Mulder awakens before sunrise, shivering under three layers of clothing and a sleeping bag. Ice crystals have formed on the surface of the tent’s blue dome, intricate patterns that sparkle in the early morning light; Mulder’s breath escapes him in a thick, white fog.
He reaches his arms above his head to stretch, pain settling into his limbs. His shoulders throb, his arms feel like dead wood. His lower back is holding a formal protest after a night spent on the ground. His leg hurts, but that’s to be expected with the sprain. The rest of him is one giant, aching muscle.
There was a time when he could hike for ten miles and then some without feeling the strain, but those days are over. He’ll turn 52 this year.
‘Old man’ is right, he thinks grudgingly, recalling Scully’s gentle teasing the day before.
Right before she damn near killed herself.
He closes his eyes at the memory, the uncomfortable quickening of his pulse. How many times has he sat next to her hospital bed? How many times has she brushed lips with death, only to turn away from the kiss at the last second?
Come to think of it, how many times has he?
He suddenly wishes she were here. Her feet would be freezing; she always came to bed with cold toes. She’d tuck them between his calves under the pretense of warming them, though he’s pretty sure she only does it to make him yelp in surprise. But the rest of her would be soft, welcoming. Her skin always smelled so good, like cinnamon and vanilla, her breath warm against his neck…
Better stop it right there unless you want to have another kind of sore muscle.
Isaac appears to be asleep, curled deep within his sleeping bag, though as Mulder stirs, so does the boy, moaning softly. With some effort, Mulder slides out of his own bag, unzips it, and tosses it over Isaac, an extra layer of protection against the cold, then crawls out of the tent and into the dim morning light.
Last night’s fire has gone cold, and Scully is nowhere in sight. He limps the ten feet to her tent, whispering her name. “Scully?”
No response. Fear prickles at the back of his neck.
“Scully? I’m coming in…”
He unzips the door, but her tent is untouched; her sleeping mat is still rolled and tied, sitting unused in the corner. She hasn’t been here.
Shit. His heart races. Where did she…
He turns to find her coming out of the trees a few yards away, and the relief he feels at the sight of her is palpable.
“I found a spring nearby, we needed water.” She holds up their canteens in her good hand. “Check your pack, there’s coffee—”
“Coffee?” Mulder perks up at the promise of caffeine. “You may be right, Scully.”
“There really is a God.”
Her smile is tired but genuine, and it warms him.
“You build the fire; I’ll ‘just add water’, she says, wrinkling her nose, retrieving a suspicious looking foil packet from the depths of her pack.
Mulder nods, happy to have something to do…happier still that they’re on speaking terms.
“How’s your hand?”
“Hurts,” she says simply. “Nothing a little ibuprofen can’t fix. How’s the knee?”
He shrugs. “Could be worse. I think we can get outta here tomorrow. Keep north. Makes me nervous, sitting out here,” he says, looking around, “We should keep moving.”
“Still sleeping, though I dunno how he can. This cold, it’s brutal.” He rubs his hands together, breathing on them for emphasis.
She nods, her face going blank at the thought of Isaac. “He’s tired…he’s been through a lot…” she drifts off.
And he’s not the only one, Mulder thinks. He can almost see the dark clouds rolling in over her face. Guess we’re not out of the proverbial woods yet. He bites his lip, approaching her, suddenly determined to knock down the wall she’s put between them.
“Hey, Scully, can we—”
“Anyway,” she interrupts, “I’m glad you’re up, I wanted to talk with you. I read through the project files this morning.”
“Yeah, I found something interesting. Not sure if it helps us, though.”
He eases his aching body down next to her, thoughts of reconciliation temporarily forgotten.
“Isaac was definitely part of Project Ultimam,” she begins, “though it’s likely his doctors didn’t know exactly what they were working on. The program was shrouded in secrecy.”
“How so?” He leans forward, elbows to knees.
“Mrs. Van de Kamp told me the name of Isaac’s doctor—Baray—he’s listed here. But these records indicate he never had direct contact with other members of the project. Everyone worked in isolation. Presumably someone at the top had the complete picture, but—”
“—but that person’s name is nowhere to be found,” Mulder finishes with a cynical smirk. The characters might be different, but it was the same old story.
“You got it. Remember that mutated gene I told you about? They noted it…here.” Her finger points to an indecipherable notation on the paper in front of them; what looks to Mulder like a jumble of letters, numbers, and blobs on the page is actually a complex gene structure map, and she reads it like a book.
“What about it?”
“Well, it’s exceptional in that none of the other subjects had it. And from what I can tell, it’s the reason Isaac was removed from the program several months ago.”
“‘Failure to develop.’ The boy’s DNA wouldn’t produce a viable embryo.”
“Because of this gene?”
She nods. “I have a theory. It’s an oversimplification, but…you know how computer media has protective code to prevent copying?”
“Yeah…” he squints, processing this. “Are you saying this kid has this…protection…written into his DNA? Like, DRM, but for people?”
“This is way out of my area of expertise, Mulder, but yes…it appears that way.”
He purses his lips, thoughtful. “You said there were other subjects?”
“Dozens of them. Why?”
“What do we know about them?”
“Almost nothing. None of the subjects’ names are used, just initials. Isaac was easier to find because of his rejection from the trial. Without a dossier on every single patient…” she trails off, offering a small shrug.
“Do you think this is the same experimentation my sister was subjected to? Or you?”
“It’s similar in some respects, but…” she pauses. “The tests, the procedures, were done in plain sight, under the guise of treating rare, long-term, debilitating diseases. There were no abductions here as far as I can tell. But it’s almost more sinister this way…doctors take an oath to protect their patients, to do no harm. These doctors violated that oath in every way imaginable, Mulder.”
“Malpractice insurance is expensive. How much you want to bet they made bank for taking test subjects under the table?”
Scully shakes her head, her expression goes dark, and he knows she’s thinking about the young girl she lost this week. “Whatever their motives, we need to tell someone, ensure these…men…are locked away. They can’t get away with this.”
He cocks an eyebrow. Given her natural inclination to rationality, his partner’s occasional fits of idealism never fail to surprise him. “You really think the FBI will pony up resources to convict some of the nation’s best and brightest medical professionals based on nothing but stolen information and the word of a couple ex-agents?”
Her brow furrows. “What about our connections at the Bureau? You could—”
“I’m a consultant, not an employee. It’s not what you’d call a mutually beneficial relationship,” he scoffs.
“But I thought—”
“They call me when they can’t figure it out, I give them my professional opinion, and they nod and smile politely and send me a check. They’re using me, Scully. They get to keep an eye on Spooky Fox, say they’ve done their best to solve the case, I get the occasional paycheck, and the truth stays buried.” He’s calm, but there’s a sharp, bitter edge to his voice that cuts her.
What else don’t I know? she wonders, recalling their earlier conversation about William as a baby.
I knew the further I got, the better off he’d be.
All this time, she’s mistaken his stoic silence for complacency, but now she realizes with some dismay that he’s anything but complacent.
But he has a point, and she knows it. They have no power at the FBI…they never had much to begin with. If anything is to be done about the men and women who did this to Isaac, Mulder and Scully will have to figure it out on their own.
But for the moment, there are more pressing matters. Scully pinches the bridge of her nose, trying to bring her thoughts into focus, to attack the problem as a doctor rather than a mother.
“My guess is they’re trying to cover their tracks. Isaac is no longer useful to the project, he needs to be…dealt with.”
Mulder frowns. “We know this kid is the real thing, Scully, and so do they. They’re not going to give up on him just like that. Doesn’t make sense.”
“But Mulder, there are records indicating the first experiments failed to gestate as far back as nine years ago. Nine years of attempts and nothing to show for it? It’s a wonder they didn’t kick him out sooner.”
“Scully…what if this goes back further than that? What if his abilities are the product of two mutated genetic anomalies? You and I both had…experiences prior to William’s conception that could have affected our genetic makeup.”
“Mulder, I was abducted long before we…you know,” she says, uncomfortable with this turn in the conversation, a flush creeping into her cheeks. “To say that we were genetically altered months or years before the fact, then brought together to produce a child for the purpose of…of what? Even if it were true…it’s…we have no way of proving something like that.”
He shakes his head, thinking aloud. “No, I’m not saying they planned for it, Scully. I think it was a…a happy accident.”
She blinks, eyes tightening. “Happy for who?”
But Mulder isn’t paying attention, too excited at the prospect of a theory, a lead. “They finally have access to a telekinetic whose abilities are astounding in their complexity, but they didn’t count on his DNA being programmed with some kind of genetic failsafe, a mutation that prevents him from being cloned. So…they go after the next best thing.”
“What…us?” she balks.
“Biologically speaking, they’re back to the drawing board. We’re the drawing board.”
“But Mulder, we could have ten more children, and none of them would be genetically identical to…to William.” She glances at the blue tent behind them, as if speaking their son’s name might summon Isaac from slumber. “It doesn’t work that way.”
“Ten more, Scully? I didn’t know you wanted a big family.” He raises an eyebrow, leaning in, his breath soft against her cheek. She wills herself not to smack him.
“Even if they could produce a viable embryo, there’s no guarantee they’d get a child with the same abilities.”
“Scully, they have a complete genetic map right here.” He taps on the file, eyes shining as his mind works. She can almost hear the click of the proverbial tumblers and gears falling into place. “Who says they couldn’t recreate it?”
“Mulder, this is a stretch, even for you.” But the look in her eyes tells him she’s not as skeptical as she’s letting on.
“I always knew we had chemistry, Scully—I just didn’t realize it was of the ‘test tube and lab coat’ variety.” He grins at his own joke, but she doesn’t respond in kind. Quite the opposite; she’s looking at him with growing horror.
“Do you really believe that, Mulder? That we’ve been used? Like…like lab rats?”
“It makes sense, doesn’t it? What if Doggett was put on his current case knowing he would eventually make the connection to William, and reach out to you with this information, Scully? They put the kid’s life in jeopardy, knowing we’d run, they practically drive us into the middle of nowhere…” He trails off, looking around, as if suddenly realizing just how isolated they are out here.
Her face falls before Mulder realizes he’s gotten carried away. This wasn’t an X-file—this was their life, and the idea that her son—their son—could be the byproduct of a conspiracy to arm the world against extraterrestrial forces…well, it certainly took the romance out of the equation, didn’t it? In her eyes, he sees confirmation of her deepest, darkest fears.
He reaches for her hand, an attempt to bridge the gap between them, but she recoils.
“Mulder, if this is true…we were used. We were…manipulated.” She stops, struggling to control her emotions, and failing. “It means that child, our child, was never a miracle at all…but a mistake.”
He shakes his head. “No, that’s not—”
But she’s standing up, pacing, unable to contain herself. “What would you have me believe, Mulder? That we brought a child into this world to…to suffer? To become a human guinea pig? An extraterrestrial pincushion? Look what he’s been through! No child…no child deserves this.” Her voice is strong, but there’s a tremor in the curve of her jaw.
“Jesus, Scully, think about what you’re saying. My childhood wasn’t perfect, either. Was I a mistake, too?”
“No,” she says, turning away, arms wrapped protectively around herself, “but if we’d known…if we’d stopped to think about the consequences…”
“C’mon, Scully. We didn’t think you could conceive. It’s not like we planned—”
When she speaks again, her voice is so soft, he wonders if he’s imagining it.
“Maybe we were the mistake.”
He stares at her back in disbelief. Her words hang between them, heavy and laced with finality.
“Do you mean that?” he asks, though he’s not sure he wants to know the answer. He wishes he could see her face…he struggles to stand, trying to cross the distance between them. It’s only a few feet, but it feels like miles.
The seconds tick off, one by one. The silence is suffocating.
Rage bubbles up inside him, angry words scalding the back of his throat. He swallows them back. Let her drown in self-pity. He turns, begins limping in the direction of the tent.
“Mulder? Where are you going?”
He wheels on her, jaw set, eyes blazing. “I’m done here. You let me know when you’re ready to let me back in, Scully. Maybe, if we’re lucky, I’ll still be here when that time comes.”
He raises a hand and drops it, dismissing her without looking back, and limps off into the woods.