Apogee

Cover

TITLE: Apogee

AUTHOR: Brandon D. Ray

EMAIL ADDRESS: publius@avalon.net

DISTRIBUTION STATEMENT: Do not archive at gossamer;I’ll send it there myself. Archived exclusively at the “I Made This” website, until August 10, 2001. After that date, anywhere is fine, so long as my name stays on it and no money changes hands.

FEEDBACK: Go ahead; knock yourself out. Ephemeral: *FEEDBACK*publius@avalon.net

SPOILER STATEMENT: Honking big ones for Biogenesis/6E/AF. Smaller ones for Tempus Fugit/Max; The Red and the Black; Two Fathers/One Son; Sein Under Zeit/Closure; Brand X. Also: significant spoilers for VS8 episode “A Burden Shared“, by Ten, and rather vague ones for “Devil’s Advocate“, by Vickie Moseley & Susan Proto.

RATING: PG-13

CONTENT STATEMENT: MSR. Some bad language, including the “f” word. Religious content.

CLASSIFICATION: X-File (mythology), Romance, Angst

SUMMARY: When key evidence from an old case unexpectedly reappears, Mulder and Scully embark on an investigation that is literally out of this world.

DISCLAIMER: Not mine. Never will be. I had a really witty, biting disclaimer written, and then CC went and gave us “Existence”, and bought me off again. I am *such* a sucker.

THANKS: To Sharon & Vickie for the encouragement, and to CindyET for going over it with a fine-toothed comb and attempting to correct my screw ups. Any that remain are there because I was too stubborn to listen to her. 😉

Apogee

by Brandon D. Ray

TEASER

International Space Station

Tuesday, October 9, 2001

3:12 p.m., Greenwich Mean Time

The Earth was a sphere of sapphire and cotton, floating silently against the velvet backdrop of space. Countless thousands of stars, in every color of the rainbow, provided a brilliant, unwavering counterpoint, like so many perfect gems gleaming in the darkness.

But dominating the view, overwhelming everything else by the sheer imposition of its presence, was the vast, hulking shadow of the alien Ship.

That was how the team spoke of it, Avram thought: the Ship. In capital letters, and always in hushed tones of voice, as might be used in a cathedral. This was the opportunity of a lifetime; something he and his predecessors had awaited in vain for the better part of half a century. Others dabbled in biology and genetics, hoping to find answers in those fields, but Avram and his colleagues knew better. The only way out of the crisis that faced the human race lay with the Ship.

The frustration of those decades of waiting still coiled tightly in Avram’s heart. To know — to have absolute certitude — that there was only one path to salvation… well, that was hard enough. To be denied access to the materials necessary to finding that path, when you knew full well that those materials were there, somewhere, ready for use, if only you knew where to look… that way lay madness. But now….

He moved a little closer to the window, shifting his grip on the handhold so that he wouldn’t drift away — and to avoid the spattering of dried blood that no one had bothered to clean off after they boarded the space station and disposed of the original crew. A few minutes ago they had passed across the east coast of the United States; now they were approaching Africa. Africa, the cradle of humanity, where proto-hominids first walked upright, first learned to use tools, to build a fire, to speak. How fitting, he thought, how inevitable, that mankind’s salvation should emerge from that self-same continent. If he squinted, he fancied he could see the nondescript inlet along the Ivory Coast, where the Ship had first been found, two years before — “Avram, take a look at this.”

With great reluctance, he tore his gaze away from the window, and saw Svetlana floating a few feet away, holding a printout in her hand. He pursed his lips; she was always quick to remind the team that she alone, of the three of them, had previous experience in zero gee. Well and good, he thought complacently. That is why you are here, instead of any of a dozen others. But *I* was put in charge, and let’s not forget that, shall we?

He shifted awkwardly at his perch, and held out his hand to receive her report. With an effortless, indescribable motion, she propelled herself forward, steadying herself on his shoulder before reaching past him to grab the adjacent bracket. She then handed over the printout, and waited in silence while he perused it.

“This seems rather remarkable,” he commented, flipping through the pages. He looked up to catch her gaze, cool and inscrutable as always. “What do you make of it?”

“An equipment failure,” she replied calmly. “Or perhaps a software glitch –”

“There’s nothin’ wrong with the software,” came a rumbling voice from the other side of the compartment. Avram turned his attention to Tommy, the third member of the team. Tommy was from Texas, and he never let anyone forget it. He was also one of the most brilliant cyberneticists alive. “I ran the diagnostics three times,” he continued. “And damned if I could find anything wrong. Everything checks out. It’s gotta be in the instrumentation.”

“Instrumentation, then,” Svetlana said, her voice still calm and even. “But I can find no malfunctions there, either. All of our equipment is in perfect working order.” She gestured at the papers Avram still held in his hand. “And yet….”

“And yet, we find that the Ship’s volume is a variable,” Avram said, completing her sentence for her. “And that at least some of the time, the interior is larger than the exterior.”

She nodded. “And that is impossible.”

Avram sighed. He’d suspected it was going to come to this, ever since the first set of readings the day before. They’d had to check, of course — but somehow, he had known.

“Very well,” he said, directing his words to Tommy. “How soon can we transmit to ground control?”

The other man glanced at his watch. “I can bounce it off one of them GPS jobbies right now. Or, if you’re willing to wait for the next pass, we’ll have a clear line of sight to Lubumbashi in eighty-four minutes.”

Eighty-four minutes. Avram shook his head. That was too long. “Let’s go ahead with the relay,” he decided. Time was their principle enemy on this mission, and the sooner they reported their findings to the ground, the better. He turned his attention back to Svetlana. “And while he does that, you and I are going to go outside and have a look.”

# # #

The view had been beautiful from the window; floating free in a pressure suit, it was nothing short of spectacular. Nothing but emptiness for countless light years in every direction, and yet the stars were so bright and so closely packed that it was impossible for Avram to feel agoraphobic.

Some did feel that way, he knew, and that both puzzled and saddened him. To him, it was simply glorious; this was why, as a boy, he’d become addicted to space, and why he’d sat glued to the television whenever there was a mission in progress. He’d sworn then that somehow he would find a way to go out there himself, and now here he was — “Be careful not to tangle your lines.”

Svetlana’s voice brought him back to himself once again, and he nodded in agreement. “Yes, I see,” he said. He pushed himself carefully along the hull of the station, and flipped one of his two safety lines to the side, as she’d directed. They were here for a reason, he reminded himself firmly. There was no time to play tourist.

With painstaking care, the two space walkers made their way along the hull of the service module. They had not really been trained for this; not even Svetlana had participated in a real EVA in the past.

The mission profile had acknowledged the possible need, and they had been given cursory instruction in how to use the suits and how to maneuver. But time had been very short, and it had always seemed as if there were more important things for them to be doing. It was harder work than Avram had expected. As a boy, he’d always imagined that space walking would be easy, due to the lack of gravity. As he’d grown and studied, he’d come to realize that this was not true, that it was, in fact, very hard work indeed — but the initial, childhood belief had proven impossible to shake. So now, as his breath became labored and sweat drenched his body, he at last was coming to a full appreciation of what it meant to be an astronaut. And he loved it.

At last they reached the end of the service module, bringing the Ship fully into view. And, just like the firmament itself, the Ship was even more impressive and… and *awesome* than it seemed from station’s window. Long and dark and sleek — and yet, it almost seemed to be alive. Those strange symbols covering the hull — symbols that had already been photographed and transmitted groundside for analysis. What could they mean? They were human languages, that had already been ascertained. But the meaning….

Avram shook himself, and once more tried to focus on his task. The instrument package that they had brought with them was still in place, and Svetlana was already opening it up and going over the hardware. The package was the size of a large refrigerator, and Avram watched in fascination as his colleague’s fingers danced through the jumble of circuitry, nimble and dexterous despite the thick gloves of her pressure suit.

“There is nothing wrong here,” she reported, as she continued to work. “It is as I told you. The instruments are fine.”

“There must be something,” Avram objected. He slapped a hand against the side of the service module in frustration. “Those readings are absolutely –”

“Avram! You’re drifting!” Svetlana’s voice cut through his own comment.

“What? Oh, shit.” He was indeed drifting — drifting away from the station’s hull, propelled by the slap he’d given it. Already, several yards separated him from the station, and the gap was growing by the second.

I was not trained for this, he thought angrily. It was never really intended that we go outside, and I don’t know how to handle myself.

He reached for the line that tethered him to the service module, but it slithered out of his grasp. He twisted his torso, reaching after it, but succeeded only in putting his body into a slow spin. God damn it!

“Relax, Avram,” Svetlana advised. “Stop struggling, and try to relax. The line is only fifty meters long; you’ll come to the end shortly, and then I can pull you back in.”

Avram nodded, and forced himself to follow her advice. It was humiliating, but it was the best way. The stars, the Earth and the station were wheeling slowly across his field of view, replacing each other one after another in a steady, stately pinwheel, making him slightly motion sick. He managed to focus his gaze, and realized that he was gradually approaching the Ship. In fact he would pass within arm’s reach of it….

Without really thinking about it, he extended his arm, reaching out to the hull of the strange vessel. Here was a chance to steady himself, and at least regain some semblance of dignity. Just one more revolution… yes, there it was, it was within reach — And suddenly, everything changed. The stars, the station, the Earth, Svetlana — everything was gone. All that remained was the Ship. And then even the Ship was gone — Avram is in another place, standing on the bank of a large body of water — so large that he can’t see across to the other side. The water is dark and ominous, and roils and dances as if it were a living thing, despite the absence of even the slightest breath of wind. There’s a pattern to its motions, but he can’t quite make it out….

And then his eyes widen, as he realizes what is happening. The water… the water is actually dividing into two; it’s moving *apart*, forming a rapidly deepening trough at its very center, stretching away from him towards the horizon. In a matter of seconds it has completely separated, leaving a muddy, glistening strip of land in its place — a strip of land bounded on either side by towering, ever-growing walls of dark, threatening water.

It would be madness to walk out between those walls; of that, Avram is sure. The water is separating through no force he can discern, and it could collapse back into itself just as quickly and easily. A man would have to be a complete idiot to take such a risk. But even as the thought is forming in his mind, he finds himself moving forward. The hard, sandy shore he stands on quickly gives way to soft, marshy ground, and he finds himself struggling to move forward. This is stupid, he tells himself fiercely. This is absolutely insane. With each step, he wills himself to turn around and go back. He can *feel* himself doing it; he can feel himself turning and moving back to the safety of dry land.

And yet, he does not. It occurs to him that there is safety on the far side, and that there is more danger in remaining where he is than there is in proceeding. Where this knowledge comes from, he doesn’t know, but the farther he progresses, the more this certainty settles within his heart. And so it is with agonizing slowness that he continues to pull each foot free of the mud in turn, making a horrible sucking sound as he does so, moving ever forward. The walls of water tremble threateningly on either side, and now are so high that they block the sun. But even that does not deter him.

He has progressed perhaps five hundred yards when his luck runs out. He hears it first as a low rumbling, like a giant subway train far in the distance. He hesitates, squinting ahead, trying to deduce the source of the noise, but there is nothing there — nothing as far as the eye can see, except for the towering walls of water, forming a seemingly endless, dark corridor. Safety lies at the end of that corridor, of that he is sure, but the rumbling is growing louder, building rapidly towards a roar. He turns and looks behind him — and for an instant he is frozen in fear.

The walls behind him are collapsing, coming down and moving steadily towards him, like walls of dominoes. Already the shore he came from is invisible, hidden in the mist of that terrible cataract. And with each second the crashing roar is coming nearer, nearer, nearer….

He shakes himself from his stupor and turns to run, but he makes it only a few steps before he loses his footing and falls to his knees.

Hastily, awkwardly, he struggles back to his feet. There is no time, no time for anything but flight. His only chance is to make it to the other side, but with each step he sinks a little deeper in the mud. It’s up to his ankles now, and seems to be pulling at him, seems to be actively trying to bring him down. At last, far, far in the distance, he can see the other shore, but it’s too far; he isn’t going to make it. Every breath burns in his lungs, and now he’s surrounded by the mist — the mist that foretells the coming of the water. He falls again, and once more scrambles back to his feet, but this time he makes it only a few steps before falling yet a third time. He just has time to look back and see the massive, unified wall of water towering high overhead before it sweeps over him, leaving nothing behind.

ACT ONE

Residence of Dana Scully

Washington, D.C.

Friday, October 12, 2001

7:02 p.m.

Mulder was late. Thank God.

Scully studied herself in the full-length mirror that hung on the back of her bedroom door. This was not that big a deal, she told herself firmly. It was just Mulder, after all. Just her partner of eight years. Just her best friend, and the only one she trusted in all the world.

Just her lover.

Jesus. She still wasn’t completely adjusted to that last part.

“Let me get this straight,” she’d said, two days earlier, standing in the doorway to their office. It was nearly five o’clock, and she’d been on her way out the door when he stopped her with his question, or request, or whatever the hell it was. “You just asked me out. On a date.”

“For Friday night,” Mulder agreed. He was leaning back in his chair, sleeves rolled up, glasses perched on the bridge of his nose, hands clasped loosely behind his head. Only the slight quiver of tension in the muscles of his forearms belied the studied casualness of his pose. “Is that such an extreme possibility?”

Not such an extreme possibility, the rational part of her acknowledged. They’d had a standing Friday night date for some time now — but that was to stay in and watch movies together. More recently, they’d progressed to cuddling and necking, and finally to lovemaking, but so far it had all been confined to his apartment, or hers. They’d never been out in public before — not as a couple — and the idea was giving her the jitters.

It was also exciting her.

Mulder rose from his chair and moved slowly towards her, and Scully felt her eyes widening as she realized that she was being, well, stalked — but she did not back away. “I … we’ve missed so much of the good stuff, Scully,” he said, speaking so softly she could barely hear him. “I just want to take my best girl out for a night on the town. Is that so wrong?”

“*Best* girl?” she asked, pleased that she’d managed not to stutter in the face of her partner’s looming presence. She crossed her arms in front of her and cocked an amused eyebrow at him. “Is there something I should know about, Mulder?”

“Only girl,” he amended, even more softly than before. He was now standing directly in front of her, so close that she could smell the remnants of his aftershave. He touched her elbow, sending sparks jolting through her system, and lightly ran his fingertips down to her wrist, repeating, “Only girl.”

“Mulder,” she managed, now forcing herself to take a reluctant step back. “Not at the office. We agreed.”

He smiled, and she knew he was awarding himself a point. Bastard. “Quite right, Agent Scully,” he replied, in a more normal tone of voice. “So … Friday night? Around seven?” Then came the killer point: “Saturday is my birthday, after all. The big 4-0. Aren’t I entitled to one last fling before they ship me out to the Old Agents’ Home?”

So here she was, looking at herself in a mirror, wishing she’d taken the extra time to get her hair cut Thursday night. And she wasn’t sure her clothes were right, either. She’d wavered, going back and forth between trying to be sexy and feminine, and trying not to be *too* ridiculous, finally settling on an ankle length skirt, and a soft, light blue angora sweater with a vee neck.

“‘Casual’,” she mumbled, turning first one way and then the other as she continued to examine herself in the mirror. “He said ‘casual’.” She shook her head in despair. “This is not ‘casual’; this is a disaster.” She was just turning back to her closet to look for something else when her cell phone rang. With a sigh of annoyance, she stepped over to the bureau and grabbed the phone.

“Yes, I know you’re late,” she said, without preamble.

There was a brief pause; then a man’s voice said, “Agent Scully, this is Assistant Director Skinner.”

“Skinner,” she replied. Automatically, she backed away from the closet, until the backs of her legs bumped against the bed. Sitting down abruptly, she went on, “Sir. What can I do for you?”

“I’m sorry to intrude on your weekend, Agent Scully,” her supervisor said. “But I’m afraid I have an assignment for you.”

“An assignment,” Scully repeated, trying to adjust to the quick change in mood. Thirty seconds ago she’d been trying to decide whether the clothes she was wearing were suggestive enough to send Mulder the right message, without creating too much of a public spectacle in the process, and now –

“That’s right,” the A.D. replied. “And I also regret the short notice. But I need you to get out to Andrews immediately. Your briefing is scheduled to begin in less than an hour.”

“Briefing?” she asked. “At Andrews?” Andrews Air Force Base was located a few miles southeast of Washington, just outside of the Beltway. Scully suppressed a shudder as she thought about it, and tried to remember the last time she or Mulder had legally entered a military installation. “Sir, what’s this all about?”

There was a brief pause at the other end, and Scully could almost hear Skinner frowning. Finally: “Agent Scully, I have to confess that I am unable to answer that question. I’ve been informed that the nature of the assignment is on a need-to-know basis, and I apparently do not have a need to know. However, I can assure you that the officer managing the operation has established his bona fides to my satisfaction, or I would not have agreed to your participation. I can’t say anymore than that over an unsecured line.”

There was another short silence, and Scully could hear papers rustling. “In any case,” her boss went on, “you are to report to Andrews as soon as possible. I’ve been told that you should expect to be gone for at least ten days, but that you need bring no luggage. All of your personal necessities will be provided. I’ve already spoken with Agent Mulder, and he said to tell you that he’ll meet you there. Do you have any questions?’

At least a thousand, she thought — perhaps more. But apparently none that Skinner could — or would — answer, so she simply said, “No, sir.”

“Very well, Agent Scully. Good luck.” And the connection was broken.

# # #

Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland

8:14 p.m.

Mulder paced in long, slow ovals next to his car, under the watchful eyes of the two Air Police sentries guarding the gate. He’d arrived twenty minutes before, and now was waiting for Scully, still a little bemused that nothing untoward had happened when he presented himself at the main entrance. At least, so far he hadn’t been beaten, arrested, drugged or subjected to any of the various indignities that usually accompanied his visits to military facilities. Of course, they hadn’t actually let him beyond a holding area just inside the gate, but still….

He stopped pacing for a moment, and his gaze drifted over to the jeep parked on the other side of the road, about twenty feet from where he stood. The vehicle had been there since he arrived, its engine slowly turning over, its headlights illuminating the guardhouse. The sentries seemed oblivious to the jeep’s presence — which was only fair, since the Marine Corps major and the Navy commander sitting in the jeep were paying them no attention, either.

But all four of them were watching Mulder’s every move. Mulder shook his head and turned away, jamming his hands in his pockets and resuming his pacing. This wasn’t exactly how he’d planned to spend his Friday evening. Dinner, a movie… maybe a little barhopping. A late night walk through Rock Creek Park. Was a few hours of normality in their lives really too much to ask?

Apparently so. He stopped pacing again as another set of headlights appeared in the distance, approaching the gate from the outside. A few seconds later Scully’s Camry was rolling to a stop, and her face became visible behind the windshield. She exchanged a few sentences with the guards, then was allowed to enter the base. She parked her car next to Mulder’s, climbed out of it, and walked over to where he was standing.

“Hey there… Gorgeous?” Mulder said in a slow drawl, allowing an appreciative smile to creep across his features, despite the circumstances. He let his gaze briefly travel up and down her body, taking in the long, billowy skirt, and the soft, not-quite-revealing sweater. Nice, he thought, with a fresh pang of regret. Damn. I think we missed a good time tonight.

She cocked an eyebrow at him, considering, then shook her head. “No, I don’t think so,” she replied, a hint of a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.

“Well, we’ll just have to keep working on it,” he answered, locking eyes with her. A few weeks ago he’d announced a campaign to find a term of endearment that Dana Scully would deem acceptable to her innate sense of dignity. She’d just shot down alternative number fourteen. That was fine with Mulder. He had plenty of others he hadn’t tried yet.

“Agents Mulder and Scully?” Mulder reluctantly looked away from his partner, to see that the Marine Corps major had left the jeep, and now stood a few feet away, staring at them with cool, expressionless eyes. Mulder cocked an eyebrow at the soldier as he realized that the man’s nametag was missing from his breast pocket, and that he was not wearing any unit insignia. “I have orders to take you to the briefing,” the major stated, nodding his head towards the jeep. “If you’ll both come with me?”

Mulder glanced at Scully. She shrugged eloquently, and nodded, and the two of them fell in step as they followed the man back to the jeep. A few seconds later they were climbing in back, as the Marine settled once more into the front passenger seat. The Navy officer threw the vehicle into gear, pulled a sharp u-turn, and sped on into the base.

The drive through the base was short and silent. Anonymous buildings loomed out of the darkness, and road signs and directories flashed by so quickly that Mulder couldn’t make out more than a word or two before they were gone. They passed through several security checkpoints without incident, and soon were approaching flight operations. But instead of driving up to it, they skirted it on an access road, cleared one final security check, and finally drove out onto the tarmac itself, coming to a halt a hundred feet or so from an unmarked business jet.

The other two men climbed from the jeep, but Mulder sat tight. Scully didn’t move either. The Navy man and the Marine made it about five paces before they realized that they weren’t being followed. They turned back to the jeep, their features still calm, expressionless.

“Agents?” the Marine said. “If you’ll come with us, please? There really isn’t very much time.”

“Where are we going, exactly?” Mulder asked. The resentment he’d felt ever since receiving Skinner’s call was rising to the surface, blending itself with unease at finding himself once again at the mercy of strangers in uniform.

“Agent Mulder, please,” the Marine replied. He nodded towards the aircraft. “Your briefing will be conducted en route, to save time.”

He glanced at Scully, and added, in the same cool, even tones, “The fucking fish said to tell you to get your ass in gear.”

Mulder blinked in surprise, but before he had a chance to respond he felt Scully stirring next to him. “The fucking fish said that?” she asked. He turned his head, and saw an odd little smile on her face.

“Yes, Agent Scully.”

“Well, I guess that’s it, then,” she replied. She climbed from her seat and jumped to the ground. She hesitated for a second, then turned and reached out and took one of Mulder’s hands, pulling him out after her. If either of the military officers thought the not- quite-partnerly gesture unusual, it didn’t show on their faces.

“Let’s go, Mulder. I think it’s okay.” He allowed her to lead him over to the plane, but his mind was working furiously. The fucking fish? Get your ass in gear? What the hell was *that* all about? Scully had responded to it instantly, so it obviously meant something to her. But what? For the first time in their long partnership, Mulder was getting a taste of what it was like when the other person knows more than you do, and he didn’t like it.

Well, nothing to do but go with it, at least for the moment. Skinner had assured him on the phone that this wasn’t a trap of some kind, but despite the thaw in their relationship in recent months, the A.D. had been manipulated and forced to act against their interests once too often for Mulder to take everything he said at face value. But if Scully thought it was okay, then it must be okay — even if he didn’t understand the source of her confidence.

He followed her and the two officers up the steps of the plane and stepped inside, and as quickly as that, he knew. Another man stood just inside the entryway waiting for them. A Navy officer. Tall, red hair, blue eyes, pale complexion — and with a face Mulder had seen many times in photographs, but never in person.

Charles Scully. The mythical younger Scully brother. “Charlie Tuna!” Scully said, quickly closing the gap and throwing her arms around her brother. He returned the embrace with easy familiarity, lifting her briefly off her feet and setting her down again. “It’s been too long,” she went on, looking up at him fondly.

“Are Betty and the kids –”

“No.” He shook his head sharply, and the friendly smile he’d been wearing died. “No one knows I’m here, Dana. No one *can* know, and that goes for Mom and Billy, as well. As far as they know, I’m still with the Sixth Fleet’s Threat Team. Okay?” Mulder had already noted that, like the other two men, Scully’s brother wore no nametag or unit insignia.

“Okay,” she agreed. She was still looking up at him, but her expression had sobered. Now she reached up and delicately touched his collar. “*Captain* Scully?” she asked, her voice tinged with surprise and skepticism.

“Don’t tell Billy,” he replied with a wintry smile. “I don’t want to have to deal with the tantrum.” The smile died again. “It’s brevet rank, Dana. Strictly temporary, to allow me to carry out my duties more effectively.” At last he released her, and turned to face Mulder — and now his expression was cool and professional, almost remote, much as those the other two officers still wore. “Agent Mulder,” he said, extending his hand. “A pleasure to meet you at last. Sorry about the circumstances.”

“The pleasure’s mine, Captain,” Mulder said slowly, returning the other man’s grip. He glanced at his partner, and saw that she was watching the two of them intently. What was she looking for? Was this man another Bill? Or was there something else going on? He couldn’t tell — and at the moment, it wasn’t the most important issue to consider. Apparently Charles Scully thought so, too, because after a moment he broke eye contact, released Mulder’s hand, and without another word he led the two agents back to the passenger compartment.

The other two officers had preceded them, and had already taken seats. The compartment was furnished as a boardroom-style meeting room, with a long conference table where the center aisle would normally be, and seats spaced around it. The seats were bolted to the floor, and were designed to swivel to face the front during takeoffs and landings. A video screen was set into the front bulkhead, and desktop computers were spaced around the table. The floor was covered with a deep, luxurious carpet.

Some digs, Mulder thought as he surveyed the setup. He was still feeling a little jittery, and with a normal, anonymous military briefer, he probably would have relieved some of that tension by voicing that comment, or perhaps something a bit stronger. But this was Scully’s brother, he reminded himself. It was probably better to lie low for the time being.

Things then progressed very quickly. As Mulder was taking a seat next to Scully and fumbling with his safety belt, two men in flight suits passed through the compartment, from back to front. Almost immediately, he heard the engines start, and the plane jerked into motion. A few minutes later, they were in the air.

“So where are we going?” Mulder demanded, as they all adjusted their seats to face the conference table. Scully was sitting next to him, still looking tense from a more dramatic than usual takeoff. She’d never quite gotten over her fear of flying, even after all these years of constant travel. Mulder was feeling a little green about the gills, himself; for a minute or two he’d wondered if the plane was going to flip over on its back.

“Houston, Texas,” Charles Scully answered. He pulled a briefcase from under his seat and opened it. He extracted a couple of binders and slid them across the table to the two agents. “You’ll want to look at the details,” he continued. “But let me give you a little background first — and I’m going to warn you up front that you’re going to have a lot of questions, and I won’t be able to answer some of them. This material is heavily compartmentalized, need-to-know only. Understood?”

The two agents nodded, and Charles continued, “From the background checks we did on you, I have a general idea of the work you two do, and we don’t have a lot of time, so I’m simply going to lay this out.” He leaned forward, folding his hands in front of him on the table. “There is a small, unofficial group within the intelligence community that has come to believe that there is a conspiracy against the government.”

Mulder carefully kept his face expressionless, and out of the corner of his eye he could see that Scully was doing the same. After a few seconds, her brother continued, “That doesn’t seem to be much of a shock to either of you. That’s what I thought. You probably also won’t be surprised to hear that some of us further believe that this conspiracy extends past the United States, and encompasses the entire industrialized world.”

“Tell us something we don’t know,” Mulder murmured. Scully glanced at him, one eyebrow quivering, but he couldn’t tell whether it was from annoyance or amusement. A large part of him was screaming that this was a trap; he had bitter memories of Michael Kritschgau. But this was Scully’s brother, he reminded himself again. This was her *brother*. Surely, if anyone was entitled to the benefit of the doubt — “Because of the lack of official sanction for our activities, the group I belong to has very limited resources,” Charles went on. He smiled briefly, without humor. “There’s also the small problem of not being sure who we can trust.”

Yeah. Mulder knew about that, too.

“So we’ve been forced to nibble around the edges,” Captain Scully said. “Pick up the odd fact here, make a few inferences there, and gradually try to connect the dots. All while doing our regular work, of course, and doing our best to avoid alerting the targets of our investigations. Some of us also have to be careful not to tip off our supervisors of record.”

He leaned towards his sister, his eyes taking on an intensity that Mulder recognized only because he’d seen it in the mirror on so many mornings. “This is really big, Dana.” His voice was low and firm. “It goes back at least fifty years — maybe more. It reaches into every branch of government, and Christ knows how many foreign countries.”

For a few seconds the compartment was silent, other than the distant rumble of the jet engines. Mulder studied the man’s face, trying to divine his intent. He looked serious and sincere — but was he? Sure, Mulder knew that the things he was saying were true – but that didn’t mean he should necessarily trust the man. What, exactly, was Charles Scully’s involvement in all this? And what was he asking his sister and her partner to do? Mulder shook his head slightly. He didn’t know the answers to any of those questions, and it was clear that the other man was determined to tell the story in the manner of his own choosing. They were just going to have to wait and see.

“Ten days ago,” Charles continued at last, almost as if he’d been waiting for Mulder to finish thinking, “NSA assets detected unusual burst transmissions originating from the International Space Station. Most of the signals were directed at Lubumbashi, at the southern tip of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “Back in the 1970s, Lubumbashi was a base of operations for a West German company called OTRAG. Ostensibly, the company’s purpose was to create a non-governmental space program, in order to facilitate commercial exploitation of near-Earth space. In fact, it also had ties with various western intelligence agencies, including the CIA. The destruction of OTRAG’s launch facilities was the actual primary goal of the Soviet-backed invasion of what was then known as Zaire by Cuban mercenaries, in 1977. With me so far?”

“Yes,” Scully replied. “What you’re saying is that somebody is sending unauthorized transmissions from the space station to a space launch site long since believed to be destroyed and abandoned.”

“Correct,” her brother affirmed. “Further, we have been unable to decipher these transmissions. Whatever the code is, it’s a damned good one. NSA can and does crack any commercial code in existence, and most military ones.” Another cold smile flickered across his features. “That’s classified information, by the way.” Once again, he sobered.

“As you may be aware,” he continued, “the space station is still under construction; nevertheless, it has been continuously manned since last October — about a year, now. The current crew has been on board since July. However, there was a resupply mission just under two weeks ago, and it was after that mission that the station’s normal pattern of telemetry stopped, to be replaced by the encrypted burst transmissions I mentioned. I must stress, though, that NASA has acknowledged none of this. As far as they’re concerned, everything continues to be copacetic.”

“How can that be?” Scully objected, her brow furrowed in thought. “The crew’s research products would be distributed to a wide variety of people both inside and outside the government. It wouldn’t take long for some of them to realize –”

“Too true, Dana,” Charles agreed with a nod. “At the moment, no data is being released groundside. At all. The blackout is being blamed on technical difficulties with NASA’s data processing system.” He paused to glance at Mulder, then back to his sister. “As you might imagine, this is not playing well with the station’s other stakeholders, especially overseas, and the excuses are wearing more than a little thin. My group’s contact at NSA has confirmed that… well, let’s just say that we know there is nothing wrong with NASA’s equipment. Which means that the NASA hierarchy is in this up to their eyeballs.”

“In what?” Mulder asked. He was starting to get an inkling as to where this was heading, but he wanted the other man to spell it out. “What are you leading up to?”

“We did some research,” Charles replied. “And we discovered through… various means that the resupply mission was commandeered.”

“By who?” Scully prompted.

“We don’t know,” her brother replied with a shake of his head. “All we know is that three people, two men and a woman, were placed on that flight at the last minute, and that their names and functions do not appear on the manifest. They also took up several extra payloads — but again, what those payloads were, we don’t know. The official payloads scheduled for that flight also went up — mostly supplies and spare parts, as I said. And the shuttle returned two days later, empty, except for the pilot and co-pilot. But they aren’t talking. Not to anyone who will talk to us, anyway.”

“So the three unknowns stayed aboard,” Mulder commented. “Along with their luggage.”

“Apparently. And it was after their arrival that the regular telemetry ceased, and the burst transmissions began. And then, three days ago, the burst transmissions increased in frequency – and abruptly stopped altogether a few hours later.”

“So what happened?” That was Scully, and from the tension in her voice, Mulder suspected that she had also figured out where Charles was leading them.

“Again, we don’t know,” he answered. “But we’re going to find out. We have four flag officers in our group, and they’ve called in every favor available. The upshot is, we’ve diverted the next launch of space shuttle Atlantis to our own use, and we’re sending up a handpicked crew to find out what the hell’s going on.” Once again he leaned towards his sister, and the intensity in his gaze deepened. “We can’t afford to sit this one out, Dana, and we’ve got our collective necks stuck way out. The commander and the major,” he nodded at the other two men, who had sat quietly throughout the briefing, “are the pilots. We’ve chosen two others as technical experts.” He paused, glanced at Mulder again, very briefly, then finished, “And then there’s the two of you.”

“The two of us?” Scully repeated.

“That’s right, Dana,” her brother agreed. “I know it sounds nutty, but I also think it makes sense, and my admiral agrees. Quite frankly, some of the things we’ve been finding out are scaring me, and I’m not sure who I can trust. You and your partner have some basic knowledge of counterespionage, because of your FBI backgrounds. You also probably know more about the conspiracy than *I* do and, well, you’re family.” He smiled, grimly and briefly. “One of the first things you learn in intelligence work is that you shouldn’t put too much faith in such connections, but in this case, I don’t feel I have much choice.”

“That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement,” Mulder said into the ensuing silence.

Charles Scully looked at him and nodded unapologetically. “No, it’s not,” he replied. “But in this line of work, sometimes you have to make do. I’m sure that’s not a new idea to either of you.” He looked at Mulder speculatively for another moment, then turned his attention back to Scully. “In any case, you’d better get started with those briefing books. We’ll be landing in Houston in a couple of hours, and then your *real* training begins.” He glanced at his watch. “Lift off is in just over seventy-two hours.”

ACT TWO

Kennedy Space Center

Cape Canaveral, Florida

Monday, October 15, 2001

11:01 p.m.

“This is Shuttle Launch Control, at T minus nine minutes and holding.” Scully started at the sudden voice blaring from the overhead speaker, then swore softly to herself for overreacting. The voice continued, “In a few seconds we will be leaving the forty minute planned hold and resuming the countdown. The project managers have been polled, and verify that they are go for launch. Final GLS configuration is complete.” There was a brief pause, and Scully found herself holding her breath. “We have GLS auto sequence start, and operations recorders are on. We are now exiting the planned hold; T minus nine minutes and counting. This is Shuttle Launch Control.”

Damn. It wasn’t that she actually wanted the launch to be scrubbed; Charles had convinced her of the necessity during the flight to Houston that first night. But although she’d long since become resigned to flying, due to her work on the X-Files and the need for frequent travel, she’d never gotten to like it. And this… this was nothing she’d ever thought might happen. Not in her wildest imaginings. For some people — including her partner — this was a dream; the opportunity of a lifetime. For Dana Scully, it was a nightmare.

She shifted uncomfortably in her seat, trying for the thousandth time in the past three days to push the unpleasant thoughts and feelings away, and suppressed another curse as the shoulder harness bit into the side of her neck. The technician who’d helped her buckle in had cinched it a little too tight, but Scully had been reluctant to complain.

That was three hours ago. Three hours of waiting in this damned, uncomfortable seat, while the restraint slowly cut off her circulation. Damn NASA for their schedules and protocols – schedules and protocols that had resulted in three hours of *planned* discomfort. And she’d thought the Bureau was bad! She’d certainly learned all she ever wanted to know about NASA, and then some, over the past three days. From the moment they arrived in Houston, late on Friday evening, every waking hour — including some that should have been spent sleeping — had been devoted to plans and preparations. Scully understood that they were trying to cram months of training into a long weekend, but that knowledge simply added to her stress level. God alone knew what was being left out — or how much of what they had been told she was going to remember when she really needed it. This whole thing was preposterous.

She turned her head to the left and looked at the two Russians sitting in the adjacent seats. Azerbaijani, she corrected in her mind. The two technical specialists had been quite sensitive about that distinction. At the moment, they seemed calm and unperturbed — but of course, *they* had been trained for this sort of thing. They were volunteers. Well, so was she — sort of.

Her only consolation was that Mulder appeared to be having the time of his life. He was like a kid in a candy store, and watching him dive into it all had helped Scully take her mind off of her own troubles. She shuddered in spite of herself; she still couldn’t decide which she’d hated more — the centrifuge, or that damned airplane. What had the flight crew called it? The one that was supposed to acclimate them to weightlessness — the vomit comet, that was it. Those long, looping trajectories that made the deck of the plane drop out from under her. She was falling, falling, falling — No she wasn’t. She was *not* falling. She was strapped in her seat, secure as could be. She’d taken her undergraduate degree in physics; she knew better than most people exactly what forces would be operating in a few minutes when Atlantis leapt up off the launching pad. Everything was going to be fine; perfectly fine —

“Hey, Scully.”

Scully jumped. “Mulder,” she said. “What?”

“You remember that copier on the third floor of the Hoover? The one that always gets a paper jam when you most need it?” His voice was low, for her ears only, and tinged with amusement. Bless him; he was trying to divert her with one of his little jokes or stories.

“Yeah,” she said. “What about it?”

“It was purchased on a government contract,” her partner replied, mischief dancing in his eyes. “From the lowest bidder.” He paused for a fraction of a second. “Too.”

Scully closed her eyes and swallowed. Through gritted teeth: “Mulder, you are such an asshole.”

A soft chuckle. “That’s why you love me.”

Scully couldn’t bring herself to answer. The hellish thing was, he was right. His irreverence, his disrespect for authority, even his occasional displays of attitude — these were all things that she found attractive in him. No, more than attractive. Compelling. Necessary. Dana Scully had long ago reconciled herself to the fact that she was drawn to “bad boys”. But such liaisons did have their price — such as now, when what she wanted more than anything was to be cuddled and cherished, and told that she didn’t need to be afraid. She heard a distant clunking sound, but before she had time to wonder what it was, the overhead speaker sounded again. “This is Shuttle Launch Control, at T minus seven minutes, thirty seconds and counting. The orbiter access arm has been successfully retracted, and we are go for APU prestart.”

The orbiter access arm. Once again, Scully couldn’t keep herself from shuddering. The orbiter access arm included the walkway they’d used to reach the crew compartment. They were truly cut off now, with no way out other than the escape slide that they’d been told about, but lacked the time to practice on. Scully suspected the lack of practice time meant the slide was more for show than for use.

>From the hurried reading she’d done in the last few days, it seemed to her that if anything went wrong, they’d either have plenty of time, or none at all —

“Scully?” Mulder’s voice was quieter this time, more serious. Once again she turned her head to look at him, but this time she didn’t speak. “Do you remember the moon landing?” he asked after a moment.

“No,” she replied with a shake of the head. “I was too young. And the space program wasn’t a big deal in my family, anyway.”

“I was seven years old,” Mulder said. “Going on eight. It was… it was … I dunno. I just don’t know how to describe it. It was the most wonderful thing I’d ever seen in my life.” He paused for a moment, obviously struggling to find the words, and Scully found herself being drawn in, captured by the intensity of his gaze and his voice. “It was like … magic. Can you imagine, Scully? Can you?”

“I’m trying, Mulder,” she said, as steadily as she could. “Tell me about it, and maybe I’ll be able to.” Anything to take her mind off what was about to happen.

“Okay.” He glanced briefly past her, apparently gauging whether the other two in the crew compartment could hear him. Lowering his voice a little, he went on, “It was in July, but you probably already know that.” She nodded. “It was in July,” he repeated. “A rainy evening. We were actually in D.C. that summer — Dad and Samantha and me, I mean. Mom didn’t like it in Washington, especially during hot weather.”

Scully nodded again, suddenly wishing that she could reach out and take his hand. These glimpses of his childhood — especially his childhood before the loss of his sister — were so rare and precious to her. Her fears of a moment ago were forgotten; she just wanted to crawl into his arms and listen all night, to whatever he felt like telling her. “Go on,” she whispered.

“There wasn’t a lot of television in those days,” he continued, his warm, hazel eyes locked on hers. “No cable. D.C. had, I dunno, six or eight stations, and a couple of them were UHF, and you had to have a special antenna to get them.” He smiled. “No Playboy Channel. How barbaric is that?”

“Primitive,” she agreed.

“Anyway,” Mulder went on, “they took everything else off the air. I mean, for a couple of days there was nothing on TV but this continuous special report. It was as if the whole world was holding its breath. They said later that one fourth of the world’s population heard or saw at least part of it. I remember this one ad they kept showing — about how someday they’d be able to replace telephone wires with beams of light, or make transistors so small they’d pass through the eye of a needle.”

“Fiber optics,” Scully said. “And microchips.”

He nodded, and his voice abruptly dropped so low she could barely hear him. “And then suddenly it was real,” he said. “It was really happening. The picture was black and white, and so grainy you could barely tell what you were looking at. But then you… you learned how to look at it, and you realized that it was a man, hopping slowly down the ladder. And on the screen it suddenly said, ‘Live from the moon’. Scully… it was… it was….” Words seemed to fail him, and he simply shook his head.

“I wish I could have seen it with you,” she said softly. She thought about the keychain he’d given her as a birthday gift, so many years ago. So she’d been right after all, when she’d guessed at its significance. “I wish I could have been there.” How often had they had the opportunity to share something wonderful like that? Their lives were so wrapped up in tragedy and darkness.

They sat in silence for a minute or two, and Scully tried to think about Mulder as a little boy, on the day men landed on the moon for the first time. She felt a brief surge of anger at his mother, for having destroyed all his boyhood pictures, but she quickly suppressed it. Nothing to be done about it, and she still had her imagination….

The overhead speaker blared again, informing her that there were two minutes until launch, and that the external fuel tank had been topped off with liquid hydrogen. Despite herself, Scully found herself being drawn back into the matter at hand. Her traitor memory called up visions of the Hindenburg, and then of Challenger — but the latter tragedy, she vaguely remembered, had had to do with a failure in the solid rocket boosters, not the huge tank of hydrogen strapped to the belly of the ship. And they’d fixed that problem; they must have, or the shuttles wouldn’t be flying again, Mulder’s jokes about the lowest bidder notwithstanding.

More than one hundred launches, she reminded herself, silently reciting a statistic she’d gleaned from the Internet the previous night, in an effort to calm her nerves. More than one hundred launches, and only one failure, and that was years ago. Everything’s going to be fine.

Suddenly, everything seemed to be happening very quickly, giving Scully that breathless feeling of fear and anticipation that she got when a rollercoaster was about to ease over the top of the highest peak. Too late to turn back now. Far, far too late. Her ears buzzed with jargon, as launch control made more announcements, things she thought she should understand, if only she’d had time to really study the damned briefing book. Things about SRB joint heaters and MDM critical commands; and then they were go for redundant set launch sequence start, and the hydraulic power units were started, and dear God there were only twenty-eight seconds left —

“It’s gonna be okay, Scully.”

Scully swallowed and nodded, staring straight ahead. It was going to be okay. Right. She knew that. And if it wasn’t, it would in all probability be over very, very quickly.

There was a sudden roar, a terrible white noise, as the main engines ignited, and Atlantis began to vibrate — but it did not move. Six more seconds, she thought. Six seconds while the engines built to full power. Then the clamps holding the ship down would be released — She heard a deep clunk, and a clang, and the entire shuttle shuddered. Scully felt her pulse increase, but before she had time to articulate in her mind what was happening, her seat *surged* under her. The roar intensified, and Scully realized that the solid rockets were now also firing, and that they were *moving* — lifting up off the pad.

# # #

“Crew confirms roll program. Cheyenne Mountain now controlling. Three engines at 104 percent.”

“‘I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,'” Mulder murmured to himself, under the roar of the engines. “‘And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.'” They were really doing it; they were really moving. With some effort, his weight already increasing under the shuttle’s relentless acceleration, he turned his head to look at Scully — and immediately, all the joy of the moment was sucked out of him.

God, she looked terrible. Not that it was likely to be obvious to anyone but him, but he knew her very well, and she couldn’t hide her feelings from him — not anymore. Not since they’d become lovers. Her fear showed in a thousand different ways, from the tiny crinkles at the corners of her eyes, to the slight thinning of her lips, to the artificial stiffness of her posture — plus countless other clues so subtle that even Mulder couldn’t name them, although he could still perceive them, on some subliminal level.

And they added up to fear. He silently cursed himself for his attempt at humor a few minutes earlier. Damn that smart mouth of his, anyway. He’d long ago learned to use jokes as weapons against fear and despair, but Scully wasn’t like that. He’d known that for a long time, but for many years one of the emotions he’d used his sense of humor against had been his feelings for his partner, as a sort of distancing strategy. Unfortunately, one of the side effects of this was that he tended to be a little blind to her needs, sometimes. He no longer needed to keep Scully at arm’s length, of course, but old habits died hard.

“Passing through max Q. Atlantis go at throttle up.” The engines had let up a bit, as the shuttle passed through the lower, thicker part of the atmosphere. Now that the air was thinning the acceleration built to full strength once again, and Mulder felt himself being pressed deeper into the padding of his seat, as his weight doubled and then tripled. Had it really been more than a minute already? It seemed impossible, but that was when this was supposed to happen, so it must be true.

He wished he could be up on the flight deck, in the pilot’s seat.

He’d seen it at the Air and Space Museum’s IMAX theater on more than one occasion, even dragging Scully along with him a time or two, but this was the real thing. If it were daytime, the sky would be turning a progressively deeper blue. As it was, the stars would be growing gradually brighter, their true colors becoming visible. There’d been some thin, wispy clouds when they walked out to the transport vehicle a few hours earlier; those must already be below them — A dull, clunking sound and a sharp jolt announced that the solid rocket boosters had been jettisoned. Almost immediately, the loudspeaker informed them that they were now thirty miles high, and nearly forty miles east of the launch site. Already their velocity exceeded one mile per second — and of course, they were still accelerating, as the main engines continued to fire.

Once again, Mulder turned his attention to Scully. She was still staring straight ahead, her eyes wide open. Her features were somewhat distorted by the acceleration, but she seemed to be a little calmer now that they were finally on the way. Her lips were moving soundlessly, and after a few seconds Mulder recognized the Ave Maria. In Latin, no less, he thought with a smile. Well, whatever worked for her. Reassured that Scully seemed to be working her way through it – as she always did — Mulder settled back in his seat to enjoy the ride.

# # #

Space Shuttle Atlantis

Mission Elapsed Time: 0 days, 17 hours, 23 minutes, 46 seconds

After chasing the space station for the better part of a day, Atlantis finally matched orbits and was ready to make rendezvous. Scully had spent the time getting used to zero gravity, and doing her best to help Mulder adjust, as he’d become violently motion sick as soon as the engines cut off, only eight and a half minutes into the flight. Fortunately, the shuttle stocked compazine in its first aid kit, Mulder being far from the first space traveler ever to have such a reaction. Despite his discomfort, her partner had insisted on struggling his way to the windows as soon as it was permitted, while Scully floated along behind, anxiously holding a vomit bag at the ready.

Floating. That was something different, Scully had to admit. She’d brushed off Mulder’s pre-launch wisecracks about joining the zero gee club, but now that she was becoming accustomed to it, she realized that there were definite possibilities. Too bad they lacked the time and privacy to take advantage of the situation. Not that Mulder was really up to it, in any case. He wasn’t *that* much better.

She let her gaze drift around the cabin. Once more they were all strapped in their seats, while the pilot maneuvered Atlantis closer to the station. The other two passengers — the Azerbaijani technicians — seemed stoic and reserved, just as they had been throughout the abbreviated training and then the flight itself. They were both short and dark complexioned, and the only names that they’d given were Abbasov and Mahammadov, while the pilots were going by Commander Jones and Major Smith. Everyone seemed to know who she and Mulder were, however. Scully supposed that was reasonable; the two of them were the outsiders, after all. But it still made her uneasy, and made her wonder what else her brother knew that he hadn’t told them.

She’d spent quite a bit of time thinking about Charles’ role in all this, the past few days. As children they’d been very close, and had formed a sort of an alliance against Bill and Melissa — the two younger kids against the two older ones. This affinity had persisted all the way through high school, and although their bond had started to attenuate when Scully left for college, it had never been completely dissolved.

She hadn’t seen much of him the last few years, though — not since she’d been assigned to the X-Files, in fact. Part of her wondered if there was a connection there. Was Charles aware of the Consortium and its activities that far back? Or was it simply part of the larger pattern of social and professional isolation she’d experienced as a result of her partnership with Mulder? If he *had* been aware, what did that say about his failure to warn her about what she was getting herself into, all those years ago?

Did she really know her little brother anymore? Her seat jolted under her, as it had done several times in the past half hour. The pilot was making a number of small course corrections as they approached the space station, preparatory to docking. Much to Mulder’s vocal frustration, they’d been required to strap down before they’d gotten close enough to get a good look at their destination, but now they should be almost there, assuming that they were still on schedule.

Suddenly there was another jolt, much longer than any of the others. Scully was thrown violently forward against her shoulder straps, and her lap belt cut into her waist. Her eyes watered, and she gasped.

The final approach had been described as a series of “gentle nudges”, but this hardly qualified. She felt her pre-launch fear struggling to break free once again, but she ruthlessly suppressed it. Something was wrong — And then, just as abruptly, the pressure was gone. She heard the distant crackling of radios from the flight deck, but the crew compartment speaker remained silent; apparently they had been cut off from whatever conversation was occurring between the pilots and mission control.

The silence in the crew compartment stretched on. A minute passed. Two. Scully looked over at Mulder, but he shook his head without speaking, raising his eyebrows to indicate he had no more idea than she did what was happening. She glanced in the other direction, at Abbasov and Mahammadov, and saw that they were staring placidly at the overhead bulkhead, their faces set in expressionless masks.

It’s not really an *overhead* bulkhead, she reminded herself, trying to distract herself from the latest mystery. They were in orbit now; in free fall. There was no up or down here. No overhead; no underfoot. Every perception was ephemeral, and dependent on the observer. Everything was relative. Einstein was right — “The payload specialists will report to the flight deck.” Scully blinked in surprise at the sudden announcement from the loudspeaker.

Payload specialists — that was NASA speak for her and Mulder and the two technicians. Non-NASA people, non-astronauts, assigned to a specific mission for a specific purpose. Such as this one. Scully found that she’d already unbuckled her harness while she was thinking. A look at Mulder and she saw that he had done the same, although he was moving more cautiously than she, and looked as if his stomach was bothering him again. He nodded, though, and waved for her to precede him. Slowly and carefully, working her way from one handhold to the next, Scully made her way towards the flight deck, glancing occasionally over her shoulder to see that Mulder was following. Abbasov and Mahammadov, who had proven to be more experienced in zero gee, had already reached the short ladder, and were pulling themselves up it, towards the flight deck. A moment or two later, Scully and Mulder followed.

As always, it took Scully a few seconds to get oriented, once she reached the flight deck. The pilot stations were a welter of confusing dials and switches — more than two thousand controls and displays, she remembered from the hasty briefing sessions. Arching over the pilots were six large windows, and through the windows she could see the Earth, huge and round and blue and white, looking closer and far more real than seemed possible.

Surly bonds, indeed, she thought, remembering with a faint smile the poem Mulder had recited for her the night before liftoff. She’d told him the truth when she said the space program hadn’t been important to her family but this — this view of the Earth was quite possibly the most beautiful thing Scully had ever seen.

“Good Christ! What’s that?”

She swiveled sharply to look at Mulder, almost losing her grip on her handhold in the process, but he was not looking back at her. Rather, his gaze was focused out the window on the far left. He was looking at something… he was looking at the space station, she realized. It floated there, perhaps five hundred yards distant, glinting in the sunlight against a backdrop of stars, looking just as it had in the photographs they’d been shown. No, not *just* like the pictures. There was something else there as well. Something large and round and dark. She let go of her handhold, and allowed herself to drift a little closer to the window.

“My God!”

It was the ship. The ship she’d seen in Africa almost two years before. Or if not the same ship, then one very much like it: large and disk shaped, and made of some dark metal. They were too far away for her to see whether there were symbols etched on the surface, but something inside her whispered that they were there. And it was floating in space next to the station, tethered to it by half a dozen cables.

 

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“That’s why we called you up here,” Commander Jones said from the pilot’s seat. His voice was calm and uninflected. The perfect fighter jock, dealing with an unexpected situation. “Your opinions, please. Does the presence of this craft endanger the mission?”

“Where did it come from?” Mulder asked.

“I don’t know, Agent Mulder,” the commander replied. “We’ve had visual contact with the station for quite some time, but we did not see… that until a few minutes ago.” He frowned, as if in disapproval at an unruly universe. “It seemed to materialize out of nothing as we closed to within a thousand meters.” Glancing at one of his instruments: “It still isn’t showing up on radar.”

“That’s impossible,” Scully said.

“Yes, Agent Scully, it is,” Commander Jones agreed. “Nevertheless, it has happened. Again, I require your opinions. Does this phenomenon endanger the safety of the mission?” His gaze flicked to the two Azerbaijani technicians. “Gentlemen? Your views, please.”

Abbasov glanced at Mahammadov and the two exchanged a few muttered sentences in a language Scully didn’t recognize. Abbasov then shrugged, and said, in heavily accented English, “There are too few data. We are unable to make any recommendation.”

“I agree,” Mulder said. He looked at Scully, and his eyelids flickered. “I’ve never seen anything like it, but it’s quite obviously connected to the problem we were sent to investigate. I don’t think we have any choice but to proceed.”

Scully hesitated, as she realized that her partner did not intend to disclose their previous encounter with a ship like this. In a perfect world, they would share all the information they had, in hopes of furthering their collective understanding. This was not a perfect world, and for the moment she saw no alternative but to back Mulder’s play.

“I agree with Agent Mulder,” she said smoothly. “There may be risks, but they are outweighed by the potential gains. I recommend we proceed.”

“Very well,” the commander said with a nod. If he was surprised by their conclusion, he didn’t show it. “Return to your seats, and we will complete our final approach.”

It took only a moment for the four of them to once more take their positions and strap themselves in. Atlantis then resumed its shuddery, hesitant approach, jolting first one way, then another as Jones eased them towards the station. Finally, about ten minutes after they’d returned from the flight deck, there was a low grinding noise, followed by a dull clang, and after that there was only silence.

Moments later, Major Smith appeared, floating down the ladder from the flight deck. “We have achieved docking,” he said briefly, moving past them. “Boarding will commence immediately.” He came to a halt by the airlock and quickly worked the controls. “You will enter the station one at a time, with each person waiting until the one preceding you has indicated it is safe. Commander Jones and I will remain here.”

“You’re not coming with us?” Scully asked. That had not been part of the mission brief.

“In light of the vessel docked to the station, Commander Jones and I have been ordered to remain with Atlantis,” the man replied, apparently unperturbed. “We will not enter the station, and we will not have any contact with the ship.” The airlock door swung open, to reveal a small chamber with another door on the far side. A few seconds later, that door also opened. “Agent Scully, since there may be injured personnel on board, you will go first.”

Scully nodded. That, at least, had been part of the plan. She slipped a pair of latex gloves from her pocket and pulled them on, then moved forward, bracing herself briefly against the frame of the airlock and trying to prepare herself for what she might find. This was no different from any other potential crime scene, she reminded herself. The lack of gravity was going to make things awkward and messy, but that couldn’t be helped. And it didn’t change the principles she lived by as a doctor — not by one iota. She took a deep breath, and pushed her way through the airlock and into the space station.

ACT THREE

Space Shuttle Atlantis

Mission Elapsed Time: 0 days, 18 hours, 4 minutes, 21 seconds

Mulder wanted to pace. Unfortunately, the lack of gravity made that impossible, so he had to settle for kicking one foot rhythmically against the wall of the shuttle, while hanging on to one of the handholds to keep himself from drifting.

Scully had boarded the space station twelve minutes ago. Major Smith had secured the shuttle airlock door as soon as she cleared the threshold; a moment or two later they heard Scully shutting the door on the station side of the connection. All according to protocol. Damn it.

Smith and the two technicians were, to all appearances, completely unconcerned. Their expressions were blank, giving nothing away, and their body language — as best Mulder could puzzle it out in the absence of gravity — was loose and casual. None of them spoke.

Easy enough for them, Mulder thought. It wasn’t *their* partner who was on the other side of the double doors.

At last they heard the station side door opening again, and Mulder waited tensely while Major Smith reciprocated. Seconds later, Scully appeared in the entrance, clinging to the doorframe, a grim look on her face.

“Well?” Mulder asked.

“There’s no one here,” she said flatly. Mulder raised his eyebrows, and she clarified, “There’s nobody on board — and no bodies, either. The station is completely empty.” She turned her gaze on Smith. “I’m going to need Mulder’s help. The place is a mess. It looks like there was a fight in there, so we’re going to have to treat it like a crime scene. There are blood stains on the walls and some of the fixtures, and I found these.” She held up two large evidence bags, each one containing a military issue bayonet. Both blades had dried blood on them.

“We don’t have time for that, Agent Scully.”

“We have to make time,” she said, shaking her head. “This is part of the investigation; this is why Mulder and I are here. We were sent up here to find out what happened –”

“That is one of the mission objectives,” the major agreed. “But investigating the unidentified ship takes priority.” He paused, apparently thinking about something. Then: “Abbasov and Mahammadov will begin that part of the job. You and Agent Mulder will collect evidence, to the extent that it doesn’t interfere with the techs, and to the extent that your services are not required for the primary mission.”

“But –”

“That’s all, Agent Scully.” To the technicians: “You’d better get over there and get started.” They nodded, and without further comment they pushed past Mulder and Scully and into the station. Scully gritted her teeth, then turned and followed. Mulder went after her.

“At least we know what happened to the original crew,” he commented, once they were on the other side, with the airlock doors sealed again. He nodded at the bayonets. “Unless you assume that NASA routinely sends its own people up here prepared for hand-to-hand combat. Of course, we don’t know what was done with the bodies, but –”

“No, we don’t. And we also don’t know *why*,” his partner said. “I want to know why.” She gestured at the room they were in. “Look at it.”

Mulder looked around, and whistled. He recalled from the briefing that the interior of the station had a volume roughly equal to that of a 747 jetliner, when you included all the various modules. This compartment seemed that big all by itself, probably because the lack of gravity gave it more usable space. It also looked as if a tornado had hit it. A random clutter of papers, manuals and odd bits of equipment floated in the light breeze from the ventilation system. A ballpoint pen drifted by, and Mulder reached out and grabbed it. “Skillcraft,” he commented, reading the manufacturer’s name off the side of the pen. “Genuine government issue.” He let go of it, giving it a little push, and watched as it floated across the room, finally rebounding off the far wall. “You know they’re never going to let us report whatever we find here.”

“We don’t know that,” Scully answered — but Mulder could see that her heart wasn’t in it. She knew better. They’d been through this before. “We need to find out who the second crew was and what happened to them.”

“Well, one thing’s pretty clear,” Mulder said. He glanced at Abbasov and Mahammadov, who were already working at one of the consoles at the far end of the compartment. “Whoever it was, they came prepared for trouble.” He gestured at the bloody bayonets. “It’s also evident that the other ship had not yet arrived — but they probably knew it was coming.”

“Why do you say that?”

“If the ship had arrived before the intruders came, the regular crew would have reported it to ground control,” Mulder replied. “There’s no way something like that could have been kept secret — not under normal conditions. But they damned well knew the ship was coming. Otherwise, why bother to take the tremendous risk of disclosure? Shuttle missions aren’t really secret — even when the specific purpose of the expedition is classified, the general nature of the assignment often leaks out. There’s no way that they could reasonably expect that their activities would remain under wraps — not in the long term.”

“Okay,” Scully said, nodding. “But that still doesn’t tell us who they were, or what happened to them.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Mulder admitted. “But you think we’re going to find out by treating the space station the way we would a crime scene back home? You think these people are going to have their fingerprints on file with the NCIC?”

“Probably not,” Scully said. “But do you have a better idea?”

# # #

International Space Station

Mission Elapsed Time: 2 days, 1 hour, 35 minutes, 19 seconds

“I think we are ready,” said Abbasov; Mahammadov merely nodded. Mulder had never heard him speak English, although he seemed to understand it well enough. The two men were strapped to seats in front of one of the many consoles that littered the interior of the space station, while Mulder and Scully floated directly behind them, gripping handholds.

On a video display they had a clear view of the alien ship, relayed from cameras aboard Atlantis.

They had been on board for more than a day now, with each team attending to their own duties. Mulder and Scully had dutifully collected evidence and taken photographs, going through the motions of trying to solve the mystery of what had happened, knowing all the while that in the end nothing would be done, even if they did unravel that part of the puzzle. They both were very familiar with clandestine operations, and this expedition had all the earmarks of an incident that was going to be covered up, and made to look as if it had never happened.

The investigation of the strange spaceship had been no more productive. The two technicians had begun by looking for the notes and records that should have been generated by the previous expedition, but they had found nothing. Not a notebook, not a single scrap of paper. There were dozens of computer diskettes stored neatly in their carriers — all blank. Even the hard drives on the system mainframe were empty — the two men had had to reinstall the system software before the computer would even boot up, and all of their software tools had proven useless in trying to reconstruct whatever files had been deleted.

Somebody had done a very thorough job.

But why? Mulder wondered about it for at least the hundredth time. What motivation could there possibly be for destroying all the data — including data collected by the legitimate crew prior to the strange ship’s arrival. And going back to the physical evidence, where the hell was everyone?

Clearly, there had been a fight here, and apparently the invaders had won — but where were the bodies? Had they all been ejected into space? And had the last survivor, for reasons unknown, cycled himself through the airlock, going voluntarily to his own death? The pre-launch briefing had made it quite clear that nothing larger than a golf ball had approached or left the station since the last supply mission departed. Of course, the ground-based radar hadn’t detected the presence of the alien ship, either.

And it *was* an alien ship. That much was clear, even over the video monitors. Scully had confirmed, during a private conversation, away from the other expedition members, that the markings on the outside of the ship were similar to the ones she’d seen on the ship off the coast of Africa. She couldn’t say whether it was the same ship, of course. All of her notes from that trip were back on Earth, and it seemed unlikely that they’d be allowed to leave with photographs of this vessel.

All of which boiled down to the self-evident fact that someone with inside knowledge of the threat of alien colonization was behind all this. But who? The Consortium, or a faction within the Consortium? The rebel aliens that Krycek had spoken of so many years ago, and who had apparently struck a powerful blow to the Consortium more than two years ago at El Rico Air Base? Some third group, that Mulder and Scully knew nothing about?

It was maddening to know so much, and yet know so little. Having completely failed to find any trace of the previous crew, or any indication of what their purpose had been or what they’d learned, the personnel from Atlantis were now engaged in their own examination of the alien ship. This had been decided after a hurried radio consultation with Charles Scully, but they were working against the clock, because the security situation on Earth was terribly unstable.

It was only a matter of time before their presence here was leaked outside of Charles’ group, and NASA — and others — took official notice and action.

They’d already discovered several anomalies. Among other things, radar probes had revealed that the ship seemed to be larger on the inside than on the outside. This finding was suspect, however, since the volume seemed to change each time the test was run. Infrared scans had found exactly nothing. As far as those instruments were concerned, the ship simply didn’t exist — it had no surface temperature at all.

Photographs left nothing but irregular white blotches on the film, regardless of what settings were used. This had caused some concern about radiation, but instruments that functioned in those wavelengths reported no measurable emissions. Analysis of the spectrum of sunlight reflected off the ship showed… nothing. Just plain, ordinary sunlight. The ship apparently contained no ferrous metals, and from the crude experiments they’d been able to perform, it seemed to have no mass.

It was almost as if it didn’t really exist. Their passive investigations thwarted, Abbasov and Mahammadov had obtained permission from mission control — meaning Charles Scully — to perform more invasive experiments. The first had been the radar scans, and now they were prepared for the next step. By means of a short, arduous spacewalk, power had been diverted from the solar array that powered the station to the cables securing the alien ship. The object was to determine the conductivity of the ship’s hull, in hopes that this would aid in identifying what material it was made of. “Mission control,” said Abbasov into his microphone, “we are ready to begin. Recorders are on.”

“Roger that, Atlantis,” replied Charles Scully’s voice. “You may proceed as planned.”

Abbasov nodded to Mahammadov, who flipped a switch, and Abbasov, Mahammadov and Scully all collapsed into unconsciousness.

# # #

Time and location unknown.

For Scully, the universe seemed simply to disappear. One instant she was gripping her handhold, floating in midair next to Mulder, behind the technicians, watching as they prepared their experiment. In the next, everything was simply gone — everything except the ship. And within seconds, even that had faded into oblivion — She is alone, standing on a cold, icy plain. The wind is howling around her, blowing snow and sleet and freezing rain into her face. She tries to turn away, but the wind seems to follow her, seems to seek her out, and she has to shield her face with her hands. It only helps a little.

The wind also carries a horrible odor, a smell like rotting meat and mold and spoiled milk, all rolled into one. With every breath she takes, it seems to infest her lungs, like a living thing. It’s almost as if she’s breathing spores or insect larvae into her airways. A vivid memory of Mulder’s lungs being suctioned during the case involving the Morley tobacco company flashes through her mind, and bile rises in her throat. Somehow, she forces it back down. And she can hear things. She can hear voices. The wind is howling around her and her ears are cold, so very cold, but still she can hear voices. Voices in agony and despair, sobbing and crying out in pain and grief. A distant babble that seems to come from every direction, and never quite resolves into anything coherent.

She tries to take stock of her situation, but there’s very little for her to see. The only light comes from the sky — a dim, coppery glow, reflected off the roiling gray clouds. The snow and sleet and rain, borne on the icy wind, gusts and billows around her, cutting visibility down to just a few yards.

Where’s Mulder? He was right next to her, only a moment ago, and now he’s just gone, along with everything else. But how can that be? How could he just have vanished into thin air? How could everything she knew* just have vanished into thin air? To be replaced by… this? She feels so lost and alone.

//Nothing disappears without a trace.//

She realizes that she’s turning in a circle, rotating helplessly, looking desperately for something, anything. Anything warm and friendly and familiar. The ground crunches underfoot, and she looks down, realizing that it’s not earth she’s standing on, but ice. Old, foul, filthy ice, crusted with frozen slime and dirty snow.

Every square inch of her exposed skin is cold, so very cold, and she wonders how long she can live like this. How long it will take her to die. Exposure will soon overtake her, and hypothermia will follow soon after as the cold seeps into her body and robs her of her life’s heat. She has to find a way out of this; she has to find *Mulder* — She stumbles over a bit of uneven ground, and almost falls. This plain is not as smooth and featureless as she first had thought, and now as she looks around her she realizes that there are small humps in the terrain, each eight or ten inches across and maybe half that high. And then her eyes widen in shock as she realizes that some of them are moving — She stumbles again, and this time she loses her balance and falls, hitting the ground with a breath-paralyzing thud. Pain lances out through her hip and shoulder, and for a moment she just lies there.

She needs to rest. Just for a moment, she promises herself. She’ll just rest for a moment and catch her breath, and then she’ll struggle to her feet and find a way out of … out of *this*. There has to be a way out. There’s always a way out. Just for a minute. Her eyes start to drift closed.

“Oh… oh… Agent Scully….”

She forces her eyes open as a single voice finally resolves itself out of the cacophany all around her. One voice… a familiar voice. One she’s heard somewhere before, but not for so very long. Not for so many, many years.

She can see him now — she can see the head of the person who spoke to her. It’s one of those irregularities in the ice that she noticed earlier, those small lumps, and now the cold penetrates all the way to her heart as she realizes that each of the insignificant mounds stretching out across this plain is actually a human head, half buried in the ice. And the one directly in front of her, the one who just spoke to her, is the man she and Mulder knew as Deep Throat.

“S-sorry,” he says, and she feels her eyes widening in shock as she sees there are tears running down his cheeks — tears that freeze on his skin almost as soon as they’re shed. “I’m so, so sorry….”

“Sorry?” she asks, somehow struggling to her hands and knees. She crawls over closer to him, heedless of the cold now cutting into the palms of her hands. “Sorry for what? Why… how… where are we?”

“I’m sorry ….” he moans, in low tones of misery. “I never thought I’d see you here. I was sure that you, of all people, would escape.” He lowers his head into the ice so she can no longer see his features, but still she can hear his voice, muffled, but distinct. “I’m so sorry.”

“Please don’t.” She doesn’t know why, but she doesn’t want to listen to this; she doesn’t want to hear it. She crawls closer and reaches out to touch his cheek, and it’s cold — cold as the ice surrounding it. He continues to cry and moan his grief and sorrow. “Please don’t,” she repeats. “Please, please don’t.” She can’t bear to hear him suffering; she has to find a way to make it stop. “Tell me what’s wrong. Tell me what I can do.”

“There’s nothing you can do.” He raises his head again. “Nothing you can do. Nothing. Nothing for me.” He hiccups as he cries, and adds, “You can only save… save yourself. Save your partner.”

“Mulder?” The word snaps from her mouth; Deep Throat now has her complete attention. “You know where Mulder is? Where is he? Is he hurt?”

“Save yourself!” the man in the ice wails. “Oh please, please… save yourself. You have to find him. You have to save yourself.”

And then his face sinks down into the ice, and despite her cajolery and imprecations, he neither moves nor speaks again. At last she gives up and fights her way to her feet. Mulder. She has to find Mulder. Nothing else matters. She has to find him. She *has* to.

She turns a circle again, this time struggling to stay calm and study what she’s seeing. The wind continues to whip around her, the snow and ice and rain continues its assault, the people buried in the ice continue to wail in pain and sorrow. The clouds churn and twist overhead, the coppery glow flickers and dances. And there’s nothing there. Nothing — Wait. No. There *was* something. Something barely visible in the dimness. A shadow of … of something. Something huge and dark and wide, growing up out of the ice and reaching up and up and up until it disappears into the clouds. She can’t tell what it is; she can’t even tell how far away it is, but it’s the only landmark she has, it’s her only chance to find Mulder. Mulder. She has to find him. She tries to turn, to begin walking towards the object — And finds that she can’t. Her feet have frozen to the ground, and she cannot move. She fights, she struggles, she tries to pull herself free from the ice, but it’s no good, there’s no escape. She waited too long, she stood still for too many minutes, and now she’s trapped here, trapped in the ice, and she knows that she will never escape.

The snow and rain and sleet will continue to wrap themselves around her, building layer after layer after layer, until finally she, too, will be buried in the ice, lost for all eternity, forgotten by humanity. She is trapped and without hope. She closes her eyes, and wills herself not to cry.

# # #

International Space Station

Mission Elapsed Time: 2 days, 1 hour, 46 minutes, 12 seconds

For a few eternal seconds Mulder floated in mid-air, staring at his partner’s unconscious body. He was barely aware of the other two, beyond the fact that they were also unresponsive. All of his attention was on Scully.

Then he was twisting towards her and reaching out, his motions slow and clumsy due to the lack of gravity. His hand bumped her shoulder, just as Scully’s fingers slipped off her handhold, and she began drifting slowly away from him, across the compartment.

He swore under his breath, struggling to hold on to his self-control. Scully needed help, and he wasn’t going to be able to do anything for her if he didn’t stay focused. He could hear Charles Scully’s voice, calling over the radio, but he ignored it. Not now, not now. Slowly, carefully, he turned, changing his grip on his handhold a couple of times in the process, until he was lined up with his partner’s body as it drifted across the cabin. Then he placed his feet against the back of Mahammadov’s chair, and pushed off after her.

He felt his stomach drop out from under him, as it always did when maneuvering in zero gravity without anything to hold onto, but he ruthlessly suppressed it. He didn’t have time for that now. He only had time for Scully.

At last he caught up with her, and grappled her clumsily around the shoulders as their bodies gently collided. His aim had been slightly off, so their connection was off-center, and they began to tumble, end over end. Mulder’s insides start ed doing flip flops by that time, but he clenched his teeth and held on. No time for that. No time.

Finally they fetched up against a wall. Mulder’s hand shot out, while he continued to hold Scully close with his other arm. His fingers brushed against something — a shelving bracket — and he clutched it, hard. The slow tumble stopped, they bumped the wall a couple of times, and were still.

Now what?

He was distantly aware of voices coming over the radio — Major Smith and Commander Jones, or Major Jones and Commander Smith — and then he thought he heard Charles Scully speaking as well, asking questions, demanding information. But he had no time for that, no goddamn time at all, and as best he could without letting go of either her or the bracket, he examined his partner. Her breathing was steady and regular, and her pulse was okay, too. Her skin was a little flushed, but she didn’t seem to be feverish. If he didn’t know better, he’d think she was just asleep. He tried shaking her, he tried calling her name, but there was no reaction.

Shit. Mulder fought to suppress the rising panic. This was a bit too much like the time she was stung by the bee outside his apartment. He knew that wasn’t what was going on this time, but that just made it worse, because it meant he had no clue whatsoever. Mahammadov had thrown the switch, and the three of them had simply passed out. Mahammadov had thrown the switch….

That had to be it. Mulder wasn’t sure what the connection was, or how it had worked, but somehow when they passed an electrical current through the alien ship, *this* had happened. And somehow he knew, on the gut instinct level, that the only way to get his partner back was to turn it off. Now.

Once again he turned awkwardly and tried to position himself, the task made more complex this time by his unwillingness to leave Scully where she was. Finally he was ready, one hand cupped beneath her chin, as if he were rescuing someone who was drowning. He carefully placed his feet, let go of the bracket and pushed off. By great good luck he got it right this time. He and Scully began drifting across the compartment again, without any spin or tumble at all, and aimed directly where he wanted them to be going. It took only seconds for them to reach their destination, and Mulder grabbed the back of Abbasov’s chair, bringing them to a stop.

Without hesitation, and still holding on to Scully with his other hand, he then reached out to the control panel and switched off the current. He looked back at his partner…. Just in time to see her eyes flicker open. Her brilliant, beautiful, intelligent blue eyes.

# # #

International Space Station

Mission Elapsed Time: 2 days, 3 hours, 6 minutes, 31 seconds

“That’s insane.”

Mulder turned sharply away from Abbasov, and let his gaze fall on Scully once again. After he’d thrown the switch, the other three had immediately awakened, although they’d all been a bit bleary for a while afterwards.

They’d each reported having had strange visions, or hallucinations, while they were unconscious. Scully had told of a vast, icy plain, with people — including Deep Throat — buried in the ice up to their necks. Abbasov and Mahammadov had each found themselves in a small, dark space — like a coffin, Abbasov had said, his face pale.

They’d been alone, and no amount of yelling or banging of their fists had seemed to attract anyone’s attention. Finally, the bottom of their compartments had opened, and they’d started falling, down, down, down, towards a monstrous, impossibly hot fire. And now the two technicians wanted to try the experiment again.

“Agent Mulder, we have no alternative,” Abbasov said, in his thickly accented English. “We were sent here to investigate, and our last experiment was incomplete. Mission control has already approved another iteration of this experiment. We must –”

“It was incomplete because it almost killed you!” Mulder interrupted, turning back to face the man again. “And Mahammadov and Scully, too.” He glanced at his partner again, to see that she was watching the argument impassively.

“You are taking this far too seriously,” Abbasov said flatly. “What we experienced was a hallucination; a dream. It could not harm us, and it was induced in some way by feedback from the ship. If we were equipped to perform EEG’s, we would be able to prove that this is so. As a precaution, we will increase the amperage on the next trial. We will set it high enough to burn out whatever mechanism it was that generated the effect, so that it will not interfere with our observations. Mahammadov has already made the calculations.” His gaze turned speculative. “The fact that neither you nor the crew of Atlantis appear to have been affected is a crucial datum; we must establish a baseline. And in any case, if the effect should be repeated you will be able to terminate the experiment before any harm is done.”

“No,” Mulder said, shaking his head. “We don’t have any idea what we’re dealing with, and we have to move carefully.” To his partner: “Scully, you aren’t buying into this, are you?”

“Mulder.” Her voice was soft and uncertain, as it had been since she regained consciousness. “Mulder, I didn’t like the place I was in, but Abbasov’s right. It was only a dream. A nightmare,” she amended. “But dreams can’t hurt us, and as scientists we have to disregard our personal feelings and push ahead.”

Mulder simply stared at her for a moment, and she reached out and laid a gentle hand on his arm, tugging him away from the other two. When they had drifted far enough to ensure minimal privacy, she said, very softly, “Mulder, you of all people must surely understand the importance of this. How many times in the past have you taken risks with yourself to try and find the truth?”

“Sometimes you stopped me,” he responded, equally softly.

“That’s true,” Scully replied with a smile. “Sometimes I did. But I honestly believe that the risk in this case is minimal.” She turned her hands palms up. “Look at my hands, Mulder. If what happened to me had been real, they should be frostbitten.” She nodded towards the other two. “If what happened to them had been real, they should have second and third degree burns all over their bodies. The instruments on Atlantis detected nothing. *Nothing.* Whatever happened, as frightening as it was, it wasn’t real.”

“Scully –”

“Mulder, you know what it was I experienced.” He nodded reluctantly, remembering the account she’d given just a few minutes earlier.

“That… vision that I had was straight out of Dante’s ‘Inferno’. The Ninth Circle of Hell, where traitors are condemned to spend eternity. And Mahammadov and Abbasov acknowledged that what *they* saw was a traditional Muslim story about God’s judgment and damnation.” She shook her head. “I don’t know how it happened; I can’t explain the mechanism. But I think Abbasov is right. Some sort of feedback developed, and somehow it triggered memories within each victim — memories of stories we’d heard, each within our own religious heritage. And remember, that’s just what happened in Africa two years ago.”

“We should take it back to Earth and study it there,” Mulder insisted. But his heart was no longer in it. He knew that he’d lost. “If we took it back to Earth, we’d have plenty of time, and all the resources we need.”

“That would probably be a good idea,” Scully agreed. She glanced at Abbasov and Mahammadov, watching them from the other side of the compartment, then back to Mulder. “But you know that’s not going to happen. The crew of Atlantis have orders not to have any direct contact — and the ship is too big to fit in the shuttle’s cargo bay, in any case.” She moved closer, and her voice dropped still farther, to the barest whisper. “We don’t know why you weren’t affected. Maybe the surgery you had while Spender had you, back in ’99, had something to do with it. The tissue they removed from your brain may be what responded to whatever it is that happened. But whatever the reason, the fact that you weren’t affected means that you *will* be able to protect the rest of us, if worse comes to worst.”

Mulder was silent for a moment, while he studied her face. She was right, dammit. They’d been sent up here to do this, and they really had no alternatives. And truth be told, Scully had already put her finger on his real objection: he was unwilling to see her take chances that he would have found acceptable for himself — especially since he was unable to share the risk. Unfortunately, he seemed to have no choice in the matter. And so finally, he nodded, and gave his consent.

A few minutes later they were all once more gathered around the control panel. Unlike the previous experiment, this time they were all securely strapped into chairs, as a precaution against loss of consciousness. Mulder was seated next to Abbasov, within easy reach of the crucial switch.

“You will not terminate the experiment unless you have verified that both Mahammadov and myself have lost consciousness, and cannot be awakened,” Abbasov instructed. Without waiting for a reply, he switched on his microphone. “Mission control, we have adjusted the settings, and are ready to proceed.”

“Acknowledged,” came Charles Scully’s voice. “At your discretion.” The man’s voice sounded calm and unperturbed. Was he really unconcerned about the safety of the members of the expedition — including that of his own sister? Or was that simply a professional mask, such as the one Scully tended to wear on such occasions? Who was Charles Scully, really?

Then Abbasov threw the switch, and the universe disappeared.

# # #

Time and location unknown

He’s floating alone, in total nothingness. There is no light, no sound, no taste, no smell, no touch. He is neither hot nor cold, wet nor dry, tired nor wakeful. He simply is. And for some unmeasured period — a few seconds, a few minutes, a few hours, a few centuries — he is unsure even of who he is. And he is alone.

He is alone in this nothingness. Alone, bereft and isolated. There’s no one else there, no sense of *presence*. He feels abandoned; forsaken. But somehow, he knows he has no one to blame but himself. He chose this darkness, after all.

All the misery and sorrow of a lifetime wells up inside of him, filling him with grief and remorse and driving out all other thoughts and emotions. He cannot think; he cannot concentrate. It is all he can do to retain as much grasp of himself as he has, and even that is slipping gradually away. Already he is crumbling, and he knows with horrified certainty that the process will only end when he has been reduced to a mere shell, an empty vessel with room for nothing but darkness and loneliness and despair. Forever.

No! The single word forms in his mind. No! It cannot end like this. No! He has to fight this, he has to find a way out, he has to escape. He has to struggle. No!

But even as the thoughts swirl through his mind, he realizes their futility. There is nothing here — literally nothing. Nothing that he can use or base a defense upon. Nothing to grasp, nothing to hold onto. No light or darkness. No up or down. No past or future. No hope.

No Scully.

Oblivion would be better than this. He tries calling to her, but even as he does he knows it will do no good. Her name echoes uselessly inside his head; even if it were possible for him to speak aloud, there is no one to hear him. He feels panic building, sweeping across him and around him and through him like a tidal wave as the reality of his situation finally strikes home. He is alone at last, totally and completely alone, as he has always known in his heart would eventually be his fate. Even if it were possible for her to be here, he realizes that he could never wish that for her. She deserves better. She deserves to be in the light.

He weeps in silent isolation. Dully, almost as an afterthought, he prays forgiveness, knowing that no one can hear him. And as quickly as that, a pinprick of light and warmth appears, impossibly far away, yet moving closer by the second. It swells rapidly — a pinprick becomes a marble becomes a baseball becomes a basketball becomes an entire world. In the space between two heartbeats the warm light grows until it dominates him, overwhelming his senses and banishing the nothingness that defines him. It’s so bright and blinding, he cannot see — Mulder shook his head sharply as waves of dizziness and nausea swept through his body. He was in the space station, strapped in his seat, but still the nothingness hovered in the back of his mind, pulsing and swirling, almost alive in its malevolence. Slowly, so very slowly, his mind began to focus, his vision and hearing gradually returning. There were sounds, and light, and… and *objects* swimming before him. If only he could make sense of it. There was something he was supposed to do — something important. Dear God, what was it?

And then he remembered. The switch. He was supposed to throw the switch, but only if something went wrong. He tried to turn his head, wanting to check and see if the others were still alert and oriented, but it was hard, so very hard. It was like pushing his way through molasses, while his vision swam and the nausea returned to the fore. He squinted against the light, seeming so brilliant and unforgiving after its total absence, and his head began to pound and his eyes started to water.

Fuck it. He couldn’t really see; he could barely concentrate. Abbasov said throw the switch if there was a problem, and there sure as hell was a problem. His hand fumbled forward, brushing against dials and controls, moving with agonizing slowness towards salvation. His vision was still blurred, unsteady, but somehow he *knew* when he finally found the proper switch. He grasped it between thumb and forefinger, and pushed, and he felt it click over into place — And nothing happened.

For a moment he wondered if he had the wrong switch after all. His hand had moved with instinctive, almost preternatural surety, but could he have been wrong? He squinted again, and this time he managed to make out a few fuzzy outlines, enough to know that his instincts had been sound. He tried to turn his head again, and this time it was a little easier.

Scully. He had to find Scully. He needed to know that she was all right, but a prickling on the back of his neck told him that she was not. His head kept turning, seemingly of its own volition… and there she was. Strapped in her seat, her head lolled forward, her beautiful auburn hair splayed around her and wafting gently with the air currents.

She wasn’t moving.

Her gaze was fixed, her pupils dilated. He could not tell if she was breathing. In that instant the nothing swooped back in, capitalizing on his renewed fear and despair as it tried to claim him once again for its own. The lights seemed to dim, and there was a roaring in his ears. It was all so numbing and overwhelming, and a part of him desperately yearned to let go. It would be so good to rest. Scully was gone – he could almost hear the words, that seductive whisper that he’d heard in the past when she was missing and when she had cancer. Scully was gone to the cold and ice, and there was no more hope, no more warmth, no more light. He should just give up, and all of his troubles would be over —

And then he was clawing at his safety harness, as he forced his assailant back with a savage curse. It was still hard to move, but somehow he unsnapped the buckles, and in the next instant he was floating up out of his seat. Once again his stomach heaved, but he ruthlessly suppressed it. At the last second, as he was about to drift completely away from his chair, he reached out and grabbed the harness with one hand and used it to leverage himself over to Scully. She was, thank God, still breathing, and her pulse seemed normal, and Mulder whispered a heartfelt prayer of thanks and relief. As he had done on the previous occasion he took rapid inventory, working as best he could by touch, since his eyes and ears were still undependable, and he could find nothing wrong with her – nothing wrong, except for a total lack of response, no matter what he did.

He clung to the back of her seat and tried to reason out what to do. His senses were still undependable, but they did seem to be improving. His vision now had moments of clarity, and the roaring in his ears was slowly dropping off, enough so that he could occasionally make out scraps of conversation coming from the radio. ” …. payload specialists will please respond…. no contact, Cheyenne Mountain…. radiation levels increasing…. Atlantis …. payload specialists will report status…. prepare…. requesting instructions…. emergency evacuation routine….”

Mulder was still trying to piece together what he was hearing when his gaze fell almost at random on the video monitor displaying the alien craft — and what he saw made his eyes widen in shock. The ship was no longer dark and inert. Instead, it had taken on a glow — a deep blue glow that seemed to emanate from somewhere inside the craft. It seemed to him that it was expanding, as well, but that was impossible; it had to be a trick of his still-uncertain vision.

For a few seconds he simply floated there, staring at the display.

Instinctively, deep in his soul, he recognized danger and evil in this new phenomenon, but it was so beautiful, so seductive — “The payload specialists will return to Atlantis immediately. This is the first and only warning. Atlantis is preparing for emergency departure in three hundred eighty-five seconds. Departure will not be delayed.”

Mulder struggled to make himself understand the words. Emergency departure? But that meant… that meant…. Jesus God, that meant he had a little more than six minutes to get Scully out of here, or they’d be left behind!

Slowly, laboriously, he maneuvered himself around so that he was floating directly over his partner. His motions were hindered by the almost-familiar awkwardness of zero gravity, as well as by the mysterious resistance to all motion that he’d been experiencing ever since the experiment began. In the background the radio continued to squawk, but he ignored it. They’d either make it in time or they wouldn’t, and diverting his attention to listen to the preparations being made by the crew of Atlantis would only slow him down.

He was also eerily aware of the alien ship, still glowing a deep, penetrating blue at the end of its tether. The monitor was out of his line of sight, but that didn’t seem to matter anymore, because somehow he could still “see” it in his mind, pulsing and growing larger with each passing second, the strange radiation penetrating and suffusing everything it encountered.

Scully’s harness buckles sprang free at last, and she floated slowly up out of her chair. Mulder grabbed the first thing he could – the collar of her jumpsuit — and pulled her closer, until the two of them collided in a tangle of arms and legs. He wrapped his arms around her and hung on grimly, ignoring the fresh outrage coming from his stomach, and flailing out with his feet until by great good fortune he managed to hook one of them through one of the ubiquitous handholds.

No time, no time. Where was he? The airlock linking the space station to Atlantis was, of course, at the far end of the compartment, a good sixty feet away, and he was going to have to get it right the first time, for there would be no time for second tries. Taking a few precious seconds to steady himself, he took aim and pushed off from the control console.

For a few agonizing seconds, Mulder wasn’t sure he’d jumped true. Having Scully’s body in his arms meant that his center of gravity wasn’t where it should be, but he’d tried to correct for that, all the while doing his best to ignore the persistent nausea that had never quite gone away since the moment they’d first entered freefall, more than two days earlier.

He started to breathe easier, as he realized that he’d actually managed to do it. He was going to land almost exactly where he’d intended; now all he had to do was bring himself to a halt at the other end, without breaking either his neck or Scully’s… and either he was getting better, or he’d just been more lucky than anyone had any right to expect, because he managed to execute a perfect four point stop, with Scully’s body pinned between his own and the airlock door.

After that, it was just a matter of finding the leverage to open the airlock door on the station side and swing it open. To his immense relief, Atlantis’ door was already open, and Major Smith was waiting on the other side. As soon as the other man realized the situation, he raised his arms to retrieve Scully, glancing past Mulder as he did so, apparently to see if the others were following.

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph!”

Mulder turned awkwardly in place upon hearing the man’s exclamation — only to feel his own eyes widening in shock and horror. He’d almost managed to forget about the blue radiation emanating from the alien ship; now he saw that it had actually penetrated the walls of the space station and was advancing towards him, marching slowly but steadily forward like a wave on the beach. It didn’t seem to be disturbing anything … but as he watched it passed over Abbasov, and the man simply disappeared.

“Come on!” There was a sharp tug on Mulder’s elbow; he turned again to see that Smith had already managed to maneuver Scully to her seat and strap her in, and now had returned. Before Mulder had a chance to respond, the other man had dragged him through into Atlantis and slammed shut both airlock doors. Scant seconds later, he’d hooked his arms under Mulder’s armpits from behind and given a shove with his legs, and the two of them performed a complicated somersault that ended directly at the foot of Mulder’s own chair. Then Smith was jamming him down into it and hurriedly adjusting the straps, before pushing off again in the direction of the ladder that led to the flight deck.

“Bobby!” he shouted. “Bobby, we need to get out of here *now*!”

Mulder couldn’t make out the response, but Smith’s answer was clear as a bell. “No, *screw* that; there’s no time. We can –” His voice was cut off as he exited the crew compartment. And then there was nothing to do but wait. Mulder divided his attention between Scully, who was still unconscious, strapped in the seat next to his, and the airlock door, where he expected to see the blue fire make its appearance at any second. In his mind’s eye he could see it continuing to move through the space station. By now it had surely passed over Mahammadov, and nothing but two thin bulkheads separated it from the remaining crew of Atlantis — And then, at last, he felt a sharp jolt as the shuttle cast free.

Almost immediately he heard a low growl, and was thrown forward against his safety harness as the orbital maneuvering rockets fired, moving the ship away from the station, and beginning the long, slow descent to Earth.

EPILOGUE

Antelope Valley Hospital

Lancaster, California

Friday, October 19, 2001

5:18 p.m.

Mulder paced the hall outside Scully’s room, waiting for her brother to emerge so he could go back inside. Charles Scully had arrived three hours earlier, his appearance coinciding almost precisely with his sister finally regaining consciousness. She’d remained unresponsive during the long reentry process, right through to the landing on the dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base. Mulder had reluctantly allowed himself to be dragged from her bedside for a debriefing, while Charles had shown an apparently equal unwillingness to allow her to rest before hearing her part of the story. Only the combined insistence of her doctor and Mulder had persuaded him to do so.

The debriefing had been one of the more frustrating experiences in Mulder’s recent memory. All of the information had flowed one way — from him to Charles Scully, with a female lieutenant commander whom Mulder hadn’t met before throwing in the occasional question. The two officers had been cool, brisk and businesslike, and had absolutely refused to answer any of *Mulder’s* inquiries.

What had happened to the alien ship, or to the crew who preceded them, or even who the other group had been, or what organization they worked for — if Charles knew the answers to those questions, he wasn’t telling. To add insult to injury, as a parting shot, Mulder was informed that the entire matter was classified, compartmentalized, need-to-know only, and that Skinner had already been told that no report would be forthcoming, either from the military, or from Mulder and Scully.

Finally, Mulder had been released, but of course he hadn’t been allowed to see Scully. Charles and the lieutenant commander immediately went to her room and commenced interrogating her, while Mulder waited outside in the hallway. That was an hour ago. The female officer had emerged from the room ten minutes ago, and now stood at parade rest outside Scully’s door, a blank expression on her face.

Mulder had gleaned one tidbit of information from Commander Jones and Major Smith while Atlantis was still in low earth orbit, waiting for its reentry window to open. Well, “tidbit” was too mild a word, he supposed, even on top of everything else that had happened. Because the apparent fact of the matter was that a few seconds after the shuttle disengaged from the space station, the alien spacecraft had vanished.

This was not a phenomenon similar to its appearance when they were first approaching the station, several days earlier. In that case, according to the pilots, the ship had simply materialized out of nothing as Atlantis closed to within a thousand meters of the station. This time they’d been much closer, and according to their account, the strange, blue glow had continued to intensify as they pulled away, until finally the light was too brilliant to bear — and then in the blink of an eye the glow had faded to nothing, and the ship was gone.

Of course, the playback of the video monitor showed nothing but static from the moment the experiment began. Mulder wasn’t sure whether to be frustrated or cynical over that. On the one hand, it was just one more instance of evidence disappearing down a rabbit hole; on the other hand, he’d taken considerable pleasure in imagining the report the two officers had been forced to make to their superiors. And besides, it didn’t seem likely that Mulder would’ve been given access to the tapes, even if they’d had anything useful on them.

And then there was the other issue. The one he’d been avoiding. Just what exactly *had* happened to him and Scully and the others during the final experiment?

The door to Scully’s room opened, and Mulder turned on his heel, all other thoughts instantly banished from his mind. Charles Scully stood in the doorway, the same cool professional mask in place. He paused, and bent his head to murmur something to the lieutenant commander.

She nodded, he straightened up again, and for a moment he locked his gaze with Mulder’s.

There was undoubtedly a human being in there somewhere, Mulder thought, as he and the other man engaged in a brief staredown. And Scully obviously cared deeply for him, which counted for a lot in Mulder’s book. But their brief association had left Mulder with more questions than answers concerning Charles Scully’s motives and goals.

Questions that, in all likelihood, were going to remain unanswered. Almost as if he were reading Mulder’s mind, the other man’s lips quivered, and there was a flicker of… something in his eyes. Then his expression closed down again, and he turned and walked away.

# # #

Scully looked expectantly towards the door as it swung open, and flashed her partner a smile as he entered the room. He’d been there briefly — very briefly — when she’d first awakened, just barely long enough to give her a quick rundown on what had happened after her loss of consciousness, but then Charles had arrived and whisked him away before they’d really had a chance to talk.

God, she was glad to see him.

“Hey, Scully.” Mulder matched her smile as he entered the room and shut the door behind him. He made no pretense at using the guest chair, but crossed directly to the bed, let down the guard rail, and crawled in next to her and took her into his arms. Scully snuggled into his embrace and sighed contentedly.

“So how are you feeling?” he asked.

“Not too bad,” she replied. “I presume you’ve already heard from the doctors that they can’t find anything wrong with me?”

“Yeah,” her partner answered. “But it’s always nice to hear it directly from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.” That comment won him another smile and a good-natured elbow in the ribs. He continued, “I seem to be doing okay, too….” But his voice trailed off on an uncertain note.

“But?” she said at last.

“But,” Mulder agreed, with a reluctant sigh. “But I’m still trying to work through exactly what happened.” He took a deep breath. “To both of us.”

Scully nodded slowly. “I’ve been wondering about that, too.”

They were silent for a minute or two. Scully was hesitant to raise the issue, because in the past their discussions of religion had frequently gotten out of hand. Mulder apparently had the same reservation. Finally she steeled herself, and said, “Mulder? What are you thinking? I’d really like to know.” Her partner remained silent. At last she drew back a little from his embrace and looked up at him. “Mulder?”

“I… I dunno what I think, Scully.” Another lengthy silence. Then, in very low tones, and all in a rush: “I don’t want it to be true. I can’t believe you’d wind up in a place like that.”

“You mean hell.” It wasn’t a question, but he nodded anyway. “Mulder, the Bible teaches us… it’s a basic Christian doctrine that everybody sins.”

“Yeah, I know.” His eyes were haunted. “It’s one of the reasons…. Never mind.” He shook his head, then gave a smile that looked more than a little forced. “Scully, I can believe that… that you might have swiped a pencil from my desk and not gotten around to telling your priest about it yet. But you were in a place reserved for traitors, and I can’t accept that.”

“God judges us,” she replied softly. “We don’t judge ourselves.” She shook her head quickly, hoping to forestall an argument. “Look, Mulder, I don’t pretend to understand why I was there, but I could construct… rationales for it. I betrayed my father’s plan for my life; I betrayed Blevins’ instructions when he assigned me to work with you.” A bittersweet smile, as she remembered her encounter with Chimene, the guilt vampire. “I could even make a case that I’ve betrayed you. But that’s not the point.”

“What is the point?”

“The point is that we don’t know what happened, or why. I have difficulty believing that ship could have been acting in the name of God ….” Her voice trailed off, and she shook her head again.

“But?” This time Mulder’s smile seemed genuine.

“But,” she agreed, with a nod and a sigh. “God chooses His own tools. And I can’t rule out the possibility that that ship was one of them.”

She realized her gaze had drifted away from Mulder’s, and she forced herself to look at him once again. “And, as you said about me, I have trouble accepting the idea that the man I love could be condemned in the way you described.”

Mulder shrugged. “It’s perfectly consistent with the views of some Christians,” he pointed out. “Concerning unbelievers, I mean.”

“I know,” Scully replied. “The complete absence of God, leaving nothing but grief and despair. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Not for you.” Another bittersweet smile. “Of course, if it *is* God’s judgment, it’s not up to me to like or dislike it.” She felt tears filling her eyes.

Mulder drew her into another embrace, and Scully allowed herself to take comfort from the warmth of his body. This conversation was going much better than their previous discussions of religion, and Scully suddenly wondered if she dared risk taking things a step further. She felt a sudden rush of courage — almost as if a still, small voice were speaking to her, encouraging her, deep down inside.

“Mulder?”

“Hmmm?” His voice sounded warm and drowsy, as if he were on the verge of drifting off to sleep.

“I… I wonder if….” Her voice trailed off again, as she struggled to find the words. “I don’t want to force anything on you, or take advantage of you when you’re upset –”

His chuckle cut her off, and the warm friendliness of his tone gave her further strength. “I thought that was what the guy was supposed to say, Scully.” He sobered, and his voice lowered. “Go ahead. You know you can ask me anything.”

“Okay.” She snuggled a little closer, and felt his hands begin to gently stroke her back. “I was just wondering if you’d be willing… if you’d like to go to church with me sometime.”

“Sometime?”

“Sometime,” she repeated firmly. “When you feel comfortable with it.” There was yet another silence, longer than the others, and Scully forced herself not to try to guess what he was going to say. At last she felt Mulder shift slightly on the bed. He withdrew one of his arms, and brought his hand around to lightly touch her chin, turning her head so that she was looking directly into his eyes.

“Okay, Scully,” he said, very softly. “Sometime. It’s a date.”

End of “Apogee”

 

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