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Five Women Ryan Stone Met On the Road (And One Man She Technically Never Did)

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1.

If she'd had a second to stop and think about what life would be like when — if — she made it back to Earth, she probably wouldn't have imagined this.

I know, right? It's like when you're fresh out of college and you go backpacking through Europe to Find Yourself, and you meet the most amazing people and you think you're going to change the world and nothing will ever be the same, only to come back home to your parents’ basement.

Ryan glares at the man in her rearview mirror.

And all you have to show for your personal growth is a STI, $20 in the bank and a summer job at McDonald’s.

He's still wearing the full spacesuit, minus the helmet. The suit comes halfway up his head, heavy and clunky out of zero gravity. He looks like a moron. Ryan really really hates her brain sometimes.

 

Ryan came back from Space with a frustratingly clichéd fear of flying, nightmares about Chinese ideograms, an incapacity to sleep without the radio on to drown out the too-loud sound of her own breathing and a habit of looking up at the ceiling and bracing for impact when going down elevators.

All things considered, the fact that the late Lieutenant Matt Kowalski has taken up residence on the backseat of her car is not the most debilitating of her PTSD symptoms.

It's still incredibly annoying, however. Which is where the hitchhiking comes in.

 

Her current passenger is looking a bit worried by her constant frowning at the empty backseat.

Ryan puts on a friendly smile. “So you’re with the local police?” she asks. “That must be challenging.” She can do small talk. She can.

“Yes,” Lieutenant Mills answers distractedly, as she turns around to look at the back to the car herself. “Did you see something back there?”

“What? No. Why?” Ryan really needs to get better at this.

“You’re sure,” Mills asks, skeptically.

“Of course,” Ryan answers as calmly as possible. Kowalski is waving enthusiastically at them both, shit-eating grin firmly in place.

Mills is definitely not convinced, still looking over her shoulder.

A creeping doubt takes hold of Ryan. “You’re not seeing anything back there either, are you?” If Kowalski is evolving into a shared hallucination, Ryan is in bigger trouble than she thought.

“No,” the woman says slowly. “But you can tell me if you are. If you see anything… strange.” She’s looking at Ryan like they’re speaking in codes and Ryan is supposed to know the secret password.

Kowalski’s flailing arms are all she sees in the rearview mirror. Goddamn her life.

Just as Mills opens her mouth to go on, her cellphone mercifully goes off.

“Sorry, I have to--” Mills begins, still looking worried, as she fumbles for her phone. You don’t see a lot of those now, rare as the signals are these days.

It’s a voicemail, and it comes out on speakerphone.

Hello, this message is intended for Miss Abigail Mills of Sleepy Hollow and must be delivered post-haste. I have found additional information concerning our enemy and it appears that it is in fact unlikely that Belphegor could possess her police vehicle, as the historical accounts actually specify that the demon took control of the horses pulling George Washington's carriage, not the carriage itself. As Miss Jenny assures me automobiles are not powered by tiny creatures turning the wheels from beneath the car, it appears it is perfectly safe for her to drive her vehicle back to the police station. I would in fact encourage her to do so at top speed as it has now become apparent that the police dogs are quite susceptible to demonic possession, which manifests as increased aggression and stamina that is currently being directed at the door of the women’s restroom, where myself and Miss Jenny are hiding. “Backup”, as Miss Mills calls it, would be greatly appreciated. Thank you kindly. Ichabod Crane, out.

Static and the distant sound of angry dogs barking fill the car, as Ichabod (Ichabod?) Crane clearly fails to end the call.

Mills shuts down her phone mechanically, not looking at Ryan. “The police station is around the corner, right here,” Mills says, pointing to the left. Her attempt at casual is about as good as Ryan’s earlier efforts. It’s comforting, in some small way.

“Okay,” Ryan says and signals to turn.

“It’s um. Police code names and— he likes to lay it on a bit thick.”

“Okay,” Ryan says again.

“It’s probably a corner store robbery.”

“Okay.”

“Thanks a lot for— the lift.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Mills is out the door the second Ryan pulls over in front of the station, but she hesitates, hand on the doorframe.

“If you keep not seeing the thing you’re not seeing, give us a call, okay? We’re getting good at these kinds of things.” She slips a card onto the passenger’s seat, gives Ryan a final nod and takes off towards the station at a dead run.

Gotta admit, this is way more fun than working at McDonald’s.


2.

The girl with the CHICAGO cardboard sign bends down to look through the opened passenger's side window and introduces herself as Cosima Nie-Holy-Shit-You're-Ryan-Stone.

Well. That was fast.

As the girl stands there gaping, Ryan volunteers "I'm not going down into the city, but I can drop you off on the UP line at Barrington, would that work?"

The girl visibly comes out of it and nods enthusiastically, tiny braids flying everywhere. “Yes, yes, absolutely. Of course, no, that’d be great. That’s perfect.”

Ryan smiles and pops the trunk open, trying to move things along. Cosima goes to put her suitcase away then climbs into the car, openly staring at Ryan as she starts toying with the end of one braid.

 

The following deluge of questions is expected, but Ryan still reels a little from the flashback to that endless press tour a year ago. How did you manage to stay alert without O2 for so long. How much control over the Shenzhou did you have at the end. Did you know which part of Earth you were crashlanding into. How long did it take for the local authorities to find you. Did you suffer any long term effect from the hypothermia. Oh and, how effective was the fire extinguisher as a propulsion device, that was such a stroke of genius.

Once in a while, Ryan manages to distract her into answering a few questions herself, which is how she learns that Cosima is doing her PhD in Experimental Evolutionary Developmental Biology at the University of Minnesota. She hopes to finish this semester, she feels like she's been in school forever. She had to take a year off because she got sick and went to stay at her sisters' up North. She's much better now and she's going to Chicago to meet up with her girlfriend. They’re going to attend a conference in evo-devo at U of C. Speaking of, has Ryan ever been to U of C? Did she ever do a talk there. She should totally do a talk there, Cosima would make the trip down again if she did. She was so sad she hadn’t gotten a chance to see Ryan when she did that first tour.

Ryan looks at the dashboard: two hours away still.

You’re going to run out of gas before that girl runs out of words. Did I ever tell you about that time I dated a girl from Debate Club?

"You're the last person to have been in space,” Cosima carries on. “And you'll most likely keep that title for at least one whole generation. That blows my mind," she says, fingers spread around her face: pow. "Doesn't it blow your mind? Doesn't it drive you crazy? The setback? We went there, and now we can't anymore. Our entire orbit is like a twenty four hours shooting range extravaganza. We were a few years away from sending people to Mars, and now governments are wondering if speeding up debris re-entry is even worth it."

She throws her hands in the air, then deflates dramatically. "If it goes on too long, we're gonna forget how we ever did it," Cosima says softly, looking out the window.

Ryan shakes her head. "We won't.”

Cosima looks over at her.

"I give this talk, part of these conferences. At high schools,” Ryan adds, before Cosima gets too excited. “All over the country. It's about women in STEM fields.” She smiles. "When they first approached me about it, I didn't really see the point, honestly. Biomedical engineering is not the sexiest topic, and how to survive Murphy’s Law in zero-g didn’t really sound like practical, or even inspirational career advice for young girls."

Nonsense. That is clearly the most inspirational career advice possible.

Ryan ignores him. “Look, I'm never going back up there. I mean, they could vacuum the sky empty of the smallest stardust tomorrow and I still wouldn't set foot within a hundred miles of Houston.”

Well now that’s just mean. Engineering really misses you, you know. You never call.

Cosima opens her mouth to protest. Ryan lifts a hand at them both.

"Space clearly wanted me dead," she says darkly. "I'm not giving it another chance to finish the job."

Kowalski pouts at her in the mirror. Ryan doesn’t understand what his problem is. Space wanted him dead, after all — and won the fight, too.

"But my point is,” Ryan goes on, “someone else probably should. Go back to space, I mean. I want to make sure kids still dream about it. I want to make sure girls dream about it. They say boys don’t want to be astronauts anymore because nobody wants to be a space janitor. All these guys who lost their toys, who got their playground taken away and who don’t know what to do next.”

Ryan takes a breath. “We’ll have to come up with brand new ways to get up there again. And we have to make sure everyone gets to play, next time around. “

It wasn't all bad. Even when it was scary.

He’s looking at her with that smile again. The one where he knows the answer she’s looking for. And if he knows, she knows. But he’s gonna wait until she comes out and say it.

“No,” Ryan slips, but Cosima doesn’t seem to notice. “It wasn’t all bad. But it was pretty lonely.”

"It's nice, knowing you're not alone," Cosima nods, absently, gaze miles away, and Ryan has the feeling she's not referring to space. That’s ok, neither is Ryan, really.

She can do with a couple more hours of companionship.


3.

She says “Call me... Mulder” and she needs a ride to Washington.

A clearly made up name and a destination is all she’s willing to volunteer, apparently. Ryan picked her up in the middle of nowhere, on the side of a wood-lined road, not a town for miles. She’s wearing a suit under a fitted trench coat, threw a heavy briefcase on the backseat. Kowalski scooting over awkwardly.

She looked at Ryan a little too long when she got in, which means she probably recognized her, but didn’t comment. Don’t ask, don’t tell. Fair enough.

Ryan is tired and glad for the silence, for once. Kowalski is keeping blissfully quiet too, except to ask her to switch the radio from NPR to something with a goddamn tune, for the love of Christ.

She’s not sure what it says about her neuroses that they have different musical tastes than she does. Probably nothing reassuring.

 

So it's a long, quiet drive up through most of Virginia, until they’re fifteen minutes out from D.C., and Mulder starts looking restless. She moves around and steals glances at Ryan like she wants to say something, then silently talks herself out of it.

Ryan is about to ask if she needs to stop for the bathroom when Mulder clears her throat and blurts out.

“I want you to know that I’m doing this against my will.”

Ryan tenses and wonders if she needs to reach for the taser she keeps under her seat.

Mulder holds up her hand. "I am mortified just thinking about asking you this, but my partner will kill me if I don't. But I wanted to apologize in advance.”

Now Ryan is more confused than scared. She's not going to bite Mulder's head off if she wants an autograph.

Mulder is still sneaking looks in her direction, then visibly grimaces and looks straight ahead as she says in one breath: “Is there any way the Kessler Cascade was precipitated by anything other than a destroyed Russian satellite?”

“What,” says Ryan, blindsided.

“Could there have been another source,” Mulder forges on. “Something— not from the surface of the Earth. Something”— But she trails off like she can’t bring herself to finish.

“We never saw the missile strike,” Ryan offers, still struggling to guess where this is going. “Only the debris hitting Explorer.”

“So there wasn't anything else in orbit with you,” Mulder continues, still looking pained, verging on exasperated. “You didn't see anything strange? Like–”

“What do you mean, anything else?” Ryan asks, trying to put her out of her misery.

"Something besides ISS and Tiangong,” says Mulder. Visibly bracing herself, she finishes: “Like another spacecraft."

Ah.

Everything makes sense now.

"Like an alien spaceship, you mean," Ryan says slowly, voice as neutral as she can manage. In the back of her mind, Kowalski is humming the Twilight Zone theme as obnoxiously as possible.

Mulder looks like she's mentally murdering someone. Slowly. With very blunt objects. So would Ryan, if she could.

“Something like that, yes,” says Mulder through clenched teeth.

It's not the first time someone has asked her that. It's not even the second, or even the twentieth, but Mulder really doesn't look the type. Clearly her partner is the type, though.

"I saw nothing," Ryan says, voice low, like Mulder needs reassuring. "Nothing beyond what we put up there in the first place."

Ryan stops at the first red light off the expressway. The car falls weirdly silent without the hum of the wheels spinning against the ground. "Nothing but bits of steel plates and solar panels and Marvin the Martian figurines hurtling through space fast enough to riddle you with holes."

In the backseat, Kowalski frowns unhappily. She thinks she remembers him telling her he brought Marvin up on his very first mission. Or maybe she made that up. It’s hard to tell the difference anymore.

"No actual Martians, though," Ryan says with a small smile, looking back at Mulder. "Just the beauty of human recklessness."

And it was beautiful, never forget it.

Mulder smiles back at her. "We do seem pretty good at that, don't we," she says, voice going distant as the Hoover building comes into view.

Ryan pulls up at the curb. When Mulder makes no moves towards the door handle, she nudges, “Sorry to burst your partner’s bubble.”

Mulder blinks out of her daze. “Oh, there’s little chance of that, trust me,” she says, smiling. “His bubble has surprisingly thick skin.”

“Well, at least tell him he shouldn’t worry about an alien invasion. Not until we've cleared up most of the mess we've made of Low Earth Orbit, anyway."

“He’s incredibly torn up about that, actually,” Mulder says fondly. She reaches back between the seats to grab her briefcase, then opens the door.

She gets out of the car. “Thanks a lot for the ride, Dr. Stone,” she says, leaning back down to smile at Ryan through the opened door. “It’s been a pleasure.”

“It was nice meeting you, too, Mulder, if that truly is your name.”

“It could be, technically,” Mulder says, a small smile playing at the corner of her lips. “He’s going to be so jealous I met you.”


4.

Ryan comes out of the 24/7 roadside cafe to find a woman leaning back against the hood of her parked car, looking up at the night sky.

“Can I help you?” Ryan asks, and the woman startles upright. She’s very beautiful.

“I’m so sorry, I just— I got caught up by the view.” She points up at the sky. “You don’t see that many inside the City. I didn’t realize it was so — constant.”

Ryan looks up reflectively. The sky is full of tiny blinking lights, small pieces of debris peppering the atmosphere, just slightly dimmer than the stars. You rarely see bigger ones anymore, the ones with trails lingering for long seconds.

She comes up to the front of the car, inviting the woman to lean back down, then joining her. “Ryan,” she says, holding out her hand.

“Joan,” the woman replies, smiling and scooting closer. Her hand is dry and warm. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Ryan answers, looking back up when she realises she’s been staring too long.

The shared silence is more comfortable than Ryan is used to.

“It’s crazy how we never thought about everything that was up there until it started coming down on our head,” Joan says, after a long while, head still tipped back towards the sky. “Crazy how we never thought about everything down here that would come crashing down with it.”

Ryan came crashing down. She wonders sometimes what difference it would have made if she’d done so in more than one piece. A flash of dust lighting the sky. A research grant to reassign.

Kowalski never lets her get far down that train of thought before getting out the world’s tiniest invisible violin. Asshole.

“I miss my phone,” Joan says, sighing.

“I miss GPS, mostly,” Ryan replies, glad to shake herself out of her thoughts. “I always factor in half an hour more to find my way anywhere. I have these old, outdated roadmaps my father never threw out.”

Joan nods. “My partner used to say he would have been more suited for the slower, less information-driven world of the past. You wouldn’t guess it by the way he swears at our dial-up connection.” She smiles. “We do a lot more empirical data gathering these days. Everytime wikipedia or the British Library website crashes.”

“He’s somewhere out there,” she waves towards a dark patch of wood in front of them, “looking at the nighttime habits of a particular species of bee— I didn’t ask for details.”

Silence again. Blink, blink blink, blink goes the sky, lights coming in and going out faster than Ryan can count. If they were out away from the glare of the cafe, out on the road, into the woods, there would be so many more to see.

“Do you miss it?” Joan asks, quietly.

“No,” Ryan says, because Kowalski can’t tell her she’s lying, out here. He’s only ever inside the car. “If I block out the horizon, the view’s not that different from down here.”

A bright flash of light flies across the whole sky, disappearing beyond the trees. Joan gasps in wonder.

There goes my scanner, Ryan used to say, in the beginning. There goes the fire extinguisher. There goes Explorer. There goes Sharif.

There goes Kowalski.

She ran out of things to mourn, after a while. Might be time to give tradition a try.

"Make a wish," they both say, in unison.


5.

"POLICE, STOP THE FUCKING CAR. FUCKING PULL OVER RIGHT NOW."

It's either stopping or running over the idiot who just plastered herself all over Ryan's windshield. She slams the brakes.

The passenger's side door opens and a large, crazy-looking woman falls into the seat, shoving a badge into Ryan's face.

"FOLLOW THAT CAR" she yells, slamming the door shut while gesturing wildly at a red van that's screeching out of an alley twenty feet in front of her and taking off into the street at top speed.

"Excuse me?" Ryan begins, one hand ready to reach for the taser.

"Listen, lady, if I didn't have a fucking bear trap clawing through my leg right now," -and sure enough, one glance at the woman's feet confirms that she's bleeding out all over Ryan's carpet— "I would throw you out of your sad excuse for a car and drive it myself. As it stands, JUST FUCKING DRIVE."

Ryan has her foot on the accelerator before she realizes it, the car jumping forward.

The car chase — Jesus Christ, how is this her life — is a bit of a blur. There are burnt red lights and screeching tires going up sidewalks and destruction of public property. There is a truly impressive amount of cursing coming from her left, while Kowalski whoops and giggles in the backseat. There’s a bridge, then a gravel road, then a ditch, and the red van goes over the first, tumbles down the second and nose-dives into the third.

Ryan hits the brakes, turns the wheel and lets inertia do the rest. They stop spinning in a cloud of dust, back of the car three feet from the upturned van.

The madwoman is out of the car before it even stops, hopping on one foot, gun steadily pointed at the driver trying to climb his way out of the van. "Hands where I can see them, Jimmy, or you’ll be wearing the bear trap as handcuffs on your ride back to jail."

Jimmy looks almost relieved to give up, slumping over halfway out of the opened window.

Ryan looks down from the scene and stares at her hands, which are gripping the steering wheel so tight her fingers are white at the knuckles. Hypothermia blue, almost.

She uncurls her fingers, one by one. Sees the blood flow back into them, making tiny specks of scars stand out in stark relief for just a second.

Houston, we have touchdown.

She hears sirens in the distance.

 

There are police cars and flashing lights. A paramedic patches her forehead up while an officer takes her statement and car insurance infos. He did a double take when she handed him her licence, and is failing rather spectacularly at playing it cool. She's feeling magnanimous today, and signs the back of his legal pad without an eyeroll.

Somewhere in the background someone must be trying to remove the bear trap from the leg of the police woman they inform her is called Detective Shannon Mullins. It's not going well, judging by the volume and nastiness of the cursing being done.

She hands the police officer his pad back (For Molly and her dad, Keep wishing upon those stars, each one that falls brings you a little closer to the sky) and heads back to her car.

It's getting dark and every repair shop with be closed. Might as well start looking for a hotel downtown.

"Hold it right there!"

Ryan looks up to see Mullins through the cracked windshield. She's hopping down from the back of the ambulance, hobbling forward on one crutch, sans bear trap, thankfully.

"Where do you think you're going, lady?" she says as she opens the door, sliding into the passenger's seat again. She nearly clubs Ryan in the head throwing the clutch to the backseat, where Kowalski lets out an indignant squawk. She's not bleeding out anymore, at least.

"Detective Mullins," Ryan starts, feeling suddenly very, very tired. "I'm pretty sure one of your colleagues is supposed to give you a lift at this point.”

Mullins waves her off. "I owe you a beer," she says. She looks down at her feet where blood is drying on the carpet, then at Ryan's scratched forehead. "I probably owe you more than one. All the more reason to get started right away."

"I appreciate the offer, Detective, but I don't know you--"

"But I know you, Stone. I have a TV, one far too old to get satellite, so I saw your face everywhere just like the rest of the uncivilized world."

Mullins looks over at her, face serious and still for the first time for Ryan to see past the wild hair and red cheeks. She holds her leg stiff from the pain, but her hands aren’t shaking. Her eyes are tired around the edges but they’re bright with what Ryan thinks is part mischief, part well-deserved self-satisfaction.

"Look," Mullins continues, "you're certifiably the fucking Bruce Willis of Space, and judging by today, you're not half bad on solid ground either. If you can't make the most fucking baller bar tale out of what happened to you, you don't deserve to have lived through it."

And that’s not like the press tour at all. Something tells Ryan Mullins won’t care much about the controls of the Shenzhou or the velocity of satellite debris, but she might get a kick out of the fire extinguisher bit.

Ryan thinks she could talk to this woman. About howling in the dark and the crazy urge she has to go to Greenland (maybe you can take a boat there?), ask around about a man with dogs and a baby and a now useless satellite radio.

She could tell Mullins about how the fire extinguisher idea came from watching Wall-E way too many times, Sarah asleep against her side. About how she sees Sarah, all grown up, in all those high school girls and how that’s finally starting to feel okay. She thinks Sarah would be proud, so maybe it’s time she was, too.

Maybe she can tell her about the peanut gallery in the backseat of her mind. How she didn’t want to be alone, even if connecting with people seemed harder than crash landing in a lake, at first. How it’s getting easier now, one hitchhiker at the time.

Admit it, Stone. You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone. But thanks for the ride.

Ryan turns the key in the ignition.

"A beer would be nice."