JULY 15, 2015
“Hey, new kid.”
Isaac is sitting at his table in class, waiting for the afternoon lessons to begin, when Charlie leans in, grinning. Her voice is soft against his ear.
“Meet me outside after school.”
Before he can ask what’s up, Cam and Jack descend on the table, arguing about something, and Charlie returns to her usual seat, catching his eye over the distance and smirking.
He’s distracted for the rest of the day, listening to Steven drone on about quadratic equations. He’s supposed to be focused on his textbook, doing the problems on a sheet of notebook paper, but he can’t stop looking over at Charlie. Eventually she catches him in the act and frowns, giving a quick shake of her head before returning to her own book.
Weeks have passed, but Isaac still doesn’t know how to read her, doesn’t know where they stand after their shared adventure. She’s a closed book with a dark cover who shows up when he least expects it. He’s still the “new kid”, but he’s surprised to find he doesn’t mind the nickname.
When their teacher finally releases them, Isaac fumbles to put away his notepad and pen in his bag, saying a hasty goodbye to Cam and Jack. He wants to catch up to Charlie, but she’s faster, having left the room before he can finish packing up his meager supplies.
He heads for the main exit, heart thumping. The door opens to hot sand and earth, and he shivers a little; the chill at his back and the warmth on his face.
She pounces on him before he’s registered the desert heat, the dry air shriveling his throat before he can take his first deep breath. Her hand is in his and she’s pulling him around the side of the compound, back pressed to the building’s hot gray brick wall.
“Hi,” she grins.
“What are we doing out here?” He’s already beginning to sweat and they’ve barely moved.
“C’mon,” she says, not answering. “I wanted to show you something.”
“Nuh uh,” he says, rooting his feet to the ground, even as she’s trying to tug him along; her fingers are slick over his wrist. “That didn’t work out last time.”
“Don’t you want to get out of the heat?” she says, cocking an eyebrow.
“Yeah, but we can go inside and—“
“Then come on,” she groans. “I promise, we’re not going outside the fence. I’m not stupid,” she adds, with just enough inflection to imply guilt.
She takes his hand again, and this time he follows. They’re walking toward the fence again, but then she veers left, toward a crop of rocks and weeds.
“Over here,” she says, bending down to move one of the rocks. He squints. From this angle, it looks like she’s sinking into the earth, disappearing beneath the stones, but upon closer inspection, he realizes she’s climbing downward.
“Whoa,” he whispers, seeing the entrance. It’s barely noticeable from afar; with the surrounding rocks, it’s well hidden. There’s barely enough room for him to squeeze through the cave’s narrow opening, but when he does, he’s greeted with blissful cold, like slipping into a pool of water.
The walls are carved from rough stone and dirt, dust and cobwebs pulling at Isaac’s cheeks, and he sputters. Charlie has her inhaler in hand and takes a quick puff before settling down on what looks like an old bench; scrap wood piled at the far end.
He crouches down against the cool earth, kneeling, relishing the reprieve from the sun. “What is this?”
“There’s caves all over here,” she says, leaning back, watching him. “It looks like they meant to build out here, extend the compound, maybe, or hide something.”
“Do they know about it?” he asks, tipping his head backward.
She shrugs. “I’ve never seen anyone else.”
“It’s a secret fort,” Isaac says, grinning despite himself, and she rolls her eyes.
“You’re such a dork.”
There’s a pause; she picks up a stick, begins drawing something in the dust on the floor, writing her name in looping script, then brushing it away with the back of her hand.
“So…what are we doing here?” he asks.
She takes a deep breath, poking at something on the board next to her. “I just wanted to say…thanks. For not ratting us out…before.”
He masks his pride with a shrug. “You should thank George,” he says.
“Do you think he’ll say anything?” He can barely make out her features in the dark, but her nervousness is a fine, sticky thread, as fine as the spiderwebs they’d just crawled through.
“Yeah,” Isaac says. “We…I mean, my, uh, mom and I were around him a lot after the infection hit. He’s cool. He won’t say anything.”
“Your mom works at the greenhouse, right?”
“Yeah,” Isaac says.
“Where’s your dad?”
The question catches him off guard.
“He, uhh…he died,” Isaac says. “When I was little, though, not from the infection.”
“Oh. My parents died from the virus,” she says, stone-faced, reaching down to pick up a broken piece of wood from the dusty floor. “Guess that makes me an orphan.”
She’s grown still, silent. He coughs, sending a spray of dust and sand up from the floor. “We’re all orphans now, aren’t we?”
“You’re not,” she says, looking directly at him, watching him like a bug under a microscope.
He swallows hard, unsure how to continue. “Y’know…I was adopted,” he blurts out before he can stop himself.
She doesn’t look interested, but sniffs, offering a polite, “Yeah?”
“My, uh, my mom adopted me when I was a baby. I didn’t know—I mean, I don’t know my real parents,” he lies.
“Why’d they give you up in the first place?”
He swallows; he’s often asked himself the same question. “I don’t know.”
“Maybe you can be an honorary orphan, then,” she says halfheartedly, smirking at the ground.
Quiet and dark meet, and the two shuffle awkwardly; youth has no patience for peace, and Isaac breaks the silence. “What were your parents like? Your real ones, I mean.”
She shrugs. “Like most parents, I guess…overprotective, they annoyed the crap out of me sometimes, but I stayed out of trouble. They…the virus…it was quick. I didn’t have a chance to…and I stayed at the house, the whole time. It was like I was someone else. I was so afraid I was going to get sick, too.”
She looks up at him, sharp and haunted, and he sucks in a breath, knowing her loss even though he can’t confess it. The hurt sneaks up when he least expects it; suddenly his dead mother’s voice will bubble up in his head, the same tone and pitch ringing in his ear, as though she were standing beside him. Or he’ll have a memory that doesn’t exist, his father painting the front porch a dusty lemon color, smears of the paint on his jeans. He knows this isn’t his because their porch was always blue, the house doesn’t look right, and his father looks too young.
He remembers Alice, too, though he has fewer of those memories to choose from. The sheen of the sun on her hair, the way she’d punch him on the arm when he’d tell a bad joke. His throat tightens as he watches Charlie watching him, waiting, feeling vaguely guilty for reasons he can’t express.
Suddenly all the fun and excitement of sneaking out to the cave is lost.
“Yeah,” Isaac says, at a loss for what to say. She seems to have withdrawn into a protective cocoon; he doesn’t know whether he should push or retreat, so he does nothing.
“We should get back,” she says finally, standing and dusting off the back of her jeans. He does the same, crouching to get up to his feet, when something slips out of his front pocket, landing with a soft metallic thunk on the dirt floor.
Her brow furrows. “What’s that?”
“Nothing,” he lies weakly, reaching down to pick it up, but she’s faster. Charlie grabs the hard drive they’d swiped from the CDC research facility.
“Gimme that,” he growls, snatching it out of her grasp. “It’s private.”
She’s unfazed. “I showed you my secret, now you show me yours,” she teases, a darkness edging her words.
“It’s nothing,” he huffs. “Let’s go.”
She sniffs, visibly stung. “Fine. Whatever.”
They trudge back to the compound, and by the time they’ve reached the doors, he pulls at her arm. “Look, I’m sorry. This is…I really can’t say anything. It’s not that I—“
“Not that you what?” she challenges.
He takes a deep breath. “It’s…I would tell you if I could. I mean that.”
She folds her arms, still icy. “What’s stopping you?”
“It’s not a ‘what’, it’s a ‘who’. My mom,” he mutters, glancing around, nervous to be having this conversation in the open. “She’d kill me if…if whatever’s on this disc got out.”
The implication is subtle, but she latches onto his hesitation. “So you don’t even know what’s on it?”
“I didn’t say that,” he says, but his voice sounds thin.
“Don’t you want to find out?”
But he does. And he’s more than a little annoyed at being the appointed guardian for something that may be nothing more than a paperweight.
“I do,” he sighs. “I want to know, but I—“
“How would your mom know if you took just a quick peek, anyway? It’s not like she’s a computer genius, right? You said she’s a doctor.”
“I—I don’t think she would,” he admits, watching himself stumble and fall over the words with a certain amount of wonder, as she paints him into a narrow corner of his own making.
“So what’s stopping you?”
The hospital wing is quiet, as usual; the perfect place for two errant students to go unnoticed.
“If anyone asks, say we’re here for a research project,” Charlie says. Isaac nods, but there’s a new queasy feeling in his stomach.
Suddenly one of the doctors—Carol, the one who drew his blood the first day—turns the corner, startling when she sees them. “Aren’t you kids supposed to be in school?”
“Mr. Steven sent us,” Charlie says, her voice higher and sweeter than usual. “We’re researching viruses. He said there’s a library down here?”
The older woman pauses, and for a moment Isaac is certain she’ll see through the act and send them upstairs, but she simply sighs.
“There are a bunch of medical journals in that room over there,” she gestures across the hall. “Just don’t make a mess, and bring them back when you’re done.”
They wait until she’s ducked into one of the patient rooms before walking quickly down the hall. There’s a computer in an exam room at the far end, and they sneak in, closing the door behind them. There’s no lock, but Charlie rams a chair up against the doorknob.
“We’ll have some warning if she comes looking for us,” she explains.
“You’re too good at this,” Isaac mutters.
She grins. “Living here, you get good at sneaking around. Now, let’s see that disc.”
“Nuh uh. I know how to do this,” Isaac insists, dismantling the hospital computer’s frame, twisting the bolts loose with his fingers. “I think we can plug this in…yeah, here. Connectors are the same.”
Charlie leans over his shoulder, focused on their shared vandalism. Her breath at his ear is a warm distraction, but he doesn’t tell her to back off.
Instead, he turns on the computer with the new hard drive attached. He’s not sure which is worse; the thought that it won’t work, and he’ll look foolish, or the thought that it will work, and the drive holds the kind of information he thinks it does.
Time to find out, he thinks. The computer boots up, the familiar wind chime sound from the speakers startles both kids, and they jump.
“Shit!” he hisses, head snapping around to check the door, listening for movement. He looks at Charlie, wide-eyed, to find the same expression mirrored back at him as she scrambles to turn off the speakers. She covers her mouth but he can see the trace of a smile behind it, and he tries to stifle his own nervous giggling.
But it’s no use. Suddenly they’re both laughing—desperate, silent guffaws that leave tears streaming down their cheeks. Charlie leans on him for support, covering her mouth with both hands as she tries not to make a sound, both of them snorting and snuffling. Isaac’s ribs ache from the effort it takes to hold back, and for several long moments he can’t catch his breath.
When they’ve finally calmed down, when he dares to take his hands off his mouth, Charlie’s face is red, her eyes shining. “Hurts the best,” she whispers, grinning as she hiccups.
“Yeah,” he agrees, returning her smile. The moment lingers longer than it should before Isaac turns back to the computer with an awkward cough.
“It’s, uh, protected,” he explains, clicking through the folders to the data file they’d opened for only scant minutes back in Kentucky. “It asked for a passphrase before. We didn’t get further than that.”
Charlie narrows her eyes when the dialog box pops up on the screen.
Isaac refrains from rolling his eyes, but just barely. “That’s stupid, no one would—“
“Just try it,” she insists, nudging him lightly. “Government people aren’t very smart, that’s what my mom always said.”
There’s a hint of truth to it, so he types it in and hits Enter.
“No access,” he mutters under his breath. “Any more brilliant ideas?”
She gives him a look, unfazed at his sarcasm. “What’s this data for, anyway? Maybe that has something to do with it.”
Isaac blinks. “It’s the CDC…maybe…”
He tries again, but “virus” doesn’t make the cut, either.
“Damnit,” he groans. “They’ll probably lock us out after a certain number of tries.”
“Then don’t try anything until you’re sure.”
He scoffs, but something bubbles to the surface of his consciousness, popping, the remains of the thought floating like oil on water. His fingers move to the keys without thinking, almost as if his hands knew what to do before his mind could follow.
He types: U-L-T-I-M-A-M, hesitating only a moment before pressing Enter, wincing with the anticipation of it, the sense of finality. He hears Charlie whispering over his shoulder, “What the…?”
The drive begins to hum in its metal shell, and rows of text flood the screen.
“Hah!” he cries, jumping up slightly.
“Shh!” Charlie says, but she’s smiling, too.
The success is bittersweet. He begins to read, heart sinking, as he realizes the passphrase was only the first word in a much longer story.
“How did you know—“
“I—I just guessed,” he bluffs, feeling an uneasy heat creep up the back of his neck.
“What is it?”
He clears his throat, tries to keep his voice neutral, strong. “Transmission records, it looks like…they had…they had a private system, I think, looks like they were able to send messages after the infection started…”
He clicks on one such message, the title of which reads simply, MK, March 12, 2015.
“‘Maryland gone,’” Isaac reads aloud, squinting at the screen, “‘The Center has been breached. Enact U3428.’ What’s U3428?”
“Code for something? What’s that one say?” Charlie asks, pointing to another message.
DR, March 15, 2015. Boston Memorial down, St. Athens pending.
“Scroll back up,” Charlie says, frowning, and Isaac does, records skittering past.
MK, March 1, 2015. E422468A n.i. 3w, dispose.
The list goes on, letters and dates, followed by brief, cryptic messages that mean little except to the people who wrote them.
“This is what they were trying to protect?” Isaac finally says, sitting back against the worn office chair. “There’s nothing here.”
Charlie reaches past him, tapping the arrow key to advance, but he’s too disappointed in their anti-climactic discovery to continue.
But what had he expected to find? That answer is less clear each day they stay at the compound, the further he gets from their life on the island, and everything that came before.
Maybe it doesn’t matter, he thinks, sinking lower in the chair, watching through slitted eyes as the screen changes, Charlie’s impatient sighs at his ear.
She draws back suddenly, wary.
“Isaac…where did you get this?”
“Nowhere,” he sniffs. “Why?”
He rolls his eyes, but leans forward to see what she’s found; a list, but unlike the cryptic dated messages, this is a list of names. Familiar ones; it’s the same list Mulder obtained when they were researching the project themselves, although that was months ago. That data is swimming somewhere in the Atlantic.
“Or part of it,” Isaac whispers to himself; this version is much longer.
“Part of what?” Charlie asks, but her voice has gone paper thin and rough as sandpaper.
He shakes his head. “I don’t…I don’t know that it matters now,” he says, but this confirms the choice of passphrase. The CDC was involved with the project, and the infection, and the two are connected…somehow…
He clicks on a name, and more information appears, a photograph, a location, their specialty. A pediatrician in Kansas, her face open and friendly. He wonders how many kids she treated, how many of them were special, like him.
His hand shakes slightly as he clicks out of the record and opens another—a cellular biologist from New York, followed by a military scientist based out of Mississippi.
He clicks through until there’s a gasp from over his shoulder. He notes the sudden cool air at his side, wonders how it is he misses her when she’s only been there a few seconds, and turns to find Charlie pale and drawn, fingers touching her lips as if they were a strange and new thing.
“What is it?”
“Him,” she whispers, a low moan in the back of her throat. “That’s…that’s him. Where did you get this? What is it?”
He turns back to the screen, the face familiar, but it takes him a moment to place it. “Who…”
She glares at him. “Mosely.”
His throat tightens, and for a moment he fights for air. Charlie spins his chair around to face her.
“Isaac, you need to tell me what’s happening. Now.”
He cranes his neck to study the photo. No doubt, it’s the compound’s leader; younger, but not by much. His eyes are cold, hard blue stones, his hair still close-cropped and white. He wears a white coat, like a doctor, with a caduceus pin on the lapel.
“Tell me!” Charlie hisses, all traces of the lighthearted moment they’d shared not minutes earlier gone.
“Alright, alright. I’ll tell you…just…hold on.”
She huffs an impatient breath as he tries to find the words beneath his shock.
“I told you before, I was adopted,” he begins, feeling self-conscious, uncertain. “I was given up as a baby. My mom and dad…like I said, he died when I was little. My mom—my adoptive mom—raised me.
“I was sick, as a kid. That’s what they told me, what they told my mom. They said I needed help, that my heart was bad. I spent most of my life in the hospital. I was tested,” he says, expression growing dark.
The rage surprises him, burning the back of his throat like acid as he continues.
“I knew I was different. I—you wouldn’t believe it,” he shifts uncomfortably. “I didn’t know it, didn’t find out until a couple years ago that the tests were part of a bigger plan. They wanted…they wanted what made me different.”
She huffs. “Isaac, just tell me where you got the damned hard drive.”
“I will,” he insists. “But it won’t make any sense until you’ve heard the rest.”
She crosses her arms but doesn’t say more, settling back.
“They called it Project Ultimam. It was done in secret, to kids like me…maybe adults, too, I dunno. Doctors, scientists, all over the place, were working on it, I guess. They did tests on us, all of us. They wanted…they wanted to see how we worked. To make more of us.”
“Why? What’s so special about you,” she snaps, and he has to bite his tongue.
“I…I hear things,” he says lamely.
She snorts. “What, like a mind reader?”
He doesn’t answer, feeling his face grow pink.
His lack of an answer is enough; her eyes grow wider, brown orbs of darkness against ivory skin. “You’re serious. You…the other day…you could hear me—”
“I can’t…I can’t do it here,” he interrupts. “It doesn’t work, with the rocks.”
Her eyes narrow, and he begins to feel vaguely like a mouse or a rat, running a maze. He frowns at his feet while she takes this in.
“I don’t know what I am,” he says. “But I can’t tell you what you’re thinking right now, if that makes you feel any better.”
She doesn’t give any indication that it does. “And you were part of this…thing?”
“Yeah. When I was twelve, I was attacked. Someone…something came after me. My mom was killed,” he continues, feeling a cold chill at the memory of his hands, the burst of light…
“My real parents,” he continues. “They found me. Told me I was adopted, that they were the reason I was so different. They used to be FBI, they found out about the project, and the tests they did on me, and…”
“And you believed them?”
“I didn’t want to,” he says defensively. “But I guess I do. The three of us were attacked.
“I lived with them. I chose to,” he adds, as if she might question his judgment. “I thought they would help me find the people who’d tested me. But then…this thing happened,” he lowers his voice. “We had to run.
“We found this at a CDC facility outside Lexington,” he says, gesturing to the screen behind him. “We thought there might be a connection to the virus, an explanation,” he says. “Dr. Scully is studying it. She wants to find out if we can make a cure.”
“That’s stupid,” Charlie says, foot tapping nervously on the rung of her chair. “What’s the point, if most people are already dead?”
“Not a cure for the virus. A cure for the rest of us…for the planet. A way to defeat Them. They’re already working on it,” he continues. “The Doc says they’re researching ways to spread magnetite so that eventually, maybe, we won’t have to live like this.”
Charlie stares at him uncertainly, arms folded across herself. “How do you know you can trust her, Isaac? How do you know they’re not part of this project, too?”
“How do you know you can trust Mosely?”
She presses her lips together until the pink bow of her mouth turns pale. “He rescued me. He saved me from…from being in that house. If I hadn’t left, my parents…they would have…” she ducks her chin, he can see the line of her nose, nostrils flaring, but she doesn’t continue.
“Well…they rescued me,” he says. “Just like Mosely saved you, and brought you here. But this means he was part of the project.”
“But I’ve never seen him do anything, I mean, he barely talks to the kids here. He can’t be testing us.”
Isaac’s eyebrows knit together, turning back to the screen, looking at the man’s features; there’s no doubt about a possible mistake.
“Maybe he’s good now,” Charlie says tentatively. “Maybe he stopped…whatever it was he was doing.”
“Maybe,” Isaac sighs.
“We can’t tell anyone about this,” she says, struggling to get the words out.
Isaac blinks. “Charlie, we have to.”
“No. If you say something, if you tell your mom, she’s going to know we were looking at the hard drive. You’ll get in trouble.”
“If this guy is who we think he is, we’re all in trouble.”
There’s a pause, the nervous patter of his fingers on his own wrist like a metronome.
“Did he really do all that? To you?”
Her expression is distant, sad, as if some long-held fear has been confirmed.
“Maybe. I don’t know if it was him,” Isaac admits, suddenly frustrated at his memory. When he was young, all the doctors looked the same; long white coats and thick smiles. Sometimes they gave him a sticker or a lollipop after the treatments, although he rarely had the stomach for the sweets, and the stickers were almost insulting.
Great job! they’d read, as if he’d done anything more than lay on the table—sometimes conscious, sometimes not. As if he’d had any control over what happened.
He wracks his brain for memories of close-cropped hair, kindly eyes, a serene smile. Mosely would have been younger, wouldn’t he? But no one comes to mind, and he shakes his head, as if he could shake his childhood off like a coat of wet snow.
“Please,” Charlie says, and the desperation in her tone makes Isaac’s head ache. “Please don’t say anything. Not yet,” she says finally. “I don’t want to go back out there.”
“I know,” he whispers. “Neither do I.”