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BLUE LIGHTS

A novelization of The X-Files television series

 

By Cathy Clamp

Chapter 1

U.S. Department of Transportation Technology Center

Pueblo, Colorado

March 18 - 8:21 p.m.

A sharp whistle cut through the stillness of the prairie night. He eased the throttle back, and felt 125 tons of rolling iron heel to his command. Project Director Roberto Lopez was at peace. As he and his train moved through the night, he forgot the pressures of his job, the paperwork, and the endless meetings with people he didn't like or didn't care to know. Called Bob by his many friends, he was a railroad engineer--first and always, no matter how he was employed at the moment. He knew he was lucky. His job provided for his family well, and he was able to work near the trains he loved.

As the train moved around the next curve, the headlights briefly picked out a trio of coyotes in the sagebrush, their eyes glowing red, before they disappeared into the shadows. Nights like this were meant for introspection.

He marveled at how he came to be here, moving quickly through the hierarchy of this place. He was one of the few in the management staff that came up from ground level. He started out setting ties and spreading ballast. It was hard, dirty work that made him respect the men and women around him. He became an engineer because he couldn't imagine anything else. Because he always treated everyone around him with the same dignity as he expected, people responded. He became known for having a way with people, and that skill got him promoted, over and over again, until he became the Director, the top dog.

But he missed this life, this calling, and so, when he was feeling particularly dissatisfied with his work, he would use a little of his influence to rearrange schedules so he could again sit in the driver's seat; to remind him of why he was here. Nobody minded. The other engineers just winked when his name came up on the rotation, and respectfully stepped aside for a night.

They knew.

They understood.

He pulled the cord again, for no reason, and felt a shudder as the mournful song of the rails pierced the air. The powerful engine vibrated beneath him, around him, with a life all its own. Even though he was on a track to nowhere, it still felt like the real thing. He sighed as he pulled out his radio and easily spoke the language and codes that would let the station know that everything was well and he was coming home. Like riding a bike; you never forget. He rounded the next corner and started to slow the train to come into the station.

The landscape illuminated by the headlight suddenly seemed hazy, and he blinked his eyes and rubbed them to refocus. As he opened his eyes, he gasped.

His body tensed into a coil of energy honed by years of experience. Directly ahead of him on the track were three bright lights, formed in a triangle. Another train How in the name of all that was holy did somebody get another engine onto the track? Didn't they hear that I'm on my way in? Why would they authorize another engine in this area? His hand automatically reached for the cord, blasting a warning that he was there. He knew it was a waste of time.

There was no time to get out.

No time for regret. No time for anything at all . . . except to die.

As the lights rushed toward him, his hand remained on the whistle cord, screaming his presence to the world. He didn't stand; didn't move. There was no place to go.

He wondered why he heard no other sounds, no answering whistle, no roaring engine.

The oncoming headlights seemed to have a blue tint through the haze.

His lungs became heavy. He couldn't breathe. He knew something was wrong, something familiar, something he had seen before, long ago. His mind saw visions of flames raining in a jungle, as fire, searing heat unlike anything he had ever known, erupted around him.

Just before his eyes stopped relaying signals to his brain, he saw the engine collapse in toward him, crumpling like tissue paper. Fragments of steel embedded themselves in his face and chest. He was dead long before the flames touched him, felt no pain as the flying steel slivers cut his face. His body was tossed like a rag doll against the instrument panel. When the haze cleared, he appeared to be standing, his eyes open.

His hand still grasped the cord to the now silent whistle in a death grip.

Chapter 2

FBI Headquarters
Washington, D.C.
March 24 - 10:51 a.m.

Dana Scully knocked on the unmarked door in the basement of the FBI Headquarters building. She heard a man's voice mutter, "Yeah?" in response to her knock, and she went in.

Fox Mulder was sitting, his feet on his desk, reading a thick file. He was tall and slim, with dark hair slightly longer than FBI standards. He appeared to be fresh out of college, but his looks belied his keen intelligence. He had degrees in criminal psychology from Harvard and Oxford as well as over ten years experience as a FBI field agent. He also possessed a photographic memory, and an abnormal interest in the unknown.

Scully's heels clicked on the concrete floor. She felt mildly surprised as she walked toward his desk. The office was relatively clean, by Mulder's standards.

By her standards, it was a pit.

Newspapers, files, and every imaginable book, from reference text to science fiction novels, lined the walls, covered his desk and were stacked on the floor. Today, there was actually a path through the mess. She would have to remember to comment on it.

Mulder's furniture consisted mostly of castoffs from other offices. Bookshelves, none matching, lined the walls, and were filled to overflowing. Filing cabinets had been squeezed in helter-skelter wherever they would fit. The drawers were stuffed so full that they wouldn't shut completely. His desk was of 1940's vintage.

The only completely state-of-the-art items in the room were his ergonomic desk chair, his computer and a light table for viewing photograph slides. An unframed poster hung on the wall behind his desk. It was a fuzzy photograph of a UFO, with the logo I WANT TO BELIEVE.

"Did you want to see me?" She ran fingers through her shoulder-length red hair, her blue eyes questioning.

"Yeah, sit down, Scully.", said Mulder with a grin.

She cleared off a stack of file folders from the only guest chair in the room and lightly sat down.

“What's up, Mulder? I don't like that smile." She narrowed her eyes at the grin.

"Actually, Scully, you're going to like this. Grab your six guns and pack your skis. We're going on vacation!" he said. He took his feet down off his desk and walked around to lean on the front of the desk, facing her.

"Vacation? To where?" She was suspicious. Anytime Mulder was this happy, something strange was going to happen.

"How does Colorado sound?" Mulder reached into his pocket and removed two envelopes, waving them gently in front of her.

Scully decided to just sit there, arms folded across her chest, eyebrows raised, and wait him out.

She didn't have to wait long.

"Okay, okay, just maybe there's an X-file involved." As she suspected, it was the reason for the impish grin.
The files beginning with the letter "X" were the matters the government was forced to investigate because they involved government employees or projects, but which were unexplainable at best, or at worst, explainable in a manner they didn't want to hear. Mulder considered it his duty and his calling to investigate them, and Scully was assigned to Mulder to keep him grounded in reality.

"Uh-huh" she said, imagining the worst, "And what is it this time? Bigfoot? Werewolves?"

"No, actually, a train crash. Steve Forman called me. I don't know if you’ve met him. He was in one of my Psych classes at Oxford, and was my roommate for my first semester at the Academy. He's in the FBI’s Denver Office, works on bank robberies. One of the best there is on profiling bank jobs."

"I think I've heard of him. Why did he leave Washington for Denver? Seems like a step backward,"

Mulder smiled. "Actually, that's an amusing story. He was working on the profile of a nation-wide bank ring. Several occurred in the Denver area that fit his profile, and he went undercover at one of the banks that he felt would be a target. The bank was hit, the ring caught, and he unexpectedly fell in love with one of the bank tellers. He also fell in love with Colorado. He requested a transfer to Denver, got married, and now has three kids."

"And what is it about this train crash that has the FBI involved in the first place? Aren't most railroads private?" asked Scully. She assumed that he would automatically tell her why it was an X-file.

Mulder popped a sunflower seed into his mouth. "Normally, yes. But the site where the accident occurred is a Department of Transportation testing facility of some sort. Although the people that work there are employees of the private contractor, the DOT Project Director of the site, who was an engineer himself, happened to have been taking a joyride the night the collision occurred." He leaned over slightly to spit the twin sunflower husks into the waste basket.

Scully nodded her head, urging him to continue. She wondered how he managed to shell the sunflower seeds inside his mouth like that---especially while talking. She had watched carefully several times recently, and had never seen him actually bite or tongue the shell to open it.

"It seems that the County Sheriff who investigated the accident couldn't determine what the train crashed into. The front of the engine was apparently smashed into scrap metal, but they couldn't find any evidence of another participant to the accident, either a train or car, or an animal. The interior of the engine cab was scorched, and the engineer, who died, was badly burned. They suspected a bomb of some sort, and called the Denver branch in."

"So, how do we fit in?" asked Scully, becoming interested for the first time. Scully was a scientist. The unknown excited her as much as Mulder, but she could not accept the unexplainable. Where Mulder was content to see UFOs and government conspiracies, Scully needed hard scientific evidence. Unfortunately, she had come to find that when she investigated cases with Mulder, often science wouldn't. . .or couldn't, be bent to explain the realities she saw with her own eyes.

Mulder had a serious expression on his face now, as he did every time he began to warm to a subject. "Funny you should ask. I asked Steve the same question. He said that the whole case seemed "spooky" to him, and he thought I should definitely be involved."

Scully winced, knowing Mulder's dislike of the derogatory nickname, "Spooky", that was used behind his back.

"Maybe you weren't aware of it," continued Mulder, "But it was Steve who first gave me the nickname 'Spooky' at the Academy. It was just a friendly joke between us, and I've never minded him calling me that, but then other people started using it in a somewhat less than friendly manner---" he said, his eyes narrowing darkly, then clearing, like a cloud passing across the sun.

"But that's beside the point. The Denver office isn't very big, and everybody pitches in when they're busy. Steve was one of the agents assigned to investigate the accident. He said the interior of the cab was toast, but there were no flame marks on the outside of the engine compartment, which is why they suspected a bomb. The only problem is, they did tests on all the major surfaces of the cab interior, and guess what they didn't find?" Mulder asked.

He waited expectantly.

"Okay, I'll bite, what didn't they find?" said Scully.

"They didn't find any nitrates. None at all. Not even in the nanogram range." said Mulder with a grin.

"No nitrates? But that's not possible. Nearly every explosion leaves behind nitrates as residual." Scully's scientific mind started turning, thinking of any scenario where the rule wouldn't apply. She shrugged. "Were there any traces of chlorides? I can't think of any other type of bomb that wouldn't leave traces of nitrates."

"Nope. But listen, that's only the beginning, Scully. The County coroner that examined the body of the engineer found some strange things, too. Whatever destroyed the front end of a 250,000 pound diesel electric engine did not kill the engineer. The trauma caused by the collision occurred after his heart stopped beating." said Mulder, eyebrows raised, waiting for Scully to bite on the bait.

"Well, he probably died of smoke inhalation from the fire." replied Scully, who was a medical doctor, specializing in forensic pathology, with an additional degree in physics.

"Nope, nice try, though. You get an 'A' for effort. The coroner didn't find any smoke in the lungs, suggesting that the lungs also had ceased to function before the fire started."

"Heart attack?" suggested Scully.

"Nope."

"Brain aneurysm?"

"Good thought, but no. The coroner already thought of those." said Mulder.

Scully was becoming annoyed with his infuriating grin. "Okay, then, what killed the engineer?" she finally asked, exasperated.

"I don't know. That's what we're going there to find out." Mulder replied, tossing another seed into his mouth.

Chapter 3

Denver International Airport

Denver, Colorado
March 25 - 2:14 p.m.

 

            As Mulder and Scully exited the plane, they got their first look at the new international airport that had been a subject of much debate in Washington.  The multi-colored marble floor tiles gleamed in the natural lighting from the fabric tent roof.  As they walked toward the escalators to the baggage area, Scully was drawn toward a wall of windows that opened onto the prairie. 

            The afternoon sun glinted off the snowcapped mountains in the distance.  Mulder joined her as they gazed at the scene.  The sky was a perfect azure blue, and a breeze moved gently through the grass, leaving patterns of shadows as it passed.  As they looked, small, dark dots appeared in the distance.  They quickly moved closer, twisting and turning like a flock of birds in flight, the dust becoming a cloud behind them.

 

             Mulder's jaw dropped as he recognized them.  "Are those what I think they are?" he asked in awe.

             "They look like . . ." replied Scully, eyes wide.

             "Buffalo", came a voice from behind them.

             They turned to see a tall man in a dark blue jacket, with a tag identifying him as an airport employee.  He had a thick shock of natural dark hair, his fine features beaming with a congenial smile.

              "Technically, bison", he said.  "Beautiful, aren't they?"

              Scully spoke first.  "Do they raise them here, or are they wild?"

              "Both.  They're a raised herd, but they are wild.  The owners have leased the land around the airport for grazing the bison.  It's part of an experimental project to see if the original prairie can be reclaimed." he explained.

               "How would buffalo... I mean, bison, figure into reclamation of the prairie?" asked Mulder.

               "Actually, bison are a very important part of the total ecosystem of the prairie.  The bison eat grasses and flowers and distribute the seeds to new location in their manure.  The manure also fertilizes growing plants.  Their hooves are very sharp and hard as iron.  As they run, they plow the prairie floor, allowing seeds to move below the surface soil to grow." he explained.

                Mulder pursed his lips, eyebrows raised.  "I didn't know that," he said.

               "We're fortunate that the local colleges have maintained seed banks of original native prairie plants, which they have been raising into seedlings and transplanting out here.  They're trying to see if reintroducing bison to the area can return this area to its former state.  If it works here, they will try it in other places where overgrazing has allowed sagebrush and yucca to take over.  Given the chance, the prairie can recover by itself.  It's just a shame that we couldn't see it earlier," he sighed, shaking his head, "But it's a good thing we caught on before it was too late."

               They watched the scene for a moment longer.  "Where are you folks headed?" he asked.

               "Pueblo", Mulder replied.

              "Well, you picked a good time of year, they're having great weather down there.  Ever been there before?" he said.

              "No, what type of weather can we expect?" asked Scully.

              "Well, for Colorado in general, and especially in Pueblo, the rule of thumb is, wear a short sleeve T-shirt and a down coat." he said with a chuckle.  "Pueblo is about two hours due south of here.  It's considered high plains desert.  The climate is close to that of New Mexico or Arizona, with a few eccentricities."

             "Does the weather change that dramatically?" Scully asked.

             "Oh, yes, Ma'am.  It can be 75 degrees at 10:00 in the morning and be 20 degrees by 3:00 p.m."  he said.  "It's best to plan ahead and wear layers that you can take off or put on at a moment's notice."

             "What about skiing?" Scully asked.

             "Well, obviously, there are no mountains in Pueblo." he said.  Scully glared daggers at Mulder, wondering what she was going to do with her skis.  Well, I can always wrap them around his neck, she thought evilly.

             "But", he went on, "the southern mountains have really been getting dumped on with snow this season.  There are ski areas in the southern range where the skiing is as good or better than Vail or Aspen."

             Mulder let out a slow breath, probably a sigh of relief.

             "Well, you folks have a good trip.  If you need anything while you're here at the airport, or on your way back, let me know.  My name's Tom Corsentino, and I'll be pleased to help you out." 

            He reached out his hand, and shook both Mulder's and Scully's.  His handshake would have made his public relations instructor proud.  He had quickly sized up both Mulder and Scully, and, despite the size of his hand, which was enormous by any standards.  He precisely measured his grip to give the impression that each person was dealing with a friend, and an equal.

              "You're a great tour guide." said Mulder, "they should have you meet all the planes."

              "Pleased to have been of service", he said as he turned and walked away.

               Mulder and Scully moved to the baggage claim area and retrieved their luggage.  Scully clumsily juggled her skis and luggage.  Mulder, still feeling guilty about the prospects for skiing, relieved her of her bags and carried them to the next concourse.

             "Tell me a little more about Steve Forman.  What kind of man is he?" asked Scully, as they walked toward the ticket counter.

             "When I roomed with him, he was the definitive preppie.  He came from an upstanding New England family.  Very old money.  Very straight-laced.  Very prim and proper.  He was perfect for the FBI.  The ideal agent.  I drove him nuts!" said Mulder with a smirk.

             Scully could imagine how that would happen.  Mulder wouldn't be the easiest person to live with.  He wasn't the easiest person to work with.

            "I hope you have a chance to meet Ginny while we're here," said Mulder.

            "And Ginny is . . .?" asked Scully.

            "Ginny is Steve's wife, the bank teller," responded Mulder.  "She's a riot!  They're the original odd couple.  While Steve is dignified old money, Ginny--born Virginia Mae--is the quizessential flamboyant cowgirl.  She's into cold beer, fringed shirts, and rodeos.  She doesn't watch, she participates.  And country/western music.  When I knew Steve, his loves were classical music, vintage wine, polo and starched everything.  To give you an idea, Scully, Steve irons sheets."

            Scully looked at him sideways as they checked their bags for the commuter plane to Pueblo.  "That's a little obsessive," she said.  Scully was a bit of a neat-freak herself, but even she could tolerate minor disorder.

            "Steve is obsessive!  He moves the furniture every week to vacuum under it, and you can eat off the kitchen floor.  Ginny thinks nothing of mucking out the corral and then walking across the living room rug in her boots to get a drink from the kitchen."  Mulder was almost laughing now.

            Scully winced as she imagined someone walking across her own carpet in manure-covered boots.  "How long have they been together?  The must have come to some sort of truce if they have three kids." commented Scully.

            "Oh, they made a truce all right.  Steve designed and built their home so that Ginny has to come through a mud room before she can set foot inside.  There's only one entrance to the house.  No back door.  She takes off her boots and washes up, and then comes in.  And, in return, he's learned to live with a certain . . . rustic clutter.  Honestly, though, you can't help but like Ginny.  She has a zest for life.  She's drop-dead gorgeous, and she's incredibly intelligent, probably more so than both of us combined," said Mulder.  "Her I.Q.'s in the 170 range . . ."

            Scully raised her eyebrows.

            "But she's not at all pretentious.  She has a great sense of humor, loves a good party, and she's so annoyingly cheerful that she makes Hare Krishnas look sad by comparison."

            Scully uttered a short chuckle.  "She sounds like she's one of a kind, all right."

            "She is," said Mulder.  "That's why Steve's kept her.  He told me that the streets are safer that way."

            They heard the loudspeaker call their flight, and they moved toward the gate.  Their footsteps echoed in the covered walkway as they entered the small plane.

            As they took off in the commuter plane to Pueblo, Scully looked out the window, and gazed again at the spectacular mountain range.  She wondered why she had never come here before, and understood why Steve Forman would leave Washington to stay.  She reluctantly turned her gaze from the scenery back to the open file folder on her lap, and began to review again the statements of the two eye witnesses.

 

 

Chapter 4

 

;U.S. Department of Transportation Technology Center

Pueblo, Colorado

March 18 - 11:20 p.m.

 

            Toby Granger and Kim Delaney sat in the foreman's office, looking worried.  They knew they had reason to be, since this incident could end their careers.

            "Okay, just one more time, what exactly did you see and hear after you saw the engine stopped on the track?" asked the foreman.

            Toby began.  "Like we told you, we were taking readings on the instrumentation on the south side of the FAST Track.  The calibrations on the chromium rail section had come back skewed, and Roger wanted to get a new reading for the same 24 hour period so his month end report to the client wouldn't be off."

            "And I went with Toby, 'cause it's hard to hold a flashlight and write measurements down on the chart." Kim added.

            "So where were you two in relation to the location of the train?" asked Maurice "Mo" Baker, the night foreman.

            Toby sighed and rubbed his brown eyes.  "The train was on the north side of the loop, at about mile 2.5.  We were on the south side of the loop, directly across from the train.  But Mo, it was pitch dark out, and I couldn't see the train except for the headlight.  That's how we knew that it had stopped moving."

            "So, you didn't see a fire?" asked Mo.

            "No." said Toby.

            "Kim?" he asked, turning to his left.

            "Nothing, Mo, I swear.  It was dark, and we would have been able to see a fire a mile away.  We were less than a quarter mile from the train", replied Kim, standing up briefly and stretching her back.  It had been a long night.  Her short straw-colored hair  hung loosely around her face.  Her deep green eyes were bloodshot and half-closed.

            "What did you see when you approached the train?" asked Mo.

            "Well, before that, we tried to raise Bob on the radio, to see if anything was wrong.  We didn't think we needed to walk all the way over there if he was just taking a whiz.  He didn't answer, so we called dispatch to see what was up.  Dispatch reported that Bob had checked in just a few minutes before and was on his way in.  That's when we decided to walk over." replied Toby.

            Kim nodded, but furrowed her brow and added a new element to the story, "But I remember something else.  The engine was shut down.  I didn't think about it at first, but it was utterly still out there."  Toby looked at her, remembering, and nodded.  "You're right.  You could even hear the wind blow.  Normally, there's the background noise of the engine, but you ignore that after a while, you know?"  said Toby. 

            Mo nodded. 

            Kim continued. "That was about when we saw . . ." she stopped.

            Mo leaned forward on his arms.  "Saw what?" he asked.

            Toby and Kim looked at each other briefly.  "Nothing, just a couple of coyotes coming from that direction," she said, hesitantly.

            Mo could tell they were holding something back.  In his report later, he stated that Toby and Kim exhibited symptoms of nervousness, trembling hands, and stuttering.  Some of that could be attributed to what they saw when they arrived at the engine. Seeing Director Lopez there, horribly burned, the cab scorched, and the front end crumpled like aluminum foil made his own stomach turn.  He remembered their anguished cries for help over the radio, and wished that he didn't have to subject them to this grilling.  It was his job, though.

            "Well, I guess you know what's next." said Mo.

            "Ahh, Mo, we weren't involved in the accident.  Do we have to take a drug screen?" asked Kim.  She didn't smoke pot often, but she was at a party recently, and took a toke.  She was scared.  She could lose her job, her pension, everything she owned, if the screen came back positive.

            "Sorry, Kim, Toby, you know the rules.  The DOT is insistent that even observers have to take a urine screen when it involves a fatality.  Might as well get it over with.  The results normally would be back from the lab tomorrow, but the last batch I sent in got delayed for almost a week.  Since neither of you are on rotation for equipment operation, you can go back to work right afterward," Mo stated, handing each of them a plastic cup.  "Kim, since there aren't any other females on shift tonight, I'll stand just inside the bathroom door to give you some privacy."

            "Gee, thanks." Kim replied sarcastically.  "I'm touched."

            After the samples were sealed and labeled, Mo put them in the package to send to the lab and started to fill out the paperwork that would accompany the report to his superiors.  Stupid procedure, he thought, but I could get written up if I don't do it, and I don't need the hassle with everything else going on.

            People slowly started to drift over from the Warehouse and Operations as the ambulance arrived.  Everybody had heard the tortured voices of the first people on the scene over the radio, and didn't really want to see.  But, as always, morbid curiosity took over, and the site ground to a halt as people left their desks to come over the pay silent tribute to one of their own.  They would see to it that the flags were flown at half mast tomorrow, even if it wasn't entirely proper.  Their leader, their friend, Project Director Roberto Manuel Lopez, deserved that much.

 

 

 

Chapter 5

 

East of Pueblo, Colorado

March 25 - 4:00 p.m.

 

             Mulder took off his sunglasses as he bent over to look eye to  eye with the bull.  Only a four-strand barbed wire fence separated them.  The bull had found Mulder interesting.  It had trotted up to the fence, and was now snorting the air close to him.  It backed away suddenly, shaking its head.  Its horns, as long as a man's arm, sliced the air.

            "I don't think he likes your cologne, Agent Mulder.", laughed Mitchell Davies.

            "That's okay, I don't like his, either." responded Mulder, chuckling.  He had never seen a longhorn bull at close range before.  "I feel like I'm trapped in an episode of 'Rawhide'", said Mulder, laughing now, as well.

            "How so?" asked Mitchell leaning back on the government service vehicle, arms crossed.

            "Well, first I see buffalo roaming at the airport in Denver, and now a herd of longhorn cattle grazing on the prairie.  I'm waiting for a rattlesnake to spook the truck." he joked.

            "Ha!  Well, as mean as the snakes are out here, it wouldn't  surprise me.  But I think that the snake will come out the loser in that contest."  responded Mitchell.  "Well, you about ready, Agent Mulder?" he asked, putting his sunglasses back on.

            "Drop the Agent, and just call me Mulder." he said.

            "Well, just call me Mitch, then.  Come on, we'd better get moving.  We'll be lucky to get to the Track before everybody leaves as it is."

            They got back in the truck, and drove the remaining miles to the Test Center.  Scully was on her way to the hospital to meet with the County Coroner and perform an autopsy on the body of the engineer.  Mitchell Davies had met them at the hotel after they checked in, and offered to drive Mulder to the site, leaving the rental car for Scully. 

            Mulder had initially found the landscape boring and somewhat depressing.  As they drove, however, he became aware that the landscape was teeming with life.  He looked forward to turning each new corner.  Already, in the first few miles, he had seen the cattle, and a lone mule deer buck, grazing on sagebrush.

            "Out of curiosity, do longhorn cattle have any market value?" asked Mulder.  "They're big, but they don't look like they have much meat."

            "Well, to be honest, I'm not a cattle man.  I know that they're extremely resistant to weather and drought conditions.  That's why they became popular in the West in the first place.  I don't really know about the marketability of them, but the owners seem to like them." he concluded.

            "Tell me, Mitch, what exactly is it you do out here?" asked Mulder after a few minutes.

            "Well, quite a few things, actually.  The main business of the Test Track--most people call it either the Test Track or the TTC, by the way.  'The U.S. Department of Transportation Technology Center and Facility for Accelerated Service Testing' just doesn't really roll off the tongue." he said. 

            Mulder chuckled. 

            "We mostly test railroad components and experimental vehicles, such as electric passenger cars.  The F.A.S.T. Track is a 4.86 mile closed loop of track, sort of like a large-scale train set.  The FAST Track is composed of sections of experimental railroad components.  One section may have rail with a high chromium content with wood ties and standard ballast.  Another section may have standard composition rail, but have concrete ties or oil shale ballast, etc.  The purpose is to give the railroad companies a way to load test specific components to determine whether they will stand up to years of actual service." Mitch explained.

            "Why don't they just tear up a section of track and test it on real lines?" asked Mulder.

            "That's what they did for many years.  The problem with testing, say...concrete ties, that way, is that on a standard rail line, the test section of track may only be used twice a day.  It would take up to ten years to find out whether the ties will hold up."

            "Uh, Mitch," interrupted Mulder, bracing his palm against the roof of the truck, his teeth gritted to prevent him from biting his own tongue, "Don't these Government trucks come equipped with shocks?"

            "Sorry for the ride, Mulder, but it's not the truck, it's the road.  Lots of bentonite in the soil out here.  They can't keep the road smooth.  Don't worry, though, it'll get worse before it gets better," Mitch replied, laughing.

            The truck leaned into a corner, as the right side, where Mulder sat, dropped into a particularly nasty dip.  "I'm somehow not comforted by that," said Mulder, tightening his seatbelt another notch.

            "Anyway, as I was saying, if the components do hold up after the testing, they wasted ten years that they could have had the ties in service.  If they don't work, then they have to tear up that section of track again, reroute all the traffic while they do the construction, and replace them again with wood ties.  It's very inefficient.  The Test Track was designed for that very purpose.  Think about it. . . Facility for Accelerated Service Testing.  The FAST train travels the loop 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year, stopping only for refueling, restaffing and maintenance.  The same results that would take ten years in the real world, only takes one year out here."  Mitchell went on.

            Mulder whistled softly.  "That's a pretty dramatic difference, all right.  Who orders these tests?"

            "Nearly everybody in the industry, at one time or another.  The Association of American Railroads manages the site.  Most all of the major railroad companies, through the AAR, will test new train components, and various vendor companies will test new materials before they try to market them to the industry.  A product is worthless if it doesn't stand up in real time.  Remember, many of the major railroad lines are only serviced every 10-20 years.  A company can go bankrupt in a hurry if their product only lasts five.  Plus, several major safety components have come from tests at the Track." said Mitch.

            "Such as?" queried Mulder.  They reached the top of a rise, and Mulder could see large brown and white buildings in the distance, rising from the prairie floor.  We got here quicker than I thought, thought Mulder.  He was wrong.  The truck turned away from the view of the buildings, and headed further east.  The view was deceptive.  They would not arrive for many more bone-jarring miles.

            "Well, one of our big achievements was the double shelf coupler.  Are you familiar with train wrecks at all?" asked Mitch.

            "Not really, no.  Not more than I read in the newspapers." replied Mulder, wincing as his head slammed into the window.  Mulder couldn't imagine how this ride couldn't bother Mitch.  He must be immune . . . or nuts, thought Mulder.

            "Well, in an actual collision, not just a derailment, mind you, the most serious damage to the train is from the couplers.  When a train stops suddenly, as in a collision, the cars, up to 60 of them, don't want to stop.  They buck and jerk and try to upend each other, looking for the space they need to stop.  Think of an accordion.  While the accordion is open, the membrane is straight, like a train."  "When you push one end towards the other,", he said, moving his hands together, briefly steering with his knee, "the membrane pleats."

            Mitch suddenly gripped the steering wheel and swerved to the right, narrowly avoiding hitting a large tortoise crossing the road.  A bright splotch of blue paint on the roadway testified that this must be a common route for the tortoise.  Other cars apparently had just missed hitting the slow, bulky reptile, as well.

            "The same holds true with railcars," Mitch went on,  "the accordion fold effect causes a great deal of stress at the coupling, as the cars try to fold together at the weakest point.  If the coupling breaks free at the top of the fold, the stress is relieved, but the coupling, being hard steel, will likely puncture the car in front or behind it.  It's not a big deal if the car in front is a coal car, but is extremely hazardous if it's a tanker of flammable gas."

            "So, how is the double-shelf coupler different?" Mulder asked.  Mitch had stopped the truck to allow a small herd of antelope to cross in front of them.  They smoothly bounded over the wire fence.  Mulder watched them in awe, counting three males and seven females.  He gratefully took the opportunity to readjust his seating and take a sip from his soda.  He was glad it had a lid and a straw.

            "Well, first of all, a shelf is a steel plate that is a barrier over the top of the coupling," said Mitch, shifting into drive again, as though stopping for antelope was a common occurrence.  "It prevents ice and snow build-up around the coupling, and prevents the coupling from bouncing and accidentally slipping free if the car hits a bump or dip in the rail.  The double-shelf coupler has a second steel plate, or shelf, above the regular shelf, made of high density steel that allows for a greater impact before it breaks apart.  The second shelf allows the railcars greater movement to expend energy, so that no secondary damage occurs." concluded Mitch.

            "Were the railcars attached to the train involved in the accident equipped with double-shelf couplers?" asked Mulder.

            "Yes, they were.  Most all of the cars at the Track have double-shelf couplers." said Mitch.

            As they rounded the last bend, Mulder could see the buildings again.  They crossed a bridge over a gully, and made the final turn into the Test Track.  A sign announced a welcome from the Department of Transportation and Association of American Railroads.

            "What evidence would exist that a collision occurred if you examined the couplers?" asked Mulder.

            The guard at the gate, recognizing the truck, lifted the gate and waved them through without slowing.  They traveled on, making a left turn at the next intersection, heading West to the FAST Track.

            "Well, in an accident such as this one, the first shelf of the coupler would probably be destroyed entirely.  The second shelf would have stress cracks and physical scratches into the steel.  Possibly, the second shelf might even be bent if the railcars raised high enough in the air.  There were only eight cars on the train, but they were fully loaded." said Mitch.

            "Were the couplers examined? And, if so, did they show the type of damage you described?" continued Mulder.

            "No, actually, the engine itself was pretty conclusive evidence to our investigators that an accident occurred.  The couplers on the cars weren't examined at all.  The cars have been moved, by the way, but the engine is still right where it was damaged.  We had to call in the big hook, and it has to come out of Denver." said Mitch.

            "The big hook?" Mulder asked.

            "The big hook is railroad terminology for a large crane, called a ringer, that will lift a severely damaged engine off the track, or out of a field in the case of a derailment.  The wheels will be removed, and the car will be loaded onto a specially reinforced tractor trailer." he explained.  "By the way," he continued, "I think the FBI guys out of Denver are out here again today, finishing up their investigation.  I understand that they called you in because they're stumped.  That right?" he asked.

            "Let's just say that I have a reputation for being called in when there's a question about the reality of a situation." Mulder said, smiling.

            Mitch looked at him quizzically, but said nothing.

                                                                         *  *  *

            Scully arrived at the hospital, after having contacted the coroner's office and learning that the coroner was the resident physician at the hospital that day.  She went to the information counter, and, pulling her badge from her pocket, said "Good morning, sir, my name is Special Agent Dana Scully of the FBI.  I'm here to see Dr. David Angeletti.  Could you tell me where I could find him?"

            The clerk at the information counter appeared startled.  He was probably a volunteer, about 68, with white hair and a mustache.  He apparently wasn't accustomed to FBI agents appearing and asking to speak to one of the doctors.  Scully thought it best to put the man at ease.  She put on her warmest smile, and said gently, "It's all right, I just need to get his opinion about a case we're working on."

            The clerk smiled and seemed relieved.  He said, "He's on duty in the Emergency Room today.  If you take the hallway to my left, and take the first left, you'll run right into it.  The nurse can page the Doctor for you.  I hope you find the answers you're looking for."

            "Thank you, sir.  I hope I do, too." Scully replied. 

            She followed the clerk's instructions and walked into the emergency room waiting area.  Several people sat in the pleasantly bright and airy room, either waiting to be treated or hoping for word on an injured loved one.  She went up to the admission counter and repeated who she was to the nurse on duty.  The nurse asked to inspect her badge, and looked at it more carefully than most people did.  She didn't appear concerned that an FBI agent was asking for the doctor, but wanted to make sure that Scully really was FBI before she gave out the information.  The nurse also asked to see her driver's license.  Scully approved.  Most people didn't take the time to be sure of who they were talking to.  Too many people gave valuable and, occasionally, dangerous, information to anybody that flashed the semblance of a badge.  When the nurse was satisfied that Scully was who she claimed to be, she paged the doctor.  Scully sat down in one of the chairs, and pulled out her file, familiarizing herself with the coroner's report.

            A handsome man in his early 60's, wearing a white lab coat, came down the hall and stopped at the nurse's station.  He spoke to the nurse briefly, who pointed to Scully.  The man strode over to where Scully was seated, and, offering his hand, said "Agent Scully?  I'm Dr. Angeletti, the County Coroner.  How can I help you?"

            "I was hoping you had several minutes to speak with me regarding your report on the death of the Project Director at the DOT site, Roberto Lopez." Scully said.

            "Well, I can spare a few minutes, but it's Friday night and it's nearly dark.  The place will probably start hopping soon.  Let's grab a cup of coffee in the cafeteria." he said, smiling.

            They walked toward the stairs, the Doctor's long strides forcing Scully to double step to keep up.  "What do you hope to find by examining the body again?" asked the Doctor.

            "Well . . . " began Scully, feeling uncomfortable.

            "Agent Scully, you don't need to be concerned about stepping on my toes." said the Doctor, as they walked down the stairs to the cafeteria.  "I had thought that I did a thorough investigation into the cause of death, but came up with nothing.  Obviously, I missed something.  Nobody dies for no reason.  I'm not offended that they've sent someone to follow up.  I wish I had the time in my schedule to investigate the case more thoroughly myself.  I'll be happy to answer any questions I can in the time that I have." he said.

            Scully felt relieved.  In investigations of this sort, it was quite common for the local coroner or doctor to feel threatened by her presence, seeing her as an unwanted intruder, especially due to her age, and occasionally, because she was a woman.

            They poured cups of coffee for themselves, his black, her's with cream, no sugar.  "I presume that you have a background in forensics if they've sent you, Agent Scully,", he said with a smile, "or did you just wake up this morning and say 'Hey! I think I'll do an autopsy today'?"

            "My residency was in forensic pathology," she replied with a chuckle.  "Hey, dead people are my life.  And call me Dana."  She was beginning to like Dr. Angeletti.

            The Doctor laughed easily.  "I know what you mean.  We're a strange breed, we coroners.  I became a coroner because I always wanted to know 'why', but, too often, you start to forget 'who'.  You lose all emotion for life.  So, I started to do double duty as an on-call doctor in the emergency room.  It helps keep me grounded."  said the Doctor, "And I'll only call you Dana if you call me David." he said.

            "Okay, David" she said, "Since we're short on time, I've read your report, and it seems that you checked everything that I would have.  Your report indicated that the subject was in good health generally, although slightly overweight.  There was no evidence of myocardial infarction, but his heart stopped prior to the collision.  He had second degree burns over ninety percent of his body, but there was no evidence of smoke present in his lungs.  Did you check for carbon monoxide in his blood?" she asked.

            "Yes, we did.  There was none present.  I'm surprised that the lab work wasn't in your file.  We did a standard intoxicant screen of the urine and blood as a matter of course.  There was no alcohol present and, because of the nature of his death, I ran a screen for a variety of drugs, including narcotic and poisonous.  None were found.  The body was in a condition such that I could not determine the presence of any needle marks.  But there was a high level of adrenaline found in the blood, so whatever happened to him, he saw it coming.  I also took tissue samples, all of which came back normal.  I'll let you look over my file, just in case other things are missing from yours.  You probably didn't get copies of the long bone x-rays either,"  he said, looking at his watch.  "I'd better get going.  They'll be looking for me soon, if they aren't already.  I can arrange for a autopsy room and scrubs, if you like." he said.

            Scully nodded.  "I'd appreciate that.  Oh, before I forget, did you draw any tissue or fluid from the spine?"

            "Actually, no, I didn't.  It didn't seem necessary, but you're welcome to.  I'll have the lab people at your disposal while you're here.  I'll be on shift in ER until about midnight, if you need anything.  If you want a break around eight o'clock, we can have dinner, and go over what you've found." he said, standing up.  "Check with the morgue, and they'll set you up with a room.  I'll call ahead."

            "I'm not sure how long I'll be," said Scully, standing up also, and picking up her case.  "If I'm still here around eight, I'll probably need dinner, so I accept gratefully." she said, grinning.  "You buying?"

            "On a coroner's salary?  You're joking." he said with a snort.  "Oh, well, maybe I'll make an exception in your case.  Good luck."

            Scully watched him stride out, and was sorry that he wasn't 20 years younger.  He would make an interesting person to spend time with.  Not that she had time to spend with anyone; she spent most of her time with Mulder.

                                                                         *  *  *

            The setting sun shone brightly through the windshield, nearly blinding them, even with sunglasses.  They had arrived at the FAST Track, and Mulder was getting his first glimpse of the accident scene.  As Mitch had stated, the damaged engine was on the track, surrounded by people.  About 40 feet to the left of the track, workers were constructing a large wooden platform on the sand.

            "What are those men doing?" asked Mulder.

            "They're from the crane company out of Denver.  They're constructing a platform for the crane to sit on." replied Mitch.

            "Why?" asked Mulder.

            "Because of the sandy soil and burrowing animals that live out here, the ringer crane won't be able to get a solid footing once it has the engine on the load line and it could tip over.  Even though there are no obstructions between the crane and the engine, because of the weight of the load, the crane must have a stable base.  So, the company builds a solid platform of timbers big enough for the ringer and the outriggers to sit on." Mitch replied.

            They stopped the truck and got out.  Mulder saw men in suits like his climbing in and around the engine, one of which he recognized.

            "Steve!" Mulder yelled over the hammering, cupping his mouth.  He raised his hand and waived, smiling, as he walked closer.

            "Hey!  Mulder!" shouted a sandy-haired man with a beard and mustache.  "About time you got here!  What happened, you get lost without a subway to guide you?" Steve Forman joked, climbing down off the engine and walking toward Mulder, hand outstretched.

            "You mean there's no subway?" Mulder replied, looking confused.  "How did I get here then?"  

            They both laughed.  They shook hands and clapped each other on the shoulder.

            "How you doin', man?" asked Steve.

            "Not bad.  Thanks for the invite.  I haven't been skiing in ages." said Mulder, grinning.

            Steve snorted.  "You assume that you'll have time to ski.  I called you in for a reason, you know.  This one is weird, Mulder.  We've spent way more time than we planned to on this case, and still have nothing."

            "Well then, why don't you bring me up to date and let's get started." said Mulder.

            "Okay, as you can see, the front end of the engine is, literally, gone." said Steve, and they walked around the engine.

            Steve was right, the engine looked as though it had crashed into a brick wall, the hardened steel flattened and crumpled like a wadded piece of paper.  They climbed into the engine cab from the back, since the front stairway was destroyed, and Mulder looked around. 

            The engine had an oppressive feel.  The interior of the cab was scorched, as though a raging fire had occurred, but briefly.  Mulder had a strong fear of fire.  He couldn't imagine any worse way to die.  He got an sudden chill down his spine as he took in the scene.  Most of the instruments had broken free from the console during the collision.  The glass in the windshield and windows was blackened and cracked.  The edges of the leather engineer's chair was dried and split, but the seat appeared to be undamaged.  The engineer must have been sitting down when the fire occurred, thought Mulder. 

            "Has any of the lab work come back yet?" he asked Steve.  He could tell where samples of materials had been taken by Steve's team.

            "Not yet, but we're expecting it any time.  They're supposed to call as soon as the results are back.  That's what we're waiting around for.  If any of the samples are bad, we can get new ones before they remove the engine in the morning." said Steve.

            "Have you found anything that would explain the fire?" asked Mulder, still poking around in the cab.  "I saw your report, that no nitrates were found.  Is there evidence of an electrical fire?"

            "Nothing, I'm afraid.  We've been through the access panel in here, and can't find any evidence that there was a fire inside the engine.  The blast, or whatever it was, seems to be centered here.  We can't find any evidence of an accelerant, nor any location where the fire originated.  It seems to have started all over at the same time." answered Steve.  He couldn't imagine any more horrible way to die.

            "Could there have been an outside source of the fire, such as a flame thrower?" asked Mulder.

            "Not that we can determine.  We thought of that too, but there would be some hydrocarbon residue around one of the windows or doors, if that was the case." replied Steve.   

            Mulder nodded.  "So, are you saying that the fire is independent of the damage to the front end?" he asked.

            "It's not what I want to say, Mulder, but I have no choice but to say it.  We can't find any connection between the two." said Steve, looking chagrined.

            "What about evidence of whatever the engine hit?" said Mulder.

            "Nothing," said Steve.  "There should be some evidence of some other material not from the engine around the scene, but there's not.  Nor would there have been time for somebody to remove all the evidence, since there were eye witnesses."

            "What about the eye witnesses?  The information they gave in the initial interview was pretty sketchy.  Have you gotten any more out of them?" asked Mulder.

            "They're holding back something, but I don't know what.  We've interviewed them both together and separately.  I believe they're being honest in what they're telling us, but I don't think they're telling us everything.  I was kind of hoping that you would have a go at them, since you're the psych specialist." said Steve.

            "Psych, or psycho?" laughed Mulder.

            "Either or both, depending on whether we're talking about you or the rest of the world." Steve replied, teasingly.

            Just then, another man with a cellular phone walked up to Steve.

            "Steve, the lab boys are on the phone.  They've got something weird, and want a second sample.  Here, you talk with them." he said, handing Steve the phone through the window of the cab.

            "Thanks, Jeff.  This is Steve, what've you got?" he said into the phone.  He listened for a time, frowning slightly.  "Well, I guess we can get another sample.  What was the sample number?" he asked.  "Jeff," he said, turning to the other agent, "cross-check samples C-24 and C-30.  Where were those taken?" Steve asked.  Jeff checked a pocket notebook.  "C-24 was in the cab, in the canvas headliner.  C-30 was the leather seat, in the unscorched section." replied Jeff.

            "Well, go get another sample ready and have Jerry run it up to Colorado Springs." ordered Steve.  He thanked the man on the phone and shut it off, handing the phone back to Jeff.

            "Well, what was that all about?" asked Mulder, climbing down out of the cab.

            "The lab results came back, but two of the samples must have been contaminated, so we're getting new samples to take up to the lab." replied Steve.

            "Why do you assume the samples were bad?  What did the lab find?" asked Mulder.

            "In two of the samples, both taken from organic material, the lab found evidence of an unknown protein, and traces of platinum." said Steve, sounding puzzled.  "They must have been contaminated." he said.

            "An unknown protein?" asked Mulder.  "What kind of protein is there that isn't known?"

            "Good question, and right in your area of expertise." said Steve.  "What kind of proteins aren't known that you're aware of?"

            "And platinum?!?" continued Mulder, mostly to himself.  He looked up.  "Did any of your agents have a ring or other jewelry that is made of platinum?  Did the lab give you a percentage in the sample?" he asked.

            "No, he didn't give me a percentage, and as for jewelry, I'll have to check around.  Not everybody that was there that day is here now."  "I'll have to get back to you on that."

            Mulder had reached into his pocket and taken out his cellular phone.  He dialed a number he knew by heart, and waited for an answer.

                                                                         *  *  *

            Scully had donned green hospital scrubs, gloves, and eye goggles.  She was thankful that the hospital used the type of gloves without powder inside.  The powdered type were easier to get on and off, but were murder on her hands, since the powder removed all the essential oils from her skin.

            She had asked for, and received, an autopsy room that rivaled her own in Washington.  She felt herself blush furiously as she realized that she was surprised the equipment was modern.  She supposed that she had a common Easterner prejudice of the Western states.  Of course the equipment was modern, she told herself crossly.  What had she expected, leather doctor's bags and leeches like on the television show about the woman doctor in the frontier?  She would have to work on her attitude.

            The autopsy room included recording equipment.  She usually taped autopsies as she performed them, so she could replay the tapes while writing her report.  The morgue attendants had brought in the body of Director Lopez and had placed it on the table.  Scully checked over the tray of instruments to make sure everything was in place before she began.  She had performed many autopsies before, having taught forensic medicine briefly at the FBI Academy in Quantico.  She reached overhead and turned on the microphone as she folded back the white sheet from the body.

            While she was not startled at the state of the body, it always took a moment to clinically detach herself.  As a forensic investigator, the condition of burn victims always mildly annoyed her.  So much evidence that could be uncovered was destroyed when the epidural layer of skin was marred.

            "Subject is a Hispanic male, age 47." she began.  "The internal organs have been previously removed and weighed.  I have confirmed the weights and general appearance of the organs."  She stopped, trying to put her observations into coherent thought.  A single stray hair hung down the side of her face, and she pushed it out of her line of sight.  The remainder of her shoulder length auburn hair was held securely in a barrette at the base of her neck.  "The body has second degree burns over the majority of exposed skin, with some localized areas of third degree burns." Scully noted that putrefaction, sometimes known as fourth degree, or post-mortem burns, had not occurred.  Apparently, the fire didn't last very long.  "Note:  Check with Mulder to see if the witnesses extinguished the fire." Scully frequently left notes to herself on the autopsy tapes, to verify information at a later time.  She continued, "The burns do not appear to be electrical in nature."  She stopped again, and inspected the body for signs of lightning or other high voltage electricity exit wounds, finding nothing. "No exit wound is apparent.  Death by electrocution may most likely be eliminated."

            She looked over at the X-rays, hung on the light table.  Metal fragments appeared in the face and chest.  David's report indicated that no lead was found in the fragments.  She could cross off bullet fragmentation, and probably suicide.  "The lungs . . ." she stopped, as her cellular phone began to ring in the background.  She sighed, turned off the microphone, and removed her gloves.  She retrieved her phone from her bag at the other end of the room, and, opening the phone and extending the antenna, said "Scully."

            "Hi, it's me," said Mulder.  "Have you had the chance to look at the body yet?" he asked.

            "I'm in the middle of the autopsy now.  What's up?" she replied.

            "I'm out at the site, and the lab reports came in that indicated some abnormalities.  Steve thinks the samples were contaminated somehow, but I'm not so sure.  I want you to check for two things while you're doing the autopsy." said Mulder.

            "Okay, what?" she asked.

            "First, were any of his clothes salvageable?" asked Mulder.

            "I don't know, the body didn't have any when I first saw it.  I'll check with the coroner.  I assume they would keep them with the other remains, if they weren't destroyed by the fire." Scully replied.  "What am I looking for?"

            "First, you're looking for any evidence of an unknown protein.  The lab can't identify a protein they've found, and second, look for traces of platinum in the clothing fibers." said Mulder.

            "Wait, wait.  An unknown protein?" asked Scully.  "How do you define that?"

            "I define it the same way you do, Scully.  A protein that is not currently on our list of known proteins.  I don't know what you're looking for." said Mulder, sounding preoccupied.  "But the one I want you to keep your eye out for is the platinum.  I don't know why, but I think it's very important."

            "Platinum . . . in the fibers of the clothing.  Sure, why not.  Anything else?  Should I look for rubies in his belly button, too?" she asked sarcastically.

            "No, just the platinum." said Mulder, ignoring the sarcasm.  "We're just about out of daylight here, so I'll be heading in soon.  I'll probably stop for dinner with Steve.  Check in with me at the motel when you get back, and we'll talk."

            "Okay, bye." said Scully, shaking her head as she turned off the phone.  Platinum, she thought, Only Mulder would ask something like that.

            She grabbed another pair of gloves and turned the microphone back on.  She rewound the tape to her last statement.  She continued, "The lungs show evidence of petechia hemorrhages.  Asphyxiation by an unknown source must be considered."  She completed the remainder of the autopsy, confirming the observations of Dr. Angeletti.  She took separate tissue samples, and, additionally, tapped a sample of spinal fluid and tissue.   She found no supporting evidence of asphyxiation in marks on the body.  In short, she was as stumped as David had been, as least until the lab results came back.  She turned off the microphone and removed her gloves.  She then removed the tape from the recorder and tucked it into her bag.  As she exited the room, she stopped at the morgue attendant's desk and indicated that she was done, so they could clean up the room and return the body to storage.

 

            She dropped the samples off at the lab.  The hospital didn't have a mass spectroscope or a gas chromatograph, and would have to send the spinal samples to Colorado Springs for analysis.  Her timing was impeccable, however, because the courier from the Colorado Springs lab had just arrived. She would have the results in the morning.  She walked upstairs to the emergency room.  It was about 7:45 p.m., and she thought she would take David up on his offer.  He was pleased to comply, indicating he could leave a little early since not much was going on, and they went to the cafeteria together.

            The cafeteria was serving oriental food that day, and the Kung Pao Chicken smelled wonderful to Scully.  David took Sweet and Sour Pork, and, after he signed for the ticket at the register, they sat down.

            "So, " began David, amused. "What did I miss, Madam Doctor?"

            "Not a damn thing." replied Scully, taking her first mouthful of dinner.  She savored the flavor as it lightly burned her tongue.  The cooks here are quite good, she thought.  "All I was able to do was confirm what didn't cause his death.  I did take some additional samples and took them down to the lab for tests.  About all I know so far is that he died."

            They ate in silence for a time. 

            "Do you think you'll be needing the body any longer?" asked David.  "The family is understandably anxious to have the funeral so they can get on with their lives."

            "I understand," said Scully.  "As soon as the lab results come back in the morning, I should be finished."  "Oh, by the way, did any of the subject's clothing survive the fire?  My partner found something at the site, and asked me to check for something in the clothing fibers."  She didn't say what she was looking for, since she was sure that David would either laugh or consider her peculiar.

            "Fragments of the clothing survived, mostly in the seat of his pants, and the back of his shirt.  He was seated at the time of the accident, and his body absorbed the heat." said David.  "They're with his personal effects down in the morgue, if you want to see them.  I can't imagine why, though."

            "Frankly, neither can I." she said, resignedly.

                                                                         *  *  *

            Mulder and Steve slid into the booth at the Mexican restaurant.  Mulder was in the mood for something spicy, and Steve had recommended this particular restaurant.  It was a little hole-in-the-wall where locals hung out.  Mulder noticed that the majority of the clientele was Hispanic, speaking Spanish.  The quality of food looked promising.  They both ordered Mexican beer, and while waiting for the waitress to return, Mulder asked, "So, how are Ginny and the kids?"

            "Great, just great.  Ginny is working for the State now, in the welfare office.  She likes the contact with people.  Mark is eight, and growing like a weed.  He's going to be taller than me in a year or two.  Tammy is six, and Stephanie is about to turn five." said Steve. 

            Mulder shook his head, amazed.  "It seems hard to believe that it's been that long since we've seen each other."

            "Hey," remarked Steve, "I hear you got assigned a partner.  How do you like him?  I know you've never been fond of working with someone."

            "Her," corrected Mulder.  "Dana Scully, doctor and scientist extraordinaire.  Actually, Steve, I've come to trust Scully a great deal." he said quietly, almost to himself. "She doesn't believe yet, but is starting to come around on some points.  We play well off each other."  He was quiet for a moment, reflecting on their ups and downs as partners, and realizing how important her support had come to mean to him.

            Steve nodded, understanding.  "A partner can be a valuable asset, once you start to anticipate each other's moods and signals.  And, speaking of believing, I've got a little additional information for you, Spooky, relating to your specialty."

            "Such as?" asked Mulder, smiling at the nickname for the first time in quite a while.

            "Well, I did a little checking for you.  I didn't want the other guys to know, because they would think I was nuts.  I lived with you long enough to know that you would go checking for yourself anyway, and I already had the contacts.  So, here goes:  Engine No. 6 was originally a Burlington Northern rig purchased by the Government as salvage.  Neither it, nor any of the other cars on the train, has ever been involved in an accident before where anyone was killed." he said, looking a little embarrassed.  "As far as I can determine from quiet inquiries with present and past employees, there has never been any sort of unexplained or psychic phenomenon associated with the site or any of the equipment.  The site has no past history as burial or sacred ground for any of the local Indian tribes, and, in short, the area seems to have no paranormal aura surrounding it at all."  He looked relieved to have finished with his report.

            Mulder appreciated the effort Steve took to locate the information and say it out loud.  Mulder knew that Steve did not believe fully in the paranormal.  It was a testament to their friendship that he would think of it at all.  Steve was right, Mulder was going to check it out anyway.  There was too much of a history of unexplained phenomenon following mechanical equipment that had been involved in fatal accidents to ignore the possibility.  "Thanks, Steve," he said quietly.  "I appreciate the effort.  You saved me some time.  I can concentrate on other things now.  But, don't forget," he added with a sparkle in his eye, "for every site that has record of paranormal phenomenon connected with it, there was a first time."

            Steve chuckled softly, shaking his head.  Mulder would never change, and he was glad.  The human race was better off because of it.

                                                                         *  *  *

            Scully had finished dinner and had returned to the morgue to check the clothing samples.  What was left of the shirt and pants consisted of the areas on the back, where they were shielded from the fire.  She took samples from the blackened edges of both articles of clothing, as well as from the shielded area where the material was still intact.  She took them down to the lab, where the attendant told her that the samples would go to Colorado Springs in the morning run.  The results would probably not be available until late afternoon, or the following day.

            She looked at her watch.  It was getting late.  She pulled her phone from her bag, and dialed Mulder's number.

            "Mulder." came the reply, hoarsely.  He had just swallowed a bite of chili rellano that was especially hot, and couldn't breathe for a moment.

            "Scully.  Are you all right?" she asked, concerned.

            "Yeah, I'm fine.  I was just trying to swallow something.  Steve and I are having dinner.  What's up?" he replied.

            "I took the samples from the clothing that you wanted, and I'm beat.  Unless you can think of anything else, I'm going to head back to the motel, take a hot shower, and go to bed." she said.  Her muscles always ached after an autopsy.  A hot shower was just what she needed.

            "No, Steve and I are just finishing dinner, and I'll probably head back to the motel myself in a bit.  I'll get you up, say, around 7:00 a.m., and we'll go back out to the site.  We have witnesses to interview." he remarked. "Oh, and Scully," he said.

            "Yes?" she replied.

            "Don't use up all the hot water." he said, smiling.

            "Done, partner." she said, smiling as well.  "See you in the morning."

                                                                             

 

 

Chapter 6

 

 

U.S. Army Chemical Disposal Project

 (formerly Pueblo Army Depot)

Pueblo, Colorado

March 25 - 9:25 p.m.

 

            The five camouflaged soft-side trucks rolled through the gate.  Three men in each truck got out when the trucks stopped near the loading platform.  They were dressed in black, not standard green fatigues, and they moved with the grace and speed of people trained for night missions such as this.  One of the men, dressed in the same manner, was clearly the leader of the group.  He began to speak softly to the men, pointing and gesturing when necessary.  The men stood at attention as instructions were given to them, and when the leader had finished, they silently and swiftly went to their task.

            The canvas flap on the back of each truck was lifted, revealing pallets loaded with black plastic barrels, smaller than standard size steel drums.  The barrels looked new.  One of the men started a small forklift and moved it close to the first truck.  Methodically, one by one, the pallets were transferred to the loading bay.  One of the men produced a key, and the bay door was opened, revealing row after row of similar barrels.

            The men got to work.  Two men removed a barrel from the pallet and placed it in line in the row of barrels.  The rest of the men took up the task.  Again and again they did this, starting and completing new rows of barrels, until they were all in place in the warehouse.  The pallets were stacked outside with other similar pallets, and the men got back in their trucks, just as quickly and silently.

            The leader, who had been standing in the shadows supervising the transfer, stepped out into the light briefly as he made his way to his own truck.  He was an African-American in his late 40's, with a beard and mustache, just beginning to grey.  He moved with the quiet authority of one who had supervised actions such as these many times before.  One of the men came up to him, reporting that the transfer had gone smoothly, and they were ready to leave.

            "How many more shipments are there?" the man asked his leader, the trucks quietly running in the background.

            "About five more.  We should be done in the next day or two.  We'll have them all in place before the first burn," replied the leader.  The leader felt edgy, but didn't know why.  It was almost as if he could feel something or someone nearby waiting for him to make a mistake.  He shook off the feeling.  They were almost done, and he could go home soon.  He stepped into the shadows again, and was gone.

            Overhead, the stars twinkled brightly in the clear prairie night.  Three of the stars twinkled a bit more brightly than the others, seeming closer, with a faint blue tinge.

                                                                             

 

 

Chapter 7

 

 

U.S. Department of Transportation Technology Center

Pueblo, Colorado

March 26 - 8:25 a.m.

 

            Mulder and Scully sat in Mo Baker's office at the FAST Track.  Scully had just arrived, having taken time to view the accident scene.  She had found no more information than anyone else. 

            She had decided to stay and watch as the huge ringer crane removed the engine from the track.  The crane and its outriggers completely filled the massive, 70 foot wide platform of timbers.  Three booms extended from the cab, in which the operator seemed dwarfed.  Cables ran from the first boom, straight upright from the cab, to the second boom, which was extended slightly farther, and at a 45 degree angle to the first.  The cables traveled beyond the second boom to the third boom, extended far out over the engine at about a 60 degree angle.  The drop line of thick steel cable from the third boom had been attached to a large steel ring, which, in turn, was attached to two more cables.  The lines were attached to hooks on the top of the engine structure, and, as she observed, the multi-ton engine slowly raised up off the track.  She watched in fascination as the wheels were removed and the crane, huffing noisily, began to turn on a large circular track, taking the suspended engine with it.  She marveled at the talent of the crane operator, who seemed to sense everything at once, adjusting the load as the wind rose across the prairie, holding it steady.  As the engine neared the multi-axle, heavy-duty trailer, the crane lifted it into the air further, and gently set it down on the trailer, with no more than a whisper of steel meeting steel.  She realized that she had been holding her breath, and exhaled.  She left the workers to secure the engine on the trailer, and now sat at Mulder's side as he interviewed the witnesses.

            "You both indicated that you didn't observe a fire or a collision, is that right?" he asked.

            "Yes, that's right." said Toby.  Kim nodded.

            "Was the train moving at all when you first arrived to take the measurements?" queried Mulder.

            "Oh, yes, when we first arrived, the train was just passing by us.  Bob sounded the whistle . . . just for fun, I think.  We both jumped, but I don't think he intended to scare us.  We were walking in the shadows.  I don't think he saw us there." said Kim.

            Scully asked, "Did you notice any odd sounds at the time the engine passed?  Did the engine sound like it was running properly?"

            They looked at each other.  "I think it sounded okay." said Kim.  Toby added, "At least I didn't hear anything that sounded wrong."

            "Why did you look toward the train at the time you noticed it not moving?  What prompted you to both look up at that moment?" asked Mulder.

            They both looked decidedly uncomfortable.  Mulder knew he had touched on a sore spot.

            "We've thought about that." said Toby.  "We both think it was an unconscious reaction to the sound of the engine stopping." 

            "We didn't remember at first that it got quiet all of a sudden." added Kim.

            Mulder and Scully looked at each other.  Scully knew from Mulder's expression that he wanted a few minutes alone with the witnesses.

            "Steve," she said.  "Could I borrow you for a minute?  I want to check on something, and I think I'll need your help."  She gave him a look that said 'we need to leave him alone'.

            "Sure, Dana, no problem." he said, standing up, catching the expression.  "We'll be right back, Mulder."

            The two left the office, leaving Mulder, Toby and Kim alone.  Mulder stood up, shut the door, locked it, and pointedly turned off the tape recorder.  Toby and Kim looked at each other nervously.

            He sat back down, leaning forward on his forearms in a conspiring manner, his hands clasped in front of him. "Okay, guys.  It's just you and me now." he said.  The witnesses straightened their backs, looking defensive.  "I believe you're holding back information.  That information could be very important to finding out why Bob Lopez is dead.  I also believe that you don't want to reveal the information--not because you're trying to hide anything --but because you are afraid that saying it will make people think you're crazy."

            Their eyes grew wide.

            "I don't think you're crazy.  I think you saw something out there that was out of the ordinary.  I need to know what it is.  Nothing will go out of this room.  I promise." he said.

            They looked at each other, and then at him.  He looked calm, trusting . . . believing.  They made their decision.

            Kim started first.  "I really think that you will believe us.  But nobody else will, trust me."  Her eyes glazed over, remembering.  "The story is the same as we told you up to a point.  Until the train made the corner at the 2 mile mark."

            Toby picked up.  "We were taking the measurements, like we said, when all of a sudden it got real hazy out, like a fog bank or something."

            Their words spilled out fast, one over the other, as they struggled to get the story out.  Mulder sat quietly, taking it all in.

            "Then we saw Blue Lights." said Kim, in awe.

            "They've never been out here before." added Toby.  "It was weird, really strange.  The engine was running smoothly, but when the haze and Blue Lights showed up, everything stopped dead.  No sound, no lights, nothing."

            "Really, we didn't see a fire, or hear a crash.  Honest.  Just stillness. . .quiet.  No animals, no wind, no sound of any kind.  Like we were outside of time, or something." Kim stated.  "God, you must think we're nuts!" she exclaimed.

            "No.  I don't." replied Mulder.  He knew that he had heard the most important part of the interview to date.  He had heard the truth.  And he wished he had gotten it on tape.  However, occasionally, a photographic memory was handy.  "I believe you.  Did anything else happen in between?" he asked.

            "No, that's it.  Just 'everything's okay. . . haze. . . Blue Lights, and then . . . you know.'" said Toby, grimacing.

            "Okay, then, I guess that's it.  We probably won't be needing anything more from you.  This won't go in the official report, but I appreciate your telling me.  I understand that your drug screens came back negative, in case you hadn't heard." said Mulder.  Kim closed her eyes and sighed.  She felt slightly giddy.  Mulder stood up and shook each person's hand.  "Good luck.  It's not easy being witness to a situation involving the paranormal." he said.  "You may want to talk with a counselor about your feelings.  They can get trapped inside of you and make life difficult.  I know." he said. 

            They nodded, believing him.

                                                                         *  *  *

            Mulder sat quietly in the room for a few minutes after Toby and Kim left.  He thought about their statement.  They had used 'blue lights' as a proper noun, rather than 'blue' as an adjective to describe 'lights'.  They didn't appear to find the sighting of Blue Lights odd in itself, merely that it appeared where it did.  They seemed more awe-struck than frightened that they had seen it.  He needed to find out more about Blue Lights, and he knew just where to go.

            As he exited the foreman's office, Scully was on the phone, talking excitedly.  She hung up just as he reached the desk where she was sitting.

            "What's up?" he asked her.

            "The lab results came back on the samples I took from the engineer." she said, excited.

            "About the platinum?" he asked, equally excited.

            "The platinum . . ." she said, furrowing her brow.  "Oh, no, not those samples.  They won't be back until tomorrow some time.  The samples I mean are the ones that I took of spinal fluid and tissue.  I had them sent to a lab in the next city to run tests on a mass spectroscope.  I know what killed the engineer!" she exclaimed.

            "Really!?!" said Mulder, eyebrows raised.  "What?"

            "The test determined that a key enzyme, acetylcholinesterase, was totally absent from his spinal fluid.  This enzyme is one of the major neurotransmitters that relays information from the various nerves to the brain.  With that enzyme missing, the entire body shut down simultaneously.  That's why we couldn't find a single cause.  In effect, the body simply stopped.  And what's more important," she added, "is that the enzyme was apparently destroyed by absorption by your unknown protein."

            Mulder let out a low whistle.  "Are they sure of that?" he asked.

            "Apparently, when they found the enzyme missing, and the protein present, they decided to experiment a bit.  They took a normal sample, known as a blank, because they already know the exact ratio of the elements, and introduced the protein into the sample.  The protein absorbed the enzyme literally before their eyes.  All trace of the enzyme was gone within 30 seconds.  I doubt the engineer even knew what hit him." she said with a sigh.

            Mulder was thinking hard.  "My chemistry is rusty, but isn't that the same enzyme that is destroyed by nerve gas?" he asked.

            "Inhibited, not destroyed.  But also not absorbed as food, as in this case." said Scully.

            "Would a lower concentration of the same agent cause a milder reaction?" Mulder asked.

            "I have no way of knowing, but it seems logical." replied Scully.

            "I was just thinking.  Kim and Toby just told me that they were witness to what they believed to be an extraterrestrial encounter at the time of the collision.  They said they saw and were enveloped in a 'haze'.  In the statement that was taken at the time of the accident, the foreman indicated that they were both trembling, nervous, and sweating." he said.  "In today's meeting, they showed similar symptoms to a lesser degree.  I had attributed it to nervousness, but now I wonder.  Could they have been exposed to the same thing?" he asked.

            "If it were a nerve gas, and not a biological agent, those are the symptoms they would exhibit if exposed to a low concentration.  It's a reasonable question, but I have no way of finding out at this point.  If the protein didn't kill them, it would have metabolized and been ejected in the urine after about 24 hours.  I wouldn't be able to tell if I checked now." said Scully.

            "Urine . . ." began Mulder.  "Wait, that's it!  Kim and Toby both had to take a urine screen for drugs on the night of the collision.  Could the original sample still be checked for the missing enzyme?" he asked, excitedly.

            Scully's excitement grew along with Mulder's.  "Perhaps.  It couldn't hurt to check.  Most labs keep the remainder of the sample for a time, just to be sure that additional tests aren't needed, or in the case of a DUI, if the Defendant wants an independent test.  With any luck, the sample is at the same lab in Colorado Springs." she said, heading for the phone.  "Check with someone in operations, Mulder, and let me know."

            Mulder confirmed that the lab the Track used for drug tests was, indeed, the same one as the hospital used.  The lab agreed to pull the samples and test for the missing enzyme.  The excitement is catching, thought Scully.  The lab employees are as eager to find out the answers as I am.  Imagine, finding a new protein!  I could write a paper on the subject.

            Mulder, Scully and Steve decided to head back to the main site to pick up the rental car, and work on their reports.  Mulder had already been to the main maintenance facility to inspect the railcars, and had confirmed that a collision had occurred by the damage to the couplings.  The collision was a large one, having bent one or two of the couplings so badly that they had to be removed and replaced. 

            Mulder and Scully decided to stay on site awaiting the results of the lab tests, which the lab indicated they would start as a top priority.  Steve dropped them off at the Warehouse Building, saying he needed to head back to Denver.  He wished them well, and asked them to stop by his office on their way out of town.  After promising to keep him informed, Mulder and Scully bid their farewells.

            Mitch met them at the Warehouse.  Mulder introduced him to Scully.

            "Mitch," Mulder began, "Do you have a room we can use with a couple of desks so we can work on our reports?  We'll need a power outlet for our laptops, and a phone, so we can get the results from the lab." he said.

            Mitch nodded, saying, "I know just the office.  It's right down the hall.  They moved the purchasing section to the Ops building, and the move left a vacant office.  It has phones and desks.  You can use them as long as you want.  I'll let the switchboard operator know that you're over here, so she can route any calls you may get."

            Although both Mulder and Scully had cellular phones, the batteries were getting low, and they wanted to save them for when they really needed them.  Mitch showed them to the office, which had two desks, separated by a portable divider.  Both desks had phones, and electric typewriters.  They looked from the clunky typewriters to their laptops and back again, grinning.  How far things had come!

            "I'll be down the hall in Instrumentation, if you need me." said Mitch, walking out.

            Mulder picked the first desk inside the room, and put his briefcase down.  Scully did the same at the second desk, sitting down.  Mulder pulled out his laptop computer and set it up.  He noticed the 'Battery Low' light flashing, and looked for his A/C cord.

            "Hey, Scully, I'll be right back.  I think I left the cord for my laptop in the car." he said.

            "I'm not going anywhere." she replied.  "You could get me a soda on your way back, though.  I saw a machine near the front desk.  Anything will do."

            "You've got it.  Be right back." he said, leaving the room.

            Scully set up her laptop computer and pulled out her notes.  She wished she had a tape player so she could listen to the autopsy tape.  She kicked off her shoes under the desk, hearing them hit the wall.  She knew that as an FBI agent, it was important to dress properly, but sometimes heels made her feet tired.  She heard the sounds of forklifts and talking behind the wall in front of her.  Of course, she was in the warehouse building.  They probably move things around all day and night.  Once she began to concentrate, the sounds would disappear, she knew.  As she started to type, she heard the sound of a spray can discharging in front of her.  They must be spray painting something on the other side of the wall, she thought.  The sound didn't diminish, though.  She turned her head slightly, and realized that the sound wasn't on the other side of the wall, it was in this room.  She bent over and looked under the desk.  Staring her in the face was a coiled rattlesnake, at least three coils high!  It was making the hissing sound, its rattles vibrating wildly.  It was inches from her leg.  Her heart beat rapidly, sweat starting to form on her brow and hands.  She shouldn't move suddenly, she knew, but she also didn't dare move slowly.  Her legs were far enough under the desk that she couldn't simply spin on the chair to move them out of range.  She had only one course of action open, and she suddenly took it.  Taking a deep breath, and using the edge of the desk as a base, she launched herself backwards, gliding on the chair casters.  The sudden movement startled the snake, and he struck out, extending his body, mouth open wide with fangs bared.

            Just then, the casters of the chair reached the edge of the chairmat, and the chair tipped over, sending Scully to the floor.  The snake found its mark into her leg as her head struck the concrete floor, knocking her unconscious.

 

 

 

;Chapter 8

 

 

U.S. Department of Transportation Technology Center

Warehouse Building

March 26 - 1:22 p.m.

 

 

            Mulder returned to the room, carrying two soda cans.

            "Scully," he said, as he entered the room, "I must have left my power cord at the motel.  Do your batteries still have enough life that you can loan me your cord?" he asked, as he rounded the partition to where she was sitting. 

            The scene in front of him took his breath away, and he nearly dropped the cans.  Scully was laying on the floor, unconscious, her chair tipped over, and a rattlesnake, at least two feet long, was stretched over her legs, tongue flicking the air.  He couldn't determine whether she had been bit from this angle, and couldn't get any closer until the snake was disposed of.  He didn't dare shoot it, since he was afraid he would hit Scully.

            He backed away slowly, trying not to startle the snake.  He knew she would be okay as long as she stayed unconscious.  He hoped she didn't wake up now.

            He got to the doorway, and yelled, "MITCH!  GET OVER HERE NOW!  I NEED YOUR HELP!"  He didn't take his eyes off Scully, or the snake.

            He heard the sound of running feet and Mitch and a companion rounded the corner, sounding winded.  "What's wrong?" Mitch asked.

            Mulder pointed, his hand trembling slightly, he noticed.  "That's what's wrong".

            Mitch and the other man took in the scene quickly.  "DAMN!" exclaimed Mitch.  "It's too early!  Craig," he ordered to the other man, "run out to the warehouse and tell Peter that we need a snake noose and bottle.  Then, get on the radio and have Christensen meet us over here with a snake bite kit, just in case."  Craig nodded and turned, rushing towards the door to the warehouse.

            "Jeez, I'm sorry, Mulder.  It's only March.  It never occurred to me to check the room for snakes.  We'll get her fixed up, though.  We've gotten pretty good at this." he said, ruefully.

            "Do you normally have rattlesnakes in the buildings?" Mulder asked, dumbfounded.

            "Afraid so, every morning.  Usually, it doesn't start until next month.  I guess spring is early this year.  Because the rails run under the doors into every building except Operations, the snakes slither into the buildings along the track.  They like it inside, it's warm in here.  During spring and summer, we have to check every office before we sit down at our desks in the morning.  That's what that pole is for." he said, pointing to a wooden dowel about four feet long, with a hook on the end, leaning up against the wall.  "We use that to open each drawer of every desk and cabinet and lift the lids on the credenzas.  You never know where they'll show up.  We actually found one once that had stuffed itself into the opening of the electric typewriter on your desk.  Really woke up the secretary when she turned it on.  Better than caffeine." he said, pointing to Mulder's desk.

            Mulder shuddered as he looked at Scully, feeling powerless to help her.  He had almost taken the desk Scully did.  Part of him wished he had.

            Just then, two men burst into the room, one carrying a water cooler bottle, and the other carrying what looked like a modified spear gun, with a loop of cord on one end.

            "There you go, Peter, Jim," said Mitch.  "Get it out of here."

            "Man," said Jim, "He's a big one all right.  Must have woken up cranky."  He walked forward, toward the snake, the red metal gun in front of him.  "Come on, boy, nobody's going to hurt you."

            The snake flicked its tongue rapidly, tried to get a reading on the new intruder.  It gave off no heat, but had movement.  The snake waved around slowly, body reared up, trying to get its bearings.  It jumped slightly as Jim pulled the trigger, the noose tightening around the snake's neck.  The snake began to writhe in earnest now, trying to break free.  Its body whipped loops in the air, as its rattle shook ominously.  Mulder hoped it didn't get loose.  It did not look like a happy camper.

            "Anytime, Peter!" said Jim.  "Get that bottle over here now!"

            Peter set the glass water cooler bottle on the floor.  Mulder looked on, fascinated.  Jim lifted the snake by the noose and carefully lowered the snake, rattles first, into the small opening of the bottle.  It just fit.  As the head reached the opening, Jim let go of the trigger, and the snake dropped the rest of the way into the bottle.  Peter put a plastic cover over the opening. 

            The snake tried to strike several times, but hit only glass.  It finally settled down, but remained alert, coiled in the bottom of the bottle.

            "What happens now?" asked Mulder.

            "Now, we take the bottle a mile or so from the buildings and remove the cap, turn the bottle on its side, and wait for the snake to leave. It will find its own way out.  We try not to kill the snakes.  Even if we aren't terribly fond of them, they do keep the rodent population down.

            A third man came into the room, carrying a bag and a cellular phone. 

            "Mulder," said Mitch, "this is Harry Christensen.  He's our on-site EMT.  He'll take care of your partner."

            Harry set to work, examining her body.  He found the snake bite on her leg, the edges of the punctures torn, the skin already starting to swell and discolor from the venom.

            "Well, I can't tell if the snake got in a good bite or not. Harry said.  "The punctures look about the right depth, but with the torn edges, she may have missed the main bulk of toxin.  Unfortunately, since she's not awake, I don't dare give her an anti-venom.  She could be allergic.  I've already called for an ambulance, since you said she was unconscious."  He reached for his cellular phone, and dialed a number.  The telephone number was a special number on the hospital switchboard, and the nurse station knew immediately that it was the Track EMT calling.  A doctor answered the line.

            "Dr. Johnson.  Is this Harry?" he asked.

            "Yeah, Doc, it's me.  Hey, I've got a female patient with a snakebite and unconscious.  What do you want me to do?" he asked.

            "Well, is she unconscious because of the snake bite, or otherwise?" he asked.

            "No, it looks like she hit her head on the floor.  The snakebite only occurred a few minutes ago." he replied.

            "Is an ambulance on the way?" asked the doctor.

            "Yeah, they should be here any minute.  Should I just pack her in ice and bring her in, or risk the anti-venom?" asked Harry.

            "No, I don't want to risk the anti-venom until we look at her," said the doctor.  "Immobilize her leg and ice it to keep the swelling down.  We'll be waiting for her."

            "Thanks, Doc." said Harry.  "See you in a few minutes."

            They spent the next few minutes until the ambulance arrived splinting Scully's leg and packing ice around her calf.  They completed the package by wrapping the lower part of the splint with kitchen plastic wrap to hold in the ice.

            Scully woke up with a start as the ambulance attendants started to load her into the ambulance.  She opened her eyes to see Mulder standing over her.

            "Hi," he said gently.  "How are you feeling?"

            "Like I have a hangover after a rock concert," she said, blinking rapidly to clear her head.  "What happened?"

            "You got on a rattlesnake's bad side and smacked your head on the floor." said Mulder, smiling slightly.  "If you didn't want to go skiing, you could have just said so."

            Scully smiled weakly.

            "There isn't room for me in there, so I'll follow you over in the car." said Mulder, squeezing her hand. 

            "Okay," said Scully, closing her eyes and going to sleep.

 

 

 

Chapter 9

 

;St. Mary's Hospital

Pueblo, Colorado

March 26 - 5:10 p.m

 

 

            Scully woke up in a hospital bed.  David Angeletti was looking down at her, looking amused.

            "I didn't expect to see you again this soon," he said, grinning.  "A person might think that you missed me."

            "Trust me," she said softly, her own voice echoing in her head like a loudspeaker, "I wouldn't attempt to feel like this intentionally, whether or not I missed you."  She closed her eyes again, the lights hurting them.

            "Well, it's about time for you to wake up, anyway," said David.  "It's almost dinnertime.  Roast chicken tonight!"

            "Sorry I'll miss it.  I don't plan to stay." she said, sitting up.  A moan escaped her lips and she tightly closed her eyes until the room stopped spinning.

            "Uh, uh, uh," said David, firmly pushing her back down.  "You've got a nasty bump on your head.  We want to keep you overnight in case you've got a concussion.  And, I don't think you'll be doing much walking on that right leg." he added.

            "My leg?  What about my . . .," she said, and then remembered herself falling as the chair tipped over, feeling the snake's fangs enter her calf.  Twin points of searing pain.  She looked down, and saw her leg, still in the splint to prevent mobility, an ice pack keeping the blood flow to a minimum.

            "Plus," added David, "Agent Mulder left a few minutes ago,  with strict instructions that you were not to be released until there was no possibility of a concussion.  He said you would try to discharge yourself, accepting responsibility for the consequences, and told me that if you tried to leave, I was to call him on his cellular phone," he added, waiving a slip of paper, "and he would come over here and tie you to the bed!  I told him not to worry, since I didn't plan to let you leave anyway."  He looked at her challengingly, daring her to say anything, arms folded across his chest, standing defensively.

            Scully looked at him, deciding whether to put up a fight.  It annoyed her (or did it please her?) that Mulder was so concerned about her welfare.  She hated just laying around while there was so much work to be done.  I'll have to find a way to repay Mulder for his kindness, she thought with a sly smile.  Oh, well, maybe they'd at least let her have her laptop to work on.  She sighed deeply and resignedly, and said, "What did you say was for dinner?"

 

                                                                          * * *

            Mulder felt bad leaving Scully still asleep at the hospital, but he needed to get more information on Blue Lights.  He had a gut-wrenching feeling that the engineer's death wasn't going to be an isolated incident.

            He pulled into the parking lot of the newspaper office, parked the car, and went into the building.  After speaking with the clerk and finding out the location of the newspaper morgue, he went into the basement and found a table.  Damn!, he thought, all they have are microfiche machines.  I'll be motion sick in an hour.  He tried not to think about his churning stomach and aching head as the pages flashed by.  He searched for information through back issues of the newspaper and related sources about Blue Lights.  He found several entries about sightings, but no information that was helpful to him.  A shadow crossed the screen, and he saw the reflection of a tall, heavy man behind him.  He turned around on his chair.

            "Evenin', sir," said the man, looking at Mulder suspiciously, "Can I help you find something?" 

            "Maybe," said Mulder, without emotion, his defenses up.  "Do you know where I can find information about Blue Lights?"

            "I might, and I might not.  Do you mind if I ask why you're interested?" the man said, looking pointedly at Mulder.

            "Yes." replied Mulder.

            The man started to say something, and then, realizing what Mulder had just said, looked confused, then surprised, then burst into a grin and began to laugh, his voice reverberating through the basement.  Mulder remained emotionless.

            "Mr. Mulder, I think you and I are going to get along just fine.  Name's Joe Martin," he said, extending his hand.

            It was Mulder's turn to look surprised.  "You know who I am?" he asked, shaking Mr. Martin's hand.

            "This is a small town, Agent Mulder, and I'm the editor of the paper.  I know most everything that goes on here.  Bob Lopez was a very important man in town, and he was a friend of mine.  I've been keeping my eyes and ears open."  He moved to a desk and opened a file folder.  "Special Agent Fox William Mulder and Special Agent Dana Katherine Scully, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Washington, D.C.  Assigned to investigate cause of death at DOT site.  Present section assignment in FBI unknown," he said, as Mulder's eyebrows raised.  "I have my sources."

            "I'm impressed, I admit.  Do your sources have any information on Blue Lights?" he asked.

            "A one track mind.  I like that.  You'd make a good reporter.  You don't get flustered easily.  And, in answer to your question, yes, I have a great deal of information on Blue Lights.  It's a hobby of mine," he said, smiling, extending his hand toward a chair on the other side of a beat-up wooden desk bearing the name plaque, 'C. E. Martin', "Have a seat.  What would you like to know?"

            "Why were they spotted over the DOT site at the time the train crashed?" asked Mulder.

            "They were what?" asked the editor.  "No, that's impossible." he said, shaking his head.  "Couldn't happen.  Whoever told you that lied."

            "Either that, or my sources are more informed than yours." Mulder replied, amusedly.

            "Mr. Mulder," began the editor. 

            "Just Mulder, Mr. Martin." replied Mulder.

            "Fair enough," he said, "Just call me Joe."

            Mulder looked at the name plate on the desk, and then said "Joe?  How do you get 'Joe' out of that name?"

            The editor grinned, "Carlton Edward Martin, VI, at your service, sir.  After six generations of a name like Carlton Edward, pretty much every possibility of name originality has been exhausted.  My father decided that I should be the first not to get trapped in the loop and allowed me to pick the name I wanted to be called.  I liked 'Joe'." he said.  "I think we're a lot alike, you and I, Fox," trying the name to see Mulder's reaction.  The reaction was as he expected, as a cold shadow passed over Mulder's face.  "That was a test, by the way.  I won't call you Fox if you don't call me Carlton, Edward, or any combination thereof."

            Mulder smiled.  "I think you're right, Joe.  We're going to get along just fine."

            They spent the next hour drinking bitter coffee and talking about Blue Lights.  Blue Lights was the name of an unexplained phenomenon that existed in one particular location at the edge of the city.  Mulder looked at photographs, such as they were, of the phenomenon.  Photographs didn't seem to come out any better on a clear night in Pueblo as on stormy nights back East.  He learned that it had never been sighted outside of the one location, and appeared on request, not by happenstance.  It never appeared in bad weather, and always appeared as three bright blue lights, in a triangle pattern, never moving apart.  It was assumed that the three lights were a single unit.  The first recorded sighting was in the '50s, and it was now considered a rite of passage for teenagers, driving to the site after getting their license and waiting for them to appear.  It only appeared while people were in cars, and only if three or less people were in the car.  Most everyone that grew up in Pueblo had witnessed them at one time or another, and they were considered, if not intelligent, at least friendly.  Joe agreed to take Mulder to the vacant lot later in the evening, when they were most likely to appear.

            "Anything else you want to chat about while we wait for it to get dark?" asked Joe.  "Or do you want to grab a bite to eat on the way?"

            "If you don't mind, I'll wait on dinner.  Oh, I happened upon a couple of articles that talked about the building of an incinerator at the edge of town at the 'U.S. Army Chemical Disposal Project'.  What do you know about the incinerator?" asked Mulder.

            "Well, the Project, formerly known as the Pueblo Army Depot, by the way--we still don't know why they changed the name--was recently awarded a government contract to dispose of toxic chemicals from World Wars I and II and Korea by incineration.  Nerve gas, mustard gas, solid rocket fuel, etc.  All part of the disarmament treaty with Russia."  replied Joe.  Mulder's ears perked up.

            "I thought that I read that it was already under construction.  Why have there been such a flurry of articles in the last several months?" asked Mulder.

            "You read quick!  I didn't think I left you down here that long." commented Joe.  "The big issue lately has been the budget cutbacks by the Democratic Presidency.  Funding got cut halfway through the project, and now, instead of the high temperature incinerator that was planned, they plan to construct a low temperature incinerator with a catalytic converter.  I don't know if it can do the job."

            "Why not?" Mulder queried.

            "Well, the whole principle behind the incinerator was that the chemicals would be reduced to their base elements in the 2,500 degree fire.  That theory is sound, and I supported the construction.  But the low temperature version, running only 800 degrees, may not burn everything down.  They swear that they've checked the specs and it should work.  I would just hate to have a city of over a quarter million people be guinea pigs if it doesn't." said Joe.

            Mulder had only heard the words 'nerve gas' and 'temperature' out of the conversation.  It was enough for him.  His mind correlated data from the past several days at high speed, and wondered if there was a connection.

            "Joe," Mulder said, "After we see Blue Lights, would you mind taking a trip with me out to the Depot?"

            "I guess not," he replied.  "But it's pretty heavily guarded right now.  I doubt we'll get very close."

            "Why is it closely guarded right now?" asked Mulder.

            "The incineration is supposed to start in three days, and there are enough chemical weapons out there right now to start the next World War." stated Joe.

            Mulder nodded.  He supposed that as many wars and as much terrorist activity as there was throughout the world right now, the precaution was justified.  That didn't mean, however, that he wouldn't try to verify a theory he had.

                                                                         *  *  *

            They drove to the vacant lot in silence.  The trip took only a few minutes.  At the edge of the city, the vast prairie spread before them in never-ending blackness, freckled with pinpoints of light.  Joe pulled off the road into a vacant lot.  It was surrounded by a city-style curb, as though something had once existed there.

            "Was this lot ever developed?" asked Mulder.

            "Once," replied Joe, "it was, of all things, a gas station." he laughed.

            "Why is that funny?" questioned Mulder.

            "Well, the big spectacle with Blue Lights is that once you drive into the lot, the car goes dead in a few minutes, and you have to wait out the phenomenon.  As the saying goes, 'At first the customers disliked it, but they soon learned to hate it'," he chuckled.  "The place didn't last long.  They cut their losses."

            Mulder chuckled as well.  He had to admit, it was pretty poor planning on the part of the owners.

            "So what happens now?" asked Mulder.  He had taken his camera out. It had special high speed infrared film.  He hoped to capture the lights on film.  Joe saw him taking the camera out. 

            "Best of luck," he said.  "I've tried for years to have photos come out.  Hasn't happened yet.  Maybe they'll like you better."

            Suddenly, the headlights, dash lights and radio went dead.  All sound stopped.  Mulder was afraid to speak, in case nothing came out when he tried.

            He looked at Joe. 

            Joe nodded. 

            It was happening.

            The car was bathed in blue light, from somewhere above the car.  Mulder twisted forward to look straight up through the windshield.

            Nothing.

            He sat back and looked back to Joe.  He was taken aback by Joe's expression.  It was one of delight, of awe.  He was looking past Mulder out the side window.  Mulder turned to his right.  It was like looking into a flashcube as it went off.  Three blue lights floated outside of his window.  He brought the camera up, and. . .

            They were gone.

            In the instant it took to get the camera to his eye, they disappeared.  He was disappointed.  He had hoped for more.

            Joe gasped.

            Mulder turned again, facing front.  The lights had reappeared, but they were now in a circle, spinning slowly.  They hovered just on the other side of the windshield.  Mulder touched his hand to the windshield.  It was ice cold.  Colder than the side window, as he felt, comparing.  The lights never moved to Joe's side of the car, but Joe was enthralled, just the same.  The experience lasted over five minutes, as the lights danced and pirouetted outside the car.  Mulder was fascinated, and charmed.  There was nothing frightening about this experience.  It felt playful.  He was sorry when it ended.

            The car started.

            The lights and radio came back on.

            Joe and Mulder sat in the car for a few minutes before speaking.  Joe drove the car out of the lot, and back onto the road.  "That was absolutely incredible!" he finally said.

            "How so?" asked Mulder, feeling the same emotions.  "That's pretty much what you led me to believe would happen."

            "I don't know.  They seemed. . . drawn to you, or your side of the car, anyway.  That was the longest I have ever known them to appear.  And, in the entire time that I have studied them, I have NEVER seen them spin in a circle like that." he commented.

            "Go with it, Joe," said Mulder.  "You never know what's going to happen when I'm around."

            "I can believe that," he said.  "Well, on to the Depot?"

            "Absolutely.  After what just happened, nothing can stop me now!" replied Mulder, looking immensely satisfied.

 

 

Chapter 10

 

 

U.S. Army Chemical Disposal Project

Pueblo, Colorado

March 26 - 9:30 p.m.

 

 

            Joe turned off the lights and engine, and coasted the car to just outside the circle of lights surrounding the Depot.  There were trucks moving inside the gate, as men in black uniforms started unloading trucks.

            "Now, why do you suppose they are taking the trouble to unload all those trucks in the middle of the night?" asked Mulder, both to Joe and to himself.

            "Inquiring minds want to know," replied Joe, as he slipped down in the seat, watching the scene unfold.

            "I'm going out there.  I'll try to get closer and see what they're unloading." said Mulder.

            "Be careful," said Joe, "Those don't look like capguns they're holding."

            Mulder slipped out of the car silently, leaving the car door slightly ajar, in case they needed to make a quick exit.  He crept forward, staying in the shadows.  He saw headlights in the distance.  Another group of trucks.  Busy night at the OK Corral, he thought.  He moved as close to the chain link fence as he could without being seen.  As the guard opened the gate, he slipped inside beside one of the trucks.

            Once inside, it was easy to stay out of sight, even with the bright lights.  There were piles of pallets and barrels to hide behind, and too much activity to notice a strange movement.  He moved ever closer, moving from concealed spot to concealed spot with ease.  He finally got close enough to hear voices.  One voice stood out, as the hairs on the back of his neck began to prickle.  I know that voice, he thought, trying to place it.  He knew it was risky to move closer, but closer he went, slipping along the ground on his belly, his gun in his hand.  He hoped he wouldn't have to use it.

            He heard the voice again, coming from the shadows, as it always had.  X!  Sometimes a friend, sometimes a deadly enemy, X had a reputation of showing up when Mulder least expected it.  He certainly didn't expect it here!  Mulder had never been able to learn his name, but he had it on good authority that X was a highly placed intelligence agent that was occasionally on Mulder's side, helping point towards the truth.  At other times, he spread Mulder disinformation, slowing him down enough that the truth stayed just out of his grasp.  If X was involved in whatever was going on here, it was serious.  He needed more information.

            He moved stealthily toward the spot where the pallets were being unloaded.  He felt certain that the activity here tonight had some bearing on their investigation.  He reached into his pocket and removed a red ink marker that he had brought along.  He reached over and marked a red 'X' near the bottom of two of the barrels.  It was all he could do for now.  He would have to come back later.  For now, he had to get out so he could decide what to do.

            Even more carefully than before, he slipped toward the gate.  X had not seen him.  Mulder was sure that had X known he was there, Mulder certainly would have been killed to prevent knowledge of whatever they were doing from being revealed.  As he rounded the next obstacle, looking for his exit, he stepped down and choked back a scream.  He looked down at his foot, which had become impaled on a nail sticking up out of a piece of wood from a pallet.  The nail had traveled through his shoe sole, into the bottom of his foot, and nearly out the top.  As pain seared his mind, he quietly sat down.  Grasping the board with the nail in both hands, he quickly and efficiently pulled the nail out of his foot with a jerk.  He bit down on his tongue nearly until it bled and tried to slow down his heart so he could think clearly.  He knew he would have to be especially careful now.  One wrong move, and he wouldn't have the ability to get away.

            He shifted his weight to the side of his foot, as the dull pain throbbed.  He realized he was bleeding onto the sand, leaving a trail, and took a moment behind a pile of barrels to stuff his handkerchief into his shoe to stem the flow.  It hurt worse, but he would live.

            He reached the car, limping.  He slid into the passenger seat, and Joe said, "What happened to you in there?  You're white as a ghost!"

            "I ran a nail through my foot.  I think our next stop needs to be the hospital." Mulder whispered hoarsely, clenching his fists.

            "Well, don't bleed all over my carpet," said Joe, attempting levity.  "I just had it detailed."

                                                                         *  *  *

            Mulder sat on the table in the emergency room as the staff doctor X-rayed his foot.  He had been surprised when Joe had merely dropped him off at the hospital, saying that he needed to go home and get some sleep.  He had used Mulder's phone during the trip to the hospital to call one of his employees at the paper.  The aide had driven Mulder's car to the hospital to meet them.  Mulder wondered whether he would ever get to the point in his life where the need to sleep was more important than finding the truth.  He hoped not.

            The emergency room was surprisingly quiet.  In Washington, on any night of the week, all of the trauma rooms would have been full and there would be an additional 20 or 30 people waiting.  Doctors and nurses would be rushing between rooms, calming families and treating the patient's wounds. 

            The X-rays came back negative, showing only the puncture wound, with no broken bones or severed tendons.

            "You're a lucky man, Mr. Mulder," said Dr. Angeletti.  "Your foot will hurt for awhile, but there's no permanent damage.  You'll want to stay off your foot as much as possible for the next several days, and will need to change the dressing every few hours for the first day.  I'll prescribe some medication to help with the pain."  he went on.  "By the way, when did you last have a tetanus shot?"

            "I can answer that," said a voice from the door.  Scully was standing there, a sly smile on her face, leaning on crutches.

            "Dana, what are you doing out of bed?" asked David.

            "Dana??" repeated Mulder, eyebrows raised.

            Scully shot him her best 'mind your own business' look.  She said, sweetly, "I just heard your voices and thought I could be of some help."

            "Are you familiar with Mr. Mulder's medical history?" asked David.

            "Oh, absolutely," she said.  Mulder could see that she had something up her sleeve. 

            Mulder cut in, "I'm sure it's only been a few years since my last shot."

            "Oh, no, Mulder," said Scully, looking to Mulder as innocent as a baby (a baby rattlesnake) "I'm quite certain that your last shot was at least ten and a half years ago."

            It didn't sound right to Mulder, but he could see no reason to doubt her. . . yet.

            "Well, Mr. Mulder, if it's been that long, I would really recommend a booster shot.  The puncture was deep, and you said it was from a nail.  Tetanus is not pretty and it's difficult to treat," said David.  "But, of course, it's your choice."

            His words dripping sarcasm, Mulder said, "Of course, I'll trust Dr. Scully's expert opinion."  He then looked at her, his eyes burning into hers, "But remember, Scully, if I get back to Washington and find out that my last shot was a day less than ten years ago, you will pay . . . dearly!"

            Scully simply smiled, thoroughly enjoying herself.  (Trap me in the hospital, will you?)

            "Well, Mr. Mulder," said David, holding up the needle, "Do you prefer the arm or hip?"

            "You should probably give it to him in the hip, David," said Scully, still smiling, "He may need his arm strength in the next few days.  Plus, it will be a more effective countermeasure closer to the wound."

            "Oh, absolutely, David," said Mulder through clenched teeth, looking straight into Scully's eyes, "give it to me wherever Scully feels is proper." 

            Scully held his gaze the entire time the shot was slowly injected into the large muscle of his hip, the corners of her mouth curling slightly each time Mulder twitched.  The stinging merely fueled Mulder's thoughts of revenge.  We'll see, Scully, we'll see.

 

 

 

Chapter 11

 

Joe Martin's Office

The Pueblo Record

March 26 - 11:50 p.m.

 

 

            Mulder had been wrong about Joe Martin.  Sleep meant nothing to him.  As early as last month, he had been up for four days straight with no sleep and no food.

            He did not go home.  He drove back to the office. 

            He had work to do.

            He called his wife at home.  The telephone rang three times, then four.  A woman's voice, heavy with sleep, said, "'Lo?"

            "Hi, Hon," said Joe.  "Sorry to wake you."

            "It's okay.  What's up?" she said, becoming alert.  She had learned from experience that a call at this time of night could be anything from 'I'm out with the boys and will be late' to 'I'm in jail in Mexico'.

            "Something's breaking.  I won't be home." said Joe, apologetically.

            "Okay," said his wife, Betty.  This was also nothing new.  After 35 years of marriage to a newspaperman, lonely nights were a way of life.  "Let someone know where you'll be." she said, through a yawn.

            "Of course," said Joe.  "Try to get some sleep."

            "You know me when my head hits the pillow," she said with a laugh.

            "Down and out for the count," responded Joe, with a grin.

            They said their good-byes, and hung up.  As Betty Martin lay back down, she didn't allow herself the luxury of worry.  There would be time enough to worry in the morning if nobody had heard from him.  The wife of a crime reporter, like the spouse of a police officer or firefighter, became familiar with the shadow of death hovering on their doorstep.  At any time, their loved ones  may not come home.  Worrying prematurely often led to sleepless nights of imagined disasters far above what had happened.  They also knew the toll worry took on the body.  At least one person in the partnership had to remain in top condition for whatever lay ahead.  She was asleep in moments.

            Joe didn't hang up the phone.  He merely hit the disconnect button with his finger, and, hitting the next button on the multi-line telephone set, quickly dialed a number.  One of the advantages of being an editor was having reliable sources of information in high places.  He had gained the confidence of many people in diverse areas.  The one he dialed now was a Sergeant at the army base in Colorado Springs.  Joe wanted more information about the Special Forces unit that had been deployed at the Depot.  He knew that there was nothing at the Depot that should normally cause the activity he saw tonight.  The Sergeant told him he would find out what he could and call back within the hour.

            Joe called other people as well, spreading his net of information-gathering broadly.  While he waited for calls back, he had time to again review the information he had obtained on Agents Mulder and Scully.  He had told Mulder only a brief portion of the information he had gathered on them.  As Joe and Mulder had sat talking, Joe had the opportunity to observe Mulder, confirming much of the information he already had, and making incredibly accurate speculations about Mulder's character.  Many people knew that Joe was smart, but only a few knew how well he scrutinized people, correlating his observations into accurate, nearly psychic, snapshots of the person's character.  Joe knew that he and Mulder were more alike than Mulder ever believed.  They were both seekers of truth.  Joe understood the insatiable thirst to find truth.  Reporters, like investigators, were split into groups of why they did their jobs.  Some did their jobs, and did them well, for the money, and some for the promise of wealth or power.  But people like Joe and Mulder sought truth for the pure beauty of it.  They also had a nearly overpowering compulsion to throw light into the shadows.  Joe likened himself to a professional housekeeper, throwing open windows and cleaning the dirt and grime until the gloom disappeared and the beauty of an object showed through.

            The truth was often difficult to find, though.  Mulder believed the truth to be a swift flying thing that he must chase down and hold tight to before it flew away again.  In looking at Mulder's record,  Joe thought that Mulder's truths may well be as fleet of foot as Mulder believed.  But Joe's truths were different.  His truths were like a precious ore.  Often, the truth was lying on the ground, staring you in the face, and you wondered why others who came before you hadn't seen it.  More often, though, the truth was buried in solid rock, and you had to use sweat, muscle and talent to break through the rock to find the ore.  Joe knew that the ore, when held up to the light, would shine brightly. 

            The truth could be beautiful to behold. 

            But, many times, the truth  would explode when exposed to the light of day, destroying families and friendships in a huge, fiery burst.  Joe knew a great deal about the exploding kind of truths, the kind that caused pain and anger in those around him.

            Joe had earned his reporter's wings in the hard-bitten world of Chicago in the 50's and 60's.  He secured a job as a cub reporter at a large newspaper through his family's connections, but kept it through his own skill.  Early on, he sought out the underworld and political scandals that were the bread-and-butter of the large newspapers of the Windy City, and learned he had a talent for it.  His hard-driving reporting style was well suited to a city where there was dirt under every rock, and a scandal around every corner. 

            His first exploding truth came at the cost of his own family.  He learned that everything he had believed to be truth in his childhood was smoke and mirrors.  When he learned that in reality, his family's money was from political payoffs, and his family's influence was through connections to the underworld, he almost came apart.  He heard the whispers behind his back when the story broke, saw the pain and humiliation in his Mother's eyes as his Father and Grandfather were removed from their family estate in handcuffs, their fortunes lost, all because of him and his rigid sense of principles. 

            He nearly stopped reporting then, when his family disowned him for choosing his own integrity over his family, but he didn't.  He left Chicago forever, moving from place to place over the years, marrying his lovely bride of 35 years, and finally ending up here, in his retirement job.  His family had never even met his wife or children.  His Mother had never held her grandchildren.  And he never stopped looking for the truth.  But the truth is a hard mistress.  It gave him a knowing look, a haunted look, that was with him even now.

            Mulder had that look.  Joe wondered to himself what horrible truths had thrust themselves upon Mulder to give him that intense look so early in life.  Joe looked at the file again.  The shining star of the Violent Crimes Unit, Mulder had a brilliant mind.  He had the ability to discover the truths behind the actions that some of the most depraved criminal, and criminally insane, minds could conceive. 

            A psychologist in a psychotic world. 

            He wondered what drove the man, and his partner.

            He looked at the copy of Scully's personnel photo.  She was attractive, younger than Mulder.  How had they come together?  What had driven her to this life, this career? he wondered.  Did she have the same knowing look, beyond her years, as Mulder?  His report said she was practical, down-to-earth, a scientist, and a doctor.  An interesting pair, these two.

            The phone rang.

            "Yeah," said Joe, into the phone.  At this time of night, only the people that he had called would be calling.

 

 

 

Chapter 12

 

El Pueblo Motel

Pueblo, Colorado

March 27 - 7:45 a.m.

 

 

            Mulder woke up to find low, grey clouds hanging over the City.  The weather forecast called for rain all day.  He picked up Scully at the hospital.  The doctor, David, thought Mulder with a snort, had released her with a clean bill of health.  They drove in silence to a local restaurant that Steve Forman had recommended.

            Finally, thought Scully, looking at the cool grey clouds, weather that I have clothes for!

            Mulder was thinking the exact opposite, Today of all days!  I've got to stand out in this mess for the next five hours.  He sighed.  He was miserable.  He had not had a good reaction to the tetanus shot, which was normal for him.  He spent most of the night in the bathroom.  Between vomiting and cold sweats, he had gotten nearly no sleep.  He had a knot on his hip the size of a robin's egg, and still felt queasy.

            The previous night's tension was behind them.  They were a team, and were investigating an X-File.  All they had was each other to rely on.  Mulder spent the first few minutes apprising Scully of his late-night trip to the Depot, and seeing X. 

            "So, what do we do now that we know X is involved?" asked Scully. "Do we need to change our strategy?"

            "No, I think that splitting up is still a good idea," said Mulder.  "The dedication and ribbon cutting at the incinerator could even draw X out into the open.  I'll attend the party, but you need to go to the lab in Colorado Springs and see if you can help quantify the protein.  We need to know how it ticks, and how to get rid of it." he said.

            "I'll drop you off at the car rental place so you can get yourself a car.  We'll both need to stay mobile until this is over," said Scully, standing up.  She was wearing a tailored pantsuit that hid the bruise on her calf.  She started to put on her raincoat, and, losing her balance, stumbled into the table.  Mulder caught her arm.

            "Hey, careful there," he said, "You don't want to go banging up that leg again."  Scully grimaced.  The muscles in her calf had taken the brunt of the venom, and had weakened considerably.  She would need some therapy when she returned to Washington.

            "You should talk," she said, pointing to his foot, and noting his pale complexion, "you're not in much better shape."  She felt concerned for him, and just a bit guilty.

            He grinned ruefully.

            "Well, let's get this show on the road," he said.  "I've already called Steve to tell him that I would attend the dedication.  He and a couple of his guys will be there, too.  The dedication will probably draw several state senators, and I understand the Governor will be there, as well."

            "Lucky you," said Scully, "I'll be spending my day with a killer protein."

                                                                         *  *  *

            Mulder parked his rental car in the parking lot, and, seeing Steve, gingerly walked toward him.  He noticed three other men standing close to Steve, and he assumed they were Steve's men.  He didn't remember them from the investigation on site.  You can always spot an FBI agent, he thought, they stand out.  All were wearing raincoats and dark suits.  He wondered how the FBI and CIA managed to catch anyone.  The bad guys must see them coming a mile away.

            Mulder raised his hand over the crowd in the parking lot.  Steve caught the movement and motioned him over.  He introduced Mulder to the two other agents.  Two? thought Mulder, I thought there were three.  Mulder pulled Steve to the side, and said, "How many guys do you have out here?"

            "Just me and two others," said Steve with a shrug, "Why?"

            "As I was walking toward you, I noticed another man in a long coat, who looked like an agent.  Could he be security for the site or one of the dignitaries?" asked Mulder.

            "No, I know most everyone out here.  Would you recognize him again if you saw him?" asked Steve, instantly regretting the question.  Mulder had a photographic memory; of course he would remember the man.

            "Absolutely," said Mulder, ignoring the slip, "We'd better fan out and keep an eye out for him.  You'll be able to spot him in a minute, Steve.  He looks just like one of us.  But, if he's not one of us, he could be trouble."

            All thoughts of the incinerator dedication, and the pain in his hip and foot, were pushed out of Mulder's mind as he searched the faces in the crowd for the man in the long coat.  Newspaper and television reporters were everywhere, and senators and congressmen mingled with the crowd.  Mulder took the precaution of removing his weapon from its holster and putting it in his pocket.  He didn't want to start a panic, but needed to be prepared.  It could be nothing, he thought, maybe I'm just getting paranoid.  But he didn't think so. 

            Suddenly, he saw the man, moving with studied motions toward the podium, where the Governor, whom Steve had pointed out to him, was talking with a reporter.  Mulder tried to move through the sea of people, cutting the shortest path to intercept the man.  He ignored a sharp pain in his foot, realizing belatedly that it had started to bleed again, feeling the wetness soaking through the dressing.  Mulder watched as the man reached underneath his trenchcoat, and started to remove something.  Steve had seen Mulder as he took off across the crowd, and spotted the man reaching into his coat at the same instant that Mulder did.  Steve reached into his coat as well, and started to cut an interception course from the opposite direction.  Mulder was stymied by a camera crew just setting up.  He got his feet caught in the cords as he tried to cut around them, nearly tripping.  He knew that he wouldn't reach the man in time now, but saw Steve headed that same direction.

            Steve decided to end the parry and thrust, and began moving with deliberate speed now, pushing people out of the way roughly, as the man reached the Governor.  He launched himself into the air in a flying tackle, catching the man at waist level and bringing him to the ground in a tangle of feet and arms.  A 9mm automatic, fitted with a silencer, clattered to the ground.  The man tried to get up and get away, but Steve stunned him with a right uppercut, and began to roughly handcuff him.

            The Governor's security team, just realizing what had nearly happened, came forward and took over, removing the man to a waiting car.

            The Governor looked ashen.  The reporter, having seen what had just transpired, and realizing that she had an exclusive, tried to get the Governor to comment on the gunman.  Naturally, he wouldn't.  The reporter then tried to pin down Steve to get his story, asking how he realized that there was a problem, and praising his quick response.  Steve also declined to comment, leaving the reporter looking frustrated.  She returned to her camera crew to start her "exclusive" report on the attempted assassination of the Governor.

            Mulder came over to where Steve was talking with the Governor. Steve looked decidedly embarrassed.  "Well, thank you, sir," he was saying, "but really, I was just doing my job."  The Governor continued to praise Steve, to the agent's consternation.  When Steve was finally able to break away, he let out a sigh.

            "Hey, you should be happy," said Mulder, teasingly.  "You're going to get a medal for your troubles."

            "Yeah, but it shouldn't be my medal, Mulder.  You spotted the guy, not me.  If you hadn't noticed him, I would be standing here trying to explain how I let the Governor be killed." said Steve.

            "You were quicker than me, that's all.  The important part is, the guy was caught before he did any damage." said Mulder.

            Steve nodded, realizing that Mulder was correct.

                                                                         *  *  *

 

            Scully had a pleasant drive to the lab in Colorado Springs, gazing with an emotion approaching reverence at the majestic peaks that towered above the flat prairie, the tops hidden by the low mist.  Beyond the mountains peeked ominous, midnight blue clouds threatened a later storm.  The ribbon of highway had been baked to a sandy grey.  The lines of tar that filled numerous cracks slipped by her in complex patterns, looking like a secret language.

            She arrived at the lab and was met by several lab technicians.  After she was brought up to date, they began to test the protein in earnest.  Many hours later, Scully had finally been able to isolate the molecule that attached to the nerve ending, absorbing the enzyme, and separated this "pure protein" for further testing. 

            She again looked into the microscope, her fingers, in the clean suit, expertly adjusting the dials to bring the slide into focus.  Damn! she thought, It's still alive.  Between she and the other technicians at the lab, they had subjected the protein to every imaginable torture, attempting to see what would destroy, inhibit, or otherwise render it harmless.  It's a hardy beast, she thought. 

            It seemed to be able to live in the atmosphere for an unlimited time without food, laying dormant until its next meal came along.  Various acids, such as sulfuric and hydrochloric, had killed the protein, but only in quantities sufficient to also kill the host.  They had done tests on animals, creating a weak dilution of the protein, which they injected into lab animals.  It fed on any living creature with a nervous system, including mammals, birds, fish and . . . as they had already determined, humans.  It seemed to adapt nicely to its host.  If the particular enzyme was not available, it killed just as effectively by using another enzyme as a food source, all in the blink of an eye.  They had determined that it could transfer from host to host either by absorption through the skin or by ingestion, in the same manner as a nerve gas.

            Scully was getting a headache.  She had been looking at slides and performing tests all day, and still had little more information than when she arrived.  The protein seemed impervious to their best efforts.  The perfect biological weapon, she thought.  Thank God nobody used it during one of the wars.  It could have been the end of humanity.  She decided to call it a day.  The other technicians looked beat, as well.  They headed out of the clean room, checking for rips in each others suits before they disrobed.  Nobody dared consider what would happen if the protein got out of the clean room.  The agents on the site had been extremely fortunate that they hadn't become infected while taking samples. 

            One of the techs, Tim, handed Scully the results of the test on the fabric from the day they arrived, as well as the urine samples from the two employees at the Track.  She had nearly forgotten about the requested tests.  It was hard to believe it was only two days ago. 

            Her eyebrows raised.  Mulder had been on to something, after all.  Both the fabric in the pants and shirt showed traces of platinum.  The concentration was higher in the scorched fabric at the edges than in the protected area.  At the moment, she didn't know what it meant, but she would keep it in mind. 

            The tests of the urine also surprised her.  The sample did indeed show the absence of the enzyme, but by inhibition by a nerve gas.  She did not recognize the composition of the gas immediately.  There was no trace of the protein, however.  Interesting, she thought.

            She cleaned up and said good-bye to the other technicians.  She would be back in the morning, she said, to check on the experiments.

                                                                         *  *  *

            The gunman sat in the back of the car, his hands cuffed behind him.  Next to him in the back seat, one of the Governor's security team sat, watching the scenery zip by outside the window.  As the car accelerated on the highway towards Denver, without warning, the driver of the car turned around and casually shot the security man between the eyes, the blood and tissue splattering on the gunman.

            "You failed," said the driver.

            "I know," said the gunman.

            "What went wrong?" asked the driver.

            "He couldn't get to me in time," said the gunman, looking annoyed, "I think his foot is still bothering him.  Shall I try again?"

            "No," said the driver, looking into the rearview mirror to reveal his dark skin and greying beard, "he recognizes you now.  He has a photographic memory.  You won't be able to get close enough again.  Go after the woman.  I'll get him out of the way myself."

            "Dispose of her?" asked the gunman, cocking his head.

            "No!" said the driver, a trifle too sharply, "Just inconvenience her enough to keep her out of the way.  But make sure that she knows why she is being inconvenienced."  His eyes narrowed in the rear view mirror.  "Under no circumstances are you to kill either one without my express approval.  Is that understood?"

            "Of course."  The gunman felt irritated with himself, and embarrassed, that the leader would have to remind him of his duties.

            The car suddenly turned onto an exit, tires shrieking in protest, the lead car not noticing that they had disappeared.  The driver turned the car to the left, stopping the car abruptly under the highway overpass, and nearly spilling the gunman onto the floor.  He got out of the front seat, opened the rear passenger door, and searched the dead security guard for his keys.  He found them, and removed the handcuffs from the gunman.  "This is the last time that I'll assist you," said the leader, "If you fail again, you won't live to work for us again."

            "I understand." he replied.

            The leader got into a waiting car, driving back onto the exit the way he had come, leaving the gunman to find his own way back.

 

 

 

Chapter 13

 

 

;U.S. Army Chemical Disposal Project

Pueblo, Colorado

March 27 - 12:15 p.m.

 

 

            As the tour of the incinerator facility continued, Mulder had the opportunity to look around unobtrusively.  Since the attempt on the Governor's life, the FBI agents and other security teams had spread through the facility, looking for anything out of place, searching for anything suspicious, in case the gunman was not the only planned attempt.

            Once Mulder had identified himself to the plant personnel, he was left alone to look into normally secured areas, looking for. . . what?  He didn't know exactly what he was looking for yet, but would know it when he saw it.  The incinerator was beginning to fire up, its powerful furnaces roaring into life, waiting for its first meal.  He casually listened to the speel of the tour guide, her grey and red dress visible through the crowd.  Suddenly, a word that she spoke cut through his thoughts.  He walked back over to the tour group.

            "The chemicals will be placed, still in their plastic containers, into the holding area," she said, gesturing towards a large steel door in the wall.  "A conveyor belt will move the drums into the furnace," she said, leading the group toward a thick glass window where they could see drums on the belt.  "These sample barrels are empty, just for show," she continued. 

            "I understand that the steel drums in which the chemicals were originally contained have been disposed of.  Are they considered hazardous waste?" asked a reporter, raising his pocket recorder over the crowd to catch the answer.

            "The chemical was removed from their original steel barrels at a different location," she replied, smiling.  "The standard procedure for disposal of the drums is to wash them with water several times and crush them.  The water is then treated to remove any residual chemical and returned to use.  The barrels are stored as hazardous waste.  We hope at some point in the future we will have the technology to remelt the steel at the mill and use it in some manner." she said, pointing west to where the silhouette of tall smokestacks could be seen in the distance.  People nodded their heads.

            "Excuse me, Miss," said Mulder, raising his hand, "but I was across the room when you were discussing the catalytic converter.  How did it work again?"

            The tour guide recognized the man in the dark suit as one of the FBI agents that had saved the Governor's life, and said, smiling, "Let me start the group on watching the firing, and I'll meet you by the equipment to explain it."

            Mulder nodded, separating himself from the group, and moving to the catalytic converter.  She met him a moment later. 

            "The catalytic converter is one of the most important elements in the low temperature incinerator," she began.  "The chemical gases will be forced by the heat through this chamber," she continued, pointing up.  Mulder's eyes followed her motion.  "The catalyst, a platinum coated ceramic, will react with the chemicals, rendering them harmless." she concluded.

            "What happens if it doesn't work?" Mulder asked.

            "What do you mean?" the guide asked, brow furrowed.

            "What happens if the catalyst reacts with the chemicals adversely?" he responded.

            "Sir, the chemists and other experts have checked the composition of each and every chemical on the Senate-approved list, and I can assure you that no chemical that will be burned here will react in any way other than what is intended." She sounded quite sure of herself.

            Yes, thought Mulder, but what about the chemicals not on the approved list?

            He was on to something, he knew.  It had something to do with X and the drums that were being unloaded at the Army Depot.  He needed to go back there tonight, before the incineration began two days from now, and he would need Scully's help.

                                                                         *  *  *

            The rain had started in earnest as Scully sprinted to her car, as quickly as her leg would permit, her hair and clothing barely getting damp.  She was surprised at how rapidly the storm had moved in, the black clouds rolling across the landscape, bringing lightning and heavy rain.  She started the car, immediately turning on the headlights and windshield wipers.  The previously grey road was suddenly transformed to shiny black, as she drove on the interstate back toward Pueblo.

            She turned the radio on, finding a light rock station.  As she reached highway speed, the sound from the storm forced her to turn the radio up.

            She was almost halfway there when she realized that she was shivering.  A cold wind was pushing through the vents, and she turned on the heater.  Unlike Mulder, she drove the speed limit except in case of an emergency.  Because of the rain, she could see no need to travel faster tonight.  Cars passed her in the left lane, sending sprays of water into her windshield.  She turned the wipers up to full until the dirty spray had been removed.

            She saw a road sign that identified an upcoming rest area, and she thought briefly that she should stop.  Another car pulled into the left lane, intending to pass, and she prepared to move the wipers up to high again.  The car passed, and her finger started to twitch the lever, until she realized that no spray had come from the tires of the passing vehicle.  She realized that the cold wind she felt had caused the rain on the road to ice over.  She let her foot off the accelerator to slow down.  She hoped that other people would realize that it had become icy.  Only a few more miles to go, she thought.

            A black 4-wheel drive truck with jacked up tires came up quickly behind her, seeming impatient that she was traveling at such a slow speed.  It quickly pulled into the left lane, and Scully held her breath.  It didn't slide.  It passed her with a roar, easily 20 miles an hour faster than her.  The truck suddenly slammed on its brakes as the rear quarter panel was abreast of her fender, and the truck started to skid.  It slid into her lane, forcing her to crank her steering wheel violently to the right to avoid being hit.  She could feel the car go out of control, the brakes and steering wheel useless.  She slid sideways, and the headlights revealed to her the rapidly approaching gully off to her right.  She hoped she had rented the model with an airbag, as her hands gripped the steering wheel until her knuckles were white.

                                                                         *  *  *

            It was over in a moment, the airbag releasing on cue as the car skidded to a stop.  Scully shook her head, trying to clear it.  She had been certain that she would hit the gully, and wondered why she didn't.  The rain had stopped, and light snow had begun to fall.  She opened the car door, and, using a penlight that was on her keychain, checked the landscape around her.  She was glad that she had the foresight to point the light down, as well.  She had hit the gully after all.  The car was straddling the gully, the front wheels on one side, the back wheels on the other.  She was relieved, but knew that the car would remain where it was until a tow truck could come for it.

            She got her cellular phone out of her bag, and opened it.  There was no comforting green light, and no display information.  She realized that the batteries must have died.  She should have replaced them when she was at the motel, or at least grabbed a spare for her purse.  Frowning and berating herself for her own carelessness, Scully cautiously lowered herself into the gully, being careful not to move the car out of position.  She scaled the muddy walls of the gully onto the side of the road, her weakened calf muscles protesting.  Climbing was no easy task while carrying her bag and her valuables from the car.  She had no intention of giving thieves an excuse to take her things.  She was now past the rest stop, but remembered that there was a large truck stop just a mile or so down the road.  She started walking, quickly becoming soaked to the skin from the snow and passing cars.  She doubted that anyone would see her in the rain, and wearing dark clothes.

            She had only traveled about a quarter of a mile when she saw a white car flash past her, and then pull over, yellow warning lights on top of the car starting to flash, as it began to back up.  She moved closer to it, seeing the reflective strip spelling out "State Patrol" on the back of the car. 

            She gratefully opened the passenger door, feeling the warm air from the car hit her near-frozen face and fingers.

            "You definitely look like you need a ride," said a dark haired man in a trooper uniform.  "Hop in."

            Scully got in, and said, "Thanks for stopping.  I was afraid that I would have to walk all the way to the truck stop."

            "That's what we're here for, Ma'am," he said, smiling, "to protect and serve.  You really looked like you needed protecting.  Most people have coats with them in weather like this.  It's probably only about ten degrees out there with the wind chill.  How did you come to be out here?"

            "My car went off the road back a quarter mile or so.  If you could give me a ride to the truck stop, I can call an auto club to come get me." said Scully, still shivering.  She had gratefully accepted the thermos of coffee that the trooper offered, the cup beginning to warm her stiff fingers.  No cream for the coffee, but beggars can't be choosers.

            "I doubt you would have made it to the truck stop before hypothermia set in,"  said the trooper, grimly.  "It's probably the worst danger of weather like this.  It's awful easy to take the warm weather for granted and forget that it's still mostly winter at this elevation." said the trooper.

            "I have been properly chastised," said Scully, guiltily.  "I promise to carry a down coat with me in the future."

            They drove the rest of the way to the truck stop, and Scully told the trooper her name and that she was with the FBI.  The trooper said that he was always happy to help out another branch of law enforcement.

            The patrol car pulled into the brightly lit parking lot of the truck stop, and stopped in front of the door.  His handsome face smiled as she got out of the car, "Try to be a little more careful in the future Ma'am," he said as a trucker came out of the entrance to the restaurant. 

            "I will, and thank you again," said Scully, returning his smile and shutting the door.

            "Oh, and Agent Scully," said the trooper, opening the power window near her only a fraction to avoid the snow from entering.

            "Yes," she said, turning and facing the window, still smiling.

            Her smile froze on her face.

            The trooper's face had undergone a complete transformation.  His eyes were cold; calculating, and his face revealed no emotion.  His voice was filled with menace as he said, "Your inquiry has taken you into areas where you are not welcome.  I would suggest that your future ability to drive would best be served by stopping your investigation into matters that do not concern you and returning to Washington."  With that said, he shut the window, and drove across the parking lot and onto the highway.

            Scully felt a cold chill that had nothing to do with the temperature outside.  She had a feeling that somewhere down the road, the man that just gave her a ride would trade his squad car for a black, 4-wheel drive truck with jacked up tires. 

                                                                         *  *  *

            Mulder was growing worried.  It was unlike Scully to be this late without calling.  He was afraid that trouble had found her, like it had found him moments ago.  He knew that X was involved, but had thought that X was unaware of his and Scully's presence.  That illusion had been shattered in a twinkling.

            As he stared out into the night, the heavy snowflakes coming down like sloppy rain, he remembered the icy feeling that came over him as he felt the familiar hand grab his shoulder as he walked from his room, instantly, and expertly, finding the nerves in his neck that prevented Mulder from turning to face his visitor.

            "Agent Mulder," said X, by way of greeting.  "As always, don't try to turn around."

            "I don't know why this game still amuses you," said Mulder coldly, wincing at the pain as X dug his fingers deeper into the nerve, "I already know what you look like."

            "Amusement has no place in my line of work," replied X, easing his grip slightly.  "The less you know about me, the safer for your career and your life."

            "What do you want?" asked Mulder, hoping to terminate this interview as quickly as possible.

            "What I want is immaterial," said X.  "On the other hand, what my employers want is for you to discontinue your investigation into matters that don't concern you."

            "I believe that the matters I'm investigating are essential to finding the truth.  I'm not interested in what you and/or your employers want," said Mulder, icily.  "Trust me, under normal circumstances, I wouldn't be within a mile of any operation you were involved in.  However, the death of the engineer, of which you no doubt are aware, was caused by exposure to . . ." began Mulder.

            "Listen to me, Agent Mulder," said X, his voice filled with deadly menace, "I don't have the time nor the inclination to listen to your wild theories or rationalizations.  Stop your investigation now . . . or risk the consequences.  I cannot continue to protect you or Agent Scully if you persist in this line of inquiry." 

            "How exactly have you been protecting us?" asked Mulder, with a short sarcastic laugh.

            There was a brief silence.

            X's voice sounded surprised as he responded, "Both you and Agent Scully are still alive, Agent Mulder, and your movements are, so far, unrestricted.  I have advised my associates that you are not to be harmed, but you are being watched.  I cannot guarantee that the others with me will continue to submit to my whims."

            His voice dropped to a harsh whisper.  "I'm quite aware that you were watching us the other night.  I allowed you to do so then, and allow you to continue now because I know that you seek the truth.  But, as your search begins to interfere with my duties, I must draw a line.  You'll have to decide in your own mind if the price of crossing that line is worth the truth you seek."

            Then he was gone, disappearing into the shadows without a sound.

            The pressure was suddenly released from the nerves in Mulder's neck, and he felt lightheaded and ready to vomit.  He sagged against the door of his room, feeling his legs nearly give way under him.  He would have to learn that neck trick.  He felt like he had been mugged by Spock on Star Trek.

            And so he stood on the balcony at the motel watching the driving snow, his stomach in knots.  He hoped that Scully hadn't found herself a victim to a more serious warning.  Mulder felt no particular need to defend or protect Scully.  He had absolute faith in his partner's ability to defend herself from both physical and mental attacks.  He just wished he knew where she was.

            Just then, a 18-wheeler pulled into the parking lot of the motel.  The passenger door opened, and a familiar figure began to climb out.

            "Thanks for the ride, John," said Scully.  "I'll be okay now."

            "No problem, Dana," said the driver, John.  "Give me a call when you get back to Washington, and we'll have lunch.  Take care."

            Scully shut the cab door and climbed to the ground.  The semi pulled back out onto the slushy highway, heading east.  Mulder took stock of her condition as she climbed the steps to where he was standing.  Her red-gold hair was caked with mud and plastered to her head.  There was mud on her face, her clothing, and her bag.  Her clothing was soaked with snow, and stuck to her legs and back.  She strongly resembled a drowned cat.  She was humming a tune that seemed familiar, but he couldn't place the name.

            "Dare I ask?" asked Mulder as she reached the spot where he stood, his voice filled with equal parts of concern and amusement.

            "It's a long story, Mulder." said Scully, sounding bone-weary, but still humming the little tune.

            "Well, you can tell me about it while you change.  We have a quiet little night job to do." said Mulder.  She really did look terrible.

            She looked at him, stunned, eyes blazing, "The only thing I intend to change into, Agent Mulder, is a flannel nightgown, immediately after a long, hot shower.  I have no intention of going with you on a 'quiet little night job'." she said, turning her key in the lock of her room.

            "Scully," said Mulder, with rising anxiety, "Just hear me out.  I have a feeling that something very bad is about to happen . . . soon."

            The tone in his voice made Scully turn.  She searched his face.  He wore an expression now familiar to her after years of working with him.  The expression said that the world as she knew it was about to change forever, and only the two of them together could fix the problem.

            "All right," she said, with a deep sigh, "Come in while I shower and tell me what you've learned."

            Through the bathroom door, shouting over the shower, he told her about X's visit, about the incinerator trip, and about the platinum catalytic converter.  She, in turn, told him about her lack of success with destroying the protein, about the results of the lab tests on the urine and the fabric, and about her encounter with the truck/patrol car driver. 

            He explained his theory that the black drums that were being unloaded at the Depot by X and his people had something to do with the protein.

            "So," explained Mulder, "If I'm right, the nerve gas that you found in the urine of Toby Granger and Kim Delaney is the same substance in those barrels.  How that relates to the protein, I don't know.  The fact that the incinerator uses a platinum catalyst, and we found platinum at the accident scene has some bearing as well, I'm sure.  We'll only know once we get a sample.  Now,", he mused, "We can't exactly walk up to the Depot and ask the guards to give us a sample of whatever's in those barrels to run tests on . . ."

            Scully examined her body as she showered and listened to Mulder.  She found no bruises other than her leg, which had taken a further beating.  She was going to have to find an elastic bandage to shore up that muscle if she was going to finish this assignment.  "Which means that we're somehow going to have to get a sample without asking, right?"

            Mulder grinned.  "You catch on quick.  The question now, is how?  You're the scientist, Scully.  How do we get a sample of a deadly liquid in a sealed drum, without exposing ourselves to it?"

            Scully came out of the bathroom, steam rolling out after her, drying her hair with a towel.  Her quilted robe felt warm against her skin.  "I've been working on that.  We'll need to stop by the hospital.  I think I can get the equipment I need there.  We'll need gas masks, though, and I don't have access to any."

            Mulder stood up, and walked toward the window.  He bent the slats of the mini-blinds down with a finger, and looked out.  The snow had stopped, and the world was covered in white.  The highway just beyond the parking lot was wet, but clear of snow.  "I have to assume that appropriate equipment is available at the Depot.  While I was out there, I saw a way to get into the building.  Once inside, we'll split up.  You try to find the drums that I marked with this," he said, holding up a red marker, "and I'll find an equipment locker.  I don't know what sort of security they have inside the building, but keep your head down."

            Scully nodded in response.  She was rubbing lotion on her arms.  The water here was harder than back home, and was drying her skin out.

            "By the way, who's the trucker that brought you back?" Mulder asked, turning to face her.

            "His name's John Jacob.  He's a Federal Marshall investigating port-of-entry fraud.  We met at the truck stop.  Luckily, he was able to give me a ride without blowing his cover."

            Something clicked in Mulder's brain.  He had suddenly recognized the tune that Scully had been humming.  He groaned, shutting his eyes tightly and covering his face with his hands.

            "If I didn't know that you were a Girl Scout before, I certainly do now," said Mulder, his face showing visible pain.

            "What?" asked Scully.

            "You didn't really hum that tune while you were riding in the truck, did you?" asked Mulder, hopefully.  "If you did, you probably set the Bureau back twenty years."

            Scully realized that she had been caught, and looked at him sheepishly.  "No, I didn't hum out loud.  I just couldn't get the song out of my head," she said.

            Mulder shook his head in amazement.  While it had been, and continues to be, a traditional Girl Scout and Boy Scout campfire song, 'John Jacob Jingleheimer Smith', is not exactly a ditty intended to win friends and influence people, especially people with the name, 'John Jacob'.

            "See," said Scully, "Now you've started me up again.  I'll be humming that damn song in my head the rest of the night."

            "Serves you right.  It's just retribution for thinking of it in the first place." replied Mulder, handing her a black turtleneck that matched his own, and black stirrup pants.  "Get dressed.  We have places to go."

 

 

Chapter 14

 

 

St. Mary's Hospital

Pueblo, Colorado

March 28 - 12:15 a.m.

 

 

            It was after midnight when Mulder and Scully arrived at the hospital.  They had waited intentionally until David Angeletti was off duty.  He would ask too many questions.  While Mulder waited in the car, Scully went in through the emergency room entrance.  Since she had been there several times before, she had no problem gaining access to the lab facilities, merely flashing her badge to the nurse on duty, who responded with a nod and a smile.

            The lab technician on duty, Ray, was the same one that she had worked with during the autopsy.

            "Agent Scully," Ray said with a smile, looking slightly surprised, "You're out late.  What brings you to my home away from home?" he said, his tired eyes showing how long he had been on duty.

            "Actually, two things," said Scully, "First, do you have an elastic bandage?  My leg has really been bothering me lately."

            "This is a hospital.  Of course we do," he said, stepping out of the room briefly, and returning with a rolled bandage in a sterile package. 

            She sat down, raised her pant leg over her calf, and expertly wrapped the bandage around the injured leg.  The bandage constricted slightly as she sealed the end with the accompanying clips, and she felt some of the throbbing ease.

            Ray Stanton watched her with bemusement.  He sipped his coffee, sitting on the counter next to her, and said, eyes twinkling, "You could have gotten a bandage at the local drug store.  What are you really here for?"

            Scully felt a flush rising into her cheeks.  She breathed deeply, calming herself, and said, "Secondly, I need a favor."

            "Which is?" he asked, taking another sip of coffee.

            "I need a heavy duty syringe with a screw on cap and a spinal tap needle."

            Ray raised his eyebrows.  "Not your average request for . . .", he said, looking at his watch, "nearly one in the morning.  Should I even bother to ask why?"

            "Not if you want an answer," she said, somewhat sheepishly.  "It's very important, though.  I'll owe you one." she continued, hopefully.

            "Do I get to pick the 'one'?" he asked, wiggling his eyebrows teasingly.

            Scully laughed, feeling a little punchy.  She liked the people here.  "Maybe," she said slyly, responding to the tease.

            Now Ray began to laugh, as well.  "Well, if nothing else, you've brightened an otherwise dull evening."  He stood up, walked to a locked cabinet, produced a key, and opened it with a slight flourish.

            "There you are, my dear," he said with a sweeping bow, quickly standing up, "Take what you will, but leave me my heart," he said in a melodramatic manner, the back of his hand pressed against his brow.

            Scully responded with her best Scarlett O'Hara accent, batting her eyes, "Oh, thank you, kind sir.  Now the South may rise again."

            They looked at each other and burst out laughing.  They laughed until they were in tears.  The nurse peeked in the doorway, and shook her head.  Night duty was often strange.

            Scully was still chuckling as she brought a large sack of items out to the waiting car.  She had felt like a kid in a candy store.  She was sure that Ray wondered what on earth she was doing.

            "You were in there long enough.  Any problems?" asked Mulder, shifting the car into Drive.

            "No, no problems," said Scully, bursting into laughter again.

            "Care to let me in on the joke?" asked Mulder, amused.

            "Private joke.  You wouldn't get it." responded Scully.  Mulder just shook his head as Scully continued to giggle.

                                                                         *  *  *

            They arrived at the Depot and parked the car out of sight of lights.  Scully had regained her composure, and had tucked her hair up under a black knit cap and put on black gloves, so that only her face revealed her presence in the darkness.  They moved in unison, communicating by expressions and gestures.  They had been a team long enough that they could anticipate each other's actions.  They found a concealed spot at a slightly higher elevation where they could observe the front gate, and assumed prone positions.  They breathed shallowly in the cold air, so that only a limited amount of steam rose with each breath.  Mulder brought out a small tin of black greasepaint, and they quickly and silently applied it to their faces, creating lines and shadows that would help camouflage them further.

            Scully brought a pair of small, high-powered binoculars up to her eyes.  She moved forward slightly and raised her upper body on her elbows.  She whispered a commentary of what she observed to Mulder.

            "There are two guards patrolling the perimeter," she said, "One inside the fence, and one outside.  No dogs.  The perimeter is lit with flood lights about 100 feet out.  I don't think the guards are regular army," she said, "They look more like Special Forces.  They're both armed.  It's hard to tell the make, but they could either be Beretta M-P5s or Uzis.  Probably full automatic."

            Mulder knew most of this from his previous expedition out here.  He listened silently.

            "And . . . my, my!" she said significantly, eyebrows raised.  She turned her head to Mulder.  "They're fitted with flash suppressors."

            "Silenced full autos?  On guard duty?" responded Mulder, pursing his lips.  He hadn't noticed that last time.  "Well, now, isn't that interesting?!"

            Scully returned to her observations.  "The guards are good.  They stay opposite of one another as they circle, keeping each other in view."

            Mulder responded grimly, "They're good, but we're better.  What is their total time for one circuit, and are there any obstructions in their line of sight of each other?"

            Scully checked her watch before glassing the area slowly.  She watched silently as the guards made one full revolution of the site, and checked her watch again.  "Circuit time is 1 minute, 12 seconds.  Only one building separates them," she finally said.  "They're out of sight of each other for about 18 seconds, maybe a little more."  She put down the binoculars and eased back to a prone position next to Mulder.  "We can do it, but we'll have to take them both out simultaneously.  We don't know how many more are inside.  We can't risk raising an alarm."

            Mulder nodded slowly.  "I had a chance to look over the terrain when I was here this morning.  There's a small gully off to our left that will shield you from sight.  I didn't have time to walk the gully, though.  You'll have to be careful of obstacles under the snow.  Generally, there are large cactus out here, and probably animal dens."

            Scully grimaced.

            Mulder continued, "There'll be no cover for me.  I'll just have to go slow.  When you reach the edge of the fence, wait until you can see me.  We'll move into position together.  If there's trouble, try to make it back to the car and leave."

            Scully started to protest, "Mulder . . ."

            Mulder silenced her with a look.  "X told me that his people have instructions not to kill us, but we don't know how long that will last.  One of us needs to continue the investigation.  You know that."

            She nodded.  "And if I'm caught?" she asked.

            "The same rule applies.  I'll come back for you as quickly as I can.  I hope you'll do the same." he said quietly.

            Scully just looked at him.  No response was necessary.

            They checked their watches.  Scully's was a few minutes different and she took a moment to synchronize her's with Mulder's.  The correctness of the time wasn't important, just so long as they were the same. 

            She put the mini-binoculars back in her pack, alongside the equipment for removing a sample of the liquid.  She examined the pack again, nodding to herself as she silently checked the contents.  Mulder stood by as she went through the ritual.  He knew that she had checked the contents several times since they had gotten out of the car, but approved of her thoroughness.  She found the large plastic syringe with removable cap, and the long, thick needle normally used for obtaining spinal fluid.  The needle was still in its hard plastic holder.  She would not put the syringe together until the last minute.  She moved the binoculars aside and saw the penlight.  She didn't know what the lighting would be once inside the warehouse, and wanted to be prepared. 

            She removed the penlight from the pack, turned her back toward the fenced area, covered the lens tightly with her hand, and twisted the end cap with the other.  She could see a reddish glow play through her hand.  Good, she thought, the batteries are okay.  The warehouse was no place to find out that the batteries were dead.  However, remembering her previous experience in forgetting a spare battery for her phone, she had tossed a fresh pack of batteries in the small black pack, as well. 

            There was also a plastic bag containing a set of liquid resistant Tyvek coveralls, a pair of goggles, a roll of duct tape, PVC gloves, and a small disposable respirator.  If the liquid in the barrels was indeed nerve gas, they needed to be protected against spills.  If they couldn't find any gas masks, the disposable mask would do in a pinch.  Finally, her hand closed around a small .22 caliber derringer, which she removed and tucked into her sock beneath the stirrup.

            "Expecting trouble?" asked Mulder softly, looking from the derringer to her shoulder holster where her FBI issued Smith and Wesson 9mm hung silently.

            Scully smiled grimly.  "I always expect trouble.  I like having options."

            "Well, check to be sure your derringer is on safety.  We don't need you tripping and blowing a hole in your good leg." 

            Scully grimaced, and reached down, flipping the safety catch that would prevent the trigger from accidentally pulling. 

            Mulder took a moment to check his own weapon and pack.  His supplies were identical to Scully's, in case they had to split up.  And, like Scully, he carried a S&W 1056 stainless steel model automatic.  He verified that he had a full clip, and a spare loaded clip in a leg pocket.  He then patted his hip pocket, where a folding knife with a razor edge was stored.  He also liked to have options.

            Scully completed the inventory of her pack, and slipped her arms into the straps.  She cinched the stomach strap tightly around her slim waist, and turned from side to side quickly several times.  Mulder did the same.  There was no sound of the contents shifting.

            Mulder put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed slightly.  "Good luck, partner," he said.  "See you in a few minutes."

            Scully smiled, and reached her hand up to briefly rest on his.  "Let's do it."

            They moved their separate ways, heads low, into the darkness.

                                                                         *  *  *

            Mulder headed east toward the fence, circling right, while Scully circled left.  She entered the gully quietly.  Scattered clouds still hung over her, but the moon was bright.  Her eyes had adjusted to the darkness, and she could see shapes of rocks and plants in the gully.  She slowly looked around as she got her bearings.  The gully was wide and shallow.  It was probably was a riverbed during runoff.  There were grasses growing sporadically across its width, and, as Mulder had said, cactus dotted the ground.  The gully was just deeper than she was tall.  It would hide her well.  The sides of the gully were rounded and slightly undercut at the lip.  It would be difficult to climb back out without noise.  She would have to pick her route carefully.

            She shuddered as she imagined the gully full of water.  It would be a tremendous force, whitecaps breaking over the banks, thousands of gallons rushing at breakneck speed. 

            She would have given her eye teeth for a pair of night-vision goggles right now.  Unfortunately, in order to requisition them, they would have had to tell their superiors why they needed them.  In order to buy a pair, she would have had to pawn her car.

            She picked her way carefully, watching the snowy ground in front of her for evidence of any sudden depressions that could mean a nasty spill.  A sharp movement to her left caused her to suddenly freeze in place.  Keeping her body still, she turned her head slowly toward the sound.  A young doe looked at her with wide eyes, deciding whether to bolt away.  Scully realized that the doe must have been bedding down in the gully and she spooked it.  Scully decided it was best to ignore the doe.  The deer would make her exit silently, and circle back to her bed. 

            The snow was deep in spots, where rocks had interrupted the flow of the wind, and allowed it to settle.  Other places were dry, and the frozen grass made muted cracking sounds under her feet.  She moved softly like a deer, taking a few quick steps and stopping to listen.  She heard a coyote in the distance.  It would be easy to forget her mission, easy to just wander out here in the cold night, listening to the night sounds.  But then she remembered Roberto Lopez.  Her fists clenched.  Nobody should have to die like that. 

            She knew that the brain lived for several minutes after the body died.  What must have gone through his mind?  Did thoughts of friends and family fill his remaining minutes, or were his last seconds of comprehension filled with terror, knowing there was no hope?  David was right.  It was easy to forget the 'who'.  This. . . thing, whatever it was, was without feeling, without the ability to know who it killed.  It must be stopped.  It was up to her and Mulder to make sure that the tragic death that took Lopez did not ever claim anyone else.  She could see the lights of the Depot to her right.  The gully was beginning to swing north, and she would have to leave the safety of cover soon.  She wondered how Mulder was faring.

            Mulder was cold.  He chided himself that had he had any common sense, it would have occurred to him that he would be on his belly for most of the distance.  He should have worn a water resistant shirt.  He was soaked to the skin, and would probably have frostbite before the night was over.  The cold wind had already made his skin numb.   His hip still hurt, and his headache was coming back.  All in all, it was not one of his better nights.  He moved quickly, half crouched, across the prairie, flattening himself against the ground each time the guards came within sight.  He tried to plan where he would land when he dropped to a prone position, but twice now, small cactus, different than the tall yuccas that he could see, had gouged his skin through the fabric.  He could only move a few seconds at a time, during the time the guards had their backs to him.  During those seconds, though, he covered a lot of ground.  He ran seven miles each day, and swam at the pool whenever he could.  He could move fast when he needed to.          He heard a coyote sing to the moon.  Scully was probably already in position and was waiting for him.  He couldn't see her, but then, she was good at her job.  He shouldn't be able to see her until she was ready to be seen.  He was breathing hard when he reached the planned location near a bushy sagebrush, and spent several seconds calming himself and planning his next move.  He and Scully hadn't made any plan as to who would take out which guard.  The guard inside the fence would be more difficult than the one outside.  He would wait until Scully made herself known. 

            Scully had found a location near the barrier where the gully had undercut the soil beneath the fence.  It was an easy matter to enlarge the hole so she could fit through.  When she had completed this task, she backtracked slightly and waited for Mulder to appear.  She took off her backpack and removed the binoculars.  She scanned the area where Mulder should have ended up, but the glare from the lights was such that she couldn't focus properly in the dark.  Another good reason for night-vision goggles, she thought.

            The guard was beginning to walk past her.  She held her breath, and pressed her body back against the cut-out gully.  The guard passed her by without notice.  She decided to wait for the next revolution, and decided also on a risky move.

            She took off her cap.  Her hair was in a bun at the back of her neck.  She wiped off most of the greasepaint from her face with the back of her backpack.  As she mentally prepared herself for what was to come, she scrambled up from the gully to the prairie floor, with no sound.  She stood silently, making sure that the guard hadn't heard.  He hadn't.  He was just coming around again, and she stood silently in the darkness.  He didn't see her.  Her body shook from concentration as she approached the guard from the rear.

            She closed her eyes, and when she reopened them, they were steel blue and hard as iron.  Her stance resembled a general reviewing his troops.  She hoped this would work.  She would only have one chance, and it would have to be perfect.  She left her weapon holstered.

            As the guard passed her, she stalked out of the darkness toward him.

            "You are on report, soldier!" she said.  Her voice had a commanding edge, although she spoke quietly.

            The guard's back straightened by reflex, and he turned toward the voice.  He saw a small woman, wearing clothing nearly identical to his own, her face showing the remains of camouflage paint.  He started to raise his gun, but stopped when he saw her dismissive gesture.

            "It's too late to save your sorry ass now!  Lower your weapon and stand at attention!" she demanded.

            He hesitated. 

            "NOW!" 

            His training took over and he set his weapon on the ground and stood at attention. The woman was in front of him now, stalking back and forth like a tiger.  He didn't know who she was, but she was definitely command.  He saw now that she wore a sidearm.

            "If I had been the enemy, mister, you would already be dead!  While you've admiring the scenery, I've been walking around the perimeter for nearly ten minutes!  TEN MINUTES!"  He looked down at her.  "Eyes front, soldier." she said, her blue eyes boring into his.  He obeyed.  She was over a foot shorter than him.  With his eyes staring straight ahead, he could no longer see her.  He could only hear her drill sergeant voice.

            "Do you know why you are on report, soldier?" she asked.  The guard wasn't sure whether it was a rhetorical question.  He kept silent.  "DO YOU?" she repeated, poking him in the chest with her finger.  "And keep your voice down.  Your partner's not in any better shape than you are right now.  I don't want him getting any advance notice of this review."

            Scully was starting to enjoy this.  She had watched many times as her recently-deceased father, a Navy captain, had dressed down soldiers under his command.  She was pleased that his spirit was with her now.

            "No, sir, I mean ma'am, I mean, uh . . " stuttered the soldier.  She had shaken him badly.

            She looked up at him, her words biting like daggers, "You will address me as you would any commanding officer, soldier.  I am 'sir'!  You are NOTHING!  The Colonel sent me to review your performance," she continued.

            The guard broke into a sweat.  The Colonel!  He was in big trouble now.  He could get booted off this squad.  He stood rigidly, his eyes never wavering.  She walked around him, inspecting him as she would a particularly disgusting maggot.

            She was close enough now.  "Your performance has been pathetic!  You are on report for . . ." She shifted her weight suddenly, and brought a hard, booted foot up and sideways, planting it directly in the guard's solar plexus.  

            The guard bent forward slightly, stunned, his jaw dropping.  He knew now that this was wrong, but couldn't get enough breath to yell to his partner, or act.  She immediately stepped forward--

            "Dereliction . . ." and delivered a solid punch to the guard's open jaw.  His head slammed backward, the nerves behind his jaw shutting down from the force of the blow, and he fell to the ground unconscious.

            ". . . of duty!" she concluded, standing over him, shaking slightly with nervous energy.

            "God, the things I do for my country," she said.  She quickly and expertly removed the guard from sight, and used pre-torn strips of duct tape to cover his mouth and bind his hands and feet.  She unceremoniously dumped the comatose guard in the ravine, and returned to the spot where she had made the entrance under the fence.  She had to squeeze through the small opening.  She removed her pack and dragging it after her.  There was no way that Mulder would be able to make it under the fence at this spot.  She would have to open the gate.  She rapidly moved across the compound, staying in the shadows, watching for the second guard.

            Mulder couldn't see Scully anywhere in the glare of the overhead lights, but knew if she was there, she either had already, or was about to dispatch the outside guard.  He moved closer, wondering how to remove the inside guard.

                                                                          * * *

            The guard inside the fence had been out of visual contact with his partner for several seconds.  When the obstruction ended, he instinctively looked across to where his partner should be.  He wasn't in sight yet.  Feeling uneasy, he stopped moving and stood silently, waiting for his partner to reappear.  When he didn't, the guard began to search his own area for signs of intrusion.  He saw movement to his left, and quickly moved to a place where he couldn't be seen, weapon raised.  He saw an arm, clad in black, appear, and thought that it might be his partner.  He was wrong.  An intruder was just outside the fence!  He crouched forward slightly, and bent down on one leg.  He raised his rifle until the telescopic sight was at his eye, and waited for his opportunity to fire.

 

 

Chapter 15

 

;U.S. Army Chemical Disposal Project

Pueblo, Colorado

March 28 - 2:12 a.m.

 

            As Mulder cleared the obstruction, he moved, half-crouched, outside of the circle of light.  He had expected to see the guard slightly in front of him, but the guard was nowhere to be seen.  Had Scully already taken him out?  he wondered.  He moved forward toward the fence again, but stopped short as he saw a flash of light to his right.  A rifle sight!  He spun quickly, removing his weapon from its holster in one smooth movement, as he dropped to the ground, face-down, and rolled.  As he began to move, he saw another movement, one that the guard didn't see.  The last thing Mulder saw as he commenced rolling was Scully, spinning in a perfectly executed 360 degree hook kick that caught the guard in the side of the head. 

            Mulder got back to his feet and walked over to where Scully stood over the inert guard, tearing strips of tape.

            "About time you got here," he said easily.  He realized that he had been lucky she was there.

            "Mind your manners, or I'll wake him up and give him back his popgun." she said, teasingly.  She secured the guard in the same manner as the first, and, taking the guard's weapon, identical to the one that was now slung across her back, tossed it high, over the fence, into Mulder's waiting hands.

            After dragging the inert guard to a place hidden from view, she met Mulder near the front gate.  There was a control panel on both the inside and outside of the fence to open the gate.  Scully examined the panel and discovered that the mechanism required a card key to be swiped through the machine to unlock the gate.  She quickly returned to the unconscious guard and searched his clothing.  She found the card key, and, returning to the control panel, quickly swiped the card through the mechanism.  Both she and Mulder saw several lights flash on the panel and heard an audible click.  They looked expectantly toward the fence, but nothing happened.  They looked confusedly at each other for a moment, and then Scully looked back down to the control panel and grimaced.  Mulder chuckled.  The card key had merely opened a panel on the control face, and Scully now saw a new feature, the outline of a human hand, glowing slightly.  Both she and Mulder recognized the additional security feature.  The authorized person must place his hand on the panel for scanning.  If the fingerprints matched that in the computer records, the gate would open.  Scully also realized that her own handprint would not suffice.  Mulder had chuckled because he knew that Scully would now be required to drag the unconscious guard to the panel and place his hand on the panel to open the gate.

            "There must be an easier way," said Scully, with an exasperated breath.

            "Hey, wish I could help," said Mulder on the other side of the fence, hands raised in front of him in mock helplessness, still chuckling.

            "Oh, don't worry," replied Scully evilly, "you'll get to help.  You'll get to drag him over here for the trip out.  With any luck, he'll be awake by then.  I doubt he'll be very helpful."

            Mulder instantly stopped chuckling.

            He waited silently, watching for any movement that would indicate a third sentry, as Scully reached the guard.  She turned the guard onto his back, and, reaching under his armpits, began to slowly drag the guard backwards toward the front gate.  Her leg was throbbing again, protesting the constant demands placed on it tonight.  She knew she was probably setting her therapy back a week with each passing minute.  She was sweating by the time she had moved the guard the several dozen feet to the control panel.  She realized that she didn't have a knife to remove the duct tape. 

            Mulder, seeing the problem, said "Psst,"

            She looked over to see him remove a knife from his back pocket.  She smiled gratefully as he tossed it over the fence.  She caught it neatly, and removed the tape from his hands.  The guard, thankfully, remained unconscious.  She twisted his body and lifted it slightly, until his hand could reach the panel.  She was careful not to accidentally allow her hand to come into contact with the sensor panel.  The additional hand signature would probably set off an alarm or, at the least, lock the mechanism. 

            The guard's hand pressed against the sensor, and the machine, with a hum, blinked a green light.  The gate opened smoothly.

            Mulder came inside the gate shut it behind him.  There was no sense in alerting outsiders that there was anything amiss. He and Scully then re-taped the guard's hands and dragged him back to his place of concealment.  They found a piece of sagebrush and wiped down the area to obscure where they had moved the guard to and from the front gate through the sand.  Mulder picked up the knife and returned it to his pocket.  Scully looked at her watch.  It's getting late; or early; depending on how you look at it, she thought.  They had better speed up the process.

            They quickly moved to the edge of the grey, cinder block building and flattened themselves against the wall near an exterior door.

            "So, now what?" whispered Scully.  "How do we get in?"

            "Watch and learn," murmured Mulder, grinning.  He bent down and felt around the bottom edge of the door.  His finger found a indentation and he swung a false block to the side.  Scully watched in amazement as he reached inside the brick and plucked a key ring from a small hook.

            "You've got to be kidding!" she said quietly, stunned.  "After all the security at the gate, they left the key under the mat?"

            "They probably figured that nobody would make it this far," said Mulder.  "Luckily for us, when I was here the other night, I happened to notice one of the men retrieve the key from here."

            The key ring held four different sized keys.  He examined the lock briefly and found that it was a double-keyed deadbolt of standard manufacture.  He glanced at the keys on the ring and, choosing one with the same manufacturer's name, inserted it in the lock.  The key turned easily and he opened the door a crack.

            They looked through the doorway, weapons drawn.  They could see no movement inside the building.  Mulder reached down and closed the false brick until he heard a click. 

            Mulder opened the door just far enough for Scully to slip inside.  He watched the area carefully, weapon ready, until she was concealed inside.  When she was in place, she nodded to him.  They repeated the process, with Scully now watching the area, until Mulder joined her.  He took a moment to re-lock the exterior door and put the keys in his pocket.

            The warehouse was dark.  They both looked into the darkness and listened for nearly a full minute.  Neither of them could see any movement nor hear any sound.  There were no windows in the building, and they glanced at each other, deciding that it would probably be safe to turn on their flashlights.

            They both gasped as their flashlights revealed row after row of black plastic drums.  Hundreds upon hundreds of rows, each barrel identical to the one next to it.  Mulder felt a knot growing in his stomach as he realized that each drum probably contained enough concentrated nerve gas to wipe out a small town. 

            "My God," whispered Scully.  "Are all of these the same?"

            "Joe told me that they're burning everything from mustard gas to nerve gas to solid rocket fuel." Mulder said quietly, his voice sounding loud to him in the utter stillness.  "I don't know what's in them all.  We only want the ones that were brought during X's operation."  Mulder's mind flashed back to the night he was here, and he stood silently as his photographic mind replayed the scene for him.  Scully watched him, waiting for a sign. 

            "Here, follow me," he said after a moment, moving into the darkness, with only his small flashlight to guide him.

            Scully moved after him, stepping where he stepped, zig-zagging through the barrels until he stopped several rows in.  There was just enough room to stand between each row.

            "A lot of these barrels are new," he said, "but I think this is about the spot where they were positioning them the other night.  Probably the easiest way to find the ones I marked is to shine your light near the floor and look for a splotch of red.  Start here and move down each side of every row for about five or six rows, in that direction," he said, pointing to his left.

            Scully nodded.

             "I'll check the walls for lockers that might have gas masks.  If you find the right one, signal me and I'll come back.  If I don't have the masks yet, we can use the disposable ones." said Mulder in a whisper.

            "I'll be watching the floor, so, if you could, watch my back," Scully said quietly.

            "I always do--among other things," he said with a small smile.

            He retreated quickly, before she could respond.  She rolled her eyes and shook her head.

            He saw a row of eight lockers, and moved toward them.  He could see Scully's flashlight moving quickly along the line of drums, stopping briefly every time she examined the sides of a drum.  He reached the lockers and found, to his annoyance, that each one had a padlock.  Probably employee lockers, he thought. An idea struck him.  What the heck, I might as well try it, he thought, reaching for the key ring in his pocket.  He found a small padlock key on the ring, and tried it in the first lock.  It didn't open.  He tried the key on each subsequent lock.  When he reached the sixth locker, the key turned and the lock fell open.  Well, what do you know?! he mused.  He silently removed the lock and opened the door.  He smiled broadly.  Inside the locker were a medical kit and four full face respirators with accompanying air packs in harnesses.  This is almost too easy.  We must be living right, he thought.  He wouldn't have thought that if he could have seen the dark figure in the window on the second floor, overlooking the warehouse.  The figure quietly watched them, making no move to stop their actions.

            He removed two of the masks with air packs, and shut the locker quietly.  He returned the padlock to the latch, but left it unlocked.  He saw a flash of light to his left, and turned.  Scully was signaling to him that she had found the drum he marked.

            He picked up the gas masks, checking to be sure that each one was clean and had new filters in the pack.  He then checked the air hoses and assured that they were defect-free, and returned to Scully's side. 

            He noted that she had already taken off her backpack and was slipping into the Tyvek coveralls.  She put on the PVC gloves and he assisted her by using the duct tape to fasten the coverall over the glove, making a impenetrable seal. 

            He handed her a mask, and she re-checked the mask for any defects.  Since the masks had not been specifically fitted for either of them, she checked to make sure that the mask had a tight seal against her face.  When she was satisfied that the mask was functional, she placed it over her head and Mulder helped her adjust the harness.  He took his gear from his pack and repeated the process that Scully had just completed.  She taped his gloves for him, and helped him adjust his air pack.

            The respirators were designed to provide a positive pressure of air on demand, meaning that each time Mulder breathed, the mask would provide purified air that was drawn from the room and filtered through an element in the air pack.  He could hear his breath in his ears, sounding like an echo chamber.  He had taken lessons in breathing with a gas mask in hazardous materials classes, but each time it took a moment to remember to point his exhaled breath downward, so as not to fog the plexiglass plate over his eyes.

            Scully had no difficultly remembering how to breathe, and she was pleased that this type of respirator was available.  She liked the full facepiece, which provided sealed eye protection.  She preferred the pressure-demand type of respirator since if a leak developed in the unit, the mask would automatically send a continuous flow of clean air to the facepiece, allowing the person to escape the toxic environment without being overcome.

            Scully began to fit the syringe together, making sure that the needle was twisted together with the syringe properly so there would be no leaks.  She tried the plunger several times, holding her breath so she could hear the air flow into the syringe and then escape through the long needle. 

            She used Mulder's knife again to make a small hole in the plastic lid cap, and inserted the needle into the drum.  She tried to pull on the plunger once or twice since she didn't know how full the drum was.  Each time that she only pulled air, she would push the needle down further, until, on her third try, she began to see a yellowish fluid fill the syringe.  She continued to pull on the plunger until the body of the syringe was nearly full and then removed the needle.  Mulder was waiting with a small piece of duct tape, which he quickly placed over the hole they had made.  It would be noticeable, but they would be gone by the time anyone saw the tape.

            With her gloves and mask still on, she removed the needle from the syringe, being careful not to spill any of the liquid.  Mulder handed her the syringe cap, and she screwed it tightly onto the end.  Mulder handed her another piece of duct tape, and she placed the tape over the top of the cap, ensuring that it would not accidentally come loose while they were leaving.

            She returned the used needle to its hard plastic container, and sealed the end of the container with duct tape, as well.  She visually checked her gloves and found that she had not gotten any fluid on them.  She nodded to Mulder, and, picking up their packs and oxygen tanks, stepped out of the rows of drums before they began to remove their suits.  They didn't bother to remove the tape from the sleeves.  They merely pulled their hands out of the gloves into the sleeves of the coveralls.  They left the masks on until they had completely removed the coveralls and returned them to the resealable plastic bags inside their packs. 

            Mulder motioned Scully to follow him and they brought the gas masks back to the locker.  They wiped out the condensation that had formed on the inside of the masks with a cloth that Scully produced from her side pants pocket.  Mulder locked the padlock on the locker, and they returned to where they had left their packs.

            Mulder wondered whether the warehouse had an inside door to the incinerator next door.  He also wanted to get a sample of the platinum catalyst.  He spoke to Scully briefly, and they went to search for a doorway. 

            The dark figure in the second floor window watched while they departed and then disappeared from sight.  He reappeared in a few moments, emerging through the doorway on the stairwell, wearing black clothing similar to the clothing of the other two.  He silently moved across the floor to the drum where Scully and Mulder had just taken a sample.  He inspected the drum and found the marking that Mulder had made.  He swore under his breath, silently berating the people under him that allowed the drum to be marked.  When he discussed the matter with them, his reprimand would not be so silent.

            X was curious about what the two FBI agents were looking for.  He saw no harm; yet, in allowing them to take a sample from the drum.  He was uncomfortable enough about this operation that a part of him would welcome a halt to it.

            He stepped outside of the rows of drums. 

            Mulder had said that his investigation dovetailed with X's operation.  While X did not see the connection, he was willing to concede the likelihood of it.  Mulder would not go to this much trouble to thwart the destruction of weapons that he did not feel should exist in the first place. 

            X unconsciously drummed his fingers on the wall as he thought.  Mulder was difficult to categorize.  He was a maverick, a troubled genius that had his superiors either running scared or thinking of ways to outwit him.  He was too valuable an asset in the Violent Crimes Division to allow him to quit, and too much of a danger to the hierarchy if he simply disappeared. 

            X shook his head as he walked back upstairs.  He sat down in the dark in a large executive-style chair.  He leaned back, arms behind his head.  He had told his superiors that partnering Mulder with Dana Scully would be a mistake.  They had thought that they could control her and, through her, him.  X had immediately seen her independent streak, which allowed her to do what was, in her opinion, "right", even if it went against direct orders. 

            As teams went, Mulder and Scully were a superb one, using each other's strengths to shore up their own individual weaknesses.  It was a shame that they were not available in X's own operation.  They were both creative and resourceful, and, as such, an imminent danger to X himself. 

            X had never imagined himself being in the position he was in now.  He had, for many years, simply followed orders, no matter who profited or lost, or who died.  One day he looked in the mirror and found that he had become an embarrassment to himself.  When Mulder's previous information source, known to Mulder as "Deep Throat" died, X had found himself to be the unlikely heir, carrying on the battle against deception. 

            It was unfortunate that Mulder was so bright that he frequently became a danger to himself.  He was valuable, but not that valuable.  X found it necessary to occasionally rein Mulder in, keeping him off the track of knowledge that could destroy him.  X did it to keep his own position, as well.  Deep Throat had believed that his job was secure, and he could afford to take chances.  He was wrong.  X was under no such illusions, and knew he was useless to Mulder if he was dead.  He would have to watch the two agents closely until the drums were destroyed, lest they began to interfere with forces beyond X's control.

            He heard voices, and returned to the window to watch.

            Scully was carrying a vial of white powder, the granules of which appeared to be slightly between the size of powdered sugar and granulated sugar, which she handed to Mulder.

            "Okay, now that we've got the catalyst sample," said Scully, placing the sealed glass vial in Mulder's backpack, "Why don't you tell me what it is you're looking for."

            "Not here," said Mulder, moving quickly toward the exterior door, "It's nearly dawn.  I don't want to be here when the day shift shows up."

            Scully looked at her watch, suddenly realizing how long they had been there.  It was indeed time to leave.  She became quiet, and they both began to concentrate on getting out of the building, and the site, safely.  They picked up their packs and the automatic weapons they had liberated from the guards, and headed to the back door.

            The two agents stopped briefly before exiting to take a last look at the rank of black drums, mutely awaiting their own destruction.  Mulder's rage at the stupidity of man briefly enveloped him.  He had never been involved in a war, and found it hard to fathom man's ability to dehumanize other men, to look upon the same face from decade to decade, occasionally seeing a friend and ally, and other times seeing a demon from beyond.  The drums in front of them testified to the demon that exists in all men.  To intentionally cause intense pain and suffering, and terror, prior to death, all in the name of "defense", was, to Mulder, the ultimate horror.  He was glad that, at least for a short time, some men had come to their senses.  He knew others still existed in the world that were willing to use these weapons against the "enemy".

            He only wished that he could be sure that the destruction of these weapons would not unleash a new horror, one that his mind, even now, refused to admit except in vague abstractions.  He looked at Scully, and saw a similar rage in her eyes. 

            He took the keys from his pocket and opened the exterior door.  They quickly left the building, checking the perimeter in the cold pre-dawn, and finding it still secure.  Mulder re-locked the door and returned the keys to their hiding place, taking a moment to carefully wipe any leftover fingerprints off each key.  He and Scully moved quickly to where the guard still lay.  Scully had been right.  He was now awake and in no mood to cooperate.

            "Hey, wish I could help," said Scully, mockingly.  "He's your baby."

            Mulder shot her a dirty look and swore under his breath.

            Mulder squatted down beside the guard, who looked at him defiantly.

            He spoke quietly and with authority, removing his weapon from his holster and placing the barrel under the guard's chin.  "Now, let's be sensible about this," said Mulder, whispering in the guard's ear.  The guard showed no fear, and merely glared daggers at Mulder.  He was trained to die.  This did not bode well.  Mulder  continued to look at the guard, deciding how to handle the situation.

            The guard took that moment to strike out, his bound hands closing into fists as he pushed his full weight up and struck Mulder under the chin like a jackhammer.  Mulder fell back onto his back.  Scully immediately moved forward and aimed the sub-machine gun into the guard's face.  The guard dropped back, glaring malevolently at Scully.

            Mulder sat up, and wiped the back of his hand against his mouth.  He came away with blood from where he had bit his lip.  He looked up to see Scully smirking.

            "You're enjoying this, aren't you," asked Mulder, in a harsh whisper.

            Scully shrugged her shoulders and shook her head, feigning innocence.  She didn't quite get all of the smile off her face.

            Mulder got to his feet and squatted beside the guard again.  When he spoke, his voice was hard as nails.  The guard suddenly realized that this person was nobody to take for granted.

            Mulder had decided on his approach.  He picked up his pistol and rammed it roughly against the guard's crotch.  The guard's eyes lit up, and Scully winced.  "You know, the human body can sustain a great deal of damage before it finally dies," said Mulder, in an harsh, icy whisper, "Isn't that right, doctor?" he asked, looking toward Scully.

            Scully nodded wickedly.

            Mulder continued, "But the pain is excruciating.  I think it would be interesting to see how much you can stand before you pass out."

            The defiant look left the guard's eyes, and Mulder knew that the guard would cooperate.

            "That's better," said Mulder, taking his knife from his pocket.  He cut the tape on the guard's legs, and helped him to stand.  He left the tape on the sentry's hands and mouth.

            "We'll make sure that we leave you tied up.  Nobody will know you helped," said Mulder in a conspiring manner.  Scully followed them, the automatic weapon trained on the guard, just in case he changed his mind.