Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Arcanum - Part One


December 23rd 2011
Washington D.C.  
10:18 p.m.

Special Agent Nicholas Mercer smiled at the guard as he cleared the last security checkpoint, rolling up the ramp and out of the underground parking lot of the J Edgar Hoover building.  His briefcase and a white teddy bear with an eye-patch sat on the passenger seat beside him.  God, he was tired, but he still needed to wrap the present as soon as he got home.  Vanessa would have put Jessie to bed already, so at least he wouldn’t have to try hiding the damn thing.
      He glanced at the little bear on the passenger seat and smiled.  “Quit eyeballing me.  You’re giving me the creeps.”
     He chuckled, and tried not to think about spending Christmas with Vanessa’s parents.  At least he’d get to see his daughter for more than a few hours at a time.  The thought made him smile again.  He needed some happy thoughts to counteract the case he was working on.  The world was full of freaks and losers.  He didn’t refer to them as such in his case-notes, but some people could use anything to justify violence and the pursuit of power.  He grimaced as he thought about it; using God and conspiracy theories as a justification to force your bizarre grievances onto groups you didn’t like – whether it was the federal government or plain old non-believers.
     All he really wanted to think about was wine and a movie with Vanessa when he got home, and giving Jessie a kiss while she slept.  He glanced at the bear again.  He was sure she’d love it.
     His cell was ringing.  He fished the phone from his inside pocket as he drove and glanced at the screen.  Vanessa.
     “On my way now, honey,” he answered.
     “Thanks, sweetie.  Our little dragon-slayer is sound asleep, finally.  I just need you to stop off and pick up some Rioja.  And a pack of cigarettes for me…”  He could almost hear his wife smiling at his expected response, but he wasn’t taking the bait.
     “Look, if you want to keep smoking I’m not gonna hassle you.  You’re a modern, independent woman, and I fully support your life-style choices.  Even if they’re lame.”
     Nicholas heard laughter on the line.  “Glad to hear it.  And real Morley’s this time.  Not Lights.  Love you, bye.”  She hung up before he could object.
     He smiled and gently tossed the phone onto the dashboard.
     Fifteen minutes later he pulled up outside their local convenience store.  The storefront was decorated with a few paltry Christmas lights, but at least they were making the effort.  He got out of the car, locked it and hurried into the store.  There were no other customers.
     “Hey, Eddie,” he called to the old guy behind the counter.  Eddie glanced up from the book he was reading and grinned.
     “Nicky boy, haven’t seen you for a while.  How’s the FBI treating you?  Caught any bad guys?”
     Nicholas went over to the alcohol section, nodding and smiling.  “Oh, tons of them.”
     He browsed the few Riojas on offer.  The bell chimed and he glanced over.  A young girl wandered in, wearing an old grey hooded-sweatshirt, jeans and scuffed sneakers.  She had her face turned away and the hood made it difficult to catch her profile, but she couldn’t have been any older than twelve or thirteen.  Nicholas glanced at Eddie but the old man was reading his book again, unconcerned.  The young girl went over to the rack of magazines and pulled out a copy of Vogue.  She began flicking though it, her back to Nicholas.  He wasn’t sure why, but he had the feeling that something wasn’t right.  She looked grubby, and too young to be out on her own at this time of night, but it was more than that.
     “Excuse me, Miss…”
     The hooded girl ignored him, continuing to browse her magazine.  “I said Excuse me, Miss…I’m talking to you.”  Nicholas left the Riojas on the shelf and moved a few paces towards her.
     “It’s kind of bad manners to ignore someone when they’re talking to you.”
     She glanced over her shoulder at him.  He saw that she definitely wasn’t any older than twelve or thirteen, maybe even younger.  Under the hood she was quite a pretty kid, but her eyes were dark and fierce.  “I don’t talk to strangers,” she said calmly.  The look in her eyes actually made Nicholas take a step back.  He realized that something was seriously wrong, but he had no idea what.
     “You’re kind of young to be out on your own.  Where are your parents?”
     The hooded girl went back to reading her magazine.  “My mom’s waiting in the car.”
     “Isn’t she in a hurry?  You’re taking your time.”
     “She doesn’t care.”
     Nicholas glanced at Eddie, who had finally abandoned his book and was now looking curiously at the girl.
     “Why doesn’t your mom care?” asked Nicholas.  He didn’t know why his gut was telling him that something was wrong, but he felt it.
     “My mom doesn’t care because she’s a fictional character.”  The young girl put the magazine back.  “I just invented her.”  She turned and Nicholas saw that she had a gun in her hand.
     His stomach clutched, but before he could react the girl pointed the weapon to her right and pulled the trigger.  The gunshot caught Eddie in the throat, unfurling a ragged ribbon of blood as he was thrust off his stool and went crashing into the display behind him.  He toppled from view.  Nicholas snapped his gaze back to the girl as his heart started slamming in his chest.  Before he could even think of un-holstering his own sidearm the girl casually raised the gun at him.  It looked too big for her small hand.
     Nicholas heard himself say, “Jesus Christ, sweetie…what the hell have you done…
     “Merry Christmas,” said the girl, with a thin smile that didn’t belong on her pretty face.
     Nicholas had the sudden realization that this young child was a psychopath.  The thought chilled him as much as the gun in her hand.
     “You don’t have to do this,” he said, wide-eyed, unable to fully believe that she had just shot a man.  But there was no fear or remorse in her expression.  The place behind her eyes was dark.
     “Where’s your briefcase?”
     Nicholas frowned.  “What?”
     “I said, where’s your briefcase?”
     He glanced through the storefront at his blue Ford.  The young girl caught it and turned to look, lowering the gun as she did so.  Nicholas took his chance and lunged at her.  But she was lightning-fast and lashed out with her left arm.  The back of her fist caught him on the cheek, and it felt like stone.  Nicholas was hurled into a rack of candy by the sheer force of the blow.  The shelf collapsed against his weight and he went crashing to the floor as bags burst open and pieces of brightly-coloured confectionary went scattering.
     As Nicholas groaned in shock he heard her mutter, “Never a dull moment…”
     He couldn’t comprehend her strength, how she’d managed to knock him down with a glancing blow.  Pain was swelling in his cheek and his back.  He looked and saw her walk to the counter, standing on tiptoes to peer over.  Nicholas grimaced and fumbled to un-holster his sidearm.  She didn’t seem concerned until he pulled the gun free, shoved it in her direction and shouted, “Don’t move!”
     She turned away from the counter, the gun still in her hand.  Her expression was blank, and Nicholas wondered for the briefest moment if he actually had it in him to shoot this child.  The gun in her hand swept up fast.  Nicholas had no choice.  The bullet slammed into her shoulder, and should have spun her like a ragdoll.  Instead she just took an involuntary step backward from the concussive force and grunted in pain.  Greenish fluid began to spill from the wound and down her hooded sweatshirt.
     Nicholas gasped as his eyes and throat began stinging and burning.  Instinctively he dropped his sidearm and thrust his hands to his face.  It was like the girl’s blood was toxic.  He realized he was screaming now.  He didn’t understand how or why this was happening.  The burning in his eyes and throat was agony.  He realized that he might never get to see his daughter again.
     With a flush of confused anger he forced his eyes open, there on the floor of the convenience store, and looked up to see the hooded child peering down at him. Nicholas opened his mouth to beg her – but the little girl just smiled darkly, pointed the gun at his chest and fired.


                                                                          *

December 24th
Rural West Virginia.  
7:39 a.m.

The morning air was crisp and fresh as Fox Mulder ran laps around the old farm.  Dressed only in boots, sweatpants and a grey t-shirt, the chill in the air was a pleasant balance to the heat and sweat he was generating.  He’d almost finished his daily routine.  He didn’t have the boundless energy of his younger days, but he was still pleased with his progress.
      The farmhouse came into view again as Mulder trudged through the snow.  He felt like he needed to be in the best shape possible to handle whatever was coming.  And after the events of ten days ago Mulder was sure that something was coming.  His intuition was screaming it at him, and he’d learned to trust his intuition over the years.  It was part of the reason he was still alive.
     As Mulder jogged closer to the house he saw Scully standing on the porch, fully-dressed and holding two mugs of coffee.  She raised one at him.  He acknowledged her and picked up the pace.  When he reached the porch, Scully smiled and said, “Morning, soldier.”
     Mulder laughed, bent over with his hands on his knees and took a few deep breaths.  “It’s not as easy as it used to be…”
     He looked up at her and she smiled again.  “You’ve got more stamina than most twenty-five year olds, Mulder.”  She winked at him and offered him the mug of coffee.
     He grinned and took it from her.  He had a few careful sips and sat down on the porch steps, letting his body cool down for a minute.  Scully came and sat beside him.  The playful look in her eyes was gone now, and she peered out at the snow and the hills.
     “You were right, Mulder.  It’s starting again.”
     He frowned.  “What happened?”
     Scully looked at him and Mulder could see the resolve in her expression.  “I had six missed calls from Monica Reyes when I checked my phone this morning.  I just called her back.  She said they’ve got a bad situation in D.C.  She didn’t want to say anything more over the phone.”
    Mulder took a deep breath and nodded.  “At least I’m not the only one who’s paranoid.  Ten days, Scully.  Ten days since Imogen Ianelli.  We didn’t have to wait long, did we?”
     Scully gazed out at the snow again.  “No, we didn’t.  Monica wants us in D.C.  Back in Richmond I told her to call me if anything strange caught her attention, but I didn’t think it would be this soon.”
     “The door’s open now, Scully.  Something’s coming.  I can feel it.”
     “Me too.”  She frowned and added, “Monica is sending someone up from Richmond to meet us here.  They should arrive in about an hour.  I think it might be Monica’s new girlfriend.”
     Scully hadn’t mentioned Monica’s situation to her partner until now.  Mulder just smiled.
     “You don’t seem too surprised,” said Scully.
     Mulder tapped the side of his head.  “Behavioural profiler, remember?”
     She raised her eyebrows in a gesture of surprise.  For a few moments there was silence between them, then, “Mulder, I pulled a few strings at the hospital, called in a few favours.  They’ve given me a month off work.  The timing of all of this is insane.”
     Mulder nodded.  He knew that Scully was basically telling him that she was giving herself over completely to whatever was coming.  She had put so much time and effort into rebuilding her medical career since they left the FBI.  Putting it all to one side wasn’t a choice she was making lightly.
     “I guess the X Files isn’t done with us yet,” she said quietly.
     “I guess not.”
     “I’m not running anymore, Mulder.  If it wants us, then we meet it head-on.”
     Mulder was aware that Imogen Lanelli’s words were still buzzing in Scully’s mind.  This is for William, you bastard.  She wasn’t going to let the future steal their son.  Mulder felt proud of her, excited and terrified at the same time.  He knew they would be tested to their limits, and beyond.  He knew that Scully recognized this, and still she was willing.
     “I really love you, redhead,” said Mulder.
     Scully held his gaze for a long moment, smiled and said, “Let’s get inside.  I’m freezing.”

While Mulder took a long shower, Scully was sitting at the kitchen table; absently touching the little gold cross at her throat.  She thought about her father.  He’d been dead for almost two decades now, but she still missed him and thought about him.  Dad had been the kind of man who would never back down or give up without a fight.
     “Starbuck will make you proud, Ahab,” she muttered.  At least she still had her mom, despite not seeing her as often as she would’ve liked over the last several years.  But Mulder’s father had been murdered, his mother committed suicide, and his sister died a long time ago – despite all the years he spent searching for her.
     Mulder had nobody left, except her.  He was the most magnificent, infuriating man she had ever met.  There was no one else like him.  If she had to walk willingly back into hell, Fox Mulder was still the only person she wanted by her side.
     Scully was interrupted from her musing by the sound of an approaching car.  She got up, left the kitchen and crossed the lounge to the front door.  When she opened it she saw a tall black woman getting out of a battered-looking Jeep.  The woman approached the porch and smiled at Scully in the doorway.  She was very attractive, with chocolate-coloured skin, large dark eyes and a cropped haircut of tight black curls.
     “Dr Scully?” she asked as she climbed the porch steps.
     “That’s right.  Monica Reyes sent you?”
     She nodded and extended a hand.  Scully shook it.  “I’m Sasha Thorne.  Monica’s told me lots about you, and your partner.  You’re both a huge loss to the FBI in her opinion.  I know this is a little awkward, but she insisted that I meet with you.”
     Scully smiled, nodded and invited her inside.  Mulder was just coming down the stairs, freshly showered and dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt.
     “Fox Mulder?” the woman asked.  “I’m Special Agent Sasha Thorne; Monica’s girlfriend.”
     She said it so openly and without hesitation that Scully was impressed.  Mulder simply nodded.  “So the FBI wants us in D.C. now.  What happened this time? Attack of the Jaywalkers?”
     A look of sadness flickered across the woman’s face.  “Ah, no.  An agent was shot dead on his way home to his wife and kid.  One bullet, straight through his heart.”
     Mulder grimaced, immediately feeling like an idiot.  “I’m sorry…that’s awful.”  He glanced at Scully and recalled Agent Pendrell’s death from so many years ago.  It was always shocking when one of your own was killed, regardless of how well you knew them.
     Agent Thorne glanced between the two of them.  “Monica was friends with Nicholas Mercer.  She said he was a really good guy.”
     Scully interjected.  “I’m…I’m really sorry to hear that, but what’s the X File in all this?  I mean, why does Monica need me and Mulder in D.C.?”
     “Not just Monica.  Walter Skinner signed off on this too, apparently.  Monica told me over the phone that this agent was working a very weird case before he was killed.”
     Scully realized she didn’t want to have this conversation with the three of them standing near the front door.  She ushered the woman into the lounge.  Mulder took a seat in the armchair and Scully sat on the couch with Agent Thorne.
     The woman sighed and clasped her hands together.  “Ok, well, apparently Agent Mercer was working on a case involving a right-wing Christian militia that called themselves the ‘Scythe of St. John’.  Seriously hardcore fundamentalists, linked to arms-dealing and a string of murders.  But their main focus was the federal government, specifically CIA, NSA and DOD.  They believed that secret factions within the NSA were masterminding a cover-up concerning America’s interaction with an alien race.”
     Scully glanced at Mulder but his reaction wasn’t what she thought it would be.  “You keep talking in the past-tense.  What happened to them?”
     Agent Thorne frowned.  “The militia’s leader was found shot through the heart a few hours after Agent Mercer.  Identical kills.  The rest of the militia have vanished.  No sign of them.  No packing was done, no guns were taken.  They just disappeared.”
     From the fierceness in his eyes, Scully could see that Mulder was trying to digest and process it all.  “Do we have a witness or a description?” he asked.
     “Better…we’ve got security-footage from the store where Mercer and the clerk were killed.  Apparently the assailant was a young girl with unnatural strength.”
     Mulder glanced at Scully, shook his head and closed his eyes.  “How old are we talking?”
     “Monica said it’s hard to tell from the footage, but anywhere between eleven and thirteen.”
     “Jesus,” Mulder said sadly.
     Agent Thorne looked suddenly uncomfortable.  “Look, I know this is all crazy.  It’s Christmas Eve.  I would totally understand if you don’t want any part of this.  But Monica was adamant.  I get the feeling she hasn’t told me the whole story.  It’s strange because she’s normally so open with me.”
     Scully said, “Agent Thorne, how much do you know about Monica?”
     The woman smiled, seeming to understand what Scully was getting at.  “Uh, well…I know she’s highly intelligent, intuitive.  She’s gifted.  I guess you could say she’s a little bit psychic.”
     Mulder piped up.  “Most federal agents would have trouble believing something like that.”
     Agent Thorne shrugged.  “My Grandma was kind of like Monica.  I’ve been around that sort of thing since I was a child.  It’s not something I ever felt like mentioning at the academy.”
     Mulder chuckled.  Scully watched with a smile on her lips.  She liked this woman already.
     “Look,” said Agent Thorne, “I’m a very open-minded girl, but I’ve got to admit that I had a hard time accepting some of what Monica told me about you two, and the X Files unit.  I mean, I’ve encountered paranormal things before, but I’ve never given a thought to the idea of aliens and shapeshifters.  But we live in an infinite universe, right?  Just because I haven’t experienced it myself doesn’t mean it’s not real.”
     Mulder said, “Did Monica tell you our working theory concerning Imogen Ianelli?”
     Sasha’s dark eyes became colder.  “Yeah.  Time-travel.  I don’t really care.  That bitch wandered into the building where I work and murdered two of our men.  I really don’t care what time she’s from.”
     Mulder nodded and said, “She vanished right in front of us.”
     The woman peered at him.  “I actually believe you.”
     Scully glanced out of the window, at the woman’s battered Jeep parked out front.  “So, Agent Thorne, when do we leave?

                                                                               *

J Edgar Hoover building
Washington D.C.  
11: 56 a.m.

The flight had been short but subdued.  Agent Thorne sat reading case-notes for most of the duration.  Mulder already liked the young agent; she seemed bright and open-minded, but he could tell she was unsettled by the whole thing.  With good reason, probably.
     As they stepped through the familiar entrance of their former workplace, Mulder glanced at Scully and took a deep breath.
     Back again.
     For a moment he gazed at the bureau seal set into the polished floor; the shield, laurels and banner that read Fidelity Bravery Integrity.  How many times had he and Scully walked across that seal?  As the three of them approached the reception security-point, Mulder noticed Assistant Director Walter Skinner waiting for them on the other side.  He nodded in acknowledgment.
     When they cleared security, Skinner approached them and said, “I was hoping I wouldn’t be seeing you both again so soon.”  He shared a sad, knowing smile with Scully and then nodded cordially at Agent Thorne.  “Let’s get to my office.”
     In the elevator he finally sighed and shook his head.  “First of all, Monica thinks this Agent Mercer shooting is connected to what happened in Virginia.  Imogen Lanelli.  And to be honest, I completely agree.  I can feel it in my bones.”  He glanced at Mulder as the carriage ascended; a look of concern in his eyes.
     He chuckled suddenly, surprising Mulder.  “You know, over the last ten years I’ve spent a lot of my spare time thinking about the X Files unit.  It’s a strange feeling.”
     Mulder and Scully exchanged looks.  Agent Thorne just frowned.
     Skinner added, “My secretary’s already cued up the security-footage from the store where Mercer was killed.  It’s the reason we needed you out here in D.C.”
     They walked through the building’s familiar hallways, passing native agents who watched them surreptitiously.  Skinner’s secretary, a young Asian woman, ushered them into the well-appointed office.
     Mulder smirked half-heartedly.  “Federal furnishings have come a long way since the nineties.  Lap of luxury, Walter.”
     Skinner ignored the remark and went straight to his desk, picked up a sleek remote and pointed it at a large flat-screen monitor on the far wall.
     A grainy black & white image illuminated the screen.
     “The footage is analogue video, so it kind of glitches, but we enhanced it as best we could.”
     Scully shared a look of anticipation with Mulder.  The footage showed a suited man conversing with a slender child in a hooded-sweatshirt.  The camera angle made it difficult to see the child’s face hidden in the hood.  The kid had a gun and suddenly raised it, firing at someone off-camera.  A few moments later the suited man lunged at the hooded child, but was sent crashing into the shelves with a single glancing strike from the child’s fist.  The kid turned and wandered towards the direction below the camera. 
     Mulder still couldn’t get a good look at the face.  But suddenly the child looked directly up at the camera, and smiled.
     It was as though someone had rammed a fist into Mulder’s stomach.  He literally gasped and snapped his gaze away from the screen.  Skinner immediately jabbed the remote, pausing the image.  Mulder realized he was actually trembling, and clenched his fists in an attempt to stabilize his shock.  He found Scully peering at him with a look of horrified empathy.
     Mulder forced himself to look at Skinner, forced himself to say the words.
     “That’s…that’s my sister.”

*

12:34 p.m.

Mulder had watched the rest of the tape, had watched Mercer fire a shot into the hooded girl with Samantha’s face, watched as a pale fluid spilled from her wound and down her sweatshirt.  Finally he’d watched as, unconcerned by her injuries, the girl had strolled over to the writhing FBI agent and casually shot him in the heart.  After executing him, the girl glanced up at the camera again and waved.
     Now, Mulder felt like he had stones in his gut; a horrible, sickly feeling.  An old psychic wound had been savagely ripped open.  He thought he’d finally laid the memory of his sister to rest, years ago.  But the girl on the security-footage was wearing her face.  She was a few years older than his mental image of her, older than the face in the photograph that he kept in his study, but recognisably her.  Except it obviously wasn’t Samantha.
     In the men’s restroom he splashed his face with water from the sink and then peered into the mirror in front of him.  Scully would know, but he didn’t want to show Skinner or Agent Thorne just how shaken he was by the footage.
     “It’s not her,” he muttered to himself.  “Just remember it’s not her.  Samantha’s dead.  She’s in a better place.”
     He closed his eyes and recalled a realm of starlight he had once seen in a vision.  Samantha had been there, in that bluish, shimmering realm; other children too, and they were finally happy.
     Mulder left the restroom and quickly returned to the office.  Skinner, Scully and Agent Thorne all looked over at him, all sharing the same concerned expressions.  They had obviously been talking.  Without saying a word Mulder went and sat in the chair beside Scully.  She looked like she wanted to reach over and kiss him, comfort him somehow, but she didn’t.
     “Are you ok, Mulder?” asked Skinner.  Mulder looked at him and nodded.  It was strange to see the bald Assistant Director looking at him with such compassion. There wasn’t a trace of the usual brusqueness in his eyes.
     Mulder said quietly, “I don’t…I don’t know what to say.”
     Scully decided to speak instead.  Mulder noticed her eyes were wet, like she was struggling to hold back tears for him.
     “As…as I was saying a moment ago, we know from working on the X Files that Mulder’s sister became involved in a very sophisticated genetic cloning program soon after her abduction.  We encountered some of these clones on more than one occasion.  We also know that at least some of them had a radically altered blood-chemistry that was toxic when exposed to the air.”
     “Just like what happened on the footage,” said Agent Thorne, who seemed fascinated but bewildered by what Scully was saying.
     Skinner nodded, frowning.  “I remember how crazy it all was.  But, does this suggest that someone is still out there conducting illegal genetic research?”
     “Not necessarily,” said Scully, her expression grim but determined.  “This girl on the tape is thirteen years old at the most, maybe a little younger.  The project that created her might be defunct by now.”
     Skinner raised his eyebrows. “Then why the hell did she walk into a store, execute the clerk and a federal agent, and then break into his car to steal his briefcase?”  He looked at Mulder, who said nothing.  “Look, I know…I can imagine how awful this must make you feel, but I need your insight.  I’ve never really admitted this to you, but you’re one of the sharpest people I’ve ever met.  It’s the only reason I signed off on dragging you out here.”
     Mulder finally spoke, his eyes dark and fierce.  “We’re asking the wrong questions.  We need to ask, ‘What is the connecting link between Mercer’s death, this girl…and Imogen Lanelli.  All three are connected.  We agree on that.  We need to look into this Christian militia that Agent Thorne mentioned to us.”
     “The Scythe of St. John,” said Skinner, nodding.  “Right-wing fundamentalists that have been linked to arms-dealing and terrorism.  To put it bluntly; a bunch of murdering psychopaths with a grudge against the federal government.”
     “What’s the conspiracy angle?” asked Mulder.  He was horrified at how rapidly his thoughts were darkening.  He could feel the aggression gathering within him like a fist.
     Skinner leaned forward in his chair, laying his hands on the desk.  “Ah, they believe that certain factions within the US government are interacting with an extraterrestrial intelligence.  They believe this intelligence to be satanic in nature, and that by exposing it they’ll be able to bring on the biblical Revelation of St. John.”
     “They want to kick-start the Apocalypse to fulfil the will of God?” asked Scully, absently touching the gold cross at her throat.
     Skinner gave a humourless smile and nodded.  “Pretty much.”
     Agent Thorne decided to speak up.  “Well, they won’t be bringing about the End of Days anytime soon, since they’ve all vanished and their leader is dead.”
     Skinner nodded again and looked at Mulder, then Scully.  “There’s something you both should know about the militia’s leader.  When he was interrogated by the Bureau two years ago he claimed he was…an abductee, beginning in his childhood.  Also, his father worked for the CIA until his death in the late seventies.  You can see why I was concerned.”
     For a few moments there was silence in Skinner’s office until Mulder said, “Where’s Monica Reyes?  She called Scully several times this morning.”
     Agent Thorne looked over at him.  “She told me she took the day off work.  She sounded strange on the phone, but she insisted that the two of you stay at her place while you’re in D.C.”
     Mulder took a long, tremulous breath and tilted his head back, peering up at the fan on the office ceiling.  “Monica knows something she’s not telling us, Agent Thorne.  Again.  If she wanted us out here, I want to know why she’s keeping secrets.”

*

Bethesda, Maryland  
4: 46 p.m.

They had spent the last several hours in Skinner’s office, poring through Mercer’s remaining case-notes, hoping to find some kind of connective link that would give them a place to start looking.  Now, in the back seat of Sasha Thorne’s battered Jeep, Scully glanced at Mulder.  She could see the tortured, almost psychotic intensity in his eyes again.  She remembered that look from their time on the X Files, a look that told her he was hurting and determined and willing to do something that might get him killed.
     Scully took his hand and squeezed it.  Softly she said, “It’s not her, Mulder.  It just looks like her.”
     “I know,” he replied in a cold monotone.  Agent Thorne glanced at them in the rear-view mirror.
     Scully realized that Mulder couldn’t even bring himself to make eye contact with her.  It stung a little, but she understood.  She wanted to take him into her arms, wanted him to make love to her, anything to distract him from everything he must have been feeling.  Scully couldn’t get the girl from the security-footage out of her mind either.  The thin, malevolent smile as she looked up at the camera.  The casual wave after she’d shot Mercer.  It frightened Scully.
     They pulled into the driveway of a modest semi-detached house, parking beside a black Saab.  Scully noticed Christmas lights strung in some of the windows. After getting out the car Sasha knocked on the door and the three of them waited in the frigid December air.
     When Monica Reyes answered the door, Scully was taken aback at her appearance.  Her hair was unkempt, her eyes slightly bloodshot.  She looked like she hadn’t slept in days.
     “Hey guys,” she said, unsmiling.
     Agent Thorne swept forward, taking Monica’s face in her hands.  “Jesus, baby…are you ok?”
     Monica tried for a small smile of reassurance.  “I’m fine, just a rough night.  I haven’t slept.”  She glanced at Scully and Mulder.  “Come on in.  We need to talk.”
     Inside Monica’s lounge an elegantly-decorated Christmas tree stood in the far corner, lights twinkling.
     Before they were even seated Mulder said, “We need to know the whole story.  Did you have another dream, like with Imogen Lanelli?”
     Monica frowned and sat on the couch.  Agent Thorne took a seat beside her and put her hand in Monica’s.  “Not exactly.  Mercer was my friend.  He was more than my friend, actually.  We dated for almost a year when we were in the academy together.”  Scully could see Agent Thorne bristle at the admission, but she did her best to cover it.
     There were tears in Monica’s eyes.  “I decided to end it, but we remained close friends…and then last night he’s murdered in cold-blood.”  She struggled to hold back the tears.  Scully frowned and glanced at Mulder.  His eyes were like ice.
     “You know, I introduced him to his wife,” Monica added.  “They have a daughter.  Nicholas had a daughter…”
     Sasha slipped her arms around Monica and kissed her.  Looking into her eyes, she said, “I’m so sorry, baby…”
     Monica nodded and sniffed, wiping away the tears that had rolled down her cheeks.
     “Merry frigging Christmas, huh?”  Finally she looked over at Mulder.  “There’s more.  An hour after Nick was killed I received a text-message from someone calling themselves Charon13.  They told me he was dead.  And that it was linked to what happened in Virginia ten days ago.  But here’s the crazy part.  The number the text was sent from came up as my own number.”
     Scully could see the fear in Monica’s expression.  “Whoever this Charon13 is, they knew about Nick’s murder before the FBI did, and they’ve obviously got access to some fairly sophisticated software.”
    Mulder said quietly, “In ancient Greek mythology Charon is the ferryman who greets the dead in the Underworld, and takes them across the River Styx.”
    “Baby,” said Agent Thorne, turning to Monica again, “you told me that you dreamt about this Lanelli woman before everything went down in Richmond.  You said in the dream she was a demon from the Underworld.  Is it possible that someone else knows about your dream?”
     Monica peered at her girlfriend, then at Scully and Mulder.  “I only told Skinner and the three of you.”
    Agent Thorne looked puzzled. “But then…what’s this Underworld connection?  It can’t be coincidence, can it?”
    “I stopped believing in coincidence a long time ago,” said Mulder.  “Look, this is gonna sound weird, Monica, but can I use your shower?  My mind is a mess right now and I need to get some clarity.”
     Monica seemed a little thrown by his request, but nodded.  “Sure.  I set up the guest bedroom for you and Scully.  There are fresh towels in the bathroom.”
     Mulder nodded a thank-you, glanced at Scully and left the lounge, hurrying up the stairs.  Scully took a long, slow breath.  She was worried about him.

*

5:36 p.m.

Mulder let the hot spray pound him, cleansing his body and his mind.  He thought about the night Samantha was taken.  The bright lights, trying to get to Dad’s gun, the horror of not comprehending what was happening.  Watching as his sister floated impossibly off the floor, bathed in a strange orange light, watching as she was seemingly levitated through the window, through a pane of solid glass.
     Even now the memories were vivid and dangerous, like falling into an abyss with malevolent things waiting at the bottom.  He had questioned those memories so many times, tried to analyse them from so many angles – that he couldn’t even be sure if things had actually happened the way he remembered them.
     In the guest bedroom he dried himself off and pulled his jeans back on.  The bedroom door opened slowly and Scully peeked round it.  She managed a smile, came into the room and shut the door behind her.
     “Any better?” she asked carefully.
     He smiled this time.  “Yeah.  I’m sorry I clammed up.  I just had to wash away the shock.”
     Scully came over and slipped her hands around his waist.  She kissed his damp, bare chest and looked up at him with a suggestive smile.
     Mulder felt the pleasant tingle that her eyes offered.  “Here?” he asked.  “At Monica’s place?  We haven’t even been here an hour.”
     “I think Monica and Sasha need some time alone right now.  You’re not turning me down, are you, Fox?”
     He peered at the gorgeous redhead.  “Never.”
     Scully took his hand and led him to the bed.

*

6: 55 p.m.

Lying beside him, sweaty and flushed and satisfied, Scully muttered breathlessly, “Third time’s a charm.”  She glanced at Mulder and grinned.
     Mulder turned his head on the pillow and smiled at her with relief.  “God bless you, FBI.  God bless you…”
     Scully laughed out loud at that.  She turned and cuddled him, pressing her cheek into the curve of his neck.  She traced her fingers across the slick of sweat on his chest.
     “We can fight this, you know,” she told him.  “Whatever happens; it’s you and me.  We can beat this thing.  After all the shit we’ve been through, they haven’t killed us yet.”
     “I died a couple of times, actually,” said Mulder with a smile in his voice.
     “Show-off,” said Scully.
     For a while they lay in comfortable silence.  Scully peered at the darkened sky through the bedroom windows.  She thought about what Skinner had told them earlier in his office.
     “Mulder?”
     “Yeah?”
     “Do you think it’s possible that someone other than Imogen Lanelli is trying to alter the future?  I mean, Skinner said that this militia, the Scythe of St John – they thought that by exposing the conspiracy it would trigger Armageddon.  And you told me that Ianelli said that after colonisation the Earth was a ruin of blood and fire.  That sounds like the Apocalypse to me.  I don’t want to get too religious with this, but what if someone had the militia removed because they actually succeeded?”
     Scully listened to Mulder’s breathing as he thought about it.  “I don’t know.  Maybe.  I think the timetable is already set, but maybe this militia had a hand in it somehow.  It would mean that this someone is actually trying to prevent colonisation, and has access to some very esoteric information.”
     “The enemy of our enemy?” asked Scully.
     “I’m not sure I want a friend who kills an entire group of people to prevent whatever’s coming, but…”  His words trailed off.
     “What is it?”
     Mulder wriggled out of the cuddle and sat up in the bed.  “I just thought of something.”
     He peered at Scully with eyes that were now alive with nascent intuition.  Scully was suddenly eager to hear his thoughts.
     “It’s Christmas Eve, Scully…and the Scythe of St John believed their actions would somehow eventually fulfil a biblical prophecy.  But…December 25th doesn’t just symbolize the birth of Christ.  To the pagans it symbolized the rebirth of the solar divinity after its three nights journeying through the Underworld.  That’s why December 21st is the Winter Solstice, because it’s the longest night of the year; it represented the death of the Sun, its descent into the Underworld.  And on the 25th the Sun is reborn.  The solar king is resurrected.”
     Scully looked up at him.  “Charon13 - Monica’s weird text-message.  The ferryman of the Underworld?  So right now, mythically-speaking, Charon is guiding the Sun across the Styx and back towards the World Above?  Our world?”
     Mulder nodded.  “Mythically-speaking.  But Monica also foresaw Imogen Ianelli as some kind of Underworld demon.  Something very weird is happening here, Scully.”
     She had no doubt about that.  Suddenly her eyes went wide.  “Wait, wait, wait…wasn’t there a line in Mercer’s case-notes referring to a company called Suncross Digital Systems? As in the Sun crossing the River Styx, passing through the Underworld?”
     “What?”  Mulder sounded astonished.
     “I don’t remember the context.  The name stood out to me, but I didn’t think anything of it.”
     Mulder climbed quickly from the bed.  “Are you sure?” he asked as he pulled his jeans back on.
     “I’m pretty sure…”
     “Do you remember where in his notes?”
     She shook her head.  Mulder put on his grey t-shirt, snatched his leather jacket from the dresser and said, “Meet me downstairs.”

In the lounge Monica and Sasha Thorne were snuggled together on the couch, drinking wine and talking quietly.  They looked up as Mulder came hurrying down the stairs, putting on his jacket.
     “Is everything ok?” asked Monica.
     “I think we might have a lead.  Can you do me a favour?”
     Monica nodded.  “Of course.”
     “Can you go online and Google any information about a company called Suncross Digital Systems?  Scully just told me that there’s a reference to it in Mercer’s case-notes.”
     Mulder saw that the pages from the case-notes were already spread out across Monica’s coffee-table.  He kneeled by the table, opposite Monica and Agent Thorne, and began looking through the pages.
     Monica and Sasha immediately became all business.  Sasha started helping Mulder to search the pages.  The battery of Monica’s iPhone was almost dead, so she went to fetch her laptop.
     The tall brunette was going up the stairs as Scully was coming down them, dressed in slacks and a black shirt.  “Back in a sec’,” said Monica with a smile.
     Scully joined Mulder and Agent Thorne at the coffee-table.  “What makes you think this Suncross Digital Systems is a lead?” asked Thorne.
     Mulder shared a brief glance with Scully.  “A hunch.”
     The tall black woman smiled knowingly.  “Ah, like Monica has.  Like my Grandma used to have.  I’m a little jealous of those hunches.”
     Monica returned to the couch with her MacBook and switched it on.       
     A few minutes later she said, “Got it.  Suncross Digital Systems – it’s a research and development company for new computer software, based in D.C., and…whoa.”
     Mulder’s gaze snapped up from the pages he was searching.  “What?”
     “Apparently they have contracts with the US military, for new types of guidance-systems for planes and tanks, and they’re occasionally contracted by Intelligence agencies too.  This company is seriously connected.”
     Mulder suddenly tapped a page on the coffee-table.  “I found it.  It’s just a few lines:  Suncross Digital Systems.  Interviewed a senior programmer, Dr Joseph Igani, concerning a possible link to the militia’s interests.  Interview proved to be useless.
     “That’s not too specific,” said Agent Thorne, disappointedly.
     Mulder shook his head.  “Mercer was wrong.  This company is connected somehow to what’s happening here.  I need to speak with this Dr Igani.”
     Sasha snatched the landline handset from its cradle and handed it to Mulder.  Monica read out a telephone number from the screen of her Macbook.  Mulder dialled it.  The four of them waited in anticipation.
     Finally somebody answered; a woman’s voice.  “Suncross Digital Systems. How may I help you?”
     “This is Special Agent Fox Mulder calling on behalf of the FBI.  I’d like to speak with a Dr Joseph Igani.”  A wry smile appeared on Scully’s lips.
     “Which division please?”
     “I’m not sure.”
     “Please hold,” the woman said brusquely.
     Eventually another woman answered.  “Can I help you?”
     “This is Special Agent Fox Mulder with the FBI.  I need to speak urgently with a Dr Joseph Igani.”
     “I’m afraid Dr Igani cannot be reached at the moment.  He has business to attend to.  Please try to conduct your enquiries through other channels.”
     Mulder stifled his irritation.  “Listen, I think Dr Igani can find time for the federal government.  Tell him…tell him it concerns…the Winter Solstice.”
     “Excuse me?”
     “You heard me.  Tell him what I just told you or I’ll –”
     The line clicked twice and then a deep male voice said, “Who is this?”
     “This is Special Agent Fox Mulder with the FBI.  I believe you were interviewed three weeks ago by a Special Agent Nicholas Mercer…”
     “S.D.S cooperated fully with that investigation.”  Mulder realized the man had a noticeable African accent.
     “Dr Igani, Agent Mercer was shot dead last night, and –”
     “Why did you mention the Winter Solstice?”  The man’s voice was measured and calm.
     Mulder tried desperately to think of the right thing to say, looking into Scully’s eyes for inspiration.  Finally he said, “Because Charon the ferryman is running out of time.”
     There was silence on the line, and for a moment Mulder wondered if he’d just uttered a line of pure nonsense.  But then the man on the end of the line said, “You’re in Bethesda aren’t you?”
     Mulder tried to hide his surprise.  “Yes.”
     “I can be at Keel’s Bar in one hour.”  The line was disconnected.
     Mulder took a deep breath and put the handset on the coffee-table.  He glanced at Monica, Agent Thorne, and then focused his gaze on Scully.
     “I don’t know what the hell is going on, but I must have said the right thing.  He agreed to meet me.”
     Agent Thorne piped up.  “I don’t like this.  This is giving me a really bad feeling.”  She looked at Mulder.  “I’m coming with you, as back-up.”
     “No, it’s ok, I’ll take Scully.”
     “No, Dr Scully isn’t armed.  I am.”  She reached into the back of her waistband and unclipped a gun from a portable holster.  She held it up for Mulder to see.  “Monica’s in no state to be the designated muscle.  No offence, Mr Mulder, but you’re a civilian now, and I’m not about to let you walk into this alone after what happened to Agent Mercer.”
     He peered at Scully.  “Are you ok with this?”
     The look of doubt on her face only lasted a moment.  “If this is all connected to what happened in Virginia…then something very bad is coming down the line.  I don’t think we have a lot of time left to stop it.  Go, Mulder.  I’ll stay with Monica.”  Her eyes became fierce.  “Just be really, really careful.”
     Mulder kissed her quickly but deeply.  He turned and peered at Agent Thorne.
     “Lead the way.”

*

Keel’s Bar
8:02 p.m.

There were only a few patrons in the modest, dimly-lit establishment.  Mulder sat alone in a booth near the back, cast in the red glow of a neon Budweiser sign on the wall above him.  He took a sip of the Coke on the table, glancing at the faces of people at the bar, people at booths and tables.  Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.  The shelves behind the bar were decorated with Christmas lights.  Most people were at home right now with their families.  Churches would be filled with hymns and carollers.  Young children would be wondering what Santa would bring them during the night as they slept.
     Mulder sighed.  This was not how he imagined spending Christmas Eve.  He tried to push the image of the girl on the security-footage from his mind, but he kept seeing Samantha’s face.  But the eyes of this young girl were not his sister’s eyes.  The soul behind them wasn’t Samantha.  It chilled him.
     Mulder was so lost in his thoughts that he didn’t notice the man approaching his booth.  When he finally glanced up the man was already sliding into the seat opposite him.  A tall black guy, dressed in an expensive-looking dark overcoat and scarf.  He looked to be in his mid-sixties, but gave off an air of considerable physical prowess.  He placed his leather-gloved hands on the tabletop, peering at Mulder with intense, curious eyes.
     “Why did you mention the Winter Solstice to me on the phone?” he asked in a deep, African-accented voice. “And Charon the Ferryman?”
     Mulder peered back at the guy, showing him that he wasn’t intimidated.  “Because something bad is coming down the pike, and I’m running out of time.  Dr Igani, I know the company you work for is somehow connected to the recent murder of an FBI agent.”
     The man just smiled like he was amused and narrowed his eyes at Mulder.  “You’re a strange man.”
     “Excuse me?” said Mulder.
     “Your associate, this FBI agent, when he interviewed me he didn’t ask the right questions…so I couldn’t give him the right answers.  But you’re…different, aren’t you?”
     Mulder tried to hide the fact that he was unnerved by the man’s words and the look in his eyes.  “Listen, Dr Igani…what exactly do you do at Suncross Digital Systems?”
     A half-smile hovered on the man’s lips.  “I’m the chief programmer and systems-analyst for a certain division.”
     “And what division would that be?”
     “Weapons,” he replied simply.
     For a moment Mulder just gazed at him, trying to figure out what sort of game he was playing.  The tall black guy suddenly pulled off his left glove and reached across the table.
     “Give me your hand, Mr Mulder.”
     Mulder frowned.  “Why?”
     “Because I want to read you.  Give me your hand and I might tell you things you want to know.”
     “Read me…?”
     “That’s right.”
     If the guy was messing with him, it was a very elaborate set-up.  Mulder considered it for a moment and then offered his palm.  The man took it and held it for almost a minute, in silence.  He kept his eyes open the whole time, peering directly at Mulder.  Finally he let go and said, “Thank you.”
     “Satisfied?”
     The African smiled and nodded.  “You’re taking a big risk here, Mr Mulder. It’s not wise to put someone like me in a corner.  But I admire your tenacity nonetheless.  We’re going to play a game now.  You’re going to ask me three questions. And I’m going to answer them explicitly and truthfully.  So, you should choose your questions wisely and with extreme specificity.”
     Mulder peered darkly at him.  “I understand.”
     “Begin thinking about your first question.”
     Mulder’s mind was reeling at the strangeness of this encounter; the possible implications.  Was this guy for real?  For almost a minute he sat with his mind buzzing, trying to analyse the dynamics of his interaction with this stranger.  There was an odd feeling in the air between them, but Mulder couldn’t pinpoint it.
     Finally he locked gazes with the African and asked, “The place where my parents and sister are now – how is that place connected to the plans of the Colonists?”
     The man peered at him for a moment and then grinned.
     “That’s an excellent question, Mr Mulder.  You are different, aren’t you?  Here’s my answer.  The place where your family now reside is known to my people as the Outer Semblance – a realm of infinite energetic frequencies interpenetrated with this world.  What mythologies often refer to as the ‘spirit realm’. As I’m sure you’re well aware, Mr Mulder, science and magic are not mutually exclusive.  The ‘Colonists’, as you call them, are able to access this realm through various forms of multi-dimensional technology, as well as through the psychic potentials of their neophytes.  They are attempting to utilise these forms of magic and technology to assist them in their plans.”
     For a few moments Mulder considered the doctor’s words, turning them over in his mind, looking at them from various angles. …is known to my people…  Who were his people?  This company, or some other group?  Either way, Mulder had the feeling that there was something genuine about this man.  It worried him.
     “My son, William…why is he still of interest to the Colonists when certain specific codes in his DNA have already been neutralized?”
     For the first time the tall African frowned.  “I’m sorry, but I don’t have the information to answer that question.  But…what I can tell you is that extra-solar DNA is already written into the genome of every human being on this Earth.  I assume that your son just had more of it.  But it cannot be ‘neutralized’, it can only be made temporarily inactive.  The possibility will always exist to reactivate those specific genetic codes.”
     Mulder grit his teeth and took a deep breath, trying to imagine the face of the boy that he’d never got a chance to know, never got a chance to see grow up.  It was an odd feeling to terribly miss someone you had known so briefly.
     “Ok, my last question.  Is there any way for you to help me stop whatever’s coming…to stop colonisation?”
     The tall doctor peered at him.  “Yes.  But first I would have to show you something.  If you want to see it, you’ll drive with me to the Reflecting Pool at the Capitol.  Listen to me, Mr Mulder.  They would try to kill me if they knew I was talking to you.  There are a lot of influential people out there with varying ideas on how they want the next twelve months to turn out.  And I cannot say which of these factions will end up victorious.  It is a frightening time.  But yes, I will try to help you.”
     “Why are you helping me…when you gave nothing to Agent Mercer?”
     “Your three questions are up, Mr Mulder.  Besides, I already explained that to you.”  The African glanced across the bar.  “The young black FBI agent sitting in the far corner…is she armed?”
     Mulder stifled his surprise, glanced across at Agent Thorne, and muttered, “Yes.”
     “Seeing as I didn’t tell you to come alone, she can accompany us to the Reflecting Pool.  You trust her, yes?”
    Mulder nodded, stern-faced.  “As much as I trust anyone.”
    Dr Joseph Igani grinned at him.  “You remind me of my brother,” he said quietly.

*

Capitol Hill. 
Washington D.C.
8:52 p.m.

In the passenger seat of the cruising silver Mercedes, Mulder peered from the window as they passed the Library of Congress.  The building was bathed in the eerie white glow of security floodlights.  For a moment Mulder glanced up at the night sky and then turned his gaze to Dr Igani in the driver seat.  The African kept his eyes on the road and said, “It should only be a few minutes until we reach the Lincoln Memorial.”
     It was Christmas Eve and there was hardly any traffic on the streets of Washington.  From the back seat Agent Thorne said, “So, Dr Igani, are you going to tell us what’s waiting at the Reflecting Pool?”
     “No,” he replied.
     “You know, failing to cooperate with a federal investigation is a crime.  You obviously held back information when you were interviewed by Special Agent Mercer a few weeks ago.  And now he’s lying in the morgue.  He’s not coming home to his wife and daughter this Christmas.  Or ever again.”
     Mulder peered at her in the rear-view mirror.  The anger and disgust on her face was plain to see.  He didn’t want the agent to rile the doctor, or make him change his mind, but Mulder couldn’t blame her.  He shared some of that disgust.  He looked at Dr Igani.
     “Why are you helping us?  Why now?”
     Without returning his gaze the doctor replied, “Because you, Mr Mulder, are not like other men.  And I am not who you think I am.  Perhaps my reading of you is accurate.  Maybe you have the slim chance to change what’s coming.”
     “Back in the bar,” Mulder said quietly, “when you read me…what did you feel?”
     The African glanced at him.  It was the first moment of vulnerability Mulder had seen in the man’s eyes.
     “I felt hope, Mr Mulder.”
     From the back seat Agent Thorne said, “I feel you’re full of shit, Dr Ig– ”
     Headlights swelled in the driver-side window as the Mercedes was rammed head-on by another car.  Glass exploded into the cabin just as Mulder raised his arms to shield himself.  Agent Thorne didn’t even have time to scream as she was thrust across the seat into the opposite window.  Mulder felt a horrible pain burst across the right side of his head.  His stomach dropped as the Mercedes spun out, as the airbag burst into life in the African’s face.  The shriek of tires on asphalt.
      By the time their car spun to a stop, Mulder’s heart was pounding.  His vision was swimming in and out of focus.  His head was throbbing.  He could feel unconsciousness threatening to swallow him.  Darkness started to creep across his sight.  He forced himself to turn and look as a blurry figure approached the driver’s window.  Dr Igani was slumped against the bloodied airbag.  A hand came through the broken window and shoved the doctor back against his seat.  Even with his darkening vision Mulder could see the entire left side of the doctor’s face was ravaged by splinters of broken glass.  The figure standing outside the Mercedes came into focus for a moment – a young guy in a khaki army-surplus jacket.  He raised a gloved hand with a gun in it and pointed it at the unconscious African.
     “Bad move, Joe,” Mulder heard the gunman say.  In the next moment the gunman shot the African point-blank in the head.  Mulder’s stomach knotted and he flinched at the loudness of the shot.  Panic would have filled him if he wasn’t already sliding towards unconsciousness himself.  The gunman began walking around to the passenger window as the last of the light seeped from Mulder’s vision, as darkness took him.         

*

Bethesda
10:06 p.m.

Monica Reyes lowered the iPhone from her ear and peered worriedly at Scully.  “Still nothing.  It just keeps ringing.  You?”
     Scully stopped pacing the length of Monica’s lamp-lit lounge and lowered her own cell phone from her ear.  She shook her head and gazed at Monica.
     “Something’s wrong, Scully.  Something’s gone really wrong.  Sasha should’ve texted me after they reached the Memorial.” 
     Monica had received text messages from her girlfriend the moment she and Mulder arrived at the bar, the moment Dr Igani had turned up, and the moment the three of them left to see something the doctor had wanted to show them at the Reflecting Pool.  But Monica and Scully hadn’t received a real-time update in over an hour.  And neither Sasha nor Mulder were answering their phones.
     Monica peered desperately at Scully.  “Do you think it was a set-up?”
     Scully closed her eyes, inhaling carefully.  The old familiar fear was swirling in her gut.  When she opened her eyes again she said, “No.  I think…I think they’ve been intercepted.  Jesus Christ, I should’ve seen this coming.  Mulder should have seen this coming…”
     Scully could see tears were threatening to form in Monica’s eyes.  “You think someone’s taken them?”
     Scully nodded grimly.
     “Member’s of this Scythe of St. John?”
     “I don’t know…but we need to do something…we need to call Skinner.”
     Scully dialled Skinner’s cell number and waited.  Finally he answered, “Damn, Scully, you have supernatural timing – I was just about to call you.”
      “I’m with Agent Reyes.  We think something might have happened to Mulder and Agent Thorne. They were –”
     “I know, Scully.  Just listen.  A few minutes ago Enquiries got a call from D.C. police at the scene of a car crash on Capitol Hill.  They found an African-American male shot dead in the driver seat.  It looks like a professional hit.  His work ID has him listed as Dr Joseph Igani, the chief-programmer for a D.C. software company.  And they found an FBI ID lying on the back seat of the car.  It belongs to Agent Thorne.  We literally got this call not ten minutes ago.  I just got off the line with the guys who secured the crime-scene.  No official statement to the media until after the holidays.”
     “Oh God…” was all Scully could say.
     The Assistant Director’s voice seemed to tremble.  “I’m sorry, Dana.  I’m…I feel like it’s my fault.  I’m the one who…”
     Scully swallowed her fear and said, “Look, the longer we wait the worse it’s going to get.  Monica and I are heading back to you right now.”
     “Ok.”
     Scully ended the call and peered at Monica.  Her eyes glistened with tears.  “Let’s grab our stuff.  We need to get back to the FBI.”

*

Mulder awoke on the floor of a gleaming silver room.  He had no idea where he was, or why.  His head was pounding. He groaned and hauled himself into a sitting position against the nearest wall.  He had to wince at the illumination coming from several rows of tiny spotlights set into the ceiling.  Shielding his eyes with his arm, he glanced around.  The entire room appeared to be made of shining silver metal, almost chrome-like.  He could see his own blurry reflection in the opposite wall.  In the right hand corner of the room was what appeared to be a vault door. 
     The first beat of real panic pulsed through him.  What the hell had happened?  The last thing he remembered was…
     “Oh shit,” he murmured as the memories were suddenly all there in his head.  Dr Igani, the car crash, the young man in the army-surplus jacket.  The young gunman had put a bullet in the African’s head.  Mulder’s stomach knotted as he realized the severity of his situation.  He had no idea where Agent Thorne was.  Had the gunman executed her too? 
     Mulder willed himself to stay calm and focused, but his pulse was already racing.  He took a few deep breaths and peered at the vault-like door in the corner. 
     As though responding to his thoughts, the door made a series of interlocking clicking noises and swung slowly open.  Mulder braced himself for whatever was waiting beyond the doorway.  It was the young gunman in the army-surplus jacket, and another older man standing behind him.  The young guy stepped into the gleaming room and a moment later the door was dragged closed.
     The crew-cut gunman appeared unarmed, but he was peering at Mulder with savage eyes.  He had a strange bluntness about him, and a wiry but athletic frame; ex-military, Mulder guessed fearfully.
     The young man took a few steps forward and squatted in the centre of the room, staring darkly at Mulder.
     “You’re going to tell me what I want to know.”
     “Sure thing,” chimed Mulder.  “Far be it from me to argue with an assassin.”
     “I’m not an assassin.  I’m a soldier.  A patriot.”
     Mulder tried to swallow his fear.  “That’s awesome.”
     A faint smile passed across the young soldier’s face.  “I need you to tell me about Dr Imogen Ianelli.  Everything she discussed with you in Virginia.”
     Mulder glared at him.  “Said she was from the future.  That she lived underground during an alien invasion.  Came back for revenge because I didn’t stop it.  Plus, she could freeze people solid with a single touch.  That about covers it.”
     “Your sarcasm is ill-timed, Spooky.”
     Mulder flinched inside at the mention of his former nickname.  The blunt-faced young man smiled humorlessly.  “Yeah, we know all about you, Fox.  But what I need to know is how much did she tell you about T.E.C.?”
     “I have no idea what that means…”
     The soldier regarded him for a moment.  “If you keep playing games with me, I’ll punch a hole in your ribcage.  I’m perfectly capable.”
     It didn’t appear to be an empty threat.  A flush of awareness made Mulder narrow his eyes at the young man.  “You’re…you’re a supersoldier?”
     The soldier just chuckled.  “You make it sound like a comic-book…but yes, I am.”
     If it was true, Mulder realized he was in serious trouble.  “Look, I don’t know what T.E.C. is…I really don’t.”
     The young man rose to his feet, stalked over to Mulder and punched him in the face.  Mulder felt like he was hit with a baseball bat.  His vision dimmed for a moment and he grunted in agony, sliding sideways down the wall until he was in an awkward heap, his face against the cool metal floor.  He could taste blood in his mouth.  He moaned and tried to speak, but heard only pained gibberish in his own ears.
     “I just tapped you,” he heard the soldier say.  “If I’d wanted to hurt you, that punch would’ve broken your neck.”
     “Jesus,” Mulder gasped eventually.  “Mean swing…you got there.”
     “Don’t make me throw another one.”
     His face still pressed against the floor, shimmering with pain, Mulder said, “If you want…my opinion, Imogen Lanelli was a crazy psychotic bitch.  She didn’t tell me…anything useful.  In fact, she wanted to kill me.”
     For a while there was silence in the gleaming silver room.  Mulder felt the pain slowly easing, but he had no inclination to sit up again.  He lay in his awkward heap, breathing deeply.
     “Are you a man of God, Fox?”
     “Depends…on who’s asking.”
     The young soldier chuckled and nodded.  “My unit, we infiltrated a group of Believers.  We lived among them, gathering Intel.  But some of us…some of us were changed by our temporary kin.  We…reconnected with what was left of our humanity.  Some of us began to question our place in the grand scheme.”
      Mulder turned his eyes to the young man.  “The Scythe…of St. John?”
     “That’s right.  And then the very people we worked for, the people who assigned us to the infiltration…they came in the night and took or killed everyone.  Only my friend and I escaped, only because we were more than human.”  Mulder could hear the bitterness in his voice.  “They betrayed us.  They tried to kill us, but they have made us virtually unstoppable.”
     “I’m sorry,” managed Mulder, “But I don’t know what you want from me.”
     The young soldier’s expression darkened even further.  “Dr Imogen Lanelli and T.E.C. hold the keys to the Pit…the Abyss.  I want those keys.  The Darkness must come before the Light.”
     “Wow,” said Mulder, lying on the floor of the metal room.  “They must have done a number on you...”
     The young soldier’s expression became a sneer.  “You mock me?  You haven’t seen what I’ve seen.  You haven’t done what I’ve done.  You’re either a very brave or very foolish man.”
     With that, the soldier turned and stalked to the vault-like door.  He pounded the side of his fist on it several times, so hard that Mulder could see dents left in the solid steel.  A moment later the door made its interlocking clicks and swung slowly open.  The young man stepped through and closed the door behind him. 
     Mulder was alone again in the gleaming silver room, lying in an awkward heap.  The awful sickly feeling had taken hold inside him.  He thought about Scully, and William, and his bizarre career in the FBI.  He wondered how much longer he had to live.  
        
*

J Edgar Hoover building  
11: 21 p.m.


Scully stopped pacing the length of Skinner’s office and peered grimly at the Assistant Director.
     “There must be something we can do.”  She glanced at Monica sitting dejectedly in a chair.  “There must be some place we can start looking.”
     Skinner looked perturbed, but shook his head.  “I’ve already got a team of agents poring through copies of Mercer’s case-notes.  If there are any leads in those files, they’ll find them.  Until then we have to just sit tight.  If someone took Mulder and Agent Thorne…we just have to pray that they contact us eventually.”
     “And what if they don’t?” Monica asked quietly.
     Skinner had no reply for her.
     Scully grimaced and pressed a hand to her churning stomach.  “I can’t believe this is happening.  We were back in D.C. for just a day, and now…”
     “Life on the X Files,” muttered Monica, darkly, wiping tears away.  “I think Agent Doggett had the right idea moving back to New York.  I feel sick.”
     “Me too,” said Scully.
     She had known that things would eventually get crazy following the events in Virginia with Imogen Lanelli, but she hadn’t reckoned on things spinning out of control so rapidly.  Now she felt like a fool, a rookie agent who had no idea what had happened to her partner.
     “We never should have let them go alone,” said Monica.
     The bleep-bleep of cell phones sounded simultaneously in the office.  Scully, Monica and Skinner exchanged surprised, nervous glances.  Scully pulled the cell from her jacket pocket and peered at the screen.  The text-message read: Packton Industrial Park, Building 6.  No back-up.  You don’t have a lot of time. Charon13.
      Wide-eyed, Scully snapped her gaze to Monica who looked up at her with the same disbelieving expression.  Both women turned and looked at Skinner.  He looked up from his phone and nodded in confirmation.  The three of them had just received identical texts. 
     Narrowing his eyes, Skinner said, “The message is listed here as originating from my cell…”
     Monica bolted from her chair with a look of hope in her eyes.  “Someone’s got our backs.  Charon13 - it’s the same person that let me know Mercer was dead.”
     “One of the kidnappers?” asked Skinner.
     “No, someone else,” said Scully, shoving her phone back into her jacket. 
     “I know where this place is,” blurted Monica.  “It’s maybe a 30 minute drive from here with no traffic…”
     For a moment the three of them exchanged hesitant looks, before Skinner said, “Just go.  Go now.  I’ll hold down the fort.”
     Scully and Monica nodded at the Assistant Director and hurried through the office door.

*

Packton Industrial Park.  
11: 39 p.m.


The vault-like door made its clicking noises and opened.  The crew-cut soldier in the khaki jacket stepped into the gleaming metal room.  Mulder peered up at him from the floor.
     “Come to kill me now?” he asked
     The young man just chuckled and wandered over to Mulder, crouching before him. 
     “This country doesn’t deserve to survive, Fox.  This country is a vile, corrupt and godless place.  Human beings only respect what they fear.  They need to learn to fear God again.  The Scythe of St. John understood this.  They were righteous men and women.  They were my friends.  But certain factions within the US government, factions I used to work for, decided The Scythe were terrorists – and murdered every single one of them.  And do you know why, Fox?”
     Mulder grimaced as he peered at his jailer.  “Enlighten me.”
     “Because our government is in league with the armies of Hell. Why else would they create something like me?  But soon, very soon…the world is going see these armies up close, these aliens, and then they’re going to finally fear the Wrath of Almighty God.”
     Mulder glanced over the soldier’s shoulder at the open vault-door.  There seemed to be only darkness beyond the mouth of the doorway.
     The young man smiled and looked round at it.  “Think you can make it, hero?”  As the guy turned his head to peer round at what Mulder was looking at, Mulder’s eyes flitted to the strange ridge on the back of the soldier’s neck. 
     From his low position against the wall, Mulder lashed out with a savage kick to the ridge on his jailer’s neck.  The young soldier roared with sudden agony and toppled, writhing, hands flailing to the place where he’d been struck.  Mulder used the moment to lunge up and away from the wall, kicking the soldier in the face as he leapt over him.  He plunged through the open vault door and into the darkness beyond it.
     It had worked.  Somehow it had worked and now Mulder was running for his life.  He pounded through a dark industrial space, vaguely aware of pipes and machinery around him.  His heart was slamming in his chest, his blood rushing in his ears.  He had to get out.  Somehow he had to get out of there. 
     The sound of machine-gunfire suddenly echoed through the darkness.  But it wasn’t close.  It sounded somewhere deep in the building.  Mulder risked a glance back.  To his horror he saw a dark figure racing full-pelt towards him.  Mulder tried to utilise the adrenaline to pick up the pace, but amidst all the darkness he had no idea how to outpace his pursuer.  And his pursuer was almost inhumanly fast. 
     The crew-cut soldier slammed into Mulder, shoulder-first.  Mulder was hurled by the force into the side of an electrical generator, bouncing off it like a careening ragdoll and collapsing onto the floor.  His entire body shimmered with pain as he peered up at the looming soldier.
     “That was really stupid, Fox.  Brave but –”
     A small, slender figure stepped out of the darkness behind the soldier, reached a hunting knife around his neck and slit his throat in a single gesture.  The soldier’s eyes bulged; he gurgled as his throat opened in a thin red smile, as blood began pumping quickly down the front of his khaki jacket.  The soldier gripped his throat with a hand, trying to keep the wound closed.  Suddenly he dropped to his knees, staring uncomprehendingly at Mulder before falling face-first onto the concrete floor.
    Bewildered, Mulder gazed up at the young girl in the grey hooded-sweatshirt.  The girl from the security-footage, that had murdered Agent Mercer; the girl that wore Samantha Mulder’s face. 
     “Merry Christmas,” she said casually, tossing the bloodied hunting knife into the shadows and removing a pistol from her waistband.  She cocked the hammer of the gun and pointed it at Mulder on the cold floor.  “We don’t have a lot of time.  Your friend here is going to be all healed soon.  My name is Sam…and you’re coming with me, big brother.”

*

December 25th 
12: 00 a.m.


Monica’s black Saab came to a screeching halt in front of the main cluster of buildings that formed the Packton Industrial Park.  The place was dark and deserted.  Scully hurried from the car with Monica close behind. 
     In the distance both women could hear the chiming bells of a church.  For an odd moment Scully realized it was now officially Christmas Day.  She glanced darkly at Monica Reyes, who un-holstered her sidearm and gazed at the buildings before them.  The buildings didn’t appear to be numbered. 
     “Building Six?” asked Scully, rhetorically. 
     They moved cautiously towards the nearest building. 
     Scully didn’t want to think about what they might find if they were too late.  She and Mulder had weathered so many storms together…she could only hope that this storm wouldn’t be the one to sink them.  Her chest felt tight, her stomach felt greasy and unsettled.  It was dread, an emotion she had become quite familiar with during her time on the X Files unit.
     “What if they’re dead, Scully?”
     Scully couldn’t bring herself to look at the tall brunette beside her.  “They won’t be.”
     She realized how naked and vulnerable she felt without a sidearm of her own.  She was a surgeon now.  She wasn’t a federal agent anymore.  But at that moment she would have felt comforted by a gun in her hands again. 
     Monica seemed to notice something and stopped in her tracks, slowly lowering the sidearm.  A look of relief bloomed in Monica’s expression.  Scully followed her line of sight and saw a female figure limping into view from between two buildings.  It was Sasha Thorne.  Monica broke into a run and threw her arms around her girlfriend, hugging her fiercely.  Scully slowly, fearfully made her way towards them.
     “Baby…what happened?” asked Monica, gripping Agent Thorne’s face with both hands, peering into her eyes.  There were a few tiny scratches and cuts marring the woman’s chocolate-colored skin.  She looked dazed and tired, but otherwise uninjured.
     “We got hit by another car.  And then…I wake up in this factory, handcuffed to some pipes.  Then…then the girl from the security-footage shows up.  The hooded girl.  With a machine-gun.  And she blasts the guy who’s watching me.  Then she…she frees me.  She just snaps the handcuffs with her bare hands.  She said her name was Sam.  Jesus…I really thought I was gonna die in there…”
     Scully forced herself to say the words.  "Where’s Mulder?”
     Agent Thorne peered darkly at Scully.  “I think…I think she took him.  He’s gone.  Everyone’s gone…”
     Scully grimaced and swallowed and did all she could to hold back the tears.


*******
(To Be Continued….)

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