Virtual Season Two
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  • Bitter Revenge
  • Red Tide
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  • Ley of the Land
  • Everything To Live For
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  • A Piori

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  • 2X22 - A PIORI

    WHILE INVESTIGATING A MYSTERIOUS DEATH, THE AGENTS COME ACROSS EVIDENCE THAT COULD COST THEM THEIR LIVES.

    MAY 18TH, 2001
    OFFICE OF PROFESSIONAL REVIEW
    WASHINGTON, D.C.
    2:34 P.M.

    "Mr. Skinner, this is not your decision to make. You have to follow the decree set forth by this panel."

    Walter Skinner bit his lower lip, pure contempt emanating from his icy fašade. "My duties as an FBI agent are to uphold the laws of this country," he growled.

    "Your duties are to comply with the decisions made by your superiors. This is not your organization to run." Assistant Director Frank Warner gave Skinner an impatient stare. "We don't need to be wasting this panel's time with this discussion. Do what is asked of you, or be prepared to suffer the consequences."

    Skinner yanked off his glasses, the bows bending in protest. "Your ignorant decision will make everyone suffer the consequences," he spat.

    "Your complaints have been entered into the record, Mr. Skinner," Warner replied. "The X-Files are closed; stop wasting the Bureau's manhours looking for conspiracies."

    "I'm not looking for conspiracies," Skinner managed through clenched teeth.

    "Then what is it that you are looking for?" the man challenged.

    "Agent Mulder."

    "When and if Agent Mulder wants to be found, he will show himself. You have agents to oversee, committees to take part in. The disappearance of one man cannot monopolize your time and attention."

    "He knows what they did to her. He knows who killed her." Skinner's growing anger was becoming more evident in his words, his frustration mounting.

    Warner paused, eyeing the man sitting in front of him. "There is no proof that Mulder knows anything about Agent Scully's death."

    Skinner looked at the other assistant directors on the panel, hoping for some sign that someone believed him, sympathized with his cause. They all avoided his gaze. "It's obvious that he knows what's going on!" he shouted. "Why else would he disappear on the night she was murdered?"

    "Maybe he had more to do with her death than you'd like to think," Warner suggested.

    Skinner stood angrily, his chair toppling to the floor behind him. "What are you implying?" he demanded.

    "I'm not implying anything, Mr. Skinner, but the question is evident." The bald man narrowed his eyes in disgust, quickly turning around and stalking to the door. "We aren't through here, Mr. Skinner!"

    Skinner stopped, slowly turning to face the man. He jammed a hand into his suit, pulling out his badge. Perturbed, he flung it onto the table in the middle of the room. "I'm through here," he muttered and swung the door open.

    "Should I take that as your resignation?" Warner asked, offering the question as more of a threat than a query.

    "Take it as my disgust with an organization that's lost its way," Skinner said, leaving the room and shutting the door behind him.


    FBI HEADQUARTERS
    3:47 P.M.

    The long corridor seemed to stretch on forever in front of Skinner, the sickly gray concrete offering a perfect parallel to his sour mood. His shoes clicked on the hard floor, the steps echoing around him. His eyes bored through the floor as he thought of condemned murderers making their final walk down death row; the empty reverberations of his footsteps made him feel just as alone as those convicted criminals did as they faced their fate.

    He stopped and turned to face a wooden door. The nameplate had been removed long ago, a pale rectangle sitting patiently in its spot. Skinner leaned his head against the wood, closing his eyes in deep rumination. Everything had changed; the group of men and women he had worked with for so long seemed to have new causes, new crusades to drive their work. He had changed too- suddenly losing Mulder and Scully had thrown his beliefs into a tailspin, driving him to look further into the X-Files, in the hope of finding some closure.

    Skinner pulled a key out of his pocket and gazed at it, turning it over in his hand. Such a simple little object could protect the secrets Mulder and Scully had found. Now it was providing the final chapter in the saga of the X-Files, locking away everything they had worked for, and what Agent Scully had died for. The assistant director stood up straight and slid the key into the lock, blinking back rare tears. The cold metal doorknob seemed just another reminder of the death of something he had watched grow over eight years.

    He pushed the door open, a musty smell protruding out at him immediately. There was another odor in the room, though, another smell that was oddly familiar. A small, orange glow of light floated above the empty desk. A loud, raspy noise rang out, and the light grew brighter.

    "What are you doing here?" Skinner snarled.

    "Remembering the past," a soft voice replied.

    "Get your cigarette-smoking ass out of here and do it someplace else," the assistant director ordered.

    "I helped Mulder build this program," C.G.B. Spender replied, ignoring Skinner's demand. "I watched him recover it from the mess that Dales had left."

    "You never helped Mulder do anything."

    "Quite the contrary, Mr. Skinner. There were many times when I could have killed him, or shut down this pet project, but I allowed him to continue. My colleagues and I stole his father's life and joy away; I didn't want to do the same to him."

    "You took his sister! You killed his partner! That's not stealing his joy?" Skinner angrily strode to the desk, leaning in towards the old man.

    The Cigarette-Smoking Man put his Morley to his mouth again and took a long drag, the orange light burning intensely in the darkness. "I didn't kill Agent Scully," he replied calmly.

    "Then tell me who did!" Skinner shouted.

    "I don't know who is responsible," he admitted, walking around the desk. Skinner turned to face him, too angered to speak. The elderly man paced to the open door, stopping in the doorway. He dropped his cigarette to the floor, grinding it into the floor, snuffing the spark from it. He looked up at the assistant director, his face looking extremely haggard in the half-light of the hallway. "It's been five months, Mr. Skinner. It's time to stop looking for him." He paused, his lips pursed in a mix of disappointment and regret. "You can't let this turn into your Holy Grail." C.G.B. Spender slowly left the room, his footsteps bouncing down the hall as Skinner stared at the flat, lifeless cigarette on the floor.


    DECEMBER 17TH, 2000
    11:25 A.M.
    FBI HEADQUARTERS

    Scully leaned back in Mulder's chair, gazing at the collection of pencils in the ceiling above her. She released a long, slow breath, closing her eyes in exhaustion. Piles of paperwork had kept her up until the wee hours of the morning, and all she wanted to do with her Sunday was hibernate in a mound of blankets. Predictably, the phone call from Mulder had come not long after the sun began to peek through her windows, and he had been typically insistent upon her presence in the office at eleven.

    She checked her watch again and tipped the chair forward, resting her elbows on the cluttered desk. Her bed was a faint memory now, and her irritation was cumulating with each moment that passed. She swiveled around in the chair, letting her eyes scan the yellowed newspaper clippings on the wall.

    Scully let out an exasperated sigh. If Mulder was going to keep her waiting, she could just as easily catch up on sleep in the office. Again she closed her eyes, letting her head sink into the comfortable chair. She cleared her mind, her breathing quickly becoming shallower as consciousness melted away.

    The loud slap of a manila folder abruptly broke into her thoughts. "Good morning, Scully," Mulder greeted her.

    "You made me wait," she protested, turning the chair back to her partner, but not opening her eyes. "What is so important that you couldn't wait until Monday to tell me?"

    "I'd like to show you, but you seem to be pretty interested in the back of your eyelids," he teased her.

    Reluctantly, she opened her eyes and tried to give him a glare. "Don't start with me, Mulder," she mumbled. "If I weren't up until four A.M. finalizing autopsy reports for examinations you asked me to do, I wouldn't be so tired now."

    "It's a good thing you just did paperwork and weren't in the M.E.'s office."

    Scully eyed him quizzically. "What do you mean?"

    Mulder flipped open a folder on the desk and nudged it towards her. She weakly grabbed onto the flimsy manila cover and pulled it close. A small studio photograph immediately stole her attention; the woman in it was not much younger than Scully herself, offering a winning smile to the camera.

    "That's one Jane Acade," Mulder told her softly. "Found dead in her home, with no evident wounds, and no signs of forced entry."

    Scully turned her focus to the police report, her eyes an unadulterated sign of her interest. "O.K.," she replied. "But this has what to do with the medical examiner?"

    Mulder grinned, glad she was still interested. "The M.E. in her county was scheduled to perform an autopsy just two days ago. That night, the janitorial staff found the autopsy bay empty, with no body, and no examiner."

    "So that's the X-File?" she asked, disappointed.

    "Don't jump the gun, yet, Scully." Mulder walked around the desk and leaned over her, turning to a different page in the folder. "The next day the medical examiner's body was found stuffed into a locker at the city's high school. And as for Miss Acade, she was seen alive and very well later that night."

    "This is an open-and-shut case, Mulder. If there were no wounds on the body, it's possible she was in some sort of catatonic state and came to in the autopsy bay. It's even plausible that when she found herself surrounded by numerous utensils for cutting her body open, she tried to defend herself and killed the examiner. Once the authorities have her in custody, everything will be perfectly clear."

    "She already was in custody, and without a scratch," Mulder revealed. "That was before she pulled another disappearing act." He paused, gazing over her shoulder at the file in her hand. "Turn to the next page." Scully flipped to the next sheet, a grainy computer printout of a photo. A man's pale face filled the image, his eyes almost indistinguishable under reddish-purple bruises, the rest of his features contorted in pain. "Look familiar?"

    "I take it this is the M.E.?" Mulder nodded, his face stoic. "Surely you're not thinking that Jane Acade was some sort of shape-shifting alien."

    "If the M.E. cut into her and she had alien blood, it'd explain the condition of his body," Mulder reasoned.

    "But Mulder, there's no blood pressure after death. Gravity is the only thing that provides any pressure whatsoever. Ninty-nine percent of the time the body doesn't even bleed!"

    "You still haven't accounted for the one percent of the time it does," he pointed out.

    "And you haven't explained how she is 'without a scratch' if the examiner cut into her."

    "Both are valid questions, and are all the more reason for us to get down to Texas today."

    "Texas?"

    "Pflugerville, Texas, to be exact," he specified. "Is that a problem?"

    "No, not at all." Scully grinned at her partner. "I've just never thought I'd see another winter without ice and snow."

    "Then let's go pack," Mulder urged. "Maybe this way you can get some sleep on the plane."


    PFLUGERVILLE, TEXAS
    7:52 P.M.

    "Thank you for helping us out this late on a Sunday, Sheriff Mullinex," Scully said. The portly man, out of uniform in slacks and a t-shirt, nudged open the office door. "I know you want to get back to your family."

    "It's quite alright," the man replied. "Whole area's been pretty shaken by this one. The Statesman caught wind of it and has been printing articles almost every day. School district's worried about its reputation, and most people just want to know what the hell happened."

    "That's why we're here," Mulder mumbled, trying to peer into the darkened autopsy bay.

    "Sorry," the sheriff apologized, and flipped the light switch. "There's not a whole lot to see, really. Wasn't much when we arrived, either."

    Mulder glanced around the room, taking in the stainless steel surroundings. Unnerving stillness filled the air, the only noise coming from the hum of the fluorescent lights above. He turned back to Mullinex. "You said there wasn't much here. What did you find?"

    The sheriff seemed ready to answer the question, lifting the evidence bag in his hands. "This was it," he said. "Just the examiner's tape of his autopsy." Mullinex paused, measuring his words. "Or what he finished of it."

    "May I?" Scully motioned to the evidence bag. The sheriff obliged, passing it to her. She yanked a pair of latex gloves from a cardboard box sitting on the counter and donned them, reaching in to remove the miniature cassette recorder. The redhead glanced up at her partner, who seemed content to await her medical opinion.

    Scully pressed the play button on the device, and a disorienting, hollow echo came from its speakers. The sounds of someone moving could be faintly heard, and then a man's voice rang out. "The external exam shows the subject to be a healthy, adult Hispanic female measuring 63 inches and weighing approximately 103 pounds. There is beginning rigor mortis, the hair is dark black, and the eyes are brown, with the left pupil measuring 7 millimeters in diameter and the right 5 millimeters." Scully's eyes were locked on the floor, as she absorbed every word coming from the tape. "The teeth show signs of fluoride deficiencies. There are no visible markings on the dermis, except for an old, well-healed four-centimeter scar on the right forearm. Generally the skin has a pink color, blotchy in many places."

    Mulder watched her carefully, hoping that something in the M.E.'s examination would serve to give Scully a hint of how to move forward with the case. "To begin the internal exam, I'll use the Y incision." A clattering could be heard on the tape, the metal instruments banging in their tray as the man reached for a scalpel. Seconds of silence passed, followed suddenly by a light hissing noise. "What the hell is this?" the man roared, frightened. The agents grimaced as the sounds of the coroner gagging leapt out of the cassette recorder.

    "And that's all she wrote," Sheriff Mullinex said over the horrific noises of the tape.

    Scully abruptly slammed down on the stop button, glancing up at Mulder almost immediately. "Well?" he asked.

    "There's not much to go on there, Mulder. The lack of wounds would seem to indicate poisoning of some kind, or maybe cardiac arrest. The skin coloring could even lend to carbon monoxide poisoning." Her partner nodded, seemingly thinking about something else.

    "What would you say if I asked you to autopsy the coroner?" Scully was taken aback by her partner's question, but Mulder tried to laugh off the uncomfortable silence. "We'd, uh, have to take necessary precautions, of course."

    The redhead still seemed flustered, moving her mouth in search of words. "I guess," she finally managed. "But, what kind of precautions are you talking about?"

    "Take a wild guess," Mulder replied as he moved to the door, a smirk pulling at the corners of his mouth.


    TEXAS A&M UNIVERSITY
    DEPARTMENT OF PATHOLOGY AND LABORATORY MEDICINE
    DECEMBER 18TH, 2000
    3:42 P.M.

    Mulder stared through the thick glass, watching his partner intently. Clad in a thick, blue anti-contamination suit, she bent over the body of the deceased medical examiner. With a repetitive motion, she sewed together the cranium, rejoining the skin behind the ears. Stitches lined the man's chest, and large chunks of his vital organs rested in biohazard bags atop a nearby metal cart. Scully set the large needle down amongst the other instruments and moved to the door.

    She opened a glass door and stepped into a sealed chamber, removing her suit and depositing it into a receptacle built into the wall. Mulder started towards her as she opened the exterior door and re-entered the real world.

    "So what'd you find?"

    Scully ran her fingers through her hair, adjusting to the cooler temperatures in the observation room. "The blood thickened quite a bit, a lot like what nearly killed you a few years back." Mulder nodded, acknowledging he remembered his brush with death after shooting the Alien-Bounty Hunter. "I'm going to have blood samples sent to the microbiology lab in D.C., and tissue samples to the histology lab here on campus. I really can't say much else for now."

    "So you're sure this is what we saw before."

    Scully nodded. "Yes, but I really can't say exactly what chemical caused it. We'll have to wait for the tox results to know for sure. I'm fairly certain that this is the same retrovirus that you were infected with, but until histology finishes those slides and we get them to the CDC, I really can't say."

    Mulder chewed his lower lip, examining the floor as he thought. "I think we need to go back south tonight, to Pflugerville" he decided, looking back up to his partner. "We can still interview someone this evening, and then get over to the high school tomorrow morning."

    Scully scratched the back of her neck. "I can't go back yet, Mulder. I still have to wrap things up here and take a look at the slides tomorrow."

    The agent attacked his lips again, slowly shuffling his feet. "I still need to get back, Scully. Call me when you get a room, and I'll let you know what I've found."

    "Alright," she agreed.

    "I'll see you sometime tomorrow night, then," Mulder announced.

    "Don't hold dinner." Her partner grinned back at her, and strolled out of the room. Slowly, she turned back to the glass partition, her tired gaze resting on the cold corpse as Mulder's footsteps echoed down the hallway.


    PFLUGERVILLE, TEXAS
    7:15 P.M.

    Mulder glanced at the Christmas wreath hanging on the wooden door and knocked loudly. Seconds later the porch light sprang to life, and the faint scratching of the chain being moved emanated from the dark pine.

    The door swung open and a young man in his early twenties peered out at Mulder. "Can I help you?" he asked, his wife standing behind him.

    "Mr. Vallmer, I'm Special Agent Fox Mulder with the FBI," he explained, flashing his badge at the couple. "I'm investigating the case of a missing person; the police report named you as an eyewitness who saw the woman we're searching for."

    Vallmer nodded. "You're talking about the lady who disappeared from her autopsy," he replied, his words forming more of a statement than a question. "Craziest thing, ya know? I saw her on the front page of the paper that morning, and when I stopped for groceries on the way home that night, there she was!"

    "Can you describe what she was wearing?"

    "I talked with a police officer earlier today, at work," Vallmer started.

    Mulder wrinkled his eyebrows. "Do you remember a name?"

    "I don't really remember." The man gazed past the agent in front of him, wracking his brain. "I want to say it ended with an 'x', but I really can't be sure."

    "That's alright," Mulder said, filing the information away in his memory. "Now, what was the woman wearing?"

    "Not a whole lot. It was kind of raggedy clothing, tannish colored. She had a baseball cap pulled real low over her face, but I could still recognize her. Plus she had that nasty stain."

    "A stain?" Mulder repeated.

    "Yeah, a funny green colored stain on her shirt. Up here, by her shoulder." The man motioned to his own clothing. "It looked a lot like mouthwash, but darker."

    "What was she doing in the store?"

    Vallmer closed his eyes, picturing the scene in his head. "She was really interested in something in the health care aisle. That stretchy stuff, not gauze... whaddaya call it?"

    "Medical tape?" Mulder offered.

    "Yeah, medical tape! She kept picking up this one roll and then setting it back down, like she couldn't make up her mind. She had a box of something under her arm, but I really couldn't tell what it was."

    "Did you try to talk to her at all?"

    "No, I didn't think about it. Plus she saw me staring at her and left pretty quickly."

    "With the box?"

    The man thought for a moment. "She didn't set it down, so I suppose she did."

    Mulder chewed on his lip yet again. "Thank you for your time sir." He extended his hand to the man, who shook it, while Vallmer's wife smiled for the first time since the door had opened. "I'll get back in touch if I need anything else."

    "Sure thing," the man replied, and Mulder began the short walk down the sidewalk to his car. Lost in deep thought, the sound of the door closing behind him did not even register.


    8:23 P.M.

    She staggered into the alley, her legs burning. Every joint, every muscle, and every tendon ached. All she wanted to do was stop, to rest for hours until the pain would cease. She couldn't, though, and she knew it. She had to find him. He was the only one who could make everything right. She leaned against a brick wall, taking in a deep breath. Gingerly, she brushed her shoulder, sending a flash of pain through her. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply again.

    Finally mustering up the courage to continue, she stumbled forward, the sounds of her intermittent steps pealing off the bricks. She pressed onward, oblivious to the trail of green, bubbling fluid she left behind.


    WINGATE INN
    ROUND ROCK, TEXAS
    9:16 P.M.

    Mulder stared at the wall above the television, ignoring the sounds of Dennis Miller and the Rams-Buccaneers game on Monday Night Football. Things weren't adding up, and his usually reliable intuitive leaps were missing in action. Scully's medical evidence was shaping up to be the only facts they would have to work with. He'd scheduled an appointment with the high school principal for the next morning, and he still needed to question the deputies who had apprehended Acade, but he didn't see any new evidence arising to help clear up the matter.

    The wall wasn't serving as a good backrest for Mulder as he sat on the bed, so he propped up a pillow behind him and leaned back again, only slightly more comfortable. He shifted slightly, and his cell phone rang in unison with the creaking of the bedsprings. The agent reached over to the small nightstand and grabbed his phone, hitting a button as he put it to his ear.

    "Mulder."

    "Mulder, it's me."

    "How's it coming, Scully?"

    "It's not." The exhaustion was evident in her voice. "The histology lab is putting a rush job on those slides for me, so I should get a chance to look at them sometime tomorrow. It'll be weeks before we get anything back on that tox screen, so for now I can only guess that this is the same retrovirus."

    "We know we've got a dead coroner and a missing woman," he reminded her.

    "Which is exactly nothing more than we had when we arrived."

    "That's true," Mulder conceded. "But this web seems to be getting more tangled by the minute, Scully."

    "How do you mean?"

    "I talked to an eyewitness tonight, and I'm starting to think we aren't just looking for Jane Acade anymore."

    "Then what are we looking for?"

    "I'm guessing a clone."

    "Mulder, a day ago you thought this was some sort of alien-human hybrid! How many different theories are you going to ask me to believe?"

    "Hear me out, Scully. This eyewitness said that he saw Acade with a green stain on her shirt, by her shoulder. I'm guessing it's from a fresh wound, probably made from the M.E.'s attempt at making a Y-incision. But this woman that the police had in custody was perfectly healthy- with no wounds."

    "Mulder, the wounds could have been made after she escaped from custody."

    "They could have been, but I think my theory is frankly the more plausible one right now."

    "I don't think any explanation is plausible right now! We have nothing to go on!" Scully continued to rant, but Mulder's attention was drawn away by a sharp rapping at the door. "-investigating a case that seemingly has no explanation!"

    "Scully," Mulder cut in, standing to go to the door. "Somebody's here. I'll have to call you back."

    He hung up the phone, not hearing his partner's feeble protest. Mulder tossed the phone back onto the bed and started towards the door. The visitor knocked again, and the agent muttered something angrily. He stopped at the door and pressed his face to the wood, looking through the peephole. Seconds passed as Mulder tried to convince himself of what he was seeing. He took a step back and shook his head, in shock at the face he had seen through the small opening. The agent flipped the deadbolt and swung open the door just as his cell phone rang again.


    BEST WESTERN
    COLLEGE STATION, TEXAS

    Scully pressed the phone to her ear, listening to the hollow ringing. A faint click was heard, and then an eerie voice finally came on the line. "The cellular customer you are trying to reach is unavailable."

    "Damnit!" Scully slammed the receiver back in its cradle, and stormed to the sink. She turned the left knob, letting the warm water run over her hands. She pushed her moist fingers to her face, slowly kneading her skin. After a long day in the lab, the brush-off from Mulder was just too much. The agent reached for the white towel hanging on the rack and softly pushed it against her face, trying to quell the sting of rejection rising in her.

    Suddenly she started back to the nightstand, picking the receiver up as soon as she touched it. Scully sat down on her bed and dialed the number from memory. She heard the familiar rings again, and nervously tapped her fingernails on the cord. "We're sorry," the odd female voice began again, "bu-" The redhead shoved the phone back onto its base and leaned back onto the bed, exasperated. She didn't know what Mulder was doing, but she'd let him have it when she talked to him again.


    ROUND ROCK, TEXAS

    "I thought you were dead!" Mulder exclaimed.

    A white-haired man walked into his room and offered back a tired smile. "Sometimes I wish I were."

    The agent shook his head, still dumbfounded. "Jeremiah... this comes as a complete surprise. It seems like such an odd time to come back."

    "It's an important time, Mr. Mulder. Factions on both sides of the battle have made this into a chaotic war."

    Mulder cocked his head slightly, not grasping the man's point. Something made him realize he was still standing awkwardly, holding the door open, and he quickly shut it. "Sorry," he offered. "Have a seat."

    The older man looked around the hotel room, finally walking to a small table nestled in the opposite corner. He took a seat in a tiny chair, and Mulder perched atop the bed, eyeing his visitor with awe.

    "I'm sure you're wondering if I'm really me," Smith said.

    Mulder shook his head slowly, his eyes searching the man's features. "Well, yeah, I guess I am. But mainly I'm trying to figure out how you found me."

    "You're not that hard of a man to find, Mr. Mulder. Wherever there's a conflict in this battle, I know you'll be there."

    The agent narrowed his eyes. "You keep talking about a battle..." he trailed off.

    Smith nodded. "The battle for the planet, for the right to colonize. Your kind against mine."

    "But the men I knew to be planning for the colonization are all dead," Mulder started.

    "Some of them are," the man replied. "But then there are their competitors."

    "Their competitors?"

    "Something of a counter-conspiracy, Mr. Mulder. Working towards the same goal as the Syndicate you know, but employing different methods. The men of the counter-conspiracy are the ones who saved me; I owe my life to them."

    "Saved you from who?"

    "The very men who used to work with me. The ones you know that the rebels killed. They need to erase the evidence of their work, but the Conglomerate wanted me, they thought they could use me to help plan their resistance."

    "You're a lab rat," Mulder breathed.

    "No," Smith explained. "I provided the DNA they needed, and I had knowledge of how the Syndicate worked. It's like corporate espionage on a more grandiose scale."

    Mulder stared at the floor, absorbing the information. "So you feel there's still a chance?"

    "There's always a chance, Mr. Mulder. As long as there's one grain of sand left in the hourglass, it's not over."

    "And so you're here to get me to help you fight it," Mulder guessed.

    "In a way. The Syndicate is our only opposition, but they are formidable competition. If we want to proceed as planned, we have to stop them. My bosses feel that with the right information, you can destroy what is left of the Syndicate and let us continue with our work."

    "Your bosses?"

    "The men who run our project. You've met one of them." Mulder nodded, knowing Smith was referring to his run-in with Obsidian. "Men who felt that the Syndicate was no longer fulfilling their desires and eventually split off from it."

    "O.K. So what do you know?"

    Smith leaned in, his voice lowering as if they were carrying on a private conversation in a crowded restaurant. "The Syndicate is working on creating a standing army to survive the colonization- an army of alien-human hybrids. Their labs are stationed in an Air Force base in California." The old man handed Mulder a folded slip of paper. The agent opened it, looking at the words scrawled across it. "Acade is one of theirs. You need to find her if you want to know what they know, to know how you can stop them."

    "She's one of their hybrids?" Mulder asked.

    Smith shook his head. "I can't tell you anything else, Mr. Mulder. We're showing you a king right now, but we might still have an ace hidden in our hand."

    The agent nodded in comprehension. "I'll see what I can do, Jeremiah."

    "You have no idea how important this is. It's vital that you don't screw it up."

    "I make no guarantees." Mulder replied wryly.

    The old man stood from his chair and made his way to the door. He opened it and turned back to the agent. "I trust we'll see each other again, Mr. Mulder. Hopefully it'll be before the sand runs out." He left the hotel room, shutting the door behind him. The agent turned the piece of paper over in his hands, his fingertips tapping it in contemplation.


    COLLEGE STATION, TEXAS
    9:37 P.M.

    Scully stared at the phone, listening to its shrill rings. She knew it had to be Mulder; who else would be calling her now? A childish instinct for revenge kept her from answering it. If he could make her wait, she could do just the same to him.

    The agent reached for the remote control and firmly pushed a button, bringing a bright glow from the small television set. She raised the volume, hoping to tune out the annoying ringing. A football game played out across the screen, but it didn't hold Scully's interest. She flipped through the channels, finally deciding on a cable movie.

    The phone stopped ringing. Scully glanced over at it, knowing Mulder had to be getting nervous. A small grin grabbed the corners of her lips, lifting them, but she immediately chided herself for it. She knew it was immature to put her partner through a long-distance version of the cold shoulder.

    Scully reached for the cell phone, but as her fingers touched the small device it emitted another ring. Almost instantaneously she put it to her ear, pressing a button to answer the call. "Hello?"

    "Scully, where've you been?"

    "Sorry Mulder, I was... in the bathroom." She wanted to ask him the same question, but something prevented her from it.

    "I just got a visit from an old friend," he told her. "He had some information that is of great interest to our case, or so it seems."

    "Who was it?" She didn't realize it, but she had stood up, her quizzical stare piercing the wall as she waited for his response.

    "Jeremiah Smith," he finally told her. "It appears he's alive and well, and knows something about the missing woman. Something he's not completely ready to tell me."

    "But you have an idea," she deduced, recognizing the tone of his voice.

    "I think I know what he's getting at, but I won't know for sure until I go to California."

    "California?"

    "Wembley Air Force Base, outside of Sacramento."

    "Mulder, I've still got lab results to wait for, I can't head off-"

    "I'm not going yet," he revealed, cutting her off. "I still need to talk to some people tomorrow, make sure I've got the right feel for this case. I don't want to walk into something I'm not expecting."

    "Mulder, are you being cautious?" She listened to silence as her partner failed to find a sufficient answer. "I don't think I've ever seen you be careful about anything!"

    "I've got a bad feeling about this case, Scully." His words were soft and low, as if saying them too loudly would wound him.

    "Take your time, Mulder. Hasty investigational work has never solved anything."

    "I will," he said, pausing for a moment. "I'm going to leave late tomorrow night. Keep in touch and let me know what your slides turn up."

    "Mulder," Scully started quietly. She stopped, hesitant to ask her question. "What do you think she is?"

    "I think you already know, Scully."

    She scratched the back of her head, her brow furrowed with concern. "Then be careful, Mulder. If you're right, we both know how dangerous she is."

    "Come on, Scully. You can't ask me to be careful about everything." She laughed as her partner offered a hasty goodbye. Slowly, the agent put her phone down, suddenly suffering from the same unsettling foreboding he had spoke of.


    PFLUGERVILLE HIGH SCHOOL
    DECEMBER 19TH, 2000
    7:58 A.M.

    Mulder pushed back into the small chair, shifting his numb legs. He glanced around the room, drumming a rhythm with his fingers on the hard, black, plastic armrests.

    A receptionist looked up, irritated. She offered him a sarcastic smile. "I'm sure Principal Sarving will be in shortly."

    The agent looked at his watch uncomfortably. "I had an appointment for 7:45."

    The woman tried to hide her contempt, but her eyes betrayed her emotion. "I'm sorry, Mr. Mulder, but the principal has many matters to attend to."

    He nodded, not at all satisfied. He hated waiting for the man, but he really needed some evidence to corroborate Smith's claims. If Acade had stuffed the medical examiner into the locker, there would surely be telling signs in the school. Mulder leaned his head up against the wall, unleashing a loud sigh. The receptionist glanced up for only a second, her glare going unnoticed.

    The office door was flung open, emitting a sharp thwack as it hit the wall. A tall man hurried in past Mulder and into an open room. The agent looked at the receptionist expectantly, tired of wasting his time. She slowly stood, begrudgingly walking to the doorway of the open room.

    The agent could faintly make out her words. "Excuse me, Principal Sarving, but a Mr. Mulder was scheduled to see you at 7:45."

    He couldn't hear the principal's response, but he could infer it as the receptionist approached him. "Mr. Mulder, you can see him now." Her words seemed to be a mix of disgust and relief.

    "Thank you." The agent stood and strolled to the principal's office, questions already formulating in his mind.

    The principal sat behind a dark, ornate wooden desk, obviously a relic of some past century. Papers littered what was once a useful desk calendar, and a Rolodex rested on the corner of the piece of furniture, opened to a listing near the middle.

    "Agent Mulder, sorry I'm late." The man seemed genuinely apologetic. "Please, have a seat."

    "Thank you." The agent complied, pulling out a miniature tape recorder. "Do you mind?" he asked, gesturing to the device.

    "No, not at all." The principal's hands were folded, his fingers interlocked. "I truly appreciate your trying to bring this matter to a close."

    "That seems to be a community-wide consensus," Mulder commented, while placing the tape recorder on the man's desk. A small red light was illuminated, ensuring the agent that he would be able to review every word of the conversation at a later time.

    "We just want to put a dark chapter behind us," Sarving said. "This type of violence doesn't usually happen here. The biggest problems we usually have are with gangs and vandalism."

    Mulder nodded, thinking. "But the gangs never do anything violent?"

    "Not anything like this, if that's what you mean. The two main gangs on campus seem to be pointing fingers at each other right now, but I have to say I don't think either one is responsible."

    Mulder seemed intrigued. "What makes you think that?"

    "There's just too many oddities that don't sit right with me. Besides, in my experience with other schools, when gangs finally resort to violence, it's directed at their opposition."

    The agent paused, looking at the floor. After a moment's contemplation, he looked back up at the principal. "Was the medical examiner related in any way to one of your students?"

    Sarving seemed to be ready for the question. "Not as far as we can tell. We are conducting our own internal investigation into the matter, and that was one of the first things we addressed."

    Mulder ran his fingers through his hair. Everything was still pointing towards the fantastic possibility, but he hadn't wanted to alienate the man with absurd questions immediately. He felt that now he could edge into the gray area with his interrogation.

    "You said there were oddities about this. Do you mean physical evidence that strikes you as odd?"

    "Well, yes, in a way." Sarving replied. He gazed into the papers atop his desk, silently deciding upon the right words. "The case itself is quite weird, but there are little things turning up now that I think must be related to that man's body."

    "Things that the police didn't find?"

    "Right. The police couldn't find the padlock that had been on the locker. They assumed it had been cut off, but later that day one of our janitors found it." Sarving paused, still unsure of the validity of what he was about to say. "The metal... It looked like it had been eaten away by some sort of acid."

    "And you didn't show this to the police?"

    "You have to remember that when we found it, the woman had already been caught. I didn't think it had any bearing on the case, so-"

    "Didn't have any bearing?" Mulder repeated, cutting the man off. He was dumbfounded by the man's ignorance, but tried to conceal his surprise as he continued. "Withholding evidence is a crime, Mr. Sarving."

    "Mr. Mulder, the woman had been captured. People here need a name to go on their faceless criminal monster. With her off the streets, their fears were alleviated. I wasn't going to steal away their sense of security by raising more questions." Mulder's stare was still filled with appalled shock. "Anyhow," the principal continued, "The next day when she disappeared, I went to retrieve the lock to give it to the police, but it had gone missing."

    "Someone's erasing the evidence that she was here," Mulder mumbled. Sarving gave him an inquisitive look, his eyebrows arched, but the agent ignored him, instead continuing his questioning. "You said there were things that bothered you about the case. What else was there?"

    The principal stood and waved an arm towards the doorway. "I'd be happy to show you."

    Mulder rose from his seat, accepting the invitation. Sarving led the way out of his office, the agent close behind. As they passed the front desk, the receptionist lobbed another disdainful expression at the him. Mulder nodded back, serving his own sarcastic smile in return.


    8:12 A.M.

    Mulder crouched near the ground, carefully scrutinizing the asphalt before him. A hole spanned a considerable width of the ground, its edges ragged. He turned his head, glancing up at the principal. "And you found this when?"

    "Just yesterday morning. The girls were heading to basketball practice and one of them sprained their ankle in it." Mulder eyed the hole again, briefly flicking his gaze towards the women's gym beyond it. "I know this wasn't there before, Agent Mulder. I drive this road every day to get to the staff parking lot, but since the body was found on Saturday and everything except for the main office closed for Christmas break on Friday, it could have been made any time this weekend."

    "That's awfully early to close, isn't it?"

    "The extended break is one of the few perks of starting the school year in early August."

    The agent turned his attention back to the hole, not sure if he should believe the man's story. Since Mulder had chastised the principal for withholding evidence, Sarving would probably not admit to it again. "Well, if it suddenly appeared, that would rule out erosion," Mulder commented, standing. "It really doesn't help me find Miss Acade, though."

    "I'm sorry, but we haven't found anything else." Sarving seemed to be truly disappointed; the agent assumed he was trying to make up for his dishonesty.

    Mulder nodded. "That's alright." He pulled a set of car keys from his pocket, and started his walk to the parking lot. "Be sure to call me if you find anything else out of the ordinary."

    Sarving nodded, unaware that a broad-shouldered man was watching him through the glass doors of the women's gym. The principal turned and sauntered towards the main building, while his observer pocketed a small, metal tube. Sarving rounded a corner, and the broad-shouldered man stepped out of the gym, a silenced pistol held in his tight grip.


    PFLUGERVILLE, TEXAS
    8:57 A.M.

    The first thing that struck Mulder as he entered the station was the unusual lack of chaos. No criminals sat in handcuffs awaiting processing. No beat cops stood around the coffee machine trading gossip. The phones were silent, and only two deputies sat at their desks, their presence being the only sign of life in the room.

    "Mullinex here?" Mulder asked.

    One of the deputies glanced up, sizing Mulder up in a look. "Yeah." The man tilted his head back, gesturing to an office behind him.

    "Thanks." The agent briskly walked through the maze of desks and came to the sheriff's door. JACKSON MULLINEX was printed in black letters on a plate glass window built into the door. Mulder rapped on the glass with his knuckles, his eyes cast to the old, tile floor.

    "It's open," the sheriff told him.

    Mulder pushed the door ajar and eased his way into the room. "Good morning, sheriff."

    Mullinex looked up, not recognizing the voice. "Agent Mulder, good morning!" He paused for a moment, as Scully's absence suddenly dawned on him. "And your partner is where this morning?"

    "In College Station, formulating her own medical opinion about the case."

    The sheriff's eyebrows arched. "Performing the autopsy you asked her to do?"

    "Actually, she did that yesterday. We're waiting on slides and tox screens so we can know exactly what killed your medical examiner."

    "Any early guesses?" the sheriff probed.

    "It was definitely chemical poisoning of some sort, as far as she can tell. Fortunately, it's something we've seen before, but we just haven't ever put a name to it."

    Mullinex's expression revealed his lack of understanding. "You've seen it before but you still don't know what it is?"

    Mulder hesitated for a moment, trying to find an acceptable way to give the detective an explanation. "Sheriff, the department I work in at the FBI is known as the 'X-Files'. They are cases that seem unexplainable. Usually the explanations we find are related to paranormal phenomena." The sheriff tried to keep a straight face, but bewilderment crept onto his fašade. "The chemical at work here once afflicted me. It clots the blood, and unless the body is kept at a low temperature, the subject dies."

    The sheriff stared back at him, speechless. Finally he tried to form something resembling a comprehensible sentence. "Right," Mullinex managed.

    "I know that this is hard to swallow, but you'll have to trust my judgement and expertise here." Mulder thought back to his telephone conversation with Scully before continuing. "And I'd have to recommend that you and your men exercise extreme caution. There seems to be someone who is intent on destroying the evidence of this crime."

    The sheriff only responded with a slight nod, even though his brain was working overtime. "The real reason I came here though," Mulder announced, "Was to talk to the men who apprehended Acade." The agent let his eyes rove to the open doorway and the bullpen beyond it. "There doesn't seem to be many people here, though."

    "It gets this way a week or so before Christmas," Mullinex explained, recovered from his temporary speaking disability. "Guys want to spend some time with their families during the holidays, but most of them have to work on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. So, they do the next best thing and take off now." He checked the desk clock and offered a solution. "It's not too early yet, so hopefully most of them won't be out and about yet. I'll see if I can round them up for ya."

    "Thanks," Mulder replied, taking a seat in the office's only chair reserved for visitors. Mullinex took the phone out of its cradle, and the agent leaned his head back, hoping that he wouldn't have to wait long before continuing his investigation.

    PFLUGERVILLE HIGH SCHOOL
    9:14 A.M.

    The receptionist walked into the main office, balancing donuts on a plate in one hand and two cups of coffee in the palm of her other. "Mr. Sarving, I have your coffee," she called out as she carefully set the items on her desk.

    The woman took a bite of the sweet confection, waiting for a response from her superior. Abnormal silence continued in the room. She took a sip of her coffee as she turned to face his office. His door was closed. "How odd," she muttered. Sarving was never one to close his office to the public; it made him seem more approachable to leave the door open, or so he always said.

    She grabbed his coffee from her desk and glided to his door. She cautioned a soft knock and waiting a few seconds for an answer. "Sir?" she said. "I have the coffee you asked for."

    Still there was no form of replication from within his office. The receptionist ran her tongue over her upper teeth, deliberating over his uncharacteristic seclusion. Suddenly the door flung open and Sarving faced her. "Yes, Janet?" he asked hastily.

    "I... have your coffee," she reiterated.

    "Thank you." Janet tried to look past him into the office. There was an odd odor, like something had been burning.

    "Are you alright, sir?"

    "Yes, I'm fine. I just have work to do."

    "Sorry, sir. Let me know if you need anything."

    Sarving shut the door, and briskly marched back to his desk. He stopped beside it, carefully stepping over a body on the floor. It looked every inch to be him that was lying there, a bullet hole planted in the center of the forehead.

    The principal folded the body at the waist and slid it under the desk. He took a handkerchief from the victim's breast pocket and wiped blood splatters from atop the dark wood and off of the wall behind the desk.

    Sarving stepped on top of the desk and slid a ceiling tile to the side. He offered one final glance back to his closed door as his face morphed into his own persona- that of the Alien Bounty Hunter. He reached up and curled his fingers tightly around the metal railing, pulling himself upward into the catacombs of the school's ductworks. The man slid the tile back in place behind him and crawled forward, the metal of a corroded padlock jangling against the stiletto tube in his pocket.


    TEXAS A&M UNIVERSITY
    DEPARTMENT OF PATHOLOGY AND LABORATORY MEDICINE
    9:32 A.M.

    The autopsy report spread across the table before Scully. She gnawed on the end of her red pen, scanning the pages for any errors. Her hand moved to a sheet, and a red mark was added to the collection of them among the report.

    A research assistant appeared in the doorway behind her. Hesitantly, he knocked, feeling guilty for disrupting her work. The agent turned to face her visitor. "Miss Scully, your slides are ready for viewing," he announced.

    The tired redhead couldn't even offer an appreciative smile. "Where are they?" she asked.

    "I'll take you to see them, ma'am. We've already had them on the microscope, and I have to say they are very interesting."

    Scully stood to follow the assistant. "How so?" she wondered.

    "I think you'll have to see it to believe it." The man began down the hallway hastily. The agent followed, her brow furrowed as she tried to imagine what cellular anomalies could be waiting for her under the magnified lens of the microscope.

    The pair turned a corner, Scully still mulling over the possibilities. Her uncomfortable foreboding had returned, but she still could find no obvious cause for her worry. The assistant opened a door and they entered an impressive lab.

    A professor stood to greet them. He had been observing a slide magnification on a computer monitor, an image that was eerily familiar to Scully. "Agent Scully, welcome. I think you'll be quite perplexed by our findings."

    "I'm used to it by now," she commented, walking towards the computer. "This is one of the slides?"

    "Yes," the professor replied. "Taken from the victim's liver."

    "So what exactly can we see here?" she asked. "I know I've seen it before, but I can't place it. It's been quite a while since med school."

    "Most of the cells here have been killed," the man explained. "What's so hard to believe are the cells that are left over, the cells responsible for killing off the others. Before this man's death, they were growing out of control- cancerous cells destroying the organ."

    "He was dying of cancer?" Scully asked.

    "I don't think so, Agent." The professor switched slides, the monitor temporarily filling with a bright light as he performed the change. A similar image popped on the screen as he finished. "This was taken from the heart. Again, cancerous cells killing off their neighbors."

    "How is that possible?" Scully breathed.

    "It's not," he replied. "And just to add to your puzzlement, we have slides from the brain and kidneys that have the same cellular activity."

    "There's no way the man was living like this," Scully said.

    "Which means whatever killed him not only clotted his arteries, it also ravaged his vital organs."

    "What kind of coagulating agent would do that?" Scully's eyes were wide, her disbelief growing.

    "I don't know of one that would, Agent Scully." The professor's tone carried a hint of sadness, disappointment that he couldn't be of further help.

    The agent gazed at the monitor, thinking. "If history's any indication, my tox screen is going to come up clean," she realized.

    "I really don't see what else we can do. All we know about your chemical is what its effects are. We have no idea where it came from or what sets it off."

    Scully perked up, an idea formulating. "Maybe we do." The professor and his assistant leaned in expectantly. "Cold temperatures are the one thing that keep this thing from killing the subject. Maybe if we heat up the cells enough, the agent will become active again."

    "And we can see if its behavior matches any known coagulating agents," the professor finished, sensing the agent's logic.

    Scully turned to leave the room. "I'm going to see if I can dig up an old autopsy report from a similar case. Let me know if this works."

    "Absolutely," the professor promised. His assistant nodded in agreement, their anticipation scrawled across their faces. Scully hurried out of the room, her cell phone already to her ear.


    PFLUGERVILLE, TEXAS
    10:06 A.M.

    The three deputies sat nervously in their chairs. As defenders of the law, this was a new position for them. Their interrogator gave each one a careful stare. "Can you tell me why it took three deputies to apprehend Miss Acade?" Mulder asked them.

    They glanced at each other, unsure of who should respond. Finally one piped up. "I just happened to be in the area when John and Steve made the call they were apprehending the missing woman."

    "And your partner didn't assist you?"

    "I was off-duty, sir. I've got a scanner in my car, so I can know what's going down."

    "From what I hear, not a whole lot 'goes down' around here." Mulder's comment forced the deputy's eyes to the cement floor. The agent faced the other two. "John and Steve, right? You were the ones who actually made the arrest?"

    "Yes, sir," John responded.

    "Miss Acade was in good health when you apprehended her?"

    "Yeah. Little woman, too. Don't see how she could stuff a grown man into a locker."

    "You'd be surprised," Mulder muttered. "Did she seem abnormally strong to either of you?" All three deputies were surprised by the question. "You brought up the fact that it would be tough for her to put a body in a locker. I'm just trying to figure out how she'd do it."

    John moved his mouth, hoping to find an answer. "Uh... I don't really remember her being strong." His words sounded almost like a question for his partner to verify.

    "You mind telling me how the woman escaped?" Mulder's voice was strong; he had no qualms about barreling into the touchy subject.

    The third deputy spoke up again. "I think the blame ought to fall on me for that."

    Mulder shifted his jaw. "I think the police department's internal investigation will determine who the blame falls on. What I'm asking is how exactly someone in your custody just mysteriously vanished."

    "We don't know, sir," John said. "Frankly, I thought that was why you were here."

    The agent let out a sigh. "Perhaps you could help me by describing what happened when she disappeared."

    "Steve and I were filling out the paperwork for the arrest," John said. "Mike was interrogating her. She wasn't talking, so he let her cool her heels for a bit. When he went back in, she was gone."

    Mulder glanced at Mike. "Can you provide a little more detail?"

    "Yeah." Mike seemed more confident, his nerves having subsided. "I tried every different line of questioning I could think of. The woman just wouldn't talk. Gave me a real evil glare most of the time. Eventually I just gave up and went to go get some water. I was going to go back in and try again, but Mullinex came out of the interrogation room and stopped me at the door. He said she still wasn't talking, but that I was free to try if I wanted to. I finished my water and then went in, but she was gone."

    "You said Mullinex came out of the interrogation room?"

    "Yeah."

    "Did anybody see him go in?"

    The three men looked at each other. "I don't think so," Mike decided. "What does the sheriff have to do with anything?"

    Mulder walked to the door of the room. "Oh, it's probably nothing," he lied. "Thanks for your time, guys." He opened the door, holding it ajar for the men to exit. The deputies shuffled out, the agent right on their heels. He traveled the short distance to Mullinex's office and rapped on the glass.

    "Come in!"

    "Hey again, Sheriff." Mulder's greeting came before he was even completely through the doorway.

    "You talk to my men, Agent Mulder?"

    "Yes, I did." The agent ran his fingers through his unkempt hair. "I've got a couple of questions though." The sheriff nodded his consent, his face haggard. "Mainly, why did the deputies who apprehended the woman question her first instead of you?"

    The man thought back to the day in question. "I was in a budget meeting. We couldn't be disturbed, even for something as big as her arrest."

    Mulder gave the man a satisfied look. "So you didn't question her at all before her disappearance?"

    The sheriff was obviously confused. His tired eyes searched Mulder's face for an explanation. "Well, no. Why'd you ask?"

    "Nothing, sir." He paused only a moment before blurting out his next question. "Do you have personnel files here?"

    "Well, yes, but-"

    "Where are they?" Mulder cut the flustered man off.

    "Right here behind me." The sheriff motioned to a filing cabinet, but still had no idea what was going on. "What do you need from them?"

    "I shouldn't even try to explain it," Mulder said. "What I think is going on is so unbelievable even my partner has doubts."

    "Well," Mullinex started, watching Mulder scurry to the cabinet and begin rifling through files. "What do you think happened?"

    "Like I said, I shouldn't even try to explain it." Mulder shoved the cabinet drawer shut, sliding a picture into his trenchcoat pocket. "But if I'm right, at least we can try to put this case to rest."

    The sheriff mouthed something, but changed his mind in mid-thought. Before he could even attempt another statement, the agent was already out the door, leaving the sheriff behind to suffer from his own befuddlement.


    DELL COMPUTER CORPORATION
    ROUND ROCK CAMPUS
    ROUND ROCK, TEXAS
    10:52 A.M.

    Mulder stood near a circular table in an employee break lounge. Vallmer leaned a wall, watching the agent expectantly. A soda machine stood not far away, nestled into a built-in space between the sink and the refrigerator, its light shedding a bright glow into the air around it.

    "I was told you had some more questions for me," Vallmer commented.

    "Not many, just one," Mulder clarified, his eyes speaking of his anticipation. He reached into his trenchcoat and pulled out a picture. "Is this the officer that talked to you the other day, sir?"

    Vallmer only had to look at the photo for an instant. "Yes, that was him alright."

    Mulder pocketed the picture again. "Thank you, sir. That's all I needed."

    "I can show you out," Vallmer offered as he walked towards the doorway.

    "No, that's alright. Thank you though." Mulder waited patiently, hoping the man would leave so he could have privacy in the lounge for a few moments. Vallmer evidently sensed this, leaving amidst an awkward silence.

    The agent took a seat in front of the table, pulling his cell phone from his trenchcoat. He held down a key, utilizing the phone's one-touch dialing. Moments later, he could hear a pleasant ring as he held the device to his ear.

    "Scully," his partner answered.

    "It's me," he announced. "Where are you?"

    "I'm on the road," she revealed. Mulder mentally chided himself for not recognizing the telltale signs of driving in the background.

    "You're heading down here?"

    "Sort of," Scully replied. "I got a chance to look at those histology slides today, Mulder, and they are absolutely bizarre. All of the man's vital organs are riddled with cancer cells, but it appears that they weren't there until shortly before the time of death."

    "This chemical causes a fast-acting cancer to kill the victim?" An employee walked into the break lounge, and Mulder lowered his head along with his voice.

    "I'm not sure. I don't think the cancer is responsible for the death, but it looks like it is a side effect of the chemical."

    "So the thickening of the blood kills the person, but their organs are afflicted with cancer."

    "Essentially, yes."

    Mulder stretched his gray cells, his silent meditations interrupted momentarily by the intrusive thud of a soda can smacking the bottom of the machine. The employee pulled her can from the machine and left the room, throwing the agent a curious stare. "So it's like a back-up plan in case the person survives the blood clotting?"

    Scully paused. "I suppose that's possible Mulder, but-"

    "Then why am I still alive?" he asked, finishing her thought. "If that's true, then I should have died long ago from cancer."

    "Mulder, I wouldn't go so far as to say that just yet." He gazed through the floor, letting an unusual serenity fill the line. "Mulder?"

    "Yeah, Scully. I'm here." He paused for a moment before continuing. "I received some information from my interviews today that are leading me to believe this case has even more familiar aspects."

    "Which are what?"

    "The Bounty Hunter, Scully. Remember when I said that the woman the police apprehended was probably a clone?"

    "Yeah." She didn't sound nearly as confident as her partner.

    "From everything I've heard today, I think he was the person they caught. The officers said that they saw the sheriff come out of the interrogation room right before the woman disappeared, but he said he was in a meeting. That could be easily explained away if the Bounty Hunter was the one in custody."

    "OK, Mulder, I'll agree that your theory would explain what happened, but maybe the deputies were just mistaken."

    "Then they'd be mistaken along with the only other person to see Acade alive. The real Acade, that is. This man, Fredrick Vallmer, he claimed that an officer had already taken his statement. Tell me why the sheriff never told us that he interviewed the eyewitness, Scully."

    "This is a big case for these people, Mulder. The sheriff has been pretty involved so far. He probably just didn't think to mention it."

    "Fine. But I'd be willing to bet that the sheriff wasn't the one who talked to the witness."

    "Mulder, just ask him." Scully tried to keep a condescending tone out of her voice and barely succeeded.

    "Alright. I'll see you when you get here, then."

    "I'm not headed back to Pflugerville, Mulder. I'm going to Bergstrom to catch a flight back to D.C."

    "What for?"

    "I think this can all tie back to the case five years ago, Mulder. There's got to be something there in the files, in the records, that we are overlooking."

    "O.K. Call me as soon as you get there, Scully."

    "I will."

    They exchanged goodbyes, and Mulder slowly set the phone down on the table. This case was moving extremely quickly, and he still had an awful foreboding gnawing at his soul. His eyes were scanning the floor when something Scully had said touched a nerve in his mind. Cautiously, he reached a hand behind him, tenderly touching the skin on the back of his neck.


    URGENT MEDICAL CLINIC
    AUSTIN, TEXAS
    11:46 A.M.

    Jane Acade crouched behind a row of bushes, intently watching the entrance to the clinic. Her entire shirt was saturated with a dark green liquid, the color of the stain extremely unappealing. Exhausted, she let her knees buckle, collapsing to the ground. With her face pressed against the soft dirt, she could still see the clinic's door through a small opening under the bushes.

    Her vision was clouding, everything around her becoming blurry. She knew that she didn't have much time left. If she couldn't find him soon, she would degenerate into a bubbling pool of green liquid, evaporating into the air.

    The glass door of the clinic was pushed open, and Acade could see a pair of feet walking briskly down the sidewalk. Mustering all of her energy, she pushed herself back up, barely letting her head peek above the top of the foliage. The feet belonged to a tall man, with a widow's peak above his furrowed brow. Jane let her arms cease their work, and her upper body fell the short distance to the ground again.

    The man glanced at the bushes at the faint sound. Not noticing anything, he continued to his car. As soon as the thud of the car door closing greeted her ears, the woman pushed herself up slightly yet again. The engine gunned to life, and she could barely see the figure of the car through the bushes as it backed out of its parking spot and started towards the road.

    Biting her lip, Acade stood. Pain engulfed her, every inch of her body wanting to give out. She knew her time was close. This was probably her last chance.

    Hesitantly, the woman walked towards the door. She had no idea how many people were in the office, but she hoped the man she had spied leaving was its only occupant that morning. Each step caused her body to scream out in pain, demanding that she stop the cruel torture. The door inched closer with each excruciating step. Moments later her shaky hand was touching the glass door.

    Jane pulled the door open and staggered into the building. "May I help you?" a friendly voice immediately greeted her. She damned her fate, squeezing her eyes shut in a pointless attempt to stop the agony. Finally her body reached its limit, and she crashed to the floor.

    The man who had greeted her stood from behind his desk, his face recoiled in terror at the woman lying on the floor. "Oh, my God," he breathed. Panicking, he looked all around the room in an effort to find a clue as to what to do. Something clicked in the back of his confused mind, and he realized that the woman needed medical attention. He raced to her and cradled her body, carrying her into a room down the main hallway. Shifting her weight in his arms, he eased her down onto a hospital bed. "Oh, my God," he mumbled to himself again.

    A figure entered the room behind the distraught receptionist. Acade's eyes widened in paralyzed horror as she saw who had entered. It appeared the same man who had just left the clinic, but she knew differently. It was her assassin, the Bounty Hunter who had been sent to clean up her mess.

    With a rush of air, a needle thrust out of the tube the Bounty Hunter carried in his hand. The barely audible noise had startled the receptionist, however, and he whirled around. "Dr. Whest, what are you doing here?" he managed to ask. The words were barely out of his mouth when a backhanded blow sent him sprawling into the wall.

    The Bounty Hunter advanced towards the bed, Acade unleashing a primal scream. She tried to fight her exhaustion, to move off of the bed and run away from her assassin. The energy was gone, though, and she could only cringe as the Bounty Hunter put a massive hand on her shoulder. With a rough shove, he rolled her over on the bed and jammed the needle into the back of her neck. Green fluid bubbled around the metal probe and the Bounty Hunter gave a slight nod.

    Behind him, the receptionist struggled to his feet, wavering. "What are you doing?" he challenged, his voice weak.

    The Bounty Hunter turned and replied with an unflinching stare. He reached into his suit, pulling out the silenced pistol. "There will be no witnesses," he muttered. The receptionist stood completely still as the assassin pulled the trigger twice, snuffing out another life.


    SETON NORTHWEST HOSPITAL
    AUSTIN, TEXAS
    12:02 P.M.

    The lead apron pushed into Mulder's chest, its blue hue nearing a shade of black in the dim room. He tried to breathe deeply, the heavy weight constricting his movement. His nerves were already wired; every unexpected movement in the room, no matter how small, put him more on edge.

    "Hold very still," the attendant commanded from the safety of his observation room. The X-ray machine emitted a hum for only a few seconds, and moments later the attendant re-entered the room.

    Mulder shifted uncomfortably, the clunky apron not moving with him. Its edge pushed into his side. "Can I take this off now?" he asked.

    "Sure," the attendant replied with a smile. He reached behind the agent's head and pulled a square tray from the machine. "If you can change back into your clothes, we'll have someone out to discuss the results with you in about five minutes."

    Mulder stood, leaving the apron lying on the stool he had just occupied. He shuffled out of the room and into the adjacent changing cubby. He pulled the curtain closed behind him. Quickly, the agent switched back into his typical clothing.

    Suffering from cell phone withdrawal, he immediately pulled out the device. Its small display informed him that he had missed two calls. He hit a button, and the incoming phone number was displayed. Mulder didn't recognize it, but the area code was the local one. He hit two more buttons and put the phone to his ear. Instead of a ring, he was greeted with a series of beeping noises. Evidently the service was spotty inside the building.

    Mulder pocketed the phone and pushed aside the curtain, stepping into the hallway. He followed the plain tile walkway back to the waiting room and plopped into a chair, his nerves still shot. His right leg bounced up and down rapidly, his mind elsewhere while the motion continued. He checked his watch, chewing on his lip as he watched the seconds tick by. The agent only waited for about three minutes, but each moment was an unending torture.

    A doctor approached him, a large brown envelope in his hands. "Mr. Mulder?" he asked.

    "Yes, sir." The agent stood to shake the doctor's hand.

    "If you'll follow me, sir, we'll go take a look at these."

    "Absolutely," Mulder said, his voice void of all confidence. The doctor started back down the hallway that the agent had traveled just minutes prior. Mulder followed, and the doctor turned into the second doorway, the lanky man right behind him.

    The doctor flipped on a dim light and walked to a darkened board. He pulled the X-rays from inside the envelope and hooked them into the top of the board. He hit another switch, and a fluorescent light sprung from the board. A ghostly white figure filled the three X-rays.

    Mulder stared silently at the transparencies, not listening to the doctor's words. "We're not exactly sure what you were looking for," the man said, unaware his audience was not paying attention. "But there definitely was something odd in your X-rays." The agent continued to stare silently at the eerie white figures on the transparencies.

    The sheets were dominated by an X-ray image of him from mid-chest up to his head, but Mulder's eyes were locked onto one spot. He continued to gawk at the images of his body, rage building within him as he recognized the small, bright white object he could see embedded under the skin of his neck.


    WASHINGTON, D.C.
    1:10 P.M.

    Obsidian leaned into the chain-link fence, his face pressing into the metal. He watched children, bundled in coats and scarves, scamper through a playscape. His expression softened to one of compassion as his gaze fell upon a young boy. The boy looked to be about six years old, his small body wrapped in the warmth of a Baltimore Ravens jacket.

    The boy started to cross the monkey bars, his little feet dangling in midair. He let out a short yelp as he lost his grip on the cold bars, plunging to the ground. The time that passed before the boy started to wail was too short for even the most sophisticated timer to measure.

    "Clayton! Clayton, are you alright?" a concerned woman called out, running to the boy. She cradled him in her arms, rocking him gently. "Baby, you're gonna be O.K. It's just a little boo-boo," she soothed.

    The pain was evident in Obsidian's eyes as he watched the incident. The woman was still rocking her son, trying to shush his cries. She glanced up, seeing that Obsidian was watching them. Her eyes burned hatred for the man, and she quickly looked back down to the child. "Baby, we've got to go," she said, standing with him still in her arms. It was obvious that he was heavy for her to carry, but she still continued on, walking towards the street.

    Obsidian sighed, turning around. He leaned back into the metal, tilting his face towards the sky. He closed his eyes, happier memories filling his mind. "He's in danger now, you know," a voice muttered, breaking into his thoughts.

    Obsidian's eyes flicked open, already knowing who had spoken to him. He cast his eyes towards the man, Alex Krycek. "Who's in danger?" he asked, not moving from his position on the fence.

    "Your son," Krycek explained. "The Smoking Man knows you've defected, Welsh. If he can't get to you, he'll get to the thing he knows that matters the most to you."

    Obsidian glared at the man. "Spender lacks morals, but he wouldn't hurt a child."

    "The man is dying, Jack. He has nothing to lose."

    Anger rose to dangerous levels within Obsidian, and suddenly he lunged at Krycek. He grabbed onto the man's jacket and flung him into the fence. The children on the playscape stopped their antics and watched the confrontation. "If you or anyone touches my son, I'll kill you." Obsidian threatened, shaking the renegade agent. "I don't care if it costs me my life. You will die and burn in hell with that old, smoking son of a bitch." Rage blazed in the his eyes, but Obsidian's voice never rose to a shout.

    Krycek stared back at his assailant calmly. "I wouldn't think of hurting him, Jack. I'm just here to warn you." Obsidian's eyes still burned with contempt, but Alex continued. "And I want to offer you a partnership."

    "A partnership?" Obsidian laughed, disdain leaping from his words.

    "Our goals are the same," Krycek reasoned, "And we both share a hatred for Spender."

    "If you're willing to double cross them, how do I know you won't do the same to me?"

    "That's a risk you have to be willing to take," Krycek stated. He stepped away forcefully, pulling Obsidian's grip from his jacket. "Protect your son and protect the cause. They're the only things you've got left." The renegade agent turned his back to the man, stalking down the snow-covered sidewalk.


    PFLUGERVILLE, TEXAS
    1:32 P.M.

    Mulder entered the station, his eyes downcast, musing on his findings. Scully was living with a chip in her neck, so surely he could do the same. There was no need to tell her yet; it would only cause unneeded worry. He'd have to break the news in person, so she could see that he was alright.

    "Agent Mulder, where have you been?" someone called out to him. He glanced up, seeing Mullinex approaching him. "I tried to call you twice, but you didn't pick up."

    "I had an appointment," the agent mumbled. "What did you need to talk to me about?"

    "That principal you talked to this morning turned up dead, shot execution style," the sheriff told him. Mulder's narrowed his eyes, surprised at the news. "About thirty minutes later I received another call from APD. Seems they've got a victim that was killed with the same MO in a medical clinic on the north side of town."

    Mulder nibbled on his lip, thinking. "Any sign of Acade at either crime scene?"

    "No," the sheriff told him, "But no one has really had a chance to look at the second one. Some sort of chemical ate clean through a bed at the clinic, so EMS has the place temporarily quarantined until CDC can send somebody out there."

    Fear seized the agent and he instinctively reached for his cell phone. He held down a well-worn key, and the device dialed Scully's number. A friendly voice immediately greeted him. "The person you are calling is either unavailable or has traveled out of the service area."

    "Damnit!" Mulder shouted, knowing his partner must have already boarded the plane.

    "Agent, what is the matter?" the sheriff asked, worried about the man's mental stability.

    Mulder breathed out heavily, seething. "Somebody is cleaning up a mess here." The sheriff's blank stare made it evident he didn't comprehend the agent's explanation. "The principal is dead, the coroner is dead, and now this third victim, who I'm willing to bet saw Jane Acade before he was killed. Everyone who knows something about this case is being eliminated, which means that we are all in danger- you, me, Agent Scully, and your deputies."

    Mullinex was dumbfounded. "We're in danger?"

    "Extreme danger," Mulder clarified. "These people will stop at nothing to protect their cause."

    "Who?" The sheriff was utterly confused. "Slow down, agent. I don't understand who wants us dead."

    "It doesn't matter who," Mulder exclaimed, backpedaling to the doorway. "Just lock yourself in here and don't let anybody else in- even me."

    "Where are you going?" Mullinex wondered.

    "There's another witness left," Mulder said, his back hitting the door and pushing it open. "If I'm not too late."

    DELL COMPUTER CORPORATION
    ROUND ROCK CAMPUS
    ROUND ROCK, TEXAS
    1:53 P.M.

    "May I help you sir?" a receptionist inquired as Mulder ran up to her desk.

    "I need to see Fredrick Vallmer," the agent panted, pulling out his badge. "I'm with the FBI; I spoke to him earlier today."

    The woman glanced at the visitor's log. Satisfied that Mulder was being honest, she picked up her phone and dialed a number. "Let me tell him he has a visitor, sir." She waited patiently, listening to the rings. The woman pursed her lips for a few moments before addressing Mulder. "Sir, his message says that he's already left for the day. I can leave a voice mail if you wish." She looked up, spotting the agent as he darted back to the glass doors and the parking lot beyond.


    2:12 P.M.

    Mulder sprinted up the familiar sidewalk, focusing on the hanging door wreath as he approached. With his final step, the agent pounded on the door. "Mr. Vallmer, open up, please! This is Agent Mulder from the FBI!"

    The lanky man waited only a few seconds before attacking the door again. "Sir, if you are home, please open up now. It's imperative that I talk to you!" Mulder cautiously walked backwards, pulling his gun from its holster. He gawked up at the two-story home, trying to discern figures through the drawn window curtains.

    An idea percolated in his mind, and the agent raced back to his car. He flung open the back passenger door, rifling through a file folder that lay on the seat. He pulled his cell phone from his pocket and dialed a number off of the witness statement.

    The phone rang twice before a man answered it. "Hello?"

    "Mr. Vallmer? This is Agent Mulder."

    "Agent Mulder, sorry. I heard you knocking, but I was in the restroom. I'll wash up and be right down."

    "Mr. Vallmer," Mulder stopped the man, "Why did you come home?"

    There was a long silence. "Mr. Mulder, you called and said you needed to meet me here at 2:30."

    "Mr. Vallmer, get out of the house now," the agent commanded, pushing a button to end the call. He gripped his weapon tighter in his right hand and dialed another number with his left, immediately pushing the phone to his ear. He sped back up the path, stopping for a moment at the door.

    "911 emergency," a woman answered.

    "Yes ma'am," Mulder started, pausing to ram into the front door. It didn't give an inch. The agent strafed along the wall, coming to a halt in front of a living-room window. He pulled his hand into his sleeve, balled his hand into a fist, and shattered the glass.

    "Sir?" the operator asked, startled by the noise.

    "Yes ma'am," Mulder grunted, pulling himself through the window. "This is Special Agent Fox Mulder with the FBI, badge J-T-T-o-four-seven-one-o-one-one-one-one." The agent peered into the darkened house, creeping towards the foyer.

    "Your emergency sir?"

    A noise in a nearby room spooked Mulder, and his voice dropped to a barely-audible whisper. "I have an intruder in a man's house, but I'm not sure of the address. The owner should be a Fredrick Vallmer. That's V-A-L-L-M-E-R." The agent slinked down the hallway, seeing a dining table in the next room.

    "Just a second sir," the woman told him. Mulder poked his head around the corner, peeking into the kitchen. He didn't see the Alien Bounty Hunter in the room, but he leaned back into the safety of the hallway regardless. Something he had seen in the room nagged at the back of his mind, though, and he carefully stepped into the kitchen. "I have an address, sir." The woman's voice made the agent jump, and as his frazzled nerves regained their control he saw Vallmer's still body on the floor, blood pooling under his cranium.

    "I have a man down, with a gunshot wound to the head," he told the woman.

    "Is the intruder still in the home, Agent Mulder?"

    "I'm not sure," he told her, as a faint flashing light caught his attention. He turned, realizing it was the microwave clock, blinking at him, every digit a zero.

    "I'll get a call out to paramedics and the police, then, sir."

    Mulder didn't respond as he moved to the microwave and opened the door. "Holy shit," he mumbled, as he beheld a maze of C4 explosives and wires within the appliance.

    "What was that, sir?"

    Mulder dropped the phone, rushing back to the living room. Leaping, he crashed through the window, the remaining glass shards slicing through his suit and his skin. His shoulder slammed into the ground, and his body performed an awkward roll. The agent hurried to his feet and hastened towards the vehicle.

    Mulder whipped open the car door and jumped in, twisting the key in the ignition frantically. The engine sprung to life as he shifted into gear, and the agent slammed on the accelerator, never releasing the emergency brake. Smoke spewed from the wheel wells as the car sped on, and Mulder reached down to disengage the brake. As the lever was moved, the car increased velocity, its burst of energy matching the massive explosion behind them. Flames leapt into the sky as the agent sped onward, hoping that Scully knew of the danger this case had brought to them.


    WINGATE INN
    ROUND ROCK, TEXAS
    2:47 P.M.

    Mulder flung the door to his room open, rushing to the recently-made bed. He grabbed his dirty clothes from the floor, and tossed them into the small, open suitcase against the wall. Running into the bathroom, he grabbed all of his items, hoping to make a hasty departure in only a few minutes.

    He knew that taking the plane to California would be too risky. Even if he used a fake name, there was a good chance he could be followed, especially since his destination was pre-set. His only choice was to drive, and hopefully contact Scully from a pay phone.

    Mulder hurried back to his suitcase, throwing his toiletries inside. He flung a drawer open, sending it sailing off of its rolling track, coming to a sudden stop as it hit the bed. The agent carelessly grabbed his clothes from the drawer and lobbed them into the suitcase. He zipped it up, grabbed a suit hanging in the closet, and headed out the door. Mulder glanced at his watch, hoping he could drive fast enough through the desert to reach California by midnight.


    AUSTIN, TEXAS
    3:24 P.M.

    Jeremiah Smith turned on his television, a glow immediately filling the room. He chose a drink from the refrigerator and shuffled to his recliner, setting the remote on the armrest. There was nothing else he could do now; he had pointed Mulder in the right direction, and could now only hope that the agent would do what was necessary.

    Obsidian had been clear in his directions. The Syndicate must be discredited and exposed, no matter what the cost. Agent Mulder was a valuable ally, but even as a martyr he would be damaging to the Syndicate. Obsidian's Conglomerate was fairly new, perhaps its greatest weakness, but its members were filled with desire, dedication, and a ruthlessness towards those that opposed them.

    Smith settled into his chair, picking up the remote again. He changed the channel, hoping that some daytime program could entertain him. The old man lifted the soda can to his lips, still perusing the various channels. He stopped in mid-drink as flames filled the picture of a local channel.

    "What can you tell us, Stephanie?" a newswoman asked.

    "The explosion occurred a little over an hour ago, as a 911 operator spoke on the phone with a man in the house at the time. The man, an FBI agent, is believed to still be in the building, but firefighters battling the blaze have been unable to search for bodies."

    "Stephanie, it looks like the fire department is having a hard time controlling the blaze," the newswoman commented. "Has there been an official statement released yet?"

    "No, Laurie, there hasn't. I've managed to ascertain from the conversations here that the firefighters are concerned about structural damage, and that is hampering rescue attempts."

    Smith stared at the screen, the can still hovering in midair. This was a serious blow to the Conglomerate's plans. Mulder was an important part of their plans; his death could signal their impending failure.

    The old man heard a short, powerful rush of air behind him. He pushed on the floor with his feet, spinning the recliner. The Alien-Bounty Hunter glared at Jeremiah.

    "You're a traitor, old man."

    "I- I had no choice," Smith stammered. "They saved my life. I owed it to them."

    "You knew your place in the Project," the Bounty Hunter maintained. "You overstepped your bounds, so they ordered me to eliminate you."

    "The truth had to be known!"

    The Bounty Hunter narrowed his eyes. "Your plans will fail. We will stop Mulder. He will not expose our secrets."

    Smith turned his gaze back to the television. "Mulder's already been stopped," he whispered.

    "Not yet," the Bounty Hunter revealed. "But we know what you told him. He won't survive his visit to our base."

    The words hit Jeremiah squarely in the chest. Had the Conglomerate been played all along? The Syndicate evidently knew they were using Mulder to help them, but how had they found out? Smith cast his eyes to the floor, realizing the trap he had sent the agent into.

    "You will receive a traitor's punishment," the Bounty Hunter announced. "You will die dishonorably, an enemy of the people who created you."

    Smith cringed, screwing his eyes tightly shut. The needle pierced the base of his neck, green acidic goop bubbling out of his wrinkled skin. The Bounty Hunter yanked his weapon out of his victim's body, pushing a small switch on the device. The needle retracted with another quick rush of air, and he pocketed the weapon, leaving the apartment silently, the televised flames still licking the screen.


    RONALD REAGAN NATIONAL AIRPORT
    WASHINGTON, D.C.
    5:12 P.M.

    Scully's gaze passed right through the antiquated metal baggage claim carousel. Exhaustion had set in long ago, but she knew she had to keep working. If she couldn't find a cure for the retrovirus, more lives would be lost; inhibiting it with cold temperatures wouldn't solve the problem permanently.

    Various colored suitcases passed through her line of sight, their bulky presence not even registering as she thought. Something she had said to Mulder during their last phone call had obviously bothered him. Perhaps the memories of nearly losing his life to the same virus were giving her partner mixed sentiments.

    Something snapped Scully's attention back to the carousel, just in Enough time to realize that her suitcase had passed her by. She traveled in an arc around a gaggle of people, trying to force her way back to the carousel.

    "Miss Scully?" a voice called out to her. The agent turned, hoping to find the inquisitor. Her suitcase glided further out of reach as she scanned the crowd. "Miss Scully?" The voice came from right behind the redhead, startling her.

    The agent turned to face a short man in an airport uniform. "Yes, that's me," she told him. Her luggage crept under the flaps, heading back into the recesses of the building.

    "I have a message for you at the courtesy desk, ma'am."

    "Agent Mulder called for me?" she wondered.

    "I'm really not sure. I can get it for you, if you'll wait just a moment." The man started back through the crowd, and Scully eyed the carousel once again. She ran her eyes down its metal path, her expression souring when she realized that her bag had finished its first circuit.

    "Here you go, ma'am." The man's voice surprised her again, and the agent whirled around to face him. He held out a single slip of paper, only a few words scrawled upon it.

    "Thank you." Scully took it from the man, and he again disappeared into the horde of travelers. She peered at the words, wondering if her partner had sent them. There was no way to tell who had left the message for her, but its point was painfully simple. "Be home at 11:30," it read, leaving Scully to wonder why she was wanted.

    She folded the slip of paper and stuck it in her pocket. Scully knew to trust Mulder's feelings, and his nervous attitude about the case had rubbed off on her. She would be home at the requested time, but not without some protection. The agent turned back to face the carousel, waiting impatiently for her suitcase.


    MANASSAS, VIRGINIA
    7:23 P.M.

    Obsidian stalked down the hallway, heading for a familiar apartment. He came to a stop in front of the door, shifting his weight back and forth between his feet. He curled his fingers, hesitating as he battled his emotions. Finally, he reached up, knocking on the wood.

    Time seemed to drag on as he waited, but eventually he heard the deadbolt turn. The door slid open slightly, its chain taut. A woman moved to the crack, looking through at her visitor. "Jack, I told you I didn't want to see you again," she muttered.

    "Alicia, I know. This is important." His tone carried a sense of urgency, a fact that was not lost on the woman. She sighed, irritated. "You need to listen to me. Matthew is in danger. You need to get him out of here, send him to your stay with your mother or a friend. Just don't let him stay here."

    "Jack, you're not his father. You need to stop centering your life around him."

    Obsidian's eyes lit up with rage. "I am his father, Alicia! You can shut me out of his life, not let him know that I even exist, but that doesn't mean I'm not his father! You can't deny that Matthew is a part of me, and that's what really gets to you, isn't it? Seeing him is a reminder of me, so you figure that keeping me away will weed that out of him."

    "We agreed, Jack. Your work is more important to you than him or me. He's better off here, where he'll get attention."

    "All of my work is for him!" Obsidian growled. "Everything I do is to ensure that he has a future!"

    "You wouldn't let me in, Jack. You wouldn't let me see inside you, to understand this other world you enter when you go to work. I'm not letting you drag him into that, make him wonder if he's important enough."

    "I didn't let you know about my work for your protection." His words were measured, aggravation prevalent in his tone. "If you knew what I did, you might be in danger now, too."

    "This is why I want you to stay away, Jack, so Matt doesn't have to deal with this fear."

    "I know, Alicia, and I'm sorry. There's nothing I can do to change that now." Obsidian's glare had softened into a compassionate gaze. "Just please hide him away for a little while, so I can make this problem disappear."

    She leaned her head against the door jamb, tears welling in her eyes. "If I lose him because of this quest of yours, I will never forgive you," she whispered.

    "I'd never forgive myself," Obsidian muttered. "Just please promise me you'll take him someplace right away."

    "I will, Jack. I will." She lifted her gaze to meet his, sorrow invading her calm hazel eyes.

    "Thank you," Obsidian managed. Without a moment of contemplation, he started back down the hallway, determined to end his problem.


    WASHINGTON, D.C.
    11:34 P.M.

    A tall woman, with long, flowing, brown hair, cautiously looked around her. An apartment building stood before her, only a few lights visible in the windows. She glanced around again, searching for any signs of life. Satisfied, she skipped up the stairs, opening the door to the building.

    Scully watched the events carefully from the safety of her car, observing as many details as possible. She opened her car door, stepping out into the dark street. Few cars traveled this road late at night, so she darted across it, slowing to a walk as she reached the opposite sidewalk.

    The agent made her way up the stairs, easing the door open. She peeked into the building, hearing the telltale thud of the elevator doors closing. Scully forced the door open wider, sliding into her apartment building. She glanced up at the digits above the elevator; a digital readout told her that the mystery woman was on Scully's floor.

    After a few moments, the numbers began to descend again. The agent pulled her gun, stepping to the side of the elevator. With a ding, the doors opened. Scully tensed up, ready to defend herself. No one came out of the small contraption.

    The agent poked her head around the corner, making sure the compartment was clear. Convinced, she hurried into the elevator, pushing the button for her floor. The doors thudded shut again, and Scully aimed her weapon straight at them. The elevator quickly made its short trip, coming to a jerky stop on her floor.

    The doors opened, the accompanying ring announcing her arrival. Scully could clearly see the woman standing in the hallway, and as the noise echoed down the corridor, she turned to face the agent.

    "Freeze! Federal agent!" Scully commanded, slowly advancing out of the elevator, her weapon still trained straight ahead at the woman. "Who are you? What do you want with me?"

    The woman held her hands up in the air. "I'm not here to harm you, Miss Scully. I'm only here to help."

    "Who are you?" Scully demanded again, raising her voice. Her blue eyes flamed with intensity.

    "I can't tell you who I am, for my own safety," the woman told her. "Call me Angela if you need a name."

    "You asked me to meet you here. Why?" Scully slowly moved closer to the woman, the gun still steadily aimed at her.

    "I want to offer my help to you, and to Agent Mulder. I knew Marita when we both studied political science at Cornell."

    "So you want to give us information," Scully deduced. "About what?"

    "Your lives are in danger, Miss Scully. Your partner is headed on a suicide mission to California."

    The agent's eyebrows raised. "A suicide mission?"

    "They know he's coming," Angela explained. "You have to stop him."

    "How do you know this?" Scully challenged her.

    "I work at the AFOSI," Angela revealed. "Some of the men I work with are a part of the Syndicate that is out to kill the two of you."

    "So why us? Why now?"

    "Mulder knows the truth," Angela said. "Even martyring him is less of a risk than letting him expose what he knows now. These men are shrewd politicians, Miss Scully. Everything is about calculating risk, finding which path is the safest." The redhead stared at the informant silently, fear flooding her features. "You have to stop him now."

    Scully eyed Angela carefully, deciding if she could be trusted. The agent turned, breaking into a run towards the elevator, gun in one hand, and her cell phone in the other.


    WEMBLEY AIR FORCE BASE
    24 MILES NORTH OF SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA
    DECEMBER 20TH, 2000
    12:23 A.M.

    Mulder crept along the fence, a pair of night-vision binoculars clutched tightly in his gloved right hand. The guards patrolling the perimeter were working on a rigid, predictable schedule. The agent only had to wait for the right window of opportunity to make his move.

    Mulder crouched low to the ground, holding the binoculars to his face. The green tint made it perfectly clear that another guard was approaching. Mulder knew that once the guard had passed, he had three minutes to make it over the fence and to another safe haven.

    The guard moved along his routine path, oblivious to the agent watching him. Mulder waited, tensing for the first moment he could move. The guard turned a corner, putting his back to the agent. Mulder stuffed the binoculars into a pocket of his leather jacket, lifting the lock cutter that was held in his left hand. The agent had to be careful while cutting through the fence; even though the guard was a good distance away, he didn't know how far the sound would carry on such a still night.

    He grabbed a handle in each palm, pulling the jaws of the tool open. Mulder positioned the blades around the cold metal of the fence, cautiously watching the disappearing figure of the guard. The agent squeezed the tool shut, snipping the metal in half.

    Mulder moved on to another part of the fence, and made another cut. In just over a minute, he had made enough headway to pull the two portions of the fence apart, wide enough for him to squeeze through. The agent forced his way through the aperture, leaving his lock cutter on the exterior of the premises.

    Mulder knew his clock was ticking, but it behooved him to maintain a cautious approach to his mission. He darted across an open area, eagerly stopping when he reached the wall of the main building. With his back to the bricks, he gulped down air, preparing to make his next move.

    He sidestepped out from the wall, following the same path as the guard he had just watched. Sweat slowly rolled down his hot skin, pure adrenaline coursing throughout his body. The agent tried to step quietly, in case anything had forced the guards out of their predictable pattern.

    Mulder noticed an alcove protruding from the wall not far in front of him. He changed his direction slightly, now heading towards the newfound hiding place. The agent continued to walk quietly, soon coming to his destination. A door was built into the wall, its reinforced steel blocking the agent's entrance. He pulled a lockpick from his left jacket pocket and went to work.

    Moments later, he swung the door open and slithered into the building, unaware of the silent alarm he had just triggered.


    12:29 A.M.

    "Sir, Agent Mulder is in the building," an MP informed the small, fat man. The obtuse man's skin was an appalling red, heat blisters covering it.

    "Thank you," he responded.

    "Would you like us to apprehend him, sir?"

    "No," he answered in his baritone voice. "He still has to see more to fully believe what he has been told."

    "Then what would you like us to do, sir?"

    "Hold your positions. I'll give the word when the time is right." The MP nodded and exited the room, leaving the First Elder alone to contemplate his plans.


    RONALD REAGAN NATIONAL AIRPORT
    WASHINGTON, D.C.
    3:36 A.M. EASTERN TIME

    "The cellular customer you are trying to reach is unavailable."

    "Damnit!" Scully jabbed her finger into a button, ending the call. She had tried calling her partner for hours, but she garnered the same response every time. She had deduced that his phone must be turned off, and made a mental note to ask the Bureau for the money to buy the optional voice mail service.

    Mulder's uneasy feeling had already put Scully's stomach into a knot, but the new informant's warning put the agent's situation beyond uncomfortable. It demanded action, and if she couldn't talk to Mulder, she would have to fly to California and hope to warn him. She wasn't sure that he had left yet, and hoped that his infamous lead foot wasn't hurrying him towards the West Coast.

    Scully stood in front of the Delta counter, which was dark and unmanned. She was the only person in the airport, save for security and cleaning staff, but in just over an hour the building would slowly come to life. From the information posted on Delta's flight-information board, she knew she would only be able to experience the gradual awakening of the airport until just after five o'clock- then she would have a plane to board.

    The agent slowly walked through the wide, desolate hallways. If Mulder was walking into a trap, there was a chance that she could be doing the same, but it was a risk she had to take. She couldn't let him proceed unaware and walk into a horrible fate.

    Her heels clicked on the shiny floor as she continued to the collection of chairs just yards away. Sleep had been a rare commodity during the course of the case, and she knew she would have to take advantage of the single hour she was being offered. Scully arrived at the waiting area and took a seat, sinking into the black material. She closed her eyes, relishing the taste of relaxation before the storm.


    WEMBLEY AIR FORCE BASE
    12:48 A.M. PACIFIC TIME

    Mulder slid along the wall, his gun clipped safely in its holster. If he was spotted by any guards, he did not want to give them a reason to shoot at him. The agent continued to creep along, and slowed as he approached a corner, despite the fact that he was already taking minutes to move just a few yards.

    A faint sound made Mulder's touchy senses snap to attention. It was far away, but soundly much like the squeak of boots on the clean linoleum. The noise neared, and the agent knew that there was no mistaking it- there was someone coming.

    He frantically looked around, spotting only two doors in the hallway, placed directly across from each other. Mulder darted back to the one built into the closest wall, eagerly grabbing the handle. He jiggled it, but a solid lock prevented his entry. The footsteps came frighteningly close to the corner, and the agent knew that he had just seconds to hide.

    Mulder practically jumped across the hall, twisting the other doorknob. It turned, and he flung the door open, forcing his way into the dark room. He tried to ease the door shut, hoping the click it emitted as it closed would not alert the approaching men.

    A strong stench protruded from the tiny room. It wasn't unpleasant, but rather quite familiar. It only took a few moments for Mulder to recognize the lemon scent. He tried to turn, bumping into a shelf. It immediately became painfully clear that his small location was a janitorial closet.

    He stopped moving as he heard the loud footsteps rush by his hiding place. The sounds faded, but he waited, wanting to be sure that the people had left. Mulder cracked the door open, peeking into the hallway. He needed to stay hidden, but the space in the closet just wasn't enough. The hallway seemed clear, so the agent scampered back into the hallway.

    Mulder pulled the lockpick from his pocket again, facing the door opposite the closet. He hoped that whatever room he was about to enter would be bigger than his humble hiding place of a few moments prior. He inserted the tool into the lock, contorting his face as he worked. A smile broke out on his flushed face as the lock opened, allowing him to turn the knob.

    Mulder silently entered the room, which was completely dark. He blinked, hoping his eyes would adjust to the lack of light. Carefully, he stepped forward, essentially blind in the foreign room. Something metal clattered to the floor as he bumped into a large cart.

    "Hello?" a weak, male voice asked. "Who's there?" Mulder sucked in a breath, too scared to respond, and not sure if he wanted to. "I don't want any more tests," the voice continued. "Please, just leave me alone!"

    The agent crouched down to the floor, crawling towards the voice. He waved his arms in front of him, feeling for a clear path. "Please don't hurt me any more," the voice pleaded. Mulder's mind toyed with him, letting him know that the voice was familiar, but not letting him know why. His fingers grasped a metal pole, and he ran his hands down it, feeling the rubber wheel at the bottom of it. "What are you doing?" the voice asked, now right above him.

    Mulder stood slowly, his knees starting to lose their strength. "Who is it?" the voice whispered. "You're too tall to be the doctor." The agent was slightly surprised that the voice's owner could see his height, but soon assumed that the man must have been accustomed to the darkness.

    Mulder licked his lips, trying to speak. "Who are you?" he managed to croak.

    "My name is Jeff," the voice told him. "Jeffrey Spender."

    Mulder didn't move, blinking owlishly at the revelation. The man's seemingly dead body had been found in his office just over two years before, and yet he was talking to him in a dark room on a military base in northern California. "How did you get here?" Mulder finally wondered.

    Spender started to respond, but fell silent as footsteps approached the door. The knob slowly turned, and the door swung open, light flooding the room.


    900 WEST GEORGIA STREET
    WASHINGTON, D.C.
    3:57 A.M. EASTERN TIME

    The television sent colors leaping about the walls, the peppy infomercial falling on deaf ears as the apartment's occupant slept soundly. An ashtray sat on the table next to his recliner, its ceramic walls barely containing a plethora of smashed cigarette butts.

    "Cleo can show you the way," the infomercial peddler announced. "Get a free reading, now!"

    The door to the apartment burst open, Obsidian stumbling in, gun in hand, having run shoulder-first into it. The Cigarette-Smoking Man awakened with a start, clumsily trying to get out of his recliner.

    "Stay right there, you son of a bitch!" Obsidian ordered.

    The Cigarette-Smoking Man tried to remain calm. "Jack, you're going to wake the neighbors," he reasoned in a wavering voice.

    "I don't care!" he shouted. "Then they'll know what a lying, murdering asshole you really are!"

    "I only kill those who oppose our project, you know that." His voice made it clear that he knew of Obsidian's defection. "What has you so upset?"

    "My son does not oppose your precious little project!" Spittle jumped from Welsh's lips, fury dancing in his eyes. He kicked the door shut behind him, advancing towards the old man. "You lay a finger on him..." His sentence trailed off into nothing, the man unable to put his rage into words.

    "You'll what, Jack? Leave us? We already know that you have."

    "He's just a boy!" Welsh rushed to the man, shoving the gun into his face. "You might be dying now, you sorry piece of shit, but I will make sure you die painfully and slowly! Have you ever wondered how long it would take to die from blood loss after an unprofessional castration?!?"

    The Smoking Man swallowed slowly, not responding to his visitor's threats. Keeping a cool head in the situation was even more intimidating than offering rebuttal threats, so he knew that he needed to remain civil.

    "If he even scrapes his knee," Obsidian growled, "I will make you wish that they fried you in the chair with your Nazi father."

    C.G.B. Spender shot up in his chair. "I am not responsible for what he did!"

    "Oh, you have feelings about your family?" Obsidian sarcastically asked, his words laden with contempt. "You know how I feel about mine, so stay away from them." He pulled his head back, suddenly unleashing a wad of spit upon the Smoking Man. Welsh holstered his weapon and stormed to the door, flinging it open carelessly. He stomped into the hallway, paying no attention to the curious residents standing nervously in their doorways.


    WEMBLEY AIR FORCE BASE
    1:02 A.M. PACIFIC TIME

    Mulder held his breath as he watched the pair of boots pace around the room, methodically searching for him. He cast his eyes upwards, to the bed he hid under, hoping that Spender would not give his location away.

    "Did you see anyone come in here?" a gruff voice asked.

    "No," Spender replied. "And I've been awake for hours."

    Mulder saw the man's feet cease their movement, stopping just a few yards away from him. Time seemed to stand still for the agent as the guard contemplated what to do. "Call for us if you see anyone," he finally ordered.

    "O.K.," Spender agreed. The boots moved towards the door, more of the man's legs becoming visible to Mulder through the small gap between the bedsheet and the floor. The overhead light was extinguished as the guard flipped the light switch, and the room was sealed in complete darkness when he closed the door.

    "You have to help me," Spender immediately whispered.

    Mulder struggled to sidestep out from underneath the bed. He stumbled, falling to the floor. The agent dusted himself off and stood, facing Spender. "I can't," he said. "They obviously know that someone is here. I have to leave."

    "But I'll die... The tests, they're horrible... They'll end up killing me, I know it. The tests will kill me, just like they killed the others."

    Mulder raised his eyebrows quizzically, the movement unseen in the dark. "The others?"

    "The other patients they keep here," Spender explained.

    Mulder ran his fingers through his hair, unsure of what to do. His Presence on the base was known, but he desperately wanted to see the other patients he had just learned of. Finally, he decided on a course of action. "I'll come back for you," he announced. "I have to talk to my partner, but then I can come back and try to save you."

    The agent started towards the door, Spender protesting from his bed. "I might not live that long! Help me, please!" Mulder continued walking, ignoring the man's cries as he opened the door and sneaked back into the hallway.


    WASHINGTON D.C.
    4:12 A.M. EASTERN TIME

    Obsidian lifted the handle, swinging his car door open. He plopped into the seat, leaning back into the headrest. He thought that threatening the Smoking Man would have at least slightly eased his level of stress, but it wasn't happening. He was still just as worried about his son, and still just as angry at the men he used to work with.

    "Feel better, Jack?" a soft voice asked behind him. Obsidian briskly twisted his head around, peering into the darkness of the back seat. Alex Krycek leaned forward, his face just inches from Obsidian's. "Are you ready to join me?"

    Obsidian paused for a moment, unsure of what to say. He knew that Krycek only worked for his own benefit, but perhaps this was an opportunity when both men could benefit from a partnership. "You want to expose his group?" Obsidian asked.

    "Of course," Krycek whispered. "I can't even count the number of times that they have tried to kill me. I may agree with what they stand for, but I despise their methods."

    "Fine then." Obsidian extended his hand, and Krycek grasped it with his prosthetic one, shaking it. "Let's do it," Obsidian growled. "Let's nail that sorry motherfucker."


    WEMBLEY AIR FORCE BASE
    1:35 A.M. PACIFIC TIME

    A guard rushed into the large office, immediately greeted by an angry stare.

    "Where is he?" the First Elder demanded.

    "I... I don't know, sir. The sensor was definitely tripped, but there was no sign of him in the building."

    "Then search again," the fat man ordered. "The plan was to allow him to see that the plans are moving forward and then capture him. It seems that you've failed miserably in one aspect of that plan."

    "I'm sorry, sir. We'll commence a second search immediately." The guard quickly left the room, and could be heard shouting orders down the adjacent hallway. The First Elder buried his head in his hands, knowing that the agent would not be found.

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA
    8:12 A.M.

    Scully tightened her grip on the steering wheel, trying to quell the nerves that nibbled at her mind. Mulder had been in danger before, had been captured by the members of the Syndicate, and even had been infected with the Black Oil. There was something, though, that made Scully's brow furrow with concern. She couldn't put her finger on it, but there was something different about the situation that tied her stomach into a knot.

    Without warning, her cell phone sprung to life, its ring startling her. Immediately her hand shot out to it, her fingers curling around the small device. In seconds she had it to her ear, answering the call. "Scully," she announced.

    "It's me," her partner told her.

    "Mulder, where are you? I've been worried about you."

    "I could say the same, Scully."

    "But Mulder, I've been trying to call you for hours. Your cell phone must have been turned off by accident."

    "Blown up, actually," he responded dryly.

    "What?" Scully asked incredulously, trying hard to maintain her focus on the road. "Are you alright?"

    "I'm fine, for the most part." Mulder hesitated, but soon continued. "Someone is trying to eliminate all of the evidence of this woman's existence."

    "Why?" Scully wondered. "And how?"

    "The Bounty Hunter, Scully. He's killing anyone that knows anything about this. The high school principal, Acade, and the eyewitness that saw her."

    "Mulder, if that's true, then you and I are in danger, as are the sheriff and many other people!"

    "I think he's only taking out people who have evidence of his involvement, or evidence of what Acade really is. That's why I've been worried about you, Scully. We're both at risk here."

    She gazed through the road for a moment, thinking. "Mulder, where are you?" she asked again.

    "I'm at a hotel off of the interstate, on the outskirts of Sacramento," he said.

    "O.K. I was on my way to the base, but I'll turn around." She began to look for an exit, her eyes flicking from the road to her rearview mirror. "What hotel?"

    "It's a Sheraton Inn, room 119," he informed her.

    "O.K., Mulder, I'll see you in a little while." She hung up the phone as she turned on her blinker, leading the car down an exit ramp.


    SHERATON INN
    SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA
    9:33 A.M.

    Mulder flung the door to his room open, grinning. Scully rushed in, her face haggard, and climbed onto the nearest bed. "What are we going to do, Mulder?" she asked, her words muffled by the bedspread that surrounded her face.

    He shut the door and strolled to the bed, taking a seat next to her. "I don't know, Scully. There's still more I need to see at the base, but I don't want to put you in any unneeded danger."

    Scully turned her head to look quizzically up at her partner, moving the wrinkled material. "You've already been there?"

    Mulder nodded. "Early this morning. I saw someone there, someone we thought was dead."

    Scully did not seem to realize what he had said to her, instead thinking about something else. "But, Mulder," she started, "A woman told me that the Syndicate knew you were coming, that you were in danger."

    "Who?"

    "I don't know who, Mulder. I received a note when I arrived at the airport that said to be home at a certain time, so I staked out my apartment and watched this woman enter." Her partner watched her carefully, intrigued by the news. "I confronted her, and she said she wanted to help us, and that you were in danger."

    "You didn't recognize her?"

    "No." Scully shook her head. "She said she worked for the AFOSI. That's all I know about her, if that's even true."

    Mulder kneaded the bedspread with his fingers, contemplating what to do. He needed to get back to the base, but if what Scully had been told was accurate, he didn't dare to go back during the day. He looked back at his partner, unsure of his decision. "Scully, is there someplace safe around here that you can lie low for a little while?"

    Her eyes drilled into the wall as she thought. "I don't think Tara went anywhere for the holidays," she guessed. "I can probably stay at her place for a little while."

    "She's still in San Diego?" Mulder asked her.

    Scully nodded. "Not on the base anymore, though. Too many memories of Bill, I think."

    Mulder stood from the bed. "O.K. then, Scully. You head on down there, and don't talk to anybody but Tara and me. We've got to make sure that we are essentially invisible to those men."

    "What about you, Mulder? Where are you going to go?" Scully's eyes were filled with concern.

    "I'm fine here, Scully. I'm checked in under an alias, and I paid with cash."

    "Mulder, come with me," she pleaded. "I don't want to split us up, not now."

    "Scully, I have to go back to that base tonight. I don't want to force you into coming along; this is the best solution."

    She nodded, but her eyes did anything but. They begged him to reconsider, but her logical mind knew it was no use. He had made a decision, and she knew very well how stubborn he was. "I'll call you when I get there," she whispered.

    Mulder cast his eyes to the floor as she stood and walked to the door. "Be careful," he mumbled, feeling horribly divided between heart and mind. The door opened and she exited, the chain bouncing and scraping against the wood. The electronic lock reactivated as the door clicked shut, and Mulder fell back onto the bed, exhausted. Nightfall was many hours away, and he needed to take advantage of every moment of sleep offered to him.


    1:21 P.M.

    Mulder shot straight up, his legs still hanging over the edge of the bed. His breathing was heavy, and sweat covered his body. He had been sleeping uncomfortably, but he knew it wasn't a nightmare that had awakened him. His cell phone emitted another ring, and he glanced at it, wondering who was calling.

    He grabbed the small device and looked at its display. The number had a Sacramento area code, and Scully had left hours ago. If she was calling, it wouldn't be from someplace so close. Mulder knew that the cellular company could pinpoint his location down to a one-block radius, but that would take time, time he wouldn't give them.

    The agent hit a button on the phone, putting it to his ear as he checked his watch. "Mr. Fox Mulder?" a man asked.

    "Yes, this is him." The seconds ticked on, and Mulder let his finger hover between his cheek and the buttons on the phone, ready to cut off the call at the precise instant he needed to.

    "Sir, I'm calling from the Sacramento County medical examiner's office." Mulder felt a knot immediately wedge its way into his throat. "Sir, we had a body come in a little over an hour ago... there was a badge. We called the Bureau, and they directed us to you, said that you were her partner."

    Mulder dropped the phone, oblivious to the thump as it hit the carpet. His face quickly grew hot, and his brain couldn't keep up with the barrage of thoughts speeding through it. He blinked and barely moved his mouth, neither words or sound coming from it. Mulder could feel his heart racing, and an uncomfortable tingling leapt across his skin. He took in a deep breath and roared, random spots filling his vision. Complete blackness enveloped his world, and his limp body crumpled to the floor.


    SONORA COMMUNITY HOSPITAL
    SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA
    4:01 P.M.

    The man blinked his eyes, adjusting to the light around him.

    "Mr. Mulder, I'm glad to see you're awake." A doctor smiled at the man, who was severely confused.

    The man licked his dry, chapped lips. "Where am I?" he wondered in a faint voice.

    "Some of the hotel residents heard you screaming, and the manager came in to check on you. We rushed you here, to the Sonora Community Hospital." The doctor continued to smile, but his patient was growing more discombobulated.

    "Hotel manager?" the man mumbled. His eyes searched the white sheets that lay atop him, looking for answers. He didn't remember a hotel, didn't remember being rushed to the hospital, and had the unsettling feeling that he couldn't remember his own name.

    The doctor stopped smiling, somewhat troubled. "I think you still need some rest, Mr. Mulder. Losing your partner must have been an extremely traumatic event." The doctor strode to the door, pausing to speak again. "Just let us know if you need anything." He left the room, the patient watching him carefully.

    The man knew that he was in the hospital, but didn't feel at all ill. He glanced at the intravenous needle stuck in his arm, wondering exactly what drugs they were giving him. Something told him that he didn't need to be here, and his paranoid imagination kicked into action.

    He reached down to the needle, grabbing it firmly between his forefingers. With a fierce tug, he yanked it from his arm, and let it go, the tube dangling in air next to the bed. The man pushed on his arm with his opposite hand, hoping to prevent bleeding.

    Cautiously, he stood, making sure that he truly was well enough to walk. His facilities seemed to be working fine, so he started towards the door. The man peeked around the corner, seeing no one in the hallway. Barefoot, he shuffled down the corridor, towards a red exit sign. His hospital gown billowed behind him as he walked, looking much like a flowery cape.

    He reached the door, curling his fingers around the metal handle. He forced the door open, squinting as the bright California sunlight hit his eyes. Hesitantly, he stepped onto the black pavement before him. It was warm, and uncomfortable, but he knew he did not want to go back into the unfamiliar hospital. The man broke into a run, darting across the pavement, the sun beating down on him as he searched for his place in the world.

    TO BE CONTINUED...