Red Flag

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Red Flag

Author: Martin Ross

Category: Casefile

Rating: PG-13 for language and sexual innuendo

Spoilers: Lie to Me crossover

Summary: A diplomatic mission turns into a hunt for a deadly threat in the Chinese skies.

Disclaimer: The X-Files is the property of Chris Carter and Fox, even in China. Cal Lightman and Lie to Me are also under the express ownership of Fox. All for One will always be Bryan Adams’, and he is welcome to it.

Original web date:31/07/2009

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Red Flag

Day 1

3:23 p.m.

Mulder drained the last of his cappuccino, The Fray whispering mournfully and anemically into his ear. The late afternoon sun filtered through the front window of the small coffee shop, and the agent smiled unconsciously, content to be out of the real fray even for these few moments.

He felt a fleeting draft at his back, and a shadow fell over his left shoulder. Mulder reluctantly fished his iPod from his front pocket and cut Isaac Slade off mid-arpeggio. He called to the terminally sunny would-be barista and clumsily signed a second cup for his partner.

“So, how’s the java at the Great Wall?” Scully asked, dropping into the chair beside him. The British foursome behind her was still round-tabling global climate change (Mulder again thanked God — or maybe Shangdi, out of deference — for noise-canceling earbuds).

“Where they at?” Mulder inquired lazily, stretching a kink from his lumbar. The petite coffee girl slipped a steaming Styrofoam cup before Scully and Mulder slipped her 25 yuan with a mumbled “Xie xie.” He’d become a pro at hello and thank you in the two days since he, Scully, the Secretary of Agriculture, and a half-dozen of Washington’s elite press corps had landed in Beijing.

“That third tower thingie there,” Scully supplied, jerking a thumb at the hazy ridge hundreds of feet above them.

“Battlement,” Mulder amended.

“Of course. He’s doing a photo op with the common folk.” Scully sipped. “Mmm. Tastes very much like the Starbucks near the Department of Education. Or the one in Georgetown. Or, for that matter, the one in Gary, Indiana. Much better than scaling one of the world’s most stunning architectural hallmarks.”

Mulder leaned back. “I don’t know that I care for an architectural hallmark that feels it has to use superlatives to describe itself. It’s a really, really, really good wall, don’t get me wrong… Why’s he here, again, by the way? What’s this got to do with ag trade and phytosanitary standards?”

“The Great Wall is a stunning symbol of China’s traditional commitment to basic infrastructure in the national interest,” recited Scully, who’d been stuck with the secretary’s staff chief on the bus ride from Beijing. “The secretary’s pitching the administration’s highway/public works plan for the folks back home.”

“He’s ninth in the presidential line of succession,” Mulder complained. “Doesn’t he ever watch 24? We should be at some county fair right now, shaking babies and handing out farm checks.”

“I’m always astonished by your insider’s knowledge of the Executive Branch. What’s your problem, Mulder? You’re in the heart of China, land of mystery and a veritable treasure trove of mystical folklore. What about the Yeren, the Chinese Wildman? I hear they had another sighting in Hubei Province.”

“He better watch his hairy red ass, then. And, by the way, quit Googling,” Mulder muttered. “Why are we here, Scully? You know this is bullshit, a punishment.”

Scully stared at her partner. “Mulder. You shut down a major New York turnpike during the Friday afternoon rush and almost came to blows with a deputy chief of detectives over an ‘electromagnetic anomaly’ that inconveniently failed to show up.”

Mulder straightened. “And that night, half the hard drives in Newark were mysteriously degaussed. So maybe I could use a Magellan, but I was right about the anomaly. And yet, here we are.”

“On light duty, on what amounts to a free seven-day vacation in China. Skinner recommended you, specifically, because of the nature of the threats to the secretary. Make lemonade, Mulder. And put on your game face — here they come.”

Mulder sighed, nodded to his communist coffee conveyor, and straightened his tie.

“No sign of trouble,” grunted Dunhill, the more vocal of the secretary’s three-man Secret Service contingent, as his partners ushered the ag chief, his entourage, and the visiting media toward a pair of buses being guarded by a small cadre of provincial police. “Of course, I’m still not quite sure what constitutes trouble in your world.”

“Forty years of darkness,” Mulder explained, zipping his jacket. “Earthquakes, volcanoes. The dead rising from the grave. Human sacrifice.”

“Dogs and cats living together, roger,” Dunhill nodded, his immaculate brush mustache kinking at the corner. “Loved that shit with the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. C’mon, Venkman, grab your stick and let’s saddle up.”

Mulder gawped for a second as the Secret Service man marched off toward the buses.

“Straights 1, Mulder 0,” Scully mused. “Looks like there may be a new sheriff in town.”

Mulder formulated a pithy response, but before he could articulate it, the chilled serenity of the plaza was shattered by a shrill curse. The agents turned sharply to see Dunhill’s colleagues, Faber and Cross, pull the secretary to the ground, shielding him with their blocky bodies. Twenty yards beyond, a man Mulder recognized as a CNN foreign correspondent dropped to his knees, batting at the air around him, cursing.

Dunhill waved back a gathering throng of sightseers who were unholstering cameras and cell phones to capture the bizarre moment, shouting alternately in English and Mandarin. Now, the entire press corps was waving and batting, with the exception of a few flak-jacketed cameramen taking aim at the crouching secretary and his bodyguards.

Abruptly, the first tourist shrieked as her digital camera struck the concrete. At the same time, Mulder felt something brush his ear — something vaguely bristly but soft. Scully cried out as she swatted at a pair of white, seemingly translucent missiles buzzing about her head. Mulder realized the already hazy air was full of the streaking, indefinable objects. Curiosity overtook panic, and he studied the swarm that was attacking the crowd, his eyes darting in an effort to stop their lightning motion. They flitted, regrouped, and dipped — organisms of some sort, Mulder realized with a surge of adrenalin. But he noticed no blood, no injuries he could attribute to the attack.

Mulder stood stock-still in the midst of the chaos, hoping one of the creatures might light. His patience was momentarily rewarded as one of the ghost-missiles stopped short a few inches beyond his nose, and he mentally recorded a six-inch, translucent tube surrounded by undulating, alternating fins. As quickly, the object blurred into near-nothing and soared away.

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Mulder blinked, heart pounding with startled recognition. Then, as the pounding subsided, he noted the screaming had stopped. Tourists and journalists were scrabbling uneasily to their feet, and Faber and Cross were hustling the Secretary of Agriculture into the bus.

The agent was somewhat surprised to see Dunhill pulling a rattled old Asian to his feet, offering murmured assurances in Mandarin. He inspected the senior, patted him on the shoulder, and rejoined his FBI comrades.

“I take it that was trouble,” Dunhill drawled.

6:14 p.m.

“The key here is how we spin this,” the secretary’s chief of staff, who looked like an Ivy League intern at Merrill-Lynch, murmured tersely as soon as the door to the VIP suite closed. Mulder silently passed himself the imaginary 100 yen he’d have claimed from Scully if she’d accepted his bet.

“What’s to spin?” Mulder challenged from the arm of an elaborately embroidered settee. The USDA aide stared frostily at him, then looked to Dunhill, who raised a brow in passive support. The COS moved onto the rangy secretary with a silent plea for bureaucratic reason.

“I’m a bit curious myself,” the former Midwest governor admitted with a wry smile.

“Well,” the COS stated. “We have to ensure the international media realize this wasn’t a hostile action against yourself and the administration. After that recent incident near Hainan — and the perception the government’s testing the new administration’s intestinal fortitude –” Dunhill and Mulder simul-smirked. “– we can’t risk Sino-U.S. relations. Especially with the bond issue and the next round of WTO talks hanging over our heads. Unfortunately, I expect that by tomorrow, video of your men tackling the secretary will be on CNN, FOX, MSNBC, YouTube, and the web page of every twenty-something tourist at the Wall this afternoon.”

“Next time, we’ll throw up a Kevlar party tent,” Dunhill smiled.

“I’m grateful your men acted so quickly and decisively,” the secretary hastily assured him. “Let’s not get crazy here, Ted.”

“I’m just saying,” the COS muttered. “The fact is, we have to have some cohesive, rational explanation for today’s events, and immediately. I asked a couple of the Foreign Ag Service analysts at the consulate to come up with…ah, research…any seasonal anomalies — insect infestations, unusual weather phenomena.”

“Little early in the year for a major swarm like that,” mulled the secretary, who’d grown up on an Ohio corn-and-cattle operation. “I’m sure even the Beltway guys would point that out. I don’t know why we’re tap-dancing around, anyway — at least four or five dozen witnesses can document that this event was unexplainable, but certainly natural in origin. If that’s the right word. Is that the right word, Agent Mulder?”

Mulder nearly slipped from the arm of the couch, astonished to be consulted. The COS smiled tolerantly. “Technically, probably. Though I don’t think the guys at the consulate would find what we saw today in any nature guide.”

“You’re saying this was a supernatural occurrence?” The secretary had been fully briefed on the X-Files, and he asked as if checking on the August crop projections.

“I wouldn’t say that,” Mulder drawled. Scully tensed. “Yet, anyway.” Scully sighed. “Supernatural implies that this occurrence exists outside our known physical environment. What we saw today simply may not yet be documented — or accepted — by modern science.”

“And what would that be?” the secretary persisted.

8:43 p.m.

“Rods, right?”

A square swatch of crispy duck skin quivered before Mulder’s mouth, then fell from his crossed sticks onto his ornately enscripted plate.

Mulder had dallied on the street below the Quanjude Restaurant to check out some soapstone talismans, and had lost his spot at the bureaucrat’s table. The man who’d addressed him was a second-string cable media celeb known primarily for his mastery of salon gel and ability to convey human emotion on command. Mulder handed him a plate of fermented jellyfish.

“That’s what you’re thinking those things were, right?” Donnell Wilkinson persisted. “I did a series on crypto-scientific phenomena last summer — maybe you saw it?”

“Yeah, matter of fact. I laughed, I cried.” One of Mulder’s forum-mates had dubbed the series “Black Holes and A-Holes.”

“Anyway, I did a one-on-one with Jose Escamillo.”

Escamilla, Mulder silently amended. The world’s leading authority — perhaps its only authority — on “skyfish,” or rods, as the parascientific community called them.

“Didn’t seem like a total whack job,” Wilkinson offered generously. “Some of the videos are pretty compelling. That’s what you think those things were, right?”

“Rods.” Mulder frowned, and gave the single syllable as much labored effort as he could muster.

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“C’mon, Mulder. I researched you — well, one of my guys did. I know all about the X-Files, about the exploits of ‘Spooky’ Mulder. You’re the guy who almost got bitch-slapped by that NYPD gasbag last month, right? Just tell me what you think, mano-a-mano. That was some pretty weird shit went down today.”

“Word, Dog. No comment.”

“Off the record, seriously.”

“Seriously. No comment.”

“You know, right, the Chinese government actually tried to prove the existence of rods a few years ago? Sent out guys skyfishing, analyzed every video and photo pixel-by-pixel. Most of them turned out to be blurry bugs.”

“Some,” Mulder blurted. “No comment.”

“C’mon, you think I’m going to report one of the top Cabinet secretaries got attacked by a swarm of pissed-off skyfish? Besides, I didn’t think they ever went after people.”

“They don’t,” Mulder nodded, dropping his duck and any pretense of official protocol. “I mean, there are no reports of aggressive behavior. Atmospheric organisms normally have minimal interaction with other airborne objects or birds. Reportedly. There’s never been any postmortem evidence of their existence — no carcasses, no wings — and they’ve never been characterized as antagonistic. Thus, the theories they could be trans-dimensional entities. And they never, ever–”

Mulder looked up to see two network correspondents, a Post feature writer, and a Times finance reporter staring, rapt and incredulous, chopsticks on safety. He glanced quickly sideways, to see Scully craning anxiously around Agent Faber’s shaven head.

“No comment,” he reiterated, shoving a wad of duck into his jaws.

10:02 p.m.

“Give me some advance notice the next time, Mulder,” Scully murmured as the elevator doors whispered shut and the car began to ascend into the luxuriant bowels of the Grand Hyatt Beijing. “I’ll book a room and a podium and Twitter Wolf Blitzer and Helen Thomas.”

Mulder silently counted to five. “He cornered me.”

“By inviting you to open your mouth?”

He tallied another five. “What was the harm, Scully? I’m sure they just wrote me off as some kind of whack job.”

“And I was worried.” Scully shook her head for three floors. Then she sighed. “So, were they, you know, those flying fish?”

“Skyfish,” Mulder smirked. His partner looked blankly at him, and the smirk vanished. “As much as I wish I could say they were, I think we were the fish.”

“Why does cryptozoology always seem to make you so cryptic?”

The car halted and the doors slid open. In the nuanced lighting across the hall, two representatives of the press corps – the trade guy from the Wall Street Journal and the Post’s Asian bureau stringer – looked up hazily, the WSJ guy attempting unsuccessfully to hide his half- bottle of Tsingtao.

“Not here,” Mulder whispered. He directed her toward his room. The reporters chortled. Scully turned back toward the elevator.

“Not there,” she growled.

**

“Xie xie,” Mulder murmured as the waiter deposited their nightcaps. At a few minutes past midnight, the Redmoon lounge was beginning to thin out. Mulder had deduced, accurately, that his fellow media travelers would venture out to some less trendy watering hole with a later last call.

“So why, this one time, when it flies right before your eyes – and the eyes of a few dozen tourists, journalists, and a top Cabinet official — are you so reluctant to believe in the impossible?” Scully asked, sipping her Merlot.

“Because it didn’t just fly before my eyes.” Mulder sampled his beer. “It circled the field and tried to make contact with the tower. I got a clear look at it.”

Scully straightened. “My God. What was it?”

“Oh, it was a rod.”

She blinked. “And just when I thought I’d mastered your dementia. You just insisted those things weren’t rods.”

“It was a rod – identical to Escamilla’s widely-publicized 3-D rendering. Too identical, if you ask me. The best stills taken from the Escamilla rod videos are vague, at best.”

“What are you suggesting, Mulder? That all of us – all those people at the Wall – were scammed?” Mulder shrugged. Scully leaned forward. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but that’s absurd.”

“What’s absurd is that this unexplained cryptoid organism – a creature that’s existed unseen, leaving no evidence or remains probably for millennia – would stop to give Spooky Mulder a photo op. It was too convenient.”

Scully took a slug of wine. “Wow. It really is all about you, isn’t it? Dr. Manville needs to step up the program a bit.”

Mulder sighed. “The threat against the secretary. Pretty weird, right?”

“To say the least,” Scully nodded, recalling the bizarre, untraceable e-mail that had arrived at USDA soon after the secretary’s tour of China had been announced. By the time a professor of ancient languages at Georgetown translated the lengthy and graphically precise curse from its long-dead Chinese dialect, Ted Shulman, the secretary’s chief of staff, had consulted the Director, who promptly contacted Skinner, who hastily ordered Mulder to exhume his passport. That Mulder himself was on the NYPD’s watch list was merely incidental.

“It was almost like a personal invitation. They had everything they needed to pull it off: A visiting VIP, a media entourage, a crowded venue, and the FBI’s resident expert on the weird and wacky.”

“They? Who’s they, Mulder? And why would they do this? What’s the purpose?”

Mulder shrugged.

“Great,” Scully breathed. She glanced up, frowning, and Mulder turned to see an immaculately dressed Asian approaching.

“Mr. Mulder?” the young man’s head bobbed curtly. A pin on his lapel IDed him as hotel staff.

“Yep.”

“One of your party wishes to speak with you. A Mr. Wil-, Wil-”

Mulder’s brow rose. “Wilkinson. Donnell Wilkinson.”

The man smiled helplessly. “He did not give me his given name. Mr. Wil-, your friend did not have your cell phone number, and you were not in your room. He says it is important that he talk to you.”

Mulder finished his beer and rose. “Which room?”

The staffer shook his head. “No. He is at Xiao Chang – Happy Dog. It is a bar on this street. He said he will wait for you.”

Mulder glanced at Scully.

“I better go with you,” she said warily.

“You afraid he’s leading me into a trap?” Mulder laughed.

“I’m afraid you’ll go on the record again,” she said.

Day 2

12:16 a.m.

The Happy Dog was a textbook working man’s dive, like virtually any working man’s dive in the developing or developed world. A dozen weary Asian eyes regarded Mulder briefly as he entered, then turned back to animated Mandarin or inebriated meditation as he scanned the dark, music-free interior for the American reporter. Wilkinson was at the end of the bar – Mulder stopped dead as the journalist looked up.

Even in the dull fluorescent light, Wilkinson was alarmingly pallid. His eyes were circled in red. As he spotted Mulder, his smile was anemic.

“Hey, Fox, man, thanks for coming,” Wilkinson said weakly, gesturing to the next stool. “Phuket?”

“Excuse me?”

“Phuket. Thai beer. Got addicted to it when I was covering a global climate summit in Bang-, Bangkok.”

“I’m good. What’s up? I told you no comment before.”

“It’s not that,” Wilkinson slurred, his smile disappearing. “There was a reason I asked you about, you know, those things.”

Mulder chuckled. “Wilkinson, you could tell me about your weekend in Vermont with Sasquatch, and nobody here would know any better. What’s your interest in rods?”

The newsman fumbled for his Phuket, and the bottle toppled. Mulder righted it before it could spill. “I think I’m in troub—” Wilkinson’s eyes popped as he choked on the last word. He grasped his throat, and his buttermilk expression turned blue-gray. His cyanotic lips mimed distress.

“Donnell,” Mulder gasped. “What happened? Who did this?” The agent reached over the bar and grabbed the stolid bartender. “Help. Shit. This man. He needs a doctor. Oh, Jesus…”

“He speaks no English,” a calm voice informed Mulder. A middle-aged man in a T-shirt and jeans displayed his cell phone. “I’ve called for emergency care – they should be here momentarily.”

Mulder nodded gratefully, then turned to Wilkinson, who was now turning scarlet. The reporter was scrabbling at his jacket pocket, and ripped the lining as he yanked out an iPod. Wilkinson batted Mulder’s hand as the agent tried to calm him, and began working the handheld device. Then, he forced it into Mulder’s hand and fell back against the bar.

“Please, move aside,” the man with the cell phone murmured, grasping Mulder’s shoulder and pulling him gently away from Wilkinson. The reporter slumped to the floor, and the T-shirted stranger dropped to one knee over him to begin CPR.

“You’re a doctor?” Mulder asked dully, heart pounding.

“Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau,” the man stated, compressing Wilkinson’s chest. “Superintendent First Class Wei Lu. If you would please remain on the premises.”

2:30 a.m.

After a half-hour of bilingual Chinese bureaucracy, small talks, and polite threats, Scully and Dunhill were admitted to the substation interview room where their colleague had been detained.

“Well, hey, guys,” Mulder grinned as Superinendent Lu poured him a second cup of steaming black tea. Say hey, Wei.”

“Hey,” Lu intoned with a sharp bow. “You would be Special Agent Scully? And you, I assume, are the Secret Service man Fox spoke of?”

“You assume correctly,” Dunhill rumbled. “Fox. Good thing we broke out the cavalry. Is he under arrest, sir?”

“Absolutely not. Fox and I are discussing your friend’s unfortunate death. I offer my sympathies.”

“So you can just leave?” Scully asked.

“Policeman’s habit,” Lu explained. “When foreign nationals hold a rendezvous in one of the local bars, it tends to capture my attention. Mr. Wilkinson already was exhibiting odd behavior before Fox arrived – weaving, labored breathing. After your partner arrived, I watched both men very carefully. Fox had no opportunity to — how would you put it? — to doctor Mr. Wilkinson’s beer.”

“He was already drunk?” Dunhill frowned. “We’d just got back from dinner a half-hour before he called you, and he seemed OK then. He only had the one beer at the bar.”

“The barkeeper said yes.”

“I think he’d been poisoned,” Mulder said. “He only seemed to be drunk. What would do that, Scully?”

“Combined with respiratory failure? I suppose if he had an anaphylactic reaction to some drug he was given or self-administered. Then there’s nitrogen narcosis or nitrogen drunkenness, but that occurs mainly in deepwater divers.”

Mulder looked up at Superintendent Lu, who was sipping his tea from a black ceramic cup. “I don’t suppose you could authorize a—”

“A post-mortem? Of course. I will ask our pathologist to explore all possibilities. After our recent melamine, er, ‘problems’ and the ongoing concerns about SARS, my superiors, the government will want to be able to assure the public and your media that there is no question of public health or safety. I will call you with his findings.”

Lu nodded. “I am afraid I also will need to confiscate Mr. Wilkinson’s musical device.”

“Sure,” Mulder said, retrieving the iPod. He turned to Scully and Dunhill. “I think Wilkinson knew he was dying, and probably knew how he died. Since he couldn’t speak, he did the best he could to try to leave me a message.”

Mulder activated the player and retrieved the last song played. Scully peered at the tiny monitor.

“All For Love,” Scully read. “Bryan Adams. Guess you never really know a man until you read his playlist. God knows yours scared the bejesus out of me the first time.”

“He was killed over a woman?” Dunhill pondered. “Or a man, pardon my political insensitivity.”

“I believe it’s the former,” Scully said. Dunhill and Mulder exchanged looks. “You’d be surprised at the intel you can gather even in a Beijing ladies room.”

“Any particular intel you want to share, Agent?” Dunhill asked.

Mulder peered at his tea dregs and rose. “All will be revealed in time, Grasshopper. Toodle-loo, Lu.”

**

“Beijing police have released no official details of Wilkinson’s death, and an autopsy is planned,” the dapper BBC anchor intoned. “The veteran newsman was honored with a Pulitzer Prize nomination in 2000 for his series of reports on corruption within the Chicago Police Department. He was well-known in recent years for his narration of dozens of documentaries on the National Geographic, Discovery, History, and Animal Planet cable channels.”

Mulder rationed enough bottled water (two per room per day) to rinse and spit, fondly recalling Wilkinson’s fine work on Mastiffs and Masters, perhaps the definitive opus on the alpha canine/alpha human dynamic. The Pulitzer thing, he hadn’t seen.

“Wilkinson was among those who bore witness to yesterday’s bizarre, highly publicized incident at China’s Great Wall, as seen in this exclusive MSNBC video.”

Mulder dashed out of the marbled toilet – he hadn’t yet seen any footage of the swarm. Spielberg, it wasn’t: Tourists and journalists ducking and swatting and screaming as ill-defined objects whizzed past the lens. A half-dozen intrepid – or Youtube-obsessed — young Asians continued to point and shoot as all hell broke loose. Mulder spotted himself in the distance, standing immobile as the camera panned the frenetic crowd. Then he froze, absently wiping a thread of toothpaste from his chin with a knuckle.

“Scientists with China’s Ministry of Environment could not pinpoint specifically what swarmed the group, though a source within the press delegation accompanying the U.S. agriculture secretary related speculation the airborne missiles might be ‘rods’ or ‘skyfish’ –”

Cool-Mint Crest sprayed across the room, and Mulder sank onto his bed.

“— atmospheric creatures of cryptozoological lore believed by skeptics to be large, rapidly moving insects. Coincidentally, Wilkinson once produced a piece on the rod phenomenon for CNN, and the ag secretary’s official contingent includes a reported expert on paranormal science…”

“No,” Mulder whispered.

“…who according to Beijing police was present when Wilkinson suffered his fatal seizure.”

And that was when the phone rang.

7:08 a.m.

“You need a better publicist, dude.”

An already Scully-chastened Mulder turned slowly to the sallow, cadaverous man who was adding pickled tofu to his soupy congee. Piescak was the group’s token blogger – the hip new administration’s nod to the social media and the twenty-something set largely credited with putting it in office.

“They didn’t even mention your name,” Piescak continued. “Your bosses or that tight-sphinctered prick Ted probably pulled some strings. You know, he tried to get my credentials yanked, with the support of my esteemed press buds. Not part of their little media country club – bunch of sanitized whores.”

“Good morning,” Mulder nodded. Piescak grinned.

“Not bitter, much,” the blogger said, poking at a pot of fish eggs before dropping some into his rice porridge. “Sincerely, dude, hope you don’t take too much shit from your people. You’re like a rock star to the paranormal community. That Flukeman thing, that was straight up?”

“You try these things?” Mulder obfuscated, indicating a basket full of steaming white buns.

“Pork buns, dude – pretty righteous. I get it, no comment. Off the record, though – you think Wilkinson was whacked? Cause you know he was trying to get back on the A-list with the network. Human trafficking, Russian mob, high-tech computer matchmaking for super-rich superpervs.”

All for Love, Mulder reflected. A little over-subtle for Donnell Wilkinson.

“That’s not what you’re on this little journey for, is it? Doesn’t seem like your gig. Not like that freaky shit yesterday. The response on my site last night nearly crashed the server.”

The agent looked up. “It’s up on your blog? You get any video?”

“Great shit. ‘Course, you can’t see the critters – just white streaks.”

“Think I could have a peek tonight after dinner?”

Piescak pulled a satchel from his shoulder and withdrew a book-sized Mac. “Grab your pork buns, and we’ll have a show. Don’t worry – those assholes won’t come anywhere near me.”

As promised, the video offered no major revelations about the secret life of rods – the hypothetical creatures appeared to be no more than videographic flaws. But the dispassionate Piescak had thoroughly documented the crowd’s reactions — panning, zooming, capturing all the fear, panic, and fascination. A pair of government security officers had drawn their weapons but appeared uncertain where to aim them.

Mulder grunted. “What?” Piescak asked.

“Run it back…No, more…There, pause.” Mulder tapped the laptop screen. Two to three dozen predominantly Asian sightseers were frozen, crouching, waving, screaming. Except for a handful of fashionably rumpled young people, cameras plastered to their faces. “Seems like these kids are pretty cool about what’s going on.”

“Generation Youtube, dude. If they see it, they shoot it.”

“But look at this one, the girl. She’s on her knees, defensive posture, but she’s still focused. She look scared to you?”

“Hmm, yeah. Weird. And now you mention it, there’s something else kinda fucked up about the whole scene. What is it?”

Mulder was silent for a moment. “Think you can grab some stills? The parking lot, a few of the secretary’s and the media buses. And can I get a copy of this video?”

Piescak frowned. “Man, I don’t know. My peeps find out I’m cc’ing the feds, I’ll be banished from the blogosphere for life.” He glanced across the table at the tacit agent. “Ah, shit, I guess since it’s for you. Mpeg or .avi?”

**

Chiu brightened as Mulder approached the media bus. Grinning, the agent pulled a sleek black device from his jacket. He slapped the Meizu player into the young guide’s palm, and the eyes behind the rectangular lenses glittered.

“Fallout Boys?” Chiu asked.

“Yeah, boy,” Mulder nodded. The visiting fed had allowed the government-assigned translator/escort and student to sample his digital mix as they waited for the group at the Beijing consulate, and had promised him some alternative and Johnny Cash tracks.

“Righteous. Thank you.”

“Not a problem.” The pair moved aside, reverently appraising CNBC’s lithe Asian correspondent as she breezed onto the tour bus. “Wild and wacky stuff yesterday, huh?”

Chiu’s expression darkened. “Yes. Very strange. And very sad about Mr. Wilkinson. It must have been very alarming for you.”

Mulder glanced off toward the rush hour crush on East Chang’an Avenue. China led the planet in new car sales, and the early morning air was sepia with greenhouse gases. “Did you happen to notice how Wilkinson was after we left the Wall?”

“It’s hard to remember – everyone was so, ah, freaked out, you know? I do know Mr. Wilkinson was very pale. He wouldn’t talk to his friends, and he kept, uh, holding his arm.” Chiu demonstrated, rubbing his forearm. “I was afraid perhaps he was having a problem with his heart, but he was OK, he said he was OK. I figure he was, ah, shocked by what we saw.”

Mulder spotted Scully inside, scanning the lobby no doubt for him. “Thanks, Chiu. I’ll see if I can get you some Sara Maclachlan.”

“Yeah buddy,” the young man grinned.

“I looked for you at breakfast,” Scully told him as they met at the revolving doors. “But you looked occupied with Blog Boy. Plus, the guy from the Times Sunday magazine pitched me on a cover story about working with the Bureau’s top ghostbuster.”

“You tell him you don’t kiss and tell?”

“Yes, Mulder. That’s exactly what I told him. As it is, I’m concerned about how all this enforced celibacy is going to affect your short-term health. I saw what it did before, and it wasn’t pretty.”

Mulder laughed sourly. “If it weren’t for the official taboo on public affection, I would give you such a smack. In a place that doesn’t show, of course. What’d you find out?”

“A little journalistic incest, it would seem. Tina Cho, the Asian correspondent with Wilkinson’s network? I think I saw her get on the bus a few minutes ago.”

“Didn’t notice,” Mulder coughed.

“Well. About five years ago, Cho and Wilkinson had a brief dalliance. Dellums from FOX was delighted to tell me. But Cho apparently wasn’t willing to stop dallying when Wilkinson did. It apparently developed into a real situation, and the next thing you know, she’s working the Hong Kong bureau. But Dellums tells me she’s been hovering around Wilkinson on the bus, and he loudly advised her to pleasure herself rather than him. All for love, or some twisted version of it.

Scully inhaled. “Then there’s Brad Klosterman, the D.C. bureau guy for the Chicago Trib. While Wilkinson was on that Chicago corruption story, he hooked up with Klosterman, who, I understand, did a couple of semesters at Colombia with Wilkinson. Well, Wilkinson also hooked up with Klosterman’s fiancé, according to the drooling federal beat gal from the New York Ledger. It caused a break-up and an altercation outside the Chicago Chophouse. Klosterman reportedly did most of the altercating?”

“Altercating?”

“It’s a word,” Scully stated frostily. “This is a wonderful group we’re traveling with. Back-biting, gossip, egos as big as, well, as big as your legendary Chinese Wildman thing. And Wilkinson appears to be working through the entire roster of the International Press Association. Drop Dead Ted had to talk to him about trying to promote global relations with one of the dancers at Bai Family Restaurant the other night. You remember her, I’m sure. The one you were leering at half the evening.”

“Hey, the only piece of ass I noticed there was the braised donkey. Tasted like zebra.”

“As for the video you requested, everybody’s standing on their journalistic principles,” Scully smirked. “Probably more like a fear of losing their exclusive and ancillary media rights. They won’t let me see squat unless I can conjure up a warrant and a letter from Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and, as you can guess, we don’t have a helluva lot of leverage over here.”

“May not matter. I think the answer might be in Piescak’s video. But I have a question for you. Yesterday, when you clumsily tried to buoy my spirits with the Yeren, did you just make that up? Was there actually a sighting in Hubei Province?”

Scully studied her partner. “Why?”

“C’mon.”

She sighed. “Yes. I saw it on one of the English language channels. A couple of civil servants and a French tourist claim to have seen one near a cornfield, but, amazingly, it disappeared, leaving no traces. Mulder, what does this have to do with anything?”

“Maybe nothing. Hey, what say we blow off today’s tour of the Forbidden City and take a little field trip? They don’t need us – Dunhill, Darrell, and Darrell are on the case.”

“I don’t know, Mulder. After yesterday, I think Ted’s already on the verge of asking the Director to assign us permanently to the Possum Waller, Mississippi, field office.”

Mulder nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah, OK. Well, we better get on the bus – I’m sure our media buds have a million questions about the paranormal and where you buy those stylishly impractical heels.”

Scully started to open her mouth, clamped it shut, chewed on her lips, and exhaled deeply. “Let’s go tell Ted.”

**

“Special Agent Fox Mulder,” the tiny man gasped in halting English as the apartment door swung open. “I could hardly believe it was true when you called. Please, please, come inside.”

The small apartment was one of hundreds within the hundreds of cloned high-rise hives clustered around the city. But Mulder suspected that beyond the non-descript furniture, the cheaply framed family photos, and the customarily ornate tea set on the side table, the home of Ji and Xia Deng was like none other in Beijing. The water-stained wall opposite a vintage console TV was plastered with a gallery of the macabre and mystical. Mulder looked into the (theoretical) eyes of a red-haired hulking Yeren, then analyzed an ink drawing of a soaring dragon similar to the soapstone carvings being hawked at the Great Wall.

A woman even smaller than Ji emerged from the kitchen with a plate of sliced starfruit, smiling and bowing. Ji spoke to her in Mandarin, and his wife’s smile blossomed into euphoria. As she busied herself with a teapot and a quartet of delicate cups, Ji Deng waved the agents to the modest yellow couch.

“You have come to the right place, Agent Mulder,” Ji enthused, perching on the edge of a straight chair. “You can ask anyone – I am Beijing’s No. 1 paranormal travel host. You wish to see haunted temples? Crop circles north of city – only ones in Northern China. I know old man near Forbidden City, cures arthritis with his hands, radios don’t work 50 feet around his shop.”

“Same old tourist traps,” Mulder sighed. “Sorry – bad joke, Mr. Deng. Actually, I wanted to ask you about the paranormal tourism industry in China. How are you doing with the current economic downturn?”

If Ji was disappointed at losing a hot prospect, it didn’t show. He shrugged as he accepted a steaming cup from Xia. “Times tough all over, that’s what American say? Of course, no sub-prime mortgage in China – mortgage always sub-prime.” He laughed. “Not as many Europeans, Americans, Australians – Olympics are over, Beijing no longer big attraction. Oddly, my business not so bad. The people who hire my service, they’re not Carnival Cruise/Disneyland-type people. Don’t want Mickey Mouse – they want to see Kanasi Huguai, Loch Ness monster in northwest province. Want to see hotel room where walls bleed. Money no object – my clients, they want the truth, what others can’t see. They want to believe.”

He stopped abruptly, remembering who was drinking tea in his tiny living room. Mulder smiled warmly and nodded at Xia’s offer of tea.

“You’ve been doing this how long, Mr. Deng?”

“Fourteen years.”

“Then you’ve seen a lot? A lot of mysterious, unexplainable things? And, I assume, a lot of things that weren’t so mysterious?”

Ji stared at Mulder and Scully, then broke into a knowing smile. “Yes, of course. People want to believe, often they will believe anything. There are many unscrupulous people who will exploit their belief. These people, they are, how would you say, a disgrace to my profession.”

Mulder reached for the computer bag he’d brought along. “Mr. Deng, can I show you something?”

**

“I guess I figured something was screwy when that rod got all up in my grill,” Mulder said, unpacking the computer once again as they settled onto the bench. Twenty feet away, pairs of Chinese men were playing ping pong al fresco as a steady progression of buses offloaded impassive workers and civil servants at a nearby stop. “I mean, the Sultan of Strange is the one guy who gets a clear look at a phenomenon that’s managed to evade human detection for centuries and airborne contact for more than a century. Mr. Deng’s adulation aside, I doubt my reputation precedes me throughout the animal kingdom. If they are animals. I support some kind of prokaryotic organism could exist in a gaseous environ–”

“Hey, Rainman. You think this is some kind of hoax?” Scully’s face darkened in anticipation. “Or do you think it’s something else?”

“Relax, Scully. I think this is garden variety — albeit fairly sophisticated — fraud. I think whoever sent that curse to the secretary was betting they’d assign, how’d the BBC put it? The FBI’s paranormal aficionado?”

“Expert on paranormal science. There’s a TV in my room, too, Mulder. You think someone engineered your presence here?”

Mulder fired up the RealPlayer. “At the risk of sounding immodest, I’m not exactly unknown in the paranormal community. Last I googled, I had 125,456 hits.”

Scully’s brow rose toward the heavens. “You googled yourself? When, last night? Why can’t you do what every other horny, deprived guy does alone in his hotel room?”

“I’m saving myself for a culture with looser mores, if you can hold out that long. Look, you’ve got the secretary of agriculture here on a state visit. Hillary Clinton was secretary of state — high profile, no doubt surrounded by an army of Secret Service. And during her visit, she was closeted with Chinese mucky mucks and grabbing photo ops in a claustrophobic urban setting. Too risky on about 50 levels. The ag secretary is second string news, covered by second string cable and protected by Dunhill and the Dunhillettes and Ted the Ferret Man. And, most importantly, he’s out on the road, touring rice paddies and dairy farms and ancient temples. Wide-open spaces, far from official Party scrutiny. It was the perfect storm. They just needed somebody like me to serve as an impartial witness. An expert witness.”

“At the risk of sounding immodest. Maybe I’m spending too much time on the press bus, Mulder, but the big ‘W’ here would seem to be why. And how, pardon my syntax.”

“While you were checking in with Skinner and chatting it up with Xia up there, I did a little reconnoitering with Mr. Deng. It seems China’s been awash in paranormal phenomena lately. In addition to our little rod party at the Wall and the Yeren sightings in Hubei, there’ve been Internet reports of strange lights appearing over Shanghai, a few oxen mutilated and their organs removed near the Three Gorges area, and that lake monster, the Kanasi Huguai Deng mentioned? Well, a farmer and his sons report it was taking a midnight swim a few weeks ago. It’s a virtual epidemic of the uncanny in China, largely unknown to the outside world thanks to the inscrutable reticence of the mother government. But its big news on the web — the discussion forums are buzzing, and every crypto-geek with a Bigfoot poster in his basement is sporting a woody the size of the legendary Tatzelwurm.”

“And we wonder where the future John Steinbecks are coming from,” Scully sighed. “What are you saying, Mulder?”

“The global economy’s in the crapper, Scully. People are staying home, visiting the Grand Canyon instead of the Coliseum, the Great Corn Palace instead of the Louvre. Companies and non-profits are teleconferencing and webinaring instead of letting their people pad the expense account in Vegas or Hong Kong.

“Ever since the Curtain’s come down, China’s become a major tourist draw. But the tourists have dwindled to a trickle, and with the recent food and toy scares, Chinese exports are off. The 800-pound gorilla has stubbed its toe.”

“Excuse me — you’ve been spending too much time on the press bus.”

“I think somebody’s decided to give a little goose to the economy by capitalizing on China’s greatest national treasure.”

“Agriculture? Textiles.”

“Mystery, Scully, mystery.” Mulder’s partner could have sworn the street din hushed as he spoke. She shook it off. “China’s long been a land of mystery, folklore, magic. Its home to several key religious traditions — Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism — and countless cultures with their own folkways. Communist control only compounded the mystery, obscured the world’s view of more than a billion people and their secrets. Now that the Bamboo Curtains been pushed aside, people come here for commerce, for trade, for colorful dinner conversation. And for the mystery. In a world full of Starbucks and Nikes and high-speed and Bono, China’s still has a few unknown corners, some far reaches for the curious and hopeful to explore. Now, if we could have a brief presentation.”

Scully was uncharacteristically speechless. She nodded dumbly, and Mulder pulled up the .mpeg Piescak had e-mailed him from the press bus. Abruptly, the agents were back at the Great Wall with the tourists and the reporters and the feds. The assembled cast shrieked and cowered and swatted at blurred phantasms.

“There,” Mulder said, pausing the .mpeg. “You see that?”

Scully peered at the screen. “See what?”

“Here,” Mulder said, minimizing the RealPlayer and clicking a second file on the desktop. It was a far clearer duplicate of the video frame he’d just displayed: The group of young Chinese students, practicing photographic target shooting with the invading swarm. Mulder had Photoshopped a series of red arrows into the .jpg. “How fast would you say those things were moving, Scully? And yet this group of kids managed to take dead aim on all of them.” He traced one of the red arrows between a bespectacled young woman and one of the rods. Scully followed another half-dozen arrows between shooter and target.

“That’s amazing,” Scully murmured. “Too amazing. The odds are astronomical against all of these people simultaneously displaying this kind of photographic reflex.”

“Unless instead of photographing the rods, they were projecting them.”

“Projecting them? Mulder?”

“Holograms, Scully. Three-dimensional, laser-projected images. I’m guessing those weren’t cameras those kids were using. They’d been rigged, probably with low-cost solid state lasers, to project images most likely based on Escamilla’s models.”

Scully squinted. “These are college-aged kids, Mulder. What are you suggesting? This was some sort of tourist campaign to boost foot traffic at the Wall? A high-tech fraternity prank?”

Mulder shook his head. “I think this is far more orchestrated than that. The lake monster, the Yeren sightings, the UFOs over Shanghai, our little encounter, all at once – this looks like it could be a nationwide conspiracy. There could be hundreds of people involved.”

“Hundreds? Are you saying this is some kind of government plot?”

“I doubt that. The idea of promoting supernatural tourism as an economic stimulus seems a little flaky for the central government, and it’s unlikely officials from a half-dozen scattered provinces could get together for this kind of collaboration. No, I think this is a private sector project, you should pardon the capitalist phraseology. And student-based – this kind of technological sophistication would require access to university facilities. And whoever’s behind this has managed to cheaply engineer holographic images that don’t lose their integrity. No diffusion of the beam; the ‘rods’ look great from all perspectives. This guy is a genius. And I’m guessing he’s based in Beijing – the special effects necessary to fake a Yeren sighting or put on a Shanghai light show wouldn’t be that tricky.”

“Kids, don’t try this at home,” Scully murmured dryly.

clip_image008

“Relatively speaking,” Mulder sighed. “I think these kids are connected through social networking – cell phones, discussion forums, whatever version of Facebook they’ve got over here. But the rods – they’re the piece de resistance, the masterstroke. I think the technology was developed here.”

Scully glanced at a middle-aged bicyclist navigating effortlessly among the small cars and sardine-can buses, PVC pipes and bottled water strapped to the rear rack. A group of teens emerged, laughing and dishing in frenetic Mandarin. “OK. So how does any of this tie into Wilkinson’s death? You think he discovered what was going on?”

“I think Wilkinson’s best investigative days are long since past, and even if he did uncover the plot, why kill him? What these kids have done, it’s hardly a capital crime, even in the People’s Republic. Hell, they’d probably give ‘em the front spot in next year’s Workers Parade for sheer initiative.” Mulder jumped as his cell phone vibrated in the heart of Beijing. “Hello?…Oh, hey, Lu. Wow, already. Yeah, we’re free – be right over.”

Mulder folded his phone thoughtfully and pocketed it, rising to his feet. “M.E. report’s in. Let’s see if maybe we can connect a few dots.”

**

Scully seemed comfortable for the first time since their arrival, surrounded by stainless steel tables and tools, test tubes, and the silent dead waiting to yield their secrets. While she was unable to understand a word uttered by the chief pathologist of the People’s Hospital, she hung on every word and looked eagerly to Superintendent Lu for translation. He frowned as he looked to the agents.

“He could find no evidence of injection or any poison in Mr. Wilkinson’s digestive system. There were no obvious signs of foul play. Dr. Jiang nonetheless found an extremely odd anomaly – the lungs, the body cavity, and the heart contained high concentrations of two gases. Nitrogen and—”

“Argon,” Mulder whispered behind him. Lu turned.

“Why, yes. May I ask how you knew this?”

Mulder blinked. “Huh? Sorry. Lu, could you ask Dr. Jiang if we could please use his computer?”

Lu made the request. Jiang nodded curtly and led the group from the morgue into his small, neat office. Mulder started around the desk, glanced at the Chinese language keyboard, and looked anxiously up at the medical examiner. Jiang silently took his seat before the PC and waited for Lu’s instructions.

“I need to look up a website,” Mulder said. “Go to http://www.koolmp3.com.”

Lu looked oddly at his guest, but fed the request to the pathologist. The pathologist looked oddly at Lu, then at Mulder. Mulder looked to Scully, who looked oddly back.

The download site appeared on the screen. “Ask him to search ‘All for Love.’”

Lu translated. The pathologist frowned, but complied. In a second, the page loaded. Mulder leaned in.

“I think I was wrong, Scully,” he explained. “Well, not exactly wrong. I just didn’t see the whole picture. But I don’t see where this fits in.”

Mulder moused over the “Play” button and double-clicked. “‘When it’s love you give/I’ll be a man of good faith/Then in love you live…’”

“Shit,” Mulder sighed. “All for Love. The Three Musketeers. I should have made the connection.”

“English, Mulder,” Scully snapped.

“It’s a play on the Three Musketeers – ‘One for all, and all for one.’ It wasn’t a solo.” He studied the song description on the website.

“Wilkinson wasn’t trying to clue me in to who killed him. He was trying to tell me how he was killed. Something happened at the Wall – Liu said he was agitated on the press bus – but Wilkinson wouldn’t tell anybody. He probably couldn’t believe it himself. Then he realized he was getting worse, and he called the one person in the group he felt could explain what had happened. Then he seized, and he pointed me toward this song. Well, not the song, but the singers.

“Wilkinson was displaying the symptoms of nitrogen poisoning, but nitrogen poisoning seems like a really strange way to murder someone. It’s neither immediate nor reliable, and if it’s detected in time, it can be quickly and fairly easily treated. So what if the nitrogen came from a natural source?”

This time, Scully’s cell buzzed. She raised a delaying finger as she flipped it open. “Scully. God. How? Scratch that. Superintendent Lu’s with us now — I’ll ask him to bring us.”

Mulder stared at his dazed partner as she worriedly ended the call. “Scully. What?”

“Superintendent,” she murmured. “Can you get us to the Olympic Village, please? The National Aquatics Center. It’s happened again.”

**

The “Water Cube,” as it has come to be called, is located on the western side of Jingguang Road, with Beijing’s expansive Olympic Green. The venue — which from the street resembles a badly de-aerated blueberry Jello mold — was, like the nearby “Bird’s Nest” stadium and Beijing’s sleek $4 billion international airport, designed to signal to the world the prosperity the 2008 Olympics was expected to bring to the troubled superpower.

The Olympics had slipped out of town like, well, like Donnell Wilkinson out of a network intern’s apartment at the break of dawn, leaving the Chinese capital with a collection of eccentric architectural pieces Mulder had dubbed “Gotham City East.” The grandeur of the Games had been replaced with thousands of international sightseers forced to run a gauntlet of peddlers hawking cheaply bedazzled trinkets, Olympic postcards, kites, and glass-encased, laser-etched 3-D renderings of the Bird’s Nest.

Now, the Olympic plaza resembled Tiananmen Square, circa 1989, pre-massacre. Dozens of Republic of China Army soldiers flanked the Olympic Green, impassively holding back tourists and gawkers under the murderous glare of peddlers cheated out of their afternoon’s profits. Tiananmen Square was unconscious shrapnel in even Young China’s psyche, and the smell of mingled fear and anger was as palpable as that of the cloying smog as Mulder, Scully, and Lu jogged toward the Cube.

That fear was mirrored — and muted — on the face of the young constable who intercepted his superior at the aquatics venue. He spoke in rapid-fire Mandarin, and Lu stopped him, nodding toward the agents.

“I am sorry,” the constable bowed slightly. “The — what the newspeople call the sky fish — they come suddenly, hundreds of them. Out of nowhere. Everyone starts screaming, and one of the, the park officers, tried to shoot at them. That make crowd panic, and we call them.” The constable glanced anxiously toward the soldiers and then, fearfully, at Lu. “The American agriculture secretary, I am afraid.”

“You acted correctly,” Lu grunted, putting the young officer at ease. “Where is he?”

“The secretary? They take him inside the Aquatic Center, the American agents. The man — his assistant — tell us not to allow the reporters inside. I don’t know…”

“You did well. The vendors are angry — you and your men should watch them. And see to the state of the tourists — it is a warm day, and there are many older people here. Make sure they receive any care they may need. Man zou.”

“It was, most likely, not the most prudent course of action, particularly with so many of your American media colleagues present,” Lu lamented as the constable fled. “But he is young, and our training is woefully deficient regarding attacks by mythical airborne creatures. I hope my superiors — and your press — will show him mercy. Shall we speak to the secretary?”

The secretary was rumpled, his sparse hair disheveled — no doubt at the protective hands of Faber and Cross. But he was chatting calmly with a Chinese policeman of obviously higher rank in the Aquatic Center press box.

“Agents, this is Commissioner General Qian of the Beijing Public Security Bureau. Commissioner, meet FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.”

The commissioner rose with a respectfully suppressed expression of bemusement. “Mr. Mulder. You are the expert on unusual phenomena?”

“That’s what they tell me,” Mulder said, dipping his head.

Qian took his hand firmly in a two-handed D.C. shake. “I trust you will find a reasonable explanation for these unorthodox events. Zhu ni zou yun. Good luck.”

“So,” Ted demanded from his corner seat, once the Beijing brass was out of earshot. He was red-faced and hoarse with restrained anger. “You got one?”

“Yeah, I think so. You got one?”

“This is hardly the time to be a fucking smartass, Mulder.”

“Ted,” the secretary sighed.

“No, sir. This is the second high-profile incident that’s occurred in two days — oh, I forgot about Donnell Wilkinson dying two feet away from J. Edgar Hoodoo here — and you’re off sightseeing with your sidekick here.”

“Hoodoo,” Mulder chuckled. “I get it. Look, Teddy — I wasn’t brought along on this Magical Mystery Tour to play bodyguard. That’s what Dunhill and the boys are for. I’m trying to get to the bottom of what’s going on here.”

“First thing we get back to the hotel, I’m calling your director–”

“First thing,” the secretary commanded quietly, “is you need apologize to Agent Scully here. She is a veteran FBI agent and a five-star forensic pathologist, and clearly no one’s sidekick. This is an unusual situation, and an uncomfortable one, but we don’t have to be abusive or high-horse, do we, now, Ted?”

Ted seemed to shrink in his overpriced suit. “No, sir. I’m sorry, Agent Scully — I let the pressure of the moment get the best of me. I meant no disrespect to you.”

Mulder smirked at “to you,” and looked with cheerfully expectation to the chief of staff. Ted nodded to the secretary and left.

“I think we’re growing on Niedemeyer,” Mulder sang.

“So,” the secretary smiled tolerantly. “Do you? Have a reasonable explanation?”

“He has an explanation,” Scully murmured.

“Thanks, Tonto,” Mulder acknowledged. He proceeded for the next 10 minutes to outline the elaborately orchestrated tourist scam he’d deduced.

“Hollywood special effects,” the secretary mumbled incredulously. “You’re saying this was all done with lasers?”

“Very sophisticated lasers — Auric Goldfinger-caliber lasers. Without Nintendo or Paris Hilton or Survivor to distract them, the Chinese have managed to develop some amazing technology — and keep it under our radar.”

“All right. Let’s say I accept this Michael Crichton scenario. Are you telling me Donnell Wilkinson’s death is totally unrelated to this…scheme?”

Mulder looked to Scully, who frowned in continued puzzlement. “Not precisely. The Chinese medical examiner told us Wilkinson’s system was saturated with nitrogen and argon. Organisms like snakes, insects, spiders, rockfish synthesize venoms from the environment around them. Nitrogen and argon are two of the most highly concentrated elements found in Earth’s atmosphere.”

“Hold on now,” the secretary breathed.

Scully’s eyes widened as she realized the implications of Mulder’s deductions from Wilkinson’s .mp3. Then she recognized Adams’ collaborators on the electronic track. “Rod Stewart. Rod. And, oh my God…”

Mulder nodded. “Sting.”

Lu had remained silent in the presence of the commissioner, but now his face darkened. “You are saying these…creatures…killed Mr. Wilkinson? One of those flying creatures at the Great Wall?”

“Sir?” It was Dunhill in the doorway. “We got a development out here. A national — one of the peddlers — and some tourist have collapsed. It looks like whatever happened to Wilkinson.”

The blood drained from the secretary’s face. “Agent Scully.”

“Yes, sir?”

“You concur with your partner about the nature of Wilkinson’s death?”

Scully swallowed. “I do.”

“Agent Dunhill, advise the Beijing authorities to treat these victims for nitrogen and argon toxicity.”

The Secret Service man glanced at Mulder and nodded. “Roger that,” he rumbled, and disappeared.

The secretary slumped back. “What a literal nightmare. I better talk to Ted.”

“I’ll find him,” Mulder said, jumping from his perch. He knew the COS couldn’t have gone far — Ted wouldn’t want the press exposure out on the plaza. He searched the corridors of the Cube until he found the young man. Lying on his side near the lobby. Mulder unholstered his cell phone, and Scully was down within three minutes, accompanied by a pair of medics already on the scene.

“But, Mulder,” Scully protested as they took the gasping aide away. “You said this was all a fraud, a scam.”

“It was,” her partner said gravely. “This is unintended consequences, coming home to roost.”

**

Mulder was unprepared for the swarm as he and Scully stepped back out into the Olympic plaza.

“Agent!” Tina Cho called, dashing improbably on her heels toward him. Mulder quickly found himself looking down the barrels of a half-dozen digital recorders and TV cameras.

“So you think this was an actual paranormal event?” Piescak shouted as he nudged between the NBC and Times reporters with his HD minicam.

“Did one of these skyfish things kill Wilkinson?” Klosterman demanded.

“You think this has something to do with global warming?”

“Is this is a government cover-up?”

“Looks like you’ve got this under control,” Scully suggested, edging past the press corps. “See you on the bus.”

**

Despite the trauma of the afternoon, dinner remained on. If anything, the trauma of the afternoon had revved the collective media into an omnivorous frenzy. Mulder decided to beg off in favor of McNuggets with whatever locally preferred dipping sauce. Scully informed him otherwise, so he broke out the Kenneth Roberts purple mini-grid dress shirt Scully had forced on him at Christmas.

“A major row meanwhile is developing in China, where Mexicans are being detained in hotels following the outbreak of swine flu at Hong Kong’s Metropark hotel attributed to a Mexican guest who had contracted the virus,” the BBC announcer related in the bedroom. “Ambassador Jorge Guajardo objected to the Chinese isolation of Mexican nationals who have exhibited no symptoms of the A-H1N1 flu. Mexico has now confirmed 19 fatalities due to the disease; China has quarantined approximately 400 persons.”

At least somebody had a worse day, Mulder mulled somewhat guiltily as he apportioned the day’s water. He thought he’d handled the media onslaught at Olympic Park pretty well before fleeing to the secretary’s bus. Ted and the other rod victims had been stabilized, thanks to Scully’s recommended course of treatment, and there’d been no reenactment of Tiananmen Square between the National Army and the Communist Brotherhood of Worthless Crap Peddlers.

Could’ve been worse.

“A far more bizarre story continues to unfold in Beijing, again involving a top-ranking U.S. Cabinet official. Chinese troops were dispatched to Olympic Park following a swarm of flying creatures reportedly identical to that which occurred yesterday at the Great Wall. Authorities have yet to identify the creatures or pinpoint their origin. Here is some video of the event, courtesy of America’s ABC television.”

Toothpaste in hand, Mulder rushed into the bedroom to view the scene he’d missed that afternoon. Mainly tourists and peddlers diving and swatting amid barely perceptible white whizzing blurs. Faber, Cross, and Dunhill shielding the secretary as they rushed him into the Cube, trailed by Ted. Mulder noted Ted stumbling and batting at the air as the group reached the Aquatic Center doors – was that where he’d been stung? If rods stung – the Beijing pathologist had found no marks on Wilkinson.

Mulder believed rods may have evolved while Earth was still a cooling cauldron of gases. As invertebrate life began to diversify and develop in the planet’s primeval oceans, one-celled organisms adapted and advanced in the clouds above, feeding, Mulder assumed, on the available elements in their biosphere – nitrogen, argon, carbon dioxide. They might not even be carbon-based – some cryptobiologists had even suggested rods represented a new form of matter.

Mulder would have tingled at the prospect of such an earthshaking discovery, if it hadn’t started buzzing the world below. Given the lack of potential predators in the atmosphere, he doubted the rods were behaving aggressively or that the nitrogen/argon toxicity was the result of a sting or bite. Which offered an even more frightening prospect: That mere contact with rods was potentially lethal.

“A member of the U.S. delegation did not deny speculation that the events in and around Beijing may be related to global climate change, and suggested that the so-called ‘skyfish’ may be implicated in the death of Donnell Wilkinson, the American news reporter who collapsed in a Beijing bar…”

Mulder’s fingers clenched, and a ribbon of toothpaste shot across the bedspread. He silenced the set and turned, painfully, to his now-ruined shirt.

And then his cell phone rang.

**

“I thought I’d handled it pretty well,” Mulder protested weakly.

“Global warming?” the ambassador demanded. They’d been introduced after Mulder was unceremoniously ushered into the secretary’s suite. “You realize China has the most coal-fired power plants in the world? You realize how delicate relations are right now, how dependent the U.S. economy is on China’s financial largesse?”

“I told them no comment.”

“You told them you couldn’t comment on whether this phenomenon was linked to ‘the planet’s race toward environmental apocalypse.’”

“Exactly. No comment.”

The ambassador looked to the secretary, who was tightening the knot in his tie. Agent Dunhill was calmly expressionless on the couch.

“And you know these sky monsters–”

“Skyfish.”

“You know these things were responsible for Wilkinson’s death?”

“That seems to be the most reasonable theory.”

“But you told the secretary the incidents at the Wall and Olympic park were staged. Some kind of light show.”

“Holographic projections.”

“So if this was some sort of activist prank or tourist scam, how was Wilkinson killed by a one of these things?” The ambassador was now speaking entirely through his teeth.

Mulder could feel Scully tense across the room, but dove in, anyway. The secretary focused intently over the next seven minutes as the agent theorized, fingers templed under his square chin. The ambassador appeared to be warming up for a stroke, but he showed no sign of aphasia or slurred speech as he turned to the ag official.

“I can have this man on the first available flight back to the States,” the diplomat stated. “No, better yet — I can try to arrange a military transport. Knowing our luck, Anderson Cooper would wind up his seatmate.”

The secretary sighed. Mulder hoped the in-flight movie wouldn’t be Sex and the City.

“Sir,” A Texas baritone broke the tension. “May not be my place, but if you want my two cents.”

“Of course,” the secretary nodded before the ambassador could devalue Agent Dunhill’s $.02.

“In my brief acquaintance with Special Agent Mulder, I’ve come to conclude that he’s a complete and utter flake,” Dunhill rumbled. “Might even go so far as to suggest a psychiatric workup would be in order.

Scully began to protest as Mulder mentally planned his onboard beverage choice. The ambassador blinked, beaming in approval.

“However,” Dunhill continued, “it’s my professional opinion that this is a completely and utterly flaky situation to which Agent Mulder’s somewhat checkered credentials are uniquely suited. I believe he may be the only member of this little hunting party equipped to deal with this squirrelly mess, and I think it would be a serious strategic error to Fed Ex him home. If you want my opinion.”

The ambassador’s smile had vanished into the stratosphere. “Thank you, but I think-”

“I have to agree with Agent Dunhill’s assessment,” the ag secretary interrupted. “I think I’d like him to stick around for at least a few more days, until we can definitively determine what’s going on here. If these — rod things — present a public health threat, I’d welcome all the input I can get. What do you think, Donald?”

The ambassador paused, mentally charting the administration hierarchy. The secretary was one of the new president’s token Republican Cabinet appointments, making him both a sticking pointing for the House and Senate leadership and a prime political asset for a chief executive working to build bridges and win public trust. The Beijing gig was pretty sweet, though Singapore would’ve been his first choice…

“I rely entirely on your discretion,” the diplomat offered diplomatically, simultaneously divesting his own liability should this whole thing blow up.

“Thanks, Donald,” the secretary smiled, rising and grasping the ambassador’s finely manicured hand. “I’ll look forward to tomorrow’s briefing.”

“Pleasure, sir. Agents.”

“He’s fun,” Mulder said as the suite door closed. Dunhill chortled sadly as the secretary retrieved his suit jacket.

“I’m running late for supper, and I promised Szabo from the Post-Intelligencer I’d give him a one-on-one on the WTO,” the Cabinet official informed his Secret Service escort. “Special Agent Mulder, happy to have you on the team. But perhaps you could find alternate dinner plans this evening? I’m sure chatting with the press guys has to be getting tiresome. And why don’t you ride with us for the rest of the visit — in case I need some seat-of-the-pants input?”

“Sounds like a plan,” Scully assented. The secretary patted Mulder on the shoulder as he left, snagging Faber in the corridor.

Mulder turned to Dunhill. “Thanks?”

The Secret Service man shook his head. “No need. Just said what I felt. See you on the bus.”

A snort escaped Scully as Dunhill departed.

“Looks like it’s just us, Sugar Puff,” Mulder murmured. “Unless you want to make use of the suite while we have the opportunity. Bumpin’ boots in a key Cabinet official’s crib — I can feel the danger.”

“I’ll get you a doggie bag,” Scully pledged, heading for the door

**

“’Environmental apocalypse?’” Cal Lightman laughed. “That’s delightful, though I assume your superiors weren’t nearly as tickled.”

“They were pretty cool about it.” Mulder snagged a fry dusted with dehydrated seaweed powder — next to the taro pie, Mickey D’s major concession to its Chinese demographic.

“Your rising inflection, combined with that cucumber-casual delivery, would suggest otherwise.” Lightman was an expert in lying — not in the sense of pathological fabrication, but in detecting it. The rumpled little Brit ran a D.C. consulting firm staffed by human polygraphs-for-hire in the hire of Fortune 500 corporations, law enforcement agencies, major league and college sports, and, occasionally, the Department of Defense. He had helped Mulder break a lunar cycle serial killer’s alibi a few years back, and the two had developed a rapport based on mutual distrust for authority and a common knack for social impropriety.

“You watch the video yet?” Mulder deflected.

“Yes, after we cleaned it up. I had to pop a half-dozen Dramamine to get through it, all that panning and zooming and cinema verite technique. You know I’m not a magician, right?”

“So it didn’t work?”

“Oh, no. You wanted to know primarily about the Asian kids with the cameras, am I right? They were definitely acting, badly. The faces were approximating exaggerated fear, but the body language was entirely too relaxed. A few even forgot to keep their game faces. It was the cameras, wasn’t it? That’s how they did the trick with the flying phantasms, right?”

“No, I appreciate it. We’ll get together when I get home — I’ll pay.”

“No you won’t,” Lightman stated as he hung up.

**

“Mr. Mulder?”

The agent jumped — he’d had the paranoid sensation of being watched since leaving the hotel — and turned from the China Agricultural University Gymnasium, the sprawling, recently constructed Olympic wrestling venue that had become the centerpiece of the Beijing campus.

Knots of students strolled across the gym plaza, and a group of casually dressed middle-aged men and women — American farmers, Mulder surmised from a scattering of seed and John Deere caps — were posing for a group shot under the Olympic logo. The man who addressed him was in his late 40s, nearly bald, and plump, wearing khakis and a lab coat.

“Dr. Xiaohan, I presume?” the agent smiled.

“I knew this would be much easier than asking you to roam from laboratory to laboratory,” Professor Yin Xiaohan explained with a chuckle. “We are now known as much for this tourist landmark as for the work we do or the international awards we have received. But athletics, they are more, ah, dynamic, than dry scholarship, eh? Come, this way, please.”

The nearby State Center for Agro-Biotechnology and Food Science also was a fairly new addition to the university — a state-of-the-art facility devoted to bringing China’s changing agriculture into the 21st Century and addressing the food safety concerns that had made the People’s Republic the unfortunate focus of world headlines over the past two years.

“You knew Dr. Yongqing at Oxford, I understand?” Xiaohan inquired as they passed a food chemistry lab where a serious young woman examined carbon molecules on a flat-screen monitor. Across the hall, a group of students were giggling over a thick computer readout.

“Meng was addicted to fish and chips, and I was his dealer,” Mulder said, omitting the molecular biologist’s primary obsession with Guinness. “I asked him to recommend the university’s top research engineer.”

“I’m flattered, though a few in my department might dispute Dr. Yongqing’s conclusion.” Xiaohan stopped at a cubicle between a lecture hall and a glass-fronted bank of fermentation tanks. “Here is my ‘office.’ You’ll have to excuse — I have been temporarily assigned to the center to help research photo-impermeable packaging. You are interested, I understand, in laser technology?”

Mulder pulled the thumb drive from his jeans pocket and extended it to the scientist. “And possibly a few of your students.”

Xiaohan frowned, but accepted the drive and inserted it into the laptop that anchored his otherwise Spartan desk. A directory popped up on the screen, and with a right mouse move, he converted file names into thumbnails — the grainy .jpgs Mulder had pulled from Piescak’s video.

“You are an FBI agent? What is it you believe these students have done?”

Mulder explained. Xiaohan grew more troubled as the agent theorized about the holographic rods, but Mulder also detected a trace of fascination and possibly even pride. “Is that possible?”

“You have heard of nanostorage?”

“Encyclopedia Brittanica on the head of a pin? Sure. General Electric’s working on holographic ‘reading’ and ‘writing.’ You’d be able to put 500 movies on a five-inch disc — I’d be able to watch the entire Police Academy, Lethal Weapon, Rush Hour, and Naughty Student Nurse series without leaving the couch.”

Xiaohan smiled indulgently. “That would be one useful application. Such a disc could store 500 gigabytes of information. An entire library of, say, agronomy or livestock production data could be contained on a single disc and accessible to the most remote village with even an outdated PC.”

“I take it this isn’t a theoretical ‘say.’ How close are you?”

The professor pondered, then sighed. “Let us theoretically say the government is encouraged by the potential licensing opportunities of such a technology. As well, of course, by the potential to exponentially raise domestic food production with a minimal expenditure in university field staffing or Extension. If I told you of our truly groundbreaking laser research, you would believe me insane. Of course, I would greatly appreciate your discretion regarding what I am telling you.”

“GE and I haven’t talked since their microwave spontaneously combusted all over my kitchen. I take it the storage capabilities of the technology would also offer some bitchin’ holographic resolution.”

“‘Bitchin’ would mean high-quality, I assume? Yes, this would provide for generation of far higher-resolution holographic images using far more portable technology. Your theory is wholly plausible. In fact…”

“In fact?”

“In fact, I have seen it in practice. In a device no larger than a consumer digital camera. You believe this is how these students created this, this, illusion? Why?”

“I could say because they’re kids. Why ask why? Just do it.”

“I have seen very little American television, though Nike is, of course, globally ubiquitous.” Xiaohan shook his head sadly. “They have accessed this laboratory’s technology to pull a juvenile college prank.”

“There’s probably much more to it than that. Maybe they wanted proof of concept in the field — the impatience of youth, you know. Or maybe it’s a case of creeping capitalism — this kind of technology would be worth a fortune on the world market, and, no offense, but China isn’t exactly known for the most stringent intellectual property standards. Or it may not even be for profit. Hackers and reverse engineers have been putting corporate source code in the public domain for years. Maybe these public displays are a prelude to a public release.”

Xiaohan paled. “That would be incredibly dangerous. They have no idea how the government would react to the theft of university technology. Especially such potentially profitable technology. You have no doubt heard of the executions related to milk contamination. Our former State Food and Drug Administration director was put to death for accepting bribes from the pharmaceutical companies. These…children…have placed themselves in great jeopardy. They must be persuaded to stop.”

Mulder’s face darkened. “I agree. But it’s gone beyond the risk to your students. They’ve put the population as a whole at risk.”

“What do you mean?”

“Here’s where you get to question my sanity. I think these rods, these skyfish, are creatures of pure instinct, living in the atmosphere for maybe millions of years. In a predator-free environment, they haven’t had to adapt advanced sensory systems. These students have created more than just nifty holograms — they’ve created decoys. They’ve unwittingly drawn the rods out of the skies.”

Concern creased Xiaohan’s brow.

“They may never have entered our space before, but the presence of other ‘rods’ may have indicated it was safe to come down from the stratosphere. And I think the real skyfish have poisoned at least four people.”

“That man? The American journalist?”

“Yeah. And three others at the Olympic Park today. I think simple contact’s enough to cause illness or death. What I’m saying is, if these kids continue to pull these ‘pranks,’ they could bring the rods permanently into the human ecosystem. So, Doctor, who’s the mastermind? Who’s the class valedictorian?”

Without hesitation, Xiaohan leaned into the monitor, scanning the thumbnails. His index finger quickly found a face.

“This one,” he stated, gravely.

**

Beijing is a half-ass model for what urban planners call “vertical development” — building up rather than out to accommodate a rapidly expanding metro population. Millions of workers, students, bureaucrats, husbands, wives go home each night to cloud-scraping hives with views the average Chicago yuppie would kill to own and digs in which the average Chicago project-dweller might feel at home.

Mei Huang lived twenty-seven floors above a noodle shop and a bike rental center about a quarter-mile from the Forbidden City. Huang owned her own: It was parked in the Spartan corridor outside her door. Mulder rapped twice. After a tick, a wary female voice inquired in Chinese.

In addition to being a physics whiz kid, Prof. Xiaohan had reported Huang proficient in English, French, and Japanese. “It’s Stephen Hawking. Don’t keep me sitting out here. Yin Xiaohan sent me.”

“A moment, please.” Mulder heard rustling and a lock disengaged. A pretty young face appeared, eyes guarded. Mei Huang was wearing jeans and an out-sized red=and-white tee with “Buckeyes” splashed across the front – she could have been any Georgetown coed. “Please come in. Would you like a Coca-Cola, some water?”

“No thanks.” Textbooks were butterflied on a wooden table before Huang’s flowered futon/couch. A bag of cucumber-flavored Lay’s was open on the futon. Mulder scanned the small apartment, spotted a digital camera on a low-lying bookshelf. He took a breath and went for the gut shot.

“I’m Special Agent Fox Mulder with the U.S. FBI.”

Huang’s eyes transformed, and her face hardened in cold calculation. “You have no legal authority here, I assume.”

“You could use a little work on your poker face, pardon me, your dou dizhou face. But you’re right – I could come back with my peeps from the Public Security Bureau. Or how about the Ministry of Public Security? I’m sure the government would be interested in knowing who’s been harassing a visiting U.S. Cabinet official and inciting public panic at two major tourist attractions. Prof. Xiaohan says you’re his top student – the one most likely to create a cryptozoological light show at the Great Wall.”

Now, the girl’s eyes widened, and a delicate hand went to her throat. But Huang remained silent.

“You’ll notice I didn’t bring the troops with me. I know you and your friends didn’t mean any harm, and somehow I suspect you don’t want the kind of heat my peeps would bring down on you. If this was the U.S., you guys would be mega-viral video heroes. Probably get your own reality show. I don’t think it would go down that way here.”

“It was an…experiment,” Huang protested.

“An experiment that killed one man and hospitalized three more,” Mulder informed her. “You ‘kids’ managed to introduce skyfish into the local biosphere.”

The girl was silent, her eyes widening. “I don’t understand – that is impossible.” She rose abruptly and walked to the window. Huang hugged herself as she pondered the enormity of Mulder’s revelation. “You are certain of this?”

clip_image010

“You have to pull the plug on this, now,” Mulder told her back. “Every time you put on your little laser show, it’s party time for the rod population.”

“Am I…?” Huang’s shoulders tensed as she peered down into the street. Mulder stood, and she hastily returned to the couch. “Am I in trouble?”

“I don’t know. You and your friends perpetrated a fairly high-profile scam. Even if they put it all together, the government may not want to admit it was hoodwinked – tricked – by a group of students. There really isn’t a lot of direct evidence linking you and the others to Donnell Wilkinson’s death – I’m not even sure anybody believes he was killed by a skyfish. If you put a halt to the whole thing now and lay low, it may die off in a few weeks.”

Huang didn’t appear comforted. She was breathing raggedly, and her face was pale in the dim lamplight. “You have not told anyone?”

Mulder shook his head. “Long as you promise me the experiment’s over.”

Huang nodded, and she stumbled, knocking a textbook from the table. The girl blinked, and a look of shock spread across her features, as if something unthinkable had dawned on her. Her lips moved as she clawed at the agent.

Mulder mobilized. “Mei, lay down – don’t waste your energy.” He fumbled his cell phone out of his pocket and punched in Scully’s programmed number.

**

“People seem to die around you,” Superintendent Lu observed as the pathologists’ assistants removed Mei Huang’s body. Mulder looked up sharply, and Scully glanced anxiously at her partner.

“Why would I–?” Mulder protested.

Lu grinned. “My apologies — I enjoy American private eye films. I believe I can say safely that you are not considered a suspect. However, the question remains: Why did you come here this evening?”

Mulder related the night’s events, including his theory about Huang’s impressively orchestrated scam and its unintended consequences. He was certain inspection of the digital “camera” they’d found next to Huang’s refrigerator would bear it out. “I didn’t see any reason to ruin these kids’ lives. I wasn’t sure how the Chinese justice system might have dealt with them.”

Lu nodded silently in unofficial confirmation of the agent’s worst fears. “So you believe Miss Huang was the victim of one of these skyfish?”

Scully shrugged. “I have to confess: I examined the body before you arrived. Like Donnell Wilkinson, there were no external signs of an injection, bite, or sting. Everything in Ms. Huang’s behavior and symptoms indicates nitrogen toxicity. Mulder? What?”

“Nothing, maybe. It just seemed to come on pretty quick — Mei’s episode, that is. Lu, you said Wilkinson had been acting wobbly from the moment he entered the bar.”

“Toxic reactions vary individually, Mulder,” Scully noted. “Maybe her exposure to the rod – to the source of the toxin – was a lot greater. She’s a petite woman – the nitrogen might have hit her system a lot more quickly. Any thoughts, Superintendent?

Lu retrieved a pen and a sheet of paper from the table, jotted a Chinese character, and handed the sheet to the agents. Mulder peered at what resembled a running stick figure trapped inside a box.

“Karma,” the policeman explained.

Day 3

1:21 a.m.

Mulder had shut off his phone after Scully arrived at Mei Huang’s apartment. The voicemail message was waiting when he reactivated it back at the hotel.

“Agent Mulder, it’s Lightman. I reviewed your rod video again, and I noticed something unusual. Someone. Call me.”

“It was something neither you nor I could see originally,” the human polygraph related minutes later. “The original Invisible Man, as it were.”

“Why is it you eccentric geniuses are all so melodramatic?” Mulder sighed.

“Sorry. The subject was beyond casual notice. Which, by the way, made it all the harder to analyze. I’ll be billing the Bureau for the lab work.”

“Fine, sure, whatever. What did you see?”

Lightman described the subject’s location. “There was an expression of complete, undistilled contempt. Resentment, cold unremitting anger etched into every feature. You need to keep this person away from the target of their animosity.”

“And who would that be?”

“Not a bloody miracle worker. Too much camera movement and no context. I had no line of vision to follow. Sorry. But there was something else odd: Our friend had a camera, as well, and was shooting into the crowd. Through a tinted window. Couldn’t have gotten much of a shot.”

Mulder pondered. “Can you ship me a vidcap?”

“Yeah, sure. We’ll grab that lunch when you return stateside, eh? Just kidding — just make sure the Bureau writes me a check, and let me know how it all comes out.”

The .jpg arrived 15 minutes later. Mulder peered at the grainy-but-sharpened capture for several minutes until he could arrive at a set of circumstances that matched the meager evidence.

After a five-minute attempted room-to-room call, Mulder unsheathed his cell phone. “Scully, you got that background/itinerary package, the one from the Ag Department?”

“Where’s yours?”

“I think on top of the TV, or maybe in the dumpster behind the apartment. Can you bring it up?”

“I just got ready for bed.”

“Great, I’ll come down.”

“Lobby. 15 minutes.”

**

“It’s not in here,” Mulder complained 25 minutes later as a group of Germans in formal wear returned from their night on the town.

Scully’s head came off the back of the buttery leather lobby chair. “What’s not?”

Her partner rudely signaled silence and plucked the house phone from a teak side table. Mulder punched in three numbers and, after a few seconds, smiled. “Hey, Agent Dunhill, whuzzup? No, I don’t need you to come down and bail me out. That’s good, though. You’ve got bios on everybody in the group, right. Yeah, um, I’ve got the tour itinerary. What I need is the L.D….Oh. The lowdown. On one person of interest in particular…. Well, I’d rather not say right this minute, but I’ve got a theory. No, no, Dunhill, c’mon. OK, I’ll be up in five.”

Mulder ended the call and glanced up at Scully’s inscrutable features.

“Shut up,” he muttered.

**

“Yo, Tina!”

The correspondent turned from the fruit bar. Up close, off-camera, Tina Cho was more Connie Chung than Julie Chen, but the Asian bureau had cranked out a lot of top-of-the-hour news over the past few years, and she eyed the man beside her with imperious annoyance.

“Mulder, right? Spooky Mulder. You going to protect our pampered asses from the skysharks?”

“Skyfish.”

“Yeah. See you on the bus – oh, that’s right. I heard you got transferred to the Big Bus. After that little Greenpeace speech outside the Olympic village, I’m not surprised. Nice chatting, but I have to make sure all our equipment’s ready for the flight…”

“So you’re feeling better, then? You stayed back on the bus at the Wall, didn’t you?”

Cho plopped a trio of lychee and some pineapple on her plate, next to a puddle of yogurt. “I had a touch of the flu – garden variety, nothing newsworthy. I knew the secretary was just going to rehash what he said outside the consulate, so I had my guy shoot a little talking heads stuff, some scenic shots. So, yeah, I took a nap on the bus rather than making sick on a Cabinet official.” Like most journalists, she clearly didn’t like exposing her weaker moments. “The damned bus driver and that kid, the translator, wouldn’t leave me alone – wanting to know if I wanted some tea, some aspirin. Even after those sky-things started dive-bombing everybody. I’m pretty big in this market.”

“Celebrity worship. Real bitch, huh?”

“How do you handle it?” Cho smirked and pivoted away from the buffet.

“I think she’s hot for you, Mulder,” Piescak murmured, reaching around the agent for some cantaloupe. “After you asked for that video, I took another look myself, and I realized Tina was the only member of the legit press corps unaccounted for at the Wall. That mean something? Isn’t that some kind of detective story rule? The least-likely suspect, the one who couldn’t have done it? I know she did Wilkinson back in the day. She do him in the permanent sense?”

“Quit blegging, Dude,” Mulder said. “And what you heard? DNQ/DNP.”

“GFN, ‘Dude,’” the blogger jeered, retreating to the congee bar.

Dunhill was serenely sipping his coffee where Mulder had left Scully. “Sundance went to the lobby. Your ADIC, Skinner, called.”

Mulder reluctantly lowered his plate to the table. “No more jargon, please.”

“So what’d you find out from Miss Personality?”

“About what I suspected.”

Dunhill nodded, mustache rustling as he sipped. The waitress hovered, and he extended his cup. “Xie, xie, honey. You never did really tell me how you suspected what you suspected. I’ve had my caffeine; we got a few minutes. Tell me a story, Agent.”

Mulder looked around – most of the media had grazed early in preparation for the day’s flight from Beijing to Shanghai. “OK. Dr. Xiaohan – Mei Huang’s prof – told me she’d studied in the States for a year on an exchange program with Berkeley. But when she came to the door last night, she was wearing a Buckeyes jersey.”

“Ohio State,” Dunhill supplied, automatically. Then, an eyebrow rose. “And the secretary’s alma mater.”

“More than that. When he was lieutenant governor, he served as vice chair of the OSU board of trustees. But where did Mei get an OSU shirt?”

“Just what’s whirlin’ around in that skullcase of yours, Agent?” Dunhill murmured. “You aren’t suggesting some sorta impropriety on the part of the secretary?”

“Not of that sort.” Mulder pushed his bacon around the plate. “Who usually wore your Aggies jersey when you weren’t?”

“A Longhorn doesn’t tell with whom he shares his jersey,” the Texas State alumnus informed Mulder with great dignity. “I’m sure an Aggie would have it all over campus before his first class of the day. But your point’s taken. You know somebody in our happy little family who matriculated in the great state of Ohio?”

“Yup. Further, he was matriculating about the same time the secretary was on the board.”

“Shit,” Dunhill cursed, his expression unchanged. “What kind of blue norther we got brewing here?”

Mulder stirred some cane sugar into his coffee and took a prefatory gulp. “He was at OSU as part of a program to help China improve sustainable crop productivity, in the ag engineering department. This was back in 2003. I talked to the head of the International Students Program, and she remembered him as a real wunderkind. He was working in precision farming – you know, global positioning, geographical information systems, high-tech stuff. Well, he and another student – an agronomy major – got together on a project my source said was supposed to revolutionize ‘green’ farming.

“Then, everything went south. Our guy had discovered the American Way of Wildlife on campus, and one night, he wound up in the wrong car with the wrong people, and they all wound up in a ditch. The others were expelled, the driver did a few months on a DUI, and our guy was made a special case. Nine-eleven was still pretty fresh in people’s minds, and even though he was an avowed socialist atheist, some Chinese Muslims had been sent to Guantanamo a year before. Some campus boneheads got worked up, and his student visa was revoked. He came back to Beijing, where he’s a student at the ag college. That’s where he met Mei. They shared a common passion, besides hot noodles and C-Rap. Lasers.”

“Our blue norther just became a turd floater.”

“Indubitably. Talk was, it was the board of trustees put the bug in the INS’ ear. The drunk probably helped – the Chinese government was too embarrassed to protest his deportation. But our boy knew he’d been blackballed. Worse yet, framed.”

“Framed.”

“One of the other kids in that car was a little more high-profile than the other lunkheads. She was actually our guy’s date that night – they’d been seeing each other for a couple of months, and it had been getting serious, according to my source. Tracy Jermaine.”

“Jermaine, Jermaine.” Dunhill’s Texas tan turned a little less tan. “Senator Jacob Jermaine.”

“From the great state of Ohio. Senior senator and long-time political ally and golfing buddy of the then-lieutenant governor. My source at the university said there was some talk at the time that the future secretary had pulled some strings for his old pal.”

Dunhill planted his elbows on the table and templed his fingers. “That’s what this is all about? Vengeance? Because the secretary got him shipped back home?”

“Word is, until his visa was revoked, he was headed for great things. His name was even going to appear on some papers his mentor planned to publish. He could have been big. In the U.S. Here, his work will be absorbed by Mother China. I suspect he sees the secretary as the cause of his destruction – the man who destroyed his dreams of greater things. And his dream of being with Tracy Jermaine. I screwed up on Wilkinson’s dying message.”

“That song? Rod Stewart?”

Mulder nodded. “Wilkinson must have seen something. He was a jerk, but he still had the reporter’s cynical eye. Somehow, he could tell the whole thing with the rods was a scam, and that our guy was involved. After he started getting sick, he confronted him, and I guess our guy broke down and told him what happened. Wilkinson was trying to tell me why our man was after the secretary. ‘All for Love.’”

Dunhill shook his head. “But why would he do that? Confess to Wilkinson?”

“Remorse. Wilkinson was a hot dog to the end. When the ‘rods’ attacked and Faber and Cross took down the secretary, he and his cameraman ran toward them. That’s when he got caught in the crosshairs. While his friends unwittingly created a distraction, our guy was gunning for the secretary.”

“Gunning?”

“He’s still gunning. But now he’s upped the ante.”

It took a moment. “You telling me that girl…?”

Mulder nodded. “Mei Huang was murdered. I think right in front of my eyes. I’m pretty sure our guy tailed me from the hotel — it was probably a shock to him when I showed up on Mei’s doorstep.

“I think she was an innocent dupe, just like the kids he talked her into recruiting for their cross-country Para-palooza. Mei Huang was brilliant and arrogant, but he was light years ahead of her in technological expertise. He was supposed to get the secretary the first time around, at the Wall. When he didn’t, he convinced Mei to stage a second ‘encounter’ at the Olympic Village. That didn’t work, either, and he must’ve suspected I was getting closer to the truth. He didn’t count on me finding Mei so quickly.

“He’d followed me to the university and then to Mei’s apartment. He couldn’t very well follow me up, so he waited on the street below. Then Mei made a fatal mistake — she went to the window. Right into his sights. I think it was an impulsive act on his act.”

“Sights? Thought Agent Scully said there wasn’t a mark on the girl. And she lived, what, 25 floors up.”

“Twenty-seven floors,” Mulder corrected.

“That’s some Buffalo Bill-style marksmanship,” Dunhill grumbled. “That beats JFK’s magic bullet..”

“It was science, not magic,” Mulder said. “A ‘bullet’ that doesn’t leave a trace. And I think he’s cocked and loaded — today’s his last chance.”

“Last chance?” Then Dunhill inhaled sharply, throwing his napkin to the table and pushing back. “Shit. We better haul ass downstairs.”

They shared an elevator down with an older Chinese couple who politely ignored their existence. “You know, you were alone last night in a strange part of town,” the Secret Service Agent suddenly murmured. “Why didn’t he just kill you when you came out of the girl’s building instead of whatever hocus-pocus you think he did?”

Mulder smiled silently.

**

The 2008 Olympics had left perhaps their greatest lasting mark on Beijing Capital International Airport: Nearly $3.5 billion U.S. went into building the world’s second largest air terminal. Terminal 3, known as “T3,” can hold London Heathrow Airport’s five terminals combined, with room to spare for a half-dozen rugby matches besides.

The press corps pressed toward the ag secretary as he climbed from the bus before Terminal 3E. The Ohioan distributed two-handed shakes and embraces among the Ag Trade Office staffers who’d accompanied him on the final ride, providing the final photo ops prior to boarding.

“Mr. Secretary,” called one cameraman standing apart from the media delegation. The official glanced up, then beamed.

“Absolutely,” he said warmly. “I appreciate all your help, especially dealing with this motley crew.”

The press corps chortled weakly in unison as the young man lined up his shot.

“Why don’t I take one of both of you?”

The photographer looked up, a grin pasted on his face, eyes wary and, Mulder observed, fearful.

“Great idea, Agent,” the secretary nodded, enthusiastically.

“That’s OK,” the cameraman stammered. “I don’t wish to impose…”

“Nonsense,” the secretary chuckled, waving him over. Mulder stepped toward the photographer, who held his digital camera tight to his chest. The agent halted.

“No problem,” Mulder smiled.

Relieved, the young man held his camera at semi-arms length as the ag secretary tugged his tie and straightened his jacket. His finger caressed the shutter button, and a loud “click” shattered the morning air.

“Hand me that camera, son,” Agent Dunhill murmured gently, applying the slightest pressure to the Sig 357 he had pressed against the man’s temple. “Right now, son.”

The finger tightened on the button. The secretary stood, transfixed, in horror.

“It wasn’t him,” Mulder told the “shooter,” calmly. “He didn’t have you deported.”

“Oh, my God,” the secretary gasped. “I had no idea it was you.”

“Of course not,” Chiu spat, knuckles white on the camera. “You were just helping your friend. You destroyed my life, you took her away from me.”

The secretary stepped closer; Faber and Cross moved ahead of him. “I told him no — I asked Jake to call off the trustees. I was the only dissenting vote.”

“It’s true, Chiu,” Mulder said. “I talked to the senator a few hours ago. He regrets what he did. He regrets pressuring the board, letting his emotions and his fear take over. Jermaine told me he was persuaded to go after your visa by one of the faculty. You know Oscar Theobald?”

Chiu’s eyes widened in confusion even as he followed the secretary with his lens. “Professor Theobald?”

“He quit the university a year ago to take a research position at Growtex. Talk is Theobald’s about to shake up the ag industry, based, I’m guessing, on your work.”

Chiu’s finger twitched. “He did this? To me? To steal my ideas? He did not think I would find out?”

Mulder shrugged sadly. “Theobald knew that as soon as they shipped you home, there’d be little you could do. China isn’t exactly revered for its intellectual property protections, and, besides, who’d listen to a disgruntled, deported ex-student? All he had to do was bide his time, perfect the technology, and take it private.”

“I have the notes,” Chiu panted, voice rising. He laughed bitterly. “I am holding the proof that it was my idea.”

“I’ll make sure they know,” the secretary stated, “I’ll ensure the Department of Justice investigates Theobald, Growtex. They won’t want to be involved in a public scandal. Just give Agent Dunhill the camera, son.”

“I can’t,” Chiu breathed, as if a terrible revelation had just come to him. “You will take it — the technology. It will be worth millions in America. China needs it — it means my country’s survival.”

“And now it’s evidence, Chiu,” Mulder pointed out. “You used this marvelous technology to kill two people. For revenge against the one man who tried to treat you justly.”

Tears filled Chiu’s eyes. “I don’t know what to do.” He flipped the camera, pushed the lens into his chest. “This is all I can do.”

Chiu’s finger tightened. Dunhill tensed. Then a shot rang out — the collective press corps cowered, and Chiu’s camera clattered to the ground. Dunhill seized the young man’s right arm and wrestled him to the concrete.

Mulder looked beyond the secretary to Scully, who lowered her sidearm. She holstered the weapon she had fired into the air, sighing as she regarded the now-cuffed killer.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Chiu whispered, seemingly to himself.

**

“Ironically, it all had to do with agriculture,” Mulder told the secretary back on the bus. Scully and Dunhill had taken the flank, and Ted stood unsteadily in the aisle. The press waited restless and resentful on the curb. “Mr. Secretary, what would you say China’s greatest challenge is today?”

“Feeding 1.3 billion people,” the secretary stated without hesitation. “And doing it with outmoded farming structures, a level of mechanization we haven’t seen since the ‘50s, inadequate and contaminated water supplies, outdated coal-fired power generation, and depleted soils. God, I sound like one of my press releases.”

“Depleted soils, bad water, and a need to feed,” Mulder recapped. “I think Chiu was on the verge of solving all three challenges, not just for China, but possibly for the entire developing world. What’s the one absolutely crucial ingredient to growing any crop?”

“Light,” Scully supplied after a beat. “Photosynthesis.”

“And what if you could supply all the nutrients, all the minerals, all the essentials needed to double or triple crop yields without loading depleted soils or contaminated streams with more potential pollutants? What if you could deliver nutrients directly into the plant?”

“Lasers,” his partner murmured. “Concentrated light. Mulder, are you trying to tell us…”

“That Chiu’s found a way to user lasers as a sort of carrier beam. Basically, laser beams are transmitted through a gain medium, such as carbon dioxide or a helium/neon blend, to amplify them, to give the user a greater range or wavelength. In fact, helium/neon lasers are used in barcode scanners. I’ll bet when he was at OSU, Chiu discovered a way to transport gases — matter — along with laser energy.”

“English, Mulder,” Ted sighed. “God’s sake, please.”

“What if you could bombard corn, wheat, rice, with concentrated light that’s been loaded with nitrogen — feed the fertilizer directly into the plant rather than leaving a buttload of nitrogen in the soil to be washed into the Yangtze River and eventually obliterate the commercial fish industry? China’s not only under pressure to clean up its water — with the global climate issue heating up, the U.S. and other countries could expect the Chinese to start limiting nitrogen fertilizer use. Chiu wasn’t bragging when he suggested his technology could save Chinese agriculture — shit, it could save China.”

“My God,” the secretary murmured. Ted continued to look peeved.

“It also makes a nifty little Bond weapon,” Mulder shifted. “While Chiu’s friends at the Wall and the Olympic Village unwittingly created a combination diversion/smokescreen with their garden-variety holographic camera projectors while Chiu tried to shoot the secretary with a nitrogen/argon payload from the bus. A friend of mine enhanced a photo of him ‘taking pictures’ through the tinted bus window. I thought it was strange that in a crisis involving his clients, he’d stay on the bus, casually building his scrapbook. Who in a million years would suspect a gas-shooting, tissue-penetrating invisible ray gun? The rods made a more ‘logical’ explanation, under the circumstances.

“But Donnell Wilkinson stepped between Chiu and you and took an ultimately lethal dose of poisonous gas. I think Chiu realized he’d hit an innocent target, and he waited until the Olympic Park tour to try again. Don Knotts was a better shot, though, as Teddy found out.”

“Don’t call me…oh, shit, go on,” Ted sighed.

“If Mei hadn’t been such an arrogant showoff, making sure I got a clear look at a ‘rod’ at the Wall, I probably wouldn’t have been suspicious enough to realize this was all a scam. Mei was as frightened by the ‘skyfish’ poisonings as I was when I thought she’d lured the real thing out of the sky. When I went to see her, Chiu must’ve thought she’d somehow give him away, lead us to the real technological wonder here. He wasn’t just scared for his personal freedom — you saw how paranoid he was about his invention being stolen or misused. Now, there’s your irony, Alanis Morrisette.

“Lasers have amazing range and precision. When Mei stepped in front of that window, he impulsively fired a concentrated hotshot of nitro into her. She paused while she was talking to me, probably wondering why her ‘boyfriend’ was taking her photo from 27 stories below.”

Mulder turned to Dunhill. “You asked me why Chiu didn’t just kill me when I came downstairs. That’s what tipped me, really. I wondered that, too. Then I realized, and I knew I’d found our killer.”

Scully smiled mirthlessly. “Chiu couldn’t kill you. He liked you.”

The bus was silent. Then the group’s meditations were broken by a sharp rap at the bus door below the secretary. Dunhill motioned him back and stepped down. After a second, he pulled the lever that released the louvered bus doors.

A pair of uniformed Asians pushed past, followed by Superintendent Lu. The cop’s expression was neutral, but his eyes were troubled.

“Mr. Secretary, sir,” the cop began. “You have an important piece of evidence in a serious criminal manner. We would ask you please to return it as a courtesy between our governments.”

“You want the camera,” Mulder said flatly. Lu shrugged, eyes shifting toward the stern sentries behind him. The agent then understood: Lu had responded to the call regarding the secretary, and had asked to accompany the paramilitary provincial police to soften what could otherwise become a diplomatic showdown. “Lu, you need to realize what you have here.”

“Mr. Chiu has explained,” Lu mumbled. “The evidence, please? It is now the property of the People’s Republic.”

Mulder looked to Dunhill, who consulted the secretary. The visiting official nodded wearily, and Dunhill extended the modified camera. One of the uniforms snatched it, and he and his partner stiffly debarked.

Mulder grabbed Lu’s arm. “What’ll happen to Chiu?”

Lu paused, then looked directly into Mulder’s face. “I suspect some form of accommodation will be made with our young friend. His knowledge should be far more valuable than the time and embarrassment expended in prosecuting him for a seemingly untraceable, inexplicable crime.” The policeman turned, bowed sharply to the secretary. “I wish you safe travels — you will enjoy Shanghai.”

Lu followed his provincial counterparts off the bus, leaving silence behind.

Day 7

6:54 p.m.

Mulder regretfully daubed his final McNugget in barbecue sauce and slowly relished its chemically enhanced succulence.

“Neither the Chinese nor U.S. governments have released further details of the bizarre faceoff between the ag secretary and Beijing tour guide Chiu Ping at Beijing’s international airport.” The BBC anchor tonight looked like the bubbly blonde on the Orbit gum commercials, but with far less sparkle. “A U.S. Secret Service spokesman reported and Chinese authorities confirmed that Ping posed an imminent threat to the American official, although nearly a dozen journalists at the scene have sworn the young man was armed only with what appeared to be a digital camera.”

Mulder masticated his nugget as the now-ubiquitous video once again unfolded — Mulder and the secretary attempting to reason with Chiu, Chiu turning what appeared to be a mere digital camera on himself, Dunhill wrestling him to the ground. The secretary’s media entourage had crystallized into one amorphous sullen child, grumbling about justice for their fallen brother Donnell Wilkinson and informational freedoms that were largely moot even in the New China. The central government couldn’t release the full truth, especially if it hoped someday to capitalize on Chiu’s hypergreen technology, and the U.S. couldn’t afford to risk China’s goodwill — and financial support — by revealing its secrets.

Skinner had called with the only stateside thanks Mulder and Scully were likely to receive in an episode more publicly bewildering than embarrassing. The AD also informed Mulder the Bureau and Interpol had tracked the original threat to the secretary to a black market e-mail account purchased by Mei Huang. Mei had been convinced she’d been pulling the strings all along, and Mulder saluted her memory with his last morsel of battered chicken.

The tour had continued uneventfully through Shanghai and Guangzhou, and the delegation had arrived that morning in Hong Kong in a sort of anticlimactic funk. Their role in the Beijing affair concluded, the secretary gratefully freed Mulder and Scully to enjoy the sleek city on the bay.

“…The U.S.’ Securities Exchange Commission has launched an investigation into the financial conduct of U.S.-based multinational Growtex, a marketer of agricultural chemicals and technologies with extensive business holdings across the EU, Australia, and Brazil. The U.S. Justice Department meanwhile is investigating charges of intellectual property rights infringement by the former Katsuhiru subsidiary…”

Their balls firmly entangled in a vice of multi-agency enforcement, Growtex’ execs would gladly hand over Oscar Theobald’s learned and larcenous head on a pike. Chiu had killed two people, and was planning a third murder, but Theobald deserved at least some reprisal for the tragic events his greed had set in motion.

Mulder jumped as his cellphone began to rattle and dance on the bedside table. He rolled over the bedspread, fumbled it open, and accepted his partner’s call.

“You eaten yet?”

“No,” Mulder lied, betraying himself by sucking a shred of poultry from his molars.

“Yeah. Well, why don’t you have a drink or two with me while I eat, then? A day of touring shipping containers and pig innards at the wet market somewhat surprisingly has made me peckish.”

“Thought you were going to the ballet with the gang.”

“Nah — I’m tired of being molested for details about the case and insights into the FBI’s top ghostbuster. I suspect you’ll be getting a call from Larry King when we get back to D.C.”

“Ze media, zose vultures,” Mulder lamented. “Ven will they ever leef me alone?”

“Yeah. Anyway. They’re not supposed to back for three or four hours, so I was thinking perhaps you deserve some kind of reward for catching Chiu and saving the secretary’s life.”

“Pizza Hut?”

“Or perhaps you don’t. However, I do have a certain amount of stored tension, so as long as you don’t do your Schwarzenegger voice again…”

Mulder stumbled over his wrappers, spilling his empty Coke cup. “I can be down in ten minutes. And it’s Marlene Dietrich.”

“Make it a half-hour. I’m higher maintenance.”

“You’re telling me–” Mulder began before she disconnected. He shrugged and flopped back onto the bed.

“…Greenpeace and the International Biodiversity Fund joined today to demand a United Nations investigation into what the groups allege to be a Chinese government cover up of the existence of rods, or skyfish, as the mysterious flying creatures reportedly witnessed in and around Beijing this week are commonly called. Wildlife groups have dismissed government claims the sightings were the product of an elaborate hoax designed to generate tourism, arguing China must protect the newly discovered species by immediately signing onto international global climate accords.

“And in perhaps the most bizarre development of a particularly unusual week on the subcontinent, a party of French hikers touring China’s Hubei Province discovered the corpse of what they described as a large humanoid creature covered in what they described as bristly red hair. Chinese authorities quickly confiscated the decomposing body, identifying it as an orangutan reported missing months ago from a Beijing zoo, but one of the hikers managed to photograph the corpse before it could be removed, using their cellular phone.”

Mulder sat up, peering at the low-res image that now filled the screen. It quickly vanished, quickly replaced with a jazzy advert for Virgin Airlines, and the agent reached eagerly for his laptop.

He failed to hear the phone rattle quite insistently 55 minutes later

*end

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