In Hell, Mulder had learned, every new sound was an announcement of new pain to be inflicted by his tormenters. Time had no meaning in Hell and Mulder had stopped even attempting to keep track of how long he had been a prisoner of aliens who treated him with the callous indifference a man might treat an interesting, but otherwise insentient, microbe. Mulder found solace in silence or in the routine sounds of probes measuring the slow decay of his body. He dreamed of silence where once he had dreamed of Scully charging through the door to rescue him. Gradually, as he felt his body die, even the presence of the insatiable alien scientists ceased to have the power to rouse him from his slow descent into death. Even as he welcomed death, he discovered that he could still be curious. Perhaps this was his soul; the questing beast that refused to lie down and die.
The sounds were coming closer. His sluggish brain had no words to describe the sound except to harken back to childhood and supply the visual image of a Star Trek phaser. Mulder's throat was shredded from too many disregarded screams, but he felt it reflexively try to form a chuckle. Trust his overly vivid imagination to come up with a last-minute rescue scenario to play as he slipped into death. Rescue now would only extend the nightmare of existence. Mulder wasn't a doctor, but he understood his own body and knew that the damage he had suffered was extensive. He had no desire to exchange one set of tubes for another. Better to die now than to watch old friends try to ignore the broken wretch they had retrieved.
Bound like Prometheus on his mountaintop, Mulder waited for the new sounds to transform themselves into a razor-beaked eagle who would continue the slow dissection of his body. The only emotion he was ever able to sense from the aliens was an amused curiosity at the strength of his will to live. His will was broken now, so whatever amusement he had provided would end and hopefully they would tire of the game and let him die.
The shouts startled him. He had never heard the aliens speak in anything louder than a whisper, much less shout. The words made no sense, but the voice sounded human. Unwittingly, he found that he hadn't lost all hope. As fearful as survival would be, he realized that he was willing to grasp a hand if it offered to help. Unable to twist his head to see the entrance to his torture chamber, he lay there, trying to discern his future from sounds. Prophesizing from sheep entrails probably would be easier, he thought with a fading glimmer of his old sardonic humor.
Another loud sound brought the sight of his alien guard hurtling backwards and half-stumbling to one knee. A loud explosion rocked the room as the guard's shot went wild and struck a panel on the far wall. In the distance, Mulder could hear other explosions and wondered who, or what, had mounted an attack. An energy beam struck the guard who shuddered and began to collapse. A tall woman strode into the room and pointed a strange-looking device at the guard and fired. This time the alien guard vanished in an incandescent glow. Mulder stared at the woman, who was obviously not the heroic Scully rescuer of his dreams. There was a gaping gash across her forehead that was pouring blood and other matter down her face. Her eyes were glowing and she was screaming in raw fury as she stared at the place where the alien had been. Then she looked over at him and Mulder began having second thoughts about this rescue. Maybe death wasn't so bad, after all.
His rescuer walked stiffly over to him and began fumbling at the restraints binding him to the chair that had been his dungeon for the past eternity or so. He shook his head at the strange words she spoke. The sudden release of the clamps sent his muscles into spasms and he felt himself starting to slide towards the floor . Strong arms held him upright. The last thing he remembered as he crashed into unconsciousness was a strange apologetic expression on his rescuer's face and an oddly accented voice that followed him into the darkness.
"Me'lea?" Chan asked softly as she stepped cautiously into the room. She was under strict orders not to upset either patient and only by promising to withdraw immediately if Me'lea did not respond had she been given permission to talk to her old friend. Even T'mara appeared worried, although that worry did not interfere with his brusque irritation with an unexpected, and clearly unwelcome, problem.
"I'm here," Me'lea responded quietly. She listened for signs that Fox was stirring and chided herself for the relief of sensing that he was still deeply asleep; a sleep that was partially her doing. Let her complete his physical healing before she tried to deal with the psychological impact of their blending.
"Fox?" Chan asked carefully.
Chan was the only person Me'lea knew who could actually sound like someone tiptoeing around an awkward subject.
"He's asleep and hopefully will remain so for another few hours. He was near death, Chan," Me'lea retorted with a faint edge to her voice. How many times did she have to explain that she acted impulsively, but with good reason.
"Sella was dead, Chan. I felt her die. What was I supposed to do? The only thing left of Sella were a few automatic physical functions and they were fading fast. The Tau'ri was dying before my eyes. What would you have done?" Me'lea asked in resigned exasperation.
Chan looked at her friend and quietly clasped her hand; the physical hand of a stranger wrapped around the essence of someone she'd known for nearly two hundred years..
"Probably the same. I don't think you'll ever get T'mara to admit it, but I think he'd have done as you did. You broke custom, but custom has been broken before. The only question is will the Tau'ri accept you?"
"I don't know. The one time Fox came close to consciousness I sensed fear, but I couldn't tell if it was fear of me or fear that his captors had found a new way to torture him," Me'lea replied sadly. Most of Fox's memories were too deeply buried for her to reach until he regained consciousness, but those she could read made her regret that she hadn't made the alien's death more painful.
"What was an Asgard ship doing there, anyway?" Chan's tone was indignant. The Asgard were supposed to be allies of the Tau'ri. Unless the rules had changed, she didn't think torture was part of that alliance.
"I don't know, but I think Fox may be able to answer a lot of our questions when he wakes up." If he doesn't panic when he realizes he's not alone, Me'lea added to herself.
"How soon will that be?"
Me'lea sighed. That was the question everyone kept asking her. She'd like to keep Fox unconscious until they got back to Sanctuary and she had a chance to talk to Selmek/Jacob, but T'mara wanted answers now, not in three days.
"Tomorrow. I need a few more hours to complete the physical healing. Fox was damaged almost beyond hope. I find it incredible that he was still alive. His will to live is strong. I'm hoping that his will to understand is also strong," Me'lea added quietly.
Chan squeezed her hand and nodded. A slight movement at the door to the cabin caught her eye. Rodrik was indicating that she had disturbed his patient long enough. Chan gave Me'lea a subtle thumbs-up gesture she'd picked up from Jacob and quickly left her friend to the fussy attentions of a healer. It was rare that she felt the lack of any belief in deities; the Tok'ra, having the experience of being considered gods, tended to be uniformly non-religious. Still, it would be nice to believe that someone in the universe was looking after fools with great hearts.
Me'lea woke from a restless sleep to the muted chiming of her cabin's sound system. It had taken her nearly half an hour to figure out how to set the alarm. Sella had had the ability to think of a set time to awaken and inevitably would awaken a minute or two to the time. Me'lea tried to suppress her grief for Sella. There would be time for grieving later. Dealing with a distraught new host would require her full attention. Sella would understand. Of course, Sella would also have been one of the people lecturing her about her impulsiveness. Sella would always be part of her, just as Ham'za had been part of her before Sella. If all went well, hopefully she and Fox would blend in mind as well as body.
The timekeeper indicated that she had as much as two hours before Rodrik made his morning rounds. Not much time to achieve a harmonious blending, but at worst, it would give her a chance to reassure Fox before he faced a T'mara with lots of questions.
:: Fox:: Me'lea thought at the Tau'ri mind just beginning to stir restlessly as she moved their body into a more comfortable position. She'd never been fond of sleeping on her stomach. Fox seemed to sleep better that way, so she let him. If they achieved blending, they could work out the inevitable give and take of life.
"What? Who?" Mulder woke up with a panicked start. Where was he? Who had just spoken to him. His memory was hazy, but he vaguely recalled someone hauling him from the torture chair and lowering him to the steel floor of his prison. This room was pleasantly dark, but smelled of metal. A faint throbbing vibration suggested that he was still in a ship. What did the aliens have in mind this time? A parade of near-rescues played over and over in his head until he went insane?
:: My name is Me'lea. You are safe. Please try to remain calm because this is going to be a very complicated situation to explain:: Me'lea mentally hoped that Fox had an open mind. She didn't think she was being too optimistic to hope that he believed in aliens. The difficulty was going to be in convincing him that she wasn't his enemy.
"Where are you?" Mulder threw his head around trying to see where the voice had come from. It had that same odd harmonic tone that he'd heard in his torture chamber. To his surprise, his voice came out smoothly with none of the rasping harshness that had marked his attempts to plead with his captors. In fact, Mulder realized that he could move freely. He flexed a leg and felt it move fluidly under sheets of some soft, downy material. No pain. Not even the memory of pain. How long had he been unconscious?
:: 56 of your Tau'ri, I mean Earth, hours:: Me'lea cursed her fumbling. She sensed the complex brilliance of the mind facing her and knew that Fox would catch the implications of that phrasing.
"I didn't say that aloud." Mulder bit his lower lip in an effort to speak calmly. Telepathy was a possibility. Gibson Praise had been telepathic.
:: No, you didn't:: Me'lea tried not to physically take a deep breath, but her automatic reaction flowed into and through their shared nervous system. She felt Fox's fear spike as his body reacted to a command he hadn't given.
:: Fox, I'm not one of the aliens who tortured you. Me'lea paused then decided that impulsiveness got her into this mess, maybe it was best to drive straight ahead and give Fox the whole truth in one fell swoop. His heart was strong and from what she was picking up from his conscious mind, he had an open mind.
:: I am a Tok'ra; a symbiote if you will. You were dying when I found you. My host was dead. My action saved both of us. I only ask your pardon for joining without receiving your permission, first::
Although sluggish from disuse, his brain finally began kicking in (or did this Tok'ra nudge it) and the full implication of the term 'symbiote' struck him. He wasn't alone. Scully had always been the scientist, but Mulder hadn't ignored the basics quite as much as Scully believed. A symbiotic relationship was one in which a host and a parasite (Mulder felt the voice wince at the term) co-existed to the mutual benefit of both. The implications of this staggered him.
Did the Black Oil actually have a personality when it occupied a host? Krycek had been completely dominated by the Oilien creature. A pity he'd never had an opportunity to ask Krycek about that experience. Somehow, the apologetic tone of the voice didn't fit any of his prior experience with the aliens.
::Who are you?:: Mulder thought slowly at the voice, much as if he were struggling to speak in a foreign language. How much of his mind could this Tok'ra read? A faint blush warmed his cheeks as he considered some of the stuff cluttering up his memories.
An amused laugh in the same harmonic warble greeted that errant thought. Apparently Tok'ra knew what he was thinking and what he was probably referring to. Mulder wondered how you hid from someone who shared your thoughts, not to mention your body.
:: My name is Me'lea. Tok'ra is the name my people chose eons ago:: Me'lea was relieved that so far, Fox had not gone into hysterics or tried to claw her out of his body. Underlying the fear and suspicion roiling around his coming to grips with the situation, Me'lea sensed a burning curiosity about who and what she was. T'mara would no doubt be amused, or probably dismayed, when he realized that quite by accident, Me'lea had blended with a Tau'ri as impulsively curious as she was.
::Why should I trust you?:: Mulder shot back. He felt invaded and uncomfortable with the idea that now when he talked to himself, he'd get an answer.
Despite reason and caution which suggested that she present logical, rational reasons, Me'lea couldn't resist the urge to chuckle. She read Fox's puzzled reaction and caught a glimpse of his memories of grim-purposed aliens. Apparently humor wasn't one of the enemy aliens' attributes.
:: I wish I could give you reasons that didn't sound self-serving. I can promise you I won't read your memories until we reach an understanding with each other. Naturally, that means my memories won't be accessible to you. I have much to offer. You have information we may need about a race of aliens we didn't know existed::
Mulder considered the offer. Despite his fear, he was intrigued by the situation. He wondered how much of his calmness was due to his abiding obsession with the paranormal and how much was due to the fact that he was emotionally exhausted. During the torturous experiments by the aliens he would have willingly given up his soul to be free of the pain. It seemed ungrateful to resent the fact that someone might have been listening.
::What happens if I refuse?:: Mulder asked, curiously. He wasn't expecting the truth, but sometimes a half truth could be very revealing.
:: We spend the next several days trading off who gets control of your vocal cords. We get to listen to several very stern lectures, or at least I do. I can always arrange for you to take a nap. They aren't very interesting. Once you've heard one of T'mara's reprimands, you've heard them all:: Me'lea gave the equivalent of a mental sigh and shrug. To her surprise, Fox laughed. The sensation of feeling her host laugh soothed an ache Me'lea hadn't realized she was feeling. Sella laughed often; she'd miss that.
::Then what?:: Mulder pressed. There was something this Me'lea wasn't telling him and he wanted to know what it was before agreeing to anything. He'd had his fill of dashing off after wild hares on half-baked information. Nothing like torture to correct certain bad habits, he thought. He felt Me'lea flinch and realized that she was picking up some of the memories associated with the word torture. So they could each read between the lines so to speak – interesting.
:: Once we reach Sanctuary, the Council will have to judge what to do. Ordinarily, I'd be consigned to another host, probably assigned to a century of tedious translation work, while you'd be free to return home. However, . . . :: Me'lea paused, then realized that Fox was alert to nuances and might pick up what she had been trying to avoid saying.
:: Fox, you were dying when I found you. The aliens had destroyed your immune system. For what reason, perhaps you can tell us. I joined with you and was able to heal your wounds, but I can't replace the immune system. For all practical purposes, I am your immune system:: Me'lea waited and braced herself. Fox was an intelligent man. He would be able to draw the inescapable conclusion. How he reacted was going to be a good indication of whether this blending would work.
Mulder remained silent as Me'lea's words struck home. He had a pretty good idea why the aliens destroyed his immune system. Now he simply had to decide whether hosting a Tok'ra was a worse future than being taken over by an Oilien.
::Can you go away and let me think about this alone?:: Mulder asked. If Me'lea could put him to sleep, perhaps she could withdraw and let him think without her hovering on the edge of his consciousness. He wanted to be sure he was thinking his own thoughts, not ideas smuggled in by a creature with a vested interest in influencing his decision. For all he knew, these Tok'ra were as dangerous to humanity as the Oiliens. He needed to consider all the possibilities before he let down his guard.
:: We don't have much time, but I think we have two of your hours before our healer begins his morning rounds. I will go into a meditative trance for that time. One last thought before I withdraw. This blending is not a merging, but rather a joining of two distinctive minds and personalities sharing a body. There would be times when you are in control; times when I am, but always with the other's permission and acquiescence. I'd like us to be companions, not adversaries:: Me'lea quickly drew her consciousness into meditation before Fox could respond. She had done all she could. The rest was up to Fox.
Sella, if your spirit is listening somewhere, help me, Me'lea thought as she let her mind drift into the soothing blankness of the meditation.
Probing carefully, Mulder couldn't sense Me'lea in his mind. When she was talking to him or listening, he could feel her. The sensation was hard to describe, but it wasn't unpleasant, just strange. Maybe she could camouflage herself so that she could eavesdrop without him being aware, but Mulder decided to take the chance that she had been honest with him. After all, how could he tell?
As he sat up and swung his legs to the floor, Mulder felt the room spin for a moment, then settle down. He was wearing a loose tan tunic that covered more than the average hospital gown. Standing up cautiously, he felt the tunic slip down to just below his knees. To his immense relief, the tunic had a back. Whatever he was facing, he could face it without his butt hanging out.
Looking about, he saw nothing that resembled slippers or shoes. The floor was metal but warm to the touch. He could feel the vibration of engines through the metal but unlike those in the alien ship, these vibrations had a soft hum that feel soothing rather than jarring. He wondered how much influence Me'lea's presence in the deepest corners of his mind was having on his reactions.
The room was sparsely furnished: a bed, a table, and two chairs that resembled wickerwork. There wasn't a window, but Mulder hadn't expected one. He doubted if he rated first-class accommodations until Me'lea's people decided if he could be trusted. Me'lea had refrained from pointing out that the trust issue worked both ways. Mulder wasn't sure what to make of Me'lea. She . . . Mulder smiled as he realized that despite the gender-neutral harmonic tone, he had no doubt that Me'lea was female. At the same time, he suspected that she was not at all appalled or dismayed at being part of a male host. If he did accept Me'lea's presence, he'd have to do some major rethinking about gender, himself.
With a groan of pleasure, Mulder stretched his back and enjoyed the sensation of muscles moving smoothly. He doubted if anyone would let him near a running track, but just to move his arm and watch the muscles spiral under the skin was a treat he'd never expected to see again.
Glancing around, Mulder decided that while confined, the room offered enough space to pace, providing he kept his stride short. Pacing would help him think. Running would be even better, but he doubted if poking his head out of the door, if he could find the door, would be a good idea. Me'lea indicated that there were people with questions just waiting for him to wake up. Whatever decision he came to regarding this symbiosis, he could agree with her that delaying those questions until he reached a decision was probably a good idea.
Mulder didn't need Me'lea to tell him that he'd been dying on the alien ship. It might have been easy enough to simply take over his body and shove what was left of his mind into a box and lock it. Mulder had been in no emotional or mental condition to resist. Instead, she had healed him, up to a point. The question was whether she was lying about not being able to heal his immune system. It would be the perfect blackmail to force his cooperation. So, the issue of healing fell evenly between a positive and a negative.
However, he had an option Me'lea apparently hadn't considered. It was an option only a desperate man would consider, but it was an option. He could demand his freedom, but the cost would be life in a sterile environment, devoid of physical contact with other people and the outside world. The idea made him ill. Such a life would make death look attractive. Mulder didn't ever want to go back to wishing for death.
There were so many questions he wanted answers to. Me'lea appeared to be familiar with Earth. Her revulsion when his memories of the torture leaked through appeared to be genuine. Did her people offer some hope that the alien takeover wasn't quite as inevitable as the quislings in the Consortium believed?
Ultimately everything came down to whether he could trust this alien symbiote who had taken up residence in his body without permission. If the scenario she described was accurate, then he could see that she had faced a dilemma with few options. Mulder tried to sift through the facts, or at least the information Me'lea had given him, as a profiler would, weighing them against his instincts and his sense of the emotions behind the words. Profiling an alien was chancy at best, but Me'lea seemed forthright. He'd been fooled before, but he was beginning to sense that this blending Me'lea spoke of made deception difficult.
As he weighed his options, he realized that the hardest thing to bear about this whole arrangement would be the loss of his privacy. He was used to being alone. Even with Scully at his side, he had been curiously alone in his determined pursuit of the unknown. Now, he had a permanent companion who could not be diverted or decoyed. He wasn't sure he was ready for that kind of intimacy. Physical, even emotional intimacy, he had slowly come to accept as the possible end of his developing relationship with Scully. The kind of all-encompassing intimacy Me'lea proposed was frightening.
Mulder continued pacing the narrow length of his room as he weighed the pros and cons of the choice Me'lea had thrown into his lap. In the end, he realized that he wanted to trust her. It all boiled down to the fact that she could laugh, he realized with a rueful shake of his head. Maybe he could give this blending thing a trial run. Me'lea seemed to be very interested in talking to someone in this sanctuary she mentioned. He could cooperate until then; fair payment for the rescue. If they were looking for a Trojan Horse to use to sneak into Earth, they would soon realize that they had picked the wrong horse. If they were enemies, then they would soon realize that he was of no value to them. He would be able to judge them by how they received the news that he was just a used-up ex-FBI agent. It wasn't a great plan, but right now, Mulder didn't have the emotional energy to come up with a plan B. Of course, as far back as he could remember, he'd never had a really good plan B.
Me'lea had been clever, Mulder realized, to leave him to draw the conclusion that no matter what, he was never going to be able to go back to his old life. If she had told him this, he could have argued and ranted at her, refusing to accept her decision. It wasn't fair, he grumbled, while realizing that life was rarely fair. It wasn't fair to ask him to make a life-changing decision when his mind was still limp from weeks of physical and psychological torture. Right now he had the emotional resiliency of Jell-o. Hardly a fit state to judge which way to go on one of life's major intersections. As far as he could see in either direction there were problems, major ones. Nothing would ever be the same.
Realizing that he couldn't read the ciphers blinking on the wall, Mulder wondered how much time he had left before this T'mara Me'lea had mentioned arrived with questions. He ought to call Me'lea, but wanted a final few moments alone before taking a step into an uncertain future.
Actually, Mulder acknowledged, he wanted a few moments to grieve for his old life. He doubted if these Tok'ra would allow him to go back home. There would be too many complications; the Bureau's annual physical not the least of them.
He wondered if he would ever see Scully again. They had come so close to dropping their emotional defenses in the past year. Mulder smiled as he recalled how carefully they skirted around acknowledging that they cared for each other more than as friends or even partners. So much left unsaid; so much left too late. The story of his life, Mulder admitted sadly.
For someone who had always been alone, enjoyed being alone, learning to trust Scully had been a major transformation in his life. Now, it seemed that he was going to have to learn trust on a whole new level. Cohabitation was taking on a new meaning, he thought ruefully.
As he stared at the wall, he realized that he would miss all the things he used to gripe about. He had been prepared for death when he went off searching for the truth. He hadn't been prepared for exile, he realized. In a final burst of self-pity, he raised his head to glare at the ceiling, willing his whispered words to reach whatever god had twisted his prayers to this unexpected end.
"I want to see the world alone again, to take a chance on life again."
Mulder pondered how to end the debate; yea or nay; life or a living death in a sterile bubble. In the end, as always, he came down on the side of life. It might be a life unlike anything he'd ever known, but alive there was always the chance that somehow he could make it back home. Hope always seemed to be the deciding factor in his decisions, he realized. Luck, however, usually proved elusive. Maybe this Me'lea could supply the luck.
::OK, let's talk:: Mulder thought at Me'lea feeling slightly foolish at the idea that he expected an answer.
Waking from her trance, Me'lea let herself breathe a mental sigh of relief. She would not be cast out. She sensed that the acceptance wasn't whole-hearted, but Fox was willing to take the first few steps down the road.
Given time, given a chance to see that she meant him no harm and that her people meant his no harm, they might become friends.