This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper
Except for the sound of the wind whistling through the deserted streets the city is quiet. There are no blaring horns, no cries from hot dog vendors or newspaper sellers. The only sound is that of the wind as it stirs the pages of the days-old newspapers left abandoned on the sidewalks; the sound of the wind travelling through a city that has been forsaken.
The sky is a leaden grey, steam from the heating ducts of the last Federal offices billowing upwards in steady streams and obscuring the sun. A sheen of fine, white snow covers everything; cars, buildings, the half eaten corpse of a dog. This is Mars incarnate, ruined and desolate, the shape of the buildings, seen from space, turning into a simulacra of a face – the only thing to prove that anyone was ever here.
The thudding of footfalls breaks the silence. They echo down the street, reverberating off the federal buildings that line the road. A man skids around a parked car, feet nearly falling from under him as he slides on the compact snow, and then he recovers, hands skimming the icy tarmac, and sprints down the road.
“Mulder,” a voice calls from the shadow of a doorway halfway down the street behind him. The man slows, glances at a red-headed woman sheltering a blonde boy behind the ruined hulk of a car.
“Scully,” he calls back, eyes darting to the windows of the building. “Stay there. I’ll be back for you.”
From behind him comes the tramp-tramp of boots, thudding their rhythm through the still air.
“Stay there, Scully. Keep William safe.”
The noise of the boots comes closer and closer, and Mulder takes off again, snow billowing behind him. Scully hunkers further down in the doorway, the car the only barricade protecting her and the boy.
The soldiers jog around the corner, a troop of fifteen, twenty, black-clad militia, automatic rifles held firmly in their gloved hands. They follow Mulder down the road, their leader giving only a cursory glance to the sidewalks to the left and right. Scully tries not to breathe. She can see, if she peers through the car’s cracked windshield, Mulder pausing at the end of the street. Come on, come on. Get out of there, she mutters to herself. He stays motionless.
The leader of the soldiers raises his arm and the troop comes to a halt. He barks out an order and, as one, the soldiers fan out, raising their rifles so their sights are set on Mulder. Still, he doesn’t move.
“On three, fire,” the leader says. “Remember we need him alive. Do not shoot to kill.”
Get out of there, Mulder, Scully thinks. We’re safe. Just go.
“One.” The leader’s voice rings out in the silence.
Mulder tenses, shifts his gaze to the doorway where Scully and William are hiding.
“Two.” The soldiers’ fingers tighten on their triggers and Mulder breaks into a run. He pounds the pavement, arms pumping, each footfall pushing him forward. He hears a distant three from the other end of the street, and then pitches forward, stumbling and falling, clutching at his chest and registering a handful of blood before blackness descends.
Mulder opens his eyes as a pair of lips touch his cheek. The sky above him is the color of the end of the world, the powdery white snow floating above him. He closes his eyes again against the white flakes whipped into the air by the wind. He can feel it settling on his lips, icy and cold, soaking into his blood stained shirt and working its way into the wound in his chest. Earth to earth, dust to dust, he thinks, and somehow he manages to smile.
“Stay with me, Mulder,” he hears Scully’s voice next to his ear and smiles again. It’s ok, he wants to tell her, as long as you and William are safe it’s ok. But the words don’t come and he lies still with his head in her lap, her hands wrapped around his.
“It wasn’t auto-erotic asphyxiation at all,” Scully says and a laugh breaks through the surface of the pain he is now carrying, blood bubbling through his teeth with the noise.
“And you told me the end of the world was no time to be making jokes,” he isn’t sure whether she hears him, but through the darkness that is surrounding him as he lowers his eyes he thinks he sees her smile.
In the end it comes down to this: a cold wind eddying through the ruined streets; his head resting in Scully’s lap; her hands cradling his heart, trying to stem the blood that pools like a waterfall between her fingers.
In the end it comes down to this: the knowledge that, after all this time, they have failed.
The kiss lasts for a long time; until the tinny cheers from Times Square have abated on the television, until the announcers signal a ‘that’s all folks’ from their desks in the news room. The kiss lasts for a long time and even when it ends, Mulder wishes it hadn’t.
“The world didn’t end,” Scully says when they break apart, but the words are tinged with sorrow.
“It will,” he replies.
He rests his forehead against Scully’s, closing his eyes. If only, he thinks. But if only what? Everything he has done – everything Scully has done – has led up to this point. And the countdown, this countdown – the only one that matters – has finally begun. It is eleven months and twenty-one days until colonization begins, if Cancer Man is to be believed. Eleven months and twenty-one days to round up the pockets of resistance hiding deep within the Consortium – if they haven’t been found already. Eleven months and twenty-one days to try and save the world. Mulder isn’t sure they can do it.
Scully cups his cheek with her palm, lifting his head. “We have to try,” she says. “Maybe it’s not too late. Maybe Cancer Man was wrong.”
Mulder nods and feigns a smile.
“You don’t believe me.”
“I’d like to. But wouldn’t we have heard something if you were right? Skinner, Yves, Doggett – they would have contacted us, would have told us that the rebels had won and colonization had been averted.”
Scully sighs. “Maybe. I don’t know – if something happened to them… They may not even know, Mulder.”
Mulder pulls away from Scully and walks to the window. Outside the snow is coming down, tight, tiny flakes whirling from the pitch black sky. This winter will be another hard one, or so the weather report says. They need to stock up on wood, on food, on ideas.
“We need to start planning, Scully.” He mutters. “We can’t put it off any longer. We need to think like them.”
“You’re the profiler, Mulder.” She replies, joining him at the window. They stand side by side, watching the snow fall.
Snow lies thick on the ground, the drifts at the side of the house coming up past the tops of Mulder’s boots as he trudges through the garden. At times like this he wonders why they built the wood store so far from the house. In summer, when there are so many better things to do than drag the chopped logs to the house and stack them, it makes perfect sense. The trouble is in summer they never consider winter and the bitter cold they face when walking to fetch the wood.
His breath condenses in the air as he huffs another breath. Today is bitter; his toes, wrapped though they are in three pairs of socks, are already burning with the freezing cold that comes with harsh winters. He claps his gloved hands together, trying to bring some life back into the cold fingers.
The dark wooden door of the wood store finally appears in front of him, its roof and walls masked by blinding white snow. He grabs the shovel that hangs under the eaves of the shed and shovels away the drifts of snow that have piled up against the building. The work is warm and he feels the pins-and-needles heat burning in his fingers.
“Shit,” Mulder curses as he pulls the door open, remembering the sledge hanging by the back door. The sledge that he was meant to bring with him to carry the wood back to the house. He debates going back to fetch it and eyes the expanse of white he’s just crossed, the deep footprints he’s left in the thick snow. The burning muscles in his thighs persuade him.
In the wood shed, logs are piled neatly side by side. The store, eight foot wide by seven foot deep and at least seven foot high, can hold hundreds of logs, but the store is now less than half full. What the hell did we do instead of cutting wood this summer? Mulder wonders, eyeing the remaining logs. A slow grin spreads over his face as he remembers. It was a good summer, he thinks, but they should never have allowed the woodpile to become this low. The curse of living in a house with no central heating is the need to make sure they have fuel; he hopes they have enough to see them through this winter.
“We need more wood,” he tells Scully as he drops the logs he’s managed to carry from the shed by the fireplace. They clatter and scatter on the floor, dirt and twigs flying off to land on the flagstones. Scully glares at him.
“Not for this winter,” he says, brushing more dirt and twigs off his jacket and onto the floor. “Or at least I hope not. We’ve got enough to last if the winter’s not too long. And of course there’s always the sleeping bag trick to fall back on.” Scully raises an eyebrow. “But for next winter. We need to start preparing.”
The fire crackles in the grate as Scully clears away the dishes from the dining table. Although the evenings are finally getting lighter it is still dark early, and cold. Colder than March last year was; they are down to the last few logs in the wood store.
Mulder has papers spread over the dining table when she returns. He hunkers over them, glasses perched on his nose. He frowns up at her when she places her hand on his shoulder.
“What are you doing?”
“We need to plan, Scully. We should have done it earlier, but –” he shrugs.
Scully slides into the seat next to him.
“Ok, start with what we know.”
“Colonization, if Cancer Man is to be believed, will take place on December 21st, 2012. Colonists want to infect humans with the black oil to use them as hosts to gestate more grays and colonize the earth.”
“Alien-human hybrids have been created – like Cassandra Spender – who won’t be susceptible to the virus and will survive colonization.” Scully adds.
“Though with Cassandra’s death I don’t know if other hybrids will be allowed to survive. The rebels may kill them off as well.” Mulder runs a hand through his hair. “They’ve created super soldiers by infecting humans with a new strain of the black oil. We know they’re powerful, that they can survive almost anything.”
“Magnetite can kill them.”
“Are there any stores of magnetite near here?” He asks. “If there are we should find them. If we can get near a stock of it, build a bunker underneath it, preferably, but at the very least make some sort of shelter near –”
Scully bites her lip and looks down at her hands.
“What about William, Mulder? Is he going to be safe?”
“He’s safer than he would be with us.”
“How do you know?”
The argument over where they should live still hasn’t been resolved. Mulder thinks they need to move on, find somewhere with a large source of magnetite nearby and build a new camp. Scully refuses to go.
“It will be another barrier, Scully. Give us an extra layer of protection,” he nearly shouts at her. They stand in the kitchen, facing each other down across the table on which their supper lies.
“Do we even know that anymore?” she retorts. “We’ve been out of the loop for years, Mulder. We don’t know if colonization is even going ahead anymore. And if it is how sure can we be that they haven’t developed some form of immunization to magnetite by now?”
“It’s still our best chance. It’s the one thing we can be almost certain of.” He runs his fingers through his hair. “Magnetite is sometimes found in large quantities in beach sand. California has black sands –”
“I’m not moving to California.”
“New York then. The Adirondack region has large deposits of the stuff.”
“No, Mulder. I’ve been researching this too; magnetite can be found in Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, Colorado and Virginia. It’s right on our doorstep.” She glares at him. “We know this area. We know the roads, how far the woods stretch, the best places to hide. Moving to another part of the country on the off-chance that magnetite is still our best form of protection is, is ludicrous, Mulder. It makes no sense. We need to stay here and work on building our defenses. We can buy in stocks of magnetite, if necessary; there’s a health food shop on my way to work that sells those magnetic therapy bracelets. If we have no other option we can prepare it as a ferrofluid. I’d need access to the lab at the hospital and we’d probably only get miniscule amounts of magnetite. But it’s possible. Whatever we do, we can’t waste valuable time trekking across the country.”
“And we’re closer to my mother here. We’re closer to William.”
In the end, they decide to stay where they are.
There has still been no word from Skinner. Mulder sits at the desk in the makeshift office that somehow became his permanent home and taps impatiently on the keyboard. Scully hovers in the doorway.
“When did you email him?”
“Three days ago.” Mulder absently rubs his unshaven cheek.
“Maybe he hasn’t picked it up yet.”
“He should have.”
“Maybe he’s on vacation.”
Mulder looks at her and laughs. “When was the last time the Skinman took a vacation?”
“True. He was too busy chasing after you.”
“I’m hurt, Scully. He was busy chasing us.”
Mulder rolls his shoulders and Scully hears his vertebrae crack and crunch with the movement. He turns to face her and she reads – she thinks she reads – worry in his eyes. But this his gaze slips to the photo of his sister that sits pinned to the back of the door, and she isn’t sure anymore what she saw.
“What should we do?” she doesn’t think he’s heard her, for a second, and she folds her arms, but then he looks at her.
“What can we do? We’ll just have to make plans ourselves and hope he is on vacation.”
“What about John or Monica?”
“Nothing from either of them.”
“We’re on our own, Scully. At least for the time being. I’ll keep trying them, but…”
Scully hears the hesitation in his voice, the words he doesn’t want to say. But there won’t be an answer, she thinks.
“Keep trying,” she says as she turns and walks out of the door.
Scully pulls out of the drive and watches Mulder wave from the rear view mirror. She isn’t sure what she feels as the house gets smaller and smaller behind her and Mulder dwindles to a black dot against the white porch; emptiness, sorrow, regret. They all form in her mind, pass through her thoughts and tinge them all. Like sepia, she thinks. Brittle reminders of things too easy to lose.
The car eats up the miles and the further away from home she travels, the more relaxed she becomes. Out here, on the rough interstate, the radio only picks up country and western, but she turns the dial up anyway so that the car fills with the mournful sound of the music and the notes float through the window down the highway behind her. She’s never understood the appeal of this style of music, the heartsick women and the lovelorn teenagers. Missy would have got it, she thinks, and smiles. Missy, with her crystals and aromatherapy, would have understood the lure of song as therapy and would have embraced the idea. Scully wouldn’t be surprised if she’d tried writing her own country songs – there were enough tears over her various boyfriends when she was younger – and makes a mental note to ask her mom about it when she gets to DC.
The song changes and she finds herself thinking, for some reason, of The Stand; Stephen King’s epic end-of-the-world novel which Mulder cited at her once as an example of how society could continue if the world were to end. She thinks that there’d be a lot less organization and a lot more looting, but she’s always been the realist. At the very least, the only music you’d be able to get, at the end of the world, would be country and western.
Washington is much as she remembers it as she pulls into the outskirts of the city. Rush hour has begun and she crawls along the street, the traffic report on the radio warning of delays and diversions. She turns off and the car picks up speed as she drives to her mom’s. Pulling into the drive she realizes that her shoulders have tensed up, and she rolls her neck, trying to ease the muscles, as she kills the engine.
Now that she’s here, she’s nervous. Of what, she isn’t sure, but a large part of her wants to turn around and drive straight back home. Back to Mulder and work and the familiarity of it all. Don’t be stupid, Dana, she mutters to herself, glaring at her reflection in the rearview mirror. You’ve driven all the way up here, you’re going to get out of the car, walk up the steps and spend time with your mom. But the mood stays with her; anxiety, worry, fear. She scowls at herself again, and then the feeling passes as her mom opens the front door, and then she’s out of the car and running into her mom’s arms, like she did when she came home from school.
“Dana, I’ve missed you,” her mom mutters into her hair.
“I’ve missed you too, Mom,” Scully replies, and is surprised to find tears rolling down her cheeks. “I’ve missed you so much.”
Scully will be at her mom’s until the eighteenth, and already Mulder is feeling restless and bored. He should be working on their plan for colonization, tracing maps and researching magnetite, but the house is lifeless without her and he spends the days in shade of the oak in the yard instead. The soporific heat, thudding down onto the white wood of the porch, makes the house feel heavy and dull, and it sucks all of Mulder’s energy.
The book he carried with him to the hammock lies on the dusty floor, its pages still; there is no breeze to stir the boiling air. Mulder groans and wipes a trickle of sweat from his forehead. The sky, dappled through the leaves of the tree, is a bright blue. It is, to all intents and purposes, a perfect summer’s day; the only thing missing a swimming pool or cool river. And Scully. Of all things, he misses her most.
He groans again and rolls over. His feet thud on the hard ground as he swings himself out of the hammock and stretches. He gazes around the yard. The afternoon’s shadows are beginning to lengthen across the dusty earth though the sun beats down from a clear sky. His gaze lands on the sledge hanging by the back door and he grimaces. There’s no time for idling, not with colonization five months away. There are plans to make, tactics to research, and wood to cut.
Dust rises under his feet as he pads across the yard to the woodshed. Inside is surprisingly cool as Mulder swings the door open and steps in. He hasn’t been in here for four months, since the last of the cold snap in March. The pile of wood that’s left is small; hollow logs and dried twigs not much good for anything but kindling. He’ll need to get a move on if they’re to have a full shed in time for winter. He sharpens the axe that rests next to the doorjamb on a small grindstone and heads into the afternoon again.
The walk to the wood that borders their land is short and peaceful. This far off the beaten track there are precious few cars to disturb the midsummer air, and there is no overhead flight path to send airplanes droning in their direction. Mulder swings the axe in one hand and hums a disjointed tune as he treads the earth path. The calls of birds floats in the air above him and he can hear the faint rustle of deer as they tread through the bracken. While there are some things he misses about living in DC, he wouldn’t trade them for the peace he has here.
He stops in a small clearing, recognizable from the red rag he tied around the bough of an oak tree in the middle of the last winter. The trees here are small enough to cut easily and drag back to the shed, but large enough to burn slowly and provide them with enough wood to last the winter. At a guess he thinks they’ll need to fell a good fifteen, maybe twenty trees, and so he hefts the axe with both hands, sets his sights on a point two feet from the forest floor, and makes the first cut.
On the first of the month they head into town to stockpile tools and weapons. The streets are packed with holidaying tourists, the shops displaying local produce that is double the price they would pay in the winter months. Mulder and Scully walk hand in hand down the main street – just one of things they can get away with now they’re no longer in DC or the Bureau.
“Do you have the list?” Mulder asks.
“.22 caliber lever action rifle, bullets, Browning knife,” Scully squints at the list. “Camouflage gear, snow shoes, quad bikes, snowmobile.”
“Remind me why we need quad bikes and a snowmobile again. Can you even ride a quad bike?
“Quad bikes are more economical than driving a car or truck, especially as we might need to make a quick getaway, and we don’t know how when the gas will run out. Snowmobiles because we don’t want to be stuck in West Virginia in the middle of December when colonization is taking place. And yes, actually, I can ride a quad bike.”
“You never told me that.
“You never asked.”
They pause at the window of a Gander Mountain, assessing the rifles in the display cases.
“Charlie taught me,” Scully continues.
“I didn’t think it’d be Bill.”
She ignores him and they keep walking, dodging a family piling out of a McDonald’s restaurant with Happy Meals in hand.
“One year we were living on a base in Millington. There was nothing to do and me and Missy kept getting under Mom’s feet. She got so angry with us. In the end, she bribed Charlie to take us out and keep us occupied. If he could bring us home tired out then so much the better,” she smiles at the memory. “We must have walked for miles that day. Missy got blisters after a half hour because she was wearing brand new sandals, and Charlie refused to carry her. She wouldn’t stop whining. And then we turned this corner and there was a quad bike track in front of us. Charlie had found it weeks ago, which explained where he’d been spending all his time that summer. Missy was in too much pain to have a go on the bikes, but I didn’t want to let Charlie down so I climbed onto the quad behind him and off we went. Three turns later and it was Charlie riding behind me.”
The wood bordering the house is quiet. Early morning mist rises from the bracken covered floor and wreathes through the air like ghosts. Mulder moves noiselessly through the undergrowth, treading carefully over fallen branches and clumps of earth. The camouflage jacket he wears melds into the background of grey and brown trees and leaves, and he holds his rifle gingerly in two hands, barrel pointing downwards.
From somewhere to the left comes a cracking noise and he freezes, senses instantly alert to sounds alien to the autumn forest. His breath puffs in the air as he waits. Two minutes, three, he thinks, nothing there. He moves forward again, scanning the wood in front of him for signs of something in the brushwood. Nothing. And then another crack, followed by another and another. He freezes again, back pressed against a sturdy oak tree, and lifts the rifle slowly. He peers through the sight at the trees, the bushes, Scully.
“Scully!” he blurts. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“You call that stalking, Mulder? I could hear you from the other side of the river.”
“I could have shot you.”
“The safety’s on.”
“I could have bludgeoned you to death.”
She laughs. “You think you’re quick enough?”
“Why don’t you do it? I’m clearly not cut out for this and you need to learn how to hunt for food as well.”
“Mulder, I grew up with two older brothers. I’ve never had a problem hunting for food.”
“That’s it then.” He leans the rifle against the tree. “You shoot it, I’ll cook it. Problem solved.”
“You can barely cook macaroni cheese, much less prepare a deer.”
“I’m hurt by how little faith you show in me.”
She places her hands on her hips and glares at him. He pouts. “You shot me. You should have no problem shooting a cute deer.”
“The deer isn’t trying to kill anyone.”
Mulder’s told her that he doesn’t want to make a big thing of his birthday this year. The months have inched all too quickly towards the date for colonization, and this close to the end of the world he doesn’t feel like celebrating. Scully had agreed with him, promised it would be just another day, but at two-thirty on the afternoon of his fifty-first birthday she makes her excuses and slips to the shops.
She had ordered his gift months ago; a box in the attic she had been digging through to find a scarf her mother knitted had instead yielded a collection of film negatives, full of images of Mulder and Samantha. She’d sat there for hours, holding each negative up to the light and marveling at the innocence in Mulder’s face, the adoration his little sister threw on him. What would have happened if she hadn’t been taken, she wondered. What would Mulder be like now? She’d sat there until Mulder called up the stairs, asking whether she’d been abducted by aliens or if she wanted chili con carne for dinner, and decided that if the future were so uncertain, his birthday present this year would be the past.
The man she spoke to in the photography studio has the album of photos ready for her when she arrives. She pays him with a smile before carrying the folder gingerly to the car. She isn’t sure what Mulder’s reaction will be. Turning the pages and seeing the photos properly for the first time, she isn’t entirely sure how she should react. There is something so sad, so poignant about seeing Mulder and Samantha together: Mulder, holding his baby sister while scowling at the camera; Mulder, aged ten, being chased by a six year old Samantha and clearly unhappy about it; Mulder, aged twelve, in a school uniform standing with a protective arm around his eight year old sister. If only they knew, she thinks. Would he have done anything differently? Would he have sulked less and smiled more? And what will he say when he sees this.
The drive home is both longer and shorter than she would like. All too soon the gates to the drive are opening up in front of her, and she carries the box containing the album carefully through the front door. She places it on the kitchen table, and turns to face Mulder.
“I know you said you didn’t want a fuss this year. But I found these a few months ago and I thought – I thought you might like to see them.”
Mulder looks at her, inscrutable, before turning to the table. He lifts the lid and gently pulls out the cream folder.
“Naked photos, Scully? What am I going to do with my video collection now?”
He opens the cover, still watching her, and she bites her lips. Suddenly unable to meet his gaze. The gasp he gives when he sees the first photo tells her everything she wants to hear.
The plans that could be made have been made; tactics researched and magnetite stockpiled. The woodshed is stocked with logs, and the snowmobiles nestled safely in the garage that Mulder spent three weeks in June building for them. There is food in the kitchen – tins of soup and beans – and hunks of meat are stored in the freezer. Their warm, winter clothes have been brought down from the attic, their guns cleaned, assembled and loaded with bullets. There’s nothing left to say to each other now. Nothing left to do but wait.
Scully sits on the window seat in the living room, her breath condensing on the cold glass. Above her, the distant stars are twinkling; their light passing through the centuries to fall on the cold, hard ground. The first frost of the winter has arrived, and pinpricks of ice glisten on the dying grass.
She sighs and watches as the glass fogs over. There is too much to think about, this close to December. Too much to wonder what might go wrong, what they haven’t planned for. The thoughts run round and round her mind, the same refrain over and over again. What if? What about? Too little, too late. And always, we haven’t done enough.
She takes a deep breath and tries to concentrate on the stars. Orion sits low in the sky and she tries to remember the names of the stars at his shoulders and feet. What was it she learned about Orion in school? He was the hunter, killed by a scorpion for threatening to kill everything living thing on earth. She wonders if it’s an omen.
“Billions of years old, Scully.” Mulder places his hands on her shoulders and she starts at his voice. “What we’re seeing is the past; what’s happened, what cannot be changed. And the light? That’s travelling past us to the future; what will happen, and what can be changed.”
“But what if it can’t?”
“I don’t believe that. There’s no such thing as predestination or fate. We make our own paths and we travel them – alone, unless we’re lucky enough to find someone heading in the same direction.”
“You told me they were souls, once. The stars. Souls trying to find their way home.” She looks up at Mulder, tears glistening in her eyes. “Do you still believe that?”
“I do. It won’t die, that light. Whatever happens it will always be there, travelling through space and time. And whatever happens to us, here, now, we won’t die either.”
Mulder wraps his arms around Scully and places a gentle kiss on her red hair. They stand together for a long time, watching the constellations move around the sky, the light of stars billions of years old painting shadows on the yard.
They sit in silence, staring at the fire. In deference to the season and the fact that it may be the last Christmas they see, Mulder spent the morning chopping down a small fir tree. They decorated it with strings of popped corn and tinsel which Scully pulled from boxes in the attic, and sang carols, struggling to remember the words to O Come All Ye Faithful and singing the ruder version of Jingle Bells. Mulder had struggled to keep a smile on his face, kept a watchful eye on Scully when he thought she wasn’t looking.
The fire casts a warm, orange glow over the tree, set into the alcove by the grate. Mulder’s arm is wrapped around Scully’s shoulder and she nestles her head against his chest. It could be like any other Christmas in any other part of the country.
“It's going to be harder for you.” he says.
Scully looks up at him, half curious, half scared to death.
“Well,” he continues, staring at the flames. “We know how I die. You get to live forever.”
“I'm not sure the end of the world is an appropriate time to be making jokes about auto erotic asphyxiation, Mulder.”
“I may not get another chance, Scully.”
They lapse into silence again. The logs pop and crackle in the grate, the shadows they cast across the room shifting and shimmering.
“There was no point, really. Was there?”
Mulder looks down at Scully.
“The tree, I mean,” she gestures to the alcove. “We were just fooling ourselves.”
“There’s always a point, Scully.”
“Not this time. We’re not going to win. It’s us against them, Mulder. And we’re only two people. What can we do?”
Mulder puts his hand under Scully’s chin and lifts her head. She refuses to meet his gaze.
“Look at me, Scully.” She looks at him.
“Don’t give up.”
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Mulder wakes, instantly alert, hands groping for the gun that lies on the bedside table. It’s not there and his heart starts pounding in his chest until he realizes that he’s not in the Bureau anymore. Hasn’t been for quite some time, and there is no gun on the table. All their guns are hidden, out of plan sight – just in case the FBI come knocking. He lies back in the bed, concentrating on the silence in the house. Other than Scully’s quiet breathing next to him there is no noise. He isn’t sure what woke him, and judging from the pre-dawn light curling around the curtains he should still be asleep.
He rolls over, watching the rise and fall of Scully’s chest, listening to the rhythm of her breathing. And then he realizes what woke him, what made his heart pound in his chest; December 21st 2012. It’s here.
He pulls the covers off himself and pads to the window. His hands don’t shake as he pulls the curtains back but he takes a deep breath before he lifts his eyes and turns his gaze to the world outside.
Snow lies thickly on the ground, tinged with blue and purple from the rising sun. At the edge of the garden, where the trees border the land, a deer noses the snow, snuffling for grass. The trees are bare, this time of year, their branches stark against the pale winter sky. Mulder’s breath condenses on the cold glass as he stares outside. Nothing has changed. There are no ominous clouds in the sky, no troops of super soldiers crowding over the rise that leads down to the house, no thrum of otherworldly machines soaring across the horizon.
He doesn’t like it.
Will is bored. More than bored. The kind of mind-numbing bored where watching paint dry would be as incredible as watching a rocket launch or stars being born. His mom is standing in the doorway watching him. Will knows she’s watching him, even though he’s got his back to her. Lately she’s done nothing but watch him when she thinks he’s not looking. Stop it, he wants to shout at her. Stop watching me like I’m some kind of insect under a giant microscope. But she’s his mom so he doesn’t say anything, just smiles at her when he catches her eye. She doesn’t smile back.
Will shifts in his seat, the weak sunlight filtering through the blinds highlighting his copper red hair. He thumbs the buttons on the remote control listlessly. Television is boring, he thinks. This house is boring. Today should be fun; it’s the first day of the holidays and he doesn’t have to go to school. But his dad’s told him he’s not allowed out, so he can’t play in the snow or go tracking with John and Al. He can’t sit in the kitchen because he’ll get under his mother’s feet, and he can’t sit in the garage and watch his dad tinker with the car because it’s a twenty foot walk to the garage and he’s not allowed to go outside. Will sighs. He’s bored.
He flicks the button on the remote control again, flicking through the channels on the TV. Cartoon, documentary, news, film, news. He pauses as he recognizes the hospital on the screen. It’s the hospital in town, the one where his mother took him to see Gramma when she was ill and she gave him sweets because she said she was too ill to eat them. His mother had frowned at that but let Will take the candy anyway. He hears her gasp now as he leans forward in his seat. The newscaster looks cold as she holds the microphone to her chest and stares at the camera.
“The federal flu vaccination program has begun in earnest today. Delays in pharmaceutical companies being able to produce the vaccine for this stronger version of seasonal flu has meant that immunizations were only being offered to those in high risk categories; the elderly, young children and those with a lowered immune system. But today the vaccines were rolled out across the country, and people have been lining up for the last few hours to receive the injection.”
Mulder turns away from the television in disgust.
“So colonization has begun,” he hears Scully murmur behind him. He doesn’t look at her, can’t look at her, and he stares mutely out of the window instead.
“It was so obvious,” she says. “Why didn’t we think of that? We were so sure it would be bees, men in black…”
“I was so sure, Scully.”
“So what do we do now?”
“I don’t know.”
Mulder turns to look at Scully as she joins him at the window. Her face his pale, hair mussy – rumpled from sleeping. She lifts a hand to her face, stifling a yawn, and rubs the sleep from her eyes. It is in moments like this, he thinks, that he knows utterly what true love is, and then she becomes businesslike; the old Scully – rational and methodical. And that is true love of a kind as well.
“Provided they haven’t made any major alterations to the virus, which is unlikely given its successes previously, we know we’re immune to it. We have to assume William is as well.”
“I think we need to make him as our first priority,” she continues. “We need to try and get in touch with Skinner again. We have to assume we can’t reach him by email so we’ll have to try calling him. John and Monica too. And Yves, if we can. We have to find out where William is.”
As Scully heads for the shower, Mulder makes his way to his office. He hopes, for her sake, that she’s right; that they’ll be able to get hold of Skinner or Dogget, that they’ll find William unharmed. He tries not to think of the effect the virus will have on the rest of the population, tries not to think of the gaping wounds left in the chests and abdomens of those who weren’t immune to it. He doesn’t succeed.
Will has been banished to his room for getting under his mother’s feet. It wasn’t my fault, he thinks as he stomps up the stairs. If she won’t let me go out to play then what else am I supposed to do? He nearly slams the door when he reaches the bedroom, before thinking twice – he doesn’t want to be punished for something else as well – and pulling faces at it instead.
There’s less to do in his bedroom than there was downstairs – no TV, no snacks, no board games – and he slumps morosely against the bed. If only he was older, they wouldn’t be able to boss him around so much then. He’d be able to go out when he wanted to, watch TV when he wanted to... He sighs; being eleven is hard work.
With nothing else to do he picks up the copy of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn lying on his nightstand and turns to the page he’s on. Huck has escaped from Miss Watson’s under cover of darkness, Tom Sawyer helping him out, and Will imagines how happy Huck must have been to get away from all that civilizing. He’s reading about the adventurous crimes Tom Sawyer’s gang are plotting when the realization hits him: he could escape under cover of darkness as well. Huck and Tom made it sound so easy, and Will figures it can’t be that hard to get out of the house. His bedroom window is only twelve feet off the ground; he could jump down without breaking a leg. And he could head east. The furthest he’s been in that direction is Denver; this time he could make it all the way to New York.
Will grins. That would teach them to stop him from going outside, if they woke up in the morning to find him gone. Tossing the book onto the bed he hurries to the wardrobe. He’ll need to take a backpack with him, some warm clothes, boots, a torch maybe, and food as well. If his mother lets him go downstairs for supper he can get some chips from the kitchen. If she doesn’t, well he can wait until he’s sure they’re fast asleep – say four in the morning – and slip downstairs. It’s a plan worthy of Huck himself.
Dawn has settled over the yard and Scully stands at the doorway watching the snow glisten in the pale light. They had stopped making phone calls after midnight; messages left again and again for Skinner, Dogget and Reyes. There is nothing they can do now but wait.
Mulder joins her on the porch, wrapping a blanket around her shoulders.
“Do you think they’ll pick any up?” she asks.
“I don’t know, Scully. It’s nearly daylight; if they were going to call they’d have done it before now.”
Scully settles into the comfort of Mulder’s chest. She wraps herself more tightly in the blanket as she watches birds hurtle over the sky. She can feel a tight knot in her stomach working its way upwards. Please let them be okay, she thinks. Please let them call.
As if hearing her thoughts, Mulder tightens his hold on her shoulders. “If they can get to a phone they -”
He is interrupted by the ringing of the phone inside. Mulder sprints indoors, knocking a vase off a table in his rush to reach it before it stops ringing.
“It’s me, Mulder,” Skinner’s voice crackles down the line.
“Where are you? What the hell’s going on?”
“Listen, I don’t have much time. William’s gone.”
Mulder freezes. He hadn’t realized how much he didn’t want to hear those words until now. He’d assumed – he and Scully had assumed – that William would be all right.
“What do you mean he’s gone?”
“He’s run away. We’ve had surveillance on the house for the past few weeks -”
“You’ve been keeping tabs on them?”
“I’m a member of the Federal government. I can keep tabs on whoever I want.”
“Why didn’t you tell us?”
“Because I didn’t know if anything would happen. As far as we knew the Van der Kamps were safe.”
“And now William’s gone.”
“He left a note. Said he’s heading east. We’ve got teams heading out now. We don’t know how far he’s gone, or which way he’s going, but we’re going to find him.”
“What about the Van der Kamps?”
“We’ve taken them into custody, put the story out they’ve been arrested in connection with child pornography. With William gone we don’t know who’ll go after them and this way we can make sure they’re secure.”
“What will the neighbors think?”
“By the time we’re sure they’ll be safe, there won’t be any neighbors.”
“What about the vaccine, colonization?”
“Vaccine’s voluntary for the moment. Virus has an incubation period of two days, if we’re lucky,” Skinner pauses. “Mulder, I have to go.”
“Shit.” Mulder swears as he put the phone down. Scully hovers next to him, her eyes dull sockets in the pale of her face. “We need to go west,” he says.
Will stamps his feet and huffs, watching his breathe coalesce in the air. The bus had left him at Denver bus station half an hour ago and, if he’s being honest with himself, he’s not sure what to do next. Running away had seemed like such a great plan last night, but now – alone, cold and hungry in the middle of a strange city – all he wants is to go home.
Shrugging the bag off his shoulders he counts the money in his wallet. Fifteen dollars. Nowhere near enough fur a bus back to Burns, but maybe it’ll be enough for him to get some food. He picks up his bag and starts trudging through the slush lining the sidewalk. It’s cold, but it feels good to be walking somewhere, the wind whipping at his cheeks and numbing his fingers. He keeps his head down as he walks, avoiding any curious glances from passers-by. The key is to look like you belong, he tells himself. Don’t talk to strangers. Look both ways before crossing the road.
He tries not to think about home as he walks, about his parents and how they must be feeling. He decides to head for the museum. He remembers passing it once, when he and his parents drove through the city. It’ll be somewhere warm to stay for a while, if nothing else.
Scully answers the phone with a sharp ‘yes?’, glancing at Mulder who grips the steering wheel, knuckles turning white.
“Latest intell suggests he’s in Colorado.” Skinner sounds tired as he speaks, and Scully frowns.
“Denver, Colorado. He had a hundred dollars in his piggy bank. It’s all gone and nothing’s been taken from either of the Van der Kamps. It would be enough to get him as far as Denver.”
“But you’re not certain he’s there.”
“No. But this is a best guess. It’s all we’ve got, Scully. I suggest you take it.”
Mulder glances at her when she hangs up and she turns to the window, not wanting him to see the tears that are threatening to well up in her eyes.
“Scully?” his voice is soft.
“I’m fine, Mulder.”
She isn’t sure how she feels, but some part of her doesn’t want to admit that to Mulder yet. She can’t quite believe that after ten years she will be meeting William, can’t believe that their failure to stop colonization is the only thing that has given her a chance to see her son again. The chances of finding him in Denver, if he has gone there, are slim, but something – some motherly instinct, some sixth sense – tells her he’ll be there.
“We need to get to Denver,” she says when she’s sure her voice won’t break. “As soon as possible.”
“It’ll take us days by car.”
“We need to get to an airport.”
Mulder frowns. “The virus -”
“Skinner said the incubation period lasted for a couple of days. It’s a chance I’m willing to take.”
They arrive at the airport in record time and hurry to the ticket desk. It’s times like these Scully wishes she were FBI again, able to flash her badge and demand a ticket, but thankfully the plane is only half full and they board minutes later.
The exhibits are better than Will thought they’d be. The museum in Cheyenne, which he’d visited on school trips, was full of threadbare, stuffed animals and replication Civil War pistols; Denver museum has dinosaur bones and genuine flint arrowheads. Will takes his time following the green arrows through the ground floor of the building, pausing to press his nose against glass cases housing T-Rex skulls and saber tooth tigers. This is better than watching his dad fiddling with the car in the garage, he thinks. Better even than tracking through the snow with John and Al.
He makes his way to a case which contains a scene of a Neolithic man painting a mural on a cave wall. Will stops, staring at the painting. It is taller than the stone age man standing beside it, and as long as the cave itself. Will frowns, puzzled. It looks like a painting of a UFO, a big ball of white, with what seem to be aliens walking down from it. They look like the aliens Will saw in Close Encounters when he stayed up to watch it last Christmas, and the look on the stone age man’s face is one of fear.
He hovers at the exhibit for a few minutes, trying to make sense of the drawings, but the little placard giving information about the exhibit tells him nothing. Replica of a Stone Age cave painting found in what is now Africa, dated 7000 BC. Paintings like this were commonly found in clusters in areas containing magnetite. Their meaning is so far unknown. Will shrugs; there are better things to see.
As he picks up his bag to leave, a blinding pain shoots through his head. He lets out an involuntary gasp and drops his backpack, clutching at his head. Through the pain he can hear voices, just on the edge of hearing. A woman, who sounds vaguely familiar. Not his mom, but there is something mom-like about her.
“William was a bullfrog…”
A song? It’s not one his mom’s ever sung to him. But he knows it. Somehow, he knows it.
“William, after your father.”
But his dad’s dad is called Fred. Will is the only William in the family.
Just as suddenly as the pain began it stops, leaving Will crouching, breathless, on the floor. He staggers to his feet and stumbles to a bench a few feet away from the exhibit. As he sits down he realizes that he’s crying, his breath harsh in the quiet room. Stop it, he tells himself. Stop acting like a baby. But the tears continue to roll as he clutches his backpack and shakes.
Scully is quiet as they walk out of arrivals at Denver airport. Mulder eyes her with concern; she had barely said a word to him on the short flight, gazing instead out of the window at the white clouds below. He wants to reach out and touch her, offer assurances and tell her everything will be ok. But even before he says it he knows the words will sounds false.
They step into the cool of the Colorado winter and Scully shivers. Mulder wraps an arm around her shoulders; even now, years after their time in the FBI, it feels good to be able to touch her in the open.
“Where to, Batman?” he asks as they hover on the sidewalk.
“I’ve no idea, Mulder. We don’t even know if he’s here.”
He can hear the tremor in her voice and squeezes her shoulder. “Let’s assume he is. If you were an eleven year old boy, on the run in Denver, where would you want to go?”
“Home,” she whispers.
He squeezes her shoulder once more and hails a cab.
“We may as well start in the middle,” he says as they bundle in. “Downtown,” he tells the driver. “As fast as you can.”
The phone rings as the cab driver slows for a red light. Scully snatches it up.
“Yeah,” she says. “Uh-huh… Okay.” Mulder suspects he sees her smile.
“The museum,” she says to him after she hangs up.
“If you were an eleven year old boy with a model of a velociraptor in his room, on the run in Denver, where would you want to go?”
Will wipes his eyes as he walks into the gift shop. That last exhibit freaked him out and he’s glad to get away from it in the bright, cheerful shop. He pauses at the case containing dinosaur fossils. What he wouldn’t give to have a real raptor claw. Or to discover one. He pictures himself – khaki-clad – in the far reaches of some desert, proudly holding an intact skeleton.
“Well, nothing like this has been found before,” he imagines himself saying. “It’s quite possibly a new species. Yes, I have thought of a name – the Willosaurus.”
He smiles to himself, and then remembers the raptor model in his bedroom at home. He can’t hang around here much longer. He’s running out of food – a sandwich and a carton of apple juice in the museum’s café set him back six dollars – and he wants to go home.
He turns away from the case and trails past a box containing crystals and gemstones. A black bracelet catches his eye and as he reaches out to touch it the pain in his head returns.
“Argh,” he cries as he falls to the ground. The voices are stronger this time and he can see faces swimming in and out of his vision; a tall man holding a baseball bat; a red-haired woman smiling at him.
“William,” she says. “William.” Her voice is familiar, the same voice he heard by the cave exhibit earlier.
“Mom?” he tries to say. Because she is his mom. Not the mom he grew up with and who he desperately wants to see again, but his mom just the same.
Scully wraps William in her arms and strokes his hair.
“Ssh,” she murmurs. “It’s okay.”
“You’re my mom,” he mutters into her shoulder. Scully feels the tears threatening to well up again. She had tried to tell herself that she would be calm, collected when she met William, but nothing could have prepared her for the way she’d feel when he called her mom. She doesn’t question how he knows, after all this time, simply holds him more tightly and lets the tears fall.
They sit that way for several minutes, Scully losing track of time, of the reason they’re in Denver, of everything but the weight of her son in her arms. She hears Mulder cough behind her and turns, smiling at him.
“I’m sorry, Mulder. I -” she gestures at William.
“It’s okay, Scully. But we need to get to D.C.”
William looks up at Mulder’s voice and Scully finds herself searching for any resemblance of him in William’s face. His eyes, she thinks finally. He has his eyes.
“You’re the one whose father I’m named after,” the boy says. Mulder nods.
“That’s your father,” Scully says. “His name is Mulder. Fox Mulder.”
William wrinkles his nose.
“Mulder is fine,” Mulder says. “Or dad. You’re lucky your mom has better taste in names than mine.”
Scully notes the change in William’s expression. “We have to get to Washington D.C., William. We’ll be safe there.”
“Where are my parents?”
She winces at the question but tries not to let William see the hurt in her eyes. She gave him up ten years ago – she has no right to expect him to accept her as quickly as he has, much less ask for me. But the question still stings.
“They’re safe. We had some friends of ours pick them up when we came looking for you.”
“Will I be able to see them soon?”
Mulder places his hand on Scully’s shoulder and squeezes. She nods at him and rises, holding one hand out to William.
“We’re going to get there as quickly as we can.”
They make their way out of the museum and head west down the street. Scully walks as closely to William as she possibly can, Mulder hovering next to the boy’s other shoulder.
“How do you want to play this?” Mulder asks.
“Head to the airport as quickly as we can and get the next flight to D.C.”
“Can we risk flying? We don’t know how much longer the virus needs to incubate.”
“We got out here okay. It will take a few hours to get back, if we can get a flight straight away. I think we can risk it.”
Mulder nods but Scully can see the doubt in his eyes.
“We’ll make it, Mulder.”
Mulder flags down the next cab they see and the three of them climb into the rear seats. William’s hand snakes into Scully’s as they wind their way towards the airport, and she squeezes. William squeezes back.
Halfway to the airport, the driver starts coughing, a rough, rattling chest cough. Mulder glances at Scully and she catches his eye, worried.
“Hell of a cough this one,” the driver says. “And I got vaccinated. They say there’ll be side effects but I think I’d rather the flu to this.”
“When did you get the injection?” Scully asks.
“Two days ago. You had it yet?”
She shakes her head.
“Well I’m telling you, don’t bother.”
Scully catches Mulder’s eye again and raises her eyebrows. He shrugs in return. They’re on the freeway heading out of town and there’s no place to stop. It’ll be ok, she tells herself, squeezing Will’s hand again. We’re nearly there.
The driver’s cough gets worse the further out of town they go, and it’s not long before he has one hand permanently in front of his mouth. Come on, come on, Scully thinks. Just let us get there in one piece.
The driver lets out another cough and then clutches his chest. The car swerves across the road as he grabs for the wheel, clawing at his throat with one hand. Scully throws her arms around William, covering his head with her hands. Mulder reaches for the cab driver as his eyes roll back in his head and the skin under his t-shirt begins to undulate.
“Shit!” Mulder yells, diving back in his seat. Not in front of William, Scully wants to say but it strikes her as too absurd, even for her.
The driver reaches for the steering wheel again, as his chest explodes and the car hits the central reservation.
They come rolling to a halt only moments later, and Scully’s first thought it for William; they can’t have come all this way only for him to die in a car crash. She hears moaning and reaches out, groping for human contact.
“William, are you okay?”
“My head hurts.”
“You can’t be too badly hurt if you can talk,” she hears Mulder say, and she lets out a sigh of relief. “We need to get out of here, Scully,” he add. “The car could go up any minute, and we don’t know what else is in here.”
Scully worms her way out of the smashed rear window, pulling William out behind her. Mulder clambers through the opposite side and crouches down to peer at the driver.
“He’s dead,” he says. “And there’s no sign of that thing either.”
Scully inspects a graze on William’s cheek as Mulder talks. Other than being in shock the boy seems okay, and she’s thankful that the crash wasn’t worse.
“We’re going to have to head to D.C. another way. I don’t think we can risk flying now; if we were to be in the air when the pilot started showing symptoms…”
“You’re right, Mulder.” Scully rises from her crouching position and brushes her hair away from her face. “We’ll have to drive. But we need to get there as soon as we can.”
They commandeer a car on the outskirts of Denver after walking six miles down the freeway. The number of cars speeding past has decreased the further from the city they get, and Mulder wonders whether the virus’ incubation period is now over, whether other people all over the city are suffering the same fate as their cab driver.
He had glanced at Scully and William often as they walked. The boy was quiet, his hand clutched tightly in Scully’s, and Mulder couldn’t help seeing her in him. His walk, his quiet way of watching everything unfolding, the way his hair falls in his eyes – everything reminded him of Scully.
That’s my son, he said to himself. But the words hadn’t seem real, somehow. He’s tried for so long to pretend that William doesn’t exist because it’s easier than dealing with the ghost of a child he never said goodbye to. Walking next to him now felt like a dream.
“How are you two feeling?” he asks when they stop to rest. He pulls into a parking lot and they open the car doors, stretching their legs. The wind isn’t as bitter here as it had been in the city, the snow piled less thickly, but they are all tired and cold.
“’M okay,” William replies, scuffing his feet in the snow. Scully doesn’t answer.
“We can stop for ten minutes. If you need to use the restroom, William, do it now. I’m going to find a coffee.”
He walks away from the car with William in tow. There are too many thoughts crowding through his mind, and he hasn’t had time to process them all. They need to get back to D.C. as soon as they can. They need to find Skinner and then they need to find somewhere to hide. But it will take them at least a day to get there, and that’s if they push on through the night. Mulder could do with a rest, and Scully’s silence worries him.
“I could use a rest, Mulder,” she says when he and William return to the car. “And a shower. It’s been a long day.”
He nods his assent and scans the building surrounding the parking lot. Somewhere there has to be a motel where they’ll be safe from the aliens.
They head out early in the morning, rising as the predawn light filters through the motel room blinds. The road is eerily quiet as they walk to the car, and Scully scans the parking lot, one hand placed protectively on William’s shoulder.
“There aren’t many people around,” he says as they reach the car. “Is it because it’s so close to Christmas?”
Scully debates – for a second – lying to him, telling him that yes, people are staying at home because it’s the holiday season. But she’s only had him back for a day and lying to him now, about something this important, would be wrong.
“No, it’s not. William, have you seen anything on the news about a flu vaccination program the government is carrying out?”
“Well, that’s the reason why it’s so quiet. The vaccination isn’t a vaccination. It’s a virus. The government are deliberately infecting people with it.”
She pauses, unsure of how he will react to her answer. “Because they’re working with a group of extra-terrestrials to colonize the planet. They want to turn humans into a sort of slave race.”
William simply nods.
Mulder is driving again as Scully sits in the passenger seat, her eyes constantly flicking to where William sits in the back.
“Have you tried Skinner again?” Mulder asks.
“I can’t get through. There’s no signal, or they’re not picking up.”
She pauses, ‘or the virus has got to them first’ resting on her tongue. She forces herself to swallow the words. They will all be okay. It’s just a technical problem.
Mulder glances at her and she smiles wanly at him. In the back seat, William hums a tune.
They reach D.C. late morning on the third day after they left Denver. Traffic had thinned progressively the further east they headed, and the sedan is now the only car moving on the Georgetown street.
Mulder parks in front of the FBI building and the three of them get out in silence. The lobby of the building is deserted, the security desk unmanned. Mulder glances at Scully as they walk through.
“Do you and William want to wait here?
“No.” Her answer is emphatic. “We’re in this together, Mulder.”
He nods and heads for the stairs, taking them two at a time as they make their way to Skinner’s office.
Mulder can feel his pulse beginning to race as they get closer to the office. The corridors are deserted, and even on Christmas Eve that’s unusual. He motions to Scully to stand back as he creeps up to the door, and she pulls William to her side. He raises three fingers, lowers one, and then another. Scully nods, and he rams the door with his shoulder.
“You need to get out of here,” Skinner says as Mulder bursts through the door. Mulder stares at him.
“We’ve only just got here.”
“I’ve been trying to reach you. We were infected the day before yesterday. There’s no telling when…” he pauses.
Mulder feels the shock hit him like a sledgehammer and reaches out a hand to touch his former boss on the shoulder, the arm – anything to let him know how grateful he is for what he’s done. Skinner shrugs him off. “There’s no telling when we’ll die. You need to leave.”
Mulder nods. As much as he’d like to stay in D.C. after the cross-country trip, he knows that Skinner’s right. They have to get out of here now. He and Scully are immune, and William probably is too. But there’s no sense in staying here and running that risk.
“I’ll try to keep them safe,” Mulder glances at Scully and William, who entered behind him and are now sitting on the other side of the room. “I won’t let you down.”
“There’s one more thing,” Skinner says as Mulder turns away. “They want you alive.
Mulder turns back and stares at Skinner. His face is lined, his eyes tired, but there is a spark of defiance there still.
“That won’t happen.”
Skinner nods. “We have snipers who are loyal to the cause. We can post them on your route as far out of D.C. as possible. If you’re in danger -”
“Tell them to shoot to kill,” Mulder’s voice is firm as he adds, “but I don’t want Scully to know. It’s better this way. She needs to concentrate on William,” he glances at Scully again. “She’s waited so long to be with him.”
He turns away from Skinner and walks away.
“Hey,” he greets William and Scully as he joins them by the window. “We need to head out of here, the city’s not safe now that they’re infecting the population. We’re immune – as far as we know – but we should head west, just in case.”
“Mulder,” Scully’s voice has a hard edge to it. “What aren’t you telling us?”
“Nothing. I’ve spoken to Skinner and he agrees we need to go. The sooner the better. Come on.”
He rises and walks away, hoping they’ll follow him. He hears Scully getting to her feet, William shuffling his backpack onto his shoulders behind her. Keep walking, he thinks. Don’t ask any questions, don’t stay for a long goodbye. He walks past Skinner, meeting the other man’s gaze with a silent ‘thank you’ and heads for the door. Scully and William are close behind.
“Okay, Mulder, what’s going on?” Scully is questioning him before they’ve walked ten feet from the building and he scans the rooftops as he turns to her.
“We’ve got to get out of here. They’ve all been infected with the virus and Skinner told me they don’t know if the antidote will work. It’s safer for all of us,” he nods towards William, “get as far away from the city as we can.”
“There’s something else,” Scully says and he sees for the first time the fear in her eyes. She’s worried it’s William, he thinks, and the resolve inside him weakens.
“They want me. Alive. Skinner thinks we’ll be safer heading West.”
“No, Mulder. No. If they want you surely we’re safest here. There are weapons, labs. We can fight it out.”
“Scully,” he pauses. He has to admit that her arguments – rational as always – make some sort of sense. They’re appealing; it would be so easy to hide in the city, stock up on guns and food and dig in for the long haul. But he can’t risk her and William, not when it’s him they want. “We have to go. And we have to go now.”
They trudge through the slush that lines the sidewalks, William walking between them. Scully holds his hand and Mulder notes with pride that he doesn’t let it go, no matter how embarrassing it might be to hold your mom’s hand in public. He ruffles the boy’s hair and William smiles up at him. Be strong, Will, he thinks. For your mom’s sake.
Although it’s rush hour the city is deserted; streets which would normally be busy on Christmas Eve are lined with stalled vehicles, the ghosts of newspapers. They pass row after row of cars, windshields lined with ice and snow, gas tanks bleeding out from where their scared owners tried to ram through lines of traffic to get home. Mercifully, their bodies are hidden inside. Mulder has no desire to see
From somewhere up ahead comes a faint noise. Just on the edge of hearing, Mulder wonders for a second whether he’s actually heard it. And then it comes again. A rhythmic, steady march.
“Scully,” he grasps her hand and pulls her to a stop.
“What is it, Mulder?”
“Can you hear that?”
“I can,” Will pipes up and Mulder and Scully stare at him. “It’s coming from that direction, down the street.”
“We need to get out of here,” Mulder looks around, scanning the rooftops again. He catches the flash of dim sunlight on metal before the sun is obscured by cloud again, and nods. “We should split up. Scully, you take William and hide. A store, if you can get into one, a doorway if not. Make sure you’re out of sight, the both of you.”
“What about you?”
“I’ll head them off. If it’s me they’re after then they’re in for a chase.”
“Mulder,” Scully lets go of Will’s hand and pulls his face down to hers. Her lips graze his and he wraps his arms around her, savoring the taste of her. It’s not goodbye, he tells himself as he pulls away. Dammit, it’s not goodbye.
“Be good now, Will,” he tells his son, ruffling the boy’s hair. Will gazes at him, silent. “I’ll be back for you. Okay?”
He watches as they run to a nearby building, the tramping sound getting louder. Scully shakes the door handle but it doesn’t budge, and she glances behind as she and William run for the next one.
There’s no time, Mulder thinks. “Get into the doorway, Scully,” he calls. “The car will protect you. Just stay down.”
He watches them as they hunker down in a doorway, behind the ruined hulk of a car. Will gives him the thumbs up sign and Mulder returns it, trying to ignore the knot in his chest. “I’ll be back,” he whispers. “It’s not goodbye.”
Turning his back on the two people he’s loved most in the world, he begins to jog down the street.
Is it like this
In death’s other kingdom
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.
Scully drops her head onto his now still chest and sobs. Mulder wishes he could reach out to touch her, hold her for one more time and tell her that everything will be ok. Instead he can only watch as William places a hand on her shoulder, comforting her as he gazes down at the father he barely knew.
“Fox?” He turns at the sound of the strange, somehow-familiar voice. “Fox. I’ve missed you so much!” Samantha runs to him and he stoops to wrap his arms around her. She buries her face in his shoulder and he breathes all of her eight year old self in.
“Son, it’s good to see you again.”
He looks up and sees his father walking towards him, followed closely by his mother, a thin smile playing over her trembling lips.
“Mom,” he whispers.
His family circle him, placing their hands on his back, his arms, welcoming him home. In the distance, he watches Scully and William, hand in hand, walk away.