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 V MUSIC [mp3]
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Into the Wilderness
Continued from Book IV
Wasatch-Cache National Forest, Utah
October 13, 2002
It was cold. Freeze-your-fucking-ass-off cold.
Royal Jackson hunkered beneath a stand of canyon maples at the bivouac’s western periphery, his camouflage jacket zipped to his chin against the chill. He wasn’t a back-to-nature kind of guy, but ever since the aliens had taken over the city, everyone was living like goddamned Daniel Boone.
A festering insect bite drew Royal's dirty nails to the back of his neck as he studied Farmington Bay through his binoculars. Autumn leaves blazed like hellfire beneath a stone sky and the air carried the raw, damp odor of an approaching squall.
Royal had pulled morning shift; his assignment was to keep an eye on Route 89 and Great Salt Lake beyond, while Commander Skinner reviewed OFE maneuvers with the North Utah Infantry.
OFE -- Operation Free Earth, or Operation Fuck ET, depending on who you asked -- was a coordinated military offensive. It represented months of painstaking preparation: espionage, surveillance, training and, most challenging of all, synchronization between more than four dozen far-flung North American divisions, an undertaking that had proven to be hazardous and nearly impossible without functioning telecommunications. At last, armed units across the continent were poised to attack alien settlements similar to the one in Salt Lake City at dusk tonight.
Some of the men were spooked by the inauspicious date -- unlucky thirteen. But Royal felt optimistic. After all, it was a Sunday, not a Friday. And he was eager to kick ET’s ass any damned day of the week.
At nineteen years old, Royal was lean and athletic, a fast runner, an accurate shot. He wore shoulder-length dreadlocks tucked beneath a green knit cap and, under his jacket, tribal-style tattoos blackened his already dark arms, neck and torso. A row of small sterling hoops glittered along the outer curve of his ears, a heavy skull and crossbones dangled from his left lobe, and two thick barbells pierced his right brow.
According to the uncle who raised him, Royal was a loser, a lost cause. Reckless. Irresponsible. Always stoned or tripping.
Well, why the hell not? The world was a fucking shithole and ol’ Uncle Louis objected to everything anyway: hair, clothes, friends, tattoos, earrings.
“Jesus, Roy, why the hell you wanna go an’ poke a bunch of freakin’ holes in your head?” Louis would ask, a look of disgust curling his broad lips.
Uncle Lou would have popped a goddamned vein if he had found out about the gleaming Prince Albert that looped through the tip of Royal’s dick. Made him piss like a broken water fountain, but carpe fuckin’ diem, Unc, the orgasms were sweet. Besides, straight-laced living hadn’t helped anyone, had it? Especially Louis. He was as dead as all the other sons of bitches in South Salt Lake.
Royal toyed with the sterling stud in his tongue, rolling it around in his mouth, taking pleasure in its smoothness and solidity as he scrutinized Antelope Island. The 28,000-acre shelf rose sharply out of the lake, seven miles off shore in Farmington Bay, its seemingly barren terrain looking like it belonged on another planet. Until recently, it had been a state park, home to mule deer, antelope, coyotes, bobcats, and a herd of six-hundred bison, give or take. Now it was the location of the aliens’ human warehouse, a fortress-like prison that housed several thousand human captives. Poor bastards were ferried back and forth to the stronghold in Salt Lake City as needed, to work in the factories or be used as guinea pigs in the aliens’ freaking experiments.
Commander Skinner was sending a team to Antelope to free the prisoners while the rest of the NUI attacked the aliens at the mainland settlement. Royal was looking forward to that battle. He had plenty of scores to settle. And he was never one to back down from a fight.
Royal first met Commander Skinner two months ago, during one of the aliens’ weekly Round Ups. ET troops were combing the city for prisoners, seizing anyone who had evaded capture since the invasion last May. Royal’s eleven-year-old cousin Nicole was caught and thrown into a monster-sized transport car. Royal was frantic, hurling bottles and bricks at the troopers, yelling for Nicole. Not ten feet away, a laser-toting, Martian-loving SOB decapitated Royal’s best buddy Kaz. Blood sprayed everywhere. The stink of burning flesh was enough to gag a goddamn maggot. Just when the same damned fucker was about to blast Royal, too, Skinner’s militia appeared seemingly out of nowhere, riding to the rescue in the nick of time, just like the cavalry in Uncle Louis’ old John Wayne videos. Fifty or more horsemen, guns firing, grenades exploding. They took out four armored vehicles and at least two dozen alien conspirators, disabled the transport car and released its human cargo. Later that night, Nicole was sent with the other children to Safe Camp, near the Utah-Wyoming border. Royal stayed behind and volunteered to become a freedom fighter in Skinner’s burgeoning infantry.
Commander Walter Skinner was a bona fide hero, ten times over, as far as Royal was concerned. Royal would follow the old war horse to the ends of the Earth, if that’s what it took to wipe out the goddamned, cock-sucking Martians. Not that he needed an excuse. He hated the stinking fuckers just on principal.
He hoped to get his chance at killing a shit-load of them tonight, make the murdering bastards pay for the things they’d done. Almost everyone he had ever cared about was gone thanks to the aliens. Everyone except Nicole. And the NUI, his new family. He had plenty of brothers and sisters now. And Commander Skinner looked after the entire bunch of them like a stern father, insisting in no uncertain terms they watch each other’s backs, fight like the devil and above all else, stay the fuck alive.
A shadow in the clouds caught Royal’s eye and he aimed his binoculars skyward.
To his amazement, an alien shuttle punched through the overcast, the trajectory too steep to make a landing on Antelope. It careened toward the lake and, in a matter of seconds, plowed nose-first into the bay, sending up a plume of water.
“Jesus--” Royal sprang to his feet.
The shuttle skidded and spun, gouged a ragged, miles-long wake across the gray, choppy water, all the way to the Farmington shore, where it lodged in the marsh and began to sink a couple of hundred yards out. Christ Almighty, as close as it was, they might actually have time to loot it before the aliens arrived on the scene. It was certain to be carrying supplies and munitions of some sort. Maybe alien communication devices, too. And it would be a goddamned pleasure to torture military secrets out of the fucking pilot and crew...if they had survived the crash.
Royal sprinted uphill to the camp to notify Skinner.
Arrowhead Creek, WyomingMulder siphoned gas into the Scout from the Get-N-Go’s underground tank while Gibson searched for food and water inside the store. Melissa’s ghost leaned against the motorcycle, arms crossed, a frown creasing her face.
“You’re still angry at her,” she said.
“Let it go, Mulder.”
An icy blast of wind ruffled his hair. “You were the one who once told me I should express my feelings. That's what I'm doing.”
“That was different. Dana was dying.”
“I'm being honest, Melissa. I’m angry.”
“You’re as much at fault as she is.” Her eyes flashed with condemnation.
“I don’t deny that. I wasn’t around. My absence influenced her decision. Fine. But you and I and she all know I'd've come home if she'd contacted me. She never gave me the chance.”
“She was afraid. For him and for you.”
Mulder pressed his lips together, unwilling to say more. The last time he’d confessed the depth of his disappointment on this subject, things had ended disastrously.
Melissa lifted her gaze to the snow-capped mountains behind the station, as if unable to stand the sight of Mulder one second longer. “She regrets her decision, you know. She didn’t want to give him up. It was the last thing she wanted.”
“Yeah...well...maybe she wanted it more than you think.” It came out sounding bitter, more so than he had intended. He didn’t hate Scully. He loved her, which was one of the reasons her decision hurt so damn much.
"You know why you're clinging so desperately to your anger?" she asked.
He didn't feel he was clinging to anything, at least not desperately. "Enlighten me."
"It keeps her close to you."
"That makes absolutely no sense." Actually it did, in a perverse way. As long as he held onto his anger, he could pretend their argument -- and, by extension, their separation -- was only minutes ago, instead of months.
Gasoline overflowed the tank and spilled onto his sleeve.
“Shit.” He removed the hose and capped the tank. Where the hell was Gibson?
“She could use your sympathy, not your resentment,” Melissa said.
“I’ll work on that as soon as I find my son.”
“She needs you, Mulder.”
Guilt speared him. “Do you know where she is?”
“I hope you’re speaking metaphorically.”
“Mulder!” Gibson’s shout echoed across the vacant lot from the door of the mini-mart. "Come here!"
"Just a sec--" Mulder turned to Melissa, only to find she had vanished. “Damn it.”
Gibson waved him toward the building. “They’re changing.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You gotta see.”
Mulder limped to the store and with Gibson in the lead headed down an aisle to the back. According to the signs, the shelves had once been stocked with donuts, snack cakes, chips and crackers. Now everything edible or useful was gone, stripped by looters.
Gibson stopped beside a rack of disposable cameras and pointed to the floor.
Mulder crouched and pressed a finger into what appeared to be greasy, reptilian skin. “Is this what I think it is?”
“They're metamorphosing into their adult form.”
“What you call ‘grays.’”
Mulder counted eleven castoff skins between the camera rack and the empty dairy case. “They all shed simultaneously? Is that... normal?” The word seemed ludicrous, given the circumstances.
"Their development could be genetically predetermined."
Five months had passed since the proto-aliens' "birth" at Shiprock. The number carried significance. It was the timetable specified in Revelation.
“Don't read too much into it," Gibson said, clearly listening in on Mulder's thoughts. "Revelation also said the locusts would only torture, not kill. We've seen plenty of dead bodies.”
“So they skipped a day of Sunday school." Mulder stood, relieving the ache in his injured leg only a little. "The proto-alien at Rolling Hills matured into an adult in less than forty-eight hours. A real overachiever compared to these. I'm thinking the reactor was a contributing factor, accelerating its development."
Gibson shrugged. "We know they don't like the cold."
The aliens came out primarily during daylight, when temperatures were at their warmest. "Could we use the cold against them in some way?"
Again Gibson shrugged and his seeming disinterest frustrated Mulder. How could the kid possess the power of telepathy and not use it to find out all he could about the aliens?
"You don't know or you don't *want* to know?" Mulder asked.
Gibson looked stung. "I learn what I can."
Mulder immediately regretted his anger. He had no right to judge Gibson. It must be living hell for him, overhearing whatever was going on inside the aliens' heads.
"It's not so bad," Gibson answered without being asked. "No worse than what's in the minds of some people." His lips twitched with a rare smile. "Baywatch?"
The old reference eased the tension between them.
"Hey, I haven't watched that show for ages."
"You haven't watched any TV for ages."
Before the image of Mulder's prison cell could form fully in his mind and ignite a panic attack, he changed the subject by pointing to the castoff skins and asking, "Where did the aliens go?"
"To join the others, get introduced to the collective consciousness."
"Can you tap into their Group Think?"
"Yes. But they recognize me as being from outside their Society. I can get only so far before they shut me out."
"Too bad. We could use a trustworthy mole." Mulder scanned the store, half expecting to see Deep Throat or X lurking beside the cash register. Unfortunately, his old informants were nowhere to be found when he needed them most.
Gibson stared at him, his expression unreadable.
Knowing there was no point in trying to hide his thoughts from Gibson, Mulder asked outright, "Are they real -- the ghosts?"
"You see them, don't you?"
"I could be delusional."
"Am I delusional because I hear voices in my head?"
"I hope not, since I'm counting on you to find William for me."
An unfocused look momentarily glazed Gibson's eyes, telling Mulder he was listening for the boy.
"He's near here," Gibson said at last.
"You don't know where?"
"No, but it's a small town. Shouldn't take us long to find him."
Quealy Residence Kenna abandoned her spade to plow her fingers into the garden’s cold soil. She unearthed a lumpy turnip and tossed it with a loud thunk into her wheelbarrow, where it collided with four others.
Turnips, turnips and more turnips. William didn’t like turnips. Not without lots of sugar sprinkled on top, and there was no more sugar in the canister.
"Just as well." Sugar wasn't good for kids. Rotted their teeth. "No dentists in Arrowhead." No dentists anywhere. Not live ones anyway.
William played happily two rows over, squatting in the dirt, digging holes with a bent kitchen spoon. He was an energetic boy with wispy, reddish-blond hair and an inquisitive disposition. His plump, wind-chapped cheeks glowed bright pink. Snot drained from his small, reddened nose. He blinked against the brisk autumn wind, blue-gray eyes wide and shimmery.
The weather had turned bitter earlier in the week and Kenna felt driven to harvest what little was left in the small vegetable patch. The garden wasn’t hers. Neither was the house, a peeling two-bedroom ranch, a mile and a half west of “downtown” Arrowhead, population 78...before the locust-monsters had come and killed everyone.
The name on the dented mailbox at the end of the dirt driveway said QUEALY. Every time Kenna looked at it, she misread it as QUEASY. She had peeked inside when they first arrived a few days ago, but found it empty. Mail delivery had slowed to a trickle soon after the power went out last May; eventually it had stopped altogether.
The Quealys’ sloped yard was neglected and overgrown. Ancient cottonwoods and stubbly evergreens crowded the house. Chrysanthemums and sunflowers, dry as the straw bristles on a whiskbroom, spiked the perennial bed beside the front step; they rattled like chattering teeth every time the breeze blew.
The house sat cattycorner to Buckboard Road. Kenna had chosen it over the others in Arrowhead because the front yard boasted a well with an old-fashioned hand pump, which, Lord be praised, actually worked. The water was cold, pure and sweet. No need to stock up on bottled.
If only that were the case with food and diapers.
The Quealys' pantry was pathetically bare. Kenna mentally inventoried their meager provisions for the umpteenth time as she pawed another turnip from the ground. One small can of deviled ham, two of tuna and six of tomato paste. No fruit. An opened jar of pickled beans, which William hated. A crusting bottle of spicy mustard. Five packages of useless microwave popcorn.
"Thank goodness for powdered milk," she muttered to no one in particular.
The root cellar held a ten pound bag of wrinkled, sprouting potatoes, two softening butternut squashes, and enough turnips to feed an army. It also contained the bodies of the Quealy family: mom, dad and two small children, both boys. Kenna had dragged their corpses to the cellar from the kitchen to keep William away from them. He seemed drawn to every mutilated body they came across, especially the young kids.
“Cawwot!” William squealed with delight. He held a thin, bent carrot out for her to see, then bit off the end, dirt and all.
“I thought I got all those yesterday. Are there more?”
Kenna crossed the garden and knelt beside him. A few minutes of burrowing produced six spindly carrots.
“Mo’!” William demanded, his carrot eaten to the nub. Flecks of orange and smudges of garden dirt gave his wet smile a clown-like appearance.
“‘Mo’ what?” she teased.
She handed him one. “The rest are for your dinner.”
She tossed them into her wheelbarrow and retrieved her spade. “Too bad you don’t like onions,” she said, eyeing the untouched row of pearly crowns and browning leaves.
William frowned and dismissed the idea. “Yuns ’ucky.”
At a year and a half, William was as smart as a whip and growing like a weed. Today he was bundled in one of the young Quealy boys’ blue quilted jackets and faded bib overalls, rolled three times at the cuffs to keep him from tripping. His red rubber boots were a size too big. A child’s cowboy hat rode on his back, dangling from a braided cord around his neck.
Kenna was wearing hand-me-downs, too: frayed jeans, gray turtleneck and a baggy hand-knit sweater, stolen from a bureau in the back bedroom. No point feeling guilty about taking a stranger’s things; the dead owner wouldn’t be using them again.
As far as Kenna knew, everyone in Arrowhead was dead. Same seemed to be true at Fort Rawlins, Tabernacle and Burnt Rock. Heading west on a shiny red mountain bike with an attached child seat, she and William had traveled from Cache to Arrowhead Creek -- sixty-some miles along Route 80 -- going from town to town, house to house, kitchen to kitchen, moving on as soon as food got low or she grew too scared to stay put, convinced the locust-monsters were coming for them.
Lord Almighty, every time she closed her eyes she saw those awful creatures...or Artie and Joanne’s headless bodies...or Rick’s severed arm--
Grief sliced through her. She missed her husband with a fierceness that refused to ebb. He had been gone five long months and yet she still expected him to appear each evening, half starved from working the ranch all day. Goodness gracious, he had been a handsome man, eyes the color of coffee beans, hair as black as licorice, and a smile that made her weak in the knees. Loving, too. And steady. A good provider for the short time they’d been married. If he were to show up right now, she’d ask him to take her someplace far from Wyoming. Someplace without dead bodies and locust-monsters. Maybe the Grand Canyon, where they had planned to go on their honeymoon...before the truck had needed a new transmission and they'd spent every last cent fixing it.
"Hell of a lot of good it did us."
Crossing to the row of beets, Kenna imagined standing on the rim of the vast Canyon, holding Rick’s calloused hand, shouting “I love you, Rick Douglas!” and waiting for the echo to ricochet back.
“Wha’zat?” William asked, bent at the waist, peering down at the ground, sturdy legs splayed for balance. He plucked a plump earthworm from the soil and held it out for her to see.
“Nightcrawler. Put it down. *Don’t* eat it!” she warned just in time.
“Ni-call-uh. 'Ucky.” He let it drop.
Lord, she had to watch him like a hawk every single minute of the day. Not that she minded. He was a good-natured boy. A bit clingy, but that was understandable given the circumstances. With at least three different “mamas” in the last year, it was no wonder he whimpered whenever he lost sight of her.
What in God’s name would he have done if she hadn’t found him? Not that she was overly experienced with babies, but she did manage to keep him fed, change his diaper and wash the worst of the dirt off his face and hands. And she was extra careful to keep an eye on him around the stove.
Her hand went automatically to her neck, feeling the old scars through the soft folds of her turtleneck. After all these years, she could still remember every detail of that awful accident, as if it had happened only that morning. Standing on tip-toe, reaching past her mama to grab the handle of the steaming pot, wanting to see what was bubbling noisily inside. Then there was the terrible shock of scalding water, splashing, burning the skin on her neck and chest. Her mother’s horrified scream. The pain that wouldn’t go away, not for days or even weeks.
It had been a hard lesson. But she’d learned to be careful, to always turn the pot handle away from the edge of the stove when she was cooking, especially when William was nearby.
“What don’t kill you makes you stronger,” she said, repeating her grandmother’s favorite phrase. “You remember that, William.”
She levered her spade into the soil and began digging beets. She disliked feeding them to William because they stained his poop bright red, which scared the bejesus out of her when she changed his diaper. First time, she thought the poor boy was bleeding to death.
“Nenna?” -- William’s name for her when he remembered not to call her mama -- “Uh-oh.” His voice quivered in a way that made the hair on her arms stand on end.
“What is it, hon?”
“Ni-call-uh?” He pointed to a large, leathery heap beneath the dead tomato plants.
“Don’t move!” she shouted when he took a step toward the mysterious mound.
It flapped like a piece of landscape fabric, rolled back on itself by the wind. Except the texture wasn’t quite right. Too glossy. Rubbery looking. Scaly, like a snake.
Holding her spade like a baseball bat, she edged closer.
Oh God. It was a dead locust-monster.
Her legs went numb as she stood over it. Working up her courage, she poked it with her spade, half expecting it to spring to life.
But it turned out to be just a skin. No bones, no muscle.
“Wha’zat?” William asked again.
“Do not move!” Her scream was aimed at the locust-monster as much as at the boy.
William’s eyes filled with tears, but he stayed put.
Holding her breath, Kenna quickly shoveled the skin into her wheelbarrow. A pair of empty eye holes gaped at her from among the turnips as she pushed the barrow over the lumpy, frozen ground. William toddled after her to the open Bilco door at the side of the house, where a set of wooden steps, draped with cobwebs, led down to the cellar. Kenna shoved the wheelbarrow and its contents down the stairwell, then slammed the rusty, red door shut.
“Cawwot?” William asked.
“No more carrots tonight, hon.” She clapped dust from her hands and tried to smile at him.
He held his short arms aloft. “Up, mama.”
"What's the magic word?"
She lifted him to her hip and nuzzled his neck with her icy nose, making him giggle.
“Let’s get you and me cleaned up, okay?” She carried him around the house to the small front porch. “Rick will be home soon and he’ll be expecting dinner.”
“We got packing to do, too. Did I tell you we’re going to the Grand Canyon? Gonna leave tomorrow. You want to see the Grand Canyon, William?”
She gave him a hug and pushed through the front door.
Water. Freezing cold. Salty and chest-deep. It gushed into the shuttle through a ragged, meter-long gap between the fuselage and the crushed canopy. The windshield was webbed with cracks; it bowed precariously inward.
Dibeh pushed herself off the dead pilot, the Refuter who had kidnapped and tried to kill them. His face was gone, his head caved in by the steering column.
She would be dead, too, she realized, if his body hadn't taken the brunt of the impact, cushioning her when they crashed.
She scanned the cabin for Lady Dana.
The co-pilot's seat was buried beneath a pile of fallen debris. The cockpit was filling with water at an alarming rate. It would be only a matter of minutes before the entire cabin was flooded.
And Dibeh couldn’t swim.
She shoved aside floating cushions, chunks of insulating foam and plastic components. A crumpled ceiling panel concealed the co-pilot’s seat. She heaved it up and away, exposing Lady Dana, who sat slumped and unconscious in her seat, submerged up to her neck in swirling water. Blood trickled from her nose. Vapor puffed from her open mouth above the frigid water.
She was still alive. Praise be to the Great Dragon.
Dibeh tried to locate the release on her seatbelt. Fingers numbed by cold, she followed the shoulder strap down to its buckle.
Before she could unfasten the clasp, the shuttle tilted and a surge of current swept her back to the pilot's seat. She crashed headlong into the dead Refuter. His bloodied hand rocked upon the waves as if still alive. She became entangled beneath his limp arm. His fingers grazed her cheek. She batted away his ghostly caress and thrashed to stay afloat. Water filled her mouth and nose; panic rose in her chest as she struggled to keep her head above water.
Another tremor shook the craft; the shuttle sank deeper. An angry wave dragged Dibeh under.
Tossed through the murky depths, she held her breath and struggled to rise to the surface. Cargo tumbled past her as if weightless. Her nightgown billowed around her waist and her long hair floated like Feeder veils in the laundry vats on Tse’Bit’a’i’.
Lungs aching for air, she clenched her jaw against the urge to breathe.
Great Dragon, please help me, she prayed as dizziness began to overtake her.
The Divine Angel must have been listening because he sent a current that carried her to Lady Dana, where she popped to the surface. Spitting out a mouthful of bitter, salty water, she clutched the co-pilot’s seat for support.
Her mistress was conscious, sputtering and coughing, too, craning to keep her lips above the sloshing water.
"I can't...I can't unfasten the belt." Lady Dana struggled to get free.
Again Dibeh hunted blindly for the buckle, tracing the snug strap over the swell of her mistress's belly. Finding it, she tugged, but the clasp refused to budge.
She pulled again. And again.
It was no use. The belt remained firmly fastened.
“Cut it,” her mistress said.
Dibeh scanned the wreckage, looking for something sharp enough to saw through the belt’s tough fabric.
“The windshield,” Lady Dana suggested.
Dibeh waded to the cracked window. Breaking it would mean letting in more water, but it seemed the only choice. She searched for something to use as a club and finding nothing suitable, she balled her fist and punched the cracked pane with her bare knuckles.
The window burst and water gushed in. Dibeh frantically worked a shard loose from the upper edge, ignoring the pain as it sliced into her hand. When she had it at last, she let the incoming current carry her back to the co-pilot's seat.
"Hurry," Lady Dana pleaded, choking as water covered her lips.
Dibeh steeled herself for the task ahead. The roiling water frightened her more than anything she'd ever faced, even more than the Refuter. She would have to act quickly. Filling her lungs with air, she ducked beneath the surface.
Barely able to see in the gloom, she felt for the strap with bleeding fingers. Lady Dana writhed frantically against her bonds. Dibeh sawed furiously, trying her best not to cut her mistress as she worked.
The belt split. Lady Dana pushed herself free of the seat.
Dibeh surfaced seconds later to find the pocket of air had narrowed to mere inches. Lady Dana was treading water with her head tipped back, her nose bumping the ceiling.
"We don't have much time," her mistress said. "We have to get out. We can try to swim out the window."
Dibeh shook her head. The break was too narrow and edged with teeth of glass. Dibeh doubted Lady Dana could fit through, swollen as she was with her baby. They were trapped.
Water lapped the ceiling. Lady Dana coughed and spat. "It's our only chance. We're going. Now! Do you understand?" She grabbed Dibeh's hand and pulled her under.
Farmington BaySkinner crouched inside the mouth of a large storm water culvert, flanked on one side by the new kid with the unlikely name of Royal, and on the other by a seasoned soldier nicknamed Flak. The culvert ran beneath Route 89 and provided a perfect underground passage between the Wasatch foothills and Great Salt Lake.
“No sign of survivors," Royal said, binoculars trained on the shuttle's aft end, which protruded from Farmington Bay about a hundred meters offshore. With only a single pair of field glasses between them, he served as the team’s eyes. "Bow and canopy are completely submerged."
“Bye, bye, ET,” Flak said with a snicker. He reached for the inflated dinghy concealed in the culvert behind them. "Now, sir?"
“Hold your position.” Skinner refused to risk their lives on what was turning out to be a mere salvage mission. It had only been the possibility of capturing and interrogating the shuttle's crew that had persuaded him to bring the small team down to the lake in the first place. He wanted details about weapons and manpower and the layout of the Harmony I stronghold. Any scrap of information might prove invaluable come dusk. Without survivors, however, it was beginning to look like they’d wasted their time.
Skinner scanned both the bay and the sky for rescue craft. “What's happening at the airport?” he asked.
Royal aimed his binoculars south toward SLC International. "Not a creature stirring, sir.”
Flak grunted with disgust. “Sleeping on the job.”
"Heads up their asses, more like," Royal said.
"Quiet," Skinner ordered. The aliens would come. A crash this close to their settlement would not go unnoticed.
He and Flak would need to work fast. The plan was to paddle out to the wreck in the life raft before a search party arrived. The inflatable was large enough to haul cargo and a couple of prisoners back to shore, assuming anyone had survived the crash. Royal would wait on the mainland, hidden in the culvert. If the mission went to hell and Skinner and Flak were captured or killed, Royal was to return to camp with their horses and report to McInness, Skinner's second in command.
Operation Free Earth was a go, no matter what happened out there on the bay this morning.
Skinner listened for the rhythmic beat of helicopter rotors, the buzz of approaching watercraft, anything that might indicate the aliens were on their way. Satisfied by the stillness, he rose to his feet. "Ten minutes," he reminded Flak. "Not a second longer."
Skinner grabbed the dinghy's towrope.
"Sir, wait!” Royal thrust the binoculars at him. “We’ve got a live one."
A slight adjustment of the lenses brought a bobbing head into focus.
"It's a hybrid," Skinner said.
"Fuckin' half-breeds." Flak spat.
"It's in trouble." Skinner watched the alien flounder.
"Good. Maybe it'll drown and save us the trouble of killing it."
“There'll be no killing,” Skinner growled. “Our objective is to take prisoners and interrogate them. You got that, soldier?"
"Another one, sir!" Royal pointed to where a second head bobbled beside the first.
Skinner aimed the binoculars.
"I'll be damned," he whispered past a lump in his throat.
"I know her." His heart beat double-time as he watched Dana Scully help the hybrid to the shuttle's exposed T-tail. "She's a friend. Let's go."
It took Skinner and Flak just under four minutes to launch the life raft and paddle out to the crash site.
"Good to see you, Walter," Scully said through chattering teeth as they hauled her aboard. Her words were understated, as always, but her eyes shone with gratitude.
Skinner's relief at finding her was enormous. After months with no word about her or Mulder, he had imagined the worst.
Unfortunately, there was no time to celebrate this unexpected reunion, so he fought the urge to wrap her in a big bear hug. They could catch up after they were safely back at camp.
"We're on a tight schedule," he said, reining in his emotions.
She nodded and turned immediately to help the hybrid, who was clinging to the shuttle's tail assembly. "Take my hand, Dibeh. I'll pull you in."
Skinner noticed blood on Scully's tattered gown. "You're hurt."
"I'm fine. Help her. She can't swim."
"Five minutes, sir," Flak warned.
They needed to head back...now.
"Let's do this quickly," Skinner said.
He offered his hand to the hybrid, which stared back at him with inky alien eyes. It was shivering violently from either cold or fear.
"Come on, Dibeh," Scully coaxed. "It's okay. He's a friend."
The hybrid refused, shaking its head vehemently. It held up its right hand to reveal green blood oozing from parallel cuts along its palm.
"Careful, sir," Scully said. "Her blood could be toxic to us."
"Fuck that." Flak raised his paddle. “I vote we leave the freak and head home.”
"You don't get a vote here, soldier," Skinner reminded him.
"But, sir...it's a goddamned alien!"
"She's not an enemy," Scully argued. "We can't abandon her. I won’t."
"Why the Christ not?” Flak's lips curved down in disgust. “Freakin' Martian's got poison all over its paws. Ever see what that green stuff does to a man's flesh? I don't want it on me."
Scully dismissed him with a scowl and turned to Skinner. Her eyes implored him to listen. "She saved my life, Walter."
It was all he needed to hear. "Then it...she is coming with us."
"Six and a half minutes." Flak's warning was clipped with irritation.
"Understood," Skinner acknowledged, feeling the pinch of time. "What's her name?" he asked Scully.
"Dibeh. And she understands English."
Skinner reached for the hybrid. "Dibeh, I'm going to grab hold of your arm and pull you aboard. You ready?"
The hybrid nodded and Skinner dragged her easily into the raft. At only seventy or eighty pounds soaking wet, she was built more like a twelve-year-old boy than an adult woman. Her features were decidedly alien: oversized eyes, seemingly all pupil with no iris or outer ring of white, an almost nonexistent nose and small mouth, loose grayish skin, with a coarse reptilian texture. Her slender fingers and bare toes were half again as long as his. A thick amber mane -- her most human characteristic -- capped a too-round skull. Delicate, blonde eyebrows drew together and creased her broad forehead, giving her a worried appearance.
"Jesus fucking Christ." Flak leaned as far away from her as possible.
Skinner had a thousand questions for them. Where were they headed when the shuttle crashed? Who was the dead pilot? Why was Scully on friendly terms with an alien hybrid? Why were they dressed in nightgowns?
Scully’s wet gown clung to her, revealing full breasts and an unexpectedly round belly. Clearly she was pregnant again. Old concerns came rushing back: was the baby healthy, were the aliens after it the way they'd been after William, was Scully's life at risk?
Hearing the faint beat of an approaching helicopter, Skinner's questions, like his bear hug, would have to wait.
"Anyone else in the shuttle?" he asked.
"Just the dead pilot," Scully said.
"Then let's get out of here," he ordered.
The two men took up their paddles and put their backs to the task of crossing the bay before the aliens' salvage crew arrived.
"There he is!" Mulder shouted over the roar of the motorcycle engine. "Hang on!"
Freezing rain pelted his face. Gibson gripped his shoulders as they rocketed toward the small ranch house where a young woman and a toddler collected water from a hand pump in the front yard.
"Told you he was here." Gibson's voice joggled in Mulder's good ear as they jounced over potholes at break-neck speed.
Indeed. Gibson had claimed William was in Arrowhead and the little boy up ahead looked about the right age. But Gibson might have misread the child's infantile thoughts, confused him with William. There would be no incontrovertible proof that this particular boy was Mulder's lost son, not without genetic testing. And the chances of getting a lab analysis were slim to none. Mulder could only hope he would somehow know, maybe sense a connection, the way Gibson could read the minds of strangers.
He swerved into the dirt driveway and lurched to a stop, sending up a spray of gravel. The young woman's eyes rounded at the sight of them. She dropped her bucket. Water splashed onto her faded jeans, turning them dark. She grabbed the child and ran into the house.
"Nice going, Mulder." Gibson swung off the bike. "You scared the crap out of her. Now what?"
Mulder swallowed a mouthful of exhaust fumes and killed the engine. "We pay the lady of the house a call."
"And then? Have you considered how she's going to react when you tell her you're William's father?"
"I'm more worried about how he's going to react." Mulder held out little hope that William would recognize him, although Gibson insisted the boy sometimes thought about him. Mulder didn't see how that was possible, given that William hadn't laid eyes on him since the day after his birth.
"She's not going to let you just take him," Gibson warned. "She has no reason to trust you and she's *extremely* protective of him."
"I appreciate her maternal instincts. It's what's kept him alive." Mulder eased off the bike, his left leg throbbing. He took a couple of limping steps toward the house, testing his balance. "She knows he's not hers. She must have entertained the notion that his real parents might come looking for him one day."
"Not necessarily." Gibson angled his face away from the wind and stinging rain. "William was adopted. In her mind, his biological parents gave him up for good. There's no reason for her to think anyone might want him back."
"Then I'll explain the situation."
Mulder started toward the house, but was stopped short when Gibson unexpectedly grabbed the back of his jacket.
"She's got a gun," he warned.
Mulder eyed the front window where a pleated drape hid the interior. "Loaded?"
"Yes. And she plans to use it if we come inside.”
“In that case, you take the front. I’ll go around back.”
“Why do I get the front?”
“Because you’ll know when she's going to pull the trigger.”
“How's that going to help?”
“You'll know when to duck.”
Mulder left Gibson to his own devices and circled the house, looking for a back entrance. The rear door turned out to be locked, so he continued on around, checking windows and--
"Bingo." Cellar door.
He swung the Bilco open and descended the steps slowly, letting his eyes adjust to the dimness. He navigated past an overturned wheelbarrow and a half-dozen scattered turnips before his toe hit something semi-solid.
It was a body, or what was left of a body. The head was missing and the torso gutted. Arm flung wide, it appeared to be holding hands with a second corpse, a small child. Bile rose in his throat when he realized the child was only a little older than William.
He fought the heave of his stomach and continued on, past two more eviscerated corpses and up the interior stairs. Pausing on the top step to listen at the door, he could hear Gibson, still outside the house, trying to persuade the woman to let him in.
"Go away!" she shouted. "I've got a gun."
Mulder turned the knob, found the door unlocked and silently eased into a central hallway, where he was greeted by a gallery of family photos. A clean-cut young man and his blonde bride grinned at him from a ten-by-twelve studio portrait, perfect teeth gleaming, smiles unforced. Surrounding them were a dozen or more pictures of two tow-headed brothers at various ages from infancy to grade-school.
Down the hall to his right was a kitchen. To the left, about twenty feet away, was the front entry. The woman Gibson believed to be Kenna Douglas stood there with her back to Mulder and her rifle aimed at the door. William was nowhere to be seen. Mulder hoped the boy remained out of harm's way until Kenna was safely disarmed.
At five foot eight or nine, a hundred and ten pounds tops, she was no match for Mulder, even with his bad leg. Gauging by her slim hips, gangly limbs and waist-length hair, he guessed she was still in her teens. Younger than he had expected, by several years.
He edged down the hall, confident he could tackle her if he could get close enough without giving himself away. His limp made stealth nearly impossible. Old instincts and rusty skills went only so far and he longed to be able to walk effortlessly again.
Keep her talking, Gibson, keep her talking.
"Are you Kenna Douglas?" Gibson called, right on cue.
Her hands were shaking and her voice wavered when she asked, "How do you know my name?"
Mulder inched closer. He was almost within reach.
"We're looking for William van de Kamp," Gibson said. "Is he with you?"
Before she could respond, Mulder lunged and wrapped both arms around her, locking her in place as he grappled for her gun.
"Let go!" she screamed and rammed his gut with a sharp elbow. Pain shot up his bad leg when the heel of her boot slammed into his knee.
"That's enough of that." He wrenched the rifle from her hands and staggered back a step.
She spun to face him, eyes wide as he emptied the gun of cartridges. He shoved them deep into his pants pockets.
At that moment William appeared in the hall from an adjoining room, thumb in his mouth and a Buzz Lightyear doll dangling from his free hand. He blinked at Mulder, his leery expression so like Scully's it left no doubt in Mulder's mind that this was their son.
William removed his thumb with a wet pop and pointed it at Mulder.
Skinner and Flak slogged up the beach toward the culvert, lugging the life raft between them. Scully and Dibeh ran along behind.
"Hurry!" Royal shouted, rushing forward to lend a hand with the inflatable.
They hauled it deep inside the culvert, stowing it out of sight in the shadows, then hunkered at the entrance to watch the aliens' rescue helicopter lower a search team to the crash site.
Four men dressed in plain black military uniforms dropped on ropes and landed with a splash onto the partially submerged shuttle. They waded across the fuselage, inspecting it from aft end to bow. One of the men looked remarkably familiar to Skinner, even at a distance.
He took the binoculars from Royal and quickly focused on the lanky man in the bay. Waist deep in water, the officer used expansive gestures to make himself understood above the roar of the helicopter, which hovered overhead, rippling the water and causing the man's long hair to flail like a kite tail behind his back. A tattoo darkened his right cheek, yet his profile was unmistakable.
"Mulder?" What the hell was he doing out there?
"It's not him," Scully said, sounding certain.
"Not according to him. His name is Ca-Lo. He's a military strategist for the aliens. He's also...” Her cheeks darkened and she lowered her lashes. “He claims to be Mulder's brother."
"You believe him?"
"He's a liar and a trickster, but there may be some truth to his claim." She wrapped her arms around her swollen belly in a decidedly protective gesture. "He’s looking for me, Walter, and he won't stop until he finds me."
Shit. It was Democrat Hot Springs all over again. "We can hide you."
"No you can't. I have a locator chip, implanted subcutaneously in my lower back."
"We're fucked," Flak said.
Royal scrambled away from her as if the chip were a ticking time bomb.
"Settle down." Skinner angled toward her. "Can we remove it?" he asked. Or was it like the one in her neck, necessary for the remission of her cancer?
She pointed to the knife on his belt. "How good are you at slicing and dicing?"
"I don't have your experience."
"Any chance one of your men is a medic?"
Flak and Royal shook their heads.
"Look's like it's up to you then, Walter." Scully positioned herself on her knees in front of him and raised her gown.
He stopped her with a light touch. "The lady doesn't need an audience," he growled at his gawping soldiers. "Go ready the horses. Both of you."
Royal and Flak exchanged glances, then did as they were told and jogged off through the tunnel.
"Thank you," Scully murmured, when the men were gone.
Skinner lifted Scully’s gown, exposing her bare backside and a myriad of cuts and scratches. Most were superficial, but some still oozed blood.
Dibeh moved closer, allowing Scully to lean against her for support. Skinner ran his hand lightly over her lacerated skin, massaging gently, feeling for the chip. He located it a few inches above her tailbone, a shallow, hard lump, half the size of his smallest fingernail and buried directly beneath her tattoo.
He angled his knife and tried to still his quaking hands. “Blade's not sterile.”
“Do it anyway.”
"Wish I could offer you something for the pain."
"I'll be fine."
"I'll do this as fast as I can. You ready?"
"Yes. Do it." Her knuckles whitened as she gripped Dibeh’s arm.
He sliced into her and his stomach churned at the sight of fresh, crimson blood trickling down her smooth buttocks. He was relieved she didn't cry out. Not that he had expected her to.
After what seemed an eternity, he exposed a tiny piece of metal, pried it free and teased it onto the tip of his knife.
She tugged her gown into place and sat stiffly upright.
"You okay?" he asked.
She nodded and turned for the knife. "Let me see it."
He passed it to her. She regarded it only a moment, her expression unreadable, before giving it back. "Get rid of it. Quickly. Then let's get out of here."
Keeping his eyes on William, Mulder unlocked the front door and let Gibson in.
Kenna scooped the baby into her arms. "Go away. Both of you."
"Not without him." Mulder nodded at William.
She tightened her grip on the boy. "You can't have him. Leave us alone!"
"Not gonna happen. He's my son."
"I don't believe you."
"He's telling the truth," Gibson said.
She shot him an incredulous stare. "Why should I listen to you?"
"Why would we lie?" Mulder asked.
"Maybe you’re sick perverts who get off on kids."
Mulder gave a dismissive shake of his head. "You heard what he called me."
"Dada? Big deal. That's what he calls all men. And his action figures. And most of the corpses we've seen. It means nothing."
As if to prove her point, William aimed Buzz Lightyear at Gibson and proclaimed, "Dada!"
"See?" Kenna hugged the baby to her chest, shouldered past Mulder and headed for the kitchen.
"I thought you said he remembered me," Mulder whispered to Gibson as they followed her down the hall.
"He recognizes your face," Gibson confirmed.
"Then why--?" The gallery of happy portraits in the hallway caught Mulder's eye and realization hit. "Scully showed him pictures of me. That's what he remembers, isn't it?"
"It's the most likely explanation."
"He doesn't know I'm his father."
"You've been gone his entire life, Mulder. What did you expect?"
A miracle maybe. Or was there a limit of one per customer? Was God miserly with His rewards?
Mulder entered the kitchen, a square room with yellow cabinets lining two walls. A window above the sink overlooked an icy backyard, where sleet pounded a rusted swing set. A rope dangled from the branches of a gnarled pine, pointing the way to a half-hidden tree house.
Gibson pulled up a chair and sat at the kitchen's oval table. Kenna settled William into a highchair at the opposite end. She placed an assortment of colorful Tupperware lids on his tray.
"Din?" William selected a lid and gnawed on its rim.
"We'll eat soon, sweetie." Kenna kissed the top of his head. "Gotta cook something first." She headed toward the cupboards, but was blocked by Mulder. "S'cuse me," she said, her request thick with sarcasm.
If she was frightened of him, she was determined not to show it.
He stepped aside so she could get into the drawer behind him. She yanked it open, withdrew a short paring knife and proceeded to peel a turnip into the sink.
Mulder set the empty rifle on the counter. "Kenna, listen to me--"
"Why should I listen to you?" Her knife rhythmically scraped the turnip's tough rind. "You got proof he's your kid? Birth certificate or something?"
"Then we've got nothing to talk about."
"Yes, we do. William is my son. He was born on May 20, 2001. His mother is Dana Scully. She named him after my father, William Mulder."
"I wouldn't know anything about that. He's been William van de Kamp for as long as I've known him."
"The van de Kamps adopted him last April."
Her knife stilled for a moment and she blinked back tears. "Artie and Joanne are dead. I-I found William...in his crib. There were...there were locust-monsters...everywhere. And blood. Lots of blood." She pointed her knife at him. Her face was flushed. Her eyes glittered with a mix of fury and terror. "If you think I'm going to hand him over to a couple of complete strangers, you're out of your mind, mister."
Mulder slumped against the counter. Jesus he'd fucked this up, bullying his way in, expecting her to relinquish William after what she'd been through. "You're right. You shouldn't give him to a stranger. It was wrong of me to expect it."
"Told you we had nothing to talk about." She resumed her peeling.
Help me, Gibson, Mulder silently pleaded. You're the one who can read her mind.
Gibson cleared his throat and came to the rescue. “We have food," Gibson offered.
"What kind of food?" Kenna let the turnip drop into the sink.
"Canned stuff, dried fruit. Does he like raisins?"
"Yes, but he can't have too many. They give him diarrhea."
"Okay. We've got other stuff."
She set her knife on the counter. "Well, what are you sitting there for? Bring it in."
Fifteen minutes later, Mulder and Gibson were thawing their fingers around mugs of instant coffee, while Kenna heated refried beans and thick slices of canned ham on the propane stove. The counter was cluttered with groceries, everything that had been stuffed into the Scout's saddlebags.
William bounced in his highchair, eating bite-sized chunks of pears. "Mmm-mm-mmm," he hummed and chewed, juice drooling down his chin.
Mulder couldn’t tear his eyes away. Cataloging William's childish features, he discovered more similarities to Scully than to himself.
It was a familiar exercise, a repeat performance. The first time had been an hour after William came into the world. Puffed with pride, yet more terrified than he had ever been before or since, Mulder had counted his newborn son's fingers and toes, caressed his velvety cheek. Then William began to squall, searching for Scully's breast. Mulder wept like a baby, too, at the sight of her nursing his son.
It was the most perfect moment of his life.
"He doesn't look like you," Kenna said, her tone accusatory.
"He favors his mother...thank goodness."
She spooned more pears into William's bowl. "I don't get it."
"Why he looks like his mother?"
"No, why you gave your kid away."
Mulder wanted to shout "I didn't!" but held his temper. "There were extenuating circumstances."
"Those circumstances gone now?"
"More or less."
"What about him? Do you even care what he wants, what's best for him?"
"I believe being with his parents is best for him. I've always believed that."
She harrumphed and busied herself with wiping pear juice from William's face. He twisted to get out from under her wet cloth. "Down! Down!" he fussed.
"How come his mama isn't here? She too busy to come after her own child? Had to send the two of you to do it for her?"
"It isn't like that, Kenna."
"No?" She turned to scowl at him, hands on her slender hips. "Then where is she? For that matter, where's she been for the last *year* while her baby's been handed from one stranger to the next? What's she been doing while we've been running from locust-monsters and practically starving to death?" Kenna's resentment boiled over. "No food, no milk, no diapers, no safe place to sit for two minutes to catch our breath. Tell me, where's she been?"
Her words bludgeoned him like the guards' batons at Mount Weather. Guilt and sorrow zigzagged through him.
"I don't know," he whispered.
Rebel Campasatch-Cache National Forest
Scully was fastening the last button of her oversized shirt, hiding her swollen belly, when Skinner entered the makeshift infirmary.
"Sorry we don't have anything smaller." Skinner plucked at the loose fabric. The sleeves dangled to her fingertips, despite being rolled twice at her wrists. Her camouflage trousers were cuffed like those of a toddler dressed in his older brother's hand-me-downs.
"This is fine. Better than the ridiculous dress--" A tide of emotion stopped her from saying more about her ordeal with the aliens. Eventually she would tell Skinner, but not now, not when she was feeling so vulnerable.
Across the tent, an EMT attended Dibeh's wounds and Scully focused her attention there.
"Be careful," she warned.
The EMT ignored her and continued to hastily bind Dibeh's injured hand with gauze. Like the others in the camp, the EMT was none too pleased to meet Dibeh. They saw only her alien features and knew nothing of her individual qualities. She had the face of the enemy and they hated her for it.
Dibeh sat motionless, shoulders hunched, eyes wide with fear. Scully’s heart went out to her. The hybrid’s life had changed in the blink of an eye. She had generously helped an Earth woman and, despite her loyalty to Scully, Dibeh’s future among humans was grim. She was facing a lifetime of prejudice. Or worse.
"How's the wound?" Skinner's hand grazed Scully's lower back.
She stiffened. The gesture was too familiar, too intimate; it reminded her of Mulder and the ache of missing him left her heart feeling hollow.
"Walter...have you heard...has there been any news of Mulder?"
"I was hoping you could tell me. Wasn't he with you?"
"No. We were separated soon after we left Mount Weather." Less than two days together and their last moments had been spent arguing. What a waste.
Her experience aboard the alien ship had taught her firsthand the innumerable ways in which imprisonment can ravage the psyche. Mulder had been in an extremely fragile state of mind when he learned she'd given William up for adoption. She should have been more understanding. She should have gone after him at Shiprock.
Instead she had let him sulk. She had believed they could simply talk out their differences when he returned.
It had been a shortsighted decision. And selfish. His accusations had stung, in part because she feared the truth of his words. Sometimes it felt like she would spend the rest of her life second-guessing her decision to give up William.
And now a new fear loomed in her mind: she might never see Mulder again.
The thought was unbearable. She would find him. She had to. She needed to set things right between them.
"Dana...I couldn't help noticing..." Skinner shifted uncomfortably. His gaze drifted to her stomach. "When I pulled you into the raft...”
So her drenched nightgown had revealed her secret and now she would have to give some sort of explanation. She had hoped to conceal her condition under layers of outsized fatigues, at least for another few weeks.
"Mulder is the baby's father, if that's what you're wondering." The words came out laced with anger and much louder than she had intended. The memory of Ca-Lo's appalling seduction made her feel as if she might vomit.
"I never doubted that," he said, his discomfort obvious. "Dana, I want to send you to a safe camp in the east, near the Utah-Wyoming border. I'll assign an escort to take you there, to protect you; someone I trust."
"No. I want to stay here. You could use a good doctor." She glared at the EMT.
Skinner shook his head. "It's not safe. We're moving against the aliens tonight."
"All the more reason for me to stay. There'll be injuries. I can--"
"You're not staying. At dusk, this'll become a war zone, complete with live artillery and an enemy that doesn't believe in the Geneva Convention.” Concern creased his brow. "It's a two-day ride through the mountains...on horseback. Not an easy trip."
"Horseback? Walter, a fall could cause a miscarriage."
"If you stay here you risk more than a fall."
He was right; she needed to get away from the war -- and Ca-Lo -- to protect her baby.
“I won’t go without Dibeh.”
“When will I see you again?”
“I’ll be a couple of days behind you."
“You can't promise that.”
“No, but I’ve got good soldiers watching my back. I'll be okay.”
Fear tightened her throat and tears filled her eyes.
“Hey...” Skinner caressed her cheek, tender and welcome. “No need for that.”
She stood on tiptoe and wrapped her arms snuggly around his neck. He returned her embrace.
"Please, be careful, Walter. I can't--" Her voice cracked and her tears began to fall. "I can't lose you, too."
Mulder knocked softly on Kenna's bedroom door and waited for permission to enter before poking his head in.
"What do you want?" Kenna was dressed for sleep in an oversized Cody Rodeo T-shirt. She sat propped against the bed's headboard, long legs splayed, a child's storybook in her lap. She cradled William in the crook of one arm. He lay with eyelids drooping, tiny fingers kneading the folds of her shirt. He was dressed in footed pajamas, a couple of sizes too big and patterned with bucking broncos and lariats.
A blast of wind and sleet rattled the dark windowpanes, yet a kerosene heater kept the room toasty warm.
"Just wanted to make sure everyone was okay," Mulder said.
"You can see we're fine."
It was true. They looked completely at home in the queen-sized bed, flowered comforter folded neatly across the foot, hurricane lantern casting a golden glow from the nightstand. The sheets looked clean and warm and inviting.
"Okay. Well then..." He lingered at the threshold.
"You gonna say goodnight to him or you just gonna stand there letting the heat outta the room?"
"You don't mind if I..?" He gestured, indicating he wanted to come closer.
"Not as long as you make it quick."
A stocked pantry and a full stomach had evidently gone a long way toward winning her over.
Mulder limped to the bed and gave William's soft cheek a loving caress. "Hey, big guy."
William frowned and pulled away, plastering himself against Kenna.
Take it slow, Mulder reminded himself.
"What are you reading?" He indicated the storybook.
"Isn't it a little early for Christmas?"
"He likes the rhymes."
"Ah. Me, too. 'He puzzled and puzzed 'til his puzzler was sore, then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before.' "
William stuck his thumb in his mouth and buried his face in Kenna's shirt. The dismissal stung, although Mulder knew better than to take it personally. The boy was understandably wary. Mulder needed to be patient.
Kenna rubbed William's back with gentle, hypnotic circles, soothing him toward sleep. "He's tired. It's been a long day."
"Yeah. I kinda feel like sucking my thumb, too."
She gave him a sidelong glance, but said nothing.
"Kenna...I-I came for him as soon as I could. He's all I've been thinking about for months. I've missed him terribly. You have to believe that."
"The only thing I *have* to believe is God saw fit to put this boy in my care and that's what I've been doing. I've got no obligation to you."
Mulder nodded, wondering how to earn her trust. "I appreciate everything you've done for him."
"Oh, right, that's why you want to take him away from me."
"No take 'way," William whimpered, sounding heartbroken. He crawled into Kenna's lap. "Noooo take, mama."
"Shhhh. It's okay, honey pie. No one's taking you anywhere."
He began to sob and she rocked him until his cries turned to hiccups and he lay limp and red-faced in her arms.
Mulder stood firm, wanting to flee the room but feeling it would give Kenna the wrong impression. He didn't want her to think he was the type to run off at the first sign of trouble.
"He's grown pretty attached to you," he said at last.
"What do you expect? We've been together since May. That's a big chunk of his life."
"Don't misunderstand. I'm glad. I'm glad he's had someone to look after him."
"I love him." Her tone dared him to dispute it. "And he loves me."
"I can see that."
Apparently satisfied by his acknowledgement, she admitted, "He doesn't always call me mama, you know."
"No. Only when he's tired or upset." She smoothed William's wispy reddish curls, then lifted her gaze to Mulder. She had the most liquid eyes he'd ever seen. "You can stay for a while, if you want. Rub his back. Like this." She demonstrated with exaggerated slowness, as if Mulder were a child himself.
Mulder ignored the stabbing pain in his thigh and lowered himself stiffly onto the outermost edge of the mattress. He reached hesitantly for his son. The moment he made contact, William's thumb went once again to his mouth; he sucked loudly as Mulder massaged his small hunched shoulders.
"He feels warm. Is he too warm?"
"You sure? He feels warm to me."
She laid her palm against his forehead. "He's fine. It was just the crying got him worked up."
Mulder shifted position, trying to ease the ache in his thigh.
"What happened to your leg?"
"You kicked me, remember?" he said, smiling.
"I didn't put those scars on your face."
"No." His focus flitted to the massive scar that ringed her neck.
She caught him staring and lifted her hand to her throat. "I got this years ago. Waaaay before I was taking care of William. I never, ever let him near the stove, don't you worry about that."
"I wasn't worried." Not much.
William sighed and nestled against the soft mound of Kenna's left breast. A nipple tented her T-shirt next to the baby's loose fist. Mulder felt his groin tighten and although his physical response was unintentional, it felt inappropriate enough to heat his cheeks and set his heart hammering.
"You seem awfully young to be married," he said, indicating the ring on her finger.
"Nineteen is young."
"How old are you? Thirty?"
He imagined thirty sounded ancient to her. "Give or take."
"Rick and I got married last April. I miss him something terrible."
"How did he die?"
"Oh, he isn't dead. He's coming back. He's going to take me and William to the Grand Canyon."
"But I thought--"
Kenna's calm expression clearly showed she was in denial. Gibson had heard her grieving for her dead husband weeks ago. His telepathy wasn't foolproof, but Gibson had seemed certain about this.
Not wanting to argue the point and risk losing this hard-won truce with Kenna, Mulder steered the conversation in a different direction. "You said you found William in his crib?"
"And there were 'locust-monsters' in the room with him."
"Five of them, standing in a circle."
"Standing and watching."
It had been in the back of Mulder's mind for quite some time that William might have an ability to communicate with the aliens, the way Gibson did. It would explain why the boy was still alive. Why Kenna was alive, too.
"Why do you think they didn't hurt him?" he asked.
"Answer's obvious, isn't it?"
"Sure. God saved him."
"Right," Mulder said, not at all convinced, "of course."
"That's why I was led to him."
"God figured I needed a sign. Proof of His power. So He gave me William." She planted a kiss on the crown of William's head. "It's hard to lose faith when you're looking straight at a miracle. Know what I mean?"
William's eyes closed, his breathing grew steady. He was every inch at peace. Innocent. Perfect.
"Yeah. I know what you mean."
Wasatch-Cache National Forest
Royal twisted in his saddle to listen to the muted rat-a-tat of gunfire and the distant blast of bombs. An all too familiar hum pulsed up from the war zone in the lowlands.
The hybrid looked ready to jump off her horse and bolt into the woods. She'd been quaking like a bowl of Jell-O on the San Andreas Fault ever since her rescue, flinched at every damned noise, gaped at the men, the horses, the food, attached herself to the redhead like they were fucking Siamese twins. Had to be pried loose and lifted onto her horse when it came time to get moving.
"Vulcan cannons?" asked the redhead, Skinner's friend, Dana Scully.
Royal was surprised she recognized the sound. "Yes, ma'am."
"Ours or theirs?"
"Theirs, stolen from us. Aliens got 'em mounted on Warthogs. Vibrate like bitches in heat...if you'll pardon the expression." Royal peered back the way they had come. "Our side's got grenades, a few M-16s, some plastic explosives. Not much else."
"Is that going to be enough?"
"Dunno. You believe in God, ma'am?"
"Then I suggest you say a prayer for our side."
Royal's faith came and went, depending on the circumstances. He had begged God to save his cousin and, lo and behold, Nicole was spared. Yet there were other times when God didn't seem to give a rat's ass about him or mankind, turning a blind eye to the alien invasion and all the misery they brought with them.
Take the hybrid, for example. What kind of God would create a hideous piece of crap like that?
Uncle Louis had claimed God worked in mysterious ways. Believed there was a master plan, a blueprint too complex for the comprehension of mere mortals.
Christ, if that was true, then everything anyone did was already set in stone, like the Ten Commandments, and it was pointless to worry about the future. Royal didn't like thinking that way. Maybe at one time he'd been content to sit back and wait for shit to happen, but not anymore. Not since he'd joined Skinner's infantry. The NUI was making things happen and whether he was part of a master plan or not, for the first time in his life, Royal felt he had a purpose, an important role to play.
A screech like the sound of tearing metal startled the horses and the hybrid.
"What the hell was that?" Scully asked, looking more aggravated than alarmed.
"Plasma cannon." Royal imagined the damage it must be causing. "Damn, I should be back there with them, not babysitting a couple of--"
Don't say it, Royal, he cautioned himself. Don't say or do anything that'll make Commander Skinner ashamed of you.
He spurred his horse uphill with a kick of his heels.
They rode without speaking for another half mile. The sky grew black and the sound of gunfire faded. Clouds marched overhead from east to west, hiding the quarter moon and the narrow mountain trail.
"What was it like up there?" Royal finally broke the silence.
"On the Mother Ship. That's where you were, right?"
"Yes. That's where I was. It was...big."
"Big? That's it?"
"Shit." Royal wanted details. "There many like her up there?"
"Jesus. Must be freaky." When she didn't answer, he hooked a thumb at the hybrid. "Folks at Safe Camp aren't gonna be pleased to see that one."
"Isn't that why Skinner sent you with us? To protect us?"
"Protect you maybe. Can't promise nothing about the alien."
"Your commanding officer expects you to carry out your orders, soldier."
"I know my duty, ma'am, but there're close to a thousand people at Safe Camp and they ain't gonna welcome any freakin' ET." Royal would follow his orders, but the hybrid was going to be a problem and he was only one man. "Sorry, but I can't guarantee nothin'."
Continued in Book VI...
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