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Blindfolded and holding blame out in front of us like a donkey's tail, we walk through the world searching for an ass to pin it on. From childhood we're misled; we're taught to believe that there is absolution in accusation, and peace in absolution. None of these things is true. I remember the pleasure that used to come from placing blame, the relief. I remember the thrill I used to get from solving little mini daily mysteries: the butler did it: over and out. I remember when I thought that the most powerful weapon was the ability to unmask, to expose, to truly name one's evil; these days the most powerful weapon is a loaded gun, a heavy rock. I feel like Han Solo surrounded by Jedis. I don't want to place blame; I don't want to know who's responsible for getting me here. That's a lie. I want to place blame. I just don't want to place it where it's due.

I was a different person when this began. I was a world away, where the palm of my hand didn't itch for the rock or the gun, where the ticking in my brain meant the microwave timer or the VCR or the 3000 mile checkup on my car.

My kingdom for a lube job. My kingdom for 11:00 reruns of CHEERS. My kingdom for a kingdom, kingdom come.

My palms itch; my hands are cold. I'm forgetting everything, my ambitions, my dreams, my bra size, my name. My hands tremble and I blow on my fingers; it's cold, it's so fucking cold.

Come here, giggling; throw a snowball; I'll race you home.

***

WASHINGTON D.C., DECEMBER 26, 1999 5:13 p.m. T-Minus 6 Days

 

"I'm not here," Scully said without looking up, when Mulder entered the office. "I am very officially not here and," she stuffed file folders into her briefcase, "now I'm officially leaving."

She stood up, shouldered the bag and slid out from behind the desk.

Mulder stared at her, his eyebrows arched.

She set her briefcase down on the desk, and sighed. "What?"

"I want to show you something," he said, holding up a manila envelope.

"How did you even know I'd be here?"

"You've got a lecture at Quantico on the fifth, and I noticed you left your paperwork here when we left for the holiday."

Scully pursed her lips. "No you didn't," she said. "You had no idea. Tell me what my lecture's about."

Mulder grinned. "You're right," he said. "It was a lucky guess. But you've got to listen to this, Scully. I got a call," he said. "Seems there's a terrorist group with missiles trained on half the Western World ready to let fly a New Year's fireworks show."

She tipped her head to the side. "Well, even if it's not a hoax it's still not our responsibility; shouldn't that be QRT or Domestic Terrorism?"

"QRT thinks it's a hoax; so does the military. This group - calls itself the Fantasy Echo, get it? Get it?" Mulder poked Scully in the arm, a smile crossing his face.

She sighed. "Fin d'siecle. I get it. Keep going."

"Fantasy Echo is taking responsibility for every terrorist attack since 1941, everywhere in the world," Mulder said.

"Humble terrorists are rare," Scully agreed, shouldering her bag again. "I'm on vacation, Mulder. So are you. Happy New Year, auld lang syne and all that. I've got to get home."

Mulder sat down at the chair across the desk and spread his palms across its surface, determined. "These humble terrorists have FACTS about every terrorist attack since 1941. From pipe bombs in post offices to Oklahoma City. Every single one. Facts that were never made public."

"So, okay, so they have an informant in the government; someone with access to the records..."

Mulder stood up, took Scully's coat from the rack beside the door and extended it to her. "Scully, they knew about these attacks before they happened. Look at this."

Clever trick, because now she had to take her coat from him to free his hands, and he flipped open the clasp on the manila envelope. He dumped its contents on the table.

Sealed envelopes; regular letter and notecard sized in varying pastel hues, addressed in handwritten ink to Fox Mulder, c/o a postoffice box Scully didn't recognize. There were maybe forty of them, and she picked one up and looked at it. Postmarked February 8, 1990. Another one, postmarked July 14, 1989. March 1, 1994. August 30, 1998. No return addresses.

"What are these?"

"Sealed letters, each postmarked the day before an act of terrorism took place. I opened nine or ten of them, but I got the general idea. Not just domestic terrorism, either; some of these cited events in the Middle East, in Africa, in England and Belgium. From bombings on international flights to backyard fires that barely made the local news."

"Where did you get these?"

"The informant who called me gave me the number of a postoffice box that was opened one year to the day after I joined the Violent Crimes Unit. Didn't even know I had it."

Scully opened one of the envelopes, dated November 9, 1991. "Car bomb. Congresswoman Letitia Hylek. Vermont," it read, in the same handwriting.

"I remember this," she said. "A religious right splinter group took responsibility for that incident. How did they - "

"I don't know, Scully. That's why they called it an X-File and sent it our way."

"And where are we going, exactly?" she asked, pulling on her coat even before the words were out. "I've got a Y2K party with the family, and I want to be there to tell 'em 'I told you so' when all their computers work."

"Fort Villeneuve in Kitikmeot. Across the gulf from Victoria Island."

"The YUKON?" Her voice squeaked, and she flushed a little.

Mulder stifled a laugh. "You don't know a thing about Canadian geography, do you?"

Scully shook her head.

"Well, Technically, Kitikmeot is its own territory, west of your Yukon, but you get the general idea," Mulder said, putting the file of envelopes back together and back in his briefcase.

"A group in Northern Canada, where they have only like six days of light a year, is taking responsibility for all the terrorist activity of the last sixty years?"

"Bring mittens," Mulder shrugged.

He was halfway down the corridor by the time her coat was on and she'd shouldered her bag, and she doubletimed it to match his stride.

"They called it an X-File," she said, furrowing her brow.

"That they did," Mulder said.

"And they are?"

Mulder stopped. "Okay, fine. But I tried to get the military to listen; I talked to Skinner -"

"You talked to Skinner. And he said?"

"He said the facts were bogus. He said the letters were fakes. He said Happy New Year, Spooky."

"But we're going anyway."

Mulder sighed, a heavy exasperated exhale. "What if they're not fakes? Do you really want to take that chance?"

"I don't know if it's appropriate for the weight of the world to be on our shoulders, is all," Scully said, more out of habit than anything else.

"When *isn't* the weight of the world on our shoulders, Scully?" Mulder said. "Look; you don't have to come. I'll send you a postcard from the Yukon."

But he knew he'd won, and she knew he knew it. He set off toward the elevator again, and Scully slipped in behind him before the doors shut.

"Technically, Kitikmeot is its own territory," she said.

THE FRIENDLY SKIES, DECEMBER 26, 1999, 11:08 p.m. T-Minus 6 Days

 

The first letter was brought to them by a stewardess named Debbie who, by virtue of the American Airlines southwest hub, did, in fact, do Dallas (Mulder asked).

"Are you Agent Mulder?" she asked.

"How could you tell?" Mulder asked her cleavage. Scully decided to let Mulder handle this one, and turned her attention back to the big sprawl of America crowded into the tiny elliptical window.

"Normally we don't let non-passengers leave items on board, for safety reasons, but a man on my last flight said you'd be on this one, and to give you this." She handed Mulder a squarish envelope, addressed in the same handwriting as the previous letters. "He said you'd know what it was about; I had to open it, you understand," she said. "Sorry, it's a safety thing."

"No problem," Mulder said. "Thanks, Debbie."

He read the note, then poked Scully, and slipped the piece of paper between her face and America.

"Winnipeg. December 27," it read.

"Hm," Scully said.

"Well said," Mulder agreed.

"This is all you got?" Scully asked, knowing it was a stupid question before she finished forming the words.

"No, I'm holding out on you," Mulder clicked his tongue.

The plane bounced a little and Scully jumped despite herself. Mulder lay a hand on her arm and she shook it free.

"I'm okay," she said. "Just a little edgy."

"Understandable," Mulder nodded. He pressed the stewardess call button and Debbie - Scully could swear the stewardess was skipping as she walked - returned to the aisle beside them.

America laid out in lighted squares through the window; shocks of cloud cover interrupted the midwestern quilt here and there, speeding by like time-lapse photography from this great height. Scully's America, land of the free, home of the Braves and the Indians and the Redskins and any number of other non-PC sports teams on vacation. Everyone was on vacation now, even scant days before the Superbowl the players got to shed their jockstraps and shoulderpads and curl up at home with a beer, watching somebody else on TV. Scully tried not to think about her mother, and instead watched the checkerboard of plains roll by. This would all be over soon, and she'd be able to come home. Famous last words. Jinx. Knock on wood.

"Can we have, uh, a couple of those little bottles of Stoly?" Mulder asked Debbie.

"Aren't we on duty?" Scully asked weakly, not really wanting to argue.

"We're not even in the United States anymore," Mulder said with a smile. "International flight, international skies -why do you think there are barbers in airports?"

Scully nodded, puzzled by Mulder's reference and even more puzzled by the fact that she'd understood it.

"Good point," she said.

WINNIPEG, CANADA, DECEMBER 27, 1999 4:40 a.m. T-Minus 5 Days

 

Canadian hospitality and a favorable dollar exchange got them into a fair-to-middling airport motel way past midnight, and for the first time, unspoken, they didn't even bother getting two rooms.

Christmas lights were hung from the peeling tarpaper roof haphazardly, drooping in wide loops catching, frayed, in the gutter. Two dead Christmas trees lay in the parkinglot beside the dumpster, nutcracker ornaments cracked and worried from dog's teeth and childrens' fingers. Broken glass globes rolled around in the pine. It was a purgatorial morning, the day after the day after Christmas, when you're not even allowed the luxury of retrospect, when you're not even blessed with the morningafterish lazy of the 26th, guests still lolling around. December 27th - no man's land. And somehow even more so in a foreign country, Scully thought, wondering why she felt so foreign, here, just a handful of states away from home, just a border hop, same language, no passports needed and they'll take her dollar just about everywhere. But the day after the day after Christmas, still a good four days from New Year's, was a weird, sad, mid-vacation void, meant for blankets and orange tea and p! uppies in laps at home, eating leftovers. Not for the ripping chill of predawn Winnipeg, Scully thought, turning the key in the motel door with dry, shivering fingers. Not here, as always, following Mulder blindly to the ends of the earth, two of us wearing raincoats, chasing papers, getting nowhere.

"We gotta talk about this, Scully," Mulder said at last as he collapsed on the bed, staring up at the ceiling with his shoes still on.

"Mulder, I'm sure it's nothing. Hell, I promise it's nothing," she said. "What's the worst that can happen if I'm wrong?"

I want to go home, she thought. I want to go home.

"We're zapped to oblivion?" Mulder tried.

"Well then you won't get to say 'I told you so,'" Scully said with a smile. She leaned against the wall. "Mulder. Even if we had anything more to go on than a vague suspicion and an RSVP card we couldn't do anything; this is Canada; we have no jurisdiction here."

"Then we contact Canadian authorities."

"And tell them what, exactly? That there's a bomb somewhere in their city, we think, and that everyone should probably file out of this entire province in an orderly fashion?"

"If that's what it takes," Mulder said. He wasn't even listening to her anymore, and she slid down the wall and sat hard on the floor, looking at him.

"You're right," Mulder continued after too long a pause.

"I don't know what to do with this one, Mulder," Scully said matter-of-factly. "We can't very well evacuate an entire city based on a spooky phone call and a hunch."

"We're..." he checked his watch, "four and a half hours into doomsday already; maybe it is a hoax."

"All the other letters had specific names and places; this one just said 'Winnipeg.' Why?"

Mulder never pulled his eyes from the ceiling - counting spackle-points, Scully guessed - and groaned. "Ain't got a clue, Scully," he said.

"Who was that informant of yours, anyway?" she asked.

"Don't know. Got an anonymous phone call telling me about the Fantasy Echo, and telling me to check the P.O. box. That's as far as it went."

"You didn't trace the call?"

"Of course I did. Of course it was untraceable."

"Yeah," Scully said. "Sorry."

"You can, uh, have the bed, if you want. I don't think I can sleep."

Too tired to think about it, Scully crawled up into the bed beside Mulder, kicking her shoes onto the floor.

"Wake me up if the city explodes," she said, tucking her hands between her knees and curling up against the cold. Mulder shook out the chenille coverlet and draped it over Scully, and she made a little sleepy cooing sound at his touch.

He leaned back against the headboard and studied the spackle some more.

Moments later, hours later, he spoke again. "Hey, Scully?"

She was awake, but she didn't want him to know it, she didn't have the energy to form words or open her eyes so she lay there, waiting for what he'd say next.

"I'm sorry I dragged you up here. You're right. I'm sure this is nothing. We'll get out of here first thing tomorrow."

Mulder looked down at Scully's form, curled in a half-moon under the itchy straw-colored blanket. He squeezed her gently on the shoulder and sighed.

"But thanks anyway. For the, uh, leap of faith."

***

Later, much later, I would think back on that moment, that moment that Mulder never knew we had. And in our relationship, up until that point, it had always been about the faith, always, invariably. But then, now, I knew it would be, it would continue to be, it would always be more about the leaping.

***

WINNIPEG, CANADA, DECEMBER 27, 1999, 9:09 a.m. T-Minus 5 Days

 

Air raid sirens woke her up.

At least, she thought they were air raid sirens; really, it was the awful chirp of Mulder's watch alarm, inches from her ear. But they were air raid sirens, and she leaped to her feet, slapping the floor for her gun before she'd even shook the sleep from her eyes.

"Something's wrong," she said as Mulder propped himself up to watch her, blurry and bleary.

She didn't know, then, how she'd known; even later she would be unable to trace it, to put her thumb on the pushpin stuck on that moment, holding it down, tuning her in to her own stalling fears. She didn't want to be right, but somewhere inside her the twelve year old girl who used to bury her face in her pillow at the sound of airplanes buzzing overhead on the Naval Base, the twelve year old raised on duck-and-cover ritual, cried out that this was familiar, this was recognizable, this was terror embodied in the mocking face of god.

She crossed the room, turned on the TV to a news report midway through. A CBC newscaster was keeping a very straight face as she spoke into a microphone.

Behind her, in the grey Winnipeg dawn, the ruins of a building smoked.

*

Mulder stood, unsure of what to do with his hands. They listened

to the newscaster in silence.

"...at eight forty one this morning fire engines and police raced to the scene of what is now total devastation. The threat, called in just minutes before the bomb went off, is now thought to have been not a warning, but an anunciation for what is truly one of the most horrible acts of terrorism this city has seen."

Scully looked at Mulder, who was already tying his shoes.

"We have to get down there, obviously," Scully said.

"Wait," Mulder said.

The newscaster went on. "Fortunately, most of the employees who work in the Legislative Building had not yet come to work when the bomb went off. Four people have been pronounced dead at the scene; another nine are missing."

"Jesus," Scully whispered.

"The Legislative Building, one of Winnipeg's most prominent landmarks, housed several offices, including a branch office for this network, giving this incident a personal ring."

"Do you think that was the target? The TV station?" Scully asked.

"Nah, 'cause there she is, still broadcasting. If they'd wanted to do away with the media, they'd have been more efficient, don't you think?" Mulder said.

"We've just received word," the newscastress continued, pressing a finger to the microphone in her ear, "that a group has stepped forward to claim responsibility for this most vicious of crimes."

"What's your money on, Scully?" Mulder winked. Scully didn't answer.

"A local Native gang, known only as the Blue-and-White, claims that they set the bomb in an effort to gain attention for their crusade against what they call 'the corrupt police department.' The police have declined to comment, and the self-proclaimed head of the Blue-and- White, 27 year old Dean Chiluk, is already in custody."

Scully looked at Mulder.

"Here, I'll spare you," he said. "Let me do it."

Mulder took a step forward, turned around, facing the spot he'd just been standing in. "But Mulder, what about Fantasy Echo?" he said in falsetto.

Scully couldn't laugh.

Mulder leaped around again. "I don't know, Scully, but there's obviously a connection."

Falsetto again, "it could be a coincidence, Mulder."

And in his own voice, addressing Scully, this time, "come on, Scully. A coincidence? Really?"

"I didn't say that," Scully said. "I don't think it's a coincidence at all. I think we have to go down and talk to the head of the Blue-and-White."

***

WINNIPEG REMAND CENTRE, DECEMBER 27, 1999, 10:13 a.m. T-Minus 5 Days

 

"Thanks, man," Mulder said, as the heavy steel door clicked shut behind us and the cop who'd let them in nodded back through the chickenwire window.

The hall was dank, almost as if it were designed to be, concrete to concrete, with the four drunk-tanks lining it, two on either side.

Three were empty; Dean Chiluk stood in the fourth, a slender arm wrapped around the bar, smoking a cigarette. He was Native-looking, wiry and inky-eyed, dark skin stretched drum-tight across his bones.

"You the Americans?" he asked.

"Agents Mulder and Scully with the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation," Scully said, flapping her badge.

"We're American too, you know that? That ticks me off that you guys always get to keep the name."

"I'll call you anything you want," Mulder said. "What can you tell us about the bombing?"

"Did you bring me American smokes? Canadian butts suck, lemme tell you. My boys do runs to Grand Forks to get us cartons of the good stuff. See this?" he flicked the cigarette stump through the bars. "That's what we call a DuMaurier. Otherwise known as a pussy cigarette, dinky little thing. Uh uh. We're Marlboro men."

"I'm sure you are," Mulder said.

Scully was getting impatient, and she stepped closer to the bars. "What do you know about Fantasy Echo, Mr. Chiluk?"

"Call me, Dean, Dana," Dean said. Off Scully's expression, he continued. "Read it on your badge, lady. We First Nation brothers can read, you know. We know a little bit'a law, too, which makes me suspect strongly that you've got no jurisdiction here."

"You're right," Scully said. "We don't. But you killed four people, *Dean.* And since you already admitted to the crime, and you're already in jail, what can it hurt to talk to us?"

"We promise we'll Fedex you a whole carton of Marlboros when we get home, Dean," Mulder interjected. "You do have Fedex up here, don't you?"

Dean just glared. He turned back to Scully. "Make the big guy shut his trap, huh?"

Scully thought about throwing Mulder a look, but figured the better of it and kept her gaze locked with Chiluk's. "Just answer us, and we'll be out of your hair," she said.

"On the other hand," Dean said, "Canadian chicks are hotter'n you. We've got the curvy blonde types, you know, some meat on their bones to protect 'em from the cold. You wouldn't last a week out here."

"Fantasy Echo, Dean," Scully said, firmly. "Tell me about it."

"Stupid name," Dean shrugged. "What are they, a grunge band?"

"Quit playing us, asshole," Mulder said softly, sharply. "Do you know the group, or don't you?"

"Never heard of 'em," Dean said. "Why don't you Fedex me a cd?"

Mulder looked at Scully, now.

"Are you lying to us?" she asked Dean.

"Why would I? You're just the Ugly Americans, you can't touch me anyway. Sorry I don't know your rockers."

"They're not rockers," Scully said. "They're a terrorist group."

"Wussy name for terrorists," Dean said.

"Not like the Blue-and-White," Mulder muttered.

"Yo!" Dean shook the bars, and the room shook with him. "The province ain't right without the Blue-and-White. My boys are gonna fight for the Blue-and-White. You can sleep tonight 'cause of the Blue-and-White!"

Patriotic, Scully thought, idly. "Okay. So what's your agenda, exactly?"

"We're getting Native people back their rights, showing those racist fucks who's boss. You do have freedom-fighters in your America, don't you?"

"The knife that cuts through the thin blue line," Mulder said.

"A'ight," Dean nodded, smiling. "Now you're talking."

"I think we're done here, Mulder," Scully said.

"Don't you forget my smokes," Dean called after them, but with a last nod, Mulder and Scully were gone down the corridor.

The guard who'd let them in stopped them at the door with a fleshy forearm. "Got something you might be interested in," he said. "You can take a look, but you gotta give it back 'cause the Mounties are gonna want to see it when they get here."

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a cream colored envelope, a familiar envelope, with familiar handwriting, too familiar. Mulder swiped it from the guard's hand and opened it.

"Found it with the mail this morning," the guard said. "Had your name on it."

It did, in that same familiar handwriting; the envelope was addressed to Dean Chiluk, c/o Fox Mulder, Remand Centre. Scully shuddered despite herself, shoved her hands into her pockets and read over Mulder's shoulder.

"Gimli," it read. No date, no specifics. Just one word, cursive like spilled blood.

"Where's Gimli?" Scully asked the guard.

He furrowed his brow. "Oh, I dunno, maybe and hour or two north? Right there on Lake Winnipeg. Ain't so much of a town, really. Why?"

"Has there been Blue-and-White activity up there?"

"Nah, they're a Peg group, far as I know. We've got dossiers on all of 'em, anyway; they're usually just public nuisances, never heard of 'em doing anything like this."

Mulder handed the guard back the envelope, along with his card. "Thanks," he said. "If you hear of anything, or if the RCMP comes across anything that might be of interest, would you give me a call? I'd like to be kept in the loop, if you don't mind."

"I don't mind," the guard said, "and I'm sure the Mounties won't mind either, but can I ask you why? This is a local problem, can't imagine what the States would care."

"Call it a hobby," Mulder said. With a last nod, he and Scully exited the station.

"Don't you think we should talk to Chiluk about that letter?" Scully asked as they crossed the parking lot to the bus stop.

"Nah," Mulder said. "I think he was telling us the truth; I don't think he knows anything about Fantasy Echo."

"Yeah," Scully agreed, "but Fantasy Echo obviously knows about *him*. How?"

Her head hurt. She wanted nothing more than to be able to pin this, all this, on the skinny Eskimo kid already behind bars, but her instinct (honed to razor accuracy from seven years working with Mulder; she had to admit that, even to herself) told her it wasn't true, it wasn't that easy, this was bigger and uglier than any racial skirmish or any tribal gang or any wiry chain-smoking convict.

She looked at Mulder, who managed a good smile.

"Follow the clues, follow the clues," he said. "We go to Gimli and find out."

They sat on the plastic bench, the kind separated into segments and mounted on rollers to keep transients from sleeping on it.

"So we've got to -" Scully began.

"Rent a car," Mulder finished. "Which side of the road do they drive on, up here?"

Scully just shook her head.

***

Oh, Mulder, I wish I could remember what it was like to laugh. I want a blanket of bubbles. I want to see the ocean. I want to tug at you, I want to feel you tug at me, I want to feel this world, this safe blue marble with all its flaws tug at both of us, together, call us out into playgrounds with monkey bars and beg us with that dangling carrot to solve puzzles together.

I know how to solve this one; you do too, locked away in there. Here's my hand, Mulder. Take it. I'm not scared anymore. Let's kick ass. I can hear your voice, mom. Dad. Missy. Should old aquaintance be forgot, I'll go to hell. I hear it's warm there.

I'll be warm, now. I'll be warm.

***

GIMLI, CANADA, DECEMBER 27, 1999 4:40 p.m. T-minus 5 Days

 

They had rented a '96 Land Rover with snowtires, GPS and a cd player. It would have cost a lot more in the states, or so the rental agent assured them, and they had no reason to doubt him.

Gimli was cheap truckstop motels and Viking craft stands, pre-fab plaster cookiejars with horned helmet lids, spears, factory-produced throw rugs and pillows. Here were the echoes of mythological Rekjavik, the cold Canadian whiff of Iceland gone tourist. Scully thumbed a faux-fur muff idly, losing herself in its texture while the desk clerk punched her credit card data into the computer. Mulder, on his cell phone, paced.

"You don't see the connection?" he asked the phone. "Even though Chiluk got the same letter?"

Scully looked up.

"I have no idea," Mulder said. "That's why we're still here."

Beat.

"Now, come on, we just -"

Beat.

"Okay, sir. No problem. Not your problem, anyway. Yeah."

He clapped the phone shut and turned to Scully.

"Skinner's afraid we're giving the Bureau a bad name, pursuing a case up here. He actually said he was afraid we'd jeopardize foreign relations." Mulder managed his best incredulous look.

"He's probably right," Scully said. "Canadian terrorism is not our responsibility, and certainly not the FBI's."

"That's what he said," Mulder said.

"So?" Scully took the credit slip from the desk clerk and signed it without looking. Her signature spilled from her hand and the slip was returned without her even realizing she'd done anything.

"So if we want to stay up here, we have to call it vacation and we can't use our badges or our Bureau status."

Naturally. Scully paused before answering, chewing her lip. They could turn around and go home, get back to Washington in time to ring in the New Year with Dick Clark and toast to another millenium chasing monsters. She could show up at her mother's doorstep with a hemp-covered bottle of chianti - the Scully family was never big on champagne - and she'd be in bed before dawn, in her own apartment, lights out, papers filed and tomorrow is another working day.

Or she could stay here and chase this freakish, horrifying ghost to the ends of the earth and hope that it, and not she, would be the one to tumble off the edge into infinity.

Everything was impossible, and both choices were indisputably wrong.

But one of them had Mulder in it, his intuition, his strong-armed protection.

Nothing would be okay, now, or ever, if she made the wrong choice. Maybe the world wouldn't end. Maybe they'd never see a pink square envelope again. Maybe she'd embrace her fate here in the land of maple leafs and hockey. Or, like always, she could bury her face in her pillow and let apocalypse spill by, hoping it would notice the bloody X on her door and pass her over.

Not this time. She took a deep breath.

"It's not the Christmas vacation I'd have chosen," she shrugged. "But here we are."

Mulder gave her shoulder a squeeze. "Here we are," he said.

Taking the keys from the desk clerk they made their way up rickety stairs to their room.

***

How did we know, then, Mulder? When did we decide, unspoken, to share a room chastely, to know, somehow, that we needed our midnight half-waking screams not to fall empty? You would turn the corner and my blood would ice, you were out of my sight and I knew without knowing that I'd turn the corner behind you and you'd be gone, you'd be taken from me. Touch me. Tie a string around my finger. I am I and you are you and we are all together.

***

"Let's look at what we know," Mulder said, sitting at the table and looking out the motel window. "We know Fantasy Echo knows me, and knows where we are. They knew how to find us at the jail -they weren't looking for Chiluk; they were looking for me. Why?"

"They're trying to tell us something, or they're dicking us around," Scully said. "They're showing us they're a step ahead of us, always."

"Maybe not," Mulder said. "Maybe they're trying to help us; maybe someone's trying to warn us, get us to each new place in time to save it."

"And here we are at ground zero," Scully said, arching her back, sitting crosslegged on the bed. "With not a clue in the world what's going to happen, here, or how to stop it."

"Maybe not," Mulder said again. "We'd gotten to Winnipeg on time; we'd have been able to warn them about the bombing if we'd had more to go on. We've got to build this thing from the ground up."

Mulder's brain was working overtime; Scully could almost hear the gears whirring. He flipped open his cell phone again.

"Yeah, Frohike, it's me," he said. "I need you guys to find out who took out a P.O. Box for me; can you do that? Number 55707, postoffice at 6th and E."

He tipped the phone away from his mouth and looked at Scully.

"It can't be that easy," she said. Mulder shrugged.

Back on the phone again. "Oh," he said. "Well, it wasn't."

"Apparently, *I* opened the postoffice box," he said to Scully.

"Okay," he said to Frohike. "I need you to look through the security camera logs from that postoffice. I swear to you it wasn't me, but I bet they used my name and badge number, so we're not going to be able to track 'em through the computer."

Beat.

"No, call me back. I'm in Canada. I owe you one."

Night fell like a piano from a four story window as they compiled data, looking over their shoulders for whatever it was that was bound to strike this town, according to a handwritten reply card. Room service brought French Onion soup that tasted like wax, with dry, undissolved boullion bits still floating in it. Every minute that passed ticked loudly like footsteps, dead man walking, dead man walking.

Scully buried herself in the facts, afraid to think. This was bigger than she was, bigger than herself and Mulder combined; this was a bad April Fool's joke on a tired, jaded fool.

Midnight fell; piano hits body, chalkmarks, later, on the sidewalk. The facts still pointed to nothing, and Gimli slept on, safe, unharmed and unaware.

Scully rubbed her eyes.

"Hey, Mulder," she said, breaking what she hadn't recognized as hours-long silence. "Are you scared?"

"Of Fantasy Echo?" Mulder asked, shuffling papers. "I'm angry," he said. "They're playing us, Scully. We're rats in a maze."

She sighed, knowing he was right, but still, but still. "But...what if this isn't an empty threat, Mulder? What if they're really planning on some awful global event, and we've got the evidence to stop it and just don't know how to put the pieces together?"

"Then we'll burn in hell," Mulder said wryly.

***

I hear it's warm, there.

***

Scully tipped back in her chair, her head ringing with dates, names, places from pink and blue and ecru cardstock. Outside, Canada slept, an enormous country supported by tiny hands.

Every nightmare she had was about this, about those last ticking minutes before apocalypse, what she'd do with her last hours, who she'd call, who she'd save. When she was young it was easy; first place was whoever her current crush was; second place was dad. It was easy to have twisted priorities then; for her, apocalypse was a convenient backdrop for any outburst of emotion she'd previously had no excuse for. Plus she was young and didn't have to take responsibility; every dream would end with her diving into the arms of Person X, or daddy, and burying her face in his chest while the bombs erupted and the world burned and he told her how much he loved her, and how he would take care of her.

Not anymore. Now she was the strong one, supposedly; she was supposed to wield convictions of steel that this was not happening, this was not happening, this was not happening. She was supposed to make Mulder, the want-to- believer, believe. And she didn't have it in her, sitting on the floor of the room they would never sleep in, wanting to do nothing but call her mother.

Dawn broke. Dawn shattered. Gimli was fine.

***

GIMLI, CANADA, DECEMBER 28th, 1999 6:11 a.m. T-minus 4 Days

Frohike never called back.

They were the only ones in the lobby, and Mulder rang the bell for the desk clerk and then turned to Scully. "Why are we here?" he asked.

Scully sighed and started to reply when a newspaper headline across the room stopped her cold.

"Terrorist Activity in Manitoba Takes Unfathomable Toll."

She crossed the room to the rack and slipped the paper from it, afraid for what she'd read, knowing already what the words would say.

"City of Winnipeg destroyed; 600,000 dead or missing, after 117 separate bombs went off at 11:57 last night."

Holy Mary, mother of God, save me, save me, save me.

With a fear as yet in her life unexperienced, Scully knew it was all her fault.

*

Outside it was crisp and still; the air was thick with the smell of dead leaves, the metallic tang of snow. Scully tasted only 600,000 burning bodies.

She strode off across the parking lot, waving a hand, stupid fucking baby flapping thing lost control behind her at Mulder saying go away, go away when he tried to follow.

600,000 people. One hundred thousand families of six, sitting down for dinner. Three hundred thousand couples gone honeymooning, pretending to watch the videos they rented. Six hundred thousand people. Dean Chiluk, and the beefy-armed guard, and the pasty white-chick newscaster. Flattened and gone and dead. Corpses head to toe across the cavernous crater that was once the capital of this province, bone fragments buried, stabbed, shattered in the bleeding earth.

Never in her life had she felt so frozen.

There was snow; the sky opened up with intermittent, tiny, too-cold flakes, a cheap recompense for a country that couldn't begin to comprehend its loss. Scully couldn't, either. And didn't want to.

Mulder's legs were longer, and he caught up with her.

She took a deep breath, her lungs icing with the cold, afraid to let him talk first. "I'm going home," she said in a hurry.

"Good," Mulder said. "I think you should. There's no reason for both of us to be trapped up here - I'll tell the RCMP what we know and offer up my services as a civilian in the interest of foreign relations. We'll stop these bastards."

He touched a hand to her shoulder, a light slap, what's up, dude, and let it fall away.

She stared at him dumbfounded, unable to process his words, unable to hear anything except the fact that he hadn't shouted a string of obscenities, hadn't implored the heavens for a more logical world, hadn't sworn a commitment to run and hide and not look back. How could he be so callous?

She stared at him, unable to process, unable to reply.

***

I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home I want to go home

***

"What is it, Scully?" Mulder asked, his eyes widening.

Her voice was husky, scratchy, dry. "Six hundred thousand people, Mulder," she said. "How can you live with that?"

"I can't," he said. "It' s incomprehensibly awful. But what choice do I have? If there's any chance of stopping these people, I've got it."

He was right. Damn it. He was right. And 600,000 souls begged her not to leave him alone.

"We've got it," Scully replied, and whipped by the wind she felt her own soul taken from her, ripped away to join the lost of Winnipeg. "What can we do?"

Mulder exhaled through his nose, whinnied like a horse, an odd, primal sound. Scully looked around, catching her surroundings for the first time, really, since they'd arrived in Gimli. "Snow is general all over Canada," she thought, remembering her Joyce, The Dead, shadow ghosts rapping on windows for their lost loves. You get one chance. One chance.

"Do you know how much I hate being right?" Mulder asked, shoving his hands in his pocket and shifting his weight a little, teeth chattering against the cold. "Think about it. Every time one of my hunches lands us in a place like this, don't you think I'd give it all up just to be proved wrong, just once?"

It wasn't a rhetorical question, strangely, and Scully nodded, waiting.

"I don't know why we're here, Scully. I don't know what got us here, what's leading us on this scavenger hunt, or what the hell we're supposed to find. But I'll gladly bait the cosmos for some justice, this time, and if anyone out there wants to laugh in my face and call me an idiot I'll take it. And that's..." he shuffled his feet, "your job, right? It's what they brought you on to the X-Files for, anyway."

She looked at him. "Yeah," she said, "but seven years ago. A lot has happened since then."

When Mulder spoke it was over the lump in his throat. "Let's pretend it hasn't, Scully," he said. "Let's pretend you were never cursed with knowing me. Because if you go home, now, I just feel like, if we try hard enough to pretend this isn't happening, this won't happen. If you can somehow manage to salvage a normal life after this, I think the world...I think the world will be okay. I've got to follow this; that's the way it works. You don't."

He was as serious as she'd ever seen him, even in this self-delusion, and she didn't know what to do.

There was a right choice, this time, and a better choice. Doctor Scully and Agent Scully battled it out, tore away at each other with clawed fingernails, made Scientist Scully angry, made Humanist Scully bleed. 600,00 and it's all your fucking fault. Make the right choice. Make the right choice.

Fragile Scully, daughter of Ahab, was down for the count; Agent Scully, partner of Mulder, stood laughing abover her, triumphant with a gun.

"I'll stay with you," Dana said. "I don't think we can hide behind this one; I don't think we can walk away. And I don't think..." she thought hard before speaking, took a breath, and spat it out. "I don't think you'll be able to do this alone."

Mulder peered down at her, his eyes steeped with "are you sure"-ness, and she looked away.

"We've got to get to Kitikmeot," she said.

Either he was victorious, or he was plotting, but something glinted in his eye, and like a woman with an eating disorder he covered for it with false calm.

"You can sleep while I drive," Mulder said.

***

I never really told you about this, did I?

When I was about nine I asked my father what the duck and cover drills were for. He wouldn't answer, he was afraid he'd scare me, I guess, but then Bill came in and overheard us and puffed out his chest and said he knew, he'd tell me.

"They're so you don't see what's gonna kill you," he parroted proudly, beaming. Seems one of his friends' fathers had told him that, the idiot, thought it was a joke. Dad tried to cut him off, too late, and backpedaled furiously, "no, no, no, Starbuck, that's not right, your brother's just trying to scare you, Starbuck, trust me."

I wanted to, but Bill's words resonated, then and now. What a clever conspiracy of altruism, I thought, even then. Making up ritual drills in Naval Base Elementary Schools just to protect us from ourselves, throw us the life ring of false protection so we can sleep at night.

For years I couldn't sleep at night, after that. Every nightmare I have, still, is about this, chasing crawling apocalypse, laughing and inescapable.

The difference, Mulder, is that now when I have these nightmares, you're in them.

***

WHITE BEAR, CANADA, DECEMBER 28th, 1999, 9:44 p.m. T-minus 4 Days

 

They stopped for gas eleven miles from the northern border of Manitoba, avoiding the radio, avoiding newspaper headlines, not wanting to know what they already knew had happened in Gimli, not wanting to know if it had happened anywhere else.

Mulder hopped from foot to foot, the cold of the gas pump enough to freeze his hands through gloves. Inside, Scully bought a map of the Northwest Territories from an Inuit man in his 60s who smiled broadly under a grey-streaked beard and didn't speak much.

His eyebrows went up when he saw her credit card.

"American?" he asked.

Scully nodded.

"Mule-der?" he asked.

Holy Mary, mother of God, save me save me save me.

Palms sweating, face blanched, Scully nodded again, trying to find saliva in her dry mouth.

The Inuit reached under the counter and pulled out the sky- blue envelope Scully knew he'd have.

"Mulder (American)," it read. Scully took it from him with shaking fingers and clawed it open.

"Atlanta."

Scully shoved her way through the doors outside, bent over, hands on her knees and retched. Spitting, gasping, she collapsed to the ground, her chest heaving, the world spinning, the cold void of northern Canada closing in from all sides.

Stopping only to hang the gas pump back on its receiver Mulder raced to her side and didn't even have to ask. Nothing but snow for miles around, for kilometers around, no place to hide, no way to rewind. Nothing but Scully, and Mulder, and the Inuit man and the crash and the clatter of the impossible. Spared of the weight of the bodies of the people in the cities it had destroyed, the world was lighter, now, floating, spinning spiraling in free-fall. Empty and miserable as far as the eye could see.

Head between her knees she handed him the card. He flipped open his cell phone, shook it. "No cellular up here," he said aloud, not really to Scully. He twirled quick fingers through her hair and she appreciated the gesture before he crossed the lot to the pay phone. Even those few meters between them filled Scully with a deeper plunging loneliness, here in this emptying universe, than she'd ever thought possible.

"Yeah, I need you to put me through to him at home," Mulder told the Bureau switchboard. Then, "Sir? Yeah. Atlanta. Oh, thank god. No, it doesn't work up here, you'll have to call a land line. We're at the White Bear Lodge in White Bear, Manitoba."

Mulder hung up the phone and started back toward Scully. The Inuit, who had donned a fur hat, swung open the door.

"American Mulder?" he said to Scully. She looked up blankly.

"What's up?" Mulder asked the Inuit.

"Telephone," the Inuit said. With another glance at Scully, Mulder went inside.

The Inuit crouched beside Scully, took off his hat and placed it on her head. She cracked a smile, tears freezing on her cheeks. The ground was cold beneath her, too cold, but she didn't have the strength to stand, or the impetus. She could die here, at the White Bear Lodge in Nowhere, Canada. She probably would.

The Inuit looked at her, his dark eyes searching, looking for words.

"My daughter is getting married," he said, finally.

Scully couldn't hold back the sobs.

When Mulder exited into the parking lot, the look on his face was enough to tell her Atlanta had suffered Winnipeg's fate. Atlanta, home of the Braves. "Iranian terrorists," he said. "I don't know why. There's no one left to ask. Phones are down everywhere; I got cut off"

She struggled to her feet, meeting his eyes.

"We should sleep," Mulder said. "I have a room upstairs," the Inuit said. "My daughter is getting married. Lives with husband to be, his tribe, hunting on the ice for winter. She is away now; I am alone. Stay?"

Mulder nodded his thanks and helped Scully to her feet. The Inuit showed them the way through beaded curtains to a small bedroom, decorated with a young girl's touch. Above the bed, Jordan Knight smiled down on sateen embroidered unicorn pillows, rainbow-tasseled. Fish and bear totems lined the narrow bookshelf, poised in action in front of dog-eared volumes of Sweet Valley High.

"You will sleep well here," the Inuit said with certainty, and left.

Scully sat down on the bed. The tears had stopped, everything had stopped, the gnawing, the emotion, the fear. Death.

She looked up at Mulder, who was busily taking blankets down from the closet. Usually so commanding, here he seemed small, dwarfed by the serenity of this Inuit girl and her paperbacks, and the million screaming silenced souls of Winnipeg and Atlanta. Atlanta.

"Hey, Mulder," Scully said, her voice gravelly. "I don't know anyone in Atlanta. Do you?"

Mulder dropped the stack of blankets on the edge of the bed and thought a moment. "No," he said, finally. "I don't."

Scully rocked in place. "Yeah," she said, closing her eyes. "Yeah."

This would be a turning point, this night, one of many, the first of some, the last of others. Because when she awoke hours later, freezing despite layers of blankets, Mulder was gone.

***

KITIKMEOT, CANADA, DECEMBER 29th, 1999 8:08 a.m. T-minus 3 Days

"In the land of the pale-blue snow where it's 99 below and the polar bears are roaming o'er the plain, In the shadow of the pole, I will clasp her to my soul, we'll be happy when the ice worm nests again."

I've been here since 1985 and I ain't never seen an ice worm, nesting or no. Just thought I'd say that up front. On the other hand, polar bears, shit. I bet you there's three in the building right now. They like canned food.

Our best evidence from the Rover's sonar says he left her, and this apparently makes all of us very edgy. Well, it makes him edgy, the boss man, and that, in turn, makes the scientists edgy. Me. The eskimos don't give a damn, but half the time we don't know what they're thinking anyway, and the boss man doesn't really care.

This is our big week, and the boss man's insistent, very insistent that we keep the guy agent and the girl agent on monitors at all time, and her not being in the car means we can't monitor her, and everyone's all flustered, pushing buttons like they think that'll help. We gave 'em the Rover, complete with fat spiked tire chains so they wouldn't have to switch to snow cat. Doesn't seem plausible, does it? The eskimos tinkered with it, and the dumb Americans won't bother to ask (listen to the way I say that, now!), and the two of 'em would drive around in their little eskimo-rigged 4x4 in the land of the pale-blue snow. 'Course, he's left her now, which makes the Rover a little less useful than we'd wanted it to be. Than the boss man wanted it to be.

Can't say I care, really. Which is not to say I'm not committed to the work, I am, I believe in what we're doing up here, but I just can't figure out where the redheaded chick and her gangly partner fit in, or how they could possibly jeopardize our plans. Everything's need to know, up here, and I guess I don't need to know; I've got my little section of workstation and my good Canadian beer, brought up by the dudes in the snowcats last month, enough to last a lifetime, God willing.

God willing, huh? I'm not a religious man. Sure, I was Bar Mitzvahed, or, rather, I should say, I became a Bar Mitzvah, son of the Torah, son of the congregation, son of Israel -- now, there's a place I'd never go. But still, when the boss man asked for volunteers to take care of Jerusalem, the mideast, yeah, the scary parts, I raised my hand. I don't know why; maybe I thought I'd be more respectful about it, save myself from burning in hell, even though we Jews don't believe in hell. I don't know. But I did it like a job, 'cause it is my job, and it's over and done with and behind me, now. And the truth is, terrorism in the middle east isn't so tremendously surprising, now is it?

Atlanta, now that was a scary one. Beautiful work, though, really.

The eskimos are changing work shifts, the morning group is going off to pray. I can't even tell when it's morning anymore, and to tell you the truth I've forgotten what heat feels like, what the sun baking down on my bare shoulders felt like, back at home in Boston. I can picture it, sure, like a postcard; we've got swimsuit calendars here dating back to 1990, and we've all got dibs on our favorite pictures, for after. Miss July, 1991. Tall black girl, forgot her name, with her hair straightened that artificial puffy way they do, all calf muscles and shimmering globes of breast under the white bikini. Behind her there's an ocean, or a lake, maybe, with sailboats; there's a kite overhead. Kite. Sailboat. Say the words, Buddy. Don't forget. Buddy's actually my name. Buddy Eisenberg. Really it's Ronald, but come on, now.

We're about a hundred miles west of Coppermine, here, if that means anything to you, on the Coronation Gulf. Fort Villeneuve, spit and you'll miss it, an eyelash blown off the great thumb of Kitikmeot in the palm of the hand of the Northwest Territories. In the shadow of the pole, you'd better believe it. Home sweet home.

Anyway, the eskimos are changing shifts like it's fucking Buckingham palace, and I'd better get back to those monitors and pretend I give a damn whether the redheaded chick's in the car with the sad-looking guy. Shit, is he crying? I swear I ain't got the foggiest idea what the boss man wants with that wimp. But there he is, driving off into the nope-not-sunrise.

You know my wife Penny still doesn't know why we're here? This is gonna be a big week for her.

"In the shadow of the pole, I will clasp her to my soul. We'll be happy when the ice worm nests again."

***

WHITE BEAR, CANADA, DECEMBER 29th, 1999 8:08 a.m. T-minus 3 Days

 

"He said to send you home," the Inuit said again. Scully shook her head, standing there in the lobby in his daughter's slippers and robe.

"And he didn't say where he was going." It wasn't a question.

"I told him he should go home, too," the Inuit said. "He did not listen. He is not prepared; he will not survive here."

"None of us will," Scully said dismissively, waving a hand.

The Inuit gestured to a table by the door. "I made you breakfast," he said. "Seal steak. Very good. Very warm."

Scully sat down and started eating without even realizing it, realizing even less that it had been almost twenty hours since she'd put anything in her stomach, and the steak was indeed warm, and good. She stared across the table, at nothing.

Mulder was gone. Mulder had gone. Mulder had left her, alone, with an Inuit guru in a town that was barely a town, a town that, thank god, wasn't blessed with a reply card, not yet, at least. It was the eye of the storm and she knew that's why he'd chosen it, for its calm, but storms move, Mulder, and this one was ripping across the planet and taking no prisoners. Here they die, there they die, everywhere they die die.

"Why are you here?" the Inuit asked, and Scully noticed he had joined her at the table.

She looked up at him. "I don't know," she answered, truthfully. "We thought we could help some people, but we were wrong. You heard about what happened in Winnipeg?"

The man shook his head. "I hear very little," he admitted.

"It's..." Scully began, "not a big deal," she concluded weakly.

"Can you still help the people?" the man asked.

"I don't know," Scully said again. "I don't even know where to start. Mulder doesn't either, and he'll never make it alone anyway. It's over."

"Then you will go home."

"Probably," Scully said. "I probably won't make it. I'll probably die, like Mulder, alone on the ice." Again she tried not to think of her mother.

"Where were you headed when you stopped here?" the Inuit tried a different tack, slicing more meat onto Scully's plate.

"Fort Villeneuve in Kitikmeot," she said, eating.

"Fantasy Echo," the man said, knowingly, and Scully dropped her knife to the floor with a clatter.

What?

"What?" she asked, sounding like a soap opera character even to herself. Time to be Agent, Scully. "What can you tell me about Fantasy Echo?"

The man shook his head. "Not much, I'm afraid. Very secretive. Many white men go up there, pass through here. Not for years, though."

"People have been going up there for how long?"

"For forever," the man said. "For as long as I have lived here. Thirty five years. And before."

"What kind of men?" Scully felt suddenly self-conscious in this man's daughter's robe, she wanted a suit, heels, a laptop and a cell phone, she wanted to play Special Agent Scully again.

"Scientists, doctors," the Inuit said. "Soldiers. I do not know. Inuit live there too; we call it Noorenson. Greenlanders settled there; traded fur, many years ago. It is what you would call an oasis, a habitable environment in the middle of the bears' land. Humans and bears live peaceably there."

"Have you been up there?" Scully asked. "Do you know what they're doing, these white men?"

The Inuit shook his head. "Other tribes say there are bad spirits among the white men of Noorenson. Good spirits, too. It is a protected place, both blessed and cursed."

Scully shook her head, wanting more answers, wanting better ones. "I don't know what that means," she said. "What do you mean, blessed and cursed?"

The man turned his palms up and shrugged. "They come down with snow cats; 'Fantasy Echo' is painted on the side. They buy beer and make phone calls. That is all I know."

Phone calls.

"Do you, do you, do you," Scully was getting excited now, now there was something to do, she could solve this, "do you have phone records I could look at? From when the men were here?"

The Inuit nodded. "Eat first," he said.

Scully, thinking neither of Mulder nor her mother, was glad to oblige.

***

SALMON STREAM TRAIL, CANADA, DECEMBER 29th, 1999 8:08 a.m. T-minus 3 Days

 

Mulder drove down the unpaved road with his highbeams on. He'd crossed over into the Northwest Territories four hours ago, now he was in the forest of snowy nowhere. The map was spread out on the seat beside him; sunflower seed shells littered the floor.

Scully would go home. Mulder would make it to Fort Villeneuve, or, more likely, he would die up here, alone in the snow.

But Scully would go home.

Mulder drove along, refusing to think, not noticing the tiny lens on the Rover's ceiling-mounted GPS box.

***

WHITE BEAR, CANADA, DECEMBER 29th, 1999 11:40 a.m. T-minus 3 Days

 

Scully pored over the phone records and the Inuit kept her coffee warm. She wanted her computer, access to the Bureau database, access to the internet, but she'd have settled for a highlighter and the yellow pages. Of course she had none of these things, and the best she could do was recognize some area codes, Long Island, Chicago, Washington. No government prefixes that she could see, but she didn't trust her memory and she copied the D.C. numbers diligently into her notebook, glad to be doing something productive.

They were all United States numbers, that she noticed, that she noted as weird. They'd been down here not a week before she and Mulder had arrived in White Bear; that's when they must have given the Inuit the card, she assumed, and he corroborated her assumption. She didn't ask him why he hadn't said anything earlier about them; she knew already that it wasn't the way his world worked, and there was nothing to do about that now.

The coffee was excellent, even from a tin mug.

She didn't know how she'd reach Mulder with the news and she didn't really care. Working felt good, she could die with a pen in her hand, content that she'd at least tried to get to the bottom of this, dying vain for her own supposed heroicism, but at least not *in* vain.

The Inuit came back with furs.

"Put these on," he said, handing her a thick coat, a hat, tall lined-leather boots.

"Why?" she asked.

"We are going to find your partner," the Inuit said, putting on his own coat and pouring the remainder of the coffee into a steel and leather canteen.

Scully looked up from her papers. "How?" she asked. "He's got a good seven hours on us at least, and we don't even know where he's headed."

The Inuit shook his head. "We know where he's headed," he said. "Salmon Stream Trail only goes one way, and ends in Belemute. We will meet him there."

"How?" Scully asked again, not really wanting to get up. Here, she was working, here she could bury herself in American phone numbers, comfortable digits, the security of a desk job. Out there was Gimli, Winnipeg and Atlanta, towns destroyed, world without end coming to an end. "I want to stay here," she said.

The room was large and warm, heated like a sauna by steaming rocks in a deep stove in the center, surrounded by woven rugs on the flagstone floor. Stone figures, Inukshuk, the Inuit had called them, lined the hearth, looking down on the room like skeletal flattop gods. Melissa would have loved this place, Scully thought. If I die here, maybe I can bring her back with me. Dad too, make him bite back his racist remarks until he'd tasted the coffee. She grinned. She could die here, happily. Mulder had left her; Mulder was gone; Mulder was dead. Atlanta was dead, and Winnipeg, and the rest of the world would follow, card after handwritten card. She could die here, alone with the blessings of the nice Inuit man, here curled up for eternity with her phone numbers under the protective gaze of the Inukshuk. Outside it was cold, and dark, and empty; the world had abandoned her. White Bear, the center of the universe. Home.

Scully took another long draw off her coffee and looked at the Inuit blankly. "I'm staying here," she said, turning back to her phone numbers.

The Inuit grabbed her coffee mug and held it up, looking down at her furious. She was surprised, caught, and she laughed nervously, watching him.

"Put on the furs," he said. "Or I will take you out without them, and the cold will kill you. You were not meant to die in here."

Scully moaned, rolled her head on her shoulders, copied another number into her book. "How do you know?" she asked.

The Inuit dumped the pile of furs on the table, on top of Scully's work. "The truth is out *there*," he said, firmly.

Papers falling to the floor, Scully wrapped herself in furs and shoved her feet into boots, too afraid to meet his eye.

"How are we going to catch up with Mulder?" she asked, intent on the laces of the boots, leather thongs wrapped in X upon X up her calf.

"He is taking the trail," the Inuit said. "We will be taking Nueltin Lake. We will get there before he does."

***

SALMON STREAM TRAIL BURIAL GROUNDS, CANADA, DECEMBER 29th, 1999 1:15 p.m. T-minus 3 Days

 

There was no way to urinate in this kind of cold.

There were structures here, mud-and-thatch adobe type buildings packed in snow lining the edge of a clearing filled with tall rock-pile figures, stick-men with flattops.

Mulder stood knee deep in snow with his back to the truck, rolling himself between his gloved hands and willing himself to piss. It would freeze before it hit the ground but nature was calling, godawful terrifying nature, and there was nothing Mulder could do. Twelve seconds before he was sure his dick would snap off from the cold he was finished, and he shuddered for the cold more than anything else before zipping himself up.

He'd taken several tanks of gas from the Inuit's lodge and he brought one out now, to refill the car. He was hungry, he was tired, and the only thought he'd had in his head for the last nine hours was "north." Which he'd done, admirably, the Rover had cooperated and he'd covered ground. "Don't know where I'm going, but I'm making good time," his mother used to say, and nothing seemed more appropriate now.

At four o'clock this morning he'd crept from the bedroom, kissing Scully on the forehead before making his way downstairs. The Inuit emerged from the dark like a shadow and handed him gloves in silence.

"Get her home," Mulder had said. The Inuit had simply nodded.

For the first two hours Mulder had been able to think of nothing but her, waking up alone in Nowhere, Canada, abandoned. It was the only way, he knew. The only way he could make sure she was safe, but here surrounded by flattop rock-men he hated himself for it, selfishly, for dooming himself to this apocalyptic fate alone.

He didn't know why he thought she'd be safer at home, but he knew somehow that she would be, and he knew he'd made the right choice.

Dawn turned to noon with no more than a slight blanching of the grey sky, and his thoughts of Scully had faded, replaced by the dying man's mantra of "North. North. North."

Hoping for food, he left the car, crossed the field of flattops and knocked on the door of one of the snow adobes. An Inuit woman with a child strapped to her chest greeted him.

"Hi there," he said. She looked at him blankly. "Do you speak English?"

"No," she said, and gestured for him to come inside.

He didn't even bother opening the mint-green envelope she handed him.

***

I miss the sunlight, Mulder. I miss your face. I miss the sunlight on your face; I miss faces in general. I miss mine, in the mirror, wet with toothpaste, cursing the alarm clock.

It's so cold, Mulder. So lonely and dead and cold; icicles grab at me like claws.

If there's a way to save us, Mulder, I will find it. For you.

***

NUELTIN LAKE, CANADA, DECEMBER 29th, 1999 1:15 p.m. T-minus 3 Days

 

Set wide like a catamaran, the rudders on the ice boat cut treads across the infinite surface of the lake.

"Is this how you saw me at sea, Ahab?" Scully asked the wind, the grey clouds spitting by in the hazy dark. "Is this where you thought our paths would cross again?"

The Inuit clutched the mast, leaned back like he was windsurfing and the boat tipped starboard and sped on.

***

 

KITIKMEOT, CANADA, DECEMBER 29th, 1999 2:00 p.m. T-minus 3 Days

 

"Boss man's getting angry," Eisenberg said, taking a strip of jerky from a Tupperware container and chewing on it with half his mouth.

"At least he's driving again," Sumner said, calling up the image of the FBI Agent on his monitor. "Spitting his sunflower seeds like fuckin' chaw. I thought he'd stay in that Inukshuk field forever, just curl up and die there."

"And they'd find some way to blame us for it," Eisenberg agreed, sitting down. The eskimo at the sonar controls called out something in his native language and the eskimo at the power generator gave the box a kick.

"Hell of a time to lose power," Sumner said, rubbing his fingers across his short auburn beard. "3 more days, Buddy."

Buddy leaned back in his chair and pushed it away from the console, letting the casters skate across the tile floor. "Lindsay knows why we're here, right?" He asked Sumner.

Sumner nodded. "Why? Penny still doesn't? I thought you were gonna tell her after Winnipeg."

Eisenberg shrugged. "She hates it up here," he said. "I keep telling her after the New Year we're gonna go back to Boston. She knew my job ended in Y2K -- I just spared her the details."

"Pretty important details," Sumner shook his head. "Guess she'll find out."

"She'll have to thank me then," Eisenberg tried to laugh, but his voice broke. "What are we gonna do about the woman agent?" he asked, changing the subject.

"Not my job," Sumner said. "Not my responsibility."

"Three more days," Eisenberg said, after too long a pause. "Three more days."

***

NUELTIN LAKE, CANADA, DECEMBER 29th, 1999 3:49 p.m. T-minus 3 Days

 

The world was on fire.

The world was on fire.

The world was on fire.

Scully swayed in the wind, pulling herself along the deck rail to the bow of the boat to get a better view. The Inuit was already there.

In the distance, maybe a mile away, the world was on fire. A deep red-orange glow like the borealis shimmered off the ice and reflected in the absence of stars above. Something was definitely burning; they could smell it, even at this distance. Black exhaust bursts of smoke rose up and darkened the steely sky. And still, it was cold, so cold.

"Belamute," the Inuit said, pointing at the flames.

Scully was sure she could hear the chorus of a thousand thousand voices screaming. Belamute's population was sixty, the Inuit had told her, but in death they multiplied, joining the others, generations upon generations lost. Millenial ancestors sobbed in the smoke, and were shut up, sizzled, fizzled out by the unyielding flame. Belamute had fallen.

The ice boat skidded to a halt several meters from shore, and the Inuit handed Scully a leather package.

"Food," he said. "And coffee. Your partner will be here; you must go to Noorenson. You must do what you have come here to do."

She took the package and let him help her down onto the rough ripples of frozen lake. She could feel the warmth from the fire lick her face, even from here, she could see her shadow flutter on the ice.

"And stay away from the flames until they have stopped," he said. "They will kill just as quickly as the cold. You have to find someplace safe. I trust you, Agent Scully. You will succeed."

The Inuit was already turning the mast, sliding the boat away. Scully called after him, "thank you!" but he was gone, he was off, he was heading home. His daughter was getting married.

Scully crossed the ice to shore and watched the flames.

Warm. Beautiful. Shocks of color, glorious color in this land of white and grey, shocks of familiar, shocks of safe. It couldn't hurt to take a step closer, could it?

She looked over her shoulder at the ice boat, growing smaller across the lake.

Just one step closer.

Oh, mom. Thanksgiving leftovers and a cup of tea on a tray they sat side by side on the couch, watching Christmas movies with the sound off.

Just one step closer. It was still so cold.

"Want pie?" Margaret asked. "Pop it in the microwave. It's better heated up."

I'll get you a piece too, mom.

Just one step closer.

The world was empty, around her. The ice boat traced its trail home, the world was lighter, dying, empty, and Scully was alone again watching someone else's home burn.

Just one step closer. She held her palms to the flames. Here's what used to be a house, black charred piles of clay smoking, smelling foul.

Just one step closer.

Missy, mom made pie. Want a piece?

Just one step closer.

Merry Christmas, Emily. That's a beautiful dress.

Just one step closer. Scully crushed wood underfoot, burned logs crumbled. Flames crawled at her ankles and she begged them to consume her, take her, keep her warm, bring her home.

Mulder?

Just one step closer. Flames were all around her, now.

An earthshattering CRACK! and the world opened up.

The flames had melted the ice, weakened it, and a fissure ripped open across the surface of the lake, icy water shooting up like a geyser, drenching the flames. Chunks of ice tore apart, violent ripping, clattering, crumbling, volcanic earthquake tectonic cataclysm across the lake's surface, stretching out and casting its own shadows.

Scully ducked water and shivered as the flames flickered out.

The soft lingering orange glow was just enough for her to see the Inuit's boat hit the fissure, pitch forward and sink under, sink away.

She stood on the shore, staring, as all around her the calm returned.

*

***

SOMEWHERE NORTH OF SALMON STREAM, CANADA, DECEMBER 29, 1999, 9:40 p.m. T-minus 3 Days

The Rover was sputtering and Mulder flashed back to Antarctica, which had somehow been more hospitable, somehow tamer. Where Antarctica had been crisp- cold, sunlit, perpetually still like photography, the Arctic was wild, dark, and teeming, infested with horrors. Bears stared back into his headlights in all their enormity, casually flipping up a paw in the snow, playfully displaying a handful of razors.

The forest had thinned, dwindled, disappeared; now all that interrupted the sea of snow were Titanic-terrifying Gibraltar-bergs, rock and stone. North had become east without Mulder noticing, northeast, really, and what had been the Salmon Stream Trail stretched out ahead, only indistinguishable from the desert off to either side by the tracks of a snow cat that had driven it before, though whether it had been a month ago, or a year ago, Mulder couldn't tell.

The Rover sputtered and he downshifted again, figuring the transmission was closer to expendable than the engine was, going northeast, north-northeast, east-northeast.

He thought back to Antarctica, the same frozen fingers. Scully. That had driven him, then, she had driven him across the impossible; there had been no doubt in his mind then that he would make it, he would find her, he would bring her home. He hadn't even felt the cold until the two of them had blown free that place and waited in the snow cat for the rescue team, taking turns with the blanket and telling stories to keep their lips from freezing.

Was she home, now? It was the 29th, the day before the day before Y2K and he pictured her in her apartment, unpacking, humming off-key. If the Inuit had gotten the RCMP and a rescue chopper she'd have made it to Ottawa or somewhere, some international airport, she could have caught a jet to Washington and been home an hour ago.

"Ottawa's gone, you imbecile," Mulder muttered to himself. He didn't want to believe it, he wanted to know that the insanity had stopped the minute he severed himself from it, the minute he let Scully go. The Inuit woman's green envelope lay on the passenger's seat unopened; he didn't want to know.

She'll be fine, Scully will. She knows how to take care of herself, she'd have gotten herself home, she'd have channeled her resources -- all that brilliance and all that commanding he knew her to have -- and she'd have made it happen. She'd have gotten home. He didn't even wonder if he were lying to himself.

The Rover sputtered again, coughed, the transmission smelled like sweat. Mulder downshifted again and slowed the truck. He was barely moving, now; glinty bear- eyes watched him from the dark as he rolled across the plain.

It didn't matter, really. In Antarctica Scully had been the wire that hooked him and dragged him through the snow to her side; now, knowing she was safe, what else mattered, really?

He furrowed his brow and tried to remember why he was here.

The cold had cracked the double-reinforced windows, and the wind whistled through the back seat, singing its drugged wailing requiem.

She is safe, he told himself, tired. It's over. She's safe. It's over.

The Rover had slowed to four miles an hour; every turn of the tires was labored, painful.

Mulder took his hands off the wheel, balled them in his lap, trying to get the circulation back. His eyelids were heavy.

She's safe. It's over. Nothing matters, anymore.

He closed his eyes and he could see her.

***

I'm in the office, throwing pencils at the ceiling, telling myself I'm waiting for a phone call but really it's because I don't want to go home. And you come in.

You're in black like you're mourning, white cotton shirt under the jacket like you're saved. Neckline open revealing the cross, like you're blessed.

You smirk at me, you lean forward on the back of the chair across the desk and stare at me with locked elbows and locked eyes. You're being playful, but don't worry, I won't tell you I recognize it, and you won't have to admit there's a reason for it. Deal?

You ask me about a casefile and I make a joke and you pretend not to laugh but I see you smiling through your freckles. It's summer, sunset outside, thick heavy blossoms on trees. There's noise, laughing from the hall as people bid their weekend plans and gossip, scraping for nicknames to call one another, drenched in familiarity.

You click your tongue and I savor the sound, the sound of power, the sound of two millenia of all the great intellect of the universe bottled in my incredible partner. I will never know how I got this lucky, Scully.

Race you to the corner and I'll buy you a hot dog, just ten more minutes, Scully; let's play. Ten more minutes and we'll watch the sun sliver behind the capital skyline and you'll grimace up at me about nitrates, mustard on your nose. Then I'll let you go, just give me this, the last respite of a dying man.

It is my world, Scully, because you're in it.

***

Mulder didn't even notice that the Rover had stopped.

***

BELEMUTE, CANADA, DECEMBER 29, 1999, 10:29 p.m. T-minus 3 Days

 

She had watched the Inuit's boat sink under the ice and had stared out after it as the flames died down behind her.

Doctor Scully surveyed the ruins of Belemute, black flecks of burned skin on her thumbs from testing the pulses of the dead. She'd tried to count the bodies, but flesh in snow became indistinguishable from wood, from blackened stone.

She was alone, truly alone, way the fuck alone, fucking alone, alone in the middle of nowhere with no one, with nothing, for miles and miles and miles and miles. She was alone, she bellowed to the empty sky, time meant nothing, she wept. She was alone; the world was gone, Mulder was gone, everything was gone; she crouched among Inuit corpses and clenched her eyes shut to hold back freezing tears.

Camera pulls back for a wide shot and there she is, a speck, a dot, a tiny breathing nothing in nowhere, snow is general, snow for millenia, world without end coming to an end.

If a woman screams in the Arctic and there's no one around to hear her, does she make a sound?

From the ruins, with frozen, frostbitten hands she piled ruins upon ruins, scraped herself a hiding place in the snow. There was no way Mulder would find her here, even if he were trying, even if he were alive, which she was certain he wasn't. She was alone, alone, alone.

Hours ago she'd curled up here, in this thumbprint in the snow, hugged her teeth to her knees and willed herself to stay awake, but it was hard, so hard. She'd finished the Inuit's cold coffee and she'd rationed the food but her stomach was hollow, her eyes heavy.

She built a fire, warmed her hands off it but it kept going out when the wind whirled in, and she lost the strength to build it again.

Her watch had stopped; she didn't know how much time had passed; days, maybe; weeks. She'd lost the feeling in her legs and somewhere she knew she should find a knife and cut out the frostbitten sections of her flesh so it wouldn't spread, but somewhere else she knew it didn't matter, anymore.

She'd lost feeling in her heart.

From her snow-dent on the shore she stared out into the blackness and wondered where the armchair was.

She'd fallen asleep on the couch again; it was the third time this week. It was cold, but she was too tired to get up and shut the window so she hugged her teeth to her knees and stared out into the blackness and wondered where the armchair was.

It was possible that it was too dark, but she was used to seeing it over there in the corner of the living room, the first thing that met her eye every time she woke up here and realized she'd fallen asleep on the couch again.

She'd picked it up unconsciously from Mulder, this working-till-all-hours and falling asleep with her face dented by file folders, and though she'd never admit it, she loved the feeling of waking up and seeing the armchair and knowing she'd done her job well, she'd completed the marathon and was deserved of the luxury to collapse.

Where did Mulder get that kind of focus, every day? Where did he channel that determination from, that stamina?

She was gifted, she knew, but she was also given a gift, the gift of working beside him, the gift of access to all he had and all he was, a Ponce de Leon- worthy fountain of wonder, an unyielding passion and an unrivalable sense of loyalty. Never would there be anyone as lucky as she was, for what she had, for what she'd been given and had had the good sense to keep.

But she was tired, now; she'd done her job, she'd worked a full night and now she would sleep, here, on the couch.

When the sun rises I'll see the armchair, Mulder, I'll see the files and the answers and we'll do it again, like always, we'll triumph, you and me, me and you, you wondrous, unfathomable partner of mine.

She shifted in the snow, felt it crunch under her as her head sank.

Good night, Mulder. We did good.

***

KITIKMEOT, CANADA, DECEMBER 30th, 1999, 1:01 a.m. T-minus 2 Days

 

"Oh, Jesus Christ," Barrett said, pushing through the double doors and waving a file folder over her head.

Eisenberg looked up from his Game Boy. "How'd it go?" he asked her.

She groaned, sitting down at the console opposite his. "Business went fine, no snags yet, knock on wood."

"We've still got two days for something to fuck up," Eisenberg said.

"I don't wanna hear it," Barrett said, raising a hand. "We've got another problem. Look at this."

She opened the file folder and three black and white photos slid out. The FBI Agent, asleep in his car.

"Terminals are down except for the ones in the control room; we got these off the remote camera," she said. "Fuckin' A."

Eisenberg blinked at the photos. "Let the son of a bitch sleep," he said. "What does it matter to us?"

"It matters to El Capitan," Barrett said. "He's pissed as shit about losing the woman; he needs this guy."

"So start up the Rover with the remote," Eisenberg said. "We've still got two days, the remote should still be operational."

Barrett stood up, gave him a pat on the shoulder. "I'll get Nanook over there..." she jerked a thumb toward one of the eskimos "on it right now. Good idea."

Eisenberg nodded vaguely and went back to his Game Boy.

"Hey, Buddy," Barrett called, walking away. "How long has it been since you've slept?"

Eisenberg grinned. "Days and days and days," he admitted. "Who can sleep?"

"Not me," Barrett grinned back.

She was halfway across the room before she stopped and turned back. "Hey, Buddy," she said again, softer this time.

 

"Yeah?"

"You, uh, you know Boston's today, right?"

He didn't look up from his Game Boy, and didn't answer. On the tiny game screen, a fleet of men died.

***

BELEMUTE, CANADA, DECEMBER 30, 1999 3:16 a.m. T-minus 2 Days

 

"Queequeg!" Scully murmured, giggling and swatting at her face where the yapping dog was nudging her with a cold nose. "I'm sleeping!"

Queequeg didn't care, just kept barking, louder now, a lot of bark for such a little dog, but then again, that's what she'd always said about him. Strength in small packages, Ms. Scully and her little dog.

"Shhhh!" she tried to sound angry, but it was hard to be, at the sound of his snarling voice, playful and affectionate...

And then there were two dogs. And one was baying, hollow and low, crying at the night.

"Queequeg?" Scully rolled over in bed, stuffed her hands under the cold side of her pillow. Very cold.

And then there were three dogs, and four.

Licking her lips, Scully opened her eyes, and out in front of her, starlit only in blackness, stretched the rough frozen Arctic lake.

Sense returned; she was freezing, she was starving but she was awake now, she remembered where she was, how she'd gotten here.

And from somewhere, dogs were barking.

***

BOSTON, MASSACHUSSETTS, DECEMBER 30, 1999, 6:15 a.m. T-minus 2 Days

 

Michelle turned to Chris, cheek to pillow.

"Three..."

Chris moaned and rolled away.

"Two..." she poked him. "Come on. I promise you when they're with mom you can sleep all you want, but today it's your turn."

"I *hate* Christmas vacation," Chris said over a puffy tongue.

Alarm went off: 6:15. Little padded feet thumped to a stop outside the bedroom door, and Chris hoisted himself up, bleary eyed, and glowered at Michelle.

"One!" she said, victoriously, and the door opened, and Taylor flew in and landed on the bed, bouncing.

"Morning, Tay," Chris said.

"Okay, so I know what I wanna do today," Taylor said seriously, scrabbling over to her father's side.

"And what's that?"

"I wanna go to the canapy pods. Can we go? And let's not take Mimi; she's too little."

Michelle had turned her back and was trying to fall asleep again, but this one caught her and she furrowed her brow. She looked at Chris. "Canapy pods?" she mouthed.

Chris shrugged. "What happens at the canapy pods, Tay?"

"You'll get me a canopy bed!" Taylor said. "All they have there are canopies, rows and rows and rows."

Chris nodded, his eyes wide, searching his daughter's face for a clue. "Oh," he said, dumbly. "How about that."

Sitting there on the comforter, crouched like a cat with her elbows on her knees she was the spitting image of her mother, moaning off to sleep beside him. Her hair had been red when she was born, impossibly red, but now it had faded to that medium brown that Michelle called mousy when she scrutinized herself in the mirror, that to Chris was the most beautiful color ever.

"So can we?" Taylor asked again. "Let's go now. I can get dressed in eighty-six seconds, wanna see?"

Chris reached up, took Taylor in his arms, overcome. He kissed her on the head and propped her on his lap. "I'll bet you can," he said. He remembered when she could stand here, on his knees, and look him square in the eye; now he had to pull her down sitting before he could see her perfect face. Even Mimi, two years younger than 5-year old Taylor was getting big, was growing up; soon there would be report cards and boyfriends and car wrecks and college.

"Daddy?" Taylor asked. "Can we go can we go can we go?"

Chris sighed. "Tell me more about the canapy pods, can you?"

Taylor scrunched her face to the side, deep in thought. Chris saw Michelle in her eyes again, and smiled. "I heard you telling Grandma on the phone that she could get jam there too when she comes," Taylor said victoriously.

Muffled by the pillow, Michelle burst out laughing.

"I'm up," she said, throwing off the blanket and setting her feet on the floor. "Cranberry bogs, Chris. Can you believe it?"

 

"Canberry pods!" Taylor said.

Shaking her head, and still laughing, Michelle disappeared into the bathroom.

Crying, from the hallway. Chris stood up, shivering on the cold floor. "Sorry, Tay," he said. "No beds at the cranberry bogs. Just cranberries. Rows and rows of 'em."

"Oh," Taylor said, not really understanding. She leaped to the floor.

"Let's go see what's up with your sister, huh?" Taking her tiny hand in his, Chris headed for Mimi's bedroom.

Mimi was sitting on the floor, crosslegged, tears in her eyes, singing loudly over gulping breaths.

"Late las' night, when we were all in bed," she sang. "Missus Aleary hung a latter in the shell and when the cow wink'd'a eye, and kick'd'a leg an' said they'll be a hot town in the ol' town tonight."

"Fire, fire, fire!" Taylor joined in, doing the hand motions. "Late las' night, when we were all in bed, Mrs. O'Leary hung a lantern in the shed and then the cow winked her eye, and kicked her leg and said there'll be a hot time in the old town tonight. Fire, fire, fire!"

Mimi wailed.

Chris squatted down beside her, wiped a sweaty shock of hair from her brow. "What's up, Meem? You okay?"

Mimi gasped, heaving. She squeezed her eyes shut and sang louder, now. "Late last night! When we were all in bed!"

Taylor sang along again, and Chris held up a hand to silence her. "Quiet a sec, Tay, okay?"

Taylor stopped.

"Missus Aleary hung a latter in a shell!" Mimi shouted.

Michelle came in, in a robe. "What's up?"

Taylor rushed to her mother's side and took handfuls of Michelle's robe to her face. "Dunno," she said.

"Fire!" Mimi sang. "Fire! Fire! Fire!" She flicked her hands, fisted them and flicked them open again, hand motions to accompany the song. "Fire! Fire! Fire!"

"Shhhh..." Chris said, picking Mimi up and holding her to his chest, stroking her back. "It's okay," he said. "It's okay. You just had a bad dream."

"Fire," Mimi said, snuffling, softer now. "Fire fire fire."

Michelle crossed to them, dragging Taylor with her. "You had a dream there was a fire, Meem?" Michelle asked.

"Fire fire fire fire fire fire!" Mimi said. She buried her face in the crook of Chris' shoulder and sobbed.

Chris looked at Michelle, impotent. He held Mimi to him, rocked on the balls of his feet. "It's okay, baby," he whispered. "It's okay."

"Fire, mommy," Taylor said.

Michelle reached a hand down to shush her. When she looked up, her heart caught in her throat.

Out the window, the Boston skyline spread in the minty glow of sunrise. And behind it, in the distance, there was fire. A huge licking wall, orange and pink, stretching to the sky, eating away at the city, bigger than life, bigger than anything, bigger than everything.

"Chris," Michelle whispered, gripping a claw-ice hand around her husband's shoulder. He'd seen it too, and they stood among blocks and stuffed turtles and broken doll parts and watched the smoke billow across the sky through Mimi's mint-green curtains.

"Jesus Christ," Chris whispered back.

"Jesus Christ Jesus Christ Jesus Christ," Taylor echoed, skipping around the room. Michelle reached out both her arms, clapped them on Taylor's shoulders and brought the girl back to her side, small and warm against her skin through her nightgown.

Mimi's crying was subsiding, and she popped a thumb in her mouth, watching the view with wide amazement.

Buildings tumbled in silence. The fire ate its way closer, tripped along the Charles River like it was enjoying itself, raced across the city like it was in a marathon. No heed to weather or boundary, and hungry, it ate.

It was several fires, now, silent explosions pockmarking the landscape; skyscrapers sank into the streets.

"What's happening, Chris?" Michelle asked, ashen.

They could get out? They could run? But where? The fire laughed.

He always assumed he'd know what to do.

God she was beautiful, so beautiful. He thought about the dinner reservations he'd made that they'd never use. He thought about the way the bathroom smelled after she'd been in there showering, about the shape of her spine against his chest. He wrapped an arm around her, pulled her to him and kissed her on the mouth, long, hard, squeezing Mimi between their bodies. Mimi squeaked.

"I love you," Chris said.

The sun was rising, blurring the boundaries of sky and fire, of natural and artificial light. The window was striped with crayon marks, grey-white scribbles on the panes and the light bouncing through it hit the tumbled patchwork of Mimi's quilt, sunny breakfast-time morning glow, toychest open and childlike peace.

"I love you," Michelle said.

"I love you mommy," Taylor said, scared now, still, looking up at her parents, "I love you, daddy."

Mimi sucked her thumb.

Whistling cut the sky, a shock of diving red-orange painted across the view, landed with a crash and the Hancock building crumbled, the Citgo sign sputtered and flickered out.

Cacophany, shattering, wailing, crashing noises and another missile raced earthward, and another.

Taylor couldn't cry; she gripped her mother closer.

"I love you," Chris whispered again.

Mimi snuffled.

Missiles shrieked.

"Hey," Chris said, choking, his voice breaking. "Hey, come on now." He looked at Michelle, who nodded.

"Late last night, when we were all in bed..." she began.

***

KITIKMEOT, CANADA, DECEMBER 30th, 1999, 5:30 a.m. T-minus 2 Days

 

"I gotta go," Eisenberg said, not looking at the stream of data printing out on the daisywheel. The monitors were down and he was grateful for it; he couldn't watch.

"Okay," Sumner said. "I understand. Give Penny a hug for me." He stood awkwardly, looking at Buddy with the sympathy of partnership tempered only by the tension of men who couldn't hug. "I'm sorry, man."

Eisenberg turned and left the lab.

Funny how you don't believe it'll hurt until it's too late.

***

BELEMUTE, CANADA, DECEMBER 30th, 1999, 5:41 a.m. T-minus 2 Days

 

Six dogs.

Hitched up like Christmas lights in sequence on a splitting leather strap they tugged in opposing directions, barking wildly. On feet she couldn't feel, Scully strode into the din, shouldering all her bags and hunched under their weight.

She was about a mile out of town, but in this void the dogs' voices had carried, shook the world and brought her here. Huskies, maybe, or Samoyeds, their white coats matted, frozen and spiky, their lips curled cruelly around vicious jaws.

"Hey there," Scully said, gently, reaching out a hand. A dog dove for it, and it was only the restriction of his tether that kept Scully from having it bitten off completely. "Whoa, okay." She smiled, tried to put forth calm. What was it they said? Face the dogs at eye-level.

She knelt, a safe distance away, and watched.

One of the dogs, the matriarch, it seemed, the queen, was focused on another, smaller, pointier one, licking the drying, frozen blood away from a gash on his foreleg.

"That's a nasty cut," Scully said to the pointy dog, and the queen snarled at her. She shrank back, palms out. "It's okay," she said to Queen. "I don't want to hurt you. I'm a doctor."

Queen barked, a loud, alarmist bark, and Pointy whimpered and collapsed on his side, shuddering in pain.

The one who'd tried to bite off her hand was still straining at her on his tether, angrily, his ears and lips blown back in the wind giving him a strange, skeletal mien.

Scully put her bags down and opened the package the Inuit had left her. She still had some strips of seal jerky left, and she tore off a piece, held it out to the angry dog. Angry whinnied and threw his head back, then turned away and ignored her.

It was food that could save her, precious food, she knew, but it would be gone soon enough anyway; what was one strip sooner?

She held the meat out to Pointy, who was lying closest to her, his tongue lolling out, letting Queen nurse his wounds.

Queen looked at her, not with hatred, this time, but with questioning.

"Yeah," Scully said, smiling. "Yeah, I'm stuck out here too. I'll share with you, though. I'm a doctor."

You said that already, she told herself. Not that they understand. But they're all the company I've got.

She held out the strip again, and Queen sniffed at it, then took it gently between her teeth and scuttled off, back to Pointy. Face to face, nose to nose in the snow the two dogs devoured the meat and looked back at Scully, panting and clear-eyed.

The other four dogs had quieted too, and had settled in the snow, watching. Amazing intelligence lurked behind their eyes, centuries of instinct and knowledge of this place, this terrain.

"What's it like?" she asked Queen. "What's it like to be stuck out here?"

Queen didn't answer.

Scully opened her duffel, the one she'd brought from Washington, the one full of suits she'd never wear and notes she'd never use. She pulled out a nylon zip pouch, her first aid kit, the one Mulder always laughed at her for bringing along on cases. "I'm a doctor," she'd say.

That's three, Dr. Scully.

She zipped open the case and found the ace bandage, the Neosporin. With clumsy gloved fingers she opened the tube of antiseptic and reached forward to spread it on Pointy's laceration.

Queen growled, low, ferocious. Scully shrank back again. "It's okay," she said. "It'll keep it from getting infected."

What am I talking about? They can't understand me.

But Queen was sniffing the ointment curiously, looking at Scully. "Yeah," she said with a smile. "It's okay."

Queen lowered her head and slipped away from Pointy, allowing Scully to touch him for the first time.

His coat was rough, mangy, bare in patches, and the wound was deep. "You want stitches, Pointy," she said. "I can't do that here, though. I bet that hurts."

Pointy whimpered.

Scully painted a thick layer of ointment on the cut, and carefully wrapped the bandage around Pointy's leg. His eyes were glassy, his tongue white. He was sick; the wound had probably gotten infected and he was sick, he was dying. Tears sprang to her eyes and she stroked his narrow head, his angular ears, his spine tracing a protruding line down his powerful back. "It's okay," she said. "I'll take care of you. It's okay."

Queen whinnied again, and nudged Scully with her muzzle. Crosslegged in the snow, Scully raked a gloved hand through the big dog's fur, feeling the sinewy shape of her muscles moving beneath her skin. "You're beautiful," she told Queen. "What are you doing here? Who left you here, all tied up?"

A mile away, Belemute lay in a pile of ashes and rubble, the owners of these dogs likely among the dead. They were alone out here, just like Scully, left here to die at the end of the world.

Why ration? Mulder wasn't coming, no one knew she was here, no one was left alive to care, she suspected. This is how it ends.

She opened her pack again.

"Let's eat, huh?" she asked the dogs. Let's die.

*

SOMEWHERE IN CANADA, DECEMBER 30th, 7:40 p.m. T-minus 2 Days

 

Mulder awoke to the odd sensation that he was being carried.

He struggled to open his eyes; it was cold, it was horribly cold, earth-crackingly cold and he tried to clench his hands into fists but he couldn't feel his fingers in his gloves.

He was moving. The Rover was moving.

Jesus. Canada. I'm still here?

Scully!

No, no, she's okay, I sent her home, thank god.

What the hell am I still doing here? And why is this car moving?

It was, trucking along soundlessly at thirty miles an hour, cutting a clean line across the snow. Outside was blackness as far as the eye could see; inside the windows had cracked and the temperature was way below zero. Mulder shook his head, trying to clear the fog.

Fantasy Echo.

He checked his watch. Twenty to eight, Northwest Territory time, December 30th. He didn't know if that was a.m. or p.m., but he didn't figure it mattered.

He hated himself for sleeping, for backing out, for backing down. This wasn't a delicious night after a hard day, alone on the couch in the dark, deserving. This was war and pestilence and slaying of the firstborn, this was the World Fucking Series, batter up!

He slapped his cheeks, angry at his blood for stalling.

Two more days 'till Y2K, scant hours to get up there and stop whatever havok these psychos wanted to wreak. The fog lifted from his brain and he sat up in the seat, determined, now, pressed the pedal to the floor and the Rover accelerated.

"Woo hoo!" Mulder shouted, slapping the wheel, as the car reached sixty, seventy, eighty miles an hour and the wind screamed past him in the dark.

Doesn't matter what happens to me, now, he thought. Let's see how this game plays out.

Tire chains thudding, the truck sped on, climbing to ninety miles an hour.

Mulder, grinning with newfound freedom, played the Indy 500 across the northern Canadian ice. He couldn't feel his hands; he couldn't feel his feet, really, but he didn't care, nothing mattered, he could rot like bad meat as long as he made it up there in time; he'd show 'em! He'd show them that Fox Mulder's not a man who can be dicked around, that Fox Mulder answers the call of duty, the call of the wild. You bastards can't end the world on my watch, uh uh. Here I come!

With lungs frozen from underuse and lips cracked and bleeding from the wind he let loose a battle whoop, clutched the wheel and careened into darkness, eat me alive, ready or not.

"Woooooooooooooaaaaaa!" he shouted.

And from somewhere, a dog answered back.

Mulder clapped his mouth shut and listened. Yes, there was a dog, there were several dogs, barking, singing, moaning. And not very far away, either, from the sound of it.

He squinted into the headlights but saw nothing but the trail swallowed up by the Rover, old tracks sucked under the truck, the ground crawling beneath him. He was still on the trail, that reassured him, speeding along, but there were dogs, now.

Why were there dogs, when it was so dark? he wondered. How could there be dogs? How could there be anything in the world but him, out for the ride of his life? How dare they interfere, how dare they presume to share this world with him?

"I'll find you, bitches and sons," he muttered, stepping harder on the gas, but the truck was already at its maximum, straining with the speed.

And the dogs were closer.

The car lurched, hit something hard and jumped, landed cockeyed and shuddered to regain its balance. The ground was bumpy here; he was driving over something, something more forgiving than rocks, more uneven than snow.

Ka-bump. Ka-bump. The car pounded onward.

In the headlights he saw dark patches, bits of shrapnel, stone and wood in the snow. It was ruins, the ruins of something, some ancient perfect civilization gone long dead and left its dogs behind.

The dogs hollered. They were right on top of him now, they were everywhere, it sounded like, they were shouting bloody murder and the car barreled on.

***

BELEMUTE, CANADA, DECEMBER 30th, 1999, 7:51 p.m. T-minus 2 Days

 

The dogs were excited, terrified, freakish, shouting and clamoring and yanking their tethers in all directions.

Scully crawled off a ways and watched them curiously. They'd been so good, but now the food was gone and they were all curled up, ready to drift off to that last sleep. Even Scully, her head on Queen's lap, lulled by the dog's heartbeat, faded, faded, faded...

But Queen had leaped up and thrown Scully awake, and now the dogs were screaming for something, their voices powerful and cracking in the cold.

Headlights.

Headlights?

Twinned headlights, racing toward them.

What? Headlights?

Scully struggled on numb feet and clawed her way through the snow out of the path of the oncoming vehicle. Why would there be headlights? What would someone be doing up here? Who would want to hurt her dogs, her family?

The vehicle skidded out of control, spun a 180 and screeched to a stop several yards away. Scully crouched behind a rock and watched the dogs.

They were sniffing the air, they were barking, even Pointy was up on his feet, rasping and wheezing as the car door opened and a figure stepped down from it and started toward them.

Scully ducked out of sight, terrified, confused.

The figure approached, tromping through the snow, and the dogs quieted, sniffing and snarling.

The headlights of the car cut a shock of illumination across the field and the dogs danced through it, watching as the figure neared.

It stepped into the headlights and turned, revealing its face.

A man.

A familiar man.

MULDER.

Scully's heart raced. She swallowed hard. She was imagining this, she must be, she was dreaming, she was dead. She crouched in the snow, unblinking.

"Now, what are you dogs doing up here in the middle of nowhere?" Mulder asked, reaching down to let Queen sniff him. She raised her hackles, growling at him. "Okay," he said, laughing --Scully's heart throbbed -- "okay."

Mulder squatted, watching the dogs on their tethers. "You guys all right?" he asked them.

Scully stared at him. Mulder. In all his beauty, choir of angels singing, her Mulder, her partner. He'd come back for her; he'd found her. She opened her mouth to speak but no sound came out.

Mulder stood up again, and shrugged. "Okay," he said. "Well, then, I gotta go. You're welcome to come along, but I'm not even gonna try and come near you to untie you if you're gonna try and attack me again."

Angry let out a piercing bark. Queen snarled again.

Mulder nodded. "Okay, then. That was your last chance, folks."

He turned and started back for the truck.

"Mulder," Scully said small, her voice cracking, tiny, quiet. The dogs were grumbling, yapping, and he didn't hear her.

She pulled herself to her feet and dove forward, tripped and landed face first in the snow. "Mulder," she coughed, spitting.

He was back at the car, climbing up inside it.

With everything she had, she took a breath and raced toward him. Her shins hurt, her lungs hurt, her hands hurt, and she wheezed and sputtered, "Mulder, Mulder, Mulder."

He was starting the car again; the engine choked.

A foot away she dove at the passenger's side door, pounded it with a fist before slipping down its cold surface and landing in the ice.

"Mulder," she whispered.

The engine stopped.

Footsteps again; Mulder loped around the front of the vehicle.

He saw her.

He. Saw. Her.

He saw her, he fell to his knees and knelt at her side, wrapped his arms around her and held her to him, rocking, gasping, murmuring unintelligible sounds.

She collapsed into his arms unconscious.

***

WASHINGTON, D.C., DECEMBER 30th, 1999, 9:50 p.m. T-minus 2 Days

 

"...and counting," Sebasky said, pressing a thumb to his ear and smiling even though Angie couldn't see him. "Wanna place a bet on what goes next?" Gallows humor; the only thing that was keeping him standing after four wakeful days of watching and waiting, four days on guard, en garde!, hands stained with the blood of the cities that had fallen.

"Ooh," Angie said through the earpiece. "Journeyman on the move."

Sebasky nodded tersely (though of course she couldn't see him do that either), and stepped into position in the corridor. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the wheaty tablet, slid it under his tongue and let it dissolve there, chalky. "No-Doze," they called 'em, after the yellow-boxed over-the-counter pep pills college kids swore by; but these were Born-in-the-USA government issue sleep-deprivation medication, the staple of the Secret Serviceman the week before New Year's. They were riddled with side effects, hair loss, nausea, yellowing of the skin, incontinence, jitters, migraine; women who are or may potentially be pregnant should not use No-Doze, the agents joked. After rendering two female agents sterile, it wasn't so funny anymore. But everyone was on duty, today, yesterday, especially tomorrow. No sleeping, no rest for the weary. And despite it, despite the best efforts of the best of the government's best, cities fell.

Terrorists and jaded lovers took responsibility; warnings were given, notes were left. It could have been stopped. It should have been stopped. It was all so easy, and all so easily broken.

With yellow skin and patchy hair and sweat beading on his brow, Sebasky remembered his gun and waited for Journeyman to pass.

It was "Face the Nation" day again; Journeyman was headed to the Oval Office where the reporters waited so he could bid his sad regards to the families of those loved and lost. Better, he would say, than never to have loved at all. And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air gave proof to that. The flag, for whatever that piece of silk was worth, now, was still there.

It was like something out of the Twenties, all these reporters with their crankshaft celluloid cameras filing in; the EM energy of their camcorders and centuries-developed high-tech recording gadgets were moot, now; nothing worked but the gaslamps and the analog clocks and across the country in a million million refrigerators, food spoiled. Only the ultra-secret government-built shortwave radios worked, and Sebasky was sure he was getting radiation poisoning from the headset. Not that it mattered, now.

What the hell did the reporters think they were gonna do with that film, anyway?

Flanked by agents, Journeyman turned the corner and Sebasky fell into step beside him, foursquare around this most precious resource, standing guard.

Step in time, step in time.

Standing outside the rotunda last night, he and Angie had started talking in whispers, and now he was sick for it.

"Hey Dave," she'd said. "You wish you were somewhere else?"

"Anywhere else," he'd answered cavalierly, with a chuckle. Her eyes searched him, looking for another answer. "Yes," he said, more seriously. "I don't know what the fuck we're doing here."

Angie sighed. "Neither do I," she'd said. "Why is he so much more important than all those families of all those people dying out there? My mother's 72 years old and lives in Arizona and doesn't know what the hell is going on, and I can't even call her."

"Yeah," he said.

That was as far as the conversation had gone, as far as the conversation could go. They had sworn themselves to this post when they'd taken their oaths, and now, for all it disgusted them, they had to play it out.

FEMA had taken control on the 28th; the curfews had started that night. Martial law was declared and all local authorities were given a bushelful of the No-Doze and recruited into His Majesty's army with His Majesty's decree: avoid panic at all costs.

Cities were looted. Civilians were trampled for bottles of water and cartons of cigarettes. That was Tuesday. The death toll reached over 65,000 nationwide from civilian outbreak alone, and then the phones cut out and the radios stopped and the televisions stopped and the counting stopped. That was Wednesday.

If the "events" hadn't ceased by midnight tonight (though how they'd know if they had was beyond him), Sebasky would take his place with the other agents and under FEMA's authority they would escort Journeyman to his undisclosed "safe" place, bid him farewell, stick their heads between their knees and kiss their asses goodbye.

That was Thursday. Today. For no reason at all, stepping in time down the corridor to the Oval Office, Sebasky's heart broke for the loss of the E.R. Christmas Special.

***

BELEMUTE, CANADA, DECEMBER 30, 1999, 10:14 p.m. T-minus 2 Days

 

There was scuffling and crackling and Scully woke up warm for the first time in what seemed like years. She smelled fire and shrank from it, terrified, too scared to open her eyes.

"Hey," a voice said, softly.

She wrapped her face in her hands and hoped the voice would go away.

Something touched her shoulder and she shook it free, squirmed under heavy blankets and shivered to the bone.

"Scully."

Please go away please don't hurt me please leave me alone please go away.

It was warmer over here where she'd crawled anyway, and she looked for sleep again, blissful, consuming sleep.

Something touched her shoulder again, more firmly, rolled her on her back and stroked across her face. She squeezed her eyes shut and bit her lip and waited for the touching, stroking thing to go away and let her sleep again.

"Hey," it said, louder. "Scully. Scully."

She dared it to come past her mouth so she could bite it off.

"Hey!" it said.

Something inside her awoke and recognized the voice. This was a good thing, this was a right thing, this was a waking up on your birthday thing, this was a go home early from work thing, this was something she'd been waiting for. Why?

Her eyes were sticky and they peeled open, blinking, blurry. The firelight flickered, casting shadows on uneven snow, it was a cave, some sort of cave she was in, and her face, exposed, was cold now, crisp-cold; her nostrils burned.

A shadow crossed her vision and there was a hand pushing back spiky frozen chunks of hair from her face, cradling the back of her skull and helping her sit up, propping her against blankets against the snowy wall.

Through dancing light and shadow she saw his face. Mulder. Mulder Mulder Mulder Mulder.

And Canada and Fantasy Echo and the poor dead Inuit and the frozen lake and the Atlanta Braves and the dogs, where were the dogs?

"Mulder," she said, her voice crackling and popping like thin ice.

His smile bellowed the firelight to shine even brighter and the cave lit up.

"Yeah," he said. "It's me."

She licked her lips, tried to clear her throat, willing her eyes to focus. "Hi," she said.

"Hi," he said back, wrapping the blankets up around her shoulders. "How you feeling?"

Mulder. Mulder nameplate office desk Mulder. Couch Mulder. Partner Mulder. Spooky Mulder. My Mulder; Mulder, it's me.

It's me. I am me again and I am I and you are you and we are, again, together.

She nodded weakly. "I'm fine, Mulder."

That's all I'll say; all I'll ever say. You must never know, Mulder.

His own blanket slid down his back and he reached for it, pulled it up around him, obviously cold.

"Where are the dogs?"

Mulder pointed with his head to the entrance to the snow-cave. "They're fine," he said. "I fed 'em and now they're my best friends."

She nodded again.

Fantasy Echo.

"Mulder," she said. "What day is it?"

"Thursday, I think," he said. "It's the 30th. Just past ten at night."

"How many days was I asleep?" she asked.

Mulder shrugged. "You...I...you were with the Inuit yesterday morning, about, uh, 42 hours ago. I don't know how you got here."

Only 42 hours? It felt like a lifetime, another life ago, before the snow.

"You bailed on me, you mean," she said with a half-smile, chafing him, her strength returning. "The Inuit brought me up here. He's, uh, he's dead now."

"Oh," Mulder said stupidly.

She looked away. "How many, uh, how many more letters have you gotten?" she asked.

Mulder fingered the mint-green envelope, still sealed, took a breath, and handed it to her.

She opened it.

"Belemute," it read. She looked up. "I could have told you that," she said. "I was here when it happened."

Mulder set his jaw. "So we, uh, we've got to get up there, Scully. Are you feeling okay to travel?"

She was, surprisingly. She had defrosted, she was strong, she was safe.

Scully nodded. "I told you I'm fine, Mulder. Do we have food and gas and all those other luxuries we're gonna need?"

She was playing official, now, hiding behind the thing she could figure out and the things Mulder could tell her. Not wanting to delve any deeper into her psyche, not here in the snow in the middle of fucking nowhere, too afraid of what she might find.

She wanted to tell him about the phone records, but she'd forgotten why they'd mattered.

Mulder was nodding, now. "Yeah," he said. "Small problem, though. Car won't start."

She cocked her head to the side, such a familiar feeling, faced twisted into Agent-Scully incredulity. "The *car* won't start?"

Mulder shrugged. "Something about the weather or the terrain, I don't know, but I made the mistake of turning it off when I stopped here, and now it won't start again."

This was comfortable, this was bickering, this was solving, this was rote. This was home. Scully looked up into Mulder's pale face and glassy grey eyes and couldn't believe it, couldn't believe any of it.

"Hey, Mulder," she said, reaching out a hand and taking his. "How did you find me?"

"Must be fate," Mulder said with a smile.

***

Did you know, then, Mulder? Because I didn't. I thought I knew, but it wasn't until later, until too late when the harbingers of sense had come out from hibernation and painted the bus-stop mural in blood that I truly realized what I had, what we had, what we'd always had.

I won't forgive you for the time it took me. But in this resignation, winding down, I am a woman of few regrets.

***

BELEMUTE, CANADA, DECEMBER 30, 1999, 10:50 p.m. T-minus 2 Days

 

Mulder was gone again.

He'd gone to check on the dogs and think about sleds; the Canada plus dog equals sled transitive had presented itself fairly obviously and with the Rover's demise and the clock ticking they were gonna have to get creative.

But to Scully, it was just that Mulder was gone again, always gone, always leaving her, ditching her, "you stay here, Scully, I'll be right back."

Sure, granted, this time she was melting away hypothermia and really wasn't in any position to be dealing with any kind of dog/sled situation, but she'd only just found him again, damn it!, and now he was gone. It was worthless business, this crusade, this dogsled, when there was sleep to be had and fires to be warmed up beside. But Mulder was doing it; Mulder cared.

She didn't want to admit how much she'd missed him.

She didn't want to admit that her heart was in her throat and had been for the past thirty minutes, crying to keep from smiling or maybe vice-versa.

She didn't want to admit that she was absolutely fucking terrified, and the only thing that was keeping her from tumbling back into that sleep of the damned and frozen was that he was here, now, he was here, he could take some of that weight, he could make some of the decisions for her, her could spur her onward, reminding her that life was. And life *was*.

The great dead vast of Canada was smaller, warmer now with him in it; even the dogs were calmed. They were a mockery of a family, the eight of them, with not so much as a dove to send off to bring back an olive branch, land ho!

They called Noah's wife Mrs. Noah, on the ark. At least, all the Sunday School plays did; Scully had been the Dove in third grade and had envied Julianne Lane her role as Mrs. Noah, savioress of the universe and mother of the new generation. But Julianne grew up and married Male Zebra, Michael Fallwell, and spent her thirties round and pregnant and mother of a flock watched over not by shepherds but by nannies and day care while Male Zebra clocked hours at the Big'n'Tall Men's Shoppe, and Mrs. Noah got her nails done. Sometimes the Dove wished she'd taken her olive branch and gone to Bermuda. The new generation was a disappointment.

Now Scully cursed herself for it, all the envy, sloth, hatred, and greed, grumpy, sleepy and dopey. Because the Dove had Mulder now, and with everything like hope she could see the olive tree just out of reach, just up ahead. Land ho, Mulder. Come back here, I want to see your face, I want to take your hand and crest that hill with our dogs and holler out our victory because we're together again, Land Ho! Land Ho! Land Ho!

Scully shook off her blankets and pulled herself to her feet. If not an olive branch, then a dogsled.

Pulling on her gloves again and thumbing the second flashlight, she took off into the carcass of Belemute, looking for Mulder.

***

KITIKMEOT, CANADA, DECEMBER 30th, 1999, 11:26 p.m. T-minus 2 Days

 

"I don't care, Mr. Eisenberg. Get it done," he said, and with that he turned and left the room.

The word had come down from the top. Get it done.

Eisenberg looked at the map spread out in front of him, lines drawn connecting spots, planted flags. The FBI Agent had abandoned the car, it seemed, and walked off on foot. Even with the map extrapolating a radius it had been hours; he could be miles from Belemute in any direction now. And how he was supposed to find the guy with Jacques Cousteau-ian sonar equipment and a ball-point pen was beyond him.

Plus he'd told Penny today, about Boston, right after it happened, and her face went white and she hadn't spoken to him, or to anyone, since. She was sitting on the bed when he'd left, staring out into space; he was certain she was still there, still staring, still unable to believe what he'd told her, what the men had told him fourteen years ago when he'd joined the project. What he was unable to really comprehend even now, though it was playing out right in front of him. But somehow he knew that if it all made sense it would be that much worse.

"Beer?" Sumner offered, surprising him from behind.

"Yeah," Eisenberg said, accepting it gratefully. "Absolutely."

The word had come down from the top: get it done. This must not end without the FBI Agent. Like there was anything they could do, like there was any way they could stop what was already in motion, like they had any say in the matter.

Like they cared.

It was too late, after all.

***

BELEMUTE, CANADA, DECEMBER 30th, 11:48 p.m. T-minus 2 Days

 

She found him in the skeleton of a building staring at a glass box.

"Hey," she said, softly, waving the flashlight and not wanting to scare him.

"Hey," he called over his shoulder. "Scully, come here; take a look at this."

Eight words like a prayer; the best phrase ever spoken; the marriage of childlike eagerness, partnered dedication and a touch of awe; he needed her.

"Yup," she said, coming to his side.

Inside the glass box ticker tape had collected; it had spun out from a machine but had gotten trapped under the glass -- and protected -- and now lay snarled in a pile under ash.

She flashed the light around her. Tables, equipment set up. Broken lightbulbs, a typewriter, a ham radio tower.

Two blackened bodies, collapsed by the door. She turned away. "Looks like some kind of communications center, maybe?" she said. "Ham radio."

"Most likely this was the only way in or out of Belemute," Mulder said. "These people didn't have phones or radios in their homes; they probably did all their communication from here."

"Makes sense," Scully agreed. "So what's that?"

Mulder flipped open the glass top and lifted out the tangled handful of ticker tape, found the end and traced it to an old Morse Code printing machine. With light on the strip he could read that it was riddled with dots and dashes and probably thirty feet long. "Morse Code," he said.

Scully took an end and stretched the strip out, looking for the beginning. "Good thing I grew up with a Captain for a father," she said.

"You can read that?"

Scully nodded.

Mulder whistled through his teeth. "You never cease to amaze me, Sailor," he said.

She found the beginning of the tape and started translating dots and dashes and holy fucking shit.

Her knees wobbled; her stomach sank, hollow; bile rose to her mouth.

"Mulder," she said.

"Yeah?"

"That's what it says. 'Mulder. Stop.'" She looked away from the strip, regaining her composure, took a breath and started reading.

"Boston. Hong Kong. Kyoto, Miami, Buenos Aires, Oxford Lyons Bangkok Sydney MoroccoVaticanOttawaJuneauJohannesbergKarachiMinsk..." she stopped to breathe, to swallow over the lump in her throat, "Berlin Bratislava Reykjavik Shanghai Nai..." she choked, "Nairobi..." she let the paper trail from her hands and flutter to the ground. There were more names on it, many more cities, but she couldn't do it, couldn't think about it, couldn't see it there in her father's code.

Mulder reached out an arm and pulled her to him. And for the first time since this all began she let loose in the safety of his embrace, and sobbed against his chest. He stroked her hair, clutched her against him squeezing her ribs, surrounding her, completing her, saving her.

"Shhh..." he said.

The world was huge again, and empty, and dying all around.

There was only Mulder, holding her.

"Scully," he whispered.

She pressed her chin to his chest and peered up his sternum, her eyes wet and cold and heavy. "Yeah?"

"We have to do this."

She nodded, skin of her cheek scraping against the rough leather of his coat. "I know," she said.

"The truth is up there. And I want to know..." he trailed, his eyes fixed on some point in space.

"...if you're worth the flesh you're made of," she completed for him. He nodded. "I do too," she said. "I, uh, I prayed out there, with the dogs, when I thought I was going to die. And no one was listening, Mulder. I prayed, and no one heard me."

"Maybe God's not Canadian," Mulder said, twisting his mouth into what tried to be a smile, for her.

She nodded, thinking. "I think maybe this is all we've got, Mulder. What we've been given. Our strengths."

Mulder kissed her on the top of her head with cracking lips. "And each other," he said. She swelled, held him closer. "And each other's strengths." He met her eyes, then looked away, stared back at that something off and to the left.

"I love you, Scully."

I know.

She melted into him, shutting out the huge and dying world, shutting out everything but him, scared, alone, alone together in the snow on the last night on Earth. Somewhere the clock was turning over, turning to midnight and it was the last day, the last shattered hours of the last Christian millenium, the last flicker moments on God's snowbound planet.

"Yes," she said into his chest. "Yes, Mulder."

There was nothing else but him.

"I, uh," he went on, "I always have. I don't know why I never said anything. I'm a fucking idiot."

"Okay," she said, wanting to shush him, to shut him up. "I know," she said. She met his gaze, her heart jumping, splashing against her ribs. "And you know."

"Yes," he said.

There were tears in his eyes now, too, for everything he never said, for everthing he'd willfully skipped and lost and left behind, all those better days. "I'm sorry," he said.

"I'm sorry," she said, back. "I'm so, so sorry, Mulder."

She reached up instinctively, her hands slid up the sides of his head, traced his ears and caught his skull toward her and she kissed him, softly, then harder, wanting to devour him, wanting him to devour her, wanting to shut everything out behind the noise of pounding blood.

"I'm sorry," she murmured, her lips moving against his.

"I'm sorry," he murmured back.

The world couldn't end, not now, not like this, not in the face of the shuddering power of them complete. Not in the shuddering power of heat rising in every ounce of flesh she was worth, every pound bought and sold for this, for what they did and what they were and what they'd lost and never said.

It was too cold to find bodies through clothing, but like children, like animals they gripped at one another, looking for more things to hold, to clutch, to bring together and make complete.

"I'm sorry," he said again. "I'm sorry for everything, Scully."

"Me too, Mulder," she said. "Me too."

It's never too late.

*

*** "It was a miracle I even got out of Longwood alive. This town full of men with big mouths, and no guts. I mean if you can just picture it; the whole third floor of the hotel gutted by the blast, and the street below showered in shards of broken glass. And all the drunks pouring out of the dance halls, staring up at the smoke, and the flame, and the blind pencil-seller waving his sticks, shouting for his dog who lay dead on the side of the road. And me, if you can believe this, at the wheel of the car, closing my eyes and actually praying. Not to god above but to you. Saying, help me girl. Help me girl. I'll love you till the end of the world."

~ Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, "I'll Love You Till The End of the World"

*** KITIKMEOT, CANADA, DECEMBER 31, 1999, 2:20 a.m. T-minus 1 Day

"No," she said with one eye open, watching him. He'd gotten out of bed and

she'd waited, she'd given him the benefit of the doubt, that he was just going to use the bathroom, that he'd be right back, but now he was pulling on his boots and stumbling around like a bull in a clock shop trying not to wake her up.

He tripped over his laces and landed on his ass on the bed and she squinted at him in the dark. "Uh uh. No way."

"Pen," he said, as if he hadn't expected her to be here. "I have to go. It's my job."

"It's Allen's job," she said. "Come back to bed."

"Allen's my partner and it's my job, baby. I'll be gone four hours."

"It's Friday," she said.

He nodded in the dark, zipping his nylon gaiters past the knee and snapping them to the Polarfleece ski liner. "Four hours," he said.

She rolled away on the pillow.

Kissing her on the shoulder, Buddy left.

God, she'd been a good wife, up here for the last fifteen years. Up until last year they'd spent three months out of the winter home in Boston in a beautiful brownstone in Somerville, a walk-up above the used bookstore. She'd moved there right after college, her first real house with the spare room for the guests, for the baby.

On her twenty-fifth birthday, after they'd been married for a year, she'd sold her car in favor of the good Boston public transportation, and bought a nine thousand dollar Turkish kilim, eleven feet square. Shoving furniture and sweating to The Kinks, she'd spread it across the hardwood of the living room.

Buddy'd come home from the lab with takeout and they'd picnicked on it, their first rug, their first real house, now theirs forever and sealed with a nine thousand dollar investment. The next day he told her about the job.

It was good money, he told her, great money, and great experience and automatic dual citizenship for them and their future kids. I've got to take it, he'd said. I'd be an idiot not to take it.

He'd promised her she'd have work up north, and he hadn't lied; for the first five years up here she put her Comparative Lit degree to work studying prophecy and writing abstracts in French and German for the company newsletter. She never questioned it, just loved the escape of the obscure texts and the little office they'd given her with the white plastic honeycomb walls. God damned omnipresent plastic honeycombed walls; she was sick of them, now, she was sick of this beehive, she wanted to go home.

They'd run out of prophecies, or they'd decided it didn't matter, and she quit without really realizing it and they kept her on the payroll anyway, money piling up in Bay Bank of Boston that she'd never needed to spend. She kept writing; she'd done a translation of Moliere that won her an honorary doctorate at McGill, and the faceless project leaders of Fantasy Echo kept her well-stocked in books and plays and the familiar smell of yellowing paper up here in the sterile honeycombed homestead. Homestead, they called it, the network of pre-fab buildings and lean-tos well-insulated with their thick plastic honeycombed walls, every room the same, every apartment identical in layout, every corridor marked with neon numbers, their magnitude the only thing making "here" separate from "there." Home, homestead on the ice, where the bears and the antelope play.

And they weren't bad people, either, the wives and the husbands, new groups joining every year from Italy and Belgium and Japan. All married couples, all childless, all somewhere nearing middle-age, with long bones and white teeth. It was an adventure, she'd loved the blush of it, the thrill of this place she couldn't quite understand, so far away from the world she'd grown up in of Protestants and J. Crew catalogs and cranberry bogs. And Buddy processed data, he was a data processor, and even when they'd met seventeen years ago in Harvard Square she hadn't asked him what that meant; she'd never really cared.

Now she knew what it meant; now it all fell into place. He. Processed. Data. She could have bailed on all of this back then, she could have gone home from the party with Eddie Tanaka, who'd wanted her to, and she'd probably still be living in that brownstone now, with the rug and a fleet of half-Japanese rugrats to go with it.

Only now, Somerville was gone. The brownstone was gone. Eddie Tanaka was gone, and some blonde wife with him.

She'd turned forty up here. There was grey in her hair.

And here she was at two in the morning on New Year's Eve in the Fantasy Echo homestead with two hundred and twelve other scientists and labrats and data processors and eskimos, in this room with plastic honeycombed walls and her books in piles on the floor all around her like scarabs in a sarcophagus. They were her totems, now; they'd protect her in the afterlife, they'd remind her why she'd come up her at all, and why she'd stayed.

She'd stayed for Buddy, because it meant so much to him. When she hadn't known what this was all about, that had been a perfectly viable excuse, and a romantic one. Now it made her want to spit.

She dragged herself out of bed and flipped on the light. There was laundry in a pile by the door; the eskimo woman, Nowyah, would come pick it up in the morning and return it two hours later, folded. Penny didn't even know where it went, or how it got cleaned; she'd never asked and never even wondered.

The last time she'd been home she knew it was the last time, somehow. She'd packed up all her stuff in boxes and sealed them with stringlaced packing tape, labelled them carefully and left them in a stack in the bedroom where she'd never see them again.

But the rug she'd brought. She'd had to ship it and it took two months to get here, but she needed it, it was important, and she'd insisted.

It was rolled up in the closet now. She slid open the slick plastic door.

It was too big for the room but she was going to make it fit, damn it, she'd stack the chairs on the bed if she had to and she'd get this thing on the floor where it belonged.

She wasn't tired anymore. Buddy would be back in four hours. Kicking her feet into slippers she slid a tape in the stereo and hit play.

The Kinks started singing as she dragged the heavy kilim down from the closet.

"Here's wishing you the bluest skies and hoping something better comes tomorrow; hoping all the verses rhyme, and the very best of choruses to follow all the doubt and sadness; I know that better things are on their way..."

She collapsed the rolled up thing on the floor with a clunk and tugged at the knots in the twine that bound it.

"Here's hoping all the days ahead won't be as bitter as the ones behind you. Be an optimist instead and somehow happiness will find you. Forget what happened yesterday; I know that better things are on their way..."

She sang along over the lump in her throat. Damn Buddy. Damn rug. Damn Canada.

"It's really good to see you rocking out and having fun, living like you've just begun. Accept your life and what it brings. I know tomorrow you'll find better things."

"I know tomorrow you'll find better things."

***

OUTSIDE BELEMUTE, CANADA, DECEMBER 31st, 1999, 2:44 a.m. T-minus 1 Day

Queen led the pack.

Angry and the other three - Mulder had dubbed them Moe, Larry, and Scary Spice - "she sure ain't curly," he'd said - raced along behind her, and the sled whipped through the snow.

Pointy was curled up with her head in Scully's lap inside the toboggan, layers of packs and blankets strapped down with leather thongs and the whole thing warped and charred and weatherworn. They'd been lucky to find it, propped against the walls of a corrugated-steel lean-to in the ghost-town of Belemute, and they'd dragged it across the snow, hitched the dogs and took off into the night, flashlights off and nothing but the stars to guide them north.

Mulder had checked the map and the compass in the Rover and it looked like a straight shot, maybe three hundred miles and they'd reach Fort Villeneuve, Kitikmeot. Noorenson, the Inuit had called it. Blessed and cursed.

Talking was impossible, here; crashing through the snow in a five-dog open sleigh everything was a whisper in the wind but her lips moved anyway, chapping, bleeding, and Mulder straddled her from behind and held her close to his chest.

"Thank you, Mulder. Yes, Mulder. It's okay, Pointy. It's okay." She spoke and the words were stolen from her lips by the wind before the sounds were made, travelling home.

They had nineteen hours before the arbitrary deadline set so long ago by a business reply card and an anonymous phone call to the X-Files basement office in another life. Nineteen hours to set right what was wrong, to set in motion their cosmic filibuster and pit their strength, their combined strength, so long bred, against the forces opposing. To mock, to laugh, to emerge victorious. To save the fucking world, what was left of it. They were partners, and it was their job.

Mulder's arms around her were her only anchor in this world, the only reminder of flesh and bodies and festering humanity worth considering, worth bruising, and being bruised by. He held her tight, his fingers, thick in gloves, knitted in hers, diving forward into the black frozen night.

The sky was enormous above; space, the final frontier. Space, whirling, flickering along and forgetting this blue marble gone white. Life disappears here, winks out and no one's the wiser, no one's the lonelier for it. The search for signs of intelligent life comes to an end, not here, not anywhere. If there were aliens out there, if there was truly this alien life she'd seen and suspected and Mulder swore by, they would be alone, now; hail the conquering hero come, and nobody's home.

For the first time ever, EVER, she realized just how desperately she wanted to believe. Because at least, then, somehow, somewhere, life in its many iterations would spill on.

"I want to believe, Mulder," she said, and the wind took her words again.

"I know," Mulder said, his breath warm on her ear. She wondered how he'd heard.

***

ABOVE KITIKMEOT, CANADA, DECEMBER 31st, 1999, 3:55 a.m. T-minus 1 Day

They were partners, and it was their job.

Find the FBI Agent; get him up here before zero hour at all cost. They had his picture taped to the dash of the Cherokee Warrior like a Bettie Page pinup - Fox Mulder and Dana Scully snapped caught in conversation in some corridor somewhere. His hand was on her bicep; they were arm's length apart, his eyes fixed on the top of her head, her eyes fixed on the floor.

The dashboard instruments were spotty, needles jumping like fleas, and Sumner flicked on the sonar and let the plane pitch starboard, circling lower.

Eisenberg fingered the photo. They were a nice enough looking pair, this Fox and Dana, immortalized in this most innocent of poses, him watching her with something akin to awe, her afraid to meet his eye. They were so familiar; Eisenberg found himself dreaming about them, hearing their voices, joining their crusade.

"Poor son of a bitch's probably froze to death already," Sumner said through the headsets.

Eisenberg nodded. "How far are we from where he left the Rover?"

"Belemute's just north of sixty degrees latitude, about a hundred degrees long. We're coming in just past one-oh-five now at about sixty-eight long; gonna cross the border into Keewatin any second."

Eisenberg laughed. "And how far are we from where he left the Rover?"

Sumner laughed back. "Fifteen years in the Arctic and you still can't read a damn map. You're a sad bastard, Buddy." He checked the compass. "We're, uh, a good two hours from Belemute as the Cherokee flies; if he's on foot he didn't get very far."

"And if he's not on foot?"

"Regardless," Sumner said, "the Kasba river's gonna stop him from crossing into Fort Smith; ten to one we find him lyin' like a popsicle on the ice."

Eisenberg looked at the photo again. "Poor guy," he said, more to himself than anything else.

"Whatever," Sumner shrugged. "It's cold as a witch's tittie up here in this pail and I want to be home to see the fireworks."

"We will be," Eisenberg said, wondering just when it had been that he'd started thinking of Fort Villeneuve, Kitikmeot, Northwest Territories, Canada, as home. And wondering just what was gonna happen tonight when the fireworks, indeed, went off.

*** WASHINGTON, D.C., DECEMBER 31st, 1999, 5:00 a.m. T-minus 1 Day

"Happy New Year, Angie," Sebasky said as the Ford Explorer barrelled down the highway and explosions rocked the ground.

Beside him, in the passenger's seat, his partner reached over and lay her hand on his on the gearshift.

His eyes met hers, steeped with all they'd never have time to do, all they'd never felt it important to say.

"Happy New Year, Dave," she said, trying to smile.

The air reeked of burning flesh and burning rubber, and hand in hand they sped along, looking for the edge of the earth.

***

LAKE KASBA, CANADA, DECEMBER 31st, 1999, 4:11 a.m. T-minus 1 Day

Clouds were covering the stars, and Scully had no way of knowing if they were on the right trail anymore. It was just as likely they'd race the poor dogs to the end of the earth and tumble off into oblivion, diving into the warm pit of hell no one realized, in Biblical times, was actually located in Northern Canada.

But they were on their way, they were moving, and Mulder's arms were around her where they belonged, where they'd always belonged, this safe-warm arc of bodies given permission to touch, and orders never to peel apart.

It was the last dawn of the last day, and dawn wouldn't break here with anything like sunlight, so time rolled on oblivious to her, and she to it. The threat of Fantasy Echo was less immediate, the ticking clock quieter now. She remembered cities, remembered highways and tollbooths and convenience stores and muzak, but that was all far away now, somehow tucked glassine and safe in a corner, and nothing could touch it as long as she didn't think about it.

And she didn't have to; she allowed herself this brief respite, here wheeling along in Mulder's arms. She closed her eyes and lay back and let herself imagine the chill of better winters.

Because here, halfway between nowhere and somewhere, there was nothing she could do about it anyway; not yet.

"You can be stuck in traffic and be aggravated," her father used to say, "or you can be stuck in traffic."

There was nothing but the speed of the sled and the smell of the snow and the strength of Mulder's arms around her.

And the dogs pulled on.

***

KRAKOW, POLAND, DECEMBER 31st, 1999, 11:00 a.m. T-minus 1 Day

Whoever she'd come home with last night had slipped out before Magda had woken up, and her head pounded. The sheets smelled like sweat and vomit and even the heavy quilt wasn't enough to keep out the cold.

It had been parties all week, and the biggest one tonight down in the Jewish quarter where all her friends from University would meet for vodka i papierosi: vodka and cigarettes. Vodka and cigarettes and the fireworks show at a distance and they'd ring in the Millenium drunk off their tails and stumble home, laughing in the snow. Just like last year. Just like next year would be. Small comforts in Krakow in the depths of winter, and the only way to pull through these months till the light came back and the pipes defrosted and the water ran again.

Reaching a hand down beside the bed she felt for the bottle and brought it back under the covers with her. Not even sitting up, she took a long draw off it, her eyes still closed.

There's nothing that can't be cured by the hair of the dog that bit you.

It would be another fine New Year's.

***

KITIKMEOT, CANADA, DECEMBER 31st, 1999 3:34 a.m. T-minus 1 Day

Printers spat paper and the lights flashed on and off and on again and the consoles flickered in sequence, signals beeping and chirping and popping, crying out impossible alarms.

Overload. Overload.

Even the computers were stricken, grief-stricken, panic-stricken by the destruction.

Paper flew; chairs rolled and Barrett watched stock still as the eskimos raced to restore order and the computers wailed.

No amount of training had prepared her for this.

***

TONGA, CENTRAL PACIFIC, DECEMBER 31st, 1999, 10:38 p.m. T-minus 1 Day

Rachel clutched her ears against the noise, the big noise, the big awful crashing noise and lights and fire everywhere, all around her.

She'd been asleep and the babysitter had been there but now she was gone, everyone was gone, everything was wide and empty.

The walls had fallen and the house had fallen and the yard was sinking, cracked, and she cried out, shaking her head, hands over her ears standing in the empty yard and screaming, fire everywhere; the world shook.

"Daddy daddy daddy daddy daddy daddy daddy!!!"

***

LAKE KASBA, CANADA, DECEMBER 31st, 1999 4:48 a.m. T-minus 1 Day

Of course she could navigate by the stars; he should have known, sailor father and all that. But he hadn't known; it had never occurred to him to even ask.

If she'd told him a year ago he'd have tossed her a quip about no one better to be stranded in the desert with, thrown her bait on translucent fishingline so she could pretend she hadn't seen it and they could pretend it wasn't flirting.

Now with the walls down and the barriers crumbled he'd said "you are absolutely fucking amazing," and he'd kissed her hard.

Gracious as always she'd returned with "I know," but they were plumbing unexplored depths, now, and it meant everything more.

There was something perfect about the way the wind was whipping and the way they were sitting in the sled; she was face first into the night, brave as shit, as always, eyes wide open, machete raised. She'd wanted it that way.

Her words were stolen from her by the wind but she didn't bother speaking anyway. And he sat behind her, the tiny curve of her bundled back nestled into his chest, heart to lung to heart and bound that way. Mouth to ear, she could hear everything he was saying, and he thought aloud as they drove on.

There was something about all this that was too familiar.

Something about the letters, and the handwriting, and the weight of the world and the rush of time. He thought back.

Everything had been a test; everything led up to this. Everything heaped on his life since childhood had asked, "can you hack it, Spooky? Can you put the pieces together and make one and one get three? Can you come when you're called?"

Samantha had been taken for a reason. She'd been taken so he'd look for her, she was the dangling carrot, the grail, the white whale, as Scully would say. She was a myth, an impossibility. But in the looking was finding, in the looking was all he'd learned and all he had. Scully came with the looking. The Syndicate was brought down. They were primed, they were ready, and this was their final test.

And for the first time ever, really, this one wasn't about Samantha. She wasn't up there, in Fort Villeneuve; no answers about her were. But there were broader answers, and more profound victories there for a man on this side of forty with bills to pay. There were victories for a man who had raced through tractor-tires to a stopwatch, 100 sit-ups a night, every night, fastest draw in the east and a soul leather-toughened by the curse of Cassandra and a mind not quite capacious enough to handle it all.

And a mind, toughened and primed by questions only vaguely formed, and answers intuited but never understood.

And a heart, and a will, and a spirit toughened by this woman in his arms now, the only one who, in his lifetime of being fed lines and false promises, bothered to ask. "What does it mean, Mulder?" She challenged him, she proved him wrong, she righted wrongs, she healed.

In a world of demi-gods and impostors, devils and urchins she was human, fleshy and gritty and greasy and real, stocked with fears she'd learned to master and strengths he couldn't even conceive.

She was a weapon.

And this, whatever this was, wasn't new. It was the natural end to their natural pursuits; it was the continuation of fights they'd limped away from, bloodied and victorious. It was the bastard bully who'd given them a fat lip in grammar school, come back toothless and mocking, "can't catch me!"

It was everything in the X-Files; it was the master plan; it was everything he'd been trained to do.

Whether it was the Greys or terrorists or natural disasters, it didn't matter. Someone knew him, someone had been tracking him for ten years, sending him handwritten cards. Someone had called, someone had known.

Someone, somewhere, said batter up! This was Mulder's case; this looks like a job for SuperMulder!

Someone trusted him, ENtrusted him with this, with life. "Humanity I love you because you are perpetually putting the secret of life in your pants and forgetting it's there and sitting down on it," e. e. cummings said.

Scully, I love you because this is one god damned fucking ride and the only reason I'm here is because of you, and the only reason anyone trusts me and the only reason I trust myself is because I've got you as a weapon, you, bent but not broken from being cast aside, you, the secret of life.

Let 'em think it's me, Scully, all I've built up towards and trained for. You and I both know the truth. The Truth.

The clouds had parted and she was steering the dogs, getting them back on track across the plains. Pointy stirred.

"How are we doing?" he asked her ear. She nodded, cracked the reins and the dogs sped on into blackness.

Don't know where we're going but we're making good time, Mom.

And suddenly there were LIGHTS.

***

ABOVE LAKE KASBA, CANADA, DECEMBER 31st, 1999, 4:51 a.m. T-minus 1 Day

Eisenberg watched in total incredulity and his mouth couldn't even form words.

The sonar was getting data, impossible data, and from the plane at fifteen hundred feed he could make out shadows speeding across the ice below.

They'd found him; they'd found Mulder. And he was alive.

Sumner had seen it too, and he nodded, easing up on the stick and clicking back the flaps for landing.

"Let's do it," he said.

***

LAKE KASBA, CANADA, DECEMBER 31st, 1999, 4:52 a.m. T-minus 1 Day

"Scully, what the hell is that?" Mulder shouted in her ear and she could barely hear him over the dogs barking.

Queen skidded to a halt, confused, and the other dogs screeched on their heels on the ice, choked by the tethers and falling in a heap.

"I don't know, Mulder," Scully said, more quietly, once the sled had stopped.

They watched.

Two pairs of lights were descending upon them, red-white to the left, green-white to the right, flickering maniacally.

"Hell of a time for colonization," Mulder said wryly.

"Actually it's the perfect time," Scully said, just as wryly. "Kick us while we're down."

The lights were coming at them with unfathomable speed, looming huge on the dark horizon.

Scully squinted at them; something about this was familiar; something about this she recognized.

And she laughed. "We are not alone, Mulder," she said.

Mulder pulled himself to his feet and extended a hand to bring her up beside him. "I've been telling you that for years," he said.

She shook her head, giddy. "We're not alone in Canada. It's a plane, Mulder. A god-damned single-prop low-wing Cherokee Warrior. The world's not dead; we're going to be okay!"

Mulder wrapped an arm around her; there was no mediation, now, no more false pretense, no more walls. Her voice had squeaked with excitement, a little-girl squeak, a totally non-Scully squeak, a squeak that had said, "I'm not pretending with you anymore, Mulder. There's no time for that bullshit. I am letting go, and you'd sure as hell better be there to catch me!" He wrapped both arms from her, held her close to his chest from behind and buried his nose in her hair.

They had beaten the riddle of the Sphinx and the doors were opening in this quest: they were moving on. It wasn't too late.

Eyes transfixed, they watched the plane touch down and taxi toward them.

"We're gonna be okay, Scully," Mulder said to the top of her head, his lips buzzing warm against her scalp.

***

It's a simple phrase when you don't know what it means, isn't it, Mulder? It's the best phrase in the world, until you find out what you're in for.

Thinking back, now, I wonder why we never thought to question it.

***

LAKE KASBA, CANADA, DECEMBER 31st, 1999, 4:54 a.m. T-minus 1 Day

He looked exactly the same.

She was almost unrecognizably changed.

Where in the photo she'd been young, shy, healthy, round face rosy with innocence shadowed behind soft waves of hair, now, in the flesh, she was hollow, weatherworn, and beaten. But there was strength in her eyes, in her set jaw, and clarity, and to Buddy she was unfathomably, achingly beautiful.

The camera in the Rover had been poor, dark and grainy, and it hadn't occurred to him what this moment would be, meeting them for the first time. These spectres of the past five years, these chosen ones. Face to face to face to face.

They stood frozen sharp in the snow and watched. The propeller behind Buddy stopped spinning, ka-click ka-click ka-click...ka-click...ka...cli...ck, and it was the familiar still of silent Canada again. Even the dogs stopped snuffling and watched. And watched.

"Agent Mulder!" Sumner called out, too loud, over the snow. Silence shattered, laughing like the peace they'd never have.

"Yeah," Mulder said, more quietly. Respectful.

They exchanged a look - what was that, hope? - but neither Mulder nor Scully moved.

Sumner and Buddy crunched across the snow and met the sled. Buddy held out a hand, and Scully took it.

"Buddy Eisenberg. You got my letters," he said. It wasn't a question. She nodded.

"Yes. Thank you. Can you tell us what's going on?" She peered up at him.

Always working, always puzzling, always looking for answers; he remembered that from her dossier. "Do not challenge Agent Scully," it had read. "Agree with her. Be evasive. Don't give her anything she can contradict with fact, because she will."

And don't feed the bears.

God, she was beautiful. His mind touched on Penny, and he nearly laughed out loud at "till death do us part."

"We're gonna take you back to Fort Villeneuve with us," Buddy explained (be evasive). He checked his watch. "It's almost zero hour" (Don't give her anything she can contradict with fact.)

"If you wanted us up here, why didn't you just come get us in Washington?" Mulder asked Buddy.

"Mulder thinks he knows everything," the dossier had read. "Let him believe that."

"We didn't realize we'd be so pressed for time," Buddy said. "We should really go."

Never in his life had he wanted to do anything less - he looked at them, so secure, so safe - or anything more.

"And we gotta get airborne before the engine cools or we ain't goin' nowhere," Sumner put in. Frost was already forming on his beard and mustache around his mouth.

Shaking Mulder's hand perfunctorily - more because he realized he'd forgotten than for the reason he'd thought he'd want to - to touch the hand of Agent Fox Mulder, the man, the myth, the self-proclaimed Messiah - Buddy gestured with his head toward the Piper.

"Come on; we gotta hit the skies," he said

Mulder and Scully didn't move.

And then he realized why.

Scully was looking down at the lame dog in the toboggan; Mulder was looking down at Scully.

"There's no room up there for the dogs," Scully said, flatly. "Too much weight, too."

Buddy nodded. "Yeah. Sorry 'bout that. We're gonna have to leave 'em. They're tough little suckers; they'll make do."

Scary Spice barked, a single, sharp, piercing bark, and settled down into the snow again. Mulder, without a word, stepped forward and started unhitching them from their tethers.

"We'll take Pointy," Scully said to Mulder, not even bothering to ask Buddy, or Sumner. "100 extra pounds of dog shouldn't be too much for the Cherokee."

Sumner spat and it froze on his beard, hanging there like a baby clam. "Uh uh; sorry, Agent. You know where we are? You know what happens if this plane runs out of fuel 'cause of the extra drag? You want to die up here?"

Buddy shot Sumner a look. Sumner laughed. "Fine," he said. "Take the damned dog."

Buddy watched as she knelt to wrap the lame dog in blankets; the dog, mucusy and feverish, lolled back in her arms.

With strength, amazing strength betrayed by her size she hefted the dog over her shoulder and started for the plane. Mulder trotted to her side and took the weight from her; she parted with it gratefully. No false pride on her part, just practicality, just a strong survival instinct. Buddy was overcome with awe.

"Okay," Mulder said. "Let's get it on!"

Buddy and Sumner turned to join them, and they crossed the snow-deep icy surface of Lake Kasba to the plane.

Nobody stopped to look back at the dogs.

***

KOWLOON, HONG KONG, DECEMBER 31st, 1999, 6:00 p.m. T-minus 1 Day

BOOM! And crash! And flames, licking, fire streaking the sky and...

***

HONG KONG, DECEMBER 31st, 1999, 6:00 p.m. T-minus 1 Day

BOOM! Missiles wailing; laughing, crying and...

***

SOUTHEAST CHINA, DECEMBER 31st, 1999, 6:00 p.m. T-minus 1 Day

BOOM! Limbs sprawled on limbs, bodies and blood and wreckage and terror and crying, the survivors, crawling, scratching, fingernails broken and bloodied and families screaming and children with wide eyes and singed eyelashes blinking at the blood-red sky and the blood-red earth and...

***

CHINA, DECEMBER 31st, 1999, 6:00 p.m. T-minus 1 Day

BOOM!

***

TIBET, NEPAL, INDIA...

BOOM! "Hello? Can anyone hear me? Hello! Hello!!"

***

MONGOLIA...

BOOM!

***

THE EAST, THE FAR EAST, THE MIDEAST, THE NEAR EAST, THE WHOLE FUCKING EAST...

BOOM!

***

KITIKMEOT, CANADA, DECEMBER 31st, 1999, 5:00 a.m. T-minus 1 Day

He wasn't even late.

He'd only been gone two and a half hours, really, but it felt late, felt long, too long, and she'd lost any interest in sleeping.

But the rug was laid, and Penny sat on it, knees to her chest, leaning against the foot of the bed.

She wondered about him, the FBI Agent Buddy'd gone looking for. She'd seen pictures of the two of them, the man, Mulder, and his partner, dressed in business-class best, suited and tied and high-heeled. A spindly pair, to bear this weight, she'd thought. And an astonishingly unimpressive pair to bear this blessing.

Why them?

In high school her best friend Miriam was a redhead like this one. All spit and fire and hellcat, Penny's parents used to joke about her when she'd come over in her dad's pickup truck with a chopstick through her hair and those flouncy embroidered indian shirts and bellow from the driveway: "Penny! Fivefourthreetwoone!"

And Penny would rake a hand through her mess of dark curls, shoulder her bag, nod at her parents and breeze through the screen door, leap over the running board and swing up into the cab and pluck a cigarette from the pack on the dash and it'd be lit by the time the truck had backed down the driveway.

Something about redheads promised strength even in the weakest. Something uncannily rebellious and unfairly stereotypical, but too often true. And by the looks of her, this Agent Scully was no different from the stereotype; ramrod backbone bought her an inch or two of stature and her determined face did the rest.

Her partner would be missing her, now. He'd want to call upon her strength, Penny guessed; he'd want to even more when he landed up here and realized what was happening, what he'd been sold into, what he'd been asked to do.

Miriam taught high school in Worcester, now.

Penny looked at her watch.

No, she didn't. Not anymore.

Penny threw her head back against the bed and stared at the white plastic honeycombed ceiling, gridded with white plastic honeycombed air vents.

Then, with a long exhale, she got up, slung on a robe and headed down to the commissary for breakfast.

***

ABOVE FORT SMITH, CANADA, DECEMBER 31st, 1999, 5:13 a.m. T-minus 1 Day

"Ever feel like you're being taken for a ride?" Mulder asked Scully, pressed up tight against him in the narrow rear seat of the Cherokee.

She wrested her arm out from under Pointy, sleeping beside them, and pressed her hand, fingers spread, against Mulder's chest. She met his eye.

"I don't know what this is, Mulder. I have no way to categorize what's happening to us. I don't know what we're supposed to do."

She could feel his heart beating in the palm of her hand. His heart in the palm of her hand. Always. He slid his fingers across hers and they intertwined on his chest.

"Neither do I," he said. "But we can do this, Scully. I know we can. I think...I think somehow this is how we were meant to end up. That's why they sent us the letters, Scully. So we could do our job."

She closed her eyes for a long moment, reeling with the altitude and the night and comforted only by the proximity of him. "This isn't my job, Mulder," she said, softly. He tightened almost imperceptibly. "This isn't anyone's job. No one can be asked to bear the responsibility we've got."

He nodded. "Okay," he said. "But the bases are loaded and they're calling us to the plate, Scully. Batter up."

Baseballs shot like stars into the night sky, soundtracked to the touch of him and the feel of him and throbs of Zubin Mehta conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in "Rhapsody in Blue." When stars explode. When worlds collide. Batter up.

"Batter up," she said, with a smile.

And maybe he was right.

If there was one thing she admired about Mulder, even envied, it was his altruism. He was a savior of many, an army of one. And he never tired, never cursed the world for its ugly underbelly and shrugged it off. And all the cities still standing had no idea how lucky they were to have Fox Mulder go to bat for them; knock it out of the park, Spooky! You can do it!

"Tell me you think we have a chance at this and I'll believe you, Mulder," she said.

"I know we do," he said. "It's *us*."

It's us.

She looked at her watch. "Almost 5:30 local time," she said.

Mulder laughed. "We'll save the world before lunch."

"You mean that, don't you?" she said, her eyes widening. He nodded, pursing his lips in a smile. She snuggled closer to him, stared out at the bases loaded and the pitches knocked back like stars to Gerschwin.

"Hey Mulder?" she said.

"Yeah?"

"I love you."

He nodded, kissed her on the top of her old cold sweaty head.

"I know," he said.

Pointy moaned in his sleep.

***

CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND, DECEMBER 31st, 11:49 p.m. T-minus 1 Day

The wires had gone down half a day ago; phones, radios, tellies all silent. He'd heard some news, the awful news about cities in Europe and America being bombed, the wild Y2K rampage. But everything was quiet on the Western front, and Christchurch was already hosting the biggest party of the century. Damn sad for the rest of the world, damn sad for foreign affairs, but in ten minutes New Zealand would pioneer a new Millennium and the meek shall inherit.

"Be First with the Kiwis!" the banner read, strung out over the harbor, and Ben grinned at it proudly. Half of the goddamned country had showed up, with twice as many again in tourist dollars crowded down streets hung with paper lanterns and tinsel. And it was a beautiful night, balmy and clear, stars freckling the sky and only the slightest wind blowing in off the water. The crowds were gentle, merry and thick with brotherhood in the face of all that had happened in their home countries, and here among the Kiwis there was an unadulterated peace.

Someone squeezed his elbow, and he turned.

"Melinda!" He threw his arms around her and kissed her hard. "I thought you were working the radio tower!"

"No radio," she shrugged. "No real need for crowd control anyway; look at 'em all! This is the nicest group of people we could have assembled; knock wood."

Ben's walkie-talkie hissed static and he held it to his ear, but there was nothing.

"I think the hand-helds are down too," Melinda said. "And good for 'em. Means when the clock strikes you can focus all your attention on me!"

The sea air spun around them, rippling her skirt, and she stood on tiptoe to look him in the eye.

They'd met on the Town Council a year ago, planning this very party. Tax dollars funded months upon months of meetings, to make the Christchurch reception of the New Year worthy of its responsibility in the first timezone. Melinda brought pies her granddaughter had made, and the paper lanterns had been her idea.

The cruise ships, parked end to end to end in the harbor had been Ben's, and for it he'd received a healthy bonus from the tourism board; enough to buy a yacht and maintenance.

And after the party they'd kiss their kids and their grandkids goodbye and they'd sail off into the Pacific with rum drinks and floppy hats; retirement, here we come!

In this light she looked shockingly like Marie.

She slid a hand into his and squeezed it.

"Oh!" he said. "I almost forgot!"

He found the bottle of champagne and pressed thumb to cork, prepared to let fly when the clock changed over.

"Glad you didn't," Melinda said. She kissed him on the cheek.

"Here's to 75 more years of life," she said. "And all of them with you."

He swelled, and kissed her back.

Explosions rocked the sky, and he wondered why the fireworks were starting early.

***

ABOVE SOUTHERN KITIKMEOT, CANADA, DECEMBER 31, 1999, 6:22 a.m. T-minus 1 Day

The plane shuddered. And shuddered.

And SANK.

"Hang on back there; it's just some weather and some..." Sumner actually laughed over the PA "...icing on the ailerons."

"Icing on the ailerons?" Mulder mouthed to Scully. "Well, ain't that the icing on the cake?"

Scully swallowed hard and clutched a handful of Pointy's fur as her stomach leaped into her throat and the plane sank again.

"Ooops!" Sumner said.

"Oh, come on, now, you gotta stop that," Mulder said, stretching his lips into a smile over what could have been nothing but terror on his face. "We didn't come all this way to end up mangled in fuselage in the tundra."

The plane sank again. Rapid descent. Rapid descent.

"Shit, dude," Sumner said. "We're at 900 feet. There's fucking rocks here that are higher'n we are."

"Let's not hit them," Mulder said.

"Good advice," Sumner said.

The plane made an awful screeching sound. "Icing on the ailerons, Scully," Mulder said.

She nodded rapidly, her lips dry.

"Shit!" Sumner said again. He threw his body against the stick and the plane sputtered.

Buddy turned around, his face ashen, and stared at Mulder and Scully from between the front seats. "Listen," he said.

They listened.

"I want to tell you why I brought you up here," he continued.

"Please do," Scully said.

"Buddy, I need your bodyweight behind me, here," Sumner said. "Grab the stick; this thing's alive."

Buddy's head disappeared and the plane made the screeching sound again.

"Fuckin' A, man, we're dumping antifreeze," Sumner said. "Fuck me fuck me fuck me."

Scully's fingers, like a spider, crawled their way to Mulder's and he took her hand.

"This isn't how it ends, Mulder," she said.

"No," he agreed.

"We get past this and I'll believe anything," she said, laughing nervously.

The plane jerked and jumped, but maintained altitude. The ailerons screamed.

Scully dug her nails into Mulder's hand; Mulder dug right back. But he winked at her.

Rapid. Descent. Rapid descent.

How stupid. How stupid that it should happen this way; how cheap and wasteful.

But Mulder was calmer, now, relaxed, and he held her arm to his chest like a baby, secure and secured. They say that babies cry when they sense danger, that if you're on a plane and you hear a baby cry you should be suspect. But Mulder, with his sixth and infinite sense and all his childlike innocence, was calm, now.

Because with death, also, comes resignation. And peace.

Scully stared at the green and green and blue polyester pattern of the back of Buddy's copilot's seat and thought about Harry Houdini.

Houdini had had that sixth sense; he was driven mad for it. He'd found peace in the darkest of terrors, forced them upon himself to see how he'd react. And in human peace he found terror, channeled the spirits of the dead 'till it drove him ashen and he was ready to expose himself as a fraud, to make the voices stop.

Like Mulder had.

Like Mulder never would again.

Harry Houdini, master escape artist, ran out of challenges too early, and was forced to make them up. It wasn't enough to get himself out of a locked box; he had to do it naked, and under water. It wasn't enough to hang upside-down in a straitjacket on a winch over a pit of fire; he had to do it blindfolded, gagged and wrapped in 30-weight chain. And every time he raised the bar, every time he showed the world there was something else mortals could do to test themselves, he screwed himself, made himself passe, made himself extinct.

Poor bastard spent his entire life trying to find the stunt that could stump Harry Houdini, and then forced himself to master it. Each one.

When he ran out of things to unlock or get himself out of or swallow or break, and furious for it, he turned introspective and started working on his body, carving it and building it, brick by brick, into the man of steel. He lost control; there was nothing but him, but flesh that needed to be better, harder, stronger. He carved himself up like marble, and got sick from it. Better. Harder. Stronger. He could barely walk, but he was solid. Too, too solid, broken and crumbling like flagstone, sheltered from the world behind very literal walls.

But he was the man of steel. Now, on stage, rather than climbing out of piranha tanks with screwdrivers in his mouth, he simply stood there and let boxer after ballplayer after bodybuilder HIT him with bats and sticks and maces and bricks.

And Houdini never felt a thing. Master of the universe, man of steel. He'd finally defeated Harry Houdini; finally, he'd won.

And one night, while he was asleep in his trailer, relaxed with the respite only sleep brings, a kid snuck in with a club and wailed him one in the stomach. Just to see. Because Houdini had promised he was infallible, unbreakable.

Houdini died from internal bleeding nine days later.

The plane lurched. "Jesus H. Christ!" Sumner shouted; the walls echoed.

Scully turned to Mulder, man of steel.

Was this it? Had they defeated themselves? Were they vulnerable, now, lying asleep steeped with all they'd learned and done and outdone?

Mulder met her eye, and there was something in him that wasn't quite confidence, but wasn't quite fear, either. Something related to peace, related to acceptance and understanding.

"This isn't it, Scully," he said. "I promise."

She believed him.

The plane jumped again, and for a minute, time stood still. Mulder touched her cheek. "But if it were..." he said.

"It isn't, Mulder," she said.

"That's it, bitch!" Sumner shouted. "You are my bitch! Mine!"

And the plane started climbing again.

"Nice work," Mulder said.

Scully nodded in agreement, even though Sumner couldn't see them.

"Hey," Buddy said, once the plane had leveled. "Uh...never mind. We're almost there."

"Okay," Mulder said.

"Okay," Scully said.

And it was okay. There were bigger things at stake; there was more work to do. The man of steel and the woman of steel were called, and answered back. We're here. We're coming. We're staying.

They were not meant to go the way Houdini died.

***

FORT VILLENEUVE, CANADA, DECEMBER 31st, 1999, 7:01 a.m. T-minus 1 Day

For icy wings and a glass-slick runway, it was a flawless landing. Even Sumner was proud of himself.

Before they'd even stepped down from the plane, Scully had flicked open the safety on her weapon, and she knew without knowing that Mulder had too.

It was too dark to see anything, and they tromped across the airstrip, Pointy in Buddy's arms. When they crested the hill, everything lay out in lights before them.

Fantasy Echo.

Even the name rang out beyond its connotations of Fin d'Siecle, the end of the century; it was a fantasy, a dream, and it echoed out across the silver-white spread of snow and lake and sky. Lights glittered; civilization in its many forms sung out triumphant; life IS!

"We're about to find out, Mulder," Scully said, palming her weapon.

"Yup," he said. "We are."

Sumner, Buddy and Pointy a safe distance behind, they approached the compound.

It spread out in segments like some sort of white plastic Lego-insect; pre-fab locks and blocks and boxes clipped together with seamless dovetail joints, smooth and chalky and organic.

Pinlights were hung across the arched ceilings, stretching from one corner to the other and it's Christmas all the time.

Figures moved in the shadows; equipment was carted on the backs of eskimos like ants, in one door and out the other. It was like the Wizard of Oz, "O-we-o, yo, ho." Scully remembered she'd read somewhere that they were actually saying "all we owe, we owe her." For no good reason, the thought of that - the omnipresent wicked witch with the lives of her doormen in the snarly palm of her green hand - made her chill to the bone.

And they descended, Scully and Mulder, to the Wicked Witch's gates.

Fantasy Echo.

Sumner and Buddy caught up, and Sumner flipped out a keycard and the door slid open.

With not a thought in hell or heaven for what she'd find inside, Scully followed them in. And Mulder, ever chivalrous, was right behind her.

"I'm, uh, I'm gonna take Pointy here home to my wife, see if we can get him cleaned up," Buddy said.

"Good idea," Scully said. Wife? Really?

"You...uh..." Buddy looked away hard.

"I'm out of here," Sumner said, departing. Mulder nodded farewell.

"You, uh..." Buddy said again.

"What is it, Buddy?" Mulder asked gently, almost patronizingly. Scully caught her breath and stood stock still.

"You'll figure it out," Buddy said. "This is as far as I go."

"Okay," Scully said. "Thanks for this."

"Please don't say that yet," Buddy said, over his shoulder, as he disappeared down the corridor.

The hallway was long, and bent off in all directions from the main foyer, equally white and plastic and wall-to-wall-to-ceiling honeycombed grid. Empty and sterile, nothing on the floor or walls, no discernible light fixtures but an allover nonfocal glow.

"This is it, Scully," Mulder said.

"Yeah," Scully said.

They started down the wide central passageway.

Door after door, they passed, and all the same.

Except one, which was open, and opened onto a room lined with computer consoles like NASA: Houston, we have a problem. There was an eskimo man sitting at one of the consoles, and he looked up when Mulder and Scully came in. And said nothing.

"Some kind of war room?" Scully asked.

"Who knows?" Mulder said.

A door on the back wall slid open, and a man stepped across the threshold.

A trail of cigarette smoke twisted around his head and drifted up, disappeared into the honeycombed ceiling.

Scully's blood iced.

"Agent Mulder," the Smoking Man said. "And Agent Scully. How wonderful that you're alive to join us."

***

FORT VILLENEUVE, CANADA, DECEMBER 31st, 1999, 7:11 a.m. T-minus 1 Day

Seconds ticked like days and everything was still as the moment before the alarm goes off, the moment before the phone rings, the moment before car hits tree and glass explodes with crushing metal. Trapped like a mosquito in amber, the moment hung.

Time spun forward, backward, into the realms of death and hate and everything they'd never done and never said and bodies stacked on bodies and the taste of the memory of the smell of blood.

He cracked the silence, and somewhere ice shattered.

"I must admit," he said, twirling his cigarette between his fingers, "I'd written you off for dead, Agent Scully. I didn't imagine I'd be so pleased to find out I was wrong. I guess you've grown on me, over the years."

"What's going on?" she asked, tasting bile.

"What the hell are you doing here?" Mulder asked at the same time.

The smoking man chuckled. "Making myself at home," he said. "Waiting for you. Sampling the fine local cuisine. Speaking of which, can I interest you in breakfast?"

Scully had forgotten what hunger felt like, but at the mention of food her stomach moaned. She quashed the sensation with a glare at Spender. "Tell us what's going on," she said. "Now."

"All right," he said. "I think you'll be impressed. Akavak?" He gestured with his head at the eskimo seated at the computer console, who nodded.

Spender led Mulder and Scully to a tabletop monitor, which whirred when he woke it from its screen saver.

Unbidden, Mulder's hand found its way into Scully's, and she squeezed it, afraid to tear her eyes from the awakening screen. Images appeared.

In red, a rendering of the earth, seas and oceans in unnatural orange. It spun on the screen, weird and bloody and unfamiliar. Green patches pocked continents, Scandinavia, North Africa - the rendering spun north-south, rather than on the axis, making Scully crawl with dizziness - the Western U.S., the Midatlantic U.S., Northern Central Canada. Everything else was a seamless red, and as the globe spun the green patches sucked in on themselves, their borders tightening, fuzzy, around the void.

"What are you showing us?" Scully asked. Mulder was silent, dead silent, but she could feel him tense, the long muscles in his arms bulge and tighten and his hand in hers gripped like a claw.

"Home," Spender said. "Horrible, isn't it? So hard to imagine, impossible to even comprehend."

Scully nearly spat at the non-answer. "What...is...this?" she asked through clenched teeth.

He waited for the Western Hemisphere to reappear, then gestured with the orange tip of his cigarette at the orange screen. "Fort Villeneuve," he said, indicating the green oasis in Northern Canada, its boundaries all the while shrinking, crawling in like fungus. "We're safe here. That's why I brought you."

Mulder inhaled through his nose, clenched and said nothing. Scully stepped in again.

"What about the rest of the world? All the red areas?"

She knew the answer before he said it.

"Gone," he shrugged. "Razed to the ground, burned like cheap paper, struck by a thousand missiles of a thousand terrorists."

"That's impossible," Scully said. "I don't believe it."

"If the bombs didn't make short work of the populations, the fallout will, and what's left will shrivel in the nuclear winter. They're all gone, Agent Scully," he said. "I assure you of that."

His words crawled under her skin like maggots, eating away at her, and she forced her knees to lock and her toes to curl and her neck to do its work keeping her head straight on her tightening shoulders. Incomprehensible. Unimaginable. Horrible.

"And the green areas?" she asked, watching as Scandinavia rolled toward her. Midatlantic states. Washington. Virginia. Maryland. Pennsylvania. New York. Still green. She didn't let herself make the distinction between them, squandered the selfish desire to hang onto a hope that would require admitting to the rest of this horror.

"Tick-tock," Spender said. "It's all a matter of hours, at this point."

She sank onto the stool at the console, her hand slipping from Mulder's. Mulder stood, unmoving, unblinking, staring.

"I don't believe you," she said to Spender. "I don't believe you would do this. I don't believe you could."

He laughed again, an awful smoker's choking laugh, a death rattle. "I agree with you wholeheartedly, Agent," he said. "Even if I had the capacity to bring about such global destruction, I don't have the will to do so. This, I'm afraid, had nothing to do with me."

***

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA, DECEMBER 31st, 1999, 5:20 a.m. T-minus 1 Day

There was something amazingly twisted about thousands of very small things sinking into the tar.

There had been looting on Wilshire, and running, and screaming, and crowds had flown through the glass-broken windows of the Museum of Miniatures and flung tiny chairs, grabbed handfuls of die-cast metal models of the presidents and pocketed them. The whole conquerable world had been reduced here to toys for tots, palm sized cars that lit up and train sets running through exact replicas of San Francisco and New York.

Carrie and Doug had been at Marie Callender's eating pie when the gunshots went off. Like everyone else they'd ducked for cover, peering out through slotted fingers for a glimpse at the excitement; rubberneckers all. They'd been up all night, danced till dawn at the Viper Room, the best of the best, and they'd missed the news driving down here through stopped traffic with the radio off. Marie did make the best pie and they were splitting a piece of pecan, Carrie picking at the nuts only when Doug wasn't looking and wouldn't know she indulged in such luxuries.

And a gunshot went off. And another. And screams, from right outside the window.

The midnight crowd with marijuana munchies, like sheep, filed out to watch.

They were smashing Mercedes with baseball bats and Doug had wrapped an arm around Carrie and held her to him, looking on from the sidewalk.

"Amazing," he said.

"Totally," she said.

So when the looters smashed the glass window of the Museum of Miniatures and poured in like lemmings over the icicle shards, Doug and Carrie followed.

They were important, the miniatures; they were valuable. They were small. Doug stuffed his pockets, stopping only to hand Carrie pieces he thought she'd like. He'd found a chandelier, a silver and gold candelabra, glittering with red and purple stones hung on tiny chains.

"Look," he'd said, dangling it in front of her face. A latino man in a football jersey rammed him in the back and Doug stumbled and she caught him, her face whitening.

"Fuck you," the latino man said, scooping up minitures. "Don't you know they're blowing up cities?"

Doug furrowed his brow and shrugged.

"I'm scared," Carrie laughed. "I've never been in a looting before."

"Consider it fodder for art," Doug said. "I'm gonna write a kick-ass screenplay about tonight."

She smiled at him, and took the tiny candelabra from his fingers. "It's beautiful," she said. "Do we know what's going on?" she asked.

"No," he said. "Just go with the crowd; I'll take care of you. This is fucking awesome."

He was glowing; she'd never seen him so enthralled. She kissed him on the cheek.

"Okay," she said.

Sirens wailed, car hit car hit car hit car and fiberglass crunched outside.

The LAPD came wheeling in shouting through megaphones.

"Everyone out!" they hollered. "This is over. Everyone out."

The fat latino man collided with Doug again and the crowd, lemmings again, turned en masse and spilled from the building.

They were ushered a safe distance away from the museum and now they stood in the pinky minty dark of pre-dawn, huddled like refugees around the La Brea tar pits.

And the miniatures started to soar.

It was the strangest example of collective consciousness Carrie had ever witnessed; it was a sick performance art exhibit as the miniatures flew and smacked the rubbery surface of the tar, littering it like cigarette butts on a barroom floor.

"This goes in the screenplay too," Doug said, throwing a handful of little tin men into the asphalt pool.

On the east side of the tar pits, there were enormous granite statues of woolly mammoths. Two stood on the edge, looking in, as a third, huge and powerful and pleading, looked up at them from the depths, trumpeting his trunk, stilled frozen, sinking away. Here in the early morning light, it was the most awful, most beautiful, most horrific thing Carrie had ever seen, and it brought tears to her eyes.

The mammoths on shore stood impotent, frozen in their granite postures like the victims of Vesuvius in Pompeii, caught for art, frozen in death, extinct and immortal.

"It's the end of the fucking world!" someone shouted. Laughter. Cacophany. Terror and comraderie and psychotic urban bliss.

Carrie reached into the pocket of her leather coat and pulled out the chandelier. With a last look at the mammoths, she flung it away and watched it spiral into the tar pits.

It sank into a surface blacker than the burning sky.

***

FORT VILLENEUVE, CANADA, DECEMBER 31st, 1999, 7:21 a.m. T-minus 1 Day

Red swallowed Finland and the globe spun on, diving backward like the eyeballs of the dead, south to north, ducking under and hidden from view as the ice-white pole appeared.

There was too much to process, behind his words. Scully pressed her fingertips to her eyes, sharp nails through leather gloves and leathery skin; she was tired. All signs pointed to inaccuracy, obfuscation, lies lies lies lies lies. The world, ever-shrinking, was massive, still, still too large to be obliterated with a wink and a nod. It was impossible.

But they were up here anyway; something had brought them here; there was something to conquer. She looked at Mulder, knowing he felt so too. She watched him stirring, standing still, waiting for the enemy to unveil himself so he could shoot him, point-blank, between the eyes and play David to this Goliath they'd been chasing, card after handwritten card.

She wanted an enemy.

"I don't believe you," she said to Spender.

Spender nodded. "I didn't expect you would, immediately. "Fortunately, we have a lifetime together for me to explain. And for you to thank me."

"Thank you?" Scully seethed.

"Yes," he said. "For saving your lives."

Mulder uncoiled, uncorked, and flew at Spender. With a forearm he threw him against the white plastic honeycomb of the wall and pressed him there, staring at him with mania and fury in his eyes. Cigarette dropped from his fingers, Spender looked down at Mulder with wide-eyed amusement.

Mulder let go, and his voice broke as he shouted. "Thank you for *what*, you arrogant son of a bitch? You expect us to buy this sick game? You expect us to believe you let *billions* of people die? And you expect us to *thank you*?" Mulder spat in his face. "Fuck you! Fuck you!"

Scully refused to watch, refused to interfere, let it play out like a movie in the background. She turned her attention to the computer.

A counter ticked off minutes in a white box in the bottom right-hand corner; it was set to local time, 7:22. The world spun. The red grew. There was nothing, no clue, nothing to learn, nothing to prove or disprove what Spender had alleged. No phone numbers to jot down in pencil in a notebook. No bodies to autopsy with the dictaphone running. No truths to conquer, no equations to puzzle and solve. Just the world, spinning blood-red in cartoon clarity on a Sony Vaio workstation monitor at medium-high resolution. 7:23.

Spender was talking.

"I don't expect anything from you, Agent Mulder," Spender said. "You're far too proud of your notorious unpredictability."

Mulder leaned in to him, snarling.

"And I won't try to convince you," he went on, smoothly as possible, even over Mulder's arm pressed against his adam's apple. "I know your tendency toward denial, even when the facts present themselves. You get that from your mother's side, not mine."

Now Scully couldn't not watch. Mulder was fiery and he reached for his gun with his free arm, pressed the muzzle to Spender's throat. "Tell me what the fuck you did," Mulder said through clenched teeth.

Spender eyed Scully with something like a plea, and she raised her own gun and trained it on his skull, rising to her feet. "Talk, asshole," she said.

Just tell me when to shoot, Mulder. I want an enemy.

"Can't we be more civilized about this?" Spender asked over Mulder's arm.

"No," Mulder said. "Talk."

"Very well," Spender sighed, shifting uncomfortably, his back against the wall. "You're in Fort Villeneuve, Canada, stronghold of a group that calls itself Fantasy Echo. Started in the early 1940s by an Austrian man named Bernard Reinhold, may he rest in peace."

"And?"

"Dr. Reinhold was a visionary, truly; some might have called him a nut. I had the privilege of meeting him in the early 80s; brilliant man."

"We don't give a shit," Mulder said.

"Yes, you do," Spender said. "Reinhold was an anthropologist and mathematician; he tracked human development trends. Specialized in genocide and terrorism. He would plot several years into the future, predicting acts of terrorism long before the responsible parties even dreamed of the actions they would take. Called it the natural order of things."

He punched the words, slithering out like serpents.

Mulder released his grip and Spender steadied himself on his feet again, with a nod to Mulder, who glowered.

"Thank you. Moving on." Spender crossed the room to the computer and gestured to it with his pack of cigarettes before extracting one and fitting it to his lips. Mulder and Scully watched, incredulous and flattened by his words.

"This program was based on Reinhold's postulations, later followed up on by an impressive array of scientists and scholars, most of whom still live up here. When the scientific community realized the validity of Dr. Reinhold's work, they tried to warn international governments about acts of terrorism that would occur two, three, five years into the future. Naturally, the goverments failed to listen."

"Because it's bullshit," Scully said. "There's no way to predict like that. There are too many variables, even to attempt to postulate a year into the future. It's bullshit."

"It isn't," Spender said. "Reinhold was able to predict a handful of years into the future. With new technologies, scientists have been able to postulate far further. You were in Winnipeg when it happened. You witnessed or heard about the other cities falling. You know I'm telling you the truth."

"So why now?" Mulder asked, trying with everything to keep his voice steady.

Spender shrugged. "Global panic. Worldwide fear. The myth of Y2K coupled with an intense terror for the future and a nearly universal fear of inadequacy among ruling parties. No country wanted to be left, abandoned; everyone wanted the preemptive strike. The Fantasy Echo scientists learned this seventeen years ago, when they decided to build their stronghold here. Fort Villeneuve in Kitikmeot was the only habitable place, according to their predictions, that would not be affected by the events of the end of the millennium. So they moved up here and continued their work, praying every day that they were wrong, and that they'd get to go back home to their little lives and their families and their little daily mysteries and loves. But as you can see..." he pointed at the screen again. "They weren't wrong."

Scully couldn't think. Her gun slipped from her fingers and clattered to the floor, and she fixed her eyes on Mulder who was ashen, staring at Spender.

"They were good enough to invite me up here to stay with them," Spender went on, "when I came across their work ten years ago."

"You opened the post office box," Mulder said. "Why?"

Spender nodded. His face softened, twisted into a gruesome smile. "You're my son, Fox. I couldn't bear to leave you out there. I needed to know you were safe."

Scully opened her mouth to talk, but no words came. On wobbly legs she crossed to Mulder's side, gripped his arm and bit back tears.

"I don't believe you," Mulder said. Scully could almost hear his soul slip, skid, slide away rotten and tarnished by Spender's words.

Spender shrugged again. "That's fine," he said. "You don't have to. Here's all the evidence you could want." With a sweeping arm he indicated the room. "Akavak! Give these people access to all of our data."

Past a frozen Mulder and Scully, Spender crossed the floor to the exit. "If you need me, ask Akavak to show you to my room," he said, and turned to leave.

Then he stopped, and peered back over his shoulder at them. "I can't tell you how glad I am that you made it here safely," he said. "Both of you."

And with that he left the room.

Scully sank to the stool again. "Mulder," she said, spitting it like a sigh. He nodded, sucking his teeth. "I don't believe it," she said. "It's okay." She reached out for his hand again but he wasn't offering it, he wasn't even looking at her and she let her own arm fall limp in her lap. "What he's proposing is global coincidence; it's impossible. There's no way this program is accurate."

"I thought I could save them, Scully," Mulder said, not looking at her still. "I knew I could. I spent three days in the fucking snow because I thought we were doing something productive. I thought I was such a god-damned hero."

She tried to read his face, tried to find the narrative playing out behind those grey eyes but there was something unfamiliar shadowed there, something new in his mien that was usually so familiar. She had the lexicon, the primer for every glint in his eye and furrow in his brow, tightened to fluency for six years they'd spent together. She spoke Mulder like a native language, but this was a jargon she didn't understand, words hidden behind a look that was something like guilt, and something like fury, and something like a resignation she'd never seen and could barely translate. This was new, and it terrified her.

"Let's get to work, Mulder," she said. "Let's solve this." She appealed to the crusader in him, the valiant knight who burned her blood with a drive and passion she could only approximate with science, but her words hit him deaf.

"Do what you can here, Scully," he said, rote. "I have to go."

Never even meeting her eye, he turned and walked toward the door, his feet pounding hollow plastine echoes in the laboratory. She stood, reached out for him but he shook her free.

"I have to go," he said. "I'll...be right back. I'll be right back."

She watched him leave, watched the doorway long after he'd disappeared through it. What she could translate from his inpenetrable gaze had said, "don't follow me," and despite her darkening fear, she hadn't.

The computer whirred behind her, red swallowed green and it wasn't even 8 a.m. yet.

A low voice caught her off-guard.

"I will show you our work," Akavak said, standing beside her.

He was tall, smooth-faced and young-looking, despite wrinkles peeling out from his eyes. His dark hair was pulled back and braided, and like Buddy and Sumner he wore a nylon Polarfleece jacket, even though it was warm enough inside not to merit it.

She couldn't listen to him; couldn't focus. She nodded vaguely as he handed her a fat manila file folder, spilling with papers and bound with a rubber band.

She knew where Mulder was going, his gun poised, ready to assassinate. There was some sort of expansive universe here, Fantasy Echo all spread out in white plastic honeycombed catacombs, O Canada, for what it was worth. Our home and native land. Not Scully's home. And somewhere out there cities burned and she refused to believe it. The phones were down, the radios were down; there was no way of knowing if the world was alive without a thorough investigation; Mulder and Scully play detective. And she would investigate; she would prove it; she swore to herself, manila folder in lap in room in Canada, O Canada. Someone else's country, tis of thee. She'd find home again.

...O Canada...

...Our home and native land...

She slid the folder onto the counter and stood up.

...True patriot love...

She thought about hotdogs and pickle relish and the Expos playing the Padres back home. Flicking the safety on her gun and heading for the door, she forgot about the shimmer of the Washington Monument in the reflecting pool, the gold-white glow of Lincoln's knobby knees in granite.

Even if a handful of cities had been destroyed, there were still people out there, millions of people, alive and celebrating. The world was indomitable, undefeatable; life would fight back for life. The world was massive - she bit back tears - and the world was alive. It had to be.

...in all thy sons command...

The world was alive, as long as she was confident of that fact. Home was alive, her mother was breathing, laughing, driving bad left turns around ice-slick puddles after sunset.

Bill showed Matthew how to pry the little hard plug off the top of the airplane glue without getting it on his fingers; Scully could smell the epoxy. Bill was alive.

Somewhere just past midnight she heard a snuffle; Charlie flung out an arm in his sleep and slapped it across Peter's chest; Peter pretended to be asleep and smiled to himself, catching a reflection of his lazy-grown stubble in the glasses Charlie had forgotten to take off when he fell asleep reading. Charlie was alive.

...With glowing hearts we see thee rise...

She bit her lip, hard, tasted blood. Don't know where I'm going but I'm making good time, Mulder. Here I come. We're doing this together. Everything will be all right. Everything will be all right. Everything will be all right.

...The True North, strong and free...

And everything will be all right.

Let freedom ring.

She caught up with Mulder not a hundred yards away.

He was standing in the corridor, his head cocked to the side, his gun dangling from his fingers. She holstered hers and took his from him, pocketed it and took his hand.

He was vacant, vapid, lost staring glassy-eyed at nothing and she squeezed him, traced her fingers up his bicep and begged him to look at her.

"Mulder."

Nothing.

"Mulder, come on. You're tired. Come on. Let me put you to bed. Let's find you a room."

He didn't move, didn't speak.

She throbbed, her head spun. She reached up to him, wrapped her arms around him and buried her face in his chest. "Come on, Mulder," she said. "Everything will be all right. We'll get through this. We'll figure this out. He's lying to us, Mulder. He's playing the same games he always plays. Come on."

As a doctor, she knew he was fine. Shocked, terrified, wracked with guilt, absolutely. He was feeling all the sensations she was, but prismed through his borne cross and amplified like echoes they resonated for him, and she understood. And she would take care of him; she would battle his demons and prove it to him: everything will be all right.

As a doctor, she understood all of this. As a partner, she recognized the call of responsibility, and as a friend she leaped to its hail.

As a lover she wanted to crawl inside his flesh and holler against his bones and drag him out and keep him with her, flesh on flesh to touch, alive, everything alive, the only thing alive.

As a lover she felt hewn and left bleeding.

I need you, Mulder. The world is alive. Help me find it. I need you. This is too huge for me, too vast, too spacious. A needle in a haystack, Mulder; our needle. Help me. Our world is alive.

As if he heard, Mulder's arms floated up, crossed her back and held her close, an almost unconscious movement. She felt his lips, the familiar curve of mouth and chin press against the top of her head.

"He...saved me because I'm his son," Mulder said, like he'd found a penny and wasn't sure what there was in the world to spend it on. "Scully." And her name, just to make sure. She closed her eyes and breathed him in. Life life life.

Footsteps coming toward them made her turn.

They belonged to a tall, slender woman, maybe early forties, dark hair, crazy-curly, streaked with grey. Disheveled and dressed in a robe and slippers, she looked like someone's mother come downstairs in the middle of the night to tell the slumber party girls it was lights-out time. She stopped in her tracks and backpedaled a step when she saw them.

"Can you help us?" Scully called to her. "We're looking for a room, a place to sleep, something?"

"Dana Scully," the woman said, nodding. "You're on our floor. We didn't know if you'd want two rooms, but you've got two."

Scully peeled free from Mulder, not even surprised this woman knew her. Surprise was a sensation for the saved, the blessed, the ones with wonder still at the fact that not every cup of coffee is bottomless, even at diners, and sometimes you can even make a left on red. Surprise was a luxury, checked at the door of this white honeycombed place.

"Two is fine," Scully said. "Who are you?"

The woman had approached cautiously, like she was afraid she'd stand in the way of the light and their shadows would disappear. "Penny Eisenberg," she said, extending a hand, which Scully shook.

"Buddy's wife," Scully said. "Good to meet you." She looked up at Mulder, who was watching Penny with detachment and nodding slightly. "This is my partner, Fox Mulder."

Penny reached for Mulder's hand but he didn't respond. Scully swallowed the lump in her throat and played brave.

"Can you show us to our rooms?"

Everything will be all right. Everything will be all right. Everything will be all right.

***

The Duel by Eugene Field

The gingham dog and the calico cat Side by side on the table sat; 'Twas half past twelve, and, what do you think, Not one nor the other had slept a wink! And the old Dutch clock and Chinese plate Seemed to know, as sure as fate, There was going to be an awful spat. (I wasn't there -- I simply state What was told to me by the Chinese plate.)

The gingham dog went "bow-wow-wow!" And the calico cat replied "me-ow?" And the air was streaked for an hour or so With fragments of gingham and calico, While the old Dutch clock in the chimney place Up with its hands before its face, For it always dreaded a family row! (Now mind, I'm simply telling you What the old Dutch clock declares is true.)

The Chinese plate looked very blue And wailed; "Oh, dear, what shall we do!" But the gingham dog and the calico cat, Wallowed this way and tumbled that, And utilized every tooth and claw In the awfullest way you ever saw - -And Oh! how the gingham and calico flew! (Don't think that I exaggerate - -I got my news from the Chinese plate.)

Next morning where the two had sat, They found no trace of dog or cat; And some folks think unto this day, That burglars stole that pair away; But the truth about the cat and pup Is that they ate each other up! Now, what do you really think of that? (The old Dutch clock it told me so And that is how I came to know.)

***

FORT VILLENEUVE, CANADA, JANUARY 4th, 2000 4:40 pm. T-plus 4 Days

"This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper," someone had said at the party, and everyone had shrugged and muttered vaguely at the cliche. It had been on everyone's lips, that soundbyte, that little morsel of pseudo-philosophy, but no one had figured it important to say but the lone geek spilling eggnog on his tie while trying to look profound and mournful.

The funny part was, the computers were fine. No hung COBOL glitches, no Y2K bug trying to convince them they were driving horseless carriages or trying to send them long-overdue social security.

Calculations had suggested that the nuclear activity would be minimal, containing itself mostly in the near east, India, Pakistan. The superpowers: Russia, the EU, the US would retailiate their terrorist strikes with much more restraint, but it would add up; all the firebombs and air raids and missiles raining down on cities like Brussels and Minsk and Chicago would add up; everyone would do his part in this armageddon, from the man with the rifle in Nebraska to the family rushing to their shelter in Rio, tossing a half-dead grenade at the flag-bearing militia tromping down shrubbery. The gingham dog and the calico cat side by side on the table sat.

There was no way of knowing if the world had survived. There was no way of knowing if decades of calculation had been proven wrong, if human decency had prevailed over the temptress of destruction. And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air were too far away, now, miles upon miles of treacherous, impassable snow stood between here and knowing if the flag, indeed, was still there.

And no one wanted to brave it. No one was willing to take the risk of fallout; no one wanted to cross the valley of the shadow of death and stare at the bodies strewn across the cities they were still unsure of. Wimps, yellow-bellies, all of them. Even the two agents from the FBI.

Buddy had built them up to be some sort of superhero team; he'd shown her their dossiers saying "look at what these two have been through! Look at what they've solved!" and he'd had a lingering hope that they'd somehow undo this, as they'd undone all the awful cases in their history, stared down evil as they had time and time again.

But Agent Mulder hadn't spoken to anyone in four days. So far as Penny knew, he never left his room; Agent Scully would spend hours on end in there; she'd bring him meals on trays and bring the trays out nearly untouched. She'd grown ashen, Scully had, she'd grown older in the days after zero hour; she was tight and wound and untouchable. She protected Mulder like a mama animal, literally snarling at anyone who tried to come close. Down the hall, at night, Penny could hear her talking to him, soft and low, for hours and hours. Mulder said nothing.

Zero hour had come and gone, not with a bang, though Penny had wanted one, and not even really with a whimper. There had been a party with nothing to celebrate, and the tin-cup champagne toasts "to life!" had been forced, twisted shared skeletal smiles at their victory, led in triumph by the boss man himself, cigarette dangling from his lips.

And for no reason other than to have something to do, the eskimos and the scientists worked in the lab, trying to reconstruct the data, looking for evidence of something, of anything. Trying to find a needle in a haystack. Trying to find life on Mars.

Agent Scully and Akavak were sitting across the war room table when Penny came in. Buddy got up from his terminal and sailed to her side, wrapped an arm around her waist. He was everything like affectionate in these days past zero hour; he would touch her, squeeze her, take her hand, stroke her face, trying to convince himself that she was still there, she imagined, still warm, still solid and alive. And though she'd never say a word - she kissed him on the chin and raked a hand through the back of his hair -there was something about him that terrified her, now, and repulsed her. His part in all this. His knowledge, that he hadn't shared with her until it was long past too late. He was the enemy, somehow. Stupid, pointless waste of love. And she loved him with everything she had.

"How's it going in here?" she asked him. He shrugged.

"Same," he said. "Trying to figure out if what we projected would happen...happened. We're working off calculations that are almost ten years old. Trying to refigure them based on more current knowledge of...current events," he chuckled. "Trying to see if they add up. Added up."

"And so far..." he tossed his arms in the air with mock glee, "they do!"

"Don't you think someone should go out there again?" Penny asked, for the second time since zero hour. "Saddle up a snow cat or take the Cherokee and see what's still alive out there?"

Buddy shrugged. "We don't even know if it's safe to leave the compound," he said. "There could be fallout, dangerous radiation even way up here."

Penny nodded. "They should have built windows in this damned thing," she said. "We could just look."

"And see what?" Scully snapped, pushing a stack of papers across the table to Akavak. "What do *you* think radiation looks like? Not to mention the fact that this building wouldn't be safe for us with windows in these 150 mile an hour winds, and that glass would melt in a nuclear explosion."

Penny flushed. Damn bitch was chewing her out. "Sorry," she said, eyes widening. "I didn't know."

"Then don't talk," Scully said, turning back to her computations.

"Wouldn't the..." Penny's voice was lower; she whispered to Buddy. "Wouldn't the computers not work if there was a nuclear blast up here?"

"The structure was built to absorb the shock of an EMP," Buddy explained. "Everything in here would be protected."

"And we don't have...radiation detectors?" Penny tried again.

Buddy nodded. "We do. They claim dangerous levels of radiation right outside our doors. Could be a computer glitch, could be a Y2K error, or could be that we're two steps away from being fried. According to the detectors, it's ten times Chernobyl across this province. You want to take that risk? You want me to?"

Yes, she thought. Risk your life, show me you're still a man. "No," she said. "But I thought that's why the FBI agents came up here?"

Wrong thing to say.

Scully pressed her palms to the tabletop, hoisted herself to her feet.

"Agent Mulder and I were tricked into coming up here," she said, face inches from Penny's. "Maybe you haven't heard the story; get Buddy to tell you some time. And right now, all I care about is making sure that my partner is okay, and finding out if there's any way to contact the outside world. I saw, first hand, every city, town, village between here and the United States border get flattened. I know what's out there. Five thousand miles of nothing. And whether that means my brother in San Francisco is alive today, I don't know. But fuck you if you think I'll let myself and Mulder die before I find out!"

Penny shrank back despite herself. She'd been right with her initial assessment: these redheads were all the same.

"I'm done here," Buddy said. "Let's go back to the room, huh? Maybe watch a video before dinner?"

Penny nodded, and with it, they left the war room.

She paused outside Mulder's door when they reached the habitat corridor; she had an intense urge to bust in and shake him, rattle him till his brain clicked and she could see what he was made of that the boss man was so proud of. See what was so wonderful about him that had sucked the life out of Agent Scully. See what he had to offer, wasting their food and oxygen and space.

Just a brief pause, though, and she continued down the hall behind Buddy to the bedroom.

"We've got enough food, clothing, oxygen and heat to keep 214 people alive for sixty years," Buddy said, sitting on the bed and flipping on the video monitor, the thing that used to be a television. "We'll be fine here, baby."

She nodded, sitting down beside him. She hadn't asked.

***

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA, JANUARY 4th, 2000, 1:50 p.m. T-plus 4 Days

It had been like something out of a movie, playing back now on repeat, to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne."

And it almost never snowed in San Francisco.

*** S

AN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA, DECEMBER 31st, 1999, 7:19 p.m. T-minus 1 Day

"Your pocket's ringing, again."

"Uh huh."

Outside it was below freezing, windchill way down to where it would be snow in a normal city, blustery and grey just past dusk and stars still hidden through the ambient light. Stores were closed, fake snow sprayed on the windows hung with those ubiquitous pinlight icicles, just beginning to cut through the dark, oddly fake and beautiful at once.

Charlie stepped back, helped Peter up through the sliding door.

His cellphone rang again.

Peter held the bag way up over his head as they wormed to the end of the car, holiday commuters in silk scarves and platform books decked the aisle. The car shuddered, doors shut, train started moving. And by the time they reached the end of the car there was only one empty seat, and Peter, bricked in with stacks of gifts like the cask of Amontillado, collapsed in it gratefully.

"Stopped ringing," he said.

"Uh huh," Charlie said, hand wrapped around the bar and swaying.

"Why don't you just turn it off, if you're not going to answer it," Peter asked through boxes.

Charlie shrugged. He slipped a gloved hand into his pocket and slid out the StarTac, flipped it open. "One missed call," it said. He scrolled down, saw the familiar number. Shaking his head, he clapped the phone shut again and stuffed it in his pocket.

"You okay with all that crap?" he asked Peter.

"I ain't letting you touch this," Peter said, peering out to the left of the FAO Schwartz bag. "Your present's in here too, remember. I don't trust you far as I can throw you."

The train shuddered again, screeched to a halt and the doors slid open -passengers got in, passengers got off, and another seat opened up across the aisle. Charlie sat down.

"Gimme half," he said, knowing Peter would argue. "I promise I won't look."

"You can just go to hell," Peter said goodnaturedly. "Don't touch the boxes."

Glad Peter couldn't see him through the stacks on his knees, Charlie rubbed his face with his hands. Under his hat his hairline was creeping back, another year gone, and he massaged his eyebrows with gloved fingers, sighing.

The phone rang again and he opened it, saw the same damned number on the display, and hung up on the caller mid-ring.

Fuck 'em all. And a happy new year.

The phone rang once more before their stop at Market and Noe, but this time it was Henry asking them to bring ice.

Twenty minutes later, shouldering a 20 lb bag of ice, and holding the elevator for Peter, Charlie smiled. They stopped outside Henry's door; a sprig of mistletoe hung above it and a handwritten sign saying "Don We Now Our Gay Apparel."

Charlie laughed. "I forgot my gay apparel," he said.

"Anything you wear is gay apparel, girlfriend," Peter said. "Let's not waste the mistletoe, though."

Ice hit giftboxes, carboard clattered softly to the ugly-print industrial carpet, but Charlie didn't notice. He leaned in to the kiss, inhaling deeply through his nose. Fuck 'em all, he thought, flipping his phone in his pocket off with a thumb. Fuck 'em all.

He drew back, blinked at Peter's dark eyes, dark hair, freckled, smiling face. "I love you, maaaan," he said, doing his best football-butch.

"I love you too," Peter whispered.

The door opened and Henry bustled them in, gathering up boxes and trotting behind them.

Television was out, land-line phones were dead, there would be no ball dropping in Times Square for Frisco this New Year, but at Henry LeFleur's, no one cared. Charlie got stupid on pink punch with oranges floating in it; karaoke was sung. Someone passed a bowl of kisses and condoms, chocolate both; someone else passed a joint. A merry time was had by all, Charlie thought, later, singing it like it was poetry. He drowned his sorrows, switched the phone back on and laughed when it rang the next time. Fuck 'em all. And a happy new year.

At ten past eleven he and Peter were sent on a booze run so they'd have spirits to toast the New Year.

"There's a package store down across from Cafe Flore," Leanne said, propping herself precariously up on the countertop. "Get white and brown and champagne. Take donations when you get back so you don't miss the ball drop."

"TV's out," Peter reminded her.

She nodded, lighting a cigarette. "And a pack of Parliaments," she said.

The walk down Noe St. was quiet, oddly so; all the raucousness and cheering you'd expect to hear an hour before the millennium was eerily absent and the city sat still.

Peter and Charlie strolled in silence; the moon waned and the night was cold and motionless.

"So," Peter said, after about a block. "You gonna tell me who's been calling all night you've been ignoring?"

"Mom," Charlie said, sucking his teeth. "She's been calling since Christmas. I haven't heard from her in four years and she's called fifty times in a week. I just let it ring."

Peter sighed, stopped, took Charlie's elbow in his hand. "Why, Chuck? She just wants to apologize. She just wants to reestablish communication with you. Don't you want that?"

Charlie scuffed his toes on the sidewalk and walked on. "Not really," he said. "I'm getting by fine without them. Just because she's got some sort of millennial guilt trip doesn't mean I have to."

"And what if she has something important to tell you? What if it's an emergency?"

"What do I care?" Charlie shrugged.

"You didn't even go to your sister's funeral," Peter said. "Don't you regret that?"

Charlie inhaled through his nose. "Yes," he said. "Missy's a good kid. Was a good kid. She didn't blow me off the way the rest of them did."

"So why didn't you go?"

Charlie walked several paces ahead. "You know this," he said.

"Tell me again," Peter said, catching up.

"Mom was there. Dana was there. That asshole Bill was there. There was no reason for me to deal with that just to mourn the one member of my family I actually liked. I learned that much at Dad's funeral."

"And you're telling me you don't miss them at all," Peter said, peering up at Charlie, his face half-glowing under the streetlamp.

Charlie nodded. "I miss Dana," he said. "I want to know what's up with her. Everything I know about her life I get from pages on the internet that end dot gov. That sort of pisses me off. I think she's doing great things. I wish I could, you know, cheer for her."

"So *call* her," Peter said. "Wish her a happy new year. I'm sure she'd be happy to hear from you."

Charlie stopped, extended both arms and clapped his hands on Peter's shoulders. "Look, baby," he said. "You just don't get it. My family's Catholic. My dad was in the Navy. Bill's in the Navy now. Everything about my life is six kinds of sin, to them. They've erased me from their lives. What choice do I have?"

"Even Dana?" Peter asked. His eyes were wide, pained; he was trying to find some way to help and Charlie appreciated the gesture, squeezed his shoulder.

"Maybe not, if she'd been given the chance to appreciate the situation," Charlie said. "But she's Mom's little girl. Even more so after Dad died. Missy could have convinced her, but I think Dana was always a little scared of me. I'm scared shitless of her."

"She's your sister!" Peter said, the words bursting from his lips. He started walking again.

"Don't worry about it," Charlie said, meeting his stride. "Let's get drunk."

They ducked into the package store just before it exploded.

There was a blinding flash of light.

SCREAMS.

SCREAMS.

His could have sworn he heard the cell phone ring.

Peter.

There was fire everywhere, sirens wailed and as abruptly stopped.

Trapped under a refrigerator that had fallen, Charlie lay still for what felt like hours, calling out, shouting till his throat was raw. No one heard.

The phone hadn't rung.

Silence.

PETER.

With every ounce of strength he'd managed to pull himself free, and he'd crawled across the floor, shrapnel embedding itself in his hands and knees. The air stank of booze and brimstone and he dragged himself to his feet and surveyed the scene.

Everything was flattened, shattered, blackened and burned.

Peter lay face down in a pile of Pete's Wicked Ale bottles, his leg twisted impossibly at the knee, his arms and face charred, blood crusting around his nose and mouth.

Charlie knelt beside him and no tears came. Silent and frozen he sat in the broken glass until the sun came up and the sky went pink and for the first time in San Francisco in years, snow fell.

Snow fell, and leaving behind the bodies and the booze he wandered out into the street. His legs hurt, his chest hurt, he figured he'd broken a rib or three and his eyes burned in the pink light.

Block after block he'd walked, and bodies, everywhere.

There was no one alive.

Maybe it was the refrigerator that had saved him; he didn't know. Henry's building had collapsed, bodies were trapped, caught mid-scream with no sign of what had killed them.

Block after block after block.

He'd found food, and water; he'd stolen a coat from a body he'd found and he wandered and night fell and he slept and dawn broke again.

Block after block after block.

No phones. No life. San Francisco, enormous and sprawling and empty.

Night fell, dawn broke, and he stopped counting days.

***

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA, JANUARY 4th, 2000, 1:50 p.m. T-plus 4 Days

It had been like something out of a movie, playing back now on repeat, to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne."

And it almost never snowed in San Francisco.

Curled up on a park bench, his teeth to his knees, he couldn't shake the lingering tune, the mocking words. Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind?

It wasn't a multiple choice question.

Peter had left him alone. With nothing but auld acquaintance for company.

With hands dry, cracked, twisted beyond his years he fumbled the cellphone, flipped it open and shut. It had battery left, at least, the indicator said it did, but there was no dial tone, no ring, no answer at any number he punched in.

No answer at Mom's.

No answer at Dana's.

He hadn't seen another living soul. Hadn't spoken a word out loud, at least, not to his knowledge - it was possible he'd been serenading himself as he wandered through the aftermath of whatever horror had struck here.

Cars didn't start, and he forced himself not to think about the electromagnetic pulse that was supposed to follow a nuclear blast.

In the Presidio, palm trees shriveled for the weather. The ground was white. Somewhere out there, California stretched on. South to San Diego, where Bill and the wife and the kid (what was his name again?) were either dead or alive. It stretched up and north, to the Redwood forests, and out east the country unfolded, purple mountain's majesty to the Gulf Stream waters. To the New York Island. To Washington D.C., to the cluster of tiny midatlantic states where Mom and Dana were either dead or alive.

Somewhere soon there would be a blissfull family reunion for all of them sent to hell for their sins and their hatred. God wasn't biased; that much he knew.

And they would forgive him. And it would be warm there.

But now he sat in the park, staring at the dead phone, wondering exactly what it was he wished he'd said. Wondering what they'd say to him.

Charlie Scully was alive and well and living in San Francisco; it hadn't stopped snowing in days.

And the band played on.

***

FORT VILLENEUVE, CANADA, JANUARY 5th, 2000, 6:51 a.m. T-plus 5 Days

Scully woke up in a cold sweat to find she'd kicked her blanket off in her sleep.

Charlie.

Before all this started, she'd almost never thought about him. Sometimes when she was mourning Melissa her thoughts would touch on him but she'd shake them free for the embarrassment they brought. Now she thought about him constantly, and found herself dreaming about him most nights. Nightmares.

He'd never know she loved him. He'd never know she accepted him for whatever the hell he was, screw Mom, screw Dad and Bill, screw 'em all for their provincial whitebread notions of good. Fuck 'em all and a happy new year.

She took a deep breath, shook her head to loose the cobwebs, and the part that hurt most, before the dream faded, somehow, was the fact that he'd never know Mom had been calling because she was dying. She'd been calling to say goodbye.

And by the time her feet hit the floor the dream had disappeared and it was another working day in Canada.

As always, she brought Mulder his breakfast on a white plastic tray.

As always, he was sitting at his desk, staring at the white plastic surface, and as always, he looked up with something only vaguely like recognition when she came in the white plastic door.

As always, she stilled her throbbing heart, bit her tongue till it bled and willed herself to stay steeled against his tripping, willed herself not to fall in after him.

Fuck him, for abandoning her to this. She would not break. She wouldn't give him the pleasure.

As always, she left before the tears came.

Fuck him for all of this.

Standing outside his door in the corridor, she caught her breath and slapped the back of a hand across her eyes. Akavak would be waiting downstairs with computations and Barrett would be kicking and cursing and trying to make the radios work. The Geiger counter would tremble in the red and Scully would nod at Buddy, wrap her hands around a tin mug of coffee and it was another working day in Canada.

She sucked her teeth and geared up for the morning. And halfway to the elevator she stopped, turned, and pushed open Mulder's door again.

Fuck him for the end of the fucking world.

"Mulder."

He looked up, staring dumbly. He hadn't touched his food.

She crossed to him, grabbed his shoulders and hoisted him to his feet.

"MULDER. MULDER! God damn it, Mulder, crack! Stop this bullshit! MULDER!"

"Yeah, Scully?" he said, his voice far away and tinny, like he'd forgotten how to use it. The sound of it, the sound of her name from his lips sent her trembling but she stood her ground, all coiled fury and spit.

"We have to talk," she said.

"I can't," he said. "Not now."

"Yes," she said. "Now."

She sat on the bed; he stood over her, looking like he didn't know what to do with his hands.

"Scully," he said, softly. "I'm sorry. I can't do this. I can't be this person any more."

"What person, Mulder? This isn't some poetry epic where you're supposed to play a knight in shining armor. No one's asking that of you, Mulder. No one ever has. This is godforsaken Kitikmeot Canada, January 5th of the year 2000. And we've got shit to do."

He collapsed in the chair, straddling it, facing her until he buried his head in his hands. "They are asking that, Scully," he said. "They always have."

She groaned, her throat rattling. "I've let you play prima donna for five days, Mulder," she said. "I've shouldered this whole damned thing myself. And I need your help if we're ever going to figure this place out and get ourselves out of here. So snap out of it."

He didn't respond, not for a long time.

When he did look up, there were tears in his eyes. He reached out both his arms to her, palms up, helpless.

"I can't," he said, weakly.

She snapped.

"Fuck you!" she said. "You can, Mulder, and you will. Tell me what's the matter with you that's driven you so far into your head you won't even talk to me anymore! Tell me what's made you into this shell of a person I don't even recognize!" There was a lump in her throat and she swallowed over it. "I need you, Mulder! Not the knight, the man. The extra mind, the extra pair of hands. My partner. Don't you even think you've got some excuse to dick me over like you've been doing. Fuck you."

"He saved us, Scully," Mulder said, after a long pause. "He tricked us up here to save our asses, and let the rest of the world burn."

She nodded. "Yes," she said. "He did. And fuck him too. But what excuse is that for you to bail on me like this?"

He met her eye and for the first time in days he was Mulder, he was her Mulder, she could see him through the glaze and it broke her heart. "You know me," he said, and the words cut like knives. "You know me."

It was all he needed to say, though she watched him like she needed more. She knew him, knew his quest, knew her knight-analogy wasn't far from wrong and knew that Mulder here at the mercy of the bastard Spender was castrated and more lost than he'd ever been for what he'd left behind.

Not just for the quests and the puzzles and the ghosts and the myth of his sister and the dangling glass carrots of salvation, but for everything he'd left: the guy with the handlebar mustache at the roach coach outside the Hoover bldg who readied a hotdog with mustard and relish when he saw Mulder coming - BOOM. Gone. The goddamned Yankees and their perfect series - BOOM. Gone. His mother - BOOM. Gone. Highway tolls. Used record stores. Beer in bottles with the labels peeled off. The smell of gasoline and fake leather in a rental car. Six kids playing pick-up b-ball in the summer, steam rising from the tarmac and sweat beading off their shirtless chests and their tiny, perfect smiles. BOOM. Gone. Gone.

All these little blissful nuggets of humanity were Mulder's wards, in his eyes; he was father and benefactor and protector to all that was rough and imperfect and human, all the mutants and children and gods.

BOOM. Gone.

It was a burden he'd brought upon himself so many years ago, and one she couldn't really expect him to shake easily, not now with all evidence pointing to total destruction.

Evidence.

If a tree falls in the forest.

If the radios are down.

If the phones are dead.

If all evidence points to the world outside being gone, does it make a sound? Does it matter? If they're trapped up here, alone, cut off, severed, does it matter?

If this is all in their heads, and out there the world is trucking along merrily, does it make a sound? Does it matter? And is it worse, somehow, not knowing?

Alone?

"Mulder," she said, more quietly. Her heart had stilled; her hands trembled. "Yes. I know you. I know what this is to you. But this is all we've got, now. We've got a chance to prove that this is all wrong, that the world is alive, out there. I need you. If we can...prove this; if we can get through this and get out of here then we win. What if...what if the world is fine, Mulder? What if there are people alive down there? What then?"

"THE WORLD IS NOT ALIVE!" Mulder bellowed, and the white plastic walls shuddered.

He dragged himself to his feet and grabbed her, wrested her up to face him.

"The world is not alive, Scully," he hissed. "This is it. This is all there is. You and me and that bastard who says he's my father and a bunch of god damned eskimos. We're the second coming, Scully. We're the kingdom of god. The world is dead. Get that through your head. There's no more hope left, Scully. This is it. This is it!"

He shook her free, too hard, his fingers scraping her biceps as he flung her away and she stumbled back and collapsed on the bed again, blinking and breathless.

No.

"Then what about...us, Mulder?" Scully asked, peering up on propped elbows.

Mulder knelt beside her. "There is no us, Scully. Not anymore. It's all over." He wouldn't meet her eye. "I'm sorry," he said. "I don't deserve it; you don't deserve me. There's nothing left."

His words resonated, echoed in the hollow white plastic like drumskin.

"Please go," he said. "Do what you have to do. It's over."

She scrabbled to her feet, her eyes fixed on him. "I don't believe you," she said. "And I don't believe any of this."

"Then you're deluded," he said, "and stupid. I'm sorry. Please go now."

On legs like jelly she tumbled from the room, and collapsed against the wall as the door shut behind her.

No tears came. She was numb. It was over. Any hope she'd had of remembering what her life had been like before with the hotdogs and the rental cars was gone now; nothing was real but the white plastic corridors and the ambient light and the expanse of snow outside she'd never see again.

Every day like this one, world without end, alone, she would face the kingdom of god.

Every day in white on white, white plastic walls stretching out, dinner at the dinner bell and paper pushing and sleep that wouldn't come, wracked with dreams she couldn't remember that left her shaky.

Every day like this one, world without end.

Alone. Without Mulder, without anyone or anything like sanity left from the world she'd left behind.

And tomorrow was another working day in Canada.

Getting up on her feet she headed for her room again. The work, the meaningless busy work could wait. Fuck 'em all and a happy new year.

There was a pillow on the bed waiting for her face to collapse into it, but there was a notebook on the desk waiting for her pen and it was an easy choice.

Kicking off her shoes, she sat down and began to write.

"I never really told you about this, did I?

When I was about nine I asked my father what the duck and cover drills were for."

***

I can hear the distant thunder of a million unheard souls. Of a million unheard souls. Watch each one reach for creature comforts, For the filling of their holes. In the blood of Eden lie the woman and the man. It was all for the union, Oh, the union of the woman, the woman and the man. -- Peter Gabriel, "Blood of Eden"

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye. -- Antoine de Saint Exupery, "The Little Prince"

***

FORT VILLENEUVE, CANADA, JANUARY 10th, 2000 9:09 p.m. T-plus 10 Days

He scrolled up, lit another cigarette, and reread what he'd written.

"His life with the boy was a series of still images framed in car windows, slotted Venician blinds, the squared plus-sign light of a camera lens. Always at a distance, the father watched.

"The boy learned how to use his limbs, learned the shape and pull of the masculine body, scabby, climbing trees, throwing a baseball, swimming hard. He grew long and lean, the image of his father in youth before him.

"He grew older, learned how to use his mind, his heart, found life and love in the thrill and the twang of danger and mystery, found agony only in impasses and that which he did not understand.

"He grew older still, went away, across the ocean, and even there the father watched, record-keeping photos sent back from his well-manicured friends. The father wrote letters, monthly, at first, then yearly, never to be sent.

"The father ached for who he would never be to the boy, but circumstance prevented the truth. The boy returned home, galloped wildly on fruitless quests and the father laughed through tears, promising he'd keep him safe, he'd never hurt him, he'd make sure the boy found something like the peace the father had never had. To serve and protect.

"When they met, it was on opposite sides of a world the boy did not yet understand, that the father could not explain to him. When they met, finally, it was with hate in the boy's eyes for this man he did not know, this man who loved him with more than he could express, this man who was forbidden to express it. When they met, instead of face to face, they stared down the barrel of a gun.

"But always, the connection between them transcended hate, transcended even love. There was something deeper, there; even the boy suspected it, even if he didn't know the truth. The connection was - "

"Schlock," Spender muttered to himself, dragging the cursor up the monitor and deleting all he'd written.

He blew on the tip of his cigarette, watching it flare orange and fade to grey-pink again under ash. The room, the compound, the white plastic walls had become familiar, more familiar than anywhere he'd lived or been; this was, at last, home. And Fox was here.

Mulder. The boy had always resented his given name; as a kid he'd been teased he sounded like an animal; as an adult he'd been teased he sounded like a porn star. It had been his mother's choice, the name; Spender had raised eyebrows to it when he'd heard that's what she'd named the child, but he was in no position to question; she'd made that quite clear. He was removed, utterly removed from Mulder's upbringing, ousted from the family by his own choice and theirs. Bill was a good father, a fine father to the boy, but Spender couldn't help but wonder what powers of personality Mulder might had developed had he been raised with the opportunity to develop in Spender's own image.

And now they were here together, among the sole survivors of an armageddon neither had counted on, free of alien colonization, paranormal influence or anything otherwise inhuman. This annihilation was all too human, hate turned against hate, brother against brother and all fall down.

Mulder would have dealt better with alien colonization, Spender suspected. He himself might have too, though for the last ten years he'd spun his wheels with the colonization project, knowing but not wanting to believe it was all for naught - the world would be gone, obliterated before the first wave of alien invaders would even think to land on this blue marble. Somewhere up there, they'd move on to more fertile pastures, and the earth, for what it was worth, would be spared. Humanity would fizzle out under its own steam, the work of its own hands.

But Fox was here. And when the last of the Fantasy Echo survivalists died, the world would wink out and earth would spin, ancient, into nothingness, a forgotten page in some unwritten universal history book. The scientists were asked not to have children - they were encouraged, with mandatory sterilization for all the couples. But now Fox was here. Father and son, they would survive, the only such pair left standing, the only blood relatives of earth.

The time had come for the truth, and for forgiveness. Fox would realize, now, that his father loved him.

Poising fingers over keys, Spender began to type again. This time he started with, "Dear Mulder."

An hour passed. Two hours. The ashtray overflowed and Spender wrote on, pages and pages and pages of all he'd wanted to say, all he needed Mulder to know. Two and a half hours. Three.

Twenty nine pages later he clicked the mouse and the printer whirred. He hadn't signed the letter - he didn't know how.

***

He stubbed out the last cigarette on the ground outside Mulder's door, and knocked. He didn't really expect an answer, and didn't get one. Palm clammy around the folded twenty nine pages he slipped the master keycard through the lock and watched the light click from red to green. The door swung open.

Mulder was at his desk, staring intently at nothing. He rose on shaky legs when Spender entered, and instinctively reached for his weapon, hung from his holster on the back of his chair. Weapons were off limits in the compound, but Spender made the rules here and he'd known Mulder would resist, and he'd allowed him to keep it, knowing it would make him more comfortable. Scully, too, because Mulder's protective instinct would soar into overdrive if he suspected she was threatened, and Spender needed Mulder to know he bore neither of them ill will. He'd saved their lives, after all.

"Mulder," he said. It was neither a question nor even a greeting; it was an acknowledgement.

"Get out of here," Mulder hissed, his voice tremulous despite the fury behind it.

"I brought you something," Spender said, extending the letter. "I hope you'll read it. I think it will help you understand."

"Understand what, you crazy fuck?" Mulder took a step toward him, gun shaking in his pale hands. "There's nothing to understand."

Spender nodded. "I know you hate me, Mulder. But I don't hate you. For nearly forty years, you've been the most important thing in my life. You're my son, Mulder. We've got the rest of our lives to spend together. I'd like for us to do it as friends. As family."

"The rest of our lives isn't a lot to worry about," Mulder said, his eyes fierce and wild. He flipped open the safety on his weapon. "Now get the hell out of here."

Spender took a step closer, lay the letter on the desk. "I know you won't hurt me. I saved your life, Mulder. I brought you here. You owe me your life, and all I ask in recompense is that you try and understand."

Somewhere in Mulder's head, a teacup broke.

"Understand WHAT, you psychotic motherfucker? UNDERSTAND WHAT? Understand that you let the rest of the world die out because of some warped notion of fate? Understand that you tricked me up here when I could have done something to help, by making me think I *was* doing something to help? You PLAYED me, you bastard! I understand everything. Everything! You took my life away! You don't know a thing about me - if you did, you'd have known I'd rather die down there trying to do something then have my ass saved by you! You took my life away! You took away everything, EVERYTHING that had meaning and you replaced it with some sick idea that you were a hero? Fuck you, you cocksucking prick! Get the hell out of here or I swear to GOD I'll blow your brains all over these god damned white plastic walls. Get the FUCK out of my room!"

His arms were outstretched, the gun shaking madly at his fingers. He couldn't hit a straight shot if he tried, and Spender knew it. He reached up slowly to try and take the gun from Mulder, but Mulder shrank back, snarling.

"You took my life away!" Mulder said again, his voice breaking, swallowing tears.

Spender smiled, readying a trump card. "Not everything," he said, slowly.

Mulder stared.

"Agent Scully's here too," Spender said. "Or have you forgotten that? I notice the two of you don't spend much time together these days."

It was cruel, and he knew it, but it was important that Mulder know the gesture he'd made. Agent Scully was a nuisance, a complication, another roadblock between Spender and Mulder, but he'd spared her anyway because he knew how much she meant to Mulder. And the ungrateful bastard didn't even give him so much as a thank you.

The weapon dangled, impotent, from Mulder's hand as he let his arms drop to his sides.

"Aren't you even going to thank me for that?" Spender said. "I could have taken her from you a thousand times. I didn't. Why do you think that is?"

"I don't want to think about why that is," Mulder hissed, not meeting his eye.

Spender took a breath, slid the pack of cigarettes from his pocket and fit one to his lips. He let it dangle there, unlit. "Perhaps you should go talk to her," Spender said. "Perhaps she'll help you understand that I've given you a blessing."

Mulder stared.

"Read it at your leisure," Spender said, gesturing to the letter on the desktop. He turned on his heel and headed for the door, cupping a hand to light his cigarette as he walked.

In the doorway he stopped and looked back.

"Oh, and Mulder? There's one more thing I need you to know."

Mulder stared.

"I love you," Spender said.

And with a drag on his cigarette, he left the room.

Mulder stared for a long moment, not even noticing that his gun had dropped from his fingers and tumbled to the ground. He inhaled through his nose, and like a marionette shook himself out, rocked his head on his shoulders and set his jaw.

For ten days he'd stumbled blindly in the dark. Now a switch was flicked, and with a deep breath he was ready to step into the light.

He leaned over, picked up a pen off his desk and turned over one of the pages of Spender's letter. He scribbled something on it, tore off the corner of the page where he'd written and pocketed it. And with a smile, the first real smile in a lifetime, he left the room.

***

Scully was in a thermal shirt and pajama bottoms, her feet clad in beaded leather eskimo-made slippers. Her hair was tousled, but she hadn't been sleeping, she assured him, inviting him in with an expression of something somewhere between puzzlement and relief.

"I've been a big jerk," Mulder said. Scully nodded, her lips pursed. "I'm sorry for that," Mulder said.

"So am I," Scully said. She was resisting; she wasn't ready to forgive him, just yet, but she hadn't pushed him away, either, and for that he was beyond grateful.

He handed her the torn slip of paper and she looked at it, puzzled, at the half sentences.

"...so many lives depended on total secrecy..." she read, and Mulder laughed.

"No," he said, "that's some bullshit letter Spender wrote me. Let him believe what he wants to believe; I don't care, anymore. That's not what I wanted you to see. Flip it over."

On the back, in ballpoint pen he'd drawn a rectangle with three little circles in it, side by side. She looked up at him. "Okay," she said.

"You know what it is?" he asked, sitting down on the bed.

"It's a box with circles on it," she said.

"It's a sheep," Mulder said.

Scully sat down beside him, looking at the paper. "It's not a sheep, Mulder," she said. "You'd definitely lose at Pictionary."

"Haven't you ever read 'The Little Prince'?" Mulder asked. "Man, that was one of my favorite books growing up. The prince asks the pilot to draw him a

sheep, but there's something wrong with each one, like it's too skinny or it's crosseyed, or it's sick, and the prince is afraid he won't be able to take care of it. So the pilot -- totally exasperated, right? -- draws this, and tells the prince the sheep is inside, sleeping happily, not to worry."

"Okay," Scully nodded. "I don't get it."

"It's all in how you look at things, Scully," Mulder said, looking at the ground. "It's all about finding the meaning behind the thing."

Scully fingered the paper. "Didn't the prince die, in that book?"

Mulder nodded, not looking up. "Yeah," he said. "But the pilot never

forgot."

Scully lay the paper on the bed. "Okay," she said, for the third time. "It's a nice story. What do you want, Mulder?"

Taking a deep breath, he looked up, met her cold, soulful eyes. He reached out a hand and took hers, and she tensed, but didn't draw away. "We don't know...we don't know what's happened, here, Scully. Best accounts say there are two hundred and fourteen people left in the world, up here in the middle of nowhere, just waiting around to die."

"Best accounts do *not* say that!" Scully pulled back her hand. "You of all people should want to believe..."

"I can't, Scully," Mulder said. "I can't keep...wishing for a better sheep. This is what I've got. What *we've* got. This is the truth, Scully. And all that's left, here..." he took another breath, "all that matters, is you."

She looked away hard.

"I love you," he said. "Everything else is perception, complication. Now that's all stripped away, and this is what's left. Us."

"There *is* no us, Mulder," she said, mocking the words he'd used on her all those days ago.

He nodded, even though she wasn't looking. "Don't I get to be wrong, sometimes?" He tried to laugh.

"Not about that," she said. "You abandoned me. I can't forgive you for that easily."

"I...love you," he said again, firmly. "Think of this as, like, some metaphor, some dream sequence where all the unnecessary bits are stripped away, and all that's left is the truth. Us."

"Unnecessary bits?" she whirled her head around and stared. "Billions of people are dead, Mulder! Everything we knew is gone! I would hardly call them unnecessary bits!"

"I thought you didn't believe that," Mulder said, gently.

She sucked her teeth and didn't answer.

"All I'm saying..." Mulder went on, "is that maybe this is how it was supposed to be. How it was supposed to end. I love you."

"Stop saying that!" she said, swatting at his arm and collapsing backward onto the bed. She buried her face in her pillow. "I don't know anything, anymore, Mulder," she said, her voice muffled through down and tears.

"I only know one thing, Scully," he said, lying down beside her and wrapping an arm around her chest. "I love you."

"Stop saying that," she said again. "Please."

"You love me?" he tried, grinning.

She rolled over to face him, tears drying on her cheeks. "Of course I do, you fucking asshole," she said, softly.

Her face loomed large before him, angular and freckled and perfect, and the world had very literally fallen away and there was nothing but her. Nothing but her, eyes lit up and a smile forming. Nothing but her, tracing a hand up the length of his arm and pulling him closer to her, safe and comforting and warm. He would get this one chance, this last blissful chance to let the white plastic walls disappear in blindness for her, to let the humming computers and the eskimos and the twenty nine page manifesto from Spender disappear, fade away, in this one perfect night where there were only bodies, and no consequences.

Her touch was life. Her kiss was life, and blood and power. He swelled, sliding a hand under her shirt and easing it off over her head. She was life, and sweat, and human, wiry and taut and clawing at him, making him tingle, making him bleed.

His life had been trapped in trappings of complications, and now, all that stripped away, his life was her, bodies against bodies as she reached behind her to slap the light off and he crawled over her, straddled her, let her unfasten his belt.

No words; there would be no words. This was not "about" anything; this was. This was everything, this was all that was left of life and humanity and the throbbing pulse of the human heart and the knowledge of life! in pain and sex and love and bodies intertwined, connected, connecting.

She moaned and he shushed her with a kiss before she could speak, before she could even call out his name. No words, no words.

He was only human, he was only one man, a speck on a speck in the universe, fading away. This was not about global ramifications or a shoutout to the ages, I HAVE FOUND GOD! But maybe that was what god was, after all.

He was one man. She was one woman. This was the last night on earth, and she was all that mattered, all that had ever mattered. She was beautiful, breathtakingly beautiful, coiled and powerful and brilliant and his! She always had been. Scully. His Scully. His partner, his other half, his only half, she gripped at him, and he swelled for her, he ached and she pulled him inside her and they were one and I HAVE FOUND GOD! And she is perfect and she is mine and oh! And he tensed his shoulders, tightened his brow and squeezed his teeth shut to bite back screams I HAVE FOUND GOD! And she gasped and panted and she clawed him to her and her nails dug moon-shaped bites into his back and brought blood and there was blood and there was life and there was her and she was his and she was everything and this was everything and I HAVE FOUND GOD! I HAVE FOUND GOD! And he drew back and he drove himself into her, hard, and pain was pleasure and she leaned forward and she bit him on the shoul! der, h ard, drawing blood and there was blood and there was life and he kissed her and he tasted blood, his, hers, he tasted her and he drove himself into her, deeper, and harder and there were bodies and there was HER and it was HER and it was all he'd ever wanted, all he'd ever needed, all that ever mattered in this world of trappings, tinsel, dying, dropping away.

He slid himself free from her and lay beside her on the bed, legs and limbs draped over one another, staring in the dark.

He was only one man, at the end of the world. One tiny light on this marble, winking out.

Everything that had seemed important in his life disappeared, now, in the face of what was.

Scully was.

He rolled toward her, curled her in his arms and kissed her in the dark.

"This is...everything, Scully," he said.

In the dim light she smiled at him with understanding. "Yes," she said. "It is."

"This is all that ever mattered."

"Yes."

"This is why we're here."

"Stop talking, Mulder."

He kissed her again.

"I love you," he said.

"I love you," she said.

"I love you," he said.

"I love you," she said.

Over and over again, as the night spun on and the world spun on and the words lost their meaning and they were the only things left; there was nothing left.

There was nothing else he needed, at the end of the world. This was how it was supposed to be. This was the way the world ended, in sight of the laughing face of god, and him with her.

"I love you," she muttered, drifting off to sleep in his arms.

***

FORT VILLENEUVE, CANADA, JANUARY 11th, 2000 3:13 a.m. T-plus 11 Days

She awoke an hour later and Mulder was gone and with a hole in her heart she knew.

Slowly, deliberately, she pulled on her slippers, holstered her weapon and left the room for his.

The door was ajar and she pushed it open.

He sat in his chair, arms draped across his desk, head down. Blood. Spread out black across the white plastic surface, and drying already.

The gun dangled from his fingers and she wondered why she hadn't heard it go off.

Her skin was cold, ashen, and with trembling fingers she wiped the blood from his forehead, his face, his neck, felt for a pulse she knew wasn't there. She swallowed hard, and no tears came.

There was a slip of paper on the desk near his right arm, speckled with blood.

"Maybe it's what we don't say that saves us," it said.

She knelt beside him, rested her head against his thigh and for the love of him and the love of god she let go, and the tears spilled forth like a thunderstorm.

Mulder.

Mulder.

All there was in the world, this world dying, this world empty and she was just one woman and nothing mattered. Somewhere out there, another light winked out; centuries old stars died and new ones were born. Time at its work will go on in a circle, and what has befallen, befell. And over and over, this world extinct, she knew, a new world would spring up somewhere and there would always be life.

But not her.

And not Mulder.

It was over.

She wore his bloodstreaks across her face proudly like warpaint when she left the room.

***

Spender's door was locked, and she knocked, quiet at first, then louder.

This is for you, Mulder.

Bleary and off-guard from being woken up - and it was the first time she'd seen him so - he opened the door.

"Ah, Agent Scully," Spender said.

She cocked her weapon, trained it on his face. "This is as far as we go," she said.

When he crumpled to the ground after the shot rang out, even through the blood, she could make out on his face the beginnings of a smile he hadn't gotten to finish.

She finished it for him.

***

The halls were quiet this time of night; the night shift had been excised from the schedule a couple days back; the scientists admitted, at last, that there was really nothing more to do.

Scully stole downstairs in silence, for the first time in her life completely at peace.

The main door to the compound was locked from the inside and she punched in the alarm code and let it slide open to the vestibule, where the wintry air spun in.

This is as far as we go.

She pushed open the outer door and took a slippered step forward, knee deep in snow. It was freezing; it was way below freezing but she didn't feel it. She looked around at the big, wide, white, dying world illuminated in the candy-glow lights of Fantasy Echo.

She was one woman, and this is as far as she went. The world was beautiful, virgin and open and empty in all directions; the slate had been cleaned. Time for a new life to take the place of the tainted one gone; let the last lingering, dying souls of Fantasy Echo face that fate on their own.

She was at peace. She was happy.

This is as far as we go.

It's been a good ride.

Thank you all for coming.

Play ball, taste wonder, and a happy new year.

The barrel of her gun made a clicking sound against her bottom teeth.

***

FORT VILLENEUVE, CANADA, JANUARY 12th, 2000 10:13 a.m. T-plus 12 Days

"Hey," Penny called to Buddy, who was in the bathroom.

"Yeah?"

"Looks like Pointy's better; he's not limping anymore!"

The dog clamored up onto the bed beside her and she stroked his huge expanse of back and leaned in to let him lick her face.

"That's great," Buddy agreed, crossing from the bathroom and pulling on his jacket.

"Barrett got the promotion," he said.

"I heard," Penny said. "It's too bad about Spender. And the agents."

"Yeah," Buddy agreed. "Barrett'll do a good job, though. She's been with the project longer than any of us."

"Yeah," Penny said. Pointy put two paws against her chest and knocked her back onto the bed. She laughed.

"Hard to believe that dog narrowly escaped death, a few weeks back," Buddy said, sitting on the edge of the bed and tying his shoes.

"Hard to believe," Penny said, giggling as the huge Samoyed burrowed his nose into her neck.

"You want breakfast?" Buddy asked. "Bet there's still something, even though we slept in."

"Okay," Penny said. "Lemme put on my robe."

Buddy stood and watched her as she slipped free of the dog and ducked into the bathroom. It was too bad about the agents, but life, at least up here, would go on. Two hundred and eleven people, now, scientists and eskimos, would plug along until the end of the world. Breakfast and paperwork and dogs and the compound: home, in all its white plastic glory.

It was another working day in Canada.