Dispensation

VS12x01cover

TITLE: Dispensation

AUTHOR: VS12Producers

EMAIL: vs10producers@yahoo.com

RATING:

CONTENT: Casefile; mytharc

SPOILERS: Continued from Displacement

SUMMARY: Season Premiere

FEEDBACK: Always welcomed.

DISCLAIMER: 1013 and FOX own these characters.

DISTRIBUTION: This story belongs exclusively to the Virtual Season 12 site for two weeks; thereafter, please contact the author for permission to archive.

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J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building

Washington, D.C.

3:44 p.m.

Mulder carefully rolled up the grainy black-and-white poster that had left a discolored rectangle on the basement wall of the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building. The poster, cheap, available on the Internet or, probably, through any comic book or head shop, was priceless, if only in Mulder’s estimation.

It was the successor to Mulder’s original hanging, given to him by a dear, late friend who had suffered for her belief and, indeed, for her very existence. “I Want to Believe,” the cheap and grainy poster stated. It had been Mulder’s mantra, and had become Scully’s.

Some might have seen the poster’s removal from these sacred halls as a victory for rational thought, for bureaucratic protocol, for the general order of things. The ex-agent smiled unconsciously as he regarded the rectangle its removal had left in the regulation federal paint — clean, unsullied by the pollution that had seeped into Mulder and Scully’s sanctum but failed to contaminate their spirit or belief.

Skinner had their resignations. He’d promised to process them quickly, but had suggested that the agents might make use of their considerable amount of accumulated vacation time before having to pay the increased costs of health insurance after terminating employment.

Their belief was one thing the bureau couldn’t take away, and the rest, Mulder left as garbage. He set the poster aside and returned to the desk and pondered the inexplicably fused coins Scully had given him years before with no memory of their origin. As he worked through the scarred desk, he began to feel a sort of fond melancholia for the years he’d toiled in the belly of this black-suited beast.

Mulder found it in the bottom drawer, behind a stack of magazines of the paranormal and paranormally endowed. He gently pulled the small, bound journal from the niche where he’d tucked it soon after he and Scully had read it at the safe house a year ago It had gone into the drawer after he had determined it held no clue to his mother’s cryptic suicide. Mulder had avoided the journal since then, unconsciously (or subconsciously) ignoring the painful memories. Now, chest tightening, he fanned through the book, willing himself to look at Teena Mulder’s finely wrought script.

“Writing it all down has come so easily, but to tell you to your face is what I have craved for so long.” He could almost hear her calm-but-tortured tone.

“Far too long. Now, I fear, there isn’t time. I know it will come to an end soon.

“I’m going to hide this book in a place where you will be able to find it. Somehow, I’ll get a message to you.”

Emotions tearing at him, Mulder slapped the book closed. What had she meant? Why had she been so cryptic? Had she lived in fear those final years after his father, her husband, had been murdered? Worse, Mulder pondered, had she lived in abject guilt? What was this weight she had carried alone, and what had she needed so desperately to tell him, but couldn’t? He peered down at the journal’s cover, as if it somehow would provide some answer, some clue. The blithely ironic words “Polite Conversation” blurred before his eyes, and a fat droplet of moisture struck the pebbled cover.

**

Mulder hoisted his packing box as he exited the elevator into the sub- basement parking garage. After cleaning out his effects, he’d stopped by Administration and dropped off his ID, his key card, and his Bureau parking pass. It had felt something like giving up a kidney, but by the time the elevator had hit bottom, Mulder felt as though he’d shed a huge, sharp- edged kidney stone.

He’d also turned in the agency vehicle a week before. The new Nissan — compact, casual, in a sunny yellow that screamed sacrilege in the bleak government garage — beckoned from its space beyond a concrete support post. Mulder had half-expected the Bureau to have it towed to the center of the Potomac the second he’d turned in his credentials.

Mulder the Civilian leveled the electronic key fob at the cheerful import as he approached the post. The car whooped, it’s headlights blinking. Then, as he passed the post, a dark object flashed in his peripheral vision. Mulder doubled over as it slammed into his gut, and his attacker pivoted and caught him in the jaw with his other leg. The box skidded to a side-busting halt against a van.

Mulder fumbled to regain his feet, but a pair of strong hands yanked him up and into the post. Suddenly, a familiar face was nose-to-nose with him.

“Krycek, you fu–!” Mulder croaked, bringing an arm up for a swing at the handsome and apparently furious young man. With a speed-of-light motion,

Krycek’s forearm came up to pin Mulder to the cold concrete.

“You stupid bastard!” Krycek snapped. “You’ve got the key.”

“Yeah, and I was about to use it,” Mulder rasped despite himself. “What the hell do you want, Krycek? I’m out now. You and I have no business anymore.”

Krycek thumped Mulder’s skull against the post. “You asshole. You’re closer than you’ve ever been, and you throw it away! For what? To watch Oprah and play house with your partner?”

“Screw you, Krycek!” Mulder growled, trying to wrench free. “What the hell do you care anyway? I give up. We give up. It’s all yours’ now. If you think it’s worth it.”

Krycek’s arm eased up, and he smiled incredulously at Mulder, as if the newly retired agent were a child. “God, you just don’t get it, do you? This is the point of no return. You’ve got the key, and you’re just going to walk away.”

As Krycek relaxed the pressure on his throat, Mulder had shifted his weight to his right arm. Now he pile-drove his fist into Krycek’s stomach. Mulder threw an elbow into his face, and kicked him squarely in the ribs as he rolled onto the concrete floor.

“Quit talking in riddles!” Mulder yelled.

Krycek wiped a bead of blood from his lip and held up a conciliatory palm. “Let me up. You need to see something.”

Mulder braced for another kick. “What? You stay put, Krycek.”

“It’s in the box,” Krycek said through his teeth, nodding at the split cardboard box spilling mementos and documents across the garage floor.

Mulder glanced quickly at the box; it was the split second of distraction Krycek needed. His leg swept out and hooked Mulder’s calf, bringing him to the concrete. Krycek was up in a nanosecond, grabbing the fallen Mulder and wrenching his arm behind him. He shoved him over to the van, slammed him against the side, and swiftly scooped an object from the floor.

“The key, you idiot!” Krycek shrilled, thumping Mulder twice on the temple with Teena Mulder’s journal. “You’ve got the key to everything. You can close this all down.” He leaned into Mulder’s ear. “If you quit, they win. You hear me? They win.”

Krycek gave Mulder a final punch in the kidney, and as the former X-Files curator dropped to the hard gray floor, he heard swift footsteps retreat toward the exit.

“Krycek!” he shouted weakly before the garage lights momentarily dimmed. Mulder flailed as firm fingers grasped his arm.

“Christ, Mulder, will you let me help?” a voice snapped. It was Vollmer, one of the guys from upstairs who’d always viewed Mulder and his mission with amused contempt. “Jesus, what happened to you? You let somebody get the drop on you in the FBI garage?”

Mulder rose uneasily to his feet, dusting himself off and grinning at the frat boy-handsome Vollmer. “Couldn’t help it. She had spike heels, and she swung her walker at me.”

Vollmer sighed and turned on the heel of his Italian loafer. “Have a nice life, Spooky.”

3605 N Street NW

Washington, DC

5:15 pm

Dana Scully stood in front of the kitchen cabinets and tried to figure out the best items to put on the top shelf. Secretly, she knew Mulder could  always reach up and get those items, even if she never got around to pulling out the stepstool, but her height challenged albeit independent inner self refused to allow anything useful to rest that far out of her reach.

She looked in the box of fragile mysteries concealed in newsprint and pulled out the first one, discarding the protective paper. It was a thin vase, suitable for only one long stemmed rose. She remembered immediately when she’d received it. Bill had sent it to her after she’d come home from visiting him at Christmas several years ago, after Emily’s funeral. He hadn’t said a word to her about the child from the day of the funeral until she’d boarded the plane. But when she got home, her neighbor across the hall had told her the florist had delivered something for her. A single cream colored rose with a simple note: “I’m sorry, Love Bill.”

Fighting back tears, she climbed the stepstool to the highest level and placed the vase on the top shelf, out of sight but still preserved. She quickly finished that box and tossed it in the laundry room to break down later. The kitchen was almost unpacked. She looked around the room with more than a little apprehension. After the last box was emptied, what was she going to do?

Two weeks since the funeral and they still hadn’t talked about their lives. In the furor around subletting her old apartment, moving the furniture — to the near constant complaining of the Gunmen who felt they could have done it all the first time when Mulder moved in — she and Mulder had tap danced neatly around what would happen next. They had a place to live, they had each other, but what would they do with the rest of their lives?

She’d thought briefly about teaching. Georgetown was just a stone’s throw away; she could easily get a slot on their faculty. Mulder had been a repeat ‘customer’ at the University Medical Center, she was known by almost all the teaching staff. But when she really stopped to consider teaching the idea bored her to tears. She couldn’t see herself standing for hours in front of a class, hoping to capture their attention, hoping to get them to open their ears and listen. No, been there, done that, moved on. She didn’t want to teach.

Going to work for the District police department held even less appeal. She knew many of the detectives on the DC force, and was very familiar with the chief Medical Examiner, whom she considered at best a quack, at worse a criminal. She couldn’t fathom working under the man, even if he was less than two years from retirement.

What did that leave her? She could work in a path department at one of the District’s many hospitals. Did she want to spend all day looking at tissue samples through microscopes? Never getting out of the windowless lab except for lunch? At least she’d have a definite 8-hour day, unless someone called in sick or they were backed up. Seven to three, maybe three to midnight. Night shift, graveyard — wasn’t that where everyone started?

Leaving for work in the dead of night and sleeping through the day. The thought almost brought her to tears.

Of course, she was far ahead of Mulder. For all she could gather, he was happy to live off his accumulated vacation pay and maybe tap into his seldom-used trust fund. The closest he’d come to fiscal responsibility was to casually mention selling the house on the Vineyard and maybe his mother’s house in Greenwich, but how long would that money last? He’d written a few articles in the early years of their partnership, but that had gone by the wayside after it became apparent that it only got the attention of people like Max Fenig. She doubted he would consider writing as a living.

She sighed and reached for the last box, feeling dread as she lifted it to the countertop. The sound of tires on gravel halted her actions. Mulder was home. She had to smile at herself. All things considered, she certainly didn’t regret agreeing to the move. She loved the new place, loved being able to slip into bed at night and into Mulder’s arms. ‘His and hers’ suits were lined up in the closet, her shoes taking up most of the floor space.

Mulder had threatened to make her a ‘shoe closet’ out of the spare bedroom, but she’d convinced him to make it an office. Again, they avoided discussing what purpose the office would serve.

Scully resisted the urge to stand at the back door and watch him come up the steps. Instead, she pretended to be occupied with the task of  unpacking the last box. As a result, she didn’t get a good look at him as he grunted a greeting and headed straight for the side by side refrigerator. She was a little surprised when he asked her for a plastic bag, but when she turned to look at him she instantly understood.

“Mulder, my god, what the hell happened to your face?” she demanded as she grabbed a tea towel from the drawer next to her hip and rushed to load it with ice. Carefully folding it, she held it up to his left cheek and eye, which was already sporting a darkening bruise. “That has to hurt,” she murmured.

“You should see the other guy,” he muttered and allowed her to sit him down in the dining room. He took a corner of the towel and dabbed at the blood from his split lip.

“Who did this? Were you mugged?” she asked, getting her first aid kit out of the pantry. “You only went to the Bureau,” she added. “You didn’t get into a fight with Skinner, did you?” she accused.

“Not guilty. And for the record, I didn’t ‘get into a fight’ with anybody. I was attacked.”

“Fine,” she relented. “By whom?”

He wiggled his jaw then stuck his finger in his mouth, feeling his back molars. “Damn, lost another filling,” he cursed.

“Mulder, who did this? Did you see the attacker?”

“I smelled him, Scully. Eau de sewer. It was Krycek.”

“Krycek!” she exclaimed, sitting back in her chair. “What in the world — ”

“I don’t know, not exactly. I got the rest of the stuff from the basement, handed my parking pass and office key in to Lydia in Admin and was in the garage heading for the car when he came out of nowhere and started pounding the crap out of me,” he said with annoyance. “I need to get to a dentist, I think he cracked a tooth.”

“Did he say anything, give you any indication why he didn’t just shoot you?”

He flashed her an impatient look. “Thanks for thinking of me, Sweetheart,” he sneered. “Glad you weren’t around to give him any ideas!”

“Mulder, the guy comes out of nowhere and just starts beating on you? That’s not his normal MO! He usually only surfaces when he’s trying to get us on a wild goose chase.” She took the ice pack from his face and looked at the bruise growing even darker. “Does it hurt when I press here?” she asked as she gently prodded his cheek.

He slapped at her hand as he flinched away. “Yes, it does, thank you! Stop that, Scully, you’re making it worse,” he growled.

She leaned back and crossed her arms. “Fine. So, he just decked you and left?”

“No, no he was talking the whole time. I wasn’t totally uninvolved, Scully. I got a few licks in,” he pouted, his pride wounded more than his face.

“So what did he say?” she asked again, prodding another sore spot from his reaction, but this time not physical.

“He said . . . he said if we quit now, they win.”

Scully propped her elbow on the table and ran her thumb over her lip. “I would expect something like that. Then they know we left the Bureau. What did you think they’d do, Mulder?”

“I figured they’d be relieved,” he admitted. “At least that smoking bastard. We’re out of their hair, Scully. Why send the dogs to try and drag us back?”

“They’re evil men, Mulder! Maybe this was just their way of showing they can still hurt us,” she said, chewing her thumb nail.

“Cracked tooth aside, it’s just bruises, Scully. If they wanted to prove they can hurt us, he could have done a hell of a lot worse,” he pointed out reasonably. “He said something else. He said we’ve got the key to everything. Then he hit me with the book,” he said with a frown.

“What book?”

He sat there a moment, not answering. Suddenly, he got up so fast that she was afraid he was going to be sick. But instead of heading for the half bath off the dining room, he headed out the back door. She trailed after him, concerned and confused. “Mulder?” By the time she got to the door he was jogging out to his car. “Mulder? Where are you going?”

He didn’t answer, only opened the trunk and dug around. She finally reached his side when he lifted a book from the depths of the trunk. It had a smear of blood on the binding. He looked determined as he slammed the trunk lid.

“The smoking gun?” she asked derisively.

He looked over at her in shock. “More than you know, Scully,” he said as he turned the book so she could see the title. _Polite Conversation_

“Your mother’s journal?” she asked, taking the book from his hands gingerly, as if it could bite.

“He knew about it, Scully. Spooky, huh?” he quipped with as much grin as his split lip would allow. “The answer is in here, Scully. If there’s a key to all this, it’s in this book.”

“Mulder, what if . . .”

“No ‘what if’. It’s here. I know it. She was my mother, Scully. I might not have known everything about her, but I knew how her mind worked. Somewhere in here is what we need and we have to keep looking until we find it.”

“All because Krycek decked you in the Bureau parking garage?” she asked with a raise brow.

“Because it’s been too long since we looked here, Scully. Krycek was just a coincidence.”

Somehow she couldn’t quite bring herself to believe him. She wondered if he believed himself.

Act I Scene 3

Scully made soup and grilled cheese while Mulder pored over the journal again. Reading the manuscript was a little easier than the first time, but there were moments when the words of his deceased mother still caused an ache deep in his heart.

Scully gave up any hope of getting him to eat at the table. She brought the soup bowls and sandwiches out to him in the living room, placing them on the coffee table while she went back to get their iced teas. When she returned, the soup was still cooling while Mulder ignored everything and flipped quietly through the pages of the journal.

“Hey, it’s going to get cold and you hate cold soup,” she told him, nudging his leg off the sofa so she could sit next to him. He grunted to acknowledge her presence but turned another page without looking at her.

“Mulder, he could have been pulling your chain, you know. It’s just like him to do something like that,” she commented casually. She sipped at her soup but ended up putting the bowl back down next to her own untouched sandwich. “Why do I bother?” she asked herself aloud

“Because you love me,” he reminded her and lowered the book enough to give her a grin. Laying the book on the table, he picked up the bowl, sipped and grimaced when the acidic tomato broth hit his wounded lip. “Ouch. What, no chicken noodle?”

“All we have is tomato. Anything would hurt, Mulder. Unless you’d prefer a milkshake?”

“No, it’s not the first time I’ve learned to eat around the pain,” he said with a wink and sipped more of the soup before putting the bowl on the table.

“Have you found anything new?” Scully asked, finally picking up her sandwich and taking a bite.

“New? No. I must be overlooking something. I’ve gone over the whole thing, Scully, and I’m at a loss. Every time she got close to telling me something, she backed off and got cryptic. Like this for example,” he said, picking up the book and quickly finding a page.

“‘You’ll find out what they did to me, and you’ll have to expose them. It won’t be easy. Be careful, Fox. They’ll do it to others and they’ll try to stop you. You have little protection left.’ Scully, wouldn’t you think she’d give me some direction to go in there? But no, not my Mom. She goes off on a tangent about what a lousy job she did as a mother!” He tossed the book on the sofa, took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “It’s so damned frustrating.”

“Krycek said you have the key. Mulder, your mother might have had her faults, but she knew you. She knew you well enough to know that you wouldn’t give up, no matter how little information she gave you. It’s what you’ve done all your life, at least all the years I’ve known you.”

“So what are you saying, Scully? You’re going to give me a spoon and turn me loose in the desert?” he asked with a grin.

“Well, if we were a little more confident of our future finances, I’d rent you the backhoe I offered once,” she shot back with a wink. “C’mon, finish your dinner. Let’s put the journal aside for now. We can come back to it after we clean up.”

A few minutes later, he followed her into the kitchen and handed her his dishes as she started the water. “Wow, you really got the job done while I was gone,” he commented as he looked in the cupboards and noticed everything in place.

“I set it up pretty much as my old kitchen was. The canned goods are in the pantry.”

“My Spongebob Squarepants cereal?” he asked, pulling a drying towel out of the drawer closest to the stove.

“Next to my Shredded Wheat. Second shelf, left hand side.”

“How cozy,” he said, drying the bowl and finding others like it in the cabinet. He was reaching for another bowl to dry when something on the countertop attracted his attention. “Scully, why is there a knife sticking out of your _Joy of Cooking_?”

Scully quickly followed his pointed finger and chuckled. “Oh, I forgot I put it there,” she said, sliding a serrated bread knife from the back binding of the cookbook. At his questioning look she smiled. “Mom always put the sharp knifes in the spines of her cookbooks when we moved. That way there was no sharp edges exposed when we unpacked.”

“Must have been a Navy thing,” Mulder said dubiously and watched as she washed the knife and handed it to him to dry. “Utensils?”

“Drawer under the towels,” she directed and he complied. It took only a few moments and the clean up was complete. Scully made a pot of coffee and they retreated to the living room.

Two hours later, Mulder threw the book down in disgust. “There is no key anywhere in that journal, Scully. The only key is the key to my possibly less than sterling heritage and even that is incomplete. God, I was a fool to think she’d come right out and tell me anything!” He pushed himself off the sofa and started to pace the room angrily.

“Mulder . . .”

He held up one finger to silence her. “Don’t say it, Scully. Don’t you dare try to tell me she was only protecting me.”

She tilted her head to try and assuage his tirade. “Mulder, she lived a very dangerous life. She’d seen one child taken from her. It’s only natural that she would want to protect the child remaining. Hell, it’s the main reason Bill– ” She caught herself before continuing.

“It’s why Bill hated me so much. I know, Scully. I don’t deny he had his reasons,” Mulder said with a sigh, pulling on his lip. “He only wanted to keep you safe from me.”

She shook her head. “We are not going there, Mulder. Not tonight.” She picked up the journal and turned it in her hands. “So much pain, so much hurt,” she said quietly, gliding her finger over the embossed letters of the title.

Mulder’s brow furrowed and he took the book from her hand. Suddenly, he shook it, hard.

“Mulder, what are you — “Before she could stop him, he’d grabbed at the binding of the book and  ripped the spine complete from it. A small key and  folded piece of paper fell to the floor from their hiding place in the binding.

“The ‘key’ to everything, Scully,” Mulder proclaimed as he picked up the key and the paper.

“How in the world . . .”

“Your mom’s knife trick, Scully. Keep the sharp edges hidden.” He was unfolding the paper quickly, scanning the words.

“What does it say?” She rose from the sofa and walked around the coffee table to stand next to him.

He licked his lips and smiled over at her. “I know what this is, Scully. I know where she was telling me to go.” He held out the paper to her, a small claim tag like those given out at repair shops and dry cleaners. Across the top in faded red ink was stamped the name ‘Tommy’s’. “First thing tomorrow, we’re taking a road trip,” he told her.

She shook her head. “And here I thought we were getting ‘out of the car’.”

Act 2 Scene1

South Road

Just outside Chilmark

Marthas Vineyard, Massachusetts

1:05 pm

They’d started out early and managed to catch the ferry to the Vineyard just in time for lunch. Mulder took Scully to a little seafood restaurant he’d gone to as a child. They’d feasted on crab cakes and thick homemade clam chowder, Scully complaining that she’d have to join him at the track for a week to work off the calories. He’d placed his hand at the small of her back as he guided her to the Nissan and they headed out of town.

“Shouldn’t we have called first, Mulder?” Scully asked as he sped along South Road toward the tiny hamlet of Nabs Corner.

“Tommy’s was here to greet the boats that landed at Plymouth, Scully. I know he’ll be there. Or at least one of his sons.”

“So what is this place?” she asked, looking out the window so that her skepticism wouldn’t be so obvious.

“One of a kind, Scully. One of a kind.”

Fifteen minutes later

It was a grey saltbox with white trim and shutters. Set back on the rocky soil it looked like it was waiting for the shore to come to meet it. An iron pole supported a weathered wooden sign proclaiming “Edward Thomas, esq. Dry Goods and Repairs” in classic New England typeface.

Mulder pulled the car into a parking spot along the east side of the building. Sand encroached on the asphalt and a few stray sea oats struggled to take hold on the windswept dunes. A wooden platform served as the sidewalk leading to the red painted door at the front of the building.

“Tommy, or rather Ed Thomas the third, and his family live upstairs. At least they did when I was a kid. I went to school with his youngest boy, Jim,” Mulder explained as he guided Scully to the door and reached around to open it for her. A bell tinkled their arrival in the dim interior.

Inside, it was like stepping into a flea market, or a junk yard. Small appliances fought for space with bins of nuts and bolts, cans of pork and beans on long counters that ran the length of the front room. Shelves covered every square inch of wall space, some of them almost audibly groaning under the burden of weight they carried. An ancient cash register sat amid cigar boxes and a display of buttons, their cards yellowed with age.

Behind the cash register, on another counter, sat a new Dell laptop and a small Hewlett-Packer printer.

Footsteps announced the approach of the proprietor. “‘Hello, folks. What can I help you find?” the man in his early forties said pleasantly before looking at Mulder with surprise. “Fox? Fox Mulder? Well, I’ll be! That is you! How’ve ya been?”

Mulder found his shoulder slapped and his hand pumped before he could answer. “Good, Jim. Really good. Oh, Jim, this is my, um, this is Dana Scully,” he said turning to his . . . what was she now? ‘Significant other’? Housemate? To Mulder she would always be only one thing — his partner.

Jim took her hand in a firm shake. “Nice to meet you, Ms. Scully.” He turned back to his old friend. “So, how long’s it been, over twenty years now? After you moved to Connecticut we lost track of you. What have you been up to?”

“Well, went to Oxford for college, joined the FBI, got partnered with Scully here. Just resigned recently and found something in an old book of Mom’s I’m trying to track down.” Scully fought to hide her amusement at her partner’s rather abridged version of the last 20 years of his life.

“How is your Mom? Sorry to hear about your Dad passin’, by the way,” Jim interrupted.

“Mom died a couple of years ago,” Mulder said soberly.

Jim shook his head in sympathy. “Darn. She was a nice lady. My Mom passed just last summer. Cancer. Dad took it hard. I took over the store after that. He just didn’t have the heart for it anymore.”

“I’m sorry to hear about your mother, Jim,” Mulder said with a sad shake of his head. “She and your Dad knew every piece of junk, er, appliance in this place.”

Jim perked up with pride at the compliment. “You can say that again! Mom used to have this way of findin’ stuff. It never ceased to amaze me. Someone would come in looking for an item and she’d say ‘give me a second’ and before they could turn their head, she had it in their hands. Boy, I miss her around here these days,” he added glumly. “But you said your mom had a book here?”

Mulder fought to keep his patience. “No, I found something in a book of hers. A key and this claim check.” He handed the pieces over to Jim. “I assume the key is to whatever was left here.”

“Wow, the old numbering system,” Jim said with a low whistle. “Mom tried this system, gee whiz, must have been 15, maybe 20 years ago. Dad could never get the hang of it.” He chewed his lip and looked at the counters and all along the shelves that made up the small room. “Gee, Fox. It could be anywhere. Do you know what it is?”

Mulder bit the inside of his cheek in frustration. “Not a clue, Jim. Like I said, I found it in a book. She didn’t leave a note with it, just the claim check.”

“Well, when Mom was around, that would have been enough,” Jim admitted.

“I just don’t know where to start.”

Scully tugged at Mulder’s sleeve. “Maybe we should look through the journal again,” she suggested.

“No, Scully. I think that’s a dead end. Whatever clue she left, she didn’t want anyone to just stumble on it. That’s why she brought it here. Only people on the Vineyard know about this place. It’s safer than a Swiss bank.”

“So safe that we can’t even find it,” Scully muttered.

“Wait a minute,” Jim said, brightening. “Let me try something.” He went back to the back of the building and called up the stairs. “Mary, could you ask Dad to come down for a bit?”

“He’s been so down in the dumps since Mom died, but Dad always loves a mystery. Maybe he can give us a clue. ‘Sides, he liked your folks, Fox. He was sorry all that happened with your little sister.”

Mulder held his tongue and Scully took his arm, giving what support she could. In a few minutes they heard heavy footsteps on the stairs. A tall man, but now stooped over and just barely shuffling along, made his way toward the front of the storeroom.

“Dad, you remember Fox Mulder? Bill and Teena’s son?” Jim said amiably as he took the old man’s arm and helped him over to a chair near the laptop.

The old man squinted up at Mulder, assessing if he really was ‘the’ Fox Mulder. “You favor your mother, but I see plenty of your dad in your face,” Ed Thomas said succinctly.

Jim found the floor interesting for a moment, no doubt wondering how to proceed after such an odd greeting. “So, Dad, Fox found this claim check and key in a book that his mother left him. It’s Mom’s old system, I don’t have a clue where to find it.” He handed the slip of paper and the key to his father.

The old man held the paper out at arm’s length in order to read it through his bifocals and then examined the key, hefting it as if to judge its weight. Finally, he looked up at Mulder. “I was wondering when someone would be by to pick that up,” he said, slowly rolling to his feet. Jim shot Mulder a surprised shrug and helped his father stand. “I do believe it’s over there, Jimmy.” Ed shuffled over to the eastern wall of the room, counted the shelves under his breath and scanned the contents. “Ah, there it is. Be a good boy and fetch that clock there, would you?”

Jim grabbed a folding ladder from the corner and quickly reached the shelf his father had indicated. He brought down a wooden clock about fifteen inches tall with a worn face and missing the glass faceplate. With careful steps he brought it over and placed it on the counter next to the cash register.

Mulder looked at it for a moment, not daring to touch it. Finally, he looked over at Mr. Thomas. “How much do I owe you? How long did you hang on to this?”

“Oh, your mother paid in advance. She brought that in about 10 years ago. I asked her if she wanted me to fix the face, but she said no, she just wanted it to be in a safe place. Lots of folks ’round here have me store little things. I try to make sure they ain’t hiding it from divorced spouses and the like. But your dad had just passed on, so I figured there’d be no harm.”

Ten years ago, just after his father had died. Mulder did the calculations. She might have brought it in when he was still missing in New Mexico. He took a deep breath and gently picked up the clock.

“Well, thanks, Mr. Thomas. I guess we’ll be going,” Mulder said with a nod to Jim.

“If you want that face fixed, just bring it back, Fox. Jimmy’d be real glad to set ya up,” Mr. Thomas said cheerfully.

“Thank you. I might take you up on that,” Mulder replied. “Jim, it was nice seeing you again.”

“Nice to see you, too, Fox. And you, Miss Scully. Keep him in line,” Jim called out as they left the store.

Mulder was deep in thought, so Scully got in the driver’s side. “Where to?” she asked when he’d settled into his seat.

“Dad’s house. We can stay there tonight.”

She nodded and pulled out of the parking lot. She’d never been to the house in West Tisbury, although she was aware that Mulder had been there with John Roche half a dozen years before. When they got to the outskirts of town, he gave her directions to the right street and she parked in front  of the long, winding stone steps.

Mulder pulled his key ring out and found the correct key. “I let a real estate lady rent it out to mainlanders during the summer,” he told her as he pushed the door open with his shoulder. Scully was holding the clock and having a hard time convincing herself it wasn’t going to explode at any moment.

The house was stuffy from being closed up, but still furnished. Mulder directed her to put the clock on the kitchen table and he checked the faucet to see if the water was still turned on. It was, as were the lights. “All the comforts of home,” he said dryly as he joined Scully at the table.

He took the small key out of his pocket and used it to open the door to the back of the clock. “I remember watching Mom wind this sucker all the time. I could never understand why we needed this old thing when we had electric clocks and battery operated clocks all over the house. Mom said it was her mother’s and it had sentimental value.” He looked inside the back and licked his lips. “It also was a great place to hide things,” he said, withdrawing a white business envelope, bulging with contents. Quickly he tore open the side and dumped the hidden objects on the table top.

“Oh my God,” Scully gasped as she picked up a tissue collection box identical to the ones they’d found at Strughold’s mining operation in West Virginia. Mulder picked up the second item — an old audio tape reel. “I had this old tape recorder. It had been Dad’s and he got a new one. It played these tapes,” he said, holding it close to inspect it.

Scully turned the envelope upside down and shook it. A business card fell out. “Strughold Mining, this belongs to a Mr. Crofts.”

“It’s at least 10 years old,” Mulder noted, taking the card from her hand.

“I’m not sure calling the main switchboard would be the best idea,” Scully commented, as she sat back and crossed her arms.

“There’s a number on the back, handwritten,” Mulder told her, flipping the card for her to see. He pulled his cell phone out and quickly punched in the numbers, then waited. After a moment he frowned. “Disconnected.”

“Another dead end,” Scully said, picking up the tape reel. “Wonder what’s on this,” she said to herself.

Mulder was punching in more numbers. “Byers, hi it’s me. Hey, can you guys find a phone number for me? I have a number, but it’s disconnected. I think it’s at least 10 years old. Yeah, here, I’ll give it to you.” He rattled off the ten digits. Can you track that down? We think it belonged to a guy named Crofts. Yeah, we’re trying to find him. Anything you can get would be helpful.

He started to crumple the envelope, preparing to throw it away, when Scully touched his hand.

“Mulder, look.” She pointed to the small precise script at the bottom of the envelope. “What is that?”

Mulder straightened the paper and squinted at the writing. “Numbers and letters. It looks like coordinates.”

“Guess we need to hang on to that,” she said and nodded and put the envelope and the business card in his pocket.

Two hours later, as Mulder helped clean up the remains of their take out Chinese, his phone rang. Scully leaned against the counter as he spoke to one of the gunmen, raising her eyebrow as he disconnected the line.

“I have an address. Devil’s Fork, North Dakota. I’m going to head out there tomorrow and see if I can find this guy.”

“Mulder, I’ve been thinking about that tape. Since we don’t have the Bureau to analyze it, maybe we should give Chuck Burks a call.”

He pulled her to his chest and kissed the crown of her head. “Good idea. Why don’t you do that back home while I meet up with Mr. Crofts.”

She pulled away enough to look up at him. “Are you ditching me, Mulder? We’re not out of the Bureau three weeks and you’re leaving me behind?” she teased.

“You know better than that,” he growled. “C’mon. Let’s finish out here and then hit the sack. I have a feeling we’re going to need the rest.”

Act 2 Scene 2

Devil’s Fork, N.D.

1:56 p.m.

Crofts’ trailer was located well out of the path of Charlie, Francis, Ivan, or any of the tropical terrors that had drunkenly rampaged a half-continent away. It was at least two or three states off Tornado Alley, a scuffed silver Airstream content to succumb slowly to the alternating forces of sun and ice on its scrubby lot next to the diner advertising Bison Wings and Custer’s Pie.

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But, inside, the geologist’s aluminum home appeared to have sustained the ravages of a tropical storm, a cyclone, a minor force earthquake, and a guerrilla raid. Pizza boxes shared surfaces with plat books, Miller cans with mining maps. A pre-Jenny Craig Anna Nicole Smith displayed her ample charms between a sepia photo of a group of Appalachian miners and a danger sign that had once graced an orifice in the earth. An orange tabby slunk through the wreckage like a mobile safety cone, rubbing Mulder’s leg frantically as if in warning.

“You wanna beer? Cause I ran out yesterday,” Crofts said with casual regret.He was splayed across a dusty floral couch that may have constituted a mother or some aunt’s sad legacy. He obviously had not completed Jenny Craig, but he did own a masters’ in geology, hydrology, and engineering. “You wanna screw over Strughold? That I will happily assist you with.”

Crofts also possessed a pedigree from and nursed a white-hot grudge against Strughold Mining. When Mulder had cautiously approached him for background on his ex-employer, the sixty-ish man had gone on like a MUFON chapter president at a Roswell potluck. The ex-agent had hopped the first plane to Bismarck and made a bee-line forDevil’s Fork “I was hoping you might be able to tell me a little bit more about the company and particularly about the mines around here,” Mulder ventured once the tabby had settled across his lap. “There are reasons I didn’t want to do this over the phone.”

Crofts sucked at a right molar, regarding his visitor. “Yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised those bastards were up to something hinky. Festus, you piss on that man, I’ll line my bleeping boots with you!” Festus looked up, annoyed, and stretched across Mulder’s now-tensed thighs.

“See,” Crofts resumed, “most companies take a few short-cuts with the Bureau of Mining and Labor Department regs — not practical not to. Mining still leads the nation in occupational deaths, and that’s the biggest reason why. But the old kraut — Strughold — he wouldn’t have any part of it. Every safety guideline followed to the T, every ‘I’ on every piece of paperwork dotted. Or you were out on your ass, no exceptions. Now, that’s not being respectful of the law — that’s being scared shitless. Like Strughold and his gang had something to hide, something the feds likely would like to know about.

“Not to mention the occasional shutdowns for no reasons, the little ‘cultural  exchange’ tours we’d get coming through, the weird calls from–”

“Cultural exchange tours?” Mulder murmured, straightening. Festus growled menacingly, and he settled back into the cigarette-burned recliner.

“Mostly Japanese, some European guys. Older guys, mostly. Management always said they were investors, or foreign mining interests wanting to get a peek at the technology. Shit. They couldna cared less about the operations, and the middle management types acted as though Satan himself had sent them to shop for souls. And we were to keep a wide berth from ’em. I asked you if you wanted a Miller?”

“You don’t have any left. If I showed you some pictures, do you think you might be able to ID any of these VIPs?”

Crofts scowled and adjusted a cheek on the cushions. “I may look like an ad for malt liquor, bub, but I got a few hundred textbooks’ worth of mining know-how in this pickled brain. And I don’t forget faces — I wanna be ready when it’s time for Mike Wallace.”

“Mike Wallace? You mean about Strughold?”

Crofts held up a nicked finger and grunted as he climbed to his feet. He wobbled over to a glass-front bookcase and withdrew a dozen thick binders.  “Maybe Diane Sawyer — she’s got a nice rack. Mr. Mulder, I’ve made Strughold my business over the last 15 years since they canned my ass. You think I stuck around this rectal boil of a Podunk because of the galleries and the fine cui-zine next door? I could’ve got on with any other mining company  or university with my experience. But I knew something sucked at Strughold, and someday, I’ll have enough to take to CBS. Or ABC. Or maybe Joan Lunden.”

He dropped a half-dozen binders on the cushion next to Mulder, sending a cloud of dust aloft. Festus murmured and flexed his claws. Mulder began leafing through the scrapbooks filled with notes, clippings, records, photos, and Crofts’ obsession. He was halfway through a third binder when a grainy, grayscale image took his breath. A group of grubby men in coveralls were grinning, arms draped around shoulders, while an Asian man glanced at a piece of heavy equipment perhaps 10 feet behind them.

“Zama,” Mulder mumbled, looking up at Crofts.

“That Washingtonian for ‘Yowza?’,” the geologist queried.

“When was this photo taken?” Mulder demanded, turning thebook around.

“Oh, yeah — that’s one of the few times we got any of those goomers on film. I think that was back in ’63. Yeah, it was — I remember, ’cause Kennedy had just got shot about a month before. One of the guys had had his 20th anniversary with the company — there’s something to celebrate — and I took some shots. The Japanese guy wandered over, but he didn’t pay any attention to us. Or the camera.” Crofts edged forward. “Why? Who is he?”

“A very bad man,” Mulder stated. He was certain it was Zama, 30 years younger than when Scully had caught a fleeting glimpse of the scientist nearly a decade ago.

Crofts leaned back, rubbing his coarse chin. “That figures. Once, I was poking around somewhere I ‘spose I shouldn’t have been, and I see them trucking in some heavy gear, I don’t know exactly what, but it wasn’t any kind of mining equipment. Anyways, one of the crates busts open, and I catch this Japanese writing — some kinda logo — on thegizmo inside.

“Never did work out what they were bringing in, but a few years later, I saw that logo in one of the trade journals. Katsuhiru. One of the big companies that popped up after the Big War, major family dynasty. Big into pharmaceuticals, medical technology, that kinda thing. But here’s what’s interesting. The CEO of Katsuhiru back then had been one of Hirohito’s hotshot generals — may even have had something to do with Pearl Harbor, some say. We were more interested in Nuremberg than Tokyo after the war, in rounding up Hitler’s boys even while Uncle Sam was setting up housekeeping for their top rocket and missile guys. For all I know, Strughold himself was Der Fuhrer’s proctologist.”

“Zama’s a scientist,” Mulder muttered. “Smallpox…”

“There ya go — Mengele’s fraternity brother,” Crofts exclaimed, planting his palms on his thighs and jerking to his feet. “I need a brewski. You?”

“First, I need you to help me with something. You know all these mines around here, the local geology, right?”

“Like the back of my, uh, my…Yeah, I know my way around.”

Mulder pulled the Strughold card from his pocket. “So if I gave you some coordinates, you think you could show me where Strughold might’ve been able to build an installation without having to blast?”

“What? A new shaft?”

“No, bigger. An underground installation. Very likely several laboratories.”

“Sons of bitches,” Crofts grinned. “Got the freaking Fourth Reich right under my feet. Let’s flush the bastards out. Hey, you want a beer?”

****

The Dakota Consolidated Power “lineman” belched up another gobbet of onion and grease. He’d been unable to locate a Mickey D’s or a Hardee’s or even a Subway on the 135-mile trek to the universe’s dusty rectum, AKA Devil’s Fork, and dire hunger had driven him to an ill-advised Buffalo Patty Melt across the street from the geologist’s ramshackle Airstream.

“Got the freaking Fourth Reich right under my feet,” Crofts crackled over the lineman’s earphones. The balding, deceptively flabby man adjusted the parabolic microphone. The old drunk had been gunning for Strughold for years, but he was deemed essentially harmless and they’d decided he’d draw more attention dead. But when the FBI agent — the ex-agent — had contacted the geologist, they’d ordered the surveillance. Surveillance wasn’t The Lineman’s specialty, but he’d been ordered to stand down for the time. He could step out of this van, walk across to the trailer, and simply make the long-dispensable Crofts and the newly disposable ex-fed vanish with an absence. But for some reason, the FBI guy was off limits.

“Yeah,” Crofts grunted in The Lineman’s ear. “These are longitudinal and latitudinal coordinates, all right. I know where this is — just southwest of No. 76. Makes sense — company closed that mine years ago.”

“How heavy’s the security around the mines?” the ex-fed asked.

“Routine. You think those Nazis are gonna risk attracting attention by putting a squadron of commandos on a bunch of mined-out wormholes?”

“We still need to scout out the site…” Ex-fed’s voice dissolved into static, and The Lineman adjusted the tuning on the parabolic mike. “…is the problem.”

“Don’t get your federal-issue jockeys in a knot. I know a guy.”

“What does that mean?”

“You heard of slant-drilling? Well, I know a guy who can help us give No. 76 a good proctological exam…”

The noise amplified, and The Lineman ripped off his headphones, belching loudly in the stifled confines of the utility van.

Act 2 Scene 3

Scully’s eyelids drooped as she stared at the monitors. Small wonder that her eyes were getting tired; she didn’t remember blinking once in the last ten minutes. Vertical patterns, like spiky evergreens on the horizon of a shiny lake expanded and contracted with every syllable that resounded from the high-definition earphones. Men’s voices droned on, sometimes becoming louder with emotion, but they were all abstract shapes to her at this point. Something that needed identification, not the thoughts vocalized from a thinking human being. Her senses were going on overload.

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How on earth did these guys do it? And still have enough brain power to bicker over the hierarchy of this project like a pair of old biddies? Still, when she and Mulder had to call in a favor, they were always there for them. This time, though, they’d called on too many resources, it seemed. Chuck Burks had arrived at the apartment early that morning, arms full of equipment meant for dissecting the tape found in Teena’s clock. On the second trip back from his car for another load, he’d arrived not only with more wires and speakers, but with Langly escorting him by the elbow, his own backpack full of gear slung over his other shoulder.

“Friend of yours, Agent Scully?” he’d said with a pleading grimace crinkling his face.

She’d asked–no, demanded–that Langly let him go.

“You know we could have handled all this for you, don’t you Scully?” Langly defended the reputation of the Lone Gunmen while attempting a puppy-dog gaze that only worked when used by Mulder.

Well, two heads were better than one, she thought silently as she ushered the two into the new living room. But when two great brains collided, some amount of repulsion was bound to occur. The gist of the afternoon was a little rocky. Burks was a workhorse, doing his best to get the job done. Langly watched Burks over his shoulder every so often to make sure he wasn’t gaining headway too far past himself. Every time Scully made a suggestion, Langly’s ears perked up to see how his rival would respond.

But despite a little healthy competition, like magnets, they sometimes came around and stuck, and they *were* making progress.

She’d zoned out so completely at one point, that she didn’t even notice Burks had left her side for a bathroom break and a fresh cup of coffee until she heard running water filling a clean pot in the kitchen. She must have dozed off. Pulling the headphones off, she stretched and meandered into the kitchen, following her nose to the beginnings of some fresh brew.

“What’d I miss?” she yawned, reaching into a yet to be unpacked box of mugs. There was one big mug she was looking for in particular. As she sifted through the newspaper- wrapped bundles, she noticed Burks’ voice was rising in excitement. Slowly, Scully noticed that she wasn’t giving him her full attention.

“What did you say?”

Politely as ever, Burks took a deep breath and repeated — slowly — his recap during Scully’s cat-nap. “Aside from your initial recognition of Spender and Klemper we’ve concluded for sure the other voice is definitely Strughold.”

“Okay, go on,” Scully prompted, re-encouraging Burks’ deflated enthusiasm.

“Well, Langly tracked down the rest of the scientists we thought would be most likely to take part in this conversation. I’d researched a little last night, which sped up our time considerably, but I was pulling things randomly without direction. Anyway–”

“–we’ve come up with the three most likely candidates,” Langly interrupted.

” Zama, Takguchi and Katsuhiro.”

“Yeah, and you’ll also be pleased to know that I’ve managed to clear up that section of tape you were reviewing, Dana.”

“Yes?” Scully stood to attention. She really didn’t remember where she’d left off. There was some background noise they had yet to determine. Whether it was important or not depended on what it turned out to be. Burks led the two others to the dining room table, where his equipment was stationed. He violently pulled the headphone chord from the side of the laptop, and turned up the external speakers.

“Now, I managed to lower Strughold’s voice, and zeroed in on the man in the background. The one we couldn’t understand because he was  mumbling, and because of the undetermined noise distracting it even further. Here’s what we get.”

Strughold’s voice contracted to a tone akin to someone speaking through a tin can far away, while the man in the background seemed to walk towards the recording device. In fact, it was Burks’ manipulation that had caused this translation. The man was still mumbling, but not because of a low volume to his voice. He had an accent — a French accent.

“I don’t recognize this man.”

“Unfortunately, neither do we.” Burks typed fluidly, opening some background windows on the screen, and tabbed over to the same section of tape, but at yet another frequency. “But I did get that noise to come through. Take a listen.”

The mysterious man’s French mumbles returned to their original state. What was mingled within his condescending tones was a light tinkle, like glass hitting glass. Then a long drawn out whine — very low, like a tuning fork. Then a tap against a solid surface, and then glass against glass again.

There was a pause where Strughold’s voice had been omitted, and as the mysterious man’s voice came into the frame again, there was the sound of pouring liquid.

“Sounds like someone was having a little musical recital on their crystal glass before taking a healthy sip. Know any French drunks in this secret all- powerful consortium, Scully?” Langly quipped, though he was almost certainly spot-on with the identification of the noise.

“Well, they’re not sending out biographies of themselves for us to stumble over. No, I don’t know who that could be. Any luck we can match his voice up?”

Burks wiped his palm across his ample forehead. “We’ve exhausted my picks. We’d have to cross reference relationships our ‘known’ men had with anyone who’d been professionally recorded. If this guy’s kept to himself, never been in the media, or on any kind of official recording, we’re out of luck.”

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“Surveillance tapes?” Langly suggested hopefully.

“FBI’s out of this for the moment, remember, Langly?” Scully sighed, a little regretfully. “There’s no way of accessing that type of information without our badges.”

Burks replayed the selection again, the three of them intent on the voices and glass clatters. They’d all been concentrating so hard that when the trill of Scully’s cell phone sounded, she nearly fell out of the chair to go answer it. Burks got up to fetch his forgotten coffee, while Langly muttered at the screen and typed in some new configurations — much to the annoyance of Burks. Buthe let him go with it, pouring his coffee and returning to sit by him. They’d begun to accept each other as teammates, though grudgingly, and as Scully left them behind, any expected arguments were happily, nonexistent.

Mulder’s number shone in the ID screen of Scully’s cell phone, and she answered immediately. “Where are you?”

“Hello to you too.” The reception faded in and out. “–I’m on my way to the mining site, but we gotta make a pit stop first.”

“We? So you found Crofts?”

“Yeah. It’ll be a bumpy ride. How are things back at the homestead?”

“Oh, you know, Ma and Pa are hard at work on the field, and I’m just trying to hold everything together.” She glanced into the dining room again, happy to see both heads down and hard at work — together.

“Mulder,” she began, “It’s definitely a consortium meeting. Lots of familiar voices, and some not so familiar. It’ll still take some time to decipher who they all are, but our initial perceptions were right. This goes internationally.”

“Looks like Mom was leading us in the right direction toward something. What that was…”

“We’ll find out, Mulder. We’ve just got to put the pieces together.”

“Yeah, but are the pieces going to tell us the truth?”

They were both silent for a long three seconds. The truth was a heavy uncertain question that they needed answered. And what were they to do with it, once they had it?

“We’re coming up to our stop now, Scully. I’m gonna have to let you go.”

“You didn’t answer me before. Mulder. Where exactly are you?”

“Going to get a key, in a matter of speaking — or, what you could call a key, it seems. Gotta break into Strughold’s some way or another.”

Apprehensive to his lack of definition, Scully’s voice wavered. “Mulder, just be careful, will you please?”

“I will. I’ll keep you updated.”

“Be sure you do.”

Scully pressed the End button and stared at the dim lighting of the phone as if she were able to hold onto Mulder for a moment longer. Then Langly called urgently from the kitchen.

“You’re not going to believe this! Burks, can you confirm this please?”

He fast forwarded to the last section of tape — a section past the mysterious Frenchman, past the debates between consortium members. It was another strange voice that had seemed familiar, but could not be identified because he spoke in such swift German to Strughold. It came in like an afterthought, like the man had been absent from the meeting until that one point, or remained silent throughout.

“I will not give up a struggle already begun! There is no such word as capitulation in my vocabulary!”

“Now, listen to this,” Langly scrolled through one of the historical recordings set off to the side. “That’s it, isn’t it?”

Burks compared both signatures, layered them one on top of another, and listened carefully to his headphones. He looked up at Langly, his eyes frozen and clear. They exchanged a silent, fearful acknowledgement, nodded, then both turned to Scully.

“What? What is it?”

“December 1940, the Rheinmettal-Borsig Works,” Burks unplugged the headphones again, and handed them to Scully. When she’d fit them over her head, he cued up the tape. Snow erupted in Scully’s ears, and a fervent voice issued forth in German. It was the voice on the consortium tape. “I am not the man to give up, to my own disadvantage, a struggle already begun,” Burks simultaneously translated. “I have proved this by my life in the past and I shall prove to those gentlemen – whose knowledge of my life until now has been gathered from the emigre’ press – that I have remained unchanged in this respect.

“When I began my political career, I declared to my supporters – they were then only a small number of soldiers and workers – ‘There is no such word as capitulation in your vocabulary or mine.'”

“That’s not… It can’t be…” Scully whispered in a dry voice, as Der Fuehrer continued to regale the throng of good Germans.

She’d suddenly lost her appetite for coffee, and hoped Mulder kept his word and knew what he was doing.

******

Act 3 Scene 1

Strughold Mine No. 76

One day later

3:23 p.m.

“Thanks, but my tires don’t need rotating,” Mulder told Crofts’ friend.

The teen blinked, scratching a threatening zit in the epicenter of his scarlet farmer’s tan. He was about 5’6″, but muscular and square-jawed. He sported a Carharrt work jacket and a regulation Midwest jock buzz, both at odds with his thick, steel-rimmed glasses.

“No, sir, this ain’t no…” the boy grinned sheepishly, looking from the old geologist to the wheeled unit he’d single-handedly hauled from his Ford flatbed.

“Ground penetrating radar,” Mulder assured him with a disarming smile. “It emits low power pulses of electromagnetic energy over soil or other material, and ‘reads’ the reflected energy. The pulses are reflected at any change in material, so it provides a cross-sectional image of the material under the scan line. They use it for mapping geological features, finding buried utilities or abandoned fuel tanks, or to check for flaws in concrete foundations.”

“Damn,” the teen mumbled with respect.

“In addition to being the region’s top high school fullback and shortstop, Scott’s the pride of the Oscagaw County FFA and two-time winner of the North Dakota State High School Robotics Competition,” Crofts informed the agent with paternal pride. “He’s a born mechanical and electronic whiz. Got this GSSI SIR 2000 used at a tax liquidation in Bismarck, and had Scott pop the hood. He souped it up, added a gig of extra data storage, and boosted the scan rate to 75 — 11 more scans per second than the factory allowed.”

“OK, now you’ve exhausted my technological jargon reserve,” Mulder surrendered.

“What Mr. Crofts means to say, sir, is this baby’ll read through 100 feet of dirt, asphalt, concrete, or rock,” Scott ventured with a mix of home-trained politeness and adolescent bravado. “Me and the guys, we been using it to look for old Indian graves and such.”

“We’ll have it back by sundown,” Crofts promised, fiddling with the controls and examining the monitor mounted above the GPR unit.

Scott’s face fell. “Hey, I thought I was gonna help out. You said…”

“I said I needed your expertise,” Crofts said gently but firmly. “What we’re doing could get a little iffy, and your mom and dad would rip me limb from limb if you wound up at the sheriff’s substation. I’ll give you a full report tonight, OK?”

“Shit,” the teen muttered, but he turned and shuffled back to the pickup. After a few seconds, the truck powered up and kicked up gravel as it glided back up the county road.

“Good kid, but he’s got no grasp of his own mortality, on the field or off,” Crofts reflected.

“Mortality? I thought you said we could get in and out without being noticed.”

The geologist spat an unhealthy wad of phlegm into the scrubby grass by the roadside, and pulled a tarnished .38 from his windbreaker. “Oh, yeah, no problem there. We just got some rattlers in these parts, that’s all.”

“Let’s boogie,” Mulder sighed.

**

Crofts’ assessment had been accurate. As Mulder scanned the six-foot Strughold Mining fence 20 feet away, he saw no signs of electrification, video surveillance, or even human presence.

The pair had hiked about a half-mile from the road to a clearing Crofts had claimed to be “dead-bang centered” on the coordinates Mulder had been provided. The geologist had brought along a hefty pack that contained God knows what, and after seeing the gun, Mulder had begun to question his judgment in recruiting the disgruntled and possibly cracked scientist.

“So how’d you leave the company?” the former agent said.

Crofts’ eyes were plastered on the radar monitor as he wheeled the unit slowly over the bumpy terrain. “I told you Strughold was a maniac for the rules – didn’t wanna do anything to attract the regulatory guys. Well, a crew found one of the miners – Pete Fulger, nice guy, two kids – at the bottom of one of the shafts around here, skull cracked wide open. Bosses claimed it was an accident that Pete’s safety gear had malfunctioned, and the Bureau and OSHA signed off on their report. But there were some hinky elements to Pete’s death. He’d been asked to fill in the night before – that’s not standard practice, especially during a slow period, which was what it was.

“And Pete was kind of an odd duck. One of those, what do they call them? Conspiracy buffs, yeah.”

Mulder coughed.

“Yeah, he was convinced he’d seen a UFO out near the badlands when he was a teenager, and he was always going on about some shadowy conspiracy that was responsible for killing JFK, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, and John Belushi, for all I know. He told me one time he thought Strughold was a Nazi.” Crofts stopped, then moved on toward the fence. “‘Course, nobody argued with him, but he was talking about the real thing. Shit, probably turn out he was right.

“Upshot was, I suggested to the bosses we might wanna look a little deeper into Pete’s accident. Next thing you know, it’s going around I’m coming to the site drunk.” The geologist glanced up. “Well, maybe there was some truth to that, but I never let it affect my work, and ain’t it odd they can me right when I’m stirring up a hornet’s nest? Well, they didn’t can me, precisely – they let me ‘resign.'”

“Ever find out anything about your friend?”

“They wouldn’t even let me pack my own office – got security to bring it out to the house. That was when I had a house, a wife, and a job. I taught a few community college classes after that, but they’d put the word out on me and I couldn’t get hired as a safety guard at a sandbox… Whoa.”

Mulder moved forward as Crofts peered at the monitor. “What’ve you got? Looks like nothing.”

The geologist tapped the screen. “Nothing sometimes looks a hell of a lot like everything, Mr. Mulder. This land’s been through primeval plate shifts, prehistoric earthquakes and volcanoes, and the mother of all glaciers. It’s a vegetable stew of rocks, minerals, fossils, and soils. What you’re seeing here is solid, unbroken material, about 24 feet down. Nature doesn’t work that way. This is manmade – maybe the ceiling to that ‘complex’ you were talking about.”

“Can you tell how large the complex might be?”

Crofts began to move again. “See if we can’t lock it in.”

As he rolled away, Mulder flipped open his cell and punched in a pre- programmed number.

“Editorial,” Byers announced, brisk-but-amiable.

“It’s me,” Mulder greeted.

“Mulder, hey. You want Langly? He’s still working with Scully and Burks on those voiceprints.”

“Nah, you’re my corporate skullduggery guy today. What’s Katsuhiru do for you?”

“Excitement mingled with a shiver of apprehension. One of Japan’s powerhouse family dynasties. Major provincial power since the 16th century, hit big in the spice trade with the Europeans in the 1800s. Moved from medicinal herbs into pharmaceuticals in the 1930s. Company had a sudden infusion of new capital, as if their research was being underwritten by somebody else – somebody powerful. You could speculate on who, based on the changes that were happening in the world at the time, but I have seen some old photos of Yoshiro Katsuhiru picnicking with Emperor Hirohito and his clan. After the war, the family laid low, then came back in the 1950s with a few major products.”

“They still pushing pills?”

“High-tech Robin Cook/Michael Crichton-type stuff, Mulder. In the eighties, the company bought up some smaller electronics, robotics, and life sciences firms. There’s been talk Katsuhiru’s been looking at nanotechnology and biomechanical systems – you know, exosuits to help the disabled walk or workers to do more heavy lifting.”

Mulder’s imaginative mind whirled on a few other possibilities. “Any connections between Strughold Mining and Katsuhiru?”

Byers paused. “I’ll work on it. What? Frohike wants to know how things are going in the hinterlands.”

“Great. I’m scouting out underground labs with a borderline twelve-stepper who smells like kitty-litter, waiting for a battalion of Strughold security goons or copperheads to come swarming out of the woods. And the Buffalo Dog I had in Devil’s Fork is beginning to claw its way out.”

“Devil’s Fork?” Byers perked. “I envy you. They’ve had an unusually high incidence of UFO sightings over the last 30 years or so.”

Mulder flashed on the “lunatic” Pete Fulger and his “delusions.” ” If I see any EBEs, I’ll get an autograph.”

The ex-agent pocketed the phone, frowning at the blue hills on the horizon.

Then he turned, scanning the clearing.

“Crofts?” Mulder called.

“Here,” the geologist shouted. Mulder froze as he peered at his companion, nearly a football field away. “I haven’t even found the edge of the thing yet. And something’s playing havoc with my signal. Something big. Godzilla big. I think it’s down there.”

**

“You OK?” Crofts “whispered” loudly as he played his lantern beam around the tunnel walls.

Mulder nodded gently, although the low-grade buzzing in his head was beginning to amplify. “You sure this is a great idea, just the two of us?”

“We made it this far without getting our brains blown out, didn’t we?” the geologist replied cheerfully.

When Crofts suggested they investigate the abandoned No. 76, Mulder had begun to suggest reinforcements. Then he remembered that there were no reinforcements. When he and Scully had turned in their papers, they had lost whatever meager federal resources they’d been able to muster over the past decade.

For the first time since their defection from the Bureau, Mulder wondered if he’d closed off all avenues to The Truth.

“Ah hah,” Crofts announced triumphantly, waving the handheld PC he’d pulled out of his pack after they’d breached the mine’s shabbily blockaded entrance. He’d surprised Mulder with his PalmV’s radiodetection Dataviewer.

Engineers used them to locate buried pipes and cable; Crofts hoped to locate Strughold’s underground chamber, which Mulder had assumed would contain a Best Buyful of electronics and computer gear. “See, signal’s getting hot near this wall, which would be just about right under where I found the lab.”

“Great,” Mulder mumbled. A dull pain was beginning to prod at his left temple with a vague familiarity. But the ex-agent was intent on finding what was behind the rock wall Crofts was now caressing. “Now all we have to do is do a Hogan’s Heroes. You bring a sharp spoon?”

Crofts turned, grinning eerily in the ghostly lantern light. He reached into his bag and gently withdrew two bricks of what looked like gray Play Dough. “I can do better than that.”

“Oh, shit, Crofts,” Mulder groaned. “Where the hell did you get plasticine?”

“Remember — Montana’s just over the border,” the scientist noted. “Lotta disenchanted militia guys looking to grow organic potatoes instead of make pipebombs these days. Find some real bargains, if you know where to go. Now, why don’t you just back off around the corner there, less you want a Caesarian lobotomy?”

“Why don’t I just back off to New Jersey?” Mulder complained. An explosion surely would alert Strughold’s security, either inside or outside the “lab.” But he’d come this far for answers, so he retreated around the curve from which they’d come. Crofts whistled “Sweet Home Alabama” off-key as Mulder listened to him strategically place the plastique on the mine wall and install the detonator caps. Within five minutes, the geologist crouched beside him, spine to the wall.

Crofts nodded his head like a metronome. “Ten, nine, eight, seven…”

Mulder’s eyes began to ache, and he reeled against the wall as a penny nail seemingly shot through his cerebrum.

Crofts sounded excited, like a boy with a new X-Box. “Four, three, two, one…”

The explosion rattled through Mulder’s already tortured skull. Crofts straight- armed his companion to keep him back. The floor of the abandoned mine vibrated, and Mulder wondered if he would spend his last hours pinned under a pile of rocks listening to the dying ramblings of this lunatic.

As they heard the last rocks crumble from the wall around the curve, the geologist withdrew his arm and gestured Mulder forward.

The ex-agent halted as he peered into the new hole Crofts had created. Networks of ductwork, PVC pipe, and color-coded electrical and computer cable lie beyond the shattered rock, and beyond that a wall of spun fiberglass insulation.

“Yeah, buddy,” Crofts crowed. “Nailed that one. My guess is there ain’t much more than drywall beyond that.” He stepped gingerly through the debris and pinched off some insulation. “This has got to be at least 30 years old. Used to have this brand in my house, ‘fore I started living in a tin can. Well, let’s get to it.”

“I don’t think so,” a voice echoed behind them.

Mulder, head throbbing, wheeled around to see a stocky man in a jumpsuit and hardhat leveling a machine pistol at the pair.

“Shit,” Crofts spat. “You utility guys really take your jobs too seriously.” The “lineman” was flanked by two beefy men in security uniforms, also holding automatic weapons. Stitched above each of their breast pockets were the initials “SM.” Mulder, slightly delirious from the pain in his temples, almost giggled even as he realized the two Strughold Mining employees weren’t into sadomasochism.

“Toss the pack over here,” The Lineman instructed Crofts. “Search FBI,” he snapped at one of the security men.

Mulder placed his palms on his head as he was frisked. The guard removed the Glock from his waistband and returned to parade rest beside the utility man.

“Did Spender send you?” the ex-agent inquired calmly. “Or is Krycek subcontracting now? This whole thing was a trap, wasn’t it?”

The Lineman looked amused, and Mulder began to wonder if he and Scully had understood the playbook at all. “C’mon. I’d do you two right now, but I’ve got orders to give you the tour.”

“Orders from who?” Mulder asked. “Look, we’re dead anyway, right?”

“You’ve watched one too many old crime shows, Agent. Move it. You know, Crofts, you didn’t do a half-bad job finding this place, but you weren’t patient enough.” He coaxed the ex-agent and the geologist along the shaft, another twenty or so yards. The Lineman’s hand disappeared into a black niche in the rock wall, and the dirt floor slid open before Crofts’ feet. Mulder glanced down at the steps descending into what appeared to be a halogen-lit corridor.

“Going dowahhhhh–,” The Lineman began to order. Mulder’s head snapped around as the command died in a strangled yelp.

“Jesus,” Mulder muttered, his jaw dropping open. The Strughold gorilla who’d frisked him had The Lineman in a chokehold, his fingers holding the man’s jaw. But The Lineman’s head was turned 180 degrees from the norm, the skin of his neck tearing with the tension. The machine pistol fired once into the shaft floor as the newly dead man’s forefinger twitched in a final spasm.

As the jumpsuited corpse dropped to the ground, Mulder looked to the security men. Their faces suddenly went slack, and as Mulder’s blood went cold, they reformed into ghastly golem, runneled scars where their eyes and mouths had been.

He turned to Crofts, expecting an expression of utter shock. Instead, Crofts’ stubbled jowls morphed into a powerful square jaw, his bloodshot eyes sharpening and his cheeks gaining craggy definition. Mulder backed up a step, staring speechlessly into the familiar and forbidding face.

“Are you ready, Agent Mulder?” Jeremiah Smith asked, gently.

Act 3 Scene 2

“Extinction is the inevitable fate of all species,” Jeremiah began as they moved down the dimly lit corridor. Unmarked doors adorned only with card/keypads lined the hallway, but otherwise, there was no sign of life. As if the place had been abandoned, Mulder thought. Or, he ventured with a twitch in his gut, whatever work, whatever project had been conducted here had been completed.

“Earth itself has experienced five major extinctions over a four billion-year span, the last roughly 65 million years ago. In our world, three have occurred over as many years. That has enabled our species to evolve both physically and technologically well beyond your scientists’ greatest aspirations. But extinction is inevitable, as is every species’ conviction that it somehow can evade its extinction.

“We discovered the first evidence of our impending, inevitable extinction eons ago. It is now at least 12,000 years away, by our predictions, but to any sentient race facing its own obliteration, that is a matter of mere minutes. This event is expected to reduce our entire galaxy to a swirling mass of plasma that within billions of years will reform into a new galaxy.

“Facing this kind of extinction, a species has but one option: To find a new home, to explore, to colonize. Our intimations of mortality drove us to develop the technology that would allow us to look well beyond the confines of our doomed galaxy. In the eons we have searched, we have found hundreds of planets that could be adapted to our use, but only three other sentient species. One is long-extinct, extinguished by a meteoric event thousands of years ago. Another…”

It was the first time Mulder had ever heard signs of uncertainty, of fear, in the inscrutable Jeremiah’s voice. He felt a tension in the two speechless, faceless aliens beside him.

“Another species contacted our scouts,” Jeremiah continued. “Where your world has experienced five major extinctions and ours’ three, its world has faced only one such cataclysm. Imagine, if you will, a species that has existed for perhaps a billion years. We were children in its presence, but were foolish enough to imagine that because of its primitive form, we were its masters.

“We had discovered a fourth species of rudimentary intelligence — a promising species, but apparently an evolutionary dead-end. It lived on a world that had developed a rich biodiversity and the resources capable of sustaining an entire race for the foreseeable future. By this point, our society had divided along two major opposing lines of thought. Some believed we should adapt livable worlds for future colonization. Others believed with an almost religious fervor that the Earth was our destiny, that we had only to tap its lifeblood to ensure our survival.

“But our new allies in the universe suggested the Earth’s promise had yet to fully mature, that our technology could be used to hasten that maturation and fully exploit the resources we would need. We had the science. Our ‘friend’ had the ability to make that science a reality.”

Mulder froze, a vague horror suddenly blossoming within his chest. He recalled the experiments he’d witnessed in Tunguska, the living black oil that had enslaved men. He thought of the vast chasms in evolutionary theory, particularly in attempting to qualify the leap from Homo neanderthalensis to the Starbucks-sucking Homo sapiens.

“Those who favored more benign colonization were persuaded that this experiment in biological modification was a noble advance in science. That we were exploring genetic frontiers that could be used to help us survive on other worlds while fostering sustainable and intelligent life on Earth.”

“It wasn’t until our joint work was complete that some among us began to realize we had joined in an unholy alliance. But that was only the first of a series of unholy alliances we forged to ensure our immortality in the universe…”

Mulder’s effort to comprehend Jeremiah’s account had distracted him from the knife-like spasms of pain in his head. Here was The Truth, delivered to him in a single, brain-numbing package. And Mulder now realized he’d been stumbling largely in the dark for the past decade, within inches but somehow miles away from revelations that would alter the world as he knew it.

“Two worlds,” Jeremiah amended, jolting Mulder from his reflections. “I apologize; your thoughts are your own. But it’s crucial you understand completely that you may hold the key to the future of both your world and ours’.”

They had reached an unmarked steel reinforced door with a card slide and keypad.

“What’s in here?” Mulder rasped, mouth going dry as the headache returned full-force. “And why am I the key?”

The “security men” were silent, and Jeremiah turned to the door. He grasped the knob and placed a palm over the keypad, closing his eyes. Mulder heard a metallic click, and Jeremiah eased the door open.

The room beyond represented an astonishing feat of underground construction. It was easily the size of a small town, illuminated by huge, overhanging rows of lamps. Banks of computers were arranged in a rough half-ring around the room’s perimeter, manned by a skeleton crew in lab coats.

Mulder now realized the room was actually a hangar, larger than anything the military’s black ops cousins had ever conceived. But it was a hangar designed by a madman: Even from his remote vantage point, Mulder could see the shining floor ahead of the computer was unscarred, seemingly untouched. The walls and arena ceiling of the hangar were seamless.

“Should’ve hired a union contractor to build this place,” he murmured.

“Unless Wonder Woman’s renting the space.”

Jeremiah’s serene face did not shift, but there was the hint of a smile in his voice. “Agent Mulder, more than 1,000 human generations would be required to reach my solar system by conventional means. We would never have ventured beyond our system had we not learned interstellar travel necessitated movement across more than three dimensions.”

Mulder turned abruptly. “Interdimensional travel? Wormholes?”

“I’m afraid even Stephen Hawking would be unable to comprehend the concept involved. These men – the enemies of both our races – are playing with technologies at least 5,000 years beyond man’s scientific understanding.”

Mulder was full of questions, but his thoughts vanished as the floor beneath  him began to vibrate. Actually, it wasn’t a vibration – it was as if the hangar was shifting at some molecular level. The air suddenly seemed thick and liquid, and Jeremiah and his companions flickered in and out of existence before Mulder’s eyes.

Then, just as suddenly, huge, hot fingers squeezed Mulder’s brain. He reeled as the room wavered, electricity sizzling inside his skull and random, utterly alien perceptions firing through his subconscious. As he dropped to his knees, a scream rising in his throat, Mulder perceived a great shape shimmering into view on the hangar floor.

It was monstrous, created clearly by a race to which Man must seem an insect. Gray, metallic but somehow not. Heiroglyphs and symbols were etched into the craft’s hull.

“Agent Mulder. Do you recall the story of the white buffalo?”

Through pain-sharpened eyes, Mulder glanced up at the tall, rough-hewn but somehow dignified figure looming above him. “Mr. Hosteen…”

Albert Hosteen smiled fondly down at his old friend. “I told you once of the White Buffalo Woman, who brought the sacred buffalo calf pipe to the Sioux,” the old Native American windtalker continued. “Before she came, our people didn’t know how to live. They knew nothing. The Buffalo Woman put her sacred mind into their minds, and they knew how to live. When she had given this great gift to our people, she ascended into the skies.

“Since then, the birth of a white buffalo calf has been the most signific ant prophetic sign known to us. It is a sign to begin to mend life’s sacred hoop.Your return to this life years ago was marked by such a sacred birth.” Hosteen’s leathery cheeks twitched in a momentary smile.

“The Fox and the Buffalo.”

“I don’t…” Mulder whispered.

“They came as the White Buffalo Woman from the skies, to put their minds into ours. But the sacred hoop has been broken. You are the healer, the mender.”

“Mr. Hosteen…” Mulder rasped. But the old man was gone, replaced by hideous, nearly inhuman screams. He turned toward the hangar, where man and machinery were now one in a sheet of flame. Smith’s faceless companions played their flamethrowers over the shrieking technicians and guards, extinguishing their pain in an absurdist act of alien “humanity.”

A new wave of agony surged through Mulder’s brain as he tore his eyes from the nightmarish tableau. The mad images flashed through his mind, images from other worlds, other universes, and soon, he felt blackness descend as the hangar again began to shimmer.

“Agent Mulder?”

Mulder blinked. The pain, the madness, were gone. Jeremiah Smith’s fingers continued to massage his temple.

“What did you do?” the ex-agent asked. “Those people…”

“We must leave. You must leave. Come.”

Too numbed to speak, Mulder stumbled to his feet and followed Jeremiah back through the corridor and back into the dark shaft. Jeremiah seized his arm – the alien appeared to have no problem navigating through the murk. He guided the ex-agent through the turns, and eventually, they reached the light.

“Your friends…” Mulder suddenly recalled, blinking into the afternoon sun.

Jeremiah didn’t speak. Mulder clambered through the brush, wondering why the place wasn’t flooded with automatic weaponry and Kevlar. Even given the sudden and violent nature of the “massacre” in the hangar/lab, there had to be some sort of alert system, some sort of failsafe…

A steady thumping sound answered Mulder’s concerns. He looked to the horizon. Black helicopters, he mused. The oldest cliché in the book, at least Project Blue Book.

There was a trio of stealth choppers, no doubt purchased from some former police state or terrorist surplus outlet. The helicopters converged quickly toward the clearing beside the mine; Mulder hoped they hadn’t yet been detected.

“Agent Mulder,” Jeremiah called, tossing his reluctant colleague an AK he’d no doubt commandeered from the hangar. Mulder stared at the weapon for a second, then gripped the stock as the trio of birds sent up a duststorm.

Jeremiah and Mulder sprinted toward a thicket some 50 yards from the mine entrance. The snap of automatic gunfire quickened Mulder’s pace, and he wheeled around as the bark was stripped from an oak near his left arm and pulled off a volley of shots.

He turned momentarily to check on Jeremiah’s safety, only to find the alien standing, eyes closed, arms at his side.

“Jeremiah!” Mulder screamed, firing wildly at the dozen or so men now a few hundred feet away. He clipped one of Strughold’s men, and the rest fanned out. Mulder sprayed the landscape, taking out another one even as a round stitched into the dirt before his feet.

There were too many of them, he realized. Jeremiah had gone off somewhere, and he had no idea how many rounds remained in his clip.

Mulder had a feeling he was about to discover the ultimate Truth, and he replayed his last discussion with Scully.

As he pondered, the fan of approaching gunmen seemed to waver. The air grew suddenly still and silent, and Mulder turned back to Jeremiah.

Who was no longer there. “Great-” Mulder started to mutter as bullets whizzed past his head. The rest of his words were drowned out by the end of the world.

Debris buffeted Mulder as a massive blast blew the ground from under his attackers, and he rolled into a bed of dead leaves. A wave of liquid energy rolled through the air, and the airborne men simply dissolved. Mulder, squinting against the unearthly holocaust, felt radiating heat on his cheek, but Jeremiah apparently had guided him outside the blast zone.

Mulder buried his head in the leaves as clods of dirt pummeled him and shards of rock, vegetation, and god knows what else hurtled over his head. He remained horizontal, hands over head, even after the gale of matter died down. When he heard the soothing music of wild birds overhead, Mulder pushed cautiously to his feet and dusted leaves and soil from his jeans. He ventured up to the rim of the crater Jeremiah’s technology had created, unworried about radiation or airborne toxins. Somehow, he suspected there would be none. Mulder was as certain there would be no trace of Strughold’s secret facility.

Mulder’s colleagues would chalk this up to some buildup of underground gases or a negligent cache of long-forgotten TNT, possibly raising a few uncomfortable questions for Strughold’s “management.” To the civilian world, the crater near Devil’s Fork would become a new chapter in the growing tome of paranormal lore, along with crop circles, drop-ins, and doppelgangers.

As he crept along the perimeter of the hole, Mulder pondered the words of Albert Hosteen, if Hosteen indeed had been no manifestation of his temporary insanity inside the hangar. White buffaloes and witchy women.

Hands-on healing and Old Testament-style annihilation. Mulder realized he was in territory that tested even his receptivity to the unknown. He took one last peek into the blackness, then set forth on the long path home.

Epiglogue

Casey’s Bar

2 days later

5:32 pm

The bar was dark and musty, and as always, a dive that Mulder frequented during his lowest moments. This time he walked in not alone, but side by side with Scully. They found an empty booth and sat across from each other, the smooth dark wood beneath their hands. They each kept to their own side of the table, but the electricity between them, the connection from their shared anticipation of the meeting they were about to have, made them long to reach across the shiny surface and clasp their fingers together.

“You’re sure you want this?” Scully said suddenly, snapping Mulder’s gaze back to her instead of keeping a lookout on the front door.

“I want this,” he told her directly, without hesitation. “We need this. We owe it to ourselves and to the Truth and to your family… Bill… and mine. To my mother.”

Scully nodded. “Then, I want this too. I want you to know that.”

The door thumped closed, heavy from age and use. A pair of slick shiny shoes tapped their way over the worn floorboards and stopped at their booth.

“Sir, thank you for coming. Can I get you something to drink?”

“Just a beer, thanks, Mulder. Scully, did you order something already?”

Skinner asked, noticing the empty table.

Scully flashed a smile, then told Mulder, “Something strong.”

“I’ll make that two,” Mulder answered, “be right back.”

Skinner slid into the booth opposite Scully, leaving room for Mulder when he returned with the drinks.

“How’ve you two been?”

“Fine, sir,” she said, unconvincingly.

Skinner harumphed. “You know better than to pull that line on me, Agent.”

Scully flinched at him addressing her as Agent. “Sir, you do remember that we’re no longer in the Bureau.”

“Aren’t you?” he said with a smirk, just in time for Mulder’s return.

Scully caught her partner’s gaze, wondering if he’d had a conversation with the AD already, before even having this ‘informal’ meeting. She’d thought they were making this decision together.

When Mulder finally noticed her silent question, he took a quick glance at Skinner, who was rubbing his forefinger against his upper lip, and then back at the woman frantically trying to use some sort of telepathy to communicate with him.

“What?”

“Why don’t you tell me? Have we already told Skinner why we’re here?”

“We? Tell him…”

“Don’t distress yourself, Scully. It’s not Mulder’s fault. I am an investigator for the FBI too, after all. Unless, you’ve forgotten that?”

The two ex-agents sat silent.

“You want back into the FBI, right?”

Scully downed half her drink, coughed, and attempted to take control of the situation.

“Sir, well, after some careful thought and—” she fingered the rim of her glass, wishing she could drown herself now. Then with a tap of her fingers and a silent pleading toward her partner, decided to let Mulder do the talking.

“Sir, we want to come back. Now, the circumstances and reasons we had for leaving were our decision, and we thought they were right. But now… now, we realize the decision was a little hasty.”

“Hasty?” Skinner appraised the head on his beer, took a careful sip, and placed it down onto the exact center of his cardboard coaster. He chuckled.

“We need to be back in the FBI, sir,” Mulder said flatly.

“The FBI needs you, Mulder. And Scully. Which is why I thought it was a little ‘hasty’ of you to turn in your resignation letters.”

From the inside pocket of his blazer, Skinner pulled out two number ten envelopes, unmarked and unsealed. They held the resignation letters Mulder and Scully had given him a little more than two weeks ago.

Scully picked up the envelopes and peeked inside to make sure she knew what she was looking at. Confirming her assumption, she nodded at Mulder in disbelief, and they both turned to look at their former, and now current supervisor.

“We’ll chalk it up to bereavement leave,” Skinner offered. “As far as anyone at the Bureau knows, you’d taken a leave of absence. Those were never submitted, and your employment records are still safely where they should be… far away from the paper shredder.”

This time, Mulder downed his drink… the whole thing in one shot. “I guess we need the protection of the FBI more than we thought, Scully. Are we that predictable?”

“Maybe we’d better rethink this again,” she answered with a raised eyebrow.

Skinner just laughed at them both. He took one last healthy swig from his beer, and scootched Mulder out of the booth. He slapped his shoulder familiarly, and nodded a farewell toward Scully.

“Welcome back, agents.”

-end-

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