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 VIII MUSIC [mp3]
Temporarily disabled to save bandwidth. Sorry for any inconvenience.
Michael and His Angels, Part I
Continued from Book VII
A mournful wind battered the hills of Rich County, Utah. It rattled farm fences and hissed through thickets of sage and bunch-grass, pushing a cloud of ruddy smoke into the valley. Horses grazed nervously on sloped scrubland. One wore a saddle with a military boot dangling from the stirrup. To the west, Bear Lake stained the basin like a purple-black bruise.
"Smells like Ruskin Dam the morning after..." A gritty, sour taste filled Mulder's mouth, much as it had the day he frantically searched for Scully's immolated corpse among the dozens of dead. His sinuses stung, his lungs burned; he coughed beneath his makeshift mask -- a T-shirt looped around the lower half of his face. Flanked by Gibson and Kenna, William riding one arm, he limped northward along an empty two-lane road. "Eau de burnt flesh."
With a hint of something vinegary, a sharp, fermented odor he couldn't put a name to.
"Plasma fire," Gibson supplied, reading his mind. Dust filmed Gibson's glasses. A blue and once-white striped scarf protected his mouth and nose from the smoke. He carried a half-full jug of water.
"I hope not."
"We must be getting close."
"Jesus, Gibson, toss me a bone, will you? Can you hear anything? Anything at all?" Mulder pressed.
"Not from the rebel camp."
Two nights earlier Gibson had dreamed of panicked screams and bomb blasts, followed by a deathly silence. Mulder believed it was a real event, an alien attack on Safe Camp, witnessed telepathically by Gibson in his sleep. Apprehensive about Scully's safety, Mulder had harangued him with questions, but Gibson, visibly shaken, insisted it was only a nightmare, then clammed up. He had remained stubbornly silent on the subject ever since.
"Would it kill you to fill me in on what's happening?"
"There's nothing to tell."
"God damn it, Gibson!"
William startled at Mulder's outburst. The boy had been nervous and clingy all morning. Tears striped his chapped, soot-covered cheeks. He leaned away from Mulder and extended mittened fists toward Kenna. "Mama!"
"Fix his neckerchief," she ordered, the sharpness of her tone not blunted by the thick layers of her scarf.
Mulder drew the slipping bandana up over William's small nose, not for the first time. He pointed to his own mask. "Cops and robbers, remember son? We're incognito."
"No 'nito." William yanked the bandana down.
Kenna reached over and adjusted it again. "Keep it on, sweetie."
"Noooo!" William whined and arched his back.
"Be a good boy," Kenna said gently. "Do as mama says."
Mulder bristled at her use of the word and was about to object when William flopped against his shoulder and stopped his fussing. Mulder decided to let it go. For now.
Kenna glared at him. "Cops and robbers?"
"It got him to wear the damned mask, didn't it?"
"For all of five minutes. And don't cuss, least not in front of him." She blinked against the acrid smoke. "Maybe I should carry him for a while."
"I've got him. He's fine," Mulder snapped, at the end of his patience. They had been walking for hours. His leg hurt like a son-of-a-bitch. And he was worried to the point of madness about Scully and the others at Safe Camp.
"No need to bite my head off," Kenna objected. "I'm just trying to help."
You wanna help? Start your goddamn period, Mulder thought, then felt ashamed when Gibson shot him a rebuking sidelong glance.
Gibson had warned him. He had said Kenna was emotionally vulnerable. Said she hadn't wanted to sleep with him, but believed it was the only way she would be able to keep William.
Which made sex with her not entirely consensual. She may have initiated their encounter, but he had been looking for a physical release and took advantage of the situation.
Their abbreviated joining could not be called "lovemaking," not by any stretch of imagination. It was a reckless act, on both their parts, and its brevity clearly surprised Kenna. Three quick thrusts and he spilled into her, stifling a groan against the scarred flesh of her neck. "Oh" was all she said. "We'll try again," he promised, thinking he should, believing she deserved a more suitable demonstration of appreciation for the use of her body. "Give me a few minutes."
As it turned out, no amount of encouragement on her part, or his, had proven successful at reigniting his ardor.
He didn't love her. He barely liked her.
And yet he may have impregnated her.
Glancing her way, he felt a fresh surge of guilt. At half his age, she was still a teenager, for God's sake.
If she turns out to be pregnant, I'll do the right thing, I won't abandon her or our child, he vowed silently, hoping Gibson was still listening and could hear the sincerity of his unspoken promise.
Worry furrowed Gibson's brow and Mulder knew he had heard. But Gibson said nothing, leaving Mulder to wonder if his friend truly understood the extent of his regret. He *was* sorry, deeply, genuinely, for the anxiety and hurt he was causing Kenna, for his own selfishness and poor judgment, and most especially for the reckless way he had ignored the issue of birth control.
Jesus, by the end of next summer William could have a baby brother or sister.
William squirmed in his arms. "Down," he demanded.
"Sorry, son. We've got a way to go yet."
Mulder bent to kiss his cheek, but William ducked away.
"This air isn't good for him," Kenna complained.
"Yucky," William said, referring not to the air, but pointing ahead to where dozens of missile strikes pocked the shore of Bear Lake, evidence of an unrelenting attack. At the center of this no man's land was a razed campground, the source of the red smoke. Charred docks and boats scabbed the shoreline, smoke wafted from smoldering RVs and automobiles.
Mulder swallowed against the god-awful stench and scanned for survivors. "Safe Camp?" he managed to ask.
"Is anyone alive?"
"I don't think so." Gibson's pronouncement was so solemn, so definitive, it sent a jolt of panic jittering down Mulder's spine.
Scavenging birds, the only signs of life, circled in the red sky above the camp.
Mulder embraced William more tightly. "No one?"
Gibson gave an apologetic shrug.
Mulder was not willing to surrender hope. Scully had to be there. Alive. They'd come all this way. He'd brought William. It couldn't end like this.
Unloading William into Kenna's arms, he said, "Take him. I'm going to find her." Without waiting for a response, he bolted for the campground.
His gait was lopsided. Each off-kilter stride sent a stab of pain through his injured leg. He cursed his clumsiness and pushed himself harder, spurred by the alarming number of corpses in his path.
Body parts with torn and roasted flesh littered the road. Blackened skeletons dotted the scrubland, their ebony ribs protruding from the sandy soil like scorched fingers. Mulder dodged a mound of tangled legs and arms. Caught sight of a youngster's gaping mouth and empty eye sockets. Bile climbed to his throat. A small, toy fire engine lay on its side beside the child's dismembered hand.
"Scully!" His voice boomeranged through the camp. "Scully!"
The shell of a large, low-slung building loomed ahead, its windows blown out, roof gone, walls collapsed, entire sections missing between bent wall studs. Buzzards descended in droves upon its exposed innards. Mulder entered through an eight-foot hole in the wall. Ponds of congealed blood glistened on the cracked tile floor. Torn mattresses and bed sheets, speckled with gore, clotted the room's far corners. Unbelievably, an IV rack remained upright and unscathed at the center of what must have once been the camp's infirmary.
Beneath a flattened cot, Mulder glimpsed a shock of red hair.
It was Ruskin Dam all over again.
"Scully?" Her name rasped past tightened vocal chords.
Broken glass crunched beneath his boots as he lurched toward the bed. Heaving it aside, he knelt next to the lifeless body -- a petite woman, face cemented to the floor by her own dried blood.
He patted her hair and was surprised by its softness. Staring at her small pale hands, he tried to remember the exact length and shape of Scully's delicate fingers -- fingers that were as adept at bringing him pleasure as they were at dissecting corpses.
Please don't let it be her, he begged.
He tried to roll the body onto its side, but the head remained fused to the floor. Knotting his fingers into her beautiful, red hair, he yanked hard and wrenched her free, exposing her face.
It wasn't Scully.
Tears burned his eyes. He swallowed a hitching sob and combed the dead woman's hair carefully away from her face with shaky fingers.
She was somebody's loved one. A sister or wife. Perhaps a mother.
Lifting his gaze to the crimson sky, he let his tears fall. "Scully...please. I brought William. I told you I would. I told you. Your son needs you. *I* need you!"
Warm fingers gripped his quaking shoulders and for an insane instant he thought it was Scully. But misery drove out his sense of relief when he turned to find Gibson standing over him.
"I hear someone," he said.
"No, but someone who knows her."
"Where?" Mulder rose on unsteady legs.
Gibson pointed skyward, targeting a pinwheel of vultures above the western edge of the camp. "There."
The word launched Mulder into a stumbling run.
Hard, open desert separated the infirmary from the vultures. The ground was crisscrossed with scorch marks, evidence of laser blasts hot enough to melt sand to glass. Mulder jumped the shallow troughs and prayed he wouldn't twist an ankle. Over the sound of his own ragged breathing he could hear Gibson trying to keep pace.
At the camp's refuse area, he waded without pause through piles of garbage. Plastic and paper fluttered around him like the ruffled feathers of the scattering buzzards. One vulture lit upon a fallen oil drum. It paced there, claws tapping against metal, head tilted, listening to the rustle of wind.
The barrel was large...large enough to hold a person.
Mulder scooped trash from its opening. Inside, he discovered a child hugging herself against the cold, face buried against drawn up knees. She was shivering; she was alive.
"It's okay," he soothed, reaching for her. "We're here to help."
She shook her head and refused to look up at him. Her hair was matted. Her delicate arms were smudged with filth and bruises. She wore only a thin, dirty nightgown.
She must be freezing, he thought as he grasped her upper arms and gave an encouraging pull. "It's okay, sweetheart, come out. I won't hurt you."
"Careful, Mulder," Gibson warned, standing beside him, breathing hard. "She isn't human."
The child lifted her gaze. Her skin was grayish-green, her eyes wide and inky black.
She was one of Them. She was alien.
Exasperated by the inconclusive results of the paternity test, Ca-Lo locked Dana in his quarters, put a hybrid aide in charge of her care, and avoided them both while he pretended to run the ship from his Standby Room on the Bridge. This smokescreen of routine duty hid the fact that he was actually trying to access the mysterious NDP Archive. It also allowed him time to think and sort out his feelings.
He loved Dana. Of that he was certain. But what of her unborn child?
It was possible the little girl was his own flesh and blood, the daughter he had been hoping to raise. He swallowed past a lump in his throat and imagined holding her, tucking her into bed at night, watching her sleep and play and grow. He could almost feel her soft breath against his cheek as she whispered, "I love you, Daddy."
I love you. No one had ever said those words to him. Not once in four decades had he received one solitary declaration of affection.
And it was unlikely he would ever hear the words, if Dana's child turned out to be Mulder's and not his own.
The idea of raising his brother's daughter brought a bitter taste to the back of his tongue. Every moment spent with the girl, every embrace, every kiss would be tainted by his doubts about her conception. Her presence would be a constant, heartbreaking reminder of Dana's last act of intimacy with Fox Mulder.
The question of paternity would haunt her, too, Ca-Lo was certain. Without definitive proof, she would be left wondering, clinging to her damnable memories, never able to move forward and forge a new life with him.
This baby was threatening their happy future. Perhaps it would be best to get rid of it, start again with a new baby, one he could be certain was his own.
For the price of a few Bliss Boys, Healer 27 might be persuaded to make Dana's body reabsorb the fetus. The procedure would be physically painless. Probably. And quick, Ca-Lo hoped. Dana would eventually get over the emotional loss, especially if she had William to assuage her grief.
But could he bring himself to order such a monstrous thing?
Not without genetic proof the girl was Mulder's and not his.
Ca-Lo hoped the NDP Archive would shed light on his own conception and birth and thereby prove paternity of Dana's child. Unfortunately he had exhausted every access code and backdoor imaginable in his attempt to penetrate the encrypted database.
Stymied, he decided to leave it for an hour or two and concentrate on another pressing matter: the whereabouts of Major Harris and little William. Time was running short; the Joining would end soon and the Nih-hi-cho would be returning to their ships. Ca-Lo needed William in his mother's grateful arms before the Overseers came back to Tse'Bit'a'i' and took the boy for themselves, ruining any chance of wedded bliss for him and Dana.
His loathing for the Nih-hi-cho had never been greater. Looking down at his immaculate military uniform and spit-polished boots, he was reminded again of his duty to the Armada and the Society. His short time at the rebels' Safe Camp had reinforced his desire to leave the aliens, live as a free man, with Dana at his side, loving him.
But it was useless to entertain such fantasies. He would never escape his masters.
While he had been gone, the Armada's remaining warships had arrived at Salt Lake City. Every Nih-hi-cho in the sector was now at Harmony I, celebrating the introduction of the Juveniles into the Society. In a year's time their numbers would expand a hundredfold as breeding compounds around the world churned out one generation after the next. Aliens would rule the planet and humans would be their slaves. Including Ca-Lo. With the war over, they would no longer need his strategic skills. He would be relegated to a factory assembly line or, worse, serve as a host for an alien fetus.
All the more reason to try to take what he wanted now.
He was determined to have Dana. Her vows and her heart. And he would secure her devotion by giving her what she desired most: her son.
He imagined their happy reunion. And Dana's gratitude.
Licking his lips in anticipation of her appreciative kisses, he considered returning to his quarters. Taking her to his bed. Making love to her.
But he would not force her. He had promised himself he would never again resort to coercion or mindbending tricks. Doing so would make him no better than the Nih-hi-cho. He wanted Dana to accept him willingly, love him honestly, the way she had loved Mulder. Even if it took William to earn that devotion.
Ca-Lo turned his attention to the ship's logs. A quick check showed Harris had not returned from Wyoming, nor had he called in with a progress report. Angered by the Major's dawdling, Ca-Lo tried to raise him via radio. When he didn't answer, Ca-Lo contacted the hangar deck and dispatched a young airman named Ingraham to look for Harris at his last known coordinates.
Ca-Lo had no sooner ended his call when the com-link buzzed.
He punched the switch and snapped, "You better be on your way, Ingraham."
"Uh...it's Warden Wolcott, sir. You asked to be notified when Security moved the rebel commander to a stasis cell."
"Yes, fine, consider me notif--" Ca-Lo paused. If Ingraham failed to bring back William, Ca-Lo would need an acceptable substitute to guarantee Dana's cooperation. Walter Skinner, Dana's dear friend, might just be that substitute. "I'll be right down. Wait for me."
"I'm going to personally oversee the commander's interment."
Five minutes later, Ca-Lo arrived in the Portal of Solitude to find Skinner stripped of his uniform and glasses, kneeling naked on the chamber's hard amber floor, hands bound tightly behind his back by silicon wristbands. Four human soldiers, including Wolcott, stood guard while a hybrid swabbed the cell's fleshy inner walls with protein ointment, untangled bio-tubes, and filled the feeding umbilicus with na-a-jah.
Skinner's limbs and torso were badly bruised. His face and hands were blistered and peeling from exposure to plasma fire, his blackened eyes swollen nearly shut.
According to his captors he had put up an exceptional fight. His knuckles were scraped raw from the blows he had dealt. A lieutenant and an airman were dead, their windpipes crushed. Ca-Lo admired Skinner's determination and valor in the face of impossible odds.
Even in his current position, injured, shackled, and surrounded by armed guards, Skinner appeared undaunted, his fiery spirit unbroken. "My army's not finished with you, Ca-Lo," he said, lips curled in disgust. "They'll kick your alien-loving ass back to wherever the hell you came from."
"Victory to the virtuous, is that it, Commander Skinner?"
"You're fighting the wrong side. You're going to lose."
"No. I've already won." Ca-Lo squatted to stare directly into Skinner's bruised eyes. "And I owe you a debt of gratitude, Commander."
"For helping me gain Dana's trust."
"Where is she?" Skinner snarled. "What've you done with her?"
"She's safe, sleeping peacefully...in my bed."
"You son of a bitch." Skinner lunged for Ca-Lo.
Wolcott immediately intervened, bludgeoning Skinner with the butt of his rifle. A well-placed blow to the back of the skull toppled Skinner and he writhed in obvious agony. Jaw clenched, he growled, "You hurt her, Ca-Lo, I swear I'll kill you."
"You're in no position to threaten me." To the guards he said, "Put him in the cell."
Skinner struggled as the guards wrestled him into the prepped chamber. Its membranous walls gripped his lower body the way a stomach holds an undigested meal and he cried out when the hybrid jabbed a bio-monitor into his spine. His yelp echoed off the caldarium's high, domed ceiling, lasting several seconds after his thrashing ceased.
"Rest assured, Commander Skinner," Ca-Lo said, standing at the lip of the cell, "my intentions toward Dana are completely honorable."
"Nothing...honorable...about you," Skinner grunted.
"Ah, but you misjudge me." Ca-Lo leaned over the aperture, hands braced on knees. "I'm going to make Dana my lawfully wedded wife."
With effort, Skinner twisted to stare up at Ca-Lo. Rage burned in his bloodshot eyes. "She'll never agree."
"See, that's where you're wrong. She'll agree if she thinks doing so will get her son back...or save your life."
"You goddamned bastard."
"So I've been told. Seal him in," he ordered the guards. "He's to have no contact with anyone without my authorization."
The hybrid grunted for his attention. "What about his meals?" she signed.
"I will see to his feeding personally. Just get him ready."
Ca-Lo turned on his heel and strode from the caldarium, not interested in watching the hybrid force the umbilicus down Skinner's throat.
Dibeh's unlikely savior released his grip on her upper arms, leaving her to crouch at his feet, grateful he was not a soldier come to kill her.
He looked like Fox Mulder, but Dibeh hoped with all her heart he was Master Ca-Lo, come to take her home to Tse'Bit'a'i'. The possibility of seeing her friend Ulso and the other servants filled her with hope. She smiled in gratitude and signed, "Master Ca-Lo, I am so very happy you have arrived."
Beside him stood a smaller human with hair the color of boiled tlo-chin. He wore glasses that made his eyes appear oversized for a human. A thin, nervous-looking woman with flowing dark hair watched them from the edge of the refuse area. She held a young human in her arms.
The man she hoped was Ca-Lo wiped his palms on his pants as if to remove something distasteful. "It looks like a hybrid," he said to his goggle-eyed companion.
She signed again. "It's me -- Dibeh. Do you not recognize me?"
Her heart sank when he looked to the Goggle-Eyed One as if for help. Clearly he did not understand her signals, which could only mean he was not Ca-Lo, but his brother Mulder.
"Her name is Dibeh," the Goggle-Eyed One stated. He was either interpreting her hand signals or was a telepath like the Purebloods. "She thinks she knows you."
"Me?" Mulder knelt in front of her, putting them at eye level. "Have we met?"
Dibeh's fingers flew through the air. "What do you mean, have we met?" she demanded. "You know who I am! What have you done with my mistress?"
"Your mistress?" the Goggle-Eyed One asked.
"My Mistress is Lady Dana Scully," she signed. "Ask your friend. He knows."
"What is she saying?" growled Mulder. "Does she know where Scully is or not?"
The Goggle-Eyed One regarded her for a long moment, his expression unreadable. Finally he said, "She thinks you took her."
So he was a mind-reader! Maybe a shapeshifting Refuter, disguised as a human!
"I'm not a shapeshifter," he said, confirming her suspicions about his telepathic abilities. "I'm human, although I can hear your thoughts. And my name is Gibson, not the Goggle-Eyed One."
"Apologies, sir, I meant no offense," she signed.
"Tell us what happened," he urged.
Dibeh didn't trust him or this Mulder person, but she did as she was told and relayed her tale, signing out of habit, if not need.
Gibson translated her thoughts: "I awoke to the sound of approaching helicopters. There were several explosions. And gunfire. I ran to help Lady Dana--"
"'Lady' Dana?" Mulder interrupted.
"I am her servant, her personal aide. You already know this. You were with us."
His eyes flashed with impatience, yet he kept his tone gentle, his words unhurried. "That wasn't me. The man who took Scu...your mistress, he was an imposter. We have reason to believe he wants to harm her."
An imposter? Could the man have been a shapeshifter, neither Ca-Lo nor Mulder? Overwhelmed by this possibility, Dibeh began to sign urgently. Again Gibson translated. "The man who claimed to be Mulder took her from her bed. They were gone when I woke and went to her room."
"Where did he take her?"
"I don't know. Bombs were exploding. The camp was on fire. People were running in all directions, trying to save themselves. I saw Lady Dana's friend captured and beaten by soldiers."
"Skinner. Walter Skinner."
Mulder and Gibson exchanged worried glances.
"Did they kill him?" Mulder asked.
"I don't know. They took him on their flying ship."
Skinner's battle with the Nih-hi-cho soldiers reminded Dibeh of the dark-skinned man in the other barrel. She offered a quick apology for her forwardness and, without waiting for permission, rose on shaky legs and hurried to the drum. Shifting an armload of garbage from its opening, she uncovered Royal Jackson, who was curled in a ball, lying in a sticky pool of his own blood.
Dibeh pointed and signaled, "This is a friend of Commander Skinner's. He was injured in the attack. I hid him here."
Mulder and Gibson carefully hauled Royal from the barrel. Flies buzzed around their heads, disturbed from feasting upon the unconscious man's injured arm. His left sleeve was singed black and his tattooed forearm was swollen and oozing blood.
"Let's get him someplace a little less fragrant," Mulder suggested, waving off the flies and gripping Royal beneath his arms. Gibson grabbed his legs. Together they carried him away from the stinking garbage. The thin woman with the baby joined them at the edge of the refuse area. She glared at Dibeh, hatred blazing in her eyes.
Cringing, Dibeh wondered what was to become of them all.
Ca-Lo boarded his personal runabout and keyed the coordinates of Antelope Island into the navigation system. The engine hummed to life. The ship eased out of the hangar and took to the air.
Among the thousands of prisoners warehoused on the island there was bound to be a preacher or a priest who could be persuaded to perform a traditional terrestrial wedding ceremony. For Dana's sake, of course. Ca-Lo didn't believe in her God or the Nih-hi-cho's Red Dragon, but he knew from Mulder's dossier that Dana was a woman of faith, raised to trust the teachings of her religion. Until fairly recently she had attended church services, albeit sporadically. Surveillance tapes showed her praying at home, too, and at her sister's grave. Once in the morgue at Quantico. Clearly she would appreciate a man of her God sanctifying their marriage.
She might also need the priest's consolation, in the event her baby was not allowed to survive.
As the runabout crossed Farmington Bay, Ca-Lo radioed Airman Ingraham for an update on Harris.
"I've located his shuttle, sir," Ingraham reported. "Cloaked and fully functional."
"Fifteen meters from a former residential structure. The house is gone, sir, burned to the ground. Nothing left but the foundation."
"Have you conducted a bio-scan?"
"Yes, sir. It revealed trace amounts of Nih-hi-cho blood in the wreckage. A cross-comparison verified the blood belonged to Harris."
Under other circumstances Ca-Lo would have been delighted to learn the old Watcher was dead. But now he was left without answers to William's whereabouts. And he had to assume Fox Mulder was still alive, too.
"Did you find any human blood?"
"Then widen your search, Lieutenant."
"But, sir, Major Harris is dead. Who am I supposed to be looking for?"
"His killer." Ca-Lo jabbed the controls and ended the transmission.
Below the runabout, Antelope Island protruded from Great Salt Lake like the bleached back of a drowned giant. Three windowless, cinderblock dormitories, twenty stories high, crowded the southeastern shore. A landing pad large enough to accommodate a 200-passenger transport glowed atop the central building's roof.
Ca-Lo maneuvered his small ship onto the pad. A contingent of armed guards bustled from the rooftop elevator to greet him as he deplaned.
"We weren't expecting you, sir," said a jittery private with unshaved jowls and rotted front teeth.
Ca-Lo offered no apology or explanation for his unannounced errand. "Show me your prisoner roster, Private." He strode toward the elevator. "The rest of you wait for the next ride down."
"Looking for someone in particular?" The private hurried to keep pace. "Munitions expert? Mercenary? Spy? Name your pleasure, sir."
"I'm interested in a peacemaker today." Ca-Lo stepped into the car. An odor of piss and sweat assailed his nostrils.
The private entered behind him, seemingly unaware of the stench. "I think we have a few mediators, sir. Ex-diplomats."
"I want a priest, not a politician."
The soldier eyed him uneasily. "If you don't mind my asking, sir, why a priest?"
"Who better to make a deal with the Devil?" Ca-Lo punched the down button.
"Kill it!" Kenna insisted. William hunched in her arms and sucked hard on his thumb. "It's one of them! A-a locust-monster!"
"She's not a threat." Gibson's breath came in gasping puffs as he tried to keep pace with Mulder. Stumbling through debris and around corpses, Gibson felt as if Royal's dead weight was going to tear his arms from their sockets.
Dibeh hurried ahead, leading the way back to the infirmary.
"Careful." Mulder maneuvered along a cracked concrete patio.
They bypassed the flattened front doors and entered the roofless structure through a missing section of wall, then struggled around overturned chairs and scattered office supplies. Gibson accidentally kicked an abandoned coffee mug. It skidded and rattled, spun to a stop beside the red-headed woman's corpse, Scully's dead-ringer twin. The bloodied woman appeared surprised, her wide, blue-eyed stare seemingly fixed on the teetering mug.
Dibeh scurried to the rear of the building where the twisted frames of fold-out cots lay in tangled heaps. Her thoughts bombarded Gibson. She was terrified, yet at the same time, she was oddly resigned to her circumstances. Almost eager to please him and Mulder. In her racing thoughts, she referred to them as her "new masters."
Gibson cringed at the unlikely title.
Complacency he could understand; his life had been controlled by outside forces for years and sometimes the only way to survive was to submit to the will of others. But submission was not equivalent to servitude. No matter what atrocities had been perpetrated upon him, he had never kowtowed to those who directed his fate. He may have been powerless to stop the things they did, but he had not considered them superior or right.
"Kenna, we could use your help," Mulder shouted, head swiveling as he searched for a place to lay down the injured man.
Kenna stood her ground outside the building. "I'm not coming in there. Not with that...that *thing*." She pointed a shaky finger through the Swiss cheese wall at Dibeh.
"She won't hurt you," Gibson assured, hoping to silence Kenna's fears, which were blaring like sirens in his head. He longed to shut out her nightmarish imaginings and god-awful memories. Artie van de Kamp's mutilated body. Her husband's severed arm. William squalling in his crib, surrounded by five aliens -- human-sized insect-beings with razor sharp teeth, glossy scales and a ravenous hunger for human flesh.
"They killed Joanne and Artie." Kenna gripped William so hard it brought tears to the boy's startled eyes. "They killed Rick!"
"She's not one of them," Gibson explained.
Mulder's injured leg was quaking. He was on the verge of dropping Royal. The floor glittered with shards of glass and fragments of razor-sharp metal. Split trusses, shattered cement and broken sheetrock cluttered the room. "This man needs help, Kenna. Get in here."
She began to pace. "I won't put William in danger."
"The hybrid isn't dangerous," Gibson insisted.
A metallic screech nearly drowned him out when Dibeh shoved a bent aluminum cot out of her way to uncover a tattered mattress. She grabbed its corners and dragged it to a semi-clear spot.
"Thank you," Mulder grunted as he and Gibson carefully laid down their burden.
Royal moaned, coming to, adding another internal voice to the din in Gibson's brain. He was shivering, so Dibeh located a blood-spattered blanket and carefully covered him with it.
"You didn't see what I saw," Kenna was muttering. She jiggled William as if he were the one in need of consoling. "You don't know what they do. Killers. They're all killers. They tear people to shreds. They eat babies."
"Stop it, Kenna. You're scaring William," Gibson warned, hearing the child's unease balloon.
"Hell, she's scaring me," Mulder admitted. He squatted beside Royal. "You awake, soldier?"
"Y-yeah. Jesus fucking Christ...my arm hurts."
"You've been burned."
"He needs water," Gibson said, zeroing in on the man's unspoken plea for a drink.
"Kenna," Mulder called to her, "where's the water jug?"
"Back on the road where Gibson left it."
"Go get it."
"I'm not going back there by myself. Not with locust-monsters around."
"There are no monsters. Get the damned jug."
"No way. I'm not going."
Dibeh tapped Gibson's shoulder and signaled, "I'll go."
At his nod, she ran from the building.
Royal rocked on the mattress, pain flaring in his arm. Panic flooded his thoughts and, in turn, Gibson's. "Am I going to die?"
"No," Mulder assured him. "A little food, water, a couple of days rest and you'll be fine."
"Can't rest. Gotta go. Gotta help 'em."
"Help who, son?"
Gibson already knew, the name reaching him like a scream. "Skinner," he said.
"They'll torture him to find out what he knows." Royal squeezed his eyes shut as he rode out a wave of searing pain. "They'll kill him for the things he's done."
Mulder looked to Gibson and silently implored him to deny the possibility.
Gibson pushed the limits of his telepathy through forests and over mountains to search for Skinner. Instead he discovered Scully, arguing with a hybrid servant. "She's alive. Scully's alive!"
Shocked surprise from Mulder. Mounting hope. Relief. "Where?"
"Held prisoner aboard the aliens' ship. Inside the stronghold at Salt Lake City."
Mulder's relief receded, displaced again by dread. "She okay?"
"Seems to be."
"I can't hear him."
"Does that mean he's...?"
"I don't know."
"Could he be unconscious?"
"Or somewhere that obstructs telepathic signals."
"Does such a place exist?"
If it did, Gibson wanted to be there -- a haven where he could block out the overwhelming clamor in his head. The last few months had taken their toll. The voices had always been distracting, but lately they had grown horrific, a pandemonium of unrelenting misery.
Royal struggled to rise from the mattress. "Gotta find Commander Skinner."
"You're in no shape to travel," Mulder said.
"You need rest."
"No, no time." Pain knocked Royal flat.
"Sorry, son. You're sitting this one out."
"Then *you* go. You find him. Save him."
The challenge set Mulder's emotions swirling. He glanced at Kenna and William. "I...I can't."
"Then the Commander's a dead man. Doc Scully's dead, too."
Mulder rose unsteadily and limped across the room, away from Gibson, away from Kenna, eyes panning the rubble as if he might find a solution to their dilemma among the ash-covered cots, the blood-stained bedding, the bodies and spilled pills and knotted IVs. He dead-ended at the infirmary's cracked back wall, where he shifted restlessly on the balls of his feet, confused, afraid. Gibson could hear indecision roaring through his mind like a thunderstorm. William needed protection. Yet Skinner and Scully were in danger. The threat was real. Mulder had been aboard an alien ship, held prisoner. He knew the terror, the agony of drills and lasers and scalpels.
Mulder began to hyperventilate and Gibson feared the onset of a flashback. He didn't want to experience that torture through Mulder again. He had already heard it more times than he could bear. It was why he had avoided divulging the details of his "nightmare" two nights ago. Mulder was hanging onto sanity by his fingertips, had been for months. Gibson feared pushing him over the edge.
In retrospect, it might've been wiser to tell him the truth, prepare him.
Gibson went to him and touched his arm, momentarily clearing the images of aliens from both their minds. "Scully's alive."
"But for how long?" Mulder's eyes glittered with desperation. "It could take a week or more to hike to Salt Lake City."
"Are you saying we should do nothing? Stay here and let Scully and Skinner die? Can you live with that decision?"
"I can't abandon my son. And I certainly can't take him into an alien stronghold."
"He can stay here with Kenna and Royal."
Mulder shook his head, annoyed. "Suppose another shapeshifter comes after him. Or we die in Salt Lake City."
Now Gibson's ire soared. "Stay or go, we'll die eventually. The question we need to ask is: how do we want to live the time that's left to us?" Gibson refused to let fear steer his destiny. Not anymore. He was no longer a powerless child. His days of complacency and submission were over. It was time to take action, be courageous. "I won't stand by while my friends suffer, Mulder, not when there's a chance I can help them."
"And if you die trying, at least you go down fighting, is that it?"
Gibson could hear Mulder recalling similar words, spoken to Krycek's ghost as they raced to save him from aliens at Kits'iil.
"You believed that once, Mulder. Why not now?"
"I have different responsibilities."
"Maybe, but what will you tell William a few years from now when he asks what happened to his mother?"
"That's not fair."
"Will you tell him the truth?"
"That you could've done something to save her, but didn't?"
"I said stop."
"You let her die because it was safer to stay here with your new little family--"
"Stop it!" Mulder's fists clenched. Gibson could hear him wanting to strike out.
Rather than move out of range, Gibson stepped closer, narrowing the gap between them. He needed to get through to Mulder, even if it meant risking a flashback. "I know what the aliens did to you. I know you've been through hell. But if you quit now--"
"They win." More familiar words. Mulder's head wagged as if to shake off the memory. His thoughts floundered. He loved Scully. He wanted to save her. But he could not desert their child.
The way she had.
"You're wrong about her," Gibson said.
"Am I? You have some insight I don't?"
"Then tell me! You have the advantage, Gibson. I can't read your mind. Say what you're thinking."
Gibson met his angry stare. "She loves William."
"She gave him away. That's a fact. You can't deny it."
"She put him up for adoption."
"No it isn't."
"If she loved him she would've done whatever it took to protect him."
"That's exactly what she did do." Gibson squared his shoulders, hardened his voice and faced off with his old friend. "Mulder, you can't seriously believe she wanted to give up her child. It was a selfless act. She did it for his sake. She did it for yours, too. Your safety outweighed her suffering."
Mulder shook his head, disbelieving. "She wasn't suffering. She sent him away with no more consideration than you'd give an old sweater you dump off at the local thrift shop."
"That's not true." The aliens had done a hell of a number on Mulder to screw up his thinking this badly. "Giving him up hurt her more than you'll ever know."
"I don't believe it."
"Her grief was genuine. I heard it."
Doubt narrowed Mulder's eyes. "When?"
"When you were at Mount Weather. And earlier. When you were with me in Arizona."
"In Ariz...? That was a goddamned year ago, Gibson! Why didn't you tell me then?"
"You'd been through hell. You weren't ready to hear about what was happening to Scully, to William."
"You decided what I should or shouldn't know?"
"It was too much."
"The truth is all I've ever wanted, Gibson. Especially from my friends."
Mulder felt cheated. His expectations had always been impossibly high and since his abduction and incarceration he had grown more paranoid than ever.
To reach him, Gibson decided to change tactics. He relaxed his stance. Lowered his voice. "I'm telling you the truth now. Are you listening?"
Mulder studied Gibson's face and considered his words.
"Why didn't she call me back?" he finally asked. "I could've helped. I would've protected them both."
"You saw Jeffery Spender at your trial, what they did to him. She didn't want that for you. She didn't want it for William either."
"I'm not Jeffrey. I could've...I..." Mulder looked across the room at William.
"You know what these men are capable of," Gibson reminded him. "They stop at nothing."
"We could've gone into hiding."
"They didn't find me in Arizona."
This was Gibson's opening at last, a checkmate, if he played his moves right. "Because you don't have a microchip implanted in your neck that could lead them right to you."
The reality of Scully's unique dilemma hit Mulder like a punch to the gut. She carried a homing device inside her body. It was how the supersoldiers had found her in Georgia. It was how they would always find her, no matter where she tried to run. That damn chip was a beacon and as long she had it they could find her, and through her find William. The chip was why she sent William away, Mulder realized. To save him.
It was why she sent Mulder away, too.
"Get it now?" Gibson asked, already knowing the answer. "She didn't call you out of hiding because you would have come to her. And through her, they would've found you."
Sagging against the broken wall, Mulder's fury waned as he let go of his bitterness. An uneasy breath sifted from his lungs. "I should have realized, figured it out."
"You had other things on your mind."
"Then I should at least have given her the benefit of the doubt. Trusted her. It's what she would have done for me."
He turned from Gibson and limped toward Kenna and William. At his approach, William pulled his thumb from his mouth and extended his arm. "Dada."
Mulder stepped out through a gaping hole in broken wall and took hold of his son's hand. He gently squeezed the boy's small, wet fingers. Concerns for William, Scully and Skinner loomed large in his mind, and therefore in Gibson's. Duty tugged Mulder in multiple directions. He felt equally responsible for the safe rescue of his friends and for the well-being of this small child.
"I need to leave for a few days," he said, trying out the words.
Kenna took a step back, breaking his contact with his son. "You can't go! It's not safe!" Tears sprang to her eyes. "William needs you."
Mulder's doubts returned, crashing through Gibson's mind.
"You've been taking care of William since last May, Kenna." Gibson crossed the debris-strewn room to join them outside. "You've fed him, kept him warm, saved him from aliens."
Gibson hoped this truth would give Mulder the permission he needed to do what his heart was urging him to do: rescue his friends.
"God helped me," she said, "but He isn't here. Look around. Would He let this happen?"
Mulder took in the devastation. Uncertainty threatened to undermine his tenuous resolve.
"I can keep track of things here, telepathically," Gibson assured them. "We'll turn around and come back at the first sign of trouble."
"That could be too late!" Kenna argued.
"I'll know of any impending problems long before you will."
"And what if you get captured?"
It was a valid question.
Mulder looked to Gibson. "I don't doubt your extrasensory perception, but you can't presage the future. The stronghold and the ship are likely to be heavily guarded. There's no guarantee we'll get in."
"Or out," Kenna said.
"Take me," Dibeh signaled, having returned with the water. "I know Tse'Bit'a'i'. I can find Lady Dana. I can find Skinner, too."
"What is she saying?" Mulder asked.
"She wants to help," Gibson said.
"You trust her?"
Gibson nodded, hearing Dibeh's intense homesickness. Even though her motives weren't the same as theirs, her desire to return to Salt Lake City was honest and heartfelt.
Mulder's mind began to churn with possible strategies. For the first time in months he was thinking like his old self. Gibson's relief was profound. He had missed his friend.
"I could pose as this Ca-Lo guy," Mulder suggested.
"And I could be your 'prisoner,' " Gibson said.
"They'd practically roll out a red carpet to get their hands on you." Mulder turned to Dibeh. "You could play the part of my aide."
"Stop it! Stop talking like this!" Kenna demanded. "It's ridiculous. You're all crazy."
"Too bad we left the motorcycle in Wyoming," Mulder said, ignoring her.
"Lady Dana and I rode awful beasts. The trip took two days," Dibeh signaled with shaky hands.
"Horses?" Gibson asked.
"We passed horses about a half mile from here," Mulder said, picking up on their exchange.
"You're never coming back," Kenna predicted dismally.
"Nothing will stop me from trying." Mulder reached out and caressed William's plump cheek. "I promise."
Gibson could hear that Mulder's feelings of doubt and regret remained strong, but he was determined to reunite his family by bringing Scully back.
Over the next two hours Mulder and Gibson gathered saddles and bridles, then rounded up three horses -- not an easy task, until they found a small canister of sugar, which Gibson used to lure the animals to them. As the horses ate from his hand, Mulder slipped bridles over their heads.
Dibeh changed into warmer clothing and scrounged enough food in the wrecked RVs for a two-day ride. She was able to locate only one small bottle of water. Mulder decided to take it with them and let Kenna keep the larger jug they'd been carrying.
On Mulder's order, Kenna looked for guns and ammunition. If he was going to leave his son in her care, he wanted her armed. Thankfully she did as she was told, probably because she recognized the danger of being left alone with an injured man and a defenseless toddler. It took her scant time to bring back a Beretta and an M-16; she picked them off the body of a dead soldier. Mulder appropriated the handgun for himself, although it contained only one round. He offered the rifles to her.
"Know how to use one of these?" he asked.
She had been wielding a rifle when he first met her in Wyoming, but he hadn't actually seen her fire it.
"Rick taught me to shoot when we were first dating."
She huffed, impatient with him. "It was for practical purposes, if you must know. *He* worried about me."
"You may not believe this, but I do, too. Which is why I want you to use this if you have to."
"I thought Gibson said you'd come back at the first sign of trouble."
"In a perfect world. But since this world hasn't been perfect for a very long while, my advice is to trust no one and shoot to kill."
Casting him a sour scowl, she stowed the gun in the cab of a pickup, where she intended to take up residence until they returned. It had a camper shell over the truck bed, in bad shape, but it provided better cover than the roofless infirmary. Mulder and Gibson hauled a mattress, and then carried Royal, to the back of the truck to make it more convenient for her to care for him.
When they were ready to leave, Mulder helped Dibeh onto her horse, a roan mare, the gentlest of the three animals. She waited nervously while Gibson mounted his black gelding. Kenna, looking angry and desperate, paced between the pickup and the horses. She held William tightly in her arms. He sucked his thumb. Her lower lip trembled.
"I need to say goodbye," Mulder mumbled to Gibson before handing him the reins to his own mare, a showy piebald with a feisty temperament.
"Take your time."
This wasn't going to be easy. Kenna was clearly upset, shivering. William whimpered in her arms. Dirty snowflakes had begun to fall, jittering on the cold breeze like half-crazed insects, tinged bloody-pink by the red smoke.
"Dada go?" Tears welled in William's eyes.
Mulder reached for him. "May I?" he asked Kenna.
Reluctantly, she handed him over.
Mulder hugged William to his chest, kissed the crown of his head, breathed in the warm, soft scent of his hair. The boy seemed too light, only thirty or thirty-five pounds fully dressed, and Mulder was suddenly swamped by an unfounded fear that William wasn't getting enough to eat.
What kinds of diseases did malnourished kids get? Scurvy? Rickets?
Scully would know. She could keep him healthy.
If Mulder could find her.
"No go, Dada. No go," William whined.
"I have to, son." He was loath to release his grip on this child, as if William would fade away the moment he left his arms, become as insubstantial as a mirage or vanish like a half-remembered dream. Instinct told him to stay and protect his son. Yet his heart prodded him toward Scully, to save her, bring her back, so she could be William's mother again, and Mulder could watch over them both. "Be a good boy for Kenna while I'm gone, okay?"
William sniffled, then unexpectedly threw stubby arms around Mulder's neck.
The world blurred as tears flooded Mulder's eyes. A lump formed in his throat, making it impossible for him to say all he wanted to say: I love you, son, more than I could've possibly imagined. I've messed up so many things in my life. Kenna. Scully. Maybe the whole goddamned world. Yet look at how perfect you are. Somehow, through a miraculous act that resulted in you, I managed to get one thing right.
Holding William, rubbing his back to sooth him, Mulder hoped he could trust Kenna to keep his son safe, hoped he wasn't wrong to leave, hoped Scully could hold on until he arrived.
"I'll be back, son. As soon as I can. I promise." He kissed William's brow, then passed him back to Kenna. "Take care of him. Please."
"Don't go," she said, echoing William's plaintive demand.
"I don't want to."
"Then don't. Stay here with us. Let them go."
"I can't. I have to do this."
Disgust thinned her lips. "You're no better than her, you know. You're walking out on your son, just like she did."
Mulder's chest tightened as guilt speared his heart.
"It's for just a few days," Gibson interrupted from atop his horse.
Kenna ignored Gibson to glare at Mulder. "You're deserting your child."
"I'm trusting you to look after him." He touched her arm.
She jerked back. Indignant. Furious. "Suppose I decide to leave? Take William somewhere you can't find him?"
"You take him anywhere," Gibson warned, "and I'll find you wherever you go, just like I did in Wyoming."
Clearly startled by this idea, Kenna fastened her teary gaze on Mulder. "Won't you at least spend the night? Just one more night with us? With your son?"
"The sooner I get started, the sooner I can get back."
Mulder reached out to stroke William's tousled hair one last time. "I hope so."
William began to cry. His wail grew louder when Mulder turned away. He walked stiffly to his horse, took the reins from Gibson. Mechanically, he hooked the toe of his boot into his stirrup. Painfully, awkwardly, he hoisted himself into the saddle. The leather creaked from the effort. Wind ruffled the horse's mane. Behind them, a tent flapped in the breeze, torn loose from its stakes.
Don't cry, son, Mulder silently begged, directing his horse westward toward Salt Lake City.
It took every ounce of his willpower to spur his horse to a trot and leave William behind. He didn't turn in his saddle to look back. Hearing William's sobs was heartbreaking enough. Seeing his tear-stained cheeks would have been Mulder's undoing.
Ca-Lo fought an urge to hold his breath against the stench of sweating prisoners, excrement-clogged toilets, vomit and blood-stained floors. Inmates, packed eight or more to each six-by-ten cell, greeted him with jeers and moans as he walked the block's long, central corridor. He followed Warden Travis, a brawny man with a tattooed, bald head and the disposition of a provoked scorpion. Scars crisscrossed the warden's face. His uniform was filthy, stained at the collar and under the arms. He was missing three fingers on his right hand, yet managed to forcefully grip a fully charged Taser.
Prisoner 2784T3L6 pressed his face between the bars, cursed loudly and spat as they passed by. A clot of blood-tinged saliva splattered the silicrete floor inches from Ca-Lo's polished right boot.
"Son of a fucking whore!" The warden raised his Taser and turned on the prisoner.
Ca-Lo's quiet command halted him mid-strike. "Later."
"Sir, we don't allow prisoners to disrespect--"
"I have neither the time nor the desire to hear about your disciplinary procedures." Ca-Lo loathed this place, this warehouse of human misery, where hopelessness and fear hung like a poisonous mist in the greasy, dank air. It reminded him of his boyhood punishments, when he had been stuffed into an observation capsule –- a wet, cramped carapace that held him immobile while teams of Appraisers crawled through his mind, day after day, night after long night. "Do whatever needs doing *later*."
"Yes, sir." Discomfiture pinked the chastised warden's scarred cheeks. He lowered his Taser and glared at the prisoner. "I'll be back for you," he growled, before stalking down the corridor.
Ca-Lo trailed him around a corner. Hundreds of cells identical to the previous ones came into view. Rust encrusted the bars. Oily puddles slicked the floors. The walls sweated a viscous, green sludge.
"Here, sir." Travis stopped in front of Cell MMCXVI.
Eleven tight-lipped men warily eyed Travis and Ca-Lo from behind the bars.
"Which one is the priest?"
"Old man in back."
A grizzled, skeletal man sat on the floor atop a threadbare blanket at the rear of the cell, head bowed, lips moving in silent prayer.
"Father Richards?" Ca-Lo called out.
The gaunt priest murmured "amen," then opened rheumy eyes. "Well, well. What does the illustrious Commander of the great Nih-hi-cho Armada want from a pathetic servant like me?" He wore a tattered frock, its once-white collar gray with dirt. Emaciated feet, bare, pale, mottled with grime and bruises, protruded from loose-fitting trousers. "Seeking absolution for your sins, by any chance?"
"I'm not here to confess."
"Ah, just as well. The Sacrament of Penance requires contrition." Father Richards rose on quaking legs. The other prisoners moved aside, squeezing together to allow him room to shuffle past. Reaching the door, he clutched the bars for support and matched Ca-Lo's stare with a look of obvious contempt. "I've yet to meet a friend of the Nih-hi-cho who feels repentant for his crimes against humanity."
"That's a rather unforgiving generalization, coming from a religious man."
"Indeed. Clearly I am failing God's most recent test. Maybe you and I will be roommates in hell one day, hmm?"
"Look around, Father. We're already in hell."
"And no one would know that better than the Devil him--"
The warden thrust his Taser between the bars and jolted Father Richards in the gut. The old priest cried out. Travis shocked him again. And again, until the old man collapsed to his knees. Even then the warden continued to jab him.
"Stop it!" Ca-Lo ordered. "Put that damned thing away!"
"He must be taught proper manners, sir."
"I said no." Ca-Lo gripped the warden's arm, jerked him away from the cell and confiscated the Taser.
Worry shadowed Travis's eyes. He leaned close to Ca-Lo and whispered, "Undermine me in front of these animals and it'll lead to trouble."
"Ignore my orders again and you'll be on the receiving end of this." Ca-Lo brandished the Taser. "Have I made myself clear?"
"Yes, sir." Travis retreated a step.
Inside the cell, Father Richards struggled to his feet.
"A hint of compassion in that cold heart of yours, Commander? Perhaps absolution is possible after all. God can be sympathetic, you know, even when his servants are not."
"I'm not here to test your god's leniency."
"Then why are you here?"
"To ask a favor."
"Ask?" The priest's eyes narrowed. "Or demand?"
"The Commander of the Nih-hi-cho Armada is *asking* Prisoner 3788T3L6 to grant him a favor. You may refuse, but if you do, your cellmates and every prisoner on this block will be handed over to Warden Travis for whatever punishment he deems appropriate."
"Ah. I see." The priest rubbed his stomach where the weapon had struck him. "Given those alternatives, what might Prisoner 3788T3L6 do for his Lordship?"
"Officiate a wedding ceremony."
"A wedding? For who?"
"Does it matter? Do it or condemn your comrades."
The priest's gaze flickered to the wretched men around him. "Obviously, my answer must be yes."
"Good. The warden will get you cleaned up." To Travis, Ca-Lo said, "Deliver him to Tse'Bit'a'i'. Provide whatever trappings he may require for the ceremony."
"Yes, sir. May I, um...may I have my Taser back?"
Ca-Lo shoved the weapon into the warden's outstretched hand and spun on his heel. The priest's voice echoed after him as he retreated down the corridor. "O God, by my grievous sins I have re-crucified Thy divine Son and deserve Thy everlasting wrath in the fires of hell. Even more, I have been most ungrateful to Thee, my Heavenly Father..."
Back on the roof, Ca-Lo leaned against the hull of his runabout and gulped fresh air into his lungs, grateful for the wind that pummeled the prison's stink from his clothes. Was the priest right? Was there a place more terrible than this world? Ca-Lo squinted into the setting sun. Its fire was blinding, but did nothing to warm the chill in his bones.
Shivering against the cold, he climbed into the pilot's seat and ignited the thrusters. The thrum of engines helped calm his nerves, slow his pulse. He lifted off and breathed a sigh of relief as Antelope Island grew small beneath him. Steering toward Salt Lake City, he radioed Airman Ingraham for an update.
"Good news, sir," the young airman said.
"I've located Major Harris's murderer."
"Wasatch-Cache Forest, heading your way on horseback."
"You're certain he's the killer?"
"Must be, sir. He's a Refuter, a shapeshifter."
"What makes you say that?"
"Because he...he's impersonating you, sir. He looks just like you."
Ca-Lo smiled. It was Mulder!
"He is the man I want," Ca-Lo said. Harmony I came into view. The setting sun cast the Armada's twelve warships into fiery relief on the airport's outer runways. Their hulls glowed as if struck by plasma canon. The sight sent an unexpected chill through Ca-Lo. "Does the Refuter have a young child with him?"
"No, sir. Just a hybrid and a human teenager."
No William? That was a surprise. And a disappointment.
"The murderer goes by the name of Fox Mulder. Bring him to me," Ca-Lo said. "Alive. Understood?"
"Yes, sir. What about the others?"
"I don't care what you do with them. It's only Mulder I want."
Somewhere west of Safe Camp
Wasatch-Cache National Forest
"Is William okay?" Mulder crouched beside a mountain stream, his fingers growing numb as he refilled their water bottle. The ice-cold stream tumbled over rocks and fallen logs. It carried the smell of ancient soil and decaying leaves. The setting sun tinted its rough surface blood-red.
Gibson stood above Mulder on a tree-lined bank and gripped the horses' reins. Dibeh remained rigid and wide-eyed atop her gentle mare. She gasped each time the horse tossed its head and huffed into the frosty, evening air.
"You've asked me the same question at least a hundred times, Mulder." Gibson toed a pebble into the stream. It plopped into the gurgling water, where it was quickly lost in the froth.
"So make it a hundred and one."
Gibson heaved an exaggerated sigh, then cocked his head, obviously listening to faraway voices. Mulder recalled the cacophony that had bludgeoned him to the point of insanity when, under the spell of Dr. Merkmallen's mysterious rubbings, he temporarily possessed Gibson's skill. He had been unable to sift through the maddening chatter. But somehow Gibson could make sense of it, could even tune his internal radar to a single, unique voice -- in this case, that of an eighteen-month-old boy. The God Module in his brain was aptly named. His abilities were nothing short of miraculous.
"He's fine. Stop worrying."
"I can't." No longer able to feel his fingertips, Mulder fumbled with the bottle's push/pull cap. "I don't trust Kenna."
"She's been taking care of him for months."
"She wasn't angry at me then."
"She wouldn't hurt William, not even to get back at you."
Gibson was right. Kenna believed William was a gift from God. A true miracle. It was one of the few things she and Mulder agreed upon.
Shaking the chill from his fingers, Mulder rose stiffly to his feet. Twilight was setting in. A smattering of stars speckled the sky to the east where a scimitar moon appeared wedged in the jagged treetops. He climbed the bank and offered Gibson the water bottle.
"Dibeh?" Mulder held out the bottle.
She reached for it, but before he could hand it off, Gibson quietly announced, "Someone's coming."
Mulder's damaged left ear registered nothing. His right picked up the rustle of wind through trees, a creak of leather as one of the horses shifted position, but no scuff of feet or rumble of an approaching engine. Even so, he lowered his voice to a whisper. "I don't suppose it's Ed McMahon, coming to tell me I've won the Publisher's Clearing House sweepstakes."
"Airman from the alien army."
"How far away?"
"Five hundred yards...that way." Gibson lifted his chin to indicate the direction they had come. "He's on foot."
"He walked all the way from Safe Camp?"
"No, he's got a ship hidden in the woods. He's looking for you."
"I'm flattered," -- Mulder peered into the gloom and saw only black tree trunks and swaying branches -- "but why me?"
"He has orders to take you back to Tse'Bit'a'i'...alive."
"Ah, the plot thickens. Maybe we should let him capture me, take me directly into the lion's den, no waiting."
"He also has orders to kill Dibeh and me." Gibson glanced at Dibeh, who searched the woods from atop her horse, worry creasing her broad alien forehead. "He's armed. Stun gun and...an automatic."
Mulder felt for the Beretta tucked into his belt. With only one bullet, it might not be enough. He was about to toss the water bottle aside when an idea struck him. "What do you say we lull him into a false sense of security?"
"You intend to take *him* prisoner?" Gibson asked, reading his thoughts.
"He could tell us a lot about the alien stronghold and Ca-Lo. Take Dibeh downstream. Give me a few minutes. Gotta see a man about a horse." He waggled the bottle.
Gibson nodded, understanding his intentions. "Be careful," he mouthed as he led Dibeh and the horses into the shadows.
Mulder positioned himself in front of a nearby tree, facing the trunk to make it appear from the stranger's perspective as if he were taking a much-needed piss. He was careful to shield the water bottle and his gun with his body. He opened the bottle's push/pull cap and waited for the airman to announce himself.
He didn't have long to wait. Snapping twigs alerted him to the man's approach. Mulder widened his stance and gently squeezed water from the bottle.
"Fox Mulder?" the airman asked.
"Jesus!" Mulder feigned surprise by splashing the tree trunk. He glanced over his shoulder to get a look at his opponent -- a baby-faced young man, five-ten or eleven, a hundred and sixty pounds, give or take. He wore a plain black military uniform, like the one Mulder had seen Ca-Lo and his minions wearing aboard Tse'Bit'a'i'. A Glock hung in the holster on his right hip, and he carried a stun gun in his hand, corroborating Gibson's story that he intended to take Mulder alive.
"Where are your friends?"
"Giving me a little privacy. Speaking of which, do you mind?"
"Zip up," the airman ordered, trying to sound tougher than he looked. "You're coming with me."
"Come on, buddy, you caught me midstream. I'd like to finish my business."
The airman stepped closer, almost within arm's reach, and pointed the Taser. "I suggest you hold it 'til later."
"And I suggest you back off." Mulder pivoted, dropped the water bottle, drew and aimed his pistol.
The airman blinked in astonishment.
"Rock, paper, bullets." Mulder leveled the gun at the man's head. "Looks like I win. Drop the cattle prod."
Too late, the airman fumbled for the Glock.
"I wouldn't do that," Mulder warned and cocked his pistol. The man froze, hand poised above his holster. "Rumor has it you need me alive, soldier. I, on the other hand, am under no such obligation. So, either drop your weapon and put your hands in the air, or I shoot you in the fucking head. Your choice."
"D-don't shoot." The airman let the Taser fall to the ground and raised his hands.
"Good man." Mulder kicked the weapon into the scrub and confiscated the airman's gun. Checking the clip, he found it was fully loaded. He hurled the Beretta with its single round into the woods. "Gibson, you out there?"
Gibson stepped from the trees. He retrieved the Taser, then moved to one side.
Mulder relaxed a little. "What's your name, soldier?"
The airman squared his shoulders and shut his mouth, making it clear he had no intention of cooperating.
"His name is Jason Ingraham," Gibson supplied for him, "and he's thinking about how angry Ca-Lo is going to be when he learns about what's happened here. He's wondering if all the stories he's heard about privation chambers are true."
Ingraham gaped at Gibson. "Y-you're a shapeshifter, too! I told Ca-Lo...I-I said--"
"Evidently this guy is smarter than he looks," Mulder said, playing along with the airman's supposition. It could work in their favor to let him believe they were aliens in human form. Make him less argumentative. "You're going to fly us to Tse'Bit'a'i', Ingraham."
"Aren't those your orders? Take me back to the ship, to Ca-Lo?"
"Then let's not keep him waiting. And don't even think about trying to warn your pals at headquarters." Mulder brought the Glock's muzzle to within millimeters of the airman's nose. "Understood?"
Ingraham swallowed hard and nodded.
Mulder eyed his plain, dark uniform. It bore no crest or emblem designating rank. Wearing it, Mulder might improve his chances of fooling the guards at Salt Lake City into thinking he was Ca-Lo.
He smiled and chucked the airman's nose with the barrel of his gun. "Take off your clothes, Ingraham."
"You heard me. Strip."
Salt Lake City
The wedding dress had a deeply scalloped neckline, a voluminous skirt with a long train, and yards of satiny green fabric with thousands of tiny, hand-sewn beads. It weighed close to seventy pounds and sparkled like the Ablution Pools on a peaceful night.
"Put it on, please." Ca-Lo stood before Dana with the gown draped over his outstretched arms.
Her frown deepened. "The last time we played dress up I ended up in your bed."
"And history's about to repeat itself. We're going to be married as soon as Warden Travis delivers our priest."
"It's going to happen."
"Not without my consent."
The dress was growing heavy and Ca-Lo struggled to keep his arms held high. "If I say we will be married, we will be married. Don't presume anyone will race to your rescue or that the Nih-hi-cho will care one way or the other. I command this ship."
"You may command this ship, but you don't command me."
"I don't need your cooperation to make you my wife."
"Then what you're proposing is abduction and rape."
His shoulders slumped. He hated what she was forcing him to do. To stall, he crossed the room and dumped the dress on the bed.
Their wedding bed.
He smoothed the gown's wrinkles. Cleared his throat.
"Why do you love him and not me?" He kept his back to her. He couldn't bear the revulsion in her eyes. "We are exactly the same, my brother and I."
"You're nothing like him."
He spun to face her and opened his arms. "Physically, we are identical. Same face. Same body. Same scars."
"You manufactured those scars to dupe me."
"Does it matter how they came to be there?"
"Of course it matters. Experience molds character. Mulder earned those scars. He was changed -- mentally, emotionally -- by the events that caused them. A clone or shapeshifter might look like him physically, but they cannot posses his character, his spirit. You can't replicate what's in a man's heart."
"You are in my heart." Ca-Lo's voice cracked. "I love you."
"Then prove it. Let me go."
"I can't do that."
"Mulder wouldn't keep me here against my will."
"He has other options."
"So do you."
"No. You're wrong."
"Am I?" she challenged. "You act as if you have no choice, no free will."
"It's not an act." He moved to the bird cage, where eight finches chirped and preened on their perches. Prisoners like her. Like him. If he were to release them, they would not live more than a day or two. They had been captives all their lives and no longer possessed the skills or instincts required to survive outside of their cage. "None of us is free to do as we please. Not here."
"Then why stay?"
"You think I can just walk away?" He faced her. "They would never let me go."
"The Nih-hi-cho. My masters."
"You said you command this ship."
"Within limits. Like a child directs toy boats in his bath."
"You're a coward," she sneered. The venom in her voice sliced through him.
He was no coward. He had faced hell's worst demons, countless times, and survived. She couldn't begin to imagine the horrific things they had done to him. What they would do again. To him. To her. He had been a mere child the first time they pinned him to an examination platform, younger than her son William. He had cried to be released, begged them to stop their terrible cutting. He screamed until no sound came from his aching throat. "You don't understand."
"You're right, I don't." She paced toward him, stopped inches away, fixed him with a steely stare. "You want to know how you differ from Mulder? He is willing to stand up to his enemies; he flouts their rules, plays their game only on his own terms. Even when he was held prisoner aboard a ship like this one, he was a free man, *is* a free man, because he refuses to let anyone dictate his destiny."
"You said it yourself, Dana: experience molds character. If my brother had lived my life, he might be a desperate man, too." The urge to reach out for her was strong, but he kept his hands to his sides, fists clenched. "We could be very happy as husband and wife."
"I will not participate in your perverse fantasy."
A familiar feeling of helplessness coursed through his veins. "If you don't agree to marry me--"
"What will you do? Put me back in that awful cell?"
"Your friend Walter Skinner is in one now."
"Unless you cooperate..." It was time to deliver his ultimatum. "Your son William will be in one, too."
Her face paled. "You have William?"
"Yes," he lied, hating the necessity of it, wishing she would marry and love him because she wanted to, not because he threatened her son.
"Don't do this. Don't--"
"A stasis cell is no place for a small boy, believe me. I speak from experience."
Rage burned in her tear-filled eyes. "I'll kill you if you hurt my son!"
"You can save him."
"By marrying you?"
"Would it be so terrible?"
"How can you ask that? You're holding me here against my will. You're threatening my son!"
"Only because I love you."
"That's not how it works. That's not what love is."
"Then show me. Show me what love is." He reached out, cupped her cheek, leaned in to kiss her, wanting to understand, wanting to know where he had gone wrong, wanting to know how it would feel to be cherished and cared for.
She drew back to strike him, but he grabbed her wrist and blocked her blow. "So I have been told all my life."
Satan, Abaddon, Ca-lo the Destroyer -- the Overseers had branded him with these names. To serve their own purposes. They had shaped his character the way a blacksmith hammers the sharp edge of a broadsword. Their success was complete. Dana's loathing proved it.
Heart pounding, he released her arm. "An aide will help you get ready. I'll be back in an hour."
Without waiting for her reply, he brushed past her and fled the room. He didn't want to hear any more arguments. He didn't want to be tempted to change his mind.
Kenna ignored the twisting cramp in her abdomen as she duct-taped a plastic trash bag over the broken window above Royal's mattress to block the wind. The pickup's camper shell was in bad shape, but even with the tailgate missing it provided a roof over their heads.
"There, that's better," she said, proud of her handiwork.
"Just like home." Royal shivered inside his cocoon of blankets.
"You still cold? I saw a couple of sleeping bags over in the main building. Not too many bloodstains on 'em. They smelled to high Heaven, but they'd keep you from freezing to death. I don't mind going to get them."
That wasn't true. She did mind. She didn't want to leave William alone with Royal, but the infirmary was too jam-packed with stuff that could hurt him if she took him with her: spilled pills, needles, bloody rags, dead bodies, not to mention locust-monsters. Those devils were hiding everywhere, she was sure. Mulder never should have left. It wasn't safe. For him or them. Not with locust-monsters on the loose again. Nope, best to stay in one place.
"I'm okay." Royal cradled his injured arm beneath the covers.
"Suit yourself," she said, relieved. "Lemme know if you change your mind." She tossed the duct tape through the cab's open window into the driver's seat, where it bounced with a thud into the foot well.
The noise startled William, who was playing on the mattress beside Royal. He stopped driving his toy fire engine over the hills of Royal's blanketed knees. "Wha'zat?" he asked, his blue-gray eyes searching the camper.
"Bogeyman," Royal said. "Better watch out!" He gave the blankets a small kick, which sent the toy truck bouncing into the air.
William stuck his thumb in his mouth and looked like he might cry.
"Quit scarin' him." Kenna fished a four-pack of Oreo cookies from her coat pocket. "Look what mama's got, sweetheart."
"Cookie!" William reached out with both hands, fingers flexing with excitement.
"Hold your horses. Let me unwrap them first." She tore open the cellophane with her teeth and handed him a cookie.
"Do I get one, too?" Royal's face was pale -- as pale as a black man's face could be. He had lost buckets of blood.
She gave him the remainder of the pack. "Need another Tylenol?"
"I'd rather have a snort of coke, if you got any." Dark crumbs speckled his white teeth.
"Sorry. Tylenol's all we got," she said, wishing she could take one herself. Her belly was killing her, but she'd heard medication -- even something as mild as Tylenol -- could hurt a developing fetus. Cause a birth defect. She didn't want to risk it.
"Nothin' stronger in the infirmary?" he asked.
"Probably, if you don't mind picking it up off the floor. You know most everything got busted and spilled in the blast."
"Might be worth taking the chance." He grimaced and stuffed another whole cookie into his mouth.
"Quit complaining. At least you're out of that rusted barrel."
"And into this one." He was about to scarf down the last cookie, but changed his mind and offered it to her. "You want it?"
"No thanks. I'm not feeling too good." Her guts roiled and burned.
He turned to William. "How 'bout you, kid? Want it?"
William smiled shyly and took the Oreo from Royal's outstretched hand.
“Cute kid.” Royal wiped crumbs from his fingers onto his blankets.
“Looks like his dad, thank goodness.”
“Why you puttin' yourself down, girl? You ain’t bad to look at.” He licked his lips and she caught sight of a silver stud in the middle of his tongue. She'd never met anyone with a pierced tongue before.
“Thanks, but it's just as well he takes after his daddy's side.” Royal didn't need to know she wasn't William's birth mother. She was the boy's mama now, for all intents and purposes. Biology didn't mean a thing. It was actions that mattered. They defined a person. "He's gonna grow up tall and handsome. Just like daddy, huh, William?"
"Where's his pop now? Dead?”
“Heck no. You met him yesterday.”
“The geek? Gibson?” Royal looked surprised.
“Not him. Mulder.”
“Really? Seems kinda old for you.”
“Age doesn't matter when you’re in love.”
Royal's head bobbed in agreement, setting his dreadlocks swaying. "I hear ya."
Another painful cramp arrowed through her. "Yep, Mulder and me, we're very happy. We're hoping this next one's gonna be a girl, a sister for William."
"Yes sir. Been trying for months. Finally happened for us."
"That's cool, I guess," Royal said, although he didn't look convinced. “But don’t it scare you, bringin’ another kid into the world, under the circumstances?”
“Mulder and me can take care of our family. Some people don’t have what it takes, the commitment, you know? Even in good times." Like William's selfish birth mother. "But we do.”
“Then it's all good, babe.”
“Yeah, it is. Mulder’s a great dad. He loves William more’n life itself. Loves me like that, too.”
She wished Mulder would come back from his silly wild goose chase to Salt Lake. This was no time to be leaving his family unprotected. He was putting them and himself in danger. And for what? That Dana Scully woman, who in all likelihood was already dead. William needed his father. Kenna needed Mulder, too. She was pregnant now. There was the new baby to consider.
Mulder hadn't actually asked her yet, but she was certain he was going to propose soon. He wasn't the "love 'em and leave 'em" type, the kind of guy who would get a girl pregnant, then run for the hills. He'd be back and they'd get married. Maybe visit the Grand Canyon on their honeymoon, just like they'd always talked about. If he'd said it once, he'd said it a thousand times: she was his one true love. They were a family now, her, Mulder, William and the new baby. It was a dream come true, just like a fairytale. They were going to live happily ever after, wait and see.
Lordy, she missed him. His attentiveness, his kindness toward her and William. She blushed, recalling the unhurried way they'd made love. He was a perfect lover. Thoughtful and generous. As much as she had once loved Rick, he sometimes rushed things. But not Mulder. Never Mulder.
A fiery ache burned low in her pelvis. She gripped her belly and waited for the pain to ease.
"You okay?" Royal asked.
"I'm fine. Just a little morning sickness." The words no sooner left her mouth when an unexpected surge of warmth flooded her panties.
Something was wrong. Very wrong.
"Mind watching William a minute?" she asked and moved to the pick-up's open rear gate.
"Uh, okay, but don't be gone long."
"Back in a jiff, I promise."
Kenna hopped to the ground. She wouldn't go far, not with locust-monsters about, but she rounded the truck to the front bumper, out of Royal's view, where she quickly unbuttoned her jeans, pushed them to her knees and peered inside her panties.
The crotch was sodden and stained with blood.
"Damn it." Tears stung her eyes.
She hadn't taken any Tylenol. She'd done nothing to jeopardize a pregnancy.
"Why?" she asked God. "I'd've been a good mother." William was living proof.
Another cramp ripped through her. She sank onto her haunches.
What was she going to tell Mulder?
"He doesn't need to know," she muttered. No point hurting him. They could try again. They loved each other. They still had William.
"No one needs to know," she whispered to a sky made hazy by spitting snow. "It'll be our secret. Shhhhhh."
Strips of leather, cut from the horses' reins, bound Ingraham's wrists and ankles. Gibson's striped scarf served as a gag. Mulder double-checked the knots. Satisfied the airman wasn't going anywhere soon, he patted his shoulder and said, "Thanks for the ride."
A warning jolt from the stun-gun -- and a fib about the Refuters' displeasure and guaranteed retribution -- had kept Ingraham obedient during the short flight to Salt Lake City. Dressed only in undershorts, he had maneuvered the shuttle into Tse'Bit'a'i's landing bay as ordered, powered down the engines, and did nothing to alert the crew on the hangar deck that anything was amiss. Mulder was beginning to believe their subterfuge, and their rescue mission, had a chance at success.
He tucked the Taser into his left boot, hiding it within easy reach against his calf. The knee-high boots were a half-size too small and pinched his feet, but Ingraham's sleek uniform fit as if it were made for him; the resilient fabric clung to his skin, yet stretched to accommodate every move. In an unconscious gesture, his fingers brushed the holster on his hip. The Glock's weight felt familiar and reassuring.
Almost as an afterthought, he fished into the pocket of his discarded jacket and withdrew the artifact -- the "key" Gibson had unearthed at Kits'iil, the thing Albert Hosteen had described as "an answer to the world's dire condition." He slipped it into his pants pocket and tossed the coat aside.
Leaving Ingraham struggling against his bonds on the floor between the rear passenger seat and the bulkhead, Mulder joined Gibson and Dibeh at the exit door. He spread his arms wide and asked, "Do I look like him...like Ca-Lo?"
Dibeh swiped at his sleeve to remove a smudge of dust, then stared hard at his face.
"Problem?" he asked.
"She thinks you look nervous," Gibson said.
"I am nervous."
"Ca-Lo wouldn't be," Gibson reminded him.
Dibeh threw back her shoulders, lifted her chin and peered down her almost nonexistent nose at them, giving them her interpretation of Ca-Lo's imposing demeanor.
Mulder mimicked her stance and adjusted his expression, trying to look more commanding. "Better?"
Dibeh nodded enthusiastically.
"Then let's go." Mulder gestured toward the exit.
"There doesn't appear to be a latch," Gibson said, stymied by a lack of handle or other obvious mechanism on the door's featureless surface.
"This rescue isn't going anywhere if we can't get out of this tin can," Mulder said. He looked to Dibeh for help.
Her fingers danced through the air and Gibson translated: "The doors on Tse'Bit'a'i' respond to thought and voice commands."
"I'm thinking I want out of here, but I don't see the door opening," Mulder said.
More signing from Dibeh. "Only Purebloods use thoughts. Humans must state their desires aloud."
"Ah." Purebloods -- the name said a lot about the aliens' presumption of superiority. Mulder addressed the door. "Open!"
It slid into the wall. The hangar's syrupy aroma immediately flooded the shuttle. Mulder staggered back, reminded of the ship in Bellefleur, the aliens' examination platform, the drills and lasers--
"It's okay," Gibson said firmly. "You're not there."
His words tethered Mulder to reality. Eased his apprehension. Helped him focus on their mission, on Skinner, on Scully.
He straightened his shoulders and looked out at the hangar, determined to take in his surroundings like the trained investigator he was, not a man crippled by confinement and torture.
Helicopters, fighter jets, and dozens of unfamiliar aircraft crammed the cavernous hangar. A bulky command center separated the parked shuttle from a gleaming bank of elevators. Computer terminals dotted its waist-high console. Three soldiers, dressed in uniforms identical to Mulder's, rose from their stations to stare at him.
Hoping Gibson could glean something useful from their thoughts, Mulder asked, "Who are the grunts?"
"Airmen Pitt and Hartley and Transport Chief Barrett," Gibson supplied.
All three wore skeptical expressions.
"They were expecting Ingraham," Gibson added, "not Ca-Lo. They're wondering why you're here."
"I've been asking myself the same question." Mulder studied the soldiers. All three wore communications headsets. And sidearms.
Mulder drew his own weapon and posed as if Gibson were his prisoner. "Out of the frying pan..."
He did his best to underplay his limp as they crossed the landing bay. When they reached the command console, Barrett saluted. "We weren't expecting you, sir. Log indicates Airman Ingraham requisitioned this vessel."
"Ingraham's dead," Mulder said brusquely. He continued toward the elevator, hoping the conversation was over.
But Barrett didn't let the news go unchallenged. He called to Mulder's back, "Dead, sir? How?"
Mulder stopped. "Curiosity, Chief," he said over his shoulder. "Asked one too many questions."
The color drained from Barrett's face. "Y-yes, sir. Do you... do you need assistance with your prisoner, sir?"
"Do I look like I need help?" Mulder growled. He herded Gibson and Dibeh into the nearest elevator.
Once inside, Mulder whispered to Dibeh, "Which floor?"
Taking care to hide her actions from the inquisitive crewmen beyond the open door, she held up four long fingers.
Mulder jabbed the appropriate button and the doors slid shut. The car began its ascent.
Barrett stared after the elevator. "Something's wrong," he said to Pitt and Hartley. "Commander didn't seem himself."
"No kiddin'. What's up with the new hairdo?" Pitt asked past a wad of chewing gum.
"His tat was missing. You notice?" Hartley asked.
Pitt guffawed. "Hafta be blind *not* to notice, you moron."
"I wasn't referring to the Commander's looks." Barrett watched the numbers climb on the digital display above the elevator. "He was--"
The comlink on his console buzzed. Caller I.D. indicated it was Ca-Lo...calling from a wall unit on 17, outside the Ablution Pools. Barrett glanced at the elevator. Still going up. Deck 60, 59, 58...
"Must be a malfunction." He flipped the com switch. "Sir?"
Ca-Lo's voice boomed in his earpiece. "Ingraham return yet?"
Barrett's eyes locked onto the changing numbers above the elevator: 32, 31, 30.
"Uh, sir, you said Ingraham was dead."
His earpiece fell silent for a moment. Then, "When was this?"
"Not two minutes ago. Before you got on the lift."
"I'm not in an elevator."
"I saw you get in, sir. With a prisoner and a hybrid."
"A prisoner...?" Another pause. "Those are intruders, you idiot. I want them stopped. Use whatever force is necessary."
"Yes, sir, but..."
"We're shorthanded, sir, what with the celebration going on."
"I don't want excuses. Find the intruders. Stop them!"
Ca-Lo disconnected the call. Barrett immediately punched up Security.
"We have a breach," he said to the officer on duty. "I repeat, we have a breach."
"What's on deck four?" Mulder asked. The elevator hummed softly beneath his feet.
"Officer's deck," Gibson supplied. "Scully's in Ca-Lo's quarters."
"She's with an aide, a hybrid."
Dibeh grunted and signed.
"She can show us the way," Gibson said.
The elevator hissed to a stop and the doors opened onto a vaulted mezzanine that overlooked an enormous hexagonal chamber twenty meters below. To Mulder's horror, the chamber contained hundreds, maybe thousands, of hybridization tanks, identical to the ones he had seen at Zeus Storage and, later, the Lombard Facility.
He was about to step out of the car when Dibeh grunted and Gibson warned, "Wrong floor."
"I don't think so." Descending a set of spiral stairs into the lab below was none other than Mulder's twin "brother" -- Ca-Lo.
"Find Skinner and Scully. Get them off the ship." Mulder shoved the Glock into Gibson's hands. "I'm going after him."
"Mulder, this isn't the time to be settling a personal score."
"It isn't personal. Look at him, Gibson, he's the one man who can blow our cover."
Two "Ca-Los" would obviously attract unwelcome attention. To get Scully and Skinner off Tse'Bit'a'i', one -- preferably the real one -- would have to disappear.
"You may be too late," Gibson said, head cocked, listening. "Security's coming."
"All the more reason to get rid of him now. Find Scully."
"Get her off this ship."
Gibson fell silent and for a moment Mulder feared he was going to refuse.
"Okay," he said at last.
"Good. I'll catch up with you as soon as I can."
Mulder didn't wait for Gibson's reply, but sprinted down the corridor.
Ca-Lo jogged down the stairs, invigorated by the news that Mulder was on board. Soon his brother would be in custody and Ca-Lo intended to conduct his interrogation personally. It would be a pleasure to see Mulder squirm on an examination platform and beg for his life.
Mercy would not be forthcoming. The instant Mulder divulged William's location, he would be given to the Overseers. He would learn firsthand what it meant to be a servant of the Society.
Anticipation prickled Ca-Lo's scalp as he entered the lower chamber and threaded his way between the rows of tanks. Aeration filters bubbled loudly, stirring up the murky, phosphorescent water, which provided the room's only illumination. He scanned for Growers and their apprentices. Not a soul moved about the chamber or on the mezzanine above. Every Nih-hi-cho was at the Joining, exalting the continuation of their wretched species. He was alone. No Watchers, no Overseers. No one to stop him from finding out who he was and how he had come into the world.
He walked quickly, back ramrod straight, jaw set, the heels of his polished military boots clacking against the onyx floor as he navigated the maze of tanks like a lab rat after a reward. Ca-Lo's prize lay in Cistern CVII. Reaching it, he swiped the tank with his sleeve to clear condensation from the glass.
"Who are you?" he murmured, peering in at Cassandra's clone.
It drifted on unseen currents, eyes shut, face expressionless.
He moved to the end of the tank, where a flat console displayed the clone's vital signs, developmental data, nutrient consumption rate. A touch-sensitive control panel allowed Growers to adjust the tank's temperature, balance its chemical concentrations, and add accelerant or decelerator as needed. It also provided access the clone's developmental history, including a biography and genetic profile of the donor.
Glancing over his shoulder, Ca-Lo checked the room and upper gallery again for intruders. The archways and side portals remained empty. There was no sound but the gentle swish of water. No movement, except the sway of clones in their tanks.
The press of a button brought up Cassandra's biographical data and file photo -- a picture apparently taken decades ago, when she was about twenty years old. She looked carefree in the photograph. Not at all like the nervous woman Ca-Lo had once called "Mother."
Nor like the conglomeration of fleshy cells in the tank.
Ca-Lo began to read.
Cassandra Joan Hart -- born to Dorothea and Victor Hart at St. Jude's Memorial Hospital in Rutherford, Arkansas on April 20, 1942.
He stared in disbelief at the readout. Cassandra's green blood had left an indelible stain on the carpet in his quarters. She couldn't possibly be the product of two humans.
He read on, fearful of what he might discover, yet unwilling to give up his hunt for the truth. He was determined to know how he came into the world. He wanted proof he was human.
According to the file notes, Cassandra was an only child. She attended Abraham Lincoln Elementary School. Had measles, mumps, and chicken pox. She was accepted to the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff in 1959 and attended one semester before dropping out. In November 1960, she met C.G.B. Spender in Fayetteville, North Carolina while visiting a cousin during a Thanksgiving holiday. She married him on March 4, 1961 -- the same day she became a test subject in the New Destiny Project.
"The New Destiny Project!" NDP -- the archive cited in his DNA profile. Hope coursed through his veins as he scrolled forward to the next screen.
Beginning in 1964, Cassandra was subjected to a series of experiments led by Dr. Eugene Openshaw. She was infected with Purity in an effort to transform her into a human-alien hybrid, to survive colonization and serve as part of a new slave race. In '99, Openshaw's team succeeded. Cassandra Spender became the first of her kind.
So that explained her Nih-hi-cho blood. She was originally human, which meant it was possible she had been telling the truth when she said she was his biological mother.
Ca-Lo's hands began to shake. He searched through Openshaw's copious notes, but found nothing more about the New Destiny Project. Frustrated, he queried the database.
An encryption warning blocked his efforts.
"Damn it!" He slammed his fist against the tank, causing the clone to vibrate.
"Problem, bro?" The question came from the upper gallery.
Ca-Lo lifted his gaze to the mezzanine.
There, leaning against a thick onyx column, eyes reflecting the Pools' phosphorescent glow, stood the one man he hated above all others -- Fox Mulder.
Mulder watched Ca-Lo's startled surprise transform to rage.
"You!" his twin roared.
"In the flesh." Mulder spread his arms. "Rumor has it you've been impersonating me. Thought I'd return the favor."
"Come down. Let me show my appreciation," Ca-Lo shouted.
Mulder shrugged and nodded. He sauntered toward the spiral staircase, more to conceal his panic than his limp. Ca-Lo wore a sidearm; Mulder's holster now hung empty and the Taser in his boot was an inadequate substitute.
By the time Mulder reached the main floor, Ca-Lo was waiting in front of the first row of tanks, several paces from the stairs, gun in hand.
"Not very sporting." Mulder indicated his empty holster. "I'm unarmed."
"Then this'll be easy, won't it?"
"And here I had you pegged for a hand-to-hand kind of guy."
"Nothing would please me more than to wring your neck with my bare hands."
"Bring it on, bro," Mulder taunted, knowing he stood a better chance against Ca-Lo's fists than his Sig. "If you think you're up to it."
Ca-Lo loosened his grip on the gun, flipped it upside down, let it dangle for a moment, trigger guard looped over forefinger. "I'm up to it." He lobbed the gun into the nearest tank.
Down it sank into the murky water, between the clone's buoyant limbs, out of reach. It hit the bottom with a muted clank.
The sound launched Ca-Lo like a starter's pistol. He lunged at Mulder. Shoulder to ribs, he plowed him into the stairs. Mulder flailed, caught hold of Ca-Lo's uniform. Together they toppled. Mulder's back hit the steps hard. Ca-Lo's weight knocked the wind from his lungs. He gasped, pushed Ca-Lo away, rolled out of range.
Ca-Lo regained his footing first. Fists balled, he sneered, "Maybe it's you who's not up to the challenge."
Physically, the two men were equally matched. Cunning and grit would determine the winner. Mulder didn't hesitate. He rose to his feet. Moved in. Threw a punch. Missed when Ca-Lo stepped out of his path.
Ca-Lo smirked. "You always did lead with your left."
"Been keeping tabs on me?" Balance regained, Mulder faked a right. Struck with his left. Connected. Jesus, it felt like he'd hit the ship's metal hull.
The blow knocked Ca-Lo's head back, but he remained on his feet. He rubbed his jaw. "Let's just say I've had more than a passing interest." He returned the jab.
Mulder dodged. "In me," -- he threw an uppercut that clipped Ca-Lo's chin -- "or in Scully?"
Ca-Lo's next blow sent him reeling into the side of a tank. The clone sloshed in its phosphorescent liquid, its movement mirroring the shock waves in Mulder's head.
"A man can't help being curious about his lover's past," Ca-Lo said.
Lover? "If you've touched her, I'll--"
Mulder lunged. Threw a haymaker. Ca-Lo caught his fist mid-swing and twisted his arm painfully behind his back.
"You'll what?" Ca-Lo growled into his ear. "Make me regret the day I was born?"
Mulder wrenched free. "That's funny, coming from a clone."
A freight-train punch rammed Mulder's ribs. Another smashed his cheek. His legs wobbled. Gave out. He collapsed to his knees. Blood drooled from his mouth.
Ca-Lo grabbed his shirtfront and hauled him to his feet. Saliva sprayed from his lips as he shouted, "I'm not a clone!"
Mulder stared into his hate-filled eyes. "You think *I'm* the clone?"
Mulder lowered his voice to a near-whisper. "Then why are you so pissed off?"
Granite knuckles collided with his nose. He rocked on his heels. Blinked stars from his eyes. Hard fists pummeled his gut. A strike below the belt folded him in half.
He yelped. Gripped his aching genitals. Fought the urge to vomit, to curl into a ball, to die.
A knee to the chin knocked him back. Two hard hits to the chest sent him careening into a marble column. His head cracked against the stone. He slipped to the floor.
The room whirled and tilted. His vision blurred. He could barely make out Ca-Lo striding toward him. Too shaken to rise and defend himself, he dug the Taser from his boot. Aimed it.
Ca-Lo kicked the weapon from his hand. It skidded across the onyx floor and disappeared beneath a distant tank. "Tsk, tsk. You're not playing fair." He grabbed Mulder's upper arm and jerked him to his feet. "Time to congratulate me."
"You haven't won yet."
"Oh, but I have." Ca-Lo hauled him toward the stairs. Mulder's arm felt as if it were being wrenched from his shoulder. "You see, you're on your way to a privation chamber, whereas I am about to start my honeymoon. Dana and I are going to be married within the hour."
"She'd never agree to marry you." Mulder elbowed him in the ribs. Ca-Lo grunted and loosened his grip. Mulder tore free. Threw a punch that split Ca-Lo's lip.
Ca-Lo struck back. A sledgehammer blow to the chest. Mulder teetered.
"She doesn't love you."
"No?" Ca-Lo seized Mulder's throat. Squeezed hard. Drove him backwards between the rows of tanks. "She slept with me."
Mulder struggled against Ca-Lo's iron grip. Tried to pry his fingers loose.
Ca-Lo rammed him into a pillar. Once. Twice. Mulder lashed out with ineffectual blows.
"She came to my bed willingly," Ca-Lo sneered, lips bloodied, eyes glittering. Sweat slicked his bruised skin. His thumb pressed into Mulder's larynx.
"Liar," Mulder rasped.
The pressure intensified. "She's pregnant. Did you know that? Care to lay odds on who's the daddy?"
Gibson had warned Mulder about making this personal.
Sorry, Gibson, it already is, Mulder thought as he clapped the heels of his hands against Ca-Lo's ears. Ca-Lo cried out. Released his hold. Staggered back.
Mulder pressed his advantage by bulldozing into him. Fists swinging, he bullied Ca-Lo toward the center of the room, connected every punch, relished the startled look on the other man's face. Nothing was going to stop him from kicking this fucker's ass back to hell. Nothing! "You bastard! You son-of-a-bitch!"
Blood spurted from Ca-Lo's nose. He raised his arms to protect his face. "You'll never see her again." He spat blood. "She's mine now."
Mulder torpedoed into him, skull to gut. Momentum drove them both down an aisle. Mulder clamped his arms around Ca-Lo's hips and lifted him to his shoulder. Upended, Ca-Lo pounded his back. Mulder hurled him at the nearest tank.
Ca-Lo crashed into it with a spine-jarring jolt. A satisfying groan exploded from his lungs. He dropped to hands and knees.
The tank wobbled above him. Inside, the clone rocked on turbulent waters. A loud popping signaled a crack in the glass. The fissure expanded, snapped, zigzagged out and up, cobwebbing the glass. Green fluid spurted from the breach. A thin stream became a gusher when the tank suddenly let go and exploded.
Metal brackets and shards of glass shot through the air. Mulder ducked. Ca-Lo was struck from behind. He howled and fell face down. Rushing water pinned him in place.
The tank drained quickly and the clone slid out. It landed with a slap on the floor beside Ca-Lo, its eyes wide and staring, mouth gaping like a suffocating fish.
Ca-Lo lay motionless. Mulder felt for a pulse. He was alive, but wouldn't be going anywhere soon. A nasty head wound ran the length of his brow. A halo of blood, thinned by the water from the tank, was pooling around his head.
"Looks like you were wrong, bro. Scully's mine. Now and forever."
Mulder straightened and surveyed the room. His heart told him to go find Scully, but his gut was saying he shouldn't leave. Not yet. There was something else here, something important. Having learned long ago to trust his instincts, he headed for the glowing computer where he'd spotted Ca-Lo earlier. "Let's see what had you so upset."
He followed the monitor's blue light, leaving a trail of wet footprints. Like every tank in the room, this one contained a clone with a smooth, expressionless face. Despite the lack of detail, there was something familiar about it.
Thick glass separated her head from the computer, which Mulder discovered displayed an encrypted file and a prompt for a password.
He moved to the keyboard. Would typing in the correct password awaken all the clones? Unleash another disaster? Or would the opposite be true? Could he shut this place down, destroy these clones?
His fingers hovered above the controls, waiting for inspiration to strike.
Another Bible reference? Something about Cassandra?
Whatever the password, Ca-Lo hadn't known it, which was curious. The aliens clearly hadn't wanted any fingers in this particular pie, not even their top-ranking officer.
"A locked door requires a key." The disembodied voice came from behind him.
He spun to find Albert Hosteen walking toward him.
"Jesus, Albert, you scared the crap out of me."
Hosteen chuckled and moved to stand beside him. He tapped a finger on the control panel. "Here."
There was a small hole in the faceplate, easy to overlook or mistake for a screw hole.
"What is it?"
The perfect size for the artifact Gibson had found at Kits'iil. Mulder dug the transponder from his pocket and inserted it into the hole.
The monitor flashed and the archive opened.
"New Destiny Project?"
Mulder skimmed the report.
"Team of terrestrial scientists...under the direction of C. Spender-- Old Smokey's legacy lives on, I see."
"There is more."
"Cells from a ten-week-old fetus...harvested in utero..." He paused, stunned. "Teena Mulder? What is this?"
Mulder swallowed hard. He felt as if Ca-Lo's hand still gripped his throat. "Nuclei from the cells of Teena Mulder's fetus were injected into de-nucleated embryonic cells. The resulting embryos were implanted into a group of specially selected women." Realization dawned. "That fetus was me, wasn't it?"
"It says Cassandra Spender received one of these experimental embryos. Hers was the only survivor."
He recalled meeting Cassandra for the first time, five years ago in her hospital room. She had tried to tell him about this. "I know what I've experienced," she had said. "I have been through the terror and the tests more times than I can count. I have had an unborn fetus taken from me."
He hadn't believed her at the time; he had been questioning all of his beliefs.
Clearly, he should have listened.
"On April 13, 1962, Subject 12 -- Ashkii XII/Ca-Lo -- was removed from Cistern CXIV." Mulder turned to Hosteen. "That's six months after I was born."
"Ca-Lo is my clone."
"And this is the answer to the world's problems?"
"But...I don't see how..."
"It is not for you to see. It is for him." Hosteen pointed across the room to where Ca-Lo lay in a pool of his own blood.
Implanted embryos? Unwitting test subjects?
"Is...is Scully pregnant?"
The news arrowed Mulder's heart. "With his child?"
"You don't know?"
The old Indian's body began to fade.
"No, don't go," Mulder begged.
"You do not need me any longer." He shimmered like the night sky. Mulder was able to see right through him.
He groped for Hosteen's arm, but his hand fell on nothing. No pulse coursed through the old man's veins. No heat emanated from his skin. This was Hosteen's soul. Pinpricks in the cosmos. Starlight.
"Wait. Is the answer in there? In the archive?"
"No." Hosteen's voice came to him like seed on the wind. "The answer is in your heart."
The last glimmer of light disappeared. Mulder was alone.
And he knew what he must do.
It was time to find Scully. It was time to ask for her forgiveness. And to forgive her.
"Please, Lady Dana, please put on the gown," Ulso signed. Orders were orders. If Master Ca-Lo wanted this ornery Earth woman washed and dressed, then she must obey. "It is a beautiful garment. Look, look at this beadwork." She ran long fingers over the glittering bodice. "Stitcher 16 sewed each by hand. She is skilled with her needle, don't you think? The most skilled aboard Tse'Bit'a'i'. She stitches for the Overseers themselves. These beads are the finest silica-glass in the Sector. Bursar XII said so. See the color? It matches your eyes!"
The Earth woman ignored her and paced Ca-Lo's bedroom like a lamb in one of Butcher 6's slaughtering pens. She kept her head turned away from the pretty gown, which was draped carefully over the bed to prevent it from wrinkling before the ceremony.
Great Dragon, the ceremony was scheduled to begin in one-quarter hour. And the Earth woman was still wearing her dirty terrestrial clothes: loose-fitting trousers, a pair of scuffed, dusty boots, and an oversized, military jacket -- which did little to hide the alarming swell of her belly. Her knotted hair was sticking out in all directions. Her skin was dirty. Worst of all, her body carried the sharp, musky odor of human sweat.
Ulso breathed through her mouth to avoid the smell and signed frantically. "Master Ca-Lo will be here any minute. He will be very angry if you are not ready." She wanted to add, "And I will be punished along with you if you continue to stall." Instead, she stepped directly into Lady Dana's path to halt her pacing. "Please, please put on the dress!"
"Move," Lady Dana ordered. When she did not budge, the Earth woman huffed with annoyance, turned and strode from the bedroom into the Master's study.
Divine Angels, what to do now? How was Dibeh able to manage these high-strung terrestrials?
The thought of her young friend plucked at Ulso's heart. Dibeh had not returned with Ca-Lo and the Earth woman. And no mention had been made of her. Ulso feared the young aide may have been given to a new master or sent to the Portal of Solitude to serve out some sort of punishment. After all, it was such an easy thing to anger humans. They had tempers shorter than the whiskers of a than-zie.
Grabbing a hairbrush from the lavatory, Ulso hurried to the study and offered it to the Earth woman.
She took the brush and, without a moment's hesitation, hurled it across the room, where it hit the computer and cracked the screen.
"Mistress! Please! You *must* ready yourself." Ulso recovered the hairbrush. There was nothing to be done about the broken monitor. She would sweep up the mess later and send down to Supply for a replacement.
The Earth woman's frown deepened. "Leave...me...alone," she said, emphasizing each word as if Ulso were too stupid to understand plain English.
"But, Mistress, surely it is considered an honor to become the Master's Number One Consort." The moment she had drawn the words in the air, she regretted them. She did not want to hear any details about the physical inclinations of humans. Master Ca-Lo's sexual appetite had been the subject of gossip for years. Ulso found it wholly disgusting. No wonder Lady Dana was being obstinate. Who would willingly participate in such a revolting act? "I will draw your bath while you undress."
Ulso had not taken two steps toward the adjoining room when the entrance buzzer sounded.
Lady Dana's eyes darted to the door. "Is it Ca-Lo?"
This Earth woman must be feeble-minded. "Master Ca-Lo would not buzz to get into his own quarters," Ulso signed and went to the door. She punched the appropriate code and the door slid open. Standing at the threshold was a short human male Ulso did not recognize. Beside him was Dibeh.
"Young One! I thought you were lost to us!" Overjoyed at the sight of her friend, Ulso grasped Dibeh's hands in greeting.
Dibeh grinned and squeezed her fingers in return.
Their happy reunion was interrupted when Lady Dana asked, "Gibson? Is it really you?"
"It's me. And Dibeh." He regarded them all with perhaps the most somber eyes Ulso had ever seen. "We've come to rescue you and Skinner."
Distrust thinned Lady Dana's lips. There would be no happy hand-squeezing for these two. "Oh really? Where exactly did you come from?" she demanded. "And how did you get on board? How did you know I was here?"
"I can explain all that later. We don't have much time."
"Explain now, or I'm not going anywhere."
"Ship Security already knows we're here. We have to leave...now."
Lady Dana crossed her arms and remained unmoved.
"You think I might be a shapeshifter," the one called Gibson said.
"Or worse. I've been fooled before."
"I don't know what to say to convince you. You'll have to trust me."
"A wise man taught me to trust no one."
Dibeh tugged at Gibson's coat sleeve. "Give her Master Mulder's weapon," she signed. "Perhaps she will trust you then."
Ulso wanted to ask Dibeh who in the name of the Red Dragon was Master Mulder, but before she could raise her hand, Gibson handed Lady Dana his gun.
"Okay?" he asked.
She inspected the gun. Apparently satisfied, she tucked it into her waistband at the back of her trousers. "Okay, how do we get off this damned ship?"
"Dibeh will show us the way."
Worried anew for her friend, Ulso signed, "You are leaving?"
"I must help them," Dibeh responded.
"Skinner's been taken prisoner," Lady Dana said. "He's in something Ca-Lo calls a 'stasis' cell."
"He is in the Portal of Solitude," Dibeh signed. "I know the way, but..."
"We can't all go," Gibson finished for her. "It would draw too much attention."
"I won't leave the ship without him," Lady Dana warned.
"I can free him," Dibeh said, "but I must do it alone."
"Dibeh, you cannot go to the Portal of Solitude," Ulso objected. "Only Feeders are allowed into the caldarium."
"I know what I'm doing. I have been there before."
"Master Ca-Lo sent me. I delivered a necklace to Lady Dana. The one she is wearing now." Dibeh pointed to the delicate chain around the Earth woman's neck. In what seemed an automatic gesture, Lady Dana's hand rose to cover it. "Commander Skinner will need some clothes. Perhaps one of Master Ca-Lo's uniforms would do?"
"Dibeh, we cannot steal from Master Ca-Lo's closet."
"Dear friend, this is very important. Commander Skinner saved my life. Not just once, but twice. Now I must save his. Please help me."
If what Dibeh said was true, and Ulso had no reason to doubt her, then she must help her young friend. "Wait here. I'll fetch something."
She hurried to the bedroom, where she removed a shirt and trousers from the wardrobe. She plucked a pair of boots from the floor beside the bed. The leather was buttery soft from years of wear, but spotless, polished to a high gloss by Old De-Gahi for the wedding ceremony. Ulso tucked everything into an empty laundry sack and brought it to Dibeh.
Dibeh hooked the bag's woven strap over her shoulder. "You must show Master Gibson and Lady Dana the way to Ground Transport."
"Me? But I am under orders to get Lady Dana ready for a very important ceremony. She cannot leave the ship."
"You must do this, Ulso. As a favor to me."
Steal from the Master? Override orders? It was unheard of! But Dibeh was her dearest friend. And the young aide seemed determined to help these humans. "All right. I will show them the way."
"Thank you!" Dibeh smiled broadly. "I will meet you there as soon as I can."
"What about Mulder?" Gibson asked.
"Mulder's on board?" Lady Dana asked, a mixture of relief and alarm in her eyes.
"I'll find him, too, and bring him safely to you," Dibeh promised, her smile gone. "Keep Lady Dana safe, Master Gibson. Please."
"I will." He fell silent and cocked his head as if listening to faraway whispers. "Security's on this deck," he warned. "They'll be here any minute."
"Then we must hurry." Dibeh gave Ulso a quick embrace. "Take them to Transport via the servants' elevator," she signed when they parted. "The guards will not think to look there."
"Be careful, my young friend. I wish to see you again."
"And I you."
"Let's go," Gibson urged.
Lady Dana hung back.
"Scully?" Exasperation furrowed Gibson's brow.
"Scully, there isn't ti--"
She vanished into the bedroom, paying no more heed to Gibson than she had earlier to Ulso. The twitter of Master Ca-Lo's birds came from beyond the arched door. Metal hinges squeaked as the cage was opened. A frantic finch soared into the study. It circled the room, looking for escape. When it found the open door, it disappeared into the hall. A second bird followed it. Then a third. There would be punishments all around when Master Ca-Lo discovered Lady Dana *and* his prized birds were gone.
The Earth woman strode from the bedroom, a look of smug victory on her face. "Now we can go."
Ca-Lo came to in a puddle of Ablution fluid and his own blood. His head ached. He probed his brow with shaky fingers and discovered a painful, four-inch gash above his left eye.
He struggled to rise to his knees. Glass shards slipped from his back and tinkled to the floor. His stomach threatened to expel his noonday meal at the sight of the dead clone lying on the floor beside him. Exposed to the air, its skin had become crinkled and dark. The shade and texture told Ca-Lo it had been out of its tank -- and he had been unconscious -- for about ten or fifteen minutes. Any longer and the clone would be as black as a rotted plum.
Temples throbbing, Ca-Lo rose unsteadily to his feet and scanned the room and the mezzanine above. There was no sign of Mulder. He took a tentative step, rode out a wave of dizziness, then followed a trail of wet prints to Cistern CVII: Cassandra's tank.
The clone appeared just as he had left it, seemingly asleep in its artificial womb, its expression bland, devoid of emotion and spirit.
Using the tank for support, Ca-Lo walked on wobbly legs to the control panel. What he saw there set his hands quaking. The NDP archive was open. At last, proof of who he was and where he had come from was within reach...thanks to his loathsome brother, who had somehow gained access.
Ca-Lo propped himself on stiffened arms and began to read.
ARCHIVE: New Destiny Project
03.27.61: Terrestrial scientists V. Nordlinger and E. Openshaw, under the direction of C. Spender, harvested cells from 70-day specimen in utero.
"The mother. Who is the mother?"
Ca-Lo scanned for her name.
When he found it, the truth cut him as deeply and painfully as an Appraiser's scalpel. The child's mother was not Cassandra Spender, but Teena Mulder.
Nuclei from donor cells injected into de-nucleated embryonic cells; resulting embryos implanted into human females -- Group 1A: L. Atkinson, R. Curtis, T. Fuentes...C. Spender...
05.15.61: 12 surrogates relocated to Tse'Bit'a'i; fetuses harvested; stored AP.
05.15.61: Clones 2,5,8,9 DECEASED
05.17.61: Clones 1,10 DECEASED
05.18.61: Clones 3,4,6,11 DECEASED
05.20.61: Clone 7 DECEASED
05.20.61: Cistern CXIV alt. Acell .835+, Bio 227a-tt, Tach px
04.13.62: Clone 12 [Ashkii XII/Ca-Lo] removed from Cistern CXIV.
"No, no, no!"
He was a clone. A soulless empty vessel. Detestable. A second-rate reproduction.
His universe dwindled to this one inalterable truth. He was not human. He was the product of science. An experiment. It was too much, this reality, this hurtful truth. It was too painful. Too unfair. Blood thundered in his ears like a prisoner who pummels the bars of his cell.
Lost and furious, he rammed his fist into the monitor. The glass gave way, the point of impact marked by his bloodied knuckles. Grabbing hold of the console, he ripped it from its frame. Wires, torn from the tank, dangled like severed arteries. The aeration filter fell silent. The clone jerked within its phosphorescent brine as if startled by the sudden quiet.
Ca-Lo hefted the control panel over his head, intent on hurling it across the room, as if he might simultaneously cast off his anguish and resentment with it. But a slender piece of metal dropped from it and hit the floor with a clink, freezing him in place, arms extended toward the ceiling, console heavy and awkward, as it bounced away.
A transponder, of ancient design. He released his hold on the panel, letting it fall behind him. He strode forward, away from the spray of computer keys, processors, and memory cards, to scoop up the golden key. It seemed to warm in his hand when he ran his thumb over its meticulously inscribed Nih-hi-cho symbols.
They spelled out a familiar scripture: "He who conquers the beast and its image and its number, shall stand upon a sea of glass."
Transponders such as this were rare, destroyed by the Ancient Ones for their blasphemous inscriptions. As far as Ca-Lo knew, only one existed aboard Tse'Bit'a'i' -- the key he had loaned Dibeh when he sent her with Dana's necklace to the Portal of Solitude.
Was this that key? He tried to remember if she had returned it to his desk. He had been distracted at the time, by the news of Dana's release and pregnancy. Surely the aide would have brought it back. Hybrids were not deceptive creatures. It must have been stolen. Stolen from his desk by Mulder, to be used here, to gain entry to the archive.
But if Mulder had gotten the key from the desk, then he must have been in Ca-Lo's quarters. Which meant he had found and freed Dana.
The air seemed to thicken. Ca-Lo struggled to breathe. She couldn't be gone. He could not lose her. Life without her was too lonely to contemplate.
Lightheaded and afraid, he loped to a com unit by the stairs and buzzed Barrett.
"Send a man to my quarters. Tell me if Dana Scully is there."
"Sir, I'm in your quarters right now. No one is here."
Too late. He was too late. It was all coming apart. His plans, his future... He was losing everything.
He staggered from the com unit. His heart felt as if it were being torn from his chest. Anger sizzled down his spine, along his limbs, numbed his hands and feet.
Outraged, he targeted the nearest tank. Threw himself at it, shoulder to glass, putting all his weight and every ounce of fury he possessed into upending it.
The tank wobbled. Toppled. Exploded against the stone floor. Fluid spewed across onyx tile, taking the clone with it.
Splashing through brine and glass, Ca-Lo rammed another tank. Knocked it from its base. Glass struck stone and shattered. A second clone rolled to its ultimate death.
There was no reason to feel guilty. Nothing real lived in this abhorrent chamber. Nothing here was worth saving. These were soulless monsters. It didn't matter that he was one of them. In fact, it seemed appropriate. Poetic justice. Grotesque beasts slaughtered by one of their own kind. It was his right to destroy them, wasn't it?
Another tank toppled beneath his hands. And another. It felt good to destroy them. To demolish the Overseers' heinous creations. Down the row he went, smashing one after the next until his shoulders ached and his strength was nearly spent. In a final burst of rage, he shoved one last tank from its base.
It overturned and the clone tumbled out upon a wave of broken glass and phosphorescence. It rolled several times, its jouncing skull thudding sickeningly against the floor. It skidded to a stop, on its back, arms thrown wide, mouth agape. Only then did Ca-Lo recognize it and realize what he had done.
He lurched forward, knelt and lifted Cassandra into his arms. She weighed very little, it seemed, and she flopped like a rubber mannequin, not flesh and bone. He cradled her against his chest and carried her to the nearest tank, one unharmed by his rampage. Slowly, he lowered her in. Releasing his grip, she sank down. Bounced lightly atop the clone underneath. For an instant she appeared almost relieved, but it was an illusion. Her eyes were glazed. Her limbs drifted on artificial currents. There was no life in her. She was dead. Ca-Lo had killed the one person who had ever truly cared about him.
"Damn you!" he shouted at the Overseers, at all the Nih-hi-cho.
It was time to end this horror, this sadistic agony. He would make them pay for what they had done to her, to him, to all humankind. He would make them pay dearly.
Scully and Gibson followed the hybrid aide's instructions and exited the elevator on the ship's lowest level. The aide had refused to accompany them down, preferring to remain behind on Deck 4. As it turned out, they needed no further guidance. The elevator opened directly onto the garage, a dimly lit space the size of a football field and one-third full of assorted military vehicles -- jeeps, vans, heavy armored trucks, some outfitted with munitions, a handful of diplomatic cars and a seemingly out-of-place Blackhawk helicopter. No personnel patrolled the deck. One of a dozen thirty-foot-high doors was open on the far side of the bay. Through it Scully could see a fleet of colossal alien ships hunkered on the runway, silvery and surreal in the moonlight.
A northerly wind carried the scent of sea water from Great Salt Lake into the garage. The smell reminded Scully of tide pools she'd explored as a girl, inhabited by hermit crabs and barnacles abandoned by outgoing tides. She glanced at the garage's high ceiling and imagined the hundred-plus decks overhead. Which one held Mulder?
"He's on his way," Gibson assured, clearly reading her mind. He set out across the garage at a trot, head bobbing as he looked for a suitable vehicle for their escape. "Keys are on the dash," he announced.
"Good." She hung back, just outside the elevator. A tingle of foreboding crawled across her scalp and set every hair on end. "I'm not leaving without Mulder and Skinner," she reminded him.
Not when they were so close.
Gibson slowed. "Security's coming."
She moved away from the bank of elevators, out into the garage. "How much time do we have?"
"Not long." Gibson resumed his search.
Scully headed toward him. "Is Mulder on his way?"
"I think so." Gibson swiveled to look at the elevator. "Get down!"
She dropped to a crouch beside a four-man cargo carrier. In its rearview mirror she saw elevator doors glide open. Six uniformed soldiers stormed out. They were armed with automatic rifles.
Thirty yards ahead, Gibson ducked behind a troop truck. She scuttled closer, trying to stay low.
"You there!" shouted one of the soldiers, spotting her. "Stop or I'll shoot."
She broke into a run. A warning shot whizzed past her shoulder and ricocheted off a fender in a spray of sparks. Head down, arms cradling her swollen belly, she zigzagged around a tanker, past a van and a jeep.
The soldiers fanned out. In a matter of minutes, they would have her trapped, cut off from Gibson and any hope of escape.
At the sound of another rifle blast, she squeezed between a passenger van and an armored truck. She leaned against the truck's front grill, trying to catch her breath.
Gibson suddenly appeared at her side. "No time." He grabbed her hand and tugged her down a row of cargo trucks. "This way."
Gunshots sprayed the air, puncturing metal and breaking glass. Gibson guided them to a black and tan Humvee fifty yards from the open door. He yanked the passenger door open and thrust her toward the front seat. "Get in."
A bullet ripped through the vehicle's fabric top. Another shattered the rear window.
"Keep your head down," Gibson demanded. He circled the front bumper and scrambled into the driver seat.
"You know how to drive this thing?" Scully asked, buckling up.
"Sorta." He grabbed the key off the dash and shoved it in the ignition. A twist of his wrist and the engine roared to life.
"The door's closing!" she shouted to be heard over a sudden high-pitched whine.
Gibson forced the stick shift into first, ground the gears. The jeep shuddered.
"We're not going make it," she warned. The door was halfway to the floor.
Gibson pressed the accelerator. Tires squealed and the Hummer shot forward. He steered toward the closing door.
A bullet punched out a side window. Glass sprayed the seats.
"Shit!" Gibson clamped a hand over his ear. Blood oozed from between his fingers.
Another round sailed through the cab. Gibson swerved, clipped a jeep. Caught its bumper. Metal grated on metal as the jeep was dragged several yards. It dislodged with a wrenching groan.
"Watch out!" Scully yelled, when a soldier dodged in front of the car.
Gibson plowed on, striking the man and knocking him off his feet. The soldier windmilled into a row of motorcycles and toppled them like dominoes.
"Duck!" Gibson hunched over the wheel and gunned the engine. The Humvee sailed beneath the closing bay door. Its roof caught on the lower edge and tore away.
Wind whipped Scully's hair as she turned in her seat to look back at the ship. The bay door slammed shut behind them, sending up dust and blocking the soldiers' pursuit.
"You okay?" Gibson up-shifted and pushed the accelerator to the floor.
"Yes, but..." They'd left Skinner and Mulder behind.
"I'm sorry, Scully. Really. But I promised Mulder I'd get you out of there."
"We have to go back."
They sped down the runway, dwarfed by alien ships. Scully counted twelve. Twelve hulking war machines.
What chance did Mulder have against them? Tears stung her eyes. "Then where are we going?"
"Safe Camp. Your son is there."
With her laundry sack bumping against her left hip, Dibeh ran faster than she had ever run in her life. It was almost as if she were being spirited to the Kitchen on the back of the Great Red Dragon himself. Indeed, perhaps he was there with her, helping her. "You have reason yet to live," he had prophesied when she was ready to surrender her life to the cold waters of Bear Lake. Before Walter Skinner rescued her.
Now she would save him.
"Whoa, Dibeh!" Cook VI signed when she burst into the Kitchen and crashed headlong into a cart of clean silver. "Where are you going in such a hurry?"
"I..." For the first time in her life, she would tell a lie. Heart thudding in her chest, she signed, "Master Ca-Lo wishes me to feed Prisoner Walter Skinner, ma'am."
"Then you have arrived just in time. The Feeders are leaving for the Portal now." Cook VI indicated the service lift where a group of two dozen Feeders, dressed in sackcloth shifts and veils, loaded bags of na-a-jah into the car.
Cook VI pressed a chip that corresponded to Skinner's cell into Dibeh's hand. "Grab a cover-up and some gloves. Veils are on the shelf over there."
"Thank you, ma'am." Dibeh pocketed the chip.
Cook VI poked at Dibeh's laundry bag. "Do you wish to leave your belongings here?"
"That's very kind, ma'am, but I am under orders to deliver clean garments to Master Ca-Lo." The second lie came easier than the first. "He is meeting me at the Portal."
Cook VI's eyes narrowed with obvious suspicion. Such an odd arrangement was highly unlikely. Laundry services took care of pick-ups and deliveries. "Well, if it is the Master's wish, you had better not keep him waiting."
Dibeh snagged a shift from the storage rack and quickly slipped it over her head. She donned a veil and gloves, then joined the others in the lift.
It took less than a minute for the service elevator to descend to Deck 42. The door slid open and each Feeder shouldered a bag of na-a-jah before exiting the car. Dibeh did likewise and followed the others into the corridor.
At the sound of clomping boots, they shuffled to one side, out of the way. Four security guards bustled past. Dibeh recognized Hartley from Transport in the lead. Bowing her head, she hoped he wouldn't notice her.
She needn't have worried. Dressed in her veil, she was indistinguishable from the other Feeders. Hartley passed without a glance in her direction.
The Feeders continued on to the Portal of Solitude. At the giant gate, they waited with eyes lowered for a Greeter to let them in. Only Dibeh had the courage to lift her gaze to the immense, carved door. As before, the Red Dragon seemed to peer down at her, eyes benevolent, expression calm. Confronted by his kindly stare, she felt her heart lighten. He would take care of her, here and in the afterlife, she was certain. She need only trust his divine powers.
A Greeter opened the door. "Late, as usual," he chastised and quickly counted heads, his blue-nailed finger pointing to each in turn. He frowned and counted a second time. "There appears to be one too many of you. Present your numbers."
They held forth their small hexagonal chips. He pulled a palm-roster from the pocket of his brightly-colored trousers and double-checked their numbers against his list.
"Strange." The Greeter's long nose whistled as he bent to scrutinize Dibeh's chip. "My records indicate Commander Ca-Lo left orders that only he was to be allowed access to this particular prisoner."
"I am Master Ca-Lo's aide, sir," she signed. "He sent me in his stead."
"Is that so?" The Greeter pursed his lipsticked mouth and glanced again at his roster.
"You may call him, of course, to confirm," she signed, certain he would not. Only the bravest of souls would dare interrupt Master Ca-Lo's busy schedule to question his orders.
"Hmm, yes, well..." He was reluctant, just as she had predicted. "No need. You may go through. All of you."
Dibeh sent up a silent prayer of thanks and hurried to find Skinner's cell.
As before, the Greeter's disdain for the hybrid Feeders drove him from the caldarium while they went about their business. He retreated through an arched doorway to a back chamber. The Feeders dispersed, spreading out across the vast amber deck. There were no iron-jawed guards in the niches around the caldarium today, much to Dibeh's relief. They had gone to fetch and tote for the Society during their celebration, no doubt.
One by one, each Feeder found her appropriate hexagon, knelt and fitted her chip into place. The apertures opened, giving the glassy deck the appearance of a cratered moon.
After a couple of false starts, Dibeh located Skinner's cell. Her fingers shook as she inserted her chip, remembering the awful state in which she had found Lady Dana. Would Skinner be as weak and pale? The aperture opened and released a foul-smelling mist. It ruffled Dibeh's veil as it wafted toward the stained glass dome overhead.
Dibeh felt a stab of sympathy when the mist cleared and she could see Skinner lying in the bottom of his fleshy cell, curled on his side, sticky with protein ointment. She reached in and yanked the bio-monitor from his spine, causing his eyes to open. He groaned as she pulled out the tubes that aided his respiration and the elimination of his bodily wastes, and he made gagging noises when she withdrew the long feeding umbilicus from his throat.
"What's happening?" he rasped, when freed of the umbilicus. "Who are you?"
She lifted her veil, hoping he would recognize her.
She nodded emphatically, then reached in to help him out of the cell. He crawled away from the aperture's edge, groggy and slow-moving. His time in the cell had been relatively short; he was not nearly as weak as Lady Dana had been. He would not need a Healer to mend his muscles.
She pushed Ca-Lo's clothes toward him. Time was short. Other Feeders were already looking in their direction. It was unlikely any of them would break their routine to run off and report them to a Greeter, but even so, Dibeh did not want to delay.
As fast as he was able, Skinner tugged on the pants and boots. Globs of buttery protein ointment slowed his progress and stained the knees and thighs of his trousers. Before he could pull the shirt over his head, the Greeter reappeared in his arched doorway.
"What's going there?" he called out, long-nailed finger aimed in her direction. He started toward them, his pointed shoes clacking with determination.
Dibeh tugged at Skinner's arm and together they ran for the main gate. His stride was wobbly and his breathing erratic, but with his longer legs he was able to keep up with her. They passed through the portal, into the corridor. She led Skinner along the serpentine hall to the servants' lift, the Greeter's frantic screams growing faint behind them.
The elevator door was closed when they got there. She pounded the button to bring the car down and prayed no one would be on it when it arrived.
"Come on, hurry up," Skinner whispered, watching the numbers change. Thirty-nine, forty, forty-one, forty-two. The car hummed to a stop and the doors slid open.
"Mulder?" Skinner asked when he saw the bruised and bloodied man inside the car.
Was it Master Mulder? Or was it Ca-Lo? The man smiled and greeted Skinner like an old friend.
"We've been looking for you, Walter. Good to see you alive."
"We?" Skinner seemed hesitant to step into the car.
"We as in me, Gibson, Dibeh." He pointed to her. "That is you under that veil, isn't it?"
She removed the veil and smiled.
"Where's Gibson?" Skinner asked, still suspicious.
"Getting Scully off the ship, I hope. Come on, Walter. Don't be shy. Get your ass in here."
Reluctantly, Skinner stepped into the car. "How do I know you're who you say you are?"
"Don't let the uniform fool you. It's me." He plucked at his dark shirt. "Looks like we go to the same tailor." Turning to Dibeh, he asked, "Which floor?"
She pushed the bottom-most button.
Moments later, the car arrived at Deck 120. The garage appeared deserted.
"Where are Scully and Gibson?" Skinner asked.
Mulder fingered what appeared to be a bullet hole in the wall beside the elevator. "Hopefully a long way from here."
He moved out into the garage, inspecting the scene. "Tire marks." He pointed to the ground. "They lead to the bay door." He picked up his pace. His fingers caressed a cracked side mirror, a pocked tailgate, a shattered window. When something up ahead caught his eye, he broke into a limping run.
Skinner and Dibeh followed.
"Someone's insurance rates are gonna go up." Mulder crouched to examine the torn fender.
"It was dragged," Skinner said, indicating the scattered remains of a broken headlight several yards back.
"And we have a casualty," Mulder announced. Dibeh followed his gaze to where a soldier lay sprawled in a pool of dark blood beside a van.
Mulder stooped and pressed a finger to the man's neck. "He's dead. Looks like he got in somebody's way." Standing, he pivoted to scrutinize the bay door. A smile crept across his face. "They got out. See that?" Crumpled metal and torn fabric littered the floor in front of the bay door. He went to it and toed the fabric with his boot. "If I'm not mistaken, this was once the roof of a Humvee. Which hit...here." He kicked the base of the bay door where bright metal showed through dark paint. "The door must've been coming down as they were driving out."
"How can you be sure it was them?"
"Who else would be running from these guys? It was them. I know it."
"Is that opinion based on facts or on a gut feeling?"
"Both." Mulder turned to the door and shouted, "Open!"
The massive door slid upward, metal scraping upon metal with an earsplitting squeal that echoed through the bay. A chilling wind blew in from outside. It snatched at Dibeh's hair and bit her skin, smelling like the salty lake where she and Lady Dana had nearly died. Battleships crowded the dark runway, and beyond them, Harmony I loomed large and foreboding, its ramparts painted silver by spotlights, the parapets looking like giant teeth.
Skinner seemed not to notice the view outside. He was gaping at Mulder. "You sure you're not Ca-Lo?"
"Don't worry. Ca-Lo's facedown in a room full of clones. I suggest we get out of here before he comes to. Pick a car, Walter, any car. Keys seem to be on the dash."
Skinner didn't hesitate. He targeted the bay's lone helicopter. "I prefer that."
"Not very fuel efficient."
"But plenty of room for passengers."
"You thinking about picking up hitchhikers?"
"There're prisoners on Antelope Island. Human prisoners. Friends of mine, soldiers under my command." He smiled at Mulder. "Mind taking a little side trip?"
"You know me. I'm a sucker for the long way 'round."
Skinner chuffed and extended an arm toward the helicopter. "Dibeh?"
She looked at the world beyond the bay door. What was out there for her? More places like Safe Camp, where the humans hated her, where she had not a single companion, where no one understood her language? Here she had duties. A meaningful life. And friends who understood her words and her heart. She did not belong in the outside world, among Terrestrials. She belonged here. Tse'Bit'a'i' was her home, had always been her home, and she would stay here until the Red Dragon called her to his Divine Kingdom.
The Red Dragon had spared her from the cold depths of Bear Lake, she realized, to save the life of Walter Skinner and guide him and Master Mulder to safety. But they no longer needed her help.
Feeling no regret, she shook her head and took a step back.
"You sure?" Mulder asked.
She smiled and nodded.
He reached out and caressed her cheek. "Thank you, Dibeh. For everything."
"Hurry, Master, you must go," she signed back. "It is not safe for you here."
Whether he understood or not was unclear, but his hand dropped away. A mix of appreciation and sadness shone in his eyes.
His gratitude gave her the courage to lightly nudge him toward the helicopter.
"Okay, okay. I'm going. Take care of yourself, Dibeh."
Mulder and Skinner crossed the garage and boarded the helicopter. With a wave in her direction, Skinner started the engine. The noisy rotors began to spin faster and faster, whipping her hair and clothes. The helicopter lifted from the ground and swung through the air toward the bay door.
It flew out into the black night. Dibeh returned Skinner's wave, grateful for his understanding, hopeful for his future.
Feeling lighthearted for the first time in weeks, she spun on her heel, ran to the elevator and pressed the button that would take her back to the Servant's Deck.
Ca-Lo drew stares from the Officer in Charge when he strode onto the Bridge, his uniform soaked in Ablution fluid, his face battered and dripping blood.
"Get out," he ordered and took a seat at the command console.
"Sir?" The Navigator gaped from his post at the helm.
"I said get out!"
Nervously, the Navigator and the Weapons Specialist rose from their chairs.
"You, too." Ca-Lo pointed to the OC.
"Sir, this is highly irreg--"
"Vacate the Bridge or I'll have Security escort you to a stasis cell, where you'll spend the rest of your miserable life wishing you hadn't disobeyed my orders."
"Y-yes, sir." The OC joined the others in the elevator. It closed and whisked them away.
"Isolate the Bridge," Ca-Lo commanded the computer. Armored door-covers hissed into place; deadbolts snap-clamped against their strike plates. Ca-Lo felt his pulse steady as he flicked an array of switches and powered up the engines.
A deep thrumming beat in the bowels of the ship, vibrating the control panel beneath his fingertips.
Lights blinked on his com-unit -- incoming calls from Engineering and Security.
"Bite me, motherfuckers."
Ca-Lo entered a password that disabled all on-board and ship-to-ship communication.
The ship lurched and hovered for a moment, millimeters above the runway. He checked the HUD. Speed, angle, heading and thrust -- all appeared as they should. He slammed the throttle. Tse'Bit'a'i' rocketed straight up.
At 50,000 feet, he returned the ship to hover mode.
"Activate view screen."
The Armada's eleven glorious warships crystallized on the eight-by-eight monitor located between the radar and the universal compass on his console. Destroying the Armada would be easy. Several terrestrial expressions popped into his head: a cake walk, child's play, like shooting fish in a barrel.
The Nih-hi-cho had their own aphorism for such occasions: As effortless as bending a human mind.
Cruel, condescending fuckers. They were going to pay for their tyranny. Always inferior tacticians, their weakness would now be their undoing. It had been folly to gather the warships together and then leave them attended by only a handful of hybrid aides and human personnel. The Overseers had pulled all others from regular duty to cater to their physical needs during the ceremony. And why not? The terrestrial army had been quashed. There was no one left to threaten the Nih-hi-cho. Or so they believed. Their arrogance disallowed an attack, especially from Ca-Lo, their top ranking officer, the very man who had led them to victory. And yet, had they been more clever strategists, they could have predicted this reprisal. After all, they had given him his name, branded him Ca-Lo, The Destroyer. They made him what he was.
He targeted Ne'Ol. Her shields were down. And he knew every vulnerable system on her.
A rapid succession of well-placed plasma strings disintegrated the massive war machine in a matter of micro-seconds. White hot silica-steel vaporized. The explosion was spectacular. A fiery crater marked the spot where the Ne'Ol had once stood.
He locked onto Chay'Da'Gahi'.
Shock waves thudded like weak fists against Tse'Bit'a'i's shielded outer hull.
Ship by ship, down the line, Ca-Lo obliterated the most powerful fighting force in the Sector. The attack was unanticipated; every blast went unanswered. The Armada was taken completely by surprise.
A few adjustments in altitude and pitch, and Tse'Bit'a'i' rolled away from the airport and headed to Harmony I. Ca-Lo razed the breeding compound, the military barracks, the factories. Would Dana judge his actions worthy? Would she think him heroic?
Tears blurred his vision as he recalled her words. "You want to know how you differ from Mulder?" she had asked. "He is willing to stand up to his enemies; he flouts their rules, plays their game only on his own terms. Even when he was held prisoner aboard a ship like this one, he was a free man, *is* a free man, because he refuses to let anyone dictate his destiny."
Poised 30,000 feet above the Nih-hi-cho Joining House, hot tears coursing down Ca-Lo's cheeks, he reversed the thrusters. Tse'Bit'a'i' plunged downward.
"And now I am a free man, too."
The Joining House
More than one million Nih-hi-cho packed the Joining House, a 12.5-hectare silicrete structure with a transparent oculus that offered a stunning view of the stars. They stood shoulder to shoulder, chest to back, swaying gently to the cadence of their communal prayer. The press of bodies against Overseer VI's bare skin produced a pleasant friction. There was no shame in it. The Society was presenting itself to the Red Dragon just as they had come into this life, devoid of garments, pure of body and mind, eager to burst forth from the bellies of their hosts to join their own kind.
"We give thanks to Thee, O Great Dragon. We give thanks to Your Divine Legion of Angels. You are Wisdom. You are Refuge. You are Salvation. You are Truth."
An entire neo-generation of Nih-hi-cho had been introduced into the Society over the last four Earth days, their minds assimilated into the collective, their intellects merged with the group consciousness. It was a proud and noble achievement. A historic moment. Joined together, the Society celebrated its greater numbers, praised the Great Red Dragon for his providence and protection, and prayed for the Fifth Divination -- the new Age of Revelation, heralded by a miraculous visitation from the Divine Legion of Angels and the Great Red Dragon himself.
"Bless us, O Great Lord. Show us your divine countenance. Come to us like clear heat in sunshine. We are your faithful servants. Hear our prayers--"
Overseer VI felt the silicrete floor tremble beneath his bare feet. A flash of red blinked above the oculus.
"A light! A light!" The telepathic announcement pulsed through the Society's collective mind like a bursting neutron star, spreading anticipation and joy. "It is the Red Dragon!"
Could it be?
The Joining House brightened with a flickering orange-red glow. The air seemed to sizzle with electricity. Overseer VI's skin tingled. He heard a deep hum, a rumbling. Was it the fiery breath of the Red Dragon?
"The Fifth Divination!" the Society proclaimed as a single voice. "He is coming! The Divine One is coming!"
It must be true. The Red Dragon's holy rays shone through the transparent canopy. The floor of the Joining House trembled, shaken by the footsteps of gods.
Oh, they were truly blessed! The Red Dragon was descending upon them. There was no greater honor. No better time to be alive. Overseer VI lifted his eyes to the blazing sky beyond the transparent canopy, grateful to be a member of the Society, grateful to bear witness to the New Divination, the holiest of all occasions.
A shadow fell across the oculus, casting the Joining House into darkness.
What was this? A reproach from the Dragon? Or a Refuters' trick? Revenge for the Nih-hi-cho's hybridization experiments?
Overseer VI strained to see the night sky. A moment ago, light brighter than the midday sun had bathed them in glory. Now a black disc with a brilliant blue-white center blocked the view. It almost looked like the underside of a spacecraft.
The disc grew larger. Pinprick beacons pulsed around the outer rim. Great Dragon, it was a ship! And it was headed straight at them.
Realization spread throughout the Society. Audible screams -- harsh, high-pitched tones from voices unaccustomed to speech -- rose up all around. The crowd surged toward the exits. Panic severed the collective consciousness as efficiently as an Appraiser's scalpel cuts flesh. Jostled, shoved and trod upon, Overseer VI found himself mentally isolated from the Society. For the first time in his life, he was unable to establish a communal connection. He was left alone with his own fear.
The feeling was intolerable. Far worse than the mounting pressure of the masses against his physical body.
"We are forsaken!" he screeched, emptying his lungs.
His cries were lost amid the sound of crashing silicrete. The translucent canopy shattered. Silvery splinters rained down. Plasma canons blasted molten bolts at the crowd.
The Joining House collapsed as if it were made of paper. The ship impacted the earth, displaced soil and rock, carved out an enormous crater. In the blink of an eye, every Juvenile, Appraiser and Overseer in the Jish-Cha Sector was annihilated, vaporized in a mushroom cloud of gaseous plasma.
Continued in the Epilogue...
Happy birthday, Mims.
AR Table of Contents