Virtual Season Two
  • Blood and Thoughtstalking
  • Psychodiagnostiks
  • 360 Maple Grove
  • Oestrus
  • Game Over
  • The Loyal Ones
  • Hypnagogia
  • Electioneering
  • Dreamscape
  • Callipso
  • Teporingo
  • The Jade Monkey Project
  • Bitter Revenge
  • Red Tide
  • Chi
  • Human Nature
  • Asthenopia
  • Ley of the Land
  • Everything To Live For
  • Warden
  • Grimm
  • A Piori

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  • SEVERAL DEATHS AROUND THE EASTERN COAST SEEM TO BE LINKED TO A BRAND NEW, VERY ADDICTIVE VIDEO GAME...AS SOON PROVED WHEN MULDER FINDS HIMSELF UNABLE TO KEEP HIS HANDS OFF THE JOYSTICK.
    11:21 P.M.
    CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA
    MARSCHALL RESIDENCE

    "Aw, crap!!!" He said with contempt as the dark red stain began to pool over the thick khaki-colored carpet. Kenny scowled at the Cherry Pepsi that he had knocked over and cast a glance at Bruce Marschall. "Hey...hey Bruce! I spilled the coke on your carpet."

    "Mm-hum," Bruce mumbled between his pressed lips as his eyes bored into the illuminated screen before him.

    "Never mind. I'll clean it up myself," Kenny sighed, and ran to the nearby kitchen for a wad of paper towels. He was back in a flash and pressed the paper towels into the red stain on the carpet, trying to suck up the coke before it stained the rug for good. He got most of it, but there was still a pinkish splotch that was completely visible on the carpet where the soda had spilled.

    "Crap. That's not gonna come out easy." He looked back at Bruce with a look of anxiety. "Your parents aren't gonna be pissed at me, are they?"

    "Dunno," He responded, not moving his eyes from the images within the TV.

    Kenny crossed with arms and scowled at his best friend. "Come on, man! Are you ever gonna hand over that game? I mean, good Lord! You've been playing the dang thing for three days straight, practically! You're already on level 10, and I'm only on level 5! And level 10's the last level!!! Can't I play one match?!"

    "Nonow," he muttered in a slurred, drunken voice.

    Kenny muttered some curse under his breath, then decided to go upstairs to use the bathroom.

    Kenny wondered what had gotten into Bruce as he wandered up the stairs to where the bathroom was. Bruce's parents had gone on a trip for the week, so they had gotten the house to themselves. Bruce has invited him over for the week, which at first seemed like a good idea. But all Bruce wanted to do was play "Hybrid Rumble". It wasn't that Kenny didnít like the game...he loved it. Even now, he had an incredible itching desire to get his hands on the controller and start shooting all kinds of strange genetic creatures. Bruce was better at the game than he was, and had already reached the last level, and was very close to the last boss. Kenny had kept wanting to take the game from him so he could also play, but Bruce absolutely refused to give it up. They had gotten in several fights over it, and now they were hardly even speaking to each other.

    Stupid Bruce...thinks he owns the whole world and can play for as long as he wants...while I sit here wanting to do something, too... Kenny thought bitterly as he flung up the toilet seat. His fingers felt tingly...somewhat itchy. As if the only way to satisfy their prickling was to press them against the familiar buttons and small joystick. The itching became intense, and he cringed from the pain that circulated through his hands and his head.

    That's it, He snarled viciously to himself. He's had that game long enough. It's my turn to play, now...

    Flushing the toilet, he thumped back down the stairs to where the TV screen's glow provided the only light for the darkened room. He could see Bruce, still at the game, although now he seemed a little hunched over, as if he were vomiting.

    "Hey! Hey, Bruce! Quit dozin', go to bed and let me play awhile!"

    Bruce didn't answer. Kenny noticed that he wasnít doing to well, his character was being blasted by gun-toting hybrid creatures. "Hey, freakface!" Kenny shouted again. "Get off that game or I'm gonna..." Kenny nudged him and the teenager toppled over to the floor, his bloodshot eyes opened wide as if in fear. He appeared to be choking, and his breath came out in ragged gasps.

    "BRUCE!!!" Kenny was suddenly urged into action as his friend convulsed, his limbs flopping like a beached fish. Kenny felt his heart rate triple as he struggled to remember the CPR that he had learned only a month or so ago during the last few weeks of school...but try as he could, absolutely nothing came to mind. He felt helpless, completely unable to do anything.

    "BRUCE!!! WAKE UP, TALK TO ME!!!" He shook his friend desperately. Kenny gave one last gurgle and fell limp to the floor.

    Kenny stared at the body on the floor for what seemed an eternity, unable to comprehend what lay before them, and what he had just witnessed. After a few seconds of silence, he scrambled to the phone and punched in a number he barely seemed to remember, even though he had heard it so many times before.

    Kenny still held the gray plastic game controller in his lifeless fingers, his clouded eyes staring blankly at the flickering screen as if it would somehow restore his existence. On the game, the hero character that he had been playing lost its last life at the claws of an alien-like predator, and the game toned out the familiar two words that were proclaimed in block letters on the screen....

    GAME OVER.


    THE NEXT MORNING...
    7:06 A.M.
    MARSCHALL RESIDENCE

    Fox Mulder surveyed the tiny den with mute fascination, trying to piece together in his mind the events that had taken place before. There was little to see in the den of the large suburban house...a dark blue recliner armchair, an oak wood coffee table with some near-dead houseplant on top, a large home entertainment system with a 32-inch TV, and a Nintendo 64 hooked up to the TV. The place looked as if it were an abandoned party...empty chip bags and spilled sodas, some kind of top-ramen cup and various other food wrappers cluttered the khaki carpet. The only thing that seemed unusual was the white chalk outline sketched into the carpet.

    Scully was already in the den, talking with some of the various police officers who obviously were displeased with the appearance of the FBI, as always. Mulder marched down the short walkway stairs to join her.

    "What'd they say the cause of death was?" He asked her as she scanned her notes.

    Scully let out a long, heavy sigh. It was evident that she was not at all interested with this case, it was certainly looking to be a drag. "Paramedics say either a brain aneurysm or SHF- Sudden Heart Failure. They're guessing either alcohol or drug overdose." She stopped, and glanced disapprovingly at Mulder. "Mulder, I think it's pretty much obvious that this is no X-File. Why are we wasting our time here? I think we have more important things to do...and things I think *you* would be more interested in...Ē

    "Mmm, we'll see," Mulder replied with that familiar mysterious look in him. He cast another glance at the "crime scene." "I think you may need to do an autopsy, Scully."

    Scully wanted to question him further, but decided not to. She didn't even find herself upset that Mulder was asking her to do yet another autopsy when it would be pretty clear what the cause of death was...she decided that it was simply because she wanted to get the case over with as soon as possible.

    Mulder cast one last glance at the TV, then sat down next to it near the chalk outline of the victim. He turned on the TV and then switched on the Nintendo next to it. Scully raised one eyebrow at him quizzically.

    "Mulder...what are you doing?"

    "I'm just trying this game out. The witness said that the victim had been playing a Nintendo game when he died."

    "Yeah, Mulder," Scully replied, rolling her eyes. "Console games are now possessed by evil entities and are zapping the life out of people. Besides, that's forensic evidence that you're putting your fingerprints all over."

    Mulder nodded, smiling, and watched a somewhat-cute looking hero character pop up on the screen. The only thing that made the character look un-cute was the fact that it was excitedly waving a dangerous-looking firearm around.

    "Maybe the game prompted the witness into killing Bruce. This thing certainly seems to have a taste for the more violent side of video games, and it's a proven fact that computer games put more ideas of violence into kidís heads then TV does. The most popular games are the ones where the more things you shoot the more points you get."

    "What...you think that the video game could have shocked violent impulses into Kenny to make him kill Bruce?"

    "May-be..." Mulder said slyly as he began a new game. "I saw the witness being taken in for custody...the one thing he kept asking everyone was if he could take the Nintendo game with him. He really wanted to play that game, and Bruce would never give it up. Perhaps his patience snapped after three days of awaiting his turn."

    Scully turned the idea over in her head, trying to figure out the paranormal nature the Mulder simply had to have hidden away somewhere. She watched in silence as the cute character popped up onto the screen in the middle of some secret military base. Mulder attempted to maneuver the character around the area, but he fumbled on the different buttons and soon some strange-looking creature popped up from behind a box and ate him. So he had to start over again with another life.

    "Mulder...have you ever played a video game before in your entire life?"

    "I used to play ďPac-ManĒ at an arcade when I was ten or so."

    Scully nodded again, and continued to watch as Mulder tried a second time, this time actually figuring out what the trigger button was. This time when the bizarre-looking creature popped up from behind the box, the character shot it and the creature exploded into an assortment of blood and body parts.

    Scully cringed with disgust at the game. "I don't understand how kids can stand to play this sort of stuff...and enjoy it," she muttered darkly. "It's almost more brainless and violent than TV itself." Mulder agreed. He could definitely understand where Scully was coming from...she had never had much use for TV, the only thing it had ever done for her was make her almost blow his head off. Scully would rather read a book or take a bath on her off-time than watch TV, let alone waste even more time playing video games. He himself had never found that much excitement in sitting and pressing buttons all day, either...(unless he was pushing Scully's buttons...) but he had never had quite enough off-time to consider that. Even now, watching the character guided by him taking down frightening monsters (that he *swore* looked like everything else he had encountered before) had some sort of unknown thrill to it, a kind of invisible charge in the electricity in the screen.

    "Mulder..."

    He didnt hear Scully as he concentrated on the next turn...

    "Mulder!"

    Mulder heard her this time and turned around. "Yeah?"

    "Turn the thing off now. We have to get back to the lab so that I can do the autopsy...the police are closing up the crime scene, and then they have to notify the boy's parents."

    Mulder nodded grimly and switched the Nintendo off, watching the hidden thrill die with the now-blank screen. Then he followed Scully out the door.


    1:32 P.M.
    FORENSIC PATHOLOGY LAB
    FBI HEADQUARTERS

    Scully was clearly disappointed.

    She stared at the open corpse on the table without the stimulus that usually came with figuring out what had happened to the person. According to what she had gathered from the autopsy, the boy, Bruce, had died from cardiac arrest. From what she did not know yet, but it was certainly nothing paranormal like Mulder had been expecting. And it was certainly apparent that Mulder was more displeased with the findings in the autopsy than she was.

    "Mulder, the boy died from cardiac arrest," She repeated to him as she stripped off the latex gloves. "That's all there is to it."

    "But what caused his heart to fail?" Mulder persisted.

    "I'm not sure yet. But I'm fairly sure that the results will be found in the toxicology report, and I sent for it to be done right when I started..."

    Just as Scully was speaking, another young agent walked into the autopsy bay. "Here's the toxicology findings," He said simply, and left. Scully nodded at the impeccable timing of the moment and gazed at the charts.

    "Well?" Mulder asked with raised eyebrows as he tried to divert his attention from the open corpse on the table.

    "Just what I thought," Scully said as she stared at the report. "Drug overdose. There's an exceedingly high percentage of amphetamine in the brain. It's an extremely addictive drug, one that users are willing to commit murder over. It's a stimulant, and causes all manner of symptoms, including aggression, compulsiveness, and nervous breakdowns. It's also a very common cause of cardiac arrest or stroke. Amphetamine itself is used as medication, but it's also found in cocaine."

    Mulder ran his fingers through his hair in a confused manner, trying to figure out how any of this could link to his theory. But so far, it seemed as if Scully had been right all along.

    "Is there anything else in that report that's unusual?"

    "Well...the only thing that I can't understand is this brain scan," She commented, showing the chart. "According to this, practically every single brain cell in his brain has been destroyed. Completely erased. And although cocaine causes strokes and brain damage, I've never heard of it creating brain damage of such intensity."

    "What do you mean?" Mulder questioned, suddenly interested.

    Scully flipped through the rest of the transparencies, her eyes widening. "Everything in this kid's brain is the same. Motor functions, memory cells, emotions...everything erased. It's like looking at an empty hard drive. Cocaine and amphetamine only cause damage to nerves controlling emotions or balance, and even so not with this intensity. His central nervous system has literally collapsed."

    "Do you know of any other drugs that can do this?"

    "If he used multiple drugs, perhaps. But even many different drugs, including alcohol, couldnít destroy his brain so quickly. It looks to be a buildup of damage, ending in a sudden violent explosion that killed his nervous system. Drugs donít work like that."

    "And are you even sure that the boy was using drugs? Were any drugs found at the crime scene?"

    Scully sighed. "There were a few cans of beer in the refrigerator and a pack of Camels in the upstairs bedroom, but there was no cocaine or other type of amphetamine drug at the crime scene."

    Mulder nodded, staring at the brain scans Scully held. Scully raised her eyebrows at him questionably. "Mulder?...Is there something you're not telling me?"

    He looked up innocently. "Why would I not be telling you something?"

    "You've got that look on your face. I can recognize it anywhere."

    He was silent for a moment.

    "Well??"

    "This may not be the only case involving similar deaths."

    "Mulder, a lot of teenagers die from drug overdose..."

    "I don't mean cocaine or alcohol. There's been two similar cases reported already...one was a nine year old boy, the other an 11 year old girl. I doubt that either of them were spending their time sniffing dust up their nose. But both of them were found dead while playing Nintendo...playing the same game that we found at the crime scene."

    Scully's jaw dropped. "So are you saying that the video game is responsible for the deaths?"

    "I'm not saying anything yet. I'm just wondering about the connection." He walked towards the door of the autopsy bay. "And I have a feeling this isn't going to be the last time we run into a crime scene like the one we were just at."

    Mulder was about to head through the door, when he stopped and cringed slightly, holding his hand.

    "Something wrong, Mulder?" Scully asked worriedly.

    "Um...nothing," Mulder responded, shaking his wrist. "I think my hand fell asleep. My fingers feel all tingly."

    She sighed. "I'll be with you in a minute."


    8:21 P.M.
    TWO DAYS LATER
    PROVORSE RESIDENCE

    He was Xax. And Xax was winning.

    Play the game. Play the game. Play the game.

    Alan's brain was going a million miles a second. He twisted with the controller, buttons pressing. His thumbs were sore and almost completely numb from continuous hours of playing, but he couldn't stop. This was level 10. The level "Nintendo Power" had said only one in 12 players could ever successfully master. And he was here. He had the highest available weapon, an assault flamethrower, and he was taking down those disfigured beings as fast as they popped up again.

    But the thrill was gone. In truth, somewhere deep inside him, he was bored of this never-ending crusade to destroy the evil hybrids. His throbbing thumbs told him to stop. His stinging eyes were telling him to stop. His pulsing feet, which he had been sitting on for the last four hours, told him to stop. And most of all, his mom's screaming voice from the other room wanted him to stop. He wanted to stop more than anything. But the dull ache that persisted in the back of his neck and down his spine was far overpowered by that bizarre hunger in his always-moving fingers. Xax and his mission was his existence, his drive, and nothing else mattered, even his aching body.

    Play the game. Play the game. Play the game.

    "Alan!!! Stop it!!! Stop it right now! I'm turning off that demonic machine this instant!!!!"

    Alan had long since forgotten how to respond to his mother's yelling. The words just wouldn't form on his lips. But he did manage to mutter out one word.....

    "No."

    His mother reached down and flicked off the Nintendo, burning the images in the screen away into a deadpan black. Alan's breath caught in his throat as the game stopped. His fingers itched, as if tiny little insects were crawling beneath his skin. He rubbed his fingers against the carpet to soothe them, but without success.

    "Alan. Look at me."

    He tried to turn his head to face her, but his neck muscles seemed permanently locked facing the screen, and he didnít have the strength or the will to move his feet. He only had enough muscle left to reach up to the Nintendo...and switch it back on. Within seconds the friendly and familiar Xax popped up onto the screen. He had no reason to be concerned...the game automatically saved itself.

    His mother was silent for a long time as she stared with pure hatred at the black box resting innocently next to the TV. She hated herself for letting him save up enough money to buy it. She hated herself for getting him the game for his birthday. And she hated herself for not having taken away the game when she had the chance.

    "Alright Alan," She said, her voice cracking. "I'm not going to turn off the game. You can play that thing until you die from it. But from now on, it's up to you to decide what's going to become of you."

    With that, she marched out of the room.

    Alan didn't even notice her go. He only noticed the instant relief the game provided, and how the soft controller resting in his palms soothed the itching.

    The only thing that was really bothering him now was his chest. It seemed to be on fire. Play the game. Play the game. It'll stop your chest hurting, too.

    But it didn't. Instead, the burning only intensified. His vision was blurring, he couldn't see the screen easily. Suddenly the burning sensation exploded, and he forgot all about satisfying the itching in his fingers and fell to the floor.

    His mother noticed, and turned around. No scream came out as she rushed back to her son's side at seeing his violent wriggling on the floor. He convulsed, and kicked the TV, hitting the 'off' switch and throwing the screen into blackness. She tried to stop his thrashing, shouting his name, but with no response. Then she snatched up the telephone and pressed an instant-dial number, and began screaming into the phone.


    8:49 A.M.
    THE NEXT MORNING

    It was obviously clear that Mrs. Provorse didn't want to have to go through with this. And truthfully, Scully didn't want to, either. Mulder had certainly been right about there being another death related to the one they had just worked on...but she had not imagined that it would be so soon.

    The police had already come and done their job, the body had already been carted away. Only the victim's mother did not want to go to the police headquarters to be questioned...she decided Mulder and Scully could interview her where she was.

    They sat on the couch by the TV, waiting for Mrs. Provorse to return with the pitcher of iced tea she was making for them in the kitchen. Mulder had pointed out to Scully the Nintendo still by the TV, but she had simply shook her head. Mulder hesitated for an instant, then dropped off the couch next to the TV and switched the Nintendo on.

    "Mulder!!" Scully hissed in surprise.

    "Just want to see if I can get farther than I did last time," He said, grinning sheepishly. "I won't take that long." Scully groaned aloud as he began again, only this time it was starting from level 10, where the game had left off. Mulder was almost instantly overwhelmed by different types of creatures he hadnít seen yet and got killed within the first few seconds.

    Just then, Mrs. Provorse returned to the living room with the iced tea, and snarled at Mulder. "Turn that damnable thing off," She commanded bitterly. Scully gave Mulder a warning look, and he instantly switched the game off and returned to his place on the couch.

    "I'm going to burn that thing the moment I get the chance," The mother said with contempt as she handed the two agents their drinks. "It's been nothing but a pain ever since we got it. And especially that game. I'm thinking about suing the company."

    Scully was not sure where to begin, so she started with what seemed best. "We're sorry about your son, Mrs. Provorse." She said quietly.

    "I don't need to hear your apologies," She snapped back. "I just want you to get this interview over with. I want to know what can be done about this."

    "We don't know any lawyers. If you're looking to file a lawsuit, youíll have to do that with someone else. We're just here to figure out why your son died," Mulder said.

    She was silent.

    Scully took a deep breath and began. "Mrs. Provorse, did you ever suspect that your son was somehow under the influence of drugs?"

    Mrs. Provorse was obviously very surprised by the question. "What do you mean? Alan took medication for his asthma..."

    "We mean more severe. Such as cocaine or alcohol."

    Their interviewee shook her head vigorously. "There's absolutely no way that could happen. I was always very careful with Alan to make sure he had no contact with drugs or alcohol of any kind. I even checked in his bedroom sometimes."

    Scully appeared confused. "Did you ever see any signs that he could be using drugs behind your back? At school, maybe?"

    "No. I would've noticed a severe change. I'm positive that it wasn't any drugs."

    Mulder thought for a moment, staring at the TV. "Mrs. Provorse, did your son ever behave strangely or out of character recently before his death?"

    "I should say so," She answered acidly. "He had been going downward for a long time before it happened. It started with him not remembering if people called or not. Then he started getting very testy and upset, almost aggressive. And then he went into a period of severe depression, he was so unlike his optimistic self. It seemed to be getting better after that, but then his grades began dropping. After that it was all downhill. He was failing miserably in school, he refused to do his homework, and he couldnít remember anything. Drove me to my wit's end...I gave up on trying to get him to try, he never listened to anything I said..." She stopped, and sucked in her breath. "He'd probably still be here if I'd just kept trying with him..."

    Scully comforted her as she held back a sob. "Whatever happened, Mrs. Provorse, it's not your fault. We're sure you did everything you could."

    The grieving mother was obviously uninterested in the agent's sympathy. She quickly covered up her emotions and stiffened her face again. "I just don't understand why it happened to him..."

    "When did this strange behavior start occurring, Mrs. Provorse?" Mulder asked, trying to get back on track.

    "A little bit after his birthday," She replied. "Right after he started playing that game," She added with a snarl, glaring with hatred at the game. "It was his favorite present for his birthday, and at first I thought that it wouldn't be such a bad thing. But then he became obsessed with it, and he couldn't go for a day without playing it."

    Mulder appeared very interested by this information. "Mrs. Provorse, do you mind if we take the game console with us so that we can perhaps examine it back at the lab?"

    "Take it! Please! Tear it apart into very tiny pieces! I don't ever want to see that thing again!"

    Scully nodded with a little bit of apprehension. She just hoped that Mulder knew what he was doing.....

    "I think that's all we have to ask you," Scully said, getting up from the couch. "We'll call you if we find out anything more."

    "Please do."

    Mulder got to work unhooking the Nintendo from the TV so that he could take it with them. As soon as he did, he and Scully left the house.

    As they were leaving, neither of them noticed the man standing just beyond the garage, watching.


    2:46 P.M.
    THAT AFTERNOON

    "Articuno!!! I've got a third-edition Articuno!!"

    "You cheat, that's a second edition! Don't listen to him, he's a cheat!"

    "I'll give you this Snorlax and this Kabutops for that movie version Pikachu and Dragonite..."

    "I've seen cards in much better condition than that...no way."

    "Does anybody have a foil Mewtwo?"

    Mulder and Scully struggled to make their way through the pressing crowds of middle-school kids, kids with binders covered in stickers under their arms and wearing shirts that spelled out the names of their favorite virtual monsters.

    Scully dodged aside with a disgusted look as a little 13-year-old boy bumped into her, scattering his plastic-covered cards everywhere and sending him onto the floor after them. Other kids jumped down to try and get some themselves. It was like being in the middle of a feeding frenzy full of sharks.

    "Mulder...why are we coming here in the first place?!" Scully asked Mulder in an impatient voice. "What does coming here have to do with the case?"

    Mulder gave her a cocky grin that seemed to say, I know what you're feeling. "Well, this is the place where they sell the video game that may have killed those kids. I'm hoping that perhaps the game's box or perhaps someone that works here knows who produced or designed the game. I think that may gave us a lead on what's causing the deaths."

    "That may be so, Mulder...but did we have to come here the day all the kids in the world come to trade Poke'mon cards?!?!"

    Mulder just shrugged. After making their way through the sea of middle-school kids, they managed to come up to the front counter, where one of the store's salesmen was quietly scanning a magazine, which seemed very difficult considering the background noise.

    "Excuse me," Mulder addressed the salesman, and he looked up. "Do you think you could give us any information on this new game out called 'Hybrid Rumble'?"

    "So, your kid wants one, too?" The salesman looked at them with raised eyebrows. "So, what did he or she do to convince you? Threaten to drown themself in the bathtub?"

    Scully stuttered for a minute before correcting him. "Um...we're not married. Weíre FBI agents," She and Mulder simotaneosly pulled out their badges. The salesman eyed them with surprise. "The game has to do with some deaths that were investigating. We were just wondering if you could give us some information on it, or if you knew anyone behind the production or marketing of the game."

    The salesman was clearly surprised. "Well, I'm surprised that you havenít heard of it yet. It's only the biggest new kid's craze since they invented TV. The game's extremely popular, it's been flying off of the shelves, even though it's only been out for about a month or so. Ask any 12-year-old and they'll be able to tell you the name of each monster in each level and what their speciality is. I myself don't care for it, all that shooting down hybrid creatures makes Poke'mon look good, if that were possible."

    Mulder shot a glance at Scully. Scully knew what her partner was thinking...if the game was the cause of the strange deaths, then it was not a good development if the game was "the latest kidís craze." "Any ideas as to why it's so popular?" Mulder asked.

    The salesman shrugged. "Why is anything popular with kids? Video games are a natural attraction, but kids will like whatever they want to like. I have a friend who designs toys, and he tells me all the time on how the weirdest things sell. Popularity isn't an issue." Mulder thought again. "Do you perhaps know anyone involved in the creation of the game?"

    The salesman nodded. "As a matter of fact, I do. Tracy Weis is a big name in the Nintendo game corporation when it comes to game designing. He's talked to me once or twice in the development of this new game, said that it was a revolution in the game industry. There's a bunch of new things added into it, like the game automatically saving itself if you turn off the TV or game console. A lot of techno stuff that he's into. If you want to understand it, you'd want to talk to him."

    Mulder nodded, and put his hand on Scully's shoulder to steer her towards the door of the store. "Thanks for your time, sir...and thanks for the information." The salesman just waved his hand at them and returned to his reading material.

    "What are you thinking, Mulder?" Scully asked him quizzically as they left the gaming store and started walking down the hall of the mall they were in.

    Mulder stuffed his hands into his pocket to try and ignore that weird painful itch he was getting again. "I'm thinking that maybe there's actually someone behind the problems the game is causing...don't you find it somewhat disturbing that this game is so popular and that it's already caused four deaths?"

    "But Mulder, the game's already been out on the market for a month. Don't you think that if it was so popular and it was the sole cause of the kid's deaths that there would be a lot more people dead? Why just those four?"

    Mulder wracked his brain carefully for the answer. "Maybe it's a progressive death. Something you wouldn't notice at first, and then by the time there's notable symptoms, it's too late."

    "Symptoms? You make it sound like the game is a disease, Mulder."

    "Well, you remember what Mrs. Provorse said: her son was acting strangely before he died. He was acting testy, and then depressed, and he couldn't remember things. And she said that it lasted over a long period of time. Perhaps whatever this game does to people just takes a long time to have its full effect."

    "Well, if there were notable symptoms like you described, why wouldn't the parents of these children or even the children themselves realize what was happening and take away the game? Why let them keep playing it if it's doing them so much harm? Parents are suspicious enough of video games as it is."

    "Maybe the kids just have to play it," Mulder mused. "You said that you found amphetamine in the victim's brain when you did the autopsy. Amphetamine is a very addictive substance...what if the game somehow produces it? To keep its victims coming back for more? And as for their parents...I don't know about you, but I would rather let my kid play a dumb video game than listen to them yell and scream at the top of their lungs if you take it away from them."

    Scully thought carefully. What Mulder was saying seemed like it should make sense, but it still didn't. "So what exactly is it in the game that makes it kill people? The giant monsters on the screen pop out and give the kids a heart attack? Besides, how on earth is a video game supposed to produce amphetamine? How would it be administered to the kids? It's just an electronic cartridge hooked up to the TV, it canít *do* anything to anyone."

    Mulder shook his head. "I'm not entirely sure yet. But I want to find the game designer that the salesman was talking about...perhaps he can tell us what we need to know."

    They continued to walk down the hallway of the mall in silence, passing by various clothing, music and jewelry stores, Scully slightly wishing that she could just look around a little bit...it wasn't that often that Scully got to just spend a day at the mall or out on the town or anything. Not that there was much for her to go shopping for anyway, but she still had that slight urge to just look and wander through stores without purpose...

    Her momentary daydream was jolted back into reality as Mulder placed his hand on her shoulder quickly. "Hold on a minute. I think we're being followed."

    "What do you mean?-"

    "Shhh," Mulder quieted her again. "There's been a guy that's been following us for awhile now, ever since we left the store. He hasn't changed direction since we left."

    "Mulder..." Scully rolled her eyes. "We're in a mall, for goodness sakes, not everyone has to go in different directions than we are..."

    Mulder was not convinced. He shushed her once more and grasped her arm to lead her in a straight path. It almost seemed as if he was watching the unknown man behind them with eyes in the back of his head. Then, without a single hint of a warning, he turned around on his heel and started to walk towards the man.

    Scully spun around fast to try and stop him before he completely embarrassed them both...and watched in surprise as a short, white-haired man suddenly stopped dead in his tracks at seeing Mulder approaching him. The man turned on his heel as well and began to walk away from Mulder at a fast pace. Mulder picked up his speed, hearing Scully run to catch up with him. The man increased his speed as well. Then Mulder started to jog, and their supposed pursuer began to jog, too. "Hey, wait!" Mulder yelled as the man suddenly broke into a full-out run.

    Scully was clearly surprised by what was happening here. She quickly caught up to Mulder as he ran after the man, struggling to keep sight of him as he darted in-between people in the busy mall. Mulder changed direction as the white-haired man suddenly ducked into a door that lay squeezed in-between two stores. The door was marked off with a large sign that read "EMPLOYEES ONLY." Mulder ignored the sign and charged through the door. Scully followed him.

    Scully stopped next to Mulder as the door closed behind them. The agents found themselves in at the top of a long flight of old, metal stairs, leading down to the basement of the mall. It was impossible to see anything that far below them. Mulder looked, but didn't see the man that had been following them.

    He motioned to Scully, and they started down the stairs, hearing the rusty metal parts of the staircase squeak in protest from their weight. When they reached the bottom of the staircase, they found that it led out into a system of wide hallways, stretching out into the darkness. The halls were lit only by very dim lights that dotted the ceiling every few yards. For a moment, both Mulder and Scully stopped and stared around at the place where they had been led...from floor to ceiling, all down the halls, the walls were completely covered with layer upon layer upon layer of graffiti. The graffiti was more pictures than words...strange, unidentifiable murals that had been scrawled over with sharpie marker or spray-paint. Obviously, the pictures were not the sort of things you'd want to display in an art museum. Scully pulled in closer to Mulder as she eyed the scrawlings and paintings with disgust. "I guess this is where all the real mall-rats hang out," Mulder mused.

    The sound of a scuffling somewhere down the hall instantly brought both the agents back to attention. Mulder headed down the darkened hall in the direction the sound had come from, wishing that he had his gun or at least his flashlight. Why did I forget my gun, anyway? The thought entered the back of his mind as he and Scully headed down another grotesque gallery. They passed by doors marked off to hold certain supplies, following only the sound of the man running ahead of them. Mulder could not tell where they were heading or where the man was heading, but he ran anyway, deciding they would first catch the guy and then figure out what to do later.

    "Mulder, are you sure we're going to right way?!" Scully cried out to him from somewhere behind him. "I think I've seen that picture befo-"

    Scully's words were suddenly cut short as Mulder ran straight into the white-haired man as they rounded a corner.

    Both men reeled back from surprise at hitting each other. Luckily, Mulder reacted faster than the other man, and grabbed him by the shoulders before he was able to make a run for it again. Mulder spun around the dazed person quickly and pushed him against the wall, almost in a violent manner. The man slumped against the wall, holding his hands up carefully in surrender.

    "Who are you, and what do you think you were doing following us?" Mulder inquired, glaring the man down with his dominating stature. Scully came up to stand by Mulder, adding her influence to Mulder's question.

    "I...I..." The man stuttered for a moment, almost frightened by the agents that had finally cornered him. If he had been following with the intent of harming them, he probably couldn't have done much harm. "I'm just trying to fix things, okay?! I'm just trying to keep from getting trouble!"

    "What's your name?" Mulder asked, this time in a quieter voice.

    "Tracy Weis," The man answered carefully.

    Mulder and Scully exchanged glances. When Mulder had said that he wanted to talk to the Nintendo game designer, he hadn't imagined that it would be this soon. "So what're you doing following us?"

    "You're the FBI agents, right?" Weis was becoming a little more confident when he realized that these people weren't going to be as harsh on him as he imagined. "Your investigating those deaths...the kids playing video games."

    "Yes..." Mulder said, wanting to know how this man knew that. "And you're the designer of the game. Do you perhaps know something that we don't about this game...and why it's got such a deadly attraction?"

    Weis shook his head furiously. "Whateverís wrong with it, I *didn't* do it. It just did it to itself. Nothing that I did. We didn't even know about it until our company game tester, a little 12-year-old kid, didnít come to work one day and then we found out that he was dead...died of brain failure. We didn't think that it was our problem until we started getting calls from other people saying that the game was causing difficulties in families, even with some of the people who had worked on the game."

    "What exactly is different about this game? Anything that would make it do something unusual?" Mulder continued.

    "We just added some new features..." Weis sighed. "It automatically saves itself. And it can hold up to 140 saved games. It also has the best sound and graphic quality, and the rumble pack works well with it, and-"

    "No, I mean something drastic," Mulder interjected. "Something to do with the wiring of the cartridges, or the memory chips, anything extraordinarily new."

    "Not really. The basic construction is no different than our other cartridges."

    Mulder continued to think. All of his questions were getting him nowhere. "Why are you telling us all this? It certainly looked like you were being secretive before. And you still haven't explained why you were following us."

    Weis nodded. "The game's been causing a lot of problems. But the company doesn't want to get rid of it 'cause it's our best-selling game ever. A lot of people would lose way too much money just to help settle some disputes between families that own the game. But I've been watching how people who have been playing it act around it...it's not a good thing. Best-seller or not, this thing is causing serious problems among people who own it. And since the company doesn't want to get rid of it, I decided to do it myself. I've been trying to remove games one by one from each house that has one, and then somehow stop production so no more are made. I just want to lie low so that no one will know I'm doing it...and I was following you to tell you not to give away the problems with the game. The company already suspects me for trouble I've been giving them, and if they find out the FBI is concerned, I'll lose a lot more than just my job..."

    Scully was more than just a little bewildered at this man. How could anyone expect to take a video game out of the home of everyone who has one and then stop mass production all by himself? He's practically a lunatic! Instead of telling him this, however, Scully decided to follow along with Mulder's theory and ask him more on the game. "What 'problems with the game' are you talking about? We're not even sure exactly what it does. Do you know?"

    Weis shook his head furiously again. "All I know is that it did it on its own. It's just gotta...I dunno...appetite for people's minds, I guess. It's extraordinarily addictive, more than even people at the company estimated. It's also extraordinarily hard to beat. I myself was one of the designers that created the game's impossibility. Anyone who beats it has got to have hours and hours of playing time and practice. Because of this addictiveness and difficulty, most people who start playing it can't stop. And I guess the game...needs these people constantly playing in order to do what it does to them."

    "So what does it do? Or what do you think it does, anyway?"

    "Steals their brain cells. Devours them, almost. Most people, when they're in the top levels, can't perform simple tasks or remember anything or barely even talk. It starts out slow, and then there's one giant drain at the last level and you're dead. That's how it goes, I think."

    Scully was casting questioning glances at Mulder that seemed to say, "Is he serious??" She turned her gaze to the floor, slightly embarrassed that she was having to deal with this...a man talking about how a video game was feeding on people's minds.

    "You're not going to arrest me, are you?" Weis finally asked after a dusty pause.

    Mulder finally backed off. "No...we don't have anything to hold you against. You're free to go. Just don't keep following us around...I'm sure that whatever secrets you may have are safe with us."

    Weis nodded vigorously, taking several steps away from the agents. Then he built up his courage and he quickly left the agents standing alone in the shadows.

    Scully shook her head. "I don't know about you, Mulder, but what that man said was completely absurd. All this crap about a video game sucking out your brain cells and whatever else he said."

    Mulder raised his eyebrows. "You don't think it could be the video game, Scully?"

    "The video game is involved somehow, I agree with you there. It's the only thing that links this case together. But I don't agree with what Weis was telling us, about the video game taking on a mind of its own. Perhaps if they had done something strange in constructing the game cartridge there might be a possibility of an abnormality, but there's not even that here. Besides, even if this video game did have the ability to steal brain cells or keep people addicted, what would be the purpose of it doing so? Electronic games don't need any energy source beyond what they get out of a wall socket."

    "Maybe this one does. If it's the electronic impulses in people's brains that it is after, maybe it somehow needs those in order to function."

    Scully was still not entirely convinced, and her look told him everything she was thinking. "Come on, Mulder...' get out of here." She pulled on his arm, wanting to escape the sickened faces that snarled at her from the dirt-blackened walls.


    THE NEXT DAY...
    8:58 A.M.
    FBI HEADQUARTERS

    Scully was beginning to get worried.

    She looked at her watch for the 50th time since she had arrived at the office...it was nearly 9:00, and still no sign of Mulder. This had to be the first time in recorded history that Mulder had actually been late to work.

    And an *hour* late, on top of that, Scully thought bitterly. It wasn't like Mulder to arrive at work later than she did. When Skinner had come downstairs asking for them to come with him for some important information on the case, Scully had been forced to explain with great embarrassment that Mulder was not here yet. Skinner had obviously been quite shocked. He just told Scully what was going on and where they needed to go whenever Mulder showed up.

    Now, as the minutes ticked by with growing agitation, Scully was beginning to get more afraid than just worried. If Mulder wasn't at work, it could mean any number of things happened to him....including some things she didn't even want to think about. This just isn't right, Her brain kept telling her over and over. I've got to go make sure he's okay.

    She made up her mind. Snatching up her coat from where she had left it hanging over her chair, she dug her car keys out of her pocket and headed for the door. There's probably nothing to worry about. He probably just slept in or something, Her rational self was telling her. But, put up alongside her long experience with Mulder, her rational self wasn't that rational anymore. With all manner of disturbing ideas and possibilities bouncing around in her head, she started towards the building parking lot.


    20 minutes later, she stopped the car in front of his apartment, staring up expectantly at his window. So far, there didn't seem to be anything wrong...no mysterious unmarked cars with black-suited men sitting outside the apartment building, no sign of forced entry through the door to the building or his window, no hint of tamperings with the nearby cable or plumbing or electricity. Squaring her shoulders, she got out of the car and headed inside.

    A short elevator ride later, she was up on his floor, heading for the familiar room #42. As of yet, still no sign of dead contacts writing messages in blood on the floor or crazy neighbors who were obsessed with her or anything else remotely threatening. Unsure of what to find, she came up to his door and knocked.

    "Who is it?" Mulderís voice came from within.

    "Mulder?!" Scully jumped back with surprise. "What're you doing?"

    "Oh, it's you! Come on in, the door's open!" Mulder called again.

    Clearly confused, Scully quickly opened the door and came in. She felt her jaw drop with pure shock as she observed Mulder...

    ...Sitting in front of his TV, with the Nintendo system hooked up to it, playing the dreaded game that was the cause of all their problems. He was still in his boxers and gray T-shirt, and empty packages of sunflower seeds surrounded him on all sides. He looked at her with a childish grin. "Hey, isn't it cool, Scully? I've been working at this thing all night, and I'm starting to get good at it! I already got to level three!"

    Scully had to work her mouth a few times before words actually came out. "M....Mulder! What the hell do you think you're DOING?!!"

    "I've just been playing the game a little more, Scully. It's part of my criminal profiling thing, you know, trying to understand what all those kids think is so great about it. I'm not hurting anything..."

    Scully had to refrain herself from blurting out "Who are you and what have you done with Mulder." She marched over to the TV set and slammed the 'power' button forcefully, seeing Mulder cringe as the screen went black. She glared down at his confused face with angry, icy eyes. "What on earth has gotten into you? Do you have any idea what time it is?!"

    "I...no..." He mumbled weakly.

    "You're an hour and a half late for work! I was worried sick about you, and here you are playing that Nintendo game!! How long have you been sitting here, exactly?!"

    Mulder's answer had resentment in its undertone, resentment at her for having interrupted his gaming session. "I started playing it sometime last night, and I guess I just lost track of the time..."

    "...And that's not even the beginning of what's wrong here!" Scully barged on. "You weren't supposed to take this Nintendo system home...you were going to take it to the lab to be analyzed! You could get in trouble for withholding evidence! Not to even MENTION the fact that this game is your supposed prime suspect in the case we're working on! What happened to all that talk about it being addictive and feeding off of brain cells and killing kids?!"

    "Look, Scully, you're getting upset over nothing! Does it look like my brain cells are getting sucked out to you? I just started playing it sometime last night and I lost track of the time, that's all! No big deal! Why do you think that I spend my entire life doing nothing but work? I do have time to have fun, you know. And I just was using that time to play the game. You don't have to be so unreasonable."

    "Mulder, you're the one being unreasonable! You're not a little kid, youíre a government employee! You have a job to do, so I suggest you stop sulking around there on the floor and get up! We're late enough as it is!" Scully continued to stare him down even after he got to his feet and threw his height over hers. "Now hurry up and get dressed," She commanded. She watched him carefully as he headed for his closet, shuffling his feet against the wooden floor. Scully couldn't believe that Mulder was acting like this. She remembered the other time they had been assigned to a video game-related case, with the Lone Gunmen's crazy project with virtual reality in California. She had seen Mulder reduced to a detestable testosterone-pumping junkie then, but this was even worse. Now he was acting like a whiny 9-year-old, grumbling that his Saturday morning playing games was ruined by the fact that he had to do chores. There's something very wrong here...

    When Mulder reemerged from his bedroom, suit and tie and shoes apparent, she came up to him and straightened his tie despite his protests. "We're going now 'cause we're already really late. But the moment we're done we're coming back here and we're taking that Nintendo to the lab, whether you like it or not. So just come with me, and I'll explain things on the way."

    Mulder just nodded solemnly. Scully could tell that he was angry at her...perhaps more so than she was at him. He was just refraining from saying anything. Scully was becoming worried as well as frustrated...Mulder was not acting like himself at all. The entire case she had been just a little bit concerned, but this was ridiculous. She just hoped that whatever it was didn't relate to what they were actually trying to find out.....


    The car ride at first began with a stony silence. Scully was driving, but only because Mulder had said that he didn't want to drive. He shoved his hands in his pockets and stared out the window with a dismal look on his face. After they had gotten out on the road, Scully decided to talk about what they were going after.

    "Mulder...you remember the first death we investigated? How there were two kids, Bruce and Kenny, and one of the kids died while playing the Nintendo game?"

    Mulder had to think for a minute before he remembered them. "Um...yeah. What about them?"

    "We sent the kid that survived, Kenny, to an institution to be given some treatment. He had been acting depressed and angry and he was having memory problems. Well...he escaped from the institution this morning."

    "Really." Mulder gave no other reaction.

    Scully swallowed and continued. "Skinner's already there, and he's going to meet us there and fill us in on what happened exactly. But from the way he was telling me about this this morning, it sounded like there could be more trouble behind this than we think. That's why I was so angry when you weren't on time, Mulder...not to mention worried. You're never late."

    "First time for everything," Mulder mumbled absently. He seemed to be paying only half attention to Scully, his mind wandering down some invisible path. Scully couldn't help but notice that he was also rubbing his knuckles against the leather of the armrest with great irritation.

    "Something wrong, Mulder?" She asked worriedly.

    Mulder stared at her as if she had just asked him if his hair was brown. "NOooo..." He said in an aggravated voice. "Just stop pestering me with all these questions if I'm okay or not. If I wasn't, don't you think I would tell you?"

    I'm not entirely sure... Scully thought to herself. As much as she trusted him, Scully always had the sense that Mulder wasn't telling her something.


    45 MINUTES LATER...
    GOLD ATLANTIC MENTAL INSTITUTION

    The sounds of two familiar pairs of footsteps, one heavy and somewhat shuffling, the other light and clapping with high heels, brought Skinner away from the doctor he was talking to and instead to Mulder and Scully as they approached him. Both agents did not look happy with the situation, but it was for different reasons.

    Skinner's face set at Mulder's slightly-rumpled figure. "Agent Mulder...I expect an explanation as to why you were not at work on time this morning."

    Scully instantly noticed Mulder's discontent and lack of an answer. Skinner's eyes became more and more narrow and hard as Mulder just stood there, saying nothing. Scully found herself instantly jumping in for him instead. "Sir, Mulder just had some problems getting to work this morning. Nothing major I assure you." She tried to dismiss the questioning looks that she was receiving from both Skinner and Mulder. Skinner was questioning exactly how truthful Scully was being, and Mulder was questioning why Scully was covering for him when she didn't need to. Scully, however, knew that Mulder needed her excuses...if Skinner found out that Mulder was late because he had been playing a Nintendo game, there would be no end to the reprimands and questions and inconveniences.

    "Very well, agent, although it would have been helpful if you had called in to explain," Skinner said to him. He then motioned for Mulder and Scully to follow him down the hall. They passed by bleak, sterile white walls with simple steel doors before arriving at their destination. Both Mulder and Scully always felt uncomfortable around psychiatric wards and their unemotional, restless silences that seemed to hover about in every room. Scully herself was wondering why the kid had been taken there in the first place, when in the beginning there seemed to be only a few problems with him. Apparently, there was more to it than we first thought...

    The agents waited while their superior introduced them to the doctor who had been working with the troubled teen. The doctor came up and shook both their hands. "Dr. Hasbro. You are looking for a patient in regards to you case?"

    Scully nodded.

    "The patient was Kenny Broderbund, age 15, but I'm sure you already knew that. We've been keeping him here for the past few days...we tried to talk to his parents some more, but they haven't been much help. He had been having severe problems with depression, anger, and memory. He wasn't very cooperative with the nurses here, and he couldn't remember minor things that had happened the past day or even in the past hours. We've also done a few tests with him...even though he's in 10th grade, he can't do anything past an 8th grade level, such as reading or equations. I've checked some of his school files, and he's usually a very good student, so this sudden decrease in knowledge is troubling." The doctor sighed, and continued. "And this morning...he became very confrontational. One of the nurses came in here to give him some breakfast, and he attacked her. Hit her over the head with the plate of food that was supposed to be his breakfast. She wasn't hurt too badly, but while he was running down the hall, one of the other doctors in here tried to stop him. He grabbed Kenny, and the kid just started kicking him in the legs and punched him in the mouth. I'm not sure how many more people he attacked just to get to the front door. But right now he's missing, and we're considering him dangerous and perhaps in need of hospitalization."

    When Mulder didn't say anything right away, Scully automatically came in for him again. "Did he do or say anything the time before he escaped or while he was escaping that might have given an hint as to where he was going or what he wanted to do?" She asked.

    Dr. Hasbro nodded, his face narrowing with confusion. "The night before, the nurses told me that he had been tossing and turning, and muttering about 'Xax' and '"Something" Rumble' in his sleep. Of course, no one knows what he's talking about, so it's not much to go off of..."

    However, both Mulder and Scully knew exactly what he was talking about. "Mulder, he's probably gone to a gaming store or perhaps a friend's house that he knows who has the game...anywhere where he could get his hands on it. We've got to go look for him in one of those places."

    Before Mulder even said a word, Scully knew that he was going to disagree with her, and it surprised her greatly. "He could've gone to my house to get the game, Scully...it's the closest. I have to go to my place!"

    "Mulder, that's absolutely ludicrous! How on earth would the kid know to go to your apartment to get the game? He's never even met you, much less found out that you just happen to have the thing he's looking for at your house. Don't start getting all paranoid and edgy on me."

    "But Scully--" Mulder's comment was cut short by Skinner clearing his throat loudly. It was then that the agents finally realized that they had thrown themselves into the middle of an argument right in front of the perplexed doctor, who had no idea what was going on. Scully swallowed and looked at the blank tile floor, embarrassed. "Sir, Mulder and I think we may have an idea on where the patient might have gone."

    Apparently, they have different ideas... Skinner thought to himself. "Where? And why, exactly?"

    Mulder was still not talking. "We think he may have gone somewhere where he could obtain a certain Nintendo game. We...Agent Mulder believes that the certain game he is after creates an addictive substance for those that play it, and the patient was possibly addicted the game when he was brought here." Scully suddenly found it rather easy to begin saying the part that usually Mulder said.

    Skinner was not surprised at the odd response that he had received. "Very well then, agents...if you have a lead, then I suggest you get over to where you believe the patient may have gone. If we find out anything else here, I'll call you."

    Scully nodded to her superior and the doctor, and she and Mulder turned and headed back down the hall from which they had come. As soon as they were out of hearing range of the other people, Scully instantly started back up on Mulder's problem. "Mulder, you're being ridiculous thinking that the kid went to your house to get the video game! I can't believe that you're going off an a meaningless tangent when I'm agreeing with you and trying to help you with this!"

    "It's just a hunch I have, Scully...how many times have my hunches been wrong?"

    "This isn't even a hunch, Mulder, it's...it's a discrepancy of events! There's no way I'm letting you go back to your apartment for no reason when we have more important things to do."

    "Well, it makes more sense that we should each go different ways..." Mulder continued to argue with her in a absurd manner. "I can go back to my house and see if Kenny has gone there, and you can go to the game store or wherever you wanted to go and see if he's there. If we don't find him where we are, we'll just meet where the other is, since those are the only two places he could be."

    "No, Mulder, there's only one place he could be," Scully could feel her frustration beginning to boil over. "And that's the place we're going. Besides, we only have one car. How are we supposed to split up if you don't have a car?"

    "I can just take the bus back to my place. It's not that far. Come ON, Scully...you can think of a reason as to why he couldn't go there, but you can't think of a reason for why he could. Just let me go and check out my place to make sure, and then I'll catch up with you."

    Scully could feel her innards squeezing together with agitation at Mulder's refusal to cooperate. He was twisting around what she was saying and applying an entirely different view of looking at simple facts. She was too tired...too tired and too annoyed to even bother trying to argue with him anymore. "Sure. Fine. Whatever. Just take the bus back to your house or whatever you want...I'm going back to that gaming store in the mall we went to the first time. That seems the most likely place he could have gone."

    "Alright...I'll see you later," Mulder said, and he immediately turned away from her and started towards the entrance of the building, as if eager to get away from her. Scully stared down the empty hallway after he had gone, confused at his reactions and reasoning. Feeling Skinner's eyes watching her from the far end of the hall, she steeled herself again and headed for her car, trying to sort things out.


    There's something really wrong here... The idea was at the forefront of her mind as Scully twisted the steering wheel around another curve, and stopped at a red light. How on earth could I have let him go off to his own apartment by himself when there was no reason to? How could he have talked me into it?

    She tapped her fingers impatiently against the curved leather of the steering wheel while waiting for the light to change. Slowly, she began to piece things together in her mind. She knew that it was following along with Mulder's absurd theory, but it seemed to be making more sense than Mulder himself was right now. This video game is supposed to be extraordinarily addictive, perhaps producing amphetamine. So anyone who starts playing it can't stop. And it's progressive...but there's still "symptoms". The mother that we interviewed said her son had been acting strange...being angry, depressed, not performing well academically, having a poor memory...and same thing with this escaped kid now...

    The realization his Scully like a fist in the jaw, causing her to stop in surprise. Of course! How on earth could I have missed it before?!

    Mulder had been acting the exact same way as the kids that had been playing the video game...irritable and forgetful. And it was all because he himself had started playing the game on the first death we had investigated. The addiction must have started right away, and it stayed with him, and then he took home the Nintendo system he was supposed to have analyzed. He stayed up all night playing it, and now he's falling into the same pattern as the others...

    The moment the light switched to green, Scully turned the car around in a quick U-turn and started back the way she had come, driving at an almost panicked pace. She instantly knew why Mulder had wanted to go home so badly...he wanted to back to playing the game some more. Scully was kicking herself mentally as she sped down the road. I can't believe I didn't realize this before...

    By taking several well-known shortcuts and driving much faster than she should have for being a federal employee, Scully was able to arrive back at Mulder's apartment in a fairly short amount of time. I have to get that game away from Mulder...it's literally killing him, Scully thought, the worry lines beginning to form on her forehead. As she got out of the car, she grabbed her gun and a pair of handcuffs, even though she hoped to God that she wouldn't have to use them. But if a 15-year-old kid was desperate enough to escape a psychiatric ward with doctors and guards, there was no telling what Mulder could do to just her alone.

    Her anxiety grew with each heartbeat as she hurried up to his floor, handcuffs in her pocket and gun in her holster. As she came closer to his apartment, she noticed that his door was open. Confusion was added to her already-present apprehension. "Mulder?....."

    She reached his front door, and stopped in complete shock.

    Even just from where she was standing, she could tell that almost his entire apartment had been torn apart from floor to ceiling. Books, shirts, shoes and sunflower seeds sprinkled the floor, several tables and chairs had been overturned, and one of his lamps had been broken. The sofa was splattered with something that looked like orange juice, and the TV had been knocked over onto its side. She also noticed the Nintendo system...torn apart into a hundred pieces, wires and chips and plastic casing scattered everywhere, as if someone had taken a sledgehammer to the game console. An uneasy silence drifted in with the stale air.

    "Mulder.....?" Scully's voice was little more than a harsh whisper.

    A sound off to her right caused Scully to reach for her gun. She could hear something...something that sounded like a muffled grumbling. Shifting aside a sunflower seed bag with her foot, she began to carefully walk in the direction of the sound, tensing herself for Mulder or fo--

    "YOU BETTER COME OUT OF THERE RIGHT NOW, MISTER, OR I'LL KNOCK THAT DOOR DOWN AND TAKE IT FROM YOU!!"

    "GO AWAY, YOU FREAK! YOU CAN'T HAVE IT!!"

    Scully choked back a shout of surprise. She wasn't sure who the first voice belonged to, but the second one was definitely Mulder. She raced around close to his bedroom...and found a tattered, dark-haired teenage boy staring at the closed bathroom door as if it were some menacing enemy. The kid looked like he had been in a fistfight, and had lost miserably. He didn't even acknowledge Scully's sudden appearance.

    "Hold it right there!" Scully yelled to the battered teenager, drawing out her pair of handcuffs. With this sort of situation, she wasn't taking any chances. The teen's first reaction was shock, but then he quickly took on a pouty look. "Tell that guy in there to give me back my game!!"

    "What?" Scully responded, still trying to overcome her shock.

    "Scully, is that you?" Mulder's voice again came from within the bathroom. "Look, I told you! I told you that Kenny would come here to get the game from me! You have to get him away from me, he's gone insane!"

    Scully had yet to decide who exactly had gone insane. "How on earth did you get here?!" She demanded of Kenny. Scully just couldn't believe how Kenny could have found out that Mulder was in possession of the video game, and then how he could've possibly found Mulder's apartment at all.

    Kenny was looking at Scully as if she were here just to solve all of his problems. "I...I was asking the people at the hospital place if they could find a copy of "Hybrid Rumble" for me to play 'cause I was bored and...the nurses said that there were two FBI agents trying to find out why Bruce had died. So I thought that meant you would know what had happened to my game. I tried to talk to the people at the hospital and asked them to take me to you FBI agents, but they kept saying no. So finally I got so fed up with it that I got out of there, and I looked up the address of that guy in there, and when I got here I found out that HE had my game all along and he won't give it back!!" Kenny looked like he was going to go back to trying to break down the door again.

    "That's not true!" Mulder's voice came again. "He broke into my house and tried to steal my game! If he wants it so badly, he should go get his own copy!"

    "That IS my game, you--"

    "Alright, that's enough!" Scully took up the handcuffs and locked them around Kenny's wrists to keep him from trying anything. The unlucky teenager, finally realizing that he had been defeated, moved over to the far corner of the bedroom. "I just want what's mine!" He moaned his defense.

    "Alright, Mulder, I have Kenny under control," Scully said to the bathroom door. "You can stop hiding in there like a little kid and come out now."

    No answer.

    "Mulder?....."

    "I don't want to, Scully. You're just going to take the game away from me, too."

    "Of course I am, Mulder! You have to stop playing that game, it's slowly killing you! I already told you that we were going to turn in the game console and cartridge."

    "I'm not giving it to you, Scully!" Mulder's tone was immature, desperate, fierce. "I'll only come out if you let me keep it!"

    Scully could hear her voice scrunching up within her throat, partially out of disbelief at Mulder's childish and dangerous behavior and partially out of fear at what this game's addiction might make him do. "Mulder, listen to yourself! This game is controlling you, it's making you do ridiculous things. It's just a video game, you don't have to be so irrational!"

    "You're just trying to trick me into giving it to you," Mulder said, his voice low with resentment. He stood defiantly just inside the bathroom, locked from the inside, the precious game cartridge clenched within his fist. The teenager Kenny had put up a good fight with him, but he had still been able to easily overpower him and lock himself in the bathroom.

    "Mulder, please..." Scully said, her voice full of remorse. "You just have to snap out of it..."

    Mulder did not pay any attention to Scully's words. She doesn't understand... His brain told him defiantly. She doesn't understand how much I need this! If I don't start playing it soon I'll go completely crazy!

    "Mulder..." Her voice was like the human part of him, urging for him to return to reality. "Mulder, I'm standing in front of the door right now. I'm waiting for you to come out and give me the game. And I'm not moving from this spot until you give it to me."

    Mulder clutched the game tighter, and found his hand automatically reaching for another object he had in his pocket...his gun. He felt his fingers itch horribly, just like they had been ever since he had stopped playing the game, and winced from the prickly sensation. "If you don't go away, Scully, I'll make you!" Somewhere in the back of his mind, his conscience was screaming at him to cut out his insane act. He wasn't listening. "I have my gun!"

    He could practically hear Scully's breath freeze. He was somewhat surprised at how calm she was keeping her voice after his last demand. "Mulder, I don't believe that you would shoot me." She said firmly. "I'm still waiting for you to come out and give me the game."

    Mulder brought his gun to bear, pointing it straight ahead of him. He moved slowly , as if someone else was controlling his arms. "GO AWAY! I WILL DO IT!!"

    "Mulder....."

    Mulder squeezed his eyes shut as he pressed his finger twice against the trigger, feeling the gun reverberate with a deadly, hollow ringing sound.

    Silence.

    Mulder forced his eyes open, and felt the gun slip from his fingers. No sound came from the outside. He felt as if he had just awoken from a trance, and his heart when from a frantic, desperate beat to no heartbeat at all. What did I do?

    "Mulder."

    Scully's voice suddenly set himself into motion again. He released a long, heavy moan. The first thing he felt was relief, relief that he hadn't shot Scully as he was so certain he had...then confusion. I fired the gun...why didn't she get hurt?

    One quick look at the bathroom door in front of him gave him the answer ...there were no bullet holes in the door. No holes in the door meant no bullets in his gun. He had been so distracted and panicked earlier that he had completely forgotten to put the clip in his gun in the first place. Staring down at the gray plastic game cartridge in his hand, he finally returned to his senses.

    Scully was perfectly calm as Mulder opened the bathroom door. His expression was that of shame and reassurance that he finally realized what he had been doing all along. Without saying anything, he slipped the game cartridge into Scully's open hand.


    THE NEXT DAY...
    4:36 P.M.
    D.C. METHODIST HOSPITAL

    Scully was beginning to wonder if she and Mulder should just take up residence in the hospital, since it seemed like every single case they were on had one of them end up there sooner or later. She was just thankful that this time, it hadn't been anything too serious. Amazing how I consider being obsessive over a video game and nearly killing people in the process "not serious"...

    She found Mulder's room right away. He was sitting on the edge of his bed, and looked up at her through the room's window as she approached. She flashed him a small smile as his eyes met hers. It was clear that Mulder's attitude was now more shameful and anxious than his previous delirious and fanatic state. "How're you feeling?" She inquired as she pulled up a chair in front of him.

    "Fine, really," He sighed. "Just really, really embarrassed, when I look back on it."

    "Well, at least part of it was not your fault. The doctors had to give you therapy and antitoxins for the extreme amounts of amphetamine in your brain."

    Mulder nodded, obviously not surprised. "Could they determine how it had been administered?"

    "That, they had trouble determining. It definitely wasn't any normal means of administration...as far as they could tell, it was...projected into you through the nerves in your fingers. I myself don't see how that could happen at all, I'm guessing something else..."

    "No, that does make sense," Mulder interrupted, looking down at his hands. "The entire time my hands felt incredibly itchy, almost unbearable. The game might have somehow been able to deliver the amphetamine through the buttons in the controller, since they are hooked up to the game and it's the only contact your body has with the game. It's probably the way the game stole the player's brain cells, too." The thought instantly brought him to another question. "Was there a lot of brain damage?" His voice was filled with concern.

    Scully shook her head. "As far as they could tell, it was only short-term memories, nothing too serious. In a sense, that short-term memory loss was a good thing...otherwise you would have actually remembered to put bullets in your gun."

    Mulder looked at the cold tile floor, his face instantly washed over with humiliation. "It's amazing just how addictive that simple game was..." He looked up at Scully at sad eyes. "I really was ready to kill you in order to play it."

    Scully said nothing.

    "Are they going to do anything about it?"

    Scully sighed. "The FBI has put in orders to the Nintendo game company to stop production of the game. They've labeled it a health hazard, although they haven't exactly been able to explain why. They're also taking steps to see if they can remove the games that have already been distributed to the public. It'll be difficult, and the Nintendo game corporation is not too pleased with the FBI right now."

    "I imagine that they're not too pleased with their designer Tracy Weis, either," Mulder mused. "We did the exact thing that he was asking us not to do, and he'll probably lose his job and everything else he has."

    It was apparent that Scully did not care much for the fate of their timid prowler. "The man was insane in thinking that he could stop production of the game and take all the ones that had already been purchased all by himself. If they really want to stop thing from hurting more people, they'll have to take large steps to do so. But, one way or another, it'll keep more people from falling under the influence of that demonic game."

    "Perhaps..." Mulder said quietly, thinking over the events carefully. "And perhaps not."

    "What do you mean? If they stop making the game and take away all the others..."

    "Well, we never figured out exactly how or why the game took on that deficiency. It was as Weis said...it kind of made itself that way. So there's really no way to determine if another game or program or anything else could do it all over again."

    "You think that another video game could start killing people?"

    "All addictions can become dangerous, even deadly, if taken far enough. And I'd say video games definitely can count as an addiction. Perhaps this game was the first to "realize" just how much power it had over the person playing it."

    Scully let out a long, heavy sigh. "Well, you'd better hurry up and get over this addiction...'cause I'm not going to clean up your apartment all by myself."

    Mulder looked at Scully unhappily at the thought of having to pick up his trashed apartment. "How about I just move into your place?"

    THE END