Mulder, Scully, and Isaac reach the edge of the charred trees in half an hour, making good time despite Mulder’s injury.
He points ahead, “There.”
Scully and the boy squint up into the trees, giving their eyes a moment to adjust to the sunlight above.
“So the trees were burned. Doesn’t look recent, forest fires aren’t exactly—”
Mulder shakes his head, cutting her off. “What kind of fire only burns off the top of the tree, Scully?”
She closes her eyes, takes a deep breath. “You know, Mulder, there’s been an infestation of mountain pine beetles in this area—I read it in one of the local newspapers while we were in town. Maybe they’ve been spraying, some types of pesticides can discolor bark, it’s possible the beetles damaged this area significantly before they could contain it.”
He glares at her in tired disbelief. “Tree beetles? Really, Scully?”
She purses her lips in irritation, folds her arms in a familiar defensive stance. “Alright. What’s your expert theory, then?”
“I think you already know,” he sniffs, turning to the boy. “Isaac…you any good at climbing trees?”
“Wait…you’re not going to make him climb up there?” She looks at Mulder, incredulous. “Not after what happened yesterday…”
Mulder shrugs. “If I recall, he wasn’t the one dangling from the cliff, Scully. And only if he wants to.” He turns back to Isaac. “Sure you’re up for it, kid?”
“It’s cool,” Isaac chimes in; he’s already walking toward the affected trees, looking for one with low-hanging branches.
“See if you can get a sample of the bark; we can bag it, test it for residue.” He ignores Scully, who’s off to the side with her mouth hanging open, seconds away from stamping her foot in protest.
“‘Test it for residue,’ Mulder? With what? Where?” she gestures around them. “I don’t see any facilities here, and surprise, I couldn’t smuggle a laboratory setup in my pack.”
“I can have the guys test it as soon we’re out of here.” Mulder says mildly, glancing over his shoulder, adding, “Kid could probably use a spotter.”
Her eyes blaze at the cavalier brush-off, but she moves to the base of the tree; Isaac is already several feet up, getting close to the charred area. She watches the boy, all slender limbs and determination, scaling the tree with the same ease and grace with which he climbed the cliff yesterday.
And look how that turned out, Scully thinks.
The damaged bark flakes off easily, and within moments Isaac has shimmied down the tree and drops to the ground, looking pleased and a little bit smug. He hands a chunk of the scorched tree to Mulder, who examines it, sniffs it, before holding it out to Scully.
“This look like the work of a beetle to you?” The bark crumbles slightly under his fingers, leaving a black, sticky residue.
She folds her arms across her chest, ignoring the offering.
He continues, tucking the sample into his pocket for safekeeping. “This extends about two miles that way, and well beyond that point, from what I can tell. This is common in abductions and UFO sightings, where a vast craft hovers over a particular section of forest, emitting radiation and heat that burns or stains the surrounding foliage. If we had an aerial view, we’d see this as a large, black circle—like a crop circle.” He’s speaking for Isaac’s benefit…and, if he has to admit it, to needle Scully.
She opens her mouth, closes it, opens it again, but nothing comes out.
Mulder continues, voice dripping with sarcasm. “What a coincidence, huh, Scully? That we pick the forest with the big-ass spaceship hovering over it?”
She ignores him, turning on her heel, ready to march back to camp. Leave him to his goddamned crop circles.
“What is wrong with you?” Isaac’s frightened voice startles them. In the midst of their petty power struggle, they’d almost forgotten he was here.
“You’re supposed to be helping me, but you’re fighting like a couple of stupid kids! And don’t lie, I can hear it, and you’re both thinking the same things.” The boy sneers, turning his eyes on Mulder. “Why are we out here? What the hell does this even mean? Are we going to get…abducted or something?”
Mulder stares at Isaac, mollified, surprised by the strength in the boy’s voice. Scully’s looking at the ground.
He’s right. We’re acting like a couple of first-class idiots.
“Tell me! What’s going to happen to me?” continues Isaac, looking back and forth between them, fuming.
“It…I don’t know what it means,” Mulder admits, hand absently rubbing at the back of his neck. “But we’re not safe here.”
Scully stares at Mulder, heart sinking like a lead weight in her chest. “He’s right, Isaac. Whatever this is, it’s not good. Someone…or something…has been here,” she murmurs, “which means we’re not alone.”
“Then…then what are we going to do? What about…where are we going to go now?”
Scully swallows hard, a lump forming in the back of her throat as the boy’s desperation tugs at her spirit. “I don’t know. I’m sorry I can’t give you a better answer, Isaac. I’m sorry we dragged you out here. I thought…” but she can’t finish.
We’ve failed him. I’ve failed him. Again.
“If anyone’s to blame, it should be me,” Mulder follows. “It was my idea to come here, but I should have known…should have seen it…” he trails off, dazed, thinking but not sharing his thoughts. “Isaac, we need to take you back.”
The boy’s head snaps up. “Home? But what if they come after me again?”
“No, not back to Wyoming. To D.C. You need protection…but a couple of retired agents with a gun isn’t going to cut it. Our former boss—”
“Yeah, Skinner. He’ll keep a guard on you, put you in protective custody. You’ll be safe.”
“But that didn’t work before…”
“He’ll take good care of you.” Mulder offers a forced smile. “He’s one of the best.”
Scully interjects, “You’re safer without us, Isaac. I can’t explain, but you need to understand…it’s better this way.” It takes great effort to keep her voice level as she speaks the words she whispered to her baby son years ago when she signed his adoption papers.
“I don’t get it,” Isaac says, accusation in his words. “You said you wanted to help me.”
“We do. We will help you, by finding people who can protect you.”
The boy’s face falls, but he doesn’t ask questions, just turns away, leaving Scully to wish she could turn the tables and read his mind, to know what he’s thinking.
Mulder’s expression is equally mollified. He leans against his makeshift brace with a rough grimace, anticipating the long walk back, and the even longer and more uncertain path ahead.