Rating: NC-17 (language, violence, adult situations and graphic sexual descriptions)
Classification: Col/Post Col, MSR, /O, Consensual and (implied) Non-Consensual Sex, Angst, Mytharc
Warning: “Abaddon’s Reign” is a grownup tale set in harsh times. A number of scenes contain graphic descriptions and portray adult situations that may offend some readers. Please, read with caution.
BOOK III MUSIC [mp3]
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The First Woe
Continued from Book II
Coconino National Forest, Arizona
Lightning flashed. Tremors rattled the earth. The mountain exploded in a fountain of fire, spewing ash and embers. The blast was heard for hundreds of miles. All through the night, the mountain glowed fiery red. Chunks of molten rock rained down, crushing homes, scorching farmland. The next day, and for weeks after, fires blazed. They consumed the forest; they choked the sky.
It was the birth of Sunset Crater...nine-hundred years ago.
The eruption buried the surrounding countryside. The displaced inhabitants relocated to the lower plateau, an arid scrub-covered flatland, previously considered too dry and barren for farming. Over the next hundred years, they built more than eight-hundred pueblos across miles of open desert. They struggled to grow corn, beans and squash. They raised families. They prayed to the gods.
Then suddenly, they vanished.
Where did the Anasazi go?
Hunkered in the open air in front of a stone-cold fire pit, Gibson Praise popped the top off a can of peaches and fished the fruit out with dirty fingers. He was alone in the Coconino campground, surrounded by abandoned vehicles, tents and scattered gear. A thicket of spiny mountain pines guarded his back. Blood-red devil's weed, buffeted by an updraft, trembled at the edges of the bluff thirty feet in front of him. Half hidden in the matted grass lay the remains of twenty-three dead campers.
Cracked bones, ragged muscle, shredded organs. Tainted by the stench of extraterrestrials, the corpses were ignored by Earthly scavengers.
A storm was gathering in the east. The air prickled with electricity. Looming thunderclouds cast blue-black shadows across Sunset Crater's distant cinder cone.
Gibson had first visited the crater in early May, shortly after his sixteenth birthday. He'd climbed Lenox and Strawberry, too, to study their geological and historical significance. He hoped to find answers to the future buried somewhere in the ashes of the past. At the time, he believed he had ten more years to learn what the world needed to know.
That was before. Before Mulder's trial. Before the Smoker's death. Before 100,000 immature aliens were let loose on the Earth. Cunning hunters, with a taste for human flesh. He listened again for them.
Nothing. Apparently they'd moved on, like a swarm of colossal army ants in search of their next meal.
Six miles down-slope on the lower park road were the mutilated remains of three more hapless humans, a father and two sons, strangers to Gibson before an hour ago when his keen mind detected their terror. He hadn't answered their screams or hurried to rescue them. To do so was pointless. He couldn't help them; he could only cower beneath the pines and listen as they suffered and died.
Guilt coated him like sweat, even though he knew his responsibility was to all humans, not one unfortunate family. He had a gift, a unique ability. Adept at deciphering the young aliens' primitive thoughts, he could communicate with them, in a rudimentary way. Yet even with his exceptional mental capacity, he couldn't bargain for individual human lives. The infants' intense hunger made them irrational and unyielding. They were interested only in sating their empty bellies.
Gibson swallowed the last slice of peach. Cool, sweet and slippery.
From his hilltop vantage, he had a bird's eye view of the lonely Arizona plateau. He could see for miles, all the way to the Painted Desert in the northeast.
He could "hear" even further. Testing the extreme range of his telepathy, he listened intently. What came back to him sounded like a stuttering radio signal -- a myriad of quarrels, pleas and cries, overlapping, creating a mind-numbing cacophony of dread and dissatisfaction, panic and grief. Years ago, in what seemed another life, he had wanted to turn off those voices. Now, without radio, telephone or other forms of communication, they were his only connection to humanity, his only glimpse at world events.
The peaches were gone. He raised the can to his lips and drank their thick syrup, then tossed the empty can beneath the trees.
The storm would be overhead before nightfall. Thunder and lightning. Rain. High winds. His tent would take a beating. He would sleep in one of the abandoned cars.
Hugging his arms around drawn up knees, he closed his eyes and listened.
//...is the baby asleep?...outta canned milk...killed everyone in...daylight...head north...sister in Montana...after dark...dear God... no-no-no...rain's coming...thirsty... water...//
Gibson focused on this last voice. Weak but familiar. Struggling to survive.
It was Mulder.
Two Gray Hills Medical Center
Navajo Reservation, New Mexico
June 7, 2002
"Water," Mulder rasped as he fought to escape the chaos of nightmares. His head ached and the sharp odor of bleach stung his sinuses. With effort, he opened his eyes.
Pale walls. Waning daylight. An I.V., pressure cuff, bed tray, empty visitor's chair. Damn, he was in a hospital. A man with Native American features stood watching him from the foot of his bed. A preschooler clung to the man's hand, dark-haired and curious like her caretaker.
Mulder cleared his throat. "Nobody brought flowers?"
The child rose up on her toes to get a better look over the hill of Mulder's blanketed feet.
The Indian moved to fill a tumbler with water from a plastic pitcher on the bedside tray. He held the cup to Mulder's parched lips.
Mulder swallowed greedily, spilling tepid water down his chin, soaking the front of his thin hospital gown. A fit of coughing wracked his body when he accidentally sucked liquid into his lungs.
The Indian waited patiently for his coughing to subside.
Finally Mulder was able to wheeze out a few words. "Are you a doctor?"
"No. I'm Eric...Eric Hosteen. We met seven years ago."
The boy with the motorcycle. Albert Hosteen's grandson. He'd given Mulder a ride to a buried boxcar full of dead aliens.
"You've changed, grown up."
Mulder's focus dropped to the girl who was tugging on Eric Hosteen's pants leg.
She whispered loudly, "Is he gonna die?"
"No, he will live." Eric bent and lifted her into the crook of one muscled arm. "This is Jewel, my daughter," he said.
"No, Daddy. I'm *Butter Bean*," she corrected him.
"My nickname for her," Eric explained.
"I'm five," the girl told Mulder. "I have a loose tooth." She demonstrated.
"Ah." Mulder rubbed a palm over his own aching jaw. "I think I have one or two myself."
"You were hurt pretty bad, Agent Mulder."
"Not 'Agent'...not anymore." He tried to sit up, but something beneath the blankets held his left leg immobile. "Where...uh, where am I exactly?"
"You've asked that question before, several times in fact since you were first brought here."
"My memory's not so good." Mulder indicated the I.V., where tubes snaked into his right arm, drugging him with who-knew-what. He wished it would dull the throbbing in his head. "Tell me again."
"You're in Two Gray Hills Medical Center."
Two Gray Hills. Navajo Reservation, northwest of Los Alamos. Mulder had nearly died there once, from thirst, heat, and a gunshot wound. Scully's gunshot wound.
He glanced again at the empty chair. Where was she? Surely she had come back for him after the ship left.
His eyes searched the hall beyond the open door. "I was at Shiprock. How...how did I get here?"
An image of the Gunmen hovered at the fringes of his memory.
"Some men from the tribe brought you."
From the tribe? Maybe he'd been mistaken about the Gunmen.
Maybe he'd been mistaken about the spaceship, too. And the aliens and that man who looked like him, his mysterious twin. Ca-Lo.
Maybe he was having a delusion right now, had been hallucinating for days, or even weeks. Hell, maybe he was still in his Mount Weather prison cell...or on the alien spacecraft.
Panic seized him. Eric Hosteen could be a figment of his imagination. The girl, too. He cringed, anticipating the crack of a soldier's baton or...or...or the slash of the aliens' fiery scalpel as it split him from gullet to groin, exposing pale viscera and slippery organs. Jesus, Jesus, you're not supposed to see your own intestines, your own pounding heart--
Like a drowning man caught in a riptide, he clung desperately to the life raft of his present reality, to the hospital room, to Eric's uneasy expression and the girl's startled eyes.
"D-did they find her? Scully? My partner?" he stammered.
"We were led only to you."
"By my grandfather."
"But...your grandfather is dead."
"Yes." Eric caressed Jewel's smooth cheek, bringing forth a shy smile. "The dead are not lost to us, Mr. Mulder. You know that."
Mulder nodded. He did know it. He'd known it for a long time.
"And the living?" His fear refused to recede. Where was Scully? "Are they lost?"
"We are all in danger, Mr. Mulder. You must rest, recover from your injuries. There is much to do."
Shortly After Dawn
The sound of breaking glass woke 19-year-old Kenna from a nightmare about giant locusts with scorpion tails and razor-sharp teeth. "Rick?"
"Shhh. Someone's in the house," her husband whispered. He rose from the bed and silently crossed to the closet where he kept his rifle.
Kenna's hand went automatically to the collar of her cotton nightgown, securing it over the damaged skin on her neck and chest. It was a protective gesture, a habit since childhood, after a pot of boiling water had left her baby-smooth skin looking like melted candle wax.
"Hide in the closet," Rick ordered, loading cartridges into the rifle. His new onyx wedding ring winked with each jerky movement. He looked boyish with his licorice-colored hair askew, matted on one side from sleep. He was shirtless and his pajama bottoms rode low on his hips; Kenna had intended to mend the elastic waistband before she'd folded them away in his dresser drawer. "Stay put 'til I come back for you," he insisted.
"Don't argue." Three strides brought him to her side. He grabbed her arm and hauled her easily from the bed. At age twenty, he had the strength of a seasoned rancher. "Hide...*now*!"
Dazed by what was happening, she loosened her clutch on her collar, intending to neaten his mussed hair, but when she reached for it he shoved her fingers aside and lifted her off her feet. He carried her to the closet. "Everything'll be fine," he promised, dumping her inside and shutting the door.
Blinking into the dark, she hunkered beneath the hanging clothes: wool coats, Rick's Sunday suit and her month-old wedding gown, sealed in its drycleaner bag. A lock of her long hair was tangled in a hanger above her head, but she let it be, intent on listening to the sounds beyond the door.
A crash came from the downstairs living room and she pictured the ceramic table lamp -- a wedding gift -- smashed to bits on the oak floor. Odd click-clacking noises echoed in the stairwell. Then a blast from Rick's rifle startled her so badly she hit her head against the wall. Another shot followed the first. Rick screamed, high-pitched and unfamiliar, full of panic. Rick never panicked. Never. Whatever was happening must be unbearable.
Oh, God, help him, please help him, she prayed.
Another godawful scream and her bladder emptied, soaking her nightgown.
Kenna hugged her knees and shivered. Tears stung her eyes, burned wavering trails down her cheeks. Her throat tightened until she couldn't catch her breath.
How long she waited like that, gulping for air, trying not to cry aloud, she wasn't sure, but her leg muscles were cramping and her wet nightgown had grown cold beneath her by the time she realized the noises downstairs had stopped. She remained still for several more minutes, hoping beyond hope that Rick was going to return soon, safe and sound. Then he would laugh at her for peeing herself. She would laugh, too, for letting her silly fears get the best of her. She'd wash and change her clothes, then make them both a big breakfast: bacon and fresh eggs, over easy, just the way Rick liked them. She'd slice potatoes for homefries, too, and open that jar of her mom's huckleberry jam for their toast. Rick ate as much as a man twice his size and she liked to spoil him with her cooking. Maybe she would bake him a custard pie later in the day. Or an angel food cake.
No, there would be no pie or cake -- the power was out. She'd forgotten that. It had gone off last Tuesday and had stayed off. Not a soul at Duffy's Market or the Post Office knew why, and there was no way to find out. Telephones, TV, radio, *nothing* was working. Rick's truck wouldn't start. Neither would her aging Pinto, although that wasn't out of the ordinary. But, Lord o' mercy, even their watches had stopped. It was so strange. People were scared. They said it was a terrorists' plot. The beginning of WWIII maybe. With no way to get reliable news, rumors were flying while people tried to make do, helping their neighbors as best they could. Rick gave Artie next door a cord of wood, to heat the house and boil water to wash the baby's things. In return, the van de Kamps lent them a portable kerosene cook stove. It was small, but serviceable enough to fry an egg...over easy...just the way Rick liked them.
Oh, God. Rick was dead. She knew it in her heart. Killed by whoever was...out...there...
Kenna rose on numbed legs. Hands shaking, she cracked open the closet door and peered into the bedroom. Sunlight spilled like whitewash across the unmade bed. Rick's worn blue jeans lay draped over the blanket chest at its foot. A buzzing housefly bounced desperately against the windowpane, trying to escape into the bright dawn.
She stepped into the room. Her damp nightgown clung to the back of her thighs as she searched Rick's pants for his pocketknife. When she found it, she opened its blade with trembling fingers.
Knife in hand, she tiptoed into the hall, which was dimmer than the bedroom. Its wooden floor felt cold beneath her bare feet. She held her breath and avoided the squeaky board at the top of the stairs.
Blood, lots of it, glistened on the stair treads. Splashes of crimson marred the ivory wallpaper. Rick was nowhere to be seen, but a swathe of red striped the entry floor from the bottom step to the open front door.
"Rick!" she screamed and dropped the knife.
She hurried down the stairs, skidded across the blood, nearly slipped as she tracked it onto the porch.
More blood mottled the dirt driveway in a trail that led to the east pasture. Kenna followed it, ducking beneath the wire fence. She raced along a path of matted, spattered grass, a jagged line that ran from her property to the van de Kamp's a quarter of a mile away.
She found the fence broken on the far side of the field, knocked down, its wires snarled into loose knots. Dodging them, she hurried toward the neighbor's farmhouse. Her feet sank into freshly tilled soil as she navigated Artie's vegetable patch. Inhuman footprints, shaped like no animal she'd ever seen, had crushed the fragile seedlings, upended the tomato cages. She sprinted along one ruined row and then out across the overgrown lawn toward the flagpole, where the flag's ghostly buffalo waved in seeming surrender against a too-perfect azure sky. Kenna flinched at its frantic slap-slap-slap as she dashed past.
"Rick!" Her cry was as rough as the weather-beaten clapboards on the van de Kamp's sagging barn. Its doors gaped like a screaming mouth; its interior was as black as Death's shroud.
A thinning trail of blood led her up onto the neighbor's front porch, where she stopped, out of breath. Overexertion stabbed her ribs and she gasped for air. The morning breeze tugged at her hair, twisted her nightgown. The porch swing wobbled, set into motion by a gust of wind...or a passing devil.
Blood speckled the peeling porch floor. She tried to avoid stepping in it as she pushed through the unlocked front door. Splintered at the hinges, the frame squeaked. Deep curving gouges scored the wood around the handle.
"Artie? Joanne?" Her desperate call echoed inside the still house.
The air in the front hall felt feverish and smelled sickly-sweet, like molasses and fermenting fruit.
She glanced into the living room to her right, then opposite to the dining room. Straight ahead, the hall led past a central staircase. She'd been in the house before and knew the hall continued through to the kitchen in the back.
Cautiously, she entered the living room and then stifled a cry when she spotted Artie's head, torn off at the neck, leaning at an awkward angle beside the rocking chair's curved runner. His dead eyes bulged and a look of sheer terror curled his parted lips. The room's pine floor was slick with unidentifiable gore and its once blue-and-white braided rug was saturated with blood. Artie's body had been hollowed out. His stony ribs curved up like the fingers of a loose fist; his innards stretched from the loveseat to the television set.
A whimper leached from Kenna's throat as she backed away from the carnage.
She discovered Joanne's body in the kitchen, its torso yawning and empty like Artie's, its legs stripped to the bone, yet with both feet still intact, one wearing a terrycloth slipper.
"Oh God." Dazed, she bent to retrieve the lost slipper, stupidly intending to fit it over Joanne's bare foot, when a baby screeched upstairs.
"William!" She raced for the staircase, weak no-no-no's puffing from her lungs as she took the steps two at a time.
Guided by the baby's wails, she turned left at the upper landing and careened through the first open door.
She was stopped short at the threshold by an unbelievable sight. Five human-sized insect-beings, locusts with razor sharp teeth and glossy scales -- the monstrous creatures from her nightmare, somehow come to life. They leaned over the crib where the baby sat crying, his dimpled hands gripping a faded blanket. His face was blotchy and tear-streaked. Hiccoughing cries opened and closed his mouth like a suffocating bluegill.
The locusts watched him with oily, oversized eyes. They seemed unconcerned by Kenna's arrival. Their jaws jittered, making unearthly click-clacking noises. They were broad, tall and muscular. Long talons studded their oddly jointed toes and fingers.
One of them was gripping a human arm. Rick's onyx wedding ring gleamed on the severed limb's curled finger.
Kenna rushed forward, not thinking what the creatures might do, not caring about the danger. She moved by instinct, knowing only that she must protect the baby, save him from these ungodly beasts.
"Monsters! Go away!" she screamed.
To her astonishment, the creatures stepped aside and allowed her access to the child. She reached into the crib, elbowing the mobile, setting its four white buffalo rocking as she lifted William out. He clung to her, his blue-gray eyes wide and wet. His small fingers bit into the scarred flesh of her neck.
"Everything'll be okay," she murmured, repeating Rick's last words.
Legs trembling, she edged slowly from the room. For whatever reason, the locusts made no move to stop her. She bumped into the doorframe, stumbled around it, and then ran for all she was worth.
Three Months Later, September 27, 2002
Two Gray Hills, New Mexico
Jewel clambered onto a scuffed wooden chair, then up onto the kitchen table to get a better view out the window. A plastic saltshaker, bumped by her knee, rolled across the Formica tabletop and clattered to the floor.
"Get down, honey," her mother warned, hands thrust in dishwater. "Eric, get her off there."
Eric deposited his empty coffee mug into the sink and crossed to his daughter.
"Stay away from the window, Butter Bean," he said, retrieving the saltshaker. "You know it's not safe."
"Then why is *he* out there?" Jewel pressed her nose against the glass.
Eric could see Mulder beyond the dusty pane, limping toward Jewel's swing-set. Late afternoon sun glinted off his metal crutches as he hobbled between the empty clothesline and the sandbox. He navigated carefully around Jewel's overturned Big Wheel and a faded blue and red beach ball. Dark silhouettes resembling surreal cartoon creatures stretched across the bristling lawn: Mulder's shadow became a stilted circus clown, the swing set a crouching spider, the clothesline its enormous web.
Mulder paused at the foot of Jewel's slide, where he appeared to talk with someone, although no one else was in the yard.
"Can I play, too, Daddy?"
"He isn't playing."
"What's he doing?"
"Searching for a way home."
She twisted to peer skeptically back at him, brows drawn together. He was glad she questioned everything, even him.
"Like the snake you found in the bath tub," he reminded her.
She returned her gaze to Mulder and thumped the windowpane with her small fist to get his attention.
Mulder ignored her...or, more likely, couldn't hear her. The "accident" at Shiprock had left him deaf in one ear. Dozens of razor thin scars stippled his neck and jaw on the one side, as if he'd sailed head first through a windshield or stumbled through a plate glass door. Eric wasn't sure what really happened because Mulder claimed he couldn't remember.
A lie, Eric was certain.
Whatever the cause of Mulder's injuries, the worst damage was to his leg. Doctors had set and pinned his broken thighbone with a steel rod in an hours-long operation, which was interrupted by a sudden and evidently permanent power outage. Things got more complicated when the back-up generator wouldn't start. The team of surgeons worked frantically to stitch Mulder's leg by the light of kerosene lamps. He'd nearly bled to death on the operating table.
After the surgery, Mulder was pumped full of antibiotics to stave off infection. For days it had been touch and go. Traditional prayer supplemented modern medicine. By the grace of God and the ancestral spirits, he'd managed to survive.
He was laid up for weeks, at first in the hospital and later in Eric's back bedroom. He worked hard to regain the use of his leg and now wore a removable cast made of plastic and Velcro straps. His prognosis was guardedly optimistic; given time and determination he would eventually be able to give up the crutches, but the doctors predicted he would always walk with a limp.
"How did the snake get in the bathtub?" Jewel asked, eyes still on Mulder.
"It came up through the pipes." Eric lifted her from the table onto his shoulders.
She gripped his hair like the reins of a pony.
"Where is it now, Daddy? Did you kill it?"
"No. It returned to its den."
Eric's grandfather used to say a snake could be an omen, the harbinger of misfortune. This one had appeared the day the power went out, the day everything went to hell.
Eric carried Jewel out onto the slanted front porch. A smear of orange glowed like a branding iron above the desert's distant horizon.
"Mulder," he called softly, eyes combing the yard for signs of danger. "Come inside."
"Watch this." Mulder half-turned, lifted both crutches from the ground and took several limping steps toward the setting sun.
"You can practice in the living room just as easily as out here." Eric was reluctant to say more in front of Jewel, but felt pressed when Mulder continued to hobble away. "There's been trouble in Pintado," he warned, "and Fort Defiance."
"But not here." Mulder wobbled, working hard at staying upright.
"Not yet. Please come inside."
"Only if you tell me what's really going on." Mulder's voice scraped the late afternoon air like a buzzard's cry.
Jewel flinched at the sudden sternness of his tone. Her tiny fingers dug into Eric's hair and pricked his scalp like needles. He gave her legs a reassuring squeeze.
"I'll tell you everything I know," Eric bargained, "if you promise to do the same."
Mulder squinted against the setting sun and considered for a moment.
"Deal," he said at last. "The truth this time...from both of us."
Eric nodded, figuring Mulder was recovered enough to hear about the attacks, the mutilations, the rumors of murderous invaders. Terrorists, devils, even ghosts were being blamed for the power outages and killings.
"Let's talk inside. Linda's made fresh coffee."
"Can't say no to that."
Determined to walk on his own, Mulder let the crutches dangle as he shuffled back to the house. His jaw tightened whenever he put weight on his bad leg. By the time he reached the steps, sweat was beading on his forehead and upper lip. His skin had gone ghostly pale.
Eric reached out a helping hand, but instead of taking it, Mulder thrust the crutches at him. "Thanks," he growled before slowly mounting the steps and entering the house.
Inside wasn't much safer than out, not if the rumors about roving killers were true. And Eric had no reason to doubt the stories; he'd seen evidence himself, bodies out in Hunters Wash, gutted and stripped of flesh and muscles, the corpses ignored by coyotes and vultures alike. It was strange; not so much as a blowfly fed on the remains.
Eric glanced at his rifle, oiled and loaded, locked beyond Jewel's reach in the gun cabinet beside the refrigerator.
"Lemme down, Daddy." Jewel squirmed atop his shoulders.
He swung her to the floor one-handed. She immediately seized the crutches from him. The metal cuffs were set too high for her short arms, so she clumsily gripped the crutches halfway down and began clomping around as if she were lame.
"Those belong to Mulder," Eric reminded her gently.
"She can keep 'em," Mulder said. "I won't be using them any more." He lowered himself stiffly onto one of the kitchen chairs and accepted a mug of steaming coffee from Linda.
"We're out of propane," Linda informed Eric, removing the empty coffee pot from the flameless burner.
They were out of almost everything: kerosene, candles, bottled water, canned food.
"Danny and I'll go to Shonto's tomorrow, try to scrounge some supplies." Eric straddled the chair opposite Mulder.
"Think there's anything left there?" Linda asked.
Probably not. The market had been ransacked and picked clean weeks ago. But it wasn't like he had a lot of options. Everyone was getting desperate.
"I might need to go to Gallup or Albuquerque."
"That's too far, Eric," she said, her voice watery with concern. "It's a three day ride on horseback."
"Then I'll take the Scout." For whatever reason, the vintage motorcycle still ran, unlike the pickup. "I can be there and back in a day."
"I don't want you going all that way alone," she objected.
"I'll go with you," Mulder volunteered.
"Sorry," Eric said, "I'll need the space behind the seat for supplies."
"I want to help. You've been babysitting me long enough."
"You can help by staying right here, keeping an eye on the place while I'm gone." He hooked a thumb at the gun cabinet. "Linda never learned how to shoot."
"I don't like guns," she said, sounding defensive. "They scare me."
"What's roaming around outside is a helluva lot scarier than my rifle, hon," Eric said.
"What is out there?" Mulder's weary expression indicated he might already know the answer.
Eric glanced at Jewel. She didn't appear to be listening. Using Mulder's crutches, she was hopping back and forth over the threshold between the kitchen and the living room, singing to herself as she played. "Soon you'll zooooom all 'round the room, all takes is faith an' trust..." -- she leapt through the doorframe -- "but th'thing thassa pos'tive must..." -- she pivoted and bounded back -- "izza li'l bitta pixie dust!"
Eric lowered his voice to explain, "They showed up the day we found you."
Linda stood at the sink, shoulders hunched. She scrubbed hard at the coffee pot. "That's when everything started."
"Such as?" Mulder asked.
"Power went out."
Mulder nodded. "Right. Watches stopped working, cars wouldn't start, yadda, yadda. What else?"
"A shit-load of lightning, but no rain," Eric said.
"Flames dancing in the sky," Mulder guessed. "Tree branches, leaves, blades of grass, even the horns of cattle glowed a ghostly blue, am I right?"
"How did you know?"
"St. Elmo's Fire," he said, as if the mysterious phenomenon made perfect sense. "What else?"
"Birds went crazy, flying in circles, crashing into buildings, cliffs, road signs. My cousin Danny found twenty-eight pintails dead in the desert. Imagine -- ducks in this part of New Mexico."
"Their ability to navigate was affected by the EMP."
"Electromagnetic pulse. That's what disabled the power grids, communications systems, cars, your wristwatch."
"But not my motorcycle?"
"No electronic ignition."
Eric still didn't understand. "Where did this electro-whatever come from?"
Mulder waved off the question. "First tell me about the creatures, the ones killing cattle, horses, people."
Eric shot another quick look at Jewel. She had stopped her singing and was now watching them intently.
"Linda, didn't you promise Butter Bean a story after dinner?"
"You're right, I did," Linda said, understanding the need to shelter their daughter from the worst rumors. She dried her hands on a towel. "What'll it be this time, sweetie? Lizzie Zipmouth or Glubbslyme?" She led the girl into the adjoining room.
As soon as they were out of earshot, Eric continued, "I don't believe they're terrorists. Then again, I don't believe they're devils or ghosts either."
"They're none of those."
"You know who they are. You saw them yourself seven years ago."
He had seen them. Alien bodies stacked floor to ceiling in a boxcar, inexplicably buried beneath the red desert sand.
"You think they've come back?"
Mulder's gaze dropped to the oily surface of his coffee. He stared into it as if he might divine the future there. "There are thousands of them, Eric, tens of thousands. I saw them."
"Shiprock, the day this happened." He patted his injured leg.
Tens of thousands. Was it really possible?
"How bad is it gonna get?"
"Did you see what happened at Shiprock?"
"No, but I heard." The men who had rescued Mulder described a huge open pit where the sacred mountain once stood. "What do these...these aliens want?"
"To feast on an all-you-can-eat human buffet."
Eric thought again of the bodies in Hunters Wash. It was no wonder the mutilated corpses were left untouched by scavengers. The dead were tainted by something from beyond this world.
"Why now?" he asked.
Mulder's cheeks darkened and a look of disgust thinned his lips. "My fault."
"Yes." He pushed his coffee away. "Eric, if I don't stop them soon, they'll be crawling all over this planet. No one will be safe."
"How do you plan to stop ten thousand aliens?"
"I don't know." A muscle twitched along his jaw. "I-I've got to find Scully."
"You sure she's still alive?"
Mulder's startled expression made Eric wish he hadn't asked.
"She's alive," Mulder growled. "We were together at Shiprock. I... She--" His voice broke and tears suddenly filled his eyes. He turned to the window and the growing gloom beyond. After a moment he whispered, "I'm sorry."
Eric nodded, although he had the feeling Mulder's apology wasn't directed at him.
"There may be a way to get some information," he offered, "although it's a little unconventional."
"I'm okay with unconventional." Mulder locked eyes with him. "What did you have in mind?"
"There are stories about a boy in the west. The elders say Wind's Child whispers in his ear."
"A guardian spirit. The elders believe Wind's Child helps this boy talk to the devils...the aliens...whatever they are. They say the boy can read minds."
"I know a boy like that." Mulder leaned forward. "Where is he?"
"In Arizona, a place called Kits'iil. It means 'houses that have been left behind.' I can show you on a map."
Eric went to the junk drawer and rustled through credit card receipts, takeout menus and last year's Christmas cards. Unearthing a roadmap of Arizona, he took it to the table, unfolded it and pinpointed Kits'iil with the tip of his finger.
"Mind if I take this with me?" Mulder pushed away from the table and stood.
"You're leaving? Right now?"
"My leg is fine." As if to prove his point he took three determined, if uneven, steps toward the door.
"Wait...Mulder...it's getting dark."
"Good, these aliens come out only in the day."
"How do you know that?"
"They crave heat, need it to develop, to metamorphose into their adult form. The desert is too cold at night. They don't like freezing their alien asses off."
The explanation didn't make much sense to Eric, but Mulder seemed convinced.
"You can't walk all the way to Kits'iil, Mulder. For Chrissake, you won't make it as far as the next street with that bad leg."
"Maybe I know a guy who owns a horse." Mulder smiled.
"You think you can get on and off a horse? Jesus, Mulder, wait a few weeks. Give yourself time to heal."
"I don't have that kind of time, Eric. None of us does."
In the adjoining room Jewel laughed at something in her storybook. She sounded heartbreakingly carefree. Eric's chest tightened.
He made a quick decision. "Take the Scout."
For the first time since his arrival, hope gleamed in Mulder's eyes. "Got any gas?"
"Tank's full." Eric folded the map and offered it to Mulder. "Let me see what I can find for supplies. If you're willing to wait, that is."
Mulder tucked the map into his back pocket. "Just don't take too long."
Somewhere Near the New Mexico/Arizona Border
Moonlight frosted the body of a white male, indeterminate age, spread-eagle on the highway's centerline. Blood, dried and black as pine pitch, darkened the pavement around him like a reverse halo. He was missing his head. From the jagged wound at his neck, Mulder guessed it had been torn off. The gaping torso was split lengthwise, its organs plundered. Large muscles -- thighs, calves, buttocks -- had been ravaged, exposing bone, yet the dead man was still wearing a canvas coat, leather gloves and a pair of hiking boots.
Mulder swung stiffly off the motorcycle. His left thigh throbbed after only two hours of riding.
"Guess I got that peg leg after all, Scully," he muttered, limping to the corpse.
He quickly rifled through the man's pockets, hoping to find anything he might use as a weapon -- a handgun or a knife, hell, even pepper spray would be welcome. He missed the weight and security of his FBI-issued Glock.
His hand closed around a pack of cigarettes.
"Better than a kick in the nuts," he said when the urge to smoke struck him like a roundhouse punch. It had been twelve years since his last cigarette, if you didn't count that tobacco beetle debacle. He opened the pack and looked inside. It held four cigarettes and a disposable lighter.
"Those things'll kill you," X warned, appearing out of the dark. His eyes swept the surrounding terrain with the same nervous caution he'd shown in life.
Mulder waved the Morleys at the gore lumping the road. "There are worse ways to go." He slipped the cigarettes into the pocket of his windbreaker.
"You should take his gloves, too," X urged.
"Why not? He won't be needing them and it can get damn cold in the desert, especially with autumn coming on."
"I said no."
"It's okay to smoke his cigarettes, but not take his gloves?"
"I draw the line at stealing clothes from a corpse."
"Is that an ethical decision? Or are you just squeamish?"
Mulder waited out a wave of irritation. "Interesting you should ask."
"Scully told me something once...something a man told her."
"What would that be?"
"He said the dead speak to us from beyond the grave, that that's what conscience is." Mulder glared at X. "You aren't my conscience, are you?"
X laughed, a harsh, barking sound that echoed across sagebrush and sand. "Is that really what you think?"
"I see dead people. I don't know what I think any more."
Mulder hobbled back to the motorcycle to hunt through the storage compartment behind the seat. Locating the water bottle, he popped the cap and took a swig. The water tasted gritty, but it cleared the tang of death from his throat.
Slouching against the bike, he adopted a genial tone. "You ever run into Krycek over there on your side of the Great Beyond?"
X circled the bike, his shoes soundless on the tar, his trenchcoat hanging limp despite the night wind. He cast no shadow on the moonlit highway. "No. Why?"
"Because I'd like to kick his ethereal ass from here to Hell for getting me into this mess...for getting everyone into it." Mulder recapped the bottle and tossed it into the storage compartment.
"Mobilization was going to happen with or without Alex Krycek."
"Yeah, well later would've been a helluva lot better than sooner. The world might've had a chance to prepare."
"The world was never going to be prepared...not for this."
Mulder zipped his jacket against the chill and scanned the highway ahead. The road resembled a knife blade, splitting the badlands as far as the eye could see.
Was he still on Highway 134?
He yanked the map from his back pocket, unfolded it and angled it into the moonlight.
"Krycek used me," he said.
"And they used him."
"They cloned him. That should've appealed to an egocentric son-of-a-bitch like Krycek."
"Playing host to the Apocalypse is hardly an honor."
Mulder recalled the haunted expressions on the clones' faces.
"You think he was trying to end the clones' suffering?"
"Sounds like something an egocentric son-of-a-bitch might do, doesn't it? They were part of him."
The wind rattled the map, folding it back on itself.
"Doesn't mean he was trying to stop the invasion, even if he believed the alien fetuses would die with the clones."
X wasn't listening. His attention was on the road behind them. "Better get moving."
"Why? What's back there? What's coming?"
"You don't want to find out."
Sometime After Midnight
Jewel was awake and calling for Eric. She wanted a drink of water. And a story.
Eric granted her both, trying to settle her down for the second time that night by recounting a favorite Navajo legend.
"Changing Woman's twin sons--"
"Born for Water and Monster Slayer," the girl interrupted, naming the twins.
"That's right. They set out to visit their father."
She'd heard the story before...many times.
"The trip was dangerous," Eric continued.
He sat on the edge of her bed, his weight sinking the small mattress. A kerosene lamp cast a blond circle of light on the nightstand beside him; it scented the air with its oily odor, reminding him again of the effortlessness of electricity and the serenity of earlier times. Jewel watched him through wide eyes, her blanket drawn up to her chin.
"Are you sure you want to hear this story, Butter Bean?" he asked, worried it might give her nightmares.
"I like Wind's Child," she said.
Wind's Child -- the twins' helper, placed in the folds of their ears to advise them when they were in danger. Eric understood the appeal of such a guardian.
"Okay then...the twins climbed a rainbow to get to the house of the Sun," he said. "They underwent many trials to prove they were truly his sons."
"And they proved it."
"And the Sun wanted to give them jewels and pretty flowers and rainbows, right?"
"He did, but Wind's Child told the twins to say, 'We did not come for those things, my father; that is not our purpose. We came for a pair of lightning arrows and flint shoes, clubs and leggings.' "
"On account of the monsters."
"Yes, on account of the monsters. The Sun answered slowly, telling them they were brothers to the monsters they wished to kill. But he placed agate in them, making them immune to injury, and then gave them the garments and weapons they had asked for. He also gave them prayersticks and told the younger of the two--"
"Born for Water."
"Yes, Born for Water. He told him he must sit and watch the prayersticks while his older brother--"
"Yes, while Monster Slayer went to kill the monsters."
"Monster Slayer was very brave."
Or crazy, Eric thought. Like Mulder.
"Monster Slayer left his father's house--"
A crash in the hall startled Eric and caused Jewel to gasp.
"What was that?" she whispered.
He rose from the bed. Across the hall, Linda screamed.
"Momma!" Jewel kicked back the covers and scrambled to her knees in the middle of the mattress. "Mom--"
"Shhhh!" Eric hissed. His hand shot out to cover her mouth before she could shout again.
Footsteps thudded down the hall. Another crash. The sound of splintering wood.
Jewel was shaking. Small, frantic breaths hissed from her nose, steaming Eric's hand, which had grown ice cold. He couldn't leave her; he was certain she would chase after him, even if he told her not to. Yet he had to find a way to help Linda.
Glass shattered in the bathroom. It was followed by a gurgling howl, so inhuman Eric wasn't sure if it was Linda or one of her attackers.
Jewel whimpered behind Eric's hand and he realized he was gripping her mouth too tightly.
"I'm going to take my hand away. Don't scream, okay?"
She nodded, knocking loose two fat tears.
He released his hold.
"I'm going to get you out of here, Butter Bean. You're gonna crawl through the window. Then you're gonna run as fast as you can to Uncle Dan's. Got that?"
"You come, t-too, D-daddy."
Thumps and clangs continued throughout the house.
"I'll be right behind you," he lied, lifting her from the bed. In truth he intended to run to the kitchen to get his rifle as soon as Jewel was safely on her way.
She clung to him with quaking arms as he carried her to the window.
He shoved the drapes aside and froze at what he saw beyond the glass. His cousin's house was ablaze next door. Further down the street, the Attakai's and the Nells' were engulfed in flames, too. Columns of sparks spiraled skyward above the rooftops. Fiery fingers clawed desperately at the heavens, while a shroud of smoke dimmed the moon and stars. Dozens of tall insect-like creatures loped across the yards, backlit by the inferno.
They were Mulder's aliens. He had been right.
Rifle shots, muted by distance, popped like firecrackers somewhere across the village, while a chorus of human screams pressed against the glass like fog.
Jewel screeched when an alien face suddenly appeared at the window, inches away. It had eyes the size of Eric's fists, black as tar and glossed with evil. Green scaly plates covered its hairless head. A row of fangs glittered in a lipless mouth. It hissed, splattering the window with a sludgy pus-colored film.
Eric stumbled back, two steps, three...
An unearthly stutter trilled in the hall outside the bedroom door, a click-clacking noise that brought bile to the back of his throat.
They were trapped.
The window burst, spraying glass across the floor. The alien's taloned hand reached into the room.
Eric kissed the crown of his daughter's dark head and hugged her tightly. Resignation seized him; his thudding heart felt ready to burst. There was no Monster Slayer to save them tonight, no Wind's Child to steer them from evil. The ancient deities had fled the world of men and abandoned them to Hell's demons.
Gibson longed to shut out the panicked screams at Two Gray Hills. It was suffocating, crushing, to bear witness to the death throes of an entire town.
"I can't help them," he sniffled, wiping sweat from his brow with his sleeve.
He was exhausted after hours of moving rocks, incrementally dismantling Kits'iil's crumbling walls in search of something he'd been promised was buried there -- a "key," Albert Hosteen had said, an answer to the world's dire condition. Gibson's arms and shoulders ached from his labor. His fingers bled, rubbed raw by the pumicey stone of the ancient ruins.
"What you are doing will help many," Albert Hosteen assured. He sat cross-legged beside Gibson's oil lamp, arms draped over his knees. His eyes gleamed with infinite patience.
"It's not enough."
"You cannot save everyone, but you can do this."
Gibson tossed another stone aside. It landed with a hollow thud on the hard sandy soil behind him. "You're certain it's here?"
"Yes, but you must dig deep. The Ancient Ones did not intend for it to be found easily."
Gibson was unable to read the dead Indian's thoughts, so was forced to ask, "Do you know what's going on in Two Gray Hills?"
"Yes. My grandson and great-granddaughter will join me soon. It will be a joyful reunion."
"Yes." Moonlight transformed the dead Indian's long, white hair into a silvery waterfall. "But it will be over quickly."
Not for me, Gibson thought.
Six para-aliens watched him from beyond the glow of his oil lamp. Their bellies craved fresh meat. They lifted their slotted nostrils to the night wind, attracted by his human scent. Yet for whatever reason they remained where they were. Maybe they understood he was like them, his genes a closer match to their ancestors than to his own.
Or maybe it was Albert Hosteen's ghost that kept them at bay.
Gibson worked another stone loose and reached into the dark hole behind it.
His hands encountered something smooth, cool and dome-shaped.
"Now you have what you need," Albert Hosteen said and vanished.
The aliens moved restlessly, chattering in their peculiar click-clacking language; their extraterrestrial interchange raised the fine hairs on the back of Gibson's neck. They knew he'd found what he'd come for, and he knew they intended to take it from him.
He carefully removed the item from its ancient hiding place. The lamp revealed gleaming teeth, deep eye sockets and the smooth crown of a humanoid skull. The jaw was delicate, the nubbin-like teeth as small as a preschooler's, yet the cranium was oversized even for an adult, and its massive brow ridges shadowed enormous eyeholes.
Something rattled inside the hollow brain case.
Gibson struck the skull hard against a stone to break it open. It split into several brittle pieces and a slender metallic cylinder tumbled out.
He held it to the light. Three inches long and as thin as a PDA stylus, it had no movable parts and no apparent purpose, yet it was incised with miniature symbols. He ran his thumbnail over them and the artifact seemed to warm in his hand.
The aliens' chatter intensified. He sensed their desire for the thing he'd found. He wondered if they would kill him for it.
Dawn seeped across the sky like blood on silk, staining the clouds crimson and tinting the roadway pink. Mulder navigated a series of spine-jarring potholes. His injured leg burned with each jolt and he longed to get off the bike and stretch.
"Suck it up, G-Man," Krycek whispered into his ear, startling him so badly he swerved off the pavement.
He fought the drag of sand and wrestled the Scout back onto the road, then chanced a quick look behind him.
Krycek was there, riding shotgun and grinning smugly. "Miss me?"
Krycek leaned closer. His tone was mockingly seductive. "They say absence makes the heart grow fonder."
"Go to hell."
"Not ready to forgive and forget?"
"I'd kill you if you weren't already dead."
"Why are you mad at me? I was just trying to help."
"You've never helped anyone but yourself."
"Not true, my friend. Yes, I wanted those aliens dead. But you wanted them dead, too. I figured we could help each other."
Mulder chuffed in disgust.
"Hey, you saw what they were doing to my, uh, heirs," Krycek tried to defend his actions. "You think I should've just bent over and let them metaphorically fuck me up the ass?"
"I could live with that -- metaphorically or otherwise."
"Mulder, I swear you get meaner with every passing conspiracy."
"Yeah, well, daily beatings and lousy prison food tend to do that to a guy."
"You're singing to the choir, pal." Krycek leaned closer to Mulder's ear. "Remind me to cry you a river after they've chopped you up and turned you into ten thousand alien incubators."
"Now who's whining?"
Mulder focused on the road ahead. Three-quarters of a mile away, the ruins of an ancient village dotted the flatland like broken teeth.
"Kits'iil?" Krycek asked.
"I hope so." Mulder was eager to be off the bike and rid of his ghostly passenger.
"Looks like trouble in River City," Krycek said.
Something was moving among the toppled adobes.
Several somethings, Mulder corrected himself, counting seven distinct shapes.
Krycek began to bellow a verse from The Music Man. " 'Heed the warning before it's too late! Watch for the tell-tale sign of corruption!' "
"Shut the fuck up."
Mulder could see them more clearly now, several stilt-legged aliens forming a loose circle within the crumbling walls of the ancient village, their greenish-black scales reflecting the early morning sun. At their center stood a lone human boy.
"Shit, that's Gibson."
"Better hurry, Batman," Krycek warned. "Looks like the Boy Wonder is in danger."
Mulder lowered his head and gave the bike more gas.
The roar of the engine alerted the aliens to his approach. They closed ranks around Gibson, who pivoted like "it" in a game of dodge ball. The rising sun flashed off his glasses with each frantic turn of his head.
"Time to kick a little alien ass," Mulder muttered, more to himself than to Krycek.
"Or die a fool," Krycek said.
Without a weapon, Mulder wasn't sure what he would do once he reached Gibson. There were few realistic alternatives, but he refused to let impracticality stop him.
"At least I'll go down fighting."
He steered the motorcycle off the pavement and bee-lined toward the ruins.
The Scout jounced over corrugated sand, ripping through scrub and sending a plume of dust skyward. He hit a ridge and became momentarily airborne. He braced for impact. It came, hard and excruciating. Pain shot from his knee to his hip.
Biting back a yelp, he opened the throttle. He planned to ram the alien phalanx, take down as many as he could in the process.
With less than a hundred yards to go, Krycek shouted above the straining engine, "I don't like the odds, buddy. Gotta go."
Then he vanished from the seat behind Mulder.
"Coward," Mulder growled behind clenched teeth. It was just like Krycek to turn tail and run the minute things got dicey.
The aliens began milling in a disorganized way. They kept a distance of a few feet between themselves and Gibson. Mulder knew the boy could communicate with them; he'd witnessed it at Rolling Hills Nuclear Power Plant. Maybe Gibson was pleading for his life right now.
Mulder targeted three to Gibson's left. If he could wound or kill them --
To his surprise, Krycek suddenly materialized inside the ring of aliens. They scattered, although not very far. Mulder was astounded they could see Krycek, let alone feared him, yet they kept their distance.
Krycek waved Mulder in.
"You owe me an apology," Krycek said when Mulder skidded to a stop beside him and the boy.
Mulder offered a hand to Gibson, who mounted the bike behind him.
The aliens pawed the air and hissed, their disappointment evident. One darted forward, trying to get to Gibson, but Krycek blocked it. It chattered angrily, but stayed back.
"Apology for what?" Mulder asked, revving the engine.
"I still don't trust you, Krycek." Mulder released the brake and rocketed across the sand. "But thanks."
Twin Rocks Monument rose like two giant fists from the ruddy plateau. Tucked at their base was a sprawling restaurant/gift shop, a pit stop for busloads of tourists on their way to Canyon de Chelly or Arches National Park.
The restaurant was deserted and had an eerie ghost town feel. The rising sun shot horizontal bands of pale light through its long front windows, casting prison bar patterns across the chilly interior's scuffed Linoleum floor. A fetid, rotting odor wrinkled Gibson's nose as he wandered the aisles of the gift shop. He kept his mind anchored to Mulder, who was rummaging through the kitchen for something to eat and drink.
Native American crafts, fossils, disposable cameras, and useless souvenirs were gathering dust on the shelves. Gibson selected a picture postcard from a circular rack. According to the description on the back, the Twin Rocks Monument represented mythical brothers -- Born for Water and Monster Slayer -- from a Navajo creation story.
"Bingo!" Mulder shouted from behind the breakfast counter.
He'd found drinks and Gibson read relief in his mind. He replaced the postcard and sauntered to the dining room, where Mulder was up-righting two vinyl-padded chairs, one a dirty yellow, the other a pale blue.
"Coke's yours," Mulder said. He eased into the blue chair, stiff-legged and tired. He gripped a Shiner Bock in one hand.
"How come I don't get beer?" Gibson sat, too.
"Because you're underage."
"I don't see anyone checking IDs."
Mulder shook his head, dismissing the argument. "I need your mind clear, Gibson." //...to help me find Scully...//
Gibson ignored Mulder's unspoken hope and tilted his chin toward the kitchen. "There wasn't anything to eat back there?"
Mulder bristled at the change of subject. Gibson could hear Mulder’s thoughts as clearly as his own. Among them, he found patterns of disquiet and desire. Mulder wasn’t interested in food. He ached for Scully, who Gibson quickly learned had gone missing after an argument between the two of them. The cause of their quarrel had hurt Mulder profoundly. His need to find her and set things right was stronger than anything Gibson had ever experienced firsthand. It was physically powerful, with a sexual component, but more than that, too. Meandering doubts, unresolved anger, and so much guilt. Scully's absence caused a phantom pain in Mulder's psyche; it left a gaping hole in his heart.
"You had a fight." Gibson said.
"A fight. With Scully."
A string of uncharitable phrases thundered through Mulder's thoughts. "Stay out of my head, Gibson."
"It's not like I can turn it off."
Mulder chugged half his beer without taking a breath. Gibson could hear him wishing for something stronger, something that would cloud his mind and stymie Gibson's unwelcome intrusion.
"Is it safe to assume you and I aren't the only two people left on the planet?" Mulder asked, setting his beer on the table. He kept his fingers curled tightly around the bottle's narrow neck.
"There are others."
"Then how 'bout eavesdropping on one of them?"
"I could try, but...you're right next to me, so it's kind of like your signal's the loudest."
"I'm not passing judgment."
"On what you're thinking."
"Better not--" //prying punk-ass//
Gibson forced a smile. "Really? Is that how you think of me?"
Mulder turned his deaf ear to Gibson and absently scratched the roadmap of fine scars on his left cheek. "You'd think I'd be used to this mind-reading crap by now," he said, referring to their months together in New Mexico, when Mulder was in hiding. He sipped his beer more leisurely, trying hard to relax. "Tell me something I don't know. Like why--"
"Why was I with a bunch of aliens at Kits'iil?"
"Yeah, like that."
Gibson picked at the dirt and dried blood on his hands. "They didn't want to kill me, you know."
"No? Looked like it to me."
"They wanted this." Gibson dug into his pocket and pulled out the artifact.
Mulder took it, turned it over in his hand. His irritation was immediately displaced by curiosity. "What is it?"
Gibson shrugged. "I was hoping you might know."
"I recognize the markings." //...they match the ones on the spacecraft in Shiprock...//
"You were on board?" Gibson searched Mulder's mind, trying to fill in the blanks.
"Yes, unfortunately." Mulder slipped the artifact into his pocket.
"What did you see?"
"Why not perform your Amazing Kreskin act and save us both some time?"
Gibson took a swallow of Coke, trying to appear inconspicuous as he probed Mulder's mind for details.
Krycek clones, alien fetuses, a uniformed man who looked like Mulder's twin.
The aliens' premature invasion was beginning to make sense.
"I've got some bad news," Gibson warned.
Although Mulder's expression held reservations, he cocked his good ear toward Gibson. //...go on...//
"The people in Two Gray Hills."
"Jesus. What happened?"
"You really want details?"
//...no, no, no...// "I've got to stop this."
"It's not your fault, Mulder."
//...if you can read my mind...// "You know what I did."
"I know colonization was going to happen with or without you."
Mulder drained the remainder of his beer, then rose to get another.
He was halfway to the kitchen when Gibson said, "I don't like knowing this stuff, you know." He was hoping Mulder would relent and bring him a beer, too, giving him the means to silence the miserable voices in his head, present company included.
Mulder turned to face him. "There's something I need you to do, Gibson." //...listen for Scully. Find her...//
"I can't hear her, Mulder. I'm sorry."
"Have you tried?"
"Yes." When Mulder's distress overtook him, Gibson added, "It doesn't mean she's dead."
"She could just be...in a place I can't access."
"Like where? Jesus, she was with me at Shiprock. She can't be too--" Realization rolled through him. He swayed on unsteady legs. "She's with Them, isn't she?"
"Oh, Christ." Mulder balled his fists. "Damn it. I blamed her--"
"I know, for putting William up for adoption."
Fear and anger warred within Mulder. "It wasn't just that. She quit, Gibson. She wouldn't fight for him. She put his life at risk for her own convenience. I couldn't forgive that." //...I still can't...//
His trust had been broken; he was deeply, maybe irrevocably wounded by a perceived betrayal.
A wave of panic rose in Mulder's mind. Gibson wanted to dodge the nightmarish images, but couldn't. Aliens. Human soldiers. The sting of deprivation. Gibson ducked reflexively when faced by a too-real memory of raised batons, cracked ribs, spraying blood. Terror knotted Mulder's belly and, in turn, Gibson's. Screams lodged in both their throats. They blinked back scalding tears. They shivered from the frigid damp of a prison cell, an examination platform, a closed coffin.
"M-maybe I can help you find William," Gibson blurted, wanting to end the godawful feeling of isolation, the appalling treachery.
"Can you hear him?" A tide of hope stemmed Mulder's terror, relieving Gibson. "Do you know where he is?"
"I don't, but... I can try."
Gibson concentrated, spiraling out geographically, taking mere seconds to scan tens of thousands of individual thoughts. He searched for a pattern unique to young William Mulder. Voices rotated past his internal radar like stations on a radio dial. Locating a specific adult could be complicated, but pinpointing a baby might prove impossible. Without fully developed language skills, an infant's thoughts were abstract and generalized. One baby tended to sound much like another.
"Do you see him? Is he okay?"
Mulder's impatience was distracting. Gibson held up a hand to quiet him.
"I haven't found him ye--"
And then suddenly there he was. William's thoughts were more distinct than Gibson would have predicted. The pattern bore a striking resemblance to Mulder's insightful mind.
"I've got him."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, he's...he's thinking about you." This surprised Gibson almost as much as it surprised Mulder.
"He doesn't even know me," Mulder said. "We were together for only a couple of days."
"I can't explain it, but it's true."
"Could...could William be like you? Can he hear my thoughts?" //...God, please no...//
Mulder's unspoken disappointment hurt Gibson; it made him feel monstrous, inhuman. "Maybe," he said meanly, then relented when Mulder's eyes widened and his mind recoiled. "Or it could be just a memory."
"That's not possible. He was only two days old when I left. There's no way he could remember me."
Gibson shrugged, unable to explain. "He's with a woman. She's..." Gibson shifted from William's immature impressions to the woman's more focused thoughts.
"She's what?" Mulder asked, exasperated.
"Jesus, Gibson, who isn't?" Fighting to control his temper, Mulder began to pace, then stopped when he realized his noisy, lopsided stride might distract Gibson and break his link with William's caretaker.
There was no need for concern. Gibson's abilities were far from fragile.
"Why is she afraid?" Mulder asked after only a moment.
Gibson waited for the woman's consciousness to voice a reason. "Rick's dead."
"Who the hell is Rick?"
"Husband. He was killed...by Them." Bits of a stranger's history blew past Gibson like autumn leaves in a windstorm. "She isn't William's mother."
"No, I mean, she isn't his adoptive mother."
"Then who is she? Is she...qualified to be taking care of a baby?"
Gibson listened for more details. "She's hungry. She's worried about him...the baby."
"Where are they?"
"I don't know."
"Come on, Gibson. There must be something in her thoughts that'll give us a clue."
"Not at the moment."
"What about William? Is he...is he looking at anything?"
"Mulder, it doesn't work that way. I can't *see* through their eyes. I hear their thoughts. Words, impressions, memories, feelings. It's not always easy to sort out and it's not like I'm watching a movie."
Mulder returned to the table, but didn't sit. "I'm sorry. It's okay. I'm just--"
"Worried. Yes, I know." Gibson listened again. "He's thinking of a toy."
"He doesn't have a word for it. I think it's one of those things people hang on kids' cribs."
"Yeah, with animals on it."
"What kind of animals?"
"Does it matter?"
"Right now everything matters."
"Well, uh, they're, uh, I think they're light-colored...like clouds. He knows the word for clouds."
"Sheep?" Mulder pressed, hoping to glean some useful bit of information from Gibson's connection.
"Not sheep...uhh... He calls them 'buffs.' "
“Buffalo? White buffalo?” That was it -- the clue Mulder had been hoping for. “They’re in Wyoming. The state flag has a white buffalo on it.” Mulder limped to the café's front entrance.
“We're leaving now?” Gibson rose to hurry after him, leaving the Coke.
"My son's with a frightened woman who's not his adoptive mother in a place that's not his home." Mulder opened the door and held it. "There are ten thousand killer aliens roaming the planet. Yeah, we're going after him...right *now*."
Continued in Book IV...
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