Chapter 37: Defend the Future, Protect the Past

     11:42 P.M.

     Isaac lays with his hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling of his tent as though he might burn a hole through it. Given the speed at which his mind is churning, that’s not outside the realm of possibility tonight.

     He swallows, feeling a dry click in the back of his throat, listening but no longer hearing. Mulder and Scully retired to the smaller pup tent some time ago; he could hear them talking, but he realized with some detachment that he’s no longer interested in what they have to say. The secret is out; the rest is white noise.

     There’s too much to process, too many new facts to reconcile with his old life, which now seems unreal, like something that happened in a dream. Less than a week ago his biggest problem was making it through the halls of his crummy middle school without being noticed.

     Tonight he is a new person.

     He believes what they’ve told him is true…but he doesn’t know what it means yet; for him, or his future. Youth has the inherent disadvantage of being unable to look forward, and for all his genius and ability, Isaac finds himself rooted firmly in the present.

     He’s convinced he won’t be able to sleep now, not after tonight, but biology cares little for matters of the spirit, and he’s been without rest for too long. When he finally allows his eyes to slip shut, they stay closed, and soon he’s breathing deeply.

     He dreams.

     He’s running again, through woods all too familiar, but now it’s night. The black, soggy mud pulls at his feet, pulling him down, down, slowing him, each step takes enormous effort.

     He can hear yelling up ahead, he needs to get to them, to the agents this time; he needs to save them. He’s coming up on the clearing and knows instinctively this is where they will be, the rocky expanse with the giant gray mass overhead.

     A foreign tongue licks at his mind, uttering a language he doesn’t understand, making his head hurt. He tries to block it, but he’s a body invaded, overpowered, he’s disoriented; his movements too slow and clumsy, he’s not going to make it in time.

     But he does, finally, stumbling into the clearing, onto his hands and knees, scraping his palms on the rock. It, too, dissolves beneath him, revealing a lake of black oil…but the oil moves of its own volition, like tentacles snaking their way up his legs, his arms, engulfing him.

     “NO!” he screams, falling backwards, scrabbling for purchase on the uneven ground. Ahead he can see the agents standing in their solemn circle of light, staring up at the vast gray sky above them, waiting. Isaac stands, stepping away from the strange oily lake, screaming their names until his throat is raw with the effort.

     The man finally looks toward him, but it’s her hand, her stark white hand like a claw clutching at the man’s bicep, that sends Isaac into a panic.

     Now they’re going to…oh god please no…

     Blinding light floods the clearing, eating everything in sight; he can hear them screaming, the terrified sounds mingling with the tongues in his head, a symphony of agony.

     He falls back to his knees, clutching his skull, his mouth open as if to scream.

     This is when I wake up, I’ll wake up now and everything will be OK, I’ll wake up now, wake up, WAKE UP, WAKE UP GODDAMN IT

     But he doesn’t wake, he’s watching the agents as their bodies rise up, up, up, lifted into the air by an unseen force, mouths wide open in a grimace of horror. Shadows dance at the edges of his peripheral vision, creatures closing in, forming a circle around him. He can see Mulder and Scully frozen in mid-air, only to disappear, obliterated in the light.

     No…no…

     Hopeless, Isaac falls to his knees as the gray mass disappears in a hot wind, leaving only the shadows to consume him, eating him, one bite after another, ripping and tearing at his tender flesh with sharp teeth and claws.

     He wakes, trembling and feeling like he might vomit. His body is slick with sweat, cold air against his damp skin.

     This time is different. This time he can remember each vivid, gruesome detail—the teeth, the burning of tearing flesh, the grating crunch of bone and tendon separating…

     He shudders, wrapping his arms around himself, teeth chattering. He wishes he hadn’t requested to sleep alone tonight; even Mulder’s snoring would be better than suffering the aftermath of this wretched dream alone. 

     He reaches out with his mind, searching for them, seeking the comfort of another’s presence, but there’s only dead air.

     Where are they?

     He listens, casting a wider mental net, but finds nothing.

     No, wait…there’s something. A gravelly whisper, not a language he recognizes…he remembers his dream, the rasping of shadows against his skin, their insistent, pattering tongue filling his head. A terrible fear creeps up his spine, cold fingers settling at the back of his neck.

     There’s something out there.

     Ignoring the chill in the air, he throws off the sleeping bag, scrambling out of the tent. As he’d feared, the door to the other tent is wide open and snapping angrily in the wind; the fire is dead, the agents are nowhere in sight.

     But he can hear them in his mind. So faint, so distant…

     Like Mom.

     His heart races, the nightmares rushing back in a flood of gruesome horror as he feels his feet taking him north. He runs, the ground beneath him wet, the air sour with the smell of tar mixed with burning flesh.

     The stars from earlier this evening are gone, replaced by a flat expanse of gray-black. But he doesn’t dare stop to look up, to think too carefully about what might explain the strange matte sky. If he does, he might lose what little grasp on sanity he has left.

     This is a dream, just another horrible dream. I’ll wake up in my tent, and tomorrow we’ll go home. Home…

     He wants to believe this so badly, this oasis of thought in a desert of terror, that he stops running, leans against the trunk of a tree, gasping for breath.

     There’s the steadily increasing buzz of voices mewling in his head now, blocking out rational thought, making him fuzzy, disoriented. He reaches down, pinching his forearm, letting the fingernails dig into the flesh hard enough to bring blood.

     This isn’t real. You’re dreaming. Wake up! WAKE UP!

     A scream interrupts his reverie, a shrill, piercing wail. Scully’s voice is calling his name, calling for help. They’re much closer.

     It’s real, Isaac. You have to save them.

     Now it’s his father’s voice—his adoptive father, he reminds himself, an uncomfortable twist in his gut.

     He uses his mind again, reaching out, concentrating…there. He takes off, following a northwestern path through the brush, in pursuit of their screams.

     His foot wedges itself into the earth, catching beneath a root, and his left sneaker slides off with a rough tug. He stumbles, hands planted in the muck of rotting leaves and stained earth, feeling the slick, black slime oozing between his fingers, shuddering at an overpowering wave of déjà vu.

     No time, keep going!

     There’s a faint glow ahead, and he knows instinctively what he’ll find—the clearing of rocks, the shadows waiting, the agents standing in the center, gazing upward at the mass above them, as if in worship. He pushes off the ground, back to his feet.

     He can feel their panic rising as he approaches, their shouts and cries joining the mad chorus in his head. There’s a stabbing pain above his right temple. He hesitates, remembering the nightmare, remembering the feeling of flickering shadows on his flesh, his death is imminent…

     Leave them! Leave them, they lied to you anyway, what do you care? Get the hell out of here!

     Instinct is callous, apathetic. It cares only for the being it inhabits, for the body’s survival, and now it takes all of Isaac’s will to ignore it. The thought is tempting, so tempting; he swallows, gasping and heaving.

     They’re the key to his past, these two strangers, but some deep part of him knows they are also the key to his future.

     The last few days have reduced him to nothing—no family, no home, no expectation of safety. But these two people are here, and they can guide him.

     If he believed in such things, he might call it fate. 

     They can teach him. He’s certain of that now.

     They can…but they must survive, Isaac.

     His father’s voice again, rising above the din, a balm to his aching head.

     Courage, son. You have everything you need at your fingertips. You can control it.

     Taking a deep breath, Isaac pushes ahead, prepared to defend his future by protecting his past.

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