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Startled by the appearance of a shimmering force field in front of him, Fox Mulder cautiously extended a hand to touch the distorted waves of light. His arm tingled and spasmed, but to his surprise, there was no pain -- just an odd sense that his body was attempting to resonate in tune with the field. As he stood there watching his arm vibrate, he recalled what Scully had said after she encountered the field. She said that she felt as if she'd stepped into a electrically charged whirlwind that shook her apart then cast her aside. She'd refused to even speculate on what it might have been programmed to accept. She only knew that it rejected her. Mulder felt a mix of curiosity and alarm as he realized that the field was adjusting itself to him, encouraging him to step forward.

There were a thousand reasons to step back, but Mulder sensed that whatever lay behind this field was the destiny he'd been running towards for twenty-seven years. If Scully were here, she'd have all sorts of rational arguments against going into an unknown, possibly alien-generated field, he admitted ruefully to himself. Scully was always very good about advising him against sticking his fingers in the goo, but how else was he going to learn the answers to questions her science hadn't even begun to realize it needed to ask?

I'm probably going to regret this. Mulder couldn't turn back now, even for Scully and their tentative explorations into the physical and emotional side of their complex relationship. She'd never understand, not really. There was no way he could ever explain this compulsion to follow the rabbit down the hole. It was what he did, perhaps it was even what he was born to do.

Stepping into the field jarred every bone in his body. He felt as if he were being shaken apart. Then a euphoric sense of peace enveloped him as the harmonics of the field finally adjusted to the biorhythms of his body. For an instant he floated in the womb of the universe, touching the edge of the truth he'd sought all his life. Then his body automatically took the second step forward and he was through the field. Inside the haven created by the force field, everything was crystal clear, like the crisp clear air on a snowy morning when you could see forever and the morning star was close enough to touch. Outside the field the woods were hazy and distorted, seen through a rippled mirror.

I've finally stepped through the Looking Glass. I have a nasty feeling that getting back out isn't going to be as easy. To his surprise, the alarm he'd felt a moment or two before had been replaced by a calm feeling that this was right, this was his destiny. He had come home after a long and arduous journey. A general feeling of peace and serenity filled him, and it terrified him.

OK, that does it. Mulder decided he was not going saunter down to whatever called him here like a lamb. Enveloped by the euphoria, which slowly leeched out his will to resist, Mulder felt his senses being lulled into quiescence. Strong emotions slid away as he tried to focus on them. Abandoning the direct approach, Mulder tried reacting on an instinctive level, rather than a rational one. To his relief, he was able to apply his usual stubborn resistance against authority as he pushed against the drug, or harmonics, or whatever it was that urged his mind to go to sleep. Grudgingly the pleasant feeling of being at peace with the universe gave way. However relaxed and calm his body felt, his mind was his, again. For just a second, Mulder sensed surprise, and then the euphoria became a whispering wraith inside his mind, waiting for the moment to strike again.

Looking back through the shimmering field, he saw Skinner calling to him. He couldn't hear him, but it was obvious that Skinner was frantically trying to find him. Tentatively, Mulder poked a finger at the barrier. The waves were unyielding as cold marble.

I can check in, but I can't check out. This was a one-way trip and he had no way to assure Skinner that he was even alive. He had no choice, now, but to go forward with this last quixotic leap into the unknown and trust that the answers were worth the price he was paying in friendship and trust strained to the breaking point. Scully might not understand, but if there was a god, then Mulder prayed that she would accept that he loved her and that only the Truth could pull him away from her side. Unconsciously, he touched the cross she had given him to wear to remind him that she was with him in spirit wherever he went. It had become a pledge of faith between them.

Walking through shadows that danced in and out of the light, Mulder let whatever was trying to control his mind lead him towards the center of this circle. The stars overhead shone like crystalline flames, lighting his way. In a few minutes, Mulder found himself standing at the edge of a clearing. Billy Miles and the other missing abductees were gathered in the middle of a circle of white light. It was clear from their placid smiles and passive stances that they were completely under the influence of whatever it was that was whispering inside his head, urging him to relax, assuring him that all would be well.

When he stepped into the light to take his place among them, he was welcomed with a touch here, a smile there. He felt their acceptance of him pour out from them as if they were trying to wrap him in a psychic blanket of love. Smiling in return, he felt oddly segregated from the warmth they exuded. He was one of them, but not entirely. Whatever brain anomalies they might share, for some reason he could fight back, while they were completely enveloped by the euphoria. Mulder almost envied them their serenity, but he couldn't surrender years of resistance even to feel the peace they were experiencing.

Behind him, Mulder felt a stirring in the crowd. Turning to see who the newcomer was, Mulder was stunned to see the alien bounty hunter step into the circle. The urge to panic struggled against the euphoria, effectively locking him in stasis, unable to flee or relax. As he stared at his nemesis, Mulder felt a gnawing itch inside his skull. He flashed back to the cacophony of voices that nearly drove him insane months before. This is not the place to have a relapse, he reminded himself sharply.

"I knew you would come. You, I did not need to bring here."

Mulder shook his head. The alien's mouth never moved, but Mulder could hear his voice. Telepathy, he thought giddily as reality shifted around him.

"But I'm not telepathic," he protested back. He'd assumed that Cancer Man had carved out the center in his brain that had triggered his brief dalliance with telepathy. Apparently whatever physiological changes the alien artifact had effected was still there and was reactivating. Mulder's mind raced to fit fact and speculation together amid a growing fear that this time he had no one to save him from the madness.

"You will know, soon enough," the alien said with an imperceptible inclination of the head and one of his enigmatic smiles.

Mulder sensed satisfaction in completing a difficult assignment in addition to a strange sense of respect in the alien's mental voice. For some reason, the alien approved of him, although Mulder wasn't exactly sure why. He could read the alien's complete indifference to Billy and the others, as if they were merely cattle he had been ordered to round up. The idea that he was some sort of special case to the aliens was not reassuring; it implied that he had grossly underestimated the situation and his place in the grand scheme of things. What a hell of a time to become important.

A distant sub-sonic rumbling caused him to look up. A space ship larger than anything Mulder had ever imagined was coming in out of the western horizon. It filled the sky as it came to a halt and hovered over them. Awe, not fear, held him motionless.

I was right. All this time, despite all the doubts and the lies, I was right. Being right would probably cost him his sanity, if not his life, but for now he savored the vindication. This was no hallucination born of cold and exhaustion, or drugs. This ship was real and he was about to become intimately acquainted with the Truth, whether he wanted to or not. I have a nasty feeling that being right could hurt.

A blinding light filled the clearing, turning Billy and the others into pillars of white light. Mulder heard gasps of fear and small wails of terror from the others around him as the euphoria which had kept them under control vanished, but he remained silent. Breathing deeply, he waited as fear fought with curiosity. He wondered what Skinner saw out there in the world beyond the barrier. Part of him hoped Skinner saw nothing. Why burden him with knowledge he couldn't deny and would never be able to prove? Nevertheless, Mulder couldn't deny that he wanted some testament to how he disappeared, someone to say that his quest for the truth had been right all along.

It's not fair, Walt, but you're getting one hell of a legacy. Before he could blink again, the light sucked him up and away.

So this is what a transporter beam feels like. Fighting the urge to scream, he felt himself exist in two places at once for a single agonizing second. Mulder felt his body stretch as thin and taut as an over-extended rubber band stretching into infinity.

No wonder Dr. McCoy hated these things. Then his body snapped together with a sharp crack and he felt himself staring at a curved metal wall. Nothing in his life had ever effectively cured his curiosity. I hope I'm not about to find the cure, now.

Anger, accompanied by bewilderment filtered through the soft moans and fear radiating out from his fellow abductees. This was not where the alien expected to be. Fighting a nauseating disorientation, Mulder tried to see what was happening.

"Who are you?" The alien's telepathic voice reverberated inside his head.

"That hurt," Mulder moaned as he raised his hands to clutch the sides of his head, or rather tried to. Despite his best efforts, his hands remained at his side.

Damn. A stasis field. He struggled to move something, even a finger, fighting the field with desperate anger.

"There's been a change in plans. You can cooperate, or you can die. Your choice," a voice chimed in from somewhere just out of his line of sight.

Mulder abruptly ceased all attempts to move. He knew that voice. If this was hell, then his own personal demon had just shown up as tour guide. Krycek was like a cat, he always landed on his feet, but how in hell had he commandeered a position among the aliens? Mulder barely breathed as he tried to decipher what was going on from the sounds behind him. The alien bounty hunter was angry, which was a good thing. It appeared that Krycek was in a position of some responsibility, which might not be a good thing.

The combination of smell and hearing, two of the most powerful mnemonic triggers, opened up the locked doors to memories of a maze and a tentative shared intimacy. Triumphantly, all the small details of his brief alliance with Krycek rushed up from the locked cellar where he had consigned them. He'd awoken in his own bed, missing twenty-four hours from his life, covered with sweat. Unwilling to believe, he'd tried to regard what he remembered happening as a particularly vivid fever dream. No matter how he reassured himself that the journey never happened, the feel of Krycek's hands on his cock, and his on Krycek's haunted him, insinuated themselves into his dreams and fantasies. Try as he might, he couldn't outrun the feeling that it hadn't been a dream. It had happened and somehow their shared sexual release had marked a rite of passage that transformed them from the status of enemies to that of wary allies.

Mulder felt the blood rush to his face as some of the more erotic fantasies of his late night jack-offs came to mind. Blood was also rushing elsewhere, triggered by the peculiar mix of anger, raw sexuality, and curiosity he felt whenever he came near Krycek. Caught between arousal and the instinctive call to be alert and ready for trouble, Mulder cursed a stasis field which prevented him from turning to face the danger, but still allowed an errant part of his anatomy to respond to highly inappropriate signals.

Behind him, Mulder heard what could only be a defiant curse in some language that bordered on comprehensible but which contained concepts so alien that his mind shuddered away from them. He could hear the alien's response in stereo, both as words and as an explosion of sledgehammer blows inside his head. Reeling from the blows, Mulder felt as if his brain was on fire. Reeling, despite the efforts of the stasis field to hold up upright, Mulder screamed at the assault on his mind. To his surprise, he felt the alien's attack stop an instant before he felt him die. It was tempting to follow him down into the darkness where pain didn't exist, but Mulder clung to life with the tenacity of a desperate man.

If I die, they win, he told himself, cajoling his mind into choosing life rather than the numbing pleasure of death. I'm too close. I won't die this close to the Truth.

"Mulder, are you OK?" Krycek's voice whispered over him and Mulder could feel the pull of the drug-induced placidity. Peace, contentment, acceptance rolled over him, but not through him. Whatever had awakened inside his mind seemed to be proof against the imposed euphoria. Right now, he wasn't sure whether he was grateful, or whether the artificial mind-numbing might be preferable to the pain cascading through his head.

The stasis field suddenly relaxed and he crumpled against a familiar body that triggered memories of his hands moving across that body as a shared climax shook them both. Fear told him to struggle against those arms, but need told him that he was safe.

"Shit! Mulder, you die now and I swear I'll have them bring you back just so I can kick your ass," Krycek threatened angrily.

Still caught in the stereophonic world of spoken and mental voices, Krycek's angry words registered, but Mulder also sensed worry, desperate concern, and, oddly, an unwilling compassion hiding behind the words. That, more than his own desperate will to live, stunned Mulder back to consciousness.

"Wouldn't give you the pleasure," Mulder whispered back hoarsely. His response surprised him, but it seemed to reassure Krycek. Mulder cautiously opened his eyes to see Krycek bracing himself against a metal wall as he kept them more or less upright. Off to one side, under a crystal shell, the body of the alien bounty hunter was melting into a puddle of green goo.

"Do you just like doing things the hard way, Mulder?" Krycek asked with a sarcastic smile. Mulder tried to ignore his obvious arousal as he was nestled against Krycek's body. There was no way Krycek could miss it and Mulder resented his body betrayal of his attraction to this dangerously amoral man. He couldn't decide whether to be alarmed or intrigued by the possibilities of being in Krycek's power. It offered all sorts of extreme possibilities that Mulder wasn't sure he wanted to contemplate just now.

"Better now?" Krycek asked as he pushed Mulder back to a standing position. Despite his effort to sound dispassionate, even gruff, Mulder sensed relief and affection lurking beneath the words. This new trick of mind-reading was going to take getting used to, Mulder decided. It was unnerving to hear one thing with his ears while simultaneously hearing something else in his head. It wasn't words, so much, at least with Krycek. Mulder realized that he was picking up emotional subtext to color whatever Krycek was saying orally. He also suspected that Krycek didn't realize what he was doing. It was a small advantage, but he needed every edge he could get. Mulder intended to keep quiet about this new talent as long as possible. He shelved the question of why he heard the alien bounty hunter's words, but could only pick up emotions from Krycek. He already had enough to worry about.

"I'll live, or is that under debate?" Mulder replied flippantly as he wavered slightly, then felt the world stop spinning and stabilize.

"We've gone to too much trouble to let you mess things up by dying," Krycek replied just as flippantly, removing his hands from Mulder's arm and back. "If you can walk, I'll take you to a place where you can clean up and throw up in privacy."

What's this we shit? Krycek's use of the plural implied gave Mulder more cause for worry. Just who is Krycek working for, Mulder wondered.

You just had to say the words, didn't you? Feeling a sickening giddy feeling in the pit of his stomach, Mulder realized that his stomach had been making strong protests for the past few minutes, and was not happy about being ignored. Taking a tentative step, he felt extremely disconnected to the floor, as if an incautious move would send him flying to the ceiling. Apparently this ship had some sort of artificial gravity, but not enough for human comfort.

"You'll get used to it, but be prepared to throw up several times in the process," Krycek said with an evil smile. He waved Mulder down a long narrow passageway, guiding him slightly with his good arm.

Attuned to the emotional subtext, Mulder sensed sympathy rather than delight in his discomfort. More than likely, Krycek had gone through the same experience before he adjusted to the new environment. For a moment, Mulder was tempted to hurl his dinner all over Krycek's shoes, but decided that the momentary, childish satisfaction wasn't worth the embarrassment. Mulder contented himself with giving Krycek a sickly smile which did prompt him to step back. It will have to do, he assured the rebellious streak which wanted to strike out and fight every inch of the way. He had no way off this ship, after all. Rebellion was pretty stupid when he had no where to run.

Mulder stumbled off in the direction Krycek indicated, which only made his nausea worse. He felt like he was walking across a trampoline. When he paused for a moment and placed a hand on the wall to steady himself, he felt a slight vibration. It appeared that the ship was moving somewhere else. Mulder fought a sickening feeling of helplessness. Not since he'd lain under the wire mesh at Tunguska and felt the black oil seep into his nose and eyes had he felt so completely powerless. It was not a good feeling.

"What about them?" Mulder asked evenly, gesturing back towards where Billy and the others stood passively waiting for whatever awaited them. In an odd way, he felt responsible for them.

"For the moment, nothing at all. We have no idea why the Others want them so badly, so it seemed like a good idea to get to them first. Of course, the fact that you wandered into their trap gave us an added incentive," Krycek replied with a shrug. Obviously, the fate of the other abductees didn't concern him.

That's the amoral SOB I know. To his surprise, he felt relieved. At least there was one constant in his universe. Despite their temporary alliance in the maze, he didn't trust Krycek.

::Of course you don't, that's why you practically fucked each other.::

"Fuck you," Mulder cursed his errant inner voice that decided this was an excellent time to wake up and take part in the festivities. Krycek gave him a startled look that quickly twisted into a cynical smile.

"You expect me to care? You're getting soft, Mulder," he said with a snort. "They're better off here than with the Others. As for fucking me -- it's a bit public here for my taste, too many eyes watching. Just be patient. When we last met, you were in control. Now it's my turn."

Mulder tried not to hear the faint note of hurt under the cynicism and the implied promise of intimacies, forced or not, in his future. He never considered that Krycek's feelings could be hurt, but perhaps Krycek was having as hard a time as he was in putting their brief exchange of trust behind him. The last thing he wanted Krycek to know was that their mutual hand jobs were a regular feature of his erotic dreams. His heart might love Scully, but his body was a bit more broad-minded.

"Not you," Mulder explained curtly. He had no desire to try to explain that he had this little sarcastic voice that delighted in puncturing his best efforts to remain aloof and detached from Krycek.

"And who else are you talking to?" Krycek's tone was sarcastic, but once again, Mulder caught the underlying sense that he'd just said something extremely significant. Mulder clamped his mouth shut and decided to speak only when spoken to until he figured out what was going on.

::When that happens, let me know and I'll break out the champagne,:: the voice piped in cheerfully.

Mulder mentally flipped the finger at his inner wiseacre and continued walking down the oddly curved hallway.

"In here." Krycek grabbed Mulder's arm to halt him and pointed towards a section of the wall that, to Mulder at least, looked like every other section he'd passed. Krycek passed his hand over a small salmon-colored patch on the wall and the patch turned a dark blue. "Put your hand there," Krycek directed.

Mulder caught a hint of amusement underlying his words and wondered what unpleasant surprise was waiting for him. Gingerly, he placed his hand on the patch. It felt like touching warm Jell-O that oozed around his hand, but stickier. He tried to pull back his hand, but it was firmly stuck in the goo. The palm of his hand tingled as if he'd stuck his hand in a bed of whirling acupuncture needles. After a moment, his hand was released and the patch felt solid. He poked at it experimentally, but it remained solid. That was weird; nifty, though. With a whispered whir, a door slid open in the wall and Mulder could see what appeared to be a small cabin.

"This is yours. The ship will remember your handprint now. Why don't you get cleaned up?" Krycek suggested evenly. "I'll be back in about a half an hour. We need to talk," he warned.

Mulder couldn't pick up any subtext to his words so apparently this offer was exactly what it meant -- a chance to catch his breath, although he suspected that this respite was more likely meant to give him time to realize just how fucked he was. As long as he didn't have time to stop and think, he could just keep going on adrenaline. Krycek knows me too damn well. I hate being helpless and he knows it.

Instinctively, Mulder began to profile his situation. At least it gave him something to do rather than dwell on how helpless he was. As long as he could profile, he could persuade himself that he had a modicum of independence.

"By the way, there are more comfortable shoes in there," Krycek pointed to one of the walls that bore another one of the strange discolored patches. "Oh, and you might find one of these pills useful. I don't want you throwing up in front of the Rebels. It seems to amuse them," Krycek added abruptly as he handed Mulder a small pill bottle.

This time Mulder clearly caught the irritation in both the verbal tone and Krycek's mental subtext. When he'd seen Krycek, Mulder immediately assumed that he was a prisoner, at best, or the aliens' newest lab rat at worst. This cabin, while small, didn't feel like a jail cell; prisoners usually didn't have the key to their own cells. Of course, there was the simple fact that if he did escape he had nowhere to run. Going to the door, he touched the colored pad. The door opened with a hiss. A quick glance outside showed no sign of Krycek. He had free access to the hallway and, as far as he could tell, there wasn't a guard in sight. The aliens might be supremely confident that he couldn't go anywhere, but Krycek had a nasty suspicious mind that didn't make assumptions.

Mulder began to consider the extreme possibility that he wasn't here just as a prisoner. This supposition suggested that he would be wise to discard an entire lifetime of preconceptions and be prepared to open his mind to all sorts of extreme possibilities.

::Easier said than done.::

For once, his annoying inner voice sounded sympathetic. Irrationally, Mulder wished it would go back to being sarcastic, caustic, and thoroughly irritating. Sympathy from his erratic subconscious suggested that he was well and truly screwed.

Nodding to Krycek, Mulder walked into the room, spinning around in alarm when the door slid closed behind him. With a racing heart, he looked around his new home away from home. The cabin was small, slightly larger than the sleeper cabins on Amtrak. The only sign of furniture was a comfortable-looking chair in one corner. He saw no sign of a bed, but it was logical that, like train beds, it folded neatly into the wall. All he had to do was find the release button. After a quick scan of the walls, he located another one of those oddly colored patches and tentatively placed his hand on it. This time there was no tingling; just a feeling that he'd pushed his hand into mud. With another soft whir, a bed unfolded from the wall. It was actually larger than Mulder expected. The mattress molded itself to his hand when he pressed against it and felt warm to the touch.

A wave of nausea reminded him of the pills and he started looking around for a bathroom. By the time he located it, he'd also found a fold-down desk and the closet. The bathroom was barely big enough to turn around in, but it came equipped with all the basic necessities. The water tasted metallic and flat, but it was enough to wash down one of the pills. Mulder stared at the pill for several long moments.

Mulder didn't trust Krycek, but he didn't think he'd slip him hallucinogens, not yet anyway. It didn't really matter. The way his stomach was protesting, Mulder didn't care what else the pills did just as long as the nausea quit.

As he waited for the pills to take effect, Mulder put the desk and bed back into the wall to give himself some room. The closet door appeared to be on a timer; it was closed when he came back out of the bathroom. Other than a dark blue jumpsuit, the closet was empty except for the shoes Krycek mentioned.

Once his stomach settled down enough to allow him to bend over without throwing up, Mulder took a look at the shoes. He couldn't tell what they were made of, but the sole appeared to be slightly magnetic. After putting them on, he took a few tentative steps. There was just enough resistance to give him a sense of security. Now that he no longer felt as if each step would launch him towards the ceiling, his stomach began to relax.

Plopping down into the chair, Mulder analyzed the situation. His prospects were not looking good. He had no way off this ship, and, however much he might resent it, for the moment he was totally dependent on Krycek for survival and information. Krycek obviously remembered their time in the maze and showed an interest in pursuing their uneasy sexual attraction. Personally, Mulder didn't think this was exactly the time or place to explore extreme sexual possibilities. The fact that he was possibly bisexual didn't phase him, but that he was attracted to Krycek, and Krycek to him, did. Fucking Krycek for the amusement of aliens was not high on his list of things to do.

Pushing his mind away from this unsettling topic, Mulder tried to figure out why the aliens suddenly seemed so interested in him and where Krycek fit into this puzzle. His initial profile suggested that Krycek wasn't running the show, although he seemed to have the run of the ship. With the Consortium in ruins, Mulder had no idea who Krycek might have joined up with, but it seemed logical to assume that his new bosses were on the side of the resistance. Mulder wavered between feeling that this might be reassuring, and regarding being in the hands of the resistance as just one more reason to worry.

If I just knew why I'm so damn important to either side.

Mulder glared at the metal walls in frustration. Even he couldn't construct a reasonable profile on so little data.

He simply couldn't see any reason Cancer Man would go to the trouble of arranging such an elaborate abduction scenario. He also doubted if the bastard had access to a space ship. Every profiling instinct he had said that this whole scenario felt too subtle for the old smoker. Mulder reluctantly considered another possibility -- the mystery man who had abducted Krycek and him a few months ago and dumped them into a maze for some obscure purpose. Mulder hated having more questions than answers, but he was used to it.

A discordant buzz startled him out of his reverie. It seemed to be coming from the front wall, so he supposed it was a doorbell.

"Who is it?" he asked loudly, at the same time wondering if the sound of his voice would carry outside the room. Another buzz answered him, so he pressed his hand against the patch lock and quickly stepped back.

::Since when have your enemies started ringing the doorbell? And if there are aliens out there, what exactly do you think you can do?:: his inner voice asked sarcastically.

"Make up a plan as I go along," Mulder muttered in reply. It felt good to figuratively flip a finger at fate.

The door whooshed open and Krycek stepped inside as he motioned Mulder to sit down. With only a slight hesitation, Mulder complied. Now that he was about to face the truth he'd searched for all these years, he felt hesitant. Krycek opened up the desk, set a small cone resembling a lava lamp, and turned it on. Mulder's felt a low hum explode inside his head, like the sound of a muted chain saw. Clutching the sides of his head, he bent over with a groan.

"Shit," Krycek muttered. The sound abruptly ceased and Mulder drew a slow shuddering breath as he cradled his head in his hands.

"Well, that answers that question," Krycek commented irritably. Mulder looked up to see him shove the device to one side.

"OK, now that you know the answer, care to share what the question is?" Mulder asked shakily.

"Why the Others want you so badly. That device broadcasts sub-harmonics to discourage our hosts from eavesdropping. I couldn't hear a thing, but you could," Krycek snapped in an accusing tone. "What am I thinking?" he ordered abruptly.

Mulder shook his head. I can't read minds. What in hell is Krycek thinking? Then the memory of thousands of voices clamoring inside his mind six months ago came rushing back and he once again felt the sickening sense that he was drowning in a sea of voices not his own.

"I asked you a question," Krycek snapped, shaking Mulder hard by the shoulders. Instinctively reacting to the tone of voice, Mulder tried to focus on the present. With a final swell, the voices retreated back into memory and he relaxed gratefully into the silence. There were no more voices, but he felt someone else's emotions seeping into his mind. They felt human, unlike the cold, alien feel of the bounty hunter's thoughts. Gradually, he realized that he was sensing Krycek's emotions -- concern and worry camouflaged by anger. The more he focused on the odd feeling, the clearer he could discern the layers of emotion.

"You're worried, not angry," Mulder muttered as he tried to work through what this sensation meant. If he was correct, then apparently whatever aspect of his mind that the artifact had activated was still functional. Cancer Man had carved something out of his brain, but he obviously didn't get everything he was looking for. You did me a favor, you old bastard; I hope you're drowning in all those voices.

Feeling Krycek's emotions felt weird, but manageable. It was a hell of a lot better than trying to sort through a chorus of discordant voices shouting in his head. Maybe coming into contact with the bounty hunter had somehow reactivated that particular part of his brain, or perhaps whatever drug was used to foster the euphoria produced unexpected side effects.

Looking up into Krycek's face, Mulder realized he was almost preening with self-congratulation. It figured. Krycek hated mysteries he didn't create.

"Happy, now?" Mulder grumbled as he stretched his neck muscles and flexed his shoulders to get rid of the slight headache that the return of the voices brought on.

"Delirious," Krycek responded dryly. "Listen up. You have two choices and I don't think you're going to like either one of them. You can stay here and let the rebels figure out what makes you tick, or you can come with me. The man I work for is an arrogant SOB, but at least he's human. I think," Krycek added uncertainly, but with a malicious smile.

"Why not just drop me off at the next stop? I'll find my own way home," Mulder retorted sarcastically. He didn't hold out much hope that Krycek would consider this suggestion, but he had to try. As far as he could tell, both of Krycek's options stank.

"Not a chance. There are still plenty of people besides Old Man Spender who'd just love to get their hands on you. It's not safe for you out there, any longer," Krycek advised seriously. Mulder sensed concern buried underneath a lot of personal enjoyment of his predicament. Mulder wondered if Krycek ever had an uncomplicated emotion. Then Krycek's words sank in and Mulder sat bolt upright, startling Krycek into a defensive posture.

Mulder stared blindly at the knife in Krycek's hand as his mind processed what Krycek had just implied and the grim satisfaction of a job well done lurking behind Krycek's ambiguous words.

"Cancer Man's dead," Mulder stated flatly. Emotionally he wasn't quite ready to believe the bastard responsible for so much destruction in his life was finally gone. If Krycek had killed the old bastard, then Mulder owed him one. That might not be in keeping with FBI protocol, but Mulder knew the law would never be able to touch the smoking bastard for any of his crimes. If anyone deserved to die, it was him. Deep down, Mulder knew that Krycek had done what he wanted to do himself. If he condemned Krycek, then he condemned himself.

"Bright as always. You going to arrest me?" Krycek asked sarcastically, holding out his hands.

"I think we're a bit out of my jurisdiction, Krycek," Mulder replied with studied casualness. He wasn't about to give Krycek the satisfaction of rising to his bait. "Are you sure?" he added hastily. Spender had a nasty habit of turning up alive against all expectations.

"He had an unfortunate accident involving a moving wheelchair and a set of stairs. I suppose the poison on the needle I pricked him with before he fell might have had something to do with it, but I think the fall was enough to kill him. He was dying anyway; I just advanced the date by a few weeks." Krycek shrugged. Pulling down the bed, he sat down.

::Why not tell him you're glad? Afraid to say thank you for doing what you couldn't bring yourself to do? You wanted to kill the old man, but you were afraid -- afraid he was right and he was your father.::

Damn you, Mulder mentally snapped at the voice.

"If you come with me, the man I work for can give you the answers to questions you haven't even thought of asking yet. It's your only chance, Mulder. Stay here, and you might just wish the Others had taken you. We can't let you go. It isn't safe," Krycek's abrasive tone stung, but Mulder realized that it hid a strong layer of fear for him under a tightly controlled expression. This sixth sense could come in useful. At least it gave him an edge on Krycek.

Mulder smiled and Krycek started swearing. "Damn you, Mulder. Quit poking around inside my head. You really wouldn't like some of the things you find in there," Krycek snarled as he stood up and slapped the bed back into the wall. "I'll give you ten minutes to make up your mind."

Without a backwards glance, Krycek stalked out of the room. Once in the hallway, he turned to face the room. "Remember, trust no one."

Mulder watched the door slide closed behind him and tried not to wince at the finality he heard in Krycek's tone and felt in his mind. It had truly come down to the moment of decision. He missed Scully. They had spent more time arguing than agreeing lately, but she had a way of helping him put things in perspective, to sort through his own confusion to see the way he had to go.

He'd asked Scully to stay behind because he had been afraid for her. He overrode her objection in absolute certainty that whatever was stalking the former abductees would be looking for her. Now, it appeared that his gallant gesture had been in vain. Scully had never been the target; the aliens wanted him, not her. At least she'd been spared the sight of him disappearing into the unknown. They'd had so little time together, barely time enough to accept that their partnership was moving in a new direction. Would she blame him? Would she understand that he'd had no choice? He hoped so, but Scully's faith in him was fragile. Mulder knew she trusted him as he trusted her, but he suspected that she doubted his love.

Pacing required room and, even with all the furniture put up, this room was too small. Mulder tried anyway. He needed to move, to run the problem into the ground until his head was clear of all distractions. Right now, he just wanted to go back to Scully, to forget aliens, and try to piece their lives together. Unfortunately, he believed Krycek when he said that wasn't an option. There was an odd feeling lurking deep under Krycek's surface emotions and it had a certain finality about it. It was quite possible that Krycek intended to kill him rather than allow the aliens to have him. Mulder wasn't entirely sure he didn't agree, but he'd like to have a voice in the matter.

"Skinner, take care of her. I can't, so you'll have to," Mulder whispered softly to the hard metal walls of his cabin. Despite Krycek's warning, he had to trust someone, and Skinner was a man who could be trusted, at least as far as keeping Scully safe. He had no idea what Skinner had seen, but if the ship had been as noticeable as Mulder suspected it had been, then he had a feeling that a new believer was out there. Maybe his abduction would serve some purpose; Skinner might have a better chance than he ever did to convince the FBI that something unusual was going on. "Good luck, sir."

Right then -- if going back home wasn't an option, and letting the rebels use him as a guinea pig was out, then that left the uncomfortable choice of taking Krycek up on his offer. Mulder wished he was made of sterner stuff, that he could be a stubborn martyr to honor and the law, but he wanted to live. He wanted to survive, to destroy the aliens, and to go back to his life. Survival, right now, meant following Krycek.

Exactly on the minute, Krycek returned. Mulder wondered if he'd been standing outside the door the entire time waiting until Mulder came to the inevitable conclusion that he was thoroughly boxed in. Mulder was tempted to try to play with him, but it wouldn't serve any purpose other than a momentary sop to his pride. Not playing games, doing the unexpected, might do just as well. Being unpredictable with Krycek was his best defense.

Not trusting himself to speak, Mulder simply nodded his acquiescence to Krycek's offer. Deliberately he refused to read Krycek's reaction. To his surprise, he found he could shield against Krycek's emotions. The price appeared to be a gnawing headache, but it was a fair price if he could block out the emotions of people around him. Handing himself over to Krycek's control was bad enough; he didn't want to know whether Krycek was gloating or had taken his surrender as a sure thing.

"Just trust me, Mulder," Krycek replied sardonically with an predatory glint in his eye.

Mulder started to make a smart-ass reply, but decided to throw his erstwhile nemesis off balance with a serious reply. "As far as you trust me, Krycek." Then, with a wicked grin, he added, "Maybe even a little bit farther."

Krycek glared at him. "You never learn," he retorted flatly as he led the way out of the room and down the long winding hallway. Mulder followed him with an amused smile.

::You like playing with fire?:: Mulder's inner voice asked innocently. ::Keep pushing Krycek and you might get far more than you bargained for, or is that what you want?:: it asked slyly.

Would you listen if I told you to go away? Mulder plaintively asked the voice. He knew the answer, but he kept hoping that just once the voice would allow him to maintain the illusion that he controlled his sexual fantasies. As usual, the voice shut up and left him to ponder his complex feelings for Krycek in silence.

Krycek set a brisk pace. Mulder quickly found that walking fast in these new shoes wasn't quite as easy as Krycek was making it out to be. Trust Krycek to play one-upmanship games even here, Mulder thought as he tried to keep up.

Just about the time Mulder's calf muscles were ready to declare open rebellion, Krycek came to a halt in front of another wall. This time the patch was an odd shade of green-gray that shimmered when Krycek touched it. The wall separated to reveal a large room with a long narrow table stretching the length of the room. Krycek stepped aside and motioned Mulder to go in.

With only a slight hesitation, Mulder complied. Now that he was about to face the truth he'd searched for all these years, he felt hesitant.

"Come in, Mr. Mulder," a serene, smooth voice with a cultured English accent greeted him.

He was facing a dead man. Mulder had seen him die in a fiery explosion two years ago. The man, whose name he'd never learned, appeared as dapper as ever, although his neatly tailored suit and trim white hair looked incongruous in a metal room aboard a space ship. Alex looked far more at home in his black sweater and jeans, but Mulder had no doubt who was in control. The dapper man dominated the room with his presence. His casual air of authority and effortless superiority irked Mulder. His instinctive rebellion against authority rose up, but Mulder quelled it. Getting answers right now was more important than being a smart-ass.

"I'm not an alien, although you'll have to take my word for that." The man looked as dapper as he had sitting calmly in the back of his sedan while he reeled off an incredible tale of conspiracy and the secrets kept by Mulder's father.

"You're dead," Mulder blurted out. He was aware that he was obviously wrong, but he wanted an explanation before going any further. He owed this man Scully's life, but how much of that gesture had been self-sacrificing and how much did it owe to a desire to bind Mulder to him?

"Hardly, Mr. Mulder. My colleagues had come to the regrettable conclusion that I was no longer quite as committed to the Project as they were. Suspecting that my motives were uncertain, they naturally took steps to eliminate me. I refused to be eliminated. The rebels found it in their interest to assist me in that resolve." The dapper man made it sound so logical, but Mulder suspected that he was dealing with someone accustomed to double, even triple, dealing. Two years ago, this man had spun him a tale that expunged some of his father's guilt in allowing Samantha's abduction. Now Mulder wondered how much had been truth, and how much had been invented to inveigle him in an elaborate scheme of revenge.

"Sit down, Mr. Mulder. We have much to talk about. Fortunately, our hosts display a singular reticence about approaching you. Despite your past differences, what I have to say involves Alex as much as yourself. Are you going to cling to old enmities, or are you willing to open yourself up to extreme possibilities?"

Glancing at Alex who gave him a slight shrug of bewilderment, Mulder pulled out a chair at the far end of the table from the Englishman. Krycek was clearly at a loss. The Englishman was harder to read; he covered his thoughts with other thoughts. Gradually, Mulder was able to shift through the layers of emotion and mental subterfuge. The Englishman was excited, but also very nervous about this meeting. For some reason, he believed that Mulder played a key role in plans that had been laid out decades ago. Even without his gift, Mulder could tell that the man's need to persuade him to his cause was hampered by a reluctance to disclose the truths necessary to convince him. Mulder wondered if he ever allowed himself a simple thought that wasn't obscured by three or four different meanings.

What new version of the truth about his family and his past would emerge to entangle him in the affairs of men whose only purpose appeared to be to manipulate him? Mulder was tired of lies. Even if he learned he was the son of that smoking devil, just knowing the truth would be a relief.

From behind him, Krycek's hand pressed down on his shoulder and he derived an odd sense of comfort from that touch. Krycek might radiate exasperation, but he had deliberately moved forward to give Mulder something to put his back against. Krycek might be his enemy some of the time, but they had shared the trials of the maze and out of that had forged an extremely fragile temporary alliance against a common enemy. Mulder sensed that his move was deliberate. By pressing lightly against his back, was Krycek reminding him of that brief moment when they had worked together? Mulder nodded and straightened under Krycek's hand to face their maddeningly oblique host. The Englishman gave the two of them a strange smile which set off a series of alarm bells in Mulder's head.

"Curious, Alex? I don't recall that being in our bargain," the Englishman said urbanely with an amused glint in his eyes.

Krycek remained silent, but he moved to sit down beside Mulder with a sardonically rebellious expression on his face that bordered on a glower. While Krycek wasn't exactly the person he'd have chosen to stand beside him in a face-down with a master of conspiracy and lies, Mulder reluctantly admitted that he knew very few other people who had a better right...or who would be more help.

"Excellent," the Englishman exclaimed enigmatically, before breaking into a wintry smile. "There is a time for action, and a time for explanations. We have time now to discuss your past, as well as your future, if you're really willing to know the truth hidden between the lies."

"Just getting a straight answer out of you would be a start," Krycek muttered barely loud enough for Mulder to hear. The Englishman's lips twitched, but he said nothing.

"Why not just tell me why I'm here?" Mulder asked with a sour smile in almost the same instant. He didn't expect the truth -- he'd given up expecting the truth from the men who'd plagued his life. Perhaps even they didn't know it. His past was a mass of tangled web of lies and distorted memories. At this moment, it was the here and now that mattered.

Why am I so damn important to the aliens and the rebel aliens? How soon can I get off this ship and back to my life and Scully? Those were the important questions he wanted answered.

Mulder felt Krycek's good hand squeeze his shoulder slightly, and with the squeeze he felt Krycek's approval of his question. It was disconcerting to feel Krycek's emotions and felt far too intimate, but he was powerless to shut it off without enduring a maddening headache.

"You're here because we dared not allow the Others to have you."

"That's not an answer," Mulder retorted as his temper began slipping.

"It's all the answer I have to give you, Mr. Mulder," the Englishman replied regretfully. "I'm not being mysterious or trying to camouflage the truth. We don't know why the Others want you, which is why it was imperative that they not get you."

For the first time, Mulder sensed that the Englishman was telling him the truth. This was one of the rare times the Englishman wasn't trying to hide behind words. The man was alarmed by the mere thought of Mulder in the hands of the other aliens.

"Mulder, don't expect to get the truth from these men. I warned you once that they make it up as they go along," Krycek growled. Apparently he couldn't pick up the fear radiating from the Englishman. Mulder was torn between continuing his confrontation with the enigmatic Englishman or dealing with Krycek. Logic told him to keep pushing for the truth from the dapper man, but instinct said to ditch logic.

Twisting in his seat to face Krycek, Mulder deliberately tried to read him. Anger coupled with fear overrode everything else. The fear appeared to be as much for Mulder, as for himself. Mulder dared not probe very deep, even if he knew how this new talent of his worked. Krycek's surface emotions were colored by a dark sexuality that reached out to awaken his own buried sexual attraction for his nemesis. This was not the time or place for random sexual explorations.

"I trusted you once. Were you lying, then?" Mulder asked brutally. He felt Krycek flinch. Anger flared, and quickly restrained. Krycek's mind raged at the idea that Mulder held their momentary confidences in the maze so cheaply, or that their brief exchange of sexual honesty and pleasure could be held so cheaply.

Mulder gave Krycek high marks for control, but he'd learned enough. He'd invaded Krycek's mind to get what he needed -- justifiable rape, perhaps, but rape all the same. Mulder briefly considered his tutors in this game of betrayal and obfuscation. They'd done their work too well; now he was a player as deeply mired in filth as those he'd despised.

"Thank you. And yes, I remember," Mulder replied to Krycek's unspoken anger as he briefly touched Krycek's good arm. Krycek looked startled, then his eyes narrowed as he rapidly sorted through the clues Mulder had just given him.

The Englishman's expression hadn't changed, but he was radiating a paternal satisfaction behind that sly smile he wore as a shield. Mulder suspect that he'd just passed a test he hadn't known was being given.

"Why am I so fucking important?" Mulder demanded as he turned back to face his opponent feeling more secure with Krycek now firmly at his back. Krycek made an extremely uncertain ally, but Mulder was certain he was an ally, at least for now. To his surprise, Mulder realized that the man appeared to be inordinately pleased by the interaction between himself and Krycek. There were still too many pieces of the puzzle missing, but he was beginning to have strong suspicions that the pattern he'd been working from had nothing to do with the final picture.

"Why are we so important?" Mulder asked again, changing the emphasis of his question while watching the Englishman closely. Krycek startled against him as the implications of his altered question sank in, but Mulder kept his focus on the dapper man sitting opposite him. As quickly as the man tried to cover his reaction, Mulder was still able to catch surprise, relief, and a weird mix of uncertainty and pleasure. The question was unexpected, but the conclusion he'd apparently reached, that both he and Krycek were important, was not.

"Well done, my boy. My colleagues grossly underestimated you. They were fools and died accordingly." The dapper man coldly dismissed his old allies in a casual manner that sent chills up Mulder's spine. This man reminded him of a serial killer he'd profiled who simply could not comprehend why anyone was so concerned over the deaths of a few dozen homeless people; he'd had the same offhand disdain for human life.

"I don't think you entirely understand, Mr. Mulder. My colleagues were quite prepared to sell out all of humanity in exchange for their own lives and the lives of their families," the man offered as if to ameliorate any semblance of guilt.

"And you weren't," Mulder shot back, determined to ruffle his opponent's complacency.

"Like your father, I accepted necessity, but I was not bound by it."

Mulder felt like he was in a damn fencing match. He resisted the urge to stomp out of the room. I'm tired of a lifetime of endless series of parries and thrusts that leave me with more questions than answers.

"You're asking him . . . us," Krycek amended roughly, "to trust you. A name might be a good start," he suggested smoothly. Mulder felt the tension grow taut between these two men, both masters of lies and misdirection. His head began to ache from trying to sort out which emotion was coming from which man. While filtering through emotions was easier than coping with the cacophony of voices that had bombarded him six months ago, the pressure of such intense emotion was unpleasant.

"We have a bargain, Alex, one which, among other things, included saving your life. Don't you think that demanding trust is asking a bit much? As for Mr. Mulder, he's in a very precarious position, as I suspect you have already informed him."

'Enough," Mulder replied flatly. He was acting like a fool, but he'd had enough. "I'm tired of being brushed off every time I come close to the truth. I don't care what your bargain with Krycek is. Right now, you're bargaining with me and I want some answers," he demanded. From the flicker of surprise in the Englishman's eyes, this was not the reaction he'd expected. To be completely honest, Mulder was a bit surprised himself.

"No one really wants to hear the truth, Mr. Mulder. It's painful and messy and rarely brings anyone half the pleasure they anticipate. I would think after all these years, that you would realize how malleable the truth is. You've searched for the truth about your sister for nearly ten years, but do you really want to know what happened to her, or don't you prefer to cling to your dream that you'll find her and you can put your family back together?" His scornful tone implied that if Mulder knew what was good for him, that he would be far better off living with the comfortable lies he'd been fed all his life.

"I know the truth about Samantha," Mulder replied bluntly, glad for the chance to rock his opponent's complacency. "I've seen her. I'm free of that guilt. You can't use her as bait to dangle in front of me any longer." Mulder smiled as he recalled the calm peace he'd felt when he walked with Samantha in the twilight world between death and the living lands. He allowed himself to relax into the memory of their reconciliation and Samantha's gentle dismissal of his guilt.

This time the Englishman couldn't cover up his surprise tinged with a hint of dismay. His breath caught and he stared at Mulder as if seeing him for the first time. From the way Krycek hissed under his breath, Mulder knew that even he realized how badly off-balance their opponent was.

"How?"

"The truth can't be buried forever. I found Samantha's diary. I know how she was tortured and I know she escaped you in the end. Tell me, why I should cooperate with you when you were among the men who gave the orders to take her?"

"She's alive?" the Englishman asked incredulously, but with a desperate hope that surged through the strange empathetic link between them like a jolt of electricity.

"No. She isn't. You killed your own children . . . for what?" Mulder asked harshly. He had no desire to feel sympathy for this man, this murderer of children.

"For the hope of a future. For some of us, it was the slim chance that if we could delay the inevitable that somehow we could find a way to fight back. Your father raged against the choice the aliens gave us. He would have thrown away any hope for the future in one last grandstand act of defiance. I lied to you. Your father didn't choose, he refused the choice altogether, so the choice was made for him. If you must blame someone, blame Spender," the Englishman said in a cold, bitter tone.

"You . . . ," Mulder stumbled. "You said that my father chose Samantha because he thought I could change the future. Another lie?" he asked angrily.

"Lies are what these men feed on, Mulder," Krycek growled softly, the sound reminding Mulder of an angry tiger.

"An evasion," the dapper man conceded. "Spender chose Samantha for reasons that were never made clear to the rest of us. None of us realized how dangerously unbalanced he was, nor that he nursed the delusion that you were his son," he added regretfully. "It killed him in the end, as surely as the delusion that we were necessary to the aliens killed my other colleagues.

"Am I his son?" Mulder asked warily, uncertain whether the man was lying again. He wondered if he'd ever learn the truth about his family, but he'd come too far not to ask.

"No."

"Then why . . . ?" Mulder asked in a puzzled tone.

"Your mother underwent a series of highly experimental procedures designed to enhance the genetic possibilities of her child. After three miscarriages, she was desperate enough to accept our help." The man paused, gave Mulder a calculating look, then nodded slightly as if he'd come to some decision.

"You are a child of the Project, Fox. You owe your existence to our intervention; it would behoove you to be a bit more cooperative, young man. Talk to Alex, if you must have your explanations, but I warn you, you might not like what he has to tell you. Meanwhile, I have other business to attend to. Good day," the dapper little man said as he quickly stood up.

"Bullshit," Mulder snapped. "I'm fucking tired of half-truths being dangled in front of me as bait. If you want my cooperation, then you'll start telling me the truth, all of it, and I'll be the one to decide if I can handle it." Mulder continued angrily. "I . . . am . . . not . . . your . . . property," he said in a deadly clipped tone he barely recognized as his own. Beside him, he felt Krycek stiffen with surprise before he felt his satisfaction and relief that he was stepping in as a player.

The Englishman stared at Mulder, literally stunned into immobility. He appeared completely taken aback by Mulder's sudden move onto the offensive. He hesitated, unsure whether to continue walking out, or whether to stay.

"Mr. Mulder," he started brusquely, trying to assert his authority over a rapidly disintegrating situation.

"Sit down," Krycek ordered, following Mulder's lead, although Mulder sensed a certain apprehension about his sanity. Despite his anger, Mulder smothered a smile at Krycek's doubts. Perhaps he wasn't sane -- that had never stopped him before. A sane man would never have spent his life hunting ghosts and aliens, much less finding them.

"You got more than you bargained for, didn't you?" Mulder asked evenly. He slipped into profiler mode and saw the various pieces of the puzzle start to slide together.

"You have no power here, Mr. Mulder," the Englishman retorted heatedly. "As for you, Alex, our bargain can be dissolved at any time I choose."

"Not if I quit first," Krycek shot back. "Why go to all the trouble of rescuing me? You're hardly the philanthropic type," he added sarcastically.

"Because it's the two of us he needs," Mulder said slowly. "Together we have something he needs."

"And what might that be, Mr. Mulder?" the Englishman queried in a studied languid tone that barely disguised his unease. He still hovered between staying and leaving, but his curiosity was slowly winning out.

"Your parents were part of this Project, too, weren't they?" Mulder asked as he abruptly turned to face a startled Krycek. Mulder deliberately tried not to focus on the waves of confusion, anger, suspicion, and fear radiating from his one-time partner and betrayer. Krycek nodded as he looked from Mulder to the Englishman with growing suspicion.

"Mr. Mulder . . . " the dapper man interjected haughtily, evidently intent on recapturing control of the conversation.

"Why don't you drop this lordship routine and just give us a name?" Krycek barked impatiently. "It might help keep this conversation a bit less hostile," he suggested ominously. Mulder gave Krycek credit for having the balls to make a threat sound believable under these circumstances.

"Neither one of you is in a position to make threats. However, I'm willing to concede your point. You may call me Mr. Lovatt," the Englishman replied suavely as he calmly resumed his seat.

Mulder resisted the urge to pry. He dared not depend on this errant new sense of his. He'd rather depend on his profiling skills and his knowledge of basic human psychology. Besides, the room was so filled with conflicting emotions, trying to sort them out was too reminiscent of his brief dalliance with insanity.

Right now, he didn't want to know more than was on the surface. Getting an explanation for this sudden ability to read the emotions of others was high on his list of questions, but he suspected Krycek wasn't the one with the answers. For that matter, he wasn't entirely sure that Lovatt knew the answer either.

"Fine, Mr. Lovatt, why not just let me go home and back to my life?" Mulder asked, deliberately veering the discussion away from the Project for the moment. Lovatt's mask slipped just long enough to allow Mulder to see how startled he was by the abrupt change of subject. As much as Mulder wanted some reassurance that he wasn't some sort of genetic hybrid, he needed to know why it was so dangerous to allow him to go home. If the conspiracy was in disarray, then the only thing he had to worry about was whether the FBI wanted to shut down the X-Files, or if a stray alien bounty hunter was looking for him. He was willing to take his chances. Why were Krycek and Lovatt so afraid of letting him go?

"Because it's not safe." Lovatt snapped back. He obviously had no intention of elaborating and appeared to enjoy the petty revenge of an answer that didn't say anything. Mulder groaned inwardly; he hated dragging information out of reluctant suspects.

"Elaborate," Mulder replied just as bluntly while carefully leaning back in a relaxed posture. At least they were on familiar territory; he was a master of this game in all its variations.

"You don't want to know why, Mr. Mulder. Just accept that it isn't safe," Lovatt continued in a fatherly tone.

"Bull shit," Mulder snapped. To his surprise, Lovatt merely shook his head with a resigned expression. Mulder did a hasty recalculation of his assumptions. He was missing something, something vital, but he couldn't figure out what it was.

"You might as well tell him, Lovatt. Mulder's too stubborn to know what's good for him and he'll just worry the issue to death until you tell him. He won't believe you, but you better tell him," Krycek suggested in a bitter tone.

Ignoring Lovatt, Mulder turned to confront Krycek before he could wipe the sarcastic sneer off his face. "What in hell do you know?" Mulder asked him. "The truth, just as before," he added, making a deliberate reference to their tentative exchange of trust in the maze. Krycek glowered at him, then sighed explosively and nodded. Mulder felt his stomach clench. Whatever Krycek knew wasn't going to be pretty, but it couldn't be worse than the suspicions swirling around inside his head at the moment.

"You can't trust Agent Scully," Krycek started, then broke off as he saw Mulder's face turn red with anger. "I told you that you wouldn't like it," Krycek spat out, shoving Mulder away from him.

"You told me that there was no truth; that these men made it up as they went along. Why should I believe you, now?" Mulder asked angrily. His hands were clenched into tight fists. He longed to reach out and throttle Krycek until he confessed that he was lying -- Scully would never betray him and the love they shared.

"She can't help it, Mulder. In fact, she'll probably never know she's being used," Krycek explained in a curiously sad tone as he eyed Mulder warily. "You remember the chip, the one that so conveniently saved her life? It also serves as a transmitter. Whoever holds the control panel can make subliminal suggestions and direct her actions."

Mulder sat back stunned into silence. He refused to believe that Scully had come to love him in response to a remote command, or that her growing willingness to consider the possibility of alien life on earth was some sort of imposed directive. Instinctively he bristled at any suggestion that Scully was being controlled. He knew her too well. Was their entire relationship a lie?

"NO!" he shouted angrily, drowning out his own doubts as at Krycek's story.

"Mulder, as far as I can tell, other than being used to monitor your movements, she isn't being controlled by the chip. It can't really control her, like a robot, but it can plant suggestions in her subconscious if you use the right frequency. Lovatt knows more about the device than I do -- it was your pet project, wasn't it?" Krycek hurled the accusation in the Englishman's face. Lovatt had been too busy concentrating on Mulder's reaction to realize that he was now facing two angry men instead of just one.

"Calm down, my boy. You too, Mr. Mulder. The chip was Spender's idea -- his one last chance to exert some control over you. I can assure you, however, that it wasn't fully activated until his little escapade with Agent Scully several weeks ago. Until then, it was merely a tracking device, a way of letting us know where you were and what you were up to." Lovatt sighed.

Mulder glanced over at Krycek, finding it strange that he'd look for hope from his worst enemy. Krycek shrugged and nodded. "That's why we can't let you go back. There are surviving members of the Project who want you dead or discredited and don't care a damn whether Agent Scully is sane afterwards. We don't know if they have the correct frequency or not, but we think they do. They're also not above dissecting you alive to find out why you were so important to the Elders."

Controlling the urge to shudder at the image Krycek's words evoked, Mulder fought his anger and denial, trying to make sense of what he was being told and whether it was the truth. He'd known it was a gamble putting the chip back in, but there had been no side effects, no sudden calls to remote areas in the middle of the night. They had thought they were safe. With the destruction of the Consortium by the rebels, he'd allowed himself to believe that the threat was over, that the aliens would reconsider their plans. Perhaps I was just so tired of fighting, I believed what I wanted to believe Mulder accused himself.

::Be nice. You're not omniscient, at least the last time I checked,:: his snide inner voice chided him. ::Indulging in guilt won't help anyone, unless you're looking for a comfort fuck from Krycek:: it added sarcastically.

Oh, shut up. Scully wouldn't betray me, Mulder retorted desperately, feeling the old familiar surge of tears build up behind his eyes. Damn it, I won't cry, not in front of these two men.

::Are you going to fight back, or wallow? Just asking so I know how to make my plans for the evening,:: the voice asked sweetly.

"Why?" Mulder asked wearily. Anger didn't seem much use at the moment and couldn't begin to express his fury and dismay at what had been done to an unsuspecting Scully. He felt partially responsible; the chip had been his idea, but his damn inner voice was right, they both knew the risks and it was the only chance they'd had. Punching his hand against the metal walls of the room sounded attractive, but Mulder had plenty of experience in dealing with shoving his hand through a plasterboard wall. He didn't need to know what flesh and bone meeting metal would feel like.

Krycek moved closer, letting Mulder feel his body beside him. It felt odd to consider Krycek as his back-up, but it also felt right in some strange way. The maze had changed them both, altered how they dealt with each other. Mulder doubted if they'd ever be friends--there was too much betrayal between them for that--but he accepted that they were linked in some strange way. Even without trying to read Krycek's emotions, he sensed his protectiveness, his anger at the men who'd done this to him, and the chill breath of self interest as he tried to figure out how he could work this situation to his advantage. If all else failed, Mulder was glad he could depend on Krycek's immutable amoral drive for his own best interests. It was somewhat reassuring in a world turned upside down. And as long as they were allied, that meant Krycek would be looking out for his interests, too.

"You surprise me, Mr. Mulder. I expected a much longer and more intense outburst from you," Lovatt commented dryly.

"Cut the crap and tell me why I'm so damn important that you people are willing to destroy a brave and honorable woman to get at me," Mulder replied in a dead tone. If he could just bottle up his emotions, he'd be able to get through this.

"The truth, then. You are one of two Project babies who have survived to adulthood sane and physically functional. My colleague spun you an intriguing tale, but he left out the part where the members of the conspiracy were forced to participate in a genetic manipulation project. You're the result of that experiment."

Mulder remained silent, trying to give himself time to absorb the shock of learning this new version of the truth and to consider how much of it was truth and how much was more lies to tie him to the conspiracy. The problem with this newest variation on his family history was that it sounded too logical. It would explain so many things while shattering the foundations of his life -- a perfect plan as far as the conspiracy was concerned.

"Alex, here, is the other. Unfortunately, we had absolutely no idea what results to expect. At first we thought that physical and mental resilience in addition to high intelligence was the payoff. Satisfactory results, but hardly very useful in our dealings with the aliens. I was unwilling to simply let my colleagues kill you, Alex. Why waste all that effort?" Lovatt asked as he stared over their heads with a sly smile in response to Krycek's glower.

"After your encounter with the alien artifact last fall, Fox, it became obvious that you had much greater potential than any of us expected. Without having the faintest idea what was happening to you, Spender believed he could steal your potential and become the savior of mankind. His delusions destroyed him."

Mulder waited. Lovatt was only telling him half the truth. He wanted to hear it all before he indulged in the satisfaction of telling Lovatt to go to hell.

"There is no more, Fox. You and Alex are the only survivors out of thirty Project babies and I have no idea why you survived and what your potential is, but I have no intention of allowing the Others to have you. Spender was a fool, but he always argued that you were important. My colleagues believed it was because he had come to believe he was your father. I can assure you, Fox, that he was not," Lovatt said earnestly.

Despite his determined effort not to believe Lovatt's story without proof, Mulder sensed that in this, at least, he was telling the truth. Lovatt wasn't being totally honest about the rest. He could sense misdirection, but not specifically what Lovatt was trying to hide. The man thought and felt in layers, each one camouflaging a deeper, truer emotion -- the perfect master conspirator who never left his left hand know what his right hand was doing.

Frustrated and angry, Mulder recognized a solid brick wall when he ran into one. Lovatt was going to tell him no more than absolutely necessary. In spite of the irrational urge to throttle the truth out of Lovatt, Mulder sensed the loneliness of the man carefully hidden beneath the façade of urbane self-interest. The sheer impact of Lovatt's emotional isolation stunned Mulder into silence as he fought to keep his own emotional balance.

"Now, I believe that's quite enough truth for one sitting. Alex, why don't you take Fox and get something to eat? Good day, gentlemen," Lovatt said with finality as he quickly left the room, giving them no chance to protest.

Mulder leaned back and rubbed the heels of his hands against his temples, trying to relieve his aching head. To his surprise, he felt Krycek's hands on his shoulders, kneading the knots out. The artificial hand felt stiff and strange, but far more flexible than he expected it would be. He felt reassurance as well as a shy reluctance to talk seeping through his barriers. Emotionally drained by what he'd heard, Mulder leaned back and laid his head against Krycek's chest. Listening to Krycek's heartbeat, Mulder relaxed into Krycek's hands. Maybe he was seeking self-destruction, but he needed to be touched right now.

"So, we made it, but from the sounds of it, a lot of others didn't," Mulder commented lazily. It would be too easy to just lower all his defenses and allow Krycek to do whatever he wanted, even fuck him, but he couldn't give in to despair, just yet.

"Most went insane. Maybe we did, too and we're just better at hiding it," Krycek said with a bitter laugh and a sharp dig of his fingers into the sensitive area between Mulder's neck and shoulders. Mulder winced and groaned. Krycek laughed again and slapped Mulder hard on the shoulders as he walked around to sit down beside him. Krycek was on guard, wary of Mulder's odd ability to read him, but the brief massage had been as stimulating for Krycek as it had been for him.

"Lovatt said something about food. Care to speculate over something to eat?" Mulder suggested with a hopeful tone.

"Why not?" Krycek shrugged and headed out the door never checking to see if Mulder was following.

Mulder swallowed a sarcastic comment. He didn't need his face rubbed into the fact that Krycek was in control here. Krycek walked like a panther on ice, careful, wary, but confident. Mulder gave brief thought to reaching out and squeezing Krycek's ass, just to throw him completely off balance, but the momentary satisfaction he might get wouldn't be worth the consequences. He didn't want to give Krycek the upper hand so easily. Until a way out of this mess could be found, Mulder accepted that he was in check.

A sense of smug satisfaction drifted in from Krycek, along with some anticipation of Mulder's reaction. Fine, he thought at Krycek's back, you can just keep on waiting. This newborn talent of his was probably going to drive him insane, but it had its uses. Anything that allowed him to get one up on Krycek, was a good thing. Right now, he needed every minor victory he could get.

Sooner or later, Lovatt was going to want something back in return for all this information. Mulder had no intention of cooperating until he understood who was on whose side in this game of conspiracy and counter-conspiracy. At least Krycek was a constant. Mulder might not understand his motives, for that matter, he wasn't sure Krycek understood his own motives, but he was a survivor. Mulder was banking on that as he turned his mind towards profiling this situation and doing whatever it took to glean as much information as he could before he ran out of options.

The food, an odd-looking stew, was bland, but filling. The water tasted stale and metallic. They ate quickly, then Krycek stood up and motioned Mulder to follow him. After another long walk through featureless metal corridors, they came to an open area with a large oval window. This ship reminded Mulder of the maze. Maybe I just dreamed I made it back home. We're still in the maze and we'll stay here forever, he thought disconsolately.

To his surprise, Mulder realized that they weren't in deep space. The moon hung large in front of them, but by squinting out the corner of the window, Mulder could see the earth rotating slowly beneath them. If he had to guess, they were somewhere just above the earth's atmosphere. The earth looked beautiful from out here. He strained to catch a sight of a home he wasn't sure he'd ever see again.

"How much of what Lovatt was trying to sell me was the truth?" Mulder asked casually, hoping to startle Krycek into telling him the truth.

"How in hell would I know? This is the first I've heard of you being a Project baby, or me, for that matter. I knew about the genetic manipulation project, but the reports I read didn't say anything about survivors. The chip I knew about, but not the rest of it," Krycek snapped back irritably. Mulder suspected that he just tapped into Krycek's own questions about Lovatt's story.

"Come on, Krycek, you work for these men. You've lied to me for years, kept me in ignorance, and now you claim you don't know whether Lovatt's telling you the truth? Why should I believe you?" Mulder asked brusquely, verbally pushing Krycek to see just how much he'd let slip if he got angry. It was a dangerous tactic, but Mulder didn't have too many other avenues to explore.

"Because I have no reason to lie to you," Krycek replied as he spun around to confront Mulder. Involuntarily, Mulder stepped back. He resented being thrown on the defensively, physically, if not mentally. He knew that sooner or later, Krycek would repay the beatings he'd given him. From the look in Krycek's eyes, he remembered each and every blow.

Countering the physical menace, Krycek was broadcasting sympathy, even an uncertain sense of affection, twisted by distrust and some other emotion Mulder couldn't quite put his finger on. Mulder felt as if he was confronting two different Kryceks, one layered over the other. At least he had the small comfort that he couldn't hear what he was thinking. Sharing Krycek's inner emotions was bad enough. Krycek obviously wasn't picking up anything from him, although he could probably make some shrewd guesses. This "gift" appeared to be a one-way street and the voyeurism made him uneasy. Unlike his porno tapes which were designed for physical release, this newborn talent of his gave him access to another person's private emotional secrets. Porno movies were designed to provide emotional distance from the subjects -- it was all artificial, but this gift shoved him into an emotional intimacy whether the person he was reading wanted it or not and they had no way of protesting or preventing his intrusion.

A quick way to go mad, Mulder thought shakily as he recalled screaming to drown out all the voices seeping into his mind when he was helpless and alone. He remembered little of his sojourn in the psychiatric ward, but what he could recall qualified as a Class-A nightmare.

"Really?" Mulder shot back defiantly. He should be cooperating, trying to learn all he could, but old habits were hard to break. Being a smart-ass was about the only way he could defy the men who controlled his life. It wasn't very smart, but he didn't have much to lose. He kept waiting for the aliens to appear and cart him off to their labs for a thorough 'examination'.

"Why should I lie?" Krycek replied wearily. "It's not as if I need to persuade you to cooperate. You're not going anywhere," he concluded bluntly. Krycek shrugged and gave Mulder a resentful scowl. "Right now, the only thing keeping you out of their labs is Lovatt. So, as long as he's interested in you, you avoid being a guinea pig. My advice is, be very, very interesting," Krycek advised coldly, as he gave Mulder a predatory smile.

Under the cold, threatening tone, Krycek was trying to convince him to cooperate out of . . . pity? Mulder stumbled over the concept. Pity was the last emotion he ever expected to get from Krycek. Underlying the pity was a faint memory of pain, anger, and helplessness. If he was putting the pieces together right, Mulder suspected that Krycek had already made a trip to the labs and it wasn't an experience he wished on anyone, even on his enemies. If he even considered Mulder to be an enemy any longer. Krycek's deeper emotions were so tangled that Mulder couldn't make any sense out of them.

Mentally pulling back, Mulder abandoned this intriguing puzzle before he got lost in Krycek's conflicting passions. It was bad enough to touch the edge of Krycek's sexual desires without plumbing his motives. He'd never thought of himself as an especially handsome man, but the fleeting glimpse he had of Krycek's memory of him in the maze was unnerving.

Abruptly, Krycek's arm swung up and pinned him against the wall. This is a hell of a place for a sexual encounter he thought until he saw Krycek's grim expression.

"Listen, Mulder. I'm going to be blunt and you'll damn well take it. A lot depends on Scully believing the Others have you. If anyone suspects that you're cooperating with us, they'll use her to pull you out of hiding. You are so damn predictable it's pathetic," Krycek informed him with so much irritation that Mulder didn't even need to use his talent to guess his mood. "As soon as she's within range, Lovatt is going to send some very vivid images of you being tortured through that chip of hers. You don't get a say in this, so don't even bother objecting."

Mulder growled, but let him speak. Whatever handicaps that artificial arm posed, Krycek was making good use of it to keep him making any physical objections.

"We can't risk using the frequency more than two, maybe three times in short bursts. According to the rebels, any interference in the chip's normal command function can be detected. It's imperative that Agent Scully believes you to be in the Other's hands. This is going to create some confusion among the Others and their human allies which we can use to our advantage. Getting this so far?" Krycek asked sarcastically.

"You're asking me to cooperate in lying to Scully. She won't stop looking, you know," Mulder stated confidently. If there was one thing Mulder was sure of, it was Scully's unbending determination to find him.

"You still don't get it, do you?" Krycek shook his head and stepped back, releasing Mulder who stood there glaring defiantly at him.

"It's not what she wants that matters any longer. It's what the people who control that chip want. Even if you went back now, you couldn't do anything to help her. Lovatt pulled some major strings somewhere along the line and arranged to have a real straight arrow assigned to your case. When it nosedives, as it will, he'll be assigned to the X-Files, as Agent Scully's partner. He'll protect her -- he's got a damn guard dog mentality."

Krycek barreled on, ignoring Mulder's bristling anger at the suggestion that Scully would accept anyone else as her partner. "It's already starting, Mulder. The agent we have in place has been given evidence suggesting that you deliberately went missing. If Agent Scully accepts this without raising the roof off the Hoover Building, then we'll know she's being affected by the chip."

"Damn you," Mulder growled, appalled at the idea that Scully's fierce loyalty could be dimmed and controlled by the computer chip he thought would save her life. Scully would rather have died, than lose her identity this way. Was her love, her gradual acceptance of the existence of aliens part of her, or some programmed operation designed to bind him so completely to her that he'd sell his soul to protect her? Why did they even need to ask?

"Mulder, she's already beginning to behave abnormally, even for a pregnant woman . . ."

"What?" Mulder whispered, too stunned to even shout. His legs turned wobbly and he slid down the wall to land on the floor with a thump.

"Shit, I thought you knew." Stunned into immobility, Krycek stood over Mulder, his good hand half outstretched in a failed attempt to catch him. He swore viciously in several guttural languages as his eyes went wide. "Then the child isn't yours?" he asked in a startled tone.

"Scully can't have children. We . . . it never occurred to us," Mulder rambled, too dazed to realize that he'd just confirmed Krycek's suspicion that he and Scully were lovers. "How?"

"Don't ask me, I wasn't there," Krycek growled. "I assumed you two did something scientific to get around the barrier, although why in hell you'd be dumb enough to give your enemies a child to hold over your head has been a question I've been wanting to ask you."

"We didn't. There's no way. Even if she could bear children, I . . ." Mulder hesitated, caught between the need to explain and the embarrassment of confessing his physical deficiencies to Krycek. "The black oil, you should know what it does," Mulder blurted out, daring Krycek to deny what he had to know.

To his surprise, Krycek turned white, then followed Mulder's slow downward slide to the floor. Mulder repressed a smile at how they must appear -- two grown men sitting on either side of a small room gaping at each other like idiots.

"No one told you? I'm sorry," Mulder added with genuine sympathy. Learning he was sterile had affected him in ways he hadn't expected. He knew he should have been glad that no potential uber-Mulders would have to face the Consortium, but all he could think about was pitching a baseball to a son he'd never have, or holding a daughter as she fell asleep on his chest. Scully had finally hunted him down after three days absence from work and demanded he tell her what the problem was. For a short woman, she proved to be surprisingly difficult to throw out of his apartment. After all that she'd sacrificed, Mulder wouldn't have been surprised if she'd given him a buck-up-boy speech, but instead she simply embraced him and let him mourn for the children he'd never know; that they'd never know, he had finally admitted to himself sometime in the dark, wee hours just before dawn.

"But Scully believes . . ." Krycek stumbled as he tried to refocus on the conversation.

"If she does, then you're right, the chip is controlling her, making her believe in something that could never be. Damn them," Mulder choked out past a throat clenched hard against his rising tears.

I'm the one they wanted, why couldn't they leave Scully the hell alone? Looking up at the window Mulder stared blindly at the stars spinning slowly in the darkness. He let his despair take him and he crumpled to the floor in a partial fetal position and finally wept, for Scully, for himself, and for all that might have been.

Krycek sat staring blindly at the wall, trying to regroup and decide how best to proceed. Mulder had indeed proved to be an interesting catch. Though, this ability of his to pick up emotions was going to present some awkward problems. Krycek didn't admit to his own emotions at times and found the idea of someone else, especially Mulder, being able to read him disturbing. Lovatt would have to know about this new development. They had both been so sure the child was Mulder's. Now they faced the unpleasant prospect of determining whose it was and why it was there.

Listening to Mulder's quiet sobs, Krycek tried to feel contempt, but couldn't raise more than a mild distaste. He'd never thought of himself as a father, but the shock of learning that he was sterile surprised him. Perhaps every man wants to think of re-creating himself in his children; he'd never really given any thought to having children, but having the option forcibly removed gave him one more reason to hate the Others. At least he wouldn't provide Lovatt and the rebels with any handy hostages. Knowing Lovatt, he probably already knew; the old man was almost as cunning as he was. Krycek wondered when Lovatt had planned on telling him? At least now he wouldn't be caught off-guard when Lovatt chose his moment. "Thank you, for that," he whispered to Mulder. Mulder's startled confession had given him an edge. Knowledge was power in this game, and Krycek intended to know just as much as possible.

Mulder fell asleep as Krycek sat there watching him. "You're still a naive bastard, but you're learning," Krycek said softly, trying to decide whether to wake him up and take him back to his cabin, or whether to just let him sleep.

"Come on, Mulder," he finally said as he pushed himself awkwardly upright. It was tempting to leave Mulder here, but he wasn't sure Lovatt could control the rebels' urge to whisk him away to their labs for just a little prying. Krycek shuddered as he remembered his own brief trip into the labs. "It's time for bed. If you're a really good boy, I'll tuck you in and read you a bedtime story," he quipped as he lugged Mulder's body upright and propped it against the wall, holding him upright with one hand.

"Mmmmmm," Mulder muttered sleepily.

"Wake up, Mulder. I don't feel like carrying you all the way back to your cabin," Krycek said as he gently tried to shake Mulder awake. From the sound of his breathing, this was going to take awhile.

Suddenly Krycek leaped back with a startled curse as he felt a hand give his balls a quick squeeze. Looking down, he saw Mulder grinning at him.

"You were saying something about tucking me in bed?" Mulder asked with a straight face.

"Maybe later, Krycek. We're both too vulnerable, tonight. Let's not make any mistakes we might have to live with," he added seriously with just a trace of mischief in his eyes.

"You'll pay for that," Krycek threatened with a shaky smirk. Mulder's abrupt changes of mood had always been difficult to predict, much less cope with. He was a loose cannon, but somehow Krycek suspected that was what made him so dangerous to the Conspiracy, and the Others. If you can't predict someone's actions, you can't incorporate them neatly into a master plan, and worse, you have to counteract them on the run. No wonder the Elders had been half afraid of Mulder and half contemptuous of him. What they didn't understand frightened them. Krycek, on the other hand, found himself increasingly intrigued by someone who barreled from crisis to crisis, survived, and in the process frequently devastated plans that had been carefully laid out for years.

"You can add it to my bill. Now, let me get some sleep. I've had just about all the truth I can stand for one day," Mulder admitted wearily as he shoved himself away from the wall. He swayed a bit as the uncertain gravity played havoc with his sense of balance. He barely stiffened when Krycek offered him a supporting shoulder. It was tempting to regard all of this as a drug-induced hallucination, but Krycek, this ship, and the truths he'd heard were too real and he was going to have to deal with all of it somehow. He had a lot to think about. It had been a long day and tomorrow, and all the tomorrows after that, didn't look much better.

Hopefully, he'd successfully diverted Krycek's attention from his temporary breakdown. Krycek was a predator. Mulder had no intention of being his prey. If he had to camouflage his grief with a prank, then he'd do it. Sooner or later, he and Krycek would have to come to terms with each other, but tonight he just wanted to be alone and mourn Scully and the passing of his old life. For most of his adult life, he believed in extreme possibilities and searched them out. Now, he'd finally found them, or they had found him.

Learning the truth is a lot like dying and hurts a hell of a lot more he thought morosely. Do dead men grieve? he wondered as he allowed Krycek to guide him back to his cabin along the cold metal hallways of an alien ship. Or is that reserved for the living?

::And if this is Hell, then I'll lay you odds that Krycek already has plans for a coup,:: his inner voice commented dryly.

Well, he'd had stranger partners before. Theirs was an unholy partnership, but Mulder was tired of playing by the rules. There were answers out here and he meant to find them. At least he knew that Krycek wanted to find those answers as much as he did and probably knew more devious ways of getting to the truth than he did. This could work, he told himself. At least it beat screaming his lungs out on some slab in the aliens' lab.

 

The End