Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Naraka - Part Two


July 19th 2012
Boston, Massachusetts
9:34 p.m.


The sniper was still waiting in his hide-site on the rooftop opposite the Oak Hill Suites motel, the AE MKIII primed and ready.
     He was peering through the sight, watching as the redhead lay on the bed.  She wasn’t asleep.  Her eyes were open as she peered dreamily up at the ceiling.  He began adjusting the focus on his sight, to get a slightly better look at her, when his encrypted cell phone began buzzing on silent.  He’d placed the phone beside the rifle-stock for easy access. He snatched it up and answered the call.
     “Are you in position?” his handler asked brusquely.
     “Yes.”
     “And both targets are in sight?”
     “No,” the sniper said, trying to conceal the note of concern in his voice.  “The tall guy left a few minutes ago.  The woman’s alone.”
     There were a few seconds of silence on the line, and for a moment the sniper thought he’d be ordered to hold his position.
     “Take the shot,” his handler said calmly.

Dana Scully lay on the bed, gazing up at the fan spinning lazily on the motel ceiling.  Her mind and her entire body were filled with a strange elation, a wonderful exuberance.  The revelations that Doggett had shared with her a few minutes ago were buzzing profoundly through her mind. 
     Something had shifted within her.  It felt like the past had finally released her, like she was no longer its slave.  She hadn’t tried to harm herself or her child that night.  All these years she had believed a delirium-induced fantasy.  As she peered up at the ceiling her eyes were still wet with tears of gratitude.
     And then, for the briefest moment, an image of Melissa flashed in her mind’s eye.  Missy’s eyes were dark, full of worry, and then Scully heard her sister’s voice in the room with her – clear as a bell.
     Get up, Dana.
     Scully bolted upright with utter shock and disbelief.  In the next instant the pillow she’d just been resting on exploded, blasting downy feathers in all directions.
     Scully’s dreamy elation was instantly swallowed by terror as her gaze snapped to the window, at the sight of a small hole punched neatly through the glass. Adrenaline flooded her system as she hurled herself sideways off the bed, away from the window – and something hot seared her shoulder.  She screamed and collapsed awkwardly on the floor, on the left side of the room, as two holes were punched into the wall only a foot above her head.  She screamed again as twin blasts of plaster-dust erupted from where the bullets had made contact.
     Her heart was slamming in her chest.  Someone was shooting at her.  She scrambled round, pressed her head against the side of the bed and glanced at her stinging right shoulder.  There was a perfectly straight line of red welted skin where the bullet had passed so close that it had super-heated the air and flash-burned her.
     “Christ,” Scully muttered, her heart pounding fiercely.  In the next moment she heard the window shatter and felt two shots rip into the mattress above her.
     She swallowed her terror and tried to think like an FBI agent again.  She hadn’t heard the sound of the actual shots, which meant the shooter was using a suppressor – which meant nobody in the building even realized what was happening right now.  Her entire body shimmered with adrenaline and fear as she realized she was on her own.
     Her gaze swept over to her handbag just beyond the foot of the bed, where she had casually tossed it after her call with Doggett.  Her phone was in that bag, but it was in full view of the shattered window – in full view of the shooter’s range.
     Scully swallowed again, her mouth and throat as dry as sandpaper.  She twisted round and began crawling on her stomach towards the bag.  She needed to be really, really quick. 
     A split-second before she was about to lunge for it, the bag exploded.  She cried out, pressed her eyes shut and whipped her face away.
     When she finally found the resolve to open her eyes again she peered hopelessly at the shredded leather remains of the bag, at the shattered pieces of plastic, glass and circuit-boards from her decimated phone.  Tears were in her eyes now.  Her breath was shallow and frantic.  If she went for the door, she was dead.  She was trapped, and the shooter had turned the motel room into a kill-box.
     With her heart thumping beneath her ribs she squeezed her eyes shut and tried to picture Mulder’s face.


*


Cambridge, Boston
9:39 p.m.


 A cold, black fear had gripped Mulder as he peered at the bounty hunter sitting beside him in the driver seat of the silver BMW.
     The entity’s muscular bulk and dark, impassive eyes were more than intimidating.  Although the thing looked like a man, and spoke like a man, Mulder was well aware that it was not a man.  It was more lethal than any man could ever be.
     With his mouth dry, Mulder began, “Are…are you...going to kill me now?”
     He wondered if everything it had just told him about being a ‘resistance-fighter’ was a lie. The thing dressed in the black flight-suit stared hard at him, and for a moment Mulder thought he saw the hint of a half-smile play across its lips.
     “If I wanted to kill you, Fox, I would have let you die out on the ice years ago.”
     Mulder’s mind flashed with awful, fearful recognition.
     “You,” he muttered.  “On the sub in the arctic; that…that was you.”
     “Yes.”
     Mulder stared at it, his eyes narrowing and his lips curling into a snarl.  “You told me my sister was alive.  You lied to me.  And then you threw me out onto the ice and left me to die…”
     The thing’s eyes remained cold.  “I gave you a fighting chance, a reason to continue. I saved you.”
     Gritting his teeth, Mulder hissed, “You let me think she was alive…when you knew damn well she was dead.”
     “Yes.  To fortify you. The others of my kind would have killed you that night.”
     The anger and fear swirled and clashed inside him.  Eventually, Mulder pressed his face into his hands and murmured, “Jesus…”
     Quietly, the thing in the driver seat said, “I would not put my faith in a two-thousand year old demigod if I were you.”
     Mulder found himself chuckling bitterly at the words.  He peered up again at the ‘man’ in the black flight-suit.  
     “What the hell are you?”
     For a long time the entity peered silently at him.  Finally it said, “We are not what you think we are.”
     Mulder scowled.  “What the hell does that mean?”
     The bounty hunter continued to peer at him with those cold, dark eyes.  Beneath his anger Mulder was unnerved and still afraid.
     “You call us alien,” it said quietly, “But you are intimately familiar with us, as we are with you.”
     “I don’t know what that means.”
     “It means we are bonded at fundamental levels.  Our races are spiritually connected.”
     Mulder frowned with surprise at the thing’s use of such emotive, evocative language.  For some reason it made him all the more afraid of the thing sitting in the driver seat.
     “You must remember what I have told you, Fox.  You cannot allow Labyrinth to acquire this Purity Stalker.  You must find it before they do.”
     Mulder took a long breath and then said through clenched teeth, “Then what?”
     “And then it must be killed.”
     “And what if we fail…?”
     “I have told you what will happen.  Labyrinth will humiliate the Colonists into abandoning the timetable.  The invasion will begin.  And everything that you know will end.” 
     Suddenly the thing shoved a folded piece of paper into his hand.  “Take this.  It may help you.  Now, get out of the car.”
     Mulder swallowed fearfully and glanced down at the folded note in his hand.  He couldn’t accept what this thing was telling him.  “I…I can’t do this,” Mulder faltered.  “I don’t…we don’t even have a place to start looking…”
     The entity just peered at him.  “I have given you a place to start looking.  Now get out of the car before I kill you, Fox…”
     Staring into the thing’s eyes, Mulder realised the threat was entirely serious.  He shoved open the passenger door, leapt out and began sprinting away from the car as fast as humanly possible. 



*


Oak Hill Suites
10:04 p.m.


Mulder had tried to call Scully whilst running full-pelt through Boston’s night-time streets, but for some reason the call wasn’t connecting.  An almost pre-cognitive fear had gripped him.  Something was wrong.  Somehow, Scully was in danger.  He could feel it in his gut.
     Dripping with sweat, he hurried into the motel reception and flashed his key with the numbered plastic card at the woman behind the counter.  She shot him a quizzical look before nodding and returning to the magazine she was reading.
     Mulder didn’t wait for the elevator.  He pounded up the stairwell to the third floor, sprinted down the corridor and threw open the door to their room.
     The window had been shattered.  Pillow-feathers and mattress-stuffing drifted lazily around the room in the breeze.  A beat of pure terror went through him when he realized that Scully lying was on the floor beside the bed.  But her head snapped round in his direction, her eyes bulging as she cried, “Get down!”
     Instinctively, Mulder dropped to the floor and scrambled towards her.  The realization that somebody had been shooting into the room had already gripped him.  He took her face in his hands and saw the fear in her eyes.
     “Shooter,” she said shakily.  “On the roof of the next building…”
     Mulder’s heart was pounding.  He was already checking her for injuries.
     “I’m ok,” she murmured, sounding like she was trying to convince herself more than him.
     When Mulder was certain that she hadn’t been hit, he pulled her close and buried her face against his chest.  She was trembling against him.  Finally she pulled away and peered into his eyes as a tentative, incongruous smile spread across her face. 
     “Oh, God, Mulder…I had it all wrong.  It didn’t happen that way…”
     With his heart still thudding in his chest, Mulder wondered for a moment if Scully was babbling, if she was still in shock – but her eyes seemed lucid and resolute.  There was a strength and fire in her eyes that Mulder didn’t understand.  But she was unharmed; she was safe, thank God.
     Mulder pulled her close again, holding her in silence for almost a minute, trying to process his simultaneous relief and rage.  Finally he said, “Scully…I think the shooter’s gone.  If he was still there he would’ve shot me the moment I stepped into the room.”
     Scully pulled away and peered into his eyes again.  Eventually she nodded.
     Taking a deep, uncertain breath, Mulder climbed to his feet – in full view of the broken window.  He wasn’t cut down immediately.
     “Just stay down for a second,” he told Scully, and stalked over to the window frame.  He peered across at the roof of the next building.  It was hard to tell against the blackness of the night sky, but there were no signs of a figure on the roof, no tell-tale glint of moonlight catching a rifle-barrel or a back-lit silhouette.
     Mulder finally allowed the relief to wash through him completely.  He hurried back to Scully and helped her to her feet.
     “We’re safe, for now,” he told her.
     Scully seemed relieved too, but her eyes were full of life.  “Let’s get the hell out of here, Mulder…”
     Together they hurried through the corridor, down the stairwell and back into the motel reception.
     “Call the police,” Scully barked at the woman behind the counter.  “Somebody was just shooting at me through one of the windows upstairs…”
     The woman chuckled nervously, stared for a moment at Scully’s expression before muttering, “Holy shit…”
     Scully glanced at Mulder, her eyes burning with strange intensity, before the two of them stepped out of the motel and into the street.  Mulder realized that something had shifted within his partner.  Despite what she’d just been through, her eyes seemed alive in a new way.  Mulder felt a sudden rush of tentative hope moving through him.  It felt weird and out of place after the terrifying nature of what had just happened to her, after what the bounty hunter had told him, and he didn’t fully understand it – but it thrilled him. Side by side they hurried towards where they had parked the rental car.

*


10:26 p.m.


Mulder was driving, with Scully in the passenger seat beside him.  As Scully listened with a ravenous expression he began telling her about his encounter with the bounty hunter.
     With wide eyes, Scully muttered, “Damn, Mulder, you must’ve been terrified.  He called this thing a biologically-engineered combat-unit? A Purity Stalker?”
     Mulder nodded.  “To assist resistance-fighters against invasion ground-troops…”
     Scully gently shook her head in awed disbelief.  “Jesus…”
     “That’s not the craziest part, Scully.  He said that if Labyrinth gets their hands on this thing they’re going to open some kind of communication to the Colonists…”
     Scully frowned.  “But…what does that mean?”
     “He said that if the Colonists learn that a Purity Stalker exists, and that Labyrinth has one, it’ll be a humiliation…and…they’ll abandon the timetable for colonisation.”
     Scully frowned even harder.  “Wait, I don’t understand…”  But as she thought about it her eyes widened in horror.  The strange new energy that Mulder sensed in her was consumed by this new realisation.
     “Oh my God…he’s saying that…that colonisation will begin? Now?”
     Mulder looked at her and nodded.
     Quietly, fearfully, Scully said, “This cannot be happening, Mulder…”
     “I think it is happening, Scully.  I saw that look in his eyes.  I believed him.”
     Scully pressed a hand to her forehead, in fear and disbelief.  “I…I don’t know how to process this…”
     After a few moments, Mulder asked her, “What happened back there, Scully? You seemed different.”
     She peered at him, as if deciding whether this was the right time to tell him.  Eventually she said quietly, “What I told you in Bethesda six weeks ago…about the drinking…and putting the gun to my head…wanting to kill myself and the baby.  None of it happened.”
     Mulder felt a lump in his throat.  “What…what do you mean?”
     “I finally called Doggett, and I told him about that night.  But he was there with me.  None of it happened like how I thought it did.  I was delirious, like in Bethesda.  After your funeral I eventually stopped eating and sleeping.  I was out of my mind.  But I didn’t drink that night.  I didn’t try to harm myself or the baby.  Doggett was with me the whole time.  He took care of me.” 
     Tears began rolling silently down Scully’s face, but they weren’t tears of pain.  “Mulder, all these years I’ve believed a fantasy.  I felt so guilty, so ashamed.  And none of it happened like I thought it did.  I’m…I’m free.  All that guilt…it’s…it’s gone.”
     Mulder slowed the car, pulled onto the curb and killed the engine.  He realized tears were rolling silently down his face too.  He was struck by the strangeness of this moment.  The bounty hunter had just told him the sky was about to fall, Scully had almost been shot to death in their motel room – and all Mulder could feel right now was an intense, overpowering joy.  He couldn’t hold it back any longer, and before he knew it he was crying and laughing…and Scully was reaching over, embracing him.  And his face was pressed against her breast.  He felt childlike and vulnerable, and he didn’t care.
     “Christ, this is intense,” he murmured, and then Scully was crying and laughing with him.
     Eventually he pulled away and stared into Scully’s eyes.
     Softly she told him, “You were angry at me because you never gave up on me, Mulder.  You never stopped believing in me.  I just…I stopped believing in myself.”
     Mulder nodded, sniffed and wiped away the tears with the back of his hand.  He took a long, deep breath, smiling at her.
     “Now I’m terrified and elated at the same time,” she said quietly as her expression became more serious.
     Mulder nodded again, taking another deep breath.  He knew as well as she did that they couldn’t indulge themselves in this relief for too long.  If they allowed themselves to get too giddy with their own private triumph they would lose focus on the task at hand – and everything might come crashing down around them. 
     Mulder knew in his gut that the threat was all too real.  As he peered intently at Scully he could already feel the atmosphere between them becoming more solemn and sober.
     “So,” Scully said quietly, as if reading his mind, “We’re deep, deep in the X Files again.  This thing, this Purity Stalker, is still out there.  And if Labyrinth gets to it first…all hell is going to break loose?”
     “Hell on Earth,” Mulder said quietly, realizing that his words were most likely not an overstatement.
     Scully shook her head.  Mulder could see the worry in her eyes now, all the joy gone from her expression as reality settled back in.
     “How in God’s name are we supposed to find this thing?  We’re unarmed, and this thing has all of Massachusetts to hide in…”
     “No, Scully…I think it’s here in Boston.  Like I said at the hospital, I have this feeling that it’s searching for something.”
     He reached into his pocket and removed the folded slip of paper the bounty hunter had given him.  He handed it to Scully.
     She unfolded it and read it aloud.  “Dr Nirmal Shah. 1025 Torrance Drive.  Boston, Mass.”  She looked up at him and added, “The bounty hunter gave this to you?”
     “Yeah.  And I’m praying that this Dr Shah…whoever he is, can lead us to this creature.”
     Scully nodded, peered through the windshield at the night sky and said, “Start the car.”


*


1025 Torrance Drive
11:01 p.m.


Scully was alone in the rental car.  Now that push came to shove the fear was greater than ever.  She didn’t really want to do this alone, but she had faith in Mulder.  She got out of the car, hefting the crowbar in her right hand.  She glanced around for passers-by but saw no-one.
     The strange elation she’d been feeling earlier was gone now.  They were about to wade into dark and dangerous territory. 
     She walked quickly up to the house and knocked dutifully on the front door.  For a while there was nothing but silence, but then she heard sounds from within the house.  She kept the crowbar pressed against her side to conceal it, and unfastened a few buttons on her shirt to reveal some cleavage.   Her pulse began to rise.  She couldn’t quite believe she was about to go through with this, but she swallowed and told herself there were no other options available.  She heard someone on the other side of the door, and plastered a hopefully genuine-looking smile onto her face.  She heard the sound of bolts being withdrawn.
     The door opened and Scully found herself staring at a young Indian man in his late twenties.
     “Hi there, can I help you?” he asked.  His accent was native Bostonian.  For a moment he glanced from her face to the cleavage on show.
     In a breathy, sultry voice she said, “Dr Nirmal Shah?”
     He grinned at her with a look of anticipation.  “Yeah…”
     Scully let the smile vanish from her face and said quietly, “The Ravana Project.”
     A look of fear flashed in his eyes and he immediately tried to slam the door closed.  But Scully knew she had to act immediately and shoved the crowbar into the gap.  The door hit the length of metal and bounced open again in his face.  With wide, terrified eyes he took a few steps backwards as Scully stalked into his home and slammed the door behind her.
     If this guy was married or had kids in the house, Scully knew this could get complicated very quickly.  But Dr Shah’s look of fear suddenly evaporated and in the next instant he lunged forward, lashing out with a fist, quick as lightning – striking Scully hard across the face.  She grunted and fell against the wall, dazed.  The young Indian took his chance, turned and bolted through an archway to his left. 
     With her right cheek stinging badly from the punch, Scully hauled herself upright and ran after him, her heart racing now.  As she passed through the brightly-lit lounge she had the sudden intuition that the guy was running towards his study – towards a weapon he kept there.  The thought filled Scully with dread and renewed purpose.
     She was right.  Up ahead she saw him fling open the door to his study and lunge into the room, towards his desk. 
   He managed to get the drawer open and reach inside when Scully slammed into his back, pitching him forward slightly over the desk.  But he immediately arched his back in a savage shrug, throwing her off him.  Scully stumbled backwards and tried to lash out with the crowbar, missing his face by inches as he whipped his head back.  She slipped and fell on her ass, peering up at him. 
     Icy dread instantly overtook the adrenaline in her system.
     His eyes were filled with fear and hate, but he had nothing in his hands yet.  Taking his chance, he spun and thrust into the drawer again – whirling back round with a pistol clenched in his palm.
     But Scully had already scrambled forward.  She cried out and drove the pointed end of the crowbar straight through his shoe.
     He howled in agony, not even having time to squeeze off a shot as the gun slipped involuntarily from his hand and clattered on the floor beside her.  She drove an elbow into his groin and he howled raggedly again, doubling over, but the crowbar through his foot had pinned him to the floor. 
     She snatched up the pistol, launched herself onto her feet again and shoved the barrel up under his chin.  He inhaled sharply.
     “I’ve already had someone shooting at me today,” she hissed in his ear.  “You don’t get that privilege, doctor…”
     Scully realized she was panting with fear and rage.  She felt wild.  She pressed the gun-barrel harder against his adam’s apple. 
     “Now…you and I are going to have a little talk.  How are you connected to this Ravana Project?”
     The Indian was grimacing in pain.  “Please, please,” he begged, “My foot…”
     “If you don’t start talking,” Scully told him, inches from his face, “I’m going to put a bullet through your brain.  Your foot will be the last of your worries.”
     Suddenly he sneered at her and said something vicious-sounding in what Scully recognised as Hindi, but she couldn’t understand it.
     “What was that?” she growled, jabbing his throat with the gun-barrel.
     “I called you…a dumb American whore.”
     Scully scowled at him and her finger tightened on the pistol’s trigger, before realizing that was exactly what this man wanted.  Knowing he was trapped, defeated, he was now hoping she would kill him in a fit of rage.
     She took a deep breath, peered at him for a moment and said, “What the hell are you involved in that you’re willing to die for it now?”
     The young Indian smiled at her even with the gun to his throat.  “Naraka,” he said quietly.
     “And what’s Naraka?”
     He peered coldly at her.  He was clearly still in great pain, but he seemed to be enjoying her lack of comprehension.  “Naraka,” he muttered, “is the Hindu word for Hell.”
     “If you don’t start talking I’m going to kill you, Nirmal.”
     “Do it,” he hissed.  “Do it, you stupid bitch.  It’s for the best, anyway.  I can accept my own death.  Because I’m a god-maker…and hell is coming.”
     Despite the gun in her hand, Scully was afraid of the malice and strangeness in the young doctor’s eyes.  But she was going to make him talk.  She was going to get answers from him, even if it killed him.


*


Mulder had tried to assess the angles and the possible shot placements, and he hoped to God that he was right about this.  But he was unarmed.  He had given Scully the crowbar from the trunk of the car; their only weapon.  She’d wanted him to take it instead, but Mulder refused. 
     He prayed she was ok.
     He would only get once chance at this.  If this was the wrong house, he would be putting Scully even more deeply in harm’s way.  If this was the right house, and he failed, then he was a dead man.
     In the car, just before they arrived on Torrance Drive, Scully had told him his idea was lunacy – but considering the circumstances it was the only lunacy available to them. 
     Mulder’s pulse was already racing.  For this plan to work, he had to maintain the advantage up until the last possible moment.
     Oh, Christ, you better be right about this
     In the darkness he’d circled round, scaled the wall to the back garden and carefully approached the patio.  When Mulder got close enough he realized that the glass doors to the patio had been pulled out of their runners somehow, and the doors were ajar.
     A flush of simultaneous hope and dread went through him.
     His instincts had been right.  But now he was faced with something terrifying.  He didn’t want to go through with it, but he knew he had no other choice.
     He slipped through the gap in the open patio doors and stepped into the darkened house.  It was eerily quiet.  He could barely see anything, save for the scant illumination cast by the reflected moonlight through the doors.
     With his mouth dry and his pulse thrumming he crept further into the house.  Soon his eyes began adjusting to the darkness, and he began to pick out more detail around him.
     For a moment he was struck by the madness of what he was attempting here. 
     Carefully and quietly he moved into the doorway to the open-plan lounge.  The curtains at every window were open.  Light from the moon mingled with the sodium glow of the streetlamps outside and bathed the room in a faint, unearthly orange glow.
     And that was when Mulder saw him.
     The sniper was lying across the length of the large dining table, little more than a shadow against shadows.  The high-powered rifle was set up on a stock at the table’s edge.  The weapon was pointed straight through the main window.  The line of sight passed across the street and directly into the lounge of 1025 Torrance Drive; the house that Scully was in at this very moment.  Mulder could see the lighted lounge of the opposite house from where he was standing.  It was a clean and easy shot.
     Mulder was trembling with fear as he stood there, afraid to move a muscle or even breathe in case the sniper sensed his presence.  His heart was pounding so hard he could almost believe that the sniper would hear it.  Sweat was trickling down Mulder’s forehead now.
     He had to make his approach as stealthily as possible.  Christ, this was insane.
      You’re dead, Fox.  This guy’s gonna kill you.  He has a gun, and you have nothing
     As softly as possible, Mulder began his approach.
     But then a moment later he saw movement in the windows of the opposite house.  It was Scully, shoving a man at gunpoint into the lounge.
     Mulder’s stomach plummeted.
     He saw the sniper on the dining table shift slightly in the darkened room, preparing to take his shot.
     Mulder had no choice.  He broke into a run towards the table, blowing his cover.  The sniper heard him, whipped his head round, dragging the stocked rifle around with him.  Mulder reached the table and lashed out with a savage kick.  But in the darkness it didn’t connect properly, catching the very edge of the rifle’s suppressor.
     A quiet whuump came from the weapon as a blast of displaced air arced past Mulder’s face.  In the next instant Mulder lunged, intending to ram his right elbow down onto the sniper’s back – but it hit the hard surface of the dining table instead.  The sniper had snaked away and grabbed Mulder’s right forearm, trying to bend it back the wrong way.  Mulder grit his teeth and lashed out blindly with his left fist – and felt it make contact.  Which part of the sniper he’d struck, he couldn’t tell. 
     In the darkness Mulder was suddenly body-slammed by his adversary and the two of them went crashing down onto the edge of the dining table.  Mulder grunted in pain as their combined weight on its edge made the table flip suddenly, like a black wave arcing above them in the almost-darkness.  There was a huge crash as the table’s surface hit a cabinet against the wall.  Mulder heard glass shattering.  On the floor now he struck out blindly again with his fists and then his legs.  He caught the edge of the sniper’s torso and heard him give a muffled grunt of pain.
     Mulder could barely see but sensed the sniper rolling away from him.  Suddenly a brutal punch was slammed into the side of Mulder’s head.  Bright spots like fireflies swam in his vision.  Despite the pain, Mulder had the sudden realisation that he was moments away from losing this fight – moments away from being murdered.  Instinctively he rolled across the floor in the direction of the sniper, feeling broken glass cutting at his back through his hooded sweatshirt.  He winced, widened his eyes and saw the silhouette of the sniper lunging away across the floor at something.
     The rifle.
     Mulder bent his own left leg, foot pressed to the floor, using it as leverage to launch himself into an awkward attack at his adversary.  He managed to bring his elbow down square in the centre of the sniper’s back.  The sniper shuddered, cried out and managed to roll away again.  Mulder tried to scramble towards him in the dark, and felt his hand brush against something.  The stock of the rifle.
     A surge of hope flared in Mulder’s heart – a moment before being kicked in the face.  It was like a wall of static blasting through his head.  Mulder felt the inside of his own cheek tear open and blood flood into his mouth.  Amidst the agony, Mulder grabbed the rifle and swung it round to point upward just as he sensed the sniper looming above him.  He felt a boot-heel press against his throat, about to stamp down and break his neck.
     On instinct Mulder squeezed the trigger of the rifle in his hands.  There was another suppressed whuump.
     For several moments Mulder just lay there on the floor of the darkened room; his head pounding like a nightmare.  His entire body was shimmering with pain, adrenaline and shock.  Finally he rolled onto his side, winced and spat out a mouthful of blood.
     But he wasn’t dead.  Every part of his body was burning and stinging and throbbing…but he was alive
     He groaned in pain, blinking repeatedly, and suddenly cried out, “Scully!” 
     It took him a few moments to realize that Scully was in the house across the street and couldn’t possibly hear him. 
     There on the floor in the darkness, Mulder tried to take long, deep breaths. As his eyes adjusted further to the faint orange murk from the streetlamps outside he realised that the sniper was slumped against the nearest wall, the right side of his head completely blown apart.  A trail of gore arced up and away across the wall. 
     Mulder lay there in the darkness, stunned, listening to the sound of his own breathing.             
    

*


1025 Torrance Drive
11:28 p.m.


In the lounge of the young doctor’s home, Scully sat across from him in an armchair, with his pistol pointed in his direction.  Nirmal Shah was slumped on the couch, grimacing as blood continued to trickle from the hole in his foot.  She’d let him take off his shoe, and the wound looked bad.
     She was worried about Mulder, but she wasn’t going to let this bastard see even a glimpse of her fear.  She peered at him, and he peered back.
     “Tell me again,” she ordered, “Less vague this time…”
     The young Indian scowled but eventually relented, nodding at her.  “The Ravana Experiment is India’s final solution…their last hope at forestalling colonisation.  Many countries are aware of what’s coming.  But India has…a unique insight…”
     “What does that mean?”
     The young man smiled.  Scully could see that he was enjoying this; enjoying her confusion and the sense of power it afforded him.
     “Like I said, Naraka is coming.  In our culture, the elites know all about colonisation.  Many of them believe it happened once before…”
     “What?” said Scully, astonished.
     “Have you heard of the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana?”
     Scully immediately recalled the paintings on the walls of Dr Seema Kistri’s office at Vedanta Biotech.  She nodded.
     “Well, those epic poems are thousands of years old.  Some scholars believe they contain references to an ancient war – a war between various alien races.  Those poems talk about vimanas…chariots of the Hindu deities; flying machines of unimaginable power…”
     Scully felt herself get colder and colder as she listened to his words.
     He continued, “Just one of these vimanas could decimate an entire city. Some scholars believe that these scriptures contain references to some kind of nuclear war waged by these alien races…a war that scorched the Earth...”
     Quietly, Scully said, “That can’t be true.”
     Nirmal Shah chuckled and shrugged despite the pain he was in.  “True or not, there are powerful people within the Indian intelligence network who believe it.  That’s why they established the Ravana Experiments.  Is it really so different to what the US government believes?  That five months from now the Earth is going to be invaded by a malign extraterrestrial race?”  He smiled thinly at her again.  “Like I said, Naraka is coming. Hell is coming, little girl…”
     She scowled at his use of the term ‘little girl’ and jutted the pistol in his direction.
     “Don’t forget I’m the one holding the gun.”
     There was a sudden pounding at the front door, and a moment later Scully heard Mulder’s voice.  He was calling her name.  She bolted from the armchair immediately, the gun still trained on Dr Shah.  “Are you going to do something stupid?” she asked him.
     “Guess you’ll have to wait and see,” he told her.
     With the state his foot was in, she hoped the young doctor could barely hobble anywhere.  Still, she backed through the archway, into the hallway and went to the door.  When she opened it she saw Mulder standing there, propped up against the frame.  He was battered and bruised.  One of his eyes was already swelling shut, and blood – his own blood – had gushed from his mouth and had covered his chin and neck.
     “Hey good-looking,” he murmured half-heartedly.
     “Jesus Christ,” Scully gasped.  He looked like he had been through a warzone.  She embraced him fiercely, all thoughts of the crippled doctor in the lounge gone from her mind.  “What the hell happened, Mulder…?”
     Scully realized he was wincing in pain at her embrace, and pulled away immediately.
     “I found the sniper,” he said plainly, darkly.
     Scully didn’t even have to ask if the sniper was dead.  Mulder had clearly been thrust into a brutal life-or-death struggle, and had won.  She forced the tears back as she peered at him.
     “He was going to kill you, Scully.  So I went for him.  His brains are all over the lounge in the house across the street… ”
     Scully knew he’d been unarmed when they’d parted ways, which meant he must have taken out the sniper with his own weapon.  She swallowed at the tenacity and strength it must have taken to make that happen.  She peered gratefully at her lover.  She wasn’t sure if Mulder was actually concussed or just in shock, but he swayed slightly as he stood there.  He glanced down at the pistol in her hand.
     Suddenly she remembered Dr Shah, and hurried back into the lounge, gun raised, half expecting him to have vanished somehow – but he was still sitting in the same place, peering hatefully at her.
     A few moments later Mulder followed her into the room.  Scully glanced back at him before stalking over to the sitting doctor and shoving the gun against his chest.
     “You helped create this thing, didn’t you?  This Purity Stalker?”  He nodded silently.  “And who is ultimately behind this project?”
     “Vedanta Biotech,” he said quietly.  “India’s been experimenting for years with specific genetic combinations…and Vedanta are the first to create a prototype that wasn’t stillborn or died in-vitro.  India is kind of pissed that the first Stalker was engineered on US soil.  But success is success.  This thing has a codename.  We called it Shiva.”
     From behind her, Scully heard Mulder say, “Shiva?  You named this thing after the Hindu god of destruction?  You twisted, arrogant sons of bitches…”
     Scully peered into the young Indian’s dark eyes and hissed, “But Labyrinth wants this thing for themselves?  This Shiva?”
     He seemed genuinely taken aback that she even knew what Labyrinth was.  He tried to hide his surprise, but it was too late.
     “Yes, and they’ll get it.  We’ll get it.  Your world is ending tonight, bitch.”  A look of pure malevolence spread across his face.  He pressed himself against the gun that Scully had to his chest, and muttered something in Hindi.  In the next moment he lunged, grabbed Scully’s hand and forced her to pull the trigger.
     The gunshot went straight through his heart.  Scully flinched and gasped, but he was dead before he even slumped to one side.  A bloodied hole was left in the couch behind him.
     With her mouth agape, horror flooding her system at what the young man had just done, she turned and peered at Mulder.
     Mulder just stood there, looking like a casualty of war, and shook his head.  “We need to get out of here, Scully.  The neighbours would’ve heard that shot…”
     Scully stared horrified and disbelieving at the young doctor lying dead on the couch.
     A few moments later a phone started ringing.
     With wide eyes she turned and peered again at Mulder.  She saw that he’d been clutching a cell phone in his bloodied hand the entire time.   They locked gazes and Scully realized it was the sniper’s phone he was clutching.
     Instinctively, Mulder put the call on speaker-phone and answered.
     “Tell me they’re dead,” a man’s voice said.  “Tell me you didn’t screw this up for the second time.”
     “They’re very much alive, asshole,” Mulder growled into the phone.  There was silence on the line but the caller didn’t hang up.  “I just killed your sniper,” Mulder added.
     After another few moments of silence Scully heard the caller say quietly, “Am I talking to former Special Agent Fox Mulder?”
     “Yup.”
     “Mr Mulder…if you continue to interfere in this matter, you and Dr Scully will be dead before the end of the night.”
     “Really?” Mulder hissed into the phone.  “Because I’ll tell you something else that could happen.  Me and Scully could find this Shiva…and piss all over your dumb-ass plans.”
     Immediately the caller hung up.
     Mulder dropped the sniper’s phone and stamped on it repeatedly.  By the time he was done the phone was in pieces.
     Scully stared with shock into Mulder’s eyes for a moment, and then peered back at the doctor lying dead on the couch.  And then Mulder was behind her, hustling her to her feet and saying, “Come on, Scully, we need to go.  Now.”    


*


11:56 p.m.


They were driving again, but Scully was at the wheel this time.  Mulder was in no shape to drive.  He sat slumped in the passenger seat, bloodied and battered and clearly still in pain.  She kept taking her eyes off the road to peer at him.  This man, this amazing beautiful man, had constantly put himself through hell to protect her.  Every argument they’d ever had seemed trite now.  She loved this man so completely and so desperately that it was frightening.
     She had no idea what was coming next, but she was so grateful that she still had him at her side to go through it with her.  Her first instinct was to get him to a hospital immediately, but she knew that option wasn’t on the cards right now.
     “We’re going stop this thing, Mulder,” she told him.  “We’re going find this creature and kill it.  Nothing’s going to happen tonight.  I don’t care what the bounty hunter said.  I don’t care what Nirmal Shah told me…”
     Grimacing, Mulder asked, “What did he tell you…?”
     Scully recounted his story about the Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayana, his tale of an ancient war between alien races, what he’d said about the vimanas – the ancient flying machines of the Hindu gods.  Mulder listened silently.
     Finally he peered at her and said, “The paintings on Seema Kistri’s office wall…”
     Scully nodded.  “They believe it too.”
     Awkwardly, Mulder reached into the pocket on the leg of his sweatpants and removed his own cell phone.  It looked as battered as he did, but it was still working.  He dialled the number for Vedanta Biotech that he’d stored.  Scully glanced at him as she drove.  He didn’t even need to say it.  She was already driving towards their office-complex on the outskirts of Boston.
     Into the phone he said shakily, “This is Fox Mulder with the Vigil Intelligence Taskforce, I need to speak immediately with Dr Sanjeev Kistri, or his Executive Vice President of Operations.  It’s a matter of National Security…”
     Scully could see from the look on his face that he expected to be brushed off by the person at the other end of the line, but he frowned with surprise, glanced over and muttered, “They’re putting me through.  Something’s really wrong here…”
     Mulder switched the call to speaker-phone.  A moment later Scully heard a woman’s voice in the car with them.  “Mr Mulder…?”  It was Seema Kistri, her tone filled with angst and fear.
     “You lied to us today,” Mulder said plainly.
     “Oh God, I’m sorry…”
     “Listen to me, Dr Kistri, we know everything.  This thing you’ve created…this Purity Stalker codenamed ‘Shiva’…it could end up starting a war tonight…”
     Scully swallowed as she listened silently to the conversation.
     “I know,” said the geneticist, her voice trembling with emotion.  “It’s…it’s all gone to hell, Mr Mulder.  It’s already here…”
     Scully and Mulder’s eyes widened simultaneously when they realized what she meant.
     “It’s with you in the building..?”
     “Yes!”   
     “Dr Kistri,” Mulder said quickly, “Listen to me - we’re on our way to your offices right now.  Stay out of its way…”
     The woman’s voice was at breaking point.  “You don’t understand…oh, God, it wasn’t even my husband’s idea…”
     Mulder glanced fearfully at Scully.  “What’re you talking about?”
     The woman’s voice resounded in the car with them. “Labyrinth are terrorists, aren’t they?  I sold my son to terrorists…Oh God, forgive me…”
     “Your son?” Mulder exclaimed, astonished.  But the line went dead, and suddenly they were listening to the endless beep of a severed phone line.
     Mulder ended the call and they peered at each other in fear and disbelief.  Scully’s heart was racing now.  She had no idea what was going on anymore, but whatever it was – it was very, very bad.
     “What the hell have they done, Mulder?  What the hell is going on?  Her son?  She wasn’t speaking symbolically…was she?”
     With fear in his voice, Mulder muttered, “I don’t think so…”
     “We need to contact Vigil,” Scully said, trying to keep her eyes on the road.  “We need to get through to Taskforce-Leader Lessinger…”
     “No, Scully.  I don’t think we have time for that.  We need stop this, right now.  I think Labyrinth has people at Vedanta Biotech as we speak…”
     Scully peered into Mulder’s eyes for a moment, terror churning in her guts.  “This is insanity, Mulder.  We only have one gun…and you’re in bad shape.  Labyrinth’s members are trained mercenaries.  If you’re right…and they’re at Vedanta right now with this creature…then we’re screwed.”
     Mulder straightened in the passenger seat, took a deep breath and said, “If Labyrinth gets its hands on this thing, Scully…it ends.  It all ends.  Tonight.  That’s what the bounty hunter told me.  And I believe him…”
     Scully swallowed her terror and muttered, “Jesus Christ…this can’t really be happening, can it?”
     For a few moments Mulder was silent.  Finally he said, “Just drive, Scully.  We’re running out of time…”


*


Vedanta Biotech
12:24 a.m.


The rental car pulled up in front of the vast office-complex in the landscaped grounds, set back a quarter mile from the nearest road. 
     Security cameras were mounted everywhere but the place was deserted, except for a large white unmarked truck that was parked in front of the main building.  There was no-one waiting in the driver seat.  The vehicle was identical to the one they had seen in the photos at Vigil this morning…a morning that seemed like days if not weeks ago now.
     They both knew what the truck’s presence meant.  Labyrinth members were here too.  The place was cut off from potential passers-by, but Labyrinth was obviously no longer worried about even trying to be discreet.  They intended to find and capture this thing, at all costs. 
     In the car, Mulder watched as Scully glanced down at Dr Nirmal Shah’s pistol in her hands and then peered up at him.
     “I don’t think we can do this,” she told him.  Her voice was trembling badly.
     “We have to do this, Scully…”
     Mulder was afraid too, but he leaned across and kissed her deeply.  He was aware that she could taste his blood on her lips, and yet she didn’t care.  He was about to pull away when she grabbed him and let the kiss linger for another few seconds.  When she finally let him pull away her mouth was smeared with his blood.  The look in her eyes told him it was somehow a fleeting comfort.
     “Come on,” he said resolutely.  For the second time in seven hours they got out of the rental car and approached the glass-panelled foyer of the building. 
     Mulder’s body was still aching.  Neither of them had any idea how many of Labyrinth’s members were inside the building.  As they got closer to the main entrance Scully froze and gestured at the shattered doors.  Broken glass littered the ground in front of the main entrance.
     “At least getting in won’t be a problem,” Mulder said quietly.
     “Maybe you should take this gun,” she told him.
     “I can barely see out of my left eye right now, Dana…”
    She glanced at his face again, at his left eye that had practically swelled shut from his brutal encounter with the sniper.  Mulder could sense that she was struck again by how battered he looked, and how insane this was.
     Nevertheless, they both stepped through the empty space where the main doors had been and glanced around the foyer.  Over by the reception-counter they noticed a splatter of blood on the wall beneath the corporate logo. 
     They hurried to the counter and peered over.  The young woman they had spoken to earlier lay collapsed, a bloodied hole punched through the centre of her chest.
     “Jesus,” Mulder grimaced.
     Swallowing their fear, they took the stairwell to the top floor of the building.  They heard nothing and encountered no-one during their ascent. 
     Now they found themselves in the immaculate corridors from earlier, decorated in elegant panels of smoked-glass. 
     Mulder realized they were both subconsciously tracing their earlier path back towards Dr Seema Kistri’s office.  They made their way down the corridor. As they turned at the nearest junction they both froze at the sight before them. 
     Two men in black combat-gear lay mutilated in the hallway.  Sticky rivers of blood were splashed everywhere.  Mulder inhaled sharply at the sight, and Scully did the same.  The fat, coppery scent of blood filled the air.  One of the men was missing his head and left arm, and the other had been torn open from groin to throat – his entrails strewn all over the highly-polished floor.
     “Oh God,” Scully murmured.  Mulder could tell from the pistol trembling in her hand that she wanted to get the hell away from this place as fast as possible.  She was just as terrified as he was. 
     From somewhere deeper in the building they heard an awful shrieking growl, followed by rapid gunfire.  And then a human scream, cut abruptly short.  Silence resumed within the office-complex.
     Scully peered wide-eyed and fearful at him.  “How are we going to stop this thing, with this…”  She raised the pistol in her hands.  “…if assault-rifles can’t stop it? We’re dead, Mulder.  If we don’t get out of here we’re dead…”
     At the mentioned of rifles, Mulder began scanning the floor near the mutilated bodies of the two mercenaries.  Finally he spotted a single fallen assault-rifle and snatched it up.  He tried to recall his FBI tactical weapons training.  With the large and powerful weapon in his hands, Mulder realized that he wasn’t comforted by it.  He grimaced and pressed his lips together.  Scully was right. 
     “You go, Scully.  Keep the gun, be careful, and get the hell out of here.  I…I should never have dragged you in here with me…”
     Scully grabbed his arm and shook him.  Her eyes were wild.  “There is no way on God’s Earth that I’m gonna leave you here…”
     A sudden boom on the floor below startled them.  They felt the vibration in their feet.
     “What the hell was that…?” Scully murmured.
     Another three booms followed in rapid succession, and one of the smoked-glass panels beside them cracked and then shattered.
     From behind them they heard a low, wet growl.  They both spun round, only to see something impossible emerge from the stairwell at the far end of the corridor.  It padded into view, turned its head and looked at them.
     Scully gasped and almost dropped the pistol in sheer terror.
     The thing was as black as the night and almost twice the size of a lion, on all fours with a powerfully muscular body.  Each limb ended in oversized claws.  Its head was mostly a grinning mouth filled with huge knife-like teeth, but its eyes were twin points of glowing green light. Mulder saw tentacles whipping and writhing on its back.
     “What the f–” Scully began, about to take a horrified step backwards.
     “Don’t move,” Mulder said immediately.  In a sudden flash of intuition he made sure to keep the assault-rifle in his hands pointed down at the floor rather than at the thing at the end of the corridor.
     The thing seemed to be watching them.  The writhing appendages on its back seemed to calm and fold themselves back against its body.  It growled and sniffed the air.  Although Mulder’s swollen left eye had ruined his depth perception, he realized the thing was injured.  There seemed to be bullet holes in its side, leaking red blood onto the floor. 
     “Oh God,” Scully murmured.  “Shoot it, Mulder…”
     “If I shoot it at this range, I think it’ll attack us…”
     “Mulder…”
     The thing began pawing at the floor with one of its massive claws, making streaks and trails with its own blood.
     Brazenly, in a moment of all-or-nothing, Mulder called out to it.  “Shiva!”
     It snapped its head up immediately, peering at them and growling – but the growl turned into a strange keening sound.  It turned its head away and lunged back into the stairwell.  They heard the concussive sounds of it pounding down the steps.
     Finally, silence filled the corridor again.
     Mulder peered over at Scully beside him.  Her wide eyes were wet with tears, her expression frozen in one of terror and disbelief.
     “We’re ok, Scully,” he told her and gently took her hand.  She seemed to flinch at his touch.  She staggered and half-slumped against the wall, stopping herself before she fell, and took a deep inhalation of breath.
     “Oh my God…I thought we we’re dead, Mulder…”
     Mulder hefted the assault-rifle in his left hand.   With his free hand he touched the side of her face and said, “It didn’t want to hurt us, Scully…I think it recognised that we weren’t a threat.”
     She peered back at him.  “But we are a threat.  We want to kill it…”
     Mulder frowned.  “Maybe dying isn’t what this thing’s afraid of.”
     “What?”
     Mulder grabbed her by the arm and ushered her down the corridor with him.  Slowly, they approached the spot where the thing had been making streaks in its own blood.  Scully gasped and began shaking her head.
     “No…no, I don’t believe this, Mulder.  This can’t be happening…”
     There on the polished floor, scrawled in childlike letters, were two words.
     HELP ME.

For the last six minutes they had been stalking through the top-floor corridors of Vedanta Biotech – six minutes that felt like an eternity to Scully.  Mulder was taking the lead and she kept close behind him.  She was a little more comforted by the presence of the powerful assault-rifle in his hands, but she had seen what that thing had done to its original owner.  Scully realized they would have to get pretty close for even such a high-powered weapon to be effective.
     The thing was aware of language. It had scrawled letters in its own blood.  It had tried to communicate with them.  Scully had no idea what that meant, but it terrified her.
     Suddenly a voice from behind them said, “Don’t move…or I’ll blow you into the next world.” 
     It was a clipped British accent.  Scully felt a rush of renewed fear.  “Mr Mulder, Dr Scully, put the weapons down on the floor.  Slowly.”
     Both of them did as they were told.
     “Now turn around, slowly.”  Again they did as the voice requested.  Scully found herself peering at a tall Indian man in his late thirties, standing in a doorway. 
     Despite his youthful appearance, his hair already had streaks of grey in it.  His eyes were bloodshot and streaming with tears.  He was pointing an assault-rifle at them; identical to the one Mulder had just placed on the floor.
     “Dr Sanjeev Kistri?” Scully asked tentatively.
     “Yes,” the man almost snarled.
     “Are you going to kill us, Sanjeev?” asked Mulder, his voice filled with intensity.
     “I’m trying to save your bloody lives,” the CEO told them.  “Now get in here.”
     He lowered the gun, stepped aside and motioned for them to hurry up.  Scully glanced at Mulder and the two of them hurried into the room.  Sanjeev Kistri closed and locked the door behind them. 
     Scully realized they were standing in the CEO’s large, well-appointed office.  Black leather couches sat in the left corner of the room.  In horror Scully realized that Seema Kistri was lying dead on one of them.  She had a gun clenched in her left hand, and the barrel of the gun shoved into her mouth.  The back of her head had exploded against the far wall.
     Mulder saw it too and grimaced.  The CEO of Vedanta Biotech peered wildly at both of them.  Although the weapon clutched in his hands was no longer pointed at them, Scully felt anything but safe in his presence.
     “She…she took her own life,” he said shakily.  “I tried to stop her, but…after the men came…after she got off the phone with you…she begged my forgiveness, and then she put her father’s gun in her mouth.”
     Tears were still streaming silently down the Indian’s face.
     Fearlessly, Mulder stalked over to him and shoved the assault-rifle aside.  Mulder grabbed him and shook him.
     “Sanjeev, listen to me; do you know how many men are still alive in this building?”
     Scully watched as he peered into Mulder’s face and stammered, “Just…just two, I think.  The leader and his second-in-command…”
     “Are they still armed?”
     “Yes…”
     “Put down the gun, Sanjeev.”  For some reason the CEO immediately obeyed Mulder’s words; as though the presence of another non-hostile human being had brought him crashing back to reality.  The assault-rifle clattered onto the floor beside them.
     “We need to work together now,” Mulder told him.  “Ok?”
     He nodded profusely.  “Yes, yes…”
     “You need to tell me what this thing really is.”
     “A Purity Stalker…I didn’t want to, but she made me…”
     Mulder gripped the doctor’s shoulder.  “No, Sanjeev…what is it?”
     “A chimera – an animal-alien-human hybrid…”
     Mulder glanced over at Scully and then peered again at the CEO.  “Human?  What does that mean?”
     Dr Sanjeev Kistri was trembling as tears kept rolling down his face.  “Human brain tissue spliced with animal and alien DNA.  I didn’t want to do it, but…Seema…she couldn’t let him go…”
     “Couldn’t let who go?”
     “Pramesh…our son.  He died four years ago.  Leukaemia.  But Seema went behind my back and had most of his frontal cortex cryogenically frozen… ”
     As Scully watched the two of them talking a feeling of new horror flooded through her.
     “…and when we realized the gene-sequencing would actually work, she begged me…she begged me to use Pramesh’s tissue as the primary donor…”
     “Jesus,” Scully muttered, and then more loudly, “You actually spliced your dead son’s brain tissue into this thing? Are you out of your goddamn mind?”
     “I didn’t realize…” 
     Scully stalked forward and pulled Mulder away from the man.  Her stomach clenched with disgust and outrage.  “This man is sick, Mulder!  He turned the remains of his son into a killing-machine…a weapon of war!”
     Dr Sanjeev Kistri shook his head furiously, staring with wild eyes.  “No, no, it’s much worse than that…this prototype remembers things that my son remembers…it feels things that my son felt…”
     Suddenly the Indian lunged forward, grabbed Mulder by the front of his bloodied sweatshirt and bellowed insanely, “Don’t you understand?  I inadvertently resurrected my boy!  I damned him…me and Seema, we damned him both…trapped him in this monstrous flesh!  I thought…I thought we were trying to save the Earth…”
     Scully went over, shoved Mulder aside and grabbed the Indian.
     “How do we kill this thing?” she barked at him.
     “This thing…is my child…”
     “No, it’s not,” Scully told him.  “It’s a biological weapon…a monster.”
     “It’s my boy…my sweet Pramesh.”  His eyes darkened as he stared at her.  “What the hell would you know about losing a child…?”
     Scully faltered, swallowed and stepped away from him.  She caught Mulder’s worried look in her direction.  There was a heavy silence in the room.  Sanjeev Kistri saw the look on her face and immediately his expression softened.
     “You lost someone too?” he asked.  “A child?”
     Scully didn’t answer him.  She simply snatched up the heavy assault-rifle from the floor and glared at Mulder.
     A split-second later rapid gunfire erupted in a streaking line through the wall of the office. A gout of vivid crimson exploded from Sanjeev Kistri’s chest.
     “Down!” Mulder screamed, and Scully threw herself to the floor. 
     Gunfire continued to blast through the wall and into the room, lancing over their heads and decimating furniture and ornaments.  The noise was almost deafening.
     Heart pounding, Scully kept her head down at the roar of gunfire – as dust filled the air.  She realized the assault-rifle was still clutched in her hands.  Immediately she hefted it at the wall and opened fire on full-auto.
     The noise was like thunder.  With all the dust in the air she couldn’t see Mulder or the Indian but sensed their presence nearby.  She prayed that Mulder wasn't hit.
     It was only when she realized that their unseen assailants had stopped shooting that she eased her finger off the trigger and ceased her counter-attack.
     After the roar of gunfire Scully realized her ears were ringing in the new quiet.  And then she heard coughing in the dust-filled office, from only a few feet away.
     “Mulder!” she exclaimed fearfully.
     “Yeah,” came his shaky reply.  He began coughing again.  The dust was already beginning to settle and she saw his outline on the ground nearby.  She let go of the assault-rifle and quickly crawled across broken bits of plaster towards him.
     “Are you hit?” she asked quickly, grabbing the side of his face.
     “No.  Check Dr Kistri…”
     Scully turned her head and spotted the Indian lying several feet away.  She crawled over and realized he was lying in a pool of his own blood.  A ragged hole in his chest had exposed a few of his ribs.  His eyes were glassy and still.
     Scully grimaced and tried to control her fear.  She crawled back over to Mulder, peered at him and shook her head.
     “Christ…” Mulder murmured.  He hauled himself to his feet and helped her up too.
     On their feet now, they peered around in shock at the decimated office.  Mulder snatched up the assault-rifle that Scully had just abandoned. 
     The look in his eyes told her that they were about to venture into the corridor and that she should stay close behind him.  She nodded at his intention.
     They moved over to the office door and Mulder carefully opened it.  With the rifle raised, he risked a glance into the corridor and then stepped out.  Scully followed.
     Several feet down the corridor a man in black combat-gear was slumped in a sitting position against the wall.  His weapon lay beside him, and Scully saw that her counter-fire through the wall had shredded his mid-section.  His intestines were heaped in a scarlet mess between his legs.
     “Damn, Scully,” Mulder said quietly.
     Out of the corner of her eye, Scully sensed movement at the end of the corridor.  Mulder caught it too and whipped round, squeezing the trigger of the weapon in his hands.
     But the assault-rifle just kept clicking on empty.  With horror, Scully realized she’d used up all the ammunition in her counter-attack from the office.
     Standing thirty feet away in the junction of the corridor was another man dressed in black combat-gear.  Unlike the other men they’d encountered he was wearing a balaclava and clad in body-armour, a throat-mic around his neck.  Instead of an assault-rifle in his hands he was clutching what looked like a modified tranquilizer gun.
     Dread swirled in the pit of Scully’s stomach as she stood beside Mulder, both of them peering helplessly at the team-leader standing there.
     He tapped his throat-mic and began, “We have–”
     Before he could finish, a shrieking roar filled the air as something huge and black slammed into him – lifting him off his feet and hurling him out of sight beyond the junction.
     Scully flinched and gasped.  Mulder did the same, snatching her wrist and pulling her back a few steps.
     Screaming filled the corridor, suddenly drowned out by another growling shriek – and then silence.
     Then, a moment later, the Purity Stalker padded into view at the corridor junction.  Scully was frozen with horror at the size of the thing.  She glanced, terrified, at Mulder, but he couldn’t take his eyes off it.  The useless assault-rifle fell from his hands and thudded to the floor.
     Like something from a nightmare the creature began moving down the corridor towards them, all muscle and sinew and teeth.
     “Jesus Christ…” Scully heard herself murmur at the sight.
     The corridor ended about ten feet behind them, large bay windows that looked out over the rest of the office-complex.  They were trapped.  But Scully was rooted to the spot in terror.
     The creature came within five feet of them.
     This close to it, Scully could see the detail in its black leathery skin, the size of its knife-like teeth, the sheer power of its musculature – and sensed the intelligence behind its glowing green eyes.
     She saw the large tranquilizer dart jutting from its neck and realized the team-leader had managed to squeeze off a shot moments before this thing had ended his life.  Its limbs were trembling slightly.  It made a deep, wet sound filled with sadness, and sat down in front of them; like a huge, demonic dog at its master’s feet.
     Beside Scully, Mulder stared wildly at the thing.  It was then that Scully realised that it was carrying something between its teeth.  It jutted its head forward and dropped it at her feet.
     A large combat-knife.
     The creature made an awful keening sound, and nudged the knife forward with the tip of its snout.
     And suddenly Scully understood.
     It wanted her to kill it.
     “Pramesh?” she muttered shakily.
     It keened again, a sound full of anguish.  Scully glanced horrified at Mulder and saw tears in his wide eyes.
     As if in a dream, Scully kneeled in front of the powerful creature, inches from its terrifying face – and picked up the combat-knife.  Mulder didn’t try to stop her.
     The thing gently placed one of its huge front claws on her thigh and turned its head, offering Scully its throat.
     Her insides shimmering with sadness now, she swallowed – and plunged the blade deep into its neck, twisting it so the wound would have no chance of closing.
     The thing shuddered and made awful gurgling sounds, and Scully couldn’t help but press a hand to the side of its face as she stared into its eyes. 
     With Mulder standing powerlessly at her side, Scully knelt there in the corridor and watched as the creature bled to death in front of her. 


*


July 22nd 2012
Vigil Taskforce Headquarters
Washington D.C.
11:16 a.m.


There were only three people sitting at the large mahogany table in the centre of the conference room.  The blinds had been drawn to block out the sun, casting the space in a dim half-light.
     Taskforce-Leader Janet Lessinger glanced at Mulder, then Scully, and then back down at their report on the screen of the MacBook in front of her.  She scrolled through their case-notes as well as photographic documentation of the carnage at Vedanta’s office-complex. 
     “No photos of this creature?” she asked quietly without looking up at them.  “This biologically-engineered combat-unit?”
     Mulder shook his head.  “As it states in the report, Scully and I torched the corpse of this thing before Vigil affiliates, Boston PD or CDC arrived on the scene.”
     “We weren’t going to take any chances,” added Scully.
     The taskforce-leader peered up at them.  “That’s probably a good thing. CDC found no airborne toxins or hazmat at the site.  The remains of this thing were clean.  But they’ve still taken precautions and already cleansed the site.”
     Mulder felt a flush of angst within himself.  He stared pointedly at the woman and asked, “Was NSA or CIA out there too, after we left?”
     She didn’t answer him, but the look in her eyes told him everything he needed to know.
     He sighed.  “So this whole thing’s been classified. In total, thirteen people are dead; including Labyrinth members and people connected to Vedanta Biotech…and NSA just wants to sweep it all under the rug?”
     With an exasperated look in her eyes, Lessinger said, “Fox, listen to me…they want the same thing we want, but they and CIA have seniority as far as intel goes…”
     Mulder glanced at Scully and then peered back at the taskforce-leader.  “I thought the Vigil taskforce was created to avoid this kind of bullshit? Am I wrong?  We’re supposed to be trying to protect the United States from a domestic terror threat, from within our own network…and yet here we are with the bureaucracy…same as ever.”
     The woman frowned, not unsympathetically.  “I’m sorry.  I know you both put your lives on the line for this.  And I swear to you, if I had any idea how messy this thing was going to get – I would never have sent you both out there alone.”
     Mulder peered into her eyes for a few moments.  “I believe you.  But that doesn’t change the fact that Vigil’s mandate is being compromised by the people who are supposed to be helping us, and nor does it change my assertion that both NSA and CIA have been infiltrated at some level by members of the Labyrinth faction.”
     Janet Lessinger turned her attention to Scully, fear in her eyes.  “Dana…I’m assuming you share his suspicions?”
     Scully’s expression was grim and resolute.  “Absolutely. It’s all there in the report.  Mulder and I believe that the sniper who attacked us was working directly on behalf of someone within the National Security Agency.”
     The taskforce-leader nodded and sighed.  “If it’s any consolation…I agree with you.  The thought that my own former agency is now working against me…it makes me sick to my stomach.”
     In a brazen, unprofessional move Mulder reached out and took Janet Lessinger’s hand.  In a voice that was almost a whisper he said, “Scully and I nearly died out there, Janet.  Contact some of your old NSA buddies – people you trust, and start asking questions; off the books, outside of Vigil’s protocols.  It’s the only way to really piece this thing together.  I don’t mean to overstep my bounds here…but from one investigator to another – I have a feeling that someone pretty high up is trying to ruin our chances of protecting our country.  And if we don’t figure out who we can really trust, I honestly believe we could be looking at a major incident occurring on US soil before the end of this year.”
     Mulder took his hand away.  He could see in her eyes that his words resonated and frightened her.  Lessinger turned and looked at Scully.  “And you agree?”
     Scully just nodded pointedly.
     The taskforce-leader pressed her lips together for a moment, and then muttered, “I’ll make some calls…”
     Mulder smiled gratefully at her, got up and left the conference table.  Scully followed.  As they reached the door the older woman said in a more professional tone, “Mr Mulder, Dr Scully…”
     They both turned.
     “Thank you.  Vigil thanks you.”

In their sleek, sun-lit private office Mulder went over to the windows that ran the length of the back wall and pressed his forehead against the glass.  From his faint reflection he could see that his face still looked like a bruised and swollen mess.  His entire body still ached from his altercation with the sniper.
     He took a long, slow breath.
     Scully came up behind him and slipped her arms around his waist.  He peered at her faint reflection in the glass.  There was some bruising around the side of her mouth from where Nirmal Shah had punched her.
     “You ok?” she asked quietly, pressing her face gently against his shoulder.
     “I guess so.  I’m happy that we’re still alive, Scully.”
     She chuckled as she embraced him.  “It’ll take more than that to bring us down, Mulder.”
     “Is it really gone?” he asked quietly.
     “Hmmm?”
     “The guilt.  Over what you told me in Bethesda about William. Is it really gone?”
     “I think so…”
     He eased out of the embrace and turned to face her.  He smiled.  “That pleases the hell out of me.”
     She laughed. “Me too.”
     Gently, he avoided the bruising at the corner of her mouth and kissed her.  When he pulled away he said, “We’re going to find him, Dana.  Even if we don’t get him back…we’ll make sure his adoptive parents do.  We’ll save him.  And we’ll stop colonisation.  Somehow.”
     He gently traced the gold crucifix hanging at her throat.  “I have faith,” he told her.
     She smiled at him, and Mulder saw desire in her eyes.  That look always thrilled him.  She pulled away, went to his desk and retrieved something.  Taking a few tacks from a clear plastic box on the desktop, she went over and pinned the I WANT TO BELIEVE poster to the office wall.


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