JULY 17, 2015
It’s 4 a.m. when Mulder finally gives in to the ache in his knee and gets up. The bed groans, echoing his discomfort as he pauses to massage around the joint with a grimace, giving the muscles in his leg time to relax enough for him to stand.
He’ll get dressed and see if Scully is awake. They’ve made a point of avoiding regular contact, speaking only for short periods, glancing conversations that take place with silent acknowledgement over meals or the occasional niceties in passing. Today is the supply run to find a transmission for the broken truck, and it seems wrong to leave without seeing her first.
Life has fallen into a dangerously soothing, predictable pattern. They wake, they eat, they do their jobs, they eat, they sleep. He thinks, shrugging on a gray sweatshirt and running his fingers through his hair, how easy it would be to let this become the rest of their lives.
The routine isn’t the problem so much as it is the feeling this place gives him; maybe it’s the run-down facilities, or the strange serenity amongst what should be a group of shell-shocked survivors. Like they’ve been here all along, waiting for this to happen.
It takes three tries before she answers the door, squinting into the hallway’s artificial daylight. “Mulder?”
“Hey,” he whispers, slipping past her and into the safety of her room as quickly as possible. “Sorry to wake you.”
He nods, bites his lip. “Too keyed up to sleep.”
She makes a soft, sleepy sound of understanding and crawls back into bed, patting the outside, indicating for him to join her. He does, laying on his side until they’re nose to nose.
“When do you leave?”
“Couple hours,” he yawns. “They want to get an early start. It’s a long drive.”
“And no one else volunteered?”
The truth is, there were plenty of others who could go in his place; people who were stronger, with more mechanical skill. Scully knows this. So does he.
“We’ll be out and back before dinner,” he says, in lieu of an answer. She frowns, a soft pout of her lips, but doesn’t push the issue. She’s been his partner long enough to know when to let him go.
He wishes he could convey how this place makes him feel; locked up, restless, like an endangered animal in the zoo, a manufactured habitat with cameras in every corner, monitored from the other side of the glass.
The sense that someone has them right where they want them.
Still half asleep, she whispers, “It’s dangerous out there, Mulder.”
He doesn’t have to ask what she means. Her fingers fret with the hem of her pillowcase, and he places his hands, warm and steady, on top of hers to still them. She’s his rock, but whether because of the early hour or the circumstances, her nervousness is palpable, disconcerting.
“It’s just as dangerous to become complacent.”
Scully sighs and closes her eyes, murmuring, “Be careful.”
His lips graze her forehead in a silent promise.
He waits until he hears the squeak of footsteps passing outside, the early risers heading for their morning showers, and sneaks away before anyone can see him. The cafeteria is quiet, almost somber. He forces himself to eat a few bites of his toast, a few forkfuls of eggs, washing it down with bitter coffee that does nothing to settle his stomach.
Dawn is creeping in as George, Tammie, and Jay load up one of the working trucks with supplies at the garage.
“Ready for this, Hale?” George asks, grinning widely, as if nominated the keeper of some great secret. He tosses a toolbag into the bed with a crash.
“What are the odds?” First George had asked upon being introduced with an exuberant, meaty handshake, and Mulder had only shrugged and smiled, thinking, Statistically, I’d take them to Vegas. First George was not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he knew his way around an engine, which was more than Mulder, who knew just enough to be dangerous or an annoyance, depending on the circumstances.
“Guess there’s a first time for everything,” Mulder mutters in return, tossing his pack over the side of the truck.
Tammie is less imposing, but her demeanor more than makes up for her lack of stature. “Let’s get a move on, boys. I didn’t get my coffee this morning.”
“If you can call that sludge coffee,” Jay mutters.
“Better than nothin’,” Tammie retorts, her face tight as she climbs into the cab. She drives with Jay up front; the two Georges sit in the bed of the pickup.
“Here,” First George says. “You’ll want this.”
He hands Mulder a shotgun, pulled from the lockbox at the back of the bed.
“You know how to shoot, right?”
“Sure,” Mulder says, although I’d prefer something smaller, he thinks. It’s been years since he’s fired anything other than a pistol. Even living in the country, he’d never taken up hunting; a former fugitive, it felt too personal to stalk and take the life of a creature who was just trying to go about his day. Too close for comfort.
“You’re going to want to save your shots,” George says, cocking open his shotgun and extracting one of the bullets, holding it up. “These babies are only good for one thing.”
Mulder squints; it looks like a regular shell, but the man twists the top off, dumping the contents into his palm, and a reddish gray slug falls out.
“We made the slugs,” George explains, nodding. “Only thing that slows ‘em down. Regular bullets don’t work.”
Dust billows from the back as they drive, reaching the compound borders, stopping to pull aside and then re-lock the gates. Then they’re speeding down a back road, more of a path ground into the dirt by the same wheels, and Mulder fights off nausea from the jouncing and jostling.
The others have done dozens of runs like this before, but everyone is focused, nonetheless. Idle chatter gives way to watchful quiet. As they draw further and further away from the compound, they’re more likely to encounter the creatures.
“They’re weak, though,” George says casually; he tosses a handful of trail mix into his mouth, chewing as he talks. “We see ‘em wandering out here sometimes.”
“You get close?”
The man grins, as if it’s a novelty, like visiting Canada to see a caribou. “Yeah, plenty close. Close enough to see the whites of their eyes, if they were white and not black.”
The man cackles as if he’s made a joke.
“Anyway, should be ‘bout half an hour up the road,” George says, yelling over the roar and rattle of the old truck, and Mulder grimaces in the man’s general direction, before turning his attention back to the rolling, empty landscape.
The outskirts of a small town appear along the horizon, and Mulder shifts, reflexively tightening his grip on the shotgun. George seems to be enjoying his nervousness when they crest a hill overlooking what used to be a shopping center; a strip mall and a car dealership—Benny’s Bounty, Your Wheels for Our Deals—with a row of used vehicles, among them several dusty trucks.
They pull up alongside the nearest Chevy, in good condition given its age.
Tammie hops out; George mutters something about going to look for supplies in the nearby store, but Jay cuts him off.
“This first,” he says. “We might need your help.”
George doesn’t look happy, but he doesn’t argue, just scowls and leans on the side of their target, watching as Tammie wiggles underneath.
“Think this will work,” she says. “Get the jack.”
Mulder grabs the toolkit and the jack from the back of the truck, sliding it down to her.
“Hale, you a good shot?”
“Decent,” Mulder says, remembering the island, showing Isaac how to hold the gun, watching as the bullet hit its mark.
“Then I want you on watch.”
It’s the kind way to say he’s otherwise useless, but Mulder picks up the shotgun anyway. Already the temperatures have climbed into the nineties, and it’s a beautiful, clear day; the sun beating down without a hint of cloud cover. Even his sunglasses seem to have given up the ghost; the day goes from dazzling to blinding when he takes the glasses off to wipe them with the corner of his t-shirt.
The truck is off the ground, hood up, and Tammie works on disconnecting the new transmission while Jay supervises. “Easy does it, girl,” he advises, and Mulder hears a disgruntled snort.
“‘Girl’, my ass,” she says, strain in her voice. “Gimme that wrench, Hale. Jay, make yourself useful and get me a bucket for the fluid.”
Mulder does as he’s told. Under different circumstances, he’d admire the woman; with some polish, she would have made a good FBI agent.
Like Scully, he thinks, before he feels Tammie kick his shin. “The other one, Hale. The socket.”
“Right,” he says, blinking at the array of metal in the toolbox. He grabs a different wrench, hoping it’s the right one. It must be, because she continues her grunting and swearing, but doesn’t throw it back.
“Alright, it’s out,” she says, sliding out from beneath the metal monster. “Back is killing me; Jay, Hale, you two get—“
Her shoulder hits the jack, releasing it, but the truck is unbalanced; it lands with a groan, kicking up dust. The transmission she’d been working on crashes to the ground, her shoulder underneath it.
There’s a sickening crunch, a screech as Tammie’s collarbone snaps under the weight of the vehicle and its newly extracted transmission. Mulder dives, trying to pull up on the side of the truck to lift it and relieve the pressure while the woman writhes, trapped.
George moves for the right, attempting the same, but the two men can’t lift it more than an inch.
Mulder’s hands and shoulders ache from the strain of trying to hold it, all the while Tammie’s screams have become pleading whimpers. Jay moves to Mulder’s side.
Shit, it’s no use, Mulder thinks, as Jay’s hands come up next to his. The truck is massive, too big for two men, let alone—
It’s moving. Jay seems to have tipped the balance, and Mulder feels the weight lifting almost of its own accord. When George steps back, Jay is solely holding up the truck; Mulder’s hands have pulled away, more in shock than out of necessity.
What the hell—
He doesn’t have time to think about it. Jay is barking in his ear, “Hale, get her outta there! Can’t hold this thing forever.”
He does, reaching down, rolling the heavy machinery to the side to release her, swearing as he jostles Tammie’s broken shoulder. Her collarbone is turning a sickly shade of mottled red and purple.
He winces and staggers, carrying the woman to the bed of the truck, setting her down as gently as he can with help from George. Jay remains stone-faced, frowning as though he’s dirtied his best suit.
“Let’s get the transmission out. She can ride in the back with Hale.”
Mulder blinks, wondering if he’s misheard. “You’re not serious. She needs help—”
“And we need the transmission, it’ll only take a minute. She’ll be fine.”
Tammie groans in response, crying out as she moves to reach up and touch her broken shoulder. There’s red spittle on her lips, and her face is ashen, but she grits her teeth, murmuring, “I’m fine. Get the tranny.”
Mulder looks back and forth between Jay and George, but both men are moving back toward the truck, Jay ordering George to finish wresting out the equipment.
“Hale, we need your help over here.”
Mulder swallows. “Coming,” he says, his voice a rasp from his dry, dusty throat as he casts one last glance at Tammie’s moaning figure.
“Faster we do this, the faster we get back,” Jay says evenly.
Mulder thinks again of the truck, the way Jay hadn’t even flinched. Had he already pulled his hands away when Jay stepped in? He’s almost certain George had, but…maybe…
The details are fuzzy amidst the commotion, the weight of the truck, the ache in his arms and the adrenaline in his blood.
They wrest the transmission from beneath the second truck and haul it out.
By the time they’re done, Tammie has all but passed out in the bed, flinching only a little when they move her off to the side to make room for the new truck parts.
“Gonna need fluid for this thing; there’s a tire outlet just up the way, we’ll swing by and get what we can,” Jay says.
“What?” Mulder wheels around. “She needs help. We can get supplies anywhere.”
Jay looks nonplussed. “This is more important than—“
“Than a woman’s life?” Mulder asks, incredulous.
“I didn’t say that,” Jay murmurs. “Hale, I’m telling you, step off. She’ll be fine.”
“And this is your expert opinion?” Mulder snarls.
Jay smiles an easy grin, as if they were friends chatting over coffee. “It’s a quick stop. We’ll be in and out,” he says. “Why don’t you climb in the back and help keep her comfortable. The longer we stand here talkin’, the longer it’ll take to get back, right?”
There’s no menace in his voice, but something about the way he flexes his fist around the gun in his hand makes Mulder uneasy. The other man’s point is perfectly clear.
“Fuck,” he mutters, kneeling beside Tammie in the truck bed. “Hey,” he says, rousing her from a stupor. She blinks up at him slowly, grimaces. “We’ll be back soon. You need anything? Water?”
“I’ll be fine,” she says. “Worst is already past.”
The lines around her forehead and mouth say otherwise, and Mulder checks the mirror to see if Jay and George are watching, but they’re focused on getting to the tire shop. He lowers his voice. “Tammie…what happened back there—“
“Was a stupid slip,” she whispers, cutting him off, hissing as her shoulder jostles against the wheel well as they hit a particularly hard bump. The bruise has spread down her arm in a lazy, purplish river beneath her gray skin. “Tell those jackasses to slow down. Not as bad as before, but it hurts like a sonofabitch.”
“Hey guys,” Mulder says, rapping on the dividing window between the cab and the back until George slides it open, yelling over the engine. “She’s bleeding internally…she needs a doctor.”
Jay eyes him in the rearview mirror, annoyed, then returns his attention to the road. “Few more minutes won’t make a difference.”
Mulder bites his tongue hard enough to draw blood. The shotgun rests across his lap, but he’s outnumbered, and they’re too far out.
The roads are smoother out here, the parking lot at the tire place is empty. Before Mulder can ask what the plan is, the doors of the truck open.
“Stay with her, Hale.”
The two men head for the store, bypassing the useless sliding glass doors; the front window has already been smashed.
A quick glance in the cab reveals Jay has taken the keys, and as the seconds tick by, Mulder considers hot-wiring the truck, turning around, and taking Tammie back to the compound. He can hear the mens’ voices in the back of the store, a guffaw, probably George, and barked orders from Jay.
Suddenly the voices turn deeper, louder. Jay is yelling something, and now George is yelling, too. A gunshot rings out, and Mulder ducks, instinctively covering Tammie’s body with his own.
“What was that?” she rasps, suddenly wide awake.
“Dunno,” he says, heart in his throat, peering over the side of the bed, but there’s nothing to see; just the open black hole of the store from which he can still hear Jay, swearing at the top of his lungs.
“Be right back,” he says, jumping from the back of the truck, taking the safety off the shotgun. The hair on the back of his neck prickles as he raises the butt of the gun to his shoulder, cautiously stepping forward.
Before he can get far, the two men appear, rugged faces peering out from the darkened store window. “Put down the gun, Hale.”
He does, but slowly, noting a deep scratch on George’s cheek, another on Jay’s upper arm. “What was that?”
Jay shoots George a look. “Nothin’. Dummy over here knocked over one of the displays in the back.”
George glowers but doesn’t say anything. In his right hand, he carries a bottle of transmission fluid.
“There was a gunshot—”
“Yeah, my trigger finger got itchy,” Jay says. “Thought it was one of those things, but it was just this guy and his two left feet.”
Mulder frowns, then looks back to the storefront, still dark and silent. His grip tightens on the gun.
“C’mon,” Jay interrupts, already climbing back into the truck. “Tammie’s hurt, we need to get back.”
Mulder watches over Tammie on the ride back. Her upper arm remains a disconcerting purple, but by the time they pull up to the compound’s outer perimeter, some color has returned to her cheeks. She’s coherent as they arrive back at the main building.
Jay doesn’t waste time. “George, help her to the clinic, would ya? Hale and I will finish up with the truck.”
He catches Mulder’s eye, daring him to suggest otherwise.
“Let’s get to work,” Mulder says through clenched teeth.
They exchange few words as they install the transmission, Jay taking on the brunt of the work as Mulder assists.
“What did you think of your first run, Hale?” Jay says, sliding out from under the truck.
Mulder snorts. “Are they usually so tedious?”
Jay chuckles, a low, dry sound. “Yeah, it was tense. Don’t worry about her, Hale. Tammie’s a tough chick.”
“Yeah?” Mulder mutters, tipping his head up. “Didn’t look that way.”
There’s a heavy pause as Jay sizes him up, lets out a breath, his mouth turning up at the corner in a smirk that holds no trace of mirth. “Word of advice, Hale. You worry about keeping your nose clean. You’re gonna do just fine out here if you can keep your nose clean. Get what I’m saying?”
Mulder swallows hard, feels his hands tighten involuntarily, fingers curling inward. The smirk plays over Jay’s face, taunting.
“Thanks,” Mulder chokes out finally, relenting. “Good advice.”
“Glad we have an understanding,” Jay says. “Think I’m good here. Why don’t you go wash up?”
Mulder makes his way back to the compound’s main building, and only once he’s inside do his fists unclench slightly, do the muscles around his neck and shoulders begin to loosen their iron-tight grip.
It’s late by the time he gets to his room and sheds his sweaty, sand-sodden clothes. He changes into a fresh t-shirt and jeans and heads to Scully’s room, tapping on the door before letting himself in. She’s there, studying something at her desk under the glow of a small lamp, a pair of reading glasses perched on her nose.
“Yeah, it’s me.”
“Hey, just finishing up; I need to get these numbers back to Peter before they close up for the night.”
“Ah. How’s the research coming?”
“We’ve made progress. More than I expected,” she says, frowning at something on the page. “Honestly, Mulder, I’m not sure how much help I am. Peter has a better grasp on the science.”
“It was your idea,” Mulder reminds her.
“It was, but I’m just a doctor,” she says.
“You were a scientist first,” he replies, a hint of all that came before in the timbre of his voice.
She smiles then, a genuine one that makes her look ten years younger. “The good news is, we should have a viable seed within the next few months, maybe even sooner.”
Mulder nods, ducks his head, and Scully turns to look at him for the first time, sees the the furrow in his brow, the stoop of his shoulders.
“How did the run go? I heard there was an accident.”
He nods again. “Tammie, she got…a truck fell on her. Crushed her shoulder.”
Scully’s eyes widen. “Oh, my God…“
“They say she’s going to be fine,” he says. “I was going to check on her. She’s laid up for a few weeks, at least.”
A crease lines her brow. “I overheard something about a sprain…one of Peter’s friends mentioned it while we were working, so I assumed it wasn’t serious.”
“A sprain? No. You’re thinking of someone else…she was crushed under the truck. She passed out from shock…I mean, I’m not a doctor, but I heard her collarbone snap.”
Scully narrows her eyes. “Are you sure?”
“I know what I saw, Scully, I was there. And that wasn’t even the weirdest thing,” he continues, sitting down on the the bed as the day’s strange events finally catch up to him. “We were trying to lift the truck. Me and George…and it just…it wasn’t happening. I was going for the jack to start hoisting it back up, but then Jay…he came along and just…he put his hands on the truck, and it moved.”
Scully’s expression changes from one of worry to skepticism. “Mulder…you’re not saying he lifted the truck by himself.”
“I think that’s exactly what I’m saying.”
“Mulder, those things have to weigh at least two tons.”
“Maybe,” he says. “But I know what I saw. My hands weren’t even on the truck, and George had stepped away…it was all Jay, and he did it without breaking a sweat.”
“Possible. That’s not possible,” he finishes for her, unable to help the mocking tone that’s snuck into his voice.
“And I suppose you have an explanation.”
“I don’t, actually,” Mulder sighs, massaging his forehead with his fingers in an attempt to relieve the pressure that’s been building since he woke up this morning. “Actually I do, but if I’m right….”
There’s pain in her face at the words.
She’s comfortable here, he thinks. Isaac is happy here.
“What kind of people have superhuman strength, Scully? What kind of person can single-handedly lift up a two-thousand pound truck?”
Her nostrils flare, but he knows she won’t give him the satisfaction of an answer.
“Aliens can. Hybrids can,” Mulder says, his voice growing more and more insistent with each breath. “They can also heal themselves. Rapidly. I bet if you checked in on Tammie tomorrow, you’ll find her collarbone intact.”
She sighs, weary, and folds her arms across her chest.
“That’s not everything, Scully. After the truck, we went to a store to get fluid for the transmission. I stayed with Tammie in the truck while George and Jay went in. Something happened while they were inside, but Jay wouldn’t talk about it.”
“What do you think…?”
“I don’t know,” he frowns. “There was a noise; they said they knocked something over, but from the outside it sounded…it didn’t sound like that. Jay fired his gun, said he got spooked, but he looked pretty damn calm to me. And George told me before the run to conserve ammo. I think he intended to fire the gun, but we never saw at what.”
“And while we’re on the subject,” he interrupts. “Have you noticed how many triplets there are running around this place? If there were ever an argument for clones—”
She barks a laugh. “Triplets aren’t as rare as you’d think.”
“Yeah, but three sets of them? In a population of a couple hundred? I want those odds on my next lottery ticket.”
She sighs, throwing her hands up. “Maybe there’s something about identical triplets that makes them immune. That would explain the admittedly unorthodox ratio—“
“Scully, listen to me. We can’t write every single thing off as a coincidence. At some point, we have to look at the most plausible explanation.”
“Mulder, you’re being—“
“Don’t say it, Scully. Don’t,” he cuts her off. “Not you,” he continues in a low voice, suddenly tired and hurting. “I’ll take that from anyone but you.”
“What, so now that we’re here, I don’t get a say? My science suddenly doesn’t hold up under your scrutiny because the world has gone to hell? You can’t just accept what I tell you one minute and throw all the logical explanations away the next. That’s not how this works.”
“I’m not saying that, Scully.”
“What does this mean for us? Where do we go from here? Do we run again? Do we barricade ourselves in for the rest of our lives just to wither and die in the dark? ‘As long as we’re together, we’ll be OK,’ but that’s not the whole truth,” she spits. “Isaac is happy here. He’s finally happy, Mulder, have you seen him? He’s thriving. He doesn’t have nightmares. He’s living his life in the tiny circle within which we can afford for him to live. Don’t fuck that up just because you can’t play well with others.”
“Don’t you think I want what’s best for us, Scully?” His voice is low, wounded. “For him?”
This appears to deflate her, taking some of the wind from her argument as she folds into herself, sitting on the bed beside him. “I think…I think you don’t know when to stop looking for trouble.”
“Just because you don’t want it to be true, doesn’t make it go away, Scully. We’re outsiders. For all we know, they’ve known about the infection from the beginning, they may even be responsible. If we’re among clones here…if these people are as strong as I saw today…what happens if they turn on us?”
“But they haven’t. They’ve been nothing but kind. If they were truly behind this, why would they agree to this research? I can’t do this alone, and…and…Jesus, Mulder, why does it always come down to this?”
“You against the world. We can follow or let you drag us along; the choice is the same.”
He withdraws, visibly stung. “Tell me how you really feel, Scully.”
She swallows. “Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it that way. Let’s…step back. We can talk about this in the morning.”
He smirks in spite of the tension that’s roiling between them. “People are going to get the wrong idea.”
“Yeah, well. The jig’s up,” she sighs drily. “Maureen cornered me in the greenhouse today while I was working to ask about our ‘extracurricular activities.’ She’s very happy I’ve found love as a widow. With a child, no less,” she rolls her eyes. “There may have been an ‘especially at your age’ comment in there somewhere, but I pretended not to hear.”
Mulder blinks. “So they know?”
“They think we met and one thing led to another,” she says, waving him off.
He thinks for a moment. “Good. Let’s keep it that way.”
Her eyes shimmer with something akin to disappointment. “I’m…going to go. I need to take some more notes out to the greenhouse before I forget. I’ll see you tomorrow?”
He nods, watching as she slips into a fresh shirt, buttoning it up in front of the bathroom mirror, fluffs her hair, frowns at what she sees. She stops at the last moment, turning back to him before opening the door.
“I know your fear, Mulder. But I need you to give it more time.”
“I am,” he says, but the words come out in a petulant whine.
She nods, pressing her lips together in a taut line. Her silence is all the answer he needs.
Mulder wanders, restless, deciding to head down to the hospital wing to check on Tammie, partly out of concern, and partly out of curiosity. If what Scully said was right—that it was no more than a bad sprain—he should feel relieved.
“Hello?” Mary pokes her head out of a room at the sound of the elevator. “Oh, I thought I heard someone. Can I help you?”
“Hey, did they bring Tammie down here?”
“Oh yes—she’s in there,” she says, gesturing to a room down the hall.
The floor is quiet; Tammie’s room is easy to find, because it’s the only one occupied, lit by a single dim lamp. She appears to be sleeping, but her eyes open when the door creaks.
“Hale?” she blinks, shielding her eyes from the onslaught of light filtering in from the hallway.
“Hey,” he says, suddenly awkward. He stuffs his hands in his pockets and approaches her bed. “Yeah, it’s me. Wanted to see how you were doing.”
“M’fine,” she says. “Doc says it’s just a sprain.”
“Really? Looked pretty bad out there,” he says, trying to get a better view of her shoulder. The light is too weak; half her body is in shadow, and the collarbone that should have been crushed under the weight of the truck is covered by the hospital gown. Dark, curling hair falls around her face, her harsh profile softened by the glow of the lamp.
“I’m a fast healer. I’ll be back to work day after tomorrow. Would be sooner, but the Doc insisted on a 24-hour watch.”
“Nothing broken?” he says, trying to keep his tone conversational.
“Nope. Shoulder hurts like a bitch, though,” she grimaces, rubbing at the offending joint. “Do me a favor, would you?”
Mulder nods, shrugs.
“Don’t let George drive. He’s the reason we lost the transmission on that damn truck in the first place. He can fix ‘em, but he can’t drive stick for shit.”
Mulder smirks, nods. “I’ll do that. Hey, Tammie, I wanted to ask you…about the run today…”
“You said the truck slipped—“
“Knocked off its jack,” she agrees.
“Did you see who lifted it? The truck, I mean.”
“Gee, Hale, I was what you might call preoccupied,” she mutters.
“Of course,” Mulder nods, rubbing at his chin. “Of course, I just…I wasn’t much help with this bum knee and all. It’s amazing we got the thing up off the ground. You’re lucky to be alive.”
She sniffs. “What’s your point?”
He pauses, wondering if he should continue, but before he can formulate a coherent question, a familiar voice floats down the hall, and Mulder turns toward it instinctively.
“Hale?” Tammie repeats. “That all?”
“Yeah, I’ll, uh, see you later. Rest up,” he mutters, his concentration interrupted by the pull of the young voice. He steps into the hall, where Isaac and Charlie are back-to, heading for the elevator, whispering in sharp, clipped tones.
The boy turns on his heel, visibly surprised. His eyes are wide, troubled…guilty.
“Mul—Mr. Hale,” Isaac says, slipping, but Charlie is distracted and doesn’t seem to notice. “What are you doing here?”
“Checking in on a friend,” he says, gesturing over his shoulder to Tammie’s room. “What are you two doing? Staying out of trouble, right?” he says, intending to be kind, but Isaac’s face turns a faint shade of pink. Charlie glances at him, then back to Mulder, eyes shifting uncertainly between the two of them.
“School project,” she says finally, spitting out the words like seeds.
“Ahh,” Mulder says, directing the question at Isaac, who won’t meet his eyes. “So what’re you working on?”
“We’re studying viruses,” Charlie says, as if reciting a rehearsed speech. “But we’re done now.”
“Going up?” Mulder asks as they reach the elevator. He punches the button without waiting for an answer. The ride up is almost icy, and Mulder can’t shake the feeling that he’s stepped into the middle of a storm.
The doors open a few seconds later to a wide-eyed Scully. “Isaac? I was just about to come looking for you.”
“We were studying,” Isaac mumbles, brushing past her, heading for his room.
Mulder gives Scully a knowing look as Charlie ducks under his arm to avoid further conversation, without so much as a goodbye to her friend.
Isaac is already halfway down the hall before Mulder and Scully catch up. “Hey, did something happen?”
“No,” he says, but the word is stretched thin.
“Wait up,” Mulder says, reaching out to touch the boy’s shoulder, but Isaac flinches.
“I just want to go,” he says, lips curling up in a snarl. Scully draws back in surprise at seeing the withdrawn face of the boy they met years ago, a striking contrast to the happier version they’d grown accustomed to in the last few weeks.
One of the residents pokes her head out her bedroom door at the sound of raised voices. “Everything OK?”
“We’re fine,” Mulder says, attempting a reassuring smile. The woman doesn’t look convinced, but she closes the door.
Scully turns to the boy, whispering, “Isaac, we want to help…”
“You can’t,” he sighs. Then, almost shameful, “I’m fine. I’m just tired. Really.”
There’s a pause; Mulder realizes he can hear the boy’s breath in the silence, fast and nervous.
“Sleep well,” Scully says finally, still watching him.
“What was that about?” Scully asks after he’s safely behind the door, folding her arms around herself.
“They were in the hospital wing…his friend said they were studying.”
Scully shoots him a sideways glance. “Do you believe that?”
“Not a bit,” he murmurs. “She was covering for something. He lies like you do.”
Scully sniffs. “Hormones, you think?”
Mulder grimaces. Isaac is bright, but also fifteen. “Possibly. Have we had that, uh, talk with him yet?”
Scully raises an eyebrow. “That’s your territory.”
“You’re the one with the MD after your name.”
“That particular conversation would be much more appropriate coming from you,” she counters.
“Yeah, well, we’ve kinda had other things to worry about,” he mutters. “I think it’s more likely they found something they weren’t supposed to.”
Mulder shrugs. “Like whatever is responsible for turning a woman’s crushed shoulder into a minor sprain.”
Scully’s nostrils flare, an argument poised on the tip of her tongue.
“You’re probably right, it’s nothing. We should keep an eye on him, in any case,” he recants. “In the meantime, I think I’m going to take another look around.”
“What do you think you’re going to find that you didn’t last time?”
He shrugs. “I don’t know, but I can’t stay here until I know we’re safe.”
He can hear them outside his bedroom door, talking softly. He can’t hear the words, but he doesn’t need to to know they’re talking about him.
Isaac curls up in his bed, facing the wall, and shuts his eyes tightly.
He counts to six hundred, but long after their footsteps retreat, he’s still not asleep.
He hasn’t had a single nightmare since arriving at the compound. Save for that one time he and Charlie crossed the fence, he hasn’t had headaches, or visions. His hands no longer burn when he gets upset, and his stomach doesn’t hurt with the vestiges of the virus.
But it’s not enough, and he feels impotent rage rising up within him once again. Mosely was one of Them. One of the men chosen to do unspeakable things to his patients in the name of creating a new master race, who quite possibly was behind the same project that killed his mother and destroyed his family.
And yet, there was no new race. There were only a few desperate people living in the middle of the desert, protected by invisible walls.
Isaac sighs and sits up. Could he forgive Mosely and his compatriots? The answer is a swift, undeniable “no.”
…but where could they go? Where would they live?
Worse, would his parents resent him for being the catalyst?
Tears prick at his eyes and he wipes them away, furious with himself. More than ever, he wishes he’d never given in to Charlie’s goading, had just thrown the hard drive away, buried it beneath the rocks and sand so they could live in peace.
The rest of the compound is settling in for the night; Mulder passes just one person, someone from the maintenance crew, mopping the floor. The other man looks up from his work and nods in greeting, and Mulder does the same, the exchange taking no more than a couple seconds, but it doesn’t stop him from looking over his shoulder every few steps to make sure he’s not being followed.
The elevator hangs open, silent, like it’s been waiting. He half expects to find Mosely standing on the other side, but the doors open on the empty hallway.
He weaves his way through the halls to the waste management room, intuition guiding him to the locked door at the opposite end. He hesitates over the keypad, wondering if it’s rigged. He frowns, then finds the gum wrapper in his pocket, a small piece of foil. Ripping a piece of cardboard from a nearby broken down box, he slips the foil over one side and whisks the makeshift card through the slot.
His heart quickens, he feels his muscles winding up like a toy, ready for an alarm to sound and notify someone of his presence. No footsteps, no alarms, just the hum and clank of machinery behind him. It’s warm down here; sweat slithers down the back of his neck and he swallows hard.
He does, this time sliding the card faster through the lock, but without luck. He can feel his throat going dry with the heady, acidic taste of adrenaline.
Shit. Third time’s a charm.
The light flickers, echoing his heartbeat, before flashing green.
The door clicks open and Mulder steps inside. The echo of the door lock sounds like a thunderclap behind him. There’s little to see; it’s pitch black. He fumbles along the inner wall for a switch or a lever, and when he finds it, the black glows green before brightening enough to make him squint.
His heart sinks as he realizes his stealth may have been for not. The walls are lined with more boxes and discarded furniture.
But he hesitates; it’s storage, but it’s also tidy. There’s an open space in the middle. Someone has been here recently; the floor is clean, no footprints tracked in from the dusty waste tanks.
He takes a few steps into the dim gray area, surprised to see a shadow shifting at the far end of the room. His jaw tightens at the sight, fear creeping into his bloodstream, but a pause reveals it’s only his reflection in a window.
He approaches the opposite end of the room, blinking; there must be a room on the other side of the glass, but it’s dark, too.
There’s something else; a smell, subtle and familiar, and vaguely unpleasant. Different from the antibiotic smell of processed waste.
He winces, feels his initial sense of relief begin to waver. The door to the glass room is also locked, though the keypad is the same as the others, easily bypassed.
He finds his hand tightening on the handle, his fingers reaching out. A count begins in his head; five, four, three, two—
He swipes the foil and mashes the keys. The door beeps lightly and unlocks with a resounding click that echoes in the mostly empty room, swinging open to darkness and a stench that’s too real, bringing back memories.
The light glows green, then brightens, shining down on a large glass tube on a table of metal. It looks like a hyperbaric chamber, once used by hospitals to aid in healing burn victims, but this one isn’t healing anything as far as Mulder can see.
The creature within is still, but that doesn’t make Mulder feel better. The glass isn’t reinforced; it’s probably locked. But it doesn’t move, doesn’t acknowledge his presence.
The smell is terrible, overpowering, reminding him of the deep scratch on Scully’s shoulder, of the darkest corner of a department store in Pennsylvania.
The creature remains still as Mulder approaches, the eyes glossy and glazed, milky white against dark onyx flesh. Shimmering under the fluorescent lights, it appears to be covered in scales, muscular ripples along its limbs.
He considers, in a moment of nostalgic reflex, convincing Scully to perform an autopsy. Wonders who is responsible for bringing the creature here, and why.
He circles the tank, keeping a wide berth from the thing, with its dark, angry eyes.
But this one’s eyes aren’t angry at all, really. They stare blankly, seeing nothing, and Mulder feels a flicker of something that’s almost compassion; trapped like an animal in this strange tube-like construction, its strength diminished in captivity.
It’s obvious Mulder’s species is the unlucky prey on this new planet, but pity wells up in him nonetheless. Drawing closer, he presses his fingers lightly against the glass, a stunned child in a gruesome candy store. The affirmation of his hunch doesn’t bring relief, only dread.
Scully’s warning comes back to him in a wry moment of clarity; if you go digging in a graveyard, you’re bound to dig up a body eventually.
And what a body it is, he thinks grimly.
He backs slowly away from the chamber, shutting off the light, preparing to leave. He has to tell Scully and Isaac.
That’s when he hears it; a faint humming, rising and falling like a cold waterfall through his blood.
He drops to the floor, cursing his knee as it locks up from the sudden movement. He can’t hear specifics, but the pattern is definitely speech, growing closer.
You left the light on. They’ll know you’re here.
He grimaces, teeth pulled back in pain and fear as he crawls along the floor at the edge of the room, slowly making his way to the far corner, looking for a place to hide. His eyes have yet to adjust to the dark.
Go go go
He makes his way to the opposite corner, bumping into a chair, another chair, and finally under what might be a desk. He curls up, making himself as small as he possibly can, breathing hard.
He waits; the outer room has gone quiet. Then a shuffle, a step, and as his eyes adjust he can make out a shadow under the door. He pulls his sweat-soaked t-shirt over his mouth to muffle his breathing as the door opens.
“God, it fucking stinks in here, Mose.”
“Decomposition isn’t roses, Mr. Manners.”
“Pfft. How do you want to do this?” the other man sighs, and Mulder recognizes it as Jay.
“Same as last time,” Mosely says easily. “Help me get the other one out.”
“Alright. Let’s make it quick, this one’s feisty.”
Mulder only has a narrow view of the chamber, but he can hear the vacuum release as it’s opened; a fresh wave of the smell hits him.
“Oh, god,” Jay moans, muffled.
Mosely doesn’t sound affected; there’s barely any strain in his voice as the dark shape in the chamber is lifted and dragged away. Mulder dares to stick his head out a bit as the men work to get a better view, but quickly tucks himself back into the shadows.
They catch you, it’s not going to be a slap on the wrist and a tour.
Suddenly there’s a keening, a high-pitched wail, and he flinches, his elbow hitting the concrete behind the desk hard enough to bruise.
“Fuck, hurry up!” Jay says.
“In time,” Mosely’s voice again. Mulder swallows as a squirming black shape is placed in the chamber after some struggle.
He wants to get a closer look, but he has more pressing issues now; footsteps, coming around the glass and toward the desk.
“Don’t forget to calibrate it,” Mosely says as he approaches, and Mulder closes his eyes, willing himself invisible. The other man isn’t paying attention.
“You didn’t get enough in this one, Mose, it’s…not…gonna…”
“It’s fine,” Mosely snaps, moving back toward the door, and Mulder feels his sweating palms release their grip, his fingernails pressed deeply enough to leave welts.
There’s a humming as the chamber is closed, though the creature inside is waking up from its drugged stupor. This one is very much alive.
And pissed off, Mulder thinks with a twist in his gut, remembering how flimsy the glass had looked, when the creature within was thankfully not alive to break free.
But this one wants dinner, he thinks.
Dismay becomes terror as the creature begins to fight; he can hear the scraping of claws against the glass, an eerie, terrible sound, and there’s rising panic in Jay’s voice. “Turn it on, goddamned thing, it’s—“
A surge, louder humming, and suddenly the creature goes rigid. Mulder’s line of sight only allows him to see its back as it arches.
“Jesus, you could’ve done that sooner,” Jay complains, but there’s no response. Footsteps again, shuffling away, as Mosely circles the chamber, much as Mulder had done. He mutters something unintelligible as the creature’s back arches a second time, and a stunted screech emanates from behind the glass walls.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Nothing beautiful about it,” Jay mutters.
Mulder’s ass is starting to ache, but he doesn’t dare move.
Leave. Leave. Please, leave, so I can get up and get to Scully and Isaac and—
It’s as if Mosely can read his mind.
“Come,” the man beckons, and Mulder hears them retreat, the door closes, and what little light filtered through from the other room is gone. There are muffled whimpers and groans coming from the tank, and Mulder presses his back into the hardwood of the desk, sweating fear, desperate to move.
But he waits, legs aching, head pounding, fear coursing through his veins like ice.
It could be minutes or hours, he risks standing just outside view of the looking glass, stretching his legs and massaging out a cramp.
There’s a sad mewling screech and the occasional flailing thunk from the alien creature in the tank, but it appears to be secure. Mulder can just barely make out its shadow, can see its muscular body moving constantly, almost rippling, the head tossing back and forth in an endless search for nothing. Pain, constant pain.
Something tugs at him once again; dangerous empathy, the kind that will get him killed, and he pushes it down, swallowing with a dry throat.
He creeps to the door, listening, ear pressed to cold metal, the sensation harsh.
The handle is smooth and slides easily in the palm of his hand, opening to the first room, now dark.
Taking a deep breath, he slinks out of the door, casting a last glance over his shoulder at the writhing thing in the glass tube before making his retreat.
Can’t stay here. Get Scully and Isaac and get out. Use the breach in the fence, we can sneak out tonight and be gone by morning. The truck, we left the truck. This time tomorrow, we’ll be three states away and running.
The halls are even quieter now; a quick passing check of the clock suggests he’s been underground for two hours and then some; his bruised ass can still feel the cold concrete.
“Mulder?” Scully stands in the doorway, concern painted on her face, hair falling over her eyes. She pulls her bathrobe tighter around her. “What is it?”
Her voice is the tether he needs to bring him back, turn his scattered thoughts into actions. He bypasses her and grabs for her backpack.
“Mulder, what are you doing?”
“We’re leaving,” Mulder says, unable to look her in the eye, shoving a handful of clothes—dirty or clean, it doesn’t matter, they’ll all be filthy by the time they’re far enough away from this place—into Scully’s pack, heading for the bathroom to grab whatever he can find.
“Mulder, talk to me!”
The edge in her voice gives him pause, stopping him in his tracks. He realizes his hands are shaking.
“They’re keeping one of them,” Mulder says flatly. “One of the things, they’re storing it. I watched them move a body—“
“A human body?”
“No, one of the…the things,” he continues, unable to find the words to describe the suffering, the sound of its claws on the glass, the way it moved in the chamber, pure agony in its dull, tortured eyes.
The way it would rip every single one of them to shreds should it find a way out.
“Look, we can talk about it later, but I’m not going to sleep in the same building as one of them. God knows why they’re keeping it in the first place. I don’t want to find out what Mosely is planning to do with it,” he says, turning to find Scully with her arms folded across her chest.
“Mulder, you don’t think—“
“You didn’t just spend an hour freezing your ass off, listening to that thing try to claw its way out of a glorified Tupperware.”
She’s staring at him with her sea-blue eyes, fear creasing her brow. “If what you’re saying is true, if there’s a threat, we need to tell people, we need to—“
He shakes his head violently. “No. For all we know, they already know about this little side project.”
“How do you know it’s—“
“He was there!” Mulder explodes. “Goddammit, stop trying to rationalize your way out of this. He was there with Jay, the two of them moved the dead one and replaced it with fresh meat.”
“But why? If they were studying it, why wouldn’t they say something?”
“That’s my point,” Mulder growls. “They haven’t said anything. They’ve lied to us. Worse than skeletons in the closet, they’re keeping aliens in the basement.” He snorts but doesn’t smile at his own joke. “It’s in a tube. Looked like a hyperbaric chamber, but it’s not strong enough to contain it, Scully. I think the magnetite around here makes it weak, and I think that machine is testing its limits. Blocking the magnetite so Mosely can study the effects.”
“How is that possible?”
“That’s the million dollar question. But if he can control it, he has power. Maybe it’s a weapon, maybe he uses it as a…a threat to keep people in line. All I know is I don’t want us anywhere near it.”
He feels his voice rising, unsteady, willing her to listen to him. He knows what he’s asking, knows the price they’ll pay; living in fear, foraging for food and running, always running for their lives.
“Mulder, these are people…people who have befriended us, taken us in. We have no reason to believe they’re—”
“Jay was with him, Scully,” Mulder insists. “If there’s one, there are bound to be more. We can’t risk it, we don’t have time.”
“If this was before, you would help them.”
“The only people I care about protecting are you and Isaac.”
“That’s not the person I know,” she says, a hint of disappointment in her voice. When she meets his eyes again, he doesn’t recognize himself in them, and he doesn’t know what scares him more. The new world’s changes, or how much the new world has changed them.
She worries her lip with her teeth, then finally says, “I need to collect my research from the greenhouses. I can’t do it in the dark, and the patrol will see us if I use the flashlight. But I can get it tomorrow, and we can be gone by tomorrow night.”
Mulder opens his mouth to protest, but she holds up a hand.
“We’ve been here for weeks. One more night won’t kill us.”
“You hope,” Mulder mutters, but the fight has gone out of him.
“Tomorrow,” she repeats more forcefully. “We need time to prepare, to tell Isaac.”
He stands, hands in his pockets. “Well…I know I won’t be sleeping tonight.”
“That makes two of us,” she sighs.
JULY 18, 2015
“Yeah, in here.”
He’s sitting on his bed, staring at the opposite wall. Scully blinks, looking around. His room is small, dark. There are pages from his notebook taped on the wall next to his bed, something cut out from an old magazine. There are clothes on the floor, an open textbook on his desk, homework and half-sharpened pencils scattered across it.
“Isaac?” she repeats, not knowing what she’s asking for.
“I’m OK,” he says, but the words are hollow.
“May I sit?”
He nods, and she takes a seat next to him on the bed. “I…I have some news,” she says carefully, watching his face, which remains expressionless. “Something’s happened, and we have to leave. Soon.”
This gets his attention. “What? Why?”
“Mulder found something. We’re not safe here,” she whispers.
His face transforms, despair rather than anger, sadness rather than fear. “What did he find?”
She shakes her head. “That’s not—”
“Please…tell me,” he insists, before she can tell him it’s not important.
“Tonight. We’ll explain everything soon,” she says.
“Was it something I did?” he asks, the words ringing hollow, as if his throat were carved from bone rather than flesh.
“What? No,” she says. “Why would you ask?”
He shakes his head, ignoring the question. “What about…what about everyone else?”
She closes her eyes, biting her lip. “It’s just us.”
“Oh,” he says, the words sinking in. “Where will we go?” His voice is small now, tiny, and she reaches for his hand. He doesn’t resist.
“I don’t know yet. We’re thinking the northwest will be cooler, less crowded. But…nothing is certain yet.”
He nods. “When?”
“Tonight. After hours. You can’t say anything to anyone; not even Charlie.”
He flinches at the mention of her name, and Scully wishes, not for the first time, that she could peer inside his young mind.
“This needs to stay between us,” she continues carefully, watching his eyes for understanding. He nods, biting his lip, and picks absently at a fingernail.
“Are they going to come after us?”
“No. No, I don’t think so. But…it’s complicated. We’re taking precautions.”
He nods but doesn’t say anything, the lines in his forehead deepened with worry.
“Are you sure you’re feeling OK, Isaac?”
He forces a smile. “No…I mean, yeah, I…I just didn’t sleep.”
She gives his hand a squeeze. When she stands to leave, he surprises her by standing, too. His arms go around her before she realizes what’s happening. They’re almost nose to nose, and as she hugs him tighter, she wonders when he got so tall. She presses a kiss to his temple as her eyes burn with tears.
“We’ll be OK,” she whispers. “I promise.”
“I know,” he says faintly. “I know.”
His face stays with her long after she’s left. Something about his face, the lost quality of his voice, as if some vital part of him had been leached from his soul…and anger, so much anger, still. The thought gives her a chill, but also a measure of certainty and clarity she hadn’t fully grasped until now.
The sinking feeling that Mulder was right all along.
Isaac waits for Scully to leave before slipping the hard drive into his backpack along with several changes of clothes, and his few possessions.
But he’s not going to school, not today.
He needs to know for certain.
The elevator is closed, the digital panel glowing a red number 2, but the door to the stairs is unlocked. The sound of the latch clicking back into place echoes in the stairwell, and he winces, waiting to see if anyone heard.
Nothing but the sound of his heart in his chest.
He continues to the second lower level, keeping his footsteps light. The door is the same heavy metal, fireproof, with a window looking out to end of a long hallway that reminds him of his dreams. Only the glow of the emergency lights guides him, and the walls look sickly and green.
The layout is immediately familiar, but this wing has no hospital. There’s the loud hum of equipment from behind some, the clank of machinery at work.
Instinct tells him to turn around, but something else draws him deeper into the compound’s basement.
He creeps forward, peering around the first corner on the right. A shadow materializes at the opposite end of the hall, then disappears, melding into the wall. Isaac draws back, throat suddenly dry as parchment. He peeks again, but the figure is gone. He tells himself he’s seeing things, but adrenaline still hums through his blood.
He creeps down this wing, looking into the first room on his right, but it’s abandoned, filled with junk. Same for the next door, and the next. He watches the opposite end of the hall for movement, but no one appears, and the final door he tries is an unused lab with more equipment. Disappointment and relief flood him in equal measure.
There’s nothing here.
Isaac turns around, prepared to leave, and that’s when the hand comes down on his shoulder.
“Wrong place, wrong time, kid,” a voice says roughly at his ear. He doesn’t have time to scream before there’s a sharp sting at the side of his neck. His vision blurs, then goes dark.
He has the strength for one last thought before he’s caught in the riptide of the drug, pulled under.
They found me.