Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Labyrinth - Part One


April 20th 2012
The Pentagon
United States Department of Defense
Arlington County, Virginia
11:36 a.m.


The boy’s hands were bruised and bleeding.  Little drops of blood were falling on the highly-polished floor as he staggered and stumbled along the E-Ring hallway.  Images of uniformed men and women peered down at him, as well as pictures of boats and planes and American flags.  The boy’s head was pounding.  His teeth seemed to vibrate from the awful buzzing in his mind.  Everything was horrible now, and he couldn’t go back.  He couldn’t go back and make it like it was before.  He watched as his sneakers stepped on the little drops of his own blood, creating red streaks behind him. 
     And suddenly a tall man stepped through a door about ten feet away.  He was wearing a dark green uniform with stripes on his shoulders, and held a hat tucked under his arm.  The boy recognised the uniform from movies and TV.  The man was someone important in the military.  At first the man didn’t see him and the boy staggered forward, attempting to reach out to him.
     Finally the man turned and literally gasped.  “Jesus Christ, son, how the hell did you get in here…?”  But then the man glanced down at the boy’s bleeding hands and quickly looked up into the boy's eyes again.  “My God…” 
     The boy stumbled, swayed and collapsed onto the polished floor. 
     Almost immediately the military man was above him, quickly cradling him.  The man’s eyes looked concerned but also fierce and disbelieving.  “How did you get in here?” he asked as his eyes darted left and right down the curving hallway.
     But the boy had barely any strength left.  Summoning what little he had, he clenched his teeth and said hoarsely, “It’s coming.  The darkness is coming…”
     The man cradling him looked afraid now.  And then he was fumbling in a pocket for a cell phone, and then he was hurriedly speaking into it. 
     “This is General Douglas Roper in E-Ring…security clearance ‘X96731: Eating-Tree’.  We have a Code Black security breach…initiate immediate lockdown.”  The man glanced down at the boy pressed awkwardly against him.  “No, ma’am, this is not a drill…”
     The man let the cell phone drop onto the floor beside him and used both arms to cradle the boy again. 
     “Son, you need to tell me your name and how you got inside this facility.  And what son of a bitch did this to your hands?”
     The boy tried to gather his remaining strength, and croaked, “William…my name is William.”  He couldn’t hold back the emotion any longer and suddenly he was sobbing.  The tears were hot and awful, and suddenly everything he knew – his school, his friends and family – seemed a million miles away.  He reached out and snatched the man’s arm, staring pleadingly into his eyes.  “What am I?  What did they do to me?  Why is this happening? Where’s my mom?  I want my mom…”


*


 April 25th 2012
J Edgar Hoover building
Washington D.C.
2: 04 p.m.


Fox Mulder couldn’t escape the surreal, unsettling feeling.  Here they both were in FBI headquarters, dressed in suits again.  As he glanced at Dana Scully beside him, clad in a black skirt, heels and suit-jacket – he could almost imagine that the last twelve years had never happened; that they were still federal employees.
     “You ok?” he asked.
     Scully was peering at her hands folded in her lap.  She frowned without looking over at him.  “I’m ok.  It’s just…this is all very mysterious.  It’s got me on edge.”
     Mulder said quietly, “I don’t think saying no was an option.”
     “I know that.”
     They had received the call early that morning directly from Nathan Harris; the FBI’s Deputy Director, informing them that the matter was extremely urgent and that their plane tickets were already waiting for them at the airport.  It had been a shock, and they were left to muse on why they were suddenly being ordered back to Washington.  Mulder felt just as tense as Scully seemed to be.  He didn’t like walking blindly into a situation without any knowledge of it. 
     Mulder glanced around the waiting area, and tugged on the collar of his shirt.  “This suit feels weird on me now, Scully.  We should’ve just worn our real clothes.”
     Scully looked at him and smiled.  She reached over and adjusted his tie.  “For a long time these were our real clothes.  Besides, you look handsome.  Like a real FBI agent.”
     Mulder loosened his tie a little.  “I feel like a faker.”
     A moment later a smiling blonde woman came through the nearest door and addressed the two of them.  “The Deputy Director will see you now.”
     Mulder nodded a thank-you at her, glanced at Scully and muttered, “Time to bite the bullet.”
     As they stepped into the lavish office, Mulder saw that Deputy Director Harris wasn’t alone.  Sitting in front of his desk was a woman in her mid-forties with short boyish hair, and a man in his late thirties with dark, intense eyes.  Mulder felt his hackles rise slightly and shot a glance at Scully.  They sat in the empty chairs across from the two strangers, and Mulder peered expectantly at the Deputy Director. 
     He could obviously tell they were uncomfortable and smiled to disarm them.  “Mr Mulder, Dr Scully; I want to thank you for taking the time to see me on such short notice.  I apologise for not giving you any information over the phone.”
     To Mulder’s surprise, Scully frowned and said, “We assumed this is about the terrorist incident at Christmas.  Has the FBI finally decided to reverse its stance and scapegoat us for what happened?”
     Mulder suppressed a smile.
     It was the Deputy Director’s turn to frown.  “No, far from it, Dr Scully.  The FBI owes you a debt of gratitude as far as I’m concerned.  But this matter is linked to the events that took place here at Christmas.”
     He gestured at the forty-something woman with short hair.  “This is Danielle Archer with the Central Intelligence Agency – she has some information she needs to share with you.”
     The woman smiled, but it seemed empty.  She opened a black leather folder on her lap.  “Mr Mulder, Dr Scully…we have a critical situation that the Deputy Director and I both agree you could be a massive help with.  But before I can discuss anything with either of you, you’ll need to sign these.”
     She leaned across and handed the folder to Mulder.  Without looking at the documents inside, he asked, “What are they?”
     Miss Archer smiled.  “National Security waivers.  You won’t be able to discuss this information with any–”
     Mulder raised a hand to cut her off.  “We know the drill.”  He looked at Scully, raising his eyebrows, and then peered at the silent man with the dark eyes who was sitting beside Miss Archer.
     “And who are you?” asked Mulder.  “It’s just…I have an aversion to silent, mysterious guys who hang out in FBI offices without introducing themselves.”
     Mulder expected to see a flash of irritation or annoyance in the man’s eyes, but there was none.
     “Michael Oren.  I’m with the NSA.”
     Mulder sighed and looked over at the Deputy Director.  “And what if we say no?”
     Deputy Director Harris shrugged.  “Then you can leave, and the FBI will pay for your flights home.  But I really hope you consider doing this.  You’d be doing a great service for your country.”
     Mulder was about to speak when Scully cut in.  “With all due respect, Deputy Director, Mulder and I spent most of our adult lives serving our country.  We’ve gone above and beyond the call of duty on countless occasions.  And usually we had to fight our own Bureau every step of the way.  Our patriotism is not in question.  But it turned us into fugitives….it left Mulder on trial for his life.  So, forgive me when I say that the FBI never exactly had our backs in times of crisis.”
     Mulder cocked his head at Scully, peering at Danielle Archer and Michael Oren.  “Yeah, what she said.”
     The Deputy Director frowned and nodded.  “All I can say is that I’m not my predecessor. I have nothing but respect for your work.  I’m very familiar with your case-files.  I believe that you were two of the finest agents this Bureau has ever produced.  All I can do is sincerely apologise for your past mistreatment.”
     Mulder turned and peered into Scully’s eyes.  She nodded gently.
     They both signed the waivers in the leather folder and handed it back to Miss Archer.
     “So?” asked Mulder, “What’s going on?  The suspense is killing me.”
     Danielle Archer clasped her hands between her legs and leaned forward slightly. 
     “What I’m about to tell you is classified SCI Top Secret.  Four weeks ago the CIA came into possession of some intel connected to what happened here on Christmas Day.  The intel was so disturbing that President Obama ordered a secret meeting with his National Security Advisor and the Secretary of Defense.”
     Scully glanced at Mulder, and then looked directly at Miss Archer.  “And what was the intel?”
     “Irrefutable evidence of a rogue alliance hidden within the US military and the intelligence agencies, codenamed Labyrinth.  It appears this secret faction was responsible for the terrorist attempt in this very building that the two of you somehow averted.”
     “Hang on a minute,” said Mulder.  “The Scythe of St John were behind that attack; a right-wing Christian militia.”
     Miss Archer smiled coldly.  “Mr Mulder, you yourself admitted in your official statement that you believed the Scythe had extensive links to the intelligence community – that it had in fact been infiltrated by what you referred to as ‘supersoldiers’.  Well, it seems the Scythe was entirely controlled by this rogue group calling itself Labyrinth.”
     Scully cut in.  “What about Special Agent James Clarke?  The man was working for the Scythe.  He tried to kill me.”
     “Agent Clarke committed suicide in federal custody six weeks ago.”
     Angered, Mulder leaned forward and said, “Look, Miss Archer, this is all fascinating, but what the hell has this got to do with us? The FBI has asked for our help twice in the last four months, and both times it nearly got us killed.  You must really be screwed if you need to call on the help of two civilians.  So spit it out.  I could be watching Buffy on DVD right now.”
     Scully smiled, but Mulder could see that he’d irritated the CIA woman.  It pleased him.
     Archer glanced at Michael Oren sitting beside her.  The dark-eyed NSA agent nodded gently.
     Archer fixed Mulder with a stare. 
     “It appears that this rogue alliance believes it’s interacting with an extraterrestrial intelligence.  It plans to cripple the government and the entire infrastructure of this country.  Domestic terror-attacks are just the beginning.  We’re not talking about redneck conspiracy theorists here, Mr Mulder.  We’re talking about a clandestine, extremely powerful group that has infiltrated possibly every intelligence agency in the United States.  This is extremely Sensitive Compartmentalized Information I’m sharing with both of you.  The President and the Defense Secretary both believe that this situation is potentially the greatest threat facing this country since the Cold War.  Do you understand?”
     Mulder tried to let the information sink in, glancing wide-eyed at Scully. 
     Archer continued, “Michael Oren and I are part of an NSA-CIA joint taskforce, created four weeks ago in the Oval Office during this secret meeting.  This taskforce is named Vigil, and our mandate is to do everything we can to gather intel on Labyrinth and their plans for the next several months.  Vigil believes that America is facing a string of terror attacks on the scale of 9/11, masterminded by men and women who swore an oath to protect this country.  I hope you understand the scope and the implications of what you’ve heard here today.”    
     Eventually Mulder sighed and said, “Ok, if this intel is real, then why should we trust either of you?  How do we know this Vigil taskforce hasn’t already been infiltrated by Labyrinth?”
     Deputy Director Harris frowned at the implication, but Danielle Archer just shrugged.  “I guess you’re just gonna have to take it on faith that we’re not the bad guys, Mr Mulder.”
     Mulder stole a glance at NSA agent Michael Oren.  The man’s face was unreadable.       
     “So, I’m guessing you want me and Scully to lend our services to Vigil, because of our experience on the X Files unit?”
     “No…we want you to officially join Vigil, because of your experience on the X Files unit.  Labyrinth seems to truly believe it’s in contact with an alien intelligence, and we have intel linking them directly to some of the cases you investigated while the X Files unit was still operational.  Something referred to as Purity Control.
     Mulder looked over at Scully.  He could see that she recalled the term.  He could see that it worried her.
     Archer went on, “Because of these connections, you and Dr Scully were obvious choices to recruit into this taskforce.  I know this is asking a lot of you both, but you’ll be paid an extremely generous salary and would have the considerable resources of Vigil at your disposal if you agree to this.”
     Mulder took a long, deep breath.  He leaned back in the chair and peered up at the office ceiling. 
     He didn’t know how much of this story was true, or what their other agendas might be, but he realized enough to know that there was a very real threat here.  His eyes left the ceiling and focused on the redhead sitting beside him.  He understood the look on her face.  A door had opened back when Imogen Ianelli wrought havoc in Richmond four months ago.  The door had remained open since then…and now they were being presented with an opportunity to actually step through that door, and to potentially discover what lay on the other side.  Mulder suddenly felt like everything since Ianelli had been leading them to this moment.
     Scully leaned across, gripped his hand and nodded.  She seemed resolute and aware.
     “Fine,” said Scully, addressing Danielle Archer.  “Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity – we still believe in the Truth.  Sign us up.”
     Archer smiled and took a manila folder from the Deputy Director’s desk.  She handed it to Mulder.
     “We don’t have a lot of time here, so we…we took the liberty of already processing your security clearances and logging you onto our servers.”
     Mulder chuckled humourlessly and opened the folder, as Scully peered over.  Inside were two silver photo-ID cards with six-digit identification numbers and laser-etched barcodes.
     “Those cards will allow you access to Vigil’s temporary headquarters here in D.C.  They’ll also allow you to access our servers.”
     Mulder peered at the little photos of himself and Scully on the IDs.  
     “Presumptuous much?” he muttered.
     Archer leaned forward with narrowed eyes.  “This threat is very real, Mr Mulder.  And we’re trying to stop any further terrorist attacks on American soil, by people within our own intelligence community.  So you’ll have to forgive us for the speed of our endeavours.”
     Mulder stared back at her, and nodded silently.
     “In that folder you’ll also find your briefing packets.  Our plane leaves in one hour.  Welcome to Vigil.”    


*


American Eagle Airlines Flight 314
En-route to Cheyenne, Wyoming. 
4: 46 p.m.


They were at thirty thousand feet, as flight attendants rolled food carts up and down the aisle.  Mulder and Scully were seated together but Danielle Archer was seated several rows ahead.
     “Did you actually see the NSA guy board the plane?” Mulder asked quietly.
     “No,” Scully replied.  She placed the manila folder on her lap for a moment and stroked the armrest.  She stretched her legs, making full use of the ample room.  She chuckled and added, “At least they sprung for First-Class.  No expense spared.”  After a few moments she said, “So, what’s the initial verdict?”
     “She’s hiding something, obviously.”
     “She’s hiding a lot of things, Mulder.”
     “You trust her?”
     Scully smiled.  “About as far as I can throw her.”
     Mulder peered through the window at the wing of the plane and the vast expanse of blue sky and clouds beyond it.
     Scully had been going through their briefing packets, looking at documents and photos of six dead soldiers.  The images were disturbing, to say the least.  Scully sighed and picked up the folder again, scanning through the pages once more.
     “I would’ve said something like this was impossible, Mulder, if not for everything we witnessed on the X Files.  These soldiers…their skin is untouched, the entire dermis is healthy, but just underneath the skin the bodies display third-degree burns to most of the musculature.  Like…”
     “Like they were burned from the inside out,” Mulder finished quietly.
     “Yeah.  Have you ever read about spontaneous human combustion cases like that?”
     Mulder shook his head.
     “But what do the deaths of these soldiers have to do with this rogue Intelligence group?  I don’t think Archer is telling us the whole story, Mulder.  I mean, she tried to make us feel important back in the Deputy Director’s office, but I think this is strictly need-to-know.  And we don’t need to know.”     
     “Dana,” he said quietly, “I’m thinking that Archer’s story doesn’t make a lot of sense.  This Labyrinth faction…conspiracies, terror attacks, alien involvement – how is that really any different to what we were saying for almost nine years with the FBI?  Now we’re supposed to believe that the federal government is taking such claims seriously all of a sudden?”
     Quietly, Scully asked, “You think this story about Labyrinth is a complete fabrication?”
     “No, I’m sure parts of it are true at least.  But we’re being played, Scully.  I’m not sure how yet…but I know we’re being used.”
     Scully nodded.  “I was thinking the same thing, Mulder.  We’re in synch.”
     Mulder smiled at her.  “We still got it, Scully.”
     He offered her his fist and arched an eyebrow.
     A little smile bloomed on Scully’s lips.  “I am not bumping fists with you, Mulder.”
     “C’mon.  It’s good luck.”
     She chuckled and touched her fist to his.
     “Now we’re cooking,” muttered Mulder with a grin.
     Scully smiled again.  Mulder was being sweet and playful with her, to fortify her spirits, and she was grateful.  Mulder knew that she hadn’t fully recovered from the strange, disturbing events that had occurred in their home nearly a month ago.  She remembered the hulking, hooded figure invading their lounge.  She remembered its massive hand around her throat, threatening to choke the life from her.  They had spent the next seven days at a motel before Scully could even think about stepping back into that house.  The bruises around her throat were still faintly visible, but she had done her best with makeup to conceal them.  The entity had very nearly crushed her windpipe.  Mulder had been concerned about her mental state in the weeks that followed, but Scully knew she was tougher than even he realized. 
     When the Deputy Director of the FBI had called early that morning, Scully had been actually grateful.  Mulder wasn’t sure if it was a good idea for her to leap into the fray so soon, but truth be told she was extremely glad.  Her work at Our Lady of Sorrows was no longer as distracting or rewarding as it used to be.  She wanted answers, and she knew only the X Files could offer them.  Truth be told, she wanted and needed to fight.


*

Kelverton Military Hospital
Cheyenne, Wyoming
6:24 p.m.


Mulder walked quickly through the corridor, beside Scully, with Danielle Archer striding ahead of them.  Doctors and nurses and soldiers cast curious glances their way.  Mulder didn’t like the feeling in his gut.  Something was telling him that this situation was all wrong, but he couldn’t put his finger on why he was so nervous.  He tried to assess everything that had occurred in the last few hours.  They had been recruited into something extremely sensitive, but had done so almost blindly.  He realized that they had done this more on faith than anything else – faith that this might help them to stop whatever was coming.  Mulder stole a glance at Scully’s gold cross as they walked the corridor. 
     He hoped faith was enough.
     Danielle Archer suddenly came to a halt, which made Mulder and Scully stop too.  Ahead of them a young soldier in camouflage fatigues was approaching, an assault-rifle slung over his shoulder.
     “Miss Danielle Archer?”
     She looked the soldier up and down disdainfully.  “Yes?”
     “There’s been a change of plans.”
     Archer shook her head as if to brush him off.  “I don’t think so.  Everything’s been pre-arranged.  We’re here to view the bodies of the six soldiers found yesterday morning.  The burn victims.  Check with General Roper.”
     The young soldier frowned with apparent embarrassment.  “Ma’am, it was General Roper who told me to inform you of the change in plans.”
     Archer glanced at Mulder and Scully, and then peered again at the soldier.  “Listen, Private.  If our investigation is hampered in any way, you and the General will have to answer to the Oval Office.  Do I make myself clear?”
     “Ma’am, you can discuss that matter with the General when you see him, but right now you’ll have to come with me.”
     Archer scowled and turned to Mulder and Scully.  “I’ll be with you again as soon as possible.  Hopefully then we can do what we came here for.”
     She stalked away with the soldier until they turned a corner and disappeared from view.
     Mulder turned to Scully and said quietly, “So much for security-clearance.  I don’t like this.  This is giving me a bad feeling, Scully.”
     “Just like old times,” Scully said dryly, and then gestured over Mulder’s shoulder.
     He turned.  Another soldier was approaching them, a young woman this time.  She was small and slender, and didn’t look like she was capable of any kind of combat.  But Mulder knew appearances were usually deceiving.
     “Fox Mulder and Dana Scully?” the female soldier asked brusquely.
     Mulder offered her a humourless grin and said, “The one and onlys.”
     She didn’t seem in the least bit amused.  “Come with me.”
     Scully took a step forward, irritated by the soldier’s tone.  “Not until we know where we’re going and why.”
     The soldier said simply, “If you don’t co-operate with me right now I’m going to arrest both of you and place you in federal custody.”
     “Excuse me?” Scully sneered at her.
     The female soldier un-slung the rifle from her shoulder and casually slammed the butt of the weapon into Mulder’s stomach.
     Mulder grunted and immediately collapsed onto the polished floor of the corridor.  He clutched his belly and squeezed his eyes shut against the pain and shock.
     The fury in Scully was suddenly incandescent and she lunged forward.  “You psychotic bitch!  Have you lost your mind!”
      But the soldier expertly whipped the rifle round in a split-second – and Scully froze in her tracks as she found its barrel inches from her face.
     “Are you both ready to cooperate?” the soldier asked calmly, her finger on the trigger.
     Scully’s blood was boiling and she stared daggers at the woman.  After a few moments she asked, “Are you ok, Mulder?”
     At her feet on the polished floor, Mulder could only groan in response.

The female soldier ordered Scully to drag Mulder to his feet, and escorted them both at gunpoint down a darkened stairwell and into a basement suite of rooms.  The room they were marched into didn’t look like it belonged in a hospital.  Its walls looked like grey cement, with only a table and chairs in its centre and a large mirror running the length of the right wall.  It was obviously an interrogation room.
     Scully glanced fearfully at Mulder, but he was still grimacing from the pain of the soldier’s assault.
     “So was this whole thing a set up?” she asked quietly.  “What’re you gonna do when you’re done with us?”
     But the female soldier only responded with, “Sit at the table, both of you.”
     Scully swallowed her rage and dragged Mulder with her.  Before she sat at the table she peered scathingly at the two-way mirror.  Mulder slumped into the chair and hunched over the table, cradling his stomach.
     “That really, really hurt,” he muttered.
     Scully peered wildly at the female soldier, who only cast a cursory glance, went back into the basement corridor and closed the door behind her.
     Scully and Mulder were alone in the grey room now, but she knew they were being watched.  This was bad.  This was really bad.  She dragged her chair over to Mulder’s and put her arm around him.
     “Let me see.”
     With anger and pain in his voice he murmured, “Just leave it, baby…”
     “Fox, will you just let your partner the doctor take a look?”
     Mulder chuckled and said through gritted teeth, “Sexiest doctor ever.”
     “Don’t you forget it,” she replied, forcing a smile.
     She opened his suit-jacket, threw his tie over his shoulder and unbuttoned his shirt.  There was a horrible purple bruise on his abdomen.  She touched it gently, and then touched around it.  Mulder winced.
     “It doesn’t look like there’s any internal bleeding.  That bitch knew just how hard to hit you…but you’ll be ok.”
     Finally, Mulder looked directly at her, breathing deeply.  “The pain’s starting to fade a little.  Dana, I can’t help but think that we’ve been set up.”
     Scully tried to hold back her fear.  “You think Danielle Archer’s in on this?”
     He winced and closed his eyes.  “I have no idea, but someone’s trying to intimidate us.”
     The door opened and Scully looked over as the female soldier reappeared, standing to attention just beside the door.  She was followed by a tall, thin man in a white jumpsuit; the kind of outfit that forensics teams sometimes wore.  But Scully could sense this man wasn’t a forensics tech.  There was something oddly frightening about the sallow-faced man.
     He walked over to the table and sat opposite them, removing a laptop from under his arm and placing it on the tabletop.  Scully noticed black spirals tattooed on the backs of his hands.  For some reason the sight chilled her to the core.
     When he spoke his voice was softer and sweeter than Scully had been expecting.
     “I apologise for the brutality, but the two of you have been caught up in a National Security issue…and extreme force was authorised.”
     Scully hissed at him, “And who the hell are you, you creepy son of a bitch?”
     The tall, thin man in the white jumpsuit didn’t seem offended.
     “I work for the Department of Defense, on behalf of their Special Access Programs.”
     Scully practically growled at him, “We’re here investigating a National Security issue.  So I think you and your pimps at DOD have got their wires crossed.”
     The thin man smiled vaguely.  “I know about the Vigil taskforce.  An NSA-CIA joint operation.  But I’m afraid our authority supersedes even Vigil’s.”
     Scully leaned across the table and exclaimed, “This taskforce was created on the authority of the President of the United States!”
     “I’m well aware of that,” said the thin man.  “But the clearance that I and my employers possess is higher than even the Commander In Chief’s.  So I suggest you sit quietly and listen to what I have to say.”
     Scully was too furious to even speak, but Mulder finally turned, grimacing, and said, “Hey, dipshit, I’ve got a question for you.  Are you a telepath?”
     The thin man’s face was impassive.
     Mulder continued brazenly, “See, in my career I’ve come across some exceptionally gifted psychics.  And it occurred to me that people like that…the truly gifted…might somehow end up working for military intelligence.  Those tattoos on your hands; they’re some kind of focusing tool, right?  Or maybe an intimidation technique?  Probably a little of both, huh?”
     Mulder smiled obtusely at the thin man.  Scully was shocked that Mulder had the courage and presence of mind to engage this man so directly.  She could see in Mulder’s eyes that he was still in pain, but he wasn’t about to let this guy intimidate them.  She felt a sudden thrill of pride.
     “That’s a very vivid imagination you’ve got there, Fox.  Maybe you should become a Hollywood screenwriter.”
     “Only if you kiss my ass first,” said Mulder.
     For the first time the thin man offered a genuine smile.  “You’re not like most men, are you, Fox?”
      Mulder shrugged.  “I get that a lot.”
     The thin man chuckled, seeming genuinely amused by Mulder.  He opened the laptop in front of him, turned it round and slid it across the table towards them.
     A segment of footage blinked to life on the screen of the laptop.  Mulder and Scully could only peer horrified and disbelieving at what they saw.
     It was the two of them, making love.
     On the screen Mulder was kissing Scully’s throat, her breasts, slowly kissing his way down her stomach, and then further.  Scully watched herself grab the bedsheets in her fist and arch her back slightly.
     Scully grimaced and slammed shut the laptop.
     “Enough,” she hissed.
     The violation of their privacy was making her tremble with rage and disgust.
     Through clenched teeth, Mulder growled, “DoD was in our house?  Filming us?”
     The thin man smiled, and Scully had to fight the urge to scramble across the table and try to claw his eyes out.  Mulder grabbed her wrist, as though sensing the urge. 
     “No,” said the thin man.  “What you just witnessed is something that my associates call an SVE – a Synaptic Visual Extrapolation.  A computer-generated image culled from your memories, and then extrapolated into a third-person perspective.”
     Despite her trembling, Scully managed, “That kind of technology doesn’t exist…”
     “Doesn’t it?”
     “That was some pretty convincing CGI,” muttered Mulder, peering darkly at the man.  And then, “Just how exactly did you gain access to our memories…?”
     The thin man in the white jumpsuit smiled silently.
     “I want to kill you right now,” said Mulder.
     “I know,” the thin man replied.
     There was silence in the room for a while.
     “Are you going to tell us what you want?” asked Mulder.
     “I don’t want anything.  I’m just following orders.  You’re both free to go.”
     “Wait,” Scully snarled.  “That’s it?  We’re just free to go now?  Then why the hell did you drag us in here in the first place?”
     The thin man smiled.  “Like I said – orders.  But I doubt this is the last we’ll be seeing of each other.”
     Scully swore under her breath, and then, “Let’s get the hell out of here, Mulder.  Before I throw up.”
     Mulder pushed back his chair and climbed to his feet, peering darkly at the thin man in the white jumpsuit.  As they headed towards the door, Scully focused on the female soldier who had assaulted Mulder earlier.
     “Bitch,” Scully said quietly.
     But the female soldier lunged forward, grabbed Scully by the edge of her suit-jacket, pulled her close and then suddenly shoved her into Mulder.  Scully nearly toppled but Mulder caught her.  Before either of them could respond to the soldier’s aggression, her rifle was pointed at them.
     “I’m just doing my job,” she said coldly.  “Now, I’ll escort you, but I suggest you leave this facility calmly and quietly.”
     Mulder scowled at her but quickly ushered Scully through the door.

They were standing in the windy parking lot of the Kelverton Military Hospital, peering disbelievingly at one another.  The chill Wyoming air ruffled their hair and tugged at their jackets. 
     “That was crazy,” said Scully, glancing back at the building.  “Are you ok, Mulder?”
     Mulder tilted his face skyward, sighed and closed his eyes.  “I’ve had worse.”
     Scully closed the gap between them and took his hand.  “You’re not going to believe this…”
     He opened his eyes and peered down at her.  “What?”
     Softly, Scully said, “The female soldier…I think she slipped me something.”
     Mulder’s eyes narrowed.  “What do you mean?”
     “When she grabbed me as we left that room – she slipped something into my jacket pocket.”
     Mulder actually chuckled.  “Ok, we need to get to the car.  Right now.”
     They began walking towards the rental car that Danielle Archer had acquired when they landed.
     Scully unlocked the doors with the set of keys Archer had given them, and they climbed into the backseat together.  The car afforded them some privacy.  Scully glanced apprehensively at Mulder, reached into the pocket of her suit-jacket and removed a metallic USB stick.  Mulder peered at the flash-drive in Scully’s palm.
     He took a long breath.  “Ok, I feel a little better about her slamming a rifle in my gut.”
     “She’s afraid,” Scully realized.  “She’s been compromised, but she’s trying to help us.  This is getting really, really crazy.”
      Mulder nodded.  “We need to find out what the hell is on that flash-drive.”
      Scully grabbed her brown leather bag from the foot-well of the backseat.  “I’ve got my Macbook with me…”
     “No.  Not yet.  Not here.”  Mulder glanced through the window at the military hospital.  “If we really have an ally, we can’t risk putting her in danger.”
     Scully took a breath and nodded.  “Archer doesn’t need to know.”
     “Hell no,” Mulder agreed, and then, “Speak of the She-Devil.”
     Scully followed Mulder’s gaze and saw Danielle Archer stalking angrily towards the car.  The CIA agent saw them in the backseat and nodded at them.  Scully slipped the flash-drive back into her pocket.  Archer threw open the door and slumped gracelessly into the driver seat, immediately turning and peering at them.
     “Are you both ok?”  The concern in her voice seemed genuine.
     “We’re fine,” said Mulder.  “But we were just intimidated by a creepy son of a bitch who said he worked for DoD.”
     Archer nodded, apparently furious.  “This whole thing is bullshit.  They’re saying that the bodies we were supposed to view were accidentally destroyed.  How the hell do you accidentally destroy six dead bodies?  And it seems like someone’s trying very hard to have our access revoked, someone with heavy connections.  It’s bullshit.”
     “What do you mean revoked?” asked Scully.
     Archer took a long breath, glancing back at the hospital.  “Look,” she said quietly, “I’m starting to think that someone inside the Agency is trying very hard to limit Vigil’s access.  I just got off the phone with my superiors in Langley, and all I’m getting from them is idle posturing.”  The CIA agent frowned and Scully saw tears glistening in her eyes. 
     “I shouldn’t really be discussing this with you, but I hope this is just some bureaucratic matter – because if it’s not…then it means someone in my division is already working with Labyrinth.”
     “Someone you work for doesn’t want you getting to the truth,” said Mulder.  “I remember how that feels.  It sucks, doesn’t it?”
      “I’m not sure what to do,” Archer said tightly.
      “For a start,” said Scully, “You need to tell us what’s really going on.”
      Danielle Archer closed her eyes for a few moments and sighed.  Mulder had the sudden intuition that they had finally gotten through to her.  “Ok, ok…screw it.  We all want the same thing, right?”
     Mulder and Scully both nodded silently.
     “How much do you know about drones?” she asked them.
     “UAVs?” said Mulder.  Archer nodded.  “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.  Remotely-controlled or autonomous aircraft used for surveillance, or seek-and-destroy missions.  They can pack a hell of a lot of firepower.  They’re considered the cutting-edge in military weapons technology.  They do reports about them on CNN these days.”
     “Well…the Agency believes that one of these drones was accidentally brought down by someone inside the Labyrinth faction…that someone was able to hack into the UAV’s guidance-system and tried to take control of it, but somehow caused it to crash.  Thank God for small mercies.”
     Scully glanced at Mulder and then peered at Archer.  “Why would this faction want control of a drone?”
     Archer grimaced.  “Dr Scully, an armed UAV is basically a flying weapons-platform, a hunter-killer packing a huge amount of ordinance.  If they’d managed to successfully gain remote-access to its guidance-system they could have flown it anywhere in the United States.  They could have flown it over Washington D.C.  Some of these drones can carry enough ordinance to destroy the equivalent of five city blocks.”
     “Jesus,” Scully muttered, horrified.
     “Listen,” Archer said quietly, “Hacking a UAVs guidance-system should be virtually impossible, but…”
     “But this isn’t an ordinary drone,” Mulder finished for her.  “Is it?”
     “No.  It’s some kind of black-budget prototype.  An X22 Reaper.  Apparently it’s light years ahead of anything the US military officially possesses.  It crashed somewhere here in Wyoming.  And the six-man retrieval team were somehow killed when they got close to it – the photos of the burn-victims in your briefing packets.  Now nobody knows the location of the drone crash-site.  It might still be active.  Its weapons-system might still be online.  And that’s got everyone terrified. That’s it.  You know everything I do now.”
     “Wait,” said Mulder.  “Where were the bodies of the retrieval team found?  The crash-site has to be pretty close, right?
     Archer sighed and shook her head.  “The bodies were found sitting in their trucks at the same location they left from ten hours earlier.  I’m guessing it took them a long time to die.  I guess they managed to get back, almost.  Nobody knows what the hell is going on.”      
     Scully glanced at Mulder and then back at Danielle Archer.  “Was this drone prototype carrying nuclear material?”
     “I don’t have access to that information,” Archer said plainly.  “But it’s possible.  Maybe that’s why my superiors are being so cagey.  If this drone was carrying some kind of small tactical nuke…”
     “Christ,” Scully said softly with distain.
     “I don’t know how else to explain the burns on those soldiers.  It has to be some kind of bizarre radiation exposure, doesn’t it?”
     Scully nodded at her, but Mulder was peering out of the car window.  Finally he turned and looked at Scully.  His eyes were ablaze with possibilities.
     “What are you thinking, Mulder?”
     “I’m thinking that this prototype is way spookier than the military want us to recognise.  I’m thinking that this Reaper has technology that was cannibalized or reverse-engineered from a UFO.  That’s why all the secrecy.  That’s why the soldiers in those photos had those weird burns; charred internal organs but healthy surface tissue.  It’s from an alien energy-source.  And the military hopes that if anyone gets enough data together they’ll think the prototype was carrying a nuclear payload.”
     He glanced at Archer, expecting to see her rolling her eyes at his words, but she peered at him stone-faced.  If anything she looked afraid at what he’d said.
     “I’m sorry,” said Mulder, “This is usually the part where people tell me I’m crazy.”
     Archer glanced at Scully and then back at him.  “This Labyrinth faction seems to believe it’s communicating with an extraterrestrial presence.  These are military intelligence veterans were talking about; men and women who believe they possess a secret so powerful that they’re willing to turn traitor against the government they swore to uphold.  I’m not willing to dismiss anything out of hand.”
     Mulder couldn’t help but smile vaguely.
     “What’s so funny?” asked Archer, seeming slightly offended.
     “Nothing,” said Mulder.  “It’s just strangely refreshing.”
     “So what’s our next move?” asked Scully.
     “Well, they destroyed the bodies that I wanted you to autopsy, Dr Scully.  So you tell me.  You guys are the experts in all this Outer Limits stuff, right?  Do we go looking for the crash-site?  I’m pretty sure that Labyrinth will be searching for it too, as well as USAF.  That could put our actual lives in danger.  But that’s a moot point…because we don’t even have a place to start looking.”
     Mulder glanced at Scully.  He knew what she was thinking, and he was thinking the same.  It might be possible that Danielle Archer was an ally, not an enemy.  Maybe trusting her in this instance would get them further than if they tried to do this on their own.  Mulder nodded at his partner.
     She reached into her pocket and removed the silver flash-drive.  She held it up for Archer to see.  “Maybe we do have a place to start looking,” Scully said quietly.
    

*


Restway Inn
Cheyenne, Wyoming
8: 34 p.m.    


The motel room was clean and well-furnished.  Danielle Archer had paid for the room next door, but now she stood in their room with them.  Mulder waited in anticipation as Scully sat at the desk and powered up her Macbook.  She inserted the flash-drive and tapped at the keyboard.
     She glanced over her shoulder at him.  “It’s a single video file.”
     “Play it, said Archer, before Mulder had a chance to speak.  Scully moved the cursor and tapped the mouse-pad.  On the screen a piece of footage began playing.  A young woman in army fatigues peering fearfully into a webcam.  It was the female soldier who had slipped Scully the flash-drive at the hospital.
     “My name…my name is Sergeant Alice Brigman.  I’m…we intercepted something… something we weren’t supposed to know about.  Two radar operators are already dead…”
     The terror in the young woman’s voice was palpable.  Mulder shifted uneasily on his feet as he peered at her image on the screen.  She was afraid for her life.
     “They want to kill me too.  My unit’s been compromised.  I don’t…I can’t trust the men around me…Jesus Christ, I feel like I’m losing my mind…”
     “This poor girl,” Scully muttered.
     “I don’t have a lot of time.  I know the location of the crash-site.  I’m a patriot, do you understand?”  Sergeant Alice Brigman peered wide-eyed into the webcam and began to cry.  “I’m a patriot.  I swore an oath to protect my country.  I can’t…I won’t let them do this. They’re going to kill me, Agent Mulder…”
     Mulder inhaled sharply at the mention of his name, at the mention of his former federal title.  Scully glanced back at him, concern in her eyes.
     “I have the coordinates.  The Air Force is looking for it.  And so are some of the men in my unit.  You can’t let them find it…”  Sergeant Brigman held up a piece of paper to the camera.  A series of numbers were written on it.
     “Those are GPS coordinates,” Archer said quietly.  She pulled a pen and notebook from the inside pocket of her suit-jacket, and wrote the numbers down.
     On the Macbook the female soldier continued.  “These men…these men want to destroy the United States.  I just…I just can’t believe any of this is really happening…”  She closed her eyes for a few moments and took a deep breath.  When she opened her eyes again she raised her hand and saluted the webcam.  “Agent Mulder, show these assholes what patriotism is really all about.  Good luck and Godspeed.”
     The video file ended.
     Scully turned away from the laptop and peered at Mulder, then at Danielle Archer. 
     “I’m thinking we’re working against the clock here,” said Scully.  “It might be too late if we wait until morning to search for this thing.”
     Mulder nodded, and then Archer sighed and said, “Ok…we wash up, take showers or whatever, change into some casual clothes…and then we go looking for the crash-site.  Agreed?”
     Mulder knew they were about to wade into extremely dangerous territory, and he was aware that Scully knew this too, but he and Scully both nodded in agreement.


*


Albin, Wyoming
8:48 p.m.


Alice Brigman stepped out of the shower, reached for the towel and drew it around her.  The hot water hadn’t done much to remove the chill that seemed to have settled in her bones.  She realized she was still trembling.  She walked over to the bathroom mirror and wiped the steam from its surface.  Her eyes looked haunted.  She looked like she’d aged five years in the last thirty-six hours.  Being in the comfort and solace of her own home did nothing to soothe the fear that was sitting in her gut like a clenched fist.
     Was slipping the flash-drive to the redhead a mistake?  Was she a fool to think she could even stand against men like this?  But the thought of fellow soldiers that she had trusted with her life now revealed to be traitors and sociopaths – it set her teeth on edge and flooded her heart with rage.  She would rather break every protocol than be privy to such a conspiracy and do nothing about it.
     She clenched her hands into fists as she peered at her own reflection.
     “I am Sergeant Alice Brigman, United States Army…I am Sergeant Alice Brigman, United States Army, I am Sergeant Alice Brigman–”
     The gunman stepped through the open bathroom door and fired the suppressed pistol at the back of her head.  She didn’t even have time to realize he was there.  The bullet blew open the front of her skull and shattered the bathroom mirror. 
     Alice collapsed instantly. 
     For a moment the gunman peered at the star-shaped pattern of dark blood on the bathroom wall, before slipping the weapon back into his jacket and retrieving his encrypted cell phone.
     He dialled a number and waited for his contact to answer. 
     Softly, the gunman said, “It’s Michael.  The woman’s been taken care of.  Yes.  Well, that will have to wait, won’t it?  I can’t be everywhere at once.  Ok.”
     NSA agent Michael Oren ended the call and slipped the phone back into his pocket.  Now it was just a matter of waiting for Danielle Archer and the two ex-FBI agents to make a move.  He had faith in their abilities, and he could track them.  Despite these things in his favour, an odd ripple of uncertainty went through him.  He knew there were other players in the game.  It wasn’t just Archer, Mulder and Scully he had to worry about; there were other powerful forces at work.  It was a frightening thought.


*


Restway Inn
Cheyenne, Wyoming
8:56 p.m.


While Scully showered, Mulder dressed into his jeans, boots and a black sweater.  He knew it could get particularly cold at night out in the short-grass prairies of Wyoming.  Danielle Archer was next door, also preparing for their journey.  Mulder seriously hoped she was in possession of a sidearm.  He had no idea what they would find out there, if anything, but he wanted to be prepared.  If members of this Labyrinth faction were also looking for the drone prototype, then it was a very bad idea to enter that situation unarmed.
     Mulder glanced around the motel room and realized he and Scully hadn’t eaten or drank anything since the flight.  Packing some soda and potato chips for the drive was probably a good idea.  He fished his wallet from his discarded suit and left the room.
     Outside, the night air was already getting colder.  He spotted a vending machine over in the far corner of the motel complex and quickly marched towards it. 
     He fed a ten dollar bill into the machine and ordered three cans of Perk Cola, four bags of potato chips and three Snickers bars.  He collected his change and then gathered up the food into the crook of his left arm.  He grabbed a Snickers bar, tore the wrapper open with his teeth and bit off half. 
     As Mulder chewed the candy, turning to walk back, he caught a glimpse of a dark figure slipping into their room and closing the door quietly behind them.  A little spasm of dread flared in Mulder’s gut.  The figure had been a broad-shouldered male.  It wasn’t Danielle Archer.
     Scully was in there…
     Mulder dropped what he was carrying, all but one soda can, and began sprinting towards the room.  An instinct told him to slow down, to enter the room stealthily, but sheer panic for Scully had already claimed him. 
     He threw open the door and saw the dark figure in the centre of the room, turning quickly to face him – raising the gun in his hand.  Mulder hurled the soda can at the figure’s head.  It connected with a fizzing hiss as cola suddenly spurted everywhere.  The figure grunted, staggered, raising a hand to his face.  Mulder threw himself at the assailant, slamming into him, and the two of them went tumbling over the corner of the bed.  The gunman hit the floor at an awkward angle with Mulder on top of him. Mulder had just enough leverage to ram his elbow down into the gunman’s throat.  He let out an awful gagging sound and shuddered in pain.  Mulder wrenched the silenced weapon from his hand and shoved the barrel of the suppressor to the side of his head.
     “Amateur,” Mulder growled in his ear.
     The bathroom door burst open and Scully came rushing through, with a towel around her, her shoulders glistening with water from the shower.  Her eyes flew wide when she saw Mulder on the floor, with a gun to the head of the man beneath him.  In the next instant Danielle Archer came through the main doorway, a raised sidearm clenched in her hands.  She glanced at Scully standing near the bathroom, and quickly stalked round to see Mulder on the floor with the now helpless gunman.
     “Get him up,” Archer said coldly, “Before I kill him myself.”

The gunman sat immobilised on the chair next to the desk, his wrists bound with Mulder’s necktie.  He was dark-haired and innocuous-looking, and young.  Mulder realized he was in his early twenties at best.  Danielle Archer moved impatiently around the room, peering at the young man tied to the chair.
     “Answer me,” Mulder said for the third time.  The gunman finally lifted his eyes and peered at Mulder with a blank expression.
     “I asked how old you are.”
     “Nineteen,” the gunman replied softly.
     Mulder grimaced and shook his head.  “You’re just a kid.  Who sent you here to do this?”
     The kid’s eyes seemed to have no light in them.  “Who do you think?”
     Mulder kneeled in front of him and said, “Labyrinth.”
     “Bingo,” said the kid.  “Give this man a prize.”
     The bathroom door opened and Scully stepped into the room again, fully dressed now in boots, jeans and a grey sweater.  She cast silent glances at Mulder and Archer and the young man in the chair.  She walked over and stood behind Mulder, peering down at their wannabe-executioner.
     Mulder grabbed the young man’s face.  “Look at me.  Someone gives you a weapon threaded for a silencer…and you think you’re an assassin now?  Is that it?”
     “I’m a trained soldier,” the gunman said, eyes narrowing.  “United States Army.  I’m one of the good guys…”
     “Really?” said Mulder with a sneer.  “Well, you just got your ass handed to you by a guy in his fifties.  How’s that for a reality-check, Private?”
     Mulder caught a flash of sadness in the kid’s eyes as he muttered, “Pretty sobering, I guess.”  For a few moments he was silent, and then added, “You may as well kill me, before they do.  I failed my objective.  I’ll be an embarrassment to them now; a poor tactical manoeuvre on their part.  All they care about is the mission.  They’ll erase my entire life.”
     Mulder peered into his dark, empty eyes.  “And what’s the mission?”
     The young gunman chuckled like he found the question genuinely amusing.  “To retrieve Gabriel.”
     “That’s the codename for this X22 Reaper prototype?”
     “Yeah.”
     “Tell me everything you know about it.”
     The young gunman sighed, defeated.  “It doesn’t matter now anyway.  The prototype isn’t just an armed drone.  It’s an angel of death; a multifaceted Artificial Intelligence capable of parallel-processing – a learning, adaptive network.  There are rumours…that it was developed in Utah…using alien technology…”
     For the first time the gunman smiled gently at Mulder.
     “I’m not afraid to die,” he muttered.  “Eight months from now everything you know is going to burn.  Society, culture, all your hopes and dreams…it’s all going to burn.”
     “You’re talking about colonisation,” Scully said coldly.
     The young soldier raised his eyes to meet hers, and nodded.  “But the word colonisation doesn’t really sell the urgency, the unavoidability of what’s coming.  We’re talking about the Apocalypse.  The End of Days.”
     Danielle Archer hurried over and slapped the kid hard across the face.  “Tell me your employer’s plans if they find this prototype and regain control of its guidance-system.  Tell me everything.”
      When the young soldier recovered from the sting of the slap, he began to chuckle.  His chuckling became outright laughter. 
     “You stupid bitches don’t get it, do you?  Gabriel was designed to be one of seven Archangel drones…designed to protect military infrastructure when the invasion begins.  Gabriel is the first of its kind, but they’re building six others as we speak.  But…when Labyrinth hacked the guidance-system it accidentally disabled its programming matrix…”
     Mulder glanced worriedly at Scully, and then peered back at the young gunman.  “What does that mean?”
     The gunman was still laughing.  “It means that Gabriel has no programming, no USAF coding, no mission parameters.  The onboard A.I. cannot be shut down now, and that makes Gabriel a fully autonomous, sentient being…”
     “Jesus,” Mulder whispered, immediately recognizing the implications of what the young soldier was telling them. 
    “Wait, wait,” hissed Danielle Archer.  “Are you trying to tell us that this drone is alive?”
     The gunman grinned and nodded.  “Labyrinth tried to acquire Gabriel nearly thirty-six hours ago, so they could use it to bomb specific targets in Washington D.C.  But the drone crashed somewhere out there, and now everyone’s looking for it.” 
     He leaned forward and peered into Mulder’s eyes.  “Do you understand what’s happening now, Agent Mulder?  Gabriel has a power-source taken from a UFO.  It has capabilities that no other hunter-killer possesses.  It doesn’t need to refuel.  It has access to military satellites, and it can think for itself.   Labyrinth still intends to find it and tame it.  You’re in the middle of a war, Agent Mulder - a secret military-intelligence war being waged on American soil.”
     Mulder sneered at the young gunman.  “And you want to destroy the United States as part of this war?  A US soldier…you want to decimate your own country?”
     “Yes I do.”
     “Why?”
     “Because when Hell finally comes, I want to know that I fought on the side of the truth.”
    “The truth?” Mulder murmured with disgust.  He climbed to his feet and moved away from the young soldier. 
     Danielle Archer scowled at their captive and un-holstered her sidearm.  Scully frowned and Mulder caught the expression.  But before either of them could protest Archer slammed the butt of her gun into the side the soldier’s head.  He slumped immediately in the chair, unconscious, as a ribbon of blood began to trickle down his face.
     “I thought you were going to shoot him,” Scully muttered, glancing worriedly at Mulder.
     “So did I,” Archer murmured in response.
     “If they sent someone to actually kill us,” Mulder said pointedly, “Then that means the clock’s ticking.  We need to get moving.  Now.”


*


Great Plains, Wyoming
10:54 p.m.
          

Stars glittered in the deep blackness of the night sky, hanging over a seemingly endless scrubland.  Headlights arced into the onrushing darkness ahead of the moving rental car.  Scully had forgotten just how dark, empty and unsettling deserts could be at night.  She had criss-crossed through many of them with Mulder during their time on the X Files.  Right now it felt like they were driving blindly into an abyss.  They had gone off-road nearly two hours ago.  The car bumped and jostled over the uneven ground as Danielle Archer forged ahead. 
     “Are you sure we’re on the right heading?” Scully asked.
     She watched Danielle Archer peer at the little digital monitor on the dashboard.  “GPS doesn’t lie, Dr Scully.”
     “What if Labyrinth already has these coordinates?” asked Mulder.  “If Sergeant Brigman was able to acquire them, who’s to say that Labyrinth haven’t done the same?  Brigman said on the tape that two radar operators were murdered.  Labyrinth might’ve already found the site.  They could be there right now.”
     “If that’s true,” said Archer, “then we’re all screwed.”
     Scully took a deep breath and closed her eyes.  If they did find the wreckage of this drone prototype, what then?  Even if Archer called it in to her superiors at Langley, they had no assurance that it wouldn’t be intercepted by infiltrators, by members of this Labyrinth faction.  Essentially, none of them had any idea what would happen if the coordinates turned out to be genuine.
     Scully turned to Mulder and gripped his hand.  “Do you think we’ll find it?”
     Mulder squeezed back and nodded.  She felt comforted by his certainty.  If anyone could find a needle in a haystack it was Fox Mulder.  They had Brigman’s coordinates, but Scully firmly believed that if Mulder had driven out into the plains with nothing but his instincts and intuition, he would have a higher chance of finding the crash-site than anyone else she knew.  Mulder was spooky like that. 
     A little smile bloomed on her lips, but instantly faded when she glanced through the passenger window – and caught sight of approaching lights in the distance.  A vehicle was heading their way from the right.
     “I think we’re in trouble,” she said sharply.
     Mulder caught sight of it too, and then Archer.
     “Oh no, no, no,” the CIA agent murmured fearfully.
     “Military?” Mulder asked quickly.  “Air Force?  These Labyrinth guys?”
     “I have no idea,” Archer replied, slamming her foot to the gas pedal.  The car surged forward with renewed speed.  “I don’t think we want to find out, do you?”
     Whatever vehicle was heading their way, it had a better engine than theirs.  It was quickly gaining.
     “If it is Labyrinth,” Scully said, her heart beginning to pound, “I wouldn’t be surprised if they execute us right here in the middle of the desert.”
     Mulder tore open the rucksack at his feet and retrieved the silenced Glock 22 they had taken from the young gunman back at the motel.  Scully moved in concert with Mulder’s intention and began winding down the window.  A chill breeze immediately filled the car. 
     As the oncoming vehicle got close enough, Scully realized it was an Army Jeep heading their way.  The Jeep began sliding sideways, and Scully could just make out a tall dark-haired male soldier at the wheel, and a female soldier with red hair in the passenger seat.  An instant later she recognised them.
     “That’s us,” she gasped.  “Brace yourself!” 
     The Jeep slid round and slammed sideways into their car, shaking the entire vehicle and forcing it left.  Danielle Archer almost lost control of the wheel. 
     With both vehicles now racing side by side, kissing metal against metal, Mulder had a clear view of the driver – himself.  He immediately fired three shots over the top of the empty passenger seat, shattering the passenger window, penetrating the other vehicle and turning the head of his lookalike into a red mist. 
     Archer took full use of the moment and rammed the front edge of the Army Jeep, sending it lurching away into a pin-wheeling motion that churned up the scrubland.  The Jeep spun to an abrupt stop about forty feet away.  Danielle Archer eased off the gas and slowed the rental car to an eventual halt.
     “Why the hell are we stopping!” cried Scully.
     Archer spun round in the driver seat and barked at Mulder, “Who the hell did you just kill?  What if those were real Army personnel?  Oh God…”
     “They were shapeshifters,” Mulder said breathlessly, adrenaline still coursing through him.
     He and Scully turned in the backseat and peered through the rear window.  As though on cue the female soldier got out of the Jeep, and began stalking towards the rental car.  She was clad in boots and fatigues, her red hair tied up in a bun, and she was wearing Scully’s face.
     Danielle Archer recognised the approaching figure and her eyes went wide.  She gasped in utter disbelief and said, “Jesus Christ…what the hell is this?  How is that possible…?”
     Scully cried, “Run her down!  Run her down or we’re all dead!”
     Danielle Archer’s training seemed to reassert itself and she threw the car into reverse with a roar of the engine.  The car shot backwards, illuminating the Scully lookalike in the red glow of the car’s break-lights, before slamming into her.  The shapeshifter was instantly sucked out of view beneath the rear window.  But there was no sickening crunch of car tyres crushing her into the scrubland.
     “She’s not–” Mulder began, before the shapeshifter lunged up into view again, clinging to the back of the reversing car, and rammed a fist through the back window.  Glass shattered and Scully screamed.  The shapeshifter’s hair-bun had come loose in the impact.  She looked like a flame-haired Medusa, her tresses whipping wildly in the wind.  The grim imposter reached through and snatched a fistful the real Scully’s hair, causing her to scream.  Mulder lunged across the backseat, shoved the barrel of the silenced Glock into the shapeshifter’s mouth and pulled the trigger.
     The Scully lookalike was launched backwards off the reversing car in the same instant that the back of her head exploded.  She hit the ground and a split-second later was trampled by the car’s spinning wheels.  The vehicle bounced as bones were crushed, and a long red streak of blood and mangled flesh seemed to unfurl from beneath the front of the car. 
     Archer hit the brakes, slamming Mulder and Scully against the leather of the backseat.      
     Everyone in the car was panting breathlessly.  Mulder tried to force down the adrenalized panic, and reached for Scully.  “Jesus, baby…are you ok?”
     Scully nodded, wild-eyed.  “She only had me for a second…”  Scully pressed a hand to her chest in disbelief.
     “That was insane,” murmured Danielle Archer, hunched over the steering wheel and peering at the ruined body of the lookalike illuminated in the car’s headlights.
     Scully turned in the seat and peered through the windshield at the corpse.
     “She’s not dead,” she told Archer.
      “What the hell are you talking about?” the CIA agent exclaimed, terror in her voice.  “We just ran her over…”
     “She’s not dead,” Mulder assured her.
     “This isn’t possible…this cannot be happening.  She looked just like you…”
     Scully glanced across at the Army Jeep idling only ten feet away, at the ruined face of the Mulder lookalike still slumped in the driver seat.  Without a word of warning, Scully snatched the silenced Glock from Mulder’s hand, opened the passenger door and marched towards the Jeep.  She walked around the vehicle, shooting out each of the tyres.  When she hurried back to the car, climbed in and slammed the door, Mulder gave her tentative smile.
     “Let’s get the hell out of here,” Scully said darkly.
     The CIA agent nodded wildly at her words and slammed her foot on the accelerator once more.  The rental car surged forward into the night.


*

11:56 p.m.


Almost half an hour had passed since they left the lookalikes broken and bleeding in the scrubland, and they hadn’t stopped driving.  The chill breeze from the shattered windows whipped around inside the car with them. Mulder knew full well that the shapeshifters were still alive, but hopefully Scully had disabled their ability to come after them once they recovered.
     Danielle Archer had managed to quell her panic and disbelief, and now peered silently ahead into the darkness as she drove.
     “Are we close?” Mulder asked carefully.
     The CIA agent glanced at the GPS monitor and immediately slowed the car to a stop. 
     “We’re here,” she said quietly, her voice trembling.  “These are the coordinates.”
     Mulder shot Scully a worried look and grabbed the halogen torch from his rucksack.  He opened the passenger door and stepped out into the Wyoming night.  Scully quickly followed, and then Archer reluctantly did the same. 
     Scully shook her head and peered up at the glimmering stars.
     “How can they be shapeshifters?” Mulder heard Archer ask softly.
     He turned to face her.  “They’re extraterrestrial biological entities.  We call them bounty hunters; beings that can alter their entire DNA sequence through will alone.”
     “Aliens?” she croaked, sounding like a little girl.
     Mulder nodded, glanced at Scully and then peered out across the plains.  Roughly a hundred feet away Mulder spotted a large rocky outcrop making a silhouette against part of the horizon.
     “It’s got to be around here somewhere, Scully,” he muttered. 
     “Let’s find it,” Scully said with grim determination in her tone.
     Mulder began jogging in the direction of the outcrop.  Scully followed beside him as Danielle Archer trailed behind.  After only thirty feet or so Mulder came to a stop, switched on the halogen torch-beam and pointed it to his right.
     A long, wide scar in the scrubland was visible, trailing towards the outcrop ahead of them, like something very heavy had churned up the earth.
     “It’s here,” Mulder said breathlessly, and broke into another jog towards the outcrop.  After another thirty feet or so he came to another stop and gasped, “Look at that, Scully…” 
     She followed the torch-beam to where something large lay sitting in the scrub. 
     “Oh my God,” she murmured.
     Something was glitching in and out of visibility like an optical illusion.  The object lay there, seeming to randomly phase in and out of reality.  It was a sheared wing from the drone, composed of large hexagonal panels of strange black metal.  It stuttered like a fragmenting digital image.  The ground beneath it occasionally appeared, drifting in and out of focus.
      “Optical invisibility,” Mulder said in awe.  “It’s still cloaked.  Damn…no wonder everybody wants to get their hands on this…”
      Danielle Archer peered dumbfounded beside Scully, her mouth literally agape at what she was seeing.  Quietly she said, “Everything in your case-notes during your time with the X Files unit…it’s all true, isn’t it?”
     Mulder nodded.  “The rest of the drone has to be nearby.”
     He broke into another run, with Scully beside him, until they reached the rocky outcrop.   Slowing down, they moved carefully round the large buttress of stone.
     Fifty feet ahead of them, lying in the scrub, was the rest of the UAV.  The drone was glitching in and out of visibility just like its sheared left wing; a distorting, flickering image. 
     Even with the bizarre optical effect Mulder could see that the main body of the aircraft was broken in two places.  It was shaped like the conventional drones he had seen in photographs online, only larger and darker in color, at least sixty feet long; a streamlined craft with thin wings and a tail-fin composed entirely of black metallic hexagons. 
     Mulder moved towards the broken body of the prototype, fascinated by the way it seemed to flicker in and out of the visible spectrum.  Scully and Archer came up behind him, fascinated too.  None of them could tear their eyes away.
     “No way is this conventional military technology, Scully,” he said wide-eyed.
     Unthinkingly, Mulder reached out and touched its strange surface.  Scully didn’t have time to protest. 
     “It feels warm and electrical,” he said, turning to Scully.  “Like static from an old television…”
     “Do you think this thing is still armed?” asked Archer.
     “Armed?” Mulder repeated absently.
     In the next instant a line of small neon-red lights came to life along the length of the fractured drone.  A weird electrical hum began to gather from deep within the craft.  The optical glitches quickly faded into permanent visibility. Mulder suddenly couldn’t pull his hand away from the drone's metallic surface.
     “Oh shit,” he murmured as his stomach clenched in horror.  He tried to tear his palm away from the craft, to no avail.  Scully immediately grabbed his arm and began tugging madly.
     “What the hell did you do?” he heard Archer say fearfully.  The electrical hum from the prototype began to get deeper and deeper.
     Mulder let out a guttural scream as a sudden torrent of images and thoughts were somehow forced into his mind like a knife of buzzing, vibrating information. 
     A few second later the drone seemed to release him from the vision and Mulder stumbled backwards, tripped and fell onto the hardened ground.  Scully rushed to kneel beside him as he peered up at her, trembling with wild eyes.
      “It was William,” he exclaimed breathlessly at her.  “It was our son, Dana…that’s who crashed the drone.  They can communicate somehow…because of his physiology…because of the energy-source inside this thing…Oh my God…”
     Scully stared down at him, afraid, as the low humming from the drone began to vibrate in the pit of her stomach.  She glanced up at Danielle Archer and saw sheer dread etched on the woman’ face. 
     The ground began to shudder, and Scully glanced back at the broken body of the prototype – as two sections suddenly slammed together with the sound of shrieking metal, and melded instantly.  The fractured tail-section began to drag itself impossibly across the scrubland towards the main body, suddenly slamming into the metallic wound and merging with it.  Pebbles and bits of vegetation and rivulets of dirt began to bounce and skitter towards the ominously humming drone.
     “Jesus Christ,” Archer exclaimed. “It’s rebuilding itself…”
     Scully snapped her gaze back to Mulder.  “We need to go, Fox…right now!”
     She hauled Mulder to his feet.  For a moment he peered wide-eyed at the drone, and then cried, “Gabriel, we’re not a threat! Don’t do this!”
     Mulder suddenly shifted his gaze to Scully.  His eyes were fierce.  “It’s gonna kill us, Dana…”
     Danielle Archer broke into a run, racing flat-out towards their rental car.  Scully grabbed Mulder’s arm and the two of them began running for their lives.  Mulder’s lungs burned and heaved as he ran, but he kept pace with Scully just in front of him.  Another sound filled the air, over the growing hum of the drone – the sound of something large and heavy being dragged quickly towards them. 
     “Down!” Archer screamed ahead of them, and threw herself to the ground as the sheared wing of the drone came into view, flipping up off the scrubland and tumbling end over end through the air.  Scully dropped to the ground, dragging Mulder down with her, as the tip of the thirty-foot metallic wing arced over their heads.  Scully could feel the displacement of air as it tumbled past.  A moment later it reconnected with the drone’s main body in another sickening scream of metal. 
      “Up, Mulder! Get up!”
     Mulder suddenly seemed lucid, and was on his feet almost immediately, dragging Scully back onto her feet too. 
     They were both running again, as fast as possible towards the car.  Ahead of them, Danielle Archer reached the vehicle, clambered inside and started the engine.  For a moment Scully thought the woman was going to abandon them, until she threw open the back door and cried, “Come on!”
     Scully realized the low humming from the drone had stopped, and she risked a glance back as she ran.  The drone prototype was rising vertically like a silent harrier jet from behind the large rocky outcrop, the row of little red lights along its length glowing menacingly.
     Mulder was the first to clamber into the backseat and  Scully followed an instant later.  Her heart was hammering inside her chest as sweat dripped from her.  She and Mulder heaved for breath, but Danielle Archer didn’t even give them time to close the door. 
     She slammed the car into a ferocious reverse with the gas pedal to the floor.  The vehicle raced backwards, bouncing and jostling as it picked up speed.
     Scully and Mulder peered through the windshield as the Gabriel prototype turned in the air, sixty or seventy feet above them, and banked to the right – coming into a direct line of sight with their reversing car.  It looked like a huge metallic bird of prey hanging in the night sky.
     “Oh my God,” Archer muttered.
     Mulder lunged across the seat, grabbed Scully’s seatbelt, pulled it around her and clipped it into place.  He managed to snap his own seatbelt into the locking mechanism when he caught Scully peering at him, mouthing the words ‘I love you’. 
     But before Mulder could respond, a white-hot star lanced from beneath the hovering black drone and arced down towards them on a trail of smoke.  A moment later the missile hit the earth only fifty feet away from the front of the reversing car – and the entire horizon erupted like a volcano, with a deafening roar.  The force lifted the car, and for a few moments the vehicle was airborne, flipping end over end.  It came crashing down on its front left corner and landed on its roof, amidst a rain of fire and mud and shattered stone.



****
(To Be Continued…)
 
                        

4 comments:

  1. Wow!!! Oh my god Raj, this is completely awesome and had me' on the edge of my seat the whole time! I absolutely LOVE that you brought them back into govmt service in an official capacity-- I really missed that from the last movie and you continue to write the characters so damn flawlessly-- from Mulder's hilarious smartass quips to his deliberate needleing of certain ppl to him getting his ass beat....AGAIN, and when you wrote how he touched the spacecraft without thinking, I just died!! It's the details that bring them to life...

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  2. And Scully as well- I love the part how her hospital job wasn't enough of a distraction anymore- that one statement speaks volumes. The plot is GREAT, weaving in elements from all the various boxes into a cohesive whole. The details like the indestructibility of the supersoldiers, the ship rebuilding itself-- tie-ins to the series expertly. And I am a gigantic sucker for to little Mulder and Scully interactions/moments. Can't WAIT for the next part!!! William, uhhhh, rips my heart out...

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