Friday, 28 June 2013

Smoke & Mirrors

October 17th 2012
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge, Massachusetts
8: 46 p.m.


The darkened lecture-hall was filled with people.  In the tiered rows Fox Mulder was sitting near the back, amongst physics undergraduates and MIT staff.  On the small stage at the front of the hall Dr Isaac Keller was concluding his lecture.  For the last two and a half hours Mulder had been sitting intently, attempting to absorb every detail and nuance in the lecturer’s thesis.  Mulder had followed most of it, but some aspects of the talk were too arcane even for him to grasp; filled with discussion of the more specialized side of theoretical mathematics. 
     On the large screen behind Dr Keller the title of his thesis was projected: Quantum Mechanics – Temporal Paradox and Multiverse Theory.  Since the lecture began, Mulder had listened to scathing comments from imperious students and staff; men and women of varying ages who arrogantly attempted to humiliate Dr Keller as he endeavoured to finish his talk.  To his credit, the sixty-something physicist had tried to honestly address the more sober criticisms.  Those that were intentionally snide or disrespectful he either deflected or ignored.
     “....so in conclusion,” Dr Keller went on, “if Heisenberg, Bell’s Theorem and the EPR Paradox have taught us anything, it’s that the universe is filled with unanswered questions, and, dare I say...mystery.  What was the cutting-edge in scientific thought a mere seventy years ago is not the cutting-edge of the now.  And the cutting-edge of future generations may well surpass what we can rationalize or conceptualize today.  I’ll leave you with one final thought.  Science is the pursuit of truth –”
     Mulder smiled.
     “– and truth is the comprehension of what is, not what our cultural, ideological or even scientific prejudices wish it to be.  History has shown us that paradigms can change, and that our observations are often only as sophisticated as our instruments and tools used to measure them.  We must refine our instruments and tools, in concert with rigorous study, in order to begin exploring the most complex and mysterious questions concerning the nature of our reality.  Thank you.”
     There was a round of mild, half-hearted applause from perhaps a third of the people in the lecture-hall.
     Mulder frowned and kept his eyes on Dr Isaac Keller as he disconnected his laptop from the projection-system and silently left the stage.

Most of the people had already gone, but a few bright-eyed students hung around to compliment the physicist’s evocative lecture.  He thanked them with good grace.  But there was also a small group of students and staff with malice in their eyes, presumably looking for another chance to ridicule his thesis.  He ignored them completely, gathering his files and laptop and packing them away.  The expression on his face told Mulder he was used to it.
     Just as the man was about to leave the lecture-hall, Mulder approached him.  “Dr Keller?”
     He glanced up at Mulder with a neutral expression, but said nothing.
     “Your lecture was fascinating...full of acuity and insight.  I think it was lost on most of these people.”
     The physicist stared at him.  “And who might you be?”
     “My name’s Mulder, and I’d like to buy you a beer, or three.”
     Dr Keller peered at him with narrowed eyes.  “And why’s that?”
     Mulder held his gaze, stone-faced.  “Because you look like you need it, man.”
     The physicist’s neutral expression cracked into a reluctant smile.  He chuckled and said, “You’re not some kind of kook, are you?”
     Mulder returned the smile.  “Kind of.  One of the more perceptive ones, I hope.”
     Keller chuckled again.  “Are you also a scientist, Mr Mulder?”
     “No, but my partner is.  We work for the US intelligence service.”
     Keller raised an eyebrow.  “Is that a fact?”
     “Yeah.”  Mulder reached into the leather satchel on his shoulder and handed the older man a document of typed and bound pages.
     Dr Keller glanced at the document’s title and read it aloud.  “Einstein’s Twin Paradox: A New Interpretation.”  He frowned and began casually glancing through the essay.  Slowly, a smile crept onto his face.  He looked up at Mulder.  “Your scientist partner wrote this...?”
     Mulder nodded.  “It was her graduate thesis.”
     He could see the intrigue in Keller’s eyes now.  Finally the physicist grinned and said, “You know, I think maybe I could use a beer.”

They were sitting in a busy campus bar.  Students mingled and drank and laughed and talked.  Oh, You Pretty Things by David Bowie was playing on a jukebox somewhere.
     In their booth, Dr Keller was sipping a bottle of Miller Lite as he leafed through Scully’s graduate thesis.  He glanced up at Mulder again.
     “This really is an exemplary piece of work, and from a girl who was barely into her twenties? I’m very, very impressed.”
     “She’s a remarkable woman,” Mulder smiled at him.  “But what I really wanted to discuss with you were your notions on the theoretical applications of temporal paradox...”
     Dr Keller grinned at him, the alcohol and pleasant company having loosened him up considerably.  “You can come out and actually say it, Mr Mulder.”
     “Time-travel,” Mulder said plainly, sipping from a bottle of Coke.  “And also, how such notions connect with your ideas on multiverse theory.”
     “Well,” said Keller, “Why don’t you tell me what you think I’m saying?”
     Mulder chuckled.  “I think you’re saying that while Quantum Mechanics allows the theoretical possibility of time-travel, conventional wisdom dictates that the Laws of Thermodynamics prohibit it...that the unimaginable amounts of energy needed to make such a trip possible essentially cancel it out as a probability.”
     Keller gave him a sly smile.  “I love science, but I never had much use for ‘conventional wisdom’...”
     Mulder shared a glance of understanding with the man.  “But your thesis seems to suggest that certain sub-atomic particles – tachyons – might hold the key to making such notions far more plausible, especially when coupled with possible advancements in zero-point or over-unity systems.”
     Keller was clearly enjoying their conversation now, leaning forward across the table.  “Look,” he said quietly.  “Talking about free-energy systems is practically scientific heresy, considered on par with mystical gobbledygook, especially in a place like MIT.  The only reason I was allowed to give this talk tonight is because I used to teach here back in the late nineties.  An old friend managed to pull a few strings for me...”
     Straight-faced, Mulder told him, “I have kind of an interest in mystical gobbledygook.”
     The sixty-something physicist grinned with mischief in his eyes.  “Me too, though I daren’t say it too loud.”
     “But multiverse theory,” said Mulder.  “This idea of branching dimensions, parallel worlds...it fascinates me too.  This idea that there might be concurrent timelines in which alternate versions of ourselves have made different choices...”
     Dr Keller frowned and nodded.  “Again, it’s practically scientific heresy, but anyone with a sophisticated enough comprehension of Quantum Mechanics can’t rule it out as a possibility, in my humble opinion.  The universe is a vast and mysterious place, Mr Mulder.”
     Mulder raised his eyebrows and nodded, “Oh, I know it is, Dr Keller.  Believe me.  I’ve seen some crazy stuff...”
     “I’ll bet,” said Keller, peering into his eyes and taking another swig of beer.  “So have I.”
    Mulder sensed a deep intelligence in the older man’s eyes; some profound experience in his past that had opened his mind to extreme possibilities.  Mulder wasn’t going to press him about it.  It was enough to recognise that it was there.
     “You know,” said Keller, “if I’m honest, when I was a boy I always wanted to be a science-fiction writer.  I loved the idea of creating all those interesting stories.  I loved language as well as science.  I wanted to study English Literature in college, but my father forbade it.  He was a Chemical Engineer; a very practical, humourless man.  So, I studied physics instead and kept that other side of myself quite private.”  He lifted the copy of Scully’s graduate thesis in his hand.  “Can I keep this?”
     Mulder smiled and nodded.
     “Well, I’d love to stay and chat some more...it’s been a very enjoyable discussion, Mr Mulder.  But I should be heading off.  I need to get home, and riding the trains is never too fun in the evenings.”
     “I’d be happy to give you a ride home,” Mulder offered.  “As a courtesy, from one old kook to another.”
     Dr Isaac Keller grinned at him, and nodded.


*


Falmouth, Cape Cod
Massachusetts
9: 53 p.m.


They had shared a bottle of Pinot Noir; what her mother had always called ‘the good stuff’.  Dana Scully smiled as they sat curled up together on the couch.  Mom had obviously been really looking forward to this.  Scully peered into the almost-empty wineglass in her hand as her mother stroked her hair.
     “I don’t know, Dana.  The National Security Agency, the CIA…I thought you’d left that part of your life behind…”
     Scully could hear the concern in her mom’s voice.  “I know.  I did.  But it wasn’t done with me.”
     Since joining the Vigil Intelligence Taskforce, Scully had given her only a highly-censored account of the last several months.  She knew nothing about the situation regarding William’s disappearance.  There were some things that Scully just couldn’t bring herself to speak of with her.  She didn’t trust herself to maintain her composure if she laid everything completely bare – and yet a part of her was aching to share those things.
     But Mom had spent too many years worrying about her daughter’s career choice.  She’d already lost Missy because of ‘government business’, and while she didn’t hold Scully accountable for Melissa’s murder – Scully still felt accountable all these years later.  No matter what Mom or her brothers or Mulder tried to tell her.
     “It just all sounds so dangerous, Dana…”
     Scully pulled away from the cuddle and peered at her.  “It is,” she said truthfully.
     Mom peered back with those keen eyes.  “Have…have people tried to harm you, Dana, because of your work with this Vigil taskforce…?”
     For a few moments Scully didn’t respond, before eventually muttering, “Yes.”
     Dana…”
     Scully sighed and touched a palm to her mother’s cheek.  She felt a flush of guilt for not seeing her as often as she should have, and for making her worry like this.  Mom was looking older each time Scully saw her, but her soulful eyes were still filled with life.  She was still incredibly beautiful.
     She took Scully’s hand and kept it pressed to her cheek, nuzzling into it.
     “I have to,” Scully said quietly.
     Her mother pressed her lips together and nodded, closing her eyes.  Quietly she said, “The boys visit when they can, and I have some great friends…but it gets lonely out here sometimes.”
     “What about that guy you were dating?” Scully asked tentatively.  “Thomas?”
     Mom just chuckled sadly, opening her eyes again.  “Ha!  Dating at my age.  Your mother’s an old woman now, Dana…”
     “But you told me there was a real connection between the two of you.”
     Margaret Scully peered at her daughter.  “There was, but…I just can’t get past…you know.”
     The memory of Scully’s father hung heavy in the room.  Mom took Scully’s hand away from her cheek.
     “Some people are just irreplaceable,” she murmured.
     Scully frowned, nodding sadly.
     Mom forced a big smile onto her face.  “It’s been a wonderful day, baby…but I’m tired.  I’m going to bed.  I’ll cook you and Fox something tasty for breakfast.”
     “Ok.  I’m gonna wait up for him.”
     Mom got up off the couch, smiled at her and said, “I love you, my darling.”
     Scully returned the smile.  “Love you too, Mom.”
     She watched as her mother crossed the lounge and disappeared up the stairs.  Feeling pretty emotional, Scully downed the last of the Pinot Noir in her wineglass.  

She sat out on the porch steps of the small house, peering across the creek as moonlight cast silver glimmers across the water.  Every time Scully saw her mom she felt guilty about something.  She supposed that was a side-effect of keeping things from the ones you loved.
     She was lucky really.  Her mom and brothers were still alive.  She still had family.
     Mulder had no-one.  His mother, father and sister were dead.  Scully was all the family that he had now.
     He tried to act like time had tempered him to those losses, like the pain had mostly faded, but Scully knew that was largely a conceit.  Mulder was almost inhumanly resilient, but he was also a deeply emotional man.  Sometimes he was glib or darkly comic, and Scully couldn’t deny he had a wicked sense of humour – but beneath it all was the agonising emotional and intuitive sensitivity that was both his gift and his curse.
     Scully had come to know that side of Mulder better than anyone.  He had so much love and so much pain hidden away in his heart, and she was really the only person in the world he felt comfortable enough exposing it to.  But even then, he still tried to be strong for her.  He still always put her well-being before his own.  It was comforting to always be the focus of such gallantry, but sometimes it was an attempt by Mulder to ignore or deny his pain.
     There were some things that he still found difficult discussing with her, all these years later.  Chief among them was the fact that Bill Mulder was not his biological father.
     Scully recalled the times they had discussed it; resulting in Mulder’s awkwardness, sorrow or anger.  The fact that the man he’d most hated in the entire world, a man who’d tried to kill them on numerous occasions, was his biological father – it was just something that Mulder still found too disturbing to truly contemplate.  At least with her.  She was sure he’d spent a lot of time privately agonizing over it.
     As Scully mused on Mulder’s pain she caught a whiff of cigarette smoke carried on the breeze.  She laughed suddenly, assuming that her thoughts had momentarily kicked her imagination into overdrive.
     But the scent grew stronger.
     An awful chill rushed through Scully’s stomach and she whipped her head round.  There, at the end of the porch, stood the Cigarette Smoking Man.  Her stomach clutched with dread and incomprehension.  He was half-concealed in shadow, dressed in a grey suit as he lifted a burning cigarette to his lips.
     Scully squeezed her eyes shut immediately, unwilling to accept what she was seeing.  She pressed a hand to her stomach, shaking her head.
     When she finally opened her eyes again she saw that she was alone on the porch.  


*


10: 14 p.m.


He wasn’t far from the Sagamore Bridge now. It would take him across the canal and into Cape Cod.  As Mulder drove he thought about his conversation with Dr Isaac Keller.  He’d immediately liked the man, but it was more than that.  He felt like the old physicist was a kindred spirit.  After driving him back to his apartment they had exchanged numbers.  Keller seemed happy to continue their conversations over the phone at some point.  Mulder sensed that the older man also felt like a friendship might form between them.
     If the world didn’t come crashing down before then.
     A few weeks ago Mulder had flown out to Vancouver to try meeting with Dr Lisa Ianelli, the cryobiologist who had possibly engineered a compound that would one day allow a human being to survive a trip through space and time.  It still spun Mulder’s mind to think about it.  Back in Richmond last December someone claiming to be ‘Imogen Ianelli’ had wrought havoc – a monstrous woman capable of freezing people with a single touch – who also claimed to be a time-traveller from some post-colonization date.  Dr Lisa Ianelli was officially working in the biology department at UBC, but when Mulder travelled to Vancouver she refused to see him and accused him of stalking her.  But Mulder had managed to catch a glimpse of the woman’s three year old daughter, Imogen.
     The little girl was a pretty kid with nothing but warmth and kindness in her eyes; no sign of the fury and malevolence of the woman who had claimed to be her older self.
     Mulder grimaced and tightened his grip on the steering wheel.
     He’d done a ton of research in the last several months and had finally found a fragment of data that inspired his journey to Vancouver.  Vigil’s servers had used the Fisher Protocol to uncover a communication with Lisa Ianelli’s name on it, and a numerical sequence they identified as part of a SAP code used by the NSA.  Special Access Programs were classified or unacknowledged projects being conducted by the Department of Defense or certain intelligence agencies.
     So while Mulder couldn’t prove it, the data-fragment was highly suggestive of some alliance already occurring between Ianelli and the National Security Agency.  Mulder was almost certain that clandestine groups within the NSA were already exploring and broadening Ianelli’s research.  He knew it was connected to what the Richmond murderer had referred to as ‘T.E.C.’ – possibly the codename for this black project.  What he couldn’t be sure of was if members of the Labyrinth faction of the US intelligence service were already involved.  He supposed it was a fair bet that they were, somehow. 
     On the dashboard his cell phone started ringing.  He picked it up and glanced at the screen.  Scully.
     “Hey,” he answered.  “Should be there pretty soon.”
     “Is everything ok at your end, Mulder?”  She sounded unnerved, and Mulder immediately felt himself tense.
     “Yeah.  What’s wrong?”
     For a few moments she didn’t answer.  “No…it’s nothing.  I just…I just miss you.”
     Mulder wasn’t convinced.  “What’s going on, Dana?”
     “Really, it’s nothing, Mulder.  Mom’s gone to bed.  I’m just freaking myself out a little.  I guess I’m just tired.”
     Mulder wasn’t satisfied with her explanation but he didn’t press it.  “Nearly there.  We’ll talk when I get in, ok?”
     “Ok,” she said quietly.  “Love you.”
     “Love you too.” 
     Mulder ended the call and gently tossed the phone back onto the dash.  He sighed, wondering if thoughts of Rebecca Killian and the Widow’s Hand were still preying on Scully’s mind. 
     In the weeks just after the events in Oregon, Scully had a few intense nightmares about spiders – reliving the ‘strengthening’ that the cult-members of the Widow’s Hand had forced her to endure.  But despite all that, there was a strength in her that eased Mulder’s worries.  Ever since Boston, since John Doggett revealed the truth about what Scully had taken to calling ‘the night with the gun’, she seemed far less haunted – despite their recent failure to retrieve data on William’s location from Rebecca Killian’s ruined hard-drive. 
     Mulder frowned and tried to focus again on the situation regarding T.E.C, and the woman in Richmond last year who called herself Imogen Ianelli. 
     For a while now Mulder had been reading everything he could find on Quantum Mechanics, Tachyons, theoretical wormholes and Closed Timelike Loops.  He’d read peer-reviewed essays in every reputable journal he could find.  He’d trawled the internet for any scientific minds who took the idea of time-travel and multiverse theory even remotely seriously.
     He’d found some interesting research by a man named Patrick McGwain, based in Europe, who claimed he’d discovered irrefutable proof of the existence of tachyons – subatomic particles capable of moving backwards through space-time – but a few months after publishing the article he was found in his bathtub with his wrists slit.  Mulder had even found a few conspiracy websites online who cried foul play, claiming that sinister forces had silenced him.  Mulder wondered if there was actually some truth to their shrill claims.  The possibility was disturbing to say the least.
     The murderous ice-like woman in Richmond last year had claimed to be three-year-old Imogen Ianelli’s future self – and Mulder believed her.  She claimed the whole world burned because colonization hadn’t been averted.
     She claimed that he and Scully were supposed to stop it.  And what chilled Mulder most of all, what he and Scully hadn’t even really spoken about, was the fact that she alluded to the idea that she knew William.
     The world burned because of you!  My husband is dead because of you! This is for William, you bastard!
     It was possible that she was alluding to the idea that she and William were married at some future date, after the invasion; that William had been killed.  And that Mulder was somehow responsible.
     Mulder felt tears working their way into his eyes as he drove.  He knew why he and Scully had never openly discussed this particular detail.  It was just too awful and horrific to even contemplate.  In the face of such a disturbing possibility, some things were better left unsaid.
     Mulder wasn’t really sure how much more guilt his shoulders could handle, especially over something that hadn’t yet come to pass.  But he did feel guilty.  He felt like a coward; hiding away out in the Virginian wilderness, trying to live some semblance of a ‘normal’ life with Scully, when he should have been pouring all his energy into trying to find a way to stop what was coming.
     Imogen Ianelli had been right.  On some subconscious level he’d tried to pretend that his entire life’s work was a lie.  The fact that he might end up having the blood of billions on his hands because of that choice…it was something that hollowed Mulder’s stomach and chilled him completely.  How could he even begin to process such an idea?
     “But it’s true.  The blood of all of them is on your hands.”
     Mulder’s gaze whipped sideways to the passenger seat.  He found himself peering impossibly at Alex Krycek.
     The assassin was sitting there in a leather jacket and leather gloves, peering at him with those cold, piercing eyes.  “Unless you stop it, Mulder.”
     Mulder immediately focused on the road again, a wave of cold horror rolling through him and tightening his stomach.  Krycek was dead.  This had happened twice before.  He was hallucinating again.  Mulder gritted his teeth in disbelief and willed the apparition away.
     “Apparition?” said the dead man.  “You know better than that, Mulder.”
     “You’re not really here,” Mulder muttered shakily.  “This is all in my head.”
     “Could be.”
     Jesus Christ,” murmured Mulder.
     Krycek chuckled.  “Men always invoke God when faced with the unknown.  I guess even veterans like you, huh?”
     “Go away,” Mulder hissed.  “I am not gonna have another conversation with a dead man.”
     “Look at me,” Krycek said darkly.  “Look at me, Fox.”  Mulder turned and peered at him, scowling.  “I’m sorry.”
     “For what?” Mulder spat.
     “For everything I did to you.  For your father.  For trying to hurt William.  For making your life a living hell.  I’m sorry, brother.”
     “Don’t you dare call me your brother.  You’re not my brother.  You were a psychopath.”
     Krycek frowned, a look of genuine regret in his dark eyes.  “But I still wanted you to win somehow.”
     “You should be in hell,” Mulder seethed, trying to keep his eyes on the road.
     “I am, in a way,” the assassin said quietly.  “That’s why I’m here.  To make amends.”
     Mulder glanced at the apparition again.  Through clenched teeth he growled, “You can never make amends for what you did.”
     “You’re running out of time, Mulder.  He’s trying to break your spirit.”
     Mulder swallowed and said, “Who?”
     “The Smoking Man.”
     Mulder felt himself tense even further at the mention of the name.  “He’s dead,” Mulder said carefully.  “Just like you.”
     A half-smile played on Krycek’s lips.  “Dead is never really dead.  You know that.  You know about consciousness.”  For a moment the handsome, dark-haired assassin just stared at him.  Mulder had to look away.  “He wants to see you suffer, Mulder.  He wants to see you fail.  Death liberates some men.  And for others, it demonizes them.  It’s all a matter of what we choose.  I’m trying to make the right choice.  A choice I was too much of a coward to make in life.” 
     Mulder couldn’t bear to look at him.  “Coward pretty much covers it.”
     “You need to step up to the plate, Mulder.  You need to bring your ‘A’ Game.”
     “I’m trying,” Mulder grimaced.
     “Try harder.”
     Mulder slowed the car, pulled over to the side of the road and killed the engine.  In the distance he could see the lights of the Sagamore Bridge glowing in the night.  He took a long shaking breath and pressed his forehead to the top of the steering wheel.
     “Look at me, Fox.”  Mulder turned his head slightly and peered at the apparition.  “Entire worlds have fallen.  Solar systems were decimated.  They showed me entire galaxies on fire…showed me that unholy plague moving from world to world like cosmic locusts…”
     With tears in his eyes Mulder murmured, “Who showed you?”
     “The benevolent ones.  They showed me how we’re in the middle of a race-war; a war that’s been waging for millions of years.  They showed me a cosmos dipped in blood.”
     Stop,” Mulder begged.
     “No.  You need to hear this.  Do you want to know a secret?  A truth?  We’re not just merchandise.  We’re an energy-source.  It’s not just the Earth.  It’s the Soul.”
     “I don’t understand,” murmured Mulder.
     “Yes you do.  Purity Control.  What do you think that really means?  Heaven is falling, Mulder.  Heaven is being disembowelled by entities beyond your comprehension, by alien races that view the cosmos as their own personal playground.  They abandoned the Light a long, long time ago.  They need a new Light now.  Something to sustain them.  Keep digging, Mulder.  Don’t give up.  The real truth will come to you.”
    “I just want to find my little boy,” murmured Mulder.  He blinked for only a moment, but in the next instant Krycek was gone, and Mulder found himself peering at an empty passenger seat. 


*


Falmouth, Cape Cod
Massachusetts
11: 16 p.m.


In the guest bedroom Scully handed Mulder the mug of cocoa and sat beside him on the edge of the bed.
     Krycek?” she said, unnerved by the news. 
     The look in Mulder’s eyes was dark.  “It was so real, Scully.  Just like before.  Like he was actually there with me.”  He smiled humourlessly and took a careful sip of the cocoa.  “Maybe I’m finally starting to lose my mind,” he added.
     Scully gave him a playful smile.  Finally?”  Mulder chuckled, but she could tell it was mostly for her benefit.  She took his hand and squeezed it.  “The last two times you saw a vision of Alex Krycek they both meant something.  I guess this means something too.”
     Mulder nodded, taking another sip of the cocoa.  “Are you going to tell me what was bothering you when you called?”
     Scully tried for another playful smile.  “Can’t get anything past you, can I?”
     “Nope.”
     She realized she was actually afraid to even begin talking about it.  It felt like tempting fate in some bizarre way.  The son of a bitch had been such an awful, unavoidable part of their lives for so long.  And it seemed now, even in death, he wouldn’t leave them alone.
     “Earlier this evening, I saw…I think I saw the Smoking Man.”  Mulder just peered at her, his expression unreadable.  She went on, “I was thinking about him…and then…then I smelled cigarette smoke….just like the time with that hooded thing in our home.  Anyway, I turned my head and he was just standing there, watching me.  And then the next minute he’s gone.  It wasn’t my imagination, Mulder.  We both saw people from our past tonight…”
     Mulder nodded.  For a while he just peered silently at her.
     “What’re you thinking?” she asked.
     “To be honest, Scully, I don’t know what to think.”  He sighed and took her hand, pressing it to his cheek.  “We’re having visions of men who’ve been dead for ten years.  I don’t know what to believe, or what any of this means.”
     Scully waited for some kind of clarifying statement or caveat, but there was none. Suddenly she sensed a kind of hopelessness in her lover’s expression – a tiredness that she’d seen in his eyes before.
     “Don’t give up, Mulder,” she said quietly.
     He smiled at her, placed her hand back in her lap and took another sip of the cocoa.  “I’m not giving up.  I just honestly don’t know what to think anymore.”
     “What do you mean?”
     Mulder shook his head.  “The trip to Vancouver a few weeks ago didn’t give me the answers I was hoping for.  Lisa Ianelli wouldn’t even talk to me.  And seeing Krycek in the car with me earlier…the things he said…they filled me with dread somehow.  But not just dread…a kind of deep sadness.  I just…I just don’t know how to even begin tackling all this.  I don’t know how to synthesize it into a coherent picture.  And we’re running out of time.”
     Scully frowned.  “Don’t talk like that, Mulder.  If anyone can figure it out, it’s you.”
     “Figure what out?  How to stop a global alien invasion?  We’re only human, Scully.  We’ve been through a lot of crazy shit in our lives, but we’re still just human.  I’m…I’m not so sure of anything anymore.”
     Scully frowned again.  She took the mug of cocoa from his hand and placed it on the bedside cabinet.  She straddled him and pushed him to the mattress.  Mulder chuckled.
     “You planning to sex me into a better mood, Dr Scully?”
     She kissed his neck and muttered, “It usually does the trick.”  She kept kissing his neck, reached down and began unbuckling the belt of his jeans.  “I think my hero just needs some special attention…”
     Mulder chuckled again.  “I love it when you go all Catholic on me.”
     Scully looked into his eyes, smiled and nodded.  She unbuttoned his fly, pulled it open and slid her hand into the front of his boxer-shorts.
     “Baby,” he murmured, reaching down to stop her.  He gripped her wrist.  “What if we fail?  What if we fail and billions of people die…?”
     Scully saw that Mulder had tears in his eyes now.  She immediately withdrew her hand from his underwear and kissed him hard on the mouth. 
     When she pulled away she whispered, “We can’t afford to think like that, Mulder.  You’ve said it yourself a thousand times.  We have to keep going.”  With her thumb she hooked the little gold cross around her neck and held it up in front of his face.  “Faith, remember?  We have to believe this is all happening for a reason…even if we can’t prove it.”
     Mulder nodded beneath her, smiling sadly.
     “You’ve saved my ass so many times, Mulder.  I’m not about to let all this crap get the better of you.  Not now.”
     “I like your ass,” Mulder muttered with another sad smile.
     Scully climbed off him and lay beside him on the mattress.  She rested her head on his chest and hooked an arm around his waist.
     “You miss William, don’t you? You miss never really getting to know him.”
     “Yeah.”
     “And you miss your mom too.”
     “Yeah,” Mulder said again.
     “I don’t expect you to be anything more than human, Fox.  You’re my hero, and that’s plenty enough for me.”
     “Sweet-talker,” murmured Mulder.
     “You don’t always have to be strong for me.  I mean, I know I rely on you in so many ways…but I get it.  I get it, Mulder.  You’ve had a lot of crosses to bear in your life.”
     “You’re the only thing I have left, Scully.  I just wonder how many times we can defy the odds.  By all accounts both of us should be dead by now.  It’s like something...some force is keeping us alive.”
     “But that’s a good thing, right?  It must mean that we have a purpose.  That we’re still here for a reason.  I should’ve died out in Wyoming, but I didn’t.  You should’ve died a bunch of times, but you didn’t.  We have to try and take some sort of comfort in that, even if we don’t fully understand it.”
     In a near whisper Mulder said, “I can’t bear the thought of having yours and William’s blood on my hands.  After everything we’ve survived, the thought of failing both of you...it haunts me, Scully.”
     She lifted her head from his chest, peered up at him and saw tears running silently down his face.  It made her heart ache.
     “We make a pretty good team, don’t we, Agent Mulder?”
     He smiled and wiped the tears away.  “Yeah.  We do.”
     She laid her head on his chest again, pressing her palm over his heart.  “That’s what’ll save us.  That’s what’ll give us the strength we need.  I don’t want to believe.  I believe.  In you and me.”   


*


October 18th 2012
Somerset, West Virginia
3:13 p.m.


They were only an hour’s drive from home now, but they needed to stop off to buy milk and some things for dinner tonight.  Apparently irritated by his own bleak demeanour yesterday, Mulder had offered to make them his speciality Carbonara tonight.  Over the years her partner had transformed himself into a pretty good chef.  Their meals together were worlds away from the hasty, thrown-together things he normally subsisted on back at the FBI, whenever he remembered or spared some time to actually eat.
     Scully found herself looking forward to a well-prepared meal tonight.
     “It was good to see your mom,” said Mulder as he scanned Main Street, searching for somewhere to park the car.
     “Yeah, she seemed really happy to see us.”
      “You more than me, obviously.  I still think she sees me as a little odd.”
     “Well,” said Scully with a smile, “Odd, maybe, but she adores you.  Why wouldn’t she?  You’re a cutie.”
     “Awww,” said Mulder with an intentionally smug grin.  Scully chuckled.  “Wish I could say the same about Bill Junior,” he added.
     Scully’s smile was replaced with a frown.  “You know my brother.  You know how he is...”
     “Yeah.  I’m just glad he wasn’t there these last three nights.  No offense.”
     Scully frowned again.  In the years since the FBI had dropped their manhunt for them, Mulder had met her brothers quite a few times at social occasions.  He was always friendly and gracious, but Bill was still frosty with him – and sometimes openly hostile.
     Mulder glanced over at her.  “Sorry.  Have I upset you?”
     “No, no.  Bill’s never exactly subtle, is he?”  She smiled sadly at Mulder.  “Truth is, Mom invited him to the Cape without telling me.  I found out, got annoyed and told her to make up some excuse.  She was trying to get the two of you to make peace.”
     Mulder didn’t seem too surprised.  He shrugged.  “I have tried to make peace with him.  He still hates me, Scully.”
     She frowned, not wanting to admit it.  “Hate’s a strong word.”
     “Appropriate though.”
     Mulder finally found a parking space not far from the General Store, pulled in and switched off the engine.  He peered at her with a thoughtful expression.
     “How’d we get onto this subject anyway?  You relax and I’ll fetch the necessaries to prepare you the finest in Muldarian cuisine.”
     Scully couldn’t help but giggle.  “Muldarian?  That’s not even a thing.”
     “It is so a thing.  Your taste buds will confirm it tonight.”
     He grinned, got out of the car and hurried across the street.  Scully watched as he entered the store.
     She smiled, and then sighed.  Mulder was such a perceptive man.  Scully was well aware that Bill still resented Mulder on many levels.  Charlie never really had a problem with Mulder, but she knew that Bill still held him somehow accountable for Melissa’s death – and no matter how well Mulder tried to hide his awareness of that fact, Scully knew it still saddened him deeply. 
     Her brother’s hostility had been renewed when her family realized that she and Mulder had become lovers, that she was expecting his child while he was officially missing, and then later trying to explain Mulder’s absence when he was forced underground by the supersoldier threat.
     Scully sighed again, rubbing her brow.  Her brother honestly saw her relationship with Mulder as some kind of unsettling masochistic impulse.  She’d once told Bill that their father would’ve loved Mulder, would’ve admired his loyalty and tenacity.  Bill had responded with scathing, dismissive laughter – and called her ‘a fool’.
     She was just glad that Bill hadn’t turned up at the Cape, as much as she missed him.  She loved him dearly, but unlike Charlie he was stubborn to the point of arrogance, and his attitude towards Mulder over the years had cooled much of her sisterly affection.
     Truth be told, it was a sorry state of affairs.  Bill was the one thing that still made Mulder feel like an interloper and outcast among her family – and as strong and independent as Mulder was, he still ached for that sense of belonging...and secretly craved Bill’s approval even while knowing he’d never get it.
     Scully closed her eyes and sighed again.  Suddenly she caught the scent of cigarette smoke, just like last night.   
     A familiar feeling of dread gripped her.  The scent grew stronger and stronger until it filled the car.  She glanced fearfully at the rear-view mirror, half expecting to see to see a figure reflected back at her, but the backseat was empty.
     She flipped open the ashtray compartment and almost gasped when she saw a little heap of stubbed-out cigarette butts.  She grabbed one and held it up, her mouth dry.  The word Morley was printed in tiny letters on the paper.  She swallowed her horror, shaking her head, and tossed the cigarette butt back into the ashtray.  She hurried out of the car, slamming the door behind her, and sprinted across the street and into the General Store.
     Mulder frowned from one of the aisles when he spotted her peering wildly at him.  She rushed over to him and grabbed his arm.
     “Were you smoking in the car last night?” she said in an almost accusatory tone.
     “No.  I haven’t had a cigarette since June.  What’s–”
     “Someone was smoking in our car, Mulder.  Someone was smoking Morley’s in our goddamn car...”
     She could see that he immediately understood the implication.  With narrowed eyes he said quietly, “Show me.”
     He left his basket on the floor of the aisle and they hurried out of the store. 
     A moment after they clambered back into the car she saw that the ashtray compartment was now closed.  She was sure she’d left it open.  The overpowering scent of smoke was gone.  She glanced uncertainly at Mulder and flipped the ashtray open again. 
     It was empty and clean.
     “No,” she said immediately, “It was filled with cigarette butts.  I picked up one of them.  I held it in my hand, Mulder...”
     Mulder peered at her and nodded.  “I believe you, Scully.  I believe you.”
     She grimaced, angry and afraid all at once.  “I held it in my hand.  He’s playing games with us.  That son of a bitch won’t leave us alone.  He’s supposed to be dead.”
     “Maybe it’s not him,” Mulder said quietly.
     Scully scowled, “Then who the hell is it?”
     “I don’t know.  I’m just saying, we don’t really know what we’re dealing with.  Let’s not jump to the worst-case scenario.”
     “This coming from you?” Scully sneered, in anger and fear.  “Worst-case scenarios are generally what we deal with in our lives, aren’t they?”
     Mulder frowned with compassion and took her hand.  She tried to pull away but Mulder wouldn’t let her.  Staring at him, she softened immediately and shook her head.
     “I know it’s frightening, Scully,” he told her.  “I was frightened too when I saw Krycek last night.  But we don’t know why any of this is happening.  If it is the Smoking Man, communicating with us somehow, I’m betting fear and anger and infighting is exactly what he wants.”
     Scully took a long, deep breath, and nodded.  Mulder was right.  She laughed suddenly.
     “What?” asked Mulder.
      Scully chuckled again, shaking her head.  “I was just thinking how quick I was to believe that the bastard had come back from the dead.  Scully the skeptic is long gone, I guess.”  She peered at Mulder.  “But doesn’t it feel like his presence is still around?  I felt it last night...and I can feel it now.  That stale, heavy watching feeling?  Can’t you feel it, Mulder?”
     “Yes,” Mulder admitted after a few moments
     She could see in his eyes that he was as unsettled by it as she was.


*


Rural West Virginia
6:21 p.m.


They had gone back into the store to retrieve and pay for their food, and the drive home had been somewhat quiet.  Mulder had taken another shower, and Scully sat on the couch in their lounge, flicking through channels on the television while not really paying attention.
     Mulder was in the kitchen now, starting to prepare their meal for tonight – and Scully was left to ponder what these visions of dead men might actually mean.
     A lot had changed in the last few months.  Their lives had been threatened on more than one occasion.  Scully had finally left her position at Our Lady of Sorrows, handing in her resignation before they could officially fire her for her absences.  It felt like a defeat, but really she’d been left with no choice.  Her commitment to Vigil, and to finding William, was far more important than her work at the hospital.  Also, the US intelligence service was paying her far more than she earned as a surgeon.  For the first time in a long while, money was not a problem.  She and Mulder were both earning a very generous salary now.  She was no longer the sole provider.  It still felt like she had abandoned her patients at Our Lady of Sorrows, but locating William and stopping Labyrinth were far more important priorities.
     Mulder was right though.  They were running out of time.  They were no closer to finding their son, or defeating Labyrinth, or learning anything useful about how to stop colonization.  And December 22nd was just over two months away.
     The events in Oregon with Rebecca Killian had been weighing heavy on Scully’s heart.  She had barely escaped with her life, but Killian’s laptop had been damaged almost beyond repair and most of the hard-drive’s data had been lost. 
     All she could do was pray for some kind of miracle.
     They had been granted miracles before on more than one occasion, but perhaps their luck had finally run out.  Maybe that was what her vision of the Smoking Man really meant – a premonition of disaster.
     She knew it was what Mulder was afraid of.  That their romantic quest for Truth had been hammered into a grim sense of imminent failure.  He didn’t want to believe it any more than she did, but both of them felt like they should’ve made far more progress by now.
     It was a very disheartening feeling.
     She thought about the vision the hooded skinwalker had shown her many months ago – of Washington D.C. in fiery ruins.  She remembered seeing skies the colour of blood, filled with alien ships...and the Washington Monument sheared halfway up, with huge broken pieces of white stone scattered at the base.  She remembered Albert Hosteen appearing in the vision to guard her against the skinwalker, as though the spirit of the Navajo elder had decided to act as her protector even in death.
     There on the couch Scully muttered, “If you can hear me, Albert...if you really are watching over us...we could use all the help we can get.  Seriously.”
     She thought about her vision of the Smoking Man last night, how it seemed to be triggered by her thoughts concerning his unsettling biological connection to Mulder...something that Mulder still found difficult to address or discuss with her.
     She sighed, got up off the couch and wandered into the kitchen.
     Mulder was standing at the counter, chopping onions and garlic.  He glanced over and smiled.  “Dinner’s going to be epic.  Plus, I put some wine in the cooler.  I know, I’m awesome.”
     Scully realized she was a little afraid of having this particular conversation.  But she felt like it was necessary.  “Fox...”
     He glanced over again, eyes narrowing.  “We’re doing the first name thing?  Must be serious...”
     She smiled, but could feel her own nervousness.  “I was just thinking how we don’t really talk about the Smoking Man...or his connection to you.  His biological connection.”
     Mulder stopped chopping the onions and garlic.  He put down the knife and turned to face her with a blank expression.
     “What else is there to say, Scully?”
     “Mulder,” she said quietly, “I know you find it difficult to talk about...”
     His expression hardened.  “This again.  I don’t find it difficult to talk about.  I just don’t want to talk about it.  There’s a difference.  It’s not like we’ve never discussed it.  We’ve talked about it dozens of times...”
     “Yeah, but it’s always kind of awkward...”
     “It was ten years ago.  And what’s to be gained from going on and on about it?  He ruined our lives, he tried to kill us a bunch of times, but now he’s dead.  Good riddance.”
     “Mulder...”
     He raised his hand, anger flashing in his eyes.  “I know what you’re gonna say, Scully.  I can accept that he’s my biological father, ok?  It disgusts me on every conceivable level, but I can accept it.  I just don’t really want to make a big deal about it.”
     Scully frowned.  “But it is a big deal, Mulder.  You found out you’re his son, for Christ’s sake.  The man you thought was your father was not your father, and now we’re two months away from the date for colonisation and I’m having visions of him.  And you’re seeing Krycek again.  The whole thing is a big deal.”
     Mulder scowled at her, and she felt the intensity of his anger.  “That black-lunged son of a bitch was not my father.  Bill Mulder was my father in every way that mattered.  He may not have been the best Dad, but he was my Dad.  The Smoking Man was just a monster, a monster that I unfortunately happen to share half my genetics with – and that’s all.”
     Scully approached him and took his hands, but Mulder wrenched them away.  “I agree, Fox, I agree completely...but maybe we need talk more about it.  That’s all I’m saying.”
     Mulder glanced away from her.  “What the hell do you want me to say?  That it makes me feel sick?  Well it does.  That I feel like Luke Skywalker, and not in a good way?”
     “Don’t be this way,” Scully muttered, wounded by his tone.  “I’m just trying to help, to understand what’s happening right now...”
     Mulder locked gazes with her, his eyes fierce.  “Look, I’m his son.  I get it.  But there’s nothing more to discuss.  Yeah, it sucks, but it doesn’t help us find William.  It doesn’t help us stop colonization.  Just because it makes me sick to think about it, don’t twist it round and accuse me of not being able to face up to it.  I deal with it every day of my life.”
     With a lump in her throat now, Scully tried to speak.  “I’m not accusing you of anything, Mulder.  Why...why’re you so angry with me?”
     “I’m not.”
     He turned away and stalked out of the kitchen.  She called out after him, but she heard the front door slam a few moments later.
     Scully stood alone in the kitchen, with tears in her eyes, stunned at how quickly the conversation had gotten out of hand.


*


7: 34 p.m.


Scully was sitting on the bed, wearing her reading glasses, trying to distract herself with a John Steinbeck novel; East of Eden.  It was no use.  She couldn’t stop thinking about their argument.  Talk of the Smoking Man had sometimes made Mulder angry in the past, but never so intensely and so suddenly.  It seemed out of character.  She was worried now, worried that things were weighing more heavily on his mind than she’d previously realized.  But now that she pondered it she felt like a fool.  Of course things were weighing on his mind.  They had been through so much craziness in the last year, and they were now only two months away from a potential apocalypse.
     She had practically bled to death in Mulder’s arms back in Wyoming.  She had gone completely crazy on him in Maryland; threatening to murder Andrew Haynes in cold blood.  She’d revealed to him what she assumed to be the truth about the night with the gun all those years ago.  She wasn’t the only one who had been under immense psychological strain recently.  Mulder had saved her life more than once in the last year.  He had carried her burdens when he could, and helped her through her darkest moments.
     It was no wonder that his fuse was short with regards to the Smoking Man – a powerful symbol of everything the X Files had stolen from them.
     She glanced up from the novel, and saw Mulder standing in the bedroom doorway.  A sad, apologetic frown was etched across his face.
     “I’m sorry, Dana,” he said quietly.  “I was a total dick.  You were only trying to help and I behaved like an immature little kid.  I’m sorry.”
     Scully put down the book and opened her arms in a ‘come here’ gesture.  Mulder immediately crossed the bedroom, climbed onto the bed and snuggled against her.  She wrapped her arms around him, kissing his cheek.
     “I’m the one who’s sorry, Mulder.  I don’t want to force you to talk about that bastard.”
     “You’re right though,” he murmured.  “I do find it awkward talking about him sometimes, even all these years later.  I hate that thinking about him can still make me feel so vulnerable.”
     Scully sighed.  “I can imagine.”
     “Finding out that your worst enemy is actually your father...it’s pretty nightmarish stuff.  I thought I’d dealt with it, but I guess I was wrong.  I guess I still have some daddy issues.”
     “I don’t blame you for not wanting to think about it, Mulder.”
     He chuckled sadly as she held him.  “But all I used to do was think about it.  Especially after leaving the FBI, knowing he was dead.  I couldn’t get the thought out of my mind.  For some reason his death made the whole thing feel far more real, you know?  I felt cheated, betrayed by the universe or something.  Like I wasn’t really who I thought I was.  At my trial...when I saw Jeffery Spender, what they’d done to him...I kept thinking that could’ve been me.”
     “Mulder, Spender was a coward for most of his life.  And that’s something that you’ve never been.  Insane, unstoppable, determined to the point of psychosis...but never a coward.”
     Mulder chuckled and glanced up at her.  “Are you hitting on me?”
     “Kinda.”
     He pressed his face to her chest again as she held him.  “I think the reason I find it so difficult sometimes is because I’m still so angry at my Mom for cheating on my Dad.  Or the man I thought was my Dad.  I mean, the Cancer Man...CGB Spender...whatever the hell his real name was...my mother had an affair with him.  She had sex with that conniving, evil son of a bitch.  Was he really that charming, that persuasive?  Did Bill Mulder really make her that unhappy?  I still feel kind of sick just thinking about it.”
     “I understand,” Scully said quietly.  It was the most authentic thing she could think to say.
     “So now I wonder, you know...was Samantha his kid too?  I don’t think so, but how can I know for sure?  And if she really was Bill Mulder’s daughter...then I was just her half-brother, like me and Jeffery Spender.”
     Scully tapped the side of his face, forcing him to peer up at her again.  “You spent most of you adult life searching for Samantha.  You loved her.  You were her big brother, a hundred percent.  And you may not have been able to save her, but eventually you found out what happened to her.  You were able to lay her memory to rest.  And wherever she is now, she thanks you for it.”
     “I know,” murmured Mulder.  “I saw her in starlight.  She was at peace, Scully.  She was protected.”
     “I remember, baby.  So don’t let the Smoking Man taint that truth.”
     “But, I’m still mad at my Mom....not just for the affair, not just for hiding the truth from me, but...for killing herself.”
     Scully could hear his voice tremble as he spoke.
     “She was all the family I had left, Scully...and she just...she just abandoned me....”
     Mulder began to gently cry, shaking his head.  He forced himself to stop a few seconds later, swallowing down the emotion.  All Scully could do was hold him tighter. 
     In his ear she whispered, “I know it feels that way, but your mom loved you.  But she was a very haunted woman, and she had a very horrible disease.  She was forced to make an awful choice.  It doesn’t mean she didn’t love you.”
     Mulder wiped the tears away and sighed loudly.  “I know, Scully.  Intellectually I know that.  But, damn, it still hurts sometimes....”
     Scully peppered his cheek with little kisses.  “I know it does.  I know.  But you’re a brave, incredible man.  You’re a hero, Mulder.  And at least you’ve got a super-hot girlfriend.”
     Mulder laughed out loud at her joke, at the sudden change in tone.  He pulled away from the cuddle and gazed at her, grinning, his eyes still wet with tears.
     “That I do, Dr Scully.  That I do.”   He kissed her, and let the kiss linger for a few moments.  When he pulled away he smiled again, peering into her eyes.  “I’m a pretty lucky guy, when all is said and done.  So...are you still up for an awesome dinner tonight?”
     Scully smiled and nodded.


*


10: 58 p.m.

      
The fish were dead.  He was standing in the lounge by the window, in his old apartment in Alexandria, peering into the lighted tank.  The fish were all dead, floating on their sides on the water’s surface.
     Something wasn’t right.
     Did he still live here?  He glanced around the apartment, at the familiar couch, the television, the pictures on the walls.  He turned and looked at one of the windows.  An X made of two pieces of masking-tape was stuck to the glass.  He didn’t remember doing it.  He wandered towards the bedroom door, turned the handle and shoved it open. 
     The bedroom floor was covered in snow.  Mulder realized that more snow was falling gently through the ceiling somehow.  He frowned.  Something definitely wasn’t right here.
     He would discuss it privately with Scully at work tomorrow.  The FBI was always looking for a reason to crucify him.  They tried to lock him away in his basement office, hoping that the Bureau mainstream would forget he even existed. 
     Mulder held up his hand and peered at the strange ripples travelling just beneath the skin of his palm.
     Black oil.  The alien pathogen was moving inside him.  He wondered if he was supposed to be afraid, but all he felt was a kind of detached strangeness.
     He glanced at the fish tank again, and saw Samantha standing there.  She was dressed in her nightgown, feeding the fish that were alive again.
     “You found my diary,” she said, without looking over at him.  She just kept shaking the flakes of fish-food into the water.  “Did you read it?”
     “Yes, I did.”
     “How did it make you feel, Fox?”
     “Sad, I guess.  It made me very sad.”
     “Because you miss me?  Because you feel guilty?”
     “Yeah,” he admitted.
     “Why?”
     “Because I should’ve saved you.  I spent years looking for you, hoping you were alive.  But you were dead.  I didn’t find you in time.  I failed you, and I feel guilty.”
     Samantha turned away from the tank, to face him, and he saw that her eyes were black.  A sudden horror gripped him.  He took a step backwards.
     Guilty?” she said in a man’s voice “You should be.”
     And Mulder realized who the voice belonged to.  Samantha had just spoken in the voice of the Smoking Man...
     Mulder jolted awake with a gasp, thrashing and trembling and heaving for breath.  He glanced around wildly, realizing he was in bed beside Scully in their home in Virginia.  Scully was awake too, a hand gripping his arm, her eyes filled with worry. 
     “...me, Mulder?”
     “What...?” he asked breathlessly, still shaking.
     “Can you hear me?”
     He swallowed and peered at her, eventually nodding.  “Bad dream,” he murmured, and tried to take some long, deep breaths. “The Smoking Man...the goddamn Smoking Man....”
     Shaken, he buried his face against Scully’s breast.  She held him.  He could feel his body slick with cold sweat.  His stomach felt tight with dread.  He already knew he wasn’t getting back to sleep for a long, long time.  Scully continued to hold him, rocking him gently.
    

*


Ten days later
October 28th 2012
Rural West Virginia
9: 47 p.m.


Scully had her cell phone pressed to her ear as she paced around the lounge.  She glanced worriedly at Mulder sitting on the couch.  He was staring wide-eyed and disbelieving at the television; the coverage that CNN had been running all day.  He tore his eyes away from the screen and looked at her with an expression of bewildered sadness.
     “Damn, Scully, this is going to be really bad.”
     She nodded grimly at him and kept the phone pressed to her ear, hoping and praying that this call would be the one to get answered.  She’d been trying to get through to NYC for the last hour.  She and Mulder had been watching the coverage all day, and it was frightening.  She just wanted to know that he was all right.  Suddenly the line stuttered and crackled with static, but she heard him.
     “Agent Scully?”
     “Oh, thank God.  I’m really glad to hear your voice, John.  We’ve been trying to reach you…”
     John Doggett sounded extremely tired.  “I’m ok, Scully, but it’s chaos here.  New York’s Governor issued a declaration of emergency for the entire state.  The President just signed it a few hours ago.  FBI, NYPD and Emergency Services are all spread out over hell.  Everyone’s helping.”
     Jesus,” muttered Scully.  “Where are you right now?”
     “I’m still at the offices, but our AD is sending out extra teams to support the police and fire departments.”  Scully could hear the exhaustion in his voice.  “When Hurricane Sandy finally hits us it’s gonna cause severe flooding.  The MTA just shut down all subway, bus and commuter rail services, indefinitely.”
     “Sounds like you’ve got a lot on your plate, John.”  Scully glanced over at Mulder, who frowned with concern.
     “– not the craziest part,” Doggett crackled in her ear.  “They’re gonna deploy over two hundred National Guard troops throughout the city.”
     “The National Guard?” said Scully, astonished.
     “Yeah.  It’s bad, Scully.  It’s gonna be worse than it’ll seem on TV.  New Jersey is already getting pounded.  Tons of property damage and some deaths too.  And there’s talk of closing most of the schools tomorrow, mandatory evacuations, and even activating the costal emergency plan.  A lot of folks are terrified right now.”
     Scully shook her head in disbelief.  “On the news they’re calling it a superstorm.”
     “Seems appropriate.  People are gonna die in my city tonight, because of this thing.  A lot of people are gonna lose their homes, lose everything.  We’re just trying to minimize the damage before it really hits.  But I think we’re gonna have some official disaster areas once this thing is over.”
     “Just try to stay safe, John,” she told him.
     “I will.  What about you and Mulder?  Didn’t the Governor of Virginia declare a State of Emergency a few days ago?”
     She glanced again at Mulder and then peered through the lounge windows.  The wind outside was intense but not destructive.  “I think we’re far enough west of the storm to be protected.  It’s the coastal states and cities that’ll be hit the hardest.  We’re just glad you’re ok.”
     The line crackled and stuttered again.  “–for calling, Scully, but I gotta go.  A bunch of us are being sent out to liaise with the National Guard, and I’m not about to let my guys face this on their own.  Looks like I’m in for a really long night.”
     “Ok,” said Scully, “Just stay safe, Agent Doggett, and know that our prayers are with you and the residents of NYC.  Check in when you can.”
     “I will.  Gotta go.”
     The crackling line went silent.  She peered over at Mulder.  He pressed his lips together and shook his head. 
     She went and sat beside him on the couch.  On the television CNN was showing a satellite image of Hurricane Sandy bearing down on the East Coast.  It cut to a group of reporters standing in an empty, rain-swept Times Square.  Scully could see the genuine worry on the reporters faces.
     “I don’t know what to say,” she muttered to Mulder.
     He nodded.  “I know.  Such…such a real and brutal tragedy unfolding right in front of our eyes…it kinda puts our own problems into perspective, doesn’t it?”
     Scully could only respond with a nod.
     They sat in silence, watching more news coverage for a few minutes.  Scully wanted to ask something of Mulder, but she wasn’t sure if he would be comfortable with it.  She felt awkward about asking him, but she swallowed her anxiety and said, “Mulder, I know this might seem kind of unusual for you…but will you pray with me?  Pray with me for everyone who’ll be affected by this thing?”
     Without hesitation Mulder responded, “Absolutely.”
     For a moment Scully was shocked at his willingness.  Before she could thank him for the offer he got up off the couch and then dropped to his knees on the floor, gesturing for her to do the same.  She was flushed with a feeling of immense love and gratitude.   
     She clicked the remote at the TV.  The screen went black.  Silence filled their lounge.  All they could hear was the wind outside.
     She joined Mulder on her knees beside him.  He clasped his hands together in prayer, closing his eyes.  She did the same.
     “Holy Father,” she said quietly, “Please watch over and protect those unfortunate enough to be affected by this terrible storm.  Please guide and them and give them the strength to deal with everything they’re facing right now.”
     To her surprise, Mulder spoke too.  “Holy Father,” he muttered.  “I know we don’t speak very often, but I’m not asking anything for myself.  I just ask that you watch over and protect the people affected by this storm.  Please offer them your guidance and your light.  Amen.”
     “Amen,” said Scully. 
     When she opened her eyes and saw Mulder peering earnestly at her, she almost wanted to cry.  Instead she reached for him, kissed him, and whispered, “Thank you” in his ear.


*


Three weeks later
November 18th 2012
Vigil Taskforce Headquarters
Washington D.C.
8: 26 p.m.


Mulder entered the hub-suite that Rachel Marx was sitting in.  The Vigil programmer and cryptographer gazed at the three screens of the work-station.  Mulder sat down heavily in a chair beside her.  She acknowledged him with a silent nod.  He tilted his head back and closed his eyes. 
     Christ, he was tired.  Scully had wanted him to head to the bar with her a few hours ago to meet up with Monica and Agent Thorne for a few drinks, but he’d made some excuses and said he’d meet her there a little later.  He wasn’t feeling too sociable right now.  Scully knew that his recent trouble sleeping was beginning to seriously fray his nerves, and so she didn’t push it.  He opened his eyes, sat up straight and glanced at the young woman beside him. 
     Rachel seemed to be scanning through new data-flags retrieved by Vigil’s Fisher Protocol.  For the last few months they had been compiling a database of suspected Labyrinth assets; cross-referencing each suspected asset with all available intel.  It was complex and tiring work, and Mulder still hadn’t got a complete handle on the intricate system.
     “So, what’re you looking for right now?” he asked quietly.
     The dark-haired young analyst glanced at him and smiled.  “Same thing we’re always looking for.”
     “Have you added any new code to Fisher?”
     “A few hours ago.  This is the first refined search.  It’s taking fricking ages.  That’s why I’m still here.”  Mulder nodded and yawned.  “Am I boring you already, Fox?”
     “No…I’m…I’m just really tired.  Me and Scully have been in the office since seven this morning, going through old FBI field-reports and writing up priority-maps for Taskforce-Leader Lessinger.” 
     “It’s long days for all of us.”
     He found himself annoyed at her words despite the truth of them.  He glanced at the sophisticated work-station that the young analyst was using.  His mind had been feeling dull and foggy for a few days now.  He found himself alternately irritable, pissed off or deeply saddened at the slightest thing.  He didn’t like the effect it was having on the people around him.  “Tell me again how you work this Fisher Protocol,” he said, forcing a smile onto his face.
     Rachel shot him a quizzical look.  “Ok.  In its most basic terms Fisher trawls everything available to our servers, which is maybe forty percent of Langley and Fort Meade’s filtered intel, and then it compares and contrasts what it finds with any new code that I install, to narrow the field closer to what we’re looking for.  It utilises certain algorithms in conjunction with key-words; obvious ones like ‘Labyrinth’, ‘Purity Control’, ‘Judgement’…but also less obvious ones based on the field reports of Vigil’s operatives.”
     Mulder frowned.  “Only forty percent of what NSA and CIA are running?  You never told me that before.  I thought Vigil was supposed to have access to almost everything?  Wasn’t that the whole point of this taskforce in the first place?”
     Rachel raised her eyebrows at him like he was being naïve.  “I did tell you that before, Fox.  But welcome to the wonderful world of compartmentalization.  Full access is never really full access, even if it says so on paper.  Langley and Fort Meade still feed us other forms of classified intel if it’s pertinent, but our servers can’t access any of that directly.  The intel we can access directly doesn’t even come straight from NSA or CIA – it passes through a ton of filters and firewalls and ends up on remote servers in Virginia and Maryland.”
     “But doesn’t that just make our job infinitely more complex?  I mean, essentially we’re still operating in the dark.”
     Rachel simply shrugged.  “Take it up with the Joint Chiefs, the National Security Advisor and the Secretary of Defense.  We’re doing the best we can with what they’ve given us.”
       Mulder shook his head and muttered, “Bullshit.”
      She glanced at him, eyes narrowed.  “What’s bullshit?”
     “Government bureaucracy.  I had to deal with it constantly at the FBI.  This is the same thing, just on a far grander scale.  On the one hand the Oval Office issues an executive order and spends all this money creating Vigil, recruiting the best and brightest, and on the other hand they offer us a limited palette to work with.  Almost feels like someone doesn’t really want us to protect the United States from Labyrinth…they just want to make it seem like they do.”
     Rachel frowned.  “Easy there, tiger.  The US government is a lot of things but it’s not stupid.  The fact that we have any access to Langley and Fort Meade’s intel – it’s unprecedented.  Vigil itself is unprecedented.  Just because they won’t let us stomp around in their systems doesn’t mean the higher-ups are working with the Bad Guys.  This is just how things are done, Fox.  There are genuine National Security concerns to think about.  America has a right to protect its secrets even in the face of an internal threat like Labyrinth.  Especially in the face of an internal threat.  Think about it.”
     Mulder peered at the former CIA analyst and tried for a placating smile, but all he felt was an unsettling mixture of anger and sadness.  “Is that a long-winded way of calling me paranoid, Miss Marx?  Or naïve?”
     Rachel didn’t seem irritated by his accusation, she simply shrugged again.  “No, not naïve. But everyone’s paranoid right now.  That’s why Vigil exists, right?”
     “I guess,” muttered Mulder.   
     Rachel stared at him with concern in her eyes, and suddenly jabbed him in the arm with an elbow.  “Why are you still here, anyways?  I’ve got this covered.  Aren’t you and Dana supposed to be meeting Agent Reyes for drinks tonight?”
     Mulder nodded and sighed.  “Yeah, Scully’s already there.  I figured I’d let them catch up first; give them a little time, you know?”
     Rachel swivelled her chair away from the work-station and stared at him with a curious expression.  “What’s up, Fox?  You seem kind of wiped out today.”
     Mulder smiled sadly, shook his head and began rubbing his temples.  “I don’t know.  I haven’t been sleeping too well recently.  I guess it’s finally catching up with me.  I don’t feel very sharp at the moment.”
     “How come?”
     “I’ve been having really bad dreams these last few weeks.”
     “You wanna talk about it?” she asked, leaning forward and patting his hand.
     “Not really.  But thanks for the offer though.  I appreciate it.”
     Rachel nodded, and swivelled her chair back to the work-station.  “Look, go have some fun.  Have a few drinks, try to unwind.  Maybe getting drunk will help you to sleep better.”
     “Maybe.  Monica said she’s bringing her girlfriend.  You want to join us?  They’re cool people…you’d like them.”
     Rachel glanced at him, smiling.  “Thanks, but I’m going to finish sorting these data-flags.  Say hi to Monica from me though.”
     Mulder got up from the chair.  “I will.  See you in a couple of days.”
     She raised her fist above her head in a salute.  It made him chuckle, but he could still feel the sadness just beneath it.


*


 9: 14 p.m.


Mulder was driving now; heading towards the bar to meet with Scully and Monica and Agent Thorne.  Behind the wheel he felt tired and strangely hollow.  He knew feeling like this could quickly become dangerous while driving.  He widened his eyes and blinked repeatedly to sharpen his senses.
     This morning he’d been really curt with Scully over some trivial thing, upsetting her.  He was angry at himself for it.  But she knew as well as he did that it was because of the nightmares.  She’d been very understanding, but Mulder still felt like an ass. 
     In one of the nightmares he’d been submerged at the bottom of a pool.  It felt like he was slowly suffocating, and he could see a distorted image of his mother above him, peering down through the rippling water.  In another he was trapped in endless dark corridors with a flashlight that didn’t work properly.  He kept screaming Scully’s name and saw glimpses of her turning corners, but was unable to catch up with her.  In yet another, Melissa Scully and Agent Pendrell pinned him down while forcing his mouth open, vomiting black oil into his throat.  He remembered choking desperately.  But by far the worst was the most recent – digging through the cold earth of the back garden in Chilmark, beneath a night sky, and finding a mewling baby wrapped in mud-stained rags.  When Mulder unwrapped the rags, he found that the baby had only a dark hole where its face should have been.  The awful mewling came from the center of that dark hole.
     Mulder shuddered as he drove.
     More than the imagery of these dreams it was the feelings that accompanied them that rattled him so deeply – feelings of creeping dread, failure, and a sense of horrifying inevitability.  His mouth was dry just thinking about them.
     The date for colonization was getting closer and closer.  They were still no nearer to finding a way to stop it.  They were still no nearer to finding William.  He knew that was what fuelled these nightmares.  Recently, Scully seemed gripped by a powerful conviction that they would find their son, somehow, and return him safely to his adoptive parents – as painful as that would be.  Mulder wanted to believe it too, with all his heart and soul, but in truth it seemed more and more unlikely. 
     He didn’t dare express this to Scully.  He couldn’t bear the thought of shattering her conviction, that a few months ago had seemed so fragile.
     Scully said she could feel that they would find him, that she could sense it deep within; like a humming certainty gathering in the pit of her stomach.  For the most part she seemed to believe what she was saying, but sometimes Mulder caught the presence of an awful desperation in her eyes…and that frightened him.    
     He was distracted from his thoughts by the ringing of his cell phone.  He fished it from the inside pocket of his jacket, expecting it to be Scully, and glanced at the screen.
     It was Skinner who was calling.
     With a frown, Mulder answered.  “Walter?”
     “Mulder, hey…listen…I need to talk to you.”  The tension in the Assistant Director’s voice was palpable.
     “What’s wrong?”
     For a few moments the line was silent.  “I…uh, I don’t how to say this, Mulder.  It’s going to sound crazy…”
     Skinner’s tone was making Mulder nervous now.  “Just tell me.”
     “I think…I think I just saw the Smoking Man.”  Mulder’s stomach tightened immediately.  He was speechless.  “Mulder?  You still there?”
     Mulder swallowed and said, “I’m still here.”
     “Look, I know this sounds insane.  I was going to keep it to myself, but…after everything we’ve been through recently I figured not telling you might be a really bad move.”
     Mulder kept his eyes on the road, trying to ignore the fear that was rolling through him. 
     “Where did you see him?”
     “In my office at the Bureau.  I was packing my briefcase, about to come home…when…I glanced over to the window and he’s just standing there.  He was just standing there, Mulder. I dropped my briefcase in shock.  He lit a cigarette, smiling at me with those…with those goddamned eyes.  I bent down for just a second to grab my briefcase…and when I looked up again he was gone.”
     Jesus, Walter,” muttered Mulder.
     “Yeah.  It’s crazy.  Like, X Files crazy.  I can’t…I don’t know what the hell it means.  I was hoping you would.”
     Mulder kept the phone pressed to his ear.  His exhaustion had been blasted away and replaced with dread.
     “Mulder?”
     “I don’t know what to say, Walter.  Scully’s seen him too.”
     What?”
     “Last month, when we were visiting her mom at Cape Cod.  She smelled cigarette smoke and saw him standing on the porch.  Plus, I’ve been having nightmares.  In the first one I dreamt my sister was speaking in the Smoking Man’s voice.”
     “Mulder, what you’re telling me is pretty disturbing.  You realize that?”
     “Yeah,” muttered Mulder.
     “Did I see a ghost tonight?”
     Mulder shook his head even though Skinner couldn’t see it.  “I don’t know what you saw, but I’m glad you called me.”
     “I’m not.  Not after what you just told me.”
     Mulder took a long, tremulous breath and said, “Listen, if you see anything like that again…anything…you call me, ok?”
     “I don’t need this crap in my life right now, Mulder.”
     “Just promise me, Walter.”
     The Assistant Director sighed fearfully on the line.  “Yeah…yeah, I promise.  You watch your ass, ok?  As omens go, I’m thinking this can’t be a good one.”
     “Ok.” 
     Mulder ended the call and tossed the cell phone onto the dashboard.  He clenched his teeth and tightened his grip on the steering wheel.



*


Vales Bar
Logan Circle, Washington D.C.
9:24 p.m.


The dimly-lit bar was filled with people.  Music was playing at a comfortable volume through the speakers.  Red-bricked walls were adorned with movie posters and photographs of local bands.  At one of the tables, Scully was sitting with Monica while Sasha went to fetch them another round of beers.
     This morning with Mulder had been tense and put her in a bad mood, but the alcohol and good company had loosened her up.  She glanced across the bar at the tall black FBI agent jostling amongst the other patrons, hoping to quickly get noticed and served.
     Scully smiled and returned her attention to Monica.  Leaning forward she told her, “It’s good to see you and Sasha still going strong.  You make a really cute couple.”
     Monica grinned.  “Yeah, she was pretty excited to see you and Mulder again.  She’s been looking forward to this.  Where is Mulder, anyway?  He’s still coming?”
     Scully raised her eyebrows.  “I think so.”  She picked up her phone from the tabletop and glanced at the screen.  No messages.  She wondered if Mulder was intending to ditch them.  She didn’t want to be annoyed if he did; she knew the recent nightmares were taking their toll on him – but she really hoped he would come.  Despite everything that was going on at the moment, and the fact that December 22nd kept getting closer and closer, she wanted to at least make some stab at a social life together.
     “So,” said Scully, “Apart from you and Sasha planning to move in together, what other good news have you got for me, Mon’?”
     Monica downed the remains of her bottle of Coors, wiped her mouth and smiled.  “That’s pretty much the biggest news, really.  We’re just glad that the Bureau agreed to Sasha’s transfer.  No more long distance loving.”
     Scully chuckled and nodded.  “I kind of miss D.C., you know.  I miss having some girlfriends nearby.”
     Monica leaned forward and squeezed Scully’s hand.  “Well, maybe you and Mulder should think about moving back.  There’s nothing stopping you anymore.  And you’ll always be welcome at ours.  Once we actually find a place.”
     Scully suppressed a frown and tried to steer the topic away.  “Have you guys started apartment-hunting yet?”
     “Yeah.  It’s fun!  The house in Bethesda is pretty much sold, so we’ll have a nice little nest-egg too.”  Monica peered at her with those soulful brown eyes, as though intuiting her thoughts.  “Are things not right between you and Mulder…?”
     Scully smiled at the brunette’s perceptiveness.  “He’s been having bad dreams.  Plus, the whole William situation is taking its toll on both of us.”
     Monica’s expression changed.  Scully clearly saw the sadness in her eyes.  “I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like, Dana.  Honestly, my heart goes out to both of you.”
     Scully smiled sadly and began fidgeting with her bottle of Miller.
     Monica added, “If it’s any consolation…I have faith in you guys.  Faith that you’ll find a way to get him back.  You and Mulder have a habit of defying the odds.”
     Scully couldn’t hold Monica’s gaze.  She kept fidgeting with the beer bottle.  “But that’s the thing; we don’t really get him back.  Even if we find him, alive and safe…he’s not ours anymore.  He has a real family.  A real mother…”
     Monica squeezed her hand again.  “Dana…look at me.”  Scully peered meekly at her friend, trying and failing to hide the sadness.  “You were a real mother.  You made the most difficult choice a mother could make, and you did to protect your child.”
     “I don’t…it just doesn’t feel that way, Mon’.  And anyway, I failed to protect him, didn’t I?  Whoever has him now is proof of that.”
     Monica’s eyes were full of empathy.  It made Scully ache inside.  “Dana, you told me that you think whoever has him might be trying to protect him from Labyrinth.  The footage you retrieved from Rebecca Killian’s laptop, remember?  That’s something to hold on to.”
     “I guess,” said Scully, glancing away.
     Sasha was approaching the table, with three bottles of beer held deftly between the fingers of one hand.  She grinned at Monica and then Scully, placing the bottles on the tabletop.
     “Here we go, ladies…”
     Scully plastered a smile onto her face as Sasha sat down beside Monica and kissed her on the cheek.
     “So,” grinned Sasha, “Shall we say grace?”  Scully chuckled as the young agent clasped her hands above her beer as though she were praying.
     “Monica was just telling me that you guys are enjoying hunting for apartments,” Scully said to her.  “Found any promising ones yet?”
     Sasha glanced at Monica.  “Yeah, a few actually.  There’s a really beautiful one in Georgetown.”
     “My old neighbourhood,” said Scully, smiling at the warmth in both women’s expressions.
     “We’ve got a few days to decide,” Sasha went on, “but I think we’re gonna take it.  Right?”
     “Right!” Monica grinned.  She reached for her new bottle of Coors when she spotted something, and gestured over Scully’s shoulder.
     Scully turned and saw Mulder wading through the crowd.  Her mood was suddenly lifted, but then she noticed the grim expression on his face.  She glanced at Monica and Sasha, and got up to meet him.  He reached the table before she even left it.
     “Mulder!” Sasha declared cheerily.  “It’s good to see you, my man!”
     He smiled briefly at them.  “Hi, Agent Thorne.  Monica.”  He focused his attention on Scully, stone-faced.  “I need to talk to you.”
     Scully frowned.  “Just sit down for a second, Mulder.  Have some of my beer.”
     “No, I really need to talk to you.”
     In an uncharacteristic moment of huffiness Scully sat back down at the table, crossed her arms and looked at Monica and Sasha with an apologetic expression.  Mulder was embarrassing her, and she was annoyed at his attitude.  The two FBI agents suddenly looked anxious and unsure, glancing up at Mulder again.
     “Ok, fine,” said Mulder without a trace of anger.  He sat down beside Scully.  “I just got a call from Skinner.  He told me…I can’t believe I’m saying this…he told me he had a vision of the Smoking Man.”
     Scully went cold, immediately understanding Mulder’s grim demeanour.  “What happened…?”
     “He said he had some kind of vision of him in his office at the Bureau.”
     Scully glanced at Monica and Sasha.  Monica’s eyes told her that she understood the import, but Sasha seemed nonplussed.  “Assistant Director Skinner’s having visions?  Damn.  But who’s the Smoking Man?”
     Monica whispered something in Sasha’s ear.  The young FBI agent’s eyes went wide.  Jesus…
     Scully pressed a hand to her forehead and then ran it through her hair.  “What the hell is going on, Mulder?”
     “I honestly don’t know, Scully.”
     She grimaced and took three large swallows of the beer in front of her.  She was afraid now, and glancing into Mulder’s eyes she could see that he was afraid too.
     “We’re gonna have to finish this some other time, girls,” she told Monica and Sasha.
     “Of course,” Sasha said immediately.
     “Of course, Dana,” said Monica.  “But you guys stay safe, ok?  And if you need anything don’t hesitate to call.  I mean anything, guys.”
     “Thanks, Monica,” Mulder said gravely.
     Scully felt nauseous right now.  She looked up at Mulder and said, “Come on.  Let’s go.”


*


Willard InterContinental Hotel
Washington D.C.
11: 46 p.m.


They lay naked and sweaty together on the bed.  Mulder had his face pressed against Scully’s breast, his arm around her waist.  He listened to her breath as it slowed; the rise and fall of her chest.  They hadn’t intended to have sex or to go at it so furiously – but now as he lay there he realized why they had.  It was the easiest and most powerful way to exert some control over what was happening…to prove to themselves that they were still alive.
     “You ok, Mulder?” she asked.
     “Yeah.”
     “That was intense,” she added.  It wasn’t said with pleasure or humour, just stated as a matter of fact.  They were both very afraid at what was happening, but rather than letting that fear drive them further apart they had tried to let it bring them closer together.  Mulder felt her run her fingers through his hair.
     “Dana, I’m sorry I’ve been so difficult recently.”
     “Don’t apologise.  Nightmares are always awful.  I should’ve been more understanding.  I should’ve known they were a sign of something in the air.”
     “You were understanding,” he told her.
     They lay in silence for a while.  He could feel Scully’s body begin to cool beneath him.
     “Mulder…why do you think all this is happening?”
     “I wish I knew.”
     “Do you really think it’s him?  The Smoking Man…influencing us from the other side somehow?”
     “I don’t know.”
     “You always know, Mulder.  Or you at least have a theory.”
     “I have no theories this time, Scully.  I feel lost.”
     “Don’t say that.”
     “I’m sorry, baby, but it’s true.  I wonder, you know, if we’ve already failed to stop colonization.  I mean, Imogen Ianelli…if she really did travel here from some post-colonization date, like she claimed back in Richmond…then…it proves that in at least one version of reality we did fail.”
     “Mulder…you’re not…giving up, are you?”
     He closed his eyes as he lay against Scully’s breast.  “Not a chance.  I just can’t pretend to understand this when I don’t.  I don’t understand.  But that doesn’t mean I’m giving up.  I’m never giving up.  They’ll have to kill me first.”
     “Kill us both.”
     Mulder smiled faintly.  “That’s my girl.”
     “We have to believe that life is not fatalistic or pre-determined, Mulder.  We have to believe that we can fight the future, right?” 
     He didn’t answer.  He wanted to; he wanted to tell her that he still believed it completely, but he couldn’t.  Scully realized that he wasn’t going to respond.  She swallowed and said, “You know what really gives me faith, Mulder?  Gives me faith that we’ll find him, and that we’ll stop this somehow?”
      “What?” he asked in an almost-whisper.
     “It’s not God, or the fact that we’ve achieved the impossible before.  It’s you.  It’s always you.  You’re the reason I get up in the mornings.”
     “Same,” he muttered, touched by her words despite his sadness.
     “I’ll follow you anywhere, Mulder.  And I won’t stop fighting.  I won’t stop fighting until we find our son and stop colonization, or we get killed trying to.  Ok?”
     “Ok,” he murmured, feeling grateful to still have this woman in his life.

 
*


Something was different about the sun.  As Mulder stood barefoot on the beach, feeling the sand between his toes, he gazed up into the sky.  He was shielding his eyes from the glare, but he could tell the sun was different.  A strange bluish glow was mingled with the morning light.  He lowered his gaze and looked out across the calm ocean.  He could see hundreds if not thousands of silhouettes out there – dark figures floating impossibly just above the ocean’s surface.  They stretched back almost infinitely towards the horizon.
     Mulder knew they were all watching him.
     He turned back to the beach, and stared at the vast and intricate work of art constructed from the sand.  It was a ship…a huge triangular alien ship rising up from the beach as though about to ascend into the heavens.  He had helped build that ship.  But he hadn’t done it alone.
     Kneeled at the massive structure was a young boy, packing more sand into its architecture.  The boy glanced over his shoulder at Mulder, smiling at him.  But there was something wrong with the boy’s eyes.  They were black.
     Mulder returned his gaze to the breadth of the sand-ship.  He could see little red dots and flecks that began to appear on its surface as if by magic.
     Frowning, Mulder realized that it was rain. 
     Red rain.
     He lifted and opened his hands.  Crimson droplets hit the center of both palms simultaneously, like swelling stigmata.  Mulder tilted his gaze upward again, as the sky above the beach was suddenly slashed with a violent red that rolled across the firmament like ink in water.  The red rain began to cascade from above, splattering Mulder’s face and covering the entire beach.  But the immense spaceship of sand didn’t begin to dissolve.  Instead it shuddered and groaned as if trying to detach itself from its foundation.
     Mulder tried to blink away the rain from his eyes and peered at the young boy who had now risen to his feet, watching as the sand-ship tried to unanchor itself from the beach.  Finally the boy turned and peered at Mulder.
     His eyes were still black.  But something else had changed.  The boy was horribly burned.  Most of his hair had been scorched away.  The left side of his face had been seared almost to the skull, turning half his mouth into a rictus grin.
     Behind him there was a massive groan and a rolling cloud as the sand-ship finally tore itself free from the beach and began rising slowly into the air.
     Impossibly, the boy spoke to Mulder in the voice of an adult…a voice that Mulder recognized all too well.
     “Do you really think I’m done with you yet?  Fathers are never done with their sons.”


*


Sixteen days later
December 4th 2012
Rural West Virginia
11: 21 p.m.


Scully lay in the hot water of the bathtub, peering through the window.  She watched snowflakes falling outside.  The snow was settling, and winter had finally come in force.
     In the last week Vigil had gathered enough intelligence for the NSA and CIA to begin making arrests – bringing in suspected Labyrinth assets for rigorous questioning.  According to Taskforce-Leader Janet Lessinger, many of those arrests were going to stick.  Vigil was finally making real progress.  But it felt like a small victory compared to the hundreds of unanswered questions concerning Labyrinth’s scope and influence within the infrastructure of US intelligence.
     Scully knew that Mulder wasn’t comforted by these arrests.  December was finally here, and the supposed date for colonization was less than three weeks away.  Although Scully was frightened by the nearness of that date, it still felt far too abstract for her to process – even despite all the things they had witnessed and experienced over the years.  She and Mulder’s time on the X Files had been fraught with so much danger, violence and tragedy.  She had contracted cancer because of it, had lost Missy because of it.  And Mulder had lost every single member of his family because of it.
     December 22nd 2012 had been quietly hanging over their heads in one way or another for almost twenty years, like a Sword of Damocles.  But now that it was almost here, she couldn’t even begin to process the idea that the date might auger the destruction of all mankind.  How could she?  How could she begin to process the concept of a global alien invasion that might wipe out all human life on the planet?
     It was the date itself that was terrifying, not the thought of what might happen once it arrived.  She had no real context or precedent through which to fully conceptualize what might happen.
     She had seen glimpses though.
     The hooded skinwalker that invaded their home several months ago…the apocalyptic vision of Washington D.C. in ruins, as alien ships patrolled the skies.
     Even in the hot bathwater, Scully shuddered.
     Was she deluding herself?  Was some part of her subconscious trying desperately to ignore the inevitable?  Was she terrified that if she looked too deeply her mind would explode into a billion glittering fragments, and leave her paralysed with horror?
     She tried to imagine the idea of Bill and Charlie and Mom all perishing in some alien holocaust.  She shuddered again and felt tears in her eyes. 
     “Fight the Future,” she murmured to herself, and clutched the little gold cross hanging at her throat.  She began repeating the phrase over and over like a mantra.  “Fight the Future, Fight the Future, Fight the Future...”
     She closed her eyes and sank a little deeper into the bathwater.

Mulder was standing out on the porch, peering across the snow-covered landscape.  The snow was still falling.  He took another deep drag on the burning cigarette in his hand.  The hills beyond the old farmhouse looked as bleak and desolate as he felt inside. 
     In the last week, Vigil had finally begun making arrests.  Janet Lessinger called it “Our first success, of many more to come,” but Mulder wasn’t so sure about that.  It felt more like a drop in the ocean.  Labyrinth was winning. 
     It was entirely possible that they had already won.
     Mulder recalled his infiltration into the underground facility at Mount Weather over ten years ago.  He remembered it like it was yesterday.  He remembered getting into one of the intelligence stations and accessing a classified tactical file.  He remembered reading the file and having his blood chilled completely.  December 22nd 2012 was the date that the US government believed would bring about the open and full-scale colonization of the Earth by an extraterrestrial race.
     Mulder closed his eyes and murmured, “Jesus Christ…this is killing me…”
     Part of him wanted to fall to his knees and cry out to the heavens for a sign, for a higher form of guidance, but he knew it would do no good.
     The human race were not alone in the universe, but he and Scully were alone in this fight.  Gritting his teeth, he glanced up at the night sky as the snow continued to fall.
     “Why didn’t you let me just die?” he muttered.  “Are you keeping me alive for a reason, or are you just a sick, twisted bastard?  I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do.  I don’t know what else I can do.  Are you really going to let billions of people…an entire race…just get slaughtered?  Answer me.  Answer me, you son of a bitch….”
     The heavens were not forthcoming with an answer.
     Mulder chuckled darkly and sucked on the cigarette in his hand.  Suddenly he snapped his gaze skyward again.  “Can you see you me, Mom?  Dad?  Can you see me here, lost…and afraid?  Samantha?”
     Mulder began to laugh at his own desperation, and wiped away tears that had begun rolling down his cheeks.
     He flinched at the sudden sound of his ringing cell phone.  He took a deep breath, dug his free hand into his coat pocket and retrieved the phone.  He peered with a sneer at the screen.  An unknown number.
     “Greetings from the End of the World,” he growled into the phone.
     A male voice asked, “Former Special Agent Fox Mulder?”
     Mulder laughed without a trace of humour.  “Who’s asking?”
     “I can’t give you my name…”
     “Well, there’s a surprise,” he hissed.
     “…but I work for the US Department of Defense.”
     “I don’t really care,” Mulder told him truthfully.  “I’ve had enough cloak and dagger bullshit to last me a lifetime.”
     “If you don’t listen to what I have to say that lifetime will be cut extremely short.”
     “Is that a threat?” Mulder asked the caller, embers of rage beginning to kindle within him.  “Because you can take all your threats and shove them where the sun don’t shine.”
     “It’s not a threat, Agent Mulder.  It’s simply a statement of fact.  Listen to me very carefully.  I’m watching you right now.  You’re wearing a black winter coat, blue jeans and brown boots…and you’re smoking a cigarette.”
     Mulder’s confrontational mood was immediately sharpened into lucidity.  He flicked the cigarette into the snow, glancing around at the hills beyond the farmhouse.  “Where are you?”
     “Washington D.C.,” came the reply.
     “So, how are you watching me?”
     The caller didn’t respond for a few moments, and then, “DOD Warbird-Grade Orbital Weapons-Platform.”
     Mulder took a moment to process what the caller just said, and snapped his gaze skyward.  “You’re watching me through a goddamn satellite?”
     “Not just any satellite, Agent Mulder,” the caller told him.  “A classified military satellite equipped with advanced pulse weaponry.  I’m here to help you, but I could vaporize you where you stand if I wanted.  So, are you going to cut the angry bullshit and listen up?”
     “Yes,” said Mulder through clenched teeth.
     “Excellent.  This group that calls itself Labyrinth, and this breakaway faction who call themselves the Apostles…they’re searching for something.  Some kind of key.  I don’t know what this key actually is in literal terms, but I know that it has the power to alter everything – to permanently end plans for Occupation.”
     “What’re you saying to me?” Mulder asked quietly.  He didn’t know what to believe right now.  Clearly he was being watched, but he didn’t know if the person on the other end of the line was genuine.
     “Labyrinth and the Apostles have been engaged in a civil war over control of this key for the last thirty years, Agent Mulder.  But something incredible happened…something that no-one expected.  Some kind of miracle.” 
     “What do you mean; a miracle?”
     “I don’t know, but it’s something bigger than the existence of an alien race.  Something that could transform our understanding of science, religion, reality…life itself.  You have no idea how much blood has been spilled.  But…I’m going to do what I can to help you.”
     “Why?” Mulder asked plainly, closing his eyes.
     “Because…I have grandkids, and I don’t want them to perish along with the rest of the Earth.  I want…I want them to be free.”  Mulder could hear the caller’s voice trembling with emotion.
     “Free?” said Mulder, sensing significance to the choice of words.
     “Yes, Agent Mulder.  Free.  I’ll be in contact again soon.”
     “Wait…,” Mulder began, but the caller had already hung up. 
     He immediately tried to call back, but all he got was an automated message telling him the number wasn’t in service. 
     Still clutching the cell phone in his hand, Mulder closed his eyes and tried to take a long, deep breath.
     Had this man really been watching through some kind of DOD satellite, like he claimed?  If there were snipers out in the hills somewhere, or men with high-powered binoculars, he couldn’t possibly know.  All he could know was what this man had told him.  And despite the strangeness of the conversation, Mulder had a feeling in his gut – a sense that what the caller had said was real.  He just didn’t know if he could trust his own intuition any more.      
     He opened his eyes, and frowned with uncertainty at what he saw. 
     A strange orange glow was moving through the trees in the distance.  The glow was heading in his direction.  Mulder literally gasped when the light breached the tree-line.
     A person was on fire, and they began walking calmly across the snow-covered field. 
     The burning figure wasn’t running or stumbling in agony, merely walking at a normal pace.  Mulder’s eyes were wide with astonishment.  He couldn’t comprehend what he was seeing.  Terror suddenly seized him, rooting him to the spot on the porch of the old farmhouse.
     The burning figure kept approaching, lighting a corona of snowflakes around it and illuminating the snow on the ground.  When it got close enough Mulder realized the figure within the fire was completely unscathed.  A few more steps and he caught a glimpse of the figure’s face behind the writhing flames.
     The horror of recognition gripped him.
     He murmured involuntarily, “Oh, Christ, no…”
     The Smoking Man was standing in the snow only ten feet away, enveloped but unconsumed by the fire.  The flames roiled impossibly across his hands and face and the suit he was wearing.  Mulder watched him raise a cigarette that burst to life just as he brought it to his lips.  And Mulder saw it – the flash of a malevolent smile behind the flames.
     Mulder squeezed his eyes shut, trembling with fear and incomprehension.  His stomach twisted like a claw and he doubled over, slumping to his knees and slamming his palms against the wooden porch to arrest his fall.  For several moments he remained there, unable to open his eyes.
     When he finally found the resolve to force his eyes open he glanced up and let out a ragged exhalation of breath.  The waking nightmare was gone and Mulder was alone on the porch, peering into the darkness and the snow.       


***************

1 comment:

  1. Earn free bitcoins over at CLAIM BTC. 21 to 57 satoshis every 20 minutes.

    ReplyDelete