Tag Archives: tv shows

Permaceo Noctus

TITLE: Permaceo Noctus

AUTHOR: StarfleetOfficer1

RATING: PG13 for language

DISCLAIMER: No copyright infringement intended.

SUMMARY: Mulder and the Scully family get more than they bargained for when they volunteer to help at a homeless shelter on Christmas Eve.

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L’ENFANT PLAZA

WASHINGTON, D.C.

DECEMBER 24th, 2010

1800

“Uncle Mulder? What causes poverty?”

Matthew’s relatively innocent question caught Mulder off-guard as he untied the last sleeping bag and placed it on the camping mattress. He stood up from his squatting position and shook his head at his twelve-year-old companion.

“It varies,” he answered, and led the way back to the food court. They were on the upper level of the mall, walking past closed shops with their gates drawn and lights out. Sleeping bags lined the walkway, some cushioned by air mattresses and camping mattresses. The moving homeless shelter would find a new building every week, and this particular night required a bigger building than most churches could provide.

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“Some people get addicted to drugs or alcohol and spend all their money on those things, so they can’t pay rent. And they can’t hold down a job because the drugs and alcohol affect their performance,” Mulder continued, glancing down at Matt, who was paying rapt attention. “Sometimes people lose their jobs and can’t find new ones in time to pay their bills. Or they may have medical expenses that drain all their savings, and then lose their job on top of that. Sometimes people get a bad start, and their parents kick them out of the house when they’re young. They may never get on their feet after that.”

Matt nodded slowly, deep in thought.

“Then there are those who just can’t seem to deal with life. Some people’s parents never teach them how to manage money, how to go to work, how to try hard. They may grow up without parents at all, or they might grow up mostly on the streets, so it’s all they know. There are so many variations that it’s hard to pinpoint one reason,” Mulder finished.

“Well, there is one solution, I guess. Even if it’s short-term,” Matt said. “We help out.”

“That’s right,” Mulder agreed with a smile, and put his arm proudly around his nephew’s shoulders. “We’ve got plenty, so we’re volunteering what we’ve got — time and resources — to those who need a boost. We’re trying to help them get on their feet.”

“So that’s what the career center’s all about?” Matt asked. “They give help to people who never learned how to get a job and stuff like that?”

“They also give tutorials on how to find an apartment, and how to budget money. I want you to keep an eye out for a ‘new’ kind of homeless person.”

“Who’s that?” Matt asked, curious.

“Families. You’re going to see a lot of that here—whole families who have been foreclosed, who don’t have incomes because they’ve lost their jobs in this economy. Those people are usually the ones who use the career center. They know how to work and they may know how to save. But they need some advice as to how to rebuild their lives after everything fell apart.”

Matt was quiet for a moment. “What if our house burned down?” he finally asked.

Mulder remembered being his age, before his sister was taken. These thoughts were prevalent in his mind even then. Normal prepubescent kids thought about all the things that could go wrong and realized the multitude of things that could derail their lives.

Mulder squeezed Matt’s shoulders and then released him, and said, “You’d have a place to stay with your Aunt Dana and me. And your mom has insurance on the house and all the stuff inside, so it’d just be a little while before you got a huge check that would help you get started again.

This seemed to reassure the boy, because he nodded and stuck his hands in his pockets. “That’s good,” he said.

They arrived at the food court, which was bustling with volunteers. There were long rows of tables with food buckets available, a huge stack of plates, trays, and silverware, and servers ready to assist their homeless ‘customers’. Scully was preparing the tables, placing napkins at the center of each table as a finishing touch on a huge endeavor. Feeding over 200 people was no small task.

Tara, who was helping Scully, waved at her son and Mulder as they approached. “Are the sleeping bags all set up?”

“Everything’s good to go,” Mulder answered.

Just then, the mall rumbled. Matt looked around and asked, “What was that?”

Scully glanced at her watch. “There’s a huge Metro stop right below us and it’s on the hour. You’ve never felt that before?”

Matt pulled out his cell phone and checked the time, and while checking his emails, said, “Yeah, but I’ve never felt it rumble that much. Must’ve been the express.”

When Matt didn’t put the phone away, Mulder said, “You’re not gonna have time for that when they get here, Matt. If I were you, I’d go grab a granola bar because two hours from now you’ll be hungry.”

“You mean we won’t have time to eat?” Matt asked, shocked.

Tara laughed. “You’re barely going to have time to breathe. Once everyone’s served, we’ll eat the leftovers or eat what I brought. But not before then.”

Matt put his phone away despondently.

“Don’t worry, you won’t go hungry,” Scully reassured him. “Go get a snack now.”

He hurried away to the McDonald’s not far from where they stood, which was still open and manned with two teenagers. It was where the volunteers’ belongings were being kept. No food was being served, but the McDonald’s manager offered to keep it open for this event to volunteer his tables and chairs and the space behind the counter.

The Georgetown Moving Shelter representatives were manning the front doors of the mall, where about two hundred people stood in line outside awaiting entry. They would take their Moving Shelter ID’s that proved they were not offenders and were safe to admit, and then the individuals could enter the mall, grab a meal, watch a movie, visit the career center, or simply go to sleep. Tomorrow they would leave and go wherever they went for the day, and tomorrow night the shelter would have moved all their supplies to their next location. The location schedule was distributed at each of their evening locations and at the regional office, which was open all day for new members to register and obtain an ID.

The first wave of individuals were admitted when the representatives opened the mall doors and began counting. They were admitted in groups of twenty five every ten minutes, and went in order of arrival. As Matt obtained his granola bar, the first wave came through the front door. He stood for a moment in the McDonald’s, opening the wrapper and crunching down on the first bite, watching the twenty-five individuals enter the mall and present their IDs to the volunteers at the desk.

Numbers were entered in a laptop, which was secured to the folding table with a laptop locking cord. Matt saw one man eye that cord and it occurred to the twelve-year-old that he might want to steal it. It was worth a lot of money. He ate the next bite of his granola bar and watched, completely fascinated.

“Hey, dude, you better get over there if you’re serving,” a teenager behind the McDonald’s counter said, but Matt didn’t get the chance to answer him. Mulder’s voice cut through the crowd.

“Matt! C’mon!”

He pocketed the remaining half of the granola bar and ran over to stand next to Mulder, who handed him an apron and pointed to the tray next to his. “This isn’t Discovery Channel, it’s work. Start serving mashed potatoes, kiddo.”

Matt nodded, and tied the apron around his waist silently.

Soon there was a steady line of hungry homeless individuals seeking a warm meal and shelter for the night. At first hesitant as to what he should do, Matt soon got into a rhythm. A half hour into it, he was mimicking Mulder’s question as each person came through. “Mashed potatoes, Sir?” “Would you like mashed potatoes to go with that beef?” “Merry Christmas.”

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They heard another rumble, and this time Matt almost lost his footing and the table shook so violently that the tray almost slid off. Mulder grabbed it at the last second and shoved it back into place, pulling his hand away quickly and shaking it from the heat of the dish. “Are you okay?” he asked Matt.

Matt nodded, but looked worried. The homeless had frozen in place, as if bracing for impact. Many of the servers had as well, and it was Scully who said from not far away, “If that was the train, I’m starting to question the structural integrity—”

As she was speaking, Mulder’s eyes grew huge and he grabbed Matt and dove under the table in one swift motion. Scully stopped speaking and followed suit, although she couldn’t see what he was looking at. It seemed everyone else had a delayed reaction in comparison, because the screams only erupted a moment later.

One level below them where there were still shops, the floor had cracked down the center of the two story opening and begun to cave into the subway station below. The building shook violently and chunks of concrete flew in a plume of smoke as dust filled their nostrils.

Mulder was brought right back to that room in Pakistan that had collapsed around him, the dusty surroundings clogging his airway and making it impossible to see. The table came down on top of them, and Mulder shielded Matt with his body as best he could while attempting to shield his own head from the impact with his arms.

The marble floor beneath them cracked and crumbled into the center opening, but it didn’t cave completely. A tremendous roar filled the air, almost as a delayed sound effect. Mulder found himself screaming in pain from the sound alone, and that was before the smoke cleared enough for him to see the sight.

There in the opening of ground floor of the mall, only about a half a football field away from him, were two train cars at forty-five degree angles with each other. Sparks erupted from each car as chunks of concrete fell upon the wreckage. People cried out in anguish and fear. A baby cried. Someone screamed for help.

He recognized that voice. It was Scully’s. “Scully!” he screamed back, and tried to get up. The table on top of him fell away, and he dragged Matt up by his armpits, adrenaline ripping through his body. He was met with the sight of his five-foot-tall partner directly in front of him.

“Oh, Mulder, thank God…we thought…” she threw her arms around him and Matt simultaneously, and only seconds later Tara joined in.

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Matt stared at the wreckage in total shock, and Tara grabbed her boy and pulled him away, towards the almost untouched McDonald’s. The front entrance of the mall had been covered in debris that seemed to spew from the wreckage. The tables that had once held volunteers and the laptop that checked ID’s were now buried under enormous chunks of concrete and marble. Mangled doors could barely be seen where the mall entrance once was, and Mulder knew there were a lot of lucky bastards on the other side of that door who hadn’t been granted admittance yet.

The agents took only a moment to take in the sight and decide what had to be done. The escalators were impossible to navigate , and the elevators were not safe either. There was no way to get down there unless they were to attempt to get to the back stairwell. But there were people down there who needed help, who were trapped in that mangled train and wouldn’t receive help until it was too late.

The lights were flickering, but close to going out. Scully looked around her and saw that many of the homeless in the food court had been injured but just as many seemed to be okay. What she saw were no longer obligations or customers, but spare hands.

“Everyone listen up!” She screamed, and her commanding, high-pitched voice cut through most of the noise in the immediate vicinity. “If you aren’t injured, I need you to get to the McDonald’s! Gather in the McDonald’s if you’re not injured—you’re going to help us treat the people who are!”

People started to move, mostly the volunteers who took Scully’s command seriously and started gathering those who were otherwise standing still and awaiting instruction. Some of the homeless people were leading their friends into the McDonald’s as well. Others stayed behind with their injured friends.

Scully turned to Mulder. “We need supplies. Rope to rappel down there. Medical supplies. Flashlights. There’s a sporting goods store around the corner there—it should be untouched. Do you have your lock pick?”

He couldn’t help but smirk. “What do you think?” She nodded and he took off, stopping at the McDonald’s on his way to talk to Tara and Matt. “Matt, you have the best cell phone signal in this place. Can you call 911?”

Matt seemed dumbfounded for a moment, before he nodded and pulled his phone out. “What should I say?”

“Let me talk,” Mulder said after he had dialed.

“911 what is your emergency?”

“This is Special Agent Fox Mulder, ID 10131120. I’m in the L’Enfant Plaza Mall, upper level above the Metro Stop. There’s been a train collision. There are two train cars that came through the lower level roof of the mall and breached the shopping area. The main entrance to the mall is blocked off by rubble. We have about a hundred people in the mall right now for the Georgetown Moving Shelter, and I’m estimating about a quarter of them are injured and require immediate medical assistance. We haven’t seen any passengers emerge from the train.”

“I understand, Sir. I’m alerting the authorities right now. What is your status?”

“I’m uninjured. My partner and I are organizing relief efforts.” He began walking towards the sporting goods store. “What is your relief capability?”

“Until the proper authorities have assessed the structural stability of the station, I can’t tell you how soon we’ll be able to get to you. The rear entrance to the mall should be untouched by your description. That may be a way in. If you stay on the phone I’ll be able to get you updates in real time.”

He pulled his lock pick and began to work on the gate in front of the store while balancing the phone between his shoulder and ear. “Do you have any indication as to the cause? Any other calls that came in that would indicate a terrorist attack, a power grid malfunction, anything?”

Only two summers ago, two trains had collided on the Red Line because of a faulty sensor telling one train that the other was not on the track when, in fact, it was.

There was a pause. “I’m cross-checking right now,” the woman told him, and he successfully picked the lock and began working on the store’s glass door lock. “We’ve had three calls come in from Train 499, reporting a suspicious-looking man in a suit. I’ve got three separate descriptions here, all of them…not likely. There may have been lighting problems on the train before it crashed, Agent Mulder.”

“What were the descriptions?”

“The man is described in all three calls as wearing a DC Metro Rail Maintenance uniform, with white hair, and…depending on who gave the description, blue, green, or gray skin.”

Mulder’s upper lip twitched. “Why was he suspicious?”

“They describe the man as ‘pacing’ or ‘stumbling’ through the train cars. I don’t have any further details, but you and your partner may want to watch out for this man, if he survived the collision.”

“Thanks, I’ll pass that information on.”

“Agent Mulder, I’m reading a large electrical discharge on this line, I think we might—”

Her voice was replaced by a shriek that nearly broke Mulder’s eardrum. He let the phone clatter to the ground, and he winced in pain, finishing her sentence. “Lose the signal…” He picked the lock, and gained entrance to the store.

He picked up the phone from the ground and put it in his pocket, and then grabbed a backpack and began stuffing everything he thought they might need inside of it. He took plenty of batteries, duct tape, two large rolls of rope, as many flashlights and lanterns as possible, every first aid kit on the shelf, and an entire box of granola bars.

After lugging all the equipment back with him, he dropped it in the McDonald’s where Scully was organizing relief teams. She attempted to group the homeless with at least one volunteer as she told them how to organize the wounded—leaving the severely wounded where they were, assisting those who needed a bit of help, and instructing those who could to move under their own power into the McDonald’s.

Matt and Tara were huddled together against the ordering counter, where the two teenagers were fearfully watching the entire thing and awaiting instructions.

Scully turned the ‘floor’ over to her partner when she said, “I need five people to go stand by Agent Mulder. He’ll give you instructions on how to distribute supplies to people and make sure everyone has a flashlight and water when these lights go out.”

“I also need three able-bodied, strong adults who are going to go with me down there to the train to try to get people out of there, and another three to go with Agent Scully to the rubble by the door and start to help people there.”

Volunteers came in droves. It seemed among the homeless, willingness to help, or perhaps to just feel needed, was in abundance.

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L’ENFANT PLAZA

WASHINGTON, D.C.

DECEMBER 24th, 2010

1900

The organization was fast and efficient. Teams were ordered back to the sporting goods store to get bottles of water, blankets, and more miscellaneous supplies. People were dispatched with flashlights to make sure everyone had one. Helmets and harnesses were secured, and Mulder led a team of two homeless men and one shelter volunteer in the rappelling effort. Scully donned a helmet herself and convinced Tara to do the same and to allow Matt to join as they began hand-shoveling debris out of the way of the main entrance and digging out volunteers and homeless people.

Things moved so quickly that Mulder didn’t get the chance to take Scully aside and explain their potential security risk. It was because he hadn’t explained that part to anyone that when he landed on the ground level, unclipped his harness, and drew his gun, that the volunteer with him gave him a questioning look. “What are you doing?”

Mulder glanced at the wreckage. “I want you three to stand back. We don’t know how this happened, and aside from it not being stable, there might be someone in there who caused this. I need to determine we’re not in any immediate danger.”

“Do you have reason to believe we are?” the man asked, but Mulder didn’t answer him.

He climbed through a potted plant and around an overturned bench to get to steady ground where he believed he could stand and look inside one of the train cars. Balanced on a piece of marble and some wooden rod whose origin Mulder couldn’t place, he stood on his tip-toes and looked in the broken windows. “Can anyone hear me in there?”

There was no answer. There was, however, a shift in his vision and for just a second, he thought he saw…

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“No way,” he whispered involuntarily. He was taken back to that basement where he had been trapped on New Years’ Eve ten years ago. Or that mental hospital where the nurse had shut him into the room and smiled sweetly, her green/gray skin exposing her for what she really was.

“Agent Mulder? What do you need up there?” one of the homeless people called from below.

Mulder shook his head in amazement and found himself saying, “I think we’re going to need some salt.”

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L’ENFANT PLAZA

WASHINGTON, D.C.

DECEMBER 24th, 2010

1930

“Matty, give me a hand with this,” Tara said. She and Scully had tried to protect Matt from seeing too much gore. They had him rolling and pushing chunks of concrete off of the pile and away from the rubble. With the rest of the adults there also helping to dig people out, a twelve-year-old wasn’t desperately needed.

But as they got further into the pile, it was getting impossible for anyone nearby not to see the bodies and smell the stench.

Tara was gripping a large piece of plastic that might have been the folding table. Scully was on the other end of the pile tending to someone still trapped inside but alive. “Grab the other end there. That’s right,” she told her son. “Make sure you’ve got a good grip, both hands.”

They were wearing fleece gloves that came from the sporting goods store. They were already torn, but they were better than nothing.

“Pull out, not up. Okay? On three. One…two…three.”

The table came out of the wreckage and a few chunks of concrete fell down to fill its place. Matt’s eyes widened at what was revealed underneath. Almost unharmed and looking more like she was asleep than unconscious, was a little four- or five-year-old girl in a filthy pink snowsuit and knit cap.

He dropped to his knees next to her and began digging around her. Tara felt for a pulse and sighed in relief. “Dana!” she called.

Scully stood up from her squatting position next to a patient and walked over. Looking down, she immediately felt for a pulse and then lowered her head next to the girl’s mouth to hear her breathing. She nodded. “Pulse is strong, breath sounds good. So far no obvious injuries…the table may have protected her.”

“Like Mulder and me,” Matt said as he dug.

“Careful, Matt. Look at what might shift before you take anything away from the pile,” Scully warned.

He nodded.

She squatted next to him, one of her knees cracking at the movement. She smiled slightly when his head turned. “I’m fine, just getting old,” she joked.

She supported the little girl’s head and neck while Matt dug, and was prepared to pull her out by her armpits.

Matt and Tara were able to clear the debris on top of her and Scully quickly but carefully pulled her out and laid her down a few feet from the pile. She checked her pulse again and listened to her breathing. She then unzipped the snowsuit and began checking the little child’s body, looking for fractures or signs of internal damage. Underneath the snowsuit was a dirty once-white turtleneck that was slightly small for her, and under that was a T-shirt. Her underwear were clean, and so were her socks.

“She’s got some fresh bruises on her chest, and one on her forehead. No abrasions or broken bones,” Scully reported. “My guess is it’s a concussion and she’ll be fine. We need to figure out whose she is, though…”

“Is she homeless, or does she belong to one of the volunteers who just came in?” Matt asked.

Scully shook her head. “I don’t remember seeing her by the table…but then I don’t remember if there was a child over there or not. I honestly don’t know,” she said. Eye-witness testimony was notoriously incorrect, and Scully wasn’t about to guess as to whether she had seen the little girl by the table. It didn’t matter anyway. Either way, her parents were not available to claim her.

“Someone will have to stay with her,” Tara said. “Especially so they can give her water when she wakes up.”

“And keep her warm,” Scully said as she redressed the little girl. She adjusted the cap so it covered her small ears and then she snapped the top button on the snowsuit to give her the most warmth possible.

“I can keep an eye on her while I move the chunks of rocks and stuff,” Matt volunteered. “When she wakes up I’ll keep her company.”

Tara nodded. “That’s an excellent idea, Matt. I’ll carry her over there where it’s safer and you can look every time you walk by,” his mother told him, and he nodded in agreement.

“Agent Scully!” Someone called and waved her over. Scully gave Tara a departing smile and moved over to where the man was stooped over another person trapped underneath the pile.

As Tara carried the little girl over to a safer area, she reflected that this child was not much smaller than little Claire. Matt was probably seeing his sister in this child who was at best a volunteer’s unconscious little girl, possibly homeless, and at worst a new orphan.

As she put the child down in an alcove next to a water fountain, she noticed someone out of the corner of her eye and spun around, blocking the child and ready to defend herself. Who she saw, however, was Mulder coming over the railing.

She rushed over to help him clamber over the railing after he had climbed up the escalator and some rubble while belayed by a homeless man below. “Sorry, Tara, did I scare you?” he asked after both his feet were on the floor.

“I guess I’m a little jumpy,” she apologized. “What did you find down there?”

“No one inside the cars is moving. We need Scully down there to determine if they’re dead or just unconscious. I opened all the train car windows to vent them,” he said, but didn’t give her much detail.

She simply nodded and after he had unclipped himself they began to walk back toward the triage area.

“How many dead so far?” he asked.

Tara sighed. “Twelve…I think.”

“How’s Matt?”

“He’s working hard. He’s so brave…”

Mulder smiled and placed a comforting hand on Tara’s shoulder. “He’s a real trooper. If he gets tired, maybe he can work with Dana and do some first aid.”

“That’s a really good idea.”

“How are you doing?”

“I’m okay,” she said, and took a glove off to run her hand through her hair and get it away from her now-sweaty face. “I can’t believe this happened…”

Mulder nodded. “They’re going to eventually send Rescue in and then we’ll get the chance to rest. Thanks for helping out.”

She chuckled ironically. “I’d look like a fool sitting on the sidelines.”

They reached the triage area, where people were laying on blankets, coats, and mats and were organized according to severity of their injuries.

Scully looked up and saw Mulder, and held up one finger before turning back to a man’s hand, which she was carefully splinting.

Just then an argument that had previously been lost in the background noise of the rescue effort rose above the current sound level when a homeless man screamed, “YOU’RE A MOTHER-FUCKIN’ SHITHEAD, MAN!”

Mulder’s head turned just in time to catch the sight of one man tackle another to the dusty ground and begin wailing on him. He shook his head and muttered, “It was only a matter of time,” before he ran over to the two who were now rolling all over the dust and were in danger of going over the ledge.

“HEY!” He screamed, and grabbed one of the men. “HEY! STOP! Knock it off! Come on, knock it off! I mean it!” Another homeless man stepped in and pulled the other man away, and Mulder and he then stood to get the men even further from each other.

“He’s an asshole!” Mulder’s detainee declared, his expression one of intense hatred.

The other man simply spit blood and stood there with an angry expression on his face.

“What’s this about? You first,” Mulder added quickly, to make sure another shouting match didn’t ensue.

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“This asshole took my kid’s water bottle, man. He ain’t been helpin’. He been sittin’ on his ass, and ain’t nothin’ wrong with him. He ain’t hurt.”

Mulder turned to the other man. “Did you take this man’s water bottle?”

“I ain’t steal nothin’ wasn’t already mine,” the accused man promised.

Mulder shook his head. “I’ll get your kid another water bottle, okay?” he said to the man, and when he nodded he was about to release the man, but the accused man yelled, “Yeah, that’s right, ‘n if you come after me again, I gonna woop yo’ ass.” This resulted in Mulder having to tighten his grip on his detainee as he led him away from the loudmouth.

“Listen,” he told the man in a low tone, “I believe that other man is on drugs. You need to stay away from him. Okay?” Psychology told him that a calm tone and rational thought would deflect most people’s anger.

He released the man and he nodded, his expression still angry.

“There are more water bottles in that sporting goods store. Go get one for you and your kid. Can I trust you to do that?”

The homeless man shook his head. “Naw, man, ain’t nothin’ left in there. It’s been empty for a minute now.”

Mulder sighed. He looked around. “Go to the McDonald’s. If they’re out, then come find me and I’ll pick the lock on another restaurant so we can get more water.”

The man nodded and said, “I just tryin’ to defend my kid.”

“I understand. Just leave the law enforcement to us, okay?”

Again, the homeless man nodded and walked away. Mulder sighed and saw that the man who had detained the loudmouth was still holding him, awaiting Mulder’s return. He walked back over to the two and asked, “Is it true that you haven’t been helping?”

“Ain’t gonna do nothin’ if I don’t get paid,” the man slurred.

He knew it was irrational, especially since it seemed this man didn’t have use of all his faculties. But what he said really angered Mulder. He got close enough to smell the stench of alcohol and body odor, and said, “Look around, Buddy. You think any of us are getting paid?”

He shook his head before he got an answer, and turned to the man holding him. “Let him go.” He turned back to the detainee as he stumbled forward. “You sit down and shut up. If you don’t want to help, you don’t get to move around,” he ordered forcefully, and ‘helped’ the man sit down against the wall. “Stay there.” He walked away, taking a deep breath and trying to clear his head.

Scully intercepted him halfway back to the triage area. “What was that all about?”

“A bottle of water. How are we doing on supplies?”

“The sporting goods store is almost empty,” she said. “I’ve used everything I can get my hands on to fix people up…I even performed some minor surgery on one of our volunteers to extract a piece of glass from an artery. But I don’t want to use too much of what’s in those first aid kits, because once they’re gone, there’s probably not another sporting goods store in this mall.”

“At least not one we can get to,” Mulder stated. He glanced back at the pit where the trains were still. “I need to talk to you in private.”

She snorted. “Good luck. We’ve got about a hundred people in here, Mulder, and space is an issue.”

“We need to find a place to speak,” he reiterated. “Sooner rather than later.”

Seeing that he was serious, she nodded and looked around. “Let’s pick the lock on that Gymboree and go in the fitting room.” He smirked, and she rolled her eyes. “Oh, stop,” was all she said to him as she led the way to the children’s clothing store.

Once they were inside, Mulder pulled out Matt’s phone and his own. “There’s no reception anymore.”

“I know, it must be the train’s emergency broadcast that’s blocking it out.”

“That’s a possibility,” Mulder agreed. “But the other possibility is that someone sabotaged that train and that they’re jamming our signals.” The signature elevated eyebrow told Mulder that he was going to have to explain. “Just before I lost the signal, I got through to 911. It was over an hour ago now, and they still haven’t gotten personnel in here. Has anyone gone to the back entrance to see if it’s open?”

She shook her head. “It collapsed. The structural integrity of this mall is definitely questionable, Mulder. I’m a little leery of anyone rappelling down to the trains a second time…they may not be able to get back up, and I’m actually surprised you were able to.”

He sighed.

“But you didn’t tell me you got through to 911. What did they say?”

“They said there were three 911 calls on the train about a suspicious-looking man in a subway maintenance uniform. And there were some…strange…observations about his skin color.”

“What, was he Arabic?” Scully asked.

“No. I think he was a zombie.”

Mulder was always good at monotone comedy, but it didn’t appear to Scully that he was kidding. She stared at him, reflecting that even at a time like this, his mind never stopped thinking about the fantastic, and then formulated a response. “What in his skin color suggested that he may be among the living dead?” she managed to ask with just a slight twitch of her lip.

“Gray, green, and blue were the colors cited. And none of those fit on the normal skin color wheel. Now, provided the lighting in the train car was bad, and the man was drunk or ill, that would explain it. But that doesn’t explain what I saw.”

“You saw the zombie?”

“For just a second, yes.”

She shook her head. “Mulder, we haven’t tested the air quality down there. If you had just opened a window, you could have been breathing in fumes. And the lighting is terrible. And you’re high on adrenaline. And—”

“And I know exactly what I saw. He jumped up from the train car floor when everyone else was either unconscious or dead. And then he managed to get out of my sight and into the next train car, but we can’t reach it because it’s buried under the floor.”

“Doctor Scully!” a voice beckoned from outside the store. “We need you quick! There’s a guy with his head cut open real bad!”

She sighed, and stood up. “What did you see down there other than the zombie?”

“Unconscious or dead passengers. We can get them out, but it’s going to take some doing.”

She shook her head. “We have people we can definitely save up here—plenty of them. And the structural integrity of the building—”

“I agree, now that you bring up that point. No one goes back down. Especially not with a zombie down there. I’m pretty sure they don’t climb…”

Rolling her eyes, she exited the fitting room and rushed out to survey the situation. There was a homeless man across the food court, on the ground with a head abrasion. People were gathered around him but not getting too close.

She ran over, and Mulder followed closely behind. “Oh, God…I know that guy. That was the loudmouth guy that took some kid’s water bottle and started the fight.”

Scully looked behind for just a moment and frowned before she stopped in front of the man and stooped down, examining the damage. “The skull is fractured…torn open. Everybody get back!” She yelled. “Twenty feet at least! Jeremy,” she spoke to the volunteer closest to her, “Go find some tape or something and tape this area off.”

“You got it,” the man answered and ran away.

Scully turned back to Mulder. “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”

“It looks like an animal attack,” he commented in a low tone and squatted next to the man’s head. “I take it he’s dead?”

She just glanced at him, as if to say ‘what do you think?’ There was brain matter at the front of his scalp.

“Whatever was used to do this must have left a mess. But everyone’s walked all over the crime scene,” she said in annoyance.

Mulder looked around for the blood trail. “Right here. This way. I’ll follow it.”

“I’ll get Tara to guard this area while I treat the live patients. Be careful, Mulder. Take someone with you.”

He grabbed two spectators in the crowd who looked like they could handle backing him up and told them to follow him, and he drew his gun as he followed the blood trail.

Only moments later he came to a dead end, though. The blood trail seemed to end on the crevice of the drop that led to the train, and there was no body at the bottom.

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L’ENFANT PLAZA

WASHINGTON, D.C.

DECEMBER 24th, 2010

2100

“Here you go,” Matt said, sitting down cross-legged in one motion next to the little girl, who was now sitting up against the wall. He handed her a water bottle he had obtained from the Mexican restaurant next to the McDonald’s. Scully had picked the lock about a half hour before then, as the McDonald’s was out of water.

Christmas music was playing on a radio not far away. They had opened one radio from the sporting goods store in the hopes of getting local information on rescue efforts, but reception was so terrible that it was either Christmas music or some kind of Russian talk show. It was better than nothing.

“Where’s my mommy?” The girl asked Matt again.

“Well, like I said,” Matt explained slowly and patiently, “we don’t know who your mommy is. We need you to tell us her name and then we can see if we can find her.”

“Her name is Mommy,” the girl insisted, and drank some water. She frowned. “My head hurts.”

“I know. I told my Aunt Dana and she said there’s no children’s Tylenol. Sorry,” he said apologetically. “Maybe she should come over here…” he stood up and waved her over, and she held up a finger, indicating that it would be a few minutes.

He sat back down. “Other than your head hurting, how do you feel?”

“I’m tired,” she complained. “I’m hungry too.”

“Do you want some apples? We’ve got some apples in the McDonald’s. I can go get some.”

She nodded, and added, “And a toy?”

He laughed. “Sure, I don’t think that’ll be a problem.”

A moment later, he returned with a package of apples from behind the counter and a small toy, which he took out of the plastic baggie for her. It was a stuffed monkey whose arms wrapped around to grip something. He showed her how it worked, and then handed it to her. “What are ya gonna call him?” he asked playfully.

“George,” she said immediately. “Like Curious George.”

“That’s a good name,” Matt agreed. “Hey, my name is Matt by the way. What’s yours?”

She frowned, and then looked up at Matt as if afraid of him. “I’m not supposed to say my name to strangers.”

“But I’m not a stranger. I’m a kid, like you. A bigger kid, but I’m gonna take care of you. So you can tell me your name.”

She seemed to consider her options before she decided to trust him. She ate an apple and wrapped the monkey around her index finger, and then said, “My name’s Chelsea.”

“It’s very nice to meet you, Chelsea,” Matt said, and extended his hand.

Chelsea stared at it for a moment before she realized that she was supposed to shake it. She took his hand and shook it once, and then let go. Matt grinned. “So how old are you?”

“I’m four, how old are you?” she asked.

“I’m twelve,” Matt answered.

“You’re very big,” she decided.

He laughed. “I’ve got a little sister who’s six. She’s just a little bigger than you. You kinda look like her.”

She shrugged, and ate another apple. “Where’s my Mommy?” she asked.

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He frowned. This was the third time she had asked the same question. He answered again, patiently and in the same tone. Thankfully Scully arrived and squatted down, smiling at the preschooler. “Hey, there,” she greeted. “I’m a doctor. My name is Dana. What’s your name?”

“You can tell her too,” Matt said. “She’s my aunt. She’s nice—she’s not a stranger.”

“My name’s Chelsea,” the little girl said. “And this is Matt,” she introduced.

Scully grinned. “It’s nice to meet you, Chelsea,” she said. “Do you mind if I shine a light in your eyes for a second? I want to give you a checkup.”

“My head hurts.”

“That’s what Matt told me. I’m going to make sure it’s going to get better. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“Alright, now this won’t hurt but it might make you see some spots.” She shined the light in the girl’s eyes and made a funny face to make her look. Chelsea giggled in response. “Reactive but unequal. The right one is slightly bigger than the left one,” she said to Matt. “That means the concussion is more than just mild, but it’s not very dangerous.”

He nodded in acknowledgement. “She asked the same question a few times.”

“Sometimes preschoolers do that,” Scully told him. She then turned to Chelsea and explained, “I’m going to feel your head, okay? I want to see if there are any bumps.”

“Will it hurt?” Chelsea asked.

“It might hurt just a little bit, but you tell me if it does, and I’ll stop. Okay?”

“Okay,” she agreed.

Scully felt the girl’s head more thoroughly this time, and found a bump that was not there a few hours ago. The girl jumped and said, “Ouch!”

“I’m sorry,” the agent apologized and took her hands away. “I won’t touch that again.” She turned to Matt. “I think we found our culprit. Her head was probably hit in the front and the back during the crash. That could result in a relatively serious concussion for a young child. We want to keep an eye on her, keep her talking. Don’t let her go back to sleep.”

“She said she’s tired,” Matt said.

“Well, it shouldn’t be too much longer before we get Rescue in here. I want you to tell her a story, keep her up. Keep her talking. Just until we can get her in a CAT scan and make sure nothing’s been knocked around in there too badly. Okay?”

Matt nodded.

“Chelsea,” Scully said, and the girl made eye contact with her, “I want you to listen to Matt tell stories and I want you to stay awake. Okay? You’re probably tired, but you can’t sleep. It’s important that you don’t go to sleep until a doctor says it’s okay. Alright?”

She frowned, but nodded.

“Okay,” Scully patted her knee gently and stood up. “If you feel sick in your tummy, or you hurt anywhere else, you tell Matt, okay?”

She nodded again, and said, “Thank you, Doctor Dana.”

Scully smiled. The child was very cute, and was impossible not to smile at. “You’re very welcome, Chelsea. It was my pleasure. I’ll see you later.”

Chelsea turned to Matt and asked, “What stories are you gonna tell?”

Matt edged his way closer to the wall and leaned back, taking out a granola bar from his pocket and opening the wrapper. “Well, you know what tomorrow is?”

“Tomorrow’s Christmas,” Chelsea said.

“That’s right. I guess you’ve probably heard the story of Christmas, huh?”

“It’s a good story,” Chelsea said with a nod.

Matt laughed. “Yeah, it’s a really old story. Well, I’ll tell it like my Sunday School teacher told it. He’s pretty cool. So once upon a time, there was a mother named Mary, and she was going to get married to this guy named Joseph, but they weren’t married yet…”

Matt went on to tell the whole story in great detail, including Herod’s mandate that all the babies be killed, and the new family’s midnight journey away from Bethlehem, to Nazareth. He took a few liberties as well, adding some ninjas and a dragon for good measure.

He finished with, “And so the baby Jesus grew up with his parents and the next exciting thing didn’t happen until he was eleven and he ran away from home.”

“Wow,” she said. “I never heard anyone tell it like that before.”

“Who told it to you before?” Matt asked.

“My mommy. She told it to me when we was under the bridge. I liked under the bridge. But we had ta move because Mommy said there was mean people there.”

Matt was surprised. This little girl was homeless after all. Her mother and she had come here for a Christmas Eve dinner and possibly to get presents Christmas morning. The donations, he knew, were mostly destroyed. So now her only present was this little monkey he had taken from behind the McDonald’s counter. Tomorrow morning he would be home in his house, hopefully, if the rescue workers got there soon. There were presents under the tree already, and some that were unwrapped because Claire still believed in Santa Claus.

“What’s wrong, Matt? Why are your eyes wet?”

Matt looked down and used his dirty sweatshirt to dry his eyes. “I’m uh…I’m allergic to dust.”

“Does dust make you sad?”

He laughed, and looked up. “No…I mean…I’m just…” he stopped, and looked at this little girl. “I just wish we could all go home.”

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L’ENFANT PLAZA

WASHINGTON, D.C.

DECEMBER 24th, 2010

2200

Scully stepped back and stretched her back, sighing and closing her eyes. That was it. The rubble on the upper level had been cleared as much as was possible without causing a structural collapse. There were fifteen bodies plus the one murdered individual. She counted forty people in the triage area, only eight of which needed medical attention immediately. Most of the people in the triage area were now simply resting from exhaustion.

She had inquired about the McDonald’s teenage employees turning on some cooking equipment and making some food, but Mulder and a few others had said that was a bad idea. Without knowing the condition of the pipes in the building, turning on any appliance that used gas was a terrible risk. She agreed. So they ate non-perishable food, raiding the McDonald’s, the nearly empty sporting goods store, and the Mexican restaurant. She eventually picked the lock on the Subway and some of the homeless seemed to take great pleasure in getting behind the counter and making sandwiches, especially the kids.

Mulder wrapped his arm around her and pulled her close to him, and she leaned her head into his shoulder. “What are things like on your end?” she asked, her eyes still closed.

“I’m thinking if Rescue takes much longer we might want to chance it and rappel down there. There are no signs of life in those two cars but if one of us could climb on board and get to the back of the train, there might be live passengers further back who are just trapped.”

She pulled away. “I know, Mulder, but it’s too dangerous. I’ve got two volunteers who are engineers who said that this building could come down if we dig any further into that rubble or even try to touch the back entrance. You realize how dangerous it would be to trust that pile of rubble down there to support your weight while you climb in a train that’s supported by the floor it crashed through?”

He sighed, and nodded.

“Any cell reception?”

“No. Matt’s phone got one bar a second ago and I tried to dial out but it went right back to no service. My phone’s completely dead.”

“Have you tried a text message?” Scully asked hopefully.

He frowned, and then his eyes popped open in recognition. “A text message uses less….bandwidth, or whatever…it might get through!”

He clicked Matt’s phone on and was about to attempt a text message when they heard a noise above. The ceiling was crumbling, and people started to scream.

Mulder grabbed Scully with his free hand and ran away from the ceiling, diving into the same alcove where Matt and Chelsea sat, next to the water fountain. It was the best hope they had if the ceiling completely collapsed.

Dust flew through the opening and the screaming and crying escalated until a large chunk of the ceiling was grabbed by two prying metal bars, and pulled away. They heard another blessed noise. Helicopter blades.

The screaming and crying turned into cheers. People leapt up and hugged each other. They jumped for joy, and then stopped just in case the floor caved in.

Mulder and Scully stood and jogged over to meet the first rescue worker who was lowering himself down with a cable from the helicopter.

Once down, he didn’t even have time to introduce himself. Scully pointed to the triage area and said, “I’ve got eight critical patients who need to be airlifted out of here immediately!”

He nodded and radio’ed it in. Mulder stood up on a chair and waved his arms to quiet everyone down as he began to explain evacuation procedures.

The rescue had begun.

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MULDER AND SCULLY’S CAR

WASHINGTON, D.C.

DECEMBER 24th, 2010

2305

The last person was lifted out. The rescue operations were in full swing below. D.C. Police were taking over the murder investigation. Mulder and Scully could leave.

By that time they had installed temporary reinforcements on the front entrance and cleared out the rubble that blocked the door. They could see the outside for the first time since the crash.

Unlike most of the people who were trapped, the agents left by walking out the doors through which they came.

“When I signed up to volunteer helping those in need, I didn’t realize what I had agreed to,” Mulder joked as they walked toward their car. It seemed strange to him that they would go home by car only an hour after they had originally planned to go home. It was even stranger when they stepped into the clean Ford Taurus that had a full tank of gas and Scully’s unfinished Starbuck’s in the cupholder.

She stared at it as well, but didn’t say anything as they started the car and were serenaded with joyful Christmas music.

“It’s like two different worlds,” Mulder said finally. “Normally there’s something in between, isn’t there?”

“You mean a hospital visit?” Scully asked dryly, and earned a laugh from her partner.

“Hey, you’ve got to give me credit. I didn’t get hurt at all.”

“Aside from the cuts and bruises, you’re right,” she conceded. “But you did see a zombie.”

“I stand by my previous statement,” he defended himself adamantly. “And it’s probably still down there!”

She chuckled and shook her head. “Mulder, you never quit.”

He smiled at his partner and asked, “Would you ever really want me to?” When she didn’t answer, he continued, “And you don’t even know that the zombie wasn’t the one who caused the crash in the first place. He did have a maintenance uniform on, and in the absence of any indication of a terrorist attack, it’s only reasonable to conclude that it was a maintenance or technical issue.”

She sighed, and rested her head on her hand as her elbow sat upon the ridge of the car door. She closed her eyes.

“And the zombie obviously was the one who attacked that man, because the blood trail ended down in the rubble, but there was no body, not that we could find. Zombies apparently do climb, which means every movie we’ve seen is wrong…Scully? Are you listening to me?”

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TARA SCULLY’S HOUSE

GEORGETOWN, D.C.

DECEMBER 24th, 2010

2320

Matt had taken a shower and slipped into flannel pajama pants and a new sweatshirt. He was exhausted and had climbed into bed to go to sleep when his mother cracked the door and entered.

“Hey, Buddy? You asleep yet?”

“Just got in bed,” he answered.

She sat down on the edge of the bed and combed his hair back. “You doing okay?”

“I’m okay, I guess.”

“That was some pretty scary stuff we saw tonight.”

“I know. I’m not a baby, I can handle it.”

She smiled. He was just like his father in that respect—brave, but proud. “You did very well. I’m very proud of you, Matty.”

He smiled back at her. “I’m sorry your Christmas Eve kinda sucked. I know you wanted to teach me what it was like to spend time with homeless people, but I sorta got to anyway…”

She laughed. “Yes, I know. You got to spend more time with homeless people than you would have serving them dinner. So in that respect, it wasn’t such a bad night.”

“Well, that’s the idea, right, Mom? I mean, the story of Christmas Eve and how Jesus was born but all that bad stuff was happening all around him? Herod killing babies and Mary being just a teenager and them having to run to Nazareth and stuff? But since Jesus was born, it was a good night.”

With tears in her eyes and a smile on her face, she kissed Matt on the forehead and said, “You are such a blessing, Matthew.”

He closed his eyes and said, “But Mom…how can we enjoy tomorrow morning? That little girl’s mom is probably dead. We never found her. What will happen to her? How can we be happy with presents…how can we be happy at all, when we know there’s so much bad stuff out there that happens?”

Her smile turned sad, and she looked down. “There will always be people less fortunate than us. That’s why we try to do our part, and volunteer when we’ve got time, and give when we have spare cash. We do everything we can to live our lives and help others live theirs. But Matt…this is a hard lesson to learn…we can’t go through life being sad about all the bad things that are out there.”

“But—”

“Listen,” she said softly. “We cannot fix the world and make it perfect by denying ourselves everything we have. But we can make a difference one step at a time. One way to do that is to be as successful and happy as we can be, so we can take some of that happiness and success and give to others. By being sad and poor, we’re not helping anyone.”

He frowned.

“Another way to do that,” Tara continued, “is to never forget that sad feeling. To remember that sad feeling every time you feel greedy, or feel sorry for yourself. Because it will help you remember just how fortunate you are.”

He nodded finally, and closed his eyes.

“Go to sleep,” she kissed him again, and stood. “I love you.”

“I love you too, Mom.”

And that’s what Christmas is all about, Tara thought. Love.

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Post Trasadi

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TITLE: Post Trasadi
AUTHOR: Starfleetofficer1
CATEGORY: Post Ep
RATING: PG-13
SPOILERS: Seasons 1-7, Bari Trasadi
DISCLAIMER: Two weeks exclusive with VS17. No copyright infringement intended.
SUMMARY: The events after Bari Trasadi, the VS16 blockbuster. Mulder recovers,
and the nation reacts in an unanticipated way.

LANDSTUHL REGIONAL MEDICAL CENTER

GERMANY

WEDNESDAY, JULY 7th, 2010

1015

Scully’s body clock was completely shot. Pakistan was ten hours ahead of Washington DC, India was an hour behind Pakistan, and Germany was four hours behind India. She hadn’t had more than a few hours of sleep since Monday, and she hadn’t eaten a regular meal since Sunday morning. That put Scully at six hours behind insanity.

That was why, she assumed, she hadn’t felt the need to sleep until early this morning after she had finished briefing Skinner, US Army General Hager, Indian Army General Himmat, Major Calhoun’s new commanding officer, and a dozen other individuals whose names went in one of Scully’s ears and promptly flew out the other.

The last twenty hours had been a blur of activity, and she was still running on an adrenaline high through most of it. Mulder was brought in to the Ramstein Air Base via a Chinook helicopter. It seemed a little overkill to Scully, dragging a massive, 46,000 lb flying fortress across four time zones to transport one injured FBI agent and his partner. The thought hadn’t crossed her mind until later, but it was probably PR that drove that decision.

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From the Ramstein Air Base, he and Scully were med-evac’ed to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center where Mulder would receive treatment until it was deemed safe for him to fly. He was moved from the trauma center to a surgical suite, back to the trauma center, up two levels to a temporary room, and then to a semi-permanent room in another suite of the building.

And while this movement went on, Scully couldn’t conduct her usual bedside vigil or even sit in the waiting room and stressfully anticipate seeing him. Instead, she was kept occupied on video conference via a secure laptop. It appeared that most of the officials involved in the international mess they found themselves in were not willing to wait for her written report.

She had nearly taken Skinner’s head off when he called her cell phone, but then had almost broken down and cried when his first and only question was, “How is he?”

Mulder required surgery to stop internal bleeding from the building collapse, and to internally stitch his right bicep muscle and surrounding ligaments where a shard of glass had been embedded from the Humvee explosion. The building collapse had also left him with a concussion and multiple broken ribs. Both of his shoulders were dislocated and had to be reset after he was hung in a tortured position for nearly two days. His right arm, the doctors believed, was kicked out of its socket and was so severely dislocated that, coupled with the bicep injury, it could lead to permanent damage. The burning torture he endured left second and third degree burns on his back. They were monitoring his heart for tachycardia after he sustained multiple high voltage electric shocks, and he was dangerously dehydrated and malnourished almost to the point of brain damage or death. The short answer to Skinner’s question was ‘not good.’

He was still unconscious when Scully finally fell asleep at his bedside, laptop in her lap with the video conference window open but no one on the other side. Shortly after that, Mulder’s eyes finally opened.

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LANDSTUHL REGIONAL MEDICAL CENTER

GERMANY

WEDNESDAY, JULY 7th, 2010

1015

His world had been black for so long, he was sure he had gone blind. Ages ago, he was ripped away from the Technicolor, wonder-filled world offered to him while connected to the Bari Trasadi. After making the decision to direct the weapon’s energy in on himself and collapse the building, Mulder was thrust from that world of amazement and entered a dark, dusty and pain-filled world where his delirious thoughts confused his view of reality.

He had lived in that world until this moment, when he came back to hear the steady beep of his heart monitor, and see Scully familiarly at his bedside. He smiled. It was the first pleasant sight he had seen in so long. He wanted to reach out and touch her, but his arms were too sore and heavy to move. His right arm was heavily bandaged at the bicep and hung in a sling at his chest. Breathing sent small shots of pain through his chest, but it was dulled by painkillers administered through an IV in his left hand. He carefully tested his boundaries, wiggling his toes and fingers, checking to make sure there wasn’t permanent damage.

He cleared his throat and winced. It felt like he had strep throat. He reasoned that the pain was probably caused by the intubation he underwent during whatever surgery they had performed on him. “Scully,” he said, his own voice surprising him in its weakness.

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She stirred, and looked groggily at him for only a moment before her eyes opened wide and she smiled that brilliant smile he was waiting to see. He returned it. Then they said, not in perfect unison but nearly so, “I thought I lost you…”

They smiled again, Scully chuckling softly and trying not to cry as she slipped her hand into Mulder’s. She squeezed, even though Mulder didn’t have the strength to squeeze back.

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LANDSTUHL REGIONAL MEDICAL CENTER

GERMANY

MONDAY, JULY 12th, 2010

1224

“I’ll bet you a lunch you miss that shot.”

“You keep this up and you’ll be buying me lunch every day for the next two weeks.”

“We’ll see. Take the shot.”

Mulder squeezed the small foam basketball in his left hand as the physical therapist had instructed, rotated his shoulder as far as he could despite the near-blinding pain in his ribs, and then lined up the one-handed shot about six feet from the small basketball hoop five feet off the ground. He sat in a chair, still too weak to stand on his own through his PT session but too prideful to sit in the wheelchair the entire time. Especially with Antoine watching.

Antoine Good was a Private First Class in the Army who had been at Landstuhl for the past two weeks. He had been injured in Afghanistan; a roadside bomb had taken the nineteen-year-old’s left leg just below the knee. Already walking laps in the indoor track, Antoine was a no-nonsense, competitive, friendly kid, and he and Mulder had PT at the same time of the day. It was right after an 1100 am lunch hour, so Mulder ate light the last two days. The painkillers were screwing with his stomach and that alone was enough to make anyone nauseated, let alone going through the excruciating pain of physical therapy.

Antoine was a news buff and had been following Mulder’s ordeal before he ever met him. When the agent arrived and they ended up in PT together, Antoine set out on a mission to get the sullen older man moving as fast as was safe for him. The physical therapist set the goals, and Antoine pushed Mulder to exceed them.

The foam ball left Mulder’s left hand and soared the short distance to the hoop, bouncing off the rim and shooting in Antoine’s direction. He caught the ball mid-air and grinned at his older friend. “I’ll have lasagna with sausage, please. A side of beans, maybe…and ice cream for dessert. Lots, and lots of ice cream.”

Mulder rolled his eyes. “I say, I say, go away, boy. You’re botherin’ me,” Mulder responded in his best Foghorn Leghorn voice. He caught the return pass of the foam ball neatly in his lap, and tried again.

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Scully walked in at that moment and began to observe from the door frame. Mulder saw her, and this time not only did he miss, but he managed to hit the backboard of the man next to him. His physical therapist retrieved the ball while Antoine laughed.

“Don’t you have exercises of your own to be doing?” Mulder asked, slightly annoyed.

“Whoa, chill, dude. You were doing fine till your partner walked in…hell, half the guys in here messed up on their last rep.” That apparently was the wrong thing to say, because Mulder’s expression led to Antoine’s immediate, “Just kidding.”

The teenager rose from his seat on the edge of the physical therapy bed, grabbed his cane, and patted Mulder gently on the left shoulder. “Gotta go anyway, my session’s over. Keep at it, man. See you tomorrow.”

Mulder waved tiredly, and his physical therapist said, “How about we move into cool-down stretches now? Then if you feel up to it today, we can start electric stimulation.”

Mulder froze. He could hear the blood rushing past his ears and his vision blurred. The small portable heart monitor he was wearing began beeping furiously. “What did you say?” he asked, his voice almost inaudible.

The physical therapist looked confused. “Agent Mulder? Are you feeling okay? What’s wrong?”

Scully ran over in a second and was at his side, kneeling next to the chair. “What’s up, Mulder? Talk to me.”

He placed his thumb and forefinger on the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes, trying to breathe normally as he realized what had just happened. He couldn’t let this start. He had to nip it in the bud. He didn’t speak for a moment, but when the heart monitor’s beep slowed to a normal beat, he said in a soft voice, “Electric stimulation…yes. I want to start. Today.”

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LANDSTUHL REGIONAL MEDICAL CENTER

GERMANY

TUESDAY, JULY 13th, 2010

0945

“They set multiple bombs targeting the hospital, the military base, and some of the Jeser bases they knew of. I was able to deactivate these bombs by redirecting energy from the locations they tried to brainwash me with, to the locations of the bombs.”

“And how did you know the locations of these bombs?”

“The Bari Trasadi gave me that knowledge.”

“That’s the last thing Agent Mulder remembers, Sir.”

“Is that true, Agent Mulder?”

“It’s the last thing I remember until I woke up here.”

Hager nodded his head, and said, “Well, then. Thank you for your testimony, Agent. I know you’ve probably given it ten times before. Thank you again for your service. Get some rest.” The general signed off, leaving Mulder and Scully staring at Skinner’s concerned face.

“You okay, Mulder?” Skinner asked.

“No,” Mulder answered, and Scully gently smoothed her hand over his thigh. He was sitting up in bed now. His broken ribs were still painful but his energy level was high enough to drive his wish to get the ‘administrative shit’, as he called it, over with.

“You should get some rest,” Mulder’s boss told him, but his tone was caring and genuine, and he glanced at Scully on the screen.

She got the message, and nodded. Skinner knew the psychological effects from this event would get to anyone, and right now Scully was the only one around Mulder who would recognize a potential problem in that area. Mulder was well aware that there was a secret communication going on between his partner and his boss, but he didn’t really care. He had just recounted every gory, gruesome detail of what was done to him. Thankfully, Skinner had the presence of mind to record it. Now he wouldn’t have to do it again until he spoke to whatever psychologist the Bureau threw at him.

“Good night. I’m going back to sleep. Take care, both of you,” Skinner said. He gave Mulder a quick smile, and then signed off.

“I’m sorry you had to do that,” Scully said softly.

Mulder nodded, but promptly changed the subject. “Antoine and I are meeting up after physical therapy this afternoon. The doctors already okayed it. We’re going outside to the courtyard for a walk.”

Scully skeptically raised an eyebrow. “Did Bureau security okay this, too?”

“They want to come. We’re fine with that.”

Scully smiled, but was hesitant about the idea. She knew Antoine was in need of a ‘project’ to center himself around just as much as Mulder was in need of competition to take his mind off the physical and emotional pain. They had a symbiotic relationship, and Mulder acted as a mentor to the young soldier as much as Antoine acted as a coach to Mulder. But she worried that the nineteen-year-old would push Mulder to do something he wasn’t ready for.

“Just don’t be stupid, Mulder. Bring a walker.”

“Why? Antoine uses a cane.” Mulder’s smart reply came, and Scully rolled her eyes. Typical Mulder, expertly evading every subject he didn’t want to talk about.

This was the first day he’d wanted to discuss his ordeal since he arrived at the medical center. Scully didn’t want to push him, so they had remained mostly silent about it. But the time had come today to give his official statement, and he hadn’t practiced.

Scully spent the early morning with him, listening as he recounted the entire thing to a picture of General Hager that she had the front desk print off. She figured it would be more helpful to look at the picture while he practiced both because it was to Hager that he would be speaking on video, and because it meant he didn’t have to look in her direction while he formulated what he would say.

As she watched him relate the details it was clear he felt guilty about his actions. He felt as though, even though his intentions were to save every wrongly-labeled “terrorist” from death-by-dust, he had instead failed them. He was able to save most of them by redirecting the energy from the Bari Trasadi to the bombs that the Indian military splinter group had set. He even managed to take out multiple terrorists in the process. But he hadn’t saved every innocent. And he had risked Scully’s life, directing the energy down upon the Indian hospital ruins where he was kept prisoner. Scully had been in the building at the time, looking for her partner with a team of Marines and Major Calhoun.

That was why he could barely look at her when talking about his experience. Despite her insistence that he did nothing wrong, he still felt like he had failed.

An instant of recognition flashed in his eyes, and he said, “Scully!”

She responded with an inquisitive look.

“There’s one more thing we have to do…we have to talk to the State Department.”

“Mulder, the military said they would—”

“No, no, this isn’t administrative shit. Well, it is. But it’s not related directly to the Bari Trasadi. I owe someone a favor.”

“Okay…I’ll get Major Calhoun on video and ask him who we should talk to.”

“Perfect.”

Fifteen minutes later, they were connected with a State Department official who gladly accepted Mulder’s call. For some reason, it had been remarkably easy to get a hold of US officials in the past few days. “Agent Mulder,” the man said, and pasted a smile on his face. “What can I do for you?”

“I need a favor. It’s not going to be extraordinarily easy, but I owe a little boy a one-way ticket to the United States.”

The man initially hesitated, but then looked away from the camera at someone Mulder and Scully couldn’t see. He nodded, and then turned back to Mulder. “I think we can make that happen, Agent Mulder.”

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DULLES INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT

WASHINGTON, DC

SUNDAY, JULY 18th, 2010

1538

Mulder was profiling again. Scully could tell, because he was silently scribbling away on yellow paper, his left hand writing significantly sloppier notes than normal. He had been at it for about an hour, completely ignoring the stares he was getting on the plane. In fact, when Scully leaned over and looked, she discovered that he had incorporated the stares into his profile.

When they landed and he clicked his pen closed, Scully asked, “Okay, so what’s the verdict? Was it Colonel Mustard with the revolver in the Billiard’s Room?”

He grinned. “Nope. But we’re about to be famous.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“We’ve been kind of out of the loop in Germany…busy for weeks, and not really watching the news. On purpose.”

That much was true. They had avoided the news because neither one of them wanted to watch the talking heads proclaim the answers to the events overseas. They both knew the “experts” were as likely to guess that Flukeman was responsible as they were to guess the true nature of the Bari Trasadi. Not even General Himmat believed that Mulder had found the true Bari Trasadi and that it had been buried beyond recovery in the rubble of the collapsed hospital in India. For that reason, Scully hadn’t bothered to expound upon the fact that they had recovered a laptop with alien script on it. She simply had it shipped back to DC, and planned to begin the language analysis as soon as she returned to work.

“Go on,” Scully told him.

“Well, there have been several clues as to what’s about to happen when we get off this plane. First,” he said, rising with everyone else but wincing in pain almost immediately, and sitting back down. He held up his hand, stopping Scully from helping him. He took a moment, and then tried again. He was on the aisle seat in the front of the plane with plenty of room, but his ribs were still extremely sore, and it was difficult to get up with only one hand free.

His second attempt to rise was successful, and he continued. “First, Antoine already knew who we were before I ever even got to Physical Therapy.”

“Did you end up getting his email address?” Scully asked, and Mulder nodded before he continued.

“Second, Antoine mentioned multiple news broadcasts and had intimate knowledge of the entire ‘adventure’. Third,” he started, pointing at his bag under the seat. Scully’s face flashed with recognition and she immediately bent down to get it, clearly having forgotten about it. “Third,” Mulder repeated, “we were able to get in touch with the State Department and get Alam into DC in record time. I’ve never seen a bureaucracy work so fast without a sex scandal being behind it.”

Scully smirked.

“Finally, everyone on this plane has been staring at us since we boarded.”

“I’m not convinced that this took you an hour to figure out,” she said, and Mulder began moving forward. He couldn’t walk quickly yet, but he was able to walk without assistance.

“It didn’t. That was the initial conclusion. This profile,” he patted the yellow notebook he had tucked in his sling, “is my justification to Skinner as to why I don’t have to do the press conference.”

“Press conference?”

“An inevitability of political game theory, Scully,” he said. They were almost to the terminal. “All of this fame…it ties directly to the November elections. Everyone wants the photo-op with the crippled FBI agent.”

Scully frowned at his choice of words. There was still no indication that the damage to his right arm was permanent. He was doing well in physical therapy, but the fact that he wasn’t healing as quickly as he wanted to made him impatient and somewhat cynical.

They stepped into the terminal, and were completely shocked. They both guessed at the fuss the press was making, but neither one of them expected the crowd that met them. There had to be at least five hundred people standing in a roped-off section of the terminal, with American flags and “Welcome Home” signs, cameras flashing and cell phones clicking, and countless reporters with microphones hoping to catch a sound-bite or two. The crowd erupted into a roar of cheering and applause the moment they stepped past the threshold, and the FBI agents they were with escorted them through an already-secure aisle in the crowd.

Mulder spotted several people in the audience who were more subdued than the crowd waving their banners and flags. There were veterans there, some in full uniform and others just wearing a military hat or jacket, some sitting in wheelchairs and some with prosthetic limbs, some solemnly holding POW flags, and still others holding nothing in their hands, but nodding their silent approval as he walked past.

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Mulder was wrought with emotion. On the one hand, he was touched that people, for once in his life, actually cared. He was getting recognition for something he had gone through. He had fought for justice, and somebody paid attention. On the other hand, he hadn’t completed the job. Innocents still died. So he felt guilty, like he didn’t belong there, like it was Scully who they should really be cheering and clapping for.

The crowd continued as they made their way past the terminals and into the general airport area. They were both astonished at the size of the crowd. As they continued to walk and saw that part of the larger hallway had been roped off to accommodate onlookers, Mulder reasoned that there had to have been at least 2,000 people who had come to see him get off of a plane. Perhaps there was more to it than the November elections, after all…

Standing on the escalator on the way down to Baggage Claim, Mulder expected there to be no other surprises. That was why he nearly stopped walking when he was met with the sight of little eight-year-old Alam from Pakistan standing with two FBI agents, nearly jumping up and down in excitement. It was clear he wanted to run over to Mulder, but an agent’s firm but gentle hand on his shoulder held him back.

“Agent Mulder!” the boy yelled with a slight accent. “Agent Mulder! Over here!”

Mulder’s shocked smile grew into a wide beam as he made his way, slowly but surely, over to Alam and his small contingent of guards. There were a few more adults in civilian clothing, and one woman knelt down and put her hand on Alam’s shoulder, seemingly explaining something to him. He nodded, serious for a moment, and then turned back to Mulder who had finally reached his location.

He threw his arms around Mulder’s waist, burying his head in Mulder’s stomach and beginning to cry. Mulder was a little surprised at Alam’s greeting. He had spoken to the boy for about ten minutes in Pakistan, and managed to take advantage of his fifteen minutes of fame to get the orphaned kid out of a dangerous situation, but he literally hadn’t seen him or spoken to him since their initial conversation.

“Thank you for bringing me here, Agent Mulder,” Alam said softly, almost too quiet to hear.

Mulder winced as he patted Alam’s back. The boy had his head almost exactly where one of his ribs was broken. “I’m gonna keep an eye on you, Alam. I’ll make sure they find you a good home here, where you can grow up safe, okay?”

Alam pulled away and said, “I want to search for answers like you. I want to be an FBI Agent and find answers to questions and help people.”

Mulder smiled. “One step at a time.”

“When I’m older, I’ll help so many people that they bring an entire town to the plane to see me, just as they did for you,” Alam continued as if Mulder hadn’t spoken, and indicated the dwindling crowd at the top of the escalator.

Mulder and Scully realized that the amount of people Alam had seen in this airport were probably more numerous than anything the boy had ever seen before. The technology that he was seeing, as well, was probably more impressive than anything he had dreamed of. Conveyer belts, escalators, elevators, planes, and even air conditioning were all things that his poor village didn’t have. As soon as he had arrived in America, someone had given him new clothes that fit him well, but he had kept the lime-green Crocs that he had received from a charity shipment back in his village.

For this small boy, Mulder thought, the past few days had been completely transformative and he had only his shoes as a remnant of his old life. In the boy’s mind, probably from watching the television and hearing the FBI agents and social workers talk, this 180 degree turn his life had taken was all thanks to Mulder. It was easy to see why Alam thought of Mulder as his hero despite having only spoken to him for a few moments.

Mulder placed his hand on the bright eight-year-old’s shoulder and said, “You’re free now. You and the other children who were in danger have been brought to this place under something called ‘political asylum’—that means that the United States decided that your old home was too dangerous for you to stay, and were willing to give you permission to come here and stay instead.” When Alam nodded his comprehension, Mulder continued. “You’ve got a really amazing opportunity. You can grow up and do all of those things now. All you need is to want to do them.”

Alam nodded again, and Mulder smiled. He hoped he had said the right thing to the little boy. If not, he reasoned, there would be plenty more opportunities to see him again. He was keeping a close eye on this one—there was something about the child that struck Mulder as particularly special.

He patted Alam’s shoulder one more time, and then started to walk with the FBI agents and Scully to the car’s location just past the Hertz rental counter.

But before he could go, little Alam called out, “Agent Mulder! Allah watched over you! You came home!”

Mulder stopped for just a moment, turned back, and gave the boy a smile and a nod before he continued. Scully slipped her hand into his, and they left the airport and got into the car to drive to their townhouse.

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EAST ROOM, WHITE HOUSE

WASHINGTON, DC

TUESDAY, JULY 20th, 2010

1100.am

“While he was in captivity, we worked closely with the Pakistani and Indian officials, as well as the FBI agents present and in Washington DC. Two agents the Army would like to recognize for their particular dedication to finding Agent Mulder are Assistant Director Walter Skinner, who played an important role in organizing the FBI search effort, and Special Agent Dana Scully. Agent Scully is not only Agent Mulder’s partner, but was the forensic pathologist assigned to the Bari Trasadi investigation and was at the forefront of the search for Agent Mulder while he was a POW,” Major Calhoun spoke to a full room as cameras flashed, clicked, and beeped.

Twenty minutes later, they were honored with the presence of General David Patraeus, brief though it was. “By the time they found Agent Mulder, he had managed to disable a rogue group of ex-Indian military militiamen who allowed their prisoner to operate a device they had constructed in hopes that he would be capable of operating it. Agent Mulder is a world-renowned expert on ancient technology and had recently given a publicly-available speech on the Bari Trasadi at Georgetown University. The perpetrators in India had constructed a similar device to the one specified in the ancient legend, but were unable to control their creation. This resulted in the catastrophic deaths of thousands in both India and Pakistan. Multiple villages in Pakistan were flattened with no survivors, and thousands were killed in subsequent terrorist attacks in India. The Bari Trasadi War, as Indian President Patil has named it, is the deadliest event in India in decades. Agent Mulder, though gravely injured and within inches of his life, managed to not only gain control of the Bari Trasadi device, but also re-direct its use in such a manner that destroyed it and simultaneously destroyed multiple terrorist strongholds. Agent Mulder saved the lives of millions of civilians who would have perished in terrorist attacks, and he saved the lives of any military personnel who would have engaged in defensive action to protect US security interests abroad. His actions were integral to the success of our mission in the Middle East, and essential for our security here at home.”

After Mulder shook Patraeus’ hand and the General left to attend to his duties, several other important officials spoke about security, missions of peace, and heroism.

It was nearly an hour later that they heard the Vice President state, “The President sends his apologies for not being able to be here to present this award to Agent Mulder in person. It wasn’t a difficult vote. Both houses passed the resolution in record time after hearing the facts from all sides. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind: the entire world is safer today because of what Agent Mulder accomplished only eleven days ago. Therefore, it is my honor to award Agent Fox William Mulder with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award. Will you please step forward, Agent Mulder?”

Mulder rose as smoothly as he could and made his way to the podium, where he was presented with a small box. Inside was a unique medal, the only one in the world exactly like it. Carved specifically for him and what he had done, it was inscribed with his name and the year, and a brief description of why it had been issued.

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As Mulder reached with his good arm to accept the box, thousands of megabytes of pictures and video captured the moment so that it would live on forever.

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SUMMER HOUSE

QUONOCHONTAUG, RI

FRIDAY, JULY 23rd, 2010

1015

“How did you keep your sanity during your ordeal? Does the FBI train their agents to withstand torture?”

Mulder’s facial expression had twitched at the question, and he frowned while watching the DVR’ed press conference. He sat with his nephew Matt on the couch in the family room. Maggie had taken Claire to get ice cream. They had been at the summer house for the past few days, attempting to get away from the press and have some peace and quiet. Scully was back at work, deciphering the alien text from the laptop. The most disturbing news she had was that she had found Strughold’s name in the text.

There would be time to address that, though. For now, Mulder was recuperating with his family and relaxing at a place where he actually felt safe.

He was nervous about showing the press conference to Matt, even though the twelve-year-old had begged non-stop until Mulder finally caved and turned it on. It was Scully’s fault for recording it in the first place.

“Ben Sherwood is a survival expert who’s written a book called, The Survivor’s Club,” Mulder explained on video. “In that book, Sherwood details what an average, non-trained person can do to adapt to a new situation. And that is the key. Adaptation. One has to be able to transcend their situation by accepting it and moving forward with whatever circumstances they’re handed.”

Typical cookie-cutter crap, Mulder thought. He looked over at Matt, who was glued wide-eyed to the television, absorbing every word Mulder spoke.

“Agent Mulder, how does it feel to be the only FBI agent to ever receive the Congressional Gold Medal?”

“Honestly? I truly was just doing my job out there, doing what I had been trained to do, and I would gladly return the medal in exchange for the lives of those who were lost in the attacks.”

“Agent, is it true that you spend most of your time and Bureau resources hunting for clues into the existence of extraterrestrials?”

“No, that’s incorrect. The X-files is an officially-sanctioned division of the FBI that investigates unsolved cases, specifically pertaining to unexplainable scientific phenomena. Occasionally, unidentified airborne objects are investigated as part of that directive, but just as often my partner, Agent Scully, and I are looking into unexplainable deaths and instances where cutting-edge science isn’t able to identify the root cause of a crime.”

“Congressional Gold Medal recipients have been known to start charities after their receipt of the Medal, particularly as a way to use donations they’ve received themselves. Do you plan to do something of this nature?”

“There was a group of children I met in Pakistan who were orphaned in the attacks. I’ve already started a college foundation for these children. Now that they’ve been brought over to the United States for political asylum, they’ll be able to have a future.”

“Agent Mulder, do you plan to appear on talk shows and keep up your public image?”

Mulder smirked on camera. “I don’t know about you, Sir, but I’ve got a regular job. Next question?”

“Okay, I think we’ve seen enough of this now,” Mulder reached for the remote.

“No, please, Uncle Mulder! It’s only a few more minutes long!”

Mulder sighed. His attempt at ending it here wasn’t going to happen. And that meant that Matt was going to see…

“—what you thought about when you were re-wiring the Bari Trasadi to attack the terrorists and explode? Did you believe you were going to die as a result of your actions?”

Mulder’s expression on the screen turned from kidding to deadly serious, and if anyone thought his responses were scripted before, they would know from the hurt on his face that he wasn’t reading from a script now. “What I thought about, primarily, was my family. My partner’s family has become like my family. I thought about my niece and nephew, and…” he chuckled, but the smile didn’t reach his eyes. “To be perfectly honest, I was delirious with hunger and thirst, and I don’t remember all of it, and what I do remember is a little jostled. But I remember very clearly thinking that I would probably die, and that there were still people out there who were hell-bent on destroying our freedom and the world’s freedom…I remember thinking that I didn’t want that to happen. And that I would do anything…that I will still do anything, to protect the population of our country and our world. Even if it’s at the expense of my own life. This is the duty of every federal law enforcement officer, and it’s the duty of every responsible citizen to look inside themselves and think about whether they are willing to do the same.”

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Like most emergencies and near-death experiences, the Bari Trasadi incident started as a clear sequence of events and eventually devolved into what Mulder and Scully would later remember as disjointed scenes in their lives. They would both recall, with sharp detail, every moment when their lives were on the line. Scully was not cursed with an eidetic memory as Mulder was, but even if the accuracy of her memory failed, she would still believe the events to be as vivid as a movie.

But once the adrenaline left their systems and they were no longer in mortal danger, their memories would only store the times when they felt intense emotion. Mulder waking up in the hospital. Scully’s slew of video conferences after the event. Physical therapy sessions with Antoine. Recounting the horrific incident to General Hager. The crowd at the airport, and seeing Alam at Baggage Claim. The award ceremony, and the press conference. And the time with Maggie and the kids. These moments would remain in their memories for years to come, and would serve as moments of closure and clarity in the midst of a great tragedy.

Bari Trasadi

Bari Trasadi

Author: Starfleetofficer1

Artwork: Truthwebothknow1 & Starfleetofficer1

Category: X-file

Rating: PG-13

Summary: Mulder and Scully enter a war zone to investigate a weapon of possible extraterrestrial origins.

Disclaimer: Two weeks exclusive with VS16. No copyright infringement intended.

Trailer:

Original web date:04/07/2010

Bari Trasadi

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3 MILES OUTSIDE VILLAGE

VILLAGE OF HANDARI, PAKISTAN

FRIDAY, JULY 2nd, 2010

1400

“Alam! Get the ball!” Eight-year-old Alam Taymur turned at the sound of his name. He wore an old t-shirt that had once belonged to his brother, Sabir, and a pair of pants that were much too short for him. He had brand new shoes, however. The lime green Crocs had come in with a shipment of relief supplies for their tiny village of Handari, which was roughly around ten miles from Hangu and fifty miles from Peshawar, but surrounded by mountainous terrain.

At their current high altitude, they could see Handari three miles away, and could see the tiny dot that was Peshawar, just over the horizon.

Alam was with five other boys playing football while two of the boys’ fathers had a meeting of some sort. An old, rusty Jeep Cherokee sat about a quarter mile away from the boys, where the two men were discussing something important. Their expressions looked intense, and Alam had been staring in their direction, concerned.

“Alam!” an older boy yelled, and walked over. Alam turned to face him. “Get the ball,” Hafid said forcefully.

“What do you think they’re talking about?” Alam asked, and watched as one of the fathers looked at his watch, and glanced in their direction.

“Nothing that concerns you,” the older boy told him, getting annoyed that Alam wouldn’t go get the ball.

“The last time they took us out here, there was a bomb,” Alam stated, undercurrents of worry in his tone.

“Alam, just get the ball,” Hafid implored him, and Alam faced his older friend. He saw the same worry on his Hafid’s face as he imagined was on his own. Hafid had lost his mother in that bombing, Alam had lost his brother. They shared something of a bond. For now, though, there was nothing they could do. And it was the youngest boy’s job to retrieve the ball. Alam resigned to his duty with a nod, and ran after the wayward football. As he kicked it back, he felt a rumble deep within in the earth. He stopped, placing one foot on the ball. He nearly lost his balance as the rumbling grew, and he spotted a cloud of dust in the distance. It was moving right toward him and the others. He looked back at his friends’ fathers, who were now shouting for the boys to get back in the Jeep. But Barr, one of the other boys, was standing stock-still, apparently frozen. Hafid had started running back with the others but when Barr didn’t move, the thirteen-year-old turned back and ran back to grab him.

“Hafid! No!” Alam yelled, and started running toward his friends. “Come on, Barr!” he shouted, the wind from the cloud starting to whirl the sand around. He coughed and squinted, pulling his shirt up to block his nose and mouth. He could barely see now, but he could make out Hafid’s larger form plucking Barr’s smaller one from the sand and starting to run back toward them. Suddenly, he was lifted off his feet and hauled backward in the arms of someone much larger than himself. It was one of the fathers. “Hafid!” he yelled, and saw the shadow of Hafid and Barr lose their footing and suddenly become airborne. He heard a tremendous scream, and then lost sight of his older friend. “Hafid!” he cried.

The wind whipped around them, and he was thrown into the crowded Jeep. They huddled together, pulling the shirts over their faces to filter the dust and sand.

Only moments later, the gale-force winds stopped. There was dust everywhere. It stung Alam’s eyes as he cried, staring into the manila-colored cloud where his friend had been. They couldn’t see anything. “You children stay in the car,” one of the fathers said, and he got out of the Jeep. Alam didn’t listen. He followed the man, keeping him in sight so he wouldn’t get lost. He stared into the area where his friend was, but still could see nothing. The man looked down, and saw Alam. Alam backed away, momentarily frightened, until his friend’s father said, “I have an idea—come with me.”

Alam followed the man back to the Jeep, where they both climbed on top of the roof. “Climb on my shoulders,” his friend’s father ordered him, and the boy complied. When the man stood, Alam gasped, and promptly coughed from inhaling the dust.

“What, what do you see?”

Alam squinted. “Nothing. There’s nothing but a cloud. As far as you can see.” A tear rolled down his cheek. “Just a cloud…” No Barr. No Hafid. No Handari.

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PEP BOYS

WASHINGTON D.C.

SATURDAY, JULY 3rd, 2010

1500

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“You’re not done yet?”

“They haven’t even gotten to my car.” Mulder sat in the drab waiting area of a local Pep Boys, glancing out the window casually at the parking lot filled with cars of customers in similar predicaments to his own. The waiting area was packed, and many of the drivers’ cars sat untouched. The shop was full, and the Pep Boys was backed up. Scully had called a few moments ago to check on his ETA. They were due at Maggie’s house in two hours for dinner.

Scully sighed. “It’s a holiday weekend,” she said, offering some explanation.

His expression dissatisfied, he nodded. “But we just want the snow tires taken off.”

“Well, you’re the one who put it off till July, Mulder. If it takes too long, you’ll just have to wait for another weekend.”

“Yeah, we don’t want to miss dinner,” he said absently, distracted by the ‘Breaking News’ segment interrupting the game on the waiting area’s TV.

“We interrupt this program to bring you breaking news from India, where four major terrorist attacks have been launched and are now in progress. Ted Kusak is in Mumbai, where one of the largest attacks took place. Ted?”

“Thank you, Kelly. Three hours ago, approximately ten heavily armed, self-proclaimed ‘Pakistani defenders’ entered the Central Bank of India just as twenty other armed men with the same self-identification entered the Mumbai Airport. They immediately began shooting, and it is estimated that four hundred people may have been killed from those attacks alone. At the same time, a total of eight suicide bombers successfully set off bombs in hotels, popular shopping malls, and apartment buildings. A thousand people may have been killed in this city alone, and similar attacks are occurring in three other cities. The most gruesome of the attacks is undoubtedly the Indian Military Hospital massacre. It is reported that thirty armed terrorists entered the hospital and began shooting, slaughtering every patient and worker on two floors before an elite tactical team was finally able to enter the building. At this time, they set off a suicide bomb and demolished half of the hospital.”

“Scully, are you watching this?”

“No, I’m in the car headed to Target to get candy for Matt and Claire. What? What’s going on?”

“There was a terrorist attack—there were several terrorist attacks in India. They’re estimating a thousand people were killed in Mumbai alone, and there are three similar attacks in India as we speak.”

“That’s horrible,” Scully said, her tone concerned. “This can’t be unrelated to the attack in Pakistan yesterday.”

“That’s what I’m thinking, too. I know Pakistan isn’t all that fond of India but I didn’t realize they thought India was responsible.”

“It was on the news last night. Some commentator was saying that the Pakistani government had traced the hit to a military complex in India, but that the Indian government had responded that they had no idea where the attack had come from and that they were willing to offer aid if Pakistan was willing to accept.”

Mulder snorted. “Right. I think they’d rather have us in there than India, and that’s really saying something.”

“Well, is there any indication that the government is responsible for these attacks?”

“The Pakistani government? Not that I can see. The news seems to be referring to them as ‘terrorists’. They’ve got feed from a Pakistani news channel and an Indian one, and they’re both condemning the attacks.”

“I don’t think anyone wants an all-out war,” Scully said. “Especially not with India. There’d be no contest against them.”

“But that doesn’t mean the Pakistani government isn’t responsible. Hiring terrorists to do your fighting for you can’t be hard when they’re a rupee a dozen.”

They had been following the conflict since it started the previous day, with an enormously powerful weapon strike hitting a small village in Pakistan and flattening three square miles of land. There was less left of the village than there was of Hiroshima after the bomb, and the weapon had been powerful enough to cave in a small portion of a mountain, causing a rockslide that buried any microbe that had managed to survive the initial blast.

The reason why this catastrophe was interesting to them was because the weapon left no apparent energy signature and seemed to simply vaporize everything in its path. The only thing it left behind was a detectable ‘tunnel’ of wind, similar to a tornado, traveling from the apparent source. It was nearly identical to the Bari Trasadi, an ancient Indian weapon Mulder had given a lecture on two months ago for Georgetown University’s archaeology department. Mulder believed the archaic weapon’s calamitous results were due to alien technology.

Evidence of the existence of such a weapon were only mentioned in a few Indian texts, but Mulder had reason to believe the Indian government had recently discovered the device in an archaeological dig around a year ago. He also had sources that told him there had since been questionable communications between the Indian government and possible extraterrestrials.

“Anyway, let me know when you’re done at Pep Boys. And call me if anything else happens in India.”

“Will do. Love you,” Mulder said just as his phone beeped.

“Love you, bye.”

He switched the call and spotted Skinner’s name on the CID. “Hello, Sir,” he greeted his boss.

“Mulder, I’m sorry to bother you on a weekend. I need you and Scully in my office as soon as possible.”

Mulder frowned. “Sir, it’s the day before July 4th. Can’t this wait till Monday?”

“No, Mulder, it can’t,” he said forcefully. “I’ve got a representative from the Indian military on video chat and he doesn’t have all day. We need both of you here, within the hour if you can. Where are you?”

“Pep Boys,” Mulder said, and stood up as he saw a man walk toward his car. Now they decide to change the tires.

He started out the door, as Skinner said, “It’s about the attacks in India. I take it you’ve been following the news?”

“Hey! Hey, don’t take the car yet! Sorry, Sir, hold on a minute.” Mulder waved his arm and tried to get the single-minded mechanic’s attention. “Hey, don’t take the car yet—I need my keys back. I need to leave.”

“I’ll see you soon, then, Mulder,” Skinner said.

Mulder shook his head, and said into the phone, “No, wait, Sir, I want to know what this is abou—” Skinner hung up, and Mulder sighed. He turned back to the mechanic. “I need my keys back. Is there any way I can take a raincheck for the tires?”

“You already paid?” the man asked.

“Yeah, when would be a good day to come in? When aren’t you this crowded?”

The mechanic snorted. “When we’re closed.”

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J. EDGAR HOOVER BUILDING

WASHINGTON D.C.

SATURDAY, JULY 3rd, 2010

1600

“So let me get this straight. You think the weapon design from the legend was copied by the terrorists, used against one of their own villages from a location close to the military base in India, and then the attack was used as an excuse to launch this complicated series of attacks they’ve been planning for months?” Mulder leaned back in his seat and folded his hands against Skinner’s desk. “Forgive me for asking, but are you familiar with Occam’s Razor, General?”

The Indian Army General looked relatively insulted, and US Army General Bill Hager gave Mulder a sharp look over the video chat screen. Mulder looked to Scully, who was now leaning to one side of her chair, rubbing her eyes with her thumb and forefinger. Mulder looked back at the Indian General and shrugged. “It just seems overly complicated,” he said. “A much simpler explanation is that someone in India has found the real Bari Trasadi, didn’t understand how to control it, accidentally hit Pakistan, and instantly created about two thousand terrorists who were told where to go and what to do.”

“We have no evidence either way, Agent Mulder. That’s why we’re talking to you,” General Himmat said with a slight Indian accent. His English was impeccable. “You were recommended to us by American intelligence as someone who may be able to track this weapon down and stop it before it causes any more terrorist attacks. Whether someone has built the weapon to align perfectly with our legend of the Bari Trasadi, or whether the 4,000-year-old weapon somehow exists and is now in use, it doesn’t matter. Although, admittedly,” he said with a small smirk that Hager matched, “we are leaning toward the former explanation.”

“We would be happy to help in any way we can, General,” Scully answered for Mulder, hoping to smooth over the public relations. Mulder was notorious for pissing off people in high places and Scully didn’t want to spar with two generals on a holiday weekend. With luck, she thought, they’d be out of there by midnight and still get to spend Sunday with her mom, Tara, and the kids.

“Good,” Himmat said with a nod, and glanced at Skinner. “How soon can they be in Pakistan?”

Mulder and Scully’s eyebrows shot up. Simultaneously, they said, “Whoa, what?” and “Wait a minute—”

Skinner ignored them. “They can be on a plane by this afternoon. They’ll arrive tomorrow. I’ll brief them on the specifics. Do you want to send any material for them to read on the way over?”

“We’d rather not,” General Hager stated. “This is sensitive information and we have concerns that releasing specifics over the phone or Internet might result in a breach in national security, for both our countries.” General Himmat nodded his agreement.

“Very well. Is there anything else, gentlemen? My agents deserve an explanation and I’d like to be able to give one to them.” He didn’t seem entirely happy with this plan, but he was acting like grudging acceptance of it was the only appropriate course of action.

“That will be all for now, Assistant Director. Thank you for your time,” Himmat said gratefully. He turned to Mulder and Scully. “I will see both of you in Pakistan.”

Himmat cut off his video, and Hager turned to the AD. “Assistant Director, I want to make myself perfectly clear,” the general explained. “The Army does not want this to turn into an investigation into alien technology, a hunt to find ET in Pakistan, or some kind of twisted Stargate episode.” He glanced at Mulder. “You’re not looking for the Bari Trasadi. You’re looking for a weapon that was built to terrorize the people in this region, that manages to copy the supposed characteristics of the weapon from the legend.”

“Your point was well-understood, General,” Skinner said, and then added, “Before, after, and during our conversations with General Himmat.”

“Thank you, AD Skinner. I trust you’ll relay that point to your agents,” Hager said, and cut his video off. Himmat shortly followed, and Skinner deactivated the line altogether.

The AD turned to Mulder and Scully who looked ready to throw in about a hundred protests. He held up his hand. “I know it’s a holiday, and I know you had plans.”

“It’s not even that,” Mulder started, and glanced at Scully. “Sir, we can’t go to Pakistan. It’s a warzone. We’re two Federal agents, not—”

“You’ve received the proper training, Mulder, and this is important to national security. Who do you think the terrorists are going to attack next? They tend to lash out at their enemies and any allies their enemies collect. When they learn we’re giving India humanitarian aid, they’re going to take it as a military presence. Look at Haiti.”

Scully shook her head. “Isn’t there any way we can analyze this without going to Pakistan?”

“No, not if we want to keep the weapon classified. The last thing we need is the world knowing that someone has a weapon of mass destruction on their hands. Half the population in the US will be calling for a military operation in India to find out who it is, and everyone else will be panicking that the Apocalypse is coming. Many people in India would think it’s the actual Bari Trasadi. It would add vulnerability to the infrastructure of the Western world that could lead directly to a terrorist attack.”

Mulder looked dissatisfied with this explanation.

“You’ll be protected by a contingent of US military officers permitted to enter the country for the express purpose of examining ground zero. It shouldn’t take more than a day or two, and then you’ll head to India in protective custody, where you’ll visit the archaeological dig site where it’s suspected that an object of similar appearance to the Bari Trasadi was unearthed.”

“Suspected, huh?” Mulder said wryly.

Skinner went on as if Mulder hadn’t spoken. “And I expect you to be on your best behavior, Mulder. I don’t have to tell you international relations are at stake here, and it isn’t time to be accusing the Indian government of conspiring with extraterrestrials.”

“My sources indicate that the Indian government has been contacted by extraterrestrials, but there’s no evidence here that extraterrestrials are playing any role in the use of the weapon. The Bari Trasadi was never intended to destroy three square miles of land, Sir,” Mulder said, ignoring the tired expression on Skinner’s face. “It was intended to target multiple locations at once with precision ‘beams’. Though the ‘beams’ are more like massive, concentrated gusts of wind that utilize the elements already in the atmosphere, destabilizing any structure, including living beings, in the area targeted.”

Skinner was getting impatient, and Mulder quickly concluded with, “So it’s fairly obvious that whoever is using the Bari Trasadi was not trained how to properly fire it.”

“Your job,” Skinner continued, “is to get in there, give the Indian and Pakistani governments any information they need on the Bari Trasadi in order to track the people who have built this weapon, and then you are to leave. You are not to attempt to expose any conspiracies overseas. It’s doubtful Secretary Clinton wants another Beijing on her hands.”

“I’ll make sure that’s all we do, Sir,” Scully jumped in. “Trust me, I want to get home as fast as possible.”

“Good.” Skinner stood. “Then I wish you good luck.” His features softened somewhat, and he glanced at his two agents. “You two watch yourselves over there.”

With that, Mulder gave his boss a definitive nod and led Scully out of the room.

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C-17 CARGO AIRCRAFT

SOMEWHERE OVER EASTERN EUROPE

SUNDAY, JULY 4th, 2010

1030 (LOCAL)

“We shouldn’t have told them,” Scully said with a sigh. She thumped back into her seat, a printout of Mulder’s lecture on the Bari Trasadi half-read in her lap. They were sitting in two of the only open seats on the cargo plane, the rest of the space taken up by bulky cargo going to Pakistan and then India for the relief effort.

They were the only passengers on the massive utilitarian plane, and their seats were padded but not intended to make the ride comfortable. Tired of looking at the side of an enormous package of hygiene supplies, Mulder and Scully had long ago turned to the materials they brought with them.

Mulder looked up from his file and glanced at Scully. “Hm?”

“My mother and Tara. We shouldn’t have told them.”

“Well, what were we supposed to do?” Mulder asked rhetorically. “Not show up for dinner and then not show up for the 4th? If you were missing from mass this morning,” he glanced at his watch, “or ‘tomorrow’, their time, your mom would’ve had her neighborhood watch group marching through the city with guns and dogs.”

“I’m not saying we shouldn’t have told them we weren’t going to be there. I’m saying we shouldn’t have told them we’re going to Pakistan. My mother had that look on her face like she did after Bill’s funeral.” She shifted her glance to Mulder, her expression painful. “I don’t want to put her through anything else, especially not during a holiday.”

Mulder slipped his hand into hers. “I know. I’m sorry, Scully. She was going to find out, though. This isn’t a three hour tour.”

Scully smiled slightly, and shook her head. “I just wish we could’ve lied and told her it was some mission in Hawaii.”

Mulder chuckled. “Then she’d expect us to call.”

Scully was about to reply when the plane veered sharply off-course and began a steep climb. Mulder and Scully were nearly thrown into the cargo containers, and as they scrambled back into their seats and reached for their seatbelts, they saw Air Force Colonel Brown making his way back from the cockpit.

“What’s going on?” Scully asked as she fastened her seatbelt.

“There was just another attack, this time in Afghanistan. It’s a big one. And it took out a US Army base. We’ve been ordered to get out of the strike zone and wait until we receive the OK to land. It’s gonna be another five, maybe even ten hours, folks.”

Scully gave Mulder a worried expression, and Mulder asked Brown, “Any trace on where this one originated?”

“Not yet, but as soon as I know anything, I’ll let you know.” Suddenly, he tapped the radio in his ear and listened intently. Then he nodded. Turning back to the FBI agents, he said, “We’ve got the source. It was India again. And the Indian government has just launched an offensive to figure out who’s doing this. They’ve closed off their borders—no one in or out. Looks like we’re gonna be stuck in Pakistan for a while.”

Scully looked down, and shook her head. “That’s just wonderful,” she muttered.

“Try to get some sleep. You’re gonna need it,” Brown said as he turned and made his way back toward the cockpit.

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TEMPORARY UN CAMP

HANGU, PAKISTAN

SUNDAY, JULY 4th, 2010

1545

They rode in an Army Humvee along a dirt road in the middle of the desert. They had been in the vehicle for what felt like hours. They had gotten little sleep on the C-17, the hot sun in the cloudless sky made the temperature at least 20 degrees hotter, and they were wearing full battle fatigues and armor. They had landed in Peshawar and met a large contingent of UN, Air Force, Army, and Pakistani forces who ushered them into the Humvee where they now sat. They were tired, hot, and hungry.

The political significance of the American presence was huge, and the only way the Pakistani government would allow an American military ground operation to take place in their country was if the UN supervised. Of course, Americans had been sending drones into Pakistani villages for months, conducting surgical strikes to eliminate insurgents. However, that was assisting Pakistan with their counterterrorist agenda. This was an investigation into an attack that occurred on Pakistani soil. Most, if not all, of the Pakistani people would find it an inexcusable intrusion. Mulder, of course, believed that the only reason why the Pakistani government had allowed them in at all was because they truly thought the Bari Trasadi was in use.

Mulder and Scully caught about an hour of sleep in the Humvee before their Army and UN escorts woke them up and told them they needed to be briefed on the situation. Neither of them had ever interacted with the tribal areas of Pakistan. There were many cultural nuances that they were told to observe, most of which they would no doubt unintentionally break.

“Agent Scully, you’ll need to keep your head covered while questioning any witnesses or while walking outside.”

“That won’t be a problem with this sun,” Scully answered.

“We’ve got clothing for both of you to help you blend in a little, but for security purposes you’ll be expected to wear vests underneath the clothing and wear your helmets at all times. It will be highly uncomfortable in this heat, but that’s the way it has to be,” UN representative Schaeffer told them with a German accent.

“One thing you should be aware of when talking to these people is that you’re probably going to get ‘The Answering Machine,’” Army Colonel Young explained.

Mulder and Scully glanced at each other, and then inquisitively looked back at the blonde-haired man. It seemed that the Air Force colonel and UN representative both knew what he was talking about, as they nodded in agreement with Young.

“’The Answering Machine,’” the colonel continued, “is when they give you their ‘schpiel.’ They’ll start off with something like, ‘you are Americans,’ and then they’ll get into it. ‘America has no reverence for Allah, it is an inherently sinful country, if it wasn’t for America, there would be no war, the West is an evil influence, corrupting the minds of the pure, Allah instructs us to combat anyone who threatens His rule, I refuse to talk to you, for you are corrupting my mind as we speak.’ Yaddah yaddah yaddah.” He adjusted his position in his seat. “When they start that, which you can guarantee that they will, just be quiet and listen, and don’t respond directly to what they say. Do not try to argue with these people. If you need to convince them to talk to you, explain that the reason why you’re asking these questions is that you want to find out who attacked them. And then ask your question again. Hope they don’t start ‘The Answering Machine’ all over again.”

Mulder frowned. “If you think they’re going to be uncooperative, why don’t you send someone to question them who’s a little more familiar with them? They may be more comfortable with a journalist.”

“Or a missionary,” Scully suggested.

“If they’ve never seen us before and they’re as hesitant to talk to American strangers as you say they are, then we’re probably not going to get valuable information from them, anyway,” Mulder stated. This was just basic interrogation technique, and he thought an Army colonel should know this.

“It doesn’t matter who we send, Agent Mulder,” the colonel stated. “These people live in the middle of nowhere. They’re probably uneducated and they’ve probably been indoctrinated from early youth. Trust me—I’ve dealt with tribal areas before.”

“Well, Colonel, begging your pardon,” the Schaeffer started, “You haven’t dealt with this particular area before. And my reports indicate that the few witnesses we will be questioning are surprisingly educated for the area where they live.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” the colonel said, and turned around in his seat once more.

Mulder was still frowning, and Scully could tell he didn’t like the direction this was taking. It was something they had encountered before—preconceptions getting in the way of the facts, especially when dealing with hard-headed people. The colonel seemed to be one of those.

“Also,” Schaeffer continued, “it’s not always because they believe what they’re saying, when they give you ‘The Answering Machine.’” He held up his hand. “I’m not saying you won’t get it—you probably will, at least once. But especially in such a rural area, the people have often not had exposure to outsiders and their tribal leaders will tell them what to say if they encounter someone. It is a way of protecting them from harm.”

“Or keeping them brainwashed,” the colonel muttered.

The UN representative rolled his eyes, and the Air Force colonel shrugged, and turned around.

They finally pulled into the small, temporary UN camp. It was fenced off and guarded by US military, and it was largely just sand and dirt surrounding a few tents and one barrack. It wasn’t a typical military base. There were no young men playing basketball or football outside, there were no drills being run, and there was no one underneath a Humvee giving it repairs. There was practically no one outside at all. There was no exterior show of force besides the guards at the entrance, and the base housed two Humvees, two UN vehicles, and no tanks.

“There are only officers here,” the Air Force colonel stated. “We’ve got four translators, one archaeologist, a blast site forensic team, eight diplomats, the Pakistanis, and then there’s us. We don’t plan to be here more than another week.”

Mulder and Scully nodded. “When do we get out to the site?” Mulder asked.

“We plan on splitting you up. Agent Scully will go to with the forensics team to the blast site to conduct a scientific analysis, and Agent Mulder will come with us to question the survivors. They’re staying in another tribal area about thirty minutes from here.”

Mulder and Scully looked uncomfortable with the Army colonel’s plan.

“Unless we were misinformed about your respective specialties?” the man asked.

“No, that’ll be acceptable,” Scully said. She took a drink of water from her canteen.

The Humvee stopped, and they exited. “You can head on in with us. We’ll get you something to eat and introduce you to the translator. I’m sure General Himmat will want to have a few words over the video chat before we take off,” the Army colonel said. “He planned to be here but was called back to India early this morning.”

Mulder nodded. “When will we leave here?”

“1700 hours, sharp,” the colonel said, and led the way into one of the tents. Schaeffer fell in step beside Mulder and Scully, and said, “We’ll all meet back here no later than 1930 for dinner, and then if we need to go out again, we’ll do so only if it’s deemed safe. There were reports of Pakistani insurgent activity in the tribal area where we’re going to question the witnesses.”

Scully suddenly looked worried. “Would it be safer to wait until morning? Don’t more attacks happen at night?”

“Honestly, Agent Scully,” the Air Force colonel said from behind them, “your biggest worry out there is an IED or an RPG. Neither of which depend on whether it’s dark or not.”

Mulder wanted to take her hand, but didn’t want to give Schaeffer and the colonel the wrong idea. Instead, he placed his hand on her shoulder and said quietly, “It’ll be okay.”

They entered the tent, and Mulder and Scully were led toward a table with bottles of Gatorade and granola bars laid out for them. Mulder immediately ripped his granola bar open and began eating. Although Scully hadn’t eaten anything substantial in hours, she had suddenly lost her appetite. “Mulder…” she started to say, once the others had walked away.

Mulder interrupted her. With a full mouth, he said, “I know, Scully. I want to have dinner with you too.”

She smiled slightly, and he smiled back. “Just watch yourself out there, okay?” She ordered quietly.

Mulder gave her a brief salute, and finished off his granola bar.

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GHANIM FAMILY FARM

15 MILES OUTSIDE HANGU

SUNDAY, JULY 4th, 2010

1730

Three little boys played soccer in the dusty parking area, using a broken down, wheel-less, door-less, ’92 Chevy Pickup as their goal. They were barefoot, and although they seemed to play vigorously and competitively, Mulder didn’t hear the cheerful shouts and petty arguments that usually came with such play. Of course, a bit of depression wasn’t out of the ordinary when one’s village had just been wiped off the map, along with everyone they had ever known.

Four men sat on the porch of a small cottage, and a small boy with lime green Crocs on his feet sat in the dirt not far away, digging a hole with a rock.

The men rose when the Humvee pulled into the area. There was another Humvee not far behind, but it stayed back. It was armed with a gun turret and loaded to capacity with Young’s men, ready to jump in if insurgents happened to stop by.

Mulder’s Humvee came to a halt near the house. Schaeffer got out first, his blue UN ribbon hopefully identifying him. They were in a different tribal area than Handari was in, but apparently one of the men with the rest of the witnesses knew this family and trusted that they would be safe with them. The Pakistani government hadn’t taken them to Peshawar for questioning because it would have upset what was left of their small tribe. Handari’s destruction, along with the leveling of three square miles around the small village, had knocked out 70% of the tribe’s population.

Schaeffer bowed to the man who had stepped to the front of the crowd, and the translator approached after the bow was complete.

“This is UN Representative Daniel Schaeffer,” the translator explained in his native language. “He brings with him US Army Colonel Hal Young, and Agent Fox Mulder,” the man indicated Young and Mulder. “I am Humd, their translator.” Humd, Mulder thought. This guy must’ve gotten it worse than me in elementary school.

“I am Jabir. I spoke to UN Representative Howard, and he said you would be coming. The witnesses are here and ready to speak with you,” the man said, continuously shifting his gaze to Young.

The translator did his job, and Young nodded. “Great, let’s get ‘em out here.”

After the translation, Jabir frowned. “These are them,” he said to the translator. “These two men, and these four boys. They are all that is left of Handari.”

After hearing that, Mulder felt his stomach twist. This weapon had erased so many people in just moments. He knew there were few survivors, but the realization of what he was seeing really hit home. Three little boys playing soccer, one digging in the dirt, and two men standing together, their arms folded defensively.

“They won’t need you to translate, though. They all speak English,” Jabir explained to the translator. “They’re extraordinary people, Mr. Humd. They, like us, believe in peace. It’s because of this belief that they were saved from the destruction.” With that, Jabir bowed slightly, and turned and walked away. The other man who had been on the porch entered the house before Jabir, and shouted an order to those inside. Women in black head covers immediately started closing the wooden shutters on the house. Mulder counted four of them.

Jabir’s body language, the fact that they were harboring the only survivors from Handari, the complete lack of “The Answering Machine” Mulder had been warned of…it wasn’t adding up to a typical encounter at a typical farm in a tribal area of Pakistan. “What is this place?” Mulder asked Young.

“A farm, I’m pretty sure,” Young stated as the adult witnesses walked toward them.

“This is no average farm,” he countered, and looked to Schaeffer for answers. Schaeffer simply gave him a ‘look’ that was the German equivalent of ‘be less American for two minutes and sit still.’ Mulder frowned, dissatisfied.

One of the men called the children over, and all but the boy with the rock obeyed.

“My name is Jabir, and I am their translator,” Jabir stated in English, and bowed slightly. Then he introduced everyone, and concluded by saying, “I am apparently not needed here, so I will go.”

Mulder caught his arm. “Stick around, Jabir. There could be something cultural you can help us interpret. I don’t want any misunderstandings here.” He turned to the survivors in front of him. “I wanted to begin by saying how sorry I am for your loss.”

They both nodded solemnly.

“I don’t want to intrude any more into your private lives,” Mulder continued, respectfully. “So my questions will be as brief as possible, and then we’ll be on our way.”

“We understand, Agent Mulder,” one of the men spoke in accented but fluent English. “I am Quadir, and this is my cousin Mutazz. My son, Nafi,” he finished, placing his hand on one of the boy’s heads.

“And this is my son, Jarir,” Mutazz told them. He indicated the other, slightly taller boy. “This is Kashif, one of the boys with our group when the weapon detonated. And that boy over there, that is Alam. Alam may not give you what you need—he hasn’t spoken since the destruction.”

Mulder nodded. He intended to speak to Alam, but he first needed to ask his questions of those willing to answer. “Should we step inside?”

“It is better that we speak out here, in case they are listening,” Quadir said. He glanced at Young before he looked back to Mulder. “You are no doubt wondering why we are here, and who might be listening. You probably know nothing of the conflict that is happening in our tribal area. Or was…it may not even matter now.”

Mutazz glanced at his cousin, and then looked to Mulder. “We are the Jeser. It means ‘Bridge’ in English. My cousin and I went to university in America. We returned to Handari to bring change. Our mission was to bring our people out of poverty, help them reach their potential. Understandably, this means fighting the insurgents who want to gain control of the Pakistani government.”

“We do not fight them with weapons, though,” Quadir stated. “We fight them with words. We fight them with publicity, what little of it we have. We fight them by sabotaging their own terrorist plans. We try to stop them from getting elected into public office.”

“And we pay dearly for it,” Mutazz said. He pursed his lips. “Our wives have been slaughtered. We have both lost children. The children you see here have lost parents and siblings before this heinous attack. Alam and Kashif have no one left.”

“The Ghanim family farm is one place where we are welcome outside Handari. It is a haven for those like us, who wish to bring education and hope to this land, not war and coups. So you understand, Agent Mulder, that we want to help you find whoever did this. We will answer your questions, but you must be efficient. We don’t know how much time we have before we must leave here.”

Mulder nodded. How wrong Colonel Young had been about these people. And what about Pakistani intelligence? Mulder thought. Surely the country knew of the Jeser’s existence? Why wouldn’t they offer their assistance? Set up an official program to protect the Jeser from the terrorists? He knew the answer, but it still bothered him. “You’re very admirable for what you do,” Mulder told them honestly. “I’ll be quick. The first question is easy. What did you see?”

“We felt it at first,” Quadir said. “It started with the ground shaking, and we saw in the distance a large cloud. It soon enveloped us. It was worse than a sandstorm. We could not see, and we felt a force pulling us toward it.”

“It was like a tornado,” Kashif spoke. Mulder was surprised the boy knew what that was. But, with the educated mentors that he had, he was certainly going to be more knowledgeable than a typical tribal boy.

“It was terrible,” young Jarir said quietly. “We lost Hafid and Barr.”

“Hafid, my older son,” Mutazz nearly whispered. “And Barr, a young boy who came along.”

“I’m sorry,” Mulder said sincerely. So far, their description was almost identical to other eye witnesses of the Bari Trasadi, who witnessed its destruction thousands of years ago. “I know this may seem insensitive. But who was the last person to see either of the two boys?”

“That would be Alam,” Quadir told him, and glanced at the little boy behind him. “I’m sorry. He really has been traumatized. He probably won’t speak.”

“If it’s all right with you, I’d like to try,” Mulder said. Neither Quadir nor Mutazz protested, so Mulder turned to Schaeffer. “Can you keep talking to them? Make sure your recorder’s on.”

Schaeffer nodded, and Mulder walked towards Alam. “Alam, let this man speak to you,” he heard Quadir call, and Alam looked up. His eyes grew wide as he saw Mulder coming toward him, and he dropped his rock.

“Hey, Alam, it’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you,” Mulder said in a soft voice. He approached Alam slowly, and then eased himself down in the dirt next to the eight-year-old. He took off his helmet, despite the fact that he was told not to. He wanted to appear as non-threatening as possible. His clothing was loose and sand-colored, and his weapon wasn’t visible. He was dressed in traditional tribal robes, though now they were getting fairly dirty.

Alam, seeing that Mulder was yet another adult who wanted to ‘talk,’ picked up his rock and continued his quest of digging a hole.

Mulder, ever the psychologist, couldn’t help but profile the child. His skin was extremely dark, indicating that he spent a lot of time outside. His clothing was worn and old, his pants too small and his shirt too big. The only new item on the boy’s body were his shoes, the lime green Crocs that would identify him a mile away. “My name’s Mulder,” he said, and picked up a nearby rock. He began digging in the dirt as well.

Alam glanced at him, and then went back to his task.

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Mulder continued digging. “The dirt’s pretty firm here. Not a good spot for digging. Makes it harder, you know.”

Alam shrugged.

“I like a challenge, though,” Mulder said. He continued digging. He didn’t notice the annoyed, impatient look he was getting from Colonel Young, and he didn’t much care. He needed to know what this boy had seen. And he had to admit, his heart went out to this kid. He understood what he was going through. He too was a boy who had lost everything.

“You live in America,” Alam said suddenly with a very slight accent.

Bingo. Mulder nodded casually.

“Why do you come here? I’m told it’s because you want to find out what happened. What concern of it is yours?”

Sounds angry. “Well, it’s actually my job,” Mulder told the boy. “My job is to go around to places where unusual things happen and figure out why.”

Alam continued digging. “Why do you do that?” He asked, his tone still angry.

“Because I want to figure out the truth,” Mulder told him simply, hoping his calm tone would diffuse some of Alam’s rage. “I want to know why things happen.”

The boy didn’t answer, but kept on digging with even more fervor. “Will you figure out what happened to Hafid? Will you figure out why he died, too? And figure out where Handari went?”

Mulder put his own rock down. “That’s why I’m here, Alam. I’m trying to figure out why those things happened, and stop them from happening again.”

Alam slowed his digging. He stared at the dirt, and then closed his eyes.

Mulder was silent for a moment before he shifted positions, and rolled the rock from one hand to the other. Then he put it down again. “Alam, can I ask you a few questions? If you don’t want to answer, you don’t have to. But it could help me figure out what happened.”

“When I get older,” Alam said quietly, “I’m going to move to America. I’m going to move and I’m going to live there where it’s better.” He looked up. “Is it better there, like my father used to say? Is it really better, like all the Jeser say, or is it just another lie to make me feel better?”

He’s a smart kid, Mulder thought. “There are nicer things there than here. Bigger buildings, fancy cars, you know,” he answered honestly. “It’s safer than here. People make more money than here. It’s also very different. And it’s only ‘better’ as long as the people work to make it better,” he told the boy. He let Alam have another moment, and then he repeated, “Can I ask my questions now?”

Alam nodded, but said nothing.

“Can you tell me what you saw?”

“The whole story?”

“It’ll be better for my investigation if you start from the beginning,” Mulder explained, and gave him a sympathetic look. “You can keep digging your hole if it’s easier that way.”

Alam picked up his rock, and continued digging. After a moment, he started talking. “We were playing football. Mr. Khayr and Mr. Radi took us out to the spot on the mountain. Last time they did that, there was a bomb…I was afraid.”

Mulder nodded, and simply listened. His recorder was getting the entire conversation.

“There was a big cloud. You could see it coming toward us. Bigger than any sandstorm cloud I’ve ever seen. And so thick! You couldn’t even see under it.” He continued, recounting the entire event detail for detail. Finally, he said, in a near whisper, “When I looked up, on Mr. Radi’s shoulders, on top of the Jeep, I couldn’t see anything. And even when the dust cleared…there was nothing. Just sand.”

Mulder placed his hand comfortingly on the boy’s shoulder, and he saw a tear slide down Alam’s cheek. “Thank you, Alam,” he said. “I’m going to figure out who did this.”

Alam looked up, his eyes red and his expression angry. “Will you? Will you really, or will you just say that like the missionaries do? When it gets too hard and they come after your family, will you just leave and send us back money?”

This little boy has been through so much, Mulder thought. He looked Alam in the eyes. “I promise, Alam. I’m going to do whatever I can to figure this out. And if I can’t, I’ll find someone who can.”

Alam stared at Mulder and then unexpectedly threw his arms around him, clinging to the agent desperately as his body shook with sobs. Mulder heard his unintelligible cries about his mother, father, brother, and Hafid. The rest was all in his native language.

A moment later, Colonel Young approached them and placed his hand gently on Mulder’s shoulder. Mulder looked up, and received an indication that they had to get out. Apparently, it wasn’t safe anymore. He pulled away from Alam, and held the boy by his shoulders. “Listen to me, Alam. I need to go. But I’ll find a way to get in touch with you. I’ll let you know when we’ve finished our investigation. And…you know what? I’m going to find a way to get you to America.”

Alam’s expression was one of shock. He sniffed. “Thank you, Mulder,” he said quietly.

“You stay with the Jeser, okay? Don’t run off.” Alam nodded, and Mulder stood.

“Allah be with you,” the eight-year-old said, and Mulder smiled back at him as he walked away.

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GROUND ZERO

HANDARI, PAKISTAN

SUNDAY, JULY 4th, 2010

1815

“Found another patch, Agent Scully,” Major Calhoun said over the radio.

Scully looked up and squinted to spot Calhoun directly east of her. She pushed the collar of her baggy robe over to expose her radio, and clicked it as she asked, “Distance?”

“Fourteen feet from the crater’s edge.”

She nodded. That was just about standard. She looked down at her Toughbook Tablet PC, which showed a dot that labeled the detonation point in the center of Handari, and then showed a blue ring around Ground Zero that was almost exactly fourteen feet from the crater edge. Zooming out, she saw two other rings forming as their team inputted more data. One was approximately a mile away, and the other was about two miles away. They had managed to get the Pakistani military to help them out with manpower, scanning and inputting information about the sand. The entire area where the town once stood was now a slightly sloped plane of sand.

She clicked her radio again. “And it’s all pure SiO2? No other elements?”

“Affirmative, Agent Scully.”

She sighed. This didn’t make much sense. Even if everything had been obliterated by force, the particles needed to go somewhere. They couldn’t have just turned into sand as Mulder had suggested. She was hoping that ‘somewhere’ was to these rings of glass, but they appeared to be pure SiO2 as well. “What about you, Faraj? Any impurities to the glass rings?”

The Pakistani officer about a mile away radioed in. “No, Agent Scully,” he said in a thick accent. “There are no impurities registering on my scanner.”

She nodded. “Thanks, Faraj.” Abu Faraj had volunteered his help, and seemed to be as eager as Mulder to get to the bottom of this. He was friendly toward Scully and seemed exceptionally professional and knowledgeable. She was thinking of making him her lab assistant when they got back to base.

She looked at her watch, and looked at their sample list. They seemed to have gotten everything Mulder explained that they needed to point to the Bari Trasadi or, as Scully thought was more likely, a weapon made to do what the Bari Trasadi was supposed to do. The pure SiO2, the rings of glass, the planing effect on the once rocky and mountainous terrain…it all matched perfectly with what little historical evidence there was of the Bari Trasadi. She saw on their closed military network that Mulder had just finished up his interviewing, and that there were three new recordings uploaded from the recorders his team carried. It was about time to wrap it up and head back.

As if on cue, Major Calhoun said into his radio, “Okay, everyone pull back into the blast site, we’re moving out.”

A slew of ‘Copy’s and ‘Yes, Sir’s followed, and Scully began the trek back to the Humvee. She climbed into the passenger seat next to Calhoun, and took her helmet off to wipe the sweat from her brow.

“Keep that helmet on, Agent Scully,” Calhoun said in the sharp, trained tone he usually reserved for his subordinates. “RPG’s don’t care how hot it is.”

She nearly rolled her eyes. She was dying of thirst, dressed in body armor under two layers of desert robes, and had just finished carrying soil sampling equipment for three-miles around a blast site in a sandy wasteland with no shade. It didn’t matter that it was late in the day—the sun was as brutal as it was in DC at high noon on a cloudless, summer day. She decided she hated the desert.

Just as Calhoun spotted one of their other Humvees in the distance and prepared to put theirs into gear, their radio crackled once, and then fell silent. Calhoun looked troubled. “All teams, report in,” he said, just to be safe.

Multiple teams reported in immediately, and Scully looked to the major. “What’s wrong?”

“That crackle…it sounded to me like an SOS.”

Scully frowned. “I didn’t hear that.”

“You have to be listening for it,” he explained. Scully knew this man had served three tours in Iraq and four in Afghanistan. She didn’t have to ask him to elaborate as to why his ear was always listening for a distress call.

“Who would be sending an SOS?”

“Only thing I can think of is Colonel Young’s group.” He switched radio frequencies and clicked his radio. “Colonel Young, this is Major Calhoun. Do you copy?”

They waited, and Scully saw one of their Pakistani group members approaching their Humvee from the south. He got in, and asked, “Are we going to head North back to Hangu?”

Calhoun held up his hand, silencing the man. They waited, and only a moment later the radio crackled again. Three short crackles, three elongated ones, and three short ones again. A standard SOS in Morse Code.

“It’s definitely Young’s group,” Calhoun said, starting up the Humvee and heading out in one quick motion. He switched his frequency again to a general one and announced, “All teams, we are Oscar-mike to Colonel Young’s group location. Acknowledge.” Calhoun had now switched to military lingo in case their lines weren’t secure. ‘Oscar-mike’ meant ‘on the move.’

Another barrage of ‘Yes, Sir’s followed, but Scully barely heard them. Her stomach had plummeted when the second SOS came in, and now she could hear her heartbeat in her ears. Oh please, God, let Mulder be okay.

“—this is Major Calhoun, do you have any reports of insurgent activity directly southwest of Handari, Over?”

A moment later, Calhoun got his answer. “This is Tollert, Sir. We’ve got multiple reports coming in from area witnesses and Pakistani military patrol. There have been multiple IED blasts reported and one ambush of an American Humvee. No ID yet, Sir, but considering we’re the only friendlies in the area—”

“Thank you, Tollert. Update me regularly. Out.”

Calhoun fixed his eyes on the dirt path and sped up the Humvee, a cloud of dust forming around them as they drove. It was spooky, being in this blast zone where a cloud of dust and sand engulfed the area and took the lives of so many. It was as if they were recreating a microcosm of the destruction.

Scully gripped the ‘oh shit’ handle with her right hand, her knuckles turning white. But the ride wasn’t the source of her anxiety. Calhoun wasn’t driving recklessly—if anything, Scully wanted him to drive faster.

He glanced at her momentarily, and said, “There’ll be four patrols moving in on his location in no more than fifteen minutes, Agent Scully. And they already have two Humvees with them, one equipped with a gunner.”

She nodded. That didn’t make her feel better, though.

Ten minutes later, the first patrol arrived five minutes ahead of Scully, Calhoun, and the Pakistani soldier. Calhoun’s radio crackled to life after the morbid silence Scully had just endured. “Major Calhoun, this is Pierson.”

“Pierson, report,” Calhoun said, and as they cleared the next hill of the terrain, they were able to see a large amount of black smoke and a still-raging fire.

“Area clear, Sir, but we’ve got two Humvee’s, both FUBAR.” ‘FUBAR’ meant ‘Fucked Up Beyond All Repair.’

Scully held her breath, knowing what Calhoun would ask next. And when the question, “Signs of life?” was asked, she could hear nothing but the silence that followed.

Until finally, Pierson stated, “Still looking, Sir.”

Calhoun pursed his lips. “Copy that. Out.”

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DIRT PATH

7 MILES OUTSIDE HANDARI

SUNDAY, JULY 4th, 2010

1810

“The cloud, the flat plane, the people who seemed to disappear into the sand before their eyes…the sheer amount of dust involved, the fact that a six-foot-tall man had to climb onto a Jeep and put an eight-year-old on his shoulders just to see over the cloud, when they were already 250 feet above Handari’s level…it all points right to the Bari Trasadi,” Mulder told Young, who was looking rather displeased with the results.

“You realize this is gonna make a shit-ton of paperwork,” he said, and Schaeffer looked positively insulted by the profanity. “I’m sorry,” Young shrugged. “The man’s telling me his official explanation is that a 4,000-year-old weapon leveled three square miles of land. You try writing that in a report.”

“The problem now isn’t going to be determining if it’s the Bari Trasadi or a perfectly copied weapon,” Mulder continued. “When we meet up with Scully, I’m sure she’ll have more than enough scientific evidence that will correlate with the historical evidence, and whether or not the weapon is authentic is irrelevant to tracking its source. That should be our main goal. Now I happen to believe it’s the authentic weapon, and whoever excavated it is using it incorrectly. As a consequence—”

“Incoming!” The driver yelled suddenly, and Young instinctively grabbed the back of Mulder’s helmet and shoved it down to the agent’s knees. Before Mulder even knew what was happening, a horrendous boom nearly shattered his eardrums and the Humvee shook from impact. The passenger side front tire blew, and the vehicle tipped as it skidded to the side. Mulder held himself in the brace position they had gone over in the safety training, his heart pounding and his mind racing. Were they being attacked by insurgents? Had they hit an IED? What was going on?

The Humvee righted itself and came to a halt, but seconds later was slammed by an unbelievably powerful force. Shrapnel flew everywhere, and smoke filled the vehicle. Another explosion forced Mulder to break from his brace position as he was hurled upward, his seatbelt catching him before he collided with the roof as the vehicle rolled.

He squinted through the smoke, trying to see what was happening, but didn’t even have the time to unbuckle himself before another hit pierced the windshield and sent shrapnel flying in his direction. He covered his face with his arms as a large piece of glass embedded itself in his bicep, and his ears were assaulted with a hideous, gurgling shriek from beside him.

Daring to look, he turned his head in the direction of the noise and saw Young’s body suspended from his seatbelt, but his head almost completely detached. Mulder felt sick.

He reached down for his seatbelt release but yet again another explosion rocked the Humvee, this time tipping it 90 degrees and nearly toppling Mulder onto Young’s body.

“Agent Mulder! Agent Mulder!” When his ears stopped ringing long enough for him to hear the voice, he realized it was Schaeffer.

He turned his head in the representative’s direction, and found the man pinned by a warped piece of the dashboard and his still-secure seatbelt.

“Cut your seatbelt and get out! Get out of the vehicle!” Schaeffer yelled.

Mulder reacted almost in a daze, not thinking about anything he was doing. He pulled the knife from his ankle holster and cut his seatbelt. He scrambled toward the front windshield, took one look at Schaeffer, and made the decision that he couldn’t help. He needed someone else to pitch in. The translator was nowhere to be found, probably buried under what was left of the tactical gear and electronic equipment in the back of the Humvee. He saw the other Humvee up ahead, though, and jumped out of the windshield. He rolled onto the sand, got to his knees and then his feet, and took one step at a time toward the other Humvee. It was upright, but it was almost completely blackened by a fire inside and smoke was pouring out of the hood. An alarm went off in Mulder’s head. You’ve got seconds.

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Breaking into a run, or rather a stumble, Mulder made it to the other Humvee and scanned the inside quickly. The driver and the front seat passenger were dead. The gunner had been ripped away from his station in the back and left somewhere behind in the sand. The three back passengers were all unconscious, maybe dead. They were being consumed by the flames that were steadily growing inside the vehicle. “Hey!” Mulder heard himself yell hoarsely. “Hey! Is anyone alive in there?”

He heard a popping sound. Run, he commanded, and found himself turning away and stumbling through the sand again, only to trip about thirty feet from the vehicle and fall on his face. One more explosion ripped through the air, and when the shrapnel had stopped raining down and Mulder looked up, he couldn’t help but notice the complete decimation of the lead Humvee compared to his, which was relatively intact.

He looked around at his surroundings, trying to determine if there were any threats. His mind was starting to clear, and he was less on survival-automatic-pilot and more his usual vigilant self. There was a pickup truck driving towards the site, and that alarm bell in his head began clanging. Get to shelter, he commanded himself, and dragged himself to his feet. But there was no shade, nowhere to hide. There were no trees, no shrubs, and certainly no signs of civilization anywhere near them. He couldn’t fight them off. He had a .40 cal and that was it—there was no guarantee any of the weapons the Humvees were carrying would work.

As the truck got closer, its occupants got clearer, and Mulder knew what he had to do. He ran back toward the Humvee and climbed in the front windshield, accessed the still-intact radio, and set it to a general frequency. Three short bursts, three long bursts, three short bursts. He repeated the SOS again and again, his heartbeat increasing with every inch that truck got closer.

He could see the men sticking their heads out the windows, aiming their guns at him. They were shouting in victory. There were eight of them. Eight able-bodied men against one injured one.

He was cornered. There was nowhere to go. Schaeffer managed to grab his arm at the moment the truck stopped, and he said, his voice shaking heavily, “We’ll come for you…just stay alive till then.”

Mulder had no chance to reply. A well-aimed bullet hit Schaeffer in the head and killed him instantly. The men were screaming at him. He couldn’t understand what they were saying, but he knew what to do. Mulder put his arms in the air, his breath catching at the motion of his right arm.

He was grabbed by strong arms and pulled out of the vehicle. They threw him to the ground. Men with AK-47’s surrounded him. Five were dressed in traditional desert robes, but three were in normal civilian clothing. Mulder felt one of them place his foot on his shoulder and kick, turning him onto his back. He did nothing to fight back, not wanting to be shot on sight.

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Suddenly, a man from behind him threw a black, dirty sack over his face. It stunk of urine and rotten food. He was hauled to his feet, his wrists bound and tied to his waist, and ropes extending to his ankles. He was then nearly dragged to the truck and tossed in the bed. Someone yanked the piece of glass out of his arm, and he screamed. He was kicked in the face for his vocalization, and he forced himself to calm his breathing and try to think about the situation. I’ve been captured. I don’t know by who. I’ve been through this before. I can get through it again. Stay calm. Scully will figure out where I am. Like Schaeffer said… But the thoughts of Schaeffer’s eyes going out like a light right in front of Mulder, thoughts of Young’s head hanging by a flap of skin…he didn’t want to close his eyes and calm his breathing, because each time he tried, his mind went straight to those thoughts.

Stay calm. Think, Mulder, think. Who are they? How did they know where we were? Why did they kill Schaeffer and not you? They must know who you are. They probably won’t kill you, then.

The men were speaking in Arabic, and Mulder couldn’t understand a word. Suddenly, out of nowhere, something hard connected with the back of his head, and he was out.

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DIRT PATH

7 MILES OUTSIDE HANDARI

SUNDAY, JULY 4th, 2010

1840

“—only have preliminary analysis at this point, Sir, but it’s pretty clear that the RPG impacted the rear Humvee first. By the blast pattern it was a perfect hit between the tires. It blew out the front passenger-side tire, nearly tipped the vehicle on its side, but from the tire treads we can see that it stopped after that. The lead Humvee was then hit with a direct RPG to the engine, which blew through the windshield and killed the driver and passenger instantly.”

It has to be terrorists. Only terrorists would do this…

“After the lead Humvee came to a halt, it must have caught fire. Then the gas tank exploded, and destroyed the entire vehicle. The rear Humvee endured several tactical strikes. The first flipped it onto its back, which is a feat unto itself. We’re dealing with heavy-duty explosives here, Sir. Perhaps improvised—we’re not sure yet.”

Why would they take Mulder? Was he the only survivor?

“The second blast flipped the Humvee again, this time only onto its side. That’s where it stayed, despite the fact that several more explosives were discharged around it. We’re examining the bodies, but it’s clear that three occupants were killed by the crash, but one was killed by a rifle round to the skull. And, of course, Agent Mulder is the only one unaccounted for. But the slit seatbelt and the SOS indicates that he was alive and that the terrorists captured him. Also, this entire thing took place while six recently-placed IEDs destroyed Pakistani patrols, eliminating the possibility of a patrol response at this location.”

What will they do to him? They’re going to torture him. Oh, Mulder, why does this keep happening to you?

“Agent Scully, are you okay?” Calhoun’s voice penetrated Scully’s thought process as she stared blankly at the ruined Humvees and listened to the major speak to Pierson, the first responder.

“I’m okay,” she stated, but she couldn’t even convince herself with that answer. She took a deep breath. “When will forensics be done?”

“Probably another two or three hours, Agent Scully,” Pierson stated. “If you’ll excuse me, Sir, Ma’am.”

Calhoun nodded to his subordinate and watched him walk away. “Okay, the first step is to inform AD Skinner, the UN, the Pakistanis, the Indian government, and the Air Force. And, of course, Agent Mulder’s emergency contact. Do you know who that is?”

Scully couldn’t peel her eyes away from the twisted metal. “It’s me,” she said quietly.

“Oh. Well, in that case…the next step after that is to list him as officially MIA with a high potential of being a POW. That’ll get him on everyone’s radar, make sure if a patrol happens to find him, they know who he is. And it’ll get patrols looking. In this case, we’re going to get as much press as we possibly can. It’ll give us a way of uniting the governments involved and making sure that everyone does his share.”

She nodded numbly.

“I’m thinking we’ll probably get Special Forces involved, too, especially when we get a location. And that’s where you come in.”

She turned to face him, and found his expression sympathetic but his eyes determined.

“You’re a professional investigator, Agent Scully. Normally you’d be taken off a case like this but if you haven’t noticed, we’re not in America and I refuse to let red tape get in the way of this investigation. A US Army base was destroyed and we just took ten casualties, including our commander and our Bari Trasadi expert, your partner. These people have got to be stopped before they detonate this device again, and we still need your expertise on how they’ve managed to build this thing. So I’m asking you, Agent Scully, to help out here. Are you in?”

The agent gave Calhoun a look like he had just asked her whether she was breathing or not. “Of course I’m in,” she stated, shaking her head at the question.

He gave her a definitive nod. “Good,” he said, and started walking toward the wreckage. “Then let’s get going.”

Maybe it was the major’s can-do attitude, or maybe it was the image of Mulder enduring unfathomable amounts of pain because he happened to cross a terrorist’s path. Maybe it was the chaotic scene in front of her, or it could have been the thought of her mother’s reaction when she learned that Mulder was now considered a POW. But whatever it was, the numbness was leaving Scully’s body and she felt the energy surge through her. She hadn’t eaten a meal in hours but she felt like she could climb a mountain. She jogged after Calhoun, the familiar feeling of urgent determination overtaking her. This was what they did—they investigated, they found answers. Scully would find Mulder. She wouldn’t settle for less.

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LOCATION UNKNOWN

SUNDAY, JULY 4th, 2010

TIME UNKNOWN

Mulder awoke to find himself in a dark, sweltering-hot room with concrete walls, floor, and ceiling. It smelled putrid, and had no ventilation. The only light came from a single, dim light bulb screwed into a ceiling socket.

A rope tied his wrists and ran through a pulley attached to the ceiling, then to a winch bolted to the far wall. His ankles were tied to the legs of a metal chair that was then bolted to the floor. At the moment, Mulder was sitting with his arms up in the air. They had allowed him to keep only his pants.

He looked around the room. A small electrical generator sat on the far wall with jumper cables strewn carelessly on the floor. Behind him, he was disturbed to see a nearly decomposed body. He spotted the ropes on the body’s wrists and ankles, and felt his stomach churn.

You’re okay, he reminded himself. You’re alive, your arm stopped bleeding, you’re relatively unharmed from the crash. You just need to stay alive, and someone will find you. They will be looking.

He tried to see more detail in the room, but he couldn’t spot any video cameras or other torture instruments. Low-tech. You’re dealing with the basic, run-of-the-mill terrorist here. But something about that idea didn’t make sense to him. Could a “run-of-the-mill” terrorist organization pull off the destruction of two armored Humvees? Ask the 9/11 survivors that, and they’ll probably give you an emphatic ‘yes.’

So what did they want? Was he just the unlucky bastard who was going to become a talking point on America’s evening news? A tool for the terrorists to gain leverage in the US? Or was this more about the politics of America conducting an investigation in Pakistan? A protest against the Pakistani government? Perhaps it even had to do with the Bari Trasadi attacks themselves.

Suddenly, the door opened and three men walked in. One carried two coat racks and a flag, one carried a camera on a tripod, and the other carried an AK-47. They were dressed in traditional Muslim religious clothing and had draped black masks over their faces, exposing only their eyes. Mulder knew what was about to happen, and realized that it was a good thing. The terrorists were going to make a video that would help the FBI and the Army find him. The standard execution method on these videos seemed to be beheading. But they weren’t carrying any large knives or daggers, which meant that he probably wasn’t going to die.

The man with the tripod set up the camera and then walked over to the winch. He turned the crank, and Mulder was pulled to a standing position. He found it was very hard to keep his balance with his legs tied to the chair, and he had to use his wrists to keep himself upright at times.

He had been through this deal before, and he had learned by now that he would survive longer if he didn’t speak until spoken to. Smart remarks were for the inexperienced. He wanted to live.

The man with the coat racks and flag finished setting up the background behind Mulder and took a dirty rag out of his pocket. He stuffed the disgusting thing inside the agent’s mouth and then blindfolded him with a black strip of cloth. Mulder could now only see shadows, and was trying very hard to keep his gag reflex down.

He heard movements, brief words spoken in Arabic, and a scraping sound of some kind. Then he heard a motor starting up. Someone grabbed a handful of skin on his stomach, and he jumped at the contact. Then Mulder felt the cold, painful teeth of the jumper cable sinking in. Aww, shit. They’re gonna do this on Youtube, aren’t they?

The other jumper cable was attached to his Achilles tendon and, not expecting it, he wasn’t able to stifle a grunt. Someone chuckled and patted his cheek.

Then he saw the light of the camera through his blindfold, and felt the business-end of the AK-47 placed against his temple. As his heartbeat increased, he tried to slow his breathing. There was no knife. They’re not going to kill you. They’re just going to embarrass you on the Internet.

He tried to turn his mind to other thoughts. But when he thought of Maggie, Tara, Matt and Claire, all he could imagine was them randomly clicking around and happening upon this video. The only person he wanted to see this was Scully, and that was just so she could find him and get him out of this mess.

They began speaking in Arabic, and it was complete gibberish to Mulder. He caught one word, ‘Allah’, but that was completely unhelpful. Then the AK-47’s stock was removed from his temple and he knew what was coming. His muscles tensed and he clenched his fists and bit down on the rag. The first jolt came, and he felt like his body was on fire. He couldn’t stifle the scream that came naturally, the tears that formed in his eyes. His body jerked violently with the second jolt, and he could hear his heartbeat in his ears. Don’t pass out, come on, don’t pass out…

One more shock, this one making him completely lose his balance. Legs bent, he hung by his wrists and cried in agony until it was finally over. Someone unclamped the jumper cables and his skin throbbed at the contact points but was relatively numb from the electricity. His head felt fuzzy, he couldn’t get his bearings, and his heart was pounding like he had just run a marathon. He opened his eyes and saw that the light from the camera was gone. The terrorists were collecting their items and leaving.

One touched a metal rod to his skin and discharged the residual electric charge. Then the blindfold was removed, along with the gag. He saw one of the terrorists walk over to the winch and turn the crank. He was lowered, but not enough to actually sit down. This is gonna suck.

Then they all left. They didn’t speak a word to him. They closed the door, and Mulder heard three locks engaged. As he hung there by his wrists, he tried to stand up to relieve the pressure but found that the electrical shock had sapped his strength. Scully…please get here soon…

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TEMPORARY UN CAMP

HANGU, PAKISTAN

SUNDAY, JULY 4th, 2010

2130

“What about satellite footage? Were you able to get a trace on the vehicle?” Skinner asked over the video chat. His face was displayed on Scully’s Toughbook, which sat on a plastic tablecloth on a folding table in the Command-And-Control tent. She was surrounded by Army officers coming and going, Pakistani officials in heated arguments with UN representatives, and the occasional announcement on the latest insurgent activity. It was hard to hear Skinner at all, even with the iPod headphones she had plugged into the Toughbook.

“We’re negotiating with the Pakistani government right now,” Scully told him. “Or at least, we’re trying to,” she added tiredly.

“We need that satellite footage if we’re going to find Mulder,” the Assistant Director said, clearly irritated.

“Well, no one understands that better than I do, Sir. Colonel Young and Daniel Schaeffer’s deaths have made things complicated, and Major Calhoun and the UN are trying to work out an agreement with the Pakistanis but as you can see,” she turned around and glanced at the controlled chaos behind her, “it’s more than frustrating.”

Skinner sighed. “Have there been any tips from civilians? Any patrols that weren’t hit by an IED out looking for him? What’s the backup plan?”

“There have been about five hundred tips from civilians, most of them false tips from poor people looking for a handout from the UN for their trouble. But their equivalent of an APB is playing on all Pakistani news channels. There are patrols out looking, but they’ve got their hands full with the insurgents who are taking advantage of the earlier IED blasts.” She clenched her fist. “It just makes me so mad,” she said, disgusted, “These idiots are playing political games and the damn insurgents are running around Peshawar like it’s a friggin’ field day, and Mulder is out there, Walter.” She swallowed, trying to control the tears that were forming in her eyes. “…they’re probably already…torturing him.” She interrupted the Assistant Director before he could even reply. “And we could’ve found him by now if we had the damn satellite footage!”

The room quieted around her, and she realized she had been yelling. The UN representatives stared at her, some of them looking sympathetic. The Pakistani government officials pursed their lips and folded their arms, and Major Calhoun gave her a dissatisfied expression. She picked up her Toughbook, stood up, and exited the tent.

“Scully, I realize what you’re going through. You need to take a step back. Everything you mentioned that you were doing—that’s all going to help you find Mulder. It’s all good. Have you spoken to General Himmat lately?”

“About fifteen minutes ago,” she said, and walked into the galley tent. She sat down three tables away from an Air Force officer briefing a Pakistani patrolman. They were the only other occupants of the tent.

“How did he say this was affecting the plan for finding the weapon?”

“He said he went over our findings, both the samples we took at the site and the interviews of the witnesses, and he said there’s no question—someone has manufactured a copy of the device from the legend. Mulder, of course, would say it’s the real Bari Trasadi.” She sighed, and rubbed her eyes. “Himmat said he was going to take this to President Patil and she’ll decide whether to mobilize the military to look for this thing. It’ll take India into Martial Law, and he said she probably wouldn’t be willing to do that. They would have to conduct a standard military and law enforcement joint investigation. But until they find it, they’ve decided they’re staying on lockdown. That means only authorized personnel in or out. Whoever built it is still in country, and will probably strike again.”

“What’s the plan for tracking it?” Skinner asked, pleased that Scully was able to change the subject from Mulder.

“With the samples I was able to collect from the air and the ground, we should be able to see its next strike as it happens if we calibrate the defense satellites to look for that compound. It’s pure SiO2, Sir,” she said, switching back into professional mode for the moment. It was, after all, more comfortable. “That’s almost unheard of, especially at the site of a blast that took out an entire city. You would expect there to be something residual from what was destroyed, but there’s not. There aren’t even normal impurities you would see in sand coming from similar regions.”

“How do you think this thing works?” The AD inquired.

“I think it works in one of two ways. It could somehow capture the energy in the air as it creates its own miniature cyclone, and then touches down and dissipates the particles into the atmosphere, creating the cloud you see that later settles into the new, flat-planed sand we witnessed. Or it has electrical energy of its own that sends an actual blast through the air into the ground at the blast site, causing a collapse and dissipating the particles in the target through another electrical pulse.” She shook her head. “I started out thinking this thing was just made to look like the Bari Trasadi. Because according to the legend, this weapon does things that aren’t possible with current technology. Regardless of whether it uses wind or electrical energy. But as I look at the data…Sir, this isn’t technology we’ve seen in the past. The only way it could transform matter in the way it does is to fundamentally manipulate the quarks of the atoms. I hate to say it,” she started, looking down. “But whether the Bari Trasadi was manufactured to fit the legend, or whether it really is the same device that first entered Indian texts 4,000 years ago…we have to consider the possibility that the technology could be extraterrestrial in nature.”

She said the last part extremely quietly, so that the two other occupants couldn’t hear her. There were other explanations, of course, but for some reason, she felt they had to consider this one.

Skinner nodded, not surprisingly unfazed by the suggestion. “That’s what Mulder would say,” he couldn’t help but mention.

Scully knew if Mulder had heard her say it, though, he would have crapped a cow.

“Will you be sending your results back here?” Skinner asked.

“No, Sir. We have them on a secure Intranet server right now, and we can’t risk sending them electronically to the FBI. There’s a good chance that whoever manufactured the weapon has access to technology that would make hacking the FBI look like hacking Walmart’s website.”

Skinner nodded. “Then keep me apprised as to—”

“Agent Scully!” Skinner was cut off by Major Calhoun’s voice calling his agent’s name urgently. Scully looked up. “We’ve got a video, Agent. It’s Agent Mulder.”

Scully grabbed the Toughbook and ran. She followed Calhoun back into his tent and looked up at the large TV screen which had switched from a news feed to a Youtube video. She nearly dropped the Toughbook at the sight of Mulder.

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Suspended from the ceiling by his wrists and tied to a chair by his ankles, Mulder was blindfolded, gagged, and in front of a Pakistani flag. Calhoun took the Toughbook from Scully and spun it to show Skinner the video. Then subtitles appeared as a masked man began speaking in Arabic.

“The man you see here is FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder, illegally in our nation of Pakistan because of the United States of America’s plans to occupy our country. It took only one attack,” the words read, “for them to arrive, and they are now working with the United Nations and our corrupt, illegitimate government to add Pakistan to their list of imperialist colonies.”

A man behind him held an AK-47 against Mulder’s temple, and Scully gasped when the man moved and exposed what was attached to her partner’s stomach. A jumper cable. And there was, no doubt, another to complete the circuit. A pained expression shadowed her face as she realized what was going to come next.

“For these crimes of the United States of America, this man will pay dearly as we, the Pakistani people, have paid dearly for the crimes of our government. Both Pakistan and the United States have soiled Allah’s sacred ground. This is to communicate to the United States—you will withdraw from our country, or we will kill this man.” The man stepped out of view of the camera, and they started the motor of the generator. One of the masked men pressed the button, and Mulder’s body lurched as the electricity flowed through.

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Scully covered her face with her hand. Calhoun stared with an angry expression. Skinner looked away in disgust. The UN representatives looked at each other, and the Pakistani officials stared at the floor.

Scully heard Mulder’s stifled scream, and couldn’t help but look. She couldn’t see his face but she knew he was in intense pain. She felt tears stinging her eyes yet again. Then the video went blank.

“Major, is this still on Youtube?” Skinner’s voice pierced the silence in the room.

“No, Sir. We contacted Youtube as soon as we found it and they’ve taken it down since then. But we have a secure copy on our Intranet.”

“Have you asked Youtube to trace the source?”

“One of our techs just did,” Calhoun answered the stern assistant director. “And we’ve also contacted a few news agencies, asked them not to run this video, just to run Mulder’s name. We want this to be respectful.”

Skinner nodded gratefully. “Is there any way you can send me a copy of the video?”

“I don’t see any harm in it. I’ll check with my CO and see if I can, Sir. You’ll hear from me in the next ten minutes.”

“Excellent,” Skinner answered. “Let me talk to Scully.” When Calhoun handed the Toughbook back to her, his expression softened and he said, “Now that we have a video, we’ll be able to find him whether or not the Pakistanis give us the satellite footage.”

She shook her head. “That’s not necessarily true, Sir. They could have moved him to another location to film, or they could have moved their computer to another location to upload. There’s no guarantee we’ll find him at all. And they didn’t give us a timeline. That probably means that they’re ready to—”

“Scully, listen to yourself. That’s not what that means at all—it probably means that it’s an empty threat. They want him for some reason, most likely for information. And yes, I realize that means they’re going to keep torturing him.” He closed his eyes briefly, and then looked straight at Scully. “But they’ll keep him alive. Do you understand?”

She took a deep breath. Then she nodded.

“Good. Call me with any updates you have. Hang in there.”

He signed off, and Scully looked at the display of Mulder’s slumped body, suspended by his wrists and frozen on the screen for all to see. She was about to order it down when she realized the Pakistani officials were looking at it. Well, they’re probably used to seeing stuff like this but maybe it’ll speed the process up a bit and get us that satellite footage. She decided to let it be. Unable to concentrate without something to do, she found the computer technicians and decided to help analyze the video.

You can make it, Mulder. God…please watch over him.

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LOCATION UNKNOWN

SUNDAY, JULY 4th, 2010

TIME UNKNOWN

He didn’t know how long they had let him hang there, but he knew his arms were starting to go numb. That was, of course, after they got their feeling back after being shocked senseless. He had to pee, and he was currently in a furious debate with himself as to whether he should let it go and soil his pants, or hold it in and risk a bladder infection. His sense of time was completely off, not being able to see the sun and in constant pain.

The smell was driving him crazy. One didn’t realize just how bad a dead body smelled until one had to spend several hours with one in a room with no ventilation. They probably think they’re going to loosen me up with this. Get me to talk. Little do they know, he thought, nearly giddy for a moment, that I concentrate better with these distractions. Now absolute sensory deprivation, that would be torture.

He immediately chided himself. Don’t jinx it. Next thing you know they’ll be doing just that.

Humor, concentration on certain surroundings, thoughts about the past or the future, they all worked to keep his mind occupied. Even the annoyance of not being able to get his balance to stand up and take pressure off his wrists—it was all helping him stay focused.

And when he closed his eyes, he used old trauma prevention techniques to visualize not the masked men with the electric generator, not the sight of Colonel Young’s head hanging by a thread, not the fear of being blown up by the next hit to the Humvee, but rather the simple image of Scully. Scully in jeans and a sweater, baking cookies with Matt for the school bake sale. Scully with him in the garage, tuning up their bikes before a ride. Scully with him on the road, complaining about his lack of evidence for one case or another. Scully with him in the office, betting on whether Special Agent Gilbert wore a toupee.

He couldn’t run out of images of Scully. But just to keep it fresh, he also threw in Maggie, Tara, Matt, and Claire. He imagined them all together for a delayed 4th of July cookout. Maggie would make hotdogs and hamburgers, Tara would bring a casserole. He would take Matt and Claire to the park to play catch and Scully and Tara would have the afternoon to relax. This was what he would do when he got out of this mess.

Suddenly, the door opened. No one walked through at first, and Mulder watched in anticipation as the same three Arab-looking men came into the room, only this time they were wheeling a cot. He could see restraints.

Oh, shit. You just jinxed yourself, Mulder.

They lowered him by his aching arms using the winch, and Mulder’s back was lit afire with pain at the movement. He was finally able to sit, but he felt like he couldn’t move. One of the men approached him wordlessly and placed a plastic-formed but padded blindfold over his eyes. He couldn’t see a thing, no light got through. Then came the noise-cancelling earmuffs. He could still hear, but not much. I can’t believe this is happening…he thought at first, but then his survival training kicked in, and he forced himself to accept it and adapt.

I need a game. I need a game now. I can still feel touch. Count the number of times I’m moved.

One, they moved his wrists to untie him, but then two, tied them to his waist again. Three, they untied his ankles, and four, they lifted him by his shoulders and legs. He was carried onto the cot, and then unceremoniously dumped there. Five, ankle restraints. Six, wrists untied but seven, re-tied to the cot. Eight, neck restraint. Shit, I hate those…Nine, chest. Ten, left shoulder. He cried out in pain as the eleventh movement was completed and they tightened the restraint around his right shoulder, right where the shard of glass had implanted itself.

Unlike the original dirty rag, the gag they placed in his mouth this time seemed clean and almost like a mouth guard, holding his jaw in an open position. The large plastic object was strapped to the neck restraint, making it impossible for Mulder to move his jaw at all. He could still move his fingers, though. He was counting on that. As they rolled him out of the room, he alternated putting pressure on the leather padded cot with his index and ring, then middle and pinky fingers. He changed the pattern frequently, and it helped him concentrate on the direction they were turning.

Left, then right, then…an elevator? Then a rougher ride, straight out to a car. He couldn’t hear the car engine very well, but he could feel its vibrations as he was loaded into the back. The bumpy ride gave him one more thing to concentrate on. They made a relatively straight shot from wherever they were, but they gradually turned left and then right. All of this means nothing if you don’t know where you started from.

The ride lasted for what seemed like hours. When they finally got wherever they were going, though, Mulder was unloaded and rolled up a large ramp. Then he heard the muffled, yet unmistakable noise of a propeller airplane. We’re taking off? Shit…they’re taking me out of the country. Oh, God, Scully will never find me…

NO! Stop this! You CANNOT think like this or you won’t survive. Come on, Mulder. She WILL find you. You’re going to get home. Even if this delays it a little…

He felt his ears pop at the change in altitude. They were in the air. They were about to be out of Pakistan.

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TEMPORARY UN CAMP

HANGU, PAKISTAN

SUNDAY, JULY 4th, 2010

2300

Scully frowned, and turned away from the computer screen to face Major Calhoun. “So you’re saying every group is accounted for?”

“That’s right. Almost all of them came out and started fighting Pakistani patrols as soon as they saw the patrols’ hands were full with the IEDs. And those who didn’t start fighting were planting new IEDs while there were distractions elsewhere. We’ve got civilian witnesses in multiple cities around the area calling in tips. This time they’re actually credible—no one wants an IED in front of their house.”

“But how can you be sure that every group is accounted for?” Scully asked. This went back to the basic scientific argument that one cannot prove a negative. One could not prove that there wasn’t a teapot orbiting Earth, especially when the parameters of that teapot were not defined. Likewise, one could not prove that there weren’t terrorist groups out there still.

“Agent Scully, you’re going to have to trust my experience on this one. I’ve dealt with these groups before, and I’ve got extensive information on the tribal situation in the area. Colonel Young also left particularly detailed notes about these civilians that he collected from the Pakistani government. These people are organized into sects, and the sects have no more than two or three actual terrorist groups each. And almost all of those were accounted for simply by the fact that they were allocating so many resources into taking advantage of the Pakistani patrol’s distraction. And the others were accounted for by a bidding process.”

Scully frowned. “What do you mean?”

“We send a covert agent who’s working with tribal groups into the field to communicate to these guys. They may suspect him as an agent, they may not. Either way, they receive the communication that we know that they have our man, and that if they release him they could name their price. Those who name a price are obviously not our group.”

Scully nodded. “Of course. Because if they’re politicized in nature and not serving a larger group, then they wouldn’t want to take a bribe. But the lower groups would gladly take the funding in exchange for one prisoner. Especially if they didn’t know his value.”

“Exactly.” He smiled slightly. “I see you’ve done this before.”

“It’s very similar to prison hostages. If a hostage is taken but we don’t know his location, many prisoners will step up if a reward is offered and give false information. It’s also similar to kidnappings and grand theft—people call in false tips all the time, hoping to get money. That effect disappears if the people have a personal interest invested in this person’s disappearance.”

“So we’re either dealing with an extremely powerful group, something on the scale of al Qaeda, or we’re dealing with another group entirely.”

Scully’s heart sank at those words. Al Qaeda…Mulder didn’t have a chance.

“Sir, I’ve got something,” the technician beside Scully stated, and they looked at his screen. “I thought something was a little off about these guys so I ran the entire thing through voice recognition software. Nothing came up as a match, but these guys are definitely not native Arabic-speakers.”

“Do they have a known dialect?” Scully asked.

“No, Agent Scully, that would’ve showed up on the computer. What kind of accent do they have, Hobbs? Anything on the database?”

“It’s very well-concealed, Sir,” the technician Hobbs said. “But here it is. The inflection on this word here,” he moved his cursor, “and here. It’s the same as this one on the database, but it’s less pronounced.” He played a new file, and this one displayed a Hindi accent in the Arabic language.

“This doesn’t mean they aren’t terrorists. Like the Jeser speak with accents from their native language when they speak English, they also speak English with an American accent, not a British one,” Scully pointed out. “This could just mean they were taught to speak Arabic in a Hindi-speaking area.”

“Well, I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but India’s right over the border, and they speak Hindi,” Calhoun stated the obvious.

“Another thing I noticed that was extremely odd, Sir,” Hobbs continued. “Take a look at this screencap of the video here. Look at this man’s pants,” he pointed to the man speaking into the camera. He was relatively close and the zoom and digital enhancement of the video showed his pants in high definition. “The dirt that’s smeared on them doesn’t seem to have been accidental. You can almost see a handprint. There are the fingers, and there’s the palm…it’s the same over here. Finally, this tear in his pants here, it’s much too clean for human hands and it has no bloodstains on it. I believe it was done deliberately, Sir, as was the dirt on the pants.”

“For what reason?” Calhoun asked, frowning in thought. This didn’t seem to be relevant in the least.

“Well, Sir, he could have been dressing for the part of an outlaw—he could have stolen clothes and then altered them to look like he hadn’t changed in a while. There are also signs that he got dressed in a hurry. That this isn’t how he normally dresses. His head covering is showing his hair partially, and his traditional robe seems to have been put over a dark-colored t-shirt. That isn’t standard practice in the religion, Sir.”

“So you’re saying this man is pretending to be a Muslim? Do you think he’s an undercover agent?”

Scully squinted at Calhoun and shook her head. “No, Major. Think of Occam’s Razor. The simplest explanation. These are not Islamic terrorists. They’re not Pakistani nationalists. They’re something else.”

They stared at the screen. “That would make sense,” Calhoun said. “It would explain the level of orchestration that went into the attack, the level of sophistication and planning that was displayed. It would shed light on the accents and explain the subtleties they overlooked when it came to the Muslim religion.”

“And if that’s the case,” Scully stated, and her voice dropped. “Then we have no idea who has Mulder.”

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MAGGIE SCULLY’S HOUSE

WASHINGTON DC

SUNDAY, JULY 4th, 2010

1800

They had finished their early Fourth of July dinner and were cleaning up the dishes. Claire and Matt were both pitching in without complaint, putting the plates in the dishwasher and putting the condiments away in the fridge. Tara turned on the evening news, trying to get the weather for that night. The early July weather was ever unpredictable. It could be sunny one day and they would have torrential downpours the next.

“Mom, after we get home, can I go over to Trevor’s house?”

“On the 4th of July? Absolutely not,” Tara answered. “Trevor’s parents probably want some time to themselves. They’re going to start to wonder if they somehow adopted a kid when they weren’t looking.”

Claire giggled at that, and Matt rolled his eyes.

“You can see Trevor tomorrow when you go see The Last Airbender,” Tara reasoned with the twelve-year-old.

“I can’t believe the prices for movies these days,” Maggie said, exasperated. “When I was your age, Matty, we paid 50 cents to see a movie, and that was a week’s allowance.”

“But you have to account for inflation, Grandma,” Matt stated. “And things were a lot cheaper during the Great Depression.”

Tara smirked. “Grandma was a baby at the very end of the Great Depression, Matt. Not old enough to see a movie.”

Maggie smiled affectionately at the boy, taking no offense. “But that’s very good that you’re paying attention in history class,” Maggie told him with a smile. She stuck a glass in the dishwasher. “We still had some financial difficulties in my family. We had to save all our pennies—that’s why I still keep that penny jar over there,” she pointed. “So I’ll have some extra cash at the end of the year when I empty it.”

“I learned about the Depression from this documentary I was watching on Youtube,” Matt said. “We’re stuck on this boring unit on globalization in history class. I already know all that stuff.”

“Shh!” Claire said suddenly. She pointed to the TV screen, her eyes wide with fear. “Listen!”

“—earlier posted on Youtube, but since taken down. It is suspected that the agent was captured by a terrorist organization, though their identity has not yet become apparent. He has officially been listed as a POW.” A picture of Mulder flashed on the screen next to the anchorwoman’s head. He was smiling and in a suit and tie in front of an American flag. Maggie and Tara looked like they had both been punched in the gut, and Matt and Claire simply stared in shock and fearful awe.

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“Again, for those of you just tuning in, this is Breaking News. Special Agent Fox Mulder of the FBI, who was in Pakistan for the special investigation into the recent terrorist attacks there and in India, has been captured by an as-yet-unnamed terrorist organization. They appear to be Pakistani Nationalist extremists, but that is not confirmed. And as our anchor Jeff Harding was just saying, this terrorist organization had posted a video on Youtube to broadcast the capture and torture of Agent Mulder, but the site took it down only five minutes after its posting.”

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The screen switched to a new anchorman, this time in front of buildings that looked to be in Pakistan. “Yes, that’s right, Cheryl. The US Army tipped Youtube to the fact that it could be receiving a video, and they had their people ready to block and track any terrorist posting. Luckily they got the video down before it gathered too many views.”

The screen switched back to the anchorwoman, who said, “The following is a screengrab from that video. The video is too graphic for us to show on television, but we advise you that this screengrab might upset small children.”

Maggie instantly went into ‘mother’ mode. “Okay, both of you, Matt, Claire, out. You don’t need to see this.” She physically pushed them out of the room, even though their heads were turned, trying to catch the sight of Mulder in the hands of the terrorists. “You don’t need to look at this,” Maggie said forcefully, and steered them for the stairs. “Go upstairs—do not turn on the television, do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, Grandma,” they said in semi-unison, and walked up the stairs slowly.

“Matt, Claire, honey…” she started, and they turned. “Uncle Mulder is very strong,” she said softly. “He’ll make it through—you just need to pray.”

Claire looked a little relieved, but Matt seemed just as distraught as before. They turned without responding, and walked the rest of the way up the stairs.

Maggie sighed, and walked back to the kitchen where Tara was leaning against the counter, fist to her mouth, watching the anchorwoman go on talking about Mulder’s capture while the picture of him half-naked and suspended from the ceiling by his wrists was displayed for all the world to see.

Maggie felt tears forming in her eyes, and she didn’t have to say anything to Tara. She simply wrapped her arms around her, and the two women hugged.

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TEMPORARY UN CAMP

HANGU, PAKISTAN

MONDAY, JULY 5th, 2010

0200

“We got it, we got the footage,” Calhoun’s voice pierced Scully’s near-sleep daze as she sat in a chair in the galley tent and held an un-opened granola bar. Having gotten only two hours of sleep since she left Washington DC, she was completely exhausted and the adrenaline was starting to wear off. With the UN contacting the Indian government and explaining the situation, to try to find out if they had any gangs or terrorist groups that might try to impersonate Pakistani terrorists, and with the US Army looking into their intelligence and contacting the CIA for advice, Scully was really out of her playing field.

She had thought, for about two minutes, about contacting Spender. It was a long shot but he might know something. The price of putting themselves in his debt, though, was far too high. Especially when they didn’t know if the CIA or Indian intelligence knew anything.

She had come into the galley about a half hour ago to grab something to eat and watch the news, but somewhere between picking up the granola bar and turning on the TV, she had entered a near-sleep state. When she heard Calhoun’s voice she nearly jumped out of her seat. Fully awake, she asked, “The satellite footage?”

Calhoun nodded. “They finally agreed to it. They’re sending it to us now. We should have a location soon.”

Relief washed over her. She visibly relaxed for a moment, and even smiled at Calhoun. But then she caught herself. With the news covering Mulder’s capture, and considering they already posted the video to Youtube, they may have moved Mulder by now.

She rose and followed the major out to the Command and Control tent, where the utter chaos had died down somewhat. The UN representatives had left and gone to hotels to sleep. The Pakistani officials were no longer needed for negotiations. It made Scully mad. Mulder was still out there and these jokers were in some hotel bed somewhere instead of offering their help. She didn’t expect much from the suits in the Pakistani government, and she supposed she shouldn’t have expected much from the UN, but it still irked her that the only ones willing to stay past their shift was the US military and the dedicated Pakistani patrolmen still willing to help. Or ordered to ‘supervise’.

“We’ve been tracking this truck, Sir,” Hobbs said from his seat in front of the computer. Scully jogged over to the screen and looked at the truck it displayed. In the far left-hand corner she could see the burning hood of one of the Humvees at the attack site. In the bed of the truck, surrounded by armed men, Mulder was bound and had a hood over his head. She saw the arm of one of the men pull back, getting ready to cold-cock Mulder.

In the next satellite image her partner laid on the bed of the truck, knocked out. She pursed her lips and asked, “Can we speed this up, please?”

“It’s going as fast as it can, Agent Scully,” Hobbs answered. “The tracker has identified the truck’s parameters as I entered them in and it’s now following satellite images in close proximity to this one, from three different Pakistani satellites. It takes a few minutes to—”

“Get the images downloaded, I know, I know,” she said, irritated. Hobbs glanced at her, but didn’t say anything. He understood she was on edge.

Ten excruciating minutes later, the truck stopped outside of a school. They practically dragged Mulder inside, and subsequent satellite footage didn’t show any movement.

“That’s it, we got it,” Calhoun said in victory. “Okay, let’s put a team together, get moving. Can I have everyone’s attention!” People stopped what they were doing and listened to the major. “We’ve got a location—it’s a school southwest of Kohat. I want the closest available Pakistani patrol to surround that building, but do not move in until US troops arrive. Harris, get the medical team together and tell them to prep a helicopter if we need an airlift. Pierson, I want you and your men in on this one. Everyone get suited up now, we leave no later than 0215. Move!”

A chorus of ‘yes, Sir’s rang out, and the tent was chaos once again. Scully already had her jacket on, her Toughbook in her bag, and her helmet secured on her head. She waited by the entrance of the tent, expectantly looking at Calhoun.

“I can’t leave until my people are ready, Agent Scully. It’s going to be at least another two minutes,” he said.

He sounded so level-headed, she wanted to hit him. Mulder was out there, he could be moved at any moment! She took a deep breath. Calhoun knows, she forced herself to realize. Two minutes…two minutes…

Finally, it was time to leave. The ride there took much longer than Scully thought it should have. They ended up taking a N-S road and then heading directly west to Kohat, instead of going straight there, mainly because of the insurgent activity in the area.

She practically leapt out of the Humvee when they arrived. The school wasn’t what she expected. From the satellite view, it looked a little run-down, but what she was seeing in front of her was a building worthy of being condemned.

“Run the infrared,” Calhoun ordered Pierson. “Did anyone spot anything so far?” he asked one of the Pakistani patrolmen.

“Nothing, Sir,” one answered.

“Pierson?” Calhoun asked, and Scully turned to the man, desperate for an infrared signature to show up on the screen.

“No live ones here, Sir. Two very small heat signatures in the basement, not warm enough to be alive. One’s the size of a man, Sir. The other is a machine, most likely.”

Scully’s stomach dropped. “What’s the body temperature?” she demanded.

“It’s barely warmer than the surroundings, Agent Scully. This body’s been there awhile.”

Then it can’t be Mulder, she reassured herself. It was this fact that she kept repeating as she moved in with the rest of the team. They strategically surrounded the building and then scoured each area. There were no signs of life. This school hadn’t been used in a decade, most likely. There were signs that someone was recently here, though. Disturbances in the dust, footprints that the sand should have erased had they been formed earlier.

They entered the basement, and immediately upon mounting the stairs, Scully covered her nose and mouth with her shirt. The unmistakable smell of rotting flesh grew as they descended the stairs and opened the basement door. They all involuntarily made noises of protest at the disgusting and almost overwhelming scent.

Scully looked at the maggot-infested body, glad to have something to do to distract her from the fact that Mulder was obviously moved to a new location. She tried to tell herself that they would just look at the satellite footage from the past hours since the video was made, and get another trace on him. She tried to tell herself that her job right now was to figure out who this dead man was, and how he was connected to the case. She tried to occupy herself, but she couldn’t fool anyone into thinking she was operating at peak efficiency.

Even Calhoun was keeping an eye on her, not stepping out of eyesight for more than a few minutes. “What’ve you got there, Agent Scully?”

“A male,” Scully answered, and looked up. “Between thirty and fifty, judging from the skeletal structure and the remnants of clothes he’s got. His skull and build tell us that he was probably Western or that he grew up in a wealthy area. His clothes point to that as well—looks like Dockers, an Oxford shirt, and a fairly expensive watch.” In such a rural area, it was rare seeing a grown man dressed in Western clothing.

“How was he killed?” Calhoun asked.

“Single gunshot wound to the head, I’m guessing,” Scully said, and shifted her squatting position to get a better look at the skull fragmentation. “It entered in his temple and exited out his frontal lobe.”

“Not execution style,” the major pointed out.

“No, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t intentional.”

“Could’ve also been a suicide,” the major stated.

“Not likely. The skull fragmentation is too small for that kind of close-range hit,” Scully countered. “Major Calhoun, I’m a trained medical examiner. Would you mind if I conduct the autopsy on this body? Or what’s left of it?”

“By all means, Agent Scully. We’ll get the body shipped back to the base. Meanwhile, I’ll contact Hobbs and see if he can pull that satellite footage back up, see where the truck headed after it left here.”

She nodded, somewhat relieved. The major really seemed to be on top of things. But she still felt the nagging, distracting, disturbing feeling that if she didn’t do something drastic soon, Mulder was going to die. She tried to concentrate on the body. You knew this was a possibility. The damn Pakistani government took so long to get the footage to us, it’s now useless. Mulder is still out there, though. Remember that. He’s still out there, and he’s probably thinking about you just as you’re thinking about him.

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UNKNOWN LOCATION

MONDAY, JULY 5th, 2010

UNKNOWN TIME

Mulder had fallen asleep. The realization of what he had done hit him only when he awoke and found himself being wheeled somewhere. A flutter of panic flew through his chest. He didn’t know where he was. He didn’t know when they had landed. He had no idea what was going on. Deprived of sight, sound, the ability to speak, the ability to move, he was completely vulnerable. They could do whatever they wanted to him, and he wouldn’t even see it coming.

His breathing accelerated as his heart pounded. He had broken the first rule of survival: stay alert. If he had any chance of escape, it was gone now. He wouldn’t know where to go. He didn’t know how long he had been gone, and he didn’t even know what country he was in. If he managed to get away from these people, he might run right into another terrorist group’s hands. For all he knew, he was now in North Korea.

Calm down, a voice in his head commanded him sharply. It sounded like Skinner’s voice to him. You can reason your way out of this, Mulder. You don’t know what country you’re in, but you know that India’s border is still closed, so you can’t be there. You’re probably not in Afghanistan after that last attack, and if they loaded you on a plane in the first place, you’re definitely not in Pakistan anymore. The American presence is too large in Iraq for it to be safe. No one wants to screw with Iran. You were in a prop plane so it’s nowhere far—maybe Egypt, maybe Syria, but that might be too close to Israel for their comfort. At least you know where you aren’t.

He calmed his breathing and listened as hard as he could. The sound-cancelling earmuffs made it nearly impossible to make anything out, but he thought he could hear two men talking. It was very faint—it could have been his imagination.

He had been covered by something. He wasn’t sure what, but he had just noticed it. If they had covered him, he was probably around other people. People the terrorists didn’t want to know about him. Scream, Mulder, a voice that sounded like Scully’s ordered him. Scream now!

He screamed. Against the gag it was muffled, and because he hadn’t had water for hours, it was short-lived. He gagged, his throat begging for water. He was unable to produce any saliva. The gag had dried out his mouth almost completely. He struggled against the restraints unsuccessfully as he summoned up another scream. This one left him coughing, and it wasn’t until he was having trouble breathing that he realized his struggling had tightened the gag and neck restraint. They must have tied it so it did just that. Bastards!

Mulder was starting to get mad. His trained acceptance of his captivity was leaving him as his breathing became more and more labored and panic set in. He screamed again, and realized that they had accelerated the movement of the cot—they were now running with him. He closed his eyes against the blindfold and tried to breathe through his nose until he was suddenly slammed into something, hard.

They were moving down. An elevator? This is a hospital, the thought occurred to him. The cover must have made him look like a dead body. What am I doing here? Why would terrorists take the risk of entering a hospital?

The vertical movement stopped, and the horizontal movement resumed. This time, they weren’t moving quickly. He felt the cover removed from the cot, and figured they were now out of others’ sight. They turned, kept moving for a short time, and then came to a halt. Mulder felt himself being tipped forward, and the restraints dug into his body as he was now suspended by them. His breathing was incredibly labored, as the neck restraint dug into his chin and cut off his windpipe.

Moments later, someone removed the earmuffs and blindfold. Mulder squinted and blinked, trying to adjust his eyes to the incredibly bright light. He felt the heat of the lamp on his face, and realized they had put a light right in front of him. They left the gag in, and he was still unable to speak, but he followed his captors with his eyes, memorizing their features.

He could see they were in some kind of cement-block basement. It was cool, unlike his previous scorching-hot surroundings. There was a folding table nearby with a large paper map on it, and a laptop plugged into a wall outlet that was hanging by its electrical cords, not screwed into the wall. Three men who Mulder didn’t remember were down in this area, wearing white labcoats and talking amongst themselves. They didn’t seem to care that Mulder was there.

One of the men Mulder remembered from Pakistan carried something small in his hand over to where Mulder was restrained, and then stood to the side. The man who had done the talking in the video walked over next, followed by the third man from Pakistan. The first man unwrapped the object in his hand, and Mulder saw that they were two needles, approximately six inches long with increasing diameter. At their thickest, they were about an eighth of an inch. The man handed one to the third man, and he placed the point on the tip of Mulder’s right ring finger. The first man mirrored the action.

“Agent Mulder,” the leader said in a strange Middle-Eastern accent, and Mulder attempted to control his breathing. He had an idea as to what was going to happen next. “We have a few questions for you.”

Here we go…

“This is how it will work. You give us an answer, we undo your neck restraint. You give us another answer, we let you sit on the floor. Another answer, and you get a drink of water. You see where this is going. You fail to give us an answer, and…well…you understand how this works. My colleagues are skilled in the most advanced forms of interrogation techniques. The first question I believe you can answer without me removing the gag.”

Mulder looked at him, confused. He walked away beyond the agent’s peripheral vision, and then walked back with a small stone object in his hands. It was shaped oddly, with curves and grooves and two hand-sized holes. But Mulder knew where that shape had come from, and was confident Scully could even calculate the equation that would result in that shape. He knew the object well. He had given an entire lecture on it in what seemed at this point like a lifetime ago. It was the Bari Trasadi.

“Yes, I thought you’d recognize it,” the man answered, and placed the weapon on a small cart nearby. He walked back, and removed Mulder’s gag.

“Who are you?” Mulder spat out, his mind reeling. If these people had the Bari Trasadi, they clearly weren’t Pakistani nationalists. Why would they attack their own country, and then attack Afghanistan? Why wouldn’t they just attack India with the weapon, instead of mobilizing dozens of young men to terrorize the nation? They also had money. He could see that from the facility they had in this basement.

As soon as he had asked the question, though, the leader nodded to his cronies and the two men pushed the needle points an inch into Mulder’s fingers. He cried out as his pain sensors flew. Sweat poured down his forehead, and he gave the leader a hardened glare. The ring fingers held some of the most sensitive nerve endings in the human body. But this was lightweight torture, Mulder knew. And he knew if this was what he got for asking a question, he was bound to get far worse in very little time.

“We’re asking the questions, Agent Mulder,” the leader chided lightly, and smiled. “Now, I would first like to ask you to explain what you know about this device. More specifically, what it is called, what the legend says, and what the current science says about the legend. Basically, restate your lecture.”

“You can get my lecture online,” Mulder said, and was instantly sorry for it. The needles were driven up his fingers another inch, and he gritted his teeth and tried to breathe.

“We have reason to believe you’ll have special insight into the device,” the leader stated as if Mulder hadn’t even spoken.

The agent examined his options. Restating what was online wouldn’t hurt anything. They certainly had internet access, and they might extract the needles if he complied. Maybe.

Talking was difficult because of the neck strap, but he took as deep a breath as he could and began speaking. “The Bari Trasadi is a 4,000-year-old weapon from India that originated on the West side of the country. Though it’s not clear exactly where, Indian texts attribute the destruction of forty cities to the Bari Trasadi’s work, nearly 4,000 years ago. The only reason why this isn’t pure myth is because of the perfect Silicone Dioxide still found deposited in some regions of India, which is the main product of the Bari Trasadi’s destruction. It was written that an individual ‘pure of heart’ could destroy a city by placing his hands in the Bari Trasadi and thinking about their destruction. Current scientists believe that the weapon might have actually existed, and either been an obscure product of nature or the result of extraterrestrial influence.”

When he was done, his throat was parched dry and he felt like he couldn’t breathe. His heart pounded faster when the leader approached him, but to his relief, the man simply undid the neck strap. Mulder felt his entire body sag and he took in a deep, labored breath of air.

“A good start, no?” the leader said with a smile. Mulder knew what he was doing. This was classic captor-victim psychology. He was trying to make Mulder expect a reward or a punishment, depending on his actions. He was trying to prove to the agent that he could be trusted.

The leader nodded to his men, and they removed the needles from Mulder’s fingers. He gritted his teeth and tried not to cry at the pain. Flexing his fingers carefully, he was grateful that no bones had been broken. But they felt like they were on fire, and were now dripping blood onto the floor.

“We brought you here because we believe you may have the ‘pure of heart’ technique,” the man said with a small smile, and walked over to the laptop on the table nearby. He pulled up a picture of Mulder in a hospital gown, from years ago when he had first experienced ‘psychic’ abilities. “We have intelligence that suggests your ‘heart’ may be the ‘purest’. We understand each other, Agent Mulder?”

“I’m not going to help you kill innocent people,” Mulder promised him. His voice came out strong and defiant, despite the fact that he thought the needles would come back. But instead, the leader simply shook his head, and closed the laptop screen. Then he said something in Arabic to his cronies, and Mulder was unstrapped. First the chest, then the ankles, shoulders, and wrists. Not expecting it, Mulder flopped onto the floor. He immediately tried to get up, but one of the men kicked him on the back of the head and sent stars into his vision.

His arms and legs were grabbed, and forced into restraints that Mulder didn’t even see before. Rope was pulled through the restraints and his limbs were forced together behind his back. He gritted his teeth and forced himself not to vocally protest as they wrapped the rope around his neck and inserted the gag once more. Then they threw the rope over what Mulder hoped was a strong pipe, and the two cronies pulled. Mulder was raised about three feet in the air, and the leader leaned in close to his face. “I’ll give you some incentive to help us out, Agent Mulder. Some time to think it over, and some additional stimulation. Just so you don’t get bored.”

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He knew what was coming next. The two grunts couldn’t wait to get their chance to pummel him, and as soon as the leader walked away, the beating began. He was like a punching bag, swinging with each blow as they kneed him in the ribs, punched him in the face, kicked his right arm so hard Mulder was sure it was now dislocated. His vision began to gray with each blow. His body screamed with pain, and he could do nothing but yell against the gag as natural tears streamed down his face.

Finally they left him, and he could only swing from the pipe in agony. Every movement he tried to make just made something else hurt worse, and any movement of his head made the rope nearly cut off his windpipe. He wasn’t in danger of choking, as the rope tied to his ankle and wrist restraints was holding his weight. But he was intensely uncomfortable.

It was in this agonizing predicament that he realized they had placed him right next to the folding table with the map. As a welcome distraction, Mulder began to study it. There were blue circles around various areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and then red X’s in certain spots as well. There was a list of names with numbers next to them, and numbers all over the map. In his foggy state, Mulder couldn’t really come to any conclusions. But he guessed that this was a map for suicide bombers. This was a highly orchestrated terrorist organization, whoever they were.

Before he passed out, though, another thought came to him. What if they weren’t terrorists at all? What if they had purposely placed him here, so he would know of these targets? What did that mean?

He didn’t get to elaborate on that thought process, though, because the dehydration, hunger and pain brought him to a point where higher brain functions were impossible. He succumbed to unconsciousness.

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TEMPORARY UN CAMP

HANGU, PAKISTAN

MONDAY, JULY 5th, 2010

0700

“So he was a terrorist?” Scully asked, staring at the smiling face of a middle-aged doctor of Mediterranean descent. His name was Aiman Iftikaar, and he had died an extremely horrible death.

Calhoun nodded and rubbed his eyes tiredly. “He was. He was involved in a Pakistani nationalist, Islamic extremist group that operated in a neighboring tribal area. He moved back there after obtaining a medical degree at a prominent Pakistani university. The Pakistani government found him easily after you scanned that skull into the computer. Now they’re asking for our skull reconstruction software to help them combat terrorism…but that’s another headache for General Hager to handle.” He took a sip of his coffee. “How’d he die?”

“Painfully,” Scully said, and pulled up his autopsy report. “These lesions on the bones show that he was hung by his wrists and ankles for days. Eventually he died of a single gunshot wound to the head, but he would’ve died of dehydration in a matter of days had they not shot him. He was badly beaten and tortured with a variety of techniques.” It wasn’t lost on her that if these people did this to Iftikaar, they could certainly do it to Mulder, too.

Calhoun scanned the report on the Toughbook screen and his eyes stopped when he reached a certain point. He went back and re-read the entry. “Agent Scully, are these results finalized?”

“Yes, I had Dr. Till look over what I’d done and sign off on it. It’s got the Army’s seal of approval.”

“Then we’re dealing with someone extremely knowledgeable with a lot of resources. These torture techniques, they’re a combination of Western, Eastern, Middle-Eastern, and African torture. It looks like whoever administered them knew what he was doing, too. The needle-point torture can kill the victim if they accidentally pierce a vital organ or artery. And the rope around the neck, if not tied properly, can choke the victim when he falls asleep or is knocked unconscious.”

“I was able to identify 150 different needle puncture wounds, all hitting packages of nerves that would’ve sent the victim into orbit,” Scully said quietly. She looked at the report, trying to remember that this was not Mulder and she had no evidence to suggest that they would treat him the same way. She took a deep breath. “The ligature marks around the neck were tight but not anywhere near fatal. They would have made it difficult to breathe…that’s it.”

Calhoun shook his head. “These aren’t your typical terrorists…even your typical well-funded terrorists. Al Qaeda could’ve pulled this off ten years ago but not now, when they’re stretched so thin. This is not a terrorist group. At least not any group we know about.”

“Then who has Mulder?” She asked, her tone almost angry. She expected answers from Calhoun, for some reason, even though she understood that the major was in the same position she was.

Calhoun frowned. “They’re not native Arabic-speakers. They’ve got a lot of money, a lot of resources. They get around—they have experiences with many different cultures. And they clearly stand to gain from throwing us off track. It’s not money they’re after. But other than that…we don’t have anything. We’ll know more when we catch something on satellite. We still can’t clear up that jam.” There had been a jam after Mulder’s captors had left the school, and they had been unable to get any footage of the truck or another vehicle after that. It wasn’t clear that Scully’s partner was even in the country anymore.

“Major!” a lieutenant called, as if on cue. “Need to speak to you regarding the satellite footage, Sir.”

Calhoun walked over to his subordinate, and Scully dutifully followed. When they approached, the lieutenant’s haggard face looked discouraged. “We tried everything, Sir. I’m sorry—the data is just too corrupted. Whatever jammed this satellite left a trail, though, and we’ll get right on trying to trace it.”

Calhoun nodded, and turned to Scully. His expression was sympathetic. “I’m sorry, Agent Scully. This is going to take a while. A trace on the jamming signal’s origin could take over twenty-four hours.”

Scully was suddenly furious. “Mulder doesn’t have twenty-four hours!”

Calhoun could only say, “We don’t know how long they’ll allow him to live.”

She turned angrily, and stormed away. Calhoun sighed. “Hobbs,” he called, and his technician turned. “I want an update on the Bari Trasadi energy signal trace by the end of the hour.” As Hobbs answered ‘yes, Sir,’ Calhoun said quietly, more to himself, “Maybe if we can find that damn thing, we can find Agent Mulder.”

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UNKNOWN LOCATION

MONDAY, JULY 7th, 2010

UNKNOWN TIME

The man walked down the basement corridor, his expression irritated. He played with the satellite phone in his hand, folding the antenna up and down as he approached his destination. The FBI agent was either unbreakable or an idiot. They had hung him in front of the map for nearly a day and he still hadn’t tried to get their attention and say he would try using the Bari Trasadi.

It had seemed the perfect plan, to give him a reason to try to take out the terrorist targets. But it was failing, for some reason.

He finally stopped stalling and entered his boss’s office. The older man was sitting at his desk, the room almost pitch black except for the white glow of a single, keychain-sized, lithium-powered light. “Did he crack?” the man asked in a German accent.

He placed the satellite phone in his pocket. “Not yet,” he admitted in English. Despite his previous manufactured accent, he spoke in his true Indian accent now.

The German man made a noise of disapproval and sat back, casting his figure further into the shadows. “Give him another day. Give him a sip of water to keep him alive and alert a little longer. Then move to Plan B before they manage to track us down. I want the base ready to move out if we must.”

“I understand, Sir,” he said, and then pulled out his radio and stuck it in his ear. “Sabir,” he ordered in Hindi as he left the office, “get the prisoner a sip of water. Just a sip.” The answer came back in the affirmative, and he shook his head in frustration as he headed back the way he came.

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TARA SCULLY’S HOUSE

WASHINGTON, DC

TUESDAY, JULY 7th, 2010

1700

“The UN mourns the loss of German representative Daniel Schaeffer at the same time the US Army holds their own memorial service for Colonel Hal Young and others killed in the attack in Pakistan that resulted in the capture of an FBI agent. Reports are still inconclusive on the search for Special Agent Fox Mulder. According to the US Army, Agent Mulder’s partner is on the team in charge of looking for him, but they are simultaneously conducting a search for the origin of the terrorist attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan. That sounds like too much work for one team. What do you think, Steve?”

Tara turned off the television in disgust. Maggie had gotten the opportunity to talk to Dana earlier in the day, and according to her mother-in-law, the agent had looked exhausted and heartbroken. It had been almost two full days, and Mulder was still missing. Dana was at the end of her rope and Maggie managed to convince her to hold on and still have hope. But Mulder’s prospects weren’t looking good.

Little Claire was upstairs at the moment playing a video game. The kids had taken Mulder’s capture hard, and hadn’t said much in the last two days. Matthew was at the movies with his friend Trevor. Tara was willing to let the boys ride their bikes to the theatre by themselves because she understood his need to get out and blow off steam. He was like his father in that respect. And he now had a cell phone, so safety was less of a factor.

She looked at her watch. It was past time for him to be home. He was, in fact, twenty minutes late. She had told him 4:40 so that they could go over his summer reading list before dinner. She sighed, and picked up the house phone. She dialed his newly-acquired cell phone, and waited for him to pick up.

“Hi, you’ve reached Matt Scully,” his boyish voice said after only one ring. “If you’d like to leave a message, wait for the tone. Bye!”

“Matt, this is Mom. You’re late. Please call me back when you get this.” She hung up, and frowned. She started to dial Maggie, but then stopped. Her mother-in-law didn’t need anything else to worry about with Dana in Pakistan and Mulder listed as a POW.

“Why would his phone be off, though?” Tara asked out loud. She thought, perhaps, he had left it in his room. She climbed the stairs and started going through his things.

Pretty soon, her six-year-old daughter was standing outside the door. “Are you looking for drugs, Mom?”

Tara turned and gave Claire an exasperated expression. “No, why would you think that?”

Claire shifted from one foot to the other, swinging her hips and squirming as normal six-year-olds do. “Because Matt’s almost a teenager and when moms go through teenagers’ rooms, they’re looking for drugs.”

“Where did you hear that, Claire?” Tara asked, sounding quite exhausted.

“TV,” the little girl said innocently.

“Matt isn’t doing drugs,” she said definitively, and then glanced at her daughter. “Did you happen to talk to Matt before he left for Trevor’s house?”

“No, why?” Claire asked, now curious.

Tara shook her head. “No reason.” She feigned a smile. “Why don’t you go back to playing your game?”

“I beat the last level. Can I have another game? Please?”

“I’m not in the mood right now, Claire. We’ll talk about it later,” Tara told her simply, and watched as her little girl pouted and walked away. She sighed. Seconds later, the front door opened. Matt trudged in, backpack on his back. He took his helmet off and tossed it next to the pile of shoes near the door, and then let his backpack drop to the floor as well. Tara came down the stairs as he slipped his tennis shoes off.

“Matt, why weren’t you answering your phone?!” She asked angrily.

Matt looked surprised. “Huh?”

“I called you twice, once at 4 to make sure you remembered to come home, and once just now because you’re twenty minutes late. Have you looked at the clock?!”

Matt pulled his phone out of his pocket and attempted to turn the screen on. “Oh, crap. I forgot to charge it.”

Tara rolled her eyes, and then rested her gaze back on her son. “I got you that phone because I thought you could be responsible with it, Matthew.”

Once his full name was used, he realized he was in trouble. A guilty expression fell on his face. “I’m sorry, Mom,” he said sincerely. “I didn’t know it would make you this upset.” He looked at her eyes. “Really.”

Tara sighed. “It’s okay…just…charge it tonight, okay?”

“Okay. I will.”

“Why were you late, anyway? Did the movie run long?”

Matt picked up his backpack and unzipped it. “No, the movie ended on time. Trevor and I rode our bikes to the Army-Navy store. We bought this. I thought we could hang it up, just until Uncle Mulder comes home.”

In his hand was a neatly folded, nicely wrapped POW-MIA flag. He looked innocently up at his mother, hoping for approval. Tara tried not to cry as she gave her son a hug.

“What’s wrong? Did I get the wrong kind of flag? I thought—”

“No, Matt, you did just fine. We’ll put it on the flag pole until Uncle Mulder comes home.” She pulled away, and gave him a small smile. “You’re just…you’re growing up and becoming a man,” she said with a small chuckle, holding his shoulders. “Your dad would be proud of you. You did just fine.”

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UNKNOWN LOCATION

TUESDAY, JULY 6th, 2010

UNKNOWN TIME

Mulder screamed again as the hot iron bar was applied to his back, searing his skin. He had been sweating more before…he felt so dry he didn’t know if he had any sweat left. They had taken the gag out of his mouth and his initial attempts at conversation had resulted in this latest session of torture.

He didn’t know how long he had been hanging there but he had lost the feeling in his arms and legs.

When the iron was removed, he coughed and tried to catch his breath, but his lack of saliva just made him gag. “I need water,” he croaked, and the iron was applied again.

“All right, enough,” he heard an unfamiliar voice, and looked up when the iron was removed. It was the same man who had interrogated him before, but he now had an Indian accent.

Mulder knew that was significant. His normally lightning-fast thinking was slowed considerably by the dehydration, hunger, and pain. He knew he had a concussion and he knew he was delirious, because only a short while ago he had heard Scully’s voice down the hall, followed soon after by little Claire’s. His vision was blurry and somewhere in the back of his mind he was worried about regaining the use of his limbs after what seemed like weeks of hanging. He had lost all sense of time.

But he had done several things during the torture to keep his mind occupied. One was memorize the map they had put in front of him—it was important to them for some reason that he knew it, and he figured it couldn’t hurt. Another activity was the analysis of his situation. He knew these men weren’t terrorists. He realized that several of the torture techniques they were using could be deadly if incorrectly applied, and that they were methods used by the elite forces of a half a dozen different areas of the world. These guys were knowledgeable, well-funded, and most likely manipulating him. Why would they want him and the rest of the world to think they were Pakistani terrorists? It had to do with the map, Mulder knew.

“Cut him down,” the man demanded. The grunts seemed disappointed, but obeyed orders. Mulder was lowered fairly quickly but not as painfully as he thought he would have been. They untied his limbs and they lifelessly fell onto the floor. Mulder didn’t have the strength to roll over, so he lay there on his stomach on the cold cement floor.

The leader caught his dislocated shoulder with his heel and flipped the agent onto his back, and Mulder cried out in pain. Tears were now forming in his eyes, and he found himself unable to move. I feel tingling…that’s good. You’re not going to lose your limbs, Mulder. Pull yourself together.

“Have you decided to help us?” the man asked him, looking down at Mulder mercilessly.

Mulder took a deep breath before he answered. “I’m not going…to help you…because you’re…” he stopped, tried to get more saliva in his mouth, and tried again. “You’re not terrorists.”

The man seemed surprised by this conclusion. He seemed to think over his answer, and he simply nodded for the moment. “Okay,” he said, and grabbed a chair. “Okay, fine. Agent Mulder, we’ve got to move to Plan B.” He looked up before he sat down in the chair and said to his two cronies, “Go and prepare the locations.”

When Mulder was alone with his captor, the man stood up and walked away for a moment, returning with a canteen. Mulder looked at it expectantly, trying not to get his hopes up. If this was just another ruse, he didn’t want to make himself thirstier by wishing for water. Somehow, his survival training was still intact.

To his surprise, though, the man unscrewed the cap and held it to Mulder’s lips. He drank the water with difficulty at first, his parched throat finding it hard to swallow. The water burned his esophagus, and he choked slightly when it leaked into his larynx. But it felt so good…

“I’m going to tell you the truth, Agent Mulder,” the man told him, and pulled the water away. He put the cap back on and set it beside his chair. “We are not Pakistani terrorists. We thought, as an FBI agent, you wouldn’t hesitate to take the opportunity to use the Bari Trasadi once you knew the location of the terrorist operating bases.”

“You aren’t very good actors,” Mulder quipped, and then flinched, expecting to be struck.

But the man chuckled instead. “That’s all right,” he said. “Because once I explain, you won’t hesitate to use the Bari Trasadi.” He shifted positions in his chair. “We are the good guys, Agent Mulder. We have information on terrorist strongholds. As you’ve no doubt figured out, we are well-funded and elite. We knew your capabilities to operate alien technology, and we took advantage of the fact that Mr. Skinner sent you here. It meant we didn’t have to cross the ocean.”

Mulder stared at him, hoping that he would give him more information than that. He was trying to figure out who these guys were. They must have some connections in the Indian government, he thought.

“We are trying to stop the terrorists, just the same as you,” the man told him. “They are a plague in this part of the world. You lost thousands on 9/11…we lose thousands every year to these lunatics. They invade our homes, they ravage our country, they are dragging down my country’s progress,” he said. He was passionate. Mulder realized this wasn’t an act.

“We know where their strongholds are. We know where they organize. All you have to do, now that you know where they are as well…is use the device.”

Mulder frowned, his expression troubled. “So you thought by torturing me…you’d make me use the device without…confirmation that I was going to hit a real terrorist target? I still don’t have…confirmation.” He closed his eyes against the pain, and said, “I won’t risk hitting innocent people.”

“We figured, after your initial reluctance, that we would need a secondary plan. That’s why as we speak, our people are placing explosive packages in strategic locations. One is near the temporary UN camp, where your partner is. One is near us, close enough to bring down this entire building on your head. And four others are located in known Jeser safehouses. One of which you’ve already been to—I believe you met a little boy there who was quite fond of you. If you refuse to take out the terrorists, we will detonate these bombs. They will look like terrorist strikes and the UN camp’s destruction may even cause a war. We’ll get you to destroy those terrorist locations, Mulder, one way or another.” He stood. “I’ll give you some time to think about it. Meanwhile, I’ll encourage you to watch Sabir demonstrate the use of the device.”

Mulder looked at the man in horror as he walked away, and then turned his attention to Sabir, who was nearby with his hands in the device. The man closed his eyes, and a few minutes later, stumbled backwards unexpectedly. It must take energy to destroy something. I wonder how many innocents died this time?

Sabir opened his eyes and looked at Mulder. “We can’t seem to control the device,” he admitted. “We can’t localize the different locations. Though this time it wasn’t such a tragedy. We just took out a good chunk of Peshawar.”

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TEMPORARY UN CAMP

HANGU, PAKISTAN

TUESDAY, JULY 6th, 2010

1200

“A thousand dead, in seconds,” Calhoun said, and sat down across from Scully. He rubbed his eyes. “The Pakistani government’s not going to take much more of this.”

“If they used the weapon again, what does that mean for Mulder?” Scully asked, a hint of fear in her voice.

“It could mean anything,” the major stated, and ripped open a granola bar. “Hobbs is working on the trace. We think this latest hit could’ve given us what we need to actually get a lock on their position.”

Scully nodded, barely reacting. She had been given false hope so many times in the last two days that she felt like it was useless, even counterproductive, to count on success. She glanced at Calhoun. He looked completely exhausted. The poor man had inherited a disaster from Young, a diplomatic nightmare and a military catastrophe. He hadn’t complained about it once. He hadn’t spoken an ill word about Young’s handling of relations between the US and Pakistan. He hadn’t even mentioned how the cultural differences were making it hard to coordinate simple military missions.

For the first time in over forty-eight hours, Scully asked, “Major, how are you doing?”

Calhoun looked up from his granola bar. “How do you mean, Agent Scully?”

“Are you doing okay?”

“I’m fine. Aside from being a little tired, I’m at 100%.”

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Scully nodded. He was putting on the same brave face that she knew Mulder would in his situation. That she knew she was at least trying to display.

“Major Calhoun, Sir?” A voice said over Calhoun’s radio.

Calhoun held down the button. “Go ahead.”

“This is Hobbs. We don’t have the trace complete, Sir, but Pierson and I have discovered something you should see.”

“I’m on my way,” Calhoun said, and exhaled as he got up. He grabbed his granola bar off the table. Scully, predictably, followed.

They entered the Command and Control tent for what felt like the hundredth time. Scully was so tired of entering with the expectation of results, and only getting more delays, that she almost didn’t want to come. She was instantly glad that she did when Hobbs revealed what they had found.

“Sir, this is Lieutenant Faraj with the Pakistani military—he’s a skilled forensic anthropologist and he’s also former Pakistani Intel. He’s got something to share.”

Scully remembered Faraj from the original site visit. He was a hard-working, dedicated individual. The man stood at semi-attention in front of Calhoun. “Sir,” he spoke with an accent, “Your officers have uncovered a code that I recognize from my time in Pakistani Intelligence. I have not received official authorization to reveal this to you, but it was never classified and I wanted to tell you in the interest of time.”

“Yes, then proceed, Lieutenant,” Calhoun spoke to him with firmness, but respect.

“You have created an arc equation to describe the airflow path of the weapon. It has resulted in a geographic location several kilometers in radius, which we are now trying to narrow down. But this spot in India, Sir,” he said, and pointed to the area near the Indian military hospital, “it is an underground Indian Intelligence outpost. It could not possibly be a coincidence that these ‘terrorists’ have such extensive knowledge of torture techniques from different cultures, have the resources to successfully launch the terror attacks they have completed, and additionally launch the weapon from inside a known Indian Intelligence area.”

The reality of the situation sunk in. “That military hospital,” Scully began, “it’s closed to the public, is it not?”

“It’s half-destroyed after the suicide bomber. Only military and rescue in and out,” Hobbs stated. “And we did spot a prop plane entering Pakistan, but we couldn’t get a fix on its origin and we know it was authorized by the Indian government.”

“My God…” Calhoun whispered. If India really was an aggressor, the political ramifications were enormous. A country backed by the United States engaging in mass destruction as they had, including the destruction of a US Army base? A country allied with the US kidnapping an FBI agent and torturing him, then posting it on the Internet? Calhoun shook his head. They would need to figure out if the Indian government knew what their operatives were doing before jumps like that could be made. For now, they needed to mobilize search and recover forces, and they needed to do it soon. “I’ll call Special Forces in. We’ll leave in an hour, tops. Agent Scully, get your stuff together and get ready to move out. If we find your partner, you won’t be returning with him to this warzone.”

It was unreal. They were going in. They had a location. She could really find him, and everything was going to be okay. She didn’t want to get her hopes up, but she couldn’t help it. She could almost feel it. This was it. Mulder was coming home.

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BASEMENT OF MILITARY HOSPITAL

MAHARASHTRA, INDIA

TUESDAY, JULY 6th, 2010

1300

“We’ll know what you decide, Agent Mulder. You’ve got an hour to figure out how the device works and hit the intended targets.” The man placed a kitchen timer on the folding table with the map, next to the Bari Trasadi. “We’re confident we’ll be able to excavate the area and find your remains and the Bari Trasadi should you make a mistake.” He began to walk away, but then turned at the last moment. “We’re not animals, I assure you. Should you fail, we’ll find Agent Scully’s remains and bury them with yours.”

Mulder sat on the floor. His right ankle was cuffed to a chain, which was in turn padlocked to a bolt on the floor. His limbs were still extremely weak, and he hadn’t regained full feeling in them. He could barely comprehend what the man was telling him, but he knew they were all leaving. Scientists had been packing up their instruments and disappearing into the elevator for a while now. Those in charge were overseeing the mass exodus, but most of them were gone now. There were only two left, and when his interrogator took off, so did the last man. Mulder thought he was alone.

He tried to stand up. First he attempted to use his knees, knowing that his arms were wrenched nearly from their sockets and wouldn’t support his weight. But as it turned out, neither would his knees. He flopped onto the cement floor ungracefully, and cringed at the pain.

Everything was blurry. The drink of water his interrogator had given him had probably kept him alive, but he still had no saliva in his mouth, and kept hearing strange echoes of voices in his head. He was delirious and half-starved. He couldn’t stand up. How was he supposed to do anything if he couldn’t stand up?

You have to, he thought. You have to stand up, because if you don’t, Scully, Alam, soldiers, and a shitload of innocent civilians are going to die. And that includes you—you’re going to die with them.

“Contemplating your choices, Agent Mulder?”

Mulder turned, and saw something he couldn’t let his mind believe. This was the Middle-East. This was some kind of renegade military operation. Yes, it had to do with extraterrestrials but…he was delirious. He couldn’t trust his eyes. Could he really be there? He squinted.

Strughold smiled. “Don’t worry. I’m not really here. I’m a figment of your imagination,” the old German said cryptically, and Mulder thought he saw the man’s face shift, revealing the alien he really was. “Quite a decision you have to make. Innocent lives, or your life and Scully’s. Either way, the legend-following imbeciles get their way. The terrorists are blamed or the terrorists are destroyed. Well…I’ll be going now. It was quite nice talking to you. If this works out well, I’m sure we’ll see each other again.”

Then he walked away. Did hallucinations get into elevators?

Mulder blinked. That didn’t really just happen. Or did it? How could he be sure? The last time he was tortured to this extent was when Strughold captured him. When he put the alien oil into his bloodstream and allowed him to access an intelligence so far beyond anything he had imagined.

Concentrate, Mulder. You have an hour. What does that timer say?

He strained his neck, trying to see the timer. He caught a 5 in the far left slot, meaning that he had most of an hour. He had to try to stand again.

He maneuvered himself with one ‘good’ arm against the table and the dislocated one safely out of the way, and brought his knees around so he could push off and kneel. Then he threw his ‘good’ arm on top of the table and hung on for dear life. He cried out at the pain and tried to ignore the feeling of his cracked, perhaps broken ribs rubbing up against the table. He leaned into the table and felt around for the Bari Trasadi. He managed to knock the heavy rock onto the cement floor. Then he fell back down himself.

Good, Mulder. Destroy the 4,000-year-old artifact.

He realized he was going to have to crawl to it. It wasn’t going to be easy, with his ankle chained to the floor. “Summon the strength,” he heard an echo say in his head, and this time, instead of tuning out the hallucinations, he listened to it. With an incredible leap that surprised him, he landed with his head next to the Bari Trasadi.

His body was on fire. His mind was now throwing images in front of his vision, and he couldn’t decide if they were hallucinations or an effect of the alien artifact being so close.

“Your hands have to go inside,” he heard little Claire’s voice tell him, and he tried to clear her image from his mind. The last thing he wanted was for her to accidentally disappear into a pillar of sand. “Your hands have to go inside,” the little voice repeated.

“Shit, I know, I know!” he yelled with what little voice he had left. The thought of moving his dislocated arm sent chills up his spine. So much pain…how could he do it and not pass out? He couldn’t afford to pass out.

He was laying next to the damn artifact with his cheek on the cement, not even having the strength to lift his head up. He could barely move his non-dislocated shoulder, let alone the other arm, and the chain was fully extended. He then had a brilliant idea amidst the fog of strange voices, pangs of pain, and visions of hamburgers with gallon pitchers of water.

He reached his ‘good’ arm up as close as he could to the Bari Trasadi, and then with all his might knocked the device down to where his other hand rested. He then grabbed the device and squirmed painfully until his other hand was inside. Then, in this incredibly awkward position he had put himself in, he reached around with his ‘good’ hand and stuck it inside.

Instantly, he was transported to another cognitive world.

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TEMPORARY CMD & CTRL CENTER

MAHARASHTRA, INDIA

TUESDAY, JULY 6th, 2010

1310

“Agent Scully, I just received yours and Major Calhoun’s message,” the President of India said over the video chat. She was dressed in traditional Indian clothing, clearly ready to go to some event. She had taken her personal time to call before they moved in on the hospital.

“Yes, Ma’am,” Scully said. “I take it you agree with General Himmat on our course of action?”

“Of course I do. And I want you to know how deeply sorry I am for this…those responsible will be brought to justice. This I promise you, Agent.”

Scully nodded. That all sounded great, but what she really cared about at the moment was getting into that hospital and getting Mulder out. Infrared sensors had already identified one signature in the basement. She didn’t expect the renegade Indian military intelligence officers to stick around, but she also figured that they wouldn’t go out without a fight. They needed to figure out what these legend-obsessed men had up their sleeve before they barged a building potentially rigged to explode.

“I also wanted to offer you my country’s services in any assistance we may provide you. I’ll let you return to your rescue mission.” She seemed to spot Scully’s cross necklace. “May your God be with you,” she finished, and when Scully thanked her, the powerful woman cut the video.

“You ready to do this?” Major Calhoun asked her from a few meters away. She nodded, and he called in a louder voice, “Okay, everyone, listen up! This is the game plan!”

Scully stared at the empty screen for a moment, and then got up. God…watch over Mulder.

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BASEMENT OF MILITARY HOSPITAL

MAHARASHTRA, INDIA

TUESDAY, JULY 6th, 2010

UNKNOWN TIME

Mulder was surrounded by a Technicolor world of extremely detailed and extremely vague objects. At first, he nearly panicked, trying to get his bearings. He was starting to get the hang of it. And once he did, he found himself navigating the objects through touch, through sound, through sight…he was floating in zero g and all the pain was gone. It was more spectacular than anything he had ever seen.

“Can I speak here?” he wondered out loud, and instantly received his answer. “How does this thing work? How do you work?” he asked the device, looking around the rainbow extravaganza for some answers.

Suddenly, a small world appeared before him. And he didn’t have to ask again. He simply knew what to do. He found he knew a great deal now. It was as if an entire other life’s worth of knowledge was instantly poured into his head. He put his smooth and unblemished hands on the small globe, and could see forty places at once.

Surprised and nearly overloaded, he jumped back initially and the vision went away. He placed his hands back on the device slowly, and the vision came back. Forty places at once. In great detail, right down to the grains of sand. The original forty expanded to infinity. He could see where ancient beings were buried under the Earth. He could see Earth’s history—the beginning with the first humans, the hunter-gatherers becoming permanent settlers, the conquerors and the conquered, the scientists and the philosophers, the first chemists and the last of now-extinct species. The plants and animals maturing and evolving throughout time. Modern-day Cairo, with young people on cell phones in front of the Great Pyramids that he simultaneously witnessed being built. Aliens coming and going like the planet was an airport, millennia’s worth of oil being burned in the giant processing plants that looked like grains of sand when compared to what the aliens had.

He knew where the terrorist targets were that he was supposed to destroy. But he also knew that his captors were irrational, desperate, and angry. They might not have the right information, despite their high position in Indian intelligence. There were two schools within the target range of the Bari Trasadi, and every Jeser stronghold known to the Intelligence community appeared instantly. He saw little Alam in his lime green Crocs, sitting in the dirt outside the little farm house. The child looked sad. He saw Scully nearby. Nearby? No! This was in the blast zone of the bombs!

Overwhelming despair threatened to pull him out of the machine, but he forced himself to stay in. He had to do something. If he destroyed the targets his captors wanted him to, innocents would die. And if he didn’t, they would detonate bombs that would kill just as many people. He couldn’t just lay on the floor and allow people to die. “What should I do?” he asked the weapon. But it had no answer.

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MILITARY HOSPITAL

MAHARASHTRA, INDIA

TUESDAY, JULY 6th, 2010

1330

“We’re getting indications of a buildup of energy, Sir,” Hobbs called from in front. Special Forces was already inside, scouring the building and determining what was and what wasn’t safe to access. So far, they hadn’t found Mulder. But no one had made it to the basement yet. It seemed that the elevator had been destroyed by a small explosive charge and no stairs existed.

“Enough to warrant us pulling out?” Calhoun demanded of his technician.

“No, Sir. We’re still ‘go.’ No egress necessary. Yet.”

“Keep an eye on it, Hobbs,” Calhoun ordered. Then he stepped forward and entered the building with Scully right behind him.

“Major Calhoun, this is Thompson with Special Forces. We have a line down to the basement, Sir, but no response when we call Agent Mulder’s name.”

“There’s no guarantee it’s him down there, Thompson,” Calhoun answered. “We’re on our way to the elevator shaft. Out.” Scully followed him, her heart ready to pound out of her chest. They had an infrared signature, and it was strong enough to be alive. Now it was just a matter of getting down that elevator.

Suddenly, the floor shifted. “Earthquake!” an officer called, but Scully knew that wasn’t what was going on at all. She looked to her right, and saw a cloud of sand inside the hospital.

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BASEMENT OF MILITARY HOSPITAL

MAHARASHTRA, INDIA

TUESDAY, JULY 6th, 2010

1330

He had no choice. He had to fire. “Forgive me,” he heard himself vocally say, and he pressed his thumbs into the globe. He saw a cave, a small house, an SUV, and dozens of other locations there one moment, and turn to sand the next. As he did this, his mind threatened to destroy the other locations he knew his captors had also marked. They were so close to annihilation, and he knew they were hanging by a thread.

But he clung to that thread. He was determined not to let them die—they, he knew because of the Bari Trasadi’s stream of knowledge, were not true terrorists. But this energy he had needed to go somewhere. It couldn’t just dissipate. And then, as if the Bari Trasadi itself had given him the answer, he knew what he needed to do, to keep them safe. He knew it in his heart, but he also realized how painful it was going to be.

With his back arched and his thumbs still securely pressed against the globe, he imagined Scully, Alam, the innocent schoolkids in Pakistan who were about to be flattened into the Earth, and then threw his head back. He screamed, and in his screaming something exited from his mouth. Technicolor sand streamed out from his very soul and dissipated into the air. He had taken his own energy, and instead of streaming it towards those known targets, had directed it back at himself and the rock in his hands. At that moment, he knew he didn’t save them all. Some of the innocents, along with the terrorists, had perished.

Even in this world where he should have felt no pain, he felt a sharp, jabbing sensation at his heart. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t think. The technicolors were fading into gray. The beautiful world, the endless knowledge, it was dissolving before his eyes. “No,” he begged. He pleaded with the Bari Trasadi, “Please, no! Please!” But it was too late. He was back on the cement floor, and the building was coming down on top of him.

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MILITARY HOSPITAL

MAHARASHTRA, INDIA

TUESDAY, JULY 6th, 2010

1335

The walls dissolved. Dust was everywhere, and Scully’s instincts took over. She dove to the ground and clung to the side of a receptionist’s desk. The floor caved beneath her, and she was nearly swallowed up by the great plunge the cement was taking. The rebar groaned and bent with the cracking cement, and the screams of several officers nearly shattered her eardrums.

A tremendous roar overtook the building and it shook violently. After what seemed like an hour of dust assaulting her nostrils, debris flying all over her body, and the floor deciding whether or not it would collapse into the basement, it was finally over.

Scully never really realized what ‘the silence was deafening’ meant until that moment. After so much noise, so much commotion, everything was just…still. A thick cloud of dust blocked her view, and she squinted. She could see light coming from beside her. It was a huge light source, large enough that Scully realized what it was. Daylight. Another part of what was left of the hospital had just been demolished. “Major Calhoun!” She called, and coughed.

“Here, I’m okay,” Calhoun called. “Thompson, check in,” she heard him order, and a moment later, Thompson broadcast his injury report for his team. “We need reinforcements in the basement,” she heard the man admit.

“We’re on our way. All teams, check in. Calhoun out. Agent Scully! Where are you?”

“Over here—follow my voice.” They managed to find each other, and then moved in the direction of the elevator shaft almost instinctively. Scully’s heart was beating a million beats per second. She could only envision Mulder trapped beneath the rubble…or worse, simply disintegrated into pure SiO2.

“Our line is still secure, miraculously,” Thompson said when they arrived. “Agent Scully, you’re a medical doctor. You go down first.”

Scully nodded her immediate agreement, and slipped on the harness Thompson handed to her. She jumped, and the secure rafter held her weight. She was lowered down to the basement level.

When she got there, it was worse than the first level. If she thought the cloud there was bad, this was literally impossible to see through or breathe. She coughed violently, and pulled her shirt over her face. Only seconds later, Thompson dropped two masks down the elevator shaft. That’s Special Forces for you…always prepared.

She donned the mask and could at least breathe now. Carrying the other mask for when she found Mulder, she trudged through the rubble and spotted several things that disturbed her. She saw a half-demolished cot with multiple restraints as she accidentally bumped into a restraint system still secured from the rafters above. This was where he was tortured.

She could feel his presence, and though it made no sense to her, feel his pain. It wasn’t an emotional connection, it was a palpable, physical presence. “Mulder!” she called as loud as she could. “Mulder! Answer me!”

She tripped over a pile of broken cement rocks, walked past a still-working Toughbook on the ground, and then she heard it. A barely-audible, extremely weak groan. She ran to its location, stumbling over rubble and ripping up her shins on damaged rebar. She saw his hand emerging from another pile of cement, and she began digging. “Call for medics!” She screamed. “Get them in here NOW! Mulder, stay with me, okay?”

The more she uncovered, the more she felt like throwing up. He was in horrible shape, his skin almost the same shade as the cement rubble. He was bone-dry, no sweat anywhere on his body. Her hands contacted several spongy areas where the bones and muscles should have been firm. And God only knew what other injuries she couldn’t see in this dust.

As soon as his face was fully uncovered, she put the mask on him and stroked his hair, waiting for the medics to arrive. He was breathing, which was a good sign. The only good sign she could see. “Stay with me, Mulder. Come on, can you open your eyes for me?” Tears brimmed her own eyes when she got no response. “Come on,” she continued to plead, but he was out cold.

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The medics finally arrived, and secured Mulder on a stretcher after stabilizing him and inserting an IV. They had to call one of the Special Forces soldiers over to cut the chain link away from the bolt on the floor. Once that was done, they began carrying him out, and Scully stayed by his side and held his hand. She heard Calhoun get a report from one of his people about a Toughbook with ‘alien text’ on it, but for now, she didn’t even care. She had gotten what she had come for.

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BASEMENT OF MILITARY HOSPITAL

MAHARASHTRA, INDIA

TUESDAY, JULY 6th, 2010

1335

Mulder was barely aware of his surroundings. Unable to open his eyes, barely able to breathe, he felt his chest compressed by the cement and knew it wouldn’t be long before his life slipped away from him. Like the walls had dissolved. Like the world of knowledge had been ripped from him. Like the lives of those innocents he couldn’t save.

He couldn’t stop their faces from flashing before his eyes. He didn’t much mind the twenty-eight terrorists he had eliminated from the planet, although he saw their faces too. Instead, he minded the four schoolchildren playing outside, disintegrated before he could re-direct the energy. A husband and wife in their kitchen, making food. Two teenagers rummaging through a trash heap for spare auto parts. All mistaken for being terrorists by his captors. All marked on that damned map he had memorized. All seared into his memory despite being erased from the Earth.

Had he been at least partially successful? Had the Bari Trasadi been destroyed? If not, Strughold would return to salvage it. It would only be a matter of time before the evil man managed to adapt the device so that he could use it, and after that it was all over. Anyone who could successfully operate that device could have control of all of the world’s governments in a matter of minutes. A few brief conversations with the world leaders and a convincing demonstration of its power, billions of people’s deaths and several new deserts where US cities used to stand…Strughold would quickly become the most powerful man in the world.

But Mulder was dying. His lungs were filling with dust, his chest was barely able to expand and contract under the weight of the cement, and every inch of his body screaming with pain or had gone completely numb. There was nothing he could do at this point except hope his earlier efforts had been successful.

Then he heard voices. Great, more voices. Honestly, I just want to die in peace. Can I please die in peace?

But the voices persisted. They got closer. One voice in particular pierced his hearing. “Mulder!” he heard Scully call him. On the off chance it was actually her, he managed to grunt, but nothing more.

The next thing he knew, the weight was being lifted off of him. Still unable to open his eyes, he had no way of knowing it was her. But he somehow could sense her. He wanted to hold her hand. He wanted her to be real. An oxygen mask was slipped over his head. He could breathe, finally. She stroked his hair. Someone cut the chain that held him down. He was lifted up, and carried out. He was set free. He was going home.

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Continued in Post Trasadi

Through the Looking Glass

16x12_cover

Through The Looking Glass

Author: Traveler

Artwork: Truthwebothknow1

Category: Casefile

Rating: PG-13

Summary: A puzzling series of clues with ties to their past lead the agents to solve a case of abduction and murder.

Spoilers: Seasons 1-7, Paper Hearts

Disclaimer: Two weeks exclusive with VS16. No copyright infringement intended.

Original web date:04/06/2010

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Through The Looking Glass

LOCATION UNKNOWN

The young girl looked at the label that had been taped to the glass she held in her hand. Scrawled haphazardly across it in black pen was, ‘DRINK ME’. Knowing that to drink the unknown liquid was wrong but being afraid not too, she hesitated.

“Oh my, look how late it’s getting, Can’t you read? I’m going to be late, now drink the drink so I can be on my way,” the woman who had been her guardian for so many days, she couldn’t remember demanded. The girl just knew she desperately wanted to go home.

There was something odd about the woman today. The child was used to the woman coming to visit her in a blouse and smock, her long blond hair tied back with a ribbon. Today she was rather splendidly dressed in what looked like a tuxedo.

“I don’t know what it is,” the child replied.

“Oh for heaven’s sake, you’re trying my patience today Donna, it’s cherry Kool-Aid, you like cherry Kool-Aid don’t you?”

“It smells funny,” Donna told her as she raised the glass to her lips.

“That’s just the well water I made it from. Now drink it up!” The woman grabbed the end of the glass and tipped it, almost forcing the child to drink it. “There you go,” she told the girl as she swallowed most of the drink. “It should give you a very curious feeling…”

THE OFFICE OF ASSISTANT DIRECTOR WALTER SKINNER,

FBI BUILDING

“The Director will be right with you,” Skinner’s assistant assured them as they entered the empty office.

Summoned there earlier by their supervisor, Mulder turned and shrugged at his partner. It was odd that Walter Skinner was not there to welcome them into his office in his customarily military manner.

“He did say ‘post haste’ did he not?” Scully asked.

“More or less,” Mulder replied easing himself into the right hand chair in front of their superior’s expansive desk. Scully watched as his eyes scanned the top of its surface for any clue as to the purpose of the meeting. The top of the desk was also uncustomarily clean.

“Okay, so what EXACTLY did he say to you?” Scully was beginning to wonder if her partner had requested her presence as backup though she could not remember a recent occasion that would need any reprimanding.

“He said, and I quote,” Mulder began, raising his hands to make little air quotes. “I need to see you ASAP…and I want you to bring Scully with you,” he put his hands down. “So…here we are.” Mulder crossed his legs and began tapping his fingers on the left arm of the chair.

“And you have no idea what this is about, he didn’t mention anything else?”

“Why are you so concerned?” Mulder’s reply was surprisingly curt. Truth was, she wouldn’t be if he didn’t seem to be so himself. Realizing the tone of his reply he turned to her, “Maybe it’s just my spidey sense but there’s been something in the air…”

“Agents!” before Mulder could get any further the Assistant Director Skinner burst into the office and promptly closed the door. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” he apologized, making his way across the office to his desk. In his hand were several manila case files.

“I’m not going to beat around the bush,” Skinner began.

“You’re not a beat around the bush kinda guy, Sir,” Mulder interjected, an indication to his superior that he already had an idea why they had been summoned to his office. Skinner met his eyes.

“I have a request here from Violent Crimes for your services Agent Mulder.” With that single sentence Scully immediately knew why Skinner had told her partner her presence in this meeting had also been required.

“They have a five month old case involving the disappearance…”

“Of five missing eight year old girls,” Mulder finished for him. “First girl went missing on November 27th of last year.”

Scully met Skinner’s surprised glance with one of her own. She lived with the man now for God’s sakes and he could still slip things past her. She had no idea about this case prior to this meeting but evidently her partner did.

Mulder motioned for the file and reached across their superior’s desk to accept it. “All five have gone missing on their way home from school, they all live in rural areas in and around the D.C. area. School bus drops them off at the required stop but they never make it home — just sort of vanish into thin air — and no, I don’t think they were abducted by aliens.”

“But you obviously have some thoughts or you wouldn’t have been following the case,” Skinner added.

“I have several thoughts, Sir,” Mulder answered as he rose from his seat. “Two bodies have already been recovered so we’ve already gone beyond the disappearance of young girls; we’re probably talking kidnapping and murder. You coming?” he asked his partner, already turning towards the door.

“So I take it you’re agreeing to take the assignment?” Skinner asked, meeting Scully’s eyes once again as she rose to join her partner.

“I don’t see I have much of a choice,” the agent replied, opening the door for Scully and following her out into the hall.

He said nothing as they made their way to the elevator. Scully watched him flip through items in the folder as they rode down several floors, engaging in a little small talk with a couple of other agents about the Wizards and then thankfully they were alone as the car descended to the basement. Mulder had that look of deep contemplation. She knew there was something more going on in that head of his. She had a troubling idea she knew what it was.

“Is it just my imagination or are you taking a somewhat one-sided personal approach towards this case?” she asked him just as the door slid open.

He handed her the folder as he stepped into the hallway, “Because it is personal, look at those girls, Scully, remind you of anybody…”

Accepting the folder from her partner, she flipped open the cover to the school photos of the five girls, five dark-haired eight year old girls. Her eyes followed his back into their office.

Mulder was already on the phone by the time she crossed the threshold. “Tell him it’s Agent Mulder,” she heard her partner instruct into the receiver, he met her eyes but said nothing.

SAC Ron Gartman was the current head of VCS; his gruff voice came through the headset so loudly into Mulder’s ear he actually had to hold the phone away. “Tell me you’re on this or I don’t even want to talk to you,” Gartman snapped.

“You got me — us,” Mulder corrected. “I want you to get me the case files, including the autopsy reports on both dead girls,” he continued looking right at his partner. “If I have to come get them myself I will.”

There was a rather short pause and the Scully heard him say they’d be there within the hour. Mulder hung up the phone and grabbed his keys from the top of the desk. “You up for a field trip?”

“Let me guess, we ‘do’ have to go get them ourselves,” his partner confirmed.

“Budget cuts,” he replied, heading out the door without her.

They were across the Potomac before he said another word. He knew what she was thinking and it had taken him this long to formulate a response to the question she hadn’t yet asked. He didn’t take his eyes off the road as he spoke.

“I know what you’re thinking, Scully. And to be honest, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about my sister. But this is not some fixation I have about finding her. You know I came to terms with that a long time ago… She’s dead and nothing I can ever do will change that. I’m not going to make this into something more than it is.”

He could tell her that but there was still the date the first girl went missing and their faces, all mirror images of his young sister. “In your mind you’ve let her go Mulder, I don’t think in your heart you ever will. You’re never going to stop looking for her.”

Mulder reached across the seat and took his partner’s hand. Perhaps she was right, the need to save a little girl still ate away at him. All the more reason he was sure this case had a personal side to it. “This is someone we know, Scully. Or someone who knows us, our case history, I am sure of that, it’s why I’ve been following it. I think when we see the case files; you’re going to come to that conclusion too. I’ll be honest with you, I don’t like the memories it stirs up anymore than you do but I knew sooner or later we’d be called in on it.”

“I’m just worried about whether you’re going to be able to look at it objectively, Mulder,” her reply was directed at the windshield. “Whether or not you’ll be able to distance the case from your feelings.”

“That’s why I have you…”

FBI VIOLENT CRIMES DIVISION

QUANTICO, VA

Gartman was about Skinner’s age, he’d been with VCS since the Patterson era. Scully wasn’t sure if that was a good thing but he shook Mulder’s hand vigorously, “Despite our history, Mulder, I’m glad to have you with us again,” the agent acknowledged.

“Ron, this is my partner, Dana Scully,” Mulder introduced.

“Life partner, from my understanding,” Gartman hinted as he reached out to shake Scully’s hand. “Nice to meet you.”

“A very un-well kept secret I’m afraid,” she replied.

“Don’t worry, I won’t hold it against you,” Gartman told her, a broad grin spreading across his face. “Mulder and I have a lot of the same ghosts in our closet so if you can put up with his, you won’t mind mine.”

“Well, I do get him to clean his closet on a regular basis so hopefully there isn’t anything in there I don’t already know about,” she watched Gartman give her partner a surprised look.

“Yeah, well,” he began. “I’m sure you’re right. I’m glad to have you both. How about I find you someplace quiet and get you the case files.” Gartman turned and kept talking as he led them down the hallway.

“I think Scully would like to go over the autopsy reports on the two girls if we can have access those also,” Mulder asked to Gartman’s back as he continued to lead them through the bullpen of the VCS.

“I’ll think you’ll find everything is ready for you. The seventh girl went missing just two days ago. Her name is Samantha Rawley, eight years old, brown hair, green eyes…”

A chill ran up Scully’s spine, Gartman’s voice had disappeared as soon as he’d mentioned the girl’s name.

“…this perp sure has a fixation on brown haired girls. Here we go,” Gartman reached into the small conference room and flicked on the light. The files were already on the large table in the center of the room along with several ruled pads, pens and pencils and a couple of dry erase markers for the large whiteboard that hung on the far wall.

“All the comforts of home,” Mulder commented as he stepped in front of his partner and entered the room. He’d been a long time away from this arena and hadn’t missed it one bit.

LOCATION UNKNOWN:

The woman finished setting the places at the table and then went to fetch the girls. They were going to have a tea party. She had given them all party dresses and told them to put them on. When she opened the door, they were all huddled together looking like triplets.

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“Okay ladies, it’s time for our party,” she announced, crossing the room. “You have to come with me now; I have everything all set up.”

As the three girls came into the outer room they discovered a large, long table set with miss-matched fine china and seven mismatched chairs.

“Why are there seven chairs?” the newest to join the group, Samantha asked out loud.

“Shhhh!” the other girls replied simultaneously. “Don’t ask any questions,” one of the girls told her. Samantha walked to one of the chairs and started to take her seat.

“Wait!” the woman exclaimed. “It’s not very civil of you to sit down without being invited! Where are your manners?”

Samantha slid off the chair and stood next to it, not knowing quite what to do. She was frightened and wanted to go home. The other two girls had told her she had to do what she was told or something bad would happen. There had been two other girls and when they had disobeyed, they disappeared.

“Here, you are all to sit in these three chairs,” the woman told them as she walked around the far side of the table and pointed to the chairs she wanted them to sit in. Samantha followed the other two girls who obeyed immediately.

“Who are the other chairs for?” she finally asked as the two other girls cringed.

“My you are a mouthy thing aren’t you. Why, one is for the March Hare, the other for the Mad Hatter and this one next to me is for the Doormouse, but first let us have a game while we’re waiting for them. You all like games right?” Her voice had taken on a child-like quality. “Who wants to play croquet?”

The three girls looked at each other, as the woman pulled three colorful plastic mallets from a large cloth bag and scattered some plastic balls about the room. “Come. Get off your seats, everyone gets one,” she instructed, handing them each a colored mallet. “Samantha, you will go first, lets all see who can get their ball into that box in front of the fireplace first. Now you have to go under the red chair and around the end table, and then across the room and through the legs of that black cabinet and then into the box.”

Samantha looked at both the other girls and then stepped up to tap the ball that matched the color of her mallet, it wobbly rolled toward the red chair and then stopped when it hit one of its legs.

A second girl, the one Samantha knew as Megan stepped up and hit her ball, it rolled under the chair and up against the baseboard on the other side of it.

“Kristie! You missed your turn!” the woman’s voice now boomed around the room. “Call the executioner! Off with her head!” She stomped over and grabbed Kristie by the arm and started to pull her across the room.

Megan screamed and grabbed her friend’s other arm, desperately trying to keep her from disappearing also.

“Let go! Or it will be off with your head too!”

Megan let go just before the woman pulled Kristie through another door and then slammed it shut. Megan dropped to the floor in tears.

QUANTICO, VA

6:40 PM

Scully watched her partner page through the case files on the five girls from behind the autopsy folder she was currently reviewing. He hadn’t said it, but the idea of getting back into the mindset required for this kind of investigation was not something he was looking forward too, who would? Not only because of the gruesomeness of the case but because it was stirring up old memories that Mulder thought he’d finally put to rest. She suddenly found herself looking right into his hazel eyes.

“Don’t be my watchdog, Scully; I need you as my partner.”

She knew he didn’t mean it the way it sounded but the comment still stung.

“You finding anything interesting because other than these girls all being eight years old and having brown hair, I’m not finding anything that sends up any red flags…” he continued leaning back in his chair to stretch his back and shoulders. “Nothing in their family histories, nothing they’re all involved it, no common physicians, dentists, or clergy…” he shuffled through the folders, got up and walked around the table towards her, the girl’s photos hanging from his right hand. At the end of the table he stopped to clip them to the rail at the top of the whiteboard and stepped back. Five likenesses of his sister stared back at him. “Fuck.”

Scully watched him stand there for several minutes, his mind processing the images before him. He finally turned around and went over to where she was sitting, sliding the chair out beside her and plopping himself into it. “Talk to me,” he said, carefully thumbing through the pages of Donna Mayer’s autopsy folder. Her body had been found by some construction workers in a child’s playhouse behind a home that they had been renovating. The red stains on her lips confirmed she had been poisoned. As Mulder sifted through the report and evidence bag a typed note caught his eye.

“Where did this come from?” he asked.

“Says in the report that it was found with the body, why?”

Mulder read the text to himself.

“’How queer everything is to-day! And yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night. Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is, who in the world am I? Ah, THAT’S the great puzzle!'”

He recognized it immediately and the wheels in his head finally began to turn. “Was there another note with the other body?” he asked.

Scully opened the folder, Kathy Lyons had drowned. She handed Mulder the note that had been carefully typed in a winding script.

“’Fury said to a mouse, that he met in the house, let us both go to law: I will prosecute YOU. – Come, I’ll take no denial; we must have a trial: For really this morning I’ve nothing to do.” Said the mouse to the cure, “such a trial dear Sir, with no jury or judge, would be wasting our breath.” “I’ll be the jury,” Said cunning old Fury: “I’ll try the whole cause, and condemn you to death.’”

“Alice.”

“No, this victim’s name was Kathy…” Scully responded absently.

“Alice in Wonderland,” he repeated. “These quotes are from Alice in Wonderland,” he whispered. “That’s the connection…”

“Connection to what?” Scully clearly was not following him.

“John Lee Roche,” her partner whispered.

Scully frowned, “Mulder, I seem to remember you putting a bullet into the man’s brain at close range.”

“Yeah…” To Mulder it had been more of an act of execution. A choice he’d made on pure emotion and it forced his partner and superior to concur at his OPR hearing, that he had acted properly. “We– need to go back and look at those case files, remember in the car on the way over here I said this had something to do with our history? Samantha went missing on November 27th Scully, Roche is where we need to look.”

MULDER AND SCULLY’S TOWNHOUSE

GEORGETOWN

After gathering up the case files and making a hasty exit from the VCS offices, they had made their way back to Washington. Mulder had wanted to go back to the bureau but Scully had derailed that idea by making the observation that it was already well after the dinner hour and she was starving. A quick stop for some Chinese take-out and a change into some more comfortable clothes found them sitting on either side of the desk in their home office, picking on said Chinese while Mulder tried to make his case for connecting a dead man to the current disappearance of five young girls that had now become two murders.

Scully watched her partner surf madly through the electronic images of Roche’s case file. If the original case had been hard for him, their encounter with the manipulative man in 1997 had to have been unbearable. She remembered helping him dig through the soft soil bare-handed to uncover the grave of a little girl that at the time, neither of them were sure wasn’t Samantha. They never did find Roche’s last two victims. It hurt now to see those painful memories resurface on his face.

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“What confuses me more than anything,” he began, not really moving his eyes from the screen before him. “Is why it’s taken over ten years for this to surface? We need to look into his family background, families of the deceased – damn, if we had only identified those last two victims…” Mulder trailed off, a bit of self-resignation in his voice.

“Mulder,” she reached over to touch his warm arm. “This could be a more involved investigation than you think. If you really feel this is the path you want to go with this, then we need to contact Gartman first thing in the morning and have him assign some of his team to this.”

“The path ‘I’ want to go on this? I take it you don’t entirely agree with my ‘Alice’ theory?” He finally turned to look at her, grabbing the chopsticks and picking thru his Governor’s Chicken.

Scully studied his face; there was an adamancy there that was hard to disagree with. Was he really that certain that Roche was at the bottom of this? “I don’t disagree with you, Mulder; I just don’t want us to fixate…” the moment she said the word, she regretted it but she continued on anyway.”…on a single plan of investigation, there are at least three more lives at stake here. According to the time of death listed on these reports we’re running out of time on that third girl. We need to look for other possibilities.”

“Gartman and his team have looked at the other possibilities, Scully, that’s why they called us…” Mulder got up, grabbed the container of chicken and left the room.

VIOLENT CRIMES SECTION

QUANTICO, VIRGINIA

NEXT DAY

Scully had spent the better part of the morning briefing Gartman’s team on their suspicions. She could tell Ron wasn’t happy with the results the FBI’s former crack profiler had come up with. The last thing he had anticipated was Mulder taking a personal angle on the case. “Agent Scully, based on the autopsy findings,” he began, not wanting to put her in the position of contradicting her partner. “Can I ask what your feelings are on following this lead – if in fact this is a lead?”

Oh boy, in the back of her mind, she had known this was coming, “Sir, I know this may seem to be a little out in left field – but Agent Mulder has some valid points in his profile. There are three more girls out there; I think we should examine every possibility. What we need to know is whether or not the unsub is friend, family or fellow conspirator of John Lee Roche.”

“Agent Scully, that case was over ten years ago,” Agent LaRicca, one of the newest members of Gartman’s team stated. “Why would someone wait this long for revenge…or whatever it is Agent Mulder thinks is being directed at him?”

“We’ll find that out when we figure out who we’re looking for, Agent La Riccia,” she told him bluntly.

It was then that another one of Gartman’s agents, Marsha Allen, tapped on the door and entered the room, her face glum. “Sir, Richmond police have found another body, they think if may be the Campbell girl.”

Gartman caught her in the hall before she could inform Mulder. “Agent Scully, do you have a moment?”

She wanted to tell him no but nodded instead and turned to face him.

“I don’t know what to make of Mulder’s profile,” he began. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect this and I want you to know I’m sorry if it’s bringing out some old ghosts.”

“Sir, I think Mulder already had an idea where this case might lead when he agreed to our involvement. You don’t need to be sorry, just understanding. This is something I thought had been put to rest a long time ago myself,” the agent looked down at the copy of the profile she still held in her hands.

“Most of my people know Mulder’s reputation through me, he’s well respected these days and I will do whatever I can to be sure you get the assistance you need,” Ron’s voice was sincere.

“Thank you,” Scully replied and then excused herself to go find her partner.

A few moments later Scully tapped on the door to the conference room that had become their office and entered it. Mulder had sequestered himself in it earlier in the day determined to prove his theory correct. He knew Roche’s mother had been murdered when he was quite young. The father had been a suspect until he too was found dead. He looked up when his partner entered the room.

She walked silently around the table to where he was seated. His eyes followed her every move, sensing from her body language that she had brought him some news he didn’t want to hear. She crossed her arms and leaned her right hip against the table. Fatigue already lined his face. She reached out and brushed her hand through his hair at the right temple. “Find anything?” she asked almost sympathetically.

“Which one?” he asked in return, closing his eyes momentarily with the caress.

Damn him for being so observant. “They think it’s the Campbell girl. Ron has a car downstairs. I’m going to go out to the crime scene, are you coming?”

Mulder didn’t answer, he just got up and grabbed his jacket off the back of the chair and followed his partner out of the room.

AUTOPSY BAY

QUANTICO VIRGINIA

9:22 A.M.

Mulder sat looking at the angry red marks around the girl’s neck, she has obviously been strangled. The lacerations indicating that the intent had almost been to sever her head. It gave him a chill. “Off with her head,” he then said softly.

“Excuse me?”

“Alice In Wonderland, the Queen,” he answered, sliding off the cabinet and coming to stand across the table from his partner. “It’s almost as if someone was trying to execute her,” he gently touched the marks on the Kristie’s neck. “I don’t think she’s playing at all fairly,” he murmured under his breath.

“Mulder, what are you talking about?” Scully asked frustrated.

“Alice in Wonderland, haven’t you ever read it? Pay attention, Scully,” he almost snapped and then his shoulders drooped when he saw the fire in her eyes but she waved off his intended apology. “…only I can’t quite figure out how this latest quote fits…”

“Our perp is following the narrative. The notes that have been found with the victims, they’re all quotes from Lewis Carroll’s work. The first victim, the one that was poisoned,” he paused for a moment, “Donna Mayer,” Mulder began, “is asking us to figure out who we’re looking for. The one on the girl that drowned, Kathy, is from the Caucus Race, proclaiming that we must have a trial. “This quote,” he told her, holding up the note found on the latest victim. “I can’t quite figure out. But I have a feeling that I’m gonna be late for a very important date if I don’t.”

Scully took the note from her partner and read it, “‘You are old, Father William, the young man said, and your hair has become very white; and yet you incessantly stand on your head–do you think, at your age, it is right?'”

“Advice from a caterpillar?”

“Right now I’ll take some from my partner.”

“We’ll I’d say that whoever we’re looking for doesn’t know you very well, because your hair is most certainly not white…”

“No,” Mulder commented. “But I think I’m being told at my age I’m acting like a fool…”

“Or I am for not taking your theory to heart,” Scully admitted.

“So, am I still on my own on this or what?”

“Gartman wasn’t too enthusiastic about your profile when I presented it…” Scully hesitated. At this point they really had nothing else to go on.

“I know, he’s already mentioned that to me,” her partner confessed, looking up to notice that they were no longer alone.

“Excuse me Agent Mulder,” it was Agent LaRiccia, “Agent Scully, I think I may have found something.” LaRiccia stepped towards the pair of agents. He had a cluster of papers in his right hand.

“I did some digging on your theory, Sir,” the young agent began. “I have a friend of a friend of a friend, who’s a pretty good hacker…” The two agents exchanged glances behind LaRiccia’s back. “Got into some of the sister’s sealed juvenile records.”

Mulder stepped over and took the papers from the young agent, speed reading through the information. Judging from the date of birth, Mary Alice Roche was John’s twin sister. They had both been put in foster homes when their mother had died at an early age. She had been adopted by Frank and Karen Boyd in 1956. Had what amounted to a normal childhood after that point but has never been married and seems to have trouble keeping a job from looks of her employment history. She had been in and out of psychological care for the past ten years for what was termed a dissociative disorder along with bouts of micropisa, Alice in Wonderland syndrome, he thought to himself. He handed the papers to his partner.

“Your ‘friend’ have any luck locating Ms. Boyd? Mulder asked him

“I was going to ask you if you wanted me to use the bureau resources to look into that,” LaRiccia replied.

Mulder thought about it for a few moments until he was certain Scully was finished reading. He was waiting to see if she would come to the same conclusion he had.

“Mulder, micropisa is often referred to as AIW, Alice in Wonderland Syndrome…”

Mulder nodded and then tuned to LaRiccia. “No, let me do that. Do you have another copy of this?” he asked the young agent.

“I can put one together.”

“I think this is a good lead, a great lead, make another copy of all this and give it to Gartman, tell him we’re not looking for a forty to fifty year old man, we’re looking for a fifty something woman, this woman,” Mulder told him, tapping the papers he had taken back from his partner.

“Yes, Sir!” The young agent almost skipped out of the room.

Scully could see her partner trying to make all the pieces fit, “Mulder, are you absolutely certain you’re on the right path with this?”

There was no reply from her partner, he was already searching for contact information on the Boyd’s.

BOYD RESIDENCE

TRENTON, NEW JERSEY

Mulder flashed his badge as he stood on the Boyd’s porch with his partner. Karen Boyd appeared to be in her mid 70’s, she was tall and thin but in no way frail. She opened the door for the agents. “I don’t know how much I can tell you, we haven’t much contact with Mary…” the woman began as she led them into the home.

Her husband was seated in the casually furnished living room, a walker next to his overstuffed recliner. He reached for it in an attempt to stand but Mulder waved him off and extended his hand, “Agent Mulder, this is my partner, Agent Scully, she talked to you earlier over the phone…”

“Frank just had hip surgery so he’s not too mobile at the moment,” Mary apologized.

“Yeah, they tell me I now have a right hip of a twenty-year-old,” Frank joked.

“I could use some new knees,” Mulder confessed, glancing at his partner.

“Please sit,” the older woman motioned to the couch and then grabbed a ladder backed chair from the dining room table and sat down next to her husband.

“Mary is your adopted daughter, is that correct?” Mulder began.

Yes, she was a foster child and then we adopted her, very quiet and shy,” Karen told them.

“Were you aware she had a twin brother?” Scully asked.

“Yes, he was quite a handful from what we were told; they were having a hard time placing him with families because he was very hard to control. I think he eventually ran away or was put in juvenile detention or something like that.”

“She used to tell me she remembered she had a brother, with brown hair,” Frank mentioned. “In fact I think she was trying to search for him on the internet some years ago.”

Mulder thought about that, if Mary had found him, she would know that he had been killed while resisting arrest and that he was the officer that had shot him.

“That was about the time she started having some problems,” Karen offered.

“What sort of problems, Mrs. Boyd?” Scully asked.

“Reality problems,” Frank answered before his wife could come up with a more ambiguous reply.

“She’d stop in and tell us these wild stories about what she was doing…” Karen continued.

“Sounded like a bunch of fiction to me,” her husband scowled. “Couldn’t hold a job…”

“I told her she could move back home if she would get some help,” Karen looked from one agent to the other. “You know, see a doctor.”

“So did she?” Mulder asked.

Karen glanced at her husband, “Yes, we sent her to a psychologist, she was under his care for a while and doing better, then she moved back out and we haven’t heard from her since.”

“Do you have the doctor’s name?” Scully inquired; at least they might be able to find her whereabouts through the doctor.

“It was? Oh dear, Frank?”

Scully’s phone shrilled, making them all jump. “Sorry,” she said, standing and excusing herself from the room when she saw the display reading her sister-in-law’s number. “Scully,” she answered as she flipped open the phone.

“Hold on Tara, calm down, what are you saying?”

Her sister-in-law’s terrified voice came through the phone, “I don’t know where she is, Dana, Mattie just called me from home, she’s not there! The bus should have dropped her off an hour ago — I — I called the school, they say she got on the bus so I called the bus garage and they contacted the driver, she says all the kids got off at her stop,” Tara just kept rambling. “So then I called Morgan’s mom, Morgan said she and Claire walked home from the bus stop, that she left her at the end of the drive. How could she disappear in the driveway Dana?” Tara was practically screaming in her ear. “Should I call the police? I’m on my way home now…”

Scully could hear the sound of the traffic through the phone, a car honked. “Tara, take it easy…” Claire had sandy blonde hair, she didn’t fit the profile but if this really were someone out to target them, did that really matter? “Mulder and I will meet you at the house.”

Mulder was still talking to the Boyd’s when she closed the phone. She walked over and touched her partner’s arm. “Mulder, can I speak to you for a minute?”

He turned, almost annoyed at the interruption, “Yeah, just a second…”

“Now!”

He turned again, surprised at the urgency in her tone. When he saw the look on her face he turned back to the couple. “Thank you for the information,” he told them. “We may be in touch with you again if that’s alright?”

Karen nodded. “Can you tell us what your interest is in Mary?” she asked almost hesitantly.

Mulder glanced again at his partner, he was sure he’d heard mention their intent in the conversation she had had on the phone with Frank. One look at the man however, confirmed the he hadn’t told his wife everything. “There’s a possibility she may have been involved in a crime,” he admitted.

“Frank…?” Karen’s face went pale.

“You’ve been very helpful,” he told them, reaching out again to shake both their hands and then excusing them both from the home.

“Claire’s missing,” Scully blurted out as soon as they had closed the door “I told Tara we’d meet her at the house…”

“Missing…” despite his gut reaction to the case, Mulder had never expected this twist, it didn’t fit. “Scully–it’s not our…”

Mulder followed his partner down the steps and across the front yard. He almost had to jog to keep up fumbling the keys from his pocket and popping the locks on the car. In less than five minutes they were on the road to Tara’s.

“She gets out about an hour before Matthew. There are only two days a week that Mom isn’t there, Tuesday and Thursday, she has that part time job at the assisted living center. Claire takes the bus home and lets herself in the backdoor. Matt is supposed to call Tara when he gets home to let her know they are both in the house. They are not to go out until she gets home. Mulder, its only two hours a couple times a week…”

“It’s not our perp, Scully…” Mulder tried to assure her.

“We don’t know that Mulder, we don’t even know who we’re looking for…”

“Hey,” he reached across the console and took her hand. “There’s an explanation for this…tell me what you know…” The drive from the Boyd’s would take longer than if they had been at the bureau.

Scully took a deep breath to calm herself, “She left school, got on the bus, got off the bus at her stop and walked home with her friend Morgan. Morgan’s mom says her daughter left Claire at the end of Tara’s drive,” Scully was doing her best to remain objective about this.

“So she never made it in the house…”

“Mulder, someone would have to have been watching their patterns to know that no one was home today…”

TARA’S HOUSE

GEORGETOWN

There were three police cars in front of the house when the agents arrived. Mulder flashed his badge at the officer on the front porch and they went inside. Tara was sitting on the couch, her arm wrapped around Matthew. Maggie had taken Matthew aside and was sitting with him while Tara was questioned. There was a female officer seated on the ottoman across from her sister-in-law taking down information. Scully went over to them immediately. Mulder’s eyes found something a little more interesting on the other side of the room. Ben, the backyard neighbor Tara had had some interest in a year or so ago was standing at the foot of the stairs talking to another officer. Mulder thought it was odd for him to suddenly make an appearance since Tara had been seeing someone else for several months now.

“Ben, isn’t it?” Mulder asked, reaching out to shake his hand.

“Yeah, I just got back into town and saw all the commotion,” he offered almost nervously. “I just thought Tara might need…

“You live behind Tara, isn’t that right? Nice view of her backyard…” Mulder hedged

“I was out of town…” the tone of Ben’s voice made it evident he knew what Mulder was getting at.

“So you said,” the agent replied. There was something about this man that just didn’t sit right with him. He’d felt it when he first met him. He knew he wasn’t the unsub they were looking for but it didn’t make the agent any less concerned about his intent.

“Well, look,” Ben stammered. “I can see you and your partner have things well under control here so I think I’ll just get out of your way.”

“Agent Mulder?” the officer who had been talking with Tara approached the pair. “Officer Allen,” she offered her hand to the agent. Mulder accepted it with a nod. “We’re going to issue an Amber Alert on this and start canvassing the area. Considering the short time frame I’d like to think that Claire is with someone she knows. Mrs. Scully is adamant that her daughter would not go with a stranger willingly so I’m hopeful she’s here in the neighborhood and has no idea what commotion she’s caused.

“I’m at your service,” Mulder offered.

“I’d be glad to help in the search,” Ben jumped in, almost too eagerly.

The office caught the overemphasized glance towards Ben the agent gave him.

“Ben Nelson,” he offered. “I live right behind the Scully’s…”

As the officer started the question Ben, Mulder stepped away from the conversation, he was tempted to head out the back door and climb over the fence right now but instead he went over to sit on the ottoman across from his partner and Tara. “You did all the right things, Tara,” he began, reaching over to touch her arm. “Don’t blame yourself, that’s the worse thing you can do.”

“Thank you,” Tara said softly and she leaned forward to wrap her arms around him. There was something about his strength that made her feel a little more at ease.

“Scully, can I speak to you a moment?” he asked his partner as Tara released her grip around him. By now, most of the police had left the house with the exception of Officer Allen. Scully got up from the couch beside her sister-in-law and followed her partner out the front door onto the porch. Matthew was out there huddled on the swing; he looked up when the agents came out the door.

“Why don’t you go in with your mom, Mattie,” Scully told him, as she stepped over to caress his reddish hair.

“They’re gonna find her, aren’t they, Auntie Dana?” the boy asked in a trembling voice.

“Yes, Mattie, honey,” Scully assured, looking deeply at her partner. “Your sister’s going to be found, she’s going to be fine,” she told him, more surely than she felt at the moment. When she turned to her partner he was watching the boy cross the porch, no doubt seeing him as himself thirty-some years ago. Mattie and Claire were almost the same age as Mulder and his sister had been.

“What do you know about Ben?” Mulder finally asked as Mattie disappeared into the house.

Scully looked at her partner, somewhat astonished by his question. “He’s a friend of Tara’s, Mattie likes him.” She answered. “Why?”

“He hasn’t been around much lately, evidently he has an out of town sales job now but she did say something to me at Christmas,” his partner confessed. “That he was getting a little possessive with her and the kids, she told him to back off — Mulder, you don’t think?”

“Yeah,” he told her, “I do think — but I can’t exactly go over there, bang on the door and tell him I want to search his house, can I?”

“Where is he?”

“He volunteered to help in the search…” When he saw the resigned look on his partner’s face he knew immediately what she was thinking. “If we had children of our own Scully, they would be the next target as this suspect escalates. There is enough information out there on the net about me and you to tie us to Tara’s family. A leads to B leads to Claire. On the other hand, I don’t think Ben is our suspect so I’m really hoping that for some twisted reason, he does have Claire.”

Before Scully could respond Mulder’s phone rang, “Mulder,” he said in a dead voice as his eyes fixed on her. Scully watched him nod. “We’re out at Tara’s now, Sir; we can be there in about half an hour…yes Sir.”

“Skinner wants to see us,” was all he said.

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OFFICE OF ASSISTANT DIRECTOR WALTER SKINNER

“I’m recommending to Gartmen that both of you be taken off this case,” Skinner got right to the point as both agents sat down in front of his paper-littered desk.

“Sir, I think we’re close to identifying our suspect,” Mulder responded

“Good, present the information to Gartmen and his team and let them take it from here,” Skinner was uncharacteristically blunt.

“With all due respect, Sir,” Scully began.

“With all due respect agents, this latest development puts you both way too close to this case to be able to proceed objectively. I’ve already had several conversations with Gartmen regarding Agent Mulder’s suspicions,” the A.D. looked pointedly at the male agent. “I’m seriously considering putting you both on leave so that you can be with family.”

“Is that all, Sir?” Mulder asked disgustedly as he began to rise from his chair.

“I expect to see your report in Gartmen’s hands and both of you in the basement office tomorrow morning,” Skinner turned his attention to some papers on his desk, they had evidently been dismissed.

“What was that all about?” Scully asked her partner once they had entered the elevator and were alone.

“I have no fucking idea, but you can be damn sure I’m going to ignore him.”

“We’re going to ignore him,” she corrected.

“What was that doctor’s name Mrs. Boyd gave you? Berducci?” he asked as the doors parted to the basement hallway. “Why don’t you see if you can get in to see him this afternoon, we need to find Mary before this really does get taken out of our hands.”

“What are you going to do?” she asked as Mulder unlocked their office.

“I’m gonna make sure Gartmen has our report first thing in the morning,” he turned to her as he opened the door. “Call me after you talk to Berducci.”

BASEMENT OFFICE

Mulder had spent the last several hours using the bureau’s data bases to track down Roche’s sister. Sending his partner to confer with the woman’s psychologist had been an effort to kill two birds with one stone. Hopefully she had gotten some information on the extent of Mary’s psychosis, something he could use when they confronted her. He was already on the way to her last known address when his cell lit up with Scully’s ID.

“Mulder it’s me,” she announced into his ear when he pressed the call button. It still made him smile.

“Hey, Scully.”

Berducci was probably ten years her partner’s senior, a thin gray-haired man who had peered at her over his reading glasses. Once he was aware of her medical training they had engaged in a conversation over dissociative disorders that had revealed some rather disturbing information about Mary Alice Boyd.

“Mulder, Berducci confirmed that he had been treating Mary for what he termed a dissociative disorder. Since the death of her brother she had lapsed in and out of a fantasy world with claims of being perused by the same person who had killed her brother, a person she often referred to as the “Knave,” Scully continued as she popped the lock on her car and got in.

“Interesting analogy, huh?” Mulder replied.

“You led her down the rabbit hole, Mulder, she sees you as the cause of all her problems.”

“Yeah, once we made the connection I sort of figured that,” her partner agreed.

“Dissociation is a normal response to trauma, it allows the mind to distance itself from experiences that are too much for the psyche to process,” Scully was now convinced Mulder was right about her infatuation with Alice In Wonderland. “He said she had been attending regular therapy sessions up until about five months ago and he has been unable to contact her. He gave me her last known address.”

“It sounds like you’re in the car, where are you?” she asked.

“Last known address of our suspect,” he answered as he cruised down the narrow street looking for a parking spot. The row of houses on Baltimore’s Fells Point area had been here since the mid 19th century. Tiny two-story side by side dwellings built before any codes had been put in place that any firefighter today would label firetraps. Many of the larger homes had been divided years ago into multi family dwellings. It was in one of these homes that a young John and Mary Roche had watched their mother die.

“Alone?”

“We’re off the case, remember.”

Yes, unfortunately she did remember that and now she didn’t like it. “Mulder, tell me exactly where you are…”

He ended up parking a block over. As he climbed the cement stairs to the entrance to the building he pulled his cell phone from his pocket to make sure the connection to his partner was still open. “What’s your ETA?” he asked.

“At least 30 minutes depending on traffic, Mulder, I wish you’d wait,” she pleaded.

He wanted to, he really did, but that need he’d had inside him since the day Samantha disappeared was too strong and it was winning the battle with the other voice in his head that told him it was selfish and stupid.

The smell of age hit him when he entered the foyer of the converted home. Apartment 3 was on the first floor at the back of the building. He tapped on the door, “Mary Alice Roche, this is Fox Mulder, I’m with the FBI,” he announced. There was no sound from inside. He tried the door knob but as he expected, it was locked. Working on the assumption he’d have probable cause, he glanced up and down the hall and then pulled his lock pick kit from his breast pocket and worked the lock until it clicked open and he slipped inside.

Light from the large window illuminated the room. It was sparsely furnished, a couch with two 60’s style end tables and a chair and a small bookshelf that held a television and an assortment of figurines that caught Mulder’s eye. Rabbits of various sizes in porcelain and ceramic, all of them white lined the top shelf along with a framed etching that looked like it might be from Lewis Carroll’s original publication.

As he made his way through the apartment he noted how the décor reminded him of a child’s play room and not that of an almost 60-something woman. He stopped dead in the doorway to the bedroom.

Piled across the pillows of the double bed were stuffed rabbits, big rabbits, little rabbits, fluffy rabbits, and curly rabbits, all of them white; on the wall over the headboard of the bed hung a watercolor of the mad tea party. The woman was mad alright, but where was she? It had probably been too much to hope that the girls would be here too.

Mulder exited the apartment and made his way down a flight of stairs to a darkened hallway. A door at the end of the hall led to a series of lockers for apartment residents that had been built in the ancient basement of the old building. The dirt floor didn’t surprise him. He looked for number 3 and with the help of his lock pick again, entered the locker.

The pull chain light barely illuminated the interior. Several large plastic containers were stacked on one side. He dug his Maglight out of his pocket again and flipped it on. A sudden bright light flashed back at him, instinct made him flinch until he realized it was his own light being reflected back at him by a large mirror that was leaning against the far wall. He almost laughed at the irony of the thing stepping towards it to get a closer look. “Through the looking glass,” he said to himself.

Suddenly the floor dropped from beneath him and he found himself falling through a chute. The drop was so short and sudden he had no time to even attempt to break the fall landing in a heap on the dirt below to the sound of screaming girls.

He fumbled in the blackness for his light but couldn’t find it. One child was now crying the other still screaming. “Megan? Samantha?” he tried to keep his voice soft and assuring as he struggled to his feet. “My name is Fox; I’m with the FBI…”

Before he could finish his sentence a door burst open revealing the silhouette of someone dressed in a long robe against the bright light behind them. The agent squinted into the light.

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“What’s going on in here?” the woman’s voice echoed around the chamber.

Mulder knew immediately who it was and reached for his weapon, “Mary Alice Boyd, you’re under arrest for the abduct…”

“You!” The figure came at him, knocking him against the stone wall behind them with the force of a linebacker, his head whipping back against the irregular stone of the old basement. He could see stars.

His weapon flew from his grip with the impact and he dropped to the floor like a rock dazed and barely conscious as Mary stood over him. “You — you stole my hearts, now we can have a trial,” her heard her exclaim just before he slipped into darkness.

Scully had heard the commotion through their cell connection. She was still at least fifteen minutes from the location; she had no choice but to dial Skinner.

When Mulder came too he found he was in what looked like a sub-basement of the building, bound to the chair he sat in with chains. Four chairs were to his left on which sat the two girls, and a large stuffed rabbit and a mannequin that had been dressed in a tux with a top hat. He assumed it was supposed to be the Mad Hatter. The girl he recognized as Megan was sitting completely still, Samantha was still sobbing.

“Ah, the Knave has awakened,” he heard Mary announce. She walked past him dressed in a long red cape. On her head was a lopsided crown atop a white wig. She went over to the two girls and handed them small slates. “Write down the name of the person who stole my hearts,” she instructed them.

“We don’t know who stole them!” Samantha demanded.

“Why yes you do!” Mary Alice answered, picking up a roll of paper that had been sitting on a table next to a chair which she now lowered herself into. Unrolling the paper like a scroll she proclaimed, “The King of Hearts cut many hearts from clothing with much care. He saved them for the Queen’s display but the Knave of Hearts did kill the king and stole the hearts away…” her voice rolling about the room in a sing-song quality.

“Consider your verdict!” she instructed the girls.

“We don’t understand, who is the Knave of Hearts?” Megan asked.

“Why he is, you fools!” Alice screamed pointing at Mulder. “Off with his head!”

“No — no, wait,” Mulder blurted. Scully had to be hearing all this, she had to be close by now and hopefully bringing the cavalry with her.

“There’s much more to come before that, call a witness,” he told the girls.

“I’m the witness,” Mary told them. “Ask me your questions.”

“Explain yourself, give the two girls your evidence,” Mulder told her.

“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, you see, I’m not myself,” Alice huffed and returned to the table where she had found the scroll of paper. Picking up something else she came over to stand beside Mulder. “These are a set of verses that prove you stole the hearts. Write that down!” she instructed the girls.

“They don’t prove anything, I didn’t sign my name to it,” he replied.

“If you didn’t sign it then you must have meant some mischief or you would have signed it like an honest man!” Mary whirled around and announced. “That PROVES his guilt!”

“Read them,” the request came surprisingly from Samantha. She looked right at Mulder.

“Yes, read them to all of us DOWN here,” Mulder told the woman.

Mary Alice began to read the verse,

“They told me you had been to her,

And mentioned me to him:

She gave me a good character,

But said I could not swim.

He sent them word I had not gone

(We know it to be true):

If she should push the matter on,

What would become of you?”

Mulder picked up the verse from there,”

“I gave her one, they gave him two,

You gave us three or more;

They all returned from him to you.”

“See,” Samantha said. “They were returned to you”

“NO! He has not returned them to me!” Mary shouted.

“If I or she should chance to be, involved in this affair, he trusts to you to set them free, exactly as we were,” Samantha finished.

“NO! Nothing makes sense here! No one goes free until I have my hearts!” Mary slammed her fist on the table. The sound echoed around the room like a shot. Megan screamed and started to cry.

Scully left her car double parked directly in front of the address Mulder had given her and hurried up the steps. She had heard Mulder tell her there were two girls alive. She entered the building, holding the phone to her ear. Apartment 3 was locked but when she picked up the emphasis on the word ‘down’ in his voice she took the stairs that descended into the building’s basement.

“Mary, you have me, let them go,” Mulder decided to try a little hostage negotiation with the woman.

“NO!” she turned to him. “Not until they consider the verdict!”

“Then tell them to write it on their slates,” he answered.

“Sentence first — verdict afterward!” she shouted at the girls who both burst into tears and hugged each other. There would be no verdict.

“Idiots, both of you! You’re all nothing but a pack of cards!” Mary strutted across the room towards the girls.

“Mary, this is nonsense, you’re mad,” Mulder was stalling for time, the woman was clearly delusional, he tried vainly to free himself. The chain that held him had been wrapped multiple times around his torso and legs but as he wrenched at it, it began to loosen up.

Mary turned, her eyes ablaze, “We’re all mad here!” she screamed. “If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is and you wouldn’t have killed my brother and everything would be what it isn’t and we wouldn’t be here you see?”

The door to locker three stood open and dim light shining out into the hallway. Scully pulled her weapon; she could now hear Mary’s mad voice clearly echoing up through the opening in the floor directly in front of a large mirror. Mulder’s soft words, “Through the looking glass”, echoed in her head. When she heard what sounded like a shot coming from below she lowered herself into the hole and jumped into the darkness.

Mary pulled both girls roughly from their chairs, shoving them across the room to stand in front of Mulder where she picked up a large ax that had been behind the chair. “Sentence him!” she demanded of them.

Both girls continued to whimper. Mary pushed Samantha aside and grabbed Megan’s face, squeezing her cheeks hard. “Say it, sentence him!”

“Drop the ax!” Scully’s voice boomed from the doorway of the other room.

Mary turned to look in the direction of the voice. “If everybody minded their own business, the world would go around a great deal faster than it does…” She whirled and swung the ax. A shot rang out. Mulder felt himself falling, the chair being tipped to one side; he couldn’t stop himself from going over with it. One of the girls screamed.

Mulder made his way up from the basement and headed for one of the ambulances that were now parked in front of the building. Gartman was standing next to the gurney that held Mary Boyd. “How is she?” he asked.

“She’s headed for surgery and then the psychiatric unit,” Ron replied and edge of annoyance in his voice.

“It’s like she’s lost in a perpetual deranged childhood,” the agent commented.

“Then I shall never get any older than I am now — a comfort in a way, never to be an old woman…” Mary whispered from the gurney.

The agent found his partner sitting in the back of the other ambulance with the girls. “Mary’s on her way to the hospital, they think she’s going to be fine. Of course the courts will require psychological testing before she can be tried,” he told her his eyes fixed on the two girls.

“The girls parents have been notified, they’re going to meet us at the hospital,” she told him taking the hint. “She wasn’t here was she, Mulder.”

“You know I didn’t think she would be,” the agent replied, knowing instantly that Scully was referring to her niece, Claire. “You going to go with them to the hospital?” he asked nodding toward the bureau car that had just pulled in down the street. They both knew who it was.

Scully hesitated a minute as she watched her partner digging in his pocket for the keys and start to step away from them. Despite his FBI demeanor, he had clearly been shaken by what had transpired in that basement “Mulder, where are you going? You should have some one take a look at you.” she suggested knowing it was a moot point.

“To get Claire,” he replied positively.

BEN NELSON’S HOUSE

Mulder walked around the premise before he rang the bell. He was mildly surprised when Ben answered. “Agent Mulder…” the tone of the man’s voice and the unexpected connotation tipped the agent off immediately. Ben had been expecting him.

“Yeah, mind if I come in?” the agent asked reaching for the latch on the screen door.

“Well — I was just about to — go out…” the remainder of the sentence hung in the air as he watched Mulder examine his living room.

“I imagine with all the rain we’ve had the past few days it makes it difficult for you guys to find any good evidence …” Ben sounded nervous as he made small talk.

“So — you didn’t have any luck when you looked for Claire either, huh?” Mulder made his way through the living room and on into the kitchen in the back of the house, Tara’s backyard was entirely visible from the window over the sink. Ben followed him.

“Is there something I can get you, Agent Mulder?” he inquired, again using the salutation that because of his relationship to the family was unnecessary.

“How about you get your coat and we take a ride,” Mulder told him.

“A ride? Where?”

Mulder turned to face the man, “It just strikes me as odd that you’re complaining about the rain when you told the police at Tara’s yesterday that you had been out of town until yesterday so how about we take a ride down to the Bureau, I think I’d like to question you about Claire’s disappearance and I think Agent Scully would like to be present for that,” the agent replied.

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“Wait a minute! I — I, you think I’m responsible for Claire’s disappearance! How absurd! I love those kids, Tara could tell you that,” Ben was livid.

“I think Tara thinks you’re way more possessive than you have a right to be, Ben, so how about you go get your coat and we have a nice friendly talk with my partner and then you can ease my suspicions,” Mulder had to push himself to be patient with the man, he really wanted to tackle and cuff him.

“Fucking ridiculous,” Ben turned and walked back into the other room, Mulder could hear him going up the stairs.

Mulder dug in his pants pocket for his little Maglight and headed down the basement without turning on the lights. The room at the bottom of the stairs was sparsely furnished with out-of-date furniture and a bar with knotty pine paneling on the front of it. The utility room on the other side of a masonry wall held nothing out of the ordinary either. He had really hoped he’d find Claire down here. As he headed back for the stairs his light caught a stack of papers on the chair at the bottom of the stairs. He sifted through them and found that they contained articles on the abductions of the girls. He rolled them into a bundle and stuffed them into the pocket of his coat; put the Maglight back in his pants pocket and headed up the stairs.

When he got to the top of the stairs a wave of dizziness overcame him, his vision going dark. He grabbed the door frame instinctively. He probably should have taken Scully’s advice and had someone take a look at him. But then he wouldn’t be here and here was where he needed to be. He waited for his vision to clear.

THUMP! The rod hit his midsection soundly knocking the air right out of his lungs just as he stepped into the kitchen; he doubled over and gasped for air. Pain shot across his chest. Another whack came across his back but he managed to grab hold of the countertop to keep himself on his feet.

Out of the corner of his eye he could see Ben raising the club in his hands for another attack and Mulder lunged at him. His lungs still burning for air he propelled them both back against the refrigerator. Ben slid the club across both hands and now Mulder could see it was a golf club, an iron with a nice big head on it. Ben lunged back at him, the club shoved against the agent’s throat.

The two men staggered across the kitchen knocking a pile of pans off the stove and sending them clanging across the linoleum floor. Mulder managed to get the club off his throat but not before the head caught him in the jaw, rattling his teeth. He could taste blood. He ducked under it; catching the head of the club in his own hands he spun the other man around with it, wrenching his assailant’s left arm behind him and pushing him forward until he was bent over the sink. Ben grabbed a canister of cleaner with his right hand and tossed it backwards, the powder exploding in Mulder’s face almost blinding the agent. He coughed violently but managed to finally twist the club from the other man’s grip. As Ben turned around Mulder stepped back and swung the club catching the man in the head and sending him unconscious to the floor. “I told you a long time ago, I don’t do golf!” he spat breathlessly.

“Shit,” Mulder stooped over, grabbing his knees, trying to get his breathing under control. His eyes burned and his ribcage was on fire, probably a cracked rib from the blow he took to the chest. Ben lay sprawled on the floor at his feet. The agent rolled the man over, checking his pulse, it was light and steady. Something jingled in his coat pocket and Mulder slid his hand into it coming out with a set of car keys and a key with a plastic fob with the words ‘SAFE STORE’ stamped on it in bright red letters.

Mulder dragged Ben across the kitchen floor, snapping his handcuffs on the man’s right wrist and then to the refrigerator door. If he woke up, he’d have to drag the fridge with him to get out of there. On the way out the front door he flipped his cell open, Scully answered on the first ring.

“Mulder, where are you?”

“You need to send our city’s finest over to Ben’s house,” he started to tell her, his words coming out on one breath. “418 Hayden,” he finished, looking at the address on the front porch before opening the car door.

“Are you okay?” Scully had caught the breathlessness of his voice immediately. “Where’s Ben?”

“Handcuffed to his fridge,” his voice was steadier now. He started the car.

Afraid of the answer, she asked, “Do you have Claire?”

“Not yet.”

Ten minutes later Mulder slammed his ID against the glass of the office window of SAFE STORE. “FBI, I need access to unit…” he glanced down at the key fob. “Twenty-two.”

“Do you have a warrant” the twenty-something kid behind the glass asked. “Don’t you have to have a warrant or something?”

“No, but I have a gun,” Mulder pulled his coat back to reveal his service weapon. “Now will you open the gate or do I have to climb over it?”

The kid eyed the agent, Mulder looked a little disheveled and his eyes were red and watery. The young man was tempted to call the police but as he squinted through the tinted glass at the ID that the agent still held in his hand, the man matched the photo so he pushed the button to open the gate to the facility.

Mulder jogged through it, his side reminding him of the blow he took with every step. When he reached the unit, he fumbled the lock open and pulled up the door. The kid from the office was right behind him. They both heard the crying immediately.

“Holy Shit!” the boy blurted. “Somebody lives in here?”

“Claire…” Mulder walked cautiously into the unit. A twin bed was against the far wall, someone lay on it, wrapped in blankets whimpering. He leaned over placing his hand on the shaking blankets, “Claire, its Mulder…” he said softly, his heart racing as he stooped down to eye level the tiny tear-stained face of Scully’s niece coming into view.

Her arms shot out and she grabbed for him, Mulder pulled her into his arms, happy tears in his own eyes. “Hey, hey, midget, it’s okay, you’re safe now.” As he stood up, she wrapped her arms around his neck so tight he could barely breathe, her legs clinging to his aching side. “Would you go call the police,” he asked the boy as he started to carry Claire out of the unit.

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“Yeah, right away!” the young man headed back to office at a dead run.

Claire clung to him as he got into the back seat of the car and pulled his cell from his pocket. He wrapped an arm around her as he pushed the button for his partner, once again she answered on the first ring.

“Thank God, Mulder, what’s going on?”

“It’s your Aunt Dana, you want to talk to her?” Scully could hear Mulder talking through the phone, he had Claire. “She’s okay, Scully, here…” he held the phone for Claire.

“Claire, honey, oh, we’ve all been so worried about you,” Scully’s voice quivered with emotion. “Mulder will take good care of you, I’m gonna go get your mommy and grandma, okay?”

The child nodded against Mulder’s shoulder but she didn’t say anything. Two patrol cars were just pulling into the storage facility, Mulder took the phone back. “The police are here, Scully, they’re going to want to have her examined,” all he could think of was Ben cuffed to the fridge in his kitchen. If the man had touched her, he’d take that whole damn set of golf clubs and bash the man’s head in with them.

“Go with her Mulder, as soon as you find out where they’re taking her call me back.”

GEORGETOWN MEMORIAL

11:14 PM

An unfamiliar nurse handed him a prescription and a bottle of eye drops. “You need to use these twice a day for the next five days. Your ribs are going to be tender for three to four weeks but I expect you already know that,” she told him. Most of the nurses in the ER at Georgetown knew him by name it was kind of refreshing to be somewhat anonymous for a change.

He’d managed to talk the ambulance into taking them both the Scully’s emergency facility of choice. It was also the closest to home. Scully walked in just as he was gingerly pulling his t-shirt back over his head.

“That’s an ugly bruise,” her voice was soft as her fingers gently touched the darkened skin on his ribcage.

Her touch made him tingle. He pulled the shirt down and grabbed his dress shirt off the end of the exam table but rather than put it on he just laid it across his legs. “How’s Claire?” he asked, almost afraid of the answer.

“She’s had quite a trauma but she’s okay. Ben didn’t touch her if that’s what you want to know,” she assured him. “He’s in custody; I understand the two of you made a shambles out of his kitchen. Mulder, why didn’t you call for backup?”

He looked way, he knew exactly why he hadn’t, there had been something deeply personal in finding Claire and he’d done something deeply stupid in acting upon it.

Scully sensed this was something he wasn’t ready to discuss at the moment and changed the subject, “You think he just took Claire to win Tara back?”

“His real name is Robert Joseph Emerick. LaRiccia found he had two other aliases. He was questioned in the disappearance of his first wife. His second wife took refuge in a woman’s shelter, she has a restraining order against him. He’s still legally married to her because she was never able to locate him to divorce him,” Mulder answered as he finished putting his clothes back on, thankful for Scully’s reprieve.

“Why didn’t you tell me any of this?” Scully asked.

“The Gunmen dug it all up, they called right after we found the girls, you had other things on your mind,” he told her. “I should have had them do it months ago.”

“We both should have, you just wanted Tara to be happy with someone,” she corrected him. “You saved her, Mulder.” She studied him for a moment. His looked exhausted and his eyes were an ugly red. “God, your eyes look terrible, what did the doctor tell you?” she asked, suddenly getting a good look at her partner’s unsteady appearance. “Are you okay?”

Mulder let out a soft breath, “Yeah, as long as I don’t breathe it doesn’t hurt and I can still see.” He handed her the bottle of solution the nurse gave him, “Supposed to work miracles but I’m also supposed to see an optomologist …”

“You didn’t answer my question,” she told him.

He looked down, “I think–that I finally feel vindicated…”

Scully looked down at the bottle of eye drops, the actual meaning of his statement finally sinking in. “Rest will work miracles,” she replied as she looked up to meet his weary face. “Tara and Mom took Claire home. Come on, now it’s our turn.”

OFFICE OF ASSISTANT DIRECTOR WALTER SKINNER

9:05 AM

The agents had done their job well. Mary Alice Boyd was being held under guard in the psychiatric wing of Georgetown Memorial. She would eventually be charged on two counts of kidnapping and child endangering and three counts of kidnapping and murder in connection with disappearances of the five girls. Ben was facing a kidnapping and child endangering charge himself.

“Three day suspension,” Skinner confirmed. “When I tell you you’re off the case that does mean you are not to be involved, you both understand that don’t you?” he watched the partners take their seats. “As senior officer, Agent Mulder, I expect you to be sure the agents under you comply with my orders. Agent Scully, I will assume that you were not informed of that information.”

Skinner’s tone surprised the both of them. Scully looked pointedly at her partner. Skinner never referred to Mulder as ‘Senior Agent’. “We solved the case, Sir,” she told their superior.

Mulder, on the other hand knew exactly what Skinner was doing, he was laying the blame on him in order to keep Scully in the office. There was more here then just a matter of insubordination, hell; he did that all the time. “You want to give us the Reader’s Digest version?” he asked.

Scully watched as their superior’s face went from authoritative to resigned. Leave it to Mulder to read the man like a book.

Skinner looked from one agent to the other. “There is no condensed version. Washington is changing. You both know the new administration is fixated on trimming the fat off government spending. To be honest, I don’t even know how safe my job is at this point, there’s been talk of early retirement offers. There is going to be some reorganization within the Bureau. All I can say to you both at this point is that if this last case isn’t something you both feel you want to spend the rest of your FBI career doing, you might want to look at other options.”

Message received. “Are we done then?” Mulder asked.

Not sure how to interpret that question, the AD looked down and shuffled through the papers on his desk. “Yes, we’re done, Agent Scully, I expect you to be in the office tomorrow.” He answered the male agents’ question without looking up.

“What do you think of all that?” Scully asked her partner once they had exited the AD’s office.

Mulder shook his head in a ‘not here’ motion and started to walk towards the elevator. “I think you might want to bone up on your medical skills,” he finally answered when they stepped into the empty elevator.

MULDER & SCULLY’S TOWNHOUSE

NEXT DAY

Scully found her partner in their upstairs office, the television was tuned into some old black and white film and he was shuffling through what looked like a pile of envelopes. The growth of beard told her he hadn’t shaved this morning. “Well, all you need is the ‘wife beater’ shirt and you’d fit right in with the crowd down at the quickie mart. What are you doing?”

“Reading my mail,” he answered with a leering grin as he sliced open another envelope.

“This is all from today?” she asked taking in the pile that he had spread out on the desk.

“No,” he smirked, “I don’t know how old some of it is.”

“Mulder, the reason the postal service delivers mail every day is so that you can keep up to date with your correspondence…”

“From what I hear, that may be changing soon also…” his voice trailing off as he pulled the contents out of the envelope he had just opened. His eyes opened exaggeratedly.

“What?”

“A check — from my publisher, evidently…” he passed it across the desk to her.

Scully eyed the five figure amount printed across the face of the check. “This is for that criminal psychology manuscript you’ve been playing with for months?”

“Curiouser and curiouser,” he said, a silly grin spreading across his face.

“Well,” she smirked. “Evidently you’ve already found your new career. How about getting cleaned up, you’re taking me to dinner…”

END

Dormito

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Dormito

Author: Starfleetofficer1

Category: X-file

Rating: PG-13

Summary: Mulder and Scully end up trapped in an intriguing and absurd ‘dream world’ while investigating the origins of the books Jumangi and Zathura.

Spoilers: Seasons 1-7

Disclaimer: Two weeks exclusive with VS16. No copyright infringement intended.

Original web date:21/05/2010

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Dormito

MULDER’S CAR

GEORGETOWN, D.C

FRIDAY, MARCH 5, 2010

1900

It was finally quiet. That was the only thought that was running through Scully’s brain as she sat in the slightly reclined passenger seat and stared out the window. The trees went by, Dave Matthews played on the iPod, and Mulder was for once not talking about weekend plans involving the investigation of a baseball found with high iridium content.

No, they were just relaxing. No plans. No ‘adventure’. Just a quiet Saturday and Sunday. All to themselves. She sighed, and incurred Mulder’s inquiring gaze. She smiled and said, “I’m looking forward to our break this weekend.”

“Me too,” he said, and reached over to take her hand. “I know we said we weren’t going to make plans, but I think I have something you’ll enjoy. It’ll only take an hour—and you brought it up, after all.”

Scully’s eyebrow slightly quirked. “What?”

“It’s a surprise. I want you to see it for yourself when you get there.”

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Visions of dinners and movies and perhaps a spa treatment danced in Scully’s head. “When are we going?”

“Tomorrow morning, bright and early. We’ll get it out of the way in case you don’t like it. Then we’ll have the rest of the day to do whatever.

Her hopeful expression fell. “How bright and early, Mulder? We’ve gotten up at five am for the past five days.”

They had just wrapped up a complicated and strenuous case involving a kidnapped child. The girl had been held by a man claiming to be psychic. When things got ugly, Skinner had called them in and it was only by a stroke of luck or perhaps a miracle from God that they were able to rescue the child before the nutcase killed her. Seven hours ago, said nutcase watched as Mulder carried the little girl out of the basement where she was held. He had screamed that he would have revenge from beyond the grave. The paperwork that ensued just from Scully’s interesting method of subduing the guy was enough to last seven hours. But at least he’d walk around the prison with his legs spread out like a cowboy for the rest of his life.

“We’ll leave at 9. That’ll give me enough time to run, and you enough time to sleep in.”

She sighed. “How are you not exhausted?”

“From a psychological standpoint, it could be any number of things. Hyperactivity stemming from untreated ADHD, post traumatic stress disorder from childhood that instilled the habit of insomnia in my brain irrevocably, a genetic proclivity towards sleeping disorders, an exercise addiction that sets an internal clock within my cerebral cor—”

“Okay, okay, I won’t ask again,” Scully promised, and Mulder grinned at her.

He pulled into the driveway and they walked into the house. “I’m going to talk to my coordinator for the surprise tomorrow,” Mulder said. “I’ll make dinner when I’m done with the phone call—why don’t you put your feet up and watch some TV?”

“Okay. I think there’s a Hallmark movie on tonight.”

As he turned away from her in the hallway, he rolled his eyes and hoped something would come up that would save him from another chick flick.

“Stop rolling your eyes at me, Mulder!” Scully called from the family room as he headed into the study. He gave a little chuckle. Playfully, she added, “And wipe that smirk off your face!”

He closed the door to the study, and pulled out his cell phone. In another few moments, a female voice answered. “Yes, Agent Mulder?”

“Just wanted to make sure everything was all set for tomorrow. We’ll be there at 10 am.”

“Everything’s all set, we’re ready for you. The kids are excited to meet two FBI agents. And we’ve scheduled an hour for you to explore what you wish.”

“Great. Then I’ll see you at 10 tomorrow morning.”

“See you then. Goodbye, Agent Mulder.”

“Have a nice evening.” Mulder closed his phone, and smiled. Scully would love this. He knew she would.

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ALLSBURG RESIDENCE

GIBSON ISLAND, MARYLAND

SATURDAY, MARCH 6, 2010

1000

“Please tell me you don’t want to buy one of these houses,” Scully said, mostly sarcastic, but there was a bit of fear that entered her voice when she saw that eager look on Mulder’s face.

“I don’t see a ‘for sale’ sign, Scully,” he answered her as they walked up the gravel path that led to the mansion they were about to enter. “It’s a little out of our price range, anyway.” He caught her skeptical expression and tried to give her a reassuring look. “This’ll be fun, Scully. Lighten up a little.”

“I just don’t want another ghost-chasing adventure, Mulder,” Scully cautioned.

“Don’t worry. Not a ghost in sight. At least, I don’t think there are any here…”

Scully rolled her eyes, and surveyed the house in front of them.

The Colonial Style home was three stories, with a four-car-garage, turnaround driveway complete with a fountain in the center, a neatly manicured back yard, and toys scattered everywhere. A Big Wheel was parked in its own space, indicated by little white painted lines in the driveway next to a bike rack. A swingset was in the backyard, and a Power Wheels vehicle was parked in its own little space on the other end of the driveway. Someone’s Razor scooter leaned against the steps leading to the front door, and Mulder stepped around it on his way up to the porch. The wrap-around porch was beautifully painted and well-manicured, with a swing and several rocking chairs. Mulder rang the doorbell, and a woman came to the door.

“You must be Agents Mulder and Scully,” she greeted with a smile. “I’m Linda Allsburg. So pleased you found the place—it’s a bit out of the way. Come in, come in,” she said, and it was then that the tension was dropped. Even surrounded by the extravagance of the marble floor and antique furniture in the foyer, the golden chandelier hanging from a two-story-high ceiling, and the lack of a single dust particle in sight, they felt at home. With short gray hair and LL Bean duck boots on her feet, and jeans and a turtleneck with rolled-up sleeves, this woman gave no pretence.

“My children are still upstairs. As I explained, Chris is away on business, so you won’t be able to speak with him. But everything’s in the attic—you’re free to take a look if you wish.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Allsburg. Will the children want to join us up there? I’m sure they’ve gone through the items a bit more extensively—they can probably show us around.”

“They’ll join you for a little while, but they both have homework to do when they’ve finished showing you the basics. If you’ll follow me upstairs, we can get you all to the attic.” She smiled at Scully’s expression as she put the two names together, and led the way up the stairs.

“Chris Allsburg? Mulder, how did you—” Scully began in a whisper, but Mulder shook his head with a smile, and indicated that she follow up the stairs.

Mrs. Allsburg stopped next to an intercom and spoke into it, “Greg, Anna, the FBI agents are here. We’re in the hallway in front of the stairwell.”

“Cool! We’re coming!” a little boy’s voice called through the speaker, and after a moment, two small children came around the corner and grinned in awe of the two agents.

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The girl stepped forward first. “Hi, I’m Anna,” she said, and extended her hand. “I’m in the second grade.”

“It’s very nice to meet you, Anna. I’m Dana,” Scully said, shaking the girl’s hand first. Mulder took his turn next, and smiled at her. She seemed to give him a knowing look…but shifted her gaze away from him after a moment.

“I’m Greg,” the boy introduced, following his sister’s lead. “I’m only in kindergarten.”

“Well, that’s alright, we all have to start somewhere,” Mulder said with a smile, and shook the little boy’s hand. Scully shook his hand next, and Anna took off for the next staircase.

“Come on, we have to get up to the attic so we can show you all the important stuff!”

“You two go ahead first—I’m going to brief my partner on exactly what’s going on,” Mulder said with a smile, and the kids took off. “This was a surprise, Mrs. Allsburg—as I explained on the phone, Scully is a huge fan of the movie Jumanji, and we recently saw Zathura on DVD.” He turned to Scully. “I always thought it was a little odd that Mr. Allsburg, who had publicly stated he didn’t like children prior to the birth of his first, Anna, would choose a career of writing children’s books. When Jumanji came out it was a huge hit, and spawned a movie that brought in millions in profits. You mentioned when we saw Zathura that you wanted to know where the idea came from. Well, I think I may have found it.”

Scully gave him a skeptical expression, but he kept going.

“Mr. Allsburg wrote Jumanji before either of his children were born, and yet showed an incredible insight into the child’s psyche. When I read on the Internet that Alan, Mr. Allsburg’s brother, had recently passed away,” he gave a courteous nod to Mrs. Allsburg, “I was fairly certain I knew where the idea had come from.”

“Alan had Downs Syndrome,” Mrs. Allsburg said with a sad smile. “He was Chris’s older brother. He was sixty when he passed.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Scully said politely.

“Thank you. He was really a loving, caring soul. In his obituary,” Mrs. Allsburg continued, “Chris wrote that Alan loved stories—he used to make up stories that became the basis for many of Chris’s books.”

“And so I contacted Mrs. Allsburg,” Mulder stated, “In the hopes that she might have some of the original copies of what Alan wrote down.”

“He wrote down quite a lot. His personal effects are in our attic—the kids love to go up there and rummage through. The valuable articles are laminated and preserved. You’re both welcome to go up and take a look at the original inspiration. But keep in mind, I only have an hour. Greg has hockey at 11 and Anna has some reading to do. They’ll both need to come back downstairs after ten minutes or so—they’ve got to get a jump start on their homework before the afternoon gets crazy.”

Mulder smiled. “Thank you for giving us this opportunity. We’ll send the kids down in ten minutes.”

“Yes, thank you very much, Mrs. Allsburg,” Scully said with a smile. “We really appreciate it.”

She nodded, and walked away. There was something about the way she looked at them just before she turned away…nah, it was nothing. Scully headed up the stairs.

The attic wasn’t hard to find. A ladder extended from the third floor up to the small space where the children were already rummaging through an old-fashioned trunk.

“What you’ll want to look at are these papers here,” Anna said, setting them aside, “and a few other things in the trunk. The papers tell you the most about Uncle Alan, and all his great adventures.”

Greg nodded his agreement. “Uncle Alan was really cool—you’ll have a lot of fun up here. Anna and me, we stay up here for days!”

Anna laughed. “Not days, silly. You know we’re usually back downstairs after an hour or so. Speaking of which, we should get going! We have homework. Bye, Agent Mulder. Bye, Agent Scully.”

She rather abruptly grabbed her brother by the arm and dragged him out of the basement.

“Well, they behave rather oddly,” Mulder commented, and turned to the trunk.

“Okay, let’s have it,” Scully said, standing over him with her hands on her hips.

Mulder looked up innocently. “What?”

“Why are we here? What do you think is in this trunk? Do the papers take us to another world? Is there some kind of a magic artifact in there? Or are we looking at one man’s accounts of his own supernatural powers? What is it this time?”

Mulder stared at her blankly. “Scully, why would you think—”

“Oh, come on, Mulder. We drove an hour to get here on a Saturday. You must think there’s something more important in this trunk than the inspiration for a movie I happen to enjoy.”

“Two movies, and two books,” he corrected. “And there may be something of interest to the X-files in here, you never know. I’m just here for the experience,” he said with a smile.

She rolled her eyes and walked away a few steps. “Dammit, Mulder, I just wanted a nice, quiet, relaxing vacation, and now you’re here rummaging through a dead man’s trunk in search for some kind of…what, exactly? Just tell me, I guarantee you I won’t be surprised.”

He looked up from his search through the trunk, his eyes betraying a bit of insult. “I just wanted you to enjoy yourself. We’ve only got an hour anyway. What could happen in an hour?”

She shook her head, and walked over. She looked down at the trunk, and said, “It’s nothing but a bunch of laminated papers, a bathing suit, and an old cardboard box.”

Mulder was pushing some papers and clothing aside, to reveal the box at the bottom. “Here we go,” he said with a grin, and pulled it out. “This is it, Scully. We’ve got an hour.”

“Dormito?” She looked at it skeptically for a moment, and then it dawned on her. She chuckled, and shook her head. “No, Mulder. No. We’re not going to play this board game to transport ourselves into another reality. Even if it would happen to work, this is one X-file that I just don’t care about this weekend. I want to go home. I want to watch TV. I don’t want to file another report!”

“No reports. Just this board,” he pulled the board out of the box, and set some dice next to it, “And these dice. And some cards in this little slot. That’s it. An hour, Scully. Please?”

“You actually think it’s going to work? You dragged us all the way here so we could play a board game that you think is going to transport us to some kind of a secret reality that only Alan Allsburg knew about?”

“Well, in theory, if that was what I was really thinking, it wouldn’t matter. No one would believe Alan anyway. It would make a great book, though. Maybe a movie.” He smiled. “C’mon, Scully. One roll. If it doesn’t instantly do anything, we’ll call it quits and take off.”

“I can’t believe you, Mulder. You promised me no ghost chases.”

“Do you see any ghosts?”

“It’s an X-file! On the weekend!”

“It’s just a board game. How could a board game pull you into some other dimension? If you don’t believe in it, why would it hurt to try it out?”

“It would validate this quest you’re on to royally screw up my weekends,” Scully stated flatly.

Mulder looked down, at the game. He placed the die on top, and picked up the board, placing it neatly in the box. “Okay,” he said quietly, and put the lid back on. As he put the box away, Scully sighed. He looked insulted. And he had gone through a lot of trouble to get here. An hour’s drive, the arrangement of her getting to see Chris Allsburg’s home, a writer she greatly admired…

Aw, screw it. “One roll,” she said.

Mulder looked up, and a smile played at the corner of his lips. “You got it, G-woman,” he said, and picked up the box again. He got the board out and handed her the dice. “Prettiest people go first.”

She smirked, and rolled a three. She picked up a small metal piece that looked like a stick figure, and moved it three spaces. A card popped out of the little box in the center, and she picked it up, giving Mulder a slightly amused look. “Relax,” she read aloud. “The card says ‘relax.’”

Mulder shrugged. “Who knows what that means. My turn.” Mulder rolled a five. “Ha,” he said playfully, and moved his metal stick figure five spaces. He took the card that popped out. “The Final Frontier,” he read, and grinned. He got up from his cross-legged position on the floor and ran to the attic window, drawing the curtains to one side. “Yes! Yes! Oh, Scully, look!”

Scully went to the window, and looked out. They were orbiting Jupiter. She rubbed the window, opened the window, stuck her hand out, and discovered that not only was it not a hologram on the window, but that the air was not being sucked out of the room. She backed away slowly. “Mulder…what…what is this?”

“This,” he said with a grin, “Is Dormito.”

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ALLSBURG RESIDENCE

SATURDAY, MARCH 6, 2010

“Dormito,” Mulder said as he followed Scully down the attic stairs. “To be dreaming. It’s Latin.” He held the box lid in his hands as he stepped down the front stairs into the foyer, right behind Scully. “Doesn’t say where it was made, or the year of copyright. No toy company trademark. Wonder where they got it from…”

Scully opened the front door and looked out at the fantastic view of the solar system. Orbiting Jupiter, they could catch sight of some of Jupiter’s moons. “Isn’t it fantastic, Scully?” Mulder asked as he put the box down and stepped out onto the porch. “Come on,” he said with a smile. “It’s obviously safe. I’m not choking to death here.”

She eyed him, and then stepped over the threshold. “How did you do it, Mulder? Where’s the holographic generator? If I step off this porch, will I land on the Allsburg’s front lawn?”

Mulder shrugged. “I don’t know what happens if you step off, but I don’t plan on it.” He grabbed her hand and pulled her off, as she reluctantly complied. Together, they looked out at the starry, beautiful scenery. Mulder pulled her close to him. “Relax, Scully. It’s a game.”

“It’s…ridiculous, is what it is. There’s no way that game caused this.”

“Why not?” Mulder asked. “The kids sure acted funny. Maybe they knew this was going to happen.”

“Where did the kids go? Where did Mrs. Allsburg go?” Scully challenged.

“Where the rest of the planet went?” Mulder suggested. “Come on, let’s roll again.”

“No,” Scully said firmly. “No way. This is…” she shook her head. “I don’t know what this is, but I’m not playing into it.”

Mulder looked confused. “Why? What could it hurt?”

“How do we get back? Do you even know? We should be working on that, not playing some stupid game!”

“In the books and the movies, the kids had to play the game to get back to normal. And because one player dropped out, the older version of the other player was stuck in the game forever. Remember that?”

“Yes,” Scully said, “But this isn’t a movie! This is some kind of…trick! This could be dangerous!”

“I doubt it,” Mulder said skeptically. “Let’s just try it. It can’t hurt anything, can it?”

“It’s keeping us here longer!” She argued.

“Or it could get us back faster,” Mulder shot back.

They stared at each other in a silent face-off, each knowing that the other wasn’t about to give. Finally, Mulder said, “The card said ‘relax’. Have you ever thought that maybe it wanted to assure you that what was about to happen wasn’t dangerous?”

Scully sighed. “Let’s see what the next roll gives us. If it’s nothing productive, then we start working on finding where the ‘off’ switch is.”

Mulder grinned, and jogged back into the house. In another moment, both agents were in the family room with the board game on the pristine coffee table.

“Your roll, Scully,” Mulder handed her the dice.

She rolled a three, and moved her piece. Then she took a card. Her eyebrow ascended her forehead as she read, “It says ‘A plot.’ What does that even mean?”

Mulder, again, shrugged, but before he could roll, they heard a bang at the front door.

“What do you think that is?” Scully asked cautiously, fingering her gun as she rose.

Mulder approached slowly, and said, “A plot, maybe?”

Scully shook her head as Mulder looked out the window. He looked back at her and grinned. “Just like the movie.”

He opened the door, and there stood before them an astronaut in full gear. She flipped her visor and smiled as she stepped inside. Mulder closed the door behind her, and the astronaut worked on removing her helmet. “Could you give me a little help here?” they heard her voice from the microphone.

“Sure, what do you want us to do?” Mulder asked.

“Flip the red release on the back. Thanks. Okay, now go halfway down my back, on the side of the jet pack, there should be a yellow latch.” After about three more minutes, she had the suit completely removed. She smiled at her hosts. “Hi, I’m Kari.”

“I’m Mulder, and this is my partner Scully.”

“FBI?” Kari asked as she shook their hands.

Mulder nodded. “How did you know?”

“I’ve been expecting you people for weeks. We’ve got a real problem on our hands. Huge case—could have interstellar implications. Want to sit down and discuss it?”

Scully eyed her carefully. “Where did you come from? What organization do you represent?”

Kari flashed a gracious smile in Scully’s direction and pulled her ID out. “Commander Kari Fleinclock. I represent NASA’s Interstellar Investigations Division. Spent fifteen years in the Navy, though—I know my way around an X-65.”

“X-65? I’m sorry, I don’t know what that is,” Mulder said, but he couldn’t conceal the excitement in his eyes.

Kari laughed. “You don’t know what that is? Only the most famous interstellar Fighter Spacecraft available to the US Navy. NASA’s #1 defense against aggressive alien species.”

“I wasn’t aware NASA had interstellar capabilities,” Scully said dryly. “They can barely get enough funding for lights and running water.”

Kari raised her eyebrows, and asked, “Just what year are you from?”

“2009,” Mulder answered eagerly. “And what year is this?”

Kari groaned. “2109,” she said, and shook her head. “The game finally sends someone qualified, but it sends them from 2009? This is ridiculous. Those bureaucrats! First they raise the taxes on Iridium fuel cells and now this?”

“Well, let us have a crack at the case. See if we can help out. I mean, the game told us you were the plot.”

“It said nothing like that, Mulder. We got a card with ‘a plot’ written on it—that doesn’t mean—”

“For someone who likes the books quite a lot, Scully, you don’t seem to pick up on the clues,” Mulder chided lightly, and led the way into the family room. “Let’s talk about this case!”

Kari and Scully followed reluctantly. When they all sat down, Kari said, “I understand if you have no idea what’s going on here. It’s perfectly alright. I’ll go find someone else who’s been around in the last 100 years to see what’s been developing over in Alpha Centauri.”

They nodded, Mulder a bit more enthusiastically than Scully.

“Alpha Centauri was invaded fifty years ago by agents of the Black Teradon Fleet, known as the BTF in our language. The BTF’s mission is to position themselves as peaceful guardians with superior capabilities to developing species, and then usurp the local governments and place the planet under their territory. Alpha Centuari A’s orbiting planet Talapus was populated with an early-development species we’ve named the Talapians. They have their own language and were at about Earth’s equivalent of the medieval ages when we discovered them. They’re in NASA’s interstellar territory. The BTF tried to move in and take Talapus, and we refused because of what we call the Prime Directive.”

Scully sighed. “I think I’ve seen this Star Trek episode.”

Kari smiled. “A lot of our terminology actually came from science fiction. Those working on the projects were very passionate about sci-fi, and so its terms populated our profession. But anyway, Talapus was under our territory and we have jurisdiction according to Milky Way Law to approach Talapus when they reach spaceflight. We were planning on asking them to join NASA. They may want to join another Earth space agency, and they are always free to do so. But under the BTF’s rule, they would automatically become slaves of BTF agents.”

“So this started some kind of interstellar incident?”

“Yes, twenty-five years ago, it exploded into an all-out war. President Geraldo declared that the United States of America was officially at war with the BTF. And we’re backed by the European Union, South America, and Canada.”

“You’re saying that Earth hasn’t united?”

Kari laughed. “Like that’ll ever happen. But anyway, we’re at war with the BTF, and President Lynn currently has an agenda to launch CIA forces into BTF territory to gather evidence. Recently, an agent’s body was found orbiting Callisto—very close to here. It was clear he was dropped off by some mercenary or trader, but we couldn’t use satellite imaging to track where the perpetrator came from. We assumed the BTF had killed him and dumped the body outside Callisto as a sign that they won’t be fooled by our agents, but we noticed something distinctly…un-BTF-like.

“The BTF has no pictures. They work off of written word only. Their brains don’t process pictures as ours do. They can’t see the representation for the real thing. Therefore, when we found the NASA symbol carved into his chest, we assumed it wasn’t their doing. The pathologist found that the symbol was the cause of death—the drawing created a deep cavity, resulting in massive loss of blood. It was determined, in fact, that it resulted from such force that it couldn’t have been carved with humanoid hands. It had to have been from machinery.”

“Have you investigated your factories, where you manufacture your ships? Check to see if any were broken into…that any machinery was beamed out?” Mulder asked.

Kari chuckled. “No ‘beams,’ Agent Mulder. Just plain, old grappling hooks. My ship’s docked at the side of the house. You can see the logo is much too big to fit on one person’s chest. And it’s the standard logo for all NASA spacecraft. The smaller ones are painted on.”

“Is there any chance that the BTF may have replicated your logo and is using it to access NASA space? Or that another nation on Earth has done the same thing, attempting to undermine your war efforts against the BTF?”

Kari nodded at Mulder’s question. “Those are the possibilities we need to investigate. Efforts were already put forth to meet with Japanese Space Chancellor Gao, to no avail. And because Japan controls politics of the Asian Continental Space Program, the ACSP, no other country involved in the ACSP is willing to step forward and discuss the situation with us. So the Navy is about to send some Space SEALS into—Agent Scully, is something funny?”

“No,” Scully said, covering her smirk with her hand as she leaned her elbow against her knee. “I’m finding this fascinating.”

“I think she gets turned on by the prospect of Space SEALS,” Mulder explained with a smirk of his own. “Continue, Commander.”

“Kari, please,” Kari said, which only made Scully’s hidden smirk broaden. “Anyway, the Navy is about to send some Space SEALS into ACSP territory, hoping to uncover something incriminating so we can put all this to rest and have our battle out with the Japanese government. But the other option is that the BTF has indeed replicated our logo, and that is a much bigger problem. If they can replicate our logo, and copy our security signatures, they could masquerade one of their vessels as one of ours, and gain passage into the Sol System. So we’re going into BTF territory to determine if they’ve magically developed the ability to draw pictures, or if they’ve stolen our stuff.”

“Sounds exciting,” Scully said, still smirking.

“It should be pretty exciting, yes. Now I have to get down to this house’s basement to turn the engines on. We’ve got to get over to BTF territory and I need to check the fuel cell in this sucker and make sure we can warp.”

“Have fun,” Mulder said as Kari got up to go down to the basement. She found the basement door quickly and went down the stairs. When she was gone, Scully turned to Mulder. “You’ve got to be kidding me. Now I know you made this up, because only you could think of something so…”

“So what? So Star Trek and 24 combined?”

“Yes.”

“But there are no terrorists involved, as far as I can see,” Mulder complained. “So it’s more like CSI than it is 24.”

“Whatever.”

“Are you still game?” Mulder asked with a grin.

Scully rolled her eyes, but Mulder could tell she wasn’t truly pissed off. She seemed just as intrigued by this strange world as he did. “You roll.”

Mulder rolled the dice, and moved his piece. He selected a card, and read, “‘Speed up plot, please.’” Then he grinned. “That’s exactly what I wanted, too. I totally do not want to spend six hours just getting to BTF territory and then another three days looking for our first—”

He was cut off by a lurching of the house. The coffee table slid away, the game dropping off of it and onto the floor. Scully clutched the couch, and Mulder tried to regain his balance, but it was no use. As the entire house shook, the agents were flung onto the floor. Objects flew everywhere. Trinkets were broken. A horrible racket from the kitchen told them that something large had fallen. And then suddenly, everything stopped.

Mulder looked up, and asked carefully, “You okay, Scully?”

Scully nodded. “You?”

“Fine. Where’s the game?”

“In this pile of crap over here. I was watching it. No telling where our pieces went…or our dice.”

“We’ll have to look around for them,” he said as he stood slowly.

Kari came up the stairs at that moment and grinned. “Sorry about the jolt, but we’re here in BTF territory. And we’re cloaked.”

“The Allsburg’s house is trashed—this is a disaster in here! I don’t think I’m going to find the dice…”

“The game won’t stay hidden for long. You need it to move forward,” Kari said. “Besides, you don’t have to roll for quite some time. Let’s go infiltrate the BTF main communications headquarters and plant some listening devices.”

Mulder and Scully both looked stunned. “You mean…we can just walk in and do that?” Scully asked. “Then what do you need us for? Why has the BTF not already been defeated in your war?”

Mulder looked at her in admiration. She was actually acknowledging the circumstances of the game. And she looked like she was into it.

Kari smiled. “That’s where you two and the game come in. We needed someone who could speed up the process.” She looked at Mulder. “Thank you.”

Mulder shrugged. “I’m impatient as hell.”

“Someone should stay here and guard the house. If I give you blueprints of the main base, can you two handle the infiltration?”

Mulder grinned at Scully, and then turned back to Kari. “Infiltration is our specialty.”

“Wonderful. Who would’ve thought two FBI agents from 2009 would actually be helpful…” she pulled a small device from her pocket that looked rather like a palm pilot. “This is your blueprint generator, as well as a locator for the best places to put listening devices. The game should give you any data you might need.”

“Do our weapons work here?” Scully asked.

“Well, there’s one way to find out,” Kari said. “Find something that won’t ricochet a non-energy bullet.”

“The house will reset itself like in the books, Scully,” Mulder said at Scully’s disapproving expression. “How else would Alan have been able to get away with going on these adventures?”

She still looked skeptical, and Mulder was feeling especially impatient, so he drew his gun and aimed it at the front staircase. A nice hole went right through the wood, and embedded itself in whatever was below the staircase.

“Mulder! You could’ve sent that bullet into a pipe—”

“Relax, Scully. Our weapons work. Now we know.” He put his gun in its holster non-chalantly and walked toward the front door. “So are we gonna plant listening devices or what?”

She rolled her eyes. “I’m going to find the game first. If we get captured, I don’t want to be stuck in some BTF prison cell with no way to move forward in the game.”

“Probably a good call,” Mulder muttered.

After only a few seconds, Scully found the dice and the game. The cards were concealed in a deck inside the plastic cover on top of the board, and Scully shook the board to be sure the cards hadn’t fallen out. By the sound of it, they hadn’t. The pieces were stuck on top of the game in their original places, and she stared at them in wonder. She tipped the board sideways and they stayed in the same place. “That’s incredible…”

“Were they fused to the board somehow? Or did the game compensate—”

“The game makes sure no one can cheat,” Kari said. “They’d be ejected if they did manage to cheat, but no one’s ever done it. Come on, you both need to get going.”

Mulder nodded in agreement, and led the way to the front door. A backpack that certainly wasn’t in front of the door before was waiting for them there, and it was just the right size for the board. Scully stuck the board in and tossed the dice after it, and then zipped the bag. They drew their weapons, and covered either side of the front door.

“Let’s do this,” Mulder said with a grin, and Scully couldn’t help a bit of a smile. She couldn’t help but think that this was more fun than lounging in front of the TV. But she’d never admit it to Mulder.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

BTF HEADQUARTERS

SATURDAY, MARCH 6, 2010

“That’s one,” Mulder said, as he stuck the listening device into the wall. It was absorbed instantly, and he pulled his map to find where the next one should be. They ducked into an alcove in the long, chrome-lined hallway. The space station had nearly identical architecture at all turns. It was exceedingly hard to find where one was, unless one had a picture. He wondered, in a society where pictures were nonexistent, how the BTF did it.

“Mulder, this is strange,” Scully said. “We haven’t seen one alien the entire time we’ve been here, and we’ve been on two floors now.”

Mulder shrugged. “Don’t speak too soon, Scully, or we’ll be running for our lives.”

“Maybe we should roll again. This is too easy.”

“Let’s just finish planting the listening devices, then we’ll roll.”

Scully agreed with a nod, and Mulder tapped the screen on his map. “Looks like the next spot is down this hall and up one level. There’s a vent here that we should be able to go through—”

He was cut off by a loud screeching noise coming from the map. Immediately, he dropped it and covered his ears, wincing in pain. Scully lost her balance as the sound penetrated her inner ear and the noise stunned her. It ceased suddenly, and was followed by a loud bang. They stepped out of the alcove, and the walls on either side of the hallway had closed off, trapping them in a small area.

“What the hell…?” Scully said, looking down at the map, which was now blank.

Mulder walked over to the wall and tapped it, ensuring it was indeed solid. Then he looked up for any detectable cameras, vents, or other potential hazards. When he couldn’t find any, he said, “Get the game out. We need to roll now.”

Scully agreed wholeheartedly and they had the game out of the backpack and on the ground in a matter of seconds. Scully rolled a four, and moved her piece. The card popped out and she read, “’The plot thickens.’ Damn it, that’s not helpful!”

“Why would the map have been blown?” Mulder asked, picking it up off the floor. “It’s either some kind of electrical interference coming from the station or it was blown from another source.”

“We need some way of getting out of—” a clicking noise interrupted Scully, followed by an announcement in a language they couldn’t understand. Scully hurriedly packed the game up just in time for smoke to start seeping through the ceiling and floors. The room was being flooded by whatever poison the BTF was pouring in, and at the same time, the map started screeching again.

They both pulled their shirts over their mouths and noses and looked around for a way out, when Scully noticed something about the screeching. It was getting more and more high-pitched. She looked at Mulder, and snatched the map from his hands. In one motion, she threw the map and grabbed Mulder’s arm, dragging them both down to the ground. It hit the wall that had closed them in from the rest of the hallway and an explosion ripped through the enclosed space.

Shrapnel imbedded itself all around them, but they weren’t injured. They rose quickly, and coughing as they made their way through the rubble, they came upon the chasm that separated their section of the corridor from the rest of the station. To their left, a huge hole in the wall exposed them to space.

“Come on, Scully, jump!” Mulder yelled, and grabbed her hand as they both leapt to the other end of the corridor. They stumbled upon impact and looked back to see the smoke-filled, gas-filled area in total shambles.

“Let’s get out of here,” Scully said, and Mulder agreed with a nod. They began to jog in the direction Mulder remembered as the way out. They could hear someone bark a command in another language not far off, and knew they were once again trapped.

But before they could turn back, the wall in front of them was suddenly vaporized and they stared not at space but instead at the porch of the Allsburg’s house. Kari was standing in the doorway. “Come on, jump on before we have to cloak again!”

They ran toward the opening and jumped onto the front stairs, stumbling up onto the porch and then through the door. An impact shook the ship as something blew up a room on the upstairs, sending burning rubble raining down on the porch. One piece broke through and extinguished itself on the porch. Kari quickly closed the door and said a voice command to the house/starship. “Engage cloak, warp 9, get us out of here!”

The house lurched again, and they scrambled for something to hold onto. When the house came to a halt, and everything was still, Mulder and Scully found their ears ringing as they slowly rose from the floor.

Kari began to chuckle, and Mulder looked at her with a puzzled expression.

“You two look like you’ve never blasted a hole through an enemy station before.”

Scully’s eyebrow rose, but Mulder simply asked, “Is it time to roll again?”

“That’s up to you. What did the last card say?” Kari asked.

“The plot thickens,” Scully rehearsed, with a bit of annoyance creeping into her voice. “By ‘plot thickens’, I didn’t exactly think ‘get trapped in an enemy space station, nearly choke to death, jump onto a house that’s really a spaceship and hurtle through space at God only knows what speed.’”

“Yeah, I hate when that happens,” Mulder joked.

Kari smiled at them, and said, “Well, we got a few listening devices planted, at least. That’s better than nothing. Next stop is the planet Crati. We have to interview some potential witnesses.”

“Interviewing witnesses. Here you go, Scully, it’s your time to relax,” Mulder said.

Scully rolled her eyes, and Kari said, “You probably won’t relax when you meet these people.”

“They don’t eat humans, do they?” Scully inquired.

“No. Plenty of cheese, though.”

“Then why won’t we relax?” Mulder asked.

“You’ll see.”

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

THE PLANET CRATI

SATURDAY, MARCH 6, 2010

It seemed like they had reached Crati orbit hours ago. Scully, Mulder, and Kari sat at the nearly destroyed, dusty and wobbly kitchen table in the Allsburg’s kitchen, with electronic writing pads in front of them.

“What’s your mother’s mother’s maiden name, Scully?” Mulder asked.

Scully sighed, and stared at the ceiling. “O’Connell,” she answered finally. “What question is that?”

“109,” Mulder answered. “On form 5678-5bF, and the F is capital.”

Scully clicked through the forms. “Got it. What’s your mother’s mother’s maiden name, Mulder?”

“The hell if I know…oh, just make something up.”

“You can’t do that,” Kari interjected. “Think hard.”

“Frank,” Mulder threw something out there.

“If they find out you forged it, we’ll be thrown out,” Kari told him.

“At this point, I’m willing to take the risk,” he said, nearly at his wit’s end.

“Number 42, on form 1098-4cr,” Scully said, and waited until Mulder got there. “’Have you ever had contact with a multi-appendaged sentient life form not classified as humanoid in the Alpha Quadrant while on vacation?’”

“I don’t think you have…”

“There was the sentient octapus…”

“But that wasn’t on vacation.”

Mulder sighed, and put the electronic pad down. He stretched, and said, “I think I’m ready to roll again.”

“You think the game will fill out these forms for you?”

“Nothing could possibly slow this process down. There are fifteen forms in front of us and they’re just to gain permission to talk to the Prime Minister. And we think our government’s bad.”

Scully rolled her eyes, and agreed with a nod. Then she pulled the game out of the backpack and stuck it on the dusty kitchen table. She handed the dice to Mulder. “Your turn.”

Mulder rolled, moved, and took his card. ‘Political comedy, but make it fast.’ He showed it to Kari and Scully.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Scully asked, but the refrigerator started beeping at that moment, and Kari leapt up to answer it. She opened the freezer, revealing a holographic image of some humanoid alien’s face.

“Commander Kari Flienclock?” he asked.

“Yes, speaking. I’m here with FBI representatives, Agents Mulder and Scully. We’re all from NASA.”

“Fine, fine. I represent Prime Minister Kooga’s administration. My name is Public Affairs Minister Ooma.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Ooma.”

Ooma cringed, and looked at Kari with a pained expression.

Kari looked confused for a moment, and then recognition dawned on her face. “Oh! I sincerely apologize. I forgot the handsign. Allow me to start over.” When Ooma nodded, Kari placed her thumb in her ear, and expanded her fist to expose her thumb. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Public Affairs Minister Ooma.”

Ooma beamed. “Much better.” His smile faltered. “I regret to inform you that some of our protocol must be bypassed as the Kooga Administration has recently lost a bet to the Crati Moon population’s administration, and as punishment, must allow visitors to enter without completing paperwork, and speak directly to Prime Minister Kooga himself.”

Mulder jumped up. “Great! Let’s go!”

“I assure you we would never take methods so rash as to send you down without following proper procedure, for your own safety, of course. I will arrive in a ship to dock with your house in a few moments.”

Kari nodded, and placed her thumb in her mouth, extending her fingers out to him. Then she removed her thumb. “Thank you very much for your time, Public Affairs Minister Ooma.”

Ooma completed the same gesture, and then said, “You are most welcome.”

Kari closed the freezer door.

“They have pretty absurd protocols and customs,” Scully commented.

“The planet Crati has been steeped in bureaucracy for generations. It started with the elite social class taking over, and starting a government that controlled nearly everything while most of the people sat around, ate cheese, and discussed philosophy. Pretty soon, it had devolved into disaster, as they couldn’t export or import anything—no one was working. There were massive riots and the government was able to assume control again, this time mandating procedure for everything. Now the people of Crati can only engage in recreational activities that are state approved…and even their necessary biological functions are monitored by the Crati government.”

“I don’t even want to know how that works,” Mulder decided.

“Because everyone works for the government, one member of each family is responsible for supervising a certain function of the other members in the family…” Kari started, but then stopped, and smiled. “Let’s get ready to go. Remember, speak only when spoken to. Don’t move unless instructed to.”

They nodded warily, and followed Kari to the porch. Ooma was waiting in a shuttle when they arrived, and gave them a deep bow. Mulder and Scully followed Kari’s example and bowed back.

The ride down to Crati was mostly silent, to avoid having to go through any gestures or procedures for voicing certain comments.

They descended on a large building, but not before flying over at least fifty traffic jams below, all caused by citizens getting out of their cars and hovercraft, and performing strange rituals in the streets.

Ooma stuck his thumb on top of his head and then made a clicking noise before he said, “They are all completing the ‘I am angry’ protocol…it must be completed whenever one is frustrated or angry. Early morning traffic tends to put people on edge.”

Kari nodded, and whispered to Mulder and Scully, “If you want to make a comment, make sure you do what Ooma just did with his thumb.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Scully said, and Ooma turned sharply.

He placed his thumb in between his eyes, and told them, “There is no whispering allowed on Crati.”

Kari put her thumb in her mouth and then said, “I apologize for the Agents’ actions.”

Ooma didn’t respond. He simply landed the craft and opened the door. They were escorted through a series of corridors in the building after going through three rituals—one for opening the doors to the outside, one for closing them, and one for beginning their walk inside the building.

They finally faced the Prime Minister in a conference room of sorts. He looked like the rest of the Crati—humanoid, pale skin and a small ridge on his forehead, and bright blue eyes. He wore a tiny beret on his head.

He placed his thumb in his mouth and apologized immediately. “I sincerely apologize to my guests,” he stated.

Mulder and Scully glanced at each other. “For what?” Mulder asked.

“It’s Crati custom to apologize to everyone when they first meet,” Kari told them quietly, but was careful not to whisper. She turned to the Prime Minister. “We accept your apology on behalf of NASA.”

“These are odd circumstances for meeting,” Prime Minister Kooga said after gesturing that he would make a comment, “With no paperwork and such. However, it is good that the consequences of our bet with our moon weren’t worse. The last time we lost a bet, they destroyed our white flag factory, and our military was crippled for months.”

Mulder and Scully said nothing, for fear of missing a protocol.

“Of course, they haven’t conquered us for nearly three weeks—that’s an excellent record. This last bet was a friendly one.”

Mulder stuck his thumb on his head, clicked his tongue, and said, “We have some questions for you.”

Kari stepped forward, spun around, and stuck her thumb in the air as she asked, “Your flagship was seen surrendering to someone near Alpha Centauri A orbit around the same time that a BTF vessel dumped the body of one of the United States’ CIA operatives into orbit. We want to know what you saw.”

Kooga placed his thumb on his head and clicked, and then said, “We surrender to a new vessel every day. I have no record of this particular incident.”

Kari spun around again, and stuck her thumb in the air as she asked, “But it’s my understanding that the military keeps a record of every surrender they make, every day. Do you not have this record somewhere?”

Kooga went through the ritual, and then said, “The planet of Crati cannot get involved in other nations’ and planets’ affairs.”

Kari was about to spin around again when suddenly, the doors to the conference room burst open and an alien boy of about sixteen entered, carrying a small device that emitted extremely loud alternative rock music from Earth. Mulder recognized it as Linkin Park. It flooded the room, and the boy in the baggy clothing and backwards baseball cap nonchalantly walked up to Kooga and pulled a laser gun. Kooga immediately put his hands up, and said, “It is acceptable if you assassinate me.”

The guards did nothing, but Mulder and Scully pulled their guns on the boy.

“What is this? Who are you, and what do you want?” Mulder demanded.

“Yo, dawg, my name’s Javan, and I’m from the planet Tritan IV, and I’m the dude you’re lookin’ for. These guys don’t know nothin’ about what happened at Alpha Centauri A with that CIA dude. I saw it—I was the guy they surrendered to.”

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“What are you…some kind of pirate?” Scully asked.

Kari nodded before he could answer. “He’s a Teen Tritan,” she said, and Mulder couldn’t help but smirk. Matt, Scully’s nephew, watched the TV show Teen Titans. “He roams the galaxy looking for music technology, and liberating any oppressed nations in his spare time. The Crati military vessel must have been a gold mine for music.”

Javan nodded enthusiastically. “I scored big on that one. Got a ton of music. And some cheese, too. No weapons, though.”

“Okay, why don’t you just lower your weapon…no need to assassinate Kooga. He’s got rituals to perform and I’m sure an assassination would create paperwork for three generations,” Mulder told the teen. “If you come with us, we’ll give you some more music and you can tell us what you saw.”

Javan shrugged. “Okay.” He lowered his weapon. “What kinda music?” he asked.

“You can have everything we’ve got,” Scully promised him.

“Let’s see what you’re carrying, and I’ll decide if I’m talkin’,” he told her.

They left in Javan’s ship to avoid following Crati protocols, and entered the Allsburg’s house once more. Javan parked himself on the nearly obliterated couch in the family room while Mulder brought a laptop over and opened up iTunes. He allowed Javan to look through, and when the teen had finished, he nodded, satisfied. “Okay. You got enough for me to talk. No hard feelings, dawg—music piracy’s a tough business. I got to have variety in my collection if I want to make it big and I had to be sure you weren’t pulling my Targus.”

Kari jumped in. “He means ‘yanking his chain,’ or ‘pulling his leg’.”

“So what did you see?” Scully asked him.

Javan leaned back. “Them BTF dudes were real bad-ass with their massive vessel. O’course, they didn’t bother with the Crati vessel. No one wants what Crati has except Teen Tritans and other music pirates. Maybe those dudes that think cheese is an aphrodisiac, back on Organa II. But anyway, yeah, the BTF dropped in out of warp, ejected the CIA dude’s body, and zoomed off. Weird thing was…they had a picture on the side of their vessel.”

“What did the picture look like?” Kari pressed.

“Well…it looked like a NASA logo, dawg. But it wasn’t no NASA vessel. Man, I don’t know much else. I got the hell outta there as soon as I took my spoils from the Crati military.”

“Any guess as to why Alpha Centauri A’s sensors didn’t pick this up?” Kari asked.

Javan shook his head. “No, dawg, no idea, promise, yo.”

“Okay, Javan. Thanks for your help. You can take our music and go.”

Javan pulled out a USB cord and hooked it up to his device. Mulder was amazed he had a connection for such ‘ancient’ technology. When the music was transferred, Javan got up and gave them a mock salute. “Always a pleasure doin’ business with ya.”

He left the house, boarded his vessel, and despite the fact that music isn’t normally heard in space, they could all hear Stone Temple Pilots blasting from the ship before the warp drive engaged.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

ALLSBURG RESIDENCE

SATURDAY, MARCH 6, 2010

“We have to get back to the Sol System,” Kari said urgently, and ran down to the basement. Mulder and Scully followed.

“Why, what’s going on?” Mulder asked.

“Quick, whoever’s turn it is, go now! The BTF have a vessel marked with the NASA symbol—that confirms our worst fear. They’re going to bypass our security by building a ship that looks just like one of ours. And they’ll destroy our planet!”

“I’ll get the game,” Scully said dryly. She walked over to her backpack and pulled the game out.

“What’s the matter, Scully? Earth being destroyed isn’t exciting enough for you?”

“It’s so predictable. I knew what the ending was going to be at the beginning. It’s just disappointing,” she said.

“It’s your turn. Maybe the game will turn it around for you.”

She smiled slightly. “Maybe so.” She rolled the dice, and moved her piece. Then she took her card. “’Unpredictability,’” she read. “Maybe you’re right—maybe it is about to—”

She was cut off by the ship going to warp drive, and they were thrown off the couch. The items in the Allsburg’s house flew around and Mulder and Scully were both thrown into a nearby window. It suddenly opened, and they nearly flew out before everything abruptly stopped. They dropped to the floor.

“Not the usual warp trip,” Kari said as she came up the stairs. “I think we’re off course. Let me check the fridge.”

She jogged into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator, grabbed an apple, and nodded. “Yeah,” she called. “We’re about fifty lightyears off course. We’re right in the middle of BTF space.” Taking a bite of the apple, she pressed a button on the microwave. “I put the supercloak on but it won’t be long before our signature is spotted by someone.” She came into the room and sat down on the couch. “What did the game say?”

“Unpredictability,” Scully said, and ran a hand through her hair. “Does this count?”

Kari shrugged. “Eh, not enough. We need something else to happen.”

“Should I roll?” Mulder asked.

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“The fact that the BTF aren’t attacking us yet tells me that the game wants us to do something with the fact that we’re here,” Kari reasoned. “So yes, roll, Mulder. Your rolls seem to complement each other. Which is a good thing, if you ask me. Sometimes you’ve got three players and the plot gets all messed up because they have different styles of playing.”

Mulder rolled a five, and moved his piece. Then he took his card. “’Monster of the week’,” he read. “What, are we going to find an X-file out here?”

Suddenly, a large, hairy beast collided with the window and started scratching and roaring outside.

“Oh, God. Space ants!” Kari said. She ran to the window, on the other side of the house and groaned. “We landed on a space ant mound!”

“Those things look more like wolves,” Scully said, exasperated, as she pulled her gun.

“We call them ants because they behave like ants. They’re just looking for food to bring back to their mound…”

“And you had to get ‘monster of the week,’” Scully complained to Mulder.

“Sorry!” he exclaimed. “Can you get us out of here, Kari?”

“I’m gonna fly us out of here and try to shake these things. But we’re supercloaked! How did they sense us?” She yelled as she ran down the stairs. Mulder took the front and Scully guarded the back as the ship lurched into impulse drive. Many of the large mound of hairy abominable-snowman-like creatures were shaken off the house by the movement, but a few remained. Mulder fired a well-aimed shot at one after it nearly scratched through the front door. It floated away in space. Scully fired two shots and wounded one, and killed another. There was one more, but it was trying to claw its way through the roof of the porch. Mulder opened the door and fired one shot, and then quickly closed the door as the beast rolled off, and was plastered to one of the front windows like a dead bug.

They gained enough distance from the mound, but Mulder saw something out the front window, past the dead beast, that made him scream, “Stop the house!”

Kari abruptly pulled the brakes and ran upstairs. “What?” She asked, just as Scully left her post guarding the back door and gave an inquiring look to Mulder.

“Look out there! Who is that?”

Kari got up against the window and looked out to see a blue humanoid child, about the size of a human six-year-old, riding a tricycle. When he pedaled, three small thrusters let out a bit of air, propelling him. “That’s a BTF child…but…what’s he doing here without his mother?”

“We’d better bring him in here. How can he breathe out there without any gear?”

“Jigro children don’t need to breathe oxygen except for two hours, every three days,” Kari explained. “The Jigro are a species inside the BTF. We should keep moving. If his mother shows up, we’ll be attacked.”

“We can’t leave a child out there,” Scully argued. “We’ll just take him home and drop him off close to where he lives, and then leave here before we’re detected.”

Kari considered it, and then nodded. “Okay. I’ll lure him in here.” She took her half-eaten apple and placed it on the front porch. Immediately, the little boy stopped cycling, sniffed space with small, blue, tentacle-like objects protruding from his nose, and then cycled toward them. “Jigro children love apples,” Kari explained.

The little boy left his tricycle on the porch as he picked the apple up, and then looked at the three adults standing in the door. “You’re human,” he said. “I’m not supposed to talk to humans.”

“Come on in here, and we’ll take you home to your parents,” Kari said.

The child looked petrified. “I’m not supposed to accept rides from strangers.”

“We won’t hurt you…and we have more apples,” Mulder reasoned.

The little boy thought about it. He nodded. “Okay. But I’ll have to melt your minds if you try to hurt me.” He walked past them, and straight toward the kitchen. “Where are the apples?”

“Right here,” Kari said, and opened the fridge. “What are you doing out here all by yourself?”

“Riding my trike,” he answered at first, and then frowned. “Actually, trying to escape. I ran away from home.”

“Why’d you do that?” Scully asked gently.

The little boy wiped his nose with his blue hand, and shrugged. “They know I’m different, and they already used me to make pictures for them. I don’t want to do that again—those pictures hurt someone.”

“You can understand pictures?” Kari asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “I know, I’m Jigro, and Jigro don’t see pictures, but I do. That’s why they want to experiment on me. Can you take me to Earth instead of home? If I go to Earth, I’ll have asylum.”

Mulder thought something was off about this little boy. But he wasn’t going to voice his opinion until he confirmed his thoughts. “So we should probably set a course for Earth and get this kid out of here,” he suggested.

Kari nodded, and headed down to the basement to adjust the controls. Moments later, Mulder grabbed onto the small blue boy as they lurched into warp speed.

And once they came out of warp, the little boy squirmed in Mulder’s arms. “Let go of me,” he insisted.

Mulder complied, a somewhat confused expression on his face. As soon as the child was free, he pulled a small device from his pocket.

“What is that?” Kari asked him cautiously.

The boy smiled, and showed it to them. “It’s a camera phone. They’ll know what it is—they’re from a long time ago. Their time signature is really strong.” He pointed the phone at the three of them, and took a picture. Then he ran as quickly as he could down the stairs, and began frantically taking pictures of everything in the basement/engine room.

“Stop him!” Kari yelled, as she ran after him.

“Why are we stopping a child from taking pictures?” Scully asked as she followed closely behind.

“He’s Jigro—he’ll take the pictures back with him and interpret them. They’ll be able to exactly copy a vessel if he just tells them what he sees,” Kari said, and launched herself at the small boy. He moved quickly, though, and ran into the alcoves of the unfinished part of the Allsburg’s basement.

“But don’t they already have an exact replica vessel?” Mulder asked as he started searching.

“They do, but it’s nothing like a house. The game transports houses into superior fighting ships—none of the players are taken to the BTF territory, and they’ve been trying to get their hands on one of these things for generations.”

“Then why did we let him in the house?!” Scully protested.

“I didn’t think a child would be dangerous,” Kari said, and rounded a corner only to be confronted with a dead end of storage boxes and a furnace.

Mulder went through a doorway and pulled the switch to activate the lightbulb overhead, and when he did, he froze. “Um…I don’t think we’re dealing with a child here.”

Scully and Kari rushed to his location, and both froze in place as well. Before them was a massive blue creature that looked like something out of Predator, with massive fangs, yellow eyes, and a camera phone clutched in long fingers that ended in talons. The creature roared and they were blasted with slimy saliva and a gust of bad breath.

“RUN!” Kari screamed, and they all turned and ran as quickly as they could up the stairs. The creature took the steps six at a time and just as Kari and Scully made it through the door, it reached out with a massive, scaly arm and snatched Mulder into the air. He called out and tried to pull his weapon but it crashed to the base of the steps after the creature easily knocked it out of his hand.

“CLOSE THE DOOR!” Kari yelled, but Scully was lunging toward the creature.

Kari pulled Scully back with all her might and slammed the door shut, pulling out her weapon and sealing the lock in one smooth motion.

“What the hell are you doing?!” Scully demanded.

“Delaying it so you can get to the game and roll.”

“Are you out of your mind? It has Mulder!”

“And the only way you’re going to rescue him at this point is to roll! I’m going for reinforcements. I have to take one of the bedrooms.”

“What?”

“I’m taking one of the bedrooms as a shuttlepod—there’s no time to get my suit on,” she said as she ran toward the main stairwell, taking the stairs two at a time. “I’ll be back in four minutes with reinforcements. We’re around Earth orbit!” She yelled from the top of the steps. “It shouldn’t be long! In the mean time, roll!”

Scully hesitated for just a second, and then in utter desperation, ran to the family room, and practically threw the dice on the board. She moved her piece quickly and then snatched her card violently. It read ‘C4.’ And she actually smiled.

Seconds later, there was a terrible roar and the house shook to the point where she was nearly thrown to the floor. Plaster rained as an entire section of the family room ceiling was wrenched off, and Scully squinted through the dust to see one of the Allsburg’s bedrooms flying away. Then the doorbell rang.

“Please be C4,” Scully said as she ran toward the door, and opened it to find a UPS package on the porch. There was no UPS man in sight, however much she wanted backup. She grabbed the package and ripped it open, leaving the front door hanging wide open. Inside was a charger and three stacks of C4.

She left the packaging on the floor as she ran back to the family room and stuffed the game, the C4, and the charger all in the backpack. She then checked her weapon and ran to the basement door. Standing back, she shot the lock off the door and kicked it in, and then proceeded to walk quietly down the stairs, surveying the area.

She immediately spotted Mulder, who was laying against the wall. He didn’t appear to be hurt at first glance, and she was grateful for that. He was just dirty as hell. His clothes were covered in some kind of slime.

He glanced over at her, and then nodded toward where the creature was. She nodded that she understood, and silently slung her backpack off her back on the stairs. In her pockets, she packed the C4 and the chargers. She then pulled the game out, and walked the rest of the way down the stairs with her weapon extended in front of her. She went directly to where Mulder was.

“Are you okay?” she whispered.

He nodded. “Give me the game. The creature’s around the corner in the furnace area, taking pictures,” he said.

“Get out of here,” she said, and handed him the game.

“I…I can’t.”

“I thought you said you were okay,” she whispered, frustrated.

“I’m fine…I’m stuck to the wall.”

She glanced at him, and realized that the slime on his clothes was like glue. He looked at her, helpless. She rolled her eyes, and said, “You’re going to have to take your clothes off.”

“Scullllly,” he whined in protest.

“If you can move your arms, take your clothes off!” she insisted, and then walked away with the C4 and the charger.

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Rounding the corner, she spotted the creature. It turned quickly, roared, and then before her eyes, reduced itself to the size of the small boy they had naively granted asylum to.

“You wouldn’t blow up a small child, would you?” he asked, and looked up at her with innocent eyes.

“I’ve heard that one before,” Scully said angrily, and waited for the moment the child lashed out. As soon as he tried to launch the slime from his nose, and as soon as she could see the stream, she threw the C4-charger combination directly at his face. The slime/glue caught it, and it recoiled directly into the creature’s face. It fell to the ground from the impact, and Scully darted to the stairs. She caught Mulder by the arm just as he freed himself from his pant leg, and she reached down and grabbed the game as they ran up the stairs as quickly as possible. She hit the button on the detonator just as they made it through the basement door, and slammed it closed.

The door pushed against them as the explosion occurred, and they held it back with the full force of their two bodies.

When they looked up, they were met with the sight of Kari and five other astronauts in full battle gear, slowly lowering their weapons. Kari glanced at Mulder in his boxers and socks. “What happened to you?”

“Slime boy,” he muttered. “You think Chris Allsburg has any clothes in his bedroom?”

“I just flew his bedroom off the house,” Kari told him sympathetically as the astronauts tried not to let their eyes fall at waist level. “But you only have one more roll left. Why don’t you go ahead and take it?”

“Gladly,” Mulder said, and placed the board on the floor. He got down on one knee, and tossed the dice. He rolled a twelve, and he moved his piece. It hit the little cloud in the center, which was marked ‘Dormito’. “Hey, I think I won,” he said with a smile.

This time, two cards popped out of the box. He took them both and read the first one. “Conclusion,” he said. “That’s what it says. This one…it says ‘Thanks for playing. Play again and have a completely different adventure.’”

“If we’re done, then why are we still here?” Scully asked, and glanced at Kari.

“Oh, come on. You’ve read the books and seen the movies in the year 2009 and you still don’t know what to do?”

Mulder and Scully glanced at each other. Then one of the astronauts offered, “Why don’t you do what seems obvious?”

“Well…we would’ve done it by now if it was obvious, don’t you think?” Mulder asked, and the astronaut shrugged.

He glanced at the board.

“Dormito,” Scully said. “Say ‘Dormito.’”

Mulder smiled. “Oh, yeah! Dormito.”

Suddenly, their surroundings swirled and they felt as if they were falling. They called out each other’s names, but stopped when they heard music playing. It took them a moment to realize it was coming from a hazy image of Javan. He walked toward them on some kind of cloud-like floating object, and smiled as he raised his music player for them to see. “’Magic Carpet Ride’ by Steppenwolf,” he explained. “Hope you had a nice dream.” Then he vanished.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

ALLSBURG RESIDENCE

GIBSON ISLAND, MARYLAND

SATURDAY, MARCH 6, 2010

1100

In fact, everything vanished. And then it all reappeared in the blink of an eye. They were sitting in the attic of the Allsburg’s home, the game between them, with both pieces on the start box.

“Excuse me!” They heard Linda Allsburg’s voice call up the stairs. “Agent Mulder, Agent Scully…are you finished? It’s been an hour and I need to get the kids to their afternoon activities.”

Mulder glanced at Scully. He was fully clothed, and slime-free. Scully was neat as a pin, and nothing seemed to be out of place from the Allsburg’s attic. Mulder picked the game up carefully, as if it would explode if he jostled it. “We’re coming down,” he called.

Scully stood up, and asked, “Mulder…what just happened?”

“I think we played the game, Scully,” he said.

“That must have been some kind of…mind trick, or we were drugged, or…”

“Or we played the game.” He placed Alan Allsburg’s other belongings back in the trunk, and closed the lid. “Let’s go.”

They approached the stairs, and Mulder pretended not to see Scully’s enthusiastic expression. “Mulder, I think I figured something out. Those cards…they were awfully convenient. They gave us exactly what we wanted, in the dream.”

Mulder paused close to the bottom of the stairs. “They did, didn’t they?”

She looked around cautiously, and once she saw that Mrs. Allsburg was nowhere in sight, she said, “The game doesn’t play itself—it gives you everything you want. It lets you control the story, just like you would in a dream.”

Mulder grinned. “Yep,” he said. “Another X-file solved.”

They descended the stairs, and met Linda Allsburg in the front hallway.

“Thanks so much for letting us explore Alan’s belongings, Mrs. Allsburg,” Mulder said.

“It was no problem,” she said with a smile. “I hope you enjoyed yourself. Sometimes, going through those stories of his, you can get caught up in your own little imaginary world.”

Mulder and Scully glanced at each other.

“Come back any time,” Mrs. Allsburg told them as she opened the door.

As they walked toward their car, Mulder said, “You realize what this means, Scully.”

“What?” She asked curiously.

“If the game gives you anything you want, then it could conceivably let you leave as well. And since you never asked to leave…you clearly didn’t want to.”

“That’s unfair,” Scully protested. “I was trapped—if I had known I could have escaped if I wanted to…that’s not…Mulder,” she complained.

Mulder chuckled. “I seem to remember that your first card read ‘Relax’…so you wanted to relax. And this is how you relax. With me, chasing monsters.”

She folded her arms, and stopped walking.

“And then there was the second card, that read ‘a plot’, which clearly meant that you wanted some kind of excitement. Then the third card read ‘the plot thickens’…Scully, this isn’t boding well for your ‘I hated this’ bit. Then there was the one that read ‘unpredictability’.”

“And then there was the one that read ‘C4’ and saved your slimy ass,” she countered.

He raised his eyebrows.

She sighed. “Okay, fine,” she said, as she started toward the car again. “I liked it. I loved it. I had a great time, and I really secretly enjoy chasing slimy monsters each week and saving your ass. I love not knowing what’s coming next and having to jump from space stations to people’s porches in the middle of space.” She got into the passenger seat, and when Mulder closed the door to the driver’s seat and looked over at her, expecting more sarcasm, she said, “Really.”

He grinned, and said, “Great! I have a new X-file for us to investigate on Monday. There’s a zoo video camera that caught sight of a large hairy beast stealing food from some of the zoo animals, and then escaping. Metro security cameras caught the same thing, escaping into a tunnel seconds before a train came through. It’s right here in DC, in our backyard.”

Her smile didn’t falter. “I can’t wait.”

Bangungot

16x10cover

Bangungot

Author: Martin Ross

Category: Crossover, Casefile

Rating: PG-13

Summary: Someone – or something – may be targeting New York’s Filipino-American population. Major Case Detectives Nichols and Stevens join Agent Fox Mulder in a bizarre case ripped from the headlines…

Spoilers: Conduit, Young At Heart, Grotesque, Mack’d (VS13); Criminal Intent eps Anti-Thesis, A Person of Interest, Great Barrier, Grow, Slither, Frame, Loyalty Pts. 1 and 2

Disclaimer: Props and respect to Chris Carter and Dick Wolf, storytellers supreme. And to Det. Zach Nichols and the rest of the Major Case Squad.

Original web date:07/05/2010

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Bangungot

“In New York City’s war on crime, the worst criminal offenders are pursued by the detectives of the Major Case Squad. These are their stories…”

Home of Ramon Gracia

Queens, New York

Monday, April 17

“In the post-World War II era, amid explosive change on the Asian continent, thousands of men and women flocked to U.S. shores in search of the American dream, bringing with them their skills and enthusiasm. They were Filipino nurses, fluent in English, well-versed in American-style medicine, and highly valued by a country that was opening doors of opportunity within a changing health care industry.”

Ramon Gracia barked harshly as he sipped his thick, black coffee. He remembered his own arrival in the city — the subtle glares, the not-so-subtle comments from the forgetful sons and granddaughters of European pilgrims. He waited for the strings to well up as the Nordic cable anchor flirted compassionately with the camera.

“Even today, this talented corps of migrant health care professionals is offered hefty bonuses to make the journey to America. They have become a mainstay of New York hospitals and long-term care facilities.”

Ramon chortled at the politically correct label. Nursing homes, warehouses for the unwanted, Death’s waiting room. Not that Ramon cared particularly one way or another — he owned his own business, and business was thriving despite the downturn in the economy. He’d die in his own bed — his sons would see to that if they hoped to take over the reins someday.

“But now, in the post-9/11 era (The hell that have to do with it?,.. mused Ramon, who like many Western hemisphere “Hispanic” voters tended to vote in the red), a group of earnest and enterprising young women are fighting the very system that demands their expertise and skill. The Queens 13 — a baker’s dozen of Filipino nurses who dared quit their jobs at a Queens convalescent care facility amid reportedly unconscionable working conditions — face visa revocation, deportation, and, possibly, criminal prosecution. Federal Appeals Court Judge Albert Callasner is scheduled this morning to hear additional testimony in the controversial case, which has rallied both Filipino-American civil rights groups and proponents of more stringent immigration-border security reforms.

Ramon glanced into the kitchen as a burly New Yawker appeared on screen in a Carhartt jacket and hard hat. Wonder which side he’s on? he mused.

“Look, my grandma’s in one a’ those places, and if one of her nurses suddenly walked out on the job they came here to do — the job they probably took away from some hometown kid — I’d raise the roof. It’s about time we took this country back.”

Ramon shook his head disgustedly, although he himself felt they ought to damned well built Bush’s Great Wall down in Texas. He’d never admit that publicly — not if he ever hoped for that council run. Ramon Gracia was the champion of the downtrodden, the huddled masses or whatever.

Ramon’s cup froze halfway to his lips as the xenophobic construction worker surrendered the screen to a striking young woman in a nurse’s scrubs standing on the federal courthouse steps in Manhattan. She was flanked by a solemn man in an Italian suit with “lawyer” written all over it.

“Because we come here looking for better opportunity doesn’t mean we are slaves,” the familiar young woman told the camera. “We work hard, we take care of sick people, old people without complaining. But the treatment we received at the Queens Garden Health Care Center was inhuman, cruel. We are confident the court will see the truth.”

“Was that them again?”

Ramon hastily silenced the set on the kitchen counter as Graciella entered with two plates of garlic fried rice and longaniza — the traditional Philippine breakfast sausage his business imported by the ton. “Ah, same old thing.”

“A pretty girl, eh?” Graciella noted. Ramon glanced up warily; her smile was sweet, genuine, unsuspecting.

“Hmm,” he grunted, sorting through the Times and casually ignoring the vibrating cell phone on his belt. Ramon hacked off a hunk of sausage and forked it into his jowls. He spit the half-masticated meat onto his plate. “Shit! What was that?”

Graciella smiled weakly. “Turkey sausage. I found it at that little market in Flushing — it’s a lot healthier, and it’s supposed to taste just like it than the regular…”

“Well, it doesn’t,” Ramon grunted, shoving his plate away. “Bring me some real food.”

“I threw it out,” Graciella murmured, practically cringing. “After what happened to Ernesto and James.”

“James was a doper and Ernesto was an old fool who crawled around under cars,” her husband spat. He struggled from his chair. “I can’t eat this crap, and I don’t have time to stop somewhere. I’ll pick up an Egg McMuffin at McDonald’s — with cheese,” he added spitefully.

As the front door slammed, Graciella gathered his plate and half-empty coffee cup, a tight smile forming on her lips. Old fool, eh?

Starbucks

Lower East Village, Manhattan

Monday, April 17

They met at the counter, the stunningly beautiful Asian girl and the middle-aged but nonetheless striking blonde. The older woman had warned Karen they must keep their public contact to a minimum, ideally during morning and afternoon rush hours. If something went wrong, they must not be connected. For all its pretensions toward warmth and comfort, Starbucks was one of the most impersonal, anonymous spots in the city.

“How do you feel?” the blonde asked, looking straight ahead.

“A little nervous,” Karen admitted.

“Of course. You can feel it within your grasp. Steel yourself, my dear, and it’s all yours.”

The petite blonde collected her Vente chai and turned toward the door. Karen sipped her own Grande latte for the next five minutes, waiting for the right moment to pocket the small parcel the older woman had delivered.

**

Despite the early hour, the street already was growing hot – the passing businessmen were shedding jackets and loosening ties, the working women showing legs and shoulders and a lot of money in between.

She was accustomed to the heat, craved it after several bone-chilling New York winters. The sun caressed her face as she stared intently at the coffee shop acCallas the street. Her cheeks grew hotter as the puta stepped, blinking, onto the street. Her fingers curled as the young woman strutted toward Fourth.

It was the closest she’d come to the cheap slut, and she grudgingly recognized what attracted him to the expensively dressed woman. And began to wonder if all she had had to offer him was her own helplessness and need.

He would pay, she decided.

Office of Ramon Gracia

Gracia Fine Philippine Foods

Queens, New York

Tuesday, April 18

“We got another one.”

Ramon peered up at Estrella, his thick index finger keeping place in the invoices. He smiled, amused at the chunky woman’s consternation and pleased that another of the Great Unwashed had spoken. The controversy over the Queens 13 meant publicity for him, for his business, for his political aspirations. Bernie Thompson was to announce his retirement from the council next month, and Gracia’s impassioned defense of his Filipina “sisters” reportedly had put him on the short list for the vacated seat.

“You shouldn’t let it upset you,” Ramon paused. “What’s this one call me?”

“Rice-eating coconut. You’re helping turn this country into the Third World.”

“Very creative. File it with the rest. You know where.” He set the invoices aside and glanced surreptitiously at the wall clock some beverage vendor had left behind 20 years ago. “I’m off.”

Estrella Calambacal frowned. “Where should I say you’re going?”

Ramon stopped halfway to his feet, his expression changing. “Who would you tell? You work for me. If anybody asks, you tell them I’m out on business. My business.”

Estrella nodded silently, returning instantly to her customary denial, and disappeared.

Astoria Motor Haven

Queens, New York

Tuesday, April 18

“Jesus,” Darrell Friedlander breathed, tromping up the metal stairs, clinging to the rail. “You been a maid here how many years, and you never heard screaming? In case you’re suffering under any delusions, this ain’t exactly the Park West.”

“This was different,” Glenda snapped. She’d been working at the two-star motel long enough not to take any shit from Dickless Darrell. “It was like he was being tortured, like the devil hisself was after him.”

“Devil wouldn’t stay in this hellhole,” Darrell mumbled, passing filthy door after filthy door, the cheap Astroturf “carpet” wrinkling under his large boots. “Room 23, you say? I don’t hear shit.”

“Maybe he’s hurt,” Glenda shrugged. “Maybe they killed him>”

“Aw, Jesus,” Darrell laughed, riffling through his keys. “Now the mob is using the place to whack people? Great, we can use the business.” He banged on the door. “Hey! You! You OK in there?”

Nothing. Darrell looked at Glenda, who arched an eyebrow. He fumbled the key into the lock and shoved the door open.

“Christ!” the manager squeaked as he stared at the man stretched on the bed in his open shirt and boxers. “Who the hell is that? That ain’t the guy I checked in.”

“Don’t see no blood,” Glenda whispered, scanning the dead man’s vacant, staring eyes and open, contorted mouth. “They musta scared him to death, poor old guy.”

Darrell switched on the bedside lamp. “Wait a minute. That IS the guy. But his hair… What the hell happened to his hair? It was black.”

“Scared him to death,” Glenda repeated, eyes fixed on Ramon Gracia’s thick, now-snow white thatch…

Walt’s Wet Whistle

Mount Holly, N.J.

“Can you turn that up?” the out-of-towner called. Though the young Yuppie was the only other guy in the joint – not an unusual scenario for Walt’s over the last two decades – but Walt merely leaned into the busted Pabst tap (which now dispensed Bud Lite) and attempted to drown the request with his pipe wrench.

“Hey, sir?”

“Get bent,” Walt grumbled, torturing the wrench. The guy had come in an hour ago, ordered a Coke, and buried his nose in his laptop. Government type, and Walt was still smarting from an IRS audit and his latest tussle with the state excise cops.

The whining stopped, and the tubby bar owner grinned darkly as he tugged at the wrench. Could’ve at least ordered some wings or a burger.

Walt jumped and the tool clattered off the tap as the sound of a small jet engine ripped through the paneled tavern. The saloonkeeper fell back on his prodigious ass, banging his burred skull against a dusty bottle of peppermint schnapps he’d stocked for a now-long-dead county board member. Heart pounding, he pulled himself up with a strangled animal sound in time to see the ZNN Headline logo cross-fade to angry blonde face and the remote he hid from the broads resting on the bar.

“Another corrupt New York activist, another no-tell motel,” Faith Yancy shrilled. “Same old story, except this case has a surprise twist…”

“Fucking—“ Walt reached for the ancient .38 under the cash register. As he whipped the weapon around, his customer’s own gun came up.

“Shh,” the Yuppie admonished, leveling the revolver. “Gimme a minute here, OK?”

Walt sputtered.

“Thanks,” the customer murmured, turning back to the screen in the corner of the bar.

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“Ramon Gracia, champion of the Queens 13 and long-time friend of illegal aliens everywhere, was found in flagrante delicto yesterday at a Queens fleabag. However, his partner in passion was nowhere in sight, and Gracia died of what could only be described as extreme fright.”

A grainy NYPD photo of a white-haired, middle-aged corpse — obviously pirated by one of the cable cougar’s network of moles and spies — popped onto the screen.

Walt’s gun dropped to the worn plank floor. “Shit, looks like what happened to–”

“Nick Obusan, yeah,” the young guy nodded. “Shh.”

“Gracia has made headlines by capitalizing on the case of a baker’s dozen Filipino nurses charged with—“

“Crap,” the Yuppie sighed, snatching the remote from the bar and silencing the set. He grinned sheepishly at Walt and pulled a Blackberry from his pocket. His smile turned upside down. “Forgot to charge up. Use your phone?”

The man’s sheer nonchalant balls suddenly emboldened Walter Lutes. “Ain’t no damned Denny’s, friend. Pay phone at the Shell down the street.”

The customer nodded and searched his pants. “I think I got a phone card somewhere… Yeah, here we go.”

He slapped the card on the bar. Walt contemplated a witty bon mot, then glanced down. “FBI?”

“Another Coke, too. Please?”

New York Police Department

Major Case Squad

Manhattan

Thursday, April 20

The visitor had badged his way through Major Case’s post-9/11 firewalls while Capt. Callas was engaged in heated debate over departmental protocol with one of the mayor’s pet deputy chiefs. As Callas fled her office for the blessed chaos of the squadroom, she spotted the obvious fed and drew up short.

“You must be Agent Mulder,” she greeted with a tight smile. “I was told you’d be calling on us. To what do we owe the pleasure?”

The new captain lacked Danny Ross’ inky sardonic humor, but the irony came through nonetheless. Ross had perished abruptly and violently in the service of the Bureau a few months back, and both Bobby Goren and his ubiquitous partner/keeper Eames had turned in their NYPD tin in the aftermath. Despite the ionized air of tension that had followed him through the squadroom, Special Agent Fox Mulder nodded with a broad grin. “Ramon Gracia.”

Callas was silent for a moment. Homicide had gratefully kicked the Gracia investigation to Major Case — Gracia was something of a Sharpton for New York’s Filipino-American community, and the “Queens 13” case had generated nearly daily headlines for him.

Actually, Rodgers was performing a post on the body right now to determine if there even was a case. Gracia wouldn’t have been the first middle-aged businessman in this city to succumb to a bad ticker, even if there were some admittedly bizarre circumstances in play.

Callas assumed those circumstances had somehow drawn Agent Mulder up from D.C. The new captain had done her homework. He was a friend of Bobby Goren’s — figured — and, indeed, had played an important role in clearing up that hip-hop murder a few years back. Not without some fallout, however, and the captain’s radar was armed.

“Ramon Gracia,” Callas finally echoed. “We haven’t even established Gracia’s death as a homicide yet. What’s the FBI’s interest here?”

“Gracia’s been a high-profile figure in a national controversy involving Immigration and the DOJ,” Mulder supplied smoothly, as if he’d rehearsed. “With feelings running so hot over immigration, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that he could have made some enemies with his activist stance.”

“The realm of possibility,” Callas murmured with a patient smile. “I understand that’s your specialty. Agent, what’s your real interest in this case?”

Now, Mulder paused. “OK,” he sighed. “I have reason to believe Mr. Gracia’s death could be connected with a series of other, uh, fatalities in the area.”

“Fatalities?”

“Serial homicides. I believe.”

Callas’ smile disappeared. “I assume these other ‘homicides’ must be as sketchy as this one.”

Mulder gathered himself. “You ever hear of bangungot?”

“Why, no. Do I want to?”

“Sudden unexpected death syndrome. SUDS. It’s relatively widespread among a number of Southeast Asian populations, including the Hmong, Thais, and Filipinos. But the SUDS death rate among Filipino-Americans has been statistically high over the last few years, but exclusively within a three-state region.”

Callas’ brow wrinkled. “Agent, are you suggesting an epidemic here, terrorism? Do we need to bring in the CDC?”

“No, Captain. I’m suggesting murder. I tried e-mailing Bobby — former Detective Goren — about my theories last night, but he’s seemingly dropped off the map. I wanted to clear things with you first, maybe talk to the principle on the case.”

Oddly, Callas’ smile widened, and something resembling grim amusement played at her dark eyes. “Ah. Well, let’s see if we can’t accommodate you, Agent.” The captain spotted a lanky man draining a steaming paper cup and pulling a leather jacket from his chairback, and gestured toward him. “Detective, a minute please.”

The man glanced up, eyes bright, curious, an impish smile quirking at the corners of his wide mouth.

Callas turned to Mulder as the tall cop approached. “Morning, Detective. Meet Special Agent Fox Mulder. He’ll be working with you on the Gracia case.”

Det. Zach Nichols grinned with a trace of something sinister, and extended long fingers toward Mulder. “Hey, Fox, huh? Glad to meet you. How about we hit a funeral to break the ice?”

**

“Bangungot?” Nichols mused as he pulled out of the One Police Plaza parking garage, thumping the horn at an emboldened cabbie. “I eat at a Filipino joint in Queens two or three times a month, and I’ve never seen that one on the menu.”

Mulder grinned as he watched the standard parade of Manhattanites navigating past the standard gawking out-of-towners and hawking homeless. He’d struck up an immediate friendship with Bobby Goren during the cop’s brief fellowship at Oxford — they were two of a kind, fascinated by minutiae and the esoteric, “disturbed geniuses” who clashed with authority like oppositely charged particles, largely because they used metaphors like oppositely charged particles.

“Literally, it’s Tagalog for ‘bad dream,’” Mulder began.

“I’m merely yanking your chain, Agent,” Nichols murmured. “Bangungot. Sudden unexpected death syndrome. Most common in Thailand, Japan, the Philippines, occasionally among Southeast Asian immigrants. Normally young men who die in their sleep of irregular heart rhythm and ventricular fibrillation, usually without any history of cardiac problems.”

“Well, close enough,” Mulder chuckled weakly.

Nichols yanked the wheel, missing a Sabrett dog cart by inches. The vendor didn’t miss a beat as he continued to spoon kraut over a yuppie’s frank. “Gracia didn’t pass on peacefully in his bed like my sainted grandma. Actually, she wasn’t so sainted. He looked like the entire Israeli Army had raided the place. His hair — what was left of it — was Bob Barker white, with a tinge of Betty White. And Gracia was no spring chicken…”

“That’s what makes this death curious. Night terrors are a common symptom of SUDS. Survivors have reported being fully aware they’re dreaming during an episode, but they can’t move or wake up. Sound about right?”

“Had a dream like that, one time,” Nichols grunted with a slight smile as he steered onto Bleecker. “It was about a divorced dispatcher I’d met in Midtown. Only had movement in one area, and I didn’t really care about waking up. My dad was into Freudian theory at the time, and his interpretation was far more complex than mine. You serious about all this? You think we’re having, what, an outbreak of SUDS in the greater New York area?”

“I follow stuff like this, part hobby, part the job. I’ve clipped at least five articles and obits over the past two years about younger Filipino-Americans or recent immigrants who were listed as unexpected heart attack victims. When I read about Mr. Gracia’s death, it rang a bell. Except for the age aspect. Plus the fact that he’d been here for nearly 40 years — bangungot usually occurs in recent immigrants, seems to fade off as they assimilate. That’s why some researchers want to link it to diet and alcohol — gout’s not uncommon in Filipino men.”

“Wow, sounds like half the guys at my Uncle Morris’ funeral,” Nichols smirked as he spotted the throng on the street before the James F. Paculdar Funeral Home. A trio of older Filipino men smoked and reminisced a few doors down, respectfully flaunting the smoking ban — Gracia’d been at home at City Hall and in Albany as well as in the neighborhood meeting halls, and any foot officers knew better than to write up any of his mourners or cronies.

With difficulty, Nichols was able to find a loading spot a block down, between an organic herb shop and an antiquarian book dealer. “Rodgers — the M.E. — she’s supposed to have a report on Gracia today.”

“I met her on a case with Bobby,” Mulder nodded. “She seems very thorough and…open.”

“Oh, yeah,” Nichols grinned as he navigated through the mob of arriving and departing mourners. “This was the spontaneously combusting rapper, right? Eames’ blood pressure went into the red whenever she talked about it.”

“I guess I was a little impulsive back then,” Mulder murmured.

“We oughtta get along fine, then,” Nichols said as they reached the ornate double doors. The foyer inside sported rich wainscoting and carpeting beneath a tastefully lavish chandelier. Paculdar was the final staging place for much of the Filipino community across the five boroughs and into Long Beach and Westchester.

A beautiful, grave brunette moved out of a corner of the lobby. To Mulder, she looked like a model than a cop.

“Heavy traffic?” the woman inquired with a fleeting glance at Mulder.

Nichols shrugged. “Det. Serena Stevens, meet Special Agent Fox Mulder. He’ll be along for the ride the next few days.”

Stevens inspected Mulder again, and then a tumbler fell into place. “Wonderful,” she sighed. “Let’s do this — I signed us in.”

“Hey, wow,” Nichols breathed as she disappeared into the packed main parlor. “I think you two are going to be fab friends.”

James F. Paculdar Funeral Home,

Bleecker Street, Manhattan

Thursday, April 20

Ramon Gracia was impeccably made up for his final appearance, though instead of a suit, he wore a long, intricately embroidered blouse. Ribbons bearing the names of the businessman’s immediate family members were pinned to the rich lining of the high-end casket; a crucifix was affixed between two candles above the deceased.

“The barong tagalog,” Mulder quietly informed Nichols and Stevens as they passed the coffin. “A traditional Filipino burial shirt. The widow’s wearing black — according to custom, she’s supposed to for the next year — but its definitely designer, maybe a Tadashi.” The agent smiled sheepishly as Steven’s brow rose.

“We’ll ask where she bought it,” she said, pulling away. “You into power shopping, Mulder?”

“My partner,” he explained weakly as the cop headed for a table laden with split salted fish, sliced jamon, wafer-thin galletas, and other more recognizable U.S. fare. “What I’m trying to determine is how closely the Gracia’s adhere to tradition. If Gracia clung more closely to his native culture, he might have been more psychologically susceptible to night terrors or sudden death.”

“It’s hard to tell,” Nichols frowned. “He was a high-profile figure — mass every Sunday, grand marshal at every Philippine street festival and parade. Gracia may have been very culturally observant, or a lot of it might have been window dressing for the community.”

“Det. Nichols.” A tall, young olive-skinned man peeled away from a group of other young, sharply dressed Filipinos sporting black plastic pins. Smiling, Felipe Gracia nonetheless glanced anxiously toward his mother crossing the room.

“Mr. Gracia,” Nichols nodded. “Again, sorry for your loss. You remember my partner, Det. Stevens? And this is Agent Mulder with the FBI.”

The smile dropped from Gracia’s face as he led the detectives from the buffet. “What? I’m still not convinced Dad’s death was anything but natural causes. Why FBI?”

Nichols began to speak, but Mulder beat him to the punch. “There’ve been a series of deaths in a tri-state region — Filipino men who died in a way suspiciously similar to your father’s.”

Gracia stared at the agent for a moment. “Let’s, uh, go downstairs — they’ve got a lounge, and we can talk without disturb–, without being disturbed.”

A few heads turned as Ramon Gracia’s son escorted his guests into the bowels of the funeral home. Nichols recognized a particularly camera-happy councilman and a local Filipino newswoman. As they reached the lounge, Gracia stopped short. A petite beauty in black looked up from the couch sharply, her eyes red-rimmed and filled with fury.

“Malaya? You OK?”

The woman glared at her brother, then, eyeing the strangers behind him, pushed up from the cushions. “I’m fine,” she muttered, brushing past him.

“My sister, Malaya,” Gracia sighed. “This whole thing’s been very difficult for her.”

“Whole thing?” Stevens inquired.

“It’s, well, I guess you’d say it’s a cultural thing. Sometimes, it’s not so easy to accommodate tradition. Anyway, I am familiar with those recent deaths — the whole community is. My Uncle Eduardo died six months ago, my Cousin James a year ago. Both were declared accidental deaths. You have any good reason to think otherwise?”

“You’re familiar with bangungot?” Mulder asked. Stevens looked curiously at Nichols, who grinned back.

“I’d prefer to call it SUDS,” Gracia said coolly. “My mother still subscribes to those old folk tales about night demons and death dreams — with all these recent deaths, she’s practically smothered my brothers and I. Strange it was Dad it caught up with — SUDS generally gets young guys, you know?”

“Do now,” Nichols murmured with a nod to Mulder. “It’s probably all just a coincidence, Mr. Gracia, but your dad was an important man, so we’re crossing all the Ts.”

“I’m glad you are, of course,” Gracia said hastily. “But I can’t imagine who’d want to kill Dad.”

“Hey, like I said, your dad was a well-known guy,” Nichols shrugged. “This thing with the nurses — he’d gotten a lot of TV face time lately. And with all the emotions about immigration, well…”

Gracia settled into an armchair, elbows on his knees. “Dad was passionate about his people, about making sure they got a square deal. He wasn’t like Sharpton, trying to parlay his concern into political hay, though he got asked to run for Albany plenty of times. This was his Rosa Parks on the bus, Detective. Those nurses, those women, were treated almost like indentured servants, scared to death they’d lose their status and get shipped back to the islands. Then they get told they could go to jail because they weren’t going to put up with the bullshit any more.

“Yeah, we got our share of threatening calls, hassles. Guy with the state licensing commission started making noise about the business, said maybe we needed to be more concerned about our employees than those ‘foreigners.’”

“You got the guy’s name?”

“Got his card in my coat, upstairs. I’ll get it for you on your way out. Other than that, we got some hate mail from white supremacist types, a few rollers, union reps screaming about their jobs getting ‘stolen’ by foreign labor. Ironic, considering all those women wanted was out of that hellhole.”

“If your mom still has them, I’m gonna want those letters, any threatening e-mails,” Nichols said. “What about personal enemies? Any, uh, cultural things.”

Gracia smiled darkly. “Blood feuds, that kind of thing? Post-9/11 Muslim-Christian shit? Hey, is that why the FBI’s involved?”

“No,” Mulder responded pointedly. “From a statistical standpoint, we’re seeing a virtual epidemic of SUDS thousands of miles from the Pacific Rim, within a highly localized area. And your father’s an anomaly. That raises the question of whether this is a natural epidemic, or, at the least, if Mr. Gracia’s death is part of that epidemic. If either possibility is true, then someone’s been targeting Filipinos for death, including three of your family members or using the other deaths as a smokescreen for your father’s murder.”

Gracia snorted. “Murder? What, somebody killed my dad with some mysterious untraceable poison.” He rose. “I think you’re barking up the wrong tree, Agent. Detectives, you mind if I get back upstairs? I want to see if my mother and my sister are OK before they start in with each other again.”

“Sure, thanks,” Nichols said, cutting off Mulder’s next query. He waited until the young man’s footsteps faded. “Hey, Mulder, I think I’m supposed to be bad cop.”

“Weird cop,” Stevens mumbled. “You don’t seriously think Gracia’s death was part of a serial? The preliminary report said heart failure. How do you think the killer managed that?”

Mulder stepped into the corridor. “Don’t ask me.”

New York Police Department Medical Examiner’s Office

Manhattan, New York

Thursday, April 20

“Sure, I’ve seen a couple of SUDS cases,” Dr. Elizabeth Rodgers told Mulder. Nichols rolled his eyes at the deadpan Stevens. “Kid in Soho a year, no, year-and-a-half ago. We thought he had a bleach job at first — hair had turned bone-white. Heart was healthy — no sign of pre-existing damage, and the tox screen came up clean, at least for anything that would’ve killed him.”

Mulder studied the liver Rodgers had removed from the blue-gray corpse beside it, under Nichols’s disgusted gaze. “How about Gracia’s tox screen?”

Rodgers paused, glancing at Nichols and Stevens. Nichols’s eyes narrowed. “Oh, hell, it’ll come out soon enough. There were traces of a psychoactive substance, salvinorin A.”

Mulder straightened. “Salvia?”

“Yeah,” Rodgers nodded, interested. “It’s generally derived from Salvia divinorum, a relative of sage and mint.”

“Sage of the Seers,” Mulder expanded. “That’s what it’s called. The Mazatec shamans used it as an entheogen.”

“Plant-based hallucinogens used to heighten the senses during a variety of sacraments,” Stevens supplied impatiently. “The literal meaning of the word is ‘that which causes God to be within an individual’–”

“That’s Wiki awesome,” Nichols interrupted. “Rodgers, how would Gracia have got this salvinorin whatever?”

“You can get it on-line,” Stevens supplied. “You can buy Salvia leaves and extract legally from dozens of sites. It’s still legal in the U.S., though there’s been some call to ban sales since a Delaware kid committed suicide in 2006, supposedly under the influence.”

Nichols grinned at his partner, whose storehouse of esoterica was more limited than but no less astonishing than Goren’s or his own. “Doesn’t sound like the drug of choice for the former president of the Filipino-American Chamber of Commerce. They got any salvia ceremonies in The Philippines, Mulder?”

“Mainly Meso-American,” the agent responded seriously. “Solenostenom has a similar shamanic effect — it originated in The Philippines. You can buy it at gardening shops or on the web. That’s probably what I’d pick if I wanted a back-up smokescreen.”

“Whoa,” Stevens protested. “This is quite a leap you’re taking. This is the great melting pot — anybody could have turned Gracia on to salvia, and since it’s not illegal, it would be safer to have lying around his office than half a key or a drawerful of pot…”

“C’mon,” Mulder protested back. “It doesn’t fit our guy’s profile.”

“It makes a lot more sense than some serial whacko trying to take out every Filipino on the East Coast.”

“Hey, hey,” Nichols intervened. “I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we just see if our guy actually had any of this whacky weed lying around the office?”

Gracia Fine Philippine Foods

Queens, New York

Friday, April 21

“This is ridiculous,” Estrella Calambacal fumed as the trio combed her late employer’s neat but cozy office. “Mr. Gracia never used drugs. He hardly ever even took a drink.”

Nichols stepped back from the open door of Ramon Gracia’s open mini-fridge, stocked with apple juice and San Miguel Pale Pilsen. “Your boss really knew how to entertain the customers, then.”

The tiny, gray-haired secretary blinked at the liquor larder, then re-gathered herself. “I didn’t go spying around Mr. Gracia’s office. I had no idea that was there.” Having acquitted herself virtuously if not credibly, Calambacal fled the room.

“Too bad,” Nichols said, shutting the fridge. “She was really growing on me. What’ve you got, Stevens?”

His partner shrugged from the floral display at Gracia’s window. “He wasn’t growing it — just a couple of bansai. And the desk was clean.”

“Well, maybe a little too clean,” Mulder said. The cops turned to find Mulder flipping through Gracia’s planner. “There are a lot of gaps in Gracia’s daily schedule — especially between three and five. Usually at least an hour-and-a-half of blank space.

“More than enough time to relieve the rigors of the day,” Nichols murmured. “Ma’am? Oh, ma’am?” he called.

Calambacal sighed heavily from the next room, and her iron locks reappeared.

“Can you take a look at Mr. Gracia’s planner and try to recall where he might have been during these blank spots?”

The assistant frowned. “I wasn’t his keeper.”

“Sure you were,” Nichols grinned in a lupine way. “I don’t care if your boss liked a little mid-day nip. If he was getting a little amour on the side, well, what happens in Queens, right? But we’re investigating a homicide, and we need to know who she is.”

“You think she killed Mr. Gracia?” Calambacal breathed before realizing her slip.

“It’s possible,” Stevens suggested in a more conciliatory tone. “Or at least she might help us find who did.”

The assistant suddenly slumped onto the arm of Gracia’s leather guest couch. “It was one of those nurses. You know, the ones on the news.”

“The Queens 13?” Stevens prompted. “I know Mr. Gracia was helping with their defense.”

“It started that way,” Calambacal said defensively. “He was always panlahat, you know, taking care of his people. He was furious about how those women were treated. Then he started hanging out with one of them, even gave her a job–”

“We’re not with Immigration,” Stevens assured her. “He offered her a job, an act of kindness.”

Calambacal sighed. “I’d like to think so. But I’m afraid there was a lot more to it than that. They’d disappear sometimes in the afternoons, Mr. Gracia and Amihan — he told me he was taking her along to meet clients, learn the business.”

“The blank spots on the calendar.”

“Maybe, I don’t know. I’d thought he was over it — one day, a month ago or so, she just didn’t come in, and I heard him shouting in tagalong to someone on the phone last week, yelling about his wife, his family. It might have been her, I don’t know.”

“Mrs. Calambacal, could you get us a number for Amihan, please?” Stevens requested. The secretary nodded once and disappeared.

“Woman scorned,” Nichols said.

“It seems kind of thin,” Mulder said. “Afternoon quickies with a guy probably twice her age who, no ageism intended, may have been no more than a meal ticket to citizenship.” The agent paused. “Detective, could you open that refrigerator for me?”

Nichols looked to Stevens, who shrugged. He flipped open the compartment full of beer and apple juice as Calambal re-entered with a Post-it.

“Amihan Dalisay,” she grunted, handing off the slip. “I’m going to lunch.”

“Mrs. Calambaca,” Mulder asked abruptly. “Did Mr. Gracia drink a lot of apple juice?”

“God, I don’t know. I guess not — he always guzzled Coke or Dr. Pepper. Maybe he was on a health kick.”

Mulder nodded absently, and she left.

“In the Tagalog mythology, Amihan was one of the first beings to inhabit the universe,” the agent mused. “The name Amihan means a cool northeast wind.”

“Let’s see which way she blew,” Nichols suggested.

United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York

Brooklyn, New York

Friday, April 21

“All right, OK,” Amihan Dalisay huffed. “So I saw Mr. Gracia a little bit. You gonna ship me back now?”

The young nurse was slim, petite, but curvy, with glossy waist-length hair. They’d found out from her attorney’s office that she was at the federal building for one of the Queens 13’s seemingly endless series of appearances.

“That’s not going to happen,” asserted her lawyer, who’d begun dressing a lot snappier since he’d started doing the CNN Headline circuit. “This some kind of ICE ploy to pressure my clients? Cause it won’t play.”

“You can cool the Pacino act, counselor — this isn’t Larry King,” Nichols chortled. “I don’t care if she’s playing doctor — pardon me, RN — with half the Manhattan Businessmen’s Association. I just want to know how hard she took the breakup.”

“How’d you know about that?” Dalisay snapped. “Oh, yeah, that nosy old bruha.”

“Witch, eh?” Stevens mused. “That must’ve been a tough break. There went your path to the whole picket fence thing.”

“Hey,” Amihan spat. “We had some fun, a good time, ‘til that pokpok showed up.”

Stevens started to speak, but Nichols held up a palm. “That one, I got without Rosetta Stone. So who was this pokpok?”

Amihan sneered and looked at the attorney. He nodded in a very non-Pacinolike manner. “She was a dayo — a foreigner. Thai, I think, but American. A puta.”

Nichols’s eyes popped at her lapse from tagalog to her island’s Spanish roots. “A hooker? What makes you say that? You wouldn’t have been tailing his tail?”

“OK, so when he dumped me, I followed him. He went to that fancy place — the Omni Hudson — and met her in the lobby. She’s a high-class puta — little slut black dress, stiletto heels. But she was playin’ Ramon, lookin’ at her watch everytime he looked the other way. Like she had places to be. Then he turn around and she’s got her hands almost in his pants. You know?”

“Not recently,” Nichols sighed. “Look, I’m gonna put you with a department artist. Try to work up a sketch of this puta.”

“I don’t know,” the lawyer drawled.

“Any cooperation might be in your client’s interest,” Mulder said.

“Might get you on Faith Yancy, Al,” Nichols suggested.

The attorney studied the cop. “Bring on the artist.”

“Hoo-wah,” Nichols murmured.

Taste of Manila

Queens, New York

Friday, April 21

“I seen it a couple times, back home,” Greg Torongoy informed his guests. “The old folks used to say it was the batibat, the bangungot – fat old bitch demon would climb into your bed and sit on your face ‘til you couldn’t breathe no more. Couple bottles of San Miguel, sounds like a night on the town.” The old restaurateur cackled. “C’mon now, eat.”

Greg Torongoy himself brought the hamonado, goat stew, and rice to their table, dropping into the fourth chair between Nichols and Stevens and snapping his fingers for more water.

“Enjoy — honey-roasted pork. It’s my specialty — my treat. You guys are gonna find out what happened to Ramon, right?”

Nichols eyed his dish with clinical delight. “Thanks, Mr. Torongoy,” Stevens smiled mournfully, “but we can’t accept gifts or meals from a witness in a case. Internal Affairs is always sniffing around. We’ll pay.” Nichols shrugged.

The Queens restaurateur nodded empathetically at her departmental scapegoating. Then he blinked. “Witness? Witness to what?”

“We understand you played cards with Mr. Gracia a couple of times a week,” Mulder eased in.

“Pusoy Dos — Big Two, poker,” Torongoy drawled, glancing at the growing lunch crowd.

“Yeah, yeah, we hear Ramon liked his pusoy,” Nichols murmured, digging into his sweet, savory pork.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Just that you were one of his best buddies, his poker pal. You’d know if he was involved in any other games.”

Torongoy sputtered. “Hey, Ramon was a family man, a pillar of this community.”

“I know he took a particular interest in the Queens 13 — one of them, anyway.”

Torongoy looked from Nichols to the impassive Stevens, then to the smiling FBI agent. After a second of weighing his options, he sighed and called to the bartender in Spanish.

“OK, but do me a favor,” Torongoy sighed. “Don’t tell Graciella, Ramon’s wife. She’s a good woman — it’d kill her.”

“We’ll try to be discreet, as long as it doesn’t turn out it killed him,” Nichols said as the bartender deposited a blood-red drink before his boss. “I heard he dumped the nurse a month or so ago for a Thai tootsie.”

“Tootsie,” Torongoy mused. “I wondered if she was a working girl. I ran into them at some bar in Midtown, and she was like too friendly, but too distracted. Like she had business. Ramon eventually fessed up, that he was doing her, but he said she was the daughter of a client. Didn’t want to admit he was paying for it, even though with that hot little babae on the hook, I don’t know why he’d buy.”

“You get this girl’s name?” Mulder asked.

“Uh, I think it was Ella. Listen, you tell Graciella, you don’t tell her I told you.”

“Bring me another plate of this,” Nichols said through a mouthful of honeyed pork, “and I’ll forget I even talked to you.”

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Major Case Squad

Manhattan, New York

Friday, April 21

Forensic Accountant Jay McNair straightened his glasses as he took center stage. “I accessed financial and credit data for the Brothers Gracia and the others Agent Mulder identified. Nada, zip. Ramon Gracia’s business was doing well — like everybody else, energy and freight costs cut into his last-quarter earnings, but he has a kick-ass cost-containment system for his operational scale, and his personal portfolio is diversified, minimal downside risk.

“Family-held corporation — majority share goes to the spouse, equal portions of the remaining interest to the four offspring. Ought to provide a healthy revenue stream, but hardly worth killing for. Same for the personal estate, which all goes to the wife. The three sons and the daughter are all on pretty solid footing — little debt, no recent suspicious financial activity that might flag gambling debts, drugs, that kind of thing. As for the other six vics…”

“Decedents,” Capt. Callas amended dryly. The civilian employees loved cop talk. “For all we know, these men died natural deaths.”

His rhythm disrupted, McNair nodded absently and rebooted. “Sorry. The brother, Eduardo, wasn’t connected with the business. Scuttlebutt is they had a falling out early on, and Eduardo bought a garage in Queens 23 years ago. The books looked clean, and he showed a respectable if non-spectacular profit on a consistent basis. Personal finances clean as well. He was widowed, and the business and assets went to his two sons — securities broker and an assistant editor with HarperCollins who liquidated. They check out clean.

“The cousin, James Tapang, worked the kitchen in a Filipino joint on the East Side. Flashy lifestyle — no savings to speak off, but $16,000 or so in credit debt, on three different cards. The guy from Soho, Robert Iradier, an artist, go figure, lived hand to loft owner and left practically nothing behind to anybody. Similar stories on Nick Obusan, the decedent from Jersey — UPS warehouse worker with savings in the low four figures, Randy Dumagat — the night custodian from the Bronx, and Ignacio Rivera — the Connecticut busboy.

“With the exception of the Gracia brothers, I couldn’t find any financial link between the vi–, the decedents. None of them even banked at the same place.”

“Thanks,” Callas grunted, and McNair slipped out, his investigative acumen once again barely acknowledged. “So, follow the money seems to lead us down a dead alley. How about Gracia’s phone records?”

“Nothing out of line on the home or work lines,” Nichols reported. “Our naughty nurse showed up on his cell phone log regularly ‘til a few weeks ago — some people just can’t let go. But then, about the time Gracia kicked her, another number started coming up regularly — incoming and outgoing.”

“So we’re assuming it’s the new ‘girlfriend’?” Callas murmured. “We got a name yet?”

“It was a throwaway,” Stevens reported. “We’re trying to get a line on where she might have bought it. Of course, neither Amidan nor the other women were programmed in.”

“So we’re assuming it’s the new girlfriend,” Callas repeated with a new emphasis. “If it is, the throwaway’s a red flag. You think she might’ve been working Gracia? He was a food importer, right? Any possibility a little China white may have been coming in with the jasmine rice and shrimp chips?”

Stevens shook her head. “I checked with Narco, and Agent Mulder asked around the DEA. Gracia Fine Philippine Foods is a mom-and-pop — no mob or drug ties. I think it’s the girl.”

“All right, then,” Callas nodded. “Circulate that sketch through Vice and Bunco, and look for any connections with the brother or the cousin. But, Detectives? And this goes for you, too, Agent Mulder. I’d like it if I didn’t read anything in tomorrow’s Ledger about your little serial theories. I’m getting a feeling about Gracia, but you haven’t sold me these other deaths have any connection. Am I clear? Agent?”

“Roger,” Mulder chimed, drawing a look from the captain and an eye roll from Nichols. Callas locked eyes with Stevens and exited.

“I’m not sure you’ve sold me, either,” Stevens said. “The first five victims fit the age profile for SUDS, though I’ll admit it does seem like a high incidence over a two-year period. But Eduardo and Ramon Gracia don’t fit the usual pattern.”

Mulder turned from the NYPD Intranet browser. “So what if the New Jersey, Connecticut, Soho, and Bronx cases were legitimate SUDS deaths — a statistical anomaly that offered somebody an ideal smokescreen? What if Tapang, Eduardo Gracia, and Ramon Gracia were the real victims? The intended victims?”

“Who’d have it out for the Gracias?” Nichols demanded. “Ramon made some enemies with the Queens 13, but the other two? You saying there’s some kind of blood feud going on? Otherwise, I can’t see who’d benefit.”

The agent smiled. “I can tell you who doesn’t.”

Starbucks

Times Square, Manhattan, New York

Friday, April 21

Malaya Gracia looked about the packed coffee shop though it was unlikely they’d run into anyone she knew. Her mounting paranoia was absurd — no one could possibly guess why they were here, and her sleek black mourning outfit drew no special notice in Manhattan, the land of self-styled bohemians, Goths, and power suits. Plus, she had been engaged to the man seated across from her for nearly two years.

“You sure about this?” Louis Imperial asked. He was a handsome young man, casually garbed in stylishly rugged attire. At 28, he was the head of his own market consulting and graphic production firm on Bleecker, an example to his family of the American Dream they had sought with only moderate success.

“Positive,” the young Filipina responded emphatically, her dark eyes flashing. “I’m tired of waiting. We should leave town tonight.”

“I have to meet with the Summers and Felton people tomorrow — it’s a potential $1 million account. But I can get a flight out tomorrow night.” Immediately, he regretted the commitment.

“Yes,” Malaya smiled, relieved. “This is too much, too much to ask. Dad’s gone now, and there’s no reason for it.”

“Hey, shhh.” Her voice had risen. Louis understood her impatience — they’d been waiting since the death of her cousin James — but he questioned this move so quickly after her father’s passing. He’d seen the detectives at Ramon’s wake.

More importantly, Malaya did not realize what business he had yet to finish here. He’d been weak, and now everything was in the balance. His abrupt departure could set off a chain reaction that eventually would explode in his face.

“You love me, don’t you?”

It had been a long time — years of frustrated, agonizing waiting — and recently, Louis had had his doubts, obviously. Malaya’s initially rigid adherence to her parents’ wishes had become tiresome — Louis’ blue-collar family had assimilated fully into U.S. culture three generations ago, and were as culturally observant as Catholics who darken the cathedral door only at Christmas and Easter. And, as they had waited, he’d strayed, and it had come back to bite him in the ass.

But somehow, as he stared into Malaya’s exquisite, almond-shaped expresso eyes, as she solicited his reaffirmation, he knew it must be.

“Of course. We leave tomorrow.”

**

She’d stayed on the street, near a pita cart where neither of the two could see her. She’d followed Imperial here (follow that cab, she’d been tempted to tell the Muslim behind the wheel), and her heart had pounded all the way into the heart of Times Square. This was it; she could feel it in her heart. They’d been talking a long time — Louis seemed restless, guilty; the bitch was agitated, animated. Her heart sailed.

Then sank immediately as the sun broke through Gracia’s scowl. The bitch should be outraged, devastated. The bitch reached across the table, and he clasped her hands. The blood pounded in her veins, and the Middle Easterner manning the cart looked up, startled, as a choked snarl escaped her lips. She glared, and he returned to turning his kabobs.

It was all wrong. How could he tolerate this? How could he allow himself to be played this way?

How could he not see what was right? What was meant to be?

Imperial Image

TriBeCa, New York

Friday, April 21

Sucking down the rest of his Vente Kona, Louis Imperial paused as he spotted the trio in his waiting niche. They were too old to be the hip young entrepreneurs or marketing execs who frequented his firm (with the exception of the tomboy redhead), too pedestrian in their dress to be account execs for any of the big agencies that farmed business his way.

The Imperial Image CEO looked to the temp, who shrugged. The tallest of the three, a cop-looking guy with a hopelessly unhip Irish tartan tie, stood and came his way, trailed by the redhead and the smaller, dark-haired guy.

“Louis Imperial?” the tall guy asked, extending a paw. “Det. Zach Nichols, Major Case Squad. My partner, Det. Stevens. And this is Agent Mulder, FBI.”

Imperial almost staggered back. “Good God, what happened?”

Nichols smiled. “Sorry — looks like a SWAT raid, I know. We’re the detectives looking into Ramon Gracia’s death.”

The marketing whiz frowned. “Did I miss something? Ray died of a heart attack, didn’t he? In his sleep?”

“You ever heard of bangungot?” the one called Mulder asked.

Nichols sighed. “We have reason to believe there may be suspicious circumstances surrounding your fiance’s father’s death, and maybe the deaths of Mr. Gracia’s brother and cousin.”

Louis feigned ignorance out of some absurd instinct. “A cousin died, too? When did this happen?”

“What’s important,” Stevens interrupted gently, “is that these deaths may have something to do with Ms. Gracia.”

“Malaya?” His heartbeat quickened. “What are you suggesting? That she had anything to do–”

“Absolutely not,” Stevens hastened. She paused before expounding Mulder’s theory. “How long have you two been dating?”

“Five years,” Louis responded, with a sideway glance Nichols, Stevens, and Mulder the behavioral scientist all caught.

“Wow,” Stevens beamed. “That’s devotion. I saw the ring at the wake — beautiful. You two set a date yet?”

“We’ve talked about it,” the businessman murmured, evasively. Another sideways glance. A glance at the ceiling usually meant a search for the lie, a downwards look shame or embarrassment over the deception. Sideways: He was dancing around the truth.

“But nothing’s been pinned down yet, has it, Mr. Imperial?” They’d decided Stevens, the empathic romanticist, should take this one. “Respect for the dead, mourning properly, those are very important in the Philippine culture, aren’t they?”

Louis laughed shortly. “You know, I’m not really that old school — my family’s mostly in Chicago.”

“But Ramon Gracia wasn’t so old school. At least, not in public. It’s Philippine tradition for a woman to postpone a wedding for a year after the death of a close relative. That’s right, isn’t it? And your fiance’s family’s had three deaths over a two-year period.”

Louis inhaled, then held it for a moment before his shoulders relaxed. “That’s right. Ray was insistent — he had his image to maintain, and Malaya’s mother was very old school. Malaya hasn’t wanted to offend her parents.”

Stevens nodded thoughtfully. “That must be very frustrating for both of you, in this day and age.”

“We, ah, we love each other. We can wait.”

“I think that’s what may be going on here, Mr. Imperial,” Mulder chimed in. “We think maybe the deaths of Ernesto and Ramon Gracia and your fiance’s cousin may be designed to forestall your wedding. This waiting has to have put a strain on things, hasn’t it?”

Louis began to protest, then sighed. “Well, shit, of course. I’ve told her this is America, that we have to live our lives, too. Sure, I’m — we’re frustrated.”

“How frustrated?” Nichols asked bluntly.

Louis blinked. Then his face darkened. “What’s that mean?”

Nichols smiled crookedly. “I think you know what I mean. Mulder tells me Malaya’s also supposed to stay, you know, pure, before her wedding. Jesus, I’d probably be climbing the walls after three weeks, much less two years.”

“Well, maybe you just lack self-discipline,” Louis retorted coldly. “Malaya knows I love her.”

His eyes darted sideways.

Nichols turned somber. “Look, Louis. If your ‘self-discipline’ has slipped, you need to come clean. It’s beginning to look like somebody doesn’t want Malaya Gracia to get married. Or you. And they’re willing to kill to keep it from happening. Do you have any idea who’d want to do that?”

Louis’ eyes scanned the room, for aid, for escape. “No, honestly. That’s, that’s a ridiculous theory. I’m sorry I can’t help you. I have a meeting, please.”

Nichols thrust a card at the young entrepreneur. “If anything does come to you, here’s my number.”

Louis snatched the card and retreated to a room beyond the reception desk.

“He’s right, you know,” Nichols sighed as he turned for the door. “I probably lack self-discipline.”

**

Nichols nearly piled into a lane-switching taxi as Mulder gasped from the backseat.

“Jesus, Agent, you almost killed us,” Stevens snapped.

“You need to put somebody on Malaya Gracia, ASAP,” Mulder advised urgently.

“Why?” Nichols breathed, glaring as the cabbie flipped him off. “Gracia’s dead. If he was involved with the killer, why didn’t she just kill Malaya? Why all this complicated melodrama about tradition, killing the girl’s family?”

“She’d be too obvious a suspect — the motive for killing Malaya would be apparent. Somehow, she found out about the rash of area SUDS cases and devised this whole smokescreen. She started with a relative distanced enough not to draw attention to Malaya and Imperial — James Tapang. My guess is the cousin was too distant. So then, she moved on to the uncle. It worked, and she had time to work on Imperial. Not quite enough time, apparently, because she bought another year by killing Ramon Gracia.”

“Just who do you think this jilted lover is, Mulder?” Stevens asked gently.

“Somebody who could get close to the Gracia brothers and their cousin, close enough to slip Uncle Ernesto a fatal dose at bedtime, to get into Tapang’s confidence, to know Ramon’s routine. Tapang’s a young guy with poor prospects. Ernesto was a widower. Ramon clearly had a wandering eye. My guess? Ramon’s exotic ‘hooker’ was intimately familiar with his brother and his cousin, as well.

“I think our suspect has been close to the Philippine culture for a long time — she knew about their funeral and wedding traditions. But she’s not an insider, or she’d have known Tapang wasn’t a close enough relative. She’s somebody within Louis Imperial’s circle — a client, a co-worker, an old girlfriend. And she’s smart — and resourceful.”

“Resourceful?” Nichols muttered.

“The murder method — simulating bangungot. I think she used a cocktail of salvia extract and some sort of cardiac stimulant. Salvia divinorum users usually experience feelings of calmness and peace, but some experience dysphoria — discomfort and anxiety. If Gracia was having a cardiac episode, his hallucinations might have taken a particularly nightmarish form. At worst, the salvia would have rendered him and the other victims helpless to call 911 until it was too late.”

“Wait, wait,” Nichols sputtered. “Rodgers didn’t find any sign of any drug that would have caused Gracia’s ticker to, well, stop ticking. What are you saying? Our unhappy hooker used some kind of untraceable poison unknown to mankind?”

Mulder grinned. “Well, that would be pretty resourceful, wouldn’t it? Actually, Ramon Gracia’s refrigerator gave me an idea. Gracia started drinking all that apple juice after he broke up with Ms. Dalisay, right? After he started seeing our suspect. Why? It triggered a memory, so I asked your Dr. Rodgers to dig up the autopsy findings for Ernesto Gracia and James Tapang. Tapang’s post-mortem stomach contents included pizza, Doritos, and Boones Farm apple wine. Ernesto’s stomach contained pork, rice, noodles, and apple juice — maybe the same brand Gracia started guzzling at his ‘girlfriend’s request. In a society known for its supersized fries and groaning waistlines, that’s a lot of fruity goodness. You two ever heard of sodium morphate?”

“Sodium what?” Nichols grunted.

“That’s an urban legend, conspiracy theory,” Stevens countered. “There’s no proof sodium morphate even exists.”

“I’ve know a trio of geeks who’d beg to differ,” Mulder said. “They’ve uncovered several CIA memoranda referencing it, and they tell me the Mob’s been using it to neutralize witnesses since the early ‘60s. It’s likely it derives from morphine, and it reportedly smells and tastes like apples. In lesser quantities, it can induce a simulated heart attack.

“Supposedly, Senator Estes Kefauver ate a piece of apple pie and suffered an attack on the Senate floor just as he was planning to denounce Mafia operations. The CIA reportedly planned to poison Castro with sodium morphate, and Lyndon Johnson scarfed a slice of apple pie in front of his Secret Service agent just before he died.”

“Apple pie?” Nichols squeaked, glancing into the rearview mirror. “No offense, Mulder, but it’s beginning to sound a little like Oliver Stone put LSD in your corn flakes. Det. Eames told me about your theories in the Forester case, about the Macbeth curse and possession. I’m still not convinced Ramon Gracia didn’t just have one too many plates of hamanado.”

“We need a more precise tox screen,” Mulder persisted. “And we need to get some protection for Malaya Gracia. The killer’s been escalating — the murders are closer together and closer to Malaya. At some point, she may not be content with holding off the wedding date. I got a funny vibe from Imperial, like something may be up.”

Nichols jammed the brake a little too hard as they halted by Madison Square Garden. “Why don’t we bring this little magical mystery tour back to Planet Earth for the time being? I need a strong cup of coffee and maybe a piece of pie. If it makes you feel more comfortable, Mulder, you can have cake.”

Coquilles

Greenwich Village

Friday, April 21

Stevens convinced her now-silent car mates to grab a cup and a galette at Coquilles on Bleecker — the former employer of the late James Tapang. Nichols chose instead to take his caffeine in the alley beyond the kitchen, without Mulder.

“Shit, man,” Julio Diamonte spat as he puffed away in violation of Manhattan statute. Nichols savored his own cigarette, supplied by the initially wary dishwasher. “I always thought it was strange Jimmy just cacked like that. Night terror — boolshit.”

“Hey, don’t spread that around,” Nichols warned, at once bringing Julio into his circle. “We don’t want to spook anybody. You wanna look at a picture? A woman?”

“Shit man,” Julio grinned, showing a glint of gold in the fading early evening light. “I always wanna look at pictures of women.” He took the scan of the sketch Amihan Dalisay had helped craft. “Hope she’s hotter than this, though. Though I dig the Asian ladies, you know?”

“Yeah,” Nichols nodded. “She familiar?”

“Yeah, bro, that’s, uh, Ella. Jimmy was doin’ her for a while, though I don’ see what a fine Chiquita like that be doin’ with Jimmy. She was a classy-ass bitch, all right.”

Nichols rubbed his hands despite the warmth of the evening. “You know what she did?”

“Think Jimmy said she was a’ actress. Off-Broadway, some shit. They met at some bar down the street bout a month before he cacked. It was kinda funny.”

“What?”

“Well, we was just off shift, you know? Bout 11:30 or so, and Jimmy, he still smells like he took a swim in the harbor — all that seafood shit he gets on hisself. Anyone, we was like dead, so we hadn’ changed or nothin’. But Ella, man, she come up and just like almost hump Jimmy’s leg like a pitbull in heat. She don’t even look at me — like I’m a barstool or some shit. Shit, no offense to the dead or whatever, but I’m about 10 times more hotter than Jimmy was.”

Nichols scuffed his loafer through the alley gravel. “Ah, who knows what women want, eh?”

Julio grew silent, then laughed as he extinguished his own cigarette. “What you sayin’ about that bitch true, sound like maybe its good she don’t want me. Entiendo?”

MotorBoys Auto Repair

Queens, New York

Friday, April 21

“Thought Ernie’d won the New York State Lottery when he brought her around the first time,” Earl Harris chuckled as he slammed the hood of the Volvo he’d been tuning. The mechanic wiped grease from his huge, calloused brown hands and tossed the soiled shop towels into a barrel. “Damn shame — practically killed him when Rosa passed on, then just when he finds that sweet little thing, well, you know.”

“How’d they meet?” Stevens prodded.

“Brought her car in with a punctured tire,” the mechanic said. “Hey, Lewis, Gorman car’s ready!” he shouted to the desk at the front of the shop as Nichols, Stevens, and Mulder exchanged significant looks.

“Mr. Harris,” Nichols asked slowly. “You remember anything about the car?”

Harris frowned as he led his guests to a disreputable Bunn coffeemaker. He looked up; Stevens and Nichols shook their heads, and Mulder nodded. The mechanic poured 30-weight sludge into a pair of Styrofoam cups, handed one to the agent.

“See,” he finally rumbled. “That’s the thing I’m thinkin’ about now that you folks show up askin’ about Ella. Ernie’d let me have the day off that day for my girl’s college graduation, but he told me she brought in a rental — said her regular car was in for some engine work. Looked to Ernie like vandalism, like somebody’d punctured the tire with a nail. An’ when he reminded her the rental company insurance’d cover the repair, she said, no thanks, she didn’t want to go through the hassle. He threw in the labor — Ernie had a big heart, an’ she was a cute little thing. Next thing you know, she gives him a call to go get some coffee, an’ before you know it, they were a couple. Kinda odd couple, but takes all kinds, right?”

“Ain’t that the truth?” Nichols murmured.

Major Case Squad

Manhattan, New York

Friday, April 21

“So she’d targeted both of them,” Capt. Callas concluded, sipping his own bad cop coffee. “A dead-end dishwasher and an old widower, neither one a candidate for the Fortune 500. Likely she plied her charms with Ramon Gracia, as well.”

“I checked the rental agencies for the week prior to Harris’ daughter’s graduation,” Mulder supplied. “We didn’t have a make or even a color for the car, but we tracked down the invoice for ‘Ella’s’ tires, and I’m guessing we have a hit. Avis rented a Camry to a Lolita Chang a day before she met Ernesto Gracia.”

Callas smiled grimly. “Great, a sense of humor. So what’s the motive here? Revenge? Hate crime? If this is some kind of Thai-Filipino thing, I don’t want Homeland Security crawling all over this place. Nichols? A thought?”

Nichols had been perched on his desk, deep in meditation. “I just can’t shake that there’s something familiar about this set-up. The Thai connection, the untraceable poison… It rings a bell.”

As if on cue, Stevens’s phone vibrated. After a few quiet responses, she ended the call and looked up, face ashen.

“Nichols,” she said, gravely.

Jackson Heights

Queens, New York

Friday, April 21

“Damn!” Nichols shouted abruptly, kicking a discarded lettuce crate. He forced himself to look again at Malaya Gracia, sprawled in the gravel next to the dumpster, a single small-bore bullethole in her temple.

“Detective,” Mulder called, reaching with concern for the cop. Stevens grabbed the agent’s forearm and shook her head. Nichols looked at the pair, as if anticipating indictment, then stalked off.

“Nichols know the vic?” the primary, a Special Victim’s detective named Munch, who’d greeted the senior Major Case cop by name. Munch looked more like a malnourished comedian or wiseguy than a law enforcement officer. He peered through tinted lenses at Mulder. “Actually, don’t I know you?”

“She was a possible witness in the Gracia case,” Stevens hastened before Mulder could reveal Nichols’s possible misjudgment.

“Case?” Munch perked. “Thought the old guy just had a little too much afternoon delight.”

“We think maybe Ramon Gracia is part of a series of killings of Filipino men within his family,” Mulder said. “We think their deaths were induced, made to look like sudden unexpected death syndrome.”

“Wow, bangungot?” Munch responded, prompting a look from Stevens. “I visited Manila back in the ‘70s, with the ex. Hey, you thought of sodium morphate? You know, the shit they killed LBJ and Hoffa with?”

“They didn’t kill Hoffa,” Mulder said cryptically. “But, yes. That’s my theory.”

“Maybe this is some kind of CIA thing,” Det. Munch suggested as he moved out of a tech’s camera frame. “Maybe these guys were part of some kind of operation back in the islands, and this is a cleanup job.”

“Guys,” Stevens interjected firmly. “It’s possible the motive for these killings involved Ms. Gracia. What’s SVU’s interest?”

“We’ve had some Asian girls assaulted in Queens over the last few weeks, one shot in the head in an alley,” Munch explained. “This fits the M.O.”

“It might if the killer read the papers,” Mulder said.

“Or,” Stevens countered, “if Gracia happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and this has nothing to do with her father’s death.”

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Munch re-inspected Mulder. “Gee, man, you just look so familiar. You ever been in Baltimore? I used to work Homicide there.”

Mulder blinked, as if he’d recalled something. “I don’t recall.”

Munch snapped his fingers. “Yeah, it was some freaky government thing, all hush-hush. There were these three geeky dudes in a warehouse, and…” The detective trailed off suddenly with an amused grin. “Ah, must’ve been somebody else. Right, Agent Mulder, you say?”

“Yeah,” Mulder murmured, uncertainly. “Uh, excuse me — I want to brief my director on this new development.” The agent walked away, glancing backwards a few times as he unholstered his cell phone. He reholstered it as a distraught young man in a tee and sweatpants shoved a patrolman aside and rushed for the body.

“Malaya!” Louis Imperial screamed as he spotted her corpse. Munch and Mulder grabbed the marketer and pulled him back. Imperial dropped to his knees, kneading his hair with his fingers and keening like a wounded animal. Stevens dropped to her knees before him.

“Why was she here, Louis?” the cop prompted gently, squeezing his arm.

“She, we were, were…” Imperial swallowed, tears plopping into the alleyway dirt.

“Take a breath, Louis,” Stevens urged. “You were what?”

“You were going to elope, weren’t you?” Mulder interjected. “She was tired of waiting, wasn’t she? The killer’d kept you two apart long enough, and you couldn’t wait any longer. Somehow, she found out.”

“Mulder,” Stevens warned quietly. Imperial looked up, eyes shining in the police floods.

“What do you mean, kept us apart?” he gasped. “No, what does that mean? Somebody killed her to, to… Oh, God, ohgodohgod…”

“Mr. Imperial,” Mulder pushed. “You know something, don’t you?”

“Not now, Mulder,” Stevens said firmly.

“The temp,” the agent said. “Your regular secretary, is she Thai?”

Imperial’s head snapped up, eyes filled with horror. “Oh, Jesus. She wouldn’t have… She said…” The bereaved fiancé began to wail, his body shaking, and Stevens sprang to her feet.

She shoved Mulder against the backdoor of a dress shop with surprising strength. “I said, not now! He’s in shock!”

“They’ve been having an affair,” Mulder persisted, excitedly. “It’s how she knows the culture, how she knew the victims. The secretary’s ‘Ella.’”

“Later,” Stevens snapped, fixing him with an icy stare. “OK?”

The spell broke, and Mulder glanced guiltily at Louis Imperial, rocking disconsolately in the filth of the alley. “Yeah,” he swallowed.

Pete’s

Manhattan, New York

Friday, April 21

“Top me off, Pete, will ya?” Nichols called. The bartender raised a brow, setting aside his lemon and knife. “I’m walking, OK? Gimme a break.”

“I’ll see he gets home.” Nichols’s piano stool swiveled as Mulder settled in at the bar nearby.

“Just what I needed,” the cop moaned. “What do you want, Agent? I screwed up, OK? I should’ve listened to you.”

“Why?” Mulder smiled mournfully. “It was a wild-ass theory, this whole Filipino marriage thing, SUDS, sodium morphate. I had a feeling, was all. Just my day to have the right one.”

“I’d almost rather you rubbed my face in it,” Nichols groaned. He waved to Pete. “What’s your poison, you should pardon the expression?”

“I’m the designated driver, remember? Coke with a slice of lemon, please. Look, Detective — I’ve been on the carpet so often I’ve got rug burns on my knees.”

“Not the greatest analogy ever,” Nichols grunted, eyeing his fresh drink, then nudging it aside. “You don’t have to hold my hand, Mulder. “Stevens send you around to give me this little pep talk?”

Mulder laughed. “I think she’s beginning to like me as much as Det. Eames. No, I just thought maybe you could use a good reboot. I need you back in the game — homicide isn’t my forte. Besides, you told me something about this case seemed familiar. What was it?”

“Geez, Mulder, you should’ve caught me two beers ago,” Nichols laughed. “I don’t know. It’s like when you have the puzzle pieces in front of you, and you can make out some sky and part of Yankee Stadium, but you don’t have enough, I don’t know, context.”

“All right,” Mulder nodded. He grabbed a cocktail napkin, located a pen, and tore the napkin into pieces. He shoved the fragments in front of Nichols. “Write down the pieces of the puzzle. You said there was a Thai connection.”

“Yeah,” Nichols mumbled, accepting Mulder’s pen. After a beat, he wrote “Thai” on the scrap. Then he frowned and jotted a second note. “For some reason, the perp’s name, Ella, it seems connected to the Thai thing.”

“OK. What else?”

“How sure are you about this sodium morphate crap?”

“It’s a theory.”

“Well, it reminds me of something, a case a while back. I don’t think I was even involved, maybe something I read, saw in a casefile.”

“The case had a Thai connection?”

Nichols shook his head. “No, no. The cases were connected, though.”

Mulder nodded, encouragingly. “We showed Louis Imperial ‘Ella’s’ sketch, and it turns out to be his assistant, Karen Clemmons, 23, lives in Greenwich Village. Thai-American, despite the name. They’d been having an on again-off again affair ever since Ernesto Gracia’s death. I believe she engineered his murder along with Ramon Gracia’s. The first postponement weakened Imperial enough to cheat, but he was still committed to marrying Malaya. Ramon’s death was to buy her time.”

Nichols scowled. “Wait a minute. This is a 23-year-old secretary, and you’re trying to tell me she has access to classified poisons and worked this whole plot out in her head? Three murders, just to snag her man? Geez, sounds like that Texas cheerleader case a while back.”

“I don’t think you’re too far off,” Mulder said. “It’s like Sarit has a mentor, somebody pushing her to pursue Imperial, somebody who could come up with this convoluted scheme and convince her to kill to erase her competition for Imperial. Someone like…”

“Her mother?”

“Actually, her mother’s in the clear,” Mulder murmured grimly. “Sukhon Sarit Clemmons and her husband Gary were murdered 2 1/2 years ago in a fairly gruesome manner. The Shoreham police decided it was a home invasion — the stock drug-crazed kids — and closed the case with no arrests. Karen was away at the University of Virginia at the time.”

“Jesus,” Nichols whispered. “Sukhon. First-generation?”

“Gary was a businessman who traveled to Asia a lot. They married in the late ‘80s — Sukhon brought her infant daughter with her. Imperial told me Sukhon never discussed her past with Karen, was almost defensive about it.”

Nichols frowned. “You think it was a racket? Working girl blackmails the rich Americano into a trip to the promised land?”

Mulder shrugged. “I called the Thai officials, asked for anything they had on Sukhon. Probably won’t hear ‘til tomorrow.”

“So you’re saying, what? That somebody killed Clemmons’ parents and then talked her into committing four cold-blooded murders?”

“If Karen killed those men, and the person who murdered her parents is behind it, then they must have a powerful pull on her. I think it’s possible Karen’s ‘mentor’ decided to supplant her mother, to become her mother.”

“Mother-and-daughter psychos,” Nichols whistled. “And I thought Joan and Melissa Rivers were twisted.” The cop’s grin vanished. “There it is again — déjà vu. But not my déjà vu. Goren’s.”

“Bobby’s?” Mulder asked.

“When I first got assigned to Major Case, Eames told me about a case — a health inspector murdered in the projects. But that turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg.” Nichols rose from his stool, threw some bills on the scarred wood. “C’mon, I wanna check a few files back at the squad.”

Midtown Amsterdam Hotel

Manhattan, New York

Friday, April 21

“No one saw me,” Karen pledged. “There’ve been some attacks in the area — Asian girls. The cops probably think it’s the same guy. That’s what Lou said.”

The older woman raised a brow. “Louis? When did you speak with Louis?”

Karen was silent. Had she screwed up? “Mother” already seemed agitated about her removing that sanctimonious little bitch. “He, he called right before you got back. He was crying — the cops had just finished with him. Lou said this crazy serial killer must’ve mistaken her for a hooker. I particularly enjoy that.”

Mother shook her head, grinning nonetheless. “It was a very foolhardy move, my dear. But perhaps it will pay off. You’re the first shoulder he’ll lean on. But, Karen, my sweet?”

“Yes?”

“You mustn’t rush this. He’ll come around now, but we mustn’t raise suspicion. Do you understand?”

Karen sighed. “I guess.” A smile graced her pretty Asian features. “Thanks. I mean that.” She rushed forward and pulled the older woman into an embrace. Mother’s eyes welled, and she kissed the girl’s hair.

They both jumped at the knock. “Hello? It’s the housekeeper,” a youthful voice called timidly.

“Yes?” Mother responded, more harshly than she’d intended.

“I’ve got some towels, some extra towels.”

Mother rolled her eyes at Karen. “Leave them by the door.”

A brief silence ensued. “I’m really not supposed to. If somebody walks off with–”

“Oh, all right.” Mother released Karen and moved to the door, undoing the chain and turning the knob. She was propelled backward as the door swung open and a gun was thrust into her face.

“On the ground, both of you!” Det. Megan Stevens shouted. Karen Clemmons considered her options, then dropped to the carpet. Stevens moved to the girl as Nichols cuffed the older woman, covered by Mulder.

“Smart girl, using the throwaway cell phones with your ‘boyfriends,’” Nichols told Karen. “But we knew you’d take a call from Louis.” The cop looked down at the blonde in his grasp. “Nicole Wallace, you’re under arrest for conspiracy to commit murder. You have the right–“

Nicole Wallace, AKA Elizabeth Hitchens, smiled angelically as Nichols pulled her to her feet. “Damn,” she interrupted his recitation, coolly.

“What?” Nichols demanded.

“I was hoping it would be Bobby,” the blonde purred with a charming British lilt that momentarily chilled the detective’s blood.

“Little taken aback myself,” Nichols empathized, “considering you’re supposed to be dead.”

Major Case Squad

Manhattan, New York

Saturday, April 22

“Nicole Wallace,” Capt. Callas savored. “A legend in the annals of Major Case. Australian national. At least 19 kills to her name – pardon me, alleged kills – and she’s managed somehow to escape the needle every time. If Goren had talked that way, he’d probably have called her the one that got away.

“According to her file, Wallace likely was molested by her father. She first came to the attention of the international law enforcement community when she and a self-styled bon vivant named Bernard Fremont robbed and murdered eight men in Thailand. Fremont’s ‘other’ girlfriend ratted them out, and Wallace rolled on Fremont for a dime sentence in the women’s facility at Yard Lao. Not exactly a nurturing environment for a budding psychopath, though she did learn the Thai language for free.

“Thailand,” Nichols murmured as a piece fell into place.

“When she got out, she returned down under and began practicing the world’s oldest profession. Wallace gave birth to a daughter, who reportedly was swept out to sea when she was three. By sheer coincidence, a three-year-old skeleton turned up near the beach where she disappeared. Goren theorized that Wallace had come to view the girl as a sexual rival.”

“Jesus,” Stevens breathed.

Callas nodded darkly. “I won’t say it gets better. Wallace comes to the U.S. in 2002 under the alias Elizabeth Hitchens, somehow lands a job as a lit professor at Hudson. She gets involved in two murders on campus – all supposedly to get her lover an academic appointment – but all we could get her on was an Australian embezzlement charge, and she disappeared before we could serve the warrant.

“Skip forward. Wallace somehow lays her hands on some anthrax and uses it to frame a former government scientist. Goren presses the guy, who hangs himself in his shower, and Goren gets savaged in the press. Wallace shows up to gloat – with her new husband, Gavin Haynes.”

“The Gavin Haynes,” Nichols informed Stevens and Mulder. “Goren trips her up, but Haynes buys a good lawyer, and again, she wriggles off the hook. Then dumps her. When next we meet her, she’s heading up a diamond theft ring, along with – get this – a young Japanese-American girl named Ella Miyazaki. Who was also her lover.”

“Surrogate daughter,” Mulder profiled. “Except Wallace has a somewhat corrupted view of family.”

“Nicely understated, Agent,” Callas responded. “Miyazaki rolls on Wallace, agrees to wear a wire. Wallace crushes Ella the First’s trachea after trying unsuccessfully to kill Haynes. Again, she disappears into the ether. Eventually, Goren finds her setting up housekeeping with the brother of a homicide victim. The boyfriend’s daughter has some health issues, and Goren begins to think Wallace is feeding her estrogen to induce cancer. Turns out she thought her boyfriend was dosing the girl to grab a few million in trust money, and Wallace was trying to save her. Before we could get anything on her for the brother, she skipped with the girl. But she must’ve had a change of heart, because she dropped the daughter with an aunt in Arizona and called Goren to tell him he’d ‘stolen’ her last chance. The aunt was no help — she thought Wallace was a hero — and the next indication she’s still on the map is when her old cohort, Bernard Fremont, gets a hot hypodermic on a courthouse staircase. Goren was certain it was her.

“What I can’t figure out is her stake in this. There’s no real pot of gold here, especially now that Wallace or her protégé’s killed the golden goose. The bullet in the Malaya Gracia shooting wasn’t even the same caliber as the slugs in the previous street kills. Except, of course, we haven’t found the weapon either in Wallace’s hotel room or Clemmons’ apartment.”

“Wallace would have tossed the gun immediately, or had Clemmons dispose of it,” Mulder noted. “Nicole Wallace has the cunning of an organized serial: Meticulous planning, superhuman patience, attention to eliminating physical evidence and connections. At the same time, her motives and emotions are highly disorganized, almost childish. And I think that’s the key to this thing.

“I’m guessing the turning point was when she murdered her own daughter. The horror of the act struck home, at least on some subconscious level, and she had to escape, wipe the slate clean, create a new life. So she comes to New York as Elizabeth Hitchens, establishes academic creds, and finds a solid, human relationship. But then her sociopathic nature emerges, and it all falls apart — at Bobby’s hands. Worse yet, Bobby exposes her history of crime and degradation. She cultivates a relationship with Gavin Haynes — an even more conventional relationship with the added appeal of upper-class credibility and a chance at normal parenthood — but she has to bring Bobby down before she can move forward. Once again, she plots a brilliant frame-up, somehow gets her hands on a vial of anthrax, and makes Bobby look like a bumbler. But she can’t resist the temptation of letting Bobby know she’s responsible for her downfall. And that proves her downfall.

“Wallace loses Haynes and her shot at motherhood and normalcy, again at the hands of Bobby Goren. I think that unhinged her, destroyed whatever boundaries she might have maintained. She ‘adopts’ the first Ella as both her daughter and her lover. The lines between sex and familial love have become distorted as Wallace emotionally regresses. Then her daughter-slash-lover betrays her. That betrayal crushes her, and she strikes out at Fremont, who she sees as responsible along with her father for corrupting her — in a crowded, public setting.

“Then Wallace the Girl Who Wants to be Good goes through another metamorphosis, into the role of Mother-Protector. Somehow, she found out that girl was in danger, and she commits yet another murder, but this time to ‘save’ her latest ‘daughter.’ All she wants is to be the good mother, but once again, there’s Bobby to remind her that she’s beyond redemption, beyond a human existence. Every time Wallace struggles to create a new future for herself, she simultaneously tries to erase her past, whether it’s Bernard Fremont or Bobby Goren. I think this time, she decided to do both at once.”

Callas arched an eyebrow. “You want to explain that, Agent Mulder, or would you like to milk the suspense for another few minutes?”

“I threw around what little weight I have with the Philippine government,” the agent related. “After wheedling and begging and mumbling about Homeland Security, I found out who else was on the cell block when Nicole Wallace was doing her dime at Yard Lao.”

“Sukhon Sarit Clemmons,” Callas murmured.

Nichols grinned. “So who’s up for a road trip to Shoreham? Stevens, you bring the chips, and Mulder can entertain us with Bigfoot stories.”

“You’ll have to entertain yourself,” Mulder said. “It isn’t every day a female serial killer falls into your lap. Besides, I want to try to shoot down the 400-pound gorilla in the room — the one we seem to be avoiding.”

“What?” Stevens queried.

“Bobby’s mentor, Declan Gage, was involved in a demented scheme to ‘free’ him of his past. As part of his plan, he recruited Nicole Wallace to help frame Bobby for his brother’s murder. Except Frank Goren wasn’t murdered. Gage had lured Wallace in to eliminate Bobby’s chief nemesis — he mailed Bobby her heart. Which your M.E. positively identified as Wallace’s. I’m kind of weak on my criminal law. Does double jeopardy apply here?”

“Whatever the case, we have a live one right now,” Callas advised. “Nichols, Stevens — and this goes for you too, Agent — I just want to remind you that Nicole Wallace has gone four rounds in the box with Goren, and she’s still breathing free oxygen. She probably already knows Nichols’ favorite movie and Stevens’ shoe size.”

“What?” Nichols demanded, feigning offense. “You think the B Team’s not up to it?”

Callas smiled dryly. “You’re the A Team now, Detectives. What I’m saying is, polish up on your A-Game. And wear your shin guards.”

Home of Jeanne Ratner

Shoreham, New York

Saturday, April 22

“I never trusted her, and not for the reason you’re probably thinking,” Jeanne Ratner confided with a touch of defensiveness. Gary Clemmons’s bereaved sister poured three cups, then replaced the carafe in her high-tech coffeemaker.

“And what would that reason be?” Nichols inquired as the plump brunette placed his coffee carefully before him. Ratner settled in across the kitchen table, glanced quickly between her visitors, and clasped her hands on the oak as if she were preparing to impart state secrets.

“Gary was a heavy equipment salesman — construction equipment mostly. He usually went to Bangkok once a year to court new customers. Anyway. Gary always was, what would you call it today? A player. Never gave me details, but I heard him bragging to Jeff one night about Thai women, you know, what they could, uh, do.”

“I understand,” Nichols smiled.

“Yes. Anyway. It didn’t take long to figure out how he entertained himself on the road. Which worried me to death — AIDS was just getting going back then, and I was deathly afraid he’d catch it from some hooker in Thailand or Hong Kong. You want my opinion, he was the one got caught. You can imagine how surprised we were when he came home with a new wife — and little Karen. Gary said Sukhon was a business contact, somebody he’d met on a previous trip, and she was trying to raise the girl by herself. He didn’t fool me — when he introduced her to us, I could see she was sizing things up. I even tried to get Gary to make her take a paternity test, but he refused. He was in love. Over the years, it was Karen I felt the most sorry for.”

Stevens leaned forward, warming her hands with her cup. “Why was that?”

“Well, I had no doubt Sukhon blackmailed Gary into marrying her — probably threatened to tell his bosses he’d been charging sex on the company card. You could see the growing tension between them as the years went by, even though they publicly put on a good front for Karen. She was over here all the time, and by high school, she was practically raising herself. But she worked hard in school: Karen was constantly trying to achieve, I think to get Gary and Sukhon’s attention.”

Nichols and Stevens exchanged a look. “You remember anything unusual around the time your brother and his wife were murdered?” Nichols asked.

Ratner sighed. “The police insisted they were killed by a burglar, an addict, or something, but I always wondered if Sukhon’s past had come back to haunt her. They did entertain an old friend of hers one time — someone she’d apparently known in Thailand. A white woman, middle-aged but very pretty — I remember wondering where she and Sukhon ever hooked up.”

Nichols suppressed a smile at her unwitting pun. “Did you get a name?”

“Liz,” Ratner drawled. “Sorry — I was just over there to drop something off, and I never got a last name. But I can’t imagine she could have had anything to do with killing Gary. She was so polite, so civilized. Of course, anybody with that kind of accent seems classy, you know?”

“Accent?”

“Oh, didn’t I say? I think she was British.”

The Onshore Pub

Shoreham, New York

Saturday, April 22

“Yeah, Sue and Gary came around most every Saturday night for a few beers and the specialty du jour,” Len Graham nodded, hauling a keg of Sam Adams behind the bar. “That’s what we called her, Sue — Sukhon was a mouthful for most of the guys, and I always kinda figured it would make her feel more like one of the locals. She was friendly enough, but she never was too chatty, at least when Gary wasn’t around.”

Nichols leaned against the bar. “How often was that? When Gary wasn’t around?”

The restaurateur eyed Nichols, then laughed. “That didn’t sound real great, did it? You own a bar long enough, and everything you say starts sounding dirty. Naw, Sue never stepped out on Gary, least that I ever heard. There are a couple of Thai families in town, and every once in a while, she’d come in with one of the wives for a sandwich or a glass of wine or a beer.”

“She ever come in anyone else?” Stevens asked. “An attractive woman, white, probably blonde, British or Australian? This would have been around the time she died.”

Graham grinned. “Shit, yeah. She stood out like a sore thumb, sitting there with shy little Sue. Every male eye in the joint — and my lesbian cook’s — was locked on her when they came in, and she had my afternoon guy stammering. Turned it on and off — one minute working Greg into a frenzy, the next yammering away at Sue.”

“What about?”

“Don’t ask me,” Graham shrugged. “Greg said the hot blonde seemed pissed off. And every time he got close, they’d switch to the mother tongue.”

“Mother tongue?”

“Sue’s mother tongue. I mean, I guess it was Thai. All Greek to me. I just figured they were catching up on old times.”

“Or something like that,” Nichols suggested.

Major Case Squad

Manhattan, New York

Saturday, April 22

“Well,” Nicole smiled sweetly. “You must be the infamous Fox Mulder of the Bureau. The Fox on the prowl, eh? Am I your prey du jour, Fox?”

“Close enough,” Mulder said, returning her smile as he slipped into the chair across from the seductive serial killer. “Long as we’re being familiar, mind if I call you Nicole?”

“Oh, please. Though I am curious — aren’t you a little out of your territory here? I thought you were all about hobgoblins and fairies and the like.”

Mulder’s grin widened. “Something like that. I’m also a behavioral scientist, as I’m sure you know.”

“Damn,” Nicole purred, looking over Mulder’s shoulder into the two-way mirror. She’d declined counsel — so far. “There goes my omniscient mystique. Yes, I have read of your early exploits. You were quite the fair-haired boy with the Bureau at one time, weren’t you? What happened, Fox? Was it that agent being shot as you polished your sidearm? Because we can all have a bad day, can’t we, now? Or was it simply when you started chasing wraiths and ghoulies? I imagine that raised a few brows at the Bureau.”

“Let’s just say I’m not part of the Director’s ‘Five.’”

“Ah, there’s that Fox Mulder humor. It’s so nice that you can view things with such fine spirits. Your career hasn’t precisely rocketed off, has it? And then, of course, there was poor Samantha.”

Mulder had steeled himself — if Wallace was seeking an Achilles heel, it would be his sister’s disappearance and his obsession with uncovering the truth of her fate. He leaned back, waiting patiently.

“Lonely little boy; brilliant father — now, those must have been some boots to fill; your sister spirited off in the night by, what, little green men? You and your darling sister were alone at home that night, weren’t you? You probably don’t have much memory of what actually transpired that night, do you? Blocked it out, eh?”

Despite his preparation for Wallace’s emotional games, Mulder felt a rush of fury behind his eyes. She actually hadn’t been the first one to suggest Mulder had had some sinister role in Samantha’s disappearance. She’s playing you, and doing a good job of it, he reminded himself.

Nicole’s eyes softened with mock sympathy. “Ah, but I’ve touched a raw nerve, haven’t I, Fox? Let’s not talk of such sordid matters. Obviously, you’ve suffered more than your share of personal and professional traumas. It’s astonishing you haven’t cracked under the pressure, like poor Agent Patterson. Oh. I’d forgotten about your little scrape with the courts. Are you still in therapy? Say, maybe some time on the couch will help clear the cobwebs about what really happened to young Samantha. I mean, if you truly wish to remember.”

“Let’s talk about you for a while.” Mulder had intended a casual transition to regain the upper hand. Instead, it sounded terse, evasive, desperate.

Nicole bit her upper lip and stared at Mulder for a moment. “Nope. I think I’d prefer to talk to Bobby, if you don’t mind, Fox. That’s a dear.”

Mulder smiled, managing to make it to the door without stumbling. Callas was on the other side of the mirror, with a sympathetic expression that made things even worse.

“She’s good,” the agent admitted, weakly.

Shoreham Police Department

Shoreham, New York

Saturday, April 22

“Textbook meth massacre,” the Shoreham chief insisted, the back of his oak office chair nearly touching the veneer paneling behind him. Above his head, the portly small-town cop pumped Ed Koch’s hand in grainy black and white. Nichols couldn’t make out the scrawled platitude in the lower right corner of the cheaply framed photo.

“Caught ‘em in their sleep,” the chief continued. “Could’ve turned around, maybe cleaned out the place before they ever woke up. But he went to town on Gary and Sue with an aluminum bat. Meth head — hadda be.”

“Kinda awkward weapon, though, for some hopped-up druggie,” Nichols suggested. “No gun, no knife? He’s hauling his club around the house like Derek Jeter warming up?”

The chief’s smile froze as his eyes frosted over. “Don’t know — I’m a Mets guy myself.”

“And you never found this guy? Meth head, I’d think the house woulda been lousy with prints, trace.”

The cop stood. “Look, I got a lot to deal with today — I don’t need you metro assholes slumming around here, calling us a bunch of hicks.”

“Was there an autopsy?” Stevens asked. “The violence of the murders could’ve been to mask some other murder method. Our suspect would have wanted this to seem like a random felony homicide. Was an autopsy done on either victim?”

The chief formulated an answer, knowing he’d screwed up. “Look, this guy broke almost every bone in their bodies. Cause of death was obvious. You don’t believe the evidence, then you toddle back to the city for a warrant and a couple shovels.”

“Sure,” Nichols grinned. “If that’s what you want. But this case we’re investigating, it’s got CNN written all over it. You want a piece of that? Those detectives out in Boulder, the ones on the Ramsey case, what do you think they’re up to these days? Horrible, what a swarm of media leeches can do to a good cop who makes one mistake. Maybe we can do a quick exhumation and correct this little error under the radar. What do you say, Chief?”

The chief dropped back into his chair, chewing the inside of his cheek. “Coroner’s usually at the course afternoons,” he finally mumbled, “but I think I got his cell somewhere here…”

“You don’t mind,” Nichols said, “we’ll take this one to go.”

New York County District Attorney’s Office

Manhattan, New York

Saturday, April 22

“Let me see if I’ve got this straight,” District Attorney Jack McCoy drawled, the lines of his Lincolnesque face deepening into amused crevices. “We’re going to ask a jury to buy that these two women murdered six people, including the girls’ parents, so what, true love could take its course? That two of these murders were dressed up to look like a home invasion, and three others like Filipino voodoo killings? That the suspects used some untraceable CIA poison? Not to mention your M.E. confirmed that your perp has been dead for more than a year. What else do you want, Captain — wine from water?”

Callas knew going in this was going to be a crap shoot — McCoy was a rebel, had been known to bet on some pretty dark horses, bend the rules in the name of the improbable. But after Arthur Branch left the DA’s office to pursue some fairly lofty political aspirations, McCoy had entered the belly of the Beast, and he might now not be so willing to jab it with a stick.

“Nicole Wallace has at least 20 murders on her card,” Callas nonetheless persisted.

“Alleged murders,” McCoy corrected, leaning back, interlocking his fingers behind his head. “Even worse — it looks like a vendetta. She’s repeatedly made fools out of your squad, especially Bob Goren, who’s not exactly jury-friendly. And your boy Nichols? I’m not sure what a jury would make of him.”

“I’m aware you and Nichols have had your differences,” Callas responded, realizing immediately it was a mistake. McCoy’s eyes fired.

“My relationship with Zach Nichols has no bearing here,” the DA snapped. He sighed. “Look, I’d love as much as you to put this psychopath away for the next few centuries, Captain. But I’m not going to do it with this convoluted fairy tale you’ve brought me. We’re going to need a straight-out, black-and-white confession, or plead out the one to get the other. My recommendation would be the girl. There — you’ve had the benefit of counsel. For what that’s worth.”

New York Police Department Medical Examiner’s Office

Manhattan, New York

Tuesday, April 25

“The local coroner — is he the town butcher or something?” Rodgers asked, tossing the Clemmons report on the steel table between her and the detectives. “The lack of any defensive wounds alone should have raised a red flag.”

Mulder frowned. “They were dead before they were stabbed.”

“Or close to it. They’d both suffered severe cardiac trauma prior to death, though I haven’t yet been able to pin down the possible cause.”

“Sodium morphate,” the agent concluded. “That’s the link with the Gracias and Tapang.”

“Great,” Nichols grunted. “The poison that leaves no trace. That wraps up another one.”

“Scully’s looking into where Wallace might’ve come up with the sodium morphate. We know some, ah, experts in this sort of thing. We know she was able to lay her hands on anthrax — she must have some pretty deep global connections.”

“I don’t see Clemmons laying her hands on sodium morphate,” Stevens considered. “So did Wallace supply Clemmons with the poison, or was this Wallace on her own? I mean, you suggested she was trying to replace Sukhon Clemmons as Karen’s ‘mother.’ If Karen doesn’t know Wallace is implicated in her parents’ murders…”

“Then we oughtta be the ones to break the news,” Nichols said grimly.

“Speaking of which,” Rodgers sighed. “After you arrested Wallace, I went back to the samples we took from that heart Declan Gage sent Goren. DNA came up a match. Again. So then I went back in, a little deeper, and I found slight differences. I’m not trying to excuse myself, but it’s not too surprising we were fooled. The genetic alleles are nearly identical when–”

“You have twins,” Nichols whispered. “Sure, sure. Nicole’s always had an almost supernatural ability to slip out of our grasp, to seemingly be more than one place at once. She probably wasn’t her father’s only victim. What a bond that must’ve created. And what a threat, in Nicole’s diseased mind. She finally must have fed her to Gage, to get rid of her last rival for her late father’s affection, the mirror image that reminded her of her sociopathic nature. Plus, it would’ve been an ideal way to lead Bobby off her trail. Gage probably had no idea.”

“Unless the one we got’s the sister,” Stevens suggested.

Nichols unsheathed his cell phone with a grin. “I gotta call Fox — he’s gonna love this.”

Major Case Squad

Manhattan, New York

Tuesday, April 25

Karen Clemmons’ eyes widened, then roamed the room as Nichols advanced his theory. The eyes then narrowed.

“She wouldn’t have done that,” the young woman finally murmured

The cop leaned back in his chair. “That all you’ve got to say? She helped you poison three men, maybe pushed you into killing Malaya Gracia, and you don’t think she could’ve slaughtered your folks?”

“There’s nothing in that entire sentence that has any basis in proven fact,” Clemmon’s attorney admonished. Nichols gave her a disgusted look, then shoved a sheaf of photos across the interview table.

He tapped the top shot, of a heartbreakingly small skeleton on an autopsy table. “You see that, Karen. That’s Nicole’s ‘first’ daughter. Three years old. When she became a threat, your surrogate mommy murdered her and threw her in the ocean.”

Karen sneered. “She told me how you tried to frame her when you couldn’t get anything else on her. And my parents were killed by an addict or burglar. Not that…”

Nichols regarded her curiously. “Not that what, Karen? Not that they didn’t deserved to be cold-bloodedly murdered in their own home? What poison has she filled your head with? Don’t you think they deserved better?”

“What about what I deserved?” Karen erupted. The attorney placed a hand on her arm.

“What you deserve?”

“Karen,” the lawyer cautioned pointedly.

Stevens picked up on Nichols’s cue. “Louis told us all about your relationship. How he ended things to recommit to Malaya. Wow, that must’ve been devastating.”

Karen stared at the table for a second. “Well, yeah, of course, though I’m not sure ‘recommit’s the right term. Cultural guilt, maybe — it wasn’t precisely a pre-arranged marriage, but his parents were always kinda fundamentalist, you know? Marry your own kind? He loved me — I know it — but the pressure was just too much for him to bear.”

“So the only way you’d ever wind up with Louis was if Malaya were out of the picture?”

“You make me sound like that woman in that Michael Douglas movie.” No outright denial, Mulder reflected from behind the two-way glass. “If I’d had time, it would’ve been me.” She caught her slip, and fell into a silent sulk.

“You mean, if Louis and Malaya hadn’t decided to skip town together?” Nichols prodded. “That when you kicked Plan B into action? Not quite as subtle as a nightmare cocktail, but just as effective. Don’t feel bad – Nicole’s been killing probably since you were born.”

“Then why isn’t she in prison?” Karen challenged.

“Give us time,” Nichols murmured. “In the meantime, hold tight.”

“She’s not going to give Wallace up that easily,” Stevens concluded as they joined Mulder in the dim adjacent room. “She hardly seemed phased that Wallace murdered her parents.”

“That’s it,” Mulder murmured. “That’s the bond. Their common bond.”

“What?”

“That’s what spurred Wallace to kill her parents, to take their place, to ‘adopt’ Clemmons. And why Karen’s so loyal to her. Nicole gave her what she ‘deserved.’”

“Imperial?” Nichols asked.

Mulder shook his head. “Revenge.”

**

“Karen?” Stevens asked gently as she took her seat at the interview table. “Your aunt said you had a difficult time at home, growing up.”

“It was all right.” Karen’s eyes were guarded.

“You hadn’t been back to see your parents for years before they were killed. All that hard work, studying? It wasn’t to get their attention, was it?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The girl’s face was stone, but moisture was welling in her eyes.

Stevens reached across the table and placed her hand over Karen’s. Karen stared down, seemingly in horror.

“You wanted your freedom,” the cop whispered. “From them. From him.”

The orphaned woman began to shake, trying to yank her hand away.

“When did he start abusing you, Karen?”

“No…”

“Karen, when did it start? Did your mother know?”

“Stop it.”

“Did she even try to help you? Stand up to him?”

“NO!!” Karen screamed, knocking her chair over. “He treated her like his slave, and she just let him! And she let him, let him…” She was beginning to hyperventilate. “I was glad when I heard they’d been put down, OK?”

“When Nicole put them down?”

Karen looked down at Stevens, her red eyes suddenly alert. She picked up her chair and sat back down, primly, beside her attorney.

“Bullshit,” she said calmly with a disturbingly Wallace-like smile. “The police said it was an intruder. A meth head.”

**

“Hey there,” Nichols grinned as he entered the room, tossing his notes on the table.

Nicole Wallace peered up from below with a mad Mona Lisa smile. “Hey.”

The detective, in shirtsleeves, inspected the “alleged” serial killer as he loosened his tie. “They taking good care of you?”

“Adequate,” Nicole murmured. “How sweet of you to ask. Where is that pretty little partner of yours, Michael?”

Nichols’s grin grew. “Ah, I sent her off to check out a witness or something. Just the two of us.”

“How delightful,” Nicole purred, eyes sparkling. “You know, I was looking forward to catching up with old times with Bobby. I was sorry to hear what happened to him. His demons finally must have feasted on his soul.”

“Very colorful — Hieronymus Bosch meets Dante.”

“Ooh, a smart one,” Nicole murmured. “Well, I imagine it must be challenging to fill Bobby’s size 13s. Although I’m sure that with your lineage, you must have been buried in dusty old volumes. And possibly a few demons, as well? I mean, growing up with two shrinks? A father like W. P. Nichols. He lives just a stone’s throw from here, doesn’t he?”

Nichols leaned back and smiled. “Stevens, my partner, thinks you singlehandedly murdered that couple out in Shoreham and put some kind of voodoo spell on Ramon Gracia and his family. All so you could help some girl find the love of her life.”

Nicole laughed lightly. “Like some sort of homicidal Cupid.”

“I was thinking Aphrodite,” Nichols chuckled. Nicole’s brow rose, and she nodded approvingly. The detective riffled through a folder. “See, the problem is, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence piling up. Like you and Karen Clemmons. What’s the deal there, anyway? I read about Ella. You occasionally like something a little more exotic?”

Something cold flashed across Nicole’s dark eyes and then disappeared just as quickly. “Now you are being the naughty one. I had known Karen’s mother during my youthful travels, and when she died tragically, I wanted to see if there were anything I could do for the poor girl. We’ve wound up being quite good friends.”

“Real Housewives of the Thai Correctional Ministry,” Nichols nodded. “Karen with you the night Malaya Gracia got shot?”

“As a matter of fact, yes.”

“At your hotel?”

Nicole paused as the dark thing again crossed her face. “Karen was upset about her employer. They had had a rather ill-advised relationship, and when he cast her aside, she began to fear for her job. Horrible thing, harassment, isn’t it, Zachary? That pressure from someone more powerful, more influential, more intelligent? Of course, I needn’t tell you, eh, Zach? Your father, I mean.”

Nichols smiled broadly. “I’m having a moment of nostalgia right now. But let’s talk about your dad. I understand he was no walk in the park, either.”

Nicole leaned in toward the cop, eyes half-closed, dreamy. But her body had tensed. “Bobby and I already had this conversation, only with much more nuance and technique. You and Bobby were probably quite the fast chums, comparing psychoses and neuroses and casefiles. It must have been quite painful when the great Bobby Goren left his pale protégé to hold down the fort. Isn’t that the Yank aphorism?”

The detective’s expression had darkened, though the smile remained pasted in place. “Something like that.”

Nicole’s eyes grew wider as she gently touched his hand with a soft, warm finger. “Oh, my. And then to have your dear friend Danny gunned down like some addict in an alley.”

Nichols’ hand twitched back, as if it had a life of its own. The smile flickered.

“I understand the man who murdered him is scott-free, living richly in his own land. Diplomatic immunity. The laws of your country are strange, sometimes unjust, hmm, Zachary? This man puts down your friend, your partner, like some cur in the street, and even his best friend isn’t able to bring him to justice. It must haunt you–”

Nichols’ chair upended as he leapt up. “You… You won’t be as lucky, Nicole.” He started to say something else, then took a breath, gathered his papers, and strode silently out the door.

A knot of detectives at the end of the corridor looked up warily as the door slammed into its frame. Stevens and Mulder were leaning on the opposite wall.

“How’d it go?”

Nichols’s face relaxed into a boyish grin. “Like a charm.”

Stevens crossed her arms with a frown. “You OK?”

“Please. You should’ve been at the last Passover seder I spent with my folks. I should’ve sent Dad in there.”

“So what’s next?” Mulder asked.

“I need a couple of favors,” Nichols said. “Number one, I want to see if Sukhon Clemmons reached out to any friends or family. You may need your phone card for this one.”

“OK. What else?”

Nichols looked back at the closed interrogation room door. “Nicole the Nymphette knows too much about our playbook. Men are tools, playthings, or pawns to her — Mulder and I aren’t going to get anywhere. Stevens is single, attractive — no offense, partner. That merely makes her competition — Nicole’ll have her guard up. If we’re going to bring our A-game, we need to bring in a ringer.”

**

“Where’s the other one?” Karen Clemmons asked warily.

The lawyer scanned Nichols. “You supposed to be the bad cop?”

Nichols waved her off. “I borrowed Stevens’ good cop badge for the afternoon. I just want to have a little heart-to-heart with your client.”

“What about?” the attorney demanded.

The cop fixed her with a lupine grin. “Maybe about how she oughtta consider the wisdom of sharing counsel with a career psychopath. That wouldn’t comprise — what do you call it, Counselor? — a conflict of interest?”

“You want her to roll on Wallace?”

“I’d like you to give us a few minutes of peace and quiet, Counselor,” Nichols sighed. The attorney settled back, frostily. “Karen, Stevens told me you’ve been through a lot, especially with your dad.”

Karen inhaled slowly. “That’s ancient history.”

“Is it, Karen? Cause I want to tell you about my mom. The only guys we had around our house after Pop split were Jack Daniels and Johnny Walker. I was in grade school, she used to send me down to the corner liquor to bring ‘em home. She’d beat me with one hand while she held a Rosary with the other, then get all sloppy tearful about the bruises after she’d sober up. Started taking out my frustrations on the court at Our Lady of Mercy, least until Father Joe decided I needed some laying on of hands. Tried to tell my mom what had happened, and she walloped me as she screamed scripture in my face. I can still smell the cheap scotch.”

Karen studied the cop. “No bullshit?” she asked, almost inaudibly.

“No bullshit,” said Nichols, praying that, wherever his predecessor Mike Logan had landed, he’d forgive him for stealing his childhood drama. “I hated her, and the next time I go into a church, it better be in a pine box.”

“What’s the purpose–?” the attorney began. A look from Nichols silenced her.

“I always thought she was crazy because she was drunk, but now I realize my mom was a drunk because she was crazy. When I failed, she beat me black and blue. When I did good in school or won a tournament, I could count on her showing up three sheets to the wind to embarrass me.”

“I’m sorry,” Karen murmured. “I really am.”

“I know,” Nichols said. “I know what your dad did to you, and how it must’ve seemed like your mother just sat back and let him. But she’s crazy, Karen — Nicole’s crazy. And she’s brought it into your life now.”

Karen looked at the ceiling as tears formed in her eyes. “She loves me. She understands what that bastard did. She tried to help me get past it.”

“By murdering your family? By making you a killer?”

“Karen–” the lawyer cautioned.

“You,” Nichols growled. “Shut up. Your lawyer here, she’s trying to protect Nicole, not you. And Nicole? What do you think will happen if she thinks you’re a threat, if she thinks you’ve betrayed her?”

“She wouldn’t do that,” Karen sobbed.

“You think she’s your protector, your avenger? I want you to see something.” Nichols slid a faxed sheet across the table. “We got in touch with your mother’s family back in Thailand. You never knew your Aunt Jantira, your mother’s sister, did you? Well, it turns out your mom kept in touch from time to time, whenever she could get to the public library or use a friend’s laptop. I had this translated.”

Karen began to shake as she picked up the e-mail.

“Dearest Sister,” it began in Thai. “The time’s come — we have to get away from him. It was a mistake, and I’ve learned he has done terrible things to Karen. I haven’t been able to put away much money — he controls my life. But I have enough to get to New York, and if you can forgive me and send me enough money, we can come home. If you cannot do this for me, please help save your niece. If I can’t escape him, I will kill him, and then Karen will be raised by strangers who will do God knows what to her. Please. Sukhon.”

“Oh, God,” Karen whispered.

“Nicole didn’t kill your mother to protect you or punish her for letting you be abused,” Nichols said gently, retrieving the e-mail. “She wanted you — she wanted the daughter she’d been cheated out of time after time. The daughter she’d killed and thrown into the ocean years ago. And she betrayed her surrogate sister — your mother — just like she betrayed her biological sister. To get you.”

“I can’t believe this…”

“Karen, was it your idea or Nicole’s to call you Ella when you approached those men?” The lawyer started to speak. “Never mind — I think I know. You know where that name came from? Let me show you.”

Nichols passed the photo — of an attractive young Japanese girl — to the sobbing girl. “That’s Ella — Ella the First. Nicole seduced her away from her parents and then killed her with her bare hands when Ella tried to trap her into a confession. Is this your dream mother, Karen?”

Karen looked into Nichols’s eyes pleadingly, then at her attorney.

“He’s playing you, Karen,” the lawyer said.

“Am I?” Nichols asked Karen.

“Karen…”

“Get out of here,” Karen told the attorney, staring at Nichols. “Now.”

**

“Zachary,” Nicole gasped, feighning dismay. “You brought reinforcements. Did I frighten you that much?”

“Your protection, not mine,” the cop growled as Stevens took her seat. “Where’s your lawyer? Or did she quit when she found out she’d only get paid for one killer?”

The murderess beamed. “I don’t particularly care for lawyers — they tend to interfere with the fun. However, she did mention that you’d somehow convinced Ella to employ separate counsel. Divide and conquer, Zach? Really. What did you do, ply your superficial charms? Or did you bring out the rubber hose?”

Teeth showing, Nichols tossed the e-mail at Nicole. Without touching the sheet, she scanned it quickly, then looked up with an incredulous shake of the head.

“Really, Zach. Who wrote this? This sweet little child here? Or some departmental multilinguist? I can understand that poor frightened girl falling for this, but please…”

Nichols grinned. “It was enough to plant some doubt. It won’t be too long now ‘til it hits home just what she’s done — what you made her do. Then I think a deal will look pretty sweet to her.”

“You imagine me to be quite the Svengali, don’t you?” Nicole tsked.

“Did Sukhon Clemmons know what Ella’s father did to her?” Stevens interjected calmly. “She was a foreigner in a small town, dependent on an abusive husband, probably scared to approach the authorities. Did she really turn a blind eye to Ella’s abuse, or was she too scared to know what to do?”

Nicole’s eyes turned to Stevens, black and blazing. “They always know. The only fear is the idea of surviving alone. In the end, a child’s life doesn’t seem that huge a tradeoff.”

“Are you talking about Ella’s mother?” Stevens asked. “Or yours? Did she look the other way as he used you, or did it just keep him away from her? That’s why you killed your own daughter, wasn’t it?”

Before Nicole could reply, the door to the interview room opened. Nicole stared mutely at Stevens as Capt. Callas leaned in. “Detectives, a moment, please?”

“What?” Nichols demanded. “We’re kinda in the middle of–”

“Actually, you’re done.” An attractive redhead pushed past the captain, trailed by Mulder, who shrugged at Nichols and Stevens. “The Bureau has some questions for Ms. Wallace. About some interstate activity in which she’s been involved and the acquisition of a biological agent we’ve traced back to her.”

Nichols whipped around to Callas. “What is this? We collar her, and the fibbie here breezes in and takes over?”

“Nichols,” Callas snapped. “I assured the agent here we were more than willing to cooperate.”

“There’s no ‘cooperation’ involved here,” the redhead said coolly. “National security supersedes this lunatic plot Agent Mulder has dreamed up. This is a Bureau investigation now –a legitimate Bureau investigation.”

“It’s about the anthrax, isn’t it?” Nichols laughed harshly. “She made you people look like a pack of cub scouts, too, didn’t she? This is payback, right?”

“Captain,” the redhead prompted, consulting her buzzing cell phone, snapping it shut irritably, and tossing it onto the table.

“Agent, we do have a series of murders here,” Mulder pleaded.

“I talked to AD Skinner,” his colleague informed him. “You can go home now. I’m sure you have a lot more ‘intriguing’ cases waiting.”

“C’mon, Captain,” Nichols roared.

“Nichols.” Callas’ voice was subarctic, and his eyes glistened with frost.

“Nichols,” Stevens implored. Her partner threw his chair back, nearly colliding with the redheaded agent as he stormed from the room. Stevens looked at Nicole before following him out with a reluctant Mulder. Callas pulled the door shut.

“All right,” the redhead sighed. “Ms. Wallace, what was your relationship with Dr. Daniel Croydon?”

“That poor delusional man Bobby drove to despair?” Nicole smiled sadly. “I never met him. Of course, I don’t expect you to believe me.”

“How about Connie Matson? She was a nurse with the Air Force Anthrax Immunization Program. We have it on good authority she was involved in a relationship with another woman who disappeared shortly before Croydon was erroneously accused of stealing several grams of anthrax.”

“That excite you, Agent? You seem like a very ‘aggressive’ woman.”

The agent flashed her ring finger. “I’ve got all the excitement I need, Wallace. But thanks.” Her cell phone began to vibrate, skittering across the interview table. She pointedly ignored it, and it eventually stilled.

“Connie Matson,” the redhead repeated.

Nicole raised an eyebrow. “So hard to remember. I’ve had so many women. And men. I so admire someone who can be content in a monogamous relationship. Imagine, one man for the rest of your life.”

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“Let’s focus,” the agent commanded, a bit more loudly than she’d intended. “I’m not some New York civil servant just waiting to put in his papers. You’ve upgraded from murder suspect to a federal person of interest. You want to fuck with me, we can take this to the next level.”

“Guantanamo?” Nicole’s eyes glittered. “Abu Gharib? You Americans, your precious land of the free.”

“Listen, Wallace…” the phone began to jitter again, and the redhead finally snatched it, glaring at the screen before angrily punching a button. “What? I thought we’d talked about this. What? Hell, I don’t know.” She glanced fleetingly at Wallace. “Not. Now. You hear me? Just tell her I’m on a business trip. Sorry, tell her life’s a bitch sometimes.”

The agent ended the call abruptly, deactivating the phone and stuffing it into her bag. “Let’s talk about where you’ve been the last two years.”

“It must be rough,” Nicole murmured. “Trying to balance a career, a marriage, and children. How many soccer matches and school plays have you missed while chasing miscreants, Agent?”

The redhead folded her hands before her with a pleasant smile. “Yes, please, Ms. Wallace. I’d love some child-rearing advice from a babykiller.”

Nicole’s smile vanished. “That was an accident.”

“Of course. What was it with Ms.–” the agent consulted a folder before her — “Ms. Miyazaki? You slip and crush her windpipe, accidentally? I’m freaking Mother of the Year compared with you, Wallace.”

“Why? Because you tuck the little angels in with a perfunctory cell phone call every night or work a little extra overtime so you can afford a good day care to ship them off to?”

“You psychotic bitch,” the young redhead said through her teeth. “You wouldn’t know the first thing about what I’ve sacrificed for my kids.”

“Sacrifice?” Nicole laughed harshly. “You have no idea what true sacrifice is. What it means to risk everything for your child?”

“Your child’s dead,” the agent stated flatly.

“No,” Nicole shouted, gripping the table. “Ella — Karen. You ask her what I’ve sacrificed!”

“What? Her freedom? She killed four people for you.”

“For me? You stupid, blind–”

“What the hell sacrifice have you ever made for anybody?”

Wallace came to her feet. “I saved her! He took it from her, and I gave it back!”

“What?”

“He wasn’t interested in Sukhon any more. She was an old whore. Ell-, Karen, was young, pretty. Mother told me — I mean, Sukhon told me…”

Nicole blinked, looked sharply at the redhead as if she’d eavesdropped on a long-lost secret. The agent merely stared, expectantly, as the interview room door opened.

“That what it was, Nicole?” Nichols asked, pushing the door shut behind him. “Evening the score with your dad? Penance for your little girl? It never really did have anything to do with Karen, did it?”

“It was all for her,” Nicole whispered. “Everything.”

Nichols sat down across from her. “Is that true? Cause let me lay it out for you. The DA doesn’t think we got a case against either of you for the Gracia brothers and the cousin. As for the Clemmonses, well, that went down as a robbery gone bad, and we can’t find any evidence to the contrary except a couple of half-ass IDs from Clemmons’ sister and a bartender. That brings it down to Malaya Gracia. Karen did that one alone, didn’t she? Without your brains behind her, I’m willing to bet we’ll come up with a witness, some ATM video, something to nail her, sooner or later.

“So, the question is, what’s it going to be, Nicole? I think we can get Karen a deal, but she isn’t going to give you up. She thinks what you did was for her. You willing to show her how a mother sacrifices? The ultimate sacrifice? What’s it going to be?”

**

“I’ve got a hinky feeling,” Special Agent Dana Scully muttered. “You better not throw away the key quite yet.”

“Same old Scully,” Mulder sighed as he watched two uniforms escort Nicole Wallace toward the elevators.

“We appreciate the assist, Agent Scully,” Callas said. “Although I suspect you enjoyed pushing me around back there a bit too much. I just hope her confession sticks.”

“I think it will,” Mulder offered. “This is her vindication, her last stand. Maternal martyrdom.”

Zach Nichols laughed, bitterly.

“What?” Mulder asked.

The cop stared reflectively after the serial killer. “Mother of the Year. Better call Mom, let her know she’s out of the running.”

Renzler-Tate Sleep Study Institute

Arlington, Va.

May 6

“It’s inconceivable,” Max Renzler breathed, his clammy fingers running in endless loops through his gray curls. “We just had the equipment checked out last week. I’ll have Nancy, the office manager, get the paperwork. This is, this is…”

“Yeah, inconceivable, got it,” Det. Jerry Sangster grunted, staring for the umpteenth time at the poor bastard in the bed. Creeped him out, the vic all wired up, black eyes wide and dead and full of frozen terror, hair as bone-white as his feeble old Aunt Fay. Wished the ME’s people would show, get the guy the hell out of here.

“Look, Doc,” the cop smiled uneasily. “Case like this, the M.E.’s gotta do a post-mortem, make sure nothing funny happened. But my guess is you’re gonna come out OK. Guy was Asian, right? Philippines, maybe?”

Renzler glanced nervously at the file. He’d only met the subject post-mortem – he had three clinics, for God’s sake. “Ronald Timba. Thirty-three – referred for possible sleep apnea, I dunno – one of the nurses is Filipino, I could ask her if the name’s familiar. Why the hell’s that matter?”

“I read about this thing, sudden unexpected death something, some kinda nightmare death thing happens to Filipino guys. Case in New York last month, that importer guy, they found him like this in some motel. Faith Yancy did a whole show on it. My guess, your patient Freddie Krueger-ed out in the middle of his study.”

Renzler was annoyed by the metaphor, but he was beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel. “I appreciate it, Detective. You’ll be in touch?”

“Betcha, handle it myself,” Sangster nodded. “ME’s people oughtta be here in a while. Later.” The cop saluted and disappeared into the sunlight of the parking lot.

“OK,” Renzler swallowed as he looked to his ashen-faced manager behind. “I think it’s going to be all right – I gave him the EKGs, the EEGs, the EMGs, everything, but I didn’t mention the video. C’mon.”

The monitoring room was behind a quartet of one-way mirrors, softly-lit and subdued save a bank of four computers video-linked into the four sleep stations. Sindy, the Filipino nurse (third-generation Virginian, not one of those New York troublemakers on the news, Renzler had reflected), was staring into one of the PC screens, the pale blue light casting her anxious features in an eerie aura.

Renzler moved behind Sindy’s shoulder, peering at the .mpeg footage for the fifth time.

Ordinarily, Renzler-Tate’s productions would put a Stage Four insomniac into a coma. Six or seven hours of rustling sheets, twitching legs, mumbled incoherence. Netflix had never expressed interest.

This one was different. “Here it comes,” Sindy whispered. “Jesus,” Renzler exhaled.

She was huge, wrinkled, old beyond geriatric terms. The door to the station was within camera range; she appeared to emerge from an unseen corner of the room. The woman – if you could call her that – was substantial but somehow insubstantial, incandescent somehow.

“Could we be, I don’t know, intercepting a signal from somebody else’s TV or PC?” Renzler whispered hopefully. Sindy was rapt, scarcely breathing.

She flickered in and out of reality as she approached the bed. Even from an overhead angle, Renzler could see a broad, curious grin spread across the hag-ridden, eternal face. He unconsciously backed up, eyes nonetheless transfixed on the screen. She reached Timba’s bedside; the subject continued to slumber, even with a half-dozen electrodes affixed to his face and body. The woman stared down, that horrible grin spreading as she inspected the sleeping man. Then, as nimble as a child crawling into her parents’ bed to stave off further nightmares, she climbed atop Timba, seemingly without disturbing any wires or adding any weight to the mattress. As she settled into place, Timba’s arms began first to twitch and then to flay. His fingers curled into the sheets, and Renzler jumped as he started to gurgle.

“Turn it off,” Renzler gasped. Sindy stared at the screen; the doctor reached in and turned off the monitor with a trembling finger.

“Batibat,” Sindy breathed.

“What?” Renzler demanded, swiping the sweat from his broad forehead.

“Bangungot,” the nurse whispered.

“Thanks for explaining,” Renzler muttered.

*end

Compos Mentis

16x09cover

Compos Mentis

Author: Starfleetofficer1

Category: X-file

Rating: PG-13

Summary: The agents investigate a crime spree where children are the apparent culprits.

Disclaimer: Two weeks exclusive with VS16. No copyright infringement intended.

Original web date:23/04/2010

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Compos Mentis

OSBORNE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

SEWICKLEY, PA

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 20th, 2010

0300

Charlie Rueben stuck his gloved hands into his winter coat pockets, and stood on the worn-out blacktop. The ice had melted, but he knew it was going to get cold again tomorrow. He looked around, waiting for his friends.

They approached one by one, from different directions. Around the teacher’s parking lot, from the soccer field, and one from over the fence directly behind him. The four stood on the blacktop for a moment, not speaking, until nine-year-old Lauren Marks said, “You ready, Charlie?”

Charlie nodded. The ten-year-old was the leader of this group. Although Meg was older than he was, at age twelve, she hadn’t been chosen. And no one questioned it.

“Willie will be here soon,” Charlie said, looking at his watch. “Anyone have any problem with their parents?”

“Mine were asleep,” Lauren volunteered.

“Mine were asleep, too,” Meg said.

“Mine were awake but their door was closed,” eight-year-old Sam added.

They were silent for another minute, bouncing on their heels in the cold weather. Finally, Charlie looked at his watch again. “Where is he?”

“He’s supposed to be here,” Sam said.

“If he’s supposed to be here, he’ll be here,” Meg told them. They all knew she was right.

“Hey, did you watch the Fairly Oddparents last night? Wasn’t that funny?” Lauren asked.

Charlie nodded, and laughed. “When Cosmo and Wanda take Timmy to the moon…that was great!”

“Houston, we have a problem,” Sam quoted.

“Problem, problem, problem. All you ever talk about is problems! Don’t you ever just call to say ‘Hi’?” Meg recited, and then giggled.

They all giggled, actually. And before they knew it, seven-year-old Willie Howell walked onto the blacktop.

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“Willie, it’s about time,” Charlie scolded.

“I’m sorry,” Willie stated.

“Where were you? Parents?” Meg asked.

Willie shook his head. “No, not parents. I fell asleep.”

“You fell asleep?!” Sam exclaimed. “You’re such a baby!”

“Am not! I was tired!”

“Shut up, both of you. We have work to do,” Charlie said. “Everyone’s here. Let’s go.”

They nodded, and approached the elementary school. They didn’t speak from that moment on.

Charlie pulled out a lock picking kit and picked the outer lock to the building. It wasn’t alarmed. Nothing in the tiny Sewickley borough was alarmed. They walked easily to the principle’s office, where they picked another lock, and yet another. They were careful not to take their gloves off, or touch anything they didn’t need to.

Charlie was the first in the principle’s office. He handed the heavy desktop CPU to Meg, who set it down by the door. Then Charlie and Sam picked the lock on the file cabinets and extracted the files of eight random children, and put them through the shredder.

Meanwhile Lauren and Willie smashed personal effects, pictures and knick-knacks, until the office was ransacked. Then they nodded to each other, grabbed the CPU, and walked out of the office. They closed the doors behind them, tossed the CPU in the dumpster, and headed in their separate directions.

“See you next time,” Charlie said cheerfully.

“Bye, Charlie! Bye everyone!” Willie said as he took off in the opposite direction.

“See ya, man!” Sam said, and crossed the street. Meg crossed with him, and waved.

Lauren gave Charlie a high five and took off down the dirt path that led to her house.

Little Charlie was by himself as he walked home, but he didn’t mind. He smiled happily. That had been fun. Next time would be bigger.

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J. EDGAR HOOVER BUILDING

WASHINGTON, DC

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 22nd, 2010

1000

Mulder tossed another sunflower seed shell into his garbage can as he read the report in front of him. His feet were up on the desk, and he leaned back in his chair, in his usual comfortable position.

He glanced up from his report repeatedly, expecting Scully to be back from the meeting any second now. He looked at his watch. Yeah, any second.

Finally, the door opened and Mulder’s feet were down instantly.

She looked at him with surprise. “Happy to see me?” She asked with a smile.

Mulder grinned. “I’ve got something to show you.”

“Oh, I know you do,” Scully said playfully, approaching him, and giving him a hug. “But that wouldn’t be appropriate at work.”

Laughing, Mulder pulled gently out of the hug and said, “Then later, definitely.”

She grinned. “Sorry I had to run out on you this morning.”

“No, it’s fine—how was the meeting?”

“I would have been more excited if they had made us memorize twenty different kinds of lint in four hours.”

“I was under the impression you liked early morning pathology conferences, Agent Scully,” Mulder said, still smiling as she sat on the edge of the desk. He took a seat in his chair.

“Not when they’re given by someone as animate as a corpse. But anyway, what’s this you want to show me?”

“You remember Sewickley, Pennsylvania?”

“This isn’t another leprechaun sighting, is it, Mulder? Because I’m not going back there to hike in the woods in the freezing cold,” Scully said as she picked the file out of Mulder’s hands, and started paging through. “On my birthday,” she added.

“Not to worry, no leprechauns in sight this time around. Sewickley’s population is 3,902. Yes, we’ve seen smaller. But we’ve never seen safer. Check out those crime statistics from three weeks ago.”

“That’s remarkable. The worst thing that’s happened in this town in three years is four teenagers getting busted for possession of marijuana. Mulder, that was two years go. This is impressive.”

Mulder smiled that knowing smile he always gave her when he knew something, and she was about to find out. “Turn the page.”

Scully complied, and stared at what she saw. “Three break-ins, one assault…all since Wednesday.”

“Odd, don’t you think?”

“Yes. Considerably.” Scully closed the file. “But how is this an X-file?”

“The first crime was a simple break-in, into a principle’s office at the local elementary school. They caused some damage and stole a computer, later found in a dumpster, completely destroyed as if it had exploded. No one saw anything. The second was a video store break-in. No video camera in the store, unfortunately. At least not one that worked. It looked like it had caught fire in some kind of electrical short. Every DVD was knocked off the shelves, and the computer monitor was smashed. The windows were also broken. The third was a stabbing. And here comes the X-file. Darrel Wade, 42, was stabbed outside a 24-hour drug store in downtown Sewickley very early two mornings ago.”

Scully opened the file again, and looked at the contents.

“Darrel plays baseball in his spare time. He’s a healthy, 6’3”, 200 lb man. He works at the Eckerd as a pharmacist. He was on his way to his car when assailants lured him to the side of the building, away from the security camera, knocked him to the ground, and began stabbing him. They stabbed him five times before they left. A fellow employee going outside for a cigarette break found him, and called 911. He’s listed as ‘in critical condition’, but he woke up yesterday. And you know what he said?”

“Children,” Scully read.

“Yes. Five small children were to blame,” Mulder said. “And they weren’t even caught on tape—that’s how careful they were. They lured him by voice out of the security camera’s range, and then tackled him. Tell me, Agent Scully, how five small children, all under thirteen, he said, attacked a 200 lb man by themselves?”

“Did they threaten him? Say they’d stab him unless he got down on the ground?”

“Not according to him. He says they all tackled him. Jumped him at once.”

“I don’t know, Mulder…but it seems like this isn’t an X-file. This is just a case of some juvenile delinquents.”

“There’s more. Take a look at the crime scene photos.”

Scully did. And there was a symbol carved into the principle’s door, so that one could see through to the other side. The same symbol was carved into the door to the back room in the video shack. And Darrel Wade’s thigh showed the same, very deep yet very meticulously carved symbol. It was the Nazi swastika.

“Tell me if you think a small child is capable of that.”

“Maybe they had help.”

“Darrel says he saw it appear on his leg before he lost consciousness. None of the children did it, but as soon as they left, it appeared. He saw no one else that night.”

“No adults.”

“None.”

Scully sighed, and closed the file. “When do we leave for Sewickley?”

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

SEWICKLEY MUNICIPAL BUILDING

SEWICKLEY, PA

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23rd, 2010

0900

“I’m sorry for your inconvenience, but no one’s gonna be back until Monday.”

Mulder and Scully stared at the woman who had to be at least eighty, wearing a police uniform behind the glass at the police station. “We were told we were supposed to speak to a Sergeant Hanes this morning. In fact, we did speak to Sergeant Hanes this morning. He told us he’d be here when we arrived,” Scully offered.

“Billy never was good at scheduling,” the woman muttered as she flipped through a scheduling book that looked like it was from 1970. “See, now, dears, you’re right. He’s put you down for a 9 o’clock appointment. But I’m afraid he’s gone. His mother Gracie, well she’s been ill and he’s gone to the hospital to see her. He must be terribly distracted.”

“Is there someone we can speak to?”

“The Chief’s always gone home on weekends, unless there’s an emergency, and…well, I suppose I might give Edward a call.”

“Thank you, Ma’am,” Mulder said, not bothering to ask who ‘Edward’ was. Talking to someone was certainly better than talking to no one.

In a few moments, a uniformed man about Mulder’s age walked out, flashed them a toothy grin, and said, “Sergeant Edward McDonald.” He shook their hands, and Mulder gave him a quick smile, hoping maybe he could wipe that annoying grin off the man’s face.

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“I’m Fox Mulder, and this is Dana Scully. We’re here with the FBI, investigating the stabbing that occurred three days ago. Mr. Darrel Wade.”

“Of course, of course. Why don’t you two come into my office, get some coffee, and we can talk. I’ve got the case-files already pulled up…big deal, you understand.”

“In a small town like this with crime statistics as low as they are, I’m surprised more people aren’t working this weekend,” Scully said as she followed him through the door and back to his office.

“Well, just because the crime statistics don’t show much, it doesn’t mean we aren’t busy people. Very busy people,” Edward said. “It’s all the Chief can do to take the weekend off—sometimes he shows up in the middle of the night after being called out of his bed.”

“We’re familiar with the concept,” Mulder said dryly. Clearly, this man had no idea what being busy was actually like.

They sat down across from the Sergeant’s desk, and he pulled the file up on the computer. “All right, the crime scene photos, the reports…you’ve got all of that?”

”Yes,” Scully stated before Mulder could make a smart comment. What did this guy think, anyway? They had heard about the case on the news and flew in just for fun? Maybe he knows Mulder’s reputation for doing just that, Scully thought humorously.

“So…what do you two think?” Edward asked.

Scully raised an eyebrow.

“We’d like to visit the victim, go over some school records, and try to pinpoint which kids he’s accusing of the crime before we make any conclusions,” Mulder said. “But we came here to get your insight on the case, and hopefully get a look at some of the evidence collected from the crime scene.”

“Well, these things don’t happen too often, Agent Mulder…you have to understand, it’s hard for us to draw instinctive conclusions on something like this.” He stood up a little straighter. “But me personally? I think it’s one of those neo-Nazi groups, brainwashing our kids and making them do this stuff.”

“You say ‘one of those’, Sergeant…what exactly do you mean by that? Are there neo-Nazi groups in the area?”

“No, no Ma’am, of course not. But you hear about them on the news. They spread like wildfire, brainwashing kids as they go—if one of them got into Sewickley, it’s our duty to get rid of them.”

“How many people have moved into Sewickley that weren’t here before, in the past couple of months, Sergeant?” Mulder asked.

Edward shrugged. “I suppose…not many. Maybe one?”

“So do you think it’s a safe assumption that no extremist group has moved into Sewickley? That if it was a neo-Nazi group, it would most likely be composed of current residents?”

Edward frowned at Mulder. “I guess so…that would make sense.”

“Do you believe the children were capable of carving the symbols through the doors and into Mr. Wade’s skin?” Scully asked.

Edward shook his head. “No, absolutely not. That door was at least two inches thick, and made of solid oak. Old door, too. Been there since Osborne Elementary was built. Then there’s the video store—those kids couldn’t have drilled through a storm cellar door.”

“Storm cellar door?” Mulder asked.

“The video store houses one of four storm cellars we have in the town, just in case of a micro-burst. You only have a few minutes to get somewhere.”

“Micro-burst?” Mulder asked.

“We get ‘em here in Sewickley pretty often, during the summer,” Edward explained.

“A micro-burst is a very short, but very powerful storm,” Scully offered. “It’s common in some parts of the country, but others never see them. And there’s no real explanation as to why.”

Mulder nodded, and turned back to Edward. It was time to get back on topic. “Would the children have been capable of carving the symbol into Darrel Wade’s skin?”

“Not unless they had either amazing dexterity or some kind of branding device that also cut through the victim, because that cut was too deep and too precise for that.”

“So the children can’t be responsible for the symbols, and it’s possible that the children attacked Mr. Wade but had nothing to do with the other crimes,” Scully offered.

“Well…I never thought of that…” Edward said, and began to stare off into space.

Mulder glanced at Scully. Was this guy for real? “Sergeant,” he pulled the man’s attention back to Earth, “Do you have some evidence for us to examine? From the three crime scenes?”

“Yes, of course I do. You can follow me,” he offered, and stood up. He led them out of his office and to an elevator that took them one floor down, to the evidence lab. It was small, and consisted of a couple of computers, a scanner, a fingerprint area, and a large shelf with rows and rows of boxes. With this town’s crime record, Scully thought, most of the boxes were probably filled with evidence far from current.

“Right over here,” he said. He pulled a small box with no tape on it from a shelf, and handed it to Scully. Scully carried it to the table and laid it down, and then opened the lid. Inside evidence bags were some wood shavings, some metal shavings, and some crime scene photos they already had. Also enclosed were pictures of the destroyed electronics at the scenes.

“This is it?” Mulder asked.

“Well, yeah. I mean, we collected the shavings at the foot of the two doors, and we didn’t lift any prints from any of the scenes. No weapon was left at the scene of the stabbing. And all the destroyed machines were ruled electrical fires, unrelated.”

“I’ll examine the shavings and see if I can match any tool marks,” Scully said skeptically, and then turned to Mulder as she put the evidence bags back in the box. “But it doesn’t look good.”

“Why don’t you see what you can do about that, and I’ll go to the elementary school.”

“No one will be there. It’s Saturday,” Edward said. “Sorry, Agent.”

“Do you have the name of a school secretary?”

“That’d be Ms. Mesko. She’s the school secretary. She’ll be home, absolutely. She doesn’t have a family—I’m sure she’d be happy to come in and let you into the school.”

“Could you give her a call?” Mulder asked nicely.

“Absolutely. I’ll go do that.”

Edward left, and Mulder turned to Scully. “How do five children all under the age of thirteen manage to leave no fingerprints if they’re at a crime scene?”

“They wear gloves. It’s cold this time of year,” Scully answered, studying the photos in the box.

“Kids take their gloves off the second they get in a building. Why weren’t there fingerprints left in the school, and the video store?”

“We don’t know if the kids are to blame,” Scully reminded him. “We have no confirmation of what Darrel Wade said.”

“Maybe we should go see him, then. Get some confirmation.”

“It’s better than this alternative,” Scully said, looking hopelessly at the filings. “I’ll do my quick analysis and then head to the hospital.”

“I’ll go to the school. See if Ms. Mesko can pull up some records.”

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

OSBORNE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

SEWICKLEY, PA

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23rd, 2010

1000

Ms. Mesko was about five feet tall, maybe shorter. She had to be about eighty or so, and had told Mulder that she had been the only secretary at the school for fifty years.

“I know all the students’ schedules by heart. It’s a small but successful Blue Ribbon School. Who is it you’d like to meet, Agent Mulder?” She asked through sixties’-style glasses.

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“I was hoping I could look through the disciplinary records,” Mulder said. “See if any troublemakers could be to blame for the stabbing.”

“We have one troublemaker. Jared Taylor,” she said as if she was talking about a hardened criminal. “Mrs. Woolsey’s third grade class. Six detentions last month, alone,” Ms. Mesko said, easing into her secretary’s chair as Mulder leaned against the desk in the front office.

“Does Jared have any friends?”

“No, that boy is a loner if I ever saw one. He comes in here, pants down by his ankles, shirt three sizes too big for him, sits down, all defiant and such…it’s a shame to see a child go to such a waste. He’s one of the ones who are bused in,” she said with certain distaste.

“Bused in…you mean from another school district?”

“Of course. Sewickley’s got a reputation for raising our children well. It’s only the ones who are bused in that cause the trouble. The other cities want to give their children opportunities to go to a Blue Ribbon School. And this year, that’s Jared Taylor.”

“Where does Jared live?”

“He lives all the way over in Emsworth, if you can believe that. On the outer edges of town. And they still bus him in.”

“What kinds of things has Jared done, Ms. Mesko?” Mulder asked politely. Her dislike for this child was evident, but there seemed to be a certain sympathy there as well.

“He hit a child on the playground earlier this year. He’s locked his Spanish teacher in her classroom. George had to come let her out…”

“George?”

“Our janitor.”

“I see. Ms. Mesko, has he done anything…criminal?” Mulder asked. He was beginning to think his potential lead was crumbling under his feet. Locking a teacher in a classroom was hardly convincing four other children to stab an adult.

“Criminal? What do you mean, Agent Mulder? He’s eight years old.”

“Any hate crimes? Racial slurs toward other children?”

“He called his Spanish teacher a…Agent Mulder, I don’t normally let these words fall from my lips…but just to repeat, you understand. He called his Spanish teacher a cracker.”

“I see,” Mulder said. It was looking more and more like these children were innocent. Of course, that warranted further investigation.

“If you’d like, I can show you his records.”

“That would be great, Ms. Mesko. And any records of children who have served detention or faced suspension or expulsion in the last year or two.”

“Agent Mulder,” Ms. Mesko looked shocked, “This is a Blue Ribbon School. There are none of those children here. Even Jared would never go that far. He has, by far, served the most detentions, but he has never faced suspension or expulsion. And none of our other children have, either.”

“Well,” Mulder started, trying to continue being polite, “How many children have faced detention in the last year or two?”

“Six. Six children in all, three this year, three last year. And the worst has been Jared, of course, but Sally Winnebaker comes in a close second. She flicked a rubber band at a poor little boy’s ear.” Ms. Mesko shook her head, as if it were a heinous crime. “And served two day’s detention.”

Mulder tried not to roll his eyes. “Do you think maybe I could just see a yearbook? And take it with me? I’ll bring it back.”

“Well, all right,” Ms. Mesko said, and got up slowly from her chair. She shuffled over to a bookshelf filled with yearbooks and pulled the correct one. Then she handed it back to Mulder. “There you go, Agent Mulder. I hope you don’t truly suspect children of stabbing poor Darrel?”

“We’re investigating all avenues, but it’s looking unlikely,” Mulder admitted, taking the yearbook from her.

“I should think so. Especially at a Blue Ribbon School.”

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SEWICKLEY VALLEY HOSPITAL

SEWICKLEY, PA

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23rd, 2010

1030

Mulder had never seen a town so easy to navigate. Going straight down the same road as the school for one mile took him into downtown Sewickley, and then one quick turn brought him to the hospital. It was a small hospital but regionally renowned as one of the best. Healthcare in the Pittsburgh area was extraordinarily good, and Mulder half expected Sewickley Valley to be labeled a Blue Ribbon Hospital.

He found Scully in Darrel Wade’s room fairly quickly, and entered silently. She was still questioning him.

“Mr. Wade, are you Jewish?” Scully asked just as Mulder entered the room.

“Yes, I converted to Judaism during college. That’s why they did this to me—this is a hate crime.”

Scully nodded slowly. “Did the children say anything to you?”

“No, they just jumped me. Didn’t say a word.”

“And you did not see them carve the symbol onto your leg.”

“No, they were gone when it appeared. Agent Scully, I’m not makin’ this up. I don’t know how they did it, but they did it.”

“Mr. Wade, my name is Agent Mulder. I’m Agent Scully’s partner. Would you be willing to look at last year’s yearbook from Osborne Elementary School and see if you can identify the children who attacked you?”

He nodded from the hospital bed, and Mulder handed him the book. He began paging through, looking at photos of happy children doing volunteer work, raking leaves, having a field day out in Osborne’s field, and putting on a Christmas play. Finally, he got to the class pictures. He paged through Kindergarten, and then stopped at first grade. “There,” he said, and pointed, fear in his eyes. “That’s one of the little monsters.”

Scully wrote down the name on her pad. Willie Howell.

Going to the second grade class picture earned them another two names. Sam Witherborne, and Lauren Marks. Fourth grade gave them Charlie Rueben. And the fifth name couldn’t be found in the elementary school book.

Scully was very surprised that in such a fast and brutal attack, Darrel was able to identify nearly all of his assailants. When she asked, though, he responded, “You don’t forget those faces. So blank…so…unlife-like. It’s almost like they didn’t know what they were doing.”

“Did they communicate with each other, Mr. Wade? Make eye contact with each other, any kind of attempt to give instructions?” Mulder asked, intrigued by the fact that all five children seemed dispassionate.

“No, they didn’t,” Darrel answered. “They didn’t so much as look at each other. They knew exactly what they were doing, and didn’t need to talk about it.”

“Would you say the fifth child was older or younger than the ones you identified here?” Scully asked.

“Older. A little taller than that…Charlie kid.” He shivered despite his visible efforts to control his voice. “Tell me there’s not some kind of sociopathic epidemic going through Sewickley? It’s a small town—it wouldn’t take long to spread.”

“I’m unaware of any such sociopathic epidemic, Mr. Wade,” Scully said. “Crime waves are usually brought on by an action, some kind of wrong. Something that creates a lot of passion in people.”

“Did the children look unusual, Mr. Wade?” Mulder asked.

“What do you mean?” Darrel asked.

“Did anything about their appearance strike you?”

“No,” Darrel said, confused. “Other than the fact that they all were staring at me blankly…like they weren’t even seeing me.”

“Did their eyes change color?” Mulder asked.

“What kind of question is that? You think they were demon-possessed or something? What kind of federal agents are you people?”

Scully glanced at Mulder, and Mulder shrugged. “I was merely concerned about the possibility of this being chemically induced. The altered appearance of the human eye is often an indicator of drug abuse.”

Nice save, Mulder, Scully thought wryly.

“No…” Darrel said, still clearly confused. “None of that. Normal kids, dressed in winter clothes…attacked me out of thin air.”

“All right, Mr. Wade, thank you. We’ll let you get some rest,” Scully said, and stood up. Mulder followed her out of the room, but not before handing Darrel his business card in case he thought of anything else.

When they were in the hallway, Scully turned to Mulder. “You’re thinking demon possession, telepathic or telekinetic remote control, or possibly some kind of government experiment creating violence to spawn in elementary school children in this particular town?”

Mulder stood, dumbfounded. “Scully…”

“I know, I know, marry you,” she joked, and started walking toward the elevator. Mulder had no choice but to follow.

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HOWELL RESIDENCE

SEWICKLEY, PA

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23rd, 2010

1130

When they rang the doorbell, Mr. Howell was the one to answer. A little boy about seven years old, who matched Willie Howell’s yearbook picture, ran right into his father’s back side as he chased his younger brother through the house with an inflatable sword.

“Willie! Watch where you’re going!” His father corrected.

Willie shouted, “Okay!” as he continued to chase his brother up the stairs, and around the corner, out of sight.

Mr. Howell turned to the agents. “Can I help you?” He was about Mulder’s height with dirty blonde hair kept very neatly cropped. He wore a golf shirt tucked into khaki pants, and tennis shoes.

“We’re agents Mulder and Scully with the FBI,” Mulder introduced, producing a badge. “We’re in town investigating the stabbing of Darrel Wade, from the pharmacy. May we come in?”

“Of course,” he said, looking very confused. “I’m unsure why a local stabbing is an FBI matter, though…”

“We investigate unusual cases, Sir,” Scully explained. “And the circumstances surrounding the stabbing are very unusual. If it’s all right with you we’d like to discuss this.”

“All right. I’m unsure how this concerns me, though…”

They walked into the family room and took a seat on the couch. “Can I offer you anything? Coffee, water?” Mr. Howell asked.

“No thank you, we’re fine,” Mulder answered. He pulled out a picture of Darrel Wade and showed it to the man. “Do you recognize this man?”

“That’s Darrel Wade. He’s been the pharmacist for years now. We heard about his stabbing on the local news.”

“That’s correct. Mr. Wade recently woke up and he claimed that he was attacked by five small children. We presented him with a yearbook from Osborne Elementary school, and he was able to identify some of the children,” Scully began. “Mr. Howell,” she said gently, “your son was among them.”

Howell raised his eyebrow, and folded his arms. “You must be mistaken. Willie is a very timid child, he’s a model student, and he has a seven-thirty bedtime. He’s seven years old.”

“As we stated before,” Mulder began, “We investigate unusual cases, Mr. Howell. We understand the impossibility of a small child accomplishing the crime that was committed. Mr. Wade had a deeply-inscribed Nazi swastika carved into his leg, and several other swastikas have appeared at crime scenes in the past few weeks. The initial conclusion of the Sewickley PD was a hate crime, committed by group of adults. But with Mr. Wade’s stabbing, and his implication of four very specific children, we have to investigate other possibilities. Mr. Howell, is Willie ever alone with any adults from school?”

“Willie’s schedule is like most seven-year-olds’. He gets up, he goes to school, he goes to soccer, he comes home, goes to bed at seven-thirty. He’s a normal child, Agent Mulder,” Howell said. His tone was picking up, becoming angrier.

Scully tried a different approach. “Is there any chance that Willie might have been influenced by someone? A group of teenagers, a soccer coach…maybe even someone from a religious organization?”

“Willie is never alone with any adult. He’s either with his team or with his class or with us. And if you’re trying to imply that my son or my wife and I are racist, anti-Semetic or something—”

“We’re not implying any such thing, Sir. We’re merely trying to investigate the crime,” Scully said immediately. “May we speak with Willie?”

“Only if I’m present.”

“That’s fine,” Mulder said with a smile.

Howell got up cautiously and walked to the foot of the stairs. “Willie! Brad! Come down here please!”

The two little boys ran down the stairs, still carrying their inflatable swords. Brad was probably about four years old, with freckles and very blonde hair. Willie looked like an older version of his little brother.

“Willie, there are some people here who would like to speak to you. Brad, why don’t you go play on the computer?”

“Okay,” Brad said, and climbed on a stool in the kitchen, where the computer was. He began to play a Nick Jr. game, while Willie followed his father into the family room. “These are Agents Mulder and Scully, Willie,” his father said gently. “And they’d like to talk to you.”

“Hi,” Willie said shyly.

“Hi, Willie,” Scully said, smiling at the child. “Why don’t you have a seat next to your dad?”

When they were seated, Mulder leaned forward and asked, “Do you like to play outside, Willie?”

Willie nodded. “With my friends,” he said.

“I’ll bet that’s fun. Who are some of your friends?”

“Jack and Ryan and Katie,” Willie said. “They come to my birthday parties.”

“That’s good,” Scully said with a smile. None of them matched the names Wade mentioned, though. “Willie, what kinds of things do your friends and you play?”

“We play video games. We play basketball, and soccer. And we play pretend.”

“What kinds of things do you pretend?” Mulder asked.

“Lots o’ stuff. Like cops an’ robbers, and house, and school.”

“Do you and your friends ever play in the dark, Willie?” Mulder asked him gently.

Willie shook his head emphatically. “No! We’re not ‘apposed to go outside when it’s dark. Plus, the dark is scary. I have a cool night light. It’s a soccer ball. It makes me feel better when it’s dark.”

Mulder smiled. “Do you know what a religion is, Willie?”

Willie nodded. “Yep. It’s what kind of God you believe in. I got friends with lots o’ different religions. Like Ryan, he’s Hindu.”

“I’ll bet it’s interesting to learn about different religions,” Scully offered.

“Yeah, I like it,” Willie said.

“Do you know anyone who’s Jewish?” Mulder asked him.

“No, nu-uh,” Willie said. “I know a kid in my class who is, but I don’t play with him.”

“Is he not a nice kid?” Mulder asked.

“I dunno, I just don’t play with him.”

“Who are you talking about, Willie? Ben?” Mr. Howell asked.

Willie nodded. Mr. Howell turned to the agents. “Ben is one of the bused kids. He lives too far away for play dates.”

“I see,” Mulder said. “How large is the Jewish population in Sewickley?”

“It’s not extremely large, but it’s not in the single digits either, Agent Mulder. Are you finished questioning Willie?”

“I think we are for now,” Scully answered for him. “Thank you, Willie.”

“You’re welcome,” Willie said automatically, and got up, took his inflatable sword, and left.

“May I use the restroom, Mr. Howell?” Mulder asked.

“It’s right around the corner, next to the basement door,” Howell said. Mulder got up and left, as Scully tried not to eye him suspiciously.

“Mr. Howell, may I ask what religion you follow?”

“No, you may not. That’s personal and trying to pin a racial crime on me will get you nowhere. This interview is over. As soon as your partner gets back from the restroom, I want you both to leave.” He stood up, and walked to the front door. Scully followed with an inaudible sigh, and a few moments later, Mulder appeared in the hallway.

“Thank you for your time, Mr. Howell,” he said, and extended his hand.

Howell didn’t take it, but instead opened the door. “Goodbye, Agents.”

When the door was shut behind them, Mulder said, “You gotta love the friendly attitude of small town citizens of America.”

Scully rolled her eyes. “So what did you take, Mulder?”

Mulder turned and looked at her. “Take? Are you suggesting a federal employee would illegally obtain evidence without a warrant?”

“What did you take, Mulder?” Scully repeated, more firmly.

“Nothing, actually. I went to the bathroom, took a quick look at the basement, and came back up. Looks normal to me. Boxes, a tool bench, a furnace…give me an hour and I’ll find you something but two minutes…”

“He only became hostile after I asked him what religion he was. I think he’s hiding something.”

“It’s possible. But I want to question the others first.”

They got in the car, and Scully drove to the next residence. On the way, Mulder commented, “It’s normal for the people to be nervous when the first major crime in two years happens, especially when everyone knows everyone else.”

“But it’s also normal for guilty people to act guilty.”

“I don’t think the parents are guilty. At least not Howell.”

“You can’t possibly think that little boy is responsible?”

“No. Willie has no idea what’s even happened, and if he does, he’s about as sociopathic as they come. I think there’s something else at work here.”

They pulled into a driveway, and Scully said, “Lauren Marks, next on the list. Let’s see if you’re right, Mulder.”

“I’m always right,” Mulder argued.

“But you weren’t driving,” Scully said with a smile, and got out of the car before he could respond.

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SEWICKLEY COUNTRY INN

SEWICKLEY, PA

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23rd, 2010

1600

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They had questioned everyone and come to the same conclusion as they had when questioning the Howells. The parents present weren’t guilty and the kids were clueless. They managed to get the fifth name from the middle school yearbook, when they visited Darrel Wade again. Megan Siposki. And after questioning the Siposki’s, they determined that the twelve-year-old was equally as clueless as Willie Howell had been.

“So what do you think, Mulder? Are they receiving signals from their television sets, are they doing the bidding of some evil, telepathic force, or are they all sociopathic Anti-Semetists?” Scully asked, flopping down on her bed. Mulder’s room had been the dumping ground for his luggage but nothing more. He now sat in Scully’s lounge chair as he fingered the remote control and contemplated turning on the television.

He shrugged. “This doesn’t fit the profile for any of that, actually,” he said. “In most telepathic control cases we’ve seen, the controlled parties are troubled by certain questions, or at least all have something in common. Howell was unwilling to answer about his religion. Megan’s parents readily volunteered that they were Catholic. Lauren’s parents are different religions, and Charlie’s parents are agnostic. Sam’s parents have tried to convince him to come to church with them but he’s totally unreceptive. All five of them have different socioeconomic backgrounds, different nationalities, and different intelligence levels. There are no common factors such as a learning disability, a dietary restriction, any health issues, or anything academic except they attend public school. The only public school in the neighborhood.”

“What about the fact that none of them are bused in?”

“Not many kids are bused—that’s statistically probable that none of the five would be bused in from other neighborhoods.”

“So why doesn’t it fit the sociopathic Anti-Semetist profile?” Scully asked.

“C’mon, Scully, you saw those kids. None of them acted the least bit sociopathic. The only one we could argue for is Willie, and I doubt he was an act—just a little child who didn’t know anything. The rest gave away information that they probably didn’t want to, information that’s probably going to get them grounded. Do you go outside at night when you aren’t supposed to? Yes, I do.”

“What if that was an act?”

“I seriously doubt it. There’s something else here…and it’s not something we’ve seen before.” He turned on the television, and the weather was on.

“It is possible that we just haven’t asked them the right questions yet. That they will slip and say something they didn’t mean to. There’s also the possibility that Darrel Wade is lying. That these children had nothing to do with it and he premeditated naming them as the assailants.”

“The question would become, why would he want to do that, and who really attacked him,” Mulder said as he watched the meteorologist drone on about a cold front.

“They’re not in the same extracurricular activities, and they haven’t been with the same coaches or teachers in the past. Only two of them had the same teacher.”

“They’ve all lived here their entire lives—none are newcomers,” Mulder said. “That’s a commonality, but not one that’s particularly unusual in this town.”

Scully sighed. “Maybe we should go ask the leprechauns if they know.”

Mulder chuckled. “I don’t think Fin would mind a return visit, Scully. I promise not to get shot this time.”

“Like I haven’t heard that before,” she said, rolling her eyes.

“Shannon might make you a birthday cake.”

“Is this your idea of mooching off of leprechauns so you don’t have to bake?”

“Never, Scully,” Mulder replied with mock seriousness.

The television switched to sports, and Mulder listened to the announcer rave about Sidney Crosby, bringing in the Penguins’ latest victory.

“I think I’m gonna check the kids’ medical records. See if they all see the same doctor,” Scully said, standing up. “Will you be here, wasting time?”

“I’m not wasting time,” Mulder argued as he watched Sidney slapshot the winning goal in a replay. “I’m doing important research.”

“I’ll see you later,” she said, still smiling as she grabbed the keys to the rental and headed for the door. She knew he was thinking about the case, profiling in his head, and not really watching the television. She would most likely return to find the room covered in yellow paper, with his notes scattered around like a micro-burst had hit the small space. “I expect a full report on Patrick Kane and Sidney Crosby when I get back,” she said before closing the door behind her.

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HOWELL RESIDENCE

SEWICKLEY, PA

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23rd, 2010

1900

It was after dinner and Willie’s brother was about to get his bath and get ready for bedtime. He was entitled to some television time since it wasn’t a school night, and so he sat on the little pillow in front of the TV and watched as Spongebob took off with Patrick’s secret box.

The cartoon starfish ran after the sponge when the phone rang. His mother picked it up, and Willie smiled. It was time to go now.

“Oh, all right. Sure. I’ll make sure that happens,” Willie’s mother was saying, as she watched Willie walk to the front door. He got his coat, gloves, and hat from the coat rack, and then slipped on his shoes before leaving. His mother watched him with an indifferent expression. “Absolutely. I understand completely,” she said.

Willie was well on his way by the time she hung up the phone, and turned the television off.

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OSBORNE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL PLAYGROUND

SEWICKLEY, PA

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23rd, 2010

1910

The kids arrived at about the same time, and stood on the blacktop.

Charlie was the first to speak. “We know there’s a problem,” he said. “Did they come see all of you?”

The kids nodded. “Now I’m grounded for three days for lying to my mom and dad,” Meg said. “This sucks.”

“It’s really a big problem. They’re gonna ruin all our fun,” Lauren said.

Sam folded his arms. “We can’t let ‘em do that.”

“No, we know what we have to do,” Charlie said. “Especially since he’s one.”

They nodded. “He’s not really one,” Sam said. “But he’s a problem so close enough.”

“And she’s not one but she has to go too,” Willie said.

“So we have to think about how we’re gonna do this,” Charlie stated.

“We could take a cab into Pittsburgh and get a gun there,” Meg suggested.

“Too expensive. My allowance isn’t that much,” Charlie rejected. “Let’s just take theirs.”

“Okay. We can do that,” Lauren said. “Let’s do it tonight.”

“Let’s do it now!” Willie said excitedly, and jumped up and down for joy.

“No, we gotta wait till they’re asleep. Besides, the message is playing. By the time it’s done, our parents will all go to sleep. We got all night,” Charlie said.

“This is gonna be so great!” Meg said, and high fived Sam.

“Let’s play here for the next couple of hours and then we can go,” Charlie told them. Sam produced a tennis ball out of his winter coat pocket, and they began tossing it around, giggling about the latest Spongebob episode on television.

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SEWICKLEY ORTHODONTIST

SEWICKLEY, PA

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23rd, 2010

2000

“I really appreciate you coming down here, Doctor Edgehouse,” Scully said. “I know it’s the weekend, and I know it’s late.”

“It’s not a problem. Anything I can do to help. I understand you had some questions about some of my patients? But I’m afraid I don’t understand. All but one of my patients are children.”

“That’s correct,” Scully said, and laid the casefile folder down on the desk in front of the doctor. He sat down in his leather chair and folded his hands. “Our prime suspects are children,” she explained. “Darrel Wade identified five children as his assailants. They are all patients of yours, according to their pediatricians.”

She indicated that he should pick up the case file, and he paged through the children’s pictures. “Yes,” he said. “I’ve been treating all five of them. Willie Howell is one of my youngest patients. He just got spacers in his teeth, and had several pulled to make room for the adult ones. He’s going to have extremely crooked teeth and he has a bad overbite. We can correct all of that, of course…what does their visiting me have to do with the fact that they’re suspects in this stabbing?”

He seemed very frazzled, and extremely confused. Scully didn’t blame him—most people wouldn’t suspect five small children in a brutal stabbing and hate crime. “It was the only unifying factor between the five of them, Doctor. Is there anything about these five children that sets them apart from your other patients? Any procedures you’ve used, any special products?”

He leaned back, and wracked his brains. Then he got up and pulled their files out of a nearby filing cabinet. He flipped through Willie’s first, and then went on to Lauren’s. After a few moments, he snapped his fingers. “These are the expander trial members,” he said suddenly, with a triumphant smile. “These kids were all part of an expander trial last year. They all volunteered to try a new kind of expander—it’s programmed to expand on its own, instead of relying on the parents to turn a key on the inside of the child’s mouth. You see, Dr. Scully, some children’s mouths aren’t big enough for their adult teeth to come through. We use an expander to periodically widen the gap, and create more room. It decreases crookedness of teeth. The trial was stopped after these five were introduced, mainly because it didn’t work. Their parents have been turning the keys in their expanders for months now.”

“Do they still have the original expanders?” Scully demanded.

“Yes. They’ll come off in another couple of months. But Dr. Scully, I don’t see how this is going to help you solve this. They’re just expanders…they can’t make a person a suspect in an assault investigation.”

“Who makes these expanders?” Scully asked, standing up.

“I…I’m not sure, I don’t remember the company name. It wasn’t something I had heard before. We get several trials a year…”

“Do you have it on record?”

“Yes, definitely. I’ll pull it up for you.”

Scully thanked him quickly and pulled out her cell phone. She speed dialed her partner. “Mulder, I’ve got something.”

“I think I do too, Scully. Maybe. Did you notice all the kids had a lisp?”

“I may have the reason for that,” she said quickly. “Do you know what an expander is?”

“This isn’t the time or place, Agent Scully,” he quipped.

“Mulder, seriously. It’s a dental device. It’s put in a child’s mouth to expand the area and make more room for adult teeth. All five children have one of these things right now. They were part of an experimental trial.” She quickly filled him in on what the trial was and what it was supposed to do. “Dr. Edgehouse is looking up the manufacturer’s name right now.”

“You took the car, Scully. I can’t come.”

“Stay on the phone, he’s almost got it. When he does, I’ll come back and pick you up.”

“Got it,” Dr. Edgehouse said, tapping the screen, and turning it around. “If you want to call the company, there’s a number right here, effective as of two weeks ago. It was automatically updated in the system.”

Scully’s eyes widened. “Mulder…we have a problem.”

“A bigger one than five killer children being controlled by expanders in their mouths?” he asked. She heard him turn the television off in the background.

“Yes. Rousch.”

“Really? I thought they went bankrupt.”

“Rousch Pharmaceuticals went bankrupt, not Rousch Medical Supplier.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“I’m not. I’ll come pick you up.”

“Here we go again,” Mulder said.

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Scully hung up the phone, and asked Dr. Edgehouse for a printout of the Rousch information page for the expanders, as well as copies of the children’s orthodontist records. In another few minutes, she was on her way back to the hotel.

She pulled up in the driveway and walked to the door. Sliding her key in the slot, she entered and found Mulder pacing.

“You got the info?” He demanded.

“And a phone number, though I’m sure it’s fake.” She handed him the paper.

He snorted. “Yeah, it’s fake.”

“What, you know this number?”

“The National Rejection Hotline, Scully. I’m surprised they’d be this childish.”

“It was updated two weeks ago. The study was terminated months ago. No one cared anymore, Mulder. We have to go warn these parents.”

“I agree. How much do you want to bet they’re all ditching their bedtimes and are about to make a move again tonight?”

She nodded, and they walked out of the hotel room together. Once in the car, Mulder paged through the medical records. “Scully, Megan and Charlie are too old to have expanders, if they’re for children with no adult teeth…”

“They were both taken to the orthodontist late in their dental development. Expanders are a standard step before braces, if the mouth is too small, and that was the case for both of them. The expanders work with adult teeth,” Scully said as she pulled out of the parking lot.

“But these expanders are different. For adult teeth, they’re nearly the same model but just slightly different. Scully, Charlie has an extra expander, on the bottom. Meg doesn’t.”

“What, you think the signal is stronger for him?”

“I’m thinking he might be the most dangerous one,” Mulder said.

“Then we’ll go to the Rueben’s house first.”

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SEWICKLEY COUNTRY INN

SEWICKLEY, PA

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23rd, 2010

2045

“This is a really big problem!” Lauren exclaimed, looking at the hotel room door with an exasperated expression.

“Calm down,” Charlie commanded. “Everyone calm down. This is a really big problem. But we also have a really big solution. Meg, can your feet reach the pedals?”

Meg nodded. “Yeah,” she said definitely. Her recent growth spurt had landed her at a towering 5 feet tall, much taller than Charlie and the others.

“Good. That’s what we’ll have to do. Break into one of these cars, and use it. Lauren, you have your pocket knife?”

She pulled it out of her pocket and handed it to him.

“Sam, paper clip?” Sam nodded, and handed him the paper clip.

“I can hotwire the car. Let’s go.”

They picked a blue minivan, since it was the car most of their parents drove. They reasoned that they would know how to drive one.

It wasn’t hard to pick the lock on the 10-year-old minivan, and before they could finish their discussion on the latest CoolBrain Yomega Yo-yo in the toy shop in downtown Sewickley, they were on their way.

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RUEBEN RESIDENCE

SEWICKLEY, PA

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23rd, 2010

2100

Mulder and Scully pulled up to the calm house, stopping only a few feet away from a child’s bike in the driveway. They jogged to the front door and rang the doorbell once, and then waited. Mulder pounded on the door after a moment, and shouted, “FBI! Mr. and Mrs. Rueben, open the door!”

“Mulder, we don’t know that Charlie’s receiving signals at the moment. Don’t scare them,” Scully cautioned.

“Something’s wrong. The lights are on in the house, the shoes are by the front door, but no one’s answering.”

“They might be asleep.”

“Not likely.” He pounded on the door again, and that elicited movement upstairs. A little child and a teenager walked out of their rooms, and down the front stairs. The teenager was lanky and tall, with acne splotches on his face. The small child was probably no older than three, her little bunny sleepers covered in pink cars with smiley faces on them. She rubbed her eyes sleepily.

The teenager began to open the door when out of nowhere, Mr. Rueben made a dive for him and caught his hand before it touched the knob. He led the teenager away gruffly and the toddler began to cry as her father yelled.

“Something is seriously wrong here,” Mulder said.

The teenager began to struggle with his dad, his face betraying his fear. Mulder stepped back, pulled his gun, and then placed a well-aimed kick at the door. After several more kicks, it gave. He and Scully trained their weapons on Mr. Rueben as the man tried to put his teenage son in a headlock. “Thomas Rueben, stay right where you are!” Scully yelled.

“Release your son immediately!” Mulder screamed. The toddler wailed even louder, and cowered in a corner.

Mr. Rueben seemed to be in a trance that suddenly broke when he looked at the agents. He released his son, and backed away, staring at his hands in horror. Then he ran to the kitchen as quickly as he could.

Mulder followed, while Scully stayed with the two children.

Mulder was about to yell at Rueben to stand still once more, when he noticed the target of the man’s sudden movement. A cordless phone lay on the kitchen table, the speaker on, while a calm voice spoke to his wife, who sat stock-still at the table. She didn’t seem to notice anything was going on. Rueben appeared to fight with himself for a moment before he picked it up and threw it at the wall.

The second it stopped, Mrs. Rueben looked up. “Tom? What’s going on?” She asked. “Why’s the baby crying?” She got up quickly and ran to the front hallway. “Who are you?” They heard her demand, and Scully began to answer.

“What’s happening?” Tom asked Mulder, clearly frightened.

“Mr. Rueben, I believe you and your wife have been subjected to subliminal messages. And Agent Scully and I believe your son Charlie has been receiving messages from the same source, that are instructing him to do extremely destructive things. If you don’t believe me, think about what you were doing a second ago. And think what effect it would have on a ten-year-old boy.”

Rueben stared wide-eyed at Mulder.

“Come on. We have to go. Charlie’s out there and we need your help to stop him from doing whatever they’re instructing him to do next.”

Rueben was silent as they ran for the front hallway.

“Mrs. Rueben, can you stay with your children? We need one of you to come with us. Charlie might need convincing by someone he knows,” Mulder urged.

“What? What’s going on, Tom? What’s happening? Where’s Charlie?”

“Hannah, trust me, please,” Tom said, and took her by her shoulders. “Stay with John and Katie. I’ll be back.”

“Where are you going?”

“To find Charlie,” he said forcefully. “And stop whatever the hell this is.”

“Come on, we have to go now,” Mulder said firmly. “If Charlie’s not here, they’re out planning their next attack.”

“Attack? What?”

“Just trust us, Mrs. Rueben. We have to go,” Scully said, and they jogged out the door, and to the car.

“Do we have time to find the other parents?” Scully asked Mulder.

Mulder shook his head. “I don’t think so, no. We’ve got to try to find the kids. As soon as we can.”

“We’ve got an entire town to search,” Mr. Rueben said from the backseat. “If Charlie’s out, he could be anywhere in Sewickley.”

“No…no, I think…” Mulder started the car and peeled out of the driveway. “I think they’re going to find us. I think we’re their next target.”

“Mulder, we have no way of knowing that,” Scully said. “And if we don’t figure out where they could be, someone might be killed. Mr. Rueben, there’s a small Jewish population in Sewickley. Where is one of the houses? Someone your son would know?”

“No, that’s not it, Scully. We’re the next target,” Mulder insisted. “We need to go someplace where it’s enclosed, but there’s a lot of ground to move around on. And we need to split up.” He halted the car just outside the driveway, and backed up. “Scully, go with Mr. Rueben to whoever’s house he thinks his son would know. Just in case I’m wrong.”

“No, Mulder. I’m not leaving you alone with five hypnotized children.”

“Scully, dammit, we don’t have time to argue about this! If I’m right, I’ll call you as soon as they show up. If I’m wrong, and you don’t go, then someone else could be victimized!”

Scully and Mulder stared each other down for a fraction of a second, a silent battle of wills. Finally, Scully lost. “Fine. Mr. Rueben, get your car keys.”

They got out of the car and Mulder peeled away as quickly as the little rental car could.

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SNITZ RESIDENCE

SEWICKLEY, PA

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23rd, 2010

2110

“Oh, great! This totally sucks!”

“We’re not supposed to say that word,” Willie chastised Charlie.

“Shut up, Willie. All right, I gotta think. Okay. I think we have to split up like they did.”

“But then how are we supposed to kill Jessie?” Meg asked petulantly.

“Jessie’s only eight. We can take her,” Charlie said. “As long as her parents are asleep. Remember the rope trick we learned?”

They nodded.

“Okay,” Meg said, and put the car in drive. “So Charlie, you and Lauren and Sam are goin’, and me and Willie are going to Osborne?”

“No, it’s not gonna take three of us to take Jessie, just one,” Charlie said. “It’ll take at least three of you to take Mulder. And we need a majority to make the mark, anyway.”

“But his partner and your dad are gonna be here in another two trips!”

“That gives us enough time,” Charlie argued. “Now you’re wastin’ time. Go, Meg. Drive the rest. I’ll take care of Jessie.”

“You sure?” Meg asked him.

“Positive,” Charlie said with enormous confidence. He got out of the car, and went around to the back, where he found the wire the voice had promised him. He tugged on it with his gloved hands, and then put it in his winter coat. Looking down at the cool pictures of Spiderman on his gloves before he closed the hatch of the minivan, he waved his friends on and the minivan took off. Charlie made his way up the front stairs, and began to think of how to get inside.

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OSBORNE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL PLAYGROUND

SEWICKLEY, PA

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23rd, 2010

2115

Mulder pulled up in the teacher’s lot and jumped out of the car, positioning himself on the blacktop. He knew the kids would come soon, and when they did, he had to have a plan. He pressed number 2 on his cell phone and waited.

“Joe’s Pizza Kitchen, how may I help you?”

“Turn off the tape, Frohike, and listen carefully,” Mulder demanded.

“What’s up, Mulder?”

“I need you to create a digital jamming signal on my cell phone in the next couple of minutes.”

“Whoa, that’s gonna take more than a couple of minutes, amigo. What’s this for?”

“I need to stop Rousch Medical Supplies from sending mind-controlling signals to children’s orthodontic expanders,” Mulder said quickly.

There was a pause. “What’ve you been smoking, Mulder? And can we have—”

“Now, Frohike! They’re gonna be here any minute!”

“You want us to jam all radio signals within a few feet of you?”

“Whatever you can, just do it quickly.” He saw the headlights of a minivan pull up, and squinted to see the much-too-young driver in the front seat.

“Byers, Langly, get over here, we have to create a jamming signal in Mulder’s cell phone…” Mulder heard Frohike explain as he dropped his cell phone into his pocket and left it active. He got ready to run.

The kids ran for him all at once, hands at their belts where they kept their knives. These were probably the same knives used to stab Darrel Wade, Mulder thought. And he was especially a target, he realized, because of his family’s heritage. These kids were programmed to target certain people, probably so as not to confuse the targets.

As Mulder ran for the jungle gym, he was formulating a more complex profile. Rousch obviously wanted to test mind control, and so it was the same old story—create a trial no one would question. Children’s expanders. Then create targets for the kids, to clarify in their minds what they were supposed to do, and keep law enforcement looking in the wrong direction. Let them loose, and watch it unfold. Same old story. Complete with Mulder running for his life.

He ran up the slide and leapt over some handlebars, then took a survey at where the children were before leaping off the play structure and heading for the monkey bars. It was a good place to run, and keep them all contained. But it was also not so easy for an adult to navigate.

Sand and wood chips kicked up around his pant legs as he ran through a sandbox and back out again. He made a sharp turn and ran through some swings, then leapt onto the middle of a teeter totter and back off again. He jumped on top of a shaky wooden bridge, and leapt off the other side. The kids were in hot pursuit, and Mulder was well aware that he wasn’t evading a bunch of elementary school children—he was evading the adults giving them commands.

When he looked behind him again, he felt a small surge of panic hit him as he realized only two were following him. That meant…

He nearly slammed into the little kid that appeared out of nowhere. He saw Willie’s face as the seven-year-old went for his feet. Between one kid catching him off balance and another grabbing his ankles, Mulder didn’t have a chance. He was down on the ground in an instant, the woodchips cushioning his fall.

The children approached, out of breath, and expressionless. They unsheathed their knives from their belts, and approached slowly. “Frohike…” Mulder warned in a near-panicked voice. “Now would be a good time!”

He didn’t hear the reply, but realized he was surrounded, and that there was no way out.

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SNITZ RESIDENCE

SEWICKLEY, PA

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23rd, 2010

2130

Scully pulled up to the residence of Jessie Snitz, one of Charlie’s classmates. She and Thomas Rueben exited the vehicle and ran toward the front of the house. Rueben was right behind Scully, and said, “Their screened-in porch on the side—it’s been broken into. The screen was slashed with a knife.”

Scully drew her weapon. “Stay back, Mr. Rueben. Don’t come in until I tell you to.”

“But if Charlie’s in there—”

“If Charlie’s in there, then you can help me, but not until I say it’s safe. He might have found a gun.”

“Charlie wouldn’t…he couldn’t…”

Scully didn’t answer Rueben’s horrified, unasked question as she ran around to the side of the house. If Charlie got in quietly, so could she. It was better not to spook him.

They were able to easily pick the lock on the screened-in-porch, instead of climb through the screen as Charlie had. They then gained entrance through the side porch door, and were in the living room.

Scully put her hand out to keep Rueben back as she extended her weapon, and walked through the house with a flashlight lighting her path.

The house was dead quiet. It was clear this family went to sleep early. They had no pets, so nothing made any noise at their entrance. No one set a security alarm.

Scully climbed the stairs and turned her flashlight off, the nightlights in the hallway sufficient to light her step. She began to silently check bedrooms.

The first was a guest bedroom. In the second, the parents silently slept as if nothing was wrong. She considered waking them, but then decided it was a bad idea. It was odd, she thought, that they didn’t even awaken at the sound of her feet on the floorboards.

Finally, she got to the child’s bedroom. The door was the only one closed in the house, and locked. Scully took a step back, and broke the door down with a kick.

Charlie stood in a wide stance, trying in earnest to strangle 10-year-old Jessie Snitz as she gasped and flailed her arms in wide-eyed panic.

“Drop the wire, Charlie!” Scully yelled. Rueben ran over to Charlie and tried to wrench his son’s arms away, but the 10-year-old had so much adrenaline coursing through his body that he was able to kick his father in the groin, and drop him to his knees. His face was expressionless, his hands white-knuckled in their attempt to strangle his classmate.

Scully ran over and holstered her weapon as she grabbed the boy in one motion. Jessie’s parents arrived at that second, and moved into action immediately. They screamed for Charlie to stop, trying to wrench his hands away from the wire.

Finally, just when they were making progress, it was Rueben who stood up with a child-sized wooden baseball bat, and clocked his son over the head with it.

Charlie dropped, unconscious. “Call an ambulance!” Mrs. Snitz screamed, holding her unconscious daughter as Rueben pushed the crowd aside to get to his son.

Scully pulled out her cell phone and dialed 911 while checking the children’s pulses. Just then, a beam of light streamed out of the computer in Jessie’s room. The computer exploded instantly, sending sparks flying into the air. The concentrated energy traveled through the air, electrons finding their instant conductor on Jessie’s leg. There, imprinted through her pajamas, was a Nazi Swastika.

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OSBORNE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL PLAYGROUND

SEWICKLEY, PA

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23rd, 2010

2135

Meg made the first dive with the knife and Mulder rolled out of the way. It caught the wood chips, but not him, thankfully. “Frohike!” He screamed at the top of his lungs, just as Lauren made the second dive for him.

He was able to dodge her as well, but just barely. He tried to get up, but Sam kicked him in the forehead with a winter boot.

Suddenly, the four just froze, and dropped their knives. They looked around, clearly confused. Then they looked at Mulder, and each other.

“What are we doing here?” Willie asked. “I’m cold.”

“I wanna go home,” Sam said.

“Why are we at the playground? Did you kidnap us?” Lauren asked Mulder.

Mulder smiled, and started to get up. “No…I didn’t kidnap you.” He rose slowly, and took his phone out of his pocket. “Thanks, Frohike. Not a moment too—aaaah!” He dropped the phone as it became red hot, and caught fire. It exploded with a burst of energy and a stream of electricity traveled directly from the ground into Mulder’s leg. He dropped instantly and grasped the leg painfully as the symbol was carved in.

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SEWICKLEY VALLEY HOSPITAL

SEWICKLEY, PA

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23rd, 2010

2230

“So the pharmacy’s video camera was destroyed as well, but the police didn’t include that in their report because it hadn’t caught anything on tape—it was the one on the inside,” Scully said, sitting in the chair beside her partner’s bed.

His thigh was bandaged and he sat on the side of the bed in a hospital gown, waiting for them to bring his clothes from the other room.

“And they disappear into the woodwork again. We can try to keep the expanders as evidence, Scully, but you know they’re just going to get lost.”

“I think it’s worth a try, at least. This time they’re using the newest technology available to restart these tests, Mulder. It’s just like before, only more disastrous. Popular Mechanics magazine recently featured an article about wireless transmission of electrical charge—effectively charging electronics without wires. That’s exactly what they did here, only they concentrated the energy into a symbol. If they were somehow able to do that, they could potentially carve a symbol like that into a city, destroying several buildings from some unknown origin.”

“They can already do that with missiles. What this gives them is the ability to terrorize. What extremist wouldn’t like to get his hands on some anti-religious or anti-government or anti-capitalist or anti-Oprah symbol to carve into the land and freak some people out?”

“Anti-Oprah?” Scully asked with an arched eyebrow.

“Popular Mechanics, Scully?” Mulder countered back.

“It’s in Skinner’s office…” She defended.

Mulder smirked slightly, and then sighed. “I’m wondering if they’re starting up again, or if they never stopped. What if this is just the first one we’ve caught, Scully? What if they’re just getting better at these tests? Getting so good at it that we’re not noticing anymore?”

“If they have to resort to using expanders in children’s mouths, I’m pretty sure they’re not getting better,” Scully said dryly.

“How are the kids?”

“They’re all confused. It hasn’t been explained to them why their orthodontist had to pull out their expanders in the middle of the night.”

“At least we won’t have the Manson children running around anymore.”

Scully looked down. “Their parents aren’t happy campers.”

“If I were a parent, I’d be pretty damn confused myself.”

“How’s your leg, Mulder?”

“It’s fine. Doctor said it wouldn’t scar as long as I apply this vitamin E crap to it on a regular basis.”

“You’d better. That’s not the kind of scar you want to have.”

“Got that right,” Mulder said, glancing down at it. He paused a moment. “Why do you think they chose the Nazi Swastika? The Anti-Semetist theme?”

Scully shook her head. “I don’t know. Could be a message…”

“Maybe a statement of their purpose? To manipulate the minds of the weak—the children—to serve their purposes and form a unified but enslaved population? Drones under the monarch, the present-day Hitler?”

“Possibly,” Scully said, entertaining the thought. “I wouldn’t put it past them. It is sort of what they want to do, isn’t it, Mulder?”

He nodded slowly. “2012…”

“Let’s not think about that right now,” Scully said, getting up and sitting beside him. “We stopped them this time. Now that we’re watching Sewickley, they won’t try here again. And we’ll do our best to stop them the next time.”

“The question becomes, how many times can we stop them? And how many times do they get away with it?”

Scully didn’t have an answer for that.