Chapter 21

APRIL 1, 2015
2:30 A.M.

He’s been walking for hours when he finds the abandoned car, keys still in the ignition. Mulder glances over his shoulder, but the only sign of another’s presence is a smear of dark blood on the wheel. He wipes it off with a napkin from the glove compartment.

Don’t think about it.

The engine turns over, roaring to life with unexpected ferocity. It needs gas, but he’s close enough to a main road, there will be a station soon.

Hopefully the pumps are still working.

They are. He fills up at a weathered mom-and-pop joint that probably hasn’t seen half a dozen customers since the virus hit, and likely not many more before then. He tries the door, intending to leave some cash on the counter, but it’s locked up tight.

Nobody home.

He drives on, fighting sleep, cruising past dark houses and streetlights, the car’s lonely beams his only illumination. The night is an endless tunnel of shimmering white lines, trees like sharp teeth in his peripheral vision, and he wishes he’d thought to grab something with caffeine.

Isaac’s face, sunken eyes in white paper skin, blood running from his mouth, the oil spreading in every direction on a background of fire…

The car jerks hard to the left as Mulder overcorrects, coming out of the dream with a gasp.

Wake up!

He slows the car until he’s gathered his bearings, rolls down the window to let the cool night air whip around his face.

The radio is a hopeful distraction, but most of the stations have gone to static. When he finally finds a working broadcast, there’s some old man railing about fire and brimstone in between coughing spasms.

“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.”

Mulder’s chest constricts. He turns the knob so hard, it snaps off and falls to the floor, rolling under the passenger’s seat.

A-fucking-men.

He makes it to the highway by what should be the morning rush hour, but he can count the number of passing cars on one hand. More prominent are the cars that don’t move at all, those abandoned on the side of the road, or occasionally parked in the middle, like a video on pause. He tries not to think about who—or what—those stagnant vessels might contain.

…heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved…

As the rural landscape gives way to suburban sprawl, he expects to find blockades, signs of military enforcement, but there’s nothing more than the low moan of air through the car vents, the hum of the tires, and the fast-approaching skyline.

By the time they realized it was happening, it was too late.

But it’s more than that, he realizes. The infected crawled back to their homes to be at peace in their last moments. Like feral animals in the throes of death, they’re hidden in the shadows, waiting. The bodies should be lining the streets, but there is only silence in the spaces where they lay.

It’s like someone reached out and shut off the world.

He slips through the city limits like a ghost.

#

APRIL 1, 2015

8:05 A.M.

The post office is in Scully’s old neighborhood, although it’s almost unrecognizable now. Minor things have changed—the supermarket where she used to buy groceries is a Target, one of the apartment buildings on her street burned down, replaced by a community garden—but what surprises him is the deep, unsettling quiet.

The few people he sees wandering the streets wear the same dazed, lost expression. The occasional car passes, but there’s little traffic, more like a late Sunday night than a weekday morning. The post office itself is deserted and locked.

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night, but they didn’t say anything about an apocalypse.

He’s approaching the entrance when something clamps onto his ankle and pulls. He lets out a wild cry, looking down to see the vague outline of a hand, riddled with black-purple veins…

…and blood.

The man must have been sleeping on the ground, and now he’s crawling out of his makeshift newspaper bed in jerky fits. The virus may be killing him, but his grip is frighteningly strong.

“You,” the man croaks. Mulder can see dried blood on his teeth, his chin, his shirt. “Help…me…”

That will happen to Isaac, too. It will happen to all of us.

“You,” the man wails, stretching it out into a gurgling moan (youuuuu) that curdles rational thought. He’s drawn by the man’s eyes, his features weathered and mottled, an abstract painting come to life.

Mulder wrenches his leg from the man’s clammy grasp with a muffled cry, staggering backward, nothing but unforgiving concrete to catch him. The pain radiates up his spine and he collapses onto his side, mouth moving soundlessly in surprise.

That’s gonna bruise.

Movement in his peripheral vision tells him his new friend isn’t done yet. Mulder grits his teeth, struggling to his feet as the man continues his slow death crawl.

“You…help…”

“Sorry, buddy,” he gasps, breathing hard as he finally regains his balance. “We’re all fucked now.”

He limps away as fast as his knee will allow, glancing over his shoulder twice before he’s assured the man hasn’t followed. The building is solid and warm against his back as he tries to catch his breath, spitting saliva laced with fear onto the damp ground.

Spooked, Spooky?

Sweat pools at the hollow of his shoulder blades, and he stares up into a spring sky that reminds him of Isaac’s cool glass-blue eyes.

We’re all fucked now…some of us more than others.

He finds the rear entrance locked, but there’s a window at ground level. It shatters after a few well-placed kicks, leaving him just enough space to squeeze inside.

The basement…familiar territory, he thinks, sliding down onto a long table that shakes under his weight, then to the floor of what looks like a sorting room. His back and knee protest the graceless descent, and he stumbles into a stack of bins, knocking them over.

Way to keep it covert, G-man.

He kneels for a moment, waiting, listening to the roar of his own breath. No alarms sound, no one comes rushing around the corner to stop him. When his heart settles, he scans the room, looking for the stairs.

Box 1673, off the lobby.

His footsteps echo in the stairwell as he makes his way up, despite his efforts to stay quiet. He doesn’t want to be slowed on the off chance some overzealous postal worker decides to play hero.

Never mind the breaking and entering with intent to commit a federal offense, he thinks, though it occurs to him that whatever law enforcement still exists is probably beyond worrying about mail crime.

The lobby is empty, his footsteps a hesitant staccato on the shining marble floor. Skylights rain down soft light, casting a warm glow that feels out of place in the otherwise abandoned building.

The P.O. boxes are behind a locked grate, and he pulls out his pick set, grimacing as he attempts to open the enclosure. It takes longer than it should, his hands are clumsy and out of practice, but eventually the grate swings open, revealing row upon row of mailboxes. 1673 is to the left, one of the small ones, and the pen makes quick work of this lock, too.

Someone’s behind on his bills.

The box is crammed full, overflowing. Kent hasn’t been here in awhile. Mulder picks up a letter at random.

Postmarked three days ago. He can’t have been gone too long or they would have held delivery…

Suddenly there’s a noise from the lobby; the creak of a door swinging open, heavy footsteps.

Shit. Company.

He grabs a fistful of envelopes, postcards and fliers fluttering to the ground like dying moths. He tucks what he can into the inner pocket of his jacket, but doesn’t have time to get it all.

There’s a door to the service area on his left, unlocked, and he ducks inside, situating himself underneath the counter as quietly as he can.

Whoever it is is also doing their best to stay quiet; they haven’t announced themselves, but their slow, deliberate footsteps echo, stopping just feet from where Mulder is crouched on the other side of the counter.

They’ll see the open grate.

Instinct tells him he doesn’t want to meet his mystery visitor. His eyes dart from one corner to the other, squinting into the darkness beyond the counter, searching for an exit.

He shuffles as quietly as he can to the center of the sorting area, finding cover behind a large cart, stacked high with parcels that will never make it to their owners. He can make out the outlines of two doors at the back of the room, neither marked with an Exit sign.

Eenie menie miney mo…

Suddenly his phone rings inside his pocket, a piercing wail that stills his heart and makes his efforts to hide for naught.

Shit!

He fumbles the infernal device and jams his finger against the mute button without looking at the screen, but it’s too late. There’s breathing at the entrance to the service area, confident footsteps over the threshold.

I’ll take door number 2, Monty.

The door on the right hangs open, revealing another office with a desk, a filing cabinet, but no exit, save for a window.

He rushes over and tries to pry up the old wood frame. He can hear the man approaching the office with the same slow, steady plod, and Mulder grits his teeth, lips pulled back in a snarl as he works against the stubborn frame.

C’mon, c’mon…

His muscles strain and the window begins to slide up with a tired groan. For a moment there’s hope, but it jams again after squeaking open a few inches. Not nearly enough clearance to slip through.

…no time no time hide…

He risks a glance over his shoulder to see a long shadow sliding toward the doorway. He ducks along the wall, slinking behind the desk in the corner just as the shadow crosses the threshold.

Mulder holds his breath, waiting.

Trapped.

There’s a pause, the sound of the other man’s even breathing.

“You can’t hide.”

The voice is self-assured, and with good reason.

He’s right. You’re out of ideas.

Mulder slides out from behind the desk, bringing his hands up in surrender, the trace of a nervous smirk on his lips. “Just here to pick up my mail.”

The man’s face is hard, chiseled from stone, molded by metal. The heavy boots suggest military, but there are no other indicators on his uniform—no badges, not even a name tag. In fact, his most noticeable feature is his lack of definition. He could be anyone.

His eyes match, Mulder thinks wildly, the same dull shade of nothing.

The man is on him in seconds, yanking Mulder to his feet with superhuman strength. “You’re lying.”

Mulder swallows, struggling. “You…got me. I’m out of…Forever Stamps.”

He’s launched backward with a sharp shove, colliding with the desk. The impact leaves Mulder dizzy, but he struggles to his feet. “You—“

“Where is she?”

She? Scully?

“I don’t…know,” he mutters, and the man swipes his bad leg, bringing him down in a single fluid motion before Mulder can react. The knee buckles with a deceptively soft sound, like the crack of an egg’s shell.

Almost like the fucker knew it, he thinks with a grimace, stars swimming behind his eyes.

“Tell me where she is.”

“I don’t…know…what you…want,” Mulder groans, until a well-placed kick to his ribs renders him unable to speak. He’s dimly aware of his body being lifted as though it were made of paper, the back of his head connecting with the wall as he slips into the black.

#

He dreams a memory, fixed in a state of half-consciousness in another time.

The world is a sea of unfamiliar cars and trucks. He’s running through the fray, dodging bumpers, squinting against the glaring lights while a deep, aching fear crawls in his gut.

No one was supposed to be here, no one was supposed to know…

“Mulder!” a familiar voice rings out over the receding roar of the cars, and he sees Agent Reyes, silhouetted against the glow of light pooling outside the run-down cabin. “Over here!”

Scully…

He runs, nearly knocking over the junior agent, but she blocks his way. “She needs a hospital.”

“Where is she? Who are these people?” He’s yelling over the whir of the helicopter, the distant engines of strangers. At first he thinks Reyes hasn’t understood, so he repeats himself, but she just stares at him and shakes her head.

I don’t know.

His heart fears the worst as she moves aside, allowing him access to the warm orange light of the cabin.

Scully.

She’s sitting in a makeshift bed, clutching a white-sheeted bundle in her arms, looking at the door with muted terror in her eyes. The room smells of blood and dust, new life mixed with old.

At first she doesn’t see her partner standing dumbly in the middle of the room. He’s just another shape, the vague shadow of a human form, a potential threat.

“No…don’t…” but the words are barely a whisper. She curls her body instinctively around the baby, as if waiting for him to deliver the final blow.

No one is safe, not even him.

“Scully…Scully, it’s me.” He approaches tentatively, slowly, until he sees recognition light her eyes.

“Mulder?”

“It’s me,” he repeats himself, feeling stupid and useless. She’s staring at him with an almost feral intensity, a mother bear protecting her cub. “Are you…is everything…”

“We’re OK,” she whispers, but he can see her shoulders trembling.

She’s in shock.

“Good, that’s good. Let’s get you to a hospital,” he soothes, reaching out, but she flinches away from his touch. He swallows hard, feeling the acute sting of rejection, hiding it with a glance over his shoulder to Reyes. He jerks his head back, indicating for her to step outside, where the medivac unit is waiting.

“They can’t take him,” Scully says. “He’s…he’s OK. He’s normal. He’s here, they can’t take him.”

Mulder manages a small smile, forced, trying to put her at ease while his mind races. Normal. Normal is good.

Then, He. She said “he”. It’s a boy.

A boy.

Things go from surreal to too real in an instant.

“Can you walk?”

She nods, wincing as she shifts on the bed, closing her eyes with the effort. He tries to ignore the blood on the sheet, catches a glimpse of red streaked down one cream-colored thigh, reminding himself it’s a normal part of the birth, that it doesn’t mean she’s hurt…but there’s so much.

She’s pale, he thinks, and when her head tips to the side, she looks as though she might tip over. He kneels, reaching out again, this time to steady her.

“Dizzy,” she murmurs, leaning into him. “I…I think…I may be anemic.”

He looks up to find Reyes standing at the end of the bed, eyes wide and dark with worry. “They’re ready.”

“We need a stretcher, she’s too weak,” he feels himself say with an authority he doesn’t feel. Reyes nods and heads outside, he can hear her shouting to the EMTs over the din.

“Mulder…can you…can you take him,” Scully whispers, her breath falling against his neck like a prayer.

At first he doesn’t know what she means. Take who? he thinks, before he realizes she means the baby.

The baby. He hasn’t even looked at him, not closely, this other person to worry about. His world has grown by a third, but all he can think of is his partner, and how he couldn’t keep her safe.

“Take him, please,” she whispers again, more urgent this time. “I’m shaking too much, I’m afraid I’ll drop him—“

“Got it, I’ve got it,” Mulder says, lifting the bundle from her arms, trying to remember what they’d said in the Lamaze class. Cradle the head, watch the soft spot, support the neck… it was easy when they were handling dolls, but this is different. They were shown videos of happy couples in sterile hospitals with clean blankets, kindly doctors and nurses, the father looking on with excitement and awe.

There is no sterile hospital, no smiling doctor, and this couple is terrified of something neither can put into words.

The baby flails in his arms, the makeshift blanket comes undone, and Mulder tries to tuck it back in. His hands feel too big, clumsy, like they’ll break the tiny bones that rest in the crook of his arm, and with every failed attempt he seems to make it worse. The baby’s cry is becoming frantic, separated from his mother, from the warmth of her skin.

Sorry, kid. You’re stuck with me for now.

He avoids looking at the boy’s face. He doesn’t trust his memory to leave the image alone once it grabs hold, isn’t ready for this new life to become a permanent fixture.

Scully watches through heavy lids, finally reaching up to help him with the blanket, and their fingers touch. They’re icy, despite the warmth in the room, and he worries again about the blood pooling around her thighs.

“It’ll be OK,” he whispers into her hair, averting his eyes, not knowing if he’s saying it more for her benefit or his. She grasps his hand, giving a weak squeeze in response. They sit like this, Scully tucked against his shoulder, hanging onto consciousness by a thin thread, and Mulder holding the child, looking away from them both.

“Stretcher’s here,” Reyes interrupts.

Two paramedics shuffle in behind her, maneuvering the bed through the narrow doorway. The three of them help Scully onto the gurney, tucking blankets and straps around her diminished figure.

Mulder is so intent on watching her, he doesn’t notice when one of the paramedics reaches for the child in his arms, until his partner’s voice cuts through the room, sharp as a knife.

“No! He stays with me.”

Her eyes are wildfire, and Mulder blinks in the face of their heat. She gestures for him to place the newborn on her chest, and he does. There’s a brief moment of lightening as he relinquishes the baby, followed by a pang of guilt that what he feels is relief, not love.

He sits in the ambulance with her, crammed next to one of the paramedics, who tries and fails to make small talk.

“You the father? Congratulations.”

Mulder doesn’t answer, tunes the man out as he chats idly about the weather and his grandchildren, as if any of it matters. Scully appears to be sleeping, but her knuckles are white and stiff over the baby’s back. Mulder imagines that, when they remove the blanket, they’ll find her fingerprints permanently etched into the boy’s tender skin.

Somehow they make it to the hospital. They’re waiting in the bay of the receiving area when she finds Mulder’s hand again. This time she’s in control, no trembling.

“Don’t let them separate us,” she whispers, fierce, and again, it takes him a moment to realize she means the baby, not him.

He nods. This is something he can do, something he’s good at. He almost hopes some jackass doctor will challenge him, give him an excuse to unleash the anger coiled at the back of his throat.

But for once, no one does. They’re admitted and brought to a room, Mulder trailing behind the gurney like a stray dog. When a nurse asks if he’s family, he doesn’t know what to say.

“He stays,” Scully murmurs, but she’s looking at the baby.

Mulder stands awkwardly inside door, observing the on-call team as they ask question and perform their examinations, turning away when the OB sits at the end of the table and asks Scully to slide down. The privacy curtain squeals on its runners.

He mutters something about going to get coffee, but Scully doesn’t notice; she’s still clutching the baby to her chest, staring at the ceiling, waiting for this uncomfortable invasion of her modesty to be over.

The nurses are already cooing over the child, and as he turns to leave, Mulder wonders how such a little being could have taken up so much space in his partner’s slender figure, let alone her heart.

He tells himself he’ll grab a drink then come right back, wondering if fifteen minutes is enough time to figure out how he feels.

Probably not.

The cafeteria is too bright, too loud. He stands at the coffee machine for several minutes, cup in hand, perplexed at the array of choices—light, medium, dark, gourmet blend, cappuccino, French vanilla, mocha swirl.

Christ, even coffee is complicated.

He’s still looking dumbly at the machine when a nurse comes up behind him. “You should try the cappuccino, I practically live on the stuff.”

She smiles, a warm, inviting look that Mulder might interpret as flirting under different circumstances, but he’s preoccupied, thinking about his partner and her new plus-one.

He returns the nurse’s smile in a silent thank-you, but it comes out more like a wince. Frothy liquid fills his cup, and he sits at the quietest table he can find, at the far corner of the cafeteria. One sip tells him he’s made a mistake; the cappuccino is saccharine, too sweet, but he drinks it anyway, a mediocre punishment.

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. I should have stayed dead.

An hour passes before Reyes finds him. She’s bright eyed, a blue teddy bear from the hospital gift shop clutched under one arm, as if she hadn’t helped deliver a baby before an audience of strangers not four hours ago.

And what did they want with him?

“Mulder! Where is she?”

“Room 438,” he intones. His coffee cup is a mess of waxy shredded paper. He’s shuffling and sorting the pieces into piles as she approaches.

“Are they OK?” Reyes slips into the seat across from him, but he doesn’t look up from his handiwork.

“They’re alright,” he mutters. “They’re counting fingers and toes…making sure the kid doesn’t beam up to the mothership.” A humorless smile pulls at the corners of his mouth.

There’s a knowing pause as Reyes considers him. “I take it things aren’t what you expected?”

“I don’t know what I expected,” he admits. “But it looks like someone was two steps ahead of us.”

She blinks. “You think they’re in danger?”

The bitter flavor of his words drowns out the too-sweet aftertaste of the coffee. “You tell me. I wasn’t there.”

“You were, though. You got there just in time.”

He sits back, eyeing her. Any other agent might be uncomfortable under his scrutiny, but Reyes, for all her quirkiness, is stronger than she seems. She doesn’t flinch, doesn’t look away.

“I’m not so sure,” he says, swiping the dismantled paper cup into the palm of his hand before tossing it under the table, “seeing as I missed the rest of the welcoming committee.”

She nods, unmoved by his sarcasm. “Right now, I don’t think that matters. He’s here, and they’re safe. The rest is,” she sighs, leaning forward, “the rest is an X-file for another day.”

“My whole fucking life is an X-file,” Mulder snaps, wincing at the way he sounds, a grown man with a sulk. “So is Scully’s, no thanks to me.”

Reyes narrows her eyes. “You still have your life. You have Scully, and this baby. Most people would count themselves lucky.”

“If you knew me, you’d know that I’m not most people, Agent Reyes.”

“Maybe not…but what I do know is that it’s not about you now,” she says, arching a knowing eyebrow, tilting her head up.

Four floors up, to be exact.

To this, he doesn’t have a response, and she sits back, smug and triumphant. “Here…take this,” she says, handing over the stuffed bear, his consolation prize. “Tell her I said ‘Congratulations.’”

He bites his lip, scowling, but accepts the bear.

Scully’s room is dark, and he almost loses his nerve at the door. She’s resting, the baby is sleeping—he can see the outline of the bassinet next to her bed.

What are you doing to do, Fox? Hang out in the cafeteria until it’s time to bring them home?

For once, his father’s voice is useful in its belligerence.

He approaches the crib as he might a ticking bomb, and for all intents and purposes, that’s what this tiny creature is. Every constant in his life has been blown to bits.

The first thing he sees is the outline of her delicate fingers, her hand draped over the side of the enclosure, resting on the baby’s stomach, preserving the connection between mother and son even as they sleep. He smiles a little despite himself.

She’s not going to let him out of her sight until he’s thirty.

Thirty.

His throat constricts, remembering the cars gathered around the cabin like worshippers, their headlights brilliant and terrible as the blinding white light from the craft that dropped his dead body in a ditch only months before.

…thirty…if he lives that long. Shit.

He’s about to drop the stuffed animal and head back to tell Reyes how she’s wrong, how Scully and their son will be better off without him. He’ll leave the hospital and get as far away as he can. By tomorrow he could be in Canada, Mexico, hell, even Europe. A last-minute red-eye looks more appealing with every step. Maybe the past will follow him and leave them in peace.

And what if it doesn’t?

Scully’s voice brings him firmly back to the present, reminding him with one soft, sleepy sigh why he couldn’t leave even if he wanted to.

“Mulder?”

“Oh…hey. I, uh…I grabbed coffee with Reyes. Didn’t mean to wake you,” he swallows, berating himself for the way he sounds, so formal, like he’s talking to a great aunt rather than his partner.

Best friend. Lover. Mother of your child. But who’s counting?

“How’re you feeling?” he asks, skirting the crib to stand next to her bed, finding her hand, warm and strong.

“Mmm. Sore. Anemic, but I didn’t need a transfusion,” she says, hoarse from lack of sleep.

He nods, reaching out to tuck a lock of russet hair behind her ear. “How’s the little guy?”

Her smile glows in the dim light. “Seven pounds, ten ounces, and a strong set of lungs. He doesn’t like doctors…reminds me of someone I know,” she says, arching one perfect eyebrow.

Mulder’s smile is careful but genuine. “Smart kid. He knows there’s only one doctor for him.”

She chuckles, squeezing his fingers through comfortable silence. Her grip is self-assured, restored. This is the Dana Scully he knows, a distant cry from the woman he found cowering in fear in a ghost town, crimson smears on the sheets, the air crackling with an inexplicable energy…the only soundtrack the wail of an infant, helpless and small, too young to defend himself against his own future…

Her voice startles him, bringing him back from the abyss as it always does. “You can hold him, you know.”

He shifts on his feet, eyeing the baby, who flexes and settles in his sleep. “I, uh, don’t want to wake him up. He didn’t seem to like that…”

“Mulder,” she sighs, in that way that lets him know there is no arguing, not this time.

“Yeah…I, um. OK.”

He handles the baby with the same level of focus he might devote to a case file, this time ensuring the blanket stays tucked. The child gives a soft squawk of protest at being disturbed, but this time he doesn’t cry.

So far, so good.

Mulder feels breath moving through the boy’s fragile body like a wave. He senses Scully watching him, watching them, father and son, and he feels an odd mix of unease and pride.

“What do you know,” she murmurs wryly, “I think he likes you.”

The baby’s lower lip sticks out in a miniature pout, lashes swept long and tender against porcelain cheeks. He stretches out one tiny hand, slender fingers balled into a fist, then brings it back and tucks it under his chin.

Huh. Scully sleeps like that.

It’s an innocent thought, but it tugs at his already raw core. Mulder feels his throat tighten, his eyes heavy and hot.

Damnit.

“What do you think, partner? Should we keep him?” Scully’s voice is low and content, a whisper that used to be reserved for him, now divided between them.

One more to love…one more to lose. And you always lose, Fox.

Mulder swallows the words he doesn’t know how to speak, his heart betraying him at the last minute.

“Keep,” he chokes out, gently swaying as the baby stirs. “He’s a keeper.”

#

APRIL 1, 2015

7:45 P.M.

Mulder awakens in the dark, disoriented. He’d been standing in the hospital room, but now there’s the shadow of a desk in the corner, a low amber light bleeding through the doorway. No hospital, no Scully. No baby.

William? No, it’s Isaac now. Fuck, where am I?

It comes back to him in painful, stabbing waves. The post office, the soldier, being left for dead. The sky outside is a deep orange-red, reminding him of the cabin…the smell of blood…

You’re bleeding.

He touches the back of his head where it must have hit the wall, and his fingers come away covered in reddish-brown flakes.

It’s dried. I’ve been out for hours.

He struggles to a sitting position, fighting the overwhelming urge to vomit. His head throbs as the desk in front of him doubles, appearing to swim on an invisible tide, before re-merging with its twin.

Only by holding onto the wall does he find his feet, his leg locked and stiff. He flexes the bad knee, feeling the taut pull of muscle and tendon creaking into alignment, and takes a few tentative limping steps, lips pulled over his teeth in a grimace.

Could be worse. Maybe.

He eases himself against the wall, willing his eyes to focus, trying to make sense of the encounter that’s left him with a concussion and a burning sensation in his bad knee. It’s clear his attacker was searching for someone else. Mulder was just lucky enough to get in the way.

He checks his jacket, finding the stash of stolen mail, relieved the other man didn’t think to conduct a bodily search before taking his leave.

He obviously had other priorities.

The sun is setting as he shuffles out the front door, a blood-red stain spreading across the horizon. There’s a dark scar of smoke cresting over the north end, marring an otherwise picturesque sunset, the effect more unsettling than beautiful. It occurs to him, as he pauses to watch the smoke froth and billow from the city skyline, that there will be no crews rushing to the fire.

Everything will burn.

He swallows a newfound urgency, making his way to the car. The newspaper man from this morning is sprawled at the corner of the building, motionless, but Mulder doesn’t look back.

Sitting in the borrowed car, he tears through Dr. Michael Kent’s mail by the dashboard light with shaking hands. There is the standard assortment of advertisements and bills, but it’s a plain white envelope that holds the key.

Kent had been careful, but his dentist wasn’t so clever. An insurance claim form lists a street address in a Baltimore suburb.

“Always remember to brush and floss, kids,” Mulder mutters, momentarily startled by the rough, untethered sound of his own voice.

His phone trills from within his pocket, reminding him of its unfortunate timing back at the post office. He digs it out, pulse picking up speed to match the throbbing in his head.

6 missed calls. 1 voicemail.

Scully.

He dials her number at the hospital, but no one answers. Even the automated answering system has gone silent. He tries her cell phone, murmuring “C’mon, c’mon, pick up,” and his half-prayer works.

“Mulder?”

“It’s me.”

“Oh, thank God! I’ve been calling…I thought you were dead,” she breathes, sounding hoarse.

“Yeah,” he coughs, ribs protesting the spasm of his lungs against them, head protesting the sudden movements, “Sorry, I, uh, I had a thing. Is Isaac OK?”

“He’s alive, I’m here with him now, but Mulder…”

“What is it?”

“I…you were right about the body.” The words tumble out in a tired rush. “I think you were right about the virus, too.”

He starts the car and pulls away from the curb. “What did you find?”

“The infected…they’re incubating the virus.”

“What do you—“

“Gestating, Mulder. Like in Antarctica, except I think this is happening faster.”

“How much faster?” he asks, easing the car onto the north-bound onramp.

“I didn’t get that far,” she admits. “I was interrupted before I could complete the autopsy.”

“The CDC?”

“No. I was attacked.”

“Attacked? Jesus, Scully—“

“The hospital director, Ybarra, he’s one of them. Mulder he said…he said they’re going to kill Isaac. They can hear him, like he’s some kind of…some kind of homing device. Mulder, what the hell is going on here?”

Her voice is high and tight, rising and falling over him like rain. He struggles to keep the car straight, the white lines blurring, doubling, and merging in his vision. “I don’t know, but I think I may have found the doctor. I have an address, a place in Baltimore, I’m on my way there now.”

He hears doubt and fear in the hitch of her breath.

“Scully, I—“

“I know,” she sighs, “Hurry.”

A single word tells him everything. He swallows, watching the needle on the dash ease past eighty-five. “Yeah, I am. Tell Isaac to hang on.”

“I will. Mulder?”

“Yeah?”

“You hang on, too.”

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