain and horror and loneliness, there could be only one answer.
“Yes, Scully,” he murmured, bending low to kiss her. “I’d like that very much.” And then he captured her lips with his, and desperately tried to imagine a world that had no monsters in it.
Washington, DC Georgetown University Medical Center 10:04 p.m.
Andy Baker tossed a quick grin in the direction of the night duty nurse as she approached Jeffrey Spender’s room, right across the hall from the nursing station. The staff had gotten to know her rather well during the weekend; the 45 minutes she’d just taken for dinner was the longest she’d been away from him in that entire time.
She readied herself with a smile as she pushed the door open, but when she did, the smile disappeared in a instant.
The room was deserted, Jeff’s bed empty, the IV needle hanging loose and dripping onto the floor.
Her hand was on the nurse’s call button before she even realized she’d moved, and then she headed for the locker in the corner. Jeff had been wearing hospital scrubs off and on in the past two days, instead of the standard paper gown, and a clean set had been hanging in the closet.
The closet was empty.
The nurse came in just then, and Andy whirled on her. “Where is he?” she demanded. “Who came to get him? Who let him leave?”
The nurse’s eyes were wide as she stared at the empty bed. “No one,” she said insistently. “He was here when I came by a half-hour ago. No one’s been to see him. I’ve been right outside the whole time.”
Andy was at the window by then, looking outside. The room was on the third floor, but the section right outside was two stories high, so the roof came up directly below the window.
And the window was cracked open about a half-inch.
“Dammit!” Andy slapped her palm against the wall next to the window in frustration. “Jeff, what the hell is going on?”
“Miss Baker?” The nurse spoke from behind her, and Andy spun around to see the woman holding a slip of paper in her hand.
“This has your name on it, Miss Baker,” she said.
Andy took the paper and pulled it open quickly, her eyes scanning the few short lines.
“I’m sorry to do this, but it’s the only way. I’ll be in touch as soon as I can. Please don’t try to find me; it’s too dangerous.”
It was signed simply, “Jeff.”
Fury and frustration washed over her as she finished reading. “Dammit,” she repeated. “What the fuck is he doing?”
She crumpled the paper in her fist, turning her back on the nurse and looking out the window again.
“This isn’t over, Jeff,” she said, determination hardening her tone. “Not by a longshot.”
And she turned her eyes up to stare into the beauty of the stars.
THE END OF THE WHOLE STORY
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