Title: My Travels with Charley: Chapter 01. Parting
Author: Windsinger
Written: Oct 2000
Rating: PG
Classification: XA series
Spoilers: REQUIEM, 7th season.
Keywords: Mulderangst
Archiving: Gossamer, Emphereal, ATXC, and anywhere with permission and as long as the author's name is retained. Disclaimer: Where do I start? No, the X-Files and the characters of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully do not belong to me. Chris and David, thank you, thank you for giving us a great season finale and NOT a Mulderless Eighth Season.

Summary: In a cone of brilliant light, surrounded by silent and compliant former abductees, Mulder comes face to face with the Hunter. Why does this scene seem not unfamiliar and what will happen now? This series traces Mulder's abduction and begins with the events of the first few minutes. A companion story to this one is Scully's Prayers Fly Up.

Author's Notes: I have trouble enough going a summer without a new X-File (with Mulder). Now I have to wait till the depths of winter! I need my fix and so I've created my own. I hope it will help other addicts as well. This will be a series of short episodes of posted approximately once every three to four weeks.

My Travels with Charley is my series about Mulder's experiences after his abduction. My older work can be found on Gossamer under 'Esty, Sue'


One's mother is supposed to teach you not to touch things when you don't know where they've been. I guess I wasn't listening that day. In my case, however, it is more likely that good 'ol Mom neglected that part, her maternal genes, at least in respect to me, never being particularly dominant. Who I can't blame are the nuns at the Catholic youth camp my parents sent me the year I turned thirteen They knew what hands should be used for and what not... but let's not go there right now. Instead, I think it's sufficient to note that it was curiosity that finally killed the nine-lived cat.

Clearly, the same goes for the over-inquisitive FBI agent.

What exploding trains, gushing oilwells, burning railcars, green bugs, poison darts, shot gun blasts, hospitals, Black Oil, ghosts, hundred-acre fungi, water-sapping free radicals, and million-year-old sociopathic worms couldn't do, curiosity has done. Caught me good.

I was only going to touch it. I expected at most to encounter a bit of static or the edge of an invisible bubble. Instead, it is as if a net of electricity grips my hand. As it begins to vibrate, I stare at it unable to speak, unable to cry to Skinner for help. It's as if my hand is not a part of me any more. There's no pain, and yet I can't pull it back. Instead, I am sucked within seconds into a whirlwind, a whirlwind without wind. It is only my body that is moving, all of it gyrating now in a totally bizarre fashion. There's not even any time to be afraid because, all at once, it is over.

I'm aware of my feet first. They are on the ground, only the ground is as unstable as the rest of me. Think of the way you feel just after you walk off a really serious roller coaster. You know the world is standing still, and yet it isn't. In the same way I'm aware that I am in the same Oregon forest I started out from, and yet I'm not.

This is why I don't run or cry out. I don't even try. Running and screaming my lungs out won't do any good. Maybe it's not a change in space, however. Maybe it's a change in time. Lost time phenomena has been associated with UFO sightings from the beginning. It would start to explain why this place is invisible except to intensely phased light. Bent time, bent space. Einstein would have understood. Believe it or not, I remember the thesis you wrote - "Einstein's Twin Paradox: A New Interpretation" - so I would love to hear your theory on this. At the moment, however, I would just as happily settle for hearing you read the phone book.

What do I see? Very little and yet so much. There's a brilliant funnel of light only about forty feet from where the ground is calming down under my feet. A hum seems to be coming from it that fills my whole body. But do you know what the scariest part is, Scully? This is all so familiar. We are talking serious deja vue. Scientists say that there is no such thing, that the phenomena is caused by memories of something similar that happened to you before but which you've forgotten. It's either that or a minor explosion in the brain. If it is the second explanation working here, then I need to go back and consult my neurologist. If it's the first, then by reaching past the barrier that the Gunman's military-issue mini-lasers could not penetrate, I have made a really serious mistake. Most assuredly, the worst mistake of my life.

And here I'm reported to be so bright.

Of course that would depend on whether I ever had any choice in the matter. I suspect I have been led here. Step by step, embarrassing moment by embarrassing moment, empty year after empty year - I've been led to this moment. Some might say it was why I was born. That's a depressing thought.

Did I say empty years? Empty except for you, Scully, hopeless except for you, meaningless except for you.

Oh, Scully I am so sorry. The time we wasted.

What it comes down to is that I think I've been here before, or in a situation very much like it. I don't have an implant, we checked that out, but if I and the other abductees who have gone missing were not selected by that then what? I always assumed that the microchips were the key, that their use was how humans were tagged...

... chips... and smallpox vaccinations and who know what else. How soon we forget.

I don't mean to be cruel or insensitive, Scully, but did something happen to you when you were out here that you didn't tell me about? You didn't just faint did you? You weren't taken, but I think it was a near thing. I think they thought about it. I'm not trying to place blame for how things have turned out for, like I said, chance may have had nothing to do with it. Still, if I had known, it might have got me thinking along a different path and I wouldn't be standing in this one now.

On the whole, I'm relieved. I am thankful to your God that you have been spared this. You have suffered enough. I will admit, however, that there's a small, cowardly lion part of me that wishes with all the wishes that I may ever wish that you were here with me. That we could be seeing this together. That I wouldn't have to go through this alone.

Sorry. Got to take couple of deep breaths here. Can't let fear set in. Get a grip, Spooky. Blood pressure up, palms damp. Got to think logically like my Scully. This - I tell myself - is just another X-Files experience, which I've seen and you haven't and which you won't believe. As always, I'll write it up, you'll edit out the most extreme theories, and we'll go on to something new next week. Back to the same desk, same coffee, same Washington Post, Baltimore Orioles lost another one, FBI management on my back.

But that's not going to happen this time, is it? Why? I have no idea. I guess I have somehow pissed the Grays off as much as I have everyone else in my life.

Wait... I have a thought.

Maybe they made a mistake. That's right! That's all it is! They got the wrong one! Hey, guys. Look! It's just crazy Fox Mulder, the FBI's most unwanted.

The wrong one? Really? Try again. Reality check time.

The fact is that I'm where they want me to be. I'm where I'm meant to be. I'm wanted.

Now that's a novel concept, though I'd rather be wanted by the New York Knicks. I'd even rather be wanted by the fuckin' FBI.

Now when I come back to this deja vue thing, I realize that what I'm experiencing is memory. There's no doubt that I've seen this cone of light from just this position before. And then there's the hum and its terrifyingly familiar tingle. Want to know more? I'm walking towards the light. Another brilliant move, you say? No, this time it's really not my fault. I don't want to walk towards the light, in fact it's the very last thing I can imagine wanting to do. But I am. My body is doing it all on its own the way it knows how to drive through a familiar neighborhood while you mind is on everything but the car and the road.

As I approach, more becomes clear. For example, I thought I was alone. Just me and the light. I'm wrong. There are a dozen people, probably more, standing in the beam. It's actually crowded. I sense this is new. I've always been alone before at this stage.

I can feel panic rising inside me, clutching at my throat. I expect that every time I start to accept this I'm going to have this reaction. Full denial, no doubt about it. I haven't been abducted, I keep repeating to myself. I never have been. I would have remembered.

Like the flare of a sputtering candle, the surge of emotion suddenly vanishes. Neither anger nor fear seem to last long in this place. Instead, I'm made to face up to my own stupidity cold sober. They say physician heal thyself. Well, the same should be said of psychologists. There are many, many examples in the UFO literature of individuals who have been abducted from childhood, for years, for decades, who have no memory of the experience until an eager therapist uses hypnosis to try to figure out why they are so fucked up. I'm talking high functioning disabilities like chronic, low level anxiety; paranoia; insomnia; night terrors; a certain level of antisocial behavior. Sound like anyone you know? And here all along I thought it was simple, everyday Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome from Samantha's abduction. I didn't know otherwise because Weber never asked the right questions. He only asked about the night of Samantha's abduction.

Not of mine.

Damn. How many times did it happen? Not too many times or there would have been scars. There are always scars. I feel a tingle at the base of my skull and fear once again struggles through this odd tranquility that has seized me.

Maybe not all scars are ones you can see.

I force myself to look at the faces, afraid of more revelations. I recognize some of these people; you would, too. Billy and Teresa are most familiar, but there are others though I don't remember our ever meeting. I'd like to think I am going crazy. I'm afraid I am not. Scully, remember those women, the ones with the chips in their necks who said they remembered you from 'the other place', from when you were abducted? I think this is what I've got here. I have known some of these people before and known them in this second reality, the one that my subconscious has been keeping secret from me.

The truth has finally sunk in. The truth. Inside I hear an echo of hysterical laughter. The truth is that I'm not walking out of here. I am going on this little trip. I've even taken them before. Okay, I breathe; no big deal. I've always come back, haven't I? On a conscious level I've forgotten or have been made to forget, but my real life, such as it is, has gone on. What comfort this gives me is short-lived for I hear my own words to you coming back to haunt me. 'They are picking up all the abductees. And they aren't coming back.' Whyever did I say that? How do I know? Am I a prophet now? I hope in this I am wrong. At the very minimum, I fear that it will be a much longer trip this time around.

I never told you, Scully, but I had this plan. I thought that when I retired, that I would like to travel. For someone who for the past ten years has spent a third of his life traveling, that probably doesn't make much sense, but I was thinking about writing a book. Something wise and humorous. Unlike my case reports, something intentionally humorous. Something like John Steinbeck's 'Travels with Charlie' although Charlie was a poodle and I'd never be caught dead owning a poodle or a Pomeranian. A golden retriever, maybe, or a husky, though probably a mutt. A mongrel like me. Just as long as it was something with lot of fur to keep my Scully's toes warm at night. You see, in most versions of the dream you're there, too, reading the 'AAA' guides and finding out-of-the-way and unique places to visit like 'South of the Border' in South Carolina and the Corn Palace in South Dakota and any place where water is reported to run uphill. We'd eat the local produce and...

But that's never going to happen now, is it? I'm coming closer and closer to the light and my feet are not stopping. Guess I'll just have to keep a diary, like Samantha did, though I seem fresh out of pencil and paper right now. I can record all of this in my head though. Eidetic memories are good for that. I can picture myself writing or typing and then I'll take a snapshot of the output. Better than flow of consciousness for organizing your thoughts. I'll play it back to you when I see you again.

This side of heaven, I pray God.

I'm only three steps from the light now. I can see the edge of the beam and the fine particles of dust dancing in the light. They must have refined their technology in seven years and because there's none of the wind that we both remember from before. Only the best for yours truly it seems. Faces turn towards me. So many faces. Something wrong about that. If what Billy told us is correct, people have been disappearing for weeks yet here they all are. Waiting. But they couldn't have been just waiting here all this time. If so, then what have they been waiting for?

Only a step away now. I tell myself that I won't actually go in the beam. I'll just look. That's right, observe and report. In a second, I'll run like hell and Skinner will perform some fantastically heroic feat and put me back to reality.

Our reality.

I try to turn back. I try just to stop moving.

I... can't.

It's like my body isn't all mine anymore. It's related to the hum and the tingle in the back of my skull that makes it hard to think. I know I've become increasing more frightened and more desperate with each step I take, and yet it's as if I were functioning under half a dozen valium and all the emotion were just shriveling up somewhere deep inside. Even the sweat on my palms has dried.

Now the expressions on the faces of my fellow abductees make sense, or perhaps I should say their lack of expression.

They are like cattle. Dumb cattle. Or like a crowd of little gelded ponies crowded onto a merry-go-round, their future preordained. I am like that, too, I realize as I reach the edge of the light and with barely a second's hesitation just walk in.

This is like some really bad '50's 'B' movie.

Above all, what I really wish I could do now is cry.

I enter between Teresa and Billy. They are at least a little more animated than the others zombies. Guess their reaction could be considered ecstatic around here. They are pleased to see me and not in the least surprised, which confuses the hell out of me. I didn't know I was coming. I didn't even know I was returning to Oregon. How did they know? They each place a hand on my shoulder in welcome. I hope I manage to force some reaction through the nearly numb muscles of my face to let them know that I appreciate a friendly face because I really do. I am piss-shitting scared Their touch does something else to me, Scully. It's as if we have this bond. Not a new one but an old one, like family members meeting after a long absence - or is that like soldiers who have been through hell together. Either way, another pretty persuasive argument for my having come this way before. There's a part of me that realizes that I'm suddenly very curious about all this; how, like an amnesiac, I want to uncover what I have lost.

To embrace this new life, however, I realize that I must turn my back to a certain extent on the old. Odd, maybe it comes with the fuzz on my emotions, but I don't have many regrets about that. What am leaving behind anyway?

Friends? The Gunman will do fine without me. My disappearance will give them a fine main story for their next issue and speculation for years to come.

The X-Files? Since I found Samantha, the spark is gone and management hates me anyway. That shit of an auditor rather summed it up. Sister dead, conspiracy dead. The die was cast. They were going to take it away, anyway, close it down. Even if Skinner were willing to use his influence to save it, they would have continued to nibble away at its financing and its scope like rats until all the substance was gone. All my work for nothing.

Family? Dead, dead, dead. Even my fish are rather recent acquisitions and don't care who feeds them.

That doesn't leave much. Only you, Scully. Only you. You are all I regret leaving and I am helpless to do anything about that.

Talk about ditching you... This is the big ditch of all time I'm so sorry.

I wish we had held out a little longer. Maybe if we were still uncertain about our feelings for each other, it wouldn't be so hard on you. Don't waste your life looking into every shadow for me the way I looked for Sam. Don't do that. Know in your heart that when - and if - I can come to you, I will.

For me? I'd like to say that this will kill me. That I will die of sorrow, but it's more complicated than that. As I look up at the source of the light, a wave of dizziness flows over me. It's the underside of one of their ships, like the ship of sand from my dreams. Remember? I told you about those while we were basking in the afterglow and while I was trying very hard not to do the very male thing and fall asleep.

This is it then. It's the only place left for me to go, Scully. I wonder if, in time, I would not have sought this way out. I was in a box. No way forward. No way back. I'd burned my bridges and there was no where left on Earth for me, except in your arms and neither of us would have wanted me to hide there. I never did fit in anywhere except with you and you deserve better. You belong in the world and I belong - here, where I will find my answers if they are anywhere. Why did the Consortia let me live all those years when I could have so easily have been eliminated? Who is my father and was Sam my biological sister as well as my sister in every other way? Half-sister? How did I come to be and have that thing in my head? Did the Consortia know about that all along? I'll hopefully find answers to questions I haven't even thought to ask yet.

This doesn't mean I'm not scared, Scully. This doesn't mean that a part of me wouldn't rather be slaving over quarterly expense reports right now. Worse, I realize that Billy and Teresa are looking at me as if they expect something of me. What do they think I can do? Save them? I can't even save myself. Ever since I heard the voices crashing through my head, I should have known a day like this would come, that I was special. Only I don't want to be special any more than Special Olympics kids want to be special. I never have.

There is a rustle in the cattle pen. A opening is made by the subtle shifting of bodies. A new form joins us.

May I live and breath, I'm almost happy to see that it's our old nemesis - Mr. square-jawed, runner-up-for-the-Arnold- Schwarzenegger-look-alike-contest himself - the Bounty Hunter. A villain, of course. Can't have a melodrama without a villain. He comes right up to me. He stares into my eyes. I'm as pleased as punch about the valium-like fuzz now because it allows me to remain completely impassive before him instead of weeping and cringing like a dog as I did the time we tussled in the sub. I suspect, however, that he knows how frightened I am. He can probably smell it. His nostrils even flare a bit, the smug bastard. And why am I frightened? It's because by coming up to me and no one else, he has singled me out. The specialness I didn't want to be - that I have never wanted to be - I am. Even here.

What did he say to me the first time we met: "I could have killed you many times before." When? In the womb? As an infant? Has he been watching me from afar forever? Have I been his little science project? Can he go home now because it's the end of the term and I'm being pulled in as a little show and tell for all his hard work as if I were some hot house plant or prize-winning sheep?

Oh, Scully... even here, I'm not like the others. Not just another anonymous steer destined for McDonald's. No, I'd say from the way he's looking at me in that alpha-male way of his that he does not see me that way at all. There's contempt but also a need to prevail, like papa bull letting the young bull know in no uncertain terms who is boss around here.

I feel my self-confidence twitch back into life. Somewhere inside, I'm still myself, that cocky, impudent guy you learned to love.

This new strength is what I cling to when everything suddenly turns white. Knowing that the Hunter is still out there, I feel a need to say something to make him realize that I can't be intimidated with light and mirrors.

"You lied to me," I hiss, though maybe the accusation is only in my mind. "You told me she was alive."

More amazing than my question, he answers back in that Nordic cadence of his. "She was when last I knew. They betrayed us, your Consortia. They lied. It's why they were eliminated. Remember that."

I was analyzing this threat when I sense rather than feel Billy at my side begin to move. Actually, what he begins to do is rise from his place, to float. I sense his feet pass the level of my shoulders. When he is above me another from the herd begins to ascend. We are being taken up one by one as you described Cassandra being taken. What is most astonishing is that there was no sound, no struggling. There are even a few smiles.

"Why do so many seem pleased to be going?" I ask Teresa on my left. "Does this trip come with beer and a movie, too?"

To that the Hunter snaps, "Quiet. Your irreverent patter has no place where you are going."

"Sorry, Charley," I murmur not thinking that he can hear me. Clearly he does for one massive hand came up under my throat.

"You had best learn your place and quickly, Mulder Mooncalf. Even among these other >belagani< you are as a child where they are no more than cattle to us."

"It's Mulder. Just Mulder."

"You will be called, and you will answer to, what we choose to call you. Your other life is over. That you will come to accept."

"And we will continue to exist only so long as we serve you?" I ask in my best vintage SciFi movie impersonation, which at the moment is not very good. My head is so full of hum and cotton that even with such an easy target I can't come up with a better line.

He doesn't catch the irony. "Good, now you understand," and he releases me.

While we have been marking our territory, more abductees have gone. They are drifting skyward like so many white ghosts. What was the name of that Science Fiction novel? "Unto Our Scattered Bodies Go"?

Finally, there is only he and I left on ground level within the light. "Are you coming with us, Charley?"

">Belagani< do not address >Yei<."

"If '>Yei<' is you, then I just did. I asked if I am going to see you again."

"I do not know if my next assignment will be to this ship. Why do you want to know?"

"Because I have questions. I have many questions."

"For what good it will do you, you may ask one question, little mooncalf." His snarl is like the rumble of a hungry lion. "In your new life questions are not allowed. You will learn patience, you will learn discipline. You will learn to do what you are told without questions."

Chills, Scully. I'm seized with nasty chills but not for this goon to see. "Sorry, but I'm not the behaving type. Ask my first grade teacher. Ask Skinner. I'm just not put together that way."

A smile turns up the lips of the Hunter. I think I liked his scowl better. "You have no idea how you are put together, Mooncalf. But then neither do we. But we will learn."

And then he reaches out and he touches the side of my left temple with just two fingers of his right hand. The touch is very light, but I feel an instant surge of heat and something like electricity jump from his fingers into the empty space in the back of my skull. The world explodes in a foaming crash of unpleasant sensation.

I think I lost consciousness for a moment because, when the white pain becomes simply the white fog again, everything is different. The stone face of the Hunter is staring up at me from what seems to be a long way away. There is no weight under my feet. This is what weightlessness feels like. I am ascending, only not like the others. They all seemed so relaxed as if they were being lifted up by angels in white robes. I can't seem to keep my balance. I feel like I'm falling. It's like riding a bicycle for the first time - over compensation this way, over compensation that. If I were an Apollo spacecraft, I'd be tumbling. I feel like God's clumsiest fool, but mostly because Charley Hunter is watching.

Eventually, I realize that if I hold my muscles very still and not move at all, my ascent is smoother. I learn this useful lesson just as I sense the iris of the ship's massive eye close in around me. There's still light everywhere, but I can sense enough to know that Hunter is following. He's the last. There is no more reason for our to be here. Below my feet I can still trees and grass as if through a Martha's Vineyard mist. Slowly, the ship closes its eye, cutting off my last view of Earth The ship has swallowed me whole. I close my eyes and for the first time truly realize that this is for real.

That shit of an auditor has won after all. "You need to go where the aliens are, Agent Mulder. You need to limit your scope."

I've done that. Can I go home now?

The End

My Travels with Charley: Chapter 02. G-Force
Author: Windsinger 7/27/00

Keywords: Mulderangst, Muldertorture

Summary: Mulder and his companions have been taken inside the alien ship. They are accompanied by the bounty hunter whom Mulder has begun calling 'Charley Hunter'. Mulder's first few minutes in the alien ship, however, are nearly disastrous. To surviving he finds he must make a bargain with the devil.

Author's Notes: This is the second is a series of short stories chronicling Mulder's confusing, agonizing, torturous, lonely and wondrous adventures with the 'Grays'. My older work can be found on Gossamer under 'Esty, Sue'


I rise rubbing my tailbone and happy that I bruised no more than that in my ungracious fall from the ship's teleporting beam. No one else seems to be picking themselves up off the floor so I assume a modicum of nonchalance and take a look around.

Remember the interior of the alien ship in Antarctica, Scully? The way it seemed part mechanic and part organic? You say you don't remember much - some dark corridors, the wailing of an alarm and the cold - but in your nightmares, if you see a place with fewer right angeles than we are use to and designed with sturdy, masculinely curves, then you would be remembering that place. This loading dock, for that's what it seems to be, was clearly designed by the same architect. It's dim to start with and darker still in the corners if there were corners. Though it is not cube-shaped by any stretch of the imagination, in volume it's about the size of a school gymnasium though not so tall. The marines around Quantico would love the colors, all greenish or brownish black. There are dozens of huge clamps and belts attached to heavy brackets along the walls. I assume they are used to fasten down heavy equipment during flight. At the moment, however, the dock is barren of such cargo.

Not barren of human cargo, however.

That's when I hear your voice, Scully, as if you were right beside me. "Yes, what about the other- " You stop, unwilling to say the word and start again. "The others, Mulder. Tell me about the others."

Abductees, Scully. We're abductees. You've got to learn to say it. They are alien abductees; I am an alien abductee. It's the breed it took you so long to believe truly existed even though you were probably one yourself for at least part of the time. My fellow abductees are gathered in a rough circle around the iris in the floor that we all were brought though. It's closed now, no more view of earth. No escape that way. I am farther from the circle than the others, my landing being not so smooth. I would move to join them, but first a pair of flint-black eyes hold me still. It's my own Charley Hunter yards away in the gloom, though he can certainly see me as surely as I can see him. If I had had a hard-on at the moment - which, believe me, I don't - it would have withered and then some. Those eyes of his could shrivel steel. He says nothing, but he's giving me one of his I'm-king-of-hill-and- you're-not grins, if a millimeter of arch can be considered a grin. Having confirmed that I've gotten the message, he turns and leaves us. Just leaves, not a word. No instructions, no threats. He simply aims for a section of curving wall and disappears into a shadow. I think I hear a sound like moving air. Some kind of door opens and then closes.

We are alone.

He has not been gone ten seconds when I hear that sound of air again and from the right there is a bright concentration of light. Two sets of wide double doors have slid open along one section of the wall and from within flows out brilliant white light. The others begin moving towards those doors. I can't help thinking of cattle, one following the other to the barn.

I take two steps and stop dead. Is it home they are returning to or for milking?

It's unnatural what we do to cows, you know. Their milk should dry up naturally when their calves learn to like the taste of grass and hay better. But we keep milking and milking and filling them full of hormones so that the flow never ends. Neither does the poor cow's need to be relieved from her discomfort. Have you heard what a cow sounds like who is far past her milking time? I have. It doesn't agree with our picture of the contented animal at all. It's the sound of a beast in agony.

Now consider my companions who have been accepting their capture without question. Are they reacting to the inevitable, or, like cows with bloated udders, are they responding to a more sinister motivation?

I do not like the way this is going, Scully.

I eventually approach those doors but only to see inside the rooms better.

<Silence...>

"Mulder? Mulder, what's going on? You've very quiet."

<More silence...>

"Mulder..."

Sorry, Scully, I just got a shock and I need a minute or two to get a grip. A minute or two.. or maybe an hour.

"Mulder, you're scaring me..."

You think- you're - scared. Okay, I'll try. The pounding of my heart has slowed enough for me to think now. It's these lighted rooms... Men to the right side, women to the left. I can see that within they are taking off all their clothes. There are hooks on the walls for those and they line up their shoes neatly beneath. Beyond that... Very well, I can't see beyond that, but the intense whiteness through which these vulnerable bodies weave is like a fog of steam and my all-too-fertile imagination fills in the blanks with all the subtly of a jackhammer.

Showers, decontamination, delousing. Rough, hasty hands seize me and I can feel my long hair being hacked off, each jerk defiling my body and I am ashamed A matron with a neck as thick around as a man's thigh orders us to the showers in harsh German. We go... like cattle. We huddle, trembling, standing front to back. In our humiliation we dare not meet other eyes. Instead we wait, silent, for the water to erupt from the taps, for this to be over.

The water never comes. Instead, there's a hiss and we breathe in bitter herbs and offer our bodies up to the flames.

There are tears. I blink them away even though there is no one to see. I am myself again if badly shaken in both body and soul. Remember my past lives regression? When was that fiasco, four years ago? For obvious reasons we never discuss it. If we did I would tell you that I don't believe most of it. Certainly not the soulmate nonsense. But there was something true in all that tale like the germ of reality in a dream. In this case, it's the old Germany connection and the Holocaust. My death, even my sex, has always been more than words. It has been sound and smell, thirst and cold, fear and hopelessness and bone-deep memory. That's where it comes from, isn't it? Both my sympathy for the victim and that refusal, that terror, of going sheeplike anywhere ever again For this reason I remain outside the doors of the room through which the others have gone. They have all stripped and vanished into that fog. Nothing moves. Any minute I expect some beefy shepherd to come swaggering out of that fog, club swaying, as he or she seeks for their lost sheep. I'll allow myself to be taken, but I will not surrender meekly.

Hunter said that I would need to learn. Well, let them learn about me.

I continue to peer within. Still nothing but the hum of distant motors. I have taken a step forward to see a little better when, without warning, the doors snap shut inches from my face.

I am outside in the dark and totally alone.

It's a shock. You see, I had made certain assumptions. One was that I am somehow important. The Hunter certainly led me to believe so. Maybe I really am the conceited bastard you thought I was for all those years. If so, that conceit has been cut down a good deal already and is shrinking with each minute that passes and no one comes.

Since I arrived in this place, I've been aware of a constant hum which is as much a vibration under my feet as anything. That hum suddenly increases. My irritation and mild dismay of being so easily forgotten subtly shifts to a mild anxiety. The hum increases still further. I go to the closed doors and try knocking first with my knuckles then with both fists. Whatever this material is - ceramic or metal or both - it feels like it's about a foot thick. In other words, no one is going to hear. With the hum now rattling the bad filling in my lower right molar from that silly brawl we were both in, I run into the shadows in search of the door Hunter must have used. There is no obvious door, however, just too many seams that may be part of one.

As the hum becomes a whine, I try shouting, but it's too late. My anxiety is bordering on panic now. I know the sound of engines ramping up with I hear them. It's only a matter of time until we are - off.

In an instant the unearthly but unmistakable scream of power soars to an ear-splitting pitch, and I am flying through the dark. Wrong. I don't move, but the ship does, not that the difference matters. I end up squashed like a bug against the nearest surface in the opposite direction to that which the ship is traveling and all the surfaces I encounter on the way are either very hard or very sharp or both. Even over the roar from the ship, I'm certain that I hear the crunch of bone. I know I feel it. It's my lower left arm, I think. It's hard to tell since there are at least a dozen places that hurt like hell. I've only just sorted out my limbs so that my joints are angled more or less back in the right way when there's a sudden change of direction of about ninety degrees and a rapid acceleration. I plummet down what is now a 'wall' towards what is now the 'floor' hitting every clamp and protruding piece of metal on the way. Something blunt and hard impacts with that most sensitive spot between collarbone and shoulder. Someone screams. It must be me.

I finally reach ground zero, but the pain is just getting started. The 'G' force continues to increase. It- is - like an elephant sitting on your chest. I can barely draw breath. When I try, ribs crack. My knee caps are reaching for the floor. Warm liquid runs from my eyes and from my mouth. More spreads out from between my legs; my bladder has its own way of dealing with the unbearable pressure. As I am currently being crushed to death, I don't get too upset about the details.

In the final moment as I hurtle towards darkness, a last breath struggles from my lungs and out through lips stretched tight, like those on a mocking death skull. "Sku...ly," I think was the word, or if it wasn't, it should have been.

I've floated in pain before. Pain so incredible that there is no end. On a scale of one to ten, however, with that experience being a ten, I'd have to give this one a twenty. There is not an inch of skin or bone or hair that does not scream to the heavens and, if I remember where I am correctly, those heavens are closer than they have ever been before.

I wake to darkness. That's because of the blindness more than the presence or absence of light. What feels like two raw wounds are where my eyes should be. Lids slide with reluctance over these pits of pain. There is no sound. The engines are purring now. They are creating a warm vibration that rises up from the floor to radiate through the entire wound that is my body. From more places than I can count, bone grinds against bone.

I am, as if you haven't guessed, still alone. As best as I can determine, my limbs are in the same nearly impossible positions they were when I went into the dark so no one has been here since frail flesh brought merciful relief. How long have I been out? Minutes? Hours? From the dampness between my legs and the smell, I'd say maybe an hour. Not so bad yet. Considering that I have nothing to get up for, even if I could, I think I will pass out again.

If I don't wake up again, which I think likely, then I guess that the next time I will see you, Scully, will be in your heaven. That, of course, is only so long as your faith is strong enough for both of us. As you know, I lost what faith I ever had by the age of twelve.


They call it swimming through pain. That describes it well, that bodiless sensation of being completely surrounded by something which is overwhelmingly larger and stronger than you are. I'm not just referring to the physical either. The mental processes are just as much adrift - rising, sinking, nudged this way and that by the current. Sometimes drowning.

What this means is that I'm not dead. Considering how I'm feeling, that is not necessarily my preferred state if being.

Somewhere beyond the pain I am aware of the roar of surf. I look for the boy on the beach and his spacecraft and then remember that I don't need to search for that alien machine any longer. It has become all too real. It isn't made of sand either, but stone and hard iron.

Only slowly do I realize that it's not waves rolling endlessly across the shore that I'm hearing, but voices speaking in the air above me, their pitch rising and falling. The words are obscured by the current of agony that is my reward for every hard-won breath, and swimming to reach the place where the words are is just not worth the effort. Surprisingly, where the payment for striving against the current would surely have been too high, doing nothing, just floating, allows me to rise far enough to catch some of the meaning. There are at least two voices. One is the deep, sonorous bass I know all too well. The other is a stressed and hesitant tenor.

"You should not have let this happen," Hunter is saying, his voice dripping with displeasure. "You should have watched out for him."

The tenor clears his throat. "He was shut down. What could we do? He clearly wanted his privacy. Besides, it was only the scrub room. He's been through that before just as we all have."

"Has he? Couldn't you tell, couldn't any of you tell that something was wrong."

"I could," came a soft voice. Teresa's. "He spoke to me. It didn't occur to me at the time, but why did he do that? He didn't need to."

"This is not the time for discussion. While you question, he dies. If you want him living, then you best see to it that he stays that way."

There's a pause in the conversation. I wonder what's going on when pain explodes in my right wrist. Broken, too. I think someone, probably Teresa, has attempted, clumsily, to take my pulse.

"Sir- " I don't like the tone of her voice. "You- are - going to help us with him, aren't you?"

"You should know the answer to that by now. The strong survive."

Teresa's next words are bitter and there are shushing noises in the back ground as if someone was trying to silence her. "How could we not know, but he is not just any >belagani<."

"I do not know what you mean. You are all the same to us."

"Not true." Now the shushing noises nearly drown her out, "You have your favorites; he's one. We all know it. If you leave him with us, he's going to die. The >Yei< must help."

There's a cold pause and something like a sniff of contempt from Hunter. "Let us see what together the flower of the >belagani< can accomplish. Strive to mimic the animals in your wilderness. They have remarkable recuperative properties."

"We are not animals."

"Better that you were. Remember I lived on your planet for many years. Not animals?" A snarl this time. "Raping your world, breeding out of control, killing your fellow creatures to extinction, pissing in your air and water, undisciplined, purposeless. Even we, who are as compassionate as the lion, who kill the weak and the old and the sick, know better. If you think yourself superior, then save his life." At that Hunter leaves. I can feel the vibration of his steps through the broken bones in my back.

There is no more discussion. There is only survival on a knife's edge. I'm aware of their clustering around. Many bodies. Now what? They stoop as one as if they had done this before. Hands clasp wrists behind by neck and shoulders, waist and hips, knees and legs.

In the black and swirling panic of erupting pain, I cry, 'No! Don't touch me, God, don't touch me!' but there are no words. I think my jaw is broken. They move gently and with care and skill, and yet if I could have cursed I would have. Bone scrapes against bone, bone tears into muscle, internal bleeding that had slowed begins anew. I gag on the acid of my bile, vomit being all gone.

My eyesight has not improved and yet I know that I'm being carried into one of those disrobing rooms that I should have entered before. I can actually feel the brilliance of that dazzling light on my skin. Here is the smell of the locker rooms - dampness, the homey smell of old shoes and newly bare feet and discarded clothes. More hands - gentle hands, large hands and small hands, calloused and smooth, hands not involved in carrying my body - cut off my clothes. They cut them off in small pieces so that the hands carrying me don't have to change their grip except to ease the small pieces out from under. I find out later that they must have used their teeth to cut what won't tear because the abductees aren't allowed anything sharp. It's not that their captors are afraid of a riot. Nor do they fear that their prisoners will take up murder as a hobby. I think you know what's left.

Clothes off, I am cold. I was cold before and now I'm freezing. I would shiver if I had the energy so I'm just cold. There really are showers in that room whose dimensions and hard ceramic walls I sense by the echoes. At the most the water comes out in a fine mist which is just as well because I don't think I could have stayed conscious though a harder spray. The water is not very warm and smells distinctly of antiseptic, but it is a shower. They rinse off the blood and the gore and worse. There is, I think, something like soap, but it doesn't smell very good. Where there are open cuts, the 'water' stings like a hundred pesky bees, yet I am thirsty from the blood loss and try to open my broken jaw enough to lick a few drops from my lips. It tastes like stale, thin vinegar. A soft, smooth hand notices and places itself over my mouth so I cannot drink any more.

They are gentle. They take their time. Since they hold my body very still there is no more grinding or gushing of blood. It is almost - almost - like being cared for as if I were a very small child.

It does not take long before I am shivering for real and that alone hurts like hell. This seems a signal that I've had enough, and a rough, light cloth is laid over my bare skin. We leave this place that smells of disinfectant and the pain erupts anew. They notice and slow. We inch along for some interminable distance. We meet no one.

Finally our little procession passes over a threshold. I sense this because the light which I can still somehow sense, dims. I don't know why, but the relative darkness is greeted almost with relief by my aching body. Being narrower than any hallway, there is more jostling at this doorway. I try not to cry out because I know that they are doing their best, but a sob manages to get out anyway. In an attempt to calm me, a hand passes over my brow and pauses in my hair and I cannot hold back the tears. I cry, not because the action was physically painful, but because the memories that the act evokes are more than I can bear. It reminds me of how you use to touch me when you thought I was too far under to know. Surprised? Did you think I never knew?

I'm finally stationary. I'd sigh with relief if that didn't bring it's own little visit to hell. A warm body snuggles in on each side, more layers of light cloth are laid over us and that is all. No doctors, no IV's, no machines, no tubes or wires, no blood- letting. I sleep. I wake when the shift changes and my bedwarmers go and new ones come. Water, real water, if a little stale, is trickled through the small gap I can produce with my broken jaw. I escape into unconsciousness each time attempts are made with well- meaning clumsiness to splint the worse of my broken bones. I am changed like a baby. I try not to think about that. I'll never complain about catheters again.

And this is all. Day after day of this. I know now why they took their time in the washing. Other than encouraging me to swallow the dribbles of water they offer and some thicker, tasteless stuff, and splinting that will produce bones that will never heal straight, it is all they can do for me.

As time passes, everything - my body, this room which I still haven't seen, the silent people (Did I mention that they have never spoken since Hunter left them?) - become more and more distant. Unconsciousness is a black hole punctuated with the occasional bad dream. Consciousness is a gray void, which is all the sight I have recovered. When I am attended to, it is by faceless, silent hands. Mentally and physically, I am as light as air. My mind floats above the pain - it's the only relief I can find. Down there in my body, fever is burning flesh. When they touch me, their hands seem to go all the way to the bone. When I try to move, which isn't often, I'm as weak as a day-old kitten and just as blind.

This is dying the slow way, Scully. Kidney failure, fever, congestive heart failure, liver failure, sepsis, dehydration, malnutrition. You could name more. Which will pick me off first, fellas? I don't even care.


A week, maybe a month passes, and there comes a time when I pass from the darkness to the gray to hear singing. Well, not singing, but humming. It's like a mantra. In my mind's eye I image my fellow abductees gathered in a semicircle before the door to our prison, humming and waiting. After what seems forever, during which time the gray and the black exchange places a few more times, I hear our prison door slide open. Hearing is about the only sense left to me which in itself is a miracle considering the fragility of those little bones. Amazingly, there are voices again though the words stumble over each other and are too distant for me to make out their meaning. The discussion in those rising and falling voices goes on and on and lull me back again to the beach. As sometimes happens now, I am the young boy, abandoned by all who should be caring for him. The sun is burning his skin. The sand rubs in the burns. He has been wandering for days and he is very tired but he has no home and no bed. When he falls asleep on the sand, he wakes more tired than before. He weeps almost all the time. He wants this to end.

Someone comes to sit beside my bed. It's not another bedwarmer, there have not been any of those since the fever came to stay. It's Charley; I can smell the difference immediately. They were calling him with their mantra. Like praying. Homage.

What did they have to promise to get him to come?

"They've begged me to keep you from dying."

Even if I could, what does one say to something like that.

"Do you also beg for your life, Mooncalf?" Ah, almost forgot about the nickname. The calf that is so fascinated by the bright, strange light in the night sky that he doesn't notice when the herd wanders on without him. The half-wit, the dreamer. As far as the Hunter's question goes, I can't say 'no' because I haven't been able to speak for days. Unable to even turn my head to the wall in defiance, I close my eyes a little tighter even though they are closed already and manage to thrust out my chin about a millimeter. Clearly, it is enough to get my message across.

"I didn't think so. That is what has always set you off from the others. You will beg for others, but never for yourself. That's your price. You see I remember our meeting on the submarine. You would have died before begging for your own life, but you wept for information about your sister's."

Talk... talk... Get to the point. I am so tired.

"Very well, no games. In short, we would prefer you living but we won't force that. What I offer is healing of a sort but such healing that will still require a great deal of effort on your part if you truly want to live. Maybe we have waited too long. Maybe it is beyond your strength at this point, but we think not. You've already survived far longer than we expected."

What is he offering? Life? All right, I'm listening. Death is waiting on the threshold, and I'm still not anxious to open that door, but he also talks about a price that must be paid. Oh, be quiet and let me die in peace. But he knows me too well. He knows that I don't want to die. There's too much to do. If nothing else, I have to see you again, Scully. If only I weren't so tired and so sick. Sick to death has come to have real meaning.

He touches the side of my face and the pain, my constant companion, takes a few steps back. A stillness comes over my mind and I fade out. Surprisingly, I'm back on the beach, only this time I'm lying curled on the sand in the same position as they found me in the hold after the unrestrained acceleration of the ship had smashed my body into a bloody mass of broken bones and exploded blood vessels. I'm lying in a tidal pool, that shallow hallow of ocean left around objects on the beach when the tide goes out. I am that object, and the water is warm from the sun. I haven't moved in a very long time and can't now. Like a fish out of water, living is no longer my element.

A shadow passes over me. It has to be the Hunter. He comes upon my broken body as I once found a dying tiger shark, its gills feebly straining, all the fight gone.

The water in the tidal pool feels too good and I am tired of holding up my head. How easy it would be to just lower it down.... down...

When I try, however, I find that he has crouched down beside me and lifted my face clear of the water. He literally holds my life in his hands. This is also when I realize that I can actually see him. It is good to be able to see again. Incredibly, he's shirtless and dressed in khaki shorts and stout work boots like some healthy laborer just off the construction site and here I am, a bundle of broken sticks within a skinbag of misery.

"So it's not all gone," the Hunter says in awe. "You have this place left. What happened to you, child of earth? What did those devils do to you?"

"I don't know what you're talking about." The words come hesitantly and sound strange, dry as pebbles baked in the sun and weak as a breeze. They are literally the first words I have spoken in days and these in a dream.

"I think you do. You are still a mystery to us. We offer you a chance for life, and as we are not sure that you do wish it also, we will bargain."

"Even if I agreed, I have nothing with which to bargain."

"Your word is all we ask. We have watched you for many years and we have learned that, unlike so many of the other >belagani<, you keep your promises."

"You've been hanging around with the wrong crowd."

"Too true. We erred in those we chose to work with. We will not do so again. But that also for later, if you live."

"I will and without your help."

"A hollow threat. Life is flowing out of you like this tide. I can bring you back over to this side, not all the way - we will leave you some choice in the matter - but far."

"And you want my soul in payment."

"We have no use for souls. Your cooperation in some tests, that is all we require."

"No."

"It's not like you'll be betraying those who you think of as your people. The colonization will go on in any case."

"No." But he's right about the tide, Scully. It's going out and for the final time. The last grains of my strength are being washed out into the vast, impersonal ocean. I'd afraid. I reach for a memory with your face and can't find even one.

"What do your people say? Do you need me to 'sweeten' the deal?" asks the far away voice of my tormenter. "I offer what you want more than anything, even more than your freedom."

"There is nothing I want more than that."

"What about that for which you have risked your life over and over? Knowledge, little mooncalf. Answers. I cannot provide details about our current plans but there is much I can tell an individual in your unique position. One test, one question, one answer."

'No' is on the tip of my virtual tongue. It lingers there. Knowledge. The forbidden fruit. He says he won't, but I know that he has the power to save my life for the tests even without my consent. What would I be then? A slave kicking and screaming in agony? How can that save anybody? Albert Holstein told you that I had to save the world. How could my death save anybody? Christ could, but I'm not he. Dead, nothing is saved - not the world, not you, not anybody. But with life and knowledge there may be a chance, abet a very small one. Would fraternizing with the enemy make me a traitor? Many would think so; I've watched too many gung ho World War II movies not to have learned that. But if I could somehow get information back to you, Scully, or to Skinner or to the Gunman's network of conspiracy believers or - heaven knows - maybe even to the fuckin' federal Government, wouldn't it be better to return with pearls than ashes? Are we talking traitor then... or spy?

For years I wanted to believe, Scully, and I was right. I want to believe now that I will return some day. If I do, I want this time of separation - this time of trial for both of us - to mean something.

It's worth a try. Won't be fun though, if what he hints about the tests is true.

I'm not on the beach any more, yet it's a seamless waking. His hand is still cradling the back of my head. I manage another chin thrust in defiance which soothes my conscience somewhat, but I also manage to nod about a millimeter.

Am I going to need Daniel Webster to get me out of this?

I don't have time for further literary imagery for he doesn't waste any time. Maybe he doesn't feel like I have any time to waste or maybe he's afraid that I'll change my mind, but he immediately raises his free hand and encircles my broken jaw. I know now why he has already taken a good hold on the back of my head. He touched me once before just before I was taken up into the ship and I felt his strength back in Alaska, but neither time was anything like this. I am thrown physically and mentally into a technicolor netherworld, into the heart of a summer storm of lightning and thunder that only begins with my jaw. Soon the lightning is making deep and repeated strikes all over my body. The energy flowing from his hands is like dozens upon dozens of electroshock sessions. Fire, flash, burn... I know about those. I've had them. They were part of the treatment the doctor's didn't tell Scully about last summer when the voices drove me mad. They didn't help a damn then; I assume his will do a better job. They'd better. I'd hate to survive this kind of torture for nothing.

I awake more in the present than I've been for... weeks?. I've been given water, I know, many times as I've drifted semi- conscious. There has been more of the thin and nasty substance like Cream of Wheat, too, stuff which I have always detested. I sense that I've been sleeping a long, long time - real sleep - yet I still have no particular desire to wake. Part of it has to do with being impossibly tired, though for once I'm neither feverish nor suffering the agony of the damned. The other part has to do with facing up to the bargain I have made.

He is sitting beside me as if he has never left. Perhaps he hasn't. I can still smell him. It's not a bad scent, but just one I have come to associate with 'them'. I try my eyes. It takes effort, but they work. For the first time since I was tossed like a badly thrown rubber ball from one side of the ship's cargo hold to the other, I can see. My eyelids, however, are about the only things I can lift.

"Sleep well?"

It is an odd salutation coming from this one. I don't bother to answer.

"Remember our agreement?" His eyes, as well as his voice, demand an answer this time.

"I'll co...co... op..." My voice feels and sounds like it is rolling over course grade sandpaper. My jaw works stiffly, but at least it works.

"Cooperate," he supplies with irritating amicability. I despise the way he gloats.

"Didn't pr-promise... s-small talk." I find I'm out of breath already and have to struggle with the last bit.

It's depressing to see how easily he stands to go. I think I could perhaps raise a finger, but as he'd probably miss the reference, I don't.

"I could have healed you long ago, if you had asked," he throws back at me with lazy arrogance.

Wrong, he knew my price from the beginning and still he let me suffer. With more will than strength, I hiss, "Bastard."

He gives me his shark smile. "Using your definition of the word, all of my race are bastards." He places a heavy hand on my one good shoulder. I would have squirmed out from under that hand if I had been able. "Rest now. There will be time enough for work later and we have much work to do."

And, damn me, but under that devil's hand I fall into a deep and blissfully pain-free sleep.

End

My Travels with Charley: Chapter 03. Stockhome
Author: Wingsinger 8/23/00

Summary: Finally recovering from his nearly fatal first few minutes aboard the alien ship, a lonely Mulder talks to an absent Scully of his surroundings and his fellow prisoners.

Author's Notes: This is third is a series of short stories chronically Mulder's confusing, agonizing, torturous, lonely and wondrous adventures with the 'Grays'.


"Mulder..."

Sleep's gentle arms slowly release me. The smell of coffee, rich and thick and hot, wafts through the air. Someone has taken the trouble to cook bacon, too, as well as toast and eggs. My stomach rumbles in happy anticipation even as my arms reach up to embrace the slender form in the flame-red hair who hovers above me, smiling.

"Scully, you shouldn't have."

"You're right, I shouldn't have. All that cholesterol is just going to lay down and die in your arteries. But then I thought - for my handsome traveler, just this once. Why not?"

She is warm in my arms, skin truly as soft as silk. She snuggles into me, lowering her head to bite down playfully on the side of my neck. A thrill of anticipation and pleasure flows through my singing body. Slowly, she begins to undress for me, sliding the white film over first one creamy shoulder, than the other


The buzzer that reaches my ear doesn't just intrude on the mood, it shatters it. I tell myself that it's the timer on the stove, but I know that isn't true. My right hand falls limply to my side.

I'm hiding in my 'cubby' - short for cubbyhole as you probably know - where I seem to be spending most of my time lately. Roughly two meters long and less than a meter wide and a meter high, this coffin-shaped and lightless hole is the only place in this alien prison that is all mine. We all have them. They line the walls like quadruple-high bunk beds except that each is completely enclosed, even down to the hinged door that opens up across one long end. Mine is on the bottom of one stack. In fact, it's actually on the floor, so much so that I have to get down on my hands and knees to creep inside. But it's all mine. It's home now. The only home I have.

I must admit, the accommodations are a bit sparse. Have you read about those little 'hotel' rooms they have in Japan? Like overgrown bus station lockers, you can whip out your credit card and for the night have a more or less comfortable single bed. As you might expect from the Japanese love of gadgets, all the electronics you could ask for are tucked into the walls a few inches from your face: TV, video player, internet access, CD player, razor, hair dryer. My box on the alien ship is a bit more spare. It's furnished with a thin pad to protect my bones from the floor. That's it. No sheets, no pillow, no blanket. Instead, we huddle into balls when we sleep. At least I do. It's the only way I've found to even begin to stay warm and I still dream of cold winter winds more often than anything else. Of course, I stretch out when I attempt to engage in one of my fantasies. Haven't had any success yet, but then it hasn't been very long since I've been able to manage the physical activity required or been able to concentrate long enough without falling asleep. This morning was my best attempt yet. Such rich visions. I even had the smells down right.

Don't scold, Scully. I know that this isn't good for me. It hurts too much when I come down. I grieve all over again for what I have lost - what we both have lost. I should learn to accept this curve ball Fate has sent my way. Embrace the challenge! Sorry, I'm not that much of a masochist. Besides, what else do I have to do?

Actually, at the moment I do have something else to do. I have to roll out of here and get in line for breakfast.

I flip up the door to my combination living room, bedroom and garage. Ironically, the door is exactly like the one on those flipper cabinets that you find in all modular office furniture. The trick is to get to my feet without clipping an elbow. At least I don't have to dress. Now you're probably thinking that I'm naked. Maybe it would be best if I started from the beginning.

"Oh, good. Just what I could use right now... a tour." Your voice in my head is so sweet, despite the irony, that it hurts. Very well, this will be today's chapter of the travelogue. I guess I'll start to make these regular now that I'm no longer in danger of dying anytime soon.


STOCKHOME:

The >Yei< - I still do not know where this word comes from but it refers to the group or the sub-race that runs this ship - - must have spent years studying old World War II training films on how to inflict psychological torture. Considering that the Consortia was deeply in bed with the inventive Dr. Shiro Zama and other Axis ex-patriots from that infamous time in the Human race's recent past, I wouldn't be surprised if the aliens weren't equally as acquainted.

First, the male and female abductees are separated for all but a few minutes of each day. Who would have thought that we would end up with prudish aliens! I'm of the opinion, however, that the arrangement is intended just to irritate us. I've not seen women's accommodations, but since they wear the same clothes and the same vacant expressions as the men, I'd say they were treated pretty much the same.

Now about Stockhome. First, that's only my name for it. Cattle images... Home.... Get it? Anyway, it's one large room. Three of the walls are lined with our private boxes like so many shelves in a crypt. There are forty-four cabinets - four rows of four high on each side and three rows of four high on the end that doesn't have any doors. At six feet six inches length per box that leaves a central open space of twenty-six feet by slightly less than twenty feet. And an open space is all it is. No furniture. Not even carpet or padding. Just a resin-like floor. At least we are running at only half capacity or we'd be on top of each other during the day. I've counted a maximum of twenty men at one time. This should leave empty cabinets, but no one opens the unclaimed ones on the opposite wall and so neither do I.

I don't think I'm ready to know what's inside.

As far as decoration goes, it's all sort of greenish brown, like the cargo hold. It's not army green, not that bad. There's some mottling, rather like creeping mold, but not really enough to be interesting.

In contrast to what we have always heard about the abductee experience, there is not much light here. In fact, much of the time you feel like you're sleepwalking in a brown haze. Not dark, but not light enough to read a book with fine print for long.

If I only had a book.

They keep this half-light on all the time and, of course, there are no windows, so there's no night and day. Since the others all tend to sleep at the same time, I've come to think of that time as night under the assumption that, at least this early in our confinement, their biorhythms have got to be more normal than mine.

In one corner there is what can only be called a pit toilet. There's no flush. Everything just goes down, down, down somewhere. At least there is minimal smell. Oh, and they do provide a few sheets of toilet paper that I swear were last seen on a cactus. Not that we need to make use of them much. Most of the bacteria in and on our bodies were destroyed in the sanitation process when we came through the shower room and we're not given much solid food.

I'll get to the topic of food in a bit. For privacy around this privy, someone has hung a couple of shirts, which have been decoratively shredded into strips and fastened to the relatively low ceiling that is no more than ten feet high.

CLOTHES:

This will be a quick topic. Loose drawstring pants and a loose short sleeve pullover shirt. All gray. When new, the fabric would have been rough, but it's rubbed smooth now from long use. We have one set.

I've only been up and about on my own a couple of days so I haven't asked yet about washing or changes of clothes. There is little smell here, however, unless we just become use to our own stink. I think, however, that there is less because, as I mentioned before, the sanitation process kills off most of the surface bacteria and that takes a while to grow back. It's only a matter of time however before things begin to get pretty rank in here.

At least there's no laundry do.

ACTIVITIES:

Which brings me to my next topic - activities. This topic will be even shorter than that on clothing.

There are no activities.

Oh, there's feeding time, but I'll cover that under food, and from time to time - very irregular times - the door to the 'outside' will slide open and one of the inmates will get up from the floor or roll off their slab and without a word will walk out. It's creepy. Why does this one go and not that one? More importantly, none have come back yet. That may not mean very much because, as I've said, I've only been up and about for a short time and I still sleep the majority of the time. Some of them could have come back and how would I know? I'm not even familiar with all their faces yet. It's amazing how hard it is to tell one of us from the other when we are all dressed alike as we are. Interestingly, we also all tend to be of a similar body type - lean and fairly tall.

FOOD:

Okay, I know you've been waiting for this one. As I've mentioned, I've been on my feet only a few times since Charley the Hunter left what was almost my deathbed. A growling stomach got me up the first time. I was lying on my side with my flipper door open and staring at nothing - since nothing is all there is to stare at - when a very faint buzzer sounded. The next thing I knew, many pairs of legs were shuffling past on their way to the front of the room. Finally admitting that my stomach was thinking seriously about digesting my backbone, I decided that this was as good a time as any to assume verticality. I rolled out carefully - my ribs are still astoundingly painful - - and crawled about for a while on my hands and knees until the shakes had subsided sufficiently for me to attempt to stand. It was an iffy thing and I had to claw my way up a stack of cabinets. That was when I grasped the logic of my being assigned a floor-level bunk; less far to fall.

Having obtained uprightness, more or less, I stood for a good two minutes, cradling my aching ribs, while I waited for the room to stop revolving slowly on its axis. I was so weak that it took at least five more minutes - with some on and off graying-out time - for me to make it to where the others had gathered. There was a slot near the door, a shadow, and from this shadow they were pulling grayish bowels. I will say this: they are a well-mannered lot; no pushing or shoving. I was soon to find out why. But first I got in line - I was the last - and when it was my turn, I reached in for a bowl as I'd seen the others do. Nothing. I wondered if this was some cruel version of musical chairs and I was now 'out'. Billy reached around me, however, and pressed a thumb on a depression in the hole that I hadn't seen. A bowl appeared. I took it and wished I hadn't Just in case you're eating, and because I have to eat it, I won't say what it reminded me of. Let's just say that it was the thickness of gravy and brown and a little lumpy.

This is what I received two days ago on my first morning up. This is what I've received ever since. This is what I was spoon fed during my convalescence. We are fed twice a day.

Enough said.

MY FELLOW INMATES:

Let's go back to that first meal. Billy must have seen my pallor when I got my first look at the food, for he took my bowl from me and with his free arm led me over to the section of the room where the stacks of cabinets are that I haven't seen anyone open yet. He helped me to sit on the floor. I can see that at least I'm going to keep limber living here. He handed me my breakfast and sat down beside me with his own. There was no spoon. He lifted the bowl to his lips and sipped. He watched me from over the rim of the bowl, urging me silently to try it. There was no discussion. Not a word. That's the way it was. That's the way it's been since I got here I took a sip from my own bowl and gagged. It's slimy and cold and tasteless stuff. It's also a little gritty. For fiber, I assume. The dirty water with the bug they gave me in that Russian gulag tasted better.

I put my bowl down. I was not that hungry any more.

I became aware of Billy studying me. His brow was deeply creased, he was concentrating so hard. But, as always, he said nothing.

"Is this all there is?" I asked. "Ever?"

Billy frowned and there was such sadness in his face.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

His sorrow, if anything, increased.

Sensing a problem, I whispered, "Can't you tell me what's going on around here? The Hunter is the only one who has ever said a word to me. Are we forbidden to talk?"

Billy's mouth actually moved and with eyes closed he managed a "Yes", though the worded sound odd. It was what you might hear from someone who hasn't spoken for a long time. It was as if he had nearly forgotten how.

Billy carefully placed his bowl on the floor and then shifted his position so we were facing each other. All at once he placed his right hand on the side of my head. I flinched even though it didn't hurt because it reminded me of the two times Charley has touched me in that same spot. I did not want to go through that again. This time, however, I felt nothing, though from Billy's expression - distress - he wished that I had.

"I'm sorry. I don't know what you want."

I became suddenly aware that we were surrounded, not only by the men, but also by the women who are allowed to visit only on an irregular basis. Everyone from my abduction group seemed to be there. Since I was still sitting on the floor and they were standing, they made an intimidating group even though they clearly didn't mean me harm. These are my bother and my sister prisoners, I reminded myself, but they continued to be, as ever, frighteningly silent. And people call me Spooky.

Teresa came forward. I am certain that I remember her speaking to the Hunter though I was injured near to death at the time. She doesn't now. Instead, she placed her hand firmly on the top of my head. Her eyes hold me still. So anxious. Other hands raised me to my feet and I found myself not only ringed by them, but now they were all trying to make physical contact one way or the other. When they couldn't get close enough to latch onto some part of my head or face, they settled for whatever part of my body they could reach.

Now you know that I don't like close spaces, Scully. And you know that I don't like to be touched except by you and then I need some warning, so you can imagine the panic attack that started to brew.

Billy stopped this gentle assault. He either felt my muscles hardening, or he caught the wild fear of a cornered animal in my eyes. At least no one in the crowd seemed particularly upset about being sent away. Instead, their expressions were all similar to Billy's, a sadness like that in a child's eyes when he finds his pet mouse dead and cold in its cage.

It was the manner in which they all stepped away and began to move into far corners of the room without a word being spoken that finally broke though my blindness.

Only the issue is not that I'm blind. What I am is deaf and dumb, at least compared to everyone else here.

"You're telepathic," I whispered. "You all are. Like I was."

A tear rolled down Teresa's pale cheek "No, not like you."

I spun around because those four thickly accented words definitely didn't come from Billy. Charley Hunter's smile was as irritatingly patronizing as ever. Teresa and Billy hung their heads as if in defeat and began to inch away.

"I should have known. It was you who stopped them and not Billy. You're such a popular guy around here."

"They are ashamed. They are like babies, or like the stoke victim, restricted to communicating the wonders of the world in half a dozen of the simplest words. I intervened because they might have hurt you. Not intentionally, but, in their frustration and by their sheer numbers, they may have."

"Frustration over what? What did they expect to get from me?"

His eyes are like flint. "You know. You said it."

"Telepathy? I don't know how they can expect me to understand."

"Don't you?" Without taking those eyes from me, he called over his shoulder, "Teresa, tell Mooncalf what it was like before."

And then he did something with his hand, and a veil seemed to drop from her eyes. It was like the whole woman stood before me for the first time since we met in her home that day now so long ago.

"Having you with us was like being in the middle of a symphony - a symphony of words and music. It was like the works of Shakespeare and Mozart and Beethoven and the Brownings and Tolkien and Webber and Wagner and Robert Frost - all being performed at once and in the most marvelous combinations. And all of us in the same skin." The shadow returned to her eyes. "Not like this. Not this aloneness. Not this stone against stone, chalk squeaking on a blackboard the way it is when you're not here. Or like now."

"I think that's enough." Hunter waved his hand again and the veil descended once more.

"Does she want me to believe that I once could do all that?"

"Is that a formal question? A part of our bargain?" asked my own personal Satan.

"You owe me. I passed your test."

A shrug from those massive shoulders. "I would not call mere survival a test."

"I didn't have to."

"True."

"Then give. Could I? What she said?"

"If you ignore the excessive imagery, she was essentially correct, only we have only their word for the content."

It took a while, but the light finally brightened a little more and he waited, knowing that it would. "You have only their word," I ventured, "because your little lab rats may be able to think to each other... but not to you or your people. That's why Billy and Teresa and the others have to make actual sounds when they want to communicate with you." Something in his eyes confirmed everything I was saying. "What I don't understand is - - if you people can't hear anyway, why are you forcing them to try, especially since their telepathy is so limited." "But we can hear, we just can't understand. Before it was like a roar, like your sea. There was some chance of eventually translating. Now it's rather like... the scratching of a very small rodent."

How I wish looks could kill. How I wish you were here to give Mr. Acromegalic Jaw one of yours.

I came closer than I cared to in order to keep my voice low as there was nothing wrong with my fellow abductees' hearing. "So they don't live up to your expectations, so they're not allowed to talk!" I demanded. "That's senselessly cruel even for you. What's the point? Oh, of course, why do I bother to ask. Another test."

A shrug. "It's only part of a test - or you would more accurately call it a breeding program - one that has been on- going for centuries. But it's true that they can barely understand each other any longer. Without your presence as a catalyst, it all falls apart. By forbidding speech between them, we hope to jump start their latent abilities, but that may take months, if not years. It's no wonder they are confused. What both your people and mine are anxious to know, however, is why with you here - even before your accident - all was still so silent."

Could it be that they don't know about the events of a year ago, when a dizzying trickle of voices in my head became suddenly an overwhelming flood? Could it be they don't know how I lost it? It's possible. Except for Smokie Spender, the Consortia has been executed to the last man.

"What happened?" he asked. "I see it in your eyes. Something. I suspected before, but thought the problem was related to your injuries and would return in time. But it's more than that. What did they do to you?"

I am the silent one now. The Hunter is right - knowledge is power and here's something that I seem to know which they don't. What else do I know that they don't? The Air Force's tests with stolen alien aircraft at Ellens? Some aspects of the Gregor experiments? Whatever Krycek is into? The Russian's successful vaccine against the Black Oil?

"I think that is enough for today," I replied. I am surprised by the sound of my own voice. I could be some prince announcing that the audience was over. I wish my nerves were that confident.

Surprisingly, he smiled. "Very well. As you are not completely recovered, we will wait a little longer. We would not want to undo what progress has been made."

He turned to go and then changed his mind about leaving just yet. "Something for you to think about. In addition to your forgotten telepathic abilities, you do not seem to remember the ship, or any of the previous tests. Very unusual."

"Not unusual as all. Most abductees have only spotty memories of their 'visits' with you and your people."

"Because they are given what you would call a post-hypnotic suggestion to forget. It remains in affect until they next see the light. A thought or two may break through, but the process works well enough. Not that it matters. 'Abductees' are never believed except by the few who are thought equally mad." I didn't like the laughter behind those cold eyes of his. I know when I've been insulted.

"Your response is unusual," he went on, "in that you do on some level remember the light - you were drawn to it - but you remember nothing more. And then there's the missing symphony, as Teresa calls it. As I said, we need to know why and we will find out why." His glance was as surgically precise and calculating as that of a taxidermist evaluating the best way to mound a prize fish. "Because of these drastic changes, little mooncalf, my superiors want a new baseline to compare with your old one. I'm told that our 'physicians' will perform the required tests soon. Very soon. Until then.... " he grinned his wolf grin, "sleep well."

I was finally left alone. Billy and Teresa and the others did not return but clustered in the corners. I understand their distracted air now. They are thinking. Hard. They are trying with all their might to awaken something in themselves... and in me.

Sorry, guys. The well has been tapped dry.

Or I certainly hope so.

That was, as I've said, two days ago. Even now, the men of Stockhome keep their distance thinking their baby talk to each other while I don't hear even that. Understanding more now, I feel bad about the 'Stock' pun but the name has stuck in my mind at this point. God, after all, did create Man to name things.

I came out here this morning only to eat, but now as I look down at yet another gray bowl of brown sludge, I find I have no appetite. I don't feel like continuing this travelogue either. Sorry, Scully. I think I will crawl back into my hole and close the door and lie in the dark.

But I don't believe that I will sleep.

Epilogue: The retreat to my cave is interrupted by the whispered opening of the main door. Four inmates stagger in. One is limping and holding an arm, one is visibly shivering, one walks as if he is even more in zombieland than usual, and the fourth takes two steps and then falls and begins to convulse. I stand as if frozen, but not my fellow inmates. They activate at once in silent efficiency. Even without telepathy, I know what I am seeing. Four were called away for testing over the last few days and they are just returning; those who remained at home have swung into action to pick up the pieces. They did this for me. I remember marveling at how smoothly they moved and how gentle their nursing. Now I know how that was possible; they've had lots of practice.

Being the son of loving and sensitive parents, I can't help but note that each one of these people must be keenly aware that he or she will be in a similar state of need sooner or later.

"Mulder!"

You're right, Scully. Even for me, cynical bastard that I am, that was really shameful. In truth, it was only a passing thought. At least I'm willing to admit when I'm wrong. Their caring means far more than that, they mean far more than that to each other. I know. It's just not an emotion I've felt from anyone except you.

Yet I felt it through their hands.

They. I am still saying 'they'. It's 'we'. What I said to you before, Scully, about my being one of them is even more true now.

My paralysis leaves me and I go to the head of the one who is still convulsing. His arms and legs are drawn rigidly together as he thrashes about. I know about convulsions - that helpless, out-of-control humiliation. I have seldom felt so alone. It's almost as bad as trying to live elbow to elbow with more than two dozen silent people whose eyes, when they turn my way, are filled with both disappointment... and pity.

I take the man's shoulders in my lap and force a wad of his shirt into his mouth. I scarcely recognize him now, but he is Roy, Teresa's young husband, who had, as she told us, been tested too many times before.

And I will go soon, Charley Hunter told me so. I'll be taken for the Tests. Will I come back like one of these?

I realize that I won't be going to huddle in my hole alone again anytime soon, but then that no longer seems very important. My place is here for the time being, for here, but for the grace of God or the whim of Fate - go I.

Have I told you recently, Scully, how desperately I miss you?

End

My Travels with Charley: Chapter 04. Getting Physical
Author: Wingsinger 10/18/00

Summary: Having somehow survived the first terrible moments on the ship and his first days (at least the ones he's been conscious enough to remember), Mulder has become bored with the routine. Time to liven things up. Time for a little first hand knowledge with The Tests.

Author's Notes: This is fourth in a series of short stories chronically Mulder's confusing, agonizing, torturous, lonely and wondrous adventures with the 'Grays'. An 'All Hallow's Eve' chapter will come out next and will be... quite... different.


Morning, Scully. Note that there's nothing 'good' about it. Nothing out-of-the-ordinary either, so being at loose ends for anything to talk about I'll start with an observation. I've come to the conclusion that I really have lived a very selfish life. Oh, I've given my heart and soul and my blood to the job, and I've done my share of sympathizing with the victims - too much you would say - but in the end I've always been able to walk away. For so many years my eyes have been focused ever ahead, seeking my own answers: to what happened to Samantha, for the reason for your abduction, for why my father was killed This place and these people, however, I can't leave behind. For the last three 'nights' I've lain next to Roy and held him as he convulsed and did my best to keep him warm. I told you about the limited (i.e. non-existent) medical facilities in my last virtual journal entry. Without warning he'd been taken for Testing and without warning he was returned.

I could see in his eyes how scared he was whenever he felt another seizure building. I know how terrible that loss of control can be. The humiliation, the helplessness. There isn't much that can help, but if it brought him any comfort then I would stay. This is what family is for, isn't it, Scully? When I was growing up, I never knew what it was like not to be so alone all the time. Families were something you lost, or if you didn't lose them, they disappointed you. For years after Sam disappeared I could have used a hand holding mine in the dark. Now I have a family or something like one. Ironic, I'm the disappointment now, the broken and damaged one, and yet they are willing to still treat me as one of their own.

When I come back to you - and I do mean 'when' - I'm going to be a better person for this. Dare I softly say, better husband material? Maybe even 'father' material? I know that's a problem, but we can adopt. I wouldn't mind. After what I've been through my sperm are probably swimming in circles anyway. You would make a terrific mother. That's what I thought about all those hours as Roy shivered and sweated next to me - that this was what it must feel like to be a father sitting up with a sick child. Only, to be the father, the child's pain would be even more my own.

You seem surprised that I would find this revelation so surprising. You lay dying within reach of my hand twice and it hurt so much inside that I nearly died along with you. The difference is that, feeling as I do towards you, I didn't think I could have anything left for another human being. I seem to have been wrong about that.

When I'm not on Roy-watching duty, I exercise in an attempt to rebuild my strength. I must be ready. Unlikely as it may seem, an opportunity to escape may present itself at any time. Look at all those escaped convict movies. More often than not, the prison bus has an accident. Maybe this ship will crash.

No, maybe that's not such a great idea after all.

In any case, I exercise. I like swimming and running best, as you know, and I can't do either in the Stockhome yard. Just not enough room and too crowded for running and a distinct lack of water. It's calisthenics then, which I loath, but I've built up a little mantra of my own to keep me going that I repeat over and over in my head. The tune is to the Bridge on the River Kwai and the words are pretty scandalous even for me. Too bad I haven't had a chance to get really bored with it yet. That's because I haven't been able to build up to more than ten pushups before my arms give out. It's a pretty pitiful sight and I seem to be losing even more weight as a result of my exertions. I wouldn't mind so much if I seemed to be building up any muscle. To make the situation even worse, I'm beginning to smell rather rank. I asked Billy about showers and changes of clothes, but he just looked at me as if I had three heads.

The fourth 'day' after Rob's return while I am sweating over my tenth set of sit ups since our breakfast of glag, the buzzer announcing the opening of the main door went off. As it's not time for either breakfast or dinner, I look up with some apprehension. It could be visiting time for the women - that makes it sound like more goes on than actually does - but more likely this is a signal that one of our group is going to be taken. No one is getting up to leave, however. Instead, everyone is looking at me. It still unnerves me that even though this group practices telepathy with a vocabulary of about ten words, they are still able to communicate far better with each other than I can with any of them. I'm going to take it as a given that I've finally been called.

I get to my bare feet. My legs are more shaky than I would like to admit - Jell-o Jigglers have more substance - but the empty doorway beckons. It closes with a hiss of air behind me The light in the corridor beyond is blinding. I stand blinking for several seconds. I had forgotten how dim they keep our quarters. I'm still squinting when I see my escort. I don't know why it should surprise me, but it's one of the little Grays. Its smooth round head with its malevolent almond eyes comes up to about my sternum. In the flesh they certainly are more sinister than Spielberg depicted them. Soundlessly, it turns and heads off down the white corridor to my left. Having nothing better to do, I follow.

I don't know why I should have been surprised but I am. It's taken me to the sanitation room, to the showers. I grasp at a thought: Perhaps they don't intend to test me this time after all. Maybe it's just that my stink offends them. That's a victory of sorts. In any case, I can't shed my rank clothes fast enough. Fleetingly, I wonder if the little Gray is male or female. My striptease doesn't seem to affect it one way or the other. It's with gratitude that I dump my reeking gray fatigues down a chute and watch them disappear into the bowels of the ship.

I only saw the disrobing room once before and that from a distance when I was first taken up into the ship. That was just before my 'accident', not something I'm likely to forget. The only time I was actually under the showers, I was blind from the acceleration injuries to my eyes and being washed of blood and gore by my fellow abductees while Death and I played tag. This time I'm on my own two feet. Even as I slide under the showerhead, I stare curiously around. It's only a shower room, the kind they have at the older 'Y's and Boy Scout camps - one big room and a dozen or so showerheads placed at regular intervals. Still, for me it's the first new thing I've seen in weeks.

The mildly acidic fluid that comes out of the taps is warmer than I remember and there is less of it, but it doesn't sting. Not having any open wounds this time probably has something to do with that. Still, it is as near to heaven as I've found yet on this budget airline and I take my time. As I slide the hard bar of brown soap over my skin, I try to ignore the feel of my own bones under my hands. I spy the almost mirror-like shininess of a stainless steel tank that stands in the corner and side over to access the damage.

Should have known better. The comparison to World War II concentration camps comes back as it did once before in this place, only I'm a survivor this time... if you want to call this survival. Protruding hip bones, ribs like a xylophone, arms and legs like a bundle of long, brittle sticks. You would be shocked, Scully. My face... No, you don't want to know what my face looks like. All nose and jaw, cheekbones and hallow eyes. None of the other times when you have fussed over my having lost weight has been anywhere near as bad as this. I could use you fussing now as well as a few dozen Big Macs.

Hastily, I retreat back to my dripping showerhead. I must concentrate on this opportunity to get clean. I wash my hair with the same course soap and even wrestle with the fuzz between my toes. Who knows when I'm going to get a chance again? Going barefoot all the time, the bottoms of my feet look and feel like leather It's a while before I'm again aware of my guide, or it could be any of the Grays. It's standing in the doorway looking very anxious as if it's the one who'll pay for my taking so long. The problem is, there's no towel, nor any clean clothes. Even my old ones would have been better than nothing, but they're long gone, and so I make it plain that I'm going to stay planted where I am until I get some service. My escort, meanwhile, is still standing and waiting and doesn't seem to have any idea that something is missing in this scenario.

Finally, I peer at him from around what functions as a shower stall and shout, "Hey, I could use some clothes here!" and gesture pulling on pants. If it understands, it ignores me and makes nervous little motions like a certain tardy white rabbit with a pocket watch. For quite a while I stubbornly refuse to follow it while it stubbornly refuses to agree to my demands. Finally, it gives a very good impression of stalking off in a snit.

And people say that the Grays have no emotions.

Ten minutes later, during which time I've completed my examination of every inch of the dressing and shower rooms, I have a visitor. Charley Hunter. As usual, he seems twice as large and twice as real as everything and everyone else I've encountered in this place.

"I expected you five minutes ago."

"I have other duties besides watching over you. You should have followed the -" He says some word that sounds like ">Denay<" only that can't be right.

"If you mean the little bell-hop, not naked I won't."

"That hardly matters here."

There's some truth in that. Neither the Grays nor their elders of the tall and spindly physique wear anything that looks like a garment, though with the glare from the brilliant light the elders always seem to be bathed in, one can't be certain. Still... "It matters to me. Besides, I don't see your inhuman flesh gracing the decor."

The Hunter makes no answer to that other than to toss a bundle at my feet. The jumble of gray cloth lands in a damp spot, but with relief I retrieve them and dress anyhow. My ego has been bruised quite enough by how badly my manly physique has deteriorated since I was abducted. I don't need to provide Hunter or any of his kind with any more of a show than I have to. But Hunter did come at my call. Another point for the home team. The long, loose draw-string pants and even looser short-sleeve shirt are exactly like my old ones, but at least they don't smell like a inside of a high school student's gym locker I'm finally as ready as I'm going to get. While I dressed, I kept an eye on Charley. He has waited for me with what for him is the utmost patience. This makes me suspicious. Hell, everything about the 'man' makes me suspicious. Seeing I'm finished, he starts back down the brightly-lit corridor I had traveled with the little Gray. Seeing no other escort, I fall along beside him. I should keep silent and make him do the talking, but living with the zombies as I have, I'm so starved for conversation that I have to say something.

"No lecture?" I ask. "No complaints about my incorrigibility."

"What would be the point," he drawls. It is not a question. "Aren't you going to ask if it will hurt?"

I don't like the direction this conversation is going. "I believe I already know the answer to that one."

His smile broadens. Lucifer must smile like that We arrive at a doorway. He activates it somehow and the panel slides open. He gestures me inside with almost languid courtesy. It's even brighter in this room than the hallway though the air is thick with a dense, white fog. That's all I can see. Another decontamination procedure? Poor aliens. They really must find the human animal a dirty lot.

I step into the mist. It's damp and surprisingly warm. It tickles my nose like vinegar. Like a small child facing his first jump into the family pool, I take a deep breath and hold it. I would take things slower, but Charley is on my heels so I keep walking. Besides, I don't dare slow down because the only alternative is to turn and run and that I won't do. I have the honor of an entire species to uphold, after all, and I can feel its weight heavy on my bony shoulders.

The mist thins as suddenly as it appeared and between one second and the next I am bombarded with two sensations. Either alone could have stopped me dead where I stood. The light is suddenly, not just bright, but piercing, as painful as thousands of tiny razor-sharp knives that attack not just my eyes, but every inch of my skin. And I can't breathe. There is no air. Or perhaps I should say that my lungs refuse to take it in. The foul stuff is instantly in my mouth, in my nose, invading deep into my sinuses. Tears of protest roll down my cheeks. Its taste even beats against my eardrums as if pounding vainly against a barred door. Pervasive as a cesspool and acrid as a foundry, it's pure poison, metal laced with a reeking level of ammonia.

I'm on the floor, doubly blinded by tears and light. The pain and fear are so terrible I have no memory of how I got down here. I haven't actually breathed in the vile stuff yet, and I don't intend to, but I'm rapidly running out of options. I run and I swim - or I did, enough so my lungs are good - still, I can't hold my breath indefinitely.

The Hunter is at my side. I can't see him, but I can sense him and how utterly calm he is about his pet writhing on the floor at his feet.

Something attacks, and only after I jerk away do I realize that he's sprayed something onto my face. The bad part is that I feel like my skin has just been shrink-wrapped with a fine coating of plastic or wax, the good part is that the membranes around my eyes, nostrils and mouth don't burn as much anymore. I'm still going to die sometime soon though.

Now he cups the back of my head with one hand and, despite my struggles, stuffs a huge wad of something soft and squishy and vile into my mouth with the other.

"Breathe!" he orders. "Breathe deeply!"

The hell I will! With this junk in my mouth! Even now I can feel it softening, spreading out, creeping up the back of my throat as if it has a will of its own. I start to gag, but he clamps a heavy hand over my mouth so I can't eject the stuff.

"Breathe!" he commands again. "In with it, you fool!"

I don't have much choice. Damn, traitorous, autonomic reflexes! Despite the distraction of the searing light, it's all going dark. I open my throat in a strangled gasp and the gunk slides in and in and in.

Now there is nothing coming in no matter how hard I struggle. I'm choking to death. As for the Hunter, he's still got a heavy hand on my forehead and is holding me down so I won't dash my skull to pieces against the floor, which I surely would have.

"Give it a few seconds," he suggests, "just a few seconds. Then try again, only more slowly."

Yeah, sure, let's see the bastard try it, but surprisingly the gunky tightness of the obstruction, which feels like the largest clot of mucus of all time, begins expanding in my windpipe. (I would have used another word, which begins with 'SN' and ends with a 'T', but the very idea disgusted even me.) It's still like breathing through a soda straw, but it's breathing.

I'm managing to control my own panic now - just barely, but managing - so Hunter doesn't need to hold me down any more. Still he hovers. "Very good, little Mooncalf." He runs his hand over my forehead and down into my hair. I want to bite it but he stays out of range of my teeth. "Yes, very sensible. The 'k'nikk' forms a barrier against the poisons. Your people refer to it as the 'slug'. I'm sure you can understand why."

I think I would like to throw up now. I'm distracted from further mortification along these lines by his hand that is still hovering, shadowing my face. "Open your eyes. Go ahead. This will help. Wider."

Something like a the moon eclipsing the sun plops into my momentarily open right eye. Precious dark descends, or at least shade. "Again," he orders, and I do, and my left eye gets the same treatment. Obviously it's something like a large, nearly black contact lens. I lay still blinking and wheezing. Both seeing and breathing are becoming easier, but with agonizing slowness. The brightness of the room could still be compared to the full sun of winter reflecting off a mile-high snowfield, and the tightness in my chest is like an octopus has decided to hibernate in my lungs - yeah, I know, I've been there, done that before - but both are better than they were.

"You b-breathe this stuff?" I choke, meaning the air, not the slug. I didn't see Hunter sucking down any of the repulsive gunk.

"Why should that surprise you? In your blood is mirrored the sea in which you were spawned and which hangs in the air and falls as rain. In our blood is reflected our sea and our sky." Lightly, he touches the area under my left eyes and then my upper lip, both of which are raw. "You were exposed to our blood before, even mine as I remember. You're one of the few living who knows what happens when it mingles with your air. So you know, the same would happen if you swam unprotected in our seas or walked bareheaded under our sun."

There is something else about his planet I can deduce from all this, otherwise, why the need to colonize on a world as clearly inhospitable to them as ours obviously is. "You don't by any chance have a fierce white star for a sun that is burning itself out too soon?"

I don't think Charley wants to answer. From behind, he puts his hands under my armpits and raises me to my feet, as easily as another man would lift a child. Dizzy, I sway and nearly go down, but he catches me. When I try to break his hold, he only laughs and propels my bag of bones up onto... of course... an examining table. It couldn't be anything else in this place, only this one is more elaborate than any I've seen. There's a special platform for each limb and it seems infinitely adjustable to any size and shape. They must have already known my size because the length is right in all the right places. Charley and three heretofore-unseen pairs of pale, dry, long-fingered hands come out of the light beyond my field of vision and tighten things down with depressing efficiency. Soon there are straps across calves, thighs, hips, arms, wrists, shoulders, torso and head. The straps need to be pulled tighter than I think even they expected.

There was no time to fight before and useless after as a half- hearted test of their effectiveness demonstrates. "This isn't necessary," I growl.

"Yes, I can see that." Charley seems mildly surprised that I'm taking this all so calmly, but that emotion is quickly replaced by one that is closer to his normally saturnine self. "Let's just say that we wouldn't want you hurt yourself. If you stumbled around in here, you could run into something sharp."

This is probably a true statement. The room, which I can still barely see for the glare, does seem to be just stacked to the ceiling with hard, shining edges. In truth, I'm also not taking the restraints and their hands on my body all that well. I've just learned that it's usually best not to let on to what really bothers you, however, or they'll just do whatever it is with renewed determination.

The tall, thin creatures are milling about now, poking and prodding, and the chair swivels and dips and opens and closes in every possible configuration so that my body's in just the right position for whatever they need access to, which is just about everything. Despite the fact that what flesh I have wants to crawl right of my bones when they touch me, the examination is almost warmly reminiscent of my usual trips to the emergency room - everyone wants a piece of the pie. The big difference is I try not to look at my 'doctors' this time. Oddly, it's actually better than most of my experiences with ER's. At least I don't have anything broken or shot to hell to start with. Whoever performs the spinal tap doesn't even do a half-bad job. I've had worse performed by the med students of George Washington University on a Saturday night. They stick sharp objects in about ten veins, something cold into my mouth and another cold something way down in my ears. I won't tell you want they push up my nose. They pinch or prick about three dozen sites to check my reflexes. In response, the chair loosens the proper restraint, but never enough to allow any chance of escape. Where would one escape to anyway? Next, they shine little portable suns into my eyes - to see the back of my eyeballs, I assume - and even the nearly black contacts can't lessen the excruciating pain. It's worse because I can't move my head more than a centimeter in any direction during this process, but it's quickly over. Now comes the really bad part. The chair tilts back, really far back, and they strip off my pants and start spelunking into orifices they have not right to. I lost my shirt so fast at the beginning that I don't remember when it went, so I'm naked and cold and helpless, every inch of me exposed to wandering fingers and prying eyes.

I could have put up a fuss. I could have screamed and swore and foamed at the mouth, but there would not have been much use to that. Within easy reach of half a dozen long-fingered hands, I see hanging what can only be a muzzle of human-size and the Hunter is in the room waiting for me to disgrace myself. I won't give him the pleasure. This is when I realize that what they are doing down in my nether regions is no longer painful. Not painful at all.

Damn it.

Within a minute or so, it's obvious that I'm not the least cold any more either. What I'm doing is blushing 'six ways to Sunday' as my old aunt might have said, if I had had an old aunt.

"Not in the contract..." I murmur to that pervert Charley between clenched teeth, clenched because my body is vibrating, thrumming like a plucked string that goes on and on, higher and higher.

"Almost there," says a soft voice. "They just need a sample." Where in the hell did that voice come from? It sounds... No, it couldn't be. But it is a woman's voice. A human woman. I want to find that voice, I have to... but, before I can start, the maestro working down below turns up the gain. Not a lot, just a notch. Enough to make me lose all point of reference and go soaring somewhere into the stratosphere. What part of my ego I still can connect with is much miffed that I'm responding far better now than to any of the times that I've tried this on my own since my abduction. Then I remember that I don't have to expend any energy this time and the unexpected is always better. I'm also being treated to heaven from two directions - inside and out - and, though I was pretty pissed at the getting inside part, it's all perfectly placed now and, perfectly, perfectly timed. I want to come and then I don't ever want to. It's flowers and colors and bliss and passion and wonder and heaven and the other place.

How are they able to do this? Hell, I guess I should be surprised if they couldn't. They've had decades of practice at finding ways to get their pets to do exactly what they want.

I can think of being asked to perform worse tricks.

Did I just say what I thought I said... or thought ... or whatever? Nothing's staying around long in my head. Very quickly I'm back to rolling in animal perfection. Still, a part of me is fighting this orgy of sensation. It's really not fair of them to make me feel so good when all I want to do is keep on hating them... and hating them... and hating them.

I'm just making progress towards building a reasonable level of resistance when something truly astonishing sweeps away my shaky walls. It's the voice again. "Mulder, it's all right. Mulder?"

My name, oh God, my name. Not that Mooncalf crap, but my name. Even better, this time the voice is yours, has to be yours. I can't help it, I know it's a trick, but I open my eyes to look for you... and there you are. A disembodied face, but your face, so sad and yet so full of love...

Oh... my... God... I lose it. Lose the whole thing. I've reached Everest and there's no place else to go but the moon, so I go there, too and the arc is high and full and glorious and - yes, it does hang in there a full ten second past peak - the bastards - - but that can be considered either heaven or hell, depending on the way you look at it. Eventually, the coming down is almost as good as the going up.

My eyes fill with tears - of grief or joy I don't know - but it takes a while for me to be able to see again. You're gone, of course, if you were ever there at all. Did they project your image on my contact lenses or what? I don't care. It was you and clearer than even a memory like mine has been able to come up with since the Baltimore airport where we said good-bye. Do you think I didn't see your red-rimmed eyes? Had you slept at all? I meant to show up, I really did, but the night got later and later and the Gunman kept coming up with this and that gadget. Soon they and Skinner were hipdeep in a whole arsenal of clandestine military toys and I couldn't just leave. I should have though. I should have said the hell with them and appearances. I should have spent that last night with you. Yes, you begged me to, not with words, but with your eyes. How was I to know that it was going to be the last night, the last night for a long, long time. The last night forever? No, I won't think about that. I'll think about this gift of your face and not worry about how it happened.

It takes time for me to realize that the restraints are all gone and that I'm curled up uncomfortably in a ball on the alien table with something like a blanket over me. I think I actually slept for a little while. A few minutes at least.

The afterglow is ruined, however, because the first face I see when I poke my head out from under the blanket is Charley's.

If I didn't like his smirky little smile before, I loathe it now.

"Have a nice nap?"

That doesn't really require a response and I don't give him one. He doesn't seem to care.

"Time for Phase Two," he announces as he tosses me what from the pattern of wrinkles can only be the prison duds that I wore for barely ten minutes. I slip a little shakily off the examination table and dress with my back to him.

"And what can I expect from Phase Two?"

"I think you'll be pleasantly surprised."


I am surprised with Phase Two of my Tests though not nearly so surprised as I was with some aspects of Phase One. Phase Two is plain old weight lifting and endurance stuff. Treadmill and sit-ups and range of motion. And no sensors stuck all over your skin and trailing wires. Instead there's this light. It's not that much brighter than the ambient blast of the spectrum that's normal for this room, but it's - heavier somehow. I can feel it touching deep here, there and everywhere, reaching under my clothes, even under my skin. I have no doubt that it's reading heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, temperature, blood gases, even what I had for dinner at that little Oregon diner with Skinner just before we set out into the woods.

I run, I lift, I bend nearly backwards as I'm instructed to do and, blissfully, the exercise frees my mind as running or swimming have always done. How I've craved that endorphin high. Not that all is perfect. Through it all, what keeps coming back is how badly I messed up that last day and what you must be going through.

I'm sweating and gasping by the time they finally halt the treadmill. I nearly fell half a dozen times. I would have given up long before, but they control how fast it runs and for how long. I guess I could have begged them to stop, but I never quite reached that level of desperation. Now that we are stopped, I instinctively look up The Grays are a very graphical people, which shouldn't be much of a revelation considering the exquisite decoration of their ships. Above me are rows and rows of scrolling numbers just like the old New York Stock Exchange although they are floating in mid- air like holograms. From time to time there's a graphic of some part or all of a nude human male body followed by bar charts and line graphs. There is always three sets of data, two showing similar readings and one clearly inferior. I don't need a road map to figure out that the inferior readings symbolize my current effort and, if the Hunter is to be believed, the two far higher readings are from previous baselines of mine. You would have found the technology fascinating, Scully. How clearly it shows the degree to which the strength and efficiency of each and every muscle group has declined since this subject's last two evaluations.

I don't know why I'm looking. It's all depressing and I'm already depressed. I don't need pretty pictures to tell me that I'm in a pretty bad way. As I stand there gasping, I've got a pain in my chest, a stitch in my side and there's a boneless feeling in my legs. But do I give up? Of course, not. I never was that smart. The next set of exercises requires the pushing and pulling of weights from odd directions. I didn't have to try as hard or for as long as I did, but you know my stubborn streak better than anyone. I continue to push this sorry excuse for a body far beyond what I should. It's seemingly hours later and I'm collapsed over a weight bench, when I realize that there are no more instructions being hurled in my direction. I am cold with sweat, which is a bad sign and my muscles are not just twitching, I've got a full blown case of the shakes and there's a huge hallow pain in my stomach that HURTS! You know the signs. You've seen me often enough during those fun, little serial killer cases they keep asking that I profile. I was running on empty, only this was far worse than just about any other time I can remember. I hadn't realized before just how near to starving I was. When offered a bowl of sludge, I actually swill it down with something like greed. When Charley offers me a second bowl, I didn't even hesitate to consume this one as readily. All the while, Charley looks on, but there are none of his irritating little smiles. He is as glum as a parson - or an undertaker.

My jailer then offers me what I assume is a rare courteously - - a second shower. It's hell getting muscles with the rigidity of rubber bands to move, but I do. What with the time it takes to lever myself off the bench, I have to hobble as quickly as I can to catch up with my guardian devil. If I'm too slow, he may withdraw the offer.

In the shower room I am rewarded for my efforts with a burst of spray from the tap that is almost painful in its intensity which, considering how I am feeling, is just about right. And it isn't tepid this time, but hot. I nearly cried. I think I did. How low the mighty have fallen when just a decent shower can mean so much.

What I nice, obedient little lab rat I'm becoming.

Wearing my second new set of prison grays for the day, I emerge from the shower room to find you-know-who waiting. I'm moving better now, or I would be if it were not for the soles of my feet. We've never been given shoes so my soles have toughened with time. After my hours on the treadmill, however, - at least it felt like hours - they are exceedingly tender so I'm still limping.

We walk or, in my case, shuffle in silence. I don't ask where he taking me - because it wouldn't do any good anyway - but what I really want right now is to go home.

Home. At the thought I feel my face reddening, reddening because at the suggestion of home my mind and body conjured up the image and dimensions of my Spartan, coffin-sized hole in Stockhome. Is that what I think of as home now? What about my nice, soft couch in Alexandria; or your nice, soft couch in the District; or your nice, soft bed and nice, soft.... No, Spook, don't go there.

As if he can read my mind - at least part of my mind - Charley informs me, "Not much more. During this last phase you'll be lying down."

So there is a last phase. I didn't think that this was the way back to the gulag. My intestines make a queer twist; the lying down part is unlikely to be optional. I don't think that I should have had that second bowl of sludge.

Less than two minutes later I am reclining on a different kind of examination table in a new room. There are restraints, of course, fewer than before but considerably more substantial. Hunter is still with me, all business-like. Something is definitely up. I thought there had been equipment before, buzzing and beeping, but they must have bought out the entire contents of an electronics superstore this time. The largest monster of all is hovering just behind my head, lurking like a bristling Guardian of Forever. The sharp edges of dread begin carving up my insides again. Why do I have this feeling that I may have gotten off easy until now?

Neither of us have spoken since the shower. Hunter will tell me when he wants, dangling the carrot always out of reach. That's how he gets his jollies. So I'm surprised when he asks, "Any last questions," as he turns back to me from whatever he was doing.

"I haven't asked any first questions yet."

I get a little smile from him for that, but he doesn't offer any information about what's gone down and I'll be damned if I'm going to inquire politely.

A tall Gray approaches and hands Hunter a long piece of flexible tubing. Instantly, I know what it is, or at least what it looks like. I've upchucked enough of them in hospitals after waking from particularly nasty traumas. I don't have any memory of how one feels going down, however, never having been what you would call 'aware' at the time, and I don't fancy finding out now.

"No way," I tell him.

"You don't have a choice. It must be done. We usually anesthetize, but I thought you'd like to go through the preparations conscious just to show how tough you are." He's holding the tube in front of my eyes and he's not grinning. He's very serious as if, honest and truly, he's giving me a chance to show what I'm made of. What I'm made of at the moment, however, is goosebumps and bones and skin - and butterflies. Butterflies the size of bats. All I can say is that the bats had better watch out for the scythe, which is still working around inside.

"What are we talking here?" I ask.

"Brain scan," he replies, gesturing towards the equipment almost matter-of-factly. "We need to find out why you can't remember about the ship, about where your gift has gone. You never asked why we nearly allowed you to suffocate before. It was a test to see if you were misleading us about your loss of memory about the ship."

"And? Did I pass?"

"Let's say that you proved you didn't remember. Having been beyond the elder veil once, none of your kind will try it again without getting protection first. So you truly have lost it all. How?"

I ignore his need to know. I can tell him, at least in part, but I'm not so whipped that I'm ready to turn over information without a fight. Instead I say with, I think, more nonchalance than I feel, "I've had brain scans."

"Like a meteorite to a moon. Same basic concept, but, in terms of scope, not in the same universe."

"Will I be conscious?"

"I've heard it described various ways, but conscious isn't one of them."

That doesn't sound encouraging. Maybe coming clean with what I do know would not be such a bad idea. "How long is this going to take?"

He's busy with something, or wants me to think he is.

"How long is this going to take?" I ask again, louder.

"Earth time? Two weeks."

Oh, he timed that well, the Nordic rat. He sees my jaw drop and springs. They've had practice at this, too. All I know is that there are big, stubby fingers all over my face and pinching my nose and putting pressure on my Adam's apple and my exhausted limbs are struggling against the restraints for all they're worth. The next thing I know, the tube is down. With that huge hand of his, Hunter holds my head against the headrest and the tube in place until the gag reflex subsides. He pats my cheek as he steps away.

"Now that wasn't so bad, was it?"

At that moment, Scully, I would have sold my soul for your homicidal eyes. Still, I did well enough. We went eyeball to eyeball for a tense half minute or so and it was Charley who found a reason to drop his gaze first. Still, I regretted not opening up about Smoking Man's solution to my surprise X-File-ishness of a year ago. I don't know how Smokie did it, but I'm certain that Charlie doesn't know a thing about my brief bout as the poster boy for Parapsychology Today. Would admitting to the hack and slash surgery have gotten me out of this? I doubt it, but from the fear building up inside I know that it would have been worth a try. Two weeks... Bloody Hell - as my Oxford chums would say - what are they going to do, pull out each individual neuron and examine it under a microscope? I wish I could talk or gesture, anything to communicate but with a plastic tube between my vocal cords and trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey, there's little chance of that. I've also antagonized my only possible advocate. I make eye contact with Hunter again and I see that he knows that I'd really like to stop this, that I'd be willing to talk. That brings the smirk back to his face again. So now he knows that I've been holding out on him. He's going to teach me a little lesson about that and is going to enjoy every minute of it.

While the silent macho posturing has been going on, the rest of the team has been proceeding with their preparations. They've stripped me - again. What is it with these people and clothes, particularly mine? Two weeks with my emaciated unloveliness exposed for all the world to see? Damn them. They've also started installing tubes in all kinds of orifices, some to put stuff in, some to drain stuff off. I've had it done before but, like I said, not while conscious.

It takes quite a while and Hunter's soon in the thick of it. Finally, he straightens up. "Very good," he says and with, I think I detect, some pride that his pet Human has behaved so well in front of his peer group. "Time for the last bit. Just assume as comfortable a position as you can." He makes certain that I'm paying attention. "Two weeks from now you will appreciate the suggestion."

I'm blown away by what happens next. The chair drops towards the floor with me still on it. Other than leaving my stomach behind, that's not the weirdest part. Out of the corner of my eye I can see low walls rise up close around me until I am reclining as if in an open coffin. I don't care for the symbolism any more now than when I'm 'at home' in Stockhome. Then I hear an odd sound, for all the world like beer flowing out of a tap or espresso. That's it - espresso. Whatever it is, something liquidish is flowing up around my bare ass and my legs and back and shoulders. In time, it gets between my toes and rises to puddle in my groin which - I'm embarrassed to admit - tickles. But that's a passing sensation for the level keeps rising. My head is slightly elevated so after creeping up my chest, the level is soon up to my chin.

Up until now the sensation hasn't been unpleasant, just weird. Not cold, just wet, and not entirely wet either, but like being submerged in whipped cream.

Tsk, tsk, Scully! Such dirty thoughts. I wish mine were as depraved, but bowel loosening terror - which has been increasing with the fluid level - is a big detractor from that sort of thing.

The level finally stops rising. Too close. It's in my ears and nearly in my mouth. I hadn't realized that Hunter was still close by, watching with pleasure, I'm sure. He leans down. "Sorry, forgot this," he says and pops the black contacts out of my eyes and places soft pads over them instead.

I don't like this. Helpless before, now I'm in the dark. At least my arms and legs aren't strapped any more. The restraints have fallen away, but I still can't move them more than an inch. They are now encased. The foam has solidified, not to something hard like cement, but to something very much like stiff foam rubber. The examination table seems to be gone, too, as if I've floated out of it, but with my neck in traction, I still can't move my head.

Hunter wipes a little of the hardening foam, and a good deal of terror-driven sweat from my upper lip. What I'd like to do it spit it out at him, but I have no spit. In my panic my mouth is as dry as bone.

"In case you're wondering, your people call this 'the sponge'. The matrix is a naturally occurring colony of single-celled organisms, creatures very like the sponge. In its natural state, which is on neither your planet nor mine, the colony is more or less solid in situ. The cement between the cells breaks down when the colony needs to move from place to place. Another race - again neither yours nor mine - enhanced it over centuries with tiny telecommunications devices so that they can both receive simple instructions and transmit data. They solidify or gel on command, just as you have seen so aptly demonstrated."

He pats me clumsily on the head again, or at least the few inches that are still above the surface. "Don't be afraid, the matrix will liquefy just as readily. My people travel through space for months or years, contained very much as you are now, so two weeks is not so very long. It's truly a symbiotic relationship. You get a soft bed even a kind of massage from time to time, and they live on your waste. They transmit back to the central receiver every minute fact of what your body is doing, every twitch of every muscle, every hundredth degree of temperature change - even the delta change in the length of your toenails - and from that they derive purpose. We believe in symbiotic relationships," he adds with emphasis. "We believe in everything having a purpose. Your race exists for the most part without purpose and in a chaotic jumble. This will stop."

At this point I feel the gel soften ever so slightly and sluggishly begin creeping again over my mouth reaching for my eyes. Hunter is ready as every muscle in my body goes into frantic spasms. He holds my head down.

"Now there, now there, little Mooncalf. Don't fear, we'll meet again. We're just going to turn out the contents of your head - in a controlled way, but rather rapidly for you, I'm afraid. As the images tumble out, keep in mind that our machines cannot read your thoughts, only activate them, and record how you react. We'll find out what works and what no longer works. That's all we're interested in. What use have we of the minute details of your petty day to day existence? Remember that, if that knowledge gives you comfort. Remember... if you can."

The moving foam has closed completely over my head now. Sensing the Hunter withdraw his hand I surge upward, but the 'sponge' has already gelled too solidly around me. Like a fly in amber I am caught. What if they forget to release me? I could be locked in this Plaster of Paris mold for months as the ship speeds on to... where? Certainly further and further from home... my true home, this time. My true home, which is and always will be by your side, Scully. Have I lived forty years to end up the tootsie roll inside the tootsie roll pop? Or, considering how my insides feel, like the jelly inside a donut? I don't think so. Charley Hunter still has plans and yet more plans for me. I'm too much fun to torture. I, therefore, think I will live a long, long time yet. Alone and in misery, maybe, but live. And where there's life...

I sense something. As the sponge is sensitive to my skin, I'm sensitive to it. There's a lumbering rumbling sound, felt even more than heard. They must be bringing up the mucking big machine I saw before to surround where my head is. It is more comfortable than being clamped down, only if something doesn't start happening soon, I fear that two weeks of this nothingness will drive me mad.

Just then a muscle in my leg jerks, then another, and another, and now my whole leg. Though there is nowhere for it to go, I feel it push against the sponge, the movement quickly absorbed. It's all going faster and faster now. Like the rays of light that recorded my vital statistics as I ran and pumped iron, there's this impression in my mind of pin points of lights reaching out and triggering this neuron and that in my brain, in an efficient and logical sequence. And here I assumed that memory was all they were interested in. No, they're doing a brain scan of the entire brain. Autonomic and sympathetic, midbrain, hypothalamus, forebrain and brain stem. In addition to what I did on my third birthday, it seems that I'm going to be treated to a smorgasbord of sensation: every imaginable taste and smell, the memory or every touch and pitch of sound. I can see why all of this is going to take a while. As my eyes fly open and then close beneath the pads Hunter placed over them to protect them, I wonder how they are going to test logic and the ability to analyze. There's RAM inside as well as - ouch - ROM.

Scully... ugh ... I'll do my best to keep up this journal entry, but I'm losing rapidly ground here. Or rapidly losing... or... Oh... oh, gaaawwd... My body is buzzing and jerking like some mad scientist's puppet so now that it's nearly impossible to concentrate. All I can do is endure and bad as it is - which is tortuously horrible - I know that it's going to get h-harder. Hunger, thirst, heat, c-cold. Oh, y-yeeeesssss... and new and quite original sources of pain.

Shit! It's all moving so fast, too fast. One second I'm freezing to death outside the sub and nobody knows where I am. The next and I'm sweating inside the SETI installation on Puerto Rico and, again, no body knows where I am.

In a breath everything changes and the wind is screaming around me and the rain is driving at me so hard that I'm drowning. Horribly dizzy. I'm trapped outside all alone in the hurricane with the water monster sucking out my life. Please stop, please stop. God, make it stop. I'd scream it if I could, but I can't, so I'll pray instead. Where is that hand in the dark when I need it now, when I need you now, Scully.

There is a s-silver lining of sorts. I'll probably reexperience every flavor of ice cream I ever t-tasted...

... and I'll relive every moment of my years with my Scully.

Two weeks will not be nearly enough to replay all that I remember about you.

End


Author's note: I hadn't read about Harry Potter's experience with the Gillyweed, that magical Mediterranean plant, until long after I wrote about the slug. How I laughed to find parallels even here. For those dozen or so of you who have not read the Harry Potter books, find a few days over the holidays where your hip friends and co-workers can't see you and give these a read. They're better than the vast majority of main stream novels and with enough humor and angst and plot twists to please any XFF devotee. There is a surprising amount of angst and a mythology almost as complicated as the X-Files. There's just no sex... Hey, it's juvenile fiction.

My Travels with Charley: Chapter 05. Messenger
Author: Windsinger
Rating: PG Classification: XA, Story, MSR
Spoilers: REQUIEM, 7th season.
Keywords: Mulderangst, Scullyangst

Summary: In the midst of his unbearable suffering aboard the alien ship, Mulder reaches out and makes unexpected contact with an amazing ally. With the help of another old friend, the messenger sets forth. It's All Hallow's Eve and anything can happen.

Archiving: Gossamer, Emphereal, ATXC, and anywhere with permission and as long as the author's name is retained.

Disclaimer: Where do I start? No, the X-Files and the characters of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully do not belong to me. Chris and David, thank you for giving us a great Seventh Season finale. As far as Season Eight goes, I guess a Mulder-light Eighth Season it getter than no Mulder at all.

Author's Notes: This is one weird story. I originally posted it as a stand- alone because I couldn't figure out what series to put it under. It's especially for the fans of my 'All Hallow's Eve' series which I 'finished' over two years ago. Consider this an epilogue. In fact it will probably make much more sense to them then to anyone. I'm also placing it as Chapter 5 of 'My Travels with Charley' series (a little something for Dana.) To make things even more confusing, Jake of my two-novel Jake series (Jake of Red Shoes Diaries) also makes an important appearance. To help out everyone - even for those who have read everything but who need a refresher - a synopsis of what you need to know about All Hallow's Eve, My Travels with Charley AND Jake are included at the-of The Messenger. Just for fun - try to figure it out by yourself first. I dare you....

All four parts of 'All Hallow's Eve', 'Jake's Luck', and all my early work can be found on Gossamer under 'Esty, Sue' 'My Travels with Charley', which will have 9 parts when complete, 'Jake and Fox Join the Club' (Warning NC-17) and my newer pieces can be found at http://members.aol.com/windsinger.


Woods at night. The cool breeze slips between the trees. All is silent except for the rustle of new-fallen leaves and the nearly imperceptible movements of the wary night animals. The slight form of a woman moves alone through the moon's blood-red light, at least what patches of it has made its way to earth under the black limbs of the winter-naked trees. She can hear it now, the sound of music and many distant voices, but she does not move as if she is very eager to reach the gathering. Her heaviness speaks of a weariness far beyond the early second trimester burden she carries. Hers is a burden of the spirit, of a soul worn out with worry and care.

So why come here on this night of all nights where, as the old stories say, only the evil and the dead ride the wind? Why indeed. She has not come for the warmth of the bonfire or the company of the energetic young dancers, both of which she can now see across the field before her. She has come to find again something which she feels closer to losing at the end of every endless day. All she wants is a memory. One true memory. She can feel the stirring of the air at his passage even now. If she tries very hard, she can actually hear the intake of his breath, the rustle of leaves he disturbs as he shifts his feet beside her.

"Be here," she whispers, softly but out loud. "Be here," as if the speaking makes the spell more potent. She can stay where she is, but then realizes that had been her inclination on that first night as well. She had wanted to stay behind and he had been eager to go forward, the mischievously adventurous spark in his soul much more than just the little word games they played. So he had gone and she had followed. She follows again tonight, follows the wisp of a ghost of his memory across the damp, thick grasses of the field.

The bonfire is a large one, the music loud and harsh from over-driven speakers. The beat is the product of some satanic rock group from her youth, not theirs. Better were the drums and pipes that had played the night when she and he had danced shamelessly around the fire with the other party-goers. At least the teens still danced, though in groups, not in a ring. She could join. Maybe she would catch the eye of some handsome face made unworldly by the fire light, a young man whose countenance would be enough alike to his to stir her faltering memories. Maybe she'd even let the stranger lead her by the hand to the deep grass and they'd make use of the blanket she carried. All she wanted was to lie with someone. What a wondrous thing it would be to be held again in this dark and in this place where he had been and imagine she was in his arms one more time.

Wake up, Dana. Such things never happened in real life. In fantasies maybe. Even if she truly wanted it - which in her heart she knew she didn't - which of these healthy, young males would be attracted to her tired body and tired face even if they happened to be too drunk to miss the pregnancy she hid beneath the loose coat she wore Suddenly more weary than she could bear, she found an old wooden fence just beyond the light and straddled the top rail. Perched there like some sorrowing bird, she sat as the night cooled and watched the comings and goings between the bonfire and the shadows. Who was she kidding? These were children, talking too loud and drinking too much. The magic had never been the same since that first night. She should leave.

And she would have done just that, only two fists suddenly clasped in the pit of her stomach. This wasn't the baby's doing despite the fact that he/she seemed to sleep as little as its sire ever did. Something had registered in Dana's brain without her conscious knowledge. Hastily, she studied all the figures who had recently passed her peasant throne.

She only saw the shape of his head, his height, the set of his wide shoulders and narrow hips, the slight slouch, the easy panther-like step.

Couldn't be he and couldn't be anyone else.


A few days earlier. A metaphysical universe away.

When he did not return to their rooms before the supper hour so that they could all go down to the commissary together as a family, Sara felt a twinge of concern. That her husband would work on his translations through the midday meal without noticing the time was not that unusual. That his team of eager young resistance fighters would allow him to, was. The scruffy lot of fresh-faced idealists watched over her easily distractible lover with the care of a gaggle of self-appointed godmothers and godfathers. "Go home to your wife, go home to your children, you imbecile!" they would shout at him, usually in badly-accented Reticulan, as they pushed him out the door of the data center, sometimes with earphones still dangling from his head. And Joe would come home and take his son and his daughter and his wife in his arms and like normal people they would walk hand-in-hand down to the cafeteria where all the inhabitants of URSULA, the hidden resistance base, took their meals.

But not today. Sara buzzed down to the bunker but he wasn't there, had left hours before. He'd told them that he wasn't feeling well and, in fact, he had been sweating and his skin had appeared more blotched than usual. They had assumed he would go home and then head for the infirmary. Anna who took the call was alarmed and produced a rambling string of apologies. "He didn't seem exactly what you call ill. Just a little off-color. If he had looked very bad, we would have called you or marched him down to the infirmary ourselves."

And they would have. Kid gloves for Joe. In their manner, there was both pity and pride. If he only knew how much they all cared. But Sara knew that on one level he was aware. To be loved and cared for was just a state he had a hard time accepting.

"Do you want us to activate the phonetree?" Anna asked.

Sara had felt some dizziness herself that morning. This explained it. "No, I think I know where he's gone. If he's not there, I'll ring and then you can call out the militia."

Bundling up two-year-old Mags, Sara took her down to URSULA's preschool. With her budding intelligence, Mags was easily able to keep up with the other children even though she was at least a year younger. Then she called Skinner's apartment and was surprised to find he and his wife both in. "Just a little afternoon delight," Dr. J said contentedly. "Ah, the advantages of a five minute commute." Then with sudden insight, the older woman asked," What's wrong?"

Of course something was wrong. "Joe's missing. He didn't feel well. He left the bunker but didn't turn up at home."

"Did he go to the Park?"

"That's my guess. I'm on my way there. Will you intercept Adam for me?"

"You know that he and our own little terror are inseparable. They always come by for a snack after classes. I'll keep him here when he shows."

Next Sara heard Skinner's voice, sounding a little husky. His wife had put the com unit on speaker so he had heard all. His tone was full of concern. Alarm would come later. "Let us know if you need anything, anything at all."

Getting to the Park was not a simple operation. The journey required going down many levels in multiple elevators and then traveling west at least half a mile. Sara hailed one of the electronic carts that criss-crossed that underground road. At the Parkland entrance she found what she had expected: Joe's ID code in the security log as having gone outside three hours before and not having returned yet.

The Park was the only spot of green under the open sky where it was secure for Center inhabitants to go and then it was cautioned that they must not visit too often or too many at a time and that they must stay under the trees. This is where she found him, his lean, fit body curled as if in sleep under what she knew was his favorite tree, the oak with the strongest, widest branches. He would have built a treehouse for his son and his son's friends here if it had been allowed. She didn't tiptoe but made, if anything, more noise than needed to give him warning. But he didn't stir, not even when she touched his shoulder. He wasn't simply asleep either, not from the stone-like rigor of his muscles.

Gently, she touched his face. It was wet with sweat and yet pale and white or pale and green depending on where the skin grafts had taken and where they had not. "Joe...?" Her voice was soft and careful as her slender fingers parted his hair. "Joe...?" Nothing. She turned him over so that his head lay in her lap. So rigid and hard was he that she was able to move his body only with difficulty. His eyes were so tightly shut that hundreds of pain lines radiated from the closed lids. As always, it was a wrench to her heart to see him this way and this was far worse than normal. It reminded her of that bad week nearly eight months before.

"What's he done this time? That's it, isn't it, Love? Joe! Fox William!"

Groaning, Joseph wrapped his arms more tightly around his head as if that could somehow block out whatever was tormenting him. When she received no other response, Sara shouted louder, "Mulder!"

This time his head turned blindly towards the sound of her voice. A little gleam peeked out from under his long lashes and the furrow across this brow eased ever so little "Scully? Oh, Scully, is it you?"

Soft as the words were, it took a while for Sara to recognize the old name he had said. True, she hadn't heard it more than half a dozen times in the past three years. The back of her fingers caressed the soft skin of this temple. "Hardly, you silly goose. Does this mean that Mulder is giving you trouble again?"

A sigh whistled faintly through tightly clenched teeth. "Shhhhhiittt...' came the response on a straw-thin trickle of breath.

"Let it go, Joe," she whispered. She tried to keep her tone light, as if that would help to ease what was a very painful subject.

"What mess has he stumbled into now?" he grumbled though so weakly she could scarcely hear him.

"Don't you know?"

His head, still unbelievably handsome in his askewed sort of way, lulled listlessly back and forth. "C-Can't think."

Sara fished in the large pockets of the comfortable jumper she wore and came up with a small ampoule and tiny syringe. Its contents seemed to help. After a few minutes the beloved face relaxed a little. Even the eyes managed to crack open far enough for her to see down into their glassy orbs. She didn't like how unfocused they still appeared.

"Need more alpha blockers?"

He answered with a curt nod, cut short as if even that small movement hurt.

"Sorry, lover, I'm fresh out. Can you walk?" Hesitation and then a weak nod of the head. With effort and help he made it to his feet and slowly, very slowly, they made their way back to the entrance. All the way he leaned heavily on her strong, slender frame.

Night. Joseph slept on as he had all that afternoon and evening. He was tucked into a bed in URSULA's infirmary. An IV snaked down into a soft needle on the side of his wrist. Beside him Sara sat watching. She had sat just so when the pain lines smoothed away and the scribbling EEG showed that his agitation was subsiding. She had caught the last apologetic gleam from under a drooping eyelid. Knowing the pattern, she had left him with Dr. Janus and the rest of the medical staff to sleep so that she could go and see to their children and arrange to be back when he woke. She'd managed it all and here she was, if anything a little earlier than she expected. His heart rate was just beginning to rise and the restless movement of his eyes under their lids had just begun to increase. Finally, his eyes fluttered open and after focusing they roamed, taking in the few furnishings in the tiny room. His gaze even strayed to the 'window'. It wasn't a real window - they were a hundred feet underground - but a projection of the area from the Parkland entrance. At the moment the scene depicted was of velvet night illuminated by an unnaturally large harvest moon. The great glowing globe hung just over the horizon to the right of the black boughs of the oak. Finally, his eyes drifted to the blank spaces beside and above the door.

"Looking for something?" she inquired, her voice reflecting her relief to find him so aware.

"I've been in this room so often, I was just checking to see if they'd put my name on it yet."

"I hear that comes up for a committee vote next week."

He rolled his eyes at her.

"Feeling better?" she asked.

A single nod. Not that much better then, but just enough to function. Sara and the staff knew that this was the way he preferred it.

"It was bad this time," Sara said. It was a statement. "Do you have any better idea of the cause?"

Joseph considered that question, his sight seeming to turn inward as he tried to find the words. "Fear. Overwhelming fear, but not the suddenly coming and going kind, like so many times before. This time it just kept coming, on and on, waves and waves of it." Not a thing of the moment then, like twisting an ankle, which Sara knew Joseph would have felt as a brief sharp pain.

"Drowning," Joseph added all at once, as if he had suddenly found a word that fit. "Drowning. Way too many thoughts." He was sitting on the side of the bed and now he bent over, heels of his hands pressed into his eyes as if they pained him.

"Like it was - when was that? - just after Mag's birthday. Eight months?"

Joe remembered. How he remembered. A week flat on his back drugged out of mind on alpha blockers and tranquilizers just to keep from going mad from the pain. Reluctantly, he searched the memories to try to determine how similar or different the two attacks had been.

"Actually, not the same. That was like being smothered by a thousand strangers' hands all reaching out to demand your attention. Strange voices, strange visions, incomprehensible emotions. This was more like it was all flowing out of me, just me... I mean... him. No, not flowing. Far faster than that, gushing. And he's terrified that he'll be empty when it's all gone, for though it's all coming out of his own head, he can't control it and he... can't... stop... it! That's what so terrifying." Joe bowed his head, rubbing his aching eyes with the heels of his hands again, even with the stiff hand which, even after all the surgery still felt 'wrong' somehow. "I'm sorry, I'm not explaining it very well."

"You're doing fine. Is it still going on?"

He didn't even have to think more than a millisecond about that. "Oh, yes."

"This isn't good, Joe. Do you get anything else? Place, time?" A weary shake of the head. "Where's Scully? Why isn't she there helping him?"

"Scully?"

"You were channeling for a second earlier and you looked at me with his eyes, with this hunger, as if you thought you would never see me again. And you called me 'Scully'. You never call me that any more."

"You called me 'Mulder'."

"To get your attention. Nothing else worked."

Sara sat and studied this husband of hers, this best of friends. As if knowing what was on her mind he didn't meet her eyes but laid his head down into his folded arms as if it were too heavy to hold. Sara didn't know where to start. The whole subject of Mulder had to be approached with caution for despite the endless delicate surgeries and skin graphs that had so largely smoothed away the damage to face and hand and body, she knew that the majority of the scars were still within.

"Maybe you should go back to find out more about what's going on." In response to the sudden flare of anger in his eyes, she replied, "Well, something certainly is wrong, something pretty terrible."

"Give me one reason why I should?" Joe snapped, temper on a thread because of the ache in his head. "He should be more careful; let him take care of it. Besides, he's the main event, I'm just a side show."

"Am I also a side show, and Adam and Mag?"

"Of course not." The lines stood out harsh and deep on his face. "You don't understand," he sulked.

"Don't I? You've got it into your head that we've not living parallel lives but alternate ones and that he's somehow the trunk and you're just a little branch. You blame him for that... for going back to that party, for interfering with that demon and getting himself cursed. You think that that caused the split in the time line, like you somehow became multiple personalities."

"I can't help it, if that's the way it seems to me. Remember we shared memories in passing that night we got you back and the Compound went POOF! Our lives were identical as far as I can tell until that Halloween night. That's when the tumors started growing - that night - the cancer that led us to where we are now." His eyes were hard now, like she didn't like to see them. "He went on with his life, he had choices."

What Sara knew Joe meant was that Mulder didn't have to feel IT moving in him, growing stronger and stronger every day. Didn't have to face the helplessness as the beast ate away at his fine, young body. And when there was no pride left, then, only then, had it begun to feed on his mind. It had been like being eaten alive. Now he lived, but it was only by the grace of alien grafts and alien technology and that made him, in his own eyes, very much a monster.

But pity was not want Joe needed. Understanding was, and good swift kick in the butt from time to time.

"Joe, you have to go, you know you do. There's been too much of this lately. He clearly needs help." She leaned over his bowed head. "Maybe you can even stop what's going on." She lifted his head until his face was between her hands. "Joe, I love you. I can't go on watching you like this. I need this to cease as much as you do."

He raised his head from his arms but there was no softness anywhere. In the dim light of the room the orange light from the Holographic moon showed only the shadows in his eyes.

"Joe, they came when we needed them."

"Only because Scully wanted her Mulder back." The unspoken emphasis was on 'her' Mulder. Not him.

"Without Scully they never would have found me. I was at the point of suicide. You know that."

The furrow between his eyes deepened. "Right, I was well informed - after everything was over. During most of it, I lay like some catatonic corpse while the rest of you risked everything. Real helpful."

"Is that the problem? Joe, you've done your bit in this soap opera. Before and after, you've had the hardest road."

He suddenly winced, his hand going to his head again. "Maybe not any more. This is really bad and I'm just getting the backlash."

"Do I sense some yielding here, my stiff-necked one?"

He sighed, his face going a brighter shade of green than before. "Let just say that I'll try."

Sara smiled but knew she had won no battle. Carefully, she took his hands between hers. "I know it hurts, I know it's not that easy, but remember that I'll be here. You'll never be alone."

And so it was done. Joe let the drugs fade away gradually. It was easier than the full unexpected attack, like adjusting your night vision slowly instead of plunging full into darkness. There was nothing peaceful about what he found, however, though dark it had certainly become. After slugging through virtual sheets of icy rain and screaming winds, he came to a place of the blackest dread where a mind slowly sobbed itself from one nightmare to another Hours and hours later, long after concern had turned to alarm, Sara watched her lover's spirit come back, like dawn coming slowly to fill a dark glass.

"You were gone a long time," she said, gently, when one of his small smiles confirmed that he had returned to his proper time and place.

"Not what I expected," he admitted, his voice a little hoarse and very weary. In stumbling tones as if he were slowly uncovering the story from a jigsaw puzzle of fractured images, Joseph told what he had been able to discern about Mulder's abduction. He spoke of the ship, the tests - especially the current one where Mulder was helplessly entangled in a forced outpouring of his own mind of which only one thought in a thousand was moving at his will, and yet all were his own. "And the worst part is, he's going to wake at some point realize that a snowball has a better chance of surviving Hell then he'll have of ever seeing home again." Joe looked up into his Sara's eyes. "And worst of all, in that place without hope, no one will be waiting for him when he wakes the way you are always there for me."

Sara came and wrapped herself around him He had least was not alone, would never be alone as long as his Sara lived.

"This time," he continued now with the woman entwined about him, "there was dark, a hell of a lot of dark." He paused as if shocked by the unsteadiness of his own voice.

"You didn't mention dark before," Sara said as she did her best to warm her husband's body for he was cold.

Gratefully, Joe snuggled into her warmth. "He has this power - - HAD this power. We had it. In was in his head. It became active suddenly. Last year, around the time of Mag's birthday. When I was so sick."

"So that's what it was," Sara whispered. "Joe, this view into each other's thoughts we sometimes share...

"In comparison, like a drop in the bucket to what Mulder was assaulted with. Maybe the cancer ate away mine. What paranormal communication I have," he took her hand, "what we both have, comes from a different source entirely." Or has my copy of the lobe yet to be activated, he silently feared and realized too late that she heard anyway through their on-again, off-again link.

"But your recovered," Dana said, "so they must have cured him somehow."

"They performed surgery, but hardly what most people would call surgery. Smokey had his paid butchers rip it out, left a large and nasty hole in there. Fortunately, it wasn't a part he needed for function what we would call normally, but, unfortunately, the Reticulans who have him under their control now tried to perform an inventory of his brain. The scan ran into this black hole. It was like running into a brick wall and then falling down a mile-deep mine shaft. Too many memories dead ended there. That's where I found him when I went back in. He was lost and seriously going down for the third time."

Sara leaned over and gave him a kiss on his cool, damp forehead. "So that's why you stayed so long, you couldn't just leave him there all alone. Held his hand, did you, you old softy."

"Just don't let the guys in the gym know."

"Not a word. So how is he now?" she asked, becoming serious again.

"It was still bad but he seemed to have a handle on things. I would have stayed longer but he sent me away." He gave her a slight lop-sided smile. "Said it was time I got back to you."

Sara noticed that the expression in his eyes was still solemn. "There's more."

"Knew you'd figure it out. He did ask for something. A favor."

"Not an easy one, I gather."

"No, not easy."

Sara didn't ask but waited expectantly. She thought she knew what it would be. It was what her Joe would have asked for under similar circumstances.

"I'm going to need some help. I guess I'm going to need a witch."

Sara's nodded. It was as she had expected. "You've never crossed over by yourself before."

"That's why I need a witch. That's how Dana managed to come before."

Sara signed. "Ellie could probably still be reached, she still has her security clearance. I sent her an anonymous Christmas card last year. Since it had foxes on it, I imagine she was able to figure it out so she knows we're not dead. It is dangerous, however, contacting the outside directly."

He gave her a hug, even pulling her slight form down more snuggly into his lap. "Danger's our middle name."

"Not any more, Buster. People depend on us. Though you have to admit that you miss the excitement."

"So do you. At least this time I won't even have to leave home, not physically at least. Ellie can come here and you can hover, you do it so well. That should be safe enough." He looked up into her face and saw that she wasn't convinced yet. "Sara, he asked me to do this one thing for him, just this one. He's so unhappy. I think that's a good enough reason."

Sara looked down into his face with love. "That's good enough for me."


Time: Dana's time though a few days earlier. Place: An alien world (i.e., California)

Jake Simmons pushed his chair back from the drafting table and raised his arms high over his head so all the long muscles from his back to the tips of his fingers stretched. Bones cracked softly. Sighing with relief, he stared over at the antique grandfather's clock. Six hours and he'd hardly moved. Looking down at the lines of the new building he'd just designed though made all the tedious work worthwhile. The structure seemed almost to be bursting from the paper. What he had created was something special, very special. He could hardly wait to have it copied. Then he could begin adding color. He knew what it would look like already though. He could see it in his mind. He also knew that ninety-eight architects out of a hundred would have used the new drafting software tools. Well, he had a twenty-one inch monitor and a dozen gigabytes of his own, but there were times when he found such tools restricting. No one could have made this with a software package, no matter how sophisticated.

Now he needed a break. It was a beautiful day for northern California, in other words, no fog. Perhaps he'd toss the Frisbee around a little. Only there was no one to toss it to. His faithful, four-footed companion was already out. The leash was missing from the hook in the hall. The neighbor boy must have come and taken the poor thing out. Jake had a way of being too wrapped up to notice the time. Only when he was dressed in gym shorts, his basketball under his arm, did he become aware that his stomach was rumbling. When had he eaten last? It was while munching a graham cracker, his passion since grade school, that his doorbell's mellow six-tone chime sounded. It was unusual to hear it chittering among the rich, airy spaces of his loft.


As he stepped across his great room, a Spartan expanse of light color and shadow, Jake wondered who the caller could be. Friends come to visit? Jake Simmons had friends, quite a few since he had reentered the mainstream, but they knew better than to just drop in. When inspiration hit, Jake would run with it no matter how many days and nights it took. Good friends E-mailed their invitations. The presence at the door wasn't likely to be just someone lost and looking for directions either, not three stories up and above the offices of the construction company of which Jake was part owner.

The person at his door was a young woman with striking, raven- black hair, which had been worked into an elaborate coiffeur consisting of many intricate braids. Her make up was heavy but well done, and her clothing had that unmistakable theatrical twist. A pendent in the shape of a pentagram hung between her breasts. She smiled into the security hole in a gentle, unassuming way. If she had grinned with one of those pasted on smiles, he would have just told her to go away and peddle her incense and whatever else she was selling somewhere else. There was something about this one, however. Cautiously, he opened the door though not without some misgivings. Exotic, dark-haired young women made him nervous, even after all these years.

"Jake!" she announced with pleasure as if she were an old friend and they were meeting after a long separation.

"I'm sorry, have we met?"

"We haven't exactly," she admitted, her voice subtly changing, "but I have a friend of yours here with me who is very happy to see you again. He needs your help."

A little anxious, Jake looked up and down the little hallway. No friend. Gracefully, she raised a hand and tapped her temple with a long, red-polished nail. "Let me explain."

- Midnight under the Moon All Hallow's Eve

Dana kept her eyes on the back of agonizingly familiar figure even as she slid hastily from the fence. She followed the man into the shadows, her eyes taking time to convert to moonlight. She didn't have to go far, though she heard him before she saw him. Her ears picked up a murmuring, barely a vibration, but she knew the pitch and the frequency, the cadence of his speech. The fists closed tighter in her stomach. Even though she had been unable to capture his voice in her dreams, she had listened to his recorded field notes every night for a month until she got tired of having to dry out her pillows. It had to be, and yet it couldn't be.

Closer now, she could hear the words, and odd words they were. A mad conversation was going on, back and forth, and it seemed that she heard two subtly different though distinct voices where there could only be one for the man she had followed was alone.

"She IS here. You said she would be, and I tried to believe, but I guess I never really did."

"So talk to her!"

"And say what?"

"You knew her better than I did."

"Now there you're wrong if what Miss Aquarius told me was true."

"I've put that all behind me. It's like a story I read once, that's all. Not real."

"I have periods in my life that seem like that."

"If that dinner you took me to last night with that couple from Seattle was any indication of how weird your life can be... Did you know you were going to be dessert?"

"You told me to go ahead with whatever I had planned- " "Californians! And artistic Californians are even worse!"

"Please, we have a mission here and we have to do this right. Remember who we've come to see. She's nobody's fool and certainly not anyone to believe what we've got to say."

"You would be surprised what this woman is capable of believing."

Dana stood and listened in wonder and growing alarm to this totally surreal conversation. Her FBI instincts had clicked in from nearly the first mad words and she wished desperately that she had brought her weapon. Anyone this crazed could be dangerous and certainly wasn't Mulder. Couldn't possibly be. It had to be that changeling she had wished for under the full moon, only she should have wished for one less physically perfect and a good deal more sane.

But what if this is Mulder? she whispered to herself. But if so why didn't those clenched fists relax in the pit of her stomach? Because even Mulder had never been as strange as this schizo. And yet if he really had been taken up into one of the alien ships as Skinner believed and they had tortured his body and played with his mind, anything was possible. There was no question that she'd take him back any way he was offered, even if the package did come with a whole new set of problems. Even Mad as a Hatter, she would love him. Anything to have him safe and with her again. Anything to even know he lived. How she wanted to believe in miracles. The problem was she had been fooled before, had even seen an alien in his form.

More likely, this was just some other man with his height and manner, a resemblance that her heart had fashioned out of all those sleepless nights.

As the conversation took another mad twist, the figure on the rock turned his head in her direction so that the red-orange from the bonfire and the harvest moon dramatically illuminated his face. Unconsciously, her soul let out a tiny sob of praise and welcome. Although she immediately stifled any additional sound, that one had already betrayed her presence.

Hearing, the figure whipped around, lost his balance on the sharp peak of the tall rock he sat upon and racked his legs coming down. The oaths that burst forth told her a lot. They were an inventive collection of colorful multilingual expletives. The kind one picks up from construction sites and not on the streets of Oxford or Martha's Vineyard. The way his body fell also told Dana all she needed to know to confirm the man's identity. Mulder had a way of shielding parts of his body, like his shoulder, that had been injured too many times before. This man didn't.

It was with a dizzying mixture of terrible regret and relief that she stumbled forward with a greeting. "Jake!"

"Doctor Dana!" His face lighted, not only with pleasure but also with relief of his own that she had recognized him so easily.

"What are you doing here?"

"It's a long story." His expression became quickly grave. "I'd glad that you didn't think I was..." He stumbled on the name.

"Mistake you for Mulder? I did for a bit. How did you find out, for you don't seem surprised to find me here without him. In fact, you don't seem surprised to find me here at all."

"Part of the same story." He seemed unsure about where to go from there and in that pause she got a better look at his face. She was one of the few people in the world who could tell Jake and Mulder apart unless they were standing side by side. He looked well. Not as pale and haunted-looking as he had seemed when they last met.

"Dana, there's someone here who needs to talk to you."

Dana didn't even look around to find this 'other' person. She'd heard Jake talking to himself and with his history wasn't entirely surprised. From her studies on the subject (which she would never tell Mulder she'd looked into) she had learned that possession tended to be more of a chronic state than an acute one. Once you've opened that door, it's not always possible to keep it closed.

"Alex troubling you again?"

He was totally taken aback by her question. "Alex? No, nothing like that, but maybe something even more strange. Joseph's here." He gave her time to absorb that. Dana only blinked. "Joseph... You mean like... Joseph? Mulder's Joseph, Sara's Joseph. THAT Joseph?"

Uncomfortably, Jake replied, "He tells me that the answer to that is 'Yes'."

Dana tried to swallow but her throat had gone entirely dry.

"He said you'd understand," Jake continued, becoming alarmed by her continuing silence. "That you'd gone through this sort of thing yourself with a witch named Ellie once- "

"Yes, yes, I know. So he's there with you? Inside you? His spirit? His essence?"

"Whatever."

"But how and why now?"

Jake whispered the only answer she needed. "Mulder sent him."

Dana didn't remember falling. She didn't remember being caught either, but she found herself on the ground with Jake's extremely expensive sports coat between her and the dewy grass. Kneeling over her was Jake, a trembling hand protectively and expertly resting on the slight bulge of her gravis, his eyes... his eyes... Not Jake any more but the third member of this very strange trio. Joseph.

"Scully..." Her name just breathed out of him like a soul all its own, full of wonder and sorrow. "He doesn't know. He would have told me if he knew. And if he had known I would have felt the news from him months ago in such a burst of happiness..." The words tumbled out of him with so much heart and with such certainty that Dana knew they were true.

"Oh, Joe... You've talked to Mulder?"

Solemnly, "Communicated rather, but that in a moment. Are you all right? Do you need a doctor, a hospital?"

"I need to know what Mulder told you! Where is he, oh God, how is he?" She sat up edging a little away from him in the process so he couldn't see how much she was shaking. "Just tell me. Tell me everything."

And he did. About his continuing - and unwelcome - link with Mulder over the years, though the years in his universe and hers never quite coincided. He told reluctantly of his history of 'attacks' when Mulder was in distress, especially about the latest one and Sara's insistence that they needed to know more. He spoke quietly of his recent communion with Mulder's desperate and terrified consciousness and the snatches of sane facts he'd been able to gather between the storms of madness and the plunges into blackest despair.

"He's sorry, he's so sorry, that's what I got over and over."

There were tears on her cheeks now but she seemed unaware of them. "Oh, Mulder, that's so you. What could he possibly be sorry for?"

"For everything. A lot about a last night and his not spending it with you. Does that make sense?"

Dana's hands went to her mouth to sniffle a sob. "Yes," barely made it out.

"And for leaving you. He's sorry for that. Like the hapless fly, he feels that he could have evaded the web if he'd been very, very careful. He's sorry for not being careful. He MISSES you. He is so..." Joseph had trouble with the word himself, Joseph who knew better than anyone what it meant. "He is so - alone."

Dana huddled in a ball on Jake's coats and hugged her knees. Alone. That seemed to be the word of the night. Jake/Joseph sat nearby so close that she could feel his heat, but he didn't touch her again, which was how it should be. There was no one for Mulder to touch. From what Joe said, he wasn't even aware his own body nor did he have all but the merest control over his own thoughts. Instead he was trapped within a tornado of old pain and new pain, old horrors and new horrors. How she longed to stretch out her arms to gather in his sorrow, to relieve his grief and her own. Only he was so far away. Far, far away. There wasn't anything she could do but huddle around her center, rocking the miracle he had given her.

After what must have been several minutes out of time and space, Dana became aware of Joe again, waiting so quietly and so patiently. Her eyes lowered reverently to her lap and she began to speak though more to the child within that to her unexpected visitor.

"Hey, you in there," she called softly. "News, real news, this time. Both the best and the worst that I could have expected. Your Daddy's alive... but in such a hell. I made you a lot of promises - - walks in the park and baseball games - but in truth I didn't know if you would ever see your father, not even once. They could have brought him down the moment he was taken up into the ship. I wasn't even certain he was ON the ship. I've tortured myself over this so much. Is he dead? If so how and when and by whom? Would I ever know? If alive, then where and how? Held by whom? What are his chances of escape? I expected him every hour those first few days. He'd gone missing for short periods before. Underground. But when time passed, weeks and then months and no word..." Dana rubbed her nose, surprised to find tears on her face. "Then it was where should I look for his body where Skinner hadn't already looked? With both of us and the Gunmen trekking back and forth there's not much grass left in that part of Oregon. Would I even be given a body? Then there were the times when I tore up his apartment looking for ransom notes that I must have overlooked. At least it's clean. Clean and sterile like the packed ground of the den where the female paces the same earth again and again, unable to rest, endlessly waiting for her mate to return. But so much of the time he doesn't, does he? He's either dead or been caught in the jaws of a trap. Injured and alone, they've hauled him off in a cage but to where no one can tell her."

Dana heard a sob, felt the tightness in her chest. So there was that left as well as the tears. "I tried to tell myself that I wasn't special. Women since the beginning of time have stayed behind to keep the home and the children safe while their men went off to hunt, to sea, to war. Days, weeks, months without a word. That was the norm. How did they bear it? Probably, because they had no choice. They also had widow's walks. My widow's walk is every hilltop under the stars. My neck and eyes ache constantly." A question came into Joe's attentive eyes. "From looking up," she explained, "looking for a dark mass moving across the sky, or a spot of light. Looking for my M.I.A., for that's what he is." "Not M.I.A., not any more," Joe corrected, his voice very soft so not to break the grieving spell of her words.

"P.O.W. then. That is better, though where are the diplomats to negotiate his return? Where are the prisoners on our side for the prisoner exchange? All dead! Specimens in a morgue. Bodies in bottles won't buy anything! And I still don't know where he is. Joe, tell me where I can find him."

"In truth, Dana? I don't know, not on this planet. Far from here. What I do know is that he loves you, every minute, every second." His eyes went to her abdomen. "It would mean so much to him if he knew."

"No, no, you must promise not to tell him!"

Joseph's expression on Jake's face clearly showed the hurt Mulder would have felt.

"Joe, if he knew he would try something even more stupid and dangerous than he's thought of already to get back to me. Yes, I want him back, but not dead."

There was something in his eyes. The wicked hint of the light Mulder's shone with sometimes. "I guess I can think of a stupid and dangerous thing or two that he and I have done ."

"Don't I know. Even what you're doing now is not without risk."

"Somethings are so important that they are worth the risk. On the other hand, sometimes even when you win you lose."

The mirth dimmed from those eyes. He was thinking about his body back in his own universe, scarred, damaged, full of alien poisons. All for life and love of his own copy of this woman. No, not a copy. His own, unique Sara.

"I'm sorry you had to come," Dana said. "I'm sorry that Mulder troubles you."

"Story of my life," he murmured absently with a trace of bitterness.

"I guess none of us really has a choice. We must all play the hand we're dealt." Her sigh was deep and heartfelt. "Though from time to time, it would be helpful to know what the rules are for the game we're required to play."

It was Joseph's turn to look into blue eyes and he saw there the years of fear and struggle and more recently this terrible loss and her aloneness. Then there were the years he and Sara had had which Dana had Mulder had never had and perhaps never would. In a gentle tone he admitted, "I'm a self-pitying sonovabitch. How did you even put up with me all those years."

A sad smile. "It's the tragic-hero syndrome, the fatal flaw. A woman needs to be needed even by the strongest man. If you had been a superman, where would there have been a place for me?" He looked down, embarrassed and momentarily speechless. "Don't worry. I'll never let on to Mulder that I'm an incurable romantic. but you I can tell."

He laughed softly and helped her up until they were standing side by side. Neither spoke but let the sights and sounds of the celebration wash over them. The innocent young had finally abandoned their electronic screech boxes and were using drums alone. The savage pounding was like a second pulse in the watchers' bodies. The moon was high now and had lost most of its pumpkin glow but that meant it was able to illuminate the gyrating bodies all the more.

The familiar brow wrinkled. "Jake says he was in New York two weeks ago and there was a full moon then. That means that there can't be one now."

That was the least of the miracles Dana had been privy to this night. "Earthshine," she replied and then to Joe's quizzical look added, "at least that's what Mulder would say. He wouldn't question the mystery so neither will I."

A few of the couples were beginning to break off from the dancing now and drift into the shadows with blankets over their arms to find places to commune in the thick, tall grass.

Dana felt distinctly uncomfortable. Joe, as Mulder, had been to this party. The cancer in his brain that had split his time line in twain had happened in the year after their first visit here. He was the one who had suggested bringing a blanket the next time, a single blanket. Was he remembering that? What if he did? He was still in so many ways her Mulder As if he felt her unease, his voice came from above her. "Dana, I have to go soon. I can feel," he struggled for the word, "a loosening. This was only intended to be temporary, to deliver the message."

"And I thank you for that with all my heart. And, as sorry as I am for you to go, I'm glad that you won't be separated from Sara for too long. She'd worry. By the way, do I need to find you a witch or anything to see you on your way."

His laugh was a non-laugh, like Mulder's. "Not at all. We're high tech now. There's a tea-leaf reader in California that's handling it all, probably over the internet. Seriously, I don't understand how it works and I don't think I want to."

They continued to stand uneasily watching the dancing and paying no attention whatsoever. Dana could tell just from his manner that he still had something to say. "What's the problem, Joe?"

"That is the problem. Are you certain that there isn't anything left that you want to know - or want to do - before I shuffle off Jake's mortal coil?"

He had stood back a little so she could look up at him more comfortably. He was so much like Mulder it brought fresh tears to her eyes and started a hunger sweeping through her that she didn't know if she would ever be able to satisfy.

He seemed to sense her indecision. "Dana, this is as close to Mulder as you're going to get for probably a very long time. You haven't... you haven't even touched me." Clearly uncomfortable, his voice faded. "Are you certain you don't want to?"

She patted his arm to comfort his embarrassment and wished she hadn't made even that much contact. It had felt so ... right. It had awakened soul-deep memories that should perhaps have been left sleeping. "Oh, Joe, of course I do and that's my problem. I want to do far more than touch you."

"Then do." He waited for her answer and saw her hesitating.

A cool swirl of wind breathed between them and neither moved.

"It was cruel," she said at last. "Sending Jake was cruel, looking like he does."

"Yes, I can see that, but you must forgive Mulder. It was the only way he could think of in his present state to send a message you would believe without question. We and you have been lied to too many times."

She smiled at that remark and the pronoun. In the early years of the X-Files before the split, he and Mulder had indeed been one if the metaphysics of the situation could be believed. She had learned to love Mulder then, but later she had fallen out of love with him, and then fallen back in. She had walked through hell for him since and he for her. No, Joe and Mulder were not the same, not any more. Too much water over the dam, too much blood. Which only brought them back to what was going to happen between now and when Joe took his leave.

She looked into the eyes that were more brown than they should be and for the first time questioned the identity of who had really asked for this more meaningful farewell. It wasn't like Mulder, and considering how terribly careful he had to be with his own toxic body, not what she would have expected from Joe. That meant that the suggestion must have been made by Jake, gentle, loving Jake who craved physical contact as hungrily as Mulder shied from it.

"Jake, that was you," she said.

"What?" Jake asked, starting guiltily.

"That was your idea. That Joe and I should make... contact before he leaves."

"Oh, you figured that out."

"She's not as dumb as she looks," she told him, crossing her arms and trying to look stern.

"Dana, Joe's not against the idea. Anything you want would be fine with him. He just felt too awkward suggesting it. He really will be gone within a very few minutes and before he leaves he wants to do everything he can for you and for Mulder. This has been as painful for him as it has been for you, but in the end it's what you need that's important. All of us feel that way. Joe does, I do and Mulder does. Mulder most of all."

As if someone had flicked a switch, there was Joseph glowing darkly out of those eyes, nearly bleeding in sympathetic sorrow for both she and Mulder and not knowing what to do. Dana never made a conscious decision. Instead she found herself nearly running into those arms and giving herself over to a kiss the like of which she had opened her heart to only a handful of times before. If it were possible to suck the very sadness out of someone's soul and take it as her own she would have done so. Maybe a little of Mulder remained. God! More than a little! Suddenly, he was with her, beside her, inside her. A piece of him anyway, a spark of his light, which was what she had needed but had not known she had. Under that light the sputtering hope in her own heart blazed into flame again. Worn out with searching and despair, it gave her strength and illuminated her way. Not a path to him, as she had expected, but a way to go on living without him and yet never without him.

In time she felt him go, felt Joseph's spirit dissolve as if indeed worn thin by her desperate need. Not without a word, however, not without a prayer for her to find strength to bear the bearing in her aloneness.

Not alone anymore, Dana realized.

Almost as an afterthought, she became aware that she was still in a man's strong, caring arms though the kiss had long faded away. Gently, she extracted herself, though her attention lingered on his face. She liked the light in his eyes, which, she had to admit, was like Mulder's, too. Mulder in one of his playful moods.

"Better now?" he asked.

"Much better." She suddenly realized how awkward she felt distancing herself from him. "Jake, it's not you..."

"I know. You've just always been able to tell the difference, even when I was brought to you oiled and permed like a Greek slave."

She blushed, remembering his beautiful nakedness, kneeling at her feet. "I was actually too distressed and angry with both of you and Skinner to appreciate the view at the time."

"We could try again?"

Unexpectedly, she laughed. A real laugh such as she had not had in a long, long time.

"Scully, you wound me!"

"Jake, you were kidding!"

"All right, I was kidding. For us to do anything would be like doing it with my sister. I'm depraved, but I'm not that depraved."

"But a brother can ask his sister to dance, can't he?"

Taking her offered hand, he began to lead her towards the fire and the gyrating bodies. "Of course, he can. It's a time-honored custom for hopeless wallflowers, though no way are you a wallflower."

"In this company and in my present condition I am."

"Nonsense, you glow, sis. You positively glow.'

END


Below is all you need to know about 'My Travels with Charley', 'All Hallow's Eve' and 'Jake' to understand this story. Not that you really need any of it because it can, of course, mean whatever you want it to. If you'd like little help, however, read on. (And, of course, I'd love for you to read the originals if you haven't.)

A. In 'My Travels with Charley' things have gone from worse, to bad, to worse for Mulder after his abduction. His particular devil is the Bounty Hunter or as Mulder calls him, Charley Hunter. At the end of Chap 4 Mulder has just been put in a coma-like state for two weeks by the Hunter in order for his captors to perform an exhaustive brain scan. They want to find out why Mulder is no longer telepathic. Charley doesn't know about the CSM's solution to this little problem of Mulder's. The Messenger is the unofficial Chap 5 of the series. Chap 6 of 'Charley' will be out in November or December and returns to the story from Mulder's POV, or at least as well as Mulder can manage. He's not functioning too well.

B. In 1996 and 1997 I wrote a four story series (well, 1 story, 2 novella and 1 novel) in an alternate universe. The series was called All Hallow's Eve. I've been asked to return to this world but felt the story was over, all except for Joseph's (the alternate Mulder's) lingering anger over all he was made to suffer. I wanted to do a story about that but couldn't think of how to get my Mulder's back together. Well, not so much how as I needed a reason. There are three reasons for my merging this with 'Charley'. One: At this point in 'Charley' Mulder is undergoing terrible emotional and physical trauma and needs someone to talk to. Two: Scinut at EMXC had issued a challenge for a Halloween story featuring a full moon. Three: The Travels series needed some Scully. Why Jake? I really like Jake and what better vehicle for Joseph's soul.

In AHE1 (All Hallow's Eve I), Mulder and Scully stumble onto a wild neopagen Halloween party and have an incredible experience there full of angst and romance.

In AHE2, they attend the party the following year. A few weeks later Mulder finds that he is dying of cancer and Scully is able to save his life only by turning him over to the Consortia. The treatment is nearly disastrous but Mulder survives. As a result of Scully's 'deal' they end up as valued but carefully watched prisoners/employees. The only bright spot is Scully becomes pregnant. AHE2 ends when they find out that their experiences were all a far-too-realistic 'nightmare'(?).

AHE3 takes place at Christmas. Scully is having a terrible holiday season. She has ever reason to believe that the shared horror of AHE2 was only a dream but she is still irrationally depressed to have left that other Scully and Mulder, imprisoned, and with a child coming. To make a very long story short they reconnect with the second Mulder and Scully who are not dreams but live and breathe in an alternate universe. Our Mulder and Scully look in as their other selves escape with their newborn to the relative safety of a hidden city of human resistance fighters. Their code names become Joseph and Sandra, which Scully hates and later changes to Sara.

AHE4 is pure hell for them all. Cursed by a devil's malevolence at yet another Hallow's Eve dance, Mulder's soul is switched with that of his counterpart, Joseph, to whom horrible things have happened since Joseph and Sara were left relatively happy and secure at the end of AHE3. Scully gets her Mulder back and everything is set right eventually but not without mega-angst for both couples. At the end of AHE4 Joe and Sara have just discovered the embryonic beginnings of on odd telepathy, caused, they believe, by Joseph's exposure to the alien proteins and Sara's subsequent exposure to him.

C. Jake's Luck is a dark novel. Jake Simmons, barely recovered from the suicide of his fiancee, Alex, comes to D.C. to attend an architect's conference. He is mistaken for Fox Mulder by a couple of the Agent's enemies, kidnapped and tortured. Mulder gets him out by switching places with his unhappy look-alike and Jake and Scully end up having to rescue Mulder. An unhappy consequence of the encounter is that the ghost of Alex, who has been quietly haunting Jake, decides to take a much more active part in his life.

Jake and Fox Join the Club is very NC-17, but is much more than a story of Jake's life at the sex resort where Alex's insatiable appetite has driven him. (She more than haunts him now, it's full blown possession.) It's also about friendship and bad choices and there's plenty of Mulderangst and Muldertorture, and Jakeangst and Scullyangst as Jake tries ineptly to rescue Mulder from the drug- induced slavery where he finds him.


Author: Windsinger Written: Sun, 1 Apr 2001 22:54:15 EDT Subject: xfc: My Travels with Charley 06: Witness by Windsinger Source: xfc

Sorry to have taken so long to get this out. Yes, Mulder is back with us but we don't really know what went with him for so long. I will try to merge this in by the end with CC's universe (there will be 9 parts). Part 7 will be out by the weekend if not before.

My Travels with Charley: Chapter 06: Witness For the Persecution
Author: Windsinger
Written: 04/01/01
Rating: PG
Classification: XA series
Spoilers: REQUIEM, 7th season, Deep Throat, Final Extinction, Per Manum.
Keywords: Mulderangst, Muldertorture
Disclaimer: No, the X-Files and the characters of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully do not belong to me. I would certainly have treated them better.
Archiving: Gossamer, Emphereal, ATXC, and anywhere with permission and as long as the author's name is retained

Summary: Mulder has survived his first days on the ship (at least the ones he's been conscious enough to remember), the boredom of his life with in the mindspeaker colony and first hand experience with some inventive Testing. The results of the latest test, however, has left Charley Hunter with serious decisions to make on how best to make use of his badly damaged prisoner.

Author's Notes: This is sixth in a series of 'short' stories (they were intended to be short) chronicling Mulder's confusing, agonizing, torturous, lonely and wondrous adventures with his abductors. Three more to go. Believe it or not I am working my way around to merging to some extent in with CC's universe. That will begin to become more clear in the next segment. My older work can be found on Gossamer under 'Esty, Sue'


Dearest Scully, as usual when I can't sleep I think of you and since I'm lying here in the dark and not sleeping that is exactly what I find myself doing. It's far more pleasant than fretting about my immediate future. In a few hours Charley will come and take me away Time: It's been four months my time since I was collected like the others and spirited away from Earth and you. But in truth it's been more like seven if you count the weeks I've spent unconscious for one thing or another. Then there's spacetime. Is it as elastic as Einstein theorized? I have it on excellent authority (from one who was there) that I was taken from the mindspeaker's colony seven weeks ago. Now I am being forced from this second temporary home and I'd say that my chances of ever returning to either is highly unlikely Forced is probably too strong a word In some ways it's a relief. After all, what am I leaving behind in these two little rooms? Only the possibility that if I do not go now, I may never be able to or least not with my conscience intact. What haunts me is whether I made the right decision tonight. Oh, Scully, what would you have wanted me to do?

But I'm getting way ahead of myself. The last you knew... What is the last you knew? I've been ... I guess the word is 'confused' for so long. Let's just say that there are a lot of things that I don't remember, a certain episode that I refuse to remember, and a lot messed up in between.

There was Charley's third little test, the brain scan and its side trip into Hell; that's clear to a certain point. That was the last time I recorded my thoughts for you in any formal manner. I had been sucked down into that jellyroll of a bed and the contents of my mind were being squirted out like grapes under the frenzied pounding feet of the vineyard workers. I was so... so scared. And I hurt. And I wanted you. But that was not the worst. The formless dark was the worst. So dark.

What's worse than thinking too much? Being unable to think at all. I was falling through blackness, falling into everlasting night, a little lightning on the distant horizon but otherwise nothing. And there was no one, no one at all. Not a friend, not an alien, not even an enemy.

And what happened then? Why, I went mad. Not just a little mad, a lot mad. It must have been madness. I dreamed that someone finally answered my prayer, that someone came. You'll never imagine who - that's another story - but he was a man acquainted with pain, a soul who knows about survival and about kicking the odds in the crotch Maybe he was there, maybe he wasn't, but he held me up for the longest time. He kept me from falling to where there would have been no rising. In the end I sent him away, though. I sent him with a message to my Scully. If the almighty essence that has charge of this nightmare of a universe has any compassion then that message reached you. You will know that I live, and that I hold your love dearer than that life Was there really a messenger? I doubt it. I probably just made him up out of the stuff of my madness, but just the hope that he might have existed, and found his way to you like some dark angel, buoys up my faltering spirit. It's all I live for. That's all there is to live for - at least that's all Ithought there was to live for.

I've learned otherwise out here. There are other miseries than our own, Scully. The devils worry other souls than ours. We've known that for a long, long time... but, heaven forgive me, from time to time I forget.

So here, as it was told to me, is the story of what I can't remember and what I have chosen to forget and what I wish I could forget. You'll likely find it surprising that I don't question the teller. I think you'll see why. I'll return before the end.


"Ness, HE's here again."

Ness didn't even look up from her sculpture. It was going to be, she hoped, a horse.

"It's been more than five weeks. What vent did he crawl out from I wonder?"

Clearly anxious, the first young woman, Marta, replied, "Who care? What's important is that he doesn't like to be kept waiting."

"That's because he can't do anything about it. Very well, I'm coming. This doesn't seem to be working out anyway."

For the first time Ness looked up to find the interested faces of six pre-teens raised in her direction. "It's just Rodan. Nothing exciting about that. Go back to your work. I'll return shortly." Reluctantly, they did as they were told.

Marta was studying the abandoned sculpture with a curious eye "We're told such things exist on Earth but how I don't know. How did it ever come to be running on its toes? You'd think it would fall over."

"Guess we have to have faith," Ness replied with a sigh. "Well, let's get this performance over with."

Ness knew where she would find him, near the airlock, but inside or outside she didn't know yet. It depended on whether he wanted to irritate the member of the Circle he had asked to see or wanted something from them. The Overseer shapeshifters, often referred to as morphs, could pass from one atmosphere to the other as easily as opening and closing channels in their sinus cavities, but Ness was human and for her to venture beyond the airlock took careful preparations. She knew all the steps in the nasty process - as children, they were drilled and drilled on emergency evacuation procedures - but like the other members of the Family was seldom given occasion to use them such skills. At least Ness found the command to venture outside the Circle an opportunity. The majority of those in her age group considered such foyers a punishment.

Rodan waited for her inside the airlock. He wanted something then. Ness made note of the tall, broad, square-jawed morph. As always he was as solid looking as a bulkhead. How did he do what he did? Morphs could assume a variety of shapes though from what she had heard they tended to revert to a particular form unless there was need Rodan's default form was human-like. But did they make up their human bodies from their imagination or did they have to build on an existing pattern? If that were so with Rodan, there must be a human somewhere who looked like this. The human man would be older, though, for Rodan had been hanging about the Compound, looking exactly as he looked now, since before she was a little girl and she would soon be eighteen.

He didn't greet her at all. He didn't have to. He and his kind ruled here. She didn't greet him either but stretched her spine to its maximum height and looked him straight in the eye. The Mothers and Grandmothers and members of her own peer group would have found such confrontation unthinkable. At the age of eight, however, Ness had developed a theory - that the morphs must have a deep curiosity about humans, else why form their bodies into the human shape for so much of their lives? Making use of her theory, Ness had extracted this or that favor over the years so that by now she had a small but precious hoard of influence. It gave her the guts to do just what she was doing now, approaching a morph with back straight and chin up. She liked to believe that they respected her just a bit for her daring.

She was even more than daring today. She didn't even ask what the morph wanted. She was irritated at having to leave her sculpture unfinished. Instead, she came within five paces, stopped, folded her arms and waited.

"Ness," he inclined his head, "as I remember. Not like the others."

"Is that good or bad?"

"That depends. Ness, what is it that you want most?"

The question caught her by surprise. It had to be a trick. What you wanted most would be the first thing they would take away. "You know what I want. You know what we all want."

"Never having known another life, you only think you want Earth. Speaking in your best interests, you do know what how fortunate you are. What next?"

"You know that, too. An end to boredom and the answer to why we are here."

He almost smiled. It was at least a smug look at if he had guessed correctly about something. "That's two questions. You remind me of another of your race. Questions, always questions."

Her heart beat a little faster. No member of the Family asked questions but her. Another human, then. A new member for the Family? Was that what this was about? Even better, someone who asked those questions, someone who wasn't willing to stand by and let things remain as they were year after year after year. Perhaps he or she would even know what the word 'year' really meant out here in the great dark.

"Will I be allowed to meant this person?"

Rodan's eyes were fixed on her with such soul-searing intensity that she felt a chill run up her spine. "I need someone. A nurse, if you will. If things work out, the person I choose could earn, if not their first or second desire, then their third." No, not a chill, but a thrill of anticipation. What she was being offered was early as good as wish number two and equally as rare. The morph seemed to back away then, not physically, but as if he had dimmed his power. She had never known him to be this approachable.

"I'm interested."

"There would need to be conditions."

"Of course," Ness said. She had expected nothing else.


Two 'days' passed and Ness found herself shivering as she waited outside the airlock. In that time her life had been turned completely upside down. In short she had agreed to Rodan's conditions and followed him to places in the City where none in the human colony had been allowed to enter in the memory of anyone less in years than the oldest Mother. Some of the procedures she had been forced to endure hurt, but she didn't care. Even if what Rodan hinted at never came to pass she would have a fortune of memories and experiences to keep for all the long years of her life. Even if she was never a Mother, even if only a Sister, she would always have this. She would always be one set apart. Special.

Not that the Family thought much of her specialness or desire for adventure. The timid ones fretted and had nightmares at the very thought of leaving the Family's suite of rooms in the Circle. The more bold were openly envious though she doubted that any would have taken her place for all the 'gold at the end of the rainbow' whatever a 'rainbow' was, whatever 'gold' was. When she took off her intricately patterned dress cloths to don the plain gray trousers and shirt Rodan gave her, her Sisters had stared, their faces registering their disgust. The clothes were not only ugly and inadequate for the temperature but shirt was far too large and the pants too long Clearly they were expected to fit all sizes. Not a hint envy now.

Anxious to be out from under all those eyes, Ness had hung her dress cloths across their open space on the wall of the common room earlier than necessary. Of course this meant that she had to wait longer for Rodan. As she stood alone in the lofty corridor, she shivered though she knew the chill was not entirely due to the temperature. Both workers and elders passed her with cold, disdaining glances. She feel even more exposed when Rodan finally appeared and she felt his hard eyes upon her. How she missed her layers and layers of draping shawls.

He noticed her discomfort. "Do you wish to change your mind?"

"I'm just cold," she answered irritably. "Let's go."

Many minutes of walking later outside an airlock on the outer rim, Rodan helped her into a stiff suit that completely encased her body. It was a good thing she was slender. Clearly the suit had not been designed for humans. Thinking of what had worn this odd shell last, She shuddered. Rodan took her by the arm then and led her through the first set of doors.

There was no sound, not even the constant throb from City. From the moment Rodan had made his offer, Ness had been frantically recording every new sight, sound and emotion. Now she was intrigued by the challenge of how she would describe nothing. Well, she would have a plenty of time to get it right. There would be years ahead when nothing would change, a lifetime of the same sounds, the six rooms, and the same sixty-three faces.

She was still thinking about how she would describe the sound of her own breathing to a story circle, when the second and last door opened.

Having lived all of her life within windowless Circle, Ness understood for the first time why they called this vastness Space Despite Rodan's warnings and the foul liquid he had given her to drink, her stomach knew it too. The blackness was huge, an eternity of hugeness, and yet not all of it was black. There were the stars - bright, white spots on a dense, black cloth - and at her feet stretched the umbilical. The umbilical was a flexible tube, flesh- colored and translucent. It snaked away into nothing. No, not quite nothing. When she followed the faintly glowing entrail into the dark, she found that it turned and headed suddenly 'down'. Below her feet, it ended many hundreds of meters away near a hard and dimly glowing object of no small size. This had to be the, Portjam, the transport Rodan had arrived in. Black as space itself under normal circumstances, the lights of City caused its facetted sides to gleam like a black jewel half-hidden in the folds of night.

All other comparisons ended there for Ness was suddenly aware of what Rodan had referred to as weightlessness. If only she were weightless. On the contrary, she suddenly felt as if she were too heavy and falling. In her panic she clung to the nearest thing at hand. Rodan. She was glad that he was turned from her so that she didn't have to see the triumph in his eyes at this demonstration of her timidity. She allowed herself after that to be towed by him along the winding, translucent path of the umbilical towards the Portjam.

Halfway through the long tube she rolled to stare backwards towards where they began. Her mouth fell open as she gaped at the sight of the City behind them. She had nothing in her experience to compare it to. It seemed an explosion of tall, white towers, wrapped around and around with a tangled necklace of the most brilliant gems Somewhere in that palace of splendor, floating in this gap between the stars, was the small slice of cylindrical space where four generations before, a handful of humans had been brought to bear their young and live out their meaningless lives. Was their own true home, this Earth that was spoken of, as beautiful as this? Or as cold and sterile?

None too soon for her stomach, but far too soon for her nerves, they reached the Portjam's black side. Only now were the thousands and thousands of intricately carved characters truly visible. New Writing! Before her hungry mind could memorize more than a few of the hieroglyphs, Ness found herself pushed inside a very small airlock. Once safely beyond the second door, Ness and Rodan removed their clinging, heavy suits. Before she could catch her breath, Rodan was off, forcing Ness to follow at a trot. As she ran, the cool air drifted through the thin fabric of her very inadequate pants and shirt, chilling her sweat. Keeping up with Rodan as he negotiated the endless twists and turns of the ship, at least kept her warm. It gave her very little time; however, to see much except to marvel on how cramped and poor the ship felt. Accustomed to the lofty, wide halls of the City, with all of its light and the rich carvings on so many of its surfaces, the corridors of the Portjam felt barren and oppressive.

Removing her helmet, her first impression had been of the spicy alien aroma. It was far heavier than in the City. She assumed that was because of the contained space, though as they moved through the corridors it became clear that the Portjam was not in any way small The ship could easily support a crew of a hundred or more in addition to cargo. And exactly what kind of cargo did this black ship carry? As Rodan's steps finally slowed to stop outside the arch of a closed doorway, Ness realized that she was going to find out. She also became aware of a pungent smell, a scent both foul and irritatingly familiar though she couldn't immediately place it. Rodan paused briefly outside a doorway and as it opened she was struck by the odor a hundredfold Before her was a large, rectangular room crowded with adult humans Now she placed the scent, that of the commode up close, or of many unwashed bodies. The very old came to smell this way sometimes unless they were reminded to care for themselves, and then she remembered a different but similar smell, that of babies when there had been babies. There hadn't been a child born in Family for more than six years.

In complete and utter silence, dozens of dull eyes stared her way. Ness couldn't help but shudder. Bad sanitation, poor hygiene, ragged clothes - how could they allow themselves to sink so low? When she took the time to study the room and its inhabitants more carefully, however, her anger turned to shock and sorrow.

Though the room was as large as the Circle's common room, it was dimly lit and depressingly stark. It was also not just overcrowded but horribly overcrowded. Almost as strange as the continuing absence of any noise was the fact that all the inhabitants were male. There were men in the Circle, too, but not nearly so many and so very different. These were thin, gray, listless creatures. She expected some excitement when she entered, a rising of expectant voices at the arrival of someone new. That's how the Family would react. Instead, other than the attention of their eyes, she was greeted with only a whispering wave of rustling cloth and the soft pad of a few bare feet on the hard floor. Some who were sitting on the floor stood, but most kept their seats. A few never stopped sipping from ugly bowls of brown liquid which was uglier still. Those that were wandering aimlessly about the room had turned their pale faces in her direction, but on the whole their blank expressions did not change.

It was the absence of color and activity that Ness found most alarming. There was nothing here. Nothing to do. There were no looms No precisely woven works from generations past covered the walls and floors or the bodies of the persons that lived here. Nor were there any scratch boxes for writing and drawing, no plasticform for sculpture or groups of children devising games. There were no Mothers and Fathers and Sisters intently teaching or telling stories. Only slack-faced, dead-eyed men And she had resented her life as dull. All that Rodan had told her was that this group was especially gifted with a kind of latent telepathy, which they were being encouraged to develop. She had never thought, however, the lengths such 'encouragement' might take.

"What are you doing to these people?" she asked her companion, even her soft whisper sounded loud in this eerie silence.

"I told you. It's no worse than what they have done to themselves in the past. To discipline the mind you deprive the body Mystics and holy men on Earth have strengthened their minds and purified their 'souls' this way for centuries."

"Perhaps by choice, not by force," Ness hissed, remembering a story of Buddha from her instruction on comparative religions. It took her a moment to realize that she was looking anxiously from face to face. At least a part of her had not forgotten why they had come.

"He is with the sick," Rodan informed her and led her to the back of the room. Along the way Ness noted that the walls were lined with stack upon stack of long closed doors and wondered what could possibly be behind them. The question vanished from her mind as they approached a set of six thin, gray pallets arranged in two rows against the back wall. Three of the pallets were occupied, two by thin men silently sleeping, each of which was closely attended by a second man awake and aware of the visitors. She barely saw the third of the three because when it became obvious that this was their destination, half a dozen of the gaunt figures, most of which she realized were in truth fairly young men, moved to gather protectively round. Here she found more emotion than on any of the faces she had heretofore seen Here was suspicion and, though she could scarcely believe it, a kind of silent rebellion.

Distractedly, Rodan made a dismissive motion with his hand and after a surprising degree of hesitation, the crowd of defenders moved away. All but one. This was a relatively handsome young man with deep, dark eyes. He was as thin as the others but showed where he must have been well built once. He was kneeling beside the pallet, holding the hand of the third invalid.

"Please step away," Rodan commanded warningly. The dark-eyed young man made a move to rise only he couldn't. It turned out that he wasn't holding the hand of the sick man, the sick man was holding onto that of the young man and with a grip that would not be released.

"Let her take your place," Rodan ordered, pushing Ness abruptly forward. With effort the young man peeled away long fingers and passed that dry, cold, grasping hand into Ness's. The grip of skeletal bones came crushing down. Could an eagle's talons be like this? When the young man began to move away, Ness stared with confusion from the morph to the retreating young man and back.

"He's the one," Rodan announced, clearly surprised that she did not already know. He was gesturing down at the invalid beside which she now knelt.

Ness stared, first unbelieving and then in despair. No, this couldn't be! The morph had shown her a picture, a most amazingly realistic picture that he had called a photograph. The man in the picture would be her charge if she agreed to accept the task. But this was not the man in the picture! Shown in profile that man was healthy and strong, or as much as she could deduce through the hard lines of the dark, curiously-fashioned clothes he wore. Knowing he needed nursing, Ness had expected to find her charge changed from the glossy image, after exposure to this kind of 'encouragement' who would not be, but she found her hand stuffed into the claw of what appeared to be an old, old man. The skin of his hands and arms and face were sickly pale and webbed with a thousand small wrinkles and there was so little flesh on his bones that the skeleton showed beneath. Ness stared wildly at the morph and her fears were confirmed.


"You can't be serious."

"Perfectly. I told you he was ill."

"Ill, not dying." And except for the grip like iron skull-faced man might well be dying if not dead. Even his eyes were open and empty like the only dead person she had ever seen had stared. Nothing but bones and that wrinkled skin, his wasting was worse than that of the very oldest of the Family's old. Yet if Rodan and his photograph were to be believed he wasn't old.

Her innate curiosity asserting itself, Ness found herself studying the man's face carefully. She had never seen severe illness before though she had been told about it. Could sickness and deprivation reduce a person to this? She noted that his skin was not only loose, but dry, as well as the palest pale. The whites of his eyes weren't white but red. There was something like a red burn on the corner of his mouth, but no other obvious injuries.

"What did you do to him? Why is he so much worse than the others?"

Rodan shrugged as if the matter was not his concern. "He had a bad injury when he first arrived. Not our fault. He never fully recovered from that. Since then he's had the same food as the others but while they have withdrawn into themselves and accepted their situation all he has done is fight us - in his heart if in no other way. There were tests but largely he burned himself down to the state you see here Our intention was never that he should descend to such a state, but while he lived with the mindspeakers he had to be handled like the others."

"Tests..." Though Rodan had passed over the importance of Tests there were nightmare stories about such things from the first and second generations. The oldest bore faint scars though they refused to speak of their experiences. Still the stories, true or not, were told at night, whispered from adolescent to adolescent, making the transfer of that part of their history a right of passage. As their current life was so tedious and dull and had been so for so many years, most harbored doubts as to the truth of the tales. Ness looked down into the stark, wasted face and no longer doubted. Sadness and trial were written in every line of his face. Even with eyes open, Ness had never seen such anyone who looked so lost.

"Clearly he needs tending," Rodan stated, unnecessarily. "This is what you have agreed to do." "You never warned me about this!" she whispered harshly, still staring, appalled at the corpse-like hand in hers. "What if he dies despite what I do."

"It will take much more than this to kill Mooncalf. You don't know him the way we do. Improvement in his diet alone will in time make up for much that his aggressive metabolism has done." Her response was to stare back at the shapeshifter with skepticism. "There is potentially another problem. The last test was exceedingly stressful, mentally as well as physically. You may find reaching him... difficult."

'Difficult'? Ness wondered what that meant. Nothing good. She looked down again at her charge. He was a far cry from the fairy tale prince she had allowed herself to envision. And she had given up so much for the dream. So what was new? Dreams did not come true. Not for her, not for pets in a cage that no longer entertained their owners One made do with the wheel and the stick "Do you intend to abide by our agreement?" Rodan asked.

"Of course I will. It's not as if I had a choice." She stared around the dismal room. "Will we stay here?"

"Here? That would be even more of a disruption to what we are trying to do." Rodan's face, which she thought she knew so well, came suddenly alive with an anger she had never seen before. "I told you, this place is for the gifted ones, the mindspeakers. He is not a 'speaker'. Where he will be sent has yet to be determined, until that time he must be removed from here."

"Then why was he brought here to begin with?"

"He was a speaker once, the strongest, the best of them, but they destroyed his gift."

"'They'?"

"Your kind!" And he spat out the foul version of the name the Overseers used for the people who came from Earth. Ness must have shown her confusion on her face. The members of the Family, the only humans she had ever known, were always kind and polite - boring - but always kind and polite.

"They cut into his brain!" Rodan snarled. "They took it all! We thought his silence was just due to stubbornness and the injuries he sustained upon his arrival and that time and exposure to the others would cure him. We know now that it won't." In response to Ness's mystified eyes, Rodan abruptly rolled the emaciated figure over onto his side, pulled down the bony chin and parted the brittle, lifeless hair. Bending down, Ness saw a livid red scar on the scalp. With fascination she followed the ragged line from ear to ear.

"This is horrible." "You have no idea how horrible. The wonders of which he was capable." Rodan looked with disgust at the body as if it were little more than trash already. "What an abomination. And the last test may have broken all that remained. He should have told me. We would not have attempted the procedure. I would have mourned the loss of his talent, but he means more to the project than that."

Ness would have asked what project, but the morph clearly wasn't listening. His fingers were parting the hair again, exposing the scar "Perhaps not all lost," came his voice almost in a whisper. "Perhaps there is a way to sway the Third faction after all." His head jerked up. The eyes he fixed on Ness held a savage intensity. "But first he has to be strong enough to stand witness. That's what you must do Bring him out of this as best you can though there may be little chance of repairing what, separately, our two peoples have done."

Ness leaned back on his heels and, bewildered, watched Rodan launch to his feet, and stride for a few paces up and down the room. The poor, pale men of the compound scattered.

Ness had never actually liked the shapeshifter, though he had been a welcome distraction from the eternal tedium of her life. Now she felt emotions stirring within that were far more personal. The morph cared nothing for this man, for any of these men. And her own people? She saw for the first time that he wouldn't hesitate to torture any one of the Family just as cruelly if there was reason and with as little remorse.

So why help him? To refuse would only make the morph angry and how could that help the Family? It wouldn't help this poor man, either She had no particular experience in medicine or nursing, but then neither had any of the Family for they were seldom ill. It was unlikely that she could make this creature's situation any worse. And then there were these new emotions, an unexpected desire to protect this man which was no small thing. In the Circle no one needed protection, except from boredom, and no one needed her for anything In the Circle there were too many eager hands for even the simplest task. If the youngest should stumble, six hands were there to break their fall. But this man... clearly no one had been there to break his fall. So what if he was not what she had bargained away so much for He needed her. At least he was all hers to care for and to save if she was willing to accept the challenge. And she would accept it, because if she turned this task down, Rodan would just find someone else. Ness knew of two - no, three - other young women of the Family who would jump at an opportunity to escape the eternal sameness of their lives just to be needed like this.

And what really would she be giving up if she let this chance go by? Nothing. It was all given up already.

Ness became aware that Rodan was still striding with suppressed energy up and down the gray, dismal room. Whatever this idea he had was, it had taken solid hold. He was going to use this poor creature as the critical part of some plan that was certain and Ness found that the very idea frightened her very much.


They didn't bring the invalid back with them. Rodan left instructions with two of the small workers and he accompanied Ness back to City, reversing the way they had come. Ness's thoughts were not on the thrill of the journey this time. As she was towed along the umbilical, she was only momentarily distracted when the glorious visage of the station as it loomed up in her faceplate. Her emotions were in turmoil. For the first time she really understood what that phrase meant. Except for the adolescents who rebelled as soon as they came to truly comprehend the limitations of their lives, emotions were heavily suppressed within the Family. It was either that or continual bickering or worse. The oldest teaching blanket depicted the bitterness of the fighting in the early years of her ancestor's 'benign' captivity. There had even been murder committed. Restraint was not only admired, therefore, but necessary. This left current day Family members little opportunity to exercise their emotions to anything approaching what Ness was feeling. Her words had set the morph on a path for which her poor patient may never be able to forgive her.

Upon their return to the City, Ness thought at first that she was being taken back to the Circle's set of six rooms. At the last moment, however, Rodan subtly changed direction. The two-room apartment she was shown was probably adjacent to the Circle's, but Ness knew that they might as well be orbiting another star for all the interaction they would have. No, she and her patient would be each other's entire world for as long as Rodan thought fit. Living as close as she had with the other members of the Circle since the day she was born, Ness found her new situation both liberating and intimidating. Intimidating when four of the little workers brought her patient on a litter and left them alone together in the silent apartment.

Kneeling beside the pallet, Ness studied her charge. The transfer must have been traumatic. His eyes were closed and he looked, if it were possible, even more frail than when she had seen him on Portjam surrounding by his friends. Friends? Defenders? She realized that she knew nothing of this man's history or how long he had been housed in that terrible place with the speakers.

Ness felt a sudden weary heaviness. Guilt. She had have been instrumental in taking this man away from all he knew, from his own equivalent of Family. Mute they may be, but she had seen their eyes Anger, suspicion and loss had been reflected there. Clearly, they could hear perfectly well and had followed she and Rodan's discussion The shapeshifter made no announcement, but they knew that their companion was being taken from them, unlikely to return. There had been no time for good-byes.

Somewhere a bell chimed and Ness started, only to berate herself seconds later for her skittishness. There was no reason to be surprised. She knew the tone well and as expected she found several parcels waiting in the small airlock provided for deliveries beside the door to the apartment. As expected, the parcels contained food Supplies were delivered to the Circle in the same way each day. Her mood lightened by the very normality of the transaction, Ness made a cursory sort through the packets. It seemed normal fare to her but even that was far, far better than the horrible brown stuff she'd seen one of the speakers eating. There also seemed to be quite a lot of food for two people. As she dug deeper into the bags, she even found more than a few luxuries. There had to be something here that her patient not only liked, but that his wasted stomach could tolerate Clearly, Rodan was serious about wanting this one to recover.

But recovery for what purpose? Ness shivered and turned up the heat in the room as far as it would go, which she knew was not very far. If she only had some hint of what she had to prepare him for. To help him recover physically would be relatively straightforward considering the food that had been provided, but Rodan had mentioned that there had been some mental stress. She wouldn't push on that now. Later when he was stronger.

Ness's nose wrinkled. He and the very thin blanket he was wrapped in smelled of the too-close quarters of the mindspeakers. Though she would have liked to wash him first, his lips looked so dry that Ness decided that fluids were his most immediate need. She began with juice, a luxury, but which Rodan had provided in abundance. Propping the long, limp body up into her arms was harder than she expected but she managed. Before she set the flask to her patient's lips, however, Ness hesitated, plagued by a nagging suspicion rare for her. She found herself tasting the drink before offering it to the man.

"I don't know why I did that," she said to the figure in her arms "We've never had any problem with the food except when they provide us with something new and then we are warned in advance."

His head lay like a dead weight against her shoulder. For a second time she touched the lip of the flask to the edge of his mouth the way she'd seen sleepy babies fed years before. When he remained unconscious, she wet a finger with the juice and traced his cracked lips. When there was still no response, she had no recourse but to force his tight jaws loose enough to dribble in the liquid. Getting him to swallow took even greater patience. By trial and error she finally managed to empty half of the small bottle in an hour. Though both of them were left exceedingly sticky, she felt that at least some had found its way into his stomach. By the end, he did not seem any more wakeful than before, however.

Cleaning came next. The apartment's generously-sized washroom had a commode as well as a curtained area that must house a shower like the one in the Circle, but her patient was not ready for either of those yet. Instead, using a few bowels and some cloths and soap, Ness managed a kind of washing. With the light blanket removed, he seemed even thinner than before. At least there was some reaction this time Perhaps it was the affect of the air on his pale, wet skin, but he stirred slightly and his lips cracked open in reaction to the moisture of the cloth on his face. He got more juice for that which he actively accepted, finishing the small flask in a short time. Ness felt such a sense of accomplishment that she didn't even mind when he fell back into his stupor almost immediately after being dried and covered again. For a clean covering she had to use their only sheet. They had transferred some of her long woven tunics from Circle but they would need more. Hesitant as she was to ask for anything, since in her experience the Overseers reacted with disdain to every request the Family made, she would have to request more blankets at the very least.

Content with the fluids she had gotten into her patient, Ness went off to take her own shower. Sticky with juice and smelling of the mindspeaker's colony and the 'other' sweat from the vacuum suit, she wanted one very badly. She stood still, however, puzzled by what she found behind the curtain in the washroom. The plumbing was there, the pipes and knobs, but the water fell not onto a shallow trough of a few inches, but into a huge oval bowl that was nearly as long as she was tall and thigh deep. A removable plug could keep the water from running out immediately. It was very like the large old cooking pot that the Family filled with water and used to immerse the tiniest babies. when there had been babies.

Ness stared at the size of the bowl. Water was precious and had to be carefully rationed and recycled. If she dared actually fill this, which she was currently doing, she would be seeing more water in one place than she had in her whole life. Guiltily, she let it fill until it was knee high and then climbed in over the high sides, gradually lowering herself to a sitting position. It was the oddest and most wonderful sensation. She realized that if she dared she could raise the level higher still so that the delicious warmth covered her breasts. She didn't dare, though, not just yet, but she did curl up, inhaled an extravagantly huge breath and ducked under. What an indescribable thrill it was to be completely immersed. As the initial rush eased, Ness just laid back, scrunching down until the water came up to her chin. In this peaceful place she finally had the time to think about all that had happened over the last days.

Cold woke her. Looking for a blanket, Ness stirred and instead found wet everywhere. She sat up with a start, sending the water sloshing. She had fallen asleep and the water had gone cold.

Her patient! With a slip and a slide and a splash, she was out of the huge wash bowl, sliding across the smooth floor of the small wash room and skidded into the main room. She shouldn't have worried. He was as she had left him, curled on his side on the sleeping pallet No, not quite the same. His position was subtly changed. There was also an aromatic smell about him that hadn't been there when she left.

But it was his eyes that caught and held her. They were open, brown shot with green, and staring in her direction. When he became aware of her notice, he immediately lowered his eyes to fix them on the thin, rumpled sheet gathered around his sticklike, bare limbs. Only then did Ness remember that she was naked. In ten seconds she had retreated to the washroom, thrown one of her loose tunics over her head and returned. Though out of breath for all her hurrying, she was too late His eyes had closed again.

Had she imaged that intense awareness? But there was no time for that. There was that sharp, unpleasant scent again.

She crouched down. "It's all my fault, I'm sorry. I should have thought about that. I shouldn't have fallen asleep."

If he meant to shake his head in denial, it came out as a kind of wobble. His lips moved but no sound came out at first then something thin and weak made its way through those nearly clenched teeth.

"No, mine. .useless..."

"Shush, it's not worth arguing about. Let me help you roll off onto the floor and I'll see what we can do about getting rid of these wet things." "I still need..." His eyes slitted eyes were aimed at his crotch again.

It took a moment for Ness to realize what he was needed and then she blushed, as embarrassed as he. "There's a commode in there," she inclined her head towards the washroom. "If I help you, can you manage?"

She thought it unlikely, but his answer was to attempt to rise and with her awkward assistance he did. He was unsteady on his feet and the waist she tried to clasp had no flesh on it, but he was stronger than she expected and more awkward than heavy. Once before the commode he insisted on standing though he had to brace himself against the wall as he waited for her to leave the small room. She peeked in a few minutes later to find him leaning against the wall next to the shower that was more than a shower, still clutching the pungent sheet that was still the only thing that covered his emaciated frame. She was struck by his attitude, however, which even standing still seemed sparked with an unexpected energy.

Stumbling for something to say, Ness stammered. "You can sit in there and fill that big bowl up with water."

He stared at her as if he thought she had three heads. "Bathtub," he said, patiently. "It's called a bathtub." Though the words were still weak there was a softening of what until now had been a stern, rigid face. She saw for the first time the shadow of the handsome, smiling man from the picture.

"Would you like to try it?" she asked. "The sides are very high Can you get in."

"Getting in is easy," he wheezed. "I can fall in." He swayed "Getting out though may be a problem. Maybe you should just leave me here full time. Easier cleanup for you."

"I tried that. I may have fallen asleep, but it's not really very comfortable." Her voice faded as she realized from the tiny incongruous spark in his red-rimmed eyes that he had been joking.

Flustered, she murmured, "Let me help you." He certainly was long and his balance not good so with the tub's floor still slick from her own bath, his getting seated was more like the controlled fall he had jested about. He was so frail that for a few seconds she worried about broken bones, but the effort only forced a few grunts from the thin body. Being careful not to stare, Ness ran the water. Belatedly, she hoped that she hadn't used their daily - or weekly - ration already She hadn't, there was plenty. Almost immediately he melted into its warmth, sliding down till the level covered the knife blade of his collarbones. Ness tried not to look down into the water before she drew away, but she had already seen much when she withdrew the sheet Her patient's skin was not just pale but bluish as if he were lightly bruised all over. His groin area seemed more deeply battered than any other place; not that she was an expert in men's anatomy. Having to live so closely together, Family members kept to one's self when one could. There had to be some surprises for those who would eventually couple. There were certainly few enough secrets for those who lived within the Circle.

Returning a few minutes later with a scrap of weaving he could use to dry himself, Ness noted that he hadn't allowed his skin to stay blue for long. He had taken a piece of cloth and the hard soap and was already scrubbing. Hard. Between that and the water, which was as hot as he could get it, the skin she could see above the water line was already pink. In fact, he scrubbed with such ferocity that she feared that he was going to draw blood. There was none of that but he soon exhausted himself and on her third trip into the washroom, this time to bring him one of her formless tunics to wrap himself in, noted that he had ceased washing and was lying back again, eyes closed.

Ness looked in at regular intervals after that if only to check that her patient did not drown himself by accident for he appeared to be deeply asleep. He spent hours in the 'bathtub', unmoving for the most part. Ness replaced the cold water with warm as needed. At rare moments when his eyes were open, he only stared at the bare walls, allowing his thin, limp arms to float on the surface When she wasn't checking in on her patient, Ness removed the damp bedding, and, rolling all the cloth into a ball, left it behind the same door through which the food appeared. If the system worked the way it did in the Circle, the little workers would take the laundry away and leave fresh. They did. She had clean, dry things in less time than it took for her to prepare a simple meal from the bulk food that had been left for them. She made something like a stew, mashing the ingredients soft and brought that and more of the precious juice into the washroom.

He became aware of her only with difficulty. He truly seemed to wake only after she had worked the first small spoonful of stew in between his cracked, closed lips. The eyes opened in wonder revealing those strangely perceptive hazel orbs once more. Tired eyes, she thought, and sad. The tissue around their rims was red and tender looking. At least for the moment, they also registered surprise.

"It's warm," he marveled, rolling the small mouthful around with his tongue.

"Is it too hot?"

"No. But where did you get this? All we were fed before..." His voice faded, this face graying before her eyes.

So she'd been right about the brown stuff she'd seen in the mindspeaker's enclave.

"We're given the food raw. We place the bowl in the warmer, it's a compartment in the wall, and press a button. The more times we press the button the longer it cooks and the warmer the food becomes. It doesn't take long, but we don't know how it works."

His head bobbed understanding as he reached out unsteadily for the bowl so that he could feed himself. "Microwave," he murmured around a second and larger bite. His hand with its long, bony fingers shook, but he did well enough and drank all the juice and when that was gone slowly but steadily sipped on what she identified as drinking water The food seemed to give him strength and he finally allowed her to help him from the bath. He needed the help, too, to step over the rim but shrugged her hands away as soon as he could. Clothed in one of the long tunics, he gingerly covered the ten feet into the main room. He didn't exactly thank her for taking care of the mess he had made, but he did nod her way once before performing a slow collapse onto the newly clean pallet.

Pulling a thin blanket over his head, he closed her out and did not emerge again for many hours.


The next three days passed similarly. Circle inhabitants figured the length of a day two ways. The first captives to be interred in the Circle had lived on Earth and could still approximate a second. Later someone managed to make a small hole in a large bowl and the length of time it took for the bowl of water to empty from a set level was estimated at twelve hours. From this they figured Earth days, weeks, months and years They kept track of the time in a special sand sheet. All important dates such as the length of their captivity and dates of births and deaths were maintained in Earth time. Not having access to the Circle's 'clock', Ness had no choice but to use the informal method and count the number of times the lights were turned on in the apartment and the number of times the lights were turned off, conditions over which even the Family had no control. Though the length of the 'on' and 'off' periods varied somewhat, one of each together lasted approximately fourteen hours. For this reason, Ness knew that they had been together three Circle days even though her charge slept much and ate little meals whenever he wasn't sleeping, regardless of the status of the light.

He began to eat larger amounts and less often as his shrunken stomach expanded. The second night he over-ate and paid for his binge with horrible abdominal pains. As he huddled, groaning, around his extended middle, he would from time to time look her way and with such a hard, accusing expression as if he felt she was somehow to blame.

"The food's fine," she responded, on the defensive. "It's good food. I ate it, too." It was beyond Ness's comprehension that this did not soften his fierce gaze in the least.

For two of the days, all they had between them to wear were a couple of Ness's old loose tunics, the overlarge gray pants and shirt that Ness had worn to the Portjam, one sheet and one thin blanket. When she apologized for the shortness of the tunic which barely reached his bony knees, her patient muttered something that sounded like, "You haven't seen hospital gowns," the reference to which Ness didn't understand but longed to. For despite all her questions, her companion stayed sullen and silent except for the occasional comments that slipped out only in the rare unguarded moments.

At last the new garments which Ness had mustered up enough courage to ask for arrived. The rolls and rolls of colorful cloth filled the same small airlock through which their food appeared. Even though they were not at all new but worn in places from decades of use, they were a great improvement to their wardrobe. For the first time she caught a glitter of interest in her companion's eyes as he examined the weave with a appreciative eye.

"And your people made these?"

"Every one." He was holding a piece, turning it around and around, clearly trying to fathom how it was worn. "I guess this is not what you are use to," she remarked and, after extracting some pieces long enough for him, explained briefly how to put the ensemble together. Fingers clutching the thick fabric, he vanished without another word into the privacy of the washroom.

Dropping down onto her mat, Ness hissed in exasperation. He wouldn't even change clothes in front of her!

They had two sleeping pallets now, one for each of them, the second delivered at his request. Ness had considered telling him that she had already asked for a second and been denied, but decided that their relationship would worsen - if that were possible - if he caught her in a lie. It was not that he was unkind, just totally inside himself. What was she suppose to do? Were men on Earth so different from those in the Family?

She was still sitting on her pallet and sulking when he emerged from the washroom. She blinked at the sight of him. Almost from one hour to the next his appearance improved as his face filled out and the worst of the lines of pain and exhaustion, dehydration and starvation began to fade, but the change this time was startling. Part of it was the clothes He was inexpertly draping a blue and red toga over a rich brown tunic, one that was finally long enough for both his arms and his legs. For the first time, except when he slept hiding under his blanket, the terribly thin arms and legs were covered and the thick cloth gave him enough bulk in other areas to allow him to appear lean but no longer bone-thin. But the real difference was in the relaxed way he held his body. As if no longer self-conscious, an entirely new man was revealed. The affect so changed his face that it took her breath away.

Flipping the trailing end of the long piece of weaving over his shoulder, he glanced up at her almost shyly. "I had to play Julius Caesar in a school play once, the first times I was ever stabbed in the back, though not the last. Did I put it on right?" Taking her expression of astonishment as affirmation, he went back to fingering the cloth whose comfortable weight was designed for this chilly place.

"I think this is the first time I've been warm since I got here," he announced with the same expression of relief she had seen when she had filled the tub for his first bath.

"How long ago was that?" she asked, relieved to finally find an opening to ask one of her thousand question. "You did live on Earth once, didn't you?" but he answered nothing. Instead, the shadow passed over his eyes again and he returned to some simple stretching exercises.

Furious, Ness rose up with a jerk and stalked away to the kitchen corner to make dinner. "If he was cold before," she fumed silently, "he should have said something. I can think of other ways in which both of us could have kept warm." Even later when she handed him a heaping bowl of his favorite stew, he barely grunted his thanks. The tiny window that had opened with his gratitude for the clothes had slammed shut once more.

 

If it were possible, the lights-out periods were the worst. After the first days of exhausted coma-like catatonia, he began to sleep more normally, turning from time to time as people do. In addition to having to lie in the dark and see the shape of him so far away in the dimness, Ness found torture in his dreaming. Dreaming... What dreams! She would awaken to the sound of his heart-wrenching weeping. He would be curled in a ball rocking and staring blindly into the dark. When she tried to comfort him, he shied from her as if her touch was fire. Instead, he scrambled into the far corner where he would crouch wild-eyed and shaking until long after she went back to sleep herself, or attempted to. And so it went. In the morning he was back to a few mumbled syllables when she brought him food, and a word of praise as to its taste or the way it was cooked. Sometimes there was a question about what it was. Otherwise, he exercised or laid with his back to her and spoke not at all.

It was during their fifteen meal together that Ness found that she was couldn't bear the silence any longer. In the softest voice she could manage, she asked, "Why don't you talk to me? Why don't you trust me?"

He had been recording each meal-taking by scratching on the wall with a piece of something protein-ish he had incinerated in the microwave. In response to her words, his head came up with a snap.

"We've both human," she added if that explained it all. She could make no sense of the ironic smile that came to his lips.

"Are we? Considering some of the sides of Humanity I've seen, you'd be surprised how little that matters."

"You're very bitter."

"I have reason to be." She had expected him to leave it at that but he must have actually looked into her face for once. "Try to see it from my point of view. I have only your word for who you are and where you come from. Granted, you don't know what a bathtub is or a microwave. Even if what you say is true, there's the fact that we've been locked in here together. You haven't said why, but I can guess." And with that he turned slightly away from her. Not enough to be completely rude but enough to say clearly that there wasn't any more to be said.

But for once Ness didn't let it end there. "I really don't care for your guesses. We are together so I could help you. You were not getting any better where you were!" "According to whom?" When she had no answer, he continued in the same bitter tone, "Did Charley - this Rodan as you call him - tell you what I was not getting any better from?"

"A little." At his look of disbelief she added, "No details. He said some test." More scorn. "Help me to understand. Tell me about it." In response, his face, already pale, went suddenly gray and a deep shudder passed through him. "No, don't. I'm sorry. Don't think about it, don't tell me. I don't need to know." Under her breath she cursed herself She'd lost patience and pushed him too far and too quickly. He was always so close to the edge, an edge over which she knew he saw whatever horror he'd been through, whatever horror he cried and wept about in his dreams.

Leaving him alone to pull the shattered fragments of body and soul back together, Ness returned to nibbling at her food, though she wasn't hungry. What more did she have to do? She had nursed him, washed him, given him clothes and food. He should be grateful. She was young and female and good-looking enough. He was male and, though older than she, young enough. As the day before had proved, he was also well on his way to becoming the strong, good-looking man she had been promised. They were alone, yet he not only would not couple with her, he actively avoided her and the few words that passed between them were scornful and suspicious This was not the way it was suppose to happen. Was this what her ancestors, the people of Earth, were like? Cold and mistrustful. If he didn't like her, that was his choice, but in the Circle they made more of an attempt to get along. For good or ill the members of the Family were, literally, one's whole world. You couldn't afford to be picky.

Ness spent a lot of time retelling the teaching stories to herself. She knew why there could be nothing like true love within the Circle. For some reason men were in the minority, making up less than a third of the total. You couldn't be exclusive. It was not only unfair but also cruel to those left alone. You slept with whom you wished and, though everyone had his or her favorites, you moved around. Variety was not frowned upon, but selfishness was.

All this is what she would tell him in time, but for the moment she only asked, "Would you rather be by yourself? I can ask to be taken back to my own people."

And what would she do if he said 'yes'?

She waited and the long silence made her stomach shrivel into a small, hard lump. It took more courage that she thought she had to raise her head. He was watching her, wearing his misery like a shroud. His eyes, which so often in the days before had looked out at her like two dead stones, were serious and aware. She took hope in the delay. He was thinking. She had no doubt what an immediate response would have been.

"Are you expecting the polite, socially acceptable response? Because I don't feel very polite or sociable these days."

"I don't want to go on like this. If you want to be alone then be alone but I want the truth."

That twist of his lips again, an ironic smile, then more silence though the mind across from her was clearly working. He seemed to come to a decision. "Where I come from there are many, many people. There's a lot of stress, too. There's just so much 'stuff' you're expected to do, to be. Just for that reason, I've always gone out of my way NOT to be what people expect. You get a lot of privacy that way. In the end my being alone has always just made it easier for everyone. Not that I can't have people around when I want them - my basketball buddies, a crowded movie theater, a weird evening with the Gunmen, a video and popcorn with Scu - with a friend." Ness's ears perked up at his use of this partial name. In the dark, nearly obscured by whimpers and sobs, she had heard it in its entirety before.

"There are even fake people like on the radio or television. Since my... abduction..." He seemed to draw even further within himself at the word if that were possible. "Let's just say that it's taken me time to understand what being part of a community can really mean."

"You miss your friends on the ship." Of course he would.

"Yes, but more importantly I realize how they must be missing me. My being taken away so abruptly... I know that must have left a hole. You don't know what a big step it is for me to say I understand that. They will worry; they cared for me." At the sight of her downcast face, he added, "Just like the hole you must have left in your Family when you left to take up this little job for Charley. Just like the hole that will be left here if you returned to them now. I wouldn't belong to any kind of a community any more then, now would I? Not even a community of two." Nervously, he clasped his arms around his knees. "True, I wouldn't have any responsibilities, easier that way, but meaningless. It's you who should be begging to leave. I haven't been doing my part here. That's makes me a pretty selfish bastard."

Ness waited through this longest speech that she had heard from him and didn't breathe. She didn't understand 'bastard' in the way he obviously meant it and couldn't figure out 'television' or his reference to 'Gunmen', but his overall meaning was clear. And he recognized his selfishness; that was a good sign. Most importantly, he wasn't going to ask her to leave and had almost worked around to something that might be an apology. Knowing he had gone about as far as he was able for the moment but wanting to keep him talking, Ness sought around for a safer topic.

"What's your name?"

He stared at her. "Charley didn't tell you?"

"He called you 'Mooncalf' once, but that sounded more like a Title and not a very nice one."

A ghost of that smile. She liked that. "As nicknames go, it's actually fairly accurate, but, no, it's not my name." He seemed to need to think before answering further. "Call me Ishmael."

"Ishmael..." The word felt nice and her tongue and seemed familiar Then she remembered. "It's like in the story they tell here about a great whale." His smile broadened. Had she passed some kind of test? "I always liked the end: 'And the Rachael, seeking for her missing children, only found another orphan.' I hope that's right."

He seemed to be concentrating at something inside his mind. "Pretty close. 'It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.' I think I like yours better."

Brow furrowed, she studied him intently. "Ishmael's not really your name, is it?"

His eyes were no longer bright, but neither had they turned back to stone. "It will do for now."

"And you're that orphan."

"In more ways than one. Father dead, mother dead, sister dead. Now my world and all on it might as well be dead. I'm about as much of an orphan as a person can be."

"But your world isn't dead. It's still there, as you said, and full of people."

"Too many people. Crowded with them."

Now the second in the thousand questions she wanted to ask. "Tell me about Earth?"

Another smile, a wide, happy one. "You first," he said. "Tell me about the Family and how they came to be here and where 'here' is. This entire situation has been too much about me so far."

So she told him about the City, of which he knew not at all, and the Family and the Circle where they lived their lives. His eyes grew warm and soft as he listened and he even forgot to eat. She talked about how long ago her ancestors had been taken from Earth and how the Family had come to call their enslavers 'Overseers', since they had never in all the long years, provided any name for themselves.

"From America, the ante-bellum South," she told him, "though for short we refer to them as the Oz. That's also from a book. Have you heard of it?" She asked.

Another rare and gentle smile. He had.

She hadn't realized that she had so much to say and once started found him an active listener. No, more than active, ravenous once he had opened the door. His questions were endless. It went on that way until she was hoarse from talking. Stopping for water, she saw on his face what she had missed in her preoccupation to recite the gifts and foibles of each of the sixty-three people who lived within the Circle. The little lines had deepened around his eyes.

"What's wrong?"

His hands came to his temples and pressed there hard. "Headache."

"Is it going to be a bad one this time?"

Even the slight inclination of the head he replied with made him grimace. "To have someone to talk to. It's been so long. I was enjoying our talk."

"My talk," she corrected, softly. There were tears of pure pain in his eyes as she helped him to the washroom. It was their ritual when the headaches came on which they did almost every day. The only difference this time was that he allowed her to hold his head as he retched. She then drew him a hot bath. It was the only thing that helped the swift, agonizing attacks, and then not much.

The headaches were a great concern. He had admitted under questioning that they began on the Pathjam in the mindspeakers' colony, or so and from Ness's observations were increasing in number and severity. At least they did not last long. When they were not too bad he joked in woeful tones about needing an aspirin, whatever that was. But he was indeed spiraling down into one of the bad ones this time, which meant that he wrapped a strip of cloth about his eyes, lay like a dead thing in the bath, and asked for hemlock.. As before, all Ness could do was listen as the jokes faded into incoherent whimpers and mumblings. As he disappeared into the Black Time, she warmed the water when it cooled and watched that he did not intentionally or unintentionally slip beneath the surface.

There was another difference about this attack. When she led his faltering steps to his pallet when the worst was over, he seemed less self-conscious about clinging to her in his weakness. She had just settled him and was about to turn away to let him sleep when he spoke His voice wasn't strong but it was clear.

"My sister was abducted when I was twelve. For so much of my life I imagined her being held in a place like this." The next words caught in his throat. "I wish that she had been."

"Why?" Ness asked gently, daring to touch a lock of hair that had fallen over the cloth that still covered his eyes.

"Because even though the Family isn't free you clearly care for each other. And just now when you listed for me the names of all its members, I would have heard her name - Sam. I would have found her. I half expected to." Ness didn't think she had ever heard a voice so sad.

"You never found her?"

"Not alive and in a far worse place than this."

There was nothing more to say after that. In seconds she could make out his slow, regular breathing. Retreating to her own bed, Ness found that she was both crying and smiling. The cost on both sides had been great but at least there was now a crack in the wall he had built about himself.

Ishmael.

Her sleep was not interrupted by his dreams that night.


Ness woke slowly from a long, dreamless sleep. It was an odd waking however, more like swimming though a huge pile of dense yarn. Her limbs felt heavy and it was a terrible burden to lift them. Only the urgency spurned on by a very full bladder got her moving at all and for that she managed nothing more complicated than a rather disorganized crawl. Her eyes were not even open yet. When she did try to see, she found the lids nearly glued shut with a layer of that sandy grit that one finds sometimes, only this was far thicker than usual. It was only when stumbling like a sleepwalker back to her pallet that she noticed a faint, metallic scent. This was something new to her and it was disturbingly on her skin as well as in the air.

She had actually dropped back onto her pallet and pulled up the covers before she thought to check on 'Ishmael'. If he wanted to use it, however, that was his decision Levering herself with effort onto one elbow, she thought she saw him lying at an angle so that his most slender profile, still very thin indeed, was turned her way. But even to her sleepy mind something didn't seem right. Too weary to get to her feet again, she crawled to his mat. Closer, the illusion of a real body under the mound was even less convincing. Slowly, and then faster as alarm mounted, she began sorting through the pile of fabric unable to believe what she found - or did not find. He was gone! The blankets he used were here, plus all the extra woven fabric from the Circle that he used for additional warmth. She also found his favorite dress cloths, the somber set of blue and red and brown that he wore most often. Her Portjam shirt that she'd given him was mixed among the tangle. The only garment he owned which was missing were the thin, one-size-fits-all Portjam trousers that he slept in. Those and Ishmael himself.

Despite the emergency, Ness was finding it hard to understand why her body should still be behaving as if it were half-asleep. When she found herself searching frantically for him in the same improbable places again and again, she realized that it wasn't only her body that was still half- asleep. It was as if her mind was in a fog. Never having been exposed to the sensational melodramas of twentieth century entertainment, it came to her only with effort that the unusual metallic scent might somehow be associated with how long and deeply she had slept and with how much difficulty she was having waking up. It was while splashing herself with cold water that she came to the belated conclusion that she was probably not the only one affected by the odd drowsiness. She probably had not even been the chemical's primary target. After all, Ishmael had been taken, not her. From what she heard while he dreamt, he had suffered terribly since he was 'collected'. He would not have gone easily with any of them. He would have fought and kicked, bit and scratched and screamed.

Unless he was drugged past knowing "Damn bastards!" The words were not ones Ness would have dared use within the Circle, but alone and in combination Ishmael had made use of them often enough in the last few days. In her rage they felt just right.

Ness ran to the apartment door and slapped down the black call bar. It was usually sufficient to depress it once and a worker would appear in a few minutes to see what was needed, but she had never been so desperate before. Ten, twenty times she slapped at it and then found herself irrationally pounding on the stone-hard door with her fists. In her carefully controlled life, Ness had never experienced such a surge of anger. She couldn't stop herself from pounding and screaming and didn't want to. Swollen from repeated impacts against the unyielding material, her hands throbbed.

Frustrated with unexpected tears running down her cheeks, Ness halted, shaking, and backed away. Through a red blur she spied the box where food was delivered. Hastily, she opened the small airlock. Two food bundles rested inside. Two! Had she slept through one entire day and into the next?

Unexpectedly, Ness found herself grabbing up one of the parcels and throwing it as hard as she could against the wall. Grains flew out in a shower, soft vegetables plopped messily down with a splat, and hard fruits went rolling. Ness stared at what she had done with amazement Still, like the swearing, the violent act had felt right all the more because the Family had been told by the Oz again and again how precious the food was and how they should be grateful. It was one of the exiled group's earliest memories. Her Ishmael's ravenous hunger and genuine gratitude and enjoyment of it these last few days brought its importance back. But now he was gone, taken against his will she was certain, because he would never have gone voluntarily into City's corridors, which were even chillier than here, without his new warm clothes. Even more than the food he had craved the warmth.

The slight whir of the door lock being disengaged caused Ness to spin Hastily, she wiped her eyes. Rodan. Who else would it be but the one her Ishmael called Charley with no hit of respect whatsoever. With astonishingly uncontrolled and uncharacteristic power, she found herself flying at him.

"Where did you take him? Why take him? Damn you, we had a bargain!"

Rodan fended off her flailing arms with no effort. In fact, in his distraction he appeared completely unaware of her anger.

"Get dressed. I need to take you to him."

Ness didn't need to look twice at this face which she knew so well to begin moving. That visage was as fixed and dispassionate as one of the carved hieroglyphs, but she could sense that something was wrong. To throw on a long tunic dress took no time at all. She was still draping a heavy shawl in hasty loops as she followed his stiff, broad back into the air lock. With a grimace she took the sponge from his hand and breathed/swallowed it down. It was still spreading out its groping tendrils when the shapeshifter released the restraining bar on the outer door and moved quickly out into what to her was toxic air.

Following at Rodan's heels, Ness moved into the maze of bright, chill corridors that spread in a complex three-dimensional web throughout City The trip was not a short one and, though Ness had to run at times to keep up, she did not once ask him to slow his pace. At first she took no notice of the area of the complex they were entering, but it soon became obvious that they were in territory of which the human colony had no stories. The halls, spacious before, became even wider and loftier. And brighter. Ness was accustomed to the Overseer's need for light but this pained even her eyes. Still, she was able to make out the carvings on the walls through the glare. This was High writing as the humans had christened it, far older than the New writing. The carvings were executed on a massive scale as if each were intended to stand eternally as a testament, permanently screaming out the Overseer's most profound manifests. At least it was a little warmer here.

I'm approaching the center of the wheel, she thought in awe, the heart of City.

Suddenly, Ness found herself facing three sets of twelve-foot double doors. Though made of the stone-like composite used everywhere in the City, these were highly polished, as well as heavily carved. Feared clutched at her stomach at the very thought of the importance and terrible magnificence of what must lie within. Ahead, two tall elders entered the right hand set of doors and for a moment Ness caught a glimpse of a blazingly white, cavernous space beyond.

She was saved closer acquaintance with what was clearly an important meeting place for Rodan turned abruptly and slipped through a narrow door a mere eight feet high. Intended to blend into the wall, Ness had nearly missed it.

As expected from its unpretentious portal, the room was small and even in the dim light was clearly unadorned. There were no ornaments or carvings here, only flat, bare walls. Not ceremonial then. One light panel glowed faintly blue by a large set of plain, tall double doors that from their location must open into the vast room beyond. Then this must be a preparation room of some kind.

She was at the point of asking why she had been brought here when Rodan waved his hand impatiently across a light sensor. The room blazed into full City brilliance. As Ness's hand came up automatically to shield her eyes, she heard a slight scuffling. Blinking, she tried to find the source of the sound.

Lost in the shadows before, but now clearly visible, was a high shining tower of crystal, in shape like a truncated pyramid. Taller than the width of its base, it stood man-high - human-high - and it wasn't empty. Not a jewel then, but a container, a cage.

Ness's eyes fixed low on the cage's floor where only barely distorted through the shining crystal could be seen an incredibly pale, naked form It was huddled in the corner of the square base, long back and broad, hunched shoulders turned towards her. Pasty-white arms were raised, covering its head.

Legs weak as water, Ness slipped to her knees. "Ishmael?" she breathed She couldn't help but make it a question. This was no elder, no worker, and yet its skin was the same powdery pale. The figure was shaking continuously, making small frantic movements as if desperate to find a way to make its ball of quivering flesh a smaller target. And though the glass at each change of position came the faintest whimpering.

"God deliver us, what have you done?" she demanded, dragging her attention back to Rodan.


The stone face was not apologetic, but the words nearly were "Perhaps a miscalculation. We thought he was sufficiently recovered for this. We may have been wrong, but there is no way to go back now The council is called; he must be ready. He must stand up and show himself."

This made no sense until, turning back, Ness was finally was able to make sense of what she was seeing. There was one flash of color besides the white. Bright red. A ragged, curved red line above the shoulders that something she could see and something she couldn't depending on the position of the concealing arms.

"Oh, my God, you've cut off his - But why? The scar? To be able to see that?" She had spoken in a biting whisper, as if afraid to hear the words herself, but they had been loud enough. A thin wail began from within the cage, cut off abruptly as if its maker had bitten his lip.

Ness dropped back onto her knees. "Ishmael, oh, Ishmael, I'm here..." she called softly.

"'Mulder' would get through to him better," Rodan grudgingly suggested, "and speak closer to the base." Indeed there were slits at the base like vents; otherwise there was no break in the seamless glass.

Already on her knees, Ness leaned forwards but could think of nothing to say. She noticed other colors now. Purple and red marks ringed his wrists and splotches the size of hard fingers stood out sharply on his upper arms. Drugged he may have been, but he hadn't entirely given up without a fight.

"Mulder? That's his name, his real name? What can I possibly say?" When Rodan made no suggestions, she began to creep slowly around base of the cage, hoping to catch sight of a face amidst the thin arms and raised, bony legs. The figure only seemed to quiver with greater violence.

"Mulder, it's Ness, it's Ness." Clearly he heard, but his only response was to turn completely from her and huddle even more deeply into himself so that all she could see once more was his long bare back. "Mulder, you have to believe me. I didn't have anything to do with this. I would never have anything to do with helping them do anything as horrible as this. But I'm here now. I won't let them hurt you any more."

A grunt came from Rodan. "You will have to do better than that He may be in shock but no fool. He knows that you have no more power here than he. You are ours, just as he is, ours to serve our needs and our need at the moment is for him to stand and show himself to the council. The evidence must be seen."

"Evidence!" she snapped. "Of, what?"

"Of what animals humans are. I showed you before what they did to destroy something so unique." He folded his arms, shoulders tight, then unfolded them, the kind of nervousness Ness had never seen from the shapeshifter.

So he answered to superiors, too, and he was worried "He must stand and lower his head so his mutilation- "

"Damn you!"

"Just get him standing so the scar will show clearly. For though his own free will or mine, he will be seen. It would be far better for us all if he would stand on his own." After a moment he added in, if it could be believed, a softer voice, "I know this one Get him to crawl out of his own head and he will choose to be man rather than to be spread out and pinioned like an insect. But we have only a few more minutes- "

"Then stop talking and leave us alone!" Ness snarled, As she turned her head she saw something. A large mirror. She had never thought that the Overseers owned such demonstrations of vanity. The glass cage and its prisoner were all too readily reflected in its surface. "And cover that thing before you go!"

With surprising compliance, Rodan did what he was told. "Five minutes," he warned before stalking out.

Not knowing what else to do, Ness sat at first in silence "He's gone," she finally said and rigid muscles relaxed if only a little. Ness edged around the glass case again so that she would no longer be facing his back if he were not rolled quite so tightly into his ball.

"Mulder... that's your name?" She tried for a lighter tone. "I can see why you didn't tell me. What were your parents thinking." No response. " She leaned forward until her forehead was against the glass's pristine surface.

"This is terrible, what they've done and now what they want you to do. I never knew cruelty like this existed, but then, until I was taken to the Portjam and saw how the 'speakers' were made to live, I didn't know very much, did I?" There was no change in his posture, just that uncontrolled shivering.

"Mulder, listen, please. What can I say? I'm 'sorry' is pretty pitiful. There has to be other words but if there are I don't know them. I'm sorry they hurt you. I'm sorry they did this terrible thing to you. But more than anything I'm so, so sorry that I'm not your Scully."

That got a response. Fists clenched, involuntarily opened, and clenched again in grief. The miserable tangle of flesh seemed to expand for a moment only to collapse into itself smaller than before "She's the one you want, isn't she? She's the one you trust. I'm sorry but I'm not her. I've been sorry every minute of these last days, but I'm only Ness and all you've got."

Rocking forward so his head was between his knees he covered his face with his hands. "How do you know?"

The words were so ragged it took time for her to understand them. Ness licked dry lips. "You said her name once in passing as if she were only a friend - but you cry it out over and over in your dreams. 'Scully... Scully, help me.'"

A violent tremor passed through the huddled form "I admit that they promised me things," she told him, finding herself talking just to fill the silence. "They promised me you and in my ignorance I expected that it would be just that easy. But you don't belong to me any more than you belong to them." He was completely still now. Listening?

"I promise that I won't expect anything from you any more. It was wrong of me. But you must let me help get you through this, because this is important."

He raised his face from his hands. "No!" His voice was no louder than a husky whisper as if he had screamed himself hoarse long before but strong enough.

"It's not for them, it's for us, because it won't be only you they'll be looking at. They'll be seeing me, and my Family, and the 'speakers', and all your friends on Earth."

In reaction to her words he threw back his head and laughed, an eerie, nearly hysterical broken laughter that shocked her even more than the first sight of his face.

"Look at me!" he demanded, and then went on, softer, as she reluctantly turned to him. "Just look at me! What do you see?"

Wetting her lips, she took a deep breath. "So they cut off your hair."

"Brilliant," he muttered sarcastically and ran a shaking hand over the top of his arm and back down again. "There's none here either."

"But why is your skin so white?"

"I think they burnt the hair off and in doing so killed the top layer of skin. Dried it to a powder." Distractedly, he picked up a few dry flakes from his arm and let them drift to the floor of the crystal cage. "There was this cubicle." He found a bruise and the ring of red around his wrist and seemed surprised to see it there. "I think they use the equipment on themselves to achieve that perfect pasty color." A fingernail flicked at the powdery layer of dead skin and the tip of a tongue tried a wet dry lips. Ness forced herself not to react to that shocking redness against the white "That's why it's all gone, head, arms, chest - what little I had. Everywhere." And with this last word he cast a quick glance into the shadow between his legs. She didn't ask for further explanation.

"D-Did it hurt?" she stammered.

"I've had gun shots hurt less," he quipped, but then thinking reversed himself. "No, it didn't hurt at all." "Rodan says that your own people gave you the scar when they took out... whatever it was. Is that true?"

A slow nod. "I was dying. They wanted what was inside My survival was only a side effect. That explains why they were a little... heavy-handed." His wandering hand edged towards the top of his head but thought better of it. "How bad is it?"

She swallowed. "Eyebrows are gone, too."

His lips parted, but he did not speak at first. In fact his lips were almost blue. He must be freezing. "Pretty bad then. Even Skinner has eyebrows."

Ness found herself actually studying the vision he made now that the shock was over. "Actually, it's not 'bad'. You just don't look like you. Can you stand?" she asked, suddenly.

The deep frown looked ugly indeed on that bald face. "After what they've done, you want me to give them what they want?"

"If you do this right you'll be giving them what they ask for but they won't be getting what they want. I know that doesn't make sense but just stand, please? For me? For us all."

He looked long into her eyes. Finding no hidden agenda other than the one she had already confessed to, he stood. It took a while He was very weak. His thin legs shook as he clawed painfully to knees and then to feet. He shivered. The gooseflesh gave his powdery skin a vaguely bumpy appearance, which was bumpy enough from the bones that still stuck out so easily everywhere. Spindly white body; a round dome of a head; bruised eyes, black and huge in that thin face. He fit perfectly within the crystal cage, his head barely a foot from the truncated top.

"Happy? Can I die now?"

Not taking her eyes from his, Ness stood carefully herself and slowly removed the cloth from the mirror, hoping that this was the right thing to do. "Look. At a quick glance you could be one of them."

He flinched violently as if the sight was like a physical blow He had to reach out, palms shoulder-high to brace himself against the transparent walls to remain upright, but he stood.

"True, it's not a very good likeness," Ness said, hurrying on, "too tall for a worker, too short for an elder, but not totally unlike. Mulder, they are not just going to see the scars. They are going to see you - and us - and if we are lucky a bit of themselves."

He shook his head slowly back and forth. "You are so young. Do you know on Earth what we do to the species most similar to us who dare to be not quite us? We hunt them down like animals." In a sudden burst of anger, the heel of his hand hit the side of the crystal. "We put them in cages and display their every private moment to gawking eyes." He hit the glass again, stronger. "And we breed them to this one and that one because WE know best!" Another hit, full strength. He swayed and cradled his right hand but the glass remained completely intact.

Seeing that she had made her point about the mirror, Ness hastily replaced the cloth. "Very well, not a perfect option, but what else can we do? We in the Family believe in a God, did I tell you that? Our God will bring us home; home to Earth. We will do anything, anything, to hasten that departure. That can't happen if we're dead Mulder, as a group, we're dying! They could decide to euthanize us at any time just so they don't have to bother to feed us any more, but that would only make our final days come faster. Every day we say a group prayer that the food arrives and that the water spills from the tap. Stay alive, Mulder! I know this goddamn funkin' stinks, but if your cooperation allows us to live just one more day..."

He blinked, the faintest ghost of a smile touching his blue lips. "Great," he whispered in that broken voice he had used all along. "You have the opportunity to live with a 'modern' man for four days, and what do you learn? How to swear, and not even very well."

"Please..." She repeated, to bring him back to the subject. She stepped up and placed her fingers on the glass not that far from his cheek. "Don't make them hurt you, don't make them kill you. Allow them to think, really think about us for just one moment. And if you can't find it within yourself to do it for me or for my people, then just live if only for the chance to see your Scully again. Believe me, Mulder, they don't need you living if they just want to show off your scars."

Hearing her, the black eyes closed, hard to tell with the lids so bruised, but the forehead definitely furrowed. He remained still for so long that Ness wondered whether he was getting one of his headaches and despaired.

Finally, he spoke as if from far, far away. "Don't be afraid Charley will not allow me to be killed - damaged a little more maybe - but not killed. Not now, not soon." He raised his voice, seeming to not mind that the effort must be painful. "Get in here, Charley, and let's get this over with. Bring on the dancing bears and the bat-faced woman! It's time to gawk at the hairless freak!"

As if he had indeed been listening, Rodan reappeared. His eyes went first to Mulder who was barely able to stand on his legs, but stand he did, grim and defiant. Ness thought that she had never seen such a curious expression on the morph's face. It was as if this curiosity of his had in no small way surprised him.

"Yes, it is time to go," Rodan agreed as if to himself and then, ignoring Mulder, said to Ness. "You did well."

"There you're wrong. He's not doing this for me."

"It doesn't matter," the shapeshifter said, passing a hand rapidly over a control panel. First, the small room went dark, and then a thin crack of brilliance appeared as the tall doors to the counsel chamber began slowly to open. As if riding on a thin cushion of the softest air, the crystal rose. Though no more than a few millimeters off the floor, it floated towards the opening doors. At the same time, lights came up around its base, lights which amplified back and forth, back and forth, from facet to facet, illuminating the still white figure within.

Ness found herself thinking of a pillar of salt. Was all this punishment for seeing what should not be seen, for knowing what should not be known?

Walking numbly beside the sled Ness could just see beyond into that light. The counsel chamber was shaped like the inside of a globe, a huge ball of white, hundreds of feet in diameter. Figures, thousands of figures, tiny because of the distance, looked down from platforms that covered the inside of the ball. Ness's own bowels had turned to water and this was not even her trial. In fear she stared up at Mulder. Amazingly, he seemed to have forgotten his unique place in the proceeding. Head tilted back; he craned his neck to see the tiers upon tiers of the spidery forms watching from high, high above his head.

All at once Mulder's entire body convulsed, hard Instinctively, his hands came off the walls as if they burned. Most of the pain seemed to originate with his feet, however, which he tried to jerk off the floor both at once. Ness caught sight of Rodan's glowering brows and watched as he mimed a bowed head followed by an abrupt motion of this hand that she read as 'Now!'. By gestures she translated for Mulder, who bent his neck in a parody of what Rodan had asked for. For his impertinence he received another and longer shock until, with even his bruises now pale, he mimed Charley's position well enough to satisfy. Clearly, the scars had to show, but just as clearly the posture of a supplicant was not to Mulder's taste. Ness's anger at the unnecessary cruelty was as hot as it was impotent.

The door fully open, nothing lay between them and the thousands of eyes, but Ness's were only for Mulder face. The most incredible emotions reflected there just below the surface. One moment she thought him ready to spit venom, the next she saw him stagger as if he were being crushed by the sheer weight of all those black, lozenge- shaped orbs. Alarmed that he might fall, Ness tried to keep up with the cage's progress to offer him moral support if nothing else. All at once, however, she found herself being held back. Rodan wasn't going to let her follow! Though not certain that she knew what the phrase meant, she shouted just before the doors closed her out, "Give 'em hell, Ishmael."

The blue lips pressed together for a moment as if the suppress another bout of hysterical laughter and then he called back over his shoulder, "I believe they have the market on that already." -

For Ness the wait was interminable. For Ishmael - for Mulder - - it must be torture. Three hours passed and he hadn't returned and neither had Rodan. When the tall doors finally began to open again, they did so with a terrible slowness. Stiff from her wait in the cold room, Ness had problems of her own rising and barely had time to step aside before the pyramid coasted at some speed into the prep room, Rodan striding rapidly at its side.

The crystal's prisoner was still on his feet but only because his palms were pressed white against the glass's smooth sides Even though he could fall now, there was no letting go though whether from fear of punishment, habit, or complete unawareness that his ordeal was over - Ness didn't know. One look at his empty, blood-shot eyes told Ness that it was most likely the last. She wanted to comfort him with 'It's over.' But was it? Even as she watched, his too rapid breathing because suddenly labored then torturous. His chest heaved and his mouth gaped wide.

Rodan was, of course, in the room, observing with maddening impassivity. "What's wrong?" she demanded.

"A miscalculation in the volume of atmosphere the display case needed to carry. The presentation took longer than expected."

"Well, do something!"

The morph did. His finger moved across the carved ball he had been fingering in his hand and the glass walls disappeared. They did not rise or fall or open, they simply vanished as if they had never been any more than a reflection.

His support gone, Mulder fell forward. Ness only barely caught him in her arms. He was stiff, cold, shivering and gulping in the City's air, City air that over time was poisonous to humans. Allowing him to slump to the floor, a furious Ness leaped for a small box affixed to the wall of the room and marked with the one Overseer hieroglyph that she knew all too well. With the smooth mindlessness that comes with many drills over all the years of her short life, Ness tore one of the packages open with her teeth even as she raced back She had the soft, squishy thing in her hand when she reached Mulder's side, who was not only violently choking but whose skin had turned an unhealthy purple.

"He won't take it," Rodan said with a laconic calmness. "He said he never would again."

"He will from me," Ness snarled even as she heaved the convulsing body back up onto her lap and squashed the sponge squarely over his nose and open mouth. "Breathe," she commanded. "Breathe, damn it, don't let them win now."

Green eyes opened wide. First in confusion, then in slow recognition, and finally with a hard, stubborn resistance. Her hand moved automatically to stroke his hair but there was none. She smoothed his forehead only and saw a tear fall onto his face but couldn't imagine where it had come from. "Don't die," she whispered, seeing the distinct possibility in the darkening eyes. "Not for this Not for them."

After a moment his eyes closed and, after another half dozen fluttering heartbeats, his chest moved tentatively. The surface of the sponge bowed inward a little. As if a crack had been made in a dike, his chest suddenly made a great heave and the pinkish mass flowed in entirely. He gagged and choked for a terrible time while she held him Afterwards he just hid his face in her shoulder and huddled against her. Desperate for what? Her meager warmth or protection? She thought both.


It's me, Scully. I'm back.

Sorry for the long interlude but I don't like mysteries, especially not big, gaping ones in my memories so I needed a record of what happened even if only through another's eyes. I retained bits and pieces of this story, but far more was lacking than not, and nothing was in order. That's happened to me more than once before and you know how crazy that makes me. I remember being sucked into that black hole That was when the brain scan, in the process of shaking out my mind and sifting through the contents therein, ran into the scar tissue from CSM's little slice and dice. There was nothing coherent after that for a long, long time. Of all things, I vividly remember a hot bath and being warm at last. Similarly, there was my first decent food, food not only hot but which had taste. Creature comforts all Ness, I'm mortified to admit, I do not remember much from those first days except as a benevolent, hovering presence, like an angel or a very competent maid. I wasn't very nice to her. Probably it was because, as she so very astutely put it, she wasn't you.

There was more but my half-drugged, middle-of-the-night abduction to the depilatory facility pretty much wiped everything else off the calendar. Fuzzy from some really heavy drugs, I was certain that I was going to be plucked and scalded for someone's breakfast When the chunks of my hair began to fall out around me like snow and even the hair on my arms shriveled and flaked off, I very distinctly remember screaming. This is when I went from crazed to psycho and learned how amazingly strong those little worker guys are for their size. They take a very nasty, all-business approach to those who disrupt their tiny, disciplined world Then there was a white room. Not very descriptive, I know, since all their rooms are white, but being naked and hairless and crazy all at the same time cements this particular white room in my memory. When I tried to leave I couldn't find any walls much less an exit. The little workers came and went but I just kept stumbling into these curtains of static that hurt like hell, all of which only made me less reasonable. Throwing myself against anything I could find, whether it hit back or not, and swearing at Charley came next. When the invisible walls began to contract until there was not an arm's length of room around me, I really lost it. I think they shot me with something then, electrical or chemical I don't know, but all at once there was this bright, bright halo of pure numbing light - and I wasn't feeling anything any more - no anger, no fear, no thought.

I woke under that damn bell jar still unable to summon the rage I needed so badly. It was as if they'd sucked it out of me. I felt sick and disoriented and as afraid as I have ever been in my life - except for those times when your life was in danger. Those times were worse but - forgive me - not by much. I was also awash in some serious psychotic withdrawal. All I wanted was for reality to disappear... permanently. I think that was when they brought Ness in Shit, but I didn't want her to see me, I didn't want anyone I knew to see me. Scully, I never thought myself particularly vain, but I'm learning that I am. If not, then why the overwhelming desire to be suddenly and entirely dead.

It was only Ness's use of your name that jump-started the few sane synapses I had left at that point.

What I recall about being Exhibit Number One and put on display to a gathering of elders is definitely more nightmare than memory. It was like being trapped in some 'B' grade Science Fiction movie. I felt as if I were this ant, stuffed under a drinking glass by a giant, and brought out for all the vulgar curious to ogle at, a specimen trapped as if in amber between the two sides of a slide and set under the microscope's huge, unblinking eye. It took everything I had, and much of what I paid dearly for later, to keep from being squashed flat by all those dead eyes. Scully, when there is only what you came into the world with - including the no hair part - posturing doesn't mean much. It's not so much that I wanted to die then, I wished that I had never been born Inside the jar, it was hard and sterile and cold and terribly exposed. I was never so thankful for those courses the Academy made us take on the psychology of torture, because that's what it was, torture. Naturally, I put my own spin on the sanity check stuff that I played over and over in my head - 'I will not hare out... I will not humiliate myself... I will not humiliate my race... I will not wet myself... I will not shit myself... I will not scream....' that's what I remember about the cage. An eternity of holding it together heartbeat after heartbeat. Then there was Charley's idea of a teaching aid. The waves of pain he sent up through my feet were like flails that charged up and down my legs. Stand this way, not that way. Eyes open, not closed. It's fortunate that tears were allowed because even to save my life I couldn't have stopped them. At the time there seemed no end to any of it. Bliss is fleeting; agony really can stretch on forever That's when I found the way out.

Remind me to give you a lesson or two on self-hypnosis. There's a lot it can do, even open-eyed. I used every bit I learned in that obscure biofeedback course that that gnome Dr. Weerd taught at Oxford Now there's a guy who could have walked straight out of Hogwarths. I even pulled a little from the obligatory psyche evaluations we were forced to attend every time the wrong crowd picked up one or the other of us. How I hated those.

Well, I've definitely been running around with the wrong crowd lately, Scully. I would gladly attend a dozen sessions just to get home, two dozen, a hundred... Please, please, God. If I ever do get home, I'll probably need them.

I think I've spent enough time reminiscing about my moment in the limelight. There's really nothing more to remember because I was so spaced by the time it all ended that I can recall nothing of what Ness reported, not even the almost suffocating part, but it all sounds most plausible.


The time after is clearer, at least after the first week. I woke wondering how I had burned my feet until they were nearly raw and why my eyes felt so tired. Then this draft went up the back of my neck ... and all the way up and over to my forehead. That's when I remembered about my hair or lack of it and how I've never had to shave since I was taken, not once. I nearly lost it again at that point until Ness realized what the problem was Immediately, she called in Rodan and read him the riot act. She was impressive, which means that she reminded me of you, and there is no higher praise than that. Brought tears to my eyes.

Anyway, thanks to Ness and Rodan's concoction, which I took twice a day for a week, I had a nice stubble going on chin and scalp within a few days. I dare say that made me easier to live with. Too bad that it tasted like gravel in warm piss. In hindsight, I think I would have gotten use to being bald if it had never grown back. Skinner does more than okay and Bruce Willis can still attract both the babes and the big bucks. It was just the shock and the way it was done and by whom that made it so horrible.

So at the moment I've got more on my head than I've had since college and the best beard I've ever been able to grow. Not that I'm all that fond of it It itches and it's hot. I'd love a shave but as you can imagine no razors are allowed. No sharp objects, no easy way out. That's probably the reason why they normally give the men whatever they do in our food. Assuming that it's some variant of a female hormone, then I suppose there is the side benefit of keeping us docile.

Or is domestication the intent and the lack of facial hair the side affect? I'm just relieved that the male prisoners don't develop the more obvious female characteristics.

Whatever the plan, the Oz seem to have been able to develop a cocktail of chemicals that both sexes can consume and yet affects males one way and women another. This makes me curious on exactly how women are affected, but considering our current relationship, I don't want to get into that with Ness right now.

Now that I've filled you on the prisoners' normal dietary supplement, I have to mention that I'm fairly certain that Ness are I are not on it now. We are getting, instead, a special blend. I don't know how this affects Ness, but I do know that all at once I'm horny as hell. Not that I wasn't horny before, but after seven years of working with you, Scully, I have developed no small degree of control and yet it's barely enough. Let's just say that if another male walked in right now, I'd have him out in twenty seconds, hooves and teeth and horns flying.

So, no, I haven't taken my current state of discomfort out on Ness but, as my Scots ancestors would say, things are a might tense.

We live in two rooms. Ness tells me they are the same ones we were given after I was removed from Stockhome and before I was sheared. I'll take her word on that. There is nothing to do but weave and only that since she got her little table loom. That leaves a lot of day to fill. Luckily, Ness is ravenously inquisitive about Earth, not surprising since no one from her Family has been outside City in four generations, and so I talk a lot.

(Sigh... Do you know how much it hurts to dish out a straight line like that and not hear your acid-tongued reply? What I would do for a good tongue lashing from my Scully.)

Anyway, I teach and exercise while she weaves. There's no need to get too close that way.

Out of boredom, I've tried my own hand at weaving. I can see why it's one of the few activities allowed. It requires no particularly sharp objects and the product that results provide both clothes and blankets for naked people and furnishings for the depressingly naked rooms. If the pattern is challenging, the pursuit becomes at the same time intellectual and repetitious. In other words, it's the perfect activity for people with all the time in the world and yet no time at all. It forces a level of concentration and yet after a while no concentration so the time just flows It must be a good pass time for monks. As you know, though, I'm no monk and since I also find myself eating like a plow horse, I exercise pretty continually. Mostly I exercise because I just have to move, but it also helps the new weight to come on as muscle.

Oh, Scully, if only you could see me now. I'm easily in as good of shape as at any time you've known me or at least it seems so in comparison to the pitiful condition I was in before. I suspect that in addition to everything else my 'medicine' contains a steroid the like of which most athletes would die for and - I remind myself - some do.

The result of all this is that I've got more energy than I know what to do with, I'm bulkin up like a prime steer, and yet I don't feel anything like a steer. This is especially true when I get too close to Ness or, heaven forbid, that we should accidentally touch as she shows me how to set up the loom. It occurred to me on about the second week that I didn't need to be in this kind of shape to join Ness's commune. On the contrary, the last thing the Oz could possibly want is a restless malcontent like me in that contented little herd. No, they have something else planned for me where my being physically fit is critical and I just know that I'm not going to like it. By 'they', of course, I mean Charley.

It's for this reason that I haven't allowed myself to get close to Ness and give her what she so desperately wants and what 'they' obviously want me to give her. How do I know what she wants? Come on, Scully, I can practically smell it. It's in every liquid, doe-eyed look that she sends my way. It's in the little suffering sigh that seems potentially to hover about her bowed shoulders. Do you think I'm blind? Well, yes, in this area you would be right to argue that I am, but when there's not a case to distract me I'm really not as chronically self-centered as you might think.

(By the way, I'm expecting to get points big time for this when I get back. In my current state of perpetual 'readiness', this staying a celibate stud is killing me. At least I'm using precious little of the hot water.)

What it comes down to after nearly a month of this is that if I'm not going to be staying, it's time that I left. It would be less stressful to trade insults with Charley then to be around Ness twenty-four/seven. For this reason I was actually waiting for my walking papers to come down and late yesterday they did.

 

Just before the time for the evening meal last night the common room lights flashed twice. This is Charley's signal that he wants to talk. Ness went alone to the meeting because I won't wait on that faux-man's pleasure unless my presence is specifically requested. Besides, if I'm right I'll be seeing Charley entirely too much in the next little bit Ness returns after quite a long time. I don't look her in the eye because I already know she's been crying. She has a bundle of clothes in her arms. I concentrate on those. Though still gray they are not the thin things from Stockhome, but more substantial. Though still folded, I can see seams and pockets. These are tailored 'Man' clothes like Charley wears on his human body.

I finger the woven cloth of the toga I wear. The weave is not very good and the pattern childish and irregular, but I wove it myself and it's warm It can serve as a coat or blanket for wherever I'm going, it's bound to be cold. "I'd like to take this with me," I whisper.

"Damn you, you knew!" she screams as she throws the bundle at me. It opens. I was right, a one-piece gray coverall in something like heavy cotton.

Unfortunately, he's coming for me at 'lights on' the next day and it's not even light's out yet. Nothing to pack except the toga and nothing to do but listen to a friend sob. I realize that that is what she has become - a friend.

I listen for a while as she tries not to cry too loudly but even with the washroom door closed I can hear her. We don't eat or even talk about eating Lights out doesn't help; I can still hear her sniffling from the pallet across the room. It's going to be a long night.

I know it's a mistake, but after two hours in the dark like this I go and sit down beside her, not too close, but on her pallet "Why not me?" she whispers. I hate that sound in the back of their throats when people have been crying. "Am I that ugly?"

"You're not; you know you're not. It's all I've been able to do not to take you here, there and everywhere these past weeks. But that would mean starting something that I knew couldn't last." She turns around to glare in my direction. In the nearly total darkness she's not afraid of what I may see, but then I don't need light to know that her eyes are swollen from crying. "And this is why you've given me nothing!" She makes a small derisive laugh and the dark silhouette before me slowly shakes its head. "Oh, I was stupid. From the old stories, I thought- "

"That real earthmen take it where and when they can? Some do, and not just in stories. Is sex very free in the Family?" She nods slowly. "I expected so. There's the ratio, not nearly fifty-fifty, and you live very closely together."

"And there's not much else to do."

I smiled her way gently. I hope she can tell. "That, too."

"So the stories are wrong?"

"Groups living isolated like the Family eventually change the stories to fit with the way they actually live."

"This doesn't make me feel better."

For a instant as we sit in the dark I flash on Ness as Sam, and imagine our having 'wise' older brother to younger sister discussions about an inappropriate teenage crush. It hurts.

"Ness, there are several young men in your circle. You've described them all to me. You like them. You'll be back with them soon. You were just attracted to something... different."

"Different is important if the alternative might as well be your own brother." I can hear her shifting an arm's length away from me in the dark "I wanted it all. I wanted you to love me for myself alone me, but that wasn't the only thing, that wasn't even the most important thing. For my greed I will pay for the rest of my life." When she went on her voice was bitter. "I should have come to you when you were still half out of your head, maybe at night in the dark when you called her name. Maybe you wouldn't have known the difference."

And here I thought it was all about sex. Now who's been clueless?

"You wanted my child that badly?"

"Is that so impossible to believe?"

"You should have talked to me about this before now."

"Would that have made a difference in the way you feel?"

I hesitated. "Probably not, but it would have given me time to think. It would have given us time to do something about it if I did decide to.. assist you." After all, I did agree to help you, Scully, before we became intimate in the real way, but this was so entirely different on so many levels. "It is most likely too late. It usually takes more than one.. attempt. You must know that a man and a woman can only conceive at certain times."

"Between random man and woman, that's true," she agreed, a touch of eagerness entering her voice as if she had found a crack in my arguments "But you and I, we're not normal that way."

I'm certain Scully would agree to the not normal part, but this was something particular and it made a chill run up my back.

"What, Ness? What did they do to you? What did Rodan promise you?" I'm certain that she can hear the anger in my voice and I didn't care. "It was for taking care of me, wasn't it? Was my complicity suppose to be some sort of reward?"

Her dark form shrank away from me. "It sounded so easy at the time; such a sure thing. I would take care of you and they would 'adjust' me so that I would be certain to conceive. So I'm like a box now, a treasure box, but you hold the only key. No other man can give me what I need." "Ness... Ness... " I moaned, "that was a poor bargain. You have no idea how poor."

"But as long as it is you, we only need to lie together once. Just once," she whispered again Her revelation hit me hard and, damn that shapeshifting bastard, but it smelled like the kind of thing he would do: make conception dependent upon a very specific genetic catalyst. The right male, the right female and it starts a chain reaction. It would be the ultimate means of controlling your breeding program. Wouldn't want your experiment to be ruined through random selection or something petty like love or commitment. I'm just lucky that they didn't alter her pheromones, too, so that I couldn't resist her.

But considering how I've been feeling these last few weeks, maybe they have.

But this is where they went wrong. The harder they push, the harder I push back.

"Ness, you should never have let them."

"I was my choice."

"Forgive me but knowing Charley I doubt the 'choice' part. Well, I have the right to choose, too." I could hear something like a sniffle from her. It makes me angry all over again, but not at her. "Ness, try to understand. It's not as if I haven't been milked, and often, by these people. I'm sure that I have bastards enough in the cosmos and clones as well, but this is at least one small thing I can control. I won't perform for their amusement." She was clearly crying now, though very, very softly. There has always been real tears with Ness, no play-acting. What did she know about deception? When did she ever have need to know? How I wanted to take her in my arms like a child and comfort her, which meant it was the last thing I should do.

"It's for the best. Who knows what my genes are like after what I've been through? You could end up with anything. And any child of mine, Ness, believe me, any child of mine is cursed. They will take away. At the very least they'll take it for testing again and again." She continued to sit grieving and silent. What might happen did not get through. "Most important, Ness, if you respect love, there's Scully. I've never kept Scully from you. Do you think I wouldn't see her when I closed by eyes?"

"I wouldn't care."

"A part of you would... always. And a part of me would."

Ness ran her fingers with irritation through her hair. "I am SO stupid."

"You're not."

"I thought it would be easy. You were kind after a while. You were healthy. You don't even have the nightmares so much any more and you don't call out her name. I thought since she wasn't here and I was..."

"But she is. She's here," dramatically I placed my hand over my heart "And she's here," I touched his temple,

I may not cry your name out loud, my dear one, but in my head, in my head I never stop.

Ness has drifted away and by the light of the few fluorescent panels left glowing during lights out I can see that she has begun to pull down the woven cloths. Over the weeks they have come to decorate a goody expanse of the sterile walls of our main room. "I should have known. I should have known they would cheat. Just my luck to be presented with an 'honorable' man."

I went to her side to help and together we slowly folded the weavings "Why tell me now after all this time?" I asked.

"What do I have to lose. It's too late. You'll leave in a few hours and I'll go back to the Circle. There will be no child for me. I suppose that I really haven't lost anything then since there would not have been one anyway I told you that there has not been any children, not even any pregnancies for a long time." I could feel her desperation through the very length of the cloth the spanned us. "Do you understand what that means? With no children, there will be no one to teach. No one to be Mother and Father and Sister and Grandmother to. No reason to keep the stories, no reason to weave the tales into pictures in the cloth. No reason to do anything."

It's cruel maybe, but tentatively I put my arm around her shoulders. I think I needed the comfort as much as she.

"I don't want your pity," she sniffed, trying to pull away.

"It's that or nothing. Actually, there is more. There is friendship."

After a moment she leaned into me. Despite the layers of clothes we both wore, I could feel her trembling. Shit, I was trembling, too. I led her back to the pallet so that we could sit down before we both fell down.

I began to rub her chilled, bare feet. It was something to do with my hands. She sighed, deeply. "You're not what I expected."

"A lot of people say that."

There is nothing much more to discuss. I did sleep with her to keep us both warm but sleep is all we did. Just before she fell asleep, when I felt her breathing begin to steady and her heartbeat slow, I found that there was one question I could not keep myself from asking. "Did he tell you where I was being sent?"

"No. Only someplace by ship... with him."

I hope she didn't feel my shudder, but obviously she did. "It is that bad?"

"None of the possibilities are good, but if it's away from City I suppose that's the best I can hope for. I could never escape from here. If there is some here kind of chance I must take it. I guess we are more alike than I thought."

"Frightened?" she asked to my back where she lay spooned behind me.

"Terrified."

"So am I. For the Family's future here, what little is left of it. I wonder how it will end." There is a pause before she adds in a voice tight and muffled, "If you can, come back for us."

The lump that's been in my stomach all night squeezes painfully. How can she ask this? How can she think after all that has happened that I have any power at all? I have Charley's attention, more than I'd like, but that's more than they have. Ness once compared the Family to a kennel of very civilized canines. Their owners throw them food once a day, give them water and an occasionally a toy but other than that they are ignored. When will the toys and the food and the water stop?


I try to sleep but I know I won't. The thought keeps going around and around in my head that there is still time, that up until the moment when Charley announces he is waiting that there will be time. Yet how can I even consider delivering a child of mine into a life with no future? Certainly, any child will be loved like no child ever has been loved. How many children never know a moment of that kind of happiness? For that matter, how many never come to live at all or, if they do, grow to adulthood and finally old age without knowing what it is like to feel the beat of a loving heart next to their own? And then I remember again that my child will be the only one of its generation and in time the older members of the Family will die. Then he or she will be totally alone. God, Scully, but I know what that's like. I sense you lying in your bed a million miles away on a planet under a yellow sun and feeling the same way.

Damn.

She's still sleeping. As I lie here these last few minutes before 'morning' and nurse the lump that has become a host of moths, I find that I'm thinking not only about my never-child but also about Ness's words, the ones that got me up to face the council on my feet. I've thought about them every day during this last recovery. She said that like it or not, I was a symbol And later tonight she as much as asked me to be a hero. But, Scully, I don't want to be a hero. Not for Ness's people, not for Billy and the other 'speakers', and not for the people of Earth. I've never wanted the job. When you came to get me after the operation, that's pretty much what you told me as well. That I wasn't allowed to just lie down and die, that I had to get up and walk the walk. I did it for you then, Scully, but I'm getting so tired, too tired to dance to Charley's tune. Without you, my love, I don't know how much longer I can even stand.

THE END

My Travels with Charley: Chapter 07. In the Belly of the Beast
Author: Windsinger

Written: 04/08/01
Rating: PG
Classification: XA series
Spoilers: REQUIEM, 7th season, Deep Throat, Sixth Extinction, Per Manum, Colony, End Game, Kitsunegari, Kill Switch, Within/Without, and others.
Keywords: Mulderangst, Muldertorture
Disclaimer: No, the X-Files and the characters of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully do not belong to me, I would have treated them better.

Summary: Mulder has survived his first days on the ship (at least the ones he's been conscious enough to remember) and the boredom of his life with in the mindspeaker colony. Less than intact, he survives testing, which for the first time reveals to Charley that Mulder's 'speaker' talent has been destroyed. While Charley decides what to do with his damaged prisoner, Mulder is allowed to recover in the company of a young woman whose ancestors were taken from Earth four generations before to live out a barren existence in a few rooms on a huge alien space station. At the end of part six, Mulder lies sleepless in the dark waiting for morning when the Hunter will take him on the next stage of his journey, a journey that Mulder can only pray will eventually lead him home. Archiving: Gossamer, Emphereal, ATXC, and anywhere with permission and as long as the author's name is retained.

Author's Notes: This is seventh in a series of 'short' stories chronically Mulder's confusing, agonizing, torturous, lonely and wondrous adventures following his collection in Oregon. Two more to go. (I may try to loop back into CC's universe. Whatever I do will make a lot more sense then what CC has given us.) My older work can be found on Gossamer under 'Esty, Sue'


That damn, sadistic bastard, he's doing it again.

Even though I know it won't help much I scramble up unto my knees and out of the meager nest of warmth I'd made for myself Frantically stretching up with my arms, I push down with my legs. At least for now I wish that the padding on the 'ceiling' and 'floor' did not have so much give. Close eyes, grit teeth, deep breath. Even though I'm braced as well as I can, my stomach tumbles right along when the tube under my knees starts to buck and the walls to madly spin. I fight screams Charley doesn't like screaming. He'll make me sit up front again today if I do, so I force my cries to vanish like subsonic blasts out of the top of my head. The tube's gyrations become more frenetic. It flips right, left, spins, dips, plummets, all at once. In time its all a blur. And when the world finally turns inside out, so do my insides. I lose hold of whatever bracing I had managed and I'm immediately grateful for every millimeter of boringly gray plastic foam Thrown from floor to ceiling and from one end of the tube to the other, my body almost immediately exceeds its ability to feel individual impacts. There is no describing the pain as all the old bruised places are bruised all over again My screaming is no longer subsonic. I don't know how long that goes on either for my throat is soon as raw as my knees and elbows. When abruptly all motion ceases, one final wail still echoes down the tube. I know it can be heard throughout the rest of the ship as easily as here and I would give anything to call it back. Need I mention that there's a dimension to space sickness at faster than light speeds that seasickness can't even begin to touch?

I am so tired.

Charley does hear. I know because he sends a little present my way. Just when I thought the gymnastics were over, the world turns inside out one more time, my stomach rises and tries to come up out of my throat. Lucky for me I haven't eaten in three days.

A second time I wait. I'm curled in a ball now on what was the ceiling and shake like a dog that's been whipped. Like the screaming, the flesh is weak. The stillness has lied so often that there is nothing to do but stay alert and listen. Are the fireworks really over for now? I don't trust the sneaky bastard, but the silence is indeed entire this time except for the ringing in my ears. All right, maybe the ship has stopped but that only means that he'll be coming for me all that much sooner. I wish I could stand and face him, but there's far too little head room even if my legs were not the consistency of watery Jell-O, so I stay were I am, a ball of misery in the corner of the tube. Arms hugging my chest, I try to at least to stop the trembling before he comes, but the shakes are really bad this time. It's useless to tell him that I'm trying to control them for even though I am they seem to be getting worse, not better, no matter what I do.

"You'll acclimate." Charley told me casually, after the very first maneuver when I thought I was going to die and when I did lose my last four meals and then had to clean it all up afterwards. Thankfully, it is not as hard to do in zero-G as you might think since I was locked in the tube at the time so there is only so far that the nasty, little buggers could float. So why haven't I acclimated?

Beats the shit outta me.

Yeah, well, that happened, too.

I concentrate on the fact that my sweat has turned cold and I should towel off because it's not helping my shakes, only I don't move. Mostly I don't because I don't have a towel, but I'm also too busy dreading Charley's return.

Oh, Scully... Whenever I have a moment I find myself being astonished again and again that this is all happening. I keep praying that I'll wake up from this nightmare. More importantly, I pray that you'll be the one to do it. You'll let yourself into my room and stand there in those ridiculous blue silk pajamas, your hair all tousled from the pillow, and shake me awake. The expression on your face reproves me for once again disrupting your sleep, but as always your eyes are full of concern But you aren't here. You never were and never will be There are only the hours, each impossible, one following after another. Why for all those years of brave words about believing do I find this so unbelievable? And, damn it, why me? Were my genes engineered? Or is it only by chance that I ended up with the magic combination that my intergalactic demons find so fascinating? A winning lottery ticket would have been more useful. Exactly when did I start becoming the prey rather than the hunter, or has it always been this way? Charley tells me that I have been watched for a long time. How long? I keep seeing before my eyes that folder with Samantha's name on the label and my name under. I was going to be the hostage and then I wasn't. Who made the change? In years past when we were out on a case, I would so often look at those to whom 'things' happened and I would envy them their specialness. Now I would give anything to give mine away, to be normal, bored. Home.

Whoa, gotta slow down. Too few miles to Depression City that way. Better that I fill my red-headed Muse in on what has happened during those last moments with Ness while I waited for the hammer of doom to fall. Ness.there was a situation that I should have handled better.

As expected, when the lights returned that last morning they came on flashing which meant that Charley was already waiting. There was no tearful leave-taking. We both needed the distance and neither of us wanted to provide that kind of show for whoever may be watching and we always knew someone could be I will never forget her eyes as she followed me out. I refused her her heart's desire and yet at the end she shared my fear of where my exile would lead me next. Here is one sin I will carry on my conscience until the day I die. On the bright side, that day may not be so far away considering how angry Charley clearly is right now.

Charley's message to Ness was that I was being taken somewhere by ship. What I wasn't told until we were underway and I had already been sick once, was that he and I would be alone in this two-man carnival ride. Nor did I find out until even later that I would have to work for my bed and board. That revelation came how many days ago? Four? A week? Hard to tell with all the blackout time. It drives me crazy that I still haven't been told where we are going or why, nor do I understand why I'm the chosen one yet again. I thought I was damaged goods I harbored this faint hope that maybe I could convince them to throw me back.

The shakes have just begun to subside when a metallic whir indicates that someone is activating the hatch, which is the only way in or out of the tube. The round opening halfway down the long dimension opens with a faint creak. He makes no move to enter, nor any sound, but I can sense him nevertheless. He's waiting for me to come out. I don't want to - by the gods, it's the last thing I want - but if I don't surrender on my own he'll just reach in and drag me out. There are marks on the padding from the second time we engaged in that little activity I note that the blood left over from my bleeding fingernails has turned brown. The place did need some color but from my point of view such a uniquely personal reminder of my humiliation is not an improvement. Note that I didn't complain about his pulling me out the first time. I resisted to a certain point just because I try as a rule to be as contrary as possible around the Hunter In truth I was relieved to get out of the tube and the remains of my half -digested breakfast that I'd left slowly spinning therein That was, of course, before Charley gave me my first lesson which explains the claw marks on the upholstery before my second.

I've lost count of which one this is. The twelfth? Okay, okay, I know that I'm procrastinating and that he won't wait much longer. Do I really want him to drag me out of the tube again? No, I decide. I'm far too tired and sick and my shoulder and elbow have stiffened from where they were half- dislocated the last time. Still, just because I decide to save myself some bruises doesn't mean that I hurry. Inevitability doesn't mean that the condemned sprints for the hangman's noose.

As I emerge headfirst from the small hatch, he is waiting I don't look at his face. I don't want to see even a flicker of triumph acknowledging I've come at his call like some well- trained lapdog. Instead I concentrate on getting my shoulders through the hatch. The ship was made for smaller beings, the little workers perhaps, so I barely fit. I would have had a harder time if the gravity were not so low. I estimate that it's similar to that on the Moon, but that's only a guess. The truth is that I know we're not on the Moon, but on a tiny ship with not a hundredth of the gravity stabilization of the mindspeaker colony ship that collected me to begin with. If only I was that close to the Moon and home and you, I would be the happiest man on Earth.

Only I still wouldn't be ON Earth, so I guess... Never mind.

Back to my current meeting with Charley. From his expression, he's perturbed by my lack of promptness but not overly so. I came. I didn't hurry, but I came.

"Stand still," he orders.

I expect this. Before anything Charley looks into my eyes He is checking to see if I'm having one of my headaches. I can't blame him for not just coming out and asking. He has no reason to trust my answer. There won't be any training if the headache is bad. Using that criteria, I would swear that I had headaches on a rather continuous basis. On the other hand, if my head really did feel as if it were full of evil nanobots wielding sharp knives and sledgehammers, I might very well say that I'm fine when I'm not. Under the influence of 'a-really-bad-one', murder-suicide begins to look good. Half a dozen sessions back, we found out how nearly disastrous it can be for Charley to try to train me when's my brain's on fire. This is the reason why he looks in my eyes to read the truth there. I'm out of luck this time. I'm dog tired and bruised and a more than a little nauseous but no headache.

Time to go forward. The ship is so small that the distance we have to cross is less than twenty feet, yet every step of the way Charley's hand weighs heavily on my shoulder. What does he expect me to do? Run? How I would love to feel the spring of turf under my feet and sun on my face. Here, however, there is no running. There is, literally, no where to go.

The Rock waits for me in all its ugly and massive power It's an 'object d'art' that the Marquis de Sade would have loved. Though this is far from the first time I've seen it, the room tilts on its axis for a moment. At the same time I feel Charley's hand tighten on my shoulder. So, that's what he's afraid of, that I'll faint again How sweet; he doesn't want me to accidentally hurt myself before he has a chance to drive me insane.

Embarrassingly, I did faint the first time he brought me before the sacred Rock, but then I was unprepared. I had just extracted myself from the tube after my first trip, the one when Charley took us safely out of City's airspace, and I got so messily sick. His nostrils flared and his lip curled in disgust at the sight and the smell of me. First he had me clean the tube, then he took me to a closet, a very small, elbow-whacking closet, where there was something like a shower. Relatively clean and air-dried, I stepped out and he indicated for me to proceed him. I thought he was taking me to where I could get some clean clothes.

There I was wrong. He brought me to the command room and the Rock. Unlike everything else on the ship, which by necessity is as minimal as possible as can be expected from its size, the Rock loomed absolutely huge in my vision, an obscene throne fashioned in what seemed like dark granite. It was positioned under one of the cones of brilliant light so that its sharp metal accouterments could shine all the brighter here and there and everywhere.

I suddenly felt very warm and my heart began to pound alarmingly. Worse, I seemed to be flying farther and farther away from the room, my body, my mind, light.

I woke to sheer agony, the most unimaginable pain in my wrists and ankles. I find out later that Charley has laid me out naked on the Rock and sharp, massive spikes have just been driven through skin and tendon and muscle into the spaces between the lower leg and arm bones. I've been in five-point restraints more than once and I'll take that any day to this In the midst of that first wake up scream, a hand came down on my forehead, holding my head down and immobile against the headrest. So startled was I by his touch, firm but almost gentle, that the scream died in my throat. Images, smells, sensations, were flashing like bombs in my head. Shit, I'd been here before My very skin and bones knew this position all too well. It's fortunate for Charley that I fainted or I would have fought to the death to stay out of it. That brawl would come later, the same time I redecorated the tube with my bloody fingers. But for now this was the first time - and yet clearly was not the first time.

"Relax, mooncalf," he whispered to me. "Give yourself time Go ahead - think and feel and remember. Just don't let it come back too quickly."

Yeah, sure. Just try, piss-head. Toes to fingertips, terror and pain flowed over my skin and my body began to seize, pulling with agony against the bolts. From behind Charley leaned over and placed one hard and massive hand on either side of my face, to prevent my dashing my brains out against the Rock as I convulsed.

When it was over and I lay totally limp with exhaustion, he released his hold and stepped to the side so that he could see my face and I his.

"Fuck." I breathed.

"What do you remember?"

"That I've been here before," I frowned. "But until I walked into this room, I hadn't been."

"Confusion is natural. You have not, in fact, been here You have, however, been interfaced with a type of examination station much like this at least three times before. Over your lifetime, probably more. Three times on the Portjam."

"Why can't I remember?"

"Listen to your body. Your body clearly does."

I close my eyes and not only because the light hurts Grudgingly, a haze of red images from somewhere in my gut floats to the surface. Against my eyelids flashes an image of a glistening arm of metal. It's spinning. Like the world's most obscene dentist drill, it's wailing and sliding towards me, aiming at my mouth which has already been forced open in the most obscene manner you can imagine. With machine efficiency it drills itself into the incredible sensitivity of my upper palette, driving into my brain. Shit, it left a calling card behind though not like Scully's, more like the one Billy Myers and his classmates carried seven years ago.

I jerk violently against the bolts hoping the pain will prevent the next scene from replaying itself. Like the overpowering dread in a nightmare I know what is coming. It's a tiny but wickedly sharp circular saw and it's gliding with purpose and menace on its robot arm towards the area of my unprotected chest. Without conscience, it cuts sharp and deep and precise. The scene ends in a scream of unbearable agony and bright fountain of blood.

More gray. Not as good as black but I'll take oblivion when I can get it. From the fuzziness, I knew I had seized again. I had not lost touch for long this time. From the walls, I could still sense the last vibrations from that last nightmare screaming. Charley's hands were holding my head down again but he steps back seeing that sense has returned.

"When.?" I croaked.

"The first time was just for processing, early on when you were still recovering from the injuries you received upon arrival." That was when they'd left the object that now sat like the radio collar for some wild beast up against the surface of my brain. "The second time, later during that same recovery interval. That was for evaluation. The third time was for medical intervention after you so inconveniently nearly died from the brain scan. You had a very curious reaction during your first session. We thought." He paused, making a motion with his hand as if to dismiss a thought.

I think I know what had intrigued them so. Hidden within the flood of nightmare memories, was one shining jewel. Splayed out on something like this Rock, ill and scared and despairing, I had, for an instant, felt your presence. I swear I even heard your voice, far away but calling my name. The memory is so clear that I can almost feel you now. SO close. Close enough to touch me, close enough to save me, if you only knew where I was. But even though I cried 'Ssscuuullleeeee!' with all my soul, you couldn't hear me. You faded away and I was left with nothing in my hands but air I feel the tears on my face again like those I cried then and, as before, I can't even raise my hand to wipe them away "Why haven't I remembered before?"

"Human's find their experiences with this particular apparatus exceedingly painful, as well as frightening. As a kindness, we suppress the memory of these sessions."

"But it comes back -"

"- each time you come face to face with its like again, yes." Like a lecturer, he clasped his hands behind his back and proceeded to walk slowly around and around where I lay on my back fixed like Prometheus on my rock. His movements make me dizzy so I close my eyes. "I won't be taking the memories again," he informs me. "It's important that I don't."

"Why?" I ask though I didn't think I really want to know "Why is it so important that I remember now and not before."

"Because you're going to be given a great deal of new information to input and analyze and we can't risk gaps. The stations you have had experience with before this were designed for medical investigation and treatment. The one you shall become acquainted with today is for an entirely different purpose." I opened my eyes and he caught and held them. "The time you were hooked up for evaluation, you called out to your partner."

And sobbed afterwards. "None of your business."

"She was there at the time. Outside the ship, not fifty yards away."

A shiver of amazement and desire and joy surged through me So close. She had come so close days - or had it been weeks? - after I had been taken. So much had happened. The ship had moved on and collected more and more from all over and yet she had tracked it down. Wonderful, determined, incredible woman! So close. Not close enough, but nearly as sweet was the knowledge that I was not forgotten. In my hours of deepest despair I have often wondered whether anyone at all noticed by absence.

"Naturally, we thought," Charley was saying, "that your 'speaking' talent had become active again. We were encouraged We found out only later that your inner ear had been surgically deafened. So how could you have known? I have been asking myself that for some time. The only conclusion I can come up with is that you sensed her because your nervous system was connected to the ship at the time and the ship had recorded her presence."

"That's unusual?"

"Exceedingly unusual. That's why you have been brought here."

I strained against the bolts pinioning my arms and legs The points of contact had become blessedly numb. "Other than to be used as a pin cushion, what am I doing here?"

"You are going to learn to fly this ship."

- My first experience with the Beast went steadily downhill from there. First off, there's a lot that I haven't yet told you about how the Rock and its pilot interface and how sick it leaves me afterwards. Then there's Charley's profound frustration and disappointment over my total lack of progress Then there is having to go through it all again and again and again.

What session did I say this one was? Twelve. Some things have changed. For example, I work my way out of my one-piece coverall on my own now. It's less painful than having Charley do it for me. Then I climb up and into the Rock by myself. It's hard, literally and figuratively. Every fiber of my being wants to be anywhere but here but, again, it's better than having Charley stun me into unconsciousness to get me into it. That's happened too many times. My being naked it also damn weird as well as uncomfortable. It's like being in a morgue and laid out on a cold marble slab. For just an instant each time I expect to see your face hovering over me, but if that were true I would be dead, and despite everything I'm really not ready for that yet If it were only me, I would hang it up here and now but I'm not alone in this tragedy. I can only imagine the nightmare that it must be for you. Not knowing is a hell that would go on past any death of mine and all the way to yours, a little evil gnome of sorrows to sit on your shoulder throughout eternity. Not a very nice going-away present.

Back to the Rock. Sorry that my mind keeps wandering, though escaping would be a better description. The Rock fits around you so one is more in it than lying on it. The pilot's legs fit into channels and hang at a ninety-degree angle. There are more channels for my arms and my head. I can't tell you what an uncomfortable position this is. After only a few minutes my lower back is going into spasms. I stare at the ceiling and try not to tense up for what's going to happen next, but I do. The Rock reaches out and connects to your body. This happens in two stages. I've mentioned the bolts. They connect in approximately the same places for each session and leave behind raw, livid wounds so that the attaching hurts more each time. It's a given that I'm powerless to prevent any of this. And there's more fun Immediately after my limbs are pinioned, I'm treated to many sharp little pains as innumerable little hooks latch onto my skin and PULL. This is a torture you cannot possibly imagine This is a particular agony on my face. The extent of the disfigurement that is going to be left behind after weeks or months of this is truly depressing. Will you even be able to look at me? Even more than the pain, it's for this reason that I don't dare move no matter how cramped my muscles get. If I do I'm terrified that I'm going to rip something significant. At least there are no equivalent grippers for the really important stuff down below. I guess they don't think that biofeedback from that part of the anatomy is particularly meaningful.

Now that the pilot is all hooked up he lies there, legs dangling, already in pain and waits in dread for the real horror to start At this point I find myself obsessing a lot on Ellens Air Force Base. Remember Ellens, Scully? Since they went through my brain with a hole punch, the details of that case have never been clear. From your report, however, and my own notes I have a good idea about what I thought we'd find. Too bad that we'll never know what I actually did. If you remember, what got us started - all right, what got me started - was investigating the disappearance and mental breakdowns of some of their special pilots. Remember Budahas's alternately vacant and belligerent face? Remember McLennen's slow, obsessive compulsive behavior as he worked on his fishing flies, one after another after another?

I know how they got that way now because Charley is determined that I be introduced into that select brotherhood This ship, therefore, is no longer an 'unidentified flying object', not to me, but it certainly is unfathomable. Imagine, Scully... For a man who can't find his way out of the woods, just the idea of my piloting anything is pretty scary all on its own. Why is Charley doing this? I have no idea. Could be for the torture value alone but I don't think so. He's not someone to waste anything. Not time, not his own skin, and not my sanity, which he seems to think worth saving. Besides, Charley could inflict pain and humiliation without providing me with a skill that I could possibly use.

Use to do what? One guess, partner. That's the only thing that keeps me going. The scenario replays over and over in my mind as I wait for the pain to start and after as I try to remember who and what I am and then wait for the terrible sickness and disorientation to go away. I lie awake nursing the cramps in my stomach and my back and plan what I will do when I catch Charley napping Because he does nap, though not for long. Obviously, I haven't tried anything on my own yet for the very good reason that my chances of even hitting the correct solar system would be about the same as a two-year-old landing a 747. But someday, someday, I'll lay my body down in the Rock's arm and just go.

Go home.

Why across millions of empty miles can I still sense your skepticism? It's so strong maybe I can use it as a homing beacon. You want to know if there are any drawbacks to my little plan. Oh, just little details like I have no directions and like I haven't figured out how to disengage from the Rock by myself Even if I could, once out I'm totally incapacitated for hours But Charley manages without tribal scarring on his face and bolt holes in his arms so it must be possible. After all, what is there that a practically indestructible, shape-changing, acid- bleeding alien do that I can't? Don't answer that, but at least I now have a goal. It's better than being all but dead inside Besides, Charley seems convinced that I can learn. If it's possible to wrestle freedom from this terrible slavery then I will. I must. There is nothing left for me but that.

Grim reality forces me to admit that these are pretty fancy words from someone who hasn't been able to keep anything down for days and spends eighty percent of his conscious curled in a ball and shaking like a leaf. The lessons aren't simple, either Oxford was like pre-school compared to this. One of the big hurdles is to manage the graying of the line between the physical and the mental. We - meaning men and women of the Western World - tend to make a pretty big distinction between activities of the body and those of the mind. Not so with some of the eastern religions or with piloting this ship. They should have recruited Buddhist monks. A subtle twitch of an eyelash here, a held breath there, my very thoughts and moods can make tons of mass skitter or slide, flip or fly.

Maybe if there were an Owner's Manual I'd have a chance, because Charley certainly isn't much help. He's a firm believer in trial and error. Unfortunately, when I send signals the ship can't interpret, the lab rat gets more than a minor shock. Let's just say that 'Try again' is not in the Beast's vocabulary. I don't know what it uses as a reward yet, not having earned any, but an absence of pain and the terrible sickness at the end would be much appreciated.

On the opposite end of the scale, I have tried refusing to participate by neither thinking nor moving. This is hard as it's almost impossible not to think about how much it's going to hurt. Even more than that, the Beast doesn't like silence. The Beast is what I call the ship's semi-sentient navigation program. Like an obsessed lover, she demands attention and she is quite capable of exerting considerable pressure to persuade her victim to respond to her demands. The bolts and grappling hooks of the Rock are actually her claws and fangs. A jealous, insatiable, maddened animal is Beast. A very hungry beast.


Sorry if I think of her as female. It's no criticism on your sex. I guess it's because ships have been referred to as female throughout history. I thought that was because of their fickleness at sea. Beast, however, is not fickle. Oh, no, she is quite single-minded. She flies and she will fly, only she has no sense of direction whatsoever. That makes her dependent upon the pilot, which is where I come in. Lucky me.

As has happened each time before, a hologram displays in the air space above my eyes. It's a three-dimensional map. From the previous sessions, I know that the ship's position is indicated by a small, yellow circle and this lesson's destination as a blood red 'X'. Appropriate. Between here or there are streams and eddies and pools and gravity wells and solar winds. They're all marked on the map which makes it look like a very complex geological survey map, which is what, I suppose, that it is, only on the astral plane. Even as I watch the display shifts subtly. There will be no seeing once the maneuver begins. The eyes, or at least that part of the brain that interprets visual input, shuts down. What that means is that the pilot must memorize dozens of critical points in space - not just where they are, but where they will be. I assume this is a task that is too complex for Beast but not so for the human or humanoid mind otherwise why bother with such a erratic and, in my case, unwilling source of information.

I force myself to concentrate. In dread of the pain to come and daunted by the very complexity of the schematic, I'd not given it adequate attention before. This time I do, however, and oddly, it imprints itself crystal clear on my mind as simply as a story of Poe's or a dozen case reports. More than that, I realize that none of the changes that flicker across the map surprise me. Like the mind of a killer with a knife, it all makes logical sense - at least to me. I feel a surge of hope Could it be that Charley is on to something here? With my eidetic memory and that spooky insight of mine that is so often half a dozen steps before anyone else's, I may actually be suited for this even though static flat maps have so often left me baffled.

In the blink of an eye the ghostly image is gone. No matter, I don't need it any more. My mind is racing, energized by a sudden spark of possibilities. The fear's still there, but it's been offset somewhat by an analytical fervor such as I have not felt for many a month. I've got a puzzle. To solve the insoluble was what I once lived for before all my energies were required merely to keep alive.

Another idea nibbles at my brain. Perhaps I've also been wrong about waiting for Beast to get impatient enough to come hunting for what she needs Maybe I should try being proactive and meet her halfway. Well, if I'm going to, I'd better hurry because I can sense her prowling the edges of my mind now, a black bulk darkly illuminated with arcs of violet flame. The growing tingle in my muscles and the scratching about inside my head are also undeniable signs that she's actively searching for the way in. Anyone would put up defenses, but I've done more than that in the past. I've shut down, thrown up stone walls, barred the gates, dug the mote, and filled it with alligators It forces her to lay siege. But what if I just let her in? What if I even put out a welcome mat?

A reasonable plan, only the kind of fear I have is far from reasonable. Desperate, I need to think this over again only there's precious little time. The problem, Scully, is that I'm shit-sticky, knee-knocking, heart-stopping, heart-in-the-throat terrified. You have no idea the enormity of the power I'm locked into when Beast gets her hooks into my mind. It's nothing compared to the Rock's hooks on my face. I'm just a bug and she's the enormous bully who'd just love to pull off my legs.

As if he senses what I was thinking, Charley is beside me "Coward," he whispers. "Do you think you have a choice? You don't have a choice. You must tame it. You must take the power and you must control." There's an edge to his voice. With the old Spookie sense that seems to have come back in full today I suddenly realize that I know something about Charley - his reaction to the Beast was very much the same as mine once upon a time. Come to think of it, he still seems a little green around the gills after his own stints in the Rock. I just have never noticed before because I'm green all the way through at that point just from the backlash. Why would any race develop a system as important as this, which is at the same time so hostile to life? Is it possible that the Oz, as Ness calls them, stole the technology from a third party?

An intriguing theory but for later. At the moment it's now or never. The illusion of a foul breath on the back of my neck signals that it's almost too late. Though my blood has now gone to ice in my veins, I force myself to mentally stand very still All the doors are unlocked and all the windows are open. I won't run to embrace it, but I'll go this far. It's worth a try, once at least. Can't be worse that what I have been doing.

Oh, shhhhhiiiitt.. She's coming. It's one thing to see the train approaching from a long way off, a tiny pinprick of bright light in a dark tunnel. It's another thing to rise to meet it, to feel the sheer mass of it rumble like an earthquake under your feet, to hear the roar of its massive passage thunder like an avalanche... closer.... closer... I am harboring serious doubts that this was such a good idea.

Too late.

Totally unprotected, the pain is less like a thousand knives and more like being hit in the stomach with a medicine ball that has the weight and punch of that locomotive. Skillful claws bury themselves deep in my insides, in my brain, in my gut. Again, it's not much like knives, but does possess a crushing weight so vast I cannot take a breath if my life depended on it. There's still pain as the final attachment is made but I am no longer an animal maddened by it. Amazingly, I have some mind yet and being able to think when my Beast half demands a direction, I'm actually able to pull up a shaky picture.

It's so different this time. Her fingers are long, her fingers are deft, they stroke my mind. True, they nick the edges but her touch brings more than pain. There's another layer. It's not sexual, but it is not unpleasant.

Until she wants more. Until she wants not only what I've offered but all of me.

'Stop.'

But there is no stopping, no ending. My maw is vast, my teeth are bright and my claws are very, very sharp.

"You must take control," Charley had said. Sigh... I forgot about that 'Maybe next time...' is my last tiny thought before the madness begins.

Later I'll remember snatches of what happened the way you recall a dream, only this is a Salvador Dali dream. Solid objects melt, sounds taste, time shatters like glass. The star map is not in my head but I am in it like a bird, swimming in a pink and piss-green hurricane. You know where you need to go but it's darn hard to get there. You reach out your hand only to find you've moved your foot. You swim a mile, run two and find you've gone nowhere. You breath out violets and cross a galaxy There is no 'me' any more. I have no name, no past, and the future is a rich, vast and turbulent ocean. I am the ship sliding on the ice of my tears guided by a thought and the twitch of a toe. It must be black ice for outside my hard skin all is complete darkness. Like the currents in the deepest trenches of the sea, there is no seeing the eddies and riptides that must be ridden or avoided. Other senses are needed for that, senses beyond sense for those who believe in such things.

And I do. Ah. Another reason why I was chosen. What is unthinkable to others has long ceased to seem impossible to me That one thought envelopes me totally, like a bubble of calm in a storm. Safe in my bubble I am suddenly drunk on a fierce joy The taste of power on the tip of my tongue is sweet. In the midst of this delicious delirium a mad thought flashes firecracker bright. Was this what I was bred for, to yield this incredible power? But then the shiny coin spins and its reverse is dark. Does this also mean that I am destined to lie here until the end of time while my body and soul merge farther and farther into that of a machine? The very idea is enough to burst the bubble, snapping the tenuous synergy between the Beast and its prey like a dry bone For you see I can still smell my own burned flesh which reminds me that I've been there before and I do NOT want to repeat that experience again. With the lost of my shield I am alone and totally unprotected. The solar winds seer my flesh, a gravity mountain crashes down, and I have as much power over my future as a dry leaf caught in a summer storm. At least leaves have a quiet death, a meaningful death, becoming quickly one with the earth.

My drifting peace does not last. I almost wish it would Like the thundercloud she returns, sweeping down out of the night full of furious wind and rain.

It's no great gift to be saved from drowning like a kitten in a well only to be gobbled up between the slobbering jaws of a tiger. Just shredding teeth and fetid breath and eternal questions...

At the end of the madness, for there is an end, there's the dim sensation of being up chucked by that tiger as if I were a hairball to be spewed like so much vomit across a carpet of stars. There's no way to truly describe it. There no reason anyone would want to. Stomach, brains, heart turned inside out Tender insides raked with claws. Then it's all pushed up your ass.

No, that doesn't nearly describe it, but it's as close as I want to go.

Unconsciousness when it comes has never, ever been so welcome. At least it's a dark that stays still.


I float in sweet oblivion for a very, very long time. I don't even try to remember what happened. It's enough to know that wherever I wake up will be worse than where I am. For you see, there's this dream...

In the dream there's a bed that is warm and firm enough to support all the aches in my body and the aches in my body are certainly legion. Even better, there are dozens of pillows and mounds of fluffy blankets and acres of clean, cool sheets. The morning sun warms my face and a sweet breeze touches my cheek It reminds me of a furtive breath whispering as we pass in the dark hands too full of weapons and flashlights to touch, 'be careful', words which could just as easily be 'I love you' Somewhere leaves rustle. I'm wearing my favorite old worn T- shirt and nearly threadbare jogging shorts. It's Sunday morning and for a polytheist like myself no particular church to attend All I need to do is lie here and wander from dream to dream Places I've been pass before my eyes, things I've seen, childhood joys like the River at Quonochontaug golden in the summer sunrise when all the rest of the world still sleeps. An older me watches children play, children who have known no fear in their lives worse than the loss of a favorite toy. I come into a light doze at the sound of someone moving softly about the room. I don't open my eyes but I smile for I can sense the size and shape of the form and I know that clean scent. She glides gently onto the bed beside me and runs her hand almost languidly over the top of the bedclothes. By the way my body responds, the sheets and my comfort rags might as well not be there. Soon they aren't.

She undresses me, slow the way I like it. I wait in happy anticipation for the touch of her hand on my flesh, skin to skin. She complies as if she can read my thoughts and I allow myself to enjoy every moment the way a starving man tastes his first food. Too quickly, however, she moves into a realm of hard play with a fervor that leaves me breathless. I try to remember what must have happened to instill this need in her but moving thoughts around in any logical order has become too difficult Like a recently strung bow, my body is taut. It sings in response to her slightest touch, becoming tighter and tighter as her ministrations becomes more insistent. Oh, sweet muse? I can't bear it. I want to come so bad but then again I don't. A voice in the back of my mind warns that this has got to last me a long, long time. All at once I need to see your face. Until now I hadn't tried because I was afraid of breaking the spell Now I want to, I have to. It has been so long...

I open my eyes just a crack and even through my tears I know that silhouette, that shape. I could pick it up in the dark, in rain, in snow, in blinding sun, in a drug-filled haze Relief nearly makes me lose control. You don't disappear. Your face, though, I still don't see. For the moment red hair flows down obscuring the view. I would move it aside but your hands are working on me eager and low and I wonder if I can control my own. Better hurry or in a few more seconds I'll be too far gone to care. The hand I finally raise seems to float up on its own, but I manage to push that curtain of silk aside.

There I pause. You're distracted by my intrusion and I'm distracted by your face. It IS your face, isn't it? The shapes are all there, and the colors. Cream and blush and blue Puzzled, I search for what has changed. The edge slowly falls off the blossom, so to speak, as I search determined to understand It doesn't take long There is no life here. It's a soulless face "Scully?" Even as a small finger touches my lips to stop any more questions, you begin to work me so fast and so hard that it hurts and my wonderful halo of pleasure seriously begins to tumble over into madness.

Something is wrong... something is REALLY wrong...

Trying to push away from this creature who still 'might' be Scully, my hands find a padded surface the feel of which strikes a memory in my very bones. I stare beyond your face - her face - - to see the curve of a wall less than four feet away.

"No!!!" With all my strength I thrust the creature away. In response she slams me down with unbelievable strength, not a hint of gentleness remaining in that face or body. She is smiling now, a broad, un-Scully-like grin. Feral and brittle as ice.

"You are one sick bastard, Charley!" I growl, "and I don't find any of this very funny." I expect this horrible parody to vanish but it doesn't. Instead, it is getting very, very personal and some serious fear begins to worm into my stomach How far will he go? Do I have any chance of fighting him? Not much, if this form retains the strength the Charley I know Besides, what can I honestly do to something that actually looks like Scully? To find that I had almost fired a lethal shot at Scully who was actually a projection created by Pusher's sister had nearly killed me,

She has my straining wrists together now over my head, though it seems impossible that those little hands have the strength to hold me. Confusion is taking serious hold but not enough that the pump would notice it. It's been a long time and is well primed as well she knows. Still grinning that cold smile, she beings to lower herself..

I don't know where I found the strength. A healthy does of terror, yes, but mostly disgust. "You sonofabitch! You haven't the right to look like her!"

My body and my mind aren't working in unison at the moment, but I manage one all-out effort. Flailing arms and legs may not be a pretty sight but are able to disrupt the status quo. I think I would actually have bitten the iron-strong, yet still delicate-looking, fingers if I hadn't hesitated at the last moment, remembering what would happened if my berserker attack drew blood. I'm actually relieved that the figure is able to snatch its hand away in time. This is when the creature above me changes shape. The last thing I want in my nightmares is to see this parody of your beautiful likeness flowing and blowing up like a balloon into my private devil, but that's what I'm going to get and probably for years to come.

I'm gasping now. "Game's over, Charley." So why's he still looming over me? His legs as thick and strong as tree trunks are still on either side of my hips. One massive hand is on my chest and the pressure of his weight is making it nearly impossible to breathe, much less curse. If he keeps this up, he's going to crack a rib. I'm beginning to see black now but not enough to hide his ugly face. So sick am I of that Mount Rushmore visage that I somehow come up with enough spit to give him a good one right in the eye. Really a stupid thing to do considering how pissed he probably is at having his fun spoiled.

Remember seeing the volcano erupt? I have twice now and this second time as I watch Charley is the worst. I have seldom seen such fury on a face before and hope not to see again. Talk about the devil incarnate! This is he. This is mindless, animal, god-like fury, and the kind that says that I'm in one heap of a lot of trouble.

He raises his hand, the one I tried to bite in its previous incarnation and slaps me. I remember how it was on the submarine a lifetime ago when the world was still full of mysteries. I was helpless against him then and helpless now. It's fortunate that my head was pressed against the padding otherwise I swear that he would have broken my neck. He delivers this particular punishment only once but, stupid me, I'm still trying to fight back, despite the fact that all I'm seeing for a few seconds are stars and supernovas You know, Scully, when I get back home, I think I will consider those anger management classes you've been urging me to take for I should have accepted his alpha male status long before the situation got to this point. I know that sounds strange considering his latest shape shifting but I could have lived my life gladly without going through what followed. It may not be the most painful of my experiences with Charley to date but continues to be the most disturbing.

You see, as he's still not getting any sign of submission from me, my local alien guide goes off the deep end, only it's not hot where he shoots off to, but to a very cold place In hindsight I would have preferred a good beating even with his inhuman strength behind it. Instead, he raises one hand, fingers flexed like a raptor's claw, and brings it down with judgement of Jove onto my head.

What he bestows is no blessing but is the most horrible blast of pain I have ever experienced and I've known lots. Black and red and flaming white explode not only in my head but bursts out in one long, slow and terrible wave down my body. I've seized before but nothing like that. He'd have been thrown off if he and I were not grimly connected by the energy still pouring from his body into mine. On the surface of the pain, I'm dimly reminded of the metal finger slaves of the half-human computer locking onto my limbs and nearly electrocuting me on the spot, but dimly is just about how my present experience compares to that, in intensity anyway It's as if the power is traveling through my body and systematically snapping the links that connect every cell to every other cell. In addition to the pure agony of it, I feel as if I'm now broken into about a million pieces, pieces so small and lightly linked that it's as if I were liquid, like a column of water with the glass pulled away which in a millisecond will collapse. Only it doesn't, there's this power still, continuing to pour in, and Charley there behind it all, the manic artist, forcing frail and tortured skin and bones to flow under those massive hands like so much soft clay.

It's an unimaginable sensation and would have been unendurable for more than seconds. I cannot see, cannot hear, but in time the worst of the pain does pass, a blurry sight returns and a sort of fuzzy hearing. But I feel so odd. The world seems somehow to have. shrunk? Or is it that Charley, whose position astride my hips has not changed, who has grown larger or come closer. His hand on my chest feels immense and my wrists that he holds again above my head feel as small and fragile as bird bones. Worse, something deep, deep and more intimately personal than eyes or ears or even skins seems profoundly different. There are no words for what has changed and I do not want the words. I do not want to look and I won't look, not at the walls that seem so far away and certainly not at my body. All that I have left is to stare at Charley's black and angry face. If all he can see is stark terror in my eyes then so be it, he wins this round.

"What have you done?" comes out in a wheeze because he still has that one hand on my chest, a chest that feels no more substantial than the bird bones in my wrists.

His expression changes like a switch has been flicked Where the volcano had been, there's just that granite face rapidly losing color. Unbelievable that some emotion can actually affect that cold stone. "What have you made me do?" The words are almost inaudible.

As if they burn him, he releases my hands, but I do not move at all, not my hands, not anything. If I were to do much more than breathe, I'm afraid I will fall apart into those millions of pieces. At least I can breathe because he's leaned back removing most of the weight from my chest. My eyes have still not left his face because there isn't anyplace else safe to look. He stares at me with the oddest expression, then he makes some kind of sign. If he were human, I'd say it was equivalent to the evil eye. What does he see? If I'm lucky, I'll never know.

Far more gently than the first time and with greater deliberation, he places that massive hand once again to my head.

I experience that awesome, inhuman power once more only it is much less of a destructive force this time, as if it were not unmaking, but making. As if water were forced to flow uphill before, the floodgates are open now and the surging streams seek their proper level. Breathless, dripping with sweat from every pore, I come back to myself all the wrongness having snapped back into place.

Too bad it wasn't as painless as it was quick.

I'm shaking when I come back to myself like one who's been sick but at least I'm alone. Finding that I'm also freezing, I begin with slow, unsteady movements to reach for my ship coveralls and try as best as I can to cover my state of undress I must have been naked ever since he carried me back to the tube after since I passed out in the pilot's seat. For some reason placing my arms and legs into the proper channels in the garment is taking a very long time and it isn't only the fault of my trembling fingers. It is as if I've forgotten how to move my body, like coming home after an extensive vacation and none of the little automatic routines of daily life are automatic any longer.

There's one constant. I'm still on the ship and all too soon the carnival-ride, stomach-churning motions of the craft return with a vengeance. My abused and empty insides heave in the weightlessness. There's nothing to do but roll into a ball and try not to think.

Unfortunately, that is one thing I can't manage What did he do to me? Whatever it was, I'm back. As I dressed, I checked and every bruise is where it should be as is every open wound and every scar old and new. But for an instant there I was terrified and more than anything by Charley's reaction as if he had looked upon his handiwork as something horribly obscene. Whatever it was, he had not done it deliberately. I had made him so angry that he lost control True, he had put it right again almost immediately but for that instant what had he done? Above and beyond feeling like shit from the ship's gyrations, I don't feel quite myself? not quite? solid. What if he didn't put everything back quite right?


I was left alone for what seemed like very long time. This vacation from Charley's attentions, however, was no picnic. I was sick for even more of this trip than usual thanks to the peculiar nature of the motions of the ship, i.e., very like a camel that is being pulled repeatedly though eyes of needles of continually decreasing size. When the colors in my eyeballs stop running and the trips in and out of the pits of black stars slow to a crawl, then I know we have arrived at our destination, wherever that is. Charley doesn't play games with false stillness this time. He doesn't wait patiently for me outside the open hatch either. He reaches in with the striking speed of a huge snake. My resistance costs me several layers of skin and more than the usual number of bruises and abrasions for my collection I know what you're thinking, Scully - senseless, idiotic, male posturing. If we'd had a tree, we probably would have pissed on it - but it's more than that this time Something ice cold has settled in my stomach since the last time he and I went nose to nose, something primitive. All I know is that I can't bear the thought of being in the same room with that alien opportunist and my skin crawls when I think of his touching me.

I'm not really given a choice, however. Charley is in devil mode. Clearly, he is still as angry as he was in the tube though from the furious gymnastics of the ship I already knew that Well, his boil does nothing for my mood either, which switches from fear to fury in a heartbeat. After all, what does he have to be angry about? He wasn't the one to be sexually assaulted by the cruelest of impostors.

"Maybe if you cut down on the road rage you wouldn't be so grumpy!"

"Quiet!" Charley roars as he hurls me headfirst with the greatest of ease down one of the ship's short corridors. "Are you incapable of learning even that?"

The 'man' has a point. Keeping my mouth shut was one I certainly should have figured out by now.

Through the pain of cracked elbows and knees I note that I'm been thrown not towards the terrible pilot seat of the Beast as I expected. Instead, I find myself face down in the doorway of a smallish round room that is all too familiar in its own way In its center there's an opening in the floor like a huge eye with matching eye above that is already throbbing alarmingly with energy This is the Overseer version of the transporter beam Though I'd only traveled in the Oregon-to-prisonship direction and far from gracefully, it must be able to run in reverse Clutching a madly throbbing elbow, I wheeze, "Going on a trip, are we, Charley?" Ship to land or ship to ship? Ugly visions of a new clime for his next series of novel and exquisite tortures dance in my spinning head "Not we," Charley announces. Swooping down, he picks me up off the floor by the back of my jumpsuit and effortlessly hauls me upright so that my feet barely touch the floor "Last chance. Willing yet to bend at least on knee to those who hold the fate of your world in their hands?"

"Go. to. hell!"

His eyes glare into mine, turning the screw tighter in my aching head. "No, that is where you are going. It may not seem so at first but in time it will." Somewhere a generator is thrumming at ever rising pitch. Reaching some threshold, the iris rolls slowly open and all at once there is light, light everywhere. I had forgotten that kind of light.

Once upon a time a few million years ago I lost my freedom, my life, to that kind of light. It condemned us both to Dante's seven circles? too bad we were sent to different ones. I think I could bear anything as long as we were together. But we are not, and each day without you is nearly impossible.

Charley begins to drag me towards that column of light that now reaches ceiling to floor. But there is no floor, just a hole leading down. For the first time I begin to seriously consider that the monster may be serious. In that case down to where? If I can believe him the trip itself won't kill me, but if Charley selected the destination, it's not going to be somewhere I would have chosen for a holiday.

I kick, I twist, I try to fight him, and I don't even know why. It's not as if parting company with Charley is entirely a bad thing. Certainly leaving the ship and the Rock and the Beast behind, is a very good thing. So why fight? Because I can't bear the alternative. At the moment, however, I'm not managing the resisting part very well. The pressure on the nerves where he has gripped the nape of my neck in one iron hand has numbed my arms and hands to near uselessness.

I'm pushed to the very brink of the eye in the floor now and his arm is around my throat. I can even feel the edge of the beam licking at my skin.

"Listen for one moment you pitiful excuse for a man!" Starving for information, even from such a source, I cease struggling. Besides, I am finding it hard to breathe.

"You will waste no more of my time. You may not be the least intelligent representative of your race, but the depth of your self-centeredness is not to be believed. Look around. We are at war. Your people, my people, beings you have not even met, hundreds of billions of lives. And there are more fronts that you can count. It's not all about you."

Your voice, exasperated with me - as usual - echo the same words in my ear.

"I do not have the time to fight you every day and every night."

"Was that what you were doing back there in the tube before? Fighting?"

The back of his hand impacts solidly with my mouth and I taste blood.

"Believe it or not, I was intending to reward you for your significant progress during the last maneuver."

"That's all?" I mumble past the pain.

His arm tightens again with a jerk on my throat. "And if that was not all? Do you think that I do not pay a price for taking your form? Let us just say that it is a long journey and for the first time in many journeys I am not alone, but you are the last companion I would have chosen. I was not given a choice, however, for as always I serve the greater need just as I have always served it. That is something you don't understand, you who see only your own desires unfulfilled." Painfully, the hand that slapped me latches onto my hair forcing me to face him." Do you recall the girl Ness? You don't know what real hopelessness is."

"You are so wrong."

"Am I? For so many years you could turn in any direction, some less easy than others, but you had choices. What choices does she have? What choices will she ever have? None. What they have is forever."

"Hey, I'm just the experiment, remember? If you find yourself bleeding so much for them, why don't you do something?"

"In all the ways I can I have. As a control group, their usefulness is long past and yet they survive, entirely due to my efforts and those in the faction who think as I do. In a few minutes of painless effort you could have enriched her life and that of her people for years to come."

"I am not the one who brought her there!"

"But you kept her there. As powerless as you knew she was, you gave her nothing. And you see yourself as a compassionate people," he snarled. "Where was yours for her? We had more." My head is beginning to pound, and not just because he still has a merciless hold on my hair. It doesn't just hurt from the slap from his hand earlier either. It's another of the damned headaches and its timing could not have been worse.

My voice is sharper than I intended when I finally reply, "You say that you showed her compassion? Such as? Did you wipe her mind of me?"

He let me down so that more of my weight was on the floor and then brought his face down close to mine, far too close for my liking. "I gave her what you refused to."

One thing I never would call Charley is a liar. "Mine?"

"Yes, even though it endangers my position. At least you 'slept' with her that last night," he hissed, his lips curled with contempt. "Who is to know that that particular experiment was not successful? Only she and I . and you. And to belay your fears, though I don't know why I should, the fetus was not tampered with except to select the sex. A daughter is more useful where she is."

His news hurts like a physical blow but whether it's fresh bleeding from the scars I already carry for Ness or because this monster has done what I did not, I don't know. I should have expected this. After all they have the technology. He certainly has access to the necessary genetic material that Ness spoke about as well as the basic sperm. What I find so astonishing, I suppose, is that he had the heart.

He must have noticed I was shaken, and leaned back, reducing his invasion of my 'space'.

"Will you be seeing her again?" I ask surprised by the timidity in my voice.

"It's war, who can tell."

"Can you send a message?"

"I can try. From this distance not all communication packets get through."

"Tell her..." What words were fit to travel light-years by who knew what alien means? "Tell her that I wish her happiness."

His eyes are freezing as he jerks me by my hair nearly into the air again. "Benevolent of you with the choice out of your hands!"

Another hit. A palatable hit. To be called a coward by Charley is more humiliation than you can imagine. By comparison I barely feel this newest assault upon my person except to become reminded of the proximity of the beam that is again sending little ants of energy along my left side. We have both calmed down from where we had been, so has the crisis passed? I have to admit that I'm expecting any minute to hear that he will change his mind about going through with my visit to Purgatory Most likely, it had been nothing more than a threat all along Oh, he'd pile on the corporal punishment to drive home his point, but eventually we'd just go back to our endless series of sparring matches until one or the other of us exceeded tolerance again.

Something was clearly on his mind for he released his hold on my aching head and for a time neither of us spoke and neither of us moved.

"Where to we go from here?" his deep voice asks, more to himself than me. Uncomfortably, the tone reminds me of a parent facing a rebellious adolescent. Weird.

"To war? You've not mentioned the war before."

"Had you forgotten?" His tone indicates that he finds this impossible. For me, however, the idea of the war these past months has just not seemed relevant, at least not relevant to my survival.

It's not all about you, Mulder.

All at once, Scully, I found myself missing you so badly that the emptiness my whole, weary, senseless life just came crashing down. And Charley. How I hated his holier-than-though attitude, his war and his sacrifices, his billions of faceless lives when the fate of just two lives - yours and mine, Scully - were all I cared about.

It was stupid, but I took a swing at Charley - again. He had relaxed his grip but not his vigilance or his anger. All at once it was all there, his hand on the front of my coveralls, my feet barely on the floor, his coldly furious face in my face "It ends here! I have places to be." He edged me closer to the beam. It hurt, it hurt a lot, half in, half out. And there was his presence, his smell. It had become too sickeningly familiar. As painfully as he pushed me in, he just as abruptly pulled me out though I was still half-choking and could feel the numbing energy streaming down my back.

"Do you know how useless you have become? There are those who I answer to who would leave you here to rot, the strengths and weaknesses of your heredity too tangled to be of use I think they may be wrong. I think you are worth saving. Why? Because I believe that you possess not only the ability to see beyond the safe and the visible but you have strength and intelligence to bend such an incredible talent to your will. I saw the promise of that control on your last run. But then there is your pride and your anger. Fatal flaws. If you would only allow another to lead, I truly believe that you could see where you need to go."

"And who would show me the way? You?" "That remains to be seen." He stared into my eyes, no past my eyes, as if trying to see into dark places I didn't know were in me. I've felt the cold slice of surgical steel in my mind and I felt something similar again at that moment from those eyes "What did they create when they put you together, Mulder Mooncalf? They thought they knew. I believe that they will be very much surprised before the end. if you live so long."

"I'm just a man."

"Even you must know by now that there is no 'just' about it, but what you are is still the question, one I would learn." The spell broke, the shield dropped over that visage once more He became all business again. "But first, I think some payment is long past due for your lack of sense."

"To Hell, you said. That's rather final."

"Finality is for you to decide. From true Hell there is no returning but I plan to come back for you. in time. Until then, you are to stay alive and think. If you have done both then under the first full moon after harvest, find your way back to the place where I will leave you. Then we will discuss the terms of my taking you back."

"And why would I want to do that?" I'd meant it to be a growl but it came out as a humiliating croak as my mouth had suddenly gone dry.

"Because from this place there is no leaving except through me. Only save me the trouble and stay where you are unless in the future you are willing to follow where I lead you. You never know. on such a journey you may yet see Earth again."

I felt the room spin.

Home...

Scully, I think I may have miscalculated here. He must have seen the backpedaling in my eyes, because before I could even think of a word to placate him, he shook his head abruptly.

"Too late, Agent Mulder." This was the second time he has used my name in I can't remember how long. I felt the use of it significant but before I could speak he went and, with an effort of strength and will that was still able to surprise, hoisted me high by the front of my coverall to hold my body completely within the beam.

More than mere energy, I could actually feel the incredible pressure of the light as it flowed over my skin. It was like trying to hold position in a strong current. It is always easiest to go with the flow, then there's almost no sense of movement, but try to fight it and the force is tremendous. In this case there is the added sensation of, not ants now, but large, hairy-legged spiders which are frantically crawling up and down, up and down my body, wave after wave of them. All the while Charley just stands there as solid as an oak, holding me suspended within the tide that strives to suck me down.

"Charley... let's talk." The words, their tone embarrassingly pleading, echo doom-like in my ears.

Beyond the curtain of light, I see his mouth move. Faintly over the roar in my ears, I hear, "Instead, something more for you to ruminate upon before our next meeting. Everything Ness was promised was true. She would have become pregnant from your one night if you had done your part." Raising his voice, his final words are the clearest of all. "You see, we've played that scenario before."

And in that moment without warning or the change of one muscle in that stone face, Charley opened his hand.

END of My Travels with Charley 07: The Belly of the Beast. The story continues in part #8 and ends in part #9.

- Prelude to Part 8

There are some laws of physics even alien technology cannot completely override. I spiraled down a whole lot faster than I went up all those months ago over Oregon. It reminded me of Wile. E. Coyote from the Roadrunner cartoons. He runs off cliffs a lot and always falls with plenty of time to be scared shitless but never fast enough to result in any permanent damage. I hope I'm as lucky.

Surprisingly, my first emotion was not fear. Knowing deep down that death was unlikely since Charley was clearly not done with me yet, self-righteous fury triumphed over fear. Lucifer must have felt this way, a fallen angel thrown out of heaven by a wrathful and illogical God. Not that there is anything god- like about Charley. Then there's the light. To fall, bathed in sparkling light surrounded by the infinite dark... beautiful Without any real point of reference it was almost like standing alone on a stage blinded by a spotlight. It was truly surreal There was something below, only how far down is 'down'? Five hundred feet? A thousand? A mile? I had no idea what the ship's capabilities were. As there was no way of seeing outside the beam, there was also no way to prepare for the end. I expected to feel the pressure of earth against some part of my anatomy at any second. Note 'earth' with a lower case 'e'. Solid ground I may reach but not Earth. I'm certain that I can believe Charley on that, too.

Too much time passed and my aching brain began to flicker rapidly from scenario to scenario conjuring up images of how this could end. I very much doubted that I would be deposited gently on a firm forest floor such as what I'd left. No, Charley would be more inventive: A tangle of thorns would be more his style, the crumbling edge of a cliff, or the narrow ledge of a tall building. How about the middle of the ocean in the jaws of some giant, slobbering reptile? A nest of snakes, a coliseum complete with a thumbs-down crowd AND lions, the compound of a concentration camp. And my least favorite - the supper table of a family of hungry cannibals. Yum!

When it came the finale was mercifully quick. One second and I could have been swinging from a parachute, drifting in incredible brilliance; the next and it was as if a giant's hand had snipped the strings while with his other hand he turned out the lights Charley's games. More one-upmanship. With light-dazzled eyes I plummeted like a rock through inky blackness. Seconds passed by triple time. As I fell, chill wind and a misty wetness hit my face.

My landing was not as bad as it could have been but it was inglorious. Butt first in a cold and gooey mud puddle. SPLATT!!! Automatically, I tried to stand. My feet sank ankle-deep in freezing muck. Staring upward I tried to catch sight of my flying torture chamber and its warden so I could proclaim at full bellow exactly how I felt about him and his mother and his whole foul race. All I caught sight of, however, was a passing gleam and maybe a shimmer in the air. Considering the fact that a tangy, acid was rain was pelting down on my upturned face, I was lucky that I saw that.

Flicking muddy hair out of my eyes, I began slogging torturously out of the sucking ooze. After months of being inside, even with the ambient temperature kept consistently just low enough to be uncomfortable, the sudden appearance of so much 'weather' was a shock to my system. The sharp bite of a rock on a tender underside of my foot reminded me that I was barefoot. A blast of wind, probably no more than ten or twenty miles per hour, raced down the front of my coveralls. This was how I noticed for the first time that the upper part of my single garment was badly torn thanks to Charley's manhandling. At least the rain would get rid of the mud. Other than that, only snow would have been worse, but then I would be in serious danger of dying quickly from hypothermia. Instead I was only in danger of dying slowly from hypothermia. Charley clearly did not intend that either, otherwise why all the melodrama about his return?

How desperate would I have to be to go back? Pretty desperate because the terms would not be good. At that moment a gust of wind-driven rain came up against my already wet clothes and skin and tabled that line of thought for a good long time Damn, but it was cold.

I turned slowly in a circle. Even with my eyes adjusted for darkness now, it was an incredibly black night. There did seem to be tall trees a short distance off in almost every direction The puddle, therefore, must have formed in a low spot in a meadow, though from the mud oozing up between my toes there was not enough grass to cover all the bare patches. Low in the sky near the horizon - I have no idea in which direction - a patch opened in the clouds and I saw, as if through a veil, a tiny moon in third phase. Closer to the horizon was another celestial body, even smaller, which seemed in phase as well. Two moons? Definitely not in Kansas any more, Dorothy. It certainly did look like I wasn't going to get off this soggy mud ball except with Charley's help. And that, I realized, was exactly what he wanted.

As I duck-footed it across the terrain, clouds streamed across the sky, alternately obscuring one moon and then the other. Then the sky opened up and it began to rain in earnest With the headache I had the huge drops hurt when they struck like heavy, slushy hail.

Fuck that sonofabitch! They say that groveling is good for the soul. In that case, Scully, I may be very, very good at it by the time you see me next.

Uh, I don't think I meant that the way it came out.

Having nothing better to go on, I continued slugging my way across the spongy meadow in the direction of the moons. I tried to find clumps of soggy grass to step on but the cold, sticky mud still squished up at times almost to my ankles. The 'dry' ground was drier than the pond but only by degree. At one point my right foot stepped in something that was a different consistency from the rest of the sticky mud. In the dark I had no idea what and didn't want to know.

More rain, more wind, no light but that one glimpse of the sky and its two pale travelers. Are we talking miserable here or what?

When did Charley say he would be coming back? No time soon from his tone. Weeks? Months? The first full moon after Harvest Only there were two moons. It was becoming too difficult to think. I had been shivering off and now. Now it was continuous, the real teeth-rattling kind. Think, he said, but my head hurt too much for that. People harvest; a planet by itself doesn't harvest. Then there must be people or a race of some kind with at least a minimal level of civilization. So I wasn't alone down here. That could be good or bad; knowing Charley, I'd say bad.

He had also said to stay alive. At the moment that seemed problematical. Having no other options, I just kept walking. I was under the trees now, roots and stones and underbrush forcing me to slow. Unfortunately, the canopy of leaves overhead is not dense. The drops of liquid ice are fewer but even larger than before. The branches droop, forlorn. My feet hurt in more ways than I thought it was possible for feet to hurt. If they weren't numb almost past feeling by the cold, I probably wouldn't be on them at all. The first order of business then was to find shelter or these other people, hopefully both. If I don't, and soon, Charley will be making his return trip for nothing.

More slugging now in a cloud of misery. The continuous but lightened rain pelted cold on the back of my neck. A stumble forced my head up and briefly parted the fog in my mind. There were the two moons again, though higher and more distant from each other. The storm clouds fly between them like black ghosts I taste the wetness from my face. It's sharp and a little salty, a little bitter. Is it the rain on this world I taste or my tears? Both, I think. As I stare at my heavenly companions, I realize that I'm crying and have been for some time. Oh, Scully, how have we came to be so far from each other? The rain comes down heavy once again. It stings my bare skin. I'm wet and cold and so very, very alone.

And I want to go home.

The End

Title: My Travels With Charley: Chapter 08. Not Kansas
Author: Windsinger
Written: 02/20/02
Rating: PG (sex but not graphic) Classification: TA - Adventure/Angst
Spoilers: REQUIEM, 7th season, Final Extinction, Genderblender, Little Green Men, Within, and others
Keywords: Slash, Rape (neither explicit)
Archiving: Gossamer, Emphereal, ATXC, and anywhere with permission and as long as the author's name is retained. Disclaimer: No, the X-Files and the characters of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully do not belong to me, I would have treated them better.

Summary: Mulder has survived his first days on the ship (at least the ones he's been conscious enough to remember) and the boredom of his life within the mindspeaker colony. Less than intact, he survives testing, which for the first time reveals to Charley that Mulder's 'speaker' talent has been destroyed. While Charley decides what to do with his damaged prisoner, Mulder is allowed to recover in the company of a young woman whose ancestors were taken from Earth four generations before to live out a barren existence in a few rooms on a huge alien space station. From here he is taken by the Hunter and put into training to pilot a small spacecraft, training that taxes the endurance of both body and mind. Mulder's rebellious spirit eventually exceeds even Charley's patience and he is literally dropped onto the surface of an unknown planet to survive as best he can. This will be the last home Mulder will ever know if he does not appear at the rendezvous point when Charley's returns and is willing to submit to Charley's plans.

Author's Notes: This is eighth in a series of 'short' stories chronically Mulder's confusing, agonizing, torturous, lonely and wondrous adventures following his collection in Oregon. One more to go. CC never explained those missing months so I might as well. My older work can be found on Gossamer under 'Esty, Sue'


BENJAMIN: Year 30, Week 17.1 Dale Reckoning

My name's Benjamin, Dana. Excuse my use of your first name, but Mulder has talked about you so often that I feel like I know you and 'Scully, after all, is his name for you. Mulder has asked me to start this segment of his story. Please don't worry, it's not that he can't, but because he wants you to get to know me. I don't know why but I'm sure he'll get around to filling me in on that in time.

I had mixed feeling that rainy morning when I first met Mulder. I was just bartering for some seed at the Grange when six of my genpack came running into the store and rushed up to me all talking at once. Finally, Nate's big bass voice cuts through. "You're BoB's here, Benji! Your BoB!"

I don't think I said anything in response. I just stood there. What do you say when you've long given up ever hearing those words. In a daze, I allowed the rambunctious group to drag me along through the street of rutted mud towards Government House. Just as well that I didn't have anything to say, as I couldn't have gotten a word in edgewise. Not that I blame them for their high spirits. This was, after all, their celebration as well as mine. If good luck could finally get around to pointing at me, the eldest of our generation who had never been assigned a newcomer, then their turn by the order of their birth may come yet. And we had all about given up hope. Ten years! It had been ten years since the last arrival. The general consensus around the Grange was that there weren't going to be any more and so most of the landholders of my age and younger would just be out of luck. Sadly, I had gotten use to the idea, but then here out of the blue - or perhaps I should say the gray because of the rain - fell my own miracle We didn't knock at the door to Government House. I found this suspicious but then I remembered that the mayor was receiving a delegation of southerners from South Cove and that was weird business so perhaps the intent was to keep the ceremony low key My escort didn't knock at the back entrance either but instead headed for the barn. Now I began to worry. The mayor's headman, Jason, stepped aside as we entered. Silence fell instantly.

To say that I was not impressed by my first look would be an understatement All I saw was a muddy mass shivering in front of a tiny brassier. So intent was the creature at trying to soak up a few more fingerwidths of heat from the clots of peat that he didn't respond at all when we entered.

"Came stumbling into Jeremiah's farm at daybreak," the mayor's headman explained as I stood and stared. "Must have tried to sleep in a tickle bush nest. We found some in his hair."

Yeah, that I could believe. His skin, of which a lot showed, was swollen with hundreds of bright red blisters. He must have also fallen into every mud puddle between here and wherever the devils let him out. He was a mess. As if he were freezing, he clutched a bundle of mismatched rags someone must have given him. It was fortunate that the weather was actually mild for that time of year Still, I felt alarmed for the poor man's sake. He should have been taken some place warmer, though as filthy dirty as he was I could see why they hadn't let him in the house or given him anything better to wrap his near nakedness in. I guess that that was my job now.

For the first time I crouched down and tried to get a look at his face. His muddy hair hung over his eyes and even through the dirt and the tickle bush blisters I saw the terrible trio of scars down each cheek. Whatever had the monsters done to him? There was nothing on record like this. I looked more closely under the dirt through the rents in what remained of his clothes. There were terrible wounds above each wrist and ankle and a long older scar down the center of his chest. Here and there through the mud I could see the yellow and purple of old bruises as well as more ugly punctures Years before I had been trained on the proper attitude of a landholder towards his newcomer and I knew that distance was critical, but I couldn't remain aloof, not after seeing this Automatically, I placed my hand on his forehead. No response, not that I expected any. What did surprise me was how hot his skin was.

"I assume that's Newcomer fever," the mayor's headman said.

I nodded. "They say that they all get it, but this is worse than I expected." I didn't add that Dale history also records that not a few newcomers had died from this fever in the past.

Meaning mine could die.

I looked at him again, at his clothes or lack thereof, at the slumped posture and bowed head and how he barely seemed able to sit without falling over. My eyes fell on his terribly damaged bare feet.

"Is this all he came with? Not even any shoes?"

The 'pack' just stood there, much sobered by all these depressing revelations.

"Tough luck, Benji," Talon said soberly. Talon is six months my junior. Only a few minutes earlier he had been practically green with envy. "Looks like you got a dud. You could at least have gotten some shoes out of the deal."

"Like a bride without a dowry, " the Mayor's man said, shaking his head. "Well, you take what's dished out to you. He's all yours."

So much to do, but what to do first. Lamely, I asked. "What about the ceremony?" As if that mattered. He may not survive the night.

The Mayor's man shrugged. "The Mayor sends his regrets. He's in conference and can't be disturbed. He's been told that we have a newcomer and what his condition is. He's the one who looked it up in the book to confirm that you were the next on the list. He says you should just take him along and see to the formalities later." His eyes indicated that the Mayor seemed to feel, as I feared, that the ceremony to formally assign this particular newcomer to my care might not be necessary.

I thought for a moment about the long road back to the farm and considered trying to find a place in town to take him. All at once, however, I was aware of all the eyes. How I wanted out of there and away from people like these who could stare at a sick man and do nothing just because he was a BoB. Home then. Clearly, he wasn't going to walk the twelve miles. Luckily, I'd brought my handcart because of the seed so at least I had transportation. With help I poured the limp, muddy form into the back. There continued to be no response except that his eyes fluttered a bit when the young men who held his feet dropped him more roughly than they needed to.

At least some of the Old Ones had feelings. Peter Ruft who runs the Grange let me borrow a whole armload of seed bags so that at least my newcomer wouldn't catch the 'grip' before I got him home. Saint that he was, the old surgeon, Mac MacIntyre, shuffled out of the apothecary and, unasked, thrust a whole bag of salves and assorted remedies into my arms. He didn't even make me sign for them. By his hand on my shoulder I knew that he wished me luck.

As I reached for the handles of the cart, my so-called friends, whose spirits had brightened again with the preparations, began to hoot and holler from the porch of the Grange where they stood out of the drizzle. "Yeah, Benji, that's the way. You tell him who's boss!"

"Why don't you guys go stick your heads in a post hole," I called back but without rancor. After all, why should I be angry? I'd probably be just an insensitive if I were in their place. "There'll be time enough for him to pull his weight." Like the Mayor's man I hadn't added, 'If he lives.'

The trip was uneventful except that my burden was heavier than six of the large sacks of grain. I heard a moan or two as the wheels dipped into deep ruts but otherwise no complaints. At least it had stopped raining.

I spoke too soon. The rain resumed as gray and chill as the lowering sky before we were half way to the homestead. The slight rise in the road between the flat plane of the fields and the knoll where old William's cabin perched had never seemed so steep, but finally I was able to pull into the yard. I went directly to the barn and maneuvered the cart to just inside the doorway where it usually sat, grateful not to feel the rain pounding on my head any longer. It was better to listen to its muffled hammering away on the sod roof above.

Now that all my attention was not fixed on the physical effort of just getting the cart to the farm, I realized that I didn't know what I was going to do with my new responsibility. I certainly saw the dark, dank barn in a different light than during the workday when it was used for storing seed and rope, plow and tools. In the fall it stored harvest as well, but it being spring there was not much harvest left. "Now what do I do with you?" I asked the wet and silent wretch in the back of my handcart. I didn't really expect an answer. Without enthusiasm I gave the south corner a long look. Its clutter was no different than that in the rest of the barn. I had never set up a room there as a landholder should. Oh, I had made plans for this day once but when it looked like it was never going to happen the plans had lain as fallow as a off year field "Not fit for man nor beast," I murmured out loud to myself, not even heartened by my little joke. "I guess it will have to be the house then. Just don't tell anyone."

Slinging his long body over my shoulder I carried my temporary housemate across the muddy yard and into the cabin that still held an echo of heat from the fire of the night before.


MULDER: Year 30, Week 17.4 Dale Reckoning (or so I'm told)

My turn, Scully. I certainly seem to be spending an unusual amount of time on this tour of the galaxy not remembering things. Benjamin has told you all you need to know about how I stumbled upon the humans on this planet or at least it was as much as anyone knows. As we go along a lot of what you don't understand yet will be made clear. At this time in the story, however, we'll just assume that you know a lot more than I do.

I woke itching. Oh, I was in pain, too, from the mess I made of my feet walking for miles barefoot, and I was dripping with sweat and had about as much strength as a kitten, so I knew that I had been seriously ill, but the itching was by far the worse.

"Try not to scratch," suggested a hesitant male voice above me. "It will only make it worse."

I didn't scratch. I didn't move.

"I won't hurt you," the low voice assured me.

Actually, his hurting me hadn't been on my mind. Since Oregon, I have almost gotten use to being hurt. What had left me momentarily speechless was the sound of a voice which was not only not hostile but wasn't Ness's and wasn't Charley's. I opened my eyes and there he was. A bear. Well, not really a bear, but a strong-looking, youngish man with a thick, black beard, long hair pulled back and eyes so blue I could see their color even in the dimness of the room.

"Took a nap in a tickle bush, did you?" He didn't wait for an answer. "Can you sit up? I have this salve that will take away the worst of the sting." Again without waiting for me to answer, he helped me to sit. I tried to help but the dim room went spinning. I just sat for a while letting the spin slow, taking in where I was and trying to remember where I'd been. It was hard to think though when some total stranger was crouched in front of me and smearing awful-smelling, black gunk briskly over all the places on my arms where the blisters were. Where it was applied, however, the itching did relent so I didn't complain.

"Where am I?" I croaked.

Now I know that I didn't sound so good, but I didn't see any reason why my benefactor should start so violently. Fumbling with the jar he held, he lost his balance and fell backwards.

"Sorry," I told him. "I'm fresh out of original opening lines."

Owl eyes not leaving my face, he scrambled into a somewhat more dignified position but a noticeable distance farther from me even with the limitations of the room.

"Y-You're home. What I mean is, this is my home."

My eyes were becoming accustomed to the dark. It was a snug, little hobbit hole less than twelve feet square. Dirt floor, dirt walls, and a dirt ceiling with wooden support thrusts. From a small stone fireplace a little, red fire glowed. There wasn't a lot of light but the heat was delicious at least on the side of my body that faced the fire. In the way of fires my opposite side was cold. It didn't smell like a fire, though. The scent was more pungent, like a swamp For furniture I made out a solid chair, a rough table and lots of shelves filled with earthenware crocks, bits of this and that and baskets that were mostly empty, all in a similar shade of brown There was a drying rack on which on a few dry sprigs of some kind of plant material hung.

"Comfy." What else can you say to Johnny Appleseed who has taken you into his home and is helpfully smearing pond scum on your itches "Peat fire?"

"Y-Yes," he confirmed, still staring.

We just sat that way for a while. For some unknown reason, he seeming astonishingly perplexed to find me there.

"Is anything wrong?" I asked.

"Uh, n-no."

I gestured to the pot of salve he still clutched. "That seems to help, awful as it smells. If you let me have it, I can put the rest of it on for myself."

After a moment's hesitation, he numbly held it out.

"H-How do you feel?" he stammered, as I worked at applying the salve to my chest.

"Shaky," I admitted, which I was.

"I was afraid for a while that you were going to die on me." He seemed genuinely upset about that.

"What made me sick?" I asked. "I started getting hot and cold flashes after only a few hours in the rain. Couldn't have been the flu, not that fast."

"Newcomer fever. Something in the water. Everyone dropped off gets it eventually. A few have died from it."

"And those who don't wish for a while that they would."

I remembered crouching against the bank of a muddy hill and shaking so violently I was afraid that I would rattle out all my teeth. I had been burning on the inside and freezing on the outside.

More silence. I had worked down to my waist and was trying to get around to my back when my host moved to kneel behind me. "I'll get that for you," he offered. As even the little effort I'd put out had tired me and made the room tilt alarmingly, I handed him the jar and leaned forward. There was some considerable pause before he began spreading the noxious stuff and then he seemed very hesitant, which seemed odd considering how aggressively he'd applied it to my arms.

"Thank you for all your trouble, " I said when the silence had stretched for longer than I felt comfortable. Still he worked on When it seemed that he had covered every inch of my back twice and was working his way south, I interrupted with, "That's much better I'll do the rest," and held my hand out to the side for the salve.

After another awkward pause, he handed it over then rocked back on his heels. With my host so close and obviously watching, I was the one who hesitated to lift the blanket that covered me from the waist down. As if suddenly aware of how uncomfortable he was making me, my young host jumped to his feet. He obviously knew where the ceiling was because he didn't hesitate to stand even though his head nearly brushed one rough log beam. I would have to be careful for if he was taller than I, it wasn't by much.

"You were unconscious for days," he murmured. "You must be hungry and thirsty."

Food is not usually my first concern, but it seemed a safe subject "If it wouldn't be any trouble."

His next series of rapid, nervous movements around the room brought the dizziness back. Until it eased, I studied the furnishings in the section of the room where he wasn't busying himself. When he had been talking to me before he had been sitting on a chest whose top was covered with a lumpy pad with a covering like burlap. This was clearly his bed and a single one, so he lived here alone. I was sitting on an identical pad laid out before the fire. The guest room. The rough material - to which real burlap felt like velvet in comparison - was filled with what felt like old straw. It probably was. A blanket that had fallen down around my loins when I sat up was of the same material as the bed pad covering. I had hesitated applying the rest of the salve because I was all too aware that under the blanket I was naked - again. I could feel the scratchiness of the burlap on my ass. I looked around for my clothes before remembering that, as usual, I didn't have any of those to speak of either. There hadn't been much left of the coveralls, which Charley had torn, what with walking in the rain, falling into sink holes, and blundering through nests of thorns. I bunched the burlap up around my hips so I could get to my legs and began adding the salve. By some bending and twisting under the blanket in ways my body wasn't really ready for yet, the salve eventually got to all the other places it needed to.

As if aware of the moment when my gyrations under the blanket ceased, my host placed a clay bowl and jug down on the rough table "You can eat now." When I made no immediate move to rise, he rushed forward to take hold of my arm. "Sorry. Do you need some help?"

"Uh - maybe - but first I'm afraid that I'll need to ask if I can borrow some clothes." Absently, he raised a hand, murmured "Right" as if to himself, and within seconds produced a bundle. "These are my best. We'll have to find you some of your own but these will do for now." He watched me as I held up drawstring pants, eyeing them dubiously. "We're lucky we're the same size." That must mean that the shapeless things were going to fit me as badly as they fit my host. Swiftly, he came forward as if he were now going to help me dress.

Hastily, I waved him away. "No thank you, I can manage this part." The young man backed away, but only as far as his bench bed where he sat, obviously intending to watch me dress as if this were the most fascinating activity in the world. As there wasn't any place else either of us could go, I hurried.

I tried to draw on the pants while keeping the blanket in place, all in all not succeeding very well. "You appear to know a lot more about me than I do about you," I said, uncomfortably.

"I wouldn't be so sure about that," my host said, slowly.

"You called me a newcomer. This indicates to me that strangers being dropped practically naked on your doorstep is not so unusual."

"Twenty years ago not so unusual, now very unusual. And you're..." His brow furrowed.

"I'm what? Should I have two heads?"

"We thought..." He sighed. I tried to stand then, the better to get the awkward, long-sleeved shirt on, but swayed on my feet. Before I could reach out towards a handy rafter for support, my bearded companion was at my side, supporting my arm. I didn't shake him off for the room was listing south again.

In addition to the shirt there was a thick vest and both were made of pretty much the same rough material as the bed covering and the blanket. I cringed as it slid over skin that was still sensitive from the tickle bush blisters. My back-to-the-land friend may have the hide of a rhinoceros but I didn't.

"Is it true that you were just dropped here?" he blurted out.

"Where is here?"

"On this planet."

"Let's just say that I didn't come for the climate."

He opened his mouth as if to say something, then closed it again. My host was nothing if not infuriating. He had something to say, but damned if I knew what it was. One minute he seemed easy in my presence, the next extremely uncomfortable, and yet he remained fixated on my every move with distressing intensity. I assumed that all would be made clear in time. At the moment, though, I craved information even more than food.

"These other strangers. Who was responsible for bringing them here?"

"I've never seen one. It's said that they're small, with big bald heads and huge black eyes."

"Close enough," I confirmed with a sigh. "At least we have friends in common." I ignored my host's confused expression to bask in the knowledge that I had not stumbled into some lost civilization of barbarians. These people knew that they were on a planet and it was a relief to find that no new villains had been added to the picture By now I had finished dressing and my host was still staring Seeing that I was dressed, he decided to help me, willing or not, to the table although the distance was no more than three feet.

"Is there a problem?" I asked, more abruptly than I'd intended, for his fawning was becoming damned irritating.

Three different expressions of confusion and embarrassment showed on his face at once. "It's just that the other newcomers have all been..." He pointed to his right temple. "... not all there in the head Most don't say much even after many years. I was just surprised. You seem...all right. Maybe you aren't a newcomer after all."

So why did my state of lucidity and the fact that I may not be a 'newcomer' depress him totally? I was ruminating over his unease as I gingerly sat in the splintery chair in my more-than-rough homespun pants and looked down at what he had provided for me. There was a rough clay crock beside a cup of the same material. The food itself was also brown but its smell was far from unpleasant. On the contrary, my stomach instantly reminded me of how hollow it was and of how long it had been since I had had anything to eat which didn't come up almost immediately.

The first bite of the cold stew was even more pleasant. It was good vegetarian fare made up of grains and beans and roots, nicely flavored with herbs and dried fruit. Too bad that its color made my heart ache in sympathetic memory of those left behind in that room on the Portjam.

"This is good!" I murmured around the bite. My words and obvious surprise brought a shy smile to my host's lips, a fact that was amazingly easy to see despite the heavy beard.

"Thank you. That's my spring specialty. Won first prize at the winter fair."

He watched me eat with the same fascination with which he had watched me dress and didn't speak until I began to slow down which, due to my shrunken stomach, wasn't long.

"What did you do to get sent here?" he asked.

Now that's a long story. I decided on the simple version. "I flunked pilot school." When he looked at me strangely I revised it to, "I pissed off a shapeshifter."

His face registered instant understanding. "One of them? I've heard stories. Don't worry. They never come here."

"How would you know if one did or not?"

He looked thoughtful at that. "I see your point."

It struck me just then, Scully, how absolutely refreshing it was - weird, but refreshing - to be able to talk about alien races and shapeshifters and abductions and be instantly believed. I kept feeling like I should be pinching myself to see if I was awake and I would have if the itching weren't doing that job all on its own.

"Our history records that this colony," my host was saying, "was started thirty years ago, Earth time, with fifty-two rejected mindspeakers and a dozen others whose talents didn't mature." Something about my jaw dropping open - I hope there wasn't any food in my mouth - must have caught his attention. "You know what a mindspeaker is?"

"Failed at that, too," I muttered my mouth half full again.

His eyes widened with respect. "You've been around."

Remembering the flights of the Beast a shiver walked up my spine.

"You should feel at home then. All the other BoB's are deadheads, too. At least now they are."

That was an odd statement. "To my knowledge, being named 'Bob' was not a requirement of the mindspeakers I was with." No, they were Billy and Theresa and Roy. I wondered not for the first time how they were.

"No, 'B-BoB' is not their name, just short for- " The light was dim, just the firelight augmented by a couple of oil lamps, but I thought that the inch of skin between my host's beard and eyes flushed Abruptly, he turned away to pluck a jar off a shelf an arm's length away. "Try these dried applecorns; they're special."

That numbness I get between my shoulders when something is 'up' was suddenly buzzing big time. "For newcomer?" I asked, hoping it sounded like an innocent question. "'Bob' is short for newcomer?" My host shrugged, noncommittally. Seeing that I wasn't going to get anymore on that subject at least at the moment, I reached my hand across the table in greeting. "My name isn't Bob, though there are times I certainly wish it were. Call me Mulder."


MULDER Year 30, week 17.4 (continued)

Considering all the touching he'd been doing so casually before, my host just stared at my proffered hand. After a moment he took it but only for the briefest handshake. "Excuse me, I'm Ben, Benjamin, Holder Benjamin, and this," he gestured at the tiny cabin and surrounding land, his face lightening with pride, "is my holding."

"Does that mean you're holding it for someone?"

Benjamin hesitated. "It's an old term, left over from when the colony first started. Officially, I guess you'd say that I work the land for the colony. I inherited it from my foster father when I was eighteen." This last was also said proudly. Quite an accomplishment, I assumed, though looking around at the accommodations, it didn't look like much.

"It's very nice, Ben. Thank you again for all your help."

The bearded man shuffled uncomfortably. "You'd - ah - better call me Benjamin or Holder Benjamin. It wouldn't do for you to call me by my genpack name."

"Genpack name?"

"The name I'm called by the men of my generation."

"Ah." I didn't mention at this time that I was probably of his generation, unless the beard and his outdoor life made him appear a lot older than he was. Though still weak and disoriented, I felt my investigative feelers extend. Clearly, this was an isolated human colony that had been left to develop its own idiosyncrasies over the years. With or without an itchy butt, I could get interested in this. The drink in the clay flask was even palatable as well as being mildly alcoholic. Yes, I could get use to this. Behavioral Science had been my undergraduate major after all I looked around the tiny, one-room cabin. Well, maybe not for too long. Too many days in here and I'd come down with a serious case of claustrophobia.

But academia for later. As usual when a member of the human species finds himself in a new place, his first thoughts are always on locating the basics of life - food, water, shelter, and where it was permissible to take a shit.

"Benjamin, I think I need to know where the - outhouse - is? Toilet? Latrine?"

Ben jerked upright with an apologetic, "Ah, sorry... yes." Rising hastily from his seat on his bench bed, he went to the room's only door and threw open the massive sheet of rough-hewn planks.

Blinding sunlight flooded in.

"Ow!" I cringed, shielding my eyes. The cabin was so dark that I had assumed that it was night. For the first time I noticed that there were no windows. Considering the level of technology I'd seen so far there was probably no glass in this society or, if there were, it would be prohibitively expensive. Still, light and air were important so to do without the weather on this planet must be every bit as inclement as the night of my arrival had led me to believe.

Squinting and stooping as he did, I followed my host to exit the low door. First, we took care of the necessities- and I do mean we. Ben had to come to show me the proper method of managing bodily waste which, if left to decompose sufficiently, makes great fertilizer, don't ya' know. Clearly, this society lets nothing go to waste - pun intended - but they don't know much about privacy. There is something to be said about taking care of business in the sunshine, however.

For there was sunshine. Warm, low morning sunshine touched my face and warmed through my badly fitting clothes even though there was a chill bite to the slight wind. Ben had talked about the stew being his spring specialty. In an agrarian society 'spring' must refer to whatever foodstuff is left over after the winter. Standing before the door to his cabin and looking down across the rolling land to a small river, I could believe it was spring. New, green shoots sprinkled the ground that was generally covered with dry, flattened grass. The few trees close by had that fuzzy appearance deciduous trees get after winter just before the new leaves burst out.

A smile tugged at my lips. If you were standing by my side, Scully, and we were looking for the first time over some alien landscape, I would interject at some point that we weren't in Kansas any more. In the case of Dale, however, I couldn't really say that with absolute certainty. There may actually be places in Kansas with this many trees, and where the land rolls as this does, and where a small river passes by the foot of a far cultivated field. And yet I remember two moons and I know that this is not Kansas, nor is it Pennsylvania. It's also a good deal farther from you than Africa or Australia or even Frostbite Falls.

As pleasantly bucolic as the scene was, my heart lay heavy and desolate in my chest. Harvest, Charley had said. He would return at harvest time. That would be months away I appreciated the fact that this poor, young farmer had taken a stranger in, cared for me in my illness, fed me and clothed me, but I couldn't expect to depend on the hospitality of strangers indefinitely. I was going to need a permanent place to live and what passed for a job here and neither behavioral scientists, FBI agents, nor windmill tilters were likely to be much in demand.

Looking over my shoulder, I took in the cabin for the first time From outside its resemblance to a hobbit hole was even greater. It had been carved into a hillside. Walls and roof were sod. Its front door faced their equivalent of south while the hill behind rose up to block the north winds "No wonder you're happy to see the spring. Your winters must be hard." And damned lonely for a man by himself.

"Bad enough." My host looked my way from under a lock of black hair that fell over his forehead and murmured, "It will be easier now."

Making his little embarrassed shuffle again, he stooped suddenly and took a small handful of damp soil in his hand and rubbed it between his fingers. I've seen farmers do that in movies. In an attempt to show I was 'one of the people' I did the same. Now dirt is not just dirt to me. I can tell you approximately how long it has been since the last rainfall, how much clay there is so what the chances are that it will hold a print or a tire track or stand up to a plaster cast. I can even track as long as the UNSUB is moving like a locomotive and about as interested as one in covering his trail, but I know nothing about what grows in the stuff or how to convince it to do so.

"First quality, isn't it?" Ben said about the soil, his pride showing again as he looked off happily down the slope towards where several fields had already been plowed. At this point be began to talk in expansive and energetic detail, not only about the crops he'd planted, but also about the lineage of each type of seed. Most of the genealogists I've met would have been put to shame. The change in the man was remarkable, and I realized that he really was younger than I had thought at first. On this topic, with his feet in the soil, he was a different person entirely I'm afraid that I didn't have much to add to the conversation "About all I was ever able to grow were smooth seed bean plants and rough seed bean plants for a science experiment when I was fourteen I regret that I don't really know anything about farming."

Ben was not dismayed. In fact he beamed. "You'll learn, I'll teach you. Less to unlearn."

Is there something going on here that I don't know about?

"See those three fields." Ben was pointing to our right at three weed-choked expanses the size of football fields. "I think we can get those under seed within a week and then there are two new ones we can begin clearing."

What do you mean 'we', white eyes?

Very carefully, I began addressing the grinning idiot at my side.

"Benjamin - Holder Benjamin- " I revised, trying to sound respectful despite the alarm growing in the pit of my stomach, "I'm a newcomer, remember? Emphasis on the 'new'. I really don't know what's going on here. Why am I here with you? I vaguely remember a kind of village. And what the hell is a BoB which is what I'm suppose to be?"

Ben does a very good imitation of a deer caught in headlights. This, I thought, is a pleasant, competent farm boy who, as a manager, is way out of his depth. Could be worse. He could know what he was doing.

Suddenly, my host uttered an expletive, or I assume that 'Rains!' uttered that way is an expletive in this place. Considering what I remember of the night of my arrival, I would agree with him. At the moment Ben was looking left towards a low ridge. On the thin ribbon of a narrow dirt track was the tiny shape of a running man.

"We're going to have visitors," my host announced with dread.


- BENJAMIN: Year 30, Week 17.4 Dale Reckoning (continued)

The last thing I wanted at that moment was to see Jonathan Ironlegs coming down the road. My B-Bob caught on right away that something was wrong. Hell, I can't even think the word without stuttering, he's so un-Bob-like I guess I'll have to call him Mulder, after all, if that's his name.

"What's wrong? Trouble?" Mulder asked and he seemed to perk up at the thought as if responding to trouble was something he did every day.

"A runner from Stony River, our town. Johnny is the runner for the Mayor. He probably wants an update."'

"On what?" "On you."

"Such as am I alive?"

"That and how you're settling in."

Mulder's relaxed manner had turned to something harder than even when he had asked what a BoB was. He was going to want explanations and I had never expected that I would need any.

"'Settling in' has a very permanent sound which I don't remember being consulted about. In that respect I guess you could say that I'm not settling in very well."

His gaze was so direct, so - masterful - that I felt the cliff that I had heard crumbling around me ever since he spoke his first coherent words come crashing down.

"It's all wrong," I found myself jabbering. "It's not like they said, not like it should be." He just kept studying me with these intense eyes. What the freeze was I suppose to do? Where was my tractable, obedient field hand ever grateful for the food on his plate and the guiding touch of my hand? Helplessly, I gestured towards the house, then the barn.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

"Well, for one you aren't suppose to be sleeping in the house."

"I'm not?"

"You're suppose to be sleeping in the barn. BoB's sleep in the barn They're just... That's just what they're suppose to do."

I found myself running into the barn where I'd maybe moved around a few bales of sleeping straw since his arrival. I had had three days while Mulder lay in fever to get ready and I hadn't done more than that. I had spent all my time sitting and staring at the newcomer - MY newcomer, my pleasant, child-like companion - as he tossed and turned and sweated. Part of me had been busy being terrified that he would die, but the rest had jumped far ahead to all we could do together in the future. They have a precautionary tale on Dale about the man who 'counts his bushels' before the harvest. That's a bad thing to do, especially foolish when only half your fields are under seed.

In my panic it took me a while to realize that he had wandered in behind me and was standing there, cool-like, watching as I frantically pushed bales and boxes and bundles about.

"Now this is definitely wrong!" I yelled at him.

"What?" "You're suppose to be doing this." He frowned, the lips compressing to a pouting, stubborn line.

"Please?" Rains, I shouldn't beg, but I was desperate.

The hard line of those lips softened. "Give me an explanation later and I'll help. Only what is it that you're trying to do?"

He had a point. I was doing this all ass backwards. I felt tears come to my eyes. I thought I'd find him laughing at me but he was, if anything, far more willing than before. "Tell me how I can help."

"Go into the house and get your mat and the blanket and an oil lamp and bring them back here."

He hesitated as if there was something he wanted very much to ask.

"Look, we don't have much time. It will take Johnny a quarter hour to reach here from where we saw him." To that he gave no argument but headed for the house as fast as he could go on his sore feet, which wasn't too fast but fast enough Even though he was clearly intelligent, I was surprised when he came back quickly with everything I asked for on the first trip. The stories I'd heard about some of the other newcomers had led me to expect far less.

I don't know how it was managed, certainly not all of it was my doing, but I was outside on the step before the cabin braiding rope when Johnny came trotting up the slope. With hand outstretched to shake his, I rose and asked coolly what brought him around to visit Although it was twelve miles from the town to my door, his palm was barely damp, but then Johnny Ironlegs is in great shape. Acting far calmer than I felt, I went back to braiding while my visitor got himself a mug of cool water from the well. I hoped that he wouldn't notice that the last half-inch of braid was far looser and more uneven than the ten feet before it and that my hands shook.

After trading the pleasantries about the weather and his praising my land and my asking what stops he had made that day - two before mine - he finally blurted out with what he had been bursting to ask every since he ran up.

"So, Ben, where is he, this Bensman of yours. Hey! Come on bring him out and let's get a look at him!"

"Slow down. His fever just broke last night. Can't this wait?"

"Ben, come on. I have to see him. I've got to report."

After a pause as if I had to think about it first, I called out, "Mulder!" as languidly as I could manage and with, hopefully, none of the hysteria that I felt inside. Would he come when I called?

I found Johnny staring at me with mouth agape. "What was that? 'Mulder'?"

"That's his name. Unlike most of the newcomers," I drawled with a kind of casual pride, "he remembers his name." Much to my relief, Mulder came out of the barn on his own, eyes shadowed with irritation, but John didn't seem to notice.

"Snow but he's tall. No one saw him upright the other night. He's as tall as you." As if he were sizing up someone's new cabin or a new method of storing ropeweed, the runner just stalked up to Mulder to stare without apology into his face. I don't know how he missed the flaring of the man's nostrils, but I did and hurried to join them.

"Too bad about the scars, though," John said. "Once he doesn't have to use the black tickle grease any more, he'd be fine, really fine, if it weren't for the scars."

I didn't think the scars detracted all that much from Mulder's looks and from the interest in John's eyes I don't think he truly thought so either. I know his hunger was not to my liking and clearly was not to Mulder's either. Neither did Mulder care for being talked about as if he wasn't there. Even though I'd treated BoBs in very much this same way ever since I can remember, a surprising anger rose up in me that John should insult mine so.

As was the custom, I took the runner into the house for food and a drink and a bit of gossip and a rest, leaving Mulder outside to 'finish the barn'. His answering gaze at my limp command was black but he wandered back to what he had been doing. I was glad later that I took John into the house as quickly as I did because what he proceeded to talk about was not anything that my visitor was ready to hear. Visitor? houseguest? companion? Field hand?

Again, maybe I'll better just stick to 'Mulder'.

When it was time for Johnny to head back to town, he detoured by the barn for another look. Some work had been done since we left but not much Instead, Mulder was sitting on a bale in the sun, head bowed over elbows on knees. To tell you the truth he didn't look so good.

"What's he doing sitting down?" John exclaimed. "Ben, you can beat him for that!" There was such a note of glee in his voice that I sensed that he'd love to see me do so right then and there.

"And what do you know about it, John Ironlegs, you who practically has a fit at the sight of a field ready for plowing? No one will ever assign a BoB to you. I told you, the man just rose from his sick bed a few hours ago."

The runner shrugged. "I guess he does look a little poorly. Well, all right then. This time." Thankfully, he let the matter drop, though I knew that my 'lazy' newcomer and lackluster discipline would be the main topic of conversation around the supper tables of the colony for the rest of the week.

Reluctantly, John turned towards the road. "Got to run up to Caymon's before I head back, any messages? Oh, wait, the mayor says that you're to bring him to town next Tensday to finish the adoption."

"That's a long trip for a five-minute blessing'" I grumbled, not interested in taking Mulder to town any earlier than I had to. "Tell Daniel that we'll come the first Tensday we're free after plowing I've got two mouths to feed now which means more fields."

Finally John left, sprinting up the drive as if his legs were made of iron. Mulder didn't watch the runner leave; he only stared at me with those hooded, hazel cat eyes of his. I fled into the house and even though it wasn't supper time yet, came out with ale, bread, and a bag of nuts, spiced grains and dried fruit.

We ate and drank in silence. Mulder made no move to get up and continue with his work and I didn't push him. As I watched him raise the heavy ale bottle to his mouth, I knew that I'd only told the truth to John. I wasn't sure that he could have lifted the bottle twice, he was that unsteady.

"Sorry if I asked you to move around too fast. Do you want to lie down? Maybe take a nap? It's okay."

"Oh, thanks," he replied with a bitter irony. Quickly, too quickly, he rose as if his body was ready to explode with some long- smoldering anger. He had to reach out for the doorpost to steady himself. "Do I need your permission to shit, too?" he growled. "To breathe? Do I sleep on the floor in front of the fire like your dog or in the barn with the other ani- " He paused, studied the barn and sniffed. "Where are your animals?"

I shrugged.

"Cows? Pigs? Chickens?"

"Not on Dale. A few insects. The rare bird which no one can catch."

His eyes fell on the plow looking more like posthole digger then the drawings I've seen of plows from old Earth. It was heavy and awkward. "How do you plow your fields?"

"Slowly," I replied, "and with sweat. There's a big plow for the common town fields but that takes six Bo - six men to manage. I'd rather take care of mine myself. Not that I couldn't ask for the team to come out, but then I'd have to barter for their time and trouble and feed them. That's expensive. A lot of teams eat more than they're worth."

About half way through my explanation I had begun to doubt that Mulder was listening. His shoulder was against the roofing post now, and I think it was all that was keeping him upright. Even his eyes had closed. I touched the back of my hand against his damp brow. His head came up like a shot, eyes blazing, even as I leaped back.

"Sorry, just checking. You've got a touch of the fever back. You really should lie down."

"You're not going to order me to? I want to know what's going on and I want the truth. What have I been dropped into the middle of?"

It felt as if that cliff was coming the rest of the way down. "This is not how it's suppose to work."

"You've said that before. How's it suppose to work?" When I couldn't get the right words to start off with he did it for me. "When a newcomer gets dropped off I take it that they're assigned to one of the farmers? I thought at first that it was something like living with a host family, giving the newcomer a chance to get acclimated, but it's a more permanent relationship than that, isn't it?"

I found that I was staring down at my dirt-stained fingers. "You got to understand how strange this is. You see, BoBs - they're not expected to ask questions. Like I said, most can't even talk." Mulder's eyes were more interested than angry now. Very well, I told myself, this maybe wouldn't be so much different than storytelling "From the beginning then. From the start the colony was left on its own. A lot of people died." Mulder nodded, not surprised. "Then they started dropping off the newcomers; only a few at first, but then fairly often. These newcomers were not like you, they were very..." I waved my hand in front of my unfocused eyes. "They just weren't all there."

"From shock or actually brain-damaged?" my companion asked I shrugged. "They could barely take care of themselves, that's all I know. Most had to be told when to go to bed and when to piss. A few couldn't even feed themselves and that's even after we gave them food. They certainly couldn't organize themselves to grow anything We were a little community, dying ourselves when the crops were bad, and with no Earth animals like horses or oxen we had so much heavy work to do. What were we supposed to do with these people? At least they were physically healthy."

"So they were assigned to a farmer who put them to work." His eyes were cold. "BoB..." his voice trailed off. "Beast- "

" - of Burden." I admitted sheepishly.

"That's demeaning."

"It started out as a joke. The program had a fancier name when it started but that was lost over the years. 'Social Responsibility' I think they called it."

"Government-sponsored slavery," he sneered.

"Listen, you weren't here. You don't know. At least everyone has a home, everyone has food - most years anyway - and some BoBs get better with time."

"And what happens when they do? Are they given a choice then?"

I opened my mouth but nothing came out at first. True, there were no laws that covered any kind of smooth transition, and there were some truly ugly stories. "There's Peter," I stammered, coming up with the one example everyone always used when the topic came up, "Old Theodore's BoB. He went on to inherit his Holder's farm since Theo had no son. That will happen more in the future since there are no children."

Mulder's bright eyes had lost that accusatory look and showed interest again. "Why are there no children?"

"Because there aren't many women. Half a dozen women and as many children but you won't find them on any farm. They are very precious. You don't see them. There are less every generation." I felt myself blushing. "I'm one of the lucky ones, second generation."

He seemed to put a couple of ideas together. "I want to ask about your women and children but later. So you were born here, born to be a Holder one day, and that's where all the 'this is not the way it should be' stuff came from. And you've been expecting to be assigned a newcomer for years- "

"- But there just weren't any. They stopped coming. Ten years and nothing. I never thought... and then you..." I blushed again though I don't think he noticed.

"There were female mindspeakers where I was. Fairly equal numbers Why did they send so few women here?"

"They didn't. The numbers were pretty equal to start with." I felt the sadness sweep over me when I thought of what I've been taught about those years.

"What happened to the women?" Mulder asked and the gentleness of his voice somehow made it worse. I struggled to hold the tears back. It was weird the way the man could pinpoint exactly where the critical point was.

"R-Remember I said that a lot of us died at first? Most were women."

"Why?"

"Childbirth." My voice dropped to a whisper. "They bled horribly.. something about this planet they say. My own mother..." "Thirty years," he mused, his concentration far off. "And fewer women and children every year. Where are the ones who are left?"

"Oh, in the town. You see them sometimes on holidays, from afar They have to be shielded. Protected."

His hand was resting heavily on the barn support again. He looked down at me, his expression serious and weary. "I'm sorry about your mother, Ben. I'm sorry for your community, but I'm not one of your gifts of slave labor from heaven." This last he said with absolute finality. "I'm not a BoB in any of the ways your people mean by that, and from some of the things Runner John said I think you know what I'm referring to."

I swallowed, disappointment flooding my belly. So he had listened and had heard. "I realize that - now. But about you're not being like the others, how were we to know? You were just so sick from the fever. Even with John, you didn't actually say anything. So they still don't know."

"What will happen when they find out?"

"I don't know, but new ideas aren't welcome." I didn't have to say more. A good deal of my anxiety must have transmitted itself to him for he leaned against the post silently for a long time, his expression grave.

"Damn you, Charley," he muttered under his breath, words not meant for me to hear. "You intended purgatory and purgatory I got."

"You're very intelligent," I went on, "which means that just like now you are going to ask questions, and there are too many people on Dale who don't want to hear such questions, much less the answers." And less from a Bob than anyone, my thoughts continued. "There are lots of scared people who don't want things to change. Those would be the back-knife politicians who haggle for places on top in the town and most of the giant landholders who have many Bobs as well as landless men who work for them. Some nasty stuff goes around which is why I got myself adopted to old William so that I could live out here. He's been dead ten years and I still spend almost all my time here."

Mulder was smiling softly. Nearly took my breath away that smile "That's a very astute observation, Ben. Societies on the decline fall apart in more ways than one and staying out of the fighting is probably the wisest thing you can do. If you're willing to keep our secret, perhaps it would be best if they continue not to know about 'me' until I understand the lay of the land better."

I was relieved that he could grasp the problem, but I knew that he didn't understand all the reasons for my fear, not the personal ones anyway.

"I'll tell you what...." he said, stretching slowly. "Until we get this all sorted out, I'll help with the farm work. If it makes you feel more Holder-like you can even give me orders and I'll pretend to do what you say. When we're around other people you can even say that you beat me. When we're around other people I can even do my newcomer best to appear properly distracted." His eyes took on a far away look. "Actually, Scully would say that the distracted part would come naturally." It was as if the sun had come out from behind a cloud, that's how the lines in his face relaxed when he said that name. "Who's Scully?"

His smile was back, gentle and sad. "A friend whom I think you would like very much. Correction, a friend whom I - know - you would like very much."


MULDER: Year 30, Week 19.5 Dale Reckoning

Farming... Farming is hard work, damn hard, sweaty, backbreaking work... but rewarding for all that. I saw the first shoots come out of the ground today. They were in the field Ben had planted before my arrival but our three additional fields are all planted and I'm checking the soil daily, walking down after breakfast with the sun on my face. It warms my back as I lean down.

Kind of like watching the grass grow only this is life for these people.

'These' people. Notice that I don't say 'us'. I'm still apart, separate. I guess that I'm destined to never be part of any herd You see, I haven't forgotten about Charley's promise... that he would be back after harvest. I have a way out. These people don't That's what sets us apart. Does that mean I'll leave? Most of the time it's not even a question I need to ask. Of course, I will. But then the memories of the ship come back and the Beast on that ship and an uncontrollable terror squeezes my heart. At those times being a beast here doesn't seem so bad after all. When the frost is on the pumpkin, however, I know I will go. That's still months away, however. In the meantime I live here quietly with Ben and we work the land.

The best part is waking in the morning in my little nest in the south corner of the barn. I like waking up alone. It's almost like old times though a lumpy mat of sleep straw is not nearly as comfortable as my old couch. And who needs coffee when you're greeted with cold dew between your toes as you scurry shivering to the latrine? It's after the first chilly shock wears off that I spread my arms to the sun and glory in the pure simple pleasure of being free. I have clean air to breathe and no walls except when I want them and no company except when I want that either. And the company? The company is Ben. We work in silence or we work and talk or - God, help me - we work and sing. Work songs. No wonder they put radios in cars early on Ah, I hear you, Scully, and you are right. Though I have told Ben about Charley and the ship - I thought his eyes would fall out his head - I haven't told him that I have a way off this dirtball and that I intend to leave as soon as I possibly can.

Two weeks and more of the same. Since their weeks are ten days long, that is twenty days our time. Just Ben and I and dirt. If only there were some metal tools but I haven't seen a one. Every chore takes a very long time, but at least I'm sleeping well. I fall asleep exhausted every night, but it's a good feeling to work with your muscles towards something that will be appreciated. Better than hitting your head against brick walls for ten years, which is how long that I lived and breathed the X-Files. Working in the fields keeps my mind off other matters as well. If Charley thought this was hell, he didn't know me very well. If he had wanted this to be hell, he would never have said he would come back. THAT would have been hell.

As I've said, Ben is a good companion. He's cheerful and hard- working. He's also silent when I feel the need for silence, which is often. I found myself telling him much of what I told Ness about Earth. There is only one problem: he is like a puppy in his hero worship. It's when we get close physically that he is anything but puppy-like in the strength of his physical response. There's no way around that in a cabin as small as Ben's or when we work together in the fields harvesting rocks. Now I've known plenty of women who have had crushes on my person. They see the face and the form but not the whole package. They think they can 'save' me. I've learned to ignore that. There have even been a few men, gays who feel the exact same way. But with Ben this is much tougher. Though he envisions himself the hermit, he's actually dying for companionship. So what would you expect? Here he is, finally alone with another human being, he's never known a woman, doesn't expect to ever have the opportunity to know a woman, and as I understand it his society has totally accepted the man-man thing. I'm also fighting this fairy-tale he's been telling himself ever since he stepped in line to become a landholder at thirteen about the ideal relationship between the lordly Holder and his worshiping field hand. Let's just say that we have the makings for considerable tension here.

The worst part is, I'm lonely, too, and here I have the possibility for a real friend, which is rare for me. I do feel an ache when I see that boy-man's back turned to me as he sleeps alone on his shelf bed. That's another reason why I sleep in the barn most of the time The only time I sleep inside is when it's too cold at night, which it often is even though I'm told that it's nearly summer. When I'm forced inside, I stretch out under the table in the cabin, unwilling to sleep again in front of the fire at Ben's feet. He may be only ten years younger than I in age, but he's a century behind in life experience.

Look who's talkin'? Mr. Sophisticate.


Year 30, Week 19.9 Dale Reckoning

John Ironlegs came visiting, two and a half of their ten-day weeks since his last visit. We were working on clearing a new field, which was fortunate for us both. Stinking, filthy, sweaty and sunburned as I was, I looked every inch the non-too-bright plowhorse.

"Daniel wants to know why you two haven't come to town," the runner called across most of the field. "It's May Day tomorrow. It would be a good time he says." Ben looked my way, clearly hesitating. We both knew that allowing me to be seen by people could complicate my life here, but in time our continued absence would begin to look suspicious. Ben is one of the few genuinely decent and kind people that I have ever known and I don't want him hurt as a result of his association with me.

As if maneuvering to get a better hold on a very large stone, I turned my back on the runner and spoke softly so that only Benjamin could hear. "Ben, you should go."

"These festivals are overrated," he murmured so John couldn't hear or see his mouth move.

"That's not the point. You can't isolate yourself out here with me That will only raise questions." I didn't say what my real reason was, that when I left with Charley I didn't want Benjamin to have burned all his bridges here. If I understood his history correctly, he had been enough of a recluse before.

After catching my eye to confirm that I was serious, Ben shouted to John, "Very well, I'll come!"

"And what about 'him'," John called back, gesturing to me. "Don't tell me that you're going to leave him tied up in the barn!"

"That's not a totally bad idea," I murmured to the rock I was laboring with. "I mean about staying here, not the tied up part I've never been very much of a party-person."

"We'll BOTH come!" Ben answered, a hint of humor in his voice, and that was that. With a skip John's swift feet were flying to finish his rounds.

We worked for a while in silence. As I said, we were clearing a new field. Rocks are amazingly heavy when you drop one on your foot. The tough old grass refused to be cut and if you try to pull it out by the roots, most of the topsoil came up with it, which has to be reclaimed because there was precious little. Then the earth just under the topsoil has to be broken up with picks and mixed with compost. I'll never complain about having to slave over expense reports again Lunchtime comes whenever the first of us sits down for a break Early on, just after the first week when I'd broken in my muscles, we reached a point when neither of us wanted to be the first to give in. We nearly killed ourselves working from dawn to dark. We don't do that anymore. Ben gave in first this time, sprawling out under what he said was a roseberry bush and sucking in air and cool water from a flask. "We'd better call it a day. Takes hours to walk to town and we have to clean up."

Muscles aching in that good way from honest, physical labor, I dropped down onto the dry grass next to Ben, there being no other shade. Unfortunately, I sat on a half-buried rock, which I quickly chucked into our ever-enlarging pile. "We should do something with those," I said gesturing to the pile. "With no neighbors to worry about and no animals, I guess you don't have any need for stone fences."

"Hardly. They build houses with them in the town and, Freeze knows, that there's clay enough for mortar, but it's not worth the trouble to drag them so far."

I gestured up the hill towards the sod cabin and barn, their grassy roofs barely distinguishable from the hills at this distance. "It's a long way from the river. What about a rock-lined cistern or another storage shed?"

Ben munched on his lunch of bread and bean spread, his eyes animated. "Or another room on the cabin. It's going to be very crowded this winter with the both of us stuffed in there day after day. You'll freeze in the barn." There was the slightest catch in his voice as he finished with, "And I won't have you sleeping on the floor for months at a time."

This was actually very kind of him because I knew where he wanted me to sleep. He had shyly offered space on his bed bench more than once on the colder nights.

"Yes, you should have a small room of your own," Ben repeated. This said he allowed himself a cautious glance in my direction probably hoping that I would protest In truth I did hesitate. Kicking puppies was not my favorite occupation and I hadn't planned on telling gentle Ben that I would not be around this winter until much closer to the time of my departure. On the other hand I didn't want him wasting time and effort building a room that I had no intention of ever needing "That's an idea but I have another one. When the weather's good you bath in the river. I assume the river freezes. What do you do in the winter?"

"Stink," the black-bearded, young man said with a grin.

"Ever thought about building a sweat lodge or sauna up against the outside of the existing chimney? It would be a way of getting really warm every once in a while during the winter. I know I've had enough of being cold on this trip."

Ben was thoughtful and, though he tried to hide it, quietly hopeful I instantly regretted the expectations my refusal of a room and bed of my own had spawned.

With the ease of a strong and active man, Ben rose to his feet and reached for a rough sack at his feet. Earlier we had taken turns going up to the cabin to fetch going-to-town cleaning supplies "We'll talk about this more later. For now I'd better start washing otherwise there won't be time for both of us to get ready."

I dropped in beside him with my own bundle of 'clean' clothes, extra sacking that could serve equally well as a towel or Brillo pad, and some of the colony's rough-milled soap. "I might as well come along."

He stared at me, startled. "I thought bathing with me made you nervous."

"Having you looking at me while I'm bathing makes me nervous. Since you wash first and then back track to hide in the bushes to watch me bath anyway there's not much difference."

Ben's cheeks blushed scarlet. "I'm sorry."

"Benjamin, I'm flattered by your offers of... closer encounters of the intimate kind, but, as I've said, it's not the way I'm put together."

"It's because you have a lover back on Earth, isn't it? A woman."

I nearly choked. Scully, I swear that I never discussed you with Ben, not in those terms, but Ben is very perceptive for a recluse "That's probably it, though Scully is far more than a lover. I 'love' her. There's a big difference. If she were just a lover, I could possibly trade one for another, but with what Scully and I have, that's not possible."

"And I'm not female," Ben said dismally. "They're always better, so they say."

I rolled my eyes. "The sex of the partner matters less than you think, at least to me. Sure I prefer women. Like many men where I come from I experimented with other combinations when I was young but one man, one woman does work best for me. Still, I'm open to everyone deciding that for themselves. Living the way you do here, with no access to women, I can see why you might assume that more could develop between us, but you must know by now that it won't."

Benjamin kept walking. We were at the steep edge of the riverbank where we had to watch our footing so his eyes were on the ground, his lips a stoic line. We sat on the bank and began the laborious process of removing the generations-old work boots that were held together with winding upon winding of the rough homespun. Ben jerked with obvious frustration at his and then paused. He sighed once deeply and started the unwrapping only more slowly.

"Back when we were in our teens, my friends and I used to sit around and talk about how it would be when we got out own BoBs." Ben shook his head over the crumbling boot. "Some of the things my friends planned made me sick, but I couldn't let on. Sadistic stuff. They kept talking about holding these parties where they'd bring two of those poor, dumb wretches together and watch to see if they knew what to do." I felt, rather than heard, the young man at my side clear his throat and then go on, his voice thicker. "I never said what I would do when my turn came. In those days it was a given that the newcomers would keep coming. But I knew he would be frightened, confused. I would go slow and I would be so gentle. They're like children, you know, the BoBs, and yet they are not. I would have seen to it that mine would look forward to the end of the day and the long winter nights."

With a lurch, Ben jerked off the last loosened boot, then stripped off the sweaty shirt and trousers. Within seconds he was on his feet and quickly executed a graceful dive into the cold water of the small river. I sat on the bank, the image of a bare, strong back in my mind and a pair of firm, white buttocks. Something clutched at me deep inside. Damn, but he would be just what he said he would be; a good lover, gentle as he said, and considerate with skillful hands He made carvings in the winter; they were all over his cabin. He had very skillful hands.

A larger than normal bead of sweat trickled down into my beard Irritably, I rubbed at it with the back of my hand.

"What's wrong?" came an amused voice from the river. Ben had returned to the bank to get soap from his sack.

"This beard. It's hot; it itches. I've give anything to get rid of it."

Ben's eyes were wickedly mirthful. "Mulder, you are so lucky that I'm not the kind of a man to take advantage of another man's suffering." With a flourish he produced an object from his sack that looked very much like a slice of rock.

I stared. "Shit, is that a flint razor?"

"It's May Day, the first day of the new year. The traditional time for the shearing of the winter growth." Deftly, he sawed off a hunk of his own black bush. I grimaced while he merely shrugged. "Seems like it needs a bit of sharpening."

Ben pulled out a wet stone, small chisel and a small hammer stone and proceeded to do just that, flaking as easily as the most accomplish aborigine.

This seemed an appropriate time to bath my own dirty, sweaty body Years before Benjamin and his foster father had made rock steps down into a natural pool and lined the bottom with stones. Too bad that a few thousand years hadn't passed since to wear away the sharpest edges. Still, it was better than sticky mud up to your ankles. As it was still spring, the water was more than just cold and raised a good crop of gooseflesh on my skin. It gave me the incentive to work even more energetically to try to raise some kind of lather with the nearly useless soap. In truth I didn't mind the chilly water. I had spent so many of the past months living in my own stink that any chance for a bath was welcome. I didn't linger, however, especially when Ben came down with his newly sharpened 'razor' and more of the terrible soap to sit on the wet steps to shave. This was my signal to exit to a sunny spot behind him to dry in the sun. Dry enough, I slipped on a long, T-shaped tunic and went to see how he was doing Amazingly, ninety percent of the thick black beard was gone. For the first time I glimpsed Ben's real age. He was even younger than I thought. Maybe not even thirty.

I cringed as he groped with the razor-sharp flint for a stubborn patch of curly black hairs under his jaw. "Don't you have a mirror?" I asked.

"There's only one in the whole colony. I've always done it by feel, but then there's never anyone around to tell me what kind of a job I've done. So how bad is it?"

"Amazingly good considering what you have to work with."

He laughed. "Do you mean my face?"

"Not your face, I mean the razor and the quality of the soap." And I meant that because the soap was indeed awful and his face, now that I could see it, was a nice face.

Ben was pointing to a spot under his chin. "If you're going to be critical, you can get this spot for me."

Tentatively I took between my fingers the arrowhead-size piece of flint. "Aren't you afraid that I'll cut your throat."

"No, because, if you do, I'll cut off your nose when it's my turn."

"You'd have a large enough target," I murmured. "Seriously, maybe I'll stay bearded after all."

"Coward, " Ben hissed. "Come on, I'll do it for you. I'm harmless."

It was all I could do to suppress a grin but Ben was being serious He just didn't have the cultural background to understand that no man where I come from wants to be considered harmless.

And so he stood naked on the riverbank and holding the stone blade, the very picture of sober, responsible barbarism. "You can trust me As I only have experience shaving myself, however, I'll have to take you from behind."

Barely able to stifle peals of helpless laughter, I stripped off my clean clothes, waded into waste-deep water and soaped up the offending bush on my chin. As ready as I was going to get, I felt Benjamin slid in behind me and reach around my shoulders. After allowing a few minutes to get use to the arrangement - and for my bubbles of silent laughter to die down - he did a credible job, though I couldn't help but be aware of the hard planes of his work- hardened muscles against my buttocks and back. He didn't try a thing, but I still sent a prayer up to the gods for the snowmelt waters of spring.


BENJAMIN: Year 30, Week 19.9 Dale Reckoning

The first beardless hours of the spring are always special. Strange and special. You expect to feel cool, you don't expect to feel five pounds lighter as well as vulnerable. Every breath of wind is like a gentle slap on the newly naked skin of your face. Thus with the breeze slapping at our chins, we started out on the road when the sun was about two o'clock in the sky. The 'o'clocks' are a holdover from old Earth. They never made much sense to me, but Mulder understood readily enough so I guess we haven't strayed too far from the original idea. I started out at my normal clip but within half a mile I'd left Mulder behind. He was fast enough. It was just that his feet did not have the years of toughening mine had. We were, of course, barefoot, the disintegrating work boots being too rare to waste just walking.

While he sat and rubbed stone sores I took fifteen minutes to rig up some sandals for him from bark and moss with ropeweed straps. He said that they looked godawful but beat the alternative. I stared at his hands as he worked to make the jury-rigged straps as comfortable as possible. When he shaved that little awkward patch under my jaw for me, those long, fine fingers, now so ingrained with my farm's dirt, had been steady as a rock. If it had been me that close to him for the first time, I don't know how cool I would have been. I wonder what he did for a living back on Earth? He'd never said. My guess is that it took a steady hand.

Two and a half hours of walking took us to within sight of Stony; the colony's only collection of buildings that could be considered a town. I explained to Mulder that its full name was Stony River as it was located on the Big River, the same one that flows by my farm The Stony part refers to the land it's built on. Best to locate a town where the land is too poor for farming.

True to our plan Mulder didn't speak a word once we started meeting people on the road. I realized quickly that he may be able to manage not speaking, but he was going to find imitating that distracted, unawareness of most BoBs more difficult. We'd lived and worked together long enough for me to be conscious of how his body hummed with curiosity about the buildings, the catch-as-catch can dress of the townspeople, the food stalls and games, the music and songs and entertainers. I really should have exposed him to the town on a normal day first. Normal BoB's would have found the distractions on a festival day overpowering, but then Mulder's not normal. Dalemen who wanted to meet the first newcomer to be dumped upon our shores in a decade stopped us every five feet. I had expected this and prepared a credible story based on the daydreams of fifteen years What I should have done was fill Mulder in on my tale beforehand as the fiction of our life together was far more of a surprise to him then to my friends and neighbors. To all appearances he stood quietly, hands clasped, head bowed, but I could sense an angry stiffening from time to time, that and occasional sputter of amusement that he covered with a few well-timed coughs. A cold, I explained with much concern, picked up as a result of the chill, wet night of his arrival. This topic inevitably led to fanciful speculation on how we spent other nights. The ribald jokes made his fingers curl into their palms and the tops of his ears redden. I tried to turn the conversation but going on about clearing new fields and plans for new buildings only works for so long.

The worst for Mulder was the invasion of what he calls his personal space. He was right; it was degrading. You could bet that every time I was occupied deflecting questions on my right, some insensitive jerk was poking his fingers into the scars of Mulder's face or trying to push back his clothes to see if there were others. They didn't want to hear me go on about how strong and healthy he was, they wanted to look into his mouth themselves and touch the firm muscles. Rains! If anyone touches that skin it's going to be me! I knew we were in trouble when I heard a low-pitched warning growl Talon, green with envy to see how well the sick and muddy wretch we had seen in the barn that day had turned out, wanted to see with his own eyes how expandable were certain parts of this newcomer's anatomy.

Seeing the explosion coming, which hopefully could be dismissed as no worse than a very slight fit, I clutched Mulder in my arms, a handy position for protecting the body part in question from inquisitive hands and, coincidentally, something I'd been longing to do. For once he couldn't sidestep me either, not and maintain his 'cover'. It took all the joy out of the moment to feel him tighten like a cart that's beyond overloaded. I prayed that he'd hold together long enough for me to lighten the load.

"Talon Harris, now you back off. He's not yours to be touching that way. Even if he were your newcomer, it's not polite. Give the man some room. Can't any of you see how shy and sensitive he is." The last statement was pretty unbelievable. Even though he was able to project a fair impression of Bob-ness, Mulder was clearly anything but shy and sensitive. In his present mood, some barely leashed madman would have described him better though maybe I was the only one who saw him that way. I was relieved that at my ridiculous comment he stuffed his fist in his mouth to stifle the laughter. I felt the bubbles as a kind of hiccuping in the tension of his hard stomach against mine. It might have been a considerable effort because the teeth marks were visible for days.

We had ceased being the center of attention by the time night fell Mulder was more than ready for it. I felt the cooling sweat through both shirt and vest as I helped him on with the night coat I requisitioned for him from group stores Dale is almost always cold at night. Snow in mid-summer is not unheard of. Though the coat was in poor shape - after all he was only a newcomer according to the rolls - at least it was warm. Mulder seemed equally grateful for its concealing shape and large hood. Now that it was dark and the lights few, most of the Dalesmen were standing around the open windows of Government House, the only two-story dwelling on the planet.

"Listening to Mayor Dan's moral-raising speeches is a festival day tradition," I explained. "With all respect, those speeches with their visions and plans for our future are about all that has held us together all these years." I grinned. "More importantly, now that almost everyone is occupied, we can see what is left on the food tables."

For my contribution I'd brought only a string of dried, spiced applepears, but I knew that Mulder was extremely interested in the preparation of our food. It was a limited diet but for that very reason we had learned to be inventive. We were at least lucky in that what Dale lacked in the way of food animals, fish and fowl, it made up for in herbs and greens, fruits and berries, roots and beans. There was also a long, boring winter to test all the possible combinations. As we tasted each dish, I explained the contents and the spice. I could tell from the flash in his eyes that he was as grateful for the knowledge as he was for the food.

On the whole, however, we spent the evening in the shadows. We watched a play whose Earthly progenitor Mulder knew well. We listened to songs, the tunes of which Mulder could also identify though the words had changed. In whispers I explained the games of chance the men played.

And then came the dance.

I got us a good spot early as everyone at the gathering would eventually gather to watch. Extra torches were brought out. The most skilled musicians played. Then the dancers came out. Small, slender creatures they were with long hair and delicate, smooth faces. Soft rounded bodies. Our women. All of our women. There were eight. They danced only with each other, their movements mesmerizing. Two were older women with long gray hair. Though they danced along with the others, they seemed as frail as light itself. Three of the younger women were obviously pregnant. Only two babies were shown, only two born over the winter and only one was a girl. You could almost feel the despair of the crowd. Mulder stood as transfixed as the rest of us, looking at our dying future. I wondered how he could sympathize so with our sorrow since there were millions women were he came from, but then I noticed that his eyes were for one young women only. She did not have the wasted thinness of most of the others; she was one of the pregnant ones. Her skin was pale, her hair, red, and her face prettier than average. There were tears shining in his expressive eyes by the time the dance was done and the women taken back to the strong houses and walled gardens where they lived out their lives.

We melted away from the crowd, not staying for the elaborate, stamping, weaving circle dances of the men that followed. We walked in the shadows in silence. "Your woman, does she have red hair like that?" I asked softly.

He answered with a single slow nod. I don't know if he didn't speak because he was keeping to his role or because there were just no words sufficient to describe the sadness that I saw in his face. Did he remember that the red-haired girl was as like as not to die before spring? I didn't ask him any more questions.

I took the opportunity while the rest of the revelers were toasting the official end of winter and the beginning of the new year to lead us away from the crowd. I found my feet taking us towards a long, stone building on the edge of town. Only a few torches burned but there was the scuff of feet coming and going in the dark. A distance from it in the blackest shadow under a large tree I halted. After seeing 'them' - the women - and having to be so close to Mulder for so long and our not 'doing' anything, I had considerable tension to release. "I need to stop here for a while. Maybe half an hour," I told him.

For the first time since the dance he came out of his own thoughts He listened for a few minutes to the stray, muffled sounds and watched the shapes moving in the dark. His lips formed a small, almost apologetic smile. "I understand."

I fumbled in my pocket for a scrap of dark fabric with holes cut for the eyes. I felt myself blushing as I held it up for him to see. "I know it's a sham. We all know who we are but it makes it easier to meet on the street the next morning. But what do I do with you? Some of the holders bring their BoB's with them. They sit in the corner and watch. Maybe they want them to learn some new tricks for when they get home, but I couldn't bear that and neither could you. If you waited out here, however, I'd be afraid that someone might stumble over you and, considering the state of mind of the men who come this way - " 'Then there's your looks,' I thought, though I didn't say that part out loud. " - I'm afraid of what they'd try to do."

He glanced up into the branches above our head. "I could sit in this tree until you got back though the last time I remember climbing a tree I fell out."

"Better not try it then," I said with a grin.

He gestured towards a cluster of woods north of the long house. "I could hide there," he suggested. "I'll stay quiet. You stay as long as you want."

I tried to keep the laughter out of my voice, "That would be just about the worst place. It - is - very private. It's also very popular, if a little cold at this time of year." Mulder's eyes actually widened at that thought but with the low light, it was hard to be certain.

Before we could present and reject any more alternatives, a deep voice that didn't belong to either of us came like a knife out of the darkness. "Perhaps it would be best if you both came along with me." In the next moment their owner came nearer so that we could make out his face in the tiny oil lamp he had carried shielded until now. I knew the man, everyone on Dale did, but unexpectedly I tensed. What I didn't understand was why at the sight of our visitor Mulder went completely rigid and even in this dark I could see his face go pale.


MULDER: Year 30, Week 19.9 Dale Reckoning

Benjamin didn't understand why I stood there, frozen, to stare at Dale's mayor as if I had seen a ghost. The truth was, I had. Mayor Daniel was Charley, only decades older. Ben tugged at my arm, whispering that there was nothing to be afraid of. Under the circumstances I didn't believe him. The mayor's broad figure led us over the dark field and through the silent streets. He was easy to follow as he wore a thick, full cloak and carried a stoat walking stick that he did not seem to need despite his age. We approached the sturdy two-story building the crowd had been gathered around earlier in the evening. In little bursts of commentary Ben informed me that not only was this structure the seat of what government there was on Dale, but the mayor's residence as well. I was concerned that that very individual would hear us talking - 'me' talking - but Benjamin did not seem particularly distressed. "He would have to be told sooner or later." To my way of thinking Ben was far too trusting but it was too late for that.

Government House looked deserted to my eyes but the lack of electric lights have that affect. One lone flashlight held vigil outside. As we drew near, it became clear that shutters now covered the windows that the townspeople had peered through earlier. No, not shutters exactly, but frames covered with crude oiled paper so that the dim glow of a goodly number of lamp flames could be seen now that we were near. All in all, built solidly of native fieldstone as it was, Government House came across more intimidating that impressive.

As we approached, the wide front door opened from within by an aging man with a marked attitude of servility. He even shuffled more than his age would account for as he moved away to allow us to enter. We huddled for a moment in a small foyer while the serving man - the first obvious BoB I'd seen - took the mayor's cloak. The garment, centuries more stylish than anything Ben owned, was placed into an armoire rather than hung on one of the hooks clearly intended for visitors. Through an open doorway could be seen a well-furnished room. With its clean wooden floor, the house certainly looked less like a fortress from the inside though there was still the chill of thick stone walls. In size and appointments it reminded me of some of the less grand but still very habitable houses in the historic section of Williamsburg.

As his heavy walking stick was taken, the mayor waved casually to his serving man. "Bring something to eat and drink for my guests," but his eyes, full of pointed humor, were for me. "I will return in a few minutes. Reese will serve you." Then he disappeared through a doorway in the rear of the foyer and we soon heard footsteps on wooden stairs. Before we were shown into the impressive side room there was time to note the presence of two well-crafted wooden benches in the foyer in addition to the armoire. I suppose that there had to be someplace for the supplicants to wait.

But there was no waiting for us. The room we were shown into seemed a busy and meticulous man's study. There were all the personal touches, especially the books, even though these are few in number, few in pages, and crudely made. Benjamin stared openly at the furnishings. There were curtains of rough but precious cloth at the windows, a desk, a good-sized table and ample chairs. One of these last was especially large and well built. All were luxuries in this metal-starved world where each tree brought down with stone ax, wedge and mallet was a triumph. Ben's work-worn, wood-loving hands drifted over the well-planed top of the table as his eye busily memorized the design of each chair.

"Haven't you been here before?" I asked.

Ben's fingers reverently touched a bentwood chair back. "Only on business and not alone. I wouldn't have dared touch anything." His voice was full of awe as he caressed the top of the table. "The months this must have taken."

I left Ben admiring the furniture to exercise my own senses. As expected, the room smelled less of the ever-present earthy scent of sod and peat than any other dwelling I'd been in. The fireplace was burning wood. There was also the silence. In a civilization without radios, televisions, automobiles, boom boxes or crickets, I had gotten use to the sound of the wind against tree and grass, but there wasn't any of that here. Boards creaked as someone walked on the floor above. By the slowness and heaviness of the tread it had to be the sturdily built and aging Mayor Dan.

So curious was I upon what was going on on the second floor that I missed the silent entrance of Reese. He bore a tray with cakes, bread, and a popular spread like humus. There were also glazed ceramic cups, the first I had seen, and a crock of what was probably a kind of beer, the popular beverage. I studied the man almost guiltily until I noticed that even though he kept his head bowed in what I assumed was the correct deferential posture for a product of Dale's system of 'social responsibility', he was watching me just as closely as I watched him. I had told myself over the last weeks that there were probably worse ways to deal with an overabundance of physically strong but emotionally disturbed men. What rankled was my own automatic inclusion in that company of people who needed 'taken care of' as if they were children.

"Can you speak?" I asked, hating the softness in my tone Automatically, I had pitched my voice so as not to startle someone who was easily upset or frightened.

An emotion disturbed the lined face. Not, I noticed, fear Gratitude? How long has it been since he had been addressed directly as if he were a person? With intense concentration he managed, "S- Some."

And now what do I say? He was what I so easily could have been, a man touched with something 'special' from his heredity that failed to completely impress our alien invaders. Perhaps he had been a mindspeaker with no useful level of mindspeech who was sent into exile on a mind-destroying spacecraft. Unprepared, unprotected, he had lost touch with so much of what he once had been, even to the loss of most of his language.

"Thank you," I said, gesturing to the food and drink and trying not to sound as if I was talking to a mental deficient. Too many times, when I was spaced out on drugs or ill or temporarily out of touch with reality, well-meaning, do-gooding nurses and therapists had talked to me that way. Humiliated does not begin to describe the feeling. But you never did, Scully, you never did, and for that I will be eternally grateful. For that I will not talk to this man of pride and sorrow as if he were a child of three.

"Do you remember being brought to his planet?" I asked, hoping the question would not be too disturbing. I got a nod, immediate and matter-of-fact. "How long ago?" "I was... the first," he managed quite clearly. "Three years after.. the colonists."

And the colony was thirty years old. That meant that this man had lived here from about the time Ben had been born, and yet due to an accident in timing and birth what a difference in their status.

"And you've been with the mayor ever since? Was that your choice?"

The eyes that met mine were as sane as my own. "Even if I had ... a choice... where would I go?"

That was not the point. Having no choice was the point. Newcomers were 'awarded' to this colonist or that like a horse or a prize in a lottery, the luck of the draw or in Dale's case by birth order. This was bad enough but almost worse was that no one cared whether their adoptive 'parent' took the form of father or taskmaster or devil "I'd like for us to talk sometime," I told him and I meant it "Sometime when you are not on working." Also, sometime when Ben wasn't around, as he was now, to frown and be embarrassed by the way I was breaking at least a dozen of his society's social taboos.

Reese inclined his head and left us but not without a backward glance that found and caught my eye.

Reese knew more that he said. As with the babytalking 'speakers' in the colony of the Portjam, there was nothing wrong with his hearing and that last glance told me that he had heard plenty in this house He knew what I was, that I was like him and yet unlike. He just didn't have the words. I wonder if Ben knew what was going on here below the surface like a current deep underground. All at once I wanted to meet more of these second class citizens. Here was a way I could start sewing my own fields on this planet. Fields of dissent First, however, I needed to know more. What intellect that remained in the newcomers would be variable but how much more had been merely suppressed through low expectations? Martin Luther King, be with me now.

"You mustn't do that," Ben admonished nervously.

"What?"

"Talk to another man's... newcomer."

"Another man's newcomer. Does that mean I'm yours?" I thought we'd gone beyond that but then what was three weeks in my company compared to the equivalent of twenty-eight years in this society One night in the company of his friends had brought a lot back "Ben," I said in as friendly as way as I could, "we need to have a long talk."

"So do we." At this voice at my back every muscle in my body tensed I knew that voice. It was a rough version of Charley's. Mayor Daniel had returned. It's not all that easy to catch me unawares and he'd managed the trick twice in an hour In this study where there was more light, the mayor's resemblance to the Hunter was even more pronounced. There was the same massive, strong body, the same square jaw. There was the same cold, gray eyes and thin lips and the battered look of an old prizefighter. The difference besides age was what Daniel had which Charley could never mimic. Humanity. Life. Charley always seemed stiff as if for all his power his assumed body was too tight a fit. In comparison, this man had a power and grace, surprising for a man of his age, which had to be at least sixty Like the servant, Reese, Mayor Daniel was sizing me up at the same time I was doing the same. No point in even trying the poor-newcomer act with this wily old fox.

"I congratulate you on your game, Benjamin. Having this one keep silent was a good plan, but you need to be more careful in the future." In this first long speech I caught Charley's accent.

Ben was doing a very excellent impression of a sheep. "It wasn't my plan," he admitted. "It was his," and he nodded my way.

Mayor Daniel's eyes widened with interest into mine. "A talking and reasoning newcomer. I take it that Benjamin has informed you as to just how rare that is?"

"He has."

"I assume you remember your name then? Most of the others didn't."

I was trying to decide what to give him, maybe Ishmael again, as I had used with Ness when Ben popped up with "He says his name is Mulder." Poor Ben, still trying to be my keeper. On the other hand, I've always preferred to keep silent at this stage and let others do the talking.

As you so often did the talking for us both, my dear Scully.

Bringing my attention back to Daniel I found quite an expression of surprise on his face. Icy fingers of alarm shivered up and down my arms. Ben didn't seem to have noticed the silent exchange on either side, however "How long have you known?" Ben asked. "Why didn't you just ask us to meet you here?"

"I suspected ever since John Ironlegs' report, but I didn't want to upset the game by calling attention to the two of you any sooner than necessary. Besides I wanted to see for myself how well you could maintain the pretense. Don't worry, the others saw only what they expected to see though even without my earlier information I would have known."

"How?"

"These." Daniel touched his face and for the first time I saw the faint traces of nearly invisible scars. Ben stared open-mouthed from those scars on his hero's face to mine, for hero I knew this Daniel was to Ben as well as to the rest of the colony.

A faint smile on his face Daniel raised his voice and called "Arniesse!"

Within seconds a pale young man of about twenty appeared. Dressed in a long, gray robe like that of a monk he was less tall by inches than any of the rest of us in the room. His smooth skin suggested that he was too young even to shave yet. Those who liked the type would say that he was quite good-looking in the pretty boy way. My assumption that he was Daniel's bedwarmer was immediate and probably unfair.

"Arniesse, I think Holder Benjamin would appreciate a tour of the second floor of the house. Please see to that... and take your time."

There was no trace of menace in the mayor's voice - in fact there was much that I could have sworn was parental - and yet I had learned not to trust that voice. With concern I turned to Ben and found that he had undergone the most amazing transformation. He was locked in place, a look of total astonishment on his face. While he stood frozen, the young man, Arniesse, came forward, a clean, slender hand outstretched. It was clear that that hand had not spent the last five weeks planting in the fields Awkwardly, Ben wiped his own against his going-to-town pants as if embarrassed that he had spent the last weeks doing just that. Then he raised that hand and accepted Arniesse's.

I was concentrating on faces, not hands, so I didn't catch every movement, but they did stand face to face and hand-in-hand for quite some time, longer than one would expect for a greeting between strangers and odd because neither spoke again. Daniel still stood with that expression of amusement, Ben with obvious excitement and expectation like a child on Christmas morning, Arniesse...

Having seen Charley morph often, I should not have been surprised and yet I was, perhaps because the change was so subtle. The young man's smooth, delicate face began to blur and shift and then the form beneath the robe began to draw together, shrinking across the shoulders and yet swelling across the chest until there were obvious curves beneath the robe's dark folds. When the transformation was complete Arniesse still held Ben's hand or at least 'Annie' did Most amazing was that Ben was not in the least surprised. On the contrary, his expression was one of blissful attention. Here was a facet of Dale he had neglected to mention.

"Why don't you two run along now," Daniel said, looking all the world like that proud father instructing two children to run off and play. There was certainly a childlike glow about Ben as he allowed the faintly smiling young woman to lead him, dazed, from the room.


MULDER: Year 31, Week 00.0 Dale Reckoning (May Day)

Grinning to himself, Daniel closed the door to the rest of the house and gestured towards the refreshments.

"That was cruel," I said.

"Benjamin doesn't think so. He'll have a night like none other. It may even keep his mind off your fine figure for a few days. I dare say that both of you will appreciate that."

I felt heat rising to my cheeks. "You certainly do know a lot about what goes on outside your little town."

"Not a lot.... Everything." He paused. "Except your name. My spies must not have thought that important. On another point I also slipped." He poured two mugs of beer and extended both to me to take whichever I wanted. "When you came in I should have gone to take a look at you myself. They didn't report the- " He gestured to his own facial scarring. " - until much later." "What difference would that have made?"

"You never would have gone to Ben's place. Just from the scarring I would have been surprised if you - had - been like the others. I'm also aware of Benjamin's romantic tenancies. What a shock that must have been to the poor boy to expect a son, a wife, and a brother all wrapped up into one and to get you." Daniel seemed to find that extremely amusing. Strangely enough I could see his point.

"It was traumatic for a time... for both of us. But you did find out, so why the silence? Why leave me there?"

"I knew Ben was harmless. Actually, I could have provided you with no better teacher to introduce you to our life here. If the duty had fallen on some of the others, however..." The old man actually shuddered.

"What?"

"Finding a tiger rather than a pussycat? I wouldn't have put it past not of few of them not to cut out your tongue and bash your head in with a rock and whatever else was needed to ensure themselves of the properly dependent and submissive slave that all the young bucks dream of." It was my turn to shiver. There had been eyes at the festival that I hadn't liked the look of and hands that were too personal. It was a rough, hard life, barely clinging to civilization. Unfortunately, I could see Daniel's scenario happening all too easily.

"So where would I have gone if not to Ben's?"

Daniel opened wide his arms to indicate the house. "Here. You would have come to live with me."

Somehow that came as no surprise.

"How would you have explained that to Benjamin? I take it he was next in line."

"For his beast of burden, yes, but you're no drifting man-child as well he knew the minute you opened your mouth; therefore, you never had need of fostering." The mayor raised his eyes towards the second floor from where faint noises were coming and frowned. "I must admit that I'm surprised that he didn't send word of your mental intactness to me immediately."

For Ben's sake I felt the faint stirrings of unease. "Don't let him be in any trouble over me. He has been very kind."

"I can see that. Fresh air, hard work, healthy food - compared to the early reports you certainly seem to be thriving." His gaze had returned to me and though he was outwardly friendly I didn't think that I cared for the expression in the back of those cold gray eyes any more than that I had seen in Talon Harris's at the festival Lowering his large frame into the sturdiest chair, Daniel leaned back and laced his thick fingers together. "So how is Bek?" he asked.

If he expected a reaction from me, he didn't get one. "Who?"

"He left you on my doorstep. It was Bek, I'm correct, am I not?"

"Are you referring to the 'shifter' who wears the face that you must have worn thirty years ago?"

"So he still does that. Until you reacted at seeing me, I didn't know. I also suspected from the scars. You see, he tried to train me the same way you thirty-five years ago. What happened? Not live up to your potential? From looking at the set of your jaw, I think I know the answer to that one. Don't feel bad about failing. It's impossibly hard. Bek's the only shifter to my knowledge who continues to believe that the human mongrel can be taught. He always was an optimist. He was determined that I learn or die in the attempt. By the evidence of your injuries when you arrived, I imagine you had a similar experience. A good enough reason to fight him I chose neither to learn very well nor to die so I was sent here with their other castoffs. It was actually my idea to start the colony. Far better than the method the council would have used for disposal of excess baggage. So I was thrown out of his idea of heaven and given a choice - come back and be his dog, his instrument, or rot here. I chose to rot."

"Better to rule in hell."

"Something like that."

His eyes went sad then and distant as some old pain passed through him like a ghost. "This particular planet was a bad choice unfortunately. That was not my doing."

I fingered the smooth glaze of my mug uncomfortably. "Benjamin told me about your women. I'm very sorry for your loss."

A gut-deep sigh escaped the old man. "'For our loss', yes Eventually, the end of everything. It's just going to be a slow death rather than something a good deal more dramatic. But there's nothing to be done. We are powerless." There was nothing powerless about the voice, however. There was anger. It was still an impressive force, ancient though it may be in its origins. "We knew what the problem was within a year. Some bleeding disorder. A chemical in this world disrupts the clotting process. No only do the women die in childbirth but any person who suffers any severe injury is likely to die. That's one reason why we don't try harder to find metal on this deathtrap. In the early years I saw Bek from time to time. The bastard wouldn't help, or said he couldn't." Daniel took a long drink. He must have used the pause to shut the anger away into its cupboard because when he spoke again he was back in control.

"So Bek's taken to wearing my face? All the time?"

"I've seen Charley under many circumstances but he chooses yours by default."

"Charley? I like that. That's what you call him?"

"Only me. We spent some time at a space station. There they call him Rodan."

The old man laughed and that was a very, very weird thing to see as well as to hear because I've never seen Charley even come close to a real smile. "Does he? That's humorous considering that my full name is Dan Rowe."

And they call me Spooky. Charley has some serious identity crisis.

With only a slight stiffness for one of his age, Daniel rose from his chair to retrieve a low wooden box, which he brought to the table. "You know, I would very much like to play chess with you. Do you mind? We can still talk. I know any student of Bek's could do calculus in his head at the same time he recited the Gettisburg address. I take it that you do play?"

"Not much time since college."

"Then we'll be evenly matched. The only opponents I've had for thirty years have been more interested in seed rationing and the weather report. Now you don't read minds or anything do you? That wouldn't be fair."

Not anymore, thanks to ol' Nicotine Man.

While he set up the board of crudely carved pieces I tentatively sipped at my drink for the first time. I'd had it before, a spicy beer, but this was a far superior batch both in amount of alcohol and flavor. I gestured with my cup. "You make some things well."

"One must have a hobby for the winter months."

"Arniesse..." I began not knowing how to phrase my question "I wondered when you were going to ask about the Graypeople."

"Graypeople?"

"Or Grayrobes because of those clothes they normally wear. Or 'changelings'. Ben didn't mention them?"

"Not a word."

"You weren't shocked."

"I've seen these creatures before, long before I ever met my first green-blooded shapeshifter. There was a sect of them. To all appearances they lived quietly, almost like the Amish or Mennonites The only problem was, one of them began killing its human partners and on a fairly regular basis."

"Interesting. A rogue I take it?"

"From my understanding, yes." "Ours live in the south. The Graypeople were actually planted here at nearly the same time we were. Gene splicing between shapeshifters and humans, I'm told, so 'Graypeople' has a double meaning if you think of the changelings as being distantly related to our little gray alien race even though they are themselves not gray. Come to think of it, though, they don't tan easily. I assume we were put together to see what would happen to the trait when we interbred, but there hasn't been much of that. Their female stage is lovely and fully functional, but barren, and so many of our women had already died by the time they came that we don't know about their sperm count. You would think that they would be welcome here, if merely for their physical attributes, and you'd be right. Maddeningly seductive as they are, however, they're a cold race and build no emotional bonds. They don't stay long and always leave bad feelings when they go. The reason that their town is separate from ours is obvious. Over the years we have drifted even farther apart. Not that there isn't contact. There is from time to time. Productivity drops on Dale for the duration but, otherwise, the interaction is harmless. So you do not need to worry about Benjamin. Yes, I've seen you glancing towards the ceiling. He'll come away from tonight with a raving infatuation, something we call the Southern Sweat, but as such things go with the young, that will pass in a few weeks." Daniel raised his cup in a toast. "Meanwhile, enjoy the lessening of his ardent attentions. Now as to this game, age before beauty. If you don't mind, I will start."

The moves at first were rapid as players new to each other send out familiar decoys to identify their opponent's strengths and weaknesses. I found myself enjoying the game. The old man was a good, if erratic player, and we were well matched.

We talked of general things. His fears over the harvest caught my attention. I was asked my impressions of the colony so far. Twice Reese glided in silently to refill cups and to bring bits of choice new foods. One time he built up the fire. At the end he threw on a handful of leaves and wood chips that were kept in a separate bin and the room was soon filled with a slightly pleasant scent. The small room warmed quickly and I soon found myself nodding over the board as I waited for the old man. He seemed to be taking longer and longer with each turn. Not surprisingly I was tired. Ben and I had worked hard from sunup until after noon and then walked the twelve miles to town. Then there had been the stress of being shown off at the festival and meeting Mayor Dan and his 'man'. Add to that the late hour, the food, the strong beer, the warm room and my eyes closed.

The call came out of nowhere. With a jerk my head came up, but I still felt groggy. I shook it as if that would help.

"I apologize that my company is not more exciting," the old man across the table said lightly, but though his tone was casual, Mayor Dan's intent gray eyes met mine.

"It's not you. It's just been a very long day."

"We can stop."

"No, let's finish this," and I stared at the board to find what the old man had finally moved during my doze And then I saw it. I had no particular long-term strategy in mind but he would be much confused over why I did it. The move won me an enthusiastic grin and hearty laugh.

"There! I knew, I knew you would play well!"

"How could you have known?"

"The same way I knew you weren't going to be some poor damaged mother's son like the others. The scars." He touched his face. "No one who has been picked by Bek for flight training would have been affected so badly by mere space travel. That's how I also know that you're tough, as tough as I am. You see, your Charley, my Bek, he doesn't make mistakes."

Tough? At the thought of the Beast and Charley's so-called 'flight training', one of the larger rocks from Ben's field dropped into my stomach. "I don't know about tough. I was sick enough to die and I never got it right except maybe for a moment and just that once."

He laughed his terrible incongruous laugh again. "But one time right is better than one man in five million could manage. And I admit it's unpleasant, even when you're just a passenger, but while the likes of you and me only get sick, these poor others actually lose significant chunks of their sanity. Their genetic and physiological makeup can't stand up to the stress of multiple dimensions."

Where had I heard that before? "You weren't, by chance stationed at Ellens Air Force Base, were you?" I had meant it as a joke, a joke between us, Scully, and hadn't expected a reply, but Daniel's response was immediate and almost suspicious.

"I thought you said that you couldn't read minds?"

"I can't any more. You know about Ellens?"

"I was a test pilot there. The best of them. Not such a good idea as it turned out. That's where Bek found me." He looked me up and down "But you were no test pilot."

"No, but I infiltrated Ellens once. It didn't turn out well."

My response made him laugh again. "We, my boy, have a lot to talk about."

Another couple of moves followed and I could tell there was something on the old man's mind. It wasn't on the game any longer Finally, in the midst of a move, his head came up, eyes widening "Now I remember where I heard the name before. Mulder. I knew a Mulder once."

The chess game ceased to exist.

The mayor was thinking hard, thinking back more than thirty years "A humorless man, Bill Mulder. Worked for the Project. Came to the base now and then."

And I thought that particular ghost was good and buried. "My father."

He studied me. "You don't have the look of him."

"Let's not bring that up."

This was a chance, however, to finally find out more about the Project. I knew its basic outlines but not the details. Somehow with all the players dead, however, that no longer seemed very important But Daniel wasn't sitting there waiting for me to ask about either my father or the project. He was gone again, thinking along lines far away.

Finally he began. "I was five years with Bek," he sighed. "From time to time we would return to Earth to update our records on the status of certain special individuals."

Suddenly the room was no longer hot. It was very cold. "What kind of special?"

"People born with naturally-occurring but dormant genetic traits The people Bek followed had had those genes activated by an earlier team. That was how we found them whenever we wanted. I was one that Bek followed." The old man looked steadily at me, his gray eyes full of compassion. "If your name is Mulder, Fox Mulder, then you were another. In fact, I saw you during my five years with Bek on at least three occasions. You were, of course, a child."

My face must have gone the color of clay. The golden light in the room shrunk in a swirl of colored lights to a single, tiny spark, which slowly... winked... out....

I don't faint often. I don't know if I did then but, if not, it was a damn near thing. Someone held a cup to my lips and poured in a swallow of something fiery and tart that was not the local beer. The shape of the room and its furnishing reformed from the darkness as I sputtered and coughed.

"Fox, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry." He was kneeling beside me, his face full of the deepest concern. He had never looked less like Charley His expression nearly triggered a memory of someone known a long time before. A big man, a stranger who had taken pity on a terrified child. How old would I have been? For the colony to be thirty years old, Daniel Rowe's five years of 'training' with Charley must have gone on from the time I was about four until I was nine or ten. Had my father known? Had my father helped? Or had the Consortium known nothing at the time about the cuckoo in their midst? I think they found out later, however. Time enough for someone to change their mind about who would be taken. Between my father, Daniel, and Spender then, my world, my life, had been manipulated more times than I can count before I was even thirteen. The first was when they turned that mind horror on in me, but the worst when they took Sam and left me powerless to help her. But nearly as bad had been when that folder was carelessly left around for me to find. Or had I been maneuvered into finding it? For it should have been me. From the first it should have been me.

I tried to move but the room spun. Rowe had pushed my head down between my knees, but everything still seemed pretty distant. And all the time, the old test pilot just kept talking though I wished, fervently, that he would shut up.

"I can't believe it's you, and yet it is. That skinny little boy; so scared. You would hold my hand when they came to get you for the treatments. Other children would scream and scream, but you would just hold my hand. I feared that when you were older that you'd start breaking bones. Somehow it was worse that silence of yours, that drawing in."

I was shaking my head, trying to stop his talking, when between one second and the next pure agony exploded like a bomb in my head Distantly, I heard a sound, half cry, half sob. I think I stood up then, I know I fell down. Never had it been this bad or come on this suddenly.

There was nothing but explosions of light and dark and an incredible dizziness as I was carried from room to room and awkwardly upstairs The bed they placed me on was soft and smelled freshly of something like pine. The cool cloths that unseen hands placed on my head opened a tiny window of relief. I tried to imagine slender, soft hands, but these were large.

When I dared to crack open my eyes, I was further disappointed to find that the face looking down on me was not even Benjamin's. It was Daniel's. When had Ben come to be my second lifeline?

"Don't die, Fox," the old man ordered in a way one can only learn in the military. "Damn you, don't you dare die!"

Is that an order, Sir?

But seriously, there were tears in the hard, gray eyes. "Listen to me, listen. If there is any way you can talk, I need to know, I must know: When is he coming back and where will it happen?" His voice was so low now that I could barely hear him. Was he sensitive enough to know that loud noises were like knives to my poor skull, or was he only afraid that his own people would hear? "Fox, you have to try, you have to tell me. This is important. I know he's coming back to give you another chance because I got the same deal. I elected to stay, but that was before we knew that this planet kills. I have to see him, Fox, don't you see? I have to get him to listen to me. I need to save my people. Do you know what it's like to stand by helplessly and watch your people die, people you are responsible for, your own wife, your own daughter?"

His voice faded to something even softer. It was almost as if he were right inside my head. * I cannot bare this any longer! *

But I didn't answer, I couldn't even if I had wanted to and I was not sure that I did. It was like a heavy black curtain had settled over my mind: on one side was pain, on the other nothing, nothing at all. No words, no feelings. I stood on the edge between them, only barely able to make sense of what he was asking. Nothing less critical would have gotten through at all. He wanted to know when Charley was coming back. My deepest secret, my only secret, my only way home, torturous route though it may be I slid into the black for a while. No questions there and no need to respond to any already asked. When I woke sometime later the ledge between the pain and the dark was wider, so there was a chance that I could hold my balance for a while. I heard a voice I knew and forced open my eyes.

The room had been darkened in respect for my pain, but there was clearly daylight beyond the hangings that covered the small windows Heavily, my lids slid closed again. I really didn't need to see to identify the voice. It was Benjamin's but for the moment so full of fear and guilt that I couldn't make out the words. A soothing fatherly voice answered him.

"Of course, it's not your fault. And, no, I don't think he's going to die. Now has he had these headaches before?"

"A few. Maybe more. He wouldn't say anything, but I could tell. He'd go off by himself and stay for hours. But I doubt that they were ever as bad as this."

"Migraines then, maybe only that."

Only... It felt as if my head had split this time. For Ben's sake I managed to crack open my leaden lids once more and in a moment there was his face, that boyishly clean-shaven face still a surprise. His blue eyes, their rims red from weeping, seemed huge. He sniffed, wiped his face on his shirtsleeve like a child, and then placed his hand briefly over mine. This was what I had been missing, the hand of a friend to hold in the dark.

"Daniel says you can stay as long as you like. He says you can stay here always." His roughened voice was full of fear. "He says that it's not safe for you to be alone with me at the farm. What if you got as sick as this again?"

Yes, Daniel would like me to stay and, poor Benjamin, he's afraid that I'll want to. He probably is sure that I'll want to. But I can't stay here in this soft bed. I can't remember at the moment why, but I can't stay here. I tried to sit up but didn't do a very good job of it. Ben's young, strong arm went around my shoulders. My mouth was bone dry, but still I managed to murmur, "I want to go home." I meant home to Scully - Scully is always first for that is where my heart is - but in this strange and lonely place Benjamin's quiet little farm will do.


BENJAMIN Year 31, Week 00.0 Dale Reckoning

I couldn't believe it when Mulder said that he wanted to come home with me. The mayor's residence is magnificent, but also a little overwhelming. The problem was how to get a sick man across a dozen miles of rough road. I had no cart with me this time. When I got up from where I'd been kneeling beside the bed - the mayor's own bed - - and saw Daniel's frowning face, I became afraid all over again Maybe he wouldn't let Mulder leave "Benjamin, I don't think this is wise."

My mouth opened and closed and opened again. I couldn't say what I wanted to say because I didn't have the words for it. Even if Mulder wouldn't let me touch him the way I wanted to, the farm would seem unbearably empty without him. It was as if all the years I had worked contentedly in the fields alone had never happened. But most of all I wanted him back, unreasonable, as I knew it sounded. I wanted him back because he was mine. Mine! That shouted loudest of all.

Finally, I offered Mayor Dan the only practical argument I could come up with. "But we started three new fields and I can't possibly manage them by myself."

Mayor Dan was all reason. "Benjamin, the man can't help with work like that. Look at him."

I did look. Mulder was sitting on the edge of the bed, long legs dangling, and hunched over as if he hadn't the strength to sit upright. He was very pale but his eyes were his own eyes and not the staring unknowing ones of few minutes before.

"It passes," he assured us and his voice was already a little stronger. "And there really isn't anything you can do for me that Benjamin can't."

"Are you certain of that? These headaches are bad. When did they start? Are these from something Bek did?" the old man demanded to know.

Bitter irony twisted his smile. "Human intervention, not alien. They started months before Charley took me."

"I haven't forgotten what you said about not being able to read minds 'any more'. Care to elaborate?" Clearly, Mulder didn't. He was that tired, but I saw him resign himself to make the effort. "Almost two years ago, a scientist found an alien artifact with writing on it. One of the symbols was a 'word of power' or so I'm told. The moment I saw it something like a switch went off in my head. And within days, yes, I could read minds." He sighed wearily. "Everyone's, everywhere."

Daniel was nodding sagely. "You were just beginning to pick up that trick when I last saw you. You were barely ten. They always put a block on your mind whenever they sent you back, however. That's why you never knew. A 'word of power' is certainly capable of releasing such a block, but under uncontrolled conditions the affect must have been catastrophic."

Mulder tried to smile but it didn't come out very well. "You might say that. One of the men from the Project, a compatriot of my father's, you probably knew him, recognized what had happened to me for what it was and decided that he wanted the power for himself. He had the focal point of the activity surgically removed and attempted to implant the extracted tissue into his own head. Nearly killed me, was in the process of killing him last time I heard."

Daniel's face wore an expression of absolute horror. "No!"

Mulder shrugged. "Though I wasn't given any choice in the matter, the trade off was well worth it, or so I thought. Months after the headaches began. The doctors assumed that they were related to the operation." Mulder's head shook wearily, but carefully, from side to side. "They thought at first it was an infection, later a tumor They told me that it would kill me." He raised his head to catch Daniel's eye. "I think you can understand what that was like. I settled all my affairs. I paid up the rent on my apartment for a year in advance just in case I should become incapacitated at the end. I didn't want Scu - my work partner - to have to pick up the pieces. I even updated the family headstone so she didn't have to worry about that. I was too chicken to tell her though. I wanted to a hundred times but, among other things, her ethics would not have allowed her to withhold my little problem from our supervisor Selfish of me I know, but they would have forced me to go on medical leave. I would have been locked out. I couldn't afford to spend my last months, not even my last weeks, that way."

"Yet here you are."

"I didn't just get a third opinion. I investigated avenues that witch doctors would have steered away from. Then a new 'doctor', one of the alternative medicine bent, gave me a different prognosis. He didn't know what I had, but he was certain that it wasn't fatal There wasn't time to pursue further. A week later we were called back to Oregon where I was eventually 'collected' by Charley " A kind of wan smile came to his lips. "That tombstone is going to confuse a lot of people. The prognosis in my medical records even more. But clearly the new practitioner was right because I'm not dead, despite wishing to be from time to time."

Mulder had looked my way at the end. I hadn't thought about his other life much, his life before his abduction, though we had talked about the alien places he had been and about Earth in general. It was clear, however, that besides having someone close with whom he had worked, he had had a place of his own and a job he cared about How lost he must feel. He had none of that now, except, I hoped, a friend.

"And how often do you have these headaches now?" Daniel asked in his judge and jury voice. "The truth, now." Unbelievably tired, Mulder seemed to have to rouse himself to answer. "Every three or four days. None this bad though for a long time."

Daniel looked from one to the other of us, resigned but not convinced. "Very well, return if you must, but I lay some ground rules. Benjamin, you should know that Mulder's first name is Fox That's what you will call him." Mulder stiffened abruptly.

"But he prefers- " I began.

"In private, you may, of course, call him what you want, but Fox is his first name. He is one of us now and we use first names. He'll draw his shares from the store under 'Fox', that's how he'll appear on the town rolls." The old eyes that fixed on Mulder were firm though not unkind. "In remembrance of the boy I once knew. Humor an old man."

Mulder's only protest was to ask with a bite in his tone, "And your other orders.... Sir?"

Mayor Dan pointed away from Mulder's eyes and towards the side of his face. "You go to Mac, the surgeon; you go now. Have that scar tissue reduced. There's no need for you to be constantly reminded of Bek's abuse. Mac worked on mine years ago and they were far worse than yours." I saw Mulder shiver at whatever memory this comment called up. "Don't worry about infection. This planet is a pharmacological treasure trove. You never saw a healthier lot of dying people." The sarcasm in his voice was so thick you could taste it. Ponderously, as if feeling his age for the first time, Daniel rose from his seat. "And my last 'command'," he decreed from the doorway, "is for you both to come to see me every other Tensday. I would make it every Tensday but I know the demands of farming. Fox, you and I can then have our game of chess while we discuss topics of mutual interest and, Benjamin, I wouldn't surprised if you'll have a chance to enjoy Arniesse's company again."

I'd almost forgotten the changeling. My face felt suddenly hot and I know I blushed. The mayor smiled broadly before leaving us as if he found my embarrassment highly amusing. I found no humor in the topic, however, considering what I had just done with a complete stranger and a Grayperson and what a certain someone must know that I wanted to do with him.


BENJAMIN Year 31, Week 00.0, Dale Reckoning

Daniel was scarcely out of the room when Reese came bearing food. I had to encourage Mulder to eat. Free food was, after all, free food, and the quality was irritatingly better than mine was. I then helped him to straighten the clothes he'd slept in and afterwards to make it down the stairs.

No matter how magnificent the Mayor's residence, it was good to be outside. It was a fine day for Dale even for this time of year when so many of the days are kind. Growing Days we called them when the sun days came after rain days. There was sun yet it wasn't too hot.

The new year festivities of the night before had taken their toll on the colonists. There were few townspeople about even though it was nearly noon. I led Mulder to Mac's cabin at the end of the street He was home. He lived with the Apothecary, which was convenient for the colony.

Mac was a little wizened man of about Daniel's age. One of the original colonists, he knew the mayor about as well as anyone which did not mean that he knew him well. Daniel had always been separate Perhaps great men were destined to be so. My thoughts went to Mulder - to Fox - at my side. Here was another solitary man. Like Daniel, he kept his own counsel, and they both bore the marks though I wouldn't have noticed Daniel's if he hadn't pointed them out. Was Mulder a great man, too? It had been a long time since I felt so insignificant, so stupid.

We were waiting for the surgeon in his treatment room and I had all these thoughts whirling about in my head, so I suppose it wasn't surprising that I found myself blurting out, "Daniel's not going to live forever. Are you going to take his place?"

Mulder had been deep in his own head. He came out of it with a start and stared at me. "Why would you think that?"

"You're so much alike." I touched my cheek. Mulder did the same to his own cheek, feeling there the deep pits with their hard-blackened edges.

His eyes that can be kind were also capable of being hard. They were hard now. "Think these are a badge of honor of some kind? Some mark of distinction? They are like brands of slavery, signs that show just how unfortunate we were to be born the way we were and came to be noticed by Charley. That's all they are."

"Interested in telling me what made them?" Mac asked, entering the room with the basket of materials he would need for the surgery.

"I don't think so."

Mac shrugged, wincing from the arthritis in his back. "Not really my business. Daniel never told me either." He gestured a lined hand to an elaborate chair of wood. "Benjamin, how about you and your new friend move the chair into the sun. You know what to do. It's just after noon so the second window."

Indeed I did. First, I pulled on the second of five ropes that hung down in one corner of the room. In response a three-foot square of wall opened. Direct sunlight brightened the examining room. I directed Mulder and we moved the chair, not into the sun, but a few feet from it.

"Climb on up," I told Mulder, but he only stayed where he was eyeing the contraption of wood and rope and well-worn pads warily. "It's the most comfortable chair in town," I assured him. "I had two teeth removed in that chair."

"Most people aren't so happy about going to the dentist," he replied.

"Why? It doesn't hurt."

To that Mulder raised an eyebrow in my direction. Eventually, he did seat himself but with a kind of hesitation as if he thought Mac's marvelous chair might suddenly come to life and bite him. Once settled, the surgeon was at his side, opening a flat pottery dish Using two strips of wood like chopsticks - I'm told you also use chopsticks on Earth - Mac lifted a large, flat leaf from the bowl With a flick of his wrist he shook off drips of stray fluid and extended the leaf towards Mulder's right cheek. Instinctively, Mulder cringed back against the seat as far as he could go.

"Hush," Mac said in his soothing tone. "Lie still. This won't hurt."

"It's Numb Leaf," I explained. "You're going to want it. You're going to need it."

If he relaxed, I couldn't tell, but he turned his head, exposing the right cheek. Deftly, Mac laid the wet, palm-sized leaf so that the three awful scars on that side were covered.

Unconcerned, Mac then went whistling off into the next room, gathering bits of this herb and that roll of wadding into a basket as he went.

I watched what I could of Mulder's face. I loved to watch his face when he was concentrating hard about something. You could almost see the thoughts forming.

"How do you feel?" I asked.

"I'd'z nuhm," he said and stopped at the garbled sounds. The left side of his face moved as normal when he tried to talk, but the right side lay slack.

"Better not try to talk unless you don't care about being misunderstood. It wears off in a few hours."

He was tense, not afraid but apprehensive. I wondered if I could hold his hand again. I've watched the surgeon lots of times. He was such a smart man. If I had not been adopted as Old William's heir, I would have asked to apprentice here and still could not understand why no one else had. At least being a Holder did not keep me from stopping by the surgery whenever I was in town. For this reason I had walked in on many a procedure and I had witnessed that not a few landholders, standing where I stood now, would hold the hand of his terrified newcomer as the poor creature was being treated. For some reason the chair terrified newcomers. Even Mulder's brow had broken out in a fine sweat. I wonder why? All I was certain of was that Mulder would probably have to think himself at death's door, like this morning at Daniel's, before I would be allowed to hold that hand again.

Both of us were distracted by the return of the surgeon. Moving a table close to the chair, he began to lay out all he had gathered Besides little pots of this and that, there were pads of moss that he would use to absorb the blood and thick wads of a particular grass, boiled and woven, which had been used as a bandage for decades. Correctly prepared, such a bandage had special properties that stopped nearly all infections and slowed superficial bleeding like this. On deep wounds, unfortunately, it had little effect. Most rare of all, however, was what Mac carried in a small box of carved red wood. From within the folds of padding he brought out a sliver of something that shone and glinted in the shaft of sunlight, sunlight that had moved closer and closer to Mulder's face, as I knew it would. The light just touched Mulder's left jawbone and it was, therefore, time to start.

"Considering where you come from," Mac said letting the object move about in the air as if it were a live thing, "it must be inconceivable to you how such a little piece of metal like this could be so precious."

Mulder raised his head to see it better and other than that did not seem outwardly distressed unless you happened to look at his right hand. The clenched hand seemed ready to crack the arm of the chair Hastily, I wedged into that fist a teething stick, one of the pieces of hard wood which displayed the numerous teethmarks of countless men who have bitten down hard during treatments not so painless as this was going to be Still, Mulder grasped it hard and Mac hadn't even started yet. A little shiver of pleasure fluttered in my lower regions at the brief expression of gratitude he sent my way. It made me wish that I had offered my hand after all and it wouldn't have mattered if the result had been broken bones or not In the end the anticipation was far worse than reality. With the sun neatly timed to be full in his viewing area, Mac carefully scraped away layer upon layer of skin until the majority of scar tissue was gone. It was a tedious process.

"Better," Mac said, "better. See, Ben, how the patient relaxes once he realizes that there is no more to fear and not much pain either."

The surgeon's words actually seemed to rouse Mulder from a kind of doze. His eyes rolled to catch the glitter of the blade. "Wonder where this comes from on a planet so devoid of metal?" the old man asked. "Dental fillings. We melt down the fillings of all those who have been dumped upon these shores. You were checked when you came in, though you may not remember." Mulder tensed to the point that Mac placed a hand on his shoulder and laughed. "Don't worry. Those two little fillings of yours are not large enough to be of much use, but they're entered in the records. At some point in the future you may be asked to give them up but for the moment they're safer where they are." In time the procedure was complete. My stomach twisted at the sight of the large patch of raw skin. In the end Mac applied a healing poultice to the wound and then the bandage. A pinch of nightflower bulb in tea and Mulder slept. As there were no other surgeries planned, he was allowed to stay where he was. Stretched out as he was with arms and legs resting on the chair supports, he looked to my eyes very vulnerable.

We were offered the use of Mac's guest cabin for the night and I accepted without asking Mulder. If he complained, all I would need to do was describe the raw condition of his face before the bandage was applied. I was surprised when he followed me meekly out to the little hut in the rear of the surgery's elaborate garden. The town being built in a sheltered spot, the rows and rows of medicinal herbs and edible plants in their raised beds were already a patchwork of greens in a dozen hues. As it was early evening by then, we took Mac's offering of supper with us but it was still too early for sleep, especially for Mulder who had had his fill for the moment, though he did not seem eager for talk either. We sat in silence for at least an hour after eating and watched as the last of the light left the sky. Only when velvet blue covered all the vast space above our heads did Mulder begin to talk.

He asked about the stars first, about what we called our constellations and if there was anything like a 'constant' star that could always be found in the same place in the sky. I described the Tree and the Loaf, the Mayor's Mouth (he smiled at that one) and the Newcomer that is shy and never stays in the sky long when it does appear. As the hours passed, I showed him the Baby and the Woman's Hair. The blue star called the Woman's Eye behaved most like what he asked about. We were silent then until the Moon rose.

"If you call this one the Moon, what do you call your second moon?"

"Little Brother. It's not seen as often and is small and pale by comparison."

"How often do you see it and for how long does it stay?"

I shrugged. "Every couple of weeks it rises in the East around sunset and sets in a few hours. Stays about four days and then he's gone again."

"What about phases?" Mulder asked. "Full moon, half moon, quarter moon?"

"For Brother?"

"For both of them." He was lying on his mat with his eyes on the heavens, his silhouette a little bulky because of the bandage but I sensed an excitement in him. "Is there a predictable time when both are full?"

"Twice a year, summer and winter. Last night was the summer occurrence. May Day."

He lifted his head at this to stare in the direction of the Moon, which was itself no longer quite full.

"And what will you do in the winter when they're both full? Is there another festival?"

"Oh, yes."

"At harvest time."

"Oh, long after that. We call it Frost's Whiskers. It's supposedly the last time we can reliably all get to town, but sometimes the heavy snow comes early. One year the snow was so deep that only ten people showed."

He didn't laugh as I expected, but was already somewhere else Something I said had disturbed him. He was frowning as his eyes fixed on the horizon.

"Brother won't rise for an hour yet and won't be full any longer," I told him.

But still Mulder waited, his eyes restlessly tracing the stars Finally, Brother rose its head above the tree line and Mulder sat up to stare at it. He got up and paced. I noticed with satisfaction that he was careful not to step on any young plants even though his eyes were almost always on the sky.

"We should get some sleep," I told him. "There will be a lot to do on the farm when we get back."

He nodded absently and lay down again.

For myself, I fell asleep almost instantly having had almost no sleep the night before. Memories of those hours with Annie colored my dreams. I woke once, aroused by the memory of her cool touch on my body. I noted that Mulder's face was turned towards the two moons and his eyes, still open, glistened as if wet with dew. I slept again, eager to return to my own dreams, but this time Annie didn't appear. Mulder did, however, and everything was perfect between us Then without warning he was wrenched from my arms. Rising to follow I found I was covered in blood.

I took that as a reminder that in the excitement over Mulder's sudden illness, I had failed to ask about the long-delayed adoption ceremony. If Mulder were formally under my protection then I think it would be harder for Daniel to take him from me as I was afraid there for a few minutes that he would. On the other hand, Daniel was letting him return. Maybe it would be better not to bring the matter up. If you don't ask, they can't say 'no'.


BENJAMIN: Year 31, Week 00.1 through 01.0 Dale Reckoning

The farm hadn't fared too badly in our unexpected absence. In fact, it seemed to have exploded in green and too much of it was weed What followed were days of solitary work as we went up and down the rows, separating the bad from the good, dividing and pruning to increase the yield.

I didn't want to think about my Mulder dream so I thought about my Annie one. At night I took the memory of her body to my bed. During these days Mulder was... Mulder. He worked hard, so much so that it was an effort for me to keep up. He kept his own counsel. We had two days of rain, seven of sun and all at once it was Tensday, the day of rest. In this case it was our off week for visiting Daniel so maybe we could actually get something like rest.

Morning found us sitting outside in the sun. Breakfast of bean paste and flatbread was over and, as I had done every other day, I was changing Mulder's bandages. The new skin on his right cheek was wet looking from the poultice but otherwise pink and on its way to good health. A slight breeze ruffled our hair. I looked from time to time with satisfaction down the slope and over the fields. As always, because he squinted so in the sun, I couldn't tell what he was looking at.

"It's a free day," I told him.

Mulder turned his head towards me, the eyes still slitted. "Come again?"

"A free day. A day to do what you want. I don't take them during planting season but the critical time is over. We can go to town if you want, but we'll be going there anyway on our next free day. To see Daniel... remember?"

Mulder did not ask to go to town. Instead his brow furrowed and the set of his chin, already firm, tightened. "Ben, I need your help."

My eyebrows must have went up in shock. To date, Mulder had never asked me for anything.

"I need to find the place where, Charley - Daniel calls him 'Bek' - - dropped me off."

He hadn't said why and by the intensity of his hooded eyes I knew that I shouldn't ask.

"I'll help," I said, "But I don't have any idea where that might be."

"I know that it's my problem to find the place, but I'm going to need your help to get me home again." He looked at me with something like embarrassment from beneath his long lashes. "I'll get lost within a quarter of an hour, especially in the woods, and I remember a lot of tall trees though it wasn't a forest." "We're suppose to rest today and contemplate our good fortune Hiking all over the countryside is not what anyone would call rest."

He smiled a little and my spirits lifted. It was good to have the door he kept closed between us momentarily open.

"That's another difference between where I come from and here. Many of the jobs on Earth these days don't require much physical labor so free time is often spent doing something active like sports or hiking. So even though you don't need the exercise, you'll help?"

"I said I would."

"There's a little side issue." I should have known. Generally, Mulder's an easy person to get along with, but when he has a problem there are always complications. "If at all possible, no one else can know that we're looking."

It was high summer but somehow I felt a little chill just then. What I said though was, "That shouldn't be hard. The land is sparsely settled at best and considering the fact that you wandered for what we think was a day without meeting anyone, I think we are talking about one of the less populated areas. Other newcomers have also walked out of unsettled areas, but that was long ago and I doubt that anyone remembers from where. We're going to need more than 'tall trees' to go on." Having looked forward to a swim and a nap and having the time to prepare a better meal than the catch-what-you-can of a workday, I couldn't pretend to be overwhelmingly in favor of the trip. If there was a chance of this openness of Mulder's continuing, however, the loss of some sleep and decent food would be worth it.

"But we search for herbs as we go," I insisted. "My stock is low from the winter."

He agreed and as we gathered provisions for a wayside supper and jars for carrying water, he described every other detail he could remember of that night. I knew of no clearing or meadow with a pond in the center as he described so we got into discussions about the positions and phases of the moons. We discussed how he'd followed them that night until he became too miserable from cold and rain and Newcomer fever to care in what direction he wandered.

"This is why you asked so many questions about the moons?" It hurt a lot more than I wanted to admit that he hadn't asked in order to show that he was taking some interest in my world, the world that was now also his world.

"Can't say that it's helped me much, however."

"This isn't a lot to go on," I told him.

For the first time that morning he wore that haunted look that I saw now and then. "I know."

Because the moons rise in the south I suggested that we start in the northern quarter. It seemed as good a direction as any. The sun was warm but there was a breeze so the day would not be too hot to start with though it would be by afternoon.

As we walked I found out everything else I could about what Mulder remembered of that night, not about the sky now, but about the land.

He grew thoughtful when I asked about the ground underfoot where there weren't any trees.

"Mud," he said immediately and then "some long saw grass." He looked my way never slowing his stride. "There's a plant they call saw grass near where I grew up, near the ocean. I don't see any ocean here but the edges of this grass was similar to that. I remember the tiny, sharp barbs on the blades."

"I know what you mean. Unfortunately, it's everywhere. What about cultivation?"

He opened his mouth to speak, then dropped back mentally to think again. There was certainly something about today that was different from the days we spent focused on farm work. Mulder was more alert, more 'himself' I guess you would say, the way he had been at the festival when we weren't being watched. He seemed to come truly alive only when there were new things to see and do or in this case when there was a problem to solve. My heart sank. How could he ever be content on the farm with its endless cycle of planting and harvest interrupted by the boredom of winter?

At this point he came out of his reflection. "As best as I can remember, and you can take that as pretty accurate even with the fever, I didn't see, or step on, any plowed fields at all."

"The north quarter still seems most likely then. The ground is not as good as in the east or west quarters. Hardly anyone lives there, though I suppose you could even walk from one end of the East quarter to the other and not step on anyone's oats or beans but you'd have to be trying hard."

I was pulling up memories of the times I'd been in that area from my wandering adolescent years when Mulder invaded my thoughts "Speaking of 'hard'..." his voice had an odd quality, teasing and yet not.

"What?"

"When you told me all about this place, you failed to mention the Graypeople."

I felt the heat rising to my face and it wasn't the fault of sun and solid walking. "I guess that's because I don't think of the changelings as being part of our world. They're like aspects of a myth, just drifting in now and then."

"And the one we met at the Mayor's on new year's eve was a myth?"

I blushed again. "I swear, that was the first time ever for me with one of them." He grinned wickedly at my discomfort. "I take it that that as the first time for a couple of things." The rising heat on my face must have been pretty obvious. "Sorry, that was too easy," he apologized and it was clear that he meant it. It was even more clear that there was a serious side to this discussion. "I do need you to tell me about it - not your night," he added hastily, "but about them and their link to Daniel and your people."

My night... Ohhh, my night. It was a good thing that he didn't want to hear because I don't know if I could ever talk to anyone about that. "There's not much to tell about the Grayrobes beyond the obvious. They have their own colony in the South quarter. We call their town South Cove, it being south of Stony River and where a sort of bay is formed by two ranges of high hills. From discussions with them, Daniel thinks they were brought here about the same time we were but while we are totally human - our elders just had some special traits that didn't breed true - the Grayrobes have shapeshifter genes."

"So Daniel told me, but why here? Why exile them here? Sorry, I have to apologize again. I didn't mean to infer that your own colonists were exiles- "

"But we are, we know we are. But while we were just dumped here to be forgotten, the Grayrobes were sent here to procreate and stabilize their genes, at least that is what Daniel says. He does stay in contact with them even though no one else is suppose to go there. He says that that's best." Ben lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "Daniel's man heard some of their talk once and spoke to Jim Pete's man who mentioned to Mac that years ago groups of them were even removed, but to where and how and by whom we don't know. They must still hope for Daniel advises them that if they want to get off this planet, they must at least give the appearance of being as civilized and normal as possible. It's generally thought that the 'urge' is strong is them, that's why they keep to themselves most of the time."

Mulder's eyes had taken on a faraway look. "How do the two groups get along?"

"As you would expect considering what they are though we don't see much of each other."

"It's interesting that Daniel didn't mention a group of them being taken away," Mulder mused.

When he didn't speak again for a few minutes but turned lazily to pitch rocks to our right and left, I had to ask, "Why ask now and not anytime last week?"

Seemingly disinterested, Mulder pitched another rock. "Because there is a group of them following us."

I jumped and instinctively started to turn but Mulder grabbed my arm. "No, don't look."

"How do you know?" I whispered which is hard to do when you're breathing hard. For the first time I realized that Mulder had picked up the pace during the last few minutes.

He shrugged and sent me a smile. "In my old life I was followed far too often by people not all that interested in my continued well- being. One learns."

I shook myself, shivering in the light of that rather feral smile more than anything else. Around the farm, though he seemed at peace, Mulder seldom smiled. Now that we were being followed for who-knew- what reason he grinned like the most far-gone of newcomers.

We came to a rise studded with high sharp rocks and Mulder quickly ducked behind an impressive tumble of them, dragging me with him. We laid on our stomachs and looked down the steep, ragged hill we had just climbed. My heart thumped in my chest as I stared unbelieving Far below, moving from scrubby tree to scrubby tree, were shadowy shapes.

Mulder's expression showed no fear, only thoughtfulness. "You say that there are rumors that some of the Graypeople were taken off world? I think I met some on mine. They lived isolated from the rest of society and followed a strict social code. They also dressed in simple clothes. If this is where they came from then their genes are even less stable than their breeders believe them to be. A rogue appeared from their group that they had no way of controlling. It killed."

"What happened to him?"

Mulder shrugged. "Like most of the phenomena I studied over the years, he disappeared. They all disappeared. There's evidence, at least evidence to my eyes, that they were removed by spacecraft."

"Perhaps they're not following us, " I said, hopefully. "Perhaps they are just collecting plants as we are."

"Somehow I doubt it. You say that they live in the South quarter and we're north of your town? They're a long way from home then and from what you say they don't get around much. Have you heard of any wandering in this area?"

I shook my head. "No, but then I may not. There are not any farms here, nor any town fields either. Too many rocks, too many trees There is better land and closer. That's why I thought of our looking for your drop point here. It's desolate."

Mulder scanned the area, brow furrowed. Desolate was right; uneven ground, rises up and slopes down, standing stones and scattered vegetation.

"Trying to imagine it at night?"

"Doesn't look right."

"From your description I wouldn't think so. The land levels out further on and there's more woods. That's where I thought we'd start looking."

Mulder looked from side to side evaluating our options for either defense or escape. Or attack, I realized, and felt a little sick to my stomach. "Are we going to have to fight?"

"Three-to-one odds and they may be armed for all we know? I doubt it. Come on." And he started down the path away from where the dark specs were climbing but soon left the trail to ease himself down the face of the rock. I'm no climber and he had to guide my feet. About twice our height from the lip of the trail, there was a slight overhang and under it, not a cave, but a slight depression. There we huddled in a shadow so deep I couldn't even see his face inches from mine. We sat and we listened. The wait wasn't long. Soon we heard scuffling sounds of soft shoes on rock and even a few quiet voices The rock amplified well. Then there came another and odder sound.

"What are they doing?" I asked in my softest whisper. "That sounds like... Did I hear someone sniffing?"

Mulder's face in the deep shadow was all attentive, wide eyes and no small amount of apprehension but again no fear. "That's exactly what they're doing. Pheromones, maybe? Do you have anything in your bag there that has a really nasty smell?"

We actually had been gathering plants as we walked or at least I had. Mulder's thoughts had been largely elsewhere. I had looked for herbs as we walked especially the relatively rare ones, which were good for barter, as well as the medicinal plants everyone kept. Then there were the special ones that only Mac and the apothecary had need for. I had even found two that even I had never seen before and I'm considered a bit of a fanatic about such things. Now Mulder was asking for something with a strong smell. I dipped with certainty into the bag and found by touch two rough, prickly pods. I showed Mulder how to split the pods and warm the fibers rapidly between his hands. The familiar, strong aroma burst forth. We rubbed the juice on our skin and then settled down to wait - settled down except for the beat of my heart, that is. Above us bodies were moving about and I seemed to sense them smelling for us even if I couldn't actually hear them doing so.

We must have waited a quarter of an hour for them to leave and then another hour to be certain they hadn't left someone to watch on this high place. Finally, we moved stiff muscles and climbed back up the rock face. It was good to move. It was even better to be out in the fresh breeze again. The dead air in our little cave had gone unpleasant from our onionpod-coated skins. There was no sign that the party had even stood on this rock except for a few more footprints in the dust, feet wrapped in a soft covering while ours were bare After taking a few more minutes to scan the area in all directions, we proceeded cautiously on our way again. It was only then that I thought to ask, "What's a pheromone?"

Mulder used few words in his explanation, but by his very reluctance to go into detail about the subject I got the general idea of what a pheromone was and how it was used in the animal kingdom to ensure procreation. It shook my fondly held vision of romantic love that humans had pheromones as well. Mulder laughed and admitted that it wasn't a popularly accepted idea where he came from either. Though I was not fool enough to believe that I 'loved' Annie, did this mean that I did not at least like her for her/his/its self? We had come down from the highlands to the more rolling plains with great care. We did not see the party of changelings again. We didn't see anyone. Still we moved from one group of trees to the next and stayed in the shadows. At this point, my job as leader came to an end. This was, I told Mulder, the most likely area for his drop point, at least the best that I could come up with from his description. It was clear from my companion's serious expression, however, that he was not encouraged. The trees seemed too small. He remembered tall trees if not a particularly large number of them in any one place. Still, it was more of a possibility than any terrain that he'd yet seen.

For the next several hours Mulder kept moving though he remained alert for any other search parties. At this point I simply followed The relative inactivity gave me too much time to think and as usual during such times I found my mind and other parts of my body dwelling upon Annie and how I would be with her again the next week How much more complicated were my feelings for her now, however.

Occupied with matters of his own, Mulder only became aware of my mood when I failed to answer a question. "Anything wrong?" he asked.

I shrugged.

"Annie?"

"So did I really like her, or did she make me like her?"

"Men have asked that for thousands of years. You've had an experience that you might never have had without her. That's worth something."

I almost tripped over a rock hidden in a few stalks of witherbush Angrily, I ignored Mulder's proffered hand but steadied myself. "I feel like a fool."

"That also has been going on for thousands of years. I said that I'd met a group of these gender changelings before. Before we knew what they were my partner touched the hand of one of their young men. She was only trying to be friendly and he seemed so shy. Their code of conduct was very strict, very reserved, so I'm not sure that he was even consciously aware of his power. All I know is that they exchanged something through the sweat of their palms. That's where my pheromone theory came from." "He had her? Scully?" I had taken to calling her Scully just as he did. It seemed to please him to be able to talk about her with someone. I was also shocked. From the stories Mulder told I had come to think that she could walk on water.

"It was a near thing," he corrected with surprising heat. "I caught them together. I was like she was drugged. It didn't seem that way with you."

"Probably because I wanted to go."

We walked on a little farther and passed through a line of trees. On the far side was a V-shaped gully cut by a small stream, not what we were searching for.

"But what happens next time?" I asked, my mind still on Annie - and Arniesse as well, I had to admit- , as it was really impossible to separate the two. "If I'm not willing, will she work that same magic on me. Will I be powerless?"

Mulder's smile was a little sad. "I didn't mean to ruin the experience for you. Will you go with her the next time?"

I clutched at my gathering bag and shrugged. "I d-don't know. What should I do?"

"That's not for me to say."

Confused as I was, it was a comfort that his eyes were as kind as they were amused.

I became suddenly aware of the position of the sun in the sky. How had it come to be so low? "Mulder, we need to start back. We really do," I added this last when I saw him hesitate, his eyes anxiously scanning the miles of land before us. There was still a lot of area to search. "It will already be dark before we reach home. We can try again on our next free day."

"But that's not for two weeks!"

There was not much I could say to that. Numbly, he turned in a full circle. As far as I could tell, he was storing everything in memory Finally, with shoulders slumped and that crease deep between his eyes, he started off.

"Uh, this way," I called.

Almost sheepishly, he made what was nearly a right turn and followed me home.


MULDER: Year 31, Week 01.9 Dale Reckoning

What a difference seven Earth weeks has made. When I first walked outside of Benjamin's cabin, the air was cool and only two of the fields had been planted. Now the soil of six fields is hot from the summer sun under my toughened bare feet and the green plants are higher than my knee and full of lush foliage.

I thought about how quickly time was passing as I trudged up the road towards the town for the second time. 'Trudged' is very definitely the right word. I didn't want to be making this pilgrimage to see Daniel. But an order was an order. I'm adding a footnote here that I only went for Benjamin's sake. I believed that he would get into trouble if I skipped our appointment. If it had been my choice, I would have spent the day prowling that barren land in the north quarter as much to find the rendezvous point for my eventual return as to keep my distance from Daniel. I didn't trust him even after all his talk of our shared past or maybe because of it. While we played chess and jousted with words maybe I could extract from that wily old man more information about the Project and even about Charley. I would need all the edge I could for later Daniel's domineering manner actually made me more uneasy than his resemblance to Charley. He's a man of power, after all, and men of power will always push their weight around no matter how altruistic their intent. It's the means they will go to to achieve their ends that so often goes so wrong.

I would have waited to arrive in town after dark but Ben had business to conduct. Reluctantly, I assumed my Bob-ness, which meant that I was in a bad mood by the time we appeared at Government House. A message delivered quietly to Ben by Reese of all people instructed us to go to the back door and that's what we did. Reese met us without our even needing to knock. The study had been prepared; a fine meal laid out for four. It irked me that Daniel was so certain that we would come and that we had.

If Benjamin found some relief from his Southern Sweat, which he had in the worse way, it would all be worth it. He had been jumpy for the last few days and for Benjamin very quiet. As we waited in the study for Daniel he was perspiring visibly even though he stood far Yes, I know it was summer but all nights on Dale are cool.

"You going to make it through dinner?" I asked.

His smile was shaky. "I don't understand why my desire to see Annie should be so strong when I know that it's only ph-pheromones."

"Maybe it's not only that. Men - and women - can become enamoured from a picture, from a voice. It's not all chemical." My words didn't seem to help, but I had to try something. After all, he wouldn't have to deal with this relationship if it hadn't been for me. How I wanted to play the big brother and take him away and find him a nice girl, but I wasn't his big brother and any attempt to act like one would be misinterpreted. I couldn't find him a nice girl, either. So I stood in the fire lit room that glowed golden from polished wood and I did nothing.

"Farmers, welcome!" boomed a familiar voice. Daniel's. He was less formally dressed than before but somehow he looked even more like an aging Charley. He threw a great-uncle-like arm briefly around Ben and muttered the Dale equivalent of 'How's them Redskins', then came over, I thought, to shake my hand. Instead, before I could move away, he took my jaw in his big workingman's fingers and moved the right side of my face into brighter light. "Wonderful. Mac still has the touch." He released my face. "Did I tell you that we called him Mac the Knife the first few years that we were here? That, of course, was before our lives became so grim. Arniesse, don't lurk out there, come in."

The slender changeling, still in his gray robes, entered silently Shyly he looked at Ben who glanced shyly back. The holder's face flushed amazingly back and forth between pale white and embarrassed crimson. The two didn't touch but stood close together and stayed that way, not growing nearer nor drawing farther apart.

Without preamble we sat down at the table, the mayor gesturing for me to sit at his right hand, for Benjamin to sit at his left and Arniesse to sit across. My stomach didn't share my misgivings for the evening. It rumbled expectantly at the thought of the excellent food to come. As you know, Scully, I'm no food snob. I'll eat just about anything set before me if I'm hungry and I was ready for a change after almost fifty days of a diet consisting of something like thick oatmeal, a kind of flat seed bread, stewed root vegetables, a sprinkling of nuts and dried fruits, and whatever new greens we could find growing wild. The good inventive cooking I had briefly tasted was clearly for the winter months or special occasions. There was just too much to do during the growing season to take the time.

Before food, however, Mayor Daniel poured each of us a cup of some very excellent alcoholic beverage that I had not encountered before I felt my insides unwind a little as the warm liquid made its way to my stomach. I'd better watch my intake, I thought. It had been another long day what with working till mid afternoon, the long walk to town, the tension of running errands with Ben and now this different kind of tension. If I wasn't careful, I would be lulled asleep again like the last time.

The talk was of town affairs, weather and crops. Ben and Daniel did the talking. Arniesse didn't speak at all, nor did he drink much, though his quick eyes showed that he was aware of everything Knowing what he was and what he could do and now a little of how his race had been created, I couldn't help but be aware of him. What with Charley's older face on my right and this old X-File recreated on my left, I had the most amazing sensation of having one foot in each of two worlds and neither of them what anyone would call normal.

"Benjamin," the old man said, "would you be useful and step into the kitchen and tell Reese that we're ready for supper?"

Ben rose eagerly. Once he left the room, Daniel raised his cup and turned in my direction. "I'm told that you and Ben took a long excursion into the north quarter on your free day last week. I had assumed that you would use these off days for rest."

I didn't give the old man the satisfaction of seeing me squirm. I had had no choice but to make the attempt during daylight. On foot, it was too great a trip to take at night and rather defeated the purpose of being able to identify the rendezvous point for later. I was not surprised that Dan Rowe would have ways of finding things out especially since that unexpected party of Graypeople had picked up our trail. I was only regretted that he had.

"May I ask what took you there?" asked the old man when I hadn't offered an explanation.

"Pharmacology," I replied and followed that with what I hoped looked like a casual sip of the wine. "Benjamin has an interest in medicinal plants. He has some new ones to show the apothecary." All of which was true, at least in part.

"Ah." The 'ah' conveyed that Daniel was not fooled in the least. I knew he wasn't finished with this particular topic. Further grilling was interrupted for the moment, however, when all at once the oddest sensation raced up my arm all the way to my shoulder. As if my fingers had touched a live electric wire, the arm jerked away from the stimulus. Immediately, my eyes dropped to the place on the table where my left hand had been. Arniesse's slim one lay inches away Though he moved not at all, the eyes that regarded me were huge and dark. For a moment I found I could hardly catch my breath, not from Arniesse's eyes, but from the incredible ache in my shoulder and arm that was taking its time going away. With my right arm I hugged my left against my side biting down on my lip. Did it hurt? Yes and no It was not so much pain as a terrible weakness as if muscles and bone had turned to jelly.

"Problem?" the old man asked innocently?

I struggled, fighting to make sure I could talk normally before I did. "Must have pinched a nerve today," I managed.

Daniel refilled the cups. "Hard work, farming. I doubt you were born to it. Ivy League, were you?"

What was he talking about? With effort I picked up the thread of the conversation. "Oxford."

The mayor's mouth opened in an 'Oh' this time. "Those years were after my time. I guess I'm not surprised. You were smart. They wouldn't have used you as a test subject if there hadn't been at least the seeds of intelligence to start with."

He spoke so calmly of what had so much to do with destroying my happiness and that of my sister and, eventually, yours as well, Scully, that I wanted very much to smash his face in.

"How are the headaches by the way?" he inquired, rapidly changing the subject once again.

Before I could construct an evasive answer, Ben's chipper voice replied for me from the doorway. "They're much better, aren't they, Mul - Fox? Mac gave him some leaf rolls of something before we left town the last time."

The calculating old man's eyes glittered cat-like in the light of fire and flame. "That's good news, Fox. I'm so pleased to hear it."

Ben had returned bearing a large platter of bright and exotically spiced food. He nearly glowed in anticipation. On the other hand my stomach was now queasy from the sickening weakness in my arm, which had lessened only a little. Reese followed Ben, carrying crocks of spread and a basket of fresh bread.

Conversation ceased as the meal commenced. Arniesse and Daniel ate sparingly due to age and a greatly more sedentary life style. I would have eaten my fill if only to save the farm a meal but worried about how much would stay down. I needn't have worried about offending our host; Ben easily ate enough for both of us. I restricted myself to nibbling on some bread and moving food around on my plate, a technique of how to appear to eat and yet not eat that I learned long ago while working on profile cases with you, Scully.

<And which fooled me for all of twice,> I heard your voice say, cool and clear as a bell. In fact, the words were so clear that I actually sat like a stone and waited expectantly for more, but no more hallucinations came to me as sweet as that. I noticed another sweetness though. Reese had added more of the heavily scented wood chips to the fire before he bowed out of the room. I caught his eye just before he left. If I knew him better, I'd say he was warning me of something. I had no idea of what. When I excused myself to visit the facilities out in the back garden, Reese was called in to clear the table, giving us no time to talk. Coincidence?

Arniesse was facing Benjamin when I returned to the room. Ben was obviously flushed but with eagerness, not fear. I found it strangely... civilized... that Arniesse's arms were at his sides. It was Ben whose hands raised to gently touch the changeling's beautiful face. Even as I watched that face's outlines fogged and then magically reformed into Annie's, alike but, oh, so unalike. Ben initiated the kiss, too, a chaste, shy meeting of lips. Only then did Annie embrace him, pausing after a moment to touch her palm with Ben's. His face transformed at that moment into an expression of such ecstasy that I knew that even though chemistry was in affect now it had had nothing to do with what had gone on before. Somehow I had a feeling that this play was being acted out for my benefit so that I would have no doubt that it was Ben's choice.

But voluntarily his choice was another matter. The young farmer may know everything there was to know about soil and water and seed, but nothing about the kind of temptation Annie was offering, with or without chemical inducements. A lovely, mystery woman, a magical woman Bloody hell, as my Oxford classmates would say, a woman! At least as close as Ben could ever hope to come to one. But her origins didn't seem to matter to Ben, certainly not at the moment They were locked together now and his deeper breathing was loud in the otherwise silent room. Annie broke off first, restraining him enough to lead him stumbling from the room before he took her right on the floor of the study I was embarrassed for him, as he was clearly incapable of being embarrassed for himself.

"Do you think me cruel?" Dan Rowe said handing me a cup with yet another liquor. Was he trying to make me drunk?

"I don't judge him. This is not my culture nor my world."

"But it is your culture and your world now, unless you plan to leave it sometime in the future which we both know is impossible, don't we?"

I made no response except to take my seat before the chess board that had replaced the remains of dinner. Daniel took his place in the large chair with a knowing smile and we began.

We talked of the strangest things. Male stuff like sports. When on earth Dan Rowe had been a New York fan, any New York team, and wanted to know how each had faired over the thirty years he'd been gone. We talked of advances in technology. The computer revolution, especially its saturation into the world's information infrastructure, sounded like science fiction and Dan Rowe was as aptly attentive as any audience a storyteller could ask for.

We faded into silence as the game became more complicated, but finally during one of my turns I had to ask, "Do you know what they did to me?"

The old man's eyes shadowed. "As I said, they activated some dormant genes. I can't be more specific. Some didn't work out too well. Do you remember being sick when you were about six?"

It hit me like a blow that until that moment I had entirely blocked out that memory. Always so healthy before, my parents thought I was pretending to be ill to get attention now that I had to be in school all day and my little sister Sam, now two, could stay home. Oh, they took my six-year-old self to doctors, but those wise men could find nothing wrong. Of course, they only could be expected to look for the conventional things. I was carted home, 'phantom' pain and all, and forced to go to school no matter how I felt. Without sympathy, with no understanding, with the welts of my father's belt under my clothes, I dragged myself to the bus. Clearly, it didn't matter that there were days when my joints hurt so bad that I could barely walk or could hold a pencil only with pain so extreme that I seriously considered holding it in my teeth. Nor did it matter on other days when it felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest or ants were crawling under the skin of my palms and the soles of my feet.

*Poor, poor Fox. I didn't know. *

I looked up to rediscover time and place. It was a mild shock to find Dan Rowe's too-familiar face staring into mine. I must be more tired than I thought. I didn't think that I had spoken aloud "Yes, it was pretty awful, as if you cared."

"I did care," he said emphatically. "I was just helpless to do anything about it, except, as I said before, to hold your hand and then only when 'he' allowed it."

"But I'm not that little boy any more."

"No? We never entirely cease being who we were."

"Nor can we ignore what the world has made of us."

His eyes seemed to have misted over. "No, nor that either." He shook his head then as if, like a bothersome fly, he were chasing a thought away. "You were sick more than once. So one of the times the pain was mostly in your joints? What about the other times?"

"Early in second grade I went through a period when I couldn't sit still. The teachers had to report their frustration of course, but no amount of punishment from ol' Dad made any difference. The back of my thighs were black and blue for weeks. If it had happened now I probably would be diagnosed as Attention Deficit and put on Ritalin Instead they finally decided that I was bored and moved me to third grade. Later that year to fourth."

"Was it difficult?"

I think I surprised myself with my answer for I had never thought back on that time if I could help it. "I had to study a little harder, but that wasn't a problem. Socially, however, it was hell. I was actually pudgy at age twelve but never since then."

"Got your growth spurt early?" the old man asked with a twinkle in his eye.

There was no mirth in my response. "Stopped eating." Stopped breathing, too. Stopped being. But this man didn't know anything about Sam, about what happened to Sam. He knew nothing about me after I was about ten or eleven.

"I don't know what Ritalin is," Daniel was saying, "but it's fortunate that they didn't give you any drugs. Your brain was growing too quickly and your hormones were already out of balance To try to affect that process with drugs would probably have made you psychotic." But they had. Did this mean that my 'condition' after Sam's disappearance had been only partially due to shock and grief and guilt?

"That was hell what he did," I said.

The response was barely a whisper. "I know. If it helps Charley was only acting under orders." Then the old man's head bowed. For the time being the game was forgotten. Once again, he was millions of miles and thirty years away. He looked so old at that moment I almost felt sorry for him. I rose to get Reese to see if there was anything that should be done but I wasn't even at the door before he called me back. He had risen and was pouring a splash of thick, red liquid from a small, pottery jar into each of two cups. He handed one to me. From the amount we were both given, I assumed it was a rare cordial of some type.

"To our pasts," he said raising his cup, "and to our futures."

The liquor was as thick as it had looked and sharply tangy on my lips. I only allowed it to briefly touch my tongue before I placed the cup back on the table.

"You don't care much for that one? No matter," he murmured with a wave of his hand as he dropped down slow and wearily into his chair Old eyes looked up at me but saw what wasn't there. "You were such a sweet child. Frightened and sweet and biddable."

I felt sudden urge to laugh but didn't. "I don't think anyone would use 'biddable' to describe me any more."

"It would be so much easier if you could be. Can't you? Put your life in my hands as you did then?" I wanted to repeat that I was not that little boy any more, but my tongue felt strangely thick. And why did the room and my head, seem suddenly so foggy The fire crackled sending up its aromatic smoke and the chess game sat forgotten. I continued to feel, not sleepy, but a little as if I were floating or stoned, the good parts of being stoned Automatically, a misty sort of prayer that I wouldn't have to pay for this later drifted through my brain. I had knowingly indulged in the weed once and only once and terrible LSD-type nightmares followed. Unwillingly, I had inhaled that sweet smoke since more often than that. As a rookie agent paying my dues, I dreaded the after affects of drug busts where the poor perpetrators tried to burn the evidence.

But the smell from this fire was not the same and if I had known what was coming, I would have asked for a joint and gladly.

Daniel was moving about the room, though I don't remember him rising. One by one he blew out the candles until only the firelight was left. He stood before the hearth now, his broad back to that single source of light and heat so that what I saw through heavy eyes was only a dark silhouette.

* There's something I need to show you. Let's go downstairs. *

Did I go with him? Alone? As you may have noticed, Scully, I was rather short of backup and, as you also know, I'm a sucker for mysterious conversations, so I rose, floating "After you," he said with a slight bow and gestured for me to proceed him. I did, out the door and into the foyer. Automatically, I turned left into a part of the house where I had never gone before. I turned left and then left again past the kitchen where Reese stood with a glum expression on his long face, his hands full of plates.

I wanted to call out to the old BoB but the words wouldn't come. My mouth was beginning to feel numb. 'He's drugged me! Help!'

*Yes, you are but its more than that and you'd know it if you let yourself believe. *

I continued on into a narrow hallway with several doors but I took none of them. My hand unerringly went to what looked to be a small knot in a board above my head and pressed it A panel opened into blackness, but my head knew when to duck and my feet knew where the trends of the narrow, steep stairs were. I went down. I knew rather than saw that there were no windows here and that it would have been just as black if it had been bright day outside rather than night. Still I could see enough to know that I stood in a small hallway with a single door on either side and a ceiling so low that the splinters of the rafters plucked at my hair Waiting revealed within a few seconds a dim luminescence reaching out like ghostly hands from the walls.


MULDER: Year 31, Week 01.9 Dale Reckoning (continued)

Once again, as if I knew where I was going, I opened the door to a right hand room. The glow from the walls was brighter here but still no more than blue moonlight. I stood on the threshold of what seemed a pleasant bedroom except that the bed sat in the middle of the room. It was a wide bed and had a real mattress, almost the size of what Daniel had in the master bedroom upstairs. There was no headboard or footboard, just that mattress on a kind of stage. On it was spread a quilt of rare quality for this place. And at each corner hung ropes ready for use and their use was obvious.

"We may have been brought to a new world but our tastes mirrored those of the old," the old man admitted softly with resignation "The first few years there was no time to think about sex. We just tried to figure out how to survive. We planted our future in the soil - corn, barley, children and wives Corn and barley grew and was fruitful; cemeteries are only what they are. After those years there didn't seem to be any point in not taking what few moments of forgetfulness we could so we acted out the old fantasies. Master and victim, is popular. To have total control over something versus having no worries at all. Most partners take turns. This place is very private, as you can see. It is used only by those of the first generation who remain and who have the will to feel at all anymore - the first generation and their guests. Participation on both sides, of course, is by consenting adults... usually.

Distantly, I felt my balls and my anus contract in tandem bringing a brief echo of horrified arousal.

"Next room," he said, amusement in his voice at my paralysis. Numbly and without any conscious control, I moved at his command.

The left-hand room was about the same size as the right. Its immediate feature was a long shelf that ran against one wall roughly the height of a bench and long enough for a man to lie down upon. It glowed a bright, violent violet color, nearly red. My feet went to it and I stared down. The covering was similar to thick, pile carpeting. Velvety. Almost soft-looking. Almost.

Daniel reached for a pottery jar that worked like a watering can and sprinkled the verdant felt. Where the water fell, strands of moss- like plants immediately thickened and began to glow a brighter, bloodier, more luxurious crimson. Instinctively backing away, I came up with my hip against a massive table so heavy that it didn't move even a quarter of an inch when I bumped into it. By the bloody light I could see that the top was deeply scratched and scarred by what looked like claws and splattered with some dark, dried substance Holes had also been drilled into the thick surface and from some of these ropes dangled. I backed away and felt something brush my face More ropes were hiding in the shadows; these tied to rafters spaced the width of a man's spread arms. Jerking around I found items on the walls, too. Just whips and straps of various thicknesses, some like cat-o-nine tails. Having so little metal, the variety of implements was not in any way extensive, but the intent of this room was as clear as the intent of the other had been.

My host bid me sit. There were four options: the red, living bed; the scarred and stained table; a study arm chair complete with dangling ropes; and a simple stool which would put me lower than Daniel like the child I once had been. I took the armchair but only balanced on the edge and kept my arms away from the ropes "What do you think?" he asked, leaning against the table, arms crossed.

I opened my mouth to speak and found it was an effort and the words came out no louder than a whisper. "Not very original."

"But basic. We have not had the luxury of time on Dale to develop subtlety."

"The blue room I can understand. But who do you bring here? How many of Charley's castoffs can there be?" The old man laughed. "You've grown up to be a very interesting man, Fox. I would like us to be friends, I really would. I see so much of myself in you as I was many years ago. For that reason I think you can be made to understand why I do what I must do now."

I heard the words but they didn't make sense somewhat. Whatever he had given me in that last drink which, thank my discriminating palette and suspicious nature, I had barely tasted, was causing me to drift away from the conversation.

*Fox*

With an effort I lifted my heavy head to find him standing knee to knee with me. With a gentle hand he lifted my chin so that I was forced to look up into his eyes. * I need information, Fox. I must have it. * "I asked you the last time we met. You didn't answer then, but you were having one of your headaches at the time and so I gave you the benefit of the doubt - perhaps you didn't hear - but when I asked about your sojourn north today, you lied to me. I need to know when Charley is coming back. I need to know where you are meeting him. There, see how simple it is? Just that and we can go back upstairs and finish our game of chess."

The question sent a wave of dull panic through my numb body. I didn't say anything. I had heard him the first time and recognized the trap then.

His hand was still on my chin but now with his other he began to run his fingers over my hair as if he were petting a dog. I wanted away from him but I couldn't move.

*Wake up, F. I know you can hear me. *

"You asked about his room? We do have malcontents on Dale, troublemakers, and, yes, we bring them here. Domestic quarrels, jealously, just like on old heterosexual Earth. We're sitting in the center of the courthouse and jail and prison of Dale and I am judge, jury, executioner, attorney for the defense and prosecuting attorney all rolled up into one. You don't even have to pay me. Can't solve the problem among yourselves? The troublemakers come here. After a few hours, or a few days, or a few weeks, in either this room, or the blue one, or both, he goes back to his own home and rarely causes trouble again. We don't have the manpower to waste on prisons and guards. So you see I know what I'm doing and I will find out Want to tell me now?"

The weird floating feeling made me want to tell, but I wouldn't, I couldn't, not if I ever hoped to see home again, home and you, Scully. That scrape of knowledge was the only item of value I possessed on this planet. Lose that and Daniel wouldn't need 'me' any more, only the muscles and dumb obedience of a plow horse Besides how could Daniel possibly have forgotten the level of pain Charley/Bek/Rodan and his Beast could dish out. Whatever level of discomfort this old man could exert would be child's play compared to that.

He increased the pressure on my jaw forcing my head higher until I was standing, moved like a puppet by his touch. *I think it's time that you remove your clothes. * A thunderhead of silent resistance sprang up between us. "Fox, I want to see what shape you're in. Strip please." His voice was matter-of-fact, analytical. I did nothing. He waited. I waited. I waited for the tension storm inside me to come to a head and break Anything to give me some strength, some rage. But there was nothing It was as if the storm had passed me by. I could see it evaporating into nothing more than mist. Quiet was all I felt, like the stillness of a pond at dawn, a pond that reflected his will at the loss of my own. Only distantly was I aware that my hands had gone to the long vest I wore for warmth over the crudely woven shirt. They shook and my arms and shoulders wouldn't coordinate even enough to shrug off such an uncomplicated garment as that. The old man helped, not rushing me. After the vest he helped pull the shirt over my head. By this time my head and body felt so alien to each other that I lost my balance as the shirt came free and nearly fell. Taking one of my wrists in each of his hands, the old man raised my arms above my head, angling my body so that my hands each touched one of the thick ropes that dangled from the ceiling rafters. "Hold on," he suggested, "or you'll fall down."

So I hung to the rough ropes while he casually untied the drawstring on the loose trousers and I felt the rough fabric slide over my hips to the floor. Damp, chill air goose-fleshed my exposed skin, which was pretty nearly all my skin now except for a few inches covered by the loincloth Due to the scarcity of the more finely woven fabrics this was all the underwear we wore. Daniel removed the fallen trousers from around my ankles as at his touch I lifted my feet one after the other like that obedient horse.

That's how I came to be standing naked in a chilly cellar, maintaining some semblance of uprightness only by clinging voluntarily to ropes whose purpose was not usually so voluntary. I said that the underground room was cold and yet a fine sweat aided the old man's fingers as they traveled over my body. He asked soft questions. He was interested in musculature and how much weight I'd gained or lost under Charley's care, then he concentrated on the scars. The first he studied were the deep ones near my wrists and ankles from the Beast as those were the most recent and had only recently begun to heal "These look bad but you should have seen mine. After five years they were like craters but toughened over time with scar tissue so that the attachment rarely hurt any more. Obviously, you never reached that stage." He didn't seem to expect an answer so I didn't give him one. I seemed to be drifting farther away again and that seemed a good place to be. Familiarly, he patted my hip as he straightened up after examining the deep punctures on my lower legs. "Just like the marks on your face, Mac can reduce these if you want. On the other hand, you might consider keeping them. Your future partners may find your battle wounds arousing."

He went on moving from scar to scar, clucking with dismay over the long one on my thigh where the gunshot had nearly cut short my life, if not any possible progeny, that night on the docks. When he found your bullet hole, Scully, he whistled. "That was close. Careless of you." He didn't mention the deep new scar down the center of my chest, a souvenir from my evaluation after my collection from the woods of Oregon. He seemed to know all about that one.

How long ago that time seems. Sometimes it's hard to believe that I had another life. This was one of those times From behind, a finger traced the outline of my left shoulder blade stopping suddenly at a spot I could never have seen. "I know this scar," he said with some deep emotion. "Bek drew a biopsy from the scapular marrow. Though you were only six or seven at the time you didn't cry but I thought you might. That was when I first realized how strong you were... or stubborn. They are much the same thing." He turned me to face him, which forced my hands free of the ropes. I had to hold onto him or fall. Like Charley he is taller than I am and heavier of bone both naturally and from age. He held me easily, all at once staring down at my left arm.

"It's still cold from where Arniesse touched you?" he asked in wonder, and then he stared searchingly into my face. "What did they think they were making when they created you?" he asked but not of me.

"Fox, listen," he snapped with irritation. He must have thought I was avoiding him. I tried to focus on his face but couldn't. "This is not the time to be either strong or stubborn. This is the time to surrender, because I assure you that you cannot win." I tried to break away, but my body still behaved like some too easily manipulated toy. One shove from him and I stumbled toward the glowing red bed. I nearly fell across it. My bare knees did collide with the edge. It was all I could do not to touch that shimmering, malevolent surface. As florescence will, especially in a darkened room, the pulsing energy caught and held my eyes, burning the thick, overflowing color into my brain.

Through the dizzying, crimson strands that twisted behind my eyes, I heard the voice from my childhood nightmares speaking with devil sweetness, "Please understand, Fox, I have no wish to bring more pain to the child I helped to torture so many years ago. By remaining silent, however, you give me little choice."

His hand trailed down my spine. *Lie down, Fox. Like the good boy you were, lie down on Daniel's Bed.*

Not in a million years. I wasn't that far gone. I didn't know what was growing on that bed but it wasn't violets or fine Kentucky Blue Grass. In every way this crop was far more alien than anything I yet seen on this planet.


MULDER

A large hand fell on my shoulder Though I made no move to comply, neither did I find the strength to turn and run.

"Fox, please. Let us be civilized. I can call down my men to help me. You don't want them down here, believe me you don't. They'll expect payment for their trouble of a particularly intimate kind It's either this bed here and now or the bed in the other room first and this later." Curse the man but I knew that he told the truth. When Ben and I approached Government House only a few hours before I had seen an surprisingly large number of men about the grounds. All tried to look busy but each one watched us, and in particular me, with that hungry look I had seen first in John Ironlegs and then at the May Day festival. I still saw it in Ben; though knowing my feelings, he had learned to hide much. No, Ben's rather plaintive wanting was not at all on the same level as what the mayor's handpicked men hoped for as they circled like carrion crows.

As if testing the waters of an unknown pool, I began by placing one hand on the bed. Despite its wicked color, it felt very much like the carpet of thick, course moss it appeared to be. The small, scarlet plants seemed to come alive at my presence, however. They sprang up curling around my fingers. Pressing down, I found that the springiness of this bed went inches deep.

*See, nothing to fear. Go on. *

The gods help me, but I did, mostly because there was no choice All too aware of my nearly bare butt - the loincloth had somehow managed to remain intact - I knelt first, my knees sinking deeply into the loom. Then slowly I stretched myself out, on my back, of course. I was not so spaced as to lie face down. And then I waited My skin itched a little for the surface was scratchy, but, surprisingly, it didn't hurt.

Not yet, I told myself.

I was concentrating so strongly on the sensation of the small, red plants wiggling slightly about and under my body that I didn't feel the old man's first contact with my chill, sweating skin. I just happened to open my eyes to find his bulk hovering immediately over me, the fingers on one hand spread over my chest. Clearly, something was going to happen and he was going to be right there to watch.

"It takes a while," he said softly. "On the street, when they talk about Daniel's bed, they are referring to this one, not to my sexual prowess. I encourage the rumors." A finger ran down my skin to linger overlong about a sensitive nipple.

"What's going to happen?" I asked in a tight voice.

His smile beamed. "Wait and find out." His fingers explored some more. By the casual way he went about it, I was led to believe that this handling was just a kind of perk and not part of the main event. The main event was supposedly going on at the interface between my skin and the mossy, pulsing carpet. That skin felt increasingly warm but that was all.

*It's not too late you know, Fox. You can tell me now and I can end this before it goes any farther. *

*And miss the experience? * I asked, wondering why my voice sounded so odd *I daresay you could live your life quite fully without this particular experience, * he replied. He was running a fingertip along my jaw now and staring into my face, his voice dreamily creepy. *You have such an incredible face, such amazing bone structure. I wish I had known you in your teens, in your twenties, any time before Bek got hold of you again. I see too many new lines that I guess were not there last year. You have no idea how you stand out here. You're like a piece of fine art among all us old weathered acorns. In exchange for just a few hours of your time and a few scruples, you could demand anything. *

He had to have felt the shudder that passed through me that even the drugs couldn't suppress.

"Very well, maybe not. But even though you don't indulge yourself with Ben now, you will want to take partners in time. You'll truly go crazy in the place if you don't. I just wanted to warn you not to sell yourself short."

All this advice only confirmed my deepest fear, which was not the one you might think. Dan Rowe didn't plan to remain on Dale much longer, but he expected that I would be. He was determined to take my place, my berth home.

There was no time to worry about that now, however, short of staying silent. My back was beginning to get more than warm. Visions of a slow-acting acid that in time would strip the flesh from my bones began weaving into my brain. I found I wanted to move, had to move "Stop!" Daniel warned his voice surprisingly insistent. "You will hurt less in the end the longer you stay completely still."

Maybe so but his continuing to idling stroke my balls though the scrape of loincloth wasn't helping any.

He must have seen the direction of my gaze, for with an apologetic smile he moved the hand to casually rest on my thigh near the sensitive shotgun scar, not a lot better.

"You're beginning to feel it now aren't you? An unbearable heat? But you must bear it."

It wasn't only heat. All at once I felt a sudden sharp prick on the calf of the leg his hand rested on. It was rather like being stung by a very small bee. The old man must have felt the leg jerk slightly in response for he gave that leg a little pat. "Yes, things are moving along. I take it that that was the first one? Red Dan is a plant with stingers. Don't worry, there's not any poison involved What they have are tiny but very effective grappling hooks." I could believe that; five more just got their hooks into my butt. "It's a primitive planet geology-wise. These small soil builders just developed a rather unique mechanism for clinging to and breaking down rock."

Ouch! This unique mechanism just fired off about three dozen more of these little pincers, and, I knew with horror, I was lying on thousands of the little soil-builders. Then there was no more time to think. Just as a pan of popcorn begins with a few kernels popping, and then a few more, and then more and more, faster and faster. The little explosions, each on its own rather minor, were going off in the hundreds. A cry was wrenched out of me as my body tried to bow away from the attack. Daniel was there, however, which was the real reason why he had waited over me. He threw his not inconsiderable weight against my chest, holding me down.

"Intimacy is not my sole intent here," he assured me, grunting with the effort. "They won't attach in the same place twice so you - must - not - move - or the results will be twice, three times as bad."

Maybe true, but I wasn't in any position to believe him at the moment. Like the popcorn, the rate of new stings, now that about a thousand had gone off, had slowed, but each of the little wounds still hurt, each and every one of them Daniel knew this, too, and had removed most of his weight. From somewhere he came up with a cloth of surprising softness and began wiping gently at the sweat that was running like a stream down my face.

"I know it's painful. Just a little while longer."

Oh, god... oh, god... oh, god... oh, god... I think I would have preferred to have been tied down. Then I could strain against the bonds and still not actually move. It was this dependence upon self- control alone that was a killer. There were tears of pain running down my face now as well as the sweat and my body was shaking. I pressed my lips together tight to stifle the nearly overwhelming compulsion to scream.

"We'll do fifteen minutes. For some infractions, the down time on the bed is half an hour, for severe crimes of revenge or cruelty, an hour. The hook is actually the sharp tip of a new taproot. It's working its way in now, microns at a time, rooting itself into your skin. It flourishes on nerve the same way that Earth plants seek water and sun. It must be nerve to explain how much agony they cause. Hush, hush, be still. The implantation phase will soon be over. For your contemplation, this is just a taste of the misery this planet is capable of delivering in the right hands."

I didn't know how much longer 'a little while longer' actually was When forty percent of your skin surface is on fire nothing is 'little'. Finally, he said in the calmest voice, "I think that's sufficient. You can get up now." Only I couldn't. To a large extent it was exhaustion and shock from the massive attack on muscle and skin and nerve, but not all. Like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, I had become attached to the earth, not by one tiny bond, but by thousands.

As had probably been his intent all along, Dan Rowe, my tormenter, became my savior. He took my shoulders in his large, strong hands and gave a mighty heave. I did scream this time. It was as if chunks of my flesh were being ripped out by the roots. Not a totally inaccurate description.

While I was still at the top of the pain curve, I was thrown down face first onto the dungeon's heavy, wooden table. With the speed and skill of long practice, the old devil slopped onto my enflamed back, butt and legs some thick substance that sank immediately into each of the legion of wicked fishhook wounds. Another scream was torn from me and even to my ears the sound was barely human. I can't remember how long I screamed before the wings of the merciful dark came to carry me away.

I was still face down but on something softer when I came around the next time. Daniel's bed, his other bed, the one in the center of the blue room on the other side of the stairway. I was tied down, wrists and ankles, and every inch of my body hurt with a mile deep kind of agony. The open wound of the exposed half of me felt an acre in size and throbbed like a giant heart. What woke me was the sensation, not altogether horrible, this time of something cool being poured onto those huge, raw wounds. I wasn't allowed to enjoy it, however. A pair of large hands began massaging the solution deep into what was left of my skin. Under the circumstances, this was not the most relaxing of experiences. It was all I could do not to give out with a shriek yet again and it would not have been one of those girly screams, Scully, let me tell you. I chose to faint again instead.

Far too soon I heard a voice. "Welcome back," cooed Daniel's voice from very close behind me. I had no doubt that the large hands that had so roughly 'attended' to my back had also been his.

I groaned and didn't mind if he heard it. I don't even dream any more, Scully, that you'll be beside me when I fight my way out of the deep. They've taken even that from me.

"What was that all about?" I growled, vainly struggling against my bonds.

"Immediately after? Neutralization phase to kill off any living Red Dan. Necessary unless you want the root to continue to grow and grow uncontrolled throughout your body. In time they'd intertwine around your nerves until they reached the spinal cord, the brain- "

"- I get the picture. And after that? The massage?"

"My apologies," but he didn't try to hide the satisfaction in his voice. "Had to work in some antiseptic and topical analgesic to fight infection and give you 'some' relief. On rare occasions we've had some deaths - from shock."

"Heaven forbid that the condemned should die."

He nearly chuckled and ruffled the hair on the back of my head as if I were that child again, and he the parent. " Believe it or not, I am not a bad or evil person, Fox. I am, however, a very, very tired person. Do you have any idea what it is like to be responsible for a whole world, not only for the people's survival, but for their being here at all? And we died and we continue to die. Don't you see how important it is that I talk with Bek?"

"My place," I murmured. "I believe that you - " The slightest breeze across my damaged skin stopped my breath dead for a second " - that you had your chance."

I felt him move from where he'd been sitting on the bed near my hip "Is THAT what this silence is all about? You believe that I would be fool enough to go back and play the dog to Bek?"

"So you're perfectly content here ruling your little piece of botanical hell?"

"If one is strong enough, I won't deny that one can find satisfaction even in hell but so much still needs to be done. All I want is to talk. All I want is a chance to argue the case for my people."

"Which I can do... if I see Charley... if he really does come back."

The old, lined mouth was tight and bitter. "I don't think you can You are weak, Fox. Just see all you did at my bidding today. No wonder Bek has no respect for you."

If I had not still been tied down, I would have risked tearing the skin of my back in two to turn around just to get a look at the old man's face. I had not detected the slightest sarcasm in that voice; he had sounded utterly sincere, and, therefore, utterly insane. If he honestly believed that having the tricks and the tools to torture another human being made him the superior man and more worthy of respect, then this world and Benjamin and I were in more serious trouble than I thought. A sociopath is far more dangerous than a man who is merely desperate.

"I'll find the place," I vowed, "and if Charley comes he will listen."

"I don't think so. You have been on Dale... what? Half a growing season? What do you really know about our lives? We need medicine, minerals, and vitamins to replace what this planet leaches out of us. We need tools and better seed. We need a cure for what killed our women and real families."

The scene was surreal. The blue room smelled of mildew and old lust My bloody back, buttocks and legs lay exposed to the wide open air while a mad dictator spouted the party line the way, I assumed, that he had during every one of the colony's uncontested mayoral campaigns over the last thirty years.

And I didn't believe a word of his being content to rule here Unfortunately, there were quite a lot of words so that, as he paced, I found my eyes droop closed. There was a hypnotic quality to that deep voice. Luckily, I fell asleep from sheer exhaustion long before he was able to change my mind. He may even have forgotten about me, enthralled as he was by the sound of his own voice. In any case he left me alone and allowed me some sleep.

I dreamed though as is the way with fever dreams I didn't remember much. As my dreams go I believe that these were only disturbing Mostly they were about the ghosts of all those who have been humiliated here. The wept in every corner. In general I was ignored They must have mistaken me for one of their own, just one more of the dead... or one nearly dead... or one soon to be dead. Sleep lasted for perhaps two hours. Daniel came then and silently and without undo melodrama pumped his pound of flesh into my body. Then he left me alone once again with the dead. They're better company, let me tell you. At least he released my bonds with strangely gentle hands before he left. Finally, his heavy footsteps vanished up the stairs and I heard a bolt far away slide true.

I was left with the silence. The silence was good. I sucked in the quiet as if curling into my tomb. Alone with the ghosts I had a good cry. Does the soul a world of good. On this occasion it didn't help my body much however. Even the slight struggling for breath to get around my congested nose triggered outrage from the hundreds of tiny pieces of wickedly sharp dead roots that were still imbedded in my skin. The agony kept me awake until, like a kennel of sleepy puppies that are temporarily awakened from slumber, the disturbed nerve endings gradually quieted. I got a little more sleep then until I woke coughing from the damp. That brought tears to my eyes and not tears of self-pity time. It also brought an end to sleep for that night.

Neither did I expect that I would get much for many nights to come With that cheery thought, I decided that it was past time to go if I could. Stiff and in the kind of pain that in my old life would have told me instantly that it really was far too early to leave the hospital, I levered myself off the bed and began to dress. It was agony. Use of any of the muscles in the vicinity of the stingers triggered a chain reaction of pain that was beyond description Worse, the nearly imperceptible points of the hooks caught on my clothes so that tear-wrenching showers of hurt accompanied every move I made, breathing included. This, I decided, was going to get old real fast, so old that I won't even try to describe the experience of climbing the stairs It was only when I got to the frozen panel at the top that I remembered the sound of a bolt being thrown. I could sit and wait on the cold, damp steps in total darkness or make my agonizing way back down the stairs and wait in the room of blue luminescence. I went back downstairs but I didn't hurry. Nothing to do but wait till morning which seemed a very long time in a sadist's lair with no moons, nor stars, nor hint of coming dawn.

For what felt like days, I lay on my stomach across the bed and tried not to move, not even to breathe too deeply. My fever rose and fell like waves on the ocean. At last, I heard faint scratching sounds from the panel door at the top of the stairs. Only then did I crawl the steps again. The panel swung open with the tiniest pressure this time. I found Reese waiting for me though he discouraged conversation. He gave me a chunk of bread and a cup of water for my breakfast, showed me the back door, and indicated that I was to wait. I cursed the hundred-year-old slowness of my steps but it was as fast as I could go. The completely passive expression on the old newcomer's face indicated that he had seen men in my condition before, probably often. Outside in the small yard between the house and barn, I looked for a place to sit before I fell down I had to make due with a pile of firewood that had splinters of its own though I leaned against it rather than actually sat down.

I had certainly fallen far from privileged guest status. It seemed an hour before Daniel finally appeared, dressed neatly for the day while, with practically no sleep and no desire to tighten my clothes lest they touch my skin any more than they did already, I must have resembled the most addled of newcomers.

"Had time to think, Fox?"

"'Mulder'. As for time, I've had sufficient but then I didn't need any. Nothing has changed."

"I disagree. We know each other so much better. In your gut you already know that I will win, that I have won, but I know that I will have to punish you harshly and often before you will acknowledge that in your mind. As for your name, I will continue to call you Fox, if for no other reason than you don't like it. Bek, or Charley as you call him, did intend this to be your purgatory, after all or he wouldn't have sent you here. He would not want me to be gentle."

"Don't worry, you haven't been." I made no attempt to keep the hardness out of my voice. "Now is there really any point to continuing this melodrama? Where's Ben? May we leave now?"

"He's finishing his breakfast and will be with us soon. If you insist on leaving so quickly, then I must be brief. I've been thinking again on a topic that came up the last time you were here I'm considering keeping you here with me."

Fear twisted in my nearly empty stomach. "And your reason?"

"As Mayor, I don't need any. I want you near me; that's enough. I would have your most desirable figure decorate my cellar room for the entertainment of my friends and your own education. You see, I realized during my middle-of-the-night visit - sorry, but I couldn't sleep at the thought of you down there - what your problem really is."

"And what's my problem?"

"You do not know your place. You have not accepted how things work here. You do not see what to everyone else is so obvious. Clearly, our Benjamin, for all his graces, has not been the best teacher for you."

"And what should he have taught me?"

The old test pilot began to circle like a university professor before freshman. "That this colony is not a democracy and never has been. We live too fragile an existence for that. I have the responsibility for this world and with the responsibility comes ownership. I, therefore, own this world, and everything and everyone in it, including you. I decide their fate. I decide who farms and who is to be trained in other skills. I decide what is to be planted and how it should be divided. I decide what farms should perhaps be given over to another's keeping or left to go fallow. I am - as I went into last night - lawmaker, judge and jury. What you experienced last night," he brushed his hand across my back forcing, I regret, a heart-stopping spasm of pain, "is only a taste of what I can do and no one will stop me. You are a bright man, Fox. Bek would not have chosen otherwise, but your stubbornness has been your downfall. You've had your chance with Bek. It is time to let another try."

"You failed as well."

"And had thirty years to regret it. Besides, I'm not doing this for myself."

"I said that I'd talk to Charley."

"My apologies but I can't risk throwing away this world's only chance." His voice had been firm but unheated. Now it grew softer "I know you despise your life here. Once I'm restored to my proper status I will be in a position to help the entire colony, including you."

I wanted to laugh. "My apologies, but I've been fucked over so thoroughly for the last eight months that last night barely registered. So excuse me but I'm not ready to trust anyone right now. And if I were, you wouldn't be at the top of the list." "You're the one who doesn't understand. Trust is not the issue Ownership is, power is. I own you, just as I own Benjamin. And I'm not asking, I'm telling. It is also my responsibility to know everything about every resource available to me and you are one of those resources In the end, you will live where I tell you to live. As far as fucking goes, you will allow yourself to be fucked by whom I say. You will tell me everything about Earth that I need to know, everything that has changed in twenty years. To show that I am not unreasonable I will allow you to go home with Ben today. It's a less stressful environment from which to contemplate your future, but realize that that could change tomorrow. In the meantime go ahead, exhaust yourself. Bring in crops, construct cathedrals. The colony can use both. You wouldn't be so worried about the winter if Charley were returning before spring so I can afford to be patient But be warned, if I do not have the information I have requested by the time the harvest has been taken in, there will be changes."

I hoped that my voice was as cold as I intended. "I've lived with Charley, so have you. You know, therefore, that there is nothing you can do to me physically which would force me to change my mind."

"Not to you perhaps but have you considered how your continued recalcitrance could affect our mutual friend?"

I should have known that it would come to this. "Why involve Benjamin?"

"Because you care. Why do you think that I let you stay there so long? That sweet boy can worm his way into anyone's heart. I have only to decide that it is not an efficient use of the colony's resources to keep a farm going that's so distant. I can pull him into town. Without a farm he no longer qualifies for a BoB. I bring you into my household. He can work in the community fields."

"Take away his land and it would break his heart."

"You talk about breaking hearts, you who would see the last of our women and children in their graves."

There was no point in continuing this particular argument. I very much doubted that Dan Rowe would even remember the names of the dying women and children once he had his feet on the deck of a spacecraft again. Even less would he endanger his position with Bek by fighting for people he need not ever see again.

"You can, of course, remove your little friend from this matter, Fox. You come to my house willingly and he can keep his hermit's existence. There needn't be any questions or disgrace. There have been sharecroppers before who have given up their BoB's for incompatibility. Either way, you will live with me here and work in the house. Nights mostly, that's when I entertain the major landowners. Truthfully, after thirty years we are dead weary of each other's company and the sight of each other's faces... as well as other parts of our anatomy. I'm serious. Sooner or later you will tell me what I need or your life as you have known it, here, there, and for all time, will be over. If you are very stupid, I will have to tie Benjamin's well being into the deal as well, because neither of you is as important as the survival of this colony."

"I'll tell Ben."

"He won't believe you. I'm God the Father here. At the most you'll disillusion him and strip away what little security and happiness he can find in this world." At that moment Daniel looked up, distracted, at a noise from the house and then sighed deeply as if he had just completed an unpleasant task. "I believe that that gives you enough to think about until we see each other again."

At that moment Ben came out the back door, black hair tousled. A smile beamed in greeting as he saw me. He glowed with health, and happiness and the satisfaction of a young man well laid.

There had to be way...

... To make it through the next weeks despite the pain in my body that threatened to pull me to my knees even now

... To protect poor, innocent love-struck Ben

... To find the elusive rendezvous point, before Daniel did.

I had only to stall.

Right.

"I'll think about it," I told my Lenin wanna-be.

"Then I'll see you in two weeks."


BENJAMIN Year 31, Week 2.1 through 9.0, Dale Reckoning

Summer. It is the season of the year that makes life possible on Dale or at least bearable. Taking into account the amounts and timing of sun and rain, it had not been the best summer for crops but neither had it been the worst. As in any summer, there were not enough hours of daylight to accomplish all that needed to be accomplished before the busy harvest season and dreaded winter that always followed. I was so busy that I failed to notice for weeks that there was something wrong with Mulder. When I did I couldn't remember back to when it started.

After my second incredible night with Annie I was not only exhausted but completely obsessed with thoughts of her. The following day passed in a blur. I only remember that Mulder was not eager to have Mac work on the left side of his face. That surprised me since he never complained of any particular pain associated with having the right side done, but his steps dragged as he went down the street towards the surgery. Now that I think of it, his eyes looked as exhausted as mine felt, but I figured that if he stayed up all night playing chess and talking the high talk with Mayor Dan that he had no one to blame but himself. Come to think of it, he dragged on the road home as well even though he slept a few hours on his stomach in Mac's garden before we left. Funny, I don't remember us talking much at all that day. Wrapped in my own thoughts, I would all at once find myself striding meters ahead and then would have to wait for Mulder to catch up. I had never known him to be slow. Maybe it only seemed that way since I was eager to get back to see if the beans needed fertilizing yet.

"Fertilizing as in spreading fertilizer?" Mulder asked. His tone was listless as though he was only asking out of politeness "As in playing midwife," I corrected as I looked down on the tiny flowers hiding among the thick green leaves of the bushy plants "These are an earth species. On earth inserts would pollinate them On Dale- "

"No insects."

"We're the insects. It's a manual process."

We proceeded to spend the next three days on our knees with damp wads of cloth brushing the stamens of every tiny flower. When I think back, that's when I should have first noticed that Mulder was ill. Those were hot, sunny days and while I worked stripped to the waist, Mulder kept his shirt on insisting that he wasn't hot even though the sweat rolled off him in sheets.

Only in hindsight do I see that day. Mulder worked as hard as ever, harder even, but he worked slower and with less attention. He dropped things. The lines on his face are deeper. On a rare warm night I took my mat to the barn to sleep and the next morning witnessed Mulder rising from his. He didn't think I was awake yet It was painful to watch he was so stiff. He had also slept fully clothed. It hurt that he trusted me so little. Respecting his wishes, I had made no advances for weeks. Did he think I was going to waste away pining over him? Well, Winter bite him! I had Annie But I did worry that he might be sick. When I tried to bring up the subject, he curtly cut me off and then refused to take a break in the afternoon as we usually did. We were well started on the extra room, or sauna as he called it, and he would work on that from before dawn sometimes until after dark.

What worried me more than anything, however, was that there was no light in him any longer. He found no joy in his efforts as if it were all of a sudden just work to him.

I didn't actually notice the sadness in his face so much until after the bandages came off from the second of Mac's operations. As before, the job was well done. Handsome before, I found myself dreaming of that now-restored face, so I guess I lied when I swore that my lusting days were over. On the other hand, maybe it wasn't desire, because what I dreamed of was seeing him smile because he didn't.... not any more. The Tensday after the one when the second operation was performed, he woke me while it was still dark - which in mid summer is very early - so that we could start for the north country to look again for his landing place. He didn't need to tell me why we needed to leave so early. He was afraid of our being followed again. As it turned out, we weren't, but we returned late and footsore instead of rested, as we should be after a free day Worse, Mulder saw nothing that looked like the land around where he had been dropped off.

The week that followed was much the same. Mulder was tense and frustrated, but he refused to talk to me about what was bothering him. We worked like newcomers on the sauna house. I worked just as hard as he did even when I would have liked to be sitting in the sun enjoying this time of comparative peace before harvest season began With one wall against the chimney of the cabin, one against the hill but lined with stone and the other two free standing and thick with stone, the sauna was an impressive structure even if I did not quite fathom its purpose. Mulder swore, however, that in the depths of winter I would be happy to have it. I'll take his word on that. It will be worth the trouble if it makes him happy, though a warm, hard-muscled body next to mine would have been as welcome and less trouble. Guess it has been too long since Annie.

When it came time to be on the road to Stony River to keep our appointment with Daniel, I didn't have to remind Mulder. Again, he didn't act as if he wanted to go. It was more as if it were a punishment than the honor it was. His shoulders slumped and he ate even less than before at dinner. Arniesse was once more at table and despite my preoccupation with that presence I couldn't help but notice that there was even more tension between he and Mulder then before. Mulder was always careful not to get too close. A small, mean part of me wondered if he was jealous. Served him right, though I couldn't imagine why. Could he want Annie for himself or was he just regretting that I had someone and he didn't?

It was morning before I even found myself thinking of Mulder again I had finished breakfast and was going outside to find him so that we could start for home when Daniel took me aside. I will not write here what he told me in secret, nor from what I was intended to infer from a twist of those thin lips and the sweep of those large hands. Nor could I, even if I tried, describe with any accuracy the storm of conflicting emotions that conversation started boiling within me. What it did mean was that when I saw Mulder again, I saw him through different eyes.

For one, he looked terrible. He had seemed unwell the last time we left Daniel's. He seemed far worse this time though it may only have seemed so because I was less preoccupied with my own affairs. This time I saw beneath the exhausted drag of his feet and the stiffness behind his every movement. He was in a sullen mood as well, like so much of the time since our previous visit with Daniel. Now I saw his bad mood for what it was, a gathering darkness, a deep depression of spirit, a soul that had been forced to look into the face of a future reality to which death must seem more welcome.

My poor Fox. I would have wept for him if I could. I would have railed and beat my fists to the skies if that would have helped Meanwhile, he held it all inside and Daniel warned me to say nothing. A month went by. Four weeks since Daniel opened my eyes and, Almighty Spirit, help me, but I held my peace. To watch him struggle through each day under his horrible burden was agony. He worked as if possessed, as if a fire burned within that only a blanket of exhaustion can dim and then only for a little while.

I admit that there are other reasons for my silence. Pity. Spite Resentment. Even my relationship with Annie was not the bright thing it had been. If finally got through to me that she had been brought in only to complete the foursome, to keep me busy. Mulder and Daniel had discovered that there were things that they wished to do together while there was still time and I would have been in the way. Daniel, after all, knew my opinion of rough play. I thought I was right because it explained why Mulder was so tired and sore after each visit and did little more than stare at the ground as if shamed all the way home. He was doing things with Daniel, bad things, hard things, when he had refused the gentle, good times he could have had with me.

I found no more pleasure in my life than Mulder did. The only bright spot during the whole end of the summer was seeing how the crops grew. What was going on between Mulder and Daniel couldn't tarnish that for me. How green the plants were, how tall or lush according to the nature of each, and how bountiful their fruits. The more they grew, however, the deeper became the shadows under Mulder's eyes.

More weeks passed and the crops were golden or red or pump in the fields or on the trees. It was Cup Day, which meant that harvest would officially begin the next day. Every year before this one I had spent Cup Day in town, celebrating and getting drunk with my friends in preparation for the big push of digging and cutting and picking. It was not that all the crops ripened at once, it was just that we have to leave them as long as we can or starve before spring. This was the latest we dare leave the Earth plants out in the fields because when winter comes, it comes with a vengeance. A week more and the town of Stony River will host the Harvest Festival. It's the most important event of the year because it's only then that we'll know how many of us are likely to survive the winter. If there is already snow and there are still crops out in the fields, then not many.

This year I did not spend Cup Day in town.

"I just want you to know that I won't spend another holiday crawling over these hills with you!" I grumbled testily as we walked down the last slope of the northern uplands. Over the months we had covered all of the north and only the fertile and more populated eastern quarter remained.

Mulder knew it, too and was in even a worse mood than I was. He turned on me, growling, "Then you won't need to worry about missing any more of your rustic hoe-downs! If I haven't found the damn place by this time next week, then it will be too late. We won't need to come!"

"Wrong. We'll have to find it within the next hour because there won't be time to come back. You're just going to have to learn to live without knowing!"

In response Mulder turned to his right and stalked away. It was growing late and, as it was also overcast, it would be too dark to see even earlier than usual. Mulder had become increasingly frantic over the past hours. Undernourished as he was from barely eating these past months and burning up what he did eat, he stumbled over rocks and any sudden rise of ground. His hands were scraped, as was his chin and his knees. This must be how an animal behaves, a creature moving on instinct and emotion rather than thought. I had hoped that Daniel's warnings were wrong, but I saw it all coming to pass before my eyes. Would the final breakdown come today, before the harvest? I had hoped that we would at least have that. Anger had left me for pity when I finally spoke. "Mulder, it's not here."

His body whipped around. The tired red of his eyes blazed back at me. "It has to be here! Do you think I sprung fully formed out of the earth like one of your dirt devils!"

"Of course not, but maybe it's not as you remember it. What you remember may not exist. You were very sick those first few days."

Even in the near darkness I saw his face change, the anger flowing out of him to be replaced by the utter misery beneath. As if all his strength evaporated with the anger, he gingerly sagged down onto a rock, dropping his head into his folded arms. "I have to find it," came the muffled words after a moment. "Oh, God, please, I have to."

"You won't tonight. We have to get back; it will rain soon. You're weak already. Do you want to get sick?"

Slowly, the head came up with, amazingly, a sliver of a smile. "For a moment there you sounded so much like Scully." "Then she had sense." "That's right, she did - she does - but I didn't listen to her either. Ben, did it ever occur to you that looking in the rain, in the dark may be just what I need? That's what it was like when I came down."

"What good will it do if it kills you?" I sulked.

"What good will it do if I don't find it?"

"That's rather hard for me to answer since you've never told me why it's so important. You said you would tell me later."

"And it's still not later enough, Ben. You have to trust me."

I was silent and I looked off down the trail towards home.

"Do you, Ben?"

I still didn't turn back to him right away. When I did it was with a jerk. "Trust you? How can I when you do such mad things? How can I when you don't talk to me anymore, when you care so little about my feelings that you don't even take care of yourself? And then you insult me by rejecting everything I have to give and do it with- " Enough, I sprang to my feet and started off towards home. "Stay if you want to! Go and get yourself killed! Run out on me and get lost What do you care? It will be my shame, not yours!"

"Benjamin! Damn you, Ben, get back here!" The first use of my name had been angry. The second more commanding and a little anxious.

I kept walking, almost running into the pre-storm gloom. I didn't know what else to do now. I wasn't going to beg him; I couldn't beg him, but what he proposed was completely irresponsible.

Then I heard the quick footsteps behind me. They were almost silent what with the rising of the wind as the storm came nearer. Then I heard his heavier than normal breathing. He must have run to catch up. "Benjamin, stop..."

"From all you've said, the doctors are good where you come from. But here, even though we can cure a lot, we can't afford to be stupid We can't cure everything. You could die."

"I hear you; hear me! I need to search for just a little while longer, but I also need you if only to walk me out of here. Please believe me, the last thing I want is to humiliate you in front of your people but I must find this place." Not waiting for my answer his eyes drifted away towards the hills, already planning. "Maybe if we- "

It was while he wasn't looking that I swung around and hit him with my work-hardened, open palm.

I would never have thought myself capable of such a thing. It was with all my strength, too, which is a lot what with all my pent up frustration at the ruin of what I had expected to be a beautiful summer. Even more surprising I found him on the ground at my feet, staring at me with an expression of dumb astonishment and blood on his lip.

That image sent pain through me in a way I didn't think possible.

Blindly, I began stumbling, shaking, and weaving with no direction across the dry plain. After a few moments I heard his pounding footsteps behind me. When he took my arm I tried to wrench it away, but he was ready this time and hung on.

"Ben, stop. All right, from your point of view I know that I deserved that. So why...?"

Why am I crying was what he meant. I hated the sound of my slurred voice when it finally came out. "Because it's going to happen again."

His hand went to his mouth. "I certainly hope not."

"It is! You don't know, but Daniel told me!" I stared at him, at those wide, intelligent, half-amused eyes and the tears came harder.

His mouth became firmer. A tight line. "What did that serpent tell you? Whatever it was, don't believe it."

"Mulder, let's go home."

"Tell me!"

"Don't make me. I don't want to. Let it be as it is for as long as it can be."

He studied me, in a way that should have made me angry, but didn't There was such a mixture of emotions on his face and in the stance of his body. Had I just confirmed what he had already suspected? If so, he should be in mourning for his dying mind, but instead his eyes, his self, were all for me. Oh, Spirit, there was some affection for me in him after all and all this time I thought he didn't care. Not love, nothing sexual - you can't have everything - - but with part of his soul anyway. This Scully, whatever perfect creature she may be, did not have all of him.

And what harm could it possibly do for him to find this place he had been seeking for so long if it brought him some peace for a little while.

"I know where it is," I confessed. As simple as that after all these weeks, it felt has if a huge burden had lifted that I hadn't even known I'd carried.

He was staring at me, a break in the clouds allowing a wash of sunlight gold to find his face and accentuate every perfect bone "You what?"

"I know where it is, the place you described."

I had braced for angry words, there were none, just a harder set to his jaw before he indicated for me to lead on. Though it was growing steadily darker, we made and lit no flashlight. We'd retain our night vision longer that way. We moved at a fast walk. When the ground was fairly free of rocks, we trotted. Mulder followed in silence. There were still neither questions nor recriminations. Those would most likely come later. Until then we still had a half-hour of hard traveling.

The land rose and fell, became at times more wooded then less, and yet after all these weeks of hiking its slopes were nearly as familiar as my own fields. Finally we got to a ridge and I paused at the top to catch my breath before speaking. In the distance the growling storm was drawing closer. A rising breeze caught at our sweat-dampened hair. "It's near here. We split up that day," I said and gestured to my right. "You went that way. I went to the left. We agreed to meet at the top of that hill." I pointed further on but more in the direction that he went that day than I.

Mulder's eyes narrowed. "I remember, but that was when? During our third day of searching?" That simple fact clearly stung.

There was no point in trying to explain. I headed down a steep slope to my left, the same way I had gone that day. At the bottom I turned left to once again crawl over the ankle-twisting rubble at the foot of a tall outcrop of rock that had hid the land beyond from the top of the low ridge. A faint intermittent lightning lit our way though we were more blind after it faded. I guess that it was because of this vision of bluish lights and black shadows that I didn't catch on until later what was so different about the place than I remembered. First, there should have been a belt of tall trees just on the other side of the cliff. There were only a few there now Confused, I stumbled into what should have been a bowl-shaped meadow. Instead, the space appeared to be only one end of a long plain that stretched to the next rise of ground hundreds of meters away. There was a bit of scrubby forest but only on two sides and that just dark smudges even with the lightning.

My steps faltered. "I don't understand. It was here, just as you described it. A meadow ringed with trees with a little pond in the center. When I saw it there wasn't much water, but I could tell that there had been more during the rainy season. But where are the trees?" I started walking. My feet could sense the land falling slightly and then rising again where the pond should be but the ground was thick with lush rush grass.

"Where's the pond?" If no pond, then I would have expected a patch of dry mud. Anxious, I looked in Mulder's direction expecting to find accusing eyes on me, but there was none of that. He didn't even seem to remember that I was there. He had followed me out and stood, head down, examining the rough tufts of the rushgrass. Then his eyes went to the tall rock outcropping that we had passed.

"Stay here," he ordered and headed in that direction. In the near darkness I could barely see him moving around under the few trees From time to time he stooped to search the ground then moved a few yards and stooped again. He traveled out from there, cris-crossing the field that was ten times too large for the meadow he had described. For more that fifteen minutes he moved from one location to another. As the evening became increasingly darker, I watched him but I was equally as aware of the storm. It was moving closer but slowly, the thunder growling louder and louder as it rolled against the cliff. Finally, he returned to me, his expression thoughtful and still surprisingly free of anger.

"Mulder, I swear, this was the place."

"I believe you. The ground is cut up all around the base of the cliff. A lot of trees were taken down recently and even their stumps pulled out before the ground was leveled again, or at least they tried to level it. In places they did too good a job. They even put sod down in the bare patches." Both stiff and tired, he crouched down and soon his long fingers were searching with determination among the roots of the tough grass plants at our feet. Soon he rose and brushed off his hands though I could tell that not all the dirt came off easily. Mud.

"As far as the pond goes, it's wetter down under the sod than it should be. There was water here at one time but water can be drained off and this time of year will not be replaced very quickly. Then there's your growing season. It's short so vegetation has to mature early if it's going to at all. Look at your fields. Weeds can be planted just as easily as crops and will grow just as quickly, if not more so. Ben, someone spent a lot of time here a few weeks ago, taking out trees, draining the pond and then covering the evidence Knowing how hard it is to fell a single tree here without good tools, we are talking about a lot of manpower. The cliff makes this whole area look different but I didn't see the cliff then because of the large number of trees and it was dark and rainy that night. I do remember a particularly dense patch of what I thought was woods. If that was the cliff masked in part by the tallest trees, then..." he thought and after a moment pointed to the South. "The moons would have risen in that direction on the night I arrived. Am I right?" He was pointing to a patch of cloudy sky where he said that he had seen the Moon and his brother just above an entire line of trees though there were only a couple in that area now.

"It would be in that direction, yes," I told him. Numbly, I stared around, still unable to comprehend the change. "Are you saying that all of this was done on purpose? What purpose?"

"Ben, who did you talk to about what I was searching for?"

I don't know why he asked. He already knew. I could see it in his eyes.

"But I didn't tell him where. At the time I hadn't found it yet."

His hand made a dismissive movement. "It doesn't matter how. He has."

I looked at the changes again; the amount of manpower it must have taken was incalculable. "Why would he do this?"

"To keep me from finding this spot. Maybe even to keep a certain someone from finding it from above- " From a space craft he meant " - so that same certain someone would have to contact Dan Rowe if he wanted to find me. Probably both."

A bright flash of close lightning dazzled our eyes, immediately followed by the first true crack of thunder. The wind rose even stiffer and a few fat drops of rain began to fall.

"Let's go home, Ben. We have a harvest to bring in," and he headed off towards the cliff with a swinging, nearly carefree step, oblivious of the storm.


MULDER: Year 31, Week 9.8, Dale Reckoning

The mid to late summer months were hell but now life is comparatively pleasant - just as long as I don't move too suddenly or try to sleep on my back. I almost regret leaving so soon. Not that I'll miss digging potatoes, a bushel of which is almost as heavy as a box of rocks, but I will miss knowing how they taste in a warm stew when you know that you grew them yourself. I won't miss cutting and processing ropeweed. It leaves a sticky residue on your hands that only hard work in serious dirt will remove, but I will miss not having the experience of leisurely winter nights braiding rope and telling stories and having no one after your hide except perhaps Old Man Winter. I won't miss hand-fertilizing beans, but I'll miss shelling the pods and then soaking the stems and leaves to make what passes here for paper. Nothing taken for granted, nothing wasted. Most of all I'll miss Benjamin, of course. I'll miss his free and easy smile and generous nature and the quiet passion in his eyes when he looks over his land. I won't miss that same passion when he looks at other things. It hurts me as much as it must hurt him when I pull away. But we have come to a peace, he and I, and I think that over time we could be friends with no need for walls. If all goes as planned, however, we won't have the time so I guess the wall stays.

I freely admit that if life with Ben has not been idyllic these past months then it has been my fault. I'm sorry that I ruined this short time we had, but what could I do? I was locked into seeing that devil Daniel. The man is nothing if not intelligent. Threatening Benjamin was the most effective blackmail he could have come up with. Every two weeks I sat at his table and forced myself to make torturous small talk with the happy threesome. With the departure of the lovers I was then compelled to participate in torture of an entirely different sort downstairs. Unfortunately, my trip to Daniel's Bed was only the most physically enduring of our nighttime activities. We won't go into the psychologically enduring parts. His intent was that I not forget him during my weeks off and, believe me, I wish I could have.

Poor Benjamin. I can't imagine what he must have thought once my visits with Daniel began to go bad. Even after two weeks of healing, I still can't move an inch of skin that has touched that bed without pain. The level of discomfort is simply in inverse proportion to the time that has passed since our last visit. Add the fact that I was frustrated to the point of obsession for so long over not being able to find the rendezvous point, and my disposition has been truly rotten. Over the years, Scully, you had a chance to become accustomed to my 'black' moods - well, maybe not used to them, but after seven years you certainly were able to identify them. Imagine how totally bewildered Benjamin must have been. Looking back, he was more than that. He was nearly crazed with worry and only my damned insensitive, obsessive, selfish myopia kept me from seeing that Poor, poor, Benjamin. No wonder he believed whatever Godfather Daniel told him Once I could find the rendezvous point whenever I needed, you would think that things between Ben and I were able to get back to normal - it there ever was such a thing. Instead, he was even more confused than ever. Oh, I was out of the black time but you know what that means, Scully: I was on aggressive hyperdrive, bad jokes, and all. Me bi-polar? Naw, watch that sickle fly! I knew that I was working like the possessed, but I had to do something with all my frenetic energy while I waited for 'the day' to come It was not that the effects of my four trips to Daniel's bed were not still with me. They were. Thousands upon thousands of tiny roots like minute cockleburs had dug themselves irrevocably into my hide and I could count every one as I laid awake at night wondering how I could exhaust myself even more the next day so that I could get at least some sleep. There was relief. As I've said, the resting threshold subsided on the off weeks, which harvest week was. The resting threshold was what I could still feel even after lying perfectly still for some minutes You would think that on the off weeks at least the days were bearable. They were, but there was never any real relief, only the dread of the cycle beginning all over again on the next free day.

As I've said, however, with the finding of the rendezvous point the worst of the blackness lifted. Knowing where as well as when I'd be leaving I finally knew for certain that I wouldn't have to sit through another of Daniel's dinners and the hell that always followed. As long as it had taken me to pinpoint the 'where', it had taken me almost as long to nail down the 'when' and I still wasn't a hundred percent sure of that. Let's just say that since we were due to appear on Daniel's doorstep the next evening a least some wish fulfillment went into the calculation.

So how did I finally determine that the next night would be the night? Because that is also the night of Harvest Festival, the official ending to all the digging and reaping. It was also the night of Brother's next full moon, though there was some guesswork in that because it was more often overcast at night than not. Both of Charley's instructions would then be fulfilled - the first full moon after the harvest - and I'd be off this muddy dirt ball.

I'm certain that in the beginning I over-analyzed Charley's cryptic instructions. I assumed for too long that both moons would need to be full before he returned, but Charley never said that Similarly, the Harvest Festival wouldn't begin until sundown and would last all night, but I counted on Charley's not meaning that the rendezvous would be the first full moon after the festival. That would mean the next full moon after this one. After all, he said 'harvest' not 'Harvest Festival'. Not that I didn't worry. Charley might argue that Brother is not the 'Moon' and, therefore, cannot be a full moon but, no, I won't go there. That is the path to despair. I must get out of here even if it is only to get beyond Daniel's grasp. I've called him Godfather and that is as good a Title for him as I can think of. He's ruthless in what he is willing to do for his 'family' and I fear that if I am not gone soon that I'll find more than a dead horse's head in my bed this winter.

Have I remarked that the winters on Dale are very, very long?

Winter was also not so far away. It had been a frosty night, and frosty nights always make going to the latrine in the early morning a truly religious experience. It had also been a very brisk day for fall. Our exertions kept us warm enough, but when we stopped our sweat cooled instantly. It couldn't have gotten over fifty degrees Fahrenheit all day and with a clear twilight coming the air cooled fast.

I'd worked since first light with Benjamin alongside me. As it had been for weeks, however, Ben kept a grudging silence all day except for the most commonplace statements about the weather and occasionally nagging gripes to me to eat or take a break, neither of which I did often. He had been bending and ripping great tufts of the tall rice-wheat grass from their roots with an elaborate twisting motion. He was skillful from long practice. I followed along binding the long stems into sheaves. They need to stand thus like little cornshucks for a week to dry Their golden tassels release their pearl-like grains better then, or so I'm told.

After two fields of this our movements had become hypnotic. I saw little more than the ground of crumpled stalks in front of my face and thought only about how much less of a torture this would be if I did not have to manage with Daniel's handiwork written in the skin of my back. At least it had been seventeen days since our last trip into town. If it were four or five, or even ten, all this bending and stretching would have killed me or at least I would have been ready to consider death as an acceptable option. Last week during the really bad days we picked applepears and dug potatoes so at least the activities were varied. Free today of any need to concentrate on the task at hand, my mind dwelt most often on how much I should tell Benjamin about my leaving and when I should break the news. Part of me wanted to wait until the next day, the last day, until early afternoon, just before I needed to start heading north if I was going to reach the rendezvous point by nightfall That wouldn't give us much time for good-byes. But what can one say at a time like that except for the obvious? Still, it felt wrong to just drop the ball and run. You might think that since we had acted almost like strangers for most of the summer that that the going away would be easier. It didn't. It was worse. I would have the last memories be better than that.

What it came down to was that I owed him more than a wave and a handshake.

"And thanks for all the fish...." I murmured under by breath. If Ben heard, he didn't even ask for an explanation the way he would have that first month.

A few minutes later Benjamin's voice came again and it was accompanied by a sigh of surprisingly deep satisfaction. "Mulder, we're finished," cut through the fog.

Numbly, I looked up from my bent over position to find no more tall stalks before us. Bone weary, I stood, I winced, I stretched and found to my amazed eyes that the entire field was flat except for the neat bundles of drying shucks. The two fields up slope looked the same.

"We're done!" Ben declared with a tired grin. "Completely done and a day early. We were crazy to work this hard but we're finished." All I could do was stare unbelieving at what the last of the light revealed. As I gaped at stubbled fields, empty vines, and overturned earth where we'd dug the 'potatoes', Ben was going on about "Just think, we can sleep in and still go into town early tomorrow."

I found that Ben is studying me for my reaction.

"Funny. You know that that is just about the last thing I want to do. Not the sleeping in part... but the other."

He gave me a broad grin, his old Ben smile from the early weeks. "I thought you'd say that."

Just then a stray breeze blew over us full of wet cold. "Brrr..." he said, rubbing his arms. "We may even have snow by morning."

"Aching muscles and a cold night, looks like I'd better show you how to enjoy a sauna," I offered.

At that he brightened considerably. "I hoped that you'd offer. When I realized we'd probably finish today, I started the fire in the outer oven when I went up to get us something to eat."

I couldn't help cocking an eyebrow in his direction.

"Looking for ulterior motives?" he asked.

"Always."

"Look, we've cold, we're exhausted, and every joint in my body tells me what I'm going to feel like when I'm sixty. Nothing could happen."

If there was anything that I have learned in my misspent life, it was that nothing is certain.

"I do want to know how much heat we can get," which I did since, if I didn't find out on this night, I would never know. Carefully, I revised my comment to, "We may have some cracks we still need to fill. When this wind whistles through them, we'll know."

So we headed up the slope towards the cabin. Ben even restrained himself when I swayed slightly, clamping his jaws together to keep the 'I told you so' from getting out. I admit that my blood sugar was in the basement that day. You know that I never feel like eating when I'm tired, Scully. I planned to eat a hearty breakfast Charley's food was almost not worth eating The very thought of eating my next evening meal gave me gooseflesh.

But not there yet. It was with a sense of accomplishment that I looked upon the addition to Ben's little cabin. It looked rather like a huge stone beehive with a bad tilt, but at least nothing short of a substantial earthquake would bring it down. Ducking inside, I welcomed the toasty heat on my chilled skin and there was comfort in the golden dimness of the light from the slowly burning stove. In one respect, however, I had erred. The chamber was impracticably large for one man alone and would take too much fuel to heat properly. Worse, it would make him feel the emptiness even more than he must in his cramped little cabin. For the first time I wondered if that was why the little dwelling was the size it was and as cluttered as it is, especially now that we had filled its shelves with the fruits of Dale's short growing season.

As to the size of the beehive, maybe we would have time to put in a drop ceiling before I went. But then I would have to explain the reason for the rush job.

"Did I do it right?" he asked eagerly, referring to the fire.

"Oh, yes." Gratefully, I took in a deep lungful of the almost too- warm air. It rolled luxuriously through my lungs all the way to my toes. There was even a mildly tart-sweet scent to the wood he had chosen which was pleasant.

Like the huge cat that a neighbor on the Vineyard once had, I dropped down onto my stomach. The ground was cushioned with a thick map of newly cut rush plants that had their own fresh scent Happily, I moaned.

With similar animal pleasure, Benjamin laughed and began almost to tear at his shirt. I couldn't blame him. This was not the place for clothes, but I didn't dare remove mine. Not that I had actually seen my back, but I had seen enough of the back of my legs even in the dim light of my small oil lamp in the barn to know what it must look like. The shirt stayed on. The heat was still glorious, soaking into my muscles all the way to bone. Even though the rushes on the floor had a dryness about the edges from the heat, enough moisture remained to take the warmth to itself. While I muzzily contemplated the greenery before my nose, Benjamin was doing his best to appear nonchalant about removing his loose, draw-string pants at the same time staring at me curiously as if he had questions and didn't know if he should ask. Why had I taken to lying on my stomach these past months rather than sitting like a normal person was probably one of them. He did ask another in a round about way.

"You told me that people don't wear clothes when they take these 'treatments'."

"They don't. I'm just too tired to move," I lied. The truth I concealed, however, was not the truth Benjamin thought. Like a shadow I saw that hurt look cross his face again. The fact that he covered it quickly made it all the more poignant. I should tell him about my leaving now, there could not be a better time, but Ben cut in with another question first "I hid what I knew about the landing place, yet you've never blamed me from causing you so much grief. Why?"

I propped my chin up on my folded hands and studied the young farmer sitting there in nothing but the little rag of cloth that we used for underwear. He had no idea how good-looking he was. That's when I heard your voice again, Scully, clear as anything: "What a loss." The thought made me smile the tiniest bittersweet smile. When would I ever see you again? Would I ever see you again? For the first time in many months it hit me with full force that returning to Charley with my tail between my legs was only the first step in a long, and possibly, never ending, journey home.

"I don't see what's funny," Ben sulked in the midst of my melancholy reverie.

"Sorry, I wasn't smiling at what you said but about something else As far as blame goes, I'm the last person to lay that on anyone's doorstep Daniel you've known your whole life. He's as much of a hero as you have in this place. Who am I?"

"You're mine." Ben's handsome face was serious, almost angry. "I don't mean that the way I once did, but you're mine to worry about and I worry about what you think. If I'm not your friend than who will be? Daniel's interested in you but I realize now that he doesn't really 'care' about you. You're just another problem, like finding enough clean water in the summer or keeping mold from the seed corn."

"Just what kind of a problem did he tell you I was?"

Ben's eyes went to the floor. "He stopped me at breakfast. The second time we stayed the night at the house."

While I was left waiting outside with my bread and water and newly scored back "What did he say?"

Ben shrugged. "He asked first how things were going. I said, well, but that you were extremely anxious about something. He said, yes, that he knew about the trip north, but not about what we were looking for." Even in the dim golden light of the fire Ben's face mirrored his distress. "I should have realized then that he was the one who sent the party of Grayrobes to follow us! If only I had thought! I shouldn't have spoken. All that happened was my fault!" His broad hand smashed into his palm with his anger.

Stiffly, I moved to his side, wanting to reassure him and yet unsure of how to do it. "Benjamin, it's not your fault. You told him I was looking for the landing place? Well, he already knew that."

"I least I didn't tell him where." His lower lip still trembled.

"If you didn't, then I believe you."

"Then how did he find out?"

"I don't know but I'm sure that he has his ways. What did he tell you besides asking you to spy on me?"

Benjamin flinched as if he'd been struck. "Two weeks later, he stopped me again at breakfast. He told me terrible things. He said that what happened to the others was also happening to you only later and more slowly." I stared at him dumbfounded. Hastily, he went on. "He said that in time you would be like the others and that it would all be as I had always dreamed, but that during the transition he was afraid that you might become violent or at least erratic in your behavior. For my own protection and that of the colony, he insisted that I report to him everything that you did and everything you talked about. That's why the landing place was so important. If we found it, and you wandered there on your own, I'd need to be able to get a search party there quickly."

My expression must have been grim. "And even then you didn't tell."

"If you can't find it while in your right mind, how could you after.... after... what Daniel tried to make me believe. And if you did wander off to that place," he stared down between his crossed legs blushing, "I didn't want anyone else to know. I would want to find you myself."

Ah, saved once more by Benjamin's youthful infatuation.

"You believed what Daniel told you about what was happening to me, didn't you?"

"What was I supposed to think? He said that you had had an attack just that night as well as two weeks before. He asked if I had found you changed and I had! It was as if all the life had been sucked out of you. I was so scared."

"Then it got worse," I said seeing how my blackening mood must have looked from his point of view. I guess that I hadn't been hiding things as well as I thought I had. "I'm sorry about that. I was having some problems physically, but more importantly I should have talked to you. I was just obsessing about our trips north being so fruitless. I get that way. It's hell for the people I'm around and I should have remembered that. Scully got use to it, or at least understood. It was a mistake not speaking but I also wanted to protect you. People close to me tend to get hurt." I looked at him carefully for the truth of this next bit. "Do you still believe it? That I'm 'regressing'?" "No. Now that you know where the meadow is - or was - it's all different, or mostly different. Different in a different way. But if you're not sick from that then..."

"What?"

"Why do you let him hurt you? I know he does. You shouldn't let him You mustn't let him. I know that he's the Mayor but you don't have to do what he says. There's a way. We don't have to go again."

This was the perfect opportunity. It was now or never. "Benjamin, there's something I need to tell you. I won't be going again- "

"Let me see," he demanded almost feverishly. "Let me see what he's done to you."

And he should know. He's going to be living with this madman Clearly, the existence of Daniel's bloody bed was not generally known. On the other hand, if I were trapped without hope on Dale where a madman and a sadist ruled, I would be equally wary of speaking out.

Though I hesitated I felt Ben's hands lift the back of my shirt. I didn't help a lot but I didn't hinder him either. I heard the hiss of his breath and at the same time was struck by a completely unexpected blast of raw emotion. I couldn't even say what it was Not pain, not embarrassment, not even sexual in any way. Whatever it was it was incredibly overpowering. This was the time to swoon if there ever was one. Luckily we were sitting on the floor and Ben's hands caught and kept me from slipping sideways.

Still dazed, I felt a finger touch the mottled, purple and green skin, felt the pain of sharp little hooks dig a little deeper. I tried to stop the sharp intake of breath but his exploration had surprised me.

"I didn't expect this...I'm sorry.... Oh, Mulder, I'm so sorry." He murmured so deep and low that it was as if I could feel the words rumbling in my own throat. I could hear the shock in his voice as well and feel the misery swelling in his chest and the wetness as the silent tears began to slide down his stubbled cheeks.

He had been sitting behind me all this time. All at one he bent forward, moved aside the hair that had grown long and kissed very tenderly the back of my neck. I felt the moisture of that kiss on my lips, tasted the sweat of our toil in the fields. A flame shot up into my head and flooded down into my gut all from that one intimate touch.

The sensation was exquisite, the dizziness soaring upwards on the soft magnificence of eagle's wings. This sensation I knew.

The flame-golden room had begun to spin in a great swirl of rising heat. After a time, however, the turning began to slow and a kind of wavery vision returned. I was looking down in horror at the ruined back of a lean, broad-shouldered man. It was impossible to know whether the skin had been dark or fair because the entire surface was covered with thousands of tiny black and purple ulcers that had blossomed into one huge, mottled bruise. The destruction was solid except for a few inches of nearly spared flesh at the hipline where the band of the loincloth would be if he wore one. But he wore no trousers, not even a scrape of a ragged bit of cloth to cover the most intimate parts. They were just then being cast away. I could feel the desert heat from the fire on my own flesh - arms and shoulders, belly and back, loins and legs. We are, both of us, quite as naked as two people can be.

The injured man didn't speak. His head drooping as if in shame - or perhaps surrender. He did not turn at the touch of my hands or the feather light caress of tongue and lips when I could a patch of skin not too badly damaged. I realized that I am crying, crying softly in little whimpers, crying in pity and in wonder and in joy. Pity was obvious. Wonder and joy because I could scarcely believe the gift I'd been given, that this poor, battered creature was allowing me to comfort it. He had been all my desire for so long. It truly was a blessing to have something real and important that I could offer And I would be so gentle; though, it would be difficult to be patient. There was a fire in my groins and a desperate need to fill my hungry arms that had been empty too long.

Shifting away from my hand that I had laid too heavily on the ruined skin, he moaned softly. 'Sorry... sorry... I didn't mean to hurt you.' He was crying now, dry sobs in his belly. Beautiful, oh, so beautiful. Again he whimpered. I was hurting him. I was doing this all wrong. I had planned for so long that I would be kind, but it has been months.... I....

Wait...

I...? No, it was Ben who was going to be the gentle one. I was... I am.. not Ben. Then why was I seeing... myself? No flayed sailor could ever look so bad and yet it appears just the way I thought it would from the way it feels. Felt. Felt for the pain was gone, blissfully gone.... Because I really am outside myself and that is my body, horribly battered thing that it is, and yet I am touching it with insistent love-starved hands, hands whose every crease is darkened with years of toil in the fields.

Not my hands, nor my eyes.

Shit! Have to close my mind... back away....

It was so hard but at least there was some separation That's better. There he is. There I am. I could feel hunger but at least I knew that it was his and not mine. Poor Ben. He was starving and my body was just the food he craved. With alarm, I realized that my abandoned husk was not so unresponsive as I thought. Stop. Take a deep breath. Close my eyes this time. But they were closed. I was looking down into my own face and I could see that my eyes were closed. But then how could I see my face? Keep focused. Remember That's right, the same way that I saw the moonscape of my ravaged back and the vulnerable softness of my neck below the hairline that Ben kissed Because I was seeing through Ben's eyes just as I could feel the beating of my heart though Ben's hand.

A wave of tenderness, headier that a shot of the finest liquor underpinned the desperate rift that I was trying to maintain between what thoughts were his and what were mine. Oh, fuck, but it was hard. And it was hard, I realized with insane amusement. Very hard Hard and long and thick and in real need to do some deep exploring I'm talking Ben here. My hapless wanna-be lover hadn't yet mustered the courage to touch mine yet though he longed to.

The separation between us was gone again, all focus lost in a child's fingerpainted swirl. I was Ben more than I was myself. We were so helplessly consumed by his lovemaking, our lovemaking, that there was no he or I any longer. What in the hell was happening - and I don't just mean the sex, which wasn't bad at all.

And then... BOOM! Like an explosion, all noise and confusion one second and gone the next. For an instant a sensation of motion, of flying through the air, or Ben was, and then the most terrible pain when his head hit the stones of the opposite wall. The shock threw me out of his head and back into my own. I knew without a doubt that that was true. I don't even need to open to my eyes to be certain because the pain in my back and my legs and my butt that had been mercifully, if inexplicably, gone for those few blissful minutes, was back. What was new was this huge nothingness where Ben's blazing desire had been, his - love, for that's what it was - and for the briefest of agonizing moments, his pain. He must be unconscious, I prayed that it was only that. What was left of me besides the baseline ache from my sores and the hole where Ben had been was a body that, incredibly, was still singing in full appreciation of the aroused state it had been left in.

Unfortunately, that extraordinary sensation lasted all of about a heartbeat and a half. For now the storm that had torn Ben from me descended in full force. In form it was very much like a great threatening blackness, the kind that spawns tornadoes. It loomed over my head. It bent, it touched me where it shouldn't, or perhaps where it should. It ripped an animal growl from my throat that was part anguish and part ecstasy. The hands are large and strangely cold and all at once they reached for my head and....

I screamed. I wouldn't have chosen to but there was no time to prepare. It's like someone has thrown open a door and a terrible wind of needle-sharp knives exploded in my direction and every one found its mark. The shock was the worst but as that faded there was pain enough left. Pain and I have been enemies for so long, however, that the sensation was almost like meeting an old friend who you no longer care for but with whom you have shared so much. It was one of my headaches, one of the worst. Blindly, my hand groped for my discarded shirt where I'd sewn a crude pocket to store my 'magic' pills, the ones from Mac's friend, the apothecary, that stop the headaches flat. The dark storm cloud had stayed with me, however, and the shirt was kicked beyond my grasp. Then he placed a heavy- soled boot on my chest and ground my traumatized back into the dirt Through a red fog I sew Dan Rowe standing over me, and partially on me, a satisfied sneer on that face.


MULDER: Year 31, Week 9.8, Dale Reckoning (Continued)

"Poor Fox. Headache? I think, however, that you should do without your fix for a bit. By the way, did I tell you how highly addictive they were?"

And I had been taking more and more, one every time even a ghost of a headache appeared on the horizon. I had had too much else to worry about. I should have known there would be hell to pay. Guess it starts now.

"Very f-funny," I wheezed.

"Not funny at all, as I'm sure you'll find out as your time without them goes on." Seeing that I was not going to struggle, he removed his foot and crouched down beside me so I would be sure to catch every word. "Ready to talk dates."

"Go f-fuck yourself." I actually managed to snarl.

"In truth, I had someone else in mind, but first.... What happened here tonight? Do you have any idea at all?"

I hadn't had time to think about it, as rudely interrupted as we had been, and it hurt too much to think much now but my suspicions were sufficient "It's back, isn't it?" "Gold star for you. Yes, it's back. It's been back. You've been reading my thoughts on and off since we first met. Didn't you realize that that's what the headaches meant? Didn't that devil tell you? The mindspeech centers of your brain have been growing back for some time. That has to be at least one of the reasons why he sent you here. Several of us thought to be mindblind developed modest abilities within a year of our arrival. That drug I asked Mac to give you eases the transition, lowers the barriers, and sharpens the focus. That's why it relieved your special kind of headache. Comes from a plant that concentrates certain compound in its leaves. It's even better if taken into the lungs, goes straight to the head that way. I made certain to burn it in my study when you came to visit. I also put a large amount in your fire here when Ben and you were off toiling so diligently Ben didn't know. He wouldn't have approved Ben has a little of the ability himself, though he tries to deny it It's why your mood swings affect him so. It's also how my spies found out about the meadow and the pond and that you would be finishing up tonight. Since distance does matter they have to be good at lurking about. They are. But nothing we did explains how you two were able to bond in such an extraordinary manner tonight. That really was something special. I can hardly wait to participate."

He learned closer, whispering, though each word still felt like a booming inside my head. "I was surprised when you told me about the mindspeaker colony that you came from. Obviously they don't use the drug there, which means that Charley hasn't told. Now that's fascinating. I should have realized long ago that he hadn't, otherwise they would have been down here long ago harvesting both plant and people. Suddenly, we're a lot more valuable than I thought."

"He won't d-deal. Neither will I."

His smile was feral. "I wouldn't be so sure of either. You have something to protect. He has something to hide. Makes his taking me all the more important. And I do want to help my people. Most are good people and they deserve better than this. But since I can't do anything from here I need to get back. No, don't worry, I won't ask you again right now - waste of time - and even if you were willing to talk now it would be too easy. I'd rather take the time to do it right. A year was how long it took the talents of the rest of us to make itself known. Bek would wait for that. You're just amazingly precocious. So we have till spring..."

Casually, the old devil began exploring this and that part of my naked body. Gratefully, I felt a great deal of nothing, which was fortunate since I couldn't have done a thing to prevent him. The migraine had set in in full force, obliterating totally the sweet singing in my nerve endings. Light blinded, dizzy, and nauseous - Jeez, but I felt like shit.

That was when I heard a moaning from a distance and the shifting of a body against stone and earthen floor. Benjamin? How badly was he hurt? I had seen/heard/felt the crack of his skull against the wall I wanted to call to him, but I also wanted to leave him outside of Daniel's radar for the time being. Besides, those were not the sounds that a totally conscious man makes. No, Ben was best where he was, which was not close enough for Daniel to easily pull a knife on. Dan Rowe knew all too well by now that he could threaten to cut off chunks of my flesh and I'd offer to steady the knife for him, but touch Ben and I was his - body if not soul. I'd done far worse and would again, maybe even tonight. It really didn't matter. Let him play his power games. Just leave me free for tomorrow; just leave me free for that and all the rest is dust. I'll deal with the psychological impact of Daniel's dirt later.

But that wasn't to be either.

"You may wonder what brings me here, tonight of all nights," the old devil remarked, with a snake's kind of sly pleasure which should have warned me of bad things ahead all by itself. "When my informants reported that you and Ben had finished slaving in the dirt for the season I thought I would come and save you from another chilly night on the barn floor. Wasn't I surprised by what I found? Don't look so stunned. Surely you remember what I promised so many months ago? You and I are going to spend the winter together. Might as well start tonight."

No, oh, no. No, NO!

I made one surge upward, a futile but purely involuntary act and his huge hand came down hard on my throat as fast as a striking snake.

"See that's what I was afraid of, that you'd decide that it was time to be difficult. That's why I've decided that the town's no place for you. Too open, too public. Besides, too many people would expect me to share. Somewhere South, I think."

My insides went cold. I thought that my life had gotten about as bad as it could. I was wrong.

He lessened the choking pressure on my throat but the foul imprint of those hands remained. "You're a tasty dish as you are, but I believe I have patience for a little experiment I've been dying to try. I just happen to have all the necessary ingredients. Plus it is very, very private here. If it works the way I think it might, it will be well worth the wait. Arniesse!"

I had dreaded that this was what he'd meant and damn but I'd been right. But Daniel's pet genderswapper was not the only one who stepped into the dim stone room. He'd brought five friends if I could count the flock that followed him in through the dizzying pounding in my head. This time all of them were black-robed like carrion crows. None wore female guise. With a convulsive shudder my bowels turned liquid but I was too busy being afraid to be embarrassed. Daniel only laughed at my shame. "Something finally that terrifies you on a very personal level. Very useful." He crouched down again and briefly ran a trailing finger along my jaw and over one cheek. "For the life of me I don't know why you should be so distressed. If this works, you should be even more desirable than you are now, not that it would matter a fig to the population of old Stony if you were as plain as week old bread."

Headache or no, how I wanted to stick my fist in his smirking face and I tried, but fast as that snake again he had my wrists in his hands and was pulling my arms over my head. I was working on a bolus of spittle, but Arniesse's flock was suddenly swooping down on me as if my resistance and the mayor's move had been their signal. I didn't know that such young, bored, pretty-boy faces could mirror such callus intent.

In a single wave they were on me but it wasn't their soft hands that hurt even though a full dozen of them all at once were pressing down with all their weight on my face and chest, shoulders and groin, and arms and legs. It was the power that surged out from them. A glancing touch from Arniesse had numbed my arm for days. Twelve solidly placed hands and six determined minds blasted my world from its foundations. It was all coming apart again as it had before when Charley lost control; muscles went soft and flowed like water, bones melted. And it hurt, if that were possible, a thousand times more because the attempt was clumsy as they lacked both Charley's god- like power and control. Not that I was capable of making sense of what they intended from their brutal attack. There was just pure, horrible pain as my body began to slowly unravel cell from cell There was screaming and then more screaming and all in my voice. The cries went on until I knew only that broken sounds and the pain, and both followed me down into a well of pure inky dark.


BENJAMIN: Year 31, Week 9.8 Dale Reckoning (continued)

I have been knocked unconscious twice before in my life so I knew the feeling for what it was. Once when I was twelve, I fell off a cliff I was trying to climb on a dare. The next year, Jonathan Berrie, a grown man, took a swing at me at Winter Fair when he was dead drunk and I'd made a joke about the affects of alcohol on certain performing arts. This time, however, I didn't remember what had caused my condition, only that my head hurt horribly and the air was incredibly hot.

It was the heat brought me back, that and the thrumming radiance in my veins that only comes from really good lovemaking abruptly interrupted. Tense voices were raised in anger all around me. Trying to listen to them got the haze to begin clearing but it was a struggle. What finally cut through the dark were the screams. I imagine that animals scream with such inhuman voices. Whatever it was, it was being tortured and it went on and on. I struggled to open my eyes and look towards the sound but all I saw were black shapes that I took at first to be just dark spots behind my eyes The spots became black robes in time. Arniesse's people were kneeling in a rough circle on the floor. They took up almost all the space in the small room. It was the someone or something that had their attention who was screaming. I had only managed to get to my own knees when the terrible cries ceased.

One long, callused foot was visible from under the dark mass of robes. A huge fist clenched in my gut. I called his name; I called it again louder. There was no answer, not even a twitch from that foot. I propelled my body between two of the Graypeople, pushing them aside. My attack seemed to break some group concentration because they all fell away from whatever it was they were doing What that was I didn't know though from the screaming I had expected to see a bloody knife in each hand. There were neither knives nor blood; however, just moans from the six men as their strange circle came apart as if they had just been relieved of some great burden Two staggered outside, their passage allowing a temporary swirl of chill air to enter. The other four collapsed against the curving walls. In the center of the room only a single form remained. Naked, Mulder lay tightly curled, every line of his lean body locked in agony "What have you done!" I sobbed. "What in hell have you done!"

"Benjamin," came a voice I once respected and feared and now hated and feared. It was soft but full of disapproval. "I'm the one who should ask what - you - have done You've gotten in the way of something that doesn't concern you."

I glared at the changelings who were still in the room, especially at Arniesse whose face I knew. Actually, I knew both his face and hers and neither was what I saw now. He sat panting near the door Like the others of his kin, his exhausted face was bloodless.

Furious and completely oblivious to the fact that I was also without clothes, I spun back at Daniel. "'Doesn't concern' me? It's Mulder!"

"Who had one of his attacks, the kind I warned you of. We had to subdue him. If I hadn't come along he might have seriously hurt you."

Granted, I was still groggy, but I wasn't so out of it as to believe that story. There had never been any danger, not from Mulder. On the contrary, it had been beautiful and at that moment my body remembered and recognized the feel of the hand that had grabbed me by the scuff of the neck like a child and flung me against the unyielding stone Daniel rose from where he had been sitting at Mulder's head and indicated for his four remaining black-clad minions to rise also, unsteady though they were on their feet. "What a mess. We'll have to reverse the damage and try again another time."

I assumed in my naivete that Daniel was referring to the stricken changelings and that they were now going to go and leave Mulder and I in peace. Instead, the four slender men at Daniel's direction bent and began lifting the awkward tangle of arms and legs from the floor.

"What do you think you're doing!"

"We're taking Mulder with us. You don't think that after what almost happened that I could in all conscience leave him here?"

"But you c-can't!" I stammered in my confusion. Everything has happening too fast. "He's mine!"

Daniel's eyes narrowed in annoyance as he stared down at me. "This again? Don't be obtuse, Benji. You don't play the part well. Was the adoption ceremony ever held? No, because he was never a suitable candidate for adoption, a fact you knew from his first word and which you chose to hide from me. So he is not yours. As no one is formally responsible for him, I claim him. It's a question of colony security. In any case he needs special management, control you have failed to give him."

But past the first terrible words I had ceased to hear. They were taking him outside. With the door open I could feel the now cold fingers of the night on my bare skin. Skin as bare as Mulder's Hastily pulling my dropped trousers over my most vulnerable parts, I caught up Mulder's trousers and both our shirts and hurried after the procession. They were dumping him into the back of a low hay cart, the kind that requires several strong backs to move. They were careless. I heard a groan and a whimper when they dropped him. It was fortunate that no one tried to stop me when I sprinted to his side. There was no padding, no blanket and my own skin was blue already.

"Animals!" I hissed and began tucking the scrapes of clothes around him. There were rush torches burning from sconces at the head and foot of the cart. By their light I could see him better than I had before. He lay silent, still unconscious, but as I tried to cover him I had felt a shakiness in my stomach for the way he lay. He had the appearance of being oddly boneless though his limbs were locked as hard as ice.

"What have you done?"

"We'll take care of it," Daniel grunted as he seated himself in the front seat of the cart. Meanwhile, the six had stationed themselves at the front and back of the cart, three pulling three pushing. With a sudden jerk the wheels began to turn.

"Stop!" I grabbed onto the side of the rough wood, managing in my desperation to slow their progress. "Where are you taking him?" "Leave it alone, Benjamin!" Daniel ordered sharply. "He is no longer your problem."

I had dug in my heels, though there was only so much bare feet could do. "Filthy sadist! Rapist! Bastard!"

That's when that strong old man leaned down and came up with his iron-hard walking stick. Though I'd seen him carry it, I'd never seen him use it as a weapon. I was lucky. The blow only glanced against my skull, but it landed with terrible force on my shoulder With the blast of pain my hands came free of the cart. The dirt of the road was hard and gritty against my bare chest. I grimly tried to hold up my head, to watch the cart move on, but there was too much darkness, darkness from the night and darkness from inside my head, both growing together into one black pool until it became my entire world.

I have cursed the cold. I have spent entire months cursing the cold I may not again for that early winter night may very well have saved my life and Mulder's. On a night less chilly, I may have lain nearly naked in the yard in front of my cabin until death took me. As it was, the temperature fell so fast that my body began to shiver violently long before my core temperature dropped too far. Head and shoulder aching, I crawled groggily back into Mulder's sauna and let the blessed heat that lingered bring me back to life. I found myself fighting sleep though I couldn't remember why. Forcing my eyes open, my first thought was of how empty this man-made cave looked after being so crowded before. Crowded with whom, however, I couldn't immediately remember. I stared at the orange glow from the stove. It held its heat marvelously well, but reminded me of what I had thought I had heard only as murmurs - that Daniel had 'spiced' the fire with Lichenleaf.

Why hadn't I suspected something before? Probably because the plant is fairly rare, and people don't just scatter it about. I was tested with it when I was young and found sensitive enough which was when Daniel had taken his first interest in me. I was never that shining of a talent, however, thank the Spirit. Over the years I had chosen to forget about the tiny window in my mind that it had opened just as I had blanked out so much else that had happened that critical year. Along the way I had also forgotten that certain herbs like sweet william's bark are often used to hide the fainter but unforgettable scent of burning Lichenleaf. It is also called 'liken- leaf', by the way, in that it creates like minds. At Daniel's direction, Reese burned sweet william's bark in the fires during our dinners at Government House.

Like a bolt through my aching skull, that's when it all came back.. what had almost happened between Mulder and me because of Daniel's plotting. But then I remembered how it had ended and that they had taken him away and maybe I would never see him again.

Until that moment I had lain in a sort of half-dream mesmerized by the coals. Now it came back to me how I had ended up half-frozen in the road. With a jolt I tore back outside into the chilly wind and the dark. What did I expect to see? The cart still disappearing down the road? And even if I did, what could I have done?

As terrible as the shock was to remember how easily Mulder was taken from me, it was far worse to know how powerless I was to do anything about it now.

The cold drove me back inside but this time to the cabin. At least I had more clothes there. Unfortunately, there was also a second chair at the table, one we had made together. There was also a second cup and bowl on the washstand. With cold hands I thrust these away out of sight where I keep the extras for visitors. Frantically, with no plan, I straightened the careless clutter from the last two busy weeks of harvesting.

What did I feel? Shock, grief, but mostly a hole. There should be hate but that would come out later and the later the better. Think of something else. Plan for winter. That was what we always think about here on Dale when there was nothing else to think about. How to make it through the winter. Only one pair of hands now, but also only one mouth to feed. Stiff from the injury to my shoulder, I threw on a coat. Too late I realized that it was the one I had requisitioned for Mulder from the stores.

Despite the fact that it was still night, winter concerns and desperate to think of nothing else, drove me, huddled against the chill, to the barn. In that dim place with only a small flashlight for light I began counting bales of the ricewheat that we had already brought in and added to it what I estimated still lay drying in the fields. It made a lot of grain for one man to separate from chaff alone. Too much? Should I get someone in to help? I had been making illegible and completely useless notes on a wax tablet with a straw quill when all at once my hand pressed down with a violent jerk and the quill broke. Swearing, I went to the south corner to see if Mulder had another. He'd asked for such things very early on.

I had respected his privacy and not seen the little nest he had made for himself. It was Spartan and neat. The pallet was well made and free of lumps, the rough blanket carefully spread over all. On a small shelf of piled stone sat the tiny lamp that he had made from a broken pot, some oil and a wick of waxed rope. He had used the lamp often; the wick was already short. Above the dampness of the floor on another stone shelf were folded his few clothes. I knew that he found them uncomfortable, that they were far from what he was use to, but he never complained. At the head of the bed was a jug of water, half full. At its foot lay discarded the terribly fitting work boots still caked with mud. They were nearly useless but the best I could requisition for a BoB.

A Bob, my Bob. My throat began to tighten to the point where I could scarcely breath. Damn, but I'd been trying not to think about that, not to think about him.

In my struggle to keep the dam around my emotions intact, I forced myself to become interested in something protruding from under a grain sack stuffed with grass that served him as a pillow. Feeling like a thief, I drew it out. It was a plank of wood. Half a meter long and half that wide, it had been smoothed with hard work. On it a calendar had been carved. The first numbers were crude but with practice their shape had begun to improve. It began with the date of his arrival and continued for some weeks past the present date. In addition to carving a great 'X' over each day that passed, there were other symbols. It took me a while to realize that these represented the phases for both the Moon and Little Brother. I knew he was interested in the subject but not why. Then the block for the next day's date caught my attention, though considering how late it was it was probably tomorrow already. Its number was cut a little deeper than the others and in addition to the small circle which indicated that Little Brother would be full, a single word had been lightly but freshly carved with care: 'Home'.

Not understanding I stared at it and then I did. We knew where Mulder had been dropped onto my world. Here was the other half of what Daniel had been asking about and asking about. As if it burned, I dropped the board, my hands trembling. Daniel had ordered me to look out for some sign of a date from Mulder but I had not been told what the significance was. Now I knew both. His interest in the phases of the moons especially around harvest time, his obsession with finding the landing place for himself... it all made sense, at least it made sense if Mulder believed that this Charley was coming back for him. If I asked Daniel, he would say that the fantasy was all part of Mulder's deterioration. But, if so, why was our mayor equally obsessed with the same information?

So Mulder had been planning to leave all along, to go home. Not home with me, which had never been home to him, but back to that earlier life. Well, now he couldn't because Daniel had him. It didn't matter that Daniel didn't know that 'the' date was so soon. Even if he were free, Mulder could never make it so far north, not in his condition So he would stay.

Serves him right All at once I was so angry, and yet so confused, that I broke the plank across my knee, broke it into smaller and smaller pieces. Just as suddenly my rage swelled into a great, blossoming grief that in an instant swept away the fragile dam that had numbed me ever since I realized he was gone. My legs gave way and I sank down onto his bed. It didn't take much to start the tears flowing, just the familiar scent of his sweat. I cried as I had not cried since Old William died. I sat and held the splinters of that desperate calendar in my hands until there were no tears left.

The flood was fierce and real but, in the end, short. My mind wasn't working so well, but a small, sane voice inside was shouting that this kind of reaction wasn't going to help anyone. It wasn't time for mindless anger and it wasn't time for self-pity. Mulder had a chance to leave this hell and Daniel was taking that rarest of chances from him. Mulder needed my help, not my tears.

Fired with purpose, I rose and headed for the cabin. I would need supplies.

The irony struck me as I reentered cabin. Only a few minutes before, I had left this same room prepared to go on making preparations for winter just as I had the year before and the year before that. How had I ever thought, even for a moment, that I could abandon Mulder to Daniel's grasping hands. I had tried, however, tried because Daniel had told me to stay out of it and people did what Daniel wanted. In my case I was intended to accept this night merely as the last night of a very pretty dream that was never really meant to be.

Only Daniel had been more right than he knew. It WAS the end of childhood dreaming, but it was also the beginning of so much more It was the end of Daniel's control over me, the beginning of the time when I, and others if I could convince them, would have to grow up and stand against him...

... and the very idea of putting myself in Daniel's path made my knees shake.

Was I mad? One might as well be a branch to be stepped on or corn to be ground into the dirt. This was Daniel after all. Mayor. King. I had escaped him once so many years ago, but only because he let me go. If I opposed him now there would be no place to hide that would be beyond his reach. My life would become again the living hell it once had been.

As Mulder's had become if the screams that still echoed in my bones was any indication.

No, if I was going to do this, I had to see Daniel for what he was, just a man like me with too much power, moving our lives about like pieces on his chessboard.

So in the end there really was no deciding. What kind of life would there be for me, what kind of man would I be, if I abandoned Mulder, my friend, to this Daniel, not the man of inspiring speeches but the secret monster that no one spoke of yet everyone knew? I found a spare seed bag and began a mental list of what I would need. But first, I thought, I ought to be thinking of where I was going to go and what I was going to do when I got there. The 'where' was actually easy. Daniel had a sizeable group of Graypeople with him so they were unlikely to be headed for Stony River where they would attract too much attention. There was only one other place where they would go.

What would I do when I got there? Whatever the voice inside me told me to do, I guess. I just hoped that when the time came that it would shout nice and loud.

It took five minutes to fill my sack with what I could carry and still move fast. I wore my precious boots, which would help. In the sack were clothes, dried food, and some water. At the last minute I took three carvings which were my favorites of those which were small and not too fragile because a second voice, the small, scared tones of the child I had been, wondered when, if ever, I would see my home again.

Year 31, Week 9.9 Dale Reckoning (Two hours before dawn.)

In time I will weave the story of my travels to the Graypeople's town of South Cove into a dramatic tale worthy of winter evenings Truth be told, the journey was ridiculously easy. As teenagers, my friends and I set up lookouts more than once in the rocks above the town in the hope of seeing one of the changelings in 'female' guise There was also the hope that we might be able to entice one of them to our beds - male or female, it didn't matter. We never managed this feat, but the journey had become a rite of passage for the young, full of dangers and sexual connotations, and thus not to be missed. For this reason I knew the way to South Cove so well that I didn't need to take the road which the cart would need to follow There was a chance that I might even beat them there. I didn't, but not by much.

Moving from one black shadow thrown by their sod and thatch huts to another, I finally made my way to a small structure that stood at the edge of the village. Outside stood the cart or, if not the cart they took Mulder away in, then one very much like it. Before I could move in for a closer look, the hut door opened revealing a square of pale light. In a moment that square was almost entirely blocked by an unmistakable figure. He had to stoop as he moved through the doorway, which he also filled, from side to side. None of the Graypeople I knew were anywhere as tall or as broad. For an instant the square of light was back again but then the door closed. I heard the sound of a bar dropping into place across it.

The figure began to talk to the group of four changelings who were standing silently beside the cart. I risked exposure to move close enough to hear.

"What's wrong with him? He's still unconscious." It was Daniel's voice.

A soft murmur rose up from the four. Finally one spoke above the others. "There was considerable damage."

"He doesn't look any different."

"When you build a house, the foundation takes the longest time to prepare. You must cut the trees and dig into earth that has remained unchanged for thousands of years. The outward appearance, that's that the easy part."

"So how do you go from here?"

"We were wrong to have started. What you asked had never been tried before on one so old. There are stories for the technique being used on adolescents struggling to produce their first change, but on one unwilling? No. We also disagreed from the start about his having the talent. He is as different from us as he is from you. That he has been reformed to some extent in the past, we are fairly certain, but we don't have the strength or the skill. A full shapeshifter did this before, maybe two, but we cannot, and now that we know the destruction our clumsy attempts can cause, we refuse to try again."

"What spineless, unimaginative worms you are. You used the power of only six of you. Perhaps you need a dozen, perhaps the entire colony. We'll talk later. For the present he can't be left the way he is. He's not useful for anything."

More soft consultation. "We'll bring him back to where he was. Not forward. To go forward any farther would probably kill him, is killing him now." The heads of the other Graypeople bobbed in agreement.

"When?"

"We need to rest first. Tomorrow."

A grunt of irritation. "Do it then, as soon as you can, and let's not mess it up!"

The one who had been speaking for the Graypeople stood straighter "We would never leave one of our own in such a state, nor will we abandon this one. Remember, it was never our choice to attempt such cruelty."

"You just do as you're told!" Daniel snapped and then marched away in an obvious snit - I think that is the word Mulder would use - to enter a hut two doors farther down. The quartet of Graypeople also dispersed to their beds.

Even though no guard appeared to be posted, it was all I could do to wait until the village became absolutely quiet and one deeper snore was added to the others before I moved again. Daniel may be arrogant in his confidence that no one would dare follow him or attempt to interfere with his plans, me least of all, but he was not a complete fool.

I was no fool either and made no attempt to enter through the front door. Instead I circled around to come upon the hut I needed from behind. The dwellings of South Cove are peculiar in that they always have two entrances although, because of the winters on Dale, their second one is often so small as to be sometimes no more than a change in the pattern of the blocks. I imagine that the symbolism is leftover from an earlier point in their history. Was the extra door used as a secret entrance for their paramours to enter or for them to leave to go to them? Or were they perhaps persecuted in some way and needed a means of escape? Whatever their historical relevance, I hoped this architectural trait would help me now. Arriving at my destination, I found that it would, but not as easily as I might have hoped. There was a pseudo-door but no more than a foot wide, two feet high and completely blocked. Poking about with a stone knife I'd brought, I found that the filling was no more than crumbling mud, the area's distinctive white clay, and thatch, far easier to work than rock-hard sod. Without another thought I started digging as quietly as haste allowed. It may be fall and the nights longer than those of summer, but it wouldn't be dark for much longer considering all that had happened so far. As I worked, I could almost feel the approach of morning on the back of my neck.

It took only a few minutes before a ragged, nut-size circle of light appeared at the bottom of the deepening scar in the wall, though it felt longer. The light had to be that which illuminated Daniel from behind as he left the hut. Only why would an unconscious man imprisoned behind a barred door be left with a light? It would be more like Daniel to leave him alone and in the dark. Too late to wonder now. The hole I'd made was already large enough to be noticeable from the inside.

And then I saw Mulder, or at least the back of a silent heap under a ragged blanket. I also heard a low groan that was undeniably his and a kind of tremor ran through both me and the figure under the blanket With the strength that comes with horrible urgency, I reached in with both hands and pulled the messy thatch towards me Hastily, I squeezed into the gap scraping skin along the way.

It was a tight fit, but I finally managed to slither ungracefully through to end up on the floor by his side. Kneeling, I pulled back the blanket. He was still naked and his skin felt as hard and cold as a stone. He looked so helpless that I found the rage rising in me all over again. Somehow I had to get him away from here. When gently touching his hair didn't rouse him, I forced myself to speak softly, finally cooing as to a frightened newcomer. But what if I couldn't wake him? Alone, there was so little I could do. Finally, he did begin to stir, his fingers flexing. This was when I noticed that narrow, pale rope bound both wrists and ankles. Gritting my teeth to keep from swearing at this completely unnecessary cruelty, I worked on releasing his bonds. I sawed through the worst with my now- blunted flint knife, eventually tearing the last strands with my teeth. Free, he rolled onto his back, an action that made me wince just to watch. It was not only the condition of his back that prompted my reaction. The tight muscles clearly did not want to uncurl. I had to place my hand partially over his mouth to muffle the moan that might be heard outside.

"Mulder, do you hear me?" I whispered. "We have to go. Can you move?" His body shuddered one last time from head to foot and a grimace that distorted his features crossed that face. "Do you understand? We have to go."

His eyes opened. Not suddenly and just tiny slits, but something. It was clear that he was in considerable pain.

"B-Ben?" The one word was broken and uttered with wonder barely above a whisper.

"Expecting someone else?"

He tried to smile, but didn't manage it well. "Actually yes, but you'll do." A frown returned. "But, Ben, you can't. Daniel..."

"It's too late for that."

His eyes struggled to open farther and he blinked to focus on the mess I'd made of the back wall. "I guess so." His face clouded in a kind of despair. "It's so dark." I didn't know if he meant the night or his future, but I think he meant both.

"If you can move, there's still time," I assured him. "It's the same night when you were taken, but it's nearly morning, the morning of you-know-what day."

His red-rimmed eyes went to my face. "You know."

"Found your calendar. You weren't very subtle."

"You'll still help?" It was pitiful to see the hope struggle to rise behind his eyes.

"You're in danger here. What did you expect that I would do?"

I could see that he wanted to say more, but I didn't think that I could bear to hear anything like words of thanks from a man with his kind of ancient pain. Who had betrayed him before? Besides me, that is. After all, I had listened to my enemies when I should have been talking to my friends. "Let's see how well you can walk," I suggested and tried to help him stand. He got to his knees, but even that simple effort brought on a violent trembling that drove his head down to the hard dirt floor and filled his eyes with tears. He tried three times, weakening more each time, and with no more success.

"I can't," came out in a despairing wheeze.

"You have to!" A third voice spoke softly at my elbow. "Maybe I can help."


BENJAMIN Year 31, Week 9.9 Dale Reckoning. An hour before dawn.

I whirled. From out of nowhere, Arniesse was crouching beside me Once more he was in gray. There was no particular expression on his face, but I knew better than to think that that meant he lacked feelings. He'd explained that his ability to change so much of the rest of his body left his face beautiful in either guise but unable to display a great range of emotions.

"I didn't know you were here."

The exquisite face smiled. That he could do "There was no reason for you to know."

"Are you going to tell 'him'?" and my eyes swept in the direction of the hut where Daniel had gone.

"I was told to watch Fox, not you. To see to his health as best as I could while the others rested." He bent then over Mulder, who shied so completely from the changeling's touch that he lost his balance and fell onto his side where he bit through his own lower lip to keep from crying out.

"Stop it!" I hissed holding Arniesse back.

"Benjamin, let me help. We were wrong to attempt to force our kind of change in your friend."

I shut my eyes against the sight of the small seizures again wracking the body of the man on the pounded dirt floor. He had curled around his center, arms tightly hugging his knees.

"That's what your elder swore outside. He also said that your people could undo it. Can you?" "Alone? Not as much as needs to be done, but I can stabilize him for the time being. Only he can't be afraid of me. He has to work with me."

"Daniel won't approve."

"We listened to his counsel in the past but only because it agreed with our own goals. We won't listen to him again."

"You're going to get into trouble for this."

"So are you who have so much more to lose and yet here you are Come, Benjamin, we have talked enough. We are losing time." For the first time I wondered who Arniesse was. There was more authority in that voice than I had heard before. The changeling bent over Mulder who had only curled tighter while we talked. "Tell your friend to let me help, then it's critical that you both leave. It will make my position less difficult."

I was not entirely comfortable with the source of the 'help' just as I knew that Mulder wasn't. As he would be of no assistance on a trip north as he was, however, I sat and talked to him. His pain must have been considerable for he gave me less argument than I expected He knew as well as I that our choices were down to almost nothing Some good did come from it all; while Arniesse worked I finally got my chance to hold Mulder's hand again.

The 'treatment' was far from a pleasant experience for any of us. I was left with bruises and nail marks in my palms, Mulder exhausted and shocky, and Arniesse drained and looking older. Decades older That's when I put two and two together for the first time. The changelings had been brought to Dale at about the same time as the first Stony River colonists. The plan may have been that we interbreed because changelings couldn't reproduce among themselves, but the two sides never had managed any offspring so it was assumed that their 'females' were sterile. This meant that the South Cove colonists, and Arniesse with them, must be, if not Daniel's age, at least a good deal older then they appeared. Even older than Arniesse looked now. When they change they revert back to their previous pattern and thus never appear to age. This meant that Annie was no young girl and Arniesse no smooth-faced youth.

Certain parts of my anatomy began to curl.

The changeling must have read all this on my face and gave me a tired smile. "So you regret the time we spent together. I don't."

For myself I couldn't answer, not just then. Instead, I attended to Mulder who was clearly still in pain and too tired to speak. After I helped him to dress in the clothes I'd brought, he was able to crawl after a fashion to the hole I'd clawed in the back wall. Before his shoulders blocked the opening, I noted that the faintest predawn had begun to lighten the sky. Once he was outside, I turned to where Arniesse still breathed heavily against the wall with half-closed eyes.

"What will happen?"

"My people will say that they called me out to take some food. You came while I was gone. Daniel will shout and stamp. What more can he do? Don't worry about me."

But I did. I knew this monster in our midst only too well. Years before Old William had convinced me that life would be simpler if I just tried to see through the same eyes as everyone else and conveniently forget those pre-teen years. I had tried and, damn me, but I'd succeeded. How much had Mulder suffered for that decision?

It was, therefore, with feelings more mixed than I would have thought possible an hour before, that I shared the sign of farewell with Annie. We said good-bye in the way I had been shown, by barely brushing the backs of my fingers against his.

"I'll see you soon?"

The oddest expression came over the weary, delicate face as his eyes lingered on mine. "Perhaps. For now, go, go quickly. I'll delay them as long as I can."

I found Mulder outside under the shadow of a large applepear bush He was upright but that uprightness was due in no small part to the support he got from the poor, half-bent tree. He didn't pull away either when I placed my arm around his waist to steady him. That is how we left South Cove, moving off into the graying sky, heading north.


MULDER:

Dear Scully, dear heart, it's a shame that you will never get a chance to meet Benjamin. As a mother hen he is nearly your equal You could compare notes.

First the medical update, that I know you've been waiting for. You know that I have worked impaired before. I have worked with pneumonia, with a sprained ankle, with a dislocated shoulder, with bullet wounds. I've been fried in the desert, freeze-dried in the arctic, infected with parasites, tobacco bugs and black oil. I've been invaded by salt water worms and even paralyzed by a poison dart, but never have I had to function while my body felt as if it were coming apart and seldom has my need to be whole been so critical. I could not have managed without Ben. He kept water in my system and food in my belly. He kept me headed in the right direction. He kept me headed in 'a' direction because without him I would have wandered in circles somewhere in the marshlands north of the enclave of the Graypeople and south of the town of Stony. In other words, far from where I needed to be. He was the Sam to my Frodo. He urged my footsteps. His quiet steadiness gave aid and comfort to my ailing spirit. He bore a flicker of light before me when everything about me - and I do mean everything about 'me' - was dim and formless. He even bore me on his back and wiped my tears with the rough tail of his shirt.

For hours I staggered or crawled across the ground or was carried slung like a sack of meal over Ben's broad shoulders. Consciousness faded in and out. I don't remember when we finally stopped. I came around lying on a carpet of last year's leaves, too utterly wasted to move. My head pounded, my stomach ached. Cool water dripped wonderfully onto my face and down my neck. Over my left shoulder hazy sunshine flickered, winking through the lattice of nearly bare branches overhead.

Since it hurt even to move my eyes I didn't. "B-Ben?" Was that croak mine?

"You felt warm. Besides, I needed a break."

About his needing a break, that was undoubtedly true since he had been doing nearly all the work for both of us. But he was lying about my just being warm. For one, though the sun had warmth, the air was still cool from the chill night before. The stiff breeze from the north had also been in our faces all day, so I shouldn't have been warm. No, this was fever. I felt the difference in my gut and in my limbs and in the awful taste in my mouth. If asked how my head felt, I'd have asked for someone to pull out the knife that had to be protruding from my skull. Then there were the seizures that I'd had off and on all day, though as a rule they weren't as bad as those I had in that terrible padded room where I spent those interminable weeks while you were in Africa. As it is all I can do to raise my head after one of them, you can imagine how successful I've been marching through the wilderlands of Dale.

As I lay there I felt a new one beginning to build. They are like great black waves that start small but all at once race towards you, huge and overpowering, unstoppable. I'd drowned more times than I could count that day. This one, thank you, ye gods, turned out to be a small one. Nevertheless, I woke to find Ben holding my head. He watched out for me. I should have been ashamed; I should have been embarrassed. I was worn too thin to care.

"S-S-Sorr-ry..."

"Don't move, rest." But there was a huskiness to his voice. I had scared him again. With an effort I rolled to a sitting position and let my head sag down between my knees. "I feel like shit."

"Mulder, what's wrong?" Ben's blue eyes are darker than usual and huge. "There was just some tremors in South Cove. Now..."

Now? I was a stone around his neck, of no earthly use to anyone. Oh, Scully, you know that I miss you. The question is, do you miss me? How could you have put up with such a millstone for so long?

"Mulder, tell me what I can do to help."

A bullet was my first thought, if he had one. Any suggestion more complicated than that was beyond me. Benjamin for all his earnest desire to succor the weak and dysfunctional wasn't a shapeshifter or a changeling who could rid me of this terrible feeling of vagueness, of drifting apart, that Arniesse had only partially been able to alleviate. Ben didn't carry a supply of Mac's magic pills either so he couldn't help the mountain-size migraine that, unmedicated, hadn't gone away all day as if making up for lost time. From moment to moment it was just more or less severe as different as the Appalachias are from the Himalayas. I didn't even know where the seizures and the sweats and the nausea came from or what anyone could do about them, only that they came and went like the crashing of the sea when you walk on the shore.

The beach... The boy on the beach. A pretty nice place to escape to. I hadn't thought about him for a long time...

No, you don't. No dropping stitches yet, Spooky. Focus. Yeah, sure, focus and have another seizure.

"Just keep me going, Ben." I made a concerted effort to stand up then but found that not a muscle moved. That was a terrifying moment, the truly terrifying part being that it brought back those weeks in the hospital bed where nothing moved but the twisting of the flames in my mind. I didn't need that kind of thinking either! Hard not to panic though because it was already well into the afternoon and we still had such a depressingly long way to go. The days were also shorter now that Dale was spinning towards winter.

Wearily, Benjamin ran his fingers through his sweat-limp hair as if trying to think. "I was still coming around, but I have a foggy memory of Daniel saying that the leaf rolls that Mac was instructed to give you were addictive. Could part of what you're feeling be due to that?"

I groaned. Shit. Clearly, I had already dropped a few stitches along the way.

"Oh, yes. Part of the problem anyway." I should have remembered, though I don't know how I could have managed that particular feat. I hadn't been entirely clear-headed for what felt like days.

Somehow I managed to turn my head and for the first time was able to actually see Ben's face with any clarity. He had the look of someone who had cried recently and was seriously scared. "I swear that I didn't know that Mac used lichen leaf in the leaf rolls. I'd only heard of smoking lichen. I didn't know it had other properties. I certainly don't know how he prepares it but I can recognize the plant. This is one of the areas where it's been found growing wild in the past. If I can find some leaves and you chewed those, would it help?"

It could only kill me. To willingly take what had caused so much trouble before also made me nervous. In addition, some plants, like Deadly Nightshade, are lethal if they're not prepared correctly or harvested at the right season or you take too much. Still, what would it matter if I couldn't find my way north by nightfall "Couldn't make me feel worse, but there isn't much time."

"We'll never get there if you can't walk," Ben replied, practically "I can't carry you the whole way." And with that he was off, hunched over, intent on the ground as any hunting dog.

In the silence without him the trickling of the stream caught my attention and in the process of leaning towards it I fell over. It did bring me close enough so that I could cup my hand into the little rivulet and get some water to drink. The world got a little clearer and the cool liquid relieved for a brief time the terrible metallic taste in my mouth.

Upon his return, Benjamin found me asleep, maybe passed out, I don't know which. A hand's breadth further to the left and I would have drowned in the two-inch deep stream. Ben's only reaction was to sigh - just like you, Scully. Still practical, he uttered no words of rebuff. He must have realized any would have been useless. After assisting me to right myself - I was about as helpless as turtle on its back - he washed some purplish leaves in the stream and told me to chew them. Cautiously, I nibbled one. It was incredibly bitter and tasted terrible. "Needs salt," I said.

He rolled his eyes. Another rather a good imitation of you, Scully At least I haven't lost my touch.

While I chewed I leaned back against a tree and took stock of my physical reactions. There was no burning sensation in either my mouth or my stomach so maybe they wouldn't kill me. There was something even reminiscent of that first morning jolt of caffeine which after all this time I still missed. And something in the leaf did seem to be helping. A little of the pressure in my head and gut was lessening. I took another leaf, very much aware that I was at best only postponing the inevitable, but this was a very inconvenient time to go cold turkey.

While I chewed the second leaf, a larger one, I closed my eyes and tried to recall everything I had ever read about biofeedback. I had to be able to by-pass my short-circuited nerves and get moving. Then there was the plant's more known purpose as a scary kind of pipe tobacco. I almost spat out the grassy wad, but stuffed it temporarily in the side of my cheek instead.

"Assure me again about how doing this is not going to make it easier for Daniel to read my mind?" What a terrible thought after all the trouble we had gone through to stay out of his hands.

"We were actually warned never to eat it. Only when smoked does it have the affect you're worried about and then the results can be dramatic, especially if both sides are involved." Clearly embarrassed, the young farmer stared down at the ground in front of where he was sitting. "Even smoked, none of us can read more than a couple of miles. Why do you think the farms are spread out the way they are? Daniel must have sent a man with a pipe of leaf to stand outside the cabin at night to spy on us. Again, I swear that I didn't know what was in the leaf rolls Mac gave you. I thought that it was just something for the headaches and when it did help those I didn't question...." I couldn't see well but I didn't need to. The catch in his voice indicated readily enough that he was close to tears.

I wanted to say that it was all right, but my tongue, hardly facile before, had gone fuzzy in my mouth. Besides, I was losing focus again. I had been staring up through the canopy of leaves, watching as the twinkles of sun flickered on and off. Now the white seemed to be breaking up into rays with vivid rainbow spectrums. Red and blue soon joined what began as gold and green. It was when they all began to bleed together into pinwheel spirals that I began to suspect that Alice must have eaten from the wrong side of the mushroom.

With considerable effort I dragged my eyes from the show to look for Scully who would really want to know about this. A figure sat across from me on the other side of what looked like a small cave of living and breathing crystal greenery. It wasn't Scully, however. It was an exhausted-looking young man with sweat-dampened black hair and - I recalled with a jolt - a very finely muscled body. Definitely not Scully. Scully's not here and I'm seriously tripping.

I blinked and did my best to begin stretching my legs. At least they did move though they felt a troublesome distance away Poor Benjamin. Did he ever look miserable. That one brief flashback to our passionate confrontation of the night before got me thinking; instead of zoning out on what he looked like with his clothes off, I should be asking his forgiveness for turning him on and then not completing what I started.

No, that wasn't right. He'd been the one who had been turned on. I had only been reading his mind. It was that old man with Charley's face who had intervened and destroyed the moment.

In any case maybe it would be best not to think about that Something safer, right, like how I had ended up going cold turkey out here in the middle of nowhere with half of the inhabitants of Dale probably out looking for me rather than some place much worse with Dan Rowe breathing down - or worse 'on' - my neck.

I found that squinting made some of the colors go away, but almost made Ben go away as well. "B-Ben?"

He was still staring at the ground, looking tired and sad. How long had I been on this cosmic journey? He started at his name and looked up with something like hope in his voice. "Feeling any better?"

"Different anyway." I extended both legs to show that I could at least do that by myself and they didn't seem so far away this time "I just need a couple more minutes."

He nodded and began to put the few items he carried back in his pack.

It occurred to me that we may not have much more time to talk and there was a lot we hadn't said to one another. "Why did you come after me?"

He just shrugged. "How could I not?"

"Ben, It's not that I'm ungrateful but you've put yourself in danger. As Daniel had stated ad nauseum, you can't win." I noticed that I had to keep my speech very exact to keep my words from slurring. "Daniel and his allies are so much more powerful, as well as better organized, than you can ever hope to be. So why?"

In the pause that followed, a red blush swept over Ben's face all the way to the tips of his ears and on that well-tanned skin, that was hard to do. "Because of what he said about how he was going to use you, not just now and then but over and over all winter. You would hate that. I think that you would rather be dead."

There was something about his expression, which sobered me considerably. "Ben, on our last trip north, you snarled something to me about what you thought Daniel and I were doing together. At the time you seemed to assume that I enjoyed it."

The blush deepened. "At the end of our second visit you were so sore and exhausted that I thought that we'd never get home." His blue eyes fixed on the ground. "I thought that you and he had been playing, you know, 'rough' games. Some men like that. I didn't say anything because I was angry. I was hurt that you thought I wasn't tough enough and that that's why you didn't want me. Even Annie didn't really want me. I thought she was only there to get me out of the way so that the lords could have their fun. Every visit after that was the same."

I opened my mouth to say protest but once begun he plowed on.

"It never occurred to me that you didn't want to play. Both of you from Earth, both knowing so much more than any of us. It was natural that you'd want to be together. Now, seeing what he did to your back ... I mean I've heard about how some men are punished that way, but I never believed."

"Believe it."

The blue eyes lifted. They were darkened by confused shadows. "I don't understand. What did you do that was so wrong?"

"Nothing wrong. I just I refused to tell him what he wanted to know You know the questions. Now that I think of it, why didn't he just read my mind? I breathed the smoke from his fire every night we were there."

Ben had a good ponder about that. "People react differently. After breathing lichen, some can read others well but still can't be read themselves, except sometimes when they focus on responding to a direct question. I think you're one of them." He stared at the ground again and in a softer voice continued, "I know that I can't read you. Even that night- " there was no need to define what night he meant " - I only felt my own need, only stronger by a ten-fold than ever before. I never felt 'you'. That's why I didn't suspect that we'd been drugged and why I lost control. I should have known that there was something wrong. You had never let me before. I knew you didn't want to, not with me."

I winced. Even without 'breathing lichen' I felt the sting of that regret.

"Not your fault," I told him which was true For he most likely had been reading me, while I had been reading him which meant that he had been getting his own feelings back, which were strong to begin with, over and over again. Exponential curve. If Daniel hadn't intervened.. What? Things would have gone on to their unnatural conclusion but unnatural only because of my state of mind. It wouldn't have been so bad.

Who was regretting now?

I looked back in Ben's direction. I don't know when I've ever seen a more miserable creature. He must have sensed the direction of my gaze.

"So all those months I was wrong about you and Daniel?"

I couldn't lie, not to Ben who needed to know the kind of monster ruled his world. "Whatever Daniel got from me he took, I never gave."

All at once a rage rose in that young face. "Then why did you let him?" he demanded.

"He asked too high a price to stop."

"You could have run."

"He would only have gone after another target. I managed. I could put up with a lot because I planned to leave soon. If I had thought that there was no end in sight - if I had thought that there was no other way out - that would have been another story."

He was scowling, but it was to hide an old pain and said nothing.

"What's your story, Ben? Why did you really leave town to practically indenture yourself out in the middle of nowhere to old William? He could have lived for decades yet and you would have spent all this time as little more than a servant. He could be living now." The blush that had retreated was back. "My guess is that Daniel played games with others against their will. Young men? Boys?"

Those strong shoulders not only bowed but trembled, and in that instant I think I could have found the strength to kill a certain old man. I hadn't wanted to be right.

"It was his right, he said. Like the old lords use to do. When we reached thirteen you were taken to the cellar." A deep shudder passed through him. "Usually it was only once, for 'testing', but he kept asking for me, giving me this pipe to smoke all the time and then made me... do things. I didn't know about the lichen then. I only knew that I didn't understand why he kept coming after me when I hated being down there. I hated it!"

Which was precisely why he did it because Ben's emotions when he was under stress were clear as a bell. "Ben, you don't have to say any more." I spoke gently, all too aware that he was absently rubbing his wrists and I had a feeling that I knew more than I wanted to about what went on during those long ago trips to the cellar Still deep in his remembered grief and humiliation, the young farmer snarled "Last night when I saw him bend over you, and touch you that way when you were absolutely helpless to stop him, that was when I realized how wrong it was, that it had never been right. It never was my fault, was it?"

"No, it never was. You also understand that his interest in you was not all about sex."

"I do now. The mindspeaking, what little I have."

"You have more than you think. Clearly he's been identifying those with talent for years and developing it the best he can. Bargaining chips for the next time he saw Charley."

And no one to stop him from enjoying the perks along the way.

"So I'm lucky that when I ran off to live with old William that he let me go?"

"More than you know. But if I leave - when I leave - that old man is going to be angry."

"You're not the only one who can manage."

So he thinks, but he's wrong this time. The devil will force him to breathe lichen after which Benjamin will be an open book to him It's too easy to torture a person like that. But what could I do? Nothing sitting here as the sun sank ever lower in the western sky.

"Come on. Give me a hand. I think I can walk for a bit now. We've rested far too long." For suddenly, I was cold sober and all the temporarily rosy edge to my world had turned a grimy gray.


MULDER Year 31, Week 20.0 Dale Reckoning (late afternoon to twilight)

We made good time for an hour at least. The land changed from barren to fertile and, though there were now some cart and foot paths, there were more small farms and cultivated fields. Ben's route took us west of Stony River but because of our limited time not as far out as I would have preferred. Still, the harvested fields were empty.

"I think we're safe. Everyone should have left already for town Another one of those festivals I'm not going to get to," he said with as much humor as his tired body could manage.

I had had visions of Daniel raising the country against us, but it certainly didn't look like that was the case. He had boasted that he didn't share. Such egotism could turn out to be his downfall. If only he and a few of his men were looking for us, we might have a chance. Believe it or not, I had caught some of Arniesse and Ben's conversation in the hut. If the changeling was correct about the Graypeople wanting nothing more to do with Dan Rowe, then there was another point for our side. Ben and I were also the only ones who knew that this was the night; Daniel didn't, so he wouldn't know where we were going Where our plan fell through was if Arniesse had been premature in speaking for his people. There was also nothing to prevent Daniel from making assumptions about the expediency of our departure. With or without the changelings, Daniel would be able to travel faster than we were managing. We could also not forget about the sniffing that went on during our first survey north and they have my scent by now as well as Ben's.

We stopped to catch our breath within the dark under a copse of small trees. Collapsed would describe it better. As the day had turned cloudy, there wasn't much light in that closed space, but the warmth was worth it. In mid-afternoon the temperature had begun to drop as the breeze stiffened. As I had clawed up the last few yards to our resting place, I could have sworn occasional drop of wind- driven rain had been mixed with snow.

It took me too long to stop wheezing. "Ben," I gasped, "where would you be heading now ... if not north. Surely not back to the farm."

Ben's even features with their days' growth of beard showed that he hadn't considered this. "I don't know."

"You must have friends."

"None that would stand up to the Mayor... except maybe Mac."

"So the search should be split between your farm to the west, Mac's surgery in town, and the area around South Cove if they thought that I would be unable to travel very far."

"Daniel also knows where the landing place is," Ben offered.

"But he's convinced that Charley won't be returning until spring."

"We still need to be careful," Benjamin warned, his tired face gloomy. "You think that you know Daniel, but you don't."

"Which is why I owe you everything for keeping us out of sight as much as you have." I didn't bring up the issue of the changeling trackers and that the residual affects of what had happened the night before probably meant that we were shedding pheromones like a nervous cat sheds hair. Ben had enough problems.

I needed more rest but there wasn't time. The shakes and the sickness and the headaches came and went; though they came more than they went as the miles stumbled by. Forcing down a few mouthfuls of dried fruit and grain that Ben had brought, we started off again, ducking under the low-hanging boughs and back into the biting wind It seemed to have dropped another ten degrees and there was snow in the air now without a doubt. Only one field more would bring us to the end of the cultivated land. Beyond stretched the rocky and higher hills of the north with its occasional cliff and gully and dark lines of trees.

I didn't make it very far. Maybe less than a mile. I had tried to hurry but felt what strength I had draining away with each step Wrapped in a fog of pain and exhaustion, my legs as heavy as lead, I made it up the second rise, which put us solidly into the north, but there my body just stopped. We halted under far sparser cover this time, a single conifer-like tree whose branches hung nearly to the ground. "H-How far now?" I wheezed, trying to sound matter-of-fact but that's hard to do when you barely draw breath.

"An hour," Ben's said with no optimism. "But that's walking quickly which you haven't been able to manage."

What I just did hadn't been walking quickly? It had taken nearly all I had. I was leaning over with my hands on my knees, trying to find the strength to pull in another mouthful of air. My side hurt, my chest hurt. I felt sick again. My stomach had emptied again only a hundred yards back.

"Maybe you should stay here," Ben suggested uneasily.

For the first time in what seemed hours I actually looked at my companion. Concentrating as I had been just to shuffle along, he had seemed like a shadow to me, and yet at the same time also my strength, never far from my side, lending an arm, and guiding my wavering steps. If he looked this tired and hopeless...

"I'll go ahead," he offered. "I can run some yet. I'll find this Charley and bring him back- "

"No, he won't show himself to you. It has to be me. He laid down the rules and he's a literal bastard." I forced my back to straighten in an attempt to look more fit than I was. The abused muscles clenched in the grip of fist-sized cramps. "I-I'll do better. Just tell me there's time. It's so dark that I can't tell where the sun is."

His voice was soft and touched with pity which made me worry about just how dark it really was. "We won't be too late if you can push the pace a little more than we have."

I nodded in acknowledgement that I had heard, but my attention was all for the road of pain ahead. It was very like walking on the stumps of legs, all splintered bone and damaged nerve. I didn't look at his face again. I didn't like the anxious shadows I saw there, not that there weren't plenty of other signs of disaster. The vagueness was still with me; partly due to my scrambled insides that the Graypeople have left me with and partly due to the cumulative psychotropic affects of the lichen leaves which I been chewing all afternoon just to stay upright. And part, I admit, was due to the blindness that comes from me being me. Like the fact that the afternoon must have been growing colder more quickly than I thought This was because my fever was climbing again, though I had refused to admit it at the time. The tremor in my hands was almost constant, as well, and Ben stayed even closer than before so he could catch me from falling when I stumbled, which was happening more and more. As for the headache, I had more urgent things to think about ... like what I would say to Charley and what I would offer if he would only take me back and, in time, take me home.

I managed to get moving again but only because the first long stretch was downhill. It gave me enough rest that I managed another hill after than and then a shorter downhill slope. I believe I crawled up the next steeper rise. Then came a long expanse of ankle- twisting stony ground. I was moved in a fog of pain, barely able to feel Ben's arm around my waist supporting more and more of my weight. Ben. I couldn't allow myself to think about him. That parting would be every bit as bad as my parting from Ness. Worse She had had the Circle, her family. What life was Ben condemned to for helping me? Had they appropriated his farm already? His crops? His little bits of handmade furniture and the fanciful carved animal he had made with such love? Whatever I achieved here today, it would be no victory.

Tears burnt my eyes. I let the fog take me. It closed in tight for a while. Just the fog and the pain. When it cleared I found myself sitting on ground covered with prickly pine needles and with no memory of how I got there. I had lost all sense of time. It seemed that I had walked for a lifetime and yet it was still not far enough. Dead stop this time, dead being the operative word. I had to be closer to that condition that to anything actually living. The wad of lichen leaf that I had been chewing for so long that it was no more than a gritty paste fell out of my mouth. I had no strength to stop it as it dribbled down the front of the ragged blanket Ben had wrapped me in against the increasing wind. Didn't matter; I had no pride left and hadn't gotten any value from the drug for a long time. The fever and shakes and the knife thrust between the eyes had all taken their toll. I was also drifting again as all of the 'one- ness' I had from recovered through Arniesse's secret mumbo-jumbo had burnt away. I was only dimly aware of Ben scooping me up and slinging me over his shoulder, no small task.

The fog returned and a throbbing in my ears now, which made the headache ten times worse. There was no thinking about Charley any more. Existing was about all I could manage. The next thing I remember was being carried, still head down, into a dry gully, a place of steep, hard walls and eroded earth. It was good to be out of the bitter wind that had been scouring our exposed skin with patchy bits of stinging sleet. It must be a riverbed when the snow melts in spring. It was when I tried to raise my head to ask my companion why we were there that things went to hell. That was when my body decided that it was as good a time as any for one last monumental seizure.

A peaceful blackness blessed me then which was oh-so-much better than the gray fog When this cleared to a scene tinged an ethereal blue-gray, I was somehow not surprised to find that I was looking down on my body convulsing weakly on the hard, dry ground. Benjamin was holding my head to keep me from biting my tongue or otherwise injuring myself. No, I wasn't mind reading; this was not from Ben's or any other person's point of view. This was a far more ancient and primal kind of seeing and I had been there, done that before. It's a loosening of the soul. In the X-Files there are more than a hundred documented cases...

The X-Files, my files.... But they are a long, long way from Ben's little agricultural wonderland of short summers and hellish winters Buried in those well-thumbed pages is one that I filled out myself If you ever came across it, Scully, you let on. It describes how I watched my body die in Alaska in that metal tub of murderously warm water. I saw you, too, that day from somewhere above your left shoulder. You had cardiac paddles in you hands and you were giving the army doctors hell and shocking my poor heart back to a sluggish, reluctant beating.

When it happened in Alaska I was not afraid. Even so long ago you held my life in your hands in more ways than one. Watching Ben weeping as I convulsed, I was more than afraid; I was terrified. I didn't want to die and the seizures had to have been going on for too long. One night when I was spending the night on your couch and I couldn't sleep, I found a video some sadist made from my time in the psych ward. For God's sake, Scully, why did you keep it? I hope that it doesn't turn you on to see me like that. What I saw on that tape looked more than anything like the death throes of some poor animal that should be put out of its misery. In that desolate place so far from your the affect was even worse.

If astral eyes can be trusted, it was almost entirely dark. I should have been standing in the center of the landing place right now and shaking my fist at the great god Charley, but I wasn't, was I? I had not been strong enough. I must not have wanted to go home badly enough or maybe sub-consciously I had feared going back to Charley more than I thought. It certainly wasn't Ben's fault. I realized with my new clarity that, during this day, especially during these last hours, he had carried me more often than not.

And for what? For his good?

Finally the convulsions ceased and he cradled my twitching body in his arms, and cried some more. His head shook despairingly from side to side. He was shocked at how hot my skin was. It was at this point that his expression hardened suddenly. He set my limp body aside and, jaw clenched, rose stiffly and began rapidly to study the steep, canyon walls. What he was looking for and found was cave-like depression that the spring rains had carved in the streambed. He laid my body in that close place. Under my head he placed the bit of sacking he had carried the food and clothing in when we had food and before we put on all the clothes. I should be slowly freezing to death. Instead, I feel comparatively warm. Must be the fever.

It was that sense of warmth that made me realize that I was back in my body. I must have drawn strength from Ben, vampire that I am Maybe I was back because he was talking to me and I wanted to hear what he was saying. But I still couldn't. There was this hum all about me. The ocean again. He drew away. With the very last of my strength, both my mind and my body reached out. For God's sake, don't leave! I don't want to die alone. But my companion had evaded my grasping hand, if barely twitching fingers can be considered grasping. I found only empty air. There was a touch on my shoulder, however, and the back of fingers larger than yours, Scully, swept for a moment against my cheek. Then he was gone, pausing to pile dry brush across the opening to my tomb. There was no light at all now.

Through the sensitive skin of my damaged back, I sensed footsteps stumbling away back across the dry ground. Then there was silence and I was alone.

It was dark, Scully, in every sense of the word, dark. As before, all that was left to me was my mind. My nerves at least had decided that they had taken enough and weren't going to feel pain any more Free of distractions, links began forming between this and that word or this and that event that I had not had time to think about before. Only in this new peace did one plus one come together and I saw the error that Ben and I had both made. In that instant I wished that I were that super-being again. I would even have accepted being tied down wrist and ankle to the cold metal of that hospital bed, because I needed to reach Benjamin. He had to be warned!

In deep in despair as I was and sick of heart, still I tried and then tried again. Regretfully, all I managed to do was awaken the knife to start poking holes in my skull again. Killed my last peace Oh, Scully, it hurt; it hurt so bad. I hung on for a little while but in time I couldn't find the strength to fight any more. It was on the point of that knife that I ceased fighting and began to slip back down that darkest of roads. Until the very last candle went out I wondered if Ben had heard my warning.

BENJAMIN

Year 31, Week 20.0 Dale Reckoning (full dark)

I hated myself for leaving him; I would have hated myself worse for staying. His trying to hold me back at the end made it just so much more difficult. Did I see those twitching fingers? I did and very nearly took that hand. I would have held it until he died, but how would that have helped either of us? I was willing to lose him to this Charley in hopes that it would be to a better place; I was not ready to lose him to the Dark One. Unlike so many of the colonists, I have never believed in a life after death where there is a woman for every man who will welcome you to her bed and where there is food for the having and perpetual summer.

Besides, I couldn't see Mulder being any more content there that he had been at the farm.

So I ran, though I feared that I was already too late. I ran with what bit of strength I had left but without much hope. At the top of a particularly high ridge I stopped and stared north into a sky now completely black. I was still at least twenty minutes away from the landing place that Daniel had desecrated so. From such a high point I should have been able to see any strange lights like the ones Mulder described during one of his few lucid moments on our way here.

I saw nothing except for a night slightly aglow with the softly blowing snow. I debated as to whether I should go on twenty minutes more to find nothing only to turn right around to find equally nothing except perhaps just one more body to plant in this hellish soil.

In the end I turned around but not to go far. There was another possibility, small though it might be. I headed for a thicket of half-dead redbud bush that I passed on my way up the last slope There was dry fuel here and being in the lee side of the hill, it would be as out of the wind as anything could be on such a night With the pair of flint stones I always carried, I had a small flame going within two minutes, a miracle with the way my hands shook That was a sign if ever there was one that I was doing the right thing. From my pocket I drew three crumpled and drying lichen leaves. How many times over the last few hours had I wanted to give them to Mulder, but we were no longer in the area where they grew If I had given them to him then I would not have been able to attempt what I planned now. With my coat tightly pulled over my head like a hood, I bent over the tiny burning leaves and prayed that it would be enough and that he would hear.


MULDER: Year 31, Week 20.1 Dale Reckoning (sometime before dawn)

The fever came in the night. It's only fever that gives me dreams like that. Over and over a kind of mantra ran through them, "I don't want to die, not on this planet. I want to go home." I found out later that I lay entombed in the crypt Ben had found for me for most of the night. Even after the fever broke I still faded in an out The first true sensation I had was far from pleasant: Someone's mouth was closed over mine.

Now, Scully, don't jump to conclusions; it wasn't what you think Neither was it what I thought at first either. I thought that I was being given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Embarrassingly, it's not so unusual for me to wake up and find that particular life-saving technique being performed on my person. As a runner, my respirations are fairly infrequent and shallow compared to most people's, so the novice good Samaritan may not notice that I'm actually doing just fine on my own. What I found disgusting on this occasion was that the breath of this particular Samaritan reeked of smoke and the guy - I knew it was a man from the rasp of his beard and the size of his mouth - had one incredible pair of lungs. And where did this guy learn CPR? He filled up my lungs with his noxious breath one moment - overfilled really - and then he, or someone, would push down hard on my stomach to force me to exhale the next. You add the beard and the bad breath and this was far worse than any respirator I'd been hooked up to in any hospital and you know how I hate those things. As soon as I could think straight, I struggled to let the man know that his efforts weren't needed. The problem was I couldn't struggle much. I couldn't move either my head or my arms. I found out later that a second man held my head down while my 'savior' had a knee on one wrist and a third man had his knee on the other. Still he must have gotten the idea, feeble though my resistance was.

*He's awake. Should I stop? *

*Fuck! *

There was underlying humor in the next exchange, this one spoken aloud. "I heard that, Fox. Such language. Yes, Jason, you can leave off now."

I swore because the first words had popped into my mind directly Just as I've learned to distinguish an out-of-body experience from seeing through someone else's eyes, I knew telepathy from the spoken word once I'd been warned Mayor Dan's words were the signal for the three burly men clustered around me, darker shapes against the night sky, to lean back from their work. They didn't retreat far, however, as if afraid I'd leap up and run. That sounded like a reasonable idea, only the way I felt I knew that I wouldn't be doing any leaping for quite some time Breathing on my own was work enough, which I did in great grasps in an attempt to clear the evil out of my lungs. I even managed to summon up a truly painful cough or two, but the harm had been done Lichenleaf. The only question was why force the telepathic stimulant at this particular time, but I wasn't about to ask. Instead, I collapsed back against the ground, bare except for a thin layer of trampled vegetation. At least it was the ground that was bare this time, not me. I didn't fight any more than I had tried to run because, truthfully, there wasn't much fight in me I only vaguely recognized the three men who still hovered near me. I think I last saw them lingering outside Government House. Each certainly had the look of a Mob Boss's hit man, which in essence was what they were. By the light of the fire, for there was a good-sized one, I could see that one of the men, the one called Jason, still held a large clay pipe. Jason must have been the one who held the lichen leaf smoke in his mouth before exhaling into mine. My stomach ached from where another of the bullies made certain that I would inhale deeply enough. Across my field of vision the bulky form of Mayor Dan wavered, retrieved the pipe, and took a drag He raised it in my direction. * More? *

Nausea rose unpleasantly in my throat. "Do you have any idea how long it takes to kick the habit once that kind of thing gets started?"

Daniel chuckled and sat down on a convenient log by the fire close enough for me to see him without my needing to move more than my eyes.

*Think to me, Fox. Don't speak. *

"I'll just manage in the old-fashioned way, thank you."

Five ghostly shapes moved against the dark. One wore a face I recognized. It was Arniesse, who averted his eyes from mine, and four of his 'brothers'. The older one, the one who Ben said stood up to Daniel, wasn't among them. Clearly, he hadn't been invited to the party. I wish that I hadn't been invited either. Closing my eyes, I tried to take stock of how I felt now compared to how I felt the last time I recall being conscious. The answer is: A whole shit better, though if I'd been a fish I probably would still have been thrown back. The bits and pieces of me that had seemed to be flowing more and more randomly during the day had at least stopped moving so the feeling of not being quite 'me' had improved. I probably had the changelings and their laying-on-of-hands magic to thank for finishing what Arniesse started back in the hut. From the dulled headache and the metallic taste in my mouth I surmised that I'd also been juiced me with a whole fistful of Mac's magic leaf rolls. This also meant that the fever and nausea and tremors and convulsions from my body's lusting after the drug were also gone, at least temporarily, though I ached absolutely everywhere and my body hummed in an unnatural way.

All in all, therefore, I had to conclude that this particular mob didn't take bad care of their property - just as long as over- medicated is considered good medicine.

*Don't go to sleep, Fox. *

That was unlikely; I was freezing. The cold from the ground was rising and clawing its way into the damaged muscles of my back. The cold did help to remind me of my stumbling, crawling, 'tripping' flight across Dale's countryside.

I tried to sit up so I could meet my devil on something approaching equal ground, but I couldn't. It was Arniesse who came to help, being careful, I noted, not to touch my skin directly. I would have to remember that cloth shields the affect. Cold as it was on the ground, it was colder off for the stiff wind of the evening before had not completely died away. Seeing me shiver, the changeling draped a blanket around my shoulders. What would I get next? A last meal?

It was clear pretty quickly that I should never have tried to sit There was no threat of seizing, but that many drugs had left me lightheaded and my insides vibrated in a way that made me slightly seasick. With the migraine numbed, my whole head felt as if it had been wrapped in cotton wool. It was so padded in there that those of Daniel's thoughts that I did pick up would probably be sucked into the padding - or at least I hoped so.

Across from me, Daniel appeared relaxed, but the rapid puffing on his pipe gave away how anxious he was. I wish he wouldn't do that - smoke, I mean. I didn't want him any stronger; didn't want him able to hear me or for me to be able to hear him. Then I realized that I didn't hear much from him and never had, just a directed phrase here and there, nothing like the torrent of voices from the year before It was a kind of comfort that if this thing in my head was growing back, that it was still in its infancy. Time enough to whack it out later then. But I would worry about that when I got out of here, which still seemed unlikely. I was probably going to die here, if not from my own stupidity then from Dan Rowe's malice.

Just then the old man rose with a jerk and began pacing back and forth in front of the fire.

There was a sudden pop of sparks from the fire and my eyes instinctively followed the glowing trail into the sky. That was when my heart stopped. There was a lightening of the dark just above the horizon and they don't have cities on Dale. I hadn't thought to ask the time. Night was flowing away. Dawn was waiting in the wings.

Oh, Scully, ever my rock and my heart's home. I've missed my flight I've blown in big time. The biggest. I'm never going to get off this ball of clay and the Lord Mayor here, who is striding up and down like a damn rooster, is going to make sure that what time I have left is going to be spent as miserable as possible.

I glared at him with what fury I could find the energy for. *So get it over with. What in the hell do you want? Why are you still here and not... * I gestured with my eyes towards the sky.

He whirled to face me, surprised, I think, by the clarity of the message I'd shot his way.

*As I've said, Fox. I don't waste valuable resources, not so long as they are still valuable which you have just proved that you are. *

* For what? *

I'd been too busy being depressed to wonder exactly where I was. I turned my head away from the fire and took a moment to let my eyes adjust. After a moment I recognized the ragged cliff as well as the pattern of the remaining trees around it. Daniel had made his little camp dead center over the rendezvous point. Not that that fact did me any good, I was too late and even if I wasn't I wasn't alone. I knew what the fire was for though, and it wasn't there just to provide Daniel's little force with some warmth in the early winter chill. It was a signal. 'Hey, Charley! Here! We're over here!'

So why save my life and drag my almost corpse all the way here? Daniel said I was valuable. I can't say that I agree with him, but I guess it can't hurt to play the game. I just wish that my heart were in it.

"I thought you weren't interested in having any competition for this particular trip?" I asked, raising my voice as loud as I was able which wasn't much.

I must have hit a nerve. In shifting orange glow of the bonfire, the old man's angry face never looked more like his younger copy "First he has to come, but the bastard didn't come!"

I assumed as much. "And you expect me to do what?"

"Call him."

The idea was so ridiculous that I couldn't help smiling. "E.T. phone home? Ah, but then you wouldn't know that one."

He was on me in two quick steps, dragging me up by the front of the two layers of the colony's precious homespun that I wore. The jerk was accompanied by a ripping sound. More clothes ruined. I felt a flash of deja vue. I had been in this position with Charley a lifetime before.

"Call with your mind, Idiot! With as much force as you can. In fact you don't even have to call him in words. You only need to fill the airwaves with your signature. Scream to that dog Benjamin for help for all I care."

I started. Ben? How could I have gone so long and not thought about Ben? Idiot was too good a word for the kind of friend I was Arrogant, egocentric, self-pitying worm came closer.

"Where's Ben? If you've done anything to Ben..."

The shaking I got before he let go of what remained of my shirt and tunic was all the reminder I needed that I was not in tiptop shape.

"I said 'Call'! I'll know if you don't." He stood over where I lay sprawled on the trampled grass and tried to look menacing. He didn't have to try very hard.

"Tell me where Ben is and maybe I'll think about it!" Years defending the X-Files against all comers and then living with Charley had taught me how to be defiant against worse odds than Dan Rowe.

But Dan had lived with Charley, too. I forgot about that. Faster than I thought that old man could move he drew out what on this planet was a very unexpected object. It was a real knife, not a flint one, not crudely remelted dental filling. I saw the straight, bright glint in the firelight.

"Hold him."

Dan's three hit men were only too happy to do so. They first threw me down on a boulder that was not only cold but also sharp. One then took a fist full of hair and pulled back my head while a second grabbed me firmly by the right wrist and the third tore the sleeve Easily within the reach of that evil-looking blade, they held the limb out as steady as a rock no matter how hard I fought. Sadly, my fight was rather pitiful, but then they were also very efficient in their movements as if this was something they'd done before Clearly, Dale's mayor was well prepared for those times when it just wasn't convenient to transport his victims to Government House and the fun and games that went on in the basement.

I had no misconception now about what this old man wanted me for Bait. And when Charley showed up, I'd be expendable. Daniel would have the audience he craved.

I expected more threats at that moment, and lots of melodramatic talk. What I got was a long, thin line of red along the length of my forearm. There wasn't a lot of pain at first but surprise made me cry out, though as this was what Dan wanted, I tried to swallow it as soon as it started. Maybe I had some control over what exhibited on the outside. What I couldn't do was stop the shock that went bouncing around inside my skull "Not bad," Daniel murmured with satisfaction.

"There's no point to this," I started, with a voice only slightly tinged with hysteria. "Charley's headblind, you know that. All the shapeshifters are."

"But his instruments aren't. Remember what I said about finding you when you were young. How do you think we choose the ones we wanted to begin with? Mindspeakers unconsciously give off a kind of radiant energy your science and mine refuses to recognize, but with the right instruments what a beacon you were even when you were young."

"Thanks to a certain black-lunged pain-in-the-ass, I'm not the freak you knew."

"But you've recovered a portion of that shine. I just hope it will be enough. We've boosted you about as much as we can manage here." He moved his hand in brisk, crisp motions, allowing the tiny blade to glitter to its best advantage. "So let's try it again, shall we, only louder this time." The old man bent to his work. He made only a modest cut this time and, ready for it, I bit down on my lip and made hardly any sound even on the inside. Daniel snorted disapprovingly and gestured for his goons to tighten their grip. "You do know that there's only one profession that a man with one arm man is good for in this society, don't you?"

That gave me a chill from a couple of different directions, though I tried to assure myself that the blade was too small and too thin for downright amputation. Still, the current game wasn't worth the cost to me of allowing him to try. The next cut would be deeper and longer. I wish that I had been able to hang on, to play for news of Ben if nothing else. As for being the bait for bringing Charley here, if he heard and if he came, that was one shapeshifter who could take care of himself. While he was at it, he could also take care of Dan Rowe so it was to my advantage to stay alive and relatively whole as long as I could.

Even forewarned it was still a shock when the blade bit deeply into flesh. There was no point in holding back; I'd had enough of this shit. I don't know where the power came for the cry I sent up then There was no control and no words that would be printable here. I know that the power sailed like a damned shooting star out of the top of my head. It was like hitting the sweet spot on a maplewood bat; even when you don't know what you're doing, sometimes you hit it just right.

Instantly, there was a commotion about the fire as if everyone had felt it, human and changeling alike. What I'd been told about the mindspeaker compound being in the very blood and bones of the planet and everyone being exposed to it to some degree must be true. The men holding me fell back as if struck especially Jason who'd smoked so much from the pipe. Daniel cried out and dropped the knife to grip his head. The thought came to me that this would be the perfect time to go for the weapon, but after the white lightning of that cry came a crack like that of a whip and almost as if in slow motion time and place went softly away for a while.

When I came around Arniesse was calmly bandaging my arm. The fact that I was sitting up on my own indicated that I could not have been entirely unconscious, but there certainly had been a lot of nothing for a while. Not too much time had passed, however, because there was only a little more light in the sky. I think it was the bite from the pain of my newest injuries that helped bring me around and Arniesse had had something to do with making certain that I felt them. I know for a fact that he wasn't being as gentle with his nursing as he could have been Without moving any more than necessary I checked for Daniel and his men. Equally spaced around the dying bonfire, they were dark silhouettes standing guard and staring intently outward into the barest gray of dawn.

Even though the changeling and I didn't seem to be anyone's immediate concern, I spoke as softly as I could. "Where's Benjamin?"

The handsome, bowed head gestured out beyond the fire. "Out there."

"Daniel found him, didn't he? Is he dead?"

Arniesse's eyes lowered. "I don't know, I wasn't there. When the hours passed and the spaceship didn't come and neither of you came, they went searching. They wouldn't let me go. I'm not entirely trusted at the moment. I'm told that they did find Benjamin, but that he refused to tell them where you were. They followed his trail back to you. I was taken along for that since I know you better than the others. You'd crawled out of the hiding place he'd made for you You may have frozen to death by morning."

And how would that have mattered to anyone?

"But what happened to Ben? How badly did they hurt him?"

"Badly, or so I'm told."

"Then why haven't you gone to him?" I snarled.

"Because," Arniesse replied with more regret than I'd heard before from the changeling, "he would not want me to leave you." The dark head bowed over the knot he was tying in the bit of torn cloth to hold the bandage in place. Now that I knew him better I could see the subtle signs of his distress. I flinched when he tied the knot too tight. "Sorry." He stared down at the bandage where dark, wet spots were already seeping through. "I would not have let them take your arm. And they call us animals," he hissed with bitterness.

Something had been bothering me. I vaguely remembered shouting a warning to Ben back when he hid me in the dry gully. Now I remembered what the warning was.

"You were in the hut, when Benjamin talked to me about finding my calendar only we didn't know it then. You knew from that exchange that tonight was the night. You told. That's how Dan and his troops just happened to be sitting here waiting for us to show up." My interrogation skills have obviously gotten rusty because Arniesse didn't confirm or deny. He simply looked out with his/her beautiful face, composed again, in the direction of the great empty plain where Ben was lying dead or dying. I'm absolutely certain about the dead or dying part because Ben would never have told and Daniel would never have stopped asking until he knew that he would learn nothing.

Arniesse wasn't going to answer, but Dan Rowe took that moment to come in range. "What happened to Benjamin?" I demanded.

"Who knows," Daniel replied in a distracted voice, more interested in watching for movement beyond the fire. At that moment I would have killed him if I could have stood up without falling on my face, but what little strength I had had spent itself on that one telepathic bomb.

With irritation, eyes still on the promise of at least a cloudy dawn, Daniel kicked a small glowing piece of wood back into the fire. "Show yourself you damned green-blooded monster!" he howled, then as if with a sudden thought, he reversed to glare at me. "Could you have gotten it wrong?"

My response was a shrug but hope stirred a little. Maybe I had Maybe there was still a chance. Does the tree in the forest make a sound when it falls even if there is no one around to hear? Could the moon be said to be full even if there are too many clouds to see? Is it full on its own or only because we know it to be so? It's all in the viewpoint, after all. Daniel growled and turned away What did it matter? Even if I was wrong, I'd never be given the opportunity to be alone here again and Benjamin would be just as dead.

We all sat in silence for some minutes after that. Arniesse went back to his own kind who huddled quietly out of the ring of dwindling firelight. As dawn approached, Daniel was indeed letting the fire burn down, confirming my assumption that it had been lit as a signal. Not that it wasn't just as cold now as before. I hadn't mentioned the weather much because it was so still. In New England they would call it a crisp morning and talk about frost on the pumpkins. A comfortable temperature if you are walking bristly or busy confronting madmen. It crept into your bones when you did nothing more that sit like a stone. How long would we wait? There was no telling from looking at Daniel and his men. Patiently, they maintained their slow circling vigilance. I didn't let myself be assuaged by their lack of firepower. It didn't matter that except for Daniel's knife each was armed with only a stout club and a sharpened hunk of a flint ax head. I had no doubt that they knew how to use both. Most notably, there was always one within two steps of where I sat on another butt-denting rock. A hostage in the event of Charley's sudden appearance, I had no doubt.

There was no telling who heard the footsteps first because within seconds we were all alert. Someone was approaching from the direction of the rough thrust of rock that so identified the place All eyes were soon trained that way. A guard moved behind me. Flint pricked the side of my neck. Let's say that I didn't move. I didn't even breathe much.

Within seconds an anxious challenge was raised and a hesitate voice answered. There was a general mumbling as the guards, even the one at my back, went to see the arrival. It was about the last person I would have expected. It was Reese, Daniel's manservant, bringing some critical news from town. It was while they buzzed about the old Bob that I noticed Arniesse and then the rest of the Grayrobes stiffen. Arniesse rose slowly but his attention was focused in the opposite direction from where Reese had come. Over the sounds of the voices from Daniel and his men I heard what Arniesse and his fellows had heard - slow, halting footsteps, every other one dragging a little. Not Charley It was still too dark to see far but enough dawn to make out forms beyond the firelight. A figure the color of frost like the morning itself stopped just at the limit the light allowed. I didn't recognize him by his face, half of which was covered in something dark, most probably blood. I knew him by the height and width of his shoulders and the ragged clothes though he listed badly to one side.

Benjamin. I felt an absurd happiness. He'd been badly beaten, but it was Ben. If he came to save me, however, his timing was terrible.

Arniesse straightened as he, too, recognized the figure. He didn't go to him any more than I, however. The other Grayrobes also stayed where they were. It was not a good idea to move quickly with Daniel and his men only momentarily distracted. The tableaux probably lasted no more than ten seconds before the Mayor's men swept down on us. They slowed and stopped when they saw who it was though not from fear. They were just wary to see if their neighbor, and former victim, was going to be stupid enough to retaliate for past abuses After a moment their shoulders relaxed and weapons lowered, though in their place I wouldn't have been so quick to do either. There was a suppressed tension in the young farmer. Not knowing how long of a fuse Ben had, I considered going to him, but barely able to sit without falling over, I would probably make the situation worse Better to watch and wait. After all, I've caused Ben problems enough since my arrival. His injuries as well as his current estrangement from his village were my doing. Besides, he hadn't looked my way Oh, he had at first but just enough to count heads. It was Daniel that he stood and waited for. The old man approached more slowly than his men. Everything about Stony River's Mayor was casual and matter-of-fact except for the eyes. Ignored by Daniel just as he always had been, Reese followed closely behind, his features tense "So, it's Benjamin. Fox has been taxing our patience with all his questions over your status so we're relieved to see that you're still with us. You understand why we had to take the actions we did, don't you, Benjamin? Of course, you do. And you're forgiven. We're all capable of momentarily forgetting where our true loyalties lie Just don't let it happen again. By the way, did you happen to stumble upon Bek on your way here?"

Benjamin's reply took some time in coming. A head wound will do that. I've had too many occasions to know. "He found me."

As Dan Rowe hadn't been serious when he asked his question, Ben's answer was so unexpected that it took everyone around the fire, me included, time for it to sink in. So I got the date right after all and Charley was here. Only where? My eyes rolled skyward but all I could see was dark gray gradually turning lighter and the occasional flake of blown snow.


MULDER: Year 31, Week 20.0 Dale Reckoning (Dawn)

"He's come for..." and Ben nodded his bloody head in my direction though his attention remained on the old man. Relief struggled to come alive in my chest, but I knew how dangerous my position still was Daniel was breathing heavily and I almost wished that the light were better so that I could watch him turn purple. "No!! Not that! Where is the bastard!"

Unbelievably, it was Reese who answered. "I expect that he'll be here any minute now."

With these clear, precisely intoned words it became obvious, at least to me, that this was not the same man who had silently served drinks and passed the hors d'oeuvres.

Whipping around, Daniel stared at his servant. "There was no fire at the east common farm, was there?" Suspiciously, his intense eyes darted from the aging newcomer to Ben and back. Reese's arrival had allowed Ben to approach without being challenged. Showing up separately as they did had thrown Daniel temporarily off balance. It had been a diverting little plan. No sudden moves meant safer for me As my forearm still burned like hell, this was something I could agree with.

Meanwhile, Daniel had spun back towards his men, what was left of his control crumbling as if he expected the transport beam from Charley's ship to appear at any moment. "Now, as we discussed! The master's come for his pupil, let him have only one he can leave with."

The three men lumbered forward but hesitantly this time. They were bullies, not murderers. Arniesse and Reese, neither big men, stopped the thugs' advance simply by stepping between the three and where I sat huddled under my blanket, helpless in every way possible and for the moment glad of it. There are advantages to not appearing to be a threat, as you and your five-foot-two have reason to know, Scully Still, I was attempting to get to my feet to intervene, when from behind Benjamin's strong hands came down heavily on my shoulders Benjamin protecting my back - it felt right that he should be there.

All in all, it certainly was a novelty to have friends - in addition to you, of course, Scully. I just hoped that I wouldn't get them killed Reese was speaking again, his voice loud and clear and without a hint of a stutter. "Where has your honey voice gone, Mayor? You boasted to everyone who would listen that you would talk this alien mercenary into taking you instead, that it would be no problem at all. Now you have to commit assault and murder?" To emphasize his point he gestured as much to Ben's bloody face as to me.

"The Graypeople agree," Arniesse added, raising his soft voice with unexpected force. "Clearly, you never had the power you promised Therefore, as you have been warned, we will no longer listen to your counsel. The only reason we told you of their plans and came today was to end this and prevent exactly what you intend now."

Daniel snarled, baring his teeth. "Do you think I need you? Do you think that I need any you whores?" He spun back to his men. "Well? What's stopping you? It's not like we have not silenced the rebels in our ranks before. To survive we must be united and we must be strong. Be strong now. I must be the one who meets with Bek!"

After a pause to check first that none of them would be wading into the situation alone, the three men started forward again. Nervous hands choked up on their clubs.

"I warn you," Arniesse's clear voice called out, "stop now or no Grayrobe will ever enter your town again and neither will you be welcome in ours."

At that seemingly mild threat, the oddest thing happened. The three bullies visibly hesitated, expressions of alarm growing in their faces. Into this atmosphere, one of Arniesse's companions, heretofore silent, stepped forward to stand shoulder to shoulder with his fellow changling. He was taller and green-eyed and awesomely beautiful. "Did you hear, Raymond?" He called, staring at the youngest of the three thugs. "No more Firstday nights - ever!"

The young man wavered as if struck by a blow. His club began to sink as his face turned fiercely red A second changeling came forward, less tall and striking but no slouch. "I also stand with my kin, Jason." These words made the ugliest and meanest of the three go pale.

The second to the last changeling stepped up to join our group. It was getting crowded. He didn't speak, but one piercing glance and the third bully, a rotund fellow who was more meek than his fellows, dropped his eyes even as his club fell to his side.

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry but as exhausted as I was I was certainly on the verge of doing one or the other. It was an odd sort of Lysistrata, but the old ways are often the best. Had the Grayrobes placed 'concubines' with Daniel's lieutenants for just such a eventuality? It certainly seemed that way. Let Daniel do all the work while they secretly held all the high cards?

The last and oldest of the Grayrobe group came to stand beside Reese, their shoulders comfortably touching.

There was now enough dawn light to see that Daniel's face had flared red. "Traitor," he hissed at Reese. "How could you betray your own?"

"My own? These are more my own than you. They treat me like a man To you I am little more than a dumb beast."

"So you were their spy in my house? For how long?"

"Too many years to count. Since they took pity on my silence and worked with me to help me think and speak again." Too flustered to come up with a reply, Daniel turned to confront the one whose betrayal probably stung the worst. "And you..." he hissed at Arniesse, loathing dripping from each word. "Worse than a spy."

"Those who are powerless will seize what weapon they can," the changeling said simply.

Finding no way to start a physical brawl with these two groups, the old man glared wildly at his three lieutenants. "Can't you see what they're doing? What are you? Men of mud? Where is your backbone? Where is your heart? This is our last chance. We have to insist that Bek take me! You know I'll work for the colony's interests. You can't trust a stranger to do that!"

Ever since he had verbally attacked Reese and Arniesse, the mayor had been moving and gesturing with his arms. Being a large man, his movements covered a lot of space. Unaccustomed to fighting and in their smug satisfaction over the thwarting of Daniel's plans, Reese and the changelings had let their guard down. They'd allowed him to scatter them. All at once he was two steps away from where I still sat. He didn't seem to be armed, but I knew better. That little knife could easily be hidden in the palm of a hand as large as his.

This is the way in which things so often go wrong. A tense situation is defused and you feel this brief burst of euphoria as the last of the adrenaline burns away. As if in slow motion, I saw him begin the movement that would turn him in my direction and bring the little knife up with force into my throat. I had to get up, I had to defend myself, but I was too stiff, too sore, and I'd been sitting too long in the cold. All that my standing managed to do was give the old man a larger target, my stomach. On this planet the thrust from an arm as strong as Daniel's would make a lethal wound, though death may take its time.

That was when a body with the strength of a small bull pushed me aside.

The knife found its target... into Benjamin who'd forced himself into my place.

Or did it? Ben didn't fall or react at all. With the help of Reese's arm I managed to get to my feet from the trampled ground where I'd been shoved out of harm's way. I would have gone to my friend then but the old newcomer held me back. Maybe it was going to be all right. There was no flash of blood or grimace of pain. Maybe the little blade had become tangled in the layers of rough woven clothing he wore. All I knew was that he stood where he was, his work hardened hands around the old man's powerful wrist, and stared coldly into those hateful gray eyes.

"What makes you think," he said in tones even colder, "that anything would induce me to deal with anything as twisted as you?"

The words came from Ben, but it was a voice that I had never heard from that young man. I knew what was going to happen next even before it did. Benjamin's strong, handsome features began to ripple, to flow, to grow larger and thicker as his body became taller and more broad - and all so familiar. For only the second time since 'Benjamin' had limped into the fire circle, he looked fully me.

"The entire power structure of a world in turmoil? As ever, wherever there is trouble, that is where you can be found, Agent Mulder."

It sounded good to hear that name but not nearly as wonderful as it once may have. For it was Charley, not Benjamin, who spoke and who held the old man by the throat, an old man who in appearance could easily have passed for his father.

Shock and grief made me stagger, which was quite different from the anxiety that had eaten at me since I had heard about the attack on Ben. This mourning was not that my Benjamin might be dead but that he had somehow never existed. Had he been Charley all along? But this was clearly not the time for a formal greeting which after all this time would be complicated to say the least. Dan Rowe was thrashing in the shapeshifter's grip like a frenzied animal. I'll give him credit; he fought well for his age. After sufficient damage had been done, Charley let him go.

The old man staggered back, holding his throat and its darkening bruises. In a rasping voice he spoke, "At least listen to me. I want to come back. I can still pilot the ship. I'm still strong, you know that I can manage the Beast."

From Charley's expression you would think that he was facing some insignificant life form.

"Very well! If you have to replace me with Fox then so be it, but at least take me along. There's so much I can teach him."

"The way you have taught the people here? The people you begged to be allowed to take to a better place? You have made a mess of your own ship, do not attempt to do the same to mine."

"The deaths were not my fault!"

"They were no one's fault, but when the harm was done and the offer was made to move the colony to an established place, to a hard but safer place, you refused. Did you tell your beloved people that? Or would you then have to admit that you refused because relocating the colony would mean that you would have to give up your high seat in favor of another?"

The men from Stony River and Reese stared at their mayor in astonishment. This was a part of the story they clearly didn't know All these years their hopelessness, the deaths of their mothers and wives and daughters, had been unnecessary.

"And these..." Charley looked with what for Charley was almost fondness on the cluster of slender, gray-clad changelings, "even after your refusal they were planted here to help you. You think of them as barren but they are not." To a man, or woman, the reaction of the changelings was immediate. "They must only remain in their female form until the fetus is implanted and then cannot return to their male form until the child has come to term. But your 'law' does not allow them to come and go except by your leave, nor can they appear as women in your town and none but you can visit theirs The result? No children."

Arniesse's question came out as a moan. "Why weren't we told?"

"So that you would see a need to grow strong and find your own ways to resist this man's power and petty rules. That you would find ways to be accepted so that the two communities would eventually merge In time the gift we gave you would then have become known. A people's future after all should not be brought into a place of conflict. Unless the culture changed, you would have remained freaks to them and become little more than slaves or cattle to create children. But he kept you separate, the enjoyment of your gifts a shameful thing. In an atmosphere of strife, none prosper."

Charley stared hard at his 'father's' face. "You promised to make a kinder world than the one you were fleeing. You should have done so."

"How ironic," the old man snarled, "considering the torture the two of us inflicted on helpless children for so many years." Here I had thought myself pretty much forgotten but now most eyes followed Daniel's to me. It wasn't unusual to find myself the object of attention. What made me squirm was to find so much of it sympathetic.

Not surprisingly, Charley's expression didn't alter but his next words were softer. "To survive, each race as a whole must change, must grow, must learn from its mistakes. In the process some individuals must always lose a thing so that the whole will survive There are and will always be the pathfinders, the soldiers and those that sacrifice all. We played our part, Dan. It was a different war then."

The pathfinders, the soldiers, and the sacrifices... After many years of sleeping on stony group, explorers that do not fall by the wayside will find their way home. Soldiers do return from the war though not all of them living and even more of them not whole. Then there are the sacrifices, those who die just because they are in the way, just because that's the way of the world, any world. Which one am I, Scully?

"Agent Mulder." It was Charley's voice calling me. "It is time for us to go. They have much to clean up here and we have much to do."

But the old man wasn't finished. "No!" he cried. Staring wildly towards each of his men in turn, he declared, "Don't tell me that you honestly believe this fairy tale? He just wants to wash his hands of the problem and we'll be abandoned again. He can do more, he just refuses to." Rabble rouse as he may, the old politician was having little affect on his once obedient flock. "Look, there are eight of us. The original plan doesn't have to be over. Take Fox and he'll deal! It's all he wants or cares about!"

But to a man - and to a changeling - they all turned their heads away. The three town men and Reese each sought instead the eyes of their changeling lover and in an astonishingly short time there were four couples, male and gray-clad female, creating a wall of defiance against the old ways.

With a cry Daniel stooped, his hand closing on a rock. Logically, he would just have thrown it down again in impotent rage but, though aging, the man had been in the military once and an athlete and he was still strong. With the speed of a major league pitcher, he whirled. We never found out who that final stone was meant for - Reese, the traitor; Charley, the old Master who rejected him; Arniesse, the spy; or I, the rival. We never found out because the old man staggered suddenly, the projectile falling harmlessly somewhere on the flattened weeds between the four of us. He fell seconds later, his hand clutching his throat from where a dark- fletched dart protruded.

It was Reese who lowered the tiny blowgun from his lips. "A gift from Mac," he explained, dispassionately observing the start of Mayor Dan's death throes. "He thought it might come to this, though I didn't know that the poison would be so potent. I guess Mac knew better than most what kind of monster lived among us. He had to doctor Daniel's victims often enough."

For a time no one spoke. We all just stood abhorred and fascinated as the old man frantically clutched at his closing windpipe. It was all happening so fast and so horribly. The old eyes sought those of Charley. The swelling lips said something then, something I wasn't close enough to hear nor was I able to make out the words that were formed, but Charley was. Was the old man begging for Charley to save him because shapeshifters were healers? Forbidding Charley to save him? Reminding him of some old attachment? In a matter of seconds lips stopped moving and the cold gray eyes stared into the pale morning light. No one moved to help as the broad, flushed face went from blue to black.

Epilogue

Without a word or ceremony a grave was dug. Too weak to do much to help turn the cold, hard ground, I managed at least to check for a pulse. No one deserves to be buried alive. In was early winter, however, so the body was already cooling by the time they had finished carving the shallow hole. Depth wasn't needed; there aren't any scavengers on Dale but Human ones. As was their custom, he was buried naked, the dead having no need of the precious boots or warm clothes. Minutes later, without any more of a farewell than a nod, the four couples began their long walk back to one or the other of their respective towns. I dare say that they will take their time Only Arniesse remained and Charley and I. Charley, stone-faced as always, stood over the grave by himself, wrapped in his own alien thoughts. Arniesse stood beside him. I had long since returned to my stone, too tired and dizzy and sick to stand. The overdose of lichen pills they had pumped me with was fading and my body was beginning to make some serious requests for more.

"The colony will manage well enough," Arniesse predicted as he watched the distant twin specks of couples until they were lost within a line of trees. "Change will be quick. Reese knows all that Daniel was involved in and his new importance will change the lot of the others."

"Then the BoBs will be freed?" I asked wanting to be certain on that point.

"Those who feel unfree. Some are happy with their lives and some truly can't live without care. The ones whose adoptive 'parent' will not let them go, those cases will take some work but there are, gratefully, fewer of those than you might think. The truly unhappy and abused can't work. My kind will come to town now. We are as eager for children as the men beside the river. It will be an interesting winter with the status quo broken in more ways than one." A slight smile crossed the smooth face. "If my people have anything to say about it, there won't be one of us without a round belly by spring."

"But what about the birth trauma? What's to keep your people from dying like the colony's women died?"

"We thought of that long ago in case a miracle should ever happen Immediately after birth we will change back to our male form until the bleeding stops, then switch again to nurse the young. Timing will be tricky but nothing that can't be dealt with. Well worth the risk."

The pathfinders, the soldiers and the sacrifices.

"What will you do?" I asked the handsome young 'man'.

"Me?"

Did I have to say it? He would be alone at least for a while. Daniel wasn't the only one who was gone. "I'm sorry about Benjamin."

He looked at me oddly and said nothing more. I was distracted by Charley then who, I realized, hadn't spoken for a long time. He dark gaze was still on the mound. They had traveled many years together There had been tension I was sure, as between Charley and I, but not all of it could have been bad. Jailer and prisoner have more in common than one might think, a lesson I was still learning.

I never did find out what he was thinking.

Feeling my gaze on him, he straightened his bowed head, but it was Arniesse he looked towards. "There is nothing more that I can do here. There is a great task for the war that needs to be attended to first. It's why I've come for Mulder. But hear me: If I can, I or one of my allies will return and we'll see what can be done to help." For only the second time since transforming from Ben's bloody features - which could not have been actual blood since Charley bleeds green acid no matter what his form - the shapeshifter looked me straight in the eye and there was an understanding between us This great task he spoke to Arniesse of was what I'd be required to take part in if I were accepted back. With an inclination of his head he signaled that it was past time he were gone and took a few steps back in the direction 'Ben' had come from.

My own next steps would be the critical ones. I could still stay and thus stay for good. But to go I need only rise and follow and I'd be in. No groveling would be required. On the other hand I hadn't forgotten the sheer agony of joining with the Beast. It was the only road home, however.

I got to my feet - or tried to. I finally managed after a fashion It was with relief that neither Charley nor Arniesse moved to help The shapeshifter only slowed his steps so that I could catch up. He also beckoned with the tiniest movement of his hand and Arniesse, with an expression to match his own, fell into step with us both. It was as if the changeling expected this. As for me, I was past caring one way or the other. My only coherent thought was a badly worded prayer that we didn't have to walk far. I was not doing well and just the thought of being on a ship in stardrive made me feel a good deal worse.

We were outside the fire circle now. Though the fire was now out, there should have been more than enough morning to see by. Then why couldn't I? Was there going to be a storm? If we didn't hurry, I'd have come to Dale in storm and I'd leave in storm. Got to move faster, but I couldn't. I'd already fallen behind. Charley and Arniesse were at least a dozen strides ahead and didn't look back My head hurt badly with a pounding behind my eyes.

The world went gray and dim and stayed that way for quite some time I stumbled. A familiar, strong arm around my waist kept me from getting up close and personal with the earth of Dale again. Before me there was only the empty plain. No Charley, no Arniesse. I looked right to stare at the face next to mine. It was a dirty, tired face and streaked with dried blood but also endearingly familiar. It was Benjamin and he was smiling. I blinked several times.

"Don't tell me he fooled you?" he laughed sounding blissfully happy.

I was not going to admit to what I thought - that Charley had been Ben all along. For Charley to keep the pretense of being human for so long, and such a gentle soul as Ben's, seemed inconceivable now Stress and sickness had badly muddied my thinking. Then there had been my other fear.

"I thought that Daniel and his men had killed you."

Ben passed his free hand over his face and a few flakes of reddish brown crumbled off. "Not for lack of trying." "How badly are you hurt?" "How badly 'was' I hurt, you mean. Pretty bad. It was my own fault I 'called' Daniel. I though I was saving your life. But then I saw the lights of the ship and I realized what I blunder I'd made Luckily, Daniel's group hadn't seen them, so I had to keep silent It was the only way to keep you from Daniel's hands and possibly get you into Charley's. Charley found me after Daniel's group got finished with me. Took me up to his ship and worked some kind of magic. I'm doing well now." He bounced on the balls of his feet, the jostling more than sufficient to set little bombs off in my head. He must have noticed my grimace and calmed his enthusiasm. "He had come upon Reese earlier while he was shadowing Daniel. He wanted to know what that old lion's plans were." Ben's black eyes glistened. "The ship is amazing. I couldn't believe it when I met Reese there."

"Anyone mention me during all this?" I murmured.

"I thought he was going to spit nails he was so angry with you for not being there waiting for him. When I told him that you had tried and that you were unconscious he understood why he'd been unable to find you. Then he began to get weak signals from you. When it became clear that Daniel had you, we began to make plans. Just before he and Reese were ready to leave he got some incredibly loud reading About roasted his equipment! Whatever you did surprised him. You should have seen him smile."

"Charley, smile?" Benjamin's expression was curious. "You know, Charley's not so bad He's not at all like you described."

I just rolled my eyes "Well, he left me alone down here just now," I grumbled.

"He's sorry about that. He and Arniesse both thought you were following. It's why he sent me down to get you, as a peace offering That's what I've been doing, waiting on the ship for you. And there's another thing." He took a deep breath. "I'm coming along," came out in a rush. I stared at him. "I'm coming with you on the ship."

"I know what you meant. You can't be serious. You don't know what it's like. Besides Daniel's no threat any more. You can go home."

"And plow fields, and carve little mythical animals I'll never see, and chop wood in the winter till my hands bleed, and invent two hundred different ways to serve potatoes and beans? Given this chance, how could I not?"

"'How you gonna keep them down on the farm after they've seen Parie?'" I said. (Note, Scully, that I recited. I did not sing.) "Does Charley know about this? I can't image that he's much on house guests."

"He invited me, and Arniesse, too, I heard. Guess they had some talk on their way back to the ship. Charley and I also had a couple of hours together. I told him a lot already about what happened since you arrived, about your back and whatever it was that the Grayrobes did, and about the lichenleaf addiction. He was so pissed at Daniel that it's a good thing that the man's dead. And don't you worry; Charley's going to fix everything."

"I'll bet he will." Benjamin chatting away with Charley about all my medical problems...boggles the mind.

"Mulder, about my coming. He says he needs me. That the two of you need..." Ben paused to remember the word "... an intermediary. He says I can help." Ben was totally serious now. "Mulder, he says that there's so much to be done."

"In the war?"

"Yes. They need you, Mulder. Something special that only you can do And, Mulder, he promised that if the mission goes well that he will send you home. Home, Mulder, to Earth."

To you, Scully...

I stare into the distance at Dale's rolling hills, but between that fertile land and me there's a familiar beam of bright light. It's only a hundred yards away and with the aid of Benjamin's strong arm I think that I might actually be able to make it on my own two feet.

I just hope that Charley's got himself a bigger spacecraft.

So I'm going to join Charley again, but not alone this time. There's Charley who can be anyone and who has already indicated has human urges; there's Arniesse/Annie, who can be either a beautiful young man or a beautiful young woman; there's Benjamin who's so affection- starved he'll try anything... and I. I've rejected them all at one time or another.

Would make a body shiver even if he weren't already going through withdrawal.

I don't see any of this as fun and games. There's a great 'task' to be done? Right. But is it a job for a pathfinder, a soldier or a sacrifice? Does it matter? None of the three necessarily find their way home all in one piece. Guess I'll have to watch my step.

The End

Title: My Travels with Charley Chapter 09. Those Who Are About to Die
Written: 12/07/02
Author: Windsinger
Archiving: Gossamer, Emphereal, Xemplary, ATXC, and anywhere with permission and as long as the author's name is retained.

Rating: PG-13 Classification: XA series
Spoilers: REQUIEM, 7th season, 8th season (Mulder episodes), 9th season (Mulder episodes), Genderblender, Final Extinction, Little Green Men, Fight the Future
Keywords: Mulderangst, Muldertorture.

Summary: This is the final chapter about those missing months following Mulder's abduction in Oregon

THE STORY SO FAR: Mulder has survived his first days after his abduction on the alien ship (at least the ones he's been conscious enough to remember) and the boredom of his life within the Mindspeaker colony. Less than intact, he survives testing, which for the first time reveals to Charley that Mulder's speaker talent has been destroyed. While Charley decides what to do with his damaged prisoner, Mulder is allowed to recover in the company of Ness, a young woman whose ancestors were taken from Earth four generations before to live out a barren existence in a few rooms on a huge alien space station. From here he is taken by the Hunter and put into training to pilot a small spacecraft, training that taxes the endurance of both body and mind. Mulder's rebellious spirit eventually exceeds even Charleys patience and he is literally dropped onto the surface of the planet, Dale, to survive as best he can until Charley returns to reclaim him.

He finds that there are other humans on the planet, other rejects of the experiments and their descendents, as well as a group of the altered humans of the gender switching type that he and Scully had encountered so many years before. He lives and builds a strong friendship with a young farmer named Benjamin. He also meets Dan Rowe, the elderly man whom Charley based his default human shape on and who had been an apprentice of Charleys, as Mulder was, only many years earlier. He tells Mulder a terrible tale of how he and Charley had abducted the young Fox Mulder several times between the ages of 6 and 10 although Mulder's memories of those terrifying episodes had always been wiped from his mind. Dan Rowe is not surprised that the word of power had such a profound affect on Mulder. In the end Mulder has to admit that at least to some extent his mental powers had grown back. The killer headaches he had experienced on Earth and during the trip were symptoms of this. Mindspeech is further enhanced by lichenleaf, a native plant, which is exactly what Charley had intended by leaving him on Dale. Even Benjamin has a little of the gift. In the end Mulder is taken back by Charley but more than a little worse for wear. Benjamin and the gender-changing Annicon come along to help keep peace between Charley and his unwilling apprentice.

Disclaimer: No, the X-Files and the characters of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully do not belong to me, I would have treated them better. Author's Notes: This is ninth and last in my series stories chronically Mulder's confusing, agonizing, torturous, lonely and wondrous adventures following his collection in Oregon. CC never explained those missing months so I might as well. My older work can be found on Gossamer under 'Esty, Sue' All of my work can also be found on Tamra's excellent Connections site (http://X-Files. bytewright.com/Rev.html) (And if they are not all there now they will be soon.) Many, many thanks to my beta readers: Suzanne Bickerstaffe and Faye (FCP40).


For a very long time I slept and I dreamed. The dreams were weird and vague such as the ones you get when exhausted and feverish. I was both. I was fed by hands that I knew I should recognize but didn't. They were callused but gentle hands. Those same hands washed me. It was the ship food that told me that I was with Charley again. Consequently, I didn't hurry to wake up Conscious, I would never have it as good as this.

It was only after what must have been a week of such luxury that I realized that I wasn't on Charley's little survey ship. I knew because even though my eyes were far too sensitive to the light I was still able to explore my surroundings by touch. I couldn't find a wall on my left side and even the wall to my right wasn't curved so I wasn't in the tube. In any case there would never have been room in a tube for my caregiver. Also, unless we had been poking along at sublight for the whole time, this must be a ship large enough to have both artificial gravity and a dampener for the light speed sickness such as the Portjam had.

I couldn't help but spend a lot of my conscious time wondering how and why this had all come about.

At the beginning someone was always there. There was always talking, as if that someone was afraid that I would slip away without a lifeline. Perhaps I would have; the withdrawal was that bad. It was Ben, of course. He does have gentle hands the way he always said he would On what must have been day three I came around enough to be vaguely aware of visitors in the plural. A thin aged face hovered above me. I must have been hallucinating, for it looked like Jeremiah Smith for a moment, the only 'good' shapeshifter whom I'd ever known. He was performing some mumbo-jumbo, doing his best to put Humpty Dumpty together for the second time. Whatever was being done to me made me dizzy and I think I threw up, but someone quickly slid a basin under my chin and caught most of the mess. I suppose I have Ben to thank for that because the second figure was undoubtedly Charley now. No way that carved figure would stoop to minister to such a disgusting human weakness. After that I lost time again waking either to Ben or Charlie and sometimes even Annicon, the Changling, After a few days of this I began to wake up alone. I was fed and they let me sleep. I assumed that meant that I was getting better.

I wasn't so sure that I wanted to.

It was boredom that finally induced me to brave the stabbing pain from the light and open my eyes. What I saw made it hardly worth the effort. Flat, swamp-green walls faced me from no more than four feet away. They were dimly illuminated by a flat lightpanel above my head. I lay in a bunk barely as wide as my shoulders. There was a storage drawer below and a small walkway to a narrow closed door. That was all there was to the cabin but clearly it was all mine. Tired of sleeping, I managed to turn onto my side, hoping in that way to push myself to a sitting position. I didn't manage even that much verticality but I must have triggered some sensor because less than a minute passed before Ben appeared. The sight of him was both familiar and unfamiliar. He was Ben but cleaned and shaved, his black hair was still long but it was trimmed and brushed and tied back. He wore with ease a maroon ship's jumpsuit.

What a far cry this was from the young farmer I had known for so many months. His expression, however, was all Ben. He greeted me with a huge smile on his tanned face and there was a glistening of happy moisture in those sun-creased blue eyes.

"He told me that you'd be up today."

These were not the first words I wanted to hear. I was tired of Charley finding my actions so predictable. I let my body sag back onto the thin mattress and shut my eyes. "Then maybe I'll go back to sleep."

"He said that you'd threaten that, too. I wasn't to let you."

Sigh.

Ben vanished and returned minutes later with food. Good thing he didn't ask me if I was hungry. In my attempt to give any but the expected response I would have had to answer no when I very much wanted to answer yes no matter how bland the concoction "It's not like home," Ben said apologetically as he put a strong arm around my shoulders to help me to sit. "I couldn't do much with it. There's nothing like a kitchen here."

"I'm sure you tried." In truth there was something tangy about this current mess of oatmeal-like stew that made it above the average. "Whatever you did, it beats the usual taste of cardboard."

So I ate and he talked and I tried to listen but it was hard to pay attention. Halfway through the bowl with my stomach already full, the dish slipped from my hands. He stopped talking to catch the falling bowl as I slid sideways, confidant that he would have caught me as well if it were necessary.

It was nice to feel safe. I slept again and no one woke me.

The scene repeated itself for the next three meals. Ben prattled on. I was able to listen better each time but it was not what Ben said so much as what he didn't say. Clearly, they hadn't been doing much but waiting for me. Traveling, Ben answered to my question, but he didn't know to where. Annicon poked his sleek head in once. The changeling was looking so fetching that for a moment I didn't know whether I was looking at his male or female persona.

He looked meaningfully in Bens direction. Charleys called for me and you know you're always welcome to join us. Is this a good time?

Dropping his eyes, Ben colored. Clearly some kind of menage-a- trois experimentation was going on now that I wasn't critical This didn't surprise me. Ben is a good-looking young man Knowing how I felt about that sort of thing, however, they hadn't ask me to join. I was glad about that, though a small part of me wished that they'd at least have given me the choice to decline on my own.

After catching my eye long enough to ask and receive a silent assurance that I would be all right alone, Ben did leave with Annicon. Got to find that boy a nice girl and soon. After he left, I realized with a pang that I felt both alone and lonely It made me miss you all the more, Scully. Made me wish to get on with what they wanted me to do so I could get it over with and go home. That was what Charley had promised. Now that I no longer slept all the time, I would work at getting stronger.

Five shaky pushups and less that fifty steps jogged in place put me back to sleep again.

"You and Charley seem to be getting on pretty well, I began after I finished my meal a few 'days' later. I said this with the most big-brotherly expression I could manage and I succeeded not so badly considering that I was about twenty-five years out of practice. Ben hung his head and blushed becomingly. "He's not so bad. His eyes raised to my face. You know that I'd much rather have the real thing."

The mush stuck in my throat. The real thing. No, I wouldn't ask for details. So Charley had used more than his ability to look like Dan Rowe to snare Ben. "I'm sorry."

The young farmer shrugged. "You can't pretend what you don't feel."

"I do feel, Benjamin. I really do. Just not in the same way."

"Yeah, I know. His eyes looked into mine and there was understanding there as well as disappointment.

After a few more bites I dropped the spoon back into my bowl Even Ben's doctoring had been unable to improve the meals incredible blandness this time. Time instead for a change in subject. "What does Charley want from me?"

"He won't tell me. When you ask, I'm just to take you to him."

"I don't think I need I a guide. I'm sure I can smell him out when the time comes."

Ben gave me a look of exasperation. Mulder, you have to stop this or we are never going to get anywhere and you know what anywhere I mean.

I knew. Earth. Home. Charley and I had been in each other's faces all during the long months of my stubborn resistance. We were like oil and water. I put the bowl aside and swung my legs over the side of the bunk. "you're too trusting, but, okay, I'm asking. Let's go."

Rising stiffly from my couch, I followed Ben into the corridor He said that I'd be surprised. I was. If width and length of the corridor we were standing in meant anything, this was not only a larger ship than the one where I had trained to manage the Beast, it was far larger.

"We didn't happen to change ships while I was asleep, did we?" I asked.

"No," Ben answered confused. "It's the only one I've seen."

"If we came up from Dale to here then something should be familiar."

"Ah, that's because you never saw this one. You passed out on our way up."

That would explain it. "I guess I will need a guide then. Let's get this over with."

The corridors were boringly utilitarian but there were a lot of them. We walked for a depressingly long time. With each step my intestines rearranged themselves into a few more knots. "I wonder what Charley had to do, or promise, or steal to get his hands on something this impressive."

"I wouldn't know, but I can't imagine anything smaller." Ben's eyes rove across the walls and there was something about the tightness of his jaw.

"Cabin fever?"

Ben's smile was brittle. "Not as bad as it can be after four months of winter in one room, but pretty bad."

"I'm sorry."

"About what?"

"That I got you into this."

"I didn't have to come. I was offered the job. If I hadn't, I would be settling in for winter right now, cutting a lot of peat, gathering what wood I could, finding the cracks where the wind whistles through and fixing those. The same things I've done for years." He thought for a moment. "Maybe not all the same. I would have spent a lot of time wondering what I missed not coming along."

"You wouldn't have moved into town? It's going to be lively with Annicon's people coming to visit, pairing up."

"You never spent a winter on Dale, you don't know. No one visits. If they come they come to stay and you just can't move in on someone without bringing your own supplies. No one has a lot of extra food."

So he would have remained alone. Guilt clawed at me for that Until I was dropped on his doorstep like some founding, Ben had been resigned, perhaps even content, with his pastoral, if lonely, existence.

Changing the subject, I asked, "This ship have a name?"

Ben thought and made a couple of abortive attempts before coming out with, "Ffthreudeth, or something like that."

"Fred will do," I said, slapping my hand on a bulkhead. "It's a good, solid, dependable, friendly name."

And massive, my gut added, my hand trembling a little as I withdrew it. For I had felt the hum of incredible power at that one touch. Power and intelligence and will. The part of my mind that had controlled the Beast had actually reached out and tried, automatically, to wrap itself around the very concept of controlling something as large as 'Fred'.

"We're here," Ben's voice announced as if from a distance. "The control room. Charley's said that he'd wait for us here."

I wonder if Ben noticed that my hand was not the only part of me aquiver as we waited. At last, the door 'whooshed' open just like on Star Trek and we stepped inside.

The control center of the old scout ship had been a closet, barely room for the stone 'chair'. Compared to that this place was a cathedral and the chair was center stage. 'Like an altar where they burn sacrifices,' came to my mind. Bands of massive girders arched upwards to support the dome under which the chair sat. It wasn't empty; Charlie was there. I'd never actually seem him in control of the Beast. I had always been recovering in the tube from my own training or seeking protection from the G forces. As I've said before, this ship clearly had artificial gravity, like the Portjam where I had spent those long weeks with the mindspeaker colony. With irritation I noted that Charley was clearly controlling the huge ship without metal implants. And he was still clothed in the drab jumpsuit that we all wore. No vulnerable nakedness for Charley. He did, however, lie very still. No one would mistake him for dead, however, despite his morgue-like position. Far from it. A blue haze of electric static bathed Charlie's granite-like form. It twisted and fluttered with every breath, every thought. I knew because I could feel it even with my eyes closed like ripples on a pond, like the air just before the breeze lifts, like a whisper below the level human ears can hear. So much going on and yet nothing visible except for that blue haze.

"It's almost beautiful," I whispered to Ben. Cathedral-like, it seemed blasphemous to talk much louder than that.

"What is?" Ben asked in all innocence.

"You can't see...?" I gestured towards the chair.

"What?" He was looking towards the chair and yet saw nothing Couldn't.

"Never mind."

I found myself shivering, and that certainly brought back memories of the Portjam and the space station with Ness where the humans were always cold. But on this ship the corridors were warm. So was my own tiny room. Only this room was cold Concessions for the rising human population?

"He said to come," Ben said. "He said to wait if we had to."

That's exactly what we did. We settled down on the floor, our backs against the wall. I felt the thrum of the engines, the heartbeat of the ship, against my back far stronger than I had felt that power through my hand out in the corridor. It could be due to the fact that it was my back that was still sensitive from its injuries but that didn't explain it all. It was what was inside my head.

Over the days since being paroled from my sentence on Dale I hadn't done much physically but sleep, eat and detox. Mentally, however, I'd done a lot of thinking and a lot of experimentation with my newly revised brain. I preferred the old one. But then for most of my life it never had been normal, had it, even when the vast part of the 'improvements' had been hidden even from me.

At least I'm still me, not like that horrible other time with its white padded rooms. Still me only in stereo. I realized without even trying that there was a depth, a richness of textures, which I had never noticed before. When I concentrate there's even more. I know now where my profiling gift, or curse, came from. I don't know if I'm relieved or insulted over that It's like the effort wasn't mine and yet I know it was, every drop of my blood, every horror-plagued night knows that it hadn't come easily. And yet I'm awed and terrified because I know now that what I see is the island, which is only the smallest tip of the mountain that shows above the waves.

At least the headaches are less frequent and much less severe. I hope that means that what is going to grow back has about finished doing so. What was left then was learning to live with the rest of the mountain and that scared me.

Oh, Scully, I need you, so much. Only can you love what I've become, what I'm becoming? Can I?

Charley was still channeling. We waited some more. I never have had much patience so having no book to read I closed my eyes and found myself absorbing what radiated from the ship. And I didn't fight it, found I didn't want to, despite the fear. You can't imagine the diversity, Scully. In a shadow, in a light beam Rejoice in our differences! Only is it normal, or human, to 'indulge' when the difference is to this extent? It's what I fought Charley so long to keep from doing. So was giving in a kind of surrender? I tried to tell myself that I was just too tired to fight it any more. But, Scully, it's something else and this gets down to the root of 'me-ness'. I want to know, I want to understand, to uncover the mysteries. How many times did curiosity almost kill that cat? And that's what it's come down to, Scully. Let Charley think that I've given up. I haven't I've just picked up a new weapon. Gotta learn to use it though Charley and his friends and enemies are going to find out just what kind of monster they've created. And when I investigate their dirty dealings in the future... that's going to be real low tech. Just me lying on my couch. Cuts down on travel expenses not to mention the clothing and cleaning bills. No approvals needed, no reports to test our creative writing skills on.

And, Scully, do you know the craziest part? It doesn't hurt Everything I've always wanted or been good at, especially since Sam was taken but even before that, has always hurt. Pony rides? Guilt. School? Suspicion, envy from the other students so that all I wanted was to be invisible or normal or both. Profiling? Agony and yet guilt again not to be willing to perform this very critical service to mankind around the clock. The X-Files? That I wanted, I wanted that work the way a bird needs to fly, but it was a two edged-sword, wasn't it? Derision from my peers and the media, professional ostracism, stab in the back, snickers around the water cooler, but then miracles. Miracles like bright, sparkling stars. Wonders upon wonders, and the most wonderful of all... it brought me you.

My cup has wavered for years between half empty and half full What I've got now with this head thing is so overwhelming that I can't quite grasp it. I felt it for an instant there on my last piloting trip before Charley and I parted company, a rightness Now I have a giddy sensation that this time it's going to be like riding a bicycle.

Of course there is the little issue of the size of the ship There's a difference there between the Tower of Terror and bungee jumping off the Hoover dam. It's that matter of degree that can kill you.

But I'm not piloting, not yet. Nice and safe here. I closed my eyes and did my best to free my instincts - both the new and the old - to seek their own rhythm. I was greeted with, amazingly, the familiar. Almost like sinking into a favorite mattress that knows your every curve. A kind of animal bliss Effortlessly, my mind reached out. It was in that word again - wonder. The dark of space, the stars, my own personal 3-D video game and I didn't even have to reach for the joystick. I only had to be.

I drifted this way for I don't know how long. It was pleasant. I was still sailing, diving, existing when I heard a voice, a human voice, above the soft singing of the stars. "Mul..."

I opened my eyes and the strangest thing happened, or didn't happen. The visions in my head didn't stop and yet I could see the floor between my feet and Ben's face in profile in the dim light. It was like I had two pairs of eyes. And then I saw what he did, the faintest tendril of blue fire, like a ghostly arm, flowing softly between Charlie's chair... and me. I opened my hands and blue fire sparkled from my fingertips.

"He said you could do things," Ben said with awe in every syllable, "but I never entirely believed him."

Yeah, me too. I could have waved my hands then, and scattered the fire like so much dust, broke the connection, but what would be the point?

Scully, I have no choices left. I am what they have made me to be. I don't want it, I want to be just me, chasing monsters, chasing the hope of finding a sister when there was still hope, learning to love you. Back then times were easy but then, I guess from what I know now, it was already too late. They wrapped me around their fingers when I was a child, caught me within their sticky web of intrigue. The fact that the web was invisible didn't mean it wasn't there. They had only to pull the strings. I am what I sought for so long. A creature no longer quite human.

You asked me not so many months before we left to be a sperm donor. I am so glad that didn't take. But then there was also that night we spent together, that one night. Could it...? Could we have...? I hope that time didn't take either. Oh, I know how unlikely it is because the in vitro didn't take, because you would not have wanted a child from me, not from this body that they have pulled and pushed into some other form like so much taffy.

I stare between my glowing hands and see galaxies like jewels spread out on velvet laid over Ben's wondering face. Something about that vision brings up a memory that I thought long buried: something Ness said while I was still on City. That she had let them make her body for me so that our reproductive systems would be in sync like a lock and key. I didn't 'sleep' with her as she begged me to but Charlie gave her my sperm anyway and I'm told that she has a child now, my monster. Scully, what if they did the same to you? They had you. Could they possibly have made you for me and only me? Maybe the lab made a mistake or the sperm have to be fresh. Shit. And there was that one time. Oh my love, enough about me, how is - your - life?

Guilt hits me like a towering wave, the guilt for bringing you grief and yet I'm filled with homesickness enough to drown in You know that my only home is you, Scully. You do know that, don't you? The blue flames between my hands flared and went out.

I had a good wallow in despair then. It had been a long while since I had had the energy for such self-indulgence. For months, my worries about just getting back on the kind of ship that could potentially take me home, keeping Ben safe, and my own physical problems had been too much of a distraction to think clearly.

I don't know how long I sat there; digging up memories of old times, of the feel of your skin, the scent of your hair, the way your eyes roll at me with exasperation. The change in the tingle on my skin alerted me first. The warning gave me time to put away my dearest thoughts before having to face him. When my vision cleared there he was, standing no more than a foot from my feet. He was still bathed in the faintest blue light though that was fading. It was a long way up to that stone, square face. I got to my feet and still had to look up. We hadn't met since I'd returned to the ship except for the times when he had come to heal me for this or that, and then I hadn't been in any shape to pay much attention After looking at Dan Rowe for so long the force of that face, that presence, was powerful but surprisingly not intimidating. I knew my worth now as much as I feared it. He may be my commander in this war that I'd been conscripted into, but I was no slave I was too valuable a tool for that.


BENJAMIN

I got Mulder to the command room as Charley asked and the job wasn't as difficult as I expected. For days, or at least for what passes for days when there is no sunrise or sunset, he had laid there. To begin with he barely breathed or writhed in fever. Gradually he woke from time to time and ate some, which was an improvement, but his eyes had disturbed me. Whatever they looked on was not me but far away. Over the last days, however, I had noticed a difference. His appetite had improved despite the tasteless food and he had begun to pace the tiny cabin in the vague sort of way. The last time I came to visit, I found him lounging at ease on his bunk. This time he met me with clear eyes and we had a very pleasant conversation about nothing important. It was when I reported this to Charley that he told me to bring Mulder to the command center. Lucky for me, Mulder asked to go. Once we were there, however, we were ignored.

Not knowing what else to do, I followed Mulder's example and sat on the floor of that cold, shadowed vault and waited for Charlie to acknowledge our presence.

What I found was that I don't wait well. On the farm there was always something to do and if there wasn't, as during the long winter months, I would make something. Sadly, I had only been able to take three of my little carvings with me. I pulled one out of the pocket of my jumpsuit now. It was a fanciful animal all the more fanciful since I'd been pouring over the information on Earth wildlife on the ship's computer and so actually got to see some real ones. My fingers itched. I wondered if there was material on this ship that could be carved and if I could find a knife to carve it with. A knife! I'd only had little flint blades or chips of mica to carve with before Each piece had taken forever. The thought of what I could do with a knife made my fingers itch.

Something pulled me out of my thoughts, I didn't know at first what. A clenching in my stomach.

Mulder was crying. Oh, not noisily, in complete silence. Tears ran down his face that left shining, faintly blue trails down his face. Reflected from the blue glow around Charley, I thought at the time. I hadn't seen him cry before despite all he had been through. I guess there was time now. I didn't disturb him I didn't need to ask what he was crying about, though I knew Scully. I could always tell when he was thinking of her; his face would get all drawn and sorrowful.

Someday I hope there will be someone for me like that. A person so special that very little else has meaning. I could once have felt that way about Mulder but the feelings were never reciprocated. Oh, he cares, but it's not the same. He would leave me in a minute for her. I know it, he knows it, and we don't talk about it. With that kind of drought my passion has faded significantly which is just as well. Even Mulder has noticed which allows him to relax around me. Of course, this only makes things harder as I always had to guard against letting those feelings come back.

One of the things I have not told Mulder is that sometimes I can still feel what he is feeling even without the eau de Lichenleaf to 'open me up'. It could be a result simply of our being as close as we have been for so long and but I think the real reason is that he has gotten so much stronger in his mind that's why I haven't mentioned it. I know he doesn't like to be reminded and the man doesn't need a reason to be even more depressed than he is.

So I worked at ignoring the backwash from the rippling waves of his sorrow the same way that I pretended not to notice the tears. I was relieved, therefore, when after a while the silent crying ceased and all that radiated from the man was a great peace. I wonder how he managed that?

More waiting. I didn't know how long but my butt got good and sore and cold from sitting on the floor. Then there came a subtle change in the hum of the engines followed soon after by a brightening and then a dimming of the river of blue light that illuminated Charlie and the command chair and Mulder. Charlie moved then, rising so suddenly like a god from his throne that for the first time I felt a kind of fear in his presence like the tension from approaching thunder. Mulder, still wrapped in his own far thoughts, was oblivious to the movement. He didn't come around until Charlie came to stand right in front of him Only then did he raise his head and slowly stand. They stared at each other for longer than I could have managed. Two strong wills silently battling. Seeing them together, knowing what I did about Mulder's stubbornness, I began to understand a little about the difficulties that had resulted in a defenseless and nearly naked Mulder being ejected from Charley's earlier ship and thrown catch-as-catch-can onto my world.

I'm still grateful that I was the one doing the catching.

"You are recovered, Agent Mulder?" Charley asked in a voice chillier and more formal than the one he used with Annicon and I. These two definitely had a history.

"I know that I have you to thank for my recovery only I won't since you were also the cause."

The shapeshifter's eyes flickered in my direction. "Certainly your visit to Dale had its brighter moments?"

Mulder's shoulders moved uneasily as if trying to relieve the weight of his jumpsuit from the skin of his back that I knew was still tight and sore. "There were opportunities for growth that I could have done without."

"You are a challenge to the status quo wherever you go, Agent."

"Always have been, always will be."

"But you have also grown much."

Mulder touched his temple. "Certain things have certainly grown - or healed. That is what you intended."

"I hoped. The affect of Dale on talents such as yours is erratic. I thought it worth the attempt. You did well. You're stronger than you were. Your eyes are open now." He gestured along the floor where the blue trail of light had so recently gleamed. "This ship is far more powerful than the last one, and so easier to lock onto from a distance. On the other hand you never could have done what just happened here before Dale, nor would you have allowed it, nor would you have found pleasure in the experience. Now we can proceed. There is much to do."

Charley turned then to manipulate some controls on the wall leaving Mulder to stare at the massive central chair. I picked up a stab of something from him then. Not fear but a deep apprehension. Now I understood his reluctance to sit willingly in Dr. Mac's chair on Dale to have his scars attended to. Too many uncomfortable associations. Even now Mulder was absently rubbing one of the scars on his wrists. A chair like that, but from a ship far less powerful, had given him those scars and those on his knees and face. No wonder I could practically feel the revulsion radiating from him as he faced the chair even though to the eye he revealed very little "How much larger is this ship than the last one," he asked his voice catching only slightly.

Unhurried, Charley finished what he was doing before turning back to us.

"A hundred times more massive than the scout."

I saw Mulder swallow. "How does that affect piloting?"

"As you would expect. More inertia. I believe you would call it a logarithmic difference."

"The scout wasn't easy."

From what I'd heard, that was an understatement.

"You're stronger now."

"Not a hundred times stronger."

"You probably are but you need control to wield it, several hundreds times more in order to fly Ffthreudeth. There was that name again. It would most likely burn you out." The gray eyes actually glittered. "Which is why you are not flying the ship you call 'Fred' but another. Come." At that the shapeshifter started off with his fast stride, hardly giving Mulder time to process what he'd been told. Finally Mulder started forward In the corridor I hung back not expecting that my presence would be welcome.

"Come," Charley repeated and this time it was clearly to me.

It seemed that I was included after all. With a shrug I trotted to catch up.

Impressive before, the size of the ship grew in my estimation as we took a tour of the bowels of the behemoth. Mulder dropped back early on to walk with me.

"I wonder what he had to do to steal this?" Mulder mused. He made no attempt to keep his voice down. Charley tended to ignore anything not said directly to him.

"Friends in high places?" I offered.

"Very high friends considering that he's suppose to be part of a small, eccentric rebel sect."

"Are you sure about that?" I asked.

Mulder's lips made a tight line as he thought. "No, I'm not, but he knew about Dale's pharmacopoeia and that it could strengthen mindspeech and yet the colony on the Portjam wasn't given any What I am sure of is that there is more than one faction and they are fighting over Earth like two dogs with one bone."

"Earth is that important?" I had visions of golden cities, a paradise.

"In truth, no it isn't, or we wouldn't have been left to go our own way for a few dozen millennia. Even now the attack is uncoordinated, hit and miss, try this, try that, as if the siege had been left in the control of a couple of rookie sub- lieutenants."

We had left the main part of the ship and entered a more 'blue collar' section. Unlike the main corridors, the lights here were dim and had taken on a greenish tinge. We passed empty storerooms and towers of unidentifiable machinery. At the entrance to a tall set of closed double doors Charley waited for us.

"You are not far wrong, Agent Mulder. Your little planet IS not that important. True it was visited during your ice age. As a consequence, your gene pool is sprinkled with gifts from non- earthly sources that have been allowed to develop on their own This does not make you particularly unique, however. The same could be said of a hundred similar planets. For that reason it is hardly the 'ancient heritage that must be reclaimed' that some factions on my world would have the planetary hierarchy believe."

"That's what that demonstration on City was all about? Mulder asked.

Part of it.

Mulder had told me - very briefly - about being put on exhibit before the alien elders during his time on the space station called City. He refused to say much. I gather he didn't remember much and had absolutely no wish to remember more.

This is the argument they're using to try to assert their control over Earth? I asked.

"To argue that they have some say in your race's future, yes."

Mulder's eyes were alert with curiosity. "Did these ancient genes make us what we are?"

Charley nearly smiled. "I'm aware of the debate to which you speak. As is true of most things, the answer is neither black nor white. You were well on your way before your visitation That there was some affect is likely. As to its extent..." Something almost like a shrug moved the muscular shoulders.

"This has something to do with the job you have for me, doesn't it?" Mulder asked in all seriousness.

Charley didn't need to reply but activated some hidden control that opened the double doors.

It was cold inside. There was a smell of machinery, a scent I'm sensitive to since before boarding this ship all of the metal I had seen in my life could be held in one hand. It wasn't a large room and almost all the space was taken up by one black object Mulder later would tell me that it was about the size of VW bus and was shaped like a manta ray. I don't know what either of those things are. All I do know is that Mulder whistled as he approached. "All its missing are the tail fins and the fuzzy dice. How fast does she go?"

Another almost shrug from Charley. "Depends on the pilot."

Mulder winced subtly and I tasted for just a moment his fear and even more a lance of pain that made my wrists and ankles sting Even my face felt momentarily numb the way it does when stung by freezing rain. For all that Mulder still reached out and gingerly touched the black hull. Immediately he drew back but then returned to leave his palm against that intriguing surface, his eyes seeming to look on something far away.

"Why isn't it carved like the others?" he asked after a long pause.

"It wasn't constructed for the same purpose as the others."

"You mean, not by zealots bent on spreading not only their genes but their own religious idioms?"

Almost a smile. "Not for that, no."

Mulder's eyes closed. I don't know if I approved of his readiness to embrace this strange vehicle. "It's warm. It's.. breathing?"

"Only in the remotest sense of the word. Sentient, yes. As sentient as the old ship, only more... approachable." Mulder's eyes were still closed as if he were actually listening to this great black bird. Almost dreamily, he spoke, "After the cuddly warmth of Beast I can appreciate approachable."

After a little time Charley softly spoke a single word, "Uta." I think that I could even sense the little ship respond to that, almost like an awakening. Mulder's eyes flew open as his hand shot back.

"Say it, Agent Mulder. Call it by its name."

Mulder did, though tentatively. The ship hummed in its mooring.

"Again, as if you meant it."

Mulder did in a firm, steady voice this time. A definite reaction from 'Uta' this time. A section of its hull slid away.

Eagerly, Mulder peered inside. I looked over his shoulder. There wasn't much room. Most of the central space was taken up by a smaller version of Charley's stone-like command chair. Behind it was a narrow, reclining couch. Unlike the other, this one was padded. There was no floor space or headroom to speak of.

Mulder's emotions were broadcasting loud and clear Apprehension, yes, but also " eagerness? "Uta. This is the one you want me to fly?"

"This is the one you must fly." As Mulder peered in again, paying closer attention to the small command chair, Charley continued, "It will require a light touch compared to what you are use to and you will need to be more in control of your physical reactions. Uta does not make use of internal probes."

With a snap Mulder pulled fully out dark cavity and stared at the shapeshifter. "No jaws of death? No spikes of the close up and personal kind?"

"Unnecessary for a craft so small. It's still critical that you stay as still as possible, however, discipline that you don't have and there is no time for you to learn it. For you, therefore, have been added a considerable number of restraints."

Mulder's response was one of his little ironic smiles. "I could get into bondage. Certainly a step up from the rotisserie arrangement. Now?"

One of Charley's eyebrows twitched. "Yes, now. There is not much time." After a moment's contemplation he added, "You have changed, Agent Mulder."

"I may have my mulish moments but hit me enough times over the head and I can tell a hawk from a hacksaw when the moon is right. I guess I got tired of being hit over the head."

From what I'd heard about his confrontations with Charley in the past I could see where he was coming from, but I had also heard him talk about The Beast and I'd seen the scars. Clearly, neither way was easy, a fact he knew for I'd heard this deceptively light and almost careless way of speaking from Mulder before. It was almost always how he hid the really serious issues. But those who knew him well knew the difference Both fear and curiosity. It was a combination I thought I could understand. After all, I'd accepted this journey with similar mixed feelings. Still

Lost in my musings, I was startled to find Mulder looking my way when I had thought my presence extraneous. "It'll be all right," he assured me." I must have been the one with the worried face "I know what I said before, but I'm okay with this."

I tried to send him an encouraging smile but it was shaky at best. He moved to the door of the hatch.

"Skin's still a necessity," Charley said. At the words Mulder straightened and turned back to us both, his face coloring. His eyes shifted my way but he didn't speak.

"It's critical for the interface," Charley said in tones that would accept no argument, "even more than before."

At that Mulder sighed and I was shocked to see him release the fasteners on the one-piece jumpsuits we all wore and kick off the soft shoes before stripping. The thin but warm thermal shirt went soon after and the underwear followed. I tried to look away but it was damn hard.

"Just remember... it's cold in here," Mulder remarked with a smile that seemed to be more for a pleasant, old memory than for either of us. When the last piece was off, he slid inside the hatch lithe as an eel and worked his around the cramped space.

Mulder hadn't eaten well those last months on my planet, the pain from Daniel's torture on his back being too much of a distraction. He'd been sick on top of that at the time Charley had come back for him, but he had still worked hard during his stay with me and he was as lean and sleek and muscular as just about any man I'd ever seen. He was in a word - beautiful Unfortunate that his striptease had been so matter-of-fact, so business-like.

"Just about as spacious as a Mercury capsule," he murmured to himself whatever a 'Mercury capsule' was.

He had reached the command chair. Gave me chills to see him lower himself onto the hard, uncomfortable-looking surface.

"Looks cold," I told him.

"Is cold." Mulder didn't act so uncomfortable, however. As if the heat of the body warmed the surface, it seemed to mold every so slightly around him. He must have noticed it, too for his eyes had taken on an expression of wonder.

"Now you," I heard Charley say and found to my consternation that his eyes were on me. I felt a shock run through me as if melt water had just dripped down my back. Instinctively, I reached to cover the fasteners of my own jump suit. "What?"

"No, Benjamin, you don't need to be in your natural state unless, of course, you'd prefer it," he added with something like humor. "What you do need to do is learn how to secure him This scout ship allows the pilot more room for error than a larger ship but it's still important that he be allowed to move as little as possible. There's an automatic release but he can't tighten the straps for himself."

I had no idea why I needed to learn. Then maybe it was just a space issue. There wasn't much room in the tiny cabin to maneuver and Charley's body was both taller and more muscular than either Mulder's or mine. On the other hand, Charley could take care of that little problem with a thought. I, myself, had seen him morph into the most exquisitely petite red-haired woman though under circumstances that I won't go into here. He just had insisted that I not tell Mulder who had still been recovering in his cabin at the time. But for whatever reason, Charley wanted me to do this so I really had no choice. I edged towards the ship without enthusiasm.

Mulder, who had heard Charley's directions, seemed equally mystified. Still he sent my way a little crooked smile of encouragement as I began weaving myself into the cramped space.

At one time we had been nearly the same size, but while Mulder had become lean over the summer from sheer anxiety and stress, I had bulked up, both with the muscle of farming and with the assumption that I had a long, cold winter to survive. The difference was enough to make working in the tiny space difficult. I struck my head and elbows on hard edges more times than I wanted to count.

Mulder had been able to tighten the straps around his ankles and thighs and had laid the thick ones around his waist and chest but I had to tighten those. As I reached across him for the strap for his right wrist, I couldn't help but be aware of his scent and the silkiness of his skin. Made my head swim. To pull and lock the webbing, thus leaving him helpless, did things to me that I won't describe

"Don't tell me that you haven't always wanted to do this?" he suggested with impish leer, his breath warm in my ear.

I blushed furiously. "Don't make jokes. This is horrible."

"Better than the alternative. You have no idea." His cheerfulness surprised me especially since a sheen of cold sweat made his skin shimmer in the bright sparkles of light from the few instruments. After all, who needed instruments on a ship that was largely mind controlled?

"How can you enjoy this?" I asked as I hurried to finish the job. The other wrist... shoulders...

He was solidly pinned against the hard surface of the chair now, a constant involuntary tremor running inside his skin. "Where I come from they have a class of 'recreation' called X-treme sport. Though I never tried it, my job being enough of an X- treme sport, I can see the attraction after this. Like ninety foot drops and five G-force coasters, people love amusement parks; people love to be scared."

I must have looked at him as if I thought he was crazy.

"I'll explain later. Ouch! My ear!" I was fastening the last strap, the one that was actually a web that involved forehead and jaw to keep his head from moving side to side as well as up and down "Sorry. Better?" He couldn't nod now nor even talk much more than a mumble. "Will do... trussed up like Thanksgivin' turkey."

As with all the rest of Mulder's cultural references, that one went way over my head.

I gave my friend one last look. He didn't seem in distress, just anxious to get on with the flight. To get it over with or to enjoy it? Either way, I was holding things up. I began to back out.

"Couch. The command came in Charley's voice from behind me Startled, I looked towards the well-padded chair, positioned behind where Mulder lay helpless. No, far from helpless. There was still the power in him that I had only begun to feel when the blue light arced from his fingertips.

As difficult as it was to move, I managed to look back at Charley who was standing just outside the hatch. What could he possibly want me to do?

But Mulder guessed. His eyes had gone wide with alarm. "No! You bastard! This isn't a game. Its dangerous!"

Clearly, Charley knew this but that didn't keep his inscrutable face from being damned irritating. "You think he's going to distract you by contemplating sex again?"

I blushed, so did Mulder but more with impotent fury as his body strove to move against his restraints in a hopeless attempt to mirror the agitation in his mind. Neither of us needed that to be brought up again.

"I imagine that he will have other things on his mind," Charley said in the sort of way that made Mulder grind his teeth.

"That's the point," Mulder argued. "What will it do to his mind? Think about what it did to the others who tried and weren't 'born' to it."

"As you were? But he'll be linked to you. You'll be his anchor in that dimension, but just as surely he'll be yours in this one." The calm voice changed to one with steel in it. "I do not suggest this lightly. Your mission, which we will discuss once this phase is over, depends upon this being a successful arrangement. There is no point in taking the time if it is not."

Charley turned his attention to me. "Keep him calm. Remind him to center. Remind him of who he is, remind him of WHAT he is Don't let him head for Earth. The ship doesn't have the range, you'll never make it."

"So you don't trust me," Mulder mumbled through the webbing "Maybe I deserve that, but don't punish Ben. His life, his sanity is in danger. I can't believe I'm saying this, but if anyone has to come, it had better be you."

"Benjamin..." Charley rumbled warningly, and I knew who was going to win this argument. I had stalled halfway to the hatch With difficulty I began working my way back in but toward the rear of the compartment where the couch sat surrounded and overshadowed by hulking masses of dark, gleaming machinery. It was going to be a tight fit. Mulder ground his teeth.

"I will explain more later, Agent Mulder. There is no time now Think of it as incentive. Now you have to protect his life as well as your own."

But Mulder hadn't quite given up. "I'll never hear him!" he protested and there was sharp, cutting fear in his voice, fear for me that had never been there for himself. "You know what its like." His eyes rolled towards the ceiling.

"You'll hear him." Charley stretched out his hand to me. Nestled within it was something roughly the size of his huge palm. I had just wiggled my way into the couch, the instrument panel above me nearly touching my stomach and other metal apparatus hugging each shoulder. Reaching for the offering, the sleeve of my jumpsuit hung up on a sharp edge. Naked clearly had its advantages. I already knew what the gift was even before my hand wrapped around it. Back to me, however, Mulder couldn't see what was going on.

"Ben?"

"It's Leiken smoke but captured in a kind of tube. I don't know how he does it. I place a kind of cup over my mouth and nose and breath. It works. He gave it to me before to find you on Dale." I looked Charley's way. "How much of a dose?

"Thirty seconds should do. Breathe deeply."

Nothing more came from Mulder though the conflicting emotions emanating from him were almost visible. I breathed the slightly spicy stuff while Charley continued with his instructions.

"You need to be strong yourself, Ben. Be with him but don't get lost in him. Remember me, remember here. If he gets too excited or in too much pain, calm him down."

'Too much pain?' I didn't like the sound of that, but there wasn't time for worrying about what was to come. 'Now' was already becoming tangible enough to wash out any possible forecasting. The edge of Mulder's emotions, the very sense of him, came into sharper and sharper focus with each breath. With an effort I split my attention so I could also concentrate on Charley's final instructions, to Mulder this time. "You don't need to worry about undocking and docking; that's automatic Don't rush. There's nothing you haven't done before. Take time to get the feel and take what time you need but don't take too long." Charley started to back away from the hatch, then added, "Don't make me come after you."

Was that a threat? Sounded like a threat.

The hatch sealed with a puff of air while I was still breathing into the mask. I put it down after another five seconds and settled back to take stock of my expanded horizons. Nice. It almost felt as if I was wearing Mulder's skin. I could even feel the tightness of the bindings and, surprisingly, Mulder's acceptance of them. I had forgotten how smooth this extract of Charley's was. There was no disorientation or the other foggy side affects that I had known before.

Without warning, without a sound, my couch dropped away, far away. My stomach followed even later than the rest of me.

*Got to acquaint you with the idea of seatbelts, * came a cheery voice inside my head.

I hunted for the straps for my own couch. There were only two. I pulled them so tight I could barely breathe. *You're enjoying this. *

*I would be if I could be sure you'd be safe. * There was a pause then as the ship moved forward. I had only the sense of motion to guide me. There were neither windows nor bright, moving screens like the computers Charley had introduced me to It was nearly black inside except for the few instrument lights in amber and red and blue.

Even without windows there was no way that I could mistake the moment when the little ray ship left Fred's encircling embrace The parts of my body that the straps did not hold down floated off the couch. My stomach flipped. All at once my head was filled with pictures. Clearest was that of a jet black night sky filled with a million of the brightest stars I had ever seen Only to my far right did something massive, sharp-edged and dark blot out those stars *The mother ship, * Mulder told me. *I always wanted to say that. Feel better? *

Having something to 'look' at I did. I sensed movement then. Not a lot, very smooth. The dark shape of the ship and the field of stars spun in a slow lazy circle around us.

*I can do this!* Mulder exclaimed but not all of what he said was in words. There was such joy in him. The excitement I had sensed before was nothing compared to this. He was enjoying himself so totally that I doubted that he even remembered that he had a passenger.

*Hey, I'm here, * I reminded him.

*I know. Ready to try a little speed? Hold on. *

To what?

The next minute took my breath away - literally. The sky field spun like a child's wooden top. I wanted to scream and I would have if I werent more afraid that I'd throw up.

*Keep looking through my eyes, * he urged and I felt his touch, guiding me.

*I'm holding him back, * I thought to myself, forgetting for a moment that the thought wasn't private.

*Yes, you are but maybe that's not so bad. Holds me down. Scully use to do that. It was good for me. Over time I learned - never leave your conscience behind, and I won't. *

There was a lot in those words that made no sense but the emotion of regret added all I needed to know. So he had caused his Scully grief by reckless adventuring. It made me feel less of a burden to know that he had made stupid mistakes in the past when he might have listened to calmer heads.

Unfortunately at this moment I was anything but calm. The ship had moved again under me, swinging from side to side as well as forward. Considering that until a few days before I'd never ridden in anything more complicated than a wooden cart drawn by fellow colonists, the actions did not suit either my stomach or my nerves. . *Ben, don't worry. I can do this, * came through next, heavy with reassurance as well as humor. Clearly, communication was going two ways but, equally clearly, talk wasn't going to relieve my terror.

*You'll have to prove it to me, * I grumbled. Bad idea. Between one instant and the next we weren't making lazy spirals any longer. Instead the specs of white were gone and the stars had shifted into a rainbow of reds and purples and colors humans weren't intended to see. But through Mulder's mind I could see them. My body felt at one moment as light as air and the next as heavy as a mountain and, no matter how hard I tried to reference on what Mulder was seeing in his head, I was becoming more and more ill.

After one particularly heart-stopping display of dips, explosions, dives, and corkscrews there came a moment of the most suffocating black. It was like the black inside your cabin when you wake up in the middle of the night after a blizzard has raged non-stop for four days and the fire on the hearth has gone cold. I came out of that black back into a red-shift of stars with my lungs ready to explode for want of air.

Gasping, I screamed, "You bastard!"

But all I heard was laughter.


MULDER

Strange. In the main control room surrounded by the blue 'whatever' from the command chair I had felt such peace.

What changed, Scully? Charley? The laws of nature?

Or me?

As Charley led us down to the shuttle bay, my heart was in the felt slippers I'd been given.

'Shuttle Bay', Mulder?

Hey, since Charley didn't name it I had to fall back on what I knew, in other words, thirty years of the Star Trek franchise.

I was quaking because the ship was so terrifyingly huge. I had thought it large back when we were in the command room but this... I was nearly paralyzed at the very thought of trying to get an iceberg this size to move. What did Sancho Panza say? "Whether the rock hits the pitcher or the pitcher hits the rock, it's still going to be bad for the pitcher." Well, it was going to be worse for me than it was for the Titanic.

By the time that cheery thought was entering my head, we arrived at the shuttle bay and shortly thereafter I saw the little black ship. It was like traveling back eight years, standing on the runway at Ellens Air Force Base and looking up. This was the same black-winged shape but at eye level and, yes, significantly smaller. Almost a toy.

This was no mountain-sized iceberg but rather an ice cube, something I could have conceivably moved with the touch of my finger back in the days when I worked at flying The Beast. Hell, I could move it with a breath now, and with that realization the most amazing thing happened; an excitement, pure energy, flowed from somewhere into my fingers and toes. It was like being handed a really good X-File. It was like after all these terrible, lonely months, a door opened onto a spring morning full of the perfume of cherry blossoms and my favorite pair of track shoes on my feet. How I wanted to move, to run, to fly When reminded I couldn't shed my clothes fast enough.

How could I ever have thought this so difficult?

Now Ben's coming along, that knocked me back. Oh, I protested because I feared for his safety but just as much because I didn't want to share this moment, not with anyone. It was like how I used to take off at times without you. Just to be alone with the wonders.

But he came and there we were, sailing on the winds of heaven, within the jewel veils of the nebular clouds. I barely noticed him after all, except, of course, when the maneuvers got too ambitious, which they did, and he threatened to get sick on me That wouldn't have been pleasant for either of us. For this little ship was no Beast but rather a bird, a great bird, born to fly. The astral map Charley had displayed before my eyes while Ben was getting situated on his couch flowed into my mind and that's all she wrote.

Charlie turned out to be right, damn him. I did need Ben's voice and occasionally his screams in my ear to bring me back. There were stretches of timelessness where I remembered very little but the soaring glory and freedom of flight as if this little black ray was actually my body that I could do with whatever I wished. Ben couldn't have found those gymnastics much fun. In the end, I couldn't hold back. I jumped. Point A one moment; Point B the next. Simple, but horribly selfish. The screaming woke me; Ben's terror and it nearly made me lose control. That would have been bad. I could have ended up anywhere - or nowhere. I would have stretched out a hand then just to let Ben know that he wasn't alone but with he strapped to his couch and me to mine, a virtual hand was all I could offer, touch soul to soul and a heartfelt apology. He quieted but his sanity still wavered on a terrible edge.

*How do you feel? * That was a silly question because I knew exactly how he felt.

*Like shit. *

*I should get you back.*

*That would be a really good idea. *

*But the quickest way back by far would be the same way we got here though without the flourishes. *

*I'll walk. *

*It's only dark. *

*Maybe to you, * came the shaky response in my head and I paid attention for the first time at what Ben saw. Maybe I didn't know what he was going through. Maybe this was why the test pilots at Ellens went mad. If so, what did that say about me? I was born to it, if Dan Rowe is to be believed. Is that why the dark never truly worried me? Why during my profiling days I was never afraid to journey in my mind where evil walked?

*Stay with me. You won't be alone. I won't let you fall. *

He must have really trusted me because he held my virtual hand and we made it back without his terror of that dark place becoming unmanageable. I hope I'll remain worthy of such trust.


We were eating in a kind of conference room - at least it had a table and chairs - when Charley joined us. His posture was still but then this was the only time I could remember his actually sitting in my presence. Despite my blunder in not protecting Ben the first time I 'jumped' Ray, I must have passed some sort of test.

"It is time," he said gravely.

This I was expecting.

"Is it possible, Agent Mulder, that you would simply agree to perform this task without a extended explanation?"

"Depends on what it is. You've been singularly reticent on the subject."

"Not a complicated thing - fly to a certain asteroid, call it Rock Four, land and plant a bomb, blow it up." I know that my expression was suspicious. "Come," he went on, "you should be able to do that. Humans are always exploding things."

True, but how very pedestrian Sci Fi. If true, it was about the last thing I had expected. "Don't you have laser cannon, space torpedoes or that sort of thing that you can release from this ship?"

"This ship does not have that sort of weaponry even if it could get close enough. A diffraction field that I cannot enter protects Rock Four."

'I' not 'we'. Charley even seemed a little miffed at the situation. I felt my interest begin to prickle.

"You specifically?"

The stone gaze was withering. "My species."

Shapeshifter is a species? Must be. "But humans can cross this barrier?"

"Yes, but do not look so smug. There is nothing humans have done which is so superior that would explain it. The filter allows Humans to pass just as it allows a catalogue of other biological specimens to pass. Just so much cargo."

"Merchandise." I felt the wallpaper paste Charley served here for breakfast curdle in my stomach.

Confused, Ben looked from one of us to the other. "I don't understand."

"'Biological specimens,'" I repeated and the phrase tasted foul on my tongue. "Test subjects. Maybe workers, too. Slaves and prisoners."

"All true. Which is why you should want to see this done."

"What nastiness are they hatching?"

"Many things for many worlds. A dozen for Earth alone but only one that is at a stage to be any real danger. They would be farther along but you infiltrated and sabotaged the ship that was harvesting some of the first viral subjects for study. You personally set them back months."

His meaning became clear only slowly.

"In Antarctica when I rescued Scully." Yes, there had been other humans on that ship but I had only been able to rescue one and myself. How many had died when the life support system failed? How many had lived to be carried off to where? This asteroid Charley spoke of?

"And here I thought that you'd only be angry over all those primitive versions of your own people that probably died."

Charley visibly recoiled. "Not my people!" It was the strongest emotion that I had ever seen from the shapeshifter. "My species was designed eons later. What you saw were proto-Stalves. These ancestors of the first travelers exist only on Earth, though isolation and inbreeding has had a terrible affect. The worst of their viciousness has been totally bred out of the current population."

"So it was the Stalves who were trying to bring Grandma home?" I asked, trying to make sense of this soap opera.

"No, Charley snapped. The Stalves weren't in charge of the ship! Those were the Beyay. They were bringing the creatures back to embarrass the Stalves."

"Yes, I imagine having such primitive and violent creatures in your family tree wouldn't be something that you'd want brought up at a dinner party. The Bayay and the Stalves then are rival parties?"

"They are more than that. They are the super-species at war They are the war!"

"I thought you were at war with Earth."

"Earth is not a player in the conflict. It is not strong enough to be at war with anyone other than itself. Earth is simply one of the battlefields, and a prize, and not even the main one."

I looked over at Ben who was following all this with difficulty Aliens he believed in; the machinations of politics were more difficult. "So Cigarette Breath is on the side of these Bayay?"

"At one time or another he has been on all sides of which there are more than two. The Consortia stuck with the Stalves - to their grief."

"I take it your group represents a third side."

"A fourth and not very powerful. We advocate leaving Earth alone, one of our arguments being that it the earliest known colonial outpost of our ancient ancestors. But we discussed this before. You yourself were an exhibit. You were as much a testimony of the distant relationship of our species as you were evidence of your barbarism. The haughty eyes narrowed. I take it that you do remember being displayed to the conclave of elders on City?"

Denuded of all body hair, pasty white from dead skin, locked in a glass cage. Yeah, I remembered. Distantly, I'm happy to say, and I had no desire to remember any more clearly.

"Let's get back to this 'task'. So there's some kind of barrier that prevents you from approaching this Rock Four, but you want me to slide in with the other trash and somehow make it all go boom? So what's in it for either Earth or me? Since when does an act of terrorism convince anyone of anything, much less just to leave us alone? Will the loss of one asteroid make it not worth their while to continue nibbling at this particular small Terran fish? Or are we just a pawn, literally, in the game where just taking it from the other guy is the real motive?"

"Opinions vary as to the final impact of this move."

"isn't that a little short sighted? What about retaliation?"

"Did I say that my group was instigating the assault? The politics of power crosses species lines. We are merely the hired 'gun'. We cannot be held accountable for all the repercussions of a particular job "So the side which supplied this ship and these toys may only be interested in socking it to the other guy- "

"While my group has a different agenda altogether? That would be correct."

"That's a dangerous game."

"This is no game, I assure you. Our party is fairly small, our resources limited. Do our methods disturb you?"

"Depends on what this will eventually mean to Earth."

"This Rock Four houses a research station. Almost all of the specialized approaches being developed to deal with the 'Human' problem are being worked on here.

that's not very smart.

No, you are just not that important."

"We destroy, theyll just build againbigger AND meaner."

"Will they? Only the most single-minded of the factions is advocating genocide. As a species you are strong and healthy and adaptable and you have some intelligence but not too much. That makes you and Earth useful. Plus there are some in high places who view you as distant kin." The stone eyes hardened. "Far distant. On the other hand, creating slaves is difficult and expensive; maintaining a slave population is even more difficult and expensive. And it is not that you have colonization plans of your own that make you a threat. Many believe that you will never be. You have nearly turned your back on the stars. You have dirtied your world to such an extent that it has even now begun its slow spiral to its death."

The muscles of my back tightened. "Irreversible?"

"Probably not but it would take all your attention for a thousand years to save it. Wait a few centuries and what's left of your governments will probably welcome help with open arms."

That was a chilling thought, mostly because it rang so true. No time to think of that now though. Let us survive the immediate future first.

"So economically, we're not worth the trouble. If the research station is destroyed, they may not build again."

"They may, they may not. In any case, it will give your people time."

Ben looked my way. "Do you follow all this?"

"Most of it. I got the 'not worth the trouble' part. It's nice to know that even intragalactic wars can have budget problems." Nothing Charley had said seemed more true than that. I also had a feeling from looking at the set of Charley's jaw that the shapeshifter's unexpected verbosity had played itself out. There wasn't much more that I was likely to learn.

"Let's at least work out the preliminaries. I'll need to see a star chart and a map and some idea of how you expect me to do this. I can't put a research facility out of action by gnawing it to death with my teeth."

All of that I got, though I was provided with information about where and how to explode existing power sources rather than provided with any weapons. And here I had hoped for a phaser or at least a light saber. It seemed that power packs from weapons of that size would be detected at the security perimeter 'Ray's' engines were shielded and invisible only so long as I came in at a glide.

Jolly! Something new. Set down a ship I'd flown only once under no power on one particular, irregularly shaped, free floating object. Up close it was reported to be the size of a few small cities though compared to the size of the universe it was no larger than a dust mite. At least I couldn't complain about being bored BENJAMIN

Mulder was quiet on our second trip in 'Ray' and I didn't intrude on his subdued mood. There were no jokes. Even the chatter of his mind was gone. The mental traffic I overheard was disciplined, organized and concentrated on the task at hand, though underlying it all was a brown fog of unhappiness. I knew why I was unhappy but couldn't understand why he was. Finish this job and he'd be going home. That's the promise. Me? I'd ask Charley to take me back to Dale, but will there be anything left to go back to? My abandoned farm would have been given to another, certainly the harvest would have been taken, but I had sense enough to know that I could never fit in on Mulder's Earth.

*You're getting way ahead of yourself, Ben. * The clear thought reminded me that this mind reading went both ways. As his health improved, Mulder's mindspeech had gotten stronger. He didn't smoke lichen and yet he was still far stronger than I was.

*Than I. *

*See, that's why I'd never make it on Earth. Everyone there must speak perfect English. *

Mulder's amusement at my comment sparkled between us and the little ship rocked as his control slipped.

We made three small 'jumps' into the black of nothing during our trip. I held my breath, accepted Mulder's desperate grip on my sanity, and made it through.

We found the blue star right where it was suppose to be and the fifth planet three-quarters around its orbit. Beyond that was scattered the asteroid field where once a sixth planet had spun Finding one particular chunk of rock in that mess took some looking but 'Ray' had a sensor that could detect energy emanations and after flying by three ore mining operations detected the strongest signal of all. Without the sensor we wouldn't have identified Rock Four as anything special. It was faintly blue, the same way that Earth is blue from the water vapor that carbon-based lifeforms need. But on the edge of the blue there was a fuzzy rim of pale red.

*That must be the energy barrier Charley talked about. It's not only a biologic filter. Its static charge holds the atmosphere, or so I'm told. Rock Four has also been put into a spin, which lessens the demand on the artificial gravity generators. *

At the moment it was the biologic filters we were worried about At a warning beep Mulder cut the engines on our tiny ship and we coasted. We would know soon whether Charley had told the truth about Human's being able to get through.

When we hit the red haze I felt as if ants were crawling over my body. In truth, we do not have ants on Dale but we do have rashes that plague a body very much like ants or at least that's how Mulder has described it.

As probing grew more and more intense, the effect became far worse than ants. I could almost imagine the walls beginning to glow red and my skin to blister as the probing reached deep inside. I hissed. I don't know if he heard me, but the engines were off and we had both gone silent so I hated to have made any noise. Mulder, however, did more than hiss. A moan was pulled from him that was mixed with a sob In sympathy I felt within my own body an echo of the slow shredding that was going on inside him. It was so bad that coming out of the red haze was like pulling free of molasses - which we do have on Dale - and the little ship rocked violently. Just how conscious was Mulder? With an effort of will that was impressive he managed to steady us. Blind, as there were no windows, I fought to look through his eyes, desperate to find out where the ground was. Maybe I shouldn't have looked. It was dark but not so dark that I couldn't see the jagged peaks already to either side of us.

And Mulder was so quiet, too quiet.

*Mulder...*

I felt one bump to the left side and a terrible scraping. Ray leaped up at a crazy angle. His nose jerked down again drunkenly. We lifted again, leveled at the last minute and slid, bumping and jerking and crashing noisily to a halt. With the realization that we were finally stopped my breath came out in a whoosh. I hadn't even known I'd been holding it.

"Mulder?" I called, reaching for the release for my couch belts at the same time that I tried to find his thoughts. Other than a strained gasping for breath from the direction of the command chair, I got no answer. His thoughts were a jumble of fear and hurt and something even darker I forced my nearly too-large body around the equipment to reach his side.

Mulder's eyes were closed, his jaw was set, and he was wet with sweat. I hunted along the left side of his chair for the release, not understanding why he hadn't done this for himself He was barely aware when the restraints fell away. Helping him to sit, I found his bare flesh cold and hard to the touch His eyes fluttered open. He still seemed to be in pain.

"You all right?" he asked in a tremulous voice.

"Why shouldn't I be? You're not that bad a driver."

"I meant the field."

"Not so bad. Like Charley said, it lets Humans through..." And stopped there, realizing what I was saying. So here was where the fear came from and the other dark emotion. Mulder had only barely made it through, certainly not painlessly. Was this confirmation that Mulder was, as Dan Rowe had said, not entirely Human? Not one hundred per cent anyway. A couple of ancient genes was all it took to cause problems. Looking vulnerable and too human in his nakedness, Mulder just sat on the edge of the chair registering shock and pain and shame.

"Let's get out of here."

I went to the hatch. The controls had been reduced to a simple failsafe mechanism for such simple creatures such as ourselves One touch on a panel from either one of us and the hatch would open but only if the air was sufficient for us to breathe, as we were told it would be. They tested humans here after all - live humans, not dead ones, at least not dead to start with.

After an irritating delay, the hatch swung up with a whir and a click. A chill entered the cabin. The sky outside was a sort of muddy purplish-orange, barely lighter than the barren and jagged rock field Ray had skidded into and where he now lay at a slight angle, bow down. I poked my head outside and felt my nose wrinkle in revulsion. The air may be breathable but it was thin and foul.

I turned back to Mulder. The bite of the chill air against his bare, damp skin had gotten him moving, if slowly. He had found thermal underwear and coveralls and was working his way into them. There being no space for me to help, I could only watch his slow and clumsy movements.

"How bad is it outside?" he asked, teeth chattering.

"Nothing on Dale smells this bad."

Working his way closer to the doorway he took a prolonged sniff and considered. "Reminds me of one of New Jersey's better days."

I knew from his tone that this had to be one of his jokes so he was coming around, but the darkness underneath his thoughts still rolled.

"I'm sorry," I said.

His eyes narrowed. "You know?"

I shrugged. "I figured it out. It doesn't matter to me."

Fingers on the clasps of his jumpsuit, he paused, his face taking on that hurt, circumspect expression that always made that special place inside my chest warm. "I guess I never really believed. No, that's not quite it; I didn't want to believe. In many things, yes, but not that."

"Too close to home."

"Way too close." Mulder had come to the hatchway now and stared out. "But this certainly isn't - close to home, that is - though except for the color of the sky this could be some places I've seen in the Southwest on Earth."

I stared at the desolation. "I've always heard that Earth was a paradise."

Mulder handed two backpacks to me and then climbed a little unsteadily down from the cabin to stand with me on the jagged stone. He lowered the hatch. "Much of Earth is a paradise, even now, but there's beauty in its diversity, too. The wild and empty places are good places to go to to get away."

"From what?"

"The cities mostly."

"The cities are bad?"

"Horrible. Ironically inhuman for places so full of humanity."

Shouldering the backpacks that were full of tools, electronic gadgets I didn't understand, and blocks of something Mulder called plastic explosive, we carefully climbed to the highest of the nearby piles of sharp, black volcanic slag. In a distance we saw lights but the place was too far away to make out figures For the first time it came home what we were doing here. "Are you actually going to blow this place up the way Charley wants?"

Mulder placed a melodramatic hand to his chest; the first truly 'Mulder' gesture I'd seen since we landed. "Of course not. I'm going to make as sure as I can that what's going on is as Charlie says it is. Then I may blow it up." His expression sobered. "Ben, there's something you need to understand. I was never a soldier. I was in law enforcement. Yes, I killed but a law had to be broken first or I was protecting myself or others What Charley wants is too cold-blooded."

"You'd be protecting your people by eliminating this place."

"If what Charley says is true, but if what he says is true we're also not even at war, not really. Other people are at war and we're just in the way. I have real problems, Ben, with blowing away some eighteen year old draftee even if he is small and gray and has bad taste in clothes, or some lab aide or sanitation worker, when its the faces of their faceless government that I really want to smash in."

I shook my head. "Life is a lot simpler on Dale."

Mulder sighed. "You have no idea." Stretching still sore muscles, my companion rose slightly from his crouch behind the rock and began to inch forward. "Let's go. Best to find out what's going on. Why do I have the feeling, though, that I'm going to wish that I could forget what's going to happen here, in fact that I'm going to wish that I could forget what has happened during these entire last months of my life."

"That would mean forgetting me," I blurted out and immediately wished I hadn't. I'd embarrassed us both.

But Mulder replied after only a hesitation of surprise, "I certainly hope not. I've never had many friends. You're probably the best friend I've ever had - except for Scully and my sister, Sam. You don't mind being third best behind them I hope."


MULDER

We moved away from the ship. I couldn't help telling my companion, "Don't forget where we parked," to which Ben's expression went blank "Sorry, old Star Trek joke."

We crept closer to the rim from which we should be able to see something. It takes a while to maneuver around the jagged remains of ripped up planets but the rough terrain also hid us from whoever may have been out in the dark to see.

"Do you have any idea of where we are?" Ben asked.

"If I have the map Charley showed me turned the right way around in my head, we're closer to Camp Gamma than we have any right to be considering the fine precision of our descent." More precisely, Charley's map of Rock Four had been a 3-D image of a very large, wrinkled potato spinning slowly end over end. He named the various installations in terms of their relative distance from the more pointed end of the huge asteroid using the Greek alphabet.

"I thought he told you to try for Beta? That's where the power station is."

"That's what he told me, but don't you think that we need to be sure that we're on the right side before we start blowing things up?"

We were finally close enough to the rim to actually see something. Cautiously, I peered over one of the peaks of black basalt. For one giddy moment I felt like Richard Dreyfuss in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" staring down at his first glimpse of the base they called 'the Dark Side of the Moon' That's how I first saw Camp Gamma. There was the same rocky surface, the same glaring floodlights, and similar clusters of mismatched buildings with dark figures moving between, but there the similarity ended. Here the dark sky was muddy orange rather than indigo blue and the bodies did not move purposely on frantic errands. These bodies dragged themselves from one pile of sharp-edged, bowling ball sized rocks to a similar pile about three hundred yards away with the precision of a line of out-of- step ants. These were no alien species, either, no line of black-eyed worker Grays. These appeared human. Seeing humans did not surprise me; seeing so many did. There must have been over a hundred. That was a shock. My stomach still unsettled from barrier, unsettled further. Except for the absence of wire fences, the scene reminded me of a prison camp, only far more bleak than even the dreary mud of Tunguska. The prisoners were more poorly dressed by far, wearing little more than rags.

"What's going on?" Ben asked, sensing my dismay. Then he took a look over the rim for himself. "Father Frost! Are those all humans? All of them?"

"They appear to be." I held up my hand to shield my eyes from the glare of the nearest floodlight. Something about the profile of one of the line of 'ants'...

"Shit, shit, shit!" I swore under my breath and stared harder.

"Mulder, what?"

"Charley, you sonofabitch, you bastard, you bloody green- " I began. I wanted to scream, to rage. My words came out as if they were being draw across broken glass but at least they weren't too loud. "Ben, I thought I recognized one of the men. Now I'm sure I do, more than one. Ray, Gary, Joe and Warren, more Shit... and Billy Miles. The men from the Mindspeaker colony on the Portjam. Remember? The first ship I was held on after Oregon. But what are they doing here?"

Ben stared with more interest at the long line of dirty, weary, trudging, men. "It appears that they are carrying rocks, only they carry them from one pile to another pile, put their rock down and then pick up a new one and carry the new one back Doesn't make any sense."

"My guess is, that's the point. It's a test."

"Of what? How long they'll put up with such stupidity?"

"You're closer than you know. For slave labor to work on a planetary scale they have to obey without question and with minimal supervision."

"And that's what I'm seeing?" In horrified fascination, Ben stared, his quick mind trying to process it all. "So these people have been damaged the same way the newcomers on Dale are damaged?"

"Not in the same way. It wouldn't be practical to take billions of people on roller coaster rides on multi-dimensional ships Over the years I found evidence more than once of where they were testing delivery systems for viruses. At first they used bees alone. Later they tried to develop a type of bee that would spread the virus to corn, only bees don't normally fertilize corn. If they could manage that, however, and the virus got into the corn that would mean that it would also get into the food supply since corn products are used in just about everything in the West. In the East, maybe they're trying the same thing with rice."

Clearly, Ben was overwhelmed. His dazed eyes went back to the inching line of zombies. I had seen enough and pushed away to find ten feet of space to pace in if that were possible. Damn, I should have known that there was going to be a lot that Charley hadn't told me.

"M-Mulder" came Ben's anxious voice, cracking like a schoolboy's Imagining some new atrocity, I returned to my spot beside him to peer between two rocks. Nothing of the depressing site seemed changed from before, not to me anyway. "What?"

"W-Women. That i-is a line of women, right? The next line over?"

Of course, it was, though that didn't surprise me overmuch There had been a separate woman's group on the Portjam. Then I remembered the world where Ben had been raised. "Am I right that those are more women than you've seen at one time in your entire life?"

His head bobbed numbly. "I didn't notice them at first. They are dressed like men and looked at first like men, only smaller, but they aren't men, are they?"

"No, they're not."

This was when Billy Miles caught my attention. He was closer than before. His handsome face was recognizable even under the dirt. What will and intellect remained behind those eyes? Shouldn't be much and yet something about him. Nothing obvious, just - There it was! An eyebrow raised in the direction of the pile of shadowed slag we crouched behind. Yet he couldn't have seen us, not with the day-night contrast from the searing white- blue of the floodlights. There was no doubt, however, that he stared, if only for a moment, directly into my eyes and no zombie could fake that kind of intensity. Then the moment passed, the line moved forward. Billy's eyes dropped, and he and his rock shuffled along with it.

It was only then that I realized that I was feeling a kind of itching in my mind and had felt it ever since we'd passed the barrier that protected this tumbling potato. What I was receiving wasn't coming from Ben either. No, this was as if someone were softly knocking at the back door. I should have guessed. I should have anticipated this the moment I recognized my old Mindspeaker buddies.

"Ben, don't get excited..." I whispered in warning.

But Ben was still gaping at the creeping line of females. "But those aren't just women down there, Mulder. There are girls Girls!"

I couldn't help but smile. "That wasn't what I meant. We're about to have company." At Ben's confused expression - yes, he was somehow able to tear himself away from this vision of nearly mythical opposite sex that he knew so little about to look in my direction - I settled myself as comfortably as I could on the sharp rocks and waited. It didn't matter that I was now turned away from the view of the yard. If I was right, visual landmarks were going to become irrelevant very quickly.

This is one of those times, Scully. You know, when 'two roads diverge in a narrow wood'. What do religions call these events - epiphanies? All of my life, my view of myself, my place in the world, my relationship with you, will be different from this point on. There is no way that I can not take the 'one less traveled by'. Not now. I am what thousands of years of genetics and a little tweaking here and there have made me. The fact that I had had no choice mattered not at all.

I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and went in my mind in the direction of that soft knocking and opened the door.

Do you know what I expected to find behind that door? The chaos of my padded cell, the shaking of the doctors' heads, restraints and needles and drugs. The cacophony of a hundred thousand voices. There was none of that. There was just one voice.

*Fox. *

I started at the name that I heard so seldom, at the one clear word in that single voice. I even recognized it though I certainly hadn't heard it, not like this, for years.

*Billy. *

The link between us quivered like a pebble thrown into a pond, different than the smoothness but right and beautiful in its own way.

*Fox, I can't believe it. It really IS you. That you heard. That you can hear and speak. It's just like in the old days. *

By the old days he meant years ago, years before you, Scully Meetings during abductions that I never knew happened.

*I guess it is. How long have you known I was here? *

*Since you entered the atmosphere, what there is of it. That moment it was like... sunlight to our darkness. At first we were afraid it was some new trick. I guess not. So you're all 'better'? *

I sent him a smile along the link by rippling the pool. *You tell me. I don't remember very well how it use to be. *

A thoughtful pause hummed through the link. *Less power but more control. Still you, though. Its like were all in the light now; that all the doors are open and all the curtains flung back. *

*So there are others? You aren't the only one who can hear me? *

*They're just waiting. We didn't want to overwhelm you. You couldn't read us at all the last time we were together. You just got headaches. *

When I didn't answer right away, Ben replied with a tentative sending, *What had been cut out grew back. It healed. *

*This is Benjamin, Billy, * I explained belatedly. *A friend. *

*He shines at a different wavelength, but he still shines Always good to meet another 'speaker', Ben. I'm sorry but we have little time. Fox, the others are waiting. They have waited for so long. They want to join in.*

I won't say that I wasn't scared nearly shitless, but this had worked so far. *Not too fast. *

*Whispers then. *

And so it was. Like the tiniest breeze on the water at first, barely stirring a ripple. Then the sound rose, but not just with a single note, but a chord, a glorious chord of greeting.

*It's beautiful, * Ben marveled.

It was. It was a beauty that also cut deep because now that I heard it, I remembered it from long, long before. I'd been taken and plugged beginning from age five though I'd always been made to forget. Those long afternoons alone in the Martha Vineyard woods had perhaps not been so alone after all. Those weekends at Oxford when the papers didn't get done now had an explanation And the times during the early years at the Bureau, when they said I went AWOL. Maybe I hadn't been lost inside my own head after all. What was most amazing was how I could have forgotten this - or did I? Scully, was this harmony what I searched the X-Files for over so many years? Was it this and not only Samantha that I sought, because I certainly never found peace even after I learned the sad truth about her. Is the fact that this was missing from my life the reason why even the thought of you and me together never seemed enough?

Am I as incomplete without this as I am incomplete without you? Could you accept that? Could we really be together now considering what I am and what I can do? Could you even begin to understand?

*Fox? *

*I'm here. *

*You weren't for a moment, * Billy said with concern. * You were never able to do that before. *

*Do what? *

*Shield yourself from us. *

* I guess I can now. * So live with it. At least I had some privacy. *You must know why we've come, Ben and I. *

A little more anxiety mixed in with the chord. *We know, though we hoped that what you really came for was to rescue us. *

Rescue? There must be hundreds of them. Who was going to rescue me? *There are so many - We can help! - the desperate chorus cried.- One or the other of us have gone everywhere, seen everything!


All at once the sound was deafening. Too many of them 'shouting' all at once. Ben groaned in obvious distress and disappeared. I nearly passed out myself. I only barely heard Billy hushing the others into some sort of order. In a more controlled fashion I was treated to a travelogue of all the camps on Rock Four. They did seem to know every inch.

Much later in the quiet of one of the nights - because night and day came and went in what seemed an hour here - a quartet of voices rose, speaking in unison like a Greek chorus. They were Billy Miles; Gary, friend of Richie and abducted in the same Oregon woods as I; Theresa Hosie; and her husband Roy whom I had nursed aboard the Portjam just as I had once been cared for. *We have a ship. *

So do I, but not one large enough for hundreds of people. *How many of you are there? *

*How many from our colony or how many humans?" replied the four as if from one mind. *Eighty as of yesterday from the men and women's group that you knew on the Portjam. *

*As of yesterday? *

*Do you think we have an exact number? Were experimental subjects. Just so many mice, dogs, and monkeys. Expendable. *

*There are more than that here, * Ben said who had returned at some point during the travelogue, Nervously, he glanced over the rim to rock at the lines of workers that still moved without missing a step.

*At least three times that number from other places. *

*All mindspeakers? * The young farmer asked amazed. Dale scarcely had twice that many on the whole planet.

*No, only those from the Portjam are Speakers. Most of the others had other skills, which also never worked well enough to please. Still, ninety percent of us are connected if only through a network of hand signals. *

*The last ten percent? * Ben asked I had already guessed.

*Isolation, controlled environments, * came the sad dirge-like reply. *They are lost. But the ninety percent are relatively free to move about if they had to. You don't need many guards on a prison such as this. *

*You don't look very free, * Ben grumbled, staring at the dead, blank faces below.

Laughter like droplets of evening rain shook as if from boughs by a morning breeze. *Its so easy to mislead people who think you are stupid. It's an act. Were just biding our time, though that's hard. *

*So they haven't tested any of their viruses on you? *

*I never said that we never got sick or were not from time to time bewildered, but whatever we got - whether from air or injection, food or water or other more ugly ways - only made most of us ill for a while. Best to let them think that they got what they wanted on the first try rather than have them keep trying until they find something that really works. *

I couldn't help but be impressed. Their planning was brilliant and I let them know so. *And without mindspeech to spread the word. See, you never needed me. *

Billy snarled which came into my mind like rattling thunder. * Like the cave man without fire, we managed but it was a lot harder. *

For a space all was eerily silent like the quiet that comes in the woods when the wind sighs high through the very tops of the trees. In this case, however, the sighing came from nearly a hundred minds sorrowfully asking, *If not to rescue us, why did you come? *

BENJAMIN

It was strange to sit there, butt growing numb on the cool, sharp rocks and 'see' through the eyes of a whole universe of strangers. On Dale I knew everyone. There was no such thing as a stranger and our mindspeech, except when under the influence of the most potent of Lichenleaf and our other mind expanding plants, was limited to a few words implanted here and there like darts. In comparison this... There are no words to describe this kind of wonder. The sheer numbers, the wisps of private hopes and desires that managed to flow through me like the lyrics of a song, and so much texture. Did the sharp-edged thoughts all come from men and the sad and soft ones from the women? Women.. Control Mulder was right I couldn't allow myself to become disturbed by even so marvelous a distraction as the very idea of women, especially now that they ask why we have come.

I 'saw' Mulder's answer in images of machinery and a flash of light. That would be the light from the first small explosion, the one that would trigger ever and ever widening rings of destruction. In his 'tale' only one tiny ship escapes while in the background the rock we are now so uncomfortably sitting on goes up like a fiery bomb leaving... nothing There was no panic. These people have learned that they must suck in patience as readily as breath if they are to survive Still, the calm was to their credit.

*We have a ship, * they repeated like so much ghost wind.

*But we don't have a pilot. * This came from Billy and seemed a message that he has said before.

*Disable the artificial gravity, * came from a no-nonsense woman with whom the name Kathy seemed to be associated. It was weird to get to know the voice of a person who wasn't even there but I got to know hers. *It's what they always do before they take off. After that, spin alone will lift the ship off this turd Saves fuel, too. *

*Big deal, we're off the ground, * Hector interrupted, a lean, rock-bearing brown man, or so I could see through his neighbor's eyes. *Then we're adrift. Without a pilot or navigator we'll still need someone to pick us up. * If thoughts could turn, they turned on Mulder, but Mulder sat silent in front of me, a dark silhouette against the purple sky, as quiet in his mind as in his body.

*Charley will take you, * I said, the shapeshifter's image rising in my mind. *He's the one who sent us here..*

There was a stunned silence and then a general hiss like a thousand snakes.

*Not that one!* And the hiss rose quickly to a dull roaring, nearly chaos.

A burst like an explosion from some vast mountain of air exploded amidst the arguing thoughts, scattering them like petals. *Stop!* and there was instant silence.

Heart pumping wildly in alarm, I found myself looking for a storm and found only Mulder, sitting bolt-upright, face hard Sweat glistened around his hairline despite the cool, thin air *He'll take you if I ask him. There isn't anyone else. But let's leave that discussion for later. You have far worse problems You say that you have a ship. You must think that its large enough. How are you going to get everyone inside this ship without being stopped? *

*My friends and I work at the camp where the ship is," the woman Kathy explained. *We lug in supplies, we scrub up after their filth, but we aren't any more dumb rock carriers than Billy's group is. We know the way in, * she said with confidence. * We know when they arent watching. *

*And we've been preparing for this for months, * Billy explained, and from below at the end of the line of rock carriers I caught his eye through a parting in the long, lank hair that fell over his forehead. He was as assured as the woman. Strong. But then they had been through so much that they would have to be strong or they would have laid down and given up long before. "Whenever a ship is ready to depart, they blow a horn, like a fog horn.*

The young man Gary, who had disappeared in the Oregon woods at the same time that his friend dropped a sizzling flashlight, seamlessly continued the narrative. *When the whistle blows, the gray workers, the elders, and all of their allies retreat into their own closed rooms underneath each research facility because the gravity is going to be shut off. The scum on the work details, that's us, have our own bunkers for these times. Dark and smelly, they're little more than sardine cans.* If a mind could spit in disgust, this one would have *But we're such obedient, will-less beetles that no one seriously checks to see that we actually hide out in there. We could as easily head at a dead run to the ship camp. The most distant work crews are only twenty minutes away. There's always at least that much time before the gravity generators are actually powered down to the point that it's dangerous.*

*What about the air?* I asked, envisioning it drifting off as well.

*The spin and the barrier hold it in, what there is of it, * Gary explained.

*What we're telling you, * the woman Kathy insisted sharply, * is that we can get to the ship, most of us anyway. We can't help the test subjects in their cages in the labs. Its something we all understand because it could happen to any of us. *

Mulder stood, absently rubbing his numb backside. He was looking off to our right where another glow over the too-near horizon lit the sickly colored sky. I knew as well as he did, by whatever method such information was conveyed, that the ship camp was there. *Too long,* he mused, his emotions so dulled it was if they were under water. "If you don't want to be followed, we need to blow this rock, which we were sent to do anyway, but if we have to wait for your people from the far camps to get to the ship we'll need to set too long of a timer. There's too great a risk that the explosives will be discovered.*

*Then set your changes a few minutes AFTER the warning horn Wait for that. The 'masters' can move fast when their little gray skins are on the line. Most will be safely hidden away by then.*

*And we must prepare soon,* Kathy interjected. * At the latest the ship will be here only a few days. It's been here too long already. *

*Our people in the far camps only need the word to know to start immediately. You're going to be targeting the main generators, I take it?* Billy asked.

*I need to check on that,* Mulder replied clearly irritated at being rushed. *If we do, and IF I remember the plan of the camps, timing will be very close. *

*Agent Mulder, we don't have a choice!* Billy snapped. *Any day, any hour, especially since all this mind traffic has started going over the air and distracting so many of our people, we risk their finding out that weve been faking our reaction to the last few rounds of biologics. Once discovered, we'll be watched so we can't get away and later drugged with stuff that might just work the next time. This may be our only chance! *

Mulder began to pace. Worse than that the worry line on his brow was just about as deep as I had ever seen it. Fingers traced furrows in his unkempt hair. The storm of his emotions significantly darkened what little light there was in the day "What's the problem?" I asked in real words as if that would keep it more private between us. He blinked as his mind shifted to this more primitive form of communication..

"Ben, I've never been happy about Charley's plan. Yes, I have killed, more than my share, but in defense of my life, or Scully, or the innocent, when the perpetrator is right before me. But this His arms came up in strength and then dropped empty. Benjamin, despite her best efforts, Mrs. Mulder never raised her son to be no terrorist. Even if we get most of the prisoners off, there will be the ones we won't get off. And what about the aliens here? Not all are guilty except guilty of doing their job. *

*He means he's a policeman, not a soldier, * Someone mindspoke So much for privacy. * There will be guilt. It's not easy to kill for an idea. * It was Raymond speaking, the hard words not without sympathy. *I was a soldier, marine. Even for us, it was hard. *

Mulder's head hung wearily. *Charley's is a rather all or nothing solution. I would be happier just blowing up a lab or a computer system.*

*I don't think that we're going to have that choice,* I answered gloomily.

All at once I had to touch him. This pure mind stuff had left me cold. Odd that I should react so since I was the one who had been raised on a world where such talent was merely uncommon, not rare, not alien. How much more keenly must Mulder be feeling this. But he didn't reciprocate with a hardy handshake or a manly jab to the arm. He didn't even lean into my hand on his arm. It was as if he'd been taking stone icon lessons from Charley he was that inside himself. Maybe he was that afraid that he would break if moved one inch from center.

He must have sensed my worry for he eventually turned to me, apology in those dark eyes.

"Sorry."

"How can I help?"

"Nothing now but later probably a lot."

I don't know who I thought I was hiding the thought from but I leaned closer to him, whispering, "Mulder, can we - can YOU - save these people?"

His tight-lipped smile had not one grain or humor in it. "Just how large of a ship would that take?"

Stupid, that that was what he was holding so close about. Fear, real gut-squirming fear. "Maybe it wouldn't need to be so large Maybe we'll have to stack them in the corridors like cordwood." He expression was dubious. "So let's go find out, unless you want to let this Kathy at the ship yard just show it to you." I tapped my temple.

Mulder stretched to ease what must be a tension headache of mammoth proportions. "You're right, but this is something I need to see with my own eyes. Find out how much worrying I really need to do So we began picking our way through the sharp, black rock with all those disembodied voices whispering behind us. It was like walking at the head of an army of ghosts.

Distances are deceptive when the horizon is so close. Only ten minutes took us within a stone's throw of the most outer of Ship Camp's perimeter of flood lights and that included time spent being sure that we had no visitors before we crossed an open space. Mulder had walked with jaw set, back straight and eyes burning. I knew that look. Into hell and damn the consequences As before, we crept up upon the last hundred yards and found a shadow from which we look down upon the camp. Unlike Gamma Camp's rugged terrain, Ship Camp's great smooth bowl looked as if it had been formed from molten rock that had been allow to cool slowly in a mold and then rubbed smooth. The floodlights were arranged in two great circles, an outer circle of white and an inner circle of red.

And in the center, in the very center sat the ship. Billy's ship, Gary's ship, Kathy's ship, and now my ship and Mulder's.

I heard Mulder's strangled intake of breath and only then allowed myself to breathe. The words that came out were a proverb from Dale: "The gods have sent us snow soup!" The meaning is that you've been given something useless, even harmful. We say it a lot in the late winter when the food's nearly gone and we get another storm.

We had wished for a courier ship that we could cram full, something not much larger than the Beast that Mulder had first trained on.

What we got was more than just more snow, we got a blizzard.

The ship was a monster. Nothing that could fly, even in my imagination, could be so large. This was a mountain, a mountain of startling, white metal.

Next to me Mulder was shaking, his face bone-white.

"I t-take it that the Beast was smaller?" I asked. I'd been led to believe that that had been agony enough to pilot, most of the time anyway.

A smile curled up, so brittle that I thought it would crack. "If Ray were a chair and the Beast a house - "

"Then this would be?'

"All of the Dale highlands. A moon."

"Mulder, you can't!"

"I thought your opinion was that I didn't have choice."

"Not this. We'll wait for another ship."

A voice came out of the dark, a real voice. "No!" That one word sent a chill up my back because the tone was that which I had heard perhaps twice in my life. A woman's voice. Simultaneously, we stared behind our left shoulders. The woman was as tall as a man and had short, dark, curly hair. Her features in the sharp shadows of this place were broad so she may have been handsome rather than pretty except for the six long scars that partitioned her face. Like the others She was thin though in a completely different way than a man. This had to be Kathy Except for the scars, which I never would have imagined on a woman, her appearance went with her mental voice.

"He can't," I told her, putting as much horror in my voice as possible. "You don't understand."

"He must. Now that he's here, we're making mistakes, missing cues, reading instructions not yet given. It's only a matter of hours, not days, and we are dead."

"You'll kill him. You can't want that!"

"We have to try something!" She dropped down beside us in our shadow with what was to me nearly a supernatural grace. She was so close that our knees nearly touched. I thought I would swoon I might as well have been just one more of the Rock Four's ten billion building blocks, however, for all the attention she paid to me. Mulder had it all. "Don't shut us out," she begged. "We know. Your pain is ours, your fear ours, but we have our own as well. We are terrified! Not only for ourselves but also for what, through us, they want to do to our families, to everyone we left behind. What they have done to some of us, and plan to do to the rest of us and our world is an abomination. We have to get out of here! We have to!"

Mulder had moved so that his pale face was in shadow but I could still see his eyes smoldering. They burned into the face of this woman. "And if I fail? Then we all fail."

"There is failure only if this hell survives. You have the means to destroy it. Then do so. Our survival is secondary. We accept the possibility that we may not escape. We don't desire death but we have no fear of it. Better to fall back into the funeral pyre of this terrible place than to become their tools and bring their kind of horror back to Earth. We're being cruel and we know it, but we have been gone too long, we have been dragged over wastelands of cut glass too many times. Agent Mulder, we just want to go home, or if not that, then at least we'll know that our lives did not contribute to their suffering." There was not acceptance of this second option in her voice, however. This is one who had walked through the wastelands of cut glass and probably dragged legions along with her, whether they liked it at the time or not. Compromise was not in her nature.

No one said or even thought anything after that for Mulder had shut that door, that gateway that allowed the thoughts from nearly a hundred minds to flow through. The strained moment became two. Mulder rose and paced. Temporarily out of the shadow of the jag of rock we had been hiding in, he no longer looked stern only tired. Incredibly tired.

"I know what you mean." Wearily, he looked in my direction "It's almost over, Ben. The last mile. One last sprint before the end. But oh, God."

"Mulder, stop" I was going to say but someone beat me to it.

Another woman rose up from behind a pile of slag in the direction from where Kathy had come. I notice such things the same way that I would notice an elephant in my cabin. This one was different from Kathy, however. She was as small and fair and slight as Kathy was tall and dark and hard as a tree that had been standing in the wind and the weather too long.

Mulder was instantly aware as well and his reaction was far greater. Stunned would only begin to describe it.

"Ness..." he breathed, the word hardly making a sound.


BENJAMIN

"Fox Mulder. I wasn't sure whether to believe them." Her voice was not loud. The words were strangled with emotion. Clearly, these two knew each other. Then I remembered the girl's name from stories Mulder had told of his time on the space station called City.

"I didn't want to come," she said, "but they begged me to. They thought that I'd be able to convince you. I told them that they didn't need any intercession from me, that you would do the honorable things. You always have."

Mulder winced visibly.

"You look well," she added into the silence.

"For the moment." There was a world of information in that statement. Information such as 'no, I haven't been, but don't bother to ask.'

"I heard you were still with Rodan. As I remember you call him Charley."

"Also for the moment."

Gingerly, Mulder sat down again on a boulder that looked slightly more comfortable than the others did. "How did you get here? Is all of the family here?"

"Yes, all of us. A couple of months after you were taken away, Rodan came to see us. He was cold. He said that they didn't need a control group any more." She looked close to tears.

Mulder had told me so the story many months ago as we worked in my fields; all about a group of humans, the Family, who had been maintained for generations in a few rooms on a huge space station. Theirs had been a lonely, purposeless existence. "We were thrown onto a ship and brought here, just dumped into the general pot of available human subjects." She no longer even attempted to smile. "So many are dead now from one experiment or another - Rene, my sister, my mother and father, two of our men, Alex and Peter, so terribly, so uselessly. Like their lives didn't mean anything at all."

She glanced down but at what I wasn't sure. Was she embarrassed by the stained and ragged clothes she wore? They had once been bright with color. It s seemed an odd time to worry about such things but Mulder's eyes were also fixed on that filthy cloth.

"Do they know?"

"The Grays? No, and it doesn't make sense. It must just be a screw up. You know, information not passed If they knew, I wouldn't be here, pretending to be zoned out on their drugs Instead, I'd be in a cage someplace, underground, incubating and being tested and tested again as I wait for this." Her hand reached out suddenly and took Mulder's hand and pressed his palm to what I could see now with shock was a slightly rounded belly He allowed his hand only the barest touch before snatching in back. "Mine?"

"He swore it was. He came back only a few minutes after he took you away and did it. I was still in tears."

"There wasn't time."

Her smile had no humor. "Doesn't take long. A little squirt."

"Again, it can't be; it's too small."

"Not too small for four months. How long has it been for you?"

"Six, maybe seven months."

"We've both been traveling. Who knows how that mixes things up? The time on the ship we traveled on to get here is certainly a blur."

Mulder was frowning, very unhappy.

But it's a child! I thought in wonder, never having seen a pregnant woman except for once a year and then at a distance And Mulder was denying it? Unheard of where I came from where, before women were kept in isolation, a dozen men claimed every birth.

"It's not my fault!" she snapped. "I told them that showing you this wouldn't make any difference, that you wouldn't bend to that kind of pressure, but they wouldn't listen. Forget me and it!" Her hand went to her belly again as she spun around to leave. "Just do what needs to be done. I've heard my friends die in agony. I've seen them live in endless hopelessness. End this and let's go on if there is anything to go on to."

Mulder's eyes had widened while she talked. Now he nodded, approvingly. "You've grown, Ness."

"I've had to."

"You don't make this easy."

"When has life ever been easy."

His gaze went back in the direction of the valley where the ship squatted like a wide upended bowl the size of a city. "This ship, Ness, this ship is huge. Most likely I'll fail. Most likely, we'll fall back into the inferno, if we manage to get off the ground at all."

"Then you and your friend take the other ship and at least our story will live on."

No, way! My mind whirled in protest. I'll stay! You take this girl and her child and go! Before I could protest though, Mulder spoke.

"There is no other ship."

"Of course there is another ship," Ness snapped back. "The one you came in."

Yes, and our little black 'Ray' could barely hold two people if after that landing it could get off the ground at all. Mulder was standing at the edge of the overlook, brow as furrowed as I had ever seen it, his eyes mere slits as he frowned at the vast weight and bulk of the shining ship.

"Why!" he asked to . "We could so easily have used something so much smaller. There's only - what did Billy say - less than three hundred people? Three hundred in that monster will be like grains of sand in a bucket."

I looked over my shoulder at the slight and - to my eyes - exquisite and nearly mythical creature, who, if I heard right was carrying Mulder's child. Not that it mattered whose it was "Mulder, just stop arguing. Set the charges and then you and Ness get to safety. I'll stay."

It took a moment for my words to sink in. I think neither of them had remembered that I was there. His initial surprise changed to approval as he put his hand on my shoulder; a significant gesture for Mulder touched seldom. "Magnanimous of you but I couldn't. Better to send you and her and I'll stay."

"But you can't pilot Ray long distance!"

"Which is why we all go or we all stay." His bleak expression told me that in his heart he believed that staying would be the most likely but staying meant being consumed in flame.

"But what about Scully? You have to get back to earth, back to her. That means everything."

That soft look came over his face, the one he wore when he thought of her. It was mixed with a far deeper regret than usual. "Scully would be the first to understand and approve There's a lot you don't know about us, about what we did Dangerous stuff. We both nearly died so many times. A thousand times it could have happened and neither of us would have turned away from the job. This is no different except that- " He paused to clear some catch in his voice. " - there is no looking into each other's eyes this time. It was always a sort of 'good luck' and 'good bye' at once. I'll have to go on with just the memory of those previous thousands of times."

"But she'll never know."

"Maybe we can find a way," he mused darkly, "but we'll talk about that possibility later if we get that far. If there is no way to send a message still in her heart, I think she'll know I'm not saying that it won't hurt. It took years and years but in the end I did come to realize that she really loved me, not that I deserved it. But she's also a realist, my Scully. Just as I'll do my job here, she'll move on. Besides, it probably is better this way; there's a definite outcome one way or the other. It's problematical that Charley would ever have fulfilled his part of the bargain and let me go. However, if I drop two hundred and fifty illogical human refugees in his lap, he'll probably be so terrified of this becoming a pattern that he will be only too glad to wash his hands of me."

He spoke lightly, but there was none of that light in his eyes unless flames counted. The flames were there already.

He turned to the tall, raw-boned woman. "Kathy, you say that you know the ship?"

"Between me and my work crew, inside and out."

"I need a virtual tour."

"We can do that."

"Meanwhile, Ben needs a guide to the power plant. Ben, I need you to scout out a good location for us to bestow our gift."

"Sending me is next to useless," I replied. "What I know about machinery you can float in a mug of tea."

"Then you'll need a knowledgeable guide."

There was a pause and then a soft female voice said, "I'll take him." It was Ness. Mulder looked surprised. "I know, I didn't know much on City, only how to weave and what lessons were handed down by oral tradition generation after generation, but since they tore us from our nice, sterile home, it's as if my mind's been making up for lost time. This has been both the most horrible and the most wonderful time of my life. I know every inch of the generator plant - that's been my assignment - especially the areas where they don't want us to go."

That drew a near smile from Mulder. "Sounds like the kind of spy we need. The two of you go then and we'll meet back here."

It felt odd leaving Mulder, but I could see the logic in dividing our forces. We'd been tied at the hip for so long, however, that I felt naked without him.

My guide and I didn't talk for the first few minutes. I followed the woman - the girl - Ness as she led us over the rough and broken ground. The truth is, I couldn't keep my eyes off her. It wasn't like there was anything better to look at. The terrain was not much different than what Mulder and I had covered before on our travels across Rock Four. Black, sharp rocks and more black, sharp rocks. Because of the low gravity, we didn't have much trouble maneuvering around or over them. We passed a place where she warned me with a hand gesture to slow down. Here there were streaks on the rock itself that were not only smooth but also glassy as if they had melted. With the low gravity such patches would be nearly too slick to walk on.

Finally, we crouched above another camp. By then I realized why everything seemed downhill. It was because the horizon was always so close. So once again we were high up but this camp was far different from the others we had seen. Its primary structure was a forest of towers and vents, tubes and pipes, all of metal or ceramic. Strings of tiny lights outlined the primary structures though there was also many floodlights. So this was the power station. It would have been wondrous to my eyes if our mission had not been so serious. The tallest tower rose more than a hundred meters into the air and spouted clouds of warmth that shimmered the air above it like a ripple on clear water.

Ness threw a stone and the oldest man I had yet seen crept out of a cleft in the rocks below to climb with difficulty to join us. She had known he would be there.

"John," she said, "I need some clothes like ours for this man."

The old man eyed my intact flight suit and my well-nourished body. "He certainly isn't one of us."

"That's what we need to conceal."

His old eyes saddened. "I have what you need, unfortunately, in my hole. I was waiting to bring them back to the bunker after shift," and he left to climb painfully down to his hiding place.

There had been a dark undercurrent to their exchange "Something's wrong," I surmised.

She fingered the length of dirty cloth that was wrapped around her body, all that covered her. "The only way there could be clothes so readily available is if someone died today." Her face was full of shadows. I didn't ask more; it was time for silence.

In a short time the old man came puffing back bearing three folded lengths of cloth that were similar to the ones Ness wore though different in color and weave.

Seeing them her mouth opened with a quiet cry of dismay "Clarise! Oh, Clarise... How did it happen?" she asked as her hands caressed the signature pattern of the material that her friend had woven and wore.

"She was with the workers, solderin' and resolderin' pipe as so many of them are doin'. Something came loose above, a section of railin'. She knew something was fallin', she must have heard it She could have looked up, she could have gotten out of the way, but to do so would have given away that fact that she was 'aware'. She played her part until the end. At least it was quick, better than with so many of the others."

It hit me like a hard fist to the gut. It was more than a dangerous game these people were playing. It could be deadly, and even the brave could die. They could die as easily as Clarise, without even being able to fight back.

"I'm sorry," I said to the top of her bowed head and I meant it When she turned her face to me her eyes were dry, if a little red around the rims. "She wasn't the first. I just pray she's the last." Her voice hardened. "Now out of those clothes and put these on. See how John wears his? The men wrap theirs differently than the women do."

"I can manage, close enough."

Gingerly, I lowered my pack of explosives and immediately began to release the closures on the maroon flight suit. I was so intent on moving quickly that I only remembered she was there when she made a tiny sound as I pulled my shoulders free. She was trying not to stare at the naked upper half of my body. Had I done something wrong? It was impossible to read the look on her face. I'm not unaware of my body's musculature. It's trim and tan from years of working the soil. Men have remarked on it, but I'd never had an opportunity to reveal myself to a women "What's wrong?" I asked. Maybe I'd stumbled over some cultural taboo. Maybe I shouldn't be undressing in front of her. Suddenly I felt way too warm even though on this exposed chunk of planet rubble I should have been cold. "I'm sorry!" and raised the flight suit back up across my chest. "Should I be doing this someplace else - like behind a rock?" I looked frantically around to find one tall enough and wide enough for the job and began to move in that direction.

"No!" the girl interjected hastily. "No, don't! There's no need When you live as closely with people as we did in the Family.. and now here there's not much privacy. It's just..." She was clearly blushing. A lovely color on her. "You're body's just different from those of the men I've known all my life."

Not sure what that meant I finished redressing quickly but still ended up showing her everything not covered by my skimpy undergarments before I was through. She never looked away. Was she picking up the flaws? Did I not measure up somehow? I had always hopedThe climate was definitely too hot for these cloths that wrapped around loins and chest. The final one draped over my shoulders.

"Less conspicuous now?"

She was at my side then, very close. Her eyes were intense. She stood close enough that I could smell her sweet sweat. I felt suddenly tight and jumpy and I was definitely sweating in my new clothes.

Her hands went to my waist; strong, slim, warm hands. "On the contrary, you look fine. If I don't do something, however, THIS one is going to slither down your hips and then you'll be very conspicuous." She tightened something and hesitantly moved back "Does that feel like it's going to stay put?" I walked around a little, stretched and crouched, aware that most of both arms were bare.

"Yes."

"Good." "We're ready then. You'd best leave the pack here for the time being, however. John, would you take it down into your hole for safe keeping?"

I had forgotten that the man was even there. He had stepped discretely away to give us some privacy but not far. I held out the straps to the wiry old man and was disconcerted by the mischievous grin and wink from the elder before he took the pack and began to climb down to his watching place.

"There really wasn't any reason to hurry," Ness said when we were alone. "We still have to wait till shift change. Then we can go down and no one will question our moving around. They'll think we've been sent there."

She preceded to sit as comfortably as she could and still peer from time to time over the broken rock and down at the activity around the power station. I found a place to perch on an outcrop next to her. We were too close but there was not much level space. Up close her smooth skin had a definitely more rosy tint since my striptease and rosier still since she had intercepted John's wink.

We sat for the first few minutes in silence. I'm seldom at a loss for words but on this occasion I found my tongue frustratingly tied. Luckily, she spoke first.

"I should apologize for staring. It's just that while we lived on City, there isn't anything to do - no physical labor, I mean - so we were all pathetically weak when we started out here, the men, too. We've gotten stronger, our muscles have developed, but there's not much to eat so there's no one here like you ... I mean," she stammered, "your muscles and you're so tanned all over." She blushed even brighter and so did I.

"Nothing I planned on," I explained, my tongue only half out of its knots. "There's a lot of hard work on Dale and in the summer I'm usually out in the fields nearly na - unclothed."

Inquisitively, she dared to touch my hand with one first finger, as if to see if the tan came off. When it didn't she compared the color of her skin to mine. Hers was as white and delicate as a first snow. Her whole body was like that, as fragile as the petal of a dewdrop. What would it be like to hold such a flower in my arms, in my bed?

A wave went through my frame like too much of Max's four-year- old tanberry liquor. Stop! Remember her eyes when she saw Mulder. He's what she wants, but then so do I. Hopeless for us both. Better that we

Better that we what?

To get my mind off 'those' kinds of thoughts, I started speaking of Dale, not asking if she wanted to hear about it or not. It was dull stuff, the daily life of the seasons: planting and growing, harvest, the long, lean months of cold and loneliness Surprisingly, she asked many questions and from the eager expression on her face, she wasn't just being polite.

"To live on a world where you spend your life outside under the sun, working to grow the very food you eat. That I would give anything to see!" Her mood dimmed. "It wasn't like that at all for us."

"Mulder told me about the places he's been. He talked about City."

"He didn't like it much."

"What he seems to remember most is being sick a lot."

That didn't come out right, certainly not what a woman wanted to hear. There came an awkward pause. "Ness, I know that I shouldn't ask, but is that really Mulder's baby?"

She visibly bristled but only for a second. "To tell you the truth, I don't know. The one you call Charley told me that it would be." I must have gotten that look on my face again "What's wrong?"

"Sorry, I guess I find it hard to imagine. How can a woman not know who the father is?"

It was Ness's turn to study my face to see if I was joking. "You have lived an isolated life. I assume that you've never heard of artificial insemination?"

No need to rack my brain on that tongue twister. "Sorry, no Dale's about as far out on the fringes as you can get. Since I've started traveling with Mulder I've been exposed to a lot in a short time, but methods of procreation haven't been high on the list."

So she told me in half a dozen words and hand gestures. I was shocked at first, never having thought of such a thing, but it did make sense. Simple. "He doesn't seem happy to have even the chance of a child."

"He's afraid that they've done things to it, genetic things."

Now it all made sense. I knew all too well the anguish he went through whenever he thought about how he was 'made'. "I guess my people grow up knowing that we came from stock that was 'different' so it matters less. I know that I'd give anything to have a child to raise, even if none of the genes were mine."

I could feel her looking me over. It was penetrating that stare It traveled from my face on down and through my clothes.

"Don't tell me that you haven't had an opportunity," she exclaimed. "I can't imagine any sister in the Family turning YOU down."

I felt the heat rising to my face again. "Thanks, I think. But there aren't any women on my planet- "

"None!" came out as a garbled squeak.

"Well, a handful." I wasn't going to go into the newly discovered ability of the changelings to bear children. Besides, in many ways what was sitting beside me was just as alien.

"So your world needs women..."

"Desperately."

"Most of the Family are female and we'd do anything to see a green, growing place with a real sun and a real sky."

We risked sidelong glances. Clearly, neither of us needed mindspeech to know what the other was thinking.

"This isn't the time," I said softly, despite the hormones that were thrumming through my body. Her eyes were huge and bold. The thrum became a surge like the tide.

Damn, but I had known men to look at each other that way when they wanted some. I never thought that a woman would, or could, want in that same way.

All at once she was closer, certainly close enough, and neither of us had moved. She wanted me to kiss her. She probably wanted more, but kissing would do.

"I don't have much experience," I mumbled, even as I leaned hesitantly forward. I didn't add 'with women'.

Tenderly, she kissed me and I found myself returning her welcome almost at once with something not nearly so tender. Did I once think it cold on this rock?

"Mulder will go back to Earth, to Scully," she whispered when we had broken away. "We both know that. Will you be going back to Dale?"

"Of course," I replied immediately and realized that I hadn't really thought about it before. But there really was no place else for me. It was not just a place where I wanted to be, but where I needed to be.

"Perhaps I could come; see your farm. You'll have to be patient with me, however. I'm so frightfully ignorant about such things." Her eyes were glowing again Sweet Mother Earth!

"I would like that, more than anything, though it's really not much. We could add on- " The tiny etching upwards of the girl's full lips made me realize how well I had followed her own train of thought. Hurriedly, I added. "I do have one hell of a sauna."

"What's that?"

Which was when it struck me - she was as much a fish out of water in this universe as I was. But maybe all that meant was that we were destined to find our own ocean. And we both cared for Mulder; that was someplace to start.

As if she were indeed reading my mind, she kissed me again. When her hands began exploring, I found that I couldn't breathe. My head began to buzz.

Okay, maybe we had started already.

Withdrawing reluctantly, I realized that the buzzing hadn't stopped. In fact it was louder, far off still, but growing closer. A horn, a siren, had started blowing back in the direction from where we had come but its call was expanding in ever widening circles as other voices of other horns took up the cry.

Ness was on her feet instantly. She leaned over the ledge of rock as far as she could go in order to stare down into the camp. I dropped down on my stomach close to her, close enough so that we could still hear each other even though the horns were now screaming at a deafening pitch.

"What is it?" I cried during a brief lull.

"It's the warning that they're going to cut the artificial gravity. It's the ship! Ben, the ship is preparing to launch!"

"Can't! It's too soon!"

"There is no 'too soon', there's just when. It's not as if they ask our permission."

"We can wait for the next one right?"

"Impossible. The next could be days away." As she spoke, her eyes never stopped searching the camp that suddenly looked more than anything like a Papine nest. Mulder had once compared Papine to ants on Earth though they aren't really insects. In a body, the workers below had left their jobs and were proceeding in twenty broken lines each traveling at a walk but at an almost frantic pace.

"What are you looking at?"

"I'm trying to see - there! They're definitely heading for the ship."

"How do you tell? Looks like chaos to me."

Eerily, the volume of the horns cut in half leaving a constant rumble, more like thunder in the way it could be felt as much as heard "See those iron roofs?" she explained hurriedly in quieter tones. "They're the roofs of the bunkers. When the warning blast comes, everyone goes under cover. The aliens have their own nice shelters in the tunnels. The workers are trained to head for the nearest bunker, those sheds, but they are small and fill up fast. If one is full, we are taught to go to the next and then the next."

I could see that. Lines of workers were checking a bunker and then after a pause turning and heading to one further away."

"But how from that do you know that we're taking - this - ship?"

"Because I've watched those three bunkers closest to us from the start and I've seen lines of people come up to them and turn away as if they were full, but no one has ever gone in! They're empty. It's a trick! The workers are making it appear that they are just looking for an empty bunker but in reality they're heading towards the ship. The overseers, what few there are, don't care because they are too busy running to reach their own shelters and save their own skins."

"But how do they know to head for the ship?" I demanded impatiently.

For the first time since the sirens began Ness turned to face me. "As soon as Mulder came into range and the mindspeaker network came 'on line' - at least that's how I've heard it described - they planted a speaker with each group. They know."

"Oh, shit!" I swore and exploded from the rock, cutting the palms of my hands as I vaulted from my perch. I raced to where I had dropped my jump suit only to realize too late that it had been taken away along with my backpack. But John was there already. He must have thought me mad when I tore the dark red suit from the old man's hands to begin searching through the multiple pockets. Finding Charley's Lichenleaf tube, I started inhaling. It was a struggle not to breathe too fast. Slow and deep was best. Still, by the time I was done, I had to lean against the wall of rock behind me.

"What's that?" the girl demanded, worry and irritation in her voice and face.

I stayed bent over, hands on knees, while the dizzying tendrils of bright fog looped through my brain opening bright pathways "I was a fool! I'm a weak Speaker. This makes it stronger for a while. I should have been more careful. I should have been dosing regularly. Stupid!"

If women made you forget such important things, then maybe they weren't worth the trouble.

The first mental sounds I heard reminded me of wind in the treetops, the way it can rise rapidly to the wail in advance of a summer squall. But there was no storm, could be no storm. This wind was voices, all of the eighty-odd mindspeaker voices calling to each other at once. No way I could single out one conversation from another but the intent was clear enough. Weird to hear not a word from down below and have such a tumult going on invisibly mind to mind.

"You hear something," Ness said. "What?"

"What you already knew. You're leaving, we're all leaving."

*Ben! *

I nearly dropped the pack and its dangerous cargo when that one familiar voice cut through the tumult. No one else had the power to cut through like that. There was something wrong, however, something


*Where are you! *

*A hundred yards before the entrance to the undercrypt of the power station. We were waiting for the shift change


*Meet me just inside the entrance. Now! And bring Ness. *

And just that suddenly, Mulder's familiar mindspeaking voice was gone. Shakily, I shouldered my pack and in a daze started down the slope. I almost forgot to gesture for the girl to follow, but she was already saying her farewells to the old man and warning him to get to the ship himself. That would be a hellish journey for a body as stiff and old as his. Familiar with the ankle- twisting path, she quickly took the lead. We traded no looks of understanding, no shy innuendo, as she passed. Any possible future for us had to wait. First we had to survive the next hour.


MULDER

Ben saw it in my face even in the comparative dark of the tunnel under the power station. He reacted as if he were looking upon my death mask. I suspect he was. I refused to think that far in the future, however. Better to notice how surprisingly well Ben looked in the filthy but still colorful wraps the Family wore Then I remembered that I had also dressed that way when I was recuperating on City.

"How long do we have?" Ness asked.

"Kathy says thirty-five minutes. At least that's when we must be on board. Billy's group is taking the ship even now. Kathy's group managed to lean on the horn as soon as they found out it was lifting today. That was ten minutes earlier than they usually get that kind of news and we'll need every minute."

"Not much time to get into position," Ness frowned, "but also more time to get caught."

"It's what we have. We'll need a miracle either way."

We were half-running as we talked. Ness had not been boasting when she said that she knew the way. I was proud her, all the more for the guilt I felt at not giving her what she had been desperate for back on City. What a romantic adolescent she had been on City! I tried not to think of what the violent actions of the ship would do to her unborn child. Even at my best it would be bad, very bad. I could already hear the screaming of all those voices in my head. How could I dare to have any hope at all of holding it together?

It was warmer in the tunnel then it had been outside. This wasn't surprising since the heat as well as the water and the atmosphere for the entire station was generated here. For the oddest instant it reminded me of the guestroom in our house on Martha's Vineyard. Set above the furnace room, it was always the warmest room in the house even with all the vents closed. On a chill and rainy Vineyard Sunday, it was always the best place to hide with a book.

Why should that come to mind at now of all times? Probably because Ness's people never had had a room like that and the abductees never would again if I couldn't get these people away Getting away also meant leaving no one behind to follow or even to report that the prisoners hadn't been incinerated along with all the little gray workers and the few elders that must be here to manage them. Even now they waited in their comfortable shelters for the Rock Four's artificial gravity to be shut off If we were successful in our bomb laying, however, that gravity would never come back on. There wouldn't be a chunk of the asteroid left large enough to need it.

I hadn't forgotten about those too sick or too weak to make the ship. Billy had warned me also that some dozens were imprisoned in labs scattered about the various camps. Even if they got the word they would be trapped. They would all die of explosion and fire if they weren't dead already from an atmosphere sucked into the vacuum of space.

Stop it!

I had never been a soldier. They are stronger than I would ever be.

As this was spinning in my head, we were running ever downhill through tunnel after tunnel. Turn and turn and turn again and down a long slope. Finally, I could hear the deep Dolby drumming of engines, pumps and blowers. The reactors themselves wouldn't make any noise but the machinery to move the input and output around would be considerable. The reactors would, however, make a more than sufficient bomb. More than sufficient to tear Billy and Kathy's ship into a million pieces of slag if I couldn't get it far enough away in time Finally the tunnel opened up into a huge cavern. The reactor room. It looked like the engine room of the Enterprise, Next Generation style, only about ten times as large and a whole lot gloomier.

I was impressed - also stunned. Now what to do?

We hadn't met a gray-skinned soul. All alien life was snuggly hidden away in their shelters playing cards or having sex or whatever they did during these times. This was stupid and sloppy, like the lack of oversight of their slave labor force They clearly had infinite confidence in the biological screen of their energy barrier. They also underestimated how tricky humans could be. Maybe if they attacked Earth straight on instead of spending all this effort trying to work with slimy groups like the Consortium and ol' Smoky, and developing ways of spreading Black Oil and breeding infected bees, they wouldn't be so hard to defeat.

Just so there would be no surprises we left Ness to keep watch at the cavern entrance. I had Charley's plan in my mind of what we needed to do. Now to line up his schematics with what we had here It didn't take much time. Charley can plan and my memory was as good as it had ever been. The components in our backpacks went together so simply that a child could have done it. In just a few minutes the deadly thing sat there looking like a dark pimple low and to the rear of one of the massive blue columns.

Ben was surveying our handiwork as I fast-soldered the last circuit clip.

"But will it do what he says?" he asked dubiously.

"I'm not a mechanical engineer, but I've smelled enough plastic explosive to say 'yes' it will. Besides, it's too large to be a listening device and I doubt he'd want us to sneak in to improve their system performance."

"The timer?"

"Fifteen minutes more than it should take us to get back to the ship.

Now came the glitch; there had to be one. When we turned around Ness was no longer crouched worriedly by the tunnel entrance She was gone.

Ben was through the door first. He must have heard the same voices I did - real voices, not just those in our heads - and headed towards a room near a branch of the corridor we had come down minutes before. What I heard, however, brought back many an old nightmare.

"Woman, what are you doing here?"

Ness's voice was timid, toneless, far from her normal voice. "I was sent to the lower levels. I was alone when the horns sounded."

"These aren't the lower levels!"

"I was on my way up to find a bunker."

"Later. You have time. Help me with this human."

Realization hit me like a blow in the chest. That was Charley's voice. and yet it wasn't This was our bounty hunter, Scully The one we both knew on Earth. How I knew instantly that they were not the same despite the identical sounds of their voices, I don't know. Must have been my spooky sense just as I have always known a lot of things long before Mindspeech.

Some scuffling sounds came from the room where the two talked "I can't," came Ness's unexpectedly dull and weary voice. "He's too heavy."

"Useless creature! Take his feet then. I'll help."

I risked a glance as Ben did. We both pulled back quickly. Ben looked stunned; something was very wrong. *No, * I told him mind to mind. It all suddenly made sense. In my room on Fred, when they thought me too ill or out of my mind to notice I had seen Charley morph into Jeremiah Smith before he 'laid hands' upon me. Certainly, Charley could shapeshift into anyone he wanted but why Jeremiah Smith? 'Smith' was the only shapeshifter to line up clearly on the human side and, therefore, certainly an enemy. But then why 'display' me on City in a way that would generate as much pity as scorn? Why put me down on Dale where he had expected me to heal and grow stronger? Why teach me to fly and give me a ship? For this job, he said. What was the real point of this job? There was far more going on here than the need to fulfill some mercenary's contact and now I finally knew what it was.

The creature twenty feet from me, wrestling a limp human prisoner onto a table with Ness's reluctant help, did look like Charley, though he was wearing a kind of uniform the type of which I had never seen Charley wear. It was the voice that gave him away. A voice that sparked old, chilling memories the way, I realized, 'my' Charley's voice no longer did. I thought it was familiarity, but, no, this was Rodan, the original, the one who abducted and tortured children, the one Dan Rowe had known in his youth, but not, if I was right, the one who took Ben and Annicon and I from Dale.

Ness had clearly known both in City but never knew there had been two. More than once, she mentioned that Rodan's mood was highly changeable - from cold to nearly kind This was clearly the crueler of the two. Yet he gave no sign that he had ever seen her before. Rodan was clearly too aloof and too busy to recognize, beneath the dirt, the human he had known within the Family's sterile circle. He was also the one who had collected the others and me from Oregon and tested our bodies nearly to death. Charley on the other hand was the one who had given Ness her heart's desire the same hour he took me from City.

Rodan was the one who had decided not to kill me on the submarine but to leave me as good as dead. It was he who could have 'killed' me 'many times before.' But it must have been Charley, in Rodan's shape, who had healed my mother. (Oh, yes; I had pulled that out of Spender's mind before he cut into my brain.) Rodan, the bounty hunter, could not heal anything; the touch from this one could wither a dead branch.

Unexpectedly the pieces to a puzzle I wasn't even aware I'd been given, had rearranged themselves revealing an entirely new picture. Now I knew why Jeremiah Smith-Charley wanted this place blown into the Horsehead nebula and beyond. It must have become too dangerous, the game he was playing, posing as the monster It explained why Ben and Annicon seemed to know a different Charley than I did. They hadn't known Rodan; I had. Charley - who had taken on Rodan's shape - had to be particularly careful around me. He had tried to tell in that uncharacteristically chatty meeting how there were layers upon layers to this war Clearly, he had intended for me to remove one of them.

I was still crouched beside a doorway of inhuman size or shape and trying to decide what to do, when Ben made a small sound like strangled hiccup and rose from his hiding place. Without warning he just walked into the room with Ness and that devil There he stood facing the shapeshifter and Ness who had her arms full of a comatose man. At first all I could think about was how I wished that I had my service weapon like in the far off good old days. Only later did I remember to open a crack in my mind to hear what in the world Ben was thinking.

I nearly laughed. Ben wasn't thinking of anything. He had acted entirely on instinct and having nothing planned beforehand could not have been more perfect. He stood there with his empty hands and his mouth open and looked as dumbstruck as any newcomer on his planet. He also looked utterly harmless.

Through his eyes I saw the familiar granite face turn towards him in cold fury. "What do you want?" he snarled. The snarl was accompanied by a few words in some other language, all of which had to be derogatory.

Ben's mouth closed. Nervously, he wet his lips, and it opened again. "We're - er - wanted. She and I. Maintenance on shelter..." and he waved his hand vaguely in the direction we had been heading anyway.

The shifter hissed what was clearly an oath in any language and gestured to the patient with which Ness was struggling.

"Help her and then you both can go!"

They began to struggle with the test subject, who was a big man and now a dead weight as well, to clamp him down on a bench. I could sense Benjamin's distress to be part of such a thing but he wisely followed Ness's lead. The man would die if all our plans came to fruition though there wasn't much that could be done to cure what had already been done to him. His body was cold and stiff from what I could feel through Ben's hands and his skin had a purplish hue and undulated with innumerable and lumps beneath the skin. I was thankful that my agriculturally inclined friend hurried in a correctly awkward way and didn't focus on the lumps. The last thing my stomach needed was for them was to move.

While they worked I peered through the doorway with my own eyes and just inside noted a gleaming shelf of what could only be surgical instruments though of non-Human design. Stomach squirming, I flashed back on steel and sharp edges like these actually entering my own flesh early during my little side trip to hell. The scar on my chest that I seldom thought about ached A whirling saw had cut there. My sinuses burned so suddenly that I thought I might explode with a betraying sneeze. And then without warning all the pictures of all the scars on all the abductees in my beloved files began to flicker before my eyes Faster and faster they flashed, fuel for a rage to boil darker and darker. This creature had the lives of nine cats. What if he survived the explosion to stalk me and those I loved again? If Charley was willing to play his own dangerous game I could at least do this. We all had to be free from looking over our shoulders. Too many people, too many terrified children, had suffered too much.

*Keep him busy, * I shot to Ben.

Initially I registered consternation from that quarter, but within moments voices raised in the room. I heard scuffing sounds, and the shapeshifter snarled. Perfectly aware of the reckless act I was attempting and that failure would be catastrophic, I spun into the room on silent feet and closed my hand over the instrument that was most like an ice pick of the appropriate deadly length. Three running strides took me to where Ben had clumsily tripped and fallen against the shapeshifter who was now partially bent forward. Perfect. Before him was a sheet of polished metal on the side of a piece of equipment the size of a refrigerator. On that bright, imperfect surface I saw my own wolf-like reflection grow huge in the instant I closed. For the briefest second his eyes widened. Oh, he recognized me despite the funhouse image. It was the fact that I was here, when he hadn't seen me since 'Charley' had slipped me from his sadistic hands on City months before, that was the shock. I used that second to concentrate every ounce of strength in my body to thrust the blade home through muscles as thick and tough as a bull's and into the base of his skull Until the last I expected him to whip around like something supernatural and take my throat in those massive hands. He did start to straighten, to turn, but he had those hands encumbered with the heavy man he had so recently mistreated, so that slight turning was all he managed before the massive form of bone and muscle toppled forward

"Hide your eyes!" I shouted, "Get away! Now!" For even though I had turned away almost immediately, my eyes were already stinging from the fumes as the foaming green acid that was his blood beginning to burn acrid in the open air.

We were all three out of the room in less than five seconds and running.

"Ben, thank you," I wheezed once Rodan's toxic and very dead body, his unconscious test subject, and our bomb had been left a significant distance behind.

"For what?" he puffed, as shaky as I, the folly of his rashly entering that horrible room to rescue Ness having taken its toll.

"For reminding me of how I use to be."

"A crazy fool?"

"Damn right!" I cried. Literally cried. That was a surprise Tears ran down my cheeks and snot dripped from my nose neither of which I had time to wipe away. Both, however, were better than breaking down into hysterical laughter. What tipped the balance and kept me staggering onward on wobbly legs was the thought of you, my dear Scully. How furious you would be at me for pulling such a fool stunt - again As I recall, however, the lecturing sometimes didn't begin until days after the event when you were sure that I was going to survive my latest escapade. In that respect I was in far better shape than usual So far.

Ben's voice came into my head. Easier to talk this way when scaling the steeply inclined path to the front door of the buried power station. * Mulder, I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking. I just needed to get Ness out of there. *

I mentally shrugged. *Too often it just works out that way. * As we rounded a short turn, a harsh light appeared suddenly ahead of us. The tunnel entrance. The real race would begin once we were outside.

* By the way, * I panted. * How were you so sure that wasn't Charley, our Charley? How did you suspect that there were two? *

Ben refused to look me in the eye, which now that we were running side by side outside, he could. Noticing that Ness had fallen behind, he slowed imperceptibly for her and took her hand and then her arm to pull her along with him.

*Ben...*

* He didn't want you to know though I knew almost from the beginning. Annicon, too."

That came as a shock. *How? *

* Except when you were around, the Charley we knew spent too much time in other forms. Keeping his Rodan, or Dan Rowe, form didn't seem natural to him. So we asked. *

As easy as that. Out of the mouths of babes... Having no fear, they simply asked.

Somehow, Ness had been following what had largely been a silent conversation. "Two Rodans on City though not at the same time This makes more sense than you may think. The impostor must have played the part before because Rodan has been hot and cold with the Family ever since I started taking notice of such things, which would have been when I was about - twelve." She paused to catch her breath. The arm that was not clutching Ben's as they ran supported the small, muscular bulge of her waist. "If Charley took Mulder then it must have been he who gave me the baby. I thought that exceptionally gracious. Explains why he never sought me out here. What better test material?"

Did it really matter? I didn't trust either of the shapeshifters not to perform slight of hand with my genes.

"So why hasn't Rodan been scouring the universe for me?"

"We asked Charley about that. His group doctored the records. As a result of your 'testimony', you were taken for study by one of the racial purity factions who refused to believe that humans could be genetically related to them in any way."

"Dare I ask what supposedly happened to me there?"

Even out of breath, Ben managed to a dour tone. "The subject does not usually survive vivisection."

"Ouch." Made my guts twist, that thought did. And the timing of when Rodan became Charley, my real Charley, did make sense since it was only after I was taken aboard the Beast that I became, unwillingly, the demon's apprentice, and was forced to learn the gentle art of piloting these fifth dimensional ships. It's a dubious skill, you have to admit, considering what I now faced.

*So if we're on the same side, why didn't he tell me? Why the pretense? *

I didn't expect an answer.

*To maintain the pretense in case you ran into any of Rodan's confederates. You are being watched, always. You must know that They know your past relationship and could only expect you to loathe him. It had to appear that any obedience had been beaten into you. *

He had done that well enough, at least in the beginning. So had dumping me on Dale with Ben actually been an act of desperation and not of punishment? A way of keeping me safe and out of the way while something worse hugged his trail? He may not have known what a desperate, sadistic bastard the Mayor of Dale had become. And Charley had definitely softened since that pickup. Was he embarrassed for what had happened to me there? Good.

While we talked we worked our way at a slower pace through an ankle-twisting maze of rock. Now what passed for a plain on Rock Four was before us and time was passing more swiftly than our feet. Time to run again and run we did. I flashed on Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli tirelessly searching across the plains of Rohan, though this plain was black rather than green. Better than thinking about where we were headed. For that reason I shut Ben out, I shut them all out. Learning about Charley had been a shock but nothing like the aftershock of the beserker violence it had taken to kill Rodan. The bounty hunter dead. After all this time it seemed a dream. I needed some time, some quiet Only there was this bomb ticking away that I had laid with my own hands. No time.

Hard words stabbed into my mind. No, not mindspeech but memory 'It's not all about you, Mulder.' You said that once, maybe more than once. You were so angry. Those were not good times. You were right then; you're right now. It's not about me, a solitary man or at least a kind of a man. It's about what needs to be done.

'Damn right!' your voice concurs with uncharacteristic vehemence. 'The creature was evil, Mulder. Don't you dare feel guilty about killing that!'

You always were the predator, Scully. Usually I kill when I'm terrified, terrified for some future victim, or for you or for myself. I try not to kill in a rage because I have no judgement at times like that. I guess I made an exception in Rodan's case But you, you always could kill cold 'I do what I have to, I always have.'

'Including giving my ass a good tongue-lashing?'

'Including that. Not that I enjoyed it but sometimes I thought that I'd go crazy if I didn't. Damn it, Mulder, you didn't leave me any choice! What else could I do to keep you safe? Tie you down?'

'That would do for a start.'

'Mulder! Please don't. I'm tired. I'm so tired of these games Haven't we gotten past that?'

I knew the answer to that one all too well. 'Even in my imagination, I'm still afraid.'

Her voice came soft into my mind like a cool breath across my brow. 'Not anymore, Mulder. There isn't time any more for that.' Then with sadness surpassing every sadness I've ever known the last whisper. 'I guess no time for anything anymore.' 'No, wait! Don't go! Damn it to hell, Scully, you know that I tried to come back. You know how hard. It's not fair, you know After all I've been through, after all you must have suffered all these months, you would think that we'd be owed that much But Fate doesn't keep score, does it? Just keep rolling the dice and somewhere between the rolls we have to make do the best we can. Well Fate was some high roller on our watch. Couldn't she have let it alone for a while, get a burger, take a leak. Shit, go to Hawaii. But, no. Just roll, roll, roll and with loaded dice yet!'

'Mulder... Mulder...' soothed the voice. 'We hardly ever said the words, we may not have done the 'dirty deed' more than twice, but I know, and you must know, that we loved. We loved more purely and fiercely than many an old married couple.'

I wanted to laugh, suddenly, wildly, but I didn't have the breath. 'So where have you been?' I whispered. 'All these months and only a phrase now and then in my head and now this torrent.'

'Ah.' That Scully sound, that intake of breath. I can almost see the slow smile. 'Because you had hope before. On that kind of hope you knew that you would see me again. No doubts. But hope is all used up. You need me now to remind you that I've always been there, inside you. Never... ever... separated from you even here.' Reality came back into focus. Ugly gray-green sky and this plain of black gravel. Ben was running like a wounded deer beside me, staggering because his right side supported Ness who was gamely keeping up with his help. They were running for their lives and the child's, while I... 'You're right, Scully. They run for their lives while with every step I come closer to leaving mine behind me.'

I see the lights of the shipyard over the false horizon now They seem brighter even then before. Ironic; I guess you could say that I'm going into the light. At least I'm not being pushed into it; I'm going on my own. Scary though, not the light itself, but the getting to it. Hell lies between here and when I can finally rest.

We top a rise and I can see the ship now. It grows closer and more incredibly huge with every footfall. From three, four directions, the last few figures are racing for it, humans in ragged clothes. By the ship a dark speck holds a light. A few more yards, I can make the figure out. It is Kathy, tall and strong and anxious, to show us the way in. Now Billy is beside her. He looks disheveled, clothes more torn than before, a little bloody about the mouth. I don't need to open that door in my mind to know that they and their groups now control the ship My heart descends like two full fists of lead are lying in my stomach. It drops lower and lower as the distance closes. Four hundred yards, three hundred, two... If I could remember eating anything I'd be sick.

There will be no moment for rest and reflection, Scully. I've had that. I can see the urgency in their eyes. Other doors along the sides of the ship are closing. There are no other figures outside except, I note, a pile of silent alien bodies, dumped to the side. Alien lives taken during the raid. So we are the last The ship is ready to go except for two things: the gravity generator still functions and the ship needs its pilot.

All at once fifty yards from where the two figures fidget and urge us on, I feel my feet leave the ground and don't want to return. It's an illusion but I feel like I'm falling 'up'. The leaden ball in my stomach turns to acid and threatens to rush back up my throat.

My arms pinwheel, I must look ridiculous but its instinctive. I shoot a glance at Ben and Ness. They cling to each other like children, their eyes showing the same panic I feel as they struggle to stay upright.

Yes, the gravity generators have shut down but at least there is still some gravity - spin from the tumbling asteroid - so it's all relative. We do find some purchase on the ground after a few terrifying microseconds. We land off balance and softly, like those old films of the astronauts on the moon. Disoriented, 'up' from 'down' is not so clear as it once was. Hands reach out for us and pull us forward. A dozen, ragged abductees spill from the ship, form a chain, and begin to tow us in.

'Don't touch me!' I want to scream, but I don't, at least not out loud and the door in my mind is firmly shut. Desperately, they tow to pull the three of us to that small black opening in the side of the ship.

The metal railing is in my hand now, colder than my skin. The metal ramp rises up under my numb feet. The hands pulling on my arms are hard with desperation. They can't touch, however, the place where I hold safe a piece of your soul. One last embrace, my never love, my ever love, my constant star. It's the warmth of your brightness that I'll follow into the light. When your time comes, find me. I'll keep my own light on for you to bring you home.


BENJAMIN

Soon after we left the tunnels Mulder shut himself off from me I assume that that meant from everyone. His face... I can't describe that kind of despair. The tendons in his neck looked stretched to breaking and not only from the effort of running though after being so recently ill he wasn't exactly in prime condition. There were tears flying off from his staring eyes though I don't think he actually saw anything as we ran. His attention was within. I didn't intrude; it was soon work enough keeping Ness on her feet and the both of us even with Mulder She tried the best that she could, but her legs were shorter and for obvious reasons she had trouble catching her breath, so we didn't talk but we didn't need to. There was only one place to go; there was only one thing to do. Get to the ship! Lift off and away! Her body was warm beside mine and strong and she wasn't too proud to put her arm around my neck when she needed it.

It was odd that feeling of strength and need and truth. Odd and wonderful at once. She was so small so deceptively fragile that my own body seemed to swell. I felt taller, stronger and my head swam as if I'd been drinking too much of Jezadiah's winter ale There was no time to think about such things, however, just run and follow Mulder's figure whose stride was not so smooth either any more. He ran ragged as if he were running steeply downhill and would stop if he could. But there was no stopping this.

The ship when it came into sight gleamed like a star, a thousand times brighter than the light of home during the blackest fall storm. But then we grew closer and it filled my entire vision and the immensity of it struck me as never before. I was finding breath to shout something to Mulder when all at once the world turned strange. My feet didn't want to touch the ground and Ness suddenly clung to me as if she were afraid of falling. The heavens rolled as much under my feet as over it. We floundered dizzy and disoriented for long seconds before hands grasped ours and we all staggered for the boarding ramp. The gravity generators had switched off as they were timed to do but that meant that we had to leave NOW and we weren't even inside the ship. No time to prepare, no time to say to say what?

The hatch engine whined behind us and within seconds shut with a decisive Boom! I found myself and Ness alone in a gray metal tunnel stupidly clutching a safety rail as Kathy and Billy and two others hustled a gasping Mulder along at a run. And why shouldnt they? Who was I?

Someone who should be there, answered an ache in my chest.

"Hurry," I panted to Ness. "We have to follow them."

She was bent over, struggling for breath, and holding her side and the slight swell of her abdomen at the same time. "You go.. I'll follow." When I hesitated, she pushed me with surprisingly ferocity. "Be with him! Go on!"

I did. I had to while they were still in sight. We wove through the ship. Although larger in every way, the interior reminded me enough of Fred, Charley's ship, that I wasn't completely overwhelmed. Somehow I sensed when we were nearing the command room. don't ask me how, just a feeling, a slight change in the architecture of the serpentine corridors. There were no longer any travelers either, ragged men and women looking scared and hopeful at once, such as I had glimpsed from time to time nearer the entrance. Some had even given me directions.

When I caught up with Mulder and his escort, they were standing before a set of wide double doors. Kathy was aggravated, demanding that Mulder go inside. Billy was quieter and more frightened but also insistent. "We have to go now!"

But Mulder was waiting for something. I saw it in his dead white face as I skidded around the corner. He'd been waiting for me "Now I'll go." As a group, we drew closer and the doors slid open to reveal a vast shadowy cavern without form or definition beyond. I shouldn't have been surprised; on Fred the Command Room had been like a cathedral.

Despite his agitation, there was a definite pause before Mulder took his first step. We followed. "Only Ben," Mulder ordered in a voice so tight that it sounded like that of a stranger. "Get the others as ready as you can because when we go, there won't be any warning." He took a deep shuddering breath. "And it's going to be rough."

Kathy looked angry and made no move to leave as if she wanted to make sure that this got done. There was more sympathy on Billy's face. He took her arm and was about to lead her away when Mulder stopped them. "Just remember," he said sternly, "that with luck you'll be picked up by Charley. I know that hell be watching for us, he inclined his head in my direction. It will be difficult considering his likeness to Rodan but you have to trust him. You have no choice. Just follow Ben's lead." Something dark stirred in the otherwise expressionless eyes. In any case, the devil is dead. I know he's dead. Ben can tell you, we killed him just a little while ago. That at least you can be certain of."

There followed a curt nod of understanding from Billy but he didn't move away. He watched as Mulder faced the open doorway, took a deep breath, and then, biting down on his lower lip, moved into the room. For the first time something like sympathy touched Billy's face and even Kathy looked away. As ordered, I followed though I would have anyway. The current from the door as it slid closed moved the air on the back of my neck.

The control room was a cave, a dim vastness, and at least half a dozen times the size of the one on Fred. And it had been waiting. As we approached, a light came up, a streak of startlingly white that gradually widened to illuminate one of the massive, altar-like command chairs.

Mulder had gone ahead and was just standing beside that stone throne, staring at it. No, not just standing I could see as I came up beside him, but shaking, visibly shaking with the fingertips of one hand touching the cold stone. To keep himself from falling? Muscles in his face, on his jaw, twitched.

"The flesh remembers," he snarled and as close as I was I got slammed by the power of the disgust he felt at the betrayal of his body.

"What can I do?"

He raised weary hazel eyes to mine and then, unexpected, raised his hand and laid it along the side of my face. It was chilled from the stone.

Time stood still.

"This is new," I said, surprised at the quaver in my voice.

"Saw this in a movie once."

"Mulder, this is absolutely not the time for jokes."

"This is the best time," but there was no humor in the words that were raspy with tension.

I felt him open to me or I should say he directed his mind into mine. It was like nothing before, like a beam of blazing sunshine. Even the tips of his fingers against my face were suddenly hot. His thoughts were still a blank to me, however I'd not known him before to have such control.

"So in the movie what was this for?"

"The main character gave his soul into another man's keeping."

The warmth was gone. A harbinger of winter blew across my heart.

"I don't want your soul."

"I'm not giving it to you; I wouldn't know how. Scully knows that I doubt that I even have one, at least not in the religious sense. I'm just giving you my journal, everything I've stored up about this trip. I want you to find her, she has a right to know."

Instantly the chill became the full heart-stopping black cold of winter. "I won't be your errand b-boy!" I protested. "You tell her yourself!"

"Ben." His voice came soft as the first snow. "You know that's not likely. And she has to be told. She has the right to more than silence. Not knowing, that's the cruelest thing." His hand came away and he seemed to stagger. I reached for him thinking he might fall, but he waved me off.

"Let's get this over with." In a sudden fury he began to strip off his clothes. There was gooseflesh on that skin that fit so smoothly over his muscles.

Time was moving again, moving far too quickly.

With a leap as if given time to think about it he wouldn't have been able to do it, he was draped in the most uncomfortable position imaginable over the chair. Head back, wrists and legs dangling over the sharp edges, every muscle was as rigid as carved ice. There was no molding of this unforgiving throne around his body, just cold and heartless stone.

"Lock me in! Now!" he ordered, and an image burst like a flame into mine of what control on the instrument bank on my right I had to push. But my gut and my head registered the terror that leaked around the closed windows of his mind of just what 'locking' him in meant. Obscene metal claws leaping out for the vulnerable face, three on each side, biting down hard and pulling. The metal spikes driving through scarred but healed skin into wrists and ankles. The blood spurting, running. Agony.

"No!" I cried.

"Ben, don't be a fool!"

"I can't!"

"Ben, we don't have time for this. Do you want everyone to die? It may be too late already."

But I stood, my body frozen, paralyzed. I knew that it had to be done, but my body refused to do this terrible thing.

An inarticulate shout exploded like a bomb in my head. As if all the shutters over all the windows and door in his mind were thrown back at once, the power like a gun under too much pressure burst out. Staggered by the spear thrust of pain I was unaware that, literally, the door had flown open and what seemed like a herd descended. He had called the four - Billy, Theresa, Kathy, and Gary. Behind the four followed the one he couldn't have called, Ness. Sweat-stained and pale; she was the only one to look in my direction. Distracted by her desperate eyes, I didn't see/hear clearly the exchange between the other four and Mulder.

Billy was looking frantically around the huge space beyond the focus of Mulder and his chair. "You can't do this by yourself!" It was only then that I saw in the shadows what he had seen Four more command chairs ringed around Mulder's central one Kathy, Theresa and Gary were each already moving towards a chair shedding their rags, leaving one for Billy.

"No! Mulder ordered to the three in fury when he saw their intent. Just lock me in and get out of here!"

"We're not exactly giving you a choice," Kathy barked.

"But I've never worked as part of a group and none of you have done any of this."

"You've never tried to move anything of this size on your own either, Billy argued in a softer voice as he reached for the control panel I had refused to touch. Even if all we can offer is moral support, we have to do something. There must be a reason for there to be five of these. No more talk, no more time!"

With that Billy brought his hand down with a final, desperate stab. In response Mulder screamed, screamed with the most horrible scream I had ever heard. Billy had found the courage to do what I could not.

Coward that I was, I refused to look in my friends direction even though the worst over The strangling sounds from the tear-choked throat, however, those I did hear as Billy raced for Theresa's chair. Another scream pierced the air as the claws leaped out and the spikes drove through her frail skin and into bone. Gary's chair - and another long scream. Kathy's chair - and another, less loud. She was determined to be tough and had had more time to prepare. And then there were her scars. She may have known worse.

Billy himself was naked now, leaping. I heard the slap of his unprotected skin against the cold stone. "Ness!" he called, the word barely recognizable what with the shaking of his voice. So he hadn't been unaffected by what he had done and what was going to happen to him. Ness left my side and ran forward. She had seen how the locking was done, but I found myself beating her there and stabbed at the control myself. A spray of blood caught me in the face. If Billy could do that to Mulder, I could do the same to him and Ness shouldn't have to. No one should have to induce such cruelty who was carrying life the way she was.

Under my feet, in my bones, I felt huge engines begin to power up. "Out of here now!" came a strangled command, I'm not sure from who. There was too much pain in that room. I glanced over at Mulder. There was blood streaming from the spikes in wrists and knees, blood on his strained face so it looked like he was weeping black rivers.

Though he could only move his eyes, that horrible gaze was for us. Be good p-parents. He had to struggle to find breath, each one a heart-wrenching effort "And promise... tell S-Scully l- loved her..." His mouth moved some more, tugging at the impossibly distorted face but I couldn't make out the words Something about the rip tide of misery and hopelessness and terror in that room, Ness's hand gripping mine, and the crashing like an ocean in my ears, made it impossible to hear more Were those the engines? Their whine had risen and deepened so that they sounded like wild beasts, newly awakened and frantic to be free.

Mulder's eyes were closed in strain, as the bloody eyes of the others were closed. They were far, far away from us now, locked together in their common, impossible purpose.

Ness was dragging on my arm. "He said 'get out'!" she shouted as close to my ear as she could manage.

Had he? We turned and ran, or tried to. The floor bucked under our feet just as we reached the door so that we barely made it through before the panel slammed shut behind us with a 'BOOM'!

The floor was not rising now; it was more like an earthquake Up, down, sideways. At least at times the ship was off the ground or was that only the artificial gravity flickering on and off. One second we floated clinging to walls, then we were crushed, pushed flat under a giant hand. On the floor beneath the carvings on the dark walls of the corridor, Ness, crumpled in an awkward heap, was obviously crying but not enough to be heard above the roaring of the engines. With a terrible effort she reached for me. As quickly, the gravity disappeared altogether. My stomach lurched as we were thrown into the air Then it returned, a hundred-fold, to slam us into the carvings and down. Ness screamed, not in fright this time, but in a sharp, terrible pain mixed with terror. Though our gyrating, booming world was doing its best to pull us apart, I groped for her. I don't know how I managed to reach her but I did, a weeping bundle squashed between wall and floor by invisible forces beyond her strength. I huddled around her, my breath in her hair, aware suddenly at how much time had past since we had set the charges in the power station. Too much time.

No, not too much time; just enough, just barely. Though I didn't know it then, at that moment the charges under the power station went off beginning a chain reaction of mammoth, progressive explosions along the spine of what would be Rock Four for only a few moments longer And the ship - this limping, straining white mountain of a ship - wasn't nearly far enough away.

The Ship Sometime later

Sounds, sounds echoed like those inside the kind of cave where water dripped into a shallow pond. In time they grew louder to boom along like the beat of a drum.

It took time to realize that what I was hearing was footsteps, many scurrying ones and one set of slow deliberate ones. The inside of my aching head was the drum. From above, fingers pressed down seeking the pulse at my throat but stayed only long enough to test whether or not I lived.

I did, but not happily.

A series of words faded in and out above me but I couldn't make them out. Then a woman spoke and that sound was still unusual enough to cut through the fog.

"...so much blood."

Blood? My blood? I certainly hurt in enough places.

But another woman was crying.

I did my best to shake away the gray shapes before my eyes Bodies filed past. Limping. Bruised. Two were bent over a figure on the floor beside me.

Ness!

I raised by head. Somehow I managed a sitting position but in doing so put my right hand down into a slippery pool of blood The pool was dry around the edges so it had been there some time, maybe an hour. And the pool was cold, very cold, like the air.

But not my blood. I pushed the legs aside that blocked my view Ness on her side; she didn't have the strength to sit. She was crying over something in her hands, a thing the length of her palm covered in blood like that that seemed to be everywhere but especially between her thighs.

She saw me staring at her and somehow found the strength to speak so I must have looked as stupidly dazed as I felt.

"I-I lost the baby."

Stupid! I should have guessed that immediately.

Two forms in work gang rags stepped back my range of vision Very efficiently but very gently, they placed her on a litter and began to carry her away.

"Wait!"

I was struggling, very ineffectively, to stand, my muscles as insubstantial as a chewed toro root, when other former prisoners helped me to her side. Her white face terrified me. On Dale this kind of trauma was a death sentence but, I reminded myself over and over, this wasn't Dale. Supposedly others could help her, just not me.

Suddenly a cold hand latched onto mine. "I'll hold. Go to him!" she urged me in a ghost of her former voice and I was left standing stupidly as the litter moved on.

Him? When I first woke I had been aware only of Ness because she was all I could see, but now my vision had cleared. Indistinct forms became more former prisoners. Pairs of them managed litters and each bore an absolutely silent figure. Two were ahead of me down the corridor, one was beside me and a fourth was just exiting the command room! It had taken this long for the where and why to come back. There had been five in that room on those beds of pain, and of the four I could see none of them was Mulder But their skin! It was like singed paper, white and dry and flaking as if they were something old and dead that had been left out in a desert sun way too long.

"Mulder..."

I broke away from the two who has helped me and stumbled into the command room.

There was this smell, or rather a host of smells. There was sweat and urine and worse but most of all was the stench of something sweet and oily and burned. My stomach threatened to crawl up my throat. Charley of all incomprehensible figures was standing before the central 'rock' gently extracting a limp arm from a spike. It didn't want to come; he had to tug with some effort. When it came away, the once bright spike was encrusted to the hilt with something dry and dark. Hollow-eyed workers were attempting to free the long, bare legs. At least they had released the skin of his face from the claws first. Still I wanted to throw up. The condition of the skin made him look long-past dead. It was that swollen and distorted; the wounds looked old and burnt.

Oh, Mulder... Poor friend. Didn't make sense. A person would have to be dead days to look this bad. Certainly not that much time had passed.

The last spike was finally withdrawn, the dried blood and torn tissue pulling roughly at the skin.

I winced and doing caught a glimpse of movement. Eyes opened Slowly, but they opened. Alive? No, not possible. But there they were. They didn't belong to any man I knew, however. The eyes of the man I knew were as often green as a forest with mischief as they were brown with serious contemplation. Nor did they pierce the heart with the fire of their anger. Theses were not so much eyes as dead coals burnt to cinder and dust.


Ness stared upward, up and up. It was a small room but tall, the naked bodies stacked on shelves twenty high at least, two to a shelf. They looked like corpses but there was only the slightest scent of putrefaction. The sickening sweet scent would have been stronger if even one of this company had been truly dead.

Noticing a shiver run through her slight frame, I put my arm around her. She pressed against me, her oat-colored hair drifting under my nose. In other times I would have felt a wave of giddy, adolescent hormones. Not now, certainly not in these terrible days. This was comfort, my desperate need as strong as hers. We left the dim 'morgue', as Theresa had called it in her last conscious moments, for the anteroom, a place vaguely circular, draped in shadows.

Charley was frowning as he stood over Mulder's body, and 'body' was about all it was. He had not opened those dead eyes again, nor made any movement. The rare rise and fall of his chest was barely detectable. He wore no clothes but unlike the others was covered from the waist down with one of the hand-made woven cloths that only Ness and her family members had worn on Rock Four, as I had for a short time. Ness and I now wore ship-type jumpsuits that matched Charley's, a kind of camouflage to show that we were with him. The cloth that covered Mulder was striking because its colors weren't faded and encrusted with dirt and filth as the cloth worn by the imprisoned Family members had been. It was the color, mostly blues and rich browns, which was thing oddest thing of all in this colorless place of iron-gray walls and pale-white skin. It made me long for the plowed fields of Dale.

"Where did that come from?" I asked to no one in particular when I first saw it, two days before. That had been on my first visit to Mulder and what was left of the other pilots in Fred's infirmary. The incongruous cloth had covered his nakedness then as now. It had seemed too heavy and rough-weaved a thing to touch the horribly bruised and battered flesh.

"He wove that himself," came Ness's soft voice that day from where she was recovering her strength on her own pallet beyond where the critical 'Five' lay like corpses lying in state. "It was when we lived together on City. He took it when he left, they found it with the few things Charley had brought from the little ship that Mulder calls 'the beast'."

"He told me some of City. I can't imagine it. Tell me more when you feel up to it."

"You'll see it for yourself very soon," she promised me, the shadows in her eyes even darker than her bruised face.

And I did, for that's where we were now. Charley, Ness, and I and those of the Five who still lived had shuttled unobtrusively to City, a magnificently overwhelming impossibility of a technological marvel turning slowly in space. Ness had lived her life there except for the few months on at the research station and her feeling about the place were as stormy as they were fond.

As always, my eyes went to the narrow band around his wrist. It blinked with a blue light at every heartbeat. The light, which had been slowing over the last days, now blinked erratically, sometimes skipping, sometimes rushing. The light itself was so dim that if his arm were not in a particularly deep shadow it probably wouldn't have registered at all.

"We're risking detection!" Charley grumbled for what must have been the sixth time that hour.

"I know how much you risked to bring the four of them back here, but we need a little more time. We have to know if this is what he wants!"

"This arrangement is his only chance, unless this kills him first." The shapeshifter held up the device that we knew contained the stimulant that might bring Mulder around for a few precious minutes.

"We have to have him conscious to ask him," Ness whispered.

Frown deepening to a scowl, Charley pressed the device against the blue-white neck. When he pulled it away, a strip of the dried skin flaked away. The skin of all of the remaining Four was doing that, drifting away at the slightest touch like chaff in the wind.

Thinking about his skin kept me from thinking about his heart We knew that it was swollen and was bleeding inside. Most of his other organs were not in any better shape. Even with the help of the others, if they had been of any help and not just a distraction, the stress of trying to lift the mammoth ship had been too much for this frail human body. He had nearly burst that heart, his gut, trying. But the effort had been enough, if barely. Of the two hundred forty-three humans who had made it aboard the ship, only twenty had died in addition to Ness's baby. As Mulder had predicted, the ride had been very rough, the explosion of the asteroid, far too close, but we had lived long enough to be picked up by Charley and his big cruiser, the one that Mulder in better times had named Fred. That seemed to have been in another life but had been in fact less than five days.

Thankfully, Fred had been large enough to hold all of us. Odd that. It was as if Charley had had some premonition that our little act of terrorism would also turn out to be a rescue mission. In fact, Fred had been a comfortable size for us all with only a little room to spare Since Charley had administered the stimulant, I had been intently staring for any sign. I feared there would be none, he was that burnt out. There really was a chance that under such stress his life force would, like a casual step on a dry branch, simply snap.

The small blue light on the wristband, faltered. Beside me, I felt Ness hold her breath. Wait... wait.... Then the blinking began again, a little irregularly, but also a little faster and certainly with more strength. Ness breathed again and I felt the bands around my own heart loosen. As we watched, Mulder's chest moved as well, with effort, but still with the first real breath that we'd seen.

I forced myself to touch his hand. More bits of hid dry skin floated away. The appendage was as heavy and cold as death. I held the hand anyway though it lay like a stone in mine Ness was calling his name and touching his straw-dry hair Another struggling breath and lips parted and eyelids fluttered No, I thought, remembering the burned ciders I had seen, please not the eyes. My attention left the dead hand. The eyes opened haltingly and what I saw were as expressionless as flat, gray river stones that endless time had washed smooth.

His mouth shaped words though he hadn't really breath to speak "S-Scully...?"

What else did I expect? When had she ever not been ever first in his thoughts?

"Peace," Ness whispered. "You've been badly injured. It was the effort of raising the ship. You should never have tried, but you saved us all."

His brow furrowed.

"The ship on Rock Four, remember? The one you and the others were piloting."

A deep line narrowed the eyes and he frowned.

Charley was shaking his head. "The trauma. Of course, it affected the mind as well. This is useless."

"He has to remember some of it. Do you remember being abducted?" I asked. "You were taken from earth. Lots of people were. Do you remember the space station? City? Ness? The planet Dale? The farm at sunrise? At sunset?"

Do you remember me?

Consternation showed on that corpse-pale face or as much as a man barely living can show.

Charley came forward and placed a finger on the pink scar, straight and smooth down the length of Mulder's breastbone. "Do you remember the tests? Of being cut here? Of the chair?"

A pause and then Mulder's head jerked. Then there were a series of small spasms. It was almost as if I could see the memories popping up erratic and terrifying.

"Scully..." came out of that ruined mouth, cracked and dry like an old man's. A prayer, a petition, more wish than words.

"She's not here," Ness apologized in her softest voice. "That's what this is about. You've been gone from her for a long time She must be frantic wondering what happened to you. That's the point. Mulder, you're dying- "

"Ness!"

"Ben, he has to be told... Mulder, If you die out here, she'll never know."

She gave that a moment to sink in, for him to feel the passage Death had already made across his ruined flesh. Nothing moved except the eyes and that mouth. I don't know if his body was capable of more, whether the nerves even worked, or if he just had lost the strength, or the will.

A shadow of incredible sadness passed over his face. It's like that when there is no more time for dreams.

"S-So?" finally came out with a rattling breath. Then came a few words I couldn't understand and then "...choice?" 'Do I have a choice?' he meant.

I looked towards Charley to see if he wanted to do the telling I found him changed. As often as I had seen it happen, it always surprised me. A much thinner man stood beside me, still tall, but slightly stooped of shoulder and with an older and lined fine. A peaceful, gentle face. I'd seen this form of Charley before. It was the one he had not wanted Mulder to see before.

"Remember me?" he asked in a voice that matched that face.

Mulder's eyes narrowed as if thinking was painful. "Smith."

The lined face smiled. "Right. Jeremiah Smith, or one of them We wear this form in remembrance of the human man who first convinced our faction of your 'Humanity'. You know that I mean you no harm. You know that I fight your enemies. What the woman says is true, you have been badly injured, so badly that I can do nothing. I wouldn't know where to start this time. Death is inevitable unless you can find some very special help. Our common enemy has developed a powerful treatment; it's carried by a virus. I can give it to you. In time it can reverse all your injuries, but it will go beyond that if not stopped. You will be transformed into something barely more human than they are." Mulder's weary but horrified gaze was fixed on the speaker's face. He heard; he very clearly understood. "You are only one of the many nearly dead here. After they are infected, they will be seeded on your planet. Some will truly die but most will transform unless - " Mulder gaze was no longer weary. " - unless one of my persuasion finds them. We have knowledge and experience. We know that at a critical point in the process you can be brought back. Whole and wholly human."

With alarm, I noticed that the little blue light on Mulder's wrist had begun to flicker again. For a moment his eyes threatened to roll back in his head. I gripped the cold hand I still held more tightly. At the same time Ness placed her own slim hand on his barely rising chest. He came back but not without a struggle. His eyes roamed uneasily from the hovering Ness to me without comprehension.

"Who?" the blue and cracked lips asked.

"We're your friends, remember? Ness and Ben."

One eyebrow cocked upwards. "Friends?" he mouthed as if he found the concept humorous, still the answer seemed explanation enough. "If I do this... could go wrong. Transformed, you said Can't be good."

The Jeremiah Smith form of Charley exchanged glances with me and shook his head ever so slightly. Even a dying man could interpret that message.

"Have to kill me then..." the dying man said with surprising firmness. "Have to promise."

"We aren't killers," Jeremiah protested.

"I promise!" Ness's soft strained voice swore with cold conviction.

His eyes went to her face, searching for truth. Her face was hard. It was the expression she wore when she remembered the slavery and torture so many had been forced into and the escape that had resulted in her dead child. He seemed to find what he was looking for. His eyes went to mine. He demanded reassurance that he would not be allowed to exist as an evil that would be the scourge of his people But how could I do such a thing to Mulder? I had loved him, still loved him

But then so had Ness and she had buried her baby and too many of her family in space. If I was going to give up the life of the hermit there was much that I was going to need to be willing to do for love.

"It's hard," I said.

"But I'll already be dead."

I gave him what he wanted. Though he no longer knew me from Adam, I said the words.

"I suppose there is no other way?" he asked of 'Charley' with a voice so weak now that the sound was barely that which a leaf makes when the wind blows it across dry ground.

"No other way to both save your life and return you to Earth Right now, the craft that are allowed to approach your world are being closely monitored. You have more than one ally but we are not in a position to help directly at the moment. Sometimes we are, but not now." The face softened in a way that Charley's never could. "I grieve for my part in this. I grieve that I cannot do more. This is not nearly compensation enough for all you have been through. But it is all that is within our power at this time. Can you forgive me?"

Mulder's eyes had closed for a long moment. A deep pain crossed his face. When the eyes reopened his pale face wore a dazed expression. "What?"

"Will getting you to Earth and sending word to have you picked up there to be restored be good enough?"

Confusion replaced the dazed expression. "I know you. Jeremiah Smith. What. ?" Now he looked at Ness and me and with even less comprehension. He had begun to shake. "I'm so cold."

I stared up at Charley in dismay but he only shook his head as his bowed shoulders bowed even more deeply. "Agent Mulder, you were hurt. These two are your friends. They've stood by you these months. But the truth is, your body is shutting down You're dying. We've told you this before. Don't you remember?"

"Scully- "

"She isn't here but she's waiting for you."

The lined face of this older Charley turned to us. In his hand was the little pressure spray that would deliver the virus. "The damage is accelerating. We don't have much time if there's going to be anything in his mind worth saving. There's a pattern for restoring muscle, not for recovering memory."

The dry lips of the man on the pallet trembled. Fear held in the fiercest control possible was in the dark eyes and in the cold sweat of his brow. Mulder had heard and maybe he could even feel Death stalking him moving with furtive footsteps across the grass in the night.

"He never said to go through with it!" Ness protested.

"But you promised to give him what he asked for, you both did So will I. I'll help you get back to Earth, to him, but we don't have time to go through it all again."

Mulder understood enough to look scared, only he clearly did not have the strength to look as scared as he should have been. The little blue light could barely be seen and the beats I saw came slowly.

"It has to be now!" Charley declared.

"You won't be alone," I promised, the heavy, cold hand in mine "We won't leave you."

The lips etched up in the attempt at a smile but it was as if the effort was too much trouble and never quite got there "Somehow I always knew... in the end... alone but for the kindness of strangers."

Ness and I each grasped a hand though I don't know if he felt either. "Not alone and not strangers," I swore to which Ness, touching his hair now, eyes filled and glistening, added, "You'll just have to trust us."

He tried harder to smile this time. Certainly something wry came alive in his face, an expression so dear and so familiar that I felt the tears that I had struggled so hard to hold back rise full and warm in my chest. "Trust... the magic word. Do this then, whatever 'this' is," and his eyes closed even as Charley drove the poison through his skin.

A shudder went through him as if the potion burned like a thread of fire going in. His lips drew back in a grimace then moved one more time. I bent close to hear but there was not enough breath Surprisingly, his hand closed over mine. It was probably only the muscles trembling. I say this because a set of spasms went through him then. It was different than the ones I'd seen before. This series began in the deepest part of him. I doubt that he felt any pain, but I'll never know because his face went still then as all personality drifted away like the drop of dew exposed to the summer sun.

In time, his grip loosened, his hand fell to his side. The dim blue light on his wristband blinked more and more slowly. In a very few beats it went out and did not return.

I was all at once aware of - silence. The silence of an empty mind when I'd hadn't even been aware that I was receiving. Even as damaged as he was there had still been some connection, but not now. After some interminable seconds a woman's soft arms went around me. Her head came to rest against my shoulder that was all too soon wet with her tears. These, too, were silent.

It was all I could do to leave him, just one more on the shelves in the room with so many others soon to be seeded like little pockets of infection on the planet of his birth. We placed him next to Billy with Theresa and Gary nearby. Kathy would not make this trip; she had not made it this far. Her uncertainties were at an end. Our last action was to fold up the blanket. We would have to take it away so he would look like all the others. He did look like the others, all pale or dusky flesh. More than a few had the same blackened and horrible wounds.

Blanket clutched in her arms, back straight, Ness walked out with Charley. Only I lingered for one last look. I wish I hadn't. He looked so cold and, despite the company, so very alone.


BENJAMIN: Epilogue

As I remember, I made a scene the day that Mulder 'died'. When Mulder's mind faded into infinite silence I went into a kind of numb shock. That dam of numbness broke just as we were entering the long umbilical tunnel that would lead us back to Charley's ship. To Mulder's body behind so alone on City to be dispensed with like the others, like so many seeds. It was guilt, plain and simple. Easier to rail and weep over Charley's 'killing' him with his potions than to accept what could not be changed. I knew I was wrong; that he was only in deep hibernation to repair the damage before the metamorphosis that if all went well would never happen, that all would be well. That's logic, however, and emotions ripped raw can't reason like that. I clung to Ness all that long, dark trip between the silver of the slowly spinning station and Charley's ship. Bewildered and lost, not understanding in the least the hard soul of this soft creature that Mulder had brought me, I allowed her to tow me back. I lapsed back into my numb place after that until Ness and I and the nearly two hundred others arrived back on Dale.

The large proportion of women made the new colonists welcome, that and the supplies that Charley brought in his confusing but familiar guise of the young Dan Rowe. There was metal, each ounce of iron as precious as gold, and preserved food because it was winter and we were bringing so many extra mouths to feed Most blessed of all, he brought the promised remedy for the bleeding syndrome that had killed Dale's women.

Why bring the refugees to Dale? Where else could the surviving members of Ness's family have gone? The pressures of the civilization on Earth would have been hell to them, or so I'm told. Besides, Earth was still closed to the alien faction that Charley belonged to, so he couldn't bring the more recent abductees home either.

Dale was certainly what I needed. I didn't truly rouse from my stupor over Mulder's death until I took in that first lungful of bitingly crisp winter air. I at least had reached home safely, though not the person had I been so few weeks before.

That was a phenomenally busy winter. Though we lived in shelters Charley sent down from the ship that were better in all respects than any cabin on Dale, we all knew they were temporary. It fell to me to teach and teach and teach. There was so much the new colonists needed to know. The Family who had lived all their lives on a space station had to learn that food would not just be delivered to you every morning through a little door in their 'habitat'. The abductees from Earth weren't much better prepared. Once free of their various prisons, they had assumed that their lives would get back to normal. They had to realize that food would never come wrapped in plastic or served in cardboard boxes. When winter's back was finally broken there would be so much to do.

Ness and I were awkward with each other that winter though 'together'. Being together had been assumed from the first. The awkwardness came from neither of us being able to forget the oath we had sworn and how impossible it was going to be to fulfill. But there was more than the oath between us; there was Mulder I knew how she had felt; to ask her to take second best was nearly as bad as being second best myself. If he had died I think it would have been easier.

The thaw in Ness came one early spring day when she went outside to gather snow to melt and to watch the sunrise. At her feet, just one dot in the endless fields snow, a single blade of grass had struggled through . It was the very first time that she had ever seen a wild thing growing. It was as if something hard broke within her then. She knelt before that single bit of green and wept the tears that she had held since Mulder's 'death', when she had held the world together so a very large part of mine could fall apart.

Her misery loosed a different kind of tightening in me and I was soon on my knees, arms around her Heat rises to my face every time I think of the inane things we blubbered to each other but they must have been the right things. Simply put, life went on Mulder was lost to us He really always had been. What is real is so much better and you really don't have to give up one love for another. Parents love multiple children, after all, and each in his season.

Someday we will get to Earth, Charley has promised it. After all we have at least one of several promises to keep. If Mulder is found by another of the Jeremiah Smith's of Charley group and he neutralizes the virus, the Mulder who lives again still won't be the Mulder either of us knew. In that case I need to tell him and Scully - for, of course, they'll be together - all about these lost months. For they will be lost. He had already forgotten me. His mind had also been a blank to me. I asked Charley if the mindspeech centers would grow back during the time of repair, after all, the genes were still there. Charley doubts it. The burnout was complete. Scar tissue laid down upon scar tissue. Like memories that will never return, the virus, after all, has to have something to work with.

So maybe he's just a normal man now, but then a normal man was all he ever wanted to be. A normal man living with his Scully.

That is what I'm hoping to find a normal, happy Mulder, whatever that is.

There is the other horrible possibility that Charley's people don't find him in time and don't neutralize the virus. Then a very terrible something will have taken his place, the thing he has been fighting for so long. I refuse to think about what we promised to do then, but refusing to think about it doesn't mean that I've forgotten.

Two years have passed. There is a new town not too far from my farm but not too close either. That first spring was an exhausting, incredible time. From bits of our shelters we made iron plows, which should have made the soil easier to turn but these new people were such pathetic farmers despite their enthusiasm that the planting took four times what it should have. Luckily, winter came late that year. I know that I didn't have time to think during the day... ah, but during the nights there was Ness, eternally excited by all she had done with the house during the day and in her own kitchen garden. At least one of us had the energy though I usually perked right up once she got me going though it didn't leave me many hours for sleep.

We weren't the only ones preoccupied. With all the dating and pairing up between the colonists and old Dale dwellers, not to mention the changelings who now found the pressure less that they live predominantly female, it was a wonder that any crops got planted on Dale at all that year.

Ness and I made it a point to harvest a lot of the river plant that resembles flax and I built her a loom during our first winter. It was one of our few joys that winter. While the colony exploded with pregnant women, Ness's abdomen remained flat. I don't know which of us was more depressed. Yes, she told me about what they had done, about the devil's bargain she had made to carry Mulder's baby, we just refused to admit the futility of our efforts, pleasant as they were in the short term.

The colony as a whole held its breath when the babies started coming. Due to Charley's magic minerals, however, terrible bleeds were rare and mothers and babies thrived. Ness became a good midwife with practice though I never told her that she was welcomed into at least some of those homes out of pity Meanwhile I carved toys that winter for all the children that would never be mine.

Except for our lingering disappointment, it was a gorgeous spring. With the social groupings settled down, there was a staggering surge of energy in the colony. And meetings? Oh, yes, meetings. Minds educated on Earth spoke on the dangers of deforestation now that we had metal tools and a much larger and grow