Earthspeak

cover

TITLE: EARTHSPEAK

AUTHOR: Windsinger (AKA Sue Esty)

FEEDBACK: Windsinger@aol.com

HOMEPAGE: refer to Tamra’s Connections site at http://X-

Files.bytewright.com/Rev.html

RATING: PG for really nothing much at all.

CATEGORY: X

KEYWORDS: MSR

DISCLAIMER: 1013 and FOX may own the X-Files but we love it.

ARCHIVE: VS11 for two weeks then anywhere only please inform the

author.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: “Earthspeak” was written for the IMTP Virtual Season

11, all praise to the producers, especially Vickie, my beta reader,

the artists, and Tamra, for keeping my stuff all in one place because

I never seem to be able to get around to it.

SUMMARY: A psychic reading ashes from the X-Files office fire of so

many years ago offers the agents new information about a case of

unexplained disappearances.

clip_image002

TEASER

Near Salem, MA

March, 2004

“So, how did you like find your first week with us, Ms. Sackstone?”

asked the smiling voice.

“I have been treated very well. Illuminations is a very exciting

place to work.”

“I’m so glad that you think so. I know that we have been more than

impressed. Your analyses on the cases you have been assigned to so

far have proved more than acceptably accurate. Even more so, we are

impressed by your commitment to your job, though we are a little

concerned.” Here the CEO’s broad face became more serious.

“Concerned, Mr. Hyxodram?”

“I don’t know what they told you in Personnel, but fourteen-hour

days are not the norm here. In fact, Human Resources has studies

which indicate that the practice is detrimental to the health of

professional staff over an extended period of time. For example,

computer programmers puzzling over a bit of tangled code have been

known to work for days without sleep just to solve a problem. We

encourage a certain amount of that. Many of mankind’s greatest

breakthroughs have come about as a result of such fugues of concentrated

output. I just want to make certain that you understand that we can

condone such dedication for brief spurts, but not as a general rule.

We don’t want you to burn out before you have barely started. If you

have been trying to impress us, then you have already done so.”

Shirley Sackstone stared down into her long-fingered hands that

could almost be considered pretty if not for the bitten nails. “I

wasn’t intentionally trying to impress you. It’s just that… that I

feel something here.” Her colorless gray eyes moved up to stare at

the ceiling, then at the walls from one side of the walnut-paneled

office to the other.

“And so you have. You’ve put your finger on the problem,” the man’s

large stubby finger sought a figure on the report before him, “no

less than six times in just four weeks.”

“Yes, I know. But those were — incidentals, by products of this

larger search. There is something else here. Something strong.

Something that does not just whisper to me but cries out to me,

loudly, insistently.” The man’s large eyes widened in sudden

understanding. “Sir, I need to sleep.”

“So that is how the land lies. Such compulsions are not uncommon in

our line of work. We have many potential focuses of power here. We

just need to find out the one you’re picking up. What can we do to

help? Has your supervisor given you access to all the resources you

require?”

“Honestly, I don’t know. This is such a huge place. I don’t even

know my way around yet nor what to ask for.” Suddenly her bowed head

raised, its mass of strangled mass of dirty-blond hair flying. Eyes

glazing, she sniffed. “There it is again. Just a whiff. Smoke.”

“Smoke?” the director closed his eyes and sniffed with his prominent

nose for more than a minute. Sadly, he shook his head. “Sorry, I

can’t detect a thing. That doesn’t mean, of course, that you can’t.

Our people are like radio receivers all tuned to a different station

and your frequency clearly fills in a gap in our net.” He paused

suddenly. “Hmmm. I have an idea. Someplace they may not have taken

you. Come with me please.”

Heaving himself up and moving around from behind his massive desk,

Mr. Hyxodram resembled a cross between Gimli the dwarf and an

employee of Gringotts. The top of his head barely came level with

the lower edge of Ms. Sackstone’s breastbone though his upper body

was the breadth and length of a normal man. His short legs, however,

moved with speed. Adjusting her long stride, employee followed

employer. He took her out of the paneled office, across the length

of the carpeted foyer that looked like a corporate office anywhere

except for its dark, stone walls, and finally down to the lowest

levels via an ancient brass-cage lift. The doors opened on more

stone and an intense dampness.

At her shiver, he explained, “The exhibit rooms themselves are

climate controlled.” They walked for some time through a maze-like

catacomb of narrow hallways lined with doors. Finally, the dwarf-man

stopped by one, entered a code into the electronic lock, and the

door swung open.

She swayed as if struck by a blow, then recovered quickly to precede

her boss into the room. The vault was only a little larger than a

closet having barely enough floor space for the two of them. On the

six-inch high shelves that reached from foot to ceiling sat row upon

row of plastic bags. The contents seemed limited to bits of heavily

charred paper yet there was no scent of smoke in the room. Eyes

closing, her hands rose on their own to hover slowly and then faster

over the shelves until her right arm reached with speed over her

boss’s grizzled, gray head to touch one packet seemingly indistinct

for all the others.

The stench and sting of smoke were suddenly all around her, in her

nose, in her mouth, in her eyes. Heat blasted her skin. Her hand

jerked back as if he had been burned. Through tearing eyes she saw

the reddened skin, the rising blisters. Then another smell,

overwhelming, but familiar. The smell of hell. She was vaguely aware

of Mr. Hyxodram speaking urgently into his cell phone but he seemed

very, very far away.

ACT I

Dana awoke cold. Outside, the wind moaned in the branches of the pine

outside her window while sleet rained against the window. Welcome to

Washington in March. Don’t like the weather? Wait and hour and it

will probably be worse. Without opening her eyes, she reached down to

pull the extra comforter up then slid across the sheets seeking her

partner’s warm back.

Her groping hand met only empty air. Useless male! Then she realized

that it was not only the sound of the wind and rain that that had

awakened her. From somewhere in the apartment came the constant

rumbling hiss of something electronic.

Groggily, she switched on her beside lamp, donned her favorite blue

robe, ugly and unflattering but warm, stuck her feet into worn

slipper clogs and shuffled into the hall. The noise was louder here.

She found them in the kitchen huddled over an array of terminals,

keyboards, oscilloscopes, and unknown blinking devices while the

overhead lights blazed. Her partner’s dark head didn’t turn from the

high definition, flat-screen monitor. Neither did the head of

tangled blond hair beside him.

“Having fun, boys?” she asked sleepily.

“Would be better if the solar flares didn’t suppress the plasma

spikes,” Langley grumbled, flipping a stray tangle out of his eyes.

“And if you owned an espresso maker.”

“Sorry, I’ll put one on next year’s Christmas list.”

“Please don’t ask for an spectral analyzer,” Mulder mumbled. “That’s

outside my budget.”

Dana frowned as the men redirected their attention to the tiny spiky

lines on one of the oscilloscopes. If she and Mulder had a normal

relationship, she would be able to wrap herself around his broad

shoulders right now, rest her cheek on top of his head, and in so

many small and not so subtle ways influence his decision to return

to their rapidly cooling bed. But they didn’t, and she couldn’t,

even if their audience was only Langley. Public demonstrations of

affection were not and never would be Mulder’s thing.

In time her glare caught Langley’s attention. Colorless eyebrow

raised, he unfolded his gawky frame from his rear-facing position on

her kitchen chair and was soon slinking towards the bathroom. “I

think I’ll take my morning shower now. Less competition than in the

morning. Women and all.”

“How would you know, Langley?” Mulder drawled, his attention never

wavering from the screen. “According to Frohike, the last date you

had was in 1997.”

The gunman’s closing remark drifted towards them from down the hall.

“Can I help it that the dwarf has a libido the size of Montana?” Now

that they were alone, Dana had no compunction about making like a

kudzu vine. Distracted lips in time found hers, a hand drifted up

her thigh under her grandmotherly robe and very ungrandmotherly silk

nightgown.

He was rising from his chair, only ten percent of his attention on

the monitor now and that percentage dropping in direct proportion to

the degree of skin-to-skin contact, when someone’s cellphone sang

away to the theme from the Twilight Zone. Dana would have let the

damn thing ring; her too distractible lover did not. Mulder had

vanished to the coat tree by the door to pick through the pockets of

his trench coat, coming up at last with a tiny model of a type he

must have gotten from the Gunmen. He answered with a simple “Hello”.

A few seconds later, his sweatshirt-clad shoulders tightened.

Catching sight of her concerned eyes he mouthed, “I’ve had the calls

from my apartment transferred,” and turned the receiver on

‘speaker’. With amazing clarity a hesitant sputtering came from the

device. The sputtering was female, however, so this was unlikely to

be simply an obscene phone call, and even telemarketers have enough

sense not to hawk their wares at two a.m.

“Can I help you?” he asked for the second time.

“I’m…” the woman’s voice replied. “I’m sorry. I was looking for a

Fox Mulder, Agent Fox Mulder?”

“This is Mulder.” His delivery was even, non-committal.

“So sorry to disturb you. This is Shirley Sackstone, I work for

Illuminations, Incorporated. I was working, well, not exactly

working, but I have some information on one of your cases.”

Mulder’s posture transformed to an eager brightness. “What kind of

information? Which case?”

“M-00134. Such interesting work,” the flustered woman wandered on.

“I saw your material this morning for the first time. I’m new at

Illuminations. We’ve had problems you know, with the damage, the

fire and all, but yours spoke as clear as crystal to me.” There was

some definite hesitation before a strained voice went on. “Too

clearly.”

Mulder’s eyes rolled slightly back into his head the way they did when

he consulted the file cards of images in his head. Dana knew when he

found the one he sought. His shoulders slumped in obvious

disappointment. “Six unexplained disappearances. The victims were

all traveling alone and all seemed to have made radical changes to

their vacation plans just before they disappeared. Their last known

locations were all within the greater Pacific Northwest area. That’s

not much to go on.”

“I think I have more,” the voice suggested.

His hazel eyes glowed with the embers of investigative fire. The

last two weeks had been a little dull — no new X-Files, no

profiling cases Behavioral Sciences couldn’t deal with, no

directives from Skinner as he was out of town, and no one had tried

to take either of them out of commission. “Where can we meet? Here

at the Bureau in D.C., or we can fly to where you are?”

The voice was hesitant again. “Actually, I’m in Washington now. I

flew into National airport and went directly to your apartment — or

what use to be your apartment until recently, it seems. The address

was with your account information.”

Dana stabbed at the Mute button. “You gave your home address to some

consulting group! You’ll be giving them mine next.”

“Not just any consulting group; these are psychics. They have all of

the last pieces from the fire in the X-Files office years ago. If

any of Illuminations people caught onto anything, they had to be

able to contact me and I didn’t want information from that kind of

source coming to the Bureau.”

“If they really are psychics, they wouldn’t need your address!”

“If you’re very eager for the information, we don’t need to arrange

a meeting place,” the woman continued. “When it was clear that your

apartment building had met with some misfortune, I took a chance and

came here.”

Dana flared. “You did give out my address!”

“Actually, he didn’t,” the woman replied apologetically. Dana stared

down at the phone. The Mute indicator light was on and had been on

through much of their three-way conversation. “I followed a

‘shimmer’ from there to here. I am a psychic, after all. The trail’s

incredibly bright, especially at night when there is so much less

extraneous noise. Clearly this is a path you had traveled repeatedly

over many years. And I wouldn’t have called until morning except

that I saw lights. When more came on. I thought that you might be

up.”

Mulder released the mute. “You’ve been sitting in your car outside

for how long?”

“Oh, uh, two hours.”

“You must be frozen.”

“Well, a little, but then I grew up in Boston. I know that it’s an

abominable hour but I don’t like crowds, or cities, or traffic.

Consequently, I work a lot at night. From the kind of cases you work

on, I take it that you work a lot at night as well. If I hadn’t seen

the lights, I wouldn’t have called.”

Mulder was learning. At least he caught his partner’s eye for her

weary agreement before inviting up yet another houseguest.

There was always the couch, Dana thought, and Mulder could certainly

testify to its comfort. If he wasn’t careful, however, he was going

to get another opportunity to test how just how comfortable it could

be.

**

Dana didn’t change out of her bathrobe. With most visitors, she would

have done everything in her power to project the image that Mulder

had just stopped by after the office and that they had been working

on a case and lost track of the time. No point with this woman with

what she already knew. Besides, maybe if she realized that she had

interrupted at least one person’s sleep she wouldn’t stay too long.

Her feelings changed when Shirley Sackstone appeared on the

threshold. Pale, with almost a bluish tint to her lips, the woman’s

long, red-chafed hands greedily grasped the warm mug of tea thrust

at her. It took five minutes for her shivering to stop.

“That’s so good,” she gushed, breathing in the warm vapors.

Mulder had perched on the arm of the sofa one long leg crossed over

his opposite knee. “So Ms. Shackstone –”

“Shirley Sackstone, but call me ‘Lee,’ please. And no Shirley

MacLaine jokes.”

“Very well, Lee. So you also uncovered my old phone number through

psychic means.”

“I didn’t need to. You left it with the office in case we came up

with anything.” Her sheepish smile greatly softened the strong, raw

bones of her face.

“I understand that you have information on one of Mulder’s old

cases,” Dana said, “but I am surprised that you came down here

directly. Mulder tells me that Illumination’s home office is in

Massachusetts. We travel a lot, we might have been out of town.”

“I did call the FBI first. Your voice mail said that you were gone

for the day and would return tomorrow so I felt pretty safe about

coming.” The woman’s hands trembled so that the contents of the mug

nearly sloshed over the rim. “I had to see you, Agent Mulder. These

images won’t leave me alone.”

Mulder turned to his partner. “The case she’s referring to, M-00134,

was actually from a file marked ‘Miscellaneous’. It didn’t have

enough of the X-File ‘odeur’ to warrant an ‘X’ rating, at least not

then. Maybe now, however. It came to me during the time when my

uncanny spookiness frightened even me. The Behavioral Science Unit

hoped that I could come up with a profile. I let them down. So tell

me what you have, Lee.”

As she paced the room in obvious agitation, she told them about her

vision in the vault under Illuminations main office. As she spoke,

Dana watched Mulder as avidly as she watched the woman. Both

partners believed that most psychics were fakes, intentional or not.

They believed just as completely that some were genuine. Mulder

clearly assumed that Shirley ‘Lee’ Sackstone was of the latter

variety, Illuminations being such a reputable firm.

By the time Lee finished, Mulder was in full Sherlockian mode,

slouched in Dana’s favorite easy chair, fingers steepled under his

chin, eyes intense. “As we both know, visions are one thing;

interpretation is another.”

“Absolutely. That was why I had to see you in person. You wrote up

the original notes, talked to the original contacts. I had to see if

my visions would clear.”

“Have they?”

“Some. What surprises me most are the impressions from the dead.”

Her pale eyes went to his. “You’ve known a lot of dead, Agent

Mulder. They certainly know you. They are ‘at home’ with you and

aren’t afraid to speak.” Mulder’s expression didn’t change but Dana

noticed his skin pale. “They demand resolution, Agent Mulder, and

they’ve chosen you to provide it. Some have loved ones who still

need to know what happened to them. For others you are the only one

who cares. They are in torment.”

Dana watched her partner with concern. He didn’t need this kind of

pressure, not again. She watched his Adam’s apple as he convulsively

swallowed, saw the dim light of the living rooms lamps pool in his

eyes. “I want to help. I’m willing now, but don’t know much more

than I did before. Let’s go through those visions of yours again,

one by one. Maybe we can find a pattern. We even have a few days we

can spend on this.”

“One thing,” Dana asked, knowing enough not to scoff. “Are all of

the missing deceased, or should we be preparing for a rescue?”

Mulder turned to the pale woman as well, the same question in his

face. “There were six in the original case.”

“Those are no longer with us,’ Sackstone answered though with a

slight hesitation.

“Those? There’s more?” Mulder inquired.

“There were more than you knew then, there are even more now and all

dead,” the woman’s bony face twisted in a kind of deep pain.

Unable to bear inactivity any longer, Mulder lurched to his feet to

pace. Dana was afraid to move from her place on the arm of the

couch. With these two pacing and now a dozen or more weeping souls,

her small apartment was feeling very crowded.

At that moment a “Jeeze!” exploded from the hallway. Dana nearly

toppled from her perch until she remembered her other houseguest.

Langley stood dripping onto the floor, a tiny towel barely covering

his skinny loins and in his haste to cover more was in serious

danger of losing that. “You could have told me you had visitors… I

just wanted to ask where I could find more towels…”

He had turned to flee, displaying an amazingly white backside, when

Lee Sackstone’s attitude abruptly changed. “Lizard?” she called

taking to step towards the hallway, incredulity in her voice. After

a moment’s pause, his wet head peaked around the doorway of the

bathroom.

“Shit,” he swore.

“Lizard Brain,” Lee breathed.

“Wizard Brain,” Langley retorted.

“I take it you know each other?” Mulder asked realizing only then

where he had seen the woman’s strong bone structure before.

“Answer the man, you skinny-assed, paranoid geek!”

Langley glowered. “It’s my damned incense-breathing, tofu-gobbling,

crystal-dazzled cousin. Embarrassed any more husbands from your

previous lives lately?”

Somewhere in Kansas, two days later

The black night road slid by nearly soundlessly under the wheels of

the cruising van. For the tenth time in as many minutes, Mulder

rolled back the sun shield to stare up at the stars. As far as they

were from civilization, the Milky Way was ablaze in all its

splendor. He raised and lowered his seat with the touch of a finger,

adjusted the side mirrors, fine-tuned the equalizer on the surround

sound system, and punched in a request for new and completely

unnecessary instructions from the in-car directional computer.

“Do you think maybe that you could quit fiddling and give some of

that attention to the road?” Scully inquired groggily from the

passenger seat. “Some of us are trying to sleep here and want to

have some confidence that we’ll wake up.”

“Sorry. This machine Langley came up with has got more bells and

whistles than an entire Gemini spacecraft.”

His partner snuggled down into the comfort of the glove-leather

seat. “Didn’t you notice the license plate — GKNOLL2. I assume that

refers to the second gunman on the grassy knoll. This opulence on

wheels belongs to Byers, who just picked it up cheap from an

impoundment lot in Fairmont, Iowa — the internet being a wonderful

thing — and he will kill Langley when he finds it gone. He will

kill us all if we damage it.” She adjusted her own captain’s chair

to a more comfortable reclining position. “At least we didn’t end up

trying to drive cross country non-stop in that moving disaster the

Gunmen usually roll around town in.”

“We would have it, only Frohike and Byers are using it in their

surveillance of the Libertarian Party headquarters.”

Scully rolled her eyes. “And they are involved in what illegal

activity?”

“Don’t ask.” His hand caressed the padded steering wheel.

Sleepily, Scully turned in her seat to stare back at the dim

outlines of the two shapes sprawled out in their own captain’s

chairs behind. “Those two finally passed out.”

“They’ve only insulted each other for the last thousand miles. They

must be worn out.”

“Between my ear plugs and headphones, I slept through the last

tirade. Did I miss anything?”

A sunflower seed cracked between his teeth. “Only Missouri and

Kansas and her tales of how Langley sabotaged both her junior and

senior proms. In other words, no. We’re almost in Colorado though

you wouldn’t know it.”

Scully stared out into the dark. “I remember my first cross-country

car trip. I was surprised to find that eastern Colorado was so flat.

You think Colorado, you think mountains.”

A chill settled into his stomach. “When was this?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I must have been about ten, I guess,” she answered as

she hunted in her travel bag to come up with a box of juice. “You

know, the kind of trips every family takes, hit all the national

parks.”

That’s what he thought she was going to say. The chill had become a

lump.

“Anything wrong?” When he didn’t answer immediately, he felt her

slender hand come to rest on his thigh. “Give. I know there’s

something.”

Shrug. “Same old thing. Me and my childhood, or lack thereof. No

amusement parks, no summer camps, no holiday celebrations, no

birthday parties.”

“And no cross-country car trips,” her quiet voice added.

“Just to the summer place and back and not even that after I was

twelve.”

After Samantha disappeared. Scully was silent now. Way too much

baggage for either of them to continue on that subject. A few miles

rolled on in silence, just that warm, reassuring hand on his leg,

not sexual in any way. A faint lightening in the sky in his rear

view mirror told him that dawn was reaching for them from the East.

“Any more of an idea of where we’re going?” Scully asked at last.

Reflected in the windshield, a series of expressions flowed over his

face. “I gather ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to that.”

“Actually, yes. I just don’t know how I feel about it. Lee had two

more visions while you were asleep. Allowing her to gather

impressions as we went along was the reason why we drove to begin

with. She finally identified the smoke she sensed. She’s convinced

that what she smelled had nothing to do with the apartment fire or

our old office fire though the recent connection might have made her

more sensitive. There was pine in the smoke, not the kind of toxins

present when buildings burn. In Kansas we added the scent of rotten

eggs, hydrogen sulfide, which she remembered when we went by a paper

mill. Langley cross referenced forest or lumber mill fires against

hot springs, fumerals and paper mills using his handy-dandy wireless

notebook.”

“Taping into the DOD’s satellite system, no doubt.”

He smiled. “Only the best for the ‘boys’. In Colorado she felt a

pull to the northwest. Add to that that this must be an area where

people traveling randomly in the area would likely to be drawn to

and we triangulated on a location, at least some place to start.” He

felt her eyes on him, questioning. “We’re headed for Yellowstone.”

In one smooth motion Scully returned her seat to its upright

position. “Sulfur, the geysers! And the fire that swept through so

much of the park twenty years ago. But that’s wonderful!”

“Is it?”

“You’ve certainly been to Yellowstone! Maybe as a child you didn’t

travel, but you’ve crossed the U.S. at least a dozen times since I’ve

known you. Seeing that Yellowstone is larger than Delaware and Rhode

Island combined, it’s rather hard to miss.”

“I have.”

She was silent for a long moment, absorbing his very definitive

denial. “Missed the Grand Canyon, too? And Yosemite, and the Grand

Tetons, and Arches, and Dinosaur National Park? Missed Carlsbad

Caverns, Glacier National Park, Crater Lake, and Mesa Verde?”

She knew him too well. No, not to any of the places where happy

families gathered. “Military installations and UFO’s hot spots tend

to like quiet, unpopulated places. So do I.”

“Ever think that these places are popular, Mulder, because they are

amazing? Yellowstone, especially.”

“You mean Old Faithful, blue-haired ladies by the tour busful and

Yogi Bear?”

She actually lifted his hand from the wheel to give it a squeeze.

“Yes, there are those things — except for Yogi Bear because bears

aren’t allowed to bother tourists any more — but there are amazing

things there, too, Mulder. You will love Yellowstone if only because

it truly is the most highly geothermic area in the world. Almost the

whole park sits inside an ancient volcanic caldera. If that isn’t a

Fox Mulder kind of place, I don’t know what is.”

‘But if we are right, Scully, people also died there,’ he thought,

not wanting to ruin her good mood. ‘They were lured there and

killed. But then I guess that also makes it my kind of place.’

ACT II

Yellowstone National Park

Much as he tried to fight it, Mulder found his partner’s enthusiasm

infectious. While she drove and the landscape changed abruptly from

plains to majestic mountains, he commandeered Langley’s notebook and

read everything that he could find on the park, its geology, and

surrounding area. There was much to read and the day slipped by

quickly with Langley and Lee playing hangman and fighting in the

backseat. When Lee spoke about her impressions, which wasn’t often,

her broad features took on a strained expression. She mentioned once

at a rest stop that she seemed able to sense then they crossed the

path that one of the victims took on their final journey. She kept a

notebook of her observations, and the closer they came to the

northwest corner of Wyoming, the more frequent came her notations.

They ate an early dinner in the tourist town of Jackson, which represented

everything Mulder hated about tourist towns, though he had to admit

that this one was cleaner and less gaudy than most. His patience was

rewarded by the sight of the Grand Tetons. The snow of their jagged,

unworldly, geologically new-born peaks glowed red at sunset. Almost

immediately, they entered Yellowstone Park through the nearly

deserted south entrance. No army of tourists in sights. Not a single

tour bus. There was not much else to see either as it was night

except that they seemed to spend a lot of their time driving up

hill. Denver had nothing over Yellowstone when it came to altitude.

There was not a point in the park that was less than a mile above

sea level and the mountains that ringed the ancient volcano and its

caldera were far higher still. In March, even though the winter had

been mild and spring early, that meant that the snow was piled high

along the main route so that it resembled a tunnel more than a road.

Giddy from the long drive, they had tumbled from the car for an

impromptu snowball fight. Just as Mulder realized that they might

just need every layer of winter clothes they had packed, an ungainly

female moose and her equally knobby-kneed calf crossed the road. As

the women cooed, Mulder and Langley shared stoic glances of male

solidarity though secretly Mulder felt a strange, warm glow of

pleasure. He came crashing to earth only a few minutes later,

however, when a glance in the rear view mirror revealed a new

haunted pain in Lee’s eyes.

Mulder didn’t remember much of their arrival. He had let Scully

handle the reservations as she seemed to have a place in mind. All

he could recall was falling into a bed around one a.m. After more

than two-and-a-half days of non-stop driving, the mattress continued

to move as if the bed rode a ship at sea.

“Scully?” he inquired softly the next morning. He got only a

straggled murmur in response as her small body burrowed into his for

added warmth. As good as the sensation was, Mulder felt an oddly

happy excitement of an entirely different nature. He had finally

made it to Yellowstone. Well, they had actually been driving in the

park for hours the night before, but now they had light and an

entire day before them. And geysers. He was going to see a geyser

that wasn’t on a video or a picture in a book. His unexpected buzz

of anticipation made him realize how short the step really was

between ages ten and forty. When he opened his eyes to focus on his

room, however, his anticipation dimmed. It looked like one of the

poorer cheap motels that he had too often stuck Scully in — double

bed, small table, one side chair, a sink in their room and toilet

and tiny shower in a freezing side alcove. He had expected the Ritz

in retaliation for his past choices.

“Sure that we are where we are suppose to be?” he asked hesitantly.

He was answered by an un-Scully-like giggle from beneath the blankets.

“These cabins look exactly the way they did when I was fifteen,”

she answered with pleasure. “Don’t worry. You don’t spend

any time here. You live in the Lodge.”

They emerged from the little clapboard cabin into spring. Mulder

vaguely remembered descending from the pass into what was called the

Central Plateau on the park map. There was snow only in the shadowed

places here, unexpectedly warm after the ten foot drifts just south

of the caldera rim. As he followed his smiling partner to the large,

dark-logged building down the road, a small family herd of long-

eared deer trotted past. “Muledeer”, Scully explained, then pointed

to a burly dark spot in the tall grass across the road.

“A buffalo?” Mulder marveled. As if on command, the creature raised

its huge head, snorted, then dropped it again to continue feeding.

“Bison. Don’t call them buffalo. The young males are forced to leave

the herd until they can find a female of his own.”

“Some things never change,” Mulder murmured with a sympathetic

glance in the bison’s direction.

As they climbed the few short steps onto the huge porch of the lodge

the mist beyond where the bison fed rose over what Mulder realized

was a huge lake surrounded by snow-covered mountains. Scully sighed

with satisfaction. “Yellowstone Lake. Hasn’t changed a bit except

that we were never here so early. More snow.” They crossed the

porch, which stretched at least forty feet to either side of the

lodge’s main entrance and was lined with rocking chairs all turned

towards the lake. The lodge itself seemed to be one huge but

surprisingly cozy room with two dozen conversation pits, brightly

burning fireplaces, bar and restaurant. Dana smiled. “And this is

Lake Lodge. It hasn’t changed either except that I hear they have a

modem line. I’ve always felt that this would be the perfect place to

hold a party for me and a hundred of my closest friends.”

“I don’t even have a hundred friends,” Mulder sulked.

They found Lee and Langley only as they were leaving the restaurant.

The two cousins were arguing, as usual, next to the van, which they

had pulled in front of the Lodge. With all the high-pitched

squabbling, it wasn’t surprising that there wasn’t a muledeer in

sight, and the bachelor bison had ambled some distance closer to the

lake.

“I should have known that even twenty years wouldn’t be long enough

for you to grow up,” Lee sneered.

“Nor long enough for you to learn to keep that long nose out of

other people’s business!”

“Hardly other people’s business. I had to sit next to you during

most of the trip!” The woman directed the partners’ attention to

Langley’s outfit that was peculiar. The gunman wore his cat burglar

pants, turtleneck and watch cap. The black was broken only by red

tennis shoes and the same torn t-shirt advertising a D.C. sushi

joint that he had worn for the previous two days in the car. “That’s

the extent of his wardrobe! Where did he think he was going,

Hawaii?”

“At least Hawaii’s warm, and it does have volcanoes!”

“So does Yellowstone. You’re standing in one, circuit-brain!”

Having had to head for the local Walmart more than once for

essentials left behind, Mulder stuffed his hands deep in the pockets

of his jeans and said nothing. Scully stared at the van. “Ninety

percent of the stuff we crow-barred into the van was yours and none of

it was clothes?”

“Equipment, Agent Scully. Computers, satellite dish, modulators,

seismographs, radiation detectors, mass spectrometers. Come

prepared. We didn’t know what we were going to need and, I don’t

know about you, but I haven’t seen a Radio Shack for a hundred

miles!”

“Clothes… ” Scully mused. “I guess it’s not like you’re going to

need a tux. Sweatshirts we can find in any gift shop, and the Lodge

has a laundry. We do have more to worry about, after all, such as

where do we start?”

“Geysers,” Mulder suggested though it wasn’t really a question. “We

do need to get the lay of the land.”

“The park’s more than geysers,” Lee said with a worried frown.

“There’s the smoke I smelled and I felt, remember? We also need to

concentrate on the areas devastated by the ’88 fire. The

disappearances all trace from immediately after that time. It is one

of the primary reasons for our coming here rather than Crater Lake

or Laissen or Mount St. Helens.”

Mulder hoped that his disappointment didn’t show. He didn’t know if

it did or not but felt his spirits rise as Scully noted that Lee had

also smelled hydrogen sulfide, so the geothermic features could not

be ignored either.

As the scowling cousins climbed into the back seat, Scully indicated

that she would drive and surreptitiously slipped her hand briefly

into Mulder’s. Looking into her eyes he caught a shrewd sort of

sparkle. So she had seen. “This is after all an unofficial

investigation. Technically we’re on vacation until we can find

something more substantial to go on than Lee’s shimmers so we might

as well enjoy it. One day visiting geysers won’t hurt.”

“Scully,” he began, “I appreciate this but we have so much to do. A

few hours –”

“I’m not just being nice. The distances between the major geyser

basins is not trivial, and you usually have to wait. Even for the

FBI, geysers don’t erupt on a schedule, except for one, of course.”

**

Their first stop was West Thumb Geyser basin on the western edge of

Yellowstone Lake which Mulder and Langley, another deprived youth who

had never taken the National Park tour either, found both

disappointing and intriguing. They were disappointed because no

geysers actually erupted during their visit but they couldn’t help

to be fascinated by the simmering geyser pools of sapphire blue too

hot for algae to grow, the slopping mudpots, and stinking fumerals.

Mostly, however, they marveled at the steam that rose off the chilly

lake and the clearly visible geyser cones on the lake bottom each

appearing like tiny dormant volcanoes. At their next stop, however,

Mulder sat on the edge of his seat like any tourist as Old Faithful

sputtered and steamed teasingly for fifteen minutes before it

finally shot off like a fireman’s hose ninety feet straight up into

the brilliant blue sky.

clip_image004

Scully let him away at the end to meet up with a Ranger talk

beginning a quarter mile up a well-paved trail at the upper geyser

basin. “Can I see it again?” he asked wistfully.

“Every ninety-six minutes, give or take twenty minutes. They don’t

call it Old Faithful for nothing,” Scully assured him with a laugh.

Their interpreter was Ranger Harris, a small, thirty-something woman

whom Mulder had to admit filled out her uniform very well indeed.

She certainly never had a more attentive or questioning audience.

The fact the Mulder and Scully had to distract the ranger from the

soil and water samples and the countless readings with obscure

instruments that Langley was taking further down the basin only added

to the intensity. She explained how geysers needed three elements to

exist: A continual source of water far below ground, heat below and

in the surrounding rock, and the correct plumbing.

“Rhyolite is a yellow volcanic rock of which so much of the park

is formed and from which it gets its name. You’ll see that most

clearly in Yellowstone Canyon near Tower Falls. Rhyolite is silicon-

based and perfect for lining the water channels of the geysers and

making them water-tight. Boiling water below becomes superheated

because it’s under pressure from cold water above which is in turn

heated by the surrounding rock. Being at such a high altitude also

lowers the boiling point. That increases the eruption rate. Greater

height is achieved if the geyser plumbing also has a constriction

point. Old Faithful has all of these elements.”

“You say that you don’t know when the other geysers around the basin

will erupt. Then why can you predict Old Faithful so accurately?”

Mulder asked.

“O.F. has it’s own water supply. Once the chamber fills and the

water reaches the right pressure and temperature, it goes off. The

others share a water supply and often have multiple chambers,

sometimes in extremely complex combinations. That’s why we can’t

predict them.” She smiled a little sadly. “But we’re working at it

even with the budget cuts.” She indicated what seemed to be a tall,

white, anthill-like cone as large as an RV. “For example, we can

predict this one, Castle Geyser, to within four hours. It’s

spectacular, so the wait is worth it though we suggest that you

bring water, lunch and a book.” She indicated further on down the

basin. Mulder noted Langley speaking earnestly to one of the other

rangers. He hoped that the Gunman wasn’t being asked to leave the

park for dropping fluorescent dyes to trace water flow. “There are

even larger geysers than Old Faithful and Castle here,” their ranger

continued. “Giantess erupted three times in 2003 and Giant once.

That doesn’t sound like much but is still exceptional.”

As they moved on, Mulder noted that Lee was scanning the hillsides.

She had gotten her fire. The slopes were covered with hundreds of

living eight-foot lodge pole pines and a new spring layer of

underbrush, but amidst the green you couldn’t miss the hundreds more

of uniform black trunks, the remains of pines burned in ’88. They

lay about helter-skelter like so many huge matchsticks. Scully

studied the psychic closely. There was much that haunted the woman

in this place, yet no panic.

They were walking along a weathered boardwalk suspended above a

white, crumbly soil. Their lecture group wasn’t large but having

become bored two boys had begun irritating each other as children

will. “Please,” Ranger Harris warned with real concern, “you don’t

want to fall off the boardwalk. Those ‘Danger’ signs are there for a

purpose. A few winters back we began to notice a terrible smell

coming from the lower basin. Eventually we found the problem. A

bison calf had wandered onto the geyser basin and broken through the

crust. It didn’t survive long after a nearby geyser erupted. Let’s

just say that cleaning up wasn’t much fun. We wouldn’t want to have

to clean up after you as well.”

Wincing, Mulder shot Scully a look of alarm. She knew that

expression. “Mulder, there are accidents everywhere,” she whispered.

But she knew he would remember and noted how he studied the notices

about boiling water and unstable ground with greater attention than

before. Damn but his mind was working on something.

Just then Ranger Harris’ voice rose as she pointed across the road,

where a plume geyser was just getting started and within seconds was

pumping energetically, maybe not as tall as Old Faithful, but still

impressive. “You’re in luck That’s Baby Daisy. It became active

again just last year after being dormant since 1959.”

Mulder stiffened slightly. “You mentioned that Giant and Giantess

Geysers had also become unusually active recently. How active is

active for this one?” Mulder asked in a tone that caused his partner

to glance in his direction.

“Nearly once an hour though there are wide variations,” Ranger

Harris reported.

“You don’t find that degree of change alarming?” Mulder inquired.

“From nothing to twenty-four/seven?”

“This ‘is’ an active geothermal area.” As if that answered all,

Harris changed the subject and began discussing the reason for the

various colored algae found in some quiescent geyser pools and not

in others. Mulder was quiet but caught up with the ranger at the end

of their lecture.

“Have other features changed lately,” he asked with an intensity

Scully knew all too well. “What do you not want to say because you

might disturb the tourists?” Langley and Lee joined them. For some

reason Langley was also on edge.

“There really is nothing to be concerned about,” Harris assured them

in a practiced voice. “There have also been several changes at

Norris Geyser Basin. That’s nothing that we are trying to hide.

We’ve reported our findings in the newsletter to the Yellowstone

Associates. The water has become hotter at Porkchop Geyser and

erupted for the first time since 1991. Pearl Geyser became a

fumarole as did Green Dragon that was once a boiling spring. A new

thermal feature began throwing acidic mud to such an extent that a

trail had to be closed. The ground itself in several parts of the

basin has become hotter.”

“And you don’t find that unusual?” Mulder asked in what Scully

recognized was sounding far too much like his interrogation voice.

Ranger Harris’ response was clearly on the defense. “We’re

monitoring, but keep in mind that in the geologic sense, our records

on the park are like a blink of an eye. These variations could mean

nothing.”

“Or could mean something,” Mulder retaliated.

“Excuse me, sir,” asked the ranger, officiously polite, “but may I

ask if you are with the media. We do have an office of public

affairs. Perhaps you should speak to them.”

Mulder pulled out his ID, which forced Scully to wearily do the same.

The ranger’s eyes opened to a prodigious degree. “FBI? May I

ask what you are investigating? I’d be happy to direct you to the

correct people.” There had been a decided emphasis on ‘happy’.

“We’re still collecting information, but thank you.”

“Mulder…” Langley had been nervously shifting his weight from foot to

foot, as if the boardwalk he stood on was already too hot. “I have a

question. I was talking to one of the other rangers. What about the

lava dome, the ‘rising’ lava dome? The one on the north end of the

lake that has raised the temperature of the lake floor? Bubbles of

steam and hydrogen sulfide have been seen on the lake surface.

Within the last fifteen years it has tilted the lake to the extent

that twenty feet of the south end shore is now permanently under

water?”

Mulder stiffened. “Lava dome?”

Ranger Harris was making all the correct calming gestures but knew

that she wasn’t succeeding well with this group. “This is an

geothermic area. That means that the Earth’s molten core comes

relatively close to the surface here and, yes, there is a magma lake

under most of the park.”

“In layman’s terms, an active volcano,” Lee corrected. “One of the

largest in the world.”

“Yes,” Harris admitted, “which hasn’t erupted in six hundred

thousand years.”

“And is due to erupt in six hundred thousand year intervals,” Mulder

recalled.

“Give or take a hundred thousand years. Not something that I think

we need to be overly concerned about. Not something that need

concern the FBI.”

And with that and a piece of amazing dexterity, Ranger Harris

slipped away.

“You badgered that poor woman, Mulder. We knew that Yellowstone sits

on top of an active volcano.”

“But there’s knowing and then there’s ‘knowing.'”

“But what does any of this have to do with the disappearances?”

He shrugged, which seemed to dispel some of the tightness in his

shoulders. “Coincidence?”

“But you don’t believe in coincidences.”

“You’re right, I don’t.”

ACT III

Scully joined Mulder on the lodge’s wide porch, where he sat in one

of the rockers, his feet on the thick bole of the tree trunk railing

in front of him. The beauty of the lake may have been before him, but

his eyes didn’t see it. He was in full analyst mode, his inner eye

in operation.

“Ranger Harris will be here in a few minutes. It’s her day off, but

her supervisor has agreed for her to act as the FBI liaison in this

case. Heaven help us if we have to prove this is sanctioned.”

She slipped into the rocking chair next to her partner and waited

for him to acknowledge her presence. Finally, he leaned down for the

glass by his side. “Ice tea?” she asked with a smile.

He managed a small return grin while taking a draw on the straw.

“Unfortunately, yes. They make some brew here you could stand a

spoon in. Moose Drool. As soon as this is over I’m having one.”

Vacation was over. There has been no more geyser watching after the

revelation at Old Faithful. “You really think you have a case?”

“I have a place to start. Where’s the two love birds?”

“I went with Langley over to the Lake Hotel down the road and rented

another car. I felt that we would need one. The front desk told me

where the Lakeside General Store was and I showed him on the way in

case he wants to pick up some more clothes. The nights get cool even

if the days are exceptionally warm for this time of year. I took the

rental and let Lee off at the records depository as you requested.

Langley took off with the van to visit the park surveyors. There are

people using a ROV submersible to map the lake bottom, yes, with

emphasis on the lava dome under there. He’ll confirm the changes we

heard about this morning and look for evidence of more and see about

timing. If he showed them some of his toys, he was confident that he

could get them to tell him anything.”

“He will. I’ll bet that they’re all card carrying members of Geeks

International.”

At that moment a park service four-wheel jeep pulled up in front of

the lodge and the agents left their comfortable rocking chairs to

join a worried Ranger Harris. “I’m told I’m at your disposal,

agents, though I don’t know how much I can tell you.”

“Just give us a tour of other areas of the park. We’ll talk on the

way. All we’ve really seen is the distance between the Old Faithful

basin and here.”

“That’s not much. We have a lot of miles to cover then.” As she

pulled away, Harris gave them the broad facts. “The park covers over

two million acres. The caldera we spoke of is thirty miles wide and

forty-five miles long but it’s only the most recent of three almost

all of which still fall within the park. Although Yellowstone became

the first national park because of its geothermal features, it’s

known as much now as a wild life sanctuary and wilderness area.”

“In what way a wilderness area?” Mulder asked. “It’s so well known.

I saw that you see two million visitors a year.”

“On only three hundred miles of paved roads out of 3,472 square

miles of park? Yes, there are a thousand miles of back packing

trails but the extent of hiking the vast majority of our visitors do

is from their air conditioned tour buses to Old Faithful. And we

have only a five month summer season. The other seven months, we see

only about a hundred and fifty thousand.”

“So a lot could go on the rangers don’t know about?”

“Absolutely. There’s only about a thousand rangers and that’s in

high summer.” Harris frowned behind the steering wheel. “Budget cuts

again.”

“That leads to one of our big questions. Are there any groups that

would like to discredit the park?”

“Ha! Get in line. The group for free public access would like to

bring in every stink pot, ear-splitting, fume-spewing snowmobile

they want and churn up the woods all winter long. The affect on the

fragile, wintering animal populations would be devastating. There’s

virgin forest here that timber conglomerates would love to get their

hands on. They argue that the fires of ’88 are a sign that clear

cutting parts of the park would actually help protect it.”

“As I recall,” Scully offered, “the current theory is to allow

natural fires, those due to lightning, to burn normally except

where they endanger human habitations or historic sites.”

“That’s pretty much it. By putting all fires out quickly, a lot of

dead wood accumulated over the years. It is healthier since the

fire. We also have one of the world’s largest petrified forest, but

we don’t advertise that considering what has happened to the others

in this country. Our relationship with our neighboring ranchers is

unstable. They like the money the park brings in, but a certain

number of our elk and bison carry brucellosis, and you can’t keep

such migratory animals totally inside the park, especially in

winter.”

“Brucellosis abortis causes abortions in cattle,” Scully informed

her partner.

“And then there are the wolves,” Harris added with a sigh.

“Wolves?” Mulder asked delighted.

“We re-introduced wolves to the park a few years ago. They are

collared and heavily studied. There are fourteen packs of about nine

individuals each in the park. They roam as well. The ranchers were

concerned about their herds but they have not been too much of a

problem. They should worry as much about the natural predators.

Mountain lions, coyotes, golden eagles, and bears take down as many

as twenty-five percent of newborn bison calves and elk fawns each

year.”

They passed few cars it being so early in the season. What met their

eyes except for the road was natural: rolling hills, fields and

forests. “I see a lot of fog rising, or is that steam?” Mulder

asked.

“Steam.”

“Out in the middle of nowhere?”

“There are ten thousand thermal features in the park of which only

three hundred are geysers and only the most notable can be found on

the actual geyser basins. Here for instance.” She pulled off the

road and they got out. “Listen.” It took the agents time to hear

anything, true silence was so unusual. The hillside sighed with a

soft and eerie whistling. “That’s water underground turned to steam

by our hot spot working it’s way to the surface.” She shrugged as if

whistling mountains were the norm. “It happens here.”

“So there could also be changes to features you don’t know anything

about? Even new features? Hot springs bubbling to the surface, new

geysers.” Hesitantly, the ranger agreed.

Back in the car Mulder slouched in silent thought for a while. When

the jeep stopped he looked up to find the vehicle surrounded by

hundreds of bison. All of them were taking their time walking along

or crossing the road. The land had totally changed as well to a

wide, flat valley dotted with dark, woolly shapes, their winter coats

falling off in carpet sized patches leaving sleek, massive bodies

behind. Mulder thought of lone bachelor Bob back near Lake

Yellowstone. “You’ve fishing in the wrong stream, my friend.”

As they waited in childlike joy for the huge beasts to mosey along,

Harris’ radio squawked. She listened, then swore. “Central Admin has

called for an ambulance. You sent an agent to Records?”

“A… consultant,” Mulder corrected, his concerned glance going to

Scully. “Was there an accident?”

“Unknown. She fainted, or may have had an epileptic episode.”

“If there’s no danger, I’d rather that they keep her where she is

until we can get there. Special Agent Scully is also a medical

doctor.”

“Who knows nothing about Lee’s ‘condition’,” Scully whispered

harshly, after Harris had squeezed out of the car with a cattle prod

in order to move enough bison so that they could turn around.

“More than likely it’s a psychic trance. She went ‘looking’ for the

names of the missing to see if we could even place them in

Yellowstone at the time of their disappearance.”

“Couldn’t a computer search bring that up?”

“Registrations weren’t computerized until seven years ago,” he

explained, “when the park out-sourced the process. Everything

charged from dinners to trail rides we can find since then but

everything before is on paper and the last twenty years of that is

kept in Central Records.”

“She was looking for the original six associated with the case?”

“That case was ten years old. Remember she hinted that there might

be more? Langley and I performed a more recent search using his

wireless wonder during the trip while you were sleeping. We found

twenty possibilities, twenty disappearances of adults, ages eighteen

to fifty, in reasonably good shape, who were traveling out West

alone and disappeared after straying from their itinerary if they

had one at all.”

**

Central Administration was housed in the northwest sector of the

Park, in an old army post. That it was also near Mammoth Hot Springs

was obvious from the odor of hydrogen sulfide that hit them as soon

as they emerged from the Harris’s jeep. A follow up call confirmed

that Ms. Sackstone had come around but was groggy and paramedics

were holding her at a small first aid station. ‘Groggy’ was

understating that glazed expression, but Lee recognized them and

after Scully showed her medical credentials, checked the woman’s

pulse, and borrowed some oxygen she let the paramedics go with the

FBI’s thanks.

“What did you find?” Mulder asked after checking that Harris was

elsewhere.

Lee took a deep breath. “Fifteen of them are here, Mulder. Fifteen

out of twenty! Seven are in the more recent database — those the

clerk found — but I ‘felt’ the other eight, just by standing up in

that room and calling up their names. And in all cases, their visits

timed roughly with the reports of their disappearance.”

Scully frowned. “So you didn’t actually see the records?”

Lee’s tired pale eyes flared in indignation. “I could if I had

wanted to. I can lead you right now to the correct box of receipts

or hotel register. Signatures have power.”

Mulder raised a hand. “We’ll have to pull them up soon to see if

there’s a pattern — if they stayed at the same lodge or shopped in

the same store — but not just this minute. You show us when you

feel up to it.”

A little unsteadily, Lee stood. “I want to get this over with.”

All became suddenly aware of an unhappy Ranger Harris standing

behind them. “I think that I deserve to know what’s going on, don’t

you?”

After a pause Mulder nodded. “As long as I can ask some more

questions.”

While Scully helped Lee and a dazed clerk, pull, copy, and document

dozens of receipts, Mulder and Ranger Harris grabbed coffee at the

canteen and took a walk outside. Mulder stood in awe as a small herd

of elk trotted by. Harris then took him to an overlook with a view

of a wide stream. Far below, small figures moved in the water.

Mulder stared.

“Are those people down there swimming? That stream has to be barely

above freezing with all this snow melt.”

The grave expression Harris had been wearing softened slightly. “Run

off from the hot spring flows in just upstream. It’s too hot in

summer but just right for this time of year. May we discuss this

case of yours now?”

Mulder talked as they watched the frolicking swimmers and drank

their cooling coffee. The ranger took the news of the disappearances

seriously but did not seem surprised. The park was a huge place. She

had no explanation for why no one had made the connection between

the park and at least some of the missing people before.

“The park service wouldn’t try to hush such a thing up, I hope,”

Mulder said. “However, I have to wonder. The park doesn’t need any

bad publicity. If your attendance goes down, I assume that so does

your funding and you have those special interest groups which you

mentioned.”

Harris’ frown deepened. He had injured her pride. “We are federal

employees, same as you, Agent Mulder, and get paid a lot less

because we love what we do. Maybe we wouldn’t publicize such a thing,

but we wouldn’t cover it up. As far as linking the names, going

through hand written records is labor intensive as you know and not

something one would do if you didn’t know what your chances are of

finding anything. As for the computerized records, clearly no one

looked or made the connection.”

“What about our missing five? Is there a way someone could get in

without putting their name down anywhere? A visit to this park is

hardly a day trip and even if you pay cash you have to sign in when

you come through the park entrance.”

“The fees are only per car. You can take the shuttle from Jackson or

hitch. Even walk in. There are ways. As far as your case goes, give

me your list of names and I’ll see if there were any inquires over

the years and what was done about it.” Harris glanced in the

direction of the building where Lee and Scully worked. “This

consultant of yours believes she can just reach out and lay her

hands on the records she needs? If we had a coherent filing system,

I could see how it might be possible but we don’t. How does she do

it?”

Mulder sipped his nearly cold coffee. “She has her ways.”

**

The Watcher sipped coffee as well as he sat on his favorite bench

and waited. Over the years he had become adept at identifying

potential candidates even if his eyesight wasn’t as good as it use

to be. He’d then follow, listen, take notes. So early in the season,

however, choices were few. He’d been watching for more than a week.

Something had better show up soon.

**

Limp with exhaustion, the three oozed into the rental car Lee had

come in and Mulder drove them back to the lodge. During the ninety-

minute trip, Lee slept and Scully sorted copied receipts and

registration pages as best as she could in the near dark. There was

far more than one receipt per victim. People charge a lot on

vacation.

The sorting continued in the nearly deserted restaurant at the lodge

after a brief dinner that few touched.

Scully suddenly leaned back. “Oh, no.” Tired eyes moved in her

direction.

“Ten of the fifteen charged for items in the Lakeside General store.

That’s the one Langley and I passed this morning!”

“That’s the most common factor so far?”

“So far and others may have visited and paid cash. It makes sense.

These General Stores are much more than gift shops. They carry

camping gear, backpacking food…”

Mulder nodded energetically, seeing clearly where she was leading.

“And your lone traveler, alone and lonely, who has changed their

itinerary on a whim might find themselves talking to some kindly

salesperson, or even just another shopper, when they stop to pick up

all those things they didn’t bring along –”

“Like coats and glove and boots and sweaters?” Lee asked thoroughly

alarmed. Her attention was directed toward the restaurant’s

entrance. Soon all three heads were turned in that direction. There

stood Langley looking about as out-of-place as a St. Bernard at a cat

show.

He tromped over to their table, new boot squeaking, as he pulled off

thick, sparkling clean gloves. Letting fall a well-stocked backpack

that still boasted its tags, he shrugged off a fine fleece coat, the

type of which would have made the Marlboro man proud, to better

reveal new jeans and a red sweater with a moose and ‘Yellowstone’

woven into the pattern.

“What’s wrong,” he asked at their wide eyes. “You practically

ordered me to buy clothes. I had to drop the cost of two servers and

a router for all this.”

Lee’s mouth worked first but not well. “It’s all over him,” she

whispered in terror. “Hunger, satisfaction.”

Scully’s question came out nearly in a squeak. “Where did you buy

those?”

“The store by the pond you pointed out to me this morning.” He

jerked up the expensive coat to examine it. “What’s all over me?

This is brand new! The dwarf would have been so green.”

As Scully dropped her face into her hands, Mulder swallowed.

“Friendly people help you there, Langley?”

“Have you ever met a salesperson who wasn’t? No, wait, Washington is

nearly as bad as New York in that respect. But they were very

helpful.”

“You chatted.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t tell them the real reason I was visiting. In

fact I didn’t mention even knowing any government slaves or crystal

creeps.”

“No, only that you were just unexpectedly passing by after a

business trip, which was why you didn’t have the right clothes for

the climate.”

“From a conference in Silicon Valley on thwarting computer terrorism

if you must know. Always know your competition.”

Lee sighed. “You are ‘so’ in trouble, chip brain.”

**

Ten minutes later the four were standing in front of the store. The

rustic, homey place was locked tight and as dark as the sky over

Yellowstone Lake. It was after eight p.m. after all. Though the days

were spring-like, at night snow-kissed air flowed in from the

surrounding highlands where winter still reigned. Scully and Lee

put their hands in their pockets. Langley turned down the ear flaps

on a new furry hat. “If you have it with you, can I borrow your

watch cap?” Mulder asked, shivering, to which the gunman pulled the

black stocking cap out of a pocket.

“Your perp couldn’t have been the salesperson,” Langley complained

continuing their conversation from the car. “She looked like my

mother. Certainly, she was old enough.”

“A woman of that age would be an unusual suspect for this type of

crime,” Scully observed.

Mulder frowned as he turned the cap inside out and pulled it down

over the whitening tips of his ears. “We haven’t really discussed

what kind of crime we have.”

“What kind do you think? The homicides, which homicides I assume

they are, clearly aren’t intended to damage the park’s reputation,

since they were completely unknown until we pulled them up, so the

aim wasn’t for publicity of any kind. Nor for money; no ransom

demands. What’s left is violence for violence sake, appeasing the

ego, the inner god.”

“I don’t sense violence,” came Lee’s tense voice from where she

stood huddled as far from her cousin as she could get and still be

part of the group. “I don’t sense any malice, at all. He’s very

cold. The victims are not regarded as people, per se.” She stared

down at the ground, anywhere but at the small, gray shapes fawning

about Langley that only she could see. “More like objects, like

animals.”

Langley snorted. “I think I’ve just been insulted.”

“That could be it. The act is its own end, only why here?” Mulder

mused. “Wilderness it may be but there are a lot more people per

square mile here than most of the West.”

Scully’s attention shifted from the psychic to her partner’s face

and she didn’t like what she saw. “You’ve got something. A totally

wild, unsubstantiated theory that I don’t think I’m going to like.”

He shrugged. “I admit, it’s from the far side of the moon even for

me. I wasn’t going to mention it yet.”

“Mention it.” He still wouldn’t have spoken except for the tone of

her voice.

“I don’t believe that our perp is appeasing any inner god, I think

he’s appealing ‘to’ the gods.”

Langley shivered in his fancy new coat. “I think I know where you are

going with this, and I’m with Agent Scully. I don’t like it. Let’s

head back to the lodge. I think I need to hear this one over one of

those Moose Drool beers you were telling me about.”

**

The fire was warm and Langley and Lee’s beers were as thick and

flavorful as promised. Mulder frowned at his ice tea in

disappointment.

“You’re not quite right about the moon, Mulder,” Langley agreed

licking the foam from his lips. “The moon is too close for a theory

like this. Maybe Jupiter, maybe Neptune.”

“Just because you don’t want to be sacrificed to the local volcano

god?” Mulder asked. “Have you been fantasizing that your demise

would be somehow more heroic?”

“At least it could happen in the South Seas where volcano gods are

respected. But Wyoming!”

Scully tasted her tea not seeming to mind that it was not Moose

Drool. “Peace, you two. Actually, being the vehicle for the

awakening of the volcano beneath Yellowstone would be worth a fairly

large historical note.”

“You’re taking this pretty calmly, Scully.”

“That’s because I don’t take it very seriously, Mulder.”

“If the Yellowstone volcano were to awaken with the kind of energy

of its last eruption — which remember, was six hundred thousand

years ago with a cycle of six hundred thousand years — then there

may not be much of anyone writing historical notes. The drop in

global mean temperature that would result from the ash and smoke

would result, as a minimum, in the total loss of the output from the

Great Plains, a major breadbasket for the whole world, not just

North America. I think we are talking damage to agriculture far more

widespread, however. A famine unprecedented in recorded history.

Death in catastrophic numbers, civil unrest on a global scale. Our

global culture, not just that of one country, hangs on a knife-edge

which is more and more precarious with every passing year. No, I

doubt anyone will have the leisure to write history. The question

is, what does our acolyte hope will come of his adoration?”

“But from Langley’s discussion with the survey teams today, an

eruption here of any magnitude isn’t likely to happen for

generations,” Scully said. “Maybe there is some uplifting of the

magma dome under the park but we are looking through a slit in

geologic history the width of a hair. This kind of variation may be

normal for this geology.”

“Oh, I don’t disagree with you.”

“You don’t?”

“No. The point is not what ‘is’ happening but what our perp

‘believes’ is happening. There’s just enough change in the last ten

years to make him — or her — think that their ‘work’ is being

noticed. In that case there’s no reason for him to stop.”

There was silence all around.

Worriedly, Langley asked, “When did Harris predict that Mrs.

Billingsly was likely to surface?”

“Your oh-so-helpful and motherly salesperson is currently driving to

Boston to be present at the birth of her first grandchild,” Mulder

reminded the gloomy gunman. “She may not get our message for two to

three days. Then we’re depending on her being able to remember, and

being able to describe, anyone hanging around the store while you

were there today. You’re sure that you don’t recall any serial

killers loitering about?”

Langley glowered, pausing only to remove the twist of hair he was

chewing on. “When was the last time you took a vacation, Mulder?

Everyone loiters, that’s what most people do on vacation. If I had

been casing the joint for a break in as part of a little spot of

intellectual espionage, you can bet I would have remembered the

flavor of ice cream every kid who walked in ordered, but I was

buying clothes!”

“Time out,” Scully insisted, “Under the circumstances, Mulder

wouldn’t have remembered either. You’ll just have to stay out of

sight for a while.”

“Can’t I just stay with one of you?”

“No, then you wouldn’t be alone, now would you?” Mulder said, “and

our perp targets lone travelers. Once we have a plan for drawing him

out, wander where you will.”

Lee stared from Mulder to Langley. “You’re going to use him for

bait!”

Mulder looked sadly into his glass of tea. “At least there’s one

thing to be thankful for. At least I’m not the one in the line of

fire this time.”

**

Scully pulled the blankets higher as her right side cooled. It was

still dark, and Mulder was up.

“Somethin’ wrong?” she murmured, groggily.

She felt his warm breath on her face as he bent down to kiss her.

“Can’t sleep. Got to come up with a plan. Think I’ll take a drive

and go for a swim.”

“Swim?” She almost woke for that. “We’re over a mile up, it’s March.

” Yawn. “Unless one of the inns has an indoor pool.”

The kiss brushed her forehead, all that protruded above the covers.

“Harris showed me this stream with its own hot spring. Should be

heavenly.”

“Maybe your idea of heaven. I’ll see you for breakfast. Don’t be

late.”

**

The sun was up, though not by much, when someone began a frantic

pounding on the agents’ room. Once a heavy-eyed Scully managed to

get the door open, a nearly naked man burst into the room.

Unceremoniously, he dropped an hysterical as well as wet and

lathered Lee Sackstone onto the bed. Her clothing consisted of two

tiny room towels, his of a pair of blue plaid Fruit-of-the-Looms..

“What happened?” Scully demanded from either party even as she threw

the bedspread over the woman. Langley dropped into a chair huddling

behind the room’s two bed pillows. Neither replied immediately. Lee

seemed to be weeping through some inner psychic horror while Langley

just appeared to be in shock. Suspicious, Scully stared from one to

the other. “I didn’t think that you two got along. Were you…?”

“No!” both denied together. Langley alone went on. “Our bathrooms are

back to back. I was… well, occupied in mine, Lee was in the shower

when all of a sudden I heard her start screaming. I ran around to

her door and burst it open,” he absently rubbed a shoulder, “but

when she saw me she started screaming even worse. I brought her

here. It was all I could think of.”

“You did fine. Lee,” Scully asked gently shaking the woman. “Lee,

what’s wrong?”

Wiping stray shampoo from her eyes, Lee managed to stammer, “M-

Mulder. I was in the shower. I saw him in the water.” She then

pointed a wavering finger at Langley. “Then he came in. The ghosts

were clustered around him last night. Now they’re gone! I’m afraid

that they returned –” Her eyes went to Scully’s confused face.

“By the way, where is Mulder?” Langley asked, searching the corners

of the room.

Still fuzzy from sleep, it took Scully a moment to remember when she

had seen her partner last. It came back in terrifying swiftness. “He

went for a drive some time before dawn. Said something about…

swimming. Some stream with its own hot spring.” Her fear flared out

as anger. “You thought you were safe this time, damn you! I hope you

parboil one side and get frostbite on the other!”

“No!” Lee’s groping hand fixed on Scully’s arm like a vice. “Dana,

this is serious. He went down! Into the water!” Wildly she stared

from her cousin to Scully. “But it was as if I watching through

someone else’s eyes and it was Mulder, but sometimes it was as if I

were looking at Langley.”

Behind his pillows, Langley hunched pale, bony shoulders. “Mulder

isn’t going to feel flattered about the comparison. You need glasses

if you think we look anything alike.”

Scully’s fear was escalating by the second. She began throwing on

clothes as Langley averted his eyes. “You are of a height and general

shape. Besides, where is there a rule that says that serial killers

have to have good eyesight?”

Lee suddenly sat upright, the bedspread slipping into her lap.

“That’s why they looked alike. In my vision Mulder was wearing a

black hat like the one he borrowed from Langley last night.”

Dana paused in her frantic dressing. “Langley, did Mulder return your

hat?”

The gunman shook his sleep-tousled hair in the negative. “That must

be a sight. Swimming in running shorts and a — ” Suddenly he stopped

speaking and began chewing his lip.

“What is it?” Scully asked.

“Scully… I wore that cap all the time I was shopping. ” Her gaze

turned on him horrified. “It was the only part of me that kept warm

all day. Worse… ” he added apologetically, “I saw as we were coming

in that only the rental car is outside, Mulder must have taken the

van. That was what I drove when I went shopping yesterday. We are so

screwed.”

Her face frozen, Scully snapped her weapon into the holster in the

small of her back. “No, it’s Mulder who’s screwed.”

**

The water was delightful. Jacuzzi-warm if you moved closer to the

input from the hot spring, icily chilling if you moved further

downstream. Best was somewhere in between. On the other hand, the

early morning air on wet skin would stop your heart so he planned to

keep his head above water. Determined to stay well this trip he even

wore Langley’s old cap, creepy as it felt even turned inside out.

Better than Scully’s disapproval if he caught cold. Good intentions

don’t always pay for all, however. Stepping in a hole he went under.

In the deep places, the water was …cold!

He thought he had been swimming alone, but when he came up, his eyes

streaming with water, he thought he saw other swimmers near him, a

whole football team’s worth. Once he had wiped his eyes, however,

they were gone. Before he had time to make sense of what he had seen

or not seen, something powerful plowed into his back above the left

shoulder. He was swept off his feet into the worst of the swirling

current. He went down and down, his wind knocked out from the blow.

His head went under into water several notches too warm for comfort

at the same time that the icy flow swirled about his struggling

legs. His awareness of the irony didn’t lasted long. Within seconds

neither arms nor legs answered his panicked call. After all he had

been through, and he was going to drown and he didn’t even know why!

ACT IV

There was too much noise, noise that had no beginning and no end but

only swelled from time to time to an even more terrible shriek

before rolling back to its previous head-splitting level. And then

he was sick. Sick of the numbing shaking that continually bounced

his nearly naked hipbone again the cold, unforgiving surface he lay

on. Sick to his stomach, too, from the camel sway of this terrible

ride and from what was certainly a cocktail of unpleasant drugs. He

could taste them in his mouth.

Despite his scrambled brains he had to think, had to ignore the dark

and the teasing spots of light that flickered before his aching

eyes. He flexed his fingers. It had taken a long enough to realize

that he could even do that though the knowledge did him little good.

His arms were bound to his sides at elbow and wrist. Then he

realized that his groping fingers scratched at his own bare thigh.

Naked? No, he touched the edge of a scrap of thin, damp cloth. His

aborted swim came back to him. He must have been hit by a

tranquilizer dart though by its force it must have been meant for

deer or bear.

But he hadn’t been left to drown. Someone had fished him out, most

likely his assailant, rolled him in a blanket, and wound some kind

of binding at multiple points around and around his body. Mummies

must feel like this, or if they were alive they would. For a few

minutes he struggled but he was wrapped with something that refused

to give or slip. They must have used duct tape. Damn television. His

exertions brought on a fit of coughing. With effort he managed to

rid himself of what was left of the stream water in his lungs. From

the soreness in stomach and throat he had thrown up the rest of it

before.

His dark, rumbling prison suddenly tilted and he went rolling. He

was grateful for Langley’s wet, knitted cap when he head came up

sharply against the metal wall of what had to be quite a small

enclosure. A trunk? No, he had been thrown into enough trunks in his

days not to confuse this sliding, swaying motion with a car’s

motion. It felt and sounded more like he had been stuffed into some

compartment on a boat. The engine had that high-pitched whine of an

outboard motor only there was too much up and down. His feet were

numb from being bare and not covered by the blanket. If he had to

guess, he was hearing the engine of a snowmobile and he was in some

sort of covered cargo sled. It was more likely than a boat on land-

locked and still partially frozen Yellowstone Lake. The winter snow

pack was still extensive in the upper altitudes.

But where was he being taken? He didn’t want to think about why, but

every jar of the sled drove the unpleasant possibilities into his

bones. The ensuing panic got him on his knees in spite of his drug

sluggish limbs. His plan was to force his back up against the solid

cover of the sled. He had to begin over and over again as the bed of

the sled constantly altered speed and direction. He didn’t know what

he would have done if he had managed to spring the top. Fall out, a

blanket-bound mummy onto the snow? To what end? He didn’t need to

worry about that. The cover was the same fiberglass as the sled

shell and refused to budge.

Scully, where are you? But she had been an hour’s drive away when he

was taken. How would she ever find him? When would she ever even

notice he was gone?

**

At that moment, the object of his question was sliding with reckless

abandon down a snowy slope from their rental car towards the part of

the stream below Mammoth Hot Springs that had been pointed out to

Mulder as the ‘swimming hole.’ Dana knew that she was showing a

level of emotion rare for the cool Agent Scully, but appearances be

damned! She slowed only when she saw the large area of yellow police

tape against the snow and the clusters of serious-faced rangers.

It had indeed snowed during the night, though only half an inch and

there had been none at the lodge. Not all that unusual for this time

of year.

Seeing her, Harris left her ranger group. “Anything?” Scully asked.

“Surprisingly, yes, thanks to the snow. And a good thing that we got

here as soon as we did because the sun will hit here in an hour and

that will be the end of it.” Harris pointed to clear marks in the

snow, some dyed pink. “Pink marks those made by the first ranger who

arrived after your call. Two people were here. One went into the

water directly, the other took a more suspicious route.”

“How suspicious?” Scully asked, feeling a chill in her stomach.

“From bush to bush.” The ranger drew something bagged and labeled as

evidence out of her pocket. “We found this behind a tree.”

Shock ran through her. It was clearly a tranquilizer dart but huge.

It was as long as her hand and as thick as three fingers. Her

insides churned with alarm. “You’ll send this to the local FBI field

office for analysis?”

“Of course.” Harris led her nearer to the bank and just outside the

tape where a large area of snow was disrupted. “Here’s where they

must have come out of the water. See that large square space?”

Harris asked. “It’s almost as if a six-by-six carpet had been laid

down and rolled. See also that only one set of tracks returns to the

parking lot, the suspicious one, only he’s not walking easily any

more. He slides and pauses and his prints are deeper than before.

We’re fairly sure that one man carried the other though we will drag

the river just to be sure”

Not just a chill, ice cycles in her guts. “I gather there were no

witnesses?”

“No, but that isn’t surprising for this early in the season.”

Following the tracks, the two women climbed back up to the parking

lot. “As you can see,” the ranger said, “the snow didn’t stick on

the blacktop so we don’t have any information on the other vehicle

except that we assume that there was one.”

“What about the van Mulder drove?”

Harris pointed straight up to a flattened area far above them. Dana

could just make out the edge of a building. “It’s there. In the

parking lot for the admin campus. You visited there yesterday. It’s

where I showed Mulder the stream.” Harris’ head bowed. “I’m so sorry

about that. I never thought… Anyway our assumption is that Mr.

Dartgun moved it up there. A vehicle in a busy parking lot is less

conspicuous than one unattended for hours or days on the side of a

road. By the way, we didn’t pick up any useful prints in the van at

our first go round. The ones on the door and steering wheel were

smudged so your last driver wore gloves. Still we’re keeping an eye

open because we expect him to come back to dispose of it as he must

have disposed of the others.” Harris’ tone was inquisitive. “He

thinks that he has time because, as I understand it, he expected his

victim to be traveling alone.” Her obvious question was unspoken.

“You have my word that Mulder did not intend to play the goat,”

Scully assured the ranger. At least not this time.

Harris seemed relieved but only momentarily. “I have more bad news

or perhaps I should say no news. Our shopkeeper Mrs. Billingsly

still hasn’t made her appearance at her daughter’s in Boston.”

Something in Scully’s expression convinced Harris that now was

perhaps a good time to coordinate with the other rangers. That left

the agent alone to crouch on the wet asphalt straining weary eyes

for some hint of a muddly tire tred mark or a scrape of a rare

cigarette butt.

One pair of worn and one pair of new hiking boots appeared in her

field of vision. It was Lee and Langley whom she had left to park the

rental car.. “What can we do?” Lee asked softly gently crouching

down.

Scully shrugged helplessly. “We haven’t a clue. Not one. We don’t

know who, we don’t know where.”

Lee had to look away from the naked emotion in her new friend’s

face. “I know this sounds crazy, but I think I have a direction.” Her

eyes lifted up and up to focus on the snowy gap between two of the

dozen or more ten thousand foot mountains that marked the caldara

rim.

Scully followed the other woman’s gaze but made no attempt to stand.

“I know that you’ve produced some phenomenal results these last

days,” she said wearily, “but this is different.”

“Why? Because it’s ‘too’ important?”

“I guess so. Working with Mulder all these years I’ve seen a lot and

learned to believe in much but –”

Lee stood, fists clenched. “Then don’t stop believing! He’s alive.

At this moment he’s alive!”

Without speaking, perhaps because she didn’t trust herself to,

Scully rose, brushing gravel and wet from the knees of her slacks.

Lee’s strong face flushed. “He’s thinking of you right now! THAT’s

how I know. When he thinks of you I sense this kind of… shimmer.

Remember how I found your apartment that first night? It’s like that

only fainter because this path hasn’t been laid down again and

again over the years. Right now he’s on the move, they’re climbing.”

The psychic’s pale eyes glazed. “It’s cold and I smell snow and pine

and … gasoline?”

Scully allowed herself one glance one more into that far distance

and shivered. Direction help but it was still a huge area. “What if

I agree and you’re wrong? We’ll waste time. Can you tell me what

will happen then?”

Feeling decidedly left out, Langley had been pacing, his fingers

twitching for something solid and preferably electronic that he

could hold in his hands that would help here. Now he snorted in

frustration.

“You always were a prick, Lizard,” Lee snapped. “Believe it or not,

I can sometimes see what ‘is’ that others can’t or what has been,

but I never claimed to be precognizant. That’s a different curse.

But who’s to say that I wasn’t sent by someone who does know these

things? What if I was sent not only to stop the murders of all these

lonely people but also to save Mulder. Maybe Mulder was even allowed

to be taken because I ‘could’ follow him through this ‘shimmer’

between he and Dana.” Her attention to him had become a sneer. “You

should be relieved. If it had been you, Langley, we wouldn’t have had

a chance of following because there isn’t anyone in this world that

you care about as much as Mulder cares about Dana. Now, as Dana

says, we can’t afford to waste time.” Lee stabbed again at the

distant gap between the two peaks. “Mulder is up there and is being

taken farther away even as we stand here arguing!”

And as they watched the two pinnacles emerged glistening white into

the morning sun from behind the shadow of a taller, more easternly

brother. With it a bright energy seemed flowed through Scully. Was

this hope? At least it felt better than despair. “Ranger Harris!”

she called. “I think we have a place to start but we’re going to

need a map and some alternate transportation.”

**

By the time the terrible engine stopped, Mulder was suffering not only

from the remains of the drugs in his system but was seriously motion

sick from the endless swaying of the sled. With his ears still

ringing from the mind-numbing whine, he nearly missed the sound of

the sled’s cover being raised. At best his thrust upwards from his

knees was a weak, ill-timed, and rather pitiful attempt to head butt

his captor. His upper body passed through empty air to fall back

with a painful thud against the edge of the sled. A solid whack to

the side of his skull with a stout stick stunned him so that he got

only a momentary glimpse of long, gray hair and a face as leathery

and weather-lined as Clink Eastwood’s. The man proceeded with

ridiculous ease to force some thick and foul tasting fluid down

Mulder’s throat. The old man clearly had experience medicating

recalcitrant dogs and cats as well as other higher beings. Within

seconds a cold paralysis began to radiate out from Mulder roiling

stomach.

‘Oh, Scully, after all those hours spent bent over the porcelain

god, now would be a really good time to throw up.’ But it wasn’t to

be. His mind followed his body into a gray cotton haze.

clip_image006

**

With Lee squeezing Scully’s elbow from behind to indicate whether

they should stop at any particular place or go on, Harris’ Park

Service jeep churned on through what was a gravel road in summer, a

snow-covered track in spring, and impassible in winter. They would

have to stop soon and pull out the snowmobiles that road in the

trailer they pulled behind. Harris drove expertly without feeling

the need to ask any questions, which considering the situation was

even more commendable than her driving. Langley sat unhappily in the

back seat continuing to feel useless in this largely non-

technological world. At the moment he was confused about why he had

been included. He was no woodsman and had never tracked so much as

the missing family dog through the snow but, despite her claims that

she couldn’t read the future, Lee had insisted.

For some time the psychic had given no directions and both the

women’s faces had begun to show the strain. All at once, however,

Scully straightened in the front seat as Lee squeezed down hard.

“Turn here!” What might be a road because it was a space the width

of a road and lacked trees opened on the left. The snow was a little

deeper and so easy to see the few sets of solitary tire tracks.

Harris got out for a look only to leap in again moments later. The

sun was high now and the impressions easy to read. “By the tire

tread and axle width those tracks all appear to be made by the same

vehicle.” She didn’t have to say more. They might very well be on to

something.

They came upon the pickup more quickly than anyone expected. It was

parked just far enough off the main road to be invisible.

Harris let off a low whistle. “I think know that truck.”

While Harris called in the license plate, Lee crept up to the

pickup, palms raised like radar dishes. While Scully prepared to

search the cab for evidence, Langley drifted over to inspect an

eight-by-eight metal shed painted Park Service green and brown. It

would virtually disappear in summer, but not now. A tiny satellite

receiver and a small but sophisticated weather station were its

primary attractions. By the time the gunman hurried back the women

were off-loading the two snowmobiles. Their faces were grim.

Before he could speak, Lee was at his side. “Agent Mulder’s shoes

and clothes are in the back seat of the truck,” she whispered.

“There wasn’t even any need to force the door. And I was afraid to

say but I lost the shimmer miles ago! Lost it! I only felt the truck

by chance, probably sensed his clothes like the signatures on the

sales receipts.”

“He’s not –”

“No, not dead. I would know that. But asleep maybe.”

“Or unconscious. You have no idea how many hospitals visits I’ve

made to see that man in the past ten years. You have the tracks

though. Whoever drove the truck must have left a trail.”

“We’re fairly certain that he used a snowmobile only the woods

around here are crisscrossed with dozens of tracks. No way to tell

one snowmobile from another.”

Her misery transmitted all too well. Making a sudden decision, he

called out, “Ranger Harris! Agent Scully! Here’s something you might

want to see.” He gestured towards the park service building. “It

may not have a thing to do with Mulder’s disappearance, but you have

a saboteur. A clever one.”

Harris’ eyes frowned impatiently as they followed Langley to the

shed. “That’s just an instrument shed. There’s a whole network of

these in the park. They record and transmit meteorological and

seismographic data.”

“This one’s been used for something more and something less than

that.” Langley announced swinging open the shed door. “It’s been

fixed it up as someone’s home away from home and there’s an empty

lean-to on the far side that’s just the right size for a couple of

snowmobiles. And your instruments aren’t working, at least the

seismograph isn’t, that is, it’s working but is being fed false

data. Data from another location is being captured and fed through

just enough out of cycle for the duplication not to be recognized.

Whether it’s related –”

Harris frowned at the sight of the cot, tiny propane stove and

supplies. “Oh, it’s related. It fits with what I just found out. The

truck belongs to “Pigtail” Newton, an employee of the surveyor’s

office for years. He helped set up most of the initial network and

maintained these sheds for years. There’s a note in his file. His

son was a smokejumper. He was killed in the ’88 fire. Pigtail blamed

the fire on the tourists and one did start one of blazes but not

all. He was an extremist even for our own cadre of tree-huggers,

critical of the Park Service but never really left it or the park

even after his forced retirement two years ago. His truck is a

common fixture, which is why I recognized it. Why he would want to

falsify data, however, makes no sense. The measurements have value

only to us. We measure tremors, the movement of ground water –”

“Geothermal activity?” Langley ripped a sheet off a terminal that had

finished printing just as they stepped inside. He thrust it into

Scully’s hands. “I restored the correct input, accessed the main

database and cross referenced the sectors covered by the other park

seismographs. Any one of them could pick up even a moderate-size

earthquakes over most of North America but for geothermals there’s

minimal redundancy.” He indicated a lightly shaded area on the map.

“In other words, you’ve had a hole in your coverage of the park

probably for years.” He pointed to a drum whose pins were steadily

recording multiple active lines. “Here’s the real readings from the

past week. Does it indicate what I think it does?”

Harris stared. “An unknown and extremely active thermal area just

outside the caldara rim. A hot spot, and getting hotter!”

“That’s where they’ll be!” Scully exclaimed remembering Mulder’s

not-so-crazy theory about sacrifices to the volcano gods.

The four headed for the snowmobiles at a run. Harris paused only a

second before climbing on board. “What I don’t understand is how you

were able to access anything on our system, much less as quickly as

you did. Our systems have some sophisticated security.”

“Professional secret,” Langley shrugged, as he climbed onto his own

metal snow beast and gave Lee a hand to seat herself behind him.

“Besides, ‘YOgi_Bear’ was not so hard of a password to guess. Now if

this drives anything like a motorcycle we’re with you. Just don’t

tell Frohike about my checkered past.

**

It was at times like these when the limp bodies of the offerings sat

heavily on his shoulders that “Pigtail” Newton worried about getting

old. And he was thought to be in good shape for a man his age but

didn’t feel it today. It didn’t help that it was no little distance

from where the snow stopped to the offering place, but then even in

the worst of the winters snow seldom lingered here. Too warm. He

could feel the ground heat even through the thick rawhide soles of

his boots. At the edge of the basin where the ground turned to

crunchy bisque he slipped his feet, boots and all, into the flat

wooden shoes that so much resembled snowshoes. While standing on one

foot with his burden, he felt the weight on his shoulders shift and

only barely righted it. Definitely getting too old. The gods would

have to hurry if he were going to live to see the day of their

glorious vengeance.

Twenty yards across the basin and beginning to sweat from the steamy

heat, the old man reached the altar. Its simple but elegant design

was like the others he had built over the years. It was three feet

high and as long and wide as a tall man was tall. Built of a lattice

of the trunks of lodge pole pine, the open weave of the lattice

alternated east and west and north to south. With relief and

surprising care, the old man rolled his burden off his shoulders and

onto the bier. With a sharp knife he cut the tape and then began

automatically to straighten the awkward position of the man’s limp,

bare limbs. He found himself blinking at the still face, as he tried

to focus using eyesight that he refused to correct with glasses. It

was the first time that he’d really taken the time for a close look

that day. The sight made him uncomfortable. The young man was better

looking than Pigtail remembered from the store, better looking and

with a better body than he expected. And he had been wearing the

black stocking cap, though little else. He had also driven the

correct van — GKNOLL2. Pigtail was unlikely to mistaken it for any

other after following it back to the shopper’s lodgings the evening

before. Besides, Volaria must be smiling over his choice otherwise

excited sleeplessness would never have induced him to begin his

surveillance so early. Any later and he would have missed the pre-

dawn excursion. Still, this was not like his other selections.

Someone would surely miss this one.

Almost reverently he touched the gray cheek and noted the glaze over

the slitted eyes. “Cold, Mr. G. Knoll? Not for long, I promise you,

not for long.”

clip_image008

**

Mulder wondered if where he had been could be called sleeping. It

seemed odd to sleep with his life on the line, but for the first

time in what must be hours he was warm though the drugs had left him

stupid as well as lethargic. Without giving away that he was

conscious, he stretched his senses. He was completely naked now and

bound spread eagle, held down at wrists and ankles though still

covered with the blanket from the chest down. He was laid out on a

hard and exceedingly lumpy platform and from time to time choking

fumes rolled over him. He soon located the source of the warmth as

well as the smell. Moist warmth was rising up through spaces in the

thick kind of grating he lay on. A burger on a grill came to mind.

No, more like a hot dog in a steamer. Correction again, a hot dog in

a pressure cooker as he began to identify the sounds and smells

about him. Vibrations in the ground transferred up through his

pallet as underground water and steam came under more and more

pressure.

Only with effort was Mulder able to turn his head to the left in the

direction of the hissing and gurgling noises. He could just make out

a tall, gray cone from which steam rose and intermittent jets of

water shot out in great forceful sprays. From the size of the

geyser’s cone, things were just heating up. Just then as a bit of

breeze cleared the air of steam he saw several low structures close

by in various degree of disrepair. There were probably more but he

stopped counting once he made out that one still retained the

whitened remains of an earlier victim.

How he sometimes hated being right.

Something more in the mist and clouds of steam caught his attention.

Forms seemed to go in and out of focus. Did the old man have a

congregation and had they all come to watch the sacrifice? If so

Mulder realized with a shiver, it was a strangely insubstantial

congregation. If they were there at all, he could see through them.

Then he realized where he had briefly seen the gray figures before

if only briefly. They had been standing around him in the stream

when he came up from his dunking. That is what had seemed most odd,

they had been fully clothed, but then the dart had come out of

nowhere and that vision had been swept away.

His head fell back onto the logs of his own altar with a thud. Now

they were back and they all were looking at him. Expecting what

exactly? For him to rise triumphantly and smite their murderer? Fat

chance when even his head felt as heavy as lead.

A much more substantial form moved to his right. The old man. The

fact that he was still near might mean that there was time still.

“Who are you?” Mulder croaked, unable to come up with anything more

original.

The old man grunted. “I’m not important.”

“I think you’re very important just now.”

The old man didn’t reply. Instead the rumbling suddenly increased.

The old man disappeared as a wave of incredibly hot steam mingled

with a fine spray of stinging droplets sprayed across Mulder’s body.

Whoo, too hot. Geologically, things seemed to be moving along far

too quickly for any kind of subtle interrogation.

“So what’s the name of the geyser that’s going to scald me to

death?” Here was one that would be classified as ‘Other’ under

‘Cause of Death’ on the local autopsy report. “Or your name. I’ll

settle for your name.”

“Her name is Volaria Magma,” snarled the old man reluctantly from

some distance. There was no small amount of anger in the man’s voice,

as if it were somehow sacrilegious that anyone should dare to ask.

“How appropriate. She’s violent, I take it, and as unpredictable as

any woman? Her plumbing system must be pretty complicated.”

The old man was there again, frowning and walking oddly on what must

be soft and dangerous ground. His return, however, gave Mulder hope.

The courtier would know his lady’s ways.

“She’ll prepare for days and days before making an appearance.

Sometimes weeks. She took six months once.” He paced back and forth

in his weird gait studying the bubbling cone with worshiping eyes.

“That must have been hard,” Mulder replied conversationally.

“Waiting, that is.”

The old man gestured towards the platform where the bones still

glistened. “Had to listen to that one snivel and beg for two whole

months. Had to gag her finally except when she had to be fed. There

wasn’t much left by the time Volaria finally came. I could tell that

she wasn’t pleased. She didn’t come again until now.” For the first

time to Mulder’s knowledge the old man actually looked into his

victim’s face. “But I already know that she approves of you. She is

eager, I can tell. We won’t have long to wait.” At that moment

beneath them, the earth groaned like a herd of dinosaurs with full

bellies turning in their sleep. “Feel that? She wakes. I won’t have

to gag you will I? You’ll go quiet? Oh, not too quiet, I know,

because she takes her time. See I’m teaching her well. She’s finding

pleasure in the destruction of those who cause her home so much

harm.”

“One contented lady will not solve the problems of the… world,”

Mulder coughed as a particularly odious cloud rolled over him.

“No, but once she learns she will invite her father and her mother

and all her kin. And they will rise up!” The old man’s voice raised

like that of an old time tent meeting preacher. “And they will wipe

this land clean with fire and earthquake and molten stone! With

smoke and doom they will smite this land of all those who spread

like an infection over the land. At the end you will meet her with

nothing but the flesh in which you were born. Then I tell you, beg

her forgiveness,” the crazed voice softened, “so that in the midst

of your great trial you will not overlook your mighty purpose!”

‘I doubt that I’ll be able to overlook such a mighty purpose,’

Mulder thought glumly. One was unlikely to forget being splattered

to death by boiling water and scalded by steam. How long would it

take? Or was the old man talking about thousands of gallons rising

up and showering down to write across his body in fantastic patterns

of blistering flesh? In that case, he wouldn’t have time to forget

nor to be quiet even if there were some point to showing restraint.

**

The snowmobiles tore over the wet spring snow, whipping back and

forth to evade trees and rocks and slopes too dangerously steep.

Harris and Scully’s was in the lead. Harris set a frightening pace.

Dana took hope in that Harris was following the tracks of riders

here before them. All at once the ranger shouted triumphantly over

the din of the engines. Only one track stretched before them, only

one headed in the direction they needed to go and its tracks were

deep and fresh.

**

The earth continued to groan only louder and more often. The geyser

within the cone was becoming more active. It would rise a bit and

Mulder would wince as its hot spray hit his feet from which the

blanket had slipped and which was closest to the fountain. Then the

eruption would take a step back, gathering strength and Mulder would

feel the warm, not unpleasant wetness seeping through the blanket

onto the skin of his legs. He thought of another question but before

he could open his mouth the dinosaurs turned again and old man

tipped his hat and trudged away to safer ground. Mulder considered

asking the ghosts but they were an uncommunicative lot.

**

After nearly two hours on the back of a snowmobile, Scully found

that the landscape of twenty-year-old burned forest had begun to

take on a monotonous, dream-like quality. From time to time Scully

felt her head droop to rest against Harris’ shoulder. She woke

instantly, however, when the engine’s RPMs dropped. Scully could

soon hear the ranger swearing. Harris was going slower because

though the ground she searched was still white, the covering had

thinned.

She stopped and climbed off with an agility that the others could

not come close to duplicating. “Damn, lost the track. It’s too warm

today; the snow’s flattened out. We’re well within the zone Langley’s

report identified but there are still a dozen square miles –”

Lee came to a sliding stop beside Scully to point slightly towards

the left of the gap between the original peaks that they had been

heading towards all along. “That way! He’s awake! I’ve thought so

for a while but there was too much noise to concentrate. We have to

hurry!”

**

Volaria was stretching her broad shoulders. Her fountains were

coming more quickly and rising higher though as much splashed to

Mulder’s left or right as in his direction. He tensed at the roar of

each jet. His blanket was damp all over now and very wet and hot

near his feet. For the first time a hot splash sprinkled his face.

The coolness of the spring mountain air was all that had saved him

from serious damage so far but for how much longer? What would

happened when the water from the earth’s own personal water heater

began coming in buckets rather than cupfuls? He no longer wanted

the ghosts to go away. It was horrible dying alone, but they must

know that more than anyone. Maybe that was the only reason for their

being here. If so, it was enough.

**

The snowmobiles stopped dead. No more snow. Harris shook her head

puzzled over why this should be so but there was no time for

questions. The four were off and running as fast as they could over

a mushy ground cover of snowmelt mud and soggy leaves. This time

they followed Lee’s tall, raw-boned frame and the expression of

renewed terror on her face. There was no thought of trying to keep

quiet so not to disturb the acolyte at his ceremonials. Clearly,

there was no time, yet there was still hope. Whatever terrible thing

was going to happen had not happened yet.

Very soon, perhaps the length of a football field from their own

snowmobiles but hidden from the sight before, they came upon a

single abandoned snowmobile hitched to a cargo sled. Its turtle

shell cover was open. Zipping down her jacket as she ran, Harris

shouted to the others, “There must have been snow up to here just a

few hours ago. That’s a lot of melting. It’s also too warm.”

As she raced past the sled, Scully looked once, swallowed, and ran

faster. The storage compartment was easily large enough to carry a

man Mulder’s size and it was empty. The lack of snow in this

sheltered, shadowed place where snow should have lingered all summer

was of no concern of her, but the unexpected rise of temperature was

both a relief and a worry. Surrounded by snow fields, she had been

worried about Mulder’s lack of clothes. He had to be more

comfortable now but the rise in heat and Mulder’s own theory had to

point to Langley’s dangerous geothermal area being close by.

The party no longer needed maps or a psychic guide. Before them was

a well-worn path. Confusingly, it seemed to be dead-ending into the

very side of the mountain. Then suddenly within a stone’s throw of

sheer rock walls, the path dipped precipitously. As they descended, a

warm rising breeze brought them the all too familiar hell scent of

sulfur.

As the trail dropped, the space before them opened and the steps of

all the party faltered. Long ago, a huge side vent off the central

crater had exploded, rupturing the caldara rim and propelling

outwards a huge chunk of the mountain. A entire basin of a dozen

geyser cones, and countless boiling azure pools, fumaroles and

mudpots simmered menacingly within the sheltered bowl that that

explosion had left behind yet only a quarter of the entire

mysterious realm was open to the sky a thousand feet above their

heads.

Harris gasped even as she resumed running. “Small wonder that this

place was missed again and again by aerial surveys. Follow me, be

careful where you step!”

Scully followed but was nearly tripped by Lee who staggered, her

hands rising to her mouth in horror. Scully ran past, refusing to

allow herself to be distracted by either the geology or whatever

visions Lee saw. Only where to place her feet so she could keep

running? She had to find the place of execution, the place of

ceremony, and from Lee’s reaction she had to find it fast! Where was

it? Because that was where she would find Mulder.

Being in front now, Harris saw the altars first. There must have

been a dozen in bleached piles neatly arranged in two arcs around

the yellow-white cone of the largest geyser cone that she had ever

seen. Even as they watched energetic clouds of steam began boiling

out of the core. From its heart fountains shot high into the air.

Both Harris and Scully had drawn weapons by now as they searched

through the mountain’s shadow and clouds of steam. Scully’s foot

went through the crust and she felt a thick, hot sludge fill her

boot. She would have gone down but Langley grabbed her free arm.

“They say we have to hurry!” Lee screamed flying past. Scully swore.

‘Who’ says? Besides, she was hurrying! Then she saw the old man, his

long hair wet and plastered around his face from the spray. He was

standing and glaring at them, his face red with fury.

“Hands up! FBI!” Scully commanded in a voice made thunderous by her

own anger. But instead Pigtail bent, seized a yard-long stick and

ran into the billowing clouds of waist-high steam in the direction

of the awakening geyser. Scully saw his arm raise as if to beat at

an amorphous shape nearly obscured in swirling clouds.

“Stop!” she screamed. But the arm didn’t pause. Scully stopped,

stood, fired. Down in the geyser bowl, the figure jerked, dropped a

fist-size chunk of wood that was all that remained of the bludgeon,

and then sent some dark shape flying. A flag? Staggering, barely

visible, he then dashed around to the far side of the cone where the

water was rising in fountains higher and higher, eight feet, now ten

feet.

“Pigtail!” Harris called. “Give it up!”

“You people give it up!” the old man shouted back in both anger and

anguish. “Give the land back to itself!” The last Scully saw was the

old man wading, screaming, through the steaming water which

collecting in a deeper and deeper pool at the foot of the cone where

the most spectacular hell was breaking loose. He seemed to be trying

to get away around the far side of the geyser but for reason wasn’t

making much progress.

All but Lee gave no more thought to the old man. As her far-seeing

eyes counted far more than one figure gathered at the base of the

cone, Harris, Langley, and Scully ran towards the place where they had

seen the old man raise his bludgeon. As they neared with the soft,

hot ground breaking again and again under their feet, a swirl of

wind played with the steam to reveal another of the altars. Their

eyes had been drawn to a dark object, a blanket, crumpled on the

corner of the altar. This was the ‘flag’ the old man had pulled free

at the last minute, hoping to hasten the completion of the sacrifice.

Nearly, invisible against the bleached wood, a pale, naked figure

was stretched out and struggling weakly at ropes that held it down.

Within seconds Harris had pulled out a pocketknife. As the three

sheltered Mulder from the worst of a fresh spray of huge, boiling

drops, the sharp blade made quick work of the rope. It took not much

longer for the three to get themselves and Mulder onto dry and solid

ground. As Mulder, coughing weakly, collapsed bonelessly into

Scully’s waiting arms, Langley draped the recovered blanket over them

both.

A safe but still impressively close distance away, magnificent,

magnificent Volaria had finally reached her climax. Unaware and

uncaring that her promised gift had been spirited away, thousands of

gallons of boiling earth-heart waters were shooting in dozens of

glorious fountains eighty feet into the air, the blood of her self-

proclaimed consort barely a pink stain about her feet.

Epilogue

A Park Service helicopter came to lift the injured and his personal

physician away. The patient was swathed in an odd collection of

whatever the others could spare. Scully leaned over the litter as

the paramedic fastened the straps for the trip and brushed her

partner’s cheek.

“I can’t feel much,” he asked worriedly. “How bad is it this time?”

“Not too bad but be glad of the numbness from the drugs. One blow to

the head, one to the shoulder.”

“Only because I jerked away at the last moment.”

“Bumps and bruises from her sled ride, and no worse than second

degree burns from Volaria’s kisses especially on your feet. No worse

than a bad sunburn on your top half.”

“Ouch,” he winced.

She bent and kissed him. “Honestly, you got off easy this time. If

it weren’t for the drugs that need identifying, you wouldn’t even

need to stay the night.”

“Whatever he gave me, I didn’t seem to care over much about

anything.”

Her smile was brittle. “I think you would have if the situation had

gone on a few minutes longer.”

“Yeah, probably.” He looked over to where Langley and Lee stood, the

Gunman’s arm close around his equally tall cousin’s shoulders. “I

think I’ve missed something. What’s up with those two?”

“He says that they were in separate rooms last night. I think that

he got to her awfully fast.” She took her partner’s hand as the

attendants began to carry the litter the few dozen yards to where

the helicopter waited.

“Wait,” he said, “I need to talk to Lee, to ask her what she saw at

the end.”

“Harris has her statement.”

Mulder’s expression was thoughtful. “I think she might have seen

things which she’d be reluctant to report to Harris.”

Scully considered Lee’s silence since the old man’s death. “I think

you may be right about that, but later.”

.

They moved into a bit of sun and the sky above them was the bluest

of blues. “You know, Scully, I think that I would like to come

back.”

“To Yellowstone? I guess we could request a couple of days of sick

leave for you.”

“No, sometime in the summer. Sometime when there are lots of

tourists and things are not quite so warm.”

**

Two remained to watch the great, iron bird lift into the sky.

“I had a feeling you’d be good for something!” Lee said looking into

the face of her third cousin twice-removed. “I lost the trail.

Without you we never would have gotten here in time.”

“But you led us to the shed. You knew that Mulder was in trouble.”

“I guess that just means that in this world, it takes both beauty

and brawn.”

“Right brain and left brain,” he corrected. In rare agreement, she

nodded and together they began walking back towards the geyser. At

the top of the path they could see Ranger Harris as she stood

entranced by the continuing spectacle and appalled by the damage the

crazy old man had done with his altars and his constant tramping

back and forth through the delicate ecosystem. Then there was the

sickening sweet smell that wove about with the hydrogen sulfide that

only geysers that are worshiped as gods have.

“Before the next eruption they will remove the bones, new and old,

and take down the altars,” Lee observed, too tired to put any

emotion behind her words. “Then Volaria will be like the others,

only more so. She and her kind, they don’t really need us, you

know.”

“Except to protect them,” Langley murmured. When Lee kept on down the

trail towards the basin, he asked with concern, “Why go back? You

don’t sense anything down there any more, do you?”

She had to think about that. “No, not a thing. It’s very quiet. But

I want to say a prayer anyway.”

The End.

Author’s notes: I love the national park that was the location for

most of this story and no disrespect was meant in any way. Many of

the places mentioned there are real, some are not. I apologize if I

offended any group with my opinions about the use of the park in

general and of snowmobiles in particular, but as with all things,

there are uses and abuses. Preserving the land and our resources for

future generation, however, must take precedence over our own short

term pleasures. Except for the Volaria basin, which is my own

creation, the geologic changes mentioned in the story have actually

occurred and are depicted as accurately as I could make them in this

short space.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s