Pillar of Salt by Nascent

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Pillar of Salt

Additional Pillar of Salt Dustjacket by Kristena
Additional Dustjacket by Kristena

From: Nascent II <>

Date: Thu, 21 Apr 2011 11:33:29 -0400

Subject: Submission: Pillar of Salt

Source: direct

Title – Pillar of Salt

Author – Nascent

E-Mail address –

Category – XA

Rating – R (adult situations)

Spoilers – through Fight the Future

Keywords – Mulder/Scully Friendship OR Mulder/Scully Romance (your pick)

Summary – Mulder talks Scully into accompanying him on a long, strange trip. Paradox ensues.

1999 Spooky’s Winner: Outstanding X-File (2nd), Outstanding Novel (3rd)

Timeline – Matters very little, but is probably winter of 1998-99 (s6). However, for the author it’s fall of 1998, pre-season six, so please forgive any inconsistencies with that season.

~~~~~

“Pillar of Salt”

~~~~~

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS:

I am one lucky little Nascent; I have an editing team who are not only dedicated and thorough readers, but writers as well. This story would not be what you’re reading were it not for them. Please take a second to read these paragraphs if you’re going to read the story.

Dahlak and Flywoman both came back on board despite having worked with me on T&P; they knew exactly what they were getting into and for that I thank them deeply. Dahlak lent her sharp eye and unflinching criticism to every chapter, making me think very carefully about the motivations of every character and the realism behind their voices, as well as the tempo of the plot. In particular, she helped me iron out the ending, which was very rough the first time around. She has an unfailing instinct for pacing and populating a story, and I thank her for sharing it with me.

Flywoman has had a busy few months but that didn’t stop her from reminding me of the difference between natural and synthetic ligand in naming ion channels, and thus she became my official science editor for this piece, keeping it close enough to reality that a scientist can smile and yet simple enough that a layman can too. I hope. Without Fly, the climax would’ve been completely different as well—I was stuck in a narrative that just wasn’t working no matter how I tried to get around it, but she snapped her fingers and said, “change the tense!” and the solution was clear.

Jordan and Marguerite not only beta-read large portions of this fic, telling me frankly what worked and what didn’t, what surprised and what was expected, but also provided ubiquitous cheerleading throughout its creation, without which I might never have finished it, especially given the half-finished X-File I trashed a couple of months ago, upheaval in real life, and all the barnyard antics. Thank you, ladies.

Finally, it’s to Justin Glasser that I owe any polish in the themes or text of this piece. He didn’t know what he was doing when he sent me back that first chapter with a comment on every paragraph: I snatched him up and reeled him in right away, before he could figure out how extensively I was going to use him. He was unafraid to be honest, never coddling, and he taught me volumes about the power of suggestion over the explicit—a tough lesson for a science geek like me to learn. Now I feel compelled to go back and rewrite every pre-Justin piece I’ve written using his guidelines. Further, the Scully first-person voice as well as the M/S angsty interactions would NEVER have worked without his help. Never. Justin, you have a mastery of understated intimacy between these two that shines in all your work; thanks for helping it glow a little brighter in mine. Your facility with language and precise knowledge of what should NOT be said is superbly, vastly, wonderfully appreciated. Did I mention Justin hates adverbs?

If you enjoy this story, go check out work by the above authors; without their contributions it wouldn’t be what it is.

NOTES:

The science in this piece, like that of most X-Files science, is derived from real principles that have been distorted. If you’re curious, what’s wrong and what isn’t will be explained in notes at the end of the piece, but don’t believe everything you read.

DISCLAIMER:

Damn, I’ve run out of clever things to say here. So: The X-Files, Mulder and Scully are the property of Chris Carter, 20th Century Fox and 1013. No profit made, no infringement intended.

Thanks, Jordan.

~~~~~

Prologue

When Mulder asked me to spend the weekend with him at an old friend’s ski place near Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, the invitation rolled off his tongue with such well-executed carelessness that I almost said “Sure, Mulder,” before I even realized what he’d asked.

Mulder does that. He sneaks up on you when your guard is down, and, like a stealthy virus, doesn’t signal his intentions until he’s fully colonized. I keep thinking one day I will acquire immunity, but it never happens.

“Su—” I started, barely looking up, then performed a classic double-take. “What did you say?”

Mulder smirked and leaned back in his chair, watching me from across the room. “You heard me, Scully,” he answered. I could almost hear him filing my reaction away for later entertainment on his mental VCR, and it irked me unaccountably.

But this was not a battle he could win. I schooled my features into my best G-woman stare, and let it never be said that I don’t know the effect of that expression on testicles. Mulder flinched, and I felt avenged. “What’s in Stroudsburg?”

“Someone I want to talk to,” he answered, rapping his pen against his left knuckles.

Ah, here it comes, I thought. Not that I’d suspected for a moment that it would be anything else. I waited, my silence an obvious signal for him to continue.

After a pause, he did, but I knew he was leaving something out because he kept staring at that damn pen, unable to

meet my eyes. “A friend recommended I go talk to this man—he’s well-respected in the parascientific community. And Keith Fields—you remember Fields from Quantico?—he’s always said I could use his condo up there. It’s supposed to be gorgeous this time of year.”

Contemplating the wet, brown slush that passed for snow outside, I pursed my lips into a thin, suspicious line. “So why are you asking me?”

“Mulder feigned injury, but it wasn’t very effective as he was still unable to meet my eyes. “Well, I want to hear what you think of this guy. And I figured you could use a weekend away.”

I blinked. “I’m away virtually every other weekend. With you.”

I thought I had managed to convey, in not so many words, that vacations—if that’s what he really had in mind—should be from each other as well as work. But he missed the point, or pretended to, waving it away with a dismissive flip of the pen. “Not a case,” he said, as if that should explain everything. Then: “Come on, Scully. You’re always complaining that I leave you out of things like this. So now I’m asking you: do you want to come with me?”

“Just to talk to some paranormal ‘scientist?’”

“Yeah,” he replied with a shrug.

So I agreed. I knew he was lying, but I figured it was an innocuous lie.

Throughout the week, Mulder was predictably if charmingly coy about the weekend. He didn’t mention it again for several days, and I followed his lead, assuming he felt as absurd and awkward about it as I did. Agents Mulder and Scully chase killers, question suspects, buy plane tickets, hunt for aliens, rent cars, save one another’s lives and on occasion cry in one another’s arms, but they do not spend weekends together in ski condos. I had deliberated and rejected half a dozen believable excuses to gracefully back out of the increasingly uncomfortable prospect when at last he brought it up again on Thursday.

He suggested we leave work early the following day to make the drive. When I asked him again about the man we were going to see, suggested he at least provide me with some background to review, he only offered a mysterious smile and told me to “Wait and see.”

“I’m not in the mood to play games, Mulder,” I told him flatly.

His immediate expression of contrition was genuine. With his patented earnestness he touched my arm and said: “I don’t mean to play games. Just—just trust me, okay?”

I lowered my eyelids, acquiescing with a brush of my fingers against his. I did trust him, of course I did. Only later did I realize that the game hadn’t stopped, and, as always, we played by his rules.

The drive was peaceful and the condo beautiful if a little small. Well-hewn peaks frosted with snow and sprinkled with evergreen hemmed us in, abrogating the need for any decor other than windows. Mulder insisted I take the bedroom, and after we’d relaxed some from the drive, we went to dinner down in Analomink. We shared a bottle of wine and spoke very little, content that for once there was no investigation to discuss.

To his credit, he did finally tell me that our appointment with Dr. Arthur von Deer was scheduled for the following morning.

His behavior was suspiciously affectionate—or perhaps it was the wine—as we returned to the condo; he walked with his arm threaded through mine and held my hand as he drove. In retrospect, this should have set off warning bells, but I was too comfortable at the time. I was only a little disconcerted, abstractly worried about what to do if this morphed into something I wasn’t really ready for later on that evening. But the warmth of his hand, the cold, snow-laden air and the freedom of our caselessness was enough to keep me from worrying much.

When we returned, we built the obligatory roaring fire and played a game of chess on a cardboard set we’d discovered in the closet. Mulder and I have surprisingly similar chess strategies: we are both unwilling to sacrifice pieces, even when such action would be advantageous. Almost, I speculated, as if we’re both unwilling to make even a pawn suffer capture under our respective commands. It makes for a long game.

I won, but not easily. We both fell asleep sometime after that, in the middle of a sparse conversation about the reliability of evidence in animal behavioral science. He sprawled across the couch and I stretched out on the floor, my back against the couch’s base, my head tipped back and turned so that I could watch his face and feel his warmth. He argued, predictably, that we could perform meaningful analysis on animal communities, while I cautioned that such studies are too much colored by anthropocentric worldviews, and that since the system is almost impossible to perturb, observation would never be sufficient evidence. But neither of us invested much, and the silences were long enough for us to finally fall asleep, Mulder’s fingers wound loosely in my hair. I woke late in the night, threw a blanket over his lanky form and pressed my palm fondly against his cheek, soft enough that he didn’t even stir. Then I crept away to the bed.

At the time, I chastised myself for having questioned my partner’s motives. I was very glad I’d come.

Between the chess game and the argument, I’d asked him again: “So you brought me up here just to talk to this paranormal scientist?”

“Yeah,” he’d said, staring into the fire, again unable to meet my eyes.

I knew he was lying; I just didn’t know how big a lie it was.

~~~~~

Chapter 1

Where I Stood

10:02 a.m.

Saturday

Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania

Saint Luke Hospital was an unexpectedly bustling facility for what I’d anticipated to be a backwater clinic. Its physical therapy and orthopedic surgery departments were nationally recognized, which was to be expected of the only major hospital in a snowskiing community. But it also claimed 650 beds and reasonably highly regarded residency/internship programs in internal medicine and emergent medicine affiliated with two universities.

I learned all of this in a two-minute perusal of the usual cardstock pamphlet I picked up at the door, the purpose of which was presumably to make me wonder why I, a physician, hadn’t previously heard of their program.

I tossed the pamphlet in a garbage can in front of the elevator doors.

“Scully, we can’t exactly be ourselves for this,” Mulder said then, looking at the lights above the elevator instead of at me. “I told him my name’s George Hammond and you’re my wife: Dana.”

“Mulder….” I warned. I recognized the names as one of the multiple aliases Frohike et al. had painstakingly constructed for us should we ever need to disappear, but his use of them today reawakened every dormant suspicion.

His worried sidelong glance to evaluate my expression did nothing to assuage my concern. But then the occupied elevator arrived and there was no more time to talk, as he’d no doubt intended.

Dr. von Deer’s office perched on the fourth floor in a secluded wing labeled “Clinic” which hung off the bulk of the hospital like an undergrown appendage. A few outpatient consultations were underway in the hallway’s lighted offices, but Dr. von Deer’s light was off.

After a glance at me to assure himself of my complicity (I refused to look at him), Mulder rapped sharply on the door.

An elderly male voice from within answered. “Come in!”

We did.

The little man who greeted us could have had a role in any movie as the perfect grandfather, right down to the bright, bespectacled eyes, the male-pattern baldness fringed with white, and the permanently fixed smile.

“Hello!” he cried, circumnavigating his desk and extending an enthusiastic age-spotted hand. Mulder shook it. “Mr. Hammond?”

“George,” Mulder corrected him, and I looked out the window. “And this is my wife, Dana.”

I offered my hand to the little doctor, and he took it but instead of shaking it he bent his dry lips to the backs of my fingers. “Dana,” the man repeated reverently, as I deliberated with a wide-eyed look at Mulder whether to be flattered or offended.

Before I could decide, the little man popped up again, favored me with a raucous grin, and quipped: “You’re too good for him, I can tell already.” He turned to Mulder, who watched with ill-concealed amusement. “You know that, don’t you?”

Mulder grinned. “That’s what she tells me,” he replied, with a significant glance at me that I knew was intended to make me hear a different answer.

And damn him, it worked.

We settled into the two taupe chairs facing the desk, and Dr. von Deer returned to his seat, still sporting that undeflatable smile. I had to smile back; everything about the little man pushed childhood buttons that memorialized my own grandfather.

“I hate to do this,” von Deer said, “but I need to see two forms of identification from both of you. To make sure you’re not reporters, you understand.”

Mulder half stood to reach into his back pocket. “How will that prove we’re not?” he asked.

“Well, it won’t,” the doctor admitted. “Not really. But I did search the Internet and Newsbank for your names before you arrived and didn’t find anything other than your address, so this is the best I can do.”

I snorted softly at the boys’ ingenuity. I didn’t know George and Dana had an address. I wondered where we lived.

Mulder handed two I.D. cards across the desk and flashed me an expectant glance.

I spread my hands. “I didn’t bring my wallet,” I lied, with more pleasure than I should have permitted myself. My wallet was actually in my purse. Right next to my gun.

“Oh,” Mulder said, unfazed. “Hey! I think I still have your driver’s license from when you asked me to carry it last night.” He made a show of rummaging through his wallet.

“She still gets carded,” he confided to von Deer as he produced a card and handed it across the table. Then he snuck a triumphant grin at me. I ignored it.

While von Deer peered at the plastic cards, I casually inspected the office. The only light came from without, and was dimly grey. An expensive-looking stereo sat atop the two filing cabinets. An entire wall hosted bookshelves, and the polished teak desk boasted several official-looking stacks of papers. A Gateway 3000 perched on the left hand side, and a family picture featuring a far younger Arthur von Deer with a smiling wife, daughter and grandson (presumably) decorated the wall beside his framed diplomas.

I squinted at the diplomas hanging over Mulder’s head, but I couldn’t make out the writing.

“So,” von Deer said finally, satisfied that our fake I.D.‘s were not fake as he returned them to my partner, “I’m sure you have questions.”

At the time, the phrasing struck me as odd, but Mulder didn’t let me dwell on my suspicion for long.

“Well, yes,” he said. “As I told you, Pamela McGinnis and I have been friends since childhood, and she told me about her enlightening experience with you.”

Pamela McGinnis? I didn’t recognize the name.

“Yes,” von Deer beamed. “Pamela had wonderful results. Wonderful. Very encouraging. I’m glad she referred you.”

“She told me a lot,” Mulder continued, “but I do have a few questions.”

“Of course,” von Deer soothed. “Go on.”

Mulder leaned back in his chair and propped one ankle on his knee. “Well, to start with, how did you get interested in NDE research?”

NDE? I thought.

Dr. von Deer nodded his encouragement like a teacher pleased with his pupil’s insight, though I saw nothing outstanding. “Good question. Not exactly something they teach you about in med school. But did you know that twenty-one percent of physicians have had at least one patient claim to have had a near death experience? It’s not

as uncommon as you might think.”

And suddenly I began to understand.

“So a patient piqued your interest?” Mulder prodded.

“No,” von Deer admitted, and a grey cast slid over his features. “Though I had had one patient claim it. But the impetus of my study was the death of my daughter and her family.”

I blinked; I had not expected that.

“They were killed in a car accident,” the old man continued. “Sixteen years ago. My daughter, her husband, and their four-year-old son, Peter.”

“I’m sorry,” Mulder said, and I heard the honesty in his voice and his regret at having asked—Mulder’s ever-reliable capacity for probing others’ pain. “But why—?”

“Why did this interest me in NDEs?” von Deer smiled gently. “Don’t worry, George. The memories are old and not as difficult now. But I became interested because my daughter and I, we had some unresolved issues between us, and the guilt over her unexpected death was very painful for me. I began to seek a way to tell her I was sorry. I met Timothy Leary at a conference in 1984, and he suggested some people I could talk to. Ever since then, I’ve been perfecting the technique.”

“Technique for what?” I interrupted, including Mulder in my alarmed glance.

“Why, for inducing near death experiences, of course,” von Deer explained, surprised I didn’t know.

“And how do you do that?” I drawled, aware that I had slipped into a more severe investigator’s tone than Dana Hammond should be capable of.

“Well, I’ve already explained this to your husband,” von Deer said helpfully, “but I’d be happy to explain it to you too, if he hasn’t.”

“I—” Mulder started, but I silenced him with a glare.

“Please do,” I said to Arthur von Deer.

“Well,” von Deer said, all brisk good-naturedness again, “you see, a person experiencing an NDE usually exhibits depressed neural function and their heart stops. I know that sounds severe, but it’s not quite the same as death. All of our cells, but especially our nerve and cardiac cells, have small, tunnel-like proteins called ‘ion channels’ in their membranes, which is how electrical current is carried through our body, making our muscles work and making thought—”

“I know what ion channels are,” I fairly growled, no longer unbalanced by his friendly appearance. I knew now this man was dangerous. “What do you do? Introduce a hallucinogen? Or just stop the heart?”

“Well, I’m getting to that,” the old man said. “First, I anesthetize the patient with a mild opiate. Then I inject a drug which stops the heart.”

“What drug?” I asked. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Mulder. He watched me impassively.

“Well, it’s a chemical, actually. Potassium chloride.”

“Which is used in lethal injections,” I noted. “For a reason: it’s lethal.”

Now it was Dr. von Deer’s turn to blink in surprise. “Are you familiar with the drug, Dana?” he asked me.

I chose not to answer. “How do you sap up the ion imbalance to restart the heart?” I asked.

“I inject a chelating cocktail to complex the ions and then defibrillate,” he said quickly. “It’s perfectly safe, I assure you. Most subjects experience a little disorientation for an hour or so afterwards. They may feel a tingling in their lips or loss of sensation in their limbs, and they may experience defective blood clotting if injured, but all those symptoms can be abrogated by chewing on Tums or Rolaids.”

Why are you assuring me? I wanted to ask, but I feared I already knew the answer and Mulder’s conspicuous silence confirmed it.

“Tums?” I repeated.

“High in calcium,” von Deer explained.

I nodded, understanding. “It saturates the chelator.”

His lower lip twitched nervously and he glanced at Mulder. “I thought you said your wife was a homemaker,” he said through a forced chuckle.

With his usual easy smoothness, Mulder answered before I could register my…I suppose the nice word would be ‘surprise.’ “Dana is a nurse,” he said. “But she’s taken

something of a sabbatical the last two years to paint.”

I hoped the inevitable memory of Amy Cassandra he’d just evoked had been an unconscious association, though such a prospect wasn’t very reassuring. Nonetheless, von Deer seemed to relax, the effect Mulder had obviously desired.

“Oh, how nice!” he dimpled at me. “I wish I could do something like that myself. Take time off, that is. But my research…. I must say, I’m impressed, Dana. I know few nurses—or doctors for that matter—who remember their biochemistry so well. My assistant, who also happens to be my lovely wife, is also a nurse and another such exception. I can’t wait for you to meet her.”

I smiled back but not with my eyes. “But why,” I said carefully, “would people want to do this?”

He blinked again, confused, glanced at Mulder and I was certain what was coming.

“Well,” he said, flustered when my ‘husband’ didn’t speak. “People have been trying to induce NDEs for years just for the experience, for the same reason they try sky-diving, I imagine. Some people have used a method similar to mine; others use drugs like ketamine or LSD, and fighter pilots claim to be able to reproduce the phenomenon with high-G dives. Several dozen researchers around the world claim to

be able to induce it (quietly of course, but they boast a large clientele), and many important names have studied it—Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, George Richie, Raymond Moody, Timothy Leary. But the reason people come to me, as I’m sure your husband has told you, is that a special feature of the NDE I offer is the chance to communicate with loved ones on the other side.”

“The other side,” I repeated, skepticism coloring my tone. Timothy Leary—now, there’s a credential only Mulder wouldn’t back away from. “How do you do that, Dr. von Deer?”

“Call me Arthur,” he insisted. “It’s a fascinating thing. I think it tells us a lot spiritually as well as scientifically, and one day when I can publish my findings without fear of reprisal, many fields will be very interested. I’m a neurologist, you see. I spent several

years doing basic neuroscience back in the pioneering days of electrophysiology, and I’ve kept up with the work ever since. Can we ever cease to be amazed that something as small and disparate as the millions of cells that comprise our brain can actually contain our unified consciousness?

“This problem has fascinated me all my life. But only after the death of my daughter did I begin to wonder exactly what that meant. Is the brain the source of consciousness, or is it merely a transmitter? While I once believed the former, the incredible complexity—not to mention the incredible mental leap from chimp to human with very little cellular or genetic change—argues against that. Are you following me?”

Mulder hid a smirk behind his hand, but I simply nodded.

Arthur continued enthusiastically. “Now I’ve come to

believe the brain is simply the wire that connects our

consciousness to our bodies. How well-developed and how well-trained one’s brain is determines how much of our true consciousness, which is vast, can be accessed. This theory goes a long way toward explaining intelligence, emotions and even reported psychic abilities, don’t you think?”

Mulder waggled his eyebrows at me but I ignored him, listening closely to the old man.

“Though nerve cells die with bodies, consciousness—our souls—do not. This is widely accepted by almost all religions throughout time, though they may argue about an afterlife versus reincarnation. I have come to believe this is true, and by manipulating the brain in specific ways, we can follow the path of our consciousness to its source, a place where all souls mingle and distance is immaterial. To do this, your soul must be ‘tricked,’ in a manner of speaking, into believing your body is dead. Just before stopping the heart, though, I inject phencyclidine, which releases magnesium in N-methyl-D-aspartate, or NMDA, channels—”

“Long-term potentiation,” I breathed, suddenly understanding and torn between fascination and horror. “LTP.”

The doctor looked inordinately pleased. “You’ve heard of it?”

“Yes,” I said, with a glance at Mulder, who watched me now with interest. “It’s a relatively newly described phenomenon where a single nerve cell is polarized for a very long time, on the order of seconds.” For my partner’s benefit, I added: “By polarized, I mean that the cell is conducting electric current, as when it transmits an impulse. But in LTP, it keeps going. Researchers think it may be a clue to how things are learned or remembered, but as far as I know it’s only been seen in hippocampus brain slices.”

“You mean, the cell may be storing information somehow?” Mulder asked.

“Essentially,” I replied. “But it’s probably not just binary—that is, each cell being ‘off’ or ‘on’. LTP may be an analog, or flexible, code in a multidimensional matrix where each cell represents a point. The output of that matrix may be what we call memory.”

“That’s right, Dana, I’m very impressed,” von Deer said, beaming. “Dissociation of glutamate from NMDA receptors in an isolated hippocampus seem to trigger LTPs, and the EEG we see when we administer NMDA to patients suggests that it may have the same effect on a whole person.”

“Don’t the subjects experience memory loss?” I asked. “You could be erasing information in the matrix that’s already there by inducing random LTPs.”

“I worried about that myself,” von Deer admitted, “which is why we did many trials with animals and then with both myself and Eleanor—my wife—before we tried it with anyone else. The time we’re talking about here is less than five minutes, well under the time in which protein kinase activity is required. And we’ve never seen any evidence of change in brain function, which suggests strongly to me that LTP is just a mechanism for the brain to access the memories, which are actually stored in one’s consciousness. Again, we must learn to view the brain as a mere transmitter for consciousness.”

I frowned. “So you, as you say, ‘trick’ the brain into thinking the body is dead, then the soul is able to travel back to its source. Why do you induce LTPs as well?”

He held up a wizened finger. “Because this single difference in the near death experience, the NDE, allows the traveler to meet with the souls of loved ones—both living and dead. But mainly dead because the souls of the living are occupied here—in the place from whence all souls come. What researchers call the memory function of LTP may just be the ability of the soul to access this space, while the NDE merely permits the start of the journey. This way, one can experience both without dying. Do you understand?”

“I understand perfectly,” I said calmly. “I understand

that you’re risking the lives of hapless volunteers with quackery that no institutional review board would ever allow. How much do you charge them?”

“Now, Ms. Hammond,” von Deer chided. “I wouldn’t do that. As I told you, I’ve undergone the procedure many times myself and my wife has undergone it many more times—probably scores of times. It’s perfectly safe, and although I can’t guarantee the results, I’ve been able to make peace with my daughter and grandson, and over half my subjects have likewise had success. And surely you know I don’t charge anything. I’m performing research. I follow all guidelines of informed consent. All I ask is to be able to keep the data, anonymized of course, and I ask also for your discretion.”

“Because you’ll lose your license if the AMA heard about this?” I demanded. Mulder reached out to touch my arm but I shrugged away. “Who pays for this?”

“Private individuals,” the man said in a tone meant to impress us with its solemnity. “You’d be surprised.”

“I bet I wouldn’t,” I muttered, remembering Gibson Praise.

“I assure you,” he said again, “it’s perfectly safe. I’ll be happy to have you in the room with us the whole time—in fact I asked your husband to bring you because we believe it makes the return trip easier if a loved one is there to coax the subject back and be there when he awakens.”

My worst fears confirmed, I rounded on Mulder, unwilling to abandon our charade but making him see the hurt, horror and shock in my eyes. He looked away.

Was I supposed to be grateful he hadn’t ditched me this time? Because gratitude was the last thing I was feeling. I had a sudden, bizarre image of Mulder lying on a granite slab beneath a heavy black pall, and I knew he was dead but then his eyes snapped open and he said: “Scully, I’m so glad you’re here!”

I gave a violent shake of my head as if that could dislodge the vision from my memory, but it clung there, an uninvited and stubborn guest.

I felt his hand on my forearm. “Are you okay?” the real Mulder asked.

What the hell kind of question was that?

“I can see,” von Deer said, “that you two need a little more time to talk about this. I’ll step downstairs for a bit of coffee. Would you like something? The room won’t be ready until noon anyway.”

“I’d like some coffee,” Mulder said; his voice was dry and a little cracked. “Dana?”

“No,” I said, suddenly resentful at the sound of that name. I barely noticed as von Deer shuffled out of the room.

The anger boiled in me, expanding my chest and bubbling at the underside of my skin. I surged gracelessly out of my chair and, with a deep breath to recover control, stalked over to the bookcase, as far from Mulder as I could get.

I heard his voice, strained and soft. “Dana,” he said, and I almost snapped at him for calling me that, but then realized he feared a tape recorder, and his fear was probably well-founded.

Remembering the stereo I’d observed earlier on the far wall, I moved to it and pushed ‘play.’ Billie Holliday’s raw and lilting voice tumbled forth, and I cranked up the volume, moved back toward Mulder, who nodded with approval.

“Scully…” he murmured, leaning down toward me to whisper over the music.

I cut him off with a raised hand. “What the hell were you thinking, Mulder?” I hissed. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

To his credit, he looked miserable. “I knew you wouldn’t go along with it,” he admitted.

“Then how could you do it?” I demanded.

“Would you rather I not have told you?” he whispered, too passionate to achieve the reasonability he was aiming for. “Would you rather I just called you up on Sunday and said, ‘Oh, hey, Scully, I just had a near death experience and talked to my father, what do you think about that?’”

“Don’t you mean, would I rather the hospital called me to tell me you were dead or brain-damaged for life?” I stared into his hazel eyes, daring him to guess which was worse. “Was this what last night was all about? Something to remember you by, ‘just in case?’”

He looked surprised. “Wha—?” he began, then comprehension dawned in his eyes and was quickly replaced by something unrecognizable. “Jesus, Scully. No.” His injured tone suggested I’d just damaged a memory as precious to him as it had been to me, but at the moment I didn’t care.

“The sky is blue, and high above,” sang Billie with enthusiasm. “The moon is new, and so is love….”

I tore my eyes away from his and looked steadily out the window at the grey wintry clouds. “It’s bullshit, Mulder,” I told him finally.

“Near death experiences featuring a light at the end of a long tunnel have been described for over a millennium in every culture,” Mulder replied. “There has to be something to them.”

“There is,” I snapped. “Lack of oxygen. When circulation ceases, the retina is one of the first organs starved for oxygen, and nerve cells start firing at random. There are more nerve cells in the most sensitive part of the retina—the fovea, so it appears to the subject that a bright spot is generated. That’s why it happens to fighter pilots in dives—rapid pressure changes deprive the blood of oxygen.

“Further,” I continued, “endorphin production increases dramatically in the last minutes or even hours before death, as a feedback response to quell pain. It’s like a natural buzz—the subject feels peaceful and cogent, though he probably isn’t. It’s easy to imagine that he’s reviewing his life, another common feature of NDEs.”

“How—”

“How do I know so much?” I snapped. “I read up on it about a year ago, when I spent some time researching ketamine, a drug which many believe can induce NDEs, and which, maybe not surprisingly, binds NMDA channels. Now, why would I have been researching that?”

I let that sink in for a second. “I don’t understand you, Mulder,” I said softly. “Why do you do these self-destructive things?”

“It’s perfectly safe, Scully,” he replied. “Von Deer has never lost a patient.”

“How do you know? What he’s doing is illegal. We should be arresting him, not supporting him!”

“He’s been reported to the AMA twice by subjects who didn’t see any ghosts,” Mulder answered. “I checked him out thoroughly after hearing about him through a friend of a friend of Frohike’s—that Pamela McGinnis woman. Who was very pleased with her NDE, I might add. The police investigated him a couple of times too, but he has powerful friends, though I don’t think he knows it. Someone believes in his research. And I’d think you would too. You’ve had a near death experience yourself, right?”

“That was completely different,” I snapped. “I was in a coma.”

“But you believe in souls,” he insisted. “You believe that you were waiting somewhere during that time.”

I frowned at the window, angry that I’d ever told him and frustrated that there was no reply I could make.

“The sky is blue, the night is cold,” Billie told us, her voice quickening. “The moon is new, the love is old.”

“I didn’t choose it,” I told him at last.

“I know,” he said, soothing but firm. “But this is my choice. If it works, Scully, maybe we can learn something. Maybe I can ask my father…. or maybe Samantha—” His voice cracked almost imperceptibly on the final word but I didn’t relent.

“Mulder, the only conceivable reason the NMDA could seem to allow contact with loved ones is that it’s randomly triggering memories. I’ve never heard of it being administered to a live patient—the effects are completely unpredictable. It could alter your memory, could give you brain damage, anything. As could the simulated death. It’s ridiculously dangerous, and you can’t trust anything you’d ‘learn.’ This isn’t the way! I thought you’d agreed with me before.”

“I’m not asking you to do it,” he said. “I’m just asking you to stay with me while I do it.”

“So I can talk you back to reality with tender endearments?” I demanded, irony dripping off my tongue. “I’m a little too angry right now, Mulder. How dare you put me in this position, where to refuse you is to somehow betray you and to agree to play along is to betray myself?”

He winced. “I didn’t realize it would be that kind of a decision for you.”

I stared at him, threatening and studying. His features were earnest, hopeful and apologetic, but I recognized the familiar determination that lay beneath it all. He was really going to do this.

“Please, Scully,” he said softly, using that rarest of words. “I’m not asking you to participate. I asked you along because if I’m going to do something stupid like this I trust you to watch, to do the right thing if something goes wrong, to bring me back.”

“I’ve already given you my advice, and you’re still doing the stupid thing,” I pointed out. “What the hell do you need me here for?”

“Please, Scully,” he repeated steadily, and I closed my eyes against the power of those simple words.

~~~~~

12:31 p.m.

I hadn’t said yes, but here I was, in this tiny surgical teaching room. Dr. von Deer explained that he’d had a special second lock put on the door to which only he had a key, and he conducted his infrequent experiments only on the weekends, when no students were scheduled here. Safest, he’d explained, to do this in the hospital, where, if anything when wrong, he could rush the subject immediately to the ER. Life, he said, was always more important than the research or his medical license.

But he’d never had to abort a trial yet. Or so he claimed.

Mulder believed him, and I just didn’t know what to believe. Yet I was certain that this was very, very wrong.

Eleanor von Deer, a grey-haired nurse whose stark thinness and dour lips were the very antithesis of her husband’s jolly visage, moved about the yellow room in blue scrubs, arranging and rearranging equipment. Arthur was busily adjusting the mesh net of suction cups over Mulder’s hair; it would record impulses from the various regions of his brain. Before adhering each cup, he’d fuss with the my partner’s hair, then swab a bit of grease onto his scalp and slap the cup down, sculpting him into a cross between Alfalfa and Frankenstein’s monster.

Mulder lay prone and naked on the gurney, a sheet modestly draped over his hips and legs. The EKG leads were already affixed to his torso and the IV situated in his thigh, where it would be least likely to dislodge when they defibrillated him.

I shuddered at the memory of the last time I’d seen that, four years ago. Then, I’d been holding the paddles, and adrenaline had sustained me enough to watch his body seize as the voltage pulsed through him, rising up and then slamming back down into the table as we both fought for his life. I’d never forget the sound of his skin smacking the

cold metal or the way his fists involuntarily clenched with each surge. I did not care to witness it again—my nightmares were a more than sufficient reminder.

I stood several feet away, watching with my arms folded on my chest, as anger and anxiety warred over every fiber of my body. Why did I let him do this? Why did I let him make me watch it? Why did he do it?

I didn’t know what he expected to find. An unprovable, inscrutable droplet of ‘wisdom’ from the imbibed font that was his father? I knew better. This was not about truth, or even answers.

Mulder just wanted to know if it would work. He wanted, as we all do, for the world to be bigger than reality tells us it is, for confirmation that we are not meaningless and random. He has a greater capacity for hope than I, and I admire and love him for it, but….

But. There I stood.

I felt an unfamiliar hand on my arm, turned to see Eleanor at my elbow. She was much taller than I, and it was vaguely disconcerting.

“Come have a seat,” she suggested with a kindness that belied her harsh features. “I promise, he’ll be fine and it will be wonderful for him. I’ve done it thirty-eight times myself.”

If that was meant to reassure, she’d missed her target, but I let her guide me to the chair she’d positioned at his right side. He turned his head to look at me. The movement forced van Deer to reposition one of the suction cups. “Please hold your head still,” Arthur said, and Mulder telegraphed me a chagrined smile while staring back at the ceiling.

Not knowing what else to do, I reached for his hand, and he squeezed back with a grateful tightness I hadn’t quite expected. I shook my head slowly at him, worrying my lower lip.

“Well now,” von Deer said, all doctorly efficiency. “I think we’re ready. George?”

“Go ahead,” ‘George’ answered with a cheerfulness only I recognized as forced.

Eleanor produced a syringe, moved to the crimp in the IV line, which hung from a stand by Mulder’s hip.

I swallowed; my throat was dry. This was not right.

“Wait,” I said, and she looked at me, holding up the needle. The doctor raised his eyebrows, trying to maintain the appearance of patience though he was clearly tiring of me.

Mulder looked at me too, the same pleading that he’d exhibited upstairs Arthur’s office evident in his eyes.

“Wait,” I said again, trying to collect my thoughts. I wet my lips. Then the words tumbled forth before I could stop them.

“I can’t be a part of this,” I told him, wishing these two strangers weren’t here. “I can’t. It’s your choice,

you’re right, but it’s mine too, and I just….I won’t.

I wrenched my hand from his grasp, trying not to look at his pained expression. I stumbled blindly to my feet and started for the door.

“Sc—Dana!” I heard him call after me, and the pain and betrayal in his voice clamped a chokehold on my throat. “Please. I need you…”

But I walked out the door and didn’t look back, unwilling to become a pillar of salt.

~~~~~

Chapter 2

Spiritual Counseling Available

I walked away, my arms stiff at my sides, my right hand clutching the purse that was heavy with my gun; somehow the responsibility of a weapon endowed me with a greater sense of control than I might have otherwise felt. Ironic, considering the current list of candidates for acquaintance with my Sig was quite short and irrational, given that it included my partner.

I didn’t really know where I was going, but I have never been a wanderer; I moved like I had a destination. Out of the small teaching wing, through the double doors into surgery, I navigated around groggy patients on gurneys and doctors and orderlies steamrollering around them. I barely saw the crowds.

Past the entrance to the emergency room and down an endless corridor, the signs on either side of me seemingly written in a language I once knew but had long ago forgotten: “Radiology,” “Nutritional Services,” “Urology,” “Endoscopy.”

I passed the cafeteria, and briefly deliberated whether this would offer the best seclusion—it is sometimes easier to find solitude in crowds. But my feet kept moving, as if the choice of waiting room weren’t mine to make.

The trite little gift shop tried to lure me in with cheery “It’s a boy!” balloons and tasteful flower arrangements, but I wasn’t so easily ensnared. I kept going, past the families with strollers and the elderly couples and the noisy, squalling children. And found myself at a plain wooden door marked “Chapel.”

I entered.

Someone had done a good soundproofing job; the sudden quiet was so complete that one could have heard a pin drop—except the burgundy carpet and draperied walls would have absorbed even that sound.

Four dark pews saluted the crucifix, which hung on the far wall to my left. Below it and to the side was a rack of candles, improperly placed but there was no room near the door and no windows, either. Near the communion rail stood a tastefully-carved confessional, and in the far corner to my right a low cabinet sported several books.

The only other occupants of the tiny chapel were the woman and her son, in that corner. The woman was helping the boy, who looked about six, to write something in the large white binder, and her words dimly registered in my brain.

“Sound it out,” she murmured. “Haaa-piiii. That’s right. ‘H’…‘A’….”

The boy didn’t look very happy. He looked confused. I wanted to see the spines of the books propped on the cabinet, but was reluctant to intrude on the mother and child.

So I moved away from them, crossed myself, and eased into the pew furthest from the door, closest to the communion rail. A church is thankfully one of the rare places where not acknowledging one’s companions is considered polite.

I rested my elbows on my knees and leaned forward, trying not to imagine the sound of the EKG, the beeep…beeep……..beeep……..beeep, and then the endless, urgent tone.

How could he do this?

I had never told him the whole story of my experience, of the things I saw in that coma. For awhile after it first happened, I believed it had been something marvelous, but in the ensuing years I have come to doubt some of its elements. I have strangely fractured memories—images and voices, a few words—but nothing concrete.

I remember my mother, Melissa and Mulder. I can at times

convince myself that I saw their faces, but it’s not unlike one of those memories of young childhood, of which you one day discover a photo. Suddenly you wonder whether you actually remember what happened or you just got the Polaroid version.

I remember a few of their words, but nothing very concrete, and again, I don’t know which words were actually spoken and which imagined by me. I am certain I heard their voices.

I remember an overwhelming sense of peacefulness, and associated with that is the sound of water, and the scent of the air just as autumn turns to winter—my favorite time of year. But I don’t have any real recollection of my surroundings.

And I remember the voice of a woman who called me by name and whispered for me to come back. She said it wasn’t my time, and I believed her. I still believe it now.

But what I remember most clearly from that time is my father. The only one of those people who was actually dead. And I did feel as though I had achieved a certain resolution with him, one we never attained in his lifetime. Sitting there in that anonymous chapel, the memory made me uneasy. I did not want to think there was truth in von Deer’s claims, that he had tricked heaven into giving him with his daughter what I’d had with my father.

And if there were, was it fair of me to deny Mulder the same peace I’d found? Since when did my role as his partner and protector conflict with my role as his friend?

But I still do not know if the vision of my father was a true one, and that’s the important call to make.

I believe our souls carry on after death, from which we should therefore have nothing to fear. I have certainly seen enough to convince me that on rare occasion the living may even be permitted to communicate with the dead, though it is very difficult to convince even myself that this explanation is complete.

Equally difficult to believe, however, is the idea that these events can be explained away by LTPs and New Age posturing. There have been times in my life when I doubted the power of miracles or when I doubted that God has intentions, but my experiences with the X-Files have, if anything, strengthened my beliefs in these regards. I don’t know if the white-haired benevolent old man to whom I grew up praying really exists, but I do know there is a powerful force beyond (or at the root of) nature, and that He watches over and even acts in this world, but never without reason.

If I did see my father, it was because God willed it, for a reason. Not because of my own selfish desires.

And if I didn’t see him, then maybe it was for my selfish desires, and…. I tightened my jaw. Were the answers never easy?

Miracles are not formulaic; you cannot obtain them by performing the correct ritual, whether that ritual is a sacrifice or the stopping and starting of one’s heart. To suggest otherwise is offensive not only to God but to the ghosts one hopes to summon. I have always resented the Billy Grahams of this world with their $29.95 cookbook miracles: those who seek the miracles are the least likely to find them.

But of course I could never persuade Mulder with an argument like that—he didn’t see this issue as religious. I wasn’t sure of it myself, and it wasn’t really something for arguing over anyway. Regardless of the spiritual implications of his daredevil routine, the scientific and medical ones were sufficient reason to object.

I wondered if he was, at this moment, alive. Should any person with sane friends have to ask that question, and so often? I almost laughed, but it wasn’t funny.

My thighs were tingling, and I realized I’d been unconsciously digging them into the hard wood of the pew. My throat felt dry and sticky. I got to my feet, intending to leave the chapel and find a drinking fountain, anxious for some function with which to occupy my body. But instead of going to the door, I found myself moving toward the flickering candles.

The mother was still quietly encouraging her son in the opposite corner, but I couldn’t hear her. I wondered if she had lit a flame for someone, why she was here. Had she lost someone, or did she fear a pending loss?

If her loved one only might be dying, then she had no idea what ‘pending’ meant. I knew all about ‘pending.’ Every day spent with Mulder was pending my loss—if not by this ridiculous NDE scheme, then by a bullet or a bee sting next week.

I tried to suppress the self-pity, which I loathe, but I am far too well-acquainted with its subversion, and at times like these I know full-well that reason will not triumph.

I chose a new candle and made it bow before its neighbor, wick to wick, until the white woven threads protruding from the cold wax glowed orange. The automatic reflex of my

lips shaping words was not as comforting as it should have been.

Blessed are all thy Saints, O God, who have traveled over the tempestuous sea of this mortal life, and have made the harbor of peace and felicity. Watch over us who are still in our dangerous voyage, for frail is our vessel, and the ocean is wide…and the ocean is wide…for frail is our vessel, and….

I couldn’t remember the rest, though I was sure Augustine’s prayer ended in something about peace. Something neither

Mulder nor I will ever know anything about, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the words escaped me.

I stared into the flame for a long moment, and had begun to

turn away, when my eye snagged on a small wooden box beside the candles.

It was painted white, and in plain, stenciled black letters were the words: “Prayer Circle for the Dearly Departed.”

I had to lean in closer to read the small, awkwardly-phrased type underneath. “Saint Luke Hospital hosts a prayer circle of men and women from local churches who gather once a month for non-denominational prayer for those who have passed on and for their loved ones. To be included, please write the name of the deceased and the names of the bereaved on the paper provided. Address or phone number optional. Spiritual counseling available.”

To this day, I have no idea what compelled me to open the box. Perhaps the names were perversely alluring to my currently maudlin state. Maybe my hands lacked something better to do. Maybe miracles do happen when we ask for them, just not the ones we asked for. Or maybe—well, I don’t know.

Neatly folded rectangles of paper were piled high in the box—the end of the month must have been nearing. I glanced furtively at the confessional and then at the woman and her little boy, as if I were doing something wrong, but the confessional was, of course, empty and the woman was about to leave.

“Alexander Garbo,” said one. “Loving husband, brother, father. Mary, Jewel, Casey and Sam.”

I folded it neatly and picked up another one.

“Kimberly Black died on January 9, leaving behind her husband Mark and her two children Sandy and Mark, Jr.”

“Please pray for Jerry Chartram.”

“Jacob Hanover, age 19. Mother—Lila Hanover, Sister—Karen, Grandmother—Margaret. Thank you.”

And on and on.

Dozens of names passed between my fingers, written by people who had lost—a much-needed reminder that I had no monopoly on pain.

I closed the box and crossed the room to examine the books on the wall. The mother and her son must have slipped out while I was reading.

Bibles in several languages, a Torah, a Qur-a’n, a Book of Mormon, and a Sukhmani were stacked side-by-side on top of the cabinet. But what drew my attention was the binder that the little boy had been writing in. It was a

looseleaf, three-ring affair filled with white pages, and I knew the childish handwriting on the top page must have been the boy’s prayer.

“Dear God,” it read. “Please let my daddy get better. When he is not home, I am not happy. I wish he did not have to feel sick. Please let him come home soon. I love you. Richard Purcheski.”

I frowned. On the one hand, it was endearing, and probably intended to help the child deal with his feelings. On the other, I wondered how much of the words had been the prompting of the mother. Children do not comprehend death, and frankly I am not confident that they should, at least not in the way we grown-ups do.

I turned back a page. More adult handwriting, now. “Dear God, two years ago I prayed to you to remove my wife Deborah’s cancer, and it was gone but now it has returned. Please allow her to fight off this disease again, with your help. May we grow old together. Amen, Tim M.”

Here, the loopy cursive of a young teenager. “Please bless my uncle threw his surgery tomorrow at 7:00 a.m. in the morning. Please gide him, give him his strength and health and happiness he had with his loved ones. Please gide the doctor and nurses for the job their doing to him. Amen, Jana Keller.”

I do not believe that prayer can be used to sway God; that would imply that God favors the fortunes of popular people with pious friends. Prayer is for the comfort of the one who does the praying, and, perhaps, for the object of the prayer, if he knows it.

Mulder knows I pray for him; at least, I’ve told him so once or twice and he knows me well enough to guess it wasn’t a one-time deal. I pray for the usual things—safety and freedom from pain, resolution of hardships. But I also pray for small secret things, like that he gets some sleep the night after he’s shot someone (or almost shot me). Or that sometime in the next week or two he’ll go eat cheesesteaks with the boys, which, though it’s not exactly my idea of entertainment, is at least diversionary in name. Sometimes I just pray he’ll leave me alone for a few days (but the truth is I’d be disappointed if he didn’t try to

call and I think he knows that).

The ironic thing is that I think he prays even more than I do. He prays for my safety, for his sister’s return, for an irrefutable scrap of truth that doesn’t come with pain attached. He just doesn’t recognize it as prayer because his vocabulary is different. So how could he not understand that I would react as I did to his ridiculous scheme?

If he were dead now, what would I do?

It was a question I’d asked myself before without resolution, and the answer was no clearer today. Life without Mulder is unthinkable, not because it would not go on (it would), but because it is simply impossible to imagine.

What hurt the most was not Mulder’s stupid idea or even that he hadn’t told me what he was doing. And though it hurt tremendously to know that the stain on last night’s wonderful and rare shared evening could never be washed out, that was minuscule compared to the accusation in his words as I’d left the room.

“I need you,” he’d said, but what he meant was: “How could you abandon me?” Somehow he’d managed to pervert his knowing compromise of my character into a betrayal of my loyalty to him.

My knuckles were white and cold from gripping the edges of the book, and just as I forced my fists to unclench, I heard the chapel door open.

I turned my shoulders away from it and bowed my head so that my hair curtained my face, hoping to make it clear to the newcomer that I wanted to be left alone.

If I had done what he did today, he would have forcibly dragged me from that room, free choice or no. It seems an antiquated or even patriarchal move to make, but is it any different from the assumption that I’d sit there and hold his hand like some loyal, thoughtless Penelope waiting for Ulysses? And, a quieter voice asked, was it disloyal to leave him (especially given my own indecision regarding von

Deer)?

But I know it’s not any simple anti-feminist issue, not for Mulder. It’s just that I am me and he is he. Him. Whatever.

I heard the stranger’s muffled footfalls approaching me. Apparently this person had not been educated in the rules of chapel etiquette.

But then I felt a familiar palm on my shoulder blade and I knew he was no stranger. It could not have been over this quickly, which must mean that—

“I didn’t do it, Scully,” Mulder said, his voice soft and sad, and I let out a long breath. His other hand came up to my waist, confining me there at arms’ length, as if afraid to embrace me but equally fearful I’d walk away.

He hadn’t done it. He had told them no. My head slowly rose of its own accord, but I couldn’t permit myself to look at him. The immediate burst of relief was followed by red-hot anger and then a confused….what? Disappointment? Surely not. Surely I wouldn’t feel this way just because he’d confounded my expectations.

“You were right,” he continued, still talking to the back of my head. “I shouldn’t have put you in this position. I’m sorry.”

I didn’t know what to say—whether to pound my fists into his chest or wrap my arms around him, so I kept turning the pages of the binder.

“Hello! It’s me again,” I read silently. “My dad Jerry was confined here again 3 days ago, and now he’s delirious. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, cuz of the medication that they give him. Please help him get out of it and the rejection of the kidney to get better. Help my family and me to be strong. I love you, Jesus. – Cassidy Chartram.”

“Scully?” he asked, deeply concerned. His hand traced a light circle over my shoulder. “Scully, are you okay?”

My partner had just misled me, used me, the told me he was going to volunteer himself for death, and now I was supposed to forgive him just because he was here? Yet he was only here because I had goaded him by withdrawing the only thing I had that Mulder valued: my support. Oh sure, I’m fine. I’m perfect. I’m okay.

But I didn’t say a word, and I didn’t turn either, which undoubtedly made him think I was trying not to cry. The inevitability of his suspicion made me even angrier.

“You can yell at me now,” he suggested. “Or maybe say you told me so. Go ahead.”

He would have loved for me to yell at him, because anger is a language that Mulder understands. He craves my anger like an alcoholic craves straight vodka, because even when it hurts it reassures him I’m invested. What he’ll never understand is my sorrow.

But of course I would never say that aloud. I hardly knew what I meant.

Finally, he sighed, tried another tack. “What are you reading?” he asked, leaning over my shoulder so that I could feel his warmth through my spine.

My eyes returned to the page: “My God, Oh my God, please hear my cry. I know in my heart you are with us all, please reach down and touch the hands and hearts of the doctors, help me bring Jacob home. He’s a good boy. We’re in your hands now. I love you. Lila Hanover.”

In a strange, unexpected moment of clarity that had nothing to do with Mulder, it hit me.

I wrenched myself free of Mulder’s grasp and, carrying the binder, crossed quickly back to the candles.

“Scully?”

But I ignored him. I opened the little white box and drew out the topmost scrap of paper.

“What are you doing?” Mulder said, and I heard the edge of uncertainty in his voice that suggested he was questioning my sanity. Ironic, considering.

Didn’t he understand that, if I said anything at all, it would be so brutal or so teary that we’d both forever regret I’d said anything? But I was only secondarily aware of him now.

I looked at the paper in my hand: Ricardo Cabarillo. Flipped through the pages of the binder until I came to: “Dear Jesus, please protect my father through this night. The accident was bad but I know you can save him and I know he deserves to live. His family needs him. Please, it’s not his time. I know I do not come to you often enough, but I swear I will if you help make him better. Thank you for all you have done for me and my children. – Ana.”

I set Ricardo’s name aside and folded down the corner of the page in the notebook. I heard Mulder approaching behind me, and then his hand entered my field of vision, tipped down the lid of the white box to read its purpose. I could hear him breathing.

Here was a scrap of paper for Bernard Keller, here one for Deborah Murdoch. I turned down the corners of the corresponding pages.

“Scully?” he asked for what seemed like the hundredth time.

“I think I want to talk to the priest,” I told him.

“About what I did?” Mulder asked, and I resented the incredulity in his tone, but only favored him with a cool stare.

“No,” I answered, and gestured at the box. “About this. I think we may have a case on our hands.”

His mouth relaxed in relief at my apparent lack of injury and I resented that too but this wasn’t the time to discuss it.

I picked up another name, but didn’t find it in the binder.

I could tell when his shoulders straightened from a slouch that he’d caught on, and abruptly he took out a handful of names. “Peter Coutts,” he read aloud, and I glanced at him, then began flipping rapidly through the pages.

“No,” I said.

“Valerie Skank?” Mulder suggested, and I found her, marked the page.

He unfolded another note. “Bluffton is the kid’s name, no first name for the grandmother.”

I found no Blufftons.

We went through the entire box that way, and when we’d finished, nearly half of the deaths were in the pile and about eighty percent of the pages in the binder from the last month was turned down. I looked up at Mulder, who was biting his lower lip in thought. “Well, Scully,” he said. “I don’t think I’d want any prayer circle affiliated for this hospital praying for me.”

“And I was just about to write you in,” I remarked, only half-joking. “Let’s get the hospital’s death records. They’ll be much more complete, and we can compare death dates to the dates in the binder.”

“Not to mention check out causes of death,” Mulder added, and I knew we were Agents Mulder and Scully again.

So much for a weekend vacation.

Thank God.

~~~~~

2:45 p.m.

Some gratuitous and well-rehearsed badge-flashing earned us a printout listing all the hospital deaths within the last three months, both inpatient and outpatient. We co-opted a booth in the cafeteria, despite Mulder’s unmentioned but obvious concern that von Deer or his wife might find us here and realize we’d lied to them. Secretly, I wanted them to. I wanted to see the look on that old man’s face when he became acquainted with the business end of my badge. But neither appeared.

Mulder sat across from me and combed through the abducted binder to make a list of the names within and the dates of the entries. In many cases, he had to guess, and sometimes couldn’t get a name at all, as when “Carol” mentioned her “husband,” but even then he often still had a date, or could guess at it from the pages it was sandwiched between.

I took each page as he finished it and ran my finger down the pages of the inch-thick printout, marking the name if I found it and adding date and cause of death to Mulder’s list. I was able to match every single name he’d listed, and in the ambiguous cases I was still able to make an educated guess based on the note’s date. It took almost two hours, but when we finished, 256 subjects of the 303 prayers (not counting occasional duplicates) were shown to be dead.

“It might not mean anything,” I cautioned as Mulder pored over the pages. “In hospitals, people don’t pray for loved ones who are well.”

“No,” Mulder said firmly, and I nodded, expecting that. “The dates are too consistent. Almost all of the patients died within one or two days after the prayer entry. That can’t be coincidence.”

“Yeah,” I said, drawing the word out. I’d considered this carefully. “Plus, only two people on the list from the last month, excluding the last two days, are still alive, whereas two months ago the survival rate was much higher.”

“You think it’s an escalating serial killer, huh?”

“Don’t you?”

“How could he have done it? We’re talking about 256 potential deaths in the last, uh, eight months, and no one at the hospital has caught on?”

“Well, some of the deaths could be just coincidence,” I pointed out.

“Sure,” Mulder acknowledged. “Okay, let’s say as many as half are coincidental. That leaves 128 deaths. Still a pretty high rate.”

“Someone could be drugging them,” I suggested.

“And nurses wouldn’t have noticed this suspicious person shooting up patients’ IVs?”

“It could be a nurse,” I replied. “Or, more likely, someone in nutrition services, someone who delivers or makes the food. Cyanide, arsenic, iocaine…there’re dozens of ways it could be done.”

A woman at the booth behind Mulder glanced back over her shoulder with a horrified expression and I lowered my voice. “Many of them wouldn’t turn up in autopsies, and autopsies weren’t even done on most of those patients.”

“Yeah,” Mulder said with a frown. “Many of these just list ‘respiratory failure’ as cause of death. Not very explanatory.”

“It’s a catch-all for ‘we don’t know,’” I answered. “But no one was surprised when these people died. They were cancer, AIDS, geriatric patients…the kind one prays for.

‘Respiratory failure’ indicates that the doctor presumed the disease killed them.”

“Some of these did have autopsies, though,” Mulder noted.

“Yes, the healthier ones, where death was more unexpected. One of them died after childbirth, and there were a couple cases of food poisoning, one bronchitis, things like that. Unusual but not unheard of. Still, the autopsies apparently produced no significant findings, because the cause of death is still ‘respiratory failure.’”

Suddenly, something caught Mulder’s eye and he flipped fast through the pages, scanning them from top to bottom.

“What?” I asked.

“The times of death are all at night,” he observed, looking up at me.

“I noticed that,” I answered. “Which seemingly supports the idea of a killer.”

“But not one in food service.”

“If the drug were administered at a consistent meal, say, lunch, and didn’t take effect until night…”

“The patient wouldn’t feel the effects before that?”

“Okay, maybe it’s in a time-release capsule.”

“And the patient wouldn’t notice he was eating a pill?”

“It could be snuck into his meds.”

“Then it would be harder to control time of death, and besides, not all patients have meds.”

I shrugged, not seeing his point. “So? Maybe the killer uses a variety of mechanisms so as not to be detected.”

“Maybe,” Mulder said. “Or maybe not.”

I gave an exasperated sigh at his cryptic sage routine. “Look, Mulder, this isn’t really our case anyway. We haven’t done any paperwork, and we’re supposed to be consulting in Seattle by Monday. It should start with the local police—”

But he knew I was just playing a role. “You gonna give the local police this list? They’ll laugh. No one else will see this as evidence—250 deaths sounds far too ridiculous. We’ll do the paperwork after we’re sure there’s a case.”

“You’re already sure,” I pointed out, with more acid than was warranted. Wouldn’t want him to forget I was angry.

But he just grinned. “You’re right.”

~~~~~

4:45 p.m.

We had been fortunate: Father Thomas was in his office that day. He was a pleasant middle-aged man with a thick but alluring South American accent; he explained early in the conversation that he had grown up in Peru but had requested that the church find him a flock in the United States after serving in Lima, Mexico City and Rome. Not the sort of priest one expected to find at a hospital.

I asked him how long the prayer book had been in residence in the chapel, and, still confused about why the FBI wanted to talk to him, his answer was a little defensive.

“I added the book myself when I arrived here a year ago,” he said. “It seems to have been a very positive addition to the chapel. Many people are using it.”

“We noticed,” Mulder remarked. “Funny that the people who get prayed for seem to wind up dead.”

I winced at his forthrightness, but I knew he was only interested in provoking and studying a reaction. From my vantage point, the result was confusion mixed with horror.

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“Just an observation,” Mulder answered, and he dropped our list onto the desk. “See those names? They’re from the prayer book.”

Thomas scanned the list from top to bottom, his lips moving silently as his eyes widened. He flipped to the next page and the next. I folded my arms on my chest, waiting.

“But…but…people die. It happens. And people who are sick enough to so desperately need prayer…”

“Not that many people die, Father,” I said. “And not within two days of the time their prayer was written.”

Thomas crossed himself reflexively and gave me an almost plaintive look. “You think someone is doing this?”

Mulder opened his mouth to reply but I was quicker. “We don’t know.”

A sharp knock at the door stopped Thomas before he could speak again, and he shook his head to clear it, called, “Come in.”

A young woman entered, her cheeks streaked with tears. She looked nervously from Mulder to me, biting her lip.

“Katie,” he said, his voice edged with undisguised concern. “What is it?”

“He’s back in ICU, Father,” the woman sniffled, and I caught Mulder’s eye, signaled for him to follow me as I made for the door. He came with the reluctance of a hound called off the hunt, but not before snatching back the list.

In the hallway outside, he leaned his elbow against the wall and propped his head on his hand. I sidled closer to him.

“Do you think he has something to do with it?”

Mulder’s eyes unfocused. “No,” he said after a moment. “No, at first I thought this might be some sort of Satanist invocation thing, but that would have to start with the guy who controls the book, and I think he was genuinely surprised. There’s definitely a religious theme here, but he’s not involved. I can’t quite put my finger on it.”

“Someone playing devil, intervening to show that God won’t?” I suggested.

“I thought of that, too,” Mulder admitted, as usual oblivious to having walked all over my thunder. “But it doesn’t completely fit.”

“Why not?”

He shrugged, still looking through me. “I don’t know,” he confessed. “It just doesn’t.”

Did he have any idea how frustrating that was? I was not in the mood today for the enigmatic Fox Mulder, and even though I knew it wasn’t deliberate, I had to bite down hard and look away to keep from demanding he demonstrate his rationale.

But I knew from years of experience without a manual that there was nothing else I could say, so after a long hesitation I finally asked what I didn’t want to know.

“What happened after I left?”

His eyes found mine as if surprised I was standing there, much less asking such a cryptic question.

“When?”

I already regretted asking. “This morning.”

“Oh.” He shrugged. “They gave me the opiate, took some preliminary readings. I stopped them before they injected the NMDA. I combed my hair and came after you.”

Implicit was the observation that he hadn’t had to look too hard. But this was beside the point. “You took the opiate?”

“Yeah. It was a small dose.”

“So you were drugged when you found me?”

“Not too heavily.”

I leaned my head against the wall, defeated. “Mulder,” I groaned.

“What?”

“How do you feel now?” Straightening, I hooked my hand around the back of his neck and dragged his head down toward me so I could better see his pupils. He came willingly, and I cupped his cheek to pull at the skin below his left eye with my thumb.

“I feel fine,” he said.

His pupils looked dilated but even. I wished I had a penlight. Maybe I could borrow one—

At that moment the door opened and I dropped my hand fast as if I’d been caught doing something wrong, but it was only Katie, coming out of the room. She’d bent her head to hide her tears with her hair, and she crossed the hall back into the chapel without looking at us.

I walked back into the office with Mulder in tow. Father Thomas stood at the window, staring out into the grey

afternoon.

“Running an interfaith chapel in a Catholic hospital isn’t easy,” he said before we could speak. “You have to play all angles, provide every traditional formality as well as every modern psychological ritual. I thought the prayer book was just a good idea, and I don’t want to believe what you’ve told me. But if you’re right, or even if you’re just investigating the possibility, I think we have no choice but to remove it. Thank you for telling me.”

“No, don’t remove it,” Mulder said, from behind me. “I have a better idea.”

Abruptly nervous, I looked back at him, one eyebrow already on its way up.

~~~~~

Chapter 3

Minenfield Voran

9:45 p.m.

It was too late to object, but in our haste to execute the plan we’d had no time to talk alone until now. Had he intended that? I liked to think the negotiations had been mine, but sometimes I suspect Mulder of trying to make me think that when it wasn’t completely true.

I let the irritation in my voice underline the concern. “Mulder, I don’t like this at all. Why does this have to be you?”

My back was turned to him as he undressed for the second time that day. “Well, Dr. Scully,” he answered in his most reasonable tone, “I figure you’re a lot more qualified to look after me than I am to look after you.”

“You realize that using an officer as bait to trap a killer goes against at least a dozen bureau regulations.”

He ignored me. “We’ll call up some boys from the Buffalo office tomorrow to keep an eye on me so you don’t have to stick around the whole time if you don’t want to. You can turn around now.”

I did. Mulder was sitting on the edge of the hospital bed dressed in a silly-looking blue gown, his clothes folded neatly beside him. “No,” I said. “I don’t trust that. I want to keep an eye on you myself.”

“Scully, I’m touched.” He laid his palm dramatically over his heart. “You’ve never offered to share a hospital room with me before.”

“Quarantine,” I pointed out. “But I didn’t want to do it then and I didn’t say I wanted to do it now.”

He had turned to pick up the pile of multicolored check-in literature on the bed beside him, but the acid in my tone made him glance back at me. He knew I hadn’t forgotten the morning.

In a syrup-coated voice he pretended to grumble: “Well, at least in Q we got HBO.” He tapped the TV channel listings on top of the paper pile. “How do you feel about ESPN? ESP-en, Scully. You ever really think about that?”

What I was thinking about was my almost insurmountable desire to be back in my own home with the past twelve hours erased.

Though we hadn’t told him the whole story, only saying we needed it for an undercover investigation, one of the hospital vice presidents had been sufficiently impressed with our credentials to provide us with the tiniest, shabbiest room the hospital offered. If I learned nothing else on this trip it was that health care really has become as much a bean-counting industry as the federal government.

The view from the window was of a white cement-block wall about six feet away. Two thinly-blanketed beds were separated by a curtain. Not exactly where I’d expected to spend my weekend.

I was very glad that Mulder hadn’t asked me to write the prayer. It would have been dishonest somehow, to have to make up words for how much I cared about him just to further a ruse. Thankfully, he seemed to know that, though I couldn’t help but wince when I saw he’d signed the note “Samantha.”

“Heavenly Father, You are the Greatest Healer in the world,” he’d written, imitating the style of the other prayers. “Please hear my prayers for my brother, Jack. He has so much to live for and you have the power to help heal him. Please be with the doctors and nurses and our family in this time of need. Your servant, Samantha Heath.”

Okay, my reaction was not just a wince, more like a recoil. Mulder saw it, of course, and looked down at the floor.

“I think it’s important that there be at least a little honesty,” he muttered, and I didn’t ask him why, because he’d only tell me he didn’t know. Nonetheless, it seemed perverse somehow, like attending a loved one’s funeral dressed as a clown.

He was listed in the hospital database as Jack Heath, diagnosed with pneumonia and a secondary nosocomial staph infection. I was listed as Carl Castle, and I was also supposed to be suffering from staph. Hopefully, if we had a night visitor, he wouldn’t realize my name was by no stretch of the imagination ‘Carl’ until he was looking down the barrel of my gun.

At least, that was the plan. My idea of the plan. Mulder’s vague suspicions suggested he might have had other ideas, but nothing concrete enough to share, and I couldn’t grasp even his intuition this time. Mulder is like a book, but not in the usual way that phrase is intended: sometimes I can open him up and read every page, but other times it’s as if some magician has cast a spell to lock him closed and I can’t see a single sentence.

While he’d gone back to the condo to get our things, I’d spoken with a handful of nurses who’d been acquainted with some of the patients on our list, careful not to tell them that we were investigating more than the one death I asked about. No need to induce hysteria.

Tim Gallagher in CICU claimed that Carol Farquar’s death had been completely unexpected—though she’d suffered a heart attack two days earlier the doctors had thought she was safe and planned to move her out in the morning. Gracie Bovak had thought nothing of Dale Jenner’s death—the man had been slipping in and out of oncology for months. No one had seen anything suspicious.

There was a sharp tap on the door and our nurse JoAnn entered before we could invite her in. She was a “floater,” a floor nurse who moved from wing to wing almost daily, filling in wherever she was needed. From the dossier of personnel files that the vice president had provided, I’d selected one floater from each of the three shifts to be at least partly in on the plan, and in true HMO tradition we’d chosen our doctor from a similar list. Dr. Bannerjee knew only that we were FBI agents and that she didn’t have to do anything about us but let us forge her name on our charts. She’d agreed eagerly, excited to help in an undercover investigation. That made me a little nervous, but there was nothing to be done about it now.

A rotund African-American woman of about fifty-five with an enormous pair of tortoise-shell spectacles, JoAnn had the disarming ability to pose as anyone’s cookie-baking mother (what, I imagine, most people would incorrectly label optimal training for an R.N.). But her appearance was a clever disguise; within thirty seconds one began to suspect she’d gotten her qualifications acting as an army drill sergeant, which in fact she had. It was one of the reasons I’d picked her.

“Mr. Heath,” she barked, though she knew Mulder’s real name. “Get your skinny white butt underneath those blankets right now. You are not getting out of that bed unless it’s to piss, and even then, you call me first.”

Mulder gave me a panicked look but I didn’t bat an eye, making it clear he’d get no help from me. Unfortunately, he knew my glare, and it only made him grin.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said to JoAnn, punctuating the words with an invisible salute and swung his legs up under the covers.

Her expression softened into a hint of a smile and I blinked in disappointment. Apparently no one is immune to Muldercharm, which I suppose should have made me feel better about my own weakness. But it didn’t.

I was grateful, though, when she turned to me and asked: “So how real are we getting here? Are we gonna hook him up to everything?”

I shook my head. “We just want to make it look good. Heart monitor and IV are all we need, I think. The heart monitor should be treated as real. But just tape the IV to his hand and leave the needle capped so he can move fast if he needs to.”

“You’re not expecting violence, I hope. I won’t tolerate any risk to anyone here,” she warned.

“Neither will we,” I assured her. “And no, we’re not expecting violence, but—”

“But you can’t tell me anything more than that this is undercover,” JoAnn finished, and I nodded. “Well, that’s fine, but I will tell you I tried to find out who Jack Heath is and couldn’t.”

I realized she was assuming that ‘Jack Heath’ was the bait in the sting, which he was, but not in the singular way she supposed. Good. We didn’t need a serial killer rumor spreading.

“I imagine there are lots of Jack Heaths,” Mulder said mildly, and I knew he was advancing her suspicion deliberately.

She moved over to the IV stand, tapped the blue plastic housing on top of the pole. “This ain’t gonna look right if it’s not plugged into him,” she said. “It’s programmed to watch the drip rate, and if there’s no dripping….”

“You can put it in,” Mulder said. “It’s just saline and a needle.”

“So someone can come along with a syringe full of potassium chloride and an easy route of administration?” I asked, aware but unable to prevent the sharpness in my tone. “No. We’ll have to jury-rig it somehow.”

The three of us spent the next thirty minutes fiddling with the IV until JoAnn found the satisfactory solution: she added a Y-clip to the tubing and spliced a third plastic coil into a closed circuit pump which excluded the needle entirely, cleverly making the IV bag drip back into itself. After twisting the tubes up, the ruse was apparent only upon close examination. Only our trusted nurses would notice that it never needed changing.

Then JoAnn gave a brief, practiced spiel about the use of the call button and left. The small room was suddenly very, very quiet.

I wasn’t ready to be alone with Mulder, not now. The vision that had leapt into my brain that morning, the one of his lifeless eyes staring into mine while a lifeless mouth spoke lifeless words—“Scully, I’m so glad you’re here!”—still lurked in the back of my brain where it seemed to have taken up permanent residence. And I was still hurt, still angry. If we were alone together for too long, there was a dangerous possibility that I’d actually tell him how upset I was. I’d learned long ago how pointless that was.

Instead of looking at him, I went to the window, tugged the Venetian blinds shut. Unwilling to cross back to his side of the room, I parted the blinds with two fingers and peered through the slats.

Scant moonlight glinted blue off the snow outside, but there was nothing more to see.

He said my name, quiet and serious, and I snapped the blinds back together a little too violently.

I turned to look at him; he was sitting up in bed, knees drawn up and back pillowed on the headboard, watching me with a darkened eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he said, when he decided he had my attention.

Angry that he’d seen my pain though I hadn’t chosen to reveal it, and even more angry that he thought my anticipated forgiveness would make everything better, I took a long deep breath, then unzipped the shoulder bag on my bed, the one he’d brought from the condo. Fished out my bag of toiletries and a pair of pajamas while he watched without comment.

“I’m going to take a shower,” I announced, and headed for the bathroom. I could feel his eyes burning holes in my back.

~~~~~

11:45 p.m.

I stood naked in the tiny, sterile bathroom, my arms folded over my breasts and my wet hair tickling my shoulders as I waited for the mud on my face to turn dry and uncomfortable. On the other side of the thin bathroom door, I could hear soft voices on the television and the creaking of the mattress every time Mulder so much as breathed. The masque was already starting to feel like pins and needles, inaccurate acupuncture. Usually I find these rituals relaxing in their forced meditation, but tonight I resented the quiet time: I didn’t want to think. Sometimes flawless skin exacts a high price.

“I didn’t do it, Scully,” his voice repeated in my head for the thousandth time, and God, I wished he would shut the hell up. Why does he invade every second?

Maybe because I let him, and today, letting him was dangerous. I tried to school my thoughts back to the ‘case,’ to the loosely calculated statistics that undeniably indicated a pattern. But the only thing I could think was that this could not be the best way to corner the killer, and that was Mulder’s fault too.

Some subconscious neurological process resolved these trains of thought into the sudden image of Mulder howling a girlie scream from his hospital bed as a comically

proportioned serial killer raised a knife over his chest. I would then burst from the bathroom, naked but for the green-brown mud plastered on my face and the gun in my hand, like some avenging angel out of a surrealist painting. I suppressed a chuckle and the masque cracked.

Good enough. I leaned over the sink to scrub it away.

Mulder was risking his life again, but this time I was going along with it. Why was this any different from this morning?

Not because it was a case, no. It was, I reasoned, because I suspected we were dealing with a real, concrete person—the kind that could slip into a room, inject something or drop something in a glass of water and slip back out again. This kind of enemy I could not only see on approach, but defeat with a gun.

Let it never be said that I don’t support my partner.

But Mulder thought it was something else. I didn’t know what, and I didn’t think he did either. Something more ephemeral than a renegade and disenchanted hospital employee. An X-File. Was I only playing along because I didn’t believe him?

I ran a comb through my damp hair, then shrugged into my blue cotton pajamas. Opened the door and was frozen by the blast of arctic air from the main room.

The head of the bed was elevated, and Mulder lay propped there, his eyes closed and jaw slack. A moment of irrational panic gripped me, and I moved quickly to his side, but he heard my approach and his eyes fluttered open.

“About time,” he grumbled. “What, were you washing each strand of hair individually?”

I exhaled, pretended again to ignore him, and anxious to hide my momentary concern I turned my face toward the TV. Jay Leno was yapping about breath mints and chewing gum with some overly-ebullient actress I didn’t recognize, and, rolling my eyes, I reached across Mulder for the remote and banished Jay with a click of my finger.

“We need to think about suspects, Mulder,” I announced, moving around to the other side of the room. My side.

He leered at me. “Oh, serious conversation? I don’t know, it’s a little hard to take you seriously in those cute flannel pajamas.”

He should have seen the masqued naked woman. “Do you think it’s really coincidence that we’re here, Mulder?” I asked, as if I hadn’t heard.

“Ah, paranoid Scully reveals her true colors.”

I rolled my eyes. “I’m serious. What are the chances that we’d bump into something like this on a weekend off?” I paused to let that sink in, then answered my own question. “Pretty low. I think we artificially selected for it by coming here in the first place. Because what else is unusual about this hospital? Arthur von Deer.”

“He’s not involved,” Mulder said, immediately serious.

“Why do you say that?” I asked. “He’s interested in both death and spirituality. And with a conservative estimate of one hundred victims in a few months, we’re talking about something very systematic here. Something that might well be data collection.”

“It’s not him,” Mulder repeated stubbornly.

“How do you know?”

“It just doesn’t fit,” he said.

“You’ve said that about every suggestion I’ve made, both in terms of mechanism and suspicion. What exactly is the mold you’re trying to fit people into? What’s the profile?”

“I don’t have one,” he confessed. “Not yet.”

I wasn’t in the mood for Mulder’s touchy-feely Spidey-sense. “Then I think we should interview von Deer tomorrow.”

“You’re only looking for an excuse to shut him down.”

“I don’t need an excuse. If I wanted to shut him down I could have flashed my badge this morning. The reasons for my suspicions are sound, Mulder, and—”

“I think you’re letting your feelings and prejudices color your judgment, Scully,” he interrupted, and his matter-of-fact tone angered me. He knew that was one of the most

serious accusations he could make, yet he tossed it off as casually as he’d remarked on my pajamas.

“Just what are you implying?” I demanded, sitting back on my bed and folding my arms over my chest.

“I wasn’t implying anything,” he said calmly. “I thought I was being quite clear. You’re angry at me and by extension at von Deer, but you’re sidestepping that, using your perfected mask of professional detachment as a shield for your motives in this investigation.”

Mulder was lecturing me about using a case as an excuse to pursue an agenda? “My motives?” I echoed. “How can you sit there so blandly accusing me of something like that? It’s your agenda that brought us here.”

“Yes, it is,” he said with a nod. “And I said I was deeply sorry, but you won’t acknowledge that. You’re avoiding what happened this morning, and I don’t want this to bite us in the back when we’re facing down a potentially dangerous case.”

“We have work to do,” I snapped. “I’ve put it behind me.”

He grinned, but not nicely. “You’re such a terrible liar, Scully.”

“Don’t get all mushy on me, Mulder,” I said icily. “I wouldn’t want to lose my ‘professional detachment.’”

“No danger of that,” he snorted with a smirk, and I almost exploded but then a flash of desperation in his eyes betrayed him and I suddenly realized I’d been seeing the whole conversation through a smudged pane of glass.

Clarity descended.

“You’re goading me,” I said, disbelief coloring my voice. He lowered his eyes and I knew I was right. “I’m not a suspect, someone to…to be manipulated. What are you trying to prove?”

“I’m not goading you,” he said, but his denial was two beats too late, his voice an octave too low.

I nodded to myself, surprised I hadn’t seen it earlier. He was trying again to make me surrender to my anger, because it was easier to deal with than my disappointment, or, worse, my pain. Because he thought I could yell at him and he could take it, and then everything would be okay. He was wrong.

He saw my certainty and his shoulders sagged with defeat. A long silence settled over the room, the air between us no longer crackling. “I just want to know what I’m supposed to do, Scully,” he said finally. “You’re angry when I ditch you, and you’re angry when I don’t. It seems to me that the problem isn’t what I do with respect to you but what I do in general.”

I sighed. “Mulder, you know that’s not true. I’m angry because you brought me here under false pretenses. You knew how I would react, so you deliberately maneuvered me into a situation where you thought you could count on my instinct to support you to override my judgment. You were so focused on your own agenda that you didn’t stop to consider the position it would put me in.”

“Scully, I left!” he protested. “I didn’t go through with it.”

“And that’s supposed to make me feel better?” I asked, cocking my head at him. “It makes me feel responsible, Mulder. You’ve all but said I was responsible for your decision to walk out of there; the obvious conclusion is that if I’d stayed I would have been responsible for that too. That is not a burden I’m prepared to accept.”

“What—are you saying you wanted me to go through with it?”

I took a deep breath and considered for a long moment, refusing to let him push me but finding myself already trapped. “I’m saying,” I said finally, hesitated, began again. “I’m saying that I…that going off half-cocked and doing crazy things like this is what you do, Mulder. Maybe that’s inextricable from who you are. Maybe I don’t want to see you lose something of yourself, your belief. I don’t want to see…that.”

My words unbalanced him, and I could see the heat draining away from his eyes. He’d been prepared to accuse me of not accepting who he was; he wasn’t sure what to do with what I’d given him instead. He studied his knees, worrying at his lower lip as he considered how he should respond. But I charged ahead before he could speak, and my voice was threateningly uneven, like the sea before a storm.

“On the other hand, I don’t want to see you dead. How am I supposed to reconcile these two things?”

Mulder heaved a long, slow sigh and turned his head to meet my gaze. “I don’t know,” he confessed, his voice low and a little husky. “But, Scully—as long as you…as long as you feel…. I don’t want to hurt you, Scully. I can’t.”

Oh, this was going too far. His honesty summoned tears to my eyes, and I couldn’t bring myself to say what I probably should have—that he hurts me more often than he knows.

It’s a widely-spread myth that the way to keep from crying is to blink rapidly, but I’ve known better since I was a girl: it’s best to keep one’s eyes open wide.

“But,” Mulder continued, “I can’t win here, Scully. If I do these sorts of things, you’re hurt, and if I don’t…well, here we are. It’s a lose-lose situation.”

“It shouldn’t matter,” I said softly, trying to ignore the tiny part of me that wanted it to matter. “You should do what you believe regardless of how it makes me feel. You have to be true to yourself first.”

I meant that. I did. Sometimes I feel like I exist only to hold up a mirror for Mulder, to show him through my faith in him that he is beautiful. This wouldn’t bother me if Mulder occasionally peered around the glass to remember who is holding it. I may be Mulder’s “one in five billion,” I may make him “a whole person,” but where does that truly leave me?

But should I be surprised that this is the nature or our relationship, when these are the things I say, that it ‘shouldn’t matter?’ Apparently I am a character-actress: there’s only one role I can play: the woman who holds the mirror.

“Not wanting to hurt you—that’s true too,” he said, and his voice was barely above a whisper.

“Mulder, I don’t want to hurt you either. I just….” My voice trailed off.

This was far more than either of us had bargained for. I felt a tear slide down my cheek and when he saw it he winced, turned his head away. “But you manage it,” he said to the bathroom door. “You walked out of that room. You wouldn’t compromise.”

What was I supposed to say now? Assure him that it wasn’t because I cared less for him than he for me? Or tell him the alternative: that I was simply stronger than he? Tell him that it hadn’t been easy, and thus multiply his guilt for having put me in that position in the first place?

The correct response, I reasoned, would be the true response, regardless of how it made him feel, but I didn’t even know which was true.

The paradox was as unfamiliar to him as it was to me, though it had been creeping up on us for years. We hadn’t seen it coming but I knew we’d always sensed it, like red eyes following your back in a childhood nightmare that disappear whenever you whirl around to confront them.

Though those who know us believe that Mulder and I are polar opposites, we are in reality more similar than we are different: stubborn and ruthlessly holding to our ideals above all else. We have both known defeat, but until now, we had never known surrender.

He wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand and I wanted to go to him, comfort him, but perhaps that was exactly the problem. I wanted to tell him that I would never think less of him, but such words would be tantamount to saying he should compromise his beliefs for me, and, actually, neither was true.

I wanted to tell him that I was not fragile, point out that he’d bruised me a hundred times but I’d never broken, but to say that would suggest I wouldn’t care enough should he wind up hurt or dead, and again, neither was true.

Once when I was sixteen years old my father was stationed in West Germany for two months, and he took Mom, Charlie and I with him. We mostly stayed at the base, but vacationed one week at a small country club just south of Neustadt, near the East German border. The facility had once been a Nazi resort, but all signs of that were now erased, and the beautiful, verdant countryside could hardly be imagined to have hosted such powerful, terrible men.

A placid mountain lake reflected the surrounding evergreens and played mirror to the incredible purple-and-gold sunsets. Brochures in the main building advertised “Wollen Sie am morgen zu ausuben? Laufen Sie 5k ringsherum der See!” Want some morning exercise? Run 5k around the lake! I couldn’t read the rest of the text, but it sounded like a good idea and Charlie and I set out to try it one morning.

We found a poorly cleared trailhead and began to jog. He was faster than I, but I could run longer, and he knew that if he ran on past I’d overtake him eventually, so he stayed by my side. We ran and ran, over dirt-paved hillocks among black walnut trees and loudly chirping birds, and I truly felt it was the most beautiful place I’d ever been.

But as the morning wore on, we still found ourselves overlooking, essentially, the same part of the lake we’d started at.

“This has to be more than 5k,” Charlie finally huffed, stopping to pant with his hands on his knees.

I stopped as well, bent to stretch my aching muscles. “Yeah,” I agreed. “Much more. I think we’ve already done seven or eight.”

“Maybe we’re on the wrong path,” my brother suggested.

“Do you want to go back?” I asked.

“Nah. Just a little further. Let’s see where it goes.”

So we kept jogging and, fifteen minutes later, we came upon a sign hidden under overgrown branches. It was a large metal sign, like a highway road marker, but it had been planted facing away from us, obviously intended for people approaching from the other direction.

I raised my eyebrows at Charlie, who shrugged and walked around to the front of it. I followed.

Vorsicht!” It read. “Minenfield voran. Eintragen Sie nicht!” And, just in case this was unclear, both English and French translations followed. “Caution! Land mines ahead. Do not enter!”

Charlie and I had just jogged across a minefield.

We panicked, we deliberated, but finally we decided to go back the way we’d come, because we frankly had no idea where we were. My throat was dry, my steps cautiously measured, and it took us two hours to walk back, but nothing happened, and we never told our parents.

I remembered now how that had felt, to have stumbled across that warning sign after we’d already long since crossed the invisible line and journeyed far into unknown, dangerous (if beautiful) country. I felt that Mulder and I had made the same mistake, except that here and now I had no idea how we could find our way back to safety.

“Scully?” he said, stirring me from my reverie. I was relieved that neither of us was crying now, but my partner, perched on the side of his bed, still looked grey with misery.

Why hadn’t our trail been better marked? Why hadn’t we stopped to ask ourselves where it was leading?

“I’m tired, Mulder,” I told him, and he nodded.

“Go to sleep then,” he suggested. “We’ll talk about suspects in the morning.”

A long, reluctant pause filled the room.

“We should close the curtain at least partway,” I said absently, with the small part of my brain still concerned with the case at hand. “In case someone tries something.”

He nodded again and I got up to pull the curtain, dividing the room, but leaving a gap near the heads of our beds, large enough that I could still see him and small enough that it would not be noticed. Just before I retreated to my side of the room, Mulder stretched out his hand to me, opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out.

I started to reach back with the intention of clasping his hand, but before I could get very far he drew back anyway. “Good night, Scully,” he said.

I crossed to my side of the room and flipped off my light. “Good night,” I answered, and burrowed under the covers, after checking to be sure my gun was safely ensconced beneath my pillow.

Through the window, the full winter moon cast a cold rectangle of light across my blankets. I lay still for a few minutes before I heard the high-pitched whine of Mulder’s television clicking on; he must have been using earphones.

Or just staring, like I was, at pictures without sound. So much for not looking back.

~~~~~

Chapter 4

Not Exactly A Lie

Sunday

3:33 a.m.

The mousy footsteps would not have been loud enough to wake most people, but I was alert before the door clicked shut.

I groped under my pillow for my gun, withdrew it with only the softest rustling of the sheets. I placed the intruder mentally at the foot of Mulder’s bed, separated from my line of sight by only an inadequate curtain.

The stranger did not move. I listened for breathing. Mulder’s was shallow but even, and I heard the soft smack of his lips parting; I felt sure he was awake. Playing the dutiful worm on a hook, waiting for the intruder to bite and trusting me to reel him in. My heart pounded in that way I secretly love as much as fear.

I couldn’t make out the third set of lungs in the room, perhaps because I was less in tune to their rhythm than I was to Mulder’s. But I knew he was there. I suddenly saw the foolishness of our alignment—we’d wanted to put Mulder near the door, but the moonlight was behind me; I would cast a silhouette if I sat up. We should have rigged a nightlight on the other side of the curtain.

Sixty seconds passed in indecisive silence, and then I heard another footfall. Moving toward or away from Mulder? I couldn’t tell.

Enough. No nurse would have stood there so long. I was not adverse to risks but there were limits.

In one fluid motion, I swung my legs over the bed, threw back the curtain and clicked the safety on my Sig. “Stop right there,” I said, and my voice, so divorced from sleep, sounded like it could not have emerged from my mouth.

In the pale grey light, beside my partner’s bed, stood Father Thomas.

Mulder’s eyes had snapped open at the sound of my voice, and now he leaned up on his elbows without a glance at me.

“What are you doing here?” he demanded, recognizing the priest.

The young man’s eyes stared me down like headlights, but I was no deer. “I’m sorry!” he said, squeaking almost imperceptibly on the last syllable. “Please put the…_that_ away.”

I made no move to lower my weapon. “Tell us why you’re here.”

“I just…I’m sorry. I haven’t been able to sleep, after talking to you today. I didn’t want another death on my shoulders, and so I came here to pray for you.”

Mulder snorted and sat up with a casualness in which only I

saw the strategy. He swiveled to face Thomas so his back was presented only to me, careful to leave me a clear line of sight. “I could do without the prayers, thanks,” he said dryly.

“What do you mean, ‘another death?’” I asked.

“Please, Agent Scully,” the priest said. “Guns make me very nervous. Where I come from they aren’t just for defense.”

“Nor where I come from,” I muttered, but I lowered the weapon. The safety stayed off.

Thomas reached for the light switch above Mulder’s bed, but Mulder seized his wrist, and again I saw the strategy: he didn’t want me blinded. This, a part of me observed. This invisible current of communication, two as one-this. “Answer the question,” my partner said, his voice like polished steel. “Why do you feel responsible?”

The small man pulled his hand away, bringing his wrist to his torso like a cradled kitten—Mulder hadn’t been gentle. “It was my idea,” he said, as if saying that snow is white. “The notebooks, I mean. I should have noticed what was happening. I had terrible dreams tonight…I didn’t know that you—”

“How did you find us under these names?” Mulder asked, and I tried to fathom from his tone whether he considered the

priest a threat but couldn’t.

“I saw your prayer, of course. I went in to check that no more had been added, like you wanted me to.”

I lowered the gun at the same moment that Mulder turned half-away from the priest, swinging his legs back under the covers. It was tantamount to dismissal.

“Well,” I said, “now you know not to startle FBI agents. Thank you for your concern, Father, but it’s best if you stay away from the investigation.”

“I see that now,” he said, and even in the dim light his features looked contrite. “I’m sorry.”

He turned to go, but just before stepping out the door, mumbled something that sounded like “God be with you.”

When he was gone, I flipped the safety back in place and tucked my gun away, searched out Mulder’s eyes with a question on my lips. But I didn’t have to ask it.

He frowned at me across the darkness, perplexed. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe. But he’s not coming back tonight.”

I swung my legs up under the covers and lay back. We left the curtain open, but I slept fitfully after that, and from the sounds across the room, Mulder did too.

~~~~~

7:02 a.m.

The sound of the shower woke me, and it bothered me that I hadn’t heard Mulder get out of bed, but perhaps my nervous senses were attuned only to noises more suspicious than the familiar sounds of my partner.

The morning nursing shift had arrived, and I was reassured when our new, specially selected nurse rushed into the room only seconds later, alarmed that Mulder’s heart monitor had been disconnected.

I assured the nurse that Mulder had never been a cooperative patient and that there was nothing to worry about, but to please keep up the vigilance. The young man beamed with pleasure at both the compliment and the implied authority, made a few notes on Mulder’s chart, and left. I was so far very satisfied with my nursing cadre.

Breakfast arrived, catered by a college student dressed in polyester that matched the pink tray she plopped in front of me. As soon as she’d left, I filled three glass vials from my evidence bag with samples from Mulder’s eggs and

tea, and the nurse returned shortly with a fresh breakfast for my partner that he’d bought from the cafeteria. We had agreed that Mulder wouldn’t eat anything specifically intended for him, and if we found nothing suspicious in a day or two, I’d feed the meal samples to a few rats and monitor the effects.

The eggs tasted like wet Styrofoam but I slurped them down anyway. By the time I was finished, the shower had stopped and Mulder emerged from the bathroom, dripping wet and clad only in a towel. He was using the other towel, the one I’d used last night, to furiously sandpaper his hair.

“Sleep well?” he asked.

“I would have if it weren’t for your snoring,” I lied, determined to start this day off better than we had yesterday.

He tossed the towel—the top one—at me in mock indignation. “I do not.”

I wadded up the towel and tossed it back, hard; he caught it. “Put some clothes on and plug your IV back in,” I told him. “You’ve already got the nurse worried.”

“This”—he held up the fresh hospital-issue gown that had been folded in the bathroom—“does not qualify as clothing, Scully.”

“It’s better than the towel.”

“You don’t like the towel?” His hand went to his waist and I saw what was coming, turned away in time, but I knew he hadn’t missed the color rising in my cheeks when he chuckled. I felt my own lips curl in the faintest hint of a smile. I’ve seen Mulder naked more times than I can count but presentation is everything. Still, last night’s brief possibility of a common enemy had done us both good.

I heard him shrug into the gown and climb back in bed, then I got up to help him with the IV. I took his left hand in mine and taped the capped needle into place, then replaced the heart monitor on his index finger. Its green-on-black readout stirred back to life, mimicking with a thin digital string the dance of the strong muscle in my partner’s chest. I thought his fingers tightened briefly around mine before he pulled away—apologizing, forgiving, reassuring—but I may have just imagined it.

I eased back onto the edge of his bed. “Mulder, I don’t think it’s useful for us both to spend all day sitting here.”

“I agree,” he said. “All of the deaths occurred at night anyway. I was hoping to interview that woman—Mabel Terman—one of the few who made the prayer book and didn’t die.”

“I was talking about me. It’d be suspicious if you just walked out for a few hours.”

“I wasn’t planning on walking out—that’s what telephones are for. Besides, you know how much I love sitting in bed all day long dressed in paper. Who knows when I’ll get another chance?”

“With your track record it won’t be long,” I said. “So, what—you want to talk on the phone while I do…something else?”

“That’s what you had in mind, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, but I’m not comfortable leaving you here alone.”

“I’ll be fine, Scully. My gun’s in the drawer.” He

pointed at the bedside table on which his breakfast tray rested. “What were you planning to do?”

I tucked my hair behind one ear. “The most recent death was two days ago. The body’s probably still in the morgue.”

He nodded, approving.

“What about Father Thomas?” I said. “Do you still think he’s innocent?”

Mulder tapped one finger against his belly. “I think he knows something,” he said after a pause. “I’d like to talk to him again, but I don’t want to do it over the phone.”

“I think he was genuine,” I said, and immediately searched

Mulder’s eyes for a hint of derision, waiting for him to note my defense of a priest. But he didn’t.

“He was nervous,” Mulder said, his eyes focusing on some point just beyond my head. “But not because you were pointing a gun in his face—in fact, he wasn’t nervous enough about that.”

“He grew up in Peru in the seventies, which wasn’t exactly the safest place with the Shining Path around,” I said. “He’s undoubtedly seen guns before.”

“Why is he here? What’s a young, successful, multilingual priest with a global curriculum vitae doing at a Pennsylvania hospital?”

I shrugged. “He said he wanted to come to the U.S. Priests get little say in the parishes they’re assigned to.”

“I’d just like to know the whole story,” Mulder said stubbornly.

I sighed. “Set up an interview with him this evening, then,” I said. “I’d like to be there for that.”

Mulder opened his mouth to protest, I’m sure, that one interview was hardly enough to occupy his entire Sunday, but I watched him consider the events of the previous day and arrive at the conclusion that it was better to appease me. My lips fell into a slight frown, annoyed. Wasn’t

this exactly what I’d been talking about?

“I’m getting dressed,” I announced, standing. “Eat your breakfast—the eggs are delicious.”

I went to my side of the room and pulled the curtain shut, then stripped off my pajamas and replaced them with dark pants and a sweater. I should have asked the nurse for a set of scrubs—it would make me less obtrusive coming and going and if I managed to get permission for this autopsy, I’d need them anyway.

I wasn’t sure what to think of Father Thomas either. The man struck me as odd in a way I couldn’t quite describe, but I chalked that up to cultural differences. Mulder was right: he was worth talking to again, but I still believed we were looking for something more systematic and sinister.

I didn’t feel entirely comfortable leaving Mulder alone all day, and not just because I feared our serial killer would present himself. I flirted briefly with the idea of calling in someone from the Philly office or the local P.D. to stand outside the door, but I doubted any typical officer had the well-honed paranoia necessary to protect Mulder—unless the killer walked in brandishing a butcher knife, an extra man wouldn’t be much help. And if Mulder decided to depart from the original plan, which was my other fear, no rent-a-cop was going to stop him. Regardless, this operation was a violation of so many well-justified protocols that no one in his right mind would go along with it anyway.

What did that say about me?

~~~~~

I’d thought it was going to be a good day, at least by comparison to the day which had preceded it, but by midmorning I knew I’d been wrong.

The list of deaths we’d made hadn’t mentioned that the body in the morgue was just eight years old, a victim of AML—acute myelogenous leukemia. Christina Yates.

By eleven o’clock, the chief pathology resident had agreed by phone that I could use the facilities, but I still had to get permission from the parents, on their first Sunday morning without their daughter.

This was not the kind of thing one could do by phone. I pulled up on the street just as they arrived home from church—grandparents, parents, and two brothers. In an intellectual sense, I am glad that this is part of my job at times: it prevents me from ever becoming jaded about the lives of victims. But it drains me; it boils water through my mind, percolating the memories of my own loss through me, bitter and fresh. As I stepped out of the car, preparing to introduce myself to this bereaved family, I felt the cold vacant space at my side with unexpected acuity.

I buttoned my trenchcoat, wishing I’d brought something other than these black tennis shoes. I wanted the family to know I was taking this seriously. They had noticed me just as they reached their front porch, and now the father

crossed the lawn to meet me, his brow furrowed. “Can I help you?” he asked.

Somehow, smearing the fresh snow with my footprints seemed disrespectful. I walked around to the driveway, met him halfway, and produced my badge. “Mr. Yates,” I said, considering my words carefully. My breath floated across toward his face, and even this struck me as potentially offensive, so I moved to the right. “I’m Dana Scully, with the FBI. I’m very sorry for your loss.”

Mr. Yates turned around to the audience on the porch, waved his hand. “Take the kids inside,” he said, and his wife ushered the family through the door.

I told him that it was a routine investigation ordered by the Justice Department at many hospitals. He consented more easily than I’d expected, and though I felt guilty for lying to the man, it would have been worse to announce that we suspected foul play and yet had no answers. That was my burden to carry.

Armed with the consent form, I returned to the hospital, where an intern had prepared an autopsy bay for me. I briefly considered going to see Mulder, but since he’d been calling me every half-hour at my request, I could think of no good reason to go. So I changed into scrubs and walked into the room.

These bays are all alike—you always feel at home once you know the blueprint. The only thing that changes is the body on the table, but even that body is always a familiar structure—an optic nerve and a spinal cord, a duodenum and a pancreas, a tibia and a diaphragm—all in ordered positions relative to one another. For every victim, the answer is necessarily, thankfully different, but when one understands the map, one can always find the destination.

I remembered my first cadaver in medical school—we’d been required to name them so that we would not forget that the assembly of tissue and bone beneath our virgin scalpels had once been a living, breathing person whom others had loved. Most of my classmates had called their cadavers after literary figures or people they’d known once. I’d named mine Jerome, but not for any reason. It had seemed contrary to the purpose of naming to call him anything merely for its significance to me, like naming a child or a pet.

Not that I don’t believe people can be things with respect to one another. I am glad to be my parents’ daughter, my siblings’ sister, my partner’s friend. Jerome was my cadaver, I guess, but what was I to him?

At least I had the chance to be something to this little girl on the steel table before me. I could bring her justice. But that didn’t make it any easier, particularly when I feared that her life had been claimed merely by a tumor after all. Nature commits as many tragedies as humans do.

I pulled the sheet back to her waist. I hadn’t been prepared for a child, not today, and when I saw her soft, dark curls and cheeks still round with baby fat, I had to cover my mouth to stifle a sound. I was suddenly very glad that I was alone.

But I remembered Jerome, and how the first incision—the first violation—had been the hardest. When beneath the skin of his forearm I had discovered the layers—epidermis, fascia, muscle—then I remembered my textbook and the body that lay before me became a puzzle, a problem, no longer a person.

To be perfectly honest, I think it’s better that way, for everyone involved, despite what the medical schools try for. Death and the dead are two very different concepts.

And that’s how I made the first incision on Christina Yates. At least I knew her real name.

Mulder called four times during the autopsy, each time increasingly abrupt. The last time, all he said was: “Still alive,” and then hung up, and his flippancy about the subject did nothing to improve my mood.

But I found nothing unusual about Christina’s death, and I did a complete examination and torso excavation. I took blood and tissue samples as well: if she had been dosed with some lethal drug it would have degraded to sub-trace amounts by now but the by-products might turn up. I handed the lymph biopsies over to the resident who kept checking on me “to make sure I had everything I needed.” He obviously didn’t have enough to do—he could paraffin-embed them himself and we would have the results tomorrow instead of waiting for the technicians on Monday.

Mulder’s impeccable sense of timing caused him to call again just as I finished stitching the small body back up, and this time he had something to say.

“I talked to Mabel Terman for the past half-hour,” he told me. “Her husband had written her into the prayer book when she was in surgery after a car accident. But she went home a few days later.”

I tucked the phone against my shoulder and flipped to the second page of Christina’s chart. “Did she have anything to tell you?”

“Well, she didn’t see anything suspicious. But she also wasn’t surprised I was calling.”

I scrawled my signature across the bottom of the page. “What did you say?”

“I told her I was with the hospital, following up on her stay. Apparently she’d had an unusual experience which she’d told her doctor about, so she thought that’s why she was calling.”

I waited a second for him to continue, and when he didn’t, said: “Mulder, I don’t want to play twenty questions here. What did she say?”

“She said she’d seen a light at the end of a tunnel while on the operating table,” I recognized the engineering of his tone, factual to disguise his reluctance. “She claimed to have floated out of her body, looked down on herself on the table, even heard the doctors’ conversations. Then the light, but she didn’t go toward it. She said she knew it wasn’t time for her to go.”

I put the tablet down and took the phone in my hand, walking away from the autopsy table. “Who was her doctor?”

“A Dr. Tannis.”

“Did she know von Deer?”

“No.” Well, at least he’d asked. “But it doesn’t necessarily mean anything, Scully. Seven percent of patients who lose consciousness in trauma describe this kind of experience.”

“If coincidence are just coincidences, why do they feel so contrived?” I asked, echoing his own words of years ago.

“Yeah. Well. I called him too, just to ask if he’d known anything about the patient.”

“You called von Deer? Without talking to me?”

There was a brief silence while he deliberated how to respond to that, but finally he chose to ignore it. “I honestly don’t think he’d ever heard of her, Scully. I pretended to be a potential customer who’d known a previous customer as well as Mabel Terman. Asked what he thought about her case.”

“You probably just alerted our prime suspect to the investigation, Mulder.”

“How could he be responsible, Scully? She was on an operating table, with six people working on her, and she’d just come from the E.R. She wasn’t alone for a second, certainly not long enough for him to administer something even if he wanted to.”

“He could have an accomplice,” I pointed out.

“I checked. None of the attending personnel had any connection to von Deer. He only does outpatient work anyway.”

“Mulder, you and I both know that connections don’t have to be on paper. I’m serious about this—you should have consulted me. I was beginning to wonder whether this was a case after all, but I’m pretty damn sure there’s something

worth investigating, and now you may have jeopardized it.”

“Since when do we check with each other on every step in a case, Scully?” If he was angry, I couldn’t hear it through the weariness. “You were busy, and talking to von Deer was a much more logical next step than many other steps I’ve taken without your complaining.”

“I’m not complaining—I’m criticizing. There’s a difference.” I reached up to massage my left temple, which was beginning to throb. “You have a preconceived bias about this suspect; there may have been questions I wanted to ask, and I’d rather form my own impression of him.”

“You have a bias too,” he said, but his protest was weaker. I opened my mouth, sulfur on my lips, but he spoke first, acrid irritation soaking his words. “I know, I know, we would have balanced each other out. It’s what we do best. Fine. I fucked up. Sorry.”

There have been times when I wished Mulder would apologize,

or admit he was wrong, but somehow the fantasy hadn’t played out like this. “You don’t have to be sarcastic.”

“I’m not being sarcastic. I’m just trying to find new and creative ways to say I’m sorry and frankly it’s about as enjoyable as learning how to plumb your own toilet on ‘This Old House,’ which is the other thing I did today. I’m not behaving any better or worse than I ever have in the six years I’ve known you, Scully, so I don’t see why this is all coming to a head now.”

“I’m not behaving any differently either,” I replied. “The difference is that you’re hearing me now.”

He was quiet for a long moment, but finally, enunciating each word, he said: “I always hear you.”

I considered suggesting that he _listen, but I really didn’t want to keep this going. “So you really think he doesn’t know a thing,” I stated instead.

“I do,” Mulder said, with all the confidence of a boy scout pledge, happy as I was to move on. “I thought about profiles a lot today too, and I think the pattern we’re seeing here is not motivated by method, or data collection, as you suggested, but by passion. Arthur von Deer is not a passionate man, not this kind of passionate. It’s a very intense love—the killer believes he’s bringing his victims peace—or a very intense hatred, where the killer himself has lost loved ones and now believes that others should have to suffer as he did. That’s why I don’t believe the nutrition services theory—whoever this is wants to see the

fruits of his labor. He wants to be there.”

“Didn’t von Deer say he’d lost a daughter?”

“Yes, but he’s reconciled her death and his relationship with her. This is what he believes he’s offering people—that chance to come to terms with loss.”

I wanted to ask if that was really what Mulder had hoped to get from the doctor, but it seemed best to steer clear of all things personal.

“What about Father Thomas?” I asked.

“Can’t get a hold of him. He was at the parish church this morning, but now no one knows where he went.”

“Does he fit your profile?” I asked, playing the dutiful Watson.

“I don’t know,” Mulder said. “I want to talk to him again. I believe he’s capable of passion, but I’m not sure he’s capable of murder. I did request a dossier on him from the Vatican, though. Which reminds me—I had it faxed to admitting. Could you pick it up?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I was just finishing up here anyway.”

“Find anything?”

“Nothing unusual. Typical childhood leukemia.”

“Oh, Christ. It was a kid?”

Had I not told him that? Maybe not—we hadn’t spoken much all day. I could hear the renewed guilt in his voice, and I resented that too. Thankfully, the pathology resident chose that moment to walk into the bay again, biopsy samples in hand. His fresh young face still bore the suggestion of baby fat, though he was far too old. Cherubic fair curls and an eager-to-help expression enhanced the illusion.

“I have to go,” I said into the phone. “I’ll see you in an hour or so.”

I hung up before he could reply and took the cardboard envelope from the young doctor, gave the slides it contained a cursory glance. “Thanks,” I told him. “I’ll take a look at these. Could you give me a hand with the body?”

He nodded, and I crossed the room to put the slide envelope on the counter, then turned back to the autopsy table. The resident was gently smoothing the child’s hair back, and when he realized I’d seen him, he snatched his hand away guiltily, checking himself with a sad, self-deprecatory smile. “Sorry,” he said.

The last word I wanted to hear. “Don’t be,” I answered firmly. I crossed the room and drew the sheet up over the body, pausing a moment to memorize Christina’s face before covering it.

He noticed my hesitation and asked, wistfully, “Does it ever get any easier?”

I looked up at the young man across the child’s body. “No,” I said. Not exactly a lie.

~~~~~

8:34 p.m.

Mulder was propped up against the headboard watching television when I entered the hospital room. I tossed Thomas’ dossier onto his lap and put my hands on my hips.

“You don’t look very sick,” I observed. “You’ve probably scared the guy off by now.”

Which, actually, was fine with me. I hadn’t liked this scheme from the start.

“I’m taking a break,” he answered. “Pretending to be sick is hard work.” He patted the mattress by his hip, inviting me to sit and thereby evading the scathing comeback I’d been preparing about real work. Smart man.

In more ways than one. I wanted to sit beside him, and, truth be told, I wanted his hands to find their way to my shoulders and knead away the long, draining hours spent in the autopsy bay, as they’d done dozens of times before. Such a simple thing, that touch, but profound enough that we knew better than to ever speak of it.

But this time, I would have to wonder if it wasn’t the latest form of ‘apology,’ and so I sat on my bed instead. If he noticed the slight, he gave no sign.

He put on his glasses and read the dossier I’d already skimmed while I reviewed the autopsy reports of five other purported victims. One head trauma, one myocardial infarction, two ‘respiratory failures’ and one emphysema. They had nothing in common—ages, sexes, races and backgrounds all varied as much as their medical histories. Tox screens had been performed on three of the victims, but had turned up nothing unusual.

Shared characteristics can tell you a lot about a case, but sometimes their absence can tell you just as much. A cross-section like this would make a believable data

sampling, despite Mulder’s rejection of that theory. And the absence of evidence narrowed the field of possible M.O.s considerably.

The only problem was mechanism. If it was a drug, why hadn’t the toxicology reports discovered it? A few poisons were undetectable by standard pathological exams, and the potassium chloride von Deer used to stop the heart was among them. But the elevated saline levels should show up both in the blood and perhaps via histological analysis of the cardiac tissue, things which were not normally examined during autopsy but which I had checked for. And the swiftness of death didn’t fit with most other tox-evading poisons.

“I think our suspect must have a great deal of medical knowledge and access,” I said. “It’s the only way he could be doing this undetected.”

Mulder looked up from the folder. “Unless we’re looking at something more supernatural,” he pointed out.

I blinked. “An X-File? I have yet to see evidence for that. I think you’re looking too hard.”

“Maybe not hard enough,” he answered. “Even if we could come up with some drug which could in theory kill this many people this reliably, the problem of administration still isn’t solved. How could he get to every one of these patients without someone noticing?”

“Well, it’s not as if these rooms are guarded.”

“No, but even if it’s some trusted employee who wouldn’t be noticed going in and out of a room, the distribution is ubiquitous. Nurse, doctor, or janitor—they’re all confined to specific specialties. You won’t see the neurologists in the CICU, right? Unless we’re looking at something much larger than one person, someone would have noticed something by now.”

“One: maybe someone has,” I said. “We haven’t exactly been advertising for witnesses. Two: you’re leaving out food service, which has access to all rooms. But I don’t think it’s anyone in nutrition per se, just that this is the mechanism of delivery.”

“I still think it’s important for the killer to be present at the time of death, but we’ll know that soon enough. When do you think we should try the rats?”

“Tomorrow,” I said. “But if that doesn’t work out, Mulder, I think we should turn this case over to the local authorities. It’s too amorphous and you and I are too invested.”

He frowned. “Amorphous is our specialty,” he chided. “But as for ‘invested’—”

I cut him off. “Mulder, it’s been a very long day. I don’t want to talk about that right now, and anyway, I think we’ve both said all we have to say.”

His hazel eyes, magnified through the glasses, studied me

owlishly for a few seconds, and then he nodded. “Okay.”

I was actually a little disappointed that he gave in so easily, but there was no point in sharing that.

“This dossier isn’t very helpful,” he said, moving on with a seamless precision I envied—I wondered if I seemed to pull that off as well, from his perspective. “Quite the little Latin scholar, our Thomas, and he obviously requested this position for no obvious reason, but there’s nothing more useful here. I’d like to talk to him again.”

“Tomorrow,” I said. “But tomorrow’s Monday, and we’re supposed to go to Seattle. We can postpone a day or so, but we can’t spend too much longer up here.”

“We’ll see,” was Mulder’s only reply, and it didn’t reassure me.

I really did intend to stick to my resolve on that point. Our nurse JoAnn came in to check on us, assured us that everything was going well, and, finally, exhausted, I went to bed.

As I fell asleep to the whine of Mulder’s muted television, I reasoned out our position. If this were a real case, then the statistics could be proven by someone taking more measured steps. Solving it might require a large team with far more time (and, I admitted, medical expertise) than we could offer. And given that the present tension in our

working relationship could be directly linked to a suspect in this case, it was unprofessional of us to continue the pursuit.

I fell asleep planning to talk to the local authorities tomorrow regardless of what Mulder wanted to do, but then morning came, and my nighttime reflections all amounted to nothing.

Mulder wouldn’t wake up.

~~~~~

Chapter 5

A Ghost of a Memory

Monday

6:56 a.m.

I rolled out of bed and opened the curtains, congratulating myself on my generosity in hoping that the soft light would wake Mulder more pleasantly than I would. He was lying on his stomach, hugging his pillow with one arm, hair tousled like a boy’s. Easy enough to let him sleep, so I showered with the bathroom door open a crack. I spent the entire shower expecting an innuendo at any moment but it was a small price to pay for the extra security.

He was still asleep when I emerged dressed in yesterday’s trousers, combing my fingers through my damp hair. I sighed.

“Mulder,” I said as I passed him, crossing to my side of the room to pack away my toiletries. Sometimes I feel like I never left college—I cart these myriad plastic bottles to and from strange bathrooms so often.

I zipped the vinyl case shut and looked over my shoulder at my partner. He hadn’t moved. I repeated his name, louder this time. “Mulder.”

The lazy sound of his lungs filling and collapsing pervaded the room, but he didn’t stir.

I went to his side and clasped his shoulder. “Hey,” I said in a gentler voice, hoping this approach would be more fruitful.

He didn’t move. Mulder, who wrote the book on insomnia and shallow sleep, didn’t move. Okay. That was simply unbelievable. I put my hands on my hips. “Funny, Mulder. Come on. Get up. I can see your eyeballs moving.”

The last was a lie, but he wouldn’t know.

Still, there was no response. Deathly cold fingers wrapped around my stomach, wadding it up like so much soggy newspaper, and despite the steady rhythm on his heart monitor, I dropped my fingers to his throat to make sure it wasn’t lying.

Beat. Beat. Beat. Slow but steady.

I leaned over to his ear, slid my hand over his back to rub between his shoulders, hard, as if the friction would reanimate him.

“Mulder,” I murmured into his ear. “Open your eyes, Mulder, I’m serious. Fox Mulder, get up now.”

His first name rolled unnaturally off my tongue, as if it didn’t really belong to him, but there’s something to be said for the instinctive reaction to mothers. It didn’t help, though.

Something was very wrong, and in one instant I regretted

every action I’d taken in this case, especially having gone along with this hare-brained scheme. I pressed the call button for the nurse. Then I cupped his cheek and lifted one eyelid with my thumb. His pupil was dilated. It tracked nothing.

Could someone have come into the room last night? How? There was no way we would both have slept through it. (Had I been too tired? Had I missed something? Don’t think that, no time now.)

Administration. There had to be a route of administration. Mulder hadn’t eaten anything that had been intended for him, so it had to be gas or injection, and since I wasn’t affected, it had to be injection. The IV was the obvious choice, so either the killer had known the IV was a fake (but then he would also know that Mulder wasn’t who he claimed to be—that didn’t fit the M.O.), or the killer always used an alternative route. But Mulder wouldn’t have slept through being stuck with a needle.

Nonetheless, it was the only lead I had, so I pulled back the blankets and started with the soles of his feet. They were calloused but free of marks. I ran my hands over his calves and then his thighs, my fingers searching for swelling while my eyes searched for redness. His arms, his neck—save for the old scars, his skin was unblemished. I unfastened the hospital gown to check his back and buttocks, but still nothing. I was about to roll him over when JoAnn entered.

“There a problem?” she asked.

Suspicious of anything now, I frowned at her. “What are you doing here? I thought your shift ended at six.”

“I’m doing twelve-hour shifts this week,” she answered curtly. “What’s the problem?”

“My partner’s unconscious.”

Her brow furrowed and her eyes narrowed. “Sure he’s not just a heavy sleeper?”

I was about to remind her, not very nicely, of several items on my curriculum vitae, when she crossed to the opposite side of the bed with an authoritative swagger and bent over Mulder’s face. Apparently her comment was just her brand of bedside manner, and I tried to be forgiving, I really did. She tapped her hand against his cheek three times with pressure somewhere between a pat and a smack. “Mr. Mulder,” she barked, loud near his ear, and even I, two feet away, winced.

She looked up at me. “Did he take any medication?”

“No,” I said, keeping my tone urgent but unpanicked. “He wasn’t exposed to anything that could have done this. I know that. Were you awake all night? Did you see anyone strange on the floor at all? Anything out of the ordinary?”

“Not a thing. Do you really think—”

I cut her off. “Call the E.R.,” I said. “Tell them we’re bringing down a patient. Now.”

She opened her mouth to protest, but I was already unplugging the tubes and wires and my sharp tone must’ve invoked some military instinct, because she obeyed even though I could see her hesitation. Five minutes later we were in the elevator, and though it dropped to the ground floor fast, it was no match for my rhythm of my heart.

What could I have missed?

~~~~~

11:32 a.m.

Everything in the waiting room smelled like plastic, even the people. There was a surprisingly large number of people for a Monday morning, including two young children who kept chasing each other over and under the chairs, oblivious to the many miniature dramas playing out around them. Their mother was too busy crying to stop them, and I wanted with a palpable desperation to escape from all these passive audiences and do something, but they’d already thrown me out of the room twice.

Four doctors, and they couldn’t figure out what was wrong. A tox screen had already come back clean, his EEG showed alpha activity, his heart rate was slow and getting slower but not yet crawling. Preliminary metabolic tests suggested his metabolic rates were declining and there was some concern for his kidneys, but no one could say anything definite.

At times like these, it’s best to keep moving. My body and mind both know this routine by heart; it’s like walking a tightrope. You take each step as it’s necessary, letting your body balance you on autopilot, and even though you want to hurry, you don’t permit it. You look to neither side and, most certainly, you do not look down.

I did not want to let myself consider the possibility of losing Mulder this way, nor did I want to ask whether I had failed him somehow; if I did lose him, there would be plenty of time for that later. But it was difficult,

pacing here in this plastic room, not to think about the hard floor below, or the absence of a safety net.

So I was more relieved than anxious when Dr. Bannerjee, one of the few physicians I’ve met who was actually smaller than me, summoned me back into the room.

Mulder lay still on the gurney, exactly as I’d seen him before, but decked out in more wires than a Christmas tree. They stood out in dark relief against his skin, crisscrossing his body into a mosaic of pallid flesh. I resented the respectful silence of the doctors as I moved to his head, indulged my hand briefly with the sensation of his hair. I wanted to scream at them to stop acting like he was dead, to stop giving me the right to grieve, but instead I only took a step backward and looked expectantly at Bannerjee.

She stood with her arms folded around a chart, her long hair wound into a bun so tight it pulled the skin back from her face. I appreciated this—it told me she was precise and I trusted that.

“I understand that you’ll want to hear everything,” she told me, and I nodded. “We’ve got him on maximum pressors, since his blood pressure’s been falling as his heart rate declines. They seem to be slowing the decay, but not by much. We tried the heating pad for awhile, because his symptoms vaguely resemble those of a hypothermic victim, but it didn’t seem to be helping. We took throat and rectal cultures, did a full blood workup, but there’s absolutely nothing unusual so far. Of course, we may have to wait a day or two on the complete culture results, but we’d have expected fever and rise in neutrophil count if this were some kind of infection, and we’re just not seeing that. There seems to be brain activity, though, and we’d like to do a perfusion MRI and a transcranial Doppler to determine the region of damage.”

“Damage?” I asked, hoping that my voice didn’t sound as panicked to her ears as it did to mine. “There’s no evidence of head trauma, his pupils are normal, and he has no history of seizure.” At least, not when undrugged, I added silently.

“The drop in blood pressure may indicate an aneurysm, Dr. Scully. He presents catatonic, but his EEG is inconsistent with that—could also be post-stroke paralysis.”

“There haven’t been any arrhythmias, right? A stroke is extraordinarily unlikely.” For a moment, the image of spending the rest of my life caring for a permanently paralyzed Mulder flashed before my eyes, but I jerked my head up, pulling my focus back to the tightrope.

“That’s true, but we can’t rule it out since the early morning timing is consistent with cerebral thrombosis. This case is unusual in many respects.”

She had no idea.

“There was no evidence of aneurysm in previous victims,” I said, and Bannerjee frowned.

“This is what I’m not clear on, Dr. Scully. You believe this has happened before?”

“Yes—it’s what we were investigating. I have reason to believe it’s the same phenomenon.” I folded my arms over my chest. “Please, run the MRI first. The calcium channel blockers had no effect?”

“Not that we can observe, and neither did the betapin or capazide. We’re at something of a loss, here, Dr. Scully, and although he doesn’t appear to be in danger yet, he’s definitely declining. If you have information on other patients who may have suffered from this, I suggest you provide us with it immediately. Though it may be standard operating procedure for the FBI, I don’t approve of secrecy when lives are at risk.”

“Neither do I,” I muttered. “Listen, Dr. Bannerjee, I believe others have fallen victim to something similar to this, but my examination of their records has revealed nothing of—”

I was interrupted when the door banged open and a P.A. stuck her head inside. “Dr. Bannerjee!” she cried. “We have another one!”

“Another what?” Bannerjee asked.

“Like him!” The assistant pointed at Mulder’s prone figure. “Just arrived, room two. Here’s the chart—the name’s ‘von Deer.’”

Vindication had never tasted so sour.

~~~~~

12:12 p.m.

I followed Bannerjee through the swinging doors, and no one paid sufficient attention to me to stop me. Room two was just down the hall and I expected to see von Deer arrayed like my partner when I entered but he was standing beside the table, frantically jabbering at the young nurse at his side.

“I don’t understand it,” he was saying. “I can’t explain it—I’m a neurologist and I’ve never seen anything like it. She just won’t wake up!”

A glimmer of understanding penetrated the dark helplessness of my brain.

“You’re a neurologist, Mr.—Dr.—von Deer?” Bannerjee interrupted, crossing the room.

“Yes, at this hospital! I—” He saw me. Squinted, as if trying to remember where he’d seen me before.

I wasn’t going to wait for him. I flipped my badge out of my back pocket. “Dana Scully, FBI,” I said. “You’re going to have to come with me, sir. Now.”

Bannerjee turned on me. “Dr. Scully, I hardly think—”

“FBI?” von Deer cried at the same moment. “Weren’t you just in my office—?”

“Yes, I was,” I said, silencing them both. “And my partner is now in the same condition as your wife, so you and I have a few things to talk about. Let Dr. Bannerjee take care of her and come with me.”

The naked fear and uncertainty in his eyes was unjustifiably gratifying. “But, Eleanor…” he began.

“She’s not going anywhere,” I said, and slipped my hand significantly into my purse. There are times when the depths of my determination frighten even me.

He swallowed. “I need to fill out the forms,” he said, his voice creaky with age and nervousness. “Then we can talk.”

I gave him a short, curt nod and gestured for him to precede me from the room, determined not to let him out of my sight.

“I don’t understand,” he said to me once we were out of the room. “Your husband—”

“He’s not my husband. He’s my partner.”

Von Deer attempted to execute a rueful laugh, but it came out more like a strangled groan. “I figured you people would come try to shut me down sooner or later. Why not? Everyone else has.”

I edged him toward the admitting desk. “Everyone who?”

“The police, the AMA, the Pennsylvania Attorney General…never gets beyond a preliminary investigation, though. You’d be surprised who some of my subjects are. The hospital director doesn’t even—”

I cut off this now-irrelevant monologue. “Dr. von Deer, my partner and I are investigating a series of suspicious, unclassified deaths at this hospital. Ever heard of Christina Yates?”

He stopped, frowned down at me. “No,” he said, with a faintly puzzled expression. “You mean, you weren’t investigating me?”

I declined to answer, instead pointing him to the admitting counter. “Fill out the forms for your wife,” I told him.

A ghost of a memory passed through his eyes and he sighed sadly. “Ah, Eleanor….” Then my earlier words registered with him. “But you say your partner is in the same condition?”

I turned to the nurse behind the desk. “This man needs paperwork for his wife in room two.” My tone was sharp enough that she didn’t even look to him for confirmation, just handed him a clipboard.

I was watching him fumble for his insurance card when a hand landed on my arm. I was so drawn so tense that I almost pulled my gun as I whirled around, but before I saw him, his handsome accent identified him.

“Agent Scully,” said Father Thomas. And then he looked past me. “Arthur, what are you doing here?”

I stepped back, taking a more strategic position from which I could face them both. “You two know each other?”

Von Deer looked reluctant to explain, but Thomas cleared his throat and said, “I’ve…been a patient of Arthur’s for about a month now.”

“Oh, really?” I smirked. “Perhaps you’ve been involved in some of his more…experimental therapy?”

Thomas’ eyes widened and he looked to von Deer. “Does she—?” He left the sentence hanging.

Von Deer nodded. “She knows.”

“Oh, this is very good,” Thomas said, bringing his hands together. “Agent Scully, Arthur’s treatment is exactly what I was going to suggest to you, to help you in your investigation, but I didn’t want to betray Arthur’s confidence. And now I hear your partner has been admitted. I’m so sorry…. Please, how is he?”

My eyes widened in horror; all these people were crazy! How could we have been so stupid, lying Mulder’s neck out on the chopping block like that? “What do you mean—his treatment would help the investigation?”

“I thought”—the priest glanced at von Deer, who regarded him calmly—“I thought that if you could speak with the victims….I’m sorry. I have been very interested in Dr. von Deer’s work for many years, and I just see so much potential application, but…but what happened to Agent Mulder?”

“That’s what I would like to know,” I growled, staring at von Deer. “What exactly were you and Eleanor doing to put her in this condition?”

“We weren’t—we were just sleeping! I thought she was sleeping in, and then she just wouldn’t wake up…” His jaw went momentarily slack and his eyes focused on some point over my head. “Wait,” he said, reaching for me. I stepped back with distaste.

“My God,” he murmured.

“Is Eleanor all right?” Thomas asked stupidly.

“How did the others die?” the doctor asked me, urgent now.

I was reluctant to tell him what we knew and what we didn’t, but hesitation was worse. Whether he was guilty or not, I needed to make him feel we knew he was. “Well,” I said, “it seems they just die in their sleep. Sound familiar?”

“My God,” von Deer repeated. “I think I understand. Please, Agent Scully, I need to speak with you alone. Let’s go to my office.”

With significant effort, I refrained from reminding him who was in charge here, but I made sure he walked in front.

~~~~~

I followed him into his office, and he closed the door behind us, moved automatically to the chair on the opposite side of his desk. “Please, sit,” he said, gesturing at the empty chair beside me.

I eased myself stiffly into the chair, coiled like a spring.

“When did the deaths begin?” he asked, and despite myself I admired his grim resolution.

“Eight months ago,” I said. “Not long after the prayer book appeared in the chapel.”

“The chapel,” he breathed, and I leaned forward.

“What’s the significance of the chapel?”

He shook his head, looked down at his blotter. “Eleanor goes there a lot. I used to pick her up for dinner there, after…”

“After what?”

“After she found out about my affair. I think that’s what did her in. You know, I used to do it all the time, when we were younger, and she never cared, just laughed it off. Said that boys would always be boys. But after our daughter died, well, we needed each other in a different way then.”

My distaste for this man had just plumbed new depths. “You mean, you were a lifetime adulterer.”

He smiled sadly at me. “You make it sound so…gauche, Agent Scully. We had an agreement. An open marriage. She had her share of flings with the young doctors, I with the young nurses. It wasn’t so unusual then. Not as unusual as you young people think.”

“Get to the point,” I growled.

He spread his hands apologetically. “There isn’t much of one. I met a young nurse about a year ago, and Eleanor had grown so difficult to live with…things just happened. I’ve come to terms with my daughter’s death. I’ve spoken to her. I’ve made things right between us. But Eleanor—she never could.”

“I thought she’d tried your ‘therapy’ dozens of times.”

“She has,” he acknowledged. “More than anyone, orders of magnitude more. But she’s never spoken to our daughter. She didn’t want to.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. It’s too painful for her, I guess, but she won’t tell me that. She’s grown so distant from me in the last many years, I don’t even know her anymore. Thirty-seven years together, and this is all we’re left with. I don’t know her…”—his voice grew softer and his eyes lowered—“and that’s why I’m afraid she might be responsible for your partner’s condition.”

I was a hair’s breadth away from choking this man with his own tie. “What do you mean?” I asked, clear and incisive.

“She always told me that she was interested in NDEs, but I think she said that only for my benefit. She read a lot about transcendent consciousness, about New Age spiritualism, and I think that’s where her interest in my research lay. That was fine with me—I needed her as an assistant and whatever sparked her flame was good for both of us. But she spoke once or twice of crossing the border to the spirit world at will, without the drugs. And now I’m beginning to suspect she may have achieved that.”

I frowned. “So—what? You think she’s luring patients to their deaths by talking to their…their souls? Just to get even with you?”

He sighed. “No,” he said, his voice husky. “To get even with God.”

God. No wonder Mulder found this man compelling. He was a profile waiting to be written.

“The only thing I don’t understand,” he continued, “is why she would target your partner. He wasn’t even a patient…”

“No,” I admitted. “He was. We even added a prayer to the prayer book for him—that’s how the victims were selected.”

“My God,” he whispered. “My God. When my daughter died, she…all Eleanor did was pray.”

“Why are you telling me this?” I asked. “Aren’t you afraid you’re betraying your wife?”

He swallowed, and there was a long silence while he considered his response. “Agent Scully, I betrayed my wife

a long time ago. And in the intervening time she’s betrayed herself. I believe very strongly in the sanctity of human life; that’s why understanding NDEs is so important to me. If she is violating that…” His voice trailed off and he wiped at the back of his eyes with one hand.

“It doesn’t make sense,” I said, emotionally oblivious to his display. “The other deaths occurred quickly. If this had happened before, why didn’t you notice?”

“I don’t know,” he admitted, trying to imitate my professional tone but failing. “My theory would be that the others were all genuinely closer to death, and so it may have been easier to help them or convince them to cross to the other side. Your partner isn’t ready to die yet, so perhaps they are engaged in a serious struggle on the border between the living and the dead. If that’s true, you have to admit it would have fascinating implications for our understanding of consciousness, as well as my research.”

I clenched my fingers into fists and leaned forward menacingly. “That’s hardly my concern at the moment,” I snapped. “Your ‘research’ is not only scientifically questionable but morally reprehensible, and it is directly responsible for this entire situation. My partner may be dying, and if he does, I swear I’ll kill you, no matter whose fault it is.”

This time, von Deer didn’t even wince at the threat. Instead, there was a long silence, as he considered answering and I considered hanging him from the windowsill.

He cut through the tension first. “Are you close to him?” he asked.

I blinked. That had been unexpected. “We’ve been partners for a long time,” I said, wary.

Von Deer was nodding slowly, his eyes distant and unfocused. “Then I think you have to go get him.”

My words whipped across the room like lightening, startling him out of his odd trance. “What do you mean?”

He leaned over the desk until our faces were mere inches

apart. “Agent Scully,” he said, enunciating every syllable as if pronouncing a foreign language. “Would you die for him?”

In less than a second, my mind replayed for me every adrenaline-soaked scenario I’ve played out with Mulder, every life we owe one another. “He’s my partner,” I repeated, because that was all the answer there could be.

Von Deer nodded, satisfied. “Good,” he said. “Because that’s what you have to do.”

His words sank in, and the oh-so-recent vision of my partner, the one engendered in this very room, resurfaced. Looking through me with dead eyes as he lay on a table of

granite, he said in perfect Muldervoice, “Scully. I’m so glad you’re here!” and then convulsed obscenely, as he had beneath my defibrillator in Alaska years ago. I shivered.

“You’re crazy,” I hissed at von Deer, who watched me like a mouse in the shadow of a hawk, apprehensive but eerily certain of survival in his stillness.

I heard Mulder’s voice in my head, taunting me gently. “I think if you looked up from your microscope, you’d find what’s really missing is a motive. Are you still afraid to believe?”

I dismissed the apparition and rose from the chair. This was no time for reflection on the past.

~~~~~

Chapter 6

Neither Flinch Nor Smile

8:56 p.m.

Had Mulder’s condition improved, I would not have even considered von Deer’s “plan,” but when the Bannerjee went home at eight, leaving my partner confined to the care of ICU nurses, my assessment of the situation grew considerably more urgent. Four neurologists had examined both Mulder and Eleanor von Deer, but no one could explain or help them. They had made phone calls and solicited email consultations from around the world, but no leads had surfaced.

The MRI and transcranial ultrasound had revealed no embolisms, but his metabolism continued to slow, and his heart had stopped once. So had mine, but when they managed to restabilize him mine came back online. The doctor had put him on tissue plasminogen activator as if he were a stroke victim, despite the inconsistent blood gas and EEG—she didn’t know what else to do.

“I’m sorry,” Bannerjee had told me. “I think we can only wait now. Maybe someone will have come up with something by morning.”

“If he continues failing at the same rate he is now,” I said, “he’ll be dead by morning.”

“Let’s hope not,” she said, in an expertly condescending doctor-voice. “I’m going to do some reading and make some phone calls tonight, and if I think of anything, we’ll be sure to act quickly.”

I wanted to shake her, to scream at her to understand that the man on that gurney was Fox Mulder, how could she even think of going home? How could she be so complacent?

But I didn’t, only too aware that to her, Mulder was just another number, another puzzle, another victim. Like the dead sometimes became to me.

So I tried another tack. “I certainly hope so. If a federal agent dies for no explainable reason in this hospital, you’re going to have one hell of a public relations problem.” I saw no need to mention that what the public would do would be nothing compared to what I would do.

Instead, I cursed myself for not having taken that neurology rotation nine years ago, for having gone along with this stupid plan, for having ever met Mulder in the first place. No. I exhaled deeply. Not that. Never that.

Damn him.

I’d tried to slip unnoticed into the ICU, but even my badge-flashing and doctor-voice couldn’t get me through that barrage of nurses, who were obviously quite accustomed to obstinance. “I don’t care who you are, ma’am, your presence could endanger any of the patients here. Now, do I have to call security?”

“I am security,” I told her, before turning on my heel and stalking away.

I returned to the library, where I’d spent a few hours earlier in the day, and resumed my MEDLINE search, now limiting it to studies conducted before 1975. That’s where Dr. von Deer found me again.

He had been with me off and on throughout the day as the team of doctors tried to engineer treatment avenues for Mulder and Eleanor, but we hadn’t spoken directly to each other since that morning. I still harbored suspicions about his own innocence in all of this, and as far as his lunatic explanation went, I simply didn’t know what to believe.

“They won’t let me see her,” he told me, his voice hitching. I felt no sympathy.

I stood up from the computer, placed my hands on the back of my chair. “You realize,” I said, and the words flowed like molten steel from my mouth, solidifying instantly upon contacting the air, “that I fully intend to see your research shut down and yourself in prison even if he lives.”

He looked at the floor. “I don’t care. My wife is dying,” he mumbled. “I know you don’t believe in my work, Agent Scully. But…but I wondered if you had considered my suggestion.”

I had tried not to.

“The doctors don’t know what to do because we’re not dealing with a pathology here,” he continued. “We’re dealing with something that is beyond what we know, that can’t be referenced or categorized—”

“Shut up.”

The words were out of my mouth before I knew they were coming. How unfair, to invoke Mulder himself like that.

“I’m sorry,” he said quickly, looking up. “What did I say?”

I didn’t answer.

“It’s the only way to save your partner’s life, Agent Scully,” the man repeated, soft and urgent. “And maybe my wife’s as well.”

Still, I said nothing. Instead, I remembered in the space of a second every argument we’ve ever had, every debate we’ve ever played out, every single damnable time he’d seemed right but I couldn’t prove it. Mulder has almost never believed me, but he has almost always believed in me. Did I have to believe to do this?

At some point in linear thought, philosophy succumbs to baser instincts, and I think I had crossed that bridge.

I sighed, and the air became lead. “What do I have to do?” I asked, resigned.

Who was compromising now?

~~~~~

11:31 p.m.

Shortly after the new nursing shift arrived in the ICU, von Deer and I entered, twin orderlies in polyester blue scrubs.

“We’re here for Fox Mulder and Eleanor von Deer,” the newly demoted doctor told the woman at the nurse’s station.

“Oh, right, for the hypobaric treatment?” she asked in the cheery tone possible only for those who’d been at work less than an hour. “Dr. Bannerjee just called. Rooms 5 and 6.”

Actually, I, not Dr. Bannerjee, had just called, but I wasn’t going to correct her. I went to retrieve my partner

while von Deer went after his wife.

Mulder’s complexion was more pallid than when I saw him last. His lips were white, his breathing shallow. The nurse’s station had a clear view of me through the glass window on the wall, and for this reason alone I suppressed the irrational desire to touch him. This was probably a good decision in more ways than one; I knew the cold feel of his skin would only amplify the cold settled in my stomach.

The IV was real this time, and so it had to come with us. My first attempt to push the bed out of the room was thwarted by the need to drag the IV, but after another false start I found the right way to do this, guiding both the bed and the IV stand in my right hand. I hoped the nurses hadn’t noticed.

I followed him and his gurney in silence through the now-quiet hospital, and soon we entered the same room we’d used Saturday morning, when Mulder had lain on another gurney.

Von Deer pulled his wife’s bed up next to Mulder’s and then he retrieved a third gurney from the corner. The room was starting to look like a morbid parody of a parking garage.

“I’ll leave you alone to get undressed,” he told me then. “I’ll be just outside.”

I nodded. He trailed his fingertips along his wife’s limp arm as he walked toward the door.

Then I was alone with the two unconscious figures.

I moved to Mulder’s side and swallowed. “Listen, partner,” I whispered, leaning down to his ear. “Seems you’ve been doing a lot of laying around on the job. How about giving me a hand here?”

To emphasize the point, I closed my hand over his, hoping to feel his fingers miraculously press back. His flesh was cold, colder than I’d been prepared for.

“Please, Mulder,” I whispered. “Don’t keep this up just to prove a point, okay? I’ll say you were right about it all if you’ll just come back.”

Okay, so I was lying, but Mulder’s impossible to bargain with anyway. Except maybe when it comes to me.

“Mulder, it’s Scully,” I told him, my breath stirring the hairs above his ear. “I’m trying something crazy, partner. You’d be proud of me. Come back to me now and I won’t have to go looking for you.”

I had meant to say something more severe, that my life was in danger, but that wasn’t a confession I was prepared to make. It was too hard to say. After all these years of playing a caryatid pillar to his tired Atlas, would he even believe me if I told him I needed him?

True to form, he didn’t stir. I leaned forward to kiss his brow, soft and long. When I moved away from him, the memory of his papery skin on my lips came with me.

I unholstered my weapon and lay it near Mulder’s hip, then shucked off my jacket and folded it over on top of the gun. Blouse and slacks followed. Von Deer returned just as I settled myself on the vacant gurney and was pulling the sheet up over my underwear-clad body.

He wheeled the crash cart over to my side and then went to retrieve the heart monitor. “I suppose it’s out of the question to ask if I can connect you to an EEG,” he commented, and my fireball glare was answer enough.

“I believe that’s a ‘yes.’” He gave me a nervous smile, but I didn’t return it.

He finished assembling his supplies while I watched. A strange serenity had settled over me now that my had all but sealed my commitment, and when von Deer gestured at the sheet and said, “May I?” I nodded calmly.

He peeled back the blue sheet and gently turned my leg to find a vein in my thigh. I grimaced involuntarily when I felt the needle enter; the pain was sudden and sharp, a promise of violation to come. He adjusted a knob on the IV, and I knew that the opiate was now flowing into my blood.

“You’ll have to remove your bra,” he told me. “The wire can burn you during defib.”

The trick to being naked in front of people is to neither flinch nor smile; they will inevitably end up more embarrassed than you. I can accomplish that easily; however the prospect of being naked in front of this man was somehow more deplorable than placing my life in his hands.

Nonetheless, pulled myself up enough to unhook my bra, and he placed on top of the pile of my clothes. If he’d let his eyes linger anywhere I might have ruined all our plans by killing him then and there, but professional efficiency was all I could detect in his demeanor as he attached the leads to my chest in an Einthoven’s triangle—one on either shoulder and one just above my navel.

“I’m going to add the NMDA now,” he told. “You may begin hallucinating, but the KCl will come shortly thereafter. You’ll feel a brief, instinctive moment of panic, and then you’ll feel nothing. Are you ready?”

“Do it,” I told him. My head already felt lighter, though, and my voice sounded smaller than I had intended.

He loaded a syringe from a brown vial, then stuck the needle into the IV. “Please,” he said then. “Bring her back too.” Then he depressed the plunger.

A minute passed, and I felt nothing. Von Deer seemed to be getting further and further away, though I could not see him moving. When I turned my head toward my partner, whom I knew lay only five feet away, it seemed as if his bed was miles off, and I started to say something to him, but before I could open my mouth a roaring overtook my senses, like a wave breaking over me.

Was this what it felt like to die? Odd, you’d think I would experienced that before now.

~~~~~

Chapter 7

Nothing Can Bring Me Closer

I open my eyes and falter, almost losing my balance. I put my hand out to alter my center of gravity and see that my arm is clad in a maroon suit jacket. Where that came from, I don’t know. I appraise my body quickly—yes, I am most definitely dressed, and in a suit, no less.

I know where I am, of course I know. The office. The basement office, before the fire. A quick glance around the room tells me it was before more than that. All the newsclippings about our cases, the photos behind Mulder’s chair—these things have been replaced by much older pictures which I feel I should recognize but don’t. Werewolves and UFOs.

I am standing in, not only the pre-fire office, but the pre-Scully office. To my right are the familiar filing cabinets, and, on an inspired hunch, I jerk open the top drawer, looking for my own name. It isn’t there.

“Scully.” Mulder’s voice startles me. When did he enter the room? I whirl—he is standing in the back corner, in what he once called my “area,” his body partially masked in darkness. “Scully,” he repeats. “What are you doing here?”

“What do you mean?” I ask, closing the door and stepping toward him. He steps back and I stop, uncertain. “I—I came after you.”

“Go away, Scully,” he orders.

I take another step forward, he another step back. “Is that what you really want?” I ask. “Mulder, where are we? Is this—?” I’m not sure how to finish.

“I’d think that would be obvious,” he replies. “Don’t you recognize it?”

“Yes, but—”

“Why the hell are you here?” he interrupts, and now he moves out of the shadows, skirting me widely as he makes for his desk. “I thought you didn’t believe.”

“I—I—in near death experience, you mean? I don’t, at least, not by this method.”

Mulder quirks an eyebrow at me. “Yet here you are. Pretty irrational move, then. So the perfect Dana Scully isn’t as perfect as she thought, huh?”

My brow furrows and I fold her arms, frowning at my partner. He’s younger, somehow, though I can’t be sure. “I came to help you, Mulder,” I say, as if that should explain everything.

“I don’t need your help,” he says, imitating my own that-should-be-obvious tone. “Go back to wherever you came from. There’s the door.”

He points behind me, extending one long, tapered finger. I follow his gesture with my eyes and blink several times. The door is not the wooden door I’d expected to see but a shiny chrome elevator door that opens directly on the office.

I let this anomaly slide.

“I’m not leaving without you,” I tell him, trying to sound more confident than I feel.

Mulder leans his hip against his desk, smirks at me. “Oh, isn’t that just beautiful. Loyal Agent Scully once again saving her partner from himself. I’m all torn up, see these tears in my eyes?”

I take a step toward him. “Mulder, you’ve been hurt somehow, you’re very sick. I don’t know what you think this place is, but you need to come with me, we need to go back. This isn’t real.”

He cocks his thumb and forefinger at me and winks. “Thanks for the advice, Mom, but I’m really not in the mood for your patronizing today, hard to believe though that may be.”

I frown in consternation. “What are you talking about, Mulder?”

“I’m talking about you, darling,” he replies, and now he takes a step toward me and I want suddenly to move away from him but fear my high heels might give out—I feel like I am teetering just standing there. “I’m talking,” he continues, “about dear, perfect little Dana Scully. All she wanted to do was to make her daddy proud, and so she’ll put up with anything, even me. Then when I screw up she can sigh condescendingly and forgive me anyway because that’s what perfect little girls do, isn’t it, Scully? Did you learn that from your mom?”

“Mulder!”

He takes another step toward me, grinning now. “What? Did I say something mean and insensitive? Oh, I’m so sorry. But you’ll forgive me, right? Otherwise I’d be very disappointed.” He enunciates his words with a sad shake of his head, like that of a parent regarding an errant child, then he snaps his fingers. “Hey, Scully, what’s that thing on your neck?”

Just as he voices the words, I feel it against my throat—cool, scaly skin—and my hands grope instinctively for my neck, but now it has moved inside my blouse. I cry out, an embarrassing, childish cry, and rip my jacket off, tearing buttons. I can feel it, slithering beneath my left breast, trapped against my skin by her bra, preparing to bite me, and all I can think is that I have to get it off.

I struggle, trying to tear off my blouse, but I can’t figure out whether it is a pullover or a button-down. “Mulder, it’s a snake!” I cry, but he is laughing at me, even though he knows how much I hate snakes. “Mulder, help me!”

“Mulder, help me!” he mimics, laughing harder.

“Shit!” I curse, and finally manage to tear the blouse away just as the snake slithers out of my bra cup and down my sternum.

“Don’t move, Scully,” Mulder warns, no longer laughing. “It’ll bite you if you move.”

My eyes wide and my chest heaving with fear I can’t even acknowledge, I watch the thing travel down my belly to my navel, where it flicks its tiny, forked tongue at the edges. It has the strangest colors—blue with stripes of red, and its no bigger than a garter snake—I try frantically to decide if I have ever seen a picture of such a creature and whether it is poisonous.

I have seen it somewhere, I am sure of it.

Mulder’s gaze is fastened to it, his eyes a little glazed like I imagine they get when he sits alone at night with his fly open and the blue television flickering. Have I really imagined that or did the image just birth itself? “Two steps forward….” he whispers to himself, and licks his lips.

“Mulder!” I hiss, struggling to keep my breathing even, to keep her chest from heaving, as the snake tickles my navel. “Help me!”

“It’ll bite you,” he insists. “It’ll bite us both if we move. It’s very poisonous.”

My eyes flicker around the room, looking for anything that might help. My bra is sticking to my flesh, outlining erect nipples, and I feel an abrupt, ridiculous flash of shame at this immodesty.

“You know what, Scully?” Mulder says, as casually as if we are discussing the weather. “You should stop to consider whether I want your help, before you come rushing in to rescue me. Maybe I’m so sick of your martyr routine and your pathetic attempts to show what a strong person you are that I’d rather die than be subjected once again to your holier-than-thou judgment the part and parcel to the Dana Scully Rescue Package.”

Tears prick my eyes now, but he doesn’t care. The snake moves away from my navel, curls down to my waistband and begins to circle my waist. I bite my lip and closes my eyes, willing myself to breathe slowly. Somehow it’s worse when I can’t see it, can only feel its rough skin caressing my own.

“You know who I’d rather be rescued by?” Mulder continues. “I know it sounds crazy, but hang on, hear me out. The Energizer Bunny. It may be pink, but at least it’s got some personality, at least after it’s all over we can trade shades and high-five each other and frankly, since I think it’s your goal in life to prove you’re battery-driven too, well, the quality of the rescue is likely to still be the same, right?”

It’s getting hard to remember that this is only a hallucination. But I have come here to find Mulder, and here he is. Is this his subconscious? Is this Mulder’s soul? I swallow; the snake winds back into view, still traveling along my waistband. Its beady red eyes focus straight ahead, seemingly unaware that it’s traveling on a living being.

“That’s what you’re trying to be, isn’t it, Scully?” Mulder continues, folding his arms over his chest and smirking at my discomfort. “A machine? A lithium creature of perfect rationality. Invincible and infallible.”

The snake noses at the front of my waistband, and I stiffen as I feel its head move between my skin and my underpants. “Mulder…” I plead, fists clenching.

He grins. “What? Never had a snake in your pants?”

These words break the spell. It’s not real, it’s not real, it’s not real. I seize the snake with my right hand, tear it away and cast it aside before either it or Mulder can react. It hits the floor, bounces once, and quickly slithers off between the filing cabinets. I exhale deeply with relief, then round on him.

“You’re not Mulder.” There is more confidence behind my declaration than I feel, but I’m rewarded when the visage before me falters. “This is some kind of trick. You’ve gotten into his head but you’re not him. Who are you?”

The man who looks like Mulder was surprised but he recovers quickly. “You’re right; I’m not him-I’m his soul. What I believe is what he really believes. This is what he really thinks of you, Dana. Scully.”

I reach behind me for my gun. It’s not there. The man who looks like Mulder laughs, advancing on me. I take a step back and bump into the desk. He takes a swing at me, lashing out with the back of his fist. I duck, but he anticipates that; he connects with my jaw. Red-hot pain explodes in my head. I fall to the floor and he kicks my gut. The pain takes my breath away.

He is standing over me, laughing. He nudges my cheek with his shoe. He’s not Mulder. He’s—

“Look,” he says. “You came here on your own. You don’t have to stay. There’s the door.”

With that he turns and walks away, somewhere behind my head. I sit, groaning with pain. The elevator button marked “up” is level with my head. All I have to do is reach it.

But in the direction my assailant took, where minutes ago there stood a wall, there is now a long, dark tunnel. I get to my feet and look at the elevator, then at the tunnel. Limping, clutching my bruised abdomen, I hobble away from the elevator and into the black.

I walk and I walk, for what feels like miles. There is nothing around me; I cannot even see my own hands. The floor and walls are formlessly smooth. Hours or minutes pass; I’m not sure which. But at last there is a tiny light, a pinprick of white somewhere far ahead. My breath catches in my throat. If I follow it, will I die?

Did Mulder?

Mulder had told me to leave, pointed at the door. But that wasn’t Mulder. Which means that someone or something didn’t want me to go on. And whatever that thing was, it was not something worth trusting. Whatever it wants me to do, I must do the opposite. But I am starting to understand. I can easily see now how someone with less experience of the paranormal than I, someone who hasn’t already confronted a loved one’s doppelganger (more than once) could be fooled.

So I walk on. The light grows bigger and brighter, and suddenly I step out of the tunnel and into a vast, sand-soaked desert. The setting sun casts blue and purple shadows in the otherwise golden sand, and a chill breeze stirs the dunes into low-swirling clouds of dust.

I look around; I am alone. My clothes have been replaced by a dark blue gown. I’m already cold. I rub at my still-throbbing jaw as I consider my predicament. What can I do but set out across the dunes, a nomad in a foreign land?

But it’s not so foreign. I remember. I know this place. I have dreamt of it before, though it was darker in my dream. Emptiness, loneliness, detachment: these were the colors of my dream-desert. Strange—they are not all that different from those of the office I just visited.

The office came from Mulder’s memory; this place comes from mine. How is she doing this?

“Eleanor!” I cry, my voice lost on the wind. “Show yourself!”

But there is no answer. And my mind is starting to drift. It’s not real, I remind myself. It’s not—

My toes sift through the cold sand, and suddenly I am caught in a memory. I am on a beach with my family, just a little girl. An Okinawan beach in wintertime, when the water is warmer than the air. My mother has told them it was too cold to swim, but Bill and my father have gone splashing into the water anyway, and I want to go with them. I am just as fast. I want to play too. I creep into the breaking waves when my mother isn’t looking, and Bill sees. He tattles on me. “Get out of here, Dana! You’re too little.”

At his shout, Mom comes running down to the water’s edge and tries to grab at my slippery body, but I run further out into the waves, where my father stands, hip-deep, watching with bemused indecision. I saw my father’s smile, widening to a laugh, encouraging me with pride. Then a wave broke around my waist, sending me sprawling. I tumble under the water, swallowing a mouthful of salt as my mother screams.

I imagined this must be what clothes feel like in a washing machine, tossed about, soaking water in through every pore, panicked and gasping for air but tasting only salt. Then my father’s strong arms capture me, carrying me in swift, long strides onto the sand—the cold, cold sand—where he sits me down and thumps my back, one arm around my shoulders. I cough and sputter, crying for the pain behind the bridge of my nose, and Bill stands over me, hands on his hips. “I told you you were too little,” he says. I kick sand at him and cry harder.

Then I am myself again, my present self, though I can still feel that same pain now, between my eyes. It might be a ghost of a tumor, for all I know. There are many ghosts here, in this empty desert.

The stars make their debut now, twinkling balefully on the horizon. I can’t see the tunnel anymore, and my tracks are quickly covered by windblown sand as I walk. The dunes seem higher now, and though their smooth shadows are beautiful, it’s a desolate beauty, in a way like my own.

I pause at the top of a slope to get my bearings, and, if I look into the setting sun, I think I can see a place where the sun merges with the horizon, bending and reflecting as if striking water. Water? I’m thirsty, very thirsty.

I hurry down the dune, stumbling once or twice as I trip on the gown. It can’t be a mirage; it’s not hot enough. But laws of nature don’t follow here; I’m not sure what to believe or expect.

So I’m unsurprised when, after the sun has vanished and I’ve traveled another mile or so, my feet meet with the edge of what seemed to be a vast ocean. Waves lap gently, unobtrusively, against the shore, and I kneel, dip one finger in the water and taste…

Salt.

“Starbuck Ahoy!”

The voice startles me—I leap to my feet and crane my neck frantically up and down the coast, trying to pin down its source. I know the voice, though, know what I’ll see.

“Here, skipper, I’m right here!”

I squint through the darkness out across the water. Dimly, I can make out the lines of a small sailing skiff, a little two-seater with a single mast, but no sail. It hovers less than twenty yards off the coast. The voice comes from a silhouetted man standing in the stern.

“Dad?” I call, hesitant. Is this him? Mulder believed this experience would take one to the land of the dead and he, unlike Mulder, is after all dead. “What are you doing?”

He laughs, the full big-bellied laugh I remember so fondly from my childhood. That laugh had grown sparser over the years, as if the loss of his hair and his children had taken some merriment with them. “I’m sailing, honey!” he calls. “What did you think?”

“The sail’s not up, Dad,” I reply, and despite myself there is a hint of teasing in my tone. I want to believe this is him.

He shrugs. “No wind.”

I realize that I have taken several steps into the sea; it’s drenching the hem of my gown. The water laps at my ankles, warm and welcoming. “Dad,” I call, “I came here looking for someone. Do you know where we are?”

But he doesn’t answer the question. “Well, what’s he look like? Maybe I’ve seen him.”

“He’s my partner,” I call. My hand cuts small circles in the air as if hoping to grab the words to describe his height, his hair, his eyes, but for some reason language fails me. “He’s….um….he’s my partner,” I repeat lamely.

“You mean your FBI partner? The crazy one? You’re not still working with him, are you?”

I draw myself up straighter. “Yes.”

Dad doesn’t speak for a moment, and I imagine I can smell his disapproval just beneath the salty breeze. “Dana,” he says at last, “You were always your own girl. I’ve always been proud of you for that.”

I fold my arms over my chest; I can hear the unspoken ‘but.’ “What are you saying?”

“Well, honey, I just never saw you following some man around while he chases after whims and delusions. You know that old saying: ‘behind every good man there’s a good woman?’ Well, it seems to me you’re trying to be that woman, and the man’s not even good. I thought I’d raised you better than that.”

A dozen sarcastic replies pop into my mind, but I choose automatically deferential words. “Wasn’t Mom always that woman to you, though, Ahab?”

“Your mother is a good woman,” he concedes. “But you’re a different kind of good woman. One who could not only keep up with the boys, but who wanted to. And now you’re still keeping up, but only so you can keep chasing after this partner of yours.”

“It’s not like that,” I protest.

“Dana,” says Ahab. “You said joined the FBI because you thought it was the right way to make a difference, but , come on. How much of a difference have you made?”

“We’ve saved lives, Dad!” I feel like I should stomp my foot. Like I’m a teenager being told I’m not good enough for the car keys.

“How do you know? Your ‘solutions’ have been elusive, crazy. And at what cost? Did you save your sister’s life?”

A flash of white light blinds me, and then, just as quick, it’s gone and there’s my father again. Somehow I have waded out into the sea. The water is lapping at my chest, but he’s still the same distance away. The hairs on the back of my neck are bristling. “How do you know?” I counter. “You weren’t even there.”

He dodges that challenge, but does not relent. “Starbuck,” he chides, reaching out for me. “If he wanted you to come for him, he would have found you by now. Why keep chasing after little green men when you could be changing the world? Come with me, Dana. Come with me, I’ll take you home.”

“But you’re”—I gesture at the water separating us with a floppy hand. The white light flashes again, and is gone.

“Well, swim out here, honey,” he says, a beneficent smile in his voice. “I know you can do it.”

“I can’t leave Mulder,” I whisper, but I feel myself taking a step anyway. The waves kiss my shoulders.

“He left you, Dana. He left you. Take your life back in your own hands. Come with me—there’s so much I’ve wanted to tell you.”

Tears prick my eyes, and I wipe them away as if batting at a fly. “No,” I repeat. “You’re not real. You’re not my father.”

“Dana!” my father says, now the stern officer. “Come out here right now.”

A cord that runs from my ankle to my neck stiffens and snaps. I’m beginning to understand. I turn around and begin slogging back to shore. It seems much further away now than I remember—did I really wade out so far?

“Starbuck!” my father calls after me.

“Go away!” I yell back, determined to keep moving.

“Starbuck,” he calls again, but the sound is fainter now.

Yet the shore lies no nearer, and the water has grown utterly still. Stumbling over the awkward gown, I try to move faster.

The sky has changed somehow—gone from dark blue to dark green, and in the blackness I can no longer make out the shore. A sickening, swampy smell invades my nostrils.

This is what has happened to all the victims. I’m sure of it now. Eleanor can trigger the NDE in herself and take someone with her. Then she summons up the images that will draw them to their deaths. She’s probably been doing the same thing to Mulder right now.

So why hasn’t she succeeded?

Maybe because he’s healthier, but probably for the same reason she’s not succeeding with me. Mulder and I have seen too much. We’re harder to convince. If only I could find him, if only we could fight her together…

I turn a 360, squinting through the darkness. My father’s boat is gone now, and the sea as well. In their place hangs a low overgrowth of wet vines and bushes. I gasp and whirl again, throwing out one arm for balance. The jungle-like vegetation surrounds me, and I hear a cacophony of bullfrogs, insects and more malicious, unidentifiable creature-noises on all sides. The noise does not seem to have begun just then—I have the eerie sensation that I’ve only just begun to notice what’s always surrounded me.

Which way had I been going? Which way lay the tunnel, and beyond it the elevator door? Turning slowly, reversing my path, I decide the tunnel must have been off to the right, and so I begin moving to the left.

It’s much harder to walk now—the muddy bottom sucks at my ankles and toes, and it’s like walking on nails, each step ginger for fear of what might lie underfoot. The leaves beside me rustle with a foreboding swoosh and I freeze, one foot in midair. I think I see yellow eyes staring at me

through the tangle, but as soon as I look directly at them, they vanish.

I shiver, hugging herself. The stench has worsened; now I can smell decay and the misplaced acridness of formaldehyde on every breath.

I hear another rustling to my left, and this time I turn faster, catching sight of a pale human hand releasing a branch so that it snaps back to hide the hand’s owner.

“Who’s there?”

No answer. I consider moving on, refusing to be drawn into yet another ploy. But how will I face her otherwise? With a determined shake of my head, I clear a muddy path toward the leafy tangle, pull it aside and looks.

Only dark, drooping vines and thorny branchlets greet me. I stretch out my hand, and can barely make out my own fingertips.

Steel fingers clamp down on my shoulder and I jump, biting back a cry of fear. Instinctively, I whirl and kick at the same time, preempting my attacker, but my foot connects with nothing and the hand stays on my shoulder. I grab at the fingers and am shocked when they come away in my grip. I’m clasping a pale, severed human hand, the wrist a bloody, tattered stump.

I gasp and drop it, stepping backwards as it sinks into the mire at my feet, fingers still clutching, claw-like, as if their owner is reaching up for help.

Something inhales deeply behind me and I whirl, then cry out at what I see.

It’s a man, or at least, it once was a man. Naked, white flesh drips with green muck from the swamp. Mud mats the remnants of both facial and pubic hair, and his eyes are grotesquely sunken, his jaw obscenely slack. “Agent Scully, right?” he hisses. “Remember me?”

I shake my head mutely, stumbling over a submerged stone as I try to move backwards. My right arm gropes at the bushes for some kind of weapon, anything.

“I’m surprised,” the thing continues in a sibilant whisper. “I’d think you would remember. After all, you did this to me.” He points at his belly, and for the first time I notice the small, oozing green hole there. A blue snake, perhaps three feet in length and as thick as my arm, slithers out of it, then skitters away down his leg.

I bite my lip to keep from screaming (not real not real), but it’s sufficient impetus to wrench free a dead log from the tangles. I brandish my weapon in front of me with both hands, holding it like a sword even though the wood is clearly rotten and will probably shatter on impact.

“What are you talking about?” I demand.

“You don’t remember?” the zombie whines. “I’m Michael Stambaugh.”

“Oh God,” I breathe. The Clyde Bruckman case. The first man I killed. But there’d been no deliberation then, and there can be none now.

“Get away from me,” I say, and the thing takes a step closer, raises its skeletal hand as if to clap me on the shoulder.

I strike at the approaching limb, and both my stick and the arm shatter. The thing screams, but suddenly it is no longer Stambaugh’s voice, but—

“Melissa!” I cry, reaching for the body as it falls.

Melissa Scully screams, struggles against my grip, but with only one arm and no hands, her writhing is useless.

“Melissa,” I repeat, bending with my sister’s weight. “Melissa, you have to stand up, come on, you have to—”

The woman gibbers helplessly, and then I see the green fluid oozing from her sister’s forehead. “Missy, hold still, please!” I beg, gripping the older woman around the waist.

But something pulls on me now, sucks greedily at Melissa’s ankles, inexorably dragging her down despite my efforts.

“No!” I cry, dropping to my knees in the muddy water. “No. Get up, damn it, stand up!”

The force keeps sucking at the helpless, blathering woman, and now the water splashes above her breasts.

Desperate, I plunge one hand beneath the murkiness, fumbling around as I try to find the thing that has captured my sister. Nothing but mud greets my fingertips, and now Melissa’s chin is beneath the water, her eyes wide with terror. “Get up, get up, get up!” I cry, now holding only to my sister’s cheeks.

Skin slides against skin, and Melissa sinks beneath the murky depths. For a second, I can still see her pale features, eyes and mouth wide, distorted by the water, but then even this vanishes, as the woman slips from my grasp.

“No!” I wail, swinging my arms wide beneath the water, hoping to catch an ear, a strand of hair, anything. But Melissa is gone.

I kneel in the mud, the water lapping at my breasts now, and a sob tears from my lips. I’ve failed Melissa again.

The mud begins to suck at my knees, and I don’t care.

Cold, slick murkiness enfolds her thighs, and the water has risen to my shoulders, but I still swing my arms uselessly through the surrounding water.

Only when it tickles my chin do I remember.

Melissa is dead.

Suddenly frantic, I thrash about, trying to release my legs from the muck. But my struggles only make me sink faster. I clasp at the slippery roots of a shrub to my right as if groping for a lifeline, but I can’t quite reach, and then the water closes over my mouth and nose.

I tip my head back to take one last gasping breath, then dive beneath the waters and stretch my body as far as it will reach toward that root. I fumble to the right and then the left, terrified I’ve lost my sense of direction, but then my fingers brush against something solid.

Catch it.

My lungs screaming for air, I pull hard, hearing the mud around my waist fight back with a vengeful sucking sound. My muscles beg for mercy, but a second later I wrap her other hand around the root and pull with both arms.

The mud releases me in a single stroke, as if it is giving birth, and, trying unsuccessfully to cough and breathe at the same time, I drag myself toward the brambles. My hair clings to my cheeks and I am painfully aware of the muddy, smelly water filling every body cavity. Fearing what might happen if I sit too long, I haul myself onto wobbly legs and keep moving, no longer caring which direction is which.

That was close. It’s getting harder to remember what is and is not real.

“Eleanor!” I scream, half to remind myself. “I know you’re there. Is this what you did to Ricardo Cabarillo? To Christina Yates? Tortured them with false visions? Lured them into death?”

The swamp swirls around me, narrowing to a single, bright focus, a shimmering white light. It shines directly into my face. Somehow gravity has failed me and I am lying on my back, strapped to a steel table. Beside me, a waist-high table boasts an array of shiny surgical instruments.

No. Not again.

A rough hand grabs my shoulder. A masked face hovers over me, checking my pupils. Everything hurts. The bright light overhead blinds her, and I try to scream but I can’t; I am conscious, but paralyzed. Cuffs snap down over my ankles, spreading my legs.

Oh, no. Oh, God, no. I know what comes next, though I can’t say how.

Animated speech rapidfires over my head, but none of it makes sense. A needle plunges between my legs, ripping me open as birth never will. A drill-like whirring descends over my belly and then white-hot fire but still, I can’t scream.

Have they drugged me? Gagged me? I can’t remember. All I know for certain is the pain, seismic tremors of pain originating at my center and radiating out to the tip of every limb. Blinding, horrible pain that should trigger shock, should force my nerves to switch off, but never do.

mother…

Why is it familiar? I have never remembered…did I dream about it? I hope not. I want this to be an imagining, some horror concocted by Eleanor. It cannot a memory; I want this to not be real, but most of all I just want this to stop.

please…

It ends as suddenly as it began, and I feel the thing withdrawn, the bonds loosen. I flex my fingers; I can move, but the only move I can make is to roll over onto my side with a soft moan, curling my knees to my chest.

The light is gone, and with it the steel table. I open my eyes, and after a second, I can make out dim outlines and a digital clock. I am lying in a bed, curled on my side. I breathe in, a deep, cleansing breath. Was it all a dream?

Pleasure has replaced all vestiges of pain, and I become gradually aware that the sensation arises from a hand on my naked skin, stroking my side slowly from shoulder to hip. I want to close her eyes and relish this welcome feeling, but I am afraid it will vanish if I do.

I make myself turn my head in slow-motion, hoping the tempo will prevent the sudden change of scenery I already anticipate.

“Hey,” says a familiar, friendly voice. A bedroom voice.

“Mulder?” I murmur, drowsy, then, as what he is doing to me registers, my voice rises several decibels. “Mulder!”

He withdraws his hand and I roll over on my back, tugging blankets up to my armpits. My partner lies on his side next to me and I feel his foot graze my calf. “Are you okay?” he asks.

“Mulder, wha—what are you doing here? What am I doing here?”

Even in the darkness I can see his wink. “What—are you experiencing missing time?” he asks.

I sit up on my elbows, swing my head from left to right. We are in a tastefully appointed bedroom I have never seen before, white walls and teak furniture. Past the sheer curtains, the indigo light suggests an hour or two before

dawn. I scan us both up and down. We are wearing nothing save a tangle of sheets.

My eyes stop on Mulder’s dark face. “Who are you?”

His brow furrows and I could almost believe I’ve hurt him. Her. It. Whatever. “Scully—wha—what do you mean?”

I pull the sheet up under my armpits and scoot away, not caring that it leaves him naked. He doesn’t seem to care either. He reaches for me, concern written in every line of his body.

“What’s wrong? Come on, come here. What are you doing?”

I’m climbing out of the bed, backing toward the wall, groping the dresser at my left for a weapon. Not real not real. My hand knocks over jars of perfume, a pile of jewelry.

The Mulder-shaped thing in the bed sits up, palms raised as though in surrender. “Hey. It’s okay. It’s me, Scully. Tell me what you’re afraid of.”

“No,” I say, scanning the dark corners of the room frantically, looking for the threat I know is there. “You’re not you. You’re Eleanor von Deer. Somehow you’ve figured out how to pull someone in here, how to turn them against themselves.”

He looks at me with both sympathy and concern. “Scully,” he says. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Let’s just sit down and talk about this. Let’s-”

He reaches for me and suddenly there’s that white flash again. Now we’re sitting at a dining room table. There are flowers in a vase at one end, and a serving dish between us full of steamed vegetables. On my plate there’s already a fresh salad and a chicken breast. Outside the window, dogwood flowers are in bloom.

“Let’s try to get that crib put together this weekend,” I hear myself say. But I didn’t think these words. I don’t even know what they mean.

Mulder smiles at me. “Sure. Whatever you want.” But

there is something in his eyes. Some confusion.

I mean to challenge him again, to challenge Eleanor. I know this isn’t me, or him. But for some reason I cannot open my mouth. I can only pick up the fork, and take a

bite of the salad.

Where are we? No place I have ever been. The dining room opens onto a large living room. There’s a grand piano in the corner, and a stone fireplace on the far wall. No ashes. It’s either been recently cleaned or never used.

I open my mouth again, but Mulder speaks before I can. “There’s an opening over in VICAP,” he says around a mouthful of chicken. “I’ve been thinking of asking for a transfer. What do you think?”

Again, his tone is mild and his expression open, friendly. But his eyes…something in his eyes…

“You’d do that?” I hear myself say. Again, not my words. “Give up the X-Files?”

He smiles broadly. “Well, there’s more important things now.”

More important things than the lives of abducted women? Their children? Than a plot that may end in the deaths of millions?

But then I feel a snake writhe inside me. I look down. My belly is huge. Oh. Yes. That is important. “I think that’s great,” I tell him. Or do I? My lips feel like rubber, my tongue like a block of wood. I suddenly sway in my chair and Mulder leaps up, hurries around the table to hold me up.

“Are you all right?”

It’s probably just the pregnancy, I think. And then I realize that’s what I’ve said, too.

“Here, lie down for a bit.” He helps me to the couch. His eyes are more his own now, brimming with concern. He starts to turn away, aiming to fetch a blanket. But I grab his shirt, tugging him back. “Mulder,” I warn, and he cocks his head, waiting.

But I can’t remember what I was going to say.

White flash.

I am walking around the living room, bouncing my daughter in my arms. She makes that ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah sound that babies do when they discover they can. She’s so warm; she fits so neatly against my chest.

She’s not mine.

I stop, disturbed. Where did that thought come from? What a terrible thing for a mother to think. My daughter begins to fuss, demanding more bouncing. I start again, but automatically. I walk over to the piano and with my free hand press the keys to make a familiar little song she likes. She burbles with happiness.

“Scully?” I turn at the sound of Mulder’s voice. He’s coming down the stairs, knotting his tie, a strangely troubled look on his face. He crosses the room to kiss the baby, then me. “Okay, then, off to work.”

I smile, about to wish him well, but then I remember his expression a moment ago, so rapidly gone. I catch his arm. “Hey. What were you going to say?”

He looks confused for a moment, but I nod my head at the stairs and he remembers. “Oh. I was going to ask when you learned to play the piano.”

“I—” I begin, but then stop. I was going to say I learned when I was in junior high, but that isn’t true. “I didn’t,” I say.

“Oh,” Mulder says, and starts to leave. For a moment I only stare after him, bouncing the baby, but then I shake my head and step toward him, grabbing at his sleeve. “Wait. Don’t you think that’s odd?”

He turns to look at me. His mouth moves as though there is something he wants to say. But in the end he only shakes his head and shrugs helplessly. “I’ll see you tonight,” he says, and he goes out the door.

That’s when I realize I feel nothing. I feel nothing for this bundle in my arms. Nothing for this house, this

fireplace, this piano, or the yard I can see through the windows. I am bouncing the baby still, because that’s what you have to do. But this isn’t right. This is wrong.

That’s when I notice the family pictures on the mantle. I cross over to them and I look. An elderly couple, a young man and woman at their wedding, a grinning baby, a little girl. I don’t recognize any of them.

I run to the front door. Mulder is just turning on the car. “Wait!” I call, waving. “Wait, come back.”

He sees me just in time, and gets out with a puzzled look on his face. “What is it? You don’t want me to be late for work, do you?”

“Mulder, get in here,” I say.

Befuddled but obedient, he climbs the steps to join me in the living room again. I grab his wrist and drag him over to the mantle. “Who are these people?” I ask, gesturing at the pictures.

At first he looks at me as though I must be crazy, but then his face starts to change. His mouth works once or twice and his eyes go bright again. “I-I don’t know.”

I tighten my grip on his arm and the baby starts to cry. “Mulder, where are we? Where do we live?”

He blinks several times, then shakes his head. “I don’t know.”

“How did we get here?” I press on. “Where did this baby come from?” I hold her up like a prop; she’s wailing now.

But he’s catching on. I can see the fog leaving his mind as if on a sunny morning. He looks at me—_through_ me—sideways, his eyes piercing. “This isn’t us,” says my partner.

“No. It’s Eleanor von Deer.” I cross to the couch and put the baby down. She squalls. Not real not real. Mulder is at my back.

“This must be her house,” he says. “Her memories, not mine.” Then I realize he’s been following the same breadcrumbs I have; he’s arrived in the same place. Except—“But you’re Scully. You’re really Scully. How—?”

I know then that he has been tormented as I was. What tricks did she try on him? Me, Samantha, his father…. “I came after you, Mulder. Like always.”

He gives a soft chuckle and that’s all that needs to be said about that. “So you’re here.”

The baby is wailing and screaming now. Something in me is still tugging to go and pick her up. It’s getting harder to think. I take Mulder’s elbow and pull him into the next room, the study. I shut the door. For a moment, he looks like he wants to stop me, also looking after the baby, but then he shakes his head to clear it and his eyes lock with mine.

“She couldn’t talk us down with fear,” he says.

“So she tried to talk us into happiness,” I finish. We share a brief, rueful laugh at how quickly that failed.

“You really think that’s all I am?” a new voice says, and I realize the crying has stopped. We both whirl. There, sitting on the couch before the bookshelf, is Eleanor von Deer. Her legs are crossed and her hands spread along the upholstery. She looks much younger, but her tone is ancient. “You really think I go to all this effort just to make everyone else as miserable as me?”

“How do we get out of here?” I snap. Finding words no longer requires an effort.

But Mulder answers her. “No,” he says, dropping to sit on the ottoman opposite her. “I don’t think that’s what you want to do at all. I think you want to save them from the misery you think they’re feeling. The misery you feel, living in the world.”

I glance sharply down at Mulder. As usual, he is a leap ahead of me when it comes to motive. But now I don’t know how I missed it before.

“You thought you were showing them the ugly truths,” I breathe. “The awful truths of an awful world. You thought you were saving them from it.”

Eleanor’s jaw clenches and her eyes flick to the window. “Life is pain,” she says. “I don’t know if death’s any better, but it certainly can’t be worse.”

I fold my arms across my chest and step closer to my partner, looming over her. “That may be. In fact, I have good reason to believe that death is nothing to fear. But

Mrs. von Deer, that doesn’t mean that life is ugly. What you showed me only contained truths. It wasn’t truth itself.”

Mulder glances up at me, both a question and an answer in his eyes. Yes. I know now what she must have shown him; he can guess what I saw too.

“You two are different,” she fairly spits. “You two are already so miserable I had to save you another way. You could’ve just stayed here, you know. You could’ve known peace.”

“That’s where you’ve got it wrong,” Mulder says. “People can be happy, even without peace.”

“Some people,” I add, “can only be happy without it.” I feel Mulder’s eyes on me again and know he’s understood. Our focus has to be Eleanor, now. “You’re right, Mrs. von Deer. Life is awful. Children die and husbands cheat and no one does exactly what you want them to. But do you really think the world would be better if they did?”

My partner continues for me. “The trick to happiness, Eleanor—it’s not eternal perfection, or even just making everything go the way you want it to. It’s opening yourself to the fact that most things won’t, and deciding to keep going anyway.”

Her teeth are gritted and her fists make knots in the fabric of her trousers. Her eyes are brimming with tears.

I squat down in front of her, beside Mulder’s knees. “Mrs. von Deer,” I say firmly. “How do we get out? How do we get back to life?”

She covers her face with her hands. I glance at Mulder, who is worrying his lip. He shakes his head. He doesn’t know.

But then there’s a sound from beyond the closed door. A crying sound, but not an infant. A little girl. Then there’s a quiet knock. Tearing his gaze away from mine, Mulder stands and goes to open the door, even as Eleanor cries out for him to stop.

He opens the door. There’s a child in her nightgown, a stuffed elephant tucked under one arm. “Mommy?” she says. “I can’t sleep.”

Eleanor is sobbing now, and I don’t know if this projection comes from her soul or if it is truly her daughter as child. Either way, she is deeply frightened. I reach out and put my hand on her wrist, gently tugging her hand down. “Don’t be afraid,” I tell her. “She’s just a little girl.”

Eleanor looks at me, her eyes red and her face growing older before my very eyes. It takes a long moment, but at last she looks beyond me, to the child at Mulder’s side. She draws a long, shuddering breath and, pulling on my arm, gets to her feet. She goes to the child, who takes her hand, and leads her out.

Mulder and I look at one another, and then—

Chapter 8

A Tunnel Is Also A Line

Tuesday

12:41 a.m.

Mulder blinked, squinting in the bright lights. There was noise—a high, keening monotone which evoked fire alarms and air strike drills he remembered as a child…. His head felt like a beer-bellied construction worker had cleaved it in two with a jackhammer, and he wished the noise would stop.

Gradually, below the awful noise, Mulder became aware of a man’s voice, chanting in a low mutter, “Come on, come on, come on, come on, come on….”

Mulder frowned. Something important was happening, something he should be paying attention to. His lips felt tingly and numb, and he raised his fingers to them to confirm that they were still there. They were, but his mouth wasn’t working right.

“Come on, come on, come on, come on, come on….”

The fuzzy white above him shimmered and resolved itself into an overhead fluorescent lamp. When he realized what it was, he squinted his eyes closed, willing his pupils back to their normal size. Every muscle creaked like well-worn cane as he turned his head to the side, toward the incessant beep and the chanting man.

“Come on, come on, come on, come on….”

Mulder forced his eyes open, and though the image before him wavered in and out of focus, now close, now far, he knew that blurry red, the pale flesh tones. Scully. She’d come after him. But she’d used drugs; he had not.

Instinct took control of his muscles, and a second later he was sitting upright, his head throbbing from the too-fast motion. He felt a painful jab in his left wrist, realized he’d just dislodged an IV and a thin trail of blood meandered down the creases decorating the back of his hand.

The chanting stopped, and as Mulder’s vision cleared, he identified its source—Arthur von Deer, eyes and mouth wide in a cartoonish mask as he gaped at the resurrected agent. In his hands were two defibrillator paddles, but Mulder could see the machine attached to them wasn’t charging. The endless, electric wail was coming from the heart monitor near Scully’s head.

Mulder’s first coherent thought was to tackle the man and pound his fist into that jolly old nose while introducing his knee to the doctor’s groin, but as he lurched forward off the gurney, slipping on weakened legs, he realized he was not sufficiently coordinated to execute this plan. Six feet of daunting tile and his partner’s gurney separated them.

“What did you do to her?” he rasped; at the same moment von Deer cried, “How did you wake up?”

Scully’s eyes were half-shut, her skin deathly pale. Mulder was only dimly aware that she was half-naked—her skin slathered with clear jelly from the defibrillator and suction cups attached to her chest like organic bionics, rendering what should have been beautiful freakish.

“Why aren’t you—?” Mulder made a rough gesture at the paddles von Deer held. “Help her!”

But the doctor didn’t move, only stood there staring, pale. “My research is my life,” he whispered; Mulder had to strain to hear. “It’s all I have left.”

Mulder swiveled his head from side to side, looking for something with which to convince the frozen man, and his eyes found the dark pile of Scully’s clothing on the sheets on which his hip rested. Clothes. Gun.

His hand snaked under the pile and fingers closed around the familiar butt of a Sig. Thank God for unspoken communication. He brought it up to aim, the muzzle level with von Deer’s chest, and the doctor flinched.

“Please,” he croaked. “If you can promise me you won’t shut me down, I’ll do it—”

Mulder’s reply was a shot fired over von Deer’s left shoulder. The old man gave a yelp and ducked, far too late.

“Do it!” Mulder shouted, his long-dry throat wringing out the words.

Terrified, the doctor hurried to flip on the machine, and a second keening joined the first, this one rising in frequency. Two seconds later he applied the paddles to Scully’s torso and she seized, but the heart monitor kept wailing. Mulder choked back a scream, lurched forward across the floor. His legs obeyed in the face of his rising panic, and he closed the distance between them in two strides.

“How long’s it been?” Mulder demanded. “What the fuck did you do? I’ll kill you, you piece of—”

“She wanted to!” von Deer protested. “To come after you!”

Mulder stumbled across the distance between them, reaching for his partner. The hand with the gun fell onto her belly and the other onto her brow, as if with his own hands he could do what the defibrillator had not. He leaned down until her bleached, parted lips were just inches from his face.

“Scully?” he croaked. “What the hell were you thinking?”

He jerked his head back up to von Deer, raised the gun while leaving one hand on her forehead. “Again!” he ordered.

~~~~~

I’m alone in the den. Mulder has vanished and left me alone. When I open the door to see where von Deer and her daughter went, there is only a long dark tunnel, and a pinprick of light at the far end. I look around. There’s no other way out of the room.

~~~~~

“Please come back. I need you,” Mulder whispered fiercely, her hair trickling like water through his stroking fingers. “You can’t leave now, not like this, Scully.”

“It’s been three minutes twenty-five seconds!” von Deer cried. “Too long!”

“Again,” Mulder snarled, still clenching the weapon but unafraid of the other man. His indecisive attempt at passive homicide was nothing in the face of Mulder’s determination.

He focused on Scully’s pale cheeks, her perfectly still eyelids. “Scully,” he whispered, bending close to her. “There’s so much we have to do. That stuff I said about happiness? It doesn’t work if you’re dead. Don’t leave, please don’t leave….”

The words poured out of his mouth, awkward and inelegant; he didn’t even know what he was saying. If she didn’t wake, he—

He refused to complete the thought.

“Clear!” von Deer said, an automatic order, and Mulder leapt back. The doctor pressed the metal blocks to her chest and again she seized, arcing off the table and shuddering like a doll. Mulder couldn’t bring himself to watch, and when he turned away he saw the third gurney, recognized Eleanor von Deer’s unconscious form. Even as he looked, her ECG alarm began wailing. The doctor looked over, panicked, and started to go to her. Mulder seized his arm and jerked him back. “Again,” he said.

He leaned back over her face, sliding one desperate hand along her ribs. “Not like this, Scully. Not like this.”

“Clear!” said von Deer, but his attention was elsewhere now.

~~~~~

I’m drowning now. I’m deep in the water, falling in the coils of a serpent that is pulling me under. Down, down, down toward the light. It would be so easy just to let go.

But somewhere beyond I can hear Mulder. “Not like this,” he says. “Not like this.”

I’ve never been one for the easy. But what can I do?

The serpent turns its head to look at me, one shining red eye rotating, baleful. I wrench my arm free and I hit it square in that eye. It bucks.

~~~~~

The doctor lowered the paddles to the crash cart. “It’s no use,” he said, rubbing the back of his arm across his face.

Mulder reached across Scully’s body to grab the man’s arm, his right hand bringing the gun up to bear. “Do it again!” he shouted. “She’s not dead!”

Von Deer shook his head. “Please, Agent Mulder, it’s been over four minutes. She’s gone. I’m sorry. I’m so….But I have to help my wife.” He wrenched himself out of Mulder’s grip, and hurried across the room to Eleanor.

Mulder could have screamed, could have fired, but instead he dropped the gun on the mattress before him and seized his partner’s cheeks, distending her features. “Scully,” he said fiercely. “Don’t give up. Please don’t give up. You have to come back.”

Nothing happened. Mulder grabbed her shoulders and shook her. “Scully!” he shouted.

But she only hung there pale and limp below him, her bloodless lips slightly parted.

A strangled sob wrenched itself from Mulder’s throat, but he didn’t look away from her eyes. “Dana Scully,” he cried, an unexpected power in his voice. “Dana Scully.”

He spoke her name like an invocation.

~~~~~

Scully thinks she sees a rainbow in the deep—distant, narrow and dim—and with tentative steps, she begins swimming in its direction.

Scully thinks she hears Mulder’s voice, filled with love and desperation, but she can’t hear the words and she might imagine it anyway. But it seems to have come from behind her, and so she spins around, aching to breathe, walking with her head bent and one hand extended to ward off unseen boundaries.

When her hand collides with cool metal, she hears the sound of an elevator door closing.

~~~~~

Chapter 9

Salves All Wounds

The first thing I realized on opening my eyes was that the distorted, flesh-colored blur inches from my eyes was Mulder’s face. I knew this because he was talking to me, or rather talking at me, in some unwritten language of rapid-fire endearments, and when he saw my eyes open, he cupped my ears as if I were a teacup and dropped his forehead to mine, breathing into my mouth. An odd gesture, but forgivable, considering.

The second thing I realized on opening my eyes was that I was mostly naked, but there wasn’t much I could do about

that, as I could barely wiggle my fingers.

I heard von Deer’s exhortations somewhere off to my right; he was repeating, over and over: “Come on, Eleanor. Come on.” On and on like that, and when my partner pulled away from me I could see the other man, standing several feet away and working hard to resuscitate a grey-haired woman on a gurney.

I had to tell him something, but I couldn’t remember what it was. It seemed very urgent, though, and the words were just beneath my tongue, yet I couldn’t find them, and anyway, he was busy.

Mulder ripped away the leads attached to my chest—they peeled off like leeches and the heart monitor, which had been beeping steadily, was silenced. I seemed to have recovered the use of my right arm, and I used it as a lever

on Mulder’s elbow to pull myself up.

As soon as he realized what I wanted, he helped me into a sitting position, awkwardly drawing the single sheet around my hips—there wasn’t much he could do for the rest of me—but he kept on grinning like an idiot and it’s not like he hasn’t seen me before so I wasn’t too scandalized. I

brought the fingers of my left hand clumsily up to the

space between my breasts, grimacing at the thick jelly

caked to my body, but he pulled my hand away, his eyes

locked on mine.

“You came back,” he said. “I knew you’d come back.”

I nodded. Of course he did.

“I remember”—his eyes grew darker—“I remember leaving you. I didn’t mean—”

My brow furrowed. “What do you mean?” And then it dawned on me. This wasn’t a dream. Mulder had been in a coma. I seized his upper arms. “Mulder, you’re awake.”

“Yes,” he answered, as if it should be obvious. “You came and found me. We convinced her to let us go. You don’t remember?”

I blinked several times. Fragments of images, seen but not quite grasped, flashed through my mind like a fast-forward slideshow. Melissa. A baby. A sea, a serpent and no air. “I remember…” I said, trying hard, “I remember a light. And I was moving toward it, then I wasn’t. But it’s so muddled—”

A moan interrupted us, and we both turned to see Arthur von Deer bowed over the still figure of his wife, pumping with both hands just below her sternum.

“Eleanor!” he cried. “Please, you can’t die, you can’t—” He stopped the compressions and bent over her mouth, breathed into it, then rushed back around to her chest. Mulder kept a grip on my arm, didn’t move to help, just watched with an expression of grim sympathy.

The old man tried again to breathe for her, but instead he fell forward over her neck, sobbing brokenly.

“It’s no use,” I whispered, though I didn’t know whom I was talking to, or why I was so certain.

I watched the demolished doctor crumple inward, sinking to the floor, still clasping his dead wife’s hand. Then Mulder’s body blocked my view, and his arms tightened around me. He crushed the air from my body, and his fingers marked my tattoo with leapord-spot bruises, but I leaned into him gratefully, wanting nothing more in the world at that moment than to know he was real. Somehow I freed my arms enough to hug him back.

Never let it be said that I do not support my partner.

“Scully,” he whispered, his voice raw with disuse. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

He pulled back to look at me, and his eyes were very much alive.

~~~~~

4:15 p.m.

After meeting with the hospital president but before my 4:30 appointment with the neurology chief of staff, I found a few moments’ peace in a faux leather lounge chair in the hospital lobby. A children’s choir sang on the other side of the large room, and a small crowd of staff and wheelchair-bound patients had gathered there to listen. Little did they know of the small hallway behind them, above which hung a sign: “Interfaith Chapel.”

They were singing a Faure Ave Maria that I recognized, an impressive piece for such a young group, and though their cadence was imperfect, it soothed. Anything would have soothed me now—I hadn’t slept or even rested since I woke to find Mulder unwakeable.

Mulder had taken von Deer to the police station for processing; he hoped to negotiate the situation so that the police would call us a consultation, giving us a reasonable explanation of our activities for a supervisor. If that didn’t work out, we’d come up with something else—though wrapping up a case like this was an inevitable headache, it was trivial compared to the kinds of invisible strings we’d pulled countless times before.

Even Mulder agreed there was no way we could try Arthur von Deer for murder of all those patients; not only did we have no hard evidence, but it was entirely possible he hadn’t been involved at all. We certainly could never have charged Eleanor—no court would hear such evidence—and she actually was responsible. I shook my head, still trying to comprehend it. She’d seen it as a kind of mercy killing, convinced that the only purpose in her own life was to help others avoid the suffering she believed she’d endured.

But I couldn’t help but feel that much of her suffering, while at first legitimate, had been self-created, a positive feedback loop that spiraled out of control and took more than a hundred people with it. Even if that was never recognized, we’d done good work here today. And the record would state that we’d shut down a menacing and dangerous ‘research’ program that gave science a bad name.

I felt the couch sag as someone joined me, and found myself surprised to see Father Thomas. He smiled his greeting, then jerked his chin at the choir.

“They sing well, no?”

“It’s nice,” I agreed.

He leaned forward, hands dangling between his thighs. “I think I made a mistake, Agent Scully. My own zealotry blinded me to the obvious.”

What was he talking about? “I haven’t seen much about this case that’s obvious,” I remarked.

“I don’t mean the deaths,” Thomas replied. “I mean the experience. I should have known it was not what I believed it to be.”

“What did you believe it to be?”

“I have always been fascinated by death, Agent Scully. I think it’s part of what drove me to the church. So much of our faith—any faith, not just that of Catholics—is centered on death, and yet even religion provides no satisfactory answers. We are the only animals who know we must die, and on that fear we predicate the existence of the soul, but no faith can tell us what that truly means. This was my chance to learn it. Yet what I thought I was learning—it was all an evil lie.”

“You couldn’t have known,” I told him.

“You did. You have a strong faith, to know so clearly. Me, I wanted to believe so badly that I forgot miracles don’t come to those who look.” He turned his gaze on me, his black eyes intense. “Have you ever looked for a miracle, Agent Scully?”

I stretched my hands across my knees, tracing the lines of my fingers with my slow, tired gaze. Their number, their knuckles, their nails, an occasional freckle—perhaps without the combination of both faith and knowledge a man can’t see that the miracle is right before his eyes.

“I don’t look for miracles,” I said at last. “I look for answers.”

“Sometimes they’re the same thing.”

I considered that. “Yes,” I agreed, after a pause. “Sometimes they are. But a soul—that’s only a miracle.” I didn’t explain that my fingers, for example, are both.

The children’s choir finished the song and mild applause came from the onlookers. Thomas settled back beside me. “I’m glad we met, Agent Scully,” he said.

~~~~~

7:23 p.m.

Mulder caught up with me—or maybe I caught up with him—outside the hospital cafeteria just as the staff was pulling black iron mesh across the doorway.

“Guess we missed our last chance at hospital food for awhile,” he said, raking a sideways glance over my body that I assumed was provoked by my sagging posture and the dark circles under my eyes. I was bone-tired, and I let him know with an evaluative glance at his rumpled clothing that I could see his exhaustion as well.

“Let’s hope so,” I answered, turning away. “You cleared up our paperwork at the P.D.?”

“More or less,” he answered, and I decided I didn’t really want to know what that meant at the moment, so I skipped to the important question.

“What did von Deer have to say?”

Mulder grimaced. “He said he was responsible for all of it.”

“You think he was lying,” I said. It was not a question.

“He didn’t know anything, Scully. He was protecting his wife.”

I grimaced, sincerely surprised that such an unhappy marriage should have anything left worth protecting. “Why? She’s dead.”

Mulder shrugged. “Why should that mean anything to a man who deals in death? He told you he thought she’d learned from her many experiences as an NDE subject how to move between the worlds of spirit and flesh. Who’s to say she can’t still do that? Maybe he’s afraid she’ll come back.” He paused, waiting for my reaction, but I wasn’t in the mood so he skipped ahead in the script and continued. “But I think he just doesn’t quite know how to live without her and he wants her memory honored. He blames his neglect for her insanity.”

“He said that?”

“No. But he said he should have been more supportive of her after their daughter’s death.” Mulder snorted. “After confessing to having murdered a hundred odd people in the interest of science. Never mind the fact that there were no lab journals or EEGs on any of those individuals, or that we have no hard evidence. But the clincher, what really convinced me, was that he wouldn’t admit to the crime he did commit—trying to kill you.”

I blinked. “I don’t understand.”

Mulder drew closer to me as a trio of old ladies passed. “Scully, he was stoic and remorseless about the other deaths. It was an act. But when I accused him of not resuscitating you, he burst into tears and tried to deny

it.”

“I don’t think he had planned it, Mulder,” I said, considering. “I don’t think he lured me down there with the intention of killing me.”

“I don’t either,” Mulder answered. “But once it started, he started debating with himself. Should he ditch the FBI and his wife, cut his losses and run for Mexico? Or suck it up and take the heat? He was wavering when I came to—I made the decision for him. Taking the blame for his wife—that’s noble, and he could do the silent strongman routine. But when I confronted him with what he’d actually done, his guilt broke him.”

“Are they charging him, then? There’s still no explanation for how the deaths were—”

“They’re a police department, Scully. They have a confession. They have to charge. Now it all depends on how lawyered up he gets as he recovers his wits. But they’re not charging him over what happened with you—I didn’t report that. Your decision to come after me wasn’t exactly standard procedure, Agent Scully.”

His teasing smile elicited a faint grin from me. “Is it

ever?” I asked.

His hand found mine and squeezed it; the warmth of his fingers traveled up my arm and into my breast like an electric current, communicating everything that we knew better than to say. I squeezed back, then stepped away.

“So, back to D.C.?” I asked, trying to sound eager.

“It’s practically a blizzard outside,” he said.

I snorted. “Well, what do you want to do about it? I’m not staying here another night.”

He shifted uncomfortably and stuffed his hands in his pockets, for all the world imitating an awkward high school boy afraid to ask out the girl he likes. “There’s always the condo, Scully.”

I tossed him a glare filled with mock-severity. “Mulder, I don’t think we’ve been going out long enough for that. Next thing you know you’ll want me to meet your parents.”

That elicited a self-deprecating chuckle from my weary partner. “I was just worried after Friday,” he admitted. “And that, um, that dream…”

My smile faded and I nodded. ‘I should’ve known better,’ didn’t sound quite right about the first, and the second I’d need at least a few years to think through. So I just answered, “Let’s go to the condo, Mulder.”

He drove and I slept. I woke when I realized Mulder had either parked and left the engine running or that we were sitting at a stoplight run by America Online.

I gave my surroundings a groggy appraisal and determined that we were in fact at a Safeway. Mulder must have decided we needed groceries, and even though I was starving, I really hoped he knew he was cooking or we weren’t eating.

Outside, big clumps of snowflakes floated to the ground and where they stuck to the car window I could trace their lines of symmetry with my eyes. I rolled down my window, stuck my hand out to welcome their cold kisses. The night, quiet and devoid of portent, made me feel like I was trapped in a snowglobe, isolated from the cares of the outside universe, and the image was not an unappealing one.

Then the door handle rattled, and Mulder invaded my universe again. I rolled up the window.

“Good morning.” He handed me a plastic bag. “When’s the last time you ate, anyway?”

“I honestly don’t remember,” I replied, opening the bag to peer inside. Milk, butter, macaroni and cheese. Two cans of green beans and one of chicken soup. A frozen pizza that looked like heaven in plastic wrap. Two cans of ginger ale and a carton of orange juice.

“I wasn’t sure what you’d want,” he said in response to my incredulous look. “But hey, to top it all off we’ve got—”

He reached dramatically into his coat and produced an ice cream pint. It was too dark to read the label.

“Ben and Jerry’s?” I asked, in a smaller voice than I’d intended. Good thing Mulder’s usually oblivious to my subtler aspects; otherwise he might realize that if he did things like this often our dynamic might take on a whole new dimension.

He waved the carton in front of my nose. “Cherry Garcia,” he read, underlining the label with his fingertip.

“How can you think about ice cream when it’s this cold out?” I asked, but I wasn’t serious.

“Well, you don’t have to eat it,” he replied, tossing it into the bag in my lap. “All the more for me.”

Half an hour and three wrong turns later, we finally found the condo again. We went inside and I headed straight for the shower while Mulder cooked. Or heated things, anyway.

My breasts were still slick with a thin coat of jelly from the defibrillation paddles, and there were a few suspiciously finger-shaped bruises on my ribs and upper arms. Ghostly reminders of my partner’s desperation; I didn’t mind them.

If I’ve learned anything in my life, it’s that hot water, the promise of a good meal and Cherry Garcia salve all wounds more effectively than one would rationally expect.

~~~~~

Epilogue

We returned to Washington the following morning, despite Agent Mulder’s protestations that the roads were unsafe.

“It would be a shame,” he’d said, “to go through all we’ve been through only to die in a car accident.”

“With your track record, Mulder, you’re not going to die in a car accident,” I’d assured him.

“You’re probably right,” he admitted. “I’m much more likely to die in some violent, dramatic escapade which’ll never make the news.”

“No,” I said. “With your track record, you’ll die of old age.”

He got my point and squeezed my shoulder. “Not without you, I won’t, Scully,” and left me to puzzle out the multiple meanings buried there and deliberate whether I should be pleased or disturbed. But I’m used to that.

We’ve never talked about that strange night when I died, and in a way that disturbs me as well. But this, too, is a familiar pattern. There’s something reassuring about even the things I don’t like about Mulder—it reaffirms that he’s still himself and that I’m still me, despite the threatening intertwinedness of our lives. He protects and I resent it, he refuses to see the whole of me and I am

hurt. I dismiss and he resents it, I close myself off to him and he is hurt. This is who we are, and there are no easy answers.

Perhaps I’m forever destined to walk these circles; that I got the tattoo I deserved has not escaped me. But at least I’m not afraid—as some are—to recognize the circle, to acknowledge the past. Thus we live.

~~~~~

End

Started: 09/13/98

Finished: 11/7/98

NDE dream sequence significantly revised: 02/2011. What can I say? I was really young. It’s better now.

Notes. (still 1998)

Neurobiology. A neurobiologist I ain’t, but I’ll tell you what I know because I’ll feel guilty for misleading otherwise. NMDA receptors, ketamine, phencyclidine and long-term potentiation (LTP) are all real. The idea that LTP is involved in memory is pretty widely accepted; however, the extension of that into a matrix-based neural network is purely my own invention. NMDA receptors are of the ionotropic receptor family, and they bind glutamate and glycine to facilitate passage of calcium ions in the absence of magnesium (which blocks the channel). In the hippocampus, when glutamate is released from the presynaptic terminals, the postsynaptic neuron is depolarized, and the magnesium is freed, opening the channels. Calcium then binds Ca-binding proteins like CaMKII and PKC to change phosphate levels inside cells and increase EPSPs, resulting ultimately in LTP. LTP can last anywhere from 10 minutes to days.

Both ketamine and phencyclidine bind inside the NMDA channel and are released when the nerve cell depolarizes. They produce amnesia and dissociation, and are really used by people trying to induce near death experiences.

Potassium chloride really will stop the heart (it’s used in lethal injections), but I don’t think it’s a reaction you could stop, though I pretend like it is here just for drama. You could never sop up a monovalent cation (potassium) with a divalent chelator, and my science editor suggested a couple of other chemical mechanisms, but I just really wanted to use the word ‘chelator’ in a story. Sorry, Fly!

The drugs and techniques used by the hospital as they attempted to resuscitate Mulder are not used correctly. Betapin and capazide are (to the best of my limited knowledge) used in stroke prevention, and calcium channel blockers and tissue plasminogen activator are used for recovery. The perfusion MRI and diagnostic transcranial Doppler ultrasound were both appropriate, but since both are relatively new techniques, it’d be surprising for this hospital to have them.

So my chemistry/physiology isn’t quite on target and I took some liberties with the real purpose of LTP, which isn’t known. Most of the stuff I took from Ganong’s Medical Physiology.

Near Death Experiences. Most of my NDE info came from http://www.calweb.com/~kevinw/, run by Kevin Williams, who answered lots of questions for me. You can also learn a lot at http://www.nderf.org/. Viva la web research!

Music. Billie Holliday’s “Lover Come Back to Me” (Billie’s Blues) appeared in the first chapter.

R.E.M.‘s “Leave” (New Adventures in Hi Fi) snuck into the title of the seventh chapter—one of the few times I listened to music while writing. Check it out. Really. Suffer the dreams of a world gone mad—I like it like that and I know it. That’s what keeps me down.

Nudge, Nudge, Wink, Wink. Yes, you may have recognized a few fanfic/RL anecdotes in there. They are included without permission but with the utmost respect intended toward those involved.

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