Chapter 21: Slip

     Scully and Isaac are loading the car with supplies—a tent, sleeping pads, water filters, thermal sleeping bags, food, canteens, and packs to carry everything—when Mulder returns, tossing a folder into the passenger’s seat.

     “Got the file.”

     “What file?”

     “Project Ultimam. Everything’s in there, Scully; it has to be.” There’s a gleam in his eye, an energy about him she hasn’t seen in a long time.

     Scully glances over at Isaac, who looks appropriately confused. “What’s Project Ultimam?” he asks.

     Mulder hesitates, trading looks with Scully, who simply shrugs her shoulders. Tell him.

     “It’s a cloning program. A government-ordained cloning program, designed to create indestructible human beings from extraterrestrial DNA for use by our military. Supersoldiers,” Mulder finishes, keeping his tone clinical.

     There’s a pregnant pause as Mulder gauges the boy’s reaction, watching his eyes widen. “What…what does it have to do with me?”

     “You know how you can do what you do? There are people, bad people, who want to take what you have. I think they used you, Isaac, without your consent, or your mother’s. I think this may be the reason you’re being attacked, and the answer is in those files.”

     Isaac’s brow furrows. “You said ‘extraterrestrial’. That means…aliens, right?”

     “Technically it means ‘beyond Earth’…but yeah, something like that.”

     “But…but I’m not an alien! I’m a kid!”

     Mulder looks up at Scully, a silent plea for help, but she arches a brow in tired defeat. Little green men are your specialty, not mine.

     “I know,” he continues carefully. “You’re as human as me. But I can’t move playground equipment with my mind…or tell you what you’re thinking. Your DNA is…different.”

     Scully takes pity on her partner, interrupting before Isaac can ask further questions.

     “We have everything but the kitchen sink here, Mulder. What’s the plan?”

     “We drive up to the border, hike in. Try to stay off the trails, use the woods for cover.” Mulder stands, gesturing to the files in the front seat. “Figure this out.”

     She presses her lips in a thin line, and for a moment, he thinks she’s going to argue with him. But instead, she says, “Alright then…let’s go.”

     They park on the border of the national preserve about 30 minutes outside town, leaving the car on a side road, stopping to load up their packs with supplies and equipment. While Scully re-wraps her hand, replacing the torn shirt scrap with a clean piece of gauze, Mulder grabs Isaac’s FBI dossier and the Project Ultimam files and tucks them securely into his pack.

     “We should cover at least ten miles before nightfall,” he says, squinting doubtfully into the afternoon sky, silently assessing their group: Isaac is feeling better, but still weak; he’ll be slow. Scully will probably fare the best of all of them, but her burn is hurting; she hasn’t said anything, but her expression tells him she’s in more pain than she’s letting on. Mulder himself is fatigued, making him slow, clumsy; his vision is starting to double, his head throbs.

     None of us are in any shape to be trekking through the wilderness. If this thing doesn’t get us, Mother Nature will.

     As expected, their progress is slow-going, the hike arduous. Avoiding the main trails means the terrain around them is unpredictable, rocky, leaving Mulder unsteady on his feet. Twice they have to double back and re-map their route upon encountering high cliffs, sheer walls of rock too dangerous to climb.

     Scully takes the lead, followed by Isaac, with Mulder bringing up the rear. Two hours pass, then three. At this rate, we’ll be lucky if we get five miles in, let alone ten, he realizes, dully.

     After hour four, they stop to rest and refill their canteens at a spring. Mulder rubs his eyes; the world swims in his vision. He can hear Scully talking, but she sounds far away.

     “Let’s follow this outlet,” she says, studying the map. “I think it’s a tributary, connected to this river,” she points to a winding blue line on the creased paper. “We’ll want to camp near a water source.” No response. “Mulder?”

     “Huh? Sorry. Dozed off.” He shrugs off her annoyed glare, too tired to argue.

     “How’re you holding up?” she sighs, turning to Isaac.

     “Feet hurt, but I’m OK,” he says; brave words, but his voice wavers. Mulder suspects Scully is not the only one in pain, Isaac having lost his mother less than twenty-four hours prior.

     “Feel any new abilities coming on, kid?” Mulder stretches, trying to wake his sore muscles. “Teleportation would come in pretty handy right about now.”

     This earns him a small, wry smile. “Nope,” says the boy, “I’m afraid not.”

     Scully checks the map again. “I think if we head northwest, about three more miles, we’ll have made good progress. It’s close to a lake, will make for a good camp site if the map is correct. Think you’re up for that?” She looks pointedly at Mulder, annoyance melting in favor of concern.

     He grimaces. “Yeah. C’mon.”

     Scully forges ahead, with Isaac and Mulder trailing behind. Mulder focuses on the boy’s back, step after step, trying to ignore the way the world twists and weaves in front of him.

     Eventually they stop at the base of a large cluster of rocks, a steep incline surrounded by brush, topped by a small cliff.

     “No way around this…but I think…” Scully steps into a narrow foothold, testing her weight, “I think we can get up to that ledge.”

     Mulder looks up. There might have been a time he’d scale a wall like this without looking down, fueled by adrenaline and passion. But he’s older now, more cautious, and their collective condition doesn’t inspire confidence.

     On the other hand, backtracking means another hour of precious daylight lost.

     He’s still weighing these two options when he sees Isaac out of the corner of his eye; the boy approaches the incline and begins climbing, hand over foot, with a confidence and daring known only to adolescent boys…or thirty-year-old men on a mission, Mulder thinks, cringing as he watches him struggle for purchase on the rocky cliffside.

     “Hey! Be careful…” Scully calls, alarmed, but Isaac is already closing in on the ledge.

     All this fuss over the kid getting attacked, and wouldn’t it be ironic if it’s a thirty-foot drop that kills him, Mulder thinks, watching the production with his heart in his throat.

     But Isaac doesn’t fall; he pulls himself onto the ledge after a couple minutes. “No sweat! Easy,” he calls down.

     “Yeah, Scully. ‘Easy,’” Mulder snorts, earning him a half-hearted smile. “You go next, I’ll spot you,” he nods toward her injured hand, “Just…take it slow, alright?”

     She nods uncertainly, wishing she’d thought to grab some rudimentary climbing gear; at the very least, some rope would have been useful. She begins to climb, following the same pattern as Isaac, but more slowly—step up, pull up, step up, pull up. Mulder watches as she wedges the fingers of her bandaged hand into a tight crevice, pulling up, she’s close to the top. He doesn’t realize he’s been holding his breath until he sees her standing next to Isaac.

     “Not too bad, I’m OK,” she calls down, but she’s favoring her hand. “Your turn, Mulder. Be careful. If you die, we’re burying you here. I’m not carrying your body down this mountain.”

     “Good to know where we stand, Scully,” he calls back, fully aware she’s only half joking. He takes a deep breath and approaches, testing his weight against each foothold, carefully examining the surface of the rock until his fingers find purchase within its narrow crevices, and begins his climb. It’s not as bad as it looks, but it’s not easy, either. About halfway up, his right hand slips, scattering a shower of pebbles to the ground below, and he scrambles for a new hold, heart racing.

     One wrong move, and you’re looking at a broken neck.

     The thought is sobering. Relief floods him as his fingers find the ledge, and he pulls himself to safety with an exhausted groan.

     “How you doing, old man?” Scully teases. “C’mon,” she extends her good hand, and he takes it gratefully; she’s small but strong, and helps to pull him to his feet.

     Isaac is fidgeting, eager to go on, but Scully pulls the map from the back pocket of her jeans. “I think we need to go this way,” she says, turning somewhat, stepping to the left. “Yeah, this way. If we keep on this route, we’ll—”

     She’s not paying attention. Her foot steps backward slightly, too close to the edge, and the unstable shale slides out from under her, cascading down onto the rocks below. Mulder sees the surprise on her face, the terrified “o” of her lips as her feet slide down, down, and then she’s falling.

     Mulder lunges out, ignoring a painful snapping sensation in his knee, grabbing for her. “Scully!” He falls to the ground, hard, but he has her by one wrist…barely. She’s looking up at him, eyes wide and terrified. Her feet scrabble against the surface of the rock, finding nothing. She grasps for a handhold, it’s mere inches away, but her injured hand will not support her weight; she screams in pain at the contact, slipping further out of Mulder’s grasp.

     “Can’t…hang…on…,” she gasps.

     Isaac drops down to his belly beside Mulder, dangling his hands over the cliff, eyes wide, “Give me your wrist!” 

     She reaches for the boy, but it’s too far. Even if he can grab hold, he’s not strong enough to pull her up, Mulder thinks. She swings her free arm up in an arc, but her injured hand slips out of the boy’s grasp, and she hisses with pain. Mulder can feel his arms going numb up to his shoulder, his own palms are slick with sweat.

     “No, no no no, don’t let go, damnit, don’t you dare let go,” he growls, unsure if he’s talking to Scully or himself.

     He looks over at Isaac, whose eyes are now closed, hands still extended as though to reach for her. What is he doing? Mulder can’t think about it now, forcing himself to focus on maintaining his grip on her wrist.

     C’mon, Scully, don’t let go…please…

     He feels the pressure on his arm yield ever so slightly…as though Scully is becoming lighter. Oh god, she’s gone, he thinks wildly…but no, she’s still there.

     Her body is moving, rising slowly toward them. Mulder looks back at Isaac, whose eyes remain shut, concentrating. He can see the rise and fall of the boy’s chest as he breathes, see his body trembling slightly while his hands remain eerily still.

     Mulder watches this, stunned, until Scully’s panicked voice snaps him back to attention.

     “Mulder!”

     He turns to her, realizing this is his opportunity; he tightens his grip on her wrist, moving his other hand down her arm below the elbow, giving a hard pull. She slides up with relative ease, he wraps one arm around her torso and pulls again, sliding back, depositing both of them safely on solid ground.

     “Scully! You OK?”

     “Yeah…I’m…OK. Just…bruised,” she sits up slowly, wincing, cradling her burnt and now bloodied hand. From where he’s laying, he can see the blisters have torn open, they’re leaking, the palm itself is badly scraped…no, shredded, Mulder thinks. Her hand looks like raw hamburger.

     “You OK, Mulder?”

     His arms are numb from the shoulders down, but there’s probably no damage; he can already feel an uncomfortable tingling sensation in his fingertips as the blood rushes back to his hands.

     His knee, however, is a different story. He flexes it slightly, feeling the telltale stabbing pain of a bad sprain. Tore something there.

     “Hurt my leg, not sure if I can walk,” he mutters.

     “Isaac?” Scully asks.

     “I’m fine,” he says, but his eyes remain closed, his voice weak.

     “Did you…” she begins, dazed, but doesn’t finish this thought.

     “Yeah,” Isaac says, answering the question she doesn’t know how to ask.

     “You controlled it? You…lifted her?” Mulder says.

     “I guess,” Isaac mutters, sitting up, squinting against the fading daylight. His head aches.

     “That was…that was impressive,” Mulder says, reaching out to touch the boy’s shoulder. Isaac flinches away.

     “Yes, thank you,” Scully says, her voice shaking. “I…I thought I wasn’t going to make it there for a minute.” She’s trying to brush it off, to sound tough, but he sees through her brave face and shoots her an incredulous look.

     ‘For a minute?’ You weren’t going to make it at all.

     The boy shrugs, doesn’t respond.

     After a moment, Scully speaks up, this time with more confidence. “I don’t think we’re going to get much further now,” she glances over at Mulder, who’s massaging the back of his knee, wincing. “Mulder, can you walk?”

     He slowly makes his way to a standing position, testing his hurt leg. “I can put some weight on it…not much.” He hobbles a few steps to prove his point.

     She watches this, uncertain, but they’re losing daylight. “We’ll head to the tree line over that ridge,” she says, pointing. “At least we’ll have cover there.” She looks up at the sky, squinting into the fading light, trying to shake the feeling of dread in the pit of her stomach.

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