Chapter 22

MARCH 31, 2015
2:35 A.M.

She’s trapped between the past and the present, her mind an untethered time traveler. Her life floats behind her eyes in a schizophrenic dance of moments, a shattered mirror with thousands of tiny shards, each one fixing itself beneath the surface of her psyche.

Here are her daughters, dark-haired and coated in vernix, their births a simultaneous crest of agony and joy. Born two years apart, but tonight they are twins, and she holds their ghosts in her arms, glowing and delicate as fresh-fallen snow. She’s lived in the darkness so long, she didn’t know there could be such light.

The sensation of rough cotton cloth over her eyes, smothered. Swathed in thick bandages, she peels them back from her face to reveal one swollen cheek, then another. The bridge of her nose is wrong, the chin too sharp. The scars on her skin will fade, but an open wound inside continues to seep.

She’s hovering in the shadowy corner of a cell, speaking a foreign tongue with a faceless man. Her arm is wrenched back and upward, a twist so violent she blacks out. When she comes to, she’s stretched thin like dough across cold metal. There is pain again, so much pain, this time with no joy to soothe it. Violated, abandoned and tossed away like a child’s plaything.

She’s five years old, and her father finds her in the basement, exploring in a box of discarded things. Her head rocks back on her slight shoulders when he hits her, the stars behind her eyes colliding. She tells her mother she fell down the stairs, the first lie of many. There’s a hard rain at his funeral, hiding absent tears, her heart shaped from black onyx. She can smell the turned soil over the fresh grave and the earth of the basement floor as though they were one and the same.

She’s flung forward once more, rebounding on the thin elastic thread of consciousness to which her thoughts are bound, tumbling downward into a luxe room with an undercurrent of decay.

“The child will be dangerous,” he croaks, using her old name, her old face. A cough that has nothing to do with the virus of a later time rattles in his chest and he gasps for breath. She waits, wondering if this will be the last, but he’s a stubborn old mule.

“You said you don’t believe it, so why give them what they want?”

He scoffs, a burbling chuckle that turns her stomach. “Prophecies are for fools, for weak men. But it’s the essence of belief that drives even the fools to do extraordinary things. If they believe,” he stops, exhaling hard, inhaling with a whistling gasp, “if they believe, then they will do whatever it takes.”

“There’s no evidence to suggest such a child exists,” she whispers carefully, her voice smooth as ice, sultry like thick velvet. “She’s barren.”

“Oh, one will. You see, this is a pet project of mine. Years in the making,” he says, sitting back with a contented sigh, a thin, watery smile on his lips.

“You speak in parables. You play God,” she says, not bothering to disguise her disgust, “but you haven’t answered my question. Why go to the trouble?”

There’s a sharp twinkle in his eye like a splinter of glass. “To make a man suffer in life is not hard. To make him suffer in death…that is the mark of a legacy. There’s no better way to show the man the sum of his life than to see his failures reflected in his child’s eyes.”

She bites her tongue and tastes salt and copper. You sick fuck.

He levels his gaze at her as if he’s read her thoughts, his eyes dull and low in his gray, shrunken face. “I do what I have to do. As do you.”

She takes in this silent acknowledgment of her place as the world fades to black, the elastic snapping back through time to deposit her, aching and cold, on the floor of the study.

#

APRIL 1, 2015

6:42 P.M.

She waits in the corner, watching his lifeless body as though it might rise up of its own volition. At one point she thinks he does. The infection is burning through her bloodstream at this point, her mind loose and fluid, soon to be relieved of its earthly restraints.

In a dark fantasy, he kisses her, nipping at her swollen lips with angry, insistent caresses. His breath tastes sharp and sour with something else, a black, roiling undercurrent of death.

She comes out of the dream as if rising from the drowning depths of the sea, with a harsh gasp, followed by a deep, throaty cough.

Enough fluid in your lungs to drown a small child.

Or two.

Her eyes burn with unshed tears. She blinks over corneas of sandpaper and looks down at her latest accomplishment with a mixture of pity and fatigue.

The blood pooling under his head has long since dried, a dirty rust on the otherwise gleaming floor. She’s not sure what time it is, or even what day.

She’d expected to be found and caught. A nosy neighbor might have heard the gunshot and called the police, but as the days wear on, as the silence from the outside world deepens, she realizes the likelihood of any surviving neighbors is slim.

What’s one little murder among billions?

The infection took hold shortly before she left the lab. She unknowingly grasped both her life and death in a single moment, the press of her hand against his sleeve, the cool vial, a gift-curse hidden in her palm.

She is one of the lucky ones, though luck is relative. She’s been actively testing composites on herself since their research began, and it appears the soup of strains she’s shoved into her veins over the course of the last two years is slowing its progress. She may get a week, where others get the same number of days.

But she doesn’t wish for life. If she were a stronger person, she’d do what Kent intended for himself, but she’s never been strong, only cunning. A chameleon, willing to be whatever she needed to be to survive.

Tonight she blends into the shadows. She can almost feel herself disappearing, flesh dissolving into empty space, but she can’t succumb. Not yet.

There’s the boy to think about. She tries to picture him, this child who holds what’s left of her faith, though they’ve never met. He’d be thirteen, maybe fourteen, with his father’s hair and his mother’s eyes.

Just like them.

She shoves aside the thought, ruthless in her grief.

No time for that…Barbara.

Instead, she thinks about the vaccine, reaches into her pocket to comfort herself with its minuscule presence, a compulsive gesture born of grim determination.

She’s protected the secrets of powerful men all her life. She’d tried to tear down the darkness from the inside, to undermine the greatest conspiracy known to mankind, but she’d failed. She’d built herself back up from the ruins of a carefully crafted lie. She has a family, a legacy to protect, a future to hope for.

Had, she thinks bitterly, aware of the distinction now more than ever.

It had been different this time, no longer working at the behest of a greater power, her quest was finally her own.

And Michael’s.

But he was just another powerful man.

Her mind betrays her, going back to the memory of her daughters’ faces, how quiet they’d looked in their last hour. How her younger daughter had lifted herself from slumber with mussed hair and sleep lines on one tender cheek, unaware of her mother’s intended intrusion.

“Mommy?”

“Shh, sweetie. Shh, go to sleep.”

And she had, laid her head on the pillow, innocent and trusting until the final, bittersweet end.

That they should never have to face the same fate as their mother was a blessing, not a curse.

That’s what you tell yourself.

She weeps now, the tears falling onto her unfeeling cheeks, reduced to her essence, a shell of the cold soul she could never escape.

#

APRIL 1, 2015

10:13 P.M.

He finds her at last, stepping carefully into the soft moonlight that filters through the window. She watches from the shrouded corner as he stumbles upon Kent’s body, a grimace of disgust on his otherwise handsome face. He looks just as she remembers, save for the gray at his temples.

“Shit,” he hisses under his breath.

“Agent Mulder.”

Her words are rough, the sounds slow and foreign in her mouth as he wheels around.

“Who’s there?”

“A friend,” she croaks. The vaccines haven’t helped as much as she’d hoped. She closes her eyes, fighting the desire to curl into a ball, to press her burning forehead to the cool wood floor.

Your work. You must tell him. Before…

His breathing is rapid and thready as he searches for her in the dark. “Show yourself.”

She complies, easing into the light until he’s barely able to make out the contours of her face. “How do you know my name?”

“Just call me a friend. An old friend.”

#

The woman moves forward, a slow shuffle, until her face is no longer masked by the long light. There’s something familiar about her, but he can’t place it. Dark hair, deep brown eyes, full lips. It’s the eyes that give him pause.

He shakes his head. “Was he your friend, too?” he spits, glancing uneasily at the gaping hole in Michael Kent’s skull.

Her voice is low and husky, a walking 900 number if it weren’t for the cough. “How do you know I didn’t find him like that, Agent Mulder?”

He licks his lips. “See, that’s the other thing: I don’t work for the Bureau. I think you’ve got the wrong guy.”

She coughs again. “Call it force of habit, Mr. Mulder. I don’t have much time.”

He glances down, sees the glint of a handgun, swallows.

“You killed him,” he says, nodding toward the man on the floor. “Why?”

“For his own good. And yours.”

“I bet he’d argue otherwise if he could,” he breathes, scanning the room for a weapon, once again coming up empty.

“I’m not here to kill you—”

“Then how about you put that gun away and tell me what you want.”

She ignores this, but leaves the gun pointed at the floor. “Your son must live, Mr. Mulder.”

“What the hell do you know about my son?”

“He’s sick. He’s infected.”

“Yeah? Everyone’s sick.”

“You’re not. Neither is your partner.”

Mulder’s lips draw back in a frustrated snarl. “If you know so much about me, why won’t you tell me who you are?”

She blinks, long and slow. “Think about it for a moment. It will…come…to you.”

The eyes, there’s something about the eyes, and the way the word “come” rolls off her tongue, sultry and smooth like chocolate. There’s a hollow look he remembers from the distant past, furtive glances, and perhaps something more…

He draws back, glimpsing a faint, butter smile cross her lips at the whisper of her given name.

“Marita?”

“It’s Barbara now.”

He shakes his head in disbelief. “You look—“

“It’s amazing what a well-placed scalpel can do,” she ducks her head, suddenly self-conscious. “The pain was nothing compared to the hell they put me through.”

They.

“Jesus,” he murmurs, still taking her in. “They said you’d been killed. You disappeared—”

“I had no choice. They would have killed me.”

He swallows. “But I didn’t testify. I tried to protect you, Krycek said—“ but he stops short of confessing his visions, confusion on her face at the mention of the dead man.

“I’d outlived my usefulness,” she continues quietly, observing him. Her face has changed, but her eyes have the same hollow, piercing quality, as though she could unwrap the skin from his body with a single look.

“You pity me,” she states, matter-of-factly, and he doesn’t respond, because it’s true. He’d gone to great lengths in his search for the truth, but he hadn’t had to change his name, his face.

Of the two of them, he’d been the lucky one, hard as that was to believe.

“But that’s…not…why I’m here,” she coughs again, harder this time, and it takes a moment for her to regain her breath. She reaches into her pocket, a thin white hand disappearing into the black folds of her coat, and he jerks back instinctively, but what she holds in her fist is concealed.

“You…saved my life once. Consider the debt…repaid.”

She reaches out a pale-fingered hand, indicating for him to take the object, but he hesitates.

“What is it?”

“The cure,” she whispers. “The vaccine. Your son must survive, Mr. Mulder. They’re coming.”

“Who? Who’s coming?”

She barks a laugh, a harsh and horrible sound. “You know who. You’ve met them. Your son is our only hope.”

“Spare me the Obi-Wan Kenobi bullshit, Marita,” he spits, noting how she winces at the sound of her given name, a guilty surge of pleasure at this small leverage. She holds a gun, and he holds the truth about her past. “Tell me what’s happening. The virus—what is it?”

“A human concoction of an inhuman form.”

He blinks, brow creased. “You recreated it?”

“‘Know thine enemy,’ Mr. Mulder. Without the virus, we couldn’t create an effective vaccine.”

“And did you? Create a vaccine?”

“Yes.”

Mulder swallows his hope. “How can you be sure it works?”

“‘Cloaked human trials show substantial improvements in respiratory rates, heart rate, and blood pressure. Results indicate the vaccine is a success, further testing will need to be done to confirm,’” she murmurs, quoting directly from the blood-spattered reports laid across Kent’s desk.

“So is this it, huh?” he whispers drily, cold sweat trickling down his back, dampening his t-shirt.

She gives a quick and pained shake of her head. “There was an accident at the lab. It…accelerated the inevitable.”

He bites his lip, nostrils flaring, biting back his frustration. “I don’t follow.”

“This is the first stage. There can be no resistance if there’s no one alive to resist.”

“But you said it yourself—I’m not sick. There must be others. Survivors.” He realizes as he says it that he hasn’t wanted to believe until now that there would be no one left, that he’d taken the burden of hope on his shoulders without questioning it.

She looks at him, her eyes dark and sickly. “There are. Unlucky bastards, but they’re out there. The living will become slaves. Drones. Test subjects. Food.”

He’s shaking his head. “Why should I believe you?”

“If you want your son to live, you don’t have a choice.”

He sets his jaw, glancing again at the dead man. She’s right; he doesn’t trust her, but he has nothing else.

He reaches out, taking the object; it’s a vial, an ounce of amber liquid. It conjures images of a cold wasteland, a vast ship under ice, his partner’s face behind clouded glass. Once again he holds the future in his hands, and suddenly he’s tired, as though the tiny glass vial weighs tons instead of mere grams.

There was a time when this might have thrilled him, he might have welcomed it; the key to humanity’s future, the promise of a deep and profound knowledge, the ability to unlock some great universal puzzle. But now, he simply wants for this to be a terrible dream. For his son to be well, for their most pressing concern to be a school suspension, for his partner to be safe, for the possibility of a future.

She senses his resistance, his hesitation, but her strength is fading. “Agent…Mr. Mulder. You have no reason to trust me. But you have to believe that this…this is larger than our idle human conspiracies could have imagined. This goes deeper than we ever…could have known,” she whispers, swaying on her feet.

She jerks an arm out, finds the edge of a bookshelf and steadies herself. Something about the movement triggers a memory within him; her eyes blackened from the tests, her skin cold and cracked at the lips.

“Why aren’t you immune?”

“Who knows why they choose who they do, Mr. Mulder? Different strains…mutations of the old form…it doesn’t matter now. I’m already dead.”

She looks at him darkly, then closes her eyes.

“I suffered at their hands. I was given the chance to take it back…all the lies in which I’d been complicit. We were close,” she whispers, staring weakly at Kent’s body. “But they won, in the end. They always do. Until now.”

Her eyes burn into his as she stumbles forward, causing Mulder to jump, torn between helping her and running. “You—your son—can stop this. He can save what’s left. But he must survive.”

“What do you mean, save what’s left?”

“They’ve known about him since before he was born. They’ve watched him.”

“They’re trying to kill him—”

“They will try, and they will fail.”

“Who told you this? How do you know?” He has so many questions, but she’s rendered unable to answer. She pitches forward, kneeling on the floor, wracked with retching spasms.

“How—“

“Go,” she rasps, but still, he hesitates. His mind says to run, but his heart is too kind. For all her backhanded help, she doesn’t deserve this fate.

“You’re sick—“

“Go!” she snarls again, and he can see the spray of blood on her lips. “You don’t…have much…time.”

I’m not the one who’s out of time.

He palms the vial, stopping at the door to cast one last glance at his former informant, but she’s on hands and knees, gagging and coughing, her blood mingling with Kent’s on the tarnished wood floor.

Can’t help her now, Fox. Go.

He makes it to the sidewalk, a pristine strip of damp green sod, before he hears the gunshot. The sound rings in his ears long after he’s climbed into the car and driven away, shaken, the vial still clutched in his palm.

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