A curiously troll-like little figure peeked out around a corner. On seeing the tall human approaching, he quickly scurried to meet him.
"There you are!" the smaller being exclaimed in relief. Head wagging forlornly, he launched into a concerned report on a set of misbehaving power couplings five levels below.
The human interrupted him by handing him the box.
The other accepted it with sharp-nailed hands, his head tilted to one side in a somewhat puzzled manner. Then the significance of the moment seemed to dawn on him. "Ahh!" he breathed, a little longer than a human would have, but this was one being who never cut his corners. "Time, is it?"
The human nodded. "It's time", he confirmed. "Today I enter my sleep, and I won't come out until shortly before our arrival." He eyed the other sharply. "You must get rid of that." He indicated the box with a nod.
The smaller being emitted a rapid series of intricate tongue clicks, a non-verbal string of regretful comments.
A fond smile lit up the human's features for a moment, but he took care to resume his stern manner well before the other looked up from the box again. Reaching across the object, the human snapped the lid open to reveal the meager contents.
The little alien reached in and picked up a single item, holding it up to the light, examining it. Then he clucked another little string of sorrow, put the thing back in the box and closed it.
"Don't worry about it", the human said. "It'll turn up where it's needed, when it's needed. It always does." He paused, then, "Space it, Zathras", he said. "Nothing human must remain."
The alien looked up at him, noting the resolve in dark eyes, the jagged scar across the cheek indicative of sacrifices already made. This human knew what he was about. Had always known now, would always know. Clutching the box to him, the alien said,
"Zathras will do what he is told. Zathras always does what he is told.." He turned to scurry off, but the human held him back briefly.
"This is goodbye, Zathras. You won't see me again until the end."
Zathras nodded. "Zathras understands", he said with remarkable sense of grammar for his erratic speech pattern. Then he was off, running in his usual hunched-over manner. It was hard to tell how tall the being really was, due to his exotic gait.
Five decks down, he shoved the box into a convenient air lock and closed the hatch on his own side. He emptied the chamber of air, and then, just as he was opening the outer hatch, one of the faulty power couplings finally blew. The hatch got stuck halfway, and the box, spinning around, hit it with a glancing blow as it was sucked out. The lid that had come ajar in the spinning was snapped shut by the knock against the hatch, and nothing fell out - except one thing, the object last lifted out and last put back in. Zathras saw it for the barest fraction of a moment, before it too was sucked out in the starry void.
- 1 -
The blond man turned instantly at the mental alert, and though he had expected it, the sight of the ship distracted him for a moment. The brigantine was riding low in the water, close enough to the shore that she seemed in danger of beaching at any moment. Swirling mists surrounded her, whether indicative of an interface of time bubbles he could not tell from where he stood. It could be just the evening chill drifting in across the water. The vessel had not changed a bit since he last saw her, and why should she? The disturbing part was that she was here at all. And that she seemed so - real..
<Beautiful, isn't she?> came the voice in his head again. He looked fondly, if somewhat impatiently, at his companion. She was quite beautiful herself, dressed in ground-sweeping, midnight blue velvet as if she had come straight from the ballroom. Perhaps she had; he did not know where she had come from this time. They had not been together.
The moonlight outlined her long, blond hair in silver as she turned towards him. <Steel?>
He sighed. <So it is here then?>
For a moment she looked bewildered, and his patience gave out again. <The breach, Sapphire, the time break! It is here, isn't it?>
She smiled. <Here on the island, yes.>
<Are you sure? It's not on the other side?> He gestured in the direction of the mainland, bathing in sunshine across the water.
For an instant, Sapphire's eyes turned a bluer shade, then they reverted to normal, and she shook her head. <I can't see how far the breach has spread, but I think the coast line may be encompassed. It started here though.>
<So what caused it? What is the trigger this time? It can't be the old ship's log; we sent that back.>
Sapphire smiled indulgently. Steel always got like this whenever he did not immediately understand what was going on. He wanted to do something, to set things right as soon as possible and be done with it. Sometimes it was as if he took these time breaks personally. Her smile slowly disappeared. The problem was, he could be right.
<What of the ship herself?> she asked.
"It can't be!" he protested, upset enough to speak aloud. "It's a mere shadow, an after-image, a ghost! It can't cause a time break!"
"She rides low in the water for a ghost", Sapphire remarked.
"Are you suggesting she is real?" Steel asked, and if Sapphire had not known him so well, she might have considered his tone threatening.
"I can't determine that from here", she said calmly, "but there was always a risk, leaving all those shadows about on the seas."
"There was no risk at all!" Steel insisted. "Look. We sank the real one, right? That might have caused another break, since we had no way of determining whether she was sunk before her time. But Silver made a replica of her, and last I looked, that replica was still residing in the place where it was taken after the Dei Gratia brought it in. Nobody seems to have questioned its authenticity."
"Silver is an excellent artisan", Sapphire agreed, a little too readily for her companion's taste.
"Yes, though perhaps it's a good thing the crew was missing", Steel muttered. "He might not have done as well, replicating people." He cast an affronted glance at the brigantine, riding serenely on the almost unnoticeable waves in the light evening breeze. The mists were dissipating. "The shadows don't matter! They can't!"
"Then why did you leave them?" Sapphire asked innocently.
"Because people had already seen them! There would be stories.."
"Even before the Dei Gratia found the replica?"
"Possibly", Steel said, though there was something defensive in his tone now. "The real Mary Celeste had been part of a time break; her shadows were spread all over time. It was easier to leave them than to track each one down and perhaps cause another inconsistency in the process. The stories could conceivably have.."
"Ghost stories", Sapphire pointed out.
"Stories without a foundation", Steel countered.
"Precisely. Humans don't take such things seriously."
Steel looked at her, and for the first time since they had arrived on the island, he almost smiled. "Oh, you'd be surprised", he said. "You'd be surprised."
* * * *
The rain lashed the windows of the rented car. It was becoming ever harder to see out at all. The couple inside had not seen the shower coming, they had just driven straight into it. The man was desperately trying to keep the vehicle on the winding mountain road, but he had to go by memory, for at the moment he had no way of knowing where the road was - except perhaps by ESP.
"Mulder, I think we'd better stop and wait it out", said the woman, in her most sensible voice.
"It won't last, Scully", her companion assured her. "It's just another shower."
"So why not stop and wait for it to pass?" she patiently insisted.
"There'll only be another one."
The rain stopped as abruptly as it had begun, and sunshine flooded the entire mountain side, revealing all its freshly washed, breath-taking beauty. Mulder flashed Scully a grin as if to say, What did I tell you? and the car skidded on wet asphalt and swerved precariously close to the edge.
"Mulder!" the tiny redhead spat, a little too harshly to seem quite unconcerned.
Mulder shifted down to first gear and gently righted the car without touching the brakes. "Sorry."
"You've been driving ever since we started out yesterday", Scully diplomatically pointed out. "Why don't you let me take over for a while?"
Mulder gave her a long look. "How good are you with a stickshift, Scully?"
"I can learn", Scully countered drily.
"I don't doubt it", Mulder assured her, "but there might be better training grounds than a mountain road in the Highlands."
As if to confirm his words, the road suddenly reverted from two lanes to the usual single track with passing places. Mulder frowned. "That's odd, I was sure we'd have two lanes all the way from Ullapool."
The road eventually turned to gravel, and sheep began to appear on the mountain side above them. Oddly, the sheep did not seem to have been rained on. Thick wool, Scully mused absently. The road kept climbing to ear-popping heights, then descending. It continued for a while along one mountain side, then it turned around a small bay and started following the other side, placing the car in welcome shadow until the next bend.
Scully breathed a sigh of relief. "I was looking forward to the dark side. The air-conditioner must have packed in."
Right then, the next squall hit.
* * * *
The woman in the doorway looked as if she had just stepped out of a ballroom or a grand reception. Her floor length dress was all dark blue velvet, rather low cut with a neck line of tiny, pale blue roses, but otherwise quite simple in style. It went incredibly well with the blond curls falling unstyled to her shoulders. Marc had always had a soft spot for the romantic look, and this lady seemed to share his preferences. The only stylishly affectated detail of her apparel was a pair of light blue silk gloves, reaching all the way up past her elbows. The gloves exactly matched the ornamental roses for shade.
The man behind her was shorter - Marc could not see if the lady was wearing high heels, but he assumed she would, with an outfit like that. While she was smiling pleasantly, her companion seemed more surly. Nor was he dressed in any style to match hers. He wore a rather simple grey suit that still flattered him by its cut. Even his tie was the same, noncommittal colour as the suit, quite contrarily to current fashion. He shot Marc a penetrating stare, and the bartender was surprised to see that the man's eyes were not grey too, as for some reason he had expected. Instead, the strange man's eyes were just as blue as the lady's, and his hair was just as blond. Perhaps they were related somehow. Still, Marc's first impression had been that they were a couple, not brother and sister. Not that he could have explained where he got that idea.
"What would you like, sir, madam?" Marc asked politely.
The lady, still smiling, approached the counter.
<Sapphire?> Steel prompted mentally.
<Nothing>, she answered, looking appreciatively at the young man behind the bar. His dark hair brushed his shoulders, and he wore quite a becoming beard. His smile seemed to come very readily, and his grey eyes were lively. And yet.. <His mind is a blank.> she continued her report. <His name seems to be Marc Coleman, but he doesn't appear too sure even about that. Steel, this man is suffering from almost complete amnesia!>
<Due to a time shift?>
<Can you do a spot analysis?>
<I could verify that he's human, but beyond that..>
<Please do>, Steel sent, coming up to her side and attempting a civil smile in the direction of the bartender.
Sapphire pulled off one of her long gloves and reached out to place her hand on Marc's, which was ready on the Guinness tap. The couple did not appear to be locals, and tourists mostly ordered Guinness, as it was the only brand they were familiar with. He looked up in surprise as she touched him, but he did not remove his hand. The sensation was pleasant, her touch oddly unobtrusive, for all that she had almost ostentatiously removed her glove. He smiled at her, finding nothing at all odd about her behaviour.
"I'll have half a pint of shandy, please", she said, while mentally rattling off data to Steel. "My friend doesn't want anything."
Marc did not find it the slightest bit strange that she would know her friend's preferences without asking. They were quite likely telepaths. The glove seemed to indicate.. he frowned, unable to remember whatever it was the glove might signify.
<Steel! Something.. for a moment there he was remembering something, I'm sure of it. Something about us..>
<Us? It can't be, Sapphire, we have never met him before.>
Sapphire closed her eyes. <No, not about us. Or only indirectly. Something that might reflect on us.> Her eyes opened again. <But there is something else.. something in the molecules of his body. Steel, I don't think he is from this time at all!>
<Well, what time is he from then? Could he be the trigger?>
Marc gently withdrew his hand. "Sorry, madam, I have to move over to the other taps."
Sapphire smiled automatically, as he began mixing her shandy. Apparently, he did not keep it ready made. He had a good sense of quality, she had gathered that much. Absently, she pulled her glove back on.
She turned to give her companion a bewildered look. <What? Oh, I don't know. I couldn't tell what time he's from. He's not the trigger though.>
<Are you sure?>
The bartender came back and handed the drink to Sapphire who graciously accepted it. <Yes, Steel. I'm sure.>
<Well, if he's not the trigger, it could still be something in the pub.> came Steel's voice inside her head. <Let's look.>
"Such a charming place you have here", Sapphire said, just as Marc was about to tell her the price of her drink. "Would you mind if we have a look around?"
Marc flashed her a dazzling grin. "Oh, not at all, madam." He caught himself. "That is, the pub isn't mine, I only work here, but I know the owner would be ever so pleased that you like it. He's quite proud of it, you see. The layout was his own idea. He claims that this is how the taverns looked in Shakespeare's time. He got the principle from the Froth and Elbow at Stratford-upon-Avon, which he believes to be genuine 16th century in part, a theory that remains to be confirmed, although he.." Marc's voice trailed off, as he realized that he had been talking too much again. The couple were already walking slowly about the pub, admiring the way groups of seats - mostly sofas and benches - were almost partitioned off as different rooms, with pillars, columns and a few raised steps here and there keeping them apart. No actual partitions were to be seen. An open floor plan, while still retaining an atmosphere of secluded privacy.
<Always mixing the old and the new>, Steel sent, his disgruntled tone somehow accompanying the mental message.
Sapphire shook her head. <No, Steel. These are all replicas. The furniture, the pillars, everything. They are no older than the building itself. About five years, all of it. There are no triggers here>.
<No? What about that thing?> Steel pointed to an old-looking sailor's chest in a corner by the back door.
Sapphire smiled at him while taking a sip from her drink. If anything had been out of place or time here, she was certain she would have felt it. So far, everything seemed to belong, except possibly the bartender. But to humour Steel, she set her glass aside, walked over to the sailor's chest and held her hands over it, as her eyes slowly filled with colour. After a while the excess blue subsided, and she turned to face her companion.
<1972>, she informed him. <Only a little older than the rest. It was brought here from somebody's house - that of the owner's mother, I think.> She gave him a radiant smile. <No trigger.>
<It's always easier with objects, isn't it? Or why couldn't you tell what time the man is from?>
<He withdrew a little too soon, I think>, Sapphire mused. <I haven't encountered his particular temporal structure before. If he remembered more, that might give me a clue. All I know for now, is that he's not the trigger. And neither is this chest.>
<Have you looked inside?&t;
She nodded. <It's empty, Steel. It's just an ornament, brought in to provide atmosphere because it looks old. But it too is a replica of an antique original.>
Steel sighed. <Then where is it?>
Sapphire looked at him, completely serious now. <Probably the ship.>
"I told you, it can't be the ship!" Steel erupted aloud. "It's nothing but a shadow vessel!"
The man behind the counter looked up sharply, eyeing them with renewed interest. Then he shook his head and went back to reading a newspaper one of his earlier customers had left behind.
- 2 -
Just as Scully was about to remark that these weather changes were frequent enough to induce epileptic seizures, the squalls stopped. The road was still single track, but it was now asphalt again, and it was winding its way down from the mountains, heading vaguely for the sea shore. The sun was shining unhindered from a clear blue sky. Far below was a small town, narrow but smeared along the coast like a long, winding ribbon of idyllic complacency. Picturesque little houses on one side of the road, a quay on the other, and fishing vessels anchored off shore.
"Nice place for a vacation", Mulder observed.
"I thought we were going over to the islands", Scully said, picking up the unofficial case file she had put down when the weather started getting capricious.
"We are. The ship was last seen off the Isle of Dearg."
Scully smiled. "Are you sure that's the right pronunciation?"
"I'm sure it isn't", Mulder stated calmly. "The original name is Ynys Dearg - the Red Island." He pronounced the exotic name with such a jaw-breaking diphtong that Scully knew he must have come close to the ideal. Gaelic sounds were not known for their simplicity. "Presumably after some battle or other; there have been a fair amount of them on these waters. It's a small one as islands go, but it's en route to the Isle of Skye if you're willing to make a slight detour. Which puts it close enough to the beaten track as far as tourists are concerned. I believe quite a few of them must have seen the ship already."
Scully sighed. "Mulder, you're the only FBI agent I know who would put together a case file on the Mary Celeste."
He grinned at her. "I needed the background information. Maybe there's something in her history to explain the sighting at this particular time and place."
"Mulder, she isn't even missing! It says here that she was brought in by the Dei Gratia in December of 1872 and hauled up for repairs. Apparently she was never launched again, but impounded by the authorities and.. " She frowned. "What happened to her cargo? 1701 barrels of industrial alcohol?"
"Maybe the crew drank it", Mulder joked. "Those were hard times, Scully."
"Well, the captain didn't", Scully said. "And I doubt he would have let the crew indulge. According to this, he was known as a staunch abstainer. Didn't you read this before you filed it, Mulder?"
Mulder sobered. "Sure I read it. I know he was an abstainer. I assume the cargo was impounded with the ship, or maybe transferred to another vessel, my sources didn't say." He gave her a teasing glance. "Why, Scully? You think she's out there, looking for her lost cargo?"
Scully rolled her eyes, putting the file aside. They had left the mountains now, and the weather was unbearably hot. She could feel the first signs of a headache coming on, and she wished she had thought to pack her sunglasses where she could easily reach them. But they were in her suitcase, and the sun was bathing the entire shoreline in its merciless glare. The fishing town was just up ahead, bathed in a shimmering haze. "If I thought this weather was at all typical of Scotland", she said, "I'd say she was a heat mirage."
Mulder looked briefly at her, concern in his eyes. "You ok, Scully?"
"I'm fine", she sighed, as so often before.
As usual, it did nothing to reassure him. "Don't get me wrong, but I did wonder why you came. I mean, I appreciate your being here, but this is on our own time, it's not like we're on an official assignment."
"I had vacation time coming too", she said tiredly. The she smiled a little. "It was a choice between this and a week in Florida with my brother's family. I rather suspected Bill and Tara wanted a baby sitter to relieve them on their vacation."
"And you chose me over your brother's brat?" Mulder only half joked. Scully usually never passed up a chance to baby sit if she could help it. "Gee, I'm honored", he added, goofily.
Maybe I learnt something last Christmas, she thought. That - all things being equal - I'd rather be with you. After all, there's no telling how long we might have together.. The one thought she had always dismissed from her consciousness, and here it was, loud and clear. Well, they had been through enough close calls that it had to surface some time.
"I've always wanted to see Scotland", she said neutrally. "I gather you've been here before?"
Mulder simply nodded, his eyes on the road which narrowed considerably as it entered the town proper.
"In your Oxford days?" Scully asked. What she would have liked to ask was, 'With Phoebe?' but she wouldn't be caught dead with that particular question on her lips.
He nodded again, non-committally, as they entered what was probably considered the town centre, though it was hardly more than a digestive bulge in the serpentine coils of sleepy civilization. He cast a puzzled glance across the water, then leant forward over the wheel to peer up at the sun. He shook his head.
"What's wrong?" Scully asked, in practised tones.
Mulder shook his head again. "For a moment there, I could have sworn it was dark on the other side. I was expecting the Isle of Dearg to come in sight any moment now, so I was looking for it. It was all dark out there."
Scully sighed. "The heat is getting to you too. It's definitely not dark anywhere around here. And that air-conditioner is definitely broken. Unless you turned it off by mistake?"
Mulder felt around for the A/C control. Not finding it, he looked down briefly. It wasn't there. "It's gone", he said, because it was the plain truth.
"Mulder, it can't have.." Scully looked too, and realized that her partner was right. It could have.
"Frankly, I'm not sure we had one", Mulder said. "I don't remember turning it on. Maybe I just took for granted all cars would have one."
"Or you didn't expect to need it in the Highlands in June", Scully suggested. "I for one didn't count on this kind of weather."
"Well, it is summer", Mulder objected. "Sunshine happens. Even in the Highlands." His face lit up. "Scully, do you know this weather could actually be connected to the appearance of the Mary Celeste? If she's here because of a dimensional rift, she might well affect the climate. There have been several observations of this phenomenon in connection with apparitions of all kinds, but especially ships at sea. The Flying Dutchman is usually accompanied by a thunder storm, even on clear nights."
Scully felt a sudden urge to change the subject. "What's the name of this town?"
"Ennisferry", Mulder said. He smiled a little. "There is no ferry, though. In fact, they have a big sign at the entrance to the town, apologizing to visitors for this.." His voice trailed off, and he frowned. "Except, I can't remember seeing it this time. Did you, Scully?"
"I wouldn't have known what to look for, but I don't remember a sign. Not even one of those Welcome to Abergnarble-whatever that are usually all over the place, often followed by Twinned with Pettyville-across-the-sea on a separate line."
Mulder grinned. "You been to Ireland? Twinning is mainly an Irish rage. The seaside resorts are quite big on it."
"Anyway", Scully resumed, "I'm pretty sure there was no sign. That's why I asked you about the name of this place. What should the sign look like?"
"A simple white sign, no exotic font, saying Ennisferry and underneath, in parentheses - where you would have your twinning line - Sorry, no ferry."
"Just that? No welcome?"
"No welcome. Apparently, the townspeople were concerned that tourists would come in expecting to cross over to the Isle of Dearg from here, and be disappointed."
She knew better than to question his memory for things written. "Mulder, there was no such sign, I'm sure of it. There was one advertising a B&B in town, and another about a pub on the island. Nothing with 'no ferry' on it. But we could always turn and have a look, if you think it's important."
He hesitated. "I'm not sure, Scully. I have a feeling it might have some significance, but I don't know what it could possibly be."
Scully was just about to say she had learnt to trust his hunches, when a speck far out on the water caught her eye. "Maybe traffic picked up since you were here last."
Mulder slowed down and followed her gaze. He could not say for sure what was out there, but it was small, flat and sort of squarish in shape. It was heading straight for the small island on the other side.
"That's the Isle of Dearg out there", he said, shading his eyes against the sun. "And someone is headed there. Could be a private fisherman, but you're right, it doesn't quite move like an ordinary boat."
The speck entered the dark field about halfway to the island, and vanished.
"Lost it", Mulder said. "It reached the dark side."
Scully gave him a puzzled look. "What dark side? I can still see it - just barely."
"It's dark on that side", Mulder insisted. "The island is plunged in darkness and so is the water around it."
"Mulder, there's not a cloud in the sky!"
"Not that kind of darkness. All the lights are on, and I think I saw stars. Like it's evening over there."
With a chill, Scully remembered that he had said something about this earlier. But he had dismissed it then, yet now he seemed to take it as a natural thing. "Mulder, we should get out of the car before either one of us suffers a heat stroke."
"I know. I'm not arguing, just eliminating possibilities. Stop the car, then let's go down to the water and sink our wrists into it for a while. Wash our faces. Then - if you still want to - we'll discuss the time of day."
A faint smile tugged at the corner of Mulder's sensual mouth. For some reason he appreciated his partner's resolute practicality. It had stood him in good stead more than once. It was just that this time he was certain of what he had seen - what he was still seeing. Nevertheless, he obediently pulled the car to a stop and got out. Scully followed, her relief obvious. The vehicle really was steaming inside.
Outside was another matter. It was not exactly cold, but the wind seemed biting by comparison to the oven they had left behind, and they both reached in for their jackets. They had come somewhat leisurely dressed in jeans and shirts, since this was after all a vacation and they had no business flashing badges.
Scully felt her shadow of a headache subside, as she immersed her wrists in the cold water. As if by agreement, the two agents took their time cooling off. Neither felt like going back to the car any time soon.
After a while Scully stood to look across the water, shading her eyes with her hand. The ferry - if that was what it was - had disappeared on the other side. She could see the island through the sun haze, but it was too far to make out any details. "Did you bring binoculars, Mulder?" she asked. "I'm afraid I was in a bit of a hurry to catch the plane."
"Scully, you were at the airport nine minutes before I was, and I thought I was early", Mulder pointed out, getting to his feet and shaking the droplets off his hands. "Binoculars won't be much use", he added. "I didn't bring any IR ones."
"You still see it then?"
Mulder nodded. "It's still evening over there, yes."
"Well, I don't see it, so maybe I could use the binoculars and.. what is it, Mulder?"
Mulder's brief frown vanished. "I was just thinking - if that really was a ferry, there should be a stopover on this side, somewhere around here. Maybe we won't have to go all the way to Kyle after all."
"What would we be doing there?"
"Kyle of Lochalsh is where the regular ferry runs from. I was planning on taking it over to Skye and then rent a boat to take us over to Dearg - unless we can catch one of the sightseeing tours, but I think they keep odd hours."
"Wouldn't it be easier to go over to Skye on the bridge?"
Mulder gave her a bewildered look. "Scully, there's no bridge to the Isle of Skye. Never has been."
"It's only a few years old. I know I read about it somewhere. There was a row about the high tolls - but you could cross for free if you were taking livestock, so everyone living on the island threatened to bring a sheep each time they were crossing."
Mulder looked long and hard at her. "Scully, trust me. There is no bridge."
Scully stared back. "Mulder, it's not dark on the Isle of Dearg."
The standoff lasted only a moment, then they were both smiling. Scully shook her head. "And here I thought this would be a vacation. The X-files seem to follow you around the world, Mulder."
Mulder raised an innocent eyebrow. "Follow me around the world, Scully? If it hadn't been for you, I'd have been quite happy with no bridge and darkness across the water.."
Scully gave him an almost fond smile. "Good thing I didn't go with Bill and Tara then. You need someone to look after you, Mulder." She said it as lightly as she could, but something deep in those hazel eyes told her that he had not missed her little slip. Damn, she would have to watch that. Bad enough that he knew she cared; she didn't have to rub his nose in it.
At least, she could trust him not to comment. He would take their bantering only so far. In fact, he was already heading back to their rented automobile. She sighed. Afraid of fire, was he? Yeah, in more ways than one..
* * * *
<It can't be the ship>, Steel repeated, and there was a distinctly surly quality to his directed thought. <She's a mere reflection, nothing else!>
<It might not be the ship itself>, Sapphire conceded, <but it could still be something on board. At least we could have a look.>
<Anything that's on that ship was also on the original, as it is on Silver's replica.>
<What if something was added?> Sapphire insisted.
<But it can't have been! Who would have added it? For that matter, how would you propose to board a shadow?>
The door was thrown open, helped by a gust of wind that sent it flat against the inner wall. A woman entered and pushed it shut with some effort. "Sorry, the wind is rising", she said to no one in particular. She took a few steps inside and nodded briefly to Sapphire and Steel, then she marched up to the bar. "Hello, Marc", she said, and her voice was pleasantly dark for a woman. "Get me a shot of vodka, will you?"
The bartender's handsome face lit up in a way that was almost comical. It was plain to see that he was greatly taken with this particular customer. "Oh, I have something better for you, Susan", he said cheerfully. "A brand new flavour of Georgian tea, very delicate spicing, but just right for a night like this. Just wait till you've tried it - I can serve it in a glass if you prefer."
The woman shook her head. "No thanks, Marc. Stop prattling, and get me my vodka." But she was smiling as she said it, and her voice was not unkind. Marc flashed her a dazzling grin and went to fill her order.
The woman turned around, still leaning on the counter. She seemed to be well into her forties, and her long hair was showing a few silver streaks amid dark blond and indeterminate brown, perhaps with a touch of auburn in the highlights. Her eyes seemed dark in the yellow lamp light, and her features were firm, determined, even slightly lined with maturity. She wore jeans and a denim jacket, with a thick sweater underneath that made her look a little like a sailor.
<Susan Ivanova>, Sapphire sent to Steel. <Russian by birth..> Her eyes widened, as the stream of data ceased although it had hardly begun.
The woman was glaring directly at her, and her eyes were now clearly blue-grey and as hard as ice. "You just get out", she said in a low, menacing voice. "You're not wanted here."
"Susan!" The bartender had returned with her glass and was now rashly assuming the right to admonish his customer. "No barroom brawls on the premises", he added in an effort to lighten the atmosphere.
Sapphire sensed that he wanted to apologize for his friend, though he felt that it was not his place to do so. She smiled at him. "Oh, don't worry about it", she acknowledged the apology he had not voiced. "We were just leaving. Thanks for the tour, it was most interesting." She opened the door and walked into the night, seemingly unbothered by the wind.
Certain that she must have a reason for leaving so abruptly, Steel followed. Just as he was effortlessly pulling the wind-blown door shut behind him, he overheard the woman at the bar saying,
"Marc, she tried to scan me! I'm sure of it. And just look at those gloves, she's really flaunting it, isn't she?"
* * * *
Susan passed her hand tiredly across her brow. "Did I say scan? Yeah, I guess I did. I don't know, but for a moment there, I had the strangest feeling that she was reading my mind. Then the feeling was gone - just like that."
"Susan, nobody can read another's mind. That's impossible."
"Is it? I'm not so sure.. it's as if I've met people like her before, and that they've caused me nothing but grief." But even as she spoke, she knew that this was not entirely true. Not grief only.. There had been something familiar about the strange lady. Something to do with her special kind of cool beauty. Something that sent a pang into Susan's heart.
"She reminds me of someone", she said almost longingly. "Someone I don't think I should've forgotten.."
"Someone who wore gloves?" Marc asked.
"Oh, they all wore gloves", Susan said absently. "They had to, it was the law." She blinked, shoving the empty glass aside. "I'm not making sense, am I? Well, I'd better be going. If the wind eases up, someone might need the ferry." She tossed a few coins on the counter and left.
With puzzlement all over his bearded face, Marc watched her go. He picked up her glass, looked at it. "She only had that one shot.." he muttered to himself.
- 3 -
Mulder raised the weathered semaphore, signalling that there were passengers waiting. The wooden sign promptly fell back down with a mewling creak, and a little more of its paint flaked off. Mulder found the peg that was obviously used to prop the thing up, and secured it in its signalling position.
"It isn't exactly new", Scully pointed out. She was sitting on a small bench right by the water, just outside a wooden boathouse that seemed to serve as a pickup point as well as a wind shield in rough weather.
"I noticed", Mulder said. "It doesn't make sense."
"Oh but it does, Mulder", Scully reassured him. In fact, she had only been teasing. "We're close to the sea, and the weather is usually harsh in these parts. Things age quickly. It's worse for stone, but wood will suffer too. Paint will flake and hinges will rust. That semaphore could have been put up as late as two years ago."
Mulder gave the semaphore a light tug, to see if it would stay up. It seemed to behave, for now. "You humouring me, Scully?" he asked lightly, so lightly she couldn't tell whether he was joking or hurting.
Knowing him, it was probably both, Scully mused. "I grew up on naval bases, remember?" she said neutrally. Inwardly, she groaned. Mulder was good at assuming guilt over just about everything, guilt of Weltschmerz proportions - but he was good at spreading it around too. So far, she had done a good job of dodging it when he sent it her way, but she had to admit it was wearing her down at times. She sighed unnoticeably. Maybe he really was a paranoid madman, just as he always claimed, in his frequent moments of self irony. If you gave him your loyalty, he demanded it all, without compromise. Was he even aware of doing that? Well, for what it was worth, he had hers. All of it.
"The Star of the Seas", he said, grinning at her. Her heart flipped over, but she knew better than to acknowledge the comment. It had to be one of his little traps. He wasn't referring to her. Or rather he was, but he had a backup plan, something that would see him safe out of whatever he seemed to be implying. Afraid of fire, yet always playing with it..
"Come again?" she challenged, one eyebrow raised. Two could play at this game.
And sure enough..
"Stella maris", he lectured. "The star of the sea. In ancient Egypt, one of the epithets of the god Horus, in his capacity of protector of those who had their livelihood from the sea. The Eye of Horus - the actual star of the sea - was painted on the fishermen's boats, for protection. When Christianity took over, this particular protective function was attributed to the Virgin Mary, and the Queen of Heaven - Mary Celeste - became the new Star of the Sea."
"Are you saying the ship is trying to protect someone, Mulder?" Scully acknowledged his rather sneaky way of getting back to the topic of their present 'case'. "That that is why she has appeared?"
Mulder shook his head. "Protection was never anything granted by the gods, so much as something coveted and solicited by the supplicants. It's in human nature to want to feel safe, hence to decide that one is. No, Scully, she's not here to help. She's here to disrupt something, but what, I don't know." He looked out over the water. "Looks like the ferryman saw our signal. Unless this is just a scheduled run.."
Out on the glittering surface, the dark, squarish speck was now approaching. It had covered a little over half the distance to the Isle of Dearg. The winds and streams seemed to be working for the little vessel, because the distance was rapidly closing.
Scully stood, shading her eyes against the brilliance of the sunlit water. "Maybe Mary Celeste is helping", she ventured.
Mulder came up to stand close to her - possibly a little too close, possibly not. He noted that she had left the article out of the name, but did not comment. He knew she was not necessarily referring to the ghost ship. "They called the wind Mariah", he quoted. "Scully, did you know that Scandinavian sailors supplicate the wind by the name of Kajsa, a diminutive form of Karen - or Katherine, if you prefer - tossing a coin over the sail as an offering to her?"
"Mulder.." Scully began, but he held up his hands defensively before she got any further.
"It's the truth, Scully. Honest.."
They watched in silence for a while, as the ferry made its way towards them. Eventually, Mulder frowned as if something important had just occurred to him, and Scully shot him a questioning look.
"I meant to call Skinner to let him know where we are", Mulder answered the concern he saw in her eyes. "I know we're on vacation, but in case this turns out to be an X-file.." he broke off whatever he had been about to say, amending it with a grin, ".. why, we might get our expenses paid after all, Scully." He brought out his cellphone and dialled. No response, nothing. Not even a dial tone. He looked down at the object in his hand, uncomprehending.
"Mulder, they're using GSM over here", Scully pointed out - rather officiously, he thought. "You should have requested a phone that could use both systems."
Mulder shook his head in puzzlement. "I thought that's what I did.." he said, turning the phone over and reading the information on its back. "In fact, I'm sure I did."
Scully shrugged. "Sorry, I didn't bring mine. I didn't think a vacation was reason enough to request a special phone."
* * * *
In an air-conditioned office on the other side of the planet, the phone was picked up by a bald-headed, bespectacled man in a white shirt that somehow seemed inadequate and over-civilized cover for his impressively muscular build.
He put down the receiver almost immediately, frowning. What the hell did he do that for? It hadn't rung, had it? He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes, tiredly. He had been working too hard lately. In fact, he could really do with a vacation. Mulder had had the right idea. Though there was something weird about that too.. Mulder and Scully usually didn't go on vacations unless ordered and threatened into it. And as long as Skinner had known them, they had never gone on one together. Resolutely, he put his glasses back on. He had better things to do than reflect on whatever his agents might be up to on their own time. Briefly, he wondered if that had been Mulder on the phone.. Then he remembered that the thing hadn't rung. Yep, he really could use a vacation. Any year now..
With a sigh, he went back to reading a somewhat creatively spelled report from one of his younger agents.
- 4 -
He looked toward the small bay - or rather the inmost corner of the firth - where the brigantine was still riding silently, sails still raised on both masts, ragged and torn because no one had been around to take them down. She had not been set adrift so much as hurriedly abandoned. Now that the wind was gone, the mists were rolling back in, mercifully concealing her battered state. In a few moments, she was back to looking mysteriously pristine, almost translucent, like the ghost she was. All alone in the night.. Steel shook his head again. Enough of this nonsense. Time to do something.
Up ahead, Sapphire had paused too, eminently visible in the soft moonlight which the mists had not yet obscured. She was staring mesmerized at the brigantine. Well, it was her job, making contacts and connections on the subtle plane of senses Steel knew very little about. But ever so often he knew he would have to shake her out of it, if they were ever to get anything done.
<What happened in there?> he sent, not wanting to shout across the distance between them, in the suddenly still air. Sounds carried far over water on nights like this, and there was no knowing who might listen. Besides, he was more comfortable with the telepathic contact. It felt more intimate somehow.
Sapphire turned her head to look at him. He could tell that she had not been in a trance, merely watching the ship, and he felt oddly relieved.
<The woman knew I was trying to read her mind>, she sent back. <She locked me out.>
<What? She can't have! Humans can't..>
Sapphire's lips quirked. <Perhaps in her time they can.>
Steel perked up, all attention now. <Her time? She's not of this time either?>
<No. I don't think she knows it though, any more than the man does. She's not the trigger, by the way.>
Steel took another look at the brigantine, now almost completely obscured by mists. <But the past has broken through?>
Sapphire flashed him one of her radiant smiles. <No. The future.>
* * * *
The light puttering sound of the engine ceased, and the ferry glided to a stop inside the boathouse. Mulder and Scully had brought their overnight backpacks from the car, leaving the rest of their luggage, and gone inside to wait. They watched the ferrywoman jump ashore and loosely moor the vessel - it was lying steadily enough in its berth, there was no need for fancy knots. The woman was practically dressed in jeans, a denim jacket and a thick sweater. As she straightened and looked at them, Mulder thought that she must once have been stunningly beautiful. She was uniquely good-looking even now, and the lines in her face added to its character in a most pleasant way. Somehow he did not think that this face had ever lacked character. It was the face of someone used to command - what the hell was this astounding woman doing running a ferry? Her hair was hanging loose, softening the harshness of her features to some extent. A lion's mane of dark gold and tiger eye brown - with a few streaks of glittering silver. Belatedly, Mulder remembered that only male lions have manes. Well, there was something none too feminine about this remarkable lady.
"You bringing a car?" she asked in a pleasantly dark voice. Obviously she wasn't one to waste time on greetings and pleasantries.
"Can you take a car?" Mulder challenged, looking meaningfully at the small vessel.
She shrugged. "Just one. Coupé, no pickups. But I'd just as soon not, if it's all the same to you."
"We weren't planning on bringing it along", Scully said. The island did not look big enough to have more than one road, and she had the baking oven atmosphere of their car fresh in memory.
The ferrywoman looked her over - appreciatively, Mulder thought. "Just the two of you then?"
Scully confirmed this, and the other nodded. "Right. That's 1.50 apiece. I won't be a moment.." She walked out of the boathouse, up to the semaphore which was still signalling. With a practised gesture she pulled out the peg, let the semaphore arm crash down, and put the peg back in its little leather holder on the side of the supporting pole. Passing their car, she felt the handle of the driver's door briefly and nodded to herself when she found it locked. "Does that thing have a central lock?" she asked as she got back to them.
"Don't all rental cars?" Mulder asked.
She shook her head. "Not around here, they don't. Maybe in America. You Americans?"
"Guilty as charged", Mulder admitted wryly. "Aren't you?" There was something about her idioms as well as her pronunciation that made him almost sure she was. But she shook her head, causing her mane to flow and shift as if streaming with colours.
"Russian born and bred", she stated curtly. Abruptly she held out her hand. "Susan Ivanova."
Mulder took it and gave her his own name - no title of course - watching her for a reaction. But she accepted his odd first name without blinking, and he thought that maybe she really was Russian. Scully joined in the presentation - also omitting her title - and the ferrywoman seemed to take more notice of her name than of Mulder's.
She's a dyke, Mulder thought, instantly wondering if that had been a narcissistic reaction on his part. Dammit, was he really pathetic enough to think that anyone he couldn't immediately charm, had to be leaning the other way? This was a woman with a strong mind, it didn't take his degree in psychology to see that. There was no reason at all she would be impressed by such as him. All the same, he was honest enough to realize that he would have liked to impress her. And not so much because of her gender or her looks, as because of the strength he sensed about her, like a cool wind from another, harsher world, one capable of shaping personalities like hers. Wherever she goes, she'll enter with the wind at her back, he thought, not knowing where the thought had come from, and not particularly caring. She could tame the elements, make them do her bidding. Wonder if she knows..
"Well, if you're sure your car is locked..", the woman said, motioning for them to board the ferry. "And even if you aren't. Chances are, nothing will happen. This is Scotland. Celtic integrity and all that. People are usually honest."
As they left the boathouse, Mulder was reminded of his and Scully's argument earlier. The island side still looked dark to him. Well, here was someone who might be able to settle the matter.
"Do you have the time, Ms Ivanova?" he asked, shaking his watch a little as if it had stopped. To his surprise, as he looked at it, he found that it actually had. It showed 10:13 a.m, and he could tell by the sun that it had to be later in the day than that.
"Susan", she clipped back. "Nobody ever calls me by my family name these days." She glanced at her own watch. "15:45."
Scully's eyebrow climbed a little at the 24-hour format. Maybe it was a Russian thing.
Mulder adjusted his watch. "Gets dark early, over on Dearg?" he said casually, strongly aware of Scully's sharp glare in his direction.
The ferrywoman shrugged. "It does, now that you mention it. I must say I haven't really thought about it."
That caused both agents to raise their eyebrows. They exchanged a brief look, then Scully said, "Susan, could you tell us if there's a bridge over to the Isle of Skye from the mainland?"
"There's no bridge", Susan said at once. "Though there's been talk of one. It's been planned for years. I doubt they'll ever get around to building one, though. Even if they do, it won't be much competition for the ferries. The tolls will be too steep."
"Seems we're in your universe, Mulder", Scully muttered under her breath at her partner.
Mulder did not acknowledge her comment. On a hunch, he addressed the ferrywoman again. "At the risk of sounding like a complete fool - what year is this?"
She actually turned around from her steering, to give him a look that plainly told him he did indeed sound like a complete fool. She accompanied the look with an insincere, humouring smile. "1980", she said, as if explaining to a child. "June 2nd, 1980."
* * * *
"She's almost inside our time field now", Steel observed. "The prow has entered the darkness."
Sapphire nodded. "Yes, I noticed. She's bringing passengers. Two people, a man and a woman."
Steel walked down the sloping rock, halting only a couple of feet from the water's edge to stare out across the now calm surface. Still he could not make out any details, and he knew that Sapphire had not been looking in any orthodox fashion.
"Who are they?" he asked, a little impatiently.
"I don't know yet", Sapphire answered him. "But I think that when they come ashore, everyone will have arrived."
"What do you mean, everyone?" Steel tried hard not to fault her for speaking in riddles. He knew she often had little choice. Human languages had no words for the things she saw and sensed, and even less for how she did it.
"Everyone who's needed to solve this case", she said, surprising him.
"Do we need mortals now, to do our work?" he asked sarcastically.
She had come to join him at the water's edge, and now she turned her blue eyes on him. In the fading moonlight, he still had no difficulty seeing the glitter of laughter in them. "Don't we usually, Steel?"
"Only because they are usually the ones to have caused the mess in the first place", he grumbled. Changing the subject, he added, "Are you certain it is the future that has broken through here?"
"But the Mary Celeste is from the past."
Sapphire shook her head. "The one you sank was from the past. We don't know what time this one came from. The shadows must have spread all over time." She gave him a worried look. "There's even a possibility that some of them have combined - into a solid object."
For a moment, even Steel looked frightened. Then he shrugged it off. "Well, there is only one way of finding out, isn't there?"
* * * *
Susan killed the engine, letting the small ferry glide in towards the darkened shore where a small jetty was emerging from the mists, sporting a similar semaphore to the one on the other side. The ferrywoman glanced up at the two Time Agents, barely visible at the water's edge, a few steps away from the jetty. "Better watch it with those two", she hissed over her shoulder. "Especially the woman. She can read minds. She tried to read mine, and without asking too."
Scully stifled a sigh. Either this female Charon was completely nutty, or this was definitely an X-file. It wasn't as if they hadn't been exposed to telepaths before, though. Absently, she wondered how Gibson was doing these days. Of course, she corrected herself whimsically, if this really was 1980, he'd be safe enough. He wouldn't have been born yet.
"How do you know?" Mulder asked, intrigued.
"I know", Susan said. She frowned a little. "I've always known these things.. I think." She glanced at her watch to hide her confusion. "20:10" she announced brightly. "The Cod & Anchor should still be serving hot meals, if you missed your dinner. It's special in summer. In winter, they stop serving at 19." She snatched up a boat hook and bore off a little to avoid colliding with the jetty, then held on to the wooden structure and jumped on to it. Quickly, she moored the ferry, dropped the hook back into it and held out her hand to assist Scully ashore.
The two agents disembarked with a distinct feeling that the ferrywoman was trying to dodge further questions from them. The evening fog was rolling in thick now, they could barely see beyond the jetty and the two silent figures standing near the landward end of it. Mulder looked at his watch again. It showed 20:15 now, which would be in keeping with the time given him by the ferrywoman. But there was no way their little voyage could have taken over five hours. And when he looked behind him, he thought he could see daylight on the other side. It was hard to tell with the fog, but it was definitely much brighter out over the water.
The ferrywoman guided them up from the jetty without acknowledging the couple on the shore. In fact, she seemed to make a slight detour up over the rocks, so she wouldn't have to pass directly by them. "This was my last crossing for the day", she explained. "Unless there's an emergency, I quit at 20:00. I'll take you to the pub, it can be hard to find in this weather. They have accommodations too, you know. There isn't much to see outside anyway, not in this pea soup. It will be clearer in the morning, once the sun rises. Marc will put you up for the night, he doesn't have any boarders at the moment, although the season has started.."
"Anything?" Steel asked, as the ferrywoman's voice trailed off in the distance.
"I couldn't get anything from her", Sapphire said, nodding in the direction of the sound. "She's still blocked. The other two though.. Steel - the woman is immortal!"
Steel stared at his companion, whom he could barely see now through the darkness and the fog. "What, you mean like us?"
Sapphire shook her head slowly. "No, Steel, not like us. We can die - or be destroyed. She can be hurt, even badly, but she will always heal. She.. simply can't die."
Steel frowned. "But she's human?"
"That can't be right."
"Yes, Steel. She is human. But she can't die, not even of old age. Because she won't age. She will always look the way she does now."
Steel said nothing. He did not know how a human could be immortal, but he knew better than to argue with Sapphire, when she was this certain about something.
"Her name is Dana Scully", Sapphire continued, "Oddly, she goes by her last name, not her first. He is Fox Mulder - also known by his last name only. They work together much the way we do, they are agents too, but only on their own plane and only in space, not in time like us. And - they are from the future. Not as far into the future as the ferrywoman though. Nineteen years, no more. The ferrywoman comes from much farther ahead. Over 200 years. Almost 300. I can't be any more specific than that, not without a spot analysis."
"They come from different points in the future?" Steel asked irritably. "Are you saying we might have a multiple break?" He hated complicated fractures in time.
"Yes", Sapphire confirmed. "We do."
- 5 -
The pub was warm and comforting after the damp, chilling darkness outside. Inside, the place seemed bright and cheery, for all that it was completely empty, save for the bartender who was leaning over the bar, solving a crossword puzzle in the newspaper with a stubby pencil. He looked up as Mulder and Scully came in, and a wide, welcoming smile appeared somewhere in his dark beard. He seemed genuinely pleased to have customers, but it was not lost on either of the two FBI agents that the smile grew a little more radiant as he spotted Susan, the ferrywoman behind them.
She made the introductions and asked if Marc had any vacancies tonight for the two Americans.
"Double or singles?" he asked, and Scully was just about to lose her patience with the steadily recurring question, when she noticed that the man did not seem to make any assumptions at all. He was just asking their preferences. He had been told that they were co-workers on a holiday, but judging by his demeanor he had made no inferences one way or the other. It was as if the statement held no implications at all for him. Scully frowned a little. There was something odd about this, though she could not put her finger on it. Still, she found it oddly refreshing.
Mulder and the bartender got into something of an argument about currency. It seemed that the man was unwilling to accept anything but cash or traveller's cheques, although he could, at a pinch, take US dollars. While they were arriving at the compromise of normal cheques, written out in dollars, Scully was idly leafing through the paper that Marc had let drop in order to serve them. Some of the news puzzled her, and she glanced at the date. Monday, June 2nd, 1980. The paper looked new, but she would still have dismissed it as something left around for years, if it hadn't been for the ferrywoman's surprising statement earlier. Suddenly, Scully knew what had seemed so incongruous about the bartender's reaction - or non-reaction - to the information that his guests were co-workers. Somewhere at the back of her head, she had filed the possibility that they had been moved backwards in time, or rather that someone was trying to make them believe that they had been. And the bartender's reaction clashed with what she remembered of the early 80's. If anything, he should have speculated more about the possible personal relationship between his guests, not less. It could be just him, perhaps he was unusually open-minded, but something told her it was a cultural thing, something in his background, something unconscious. But, what culture? Until now, she had taken him for an Englishman moved in from south of the border, but was he? Surreptitiously, she pointed out the date of the paper to Mulder who had just reached an agreement with the barkeep.
Mulder raised an eyebrow. "Today's paper?" he asked innocently, touching the front page.
Marc nodded. "Yes. Sorry about the crossword. I get bored sometimes."
Mulder grinned. "I guess you wouldn't have a cold Guinness around?"
Marc stared at him as if trying desperately not to voice his opinion on American tourists. "Guinness is an Irish stout. It must be imbibed at no less than 18 degrees Centigrade, or most of the flavour would be lost."
Mulder nodded. "It's never chilled? Marketed with a blue label?"
"Most assuredly not."
"Well, can't be helped", Mulder said irreverently. "Get me a half a pint anyway, will you?"
As the bartender turned away to fulfil his request, Scully hissed, "And when were you last in Britain, Mulder?"
"Not me", he grinned at her. "Langly. He was quite shocked to find Guinness served cold - until he learned to like it."
"Langly goes anywhere on his own?" Scully marvelled, just as the bartender returned. "It will take a moment to settle", he explained, nodding toward the foaming glass waiting under the tap. He turned to Scully. "And what's your pleasure, madam?"
* * * *
Seated in front of a steaming meal, with a pint of Red Cuillin in front of her, Scully could almost believe she was on vacation. Almost. The ferrywoman had quickly decided it was time for her evening meal too, and joined the two Americans. She did not seem the naturally gregarious type, and they both had a feeling she had something to tell them. But she seemed to have a hard time coming out with it, and they both waited patiently, honouring the woman's obvious desire to wait until after they had eaten.
As they were pushing their plates aside and starting to pay better attention to their ale, Susan abruptly said, "You're here for the ship, aren't you?" She did not wait for their answer. "I mean, everybody comes for that. There's not much else. Just a fishing place. I mean, it's not like Skye, or any of the historical islands. This one has nothing. Except that ghost ship.."
Her voice trailed off, as the door opened to admit the strange pair she had had a run-in with earlier. Marc was out for the moment, presumably in the kitchen getting a bite for himself, once his customers were properly settled. But the newcomers did not even look around for him, they walked straight up to the three dinner guests. The woman smiled brightly, extending her hand to Susan. "I apologise", she said pleasantly. "I was trying to read your mind. I shan't try again."
Susan stared fixedly at the glove in front of her. She looked up, prepared to say something cutting. But the radiance of the woman's smile seemed genuine, and there was something about her.. about that cool, blond style of beauty. Something that caught at Susan's heart and made her want to bury the hatchet. Deciding that the retained glove might actually be a courtesy, she took Sapphire's hand. "It's all right."
Scully's eyebrows climbed, but in that moment a whisper tickled her ear: "Go with it, Scully." She glared at her partner, only to find the strange lady smiling at him as if she had heard what he said.
"I'm Sapphire", Sapphire said, "and my friend's name is Steel." She looked at all of them briefly. "Our names may seem strange to you, although I'm sure they are no stranger than some." With that, she looked directly at Mulder.
"Fox Mulder", he muttered, although he had an uncanny feeling she already knew. Scully also introduced herself, and Susan belatedly remembered her own manners. She gave her name, although she had every reason to suspect that this woman had already lifted it from her mind.
Steel seemed somewhat relieved, now that Sapphire had handled the formalities. "What did you mean by ghost ship?" he asked Susan bluntly, standing over her in an unconsciously menacing pose.
She did not seem intimidated in the least. Nor had she lost track of what she had been about to tell the others. "Well, she is one", she said with a shrug. "What else could she be? She's an old brigantine, a two-masted sailing ship, there are no such vessels around anymore. Everything about her is old, and she comes and departs on her own - I think." She frowned a little. "There's certainly no crew. Marc tells me she's the ghost of a 19th century vessel called.." Her frown deepened, as she tried to remember the name.
"The Mary Celeste", came Marc's voice brightly behind the two Elementals. He grinned as they turned around, then he started off a new round of introductions by giving his own name first. This was something he was not going to miss. He had always been interested in romantic stories.. at least he was fairly certain he had. "She was a 100 foot, Canadian built vessel displacing 282 tons", he resumed. "The crew consisted of the captain, Benjamin Spooner Briggs, aged 37, an American bible reader and tee-totaller. He was accompanied by his wife, Sarah Elizabeth Briggs, who was 30, and their 2 year old daughter, Sophia Matilda. Their 7 year old son, Arthur, had been left at home."
Mulder was fascinated. "All correct so far", he whispered to Scully. "Except I didn't know the bit about the son. Wonder what became of him?"
"He probably grew up completely obsessed with finding out the truth about what happened to the rest of his family", Scully hissed back, "and spent all his days looking for them." Avoiding Mulder's suddenly penetrating gaze, she looked expectantly at Marc as if urging him to go on.
"I read up on her after Mr Soames - that's the publican - told me that's the ship out there", he said, almost apologetically. "Doesn't hurt to know a bit about the local sights. It looks as if she's here to stay."
"Not if I can help it", Steel muttered. "But go on, while you're at it", he added, as Marc shot him a swift, questioning look.
"Alongside the captain served another American, First Mate Albert Richardson, 28 years of age", Marc continued. "And Second Mate Andrew Gilling, a 25 year old Dane. The steward/cook was Edward Head, also American, and the remainder of the crew was made up by four German seamen. Quite a small crew, which could imply a certain amount of secrecy, or perhaps it was only that good seamen were scarce at that particular time. Unless it was a question of money."
"Why don't you tell us the story first", Mulder said kindly, "and we can all speculate later."
Marc nodded and went on. "The Mary Celeste sailed from New York on 7th November 1872, bound for Genoa. Her cargo was 1701 barrels of American industrial alcohol, worth 35 000 pounds.
"Now, on the 5th of December that year, a similar ship called the Dei Gratia caught up with the Mary Celeste as she was doing the same run, having left a few days later. This meeting took place half way between the Azores and the Portugese coast. The other brigantine seemed out of control, tossing about on the waves. When the crew boarded her, they found her abandoned - rather hastily it would seem, because there was a sumptuous meal left completely untouched on a long table. But the ship was also spotless, all the brass polished and so forth, so perhaps she had been deliberately set up as a sacrifice to angry sea gods. And perhaps those gods did not accept the gift, and that's why she's come back to haunt us?" He looked at them expectantly.
Mulder smiled. "Quite a story, complete with dates and ages and all kinds of specifics. I take it you have an eidetic memory?"
Marc smiled back, shaking his head, upsetting his sable page cut. "I'm afraid not. Minbari memory techniques."
Mulder gave him a puzzled look. "What's that - the latest in esoteric brain management?"
For once, Marc had no answer. It had just dawned on him that he really had no idea what he was talking about.
* * * *
"Well", Mulder said, "your story bears out my own notes, for the most part. Except for the somewhat romantic ending. According to my information, as recorded in the legal records of the investigation after the ship was brought in, this is what happened. When a small crew from the Dei Gratia boarded the ship they found her empty, though not in the pristine state of legend. She looked in every way like a ship which had been out of control on rough seas for several days. It seemed that the Mary Celeste's crew had left in a hurry; the chronometer and sextant were not found. One pump - to remove water taken on board - was found out of order, the fore hatch was off and also the lazarett hatch. The ship was thus full of water. No life boats were attached and there was a rope hanging loose over the side.
"The last record of the crew was in the journal, an entry dated November 25th, when the ship was apparently located beside the island of Santa Maria - then St Mary's Island - in the Azores.
"Most theories suggest that the crew and two passengers abandoned ship on the captain's orders, possibly crowding into the life boat being towed by the Mary Celeste. This might have come about because the captain feared an explosion from the alcohol, because he thought the ship was sinking - with the pump out of order - or even because of a sudden seaquake, a frightening phenomenon not infrequent in the waters plied by these two vessels."
"But that's not what you think?" Scully and Steel said at once, and at the same time Susan wryly asked, "Minbari memory techniques?"
Mulder elected to answer the single speaker. "No", he smiled. "I have an eidetic memory."
* * * *
<I shan't tell them anything. I came to find out how much they know. So far, none of it seems very useful.>
Sapphire's lip quirked. <I think you ought to tell them, Steel. They can help us. We need human help on this.>
Steel glared at her as if to say that he had never needed human help in his life, but he did comply to some extent.
"There is more", he said grudgingly. "There was also an old ship's log, an antique, bought in some port and brought on board by the captain who was a collector" - he pronounced the word disdainfully, as if it had been a curse. "Because of this.." he broke off. "The theory is", he amended, "that the ship came unstuck in time because of this, and that's why she's seen as a ghost in times other than her own. However, the old log was removed, dispelling the ghost. Now she turns up again. The question is, what drives her this time?"
"Right next to: what's your interest?" Mulder said. "And where did you get this information?"
"We study these matters", Sapphire broke in quickly, with a disarming smile. "That's why we've come here."
Scully decided it was time to bring a little order to the discussion. "I don't think we have to look for any supernatural causes here", she said. "As I understand it, the ship was not even lost, she was brought in by the Dei Gratia, and an investigation was held. The only thing that could not be ascertained, was why she had been abandoned. My own theory is, fire. If fire broke out on board, that would naturally be a cause of great concern, in view of the high flammability of the cargo. If the broken pump would also have been used as a fire extinguisher, the possibility of dousing the fire without it would have seemed remote. There would be a near panic, the small crew would leave hastily by the single life boat - even abandoning their meal on the table - and there would have been attempts to scuttle the ship. There is no mystery here. All we need to find out is whether there were signs of a fire on board, and it might be useful to know whether the pump would indeed have been used as a fire extinguisher, and not just to empty the ship of water. In fact, the amounts of water on board might have been partly what was brought up from the sea in the first attempts to put out the fire. The pump might have been reversed to this end. As it broke, the crew gave up all hope and fled, after opening the hatches to scuttle the ship which they had to assume in danger of imminent explosion."
"Then why didn't she sink?" Mulder asked softly.
<She did>, Steel thought, catching himself at the last minute before speaking aloud. <That's why she was so full of water. Silver slipped up there, he didn't start the replication until the original was already going down.>
<But there could still have been a fire?> Sapphire asked. <Before the crew left?>
Steel shook his head slowly. <No. I should have known.>
"Mulder, don't you think you're making too much of this?" Scully was saying. "I can't tell you why she did not sink, but I'm sure we can find out. There must be some record of what the weather was like. Maybe she was becalmed soon after the event, and hydro- and aerodynamics contributed to keep her afloat, even with all the water on board."
She should have known by now that Mulder never gave up. "Then why did the fire go out?"
"I don't know, Mulder, but there has to be a logical explanation."
"Scully, there is a ghost ship out there." He said it so softly, as if reminding her of something he thought she had forgotten. The same low, quiet tone he always and only used when he was convinced he had the winning argument, that he would get the last word.
Goaded into retaliation against her will, she spoke harshly. "Is there, Mulder? Have you seen it?"
It could have been another of their not-quite-acknowledged standoffs, had not Susan broken in unexpectedly. "There are no signs of fire on board", she said calmly.
They all looked at her. Marc was the one to voice their question. "How do you know?" he asked, although he strongly suspected.
"You've been on board?" Mulder asked excitedly.
"Mulder.." Scully began, then fell silent, quietly shaking her head. What was the use. She had been about to say that people could not board ghost ships, possibly because ghost ships in all likelihood did not exist.
"Oh, I think they can", Sapphire answered her unspoken thoughts. "Especially this ship." Turning to Susan she asked, "What did you see?"
"Nothing is blackened", Susan reported matter-of-factly, "but it isn't well polished either. The table is laid out, but two of the plates have been used, and two more have crashed to the deck. You can see them under the water; she's pretty flooded. And before you ask - no, I never touch anything. I didn't even pull up the rope that was hanging over the side. It looks kind of sloppy, but it's the best way to board, and besides, she hasn't got a propeller, so I guess it doesn't matter if it's trailing a bit."
"How many times have you been aboard?" Marc asked quietly, concern evident in his voice.
She looked straight back at him, as if challenging him. "Almost every night, before I go home." She looked around her at the others and shrugged. "Well, someone has to see her safe for the night." Her lips quirked a little, as she realized what she had just said. "You know, tuck her in."
Steel glared at Sapphire. <You never told me we could just go aboard.>
She smiled at him - a shade teasingly, he thought. <You didn't ask.> She sobered. <I thought you knew. Wasn't that what you meant when you said there was only one way of finding out? That we should board and see if the ship is solid?>
<No, I was thinking of going out and test the field around her. There's got to be one, since she's not of this time. There always is.>
Marc sighed. "All right, I suppose you've come safely out it. No harm done.." His pale grey eyes lit up with the possibility of adventure. "Why don't we all go?"
"I'm game", Mulder said calmly.
"We can try", Steel acknowledged - to Sapphire's surprise. "But we have to allow for the possibility that the ship won't hold all of us. She might be solid enough for one person, but we don't know that she can take the six of us."
- 6 -
The fog was rolling in thick, all but obscuring the moon as they reached the shore. There was no hint of light now on the landward side of the firth, and Mulder concluded that evening had finally reached the other shore as well. Either that, or the fog was even thicker than it seemed.
"How do we know the ship is even out there?" he asked.
"Oh, she's there", Sapphire assured him. For some reason, it did not occur to him to argue.
"I'm sorry, but we'll have to go on the ferry", Susan said somewhere to his left. "It's a bit unwieldy, but it's safer than a smaller boat in this weather."
"Are you sure the ferry can get close enough?" came Scully's voice from the other side.
"Don't worry", Susan answered. "I've boarded from the ferry before."
Slipping on wet planks, they made their way out on the jetty and in good order piled on to the ferry.
"I'm amazed you're willing to go out in this weather", Mulder said as they were on their way. He was grateful that the water was calm. Small favours..
"She's usually not hard to find", Susan said. "It's almost as if she wants company. And going out in the fog is really the only way, she's nearly always surrounded by mists. I just go by the sound."
"That sound. You mean you don't hear it?"
Mulder listened in silence for a while. To his surprise, he could just make out the soft clanging of a bell buoy. "That's part of the manifestation, isn't it?" he asked quietly.
"Or else the local tourist industry has been working overtime", Scully commented drily beside him. "But yes, you're right, Mulder. There haven't been bell buoys like that around since before World War II. Sea traffic is too noisy now; they wouldn't be heard."
"Whatever it is, it works fine as a beacon", Susan said. "There! Can you see the hull?"
At some indeterminate distance up ahead, a dark shadow was visible through the mist.
"Watch it so you don't run into the buoy", Marc warned. "I can hear it quite clearly now."
"No problem", Susan replied. "It's never seen, just heard."
The buoy fell silent as the ferry made contact with the hull of the Mary Celeste. Susan took hold of a rope dangling over the side of the ghost ship and used it to moor the ferry. Then she went aft and cast anchor, just to be on the safe side. With practised movements, she then climbed up the rope, using the side of the ship for support, mountaineer-style. Scully followed her, then Marc, and Mulder last. None of them saw how the remaining couple got aboard, but Sapphire was already on board as Mulder arrived, and Steel joined her shortly afterwards.
<The field has worn very thin>, he confided in her. <We must find the trigger fast, or she'll become trapped in the wrong time, fixating the breach.>
<She's just an image>, Sapphire tried to reassure him.
<A rather solid image>, Steel reminded her.
Mulder waited for them to say something - anything, any observations that might prove helpful. As they did not speak, he sloshed off across the flooded deck, intent on finding the broken pump to see if it could have been used to put out fires.
Below deck the intrusive beams of flashlights played over furnishings from an era when artisans took their time and paid attention to quality, because it was what the customer wanted. The search was conducted reverently, as if respecting the privacy of any ghost still hiding in the panelling.
Susan and Marc had verified that the sextant and chronometer were still missing, and Scully had found no ship's log old enough to be an antique in 1872. She went over the pantry carefully, as well as the area around the cooker, but contrary to her expectations, she found no blackened panels or any other signs of uncontrolled fire. Well, it was just a theory. After all, no fire had been mentioned in Mulder's case file, and if - as she still secretly suspected - the whole thing was a hoax invented by the tourist board, they wouldn't have wanted to detract from the mystery by adding something so logical. She started to look around for traces of fake instead. She could find nothing exactly glaring, but that might only mean the tourist board had been thorough.
The water was high everywhere, but it had not yet reached the tops of shelves and furniture to wash away what items were placed on them. The dining table was laid, someone had just barely begun eating from two of the plates, and two more lay smashed under water. Apparently, they had fallen before the ship was flooded, or the water would have cushioned their impact on the deck. On a still dry surface, Scully found a clock lying face down and righted it absently.
A shudder ran through the ship, and Steel appeared behind her, to wrench the clock out of her hand and put it back as it was. "Don't - touch - anything", he said irritably and with exaggerated emphasis as if instructing a child.
"Sorry", Scully said, somewhat surprised at his rude manner which she noted for further reference. Apparently, this man knew more than he had cared to tell them.
Sapphire appeared as abruptly behind Susan and Marc. "Susan", she said, on any of your visits here, did you ever see anyone on board?"
"No", Susan replied truthfully. "not even a ship's cat. I suppose the rats had all left."
Sapphire looked at her for a long time, but she had promised not to try to read this woman's mind again. Susan seemed to rely on that promise; there was something slightly triumphant in her smile.
"It could be important", Sapphire said, locking eyes with her.
Susan found herself shrugging in defeat. "I never saw anyone. But I've had a feeling from time to time. Someone walking over my.. no, more than that. A presence. Like I wasn't alone here. Well, it was dark, and with the fog and all.. I always dismissed it as a late-night fantasy. Why, do you think old Ben Briggs haunts the place?"
"I'm not sure", Sapphire admitted. "But I think I just felt it too. Would you care to come up on deck with me?"
As they left, Scully noted that Sapphire's sweeping dress was perfectly dry, even the hem. Steel followed them up; his trousers were also quite dry.
Scully resumed her search for clues. Over her head was a small shelf, but it was too high for her to see if anything was on it. She reached up to pass her hand across it and felt something small and hard. Curious, she picked the object up. It looked like a brooch of some kind, rather large for an ornament, maybe designed as a clasp rather than mere decoration. The centerpiece was a green stone, a little too smooth and opaque for a well- cut emerald, and a little too verdant for an opal. On either side of it was a figure of some kind, possibly made of silver. She couldn't quite determine what they were, but she thought at least one of them was human. The other looked slightly alien, though not like any alien she had seen.
"Marc?" she called out. "What do you make of this?" When he came over, she showed him the object and added, "The gem looks slightly familiar, but I can't say I know the mineral."
Marc drew a deep breath. "Izil'zha.." he whispered, almost reverently, she thought.
"Come again?" she said, not even sure of the language, let alone what exactly he had said in it.
Marc took the brooch from her hand - and promptly vanished, leaving the object in mid air, from whence it rapidly fell into the water with a splash and was gone from view.
"Scully!" she heard Mulder's voice calling her from an overhead hatch. "You still down there?"
She ran up the steps to upper deck, intent on reporting her strange experience. Her wet jeans legs were getting heavy, and between the water and unknown jewellery and vanishing bartenders, her vacation was looking more and more like work. Business as usual..
Up on the main deck, her first impression was that it was full of people. Then she saw that they were all doubled, watching themselves - dancing? Sure enough, there she saw herself, dancing with Mulder. She could half feel their movements, and the sensation was just as pleasantly disturbing as always, whenever they found an occasion to dance. But why here? She sensed the sudden absence of warmth as Mulder left her and began to dance with Susan instead. But his former place was immediately taken by Steel, and she was pleased and surprised to be dancing with someone considerably closer to her own height. Most of the men in her life tended to be tall, far too tall. This one was not. Taller than she was, to be sure, but at least she could see his face without getting a crick in her neck. She found herself smiling at him - or watched herself smiling at him.. her point of view kept changing.
In the midst of it all, Sapphire was dancing alone. Except that it looked rather as if she were dancing with someone invisible. But like the others, she was also standing at the gunwhale, watching. The dancing Sapphire was smiling at her unseen partner, but her eyes were brimming over with blue, bordering on green, as she was trying to reach out to him, to see him. The watching Sapphire seemed entranced, her eyes staring straight ahead, their colour normal.
"The future", she was saying, "Steel, it's the future. The near future. It's not really here, not now."
"It's another break?" Steel asked tersely from his own watching place at the gunwhale. His other self continued to dance with Scully.
Sapphire shook her head. "No, it's not a break, it hasn't happened yet. It hasn't come through. It's just a mirror image - a mirage."
"Well, with whom are you dancing?" Steel wanted to know. "With me?" He appeared totally oblivious to the fact that he could see himself dancing with Scully, and from what Scully had already learnt of his manners, she wondered why she should expect anything else.
"No, Steel", Sapphire said. "At least I don't think it's with you."
Somewhere, a ship's bell began to strike. The dancing Steel abandoned Scully in the middle of the deck and went to Sapphire, reaching out to her. At that moment, the vision of the dancers abruptly vanished, but so did the Mary Celeste herself, dropping them all in the June-cold firth.
"Sorry", Susan said, while heading for the ferry at a strong breast stroke. "I should have remembered. It happened to me the first time I went on board. She always leaves on the stroke of four, comes back the next evening."
"That figures", Scully sputtered beside her. "Eight bells. Right between the last graveyard watch and the first dogwatch."
"Where's Marc?" Mulder asked somewhere behind them. "I don't see him anywhere."
Susan began treading water, looking frantically around her, till Scully said, "He wasn't with us. He left before I came up on deck."
"Left?" both Mulder and Susan marvelled.
"It's a long story", Scully sighed. "I'll tell you when we get on the ferry."
* * * *
The pub was as bright and cheerful as ever when they returned, all soaked except Sapphire and Steel who remained inexplicably dry. Marc greeted them cheerfully from behind the counter, as unperturbed as if he had been there all along.
"Shouldn't you be closed by now?" Susan asked. "It's over four in the morning. Not that we aren't grateful", she added, as she realized that her words might be taken amiss.
Marc glanced at a clock on the wall. "You're right", he said, puzzled. "I had no idea the phone call was that long.."
"What phone call?" Mulder wanted to know. He was pleased with the way he managed to ask the question quite conversationally, despite his chattering teeth.
"Oh, Mr Soames rang me", Marc said while fixing them an Irish Coffee each, for warmth. He passed the first one to Steel who looked sceptically at it, then set it aside. "That's why I stayed behind."
"You didn't stay behind", Scully said, accepting her drink. "You were with us on the Mary Celeste, don't you remember?"
For a moment, Marc looked bewildered enough that they actually believed he had forgotten. Then he said, "Now that you mention it - I was, wasn't I?" He shook his head. "You'd think I should have remembered something like that. But then, I've forgotten quite a lot lately.." He glanced questioningly at Susan.
"Marc doesn't remember how he got here", she confirmed. "He was found unconscious on the shore, two years ago. We believe he was shipwrecked - although there was no sign of the ship."
"And what about you?" Marc asked mildly, handing her her glass.
"Same thing", she admitted. "I just found myself here, walking into the village - it's a bit further up along the road. My feet were blistered, it seemed that I had been walking for a long time. This was also two years ago, a couple of months after Marc arrived. When I first saw him, I thought I knew him from somewhere, but I couldn't shed any light on his background."
Marc gave her a long look. "I felt I knew you too, Susan", he said. "I still do. I think I knew you in some other place, at some other time -"
Steel looked sharply at him. Sapphire shook her head softly, as if warning her companion against speaking up.
"- and I think I knew you quite well", Marc finished. He spoke so quietly that no one else saw fit to say anything for a while. They all had the feeling this had turned into a private moment.
Scully reluctantly broke the silence. "Marc", she said gently, "I found something on the ship. I showed it to you, do you remember? You seemed to recognize it."
Marc looked thoughtfully at her. Sapphire and Steel were watching him intently, Sapphire trying to avoid being obvious about it.
"What did you find?" Marc asked.
Scully wished he had known at once, but she told him. "A pin of some kind. A brooch, possibly used as a clasp for clothing - not big enough for a belt buckle though. A green stone, in a rather unusual setting. You named it to me. What did you call it?"
Marc's grey eyes were fixed steadily on her face. Only Mulder noticed the almost palpable interest on the part of the exotic, blond couple.
"Izil'zha", Marc almost whispered.
"And what does that mean?" Scully asked.
"Hope.. good things coming.." He looked swiftly at Susan before adding the more specific interpretation. "The future."
- 7 -
There was a light knock on Scully's door, almost inaudible.
She groaned. "Mulder, go away, it's 4:30 a.m."
"Are you sleepy, Scully?"
Such a simple question. But as she considered it, she found that it was warranted. She shook her head to herself, wondering for the umpteenth time since she joined up with him, if she was going mad.
"I admit that it doesn't feel like 4:30 in the morning, but.."
"I think time moves faster here, than on the mainland", he stated calmly through her door. Well, it was what she had half expected him to say. She knew him too well, and there were times when she wasn't so sure that was a good thing.
"Look on the bright side, Scully" he said cheerfully. "You might get to be the first woman ever to experience jet lag from a ferry ride across the straits from Ennisferry to the islands."
She refused to rise to his bantering tone. She might not be as tired as she had expected, but she was at least soaked through.
Another light knock. "Scully? We need to talk."
She gave up and opened the door. Her Irish Coffee was still in her hand, she had only just got in. "All right, Mulder. Come." As if she could ever refuse him anything, she thought as she saw him standing there, as wet as she was, his shirt clinging to him in a rather distracting way, and his outrageous tie safely beyond repair. It had to be the first time he was wearing his good clothes on a job like this and in his spare time to boot. It wasn't like him. Usually, he sported t-shirts the colour of a vacuum cleaner's dustbag. But for some reason she could not fathom - unless it was because of her, and she had dismissed that idea at once - he had dressed for dinner, and then everybody was going to the ship, and he had only thrown his windbreaker on top, never bothering to change. And look what happened. Still, he was really cute, standing there like a wet cat.. "What do you want to talk about?" she said sharply, trying to get a grip on herself.
He didn't answer right away, and his gaze drifted a bit out of control, staying a little too long on her blouse, which she was sure had acquired a see-through quality lately. "Time travel", he finally admitted, but she had the impression he had had to swallow unnoticeably before finding his voice.
She nodded. "Time travel. Do you mind if I change?" she added devilishly. "I don't much care to have this conversation while dripping puddles on this thick, British carpet." Another futile attempt at drawing him out, she knew. And she was pretty sure he knew too, or what was he using that psychology degree for? But, there was also the - oddly comforting - fact that she really was soaked. And he should show some consideration for that, if he didn't for himself.
He looked down at his shirt as if he had only now noticed his own condition. "Yes, of course. In fact, I think I'd better change too, or Marc won't be too happy about the upholstery. Or if he doesn't care, maybe the enigmatic Mr Soames will.."
Enigmatic? Scully suddenly realized that they had absolutely no proof that the pub owner even existed. All they had was Marc's references to him. One of them a phone call that couldn't possibly have taken place when Marc said it had. She berated herself mentally for dismissing the pub owner so easily. It was quite possible that he had no connection at all to this case, but she should at least have considered it. Mulder, damn him, missed nothing as usual..
She nodded absently, and Mulder gave her a reassuring smile. For some reason, that didn't sit quite well with her after she had just overlooked something. Not that he would ever be patronizing, but..
"Right. Fifteen minutes, my room? Then you can leave when you want to."
He added that last in his usual, bantering tone, but she knew - or at least thought she knew - that he only meant, before she fell asleep on the spot. Or perhaps before he bored her to death - his sense of self-depreciation bordered on what she had come to look upon as Jewish humour.
She gave him a look as if to say that she was fully capable of throwing him out on his ear, if he got too boring. "No, Mulder. My room. When that jet lag hits me, I want to be close to my bed."
* * * *
<I thought you wanted to question him about that brooch>, she sent.
Steel shook his head. <I doubt he knows much about it. I'd prefer to question Scully. She was the one who found it, she must be able to describe it.>
<You mean, now?>
<Why not?> Steel seemed genuinely surprised.
<Steel, it's nearly five in the morning. Humans sleep at this hour.>
<Oh, those two are not asleep>, Steel replied carelessly. <Look, their windows are still lit.>
<Very well then>, Sapphire gave in, <but you can't just barge in and put your questions to them wihout further explanation. We must tell them, Steel. We must let them know what they're up against.>
He gave her an icy stare, but then he nodded. "Or have them tell us what we are up against.." he muttered aloud.
* * * *
Mulder was back in 15 minutes, true to his word. Scully opened the door dressed in a white terry-cloth robe that she had left a little too open, just for the hell of it. Not much, just enough to be an honest mistake. All the same, she knew she wasn't fooling anybody. There were times when she wondered why she bothered. And yet she could not pass up this opportunity to needle him about his self-imposed rule of distance. No reason to make it easy on him. On the other hand, perhaps it was easy, for him. She did not think so, after his near-breakdown in the hallway as he thought he was losing her - but she had to admit that she still did not really know.
She sat down in a traditionally British easy-chair, deep enough to drown in, and covered with a riotously flowered pattern. She had not quite finished her Irish Coffee, but it was growing cold, and she left the glass where it was, on the small table in front of the sofa. Mulder took the other easy-chair - the twin of the one Scully had, except that the printed flowers were somewhat different, just enough to clash with everything else in the room. As he stretched out his legs, he noted that the chair was on wheels. For some reason he had not counted on that.
"So you really think we have travelled in time?" Scully probed, when Mulder had moved his chair back to its position at the table, while maintaining most of his dignity.
"Well, if you have another theory, I'll be glad to hear it", he said.
"I think someone is trying to convince us we have gone back to 1980", Scully said. "Someone besides you, that is. And that they are taking great pains to make us believe it."
"And they call me paranoid.." Mulder muttered, not quite inaudibly. "For what reason, Scully? Anyone setting up such an elaborate hoax, better have a good reason for it."
"That I don't know", Scully admitted. "But obviously, we can't have travelled in time. Time travel is not possible. And after eliminating the impossible.."
"..whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth", Mulder finished the quotation for her. "Exactly, Scully. How do you explain the time discrepancy between the mainland and here?"
"I'm not convinced there is one. At the moment, my working hypothesis is that we have somehow entered an illusory world. Our different reactions seem to bear this out; you saw the darkness on the island side while we were still on the mainland, I did not until we arrived here. Susan had apparently seen it but thought nothing of it! In fact, we don't even know if Susan is real.. if any of this is real. Mulder, you remember the mushrooms that trapped us in an illusion created by their spores? This could be something similar. How do we know we ever really went to Scotland? What is the last thing you remember that you're sure of?"
"Well, Scully, if you are going all Philip K. Dick on me here, how do we know that we ever got out of the mushroom trap? Maybe we're still in that cave?"
He wasn't entirely serious, she could tell. In fact, he didn't even seem worried by her theory. Damn him, why did he always have to sound as if he had an extra ace up his sleeve?
"I haven't read Philip K. Dick", she said.
He grinned at her. "Pity. You should."
Unbelievably, there was a knock on the door. Scully raised an eyebrow, then she stood and went across the room. No need to look for her gun first; they were both unarmed. There was no way they would have been allowed to bring their weapons into the country, travelling as tourists. Perhaps it was just as well, Mulder thought. The Isle of Dearg somehow did not seem like the sort of place where firearms would be any good at all.
There was no peephole on the door, so Scully simply opened it. She realized as she saw the couple outside, that she had for some reason expected Susan. These two however.. what could they want at this hour?
"Come in", she said tiredly, stepping away from the door. Might as well make a party of it..
Sapphire beamed her thanks in a charming smile, and somehow things did not seem so awkward or bothersome any more. "We'd like to ask you a few questions, Dr Scully", she said kindly. "That is, if you don't mind? We rather hoped we'd find you still up."
Briefly, it crossed Scully's mind that she had never told these two that she was a doctor. Following Mulder's example, she had not mentioned either of her titles during the introductions. She met his eyes across the room and saw that he too had noticed the unexpected mode of address.
"How did you know I'm a doctor?" she asked. "Don't tell me - you read my mind, right?"
Mulder gave her an amused, encouraging look. She stared daggers back at him.
"Yes, I did, I'm sorry", Sapphire said pleasantly. "There's no need to fight about it", she added, startling them both a little. "It's not exactly good manners, I admit, but you would agree that it's the quickest way to gather information?"
"What kind of information?" Mulder asked, half challenging her.
"Oh, all kinds", she beamed back. "You see, we are agents, much like you are. But we don't work for any Earth-based organisation, we are Time Agents."
Behind her, Steel actually smiled a little. Scully's scepticism was almost palpable, and it had hit him full blast. Sapphire was better than he at reading humans, but Scully's near-expletive had been too strong to miss.
"You're aliens?" Mulder asked.
"Not like any you have met", Sapphire answered the images in his mind. "But essentially, yes. And no. We are not human, no, even if we share many human traits when on an assignment. But we are inextricably bound to Earth, in that we are part of its history, of its composition. There have always been Time Agents, watching over the Earth."
Scully passed a tired hand over her forehead, pushing a copper-coloured lock out of it. "Are you saying we really have gone back in time?"
"Oh no", Sapphire assured her, "that is quite impossible, as you know."
Scully just barely had the time to shoot Mulder a triumphant look, before Sapphire added, "Time broke through."
Scully's head thrust a little forward, her eyes widened. Come again? She didn't have to say it aloud.
<Tell them no more than they need to know>, Steel warned.
<Steel, they have to know what they are dealing with.>
She could sense Steel's mental sigh. <I wish we knew..>
"Think of time as a tunnel", Sapphire said. "with a train passing through it. The tunnel gives shape to present time, future time, and past time. The train is present time, where the train has been is past time, and where the train is going is future time. This time tunnel has a form of sentience, aware of the train inside it. The sentience sometimes takes the form of creatures living in the tunnel, but basically, they are just manifestations of Time itself. And occasionally, they break through. Time breaks through, something that belongs outside the train, in the tunnel, breaks into the cars, jumbling their proper order." She paused for a moment, as if uncertain of how far to take her analogy. "And if the situation is not remedied", she finally continued, "time will be derailed for good."
"Meaning what?" Mulder asked. "We'll see all time at once?"
"Meaning there will be no more time to see as you put it", Steel said bluntly. "Linear time is part of the space/time continuum which includes Earth. If time breaks up, space will soon follow. They are interdependent." He shrugged. "Not the way I should have designed it, but it's what we have to live with in this locality."
"So if time breaks through - as you put it", Mulder said a bit caustically, "it could mean the end of the world?" It wasn't that he doubted Steel's assessment of the situation exactly, but the man definitely rubbed him the wrong way.
"If the breach is not mended, yes", Sapphire confirmed.
"And now time has broken through?" Scully asked. "We have a problem?"
"Yes." Sapphire was not given to elaboration when it was no longer needed.
"1980 broke through into our time?" Mulder asked, not quite satisfied with the Time Agent's laconic answer.
Sapphire smiled brightly. "Oh no. Only the future broke through here. 1980 is the present. It's our time. You fell in when your time broke through. What year did you start out?"
"1999", Mulder said. "The date seems to be the same though, if Marc's newspaper is anything to go by."
"Then 1999 broke through on the same day in 1980", Sapphire said. She turned to Steel. "That's one of them."
"One of them?" Scully wondered.
"There was a multiple break", Sapphire explained. "Susan and Marc are from much further into the future. Over 200 years."
"What?" Mulder marvelled. "No wonder they have amnesia. Must be a lot to forget that hasn't happened yet."
"Essentially correct", Sapphire said approvingly. "The wider the time gap, the more you forget. But the effect should be noticeable in your case also."
"There is a bridge in 1999, Mulder", Scully said. "I'm sure of it."
Mulder glanced at her, then nodded. "As long as each of us remembers what the other has forgotten.." He turned to Sapphire. "The time discrepancy between here and the mainland - that would be part of this multiple time breach too?"
Her eyes widened. "You're aware of that? We didn't think anyone had noticed, besides us."
"I didn't", Scully said. "At least, not right away."
"Time is in a flux around the breach", Steel confirmed. "It changes about halfway to the mainland."
"One effect being that time moves faster on the island?" Mulder asked.
Steel nodded. <He noticed that too>, he remarked to Sapphire, a tad belligerently, she thought.
<He does seem to notice a little more than most>, she agreed.
<And she lives a little longer than most?>
<Much longer, Steel. Indefinitely.>
<Sapphire, who are they? Really?>
But Sapphire only shook her head. <They are quite human, Steel. Just - unusual.>
Steel glared at Mulder. "I advise the two of you to stay on the island until we can mend the breach", he said.
To Scully's surprise, Mulder made no objections. Instead he addressed Sapphire. "What did you want to ask Scully? You said as you entered that you had questions for her."
Scully shot him a quick glare. Thankfully let me deal with what concerns me!
Mulder shrugged apologetically, and Steel glanced swiftly at Sapphire. <They are not really telepathic, are they?>
<No, Steel>, she smiled. <Not really.>
To Scully she said, "We wanted to ask you about the object you found on the ship. Some kind of brooch, was it? Could you describe it to us?"
"About this long", Scully indicated with a thumb and forefinger. "And about this wide. It had a pin, but I thought it might have been used as a clasp of some kind, because it was a little too heavy to stick on a blouse or something, though it wasn't quite big enough for a belt. It was made up of a green jewel, set in a frame of what looked like silver, though it may not have been. The jewel reminded me of a couple of different stones, but I couldn't really say what it was, that's why I asked Marc. He seemed to recognize it. He said that word - it'zil-something - and then he disappeared."
"Disappeared?" all of the other three said at once.
"Yes, didn't I tell you that?" Scully frowned a little, then decided that she probably hadn't told any of them. "One second he was there, the next he was gone. The stone didn't go with him though. He dropped it, and it fell to the deck and was submerged. I tried to look for it but it was gone."
Sapphire turned briefly to Steel. <Is this anything you saw on the Mary Celeste before?>
Steel shook his head. <There was no such thing on board. Nor on the replica. There shouldn't be on any of the shadows.>
<Then that could be the trigger?>
<It could. Can't you tell?>
She pursed her lips sarcastically. <Not without the object.>
<Then we have to find it. And if it is the trigger, it must be returned to its own time.>
Sapphire turned back to Scully. The entire telepathic conversation had only taken seconds, but the two FBI agents had both noticed that something was going on, and correctly guessed what. After all, this wasn't their first experience with telepaths.
"Do you remember anything else about the brooch?" Sapphire asked. "Think carefully."
Scully wondered briefly how many times she herself had spoken the exact same words to a witness in a case. Hopefully, her own perceptive powers were better trained than those of most witnesses she had met.
"The metal setting was shaped", she said. "It showed two figures, one to each side of the jewel - they appeared to be holding it between them. One was human or humanoid, the other seemed alien somehow, its proportions were a little off, and it had something on its head that looked like an ornament, but as it looked nude otherwise, I assumed that the thing on its head might be part of its body. The figure didn't look like anything I've seen, much less autopsied." Her concluding words didn't shock any of the present company, nor had she thought they would. If they knew she was a doctor, they must also have glimpsed what her speciality was.
The two Time Agents conferred again in silence. But as they both presently shook their heads, it was evident to the two humans that the object described was unknown to all present.
Mulder who had been sitting on the edge of his chair for the last fifteen minutes or so, now leant back, this time taking care not to push off from the floor as he stretched his legs. "Sapphire", he said, feeling slightly ridiculous for some reason, but she had given no other name, "you said only the future broke through here. Then what of the Mary Celeste? She's of the past. 1872 to be exact."
Sapphire gave Steel a look that Mulder could only interpret as prompting, maybe even slightly admonishing.
"That's not the Mary Celeste out there", Steel sighed. "It's merely an image, a ghost if you will." After another pointed look from Sapphire, he added, "I sank the real one."
Scully looked up. "The Mary Celeste never sank. She was brought in by the Dei Gratia, and there was a full investigation."
"What the Dei Gratia found was a replica", Steel said.
"A cleverly fashioned replica", Sapphire interjected, "perfectly true to the original."
Steel glared at her. "Made by a Specialist", he admitted. His manner made it clear that he did not intend to go into detail on that particular subject. "The real ship had been misplaced in time, she rode into the present on the crest of a time break, as it were. The ensuing flux around that point caused her to cast shadows into other times as well, but the only solid craft were the original and the replica." He shrugged. "I didn't bother to hunt down the shadows. That might have caused unforeseen havoc in timelines I had better not touch. Besides, the ghost ships were of no consequence." He glanced at Sapphire. "Or so I thought", he amended reluctantly.
"This ghost we boarded tonight seemed solid enough", Mulder pointed out, not really caring to keep derision out of his voice.
"I know", Steel said. "And I don't understand it." He sounded as if the ship's solidity was a personal insult.
"The only theory we have so far", Sapphire said, "is that several shadows combined to make something a little more solid."
"She's still a shadow however", Steel pointed out. "She did vanish on the stroke of eight bells."
"We don't even know if she's related to the time breach", Sapphire added. "Though we think she has to be."
"An image of an object from the past or future could weaken the fabric of time", Steel grudgingly admitted. "But something else caused the actual breach. A trigger of some kind. After what you told us, Dr Scully, we have reason to believe the brooch you found might have served that function."
"Sorry I couldn't find it again", Scully said.
Sapphire smiled brightly, reassuring her. "Oh, I shouldn't worry about that. Some triggers are notoriously hard to remove. That's probably why Marc dropped it as he vanished. It wanted to stay. Or rather, something wanted it to stay."
"Some creature of time?" Mulder guessed.
"Perhaps." Sapphire's smile was sunny but enigmatic.
"So, all we have to do is find the brooch and somehow get it off the ship?" Scully asked.
"Not quite", Steel said drily. "It must be restored to its proper time, and we have no idea when that is. Probably some time in the future."
"Probably the time Marc comes from", Scully said reasonably. "After all, he seemed to recognize it. He even named it."
<That's true, Steel>, Sapphire sent. Itzil'zha - the future! I don't know the language he used, but he said it meant the future, among other things.>
<Which means it could come from a time that would be the future to him even where he started out from>, Steel objected.
Sapphire looked at him intently. His eyes never changed the way hers did, but they usually shifted between pale grey and pale blue. Right now they were a deep, thoroughly concerned blue. "What is it, Steel?" she asked quietly but aloud.
"I don't understand the complexity of this breach", Steel said. "Why did two different points in the future break through?"
"Maybe there's another trigger?" Scully asked helpfully.
Steel did not seem cheered. "Either that..", he said, then broke off.
"Or what?" Mulder insisted.
"Or the one trigger was unstuck in time to begin with." He looked at Sapphire, stark fear in his eyes. <It may have come from another breach!>
* * * *
"What do you think now, Scully? Is it a hoax, or did time break through?"
Mulder lounged in his wheeled easy-chair, hands behind his head. Scully was looking thoughtfully at the door, where the two Time Agents had just not so much walked as floated out. She wasn't even quite sure they had opened the door before they left. But they must have, mustn't they?
"I don't know, Mulder. I wouldn't put it past those two to create an elaborate hoax, but I can't really think of a good reason why they would do so. Not to mention that if they needed a hoax, why not think of something a little more believable? I think I'm willing to give their story the benefit of the doubt. We really seem to be in the midst of an X-file here."
Mulder grinned. "Go with it, Scully. For all we know, all their cases are as outlandish as this one."
Scully couldn't help smiling a little. His sense of humour was contagious. At times. She gave him a long look.
"Mulder, when Steel said we should not leave the island until this mess is sorted out, you seemed to agree. But he has no authority over us. Were you just humouring him?"
"I don't think we'd better set foot on the mainland right now, Scully", Mulder told her seriously. "Not if time really moves faster here on Dearg."
Scully's eyebrow climbed, prompting him to go on.
"According to the legends", Mulder said, "whenever someone spends time in Faerie, if they return to the world of men, more time has passed there, and all their friends and relatives are dead. It's a little like the Twin paradox. When the twin who has been far out in space returns to Earth.."
"I'm familiar with the Twin Paradox, Mulder. But I fail to see how it relates to our situation."
"Well, the legends have a twist on it. The moment the returned traveller touches the land of men, all the accumulated time he's apparently carrying suspended within him, is released at once, and he usually crashes to the ground as a long-withered corpse."
"There's nothing like a free lunch", Scully paraphrased, to show that she had grasped the moral of the legends.
Mulder, familiar with the popular misquote, simply nodded. "Time spent in Faerie is supposedly extremely pleasant - most of the time. Consequently, the price is high."
"But our theory is that time is moving faster here", Scully said. She sighed. "Whatever that means."
"I know, Scully, but I can't help but think there might be some sort of discharge, as the time potential is defused."
Scully gave him one of her looks. "Mulder, time isn't electricity."
"But we have no way of knowing how it would behave under these circumstances. Time discrepancies aren't exactly a well researched field. In fact, those who probably know the most about it, are those two who just walked out your door. And Steel advised us not to leave the island."
Scully sighed. There was really no arguing with that. Especially not at 6:30 in the morning..
- 8 -
The four humans all slept in. Between their late hours the previous night and time speeding on the island, it was nearly 2:30 p.m. as Mulder and Scully persuaded Marc to fix them a sorely belated breakfast. Marc took their order in good humour, he hadn't been up any too early himself.
Susan turned up after two runs with the ferry. On both occasions, her passengers had been islanders returning. None of them had been inclined to visit the pub.
She ordered lunch for herself, then sat down at Mulder's and Scully's table, accepting their invitation to join them.
"Smooth runs today?" Mulder asked conversationally.
Susan gave him a sharp look. "Shouldn't they be?"
Mulder glanced at Scully, then explained, "I know this sounds weird, but we have reason to believe there's a time discrepancy between here and the mainland. We thought maybe it had grown worse since we crossed yesterday, that it might start to cause trouble."
"No trouble", Susan said curtly. Apparently, she wasn't very talkative when hungry.
Mulder exchanged a glance with Scully, who nodded. He took a deep breath, then quickly related the highlights of what the Time Agents had told him and Scully that morning. Nothing had been said about it being confidential information, and he felt he owed it to the other two humans to let them know what was going on. Somewhat to his surprise, Susan merely nodded.
"I rather thought they were aliens", she said calmly. "At first, I had the idea Sapphire might be Corps, but she acts a lot like some aliens I could mention.."
"It's true then?" Scully asked. "You are from the future?"
She shrugged. "I must be, mustn't I? It certainly would make sense.." She did not seem happy about the idea. As her meal arrived, she tucked into it without looking up. Mulder and Scully ordered a half pint each while waiting for her to finish.
Finally, she pushed her plate aside. "Does this mean I have to go back?" she asked abruptly. "'Cause I'm not going to."
"Susan", Mulder tried, "we are from the future too. I told you. We'll all have to go back to where we came from, we don't belong here. And according to Steel, we are upsetting time."
She didn't bother to answer. Instead she turned to Scully. "Walk with me." Resolutely, she threw her napkin on the table and stood. Scully raised an eyebrow in Mulder's direction, then she got up too.
Susan paid on her way out. Scully realized belatedly that she had left Mulder with their bill.
* * * *
"I got the impression in there that you remember more now", Scully prompted, as soon as they were out of the Cod & Anchor.
"Some, not all", Susan said. "I always remember a little more each time I've been on board the ship. But I had no idea I was from some distant year in the far future. Although I should have realized, since I do remember aliens, and there are none here, unless you count Sapphire and Steel."
"I guess we have to", Scully mused. "What do you remember?"
"War", Susan said. "There was a great war.. or rather, I think there were several. I'm talking large scale here. At least two of them were about the continued existence of the human race - or of Earth at any rate. I was wounded - I think - but I pulled through. I had my own ship - my own command."
"What kind of ship? Anything like your ferry, or bigger?"
Susan smiled. "Much bigger. It had a full crew complement - on the ferry, there's only me. And that's the way I like it."
"You didn't like your command?"
Susan frowned, searching for the elusive memory. "I don't know. I think I did, but so much had happened. So much sorrow.." She fell silent, and Scully had a feeling she should tread lightly here.
"Susan, what did you really want to talk with me about?" she asked. Their steps seemed to be taking them towards the ferry.
"I'm not sure. I think I wanted you to know why I can't go back. You see, when I came wandering into the village up there, on my blistered feet, I had no idea where I came from or how I came to be on this island. All I knew was my name, and that I was Russian by birth."
"Do you speak any Russian now?" Scully wanted to know.
Susan thought about it, then shook her head. "No, and the funny thing is, I'm not sure I ever did. My father did though, I'm almost certain of that. Maybe I stuck with the common language and never bothered to learn the local one.." She did not seem aware that she might just have given Scully a glimpse into the habits of a future world.
"I remembered the wars - no details, just that there were always wars. And the responsibility of command. That was all until I met Marc, and he seemed to know me from somewhere. I was sure I had seen him too. I thought we might be from the same place, but he remembered no more than I did - in fact, he wasn't even sure of his name, he said. I thought he was kidding, but he swore he wasn't. He told me his story - of how he was found on the shore here and believed shipwrecked - or marooned, more likely, as there was no ship around. Not even the ghost - she hadn't put in an appearance yet.
"I asked what he was doing about it, and he said - typically Marc, I'd say, now that I know him - that he had nowhere to go, so he stayed. Got to talking with Mr Soames who owns the pub and was taken on as bartender and general caretaker of the place. Soames is rarely there these days - Marc says he has a daughter in Oban that he keeps visiting.
"So I thought, why not? I could learn to like it here. It was peaceful, much more so than the life I half remembered. I stayed at the pub at first, wondering what to do for a living. One night, one of the patrons told me about the Ennisferry - sorry, no ferry sign, and it gave me an idea. I had the ferry built, set up the semaphores and removed the sign. It paid well enough, since I'm always willing to do an extra run, outside of schedule. Eventually, I was able to pay my debts to Marc and to the shipyard. The year after, the ghost ship came in. Tourism picked up, and I bought a small house and settled just this side of the village."
She stopped walking for a while, and Scully did too. The ferry was just visible now, moored to the jetty as usual, rocking meditatively on miniscule waves that glittered in the afternoon sun.
"I'm not in my first youth", Susan said. "Probably not even in my second. And I come from a war-ridden place - or time, as the case may be. Here, the only disturbances consist of the occasional inebriated passenger, and a picturesque ghost ship. I could live out my days here and be quite happy, even were I the only one stranded in time. But as it is, I'm not even alone. Marc seems to have the same background. These days, I'm almost certain I know him from somewhere. From a much darker time. I always thought there was something pleasantly familiar about him, and after our visit to the ship last night, I'm almost sure I used to know him."
She started walking again, and Scully followed, not really knowing what to say.
"I'm tired of wars", Susan resumed. "I may not quite remember them, but I can feel them in my bones. I can't go back, Scully. I won't. Maybe I didn't belong here when I first came, but I do now."
"Does Marc feel the same way?" Scully wanted to know.
Susan smiled a little. "He still has nowhere to go.." She sobered. "You know, Scully, for all of that first year as I was staying at the pub, I never encouraged him. I could see that he was taken with me, but I'm not easily wooed. A lot of bad experiences, I would assume, though I have no memory of them, and in fact, good riddance. Then, as I got my own place and I didn't feel so dependent, things began to change. I think they may be changing for the better."
"He's a nice guy", Scully said inanely. "Charming manner. Not bad-looking either."
Susan grinned at her. "So what's with you and that partner of yours? Tell you the truth, when I first saw you, I thought you were married."
"We tend to make that impression", Scully said drily. "Six years together - it kind of marks you.."
* * * *
They were sitting on the ferry, still talking leisurely, as the sun was going down. Both were splashing their naked feet lazily in the water. Susan said it was a habit of hers, and Scully was making the most of her vacation, before it would turn into too much of an X-file - and before the ferry would turn into a pumpkin, she mused wryly.
The sound of a bell buoy startled them both. Incongruous, yet somehow perfectly fitting. Susan looked at her watch. "16 on the dot, that'd be another eight bells, wouldn't it? What is it - the swing watch?"
Scully laughed. "You ought to know - you had your own command, remember?"
Susan gave her a puzzled look. "I guess our watches were different.." She nodded in the direction of the open firth. "There is the mist now."
Thin, white veils were gradually rolling in toward them. The water was blank and colourless. Somewhere the bell buoy sounded again. Susan withdrew her slightly chilled feet and stood. "Time to grab a bite to eat and alert the boys. I have a feeling they might want to make a renewed attempt tonight."
Scully got up too. "You mean, that's the signal of the ghost ship?"
"Yes, the bell buoy always sounds three times before she appears. We've heard it twice - want to watch her come in?"
Scully hesitated, then decided that she'd probably see enough of the ship to last her a lifetime. "Nah, I believe you. Besides, she's only a shadow vessel", she added flippantly.
Susan spun around and stared at her, white-faced. "WHAT did you say?"
Out on the firth, a tattered sail emerged from the swirling mists, as the buoy sounded the third time.
- 9 -
"So, Scully, did she tell you anything useful?"
Scully was leaning on the gunwhale, looking dreamily into the thickening fog. Something about the island intrigued her. Made her feel free, as though her vacations weren't just work assignments in disguise, or even her own unacknowledged excuses to be with Mulder. She could almost understand how Susan had come to find herself here, a refugee from her own time, finally finding her port. Then again, perhaps it was just the fog-swept silence combining with these strange surroundings to create an illusion of ever-lasting peace.
"Susan? Depends on what you mean, Mulder. She told me of the peace she has found here. And what little she remembers of her own time - a violent, war-ridden era, it would seem. She doesn't want to leave, Mulder. Though why she chose to convince me and not Sapphire, I don't know."
"She has a crush on you, Scully", Mulder joked. It wasn't well received. "I gather she doesn't trust Sapphire", he amended. "Something about telepaths in her past - sorry, her future. "But maybe you should pass on her message."
Scully had thought of the same thing but was still debating with herself whether or not that would be betraying a confidence. True, Susan had not asked her to keep it from the Time Agents, but.. She decided to change the subject. "I'm not quite sure I understand why Steel wanted to split us up this time."
Mulder shrugged. "Alternating watches, what's there to understand? This way, we can cover most of the night, and still hope to get some shuteye."
"But if time really moves faster here, we won't get as sleepy."
"We're bound to adapt to local time sooner or later, Scully. I saw Marc this 'morning', if you can call it that. He looked pretty bleary-eyed. He's probably completely on island time. I guess Steel wants us to repeat these watches during the nights to come."
"Mulder, Steel doesn't sleep. I heard him say so. I'm not sure if Sapphire does, but if they're the same kind of alien, it's a fair assumption she doesn't either. If so, they could take all the watches. They wouldn't need us."
Mulder shrugged again. "Maybe they got better things to do.."
"Or maybe they just wanted us out of the way?"
"Now, who's para-"
A sharp, clanging sound briefly shattered the silent night. Then all was quiet again. The agents splashed through the water on deck and ran down the steps to the next level. A quick search revealed no changes. The table was still decked, dried up food still waiting for those who now never would sit down to dine. Beside the table, the two fallen plates were still visible through the water.
"Someone was here", Scully said. "I'm sure of it. I heard someone laugh."
Mulder looked intrigued. "Really? I must admit I didn't hear a thing, but then my ears were ringing badly after that crash."
"I heard it just before the crash", Scully said.
Mulder nodded, filing the information in his head. "Think Sapphire and Steel are given to practical jokes?" he asked lightly, partly to reassure them both, partly to start eliminating possibilities.
Scully shook her head. "I've never heard Steel laugh, but I don't think he would sound quite like that. It was sort of a mad kind of laughter, but I guess it could have been affectated."
"Yes. Exactly like that."
Mulder pretended to consider this. "Nah", he said finally, "probably wasn't Steel. He's the strong, wooden type, wouldn't you say, Scully?"
Scully glared a dagger at him, just for good measure.
As they returned to upper deck, Scully noticed that the ship's bell was knocked over. Involuntarily, she looked at her watch. It showed a quarter past nine. Somehow she found that reassuring.
"Mulder, we'd better get it back up", she said, pointing to the bell. "Since the chronometer is gone, it's really the only clock on board." At the moment, she did not want to think about why it worked. The bell had no clockwork. It needed someone to strike it.
"Not quite", Mulder said. "There's the one that's turned over down below. Think some angry ghost walks these planks, turning over anything that can measure time?"
"If he does, then that's definitely Sapphire's and Steel's department, not ours", Scully said drily. "Besides, he didn't touch my watch."
"The laughter was definitely male."
They stood for a while, looking at the fallen bell. It was set in a sturdy brass frame which in turn was screwed to the deck. The whole frame had been knocked over, bent but not uprooted. After a quick glance at each other, they took one side each and tried to right the structure.
And found that they could not.
* * * *
"Doesn't look as if anything untoward is going to happen tonight", Marc said. "At least not on our watch."
Susan pointed to the fallen bell. "Maybe whoever did that thought it was enough for now."
Marc leant briefly over the gunwhale, looking out over the water, where the moonlight was glittering almost unhampered by mists. "Are you sure someone did that?" he asked lightly. "Perhaps it fell over by itself?"
Susan walked over to the bell, crouched and examined it for metal stress. The thing was rather discoloured with age, but the brass showed no real signs of corrosion. Not that she had expected any. "It's been pushed down", she said. "I'm sure. Besides, I don't think Scully would lie to me."
"I can't think of any obvious reason why she should", Marc admitted. "But none of us four can right it again, so - who could have pushed it over? A particularly strong ghost?"
Susan got up from her crouch. "Maybe it was easier to knock it down", she said, but she didn't sound as if she believed it herself. She walked back to Marc, her gait showing her frustration. "Steel said everything must be left as it was", she said. "And now it isn't, and yet nothing else is happening."
Marc tried to hide his smile. She sounded almost disappointed. "Perhaps Steel can right it. He looks capable enough."
Susan nodded. "It's mostly his problem anyway. I hope", she added as an afterthought. She gave him a searching look, causing him to flush slightly - unnoticeably in the pale light, he hoped. "Do you think you could find that brooch again?"
Marc had some trouble finding his voice. She was standing so close.. for a moment there, he had almost thought.. "It was", he croaked, then made an effort to clear his throat. "Scully who found it, actually", he finished.
Susan waved an impatient hand. "Whatever. It can't hurt to try. Let's go looking for it. Where did you drop it?"
"I didn't actually see it fall", he said, "but it should be somewhere down below."
For a moment, Susan felt her world reel. Unless it was just the ship rocking, but it shouldn't have, the water was calm.
Marc frowned. "Odd, those words seem to mean something", he said, as if he had been able to read her thoughts, just like Sapphire. "Something else, or rather, somewhere else.."
"How much do you remember?" Susan asked quietly.
"More than I have since I came here", he said, "but I still can't make sense of it."
"Do you remember the wars?"
He nodded. "Yes. There were wars. Sometimes aliens were involved. I think we fought them.. no, that can't be right, I think I was trained by some of them.. Perhaps we fought some of them and not others.. but I think we had fought them all at some time or other, even the ones who trained me."
"Trained you for what?" she asked, but he shook his head.
"I don't know, Susan. I can't remember. I only know it was important, in that time and place." He winced, as a sudden flash of memory showed him dressed in a long cloak and holding something.. "I think I had a weapon of some sort", he said, "but it almost feels like somebody else's memory. Perhaps it's something I've dreamt."
"There's no reason your memory couldn't surface in dreams", she said practically. "I think mine does. Do you remember the telepaths?"
He concentrated for a long while, but then he had to give up. "Sorry, no. Not at all, I'm afraid. Perhaps I didn't have much to do with them."
"Everybody had", she said, and her voice was hard. "Be glad you don't remember. I have only bits and pieces so far, but it's enough to scare the hell out of me."
"Perhaps that's because you can't remember all of it", Marc tried to console her. He felt agonizingly inadequate when she looked and sounded like this.
She smiled at him, and his heart leapt. "You're sweet, Marc", she said casually, her words nearly flooring him - or rather, decking him - although he knew they probably didn't mean anything. She nodded in the direction of the hatch down to the next level. "Shall we?"
Half an hour later, they had almost given up the search. They were standing to their knees in water, the rest of them pretty much drenched as well, after their flashlit examination of the flooded lower deck.
Suddenly Susan more or less dived, thrusting her arm into the water up to well above her shoulder, wetting her face and hair in the process. "Could this be it?" she asked, showing him what she had found.
He shone his light on the green stone, surrounded and held by the two stylized figures. "Yes", he confirmed in an awed whisper. "That's it. Susan, I think.. I think it has something to do with what I was trained for. I think the non-human figure represents the aliens who taught me."
He reached out for the object, to have a closer look, and Susan handed it to him. But the moment it left her hand, he dropped it, and though they both heard the splash as it fell into the water, neither of them could find it again.
"I'm sorry", Marc said. It had to be the understatement of the year; he felt as if he had held the key to his entire past, to his identity, to all things that had once mattered to him, only to lose it out of sheer clumsiness. Just because he had almost touched her hand..
"Don't worry about it", Susan said. "It wasn't your fault."
He gave her an astonished look, and she explained, her voice shaking a little.
"Someone slapped it out of your hand. I saw it. Just briefly, as you took the brooch, I saw a hand appear in mid-air and strike yours. It was gone immediately, well before the pin hit the water."
"That's odd", he said, frowning. "I felt nothing. I was certain I had simply dropped it."
"Well, you didn't", she said, glancing at her watch. This ghost ship was an eerie place, and she was wet and shivering. "Think you can whip us up an Irish Coffee each, when we're done here?"
He grinned. "I'm not much of a drinker myself, but I'll be happy to make you one of the best Irish Coffees you've ever tasted."
"Just so long as it's really hot", she muttered.
He never knew where he got the courage, but he reached out and pulled her to him, in a somewhat misguided effort to warm her.
Her wet clothes were pressed tightly against her skin, hardly improving things, but she didn't feel like complaining. They stood like that for a long while, before he finally decided to take his next chance while the going was good. His hand firmly entangled in her long, wet mane, he brought his face close to hers and kissed her. His heart was beating so hard he was certain she must hear as well as feel it.
* * * *
"It doesn't look quite right", Sapphire said aloud. "I don't think those dents were there before. And the entire frame is slightly twisted."
Steel glared at her, then made an abortive effort to put the frame back in shape. "Where is Silver when we really need him.." he muttered. Behind his back, Sapphire smiled but she wisely held her tongue - and thoughts.
"We have to find this ghost character", Steel said. "Have him put it back the way it was. What did she say he looked like?"
Sapphire looked absently past him, to where the mists were slowly rolling back in. But she was concentrating. "She only saw a hand", she told him. "She only saw it very briefly, but she had the impression it was a man's hand, knocking the brooch away from Marc."
"Did she see anything else?"
"A small part of a sleeve, a bright red uniform sleeve, with gold braids on it. Four, she thinks, and she says that would make him a captain."
Steel walked around the bell, looking intently at it. "Captain of what? Of a ship? This ship?"
Sapphire watched the mists with the same wary interest as Steel was watching the structure holding the bell. "I don't know, Steel. When I asked her, she admitted that the design of the uniform meant nothing to her. She doesn't have all her memory of course, but she was fairly certain she had never seen quite that style of rank insignia before."
Steel gave up on the bell for now. He really would have to locate that ghost - if indeed it was one. "Come on, Sapphire", he said, "Let's see if we can find that brooch. It may not be what set off the time breach, but it might well be a trigger for the ghost." He headed for the hatch leading down to the lower deck but stopped abruptly, as he heard Sapphire's gasp behind him.
She was staring straight ahead, into empty air. Steel had the feeling she was looking right through him, as if he had suddenly become invisible, and he had every reason to suspect that to her, he had. He saw her smile, bow her head slightly, and hold out her hand as if someone were raising it to his lips, or perhaps inviting her to an old-fashioned, stately dance, possibly a quadrille or a menuet. Her long, blue gloves added to the impression that she might be in a ballroom.
Presently, she began to dance, her skirt sweeping elegantly around her perfect steps to a rhythm Steel could not hear. The upper deck was as always rather flooded, but she did not seem to notice, nor did the water seem to touch her, or even squelch as she moved. He was not surprised that she kept dry; they both did, but she danced as if the deck was not at all slippery, and there was no sound to indicate the real conditions. Above all, her smile unnerved him. She acted as if dancing on the deck of a ghost ship was a perfectly natural thing to do, even a pleasant one.
"Sapphire!" he called, when he could stand it no longer. He reached out to her - and the dancing stopped, with a jarring twang inside his head, as if some unknown musical instrument had just lost a string. But he knew that none had been playing - none that he could hear anyway.
Sapphire slumped a little and started swaying - like a top at the end of its spin, he thought, berating himself instantly for his prosaic imagination.
He caught her before she fell, and he held her close, staring wildly about him, daring the ghost to show himself. His mute challenge was not accepted. The mists came fleeing in, before the first signs of the morning breeze. At one point, Steel thought he could hear a faint laugh on the wind, but he couldn't be sure. Sapphire stirred in his arms, blinking as if after a dream. He helped her get to her feet.
"With whom were you dancing?" It came out as an accusation, which was not what he had meant.
Sapphire gave him a quick glance, hearing the anxiety in his voice and thoughts. "I'm sorry - I don't know. I couldn't see him. Well, not properly."
"You didn't seem to mind though."
She smiled dreamily, which Steel found less than reassuring. "Oh, it was fun", she said. "I like dancing, you know that."
"Well, I don't.." Steel began, just as the bell buoy sounded, loud and clear off the port bow. Too late, it occurred to him that the laughter he thought he had heard, might have been the buoy at a greater distance. He really did not know how many times it had sounded. Then they both heard the poorly restored bell sound eight times.
They teleported out, just as the ship vanished.
- 10 -
"They had something to do with my mother's death", Susan said, looking down at the table top and her emptied breakfast plate without seeing either object.
Mulder did not push, there might well be more than just time discrepancies blocking that particular memory. He glanced briefly at Scully. She was silent too, waiting as he was.
"They were led by a very bad man", Susan continued, still not looking at them. "He was bad because he believed firmly in his ideals and yet he did not know himself, and did not care to." She raised her eyes from the tabletop, and they were blue-grey and hard. "Isn't it strange that a telepath can read the mind of almost every other being in the universe, and still not see into his own?" She laughed shortly, mirthlessly. "And him a P12.."
Abruptly, she stood and went over to the bar, where Sapphire was standing, talking with Marc. "What's your rating, Sapphire?"
Sapphire looked at her, not comprehending. "I'm afraid I don't understand", she said clearly, making it obvious that she was keeping her promise not to try and read Susan's mind.
"Your PSI rating. What are you, a P10 or 12?" Susan shook her head, pretending to have just thought of something. "Oh, but you're alien, aren't you? You're not with the Corps. Well then, why are you here - what do you want?"
Steel came through the door in that moment, hearing the belligerence in Susan's question, but Sapphire sent him a glance across the room, warning him against interfering. Mulder and Scully saw the glance too, and Steel's all but imperceptible nod. The interchange did not look like telepathy so much as the silent language of a well matched team. Indeed, there was something extremely familiar about it..
Sapphire smiled at Susan, just widely enough to annoy her further. "Why, you were told. I only want to set time right again. Send you back where you belong."
Susan looked at her in silence, waiting. When nothing was added, she asked, "Ok, who are you?" Something in her stance seemed to indicate she was expecting more than a simple answer.
"You were told that as well. I'm Sapphire. That's all, I'm afraid. Why do you ask?"
Susan seemed to relax a little. "Never mind", she said tiredly, turning back to her table and sitting down once more with the two FBI agents.
"But if 12 was - will be your highest rating, then I'm probably a P23", Sapphire added calmly. Susan looked up, rage evident on her face, but Mulder quickly put his hand over hers to keep her from starting anything.
"She's making fun of you", he said. "Don't give her the satisfaction."
From the bar, Sapphire smiled at him. He felt certain she had heard every word, although he had spoken quite softly. He wondered briefly if she was scanning him, or if she just had very good ears.
"What were you saying to her?" Scully asked.
Susan shook her head tiredly. "I don't know, I just thought of something. Something I remembered only recently. There was a Corps of human telepaths, they had different ratings according to how strong they were, how far they could reach, how.. how deep they could go", she finished on a rather raspy note. "I thought I'd give it a try, in case they are really human after all - I mean, they look human. Of course, I didn't quite believe that, I've seen some of what they can do - they keep inexplicably dry in water, and I think they teleport, it's the only explanation for how they sometimes just pop out of the woodwork in a room they were nowhere near the moment before."
Mulder looked at Scully, raising his eyebrows significantly. She glared back. Maybe in the future people were justified in casually assuming someone was extraterrestrial.
"Besides, Steel says he righted that fallen bell", Susan went on without noticing their silent exchange. "Most aliens are stronger than humans. Much stronger.." She broke off, unwilling to discuss that particular memory. In fact, she wasn't really sure of where it came from. But it seemed to have something to do with green and purple scarves - and wild partying..
"Anyway, I suddenly remembered two questions", she said. "Two races. I think we were at war with both, at one time or another, but they had been warring with each other longer. One of them always asked everyone they had dealings with, Who are you? and the other, What do you want? If you happened to ask either one of them the wrong question, they reacted badly. For a while there, I thought Sapphire might be - well, it doesn't matter. She took both questions at face value; I guess she's something different. There are lots of races.."
"More than you know", Steel said drily behind her back. "And I take it you have seen a few." He sat down at their table, surprising them, because he usually remained standing throughout a conversation, and somehow they had got used to it. "All of them living in Time", he mused, then his lips pursed in the merest hint of a smile. "One way or another.."
Sapphire joined them at the table, but she remained standing, her hands on Steel's shoulders. "2261", she said. As everyone but Steel looked up at her, she realized that she might have to explain her remark. "I did another spot analysis on Marc." Meeting Susan's eyes, she clarified, "It isn't harmful. It's just an analysis. I did one before, but his amnesia was blocking it to some extent.."
"Then it's something to do with telepathy?" Susan asked sharply.
Sapphire looked genuinely bewildered. "I wouldn't have thought so. I wasn't aware that I was using telepathy at the same time. But his memories do help. This time, I could tell that the name he goes by is close to his real one, but it isn't the same. He lived in an alien culture for a long time. A lot of his inadvertent gestures and habits are alien in origin. The numbers 1 and 3 keep recurring in everything he does. And he came from the year 2261."
"Life expectancy?" Steel asked bluntly. Scully glanced at Susan, fervently hoping that Sapphire would have better manners than her partner, and answer that particular question telepathically.
"I couldn't tell", Sapphire said, to the relief of all humans at the table. "Nothing would come clear. And I was concentrating on getting the year."
"Well, perhaps the time difference obscures your readings", Steel said.
She nodded. "I should think so. I've never had to read across so wide a time gap before."
"Shouldn't you do this reading on all of us?" Mulder asked, hopefully, Scully thought.
"It's not a parlour trick to be performed as entertainment", Sapphire said, but her smile took the edge off her words, making them seem more like an explanation to a child than a rebuke. But her gaze was drifting to Scully as she said it, and Mulder felt his heart constrict.
It's Scully she doesn't want to scan! he thought. Oh god, I hope it's nothing to do with life expectancy. I must ask Scully what her latest checkup came up with. He had a sudden, vivid vision of his partner looking him in the eye like a spitting cobra, saying, I'm fine, Mulder. Unconsciously, he made a face at the thought.
He looked up, to find Sapphire watching him. Her blue eyes were laughing, and he felt absolutely sure she had been reading his mind. As if to dispel all doubts on that account, she walked around the table and put her hand on his arm. "Don't worry so much", she said, softly enough to keep it from the others - with the exception of Scully, who was sitting next to him. "Sometimes, there is no cause."
Ever mindful of the effects on time, it was all she could say. But she had read all his anxiety as if in an open book - one with a rather large font at that. He would never take her reassurance for what it was. Some humans had to constantly whip themselves in order to keep going. She felt sorry for him.
"Go with it, Mulder", Scully hissed from the corner of her mouth.
Mulder chuckled, and Sapphire smiled at him, feeling a lot better.
"We must make our plans for tonight", Steel said in a tone that clearly told them all they had no time for foolishness. His voice carried enough for Marc to look up from checking his ale levels and come over to take part in the deliberations.
"This time, there will be two teams", Steel continued, "not three. Sapphire, Scully and Susan take the first watch - say from 8 pm till midnight, then Marc, Mulder and I take the second, from midnight till the ship vanishes."
"Shouldn't we start when she comes in?" Susan asked.
"I doubt that's necessary", Steel said, and Sapphire filled in,
"The ghost is interested in us too. He wants an audience. He won't do anything until we get there."
"You scanned the ghost?" Susan asked, wide-eyed.
"Not exactly", Sapphire smiled at her, "It's a feeling I have. A strong one."
"And we should all trust Sapphire's feelings", Steel said in his usual, dry voice. Scully wondered if he was being sarcastic, it was what she would have expected, but for some reason she did not think he was.
Implicit trust in one's partner, she mused. Even when it comes to outlandish methods. Will I ever learn that? More to the point - should I?
"Why do you want unisex teams?" Mulder asked. Susan stared at him. It was obvious that she had not thought of that aspect at all. Marc nodded slightly, to show that he had.
Steel sighed. These humans could be so dense at times. "So far", he said, "the presumed trigger has been found twice. Once by Scully and once by Susan. The ghost has been partly glimpsed twice. Once by Susan and once by Sapphire." He glared at Mulder, challenging him to understand the obvious. The questions were implicit in his steel-blue eyes, What have you found? What have you seen?
"We all saw the dance", Mulder said. "Except Marc", he added, on an afterthought.
Marc glanced at him but said nothing. He had heard all about the dance on the deck. He wished he had been there, dancing with Susan in the moonlight..
"A mere time mirage", Steel said dismissively. "Anyone can see those. They don't even disrupt anything, they just mirror a different portion of time. In fact, that's what your ghost ship should be", he added accusingly, as if it were the humans' fault that she was not. After all, his own intervention had not caused any solid shadows, that much was certain.
"So you count on the ladies to find out what's going on", Mulder said. "Then what should we do?"
Marc grinned sunnily at him. "Keep watch", he said.
- 11 -
"Well, so far we haven't found anything", Scully said. "And it's almost seven bells. We'll be relieved in half an hour."
The firth was dark and still, the moon up, and there was no sign of mists anywhere.
"Maybe we won't find or see anything on our own?" Susan suggested. "Maybe the men are - I don't know, our catalysts or something?"
Sapphire smiled. "It's usually the other way around", she said. She looked thoughtful for a moment. "At least with us.." She didn't specify whether she was referring to her own species, or just to herself and Steel.
"But I could be right?" Susan persisted.
Sapphire looked startled, as if just brought back from a dream. "Oh, I shouldn't worry", she said. "I don't think it's anything to do with us."
"Would you care to explain that?" Scully asked before Susan could lose her temper.
"Whatever we see or find here, it's because someone lets us", Sapphire said. "Until now, it has pleased him to show things only to the three of us, but that might change."
"Then why didn't you bring this up at the planning?" Scully asked.
Sapphire shook her head slowly. "I didn't know it then. I only knew he wanted an audience, I didn't know he was playing a game with us."
"You're sensing him now", Susan said. It wasn't a question.
"He is around here somewhere", Sapphire confirmed. "In fact.. I don't think he ever leaves the ship. That's odd.. that's very odd.."
"Why? It's a nice enough place, I come here quite often myself." Susan was beginning to sound clearly impatient, but Sapphire seemed not to notice. Or not to care.
"He's very powerful", she said. "He can do anything he wants. He wouldn't have to stay here - and yet, I sense confinement." She frowned, concentrating. "Self-imposed, I believe."
Susan spread her hands in an elaborate shrug. "There you are. He's here because he wants to be." She felt a tingling sensation just under her scalp, as if someone had shone an ice-cold, narrow light along her skull, exactly between the two halves of her brain. "You're scanning me!" she shouted at Sapphire.
"I'm not", Sapphire said. "In fact, I can't. You've been blocking me since the first time I tried."
"You're lying. I never could block anyone, least of all a P23 if that's what you think you are. I could always tell whether someone was scanning me, but I couldn't do anything about it."
"Well, perhaps I'm not quite the kind of telepath you're used to", Sapphire said.
"Anyway, if you weren't trying to scan me, how do you know about the blocks?" Susan wanted to know.
"They are hard to miss." Sapphire smiled enigmatically.
Scully was taking another look around the deck, mainly to get out of the line of fire, as the other two started their bickering. At the foot of the slightly warped bell structure, something was glittering in the moonlight. Something green. She picked it up, wondering how it had moved from one deck to the other. Maybe it wasn't the same one?
"Sapphire!" she shouted. "Susan! I think I've found the brooch again!"
The other two came over - just in time to see a tall, handsome man in a fairly outlandish uniform materialize in a flashing effect next to Scully. His hair was dark and curly, and there was a strong hint of obstinate wilfulness about his chin and his expressive lips.
"I'll take that, thank you", he said, and though he never touched Scully or the object she was holding, the brooch had suddenly left her hand and was now in his. He turned to Sapphire and Susan. "As for your inane speculations earlier", he said contemptuously, "no, I don't particularly want to be here. It's just, shall we say, convenient at the moment. Or it was, until the entire inter-temporal tourist board took to stomping about all over the ship every night."
He vanished as abruptly as he had come, and with the same flourish. An invisible instrument struck the ship's bell. The first stroke of eight.
* * * *
"It's no use, Mulder", Marc said behind him. "He'll stay invisible only to spite you. Ghosts are like that. Got a mind of their own, the lot of them."
"You've met a few then?" Steel asked.
"Not met exactly", Marc confessed, "but I've done research." He looked from one to the other. They both looked decidedly skeptic. "Ghost stories", he admitted cheerfully. "From over a hundred star systems. Why, did you know that on Bealtane Prime.."
He was interrupted by a bright flash, the sole purpose of which seemed to be to neatly deposit a tall, uniformed man on the deck in front of them. His uniform looked like something out of a carnival, but he stood tall and proud in it, posing with his impossibly well-polished boot casually placed on a pile of rope, his hand resting possessively on the ship's wheel.
"Will you stop this incessant prattling?" the newcomer asked, seemingly addressing them all rather than anyone in particular. "What do you want?"
"Who are you?" Mulder countered quickly, remembering Susan's tale of the two questions.
"I'm Q", the other said as if that should have been self-evident to all and sundry by now. "And you are Fox Mulder, a misguided crusader in search of a Truth nobody wants to know and couldn't care less if they did - come on, who really cares who or what rules their world, as long as their immediate needs are met? And you", he turned to Marc, "are Marcus Cole, an equally bumbling Knight Errant who can't even manage to get his own name right.."
Marc paled to the extent that it was visible in the now quite hazy moonlight. "The Cole mines.." he whispered. "My brother was lost in the raid and I took his place.."
"Coal mines?" Mulder puzzled. "I didn't know there were any in Lincolnshire." As Marc returned his confused look, Mulder remembered that he had never discussed his student years in England with the barkeep. The man was probably wondering how an American could possibly make an attempt to place his accent.
"..and you", the 'ghost' continued, ignoring the muted interchange, "are Steel, a self-important Time Agent who likes to think himself of nobler mettle than he is." He shot them all a quick glance as if to see whether they had got his pun. They all had, and they all studiously ignored it. "Little more than human, and far too preoccupied with what is rightfully a human concern", the being finished, looking a little miffed at the apparent dullness of his audience.
Steel rose to the bait. "Humans can't handle a time breach! They may occasionally invite it, but they have no control over it. They must be protected!"
"Tsk tsk, all this talk of protection of those who never asked for it. You sound like a starship captain of my acquaintance. A very dull fellow I must say, though unlike you, he has his moments. Don't you want the lesser beings to grow? And the best way to help them grow", he said, and the pile of rope which was now immediately in front of Mulder, caught sudden and violent fire, "is to throw them challenges from time to time, not step in and solve their problems for them."
Mulder took a step backward, then stood paralysed, staring at the flames while sweat broke out on his forehead, and not exclusively from the heat.
Marc - or Marcus - picked up a swabbing bucket by the gunwhale, filled it from the ubiquitous water on the deck and emptied it over the burning hemp. He did it a couple of times, until the ropes were only smoking.
"Quod erat demonstrandum", the Q being said, looking inordinately pleased with himself.
"I fail to see how anyone will learn anything from your infantile pranks", Steel said impatiently. "Our situation is deadly serious, and if you can't help, I must ask you to stop interfering. Since you seem to know everything, I take it you must be aware that there's a multiple time break on this plane that might cause the destruction.."
His voice was cut off as he was raised ten feet above the deck and held there in mid air, struck mute. Q yawned.
"I don't think you'd better do that", Marcus told the flamboyantly impertinent being. "He's got an awful temper."
"Did you cause the time break?" Mulder asked quietly.
"Actually no", Q said. "I'm merely using it."
"Using it for what?"
Q's pose fell somewhat as he stepped back from the wheel. "That's none of your business, Fox."
Mulder resented being called by his first name, and he strongly suspected this being knew. He decided not to let himself be baited. "Very well, Q, if that's really your name. Can you help us mend the breach?"
"I can", Q said casually, "but I won't."
"A breach like that could destroy this entire planet", Marcus said. "At least that's what Steel tells us." He glanced up at Steel who appeared to be trying his damnedest to speak, without success.
"There are enough planets", Q told him. His lips quirked disdainfully. "Though I must admit I'm rather partial to this one", he added unexpectedly. "It would be a pity to see it go. Oh well, can't be helped, I suppose. It's such a beauty of a breach. I doubt I could find another one just like it. Oh, do be quiet!" he added in the direction of the suspended Steel who had apparently been voicing his objections by other means than audible speech.
"So you won't help us", Mulder said. "Fine. But will you actively stop us mending it ourselves?"
Q laughed, a clear, cheerful sound. "Oh there's no need for that", he said. "You see, you can't mend it without me."
With that, he was gone, his usual trademark effect dazzling them for a moment. Steel hit the deck with a thud, feeling his throat.
"Well, we'll see about that", he said grimly.
- 12 -
Scully sank down on one of the couches in the main eating area. "I think we'd better go all of us tonight", she said.
"Yes yes, of course we do", Steel said impatiently. He kept moving from one table to another, not quite pacing, but never standing still either.
Scully raised an eyebrow. "Excuse me? Did I miss something?"
Sapphire smiled indulgently, in a way that Scully had learnt to interpret as well concealed disenchantment with her partner's social skills. "The vision we all had of dancing on the deck. It clearly calls for all of us to be on board at one point or another."
"And you think the actual dance will take place tonight?" Scully asked Steel. "May I ask why?"
"We can expect it any night now", Steel said. "Now that we've met this Q character." The one-letter name seemed to generate a bad taste in his mouth. "I know he's involved somehow, it's in keeping with what he is."
<You think he's Transient?> Sapphire asked quickly. She leant against the nearest backrest as if in sudden need of support.
"No", Steel replied wryly - and aloud. "I suspect he's a god."
Scully raised her other eyebrow, but Mulder nodded. "For all practical purposes, he seems to fit the job description." He sat down beside her, and she had a sudden, almost suffocating feeling that he was going to prevent any unwarranted objections on her part. "Think about it, Scully. He appears whenever he wants to, wherever he wants to, he froze Steel in mid-air, time breaks are of no consequence to him, in fact he claims to use them, and from what he's said so far, he can handle them better than either Sapphire or Steel. He knew exactly who we were, not just by name and occupation, he also knew what drives us."
"And this is enough to convince you he's a god?" Scully asked.
Mulder shook his head. "I'm only saying the description fits. I don't know what he is - I would assume some kind of alien. But for want of a better term.."
Susan joined them at their table, a stein of India Pale Ale in her hand. The day was already getting hot. "So what do we do about the breach?" she wanted to know.
Marcus had followed closely behind her but paused as she sat down. He leant over her backrest, placing his hands on it. "I should assume I get my brooch back and return it to the time it came from", he said. He looked sadly at Susan. "It might mean you and I shall have to go as well."
"I'm staying", Susan said hotly. "You can count on it! But if you think you can return the pin.." she broke off to look at Sapphire. "Is that really all there is to it?"
"Provided the brooch really is the trigger", Steel said, "provided it's the only trigger, and last but not least provided we can find out what time it originated in."
"Not to mention think of a way to return it there", Sapphire added.
"A lot of provisions", Mulder muttered. Scully smiled briefly.
"It feels as if it were once mine", Marcus said. "Wouldn't that mean it came here with me, from the year 2261?"
"Not necessarily", Steel said. "We can't go by mere assumptions."
"Are you sure you don't remember?" Sapphire asked Marcus. "If 2261 was the year, what would be the place?"
"A space station", he said without hesitation. Then he frowned, concentrating, but further memories seemed to elude him.
"Babylon 5", Susan said.
He gave her a look so hopeful it was heart-rending. "You remember?"
"Not really", she said, her hair moving gently as she shook her head. "It was just.. when you said space station, I suddenly knew the name of it."
"And you met aliens there?" Mulder asked, intrigued.
"Oh, there were heaps of aliens", Susan said. "The place was full of them."
"Small and grey?" Mulder wanted to know.
"Don't remember them. Must have been some like that, though. There was every other kind.."
Steel all but groaned. "They would have gone into space too", he muttered. "Humans can't leave anything alone."
"It makes the whole thing more complicated, doesn't it?" Sapphire said, trying her best to sound consoling. "Could that explain the multiple breach?"
Steel shook his head. "Not by itself, no. How many different time periods have we got here?"
Sapphire thought for a moment. "I'd say at least three. The present and two different points in the future. The years 1980, 1999 and 2261."
"An odd number", Steel muttered. "That figures. If only we knew the connection between the year 1999 and our trigger. If there is one. Or else, what caused 1999 to break through."
"Why not ask Q?" Sapphire suggested. "He clearly knows all about us", she added, as they were all staring at her, "perhaps he knows about the trigger as well."
"He isn't likely to answer", Steel pointed out.
Sapphire gave him a clearly admonishing look. "It can't hurt to try."
- 13 -
"Where is Marcus?" Steel asked impatiently, as he wandered on to the flooded deck.
"Someone rang him", Sapphire said, behind him. "Mr Soames, from what I could discern. It's all right, Steel, he wasn't in the vision we had of the dance."
"He wasn't even here to see it", Susan pointed out. "And when we got back that night, he thought he had stayed behind because of a phone call from Mr Soames."
"It would seem that this is it, then", Mulder said. "The night we dance.." he gave Scully a teasing smile.
She gave him one of her looks in return. "Ghost logic, Mulder?"
"X-file logic, Scully."
She sighed. If he asks me to go with it, I just might scream..
A bright flash lit up the deck, red this time, like a Bengal light. Q appeared, in black, tightfitting trousers, red cummerbund and a loose, frilled shirt with wide sleeves. His shoes were immaculately polished.
He looks vulnerable somehow, Scully thought, berating herself immediately. Such a powerful being couldn't possibly be in any danger. Must be the shirt, she mused. She tried to picture Mulder in something like that and failed. Not his style..
Q bowed in her direction, and she blushed, certain he had read her thoughts. Thankfully however, he did not reveal them.
"Back again, are we?" he asked. "I thought you wouldn't be able to leave it alone", he added with an exaggerated sigh. "Very well then, I'll tell you what you want to know. See if it helps you.."
"The brooch is the trigger, isn't it?" Sapphire asked, and the colour of her eyes increased almost imperceptibly, as she caught Q's gaze and held it. "Is there more than one?"
If Q was impressed with her, he did a good job of hiding it. "You could have let me set the rules first", Q pouted. "One question at a time. But yes, the brooch is the trigger you are looking for, and no, it's the only one."
"It caused the entire three-way breach?" Steel queried. "How could it?"
"It originated inside a time loop, just as you yourself hypothesized", Q told him, looking bored. "Besides, it isn't a three-way breach."
"It's not?" Steel said, just as Sapphire asked,
"So there's no point in us sending the brooch forward in time to 2261? I mean, even if we could?"
Q shook his head. "None at all. It had already left that year when it came unstuck. It was on its way back in time, and it happened to get off too soon - and in the wrong place."
"Why here?" Steel wanted to know. "If it was lost in the depth of space.."
"There are affinities as well as infinities in the multiverse", Q said condescendingly. "But I shouldn't bother about that if I were you. Your puny brain might not be up to it. Suffice it to say that the pin was drawn to Earth."
"But it could have ended up anywhere?" Mulder interjected.
Q laughed as if he were genuinely amused, and they really had no reason to doubt that he was. "No", he said, "it most definitely had to end up somewhere."
"What must we do to heal the breach?" Sapphire asked.
"Return the pin to where it belongs", Q chuckled merrily. "What else?"
Sapphire's eye-colour was slowly brimming over. "I'm afraid we can't", she said pleasantly. "Not to an unspecified point within a time loop. But perhaps you can?"
"Of course I can", Q assured her. "I'm omnipotent."
Mulder exchanged a glance with Scully. "He fits the job description", he whispered into her ear.
"Mulder.." Scully began, then fell silent and simply shook her head in resignation.
Sapphire had known all along that Q was not bragging. He really was all-powerful - or as near as made no difference. "Then, would you?" she asked sweetly, suppressing any doubts she had that her wiles would work on a being such as him. She gambled on the possibility that he was not reading her mind. He was telepathic of course, but she sensed that this particular talent was for some reason his weakest. Almost as if he had a slight disability in that area. It just might be possible to hide a few things from him, if one were strong enough..
"No", he dismissed her, without even bothering to guess her motives. "I told you. I need the breach."
"Need it for what?" Mulder wanted to know.
Q glared at him. "To hide in, if you must know. It shields me from the other Q."
"There are more like you?" Mulder marvelled. "And you had a fight with them?"
"Sourpusses one and all", Q complained. "They keep saying I cheat."
"Cheat at what?" Mulder was clearly fascinated by this opportunity of an insight into the world of the truly great. His eyes were positively shining. Scully sighed, but she had to admit to some curiosity of her own.
"Multiversal chess", Q confessed. "My favourite game. You play with different timelines and different universes, but you use the same pieces in all - or their equivalents, I should say."
"Pieces?" Mulder asked, an icy feeling along his spine hinting that he might already know the answer.
"Beings, people, whatever you call them, as long as they are mobile", Q explained with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Surely even you can understand that pieces have to move? Now, don't interrupt." He assumed a look of the cruelly put upon and unfairly treated. "The other Q accused me of doctoring one of the timelines. Moi!" He placed his hand flat on his chest, disturbing the frills. "As if I'd ever.." The outrage was gone in an instant. "I mean, they've been around forever, you'd think they would at least have developed a sense of humour.."
"So what's the punishment?" Mulder asked.
"Exile from the Q Continuum", Q said. "For a finite time, but so boring. I thought that this time, I'd at least choose my own confinement. I rather like it here, I must say. Still.."
"You've been exiled before?" Scully asked, but Q did not deign to answer. Not that she had expected it.
"What happens when the Earth is destroyed?" Susan asked behind her. "Will the breach still shield you?"
Q sighed. "Admittedly, no. A multiple time breach with no planet attached, no space to happen as it were, would be - conspicuous to say the least. I couldn't hide in it."
"Then why not help us?" Sapphire beamed at him. "All you lose is a little time, and you preserve a planet you're admittedly fond of."
Q stared into her overbrimming blue eyes for two full minutes. "Oh very well", he shrugged. "I was getting restless anyway."
He held out his hand to her, and she took it, joining him in a stately dance, inches above the flooded deck. "The Dance of Time", he said merrily. "It's the only way to do this right." The ship's bell started chiming, and invisible violins joined it in a less than orthodox piece of ballroom music.
Scully found herself swept up in Mulder's arms, although she could not remember him making any move toward her. No matter. She closed her eyes and gave herself up to the dance, enjoying the moment as she always did, the very few times he found an uncontroversial reason to hold her. Water sloshed about her feet, but right now, she did not care. Can't live with him, can't live without him, she thought, quoting one of her Irish aunts who seemed to have the same kind of complex relationship with her husband as Scully had with her partner. Tipping her head back, she opened her eyes - and looked straight into a pair full of hazel intensity.
Mulder jerked as if burnt - or as if suddenly realizing how close his face was to hers. He had more or less folded over her without even noticing.. Less than politely, he abandoned his lady in the middle of the watery deck and turned to invite Susan to dance. He told himself he was only being fair. After all, Marcus had had to stay behind. Susan took his hand a bit wonderingly, and was spun into his arms like a top. Behind them Scully shrugged, emptied the water out of one shoe, then held out her hand to Steel.
She had not really expected him to dance - he did not seem the type - but he accepted her invitation even though his mind seemed to be elsewhere. He hardly talked with her except to answer direct questions, and she soon gave up any hope of conversation. All the same, she liked dancing with him. It was a refreshing change for once to have a dancing partner who didn't tower over her. He was taller than she was but not out of all range and proportion; she didn't have to risk a crick in the neck to look into his disturbing, ice-blue eyes. Funny, she could have sworn they were grey..
The mists were flowing on to the deck now, and one couple could hardly see the other. Here and there, long disused lanterns glowed through the white wisps, courtesy of Q. The moon was covered by clouds and fog, and he must have felt they needed some light to guide their feet. The music sounded farther away, like distant fairie tunes of the kind mortals have always been warned against following, let alone dancing to.
Mulder's heart was beating so strongly he could hardly speak. He felt decidedly awed, and he knew he had no call to be. Susan certainly wasn't impressed by him. He sighed. Chances were that if it had not been for Marcus, she would have been more interested in Scully - or possibly Sapphire.. Mulder thought he had seen some wistful glances in the direction of the unearthly beautiful Time Agent, despite the initial row over Sapphire's telepathic powers. But he enjoyed dancing with Susan, and he wished that he didn't. She was almost as tall as he, and almost as strong in body as he had already sensed she was in mind. He had always been drawn to strong women. In fact, their looks mattered less than their strength. It was as if by basking in their power, he could somehow gain some of his own. They didn't have to be amazons like the one in his arms now, like Phoebe Green, or even Diana. The unbending endurance of Lucy Householder had hooked him too. He knew that everybody else had seen Lucy as a victim, but he had not been able to. She had been indestructible, until she decided to give her life for another, caught in the same situation she had been, but possessed of less strength.
The fact that Scully too was an extremely strong and resilient woman, was one he'd rather not contemplate.
* * * *
A wisp of blue swept by in the fog, and Scully realized she had been dumped once again. Steel was suddenly holding Sapphire possessively, while staring up into the face of the much taller Q. "Excuse my cutting in" he said drily, daring the all-powerful being to make something of it.
Q's face clouded ominously for a moment, then, with a glance at Sapphire whose eyes were glittering with unmistakeable amusement, he gave in. "Your manners are appalling", he told Steel, "but who am I to object, when the lady does not?" The sarcasm in his voice clearly told them what he thought of lesser beings in general, and their social skills in particular.
<Would you have done that if I had been dancing with a mortal?> Sapphire asked brightly.
<That would depend on the mortal>, Steel sent back curtly.
Q was now looking decidedly amused. Clearly, he had no inhibitions about listening in on a private conversation.
"Enough of this nonsense", Steel said. "There is no such thing as a dance of time to mend a breach. I've been working with these matters for ages, linear time, and the only way to repair damage such as this is by returning the trigger to its own time - if indeed there is a trigger. Dancing won't help us in the least."
Q smiled merrily. "Touché", he said lightly. "I was just having fun. It was fun, wasn't it?" he beamed at them.
"Just help us restore time", Steel said. "After all, you promised."
Q's smile vanished, to be replaced with a surly look. "Even humans enjoy a game now and then, but you.." He met Steel's glare. "It isn't as easy as that, you know. I can take the pin back to where it belongs, but first, we have to determine where in time that is. I told you, this isn't a three-way break."
Steel was fast losing his patience. "Oh? Then what is it?"
"It's a four-ways one. Five, if you count the present time."
The fog was dissipating again, and the moon was coming back out. Everything was still now, and the music was gone. Susan realized that she had not heard it since Steel cut in on Q and Sapphire, and the dancing stopped.
Finally, Steel said, "Explain", as if he had every right to give orders here, and to a being whose powers vastly surpassed his own.
Q clicked his tongue as if annoyed with the all-pervading density of the minds around him. Then he was suddenly standing behind Susan, taking her by the shoulders and placing her in front of Sapphire. "Have you even bothered to find out what time she's from?" he asked sarcastically.
Susan fought him, but he seemed not to notice. "I don't want her reading my mind!" she shouted.
Sapphire tried to calm her. "I don't have to do that in order to do a spot analysis. I take - other readings. I admit it would help if you could remember what year you came here from, but if you give me enough time, I think I can find out anyway. I shall have to touch you though."
Susan stared at the long, blue gloves in front of her. They still made her uneasy, even though she now remembered why, and had decided that Sapphire was not exactly the sort of menace she had imagined at first. In fact, the idea also held a strange attraction..
"Ok", she said. "What does it matter, I'm not going anywhere. You can do what you like to repair time, but I'm staying in this era."
"You can't, Susan", Sapphire told her sadly. "Everything that's part of this breach must be returned, or the breach won't heal. You can't stay. Not without sacrificing Earth. Are you willing to do that?"
Susan did not look at her. For a long time, she stared inland, into the darkness, in the direction of the small lights edging the road she knew led to the Cod & Anchor. She could sense the others waiting for her answer. Even Q was silent, giving her space to make up her mind.
"I guess I don't have much of a future here after all", she said finally. "Guess Marcus and I will just have to slug it out through the bad times." She held out both her hands. "I doubt you'll find anything but 2261. We both remember the wars."
Sapphire took off her long gloves and handed them to Scully who happened to stand closest. Scully turned them over in her hands, trying to determine whether the material was anything normally found on Earth. She sensed Mulder's eyes on her and looked up with a shrug. There was no way to tell without lab equipment.
Sapphire had closed her eyes, as she took Susan's hands in hers. She stood for a long while, concentrating, and Susan was beginning to look decidedly nervous. The moon passed slowly through a thin veil of cloud.
Suddenly, Sapphire's eyes flew open, brimming over with colour to the point that they were almost green. She had had to reach far to see this particular year.
"2275", she stated in a clear voice. "You came in from the year 2275."
"No!" Susan gasped. "That - that can't be true, read me again!" She held out her hands which Sapphire had released as soon as she had her year.
Sapphire made no move to touch Susan again. "I'm sorry", she said, sounding as if she really meant it.
Mulder took a step closer and put his arm around Susan's shoulders. "Think of the Earth", he said softly.
She gave him a quick look - of gratitude, he thought. Then she nodded. "Right. This doesn't change anything. I still have no choice, do I?" She sighed. "14 years between us.." Then she brightened a little. "But since we both have to go back, neither of us will have dropped out of time, right? Which means I could try and find him in my own time? I mean, he has to arrive there sooner or later, hasn't he? Just as I was around in 2261, even if the time breach didn't hit me until later?"
Mulder nodded. "That makes sense."
For some reason, Q seemed almost serious. "A word of warning to all of you", he said. "All memory gaps will be healed as soon as the breach starts closing. Full memory will be restored to those of you who have experienced glitches. Just thought you should know."
"Well, that's a relief", Scully muttered, thinking of hers and Mulder's argument about the Skye bridge.
"You said the brooch had already left 2261", Steel reminded Q - as if that being's capacious memory needed reminding. "So where should it go - 2275 or 1999?"
"It wasn't at any fixed point in time at all", Q said. "Which is how it could cause the breach in the first place. You have to decide where you want it."
"I want it back where it came from of course!" Steel growled, tired of the being's games.
Q gave him a long look, an odd little smile playing around his mobile mouth. "Very well. I can send it back. But first, we have to find it again."
"I thought you had it!" Steel accused in his most exasperated voice.
"Oh no", Q said gleefully. "It's more or less attached to the ship - to this particular manifestation of the ship, I should say. It'll have to be detached."
"All right, can you do that?"
Q appeared to ponder his choices. "I could, but my intervention might disturb the timelines unnecessarily. As well as call undue attention to myself", he admitted, looking into Sapphire's laughing eyes. Damn, that woman read him loud and clear. Not good. He slammed a few mental blocks into place and was pleased to see her startled shudder.
"It has to be one of you", he resumed. "Or at least, that's the most convenient solution. Only one of you though - choose your volunteer", he added flippantly. "I'll help in any way I can, as long as my meddling isn't obvious. Oh, there's one thing you should know. Detaching the trigger is highly dangerous. To mortals, that is. They have this deplorable habit of dying, as soon as the going gets tough."
"Scully goes", Steel said, without looking around for genuine volunteers.
"NO!" Mulder shouted. "You do it!"
Steel gave him a look of pure ice - or perhaps of blank metal. "Scully is the one who first found the trigger. She's the one most likely to find it again", he explained in a tone that seemed to indicate his doubts of Mulder's ability to find his own shoelaces.
"You can't just.." Mulder began, but was interrupted by the person concerned.
"It's all right, Mulder", Scully said. She turned to Steel. "I volunteer."
Steel nodded appreciatively. He had already noticed that this woman was considerably easier to deal with than her wayward partner.
"Scully, this could be fatal!" Mulder protested. "Q just said a mortal might not survive. Let one of the Time Agents do it - it's in their line of work, and they aren't human."
"We can still be destroyed though", Sapphire mildly pointed out.
Mulder stared at her for a moment. "Then I'll do it!" he blurted out.
"A perfect example of human logic", Q remarked. "Could you please make up your minds?"
Scully went to stand before him. "I'm ready. Tell me what to do."
"Scully!" Mulder had never been one to give up.
She turned, raising her eyebrow at him. "Mulder, someone has to do it. Q can't, because his fellow beings would detect his interference and come for him, which might well disrupt everything, as he might not get a chance to return the trigger to where it belongs. Steel says I should do it, which I have to assume means I can." Her gaze softened somewhat. "He's right, Mulder. I was the first to find the brooch; it stands to reason I could find it again - possibly more easily than any of you. I doubt that this is simply a matter of localization. Considering what special qualities seem to adhere to a trigger, there might be more to it than that."
Mulder grinned, though he was plainly not yet appeased. "Believing in magic now, Scully?"
"Noo", she said reasonably, "but I'd be the first to admit that I don't know enough about the workings of time. So far, scientists haven't even been able to come up with a clear definition of it."
"That's because time has many aspects, and humans can only see one of them", Sapphire said. "Not always the same one though", she added helpfully.
"What's wrong with Nature's own device for ensuring that everything doesn't happen at once?" Mulder joked.
Scully let out a small sigh of relief. If he were resorting to fax humour, he had to be calming down.
"I'd hate to rush you.." Q said insincerely.
Scully looked up at him - she had to tip her head a good ways back to do so. "I told you I'm ready. I'm waiting for instructions."
<I must say I don't know what all the fuss is about>, Steel remarked to his partner. <According to you, she's immortal.>
<She is, but she doesn't know>, Sapphire sent calmly. <Nor does he.>
Steel glared at her. <You could have told me!>
<Sorry. Would it have changed anything?>
Steel thought for a moment. <No. She's still the one best suited to do it. You think it will work?>
Sapphire smiled. <Oh yes. She has everything going for her.>
Steel reacted instantly to the teasing lilt of the mental message. <You've discovered more about her? Anything other than her immortality?>
Sapphire glided up to him, putting her hand on his arm as if she were about to share a confidence, although she had every reason to suspect that Q was following her every thought.
<I only saw it just now. It's so little, it's almost not there. She's psychic. Her partner may wish he were, but she's the one seeing ghosts.>
- 14 -
Scully waded through the waters of the lower deck, shining her torchlight through the liquid, trying to find the brooch with the green stone. The water reflected the light up at her, making it hard to see anything on the boards below.
"Why don't you look over by the dining table?" said Q's voice behind her. She looked over her shoulder, but he wasn't there in person. Well, he had said he'd help. She sloshed over to the table and started searching on it as well as under it. The table was still laid. The fallen plates were still fallen. Then she caught sight of something glittering and green beside one of the pieces of plate, and she picked it up. Incredibly, it was a frog. Surely the deck was wet enough to accommodate the small creature, but it still seemed out of place on a ghost ship. Scully and the frog stared at each other for a moment, both equally surprised. Then Scully smiled wryly and touched her lips briefly to the frog's face.
A green flash, and the frog turned into Q. "You're spoiling everything!" he complained. "You weren't supposed to think of that yet!"
Scully pulled herself up out of the water where she had fallen as the flash appeared. "And how is it going to help me?" she asked.
"Oh it won't", Q said casually. "But it seemed a good idea at the time. When you find the pin, put it in your shoe. You must hold on to it, so it can be brought off the ship. It's the only way it can be detached. But watch out, it'll do all it can to return, until you actually manage to leave the ship with it."
In another flash, he was gone, and Scully resumed her search. She thought half an hour had passed when she looked at her watch and found it had stopped. Well, it figured. Who could be sure of the passing of time on this vessel? Hours could have passed. She fully expected the ship to vanish from under her feet at any moment. She went down a few steps and entered an area even more flooded than the others. Here, the water was up to her neck, and she reflected that whatever the reason was Steel had chosen her, it wasn't because of her height.
The area looked as if it had been under water for a long time. Seaweed appeared to be growing over a door in a corner, though it was so dark there, she could barely see. She tried to bring her light into a better position, but as she shifted her grip on it, it slipped out of her hand and splashed down into the water. Fortunately, it was professional equipment, a waterproof Surefire complete with fresh, longlife batteries. While it was sinking, it lit up the corner with the seaweed, and the glistening coils of a moderate-sized octopus. She never reflected on the population of octopus in Scottish waters, for as the light sank leisurely to the bottom of the hull, it fell on a green stone, surrounded by two silvery shapes. The object seemed to be held in one strong tentacle.
"Q!" Scully said. But either the octopus wasn't Q, or he didn't feel like admitting it. The Surefire, however, inexplicably went out. This is madness, Scully thought, as she dived under the surface and started feeling around for the tentacle and the pin. She found only a sharp-edged shell, before she had to come up for air. But she dived right back in, and this time she felt the brooch, firmly gripped in something slithery. A tug of war seemed to be leading nowhere, so she gripped the shell firmly in one hand, the tentacle in the other, and prepared to make the incision. The tentacle let go immediately, and was furthermore hurriedly withdrawn. Scully picked up the brooch and made her way towards the steps to the next deck. The water seemed to have risen, she had to swim.
On the next deck, the moon was shining in through the open hatch, and she could at least see her way. But just as she was passing the table, the brooch fell - or rather leapt - out of her hand and fell into the water. She barely had time to see it being caught by the frog - and swallowed.
"Q!" she sighed. "Give it back, will you?"
The frog stared up at her, burping slightly. "You weren't supposed to think of that yet.." she mused aloud. Exasperated, she picked up the frog and gave it a sound kiss, smack on its flat nose.
"I thought you were supposed to help me", she grumbled, as Q appeared.
"I am helping", he protested. "I told you to put that thing in your shoe."
"I was just going to", Scully said, holding out her hand.
Q dutifully dropped the brooch from his mouth into her hand. "You look like a wet cat", he informed her as she put the glittering object in her shoe.
She glared at him and he vanished theatrically, as if struck by the laser beam of her displeasure.
With a sigh, she made her way to the hatch that would let her pass to the next level, but something stabbed at her foot, and when she looked down, blood was flowing out of her shoe and colouring the water. She was pretty sure the pin had not been open when she tucked it into her shoe. Pressing her lips together in pain and frustration, she climbed the steps and got out on the upper deck, where the others were waiting. Mulder and Susan both started running towards her, but she held up her hand, and Q, seeing her gesture, threw a makeshift force field across the path of her friends, holding them back.
"Scully, you're bleeding!" Mulder called out.
She hadn't thought he was close enough to see that, but apparently the water was doing its best to advertise the fact.
"I'm fine, Mulder", she shouted back. "It's just the trigger. It bit me, I have to get off the ship! I advise you to do the same!"
A golden rod materialized in Q's hands, and he struck the ship's bell lightly. "It is almost time.." he said. "I suggest you all go ashore at once."
"Then let me get to her!" Mulder shouted. "She's hurt, she'll never make it ashore unless I carry her!"
Scully could feel the brooch trying to fight its way out of her shoe. She did not think it had a will of its own, but something was pulling it - presumably the ship, unless Q was trying to trick her. She tried to step on it, and it dug in deeper, then it started to slide up the side of her foot again. She realized she would never make it across the deck with it, let alone down to the ferry.
"There are more ways than one to disembark, Mulder!" she called out. Then she jumped up on the gunwhale and dived into the firth. A childhood on various naval bases helped. She had always known it would come in handy some day.
She was a good swimmer, but she had hardly hit the water when her right foot started to drag her down. For some reason, it was growing heavier and heavier. She could feel the brooch still in her shoe, apparently it had stopped struggling as soon as she left the ship. But the shadow vessel was not letting it go without a fight. Scully struggled to stay afloat, but she was inexorably sinking. The surface was already far above her, and the world was growing cold and dark.
She never heard the eight bells, nor knew when the ship vanished.
* * * *
"She's dead", Susan said. "I'm sorry, Mulder, but it's no use. Give it up."
Mulder wasn't listening. He would continue his CPR until he no longer had any breath in him.
"Can't you do something?" he asked Q who had just materialized beside him. "I thought you were all-powerful. Isn't that what you said?"
"There's no need to do anything", Q said, examining one of his frilled shirt sleeves as if for stains. "Give her time. You puny beings are always so impatient."
Mulder seriously considered slugging a god, but he did not want to divert his attention from Scully.
Sapphire knelt by Scully's feet and removed her right shoe to take the now inert brooch. "She's not bleeding any more", she observed.
"You mean she really is dead?" Mulder said, his voice breaking on the last word.
Sapphire felt for him, and yet she could not help smiling. "No", she said. "The wound is healed."
Susan knelt too, examining Scully's foot. She might not have any medical training, but she had been in wars, and she had seen enough wounds to venture a judgment. This was decidedly healthy skin. "Well", she said, "that should teach me not to make hasty judgments. Looks like I was wrong. Go on, Mulder, keep up your efforts. Never mind me."
Scully awoke slowly, feeling Mulder's lips on hers. The fact that he was also holding her nose closed, detracted somewhat from the sensation, but nevertheless she tried not to reveal her condition immediately. Figures, she thought. Only time our lips touch is when one of us is unconscious.
Water started spilling out of her mouth, and Mulder quickly let go and turned her over on her side. "Welcome back to the living."
He was grinning from ear to ear, she could hear it in his voice.
"Not that she was ever gone", she heard Steel mutter, and briefly she wondered how he could know. For that matter..
Her eyes flew open. "How did I get here? The last thing I remember, I was sinking deeper and deeper into the sea. I think I was almost touching bottom before I - passed out."
Q beamed at her. "All knowing, all seeing."
"Q brought you out", Mulder clarified with a frustrated glare at the powerful being. He was immensely grateful that Scully had been saved, but he would have preferred to be grateful to someone else - anyone else but this stuck-up divinity. "Not that he could be bothered to bring you back to life while he was at it", he added caustically.
"That's humans for you", Q said, but he was far too pleased with himself to really take offence. "Give them a finger.. Now take the Vulcans - morose spoilsports all, but they know to appreciate help when they get it.. But I digress", he decided hastily, catching Steel's glare. Concerned about the timelines of course. Such a limited view. "In fact, there was no need to wake you up brutally and insensitively", he told Scully. "After all, you did come back to us, didn't you?"
"But I was dead?" Scully asked, because somehow she felt as if she had been renewed - reborn. And she couldn't have been reborn unless she had been dead, now could she?
Q shook his head. "Close", he said. "But not quite." And that was all he was going to say on the matter. He found the idea of an immortal human intriguing, to say the least. Finally things were happening in these muddled backwaters of the Multiverse. He could have removed her immortality, but she had not asked him to, and he felt it would be a waste of resources. It never occurred to him to regard her as competition, she wasn't Q. She might be unable to die, but aside from that, she was only human. However, he suspected the more dogmatic members of the Q Continuum to get quite paranoid about this, and he was looking forward to the ensuing chaos in high places. In fact, he was always looking forward to a little refreshing chaos..
But he also knew that neither Scully nor Mulder had an inkling as yet. They had yet to discover her condition, and as far as Q was concerned, they were free to discover it in their own good time. Besides, they wouldn't have believed him anyway, had he played the busybody god and told them. He was quite amused to find that those two bumbling Time Agents had come to the same, naturally sound decision as he had. Better not stir the hive of lesser beings prematurely. It might lessen the long-term effect. The longer the buildup, the bigger the bang, Q thought contentedly.
He raised his right hand, displaying the gleaming brooch with its sea of green, separating - or uniting - two infinitely diverse figures. "Are you all agreed?"
Sapphire nodded, and Steel said, "Yes, go on. Send it back to where it came from."
Q quirked a smile. "Are you sure that's what you want?"
He was looking at Susan as he said it, and she nodded bravely. "Get on with it, Q."
He gave her a long, searching look, but as her determination did not waver, he threw the brooch in a long arc, up, up and forever out. He could have just spirited it to its destination, but he liked the show of putting some physical effort into it. It would seem more convincing to his less gifted audience.
Susan collapsed with a long wail, and Sapphire turned so white her eyes were dark pebbles of lapis lazuli by contrast. <Steel!> she sent, <It's all coming back to her!>
Susan was sitting on the shore, sobbing uncontrollably. Scully knelt beside her in an attempt to comfort her friend, but Susan kept wailing, "He's dead, he's dead!" Then she noticed Scully and clung to her, moaning against her neck.
Sapphire staggered, and Steel caught her. "Her grief.." she muttered. "Her pain.." Steel held her tightly, trying to force some of his own strength into her. She was far too sensitive to empathic impulses. This time, she had caught Susan's sorrow full force even without deliberately scanning her. Steel cast about, looking for Q, but the being had vanished. The moon and the still, empty firth looked suddenly very cold and indifferent to mortal disaster.
"Marcus died that year", Susan tried to explain through her tears. "He died in 2261, and I've been alone ever since! He died for me, and I'll never find him now - there's no future for us anywhere!"
Mulder hated to state the obvious, but he knew it was important. "You're still here though."
Scully eyed him sharply, then she too caught on. "He's right!" She shook Susan gently. "You're still here, and so are we! None of us returned to our own time!"
"I ought not to have trusted that strutting fool", Steel said bitterly.
But Sapphire shook her head. "No, Steel, he did exactly what we asked him to do. I think that's.."
Before she had time to finish her sentence, a large, radiant creature swooped in out of the night and snatched her out of Steel's arms. Its form was hard to determine, but it seemed translucent, and parts of it protruded from the rest like a pair of crude wings. That was all anyone could make out before the creature was gone again, taking Sapphire with it.
- 15 -
"Come, come - this way!" Zathras clicked his tongue in bemused impatience with the two Minbari who were following him cautiously through the gleaming, well-lit corridors - too cautiously for Zathras' taste; there was nothing to fear in this place and time. The future was behind them, and was once more about to happen. The loop had been closed, The One was where he should be, where he had always been headed.
Valen saw them coming before they saw him. Not yet the saviour hero of the Minbari, just an ex-human once known as Sinclair, but he could feel his new destiny resting heavy upon his still wide shoulders. How many times had he completed this circle? How many would he? He felt an irrational gratitude that he did not know the answer, that every time appeared to be the first, even though he intellectually realized that it could not be. Would the loop ever cease, now that it had started? So far, his mission had succeeded. Would it one day fail?
"Destiny is preordained", said one of the two Vorlons behind him, as if it had been reading his mind. He had no doubt that it could.
"Yet it's not written in stone", said the other one, the one on his left, and Valen frowned, puzzling over what this might mean. The Vorlon now on his left often seemed even more inscrutable than the one on his right.
He was about to ask the golden, translucent being for an explanation that would probably only confuse matters more, when he happened to glance down at his cloak. There, bright and bold, was his Ranger pin, twinkling green and silver at the approaching Minbari. He looked across the deck, trying to judge the distance to his two wary visitors. Too late, he could not remove the brooch now, they would interpret it as some symbolic gesture and wonder about his lack of an explanation. But how could he explain - the Rangers did not yet exist, and much work remained before they would once more rise and fight - and guard. He did not understand it. He had told Zathras to space this thing, and he had no reason to doubt that the being had accomplished his mission. Even if Zathras had failed, how could the brooch suddenly once more appear on Valen's cloak?
The Vorlon on his left leant forward over Valen's shoulder. "Anything amiss?" it asked innocently.
Valen explained briefly, in an undertone. The two visitors were almost within greeting range, eagerly led on by Zathras.
"Ah!" said the Vorlon. "This is what comes of letting the lesser species have their way. They never know what they want. Well, don't blame me."
"I wasn't aware you had anything to do with it", Valen said. Though I might have guessed, he added silently. "Does this mean you can do something about it? Hide it somehow, or at least come up with a plausible explanation? You'd better think fast." The Minbari had stopped at a respectful distance and were now bowing to him.
"I can't do anything myself", the Vorlon said. "Not allowed to. The Continuum imposes a grave penalty for meddling with time outside the rules of the game - never mind that, I know who can do something. Hang on, I'll get her."
With that, he was gone, as enigmatic as all Vorlons, if a bit less stately. Valen did his best to look convincingly formidable, as he started welcoming his guests.
* * * *
"You are interrupting a historic event", he informed the wayward Vorlon reproachfully but calmly. It would never do to lose his temper now. Fortunately, the conversion seemed to have calmed his nature somewhat. He could just imagine how he would have reacted in his human days.
"Never mind that, it won't be historic for very long", the Vorlon said. "Sapphire - take time back!"
"To where?" the woman asked reasonably. "My range isn't.."
The Vorlon gave a rather odd impression of fast mental calculation. "About 15 minutes", it said. "That would do in this place, best not take it too far, we mustn't get back to when this station was still travelling backwards in time, that would confuse things."
"Q, I'm not sure I understand.."
Valen's eyes widened imperceptibly. Who was this woman to know the Vorlons by name? And not by any of the few names he himself had been taught to use either. In fact, the lone initial sounded oddly like a nickname. For Quosh, maybe..
"You don't have to", the Vorlon said to the female. "In fact, I doubt that you can. I need you to take time back fifteen minutes here, and also where we were in the future - your present?"
Sapphire shook her head. "I can't. I should have to be in both places at once. You have to make up your mind."
"Here then", the Vorlon decided. "It will put us well before your historic event", he told Valen as if this would make everything all right. "Meanwhile, I can.."
"You have to stay in place while I do it", Sapphire informed him.
Although the Vorlon's true shape of supple light was all but featureless, Valen had the distinct impression that Q was doing the Vorlon equivalent of rolling its eyes. Then everything began to shift, and he could no longer see things clearly. Through it all, he was aware only of a strange, pounding sound that he attributed to his own circulatory system, and of the woman's eyes, steadily growing bluer, until it seemed that the colour must overflow and start to seep down her cheeks like azur tears.
- 16 -
Q reappeared in a golden flash, changing into human shape as he came.
"What have you done with Sapphire?" Steel accused, his eyes dark with anguish as well as anger.
"That was him?" Mulder wondered aloud.
Susan nodded, calmer now that a more immediate crisis had ocurred to take precedence over her own. "At first I thought it was a Vorlon - they are pure energy beings and can manifest as just about anything, though they usually wear encounter suits when in company. But something about it didn't seem right - for one thing, it didn't move like a Vorlon. That's when I realized it had to be Q."
Mulder was fascinated. "Could you tell me more about these - Vorlons?"
Scully put her hand on his arm. "Not now, Mulder."
"I needed her to take time back", Q answered Steel's question. "Don't fidget, I'll send her back to you - all in good time."
"Couldn't you have taken time anywhere it needed to be taken?" Scully asked.
Q shook his head. "I'm not allowed, but she is. It's part of her job; the Continuum wouldn't mind. I have to be careful these days."
"Well, whatever you hoped to accomplish, it doesn't seem to have worked", Steel said drily. "They are still here." He gestured in the direction of the three humans.
"I'm not finished yet!" Q protested. "Of all the impatient species.. I still have to throw this thing again - hopefully with more accuracy this time." He showed them the brooch, spirited off a holy man's cloak in the 13th century.
"What went wrong?" Mulder wanted to know.
"This metal brain here", Q indicated Steel who glowered at him, "asked me to return the pin to where it came from. Being a kind and good-natured Q, I granted his request - and the bauble ended up in the very place it had been dismissed from. Where it had been thrown away because its presence would wreak havoc with the timelines and disrupt the destiny of several races and most of a galaxy. Well, that's what I get for indulging the puny. What I should have done was return this thing to where it belonged - which I now propose to do."
Without waiting for their comments, he once more threw the brooch outwards, into the depths of space. Then he was gone again.
* * * *
There was someone in her quarters. For a moment, she thought she saw a human in a strange uniform, but it must have been a trick of the light, or of her preoccupied mind. Now she saw only the one she had half expected. The robes of his encounter suit dragged on the deck as he turned.
"You came for this", he said in his artificial voice, holding out the little box of Valen's belongings.
She hesitated. There was something strange about his voice, his words had come out almost as a question, rather than simply telling her what she was about, as if she could not be expected to know her own will. Also, he seemed less stately today. If she hadn't known better, she might have thought he was hurried.
He thrust the box into her hands and left, wordlessly as was appropriate. There was definitely something less than patient about the rustling of his robes as he went.
She opened the box and took out the brooch. Carefully, she placed it on her Ranger's cloak, recently donned for the first time. She straightened. The new Entil'zha. She would prove worthy of the title Valen himself had held. There really was no other option.
- 17 -
Sapphire appeared in a blue flash, courtesy of Q, though he had elected not to stay this time. After all, he had other obligations..
Steel tried to look as if he felt it was about time she turned up, but his relief was so obvious that she had to smile. Gently, she touched his cheek, acknowledging his worry without referring to it.
She looked around. The moon was setting, and the firth was empty of both ship and fog. The water gleamed bleakly in the faint light of early dawn. Overhead, the sky looked like a negative of itself, dark clouds against almost white. The jetty looked empty and forlorn. There was no ferry now.
"They all vanished just before you came", Steel said. "They blinked out where they sat. And the lights have gone out at the pub."
Sapphire closed her eyes for a moment. "They are all gone, Steel. There's no one at the pub." Her eyes opened again. "We have succeeded. Time is back on its proper track."
Steel was not entirely convinced. "Possibly", he said. "But it was a complex break. We don't know how far its effects may have spread. Let's wait until you can determine that all time discrepancies have truly been healed."
* * * *
On her way to her quarters, she thought about her second. Maybe she should let him go. He had great aspirations and he seemed the type to live up to them. He was wasted on a small passenger ship like this one. In fact, he rather reminded her of Marcus.. She slowed her step a little, frowning. That was the second time today that she had thought of Marcus. Odd, she didn't usually think of him these days. In fact, until today she hadn't thought of him for years.
Or had she?
* * * *
The thought of the unknown ship would not quite leave him. It had seemed eerie somehow, as if it were not really there. Perhaps he really had dreamt it. Or perhaps it was a ghost ship, traversing space instead of Earth's oceans. A restless vessel, forever seeking a port, like the Flying Dutchman.
Or the Mary Celeste.
* * * *
Scully stood to look across the water, shading her eyes with her hand. The ferry - if that was what it was - had disappeared on the other side. She could see the island through the sun haze, but it was too far to make out any details. "Did you bring binoculars, Mulder?" she asked. "I'm afraid I was in a bit of a hurry to catch the plane."
"Scully, you were at the airport nine minutes before I was, and I thought I was early", Mulder pointed out, getting to his feet and shaking the droplets off his hands. "Binoculars won't be much use", he added. "I didn't bring any IR ones."
"You still see it then?"
Mulder nodded. "It's still evening over there, yes."
"Well, I don't see it, so maybe I could use the binoculars and.." She broke off. "Did you say nine minutes?"
Mulder looked puzzled only for a moment. "The airport? Yeah, you were nine minutes ahead of me. Why?"
Scully shook her head. "I can't have been. I remember seeing you come in. In my rearview mirror. You were almost on my tail. Mulder, can I have a look at your watch?"
Mulder shot her a glance somewhere between amusement and confusion. "Why? You think we've lost time again, Scully?" He unfastened his watch and handed it to her. "We're looking for a sea-going vessel, not a UFO."
Scully ignored him. "Your watch is exactly nine minutes slow, Mulder. That's all there is to it. You really ought to keep better track of time." She adjusted Mulder's watch to match her own. Everything dimmed around her for a moment, and she wondered if she had finally contracted that sun-stroke..
Mulder's cell phone rang. Defying the strong winds over the airport parking lot, he answered it, pressing his other hand to his ear in order to make out the words spoken at the far end of the connection.
"Mulder?" said Skinner's voice over the line. "Is Scully with you? Thank god I caught you - you haven't left the country yet, I take it? Well, you can't. Drop everything and get your asses back here immediately." A brief pause, while the speaker remembered his manners. "Look, I'm really sorry about interrupting your vacation, but it can't be helped. Something has come up. No, I'm not going to tell you over the phone." The line went dead.
Mulder put his phone back. "That was Skinner. Looks like we'll have to postpone our trip."
Scully sighed. "Pity. I'd have loved to see Scotland."
Mulder unlocked the car they had both arrived in. "You will, Scully. I promise. There have to be enough phenomena over there to fill fifty X-Files." He grinned. "What d'you say we go after Nessie next.."
* * * *
Steel frowned. "Are you sure everything is back when it should be?"
Sapphire smiled indulgently. "It is now."
Never one to waste words - or time - Steel turned around, and vanished.
Sapphire lingered a moment, looking towards the empty pub. It was resting peacefully in the morning sunlight, as if only temporarily closed. She sighed a little. It had been such a happy place. Perhaps Mr Soames would come home to open it again.
She turned toward the empty firth, and teleported out.
And in the local pub, a vat of Red Cuillin suddenly vanished, to be replaced by a simple Tetley.
At the edge of the shining deck, The One stood ready to greet his visitors. He knew all this had to have happened before - in fact, he was aware of a slight déjà vu sensation - and yet he was almost as nervous as the two approaching Minbari. He was not about to show it, however. For this encounter, he had to appear strong and reliable.
"Don't worry", the Vorlon on his left stage-whispered. "I've taken care of everything."
For no particular reason, Valen glanced down to check that he was properly attired for the occasion. His Ranger's cloak looked just right for a holy man, a simple, austere garment, as convenient in the 13th century as it had been in the 23rd. No tell-tale ornaments. Fashion would not betray him.
Urged on by Zathras, the Minbari drew nearer. At the proper distance they paused and bowed to the impressive being who stood waiting for them, flanked by two winged, translucent creatures.
A new era had begun.
*** The End ***