Verto Cuspis

verto cuspis

TITLE: Verto Cupsis
AUTHOR: Starfleetofficer1
CATEGORY: Casefile, MSR, MythArc
RATING: PG-13
SPOILERS: Seasons 1-7, MythArc
DISCLAIMER: Two weeks exclusive with VS17. No copyright infringement intended.
SUMMARY: A trip to the woods with Matt Scully’s seventh-grade class reveals the
existence of a mysterious, supposedly benevolent, race of aliens.


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SCHOOL VAN

BACK ROAD, VIRGINIA

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 24th, 2010

18.30

“And then Cole’s like, ‘Jack, that would be suicide,’ and Jack’s like, ‘I have to do this!’ and he runs out and takes out a bunch of terrorists—BAM, BAM, BAM—and then he gets shot right here in the chest—twice! And he’s like, on the ground and he pulls out his 9 mil and he shoots one more terrorist, then one sprays a bunch into his chest—CHUGGA CHUGGA CHUGGA—and then he’s out! He’s down! And then you can see his head in the terrorist’s sights and then Rene comes up from behind and takes out that terrorist, and then she’s running and she’s like, ‘Oh crap, Jack!’”

Three boys sat in rapt attention as twelve-year-old Jeff Seigel, who was allowed to watch 24, recounted a recent episode he saw.

Meanwhile, three other boys nearby were talking about something much less innocent. “No way, that’s not even possible.”

“I swear, I saw it. THIS big.”

“That’s stupid, Tim, there’s no way that’s even possible.”

“If you were 7 feet tall, sure it would be!”

“What, can you prove it?”

“No—”

“Then there’s no way!”

A few other boys were telling jokes, and just as they cried in unison, “THAT’S WHAT SHE SAID!!” Mulder popped another Eccedrin. Twelve seventh-grade boys in a van for two hours really did a number on one’s head.

Matt Scully sat directly behind Mulder, talking quietly with two other boys. Suddenly, the twelve-year-old asked, “Uncle Mulder?”

“Yeah, what’s up?” Mulder asked, turning around to face the boy.

“Scott and Trevor and I have a question for you.”

“Don’t ask him!” Scott ordered, and gave Matt a ‘what the hell?’ look.

“No, he might know,” Trevor argued.

“What’s up, guys?”

Matt turned to Mulder. “Okay, if you had, say, this friend, who wanted to know how to uh…obtain…a certain product—”

“How much does porn cost?” Scott blurted out.

A few heads nearby turned, waiting for Mulder to answer. Mulder looked like he had been caught in his underwear, and he looked between the boys before catching Scully’s glance from the driver’s seat diagonally in front of him. She was now all ears, her eyebrow raised in the rear view mirror in that scrutinizing manner that told Mulder he was about to be dissected like a bug.

“You don’t need to watch that crap, guys,” Mulder said nonchalantly. “The key to getting a girlfriend is to be understanding, and kind, and uh…” he glanced in Scully’s direction, “Know when you’re being watched,” he added in a low voice.

The kids snickered, and Scully rolled her eyes. When she had turned back to the road, Mulder turned around again and spoke to the kids. “Seriously, guys, it’s a fairly normal thing…you just don’t want to get anything trashy. You want to get something classy. Do some research. Don’t spend hours on it—real women are a lot more rewarding.”

The boys’ eyes widened, and Matt’s intrigued expression wasn’t lost on Mulder. This was one of those ‘d’oh’ moments when he was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t. These kids were twelve, for God’s sake… “Of course, you want to wait until you’re both significantly older and more responsible…” he continued, realizing that he was digging himself further and further into a hole. Why did I volunteer for this?

“Look,” he said, and the kids stared at him in rapt attention, hoping to get some more ‘tips’. “You really should talk to your dads about this. But the biggest thing to remember is that everything you do, even things you do now, will have real-life consequences that follow. Does that make sense?”

Scott and Trevor nodded, but Matt looked slightly uncomfortable. Mulder realized what he had said. Matt didn’t have a dad to ask. But he couldn’t exactly take the kid aside in a van filled with hyperactive seventh-graders. He resolved to have a ‘talk’ with him later, when they were alone.

About fifteen minutes later, Mulder stood up and yelled, “Can I have everyone’s attention, please!”

It took a moment, but the van fell silent.

“We’re almost there, guys. Pack up all your electronics—everything, your cell phones, your PSP’s, your iPods, your iPhones, your laptops, your DVD players, and make sure they’re labeled. You should have already put your names on them. Then please pass them to the front. They’ll be stored on the van until the camping trip is over. You’ll get to use them on the ride back.”

A series of groans erupted from the boys who were in the middle of a level on a game, but most of the boys complied readily, excited to go camping. Mulder walked from the back of the van to the front with a large WalMart bag, collecting every little electronic the boys had. “What about my testing meter, I can keep that, right?” Joel asked. Joel was diabetic.

“Of course you can keep that,” Mulder answered the boy. “Still, make sure your name’s on it.”

“Can I keep my cell phone, then, ‘cause I’m allergic to boredom,” one obnoxious boy called out, and the boys around him started laughing, mimicking his question.

He gave the boy an annoyed look. “How ‘bout you put up the tent for your group, Peter,” he said, and held out the bag for him to drop his electronics into. “That oughta keep you occupied.”

A few minutes later the van pulled off the road and entered a dirt path. They traveled about a mile until they reached the clearing to which they were assigned.

“How far away are we from the girls?” one boy asked as he stood up.

“Are there any sasquatches in these woods?”

“What about vampires?”

“Are there any caves we can go explore?”

“How far away are we from the girls?”

“Okay, everyone!” Mulder called, and the van fell silent again. “We’re here. I want to get one thing out of the way before we get out of the van. Most of you know that Agent Scully and I are FBI agents. I want to make it clear that as far as I know, there are no vampires, sasquatches, ghosts, or serial killers in these woods. I’m making a group announcement because I don’t want to get the same question twelve times. Okay?”

The boys nodded, seemingly disappointed.

“But if there were a serial killer or someone who wanted to harm you, we’re fully capable of protecting you. What we ask is that you use the buddy system to make our jobs easier. If you plan to go anywhere, anywhere at all, even if it’s still in our sights, take a buddy with you. That way if you happen to trip and hurt yourself, your buddy can run back and get help. Does that make sense?”

They nodded again, anxious to get off the van.

“Finally, we want to know about it if you go anywhere out of our sights, for any reason. Even to take a leak. And no one is to go out looking for the other campsite—the girls are doing just fine on their own without you guys bothering them. They’re too far away, anyway, you’d probably just get lost. And that would really tick me off. Okay, grab your bags, find a buddy, and let’s go camping. It’s four to a tent, guys. And if I catch anyone with any electronics, I’ll take it away and make you clean up the dishes after dinner tonight and tomorrow night.”

The kids grabbed their bags from the overhead racks and followed Mulder out of the van. They streamed into the campsite and in a flurry of chatter, began choosing their buddies and putting their tents up.

Mulder stretched his bicep, doing the exercises the physical therapist had prescribed. “Doing okay?” Scully asked as she got off the van, carrying both her bag and Mulder’s.

“Still a little sore,” Mulder admitted. He massaged his muscle, which was prone to knotting after a large shard of glass from his Humvee windshield was embedded in it over the summer. “Long car rides don’t help.” But to prove to her that he was okay, he took his bag from her.

She changed the subject. “So really, Mulder, what kind of history do these woods have? Mothmen, mutant bugs, talking trees, what are we looking at, here?”

Mulder looked fairly disappointed as he said, “Actually, these are the most boring woods in America. Not a single soul has gone missing from the trails in fifty years, and the last person to get lost in this area was a ten-year-old girl who escaped from a mental institution in 1960. There have been no paranormal sightings in 150 years, and the last sighting was written in an eight-year-old’s diary and was almost certainly falsified. And as far as crime goes, twenty years ago, one escaped convict stabbed another escaped convict about ten miles from here, but was caught just a day later.”

Scully raised an eyebrow. “Are you telling me you couldn’t find one ghost story?”

He shook his head. “If we had gone about twenty miles north, maybe.”

“Well, that’s just unacceptable,” she said, and Mulder smirked. “You’re going to have to make something up.”

“Scully, I’m insulted! To suggest that I could falsify an encounter with an otherworldly being—”

“I’m not suggesting, Mulder, I’m ordering. We need something to keep these kids occupied tonight. And no one tells a ghost story better than Spooky.” She grinned and began to walk away, but then turned and said quietly, “If you manage to get them to bed early, I might have to pay a visit to your tent.”

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CAMPSITE VAUGHAN

NEAR SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, VIRGINIA

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 24th, 2010

2100

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“—And I as hold this kid’s leg’s down, the walls suddenly begin to bleed yellow. Yellow goo is running down the walls, and the kid starts to sweat yellow. His teeth look like they’ve rotted right there before my eyes, and as the sweat pours down his face, he screams an inhuman scream. He’s squirming and writhing, and the priests are chanting in a language I don’t know, and then one of them yells at me, “Don’t let it look you in the eye! Don’t let it look you in the eye!” So I look away, and the kid continues to kick, and it’s all I can do to hold his legs down. He’s got the strength of a full-grown man.” Mulder paused, and looked at the kids in front of him. They were all staring in rapt attention. He continued, his voice quiet now, “And then the priests stopped chanting, and the boy stopped squirming. I looked at the walls—they were no longer yellow. The kid was still sweating, but he was calm, sleeping. It was done. As the priests left the room, one of them turned to me and said, “It saw you. It knows you now.””

He sat back, and caught Scully’s eye. She was surprised he had told that story. Although considered declassified after all these years, he had never actually talked about it. They had discussed the fact that demons seemed to follow them around after that case. But after their discovery in the Kingsbury Academy case of the very simple solution to demon presences—faith of any sort—they hadn’t had a problem with them since. Mulder hadn’t even brought up demons for months. His capture and torture in the Middle East had weighed much heavier on his mind. Now to share his first ‘demon’ experience with a bunch of twelve-year-olds over a campfire…it was surprising to her, to say the least.

The boys were silent for a few moments, before Peter, the annoying kid, asked, “Is that a true story?”

“You guys asked for a ghost story, and I figured a demon story was close enough. It’s up to you to believe what you want to believe,” he told them cryptically, and some of the boys looked genuinely afraid, while others looked at each other skeptically. “Now we have time for one more story before it’s time to go to bed. What do you want to hear next?”

There was a pause, and then Joel asked, “Can you tell us about what it was like to be a POW?”

The question caught Mulder off guard. Matt stiffened slightly, and Mulder saw Scully’s expression. She was silently asking him, ‘do you want me to intervene?’ He shifted his position uncomfortably on the log he was sitting on, and looked at the boys waiting for his reply. Only Peter and the boy sitting next to him failed to display a sort of reverence and respect. Trevor, Matt’s closest friend, even glanced at Matt to see if he was okay. The national news coverage of Mulder’s capture and extensive torture, as well as his rescue, had made his name known to every household in America for most of July and August. Although the latest political news had taken over in early September, Matt’s peers hadn’t forgotten so easily. It was hard not to pay attention when your friend’s uncle was captured by terrorists, as the cover story remained.

“It’s no picnic,” Mulder finally said, his voice quiet. The boys were silent and still. Scully watched him carefully. “It’s not a TV show…not a movie.” He looked at the twelve-year-olds in front of him, their faces so innocent and young. He didn’t want to scar the poor kids. “I mostly just thought about staying alive for my family,” he told them. “Makes you realize how much you should appreciate countries like this one,” he concluded. “Makes you realize that the bad guys are out there, and that we have something worth protecting.”

None of the boys, not even Peter, made any comments about that statement.

It was Scully who finally spoke. “I think it’s about time for bed. You’re welcome to stay up and talk, but I want it quiet by 11, okay? Agent Mulder and I will be getting you guys up at 6 am, sharp. We’ve got a big day tomorrow—we’ll make breakfast as soon as you’re up and we’ll set out for the hike at 8 am. If we want to hike the whole trail and get back before dinner time, we’ll have to leave then and no later. I suggest you get your science notebooks ready tonight, and pack any medication you might need to take during the day so you don’t have to bother with that tomorrow morning. Alright?” The boys nodded. “Okay, move out.”

Mulder couldn’t help but notice that she sounded very much like Ahab’s daughter when she addressed these kids. The typical chatter didn’t start until the kids had walked back to their tents. Only Matt stayed behind. He had stood up from his log, but then he joined Mulder at about the same time Scully did. “I’m sorry Joel brought that up,” he said to Mulder.

Mulder wrapped his arm around the boy and have him a friendly squeeze. “It’s alright, Matty,” he said quietly. “I know he didn’t mean anything by it.” He patted the boy, and said, “Go ‘head and get into your tent.”

Matt nodded. “Good night,” he said.

“Night,” Mulder and Scully said in unison. When the kids were in their tents and they could hear the chatter that indicated they weren’t listening, Scully turned to her partner and rubbed his back lovingly. He could feel her hands move over and around the burn scars that were still raised and red, but no longer painful.

“They’re really gonna make us sleep in separate tents, huh?” Mulder changed the subject.

“Unfortunately,” Scully responded, and looked at the fire.

“We could push them together like they did in the ‘50s.”

Scully laughed at the joke. “So what do you want to do tonight?”

“I already told you what I want to do tonight,” Mulder said with a mischievous grin.

She rolled her eyes. “We’re here with twelve seventh-graders, Mulder.”

“Bigger the risk, bigger the reward,” he said jokingly, and she shook her head. “Okay, fine, how about we finish off the marshmallows in the opened bag?”

“Sounds like a good start,” she accepted, still smiling. He got up and brought the bag over to them, along with two of the sticks in the pile they had collected before dinner. They both stuck the marshmallows on the end of their sticks and began roasting.

Mulder glanced over at his partner and noticed that she was still smiling. “You look pretty happy for someone who declared they’d never enjoy the woods again.”

“I didn’t—”

“Multiple times, I might add,” he interrupted her.

“I’m just happy to be here with you,” she said, and he slipped his arm around her.

“I think we oughta come to the ‘most boring woods in America’ more often,” he stated, and she leaned her head against his shoulder.

“You got it, G-man.”

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CAMPSITE VAUGHAN

NEAR SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, VIRGINIA

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 24th, 2010

2350

Mulder wasn’t even close to asleep. After his return to America in July, he found that he was only able to rest with Scully next to him. And with her several feet away in another one-person tent, he was unable to come within a light-year of sleep.

He laid in his sleeping bag, hands folded behind his head, staring at the criss-cross structure of the tent rods. He heard some of the kids whispering to each other after 11 pm, but they had stopped a little while ago. There was some shuffling and he heard a tent unzip, but he figured one of the kids was just taking a leak and would return to the tent soon.

His mind drifted to that unfortunate place it so often did when he couldn’t sleep—to memories he wished he could erase. He still frequently saw the faces of the civilians he failed to save from the Bari Trasadi attack. He sometimes saw the map of the terrorist strongholds that his captors had forced him to stare at for what Scully told him was a full twenty-four hours. Sometimes he even felt sore where the muscles had healed after he was hung by his wrists and ankles for nearly two days.

More tent shuffling interrupted his thoughts, thankfully. He figured the kid was back, so he closed his eyes in yet another effort to doze off, but then he heard footsteps. His eyes shot open, and his hand went for his gun. Someone knelt in front of his tent and unzipped it, and Mulder extended his gun instantaneously. He was soon staring at the face of a very scared Tim.

“Aaah!” Tim screamed, stumbling back and falling on his butt. “Don’t shoot me!”

“Shh!” Mulder said, and lowered his gun. “Why didn’t you tell me it was you?” he whispered.

“Well, who else would it be?!” The twelve-year-old asked, failing to whisper back. People were stirring now, awoken by the rather loud conversation.

“What’s wrong?” Mulder demanded.

“Peter and Joel are gone from our tent. We heard them getting up but we thought they’d come back. At least I did. I don’t know what Ben thought. But now we’re worried ‘cause it’s been thirty minutes and they might’ve gotten eaten by a bear or something, and so I came to get you. Probably should’ve tried Agent Scully’s tent first,” the boy added the last in a lower tone.

Mulder rolled his eyes and struggled to get out of his sleeping bag and out of the small, one-person tent. He clambered to his knees and then his feet, slipping his hiking boots on and tucking the laces into the boot. He indicated that Tim should follow him, and waved Ben over from his tent as well. “Scully,” he whispered, and Scully stirred and unzipped her tent. “We’ve got a situation.”

It was clear she had been sleeping, and she rubbed her eyes before her gaze fell to Mulder’s gun. Seeing it, she grabbed her own. “What’s going on?” She whispered.

“Joel and Peter are gone. They’ve been gone for thirty minutes. I need to go find them—can you stay here and watch the kids? Make sure no one else leaves?”

Scully nodded, and climbed out of her tent. “Did they say where they were going?” She questioned Tim and Ben.

It was clear the two were scared. They were now being questioned by two federal agents with guns, and their friends had been gone for a half hour. It didn’t help that they had fallen asleep with a story about a demon. “Well, Peter was talking about maybe going out to look for the girls, to play a trick on them,” Ben admitted.

“But Peter talks a lot,” Tim said. “And Joel definitely didn’t want to go.”

“But Peter was saying how they wouldn’t need to find the girls, they could just put Blair Witch Project stuff in the woods to scare them when they go on their hike tomorrow,” Ben continued.

“Did Joel and Peter give any indication of where they were going when they left your tent?” Scully asked.

The boys shook their heads.

“Why did you let them leave?” Scully asked them, as if they were complete idiots.

Tim suddenly looked very worried. “We’re not gonna get in trouble, are we?”

“Just stay here—”

“What’s going on?” Matt interrupted Mulder. Scott, Trevor, and Jeff were behind him. Their entire tent was now up, and everyone else seemed to be shuffling around.

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Mulder rolled his eyes. “Great,” he said, no longer whispering.

“Okay, everyone, can I have your attention, please?” Scully called, seeing that everyone was up anyway. The last tent unzipped, and four boys stuck their heads out. “It’s come to our attention that Peter and Joel have decided to leave without permission. We need to know if any of you know of their whereabouts. It’s very important.”

The boys were silent.

“Well, in that case, Agent Mulder is going to go look for them. Everyone else, try to go back to sleep. We still have a hike ahead of us tomorrow and you should all take pleasure in the fact that Joel and Peter are going to be cleaning up after every meal till Sunday morning.”

Some of the boys snickered, their somewhat fearful expressions turning into ones of schadenfreude.

Matt and Trevor still stood outside their tents, though, along with Ben and Tim. “We want to go with you, Uncle Mulder,” Matt told him, and Trevor nodded. “Us too,” Ben added, and Tim said, “It’s our fault, we should go look for them.”

“No, you should all go back to sleep,” Mulder told them sternly. “The last thing I need is a lawsuit from one of your parents because you tripped on something in the dark.”

The boys, disappointed, turned and started back toward their tents. Unexpectedly, Scully said, “Matt, hang on a minute.” Matt turned around and Mulder shot Scully a confused look. “Mulder, it isn’t safe for you to go walking around the woods alone. And Matt’s got some first aid training…at the very least, he could use the safety whistle and call for help.”

“Scully, this isn’t a good idea. I can handle looking for two twelve-year-old boys myself, and what if Matt—”

“I’ll be fine, Uncle Mulder. And Aunt Dana’s right—it’s not safe for anyone to go out in the woods by themselves at night. It’s just not a good idea. If you tripped over a root and twisted your ankle, how would you get back?”

Mulder gave him a dissatisfied look. “You’re just looking for adventure, Matt, and we both know it.”

Matt frowned. “Well, maybe, but—”

Scully placed her hand on Matt’s shoulder. “Matt, I want you to listen to me. Peter and Joel probably made a poor decision and went exploring, and then got lost. That’s probably what happened, so you should keep that in mind. I want you to stay with Uncle Mulder and I want you to be in charge of the first aid gear, snacks and water, in case you two get lost as well. Do you understand? You’ve got a responsibility.”

Matt’s expression immediately switched to ‘duty’ mode and he nodded. “I’ll make sure we don’t get lost. I’ll even grab my compass.”

He turned and ran back to his tent, and Mulder gave her a sideways glance.

“Mulder, face it, it’s a bad idea for anyone to go into the woods alone, Matt has some minimal survival training, and there’s no way Tara would sue us for endangering him.”

He sighed. “I know, I just don’t feel comfortable taking him out there if something really did happen to Joel and Peter.”

“That’s no fair, why does Matt get to go?” Scott whined loud enough for everyone to hear.

“Well, that’s obvious,” Ben said. “Of course his uncle would pick him instead of us.”

“That’s enough, guys,” Scully said. “Back to sleep. I don’t want to hear any talking after ten minutes. I’m timing it.”

Mulder had thrown some granola bars and the first aid kit into a day pack. He grabbed his holster and belt and when he was properly dressed and ready to go, Scully brought two water bottles over. “Be careful. If there is an angry bear out there—”

“Stand still, wait till it gets close, and shoot it between the eyes. Got it, Dana Boone.”

Scully rolled her eyes and put the water bottles in the day pack, and then Matt picked it up and slung it over his shoulder. He grabbed the other strap as well and glanced at Mulder’s gun. “Do I get a weapon, too? Like, not a gun but maybe a sharp stick?”

“No,” Mulder answered curtly, and gave Scully a quick kiss before heading out into the woods, Matt at his heels.

“Maybe a rock?”

“No,” Mulder answered again.

“How about a…”

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INTO THE WOODS

NEAR SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, VIRGINIA

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 25th, 2010

0010

Mulder had a strange feeling in his gut. It was the same feeling he had while walking through the woods with Scully on their first case. It was the same feeling he had when they had investigated the gender-bending alien in New England. As he walked through the woods, he couldn’t help but think that these kids’ disappearance was more serious than two pre-teens wanting to play Blair Witch Project.

“Do you think they’re okay?” Matt’s voice sliced through his thoughts.

“I hope they’re okay,” Mulder answered. He didn’t really want to speculate at this point. The fact that the kids hadn’t returned could point to anything from young boys losing track of time to a paranormal explanation.

Matt didn’t speak for a moment. “Peter’s got a big mouth, but he’s not a really bad kid. He just gets a little carried away sometimes.”

“Yeah, it’s common for kids your age. You’re pretty mature compared to your friends, Matt.”

“I am?”

“Definitely,” Mulder stated. His mind momentarily went back to their conversation in the van. “And sometimes, when we’re growing up, we want to try new things—it’s perfectly normal.”

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“Yeah, I know. We just shouldn’t try drugs or alcohol because it could mess up our brain cells. I get that.”

“That’s why you’re more mature than your peers,” Mulder told him, and matched Matt’s step so they could walk side-by-side on the trail. “You make decisions based on the consequences that they might come with.”

“Sometimes it can be hard to know what the consequences are, though,” Matt said wisely.

“Yes, you’re right,” Mulder answered, surprised at how quickly this boy was growing up. He remembered just two years ago, taking little Matty trick-or-treating. Just two years had transformed that little boy into a young man.

“Like if you eat Mexican food you never know how much you’re gonna fart.”

Well, not quite a young man. Mulder chuckled. Then he turned slightly more serious. “Or if your friends are watching porn, you don’t necessarily know if it’s bad or good.”

Matt was quiet.

“A famous judge said, when trying to figure out what is pornography and what isn’t, ‘You know it when you see it.’ That also goes for what’s good and what’s not—if it’s demeaning to women, if it has any kids in it at all, if it looks like one person isn’t having a good time…that’s not good. Also, it’s not good if you’re watching it all the time. If you can’t think about girls without thinking about pornography, that’s not good. If it doesn’t make you feel good, then you shouldn’t watch it.”

Matt nodded, absorbing the information.

“And the most important thing, Matt, is to remember that you’re going to do just fine in your first relationship without having watched porn.”

“Well, everyone else knows stuff,” Matt said after a moment. “They know all this stuff…and I don’t.”

“They’re mostly making it up, you know,” Mulder told him with a small smile. “They’re talking a big game, like Peter—they’re just trying to get attention. And it’s working.” He glanced at his younger companion. “You’re going to do just fine on your own, Matt. You don’t need to worry about what the other boys think, because they already think very highly of you. And if you take a stand when you see them doing something wrong—anything wrong—then even if they don’t tell you, their opinion of you will skyrocket.”

“Really? Usually when you tattle they think you’re an idiot.”

“I’m not talking about tattling. I’m talking about some of the things that you do. When that other kid, what’s his name, had his history book stolen right before the exam—”

“Jacob. Yeah, I lent mine to him and we studied together.”

“That’s one good example. You’re someone they look up to, because you know what’s right. This is the same—if you think it’s wrong, if it doesn’t feel right in your heart, then take a stand. They’ll respect you for it, even if they make fun of you. It’s just a show.”

“How do you know all this stuff?” Matt asked.

Mulder laughed. “I was a kid once, you know.” He paused. “I had a pet Tyrannosaurus, my mother’s name was Eve.”

Matt burst out into laughter. They continued walking for the next few minutes, before Mulder started to notice some oddities around them. “Matt, you recognize that?”

Matt stopped and looked at what Mulder was pointing to with his flashlight. “What is that?” Matt asked.

“Have you seen the Blair Witch Project?”

“No,” Matt admitted. “My mom wouldn’t let me, even though it’s free on OnDemand.”

“Well, I think Peter and Joel have, because that’s the same person-shaped twig contraption they had in the movie. I’m pretty sure they’ve been here. Point your flashlight there for a minute.” Mulder pulled out his cell phone and snapped a picture.

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“I thought you left that in the van,” Matt said.

“Chaperone’s privilege. C’mon, let’s keep moving. With any luck, they’ll be up here, fallen asleep with exhaustion. Wanna carry Peter?”

Matt rolled his eyes. “I hope you’re joking.”

“Don’t worry, I am,” Mulder said with a smile. They spotted another twig contraption not too far ahead on the trail, and Mulder suddenly felt apprehensive. He couldn’t explain it—this should have made him feel more relaxed. They were probably going to find the kids soon, so why would he—

“Uncle Mulder, look! What is that?!” Matt yelled, pointing his flashlight off to the side of the trail. There was a patch of red and teal, and what looked like a boot coming out of the brush.

“Be careful, Matt,” Mulder held Matt back. He didn’t like the look of this. He drew his gun, and pointed his flashlight around. There didn’t seem to be anyone there. “Okay, we’re gonna go in together, slowly.” Matt nodded anxiously. Mulder started to move, and they covered about ten feet before Matt tripped and fell right next to the boot. When he did, he let out a blood-curdling, terrified scream and scrambled up, falling backwards into Mulder.

Mulder held him steady with both arms and said, “Shh, shh, you’re okay,” as his eyes fell on what Matt had seen. There in the brush were two partially-decomposed bodies, maggots eating away at their flesh. A sight that would terrify most adults, let alone a twelve-year-old.

Mulder couldn’t spot any probable cause of death, which was most likely a good thing. If there was a hungry bear out here, there wouldn’t be anything left of the bodies. If there was an angry gunman, there would most likely be a bullet hole. He wondered if this was what had scared Peter and Joel further into the woods.

Matt couldn’t bear to look back at the bodies. He sniffed, trying not to cry. “What happened to them?!”

“I’m not sure,” Mulder admitted. “From the way they’re dressed, they look like hikers…they may have gotten lost and starved.” That was highly unlikely, he knew. They weren’t that far from the main road, let alone the campsite. These people were only about a mile away from a possible connection to civilization when they collapsed here. No missing persons reports had been filed for the past fifty years in these parts…something very odd was going on here.

He pulled his cell phone and snapped a quick picture. “Okay, Matt, we should turn back.”

“What? Why?! We can’t leave Peter and Joel out here when there could be some kind of killer bear or terrorist or something!”

“I’m not willing to take any chances here. If these hikers were hurt by something, it could potentially also hurt us. There’s only two of us and we’ve got one gun between us.”

“There’s only two of them and they’ve got no gun between them!” Matt argued.

Mulder gave it some thought. Matt was right—there were two young boys out there who had no survival training, and whatever killed the hikers could get to them too. If they hadn’t already run too far into the woods to find their way back, which is what Mulder figured a normal twelve-year-old boy would do after seeing two gruesome dead bodies. Modern ‘Lost Person’ psychology stated that children between eight and fifteen would run if scared, instead of staying put. This made them much harder to find, and put them at the most risk of starvation when lost in the wilderness. Younger children, by contrast, typically either didn’t know they were lost or were too scared to move, and were found faster.

Mulder pulled out his cell phone to call Scully, but predictably there was no signal. He looked at his watch. “Okay, Matt, here’s the plan. We’re going to walk around this area in a circle, and then head back if we can’t find them. If we’re at that point, we’re going to need help finding them anyway.”

“We can get everyone out here—all of us,” Matt suggested.

“No,” Mulder shook his head. “Professional help. If we can’t find them, we’ll head back to camp, get in the van, and drive to the ranger station six miles away. We’ll get a helicopter out here and we’ll spot them. They’re going to get found. Okay?”

Matt looked down, and nodded.

“You stand here. You don’t have to look if you don’t want to. I need to examine the bodies and see if I can spot any evidence. Okay?”

“I guess.”

“I need the latex gloves out of the first aid kit.”

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A few moments later, Mulder began inspecting the bodies. Matt stole a glance now and then, sheer curiosity getting the better of him. Mulder continued to concentrate on the details, hoping to spot some evidence as to what killed these people. They had been there a few days, but not very long. Their backpacks were filled with non-perishable food. Mulder took pictures with his iPhone and then took the food, just in case. It seemed wrong, but his survival instinct was kicking in and his gut told him they might need it. He took the unopened water bottles from the female hiker’s pack, as well.

He couldn’t find any marks or damage to the bodies, which was in part due to the advanced decomposition and in part due to the fact that he wasn’t a forensic pathologist. He really wished he had Scully here.

In the male body’s cargo pocket, he was surprised to find a badge. This man was an officer with the Shady Grove Police Department, clearly off-duty. But if he was carrying his badge he was definitely carrying…aha. Mulder found the small .380 backup side-arm in a shoulder harness underneath the man’s windbreaker. He checked it out quickly before Matt could see it. It looked like it had been fired several times. He took a picture and then pocketed it. He couldn’t leave a weapon at the scene with two twelve-year-olds lost in the woods.

He then found a gunshot wound on the man’s body. It looked like he had been hit with a .380 slug. Did he shoot himself? Mulder thought. The injury wasn’t in the right place to kill him, though. It looked like he had just barely been shot. It was almost a graze.

He continued looking through their possessions and found nothing remarkable at first. But then suddenly, he spotted it. Illuminated by his flashlight and just under the skin on the male hiker’s ankle was a tiny metal…something. He took a picture and then picked it up. Looking closer, Mulder’s stomach twisted. A computer chip. Shit, he thought, and then changed his investigative approach completely. He took off the female hiker’s boot and located another chip just under her skin. Oh, hell no, he thought. Not with Matt here…it can’t be them.

Mulder began looking for all the normal signs of alien abduction. He rolled up their clothes, but didn’t undress them any further than taking the boots and socks off. He looked in their eye sockets, brushing maggots away to do so, but could find no more chips.

“What’s taking so long?” Matt asked, still turned the other way.

“I’m just uh…checking out some evidence here. Documenting it with my phone. It’ll only be another few minutes.”

He inverted his latex gloves around the chips and tied them to secure the blood and bacteria inside. Then he snapped a picture of the male hiker’s rotted half-sandwich and took it out of its Ziploc bag, placing the latex gloves inside instead. He zipped it up and carried it over to Matt. “Okay, sport, let’s take off. Hand me your bag.”

Matt did so, and shined his flashlight at what Mulder was placing inside. “What is that?”

“The latex gloves,” Mulder answered.

“Where’d you get the Ziploc?”

“From them,” the agent admitted. “It’s sealed, though. No worries.”

Matt looked unsure. “Why do we need to keep the gloves?”

“Because if we left them here, they could blow away. As it is, they contain evidence I collected off the bodies.”

“Are you going to investigate the deaths?” the twelve-year-old asked as they headed back to the trail.

“Maybe, but it’ll probably go to local authorities,” Mulder lied.

Matt was silent for a few moments, but then he asked, “Uncle Mulder, do you think Peter and Joel are dead?”

“No,” Mulder said definitely. “I don’t think they are. You saw those twig people they made? They clearly set out here to scare the girls for their hike, but then they stumbled on the bodies and they probably got scared. My guess is that they’re just a little deeper into the woods. If we make a circle around this site and keep talking, they’ll probably hear us and realize we’re here to help.”

Matt nodded, but still looked apprehensive.

Mulder put an arm around his shoulders comfortingly, and said, “Don’t worry, Matt. I’m not gonna let anything happen to us. Do you trust me?”

“Yeah, I do,” Matt said immediately.

“Then let’s go find your friends.”

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CAMPSITE VAUGHAN

NEAR SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, VIRGINIA

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 25th, 2010

0200

They had been gone too long, Scully thought. The boys were only gone a half hour…how was it taking this long to find them? If they had gone off the trail, maybe…

About a half hour ago, Trevor had quietly come over to her tent and told her he couldn’t sleep. He was a good kid, a great friend to Matt and was clearly worried about him. She and Trevor had spent the last half hour whispering back and forth about random things, and Scully discovered that the boy wanted to be a doctor when he grew up. So now she was sharing career advice with the twelve-year-old, telling him about medical school and interning for a hospital, and residency. She figured she’d either keep his mind off of Matt or put him to sleep.

She checked her watch and pulled out her cell phone. No service. Of course not.

“Do you think they’ll be back soon?” Trevor asked quietly.

“I hope they are. If not, I’m gonna have to get you guys into the van and drive to the ranger station,” she said, and glanced at the spot where Mulder and Matt had disappeared into the woods.

A while ago, they had heard a faint shriek. They couldn’t tell if it was an animal or not, and they hadn’t heard anything since. Scully had no indication that anything was wrong, and the safety whistle hadn’t been blown, so she didn’t think it was necessary to go to the ranger station then. But considering that Mulder and Matt still hadn’t returned, she was ready to set a time limit on how long they had before she went after them.

“If we had two search parties, we might find Peter and Joel faster. And Joel doesn’t have his insulin.”

Scully froze. She had that ‘oh shit’ look on her face that told Trevor they were in trouble. She looked at her watch. Four hours till his next shot. Certainly they’ll find him before then?

“Did Agent Mulder forget to pack the insulin?” Trevor asked.

She pursed her lips. “No, Trevor, I forgot to pack it for him. Joel’s next shot is in four hours…they’ll definitely find him before then. They couldn’t have gotten that far.”

Trevor looked a little worried.

He was a very expressive kid, and Scully realized that he seemed to get distressed easily. “Don’t worry, Trevor,” she said, trying to comfort him. “The worst that can possibly happen is that in an hour, if Agent Mulder and Matt aren’t back, we head to the ranger station. We’ll be there in a few minutes and they’ll have a helicopter in the air in under an hour, and we’ll definitely find them.”

“I guess. Are you sure we shouldn’t have two search parties?”

She smiled. “I’m sure for now. But you know what? I think I’ve thought of something you can do.” She turned around and crawled further into her small tent, rummaged through her daypack, and produced a paper map of the trails. She handed the map to Trevor. “Why don’t we work on plotting all the paths they could have taken, so the rangers can find them faster?”

“Okay,” Trevor agreed with a nod, glad to be doing something productive.

Scully and he got to work.

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INTO THE WOODS

NEAR SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, VIRGINIA

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 25th, 2010

0230

“So Frohike turns to me and says, ‘What starship?’”

Matt burst out laughing. “Did he really?”

“Yeah,” Mulder said with a smile. “Now keep in mind this was during the Sci-Fi Friday marathon.”

“What’s Sci-Fi Friday?”

“It was around a while ago, in the early 2000s—they’d have Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, and Battlestar Galactica back to back from 8 to 11.”

“That must have been awesome.”

“It was a great way to spend Friday, before your Aunt Dana and I moved in together,” Mulder said with a smirk. “Then it paled in comparison.”

“I can’t imagine ever living with a girl full-time.”

“You live with two!” Mulder exclaimed with a laugh.

“I mean like a girl my age.”

“They’ll get better,” he promised. “Much better, trust me.” He glanced at Matt. “Any man can take out his own garbage. It takes a real man to take out garbage for two.”

Matt laughed. “Have you seen the Dodge commercial?”

“Which one, the Superbowl commercial?” Mulder asked, and Matt nodded. Then with his eidetic memory, Mulder recalled the entire commercial and recited it in monotone. “‘I will get up and walk the dog at 6:30 am.’ ‘I will eat some fruit as part of my breakfast.’”

Matt cut in, in imperfect monotone interrupted by giggling. “‘I will shave. I will clean the sink after I shave.’”

“‘I will be at work by 8 am. I will sit through two hour meetings.’ ‘I will say yes when you want me to say yes.’”

“‘I will be quiet when you don’t want to hear me say no,’” Matt said, and then continued laughing.

“‘I will take your call. I will listen to your opinion of my friends. I will listen to your friends’ opinions of my friends.’” Mulder continued, never breaking the dull-faced expression that kept Matt laughing. “‘I will be civil to your mother. I will put the seat down. I will separate the recycling.’”

“‘I will carry your lip balm,’” Matt barely got out.

“‘I will watch your vampire TV shows with you.’ ‘I will take my socks off before getting into bed. I will put my underwear in the basket. And because I do this…”

“I will drive the car I want to drive!” They exclaimed in unison, and then they both laughed.

“MAN’S…LAST…STAND!” Mulder said in a dramatic voice close to Matt’s ear. The twelve-year-old was nearly on the ground with laughter. Mulder never thought the commercial was that funny, but it just mattered that Matt was happy. And in part, the agent knew that Matt needed some male bonding time, and he was the closest thing to a father that the boy had.

When the laughter died down, Mulder said, “You know, Matt, despite all those things women make you do, I wouldn’t be here without your Aunt Dana. Or your Grandma Maggie, or your mom.”

“Yeah, I know,” Matt said.

Mulder chuckled, and hit Matt playfully. “Hey, at least you could pretend to think I could handle life on my own.”

“What’s the point?” Matt asked between snickers, and Mulder hit him with the back of his hand again. The agent was about to come up with a retort when Matt stopped, and shined his flashlight into the woods. “Hey, what’s that?”

“What?” Mulder asked.

“That light. Do you see it?”

Mulder squinted. “Move your flashlight,” he instructed, and when Matt put his flashlight down, Mulder saw a small halo of light coming from the distant part of the woods.

“It’s off the trail,” the boy commented.

“Yeah,” Mulder agreed. “Probably a cabin or something. It’s possible they could have heard your friends, and it’s in the direction we’re supposed to be going anyway. Let’s lay down a trail behind us, though, just in case we get lost and can’t find our way back to the trail.”

Matt agreed with a nod, and started picking up sticks and brush around him.

“No, no, Matt, we need something we can distinguish as ours. If you lay sticks down, it’ll just look like everything else out here.”

“You mean something like…rocks?”

“Open up that first aid kit.”

Matt complied, and handed it to Mulder. Unexpectedly to Matt, his uncle pulled out a tube of face makeup.

“Lipstick!?”

“Not lipstick—it’s face paint in a tube. It’s great for marking a trail on trees, and it’s waterproof. Plus all the guy trees like Red Dazzle.” Matt smirked as Mulder handed him the first aid kit and made a red X on the closest tree to the trail.

“How do you know all this stuff about survival?” Matt asked as they made their way toward the light.

“Well, the FBI trains you on survival skills when you first join. The rest is all experience.”

“You and Aunt Dana have built up a lot of experience,” Matt said, and Mulder caught the awe in his voice. There was no doubt in his mind—a bit of hero worship was going on here.

“You can say that again.”

“I want to learn this stuff. I think it’s really cool.”

“You’ll think it’s even cooler when it saves your life,” his uncle told him. He marked another red X on a tree. “If you’re really interested in learning, you should join Scouts.”

“I wanted to, but Mom says I have enough on my plate already,” Matt complained.

“Well, your grades are improving since you started the coaching, so maybe she’ll re-evaluate.”

“I think I might want to do what you do.”

“What’s that? Be an FBI agent?”

“Yeah, and investigate all this weird paranormal stuff,” Matt said.

“Not an easy job,” Mulder said. He didn’t want to discourage Matt from following wherever his dreams took him, but he also didn’t want to see the kid get hurt. Mulder had lost everyone, and Scully’s family wasn’t exactly untouched. The thought of Matt within ten miles of Strughold’s grasp made him want to pack the kid in bubble-wrap.

“I like challenges.”

Mulder smiled. “Whatever you end up doing, I’m sure you’ll do it well.”

The light was getting larger, but it wasn’t getting any clearer. Mulder expected to see an outline of a cabin or something, but there was nothing. Just this very bright light surrounded by haziness. With the thought of alien activity on his mind, he began to think that following this light perhaps wasn’t a good idea.

“Hey, Matt…maybe we should—”

Mulder was cut off by the ear-piercing screech of a pre-pubescent boy, followed by another high-pitched voice exclaiming, “HOLY SHIT! HELP!!!”

He grabbed Matt’s hand and ran with the boy, following the sound of what had to be Peter and Joel. It was coming from the light. “Matt, when we get there, I want you to stay behind me and do whatever I say—do you understand?” Mulder asked urgently.

“Okay,” Matt answered, his voice fearful.

“Blow the safety whistle—we’re probably gonna need help.”

“It’s in my bag!” Matt exclaimed. “We have to stop running!”

“Then blow it when we get there, but stay out of sight,” Mulder ordered.

Matt tripped on a root, but Mulder held onto him and he stumbled back into a run. They were almost there. One of the boys was still screaming at the top of his lungs.

They clambered over some brush and whacked tree branches out of their way, running as quickly as they could toward the light. When they finally arrived, they squinted to see anything in the brilliance. Mulder held Matt back with his hand as he tried to make out what it was that was in front of him, and see if he could spot Peter or Joel.

It was a tube of light, a sort of cylinder that emanated intense brilliance. About twenty feet long and five feet in diameter, it occupied a mini-clearing in the forest and was floating in mid-air.

“What the hell?” Matt wondered aloud, and Mulder pulled his gun.

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“Peter?! Joel?!” He called. “If you can hear me, answer!”

“Agent Mulder!” Peter cried, and scrambled up from some unknown location behind the object. He ran around the clearing and met Mulder at a full sprint, nearly running into the agent. The twelve-year-old had tears streaming down his cheeks. “It took him, it took Joel! He’s inside there—we have to get him out!”

Mulder looked from the boy to the object, and couldn’t spot any entrances. “How? How’d it take him? Explain to me what happened,” he demanded.

“We…we were in the woods, and…and, we saw this light, and…God, what’s gonna happen to Joel?!”

Matt put his hand on his peer’s arm. “Calm down, Peter. If you want to help him, tell my uncle what happened.”

“I…I…we went up to the light ‘cause we thought we could ask who it was how to get back, and, it was just this thing…we didn’t know what the hell it was, and…and then Joel said we should go back but then it started makin’ this noise, like this whirring sound, like a washing machine, and then this light came out of it, like a beam…and then Joel walked right up to it, like…he was in the light but he was just walking right up to it, and I tried to stop him, I did, I promise, but then he walked right into it. Just…like it wasn’t there, and then he disappeared into it, and he was gone. He was just gone! And I…I panicked, he’s gone, he’s not here…Agent Mulder, what are we gonna do?!”

“It’s okay, Peter,” Mulder said, and was prepared to grip the boy if he started to go down. He was hyperventilating, his face was pale, and his eyes were dilated. He was clearly terrified, and the last thing he needed was a collapsed kid. “Go sit down next to that tree. Matt, help him and then blow the safety whistle. I need to see if there’s an entrance to this thing. You understand?”

Matt nodded, his expression worried. He gripped Peter’s arm and started to lead him over to the tree. Peter was mumbling about how he had lost Joel, and how he was hungry, and that he didn’t feel right. Mulder began walking around the glowing object. He had gotten to the back side just as Matt blew the safety whistle. It was loud enough to wake the dead, which was a good thing in their predicament.

Mulder couldn’t spot a door at all. His options weren’t looking good…he had a diabetic kid who was stuck inside a glowing contraption without any obvious means of entry, he had about three hours to get the kid his shot, he calculated, and he had another kid who was near passed out with anxiety. They were off the trail and had stopped marking their path early on because of the screams they heard. If this glowing thing stopped glowing, he guessed that the search parties wouldn’t find them for at least a half hour, with the ground they had to cover.

He walked back over to Matt and Peter. “How’re you doing, Peter?” he asked, and squatted down to get a look at the boy.

“I feel funny…” Peter said.

“I checked his pulse—it’s pretty fast,” Matt said. “I gave him some water. I think that should help.”

“Give him a granola bar, too,” Mulder told him. “We blew the safety whistle—hopefully someone will be here soon.”

“How are we gonna get Joel out of that thing? Do we know whose it is? What is it, anyway?”

Mulder shook his head. He suspected it was some kind of alien vessel, and was probably connected to the two dead bodies. “I’m not sure,” he told Matt. “Listen, I—”

He was interrupted when the vessel suddenly started whirring again. He stood up, and extended his side-arm. “If anyone in there can hear me, I’m with the FBI!” He yelled for what it was worth. “If you are harboring a hostage, you’re committing a Federal offense.”

The cylinder whirred even louder, and started rising up out of the ground.

Mulder felt a flutter of panic. He couldn’t let this thing take off with Joel inside. He couldn’t stand there and allow a child to be abducted. But if Joel had walked into the cylinder, what would happen if his bullet went straight through and hit the boy?

He had to make a decision. The cylinder was taking off. He took a deep breath, steadied his grip, and fired.

The cylinder stopped moving, but the next thing he knew, he was down on the ground, the wind knocked out of him. He gasped for air, heard Matt scream his name in terror, and watched as the cylinder’s shape started to shift.

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CAMPSITE VAUGHAN

NEAR SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, VIRGINIA

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 25th, 2010

0300

“Okay, everyone in the van. Come on, move it, people. We’ve got to get to the ranger station. No—Jeff, you can go to the bathroom there, it’s just six miles up the road. Come on, now!”

The boys hurried from their tents to the van, talking quietly amongst themselves. They were in their pajamas, some of them barefoot because no one told them to put their shoes on. Nine boys climbed into the van, buckled their seatbelts, and stared at Scully in the driver’s seat, hoping for an explanation.

They were about to take off when they heard the unmistakable shrill sound of a safety whistle.

Scully’s stomach plummeted. Oh, God, she thought. Please, Mulder, not again. Please watch over him, God. I don’t think he can take much more.

She put the van in ‘drive’ and peeled out of the campground, speeding all the way to the ranger station.

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INTO THE WOODS

NEAR SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, VIRGINIA

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 25th, 2010

0305

“Uncle Mulder! Uncle Mulder, oh God…this is bad, this is really bad…”

Mulder’s vision was clearing, and he could see Matt kneeling over him, tears streaming down the boy’s face. “Hey, Matt, it’s okay,” he said, his voice sounding a bit weak. He tried to sit up.

It was then that the pain hit him. He gasped and fell back onto the ground, his hand immediately coming up to the source of the pain at his side. He ended up clamping his hand over Matt’s. The boy was already trying to staunch the blood flow.

“What happened?” Mulder asked, his voice strained. This wasn’t good, but this wasn’t nearly as bad as Matt probably thought it was. He hurt, that was for damn sure, but he didn’t feel the familiar symptoms of being seriously shot. He was no longer dizzy. He didn’t feel like his head was swimming. He could think clearly. The pain wasn’t as intense as it could have been. He was convinced whatever had happened, he was going to be okay in a few minutes when he got his bearings.

“You…you fired on that thing, and I think your bullet must’ve bounced back off of it and hit you, and…now you’re really hurt and I don’t know what to do…Uncle Mulder, please don’t die!” Matt cried.

“Hey, hey, shhh, it’s okay Matty. Calm down, it’s okay—I’m gonna be okay. It’s not that bad. I think it was just a graze. Here, I’m gonna sit up. It’s gonna be okay, just calm down.” The cylinder was still behind them, and Mulder glanced at Peter over by the tree. His eyes were closed and he was motionless. The boy had passed out at the sight of Mulder going down, no doubt.

The agent grunted at the movement, the pain bringing him right back to that torture room where he was held. He couldn’t afford those thoughts right now, he told himself. He had to stay focused. Matt was hysterical and needed to see that he was going to be okay.

He took a look at his own wound at his left side. It wasn’t a graze, but it had missed all the vital organs. He figured he had a few hours before he passed out from the gunshot, and surely the rescue team would be here by then. He thought after Matt blew the whistle, Scully would’ve heard it and gone to the ranger station to bring backup. He could afford to expend a little energy now.

“Help me up, okay?” Mulder asked Matt, and Matt sniffed, extended his hand, and helped Mulder to his feet. He was wobbly for a moment, but got his bearings and took a look at the cylinder. “Okay, so shooting it’s out,” he said in jest, but Matt didn’t laugh. The boy could see the sweat on Mulder’s forehead and knew his uncle was hurt. He was nearly scared stiff.

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“Matt, I need your head in the game. If we’re gonna get Joel out of there, I need to know what you saw when I shot it. What happened?”

“Well…it kinda…” Matt looked back at the vessel for a moment, trying to clear his head and think. “It like shifted, so you could see its insides.”

Mulder nodded eagerly. “What did you see? What was inside? Did you see Joel?”

Matt shook his head. “No, I couldn’t see it for that long. But it stopped making that noise.”

“I noticed that,” Mulder commented, and walked slowly over to the cylinder.

“Be careful!” Matt implored him.

“It’s okay, Matt, I’m not going to touch it. I just want to look at it…”

When Mulder got closer, it started whirring again and he stepped back as quickly as he could. His movements were slow and painful, and he gripped his side and bent over slightly. Matt was at his side immediately, giving him some support.

The cylinder started rising in the air again, and Mulder realized that it could take off with Joel and there was nothing he could do about it. His heartbeat quickened and he remembered the faces of the innocents he had killed with the Bari Trasadi.

Suddenly, as the cylinder reached a height of about ten feet in the air, it stopped and the whirring increased in frequency. The light got brighter, so bright that Matt and Mulder had to cover their eyes. Three bright beams shot out of the thing, two of which were aimed directly at Peter and Mulder.

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RANGER STATION/ RESCUE HELICOPTER

NEAR SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, VIRGINIA

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 25th, 2010

0315

“—Listen to Ranger Halburg, get some sleep if you can. When we get back, we’ll have your friends and Agent Mulder with us,” Scully finished her instructions for the kids.

“Be careful,” Trevor told her, and she gave him a reassuring smile as she turned and left the kids in the ranger station. She entered the tiny surveillance chopper, put her headset on, and asked the pilot, “Is this gonna have enough room for four extra people?”

“We can squeeze six in if we have to,” the man said with a heavy Louisiana accent. Scully absently wondered how he had ended up in these parts. “People can always sit on each other’s laps.”

This was the best they could do on such short notice, so she wasn’t going to complain. But she couldn’t help but wonder what would happen should one of the boys or Mulder be injured.

They lifted off into the air, and they both immediately noticed the bright glowing light emanating from the trees. “What the hell?” the pilot muttered.

Scully ordered, “There—that’s it. That’s where they’ll be.”

“How do you know? We don’t even know what that is,” the pilot argued.

“It’s an unexplained glowing object in the woods—trust me, my partner will have found it,” Scully said dryly, and when he didn’t respond, she yelled, “Go!”

“Okay, okay, we’ll start lookin’ there, I guess. Sheesh. Yankees.” With that, he unpredictably hit a button on the control panel and the ‘80s song Danger Zone started playing at top volume.

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INTO THE WOODS

NEAR SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, VIRGINIA

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 25th, 2010

0315

It was like something out of the Twilight Zone, or Star Trek. Mulder was enveloped in a bright white light, and he suddenly felt at peace. The pain was gone from his side, and he felt intense awe and wonder at what was going on around him. Whoever was behind the beam, he believed strongly, was more than friendly. They were downright benevolent.

Matt had a similar experience, as did Peter. And while this was going on, and all of them were mesmerized by the great white light, Joel was lowered out of the cylinder and placed gently in a sitting position on the ground below. The four of them simultaneously heard a woman’s voice speak in their heads.

We mean you no harm. Go in peace, it said, and then just as soon as it started, it was gone. The lights retracted from the cylinder whilst it whirred even louder now. It ascended into the sky, and took off at top speed.

Mulder and Matt looked at each other, a dumbfounded expression on their faces. Matt’s eyes fell to Mulder’s side and his own hands, where there was no longer any blood. Mulder’s shirt wasn’t even torn—there was no wound at all.

They didn’t have time to reflect on what had happened, though, because Joel and Peter both stood up, dazed expressions on their faces. And they could hear the sound of a chopper getting closer.

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RANGER STATION

NEAR SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, VIRGINIA

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 25th, 2010

0400

“You didn’t get any pictures?!”

“How big was it? Was it like Avatar?”

“Did you see any aliens?!”

“What was it like inside? Did you go inside?”

A slew of questions flew at them as soon as they stepped off the crowded helicopter. Nine boys gathered around the tiny ranger station landing pad, and demanded answers. Meanwhile three Ranger Jeeps left the station to find the bodies Mulder had reported in.

When Scully had arrived at the UFO site and Matt gave her the entire story in one sentence, she had insisted upon examining Mulder. Somehow, and she had no idea how, the bullet wound was completely gone. The only marks on his torso were the scars that remained from the summer, and Mulder had happily declared it ‘the most pleasant gunshot wound ever.’

Joel hadn’t said much since the helicopter had landed at the site, and didn’t speak at all during the ride back. Peter was similarly silent.

When they were back inside the ranger station, Scully took Joel into an office and began to take his statement.

Mulder listened from outside, the thin walls easily transmitting the sound of the boy’s voice.

“The first thing I remember is the bright light…I had to walk toward it. I just…had to,” he implored.

Mulder saw Matt coming and stood up. Before walking away from the door, he heard Joel state, “They weren’t evil. It wasn’t like the movies. They were nice…they said I had a special kind of blood. They said they just wanted to take my blood and then they’d let me go.”

“Uncle Mulder,” Matt said, “what’s the plan for the camping trip?”

Mulder chuckled. Matt was so much like Scully. Things happened, he dealt with them, and then he moved on. “I think we might postpone it until we figure out what happened to those two hikers we found.”

He seemed visibly disappointed at the news. “But…maybe we should just move to another camp site.”

“Listen, sport, you’ve gotten next to no sleep tonight. How are you going to go on a science hike tomorrow with just two hours of sleep?”

Matt shrugged, but he clearly understood the logic.

“Listen, if the school doesn’t give you another Friday off, I’ll pick you up one Friday night and the two of us can go out camping closer to DC. That way we won’t have a long drive and you’ll be back for school on Monday.”

The boy grinned. “That sounds like a great plan.”

Mulder nodded. “So are you doing okay? I’m sorry I scared you back there.”

He shrugged. “I’m fine,” he said immediately.

Oooh, yes. Mini-Scully. Mulder clapped him on the shoulder and gave him a friendly shake. “You did a great job, Matt. You were a real survivalist. I wouldn’t have changed anything if I was in your place.”

Matt beamed at the praise.

“Why don’t you go tell your friends that we’ll head back to the campsite soon and pack everything up. Tell them they can sleep on the way back.”

“Okay,” Matt said, and turned to walk away. Before he got too far, he added, “Thanks, Uncle Mulder.”

Mulder smiled at the boy, and watched him go to his friends.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

J. EDGAR HOOVER BUILDING

WASHINGTON, DC

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 26th, 2010

1130

“I have the official COD!” Scully proclaimed as she entered the office. Mulder quickly picked his feet up off the desk and planted them on the floor as he leaned forward in his chair and listened. “Officer Leo Jackson and his girlfriend Renee McArthur both died of fright.”

Mulder didn’t say anything for a moment. “Really?”

“Really. Both of them died of massive cardiac trauma. There’s no telling what was going on in their heads that was bad enough to scare them to death, but that’s not even interesting compared to everything else.”

“Everything else?” Mulder asked as he stood and walked around the desk to look at the contents of the folder she was carrying.

She hadn’t seen him this happy since before the summer. He was practically bouncing on his heels. This little camping trip had done more for his emotional recovery, she thought, than anything else. “We ran the chips you recovered under the microscope. They don’t match anything we’ve got in our records. That includes the X-files, Mulder. This computer technology design…it’s not just ‘advanced’. It’s inconceivably advanced. You remember when we stuck my chip under the microscope.”

Mulder nodded excitedly. “The tech said it was decades ahead of our technology.”

“With these little chips, try centuries.” She watched as his eyes lit up. “And that’s not even all. Renee McArthur’s medical records show that she was diabetic. When we examined Joel, we found—”

“That puncture wound on his arm, yeah,” Mulder said, anticipating the next finding.

“Well, we found the same puncture wound on Renee McArthur’s arm.”

“You know what this means, Scully,” Mulder declared excitedly, and practically ran around the desk to the file cabinet. He pulled out three files, and spun his laptop on his desk for her to see. “You see this?” he pointed to the screen. “This is what’s called a ‘cigar-shaped’ UFO. It’s the closest thing I can find in any database that tracks UFO encounters, that even remotely matches what we saw. The last encounter with a glowing cigar-shaped UFO was in Ventura, California, in January 2008. It was red, and it was definitely four or five times the size of our UFO. The last encounter with telepathic aliens or aliens with healing abilities was in September 2009 in Colorado, but there are no witnesses. These,” he threw down folder after folder, “are all case files that fall short of the amount of evidence, put together, that we gathered on this one case.”

“It’s a big accomplishment,” Scully agreed.

“It’s bigger than a big accomplishment,” he said. “This is…this is legitimate evidence of an entirely new species of alien, one that likely hasn’t been to Earth before, or haven’t revealed themselves to humans in the past. Every single encounter with a cigar-shaped UFO is substantially different than ours, and only one includes telepathic aliens, and its evidence is greatly lacking. You said it yourself—that chip is centuries ahead of our technology.”

“And it’s made of materials that are entirely unknown to the computer engineering industry,” Scully added, fully aware that she was feeding into Mulder’s near-orgasmic state.

“This is spectacular!” He exclaimed, and she grinned at his excitement. “Now I’ve got a theory, Scully,” he said, moving to stand behind his desk. “We’ve got four witnesses who said they heard the same message, which included a female voice saying, ‘We mean you no harm, go in peace.’ Both Matt and I can vouch for the fact that I definitely had a gunshot wound before, and don’t have one now. My clothes even healed. And ballistics showed that the gunshot wound to Officer Jackson’s torso was almost definitely self-inflicted, because the .380 slug matches his barrel. But, the deformation of the bullet was so extensive that it’s likely it bounced off of the craft, like mine did, and he caught the ricochet.”

“Okay,” Scully said, following him so far.

“So imagine this. Leo and Renee are out hiking, having a great time. Suddenly, this glowing ship appears out of nowhere and Renee walks right into it. Scared out of his mind, Leo fires on the ship when it takes off. The ship releases Renee after a moment, but they’re both scared by the entire incident to the point where they go into cardiac arrest and die. The aliens take off, not knowing what else to do. Their second encounter with humans was extremely similar, except they tried communications when they saw that I did the same thing Leo did. And they healed my wound. Scully, I think that encounter they had with Leo and Renee was their first encounter with humans.”

“Assuming you’re right, if they’re so advanced, Mulder, why wouldn’t they attempt communication first?” Scully asked, humoring his ‘alien’ explanation at least for now.

“Because it’s not their culture,” he explained easily. “So they’re collecting diabetics’ blood samples. Why would they do that? Why would they go out of their way to expose themselves to us and then leave behind witnesses who can ‘out’ their plan to the rest of the world?”

Scully shook her head, and waited for him to continue.

“Because they know we have no evidence but each other’s word, and they know they need those blood samples. I think, Scully, that these aliens are on our side.”

“Wait, how’d you get there?” Scully asked, the skeptical eyebrow ascending to its usual position.

“What other reason would they have for their behavior? They healed me, their only communication was a peaceful greeting, they let us go, they let us keep our memories—”

“They were tracking Leo and Renee. Why would they tag them and not Joel and the rest of you?”

Mulder shook his head. “I’m not sure yet. But…what I am sure of, is that these aliens are doing research on the human race for our benefit. They’re benevolent, Scully. You know what I think?”

“I’m starting to have trouble predicting,” Scully said with a wry smile.

Mulder ignored her. “I think we just found ourselves an ally against colonization.”

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