Chapter 1: Some Traditional Misconceptions
‘The tragedy is not that love doesn’t last. The tragedy is the love that lasts.’
— Shirley Hazzard, The Transit of Venus
'How will you manage
To cross alone
The autumn mountain
Which was so hard to get across
Even when we went the two of us together?'
— Princess Daihaku (7th century)
'I feel like I'm back in 'Nam, or at least sitting through a
— MustangSally, All the Children Are Insane
Author’s note: I found this on the ground while hiking in the rain around the old nuclear power plant/disease research facility that was built over that Indian burial ground up in the woods. At first I thought it was a piece of trash, but when I kicked it over I saw it was from 1998; if not quite an antique, at any rate a sodden curiosity from a time when it was always summer. I picked it up; it dripped. Beyond a misty needle-whisk there was movement, down the hill on the gravel turnaround. I huddled up against an old growth and stared down through the trees as a car did something terrible to a woman.
Ours is the wide country, all range and wire fences. Ours are the roads scratched out of the sod. Ours, the sod farmers deep in the soil; ours the Minutemen buried in sand. This is our method: a binary search, two wires twisting like crossbones, helices, this—and with hagedorn needle and preserved bit of liver and photostat prints off the wire. There’s such spare time in Texas, even at night. Half-argued we carry an unwon dispute. The car's face, when I see it—just the face of a car. And I won't forget hers, Van Allen belt-lit. And then into that thundering greenstuff sea she runs.
Mulder's nap ran longer than he'd planned, and he awoke hazy and mapped with sweat. His unconscious mind pleated itself and returned to its dull compartment. He'd come home from the airport and fallen onto the sofa, trying to sleep face down, which didn't work so well when one was longer than the sofa.
He showered with the bathroom window open, skin prickling, drafts curling through the shower spray. Slow and heavy, he drew on jeans and a T-shirt and stood around for awhile, yawning, scratching a bee sting on the back of his hand. There was an argument outside in the hall. As he waited for it to wind down he looked at Samantha's picture while his mind was fresh from sleep, his hand shoved in a box of Wheat Thins. A sweetness stole over him. He suddenly recalled the taste of red Kool-Aid in a tin cup, a tiny pertinent clue to his past.
As the sun was setting he headed downtown, driving with one finger and calling Scully's cell. Soap crackled in his ear. At a long stoplight, windows rolled down, he was drawn in by an earnest young fellow who was sitting on the curb just finishing up 'Norwegian Wood' and launching without pause into the shoot me of 'Come Together', surely the most percussive and tuneless song one might attempt on acoustic guitar. Mulder wished for Scully.
The pavements were cooling in the twilight. Scully's phone rang on and on. John Lennon singing ‘shoot me’ made him think of the Farrow sisters, the Dakota, and then Gerry Schnauz. He was touched by an uneasy guilt, for abandoning Scully to her hearing and not, at least, sitting vigil in the hall.
Kurtzweil wasn't in Casey's Bar & Grill, although he'd said he would be. Mulder circled once, checking the booths, and then went up to the bar and put his hand on it gently.
The bartender was not one to miss a thing, and seemed to have prepared herself for him before she looked up from her lime wedges. Mulder hitched his shoulders, humbled. 'Oh, is it Spooky Hour already?' she asked. She bussed a couple of glasses and dried her hands and reached for the Cuervo Gold on the back bar, all the while regarding his chagrined smile with a steady, still look.
He shook his head. 'You won't have to toss me out for ranting tonight,' he said. 'I’m looking for a man about my height, 70, looks like Grandpa Munster.'
'I don't know, we get our share of munsters in here.' She closed her mouth. Her eyes were like the seawater over sand in Lake Tashmoo, salty and too bright. She appeared to consider several things at once, without giving anything away, her hand polishing the bar. Then she tipped her head towards the alley.
Mulder burst out the fire door, into the hot alley night.
He found himself face to face with the aristocrat’s raptor blink. Mulder waited through the drawing of a slow, single, warm-garbage breath. His soul sank abruptly into his body as he came awake.
The Englishman eyed him angrily, his face lit faintly from above. Even in old age, he was as tall as Mulder, and thinner, almost fragile, but with a meanness about him that kept him from appearing truly delicate.
'Where's Kurtzweil?' Mulder asked pointedly. There was a scuffling in the alley beyond, but the hooded eyes only stared harder into Mulder's.
Without warning, a gun discharged above and Mulder half-crouched in panic, drawing his own weapon, his knuckles scraping the bricks. He could see movement through the treads of the fire escape above him.
'Good God!' snapped the Englishman, turning away. He gestured sharply, without looking up. The bullet had ricocheted off the opposite wall, and Mulder had the uncommon feeling that for once he wasn't the target.
He remained against the wall, one hand on the door, staring up at the soles of the feet over his head. The Englishman turned around. 'Mr. Mulder,' he said, 'if you value your life, you'll go back inside and forget what you've seen here.'
'All I've seen is you,' Mulder said stubbornly. The old man, glaring, stalked away down the alley, permitting himself one menacing glance upward. Mulder let go of the door's safety and dashed the other way, gun in his hand, past a dumpster. He found Kurtzweil flattened against the wall with his eyes closed. 'Run!' Mulder gasped, getting Kurtzweil in front of him and swatting him into a sprint.
With a painful precognition, he knew the bullet was coming just as it kicked up sparks in the pavement ahead of them and shredded into a bag of trash. Mulder's scalp rose. He whipped around and almost weeping with anger aimed upward into the dark, squeezing the trigger as many times as he could, laying down some cover for Kurtzweil. He screwed up his face against certain death, but there were no more shots, and he turned and fled, tipping into a sprint, hands knifing the warm air. The dark curved protectively around him, as panting, inhaling sun-warmed trash and cordite, and still alive, still skin-crawling and shivery alive, he made it to the corner.
They were well out of the neighborhood by the time the first prowler shot past them, its siren set on fast whoop. Mulder was still riding out big relieved sighs, both hands on the wheel, feeling just a hair of detachment. 'Are you all right?' he asked again. Kurtzweil was sunken into the passenger seat, hands trembling in his lap, watching the side mirror. Something had faded in his eyes.
There was a shock that sank in slowly after one's first experience in a gunfight, and he wasn't surprised that Kurtzweil had nothing to say about it. Mulder himself felt a bit wired, and suddenly he was very hungry. He got a drive-through spicy chicken sandwich and a nice icy soda before they left Washington.
They headed south on 95, the night black, the AC vents puffing warm mildewed air. Kurtzweil refused the idea of a safe house, but mentioned that he had a sister in the Greensboro area, and Mulder offered to drive him there. Kurtzweil had risked his neck for the X-Files; it was nothing to whisk him to safety. Mulder could drive tirelessly all night. He and Scully were night owls. He felt so galvanized and alert that Scully's reassignment hearing seemed minor in its outcome; he was sure he could talk her out of it. After five years of taking on the world together one of them walking off the team just didn’t compute.
Still, the whole night, as he drove the spectral freeways, he felt that Scully was running off to his left, invisible to him and just out of reach, even as he yawned and tried to pop his ears, and turned his face to Kurtzweil.
Kurtzweil wasn't hungry. He took Mulder's fast food napkin and blotted his face, looking around rapidly, his froggy mouth pinched. His bony legs shifted ceaselessly. Mulder entertained himself for a while imagining some Bette Davis-type sister who lived in a leaky mansion with a flock of Shih Tzus and never changed out of her nightgown. She and Kurtzweil would drink mai tais and play a version of gin rummy they'd invented in childhood. After too many mai tais they'd play duets on an untuned baby grand and sing ‘Mairzy Doats’ and ‘Aba Daba Honeymoon’.
Half an hour out, his cell phone rang. Kurtzweil started and touched his heart. Mulder's spirits gladdened even more, for he was alive, he was still alive, and Scully was calling him.
He was about to say 'I thought you'd be asleep,’ and then saw it wasn't Scully.
'Mulder, we got it,' said Frohike.
'We got one of them,' Langly said on the speakerphone.
'What is it, guys?' Mulder asked, intrigued in spite of himself. He found a french fry in the bottom of the bag and stuffed it in his mouth. He exchanged a look with Kurtzweil, and tried to make a reassuring face.
'Those trucks you wanted us to trace.'
'We've got an overturned tanker holding up eastbound on 85 south of Charlotte. Got a spill,' said Byers.
'Yeah, a tanker that was transported by rail from Amarillo to Atlanta,' Langly interjected.
'Great, fellas, I'm on my way,' Mulder said easily. He wasn't even on the X-Files anymore, which, if anything, was more freeing. Scully was undoubtedly sleeping like the dead. He could nip down and check this out before anyone was the wiser.
'Except it's not oil, Mulder,' said Frohike.
'It's not?' Mulder asked.
'They're saying it's honey,' Byers said faintly, and Mulder wasn't sure he'd heard him right. Kurtzweil was watching him, hungry for information.
'Honey?' Mulder asked.
'Does that make any sense? And get this, Mulder, the manifest has it listed as a tanker of corn oil,' Frohike said.
'Curiouser and curiouser,' Langly said in the background.
'You guys have the scanner on?' Mulder asked. 'Can you do me a favor? Just let me know if you hear my name mentioned.' He tossed his phone into the cup holder. There was a pretty good chance ballistics would embroil him in the Casey's gunfight. 'You okay?' he asked Kurtzweil. 'You want to swing down to Charlotte and take a look at a little hitch in the cloning operation?'
The carnival lights of an overpass softened the night. Kurtzweil stared at him, evil black brows working, and smiled widely and humorlessly. 'I'd be delighted,' he said.
Mulder and Kurtzweil came upon the wreck at sunrise. They had to pull off the freeway and walk down an off-ramp and beneath an echoing overpass, traffic on the other side of the median zipping past in pale streaks.
The glossy white tanker had rolled off the on-ramp. It lay on its side, honey leaking from split seams. Honey spread in a resinous lake across two lanes, buckling against the concrete meridian and coasting slowly, silently north, as if with agenda.
A crew wearing rubber boots and plastic face guards sprayed at the highway with high-pressure hoses.
'Now all we need is some peanut butter and a big old slice of bread,' said Mulder.
Kurtzweil hunched, elbows out, frowning, his eyes moving quickly across the cleanup crew.
'Funny, I didn't know corn oil was so sticky,' Mulder said. 'They don't transport honey in tanker trucks, do they?'
'They're sabotaging their own project,' Kurtzweil said, shading his eyes.
'Why do you say that?' Mulder asked.
'They're stalling,' said Kurtzweil. 'They've been stalling for years.'
A news helicopter came in at the sun's angle and stood off, thrumming, its downdraft riffling the amber slick. Mulder waved at it, in case Scully was watching the news. He grinned, picturing her face. Just the thought of Mulder in front of a news camera gave both Scully and Skinner the quailing heebie jeebies.
Mulder crouched and dipped thumb and forefinger through the dusty skin of the lake.
'It may be contaminated,' said Kurtzweil, hunchbacked and morose, his hands in his jacket pockets.
'Maybe it was intended as a form of transmission.'
'You think this honey's carrying the virus?'
Kurtzweil shrugged. 'These men are capable of anything.'
Mulder pulled his hand up slowly, strands of pale sweet-corn honey drawing out longer and longer. He thought about it for a moment, squinting up the freeway, then put his fingers in his mouth. His tongue flooded, salty-sweet.
'Then again, maybe it's just plain old honey,' Kurtzweil said.
Mulder stood up too fast and went spacey, holding Kurtzweil's shoulder for balance. The shining tanker and the bright blue sky looped around. Kurtzweil frowned, startled at being touched. Mulder licked honey from his lip, feeling kindly toward him. 'If Scully and I hadn't been caught at the Texas facility, they wouldn't have traced it all back to you.'
'I'm past the point of worrying about what they're going to do to me.'
'Yeah, well, you put your ass on the line for us, for the truth.'
Kurtzweil didn't seem to hear, his hair tufting in the wind as he watched the cleanup crew. His neck sagged tortoise-like and his suit looked more ill-cut than ever. This was his quiet war. And this was what Scully worried about, Mulder knew, this was what she thought Mulder would be like in thirty years, a discredited laughingstock, writing books that nobody read.
Mulder detoured to wash his hands in the high pressure leak spurting up from a rocker lug. Kurtzweil was waiting in the car, hand slowly rubbing his thigh.
'You're an obstetrician?' Mulder asked suddenly, as they pulled onto the freeway. He found a bit of honey at the corner of his mouth.
'OB-GYN,' Kurtzweil said briefly.
'That's great. How many babies have you delivered?'
'Over two thousand.'
'Amazing. Any that showed unusual characteristics?'
Kurtzweil's brows protruded, menacing, sliding together like arrows. 'I had nothing to do with the hybridization program.'
'So you know about it.'
Kurtzweil examined him. 'You have to understand your ignorance, to see the world properly. You have to put aside everything you know. You're one of the few people I've met that actually comprehends that, Agent Mulder.'
Mulder was touched. The night had gone on a bit too long. They had woven abandoned construction zones of orange barrels and loose concrete barriers, the whispered promise of doubled fines, and out into darker pockets of starlight. It seemed that they rode a chariot together through gloom and fireworks. They had witnessed the heartbreak of mustelids chancing expressways, and they had pissed together behind a rest stop, in the breeze of dawn, looking out across the lights of a valley, with deer browsing nearby. They seemed to have lived a lifetime together. Mulder said, 'You know, when the Ancient Greeks wanted to talk to the dead, they pounded on the ground with their fists.' He felt that he was talking about love, and the subject, like any subject he was putting to serious study, seeped easily up through the gravel of his soul and was proffered for input from other like minds.
Kurtzweil nodded, as if this were a perfectly logical response. 'People don't stay in touch like they used to,' he said.
Tequila was always the way to go in these situations. It was the closest thing to a wild man drink, hacked from the desert floor with a machete, toxic and wormy, nothing civilized about it. A greyhound also sounded really good, although it would be a bad idea to switch now. A salty dog. He remembered the way men in suits exercised a familiarity with such drinks and the way they stood around on the deck in the sea wind. His elegant mother with her unflinching eyes lying back in her Adirondack chair with a gimlet the color of the sea.
This is why I don't drink, he thought. If she leaves I’ll become a Borneo wild man. I'll start drinking the ayahuasca, the Aztec morning glory cold-water tea. I'll live with a tribe until I'm the world's most embedded anthropologist. The wizard of the Upper Amazon. They want extremes? I'll show 'em extremes. Nothing will touch me. I'll have a kind of jaguar magic wrapped around my heart. In visions I'll glide over it all like a condor. I'll never have to think of her again.
Mulder made a pass through Scully's neighborhood as soon as he hit town, swinging around the Safeway and roaring up West 53rd. He was whipped and his T-shirt had a streak of honey across the front, but it was uncommon to go more than twenty-four hours without comparing notes with her when they were in the middle of an investigation, and just as often when they were not. He had a ritual—turning his head at just the right moment to watch for the light in her window. Through the dark and floundering trees arrived the sense that Scully herself was warmth and light. Mulder bit into the rim of a waxy paper cup, and the cup cut pleasantly across the bridge of his nose as he watched for a parking space.
Her windows were dark. His cell phone rang. Mulder dropped the cup and drove past the building, distracted, groping for his phone on the passenger seat.
'Mulder. Is Agent Scully with you?' Skinner asked in his ear. He sounded like his teeth were gritted.
'Why?' Mulder stomped the brake and stirred the wheel around sharply, cell phone tucked under his chin. He didn't mean to make the tires squeal.
'She was supposed to get back to me on something...' Skinner paused. 'Is that your driving?'
'Illegal U-turn,' Mulder said, a crawling feeling at the back of his neck as he parked. 'Why do you need her this late?'
'She hasn't been answering her phone,' Skinner said. 'Agent Mulder, have you two been out of town again?'
Mulder looked up at Scully's building, something going very still inside of him.
'Mulder?' The cell phone sizzled angrily in Mulder's hand. He pressed a random button and flung it at the seat. Slowly he drew his hand down his face. Where was her car? How many days had it been? He'd last seen her at the airport before her hearing. Tuesday. Yesterday, around nine in the morning.
She was probably fine, probably working, but something in a broader sense felt dreadfully wrong, and he was a mass of nerves by the time he reached her door.
His cautious knocking escalated into pounding. He paused and pressed his ear against the door, listening, watching the crack at the bottom for light. There was only a hollow silence, an empty, ticking space in which he endured Tooms coming for her and Duane Barry and Cardinale, and then the flashing retinal imprint of every crime scene he had ever witnessed.
The tension wrench trembled in his fingers. He didn't have the key because she'd changed the locks more than once, not that it deterred anyone. He was unable to summon the concentration needed to properly pick the lock, and so he simply raked from the back of the plug, the less precise way to do it, hoping to bounce up most of the pins. He picked the remaining pins individually, listening for the click as each dropped into place, still hoping to be interrupted by Scully's sleepy shuffle.
Then he flung the door open and it rebounded off the wall, knocking him in the shoulder. As he reached for the switch he could already see that she was gone in a more final, shocking way, the walls bare and white, and the space before him absolutely empty, where nothing real as he knew it would ever exist again.
Chapter 2: General and Historical Remarks
When they caught her, she was the most dangerous woman on earth. It pleased him to frame it thus. She had none of Mulder's creative fire, she was less imaginative, but imagination could distract, and Agent Scully did not distract. She reminded him of the women of Vietnam, how a woman coming at you is somehow twice as frightening as a man, because she knows you will hesitate, that something inside you will call it taboo.
He had his orders and he left London on a warm evening and waited for her in a Washington parking garage, half-smoked dog-ends flecking the oil stains around him, deciding that what he really liked was the idea of Scully; her actual presence could be rather exasperating. But while Mulder made him instantly impatient, he could wait for Scully all day.
Working out Mulder's problems preoccupied him. He’d known since the boy’s adolescence that he’d be involved in the project, but in a delicious twist, Mulder had ended up fighting it. Change was inescapable, but people invariably resisted it, and Mulder and Scully had notably formed a minor but dauntless resistance of two. On and on they struggled, against an organization of laughable enormity and power.
When he heard the hydraulic puff of the door, he stood on his cigarette and turned in time to glimpse her chalky face as she threaded among the fleet sedans. She was idling along rather slowly, a purse of worry in her brow, a paper caught under her elbow.
He watched her from the shadows. He had made her and he could unmake her, but this had ceased to be gratifying in itself. He had seen her naked once, lying senseless in a train car, and even stripped bare she had remained distinctly inviolate. She was unreachable, she would never respect him; he would save her more than once and get no thanks.
Scully's defenses were down, and when he stepped from behind the pillar she startled. Hackles up, her eyes full of tears, she faced him, half his size; one hand brushing the empty place where her service piece should be.
'Rumor has it—you're dead,' she snapped, braving him empty-handed. He knew that she hadn't slept in at least two nights, that the OPR had just put the screws to her, that she was angry at Mulder, and that she would probably sell her soul for a long, cool shower. Somehow, remarkably, she and Mulder had turned from a housing tract at the Texas edge of eternity and driven straight into the desert, homing in on the Project facility like smart rockets. And like some bee-priestess of Artemis, she had barged, unveiled, into an extremely dangerous hive, emerging unmarked.
'I never listen to gossip,' he said, feigning disinterest. 'I find it leavens the facts.' He tapped a Morley against the pack. Her skin looked sweaty, and the belt of her jacket hung loose. She had turned out to be an excellent choice for the program. He liked looking at her; she had grown steadily more beautiful through the years, until she possessed the pent-up lushness of the film stars of his youth—fast-talking dames who made smoking look like sex.
He snapped his lighter against the fresh cigarette, and their eyes met as the flame spat up. Mulder and Scully referred to him as 'Cancer Man'; this had come off an untitled tap. He exhaled toward her. 'I'm here to offer you a promotion. Come and work for me. I think you'll find that it's a ... comfortable living.'
He watched the smell of tobacco hit her in tandem with his offer. She blinked. 'Please tell me that's an attempt at humor,' she said.
'On the contrary, I've never been more serious.' He wasn't serious, and he had put the offer out there just for the fun of watching her throw it back. Let her hold her integrity tight; she would have little else left, when he was done with her. How minor its value, they never realized.
'All the money in the world wouldn't make hell any more livable,' Scully breathed, turning her face and touching her mouth to her shoulder.
'And yet heaven is so unattainable, isn't it?' he asked her.
'What do you mean by that?' she asked sharply.
’Agent Mulder inevitably has hold of the wrong end of the stick, he readily disperses disinformation: he suppresses the truth better than any of us,’ he said. ‘We should have put him on our payroll years ago. But with you, he has some credibility. Without you, he's but an eccentric obsessed with the coming apocalypse.’
'We're not afraid of you!' she said fiercely.
The Smoking Man felt that he understood love, although he had not loved his wife, nor exactly Bill Mulder's. He was not a man who was given second chances. Still, nostalgias took him, and small fondnesses. He liked the idea of family, although he had squandered his own. His wife was vital and chatty; when she became part of the program it was more than he could watch. That was love, he thought: a loyalty that one could not set down.
He squinted above the coal tipping his cigarette. 'You're an intelligent woman, Agent Scully. You can picture how it might happen... a man, coming home late to his dark apartment. Or on his favorite run along the river. He does favor Belle Haven Park.'
Scully turned her face aside once more, her chin lengthening. It was her nose that was fascinating, oddly enough. And it was her clean red hair and the naïveté of her goodness, and the way she fought tooth and claw for Mulder.
'You're no longer useful in your present capacity,' he informed her, closing up his heart.
'I was hired to report on him,' Scully breathed.
'And you'll concur that your... results have been less than spectacular.'
'He's of no consequence to you,' she said, her voice gruff, eyebrows rising and falling in consternation.
The angry tears stood once more in her eyes, and she held her hand out, and snapped it downward. 'I was hired to tell the truth. I've been impartial, as you requested. You chose me for my impartiality, for my scientific rigor.' She stalked closer, and the Smoking Man felt that she knew he had been involved in her choosing. 'I'll quit the FBI. I'll no longer be a threat,' she said.
'You've never been a threat,' he said condescendingly.
She narrowed her eyes. 'You're bluffing.'
He cupped his cigarette in his palm, hand floating in the space between them. 'Do you really want to find out?' he asked her.
'You would stand here in this institution that was founded to uphold the law, and make threats of this caliber?'
'And you would accept a job in this same institution working as a spy, and still think you have some moral superiority over me?' he asked indignantly. 'You work for me!'
'I don't work for you!' she cried.
'You've always worked for me!' he shouted, hating the way his hair flopped against his forehead, and the way she'd managed to ruffle him.
'I don't work for anyone!' she said. 'I've quit!' She held up the form she carried, and bleakly wrenched it in half. The paper shreds rocked descendant in her wake as she turned away. She seemed to change her mind after a few steps and came back, gathering up the torn strips, and something fell from her clothes, a fuzzy bit of gold. Scully's face looked up, incriminated. The bee, punchy and tired, vibrated on its back near the Smoking Man's shoe. He stepped forward, and squelched it.
'Stay away from him,' he said, looking down at her, employing the advantage of his height. 'Stick around here, and you'll find out how hard it is to get a job in Washington when you're down in the polls.'
He didn't kid himself that he'd had the last word. Halfway down the aisle, she swung around and pointed at him. 'Do anything to him, and I swear I'll hunt you down, you son of a bitch!'
Scully poured milk, soy sauce, pink grapefruit juice and half a tin of oyster stew down the sink, her heart clocking unnaturally fast, the dress shirt she'd worn for the last couple of days gone grimy at the cuffs. She had disconnected the fridge, the phone, and the answering machine, and as she flipped off the garbage disposal, the kitchen went numbly quiet. They had tried to kill her once before, and the memory made her hand shake. V-8 juice clotted up and sat heavily in the drain. Scully added sour cream to the mess and jetted it all with hot water, grapefruit juice stinging in a cornfield cut on her hand.
'We can do that for you, you know,' said the appraiser from the moving company, tape measure flicking along her couch as he estimated the mass of her possessions. The front door was wide open, cartons and packing material stacked around it. The appraiser had ice blue eyes like a sled dog. His arms were so thick that when he folded them he could only clasp the elbows. He seemed to sum Scully up as if estimating the weight of her mental state.
She straightened, still holding the pressure nozzle, a long rip forming in her integral weave. She had used this sprayer to wash the dog, her sweet red dog who had eaten the old lady and had in turn, by one reckoning, been eaten by an alligator, or, by another, a Georgian lake monster. He had accessorized her hair, Mulder pointed out, which was as close as he dared come to saying that she and her dog looked alike. It was the sort of dog you would end up having only when acquainted with someone like Mulder, and, as she looked around, she realized how many of her possessions could be accredited this distinction, not to mention the apartment itself.
'We finish up everything on this end,' the appraiser said, taking a step forward. His eyes were on hers, and his look was familiar, his voice monotonously soothing, and she recognized it as a hostage negotiation tactic. There was probably something called 'mover's panic', and he'd seen it hundreds of times, and he was softly, capably talking her down, like Mulder gentling a sociopath.
The appraiser tilted his head and looked piercingly at her hand and back into her eyes until she put down the sprayer. In a removed way she understood that she wasn’t being entirely rational. At that moment, two movers in company T-shirts stutter-stepped through the living room carrying the headboard of her bed in which Mulder had slept off some bad acid, and in which, much more recently, she had lain awake wondering what imaginative ploy he would come up with to stymie this latest trick of fate. Now the bed was dismantled. It would be transported to her mother’s garage in Baltimore and for the first time in five years Mulder would not know where she was or how she was or whether fate would continue to tick along between them in its interesting way.
She dried her hands. She was a professionally-trained handler of crises herself, and it astonished her that she could be construed as falling apart. Someone should take note, but the only person around was this firm but deferential figure from a short-notice emergency relocation company, with a pink breast cancer lanyard around his deltoidal neck and the eye contact of a coach you’d burst your heart for.
In his apartment she took off her holster and laid it on the coffee table. When she closed her eyes she heard herself say 'some field office in Omaha,' and she hated the confident agency in her voice, the license with which she had supplied a sarcastic edge to 'Omaha', as if two-day retrospect brought her twenty years more maturity. Disbelief was an unusual response in Mulder, but there was a welter of riot in his stunned eyes when she told him she was leaving, and he had stuttered, and she was gripped by the horrible, thrilling fear that she was trying to force his hand, to coerce him into admitting something neither of them would dare suggest existed. She had almost enjoyed wielding the threat of her reassignment while she was still uncommitted to leaving; it was interesting to observe just how upset he got. Also interesting: how one's cruelty inevitably cuts both ways.
The living room spoke vitally of Mulder; everything was old, scrounged up somewhere, everything had a mysterious past that clung to it like aquarium algae. She'd never given the typewriter poster a thought, but now saw how ironically charming was its flying obsolescence, offsetting his shoulder as he stood rattling the keyboard of his PC.
The fact that they were being split up had made them—in these last fragile seconds of their partnership—ever more intensely together, like the dregs of a heady batch, although he denied it was happening, and she herself could scarcely wrap her head around it. Crucially, this was the reason he was gone when she needed him most. He refused to honor an untenable proposition and was doing his best to make a Schrödinger's Cat of the situation by ignoring it out of existence. If he wasn't there to say goodbye, it wasn't a true departure.
The room was dim and cool, lulled by the burble of water. The window blinds billowed silently on the hot afternoon air. Scully looked at her watch, yawned nervously, sank back and jiggled her foot against the underside of the coffee table. His couch, with its pliant creak, aspired to consume her, two thousand nights having aligned it, personally and ethically, with Mulder. How about this, it said. I smell like Mulder. Here's this embroidered pillow. I'll cuddle your bones like a peat bog. The world will fade to ‘noises in a swound’.
Footsteps came along the hall from the elevator. She blinked herself back to alertness and sat forward and put her hand on her sidearm, the old Walther semi she'd dug from a sweater drawer, the only gun she now had access to. 'You can picture how it might happen,' said the Cigarette-Smoking Man, the insectile titch of his pacemaker just audible. She watched the crack beneath the door, and she certainly could picture it.
The footsteps went past.
Her phone began to ring. It was Mulder. She looked at it in horror, and quickly turned down the volume. The thing in her hand shivered venomously. She could not answer it. She could never answer it again. She dared not end the call, because what if he sensed her distress and came looking for her? She was on her feet, gathering up her things. She had come to his apartment sailing on pride and outrage and something akin to mover's panic: a separation anxiety that flew in the face of death threats. It was a terribly risky stance. She couldn't assume the hateful old genocidal black-op was making empty threats; he could have Mulder killed just to make a point. He could have both of them killed.
At the door she paused with the steeple of her weapon before her face, and glanced one final time at his dim, inestimable rooms. She was not ready for this. She opened the door. The hall was empty. She locked up his front door and touched the two brass numbers that said Mulder to her.
She went out the way she came in, around the corner and down a back stairwell, holstering her weapon. Part of her panic reflected the fact that five years was hardly enough time to get to know someone, especially someone like herself. Scully did not know Scully, but had spent thirty years observing, with removed curiosity, how she functioned. As an observer, she continually made adjustments in her estimation. But Mulder, who seemed to have a better vantage and who paid attention—Mulder made knowing Scully look easy. Maybe she just made sense to him.
Scully went down the alley behind Hegel Place, resolutely not looking over her shoulder. She walked with the pissed-off pride of one who bears a target on their back in all its itchy glory. She had thought those helicopters were going to kill her the night before, but now she suspected that the Cigarette-Smoking Man planned to ruin her life a bit more before taking her out. If she cooperated, she might at least save Mulder.
She couldn't even remember the first time she'd heard of Mulder. It was the stupidest thing, not to have a moment of origin. He had named her 'Scully'. She was not Scully until there was Mulder.
There was a moment, a stunning, empyrean moment that had transpired in a janitor's closet smelling of turpentine, which had a filthy sink and a table covered in seed hulls and recording equipment; and there were mafia creeps talking about lap dances on the wire; and Mulder had said something that changed her life forever. '...and I still have you,' he said, and her heart leapt with an early beat, literally a premature ventricular contraction, the physical moment her life shifted gears. It wasn't like she thought they were going to get married or something, or even that he loved her the way she loved him, but the way he admitted it made her realize that this was who she was—this was the person she was—a necessary ingredient in another person's life: himself, his work, and Scully, so-called.
When she came out on Church Street she looked into a plate glass window to check the pedestrians across the street.
It had been years since she'd made one of her private reports to the FBI, although she'd sensed that one day there would be repercussions. After the first few years she had ceased to see the Smoking Man around the Hoover building, and despite herself she'd relaxed, pretending that hers was simply a straightforward job that drew little notice within the bureau. The reports she wrote on Mulder had evolved into the habit of writing up each case at home. The reports and the oddness surrounding her recruitment were not subjects she'd felt prepared to broach with Mulder, who'd half-jokingly called her a spy the first day she walked in the door. She loathed corruption and yet she was in many ways corrupt. Of course, Mulder didn't see her that way, and maybe she relied a little too much on his image of her.
Scully walked quickly down into a nearby parking garage and unlocked her car. A house plant was buckled into the passenger seat, and there was a box of files in the trunk that she did not want the movers to handle, and her overnight bag. She was pretty sure she hadn't been followed. She spun the wheel and her tires slipped and squealed on the burnished floor. She’d been up for two nights in a row and she felt as rattled and bent and empty as a shark cage winched up from the ocean floor, and she still had an hour on the Parkway.
Mulder had picked the quarrel right back up as they drove up to Bethesda in the middle of the night, not last night, but the one before. It had become just another argument to him, a theoretical debate, and one he felt soul-bound to win. She drove, because he'd been drinking, which put an interesting slant on the moment, and illustrated a mix of signals. His conversational tone said 'see how I'm not taking this seriously,' and his showing up at her place in the middle of the night said 'because everything's still normal and we still work together,' and the drinking said 'but on the other hand this is a Code Red and I am going to behave as operatically as I have to until this terrible thing passes over us like the shadow of a prehistoric bird.’ It was something like four in the morning. He rarely drank. He did not drink to numb his problems, of which he had many. He did not drink when she was dying of cancer. This was something else entirely, and in the end he had glossed over it, pretending it was not directed at her. As they drove he was busy listing all the reasons he needed her, without actually coming out and saying that he needed her. He pointed out that the skinwalkers would be back in a few years, and that they hadn’t yet solved the Chicago Cubs goat curse.
'I guess we should get right on that,’ Scully said. That night, although her decampment was still an abstract, she saw it all ahead of her, the life without him, the diligence and acclaim, because imagine what she could accomplish were she not operating out of some bolt-hole beyond the doors of perception. She would throw her grit and savvy into a flashy branch of medical research and make lots of money and sleep with interesting, brilliant men and she would have to motor at a hundred miles an hour for the rest of her life to keep from thinking about what she had left behind.
She couldn't recall the first time she'd heard of Mulder because he was already part of the damned Quantico narrative before she came along. He was mentioned each time with an admiration couched in jealous sarcasm. In a way he became part of her during those sixteen weeks of gunpowder on her hands, and the loving of hurt, agony, and pain, which, when you thought about it, were all the same thing. She was sick of doublespeak. She would like just once, just for the sake of novelty, to be plainly told the truth.
The day she first separated him from the quivering layers of Quantico backstory was the day she was offered the position oddly out of the mainstream. On that afternoon she went out of her way to pass a trophy case in the building, and, sure enough, found him in a photograph of firing range hotshots, his goggles hanging around his neck, a reluctant sneer of a smile pasted temporarily on his mouth. He wouldn’t even turn out to be as accurate a shot as her, but his eyes met hers with mocking insouciance. Irritation and intrigue welled up within her, and now he had meaning. Not only was he a freebooter, an arrogant handful, but he was also said to have invented his own FBI division out of some rusticating history he'd found in a file cabinet. Presumably his methods had been brought into question, and they were sending her in to breathe down his neck. He was going to resent her like hell.
Scully bombed along the Potomac Yards. The phone was a trackable link and she wanted to throw it out the passenger window into the Four Mile Run, but the houseplant, a good-sized ficus, was in the way, and there was a barricade and a pedestrian walkway and a fence. Her wild desire to destroy the phone would have surprised her had she room for contemplation. But if it rang again, if he called her, she wasn't sure she could resist picking up.
She managed it from the Eleventh Street Bridge. The wide river lustered and chopped. There was only a low concrete barrier, and she rolled down the passenger window and stuck her hand through the fluttering leaves and lobbed as hard as she could, anger and severance in the throw. Her car wobbled in its course and an SUV rose up fast behind her and wailed past. She got both hands back on the wheel, her body sparking as if she were falling. Part of her sank with her cellphone into Anacostia sediments.
Without warning, her lacrimal apparatus triggered with a sting like ammonia and she clamped a hand over her nose to control it and stared, wide-eyed at her lane. She sucked in a breath. The ficus rustled. For how she had misjudged him. Oh, how. She'd had no way of crediting the inverse characteristics he possessed just as strongly; how he would try to resuscitate a dead girl on a riverbank, or how it would feel when he raised his arms and walked into an armed standoff, his white shirt a truce flag, while she screamed that he was dead.
Chapter 3: The Sometimes Lower Stability of Mutants
He opened his eyes and waited. He was on his couch, and there was a startled feeling in the air. He remembered that it was all very real, and shot breathlessly up, freezing and panting with pain, an inexplicable, undiagnosable pain that came on suddenly in the center of his body. As soon as it disappeared he would forget about it until the next attack. Sometimes in the dark it made him panic, lurching up and wondering if he was going to throw up or die, if it was a heart attack or apnea or some dark abduction, the finger of God finally pressing down upon him. Then it would pass and he would turn on the TV.
Are you scared, Mulder? she asked in his head.
Yeah, I'm scared now. He reached for the glass of water on the coffee table. Pale sunlight had found an angle through his half-opened curtains and was registering time along the wall like a makeshift urban clock. After stagnating all night, water, the universal solvent, tasted of the absorbed flavors of his apartment; chemical salts and bleaches. He gulped noisily. Scully's box of office stuff was against his foot. It had been a rough night and his hand was in the box as he fell asleep.
He was hesitant when he began to clean out her desk in the bullpen, reluctant to disturb her things as she had placed them, but someone else needed the desk. For a moment he considered taking a few continuity Polaroids, dusting the whole thing with Basic Yellow and documenting her touch-placement under ultraviolet light. It looked like a trail of clues, and the FBI didn't care and Skinner said she'd been reassigned, and the cellular customer he was trying to reach had a number that was no longer in service, and her mother's phone went straight to the machine. Mulder was positive Scully had been threatened, and here was the proof: she hated loose ends. She had set up this desk with an attention to detail he found amusing at the time, and which now broke his heart, the stapler and tape dispenser and paperclip holder lined up in a row. There was a photo of her brother’s baby taped to the monitor, which she never would have left behind, and a package of oatmeal-cinnamon cookies in the bottom drawer on a stack of background files, from before the bomb in Dallas. He had complained they weren't chocolate chip.
As he left carrying the lidless file box, he noticed the bullpen people watching him by not watching him, their heads ducked gravely; he was an agent who had lost his partner, the ultimate in FBI tragedy.
In the parking garage Mulder backtracked over Scully's cold trail, roaming out through the cars in the general direction of her favorite parking spot, his flashlight sweeping the dirty concrete. It crossed his mind to quit the FBI, a corrupt, ill-run institution famous for its fumbling, idiosyncratic computer system. As far as Mulder could tell, they had barely looked into the case of arson committed right here in FBI headquarters. They had a file on Einstein as long as your arm; they had tried to deport John Lennon. Skinner had lied to him about Scully, but Mulder sensed that Skinner didn't really know much. Obviously something quite terrible had occurred, if Scully really had walked away of her own free will, which Mulder didn't believe for a scintilla of a second. And even as this conviction firmed in him, his flashlight tripped across a smattering of cigarette butts in the deep shadow of a concrete pillar. He picked one up—a filtered Morley that had been flattened under the twisting motion of a hard-soled shoe. He sniffed the scorched end, and the hair thistled at the back of his neck.
Then he saw the bee. He twitched the light over it.
At times, Mulder knew that all he really had was his faith, a few obscure qualities, and his ability to hang on against horrific odds. He held the bee and the cigarette butt in his palm, dashing the penlight across them. A honey bee, he thought, although he was no expert on bugs. It lacked the heavy electricity of a live bee; it felt desiccated, its golden ruff sparse and the amber body dulled; the black stripes rubbed down to the shine, antennae and legs brittle enough to come right off at a touch. It had been crushed. It must have been in her pocket, or in her clothes; it could have traveled on Scully all the way from Texas, and then met its demise here as the Smoking Man accosted her. Mulder could read a scene like an Indian at a deer lick but understood that it might not appear quite so obvious to others. Still, he was tempted to call Skinner down to have a look.
The file box was beside him as he sat on the couch. It was a comforting denial mechanism, like a dead baby monkey the mother can't stop carrying around. The cookies in their little plastic tray atrophied sedately, and the baby nephew smiled, a Scullyish smile. He pulled out an item at random, a Post-It note that said ‘Swansea, MA, thurs' in her sensible hand. She might as well have carved the words into his heart.
He made himself rise up out of his apathy and roll his stiff neck. He was unnaturally sore in all his joints. He felt as though he'd been taken apart and put back together in a non-functional manner. There was a terrible taste in his mouth, a terribly familiar taste, and there really was something, some kind of poison in his shoulders and knees, and his eyes were dry and scratchy.
The elevator dinged, faint and distant, and his eyes went to the bar of lemon light on the wall until hope had risen and fallen again.
He heard a number of shuffling feet outside in the hall, then a whispered pause. A jaunty triple knock rattled the door. Mulder jumped, despite having braced himself. He ground his molars as he traversed the hall.
'Don't look so thrilled to see us, Mulder,' Frohike said, with a shrewd look, as they all pushed past him. Langly twitched the curtain and checked for a tail.
‘What do you have?’ Mulder asked.
'We were up before dawn going over the parking garage with a ten power hand lens,' said Frohike.
'Yeah, Mulder, you owe us breakfast. And you owe us beaucoup kudos for tracking down that honey bucket,' said Langly, jittery, hands folded under his armpits, his black frames catching the morning light.
'Tanker,' Mulder said. 'What've you got, fellas?'
Byers held out the vial containing the bee.
'We scoped the spot where you found the bee,' said Langly. 'Frohike shot a whole roll of film.'
'Let Byers talk,' said Frohike.
Mulder uncapped the vial and shook the bee into his palm like an aspirin. They all leaned close. 'It's a feral honey bee, superfamily Apoidea,' Byers said quickly. 'It's been hybridized with an Africanized honey bee, your so-called killer bee. There aren't any in the Eastern U.S.'
'Time of death: approximately forty-eight hours,’ added Langly.
Mulder sighed. The bee's polleny ruff stirred. 'We got into a swarm down in Texas,' he said slowly. 'Do you think she was stung?'
'The venom sack and stinger are still intact.' Frohike's eyes, distorted behind his glasses, hadn't left Mulder's face.
Mulder recalled suddenly that he had been stung in that strange bee dome. It was only the mild teasel scratch of a honeybee's sting, and he hadn't given it another thought, especially with the prospect of machine gun fire from the helicopters. 'Her mom’s not answering the phone,' he said.
'Her FBI file's still online; we can’t find evidence of reassignment.'
‘She said she was quitting,’ Mulder said wearily.
'You've got to get in touch with her, Mulder,' said Frohike. 'This thing is dangerous. If she's infected, we won't have much time to act.'
'There's a car down the street,' said Margaret Scully. She stood at the sun room window with her cordless phone, near the abandoned cluster of her daughter’s houseplants. Without enthusiasm, Dana had rented an apartment in Charles Village and had moved there in body if not in spirit, but continued to appear at her mother's for dinner, remarking that her flat smelled of paint. There was propitious favor in the moment she appeared at the kitchen door; knocking politely and calling 'Mom?' as she came in, her Edwardian beauty counterposed against a suit that wouldn't have been out of place on Charlie Chaplin. As her father used to say, privately, when the kids couldn't hear—Starbuck: a wonder of the world.
Sometimes, watching Prime Suspect together, or tying a quilt for the church raffle (suturing, Dana called it), Maggie might look over and see that her daughter was somewhere else entirely, locked trancelike inside herself. At any mention of her FBI partner Mulder, she retreated to the ledge of a hazardous brink, cheeks sucked in, her eyes unseeing, a mirror-flash of pain. She was a textbook middle child, and had always been the most difficult of the four Scully children to comfort.
'How is it parked?' Dana asked crisply.
'Other side of the street, a block past our house,' Maggie said, leaning slightly past the drapes. 'Facing away.' The tradecraft was underhanded and absurd, like the histrionic games of children.
'That's him. He's watching in the mirrors. Is it a Crown Victoria?'
'Dark gray or blue.'
'That's him,' Dana said.
They had a contingency plan for just this moment, but, now that it had arrived, a stillness came over them both. They had expected Mulder to storm the bastion, calling for answers, and they had planned exactly what must be said to him. Dana had warned that he would be predictably unpredictable, whatever that meant; Maggie supposed this subterfuge represented an example of it. She really did not feel up to matching wits with this high-strung crime fighter who seemed to love her daughter with a sort of medieval fire in the belly.
It was a hot afternoon, and a misty empty spot hung over the street. Maggie felt caught between the initiatives of two people who communicated with such illusive sophistication that, to the untrained eye, their relationship barely registered. One of them sighed tensely in her ear, the other sat spying on her house. Yet they were so fervently linked that Maggie felt herself to be simply the fraught wire through which an impulse passes.
Dana was at work at the naval hospital in Bethesda, in the basement of the building, and Maggie tried to picture her there now, in a lab coat, holding a portable phone, in those windowless rooms among the dead. It struck her that she did not understand her own daughter, or rather, that Dana was a person more complicated than most. The Scullys were a stern people, and not easy to love; Maggie had learned that the hard way. They bred true with their grimness and their hard blue eyes; Dana was certainly no different than the rest, but somehow, something to do with this man and his trial by fire had taken her beyond all that, and she had been pushed and hardened, raked by the teeth of death; she wore black, chopped her hair short, and had the attitude of one who has developed an inextricable mindset. It seemed obvious now that Dana had got herself tragically in love, and not in a beautiful way, not in a way that promised all the sweet things of life, but in some modus dark with ruin.
In the suspended afternoon they exchanged a few words, and Maggie did not register what was said, rising to the task at hand. She put down the phone and went out the kitchen door. As she walked down the driveway with the sun in her face she felt the attention of the watcher in the street. A newspaper had missed the neighbor's box a few days before, and it lay under the hedge on her side, and even though she had ignored it until now, a real fury at the paperboy arose. She reached down under the hedge and picked up the sodden, disgusting chunk of Wall Street Journal, with its superfine soft paper, and stuffed it in the neighbor's paper box. Rather blindly, she stalked into the middle of the street. The trees were above her now, and as she stood in the hushed avenue, staring hard at his car, her indignation concentrated on his sulky ambuscade. She was an upright person, and would absolutely not tolerate this subterfuge.
Maggie began to walk, pulling her cardigan close. She walked up the middle of the street, looking sharply into his side mirror as she approached. Never forget that he’s a trained manipulator, Dana had said. As Maggie came up, he slumped lower in his seat, tilting his face away as if he were trying to remember something. She rapped on the glass with the hard diamond on her knuckle, and he jumped.
'If you would like to speak to me, please come up to the front door,' she said, as he rolled down the window. 'You're lucky the neighborhood watch hasn't reported you.'
He looked up into her eyes. She had expected to see misery; she only encountered Special Agent Fox Mulder on the occasions when the world as they both knew it had come apart. In addition to the deep black misery in his eyes, he had a clammy tint, and a rough, blackened jaw.
'Please, Mrs. Scully, I need to talk to her,' he said quickly. His voice had a husk. 'I need to know she's all right.'
'I have a message for you, and then I need you to leave,' she said. She felt her wet fingers drying where she held them curled under her arm.
He nodded quickly.
'She says, for your own sake, stay out of it.'
He was still nodding politely, as if he had yet to hear any instructions worth following. He had not taken his eyes off her face. His eyebrows slanted upwards like a worried bloodhound. 'What about for her sake?' he asked, and Maggie knew, suddenly, that he understood Dana, that, unlike everyone else in the world, he both understood and liked her complicated daughter. 'We're worried she may be infected,' he said. 'Tell her if she feels sick to contact our associates.'
'What kind of infection?'
'Tell her it's something to do with the bees.' He reached for the ignition but did not turn the key. 'Dana will know what I'm talking about. And tell her...' He readjusted his rear view mirror, and cleared his throat. He closed his eyes and sighed, sharp and fast, a striation flickering in his jaw. Then he straightened up and pulled himself together.
Maggie found herself reaching in, as if he were a child who needed tending. She put her hand on his shoulder, and he tried to smile, embarrassed, and dropped his head. Through his T-shirt she could feel the beefy warmth of his shoulder, which made him seem more pathetic. 'She's just trying to keep you safe, Fox,' said Maggie.
He looked up at her quickly. She had just gone wildly off-script, and he knew it. 'Mrs. Scully, it's probably good for her to distance herself,' he said, surprising her again. As he said it, he seemed stunned at what had emerged from his mouth, and he put his hands on the steering wheel and stared straight ahead.
Maggie straightened up, and looked up the street toward her house. With its dormers, the house that she and her husband had chosen together had a human expression that mimicked a far-seeing resignation and patience. Fox Mulder must have this house-face well-impressed in his mind.
‘I’ll tell her that if you like,’ she said.
He glanced at her wistfully, as if looking for something else in her face. Looking for Dana, who had somehow come from her, but was not her, oh, not at all.
Mulder re-broke into Scully’s apartment. He was groping along in a quietus, his mode of investigative immersion, led by the genetic whiff of Scully he'd received from her mother. In his bereft state it was the only place he could bear to go. Her apartment was a war zone of stepladders and paint cans. He trod noisy swaths of plastic. The refrigerator, humped beneath a dropcloth, was in the middle of the kitchen. The rooms felt bigger, and all the fixtures and trim were masked and deadened. He was in no mood to see Scully's place hastily painted over as if she were something to forget.
The bathroom smelled of wrenched copper and the slimy scent of open plumbing, and the U-joint from the sink lay in the bathtub. In the mirror he saw that his panic face was indeed as bland as that of an Egyptian god.
He went to the window in the empty bedroom, and put his forehead to the glass. He deduced that Scully was nominally within reach, probably in the Baltimore area. Mrs. Scully, who looked like she had a lot to deal with, spoke of her in the present tense, as if they spent a lot of time together. And Scully herself, anticipating his appearance, had prepared a message for him.
He looked down at the street. He was trying to see through her eyes. She would have looked out at this view every day, standing here in her pajamas, half-awake, and he tried to imagine the things she knew; her experiences had been different than his, although he always hated to admit that. She was autonomous. She was coming from somewhere else. She had been threatened with something, he was sure of it. The Smoking Man wasn't dead, he was sure of that, too.
Mulder fidgeted in a circle. It occurred to him that Scully had blown town with some of his books. He was a little bewildered when she asked to borrow some of his cryptozoology: Scully, meeting him on his own turf! To give her credit, from time to time she looked in on the depths of their métier. Perhaps she was seeking the terminology with which to deepen her sarcasm. In truth, she was aware of her limitations when it came to understanding and second-guessing some of the situations they encountered; she was a scientist preparing herself. 'You have the open mind of a researcher,' he had said encouragingly; she had begun to look rueful as he loaded her up.
He was glad she had his books, because she was conscientious, and it created a loose end. He had never adequately admitted that her experiences were her own. He tended to feel that everything that was happening to her was happening to him, too, as if she were the pricked voodoo doll and he the one who experienced pain.
His hand was unsteady as he held the blinds open and looked down into the twilit trees along the street. A long grey car had settled noiselessly at the curb beneath the chestnuts.
He had a bee, a few half-smoked Morleys, a missing partner, and this horrible taste in his mouth, as if he had a sewer fluke in his liver. This was her view of the street. Scully was on her own in the world, so separate from him. This was her view. He needed to look out through her eyes, and plan a path through the world, think like a tracker.
The car's silvered rear window slid downward. Mulder, staring down, looked directly into the long courtly face of the éminence grise, and the arrogant eyes with their brisk command.
Stay out of it, she whispered in his head. He thought: You and I found each other in this cold world of strangers. I'm already in it.
When Mulder came down the front steps, the Englishman was standing beside the Bentley.
Mulder nodded tightly.
'Please,' the Englishman said, holding the rear door.
'I think my mother warned me about just this scenario,' Mulder said, but he slid into the foreign car with its polished leather seats. The Englishman positioned himself at the other end of the seat, angled towards him, legs crossed, smelling of rosewater and cigarettes. No seatbelt. As if awaiting a starter pistol, something like 500 brute horsepower muscled beneath them, and the chauffeur stirred the wheel. Mulder could have sworn they swept.
'It may interest you to know that your young friend has been spared,' said the Englishman.
Mulder's heart nearly stopped. 'What are you saying? Where is she? What have you done with her?'
'These sorts of impulsive decisions are always so difficult to defend. We reached consensus in committee, but a blunderer was sent to do the job. At present I would consider her to be perfectly safe.' The old man had an ostentatious blink. He looked like he had a basement full of Nazi war plunder, a stable of hunters and hacks, and a familial love that was at war with his antipathies.
Mulder felt an oozing crawl in his stomach. 'What had you hoped to accomplish?'
'To discredit you, of course. You saw the bodies at the Bethesda Naval Hospital.'
'You don't think I'm having enough success discrediting myself on my own?' Mulder asked derisively.
'Young man, you've made everyone amply aware of your great capacity for meddling in affairs you don't understand.'
'I think I have enough understanding to know what it is you're trying to prevent,' Mulder said.
'Colonization,' said the old man grandly, stating each syllable.
'Of the planet!' said Mulder. The driver made a sound, and Mulder turned to watch him. The driver sat motionless, waiting for a traffic light, his gaze avoiding the rear view mirror. Mulder was pretty sure that he was the one who had tried to kill Kurtzweil.
'True success, as I would have it, would be for my grandchildren to never know dominion,' said the Englishman.
'What do these men want with Scully?'
'Everyone involved has sacrificed someone significant to them. Small sacrifices for the greater good. You're truly a part of it now.'
'Let her go,' Mulder said. 'I'll walk away. We don't want any part of this. Just let her go.'
'It may surprise you to know that you yourself were promised at birth. And you may yet be of value to us.'
'We want nothing to do with you!' Mulder had his hand on the door handle. 'Damn all of you and your bigoted, soulless plans for a future only you intend to survive!' There was no reaction in the enured, waxy face. 'I want to get out,' Mulder said, plucking at the latch, his stomach burning.
'Driver!' said the Englishman, and they swerved into the tow zone.
'I refuse to sacrifice her!' Mulder shouted, the pavement still rolling beneath him as his foot hit the ground. He slammed the silky grey door. The car flashed its silver like a ruffled dove and slipped back into the stream of traffic.
He thought that if he didn't talk to Scully soon he would go mad. He walked among the bistros, hoards of effusive people around tables on the sidewalks, and he walked glancing impassively from side to side, hands in the pockets of his jeans. Someone was following him, he could feel it, but they were good. The pain in his stomach was a wet knotted rope drawn through a clutching hand. Probably he'd forgotten to eat. The knot fluttered briefly, an insect spasm. He ground his teeth. Live music came out of the open doors, and people were laughing, their arms around each other. People were mad. He hated people, in an electron ripple that carried himself at the center.
As it grew darker he turned into a public park, clutching the iron palings in the fence, his face chilled and sweaty. Something was going really wrong. His hands were icy and he could barely stand, and a foul, mucky bubble rumbled up, the mephitic taste of his own stomach.
There was a flickering inside him, as of something independent, a sour stirring, as Jonah had made the whale queasy.
Progressively sicker, he left the path, holding his stomach, dark spots coming and going before his eyes. His ears were fizzing. He wanted to walk out ahead and leave himself behind. He was ill—he must have eaten something bad, but he could not remember eating anything. He seemed to be getting the flu. He tried Scully's obsolete cell, the phone shaking in his chilly fingers, but her number was still disconnected.
He pushed on, his knees rubbery, weaving up a slope among topiary creatures set like obstacles. Then his stomach cramped hard and he bent over and heaved, and went down on his knees as it all came up, blood and lumpy matter in his throat and everything spraying out surprisingly hard. His eyes were closed for a long minute and his hands kneaded the dewy grass.
He wove on his hands and knees, his inner ear out of whack. A seagull cried, coming off the river, carrying with it a chill that floated up the back of his neck. He was melting with Ebola. He gripped the grass. If only Scully knew that he was sick and lost and it was getting dark. If only she knew.
He opened his eyes and saw it there in the twilight, and maybe he was hallucinating, but he knew what it was as soon as he saw it, that tiny silver body that fluttered at the extremities. He closed his eyes and shivered.
When he looked again, its short legs were folded in and the oval eyes showed dark through translucent lids. Mulder could imagine how he himself must look, kneeling above it in perfect shock, mouth open, staring at the slippery grass.
It was dying, nerve tremors making tiny rat-like twitches. It was maybe two inches long, very tiny, very perfect. Mulder shook his head and sat back, wanly clasping his ankles, salty water flooding his mouth. He'd gone icy, and he shuddered hard, staring.
Someone was coming up the knoll among the hedge-animals. Mulder turned, spat, and unsnapped his holster. The shadow climbed rapidly toward him, familiarity in its forward list. The grin came first, like a cat drawn long ago.
Krycek took the pictures Krycek-style, one-handed, holding the camera out sideways, rapid-firing the shutter, advancing the film with his thumb. He was off-center, balancing against his missing arm. He was laughing in the dark. The flash glanced coldly off Mulder's sweaty face. He put his head on his knees.
'Jesus, Mulder—looks like you aborted that mission!' Krycek shoved the camera in the pocket of his bomber jacket and leaned over, rather lit up, stepping hard on Mulder's shoe and taking a firm grip on his arm. He kept his head mowed like a shark's bullet, for forward motion. Mulder rose to his feet gasping, blood on his lip, holding his stomach. Krycek waited for him to get his balance; they stood with their arms across each other's shoulders, staring down at the smeared bleb drifting in globules of slime. The little monster twitched and Krycek jumped and gave a bark of disbelief. Mulder gagged again, but nothing came of it. Krycek stuffed the back of his hand against his own mouth and bit down on his leather sleeve. 'You've been fucking around on me, Mulder?' he asked, grinning in Mulder's face, his lip shiny with a streak of saliva.
'It happened—' Mulder paused to spit, and drooled woozily, clutching Krycek's greasy horsehide jacket. 'I think it happened after I got stung by a bee.' A pink strand dangled from his lip, and he swiped at it. It was annoying that Krycek could feel him shaking.
It was dark under the trees now, and in the hollows beneath the topiary animals. 'Come on,' Krycek said, his prosthesis biting into Mulder's back. They started down the slope among the rumpled snails and unicorns, until they found an asphalt path.
'Are we just going to leave it?' Mulder asked.
'What the fuck do you want to do? Dress it up for Montessori? Don't you understand? It's a rapid-growing parasite. It was going to kill you! Fuck—!' Krycek said, at a loss for words, his motorcycle boot jingling as he stamped his foot. He rubbed his thigh as though erasing some foul substance.
'Yeah?' Mulder asked. They passed through the wrought-iron gates of the park's entrance.
'Except you've been vaccinated against it.' Krycek heaved him onto a bus stop bench and stood over him.
'Just call me a cab; I can take it from here,' Mulder said, trying to sound hearty. The sweat on his face was growing chilly.
'You might be bleeding in your stomach,' Krycek said callously, glancing up and down the street.
Mulder looked up. 'Actually, I feel a lot better. Can I ask you something? Would you tell me if there was something I needed to know about Scully?'
Krycek grinned his python's grin, pleased. He sat down beside Mulder. 'When have you ever listened to me, Mulder?' Mulder looked hard into the slight insanity of Krycek's eyes. He was listening now. 'I bet there are a lot of things you'd like to know about Scully,' Krycek said. 'Makes you wonder how well you really knew her, doesn't it? Or what she was up to the whole time with you?'
'Just answer the question, Krycek,' Mulder said, keeping all feeling distant.
'You could say there was some talk about what to do about her.'
Mulder struggled upright, agonized. 'What to do about her? She's not any kind of threat to anybody! You tell them that!'
Krycek, who was never still, wavered a knee in Mulder's periphery. He reached into his jacket and slid a photograph from its warm cache. 'They always wanted her to work against you. Can't you see, Mulder, that you put her at risk by getting her on your side?'
Mulder took the picture and tilted it toward the streetlight. 'Yeah, but she never believed me for a second,' he muttered. An alien fetus lay on a towel, massive trauma to one side of its body, green flower juice at the edges of the wound, and a gloved hand fingering back a flaccid eyelid to expose the shiny black eye. The hand reached in from the left side of the picture, a hand that he knew like his own; the thumb with a pronounced backwards arch, the familiar gold crenelated watch band. The watch band across those two tendons beneath her wrist, between the top of the nitrile glove and her coat cuff—pelty black—jolted him. She would not wear her watch during an autopsy, nor her coat, so the circumstances must have been a bit extreme. 'Why are you showing me this?' he asked, hardly able to breathe.
'Leadership's breaking down, and they're crazy not to cut you in on more of it. And every last one has his head up his ass.'
‘Is she working for them?’ Mulder asked.
‘The trouble with you, Mulder, is you never get back far enough to take in the big picture. You're off doing your own thing, while cities burn.'
‘At least I'm not just their obligate toady, like you or Marita—'
'Or Scully,' Krycek added, with an oily look. Mulder kept his eyes on the ground between his feet. 'You ever asked yourself, Mulder, you ever wonder why the prettiest bitches are the most fucked up?'
'Who doesn't ponder that, from time to time?' Mulder said blithely. 'Why are you following me, Krycek? And doing a piss-poor job. I had you made back on Fourteenth.’ He tried to keep the photograph, but Krycek took it back.
'Jesus, Mulder,' Krycek said admiringly, standing up again. 'If I get you a cab, will you shut the fuck up?'
'I come with no guarantees,’ Mulder said wearily.
Chapter 4: Introducing Some Technical Language
When they burst from the hedges and came out on a gravel sweep in front of the country house, Scully blinked in jet-lagged disbelief. She suspected that she'd been in the Smoking Man's thoughts, which was no comfort. The car described a circle, underlining the moment of terminus in her twelve-hour journey, and she disembarked without waiting for her door to be opened. She stared up at the place like a girl in a gothic, her carry-on clutched in her hands. Pretty swank, Scully, said the little Mulder-voice in her head. The house in Somerset was beyond immense; it stretched away from her, propped like a proscenium, windows lit here or there, verandahs and lawns sloping off into the dark.
A man hurried down the wide steps and whisked an umbrella over her head, although Scully hadn't felt any rain, only a bit of mist. A dog waited in the doorway, and she was shown into a small lighted hall. The man telescoped the umbrella shut. It was a lesser entrance, with saddles on the wall and a row of Wellington boots. The overweight labrador looked up, sitting sideways on its hip, abashed, eyes rolling. The man jabbed the umbrella in a stand full of walking sticks and riding crops. He was neatly dressed in a full suit and waistcoat, as if he'd been waiting up for her, and she had the impression that something about her surprised him. She must be different from the usual gun molls who appeared in the night. He was probably thinking: they get younger every day.
The dog's tail whapped uneasily on the stone floor, and the man took her bag from her hand, his eyelids flickering as if he found her unbearable to look at. 'I am Ruskin, Miss,' he said, and, without awaiting an answer, escorted her up the stairs.
'Tell them I'm ready to begin,' she said, as he opened the door to her suite. It seemed the sort of thing she should say. The sitting room they entered was beautiful, if a little gloomy, with a coal fire glowing in the marble fireplace, tall narrow shelves of leather-bound books, and a velvet chaise longue.
'Mr. Leonard has not yet arrived, Miss,' said the valet or butler or whatever he was, perhaps manservant was the term. She suspected that, to one versed in such things, his clothing signified his position. He inclined his head, listening for her answer, and she could see the neat wet teeth-marks a comb had left across his head.
'Mr.—' Then she remembered the name of the soldier she'd come all the way to England to autopsy. She was determined to stay crisply disapproving in manner toward the men of the conspiracy, the Majestic Twelve, the Unholy Thirteen, whatever they were, but it did not seem right to be rude to a servant. 'I see,' she said.
Left alone, she went to the bowl of fresh roses before the window and tucked her face into it, and breathed until she felt a little more real. In the bathroom, she found a marvelously deep iron bathtub painted black on the outside and standing on gryphon feet. The water gave the sense of being summoned from a great distance before it came out choking and spraying, hot and cold each from its separate tap, and Scully growled at the deliciousness of sliding into hot water after such a long trip, rubbing a big amber chunk of saddle soap up in her hands. The bath felt amazing, and when she walked back into the sitting room, drying the damp ends of her hair, she found a plate of scrambled eggs and a warm croissant beneath a silver dish-cover.
She did not know anything about places like this. She was born to drywall floor plans, base housing, half a lifetime in dorm rooms. She might as well have been in a rocketship, trying to run the controls. She strained to recall some of the Masterpiece Theatre she'd watched with her mom while going through med school. Why hadn’t she read The Remains of the Day when everyone was telling her to? Mulder knew how to fake his way through the social graces, despite a lone-wolf off-note that played sharp in his genotype. He would know how to tell a butler from a footman, how to properly mispronounce French or ride to hounds. And he would know how not to feel miles from everyone down these long shadowy halls.
She could not go to sleep; it was morning, not night. She tried to see out the tall, cold window. She was at the back of the house, she believed, but she wasn't even sure of that. There was only blackness beyond the windows, and she remembered the endlessness of the Mendip Hills. She thought, as she thought nearly every second: Where is he and what is he doing right now and does he know what this feels like, what this tastes like; has he read this? Has he experienced this? She sank onto a sofa, stroking the velvet, and pulled a National Geographic from a basket, opened it blindly and read the first paragraph her eyes hit. It was a very old magazine.
'At the Pole there is no north, no east, and no west. The north end of the magnetic needle points south; the gyroscopic compass would point straight down; the Pole Star is directly overhead; the stars are invisible because of the sun; there is no sunrise and no sunset; the sun is constantly on the meridian; it is always noon there when it is not night.'
Fitfully, she flipped the magazine closed. The damp towel was on her lap. She leapt to her feet and had a few bites of food as she moved around, and hung her clothes in a lacquered armoire. She combed her hair and then got her laptop and climbed into the huge bed with the embroidered and tasseled Chinese silk coverlet that was as heavy as a sack of feed. A neat pile of coal glowed on the swept grate in the bedroom fireplace. She lay looking up at the canopy, which was embroidered with peacocks. She had never slept in a four-poster, but had once doctored Mulder up in one. In those days he was a hot-wired youth, his hair resembling a hobgoblin with its finger in a light socket. He was as hell-bent and boyish as a horse turned out in a pasture. His eyes, like ‘30s automobile windscreens, were dark, divided, narrow as archery slits. Once in a lifetime, one was allowed illogic.
She closed her laptop and clasped it for warmth until the fan shut down. 'It is always noon when it is not night,' she whispered to herself, and fell asleep.
The otter hounds kenneled out beyond the stables awoke her at dawn.
Her midnight snack had been removed from the sitting room, but hadn't been replaced with breakfast. She put on a dark and sensible suit and went downstairs. She wondered if Dr. Charne-Sayre had been in this house, and had descended these stairs. Now she was dead. Scully found a selection of hot food on the sideboard in a dining room. She was alone at the long table eating kedgeree and tomatoes when Ruskin came in and reported that they were nearly ready to begin.
At ten-thirty, Ruskin and the labrador met her at the foot of the stairs. Falsely obsequious, Ruskin held her coat. The labrador's tail smacked the newel post, and Scully put her hand on his grey-speckled head for luck. The dog gave her a look of love that in her loneliness moved her. She thought that they must be going outside, but Ruskin took her through the kitchens where several women were peeling carrots and salsify at an enormous table. Conversation stopped and they looked Scully over from the corners of their eyes, without lifting their heads.
Ruskin sucked his moustache efficiently. He seemed to find the enterprise agreeable, as if now he would see her get her comeuppance. He handed her a metal army flashlight as heavy as a toolbox, and lifted the latch on a creaking door. The dog whined and balked, and they left him in the kitchen. They passed into a stone staircase, and Scully managed, in the sudden dark, to find the metal switch on the flashlight.
They descended past the level of servant's quarters and came out into a long chilly hallway that stretched on into the distance. A sequence of bare light bulbs pierced the fastness. The shadows swung a bit as Ruskin passed beneath the lights. Water glistened on the walls. There were stacks of wooden ammunition crates from one of the World Wars. Scully swept her flashlight back and forth, into a wine cellar, into a room full of potatoes in baskets; an alcove stacked with dusty chairs. The shining eyes of mice or rats glittered in the beam.
An ancient coroner waited for them in a cement room smelling like a dairy. He made a formal gesture of welcome, a brown cocker spaniel sagging against on his foot. The body bag lay on an antique porcelain autopsy table. There was a brass drain in the floor and a jug of Iodophor soap beside the sinks, and a garden hose coiled on the wall. The trembling coroner, Mr. Brown, examined Scully's passport, and insisted on showing her his diploma in medical jurisprudence from the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London, lest she judge him unqualified. He was shy, but kindly and thorough.
Scully was not pleased to discover that she'd been brought over from the States simply to observe an autopsy. She opened her laptop on the sideboard beneath a glass cabinet of old jars, watching in the glass the reflection of Ruskin drawing the zipper down the body bag.
She turned around. The deceased was a brutish British soldier with a dark crewcut, a thorny rose tattooed on his bicep, and the distorted feet of someone who'd always worn boots.
The coroner produced a large, sharp bread knife. He seemed to live through a twilight window, and spoke with extreme delicacy around the gross processes of dissection. The corpse exhibited contusions on his hands, and bruises all over, and a laceration across one shin, but nothing visibly life threatening. He seemed oddly relaxed, elastic, like he'd be warm to the touch. Scully turned to her laptop and made a few notes. The paperwork that had arrived with the body lay at hand and she glanced over it. The deceased had been pronounced at St. Bart's, in London.
The felty spaniel circled the autopsy table, snuffing the floor, her puppy-stretched underbelly drooping.
'How did he die?' Scully asked.
'Cause of death has yet to be determined,' Ruskin snapped out, and Mr. Brown made a vague and justifiably irritable gesture, in the middle of carving a precise V into the chest. He peeled up the resultant flap, and flipped it over the soldier's face. Ruskin shifted against the wall, and glared at Scully.
Scully rose. 'Yes, I know, but what did you hear about his death?'
'Howell Owen Leonard, awarded Military Medal for gallantry, 1991, Operation Granby, Kuwait,' Ruskin recited. 'In 1995 he sued the Ministry of Defense for compensation for the various ills comprising 'Desert Fever'.'
'Gulf War Syndrome,' Scully interrupted. 'Gulf War soldiers were injected with a cocktail of quasi-experimental drugs, and many endured chemical attacks, exposure to pesticides, insecticides, and burning oil wells. Did he win his case?'
'No, Miss. He lost his case, but married and was living quietly until several weeks ago when he apparently went berserk in London and attacked several people. A head injury placed him in a coma. He was pronounced yesterday, at St. Bartholomew's.'
Mr. Brown's hand moved slowly over the stolen body. She thought of the soldiers with chronic headaches, chest pains, birth defects in their kids; losing their court cases. What did the men she worked for expect to learn from this autopsy? Did Mr. Brown have any idea what was going on? Why had the Smoking Man sent her over?
She moved to the foot of the table, cupping the corpse's foot in her hand. Mr. Brown began the final incision. Ruskin frowned without looking at her, his eyes on the coroner's hand. In her fingers the bare foot was pliable, but chilly. 'Stop, please!' Scully said impulsively.
The coroner glanced sharply at her over the tops of his spectacles, and exchanged a look with Ruskin. 'I don't think this man is dead,' she said hesitantly, knowing how it sounded.
Ruskin stepped forward. 'He's been in cold storage for twenty-four hours!'
'He's not dead,' Scully said nervously, moving around the table. She couldn't find a pulse, but there was something oddly lifelike in the body's retention of muscle tone—no gaping of the jaws, and the curl of his fingers in her hand had a rubbery, live resistance. The skin was cold. Scully remembered the body in stasis at NASA-Goddard, still standing upright; Leonard Betts' head; Owen Jarvis; a dead marine who'd been voodooed back to life at the Haitian refugee camp. She knew more than she cared to about the Texas Funeral or the medieval system of ropes and bells rigged to buried coffins.
She opened a drawer in the sideboard and dug through the skull chisels and paraffin chunks and silver hammers, looking hopelessly for a stethoscope. When she turned around again, Ruskin had resettled the flap of chest skin and was holding a shaving mirror above the soldier's cold lips. 'If we are now quite certain,' he said, showing her the clear, unmisted glass.
Old Mr. Brown moved in again, leaning close to his work. Scully, her eyes on the abdomen, was certain she saw it move. 'Get back!' she cried, the coroner's narrow shoulder like a bone in her hand. He froze and trembled under her touch, his rib-cutters held in the air. 'It's dangerous,' she said breathlessly. In a flurry, she gloved up and pulled on a mask. Both men obviously thought she was out of her mind, and she made a point of looking each in the eye as she began to palpate the abdomen. Mulder had once told her that looking over a doctor's mask greatly enhanced her evil eye, not that it needed much enhancement, he had added, with open admiration.
The firemen exposed to the contagion had become edematous in a short time, but this body had smooth dryish skin. There was a sudden movement under her fingers and she jerked her hand away. Ruskin's shocked eyes met hers. He stepped closer and twisted the shade of the overhead light. The coroner pressed against her arm, trying to see. 'Oh my God,' Scully whispered.
'What is it?' Ruskin asked.
'Scalpel,' she snapped, and it was in her hand. She made a midline longitudinal incision, C-section the old-fashioned way. 'Oh my god, oh my god,' Scully whispered as it moved under her hands, deep in the man's belly. Quickly, she slashed at the membrane. It was curled in a sac in the stomach. It was a baby curled up. She'd never delivered a baby. Through the blood it was revealed, its pallid folded grasshopper limbs moving slightly. Scully dropped the scalpel on the floor and scooped it out of the cavity, tearing the sac.
The baby wasn't breathing, or rather, it gurgled, choking. It wasn't quite human, but its struggle for breath prodded something inside her. She swiped at its tiny triangular face, and rested it on the soldier's mangled chest. 'We need to aspirate,' she said. She leaned over it, wiping quickly. She jerked down her mask and picked the baby up. In neonatal emergencies, a midwife might suck the airways clear, but Scully hesitated. She'd always imagined herself capable of giving mouth-to-mouth to an animal—it couldn't be any worse than most humans. But the baby in her hands wasn't like anything she'd seen before. Its parchment skin glistened with mucus, and the organs were visible, like the inner workings of a tadpole.
She flicked the soles of its curled feet. Slime dripped from it, and Ruskin had moved a pace back, but Mr. Brown got a towel under the baby. It came alive with a squeal, unfolding short rubbery claws. It had a horrible lower jaw of piranha teeth, she saw. As she stood holding it, horror filled her, and then it twisted hard in her hands and reached to shred the coroner's sleeve, and she dropped it. It hit the floor wetly, scrabbling, with a horrible lamb's cry. Everyone in the room jumped away and someone stepped on the spaniel, who began to yipe. Scully’s ears rang among the yelps, her hand on the coroner's torn sleeve, watching with her mouth open as the glistening thing disappeared into the hall.
Then she leapt forward, seizing her flashlight from the sideboard. The spaniel's barking rang in the room behind her. Ruskin brushed past her; he stopped and opened fire with a clicky British service revolver. Scully clapped her hands over her ears and the light jigged about the arched ceiling, a ricochet fading down the poorly lit hall. The creature moved, far down the hall, crabbing quickly. Ruskin rested his gun hand on his opposite forearm, and she saw that his hand was shaking.
'May I?' she asked quickly, her hand on his arm. She was still wearing her sticky gloves. He looked more surprised than affronted, reluctantly trading the pistol for her flashlight. She snatched the gun from him and swept it up at arm’s length, closed one eye, and drew a bullseye just as the flashlight beam held steady on the slippery white creature. She fired twice, and it folded up like a dying snake, misting the wall in lime green fluid.
'Stay back; it's toxic,' Scully said.
The dog shot past, and Ruskin lunged to grab it, turning to look up at her with his finger hooked through the collar. 'Damned good shot, Miss,' he said faintly.
Scully half-cocked the old revolver and ejected the hot shell casings onto the flagstones. ‘It’s ‘Doctor’,’ she said.
Chapter 5: Haploid Individuals
There were two men, and the girl was on her hands and knees, one behind her, the other getting head. They had a rhythm going, but it was late afternoon and there was a dusty glare of daylight on the rounded glass of the tube, and a bar of light moving up the wall and passing over the pock in the drywall where Scully had dug out the slug. Through chamber and gun barrel and air and then glass and a spinning graze across the left temple of a government servant, and then into the sheetrock. Bullet barrel X glass Scully wall. Some people, thought Mulder, have a purity the like of which you'll never see. Perhaps they deflect the terrible things. Or perhaps they attract them, because where there is so much good there must also necessarily be a balance of bad.
By evening he was on their bench near the Tidal Basin. When separated they always met there, or at least he told himself that; they actually hadn't met there in years. He paced the promenade and he paced among the little trees and he sat on the bench, and he lunged to his feet and paced some more. Eventually he took out a penlight and examined the bench all over for a message, a deep state cryptogram, some hint of contact. He found gum, brut art, guano, athletic tape; the hardwood looked difficult to carve, and there were only a few crass scratches advertising the street handles of idle footpads. He was furious that he was reduced to this, and that her situation in his life had become but a faint and indistinct hope, a longing for vandal poetry:
Scully was here but now she's gone / She left her name to turn you on
He leapt up and went to the rail. He and Scully had stood here not so long ago, on their lunch break. She had said 'May I?' and he had turned to find her with her eyebrows lifted in question and her expert hand poised to dive into the pocket of his suit jacket. A pair of ducks, observing something in her attitude, coasted in. Scully ferreted among the loose sunflower seeds in his pocket, knuckling his hip. The male duck was large and brassy, with a curl in his tail and a Daffy Duck ring around his neck. He commanded Scully to make it snappy. His mate was small and plain and tidy, turning her head this way and that as she watched Scully's hand. They're us, Mulder wanted to say, but he sensed that Scully was in one of her thinking-trances. She cast her arm and the seeds pattered on the water, and the ducks darted forward and dabbled them up and spat them out. They dabbled and spat until without perceptible signal they turned coolly sideways and allowed the current to draw them away, as unmoved and contained as if the river were part of them body and mind, like an exterior bloodstream.
Skinner met Mulder outside a Farragut bar as the sun was reducing thickly behind the buildings at the end of the square. A lentil steam rippled up from the sidewalk. Mulder was somehow at variance with the brisk stream of people, a beer sign blinking behind him, jacket over his shoulder. He was conversing with a derelict who talked too loudly and wore a filthy 1970s Army jacket. Skinner pulled up and watched them for a moment. You could learn a lot about a person when they were interacting with street people or the really messed up Vietnam vets. Mulder had done research in psych hospitals and was good at handling outcasts or terrified children, even psychos, and he probably thought himself the first wiseass to refer to his A.D.'s office as 'the Skinner Box.’
Mulder looked over and saw Skinner, and broke off the conversation with a casual lift of his chin.
‘Thanks for meeting me,’ Skinner said.
Mulder winced brightly, the only time his impassive features came alive. He spat a hull on the sidewalk. 'This better be good; I was getting a great spiel about cell phone towers and government mind control,' he said.
'Is that what you were talking about with that hobo?' Skinner asked.
Mulder followed him into the bar and settled into a booth, evidently exhausted. He tapped the table. 'A hobo's a migratory worker,' he said. 'Tramps travel around but don't work. Bums don't travel or work. Get your mendicants straight.'
'So, in the derelict world, you'd be a hobo.' Skinner held up two fingers as a waiter sailed near. 'Old Crow.'
Mulder shook his head. 'A gimlet,' he said.
The waiter allowed himself to be arrested in the midst of his endless circuit of the room. He carried a tray Statue of Liberty-style above his head, and smelled steamy from the dishwashers. He twitched a pierced eyebrow. 'No shit,' he said.
'In theory, none,' said Mulder.
'I suppose you tooled down here in a Model T?'
'I did,' said Mulder, brightening for a moment.
'He'd like a whiskey,' Skinner said, shutting them down.
He’d run into Mulder in the hall at work that afternoon, and decided to try to do something about the dull depression in the eyes that met his so defensively, as if Mulder had forgotten all the times he had helped Skinner out, and only flatly hated himself now, in his abandonment. But Skinner had not forgotten. Skinner considered Fox Mulder a friend, the sort of friendship that is tacit or even surly until the shit hits the fan. He honestly loved the gifted, phantasmagorical man who held the keys to other kingdoms like an ancient hill woman, who could not see himself for what he really was, and who messed up at love as mortally as the rest of us.
In the booth, Mulder seemed to be sinking away into himself in a gray and scouring blizzard. The waiter was gone, and a woman with runway posture strutted past in a slinky gown. They both checked her out, keeping it macho, but Mulder's ogle lacked heart. Skinner had the impression that Mulder didn't often drink, which would make his task easier.
'I don’t think I should drink,' said Mulder. ‘My stomach’s messed up.’
'Well, I'm going to sit here and tie one on,' Skinner said, removing his jacket and getting comfortable. He was thinking about oyster shooters, or maybe something that you pounded on the bar and sucked the foam off of. From where he sat he could just barely see a wall-mounted TV, with a news channel slowly scrolling through a long bulletin. Two shots of bourbon descended past Mulder and stood waiting in the middle of the table.
The bell jingled above the door. The place was busy, but now something was happening in the crowd around the door, an outrage, from the sound of it.
The Vietnam vet appeared, cutting a wide swath, his eyes on Mulder. He came at a halting and steady pace towards their booth, limping or jerking, unhurried, with some sort of amusement and inner calculation on his face. He seemed to busy himself greatly with the task of walking, murmuring to himself, ignoring the wake of protesting patrons. Mulder looked a little more alert. He tipped his head tenderly.
The veteran arrived at their table in his ragged layers like a wild man with a sort of leafy cap upon his head, subdued PFC insignia, his hair twiggy and the layers of clothes and canteen straps and tattered blankets emitting the smell of garbage and smoke in an impenetrable wall.
He and Mulder nodded civilly, and nodded again. 'Brother, I'm a little short,' said the vet.
'Didi mau!' said Skinner, slapping the table. The vet, calmly taken aback, considered him with a slightly snobbish glance, and said nothing.
Mulder gave Skinner a look, and felt around in his jacket on the bench beside him.
Skinner knew exactly the sort of shit the man had seen, that they'd all seen, the three of them, in their various wars, and the sort of shit they'd done that could make you want to shut off the normal world, the stuff you could no longer live with because, let's face it, reality was not what you had thought it was, and you were not who you thought you were, and this was all you deserved. Mulder himself with his sullen face was on his way to the gutter, loneliness and loss and mistreatment his justification. Maybe not the gutter, but some sort of symbolic mode of suffering, like alcoholism or a vow of silence, or working himself into the ground. What irritated Skinner was that the vet believed himself deeper tenanted by humanity because he embraced the sort of funky atavistic state that most people could not stomach.
The palm of the man’s hand was a permanent, greyish black, as if his hands had been dipped in stain. Mulder dropped a folded twenty into it, and the man looked gently into Mulder’s eyes. 'I hope you find your girl,' he said.
Skinner looked at Mulder in surprise. 'Me too,' Mulder said.
The waiter and the bouncer were approaching from each side, and the vet held out his blanket-draped arms like a carrion bird about to rise, philosophically indignant but resigned, away into the evening. He was still looking sympathetically at Mulder. 'If that ain't a bearcat,' he said, with a shake of his leafy head, and then they were upon him, and he disappeared in a cheerful tumult. The bells spilled their noise over the indignant crowd. People were throwing Mulder edgy looks, and he shifted a little and looked at the mess of sunflower husks he had scattered over the table.
Skinner cleared his throat. 'You know, Mulder, women leave...They feel sad about it and guilty about it, but it's just something they have to do.'
‘She isn't just a woman—she's...’ Mulder said. He had a stick pretzel between his teeth. He was busy twisting a Keno ticket. His glower wandered along until it landed on Skinner, and he seemed surprised to find his boss on the other side of the table. His legs shifted, knees cracking, and his eyes narrowed into a sneer, and, fittingly, he produced a phrase he’d picked up from Scully. ‘All due respect, Sir, but I don't think you know a goddamn thing about women.’
"Mulder, shut the fuck up and drink that drink!" Skinner snapped, stabbing the table with his forefinger. Mulder obviously didn’t have much trouble in the women department, considering the fact that a bright young doctor had frittered away five years of her prime on his ludicrous project. All the same, it was pretty rich that Mulder would claim to be an actual authority on women. He appeared to divide his time between calling phone sex lines and hovering chastely over his colleague. What Mulder knew of womanhood was Scully, who was, as he had pointed out, no ordinary case. Knowing Scully would not make you an authority on anything but pedantry and the soul of containment. It would make you believe that there was something better and harder and more faultless about the world, and also something perennially unattainable, so that you would find yourself living with unmitigated yearning. Mulder probably believed that he had looked into the sun.
Skinner had observed in recent years that they looked upon the world as a pair, a binding doubleness and distance in the vision of each, a feeler lag as they mentally reached for the other. They were natural police. They gazed upon you from the shadows of an arcane thicket. And just as collusively, and with suggestion, there was often a humor washing about them that lit up Scully's eyes and dared not touch her sour mouth, and which made Mulder look happy. If they were fucking each other Skinner didn't want to know, there being hardly anything sadder or more precarious in the world than battlefield love.
Slowly, irresolutely, Mulder reached for the shot glass. He set it back down with a thoughtful look, licking his lip, and shuddered delicately. Skinner sighed.
'Tell me where she is,' Mulder said.
'You know I can't, Mulder.'
'Did you see her at her debriefing?'
Skinner nodded. Scully had come down from Baltimore, having settled precariously close, despite her bid to escape. She had chosen her usual chair before his desk, taking time to smooth the back of her skirt as she sat down, ending up hunched over with her hands at the backs of her knees. She looked at the empty chair beside her. She seemed distracted to the point of hypnosis, as if all the doors and windows were about to flip open and skeletons gad in on strings. Stamped beneath each of her wide blue eyes were the lavender thumbprints he remembered from her illness.
Skinner stood restlessly, pressing his knuckles into the blotter. He asked her an innocuous question about her new civilian life and Scully looked up at him slowly, scornfully, as if she'd never before considered his existence. He suspected that she had yet to forgive either him or Mulder for keeping her out of the loop on the New Spartans thing. 'I know it's not easy leaving the FBI, losing your identity as an FBI agent—'
'No, Sir,' Scully said stiffly. She might have been agreeing or disagreeing with him. Her expression said: Cut the crap. She swallowed, glancing at the door again.
'He's out in the field,' said Skinner. Openly, he met her glare. It occurred to him to wonder how the rest of the world had become 'the field', as if the Hoover Building were sanctuary in a raging wilderness. It was satisfying to convey the sense that Mulder was off struggling in the wilds, although actually Mulder was down the hall in the bullpen, if he'd bothered to come to work. Skinner seriously doubted that Scully was going to stick her head in there looking for old friends. 'I can't forget how you went after Cardinale,’ Skinner said. 'There was a time when you really trusted me. If you're in trouble, I need to know.'
She grabbed the arms of the chair and rose, fight in her eye. That's right, thought Skinner. 'You,' she had whispered as he held her in his arms, her face so close that he could smell her breath and the heat of her skin slipping from under her collar, he could smell the blood. He could almost pretend that the accusation had meant something else.
'Are you asking me if I trust you now?' she asked icily.
'If you need help, Scully, if you're being coerced into this, you've got to tell someone.'
Although he had not dismissed her, she’d had enough. She paused with her hand on the door, rolling her head helplessly, then turned and glared at him. 'If I need your help, Sir, I'll ask for it.'
'She was okay,' Skinner reported to Mulder. They had left the bar and were wandering together along the streets. Mulder was drunk. It was dark, and the night was rich and jazz-colored, and it was a shame they were not in the mood to enjoy it.
Mulder held a cigarette that a woman had handed him, with a meaningful look. It wasn't necessarily a bad thing, that Mulder was drunk. His jacket trailed from his hand and the cigarette was cold. The liquor had taken a while to make him truly confusable, but now Skinner had his hands full just getting him down the street, and Mulder's mental fixation on Scully was floating up on full display. 'I think she's in trouble,' Mulder confided. 'I think the Smoking Man's alive. The Lone Gunmen told me she was sent to England. She's been threatened somehow. Blackmailed.' Mulder walked in a straight line, but the straight line had nothing in common with the lay of the sidewalk. Periodically Skinner had to correct his trajectory. 'I have never, in all my days,' said Mulder, seemingly walking through entire eras of time with his eyes closed, 'never have I seen Agent Scully forced into such a drastic position. And if it's because of me, if she thinks she's doing it to protect me, if she’s somewhere suffering because of my petty dabbling in some meaningless conspiracy, how am I conceivably to live with that? Do you have any idea what she means to me, Sir?' He did not wait for an answer, but stopped, his hands in his pockets. He had dropped a folded twenty, and it lay by his shoe. 'Please, Sir, give me back the X-Files,' he said.
'I can't, Mulder.'
Mulder shuddered irritably. Something had slowed inside of him, and they left the sidewalk and crossed a patch of grass. He stood at the edge of the bushes and looked down at the estuary. Skinner followed him and stuffed the twenty in the breast pocket of Mulder's shirt.
Mulder turned, startled, as if he'd been stabbed. 'Come on, I know you lied to me!' he said.
Skinner shrugged, watching him. With a touch of forethought, he removed his suit jacket, which had a particularly nice cut, and folded it over the back of a park bench.
'How can you not tell me where she is?' Mulder snarled. 'You don't have a fucking clue what this means. If anyone did, they'd be more involved in searching for her!'
'She isn't lost, Mulder!' Skinner said impatiently. He folded his glasses and slipped them into the jacket. He rolled his head from side to side and shook out his hands a little.
'Did they take her to keep me quiet? Is that it?' Mulder asked desperately, coming across the grass.
'Mulder, nobody took her—she went of her own free will.' Skinner adjusted his footing on the wet grass and calculated his next words, watching Mulder's tense face. Mulder was breathing rapidly. His eyes were black, his sensitive mouth hanging indignantly open. Skinner let the moment settle into its perfect slot. 'Besides, since when have you ever shut up about anything?' he said.
Mulder lashed out, and Skinner moved smoothly aside. Mulder lunged swiftly, and they grappled, legs braced. He smelled like bar smoke and musky deodorant. It was good to be pitted against his full strength; he was strong, but Skinner was a thousand times more experienced. Skinner pushed hard, head lowered. 'God, I hate the way you fight, Mulder. There's no finesse, no plan,' he grunted. He seldom missed the chance to mentor a rash young agent.
'Not if my plan is to kick your ass!'
'Come on, I can kick your ass any day of the week,' Skinner grunted, shoving him away. Mulder came at him again, his wild onrush knocking Skinner sideways a step. But Mulder was too tall and easy to unbalance, all legs, and he let rage cloud his mind when he fought.
'Come on, come on!' Mulder circled, arms wide. 'I thought you killed those V.C. with your bare hands!' Skinner tossed out a fast punch, but Mulder skidded backwards on the grass, out of reach.
'Come here, you little prick,' Skinner panted, untroubled, his heart beating hard and slow. He was just getting warmed up. It was easy to get Mulder in a headlock.
They grappled again, until Skinner got his hands against Mulder's chest and pushed him away. Mulder's lip was cut. His fist slid off Skinner's chops in a slow, sloppy punch. Skinner shook his head and felt better than he had all week. Mulder looked punchy, though, and he was weaving, coming in with a hollow roar, his fist drawn back.
Skinner calmly narrowed his concentration, centered his feet and went with a tempered haymaker, cracking him squarely in the jaw.
Mulder cried out in surprise, although the pain must have taken a few seconds to hit. He staggered into the shrubbery and felt for the trunk of a cherry tree with his hand. He bent over and threw up while Skinner stood flexing a stiffening hand.
Mulder salivated and spat, still gripping the tree. The lights on the water were beautiful, and a little breeze came off the water and cooled Skinner's forehead. It really was a lovely evening. 'I have puke in my nose,' Mulder related, sounding euphoric.
Skinner was the civilised sort who carried a handkerchief. Mulder blew his nose and patted the cut on his lip, and got a sip at a bronze drinking fountain. He hawked and spat into an urban beautification flowerbed.
Skinner unrolled his cuffs and put on his glasses and picked up his jacket and they walked along the sidewalk. 'Jesus, you bastard, you got blood on my shirt,' Skinner commented.
'Pansy-ass,' Mulder said cheerfully.
Skinner hailed a cab and put Mulder in it.
Mulder rolled down the window and looked up at him. His eyes were bright and the lip was swelling. 'Thank you, Sir,' he said, irony and honesty mixing in his voice. Skinner tapped the roof to signal the cab driver. 'Anytime, Mulder,' he said.
Let him never forget how it felt when she said that her own life was standing still, how she was trapped in a nongermane nightmare. And let him now feel only gratitude that she had broken free of all that, stuck her iron in the fire and shot the gears of prospect. And even if he only saw life as a futile series of impulsive gestures, impermanent as writing on water, let him admit, yes, that joy and love had left their mark, and that he was the stone she had so inscribed.
Chapter 6: The Motion of a Clock
You're not law enforcement anymore. Pull your weapon, scream FBI! Dominant eye on the front sight, Get your hands off him, bam! You're not going to tear out a transmission doing a J-turn. He's not going to call you in the middle of the night, say Scully, get down here!
She had a fake life, a cover job, an apartment in Charles Village, and a darkly bottomless expense fund. There was a poster on the wall above the break room couch—‘Spectographers do it with frequency and intensity’. She was tired, always tired. She passed out on the break room couch, done in by the double life. She worked in the basement morgue at Bethesda Naval Hospital, under the strange old 20-story Art Deco tower, and she thought of James Forrestal every time she looked up at the tower. She thought of Mulder every time she saw the soldier Mulder had buffaloed when they sneaked in to examine the bodies of the firemen.
Sometimes she was collected, of an evening, in a town car with a silent driver, and she rode in the back wrapped in her coat, watching the passage of an extraordinary night world. Her sense of remove was most acute in these moments. They took her to NASA-Goddard, or sometimes to Gaithersburg, where she was nominally involved in work on a mystery virus. It was a study so deeply under wraps that the code name had a code name, but she and Mulder had bumped up against it over the years, and it was with a jolt of recognition that she looked through a microscope and saw again the bone fragments turned up in Dallas. She was not a virologist and did not get deeply involved, but her sense was that she was thrown into the mix to push the envelope, to enhance cogitation, and this, she thought, was her lifelong debt to Mulder: the radical expansion of her thinking.
Sometimes she went to the still-inconceivable spot where her dauntless elder sister lay stilled in the dirt.
Part of her mind, unbidden, worked on the Forrestal incident, a fifty-year-old cold case ruled a suicide. The bathrobe belt, the radiator, the scuffing on the wall. The Sophocles. Perhaps not coincidentally, his jumping/hanging death had been mirrored by Dr. Berube at the Gaithersburg lab, which, the more that she thought about it, might have been some kind of inside joke. Trying to make a joke of it herself, she wondered how they would dispose of her. A SWAT team with machine guns sweeping a railway car? A reckless young thoroughbred stepping on her throat? Or that old cliché: someone you trust.
She embarked upon her new life with an eerie smoothness; the waters parting as she passed through foreign customs, job interviews; the daunting security of high-containment labs. She was too busy to dwell on the fact that her life was no longer her own. She became familiar with the obscure private hangars at the far ends of major airports, gatehouses that were no more than a row of plastic chairs, a scale, and a coffee maker. They would already have her weight figured on the manifest. Pilots were usually bright, jokey fellows, testing the de-icing sensors with a Frosty from Wendy's. They tended to include her in their gang as if she were an exotic underground informant, washing in among them on a wake of notoriety.
In a semi-abandoned hotel on some nameless Bahamian cay, she removed a bullet from a feverish man and treated him for infection, with the aid of two chopper pilots and a squeamish, high-strung thug. The evening they arrived, a tropical storm blew up and trapped them, and the power flickered and the surf raged on the reef.
The pilots tied the helicopter down, but it was possible the storm would tear it to pieces. The place, although empty at the moment, was obviously used by drug-runners, and a long ellipsis of machine-gun pocks crossed a wall in the lobby. One of the chopper pilots, the younger one, was climbing the walls. The thug creeped Scully out, and the injured man, another thug, had a remittent fever. Someone had an interest in his survival, and she didn't know what would happen if she failed to save him.
Several days into the storm, she had a morose moment, as she tried to relax enough to take a nap, a chair wedged, for peace of mind, under the doorknob of the little whitewashed room, and her gun on the floor beside her cot. It was the middle of the afternoon, and watery palmetto shadows thrashed the walls. She was cold, and tucked a mildewy blanket around her feet. She lay with her arm over her eyes, and tried to see a clear way through it all. Maybe the war ain't over, Scully, Mulder murmured.
It was telling that the primary tragedy of her life was also indicative of its greatest marvel. Without Mulder’s understanding, as a thing comprehended is itself changed simply by being known, Scully was changed by a lack of understanding of the essential Scully. On her own, she felt like the equation after the last scientist is dead, a formula left in unbreakable code.
On the sand-streaked floors of the hotel lobby stood a rusted '70s Cessna 172, chopped for parts, its cowlings open, the engine gone. Her life had not really been her own in those thorny times when she worked on the X-Files, but Mulder and the X-Files had strangely freed her from the expectations that had once surrounded her. She’d never seen anything as proudly alone as that little blue and white plane, with its jaunty wheel pants; once a fearless little Skyhawk aloft in the brilliant ocean air.
She thought of the thugs as Thug One and Thug Two. Sometimes she couldn’t help the second thug completely with the pain, rationing his meds in pace with the storm. When he talked he tended to ramble in a morphine haze, making the first thug uneasy, and subsequently Scully very uneasy for her patient’s safety. It was important to keep him calm, and when she held his hand he was usually peaceful.
The other helicopter pilot, the older of the two, was a man Scully immediately trusted, for reasons she couldn't quite explain. Out of the stranded and rather desperate group of five, the two of them quickly gauged each other's sensibilities and assumed joint leadership. The pilot was unperturbed by their situation, and possibly even enjoying himself. When the power failed entirely he brewed cowboy coffee in a quart jar, drawing down the grounds with an eggshell. He found the rustic field surgery fascinating, and, on cue, extended an enamel basin into which she dropped the bullet fragment and bloody hemostat with a satisfying clatter.
He sat with her patient so she could get some sleep, and when she paused gratefully in the doorway, turning with some last suggestion, she saw him comfortably ensconced in a rattan chair, engrossed in an old Spanish newspaper, with the thug's hand clasped in his. She held her peace. Hard as it was to reconcile with his positivity and ease, he was probably a mercenary working the underworld. Moreover, he likely thought the same of her. She realized, with some shock, that she was shaping him into the Mulder that she needed beside her, that she needed to function, to think.
On the way up to her room she crossed a mezzanine which looked down on the lobby, and without fail she paused at the concrete balustrade to look down at the little plane, which, whether in the stormy thrash of moonlight or the dullness of day, brought her such a singular stab of nostalgic pain that she could not resist it.
When the storm began to feel like an endless machine that had always dominated their lives and morale seriously flagged and the huge, storm-lit kitchens had been thoroughly ransacked, the elder pilot went out into the hurricane somewhere and traded a pack of the first thug's cigarettes for a surf-caught pompano that he breaded in stale corn flakes and sauteed over a stove he built from a Tecate can and fueled with some of Scully's isopropyl alcohol. It was the best fish Scully had ever eaten. And when, finally, the weather cleared and they loaded the sick man into the helicopter, which was dented but still functional, and they lifted, euphoric with relief, wobbling, into the sky, he glanced back at Scully, where she sat holding her patient's familiar hairy fist, and tipping the craft slightly, pointed at a silver shark gliding across the great black reef below them.
In Bethesda, between autopsies, Scully crashed on the break room couch.
He's not going to take your muddy foot in his bare hands and heave you over a fence. He's not going to stick a whole Oreo in your mouth while you're slicing and dicing. He's not going to get choked up when you're hurt. You're not going to crack a case with that concurrent, spectacular click, staring into each other's eyes.
Silent interns endlessly searched the cupboards for food or stood at the counter chopping string cheese into their ramen bowls. One disquieting ordeal faded into the next and she came and went, largely ignored, but for the autoptician Marcella, with whom she shared an office and an autopsy bay. When she closed her eyes, Forrestal fell. A week after the Bahamas an after-hours autopsy went radically haywire, and she conflagrated exam room C. She became less popular around the place, even disreputable; it was like the good old days at the FBI. 'I'm opening the cranium,' she had said into the tape recorder, which was played at the Navy's investigative hearing into the fire; those were the last words spoken on the tape. Exhibit B was her lab coat, with scorching to the right sleeve indicating a defense posture. The invading force had lurked in the ducts of the brain. She combatted it quickly, and, she thought, skilfully, without risking infection, and it had made a mess, white-flashed the room, set off alarms, and left smoke stains all over the place. Everyone distanced themselves, except for Marcella. 'Lips like Maureen O'Hara,' said Marcella. 'I'd expect you to kiss John Wayne, if he helped you save the ranch.'
Scully, in those blurry mid-summer days, found herself eating too much candy, and discussing, frankly, men. Marcella was not a spectographer, but her theme was sex. She autopsied widely, regally, as if playing a grand piano, unlike Scully, who hunched over her victims, prodding and snipping, braced for fluke or frog or throwback evidence of horns or wings. Even with her hands in a cold one, Marcella made fine pronouncements. 'Grow out that hair,' she advised. 'Get it all sexy. Imagine how it'll look on you naked.' The tape recorder caught some interesting things.
Scully, beset by stoic grimness, had her hair cut shorter, but Marcella, creaking her oversized office chair and speed-typing, calmly rode each setback and pitfall, and seemed to have shouldered a role not unlike that of squire, coaching Scully for some great, clashing confrontation. But where Scully foresaw the doomy onset of battle, Marcella prefigured other proceedings. Getting Scully laid was her fixation. She was undaunted by Scully's hardscrabble romantic history, and even saw potential, sensing the simmering existence of Mulder like a phantom twin exposed by Kirlian photography.
Scully believed herself to be sturdy. Cancer had honed her down, and sometimes she glimpsed a sort of angelic delicacy when she passed a mirror. The look did not particularly describe her inner being and she thought that it might be the face of a close call. She looked sternly at herself, putting on her eyeliner fast because she was going to be late. Mulder had been the mirror in which she saw herself. His constant proximity had tasked her with physically balancing his pureblood grace, and she believed that she had developed some facsimile of beauty because of him, much as a lemon garden spider, placed upon a hothouse rose, turns pink.
Scully lay down on the break room couch and closed her eyes and a memory appeared: struggling through a bar crowd with Mulder, a crush of steamy red-faced men holding up beer glasses, Mulder very close behind her, his hands quite possessively on both her flanks. It was markedly different than his one hand steering her around at work. He left no room for doubt, really, that she was his; he was mantling over her like a hawk.
One evening in her new apartment a darkness came over Scully like a terrible spell and she tore back the covers and trampled a map and knelt among the boxes in her living room prying open the flaps and making stacks of books around herself on the floor. He had given her a few of his books, loaned them, actually, rather casually, not a big deal at the time, but now she could think of nothing but having one in her hands. And here was one—the books of Charles Fort, bound together fifty years before in one heavy volume, a book like a paving stone, and she opened it in her hands, the words rushing up, and pressed her face deep into the gutter between the pages and inhaled as if she had not breathed all day, and the hurt, the hurt, the hurt.
One morning she found a clasp envelope on her keyboard. Inside it were several photographs. She sat down slowly. They were of Mulder, on his knees on grass. He was looking up into the flash; he looked away. It was dark. He wore a t-shirt with something dribbled down the front of it. In the third picture he was hanging his head, hands braced in the grass. Scully struggled with herself. There was no date, no note, nothing on the envelope. She sprang up as if she might save him, and then sank back down. He did not look physically harmed. He was not bleeding, although he looked ill. The pictures were not artfully framed, and he seemed to know the photographer. He was not defending himself, he was simply sitting there, suffering. The point was his suffering, as a warning to Scully. Look what we can do to him. Look what we have done.
Marcella was not yet in; her mornings involved pleasurable strolls and pastries and coffee shops. She liked to buy flowers, and carry them as she walked. Scully could not talk to Marcella about the photographs, but she was relieved when she came in, all the same. Marcella was not part of any shadowy holding company. Her desk was covered with jars of potpourri and M&Ms and pictures of her many nieces, whom Scully could never keep straight. The young nieces looked frivolous and struck astonishingly provocative poses and, now and then, as a meditative device, Scully would try to name them: Sebastiana, LaTarbria, Fauve, who knows. Giz'elle.
In the investigation into the fire, they kept asking what had even made Scully think of it, reaching for the clicky thing used to light the bunsen burners. It was simple hard experience, but she couldn't call it that, and could not justify the quick logic of X-Filesean self-defense. She had opened a cranium with an oscillating saw and found the seething substance massed in the pineal gland, gathering itself, had felt its intent, and she had sent the whole place up with the sort of last-ditch calm in which she had clapped the defibrillator paddles to Leonard Betts's head. She could only think: how will anyone ever understand what it was like? Only he would know.
As she drove home from work, she put on NPR to fill the silence, but found herself remembering the metal songs of her youth, headbanger music, songs that roughed you up like some joyous idiot fucking you on the floor, their only agenda to rock you like a hurricane. Melissa driving the crappy car they shared through high school, the stereo turned up so loud that the cracked dashboard buzzed; she remembered her sister building a long and poignant libretto out of 'Voices Carry' in the shower. She remembered wanting, nay, longing for Madonna gloves. It was the Molly Ringwald era, don't you forget about me. And, oh, the taste of that toxic rush of defiance in the backyard at night, cigarette paper stuck to her lip, the physical excitement of it, a crackling magic inside her so big she couldn't be expected to contain it. She remembered the first time she put her hand down a boy's jeans. She wanted to be drunk, now, and she wanted to be crazy with it; she was sick of being staid and responsible. She was sick of knowing everything. She had only known youth for a moment; she had never been young at all.
It was early evening when Scully came home from work knotted up with condensed, unfocused anger, with a heavy thud low in her heart, flinging her keys on the kitchen counter and going into the dark bedroom, breathing fast, pushing down excitement now over the anger and out of time, dropping to her knees beside the bed, warming her rain-cold fingers in her mouth. She pressed her face into the bed and thrust her hand quickly down her suit trousers and rubbed, roughly, her stertorous breaths all around in the air. Her exacting fingers were fast and cold, sharpening the pleasure, and she bit down hard on the quilt, out of her mind as the twisted triangle of hand and body and mind centered on the electric upsurge of dopamine amplifying her vital self until she groaned and put her head through a dark gate of reality and her face was against his chest and his arms came around her with all the love in the world.
She fell back on the floor, rummy, her cheeks hot, and now it was easier not to think. She shuddered again, sort of coming, and shivered. She lay on her back with her mind empty, staring at the shadowy ceiling, ignoring the warm tears as they slid into the cups of her ears, warm and then cold, like the emotionless miracle tears wept by some rustic-carved Albanian madonna in a hilltop shrine. The sense of him was still strong in the room. For a moment she lay inside that pure, unchangeable love and allowed it to exist without censure or doubt or extant pain. Then she pulled herself up, heavy as an ingot of iron, and cast herself across the bed, falling asleep in her clothes, and not waking until a police siren went past around midnight and filled the room with planetary hopelessness.
Chapter 7: The Striking Contrast
In Arizona there were dinosaur statues along the freeways, and extraordinary numbers of dead dogs along the reservation roads, and Mexican yogurt popsicles in all the gas stations, paletas with bits of fruit. In the old days he could always count on Scully to ask for a bite, graciously granted: anything tasted better after it had been in her mouth. Her eyes flashed at the taste of sugar.
He was sixty miles from Phoenix, and he was thirsty, picturing frosty popsicles and the icy condensation clinging to every bottle of water in every refrigerator in every gas station he'd passed. The old days. The old days, when there would have been someone to remind him not to die of thirst.
He went down through the arroyo with his gun drawn, following the trail of droplets. The trail was evident to his tracker's eye, swatches of dried slime stretched over the rocks. He didn't know what he was following exactly, except that it had burst from a man’s abdomen and was rampaging around. He thought of what had rumbled up out of his gullet and knew he'd dodged a rough end. He felt like Sigourney Weaver, going down the canyon with his gun in his hand, wet between the shoulder blades and under his arms, sweeping nervously from side to side, clearing each shadowy draw, resting his pistol hand on his left forearm out of duress and nerves. He was conscious of the second gun on his right ankle and the utility knife clipped to the back of his jeans and the late afternoon sun bearing hard. How far out would he seriously dehydrate?
There was nobody watching his back. He'd resisted getting a partner and now it seemed ludicrous to be out on his own without someone to look back while you looked forward, to yell a warning, get a vantage, witness, corroborate. Now he was down a canyon by himself. He needed to move faster, but he couldn't afford to make a mistake. How long since the creature had passed? It was light and fast, and left very little impression. He crouched a little, trying to get into its mind.
He came out of a narrow scramble in the rocks and the stony swale widened, the hill sloping away below him, sand and boulders and brush. Below, off across the valley, the Rolling Hills Nuclear Power Plant sparkled vapor above the cooling tower. He cut for sign, circling, and found the track line across an open pan. The sunlight was a weight across his shoulders, and the sky was copper pink with smoke particles, making double-exposure shimmers wobble at the edges of his vision. A disturbed songbird flew up in the distance. The birds were acting strange, buzzing up angrily. The wind came up strong, then, and he turned, scanning his perimeter, his gun arm swept out.
It was an unlucky moment, with the wind.
She stood in the desert, watching him through the redshift thrash of her hair. Her trousers were dusty and her cold eyes were on his like a punch in the stomach. His skin prickled, chilled, although he was too hot. He said her name, informing himself, but the wind snatched the word out of his mouth. He took a step closer. She seemed to brace. Scully's voice called his name, but she hadn't moved, she hadn't even opened her mouth, and then she looked past him, just a half-second's reaction before two rounds punctured her throat and her head shot back. Green spray spritzed the air as Mulder heard the double-fire.
The toxicity brought him to his knees as if he'd been maced, but it was nothing as shocking as the apple green inside of Scully. He could hear bubbling as he scraped backwards, poisoned, his eyes a watery mess. Within the gunshot ripples played the echoic memory of Scully's clarion ‘Mul-der!’
Feet crunched rapidly toward him. He had dropped his gun, and he felt for it on the ground, then threw his arm in front of his face. The footsteps came aggressively, the gunman coming to finish him off, and when Scully called, breathlessly, 'Mulder, come on, you have to get up!' an irrepressible human reaction—hope—reflexively unfolding, nearly choked him, and he felt that he had been granted in equal measure the saddest and most unbearably beautiful life that one human could possibly carry, and he thought of poor Dr. Banton who had said it felt like electrons unzipping from their orbits, matter reduced to pure energy; and then Scully grabbed his arm, his shoulder, his hand with both of hers, a seam of electric sweat in his palm, and with the full application of her counterweight, issuing a little cry of effort that was pure Scully, hauled him to his feet, and they stumbled across ground he couldn't see, her loyal little two-stroke engine under his arm.
'Come on, I got you, I got you!' she gasped, although he was too heavy, and he felt her legs partially buckling under his weight. 'This is good, this is good,' she said. She lowered him to the ground again, and he pulled in one painful breath after another. This had happened to him before; Chinese hot mustard made an adequate comparison.
'Mulder, it's me,' she said unnecessarily.
‘Scully,’ he said.
‘Mulder.’ Water gurgled and dripped down his front, and wet fabric that smelled like Scully was pressed to his eyes. He held onto her for balance. Her knee was between his legs and the ends of her hair brushed his mouth. 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry,' she said, very close.
'Scully, tell me you're okay,' he croaked, through the acid mess of his face, and she snuffle-laughed, and rose on her knees, tipping his head completely back. She sloshed a shot of water into his eyes. He gasped and choked, but he didn't care what she did to him. It was all heaven, even the pain; the tactile bliss of her in his hands; the tear gas in his sinuses; the pierce of sun through his tears. He could subsist for weeks on that brief taste of her hair, like an astronaut's protein pill.
She blotted his face, and neatened him a bit with her fingers. He put his face in her shoulder. 'You have to trust that I've got everything under control,' she said hotly in his ear, under the sound of the wind.
One breath, and then another, his face in the Scully-scented peace of her shoulder, his hands on her back.
'Mulder, I saw the pictures. Have you fully recovered from that cryptozoonotic transmission?' she asked.
'You would have loved it, Scully,' he muttered, pulling back. 'I barfed up Belial.'
'Gastric brooding isn't completely unheard of in nature—there's an Australian frog, although I'm inclined to label this parasitic, like stomach bots in horses or the Asian lung fluke,' she said rapidly, distracted.
'Scully, I know you've been as sad as me,' he said, while her face was still close.
'Oh, Mulder,' she breathed, with a hint of warning. Under his hands, the extensor muscles shifted in the sway of her back. She pressed her fingers to his jaw, and made him lift his head. She always took his pulse there, under his jaw, never on his wrist. Her watch pattered close to his ear.
'Did they get to you, Scully?' he asked, as she pressed her thumb below his eye, and opened it. He imagined the tortured hazel hell she gazed upon.
'They found my tragic flaw. Can you see at all?' she asked.
'Hamartia. It's not bad, I can see pretty well. What's your tragic flaw?' Scully had no flaws, but for the ability to live without him.
'That I'll protect you at all costs,' she said gruffly. Mulder blinked, startled, and saw colors through frosted glass. She pulled away and glanced around the landscape. 'Look, Mulder, I think it—that thing—was also sent to kill the creature we're chasing,' she said, diverting the conversation. 'I've been cautioned that it's incredibly dangerous.' She put her hand on his shoulder and got to her feet.
'How was the victim infected?' he asked hoarsely.
'Possibly by injection. He worked for Roush Industries. I'm told the thing was gestated inside of him. The Bureau's got you out here?' He heard her eject her clip, and the pause as she counted the remaining rounds. She slapped it home.
'Someone left the file laying around,' Mulder said. 'I saw the crime scene in Phoenix, the victim worked at that power plant. It tore its way out of his stomach, sort of erumpent.'
'Nice,' said Scully. 'Just a minute.'
She disappeared, as he rubbed his face on his shoulder, and he was furious with her for making such a radical choice on her own without even trying to contact him, and he was furious with himself because there was no time to argue it now, and within thirty seconds she was crunching back toward him and he held out his hand mechanically for his nubbled, heavy SIG. 'I mean, how could anything possibly gestate that fast,' she said.
'I know,' he said wearily.
She stood above him, blocking the sun. 'Mulder, the Smoking Man's alive.'
Mulder, blinking rapidly, saw her in glimpses through a glass of seawater; she was looking away, over the valley. How had it felt to fire at someone who looked exactly like herself? She held her own pistol, and the front of her shirt was splotched with water; she had wiped his face with the hem. She looked down at him, and her throat was intact, her eyes completely different, warm and alight; it hadn't been remotely capable of replicating her eyes or her expressions, or the fine, lingering force of her personality.
'Mulder.' She stared into his eyes. 'We can't be seen together. You have to stay away from me.' A begging tone in her voice. 'I’m trying to protect you. Stay out of this case. Go home. I’ll find a way to contact you later.'
He nodded insolently, his throat stiffening. He turned his face away.
'Mulder!' she said insistently, but he shook his head.
Then he had to look, and it would be impossible to forget her limned in his tears and the desert sunset, clunky shoes pivoting on the shale, a black shape with pistol in hand, hair like a jar of black oil held to the sun.
He shivered in the hot sun, goosebumps on his arms, and the water bottle crinkled in his hand. He shivered again. He looked after her, but she was gone.
It was a bottle of Crystal Geyser. He personally felt that Crystal Geyser had a hint of sulphur; Scully must not be able to taste it. He took the bottle home, and rinsed it out, and drank from it for days, until he dropped it in a parking garage and the lid popped off and rolled under a dumpster. Even then he could not bear to throw the dented and cloudy plastic bottle away, and as he tossed it on the passenger seat, he thought: Well, there you have it—I'm officially in love with Dana Katherine Scully and it's pretty much the tactical mess I always make of things.
Chapter 8: The Uniqueness of the Picture
The resurgence of the old song rode its deeply etched groove, the diamond-tipped stylus bumping fast and true. Scully forgot things, and she was forced to sit holding an open file or a piece of paperwork so that, under the cover of thought, she simply existed in a fizzing pleasure of the mind. Every time she thought of Mulder she made herself counterbalance it with the image of a hitman getting the drop on him. Her mental anarchy was a danger to him, a danger to them both, but even so, it twisted restlessly inside her until she feared what love would make her do.
She was called out of work one afternoon, paged to the helipad. A jolt of apprehension flared before she could hide it, and Marcella's wide face broadened uneasily. 'Don't expect me to do all your typing, Mystery Lady,' she said, stacking knives in a dishpan, but she didn't mean it. She would, Scully knew, finish up the day's transcriptions and square up their work. Scully was not honest with her, but there was something honest between them. Marcella did not belabor delusions. She worried about Scully the way one might necessarily feel concern for a forthright young governess sent to a brooding country manor.
It was a short and rocky trip. Scully wished she had more than caffeine in her stomach as the helicopter tipped sideways across a network of wire fences and described a shattering half-circle above a rubbly field and a parking lot full of Jeeps. She checked the compass in her watch. They hadn't left Maryland, and it had to be Fort Marlene—the Farm, they called it—these vast infested fields crosshatched with wire and chemical waste pits, solvents filtering down through the karst. 'The wellspring, Miss Scully,' said Deep Throat. Labs full of Ebola virus and anthrax spores, baby creatures in jars, mosquitoes carrying yellow fever. The groundwater in horrible shape.
On a dark winter's day she'd faked her way in and plundered these labs, desperate to get Mulder back. She'd been so green, so scared, and the Scully she was then couldn't possibly have featured this ironic inversion, flying in on a dark errand for the Smoking Man.
They bumped down on a rooftop, a grim, emphatic look passing between the pilots as the skids touched the helipad. A soldier came running beneath the chopping blades, doubled over, and pulled Scully out of her seat. He held her head down as they scuttled through the rotor wash, and she came up short at the edge of the building ruffled, shaking him off.
Distantly, the weary doom of a siren rolled up and down. A squad of soldiers crossed the courtyard below, double-time. Near Scully at the parapet stood two soldiers with automatic weapons slung on their backs, perhaps spitting; they turned in tandem. They were hardly more than youths, with the stupid straight-ahead eyes of the military young, and as they seized Scully by the arms she became somehow non-existent. The helicopter, hastily, lifted away. Scully found herself in the middle of a progressing conversation. 'I heard she tried to do it with a taser,' one of the soldiers said, as the three of them marched through a doorway and into an elevator.
'Naw...' The other spoke over Scully's head. The cables jerked and they descended, jostled together. Pinioned between them, Scully was forced to absorb their heat and the smell of androstenol sweat. 'Naw, actually, how it went was she grabbed Worrell's semi, everybody hit the deck, and then she just stuck the barrel under her chin.' A pause. '...safety was on.' This struck both of them as funny, and the soldier on Scully's left absently kneaded her arm as this last detail was relayed.
Scully sucked in her cheeks.
'Crazy bitch,' said the soldier on her right.
The elevator hit bottom and rocked, and, in the moment before the doors opened, Scully, looking straight ahead, said: 'Actually, rather than assuming a psychopathological state, suicide—under certain conditions—may be interpreted as a highly rational act, or even an expression of free will.'
The doors opened. The soldiers, irritable now, and silent, perp-walked her along a corridor. A man in a biohazard suit ran toward them, and they put Scully against the wall as he passed. The lower floors felt oppressive, and the sullen silence of her escort seemed more particularly actuated by their approach to an imposing part of the building, rather than her mouthy comment. A hollow servomotor or giant fan thrummed close at hand. The soldiers opened a door and thrust her into a room, and then they were gone, as quickly as the helicopter.
A tech in a procedure mask came toward her. Several people were suiting up in the jumbled confines of the room. Scully took off her jacket, and tossed it on an exam table covered with clothing. 'Shoes,' the person said irritably, 'come on.' Scully put her hand on the tech's shoulder and stepped into the proffered biohazard suit, trying to get a read on the other people in the room, all gearing up as quickly as her. No one looked CDC, but Fort Marlene housed the Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and had been doing biological weapons research since World War II. The compound harbored a citadel known charmingly as the Anthrax Tower. Across from her, a slim young man disappearing into his giant suit was probably something like a field tech back from Kosovo, and the burly old fellow could be one of the short-sighted minds of clandestine research, a butcher passing for a medic. Black market doctors, expats, the next generation of sheltered Nazis, people responsible for human trials of biowarfare agents. And Scully. To be honest, she found the group suspect because she was in it.
She extended her arms to have her gloves duct-taped to her sleeves and closed her eyes for her helmet. The suit was Level B, splash-proof, with a high level of respiratory protection. She was shoved forward, in a line of people, and the doors swung open. She drew a noisy breath through the breathing apparatus. God help me, Mulder, she thought, and went quickly through.
The first thing Scully saw, struggling along in her suit, was a cranium-only autopsy in progress behind a piece of plastic sheeting. She couldn't see much, as they were funneled past, but it looked like a gunshot wound to the head. The room was a hangar, with lights rigged up and plastic hung around a triage area, and a couple of Navy ambulances parked by the bay doors. There was a sense of chaos. Through her amplifier, above the noise of her own breath, she heard a deep voice calling for something in a hoarse, hopeless tone, as a lost man calls in the mountains.
The men lay on tables, under restraint, their voices rising above the muffled voices of the medics. Scully, looking out from the hollow seashell of her mask, was directed by a floating hazmat glove and came upon her frogman, a long-legged, dark-haired diver in a Navy drysuit peeled to the waist. His skin was intact but pale, evidence of poor perfusion. His airway was patent, his radial pulse strong, and he responded to verbal stimuli, but he was shaking, and pulling hard at the velcro restraints that fastened him to the gurney. The doctors at other tables around them began to call out their chemical demands, best guesses, she assumed, as the nature of the problem wasn't in the least obvious. She flicked on her pen light. 'Talk to me, Sir,' she said, finding anisocoria as she examined his pupils. 'What's your name?' Her face was mostly obscured by the respirator, and she had a difficult time distracting him from his private struggle with pain and pulling his eyes to hers. His physique was honed, his chest clean-shaven, a lubricant shone on his skin at throat and wrists, where his suit had sealed to his body. Kayley was tattooed on the wedge of his pectoral, near his heart.
The man on the next gurney was seizing, and she tried to ignore the escalating crisis, focusing on her own patient's vitals. There was a collective cry and a rush of movement from the other group as they jumped away from their patient. Scully was inflating the blood pressure cuff and missed what happened. Someone bumped into her, and she saw blood running down a metal rail. One of the techs turned around, looking stunned, steaming matter sprayed across his arm, and on the gurney behind him, the patient’s legs were twitching.
Scully turned quickly to the man in her care, and took his chin in her hand. 'Listen. We are going to stop this. You have to tell me what's wrong.'
He looked at her with some wonder, tears of pain running from his eyes. 'Karen?' he said. 'My head's killing me.'
The pain appeared to be neurological, but the simultaneity of the eight or ten total cases in the room ruled out migraine or tumor, and pointed to some outside instigator. After rapidly depressurizing on a dive, the gases in the brain might have been worsened by a life flight, but it was obviously something far worse than nitrogen narcosis.
She jerked at his wrist restraints, and pulled his hands free. 'Let's get these off you. Get me Lidocaine, two percent,' she snapped at a tech. 'Sir, I'm going to do an Occipital Nerve Block. I'll need you to sit up.'
After the injection, she rubbed between his shoulder blades and kept him upright. He sat on the gurney holding his head. His heart rate was strong. The anesthetic would take nearly twenty minutes to achieve full effect. Her technician leaned close to her mike, trying to whisper. Their helmets clunked together. She tried to look into his eyes through the faceplate, impeded by the gear. 'Necropsy on the first indicates extensive hemorrhaging around the auditory canal. Looks like a gun went off in there.'
Scully nodded grimly. She helped her diver lie back, and he turned his head and looked at the next table. 'Don't look,' Scully said quickly, shielding the side of his face with her fingers. 'Eyes on me. What's your name?'
'Crader, Kyle,' he said through his teeth. There was a wedding ring on a chain around his neck, and he squeezed it in one fist. The tech brought a microwaved blanket, and Scully helped cover him. Kyle held the tech's hand tightly with his free hand, turning his white face rapidly from side to side.
Scully and her tech exchanged worried looks. 'I want an imaging scan,' Scully said decisively.
'We can't do that here. These men are under quarantine.'
They were losing another diver, Scully saw, the desperation around a distant gurney communicating like panic down the row. Kyle was breathing harder, looking at the ceiling and turning his head back and forth. 'Karen?'
'What happened?' she whispered, leaning close. He was calmer when he could see her face. He had her hand now, and he was grinding her metacarpals together, as the poor thug had done not long ago. 'Explain to me what happened,' Scully pleaded.
His face went white, and he didn't seem to hear. 'Kyle!' Scully said urgently. Blood slid from his nose in a stream.
His hand let go of hers and, unrestrained, rose to his head, and he squeezed at his skull as if it would fly apart like decelerating quarks. He stared past Scully in terror, and a howl began to wind out of him. The tech's hand slid beneath her arm, staunching the nosebleed, and she watched it all in a distant mode, her mind whirling through her training, fettered by her uncertainty of how to proceed.
A rotary saw started up as a medic began to explore the cranium of the dead man nearby. The saw put everyone in the room a little more on edge. Scully leaned closer to her diver, who was covering his ears. 'Kyle, you're going to be fine. You're going to be okay.'
A hand closed on her shoulder. 'Stay back from him.'
'What?' Scully cried angrily, over the sound of the saw.
'Keep back from him, Doctor. You see what's happening to them.'
'No, I don't see!' she cried. The tech’s hand on her shoulder, a heavy, tired hand, pulled her back. In her fury, Scully had half-turned away, and now she saw that Kyle's hands had slid away from his head. 'No!' Scully cried. 'Damn it!' His chiseled young face was a pale blue, and the gurney was dripping. Something had happened at the back of his head and he was blank now, gone, his eyes open and she had not known what to do, she had not saved him.
Within the next half hour they were dead, to a man, and the hectic war-zone of procedure ceased, but the hangar was still full of activity. Swathes of medical debris surrounded the gurneys, and bloody spray sparkled in the portable lights. At every turn she met the preoccupied eyes of the other medics, or the glares of military police, or the haunted, averted looks of the technicians who brought in the body bags. Beyond the row of gurneys there was another patient, a live patient, a woman in a mobile hospital bed with a little makeshift station around her, formed by a crash cart and IV pole. Her presence made little sense, and Scully mentally set her aside.
Scully stood contemplating her frogman, who seemed to wait, his eyes open, a clipboard on his chest, his arms and the slit sleeves of his dive suit draped beseechingly off the sides of the gurney. There was a child's pink friendship bracelet around his bare ankle. The tech had gently cleaned up his face, a princely face, the V of his jaws close-shaven to help seal his mask. His expression of open expectancy was painful to witness. In Vietnam they'd called casualties on the cusp of death 'expectants' for that recognizable look. Scully, ineptly, frustratingly, had broken the triangle he made with his wife and child, and left him like this, on his way to something new.
She and Mulder had spent years trying to get a read on the Consortium's projects, and now she stood in the middle of a cleanup. It was likely that the divers were submerged at the time of the incident. The use of sonar was certainly controversial when it came to marine life, and known to drive whales mad with pain, and oceanic noise pollution was an ongoing concern, the sort of thing the Lone Gunmen addressed. The divers might have been in the vicinity of an old moored contact mine, or the testing of underwater hypersonic weapons. Their secretive treatment, here in Fort Marlene, suggested guilt on the part of the Navy. True, they might have kept the men out of a general hospital situation for fear of contagion, but more likely it was a coverup. Scully's own presence suggested that they did not want civilian doctors involved.
She picked up the anomaly within the set pattern and crossed the hangar and had a quick look at the course treatment notes on the clipboard at the foot of the woman's bed. M. Covarrubias, and a cryptic round of injections and histopathological tests on the skin tissue. Scully looked around and saw that she had caught the attention of a soldier, who was fast approaching, shuffling in his hazmat gear, rifle held at port arms. The woman in the bed opened her eyes and looked at Scully. She had platinum hair raked back from her face and strange, raw eyes - mineral-grey, shiny and bloodshot. 'I'm not one of them,' Scully said quickly. 'I know your name: it was in Agent Mulder's Rolodex.' She cleared her throat. 'May I ask what course of treatment you've received?'
Covarrubias smiled coldly. 'Treatment?' she asked, swallowing stiffly. There was something strange about the color of her gums.
There was an implanted port in the back of each pale, restrained hand, and an unlabeled drip going in. 'Very poor treatment, I would say,' Scully said softly.
Covarrubias had too much saliva, and she swallowed painfully. She followed Scully's gaze to her bonds. 'I'm an envoy to the United Nations. They're punishing me. I disarmed one of their stupid boys.' One of her bound wrists twisted, trying to point at the tragic row of bodies. 'They hope it's contagious and I'll be exposed.' She had a low, mesmeric lisp, and Scully leaned closer to make out what she was saying.
The soldier arrived, and grabbed her arm without much force. It occurred to Scully that they wanted her to see Covarrubias.
'How do you know Mulder?' Covarrubias rasped, with a touch of hope, as he began to steer Scully away.
Scully, indignant, with a thrill of anarchy, unsealed her helmet with her free hand and removed it with difficulty. The sound of pressure hoses was an assault, and the bustling beep of a forklift backing up. The hangar doors rumbled open. Head up, she drew an unrestricted breath.
'You're the red-haired partner,' said Covarrubias, from the bed.
Scully felt a flash of pride at the joint reputation she shared with Mulder, and which they had arduously built, even if it was only acknowledged in the shadiest of circles.
'You have to tell him something,' Covarrubias called. 'Tell him they have me here!'
'Is this because of Mulder?'
'They're punishing me for helping him!' Covarrubias cried. 'You have to tell him!'
The soldier hustled Scully through the hangar doors. In the courtyard they were swamping out an ambulance with a fire hose. The sky held the weight of its endless dimension, and dirty wind curled around the buildings. A Jeep pulled up, and the Smoking Man unfolded his long legs.
'Imagine finding you at the bottom of all this,' Scully called out, as she was dragged past.
'I've never been at the bottom of anything.’ He patted the breast of his jacket.
Scully swung around, elbow out, dragging the soldier. 'Where was the dive?' she asked breathlessly.
The Smoking Man glanced at the blood on her latex glove. 'You haven't been decontaminated.'
'It's not contagious. Call him off.'
He stood fingering a dead cigarette. He gave the soldier a look. 'How can you be so certain it's not contagious?' he asked, with some interest.
'Because apparently your enormous concern for contagion doesn't extend to that woman in the bay.'
'The suicide,' said the Smoking Man thoughtfully. 'She's under military arrest.'
'The unsuccessful suicide,' said Scully. 'She's a test subject. Clinical research without consent violates the Nuremberg Code and the Declaration of Helsinki, not to mention the National Research Act.'
'Tell me, how do you reconcile your equanimity with your new job?' he asked.
'The dive site,' she said. 'I'd like a lat and long. Whales that beach themselves after exposure to sonar are found to have acoustic trauma—hemorrhaging around the inner ear. It's exactly what we're seeing here.'
'Maybe it's just the bends.'
'Except that it's not!' Scully said angrily.
He smiled slowly. 'They say that when the Apollo 11 mission arrived at the moon they found it forbidding, sinister.'
'What does this have to do with the moon landing?' Scully thought of her keychain, and that heart-stopping moment when Mulder appeared to be handing her a proposal box.
His wide mouth turned up, clown-like as he watched her face, and he reached inside his jacket and took out her keys. She had left them in her coat pocket, her overcoat on a pile of clothes in the anteroom. He had gone through her pockets. She wondered if he meant to expose his fixation upon her, or if he was reiterating the point he had made by showing her Marita Covarrubias: that he controlled her life, and that he could do what he wanted with her. She was sweating in the giant stupid suit with the slop of death upon it, and she didn't want to reach out with her sticky glove, still duct taped to her sleeve, so she extended her helmet and, as if performing a genteel favor, he dropped in the keychain that Mulder had given her.
He had been present at her first interview, and after that he was always there in Skinner's office, watching her and Mulder report, smugly disconnected as if he knew more than anyone; he seemed more interested in Mulder, but he was Scully's parasite. Perhaps, subconsciously, he wished to be included. He thought he knew everything about her and Mulder, like copied keys, but it was impossible for his psychopathic mind to finesse human empathy, or love, or to imagine her so overwhelmed with the tragedy of the life that she had held in her hands and lost, and the woman and child who would suffer for this loss, that she would go home that evening and pray for them with her face in her hands, at her kitchen table. Nor could he imagine the way Mulder, blinded in the desert, had reached for her with instant trust, although she had abandoned him without a word; nor would he understand how baby Matthew, yet unhindered by doubt, bloomed with exultant joy whenever Scully picked him up, as if this were the only logical response to two lives so fiercely combined. She was lucky, so lucky, to be on the side of love.
A soldier stamped up, and saluted. 'Doctor X, you're needed in post-mortem.’
Scully turned and looked pointedly up at the looming Smoking Man, who regarded her with amusement. 'It seemed...an inevitable moniker,' he said.
They ate outside on the patio, with a tablecloth and cut hydrangeas, and candles glowing in jars, and a fruit salad that Scully had made, with her mother's instruction, and a parmesan penne with strips of grilled steak and red pepper, the smoke from the grill standing off in a little blue streak near the garage. It had been eons since Scully had winched open a can of mandarin oranges and assembled a fruit salad. Only old ladies had the time or the inclination to make such things. Scully ate cold salmon risotto out of styrofoam containers when she got home at midnight. She ate baby carrots out of the bag. With a lifestyle as extreme as hers, the act of cooking rarely extended beyond zapping a cold Americano in a cheesy break room microwave. As she mixed in the chopped apple and sliced banana and red grapes and yogurt she noticed that the salad resembled umbles, but for once she was building something instead of dismantling it, and was pleased with her work.
As she walked in the back yard with her brother, he laid his arm across her shoulders. He was one of the two men in her life who might assume such familiarity, but, unlike Mulder, his hand lay heavy and forgotten on her shoulder. Mulder's fingers in the chaste zone in the small of her back felt like the application of a particle accelerator.
She had signalled Bill with a head tip behind their mother's back, while he was taking off his tie and easing his way in with the sort of jokes their dad always told. At the edge of the patio Scully stepped out of her shoes. They walked among the little Japanese maples, holding their wine glasses, among the hydrangeas and bamboo, and a bank of delphiniums, the lawn mossy and soggy and clipped as sponge cake under her toes. ‘Did you get the lat and long, Bill?’ Scully asked.
'I thought you weren't doing any more investigations,' he said. He took his hand off her shoulder.
'My work with the medical examiner is part of the investigative process. I'm making the request under the authority of the Federal Communications Commission.'
'I found out some things for you, Dana,' he said. 'It was classified, and it wasn't easy, but our name, well, Dad's name, still has pull.' He stopped. 'It's a risk for me, though.'
'I understand,' said Scully. She grabbed his shirtsleeve while she plucked a bamboo leaf from the wet sole of her foot.
'It seems like you're used to taking that kind of risk,' he said, looking at her with concern.
'Six men who were Navy divers,' Scully prompted. 'I believe there was some kind of power surge.'
'How do you even know about them?'
'They flew me in during triage. I helped with the post-mortems. It's my duty to pinpoint what killed them.'
Bill had his hand on the back of his neck. 'We don't know what killed them, Dana!'
'How deep were they when it happened?' she asked him.
'About thirty fathoms.'
'What were they doing?'
'Routine maintenance work on an underwater antenna,' he said. 'They were all master divers. And they all came up—they came up—'
Scully watched him with pitiless fascination. 'Was there anything visibly wrong with them?' she asked.
'They'd all depressurized too quickly. Some of them were already paralyzed. Most of them were holding their heads. Dana, do you have any idea what could have caused that?'
Scully shook her head. 'I don't. But we are going to find out. And we are going to make certain it never happens again.'
He looked at her, shaking his head as he realized something. 'This is what you've been doing, isn't it? Working on these kinds of mystery cases?'
'I need the lat and long, Bill,' she said firmly.
'So, at Bethesda, do you work in that theater, that suite?' Bill asked.
Scully looked across at him. She had never taken him for a conspiracy theorist, but his eyes held the light of sheepish longing. It was a wary question, overridden by curiosity. Scully had lately begun to split the peoples of the world into two categories: those who were obsessed with the JFK assassination, and those who weren't. 'They've remodeled it, Bill. Sorry, but I can't get you in for a look.'
'Why did the autopsy take so long?' Bill asked.
'They couldn't find an exit wound for the first bullet,' Scully said. 'They never did find the bullet.' Of the Bethesda ghosts, Scully was most haunted by Forrestal, not to mention her memory of the time Mulder had finagled her in to see the salt-encrusted Norwegian sailor in Intensive Care; Mulder, standing close enough to whisper, hands sliding down her arms, wantonly manipulating her in that highly forgivable way that he had; manipulations that made her stomach warm and her attitude invariably compliant; thanks to him she understood rue and weak spots, all at once and nothing first.
'Why did the pathologist burn his autopsy report?' Bill asked.
'Because it was smeared with Kennedy's blood,' said Scully. Their mother drew in her breath and looked at them sharply and picked up the empty wine bottle and went into the house. Scully had forgotten herself. She and Mulder didn’t think twice about discussing death over dinner, but she had not meant to upset her mother. 'You think she was a fan of Bad Back Jack?' Scully muttered, embarrassed, reaching across the table for her brother's steak knife.
He leaned on his elbows and smiled conspiratorially. 'It's different for the people who remember it.'
'It’s believed they lost the bullet during the tracheotomy at Parkland,' she told him. 'He was also given a heart massage, although half his head was blown away.' She picked a grape out of her salad and ate it. Her most delightful advantage over her brother was her iron stomach.
'Well, it was the damnedest thing, to burn that report.'
'It’s pretty obvious he was afraid someone would get hold of it and sell it for sensational reasons.'
Bill looked around and lowered his voice. 'So, what are you really doing there, Dana?' he asked her. 'Mom says you travel a lot.'
'I've become a bit of a freelancer,' Scully admitted. She was unable to lie properly, to convincingly disguise the real job under the cover job, so she had begun to tell variations, shades of the truth. ‘The medical group I'm working for is a company with multi-national interests.’
'What's it called?'
'You've never heard of it.'
Their mother appeared in the doorway, and looked at them pridefully. Bill got up to hold her chair, and she sank down slowly and put her napkin on her knees and pressed at her pearl necklace as he filled her glass and moved the fruit salad to her end of the table. After he was settled again, she asked, 'You want to know what I remember about the Kennedy assassination?' The candle flames guttered and then stood up, stretched out and blackly fizzing. A frisbee came over the fence and landed in the middle of the lawn, and Bill picked it up and winged it back. Scully thought of Mulder's face in the sunlight, his high cheekbones between her hands. 'Well, I was six months pregnant,' said Margaret Scully. 'It was very difficult, thinking of the First Lady. She had already lost two babies. And that afternoon, coming back on Air Force One with her husband and the Johnsons, coming here to Maryland, how desperate she must have felt to see her children, but instead she went straight to Bethesda Naval Hospital and waited upstairs until midnight while they performed the autopsy. She still hadn't changed her clothes. My heart was with her. And I thought, she is still his wife. My God, she was strong. I saw Oswald get shot, on live television. But you want to know what I really remember about it all? When we got the news about Kennedy my heart started beating so hard that it made the baby kick. I sat down and took Little Missy on my lap and the baby inside me kicked, and I thought, what kind of world am I bringing this child into?’ She looked at Scully, misted up, and her face was consumed with love. ‘And that baby was you.'
'I'm sorry, Mom,' Scully said, ashamed. A wasp buzzed into her wine glass. There was an interlude of drunken, high-voltage outrage, and the wasp trundled wetly away on the grass. Bill went inside for a fresh glass. Scully felt that he sympathized with her, and that he was pleased with her now because she didn't have cancer and she wasn't with Mulder. It was not that he felt that he had won a round, but that he had got her back into reach. She was surprised by the universal relief her family exuded now that she was out of the FBI.
Her mother held her own glass in the tips of her fingers and swirled it, smiling and reproachful and worried. 'This attitude you strike, Dana—I worry that you've become so detached you don't see the human side of things.’
'I do, Mom, I do,' Scully said quickly, chastised.
'Pathology is the very opposite of healing.'
Bill reappeared with a clean wine glass. 'Dana, do you remember when Melissa was dating that boy, Boris?' he asked her.
'Boris Dearborn!' said Scully gratefully. She gulped her fresh wine.
'And he was up at our house on Halloween and he and I were hucking pumpkins off the roof across the fence into the neighbor's Impala—'
'— they owed him money for mowing the lawns—'
'— and you and Melissa were standing down in the driveway screaming at us, and then here comes Mom and Dad around the corner in the station wagon and up the driveway, and you girls are pointing up and there I am hanging onto the chimney and holding a pumpkin and Boris is already down on the roof over the back porch, getting ready to jump, and he jumps all the way down, probably ten feet onto wet grass, and just saunters around the corner and says 'Evening, Mr. and Mrs. Scully,' walking on a twisted ankle like it's perfectly fine, smiling through the pain, and then puts his arm around Melissa and looks up at me with total disapproval.'
'He was on the bench the rest of the season.'
'Boris Dearborn,' said Bill, holding up his glass.
'That boy was in line when they handed out the charm,' said Maggie, getting up and gathering a few dishes. 'Those poor neighbors, living next to the Scully kids.'
When they were alone, Bill gave his sister a commiserating look. 'Dana, I'm sorry about your partner. Mom told me. Tara feels terrible about it. We tried to call, but the number didn’t work.'
Scully was startled. All the miserable days she’d endured that summer were suddenly visible, in a row, and his sympathy carried part of the weight.
'We certainly had our differences, but you should have seen the way he sat out there in the hall when you were in the hospital with your cancer. He sat there staring at the floor. He looked like a man on a ledge.'
Scully gasped and pinched her nose to pull herself together. She had thought Mulder was gone when he wasn’t in her room. It was startling to learn that he’d been unable to leave her. 'Jesus, Bill,' Scully whispered, into her hand.
'I don't even think he hated me back.'
'Because he's a nice guy,' Scully said cuttingly, closing her eyes.
'Who, Fox?' asked their mother, appearing with a chocolate raspberry torte. 'He's a wonderful man.'
Scully, vindicated, said quickly, 'To give credit where it's due, Bill, I have spent my entire life emotionally shut off from other people, even if I didn’t show it, and he was the first one who circumvented that. He taught me to trust, to connect, and the rest of my life will be significantly richer because of him.' She shut her mouth before she talked too much about Mulder, but from the looks on their faces, the damage was done.
'Wait, he's alive?' Bill asked. He looked from one to the other. 'I'm sorry, but Mom said you lost him. That's what she says when people pass on.'
Scully rose from her chair, drawing a tremulous breath. 'You thought my partner was dead, and you didn't think to offer your condolences until the dessert course?'
Bill had brought up this exact feeling in her when she was thirteen, when she was seven, this rage that was stronger than anything she'd ever felt. As a girl she'd practically deflated a lung screaming at him.
'Dana,' said her mother.
Scully picked up her ice water and took a turn near the zen rustle of the bamboo thicket. She breathed out. Starbursts seemed to flutter around her eyes. The bamboo thicket whispered. For no logical reason, she thought of the time Mulder fell on a bed of nails. She snorted. It was odd how quickly the anger passed. Bill would defend her with his life, she knew that unquestionably. He freely confessed that she was his favorite sibling, and she was more like him than she cared to admit. Losing his own sister had nearly destroyed Mulder, and he had always encouraged her to forgive Bill. In that light, Mulder seemed like the most selfless human she had ever known.
'I'm sorry, Dana, but you lead a very shadowy life,' said her brother, behind her. 'It's hard to know what's going on with you.'
She turned towards him. He loomed, looking worried. 'Every time I see you you're in the middle of some sort of classified crisis that you can't even talk about. You've changed completely.'
Scully elided all that, shaking her head. 'What were her exact words?'
‘Mom’s exact words.’
'She said, 'Go easy on Dana, she's lost her partner.''
'Tara said it was the saddest thing she'd ever heard. She read somewhere that the FBI is the most dangerous job on earth.'
They grinned at each other. His tilted eyes nearly closed as he smiled. 'Jesus Christ, Bill,' Scully said momentarily. She had forgotten, for a moment, to feel alone, had forgotten her grim struggle in the narrow existence of self. She was dizzy. She held his shirt sleeve and leaned against his warm, Aqua Velva solidity. The layers his wife and child added to him were there, substantive and comforting, worn like clothes.
'How's it going, Sis?' he said, holding her up.
'The first thing you've got to understand about me, Bill,' Scully said, as though stating a rule of physics, 'is that I need him, and he's staying in my life.' She looked up, and, like a promise, a little white airplane buzzed in the evening sky. Even though she was drunk and shivering, blabbing stuff, half-joyful, half in tears, she felt the scaturient rising strength behind her pronouncement. She would never let go of Mulder, and she would not let threats separate them.
She had stopped on the highway on her return to Phoenix, and found the spot where Mulder had parked, the two soft 'v's of dust over macadam where he'd turned around. The sundown sky hung with such airy solitude that her heart ached. She walked into the middle of the road and bent her knees like a snowboarder and pressed her palm to the warm yellow stripe and looked down the centerline at the arrow of highway that shot ahead, empty, all the way up to the Arizona sky.
Chapter 9: Reviewing the Biological Situation
Once, there was a quiet Thursday evening, perfect in the way you don't notice. In Roanoke, Virginia, Mulder rolled up to the door of his motel room and struggled from his rental car with dossier and soft drink cup. He dropped his keys. The reflexive swoop of his arm and the taction of fingertips on battered asphalt reminded him that fractals had appeared isotropically in Jackson Pollock's poured paintings. For a moment, as he straightened, he sensed something, and looked up and down the empty, tree-shaded parking lot. Then he sighed and battled open the chipped orange door with his shoulder and flipped on the light. Scully was on his bed, just startling awake.
She lay there, in a scattering of his files. When she saw it was him, she put her arm over her eyes. He turned the overhead off, twitched the curtains closed, turned on a lamp, double-locked the door, and tossed his fast-food sack on the table. Then he sat down in the armchair. She drew her arm from her face and looked at him, then held the bridge of her nose and maundered indistinctly in a voice so creaky that he would have had to put his ear down to her mouth to understand. 'Shh, don't get up,' Mulder said, and pulled at his tie.
At heart he was not surprised. Of his many daring persuasions, one persisted as a sole cosmic feature. Certain as a human arm casting paint, against all syllogistic logic and despite the quite visible trajectoried grain of her life, Scully was with him, straight down the line.
Stretched out on the sleazy motel bedspread she was like fool’s gold in black sand. She pulled her hand away from her eyes and peered at her watch, then rolled her head slowly until she found him, her gaze like an arrow sinking into a tree. She blinked frowzily to downplay the dark rush of her pupils, and her hand thunked wearily on a folder. He unbuttoned his collar, then went to the sink alcove, stumbling over one of her shoes. He washed his hands, staring hotly at himself. He was soft in the eyes. He was trashed in the heart. He took the ice bucket and the room key and went out.
The parking lot was empty, and beyond a high wall across the street he could hear kids playing basketball with a chain on the hoop. Just a guy getting some ice, he thought. He did not have the feeling that they were being watched. There was a blooming peony fluffed out beside the ice machine and a bit of moon in the sky. The light was blue. The robins were saying cheer up cheer up. How did I get to be the one living this life? he wondered.
It was possible to be so happy that you were kind of level, just humming along. Scully was sitting tailor-style on his bed, putting his case files back together. She put her hand on the pile and looked up at him, sharpening her brow to say 'devil babies?'; simultaneously managing to assert that devil babies were the least of their concerns. Mulder shrugged—what’re you gonna do—and cut his hamburger in half with a plastic knife. The silence between them was rather stunned, but tempered with the fine familiarity which allowed them to acclimate for a bit. He turned on the news to give them more space. He found a motel glass and poured her a ginger ale on the rocks. She slipped into the armchair opposite him. The table wobbled badly as he covered it with napkins. He turned down the air conditioner, bumping his head on the ugly lampshade suspended over the table on a plastic chain, and laid half his hamburger before her.
Having felt the sharp specificity of separation, he examined her for evidence of change. She wore an unfamiliar suit, a pale blouse under it, her cross. Her watch. Sharpie ink on the distal phalanx of her middle finger. She was going to a different stylist at a different salon, with minimal changes only he would notice. She wasn't getting enough sleep. Her face was shaped like an antique valentine, as ever, her earrings pearl; her colors both cool and autumnal. She had probably been going since five, and her eyes were heavy and just slightly, whorishly smudged.
There was a contrast in the way they looked at each other, emerging, as they were, from reflection in tranquility. He could see the separation upon her and wanted to wear it away. He wondered if they'd both come to terms with themselves, but thought it unlikely. She studied him with an observational openness, as if comparing him to a mental impression. Around their fourth year together she had developed a dangerous look, and the removed, crackly silence of a woman who'd experienced some romantic pain. Along with it appeared a beauty so intense that he pretended not to see it. It was like an embarrassing affliction, and, at any rate he was immune to it, he knew her too well; she was his buddy, his brother-in-arms, the one who'd hold a cigarette to his lips as he died; they’d always been just a couple of grunts soldier-crawling through a torn and filthy underground war.
The hamburger was the sort that dripped mayonnaise and bits of lettuce everywhere. She mumbled into her bifurcated burger, updating him on her life, and mentioning, it seemed, in a single breath, Somerset, Marita Covarrubias, the Cigarette-Smoking Man, Bethesda, and something he couldn’t quite follow about a tropical storm in the Bahamas; and justifying the necessity of seeing him, regardless of risk. The Gunmen had helped her find him. She had a late flight out at eleven-thirty that night; she would get about three hours of sleep, and show up for work in the morning pretending she hadn't slipped out of town.
Mulder waited for her to take her hand out of the bag of french fries, so he could stick his own in. 'I'll drive you to the airport,' he said. At that moment, a police siren short-yelped in the street and they looked at each other from the context of their transgression, and then saw how far they were from the ground-level world.
'I don't like these risks you're taking,' he said.
'Some are worth it,' she said. 'I'm sorry for the way I left it. Mulder, I'm sorry for what you went through.' She drew in a deep breath and took another bite.
'It's been a bearcat,' Mulder admitted. He pried the lid from his soda and topped off her glass. 'I ran through the five stages of abandonment, the seven stages of grief, a couple of flashbacks and a bout of traumatic amnesia. Skinner had to punch me in the face. But I'm sure it wasn't easy for you, either.'
Scully, studying him, pinned a chip of ice, and scrunched it. 'I don’t want to think about it,' she said. 'Not to mention that you waited until the moment I left to become an unprecedented medical curiosity.'
'That must have been excruciating for you.'
'Fox Mulder, ripe for study,' she said.
Mulder pointed at her with the last french fry. 'Thag, take napkin, got some mammoth on jacket.'
Scully blotted her lapel, sucked her lip, glimmered her eyes. They looked at each other until her gaze sharpened into a focused thought. 'Mulder, you remember when the retreating Iraqis set fire to the Kuwaiti oil fields at the end of the Gulf War?'
'You could see the smoke in satellite pictures,' said Mulder, wadding up his napkin and tossing it on the table.
Scully curled up in her chair with her arm around her knee. 'The U.K. had forty thousand troops over there. Last month, they sent me to England for a post-mortem: a British soldier who had served in Operation Granby. Guess what he died of.'
'I saw the picture you took.'
'How did you know I took that picture?'
'I recognized your hand.'
Scully made a sound of disbelief, staring across at him.
Mulder shrugged. 'You knew me by my broken finger,' he pointed out.
She splayed her left hand and looked at it curiously. 'It looks like anybody's hand,' she said.
'No, it doesn't,' Mulder said shortly. He felt touchy, as though forced to justify a private fixation. 'Listen, we can win this,' he said. 'We've got to be smart. We're going to get you out of there. The guys and I are getting together for a council of war in the next couple of weeks, if you feel like getting away from it all. We're going to come up with an exit plan.'
'Wait, hold on a minute.' She had lulled back in the armchair, her knee pulled up, but an air of calculation entered her gaze. 'Mulder, you're jumping to conclusions,' she said.
'Concerning the position I'm in.'
'You think I'm jumping to conclusions about the fact that you're being blackmailed by dangerous mobsters with a long track record of killing doctors,' he said, making a statement out of it.
'The thing is, Mulder, I'm finally doing something important. I have access, I have opportunity, I'm putting the pieces together.' Sometimes, both as a sign of independence and to indicate a slight oversight on his part, she reminded him that he did not possess her.
'Our work wasn't important?' Mulder asked, his voice cracking plaintively. He stared at her, and she gave it stubbornly back. The gravity of her situation was alarming enough, but the fact that she should defend it devastated him, both in a broader fear for her safety, and in the small, personal sense that the job that bound them was gone.
Scully leaned over the arm of her chair, her voice throaty. 'Mulder, we were just fighting around the edges. We couldn't see the big picture. But I'm in a different league now; I have access to the kinds of laboratories we used to just dream of breaking into. I have Pentagon clearance. It's work with global significance.'
In the beginning, she had struck him as ambitious, hustling herself through college and med school and the boot camp of Quantico, but the X-Files years had unearthed an unexpected strata within her character: she had the patience to pause and add a silty layer of slow-brewed experience to her mix. He had loved that about her, that she respected the difference between institutionalized learning and the true reality of the world, because she had initially not seemed like the type. But now that she was armored and hardened, her foot on the throttle of the night, he saw the terrible mistake he'd made, teaching her everything he knew about negotiating the dangerous edges of the world.
'But here you are, reporting to me,' he said pointedly. He thought of every fried or torched or desperate doctor or scientist they'd seen in the last five years. Scientists late at night, alone in the lab, looking up at an unexpected sound. Doctors who were burned or drowned or garotted, raddled with bullets, their suicides faked, the brakes going out in their cars.
'Everything I know about taking things too far I learned from you,' she said.
He leapt up and began to clear the table. His fury made it impossible to speak. He wadded the hamburger wrapper and tossed it down and stood there weaving, his hands on his hips. Her hand lay on a notebook amid the clutter, nervously flipping a pen. He reached blindly down, and when he touched her, the tendons inside her wrist moved beneath his thumb as she fiddled the pen and then dropped it. Her skin held a live charge, a responsive yield. He turned her hand over, and his thumb slid into her palm and found her life line, and stroked it, and her fingers closed around his thumb. The anger floated out of him. He looked at her with wonder. 'If you think there's anything else like this in the world, you're out of your mind,' he said.
Scully swallowed. He drew his hand away from hers and stuffed the hamburger wrapper in the bag. Time began to move again. She watched as he cleared up the mess on the table. 'You think you can do this shit on your own, without someone watching your back?' he asked. 'You think you're suddenly too important to kill?'
'That's not what I think,' she said softly.
'Is this what you came here to tell me?' he asked, turning back on his way to the trash can, his hands full, the soft drink cup cuddled against his chest. There were tears in her eyes, but he looked at her unfeelingly.
'No, I came here because I need a blood sample from you,' she said.
Mulder nodded. He tossed everything in the trash and stood in the sink alcove, gathering himself. He washed his hands and face. His dumb face with its giant nose filled the mirror. He drove his wet hands through his hair. Scully padded up behind him to get her freezer pack out of the mini fridge, glancing at him in the mirror. He took off his tie and tossed it on the bed, turning away from their reflections, holding his arms up to edge around her. The room was so cluttered there was barely room to move. His suitcase was open beside the TV, garments extruding like a lava flow.
He settled back in his chair and put his head back and huffed out a breath, drying his damp face on his shoulder. His heart had a muddy thud. He rolled up his shirt sleeve over his bicep and lay his heavy arm across the table, pale side up. She could do with it what she liked. Stab him, cut him, bleed him, suck out the blood through her teeth.
He opened his eyes, and found the room's angle changed. Scully was standing over him. She had assumed her Dr. Scully face and he imagined all the people she ministered to or dealt with who had no idea of the many soft and subtle variations in her expression, or how heart-stopping she looked when she smiled.
She had a lunch cooler with an ice pack, and a handful of collection tubes, and she was unpacking a variety of items, laying out needle and gauze on a clean hand towel, and her collection tubes in a certain order, and a tiny sharps container.
He felt an almost sacrificial euphoria as he submitted to her higher logic. If Dana Scully, his Dana Scully, was to be the Smoking Man's rogue doctor, then he would be there for the research, the flames, the clandestine rendezvous, the secret blood donations. He would be underfoot. It was like her to look for answers in places he'd never think to look, and if she was right, as Krycek had also pointed out, it was possible he had an immunity to the black virus. He wanted to help her; he wanted his blood to be a teeming colony of immunity, the best blood she'd ever seen, a limited resource she would have to monitor closely.
She stood with her leg against his and put her bare fingers on his bicep and slid her hand down his arm and gathered his fingers, folding them up and holding them tight. As she leaned over him her cross tipped out of her collar and plumbed the vertical drop. 'You think there's something wrong with me for going so deep into this kind of work,' she murmured, palpating the springiest vein inside his elbow.
'I don't think there's anything wrong with you, Scully,’ he said, as a general statement. She looked at him as she snapped on her gloves. She swabbed his inner elbow with chilly alcohol, then stretched a strip of blue latex around his upper arm, crossed it, and tucked it under. 'So, you don't think you'll ever come back,' he said.
She looked at him quickly, then uncapped the needle and anchored his vein with her thumb. 'Mulder, I didn't leave you, I left the job. I'm not going back to the FBI, I can't—I've outgrown it.' She lowered the needle, turned the bevel up, and pierced his arm. She popped in a collection tube and watched it fill. 'You may be the key to the antidote,' she said softly. She plucked loose the tourniquet and changed collection tubes.
'I may be a remedy but I ain't no cure,' Mulder said, watching the vial fill.
'I believe we're close to an important vaccine,' she said. 'I'm doing this for you. I'm doing this for the world.' She filled all her tubes, and put a bit of gauze over the site and withdrew the needle, and dropped it in the tiny sharps container, and picked up his free hand and pressed his fingers over the gauze to compress. 'Did Skinner really punch you?' she asked, while her head was close to his.
'I just needed to feel something,' Mulder said.
Scully straightened up and rolled off her gloves. 'Live vaccines are the most successful, because they multiply inside the host,' she said, 'They're also the riskiest, since they can mutate backwards at any time—back into virulent form.' She picked up the tubes and tilted them gently a few times, then packed them away in her little cooler. 'The gulag virus, and the crude Russian inoculant, and your additional exposure to the toxin via the bees must have instigated your body's resistance to and rejection of the growing life form,' she said.
'Did you catch that thing down in Arizona?' he asked. For a moment her hands had been all over him and it was disappointing to have it over so quickly. He still felt the pleasurable piercing of his inner elbow.
'I tracked it down to the nuclear power plant,' she said. 'Security turned me away at the fence. They didn't tell me anything more about it.' Scully set her carry-on bag on the bed. She pulled out her boarding pass and checked her departure time. 'What do they say burnout is for a field agent?' she asked, looking up. 'Two years? Four? Well, you can say that of me if you need a reason. My brother thinks I was crazy to stay as long as I did.'
'He must be overjoyed now, thinking you're working for the state in a job that doesn't require guns or partners.'
'I don't know, my mother thinks I'm treating you badly. She called you a 'wonderful man'.'
'The poor, disillusioned woman,' said Mulder, as she sat back down at the table. He propped his foot on the edge of the bed and hitched up his pants leg, exposing his shin. 'Do you have a weapon?'
'Cause I'll give you this one,' he said, hand on his ankle holster, looking up at her with his eyebrows scrunched.
'No need, Mulder, keep it.'
He'd underestimated her investment in the job, and the fact that he was no match for viruses. He pressed the rent in his skin where she had extracted a vital part of him, as if she only valued him for scientific gain. If he could distract her, sidetrack her, hell—seduce her—he might cause her to rethink her situation. He might save her life. Her eventful memories of him in this motel bed would feasibly cloud her scholarly thoughts, and she'd have to rethink her situation, and find a way out.
The thought of manipulating her sexually depressed him. It would be incredibly unfair to their true relationship, for there was something undeniably pure about the slow, shy, mental liaison they had wrought. And then there was the Eddie van Blundht fiasco.
'I guess I was just so happy to see you again that I got carried away assuming you hadn't aligned yourself with some venal shadow government,' he said glumly.
'Wow, Mulder,' she said, offended.
'Imagine how this is for me, Scully. I can't just sit here and watch it. It's way too hot. It's crazy, it's fucked up. Can't you see that they're just doing this to you to punish me? You saw Covarrubias. She was in your position once. Now look at her!'
Scully looked tired but awake. She was slumped in the armchair with her arms folded, her feet, webbed in sheer-toe hosiery, propped on the bed. They still had an hour to kill before her flight, and he didn't want to spend it arguing with her, but her stubbornness had insinuated itself between them like a bundling plank.
'Mulder,' Scully said, as though something had just occurred to her, and he heard the nervous click of her epiglottis as she dry-swallowed.
He looked over at her quickly. There was a gleaming locus of fright in her eyes. 'Would you like to...' she said, in a whisper that failed itself.
Mulder was aware of his foot propped on the bed, not so far from hers, and her indication in that direction, and froze, an oscilloscope making jags in his chest. He pressed at his inner elbow as if to suppress a burst of blood. 'Ah... ' he said quickly, with a sense of escalating crisis, and simultaneously nodded and shook his head, and removed his foot from the bed, and lowered his face. A curious padded wind rushed his ears. 'I was actually just thinking the same thing,' he said, in the spirit of honesty, still looking down— '...and then I decided my reasons were wrong, because my real agenda would be to get you over to my side again, to get you to come back.'
'I'm on your side, Mulder,' she said. 'It's different, but I will always be, foremost, on your side.'
'You shouldn't say things like that out loud,' he said. 'You shouldn't be here. It's sloppy, it's dangerous.' It struck him that she never would have made the suggestion if there was a chance that she was coming back. For this was not her. This was not Dana Scully, a cool professional and former agent of the Bureau, serious as hell, his trusted partner, now twisted into some kind of deep undercover double-agent and suggesting hasty sex in a cheap motel room, as a regular woman might, a lesser woman, as anyone other than Scully might. He wondered if, operating on her own, she'd raised the bar for risk, and grown casual with danger.
'But you admit you were thinking it, too,' she said.
'If you only knew how many times I've thought it. But tonight, I only intended to use it to manipulate you. Because I'm afraid for you to stay on this path. It would make me sad to do it for the wrong reasons, but I'd do it if I thought it would change your mind.'
'Mulder, you've manipulated me sexually from day one,' Scully said.
'That's only half my fault,' Mulder said. 'And it wasn't intentional, because you know I'd consider it a cheap thing to do to you.'
'I'm not saying I hated it,' she said.
'The thing is, Scully, once it starts, we won't be able to handle it. We won't want to be apart. It'll make us desperate, and careless. Until you're ready to get out for good, I think it's a bad idea.'
'Mulder, somehow your confutation has the effect of producing a double contingency.'
He looked at her. 'You mean I'm not talking you out of it.'
'Not hardly,' said Scully. For all her bravado with Jerse, she was still not far from the earnest and inexperienced and fairly mousy girl-detective who had walked through his door wielding confidence like a good hand of rummy; and with all the med school and exams and corpses and obstacle courses she had probably not apportioned much time or attention to the various complicated angles and amenities of being a woman. It was a vulnerable thing, her confidence—and her pride—and the last thing he wanted to do was shoot her down.
Mulder reached over and clasped her hand and leaned over the table to kiss it. 'You know what the best part will be?' he asked her.
'Shall I hazard a guess?'
'We would be, for once, in absolute agreement,' Mulder said.
He drove her to the airport. The coming separation struck them silent. She looked out at the night. It was different, out of the room, in the badger-burrow of the car, familiar, dark and close. He could hear the gritty shift of her suede clomper against the floor mat. He parked far out in the parking lot, away from the cameras, while she looked at her watch. 'How long have you got?' he asked.
'I've got two minutes.' Light time-lapsed on her eye as she turned. His heart stopped. She was feeling around between the seats, and she didn't take her eyes off of his.
In an epoch, it would be a jot. In a cartouche, it would be misinterpreted as someone tossing a falcon into Nile mists. Under blacklight, it would be invisible. Were it confiscated footage of a motorcade atrocity, it would be studied frame by frame, but remain largely up for broad interpretation. In the wild it would be the moment when the naturalist's pen is plucked away by simian fingers. Were it a rush of expectancy in the shadows of long-term parking at Woodrum Field in Roanoke, Virginia, it would be the expectation which had not been expectation all these years but had been patience, a patience which did not allow itself to be expectation, because who would call it that, knowing her, knowing him, and as she released the latch plate of her seat belt and rose up into his space he mocked the patience as it lifted away, for thinking it would hold him forever.
She changed everything, everything in their lives, everything in their past, everything forever: her face moving against his as she triangulated her ingress, her hand kneading his shoulder, her tongue just inside her mouth with its bivalve suck. His seat belt locked up in masochistic sweetness. Scully's hand rasped noisily over his ear and it was so easy, so fluid and crucial and toothsome, and the real miracle, obvious now, was that through the sideshow tumult of inopportunity, near misses, dumb luck and intense collusion, they had never fumbled into this activity before.
Chapter 10: The Variety of Contents Compressed in the Miniature Code
Scully was the last to arrive in Quonochontaug, on a wild blue night, in a Shelter Harbor cab with a noisy window seal and a chirping roof rack. The driver's sea-swollen hands dabbled the wheel like inflexible claws. She paid him cash at the crossroads on a head of broomy land, a lonely spot lit by a utility pole. The driver, puffing busily, embarked on the errand of twisting around to dispute the location. Having arrived in his half-revolution, he read her face by the meter's light and decided it was better not to ask.
She waited under the misty nimbus of the street light until the cab was out of sight, drawing her lungs full of the wild scents of blueberry barrens and clamming flats. As the vehicle faded, the dark below the bluffs roiled and cracked in cymbal-clashes of sea water. Distantly, harbor lights and beach houses sparkled, and the wind gusted over the headland, and the light from Point Judith came round like a heartbeat. Scully’s latent sea-widow heart thrilled to the core.
She set off down Old West Beach Road against the drag of her suitcase. The mist was salty on her lips. Strips of white sand ribboned the asphalt. In the long stretches between street lights the night was so intensely sable-black she could hardly see the yellow stripes in the center of the road. In a matter of minutes she would be in the same room with Mulder. She had traveled secretly and in the dark stretches she looked over her shoulder like a girl in a fairy tale. The houses along the road were well back in the trees, their properties appointed with boat houses and stone walls, carriage houses, wrought iron, widow's walks. She checked the numbers on a cluster of mail boxes with her penlight, a cedar tree smattering raindrops across her shoulder. The Mulder's old mailbox had a rusty metal box for the Providence Journal slung beneath it, its mouth mashed in. Across the road and down among the trees there were firefly lights in the old beach house, just visible through its overgrown yard. Notably, the last time she’d arrived here was in the company of a Providence detective and the entire Charlestown police department.
She came down through the sword ferns and crossed the deep, soggy lawn, pushing past a wet rhododendron. Drawn up at the side of the house was a hulk, the Volkswagen bus. The front porch was dark, and appeared to be piled with wicker chairs and lobster pots. As she came up the steps someone sprang up with a gasp and Scully froze, balancing on the top step. 'It's me,' she whispered. Light flashed off a pair of glasses. It was Langly, wrapped in a blanket. 'The—the sensor didn't go off,' he blurted. He clapped his hand to his headset. 'Delta, Epsilon. We have a breach. Motion in Sector two. Beta incoming.'
Scully and Langly burst through the kitchen door on a wave of wind. Her colors were turned up and she was flushed and vigorous, the forward-yearn of youth in her eyes, and she was already looking around for Mulder as Langly dropped her suitcase on the floor. Frohike put on the kibosh right there, holding up his burgundy-stained fingers. 'Whoa, guys,' he said. 'The sensor didn't go off.' Scully was trying to edge around him, looking amused.
'Well, they wired this place back in the fifties.' Langly bent over and pulled at a cable. 'Man, you always pull KP.'
'We need military omniscience,' said Frohike. ‘Make sure Scully wasn't followed.'
'I wasn't followed,' said Scully, casting hard for Mulder. In the living room, the French doors were open and a step ladder with a power cord draped over it was visible on the deck. The sea air pouring in off the Block Island Sound sucked into the room, and back out.
'He's worried about his vertical siding,' Frohike said. 'Can I talk to you for a moment, Scully?'
Dana Scully, ceding happiness with a turn of her heel, crossed into the depths of the kitchen to demonstrate her earnest attention, and settled herself against the counter near a pile of chopped cabbage. Without question, she complicated a room by entering it. If she had changed dramatically in the four or five years Frohike had known her, it was mainly the war hardening that both draws your fellows closer and exposes the perils of human love. She had come to consist of a violent concentering of plasma turbulence, magnetic resonance and Vedic tradition, all converging within her quantum device. To Frohike these weren't necessarily objectionable traits, but she was hell on his blood pressure. The soup he was tending grew more robust as she passed. Somewhere, a cloud rolled over a lonely moon.
Frohike let her sweat for a moment, polishing the hot vapor from his glasses on the tea towel apron tucked into his chopper pants. Without his glasses he surely resembled a bookish hobbit lad. He was freshly shaven and his face felt muggy and soft, with a line of clean sweat threading his eyebrows. He repositioned his glasses and studiously shook a dash of red wine vinegar into his Soviet mulligan before saying, over his shoulder, 'I wasn't sure we'd ever see you again.'
'It's been one hell of a summer.' Scully crossed one foot over the other. 'But it's not as dire as Mulder makes it all sound.'
'Scully, with respect to the situation you're in, can you justify the risk in coming up here?'
She had pulled her overcoat close by stiffening her arms, hands in the pockets. Above the sink the black window steamed and trickled below its frilled burlap pelmet. 'There's no risk,' she said. 'I took all the precautions. You think I shouldn't have come up?'
Byers' voice issued from the deck, through the doors in the living room, and Scully's Mulder-radar instantly flicked around the dial, although she did not alter her expression, or take her eyes from Frohike's. He thought he heard Mulder's mumble on the wind. Frohike shrugged unhappily. 'You know we'd do anything for you and Mulder. But I can't put Langly and Byers at risk for careless reasons.'
'I made a comment to Mulder that he may have blown out of proportion.'
'And now he tells me that you don't want an exit strategy.' In the other room came the sound of the pages of a manual flipping over as the wind caught it.
'Frohike, I do want out,' she said. 'I shall want out soon. But there's also something I need to finish, while I have the access. It's a complicated project. Surely you can understand that.'
She lowered her face and looked at him penetratingly from under her brows. He had wanted to address her alone, without Mulder's cocky possessiveness draped around her, and because when she and Mulder were together their gazes issued uniformly from a joint place of experience so unimaginably distant that they exerted an uncomfortable pressure on the object of their gaze. They were probably hellish interrogators.
'We just need to be smart about this, Scully. That's why I need that sensor working,' he said. 'It's not just some silly gadget. By the way,' he added, 'someone made quite an auspicious anonymous donation to the offices of the Lone Gunman.'
Scully hitched her shoulders. 'It's blood money,' she said disconsolately. 'Maybe now it'll do some good.'
There was a sound in the doorway. 'Scully's here!' Byers said.
Scully brought her eyes back to Frohike's. Good, we understand each other a bit better, Frohike thought. She's going to Robin Hood this bitch of a situation, and she needs us in her camp.
Mulder shot across the room in two steps, saying 'I heard we had a perimeter breach!' and she pulled her hands from her pockets, the bulletproof vest of her everyday expression vanishing, and as she looked up at Mulder, Frohike glimpsed the transmutation to her true face, as a sorceress must show her true face when reality catches her up. And all at once, as he watched them, the wild risk that surrounded them was revealed at its quickened, mystic point.
'I hope everybody loves borscht,' Frohike said, carrying in the pot of soup. His little gang made a familial group at one end of the dining room table, passing around the bread, their faces lit by emergency candles adhered to saucers. Langly was parked in an enclave of closed-circuit monitors, watching the yard, and Byers and Scully sat side by side with their cutlery laid out on paper towel napkins. Across the room a TV was on, muted, permanently tuned to the flash and flare of CNN. Frohike began to feel a bit more philosophical about their awful weekend in Rhode Island, and the nagging delay of the next issue of their paper. Their subscribers were few, and apt to be patient.
'I live for borscht,' Mulder said sarcastically but kindly, his hand on Frohike's shoulder as he leaned across the table for Scully's wine glass. He wiped it out with the hem of his t-shirt, his eyes reading hers like a man finally granted access to an important schematic. Frohike had recognized the look of a closed circuit the first time he saw them together, Mulder dropping in with Scully in tow like an apprentice to the apocalypse, advertising to her his ease with underdogs and his anti-authority leanings, and as soon as Scully spoke up that day Frohike saw that she provided the necessary resistor through which Mulder's positive voltage must pass, preventing short-circuit. The Gunmen had been patiently cultivating Mulder's alliance since 1989, for his insider dirt and his gumshoe cool, and they saw immediately that they must accept her as part of the bargain. If they valued in him his voltage, they measured her in ohms.
Byers put his hand over his own glass, smiling cheerfully down at Scully. Frohike pushed forward an empty water glass, and Mulder turned the magnum upside down so that it chugged hard, wine fanning up the sides.
Something had happened to Mulder in the last few months. Frohike had known him since he was a VICAP pup, messy of forelock, soulful of eye, caught in the paranoid pause. But now he had a settled feel. He seemed to be recovering from a delicate illness, a convalescence from which he looked out with the warmth of reprieve in his eyes. He was happy to see everyone. Amid the day's general discussion on how to extract Scully from her dangerous operation he had inserted several asides on fescue and storm windows and during a discussion of the Mermaid Problem he turned aside to check the Yellow Pages to see where he could rent a floor sander. He stood by the mailbox chatting with a neighbor lady about the Great Hurricane of '38. He took a coffee break on the deck with a current tide table, a how-to book on plumbing, and a pair of binoculars for spotting whales. It was hard to know what to think of him. The jet-propelled Mulder they knew and loved seemed to be holding down the other side of the scorched-earth Scully scale. Frohike didn't see how it could last.
'We had to bring Frohike 'cause he's the only one who can cook,' Langly said too loudly, wearing his headphones. He ate quickly, in his keep of monitors, tuned for the primitive radio gods.
Frohike gave him a modifying look, but Langly was intent on shifting a fader up the console. 'I'm a domestic god,' Frohike conceded, pulling out his chair beside Mulder. He doubted any of them had his culinary chops. FBI agents were not known for their cooking; it took a light hand, a bit of adventure in the soul, and the patience to listen to old ladies. 'So, Scully, fill us in on the Navy divers,' Frohike suggested.
'Good soup, Frohike,' Langly called, who had an hour earlier claimed he hated beets. He was wearing, aptly, his Beat Farmers t-shirt.
Scully lifted her tired face. 'It's not anything I've seen before. Six men, all with severe and mounting pressure in the auditory canal. It killed them a couple hours after resurfacing. Literally, their heads exploded.' She sipped her soup.
Byers' eyes widened. He reached down the table to pull the headphone away from Langly's ear. 'I heard that, dude,' Langly said unenthusiastically.
'What would cause something like that?' Mulder asked her. He sat across from her and had fixed all the attention of his spirit upon her, even as he appeared to busy himself with other things. There was some jostling under the table and when his foot apparently found hers in the bundle of wires she glanced up and he mouthed, 'Sorry.' Warmth filled her eyes. Mulder had jarred the table, and there were rings in the surface of Frohike's soup bowl.
'I think there's some kind of experiment going on,' Scully said. 'And I think it has something to do with this sound. They had them at Fort Marlene, Mulder.'
'The Navy uses a high-powered sonar system that may cause whales to beach,' said Byers. 'We've written several articles on the subject.'
'If it hurts whales, what would it do to humans?' Mulder asked her. 'Could you be killed by sonar?'
'It could cause massive hemorrhaging—the inner ear, the lungs. Organ rupture, seizure, death,' Scully said, tearing up a piece of hot French bread and dipping it into her carmine borscht.
'Psychotropic warfare,' said Frohike.
'Internal military intelligence documents known electromagnetic hot spots, areas on the globe where radio frequency and gravitational processes are drastically amplified,' Byers interrupted.
'Warm spots on a Landsat map,' said Frohike.
'And our coasts are monitored by a gnarly underwater antenna assembly,' Langly cut in. 'Who knows who might be tapping into it.'
'We also have a passive system deployed in key places in the ocean,' said Frohike.
'And something's using it to communicate,' Mulder said, his eyes on Scully.
Something strange happened as Frohike was eating his soup. A dollop of sour cream turned it a beautiful rose pink, and it was sweet and strong with horseradish. Borscht was peasant food, something desperate, really, that you could do with a pile of dirty beets and a bit of game. But Frohike had put all his art into it, roasting the beets, carrots and potatoes in the oven with olive oil and sea salt, sauteing the onions, braising the venison in his old Fiestaware pot. The game had been harvested from a tree stand by a Michigan cousin, gently, organically. By the bottom of the bowl he found himself profoundly relating to all these simple things which had combined into something so complexly fierce in flavor and nutrition that it was as rich as the inside of a heart, and seemed to say something about the nature of life itself, and, Frohike suspected, about himself as a parent to these people.
Mulder glanced at him. 'What do we know about the HAARP project?' he asked, one arm hooked around a finial of his chair, a dish towel across his lap. He brushed bread crumbs from the front of his sweater.
'Potentially altered weather patterns via molecular modifications of the atmosphere,' Byers said quickly.
'Another government pork project,' said Langly. 'Black project stuck on the back burner.'
'More government mind control,' Frohike added. 'In the ‘60s we tapped into the Russian undersea phone lines. Six hundred feet of water, freezing temperatures, saturation diving from a submarine. Those Navy divers had some hairy cojones.'
‘More zupa, Borschtmeister,’ called Langly, holding out his bowl.
'The Barents Sea in all weathers. They kept up that tap for almost twenty years,' said Byers.
'Yeah, and prevented World War III,' said Langly, getting up to reach for the bread.
'I saw the terrible way those men died,' Scully said. 'There's something incredibly dangerous out there.'
'Yeah, and we may be the only people who know enough to stop it,' said Mulder.
The Gunmen looked at each other.
'What did they pick up the Call of the Bloop on?' Mulder asked.
'They were using an autonomous hydrophone array.'
'They being the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,' Frohike said. 'Are you familiar with the Call of the Bloop, Scully?'
Scully sighed softly. She closed her eyes briefly. 'Ah... it was a mysterious ultra-low frequency underwater sound detected off of Chile last summer, and it had a range of three thousand miles, and could only have been produced by something many times larger than a blue whale.'
Frohike looked admiringly at Mulder, who was unable to hide his pleasure. A spruce cone popped in the fireplace. Whatever difficulties were between Mulder and Scully seemed worn away by the Friday evening exhaustion and the warm, rather comfortable room with its big fireplace and the familial group that they made together. Scully blinked thoughtfully, her head on her hand. Langly leaned closer to a monitor, headphones on, and she looked uneasily down the table at him.
'Mulder, we have the sound file if you want to hear it sometime. And the spectrograph. We also have the 'Wow Signal,' and some hydrophonics from Loch Ness,' said Byers.
'—Cosmic background noise,' Frohike added. 'Rapping ghosts...'
'The Taos Hum, the Bristol Hum, the Kokomo.'
'You've got the Sierra Bigfoot recordings?' Mulder asked them.
'What is Langly listening to?' Scully asked.
'It cost us forty bucks, but yeah,' Frohike said. 'We got the Samurai Chatter. You gotta hear it, Mulder.'
'I can't wait,' Mulder said.
'Langly,' Scully said.
Langly slapped one of the monitors. ‘Ugly monster raccoon putty tat! Get back to your old lady!’ Frohike got up and went around the table. The neighbor's cat loomed up in a yard monitor.
'Mulder have you watched the footage of the Varginha Incident from Brazil? Major UFO crash?' Frohike asked, as he hovered over Langly's shoulder.
'No, but I watched the Star Wars Holiday Special,' Mulder said distractedly. 'What is it, Scully?'
'Langly!' Scully said.
'I'm gonna kick his furry ass!' Langly pulled at his headphones. 'Yeah?'
'If you pick up the signal, will you be able to hear it on those headphones?'
'Well, that was kind of the idea.'
'Don't.' Scully stood up. 'Take 'em off.'
There was a silence. Langly looked worriedly up at Frohike for instruction. 'What is it, Scully?' Frohike asked.
'I think the sound itself may be dangerous.'
'You think it causes an infection?'
'I think it will make your head explode,' Scully said flatly. 'Believe, me, I've seen the effects.'
Langly gingerly unplugged his headphones and took them off, looking wan. He set them on the table and got to his feet.
'You haven't heard anything, have you Langly?' she asked him.
'What if it wasn't a frequency he could hear?' Mulder said. 'How do you know he's not already infected?'
Langly looked nervously from one to the other.
'Because it's not infectious!' Scully snapped. 'It's a—a—pressure, a cranial tumefaction! Its indicators are terrible pain!'
'You're not feeling any pain, are you, Langly?' Mulder asked. Langly shook his head, uncertain. He held his glasses on his face, as if they were about to fly off. There was a tremor in his chin. Frohike patted him. 'Well, there you have it,' said Mulder.
'You'll be fine, Langly,' Scully said, taking pity on him.
'What about me—I was listening for awhile,' Byers said.
'You're okay, buddy,' Frohike said, patting Byers. 'Scully's just taking precautionary measures, right Scully?'
'Exactly,' said Scully. 'We just have to use common sense here.'
Dinner had devolved. Despite their best efforts, the property was not really secure. He sent Byers to get a little shut-eye while he could, although he knew Byers—the wheels would be turning for a while, and he would spend his free time reading. There was no way Byers would sleep. Mulder, a crust of French bread sticking out of his mouth, began to pick through the clutter on the table and Scully, in a show of diminishing the situation, stacked a couple of bowls. Langly went out to patrol the grounds for cats. Frohike started a sinkful of hot water and came out of the kitchen to find Mulder and Scully on the couch near the fireplace, where driftwood burned with a salty blue flicker. Mulder was talking about something and beyond him, part of Scully’s face was visible, blinking languidly as she faded.
'You're losing your audience there,' said Frohike, putting out the candles.
Mulder looked down at her with the expression of someone discovering a fawn in the grass. He got to his feet and held out his hand. She looked up into his face and let him pull her up. 'How about a hot bath, and then bed?' he asked.
Scully stood with her head drooping. 'I shouldn't have come, Mulder,' she said sadly.
'Oh, now,' he said, rubbing her back and smiling at Frohike.
'These guys have done so much for us. How can I put them at risk?'
'You're just tired, you're falling apart,' he said. 'It wouldn't be the same without you. You're the Lone Gun Girl.' He held her steady. 'I'm so happy you're here,' he said. 'Right, Frohike?'
'He's talked of nothing else,' said Frohike. 'Besides, Scully, you saved Langly's life and you ate my borscht. That kind of generosity doesn’t go unnoticed.'
Mulder herded her down the hall to her room. Frohike saw that, despite their planning and effort, the place was a disaster, strewn with the accouterments of nerddom. Still, Scully had her own room, and, more to the point, her own bathroom. The guys were sharing a bathroom covered in beard stubble and magazines and sandy floor towels. Langly and Byers slept in the loft, and Mulder had the living room couch. Scully's shady presence had torqued their paranoia and they felt it necessary to post a sentry through the night. Frohike would take the first watch, Mulder the midnight one, Byers would do the small hours, and Langly would be on from four to six, when it was time to make coffee. Scully would sleep through it all, unaware. She was secondary to Mulder, but she provided the means to demonstrate this, romanticizing the emprise of all their endeavors. She bore their standard. They’d always had direction, but Mulder and Scully had brought them into the fray on a personal level. Frohike and his boys did the difficult work, the thankless, rough and uncomfortable stuff. They were the pace car, the pit crew, the comitatus. They would watch through the night, and at dawn Frohike would arise to find the beginnings of a flawless day, the tide out, and Langly, eyes closed at his computer, peacefully whispering a techno-doxology.
Scully awoke in a house. There was no sense of the constraining webbing comprising an apartment building, down which other sticky-footed occupants sent their tremors, nor a motel room’s cardboard facsimile of life; but the solidity of a real house with the wind wrapped around it and the primordial ripple of tar paper somewhere above. A raven rattled: drumsticks on a bamboo wind chime. The house had belonged to no one but a complicated bunch of Mulders, and it still felt like them; their stuff was everywhere, as if it were yet the Seventies and they were expected back at any moment.
She felt just slightly intrusive, and just slightly insinuated in among them. Mulder's parents were very different people from her own parents. She knew the little girl by her milk-carton smile and the eternal heartbreak of her brother; she knew the father by the solemn bitterness of his funeral, where she had stood in for Mulder, and the number of chauffeured cars and underworld touch-me-not suits who showed up; and she knew his unreconciled mother from various tense encounters. In the context of Quonochontaug she felt the Mulders drawing together in the defensive privacy of family, but happy enough, in their summerhouse, in the everyday cacophony that elides the bigger, darker picture; the kids on the beach and sandy dogs running in and out and people dropping by for cocktails. Ashtrays and frisbees on the picnic table. 'Bolero' on the record player. What a day for the blessing of the fleet! Flirtations as thick in the air as radiation, random and toxic. Getting dinner going when you’re a couple of sheets to the wind.
The room in which Scully lay was beadboard painted white, with a row of paperbacks so commonplace that they gave no clue to her location, but might have been on the shelf in any cabin or guest accommodation in the country - Elegant's Dynasty; John Jakes; Clavell's Shōgun; A Sand County Almanac; and that eternal sun-scorched orange of The Thorn Birds, which she and her sister had secretly read as teenagers.
She stretched out in the middle of the big bed, getting a feel for the day, and lay, arms above her head, looking up at a window which showed the underside of an eave and a scalene wedge of misty blue sky. A rustling seagull passed over, with its throat-horn yarp. From the kitchen, a joyful, breakfasty crash that gave her a leap of excitement. The nearness of the glittering, windy beach overrode any calm or narrow thought.
The living room was empty when Scully appeared, barefoot, in a t-shirt and jeans. A sweet blue stratum of bacon smoke lay in the air like ectoplasm. In the kitchen she poured herself some coffee and snagged, from the middle of the stack, a flannel-soft blueberry pancake. The French doors were open wide to the Sound. Mulder was reading the paper on the deck.
Scully settled down across from him, her sleep-relaxed back melding with the warm slats of the Adirondack chair. The breeze was both cold and hot, like the edge of a prism. Mulder gave her a soundless, affirming hello-blink. Before him on the lawn, standing on one foot, was a gull, head turned self-consciously and pointedly away. Scully set the roasty coffee to the repair of her soul, her head as airy as a sun-shaft.
She watched the ocean rolling in beyond the edge of the bluff, her mouth full of flapjack, and resigned herself to leaving, despite the exultant promise of the day. Frohike's concerns were valid. She wouldn't have been herself, though, if she hadn't wavered at the thrill and promise of a day at the beach. And not just any beach: this long wild scallop of sand and ledgerock and creeks and cliffs which wandered westward to the salt lagoon of Quonochontaug Pond. She would like to walk barefoot at the edge of the cold foaming salt-sea, and have her heart tighten as she was overtaken by a fast fierce roller, that seventh wave that always gets you. She would like, before she went back to the city and the morgue basement and the disgusting oppressive pungence of the Smoking Man, to sit down on the lovely beach and work her feet and her fingers into sand, through the hot and down into the cold, and not think about anything but the scattering of light that makes a sky so blue. She would like, for even a second, to feel happy and not fear an equivalent repercussion. And, most of all, she would like to walk down to the the breachway with Mulder, and there in the dunes and beach grass around the lagoon find some wild, sheltered spot, and lie under the wind together and look in each other's eyes, without time constraint, without agenda, to repair what was between them, a singular product specific to them alone; which had formed, or evolved, or, yes, mutated out of their job together and become something delicate and fine that they were responsible for and must honor. She was dying to honor it.
Mulder folded up his paper and weighted it with a pair of binoculars and sat pensively patting the arms of his chair. There was a walkie-talkie beside him. It was so heavenly to be alone with him that Scully dropped her head back, eyes closed. When they at last sighed and turned to each other, the wild bone that formed his brow and concentered his eye shaded it ocean-green with intent. 'I don't remember a word I just read,' he confessed shyly.
'I can't think straight, either,' Scully admitted.
'This morning, I was standing here, and without thinking I started making this big throwing gesture. I'd forgotten that's how you call in the seagulls for food, but my arm remembered it.'
'It must be a body memory,' Scully said, '...a procedural memory probably induced by your return to this location.'
'You think you forget things, but you don't,' Mulder said, looking into his cold coffee cup.
'I almost forgot that my favorite thing is sea storms,' said Scully, sipping her coffee. 'Nobody on the beach, the surf booming and the sand stinging your legs. Birds hurling by inside out.'
'Really?' Mulder looked at her cautiously. 'Cause I think it would be fun, if the house was cozy.' He looked away, and lifted the binoculars to check for whales. ‘All we need is cladding. You know, some kind of weatherization that completely seals the north side.'
Scully studied him. 'Are you actually thinking of moving up here? Quitting the FBI?'
'I have the title to the house,' said Mulder. 'It's mine. The estate pays the property taxes. What did you say agent burnout is? Four or five years?'
'People like you don't burn out,' said Scully. 'You're a professional—or unprofessional—force of nature.'
Mulder shrugged nervously, because Langly had appeared at the top of the beach steps, displacing the seagull. He paused to send some kind of semaphore signal to the others on the beach below, then bounced briskly across the yard, his windbreaker puffed with air and his golden rock star hair afloat. He came up the steps between them, banging sand from the toes of his hightops. ‘Mermaid money,' he said, leaving a sand dollar on the arm of Scully's chair. As he went inside, she saw that Mulder was watching her, his focus undiverted, as if he’d asked her a serious question she’d missed.
'It's the middle of nowhere,' she said, startled, beginning to understand what he was actually suggesting.
He nodded as though he'd expected this. 'Providence is less than an hour,' he said. 'Hartford's not much more.'
'...And we'd need cladding,' Scully said, whatever cladding was.
There was a shout, and Mulder, abashed and pleased, turned to watch Frohike emerge slowly at the top of the cliff steps and pause for breath on the edge of the lawn, holding a piece of driftwood. He waved at someone on the beach. 'Bring firewood, Byers!' he shouted. He had a long-lensed, tricky-looking camera around his neck. He settled his pork pie hat on his head and wheeled and came across the yard and up the steps between them with his stick over his shoulder like a Welsh sheep farmer. He touched the brim of his hat at Scully, and, reading the look on Mulder's face, scowled and went inside and closed the French doors.
'We could live here?' Scully asked.
'They say it’s the time of your life in Little Rhodie,’ said Mulder shyly.
Scully put her hand around her knee and looked out to sea.
She was conscious of her self—her soul—lying flat as a plate within her. She saw the house from above, a retiring brown house slouched in its hollow of rhododendrons and hemlock. It rode a great end moraine that comprised the hills behind them and the edge of the coast and ran down under the ocean and protruded far out in the chop as Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, as Block Island, so that they might sit here, she thought, all of a piece with Chilmark, on the Vineyard.
She felt a strong desire to call her sister and closed her eyes reflexively as the grief came whispering up, its fist drawn back, and punched her in the stomach. To validate news like this, it should be hissed fiercely into a phone, as if it were an insult: 'I think he's asking me what I think he's asking me!’
Byers appeared at the top of the cliff stairs, grinning, his trousers rolled up to the knee, suit jacket over his shoulder. 'What a morning!' he called, hailing them with a wave.
The French doors opened behind them, and Scully could hear the Traveling Wilburys in the kitchen. 'Byers, get in here!' Frohike snapped.
The doors closed firmly behind Byers. Mulder lay back in his chair, his eyes on hers: Mulder of the close morning shave and the most beautiful feet she'd ever seen on a man; Mulder, who, during their first rough separation, had sent her bodies, like giant wormy valentines, and found reasons to drop by her office at Quantico; Mulder who had flattered her wistful, crushy hopes that he could no longer work a case without her. Certainly it cropped out as a bond surpassing a romantic relationship. It was a relationship that could share a house and respect the diversity of work and interests therein. It was a house where erstwhile workaholics might flourish in parallel, with nary a lonely night. It was a parallel sempiternal.
The weekend's motif was struck as the Lone Gunmen disembarked from their floating mobile unit and stood stretching in the driveway on a white afternoon, and Frohike, popping up like a demon at a ford, obstructed all, producing from the pocket of his biker vest a cassette tape which he rattled between two fingers until everyone threading around him with armloads of equipment had agreed that the Traveling Wilburys were the best thing ever. By the time Scully arrived on Friday night they were past playing Volume I out of the first energetic joy and were well into a resigned period of superstition. Everything was going right and their security system was in place. Scully arrived safely. The Wilburys had no regrets about anything. By that point, it would have been madness to switch to anything else.
Mulder, attempting to explain this to Scully, did not try long. 'It's a council of war, not a road trip,' she said. Despite her arbitrary career path, he was never sure if she truly saw the strange serendipity of life. For, with absurdist glee, the Wilburys dictated or punctuated the course of events. Mulder and the guys were all out in the yard on Saturday evening as Scully threw open the French doors and splashed upon the scene, and ‘Last Night’ came on, drumsticks skiffled, and everything went in time, nothing contrapuntal, even the windy give in the great arthritic coastal spruce robbing time. Scully moved in slow motion with her chin up and the wind perfecting her hair; she was ostentatious about her dignity but not about her looks, and clearly lost in a sky-held thought. 'She was the queen of them all,' observed the Wilburys. Yes, Mulder believed but did not quite know how to explain that, like a fundamental particle, a solar wind of fortuity washed the world, and was maybe identifiable as the actual essence of life itself.
Something had happened to Scully. At first, she planned to leave after breakfast, although they all argued against it. Breakfast was long over, but she was in the kitchen drinking more coffee, and, while the rest of them were busy, Langly the jester applied himself to amusing her. When Mulder glanced in, Scully had a mouthful of pancake and was trying not to laugh, an effervescence in her eyes, and Langly was leaning against the stove with one high-top stacked on top of the other, telling her a story about a summer he spent working for a moving company. Scully seemed to be in a sort of delirium, but she had lined up a ride to the airport (Mulder’s car, with Byers driving). Then she called the airline, and while she was on the phone Byers and Langly passed through, grabbing their cold drinks; they were dressed in their trunks, with towels around their necks, and carried frisbees and flippers and kites, and were scented with coconut sunblock. Then Mulder, just out of the shower, swanned into the kitchen in shorts and a t-shirt, his wet hair standing on end, a Smithsonian under his arm, a beach towel around his neck. Mulder did not know how to vacation but he knew how to entrap. He halved some limes and gave a bottle of tequila an authoritative twist, his brows raised innocently. He dashed margarita mix into the blender. The Traveling Wilburys had his back, and with their impish old-guy luck hustled straight into the boisterous petition of 'Margarita.’ Mulder gave Scully a casual smile, motiveless as one offered up in their office when they’d both looked up at the tap of rain on the skylight. She had not exactly agreed to live with him but neither had she kiboshed the concept, and there was an enlivened jiggle in her foot as she sat on the kitchen chair, the phone on her shoulder, her eyes containing a stunned look as if he'd told her she could open a door and step out into the universe, a fact so startling that it must be absorbed in starts and stops.
Hold music trickled from the phone. He cracked a tray of ice cubes on the sink. 'She wrote a long letter/On a short piece of paper' observed the Wilburys. Mulder’s fingers were wet with lime juice, and he’d dabbled them in the magical helix of salt and sugar. He wanted to put them in her mouth. It was not something he’d thought of doing before, and the strength of the desire startled him. She looked up at him with addled excitement concealed in a quick blink, and the jiggling foot kicked sharply, dispensing undirected energy. The situation had charmed him until that moment, when it felt uncontrollable, like the time he and Scully were with the logging saboteurs who drove over their own tire spikes.
Throughout that extraordinary Saturday, he thought about the Narragansetts navigating the wild seas in dugout canoes. He thought about a laurel hedge his mother had planted long ago, which had turned the side yard into a tangled haven for grosbeaks. He imagined the intense flamboyance of the tree corridors in the fall, through which he might drive to a job at, say, Brown University, teaching something like advanced criminology; and he thought about the artfully cluttered little office high in the psych building that might be his if he taught at such a university, and the way students would drop in to discuss Lovecraft or Ed Gein; brutalist architecture; the Patriots. He thought about the inevitable day he would be called out of FBI retirement because an isolated science team was in a cryptic bind, bodies piling up and the clock running down. He thought about the group of anthropologists at Idaho State University who were closet Bigfoot hunters. He thought about the UFOlogy gang at Boston University. He thought about the team of Chinese scientist Yeti-hunters he'd been corresponding with for years. He thought of the carapace of a horseshoe crab he'd taken from a dog's soft mouth on the beach during his morning run, while the owner called her thanks. He remembered a beloved dog he and Samantha had watched die of salmon poisoning. He wondered how they got the rubber band on a lobster's claw. He wondered how hard it would be to convert the old boat house into a carport. He wondered how rough it would be to spend a maritime winter in this summer house. He thought about anything and everything to keep from thinking about the admittedly wishfully faint chance that a medical doctor and former FBI agent, his inamorata, his female ideal, might consider moving in with him. He could not allow himself to think about what it would mean if she did. In a history of exercises in extremity it was metempsychosis, a possibility almost unendurably extreme.
And then, because he had already gone too far, he thought of coming home to someone at night, instead of going to work to see them. He thought of reading the paper on the deck with a cup of coffee, and he thought of not being alone in doing so. He thought of walking on the beach in the dark, the last hot streaks in the sky over Long Island, Quonnie Pond's breachway sloshing along the riprap, Scully arguing some point beside him, their fingers knit. He thought of getting a tandem sea kayak and going up the estuaries, sticking a paddle in the mud to glide close to a fishing heron, how he'd complain about doing all the work, and the fine, familiar way the kayak would shoot straight as they dug in their paddles on opposite sides.
In the evening, as he hurried down the cliff steps with a half-rack of Narragansett lager nestled in his arm, Mulder was pulled by an old, old joy—the giddy sense of hurry brought up by the sight of his family spread out along the beach in their various pursuits. He had a new family now, but he missed the old family. Being in Quonochontaug formed a sort of conversation with them.
The sky had a tall opal clarity. Down on the silvery flats Scully walked the edge of the ocean, rollers sliding toward her in foamy necklaces, Langly and Byers twenty yards behind like Secret Service agents.
Frohike was unpacking a cooler beneath the cliff, in a small cove of ledgerock. A fresh pink fire lay flat in the wind and snapped like a banner. Mulder wedged the beer carton in the sand and opened the flap as though arming a foot trap, trading a grim look with Frohike. They had calculated various ways to lessen the sting of their proposal and loosen Scully up; beer was probably the worst, but they were short on time and resources.
‘Have you asked her?’ Frohike screwed his opened can of beer into the sand and wiped his fingers on his henley shirt. Scully and Byers and Langly were coming up the beach.
Mulder had not asked her. He just wanted her to have a vacation, one day of relaxation, but he’d been arguing that point all afternoon. ‘Tonight,’ he promised Frohike. Scully came up breathlessly and stepped around the rippling fire wearing a mackinaw she’d found somewhere, its sleeves falling over her hands. ‘What are we doing tonight?’ she asked.
'Ruining your perfect day,' Mulder said, holding out a stack of paper plates.
'Well, it won't be the first time,' she said. She took a plate and got in the chow line. She turned and shifted her eyes over him and then turned her back and Mulder saw her shoulders hitch slightly as she sighed, and she looked out to sea, letting herself go somewhere distant. Byers was ahead of her, and he turned around and raised his eyebrows at her and smirked in a kindly way through his clipped beard.
‘Keep the line moving, Byers,’ Frohike barked.
Scully whipped around and faced Mulder.
Mulder put his hand sheepishly on the back of his neck. Scully lifted her own hand and touched the salty ruffle at the back of her head. 'You want to see if it's functioning as a transponder,’ she stated, and Mulder nodded.
In his distraction Frohike had dropped his junk food embargo. Langly and Mulder had made the supermarket run, and the picnic consisted of potato salad, lobster tails, buffalo wings, marshmallows, and beer. Scully turned around and Frohike glomped a spoonful of potato salad onto her plate, which half-buckled.
'You don't seem surprised,' Frohike said to her.
'Rationally, I had to expect it,' she said, in her prosaic way.
They stood around the fire with their plates, picnicking despite the foul weather and the growing darkness; hunching their shoulders and attempting to thrive in the cold wind. Mulder remembered doing some maneuvering to catch her alone in her hospital room outside of visiting hours and offer a private, impassioned bid for the implantation of the device. He recalled the painful debate with her resistant family, and his panicky need to save her, and the anxious hours before he could get the chip surgically implanted in her neck, like buckshot under the skin of a warm dead quail.
Stars showed in a cloud break to the east. 'It can't be easy to live with, Scully,' Byers observed, taking the box of hot wings from Mulder.
Scully looked down into the roasting snap of the fire, sparks shooting out along the wind currents. 'The options are, cut it out and die, or be enslaved. But I must get on with my life, so I can't care too much about it. Agent Pendrell said something to me once—' She lifted her firelit face and felt through the transparency between her mind and Mulder’s, glancing into his eyes. 'He said that something like this could directly interface with the cerebral cortex. Am I 'more machine than man'? I find that I must think of it as wearing a second conscience.' Clouds were boiling rapidly overhead, and she tossed her plate in the fire.
She did not seem to expect a response, and drew a lone preparatory breath and chugged lager from the can in a memorable swirl of silver and that raging rutilant hair, the only visibly indecorous element of her being. Mulder felt the awe moving in a ripple around the fire, at imposture beyond the ordinary and the sci-fi transfixion of her slightly mechanized being. She was a science experiment, an advance scouting party. Science functioned purely on truth, but somehow she no longer functioned purely on science. She'd grown more complex, like a cell dividing.
Langly was the only one sitting down, tilted like a test pilot in a folding chair, ankle crossed on his knee. 'It sounds like that one thing that synthesizes all the crazy pathos of your life, like when Nietzsche hugged the horse,' he offered, his nasally whine announcing his misery and his hatred of the elements. The firelight lay flat orange on his Clark Kent glasses.
'You’re exactly right,' Mulder said to him.
Frohike looked around the circle. ‘Instant karma,' he said. 'A sign from the cosmos.’
Scully paused in her hammering of the beer, eructating nonchalantly as a girl raised among brothers, and looked slightly charmed. 'On my first case with Mulder our motel burned to the ground,' she said. 'I probably should have taken that as a sign.'
They struggled together through the deep sand and up the dark cliff stairs, lugging the cooler and toasting forks and beer carton. Langly wore the aluminum frame of the folding chair like a squeaking shield. Frohike’s headlamp wavered wildly. Mulder carried a paper grocery bag with the damp bottom rotting out of it. He did not feel drunk, but he felt hot inside, and he was trying not to rush Scully as she went up the stairs with a blanket over her arm, the wind pushing her sideways. The stairway seemed congested with slow people and an empty beer can sprang from somewhere and resonated junkily down the cliff. Langly called out a complaint. It seemed to Mulder that he had been working his way at a slow trudge through a restrictive churning wormhole for nearly forty years, with an eon yet ahead of him.
In the house they turned on all the lamps and set up for the test. It was a relief to block out the weather and move across flat surfaces, feel the muffled peace inside a house. Mulder knelt and mended the fire and the fireplace became the kindled heart of the house. Scully was close at hand in a kitchen chair, her coat tossed aside. 'Give me one good reason they'd want to track me,’ she said.
'You have a history of mission creep,' Frohike said, coming out of the kitchen with a square bottle of whiskey. He held it up, raising his eyebrows; she shook her head. An unplugged cable rattled across the wooden floor, and there were a few accusing glances.
Frohike's bluntness regarding the subversion of her original assignment surprised Mulder, but it was true. He'd waited for weeks after they informed him he'd been assigned a partner, irritated because she would change the dynamic of his ordered mess. Truthfully, though, he missed working with Reggie and knew that he operated better when stimulated by another mind. A clasp envelope had arrived from her, with a Marine Corps meter strip and his oddball name written experimentally in her girl's handwriting, and her Quantico office listed as her return address, and inside, the preemptive strike of her graduate thesis, a dirty bomb of an opening salvo, accompanied by a terse note, all of it standoffish but the whole gesture, of course, a reaching out. And every moment of their subsequent time together constituted a reaching out and a holding back, and every sentence they spoke contained the subject and assertion of a thesis.
Mulder got up from the hearth, and at this signal they began to close in on her. He touched her coat hanger shoulder, but the Gunmen balked at the magic ring of cussedness that surrounded Scully. She had gone very still and was looking across the room at the wall that still exhibited the bullet holes. Riddled was the word, Mulder thought, as though six rounds formed a conundrum. Six rounds because he didn’t feel safe until he'd emptied the clip. She had saved his life, as she did. He scooped his hand under her crushy soft hair and she dropped her head forward, exposing the back of her neck. 'I feel like we should read you your rights,' he muttered.
Byers shuffled forward with the scanner. 'If there's an integrated circuit device it may be too complex to indicate a simple ID number,' he said. 'It looks encrypted.' As he brought the scanner up and it made its first bleep, they realized that her cross and chain posed a problem, and Mulder unfastened it and dropped it into her waiting hand. Scully did not look up, but poured the chain from hand to hand. Mulder held the back of her head.
'The animal chips have to be scanned to read the ID number.'
The receiver found the signal and beeped before Langly toggled it.
'It's a global positioning chip.'
'Yeah, but it has to be activated to emit a signal.'
Mulder looked up. 'Is this one activated?'
'I think we've got an ID,' Frohike said, looking over Byer's arm. 'It's emitting a signal.'
There was a long silence. Mulder was tuned in to the stillness of Scully under his hands, reminding himself to draw breath.
'In theory, a GPS-enabled chip will be widely used within the next twenty years,' Byers whispered desperately.
'LoJack for humans,' said Langly.
'It may also be able to indicate blood pressure and pulse, hormonal and blood oxygen levels.'
'It's possible the device is powered electromechanically by muscle movement.'
'But an MRI might cause trauma to the chip,' said Frohike.
Byers shut off the device. Mulder reached down and nipped the fine gold chain from her palm, and she held her hair off her neck as he refastened it.
Frohike straddled a chair at the end of the table and poured a couple of shots in juice tumblers and Scully loosed her hand-held pony tail and turned his way as if they were in the middle of a conversation. 'Kid, it's never as bad as it seems,' Frohike said to her as they tapped their glasses together. She huffed out her breath, tossed her head and sank the shot, shuddering.
She found Mulder on the couch. She sank down against him and they looked each other over. The Traveling Wilburys started back up, like life resuming. 'Are you drunk?' he asked her curiously.
'I was until about five minutes ago,' she said. She gave him a mischievous glance and took his hand, even though they were surrounded by Lone Gunmen and spy cameras. The guys looked at Frohike for guidance, and Frohike saluted Mulder and went to put the bottle away in the kitchen.
'Mulder, regarding your suggestion, you know I don't have to think it over,' she said, low, her eyes going back and forth between his, 'but I'm trying to make a show of it.'
He said something, but it registered as a meaningless sound. Her eyes had that saintly flatness.
'You have some of my books,' he said finally.
'I'll bring them,' she said. She looked at him with a newly specific interest, her eyes wandering over his face.
'Thanks for even considering it, Scully.'
'I did not,' said Scully, with a hitched sigh, 'consider long. Although my trepidations are many, of course.'
He nodded his understanding. His thumb caressed the back of her hand. 'What does this all mean to you?' he asked her.
'I asked Dr. Zuckerman if he'd ever witnessed a miracle, and he said he might have, but he was afraid to call them that. I'm pretty sure he added me to his list.'
'Well, you are a miracle,' said Mulder, squeezing her hand.
Scully lay back a little drunkenly, and he nuzzled the side of her head. Her hair smelled like grass hay and her breath like Jack Daniels. 'We all are,' she said. 'Look at us...' She was looking at Byers, who was leaning over Langly's chair, reading something on the monitor. The Wilburys had scratched around in their repertoire, and, smacking the dust off the theory that unlike things complement each other in weird ways, had settled, for once, into gentleness: Harrison's Liverpudlian richness, as familiar as home, segueing into Orbison's dark Texan angel's voice, and both drawn up in the roughshod anodyne of Dylan and Petty, somehow describing everything they'd all endured to get to this point:
Been stuck in airports, terrorized
Sent to meetings, hypnotized
Handle me with care
Chapter 11: Small Numbers
It was not that security in their naval hospital was lax, but it was workable, as Marcella proved when she brazened through with her Chinese pug Ralphio front-loaded in a Babybjörn, diverting soldiers as needed with the sugary glitter inside a pale pink pastry box. Marcella never used her powers for ill—she simply wanted her dog to meet Scully. Her only interest was matchmaking, and, as foreseen, Scully and Ralphio hit it off.
As she gathered the hot black wriggling sweetness on her lap, and examined, between her hands, his misbegotten, brachycephalic mug, Scully had an idea. The following week, on a Wednesday afternoon, a body was shipped to Bethesda in a child-sized bag. The accompanying paperwork was cryptic. A University of Maryland professor of virology required a favor in an unusual matter, and Scully agreed to help, off the radar.
The patient was a genuine curiosity, and traveled with faked documents. Scully and Marcella prepped for post-mortem. They usually spent afternoons transcribing their notes and catching up on emails, oddly comfortable together in their little office stuffed with plush animals and Nora Roberts novels and pictures of the nieces and innocuous wooden signs that said things like Believe. Oh, Scully wanted to believe. This exception to their routine turned the day upside down, but they both felt good-natured about it. Scully was in a great mood. Marcella suspected a flirtatious staff prank; Scully some enjoyably darker turn. They awaited the virologist, who was coming down on the train. Marcella hoped he was handsome, maybe even datable, but Scully reported that his emails had been terse.
The virologist was twenty minutes late. He was engaged in eating a tangerine as he walked down the tiled corridor, led by a soldier, and he appeared to find the basement morgue both intriguing and mildly oppressive. He was tall and absorbed in his thoughts, but when Scully stepped into the hall, his eyes locked on hers like a cat crossing a lawn. Scully, holding the swinging door, pulled her mask down under her chin to make sure she had his attention. 'Dr. Dana Scully,' she said. 'Thanks for getting here so fast.'
There was something just a hair off about him. He was half a beat ahead or behind, or maybe he was one of those people who have a blank spot where a sense of humor should be. His visitor pass said Dr. Spencer Arguile. ''Argyle', like the socks,' he said, shaking her hand, and letting go quickly. His fingers were long and chilled, reticent. He straightened his tie and dropped his nested stack of tangerine peels in a wastebasket. He glanced at the body on the table and then looked quickly back into Scully’s eyes, the way a baby checks with its mother to see that the world is right.
'Code Charlie Papa—We are steaming to assist,' Marcella said, sailing in just then and shaking his hand a bit too long.
'This is Marcella Haines,' said Scully, trying not to smile. 'She'll be assisting us. And no, this is not the JFK room.’
The officially handsome Dr. Arguile became a little shyer, and retreated with his file folder, pressing his tie. ‘What do we have here, a hot situation?’ he asked. ‘Should we take precautions?’
‘The quantum of the disease in question, although not officially identifiable, does not appear viable after death,’ Scully said. ‘But, you’re the expert, you tell me.’
‘Well, hep C can hang around for weeks,’ he said, putting a pencil behind his ear. ‘Should I wear a white coat?’
‘You’re going to be fine,’ Scully said, amused by him, despite herself. 'Can you fill us in on the genesis of the case?' She pulled up her mask and yanked at the body bag's zipper, and Dr. Arguile pinched his nose. He looked away quickly and studied the wall. He shifted from foot to foot. Then curiosity overcame him, and, protectively covering his tie, he risked a look at the funny little body on the table.
‘Have you ever heard of the wild apes of Texas?' he asked. 'You can tell them by their accent.'
Scully looked down. The monkey had a severely defined face, with elvish ears and sculpted cheekbones. Marcella, at the foot of the table, looked at her and blinked a subtle warning.
'This is a rhesus macaque,' Scully said. 'Observe its dentition. They have problems with them in Florida but not, as far as I know, Texas. I’d say the biggest mystery at the moment is why is it in my lab?’
Dr. Arguile, hands on his hips, paused in the claiming of a patch of resin screed in a sort of Charleston of shuffling and tapping. 'I represent the concerns of a vigilante group, and I'm not at liberty to reveal whence the victim was procured, or what the desired results might be, but what I can tell you is that it was freed from biomedical researchers in Texas. The rhesus are popular in essential research, because of a lot of physiological similarities to humans.'
'Freed by activists?' Marcella asked.
'Yes,' he said, as Scully opened the body cavity. Marcella held the long gangly legs to stabilize the body as she worked. 'We believe the creature was destroyed by fatal anaphylactic shock: it was stung to death by insects,' said Dr. Arguile.
'I find it difficult to believe you couldn't find someone better qualified to do this,' Scully said.
'I realize this isn't the sort of procedure you're accustomed to,' he said to her. 'But it's possible your name has arisen from the murky depths we in the biz call 'the viral disease game'.'
'Are you implying that I have a reputation?' Scully asked.
'You make it sound like a bad thing,' he said. 'Correct me if I'm wrong, but I recently heard something to the effect that you ignited a corpse to draw off a flammable substance.'
'I'm surprised that story got out,’ said Scully, exchanging a look with Marcella.
'Naturally, the virology gang is rabid about such stories,' he said.
'Well, obviously the cryptic sciences are not your forte,' said Scully, holding out her hand. Marcella handed her a pair of secateurs. 'It was hardly a heroic endeavor. Not like the man who hunted down the Spanish Flu.’
'If you’re referring to the virus hunter Johan Hultin, you wouldn’t be far off the mark,' said Dr. Arguile. 'He froze his ass off on the Seward Peninsula digging through seven feet of permafrost to recover a sample of H1N1 from 1918.’
'Only the deadliest virus in history!' said Scully. She lifted away the breastplate and examined the nested heart and lungs. 'Believe it or not, Doctor, there are other worlds concurrent with this one.’
He slowed his soft-shoe, looking a little mystified. ‘I’m not sure I follow.’
‘You learn to recognize the signs,' Scully said. 'Communications between the realms...things that defy all logic, but exist nonetheless.’ She was enjoying herself a little too much. She stepped aside as Marcella came away with the organ block and piled it on a plastic cutting board.
The virologist peered across the exam table with what might be restrained admiration. 'A doctor of the dark forensic arts,’ he said reflectively.
It was remotely plausible that the strange Dr. Arguile was flirting with her, and she glanced at Marcella for confirmation. Marcella was watching him. She had a broad nose like a Maine Coon cat; when seized by an idea she scowled mightily and a charming wrinkle appeared across it. Marcella trudged to Scully's side, and slowly, appraising him, she peeled off her glove. Scully dropped a metal ruler and the long room echoed. She leaned over for it, and as she came back up, she saw Marcella reaching up to turn off the tape recorder. Scully froze. She looked over her surgical mask, and found herself caught out.
'This is the guy,' said Marcella.
Scully and Mulder looked at each other, startled.
'You finally snuck him in, Lady D.,' said Marcella, nudging her in the side. 'This Don Juan of disease.' Scully turned her face away and smiled into her shoulder.
'Are you actually an authority on viruses?' Marcella was asking Mulder.
Mulder, a glow in his face, shook his head. 'Scully's the pioneer of weird science. I'm just good at getting in the way.'
'He's a criminal psychologist, among other things,' said Scully.
Marcella, looking from one to the other, reached up and turned the recorder back on.
Mulder's mouth had softened. Scully knew that her eyes were indeed too bright, but there was nothing she could do about it. She turned aside and weighed the diseased monkey liver.
Afterwards, in the bathroom, checking in with herself, she stared into the mirror over the sink. Her eyes had the look of a cocaine rush, the prefrontal cortex shut off. She pulled the band from her ponytail and kneaded her hair back into shape, touched the pink spot in her cheek to feel its heat. She leaned into the bathroom mirror. 'Hey Scully,' she muttered, in his voice, and only felt hotter.
When she came out, Mulder and Marcella were sitting there discussing Forrestal's suicide. Marcella was filing her nails. 'Some think it was a UFO conspiracy,' said Mulder.
'Why would they have to kill him to cover that up?' asked Marcella, blowing on her fingertips. 'They would only have to discredit him, and UFOs basically do the work for you.'
A mood swung through Mulder's eyes, although Marcella meant nothing by it. 'They'd already named a supercarrier for him,' he said, on his feet, pushing in his chair, his constant drive to be elsewhere engaged. 'He saw them put up the flag at Iwo Jima. There was nothing soft about the guy. His suicide note was a passage of Sophocles. He wasn’t going down easy. Scully and I have seen plenty of people against the wall. We've seen the coverups. Frank Olson went out the window in fifty-three. It always looks like a suicide.' Worry tightened his jaw.
Scully thought of Forrestal's small, stern, sorrowful face. The Secretary of Defense looked as if he already knew that he would be forced, physically or by circumstance, to tie the belt of his bathrobe around a radiator and jump from a sixteenth floor window. He had certainly known too much about something. 'They toned him down on the psych ward,' said Scully, getting in Mulder's way as he looked around for his coat. 'Amobarbital,' she said, although somehow they'd already said too much.
Marcella watched them appraisingly, her hair fluffed out across her shoulders, but surprisingly, she wasn't flirting with Mulder or digging for details. Mulder nodded and looked at his watch. ‘Well, this has been a treat, but I’ve got a train to catch.’
‘You shouldn’t have come,’ Scully said.
He looked up quickly. ‘No, I shouldn’t have come, but it was the only way I could see you.'
'Funny you should say that, because the janitors have a theory that she actually lives here,' said Marcella. 'She's always asleep on the break room couch.'
Mulder nodded. 'I can see it. Doing her dishes in the autoclave. Drawing out random syntheses at midnight.' He smiled at Scully, folded his coat over his arm and, a little sadly, kissed her on the cheek. He looked back at them as he went out the door.
Marcella sighed and said nothing. 'What, is it, Lady?' she asked, when they were in their office together, finishing up the day. Marcella could hold a conversation while rapid-fire typing. Scully was waiting for the innuendo to begin, the inappropriate digging for detail, and wondered if she’d somehow caused offence.
'It just doesn't seem funny anymore,' Marcella explained. 'When I saw you two together, I realized how Casablanca it all is. You're taking risks.'
'We're going to be fine,' said Scully. 'What do the janitors think?'
Marcella creaked back in her chair with a narrow look. 'When you start working in a place like this, find the oldest janitor in the building. That would be Apsley. He's been here thirty years. He has access at all security levels, every department, and he knows everyone who works here. He pulls night shifts, day shifts. He has a feel for it all. He doesn't gossip freely, but when he gets around to observing something, you can take it to the bank. He's seen your forgotten toothbrush in the changing room. He's seen you staring into a vending machine. He's seen you coming off the helipad at dawn, looking pretty but tired, same clothes as the day before. It all adds up to something serious. Not to mention you're too busy to spend time with a boyfriend like that. It's like the part of the book where the handsome young squire is about to be deported to the Colonies.'
'It's certainly nothing that dire,' said Scully.
She wrapped up her end of the day stuff and knocked off a bit early. As she crossed the parking lot she saw Dr. Arguile wandering in the rose garden beyond his rented Taurus, his jacket over his shoulder. She unlocked her car, watching him from the edge of her eye. There were bees in the air around him. He nodded slightly to himself, as if the world agreed with him. Scully, suppressing a smile, got into her car. Then he got into his own car and followed her home.
This is how it happened: He touched her lower back. She put pressure on his thigh wound. He rolled over her as a Satanist shucked a shotgun. They grew old together. He ripped the duct tape from her mouth. She put a bullet through his rotator muscles. He went to a morgue to ID her. She pried open his eyelid and stared inside.
How did it happen? She invited him up to Baltimore to spend the night, via encrypted email. He accepted immediately, despite her unflowered breviloquence and the fact that they were flouting a militant high risk lockout/tagout procedure with coded safety overrides and a shutdown bypass that required two people to turn the key. Well—?! They were two people.
'Kitchen,' she said, imprecisely, under his mouth. Her keys hit the floor.
'Mm,' he said, face in her collar. This was not the room they were going for. The kitchen must be right there as you came in because they were still getting the door shut. A box full of wadded newspapers chinked heavily against his foot. She put her head back, struggling at some great task despite nearly two hundred pounds of him on her like a kraken on a ship. He greedily hunted the mystical sapor of shoulder and bra strap, her collarbone doing something interesting as she stretched to throw the deadbolt on the door.
'Mulder, we're walking,' Scully whispered, and he agreed in theory, their feet jumbling together. He jarred a homey squeak from her kitchen table, and learned the feel of her smile. At some point he must have pulled back far enough to observe her autonomic pupil-response, because later when he heard that the worst had happened, he was startled by the memory of her eyes, sexy belladona-black.
Another way it happened: She took a dragline shovel to the rusty mess he'd been fiddling with, knocked a metric ton of sense into it, needle-biopsied his motives, swept the floor around the coffee maker. She climbed into ducts, elephant stomachs, scary lairs behind old mattresses. She hiked for miles, muddy, wet. Her glare tasted like a thermometer. There was a great disc of a sun in the sky, symmetrical and righted. Because of her, he called his mother, ate a carrot-and-zucchini muffin; had the 'Concerto Barocco' stuck in his head. There was actually, now that he considered it, true life ahead as well as behind.
There seemed to be boxes everywhere. He hoped they would fall over a bed soon, but the room seemed to open around them, and there was more light in the air, but not enough air to draw for his heaving lungs. He kneaded her closer until she opened all her chakras against him, if you believed in that sort of thing. He tasted her throat. She was an algebraic conjecture, unsolvable, Hilbert's Sixteenth problem, something he was just about to crack, if he could just bear down to the degree required, if he could just—
He slid to his knees. It was every way they'd ever thought of doing it, and it was just the simple shamanic sectioning of her between thumbs and tongue, the impatient press of her hand on his head. He was not pure enough; he was too pure; he was only a man; he was all men. He was an ekstatic bull, flower-wreathed, blinded, led into a circle of stones and bled: he was the knife.
He was on the floor and she sank down over him, and the air sloshed with the fractured, slightly milky sequins of sea water. He bit down on his lip to endure the unifying compression of deaths, and babies, and geomagnetic storms, and a rotating twist in the Milky Way, as they cogged together in the alternating pattern in which their minds so effectively tessellated.
Another way: In a few short years she changed so dramatically in his sexual scheme that it must be him who had changed, no alternative explained the fact that she consumed him, made him tender and confused, and made other women, no matter how attractive, seem out of true, base and less intelligent.
Wednesday returned from the hinterlands, and they with it. They lay on the living room floor of an upstairs apartment, the double hinge of their elbows planted between them, wrists crossed, fingers interknit. The clouds were lifting away. From what he could see, flat on his back, the room was unadorned, and there were boxes all around her striped davenport. Still, there was a glossy Dutch master clarity to the air that gave the sense that the flat had been elegantly furnished, although she had done little more than prop her heirloom tomato poster on the sideboard, against the wall of raw brick. He would find, as the evening wore on, that in that refined light, red looked raspberry-pink, and the lamps were like fireflies inside bluebells.
Mulder rolled his head until he found the moon-blue rotogravure of her irises. Another way: There are people who come along, and suddenly you pay attention, come awake. You fall over yourself. Ah, you think: there you are! You have to thank the world for surprising you when all hope seemed lost. Thank god, finally, someone you can actually have a conversation with.
Scully lay panting like a shipwreck survivor. She made quite a tableau on the hardwood floor. He leaned over her. '...Sailors gaze upon thy shore/Firm in the Ocean set',' he said, and kissed her. She was still in her overcoat, but everything underneath was half-unbuttoned, repositioned and binding. She did not seem to notice.
'Was that the Sophocles?' she asked, her hand on his face.
He nodded. 'At least get a rug in here, Scully,' he said, caressing her cheek. It surprised him that she had hardly bothered to unpack, an indication of the duress she’d been under, or confirmation that only pride kept her from living with her mother. Even in his worst-case scenarios he'd never pictured her rummaging among newspaper shucks for a cereal bowl. It was actually shocking, like imagining Scully as a mentally ill person living on the street.
'It's weird to see you living out of boxes,' he said.
‘I’m gone at night a lot,’ she said. ‘I come home and fall on my face. I sleep on the couch at work. There’s some cottage cheese in there that dates to Clinton’s first term.'
He rolled on his back and reached idly into an open box and pulled out a small ground-breaking pseudo-natural history, first published as Sur la Piste des Bêtes Ignorées (1955). The first book of Bernard Heuvelmans, in the jacket, which he'd found at Winged Monkey Books in Arlington. 'Oh wow, I don't suppose you got around to reading this,' he said.
Scully turned the cover so she could see it. '’On the Track of Unknown Animals’. Looks like a page-turner.'
There were tall old windows in the room, weaving with leaves. The book on his chest, he held her knuckles to his lips, and stared at the window. It was evening now, and peace simmered around the edges of his body.
’Mulder, why a monkey?’
He rolled his head to look at her. ‘Oh, I thought an orangutan would be romantic.’
‘Something you said on our first case together. I can still see your supercilious face. Our first case, our first exhumation, our first body stolen from the morgue. Turns out, it’s much easier to lay hands on a pesky rhesus macaque.’
Another way: Out of all the stories in the universe, there was this one, unique, inestimable. A bristlecone pine of a story. It masqueraded as the oldest tale in the book, but was something else entirely.
Time became the province of View Master slides: the Great Sphinx of Giza, the Yosemite Half Dome; in its own fashion, a tour of the world. He looked down at himself on the bed, his face against her body, an autoscopic spirit-walk in her eyes. Darkness faded the scene. Cars went slowly by in the street, leaving their time-lapse red squiggles along his memory. Ships eased into the Patapsco port facilities. The city slept, and he and Scully covered great distances. He thought: I have finally said half the things I need to say to her. Finally, we have voiced the language only we speak.
Chapter 12: Mathematical Interlude
You are in a car.
You are in a car on the freeway.
There is a woman in the car. Her hands are on the wheel, and she looks out at the world as if she still operates under the autonomy of her own mind. You reside in the sump, you drip from the bearings, you lubricate the crankshaft, the camshaft, the rocker arms. You smoke upon the head. She feels late summer sunlight filtering her left cornea, and her mind—tuned to abberrance—suspects something.
She touches her phone on the passenger seat. She hesitates and moves her hand to a file folder as if she might suck up some data. The things floating through her mind—sex, hunger, everything on her day's agenda—have fallen away. She turns the car's headlights off, and back on, as if signalling a speed trap to oncoming drivers. She takes her foot off the gas, and notes a lag in the response time. She is not about to panic: she is gathering facts. She snatches up the cell phone and speed-dials a number.
'Mulder,' someone says.
Just like that, her vascular system accelerates. 'Mulder, it's me,' she says.
'Scully, what's wrong?’
'It's my car,' she says. 'It's acting funny.'
'Where are you?'
'North of Hagerstown, on I-81.'
'What's it doing?'
'I think it may be taking me somewhere. The side mirrors were rotating, and when I turn the wheel it turns after a second, like it wants me to believe it's just acting like a car. Same with the accelerator.'
There is an alert silence. She closes her eyes against a rapid and silent Christine imputation, waiting him out. It's true, though, she thinks coldly, she does not have to have her eyes open to drive perfectly along a freeway at sixty-five.
'Have you had it serviced lately?'
The woman feels a stomach-drop, and expertly ignores it. 'Oil change,' she says.
'Scully, I’m heading out there,’ he says. ‘Can you pull off the road?'
'I'm going to try,' she says. She drops the phone on the seat.
There's a rural freeway exit that runs around in a curve, and she slaps in the cigarette lighter as you sail through the stop sign at the bottom of the ramp. If she wants to get rough you could flash-fry her, burn her down, drown her in crude, but you don’t want to fight her. You're a trillion years old and have swept to this point on a radiant wind. She's a homing beacon, a neon sign to the heavens above.
You play with the velocity of this rustic little machine, knocking about the brake fluid reservoir, caressing the shock absorbers. You're slowing, pitch and gravel-drag rolling you to a stop. She's thinking that it's one of those strange little spots that belong to a utility company; a gravel turnaround and some kind of electrical box inside a plastic cover. In the brambles there might be the remains of a house foundation, beyond that, forest going up the hill. She has the phone in her hand.
'It’s slowing. There's a battle site, or something. A green highway sign. A service road. It's going up into the woods.'
'Pull over, Scully. Get out of the car. Get away from the car.'
She scrabbles at the glove box and grabs a map, and the cigarette lighter pops out and she's out of the car, getting out fast and jumping away. She backs away up the road, facing you, the phone shoulder-squeezed under her jaw as she holds the lighter to a corner of the map. At first it seems the breeze will be too much. 'Nothing's happening, nothing's happening,' she whispers. A corner of the map browns and curls and chips away, but there's no flame. There's a quiet moment, and the rig-rattling crescendos howling past are muffled by a line of scrub trees.
You mass in the sump and ease out around the gasket. Lovingly, slowly. She thinks that when she went to pick up the car at lunch, it seemed to have a wreath of shimmery light around it, like a silver screen damsel filmed through a filter of cheese cloth. Which should have been her first clue.
She thinks that the car has a face and that humans can't help but design everything with flat predator faces, and she wants to run, and she thinks: just one more second and then I'll run. The pump of her heart gets ready. Her arms drop, and the map is gone, and the phone becomes a numb contrivance, sliding down her collarbone. She is thinking that the grill, the snout of the car is dribbling black snot and she understands instantly what is happening. Into the diver and then into the diver's wife. The headlights pop on, then fade out, a dismissive slow blink. Even though she can't move, she thinks she is safe, and she believes, through her elevated ego, that she is qualified to handle this situation. There's a sexual tingling in the soles of her feet.
Her brain is still fully alive and throwing commands to her frozen body. She gulps in fear as you ripple across the ground toward her, eager to feel her easy body after the manufactured contrivance of the automobile. Oh, she is a quick warm delight. How mobile, how facile, how conducive. How flawlessly she circulates, and her agile brain is full of ducts and valves and sockets and cisterns and oily squiggles. You caress and caress the bulb of her brain. Part of her wants to scream with laughter because she is rising on a thrillride pillar of commotion. She is thinking that she has never felt the sun like she does now, each sparkling spray of the wheel. She is a universal body adrift. As you joyride her through the forest, she blinks fiercely, the slime roiling beneath her sclera.
Then rusty-red motion, moving through the tricky forest as easily as water. A high-velocity creature stands watching you, an engine so significantly pure and swift, so manifestly coursing with the superior intelligence of the wild, that you instantly shift allegiance. Its great eye watches. It is poised with its head up, ears swiveling, cloven toes splayed, ready to fly through the air.
Chapter 13: Hotel-Zero
Like the ontological blaze of birth or death, pain forced her back into being. Above her, the fluorescent buzz of heaven. Scully mouthed oily grit, her body hollowed out, a fever gone from her flesh. She lay on a sleeping bag. Her joints were inflamed and her eyes had the electrode stutter of a bad light. The room was small as a cell and the door was open, or rather, ripped off the hinges. She closed her eyes and made herself sit up.
She was alone in the little room, on a slippery sleeping bag on a metal bunk. Beyond the door was a hallway. She wore a long white T-shirt, man-sized, and men's socks, and she was dirty and gritty underneath, but the shirt was fresh out of the package, still creased. A sore needle mark in her arm, restraint bruises on her wrists. She felt her face and head and then she was so intensely thirsty that she pushed up off the bunk and went to the doorway and looked up and down the hallway. The movement instigated diaphoresis, the chilly sweat of shock, and the tremors of asthenia. Each joint in her body felt poisonously swollen, especially her neck.
The Smoking Man had her.
This would be his idea of hell, a long hallway running in both directions, lit overhead with fluorescent bulbs, and rooms all along on both sides, with the doors removed. Nearly opposite Scully was a wide doorway leading into a larger room, an empty space fronted with double doors, like a gymnasium foyer. It was night outside. On the right, she found a small kitchen with a stove and refrigerator.
Scully went to the sink and twisted her head under the faucet and drank, pausing to breathe and look over her shoulder, an animal at a watering hole. Her head pounded and she couldn't seem to suck in enough of the cohesive mineral with the electrical charge necessary to bind her back together.
Shuddering with chill, she found herself back in the hall, wiping her chin on her shoulder. She must scout the place and establish the situation. She passed a small bathroom without a door, just a toilet and sink. The overhead lights were on in every room, and they were all empty rooms like the one she'd awoken in, the size of cells.
She hunched and held herself as she walked, and she could not keep her body from rattling. At the far end of the hall was a door to the outside, with a black window in it. She found herself afraid to call out but forced herself to do so, calling down the stairwell at the end of the hall. She cupped her hands against the door and peered through the chicken wired glass, and saw a high chain link fence lit by some outside light source. She stood and listened. She was not thinking clearly, and forced herself to do the things she would do if she were in her right mind, a shadow mimicking the real Scully. Hugging herself, she went back down the hall, pausing to listen. The building was silent. In fact, the whole place was silent. There were no exterior sounds at all. It was like stumbling into a mansion on a moor, every fireplace alight, and every room empty. Shivering with cold, she went back into the kitchen and opened a few drawers, found them empty, then opened the oven and took out the oven rack, noting dimly that someone had propped it up with half a cement block. She took the oven rack with her back to bed, and set it beside the bunk, close at hand, turned off the lights in her room, and climbed into the sleeping bag on the hard metal shelf. Mulder, where am I? She turned on her side and pulled the flap over her head and fell woozily and deeply asleep.
The worst moment, like the unbalancing moment before you fall, was waking to find no change. Scully opened her eyes in the cell and struggled from her sleeping bag and picked up her oven rack. She tested the bombinating silence of the hall, which was empty in both directions, and crossed the foyer to the row of double doors. It was daylight now, a featureless high-skied daylight. The poisonous stiffness made it excruciating to turn her eyes up and down the desolate yard. All she could see was a stretch of rutted grass and a chain-link fence.
Scully had not allowed herself to develop vices, for just such exigencies, but she craved a cup of coffee, like the stuff she and Mulder used to brew in the lab by the glow of the light boxes, in what now seemed the immensely idyllic days before their office was torched. They had communicated in humorous paleolithic grunts as they settled down to the small office pleasures of reading and writing on a winter's morning. From the very substratum of human entente, and thus the truly intellectual pleasure of being understood without having to express oneself: no talk before coffee.
She went into the kitchen, pulling the neck of the shirt over her chilly shoulder. Whoever had dressed her during her treatment seemed to think that she was destined to pad the tepid corridors of a psych ward. On the shabby kitchen counter was a cardboard box of supplies. The cupboards above were empty, so she drank again directly from the faucet, and went to explore the building, carrying the oven rack. It was a long, narrow dormitory, gutted. She cleared the rooms on the main floor and went down to the basement level, padding in her socks, smelling the air, and stopping frequently to listen. Each small room was like the next, their doors removed. The floor on this level was concrete, with hard trails of glue showing where carpet or linoleum had been ripped up. The lights were on in every single room. The basement bathroom was large, no door, the stalls ripped out and the toilets capped and the row of sinks gone. The only thing left, an anomaly that had escaped the stripping—perhaps because it looked so deceptively useless—was a mirror affixed to the wall, a polished steel mirror like one in a parks service restroom. Deep within its nebulous ply floated a dim face, her own, eyes pale and blind.
The hall on the third floor was the same, tiny room after tiny room with a monotony and a sterility that was like a dream, but it was not a dream, she reminded herself; every second was a real second in the real world progressing outside. Still, it was as if her interior was manifesting outwardly, like a Klein bottle, a topological manifold which showed itself to be brightly lit but empty, as if her inner separateness had found its metaphor here.
Halfway down the top hall was a large bathroom with concrete shower stalls and a sink left intact. Hot water in the taps, a real miracle. Running up the wall was an iron hot water pipe, thick with paint, and she warmed herself against it, sliding down and sitting against it until her back grew itchy. From the upstairs windows she had determined that there were two guard towers, one at each end of the yard, which seemed overkill for one unarmed woman. The high fence tied in with each end of the long building. The Cigarette Smoking Man would come and talk to her soon, once he had made his power over her felt. He would be thinking about her now, gloating at her suffering. Much as she loathed it, she must let him feel that he controlled her. Her surprise at what he had done was wearing off. It was almost an inevitability, because it was a fact that her own curiosity consistently got her into trouble. She could look all the way back to the moment she took Duane Barry's implant, setting in motion a chain of events that were still playing out. She could even blame curiosity for the fact that she had taken the X-Files job in the first place.
All the carpet on the top floor had been removed, but for one room at the far end. In that room, which looked out into the yard at the front, they had neglected to pull out the rough buff carpet. The room with the carpet gave her a different feel for the place. She pulled at an edge until she had a string, and it was not very rotten, which was why she felt the building had only recently been gutted. If it were, indeed, part of some enclave, a mining compound, military barracks, a training camp, there would be a larger system at work around her; roads and other barracks and mess halls and chopper bays, but so far she had heard nothing. A few jostled memories had been written on her neural network as she lay insensate: medical personnel with audible respirators and muffled voices working over her; wrist and ankle restraints. If she had been transported by ambulance and helicopter, as she believed, she could be more than a hundred miles from the freeway near Hagerstown. She tried to draw a radius in her mind.
Past the room with the carpet was a utility closet, and across from that, at the back of the building, opposite the stairwell, was a small, unfinished room unlike any of the rest. It was warm and dusty, with a window that looked to the south across a couple of fences and a slanted scree, forest beyond. A wooden ship ladder was fastened to the wall and above it was a trapdoor to the roof. The trapdoor was padlocked with a rusty padlock, the hatch filled with spider webs. Scully climbed the ladder and touched the padlock, the dusty heat of the roof pulsating against her head, and then climbed down and stood for a while at the window. It was the final room: she was definitively alone in the building.
The supplies were: three soup cans with the labels removed, three plastic jars of peanut butter, no labels. Crunchy, thank God. A great many generic pouches of powdered soup, and almost as many of hot chocolate; and twelve packages of crackers, out of the box. Scully took everything out of the carton and counted it. There was a cube of margarine and an open box of baking soda in the refrigerator. Under the sink she found a small, gummy bottle of dish soap they'd probably overlooked. All the drawers and cupboards were empty. But, astonishingly enough, on one of the soup cans lay a small Army can opener like a little hinge—a P-38. Quickly she opened one of the cans, and, as the name promised, it took thirty-eight punctures with the blade to sever the lid. It was alphabet soup, kid’s food. Carefully, she licked the Campbell's grease from the lid, and rinsed the jagged piece of metal with hot water. She put the can top in her sock, like a soccer shin pad, and used the can opener to slit the tape on the carton. She put the P-38 in her other sock. Now she had two weapons. She flattened the box and put it under her sleeping bag. She noticed another rolled sleeping bag, under the bunk.
After she’d swallowed some of the congealed soup and eaten a cracker, she moved her cardboard and sleeping bags upstairs to the shower room, against the hot water pipe. The room was far superior because it had a window at the end and a rudimentary heat source, unlike the cell she’d started out in, and she felt safer on the top floor. She lay looking at the ceiling. Despite the cardboard and the extra sleeping bag under her, the hardness of the floor returned often to the mind. There were so many people in the world who slept like this, she could tolerate it, too. When her back started aching she turned on her side. It was perfectly heinous to lock someone up without reading material. She wanted to take a shower, but could not bear the vulnerability of being naked and unable to hear, in a room without doors. Anyway, there was no soap, no towel. Outside, total silence. She was lapsing into catatonic schizophrenia. It was funny when she said it to Mulder, but not so funny now. Mulder. She whispered his name, just to feel the solid shape of it in her mouth. That moody mull, the dorky der. She had slept with him, but she must keep that in a compartment for now.
She mentally inventoried the food. By one estimate, they'd given her food for a week. Conservatively, it could go much, much farther, although she didn't know at what point she’d be laid low by scurvy, not to mention gastronomic boredom. They might bring fresh supplies soon, or maybe she'd be released. Maybe she’d escape.
She could already see why people in prison wrote their memoirs or brewed toilet hooch. She put her hands together in prayer and then opened them. ‘'The Lonely Buddha',' she read. 'Chapter One. The Argentinian law, once sufficient to house all the needs of all families under its rule, was fusty. The Aparicio family, not too proud, not too insufficient, was exceeding the bounds of this law, and the first son, an astronomer traveling in Antwerp, had found himself, as an international traveler, up against the bounds of this law, which to some minds was akin to exceeding the very limits of heaven.' Here Scully's memory of her favorite Jose Chung novel ran short in a word-for-word sense, but she could more or less take herself through the first chapter, scene by scene. Her body ached and she needed a pillow.
After a while she got up and took the can opener from her sock and went into the carpet room and pulled up a corner of the carpet, ripping at the glue. She hacked out a long rectangle with her little blade, a laborious job. The piece of carpet was slightly longer than herself. The carpet pad was so thin it was barely worth dealing with, but better than nothing. She improved her pallet and lay in her sleeping bag shivering with ague.
In the afternoon, exploring again, she searched the utility closet. It had a mop bucket drain and a couple of empty shelves. There was no light inside, and Scully checked it over carefully by feel. The shelves were bare, but underneath them, as she knelt and reached into the deepest, spideriest corner, her fingers closed around a spray can. She knelt on the floor, and the closet, the dark, and the spray can brought back a moment of intense fear, one of the worst of her life: Donnie Pfaster. She'd thrown herself against Mulder, her face against his pounding heart; she had never before hugged anyone with such fierce necessity. Later, the incident embarrassed her, displaying her greenness, but the fact remained: Mulder was safety, and he had held her just as tight.
Scully stepped into the light of the hallway, her throat roughened, and shook the can of ant spray to hear the musical slosh of its contents. Slowly, drawing out the moment, she caressed the dust from the label and read the ingredients: 30 percent alcohol. 'Hell yes!' she said hoarsely, the sound of her own voice so out of place that she looked around self-consciously.
She took the ant spray down to the kitchen and hid it in a cupboard and ate a peanut butter cracker. The day was taking forever. The row of doors in the foyer and the door on the south end of the building were chained up tight, but the door on the north end had the panic bar torn out and its hydraulics removed, and she pushed it open and put her head out. There was a guard tower above her, with movement within it. The yard was rough, reclaimed by ryegrass and weeds. It had not been mowed or watered, and there were ruts across it, where heavy vehicles had come and gone. The fence tied into the building here, and went over about twenty feet to an empty corner, which, she judged, pointed north; most buildings were laid out on a north-south axis.
She had to know the limits of her containment. She slipped through the door, into the breezy yard. She stood holding her arms and looking through the back fence. There was another fence beyond this one, topped with razor wire. She could feel the attention of the guard in the north tower. She was not sure if she was allowed outside, but she needed to orient. Downslope beyond the razor wire fence there was torn ground and a forest canopy. The sky was sparkling white and the hidden sun felt like a campfire.
When she turned around she found the guard's laser sight in the middle of her chest.
After a moment, she unfroze. Their instructions would be to guard her, not kill her. She went over to the building's drip line and picked up a few pebbles and carried them to the corner, and then returned for another handful of rocks. She was trembling, but ignored it. She built a pebble circle in the corner, using the pole in the north corner of the fence as her sundial gnomon. Now she had a rudimentary clock. She felt better, even though it was overcast and the clock didn't work. They couldn't take time away from her completely. Every second, as she worked, she felt the laser on her body.
Back inside, she felt autonomous. She grabbed the dish soap and went upstairs, pulled off her T-shirt and socks and took a hot shower, washing with one careful drop of dish soap. She felt considerably better.
After dark, she went out into the yard. The wind immediately chilled her bare legs. There were some high yard lights that hardly cut the gloom. She walked straight across the yard toward the front gate, and the red sniper laser danced across the grass and ran up her body to her chest. She stopped and lifted her face toward the darkness of the tower above her. 'I've been arbitrarily detained!' she called clearly. 'I am an FBI agent, and you are committing a federal crime by holding me here.' Her voice came out with a fluted clarity, a slightly higher timbre, although, in the past few years she had grown into a gruffer, steadier register, born of the job. This was her vulnerable, male-seduction voice. She tried to appear sane, strong and contained, her chin up despite the intimidation of the target light pinpointing her heart.
There was no answer from above, but the sense of his will flowed down through the red light of his scope and she imagined how she looked in the crosshairs. Fucking sniper, she thought, keeping her face pure and hopeful. Who points an assault rifle at an unarmed woman? There were signs wired to the other side of the gate and she wondered what lies they told about her. There was a gap between the two gates, below the chains, that she could probably squeeze through. She walked to the gate and touched it and the ground thumped near her foot and a puff-adder of soil spat up as a high-velocity ripple cracked off the building behind her. She squeaked involuntarily. Her hands were in the air. Her leg stung. She was ten feet away from the gate now, and the reverberation off the building wrapped around her neck and traveled out across the forest in a slow rip of thunder.
Backing away, she moved out into the middle of the grass and lowered her arms because the T-shirt was already short enough, and besides, she wasn't scared, not truly scared. Now she had proof that he had been instructed to detain her but not kill her. She looked up the beam of the red laser sight to the hunched silhouette at the rail of the catwalk. He was a cowardly creep, a toady, a thug, and she could only imagine what he believed about her—that she was contagious or psychotically dangerous, a half-alien monster-woman writhing with infection. The fact that he believed it demonstrated his stupidity, but still, she needed to calmly identify with him. 'I need to speak to the man who brought me here,' she called. 'Tell him I'm ready to talk.'
There was silence in the dark, and Scully turned and hurried inside.
Upstairs in the shower room she put her foot in the sink and rinsed her leg with warm water. A fleck of grit was embedded in her shin, and she scraped it out and rinsed away the blood. It was nothing, extremely minor, but she could not afford the least infection, so she washed it out with dish soap. She must be extremely careful. Any medical condition would be catastrophic - a blood infection, a UTI; toothache; appendicitis. Hell—what if she and Mulder had conceived a child?
She removed her foot from the sink. There was no towel. She put her wet foot on the gritty floor and the wound ran pinkly down her shin. She hadn't brushed her teeth in days. The window in the wall was black, and the carpet and cardboard and sleeping bags by the hot water pipe were a depressing derelict bed. She stood holding the sink, and she thought of the man out there, in the tower. He would be replaying the encounter, wondering if he’d handled it properly. It was simply a warning shot, he had not meant to injure her. Naturally, the encounter was shaking, but she was startled to have also found it profound, simply because, brutal and roundabout as it was, another human being had acknowledged she still existed.
The new prisoner arrived in the morning. It was a warmer day, and Scully was in the hatch room at the end of the upper hall, wood-burning SA Dana Scully MD hostage 1998 on one of the two-by-four slats of the ladder. It was the only visible wood in the building. She had mixed peanut butter and bug spray together in her empty soup can like a grunt humping the boonies. She burned the words into the wood with the hot metal tip of her cross, which she heated in the blue flame. She had wrapped the tiny cross in a piece of sleeping bag and a scrap of carpet, but still, it often grew too hot and she had to set it down and rest, standing at the small dusty window that looked to the south. If she disappeared and Mulder traced her this far, he'd walk into the building and climb straight to this spot with his incredible sixth sense for evidence. She envisioned him pausing, lowering his gun, heart breaking a little as he crossed the room and touched the words, then yelling In here! over his shoulder to whoever he was with.
As she worked, the smell of peanut butter reminded her of her toddler nephew. Matthew had smiled at her with real affection the last time she saw him, and she wondered, with all her problems, if he would grow up to know her. She was surprised to find herself someone’s radical aunt.
There was a vehicle outside. Quickly, Scully held the can against the wall, smothering the flame, although it had been tricky to light with a piece of dry grass on the burner of the stove. She hurtled from the room and into the stairwell and down the main floor hall, slipping cautiously through the opening to the foyer.
A canvas-topped truck was backing up to the doors. Scully went to the nearest door and a man rose up before her with an assault rifle to his eye, aiming at her through the chicken-wire glass. He put her on the wall with a flick of his chin. Scully showed her empty palms and laced her fingers behind her head. His aggression indicated fear. Fear of contagion? Fear that she was not what she seemed? The chains rattled on the middle set of doors, and there was a commotion behind the canvas at the back of the truck. Several men shouted. She looked for the Smoking Man, expecting him to sweep unruffled through the chaos, a little too pleased with the brute power he wielded; but she only saw a soldier falling, arching slowly backwards off the tailgate, and then the doors opened, both doors jerked wide from outside, and an animal was flung into the room. Scully started, dropping her hands. Until this moment, she hadn't remembered the deer in the woods. The infected deer. As it scrabbled across the foyer she called out indignantly, but the doors were already closing. The deer slipped on the hard floor, going down on one hip, then was back up, and with all four hooves bunched beneath it began to spring. The creature did not reconcile with its surroundings, and for a moment the room seemed an abstract forest, like a trompe l'oeil of Indians disappearing in a birch grove. The deer bounced on the diagonal, caroming until it went through the doorway into the hall. Scully turned to the nearest door and shook the panic bar, but now the truck was pulling away, soldiers jogging around it as they crossed the yard to the gate, and the man with the rifle was just one of them now, jumping the fresh-spun ruts.
In a moment the compound was quiet again. The building was quiet. Deer hair sifted in the sunlight of the foyer.
Scully stood there against the wall. 'Um, okay,' she said.
The deer had disappeared, although from time to time she heard it clatter. After some contemplation, Scully re-lit her can of peanut butter and went upstairs and finished her inscription. It was pleasing to write, to feel the wood char under the hot metal, to see the letters form. She considered the deer a message of a sort from the Smoking Man, one of further dismissal. She wasn't sure if they were trying to reinfect her with the deer, or simply quarantining two infected things together. Maybe the deer was no longer infected, but they believed it was. It was a relief that the creature was keeping its distance, acting as a deer should act.
Scully collected her piece of cardboard and went down to the kitchen. She unplugged the stove, took out the broken cement block, dragged the stove away from the wall and worked it back and forth until it was on her piece of cardboard. She discovered a twist tie in the greasy dust. Slowly, she pushed the stove out of the kitchen and into the hall, her socks slipping on the floor. The deer was making a racket in one of the stairwells. Scully climbed onto the stove and unfastened the covering of a light. She removed the long bulbs and laid them across the burners on the stove, and moved the stove and took out more bulbs, until the area around the door of her original room was dimmed. Anyone coming into the building in the night would read this as a sign that she was asleep in that room. She carried the bulbs upstairs to the shower room and tucked them against the wall under her bedding. The fluorescent tubes were fragile, but they were filled with argon gas, and their metallic salt linings were coated with phosphor powder, and if anyone came up the stairs in the night they would get one smashed across their face.
She pushed the stove back into the kitchen, washed her hands and face in hot water and sat on the counter eating a peanut butter cracker. When she stopped moving, she cooled off quick; more than anything she needed another garment. Upstairs, she spread out the second sleeping bag in the carpeted room, where the light was good, and unpicked the fishing line thread along the back of it. It was black nylon. The sleeping bag was filled with a sheet of thin batting, which she would add to her terrible pillow. She slashed the black synthetic material in little strokes with the blade of her can opener until she had a large rectangle. She cut a neck hole, and now she had a serape, or a tunic. She felt better with it on over her t-shirt, a little tougher, like the man with no name in those spaghetti westerns she had watched with her Dad. She went out in the yard to check her sundial. It was around three in the afternoon.
The padlock in the hatch room was nagging at her mind, but having discovered the piece of wire she decided to make a quick compass to see if her clock was oriented properly. The deer was trotting down the main hall as she went in, pausing to freeze and snort at her, flaring its rump hair and stamping its foot. She spoke to it and went into the kitchen and peeled the plastic off the twist tie, broke it in half and straightened it, opened the refrigerator and hacked at the door seal with her can opener until she could pull out a piece of magnet. She magnetized one tip of the twist tie wire and laid it in the plastic lid of a peanut butter jar. The only container she could find was a vegetable crisper drawer sitting on its own in the bottom of the fridge. She half-filled it with water and carried it outside and floated the magnetized compass in the water, and adjusted the circle of her clock a bit so that the shadow would fall from the true north. As she knelt in the grass an airliner passed east-west, just a white line in the sky. She must get a feel for the air traffic. She might be in West Virginia, somewhere fairly close to where she'd been abducted.
Upstairs in the shower room she dismantled the basin's cold water faucet, turning the screw in the top with her can opener. The faucet was cross-handled nickel and brass, nice and heavy. In the afternoon heat of the hatch room she hung on the ladder and put her finger through the U of the padlock's shackle, applied her weight, and hammered the lock's release side, over the pins. Under better circumstances she would have frozen it open with a can of compressed air. Her arm was bent through a splintery rung and the roof above her radiated a heavy black heat. Rust sifted down from the old hasp and collected in the bunting of spider silk around her face.
It had looked easy the time she had watched Mulder do it. He had twice her strength, and the sort of confident dexterity accrued in a youth spent throwing and catching projectiles. They were breaking into a locked impound lot in the middle of the night, and she held the flashlight, and gasped and laughed with the cold. Mulder also had twice her immunity to cold. He picked up a rock and started tapping the lock as they were discussing something else entirely, how much the Potomac had frozen over, and the padlock had popped open sort of coincidentally in his hand like a hatching chick, and he'd frowned critically at the manufacturers of such locks. Although naturally good at everything, he was a humble show-off. Scully had been moved to observe that at the rate he went around busting into places, he would not require the keys to heaven. Mulder, holding the gate for her, had mumbled something about already having the keys of heaven.
She hung there in the hot-tar swelter of the hatchway with her face against her arm. She rubbed her face into her skin as she bore the visceral sting that rolled through her if she let herself think of him. She feared that he was the one in danger now, and that she had put him there by refusing to take the situation seriously enough, even when people warned her, because she believed that her work made her too important to kill. They'd kill Mulder to punish her. In the super-heated logic of the moment, it seemed that if she could bust through the trap and get onto the roof she might have a chance to save him. She put some torque on the padlock, hanging on it, and hammered the side with the brass faucet. When the clasp jumped open she nearly fell off the ladder, and hung by her wrist, in a shower of rust, and thought of Mulder in lemon-flashes of dizziness. She did not so much think of Mulder as live him, live his gnosis in her head.
She did not dare open the hatch. The roof was on the same level as the guard towers, possibly lower, a flat roof that would probably have no cover. Scully went into the shower room and put the faucet back together. She took a shower, rinsing off the dust, and went downstairs. On the main floor she passed the deer with its head in the toilet, sipping away, flanks sinking in and out, tail clamped. Scully padded past and went into the kitchen and made soup and crackers. She had begun heating water on the stove in the empty soup can, so she could have hot powdered soup. She balanced the can on an electric burner where it jumped and spat and got too hot to touch. She had made herself a carpet pot holder.
As she went back upstairs the deer watched her from the far end of the hall, huffing. There was toilet water all over the place. The deer was tiresome, with its idiotic panic. She wasn't sure if deer were nocturnal, because they seemed to fling themselves in front of cars without rhyme or reason, day or night. The Eastern Whitetail was a plague upon the land, and with all the lights on in the building this one's internal clock was probably confused. Scully went to bed and lay irritably for some time. The light from the hall shone in, and the deer was noisy in the basement, and noisy in the stairwell. What exactly were they trying to do—drive her mad with wildlife? What was next, a truckload of squirrels?
Scully got up in the middle of the night. She hated the building at night, when it seemed an aquarium-lit box hurtling through space, its shadows so diffused that it was all one grade of soft illumination, like the light Dr. Banton preferred. It was actually a comfort to see the deer at the far end of the upstairs hall, licking the floor. She kept the light off in the hatch room and climbed the ladder in the dark and pulled the hasp from the staple and pushed on the heavy trapdoor. It did not shift. She climbed higher, and put her shoulder blades against it, head lowered, the oppression of dusty spider webs close around her, and the heavy tarred door shifted in its socket. Scully went down after some deeper strength, and blocked the pain in her feet and hands, and took a deep dusty breath and put all her anger into it, until it became a beast on her back that she must shrug off, and she rose upward with the oppression upon her. The door began to rise, and she quickly grabbed the hasp and tried to lower the thing slowly over onto the roof. The hinges screeled and the roof shook as it dropped open, and she slid down the shaft and landed on the floor with her knees almost giving out, waiting for automatic fire to cut everything to pieces.
After a minute, she opened her eyes, and looked up. Above her was a box of stars. She did not dare put her head through the hole, in case the south tower guard was waiting, finger on the trigger. Through all her turmoil, the stars above, in the square of midnight blue, had not changed. Through this hatchway her existence resumed in the world at large, and looking up and out she expropriated the larger fires in their silent roar, and carried them with her.
She went back to bed, and although she did not sleep well, wondering if they would spot the hole in the roof, the accomplishment exceeded the simple opening of a door. The deer went by in the hall, tapping and snuffing, and did not spook at her scent, but roamed on, endlessly driven to forage in a blank and sterile forest.
In the morning, Scully, possessed by precept, arose from her hard bed and went out in the yard and got some dirt, mixed it in her hand with water, and began finger-painting on the big, blank wall opposite the kitchen. As high as she could reach she sketched out a skeleton structure in its hexagonal chain, the alternating double-bonds giving her a little trouble, the carbon atoms implied; until she had a bond-line structural representation of the substance that lived in the deer. She felt better for articulating her thoughts, and the loose honeycomb on the wall was a message, an indicator of what had passed here. It was the formula for a dangerous contagion; it was both a warning and an indictment. Any normal scientist brought in to interpret would say that it didn't exist.
She had a soup can of warm cocoa and a couple of crackers for breakfast and sat with her back against the opposite wall in the foyer, studying her work. She was not a normal scientist. Sunlight fell through the line of doors. The hexagons she'd drawn, the least wasteful shape in nature, were exactly the form that soap bubbles take, six-sided, or honeycomb, or the compound eyes of an insect, or the back of a sea turtle, or columnar basalt: nature self-perpetuating its forms. The tiles in Mulder’s hallway. In the same sense, she was a perpetuation of some sacred geometry, executing her small life-patterns. Part of her actively observed herself from a distance. Her reactions to this situation were interesting in a scientific sense. How would she come through this? Would her mental health hold up? Would she save herself, or be saved? Would she make some fatal error?
The deer, snuffing and stalking, entered the room. When she held still it did not see her. It must be keyed to movement. It smelled her, of course, but it was used to her smell. The deer licked the asbestos floor tiles, cleft hooves splayed devilishly. It must have been knocked around quite a bit during its capture, and its thin legs were abraded, and there were chunks of hair missing from the red coat.
Scully set a Saltine on the floor and flicked it hard. It shot out across the floor and the deer’s head went up and it quivered, back humped, tasting Scully's scent in its open mouth. Then it lowered its head and tongued the cracker around.
Scully stared at the wall and let her focus soften from the chemistry to the deer in front of it. If the deer was the vessel for a more sinister force, it showed no sign. Are you in there? she thought. If it was in there, seething in the pineal gland, it was quite dormant, laying low, biding its time, and it was not driving the deer.
Her next project was to get the animal out of the building. The deer left droppings that were inoffensive as far as shit went, but Scully was tired of trying to pad around them in her filthy socks; periodically, it tipped its pelvis and squatted, shooting out a stream of sweet estrus urine like a mare in heat. During one of its bad spills on the linoleum Scully saw that the doe had stretched teats as if she had recently nursed a fawn. There was deer hair everywhere, stiff and waffled, in tufts. The doe opened her nostrils and blew snot, put her hoof in the toilet and pawed, and chewed the edge of Scully's carpet-bedding, dragging it out into the hall. The creature was starving.
Scully lugged the halved cement block down the corridor and propped open the door. She did not overtly look up at the north guard tower. It seemed to be OK for her to come and go there in the side yard, checking her sundial or standing at the fence. The fences were prison-high, fifteen feet or something, the guard towers far higher. During the shift changes, morning and evening, there was some activity with a Jeep or two coming up through the forest, glimpsed beyond the gate. From the sounds of the engines there was a bit of a climb. She dropped what she was doing during the shift changes, and hurried upstairs to watch from one of the front windows. The men were dark and distant silhouettes on the tower stairs, a few commands or comments called to each other, only faintly audible, and the Jeep, barely visible beyond the gate, whirling and jolting away. She became aware that the man in the north tower worked the days, but that he also seemed to be the one who had shot at her on the second night. That didn’t make sense, except that maybe they hadn’t worked out their shifts at that point. At any rate, she was developing a sense of him, and she avoided the yard after dark, when he was gone.
Languidly, the sunshine working on her until she yawned, she noticed the laser sight quivering over the chain link to her left. He was missing his mark. She sat down in the grass with her back to him. She needed to write, document her situation, organize her thoughts. She put her hands down on the grass in front of her, in the qwerty finger placement, and felt for the ‘F’ and ‘J’ keys. For a moment she couldn’t remember where the rest of the letters were placed, but as she began to type, eyes closed—'I was abducted in Maryland and am in a compound at a fairly high elevation possibly in West Virginia, and I am fairly certain I was transported by helicopter and truck, so the radius may be far greater'—it all came back.
'The enclave also fits the description of the abandoned missile base in North Dakota where Mulder and I were beset by an assault team. In that case, the nearby Minuteman launch command buildings would be similar to this place, and I might be quartered in an old barracks known as the Hotel-Zero.'
The pleasure of expressing herself in writing, even in such a silly manner, cheered her. The doe had drifted out of the building and was grazing in the grass, famished, and Scully went inside, pleased to have her out of the way, and cleared a swathe through the feculence, sweeping a chunk of carpet back and forth with her foot.
She soon realized she’d made a mistake. She should have brought grass to the deer, rather than let it risk the yard. The deer was one of her assets, with many potential uses, and she wanted to control it and bring it in at night, but to do that now she would need a rope.
Upstairs in the carpet room she sat on the floor pulling on the warp string in the carpet which unraveled in a zigzag, and made a squiggly, glue-crusted pile. The deer was an early-warning system, because it stamped its foot; it was potentially food, if she could get the refrigerator running and freeze the meat; it could be employed as a shield from rifle fire; and, like a vial of smallpox, it was possibly the vessel for a biohazard. It held the potential for companionship. More to the point, it was hers, not theirs. She braided three strands of half-rotten carpet yarn together into a strong twine she could not break by pulling. It was so utterly satisfying and easy to make twine that she soon had several feet of it. The halter was less of a success. She tied a flying bowline as the Man from Snowy River had, and pulled a bight through, but the thing twisted up on itself, and she had no idea how she’d get it on the doe.
The sunny day was so pleasant that she spent as much time as she could in the yard, sitting cross-legged and braiding string. She had hafted herself a weapon, with the plastic handle of a spork and a blade made from the top of a soup can. She lashed it with a bit of carpet warp and hardened it over the burner of the stove. It was not a particularly sturdy weapon. She kept the can opener on the chain at her throat, with her pendant cross. If she had to, in a fight at close quarters, she would tear it away and stab for the carotid. She had stashed the long fluorescent tubes around the building. The mute refrigerator contained freon, which, if she could find a way to control it, was an anesthetic.
In the late afternoon she filled the crisper drawer with water and carried it down the long hall and out into the light. The doe was thirsty, and stood watching her. Scully set the container down, and moved away so that she could drink.
She walked around the corner and considered the length of the yard, which ran past the south end of the building, and around the corner. The towers made her extremely self-conscious. Between the high gates in the fence and the foyer doors at the middle of the building the ground was torn. The three foyer doors were chained shut on the outside, and she looked in and saw her chemistry on the wall. As she approached the far end of the building, the guard in the south tower burst onto his catwalk and sighted his rifle at her. The laser flashed across her eye. His aggression shook the tower, and the disturbing shape of him at the rail, assault rifle to his eye, whirled her in her tracks. She had her hands in the air before she could think.
Scully walked back down the yard, hands pressed to the back of her head, refusing to hurry but so angry inside that she could hardly see. The laser light jarred in flashes on the grass ahead of her as his hands shook with his eagerness to kill her. She was breathless when she reached the corner of the building, the north-east corner, and could step from his sight. The north tower guard made a show of coming to the rail and sighting his rifle at her, but the red spot did not touch her. In her dooryard she felt safe again, and sat on the grass in the shade with her arms around her legs. The doe was laying down near the fence, watching her sleepily and chewing her cud.
The aggression of the south tower guard re-emphasized her sense of vulnerability. If men came in to attack her, she must get to the roof, but then what? The roof was a trap, a three-story drop. She considered what would happen if they cut the power to the building. She went inside and measured the length of the building in steps, and counted the number of steps in the stairwells. She made herself, with eyes closed, go from the kitchen to the hatch room and put her hand carefully around a light tube, all without looking. If there was a blackout she'd slip through the place in her T-shirt gown like a ghostly bride with a knife.
In the morning Scully knelt in the yard near her sundial, sucking nectar from a clover blossom. An airplane droned up the fresh morning sky, its sound following a good distance behind it. It rose out of the woods to the north-east and began to cross overhead. The airliners mostly passed east-west, but some angled north, which might mean Pittsburgh. An idea jumped into her. She hopped to her feet and sauntered inside, then tore to the kitchen and fetched the oven rack, raced down into the basement to the empty bathroom, and tried to pry the mirror from the wall. She had no idea how they fastened these things, but it must be some kind of mastic. One corner had enough gap under it that she could force the edge of the oven rack into it. She pried until something popped. Still, the mirror remained affixed. Scully found another corner and slashed at the painted concrete beneath it with her can opener blade. At last there was a space she could wedge the steel rack into. She pried, and when that did no good, grasped the oven rack by the end and smashed as hard as she could along the mirror’s edges. She pried again, and had to jump back as the mirror and the oven rack fell to the concrete with the musical clangor of a wrench tossed aside in an auto body shop.
Scully snatched up the mirror and ran upstairs. In her panic to reach the hatch room, she diverted on the main floor and ran down the long hall, slowing to listen. She held the mirror before her with the glow of ownership. Reflected behind her was the prolongated hall, and the articulated doorways; a square of blue sky at the vanishing point. The deer stepped suddenly into view, flopping her ears as she followed Scully, who giddy with invention began to jog again, watching the scene behind her in the mirror as the picturesque painters had looked behind themselves with a convex Claude glass. The doe tossed her head and began to trot as if friendship tethered them, and with the airplane overhead and the deer behind Scully was lifted out of her solitude and into the joyful amperage of a crowd of friends all running together. She laughed breathlessly. Idiot deer! No, she’s a doe, doe, an animus doe, anno domini, year of the plague deer; dolorem, dolor: hedons and dolors—Oh Dolores, I live in fear—(formido) hot doe, plague doe, pleasure and pain, so dolorous, vectoring morbidus—Dolores on the dotted line.
In the hatch room, she climbed the ladder and hung within the hatch, hefting the piece of steel on her hip. She found that the year had worn on so that the sun sat rather low in the sky. The plane had passed, but was still visible, crawling along high above. It was hard to hit the sun properly, keeping herself ducked down inside, her arm locked through the ladder and the heavy mirror cutting into her side. She had learned with a flashing mirror which was so much smaller, with a spot to look through from the back. Under her father’s guidance, along with her brothers, she had memorized Morse Code, semaphore code, the International Code of Signals, and the NATO phonetic alphabet. She tried to aim the sun at the plane, and flip it, three short, three long, three short—nine dits and dahs: SOS. She let the mirror down, her arm trembling. Thanks, Dad, she thought, and took a breath, and did it again.
Scully had never made time for contemplation, having pushed herself through high school and college and med school and the FBI academy, then straight into teaching. Often she had studied until her brain flashed white and she fell senseless among battlements of textbooks in library carrels. It was impossible to study hard enough. It was impossible to get enough sleep. She ran, swam, kick-boxed, and lay in the dirt with a submachine gun. Whole fields of knowledge were shunted into her head. She floated in a dissociative fugue of scholarship, battle-scarred in the brain. And then one day, as if to lift her out of theory and into practice, a man leaned over her, endlessly murmuring his secret thoughts. Out of everyone in this vast old world he had inexplicably zeroed in on Scully. His eyes were bright and intense, and absolutely nothing he was saying jived with anything she’d just been taught.
Scully sat on her doorstep in the shade. She’d sought the opportunity for reflection earnestly if unsuccessfully while vacationing in Maine; but when actually granted it, the excess of time was a distressing, maddening burden. In this forced pause for summation she put her face above water and found herself in the middle of a life, thirty-four and cast like jetsam from the moil of a job that could not really be called a career. All the anguish of the events which had destroyed her sister and left her own body damaged and nervy felt akin to the 'soldier's heart' diagnosed in men after the Civil War. She was a conscript after an unthinkably rough campaign, wounded, unquiet.
There was one way to steady excessive thought. She went up to the hatch room and reached up through the trapdoor with her can opener and cut a wad of tar. Down in the kitchen, she melted it in a soup can on the stove. This was her binder. She thinned it with margarine, the solvent, and for pigment added a pinch of fine dust collected along the drip line of the building and mulled in her hands to remove the larger particles. Her hands were mullers, not to be confused with Mulders. Now she had a primitive paint.
The cement blocks of her wall in the foyer were painted white, each roughly the size of a sheet of typing paper. Beneath the wandering honeycomb of the chemistry chain, she covered a half-dozen rectangles, swabbing with a wad of carpet. The thinned tar was amber-brown, and when she took her blade and began to write, she simply scratched through to the white, like the terrible linoleum block art she had been forced to make in high school. She had multiple projects to record: airplanes spotted, their times and trajectories. A calendar and a moon calendar. One section became the inevitable province of prison tally marks, a counting system in use since the upper paleolithic, befitting her cave-woman lifestyle. She began a diary panel tersely chronicling her days, and another that drew out the scientific aspects of the situation, and yet another consisting of oblique notes for Mulder.
Three days in and she was already muttering to herself and scrawling on the walls like a Caltech troll, her hand cramped and tarry and her brain working so much faster than the writing system that she had to repeat the slow phrases aloud to herself as her mind raced a paragraph ahead. There was such a foiling, resistive pleasure in expressing herself that she worked on the wall until the strain in her arms and neck became unbearable. When she was jailed for contempt of Congress she had learned what it meant to be a prisoner of conscience, and now she physically experienced writing as an act of rebellion.
She gathered a handful of clover leaves and blossoms and crushed them in her hands and steeped them in a soup can of hot water. When she came out into the yard Dolores looked at her and gave a low grunt like a gorilla-cough. Scully sat on the doorstep and sipped her grassy tisane, rich in vitamin C. Dolores's cough must be an 'all clear'. The doe was used to a family unit of females: grandmothers and mothers and sisters and daughters; Scully, with her clover-gathering, had been assimilated.
Replete with writing, she leaned against the doorframe and inventoried the plants that grew haphazardly around her. Ryegrass that grows in the prison yard - how oddly unsurprising to have circled back to that. Grass, of course, was full of indigestible cellulose requiring a many-chambered stomach. Dolores, down on her knees, was reaching with waggling tongue for a dandelion beyond the fence, her head twisted against the ground. The fence was loose enough and it would be possible to get under it with a little digging, but Scully didn't dare try.
She folded a dandelion leaf into her mouth, and it wasn’t as bitter as expected, comparable to romaine. Over the next few days she steamed dandelion greens in water, and oiled the leaves with margarine and baked them crisp. She put the oven rack back in the oven and, lacking a baking sheet, piled clover heads on the dandelion leaves and toasted them, giving her diet a sense of variety. She harvested dandelion root, digging with the top of a soup can she'd folded in half, washed the roots and sliced them and arranged them in the sun on a piece of cardboard. The roots, dried in chunks, were bitter and wheaten and chewy, really not that bad, and gave the illusion of solid food. She steeped them in hot water and drank the vital tea.
Each time she thought of something new it was built gratifyingly on the fact that she had started with nothing. When she began digging dandelion roots her mind leapt ahead at the possibility of grinding dried roots into flour, and when she had the brainwave to sprout clover seeds, between a few precious squares of dampened toilet paper and coddled on a piece of cardboard beside the hot water pipe, she felt as if she’d constructed a booster rocket that would slingshot her from exile on a frozen planet, back to a warmer troposphere.
Despite the roughness of the years, she had never failed to write up an X-File, and there was no reason to let this one go unrecorded. On one of the rectangles on her wall, she opened up a case file. ‘This is a battle of wills which feels slippery because there is no one with whom to actively engage. I match wits with the blank wall, with myself and my patience. Despite limited supplies, I must remain the strong one.’
Sitting on her doorstep with her can of tea, watched by the guard above, Scully considered herself in a performance, forming a dichotomy between her life inside the building and her exterior life in the yard. If she dwelt in a panopticon, on this little stage with two performers, it was also reversed: she looked out of the upstairs window as the guard was changed; she watched the men. In those moments she was the mind that studied and they the creatures in her tank.
Dolores had trampled a bed in the grass near the sundial. When she lay down to ruminate, Scully sat in the grass and ate clover blossoms or typed, or braided carpet fibers, or lay thinking, all the while subtly observing aircraft. If a plane began to come up the horizon and cross overhead, Scully would arise, pretending nonchalance, and wander inside. Once inside, she tore up to the top floor and sprinted the top corridor, grabbed the mirror from the closet, and hung on the ladder in the hatch, sending SOS. She lived in fear of the possibility that a light aircraft would swing back and rock its wings at her. Then what would happen? She considered sneaking onto the roof at night and writing a message, but the guard towers were the same level or slightly higher than the roof, and what if the message were visible to them, or what if they saw her moving, caught in the yard lights? What if they brought in supplies with a helicopter and saw what she'd done?
The boldness and thrill and danger of flashing aircraft livened her days. She became so tuned to their passages, small jets, airliners, light aircraft milk runs, that at various times of day an internal alarm alerted her and she would hurry to the hatch room. She documented each SOS attempt with a hash mark. She ran sprints in the staircases, to burn off some of her anxiety, but when she was outside under the eye of the north tower guard, she moved with a moony apathy, drifting around bare-legged in her T-shirt dress, eating flowers.
Scully lay in the grass. Shaken out of heaven, into a prison-yard, deliberation was her great freedom. She lay on her back, swaying her knees, her toes in clover and the sky above as royal as a bucket of paint poured over a body. Dolores lay near, legs folded sweetly; she swallowed her cud and considered Scully with her near eye, large and perceptive, and with the swiveling radio telescope of her ear. In a relative way she was older than Scully, more mature, a mother several times over, with a worldly, humorous gaze and a crimped black smile at the corner of her mouth. She had a pure white half-collar under her chin, like Father McCue. Even when drowsing she held her head proudly, and she would pause and blink her nares, drawing the breeze up through the long turbinates of her olfactory recesses as though imbibing a delectable substance.
Sometimes, as they watched the sunset, Scully and Dolores and the guard above, Dolores fixed Scully’s hair with her pebble-dash tongue, brisk with hierarchical authority. For all her delicacy she was surprisingly rough, like a beautiful Mennonite who is also sort of a coarse farm girl. Scully did not forget for a moment that the doe was a razor-footed beast wired to stomp coyotes and eat placentas, and she did not like being down on the ground with the deer standing over her, but she always sat calmly, and spoke softly, even if Dolores chewed at the shoulder of her t-shirt. It was rational to desensitize her. Scully picked a dandelion, and twirled it, and drew honest pleasure from the fuchsia sky, and, although she would not admit to loneliness, from the doe’s brisk affection.
In the evenings Scully put a dab of peanut butter on her finger and went down the protracted hall, where, beyond the artificial lights, glossy evening massed at the vanishing point. In the doorway she called Dolores, who waited in the golden tumble of insects beneath the yard light. Dolores blatted, with her Joan Baez tremolo, and came quickly, flapping her tail and showing the pink spear of her tongue in her black mouth. She reared slightly, forelegs dangling against her body, and sucked hard at Scully's fingers. Then, with a rowdy plunge she was across the threshold, and as she pranced down the hall on her sharp toes, Scully shifted the cement block and closed the door. On nights that she couldn't get Dolores into the building Scully lay tensely awake, expecting at any second the brassy rattle of automatic fire as the south tower guard succumbed to buck fever.
Ceasing to feel cold, Scully shifted her bed into the carpet room, and put the rectangle of carpet she'd had under her sleeping bag out in the hall for Dolores. Often Dolores bedded there, when she was not roaming the building, tossing dandelion roots on the floor in the kitchen or playing in the toilet with her hoof. She was noisy, and messy, but she was safe, and she had a warning stamp and snort that jerked Scully out of a sound sleep as if cervidae were her mother tongue. Sometimes in the night Scully would open her eyes to find Dolores standing over her, black oil drizzling from jaws and eye sockets, and then Scully would jerk awake a second time to see the dim hallway light across the foot of her sleeping bag, and as she lay back on her carpet pad pillow she'd hear the comforting sound of Dolores on watch outside her door, belching and sighing a long and whistling sigh.
In the yard, Scully dibbled for dandelion root. She'd ventured farther out than she usually did, halfway across to the gate. Above her, the north tower guard’s feet moved quietly around on the catwalk of his tower, and Dolores was nearby, pinning grass between her lower incisors and the cartilage pad in her upper jaw, and wrenching it crisply.
Scully pulled at a dandelion root. The activity was small, grubby, hand-to-mouth. She should be setting the compound on fire or constructing a hang glider out of sleeping bags; tunneling through solid cement to get back to Mulder. Every second that passed, he was tearing himself apart trying to find her. He would be in that rash, heightened state, wrestling with the angels, like when Roche had the little girl.
She shouldn't have acquiesced to a separation from him, even if it was dangerous. They should have faced it together, their unanimity as seated and specific as a geodesic marker on a mountaintop. It wasn't just love, it was an osmotic function; a fury. A condition, a vice.
She bit the yellow heart from a dandelion.
A fluttering sound came through the wind, and Scully looked up and caught the flash of an object falling from the tower. It hit the ground with a smack that brought the doe’s head up. Scully arose, and without looking up, walked over to the fence, crouched as though picking a weed, snatched up the gift and walked back to the safety beyond the end of the building, where she could not be seen from the south. She sat down cross-legged on the ground.
It was a ham and cheese sandwich. The impact had burst the sandwich bag open and embedded one side with dirt. Scully picked out the worst of the dirt and bit into fresh mayonnaise and Dijon mustard and real rye bread and lettuce and ham and cheese. She wanted to examine the sandwich, profile it to learn more about the north tower guard, but she was slavering too hard, eating the evidence. Dolores stood behind her and leaned over Scully's shoulder, smacking and grinding a crust of rye bread in her velvet muzzle. She chewed noisily in Scully's ear, and nibbled Scully's hair. Scully sat zoning out as she chewed, thinking about the man and his vulnerable heart. It had not occurred to her that all her gathering of wild food would be construed as starvation, not supplementation.
The sandwich was a huge development. It told her that he had no expectations of her supplies being refilled, that he disagreed with her treatment, and thus, saw no end to the current situation, no release date approaching. She had to do something.
The prison fence tied into the back of the building, and behind the building was an empty ten-foot strip of land, and then the razor wire fence which engirded the place. If she crawled across the roof and rappelled down the back of the building, she would only have that fence to cross, and then she would be loose in a forested area. It was relatively easy to cross razor wire by throwing a blanket or a mattress over it, but she was a pro at digging now, and she would go under. Behind the building, she would be out of sight from the towers, but she would need to dig quietly, not clink stones or rattle the fence as she slid under it. Getting off the roof would be the difficult, dangerous part, but it was possible she could make enough rope from her carpet.
The excitement of the plan threw her into motion. She examined her moon chart and counted the days she had to prepare. The moon was in its last quarter, setting in the evening. It was already colder at night, and her clothing was poor, her footwear appalling. She must leave while the weather was good, in the dark of the moon.
She ran up to the carpet room and unraveled a great mass of warp string. After she had braided three lengths of twine, she knotted the tops together and hooked them around the sink faucet in the shower room and, keeping the tension, braided the braids together. This was her rope, slender and kinking. She tied it to the top slat of the ladder and wrapped it around her hands and hung on it with her full weight. It seemed strong enough, but the top of it would saw back and forth against the rough concrete as she abseiled, without an anchor bolt, harness or hardware. She needed to get a look at the roof to find the best way to fasten the rope. It might have to be tied around a vent or protrusion on the roof, in which case it would have to be much longer than the thirty feet she’d estimated.
Hanging with her full weight on the rope had burned her palms. She must strengthen her hands, her arms, her core, and her endurance, and make herself a bag that would keep her hands free. If she left fairly early at night, she could be miles away by morning. Her feet would be cut to pieces, but she would be free.
She would paint her feet with tar and wrap them in strips of material and circle through the woods until she found the road. They would not miss her in the morning because she wandered out as the mood took her. From now on, she would go out later and later, appearing to depression-sleep away the formless days.
In the yard she was artless, sitting with her head on her knees. Dolores, ruminating beside her, tolerated petting of a plucking, grooming nature. Her amber-red coat was the same color as Scully’s hair, as Queequeg’s coat. Dolores was her tribe. Scully caressed her withers and considered cutting her throat before she left. Sin dolor, my darling.
She no longer cared about perpetuating the north guard's Snow White fixation, but it was important to appear without construct. As she sat making a dandelion necklace, she draped the serape cloth over her head to keep the sun off her neck. Dolores came over to draw it off, and stood chewing the cloth and flirting it. Scully got to her feet, took the cloth and put it over the doe's face, and Dolores hung her head and went quiet, like a covered parrot. When Scully removed the cloth, Dolores considered things, then nibbled at Scully's dandelion necklace. Her long face was exquisite.
Scully looked up at the guard tower. The dark shape of the north guard was watching her, and something about him went still when she looked up. She had breached their private etiquette. Scully turned away and went inside.
Inside, she stretched and kick-boxed and Masai-jumped and then tore up the stairs and down the hall and down two flights of stairs and along the basement hall and up the stairs again, until she was dizzy and hot and would have killed for a sports bra. She wore her tunic around her waist like a kilt, a knife stuck into it, and she thrust her head under the kitchen faucet and chugged. She held a plank for sixty seconds, ran for an hour, hung by her fingers from the ladder, stood on one foot. Windowsill pushups. She had cobbled together a yoga repertoire from magazines flipped through in checkout lines while Mulder's mild pressure in her lumbar curve guided her forward. He'd open a bottle of water, scanning the supermarket around them. How like a pair of deer they were, one browsing while the other watched.
She lay down by Dolores and looked dreamily at the sky, but she was calculating how she would dig under a chain-link fence with a steel mirror, in the dark, how hard the soil was, how stony, and how much of a hole she and the sleeping bag could squeeze through, and how it must all be done in absolute silence. A piece of carpet would make the mirror easier on her hands.
She kept the rope, with its growing coil, in the hatch room. She was worried about the rope descent. When the Marines fast-roped down a rope they had gloves and boots and pants. They used their thighs and insoles as well as their hands to control their descent. Scully wondered if she could brake as well in bare feet. Her hands would burn up quickly, and cramp. She intended to wrap the rope over her feet in the brake and scoot method, and pause often to rest.
She cut an armload of dandelion stalks and carried them inside. She had slashed out four feet-shaped scraps of sleeping bag. She laid them flat on the kitchen counter, and slitting each dandelion stalk, squeezed the milk onto one of the soles. As the sticky white sap collected, she spread it with her fingers, and when the cloth was covered completely, she capped it with another piece of material. After it cured, she could put the rubber sandwich inside each sock, to help save her feet as she hiked out. She thought about the men who had escaped from Alcatraz, making a raft out of raincoats and glue, and felt differently towards them than she had as a young and forthright student criminologist poring over the details. Every person in prison at that moment, herself included, had a complex history that depended somewhat on the angle you viewed it from.
If she escaped the compound there was no telling what would happen to her in the woods. Exposure could kill her quickly. She had not said I love you enough to the people who mattered, to her sister, to her mother. She had finally said it to Mulder; it had come out compulsively when they were skin to skin, rolling around in the intensity of their excitement, unable to settle on a position or an act, gasping out whatever came to mind.
She dreamt that Dolores was an enchanted creature who reverted to human form. A misty sun rose out of the forest, and crows flew up. The chains fell away from the gates. The doe became Scully and slipped away into the trees.
It was daylight in the carpet room when Scully woke, sweating in the sleeping bag. It was good that she had slept in, because it was the last day of the old moon's quarter and she would be up late reconnoitering the roof. After breakfast and a can of grassy clover tea, she cut the remainder of the black sleeping bag free of its binding and spread it out. It was large enough to cover her completely.
She practiced crawling. The military leopard-crawl, on diagonal elbow and knee, was designed for a low silhouette, but she decided on the commando crawl, hooking along on her forearms. When she made her escape, she would be transporting the coiled rope, her provisions bag, mirror and sleeping bag, all beneath the sheet of sleeping bag material. If she put the mirror inside her intact sleeping bag, and positioned it over her back, it might function as body armor if he opened fire.
In the evening, she hurried into the hatch room, carrying her lit can with its blue flame. The mirror was propped in the window, and by the blue flicker of burning peanut butter, she arrested, struck. A woman, fair of face, looked out, her hair a little longer and feathered with uneven growth. Her vitality was evident, eyes alit. Through all her grim preparations and training, she had forgotten how she looked. Out of loneliness, and thinking of Mulder, and for luck, and because she had dwelt so firmly within herself that she was pleased to discover the outside version of herself again, she leaned down into the dark steel and kissed her reflection, on the lips, naturally, because that was the only point at which their two dimensions met.
Before she went up through the hatch, she made sure Dolores was busy down on the main floor, pushing a lid with some peanut butter in it around in the foyer. She was worried that Dolores would call to her through the hatch, and scrabble on the ladder, making a racket that could be heard by the guards.
The tiny sliver of moon had risen in the morning and set that evening, and there was only the general floating glare of the yard lights. The shiny sleeping bag material was reflective. First she wrapped the cloth around the oven rack and climbed the ladder and hoisted it through the hatch, holding it up a foot above the roof. Nothing happened. She waited an hour, and then returned. She fastened the cloth around the top of her head with a cord, and went up the ladder, and, without hesitation and with her lip in her teeth, drew herself through the hole and lay on her stomach on the roof. The tar was faintly warm. Her eyes were closed tightly; she expected to be shredded by bullets. Slowly she drew up a knee and soldier-crawled, lying flat. She remembered the marines in training at Quantico, how they had seemed like profane thugs to her, with her laboratory refinement and her physics degree; she was trained in delicate work and mental superiority, but now she saw that there was an intelligence to the use of the body, that the skill of the body was foremost, when you got down to the hard things in life. She soldier-crawled with the cloth ghosting over her, and she pressed herself to the roof, and she breathed the smell of tar which was like a California beach parking lot. She counted her knee-shifts across the roof. Her elbows and knees were getting scraped. She would need to wrap them for the crawl tomorrow night. Then she was at the back edge of the roof.
She lay up against the parapet although it gave her no cover from the guard tower, willing her heart to slow, her forehead on her arms. Her heart beat into the roof. She was not dead yet. The night sounds she loved, the nightjars and frogs and owls and crickets came up in her ears like someone had turned up the stereo. She had made it across the roof and she needed to find the spot where she would tie off her climbing rope, and every time she moved the shine rippled along the sleeping bag cloth and she risked drawing his attention. He might be sighting in on her now. She made a bat wing with her arm and peeked from under the cloth, checking for red laser light. The flat roof was a well of blackness. There were several square vents in the roof, like chimneys, but they were out in the middle. Then, crawling along the gutter at the parapet, she discovered a hole meant to drain rainwater, an amazing, perfectly placed perforation in the building's coping. She would tie her climbing rope to it, tie her bundle of things to the end and lower it, and then climb onto the rope herself. Looking through the rectangular hole, she could see the stadium lights glittering on the razorwire of the fence behind the building.
She would not struggle long through the woods but would cautiously circle the compound and find the road and take it out. It would be very dark on the rough forest road. She’d carry water in a peanut butter jar, and the last of her food; the sleeping bag for warmth. If it rained, she'd be miserable, but probably wouldn't die of exposure. When it got light, she'd have to stay under cover, paralleling the road. It might take her more than twenty-four hours to get off the mountain, and by then they'd be hunting for her.
Scully scraped herself silently back across the roof and slithered down the ladder and stumbled over the pile of rope in the dim of the hatch room. She heard a rustle in the hall. ‘Dolores, it’s me,’ she said, before stepping out. Dolores looked up, chewing widely. She had half-dragged Scully’s sleeping bag out into the hall and trampled it into a bed, and Scully had to go down the hall to the shower room and stop up the shower stall and make a pool of cold water for the doe to play in. She stole her bedding back, and when she finally tucked herself into her sleeping bag and lay still, she was still trembling. This was how she would feel when she had reached the bottom of the rope and began to dig under the fence, but she would also be cold from the wind and rope-burned and strained and full of adrenalin from the drop over the edge of the parapet, from that tricky moment of hanging onto the roof while she got her feet wrapped around the rope. She would be thrilled to be on the ground, outside the first fence, digging with the defiant pleasure of putting her plan into practice.
The risks were significant, and this final day in the compound might be the last day of her life. An overview of her life required some summing: it had been surprisingly eventful. She had once believed that sinister pathology was a career requiring no added eccentricity, but was unnerved to look back and see the great jag of the X-Files vastly overshadowing it. That wild proving ground had forged her moral strengths and altered her outlook, but her allegiance with Mulder had given her a touchy dislike for having her motives examined, even by herself, so that it was hard, even now, to quite say why she had allowed it all to happen.
If this was, in fact, the last day of her life, she was lucky to have had one thoroughly romantic entanglement, and luckier still to have drawn it from such a broken and volatile loner. They had earned each other, slowly, brutally, really earned it, won it hard, breaking through each others' shells with a dedication unlike any she had ever felt. When magazine covers exhorted 'Five Things That Say He Really Loves You', Scully would mentally chuff. When he sells his soul, she thought.
She awoke early and drank hot chocolate from a soup can and ate a fingerful of peanut butter and sat in the sunbeam in the foyer. She had lost interest in her wall, but she composed and scratched out a final note for Mulder. 'The last day of the old moon, in September, 1998,' she wrote. 'Unsure of the exact date. I believe the road out of here runs to the east. I have food and water. I am uninjured, and, as ever, I carry you with me and draw on your strength.'
She added his home phone number, 555-0199, in case a wandering hiker or hunter entered the abandoned complex.
She had said enough, and she pulled herself together and washed her cup and went and ran the stairs for a good half hour. She stretched. She stopped up the drain in one of the showers and filled it to the lip of the stall and lolled around like a manatee on the rough concrete floor in a couple inches of tepid water with hot water beating down from above. She washed her hair with a brew of dandelion greens and a drop of dish soap, and conditioned it with dandelion milk, and with her head upside down, combed it out with a spork. She brushed her teeth with baking soda on her finger. She spliced in several feet of rope in the hatch room. She broke off to do some windowsill pushups, and chin ups on the ladder. She was getting stronger. She had the rope tied to the top of the ladder and she practiced hanging on it and wrapping it around one foot and over the other, and ascending and descending. Her hands burned. She would coat her palms with tar before she left.
She went downstairs to the kitchen and inventoried her provender. She had half a jar of peanut butter, and the sandwich bag full of dried dandelion root and the last of the crackers. She stood on one leg in the foyer in a yoga pose she had sort of made up, getting centered, and envisioned herself on the rope.
Down the telescope of the hall she saw Dolores in the picture frame of the doorway, waiting for her in the yard. She could not decide what to do about Dolores. It was easy to calculate what would happen, were the doe abandoned to outraged men armed with assault rifles. But if Scully killed her first, it removed any possibility that some reversal of fate might come about. The obvious lesson in this whole experience was that the destruction or oppression of a guileless being was morally indefensible, and she refused to be party to it.
Scully did not go out into the yard until as late as possible. Then, she paused in the doorway, yawning and frowzy, as if she had slept in. Dolores coughed in welcome, and looked at her appraisingly, and licked her wet black rhinarium. Scully wandered to the sundial, which had been scattered by the deer, and fixed it, although she no longer had any need for it. She might as well have built a M*A*S*H*-style fingerpost.
Then she went and gathered dandelions for a long time, digging for the roots, although the sun was hot and she had no intention of being there to eat them. Scully washed the roots in the kitchen sink and laid them on cardboard in the yard. The day seemed interminable. A plane went over and she did not bother to flash her distress signal, but watched the line of white blurring in the wind. She yawned again, and lay in the grass, her arm over her eyes.
In the early evening, last-minute, she stitched together a tube of sleeping bag satin, a covering for the top of the rope where it would saw against the building as she descended. She stopped at intervals to clench and unclench her hands, limbering them. When she thought about the roof her heart raced with the desire to set herself in motion. As she sat cross-legged in the carpet room, drawing the fishing line through the holes, she heard voices coming through the open trap door in the roof, calling in the sky. She leapt up and hurried across to the hatch room. Enthusiastic voices in the dark sky, that seemed to urge her on: an echelon of geese.
Scully gripped the ladder. Belief in luck was the province of the weak, but this was an undeniably heartening sign. She had seemed to have nothing, but animals and plants and celestial bodies had enriched her days. On her last day in the compound, it was vital to enumerate these megacosmic gifts, which had seeped around the punishing austerity and bedecked and enspirited her, as the world always will.
Chapter 14: Physical Laws Rest on Atomic Statistics and are Therefore Only Approximate
We were locked in. We had God on our side. We were burning at the temperature we were meant to burn. We were our truest selves. We were a circle of men flailing a viper in the grass. We were moved to curses. We would burst our hearts.
We quartered in a decrepit shack in the woods where the narrow waist of Maryland claw-hooks with West Virginia. Byers stabbed a compass into a map and described our search radius. The van was full of receivers and scanners, and we set up in the house. Fiberboard walls, toxic green carpet, linoleum, a pie plate nailed over an old stove pipe hole. First and last, and a damage deposit we’d never recoup. We called the place the Craw.
The oil furnace ran with the noise of a freight train. In the crapper, a defunct bathtub full of boards and plaster dust. Behind the kitchen stove was a large and professional pack rat nest. We pulled an incredible collection of stuff out of that nest. Frohike held up each retrieved item and announced it. You could see Mulder on the couch in the living room, wearing a pair of earphones and staring at a receiver. 'A doll's sweater,' called Frohike. 'A snowmobile glove. A chainsaw file. A JFK half-dollar. A 1995 Reader's Digest, pretty chewed up.' From time to time Mulder held up his thumb, pretending he was listening, going through the motions, like when we handed him food and he ate it.
We worked outward toward a hundred mile radius from the point of abduction. We had a bogus northbound ambulance caught on a freeway cam, the location of Scully's car, a scorched map she'd apparently tried to burn, an oil stain, signs of a struggle.
Mulder paced, drove, or sat on the couch running a hand down his stunned face. He did chin-ups on the bar in the doorway. We weren't sure he ever slept. He took calls from the contractors in Rhode Island, pinching the dovetail joint where his forehead spliced with his nose, the renovations probably a pointless abstraction now, but not something he could halt. He hung up, and forgot about it. We wondered if he'd ever set foot in that house again.
In the local store the kid behind the counter said 'Party on, Garth,' to Langly, and we thought Mulder was going to pull out his gun. Honestly, he was such an angry mess. Every evening, he called Scully's mother, closing his eyes and drawing hard on a Dos Equis as the call went through. He stood in the kitchen doorway stretching the old knotted phone cord out like a strand of gum. None of us envied him. We worried that her phone was tapped, and we wished she'd just throw in her lot with the FBI's search and call it good, but she had some odd faith in Mulder, and he got something from her, too, you could see that.
We had a trash bag of empties. We had a weirdly superhot poster of Milla Jovovich in the kitchen, and we threw darts at it. The shower was in the back porch, and anyone passing through in a towel had to run the ass-smacking gauntlet of the kitchen. We all used Mulder's salon shampoo, feeling, in the dusky sequestration of the shower, a fractional G-man cool; and at the same time wondering what sort of pansy would spend more than two bucks to wash his hair. We had sciatica, head colds, blue balls; computer-screen headaches. We whined like little bitches. We went outside to puke.
We wrote Bachian scales of code, and shrugged irritably if complimented. Of an evening, around the table, we blew a desultory jay. We caught the pack rat in a Havahart trap. Langly kept holding the cage up to people’s faces like it was 1984. We meant to release it, but while we were getting around to it, somebody put newspaper under the cage, and Frohike stuck a slice of apple between the bars.
Skinner showed up periodically to exchange reports, usually in the evening. He could have called, but he seemed to relish the disbelief engendered as he looked up and down the shambolic living room and into the kitchen, where, fortunately, he couldn't see the St. Sebastian we'd made of Milla Jovovich in her bandage dress. It was always those exhausted latitudes of the evening when a rerun of Cheers slides past on the rasters of the cosmos. There was a small crackling television behind Skinner, stacked on the scanning equipment. Somehow the suspension of our lives hung terminally against this backdrop, the intensity of Skinner smelling of a salon shave and brand-new SUV, and the pack rat in a cage on the floor, pausing in its face-washing to absorb us all in its motionless, black-eyed stare. It had turned out to be surprisingly silvery and cute, like a chinchilla.
Skinner looked up and down the room, casing his periphery, and said something like: 'Trace evidence on Scully's car says 50-weight diesel oil. We put her on the evening news: thirty-four, last seen, five-two, red and blue. Don't watch it if you can help it.'
We'd forget that the FBI had a missing persons investigation, some by-the-book procedure that provoked our derision. 'Same-same but different,' Langly called it. Still, they had access, tools, cooperation with regional law enforcement. Eyes on the airports. And they'd grabbed video of an ersatz ambulance east of Cumberland, giving us a place to start.
'When I was in 'Nam,' Skinner said. He looked up and down the room again, pushing his underbite forward. In a way, it was as reassuring to see Norm and Cliff at the bar as it would have been to see Hawkeye and Trapper John loitering and jibing, in the long TV memory of the heart.
Even Mulder, slouched listlessly at the end of the couch, seemed to peer for a moment, out of his personal hell.
'One time we were on patrol in the jungle, and I was walking point,’ Skinner said. ‘When I was on point I liked to carry a big shotgun—twelve-gauge. Riot gun. We were moving through thick jungle, and suddenly this giant snake swings down out of a tree at me, mouth open, pink inside, as big as this room. Never seen anything as terrifying in my life, and I open up, and behind me on both sides the unit opens up, everybody spraying bullets, and we're backing out of there in formation, and, I mean, we cut that place to pieces. And the guys are yelling, 'What are we shooting at?' And then we go forward and there's just this little rag of snake left, doesn't look like anything.'
Skinner held up a tiny scrap of snake.
Langly laughed, and Skinner nodded at him. 'It was just stupid and funny. I never lived it down.'
'What are you getting at, Sir?' Mulder asked, from his hollow depths.
'Sometimes things aren't as bad as they seem.'
We all looked at Mulder. ''The spirit is the truth',' he said, his arms folded. 'You’re saying let's not get ahead of ourselves.' Like a lot of the time, nobody knew what the hell he was talking about.
'Mulder, a word?' asked Skinner.
Mulder and Skinner went out on the porch, a rotten dock-like affair with posts and a plywood awning. Skinner turned around, glanced all around in the dark. The light through the door flattened his glasses.
'Are you getting calls?' Mulder asked.
'Nothing solid. A woman in her thirties was found in the woods outside Trenton, looked like a family hit.' Skinner had the unenviable task of morgue duty. 'Thought we had something this morning—distress signal up in the woods. SOS flash. A hunter fell out of a tree stand and got hung up.'
There were snow tires thrown off the porch, half-covered in rotten leaves. Mulder stood holding a gun and a half-eaten burrito. He wore jeans and snow boots and nothing else. He'd forgotten he wasn't wearing a shirt the way he'd forgotten to pay his rent and the way he'd forgotten that life wasn't always this antic struggle.
'I've got Krycek,' Skinner said.
Mulder moved closer, studying his face. 'Nobody has Krycek,' he said contemptuously.
'We have eyes on the old man. Nothing, so far. He walks around and sits on benches.'
Mulder shivered. He noticed the burrito in his hand, and took a bite. He tossed the wrapper into the nettles.
Skinner looked after it. There were so many things he could have said that he just nodded and walked away and climbed into his fastidious vehicle. He rolled down the window. Mulder was standing on the porch in the dark, shuddering a little. 'Don't watch the news,' Skinner called.
We worked a grid of the northern part of the state, driving with our receiver tuned to Scully's transponder, two or three people in the van, the others back at the house, answering the phone. When we couldn’t go on we crashed in the darkened back bedroom, where a blanket was nailed over the window and there were several twin beds, clothes strewn everywhere. We farted and belched and pissed off the porch. We called toilet paper 'asswipe'. The intensity of the work caused us to shrug aside everything unnecessary about civilization. We worked like dogs, but we were freer somehow, because we had waited our whole lives for this moment. You could puke out by the oil tank, with your hand on the side of the house, and hear everyone inside and know that you were part of it, that glowing thing called home.
Every time we fired up the bus, it seemed, America's ‘Sandman’ was playing. When you turned over the bus it squeezed down and lurched and fired up and the radio popped like a gear. The local radio station was in an algorithmic rut or our karma was in a rut; it became talismanic for us. It was the luminous, rainy woods, and ain't it foggy outside, all the planes have been grounded. Where was Scully at this exact moment? Was she suffering? Was she even alive? Could she feel how hard we were trying? Funny, I've been there... and you've been here... we ain't had no time to drink that beer. It's a song of despair, Vietnam, dread. The grasping ooze of death. Air Force bases. We were glum and it made us glummer. It had a bridge that seemed to sample ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’, but we were too irritable to discuss it, although it was the sort of thing we would normally argue for an hour. The song creeped us out, but we longed for it, the way you long for things that creep you out. I understand you've been running from the man who goes by the name of the Sandman. Every fucking time. The local radio station might as well have brought America out and hidden them in the dashboard like a pack rat that we could not eradicate. It got so that if we didn't hear ‘Sandman’ at least once during the day we'd worry something was wrong, or about to go more wrong. That something was wrong with our obvious wrongness. Bad as things were, we were scared of change. If things changed, it might mean we'd find out the worst. And nobody wanted to be around Mulder if that happened.
We wanted signal but only got noise.
Mulder and Frohike came bumping down the potholed gravel road in the van, after a long day working a quadrant down in northern West Virginia on rural roads and highways where damp cloud caps lay over the autumnal hills. We knew how it felt, how it would begin to seem like you were going to scan every road in the country, 'every shithouse, Bauhaus and roadhouse,' as Mulder had stated early on, when we'd had more spirit. 'Every hausfrau', Frohike had said, but now he was trickling coffee dregs from his Stanley thermos as he trudged to the house, leather coat over his shoulder, ignoring that gloomy bastard Mulder slamming the van’s doors. Byers had just returned from a run to D.C., had picked up our mail and paid bills and skimmed the little floating bodies from the slack surface of Mulder's vivarium. He was chatting in the kitchen with Langly.
It was dim inside the house under the trees. Mulder came in and stood in the living room, casting around as if he'd lost something. We all forgot what we were saying. He was deep in that mood where if you spoke to him he didn't answer and his face got a little harder. His eye fell on the armchair at the end of the coffee table. It was hard to say why he picked that chair; everything in the place merited aesthetic vitriol; nevertheless, the place was a rental, and we didn't exactly have a license to destroy stuff.
Half the buttons in the backrest were missing, and a duct tape patch held one of the arms together, and it was decumbent and wobbly and had a way of sort of putting your lower body in a hammerlock when you tried to get out of it. And now here was Mulder to get all Martha Stewart on its ass. He heaved it onto one shoulder, eyes on the floor like Sisyphus before coffee, maneuvering around us as if forced to execute some annoying but necessary task everyone else had shirked. He stumbled a bit negotiating a duffel bag and a box of cables and Frohike, who ducked aside with an unforgiving set to his mug, woolly bear eyebrows rising above his glasses. Langly folded his arms. We would neither condone nor interfere. We were watching a man at war with himself, destroying our damage deposit, attempting to rock the wheels of kismet from the rut of life’s indifference.
Behind the house the trees thinned out and the atmosphere flamed, and every nettle-patch and shaft of rusty dock stood burnished tangerine-pink by the sky. Frohike picked up a plastic gas can. Mulder's dark demented hulk beetled down the trail, and we could hear the feeding time ruckus of a distant neighbor's hounds, the belling seal-arf that carried through the woods. As we passed the weedy remains of a snowmobile, Byers asked Frohike if they'd heard the song that day.
Frohike turned. He safety-huddled us up, shaking his head and paternally patting Byers. We sighed. Frohike’s irascible horse sense carried us through the rockiest times, his ability to cohere and apply our varying moods and talents as needed, whether into the fourth estate or search-and-rescue. When we were all at the end of our ropes he'd stand at the stove and tirelessly work up steak and eggs, which we'd snarf like Walker coonhounds.
The three of us shared an apprehensive moment. After all these weeks, a day without ‘Sandman’ was some calamitous juju, not that we were superstitious. We'd seen Mulder lose it a few times—there was a particularly ugly incident in a Baltimore warehouse—and we knew we couldn't handle him alone. It was worse since he'd become consumed by a woman: a man like him, already prone to obsession and calamity, throwing himself into the grand guignol of love! Unsurprisingly, he took that shit to some baroque, Brontë-sisters level.
In the clearing, Mulder heaved the chair down on a burn pile of branches and bedsprings. Frohike handed him the gas can and Mulder sloshed gas carelessly around and Langly lit a paper match and set the book of matches on fire and threw his arm across his eyes as he tossed the wad of flame onto the armchair.
The gasoline sucked in and the shock wave rolled out. We all stepped back. The thing was stuffed with cotton and horsehair and it went up like the Trinity Test. A buzzsaw of sparks rose in the twilight. There was a release in it, a nice feeling, a window into the universe, the heat like a forehead massage. All we could think of was maybe pulling up a deck chair and killing the last of that case of Rolling Rock that held court in the lower regions of the refrigerator, maybe looking up at the stars as they came out. The hounds across the hill had quieted down, and the forest was nice when it wasn't raining.
We had just begun pulling branches out of the surrounding woods, dried hands of fir boughs, when we noticed the sifting flares of headlights on our dead-end road. A car drew up to the house. Mulder looked up, but he just stood there, blankly poking the fire with a piece of rebar.
Skinner came around the house and we waved at him and he came down the trail with an uncertain little snarl on his face, his glasses aflame, and we saw that he had someone with him, a man who hung back a bit. Mulder hitched his shoulders and half-shuddered with an evening chill. He tossed the poker away.
Skinner was dressed down in a jacket and baseball cap. He gestured with his chin. 'I see you’ve finally invented fire.'
'What's up?' Mulder asked.
The man with Skinner took the long way around the fire, through the thistles and burdock and smoke. He was smaller than Skinner, and he moved at a different pace, and he hardly seemed involved with us at all, as if he had just appeared by coincidence. We didn't like the feel of him going behind us. By the time he took up a position beyond Mulder he'd observed Frohike's ticked chopper sideburns and Langly's Lurkers T-shirt, Byers' fresh-clipped cinnamon muzzle. The man wore a military cadet cap low over his eyes, and a waxed field jacket as worn as the rest of him. He had a closed, inconsequential face, but if you met the crosshairs of his gaze, a brutal force sought around inside you until you tore yourself away.
He stepped up to the rippling fumes of the burning armchair and warmed his battered hands as if at a pleasant cookout.
'This is Keagle,' said Skinner. 'We were in the shit together.'
Mulder turned. The air got kind of still as he looked at Keagle. At some signal, as if executing a blood pact, Mulder held out his hand, and Keagle, making an intense study of Mulder’s inner workings, seized it and clamped down.
The bonfire flashed orange off Skinner's spectacles. 'We got a report from Upshur County Regional Airport.'
'That's in West Virginia,' said Byers.
Skinner nodded. 'Weekend pilot in a Piper Cub came in reporting an SOS signal. The tower reported it to the Federal Aviation Administration, and they got SAR headed out there. The only problem is, the coordinates were vague, and it's a big forested area.'
Mulder's chest expanded and he reached for Skinner's arm. 'What kind of signal?'
'Flash of light, like a mirror. Coming from the roof of a building.'
We looked at each other and Frohike growled and Langly tossed his stick on the fire and turned to hit the trail.
'Wait. I've got a condition. We deputize my crew,' Mulder said quickly.
'Are you out of your mind?' Skinner asked, under his breath, and then, examining Mulder, he reconsidered his words. 'I won't have them carrying.’
Mulder gathered us up before him. His gaze was direct and contained a vulnerable hope. We were fierce with pride. Byers straightened his tie. Langly stuck out his chin and looked contemptuous, his mouth in a flat Lord Manhammer line. 'Out of a firm confidence in your collective abilities, I invoke the Posse Comitatus,' Mulder said rapidly. ‘Let’s go.’
'Failure to aid a law enforcement officer is a minor misdemeanor,' Skinner warned, as we hustled past. Keagle stood watching us through the smoke.
'Aw man, we've been conscripted!' Langly said as we ran up the trail after Mulder, into the grim new dark.
Chapter 15: The Distinction That Really Matters
Night, glossy and moonless, gyres of oak leaves, woolly fog tamped in the glens. They chased the garnet Airy disks of the lead car, deep country opening like an Otherworld hedgerow. Night, how absolutely dark, what worlds lie alongside each other, like compliments. Byers pushing the Volkswagen as hard as it would go, eyes startled with concentration, and Frohike beside him, adjutant, scrubbing condensation with a bandana, watching the byway for leaping fauna. Mulder on the far right, his foot among the wires beneath the dash, pushing for speed. How a Seventies air-cooled 'People's Car' sans fuel filter could keep pace with Skinner's rented SUV, he had no idea, but somehow Byers managed it.
An idiopathic burr of numbness had settled in Mulder's ears like the hum of a conch, so that he could hardly hear his own voice when he spoke. There was something strange about the area, a quiet it seemed like you could feel. There was nothing on the airwaves, which Frohike demonstrated by rolling through the bands of the dashboard radio. They had entered the zone of National Radio Quiet. 'We've got to shut it all down,' said Frohike. 'No Knight Rider tonight.'
'Yeah, we don't want those observatory guys on our butts,' said Langly, from his crate in the back.
'No television?' Mulder asked, forcing his voice above engine noise and the muffling in his ears. ’How do people live?’
'No cellphones. No Internet. The Great Big Thing needs quiet,' said Frohike.
'The Green Bank Telescope is a radio telescope with several acres in its collecting area,' Byers clarified, without looking away from the road. 'Single-dish. Fully steerable.'
'Yeah, it's so sensitive that if you nuke a burrito in Leadsville it'll think it's discovered a hydrogen cloud in the Crab Nebula.' Mulder looked into the back as they passed a farmer's pole light. Langly was riding the bumps without a seatbelt, a pair of goggles on top of his head and a Neptune's trident of scanning equipment in his arms.
Mulder rolled down his window, and leaned out into the squally blast, eyes closed. A thousand wet needles drove into his face, and he thought: Scully. 'I almost think I can feel it,' he said, back inside, rubbing his forearm over his face. 'It feels kind of numb.' He heard himself distantly, as if the real him stood in another room. Frohike checked the heater vent, swiped the windshield, and, as part of his general monitoring and adjustment of everything within reach, squeezed Mulder's deltoid, and moved on.
There was no end to it, and that night and the following day had an insequential strobic drift he could never sort out later into any kind of order, just pictures that flashed in his mind. Deep in the night, the undulant reflection of a swimming pool on the popcorn ceiling of a motel room, as Frohike snored on the other bed. They came down hills into little towns that had gas stations and high schools and drive-through coffee kiosks called the Bean 'n' Gone or the Blue Banana. At some point, in a gas station parking lot, he and Skinner tied in with two keen field agents from the Pittsburgh field office, and felt briefly invigorated by their fresh tactical energy. Distantly Mulder observed that he was now an older guy, a seasoned agent; their respect for him and Skinner came factory-installed, they considered Scully one of their own and her abduction a personal attack. That he and Scully were known to them, if notoriously, came as a surprise.
On a mist-ringed open hill, Keagle stood on top of the Gunmen's van, examining the countryside through a spotting scope.
A municipal airport, shut down for fog, with bright sunlight forcing through the cloud cover, making them sweat. He paced the travel lounge like a caged animal as the Gunmen plotted SOS coordinates. In the woods he rode in the back of the van with Langly, the sliding door open and their equipment proffered to the ever-zipping green of the forest.
When he opened his mouth, hollow clouds of sound came out, like underwater speech. He wondered if people could make sense of what he was saying, because he couldn't hear himself. He wondered if they were indulging him. Everyone kind of operated around him, and Keagle kind of operated around them all.
A stockpot of hot chocolate on a table in the woods, women in buffalo check coats loading the Gunmen up with hoagies and cookies and bottled water, as Search & Rescue guys fired up a trailer of four-wheelers.
Keagle slapped a dime on a counter for the waitress like it was 1966.
Mulder knelt on the gravelly verge of a mountain road, whirling a lug wrench and tossing lug nuts into the hubcap as Langly unfastened the spare on the front of the van. Mulder subsided inside himself and just barely existed for a moment, within the fluidic scuba-roar of his breathing. Then Byers appeared with a spitting walkie-talkie and held it to Mulder’s jaw, depressing the talk key. 'Talk to me!' Mulder snapped, shifting his knees on the sharp stones.
The walkie-talkie broke squelch, the smooth motor of Skinner’s voice cutting the auditory rasters. 'We’re up near the top... there's a compound, an old sign lying on the ground... 'Hansen's Disease Research Center'... recent tracks in and out.’
Byers double-crunched to copy, watching Mulder’s face.
‘That’s it,’ Mulder said with peculiar calm. Scully would call it one of his extreme hunches. Still kneeling, he dropped his head back and looked up beyond the VW’s stone-green flank and rusty louver. The sky was losing its light, and a lucid window trued in the front of his brain like a plumb line perpendicular.
'That's it, we're heading up!' Byers said into the walkie-talkie. 'Wait for us!' Mulder rocked the flat tire off the studs, and Frohike dragged it away. Langly was coming so fast with the spare that it got away from him and bounced, hard and tight, and Mulder turned and opened his arms and took its exuberance full in his chest.
Now the Impressionist flurry through the open sliding doors was smoky-blue, and the air had a bite. It was nearly dark when they met up with Skinner and Keagle, and ditched the bus out of sight on a skid road. The gates of the facility were high, and Keagle was climbing the fence.
‘I called Washington,’ Skinner said. ‘They claim it’s a disused facility, all the buildings bulldozed, fences taken down.’ He handed Mulder an FBI jacket. 'There's no guards. We breach the first gate, drive in.'
Mulder picked up the corner of the sign, and let it drop. 'This was a Syndicate project, a leper colony front for illegal experiments on humans.'
'Yeah, but Hansen's Disease is treatable now, with antibiotics,' said Langly. 'They don't have leper colonies anymore.'
Frohike brought his face up in the halo of the flashlight. 'It's not a very convincing front, Mulder.'
Keagle was a grim silhouette halfway up the fence, moving parasitically up the cyclone mesh with the flat, speedy crawl of a tick. 'Up here, you could get away with anything,' said Mulder. 'Scully was out here a couple of years ago following a lead. She saw a mass grave. There’s a railroad spur. I jumped on a quarantined train car that came out of here, and things got a little hairy.'
'We keep the hairiness to a minimum this time,' said Skinner, as Frohike produced the bolt cutters. 'No heroics.'
'You think she's in there, Mulder? We're not picking up anything on the scanner,' Byers said.
Mulder put on his slick, fresh jacket. Keagle had reached the top of the fence, and was scanning with night-vision binoculars, his shoulder kukri projecting like a broken wing.
Beyond the gate, they negotiated the graded road without headlights, but it was nerve-wracking, the six of them riding in silence, Skinner at the wheel, unable to see what they were getting into. After a mile, they left the vehicle under the trees, Skinner guarding it, and, finding a passable deer trail, went up a ridge on foot. In the thick of the trees they used their flashlights, Mulder and Langly leading, and running the last steep part together.
They stood on the teeth of the ridge, flashlights off. There were lights in the distance. Mulder yawned as they waited for the others, and his ears finally popped. It was only around dinner-time, and the busy sparkle of an airliner passed steadily above. The others came up and surrounded them, and the night-vision binoculars went up and down the line. They could make out an enclave of barn-like buildings and empty-looking rows of barracks, piles of rubble, earth-blocked roads and razed buildings, and an old earth-mover. Further off, higher, faint lights beyond a guard tower, and a pale building, stars whirling above. Mulder and Keagle studied it, side by side. 'That's it,' said Mulder.
'Man, how does he know?' Langly whined, hands in his armpits, shivering. Night-vision sparked his platinum rocker hair.
'Stuff it, Langly, he's famous for his instincts,' Frohike chided, turning on his headlamp as he started back down into the forest.
'Instincts for what, morphic resonance, orgone energy?'
Byers lowered his binoculars, and turned crisply. Starlight revealed his leather gloves and sensible jacket, tie tucked in; he'd come through the wildman weeks in better shape than the rest. 'Childhood trauma is known to heighten the mastery of certain senses,' he said. 'It's possible that via his abandonment complex he's cultivated a sense for Agent Scully, much as some people are able to hone their innate scopaesthesia, the feeling of being watched.'
'You're a nut, Mulder,' Langly translated, 'like that little girl who starts fires.'
Mulder shrugged. If asked, he would have said that it felt like a mechanism in his head, the bit of iron in the ethmoid bone that seemed to pop like a flashcube between his eyes.
There was a ripple in the cistern of the sky. Mulder put his hands on his hips, assessing; faintly came the crystal adolescent chaos of migrating geese, and he gazed at the light on the hill through a misty expiration. He clapped Langly on the shoulder. 'Yeah, well, the only thing you've ever cultivated is a sixth sense for VR fembots, Ringo,' he said, to downplay it all, and to stay the dangerous infusion of hope that threatened to derail him entirely. 'Or is it manga porn?' He could not take his eyes off the light. Somewhere, out there like the truth, he and Scully rolled on in a larger, mythical way.
‘Quiet, idiots, let’s go!’ Frohike had started back down the trail, and peered gnomishly up with the cyclops light on his forehead.
Twenty minutes later they had bypassed the deserted enclave of buildings, and hiked up the hill under cover of the trees. Skinner followed slowly, moving the vehicle closer. They walked the needle-duff at the edge of the road, lights off, and came into a cleared area, bulldozed, lights flooding out. Formidable chain link fences rose high above, sparkling. There were two guard towers, a brightly-lit yard, a long, nondescript, two-story building.
Skinner caught up with them and they waited under the tree canopy and shivered as Keagle faded away. The Gunmen huddled together, watching in horror as Keagle’s black shape appeared on the nearest tower, ghosting up, slowly, silently, without seeming to exist, without shaking the structure, without a sense of intent. After a while he reappeared, a shadow on the steps, coming down, and there was a period where he was nowhere, although there were streaks of light shining through the fences across the waste ground, and then he was on the far tower, on the north end, and he was going up. Langly was so riddled with chills that he turned his back and wrapped his arms around himself.
'Hear that?' Byers whispered. 'Incoming.'
'Byers has the best hearing,' Frohike murmured.
The Gunmen were woozy and about to jump out of their skins. 'Aren't you the youngest?' Mulder asked Langly, trying to keep them calm.
They moved closer together. 'The hammer of the gods stole his stereocilia,' whispered Frohike. Langly shrugged miserably.
'I had Life Flight on standby before we left the main gate,' hissed Skinner, who stood at the drip line under the tips of the boughs. ‘They must have sent it up.’The slow beat was audible now, to all of them.
'We've got this, guys,' said Mulder, drawing his sidearm. 'You wait here. I'm going in with Skinner. Don't let that chopper see you.'
The shifty mechanism that was Keagle prowled in among them. He thumbed a flip top lighter and looked around breathlessly, holding up his light, a guard's assault rifle slung quiver-tilted on his back. The Gunmen looked at the ground. Mulder nodded impatiently. Langly, pulling himself together, held up the bolt cutters. Skinner gave a surly gesture and they jogged together toward the gates, Mulder with his hand on Langly’s back, gun at temple index. They crossed the churned ruts of a turnaround, stumbling, the footing in shadow.
At the gates Langly raised the trembling bolt cutters in the dusty light. There was a yellow sign on the gate: Warning - Contagion Zone. The brightly-lit yard was empty, just short, dull grass sparkling in the lights, and there was a terrible stillness from the towers, a loose rope tapping in the wind.
The gates fell open and Mulder, trapped within the diving-bell roar of his exhalations, plunged across the eerie yard. At the end of the building, a broken, mud-streaked door hitched open when he pulled on it. He went through quickly, sweeping his weapon, and stood in a dream-bright hall. Byers came in behind him, against orders, breathless. They stared into the receding perspective of doorway after doorway down that endless hall of light. Near at hand, in a concrete stairwell, came the lithic reverbs of footfalls on an upper flight. Mulder turned and rested his weapon on his wrist and sighted on the landing just as Scully hurtled onto it. She startled at the sight of them, cross-drew a weapon, and vanished.
‘Scully?’ he called, gun lowered.
She rounded the corner again and stood on the landing staring down at them. Her legs were bare and she wore a filthy oversized t-shirt, with a raw piece of rip-stop cloth tied around her waist like a kilt. He expected her to surge down the steps, the elements that had estranged them neutralizing to nothing as his arms went around her, but his advent seemed to baffle her, and she stood wire-tight, her free hand clenching and unclenching.
‘Scully, are you hurt in any way?’ He reached back for a second, his hand on Byers' chest. Contagion Zone. If she attacked, or flared with radioactive light, he would cover Byers and push him out the door.
She shook her head, and flexed and pointed the toes of one grey foot and began to descend the steps, chin up, her bare feet soundless. Her knees were grass-stained. In her hand was a knife. She was transmuted, a primeval Scully. This is the way it was, one million years B.C.
As she approached, Mulder struggled with trepidation, shielding Byers. She stopped an arm’s-reach away.
'Scully, how about you drop that weapon,' he said.
She looked down at the shiv in her hand. 'I need it, Mulder,' she said, and stuck it in the top of her kilt.
Mulder nodded quickly, relieved at how normal she sounded, willing to work with the materials at hand. Her eyebrows had the appealing fullness they'd had in youth, and the Roman bridge of her nose was sun-dusted. An unbearably strong sensation came over him each time they were reunited after a separation—intense shyness, and the feeling that he was meeting her for the first time, and that he'd never properly noticed her before. The collar of her shirt was so stretched that it exposed most of one shoulder, and he could see that her heart was pounding and that she had nothing on under the shirt. There was a sharp tab of metal on the chain around her neck, like a dog tag. He holstered his gun and whipped off his windbreaker and put it around her. 'He's coming,' Scully said, as she obligingly put her arms in the sleeves. 'I have to get ready.'
The jacket swallowed her, and she was folding back a cuff as she pointed upward. Something moved, far down the hall, and Mulder put his hand on his gun, but Scully, backing away from him, said sternly, 'It's just a deer, don't shoot her.'
'Scully, that’s our helicopter; we have Life Flight up.' Mulder threw Byers a helpless look, and went after her.
'What? Why?' Scully was saying, offended. She broke into a jog, heading down the hall, speaking over her shoulder. ‘That's not twin-engine. Listen to it. It's not MedEvac.'
‘Wait, Scully, we’re getting you out of here. We’ve got a car down the hill.’
They were halfway down the long hall, turning into a wide opening, and she hit the brakes and turned. He nearly ran into her. 'It's him. It’s the Cancer Man,’ she said. She was so close he could see the touch of amber in her clearwater irises. She knifed the side of her hand into her open palm, stepping back. 'This ends now,' she said. 'You can help me, but I need you to stay right here for a minute, Mulder, or you'll scare her.’
Alone, Mulder took a restless turn around an empty room like a gymnasium atrium, with three sets of double doors. The far wall was finger-painted, intricately and in patches, with dried mud. There were blocks of scratched script, a chemical formula, caveman handprints; his name in Greek. Drawn in, despite himself, he tried to make out a section of the writing, but the oppressive blood-beat of the helicopter was nearly overhead, and he went up to the kitchen door and looked in. There was a deer, a red deer in there with Scully, and she had a rope halter on its head, but the animal pitched and jerked her, and she could hardly control it. At the sight of Mulder, the deer turned and lowered its head and made a goring motion at him, although it didn't have antlers. 'Oh, Dolores,' Scully said, in a heartbroken voice, pulling on the rope. She had the piece of cloth from her waist, and as the deer looked at Mulder she covered its head. Once she had it blindfolded, the material knotted under the halter, the animal stood fairly passively.
They were in a seedy little kitchen, with a burned soup can in the sink, the counter a mess of dried greens and roots. Scully was noisily hissing the contents of a metal spray can into a jar of peanut butter, holding the subdued deer close with one hand, and she glanced sharply at Mulder as she dug her hand into the peanut butter and tried to mix it, one-handed.
'Uh, Scully? We gotta go,' Mulder said. If Scully was completely out of her mind, it was going to take all his expert tact to get her moving.
'Mulder, help me,' she said tensely, smearing a palmful of peanut butter along the deer's back.
The helicopter’s chop was so overwhelming that it must be landing on the roof. In the interest of speeding things along, he dug his fingers into the proffered jar. The smell of lighter fluid weighted the front of his brain. The creature shuddered its flanks as he touched it, snapping its hooves against the floor. They were making an appalling mess. 'You know, Scully, I think pickles would go better with this sandwich!' he said, but as he reached over to gouge his fingers deep into the jar, Scully put her mouth against his ear, and he went motionless at the sudden, familiar intimacy of her breath. 'It's in her, the black oil.'
They read each other's eyes. Of course Scully was her logical self. Mulder nodded eagerly, and wiped his hand down a trembling deer-shank that seemed to be nothing but bone. The animal had a gaunt pelvis and sunken flanks, and the white hairs around its canted rump came off on his greasy fingers. He’d never been so close to a deer but it was not unlike handling a dog. They finished off the jar and Scully set it on the counter. Mulder picked up a soup can with slimy seaweed in the bottom. 'What's this, Scully?'
Scully was pulling the deer out of the room by the halter. 'Stewed dandelions,' she grunted.
Damn. 'Is that your wall?' he asked, as they passed through the atrium. He had a million questions.
'It's a message to you,' she said, looking down at the deer's footing. 'It doesn't matter now. Be careful of her. She kicks.' Mulder held back, and Scully urged the blinded deer into a trot that was hard to direct, but they made good time down the hall. The deer's rabbit ears, pressed back, wobbled, and it bounced with its neck extended and low, its head against Scully's leg like a racehorse with a sidewalker.
The pestilent animal made him want to wash his hands. Besides its insidious corruption, it probably had ticks, wasting disease, lungworms, bots. He wiped his hand on the wall a couple of times as he jogged down the hall behind Scully. He was caught between caution and joy. Even if things weren’t quite under control, he had found her and she was alive and unharmed. As they reached the door, she called back, 'What about the guards?' and he nodded to let her know they were taken care of, and he thought she gave him an angry look, but she was struggling with the animal.
As he stepped out of the building behind her she turned the sticky animal, bent over it, stagger-stepping. 'Mulder, he thinks I'm alone, and he thinks the towers are manned. Let me just talk to him for a minute before you come out.’
She spoke of the Smoking Man with too much familiarity, and before Mulder had consented to anything she had his hand under the webbing of coarse, tufty twine that bound the deer’s muffled head. It was wrong to let her go alone around the corner, but the moment Mulder touched the deer it went into a short, violent struggle, thumping against his legs, and when he managed to look up, she was gone.
He gave her thirty seconds, hauling the deer against his legs so he could put his back against the wall and turkey-peek around the corner. A little black helicopter stood on its skids, droop stop knocking, the Smoking Man unfolding from the cockpit door. Scully waded the oscillating downwash that stirred the field, her bare legs blue. Discrepantly, it said FBI on her back, although she was neither agent nor civilian; her parameters so beyond the pale that he was unable to rank her or anticipate her scheme.
She did not go far before she stopped. Mulder, cheek against the cold wall, one eye closed, could just see her in the zoetrope rays of the landing lights. The Smoking Man was forced to advance down the field to speak to her.
Mulder glanced around the corner and saw him sauntering, trenchcoat whipping at the stubborn edges of his frame. He stopped well out of Scully’s reach, but his long shadow lay before him on the grass, and Mulder watched it.
'We meet again,' the Smoking Man called. 'I trust it's been... a pleasant stay.'
Scully was silent, which was very odd; she was motionless, her hair switching about her head in the mechanical wind.
'I have the coordinates you need,' The Smoking Man called pleasantly. 'Although your present abode is not without its... amenities, I imagine you're anxious to regain your conveyance.'
Scully seemed to examine the ground, as she did when incensed. She reared her head, and her voice sailed with the wind, high and clear. 'If you're addressing your toxic cohort, you've got the wrong vessel, plus you've just revealed your culpability in an act of bioterrorism.'
Mulder watched the Smoking Man’s shadow shift until it nearly touched her feet, and he winced, remembering dark matter. 'I simply gave it the keys to the car,’ the Smoking Man said.
'You deliberately exposed me to a dangerous infection!' called Scully.
'Do you have it?' he asked.
'I have it contained,' Scully said, 'in vivo. And I'm willing to deal.'
The stillness of the place was creepy. Mulder could see nothing beyond the fences, but he knew they were all out there, watching. He was thankful that Byers had gone back to the others, and that the Lone Gunmen were all safely out of sight.
'I don't deal,' said the Smoking Man, with disdain.
'Then we're through,' said Scully. She reached into the distended pocket of the windbreaker, and pulled out a service pistol. Mulder huffed in disbelief and touched his empty holster. He had no idea when she’d filched it. It was a clear violation, like the time she'd appropriated his weapon to run it through ballistics, but the SIG Sauer effectively tipped the scene, and part of him could only admire how casual she was, letting the weight of it drop her arm. 'Don't think I won't do it, you son of a bitch,' Scully said. 'Your guards are gone. Let us go and you can have it.' She cued Mulder with an offhand glance.
Mulder worked his way around the corner wrangling the drooling, stiff-legged animal, which had the grunting muscular strength of a many-tentacled sea monster. The Smoking Man, taken aback, ruffled like a crow. He looked up at the guard tower, scowling, real uncertainty forming, and then back at his helicopter. Its doors were open and the cockpit was empty.
'As you can see, it's infected,' Scully said, ignoring his unease. 'It's blighted. The parasite is destroying its host. It will need to switch out soon.'
As Mulder came up beside her, she extended the gun at the Smoking Man, who briefly squinted with displeasure and tipped his head to the side. Composing himself, he reached inside his trenchcoat, in the vicinity of his heart, watching them both with a challenge in his eyes, and came out with a half-crushed cigarette pack. ‘I always thought you’d be the one to kill me,’ he said to Scully. ‘I’ve had Mulder put a gun in my face—nothing came of it.’
Down the field beyond him, a face grew out of the dark.
The Smoking Man looked hard at Mulder, deliberately ignoring Scully and her gun, and taking his time. ‘If you kill me, all your problems will be solved. An anonymous death for an anonymous man—a mark of success in a silent war.' He ratcheted his brass lighter.
‘A miserable legacy,' said Mulder.
Scully’s arm was getting tired, and her front sight was trembling. ‘But fitting, since you deserve to be remembered for nothing,’ she said. Before Mulder could protest, she lowered the gun and walked directly over to the Smoking Man. ‘I’ll take one of those,’ she said. There was an almost confidential intimacy in the way she stood in his windbreak, looking anywhere but at him, casing the area as she bummed a smoke.
This perturbed him, and he looked down at her as if at a child. The wind had blown out his flame; he plucked the damp cigarette from his lips. 'You don't smoke!'
Scully shrugged and waited, swinging the gun impatiently. He read her for a moment, tapped loose another cigarette, and, smiling slowly, stuck it between his lips with the first. Scully’s cool eye was on him. As he cupped his hands around the Zippo, Mulder pictured his dreary rented place, the television in the dark, beer bottles swimming with cigarette butts. He was one of the Old Guard steeped in black and white war movies, the whining drone of fighter planes coming in, MacArthur played by a handsome studio buck. That was the sort of male might he understood; someone like Scully didn't significantly register as either resource or threat.
Scully delicately collected the lit cigarette that had been between the Smoking Man's vile lips, and, as Mulder winced in disgust, stuck it in her own mouth. She stepped backwards, a sparkling white cloud drifting from her. 'You know,’ she offered philosophically, ‘you do your research and you watch and you think you know someone.' She expertly fiddled the Morley in the fingers of her left hand, gun in her right. 'But at what point have you gotten to the bottom of someone? You think you know me, you think you know Mulder, but you don't.'
The deer struggled at the sound of her voice, burning the rope through Mulder's hands. Back in her place beside him, Scully gave him an impenetrable glance, and he sensed that she was about to accelerate things.
The man, calculating as he squinted through the smoke, muttered around the cigarette in the center of his mouth. 'Mulder and Scully. It does have a certain ring to it.’ He put away his lighter. ‘For two people completely without bargaining power, you've always been very sure of yourselves’.
Skinner stood behind him now, holding his pistol, the red landing lights outlining his solid shape.
'You put us together,' Mulder said, to keep the Smoking Man talking, and draw his attention away from Scully.
'And I took you apart. It's over, the Great Experiment—it was never meant to last. But you were useful for a time.’
Scully jabbed the cigarette in the corner of her mouth and gave Mulder an exasperated look, the whites of her eyes sharp, before leaning over and pressing the muzzle of the gun straight into the deer’s masked face. She grabbed the halter away from him, and pushed the gun harder against the cloth between the animal’s eyes, her own eyes screwed shut.
Nothing happened. Scully turned away, psyching herself up. Mulder had a moment to digest the fact that although she had unhesitatingly dropped him with a bullet, she found it insurmountably difficult to put down a knock-kneed pest animal.
She turned toward him then, cheeks hollowed as she pulled hard on the cigarette, and as she took it from her mouth she startled him with the sorrow in her voice, carried on a hoarse rush of smoke. ‘Oh, Dolores,’ she said, and touched the cinder-tip to the deer’s back.
A blue supernova sprang up and hovered along the animal's hide like a brandy-soaked pudding he'd seen at university. Mulder jumped back, but Scully put the gun in the deer’s face and fired. The deer, nodding, knelt forward, hind legs splayed, and its head folded sideways as if it were falling asleep. As it flattened on the ground Scully dropped the gun. She knelt and jerked the cloth from its head, pulled the chin up tight and drew her shiv with pathological skill across the animal’s slender throat. The simmering grease fire began to melt the underarm of her jacket, and Mulder swatted at her back to put it out. Scully leapt up under his hand, with an angry sound.
'You're on fire, Scully!' Mulder said.
The Smoking Man had spotted Skinner. He plucked the cigarette from his mouth. 'Call him off!' he ordered.
‘Not a chance!’ said Skinner, and Keagle came around the front of the helicopter with his assault rifle.
Mulder kept one hand on Scully as he picked up his gun and holstered it. She stood looking down at the twitching body. The deer was not combusting as she seemed to have hoped, but it looked melted, its knees folded as if it were about to soar, the dark liquid pulsing from its throat. Mulder pulled Scully back, and she resisted. He checked the side of her jacket to make sure she wasn't burning. A vehicle was churning across the yard toward them: Skinner's SUV.
‘I have a Special Ops team on their way in!’ called the Smoking Man, looking from Mulder to Skinner. ‘I can make this exfiltration easy for you, or impossible!’
Scully’s ribs heaved under Mulder’s hands. ‘You don’t!’ she screamed. ‘You’re surrounded! It’s over!’ Mulder held her back. The vehicle cut a half circle nearby and hit the brakes.
Scully doubled over his restraining hands. 'You took Mulder's sister, you bastard!' she shrieked.
Mulder dragged her backwards. 'Unsanctioned and unethical experiments on humans without their consent!' Scully screamed. Mulder let go of her long enough to put both hands on her right wrist and bend it inward until she dropped her knife. The SUV's tailgate was down, and he scooted onto it, dragging Scully with him. The Smoking Man was standing over the deer. He lifted his cap toe oxford, and seemed to tread the dark ooze. Skinner approached him quickly, silver gun in both hands. Mulder glanced over the seats inside the vehicle, and saw Byers' wide eyes looking back. Mulder nodded: go.
Within his arms Scully drew a sobbing breath. The vehicle jolted beneath them. Her hair snapped in his face. 'You won’t destroy us!' she screamed, and the Smoking Man looked at her with a narrowed soreness. He took the cigarette from his mouth and, almost incidentally, dropped it.
The ruffling funnel of light made the roar of a smithy, but he had his hand over Scully's eyes, his arm around her head, his face against the back of her head, and he didn't really see. The building receded quickly, a zoom-back shot illuminated by the greasy-smoke bonfire, windows flaring along the building’s facade. In three bumps it was all behind them, and Skinner was jogging in their wake, slow and strong and unshaken, and Keagle was somehow there at the gate as they went through, meeting Mulder's eyes with a stoical nod.
The others met them on the road below the towers, and they squeezed together into the vehicle, seven of them riding in heightened silence, Skinner in the driver's seat, headlights off, Keagle manning the passenger window with his rifle. The noxious smell of smoke and singed deer-hair came with them, and they had all the windows down. Keagle had released the pilot, and behind them, the helicopter cranked up for vertical takeoff. Scully twisted to look back, and Mulder followed her gaze. Through the crossbeams of the towers a hellish light throbbed on the face of the building, and the helicopter, red beacon strobing, rose fast, leaning hard as it crested the forest.
With the windows down it was too windy inside to speak, and they were hitting the bumps hard. Mulder had his gun cross-drawn on his thigh, and the euphoric reality sank into him with each pothole and each substantive sway of Scully against his arm as they rolled down through the larger complex, the crackling of their tires coming back like aural dissonance off the abandoned buildings.
As they passed beneath a pole light he turned to once again reassure and astonish himself at her presence. She pulled herself forward, peering through the front seats. She didn't have her seat belt on, and she rode loosely, vigilant. 'Oh, my god, I know this place,' she said, wheeling towards Mulder, so that his heart caught, but she was looking past him. Cloudy soda-orange shadows crossed her face.
He'd watched her cope with the extremism of the Arctic Circle, the forests of the Pacific Northwest; she'd always come through and soon defaulted back to her glib, crisp self. He tried to read her now for signs that she was truly okay, that she was the same old Scully, but she was peering past him. 'There's a mass grave, over there in the woods.'
'Shh,' Skinner said tensely. Keagle's head oscillated steadily, watching the buildings. He rode swaying easily as if he'd spent his life on dubious missions on unpaved roads. Skinner and Keagle were back in a time that was a body memory, a state of mind. Scully, likewise, looked wildly around as they passed through the lit area, and turned to peer keenly back up the road as they went into the dark of the forest. Byers, sitting on a sleeping bag in the back, pressed a cheese stick into her hand and she looked at it with surprise and then turned around and sat back down.
She leaned close to Mulder. 'Langly's shocky,' she said in his ear.
Mulder reached into the back and got a blanket from Frohike. Scully shook it open and tucked it around Langly, who was slouched down on the other side of her. They ground forward, slower and slower, rocks thunking the undercarriage; it was too dark to see the road.
‘Do you think he really has backup coming?’ Mulder asked.
‘He was scared,’ Skinner said. ‘He would have said anything.’ It was hard to shake off the sense of an impending black-ops ground crew, spoiling for a fight, but they were making poor time with the headlights off. Skinner paused to let Mulder out.
The area was thick with trees, blocking the starlight. Mulder jogged down the left wheel rut, carrying a muffled flashlight, leading Skinner. Whip-cracks of adrenalin tingled on the back of his neck. The woods were heavy with silence, except for the blankety questions of owls and the crackling of the heavy vehicle behind him. He plunged and stumbled as fast as he dared, panting, glad to run, sweating through his T-shirt, shivering at reclaiming the miracle of Scully; the entire tenor of the world changed: the face of life—the brilliance of all subsequent hours.
Then they were up out of the deep chill of the woods and crossing an open patch, and, in the starlight, he could see the perimeter fences ahead.
He stood on the edge of the road, holding his breath. All was still. Skinner pulled up, elbow on the sill, dust rising languidly in the dashboard light. Mulder opened the rear door and Scully slid over for him. He sat catching his breath as they rumbled forward, grass whisking the sides of the car, dust floating in the open windows.
A few minutes later, he leapt back out to open and close the huge gates. The road was empty, and as he climbed back in, he looked around at Frohike, in the back. 'Is it good or bad that we haven't heard 'Sandman' today?' he asked in a whisper.
'We don't need it anymore,' said Langly, sitting up and pulling himself together.
''Enter Sandman'?' Scully asked, working on a granola bar.
Mulder leaned around her to glimpse the look in Langly’s eyes, and grinned, delighted. 'No, 'Sandman'. America.'
Skinner turned onto the overgrown spur road where they'd hidden the Volkswagen van, and flipped on the low beams, nosing slowly along the ruts as twigs squealed over the roof. In the back, Frohike called up a sound file. The song sounded like plodding, strummy folk rock.
'My sister's the one who liked Crosby, Stills & Nash,' Scully commented. No one bothered to correct her. Sitting beside her judgement, 'Sandman' lost its power over Mulder. Skinner and Keagle looked at each other reminiscently, and as the headlights found the VW bus with the wrecked tire snubbed to its nose, Skinner pulled up, and he and Keagle sat silently under the song's spell. Keagle tapped a finger on his assault rifle. The dome light came on, revealing everyone wanly digging through their stuff, and the woozy Gunmen alighted, weary and shaken, and gathered up their gear, and the music went with them.
Scully was looking at Mulder. 'Looks like things have been rough for you guys.'
Mulder leaned an elbow on the seat back, scruffing at his unshaven jaw, lost in her centering gaze. He sighed happily. 'We’ve been looking for you. We've been out of our minds, Scully.' Experimentally, he took the bone of her shoulder in his thumb and forefinger. 'What have these weeks been like for you?' he asked her.
She flinched as Frohike dug under the seat for his goggles, steeling herself to all the activity. 'I've been getting ready to escape.'
Keagle turned stiffly in the front seat and eyed her, as if for the first time he considered the object of their mission.
Mulder glanced at the narrowness of her body, her pale bare legs, and shook his head. 'You don't even have shoes,' he said.
'No, you don’t understand, I would have gotten out,' Scully insisted. She pulled away from his hand and looked through the front seats. Byers, framed in the golden interior of the flat-front van, meditatively ran his pre-trip systems check as the van purred roughly.
'I was getting out tonight,' Scully said, looking straight ahead. 'There's no moon. I broke through the trap in the roof. I made thirty feet of rope. I practiced the descent the way the Marines do it. I had a compass needle and enough dried food for a week. I would have made it out.'
Mulder said nothing. He shook his head, but he didn't want to argue with her. Anything could have happened to her in these woods.
Keagle, who had said nothing until now, turned and studied Scully openly. She lifted her chin slightly, and their equally blunt gazes exchanged a grudging recognition.
Keagle nodded. 'She would have got out,' he said.
Mulder and Langly sprawled in lounge chairs on the pool deck, boneless, twitchy, blank in the soul. They had passed through a hinterland, and having emerged, found in the real world a slight dubiety, as if it could not possibly have progressed in tandem with their own infernal experiences. On the surface of the pool, a vagabond ice bucket raft rode the calms.
The motel slept. They were free, freed of everything, and the job was done, but there was no way they could sleep. Within Mulder's line of sight lay the darkened motel room Scully was sharing with her mother, who had met up with them at the Pocahontas Memorial in Buckeye, as Scully submitted irritably to a post-kidnap exam.
Mulder planned to keep watch over the room, although the threat now seemed diffused, and he was limp as a contactee in a charge shadow.
Langly's arms and glasses were propped on top of his head. He blinked dreamily, and under his chair a decamped bottle of Dr. Pepper lolled in concentric loci. Pool water slapped in the overflow outlet. Far beyond the woven plastic slats of the fence, an adagio to American wilderness was coaxed from the washboard judder of tractor-trailers, a stater's wail and yelp. The pain and impermanence in the stream of sounds balanced Mulder's four humors like nothing else.
They remembered, a little nostalgically, life at the Craw, and it was the final opportunity, before the niceties of life resumed, to search the glossy blackness beyond the glare of the power poles and permit themselves an uncoded and righteous fuck.
Through the vaporous lime blue, a motel door cracked open. The figure slipping from the darkened room was half wild, chary. Scully stood stone-still against the siding, checking alertly around herself: a touch of captivity trauma, and the mannerisms of someone who'd spent a little too much time with a deer. She was fascinating, like a wildlife sighting, as out of context as a sparrow in a supermarket. He tensed when her eyes touched him. She was moving closer, barefoot, in shorts and a t-shirt.
'Fuck,' Mulder said softly. It seemed the final expression left to mankind, the most versatile word ever, glommed handily and (for him) rather appropriately from an old Dutch cattle-breeding term; strange that it had risen so deleteriously.
Langly marshalled himself, settling his glasses in place as if reckoning the distance to a forbidding and unclimbable mountain. He smacked his duct-taped sneakers on the ground, and dug a finger down in the heel of one, his hair falling forward.
'I'm right behind you,' Mulder said, his eyes on Scully.
‘Yeah, yeah, I won't wait up.' Langly's mosquito-voice squelched out as he reached under his chair. He arose and bent Lurch-like and dusted his vacated spot as Scully came up. Mulder extended the room key, and Langly swiped it from his hand and slouched back to their room.
Scully padded up soundlessly, with a strong air of variance, and sank onto the edge of the lounge chair. She tossed her head, pushing back one side of her feathery, sun-streaked hair. Despite an excessive bath, the soles of her feet were still smutched with petroleum. The rescue had somehow insulted her, tactlessly preempting her own plans. Still, he wouldn't take it back for anything.
'Hey there,' he said, and she blinked. She was tired of all the fuss. After all, she'd known worse treatment; she'd been stuffed in the trunk of a car and not seen for months, returned barely alive. After five years on the X-Files, that leper compound probably felt like a spa weekend.
'Can't sleep?' he asked.
'I don’t quite feel real,' Scully said, gripping the chair on each side of her thighs and whisking her toes over the smooth concrete. She looked sharply across at him. 'The guard. The guard in the north tower by the gate. Did you kill him?'
Mulder swung his feet to the ground and mirrored her, studying her from under his eyebrows. Her anger was not exactly aimed at him, although he would be the one to catch it as it fell.
'Did it cross your mind that he might be a decent man?' she asked. 'That he might have been protecting me?'
Mulder twitched scornfully. 'You're kidding,' he said. 'How could we have known that?'
She looked away, still kicking her foot.
'What, were you working him?' Mulder had to ask.
She turned her head back slowly and fixed him with her cold eyes. 'You know I would have done what I had to, to get back to you.'
'But it didn't come to that?'
'I had his sympathy,' Scully said. She picked at the chair. 'But my best shot was to plan a radical escape, while the weather was still warm, and that's what I focused on, although it turned out to be an exercise in futility.'
'Hey,' he said. He leaned sideways, to get her to look at him. 'You saved yourself, Scully. You signalled SOS. Without the pilot’s coordinates, we wouldn't have gotten anywhere close to you tonight. We were so far off the mark, for weeks.'
She got up and stood looking down at him.
'They took everything away from you. They put you in there with nothing. You had nothing, and somehow you armed yourself and signalled for help.'
'I had a deer and a mirror,' Scully said wearily, her voice scratchy. She stood on one foot, her raised knee waiting as he shifted around and made room for her in his chair.
'I'm sorry about the deer, Scully,' he said, and she nodded brusquely as she slid in with him, into his arms. His breath caught. Her breathy chilly face was in his neck, and she made no bones about inserting her leg between his. They sighed in heavy tandem. Without his permission their bodies’ specific bilateral knowledge commenced to thrum in an undercurrent between them. He held his breath and made his mind blank, until he had to breathe, fluttering her hair.
‘Can you get another room?’ she rasped, under his chin.
‘No, the manager goes to bed at 9:30.’ Mulder’s chest was rising and falling too fast.
‘Wake him up,’ Scully said. He pulled back. She was reluctant to look up, as if she didn’t want him to read her eyes.
‘No,' he said. 'Scully, please go back to bed.’
Her cheeks hollowed, and one of her hands twisted in the front of his shirt. She was strong and hard, and her embrace felt like a Chinese finger trap. He tried to calm the heave of his chest. ‘We can’t do that tonight; what would your mother think of me?’ he asked.
Slowly she raised her eerie eyes. There was a circling unfriendliness in her look, and a quiver ran through her. Again he sensed a suspension of volitional capacity—the override of instinct. Before he could react, she pushed herself closer and snapped at his lip.
Mulder jerked back. ‘What the hell, Scully!’
He struggled to sit up. She pulled away, and he got his foot on the ground. One eye watered with pain. He pressed his stinging lip.
She sat up, close behind him in the chair. A chill went up his neck. ‘I don't even know where that came from,’ she said, mechanical, muttering low.
His swivet faded, and he half-turned his head. 'Yeah? Something tells me they did hurt you.'
An intolerable chlorine heat wavered in the air. She cleared her throat, her voice morose. 'Maybe it's the trauma that occurs when you're unconscious that eats away at you. The not-knowing is worse.'
'Maybe,' he said, hating to consider the possibilities. He tasted the swelling on his lip. He wanted to reassure her, to be a patient, comforting presence, to draw her out, but he didn't feel like turning around.
Behind him, her voice crawled out of her throat. ‘Mulder—why do I miss it?’
‘I doubt you want me to go into the psychology of captivity,’ Mulder said, staring blankly at the pool deck.
'What do you miss about it?'
'Things were simple,’ she said into his back. ‘I didn't feel confused like I do now. In a way I was completely myself. It was like another world, with the deer.'
'In The Mabinogion, Celtic mythology describes the presence of deer or tracking a deer as a way into the Otherworld,’ Mulder said.
'It was like I was in another world.’
'You went down inside yourself,' Mulder said, watching the skein of fish-scale light wobbling across the pool. ‘You drew on your resources, made your decisions. Now you’re back to the pressures of society.’
'Mulder, for weeks I trained and I planned and I focused on my escape, for the moment when I would cross the roof of the building in plain view of a machine-gun tower and rappel down three stories with a rope that I had made myself out of a piece of old carpet. I planned to dig under the fence and crawl across open ground until I could get into the trees and if I made it that far, I would, at this moment be walking out, through this night with no moon, with my feet getting cut up on a gravel road. I thought about it incessantly, how many miles I could cover, how I would deal with dark, cold, injury. How far away I needed to be when the sun came up. I was training for the greatest ordeal of my life, and every bit of me was winding tighter and tighter in anticipation of it, and now, this is it; this is the night, and I don't know what to do with myself.'
Mulder nodded. He held his fat lip lightly between his teeth and wished for the turned page of a different day.
Something stonelike clunked his back, her forehead come to rest. ‘I want to go home, and when I think of ‘home’, it’s a sleeping bag on the floor,’ she said. A force massed between his shoulder blades where her brow rested, and he pushed silence through himself and sat picking at the plastic weave of the chair, mesmerized by the burden and gift of her skull against him.
Her head rolled against him and then she drew a breath and got up. She went past him toward the pool, the deep end, hurrying, and he straightened up; his first thought was that she had seen something. Suddenly she threw her arms straight up and her t-shirt came with them, and she tossed it aside as she ran the last few steps and dolphin-dove into the rocking sapphire water.
Mulder was on his feet. Deep underwater the dart of her silvery seal shadow shot the length of the pool. A mermaid writhe, the backs of her hands together, outsweeping wings of arms. He hadn't known she could swim like that, but he should have.
The pool boiled at the far end as she came up, holding her nose, sucking for air, the gutters sloshing. Then she neatened her hair behind her ears and glanced his way as she climbed the ladder in her sodden shorts, her pale breasts glistening neon-blue.
The T-shirt lay across his foot.
She was pattering wet-footed along the back fence toward him, arms loose across her chest with an earthy insouciance, as he shook himself out of his trance. 'Whoa, whoa, Scully—' Mulder hurried toward her, trying to get her shirt turned right side out. She was gasping for breath, the light in her eyes nettled and jubilated. He shielded her as she worked the garment over her wet skin, and he turned and cast a fiercely defensive glower at the row of quiet motel rooms.
Scully pulled down her shirt and pinched water from her nose and turned to the back fence, seemingly drawn to the highway lights, folding her arms on the top. Her ribs heaved. 'Your face, Mulder,' she said under her breath, slick hair dripping down her back. Her variance drifted away.
'I bet the edicts of the real world seem flimsy at the moment, but you'll get us thrown out of here, Scully, and it's already been a long night for everyone.' After a moment, he leaned beside her, arms folded on the points of the chain link weave. The fence jangled as it took his weight. For a moment he followed her gaze across the bottomless shadows of the wasteland; then he sighed and his head sank heavily into his arms. He checked to see if the waking dream of her return was still in effect. Beside him, quite near, her chin was on her forearm, and there was a curl at the corner of her mouth. Her profile was a line of gold and a reflected bluet lay on the curve of her eyeball. She blinked knowingly.
The breeze picked up. She shuddered sporadically, and clenched her jaw. 'Why do we feel most human when we undercut the bounds of society?' she asked, through her teeth. 'When we break the rules, when we have sex, when we are locked in a compound alone on a mountaintop?'
He nodded, relieved that her experience had been as much one of profundity as it had been one of deprivation.
Scully looked strangely happy, for the first time that night, even freezing and shivering. She clenched her jaw, and then let it chatter. 'I got out, Mulder,' she said, through her teeth.
Chapter 16: Permanence Unexplainable by Classical Physics
Word ripped through the underground that Mulder and his legendary anagram, at last freed from the restrictions of his g-man job, were poised to illumine the preternatural arts. Properly, he ran an ad in FATE, and was soon obliged to hire Byers to skipper that email account or, (as Scully pointed out) spend every waking moment online bickering with anonymous nerds about bearwalkers, Nikumaroro Island, the Drake Equation, or D. B. Cooper.
Scully fretted over the upcoming tax season. Normally she relished doing her taxes, but in 1998 she'd lived in three different states, retired from the FBI, and worst of all, had an ill-gotten $200,000 that she suspected would not generate a W-2. And her filing status was rapidly blurring, as Mulder helpfully pointed out. 'If you think about it, Scully, it's common law in D.C.—so in the eyes of Washington we've pretty much been married for years,' he said. Astonishing, and rather moving, to think that this might have occurred to him back in their office, and he’d never even joked about it. 'Besides, I don't know what you're whining about,’ he said. ‘Try being simultaneously self-employed and on an FBI retainer, with estate taxes.'
If it seemed an absurdly poor idea to settle into a house where so many demons rattled, it was a choice made by two seasoned parapsychologists versed at finding joy in extremis. And if, in a twilit shadow, one crossed the cold spot of an unconscionable, far-reaching choice, made 'that night on Quonochontaug;’or glimpsed the caching of a lethal artifact; or even Mulder himself, cornered in a suicidal stand; it was a quick job of rationality and forward-thought to settle unease. How quickly an overlay developed, stronger each day, of remodeling, of kayaks and mountain bikes, of Scully's voice, calling 'Mulder, where's the—?'; the perfume of holy basil tea; and the sputter and thwip of Mulder string-trimming saplings in the lawn.
At the end of September, Mulder took a jaunt to Washington state to hear a Skookum hooting and coughing in the old growth, and Scully went to Baltimore to have lunch with Marcella, and go through the storage in her mom's garage. After days away, meeting back up in Quonochontaug had the restorative bliss of homecoming. They went to bed and only got up to get the extra-sharp cheddar and the sesame crackers. It was a rainy Thursday night. Mulder lugged a television into the bedroom so that Scully could nitpick the medical inaccuracies of ER. She fell asleep halfway through, but he was forced to finish out the episode, concerned that an attractive young doctor had contracted hepatitis.
In the middle of October, Scully arranged a birthday dinner in New York City, with both of their mothers in attendance. She picked, for its character and style, Delmonico's, a restaurant so old that Prohibition had closed it down. Mulder would have been just as happy with a trip to the lobster shack, but she chose it out of deference to their mothers. She wanted to make an official statement about her relationship with Mulder, in a formal setting, to the heads of their families, and she pushed aside intense privacy to do so, crediting her time with Dolores for such plain-dealing singleness of heart.
It was hard to know how to word such a radical admission. 'The good doctor and I are shackin' up in the Smallest State,' Mulder told the Gunmen. 'Sir, Mulder and I now reside in an undisclosed location,' Scully divulged to Skinner, on the phone, hand over her eyes in mortification. 'We were all undercurrents, like a copy of 1984,' Mulder explained to Scully. 'Our wilderness years,' Scully termed them, off the books. Utility bills, arriving, deliriously intertwined their names, like arborglyphs on paper birches.
Scully had never experienced a moment with Teena Mulder that wasn't fraught or troubled. The concealed depths of Mulder's parents intrigued her doubly of late, as she whisked their stone hearth, and learned the places the floor creaked, and the difficult nautics of chimney damper and wind direction. At the dinner in Manhattan she hoped to find some common ground with his mother, to begin a relationship that did not rely on Mulder's uncalculated flight paths. The first time she met Teena Mulder, Scully professed that gut instinct told her Mulder was alive. Certainly she had come across as recklessly speculative, like Mulder himself, and it seemed important, going forward, to display her ratiocination.
Delmonico's head waiter materialized among the Pompeian columns as the four of them stood in the portico joking about a motorbike chained to a parking meter. The head waiter had a black silk waistcoat and a sharp gaze which he kept deferentially lowered, like a laser pointer. Scully had placed her hands behind her back upon shaking the hand of Mrs. Mulder, and, from her position of reserve, watched the head waiter address Teena Mulder as if the rest of the party did not exist. The sense that he recognized her was so distinct that Mulder turned, seeking Scully's eye.
His mother ignored the mafia-wife treatment as if it were only natural, and went in with her arm linked through Mulder's. Scully and her own mother followed. There was a sharp squeak in the hallway floor of the house in Quonochontaug, that you must circumvent if anyone was asleep; a certain angle of south-east wind kept the chimney from drawing. Scully felt the new priviledge of this insider knowledge that Teena Mulder undoubtedly carried. Arm-in-arm, the Mulders were tall, looked like each other, and had strong opinions about clam chowder; there was a Brahmin, exclusionary elegance around them that reminded Scully that she was UM and he was Oxford.
Mrs. Mulder had shaken Scully's hand with a new and civil interest and an accepting smile, breathing some life into the reserved space they held between them. Teena Mulder's steel irises were recessive blue, but Scully imagined that she carried the green allele which gave Mulder those misty boreal eyes. In keeping with the theory of imprinted sexual selection, Mulder had chosen a mate with blue eyes, like his mother, and Scully was curious about what other phenotypes they shared, or what about herself had unconsciously reminded him of his mom.
At the table, Teena Mulder, livened by Maggie Scully’s friendliness, slumped her shoulders and laid her hand confidingly between their place settings. It was impossible not to warm to Scully's mother. Scully knew there was something about herself and Mulder which shut other people out, turning conversation away like the baffle in a flue, but that was not the case with her mother.
'My gracious, when the children were small,' Teena Mulder said to Maggie, 'I used to wonder if there would ever be a time of my life without sand in the bathtub.'
'Oh, yes!' said Maggie, turning to smile at Scully. 'Sandy little kids.'
'It's the price you pay,' Mulder said shyly, opening a leatherbound menu. He wore a beautiful suit, and a vintage Hermès necktie of his father's that he'd dredged up somewhere, and his Fisherian runaway hair was so attractive that Scully leaned closer on the pretext of scouting the soup du jour. She hadn't realized how much she missed him Double O Sevening around in a suit.
'This is outrageous!’ he said happily. 'When I was a whippersnapper, dinner was twelve cents.' He turned and looked at Scully, and forgot what he was saying. While Scully and her mother shopped, he had spent the afternoon reading too much Borges, or Lalla Rookh, and was word-addled, and on a birthday high. While he was occupied at Gotham Book Mart, Scully had splurged on a little Devoré velvet dress—a dress so perfect that to wear it transfigured the bent of the day. Despite Mulder's formal manners, she sensed that the dress was on his radar, and probability logic whispered that he was likely to leave it on her back at the hotel, as they swam the warm and sloshy symbiotics of drunken metaphysics.
'He was born on Friday the thirteenth,' Mrs. Mulder was saying, 'at the hospital in Oak Bluffs. Hurricane Esther had torn up Cape Cod, and our island was a mess. He was my first, and so slow, an endless labor of Twilight Sleep nightmares. I was thinking, although I could barely think: the twelfth. My due date was the twelfth, and I must have it on the twelfth, not the thirteenth. But it just went on and on.'
'Oh, my dear,' said Maggie, sympathetically.
Scully twiddled her butter knife, entranced. She felt Mulder looking at her, and met a sticky look, with too many things that could have been said. It was startling to hear his mother vouchsafe any part of the family's history, and she was afraid to break the spell. Under it all swam the dreadfully languid mixture of morphine and scopolamine, of a man's thumb on her eyebrow. Finally, she tipped toward him, and muttered, 'Why have you never told me this?' from the side of her mouth.
'What, the fact that I was born under a bad sign in a crossfire hurricane? I’d have thought that was already obvious.' Mulder flashed his catchy smile, and all the women chuckled. He smoothed his tie nervously. 'Mrs. Scully, what illuminating details can you give us about Dana's birth?'
Maggie Scully put down her cutlery and warmed to the subject, looking fondly at Scully. 'February of 1964. We were stationed in Annapolis. Cold, but beautiful. She was tiny and perfect and fussy, and seemed generally outraged at the state of things. Oh, everything had to be a certain way. And she had a scream that would crack crystal.'
Mulder made a noise into his water glass, and Scully attempted to camel-kick him, confined by her dress, and got into difficulties with a chair leg. 'She still has a scream that'll rattle your nerves,' Mulder said, and he and Maggie held up their glasses and toasted each other.
Scully said: 'And I'm still outraged at the state of things.' She spiked a mushroom from his plate with her salad fork.
Their merriment faded as the head waiter returned and stood at Mulder's elbow, facing Mrs. Mulder with his head ducked subserviently, while an underling replenished their icewater.
In the conversational lull, Mulder glanced uneasily at Scully, perhaps wondering whether she planned to get him back for the birthday thing at the Headless Woman nearly two years before. But this was not about awkward half-stabs at synergy, when their hands were tied by code of conduct. She reassured him with a look, and saw the pain his mother stirred up in him. In youth he'd often woken feeling he was the only person left in the world. His mother's electric white hair had nothing to do with age; it had turned after Samantha was taken away. Canities subita. Mulder and his mother were identically scarred by the loss; she had become an island, but Scully intended to keep his life from being defined by tragedy.
She had bent to this task from the beginning—the compunction to push him out of his funks, to save him from himself, to drive him forward to better days. And they were much better days. Mulder was looking at her, and she found that, unaware, her hand had settled on his leg, and she took it away. She was used to touching him constantly now, reading an email with her chin on his shoulder, fake karate-kicking him on the beach. One morning when she had cut her foot on a barnacle, he carried her up the beach stairs on his back. Nor could she linger at a viewpoint without his arms sliding around her and his chin capping the top of her head, like the fox-face on a Dog Soldier headdress.
The waiters withdrew, and Scully sat back, and a little distance opened between herself and the rest of the table. She nipped at her crisp wine, and held up her glass. 'If I may, on this occasion of Mulder's thirty-seventh—'
Across the table, Mrs. Mulder looked at her curiously, and politely lifted her goblet. 'There's something I'd like to impart,' Scully said. 'We, uh—Mulder and I—wanted to see you both because, although it's not generally known, and not to imply that we were anything less than professional while employed by the Bureau—but it has gradually come about that we find ourselves—that we are—serious about each other, and we just thought you should know, not only because you're the two most important people in our lives, but also because we understand these years haven't been easy for either of you.’ She paused to draw a breath. It was not a toast, exactly, and her glass bent the light in a brilliant line that wavered across the linen tablecloth. She was decidedly out of her element; the room looked like the upper crust dining saloon on the Titanic: an ornamental whirl of gilt and chandeliers and mirrors.
In moments of tenseness, Scully lay back once more in the grass, watching the clouds, captured in the liquid mirror of Dolores' sage, xenogeneic eye. Was this her standard for peace—thirty days in the hole? Across the table, Teena set down her glass, looking questioningly at Mulder. Scully's own mother leaned reassuringly close and rubbed Scully's arm and said 'Dana? You don't owe us an apology.'
‘I know that, Mom,' said Scully, putting down her wine glass, 'in theory. But it's hard not to think how different things might have been.' She looked a little desperately at Mulder.
He nodded and picked up the thread. 'If there's anything Scully and I regret, it's how hard the FBI years were on both of you. We've both scaled back on work, and we want you to know that our house is always open to you. Come to the beach and see us and we'll do the cliff walk or cruise to the islands. We're doing some private consulting in our field, mostly from home, although Scully's got a cubicle at the state medical examiner's office in Providence and I'm still doing outreach stuff for the Bureau, and incidentally they're trying to talk her into teaching an experimental pathology lab at Stanford, but I hope she doesn't go because she's the only one who can make a proper French press cup of coffee—'
There was a silence, and everyone smiled uncertainly.
'Oh, it sounds lovely,' said Maggie. 'You know what the funny thing is, Dana,' she said, and everyone turned to her, relieved, 'Melissa said as much to me forever ago, years ago, when you first joined the FBI, and you went missing and then you were in the hospital and we spent a lot of time with Fox, sitting around in waiting rooms, and we all got to know each other a bit—'
Scully tried to imagine a spring-wound, frantic Mulder hanging irritably around with her New Age sister. 'What did she say?'
'As you know, your sister was nothing if not unerring in her honesty,’ Maggie said. ‘She never hesitated to tell the truth, as she personally saw it. She told me you two were in love.'
'We weren't!' Scully said, startled. 'She was speculating.' She exchanged a mortified look with Mulder.
He shook his head and leaned forward earnestly. 'I hate to say this, Mrs. Scully, since she can no longer defend her position, but Dana's sister had the wrong end of the stick.’
'I see,' said Maggie.
'When was this?' Scully cut in. '1994? She had no idea what she was talking about.'
'Pure speculation,' Mulder agreed. 'I mean, we cared.'
'Of course we cared,' said Scully, 'but that's a completely different thing. We were in the trenches.'
'We were swept up in a lot of things, but not that,' Mulder agreed. 'You could get censure or suspension for misconduct. As it was, Scully got called by review boards; suspended without pay; arrested for contempt of Congress—all because of me. We had plenty of trouble.'
'We went to the wall for each other,' Scully admitted, 'but it's just part of the job.'
'Maybe it’s a job that looks romantic from the outside,' said Mulder, 'but it's rough.'
'Yes, it's rough, and it's painful, and the paperwork is insane,' Scully said. They’d gotten too defensive, and she busied herself perfectly bifurcating a cherry tomato with her steak knife.
Scully's mother looked at her curiously. 'Dana, what does it feel like to have a man call you by your surname?' she asked.
'It makes me feel strong,' Scully said. The question surprised her. It was her father’s name, and reminded her of him, of all the time he’d spent teaching her things that he could have let slide, because she was a girl. He’d believed in her, though. She whisked her fingertips together. 'I almost can't describe it. It makes me genderless, I suppose, equal to anyone.'
'It sounds noir, like a Dashiell Hammett novel,' Teena Mulder said.
'I think she’s calling us hard-boiled, Scully,' said Mulder. 'You know, credit where it's due, Mrs. Scully, Melissa was astute. She may have been a telepath.'
'What was Samantha like?' Scully asked him.
Mulder reached around the butter plate and put his hand on his mother's, and they were lost in each other's eyes. 'She was so alive,' Mulder said. 'She knew so firmly who she was.'
His mother smiled yearningly. 'She was full of personality, like her brother.' When she looked at Mulder, tilting her head, her worried eyebrows exactly mirrored his. 'I know you're just trying to find peace, Fox,' she said, 'and I know that you were as hurt by what happened as your father and I, but sometimes I think you’ve let Samantha push us apart.'
Mulder nodded, accepting this, but Scully reached over, stung, her fingers on his arm, determined to negate the comment.
'It's okay, Scully,' Mulder said softly.
'You've always done what you felt was necessary, I suppose,’ said Teena Mulder, ‘but you've been the one link to the past that refuses to stop pulling, that never relents. Everything you do hurts.'
Scully breathed in, and out. She saw that his mother was unaware of his guilt, and that their move to Quonochontaug was painful for her. Mulder had Scully's hand and was squeezing it hard, clearing his throat. He let go of her and got up, leaned over his mother and kissed her cheek. 'Not, not anymore, Mom,' he said raspily.
'Oh, my darling,' she said, and ruffled his head. She managed to smile, as he withdrew, and Mulder was back in his chair, looking at Scully. 'Welcome to the Mulder family, Scully,' he said, and leaned toward her. She’d never kissed him in front of anyone, but he met her eyes with a quick, tense message, and planted a kiss on her mouth. He tasted, stunningly, like umami and an Esquire fragrance sampler.
'Aw,' said Maggie Scully, smiling brightly and sadly. She lifted her glass. 'A toast,' she said. 'To Dana and Fox.'
Mrs. Mulder, with a long breath and a distant look, held her own glass and looked into it. Scully held her own shaky glass before herself, and through her tears the chandelier light bent through it. She closed her eyes for a moment, and saw the sun, the grassy yard, the doe. She dropped her free hand between their chairs, and Mulder made a symmetry of their fingers, and folded them tight. She felt the tacit solidarity they had while making a rush together through a scary doorway, guns drawn.
'To Fox and Dana,' said Teena Mulder.
'To Mulder and Scully,' Mulder suggested.
'To my strong girl,' said Maggie affectionately, 'and to a man of courage and persistence. May you find peace and happiness.'
'To all of us,' Scully said. Her arm was getting tired, and her glass was wavering.
Mulder nodded, and squeezed her hand. 'To all of us,' he said.
The splashy crystal clangor of four Waterfords meeting above the centerpiece felt like a commitment, a pact.
In November, Scully discovered some nostalgic items that had been in storage since the middle of summer. She had not trusted the movers with the box, but had transported it herself, although she had rather incautiously scrawled 'x files' on one side, and left it for months in her mother's garage.
A serious storm hit the coast in the afternoon, crippling the power grid. Mulder was on a research jaunt to the Providence Athenæum, and Scully was pleased with the inroads she'd made on a monograph for the American Journal of Human Genetics, 'Generational Mutations in Long Runs of Homozygosity', which Mulder had suggested she title 'Home Runs in Homozygosity'.
When the lights pulsed and went off with a snap of finality, she found a flashlight and unplugged everything vulnerable to surges. The gale push-rocked the house. From the living room window, she watched the treacherous ocean heave spray at the cliffs. On the coastal road, a siren approached, wailing, and faded. She called Mulder's cell, but reached the inaudible mumble of his voice mail.
Near her feet, a blue tarp was spread on the floor, arrayed with the many fluted bones of a small theropod bestowed by one of Mulder's many well-wishers, and of uncertain provenance. Mulder wanted it off his hands and planned to donate it to the University of Wyoming, but, along with Scully, became immersed in puzzling the skeleton together and attempting classification. 'Dino', as they called him, was thought to be East Asian, of the Ornithomimosauria clade, flightless: perhaps Harpymimus, with its toothy beak and disemboweling toe.
In the dim light, she could do no more than pick up and admire a petrified bone or two; it was no fun without Mulder. The evening before, they'd settled on the floor and worked for hours, drinking beer and discussing Michael Crichton novels. Mulder in the light of a circle of desk lamps, examining a two hundred million-year old bone through a hand lens, then consulting a paleobiology text while caressing the arch of Scully's socked foot, all the while holding forth on The Andromeda Strain. As Dino came together, with his awkward little wings elbowed out like a running Peanuts character, they fell into a discussion of the nature of lives brought together like a wrinkle in time. 'Kairos,' Mulder said unironically, 'the right time for a thing to finally happen.'
Scully passed through the kitchen, compulsively checking the empty, storm-thrashed driveway, and went into their office, sweeping the flashlight. Mulder had renovated the kitchen and both bathrooms before she moved in, but they had not yet redone the office, which was already a stockyard maze of banker's boxes and slide projectors, astrolabes and schematics. On the wall, her darkened lightbox displayed Röntgen's x-ray of his wife's hand, beringed; and the ossified wing bud on a girl's scapula; and the agarose gel electrophoresis of the Peacock infant's gene imbalances, from which arose her monograph. The place was an impenetrable wilderness, but she and Mulder had fallen in love in an office, and a room where they worked together—hammering out emails or grinding through research—was its own sort of heaven.
She found the box she was looking for, and drew from it a hardbound logbook. Back in the living room, she built a fire in the fireplace, and got the flue to draw, and sat on the hearth warming her back. The ship's log was as heavily embossed as a yearbook, with a thick, bumpy cover; all that remained of the U.S.S. Ardent, scuppered in '95. The doctors at Bethesda had used it to save Mulder's life. She looked through it with her flashlight and found where her entries began, then paused to shine the flashlight on her watch. She leapt up and looked out at the driveway, paced the kitchen while calling Mulder's phone, checked the driveway again, then sat back down by the fire, picked up the book, sighed sharply, and began to read.
The desperation in the entries pulled her in; they were written by lantern light, firm and calm as she sank beneath the surface of the corrosive disease; scoring the book with her blunted lessening of hope, entry by entry, as Mulder faded. She could smell the dank, wintry iron of the becalmed ship, and the salty crumbling dead; the bloody rust. The ship groaned all around her. As the flashlight followed the lines, a horror built up in her, so that she heard, under the storm, her own nervous swallowing.
Then, when all was lost, the storm reached straight into the room and took the pages of the book and fluttered them in her hands, and Mulder was coming through the kitchen door, dropping things loudly and calling out, as he slammed the door, 'Scully!' He had an armload of groceries and books, and he scattered them onto the table as she flung herself at him. 'Time to batten down the hatches!' he yelled, while she rattled kisses against his jaw. 'The power's out from here to Halifax!' He pawed among the groceries. 'Guess what—you're wrong about the disemboweling toe! And look at this fancy mustard!'
The storm was a wonder, absolving them of the menial schedule of life. Time left completely, and there were no chores, no work obligations, no expectations of anything but pure survival, with the couch shifted close to the fireplace, and wine breathing in the kitchen, gas lantern light, and a stack of new books. With fearsome thrash, the surf besieged their very cliff. As they stood at the window together, the heavy silvery gleam of the sky loomed and then receded beyond the small universe of semidarkness in each other's arms.
A boundless interval passed, uncounted: the clocks had stopped. In bed, Scully separated herself from Mulder's warm clasp, and rose. The hall was medievally dark and drafty. 'How can you even move, Scully?' Mulder called plaintively after her. On trembling legs she sidepassed the creak in the floor and went into the back office, flipping the dead light switch.
In their crepuscular study, a single electronic light glowed—the blinking clamshell eye on her old military-grade laptop, waiting on the desk. The house rumbled and crouched under the brunt of the storm. Above the curtains, rhododendrons frothed on the slope of the lawn, and the cedar wove slowly in thickets of rain.
She reached for the laptop, and a pale movement in the corner startled her. One of the atmospheric urban paintings that had hung over Mulder's couch in Alexandria was propped against the wall, and when she looked into it, an eidolon, watery and naked, simmered in the glass.
The ethereal strangeness of her time with Dolores had left threads at the edges of her life. There was more to her layers of self now—a totem animal that led, a glimpse through a hedgerow. A couple of days before, on a hike up the trail through the blueberry barrens, she and Mulder had encountered a matriarchal group of does. Scully had stopped and held herself proudly but respectfully, without pressuring them. Mulder's fingertips were light against her back. She half-expected the deer to recognize something in her, but they snorted and flung themselves into the brush. But, I'm one of you, she thought.
Back in the bedroom, he was still laying there bonelessly: stormlit Mulder in the raw. Scully opened the laptop in the haymow bedding. Rain needled the storm windows, but the house was sturdy, versed in the breezes of the Beaufort scale. She climbed onto the bed and crossed it on her knees and pulled a swathe of sheet across his damp body and climbed back on, sitting on his stomach, her teeth clever in her bottom lip. His heart steadily jarred her vulva. He looked up mystically, hands susurrating up and down her thighs as the laptop spun up and processed noisily, and the sigh of a whistle buoy folded itself through a lull in the wind. 'Is the power still out?' he murmured.
'Yep.' Scully, knees deep in the bed, leaned sideways and dragged the laptop closer.
'I'm going to make foil potatoes in the fireplace,' he said. ‘We’ve got to get to work on Dino.’
She touched his cheek to make sure she had his full attention. She was still not used to having as much of him as she wanted, and she thumbed his square mouth, and the sweet collop beside it. 'Something to show you, Mulder.'
'Mm, Scull,' he said against her fingers, glitz in the ink of his eyes, '—you were telling me about the wolf named Sköll...'
'Fimbulwinter, the Norse end of the world, as I first read of it, while dying in a pocket of time on the Norwegian Sea,' she swallowed, '—with you. It seemed like a half-remembered dream until I found that old ship's log. The fog, the wolf chasing the sun. But that's only part of what I want to show you here.' She tapped the laptop's trackpad, and called up a widget. Mulder pinched the bridge of his nose as she turned the screen toward him. 'I know you think all our work was destroyed in the fire.' She tapped the directory, but he had his hand over his eyes. 'Mulder, I wrote up every single X-File we ever opened, case-by-case reportage and analysis.'
On the screen, a file inventory, listed by date: 'Oregon’; 'Ellens Air Base, Idaho'; 'Lake Okobogee'; 'Eugene Victor Tooms’. Mulder scissored his fingers, squinting, then looked up at her, startled.
'Lab reports,' Scully said softly, '...x-rays, recording transcripts, coroner’s reports, all attached.' She tapped her fingers nervously on his chest. 'I mean, it’s just my own observations, and technically it's all still classified. Maybe you'll want to expand upon it. Substantiate, refute...'
Mulder was silent. Her reports were one-sided, of course, mere addendums; myopic when compared to those sibylline reams of files reduced to char. And the amount of voluntary hours she'd invested—going over her notes on lunch breaks; typing on motel beds; calling him late to pin down some detail—were a little ridiculous.
He wasn't even looking at the screen, but was gazing up at her, and she felt, like the decay spin flip of phosphorescence, her outline in the green light, tousle-haired and topless. His face was strangely unreadable. An echo came to her: his sick, distrusting voice, calling her out for always taking her little notes!
‘It's true, initially I didn’t do it for you, I did it because I was reporting on you,’ she admitted, a little defensively. ‘And because I am an investigator. And then, after a while, it was just habit, my way of working through my impressions, of arguing my point.' She swallowed, chilly now. She wanted to roll down beside him and pull the comforter over her head, and they could sleep, two washed-up crime fighters, through the worst of the storm. In her own way, she had sabotaged his career by helping him prove up the X-Files division, when his investigative gifts would have better served Violent Crimes. Looking down at the odd list of files, she saw how makeshift and distorted a record it was. 'Maybe, Mulder, in a cumulative sense, it's more of a testament to our time together.'
Mulder surged up then, and his thick warm arms went around her, and he sighed roughly as he laid his cheek over her heart. Scully, relieved, put her arm around his head and looked up at the gleam of storm light in the window.
His gritty jaw rasped her skin. 'And somehow, Scully, all those files,' he said, as her fingers sorted the rumpled plush of his head, 'all those files are the story of how you saved my life.'
'The story of us,' Scully said.