Evolved

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Evolved

By Martin Ross

**

Edgar Hoover FBI Building

Washington, D.C.

9:12 a.m.

 

“Sweet fancy Moses,” Mulder muttered. He blinked into the glare. “What in hell is this?”

“It’s called lighting,” Scully informed her partner, leading him stumbling across the threshold into the refurbished X Division quarters.

“As you can see, we’ve moved up in the world, though it took a budget cycle or so to make the move from the basement,” Clawson enthused, gliding about the tricked-out 10th floor suite like a Beverly Hills realtor. “State-of-the-art comms and logistical systems, top-of-the-line NSA firewalls backed by Pentagon-level biometric security. Real-time satellite uplinks, ultra-HD orthoimagery from nearly anywhere on the planet, with hundreds of GIS overlays…”

“Kinda bright,” Mulder observed, blinking rapidly and shielding his eyes. His guide stopped dead.

“You’ll have to pardon Mulder, Agent Clawson,” Scully purred. “Our former accommodations were better suited to Ozark cavefish or mushroom production.”

Clawson chuckled anxiously. “Of course. Dim, 30 degrees,” he called out. The room darkened, and the new X-Files chief beamed proudly.

Mulder removed his hand and scanned the space. “It’s still here,” he murmured.

The young agent breathed sharply, then grinned as abruptly and rested on the edge of a long table whose surface glowed with a dozen data displays. “Look, I know this has to be, well, jarring, Agent Mulder. I know you two operated way under the radar, on a practically non-existent budget. But after the revelations of the Bari Trasadi technology, of the, um, planned incursion, the X Division attracted a lot of high-level attention and high-profile resource commitments. All of this, Agent Mulder, is at your disposal. You have a virtually blank check.”

“Please tell me you didn’t get rid of the Mr. Coffee. I finally had the filter seasoned just right, and I could use a hot shot of caffeine about now.”

Clawson’s face fell, like a lost child whose refrigerator drawing had been repurposed as bus station toilet paper.

“Sorry, Agent Clawson,” Mulder sighed as he caught Scully’s glacial stare. “I’m just having a slight case of Rip Van Winkle Syndrome, along with a residual spatial/temporal hangover. This is…impressive. I’m sure I’ll be like a boy in a Sharper Image once I get back on the horse.”

“Speaking of which,” Clawson transitioned awkwardly. “How would you like to jump back into the saddle right now?”

Mulder brightened. “Giddyap. But, really, I wasn’t shitting about the coffee. I’m betting Keurig, right?”

 

**

 

The uniformed, sturdy young man rose from a sleek, neo-Scandinavian conference table and extended a heavily calloused but scrubbed palm toward Mulder and Scully. “Jason Smith. Ranger Jason Smith, National Park Service.”

Mulder transferred his Dark Italian Expresso and pumped the hand once. “Ranger Smith.”

It was a statement rather than a greeting. Scully shot him a warning glare as Clawson slid in behind a slim tablet.

“Ranger Smith—“ Clawson began. Mulder coughed, and the X Division Chief nudged a carafe of water toward him. “Ranger Smith has been assigned to Golden Mesa National Forest for the past two years. The forest covers roughly 980,000 acres in Northwest Arizona and Southeast Nevada, and includes the world’s largest stand of Engelmann spruce as well as significant populations of whitetail and mule deer, elk, antelope, turkey, coyote.”

“Bears?” Mulder ventured. Scully appeared to stretch her leg under the table. Mulder’s chair retreated a few inches.

“A few Ursus americanus, black bear, seasonally,” Ranger Smith drawled.

“They’re pretty intelligent, right, Ranger Smith? On average, I mean…”

Smith’s fish-out-of-water formality dissolved into millennial fervor. “Supposedly the smartest native nonhuman mammal in North America. Most biologists I’ve talked to rank them near the great apes or even a three-year-old human, far as IQ.”

“I’ve heard they can be quite a nuisance, especially to picnickers—?”

“Ranger,” Scully powered in, “what brings you to the FBI?”

Smith leaned forward. “Officially, I’m testifying before a Senate Interior subcommittee this afternoon, on Endangered Species Act funding. But we’ve had some kinda, well, hinky occurrences the last month or so at the park, and Sen. Matheson on the subcommittee suggested I speak to somebody here.”

Senator Rich Matheson Jr.’s father at one time had been Mulder’s influential insider rabbi, using his congressional clout at times to intervene on Mulder’s behalf and at times to draw Mulder and Scully further into the murky depths. Though their relationship had soured after some intrigue involving nanotechnology, Matheson Sr. had remained a backroom booster for the X-Files, and Mulder guessed he’d tapped whatever small reserves remained in the Skinner favor bank. For the National Park Service? Mulder was intrigued.

“Why don’t you tell us the nature of your problem?” Scully murmured.

Ranger Smith frowned, and glanced at Clawson, who shrugged. “Tell you what. Why don’t I show you? This was taken two weeks ago, by one of our guys out on a routine check.”

Clawson tapped the pad, and an image materialized on the screen behind Smith. It was a vertical, ill-lit shot – likely a smartphone photo taken near dusk – of a lush evergreen forest at ground level. Perhaps 30 yards from the photographer, a blurred figure moved between a pair of what appeared to be the prized Golden Mesa spruces. There was a familiarity to the hulking, seemingly furry figure and its lengthy stride, but yet something strikingly different.

“Hoochie mama,” Mulder whispered, his chair springing to its upright position.

“And boom goes the dynamite,” Scully sighed. “I’m going to regret this, I know, but aren’t Sasquatch sightings normally confined to the Pacific Northwest?”

“Climate change?” Ranger Smith attempted, as if he’d practiced the hypothesis during the in-flight TV package. “I mean, haven’t global temperature shifts screwed with species habitat, migration patterns, even among mammals? I mean, we’re recording avian and insect species I’ve never seen in the park before…”

Clawson rocked, scowling. “But wouldn’t global warming drive a cooler-climate species further north rather than into the Southwest? If Bigfoot exists, that is.”

Mulder was shaking his head. Scully forged ahead. “Not necessarily. If climate or other natural factors depleted other regional species, a carnivorous or omnivorous mammal might migrate far from its traditional range simply in search of new food sources. There are a number of minimally uninterrupted natural corridors in the West that could provide safe cover for, say, a migrating bear.”

“Bears?” Mulder sputtered. “C’mon, Scully, babe. Bears?”

“Pedals,” she announced, firmly.

Clawson and Smith waited as Mulder exploded in laughter.

“Pedals,” he finally wheezed. “Pedals the bipedal bear.”

“Bipolar?” Clawson queried.

“Bipedal – walking on two legs, fully erect in the boring way, just like an E-gyptian. Over the past two years, rural New Jersians have regularly spotted an American black bear with two apparently maimed front legs nicknamed Pedals walking upright near residential neighborhoods. Though global bear buffs petitioned wildlife officials to relocate the beloved bipedal bruin to a sanctuary, Pedals perished tragically last fall in what was believed to be a premeditated act of archery. You can find all the case particulars on the Rest In Peace, Pedals the Walking Bear Facebook page, hashtag #justiceforpedals, where I’m guessing my partner researched the phenomenon of dysfunctionally erect ursines between Pinterest pantsuit searches.”

Scully searched for words, abandoned the two that initially surfaced, and set her jaw. “If this bear were seriously incapacitated, it’s likely its pack—

“Black bears don’t usually gather in packs,” Ranger Smith interjected.

“It’s likely other free-ranging bears might see it as a weak, easily eliminated competitor,” she continued through her teeth. “Perhaps this animal fled its original habitat out of survival, or maybe its inability to capture wild food species drove it toward the national forest and humans. Especially if, on top of it’s…infirmity…it was shunned by the pac–, by other solo bears because of its unusual mutation.”

“At last,” Mulder crowed. “She acknowledges the elephant in the room. The white elephant.”

The quartet glanced again toward the screen, at the blurred, hulking, furry, white figure striding through the evergreens.

“It’s not unheard of,” Smith offered, possibly in Scully’s defense. “There’s a rare subspecies of the black called the Kermode bear, mostly in British Colombia. The indigenous community calls them ‘spirit bears’ because of their white or cream-colored fur, and some tourists confuse them for Ursus maritimus. Sorry, polar bears. They’re not albinos or related to the ‘blonde’ brown bears found in Alaska. In fact, common black bears sometimes bear, ah, give birth to a white cub. Like Agent Scully said, it’s like a mutation that just started breeding true in the Canadian population.”

“Guys, c’mon,” Mulder squeaked. “Those look like bear arms – uh, the arms of a bear – to you? Especially a maimed bipedal blonde bear’s arms? You think you can buy me a drink and mention spirit bears and I’ll give you my room key?”

Smith paused. “Well, actually, there is one key problem with your theory, Agent Scully. This isn’t the only specimen we’ve identified.” He nodded to Clawson, who clicked up a new image, this time an even-grainier still from time-stamped video footage. A similar hulking white furry figure outside a wood-framed structure, back to the camera, heading seemingly into the nearby wood.

“About a week ago, the main ranger’s station was burglarized, the rear door jimmied, and somewhere around $24,000 in equipment stolen. Electronic equipment – GPS receivers and transponders, RFID tracking gear, some new communications equipment we’d just got in last month.”

“Picnic paraphernalia?” Mulder deadpanned. This time, Scully’s toe connected.

“Nah, just the high-tech stuff, and neither the gift shop or the information building were touched.” Smith sighed. “Agent Clawson, can you zoom in on the, uh, creature, please?”

Clawson silently manipulated the touch-screen, and Scully squinted at a dark, rectangular object tucked under the figure’s arm. She could make out a contrasting logo at the center of the object. A white apple.

“More cyber-savvy than the aaaaverage bear,” Mulder posited.

“Obviously, we’re talking about a human culprit or culprits,” Scully stated. “We likely would have seen some viral video pop up, if the take from the ranger’s station hadn’t changed our Bigfoot’s plans. There had to be some trace evidence at the scene.”

Smith looked unhappy. “Yeah, there was. A few smudged prints here and there, and some hair apparently ripped out when the thief was disconnecting the laptop.”

“Well, then…”

“The prints were too smudged for an ID, but they were roughly twice the size of human fingerprints. And the hair, it was white and coarse – far coarser than normal human hair.”

“Of course, your thief probably used actual pelts for his ‘sasquatch’ suit,” Scully suggested. “DNA testing should at least pinpoint the species used, and maybe give you a lead to where he obtained the skins.”

“We had a rapid DNA test done at the state lab. And you were right – the hairs weren’t human. We were lucky, because they were, um, torn out by the roots. The follicles were intact. And fresh. The non-human follicles.”

Scully fell silent.

“’Sides,” Smith continued. “You see that trail sign the, uh, the suspect’s passing? It’s a six-foot sign, and as you can see, he, or she — sorry, ma’am — is easily two heads taller.”

“And what did the DNA test show?” Scully croaked.

“Inconclusive. At least relative to known North American species. We plan to expand the search to more exotic and foreign mammals.”

“Ah,” Mulder smiled with a significant glance toward Scully. He looked away quickly. “You won’t find it in any known wildlife database, Ranger Smith.”

“We’re back to Bigfoot?” Clawson asked neutrally, or as neutrally as he could muster.

“Bigfoot is soooo last year,” Mulder huffed. “What has two opposable thumbs, ambles like a sasquatch, and is as white as the driven snow? And it’s not Gary Busey.”

The ranger and the agents stared once again at the hirsute felon. “Mulder, please,” Scully implored. “That’s absurd.”

“Noo,” Mulder smiled, eyes all aglow. “It’s abominable.”

 

**

 

“So, what, we wait a week or so before we ask for a raise?” Scully suggested as the elevator doors closed.

“I just want my basement back,” Mulder murmured, punching the parking level button. “I mean, can you imagine what all that tech radiation could do to my manhood alone?”

Scully rode silently, arms crossed.

“OK,” her partner relented. “I guess maybe I was kind of a butt up there…”

“Right latitude, wrong longitude,” she corrected. “Clawson’s absolutely ecstatic to have you on the team, and all you can do is bitch about your life’s mission finally being validated? And that poor young ranger…”

“Ra-a-a-anger Smith,” Mulder sang. “Ranger Smith. C’mon, Booboo…”

Scully sighed deeply, then cracked. “Picnic paraphernalia?”

“A generation that’s forgotten its Hanna-Barbera is doomed to suffer obscure pop culture references.”

Scully shook her head, “Well, I will say, Yogi, you do seem to have regained some of your adolescent exuberance. I actually kind of like it. I’ve, well, I’ve…missed it.”

The pair rode in a comfortable, smiling silence to the underground garage.

“But an abominable snowman?” she demanded as the doors slid open

“A yeti,” he amended. “We are, after all, scientists.”

Scully turned him. “And this is the theory you plan to pursue?”

Mulder extracted his keys and beeped the locks on their nearby sedan. “Does a bipedal bear shit in the forest?”
Saint Petersburg

Russia

1874

 

“Nikolay Przhevalsky?” Inspector Starbak squeaked.

Inspector Fyodor Petrovich, Special Corps of Gendarmes, brushed a crumb of his lunchtime pastry from his open tunic with a lazy grin. He knew the skeptical, diminutive redhead would raise a brow at the subject of their latest investigation.

“Director Shuvalov himself authorized the inquiry,” Petrovich shrugged. For once, it was the truth of the matter, though the Corps’ director likely was motivated far more by politics than by any thirst for plumbing the unknown.

It was well-known in the ranks that Shuvalov months earlier had been dispatched to London on a mission to arrange a marriage between Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna and the Duke of Edinburgh, as well as to pave the way for the Russian invasion of the Central Asian Khanate of Khiva with minimal international damage to the Anglophile director’s reputation. Petrovich, too, had heard the rumors that high officials might be positioning Shuvalov for an honorary post outside any sphere of influence, and the former Ministry of Internal Affairs likely was using Petrovich and the Corps’ secretive Byuro Neizvestnykh Obstoyatel’stvakh to excavate any dirty laundry that might assure him a softer landing, possibly in a diplomatic post in his beloved London.

Petrovich did not care – he was aware politics and power drove most progress or inquiry, and what little justice to be had in this empire. He had researched with great interest Przhevalsky’s dossier, and was convinced there was a solid Bureau of Unknown Circumstances file here. Przhevalsky was an honored military scholar of noble Belarus birth who had distinguished himself as a scientist and explorer. In 1872, he had crossed into Tibet, collecting thousands of plant, bird, and insect species as well as 70 reptiles and the skins of more than a hundred mammals. Subsequently, Przehevalsky was awarded the Imperial Geographical Society’s Constantine Medal, promoted to lieutenant-general, appointed to the Tsar’s General Staff, and received the Order of St. Vladimir, 4th Class.

However, there was talk. Talk of strange deaths during the Tibetan expedition, of a secret cargo shipped by rail under armed guard from the mountainous hinterlands, of hushed experiments being conducted within the bowels of a university laboratory in Moscow. The truth, as Petrovich exhaustively reminded Starbak, was somewhere out there.

Starbak, considered too delicate for active military service (his boots could scarcely reach the stirrups of even a small cavalry steed), was, fortunately, versed in medicine and a number of burgeoning scientific disciplines, and besides was the first cousin of a distinguished admiral. He was a pragmatist, challenging Petrovich’ more fanciful hypotheses but loyal to the Byuro Neobychnykh Obstoyatel’stv and its impetuous commander.

“So, what is our next step?” Starbak sighed.

 

Mulder/Scully residence

Georgetown

 

“You’re going camping. Without us.” It was a matter-of-fact statement, and Mulder realized how Charlotte already was favoring her mother. At that thought, Charlotte turned grinning to Scully, then pivoted sheepishly back to Mulder. Mulder grinned; Scully rolled her eyes at her daughter’s transparent attempt to conceal her telepathic transgression.

“It’s a case, honey,” Scully murmured. “We’d be working most of the time, and Walter’s way too young to go tramping through the woods. Maybe when we come back, we can take a family trip to the Appalachian Trail. How’s that sound?”

“I want to see the snowman,” Charlotte pouted before she realized she’d slipped again. “Sorry. What is an abom–, abom–?”

Scully began to speak, but Mulder pulled the child onto the couch beside him. “Remember Kwame, the big gorilla we saw at the zoo last month?”

“He was awesome!” Charlotte cooed, and Scully was placated by her show of childlike exuberance.

“Yeah, well, nobody’s actually met one, but scientists think the abominable snowman, or yeti, may be kind of like a cousin of the great apes–, ah, gorillas and other big monkeys.”

“Well,” Scully injected smoothly. “In one genetic study, researchers matched DNA from hair samples found in the Himalayas with a prehistoric bear…”

“Don’t confuse the child,” Mulder admonished. “About a hundred years ago, Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Howard-Bury led a British Mount Everest reconnaissance expedition, and found footprints that looked just like a man’s.”

“Yeah, that’s dumbing it down,” Scully grunted.

“Howard-Bury’s guides – the guys who carried his bags and stuff – told him that the footprints belonged to The Wildman of the Snows, or ‘metoh-kangmi.’”

“‘Kang-mi’ was the guides’ word for ‘snowman,’ and ‘metoh’ means ‘man-bear,’” Scully elaborated. She smiled angelically at Charlotte’s dad. “As long as we’re giving her an immersion course in Tibetan…”

Mulder smirked back. “So, anyway, about 40 years later, Professor Frederic Wood Jones, an anthropologist— You know what an anthropologist is, honey?”

Charlotte yawned. Mulder jiggled her gently. “Professor Jones was a very smart man, and he took a good look at a yeti scalp—” He caught Scully’s eye. “He looked real hard at some yeti hair some guys at the local monastery’d found. He concluded definitively that the hair was not, I repeat not, from a bear.”

“Honey, daddy forgot that Professor Jones said the yeti hair actually came from an antelope. Or a big ox,” Scully added, locking eyes with Mulder.

“Of course, Jones was an anthropologist, not a geneticist, uh, sweetie, so he might have made a…”

“A big boo-boo, Yogi?” Scully inquired. The girl giggled without recognizing the artistry of her mother’s Don Messick characterization. “Charlotte, you want to watch Doc McStuffins until dinner?”

Charlotte looked eagerly to Mulder, who finally sighed and waved her on with a kiss to the forehead. She vanished.

“Mulder, I hope your cryptozoological infatuation isn’t going to interfere with your objectivity,” Scully said, closing her laptop and joining him on the couch. His arm snaked about her shoulder. “Occam’s Razor. The simplest explanation. This is very likely some offshoot of the clown sightings epidemic – some idiot dressing up in a Halloween Warehouse ape suit.”

“An ape suit made out of unknown mammal fur? And the scale of the fingerprints found at the scene? If the thief were wearing a costume with gloves that size, how did he – or she – manipulate all those cords and electronic equipment in the ranger station?”

“I’m just saying, keep an open mind, Mulder. How do you suggest a yeti managed to wind up in the wilds of Arizona, anyway?”

“I’ve thought about that,” Mulder said. “The Bering Strait. No, bear with me, Scully. At its narrowest point, the strait is about 50 miles from Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska, to Cape Denzhnev in Russia.”

“So we’re talking Michael Phelps? Height’s about right…”

Mulder breathed heavily. “I am talking Max Gottschalk. In 1913, Gottschalk became the first modern voyager to make it across the Bering Strait without a boat. He traveled from Siberia to the Big Diomede Island off the Alaskan coast. Via dogsled.”

“Twenty-five miles off the Alaskan coast,” Scully pointed out, placing a hand on Mulder’s thigh. “Big Diomede is almost halfway between Alaska and Russia. Yes, the strait is frozen from mid-December potentially until  June. Yes, the yeti, if such a creature exists, inhabits one of the planet’s most inhospitably frigid regions, so, yes, conceivably, a large, bipedal mammal with a sufficient level of dexterity might theoretically survive such a journey.

“But, Mulder, you still have to explain why such a creature would migrate so far from his native region – a region where he faced little or no predation or resource competition, mind you, undertake a potentially lethal trek across 50 or so miles of ice – if he took the shortest possible route, and eventually migrate hundreds of miles into a temperate ecosystem entirely removed from his original Himalayan habitat. Why the hell are you grinning?”

He squeezed her. “You Googled Max Gottschalk. You measured the distance from Russia to Big Diomede. You analyzed glacial depth and duration. You checked out my theory before I even raised it. Hey, why don’t you lock the door? For about three minutes or so…”

Scully suddenly jerked her hand from Mulder’s inner thigh. “Oh, my God, Mulder. You fell asleep in the middle of foreplay last night.”

“Sorry, Scully. It’s just, for one shining moment, you came over to the Force.”

“Oh baby, oh baby, Star Wars references…”

“I mean, it’s almost like we’re completing each other’s…” Mulder waited.

“Get Walter ready for dinner,” Scully grunted, disappearing into the hall.

“Like Obi-Wan and Luke,” Mulder mused.

 

**

 

“Gigantopithecus was quadrupedal,” Scully sighed, closing Hawking’s Black Holes and Baby Universes for the fifth time.

“Unless it ultimately evolved as a bipedal ape, like Oreopithecus,” Mulder persisted, nearly upsetting his ginger ale. “I’d say that over a few hundred thousand years, it might have had the time to perfect the technique.”

“There’s a reason he was called Gigantopithecus, Mulder. A mammal of such massive structure and weight likely would have as much difficulty as a Bengal tiger or a rhinoceros achieving a consistent upright posture.”

“Rhinoceros?” Mulder’s knee bumped his tray table. “Rhinoceros?”

“Jesus!” the bulky businessman at Scully’s shoulder barked. He rose unsteadily to his feet. “I thought, take the First Class bump, you’ve earned it. But no. Excuse me, Lady.”

Scully pressed back as Window Seat’s left hip caressed her shoulder.

“Think I just saw a couple of guys head back to the john,” Mulder advised, craning to peek down the aisle.

“I’m not going TO the john,” the businessman growled, squeezing free of Mulder’s knees. “I’m going to stand BY the john. There’s a difference. Til we’re wheels down.”

Mulder blinked as the man retreated, then looked to Scully. “He leave his pretzels?”

 

Travelers Inn

Fountain Hills, Arizona

4:43 p.m.

 

“Wow,” Scully breathed as she surveyed the vaulted lobby atrium, the extended teak registration desk, the off-lobby steak joint and sports bar, and a lobby-length mural depicting the founding of the Arizona territory. “Just…wow.”

“Things really have looked up — beats the mom-and-pop Bates Motels back in the day,” Mulder concurred, pocketing the room cards. “No need to check for bedbugs, homicidal Siamese twins, horny sheriffs, inbred hillbillies, invisible predators, or teen vampires. Oh, I am so looting the suite.”

“I do think a double would have been sufficient, Mulder.”

Her partner sighed. “You still don’t get the ‘consultant’ thing. If you don’t pad the expenses, the client doesn’t feel like he’s getting his money’s worth.”

“Well, then, let’s go hog wild, then. I saw a Lucky Boy right off the interstate. Monster-Size our fries?”

“And I saw a chupacabra at the Walmart,” Mulder mumbled, pivoting toward the steakhouse. Scully redirected him toward the elevator bank.

“Oh, shit,” he mumbled, simultaneously peering over and attempting to hunch down behind Scully’s shoulder.

“Mulder? What?”

“Scully. I see…dead people.”

 

**

 

“Ah,” Jose Chung beamed, closing the distance between himself and the agents with surprising speed. “The brilliant, insightful, and always aesthetically pleasing Special Agent Scully.” The author, draped in Eddie Bauer hiking togs and his de rigueur ascot, glanced up at Mulder. “Oh, my, you brought a friend.”

“I thought you were dead,” Mulder stated. “Extremely so, in fact.”

“In the words of Charles Dickens, rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.”

“With a pickaxe. And it was Mark Twain.” Mulder had viewed the crime scene photos during a weekend visit at former FBI profiler Frank Black’s Tacoma-area cabin. Researching a series of murders seemingly connected to the Selfosophy psycho-religious movement, Chung, self-acclaimed author of From Outer Space and the not-so-posthumous Doomsday Defense, succumbed or now seemingly succumbed to said axe blow, administered by an acolyte of the prognosticator Nostradamus.

“Twain was a plagiarist and a hack – didn’t even have the integrity to write under his own name,” Chung dismissed. “Luckily, my attacker was an even worse hack, literally. I sustained a mere flesh wound that penetrated a portion of my brain that, fortunately for the literate populace, was used only for olfactory sensation and Sudoku. I recuperated in a vegetative state for four months, learned to do the Word Jumbles and regain full motor function, and, voila, yours truly, dented but not defeated. Let me tell you: Never, ever allow a critic to get the upper hand.”

“Mr. Chung,” Scully began. “I’m…I’m truly gratified to see you still among the living. But could I ask what you’re doing here?”

Paleopalooza,” the author announced with a flourish Scully momentarily misinterpreted as a neurological dysfunction.

“That’s the working title, anyway,” Chung continued after his pause had produced the desired effect. “What do you think?”

“Speechless,” Mulder murmured.

“Delightful.” Chung turned to Scully. “I initially proposed You Say You Want a De-Evolution?, but my agent was concerned Yoko Ono or the Nike people might sue. But in either case, Chung is back, this time blowing the lid off the New Apocalypse.”

“What happened to the old one?” Mulder inquired.

Chung regarded him severely. “It would appear you eff-bombed THAT up by poking into trans dimensional vortices you had no business poking into. I was forced to ditch 543 pages of Jose Chung’s Alien Makeover — pure gold. But never fear: We remain good and verily screwed as a species.”

“How so?”

The author poked his huge glasses back into place, and peered about for the hotel bar. “I can’t discuss the Sixth Extinction without a second appletini. You’re buying – trust me, money well-spent. For me, at least.”

 

**

 

Chung smacked his lips as the second empty hit the scarred table. “So where were we? Ah, yes, the end of everything as we know it. Plus, you think we can get more of these cheese things?  They’re absolutely addictive.”

“Paleopalooza,” Mulder prodded, signaling the waitress.

Chung adjusted his ascot. “Let me ask you: Where do we get off? What makes us so goldarned special? Why does Homo sapiens get to be the Big Kahuna of Spaceship Earth?”

“Human sentience and self-awareness?” Scully suggested. “The ability to reason, to process needs, emotions, and societal objectives into viable, sustainable solutions?”

Mulder sipped his Coke. “Opposable thumbs? Bipedal locomotion? iPhone 7?”

“Precisely,” Chung commended. “We’re the capo di tutt’i capi of the animal kingdom primarily because we’re the only species impressed with its own PR. We define ourselves by wholly human criteria. Manual dexterity, technology, extreme snowboarding. Cockroaches have survived the last several extinctions on their strength of will and the rest of the planet’s table scraps. Our notions of collective civilization and engineering efficiency pale with respect to the hymenopteran insects. We have one-celled beasties living under ice floes and volcanoes, while humankind breaks out the sunscreen if the mercury hits 80 degrees.

“And our precious opposable thumbs have become lodged up our collective recti. Religious and political tyranny, genocide, virulent bigotry, environmental homicide, nationally televised groin injuries for cash prizes, Duck Dynasty, Pokemon, Kardashians? The host of The Apprentice has been elected leader of the so-called advanced world, and his TV gig’s gone to the former governor of California. And the KFC Bowl, for God’s sake? If that isn’t human de-evolution, then I’m not the New York Times’ bestselling nonfiction trade paperback author, November 10-15, 1996.”

“But the Information Age, space exploration, genetic research, nanotechnology,  biomedicine,” Scully protested.

“And what, pray tell, have we done with them? We’ve perfected a mechanism enabling individuals thousands of miles apart to instantaneously, in all caps, scream LIBTARD and NAZI at each other. The World Wide Web is a 24-hour adult book store with sticky keys. We can’t find our way out of a men’s room stall without GPS. We expend terabytes of digital information and code to create angry weaponized birds, and the millennial generation is convinced that anything worth saying is worth saying only in 140 characters or less. We’re collapsing under the weight of our sentient desire to one-up and distract ourselves, even as we reject the greatest scientific miracles of the modern epoch.

“We consult Jenny McCarthy about whether to vaccinate the kiddies against the next great plague, all the while Purel-ing ourselves to the point where a dirty lettuce leaf or an unwashed toddler might kill us. We’re reverting to Paleolithic diets an encephalitic Cro-Magnon wouldn’t touch, washed down with microbe-laden unpasteurized milk. We’re more terrified by gluten than by random mall shootings or global climate shifts, more scandalized by genetically engineered apples and stem cell therapies than by infant mortality or starvation in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s as if we’re virtually dry-humping extinction, de-evolving to zoological second-class status. It’s the Great Paleopalooza – the re-Neanderthalization of the species, and the soon-to-be-trademarked catchphrase of a modern generation. And, by the way, where is that girl with the cheese crackers?”

“Apocalypse, pools of blood, dogs living with cats, blah blah blah…,” Mulder recapped. “So you came out here to commune with Nature before the Big Lights Out?”

“I came here to document the dawn of the next great era in mammalian razzle-dazzle,” Jose Chung announced somberly. He reached inside his jacket, withdrew a Galaxy, and displayed a familiar, blurred, white, furry bipedal image on the screen. “There’s a new sheriff in town, Agent Mulder, and he’s got some awfully big shoes to fill. If he wore shoes.”

“We’re being replaced by the Abominable Snowman?” Scully drawled.

“Why should the hairless have all the fun?” Chung posed, touching his own liver-spotted scalp. “Your capriciously named Ranger Smith showed me the security feed of last week’s hairy hominid heist. They’ve evaded human detection for centuries, they’ve got us by a good three feet and the strength of four John Cenas, and now they have the technology.”

Mulder cackled, collecting a handful of newly delivered crackers. “The technology? The technology to locate lost yuppies in the woods, track spotted owls, and differentiate yuppie poop from spotted owl guano. All our yeti or whatever got away with was a really boring Radio Shack clearance sale.”

“Or did he?” Chung posed, sliding from the booth. “Sorry, appletinis tend to make me dramatically cryptic.” He plucked his MicroTherm StormDown Field Jacket from the hook above the booth. “Toodles.”

“Well, at least he gave us something to chew on,” Scully suggested as the server deposited the bill before Mulder.

Mulder displayed the check. “And we reciprocated. He put a room service cheeseburger and chocolate lava cake on our tab.”

 

Golden Mesa National Forest

Arizona

8:03 a.m.

 

“Breathtaking,” Scully murmured as she surveyed the blue ranges beyond the dense, evergreen, riparian expanse.

“Yeah, it’s really cool,” Mulder nodded, jerking his pack free from the rental’s rear compartment. “You remembered the BBQ sunflower seeds at the minimart, right?”

“C’mon, Ralph Waldo,” she sighed, shouldering her own gear and locking the SUV. “There’s Ranger Smith. And don’t even think it.”

The ranger bee-lined past a knot of Japanese twentysomethings in cryptic logo tees and cargo shorts scanning a relief map of the government preserve. “Agents, glad to see you made it out okay. Good flight?”

“Roomy,” Mulder supplied. “All ready to brave the wilderness.”

“Definitely, you should do that,” Smith grinned. “Though with those shoes, I think you may be relieved we can narrow down the wilderness we’ll need to brave.”

“Ouch,” Mulder complained. “Land’s End. Outlet, of course.”

“They’re really sharp. Nonetheless, this way, guys.”

The trio dodged an elementary school group, a clutch of elderly birders and a man-mountain in a Smokey the Bear Shirt up the wildflower-lined path to the main ranger’s station. The ranger led his federal companions past a crowded gift shop and a series of displays outlining Golden Mesa’s history, and into his tight but millennial-neat office. Smith slid in behind a pair of flat screen monitors.

“One of the guys is into unmanned aerial vehicles – drones – and he used a few local military connections to score us the use of a couple of micro drones equipped with new-gen thermal imaging cameras.”

“And boom goes the dyna—“

“Scully,” Mulder admonished. “Quit using Seth MacFarlane against me. Especially his failed spinoff work. Ranger Smi–, I mean, Jason, what’re we talking about here?”

“Armasight, with an AMRF2200 modular range finder and a 2X A-focal doubler.”

“Woof.”

Scully rapped Mulder’s shoulder. “Boys?”

“Uh, yeah,” Ranger Smith murmured. “OK, so I’m thinking we save those nice Land’s End boots and do a little aerial reconnaissance over a radius of maybe 10 miles both around the station and the second sighting location on Shiban Trail, which by the way, is about 23 miles due west. I figure that triangulates a fairly reasonable habitat range, at least for starters. That includes a key Salt River tributary – I figure they it, they, whatever, would want to be near a water supply. We spot a heat signature – and I’m assuming it’ll be a fairly obvious signature – then we can narrow down our search. Cool?”

“Wicked cool,” Mulder grinned.

“Yup,” Scully responded.

Smith nodded, opened the IR monitor window, and tapped in a few commands. “And…we’re off.”

Over the next 31 minutes, Mulder craned over the ranger’s shoulder, peering over miles of phosphorescent violet conifers broken occasionally by a winding stream or clearing. Mulder started a few times at red and yellow moving signatures, which turned out to be deer, wild horses, or hikers.

“By the way,” Mulder mumbled as he watched a pair of human signatures seemingly rubbing together against a spruce, “I put together a bipedal suspect list.  Assuming our burglar is mammalian – a fairly safe bet, than we narrow the known candidates to some kind of hominian ape,  a macropod like a kangaroo or wallaby, a steroidal kangaroo rat, a wicked huge  springhare, a colossal hopping mouse, or a seriously confused African ground pangolin. Though the extinct giant pangolin or ground sloth might fit our bill, if some pocket of the species managed to survive.”

“Apes and mice, plural, Agent, incidentally,” Smith corrected, piloting the droid away from the heat-generating fornicators. “A forensics prof at ASU was able to compare the security cam and cell phone videos and distinguish two separate, um, suspect yetis? Sorry, go on, Agent.”

“The absence of any arboreal or anchoring tail would appear to eliminate the marsupials, though Australian marsupials have shown an astonishing parallel evolution with their non-pouched mammalian brothers.” Scully noisily flopped her National Geographic onto a nearby table; Mulder refused eye contact. “Certain primates like the gelada baboon will go temporarily bipedal when moving between adjacent feeding ranges, and bears will fight in a bipedal stance, and in a rare case such as Pedals the Bipedal Bear, when injured.” Scully refused eye contact. “The spotted skunk has been known to stand on its rear legs when threatened. You wanna follow up on that one, Scully. Wow, you text your mom with that finger?”

Scully sprung from her chair. “I was pointing, Mulder. Look.”

Mulder and Smith turned back to the monitor, where a lanky, bipedal blood orange shape was moving briskly through a tree line adjacent to a river clearing.

“Thar she blows,” Mulder breathed. “Can you bring it down a little, not enough to spook it?”

Smith nodded excitedly, and the drone dipped a few dozen feet. The creature’s back was to the camera as it seemingly eviscerated an object with a fading signal Mulder assumed to be a fish. Then, suddenly, the “yeti” jumped and staggered. It dropped the alleged fish and raised its long arm to its head.

“Dude, fingers,” Mulder prodded Scully. She prodded back, more harshly.

“What’s it holding?” Smith interrupted, tapping the monitor.

Scully leaned in. “No,” she whispered as the “monster” began frantically waggling its fingers. “Oh, hell, no.”

Ranger Smith leaned back, shaving his jaw with his calloused fingers. “My guess is a 64-gig iPhone 5C, Black Otterbox case.”

“You got a good eye, Ranger,” Mulder marveled.

“Not really,” Smith sighed, yanking open desk doors and sifting through drawer clutter.  “I think it’s mine.”

“The more cogent question,” Scully suggested, “is who he – or she – talking to?”

 

**

 

Kingfisher Bend was a healthy 20 minutes from the ranger station, by ATV. Mulder was off the three-wheeler before it fully stopped, sidearm drawn. He crunched delicately through the pine needles, Smith and Scully in tow, crouching behind a Ponderosa pine as he reached the river clearing.  Smith ventured outside the canopy, peering about, his own rifle cradled at his side.

“I think it’s gone,” the ranger eventually ventured.

Mulder and Scully conducted a quadrant-by-quadrant sweep of the site, carefully avoiding non-vegetative surfaces that might offer up impressions. The park had been under a fire watch due to a lengthy dry spell, so the soil above the back was hard and unyielding, but Scully, clinging to the rocks above the embankment, soon shouted to the men. Mulder and Smith discovered her firing off a series of smartphone shots of a crisp footprint in the mud inches above the water line.

“I have a cast kit in my bag,” Smith volunteered, striding with barely constrained exuberance toward the ATV.

“15 inches maybe, 7-8 inches wide,” Mulder eyeballed. “Notice the big piggy and the piggy next door are nearly identical in size and spacing, while the remaining piggies are crowded. Classical Himalayan yeti.”

“As I don’t have a piggy database at my immediate disposal, I suppose I’ll have to take your word,” Scully grunted as she scrambled back to secure ground without Mulder’s assistance.

“The Sasquatch tracks recorded to date—”

“There aren’t enough allegeds on the planet to begin to address what’s wrong with that statement,” Scully lamented.

“—generally follow a human configuration, toes descending in size from Mr. Big to the pinkie. Fortunately, I do happen to possess a piggy database back at the hotel.”

“How I’ve begged for you to surf porn like the other guys,” Scully exhaled.

“My theory is the yeti’s toe distribution is designed especially for mountainous, ice-covered terrain, the two larger toes providing traction. Sasquatch doesn’t require that type of adaptation.”

Scully’s gaze shifted. “There’s something else Sasquatch doesn’t require.”

Mulder followed her scan to a shallow second impression three feet from the print. It was rectangular, perhaps two inches by 4, a small round void at one end, a slitted dimple at the other.

“Ranger Smith’s phone,” Mulder concluded. “Lacking pockets, our alleged cryptohominid had to set it down to snag his morning treat. Which, by the way…”

“For once, I’m ahead of you, Agent Mulder,” Ranger Smith called from above. He displayed a freezer-sized Ziploc containing a bloody, partially masticated trout. “Luckily, I took a couple units of forensics at the community college before changing majors. And, as I told you before, I got a DNA guy.”

Mulder gestured toward the iPhone print. “And a tracking device, providing the damned dirty alleged ape hasn’t trashed it. What’s kinda strange, though…”

His thought was interrupted as Scully whipped up, weapon in hand. “You hear that?” she whispered harshly. “Something’s in the trees, about 11 o’clock behind my shoulder.”

Mulder and Smith unholstered slowly, and needles, branches, and boughs began to snap and pop in the pines. Mulder cursed and scrambled to solid ground. Before Scully could gain traction, he’d disappeared into the woods, crashing through the foliage as he pursued the sound of flight and flashes of white ahead. Low branches slapped and pummeled Mulder as he picked up speed. As the trees thinned, he slowed in surprise as he realized his prey was human, rather than hominid.

“Hey!” Mulder shouted, eloquently. The slight figure — cloaked in a dirty white hoodie and matching balaclava – kept running. In a gesture he’d never have attempted in an urban pursuit, Mulder raised his gun and fired into the air. Without skipping a beat, the figure vanished into the next cluster of Ponderosas.

“Shi—!” Mulder roared as he resumed the chase, only to perform a perfect backflip and came to rest with a whump on a deceptively hard bed of pine needles.

“Mulder?”

Mulder opened his eyes to see white starbursts and the concerned faces of Scully and Ranger Smith hovering above him. He mumbled instructions. Scully and Smith exchanged glances.

“What?” Scully inquired, leaning closer.

“Shit.”

“Mulder, follow my finger with your eyes.”

“No, Scully,” Mulder moaned as he waved them off and rose to a wobbly sitting position. “Shit. On my shoes. I slipped on it. We need to bag them. I think maybe it’s yeti shit.”

 

**

 

As the ATV pulled off the trail into the graveled space beside the station, Mulder spotted it. He jumped out, wincing as he crunched barefooted into the rocks, and stared at the supersized bus parked illegally by the curb bordering the parking lot. A small mob of largely young and, dare he judge, nerdish visitors were clustered by the cab.

“MOTW,” Smith recited, gawking at the dripping moss-green legend on the side of the vehicle.

Monster of the Week,” Scully groaned. “The Knowledge Channel. ‘What you don’t know, we cover.’”

“Your partner should get checked out. Where’s he going?”

She sighed. “The circus just came to town, and Mulder wants to see the freak show. C’mon.”

By the time they reached the bus, Mulder had flashed tin and scattered the geek patrol. He was laughing and chatting with a tall, ruggedly telegenic twentysomething as his equally millennial crew debarked, a few bearing bulky equipment cases.

bo

“Hey, Scully, meet Bo Rodman,” Mulder grinned, possible concussion seemingly forgotten. “Bo, this is my partner, and Jason Smith — he’s kinda the sheriff around these parts.”

“Ranger,” Smith amended. “Can I ask what you guys doing here?”

Bo nodded at him and hopped down from the cab, nearly colliding with Scully. “Hey. I was just telling Fox, we’re looking to do an investigation of the Mesa Monster.”

“Investigation. Ah. And just how did you happen to hear of the ‘Mesa Monster’?”

Capped teeth emerged from Bo’s square jaw. “Well, we were doing a piece for the new season on some lake monster sightings over in Tortilla Flats…”

Mulder straightened. “Serpentine?”

“Focus,” Scully ordered.

“So we were packing up for lunch when Scot showed me this YouTube feed that’s just the shits.” He pulled his iPhone from a cargo pocket and clicked up a dark and grainy – and familiar – scene. Punching the play arrow, he reran Smith’s security feed.

“How’d they get that?” Smith demanded weakly.

“Oh, that’s just the teaser, Bro,” Bo assured him. He searched up a second video. “This one, we got Messaged directly, ‘bout a half-hour ago on our way up.”

Scully closed her eyes. Mulder looked at the ground.

“How’d they…?” Smith whispered as he stared at the aerial yeti footage.

“Must’ve hacked the drone,” Mulder suggested. “You, know, that video was taken as part of an ongoing federal… Oh, hell.”

“Yeah,” Bo empathized. “So, we certainly don’t want to disrupt your routine or anything, Ranger, but we already contacted the Parks Service, and I was wondering if you had a few minutes to sign some standard releases? Boilerplate stuff. We assume all liability for any damage, blahblahblah.”

“You got any theories?” Mulder asked.

Bo reluctantly glanced back. “Me?”

“Sure. I watch the show – you seem to actually have a reasonable grasp of zoology and folklore.”

“Two years at the San Diego Zoo. Intern. Well, community service, but hey…”

“So, any thoughts?”

“Well, you ever heard of the Mogollon Monster? Been sighted all over central and east Arizona for more than 100 years. Seven feet tall, red eyes, smells like dead fish or a skunk. Earliest reported witness said it had long white/gray hair and two-inch claws. Claimed it was drinking the blood of a dead cougar.”

“Someone was drinking, anyway,” Scully asserted. Bo shrugged.

“Heard there’ve been a lot more sightings by Indi–, Native Amer–, uh, indigenous peoples on a few of the Apache reservations, but good luck opening them up. We were onto a hot lead on a wendigo a year or so ago, and…”

“Thank you, Mr. Rodman,” Scully interrupted. “Here’s my card. Stay available.”

“Hellz, yea—” Bo began, but Scully was already marching back toward the ranger’s station.

 

**

 

Scully regarded Mulder and Smith neutrally as they appeared in the office doorway.

“In our defense,” Mulder began.

“Let’s move on, gentlemen,” his partner advised. “The cat, or bear, or protohominid is out of the bag, and by tomorrow, that drone footage likely will have gotten a few million hits. I’d say we have a narrow window before every…every Mulder…in a three-state area shows up here.”

“Already got my NSA guy tracking Jason’s phone,” Mulder diverted hastily. “Which brings me to something that hit me as a little bit off down by the river. Jason, you told me your phone was equipped with an Otterbox?”

Smith dropped into his chair. “Military-grade rubber. Eight million ways to trash your gear out here.”

Mulder nodded. “So why wasn’t it on your phone down on the riverbank? The impression we found was of a naked smartphone – no case.”

Smith mulled, then shook his head.

“I was thinking about something Chung said last night,” Mulder told Scully. “About yetis and human technology, and about why they might steal park equipment with little real practical value outside scientific applications. Why do you take your phone out of its case, Scully?”

A brow rose. “To…look at it? I don’t know…”

“To look at it. Examine it. Maybe to tinker around, pop the hood, see how it ticks?”

“What are you getting at, Agent?” Ranger Smith drawled.

“Reverse engineering.”

“Say what?”

“Look, say we have a creature with higher-than-average primate intelligence who’s moved further and further into man’s habitat. Or, more accurately, has been crowded out of its own. After a while, maybe this creature begins to explore the conveniences, the comforts, the social structure of the beast that’s gained dominion over its former territory, over the species. TVs, manmade heat and refrigeration, internal combustion, microwave ovens, planes, computers and cellphones. Technology – the key to Homo sapiens’ ascension through the zoological ranks.

“And who’s to say this is their first heist? I bet if we checked sheriff’s departments around the area, we’d discover a number of home or business break-ins, with thefts confined to gadgets, appliances, and devices.”

“And they’re, what?” Scully challenged. “Pirating them?”

“Learning, Scully. Catching up to the Industrial Revolution, the Atomic Age, and the Information Age in one sweeping move. Studying human tech in order to develop their own.”

“Reverse engineering…”

Mulder shrugged. “A-bomb – that’s what I’m calling him, her, it – was talking to somebody on the ranger’s phone. That guy in the woods wasn’t a lost birdwatcher. I think the yeti have an accomplice, a human accomplice. Look, Scully, you and I have dealt with some of the more radical eco-activists. What do they argue? How do they excuse acts of vandalism, even dangerous acts? Man’s continuing global clusterfuck. Maybe this guy’s trying to speed up Chung’s anticipated timetable for Man’s succession.” Mulder’s own phone buzzed; he held up a finger.

“Yeah,” he greeted. “Wow, great…What? What do you mean? Right now? You sure? Okaaay, thanks.”

Mulder ended the call absently, then silently examined a park map on the opposite wall.

“Mulder?” Scully prompted.

“Fox?” Ranger Smith attempted. Mulder looked up. “I mean, Agent Mulder?”

Mulder smiled lamely. “My buddy, he located your phone. No, Jason, you won’t need your jacket. It’s right here. At the station. C’mon.”

 

**

 

“Yup,” Mulder announced as he carefully pulled the smartphone, sans Otterbox, from the storage compartment of the ATV. “Well, we know one more thing about the yeti.”

Smith mournfully inspected the scarred casing, the cracked screen bearing a single, very large fingerprint. “What’s that, Agent?”

“He’s a world-class dick.”

 

Travelers Inn

7:23 p.m.

 

“Clawson angry?” Scully asked gently as Mulder pocketed his phone.

“Not as much as you’d imagine,” he replied, looking to his newly arrived Cowboy Cut ribeye for consolation. “He said Skinner was curious but philosophical about the social media leak, wondered how, why, and who would have hacked the drone camera. He asked how much I told the MOTW crew. Turns out they’re already running network promos on the great Mogollon Monster hunt. Oh, and Clawson sent his love.”

“That didn’t happen,” Scully stated.

“Nah.” Mulder sawed into his steak.

Scully picked at her Cobb salad. “So who did hack the drone?”

“Dunno,” Mulder ruminated. Literally. “Though I bet…nyom…it was our yeti-whishperer.”

“The man in the woods?”

“Hoodie Boy.” Mulder swallowed. “He wasn’t dressed like an Old Navy ninja for a romp through the gillyflowers. I think our yeti made our drone and called Hoodie Boy, who beat it out to the site, too late, to clean up any trace.”

“That makes no sense, Mulder,” Scully objected. “If he was trying to conceal the yeti’s existence, why release that video? Why even hack the video?”

“I think he was only interested in cleaning up the human trace – A-Bomb must’ve left the phone behind when he scrambled back to his hidey hole, and Hoodie Boy realized it when his calls went unanswered. Hoodie Boy retrieved the phone just as we arrived, then tried to throw us by planting it on the ATV while we were down by the river. If he wanted us off the yeti’s trail, he’d have wiped the phone. Incidentally, Smith’s doing a comparison of the smartphone print and the print found in the station after the theft. You wanna hand me the butter? Thanks.”

Mulder chewed and Scully stewed until a burst of laughter exploded across the dining room. Bo Rodman and his crew followed a petite blonde server to a corner table, settling in with a clatter. Bo spotted Mulder and saluted, talked briefly to a bearded man to his left, and worked his way through the Wednesday dinner crowd.

“Wonderful,” Scully muttered.

“The FBI’s most wanted!” the producer/monster hunter proclaimed, squeezing Scully into the corner of the booth. “So what’s the haps? Any good leads on our friend?”

“We can’t comment on a—”

“You want a beer?” Mulder invited. “Youch!”

Scully smiled innocently.

“Hellz yeah. Oh, don’t worry about them – they don’t listen to me half the time anyway.”

“Great.” Mulder signaled the waitress. “So, there’s a lake serpent in Tortilla Flats.”

“Sorry, boys,” Scully blurted. “I’ve got paperwork.”

“On what?” Mulder asked, withdrawing his legs.

Scully stared across the table as Bo helped himself to a chunk of ciabatta bread.

“On the thing, the classified thing,” she finally responded.

“Oh, that thing. See you upstairs.”

“Don’t hurry,” Scully recommended as Bo skirted out of the booth.

Bo and Mulder stared after her, then the agent turned with a smile. “Lake serpent.”

 

**

 

Scully froze in the bar entry. Jose Chung, winner of the 1987 Pasadena Speculative Non-Fiction Writer’s “Speckie” Award, waved her in with his glowing green martini.

“Please, allow me to order you one of these delightful concoctions,” the author cooed as she took the opposite stool. “I imagine it’s been a difficult day. As the millennials would say, you’re trending. Barmaid, un appletini, and another triple for me. Gracias.”

16144518_644837289034250_180541610_n

Scully leaned back. Quirky and narcissistic as he was, Chung was a somewhat comforting presence. “I will admit, I was a bit surprised not to find you at the park today. You missed quite a bit of excitement today.”

“It fortunately missed me, as well,” he said. “Besides, I’m what you might call a very indoorsy sort of fellow. Which reminds me – how is the unfortunate Agent Mulder? I understand he took a nasty blow to the noggin. Nothing permanently jogged loose or back into place, I trust?”

“Same old Mulder,” she smiled. Chung shrugged wistfully. “So how did you occupy your day?”

Chung beamed as the appletinis arrived. “Nostrovia!,” he toasted.

“That sounds suspiciously like a lead-in,” Scully suggested.

Chung’s eyes lit. “If I had a daughter, Agent,” he began, fondly, “she almost certainly would prove a bitter and erosive disappointment. She would lure me in with infantile babble and amateurishly endearing crayon drawings and A-minuses that should have been straight As, given her bloodline. Then, adolescence would set in, and more and more of my writing energies would be diverted to parent-teacher conferences, bail and juvenile court hearings, hanging about maternity wards and embarrassingly inept first-grade productions, and, ultimately, endless ‘There, theres’ as her own domestic bliss falls to ashes. As I reached the inevitable point of senescence, she likely would attempt to seize my literary power of attorney, posthumously publishing foolishly preserved manuscripts revealing – hypothetically, of course – old Dad’s penchant toward footwear fetishes. You are so much better than a daughter.

“And yes, that was by way of preface.” Chung sipped his appletini and toasted the barkeep. “Whilst you and Skippy were chasing through the forests primeval and racking up ‘Likes,’ I was engaged in cerebral pursuits at the local public library and a few frontier museums of dubious pedigree. Voila.”

Chung pushed a photocopy of a clipping toward Scully. It was stamped June 15, 1874, and in the purplish prose of the day outlined “the august visit of heralded Russian explorer and diplomat Nikolay Przhevalsky to our humble Valley.”

“’While the specific purpose and business of the esteemed Mr. Przhevalsky and his ensemble remain shrouded in secrecy,’” Scully read, “’the legendary former imperial soldier and naturalist was heard during his tour of the desert countryside to acclaim upon its grand beauty. Asked by this writer to elaborate upon his forays deep into the forbidding reaches of the Asian region, Przhevalsky offered a brief and succinct reply in his native tongue, which, unfortunately, his interpreter was unable to adequately convey in English.’”

“Przhevalsky was, to put it crassly and succinctly, a dick,” Chung noted. “And a racist and drunkard. One out of three, I suppose. I’ve found very few additional accounts of the tsarist bastard’s visit, which itself is significant.”

“It was unofficial, off the books,” Scully nodded. “Naturally, an imperial Russian VIP visiting a then-small Western community would be noteworthy and, I assume difficult to contain locally. At the same time, in those unconnected times, it was unlikely such an event would leak to state or national newspapers. You said very few additional accounts. What else do you have?”

Chung produced a soiled, creased, and yellowed photo. It depicted a haughty, mustachioed thirtysomething man with a Stalin-style cut and an impeccable, continentally cut suit and waistcoat, flanked uncomfortably by a group of what were clearly locals in Stetsons and fedoras. They were posing before a large paneled wagon with high spoked wheels. To the left and right of the Przhevalsky Fan Club were thick chains encircling the wagon’s body.

“Precious cargo,” Scully surmised. “Any indication why they needed the heavy security? And how does this relate to our, um, hairy friend?”

Chung drained his martini with a satisfied smacking. “Cue the balalaikas! Nikolay Mikhaylovich Przhevalsky was born in 1839 to a noble Belarusian family in the western Russian village of Smolensk. Like any good little Russian boy born to nobility, he was enrolled at the military academy at St. Petersburg, but he was destined to make maps, not war, and wound up a geography teacher at a military school in Warsaw.  In 1867, Nikolay actually asked to be shipped to Siberia to explore the Ussuri River basin along the Russian-Chinese border. That led to publication of the electrifyingly titled Travels In the Ussuri Region 1867-69 and a ticket to Central Asia – the Broadway of 19th Century Russian explorers.

“In roughly 1870, Przhevalsky and his merry little band of Russkies crossed the Gobi Desert, explored the upper Yangtze, and then, in 1872, crossed into – wait for it, wait for it – Tibet.”

“Ah.”

“You bet your sweet but stylishly demure little panties. Nikolay and the Boys surveyed more than 7,000 square miles, collecting more than 5,000 plants, 1,000 birds, 3,000 insects, 70 reptiles, and the skins of 130 different mammals, in addition to some key military intelligence. Our lad returns home to great fanfare, a promotion to lieutenant-general on the tsar’s general staff, and both the Imperial Geography Society’s Constantine Medal and the Order of St. Vladimir. Think a Grammy and a Tony, with a Golden Globes nod tossed in. He returns to the region in 1876 for four more expeditions, before catching a scorching case of typhus from the Chur River. They gave him a very nice statue in St. Petersburg, and named a horse, a gazelle, and five lizards after him. I should get one lizard named for me, God forbid!”

Scully sipped her cocktail thoughtfully before looking up. “If I get where this all is going…”

“Bingo!” Chung exclaimed, rousing the bartender. “Oh. Sorry. Please go on.”

“I assume your theory is that Przhevalsky returned from that first expedition with more than merely 5,000 plants, 1,000 birds, and 130 mammals.”

“Bingo! Agent Scully, I believe Nikolay made a discovery of far more import to the Empire than a spotted Nepalese hornet or a shaggy pony. After all, they don’t hand out those Orders of St. Vladimir like M&Ms, I assume. I believe that during his travels in Tibet, he heard the tales of a certain Himalayan behemoth, and like any dedicated scientist with a jones for fame and medals, decided to bag himself a yeti.”

Scully jumped at a roar of laughter from the nearby steakhouse. “No simple task, I’d imagine. And even if he succeeded, and managed to bring one back alive, why wouldn’t he have trumpeted his discovery? It would have made scientific history.”

Chung fell silent, arching a brow at his drinking companion.

“Agent,” he finally said. “You’ve seen some literally incredible things over the last 20 years. The existence of alien intelligence, evidence of uncanny human mental powers, giant flukelike men. But until the destruction of a trans dimensional rift on nationwide TV, these discoveries wound up buried under layers of government subterfuge and obfuscation. Why, pray tell, is that?”

He arched the other brow until Scully exhaled and slugged down the rest of her appletini.

“If you can’t civilize it, weaponize it,” Chung suggested. He grabbed for a cocktail napkin and his pen. “Say, that’s pretty good.”

 

**

 

Scully’s phone rattled on the nightstand as she slipped out of her jeans. She was halfway to it when she spotted a familiar visage on the muted room TV. She seized the remote and cranked the volume.

“Why are we so arrogant as to assume we’re alone among the intelligent apes?” Mulder challenged in extreme close-up. “Because we’re too clever to let a seven-foot, hairy hominid give us the slip? I think that says more about us than them, er, it. Right?”

Cue titles. “IT’S THE ONLY MONSTER ON THE FBI’S MOST WANTED LIST, AND WE’RE IN ON THE HUNT! BE THERE FOR THE SEASON PREMIERE OF MONSTER OF THE WEEK, IN TWO WEEKS ON THE KNOWLEDGE CHANNEL!”

Cut to mid-close-up Bo Rodman, hanging from MOTW bus cab. “I’m Bo. Join us for another expedition into the unknown! What you don’t know CAN hurt you!”

“Mulder,” Scully growled, silencing the set. She glanced down at her phone. CHARLIE2. Scully dropped onto the bed, staring at the display before hitting callback.

“Dana?” Even after the past few years, Charles Scully’s disembodied voice occasionally jarred her more than the face that mirrored her dead brother. The neurosurgeon’s tone betrayed a sanity, a peace that had eluded the tragically wayward young man of her Earth. The Charles Scully that could have been. Though her “brother” from another universe had become a trusted confidante and friend, that continued to torment Scully.

“Hey,” she nonetheless responded, breezily. “Sorry I missed you. Mulder was on cable.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah, wow.”

“Anyway, I checked the journals and talked to some of the guys at the Georgetown Zoological Cognizance Lab, and there doesn’t seem to be any physiological reason why your ape couldn’t have advanced from quadrupedal to bipedal locomotion. Bipedalism appears far more related to environmental adaptation than biological change. Ancient climatic shifts forced many early hominids out of the trees and onto grasslands. An erect structure, along with other defenses, helped them deter predators, and it’s been suggested bipedalism increased the amount of primate body surface exposed to favorable wind speeds and temperatures, helping dissipate heat that could slow their reactions. If you’re trying to tranquilize Mulder, you better look in a new direction.”

“Worth a try. Have a good time at the Smithsonian?”

Charlie’s clinical voice warmed. “She loved it, especially the aeronautics stuff. I still marvel at how you guys arrived at the same technology through such a circuitous route. Oh, and we stopped at a Korean taco food truck, Charlotte’s insistence. Hope it didn’t spoil her supper. Your mom already seems wary about me spending time with…”

“Charlie, stop it. You know it’s not you. You know that. It’s just…”

“I know. Give it time. Time heals.”

“Indeed. Though Mulder might want to hang out with his new friends a little longer.”

 

**

 

Scully started awake at the first thump. The red LED readout at her elbow read 1:43. A low rumble sounded from the suite’s main room, evolving into a rhythmic growl. She slid stealthily from under the comforter, sliding the bedside drawer silently open and extracting her Glock. Scully’s bare feet bore into the carpet, and she edged toward the doorway.

“Well, hey, you’re up,” Mulder grinned from the floor. “You din’t have to do…waking up. I gotta key, y’know, though the lock thing kept, you know, kept moving.” Mulder tried to remove the new shoe that had replaced his yeti-soiled Land’s End boot, but fell on his back in the effort and surrendered. “Hey, hey, as long as you’re already up…”

“Don’t even,” Scully sighed.

“No, no,” Mulder placated, using the coffee table to climb to his feet. “Jus’ let me find something to get these things off.”

“Whoa,” a voice erupted from the couch. Scully leveled her gun, and Bo Rodman’s head popped up above the sofa back and as quickly ducked behind the cushions. “I thought you said something about a…a…nightcap, dude.”

Mulder giggled. “Oh, shit, I, uh, forgot all about you. Scully, where’s the, you know, the minibar?”

His partner loudly thumbed off her safety.

“Yeah,” Mulder mumbled. “You prolly better go, Bro.”

 

**

 

“Can you drive any, I don’t know, softer?”

Scully’s foot twitched on the gas pedal.

“OK, OK, you’re still pissed, I got that,” Mulder said as saguaro and chollo and tractor trailers hurtled by. “Soooo, Przhevalsky bagged hisself a yeti for the tsar, who decided to, what, turn it into some kind of supersoldier?”

“I don’t think that’s what I suggested at all,” Scully replied. “Though Chung found some evidence that the imperial government might have been conducting some sort of covert research involving  Przhevalsky, who then turns up in Arizona with a mysterious cargo under lock and key. I’m not yet ready to concede he had a stowaway snowman in tow, but it bears further investigation. And what did you do with your evening, beyond wallowing in Coors and testosterone?”

“Actually, before we moved on to the entertainment portion of the program, Bo provided some interesting insights. Did you know he was the first-season host of Hack’d?”

“I think Downton Abbey was on at the same time…”

“So, they did this segment on drones, and it turns out it’s not that tough to hack a drone — non-commercial models particularly creates an unprotected wireless signal, and even with encryption, a group at Johns Hopkins discovered three different ways to send rogue commands from a laptop and crash the drone. Few months back, a Trend Micro security researcher demonstrated the Icarus Box, which lets you lock an operator out and hijack a drone or any other radio-controlled device that runs over the DSMx wireless transmission protocol. The major manufacturers have been rushing to release patches and updates, but a talented hacker could probably bypass those in a few moves. Same time, wireless IP surveillance cameras are pretty easy to hack, even by smartphone. So it’s not inconceivable our social media leaker either captured the live yeti feed or copied the video file.

“But either way, that requires some advanced planning on our hacker’s part, or at least some expectation of a hacking opportunity. But Smith’s plan to use the drones was kind of a last-minute thing.”

Scully turned at the arrowhead logo into the National Park, to find a lengthy queue of vehicles creeping toward the Golden Mesa visitor’s center. “I don’t quite get where you’re going with this.”

“Well, unless our hacker was waiting in a camper for a random drone to fly by in a vast wilderness area, how did he or she know any video would be available?”

“A prank?” Scully suggested, edging forward. “I mean, Mulder, you can buy a small drone for $50 bucks at a Walmart. A national park might seem the ideal place to get some aerial video, and some computer lab delinquent might think it was a hoot to hijack a few drones.”

“National parks are considered no-drone zones because of the noise, safety, and wildlife disruption issues, “ Mulder countered. “You can get hit for $50 to a few thousand if you get caught. So any illegal drone use likely would be confined to the more remote reaches of the forest – it’s unlikely a hacker would see any major opportunity here.”

“So where are you going with this?”

Mulder gestured toward the congested parking lot ahead. “It’s where we’re going, Scully.”

 

**

 

“Yesterday’s anonymous release of what may be the first major video of the Mogollon Monster has generated a standing room only crowd at Golden Mesa National Park,” Bo said, waving a hand toward the distant Superstition Mountains as a throng behind MOTW-emblazoned barriers stared on memorized. “This may be the largest audience we’ve ever witnessed in our quest to find America’s unknown creatures. Come along with us on the search for our Monster of the Week.” Bo released his abdominal muscles. “And that’s a wrap. Pack her up, and we’ll head up to King Crab Bend.”

“Kingfisher Bend,” Mulder corrected from the sidelines.

America’s Favorite Cryptozoologist whipped around with a broad grin, and approached palm aloft. “My Mulder from another mother! And, hey, Agent Dana! Man, you shoulda stuck around for the par-tay!”

“I feel like I was a part of it,” she said drily as Mulder delivered five. Bo turned to her, expectantly, then dropped his arm under Scully’s dead stare.

“Bo, bro, I wonder if you could do us a favor?” Mulder interjected.

“Dude, anything. You’re practically like family…”

“Well, family…” Mulder disclaimed, averting eye contact with Scully. He glanced at the mob behind him as a dozen smartphone cams fired off. “Can we talk on the bus?”

 

**

 

Ranger Smith nodded Mulder, Scully, and Rodman into the cluttered office, grimacing as an indication he was about to wrap things up.

“No, that’s not been substantiated,” he admonished patiently into the handset. “I can’t comment on that, you know that. Lemme get you the number for NPS Communications, OK?”

“Guys,” he finally beamed as he cradled the phone. “Sorry ‘bout that – been ringing off the hook all morning. Mostly local media, bloggers, weird support groups.”

“Yeah,” Mulder responded. “I noticed you’re really packin’ em in today.”

“Right? Damn social media – like a mob scene. Dr. Loracz had a hell of a time getting into the park today.”

“Hope we didn’t hold him up,” Scully said.

“Oh, no – he’s been on sabbatical for four month, and he was happy to help,” Smith dismissed. “I set him up in the wildlife lab – he brought a portable rapid DNA unit. Wanna head over there? Sorry, Mr. Rodman, but I don’t think–”

“Actually, we invited him along,” Mulder smiled. “Bo’s been a big help with the more ‘unusual’ elements of this case, as well as a few technical aspects. You know he used to host a show about hackers?”

Smith’s grin widened. “Don’t watch much TV.”

“Well, as part of that show, Bo learned a lot about the cyber universe – IP tracking, program code and tags. We wanted to get a line on how your drone video got into the public domain so quickly, and Bo’s got a regular data command post on his bus.”

“Good luck with that,” Smith laughed uncertainly. “I’ve heard it’s not so tough to hack a drone.”

“Yeah, that isn’t what happened,” Mulder chuckled back.

“Jason, isn’t a record crowd, especially a sustained crowd, a good thing for the park? I mean, we’re right up on budget hearings on the Hill, and I noticed Golden Mesa’s approps have been steadily shrinking over the past five years.”

“We’re low-hanging meat,” Smith countered.

“Fruit,” Mulder corrected.

“Yeah, that. Nobody cares about the Parks, especially when a microscopic slice of their tax dollar goes to maintain them. Wildlife preservation, the ecosystem, climate change – that’s like collateral damage to those Beltway guys.”

“But a little media buzz about some mysterious creature deep in the wilds might help whip up park attendance, which has been particularly low here over the last 10 years,” Mulder suggested. “Especially if you know a cable network production crew is in the vicinity. They broadcast the MOTW tip line at the end of every episode and on the website, so it was simple to lure Bo and the boys out.”

Smith sputtered. “What? Guys, seriously?”

Bo leaned forward. “Dude, you know that every .jpeg, every video file contains breadcrumbs you can use to trace it back to point of origin?”

“Huh.”

“Yeah. So I had our IT guy break down the code of that drone video we were sent, hoping I could give my buds here a lead on who sent it to me. And guess what I found, Bro?”

“Mm.”

“My guy expected to find some kind of complicated trail, like you’d see if a file was copied onto an external system and a dupe sent through a maze of IP addresses. But this .mpeg file was the original, Dude. You get me?”

“In other words, straight from the drone camera feed, first-gen,” Mulder said. “My guess is that in your rush to get the video out to MOTW – probably while you were bringing the drones back in and we were gearing up to get to the scene – you accidentally sent the original drone feed instead of a copy. The evidence should still be on your system.”

Smith’s eyes darted to his monitor, a calloused paw twitched toward the keyboard. His mouth formed an innocent grin, but his eyes weren’t in it, and he slumped back in his chair.

“Scooby Doo!” Bo exclaimed. “I should’ve known it was the friendly park ranger all along. If it weren’t for us meddling kids…”

“Bo, seriously, dude,” Mulder sighed. “Jason?”

“Shiiiit,” Smith moaned, making it four syllables. “Guys, I’m sorry. I guess I just saw a way to generate some public interest – like you said, I knew Mr. Rodman here would bust a nut over that video. I know it was wrong. I mean, I didn’t break any federal laws, did I?”

“Wait,” Bo broke in. “So this whole monster thing is one big fraud?”

“Yes,” Scully said, as Mulder shook his head.

“Why bring in the FBI if he simply wanted to get bodies into the park with a harmless video leak?” he posed. “Even if he’d staged the station burglary – which for reasons I am too hung over to repeat just doesn’t track – the federal government isn’t going to write off even a few thousand dollars of its overpriced gear. You guys will shoot a week or so of video, stalk through the pines with your night scopes, edit in a spooky soundtrack and a cryptically unsatisfying wrap-up. Fade to black, Cialis commercial.”

“Well, that’s kind of oversimplifying the process…” Bo protested.

“No, I think that thing we saw in the security and drone video is the real deal. And Jason knows it.”

“Well, we don’t actually—”

“Jason,” Mulder warned. “Only you can prevent pants fires. If it weren’t for being a little rusty, it would have hit me immediately. Your phone. No millennial – even a nature boy like you – can go 24 hours without their smartphone fix. Yet, you expected us to buy that you didn’t miss your stolen phone for a week?

“Now, either you’re as dumb as Scully says you are,” – Mulder waved off his partner’s protest – “or somebody flipped the script on you, and you had to think fast and sloppy on your feet when we realized Bigfoot had gone broadband.”

“He shouldn’t have even been able to get a signal in that part of the—” Jason’s lips clamped, then parted. “Look, he never gave me his name.”

Mulder smiled. “Maybe you are smarter than the average bear, Jason. Just barely.”

The ranger stared out the window at the wilderness beyond. “Wait a minute.”

“Here it comes,” Mulder murmured.

“That stuff about breadcrumbs and IP addresses and codes. That was a bunch of shit, wasn’t it?”

Bo shrugged. “Shit, I don’t know, bro.”

 

**

 

“Dr. Loracz?”

The slight, balding scientist continued to study the readout on the printer-sized box before him. Scully stepped further into the wildlife lab, a clutter of Pyrex, outdated gadgets and gauges, and thick zoology texts.

“Dr. Loracz?”

He turned, and jumped. The veterinary scientist grinned sheepishly. “Sorry, I was so focused on my work, I didn’t…notice… you.”

“Agent Dana Scully, Professor,” she smiled, flashing her ID. Loracz looked expectantly into the redhead agent’s face. Scully was accustomed to academic fanboy interest – she was a specimen they seldom seemed to encounter. “I understand you’re running the DNA samples we found yesterday.”

“Oh, yes,” Loracz said, eyes locked. “Nice to take the old RapidHIT out for a spin now and then. And, I have to say, the trip’s been highly worthwhile. Your creature left a significant amount of saliva on the Oncorhynchus apache you brought back – enough to get a fairly complete chromosomal profile. Let me see if I can laymanize this, Agent.”

“I’m a physician, Professor,” Scully supplied.

“Ah, well, great, then. So you know that Homo sapiens possesses 23 pairs of chromosomes, just like Neanderthals and Denisovians – an extinct human subspecies. Twenty-four pairs is the normal complement for every other known member of the family Hominidae, which as you know includes the chimps and great apes. Our donor sample has 25. Twenty-FIVE. Just like the earlier hair samples Jason submitted.”

Scully nodded. “And…uh…what about bears?”

Loracz squinted. “Pardon?”

“Would a…bear…maybe also have, ah, 50 chromosomes?”

“Heavens, no. Seventy-four – 37 pairs.” He chuckled. “Sorry. So we are fairly certain the donor is some form of hominid primate. But then we look at Chromosome 2, and we find that he – the donor was a male – is a horse of a different color.”

Scully frowned. Loracz grinned.

“I meant that metaphorically, of course.”

“Of course.”

“The donor is not a member of the family Equidae, a horse. That was simply a—”

“Got it,” Scully smiled forcefully. “Chromosome 2.”

Loracz fumbled absently with his reddened right ear. “Yes, yes, Chromosome 2 is the second-largest human chromosome, spanning more than 242 million base pairs. It’s thus a focal point for genomic comparison. And not only does its analog in this sample differ sharply from Chromosome 2, but it also contains DNA sequences I’ve never seen in any primate sample.”

“What do you think that means?”

“That the sample contained DNA sequences I’ve never seen in any primate sample.”

“Oh.”

 

**

 

“I got into the Park Service to try to do something, you know?” Ranger Smith said. “For the planet, you know? For the animals?”

Bo Rodman had been banished to his shoot with promises Mulder likely was not authorized to make. Mulder nodded sympathetically, nearly knee to knee with the ranger.

“Go on,” the agent murmured.

“Did you know 150 to 200 plants and animals become extinct every 24 hours?”

“Yes, I actually did.”

“Oh.” Smith blinked. “We did that shit. We’re doing that shit. It’s like a fucking shooting gallery out there, man. Hunters, poachers, malls, subdivisions, the oil companies, the rain forests. I mean, ripping out the rain forests, not—”

“Gotcha,” Mulder smiled, seeking to steer this back toward something resembling a criminal investigation.

“Yeah…so. The parks are the only place where they’re protected – wildlife, that is. But, like I said, nobody cares about that, or the parks. It’s just a matter of time. So when I got this call in D.C., the night after I talked to you guys, it blew my mind.”

Mulder leaned in.

“He didn’t give his name,” Smith lamented. “But he took credit for the station robbery. Well, he didn’t take personal credit.”

“The yeti did it.”

“Yup. I know, crazy, right?”

“Well…”

“So I tell him bullshit, and he tells me everything that got stolen, down to serial numbers. Then he asks if I’d like to help him keep the park open and protect an endangered species. You know, the…”

“Yeti, yeah.”

“I tell him I already talked to you guys, and he says even better.”

Mulder frowned. “The FBI, even better?”

“Yeah, right? So he tells me where to hide my iPhone, out by the trail, and tells me to get some drones in the air.”

“He wanted the yeti on video?”

“Right? He wanted you guys to see ‘The Island,’ he called it. Kept saying it — no fucking idea what he meant. Then he told me to make a copy of the video and send it to the TV guys. Except I kinda fucked that up, you know?”

“I know,” Mulder nodded, patting Smith’s knee.

 

**

 

Scully stopped halfway down the walk to the parking lot. “Mulder.”

The MOTW bus was still parked by the curb, still surrounded by nature lovers and lookie-loos. This time, however, the crowd was focused on an animated, obscenity-laced argument between Bo Rodman, a burly cameraman, and three yetis. Three small yetis, one with a thick East Coast accent.

“Now, THIS is what I’m talking,” Mulder grinned as he stepped up the pace with a hapless Scully in tow.

“Agents, great!” Bo shouted as Mulder stepped between the producer and the three erstwhile hominids, waving his ID. “Get these assholes out of here!”

“Who you callin’ asshole, dickweed?” the smallest, roundest, female yeti bellowed. Her Velcro fasteners tore as she pivoted to Mulder and Scully. “This asshole assaulted us!”

“That’s abominable,” Mulder deadpanned. “What, nothing? Okay, what happened? Bo, then the Beastie Girl.”

“Fran. Fran Giordano,” the little yeti snapped.

“Fran here and her two gorillas (Scully snorted despite herself) were sabotaging our shoot out on the trail,” Bo growled. “The guys’d found a set of big tracks leading into the woods, and these guys jumped them.”

The cameraman stepped in. “Wasn’t so much jumped us as—”

“Ryan,” Bo warned. Mulder nodded and turned to Giordano. “Just what kind of monkey business are you guys up to, Fran?”

Fran removed her yeti head to reveal an even more daunting scowl. “We’re with FINS.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

“Friends in Intervention for New Species,” she clarified in icy Bronx syllables. “We protect the hidden species Greenpeace and World Wildlife won’t.”

“A cryptid preservation activist group?” Scully pondered. “I never heard of you before. Are you a local chapter?”

Fran paused, then her jaw jutted. “We’re like, kinda, well, it. Kyle and Ozzie and me. I’m a post-grad in the ASU Environmental Sciences Department. One day, we were watching some video of unknown deep sea species in the Mariana Trench and it hit us, there’s no place where they can escape from us anymore. We’re already losing you know how many species a day?”

“Already saw that Powerpoint,” Mulder said.

“Well, smartass, imagine how long the Sasquatch, the tatzelwurm, the mokele-mbembe will last when we finally track them down? I mean, fuck, we even call them monsters, like they’re a human threat instead of a vital component of a sustainable ecosystem. We can’t stop commercial development, the destruction of the rainforests, overfishing, but we can try to slow down morons like this guy. All we did was scream and wave our arms around when his crew walked into our trap and maybe scare off the real Mogollon ‘Monster’ or whatever it is.”

Bo sneered. “Ever occur to you ecoterrorists that maybe exposure on Monster–, MOTW, might help raise public consciousness about these vulnerable and endangered creatures?”

Fran looked to her comrades, and the trio erupted in laughter.

“Yeah, Bro, that was kind of a stretch,” Mulder admitted.

 

Travelers Inn

3:10 p.m.

 

“’Curiouser and curiouser’…” Jose Chung mulled.

“Also Charles Dickens, I assume,” a barefooted Mulder grunted from the hotel bed. “Remind me again why you’re here?”

“Because, Agent Mulder, three heads are better than 1 ½,” the author suggested.

“I felt Mr. Chung might provide a little additional perspective,” Scully intervened. “After all, he may have established a historical explanation for the creature’s presence in the States.”

“Which poses even more questions. Why would a Russian explorer covertly bring a yeti to America? Even back in the 1870s, I’d think he’d have had some federal hurdles to clear, or at least a few rubles to spread around.”

Chung tipped his plastic cup of unauthorized minibar bourbon at Mulder. “Actually, Russia supported the Union in the Civil War, I suspect to protect the commercial ventures that popped up after the Russkies sold us Alaska. Horrible place – got Nanook’s Revenge from some bad seal meat. Quid pro quo, y’know – we likely would have let Przhevalsky bring a live Tyrannosaur in for the goodwill value. As for the Big Why, I believe I may have a working hypothesis. Teddy Roosevelt.”

Mulder rose to an elbow and raised a brow at Scully. She slumped behind her laptop.

“Theodore Roosevelt Jr., as we know, was a rugged outdoorsman and carnivore,” Chung continued, unbidden. “But he also was a crackerjack naturalist and wildlife lover from childhood, in a way far removed from the rumors about Grover Cleveland. Did you know he was essentially the father of the modern national parks system?

“Teddy was a weak child, asthmatic, but his pop, Teddy Sr., took him on family treks to Europe, Egypt, and ultimately, the Alps, where Teddy 2 caught the fitness bug, did his hitch in the military, and went on to murder many a hapless critter. Pop’d made his fortune in the plate glass biz and a New York philanthropist–”

“Wikipedia much?” Mulder yawned. But he was upright now, and Chung pressed on.

“Like Przhevalsky, Teddy was a soldier and naturalist with a yen to explore and plenty of yen from good old dad. Could these two wacky guys have hooked up somewhere along the way?”

He paused for effect. Mulder sighed loudly.

“You’re a very ungracious audience,” Chung scolded. “The answer, of course, is yes, or I would never have brought it up. Delving through Pop Roosevelt’s memoirs, I found that the Roosevelts bumped into Przhevalsky at a diplomatic do during a sojourn in London. Przhevalsky was an Anglophile in addition to any other philes he might have engaged in, and that toddling town was his favorite. Pops noted young Teddy was fascinated by Przhevalsky’s military strategies and East Asian expeditions, and nearly talked the Russky’s ear off, through an interpreter, of course, which must have been uber-annoying.”

“I empathize,” Mulder muttered, now resigned to raiding the minibar booze.

“Fact: Teddy knew Nikolay. Get me another Wild Turkey, that’s a good boy. Fact: Nikolay returned from Tibet with a mysterious cargo, which wound up here in the Garden State.”

“The Garden State’s New Jersey.”

“Fact: Pop Roosevelt was loaded. Fact: Nikolay obviously needed some pull and probably a couple boxcars, and, as I clarified in Point 3, Pops was loaded and connected. Ergo, Pop Roosevelt aided and abetted Nikolay Przhevalsky in smuggling and transporting an abominable snowman across the Continental Divide.”

Mulder belted his airline Bailey’s in one gulp. “First of all, most of those aren’t really facts, the way I understand facts. Second, that is some pretty hefty ergo-ing. You’ve taken two historical figures from roughly the same timeframe, jammed them together in a sloppy Forrest Gump narrative, and come up with a whopper that lacks plausibility, continuity, and any kind of logical motivation.”

“So you like my theory?” Chung asked.

“Actually, I’ve heard worse,” Mulder conceded, scrounging for another Bailey’s.

 

**

 

“Now that Dr. Seuss is gone, a little briefing and, if it won’t spoil supper, maybe a little debriefing?”

“That first one sounds good,” Scully responded. “The second sounds like a promise you and the Bailey’s can’t keep. Since you two already defiled the minibar, let me grab some cashews first.”

Mulder pouted, then bounced back onto the bed. “Fact: Ranger Smith’s anonymous accomplice apparently used a burner phone he or she’s now trashed. Fact: Anonymous actually wanted us on the case, wanted us as witnesses.”

“That’s not altogether surprising,” Scully said, struggling with the cashew bag. The bag exploded, and nuts rained across the carpet. She sighed and dropped into an armchair. “You’ve become a brand name for every…ah, those well acquainted with more esoteric scientific disciplines. Your reputation and indiscriminate social media use precede you. For whatever reason, Anonymous wants an audience, wants us to document the yeti’s existence. The creature’s existence, I mean.”

“Now I AM turned on,” Mulder smirked. “But why?”

“Maybe, and I hate to fuel the legend, but maybe he saw you as a potential ally – someone who could be trusted to protect, rather than exploit, the creature. What?”

Mulder popped off the mattress and rushed to Scully’s laptop. “Let’s go back to Przhevalsky. Przhevalsky the naturalist, not the soldier. Let’s say he happens on a yeti – maybe a colony of yetis – in the Tibetan wilds. He brings the creature back to Mother Russia in the hope of imperial glory and the pursuit of knowledge. But who’s he bring the beast back to? The imperialist military machine? A tsarist government steeped in espionage and expansionist dreams? Alexander II conquered Turkestan and pushed into Siberia and the Caucasus. Part of the reason he was so keen on Przhevalsky exploring Eastern Asia was to get a bead on China’s intentions. Maybe I had it right before – the tsar saw military potential in Przhevalsky’s incredible hulk. Or maybe Przhevalsky’s comrades planned to put A-Bomb Sr. on a dissection slab. Either way, Przhevalsky the naturalist, the conservationist, couldn’t go along with it.

“But what was he to do? Return the creature to its original habitat? Przhevalsky the soldier knew Tibet was a geopolitical hotspot — the British Empire was creeping from northern India into the Himalayas, the Emirate of Afghanistan and the Russian Empire were expanding into Central Asia, and Chinese authority loomed over the region. To his perspective, the yeti species could well be on its way to extinction, if not for his find.

“But then Przhevalsky remembers his London encounter with the young boy, Theodore Roosevelt Jr., with his keen interest in wildlife conservation and a rich daddy who doted on Teddy and indulged his frail son’s outdoor interests. The sparsely inhabited U.S. West might provide a safe, sustainable haven for a large species. And the rest is—”

“–baseless and fantasy-driven speculation,” Scully concluded. “Speaking of which, The Island. What do you think that means?”

“Maybe it’s a literal island,” Mulder said, tapping furiously away. He studied Google Maps. “Nah, no large lakes in Golden Mesa or the immediate area. My guess is typical narcissistic gameplay. Hoodie Guy wants us to know how clever he is, maybe aggrandizing his relationship with the yeti. The Island of Dr. Moreau, maybe? Moreau experimented with half-human beasts; Hoodie Guy seems to have developed some kind of mentor/master relationship with the yeti.”

The Island was Aldous Huxley’s last novel,” Scully ventured. “Kind of a riff on Brave New World – an ideal society that attracts the unwanted attention of the overpopulated outside world. Maybe the yeti are the ‘subjects’ of our guy’s imagined utopia. Goes along with your narcissism profile. And since you seem to be on a mad scientist kick, The Island’s inhabitants used artificial insemination and trance states for rapid advanced learning. Going with Mulderesque logic, maybe a similar technique was used to teach abominable snowmen to use a smartphone.”

”Seems a little obscure, Poindexter, though I’m happy that PBS membership is paying off for you. I’ll start surfing the Lit 101 angle. Unless, maybe, you’d be up for a little hooky…?

Scully smiled, knelt beside Mulder’s ear, and turned his face to hers.

“Read my lips,” she whispered, then mouthed three additional words.

“Little more efficient, I suppose,” Mulder considered as Scully headed toward the bathroom. Then she halted, turned.

“Yeah?” He rose eagerly, pulling at his T-shirt tail.

“No,” Scully stated, absently. “Mulder, get that drone video up.”

 

**

 

Fran and Kyle and Ozzie loaded their now-empty Gatorade jugs into their packs, having successfully completed FINS’ first major offensive op.

The dusky forest was now redolent of a smell that recalled for the organization’s commander the Newark bus terminal john at the end of a long day: Mingled urine, the lingering musk of a day in ape suits, and the sharp edge of pine.

“I don’t know how many times I can do this,” Ozzie complained, belatedly zipping up.

Fran wheeled on him, and despite his significant height advantage, Oz stepped off. “This is one of the frigging highest-traffic areas in the park – that stugatz Rodman’s not getting any monster footage tonight now that we’ve saturated the site. Sides, dude, I’ve heard you take a piss in the morning – like you’re puttin’ out a friggin’ forest fire. Anyways, we’re done for the night – time to vacate.”

Kyle snorted. Giordano scowled. “Sorry, Franny. Vacated, you know?”

“Friggin’ morons.” Fran slung her bag over her broad shoulders and headed for the trail head and the carefully hidden Vespas.

Vegan pizza was on the menu that night, so the trio crunched though the winding terrain at a brisk clip. But halfway down, on the fringe of a thick stand of Golden Mesa’s famous Englemann spruce, Fran clothes-pinned her companions and gestured for silence.

“Friggin’ shit,” she whispered hoarsely. “There it is. There it fucking is.”

Indeed, there it was. Seven feet of dirty cream fur, long limbs, and vaguely simian features, perhaps 10 yards off the trail, snacking on what appeared to be some form of shelf fungus from the bark of a nearby spruce.

“We gotta get this,” Fran breathed, almost orgasmically. “Kyle, your GoPro charged?”

Kyle’s eyes widened. “You mean video? He’s too far away. Besides, isn’t this like what Rodman’s doing? Exploitation?”

She grabbed the front of his jacket. “This is for, like, posterity, preservation. We may be the first humans to document a living, breathing, loving, caring whatever-it-is. And maybe we sell it to Channel 12 or Greenpeace or somethin’ and clear enough for those night-vision goggles Ozzie’s been whinin’ for. Rodman gets fucked over, and the cause gets some needed PR. Look, shithead – she’s eating mushrooms. She’s clearly a vegetarian.”

“Makes you so sure it’s a girl?” Kyle rasped.

“Cause, like you two, she ain’t got a set. Get the fuck down there.”

Kyle swallowed, then unholstered his GoPro Hero5, and began his descent into the grove, chanting a semi-religious, semi-profane mantra. He activated the camera as he stealthily approached the creature, praying his ninja-black ensemble would provide adequate cover. He framed the beast in the viewfinder and began to shoot in a wholly involuntary, trembling cinema verite style.

And then the forest was filled with Macklemores White Privilege II. “Shit,” Kyle gasped as, simultaneously, he fumbled in his jacket to silence the ringtone and the creature jumped with a wrenching scream. It spun and extended its arm accusingly toward FINS’ co-founder. A white arc of light connected the two, and Kyle spun twice before face-planting in the spruce needles.

jane

As his last synapses failed, he heard the monster crash through the forest to a backbeat of hip-hop and Vespas ripping dirt.

 

**

 

“Mess with Sasquatch, you wind up jerky,” Mulder muttered as he watched the sheriff’s men tote a bagful of Kyle up the incline to the trail. “Not a mark on him, Scully.”

“But his pupils are blown,” his partner murmured, pulling her jacket tight against the chill morning. “What are we talking about here?”

Ranger Smith had made the call roughly a half-hour after the Maricopa County P.D. rousted him from his lack of sleep, roughly an hour after the surviving members of FINS called 9-1-1 from an Apache Junction biker bar. A bond of guilt and fear of incarceration had formed between the ranger and the agent, and he eyed Mulder and Scully anxiously as he attempted small-talk with the deputies.

Suddenly, a deputy emerged from the trees waving an evidence bag. After an animated exchange, the cop relinquished the bag to Ranger Smith. Smith scrambled up the hill and extended the bag and the scored metal cylinder inside.

“Mag lite,” Smith puffed. “Thing had a flashlight?”

Mulder delicately plucked the bag from his fingers. “Yeah, let’s not put out an eye or a frontal lobe here. Look carefully, but don’t touch, Jason. What seems to be missing from this light?”

Smith glanced up with a frown. “The light. There is none. What is that thing?’’

“My guess,” Mulder drawled, examining the conical prong soldered in where the LED bulb originally had been, “is that this is some kind of very advanced electroshock weapon. Think the Mike Tyson’s grandmother of all tasers. Except where a taser is intended for generalized, temporary neuromuscular incapacitation, this mamma-jamma blows the central nervous system. The mydriasis, or blown pupils, was probably caused by disruption of the iris dilator and sphincter, or inner cranial pressure from the neural injury to the brain.”

“Thing had a taser?” Smith amended.

“A defensive weapon, I imagine. A very sophisticated one. Immediate and permanent incapacitation.”

“You mean, the guy, my guy armed that thing?”

Mulder glanced at the officers hauling the body bag up the dirt trail. “I think it’s more complicated than that. I’ll ask him when I see him.”

Smith’s brow creased. “And when do you expect to do that?”

“After the dinner hour, of course,” Mulder said. “We’re not animals.”

 

Morgan Dairy

6:54 p.m.

 

“Bought the place about two years ago, from the bank,” Scully reported, adjusting her seatback. “Close proximity to the state forest, livestock and agricultural facilities that could conceal whatever it is he’s up to.”

Mulder sucked on his shake as he watched the farmhouse up the hill.  “Reverse engineering. Chung was right about at least one thing: The yetis want technology. To study, to adapt. With human assistance.”

“Say I could possibly buy such an implausible premise. Why, Mulder?”

“Try preservation. If we subscribe to Chung’s theory, these creatures have been here for nearly 140 years. But what was once open range and woodlands is becoming a claustrophobic ecosystem, as commercial and residential development, expanded infrastructure, and urban sprawl crowd wild species. Golden Mesa is a stable environment. The original conspiracy with Smith was designed to draw attention to the park, boost attendance, and, I believe, introduce the yeti to the world, as an intelligent, identifiable, humanlike species. A species worthy of EPA protection, of activist support, of popular empathy. That’s why a public reveal was so important – to keep this population from falling into government hands and winding up in an underground lab somewhere.

“Somehow, he managed to develop a rapport with them, foster their intelligence and skills. Past studies have proven chimpanzees can use and combine tools in complex sequences and combinations, and new research indicates the Sumatran orangutan, the bearded capuchin, and the Burmese long-tailed macaque may be even more accomplished tool users. But say a primate species that’s developed parallel with Homo sapiens has evolved not only to use tools but to engineer tools, maybe even analyze human technology. What if their analytical abilities actually superseded ours, and we only won the primate derby because we happened on fire and the fulcrum first, lucked onto cultivating food and building shelter in a manner that enabled us to collectively establish civilizations, belief systems, and ultimately, explore technology. By the time Man staked and enforced his claim, the yeti had no room to grow.”

Scully eyed Chung’s rental, parked beside a huge fabricated farm shed. “So our friend’s essentially running a vocational school for exceptional hominids?”

“I think it may go beyond that,” Mulder said. “Okay, I’m going in.”

“We.”

Mulder shook his head. “Scully, I think the best approach here is to approach this guy geek-to-geek, rather than going in full commando. I don’t think those creatures are violent by nature, but they are large, strong, and essentially feral. I need his trust to maintain control of the situation.”

Scully slumped. “All right, Mulder. But if I don’t get some kind of high sign within the next 20 minutes, I’m bringing in county and state back-up and lighting the place up. Understood?”

“That’s my little helpmate,” Mulder called, plunging into the night.

 

**

 

Mulder flattened himself against the corrugated steel of the barn, clenching his Glock as he gently tried the knob of the reinforced door. It turned effortlessly, and a half-inch gap revealed only inky darkness.

He slipped inside, quickly pulling the thankfully lubricated door closed behind him. Mulder could see a seam of light above the concrete floor perhaps 20 feet away, and he crept toward it.

And a door opened, momentarily blinding the agent…

 

**

 

“It occurred to me that Ranger Smith’s visit to the X Division was a last-minute decision, after consulting with Sen. Matheson,” Mulder related, five minutes later. “We assumed you concocted this cockamamie plan to attract my attention, but when you called Smith that night, how could you possibly known he’d met with us, unless somehow I believed Matheson was a part of all this? He’s far more of a political animal than his dad, and I can’t believe this farkakte business is his style.

“But once Smith told you Scully and I were involved, you decided it would work to your advantage. To attract the real target of your attention. Jose Chung. He’d contacted you after the initial yeti footage leaked, doing research for his next book about the demise of the human species. You saw an opportunity to get the world’s attention. And since Scully and I had played a key role in From Outer Space, you figured we’d be willing to do his footwork.”

“You’re a bit more intelligent than Mr. Chung suggested,” Professor Loracz beamed.

“Gee, thanks. By the way, you know this is border tape, not duct tape?” Mulder jerked his right wrist free from the folding chair by way of illustration.

The scientist shrugged. “It was intended as a calming device, not a restraint.” Loracz made a clicking noise with his tongue, and a pair of towering figures materialized behind him. Not quite apelike, not wholly humanoid.

“Ah,” Mulder nodded, gawping at the currently pacific yeti. “Hey, guys.”

“Jose Chung is a visionary,” Loracz murmured. “I knew if anyone could see the importance of this discovery, of my work, it would be him. But I had to pick the right moment. You were a great help. Thank you.”

“Timing is everything, as I once told a young Ted Kaczynski,” a new voice acknowledged from the shadows of the huge space. “The good doctor invited me for the unveiling.” Standing now beside Loracz, the author subtly twirled a finger next to his right temple. One of the yeti rumbled subtly, and Mulder smiled in satisfaction for Scully’s sake.

“By the way,” Loracz inquired, “how did you arrive at me?”

“When my partner interviewed you, she assumed, to her somewhat narcissistic mind, that you were geek-crushing on her.”

“I was nothing but a gentleman.” Loracz seemed slightly hurt.

“Yeah, I know. It took a little while to put the pieces together. Word to the wise: Too much eye contact creeps the chicks, dude. But you weren’t looking at her eyes, were you? You were looking at her mouth, at her lip movements. Old habit. It took her a couple of tries to get your attention, which she attributed to Absent-Minded Professor Syndrome. Actually, you had trouble hearing her. And you started playing with your ear, which was red not with boyish ardor but with irritation. The irritation that can occur with infection from a cochlear implant. In some cases, meningitis can occur – an inflammation in the membrane of the brain.”

“There you go,” Chung sang. Mulder glared him into silence.

“I got the implant 15 years ago – I’d suffered complete hearing loss at five, and it was a virtual miracle,” Loracz confirmed. “But it’s had its share of side effects and malfunctions. It drops out on occasion.”

“Like in the woods, when you went to try to grab the phone your hairy pal had dropped in his escape,” Mulder nodded. “You didn’t even pause when I fired that warning shot into the air.”

“You discharged a weapon in a national park?” the scientist gasped.

“Let’s just stay on point, okay? Once I realized you’d at some point been hearing-impaired, I took a new look at the drone footage. It seemed as if your buddy was gesticulating wildly after he spotted the drone, but he was instinctively attempting to communicate with you non-verbally. The phone was for one-way use, right? I can’t imagine he could manipulate the touchscreen. You were probably using simple verbal commands to stage his appearance and have him flee the scene before he could arrive. I’m guessing you wanted Spooky Mulder to track the yeti here for whatever big reveal you were planning for Chung. But he panicked and left the phone. And then you panicked and ditched the phone in the ATV before leading me on a merry chase.”

“Once you came out with Jason and had your guns drawn, I knew you weren’t ready.”

“But now I am, although a tranquilizer dart wasn’t the greatest icebreaker. If you don’t mind…” Mulder lifted his free arm and began wriggling and flexing his fingers. The larger of the two yetis stiffened, then began to respond in silent gestures. “American Sign Language; ASL. Like the language Francine Patterson used to communicate with Koko the lowland gorilla. In the drone video, your guy was signing about a ‘monster bird’ about to attack him. Just now, I told him essentially that he smelled hella-funky. He suggested as much about me.”

“Patterson’s Gorilla Sign Language was a primitive modification of ASL,” Loracz argued, excitedly. “Koko learned more than 1,000 signs, but these two have learned roughly 2,000, and the rest are learning rapidly. Their cognitive capabilities are far more advanced than that of Gorilla gorilla. As you and Mr. Chung are about to discover.”

Mulder ripped the other arm free. “I already saw a pretty impressive display of their talents this morning.”

“The young man,” Loracz sighed. “I regret that, but he frightened Jane. Taking a life was very traumatic for her.”

“The lady monster,” Chung supplied. “For Jane Goodall. The big fella’s Darwin. Not TOO spot-on.”

“The supertaser – that was Jane’s or Darwin’s?” Mulder asked.

“That particular innovation’s was Jane’s, though, of course, I had to handle the engineering tasks.” Loracz looked back and smiled at the shorter yeti and smiled. Disturbingly, she smiled back. “Their brains are wired much differently than ours – they have a phenomenal aptitude for systems and system adaptation. Far more evolved than ours. They can see options and possibilities beyond our reasoning – it’s largely how they’ve managed to avoid contact with humans for hundreds of years.”

“Reverse engineering,” Mulder responded. “It’s why they stole that equipment from the park, as well, I assume from other area homes and businesses.”

“And from campsites and campers,” Loracz noted. “Amazing how many people seek to commune with nature but refuse to unplug from their tech. They stuck mainly to small thefts, seemingly inconsequential items. In their hands, however, they are far from inconsequential.”

“Like the combo mag lite/neural death ray? Ever thought about going QVC with that one?”

“As I said, that poor man’s death was deeply regrettable,” Loracz murmured. “But you haven’t seen anything yet. Do you need any help—”

Mulder tore his ankles free from the chair.

“Well, good,” the scientist smiled.

 

**

 

“Holy shit, Batman,” Mulder stated as Loracz ushered Chung and the agent into the barn’s workshop, Jane and Darwin in tow.

The yeti census tripled in one sweep of the room. A quartet of creatures glanced briefly up, then returned to their scrutiny of Kindles and fish finders and car batteries and humidifiers and toaster ovens. A jumble of electronics and appliances awaited inspection on a series of benches lining the south wall.

“Louis,” Loracz called gently. The smallest yeti turned, somewhat reluctantly. Loracz signed a brief request, and Louis (Leakey, Mulder assumed) nodded. Loracz beamed at the agent and the author, and waved them to the hominid’s workstation.

The veterinarian signed, and Louis poured a measuring cup of aromatic deep brown sludge into the reservoir of a Proctor-Silex coffeemaker, lightly tapped the “On” switch, and stepped back. In a few seconds, a stream of water, sparkling and crisply clear, flowed into the carafe. Loracz signed a rave review, pulled the full carafe from its now-deactivated heating element, and displayed it to Mulder.

“Yeah, actually, I’m good,” Mulder said.

“Microbe-free, chemical-free, zero heavy metals,” Loracz crowed. “Imagine the applications.  Solid waste treatment plants converted to effortlessly supply a city’s water.”

“Dian?”

Without turning, a female abominable waved a paw over the sensor of an RCA 51” flatscreen, and the LED array came alive with what appeared to be HD security video of a two-story home. Two boys were playing catch on a verdant lawn.

“Live feed?” Mulder asked. “Drone surveillance, hacked home security feed?”

“No hack, no drone, no wireless, no transmitters,” Loracz said. “Dian’s receiver captures over-the-air light rays and translates them into images with only a .009-second delay from a distance of 3,000 miles. Look behind the roof, Agent.”

Mulder blinked as he stared at the screen and the hazy outline of the St. Louis Arch.

“There’s a strip joint about a half mile in on the Illinois side, off I-55,” Chung provided without an ounce of mirth. “.009 seconds. Terrific. You never know what can happen on live TV. I still recall Charles Rocket dropping an F-bomb on SNL—.”

“Mr. Chung,” Prof. Loracz admonished. “You fail to garner the significance of this moment. In months, weeks, days, HOURS, our friends here have conquered frontiers in sustainability, security, survival using technology Homo sapiens took centuries to develop for the ultimate goal of toasting a pizza bagel, sexting personal reproductive organs, or watching cartoon bears pitch toilet tissue. This presentation was designed just for you. This intelligence, this evolutionary leap, this species — it must be preserved at all costs. But it will take those like you and Agent Mulder to ensure our friends a place in the human ecosystem.”

Chung placed a hand gently on Loracz’ shoulder. The yetis tensed, but the professor signed reassurance.

“My friend,” Chung began, softly but severely. “I garner the significance – I garner like nobody’s business. I’d give this all 500 stars on Yelp, and urge the Nobel Committee to suspend its newly outdated human eligibility requirements. It’s a miracle, a quantum step, a fundamental shift in the terrestrial paradigm. It’s also utterly terrifying.

“My friend Agent Mulder has shown me a photo of a young man whose brain was switched off by a $9.99 Ace Hardware flashlight. By a creature interrupted eating tree mold. Tree mold, death ray. That is not a natural progression, Dr. Loracz. That’s not good parenting. Which is understandable: We’ve pretty much botched every major effort to be responsible parents to this planet, to this species. It makes sense we’d truly screw the pooch with a special needs child, even a gifted one.”

Chung located a mag lite on the work bench, turned to Jane. Her eyes widened as held the instrument before her face, touched fingers to his forehead and drawing them down and forward, extending his pinkie and thumb.

The yeti looked to its companions, who stared back silently. Jane began slowly to sign, her apelike features creasing.

“I asked, why?” Chung reiterated as his fingers flew. He turned to a mute Mulder. “Tried to hit on Marlee Matlin at my agent’s house one time. Jane. Why did you make this thing?”

Jane paused, then signed furiously, her eyes moving between Loracz and Mulder. Loracz paled, then fumbled for a chair.

Chung nodded. “We certainly are. So, again, why?” The yeti’s eyes were immobile as she communicated with the writer. “Fair enough. That’s smart. What other smart things have you made?”

She turned again to the group, repeated Chung’s query. A silent group dialogue ensued. One of the yet-unidentified yeti’s turned toward a microwave – a small popcorn-centric model Mulder’d seen at Walgreen’s. The creature, a male (Mulder noted, impressed), explained in sober flourishes. He regarded Loracz’ back warily, but the doctor seemed to have retreated into his own world.

“I understand. Very good. Thank you.” Chung turned to Mulder. “Agent, I’m going to recommend we immediately leave the premises and immediately contact Homeland Security or perhaps the National Guard.” The author touched Loracz’ shoulder. “Doctor, why don’t you come along with us?”

The yeti whisperer looked up disconsolately. “What?”

“Come on,” Mulder repeated.

Loracz shook his head. “I had…no idea they felt this way. I only wanted to help them reach their potential, secure their survival. Now, well, now I can hardly leave them.”

“People will come,” Chung advised. “You might talk to your friends – it’ll probably be at least a half hour.”

Mulder took Chung by the shoulder. At the workshop door, the older man looked back. “Oh, and if you’re feeling peckish, I pass on the burrito.”

Scully burst in as they reached the barn exit, sidearm leveled.

“Put it in your pants,” Mulder advised. “We’ve overstayed.”

He caught Chung by the arm halfway across the yard. “Just what did they say? What’s that thing do?”

Chung peeked back at the barn. “Buy a copy, like everybody else.”

 

**

 

Mulder had just cleared DHS’ gatekeepers and Scully had reached the first asphalt road when the compressed explosion shook the car and a green glow momentarily illuminated the rear windshield. Scully slammed the brakes, and the agents craned back.

Chung shrugged. “The burrito schtick. Little too smart for the room, eh?”

 

From Jose Chung’s Paleopalooza:

 

A Monkey once danced in an assembly of the Beasts, and so pleased them all by his performance that they elected him their King. A Fox, envying him the honor, discovered a piece of meat lying in a trap, and leading the Monkey to the place where it was, said that she had found a store, but had not used it — she had kept it for him as treasure trove of his kingdom, and counseled him to lay hold of it. The Monkey approached carelessly and was caught in the trap; and on his accusing the Fox of purposely leading him into the snare, she replied, “Oh Monkey, and are you, with such a mind as yours, going to be King over the Beasts?”

 Aesop’s lesson in the dangers of unrefrigerated meat. My Uncle Oswaldo perished from complications arising from a leftover pork loin he’d illegally lifted from his neighbor’s Frigidaire following a 48-hour blackout. His dying words, uttered as my Aunt Lucinda watched Oswaldo’s remaining life and bodily fluids flow from his body: “I thought it couldn’t hurt you if it was already cooked!” Misplaced faith in technology; in badly served, ill-digested data.

 A cockroach survives three landlords, eighteen tenants, five resistance-bolstering fumigations, and the heels of a hundred human loafers, not to mention three or four global extinctions. A software engineer with a masters from UC-Berkeley and a mastery of Mandarin and conversational Spanish is flattened by the city Metro Number Nine as he voice-texts his wife “Pizza or Chinese? J” on his iPhone. What would our old Greek fable monger make of that one, had he been exposed to the horrors of pesticides, cellular technology, and urban mass transit?

 Like little Ralphie’s Schrodingerian Red Ryder BB gun that simultaneously subdues rustling polecats and produces cyclopean blindness, we have to ponder whether our bottomless pot of curiosity and our marvelous toys ultimately will guide us through Extinction No. 6, or under the wheels of the Number Nine Metro…

 

**

 

“Sen. Matheson sends along his thanks for your assistance with the National Parks matter,” Agent Clawson informed Mulder with the merest slip of dryness as the elevator doors enveloped them. “He told me you two likely saved thousands of lives.”

“Did he?” Mulder mused. “And how’d he arrive at that conclusion?”

Clawson indulged in a fleeting smile. “If the device that took out Loracz’ farmhouse was any indication, I suspect those toys you came across could have caused some significant damage.”

“Misfit toys,” Mulder murmured abruptly.

“Misfit toys?”

Mulder grinned. “That’s it. Loracz’ compound. The Island. Loracz had grown up exceptional, different, isolated, likely shunned by playmates and classmates. He likely shared a deep affinity with the yeti – forced into the shadows, wary of contact with humans. And when he discovered their technologically adaptive intelligence, it must have seemed a natural.”

Clawson frowned slightly as the elevator hummed downward. “I’m not tracking.”

“What was your favorite movie, TV show as a kid?”

The X Division’s director glanced sheepishly at Mulder. “I dunno. Okay. Wizard of Oz.”

Mulder nodded appreciatively. “I was a Trekkie. Scully was into Melville; she’s such a hot nerd. Loracz was an outcast, a boy with a brilliant mind and the inability to properly process the tools and resources necessary to fulfill his potential. He no doubt found himself in the company of other misunderstood, socially awkward, and very gifted people. And in the company of proto-hominid toymakers. Bumbles.”

The smile returned to Clawson’s face. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The Island of Misfit Toys. The bird that swam, the train with square wheels…”

“The microwave that blew an entire species out of existence.”

They rode in silence.

“I thought we were headed to Skinner’s office for my exit interview,” Mulder admitted as the elevator doors opened to a comfortably dim and familiar corridor.

“I told you, you’re golden,” Clawson assured, nodding toward the end of the glum hall. “This way, Agent.”

Mulder pulse quickened as his new chief slipped a key into the lock of the door of the office at the end of the basement corridor. As the door swung inward, he inhaled. Two fed-surplus workhorse desks flanked the west and north walls. Cork bulletin boards flanked one of the desks. Centered mathematically behind the desk was a poster, virgin no doubt straight out of the Amazon tube, but a twin for the print Karin Berquist had presented posthumously to Mulder.

“I Want To Believe,” Clawson read. “Well, we all do, Agent Mulder. I know this is something of a new world for you, and maybe you’ve experienced enough new worlds for a while. I thought you might appreciate a little bit of the old. And, speaking of…”

Clawson stepped aside, and Mulder stared at the device on the edge of the opposite desk.

“The original started a fire in the Art Theft breakroom,” the lead agent explained, patting the Mr. Coffee. “But I managed to find this on eBay.”

“Wow, just wow,” Mulder whispered. He scanned the serenely dim office with a smile. “And the files? They coming downstairs too, right?”

Clawson was silent for a moment. “Agent Mulder, we are, ah, actually a…paperless office…”

Mulder blinked.

“We have 256-gig expandable memory tablets for you and agent Scully, fully loaded and biometrically secured,” his young boss hastened. “It’s…the Bureau’s new…green initiative…”

Mulder finally nodded.

“Coffee?” Clawson offered.

 

**

 

“I am afraid we have no more room for you, either in steerage or in our rather cramped quarters,” Przhevalsky smiled coldly, as his stoic aide leveled a standard-issue Berdan rifle at Petrovich and Starbak.

The shipyards were virtually deserted that night, and the four stood silently on the frigid deck of the SS Vostochnaya Zvezda. Inspector Petrovich broke the tension with a sardonic laugh.

“There is no need of this drama,” the investigator suggested. “Please, Colonel, let us retreat from the cold.” Carefully, he pulled a bottle of clear liquid from his cloak. The Cossack did not move.

“I am aware of the nature of your latest unauthorized mission,” Petrovich continued. “I had a rather candid conversation with one of your Society colleagues from the Tibet expedition. It took only one bottle and the threat of his pension to persuade him to share his adventures. Then, there was the curious matter of the university’s new laboratory. Do cadavers require manacles these days? A half a bottle and a handful of rubles loosened the guard’s tongue. The shipyard watchman? Well, I am sorry to report I have only the one bottle remaining.

“Please, Colonel. Do not fear the loss of your pension. We are men of war, but also men of science, first, am I right? I have no wish to impede your journey, nor to report your infraction. The tsar will not miss one more ape, will he?” He directed the last toward the indeed hulking aide. Starbak sighed.

Przhevalsky’s arrogant mien dissolved. His thick mustache twitched. “And what would you propose, Inspector? Compensation for your expenses, plus perhaps some interest?”

Petrovich waved away the offer. “I propose we share a little vodka and a little Truth.”

 

**

 

The steamer’s hold was dimly lit, but Petrovich inhaled sharply as he surveyed Przhevalsky’s precious cargo. A dozen sets of not-quite human but startlingly expressive eyes met the inspector’s.

“They are young, more frightened of you I am sure than are you of them,” Przhevalsky reassured him. “The filthy Mongolians had murdered their mother, and then the ‘scientists’ at the university, well…”

“Yes,” Petrovich nodded. “Thank you for satisfying my impertinent curiosity. I wish you – all of you – a safe and uneventful voyage.”

 

**

 

What will be Man’s next evolutionary move, if the genetic tank isn’t already running on fumes? Homo sapiens sapiens in 125,000 short years has progressed from large rocks and sharp sticks to spears and slings and swords and muskets and tanks and atoms to racing randomly with scissors about this house we call Earth. Without GPS, we struggle to find the Home Depot. Without Yelp, we struggle to nourish ourselves. After a childhood of being harangued not to get into the car with strangers, we now hop into the first strange car we find on our phone, inebriated, alone, with that addled sense of optimism we as a species seem to embrace despite every contraindication.

 So where are we Ubering next, with science, God, or blind human impulse at the wheel?

 

**

 

“Where is he?” Charlotte whined with the drama only a five-year-old can convey.

Scully glanced up from her chopping with a smile. “Daddy’s new boss had a surprise for him, so he’ll be a little late, not too much. Hey, I heard you had a great time with Uncle Charlie at the museum while we were gone.”

“Yeah – it was sooo awesome,” she bubbled. “I liked the cavemen. They were kinda scary, but kinda smart, too. They figured out how to make fire happen.”

Scully’s knife paused in mid-carrot, then descended back into a staccato rhythm.

Charlotte paused. “Mommy? You OK? Why are you–? I mean, you look kinda sad.”

Scully glanced guiltily down at her empathetic child and ruffled her hair. “I’m fine, baby. I was just thinking about something from our trip.”

Charlotte nodded thoughtfully. “You gonna be mad at me if I tell you something?”

Scully scooped her daughter from the floor, planting a kiss on her broad forehead. “Never.”

“It’s Grandma. She’s scared.”

“Scared? About…what?”

“About Uncle Charlie. Isn’t that silly?”

Scully rocked Charlotte gently for a moment. “Of course it is. And now, my precious one, I have to make fire happen.” She turned to the stove, activated a burner, and eased her giggling girl to the floor.

Charlotte paused at the door. “Can we see a Christmas show tonight, if it’s on the Netflick?”

“Uh, sure. But Christmas is over, silly. Why?”

“I dunno,” the child sang. “I just feel like it…”

 

**
Oh, the places you’ll go!, Theodor Seuss Geisel once proclaimed. The good doctor lived through a Depression, two world wars and a nice cold one, The Bomb, Jim Crow, the civil rights era, Hitler, Stalin, McCarthy, Nixon, and New York socialite Kitty Carlisle during a particularly pitched battle of wits on To Tell The Truth. Geisel taught us a person’s a person, no matter how small, and, BTW, advocated slapping Japanese-Americans into internment camps, each one and all. One fish, two fish, potato, potahto…

 This little digression is simply to say

That humans are humans, any week, any day.

They drive blundering, blimpishly wherever they may,

And thump bumpily-bump over all in their way.

 

**

 

“It’s been like four hours — I think that dude was yanking our crank,” Stoner’s chick complained, as she scoured the woodland floor. “We’re gonna wind up dead.”

stoners

“We’re gonna wind up good and wrecked,” Stoner promised, stumbling over a pine branch and thumping his cranium on the nearest tree. He shook it off. “Guy’s an Indian, babe – full Apache. He knows his ‘shrooms. Red with white spots, remember…”

“All I know is I’m seriously jonesing for some Arby’s,” his old lady groaned, toeing aside a clump of ferns.

Stoner bent beside the Ponderosa that had nearly concussed him. “Babe, we locate the mother lode, I’ll take you to KFC and we’ll get our bucket on… OH, HELL, YES!”

She craned over his shoulder. Stoner began humming Spirit In The Sky as he yanked a Safeway bag from his back jeans pocket. He began carefully harvesting the small grove of smurfily colorful fungi from the forest bed.

His bag was soon inflated with Amanita muscaria, commonly known as “fly agaric.” As advertised by his Apache friend – actually an Armenian-American Ecstasy dealer from Bakersfield who’d found a whole new demographic with his indigenous mystic scam — A. muscaria was indeed a psychoactive fungus that liked to hang in pine, spruce, and other coniferous clusters. Muscimol, the active ingredient in the species, binds with muscarinic acetylcholine receptors leading to the excitation of neurons bearing these receptors – an interaction of little consequence to Stoner and his friend, the eastern Siberian shamans and old-school Indo-Iranians, or Lewis Carroll, whose toadstool-ensconced caterpillar may have had far more to impart to young Alice with Alice.

The amanita is a toxic fungus, though careful and expert preparation – including parboiling – can render the mushroom edible and edifying.

“Hey, let’s do a couple for the road,” Stoner suggested, tossing his girl one of the raw ‘shrooms and selecting a plump specimen for himself. He dangled it by the stem over his gaping and gap-toothed mouth.

“Wait,” his companion urged abruptly. “You sure these things are safe?”

 

Stoner examined his psychotropic snack. “Here. Gimme.” He retrieved her ‘shroom, smiled, and rubbed the dirt from the caps before returning hers. “Okay, bottoms up!”

“Dude, look!”

Stoner followed her trembling finger to a spot roughly three feet in front of his bent right knee.

“Awesome,” he whispered.

The small butterfly was resting on a clump of pine needles, its translucent bronze-fringed near-lavender wings fluttering delicately, almost as if in slo-mo. It was a Glaucopsyche xerces, but Latin niceties were lost on the pair. The Arizona forest grew silent and Time and Mind locked on the frail and ethereal creature, its antennae vibrating in the dry Southwest breeze.

In the middle of our porridge plates, there was a blue butterfly painted,” Stoner suddenly murmured. His friend looked up momentarily from the foraging insect. “And each morning we tried who should reach the butterfly first. Then the Grandmother said: ‘Do not eat the poor butterfly.’”

 The verse hung in the air as the butterfly alit.

“That was so…cool,” the girl breathed. “Dude, did you make that up?”

Stoner hoisted his bag. “Some shit I heard in community college. Banged the instructor.”

Fun fact: The pair had been the first humans since about 1943 to lay eyes on Glaucopsyche xerces. Development in the San Francisco Bay Area had fostered a population of ants that quickly supplanted the existing ants with whom the larval Xerces Blue had shared a symbiotic relationship. The symbiotic cycle broken, the Glaucopsyche dwindled to a small colony subsequently diverted by a Category 2 hurricane to a small vegetative island some 500 miles north of Marquesas Island.

The species thrived landlocked for more than 70 years in its new habitat, until an isolated but horrific and theoretically climate-related Category 5 tropical cyclone power-blasted the island free of all flora and fauna. A few survivors in the eye of the cyclone made landfall as the storm dissipated off the coast of Costa Rico, most succumbing within days to contact with automotive windshields, jeep tires, and unregulated bootleg pesticides applied liberally to farm fields.

The surviving trio was captured by a 12-year-old Los Angelean named Brian, whose Silicon Valley parents were green-vacationing near Puntarenas. The blue beauties somehow barely made it past Customs and found a new home in a four-foot terrarium off the glass-fronted living room. The father’s dual gambling and coke addictions one day brought a rain of semi-automatic fire down on their Valley home and liberated the last Glaucopsyche xerces. A semi-tractor trailer delivering crème-filled snake cakes ended one of the three; a second made it as far as Phoenix before a western diamondback dislocated by construction of a new casino/resort gobbled the feeding lepidopteran for last-resort sustenance.

An egg-laden third followed the currents ultimately to Golden Mesa National Forest, where it located a lush outcropping of the pines that had once sustained its kind. It lit on a cluster of pine needles in preparation to deposit its load and establish a new North American population when a pair of mammals strayed into the forest ostensibly in search of fungal nourishment. Alert to the perils in this exposed site, it set forth for a more isolated setting, but was drawn momentarily to the male mammal by the pheromones it was emitting in the presence of its female.

“Get it off me!!” Stoner screeched as the insect flitted about his face and shoulders. “Dude, get off me!!!” A meaty, McMuffin-stained palm slammed into the butterfly, which fell crumpled to the packed forest floor. A rubber-soled Goodwill sneaker incorporated it – and its eggs – into the pine needles and dirt.

“Shit,” Stoner panted as he snagged his bag of ‘shrooms. “I fucking HATE nature.”

 

**

 

What will be Man’s epitaph? He conquered Space, plumbed the deepest recesses of Cyberspace? He harnessed the awesome power of the Atom, the limitless energy of the Sun? He mastered Peace and Goodwill and an avocado that won’t go brown before he can tear his way into the tortilla chips? He ruled his domain with benevolent prudence?

  I suspect that when the day arrives, when our hunger for petrochemicals and designer cross-trainers turns this orb into the universe’ top water park, when we’ve weaponized every single-celled organism and obliterated every biped, quadruped, and finned vertebrate for hate, sport, and sushi, when our solar system’s prizewinning biology experiment is reduced to a 197-square-mile overflow parking lot, Man’s legacy will be, simply:

 Too smart for his own good.

chungs-book

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