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A Rat's Life

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PROLOGUE: CONTINGENCY PLANS

1967. The Cigarette Smoking Man does Teena Mulder a favor. But motives are rarely unselfish.

 

When the car pulls up in front of the Mulders' house, he remains briefly in the back seat, smoking one last Morley. For a moment he questions his decision to stop here at all, things between himself and Bill being what they are. But appearances are best kept up, and he wants to let Bill know he'll be out of town for the next week. London, that's what he's going to say. Bill should hear it from him rather than second-hand. A matter of trust. Or the appearance of it.

His cigarette grown stubby, he grinds the butt of the Morley out in the ashtray and takes the small bouquet of yellow roses and baby's breath from the seat beside him. Outside the car he brushes the wrinkles from his trench coat and starts up the walk slowly, head slightly bowed.

Fox answers the door. The boy scowls up at him, then remembers his manners. 

"May I help you?"

"Is your father home?"

The boy nods.

"And your mother--is she awake? Or is she resting?" He transfers the flowers from one hand to the other.

"She's in the sun room."

Footsteps sound on the stairs behind the boy, descending. Bill appears behind his son, his initial frown quickly adjusted to careful neutrality. 

"I wished to express my condolences," Spender begins, pressing forward into the tension of the moment. Fox slips away into the interior of the house. "And to let you know that I'll be out of the country for the next eight days. London. The usual."

"Very well." Bill pauses, then stands aside so his guest can pass. 

As he heads toward the sunroom, he can feel Bill's gaze burning the back of his trench coat. Fox emerges from the room, leaning slightly to one side to compensate for the toddler Samantha perched precariously on his hip. Spender attempts a smile for the girl but she's oblivious, caught up in the ride she's being given, all her attention focused on her brother.

He feels the corners of his mouth sink, pauses to compose himself and then steps into the brightly lit room. Teena is lying on the chaise, pillows propped behind her, a quilt covering her feet and legs.

"I'm sorry," he begins, "for your loss. I had to stop by to talk to Bill and I just wanted you to know." He steps closer and holds out the flowers; she takes them and lays them across her still-shapeless middle.

"The memorial service was yesterday," she says, and her eyes wander to vases set around the room. "Do you know how many people turn out for the burial of an infant?" For a moment she looks old beyond her years. "I don't know what to feel," she says after a short silence, and from the expression on her face, he can tell that this is true.

Her eyes were dry, he notes later, thinking back on it as the car speeds him toward Boston. He stares at the bag on the seat beside him, cornflower blue with all its little side pockets bulging, the covered nipple of a baby bottle protruding from the top. 

*~*~*~*~*

Halfway across the Atlantic he dozes off, only to be woken after twenty minutes by the squalling coming from the seat in front of him where a plain, stocky woman is trying to settle a red-faced infant. She puts up with the child with the calm that comes from years of experience and soon the baby quiets and begins to yawn. 

From between the seats he can see the redness in the child's skin fading. The infant's cries are either tired or angry, he notes, not the heartbroken wail of some babies. If it's a sign, it's a good one. Toughness is a virtue. Especially in times like these, with the stakes as high as they are.

The boy had been an accident of chance, an inadvertent product of the liaison between himself and Bill Mulder's wife. In truth, once his conception was known, it had proved the end of their affair. His sister's creation had been a deliberate act, a claim made on the fertile field of another man, a former ally become the weak link in the all-important chain of preparation for the future. But a second life--a needless, unwelcome complication... It was simply not supposed to be. 

Worse, Bill's latent suspicions about the two of them had been dragged into the light and shown to be undeniable truth. Bill's extended absence from the marriage bed gave the lie to any argument that the child could possibly be his, and the rest, unfortunately, had unraveled all too easily from the lips of his distraught wife. 

Needing to make amends to them both, he'd promised Teena he would take care of this unexpected complication to her life. No doubt she imagines a conventional adoption for the child: a family in a faraway western state, a life more suitable for him with some thankful, heretofore childless couple. And a biological heritage he'll never come to know. 

But opportunities are not to be wasted. The child will have his chance. After all, he notes, he himself grew up an orphan, and witness what he's achieved. Desire and ability will always out, a simple matter of natural selection. 

Yes, the boy will have his opportunity.

*~*~*~*

In Athens they change planes, the woman keeping some distance from him during this first leg of the trip, as instructed. She has a difficult time with the child; he fusses and cries for nearly an hour until finally, exhausted, he lapses into fitful sleep. The people around them loosen in relief.

Teena had taken his advice, hadn't so much as ventured a glance at the boy--didn't, for that matter, know it was a boy. She'd been sent home from the hospital several days later with a cover story about a tragic stillbirth. It will be enough to enable her to save face with the neighbors, and she and Bill will be able to proceed as before. Indifferent housemates, true, but at least able to keep up appearances.

*~*~*~*

At the airport in Tbilisi he paces the shabby corridors, stopping occasionally in front of the windows to watch the living gray-bleak mural outside. It's November and the Eastern world is covered in a coat of snow that will remain for the next six months. Once during the two-hour layover he passes by the woman to find the infant awake, eating voraciously, as if announcing to the world that he will survive at all costs.

Do you want to hold him? the woman gestures to him when the corridor empties and the child has drained the bottle; she speaks no English. He shakes his head and thrusts his hands into his pockets, fingers lighting upon the comfort of a fresh Morley. Shortly he resumes his rambling up and down the corridor. It's the bargain he's made with himself regarding the child: he must rise on his own, not cling to others. A chance is what he's being offered. He must make of it what he will.

*~*~*~*

Seven hours later he's sipping steaming tea in the crowded parlor of a tiny Moscow apartment. Across a small table from him, the only man who will know of the connection between father and son sits filling out a copy of the birth certificate information that will be presented to the institution. Fragrant steam rises from Dmitri Sherikov's neglected cup.

"The name?"

"Alex," he says, surprised by the unexpectedly odd sound of his voice, of actually pronouncing the name he's chosen.

"Aleksandr? Aleksei?"

He pauses a moment. Alexander seems far too pretentious for the boy's circumstances. "Aleksei."

"And as a patronymic?"

It's not something he's thought about. He shrugs. "Perhaps we could borrow your name."

'Aleksei Dmitrievich' is lettered neatly across the proper space on the form.

"Surname?"

"Suggestions?"

"Perhaps something Polish or Estonian or Czech." Sherikov puts down his pen. "If you plan to visit, the staff will surely know he is not Russian. An American name, of course, would defeat the entire purpose of hiding him here. So. Something foreign, but not too foreign. What do you think?"

Spender nods. A point well taken. It will make the boy an outcast in a way, but that could be all to the better--a test of his mettle, a polishing. If he surmounts the obstacles set before him, he could prove valuable indeed.

"What sort of name would you like?" Sherikov asks with a wave of his hand. "Borek, Pitkowsky, Stucka, Vacietis, Zarecki?"

Such a vast array of choices.

*~*~*~*

The plane to Sverdlovsk is crowded; an earlier flight has been grounded and all travelers to that city must take this plane. In spite of his efforts, he ends up having to sit next to the woman and child. The infant is awake for nearly half the three-hour flight, glancing at the woman, at random movement, occasionally at him. He has the dark blue, almost indeterminate-colored eyes of the newly born and seems to frown--world-weary? travel-worn?--when his focus rests on the man who has given him life. 

Turning away, Spender gazes out the window at passing cloud masses and considers the years until the scheduled date: forty-five. He is not a man easily romanced by assumptions, but if--just if--the boy were to turn out strong and sharp, he would be the perfect mole in a certain secret vaccine program being conducted thousands of miles to the east. What could be better than such a spy--a native son, fluent and embedded within the culture, who could pass along information inaccessible to the men who gather in the boardroom on East 46th Street?

If recent rumors regarding the alien agenda are correct, a child hostage may eventually be required of each family. But with this boy secreted away, someday he may be able to claim both a son and a daughter saved, supportive and useful, while Bill Mulder will have relinquished his only offspring to the aliens. Perhaps, in time, this boy may rise to do his father proud.

*~*~*~*

Tinny bells jingle a rhythm as the sleigh glides steadily over the snow. It will be another hour and a half--and no doubt dark--by the time they reach Sverdlovsk. Spender adjusts the heavy woolen scarf that covers his face until only his eyes are exposed to the chill world around them.

The institution was exactly as Sherikov had described it: not a massive, decrepit orphanage of the usual Russian variety, but an institutional home for boys who are better unacknowledged: inconvenient sons of generals, officials, high party members. The life they are offered is certainly not posh or easy: there are fields to be worked, discipline to be learned, schooling offered. But any who rise above the rest will be offered opportunities commensurate with their abilities and promise.

He will, of course, return--come here from time to time so the boy might know him, and so he can verify that his wishes are being carried out.

A sudden exclamation comes from the driver beside him--words muffed in wool--and a gloved hand touches his arm. A pause and the hand points to a place above the horizon where gray clouds have parted to show a patch of intense blue. Within minutes the western cloud face has dissolved into a thin haze and the silent trees around them are bathed in the diffused, golden glow of late afternoon. It looks almost like a scene from a Christmas card, he thinks. 

In the back of his mind, the child's fierce crying when handed over to an attendant has faded to a soft murmur. He looks up at the glistening, snow-laden branches beside the road and thinks ahead to home. 

----------------------

PART 1 NARRATIVE

Russian childhood to the car bomb

 

A piece of advice: You don't want to live a life that's been planned out for you in advance. Especially if the guy pulling the strings is hoping to rule the world. At least from behind the scenes, and until he decides to hand it off to an alien race. And what he wants from you is for you to ask "How high?" as soon as he tells you to jump. Don't bother thinking for yourself, either, or having other plans; wouldn't want to look ungrateful for all he's done for you. Remember, this is the son of a bitch who handed his wife over to be used as a guinea pig in the consortium's hybrid experiments and saw himself as noble and sacrificing for doing it.

Of course, I didn't know any of this at the outset. What I knew was that I lived in a big cement building in a frozen land with sixty or so other skinny, dull-eyed kids. There were pale green walls and metal bunk beds, wary-eyed minders who kept you in line, squabbles with other kids, school. Meals, though they weren't enough to put any padding on any of us kids. Work in the institution's vegetable garden during the short summers, growing food to get us through the next long winter. And for anyone who managed to stand out in spite of the conditions there, a chance to go on to some sort of normal life.

Well, except for me. My road map was already planned out, remember? Every three or four months, this American man would come to see me. He told me he was my father. He'd ask me what I was learning, and whether I was being good. It was hard to understand his words, because the guy who was supposed to be teaching me English had a pathetic accent. But the old man's smiles spoke volumes. They were as thin as the winter sun.

He'd tell me about my family: a mother who'd had no use for me, and her husband who refused to let me live in his house.  I had a brother, and he lived with them because he belonged to the husband. My sister was there, too, but that was because the husband didn't know she was my father's. And me, I was here because I was special, because there were important things I'd need to do when I grew up. He'd bring me little things when he came: a pen that said Yankees, a pair of American sneakers. As soon as he left, the other kids would taunt me: Americanets, americanets! even though I'd grown up as Russian as the rest of them. Then the older kids would beat me up and take whatever trinkets the old man had left me. 

Even that, I figured out eventually, was part of the old man's plan. By making me an outsider, I'd have to learn to be tough, to protect myself.

Of course, what the old man told me about my family wasn't the straight truth; it was the script he wanted me to buy into, one that would eventually work to his own advantage. But I didn't know that. Nights, I'd lie in my bunk, as still as I could get, waiting for the mattress to warm up enough that I could fall sleep, and I'd ask myself what I'd done or what did I not have that I'd been so disposable to them. Why couldn't I be in America with my brother and sister? No matter what the old man told me, I didn't want to be here and 'chosen'. When you're eight, you'll trade any mission in the world for a soccer ball of your own and a room in a house where you don't wake up shaking from the cold and the gnawing in your stomach.

One thing I decided early: I was going to play my cards right. I was going to make it out of there to something better. I wasn't going to be dependent on the old man or anyone else.

So every few months there'd be these visits. The old man would show up and act like he was interested in what I'd been doing, but he was really there to make sure they were carrying out his orders, molding me the way he wanted. And on every visit he'd drop the word about my brother. Fox had done well in school that semester. Fox was getting tall. Fox was away at summer camp, water-skiing or swimming. The only swimming I'd ever done was in a dirty bathtub, or in mud puddles in the fields when it was rainy and we got into fights. Though you'd get punished for that; we were no use to them sick or damaged. Nothing to eat for a day and twice the penalty for anybody caught sneaking you bread. 

He didn't say much about my sister, except when he started talking about my 'mission'. She'd been taken by bad men and I could save her, he said, giving me one of those pasty smiles he was so good at. But what did I care? She was only a name to me, a story, and without her, maybe Bill Mulder might have a change of heart and consider filling her place with a threadbare kid who'd really appreciate the things he provided.

Nice fantasy, but it was never going to happen. Instead, I contented myself with the fact that I had a brother who could leap tall buildings at a single bound. In a way I hated him, but it made for a kind of good fantasy, too: a brother like a secret weapon who might come to your rescue, someday when he knew you existed, like a knight with a shining sword. Not that I was waiting around hoping; there was too much to do just to survive day to day. But it was a good thing to go to sleep with at night. It gave me something no other kid there had and I held onto that.

The older I got, the more the old man told me, a little at a time. Aliens would've been hard to swallow, but then he took me to Tunguska and I saw the black oil for myself, and what it did to a man. Ate lunch afterward with the bigwigs--real food, not the slop we got at the orphanage--meat and everything--but I ended up throwing it all up; I couldn't keep from imagining little black worms crawling around on my plate. If the old man meant for it to shake me up bad, he got his wish. I was eleven at the time.

When I was twelve they took a group of us bigger kids on a mountain hike. In reality, it was a test to see who the strong ones were. I was first to the top with almost a quarter mile to spare. After that, they started giving me a little more responsibility. They let me go into the town to pick up supplies. Mulder'd just started college. At thirteen I gave away my virginity to Lena, the town whore-in-training. She was a nice kid, a little slow in the head but she treated me like a real person. Six months later they found her on a roadside one early morning, frozen to death. She'd been beaten and raped. She was fourteen. Shook me up in spite of everything. Those were the markers of my young life.

At fifteen the old man sent me to a military camp. I spent the first year as errand boy, cleaning officers quarters and then weapons, learning what each was and how to break it down and put it back together and what it was used for. The officers I worked for treated me like shit at first. I had a hidden card to play if I needed it--the old man's leverage--but I wanted to make my own success. I started bringing them bits of information I'd picked up by keeping my ears open and eventually they realized I was worth having on their side, and we came to a truce. When I was sixteen they let me start training in earnest. Mulder was finishing up his B.A. and heading for Oxford.

By then I was beginning to seriously envy Mulder his privileged life. Or rather, the life he lived was beginning to seem incredibly naive to me, having so much handed to you without having to work for any of it. I didn't know about the way he'd taken Samantha's disappearance, the way it had fucked with his head and how things had gone at home for him afterward. I felt a little sorry for him about his dad, though--the coward who'd nearly sabotaged the Project, our hope for a future, and then had slunk off like a common village drunk to sit somewhere in the shadows, clutching his bottle. 

I didn't obsess over any of this stuff; it was just a backbeat inside my head because I was busy learning. One thing I'd figured out: if you were good at what you did, you were going to move up. You could get power one way or the other and that meant fewer people telling you what to do. I learned to make connections, to keep secrets that were more valuable not known and to expose the ones that mattered. AFter a while nobody asked where I grew up. Nobody laughed. I was my performance, and I was determined to make it the best I could, to have it carry me right on out of this backwater and on to bigger things. Sure, I was going to have to claw my way up the ladder past guys whose rank had been bought, not earned. But smart'll outdo rich stupidity every time. 

My efforts did bring me some notice. The old man claimed to be impressed. He told me what I needed next was experience under fire. Seeing things first-hand, I'd learn a lot. But I'd seen the guys who came back from Afghanistan, and I'd heard the stories. It was common knowledge: the way families who could afford it paid their sons' way out, and how over half the men who went ended up sick with hepatitis or malaria or dysentery. It had been a losing effort for years but the bureaucrats were too busy saving their political asses to call a retreat. 

It didn't make much sense, that going there could help me. For the first time I was broadsided by the realization that the old man's agenda wasn't about me at all. If I survived--that was the part he never came out and said--then I'd be hardened, experienced, sharp. The kind of tool he was looking for. And if I didn't... Well, it was pretty obvious that I was expendable, even after all the years he'd put into me. 

My time in the field could have been worse, though. I was 'spetsnaz'--special forces. We got better equipment and better food, such as it was: boots you could actually climb in, backpacks that distributed a load. I was 'sheltered' again, the way I had been growing up, though few men knew. The old man wanted me kept out of the worst of the danger, but you can't escape danger in a war zone. I was a sniper and I got my practice, all right--on old turbaned guerillas, tough young men, resistance leaders or even my occasional countryman in the middle of gunning down old village men and women. I got that they were pissed about losing their friends and that it was payback, but there's got to be a limit somewhere. Let your instincts take over completely and everything goes to hell. 

Sometimes it's surprising to find out where your limits are, if you've got any left at all. One time I came back into camp to find a bunch of guys waiting in line for their turn at a local woman they'd tied to a couple of crates. I barely stopped to think; I aimed my weapon and put a bullet in the back of her head from a good eighty meters. Scared the shit out of the guy who'd just stepped up. Don't know if it was her screams; maybe she reminded me of Lena. I just stood there, shaking inside, and nobody said a word. For a minute I thought they were going to jump me, but then they all backed away. They kept their distance after that. They would've killed her when they were finished anyway, and what kind of life would she have had if she'd lived? I'd seen the look on women like that before. They were barely more than ghosts.

The old man had come before I left for the fighting, to give me a pep talk and to bring me American vaccines nobody else had access to. So I managed to make it four months without getting seriously sick and I was only hit once, grazed near the shoulder and it healed up okay. Then the old man said the word and they pulled me. Flew me out and the old man met me in Tashkent--posh hotel, plenty of food. It was the obscene after what I'd come from. Spent a lot of time soaking in a hot bath and dreaming about some fantasy woman I wasn't even going to try looking for with the old man around. But I managed to keep my head the best I could. Inside, I was a mess like anybody else suddenly pulled from combat, but I put on my best sane face and told him I wanted to learn more about the vaccine program outside Krasnoyarsk, that I could work myself in in whatever capacity and be his eyes and ears. And he bought it. It was just what he wanted to hear.

So Mulder was at Oxford and I was the old man's mole; at least, he thought I was. But I was starting to realize that his great crusade to save the planet might be just as full of shit as the war I'd been a part of--politicians and generals climbing a career ladder back in Moscow with their Mercedes and their women and their big apartments while poor boys and poor men got sick or shot or drank themselves to death over the pointlessness of a stupid political war. There was one important difference, though: There was going to be another war coming, one that'd make Afghanistan look like a backyard brawl. And I wasn't going to let myself get lost in that, not for the sake of anyone's bureaucracy. The only way to keep from getting flushed down the drain was to look out for yourself, and I was going to make sure that I did.

When I got to Krasnoyarsk they set me up as a lab assistant, a position where it was easy to tap into the progress of the vaccine project. I didn't have any background, but it was common enough practice for someone to buy a position for themselves or a relative. They taught me what I needed to know, and I stayed eager and hung around the right circles so I knew what progress the research was making. That was where I met Maria Ivanova. She was always working. She'd even sit around on her break with a pad of paper and a pencil, doing calculations while her coffee got cold. There was some kind of bureaucratic mess-up with funding for the vaccine project and things weren't moving fast enough for her. Her husband was one of the ones in charge; I think that was strategic to her when she married him. Anyway, they argued more and more and finally the breakup came. But her ex-husband wasn't going anywhere; he was part of the system. So the move was hers. The rest of them tried to act like it didn't make any difference that she was leaving, but it was obvious that the work went downhill after that. Ivanova was smart and self-confident and she got what she wanted one way or the other. She didn't let anybody walk over her and I liked that. There was also this thing in the back of my head; I knew what had happened to her parents and I guess it tied into my own horror as a kid at seeing the black oil take a man over. For her, fighting this battle was no abstraction, and I understood what that was like.

After a while my cover job started to grate on me. Especially after my time in the war, I figured I had better things to do than clean flasks and petri dishes and hang around waiting to hear about the latest infighting. Maria and I traded a few comments in the cafeteria, enough for both of us to realize we had something in common: we were in this for ourselves, not for the greater glory of the program. Then one afternoon she left me a note and I met her in a park after hours. She said she was thinking about leaving and I said I knew about other programs--vaccine research--and I'd tell her if she told me more about the status of the work she'd been doing. So we swapped information, but she was hitting on me, too. Looking back, I think it was a just a test to see how I'd react, a maze for the lab rat to run. Maybe she'd be able to tell whether I was a promising candidate for her next lap dog. But I fell for it. Hell, I hadn't been with a woman in ages and if she was offering, who was I to say no? But it turned out bad. I don't play lap dog. We both went away mad--too much of ourselves exposed and nothing gained for the effort. She left a week or so later, said something about a teaching position in Leningrad.

I could see that bureaucracy was going to kill this project's potential, so I figured it was time to move to higher ground. There was vaccine research going on in the U.S. but my English was poor and I needed some time for myself. I mean, I'd lived my whole life for the old man, a piece of clay he could press his stamp into, and I'd gone straight from Afghanistan to Krasnoyarsk because I was afraid of what he might have thought up for me after that. It was a pre-emptive strike, taking the reins into my own hands. As much as I could without making it obvious, anyway. But I'd been eight months in Krasnoyarsk and I felt like I was I was treading water.  Or like I was caught in a loop that could keep running forever. 

So I told the old man I wanted some time, that the Russian research was on hold and I wanted to learn something about diplomacy. Diplomacy could come in handy... or at least, it would sound good to the old man. I'd made a few connections in Moscow through a commander I'd known before the war, a guy who'd learned perfect English just for the challenge of it and who'd always ribbed me about my poor accent. So I went to see this guy Petrovich, ex-military, and he put me in touch with an American businessman's wife, former school teacher, who helped me work on my English--Mrs. Brandt. She was a stickler, gray hair in a bun and never a single strand out of place, but it was a good thing. After a while I'd go places American ex-pats hung out and I could pass myself off as being from Denver or San Francisco.

Then Petrovich told me about this group he had going to Spain. They were supposed to interview some old Civil War veterans and I thought what the hell, they might have something useful to say and it was someplace new--someplace sunny and with beaches and a whole different way of life. Sounded like vacation, and when had I ever had one of those? Reminded me of the old man's stories when I was a kid, of Mulder at summer camp. Why didn't I deserve that, too?

Our group spent two months going from place to place, down the Mediterranean coast and then inland heading north, talking to old men and hearing their stories, taping them for Petrovich's project. And then in León I met Victor in a bar. We'd both had too much to drink and he was loud and funny and I was sitting there in the shadows as usual, but we bumped into each other and started talking and swapping stories. Victor had this picture of himself as a revolutionary of sorts--a freedom fighter--but in the end the only one he was trying to liberate was himself. He was the bastard son of a rich landowner, living in the shadow of his legitimate brothers, and I guess that gave us something in common. I'd never been the loud or funny type.  Maybe I was trying to figure out what made him tick, but he was an interesting guy.

He was good at coming up with women, too, and by the time the group was ready to move on, I'd had my fill of old men and their stories.  I'd caught Victor's bug and just wanted to loosen up--for a little while, anyway--and he'd offered to show me around. He had a little allowance from his father, hush money, and between that and my five-finger discount, we spent a couple of months floating around the country, seeing the sights and hanging out, going to discos and trying our best lines on pretty tourists, because Victor was right about the locals: you couldn't get to first base with them. Scandinavians and Americans were a different story, but I learned pretty quickly not to say I was from New York or L.A. or San Francisco; it was too easy to come up with someone who actually knew those places. Eventually the novelty started to wear off and Victor and I decided to go north, to France.

I knew the old man was going to go crazy, wondering where I was and if his investment had run away. But he probably knew he had me hooked, too. Behind everything like a backbeat, always sitting there where the food and the wine and the scenery and the occasional women couldn't block it out, was the picture I could never quite get out of my head of the black oil taking over that thin skeleton of a man, and the knowledge that invasion was hanging over us all. I was living on borrowed time.

I started getting antsy. For as much as we had in common, Victor wasn't like me; he wanted nothing more than to grab the kind of life for himself that he thought he had coming, but he wasn't his brothers and he never would be. He needed to take a clear look at himself, and whether he ever would have or not I'll never know, because about that time we stole a watch and a billfold from the wrong car and ended up being ambushed by a couple of mob types just as we came out of a restaurant with full stomachs. Five minutes later Victor was past tense, bleeding out of a head wound between overturned apple crates in an alley.  I hid under a produce cart for an hour, shaking, then slipped away and out of the city.

It was my wake-up call. I went back to Moscow and Petrovich and he assigned me to a little embassy spying. It sounded useful enough to the old man and I learned a lot about gathering information. I stayed with it for two years, and toward the end of 1988, he sent me to the Russian embassy in Prague. It was at a big political gala that I met Ché. He was a hacker, barely seventeen and with this thin, fragile face that could have been either young or old.  The local politicos were after him for breaking into their files. He had this dream of going to America, and I guess I figured I was going to need an ally when I got there; I knew I'd end up there eventually. So I found out a little more about what he could do, and I talked to some contacts I had where I worked, who talked to somebody who got him a passport and a visa to go to D.C. and work in the Russian Embassy there. I knew he wouldn't stay with them; he had his opinion of the Russian bear. Ché's slogan was 'for the people', and to him that meant little people, people with no influence--everyday people. Ché's the true revolutionary in the end. Staged revolts always leave the little guy in the dirt; they get caught up in their own flash and importance.

It made me focus more on America, sending Ché over. The old man was starting to worry about Mulder by then. Mulder'd been through the academy and had just earned his first gold star with that Monty Props capture. But now the old man started to let on to how much Samantha's disappearance had affected him. I think he was afraid Mulder might try to use Bureau resources to check out the files on her, that he might find something out of order and start looking into it himself. So I pressed the old man a little about coming over; maybe there was something I could do to help out. He was impressed with my English--that I'd done that at my own initiative--and he brought me to Virginia and set me up as a stable hand at a horse farm.

I wanted more. I was pretty pissed at first, stuck in another 'apprenticeship' like the one I'd had when I was fifteen, but I figured I'd make the best use of what I had in front of me. After a month or so I realized that the woman who came so often to ride or to stay for a week at a time, Dr. Charne-Sayer, was a medical researcher. Actually, it was a lucky break. I'd kept in contact with Ché and he came down one Saturday; he was the one who recognized her. And then I realized I was onto something bigger. They were milking her for information even though she didn't know it and the old man had put me there to see if I'd figure it out.

There was a Brit who came around, Charne-Sayer's lover, and I figured out how he fit in, too. A couple of times the old man even came to talk to him, though I kept myself in the shadows. I let it go on for a while, keeping records of what I'd found out... though not everything. I knew even then I'd just be shooting myself in the foot by showing I had what it took to compete with the old man. Then, when the time seemed right, I gave him what I'd gathered and it worked. He was impressed. He told me I was ready for the next step.

The old man didn't have much to say about Mulder in those days. He was working for the VCS, but he'd undergone regression hypnosis by then; I'd had Ché keep track of him. I guess it was the residue of that little-boy fantasy--the brother thing. Sometimes I'd think about what it'd be like if we ever met. What would he think of me? Would he have some sense that would tell him there was a connection between us? Idle speculation--the residue of a kid's dream--but it stuck with me anyway. I'd gotten the feeling the old man wanted to keep us apart, though. Then he sent me to L.A.--Malibu--to infiltrate a biotech company. I was supposed to snoop on some research they were doing. But then it turned out one of the execs was a hacker in his spare time and he'd stumbled across the movement of Project medical supplies headed for the train car researchers. He'd end up being my first hit for the old man.

Harrison rode dirt bikes in his spare time. I figured out his schedule and took him out in the dry December hills just off Mulholland one Saturday afternoon. Could've easily been an accident, some teenager out for target practice whose bullet went farther than he thought. But it took me three shots. And I was acutely aware that this wasn't any war zone. There were million-dollar American homes tucked away in the hills and I was nervous as hell. My first two shots were wide and by the time I'd squeezed off the third, he'd moved farther away, but I nailed him. It hit me as soon as I saw him fall: this was America and I was a wanted man now. They were going to be looking for me.

There'd never really been any consequences before; I'd been protected by the old man or by the fact that it was war, or by the long shadow arm of the Russian military. I could hardly sleep for two nights thinking about what I'd done. I even went back and watched them check out the crime scene looking to see if they'd recover my first two bullets, but they never did. The old man called me to congratulate me and I said what now? And he said stay; it'll look suspicious if you disappear. 

So I did, for another couple of months, but it wore on me; I wanted out of there. In my spare time I'd go sit on the beach and just stare out at the water. It was only going to get worse from here. The old man's assignments were going to dig me in deeper and deeper, but I couldn't see any way out. Go off on my own and what? Sit around with a beer and a remote in my hand until the ships came screaming down from the sky and we were all taken over by the Oil? There was no way to block out that vision, to walk away and have any kind of normal life.

For a while I'd had as normal a life as I'm probably ever going to get, though, that six months I was with CalEmergent. Had an apartment, clothes, even a motorcycle. I actually had a suit and tie hanging in my closet. Had a girl for a couple of those months.

There were women everywhere you looked--available women, not girls hidden behind half a dozen suspicious relatives--but most of them had something to do, someplace they were going. They didn't have time for a guy who didn't open up, and I'd never been a talker. It wasn't me and anyway, it could be deadly in my line of work, letting out enough that people would remember you, dropping details they could use to trace you. So pretty soon they were out of there--the ones with big plans--and that left those without. But most of that batch wanted you to talk, too.

And then I met Patty in the grocery store. I literally ran into her, not looking where I was going, my mind caught up in the ins and outs of the old man's larger scheme. We had one of those awkward scenes you see in movies, and somehow it led to drinks and small talk and then back to her place. I think she was lonely, mostly, and having somebody to lay there holding her was worth going ahead and getting undressed for. I spent the night and left in the morning before she woke up, but by that afternoon--it was a Saturday--I found myself back on her doorstep and she was glad to see me. We ate dinner and drove up the coast on my bike, sat and watched the breaking waves fluoresce in the darkness and went back to her place again.

Patty'd come from Iowa, just wanting to make her getaway from corn country, but she was never headed toward the glitz of Hollywood. All she wanted was an opportunity to make a life of her own away from the long family shadow of her basketball-playing brothers. She was a receptionist at a place that sold paper products, and she was a little overweight and on the quiet side, but she also wasn't out to trick me; she was sincere and that counted for something--a lot, actually, because the last woman I'd been with in Russia had been sent to spy on me.

Anyway, I got to where I'd find myself on Patty's doorstep every Friday afternoon and she'd open that door with one of her big smiles, like I was a total surprise--a welcome one--and we'd spend the weekend together. It was good practice for playing the American. She'd cook me common American foodss like macaroni and cheese or strawberry shortcake--she made that for my birthday--and I'd have to think on my feet, come up with a quick answer for something I'd never anticipated, like was I used to having the strawberries sliced or crushed? We didn't go out much--not anywhere I might be spotted. We'd go hiking in the hills sometimes, or we'd rent movies and eat ice cream and then end up in bed. She never pushed me by asking too much; I think she was afraid I might go away. But it was nice--a nice lull in my crazy life, the kind of thing you look back at later and don't regret. I admired her spirit, too. Patty was starting at the bottom but she was saving up money to go to school on the side. She was the type who'd do a solid job at whatever she put her mind to.

When I started thinking about going to her place mid-week, I knew I was in trouble. And by then I had the hit to plan. So I'd do that, go riding up off Mulholland after work, and on weekends if Patty suggested a drive, I'd make sure it wasn't there. Must have been getting quieter than usual, too, because she noticed my mood, though she didn't say much. Probably thought it was something she'd done, but I said it was just work, things were dragging there and I was thinking of heading for Portland or Seattle; I knew I'd have to leave eventually and I might as well lay the groundwork.

The day I shot Harrison I told myself I was going to stay away, and I did for a while. But I couldn't sleep. I was a mess and by midnight I was at her door again. She'd already gone to bed and was half out of it, but it was probably better that way. We just went to bed and she cried against my shoulder without making any noise and I just held her and let her hold me. If she'd known what I'd done, she'd have taken off and gotten as far away from me as she could. The next day was awkward. Both of us could see the end coming, and I told her I was flying to Portland the following weekend to go job-hunting.

I didn't go back after that. I wanted to; that was what scared me the most. I couldn't afford to be sentimental. Still, I couldn't help but feel bad for her. It was going to hurt her, my leaving. I'd always been a believer in sink or swim. Rough times shook out the weak from the strong; there was a reason for it. But Patty deserved better.

Finally ended up leaving a note on her doorstep with a bouquet of flowers. I switched markets, took to shopping in another neighborhood so I wouldn't run into her. Six weeks later the old man sent me a plane ticket and I was on my way north to the Sacramento area. He wanted me to go to a bunch of little towns looking for death records of John or Jane Doe minors in the late seventies. It was a weird assignment but I knew the old man didn't do anything without a reason. Spent a week or so, checked every little wayside town in Sacramento and Placer counties. One thing I noticed: Every place I was supposed to check was within a 25 mile radius of McClellan Air Force Base. In the end I didn't find anything that stood out, or a pattern. So I took what information I'd gathered and headed back to D.C.

The old man had always had something glowing to say about Mulder before, something meant to set me off a little or make me feel the need to compete, but not this time. He was having a hard time trying to figure out where to ship me off to next, and in the meantime I did a little investigating of my own with Che's help and found out that Mulder played basketball on Wednesday afternoons, just pickup games at a park. So I went there, sat there sweaty-palmed and watched. I'd seen a few pictures of him when I was little, but I had to have Ché pull me a picture from the DMV database so I'd know what he looked like now. He was a good ballplayer, held his own with the best of them. He looked like he was close to my height, give or take an inch, and when he sat down to take a break he seemed to get lost in thought, as if the scene around him had disappeared. He didn't bother to look around and check the area for anything standout the way I would have, but then he'd probably never been on the run from anybody. He never even saw me.

Found a few places where FBI agents hung out and I listened to the talk there. Mulder had a reputation, all right, partly as the crack profiler the old man had said he was and partly as a crackpot. Seems he'd gotten the idea his sister had been abducted by aliens and he wasn't afraid to talk about it, which was pretty stupid, actually.  Not the part about believing, but letting other people know it was what he thought. My estimation of him took a nosedive then. You don't give yourself away like that. He didn't seem to care what people thought of him, and it occurred to me that this could be part of the reason the old man had suddenly shut up about him. It hadn't passed me by, either--that assignment he'd given me out in Sacramento. Child Jane or John Does. Maybe he was afraid of Mulder looking for Samantha and stumbling across something vital. The old man had said she'd been taken. He'd said others were taken, probably adults as well as kids, but he'd said kids to impress me at the time.

But it didn't mean they hadn't been returned. Or he could have lied to me. The group was experimenting on people, trying to make hybrids. The old man had mentioned it in passing, though I'd discovered more details from Petrovich, who had his sources. They had to be keeping them somewhere, and kids could be just as useful as adults; so often kids can put up with more before they give out. It gave me a chill to think about it, not that he might have used my sister--she was nothing but a name to me--but how expendable she was. How expendable I was. The fact that he had offspring meant nothing to the old man; it just made us convenient tools or weapons. It made me realize I was going to need more in reserve for the future than just the old man's reassurances. Talk was cheap.

Looking back, I think the old man realized exactly what Mulder would do given the ability to investigate his sister's disappearance, and that he could easily get out of line. Maybe he'd planned all along to partner me with Mulder to keep him reigned in, or maybe he wanted me waiting in the wings just in case. Better safe than sorry. At any rate, he enrolled me at UVa. Spent almost two years studying political science and history, a lot of which wouldn't be worth the paper the textbooks were printed on in the real world; I knew that from my experience in the field. It was a role, being a student. Like everything else. I'd made it through cleaning weapons and cleaning stables; I could do this, too. 

So I went to lectures and did a little studying, but it made me antsy, sitting around reading a bunch of boring texts by people who hadn't lived the stuff--the power and the crises and the intrigues and the wars. If my test scores dipped too far Ché'd hack in and bump them up a notch or two. But in my spare time I wasn't letting any grass grow. There were a few jobs for the old man--some domestic, others out of the country--people who were double-crossing the Syndicate or keeping their financing operations from feeding cash into the Project. And I traded favors with Petrovich; I took it slowly, but I started to find out details of the hybrid programs--about the German scientists and the Japanese and the failed hybrids buried in New Mexico. And the coldest twist of all--the fact that they were working on the old man's wife. In his own twisted way he probably felt like he was doing something patriotic, sacrificing her like that.

Mulder was starting to really push the limit, and the old man's response was to put X-files in his way where he'd trip over them. Mulder took the bait. Only he took it a little too far. He might be naive, but he was determined; I had to give him that. So then the strategy was to put the brakes on Mulder by pairing him with someone who wouldn't buy his theories. But you know how well that worked. Scully saw something in him--I think they saw something in each other--and though she wasn't about to give an inch when his theories were out in the stratosphere, in the end she disciplined him, which made him more effective at the Bureau instead of less.

When the old man's plan for Scully didn't work out, he pulled me from UVa, manufactured a degree and got me into the Academy. I was going to get a shot at managing Mulder myself and it made me nervous as hell. Probably it was the residue of that kid thing I'd carried with me for years. I was going to have to keep Mulder in line, but at the same time I wanted him to be something to me, or at least, I was hoping he might be. The old man had never felt like family; he was more like my handler. So I spent four months going through 12-hour-a-day training at the Academy, working to keep up with the academics, trying even harder not to look as competent as I was with a weapon, or reacting to those impromptu situations they're always staging for you. Anyway, I made it through just fine. By then the old man'd had the X-files closed, but I guess he knew Mulder's stubbornness pretty well, and I was going to have to be the one to keep his nose out of where it wasn't supposed to be.

I don't think I slept more than an hour the night before that first day playing his partner. I could see now how the old man had built up my attitude toward Mulder over the years. I knew the stakes; I knew Mulder had to be kept from exposing the Project, but that other part of me still wanted this partnership to turn out to be something real. So there I was, Double Agent Krycek, walking through that room, heart in my throat, coming up to his desk--his desk--and freezing. But I made myself go on. Put on my best face, gave him my line about the case being mine first. And he didn't have the time of day for me. If I'd been wearing a sign around my neck that said 'I am your brother', I don't think he would have noticed.

Mulder knew what he wanted and he was going to do it his way. Well, I wasn't going to let it drop that easily, so I pushed back and he gave in... or at least, he let me think he had. That was when he ditched me. He was self-centered, a prima donna. No, a fool: you've got to look beyond your own ego in this business if you expect to stay alive. But when I finally caught up with him, I started to see how he worked, and he was good. He was incredibly intuitive, had a feel for clues the way a safecracker has a feel for the dial under his fingertips. He saw through Cole at the end, that's for sure. It sure as hell was more than I was able to do. And Scully, when we caught up with her--there was definitely something about the way they worked together, where only half if it had to be spoken and the rest was understood, like the communication between a good horse and rider.

Well, I did exactly what I was supposed to do, gave perfect reports to the old man, and though I was pissed about Mulder treating me like a nobody, by the time we started the next case he seemed to be softening. He actually acted like I was human, but then it was off to that hostage negotiation with Duane Barry, and Mulder was busy. This time it was everybody else who treated me like a non-person. I stood there watching Mulder talk to this crazed man, trying to figure out whether or not his determination and his commitment overrode his stupidity in the end. I mean, everything he was, he telegraphed to everyone in the room; he may as well have had it printed on the front of his shirt. If they're going to stop you, Mulder, you don't go telling them what you think, or what you're going to do. You keep your mouth shut, you play the good little agent, and when you've got them lulled and they're not looking, you do what you have to. How long would Mulder have lasted where I'd been, in Russia or Afghanistan? Still, he had guts going into the travel agency like that. Barry could have freaked and it could've been a bloodbath, everyone wasted. Mulder went because he believed. He went because he had to know what Duane Barry might know about his sister, even if it got him killed. And he did a damn good job of handling Barry in the end.

He did too good a job for the old man. And since Scully'd stepped in to help Mulder again, the old man decided it was just too good an opportunity to pass up. So he tipped Barry to Scully's location, gave him some story about the aliens wanting her real bad, that if he took her, they'd bypass him for her, and he took the bait. And Mulder, he lost his head. Any logic he had flew right out the window. You gotta figure you'll be fresher, and think better, if you get some sleep. Not Mulder; he'd probably see it as a measure of his lack of commitment to his ex-partner. Nearly drove us off the road to prove that commitment, and then he tried covering for what he'd done, insisted he was okay. Right. Self-delusion--one of this world's great killers. Not only could he not see his limitations, he wasn't even interested. He tried ordering me around again up in the lodge, but by then I was sick of his shit and I let him know I wasn't going to take any more of it. Of course, at that point Barry was on his way out and I had to get out of there, because it was all too obvious who'd been the last one in the room with Barry, and who'd been in the control room with the tram operator.

So I'd spent some time with my brother after all these years. I'd saved his ass by starting that tram up again before he could climb high enough to electrocute himself, and he still knew nothing about who I was. It had been one big bust, like a helium balloon that pops as soon as you finally get close enough to touch it. I was mad at Mulder for being such a prick, and I was mad at myself for having had hopes that we could be something in the first place. And I was mad at the old man. I'd figured he was finally on the verge of letting me into the club, but the first time I asked for information he slammed my nose in the door. No rights, only orders to be carried out.

I was destined to be his mule for life.

Not if I could help it.

But it seemed to be what the old man had in mind. After that it was Project security--train schedules and bringing scientists in and out, coordinating, gathering evidence on what they did in their off-hours. Then six months later he called me in and told me he had an important security leak. Turned out to be Bill Mulder; he'd had regrets and was about to spill his guts to Mulder about the Project and his part in it. Wasn't hard to pull that one off. The guy was sloshed half the time anyway, which didn't make him any too alert, and I'd had issues with this man all my life. He was the guy who hadn't wanted me in his house, the reason I'd grown up in a cement compound with radiators that heated about an inch from the wall. He was the reason I was a guy hiding in his shower stall instead of someone like Mulder with his Oxford degree. 

Or so I told myself to psyche myself up. Unfortunately, Mulder showed up like a stray dog who won't go away. He must have seen me going out that window, or behind the house, because when I got to his apartment building to swap out the water softener canister, he spotted me and nearly killed me. Would have, if Scully hadn't shot him. At least somebody was thinking on their feet. But he got his chance to wail away on me. Except for the fact that it hurt, I could've laughed: there was Mulder raining his emotions down on me like my own personal storm cloud. But when I thought about it later, he had a point.  A right: I'd killed his father, a man he'd cared about for whatever reason. Unlike me. If somebody'd shot the old man, I probably would've bought them a drink.

As usual, though, Scully went too far, swooping down to pluck Mulder out of danger and then depositing him right on top of the train car holding the evidence of the first hybrid failures. She became my next assignment, but I had a new guy tagging along, the old man's latest lap dog, Cardenal. He had a little too much of that flare-up, anarchistic thing that's part of his culture, and nothing works in this business like subtlety. So we went and set up in Scully's apartment and waited. But when the door opened, it wasn't Scully at all; it was another woman. I always double-check my target, but Cardenal was jittery. He fired before she'd even managed to hit the light switch and the damage was done. All I can say is I'd played this scene out in my head a dozen times before we went in, and what finally happened just didn't compute. I guess I was in shock because the only thing I could think to do was to get the hell out of there, to put some distance between us and this mistake. Which was a stupid move because now they knew we were after Scully. We might as well have taken out a full-page ad in the Washington Post.

The old man and I had words. There was no way to put a good spin on what had happened, but if he hadn't given me a nervous shit like Cardenal to babysit, there wouldn't have been a problem in the first place. He wanted me to take responsibility for Cardenal but I wasn't about to bend over and kiss the old man's ass when I hadn't wanted Cardenal along in the first place. Might've been smart, though, looking back. Puckering up, that is.  The syndicate was giving the old man a hard time about the mistake, and the fact was we should never have left Scully's apartment without that body. If Scully's sister had just disappeared, there would've been no evidence pointing to us or our intentions. 

But at the time I felt like I'd lost too much ground already to give up any more. After Duane Barry I'd been given nothing but surveillance and muscle jobs. I'd been waiting all my life to break into the inner circle and It was pretty obvious I hadn't been on any fast track lately. I wasn't about to let this thing with Melissa Scully sink my chances completely.

But going head-to-head with the old man... I was young. Looking back, I should've known better. And I should have suspected something when his mood seemed to lighten. If nothing else, the fact that he assigned three of us to retrieve the DAT tape, not two, should have set off alarm bells. But I was focused on the tape itself, and on strategy. So we set off to shadow Skinner and caught up with him in the hospital stairwell. Once I had that tape we were out of there in a hurry and I have to admit my mind wasn't on the bigger plan, on whether the project would be safe now from any one of a dozen groups out to prove that aliens had come to this planet. I was hoping what I had in my pocket was the Holy Grail, that delivering this tape would get me out of the doghouse once and for all and send me back up to where I should be. 

And then we stopped at a convenience store. I don't know whether it was Cardenal's delivery when he said he could use a beer or the fact that I just happened to glance toward the door and see them both looking back at me. My mind froze; I knew it was the old man sending me off. But my body reacted in time and got me the hell out of there. Just barely, anyway. Took off on foot, but I twisted my ankle when the blast knocked me over, and I didn't make it very far before I couldn't go on. Managed to make it into a little diner and use the phone. I called Ché, the only guy I could think of who'd help me, and waited over an hour till he was able to borrow a car from a friend and come pick me up. Spent the whole time shaking. If they'd done a door-to-door, I would've been history.

So there it was: I was out, crumpled up and thrown away like a piece of unread junk mail. No matter the twenty-seven years of prepping me, sending me here and there to gain experience, even college time and the Academy. He'd never take anybody standing up to him. Hell, I even rated lower than that stupid fuck Cardenal who couldn't control his trigger finger. But then Cardenal knew how to bow and scrape. I'd always figured I'd earned some rights, letting the old man lay out practically every step I'd ever taken. Hell, I wasn't just somebody he'd hired off the street. But I guess the shared genes didn't count for much. He'd said as much already, after Scully was taken: no rights, only orders to be carried out. And his wrinkled ass to kiss for the privilege.

Spent a week at Ché's recovering, putting up with his efforts to mother me and his worry over my silence. Inside I was boiling mad, but more than that I was scared shitless. All my life I'd been primed for the invasion and for being one of the few to have a fighting chance in spite of the odds. Now I was locked out, the danger bearing down on us, me outside screaming and pounding on a cement door and nobody on the other side who was going to listen. If they heard anything at all, they were probably laughing.

But I took the lesson. I wouldn't make the same mistake again--let anybody control me the way the old man had. I thought about my sister, too--how he'd had no regard for her, either, whoever she was, aside from her easy availability as a lab rat. If what I'd assumed was true. And then I thought of Mulder--naive, idealistic Mulder, the guy who'd had life so easy there wasn't a scar on his body. He didn't know any of this, about colonization or hybrids. All he knew was the sister he'd grown up with had been taken by little green men and he was ready to throw his career out the window to find her. If it meant losing his position and sitting out in the gutter, he'd do it. I didn't get it. Nobody I'd ever known had been worth that kind of commitment. He was a dreamer and my mind condemned his lack of practicality. My gut, though, it envied him his conviction just the same.

I knew I needed to get myself out of the country but I wasn't leaving empty-handed. I had the DAT tape. It was everything I had now--my protection, my resource, my bank account--and I was going to make it work for me. Me alone. I knew I couldn't go back to Russia safely; it'd be too obvious a place for the old man to look, and he had his connections there. So when my ankle was better, I headed for Canada. Some information I'd gotten through one of Petrovich's sources indicated there was some kind of pre-colonization groundwork being laid in Alberta and I needed to find out what it was.

--------------------

SCENE: DEEP WATER

Four years before he's partnered with Mulder, a 23-year-old Alex Krycek, six months into life in the U.S., is sent to surveille a potential enemy of the Project. But what sends him into deep water is a simple meeting with a girl in a supermarket.

 

I guess the moral of this story is 'watch where you walk'. 

But that would imply that I wished I could take back what happened.

*~*~*~*~*

L.A. was a trip: urban sprawl, the beach, gridlock. That Hollywood aura. You knew they were around--rich celebrities, movie and TV stars, and there were wannabes everywhere you looked, most of them waiting for the lucky break that was never going to come. But the energy--the anticipation--of the place was real. And there I was, finally on my own in America: traffic tickets, overloaded grocery stores, girls who were everywhere on their own and obviously not going home to apartments full of wary relatives. I had an apartment in Santa Monica, a motorcycle, and a job playing lab gofer while I spied on a research exec the old men were worried about. A hit to pull off if they decided Ross Harrison was the kind of threat they figured him for.

It didn't look that way after a while, though, and keeping tabs on Harrison had started to get to me. I wanted to move on to an assignment that actually had some significance. I'd been waiting a long time for a chance to stop being a peasant--to wedge my way into the inner circle--and my patience was wearing thin. But the old man said to keep working. Keep watching.

And there was a certain pull to this capitalist craziness I was living, in the freedom you had to go out and do, and in the lack of restrictive traditions. The girls here were unpolished in comparison to Europeans but they had a kind of frontier resolve. Whatever it was they were aspiring to be--actresses or artists or businesswomen or some rich guy's wife--they figured they were going to get there. Which kind of left me as a Volkswagen among Mercedes. Sure, there were ordinary women, too, common girls working cash registers and answering phones. But I had no need for the baggage of a relationship and one-night stands get stale pretty fast. They can be a lot more effort than they're worth.

Then one day I walked into the grocery store and literally into this girl. Knocked a can of green beans right out of her hand. I'd had my head full trying to figure out how I could convince the old man to move me up out of the basement on the next assignment and I plowed right into Patty without even seeing her. Okay, it was worse than that; I stepped on her foot. Caught me so completely off-guard I picked up the can of green beans and apologized all over the place. 

I was kind of marooned after that and she smiled and we traded a little small talk. Then we went our separate ways, except that we'd parked next to each other and she made some comment, passing by on her way out, about my bike and we started talking again. She told me about riding on the back of her brother's motorcycle through cornfields and I don't know why it caught me; I was thinking I don't need anything here, and then I was thinking she might be easy. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that it was Friday afternoon and the work week had been a bitch and when Patty smiled, the lab and everything that had gone on there faded into the background. And she was still limping a little from where I'd stepped on her foot.

Anyway, the upshot was that we ended up on the patio of the little Mexican restaurant next door, drinking margaritas and trading small talk, and when we finally got up again, both of us loosened a little by the drinks, I gave her a hand up out of the chair--those awkward plastic ones with the arms that hook under the edge of the table if you're not careful--and neither of us was quite ready to let go. 

We were supposed to be heading back to the parking lot but that was going to end things pretty fast so I said something about a park down the block and she was perfectly willing to head that way with me. Patty wasn't exactly what you'd describe as a centerfold. She had her own look and was a little overweight but she was pretty in her own way and she wasn't one of those Barbie-wannabes who can't think any farther than hair and makeup. And she had this smile that was totally genuine. It was a relief after the little cloud I'd been living under. 

Not that I was thinking any of this stuff consciously. Biology kind of took over and by the time we got back to the parking lot, it was pretty obvious that she wasn't any more eager to break this up than I was. Another dozen steps to the car and it'd be curtains, though, so I was trying to think up something to say to string things out when she turns to me and asks do I like hot fudge sundaes? Okay, so it's not exactly 'come up and see my fish tank,' and she seems sincere enough about the hot fudge sauce she says she makes, but it's a foot in the door, too; nobody's really being fooled here. There's the little problem of having come here separately, but she says her place is only three blocks away and I say no problem, I can walk back for my bike later, and she looks kind of relieved and we both get into her car. 

It's one of those five-minute rides that seems to take half a lifetime, but finally we get there and park and take the groceries from the trunk. She works her key in the lock and leads the way inside, but the entry bulb is burned out and we go into the darkened kitchen and set the bags on the counter. 

No time like the present. Before she can reach all the way to the light switch I take her hand and bring her closer, and I kiss her. Carefully. She seems like the type who wants reassurance--you know, that I'm not just some crazed stranger out to take what I can get and then steal her TV and stereo on the way out. I have no interest in her stereo and TV. And I have no interest in being reported as a rapist, either. I hear women here do that sometimes.

This woman's mouth is all satin heat and curves, and her hands reach for my waist, but I can tell she's not in this for a quick session of hot-and-heavy. Though she's definitely open... opening... mmm... to being made love to. Somehow it doesn't bother me, taking my time, and I leave her mouth and drift a line of kisses to her jaw and down the side of her neck--she shivers--and end at her collarbone, which is as far I can get with this blouse buttoned. Her hands come up and cup my face; she wants my mouth again and I give it to her, our kisses deeper and hungrier this time. She tastes like the tang of margaritas and when I trail a finger down the front of her blouse she leans into me and I smile and slip open the top button and then another and another. She's not clawing at my clothes but she's not backing off, either, and there's no mistaking what her mouth is telling me. 

I ease back a moment. We look at each other and I can read it in her eyes--heat mixed with a flash of hurt, as if she thinks I might turn and walk out. But I'm not going anywhere. I come closer again and let her know. A minute later the blouse is gone, and then her bra, and her fingers have finally found their way up under my shirt hem and we're still standing beside the kitchen counter. 

"Somebody may get an eyeful if they're enterprising enough," I murmur, nodding toward the mostly-closed blinds in the window above the sink. 

She takes half a step back. Her head dips down. All of a sudden I'm sure I've blown it, broken the moment, and by now I'm starving for this. Finally she looks up, barely focused on me, her teeth pressing against her lower lip. Her cheeks are flushed. Her mouth opens a little and she shakes her head. I swallow.

"I just--"

It's over.

"I don't--" She shakes her head again. "I don't do this--meet men in the grocery store and..."

I try to keep my breathing even. "I usually watch where I'm going. You're the first girl I've ever plowed into like that. Honest."

That much is true. She flashes just a hint of one of those smiles and looks down again. Maybe she needs a little space. I start to move back but she catches my hand.

"Don't go," she says. 

I let out more of a smile than I'd intended and we come back together again. One last kiss and she's got my hand, leading me upstairs to the bedroom. Outside, the wind's picked up and it's blowing the curtain in. She goes to shut the window, then the curtain, and I come up behind her in the dark. I smooth my hands over her shoulders and down her sides. 

"You're cold, you know," I say. It's October, after all, and the evenings are finally beginning to cool. 

She turns, catches my belt loops with two fingers. Looks up. She has beautiful breasts.

"Alex, do you have--" She looks down a moment. "You know, some--"

Protection? I reach into my back pocket, slip out my wallet and fish out a dog-eared foil packet. She seems relieved. 

"I'm clean," I say. "Don't worry." And it's true. I'm not stupid.

A moment later her hands are up under my shirt, smooth and light, spreading current that makes my breath hitch, and my shirt's going up, farther up and then over my head and off. Her arms go around me and she rests her forehead against my shoulder, her hair soft like a cloud between us.

"You okay?"

She nods, but it takes a second before she looks up. "I'll be back in a minute," she says, and glances toward the bed. "It's warmer in there. Go ahead." 

I watch as she goes into the bathroom and shuts the door. I don't know what the expression on her face meant. What if she changes her mind? I believe her when she says she's never picked up a stranger in the grocery story before... or probably anywhere else, for that matter; she doesn't seem like the type. So how did I luck out? 

I just hope she doesn't spend too much time thinking about it. 

A moment later I realize I'm still standing in the middle of the room. I make myself move, reach for the bedspread and pull it back. A worn teddy bear falls off the pillow. I set it on the nightstand, slip out of my pants and get inside the covers. The sheets are smooth and printed with little bouquets of flowers. I stare over at the strip of light under the bathroom door, then look away and close my eyes. The longer that light stays on, the slimmer my chances get. I'm aching for this but I try to talk myself into a holding pattern in case things go bad.

Just when I've convinced myself she's come to her senses, the strip of light disappears and the door opens. She hesitates for a second just outside the door, letting her eyes adjust, and then goes around to the far side of the bed without once looking up, as if she's in the room alone. She's wearing something dark green, a slip or chemise. At the side of the bed she stops and looks up at me, flushed.

"Hey," I say quietly, and when I hold back the covers she slips inside and I pull her up against me. She holds on for dear life and for a minute we just lay there, not moving, not saying anything. Then her chin comes up. I look down and our mouths meet and it all surges in; we're right back where we were before. 

The green thing is amazing, smooth and silky. I run my hands all over it and she's obviously enjoying what it does to her because before I know what's happening she's coaxing me on top of her and I'm starting to push inside. And still there's that little bit of reticence; I can see it in her face, feel it in the way her fingers press against my biceps. Down south, a last set of muscles is holding out. I think of something, just a little detail: she'd introduced herself as Pat. Could be boom or bust but I feel like a re-entry satellite going through atmospheric burn-up; I have to try something.

"Patty," I say, and there's something in her eyes, something vulnerable that shows for just a second, and I say it again, softly. "Patty."

And she smiles and pulls me closer and I push in--god, heaven--and start to build a rhythm. I try to keep my head but it's been so long and it feels so damn good that my mind shorts like a live wire falling into water and before I know it I'm past the point of holding back. I come, panting, and ease myself down against her, waiting to catch my breath. 

But when the endorphin rush clears I realize I'm right back where I was in the grocery store, stepping on her foot. This was supposed to be a party for two. She's going to expect something. Want something.

"Sorry about--" I look up, feeling the red in my face. 

She gives me a half-smile and a shrug and another look I can't read. After a minute I slip off to the side and we disconnect.

"Just give me a minute," I say. "Be right back." And I get up to go clean off.

The bathroom light's too bright and the water in the sink is too loud. I keep my eyes on what I'm doing and not on the mirror. She has pink towels and green, the color of ferns, and I take a green one to dry off with and remind myself to hang it again when I'm done. I have no idea what the look on her face meant. Not mad. Maybe a little disappointed or sad or... It's hard to tell, but then most of the time it is. Cultures are different but it's beyond that. Women always seem like they've come from some hidden place, as if they're a secret tribe. 

I remind myself she's waiting out there, and I flip off the light and open the door. Back in bed, I slip under the covers and reach across. Her hand catches mine. Something hitches inside me but I roll toward her.

"Didn't mean to get ahead of things there."

After a beat she shakes her head. "It's okay."

"Just... you know, tell me what--"

"It's okay." She shakes her head again.

"No, really, just--"

Her lips press together. She looks at me as if she's trying to figure out how far she trusts me. After a while I realize I'm holding my breath.

"What?"

"Can you--" Her teeth press against her lower lip. "Can you just hold me? For a while?"

I push up on one elbow. "You sure? That's all you--?"

She pauses and then nods. She can be incredibly serious and I can see that she'd be wondering how this ever happened.

"Yeah, sure." 

Small payment. I pull her into my arms. Her hand slips around my waist and she curls down against my chest. We just lay there, not talking, and finally I feel her sigh. 

"Your work week as bad as mine?" I say, and I run two fingers through the hair beside her temple.

"Yours was bad?"

"Boring. Frustrating sometimes. You know--office politics. The usual."

She doesn't say anything. I stare at a streak of light on the ceiling and finally look down at her again.

"Just... my family, I guess," she says now.  "I've been out here about eight months, on my own, and it gets--" She cuts off abruptly and eventually I feel a little wet spot on my skin next to her eye. I close my own. Lucky enough to score, but now I end the night playing therapist.

I don't say anything, I just hold her. 

It's what she asked for. 

*~*~*~*~*

Eventually I wake up and it surprises me: I hadn't figured I'd fall asleep at all. Patty's sound asleep but I'm alert now and this is as good a time as any to make my exit. Anyway, I'm not much at morning conversation. I slip out of bed, get dressed and, against my better judgment, nudge Patty's shoulder. 

"I've got to go," I say. "I left my bike in the parking lot and I don't want to wait too long--you know, go back and find it stripped."

She nods but she's obviously only barely awake.

I bite the inside of my lip. "Maybe we can go riding sometime." Just something to make it seem open-ended.

But I don't give her my number and she doesn't ask. Maybe she's too far gone to think straight. Or maybe she recognizes it for the line it is.

I lean over, kiss her cheek quickly and stand up. I'm to the doorway when I hear her voice, quiet.

"Be careful."

"Yeah," I say. "I will."  

Back at the market, my bike's fine. I take it home, shower, get in bed but I can't fall asleep. I lie there trying to think strategy and when I wake up again, it's because the sun's shining in my face; it's after eleven. I get up and wash my bike and polish all the chrome like the crazy capitalist I'm supposed to be playing, but the fact is I like it. I love this bike and I want it to look good. I'd like to go riding, too. It's a beautiful, clear day but the road that winds along the coast going north, the PCH, is going to be crowded with half of L.A. out for a taste of something that doesn't smack of a desk and a cubicle, so I figure I'll wait until later, just before sunset.

I spend nearly two hours working on the bike, and then I do my laundry and start organizing my space before I finally admit to myself that all the busywork is just an attempt to keep from thinking about Patty and it's not working. I want to go back. Maybe it's the sex and maybe it's the thought of getting a clear night's sleep. Who knows whether that was just a quirk, but I could use another night like that. I glance at the clock--3:17. 

By four I'm back on Patty's doorstep.

*~*~*~*~*

Eight weekends we played our little game, until the day I took out Harrison in the dry winter hills off Mulholland. We ate and rode my bike, hiked and watched old movies and made crazy love. She gave me the first birthday present anyone had ever given me. Sometimes we stepped on each other's toes... 

No, I guess that would be me. I'm not cut out for that kind of thing. 

After all these years, sometimes I still think about that.

-------------------------

SCENE: THE ALBERTA COLONY

On his way off the continent after the car bombing, Alex Krycek stops to investigate an intelligence tip he's received from a Russian source.

 

I spend the better part of a week looking, wandering down little empty lanes through grassy hills before I finally find the place. Or before he finds me. I've stopped by the roadside to check myself against the map for the twentieth time when he appears practically out of nowhere, striding toward me over a rise.

"Are you lost?" he says, but he's the one who looks out of place in his slacks and his tweed sport coat. He has that kindly-old-guy look but I can tell he's up to something.

So I say no, just checking out the scenery. But I'm not very convincing and we stand there eyeing each other for a while.

Finally he says, "Would you like me to show you, Mr. Krycek? It's not safe for you to wander around here on your own."

It's the flashing numbers all over again. Somehow the old man's followed me, or one of his goons has gotten to Ché, because he's the only one who knew where I was headed. I expect to see the old man step out smirking from behind a bush, or at least to smell the stench of his Morleys, but nothing happens--no old man, no sudden bullet ripping into me.  And then he says it again. Do I want him to show me?

By now my heart's running like a spooked rabbit. "Show me what?"

"What you came here to see."

"How the hell would you know what I came here for?"

He shrugs. "It's immaterial," he says. He's wearing this thin smile, too smug for my taste. "Do you want to see or don't you? You must be accompanied. Otherwise, you'll be vulnerable."

"To what? My guess is I'll be a lot more vulnerable on the guided tour."

"Others have tried it before--coming to this colony. Let me show you what happens to them." His hand comes out, an afterthought. "Jeremiah Smith."

I don't offer mine. Anyway, it's sweaty.

He turns and walks past a curve in the road and points to something behind a big rock. I swallow the crawling feeling in my gut and go over to where he is. Two bodies lie in the bushes, one not much more than a skeleton with flaps of dark skin hanging off it like old leather. The other's fresher; you can still see the guy's face and the welts on it.

"What happened to them?" I say.

"Bee stings," he says.

I laugh. "Yeah, right. I hear those killer bees have barely reached Arizona."

"They're not that kind of bee."

My worries about the old man are fading, but Smith is beginning to seriously piss me off with his Dalai Lama calm.

"I can show you," he repeats.

"Why would you want to? And how do you know who I am?"

"Who you are"--he shrugs--"I don't know much about. But I can read your thoughts. As a boy you were called Alyosha--short for Aleksei. You came here to see. Because you don't believe in it."

"Believe in what?"

"In what will come. You want to see it stopped."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

He turns away as if he's leaving and starts into the grass the way he came.

Make the leap or not? But my whole life's going nowhere right now. "Okay. What am I thinking?"

He pauses and finally turns to face me again. "You're considering whether I'm a trap or not. Someone wants to kill you. And behind that is concern about a friend, whether he may have been compromised. Farther still... is the thought of a woman. You're lying in bed together, holding each other. She's crying. You've killed someone." He shakes his head. "But she doesn't know that."

I swallow. Where the hell did he dredge up that bit about Patty? Nobody knew about Patty.

"We can walk," he says. "Or it would be faster in your car."

The Syndicate's got their thumb in this for sure.  The welts on that body look like smallpox and I know that's what Charne-Sayre's research is about. I haven't come all this way to leave empty-handed, but I'm sure as hell not going to end up like those two bodies on the side of the road. Finally I motion toward the passenger door and we get in and go farther down the road, him telling me which way to turn whenever the road forks. Eventually we come down into a valley where black shade cloth canopies spread like huge black wings over maybe ten or twelve acres. They're growing something under it.

"What is it?"

"An herb."

"You're not growing it out here to market. What's it for?"

"The production of pollen," he says. He glances out at the fields and back at me. "But I don't believe the plants are what you'll find most intriguing here."

I say nothing. I'm losing patience, tired of playing 'guess what's in my hand, grasshopper'. I park the car at the end of a row of old wood frame houses, get out and follow him toward the covered fields. I know what the plant is. I've seen it before--ginseng. There are a couple of young boys working the rows, pulling weeds, a sight that takes me back a few years. I flash on a group of ragged kids working rows of cabbage or turnips in the mud. We never had it this nice, though, that's for sure. I don't notice anything particular until a girl in braids comes along, and then another girl. They're twins--no, another one pops up from behind a raised row of plants. Triplets. Weird.

And then the boys get up and file past us. The clothes are different but the kids inside them look identical. Something cold grabs my gut.

"What is this?" I say.

He raises his eyebrows. "A perceptive question. They're workers, nothing more. Servants of the greater purpose."

I put in my time as a kid doing that, serving the 'greater cause'. The state, the institution I grew up in, Mother Russia; whatever they want to call it, it's all the same. I find my hands balled into fists and make them loosen. "Yeah, whatever. So they're producing pollen to feed bees. Is that it?"

He shrugs. "Many will be needed."

"So what are you doing here? You don't want it to succeed, either."

"It is my duty, my function, to assist with the preparation. I--"

The party line. He stops, his mouth still open, but now I notice something, one of the girls fallen between the rows. I go through an opening between two benches to look. She's pale, blood pooling on the ground below a deep cut in her palm. A pair of garden shears lies beside her and her lips move but no sound comes out. I turn back to Smith. Do they just let them go here?

"You going to do something about this?" I say, my eyes still on the pale, barely moving lips. "Or are they expendable? She's bleeding. Looks like she cut her hand."

The news doesn't shake him. He comes to where we are and bends down beside her, covering her hand with his own. I look around at the other kids. They go on about their business, not as if they're trying to block it out but as if what just happened hasn't even registered. When I look back, he's helping the girl to sit up. Her color's better and her hand... There's nothing--no blood, no cut. She gets to her feet, picks up the shears and moves down the row to her work. If it weren't for the dark stain on the ground, I'd figure I hallucinated the whole thing. Something in my gut turns hard.

"It's getting late," Smith says, and he turns and points to where the sun's sinking toward the horizon. "Come."

So we turn and leave the ginseng fields and go back toward the row of buildings.

"You're welcome to stay the night," he says now. "It's quite a distance to the nearest town and all too easy to lose your way in the dark on these winding roads."

I grunt in reply.

The whole complex seems to be the fields, and then a row of small houses along the strip of road. There don't seem to be any other buildings, or any other activity going on.

"Dinner will be served soon," he says.

On the dirt road, two boys carry a big cooking pot between them and take it into one of the houses. A girl takes down laundry from a line in a yard and puts it in a basket. Several boys have stopped to drink from a fountain on their way in from the fields. Behind them, two girls follow, buckets in hand. They don't whisper or giggle the way girls do. All the kids are the same--one style of girl, one kind of boy. Not a sign of another adult anywhere.

"You're welcome to look around," Smith says to me now. "Perhaps you can satisfy your curiosity that way. Dinner will be served in that house over there"--he points to one with green trim--"in fifteen minutes. Do you have a watch?"

"Yeah," I say, and I start back toward where I've parked the car. It's just a white Corolla, not too old, nothing fancy--something that runs and doesn't attract much attention, which is why I took it and not the black Mustang parked next to it. The keys were in it, too; that was another factor. But I'm far enough away that nobody's likely to be looking for it around here. Seems solid enough to get me all the way to Vancouver, which is where I'm headed next. Vancouver, make a few connections and then skip the country, hide out in Hong Kong or Singapore or Bangkok; the old man doesn't have a lot of connections in the East.

I turn at the car. A couple of outbuildings, one a barn, the other a kind of combination tool shed and workshop, are visible now behind the houses. The first one has no lights on inside. I go up and look. Through the window I can see stacks of supplies: sacks of flour, potatoes, canned goods, toilet paper, boxes of laundry soap. I turn around and spot a weedy passage between two buildings. He said to look around. I follow the path and come out into tall grasses.

Hills rise close behind and a path shows in the grass, beaten down from being walked on. I follow it along the near hillside and around a corner. A slice has been cut from the hillside in front of me, a section maybe twenty feet wide that's been completely removed. The exposed edges have been fitted with cement walls, a detail that wouldn't show up from the air if anyone were looking with planes or satellites. Each wall holds a set of metal doors. I go closer, put my hand on a door and listen. A slight humming comes from inside but there's no sound of human movement or footfalls.

He told me to look.

I open the door just a fraction of an inch and the sound swells.  Suddenly I realize what it is: bees. I remember the two bodies on the roadside and shut the door fast, then I turn away, my heart suddenly doing double-time, and head back toward the row of houses. I don't know what to make of this place. They're raising bees as a delivery system. The kids are like bees, too, busy and expressionless, but hey, they were designed to do a job, like machines. They probably don't even feel anything, so what difference should it make? Except I guess the old guy expects me to put all the pieces together. If they need workers now, they'll need them later, too, to do their dirty work: raising food, building things, cleaning up. A lot of us are going to die and the 'chosen' ones who don't will live on in some kind of multiple hell, carrying buckets and watching their cloned selves do the same.

Something bites at the back of my neck. I swat at it without thinking and then realize what it probably is, what I've done. Maybe it's the fear that sets my heart racing, but next thing I know the ground is rushing up at me, smashing into my cheek, and my body feels thick, shot through with pain.  My heartbeat stands out above everything, grinding and pulling like a tractor stuck in mud. I'm going to die here. All this--all these years--for nothing, to die from a bee sting out in the middle of nowhere. I can't breathe. I struggle for air and the scene around me goes black. All I can see is the 'quiet room' back in the orphanage and the little blond kid Sergei, dead in a threadbare white crib, his eyes big and vacant, staring.

Eventually there's a blur hanging over me that resolves itself into Smith. Sweat covers my face and neck but the rest of me... feels okay. I reach without thinking for the spot on my neck but there's no pain anywhere. Even the side of my face that hit the ground doesn't feel bruised.

"Come," he says, and offers me a hand up.

I blink hard, shove his hand away and pull up to a sitting position. "You knew that'd happen--"

He frowns. "Mr. Krycek, I--"

"You didn't have to get rid of me. Just let me wander around here and I'd do it myself."

"If I'd meant to get rid of you," he says calmly, "I would have left you here. I wouldn't have--"

I look at the ground and then up at the horizon where the last of the sun is slipping down, a thin curve of neon yellow. I'm shaking and I know it's not the bee sting.

"Supper, Mr. Krycek," he says with that signature calm.  "The others are waiting."

He turns and I get up and we start back toward the houses. He's like Spock without the pointy ears. I watch my boots, one slipping past the other, steady rhythm. Sergei stares at me with those big dead eyes and inside the pocket of my jacket, my left hand is clenched tight.

"Mr. Krycek?"

I look ahead and pick up my pace. Who am I to keep a roomful of kids waiting for their dinner? Even if they are mindless clones.


We have beans for dinner, white ones with a little ham tossed in. There's bread, and vegetables, and an apple set at each place. Some of the kids eat theirs and others take them along as they go back to their houses. There are two long row tables. I sit at the end of one and Smith sits across from me. None of the kids pays any real attention to us. Or to each other, for that matter. Like they're all of them off in their separate little dream worlds, except that they probably don't have much in the way of minds to dream with. Instincts are enough to get them by, or whatever programming's been bred into them. My stomach's a little queasy. I tell myself it's from my little episode outside but the truth is, being here reminds me of the time the old man took me to Tunguska when I was eleven, the nightmare covered with its thin coat of normality. Still, the spoon keeps finding its way into my mouth.

I guess I must be eating slowly because when I think to look up, nearly half the kids are gone.  They go out two by two, a boy and a girl. Beyond the window I can see them heading off into the houses.

"This it?" I say. "This is everybody here?"

Smith's cutting carrot chunks into smaller pieces. He shrugs. "No one else is needed."

"And you play camp nurse."

"I coordinate." He pokes two or three little carrot rounds onto the tines of his fork and puts them in his mouth. When they've been chewed and swallowed he wipes his mouth with a napkin. All this time he hasn't taken his eyes off me. "This is not the only facility of its kind," he says, and then a minute later, "Are you staying with us tonight?"

I give a non-committal shrug. It's dark now and it'd be pretty easy to lose my way trying to get back to civilization. Civilization's also where someone's going to be looking for the car I'm driving. "Yeah," I say. "I guess."

He gestures toward one of the boys clearing tables and the kid sets his dishes down and comes to us. Must be some kind of mindspeak he's using, because after a glance at the kid he turns to me and tells me the boy will get me towels and show me where the showers are and where I'm supposed to sleep. He gestures for me to follow the kid so I do, out through what used to be the living room of this old house and into a back room where linens are stacked on shelves that line the walls. I'm given a towel and a wash cloth and then the kid leads me outside and two houses down to another building where the showers are--one side for girls, one for boys. We go in the entrance on the left and he points out the facilities. Three boys stand under a line of showerheads; they glance at us but not with any interest and then he touches my sleeve and heads out again. The last of the light is nearly gone and it's cold.  The contrast with the bath house is enough to make me shiver.

We pass three more buildings and go through a wooden gate and up to a house. I've seen lights going out in houses as we pass. This one's already dark. We go through a tiny living room and then into a larger room at the back. Two sets of bunk beds are set against a broad window that overlooks the ginseng fields; a girl's already gone to bed in an upper bunk. The kid gestures to the lower bunk on the other bed so I guess that's where I'm supposed to sleep. I nod okay--there doesn't seem to be any point in talking--and he turns and goes out again. I look at the bed by the glow of a night light on the wall, sit down on the mattress and then get up again and stare out into the dark. I don't want to be here. I don't want to sit and think, or lie on a bunk and think. I grab the towel and washcloth and go back outside and to the bath house. It's the beginning of October but no rains have come yet.  The grasses are dying and they fill the air with a sweet, dry smell that would make me want to lie outside looking up at the stars if it were warmer.  And if this weren't the Stepford compound and I hadn't nearly died an hour ago.

Two boys come down the path as I go to the bath house, their hair wet. Two more are inside. They basically ignore me, busy lathering up. I feel a little weird, but judging from what I've seen of the kids' curiosity levels, I'm not going to be as stand-out as I feel, so I strip and get into the water. The spray's only warm and the room's not heated all that well so I hurry up and clean off and get out again. Both kids eye me a little, but probably only because it must be weird seeing someone who doesn't look like them. Their bodies are smooth and unscarred, but I guess Smith sees that they stay that way. I still have no idea what he did to that girl, or to me, but it scares the shit out of me just thinking about it. The old man trying to send me off in a flaming car I understand. The power of blackmail and deception I understand, and the language of bullets and grenades and mines. The black oil creeping into a bony old man, or the picture in my head of Ivanova's parents being torn to shreds by an alien hatchling--I can grasp that, too. But this, a power beyond reason and imagining, gives me the shakes.

Back in my bunk I lie in the overpowering quiet, hoping for sleep that I know isn't going to come. I see the girl lying in the ginseng rows again, how pale she is, how helpless without a voice, and I think of Lena. They said she was bleeding, too, only not from the hand. I try to keep the picture out of my head. Smith doesn't say much; he just figures you'll put the pieces together. Not the only facility like this, he said, and I've got to admit it's a nightmare picture. They won't kill everybody off.  Some salvation. At its nightmare best, the future could look like this, quiet and calm on the outside, empty and pointless inside. Even these kids--this is no life they're living.

I lie there fingering the coarse cotton blanket that serves as a bedspread, staring up at the slats holding up the bunk above me. The moon's coming up; it slips a shaft of light into the room, making the far wall glow. Soon the boy comes in, the one who brought me here. He takes off his jeans and climbs into the bunk below the girl. A few minutes later I can hear his breathing, shallow and regular.  He's fallen asleep.

The room shrinks, pressing in on me. What are the odds we won't just get crushed like ants? Or that somebody will actually stumble across a formula for a vaccine that works even if I do manage to make it back inside the shelter of one of the groups? What if I pick the wrong one? All my life I've told myself I can't afford the indulgences other people have--possessions, attachments, wants--because I've got to do this, help make this plan happen so I can save myself. I'd always figured somehow I'd succeed. Maybe I had to think that way. But if it's all been in vain? What've I got to show for twenty-seven years on this rock? 

Where's the payoff?

I roll to one side and then the other. Stuffing the pillow farther under my head doesn't help. The moon creeps slowly up the wall and when I close my eyes, I see the numbers flashing on the car's dash. A jolt of adrenaline hits me, and the heat from the explosion, and then I hear waves; I'm sitting on the beach at night. When my eyes open again, the moonlight's a streak high in the corner of the room.

Something hot and strange fills me--dream residue--and I make myself get up. Outside the window, moonlight shines silver on the covering above the ginseng rows. It's strange here after D.C., the hollow quiet broken only by the sound of crickets, the occasional coyote howl and the breathing of the two kids in the next bunk. The girl rolls from her stomach onto her side, close to the edge of the bed, and her hair spills down over the side of the mattress. I go closer. She's taken out the braids; her hair is thick and wavy. My hand reaches out.  I almost touch it but I catch myself. Patty had brown hair, but not thick like this, and the color was lighter. She was sitting next to me on the beach in that dream--no, more a memory. We'd been there once.

My fifteen minutes of normal life: I remind myself I can't afford to think about them now. If we'd argued or it had ended badly I could've blocked it all out with no problem and been glad not to ever think about her again.  But it wasn't like that.

I pace the room a couple of times, then go out to the living room, stare at the road and end up back in the bedroom. I want to be out of here, on the highway headed toward Vancouver and then the Far East. Moving: it's a cheap substitute for actual accomplishment but right now it's all I've got. Out to the living room again. The road's a strip of brightness between the darkened houses. I picture myself walking down it, getting into the car, starting the engine but still I'm standing in front of that window, cold, and now I hear a noise in the back room, one of the kids. I go to look.  It's the girl, restless in her bed, grunting or moaning quietly. She rolls toward me, her noises louder. When I turn back again, Smith's standing behind us.

"She seems disturbed or something," I say, taking a step back.

Maybe it looks weird, me standing here. He reaches out to still her and I retreat to the living room and count the little panes that make up the front window.

"Sometimes they become a little restless," Smith says, coming into the room a minute later.

"What, you mean you can't program it out of them?" I turn back to watch him in the shadows.

"Your concerns are rather curious given your occupation and motivations," he says, stepping forward into a spot of light. "It's one of the things that makes your kind interesting."

"Don't patronize us. We're not insects." Maybe we are to them. "What do they want anyway, your... kind?"

"They want what you want--to be able to live, to express themselves. Not to be confined."

"So they do it at the expense of some other species?"

"Isn't that what you do? Remove those who are in the way of your convenience, your survival?"

"Shut up, old man."

Air in here's too thin. I go back to the bedroom, sit down on the bunk and put my shoes on. It's nearly four-thirty. In another hour or so it'll be light.  I can get a head start on Vancouver, maybe make it in before the night's over. I figure I've got at least a dozen hours of driving, but every hour on the road is an hour farther away from here, and that suits me fine.

When I look up, Smith's standing in the doorway, watching me.

"You don't want this to happen, either," I say. "Otherwise you never would have showed me what you've got here. What are you doing to stop it?"

"I myself am incapable of stopping it. I can only give you the pieces. What you make of them is up to you."

What else could I have expected from this guy?

I stand up, pick my jacket off the end of the bed and brush past him. On the way to the car I close my mind and concentrate on my boots hitting the dusty road, on where they're taking me, but it plays in my head again like an overlay to what's in front of me: last night, the sudden pain and the way my heart was grinding, the burning in my lungs and then watching everything go black, thinking I'd never see the light again.

"Mr. Krycek--"

I don't turn back.

"I can't wage your campaign for you. You must show yourself capable of using the information. It's the only way."

I unlock the car, get in, start it and flip on the headlights. Smith's not following me but I don't wait for the engine to warm up. I just gun it and get the hell out of there.  

A hundred miles down the road I'm still picturing the clone girl.  I can't get her out of my mind.

 

   End Part 1