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Omens

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HORIZON, MONTANA
July 21, 1997 - 1:18 AM

The night was furious.

The dome of the firmament churned above the woman in the field, the clouds heavy and ripe as a bruise. The wind was fierce and bitter, and the woman’s nightgown whipped around her quaking body, clinging to her skin, the rain soaking through the white cotton.

She didn’t know how she got out here, with the wheat waist-high and thrashing around her. Wet hair flew into her mouth, into her eyes. The air tasted like tarnished silver, like old iron. Behind her, the door to the farmhouse swung madly on its hinges, hurling itself against the clapboards. She couldn’t make her limbs obey her, couldn’t seem to force herself to turn back to the house, back to safety.

A roar of thunder rolled through the earth, vibrating in her skull. And then she saw it, a black stain against the wide and angry sky.

Raw, primal fear pierced the pit of her stomach when the first crow began to circle, one cold, reptilian eye trained on her as he swooped and cawed and cackled. She watched the metallic glint of his beak as he dove around her, the oily, lustrous spread of his wing, and thought, hopelessly, that he was beautiful.

The bird dipped, and then beat his wings against the air and rose higher, and then another appeared to unfold itself, impossibly, from the space the first had evacuated. A living shadow, an echo, a copy. Again, then again and again, until they were countless. They whirled around her in a cacophonous feathery cyclone, spinning, their bodies blacking out the tumultuous sky.

Even before they touched her, Anna understood. She sobbed a silent prayer, repenting, begging forgiveness. Mercy, she knew, was not forthcoming. For one sweet moment, she became keenly aware of her heartbeat, of the warmth of her blood, of the life in her breath.

And then, in a heavy sweep of wings, the birds descended.

They tore at her nightgown, at her hair, at her face, at the soft, milky fat of her breasts. They ripped muscle and sinew away from the bone, plucked her eyes and tongue from her body, shred her skin to pale, fluttering ribbons. Indescribable pain wailed through her, but she couldn’t move, couldn’t raise her arms to defend herself, couldn’t fight back. She couldn’t even scream. She could only collapse, and die in the rain.

As her blood seeped, steaming, into the soft earth around her, Anna’s last thoughts clung desperately to Marion, to Rhiannon, and to the precious secret she was dragging down with her into the fathomless dark of the grave.

FBI HEADQUARTERS
WASHINGTON, DC
JULY 21 - 9:04 AM

Scully hip-checked the half-open door to the basement office, clutching a large paper cup of takeout coffee in each of her hands. Mulder was already settled at his desk, bent over a haphazard stack of files, glasses sliding down his nose and the warm summer light illuminating his shoulders.

He glanced up, as if he was surprised to see her, and smiled distractedly as he finished writing his sentence. “Morning, sunshiiine…,” he drawled, tapping his pencil eraser against the report on the desk a few times and leaning back in his chair.

Despite an inclination towards insomnia and shamelessly flouting Bureau protocol, Scully couldn’t remember a single time Mulder had been late to work. Some mornings he’d have tired eyes and rough cheeks, and his sleeves would already be pushed to his elbows by the time she arrived. But this morning, she noted with a vaguely maternal satisfaction, he looked well-rested: clean-shaven and bright eyed, the knot of his loud tie still neat beneath his Adam’s apple.

“Morning. Order up.” She handed him his coffee, and his long fingers swept against her knuckles as he hummed and took it from her. He pried the plastic lid from the cup, sipped at the rim, and immediately made a face.

“Ugh, I think I got yours.”

Scully tossed her shoulder bag to the counter and lowered herself into her favourite chair, crossing her legs in a swoosh of nylon and cradling her own cup protectively in both hands. “No, that one’s definitely yours.”

“Two cream, three sugar?”

“It’s with milk today, Mulder, and honey. I can’t in good conscience continue to enable your addiction to processed sugar.”

He leered at her over the rim of his glasses before taking them off and flinging them carelessly across the desk. “Calling me honey isn’t gonna save your ass if this is decaf.”

Scully cocked an eyebrow, smirking. “Decaf? I’d never betray you that gravely.”

Something flickered across Mulder’s face, but it left as quickly as it had arrived. “Well,” he said, “actual and potential stimulant-based betrayals aside, we’ve got a little mystery on our hands.”

She sighed and settled more deeply into her chair, leaning an elbow on one of the armrests. “Honey is good for you, Mulder. It has enzymes. Microbial cultures. And can you at least let me finish my coffee first?”

“No can do, G-woman. Duty calls.” Mulder stood up and picked his way through a dragon’s hoard of overstuffed banker’s boxes and over to the projector.

This was good, she thought. Light. Friendly. Professional.

Scully took stock as he flicked the switch on the console. The projector whirred to life, casting the room in a pallid glow. Mulder looked at home in their little den, amongst the shadows and the lived-in clutter; the neat stack of back issues of JAMA and JCP in a wire basket next to one of his college basketball trophies, corkboard galleries of newspaper clippings, precarious towers of books, an apothecary cabinet stocked with sundry esoterica. A mug Melissa had given her, washed out and upside down beside the sink: THE UNIVERSE IS MADE UP OF PROTONS, NEUTRONS, ELECTRONS, AND MORONS.

She tried not to think of the nameplate wedged between a cracked microscope and an abandoned carousel of slides, shoved in a drawer in what Mulder had once called “her area.” DANA SCULLY, MD. A gift, after Philadelphia. For someone who was widely purported to be an almost supernaturally insightful profiler, the man sure could be stupid.

Mulder fiddled with the projector a little, and then the first slide clicked into place.

A photograph of a pale horse, dead on his side, his noble, muscular head submerged in a narrow prairie river. The long, white hairs of the horse’s mane trailed away, carried by the dark water, and his ghostly eyes were open, staring into nothingness. Mulder lowered his voice to the scholarly timbre he saved for slideshows, road trip monologues, and late-night phone calls, and began.

“Horizon, Montana. A small town near the Canadian border, home of 249 people. Mostly wheat farmers and cattle ranchers. Isolated from civilization—the only other people for miles, besides our aforementioned two-four-nine, either hail from the Mennonite colony an hour away, or the nearby Blackfoot reservation. Enter one Hugh Daly, and his wife, Anna…”

Whirr. Click.

The second slide was a candid photograph of a couple, a man who Scully estimated to be in his mid-thirties beside a younger woman. The man was strikingly handsome, a flannel-clad Errol Flynn with unruly black hair, towering over the girl, who was blonde and rosy-cheeked, curvy in a modest floral dress. She was every inch the farmwife fantasy.

They looked happy enough, Scully thought. Hugh’s hand was anchored to the small of Anna’s waist, pulling her close, and Anna’s face was turned up to his, laughing at some long-forgotten joke.

“It seems that Hugh’s been experiencing a series of escalating tragedies. First, his horse mysteriously drowns. As I’m sure you’ve noted.” Mulder flicked back to the first slide again. “Now, just from this photograph, do you see any evidence of broken bones, Dr. Scully? Lesions? Signs of struggle? Anything at all that would indicate that this horse, like we might expect of all healthy biological entities, endeavoured to prevent his own demise?”

Scully stood up to examine the photograph more closely, bringing her coffee with her. Mulder loomed behind her, and she self-consciously sidestepped away from him. He’d been gratuitously gentle and touchy with her since the diagnosis, and she was coming to resent any reminder of their pronounced dimorphism.

“Well, Mulder,” she ventured, viscerally aware of his eyes on her mouth as she spoke, “I don’t see much, but has rabies been ruled out? Or another illness that may have caused this horse to act strangely? Perhaps it just… happened to collapse in that particular spot. Maybe it just dropped dead. Cardiac arrest? Maybe it didn’t drown at all.”

Mulder, delighted, tapped the side of his nose with a long finger. “Ah, but Scully, poor Ghost here received a full post-mortem examination from the town veterinarian-slash-doctor, Rhiannon Bishop, and she claims that he was in perfect health, other than the fact that his lungs were full of river water. She says that it’s as if he just… kneeled down of his own accord, submerged his head, and inhaled.”

“Veterinarian-slash-doctor?” Scully replied, incredulous. She sipped at her cup, testing the temperature, and burned the tip of her tongue.

“Did I mention that there are only 249 people living in Horizon?” Mulder clicked past the photo of Hugh and Anna to a third slide. Another photograph—the burnt shell of what Scully thought might have at one point been a row of grain silos, but was now a black crumble of ruin against a stormy sky.

“Shortly afterwards, the silos on his property burned to the ground. Nowhere to store this year’s harvest.”

Scully scraped her raw tongue over the ridge of her teeth. “It could have been arson. Maybe a grass fire. Lighting? Prairie regions are highly susceptible to violent storm systems, after all,” she offered.

“Well, it’s been a wet summer so far, but a lightning strike seems to have been ruled out. No grass fires have been reported in the area this season, and besides, Hugh says he’s taken every precaution against fire that any responsible farmer would. The local PD claims that there were no accelerants found at the scene, nothing at all to indicate arson.”

He clicked over to the next slide, and the image was so brutal and shocking that she had to look away from a moment to compose herself.

“And either late last night or very early this morning, Hugh woke up to find Anna missing from their bed. He discovered her body out in the fields, torn apart, he’s sure of it, by a flock of homicidal corvids. Gives a new meaning to a murder of crows, doesn’t it?”

Scully steeled herself, slipping into practiced clinical detachment, and turned back to the slide. The woman in the earlier photograph was barely recognizable, gutted and ravaged and splayed in her own gore. The sheer devastation to her body was bone-chilling.

“Thing is,” Mulder said, gently this time, “there were no feathers found at the scene. Not a one.”

“That’s because this woman was murdered, Mulder, not torn apart by birds. God, she looks like a Ripper victim.” He looked at her expectantly, clearly waiting for her to initiate their traditional exchange.

“Okay. Out with it. This is an X-File because…?”

“Because each of these events was preceded by an omen.”

“An omen.” She arched her brow, tried her coffee again. Still too hot.

Mulder began flicking through the slides again, one by one. “Animal omens. A wild black mare crossed Hugh Daly’s path the morning before Ghost’s death.”

Whirr. Click.

“The day before the silos burned, he was paid a visitation by the spectre of a hound on the horizon.”

Whirr. Click.

“Anna’s death? Crows followed him around for three days prior to the incident, harassing him wherever he went.”

“Oh, come on, Mulder. Not even you could buy that crap,” she said, without meaning it. Of course he believed it; his mind was a beautiful, frustrating jumble of half-truths and speculative axioms.

“It doesn’t matter whether I do or not,” he responded charitably, “but Daly certainly does. He fears for his life, rightfully so, I think, and the local PD is stumped. Sheriff Theo Gladstone called the FBI early this morning to request assistance. You know it’s just him and a deputy out there? A two-person police force.”

“You and I are a two-person department too, you know, and we do just fine. It’s not so absurd.” A two-person department, even if there was only one desk.

“Never said it was.” He grinned his wolfy grin, shutting the projector off and slapping a palm against it cheerfully. “Our flight’s at seven tomorrow morning, I’ll pick you up at five? And we’ll have to drive a few hours once we’re out there, too, so you might wanna bring the Mad Libs. In the meantime, there’s a really interesting case involving omens from 1958 that I want you to familiarize yourself with, lemme find it —”. He loped over to the cabinets and began to rummage noisily.

Scully slumped back down into her seat, furrowing her brow. The image of Anna Daly, guts sprawled in the field, flickered in her mind’s eye. It was nauseating, outrageous. Omens or not, that poor woman deserved justice.

She thought about the cancerous mass wedged against her own superior concha, crouching in her body, a predator in wait. She wouldn’t be able to work for much longer. She’d already been struggling against the effects of the chemo—the nausea, the exhaustion, the wet rats of auburn hair clogging her bathtub drain. Soon, the tumor would push into her brain, and she’d be dead.

This was a chance, perhaps one of the last ones afforded to her, to do a little good in this world. To do what she’d joined the FBI to do in the first place, before she could have ever imagined this life of conspiracy and lies, of implants and extraterrestrials, of hopeless, painful devotion.  

Hugh Daly. The husband. She had an uneasy feeling about him. Men that looked like that spent their entire lives getting, and getting away with, everything they wanted.

A surge of resolve filled her as Mulder tossed her the file he’d been looking for.

I’m going to get the truth out of you, Daly, she thought. I’m going to do right by that girl.

RURAL MONTANA
JULY 22 - 3:09 PM

When it came down to it, Mulder almost always drove. He’d teased Scully once, in a fit of planetary-fuelled irritation, about how he didn’t think her little feet could reach the pedals, but really, he just liked the ritual of it. Gas, brake, signal, turn. While the surface levels of his conscious brain were occupied with the mundane tasks of driving, it was easier to settle into his thoughts, to make intuitive leaps. He’d done some of his best thinking in requisitioned Oldsmobiles, with Scully, of course, offering her sagacious perspective from the passenger seat.

Scully was at the heart of the whole process, if he was in the mood to be honest with himself. He liked holding the door open for her, watching the spiced sheath of her hair swing underneath him as she tucked herself neatly into the vehicle, accepting his habitual chivalry without protest. He liked that she didn’t feel belittled by it, like Diana used to. He liked doing small, kind things for her. He liked that she let him.

He also liked negotiating with her over the radio station, learning where their tastes met and diverged. She barely tolerated his love for Prince, and he found the Clash a little abrasive. They both liked classical, but he was the sweeping Star-Warsian drama of Holst, and she was the dignity and precision of Bach. Most of all, though, he liked it when the radio was turned off, the low roar of the highway insulating them while Scully slept. He liked the warm animal heap of her body, her angular face like a grouchy little fox.

She was out cold now, too, and maybe he’d meant for this to happen. Maybe he’d booked the earliest flight he could find in anticipation of her sweet head on his shoulder after her takeoff jitters subsided, the steady, secret rhythm of her breath keeping time beside him on the road.

He reached into the bag in the cup holder and popped another sunflower seed into his mouth, massaging the salt off the shell with his tongue. Cracked it between his teeth, plundered the meat and chewed it, eased the window open an inch, and spat out the husk. The earthy smell of canola and sun-baked wheat poured into the car on the wind.

Scully murmured, dreaming, and there was something so intensely intimate about the sound that it made Mulder’s eyes burn.

He remembered the dim fluorescent hallway of the oncology ward, her slippered feet, her birdlike frame drowning in overworn terry cloth. Her measured poeticism, her elegant blue-ink handwriting in a notebook he wasn’t meant to see. The perversity of it all—this giant of his imagination, his gunmetal Minerva, his pedestal-dwelling warrior goddess made small and fragile and achingly, vividly human.

I’m not gonna let this thing beat me, she’d said, and in response, he’d almost kissed her.

Almost.

But for once in his pathetic life, he didn’t want to make it all about him. About what he wanted. Scully didn’t need a lover. She needed a friend, a partner, someone to ride into battle beside her. And it was enough to be those things. It had to be.

He thought of the woman who’d first walked into his office, what he’d seen in her even then. Her strength, her fire, her integrity. He was haunted by all the things that her life could have been without him.

He swallowed the flood of protective rage that rose like bile in his throat, took a deep, steadying breath, and tried to turn his concentration back to the road.

No wonder they called it Horizon. The earth here was flat and endless and golden, halved by an eternal sky. Cattle dotted the fields, their mottled bellies and placid faces inspiring a throe of carnivore’s guilt. There was nothing to distract him out here but the occasional cluster of horses, or a single rotting, wind-battered barn. Distant farmhouses, tidy rows of rusting silos. The vastness of it all made him feel lighter. Younger, even. It was though the space between each of his ribs expanded with every mile.

Scully shifted a little in her sleep, and he stole a glance at her. Her lips were dewy, slightly parted, the roadmap open in her lap on top of a manila folder full of photographs and police reports. As he gazed at her, the car rumbled over a Texas gate, and the vibrations jostled her awake. Mulder kicked himself for driving too fast, for waking her up, but the way she stirred and sighed and blinked up at him made his heart swell painfully.

“Hey there, Rip. Welcome back to the land of the living. The year,” he narrated, trying to make her laugh, “is 2078, and I’ve gotta say, you’re lookin’ mighty fine for 114. What’s your secret?”

“Mmm.” No laugh, but a sheepish little smile as she buried her chin into her shoulder, and that was almost as good. “Sorry,” she yawned, “Didn’t get much sleep last night before you picked me up. And by the way, it’s rude to mention a woman’s age.” She side-eyed him.

“You up thinking about the case?”

“…Yeah. Yeah, about Hugh Daly. I’m just… I don’t buy it, Mulder.” Her voice was thick with sleep. “That horse… that fire. These are things that happen. Something very real, someone very real, murdered Anna Daly. If… if anything, these events just strike me as a particularly elaborate cover-up.” She yawned again into the back of her hand, and began to fold the map in her lap, reinforcing the creases with precise fingers.

“Well, even if we’re looking at plain old murder and arson, how do you explain the omens Daly’s been seeing?”, he replied. “Maybe… maybe he has some sort of sight, some sort of precognitive aptitude. We’ve seen cases like this before, right? Albert Hosteen saw omens, and—and last month, even—Harold Spuller, remember? You… you yourself saw—”

“—I just think we should look for more obvious, rational solutions before jumping headlong into the supernatural.,” she said testily. “Let’s say Hugh Daly isn’t guilty of concocting this whole ordeal to try to get away with murder—even if he really thinks he’s been seeing omens, he could be interpreting these so-called signs in retrospect. Crows aren’t exactly uncommon around here. ‘Men may construe things after their fashion, clean from the purpose of the things themselves -’”

“That from Julius Caesar, Scully? Impressive.”

Scully pursed her lips, pleased with herself and trying to hide it. Mulder tapped his fingers absentmindedly on the steering wheel. “So what I’m hearing is that you don’t believe in omens.”

“Oh, come on, Mulder, of course not.”

“You know, omens have a rich historical precedent. Mankind has been seeing signs for millennia, in the form of animal medicine, dreams, visions, signs from God…”

“And I suppose you’ve seen one, then.”

“Well, there was that mean little red squirrel that was causing havoc around my apartment building for a week before you first waltzed into my basement armed with your big girl shoulderpads and your bad attitude.”

She snorted at that, slapping him with the folded map. “Oh, shut up.” He looked at her, grinning stupidly, and they locked eyes for one blissful moment, laughing together. God, she was such a babe. Delphic, autumnal, all black velvet and brickdust. A Waterhouse Boudicca. Mulder felt a flush creep up his neck, and Scully turned back to the road.

“MULDER!!” She gasped violently, throwing her left arm across his chest.

He instinctively braked, even before he could register what he was seeing. They lurched forward in their seats as the car skidded to a stop, Scully’s arm still reaching protectively over him, the thick polyester edge of the seatbelt scraping against his neck.

A mare in the road. Muscular, terrible, huge. Dark, so dark that her body seemed to swallow the light, so dark that the air seemed to ripple around her. She pawed the asphalt in an agitated dance, half-rearing. Her flank gleamed like polished onyx in the sun. She threw her head back and shook her mane, pinning him with her wildfire eyes—and then she was gone, running hard, disappearing into the tall golden sea of wheat.

Mulder flung his seatbelt off and wrenched open the door, spilling out into the road with stiff legs. He stumbled across the highway, searching the horizon for any sign of her, his heart pounding in his chest. Scully appeared at his elbow. As they stared, dumbfounded, into the distance, a heavy sense of foreboding melted into Mulder’s skin. A black mare. Out of nowhere, and right back into it.

An omen.

“Well, Scully,” he mumbled, rubbing the place on his neck where the seatbelt had gnawed him. “There’s still time enough to change your answer.”