Title: The Seventh Age
Author: David Hearne
Ottercrk@sover.net
CLASSIFICATION: POST-COLONIZATION STORY
RATING: R
ARCHIVE: The story is yours for the taking.
SPOILERS: The mythology, of course. "Pusher" and "Young at Heart," too.
DISCLAIMERS: Yeah, I know. The characters from "The X-Files" belong to Chris Carter. But if you touch Arthur Rush, Mr. C., you'll be hearing from *my* lawyers.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: The first thing I should say is that this story employs an odd kind of grammar. It will be confusing at first, but if you hang in there, it will all be explained as well as other matters.

The second issue of business is dedication. And I would like to dedicate this story to five special ladies. (Imagine me with a big, smarmy, Joey-Grey-in-"Cabaret" smile now.)

To Elizabeth Hand, whom you probably know best as the writer who adapted "Fight the Future." However, she's more than just a hired gun for publishers. She has done a lot of fine work, particularly "Winterlong" which inspired me to write this story.

To Laurie Haynes who puts it all together.

To Caroline Willoughby who is always willing to read the gargantuan stories I e-mail her.

To Abigail Thomas who edited "The Seventh Age" and suffered my tendency to end sentences with a preposition.

And to Amanda Finch. About two months ago, I released the first part of this story as a corny little "preview." She told me, "Not to seem threatening or anything, but if you don't finish this, I will kill you." All right, Amanda.

It's out. Now, would you please tell that large man in the black suit to quit following me?

Any other business? No? Then, hey-ho, let's go...

**

Part One

Fox Mulder started out in our life as a hobby.

Before we actually met him, we had spent a year or so at the task of finding out who he was. It was an investigation done strictly for the sake of curiousity and amusement. We started our research after seeing "Fox Mulder Lives" painted on a public wall. This was the hundreth time we had seen such a thing. A sanitation crew had already arrived to clean it away. As we watched those words disappear under the applicaiton of a disinfectant, we wondered about its meaning. Why was it popping up everywhere around D.C. on the outside of banks, on the sides of alleys, across the sidewalks near Stabilizer Headquarters, in public bathrooms, over posters announcing The Two Worlds Fesitval? Just who was Fox Mulder supposed to be? we asked ourselves. Did he even exist?

"Probably not," Sharon speculated when we brought this up over dinner. "We mean, think about that name. It just sounds made-up."

We suspected that Sharon was right. Yet, whether he existed or not, he was obviously an important symbol. What did he mean to the Irregulars? Why did they leave this slogan in every place where they committed vandalism and criminal acts? It was time to get some kind of answer to that question.

Our hobby both amused and intrigued my fellow Stabilizers. Sometimes they and they would say, "There goes Arthur Rush, the Great Fox-Hunter." Other times, they and they would ask about our research with a genuine interest.

We would explain to them and them all that we had found out.

That wasn't much. Or, rather, there wasn't anything we could verify. There were a hundred stories about Fox Mulder from which to chose. Fox Mulder had died trying to prevent the Joining; Fox Mulder was the real name of a subversive working in a highly placed circle; Fox Mulder was the lead fictional character of an underground novel in which The Joining never occured in history; Fox Mulder was a lone terrorist working outside of any Irregular cell; Fox Mulder was a man; Fox Mulder was a woman; Fox Mulder was a computer virus. His origin and his death had a myraid number of variations.

Five months after we started our research, we finally got to ask an Irregular about Fox Mulder. His name was Daniel Cates or -- as he liked to call himself -- Willy Wonka. Wonka had been stealing from banks through Bio-hacking. We had been the head of the Stabilizer team which had caught him.

We didn't have long to talk with Wonka. Any captured Irregular had to be turned over to Purity Control as soon as possible. After getting any information we could about where the stolen money had been funnelled, we asked about Fox Mulder.

Wonka had been calm throughout the whole interrogation, a remarkable thing for a man who was destined for Purity Control. When we mentioned Fox Mulder's name, however, his eyes widened.

"Wh-what?" he stuttered.

"Who is Fox Mulder?" we asked.

"Why...why do you want to know?"

"It's not good to answer a Stabilizer's questions with questions," we told him in an even voice.

Wonka was silent for a few seconds, then he said, "Fox Mulder is one of two people you will never control."

"Who is the other?"

He just smiled with all the typical arrogance of an Irregular. We concluded our interrogation there, deciding to let Purity Control take care of his arrogance.

Nobody cared much about the Irregulars then. They were considered little more than the rowdier members of a backwards race. They were enough of a nuiscance to be sent to Purity Control but no one considered them a real threat. Our and our faith in law enforcement was almost religious in that regard.

This was before Michener and White got killed. After that, the Irregulars became a top priority. Not only had they killed two members of Top Level, but the murder occurred with the Two Worlds Festival just a few weeks away.

We and we all nervously considered the enormous symbolic importance of this year's Festival. It would mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Joining.

The Irregulars would love to descecrate the celebration. Were the assassinations of Michener and White just a prologue to bigger, more destructive events?

They were. Sort of.

Still, no one except us were interested in Fox Mulder. At least, that's how it seemed at the time. To us, it appeared that our superiors regarded Mulder as nothing more than a vague, empty symbol.

We came to realize differently. We came to look at a lot of things differently.

This was after we met Fox Mulder.

After we met Julia.

After we met Prospero.

After we met The High Priestess.

After The Two Worlds Festival, nothing would be the same.

**

Two days after a bomb killed Co-Adminstrators Anthony Michener and Joanna White, we found out who Fox Mulder was. Or had been.

The atmosphere of Washington was tense, naturally. There were few places where it was tenser than at Stabilizer Headquarters. Even if you were not officially on the team investigating the murders, every Stabilizer knew their and their assistance might be required.

We weren't too worried that we might get involved in that investigation, though. Having been a Stabilizer for little more than two years, we were not considered experienced enough to handle such a delicate case. That was fine with us. More tension was not needed around our household. Sharon and we were going to a Chain Ceremony tomorrow night. We and we both understood the necessity of doing this, but that didn't make it easier. We and we would be attempting to do something that we and we could barely conceive doing. We and we had been giving each other assurances and smiles for the past week, yet the smiles were a little tight and the assurances a little too glib.

We had been using my research into Fox Mulder as a way of forgetting both the bombing and the Chain Ceremony. Mulder's association with the Irregulars didn't bother us. In a way, his status as a symbol allowed us to think about the Irregulars in a distant, abstract way. He wasn't real so therefore, for a moment, the Irregulars became unreal.

And, then, suddenly, he *was* real.

For a long time, we had reasoned that if Mulder had really existed, then he had been some kind of rebel leader -- a man "outside of the system," so to speak. Then, a week before the bombing, we thought about it in a new way.

What if Mulder had been an "establishment figure" of some sort? What if he had been a military leader or one of the old Senators? And what if this man had turned against the system in which he had participated? That would give him a certain glamour in the eyes of the Irregulars.

This idea was why we plunged in the history of Washington, D.C. We investigated the member logs of the Senate, the background of Presidential administraions, the roster of Pentagon officials -- all the employees of institutions that had been disbanded after 2005. We examined them for any sign of a person who had been among those who tried to stop the Joining.

Nothing was to be found. No Fox Mulder had ever been among their members. We did find reference to a Bill Mulder, but he had died long before The Joining.

It took us awhile to realize that a source of information was in the very building we worked in. Before it was the headquarters for the Stabilizers of the United States of America, the building belonged to the Federal Bureau of Investigations -- a law enforcement agency overseen by the central government. Down in its basement were a lot of old, old records. They were kept on "computer disks," an antiquated method of storing data. Luckily, we had the old technology used for retrieving the data from disks. A lot of Stabilizers have and have "disk drives" in their possession. More than once, a Stabilizer have needed information that hadn't been transferred to Bio-Containers.

After searching through the basement, we found the disks with the "M"

personnel listed on them. We didn't even have to sign them out. As far as the Inventory Department was concerned, those disks were just trash which needed to be eventually discarded.

That night, we went back to my house, had dinner with Sharon, plugged in our disk drive, used a "keyboard" to look up "Mulder, Fox" and waited as the drive made these awful screeching noises which made you think something was broken. We sat there in our chair, sipping our caffeine supplement, watching the "computer screen" and expecting nothing.

The screen was black.

Then he popped out at us.

We blinked. There he was, Fox Mulder. Or, rather, FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder.

For a moment, we were disoriented. Maybe even frightened. Looking for Fox Mulder had been simply a game. Now we had information on the man whose name had been scrawled on a thousand points over the city.

Then we shook our head. No, this didn't mean anything real. For all we knew, the Irregulars just pulled this man's name out of a hat. "Fox Mulder Lives"

was just a slogan to spook us and us with.

Still, the man had been found. We read his old FBI dossier.

Fox Mulder had started out in the FBI in the late eighties. Originally, he had been a specialist in creating psychological evaulations of particularly vicious criminals in order to predict their behavior and track them down a "profiler." Judging from the commendations he had received, he had been exceedingly good at the task.

Then his story took an abrupt turn. He had left Behavioral Crimes for a department that had been closed down for several years until he used his influence to reopen it. This department was called "the X-Files."

What the Null was that? we wondered. As we read on, we came to realize two things about Mulder.

One was that he had turned into a real malcontent upon taking on the X-Files. The number of infractions against FBI procedure were countless. The offenses ranged from failing to inform a superior to trespassing on restricted property to assaulting a prisoner. It was no wonder that the X-Files had been shut not once, but twice. On top of that, Mulder had killed another federal employee in (apparent) self-defense, been listed as dead *twice* before re-appearing very much alive and even did a stint in a mental ward.

It was a colorful career, to say the least.

Also colorful were the cases that he specialized in. Apparently, The X-Files dealt with criminal activity involving "unexplained phenomena." Apparently, Mulder had arrived at very fanciful explanations for these crimes. His theories had included ghosts, psychokinetic powers, demon possession, mutations...

...and the possibility of extraterrestrial involvement.

Well, you couldn't exactly scoff at that anymore, could you?

We sat there in our private den, wondering what exactly we had found here.

That was when Sharon knocked at our door.

"Yes?" we said.

"Stoddard just called. Theyo said, 'Avengers, assemble.'"

**

Part Two

Since we were a member of Section Two, Supervisor Dwight Stoddard were our direct superior. Theyo were an excellent Stabilizer and an intelligent boss, but theyo were also a Preserver. The Preservers were and were a religious order dedicated to remembering the past. More specifically, they and they were dedicated to remembering the culture of the twentieth century. After the Joining of 2005, the production of cultural artifacts came to a stop.

Everything used for entertainment in the past -- movies, television shows, books, music -- became obsolete. Why continue to make them when a Sensory Stimulator could provide pleasure without the necessity of storytelling or melody? Furthermore, the Joining required a severe break from the past. The world was starting over. The culture should start over as well.

The Preservers thought otherwise. They and they believed that we and we should kept contact with the past. We don't know why they and they chose to focus on culture or why they and they felt that it should be preserved in the first place. Perhaps it was just sentimentality.

The curious thing was that the Preservers didn't really keep the past intact. What they and they did was redefine it into a new language. When you talked to a Preserver, they responded with lines of dialogue acquired from old television shows, movies or comedic skits. Or they and they would use a lyric from a song only they and they knew about.

We couldn't understand this. This was memory without meaning. In terms of "preservation," it was like killing an animal and mounting it on your wall.

They and they never explained where their references came from. To know that, you had to become a Preserver, something we had no interest in becoming. We only knew that talking with Stoddard was an uneven experience.

Theyo were surprisingly good at finding a reference that corresponded with what you just said, but it was impossible for us and us to make a more elaborate conversation. To get specific details from themo, theyo had to write a memo. Even those were sprinkled with cultural references.

As we said before, Stoddard were an excellent Stabilizer. However, at briefings, theyo were useless. That's why at this nightly gathering, the Stabilizers of our section were and were being briefed by Supervisor Nancy Johansen. All the other sections had been summoned as well, judging from the amount of people we saw in the hallways of Stabilizer Headquarters as we headed for our particular corner of the building. A lot of rumors were in the air, but we and we assumed that this was related to the bombing.

We and we were right.

"Co-Administrator Kenneth Maltese have vanished," Johansen told us and us.

Theya were standing firmly at the head of a long table. We and our fellow Section Two members listened to thema. Stoddard sat next to Johansen, watching everyone.

"Theiro disappearance was discovered by Co-Administrator Burns as theyo tried to contact Maltese in regards to Top Level business. Maltese could not be contacted on any channels, including on theiro private transmitter. Since Top Level members carry these transmitters at all times, Burns were concerned enough to send Stabilizers to Maltese's house. They and they found no trace of themo. While we and we are not ruling out other possibilities, it seems likely that Co-Administrator Maltese were abducted by the Irregulars."

Being a Stabilizer means learning how not to show tension, but we and we were all unnerved by Johansen's news. Personally, we found ourselves thinking of what we had just learned about Fox Mulder. It wouldn't have surprised us to know that a man like him had become involved in kidnapping or worse.

"The Stabilizers will not officially declare Maltese missing until tomorrow," Johansen announced. "It's possible that the Co-Adminstrator will turn up around midnight and tell us and us that theyo didn't have theiro transmitter for some stupid reason."

"Yeah and monkeys might fly out my butt," Stoddard said.

"Agreed," Johansen said. (We and we had all gotten used to that sort of comment from Stoddard.) "Officially, Section Eight will handle this.

However, if they and they ask for help, give it with no questions asked. The same directive still applies if Section Ten asks you for assistance on the bombing investigation." Theya sighed. "At this rate, however, we and we should have enough work for everybody."

That concluded the briefing. Afterwards, we went up to Stoddard and requested a private talk.

"What's the buzz, tell me what's a-happening?" theyo said after we and we went to theiro office.

We told themo about our discovery in regards to Fox Mulder. Stoddard lifted theiro eyebrows and said, "That's-a spicy meatball." We didn't know what that meant exactly, but it sounded right.

"Yes, sir. It is. Or maybe it isn't. It may teach us and us nothing about the Irregulars. On the other hand, we and we can't afford to miss any opportunity to learn more about them. We would like permission to make our research an official investigation."

Stoddard thought about it for a moment, then theyo said, "Make it so."

"Thanks, sir." We were about to leave when we stopped and looked back. "Uh, sir, there's something else we would like to remind you about."

"Yyyyeeeess?" Stoddard said with a weird ascending lilt to their voice.

"Sharon and we are having...a Chain Ceremony tomorrow night."

Stoddard gave us a solemn look. "Time has come today," theyo told us.

"Apparently so." We have heard that these ceremonies can be a little...disorienting. So if we are late for work on the following day..."

Stoddard lifted up theiro hands in an understanding gesture. "Nudge, nudge, say no more."

"Thank you, sir. That's all we wanted to say. Good night."

"Good night, Miss Calabash, wherever you are!"

**

Sharon didn't ask us what the meeting had been about. Theya been living with a Stabilizer long enough to know when not to ask about work. Besides, theya would undoubtedly hear about it in the morning. After indulging in a little harmless conversation with us, Sharon went to bed.

We went back to our private den. We pulled up the information about Fox Mulder.

There wasn't anything we really expected to come out of this investigation.

For now, it just gave us a sense of being useful and a way of dealing with our growing anxiety. Irregulars were becoming a threat beyond what we and we had all expected. Up until now, they had specialized in vandalism and theft.

Now they were killing and abducting Co-Administrators. In the name of the Origin, what next?

We looked at the face of Fox Mulder. It was an interesting face, the kind that grew more handsome when you looked at it for awhile. We examined his features for any signs of the rebellious nature indicated in his record. Was that

defiance in his eye? Was that a sneer forming on his mouth?

The FBI dossier stopped at 2005, of course. What had happened to him after the Joining? Had he received Purity? Was he still alive? Was he still out there working mischief, only this time against Top Level? If that was so, then we wouldn't care how old he was. If he was helping the Irregulars, then we would personally deliver him to Purity Control.

If he wasn't, what could we learn from him? Actually, there was a lot of other questions we wanted to ask. Why did he get involved in the X-Files?

What kind of successes did he have? Who were his partners...

Wait a minute, we thought. We examined Mulder's dossier again. There were no reference to any partners. Furthermore, there were certain inconsisties in the records. It was if a sizable chunk had been deleted. Why? Had there been somebody else in the X-Files department who now wanted to remain secret?

We turned off the computer, letting that question melt into the other questions and uncertainities living in our mind. We went to the bedroom.

Sharon moved slightly in theira sleep as we settled under the sheets next to thema. We looked at the woman lying a foot away from our touch. Thoughts about the Irregulars and Fox Mulder were replaced by speculation about what it would be like to actually hold Sharon.

We forced ourselves to stop thinking about that and closed our eyes.

**

Part Three

It didn't take us long to find Fox Mulder, thanks to Social Security. That agency was one of the few branches of government left over from the pre-Joining days. It was allowed to stay because it was an excellent way of keeping track of the population. It was also there to keep the elderly happy.

Sitting at our desk, we pressed our hand against a Bio-Network Unit. The hard, yellow square turned soft under our hand. A voice in our head asked us what we wanted to know. We requested information about Fox Mulder from Social Security. A light hum filled our mind, making the other noises in the office area faint. The other Stabilizers of Section Two were and were working at their own tasks, communicating with their and their own Bio-Network Units or discussing The Irregulars over caffeine supplements.

Then we heard, "No information available."

We were expecting that. We looked at a piece of paper on which we had written all the pertinent information from Mulder's dossier -- birth date, physical descriptions, wounds received on duty. We silently spoke this data to the Unit. It went back to the Bio-Containers of Social Security, trying to match up this information with anyone on file.

It took about an half-hour, but we were rewarded with the name, "Leynard Muldrake." Not only did Mister Muldrake have the right age and physical attributes, but he had an old wound that corresponded with a wound Mulder had received in his FBI days.

He was also living in The Off-Zone.

That meant that he was an Alone.

It figured. Someone with Mulder's defiant nature would resist receiving Purity. Even if it meant living in poverty, being denied any say in choosing a Representative and even being limited in the use of Bio-Tech, he would stubbornly hold onto the faux-privilege of referring to himself as "I."

The Alones had always puzzled us. Granted that we did not understand what it was like to be one of them, but was it really worth the degradation and powerlessness? We couldn't imagine anything outside of a Joined life that would be so precious.

Of course, the Alones were not as powerless as they used to be. The new boldness of the Irregulars seemed to be an indication of things to come.

Furthermore, even though the Alones only represented a tiny percentage of the world's population, their numbers were growing at a faster rate than the Joined. After all, they could do one thing more easily than us and us.

We thought about the Chain Ceremony and tried not to shudder. We focused ourselves on the new information and decided that it was time to ask Fox Mulder why his name was appearing everywhere.

However, if we were going to The Off-Zone, then we needed special transportation.

**

The border patrolman's face appeared on the Bio-Imager. That hard, unresponsive face seemed to be right in front of us.

"Name?" theyo asked.

"Stabilizer Arthur Rush. ID number 838G20."

"Business?"

"Stabilizer investigation."

The face vanished and we waited as the patrolman did his security check. We watched the gate through the Bio-Imager. It was tall, grey and heavy. A wall extended out left and right from this gate, equally tall and heavy. We noticed with amusement that some brave soul had written "Fox Mulder Lives!"

right next to the gate. It reminded us of why we were here and how the wall around The Off-Zone was less impenetrable than it looked. Despite the best efforts of the patrols, the Irregulars still found a way around it, over it and under it.

Then the gate slid slowly open. Once the entrance was wide enough, we were expected to go through it as soon as possible. The patrol did not like to keep any gate open for long.

We drove the Protective Transport through. The gate began to close the moment that the P.T. cleared the entrance. We didn't expect to hear "Have a nice day."

The welcome received in The Off-Zone was not so brusque. It was openly hostile. The sidewalks and streets were overrun by people and everyone gave the P.T. a sour, hateful look. The street vendors stopped haggling to glare.

Musicians ceased banging on iron pots as if we were unworthy to hear their songs. Those crossing the street in front of us deliberately took their time. Children spat and mimed throwing their own feces.

And, yes, we received a couple of shots. This happened as we drove into less populated areas of The Off-Zone and the number of visible people dwindled to a few. The bullets of snipers pinged off the P.T.'s hull. We didn't even look in the direction of the sniper. We knew that we would see nothing more than a dark window. Furthemore, the attack had been nothing more than a symbolic gesture. Everyone knew it would take a few shots of heavy artillery before the organically sealed armor of a P.T. could be broken. They wouldn't expend that much effort on a single Stabilizer, not when it meant heavy reprecussions.

Of course, they were killing Co-Adminstrators now, weren't they?

Why now? Why do something so risky like that now? The inevitable consequence of such crimes would be the clearing of The Off-Zone. Even though it was a hotbed of Irregular activity, the presence of so many Alones next to D.C.

had been tolerated. They were, after all, a source of cheap labor. However, with assassinations having been committed, The Off-Zone was now under a very judging, very watchful eye. It wouldn't take much more before a very judging hand reached down and wiped it off the map. So, the questions remains...why now?

Do you know why, Fox Mulder?

Fox Mulder, Fox Mulder...outside of The Off-Zone, that name was erased as soon as it appeared on any wall. Inside, it appeared everywhere, stubbornly unremoved. You could find it painted and drawn in a hundred different colors, every variation insisting that "Fox Mulder Lives!" The message taunted us from every direction we looked.

He does live, we thought. He lives right here. Do the Alones know that? Do these people know that you are a person of flesh and bone as well as a legend, Fox Mulder? What can you tell me, if anything?

The closer we got to the right address, the lonelier and uglier the area.

The Alones had done their best to clear away the rot of the buildings around them and what they couldn't clear away, they covered over with sewed cloth banners and painted murals. However, we were seeing less of that cosmetic treatment now. Around Fox Mulder's location, there were few buildings which hadn't degraded into rubble. Any person to be seen didn't bother to give us the benefit of their hatred. They just shuffled down the sidewalk, their eyes focused on the ground and their hands tucked inside their ragged clothes.

Then we passed the last decrepit building and the P.T. drove into an enormous field covered with weeds. In the center of this field was a trailer whose aluminum skin had lost its shine. A path had been pressed down through the weeds to the trailer, indicating that there was a fairly regular visitor to Mulder's domain -- probably the person who delivered his Social Security money.

We drove up to the trailer and parked by its side. We used the Bio-Scanner to check the area for any signs of Irregulars. The area was clear so we pressed a hand against the P.T.'s door. It opened with that liquid sound it always makes. We stepped out, sealed up the P.T., activated its security and looked at the trailer.

Somehow, it just wasn't what we expected.

However, here we were. We walked up to the door and knocked.

No answer.

We did hear something -- an odd rhythmic sound. We knocked again. Still nothing but that sound.

We took a step back and looked over the trailer. The blinds on the windows were down. We wondered what to do next.

Just out of curiousity, we turned the door handle. It twisted free with no impeding lock. We stood there for a few moments, wondering what we were going to find inside that old, rusty trailer.

We opened the door.

**

Part Four

"Reality used to be a friend of mine, reality used to be a friend of mine, please don't ask me, I don't know why, but reality used to be a friend of mine..."

When we stepped into the trailer, we finally recognized the sound. We were hearing music. It was a peculiar noise. Of course, any kind of music sounds peculiar to us, but this was somewhat undefinable from the kind we had heard in history class. At first, it sounded like a waltz or a flamenco. However, the song had a man talking over the rhythm, not singing.

The music's source was one of those old CD players. There was a lot of dust on top of it. Dust was everywhere in the trailer -- spread across the worn carpet, decorating a sofa that had gashes exposing the cotton inside, drifting off posters of people who seemed to be singing or playing an instrument. We recognized none of the musicians.

Nor did we recognize the hand. It was hanging over the side of a chair's armrest. The chair and the person sitting in it were turned away from us.

The hand was the only part of the man visible. It was so thin, wrinkled and motionless that we briefly considered the possibility of its owner being dead.

Then we saw one finger move. It was tapping a long, yellow nail against the chair in time with the music.

Well, we thought, no sense in backing out now. "Excuse me, sir?"

There was no response. The finger continued to tap.

"Sir, we're sorry to come in like this, but the door was unlocked..."

"Just because a door is open doesn't mean you should go through it. I know that better than anybody."

The voice was almost completely flat and toneless. Almost. There was a hint of a deeper emotion -- sadness? Anger? Regret?

We continued on. "We came here to talk with you, Mister Mulder."

He said nothing for many seconds. Then a face peeked around the chair.

It was him. Time had dug and scratched at his face, but it was definitely Fox Mulder looking at us. Again, he was sending muddled signals. We couldn't describe the expression on his face. He seemed to be deciding whether to be afraid or defiant or just amused.

He settled on amusement. A smile bent his lips. "Hoo-boy," he said.

Then he turned back around, his face hidden again. "Whatever you're looking for here," he said. "I sure don't have it."

We walked up to the front of the chair. "What I am looking for is the reason why your name is being used to vandalize..."

The rest of the words vanished from our tongue. We looked away, but we had already seen the long section of skin visible in Mulder's open bathrobe.

"Used to what now?"

We forced our eyes back onto the former FBI agent, concentrating on his face. "Why is your name being...being written all over D.C.?"

"Are you all right there? You look a little sick."

"We are fine, sir. Please just answer our questions."

"Are you sure? Maybe I got something in the bathroom that can..."

Then Mulder looked down and said, "Oh, yeah." He closed up the robe, saying "I swear if they droop down any farther, I'll be able to clean the floor with them."

"Mister Mulder..."

Suddenly, he was on his feet. We almost jumped back as he abruptly left his chair and headed for the kitchen area. It didn't seem possible for an old man to move that fast.

"You know, you're the first person to voluntarily come here since...well, we won't get into that, but it's been awhile since I've seen another face besides the lad who brings me my groceries and Social Security check. He never wants to talk with me for very long. I think he's a little creeped out by me." Mulder grinned with bent teeth. "I wonder why."

Then he began poking around in...what do they call them? Oh, yes. A refrigerator. "However, you are my first genuine visitor in many a moon," he told us. "That calls for a little more refined hospitality on my part."

We heard glass bottles being clinked around inside. We sighed and decided to go along with this for awhile.

Mulder turned around and held up two bottles, both with a golden-colored liquid in them. "So, what do you want? Booze or booze?"

"Excuse me?"

"You know...alcohol. The reason why God gave us wheat and grapes." Mulder squinted at the bottles. "Of course, I'm not sure if either wheat or grapes are in this stuff. It comes from one of The Off-Zone's own local breweries and you have a better chance of learning the Unified Theory of Physics than figuring out the ingredients of this concoction."

"Anything will be fine, sir."

Mulder nodded and went looking for glasses. We went up to the CD player as if the noise from the speakers would make more sense at a closer distance.

"P.M. Dawn."

We looked back at Mulder. "Excuse me?"

Mulder was pouring the golden liquid into two reasonably clean glasses arranged on a counter. "The band that you're hearing now. They were a group from the nineties. Did rap and R&B. What was interesting about them was they got a lot of their inspiration from mainstream pop. While all the other rap groups were sampling George Clinton, they were lifting hooks from Spandau Ballet. Some people didn't care for that. One rapper, KRS-One, forced them off the stage at a concert, claiming that he was striking a blow against 'commercial rap.' Of course, the last time I ever saw KRS-One, he was doing a t.v. ad for Sprite so maybe he should shut..."

He stopped himself. At first, he looked ashamed. Then he smiled again.

"Maybe *I* should shut up. Or just answer your questions."

He held out a glass. We went over and took it. He picked his own glass up.

We didn't drink, though. Neither did he.

"So...what was your question again?"

"Why...is your name being written on so many walls? Why have the Irregulars chosen 'Fox Mulder Lives' as their slogan?"

Mulder's face gave no hint of what he was thinking. He swirled his drink in its glass. "Well...I'll tell you the truth, Mister...uh, what's your name?"

"Stabilizer Arthur Rush."

"Stabilizer Arthur Rush...here's the truth and nothing but the truth."

He leaned forward, indicating that we should do likewise. We did so and he whispered this in our ear --

"I have absolutely no goddamned idea at all."

He leaned back. We closed our eyes for a moment, then opened them, hoping that our exasperation wasn't too evident. We said, "Perhaps, it has something to do with the X-Files..."

Mulder gasped. He stumbled backwards, gripping his glass in one hand and clutching his chest with the other. He backed up against a counter, eyes wide and his mouth stretched in agony.

We were about to rush forward to help him when his pained look went away and was replaced by a smile. "Sorry about that. It's just that everytime I hear that word, it gives me a mild stroke." He sipped at his liquor through his smile.

"Sir...are you hiding something or are you just irritating?"

"Whoa! I see that they haven't eliminated humor yet. That was a joke, right?"

We just gave him a look.

The grin settled down into a little smile. "Okay. Look. Somehow, through a quirk of underground lore, my work on..." He let out another mock-gasp.

"...the X-Files has made me a legend to the Irregulars. Don't even bother trying to explain it. I really don't know why my old job is so special to them."

"It may have something to do with your rebellious nature when you were a FBI agent."

Mulder smirked. "You mean, all those temper tantrums I threw?"

"It could also have something to do with your status as an outsider. Long before The Joining, you believed in the theory of alien abductions."

"So did a sizable chunk of America's population."

"For most of them, it was just a belief. For you, it was the foundation of your work."

Mulder gave us a look as if he was re-examining us. He maintained the look in silence for a few seconds.

Then he asked, "How old are you?"

"I'm nineteen."

"Nineteen..." Mulder said, musing on that number. "So you were born...what?

Six years after The Joining?"

"About that, yes."

"You're of the new generation then. The ones that 'received Purity' at birth." The flash of disgust in Mulder's voice was brief, but we didn't miss it.

"That's true as well, sir," we responded, deliberately over-looking the slight.

"What do you know about The Joining of 2005?"

Now, it was our turn to re-examine Mulder. Was it worthwhile to play this game of his? We decided to participate, but not for too long.

"The Joining was the result of the introduction of an alien virus into our environment..."

"Correction. The virus was always here, dormant and waiting to be activated."

"Ah, yes. Right. Well, the virus was the central means of creating a colony of extraterrestrial visitors on Earth. With the collaboration of a select group of humans, the Colonists were hoping to use the people of this world as incubants for a new species."

"But something went awry, didn't it?"

"Yes, sir. The virus was spread throughout the population as planned. It mutated as was also planned. However, only a small percentage became incubants..."

"That small percentage was over two hundred million people. That's a helluva lot of burst chests."

"The rest of the infected became The Joined -- a new species with a second consciousness intertwined with the consciousness of the host."

"You could have called yourself the Trill, but that name was already taken."

"Sir?"

"Nothing. Anyway, the Colonists found that they had a new race to deal with, one which provided a match for them. So they dumped the Colonization and ran off, clutching their non-existent balls. They've never been heard from since. As for the...uh...what did they call those nasty little beasties that came out of people's chests?"

"The Errors. They were eradicated."

"Leaving just the Joined."

"And the people who avoided infection. They could have received Purity voluntarily, but the majority of them chose to remain without it. Those people and their children are the Alones."

Mulder smiled and lifted his glass in our direction. "Another small percentage of the population. But a very scrappy one. And with a far less complicated vocabulary."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I can never keep track of the rules in the Joined language. You personally consider yourself two people right?"

"We do."

"So if you're referring to more than one member of the Joined..."

"You say, 'we and we' or 'they and they.'"

"Good thing that it's not 'we-we.' And how do you distinguish between male and female?" Mulder lifted an eyebrow. "You distinguish between them, right?"

"To indicate a male, a 'o' is placed on the end of a pronoun. For female, an 'a.'"

"So, it's...'theyo' for boys and 'theya' for girls. And 'theiro' and 'theira' and so on."

"Yes," we said, feeling like we were instructing a child.

"THEYYYYY-O!" Mulder called out. "THEYYYY-O! Daylight come and we want to go home..." He took another sip of alcohol and shook his head.

"And 'you' can still be both plural and singular, right?"

"Yes, sir," I sighed.

"That's a mighty weird language, son."

"Perhaps, sir. But discussing the intricacies of Joined language doesn't explain why the Irregulars regard you as..."

Mulder suddenly slammed his glass onto the counter. The golden liquid splashed over the side. He gave me a look of undeniable malice.

The Joined are and are used to hatred from the Alones. However, this was different. This abrupt outburst had nothing to do with Alone-Joined relations. This was just lashing out at the nearest person in the area. This anger was only a piece of a darker emotion that had been growing for years.

We could have killed Mulder by simply using our Aura, but we still felt threatened. As Mulder shouted, we found ourselves genuinely worried about what this old, weathered, beaten-down man could do.

"I just told you! I...don't...know! I have no idea why my damn name is being written up everywhere! I have no idea why these Irregular assholes have turned me into their slogan! Nothing I did on the X-Files mattered! While I was down there in the basement playing with myself, a cataclysmic event was coming that would forever alter humanity! You know what my work added up to against that? Zero! Bumpkus! A big fucking doughnut hole! Where the hell do these people get off using my name as..."

Mulder terminated his speech with a shudder. He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose as he trembled.

We suddenly felt ashamed of ourselves. Look what a year of research and investigation had produced. There was nothing to be found except a lonely, old man being bothered by a Stabilizer.

We placed the glass on the counter. Before we could apologize and leave as gracefully as we could, Mulder said --

"I'm sorry."

"No, Mister Mulder. We are the ones who should be sorry. We will leave you alone now."

Mulder lowered his hand, opened his eyes and sighed. "You haven't touched your drink," he muttered.

"The Joined don't drink alcohol, sir."

"Yes, well, that's why we Alones have more fun."

We just nodded and said, "Good-bye, Mister Mulder." He gave us a little wave as we headed for the door. Our hand was on the knob when curiosity overcame us. There was one question we simply had to ask.

"Just one more thing..." we said.

"Oh, hell, don't tell me you're one of those damn Preservers."

"Excuse me?"

"Never mind. What is it?"

"Were you the only person working on the X-Files?"

Mulder slowly turned his head towards us. His expression was too guarded for a moment. Then he forced a smile on his face. "Yeah," he said. "I was there all by myself. Just me in a basement for over ten years, staring at photos of flying saucers. Imagine that."

We said good-bye one more time and left the symbol of the Irregulars to mope in his shabby trailer. As we headed back for the border in the P.T., we considered Mulder's reaction to my last question. There had been a strong suggestion of a lie. Was it a lie worth investigating?

No. There was nothing relevant here for the Stabilizers' efforts against terrorism. Just let the man be.

We drove out of The Off-Zone, convinced that this would be the last time we would ever see Fox Mulder.

**

Part Five

When we first met Sharon Webster, theya said, "We are very pleased to meet you." We were gratified to see that theya meant it. The Board of Partners usually makes sound decisions and (we admit) the Joined don't have a wide range of personalities so there's not much room for a clash of different emotional types. Still, every once and while, the wrong male is Partnered with the wrong female.

That was not the case with Sharon and us. We and we made excellent Partners.

Theya always provided a comfortable, warm house that provided security even when a Stabilizer's job was at its most tense. In return, we supported thema in all of theira outside interests -- carpentry, the chess group, hiking. It was a friendly, reciprocal, supportive relationship.

However, there was one hurdle that all Partners had to go over.

The Chain Ceremony.

After we came home from work, we had a silent dinner with Sharon. We and we would give each other smiles of assurances, but both of our and our minds were wondering if we and we were up to tonight's work. We and Sharon had seen the videotapes of successful Chain Ceremonies. Afterwards, we and we would say, "Do they and they really expect us and us to do that? How could anybody do that?" Still, our Partnership had been together for two years now. A Chain Ceremony was legally required before the third year was over.

After dinner, the table was cleared and we and we left the house for The Chain Center. As always, the drive across the organically-protected roads was smooth and comfortable, but our hands were tight on the wheel. Sharon saw the tightness and placed one of theira hands on ours. "Don't worry," theya said. "It will be all right."

We nodded and smiled, pushing away the memories of those videotaped Ceremonies. In their place came the image of Fox Mulder.

Why the Null were we thinking of him? That investigation was over, done and dead. Fox Mulder was nothing to be concerned about. In fact, he might even be useful as someone *against* The Irregulars. What if it was revealed that their symbol was nothing more than a weary man just a few years away from death? Here's your hero. Yes, he lives, but only as a worn-out...

No. That would do no good. The Irregulars would just deny the truth and say that this Fox Mulder was just a fraud created by Top Level.

Besides, we couldn't do that to Mulder.

That was it. That was why we were thinking about the man. We felt sorry for him.

Forget about Mulder, we thought. We have our own worries.

**

When we and we arrived at the Chain Center, there were and were another Partnership in the waiting room. Sharon and we sat down on chairs across from them and them. The other Partnership gave us and us mild smiles which were returned with equal mildness. There was no talking as we and we waited.

Time was spent examining the patterns on the wallpaper. Occasionally, one of us and us would pick up a News Bio-Container off a table and hold it indifferently in our hand as the Bio-Container told us of news events from the past week.

Finally, a woman entered the room. Theya were wearing a white lab coat and a smile on theira face. Theya looked like the kind of person who were always happy.

"Arnold and June Straton?" theya said.

The other female Partner stood up. Her male Partner didn't. A look of fear had suddenly appeared on theiro face.

The female Partner turned to themo. "Arnold, what is..."

Without saying anything, Arnold stood up and then went out the front door.

June stared at the door as it swung shut. Then theya gave the Center Assistant an apologetic look and chased after theira partner. Everyone were silent for a moment, realizing that those two were and were not coming back tonight, if ever.

The Center Assistant turned to Sharon and us. Theira smile was still in place, if looking a bit uncomfortable. "Well," theya said. "looks like we and we have an opening."

**

"You really shouldn't let that other Partnership worry you too much. We're afraid that all these rumors about Chain Ceremonies have given them a bad reputation. In reality, they are perfectly safe. We and we will be monitoring you all the time. In the rare instance when something should go badly, we and we are completely prepared to deal with it. Nothing to worry about at all..."

We wanted to tell the Center Assistant to shut up. Theya had been jabbering on like this as theya led Sharon and us through white hallways and past locked doors. Personal safety was not a concern of ours. We knew how tightly watched these Ceremonies were. They had to be. Every once and awhile, you had a situation where one Partner insists on carrying out the Ceremony while the other resists. In such situations, the Center Assistants moved in quickly to restrain the aggressive Partner.

The Center Assistant's spiel on safety was just a way of avoiding the real issue. A Chain Ceremony meant looking at a part of yourselves that you had never confronted before. You had no past experience to which you could relate it. You had no inkling of how you might react.

We almost wished that we wouldn't be under observation. We didn't want a record of what was going to happen. This was going to be a revelation of our secret selves...or, rather, the secret self inside of us. Why should anybody else see it when we didn't want to see it? Just what part of us was waiting to be exposed?

What if my secret self actually enjoyed the Chain Ceremony?

That scared us as much anything else.

**

The Center Assistant found the right room and unlocked its door. Sharon and us found walls of a light pink surrounding a bed. Both to the left and right of the bed was a yellow metal bowl. Light spilled through the glass shade of a lamp hanging above.

After giving us and us one last vacuous assurance, the Center Assistant left the room. The door was closed. And locked.

"Well," Sharon said.

"Well," we responded.

We and we took off our and our clothes. When Sharon reached behind to unclip theira bra, theya looked at me. We realized that we had been staring at thema. We had seen Sharon in swimsuits before, but we had never seen theira body fully naked.

Theya dropped theira hands to the side, unsure whether to proceed. We decided that we better make the first step. We continued undressing until we were fully exposed to thema. We stood still and allowed thema to examine us as we kept a nervous smile on our face.

After theya had finished looking, Sharon took a long breath and finished undressing theiraselves. Then theya quickly got under the bed's covers. We watched theira young body in those few moments before it was hidden. We admired its lean muscles and curved hips with what we hoped was clinical detachment.

Then we joined Sharon in the bed. Neither of us and us looked at each other.

The lights dimmed until they were just an inch away from darkness. A voice could be heard -- friendly but with a hint of stern authority.

"The Joined must continue to exist. The Chain of Life must not be broken.

You and your Partner are here to keep the links of this Chain strong. What you will now do, you do for the generations of the future. Bless you in the name of the Origin.

A new sound appeared. It wasn't the pleasant hum of Sensory Stimulation. It was a bit of music that the Chain Center had salvaged from the past. From what we understand, this music was from a movie about young lovers who met on a sinking ship. The Center had picked this song because it had been widely considered "romantic" back in its day.

"Let's do it, Sharon," we said.

Theya made no response but we sensed theira body tensing like ours. Inside theiraselves and ourselves, something loosened and pushed itself up to the eyes...

**

And then I was no longer with Purity.

I looked down at the floor and saw the black substance slide down the bed to congeal into the bowl. This was not the first time I had experienced this separation. Everyone holding Purity had to go through it a few times in school to prepare ourselves for the Chain Ceremony. The first separation had been a sickening experience. I had cried...

I.

I was now "I."

When you are separated from Purity, it's like losing a limb and having a different one grow in its place. You desperately want your other self back, but the new sensations being experienced are fascinating. It's not that you want to stay like this. This new perception is just so alien that you almost enjoy the perversity of it.

Stress the word "almost." I wanted Purity to return as soon as possible.

That meant quickly ending the Chain Ceremony.

I turned to Sharon. Theya...she was deliberately keeping her eyes away from me. I reached over and gently turned her head in my direction. She watched me as if I was a stranger. In a way, I was.

I had to start things up. I decided to kiss her. Her mouth was stiff and closed. I kissed her again and again there, then moved my lips to her cheek, to her forehead, to her chin. There was still no response. Then, again, she wasn't exactly resisting either.

I proceeded further. I reached down and pulled the rest of her body towards me. There was a loud gulp in her throat. I aligned her so that our sexual organs could touch.

How did she feel to me? She was...

She was soft. I can't find any other words than that. She was soft.

I continued to kiss her as I pressed her body against mine. I kissed her the way you keep working the controls on a defective machine. You keep pushing buttons in the hope of some response.

I received nothing from her limp body. I wasn't giving much myself. My sexual organs remained flaccid. I could almost hear the Center Assistants writing notes on our lack of progress as they watched us over the hidden Bio-Watchers. Yet I continued on out of some vague hope.

Finally, Sharon had enough. She pushed me away and rolled over onto her other side.

"Sharon..."

"I..." That word sent a shudder down her back. "It can't be done..."

"Yes, it can. Just relax and it will all be over soon."

"I don't want to do it."

"But we have..."

"You don't want to do it, either."

There was nothing that I could say in response to that truth. I dropped my back onto the mattress and stared at the ceiling.

Sharon and I laid there for several moments. Then I heard a sound which killed the possibility of trying the Ceremony again that night.

Sharon was crying, her pillow unable to mask those sobs. It made me angry angry at her, myself, the Chain Center and a society which couldn't find a solution to this ridiculous problem. I was even angry at the song they were playing. The woman singing it was literally screaming the notes in an attempt to make its triteness sound impressive. The song I had heard in Mulder's trailer had been much more interesting -- subdued yet expressive, longing yet wary.

Fox Mulder...he would have been able to do this. He and any female Alone as old as he was could have performed a Chain Ceremony with more ease than my young body could.

"We can't do this," I said.

The voice of the Center Assistant replied. "Now, Mister Rush, there is no need to give up now. Why don't you and your Partner..."

"No, that's it. We're through."

"Mister Rush..."

"I said, that's it, goddammit."

**

EXCERPT FROM "THE EROS CONUNDRUM" BY PROFESSOR RON MACK, COPYRIGHT 2006 --

When Purity bonded with the human race, it granted them an endless bounty of gifts. The Joined were and were blessed with advanced intelligence, a stronger immunity to disease and an enhancement of telepathic powers. Our and our whole world community has been eliminated of the idiotic, destructive conflicts of the past. We and we have created a better, safer technology and a better, safer world. However, for those gifts, humanity had to give up something.

They had to lose their sexuality.

It is uncertain how this happened. The answer might lie in what can only be termed the psychology of a virus. For Purity, reproduction is just a matter of cells dividing. For humans, it requires an act grounded in emotions as well as in biology. Love and eroticism are essential elements. Why this has to be is a mystery perhaps never to be solved. Other animals seem to get a subsidiary pleasure from the act, yet its primary purpose for them is to reproduce. Humans, on the other hand, used to value the act in of itself.

That we and we no longer do so is another benefit of being Joined. There has been no other aspect of human nature so unworthy of the efforts spent on both satisfying it and repressing it than erotic longing. An examination of the history of sexuality reveals the human race at its most pathetic. Look at the embarrassing rituals required -- some brief, some awesomely complex -- before the act can be performed. The result of these rituals was an absurdly heavy layering of social, political and theological implications on a simple event. No wonder that sexuality was once the harbinger of so much suspicion and mistrust. Can anyone doubt that personal relationships are substantially improved with its absence? Does anyone believe that a life free of sexual desire is less fulfilling than an existence caught up in the pitiful melodrama of eros?

Yet there still remains the necessity of reproduction. For the Joined to continue on, new children must be born. Ideally, this is a matter whose solution can be found in the scientific art of cloning or in vitro fertilization. Unfortunately, it turns out that the intricacies of DNA remain obscure to us and us. We and we can duplicate the basic structure, but there remains aspects of it yet to be chartered. In some undiscovered land of the human cell lies the element that allows Purity to Join with humanity. Until science can name and replicate this element, the children of the lab and the inseminated egg will not be able to receive Purity. The bonding of cells in the sexual act, however, can do what science cannot.

Here is the problem -- we and we are still dependent on sex to reproduce.

What are the possible solutions to the problem?

The most obvious is to encourage science on the search for the necessary element of DNA. Science needs no encouragement on this part. It is looking continuously. Perhaps it can locate this treasure. Perhaps not. If not, what else to do then?

Teach sexuality to the Joined? There has been research into this idea. From what we have seen of these studies, however, our conclusion is that this solution is almost unachievable. Sensory Stimulation can create pleasure, but not sexual arousal. The 'psychology of the virus' remains steadfast. We and we should expect that psychology to change even less than we should anticipate a scientific breakthrough.

Here is one more proposal -- if the Joined can't handle this dilemma, then the matter should be returned back to the humans. Let us and us have rituals in which there is a temporary separation between Purity and humans. The humans would be allowed to undertake the sexual act in closely monitored conditions. Unquestionably, this would be a difficult process, but -- in our opinion -- one that cannot be avoided.

We have confidence that the current generation of Joined would be able to perform that kind of ritual. These and these are the people who still remember life before the Joining. 'Old habits' should be fairly easy to pick up again. However, we feel uncertain about the next generation. We agree that all newborn children should receive Purity almost immediately after birth. Yet the 'psychology of the virus' will be all that they and they all know. When confronted with the requirement of sex, how will they and they...

**

"Don't feel too discouraged. Several Partnerships were and were unable to perform the Ceremony on the first time. When should we and we schedule the next appointment?"

**

When we and we returned to our house, Sharon headed straight for the bedroom. We did not need to be told that we should sleep on the couch.

Neither of us and us wanted to be close that night.

As we sat in the living room and half-heartedly used a Sensory Stimulator, we tried not to be bitter. How could we not be, though? The experience had been embarrassing, revolting, disastrous. And we had to repeat it again in a month. And again after that if we failed.

What happened to Partnerships when they were repeatedly unable to complete a Chain Ceremony? we wondered. Reassignment for the Partners? Would we have to leave Sharon? Did we know anybody who had failed constantly at the Chain Center?

We realized that we didn't. And the possible reasons why were frightening.

We had to think about something else. We went to the den and pulled up the files on Fox Mulder. Once again, we were turning to him for...what? We had told ourselves that we were done with Mulder, but something about him continued to stick with us. Was is it because his desperation was greater than ours? Were we using his life as a contrast to our own, making the latter look better by comparison? Or was it just because he may have lied to a question?

We remembered that we had used one of his curse words back at the Chain Center. "Goddamn." Whether we liked it or not, that bitter old Alone had affected us.

And whether he liked it or not, we weren't through with him yet.

**

We dreamt of her for the first time that night. We could only vaguely remember her face in the morning. The feature we remembered most was her intense blue eyes.

There was a far more remarkable aspect to my dream, though. For the first time, we had a dream with music in it. We had never heard anything like it before. It had been strong and forceful. Unlike the near-hysterical singer we had heard in the Chain Center, the voice in our dream had been loud, but loud with a definite purpose. We were a bit amazed that we could just think up something like that. We concluded that my brief exposure to music in Fox Mulder's trailer had been reprocessed in my unconsciousness into a new melody.

We drove to the Stabilizer Headquarters, humming the tune. "Nowhere to run to, baby...nowhere to hide..."

**

"We forget. Which guy wasn't President?"

"Hm?"

Alice Reynolds turned to us. We and we were both at the front of the cafeteria line, standing next to the cashier. Theya were holding a five-dollar bill and a ten-dollar bill.

"We know one of these guys wasn't President. Which one was it?"

"Uh, we don't know. Alice, you're holding up the line here."

"Whoops! Sorry." Theya paid off the cashier for theira lunch. We did likewise for our own lunch.

"When are they and they going to get rid of the old currency?" Alice asked as we looked for a spot to sit in the cafeteria of Stabilizer Headquarters.

"Whenever they and they think it's the right time."

"Well, we think that the time is right...oh, hey, there's Pete. Let's go ask themo."

"Ask themo what?" we said, but Alice were already walking towards Pete Emerson. Theyo were sitting alone at theiro table. Pete did not look like theyo wanted to be bothered by questions now. Theyo weren't touching their supplements, just vaguely watching some spot on the wall. However, Alice can be a bit oblivious at times. We followed to make sure my fellow Section Two member didn't do too much damage.

"Hey, Pete!"

Pete blinked and looked up at Alice. "What?"

"Arthur and we were wondering which guy on the currency wasn't a President?"

"We're...we're sorry?"

"Well, is it the five-dollar or the ten-dollar bill? We're asking because you were around before the Joining so we figured..."

The moody look in Pete's eyes finally became apparent to Alice. "Whoops.

Sorry about that. We guess you don't want to..."

Pete shook theiro head. "No, no. Please sit down. We actually could use some company now."

Alice and we didn't need to be told why. Pete Emerson were a member of Section Ten, the team assigned to investigate the Irregular bombing. Pete had been a Stabilizer for over twenty years. At the age of thirty-seven, theyo were one of the old men. Their credentials were among the best, backed up with experience. Judging from theiro moodiness, it was apparent that Pete's experience wasn't helping themo out on this case.

"Did you hear Representative Byers today?"

"Yes," we said. "We heard themo on the radio coming into work."

Pete shook theiro head. "All that crap about how the Stabilizers assured themo that we and we are making progress in the investigation. What nonsense. So far, the only thing we and we know about this bombing is that the Irregulars have taken credit for it. But even that muddies up the waters."

"How so?" Alice asked.

"Because if they kidnapped Maltese as well, why haven't they taken credit for it? From what Section Eight has told us, it's not even clear if Maltese were kidnapped in the first place."

"Still, for the the disappearance and the bombing to occur so closely together..."

"We know, we know. But, frankly, our and our investigation would be better off if we and we stopped trying to tie the bombing to Maltese's disappearance. Or maybe not. We don't know. Of course, the real pain-in-the-ass is..."

Pete stopped talking. Theyo didn't look sure if theyo should be talking about this.

"What, Pete?" we said.

Theyo leaned forward and lowered theiro voice. "If either of you talks out of company about this, your butt will be fried."

Alice and we both indicated that our and our mouths would be kept shut.

"Well...the biggest problem is Top Level. They and they have been holding back on us and us."

"In what way?"

"The bomb went off in Michener's car, right? And White were in there with themo?"

"Yes."

"Now, what were White doing with Michener? Where were they and they driving to or from? That should be a real easy question to answer, shouldn't it?

Well, nobody can give Section Ten a straight answer. Co-Administrators, the families of the deceased...they and they are being very evasive on this point."

"Maybe Michener and White were and were having a secret Partnership," Alice suggested.

"And Top Level is trying to hush that up? We could buy that. However, right now is not the time to keep any information to yourselves. Their and their own members are being killed, for chrissake! We mean...in the name of the Origin! If Section Ten were and were told about the affair, we and we could keep it under wraps. But that information is needed if we and we are to establish what the Co-Administrators were and were doing out in the middle of the night and who knew about it." Pete shook his head again. "We just don't get it. And with the Two World Festival within a few weeks..."

"Any chance that Top Level might hold off the Festival until the investigation is over?" we asked.

Pete gave us a crooked smile. "Are you kidding? This is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Joining. Top Level would consider it a victory for the Irregulars if the Festival was delayed."

"But if the Irregulars are planning something for the Festival..."

"You can bet your ass they're planning to do something as of this moment.

And it's not just the Irregulars. It's the whole damn Alone population. How long are we and we going to tolerate that damn Off-Zone?"

"Whoa there, Pete," Alice said. "Don't be so hard on the Alones. You used to be one."

"Yeah and it really sucked the Null."

We and we all laughed. The conversation turned to other matters, but we didn't doubt that thoughts about the Irregulars were on everyone's minds. We also found ourselves disturbed by Pete's antagonism towards the Off-Zone. It didn't surprise us, but we didn't want Fox Mulder being swept up in a general crack-down.

Not before we were through with him, anyway.

After lunch, we returned to our desk and found a message from Stoddard.

Theyo wanted to see us as soon as possible.

**

"What's the story, morning glory?" Judging from Stoddard's tone, our Supervisor were wondering why we had requested extended surveillance on a man whose possibility of threat had been described by our own selves as nil.

Our answer? "While we don't believe that Fox Mulder is involved in any Irregular activity, that doesn't mean he's not in connection with them."

Stoddard gave me no quote. Just a doubtful look. We pushed on. "It's hard to believe that we and we are the only ones who know that Fox Mulder is living in the middle of The Off-Zone. Let's find out if he has any other visitors.

One of them could lead us and us to an Irregular stronghold."

"Mmmmmm, it's a possibility."

"A possibility that we and we can't overlook. As we said before, any opportunity to know more about the Irregulars right now must be taken."

Stoddard considered this for a long time. Then the expression in theiro eyes changed. We could tell that theyo had made a decision and the decision was yes. Theyo pointed a finger at us and said, "Let's be real careful out there."

**

Care was needed to make surveillance in The Off-Zone. No Alone cares much for the spying eyes of a Stabilizer and an Irregular cares even less. The hardest part of this operation was planting Bio-Watchers on Mulder's trailer. That required sneaking through the Off-Zone in the blackest part of night. We needed the help of one of the stone-faced patrolmen in this regard. As Mulder slept, we and we attached grafts of soft, stick material to select spots of the trailer. The Bio-Watchers dissolved into the metal walls, giving no hints of their presence.

The patrolman were not particularly happy to assist us. Theyo were only doing this because of orders. Being deep in the Off-Zone was unsettling to themo, especially after the events of today. While Stoddard and we had been talking, an enormous group of Alones had marched right up to the wall and just screamed, yelled and threw rocks. It had been a completely spontaneous act of rage, sparked by the-Origin-knows-what. The crowd only left after a volley of Stun Units had been fired at them.

This kept in mood with what happened over the next three days.

The second incident occurred around noon of the day following the riot.

Almost everyone who were using a Bio-Network Unit for retrieving or sending information suddenly had a voice screaming inside their and their head, causing them and them to break contact in shock. It took over ten minutes before the voice was silent. Throughout that time, the voice kept shouting the same three words over and over again. Guess what those words were?

It was a new and disturbing revelation about the Irregulars. Not only could they infiltrate D.C. and attack Co-Administrators, but they knew how to wreak havoc with the whole Bio-Network. Up until now, their lack of Purity restrained the amount of damage they could do with Bio-Tech. Apparently, they were figuring out how to compensate for that.

Confronted with all this, Martin Pollock -- one of the three replacement Co-Administrators -- demanded that immediate action be taken against this "insidious cancer plaguing our society." The Stabilizers of Section Three decided to do something which resembled "immediate action."

Some Alones were allowed to have employment outside of the Off-Zone. Such employment was needed since the good money could only be made in D.C. If an investigation of an Alone revealed nothing bad, he or she was given a green mark on the Alones Catalogue and permitted to go over the border.

Of course, there was worry that unsafe Alones might get through the system.

Rumors were always going around about how this group or that group of Alones in D.C. was an Irregular faction. Most of the stories were flimsy and obviously contrived. Section Three, however, decided that one story was less flimsy than others. That's how the raid on the Waterson Supplement Distributor happened.

Late in the night, Ralph Waterson were shocked to have theiro business raided by the Stabilizers. Ignoring Waterson's screams that this was a perfectly legitimate business, Section Two charged into the loading bay where trucks received orders of supplements for restaurants and cafeterias.

The Alones working there for a pittance found themselves surrounded by black-suited people carrying Bio-Neutralizers.

The raid did not go as smoothly as planned. "We've got three workers dead and two in the hospital," Waterson complained to the media. "How the Null are we going to get any new Alones to work here now?"

The official word on the matter was very vague. It wasn't clear why one Stabilizer felt compelled to use theiro Aura to irradiate Alones. (Only Stabilizers and the military were taught how to use the Joined Aura. At moments like these, I wished that it was a skill kept unlearned.) Through the Irregulars' secret channels, a woman calling herself Rebecca Sharp sent the word out to the media and the government that "the Irregulars had no members working for that Joined business" and "we will not stand by and let innocent Alones be killed." Maybe she had been telling the truth. Maybe not.

However, any sympathy that the Joined might have and have felt was ended when another bomb went off the following night. And another Co-Administrator were killed.

Three dead and one missing. It looked like that it wouldn't be long before the Irregulars notched up enough Co-Administrators to fill up all fifty-one seats of Top Level.

The name of the dead Co-Administrator were Garth Armstrong. Theyo had not been the only person murdered. The bomb had exploded in a private building located in the Mesa district, a lightly populated area of D.C. In the wreckage of that building, they and they found fourteen Alones. The official explanation of the bombing was that Armstrong had been kidnapped by the Irregulars and taken to this hide-out. Unfortunately for everybody in that building, a bomb in the Irregulars' weapons cache accidentally went off.

Thus, the tragedy.

This story didn't make sense to us. For one thing, we granted the Irregulars more intelligence than this. If you had a Co-Administrator in your grasp, you didn't hang around D.C. You took him back to The Off-Zone. We also had trouble with the idea of one of their bombs "accidentally" going off.

Furthermore, who were these Alones? Their names were released, but when we did a little of our own research, we found no information about them in the Alones Catalogue. All of them had received their border passes, but what was their official reasons for being outside of the Off-Zone? The Catalogue didn't say. Why would the Irregulars go through the trouble of getting their people into D.C. and not bother to give them a cover story?

Frankly, when Rebecca Sharp sent out another missive claiming the Irregulars did not blow up the building, we were inclined to believe her. Top Level and the public, however, were and were not so inclined. After all, there was one fact against the Irregulars. The second bombing had occurred two blocks away from the explosion which had killed Michener and White.

The public demanded blood. They got the next best thing -- martial law.

**

The tanks, helicopters and P.T.'s arrived even before the sun had risen. The border patrolmen dropped their stone faces to applaud and cheer the convoys.

Alones who were just waking up heard the rumble of heavy vehicles and then this announcement over harshly amplified speakers "All Alones will be confined to The Off-Zone until those responsible for the deaths of Co-Administrators Michener, White and Armstrong and the disappearance of Co-Administrator Maltese are apprehended or turned over to the proper authorities. The Off-Zone will also be under martial law until those conditions can be met."

The response to this was not positive.

As the troops secured every street, an already-existing rage was strengthened. Most of the Alones depended on the meager salaries they made off from their jobs outside the Off-Zone. They also completely believed that the Armstrong bombing had not been done by the Irregulars. Their grumblings became yelled insults against the troops. They held up their hands and made fists.

All we can say about the rest of the day is that it was a good thing nobody got killed. The clashes between the troops and the Alones didn't stop until nightfall. There were a lot of bruises and broken bones, most of them on the side of the Alones. Had someone gotten killed, though, it would have started a total war.

There are two things that we will always remember about that night. Our surveillance was being conducted from one of the posts on the border wall.

We had been given our own little room in which we could examine the signals being sent by the Bio-Watchers on Mulder's trailer. Our attention to that, however, was broken by the sound of a great crowd. We left the post and looked down from the walkway on top of the wall. It gave us a fine vantage point on the mob of Alones who were approaching the border. They had been fortunate enough to get this far, but now they were facing an equal number of Joined troops with far better weapons.

They stopped within fifty feet of the wall and began to direct all kinds of obscenities at the troops. They chanted the names of those who had been killed at Waterson Distributors. It was unclear whether they would be satisfied with just insults or a frontal attack. Next to us, a patrolman muttered, "Just try something, Null-suckers."

That's when Representative John Byers showed up. We had always liked the man. We voted for themo in the last election and were planning to do so in the next. However, it wasn't likely that theyo would win another election.

The old man were regarded as being too sympathetic to the Alones.

Obviously, Byers were hoping that theiro sympathetic reputation would endear themo to the crowd. "Please return to your homes!" theyo pleaded through a voice-amplifier. "You are doing no good here! Please return before things get out of control!"

The responses ranged from "The government is out of control, not us!" to "What about the people that the Stabilizers killed?!" to "Fuck you!" Then a single cheer rose out of the din, unifying the whole crowd in one shout.

"Fox Mulder Lives!" "Fox Mulder Lives!" "Fox Mulder LIVES!" "FOX MULDER LIVES!"

Byers stared at the crowd. Even from our long-range viewpoint, we could see how appalled theyo were. And how angry. Theyo listened to the cheering for almost a minute. Then theyo raised the amplifier to theiro mouth and screamed --

"SHUT THE FUCK UP!"

The voice was so startlingly enraged that the crowd silenced itself. Even the troops were and were staring at Byers as theyo ranted. Nobody had ever seen the Representative behave like this in public. Theyo usually appeared so calm and reasonable -- a quiet man with an undercurrent of sadness about themo. But, now...

"WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT FOX MULDER?! YOU DON'T

KNOW HIM! NONE OF YOU DO! HE'S JUST SOMETHING YOU

IDIOTS CAN SHOUT OUT OR WRITE ON WALLS! DON'T YOU

DARE CLAIM HIS NAME..."

Then Byers just tossed the amplifier to the ground, producing a deep thud that echoed against the wall. Theyo stomped back to theiro P.T. which ferried the Representative out of The Off-Zone.

After that, the crowd dispersed and we'll be a Null-sucker if they didn't look a bit ashamed of themselves.

We didn't know yet why Byers had been so angry. However, if theyo though that Mulder would have been ashamed of the mob, theyo would have been wrong.

Fox Mulder had not been displeased by the chaos in The Off-Zone that day. He welcomed it.

The past two days spent watching and recording Fox Mulder had not been rewarding ones. Mulder's daily activities seemed to break down into four basic groups -- sleeping, drinking, listening to music and masturbating. The Bio-Watchers allowed us to observe this last activity in more detail than we wished.

Occasionally, he ate as well. The food was provided by a young Alone whose name we've forgotten. This teenager apparently came to Mulder's trailer every week, bringing groceries, alcohol and whatever money was left over from Mulder's Social Security. Mulder would greet the teenager with a smile that was both desperate and sarcastic. The teenager mumbled replies to the witticisms Mulder spoke and left as soon as he could.

Crying was also something Mulder indulged in from time to time. He would often do it in the middle of one of his other four basic activities, even sleep. Mulder also talked in his sleep as well as cried. We could make no sense of the fragmentary sentences he muttered or shouted. "Enough with the harmonic convergence crap!" "Oooh, if you were that stoned, then what?"

"You're my one in five billion." "Why were you looking at me when you said that?" Nor do we recognize the name said over and over again.

The music played on the CD player was equally unrecognizable yet we can still remember all of it. "Hey, wait, I've got a new complaint..." "Up on cripple creek, she sends me..." "Bow down before the one you serve..." "I cover the waterfront..." "One for the money, two for the show..." "Learn to swim, learn to swim, learn to swim..." "Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa..." "Livin' just enough, just enough for the city..." They were fragments of a past that we wondered if even Mulder could remember. We would return home and puzzle Sharon by whistling those songs.

When martial law was imposed on The Off-Zone, Mulder went up to his door and listened to the sounds of tanks and amplified orders. Then he turned up the CD player to full volume. With another display of astonishing agility, he climbed to the top of his trailer as the sound of "Our freedom of speech is freedom of death, we've got to fight the powers that be!" thundered through the open door. "Come and get me, you cocksuckers!" he bellowed, shaking his thin fist at the helicopters.

The cocksuckers left him alone. They and they didn't even know he was there.

His trailer was located in a barren spot not considered strategic. After some time of screaming and shaking his fist, Mulder realized that no one was coming. He remained quiet and unmoving on the trailer's roof for a long time. Then he began to climb down. He slipped halfway down and our heart leapt as he landed on the ground. As he laid there, we were wondering if we should get help out to him. Then he picked himself off the ground, his face showing no sign of pain. He got a bottle out of the refrigerator and that's when we stopped watching him for the day.

When we returned back to our house, the first thing Sharon said to us was "You have to stop going there."

"What?"

"It's dangerous. The Off-Zone could blow up any second..."

We took thema by the hand. It was an act that surprised us as much as it did thema. We and we had touched each other before but only in light, friendly ways. The grip that we had on theira hand was tighter and warmer than usual. It was how we tried to touch thema during the Chain Ceremony.

We wanted to let go just as much as theya wanted theira hand released. Yet we kept holding on. It was as if there was something here that we didn't want to lose, despite the discomfort.

"Being a Stabilizer always has its dangerous side," we said quietly. "But the only ones in danger here are the Alones. Their backs are up against the wall now."

"That just means they're even more dangerous than before."

"Don't worry. The military has the Off-Zone completely..."

"Why do you have to be there anyway? What's so important about the person you're watching?"

That was a question we couldn't answer. Truthfully, Mulder's symbolism to the Irregulars no longer held any importance. It was just him who now interested us. And we couldn't explain why. There was just something about him we couldn't let go.

Like Sharon's hand.

"It's an important Stabilizer investigation," we said. "We can't back away from it." We didn't need the dubious look on Sharon's face to tell us how insincere we sounded. However, Sharon weren't going to press us on the subject. Theya still wanted to trust us and...

Theya were a little afraid of us, too. Or, perhaps, theya were scared of theiraselves. The Chain Ceremony had upset thema in ways that theya had yet to recover from. Faced with that kind of fear, some of us and us like to pretend that nothing is wrong.

"All right," Sharon said. "You do what you think is best." Then theya looked down at our and our joined hands.

We let go. Theya pressed that hand firmly against theira dress as if we might want to grab it again. Maybe we did.

"Would you like something to eat?" theya asked.

"Yes. Thank you very much."

**

We had another interesting dream that night.

In the dream, we were still a baby. We...or, to be exact...I was receiving Purity. I had spent a mere ten minutes out of my mother's womb when the Originists came into the delivery room. One held the bowl holding the Purity while the other recited from the Book of the Origin.

"Life without Purity is life without meaning. Without Purity, humanity is a weak, sinful animal. We and we give thanks to the Origin who gave us Purity.

And now we and we give Purity to this child, Arthur Anderson Rush. May it guide Arthur to perfect unity with the Origin and away from the darkness of the Null."

The bowl handler steps up to the table on which my mother rests, still flushed and sweating. Everyone is...everyone are and are smiling -- the doctors, the Originists, my parents. I am the only one not smiling.

No, that's not true. There's another man in the room and he's not smiling.

He's bald-headed and his tough, muscular body is naked. He watches the Receiving of Purity with a deep frown.

"Let the child be one no more," the Originist declares and the bowl is tipped over my head. I look up and see a black oil sliding towards me.

"Don't give up without a fight, kid," the naked man tells me.

The black oil splatters over my face. Before I can cry out, it's already invading my nose and my mouth and my eyes. A darkness envelopes me and I don't know whether to scream at it or accept it like sleep for the weary.

Our own sleep ended there. We kicked our way out of the nightmare back into the reality of our bed. The night was still present outside. Sharon was asleep next to us as we focused on getting our heart slowed down, appreciating the security of...

A nightmare?

The most important event of our life was a nightmare?

For a brief moment, ourselves really seemed like two different selves, not joined together but inhabiting the same claustrophobic space. I was I and I was looking into the black, featureless face of Purity, realizing that I never asked for this bond.

The moment passed. I grasped the second consciousness back to myself and we were we again. We assured ourselves that we will never be anything except the Joined until the day of our death when we will either become completely one with the Origin or be cast into the obliterating void of the Null.

"We are we" was the thought being repeated over and over in our mind. "We are we." We kept saying this to ourselves as we drifted back to sleep.

Back into whatever dreams we may have.

**

Part Eight

This would be the last day. When we returned to our post at The Off-Zone's border, that's what we promised ourselves. We would spend only one more day indulging in our perverse addiction to Fox Mulder. It was a promise we owed to ourselves and to Sharon. Anyway, how long would it be before Stoddard pulled us off surveillance? Just long enough for our Supervisor to realize that nothing important was being learned from our investigation.

Just one more day, then.

We sat in the small, cramped room of the guard post and we watched and listened. Occasionally, we would eat a supplement. We were all alone in that room with the door closed. None of the guards were bothering to talk with us anymore. That suited us fine. We were as annoyed by their and their smug contempt of the Alones as they and they were put off by the sullen, quiet way we kept our eyes on the Bio-Imager.

This day went by like all of Mulder's previous days. More sleeping, more drinking, more masturbating. And music, music, music. "I can't stop lovin'

you..." "It's just the motion..." "Bela Lugosi's dead..." "Well, I've got to keep moving, I've got to keep moving..." "I've got no time to cry..." "Don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge..." "Glory days..." "Making the scene...get on up...like a sex machine...get on up..."

By the afternoon, we felt like screaming. There's more to you than this! we thought. There's more to you than just being this bastard rotting away in the middle of nowhere! We know there is!

That belief was what kept us at the wall into the night. That was why when a patrolman came with a message from Sharon, we told themo to inform Sharon that we would be here for awhile longer. That was why we were still there when the third shift of border patrolmen came. ("Who the Null is that guy in there?" "Forget about it. Pay no attention to themo.") We couldn't let go. We were willing to climb our way through a seemingly endless expanse of sordidness and banality to reach a thing that we couldn't even name, much less describe. We probably would have stayed there until we were dragged away kicking and screaming.

Then she came.

**

It was just after midnight when she stepped into the trailer. We heard her before we saw her -- the sound of cloth brushing through the weeds. We had been watching Mulder sleeping with an empty bottle at his side. A thick numbness was growing in our head. We were suspended between a state of exhaustion and an undying alertness. When we heard her approach, we didn't know whether to attribute the sound to our ears or to our imagination. Maybe they both created it. There were a lot of things to be witnessed in the following days that had the same vague quality of existence. Looking back on the whole story, we wonder if dreams and reality have wedded and their children are our memories.

Hearing her approach, we shifted the view of the Bio-Watchers to the outside. The infrared filters enabled us to see in the night.

She was holding a flashlight, an old device that beamed a long cone of light. Such technology was obsolete, but she didn't look ridiculous using it. She held it like a sword, cutting through the darkness around her. Her clothes were all black -- black pants and a black shirt with a black jacket brushing across the weeds. The black colors starkly contrasted with skin as white as the moon and red hair curving gracefully over her head.

While she was wary of being seen, she had no fear about going into the trailer. We quickly shifted our view to the inside. We watched her as she examined her surroundings. Mulder's possessions seemed even more dirty and useless as she passed her flashlight over them.

"If there's any iced tea in that bag...it could be love..."

She paused and listened in the direction of the bedroom. Mulder added no more to his last statement. He just breathed noisily in his sleep.

Then the woman went up to the CD player. She looked through the collection of music until she found what she was apparently searching for. We caught the name "Miles Davis" before she inserted the CD into the player.

Applause crackled over the speakers. The applause faded away to the sound of...

We wish that we knew more about music. Then we could better describe the sounds that we heard. All we can talk about is how the sounds reminded us of the night. They were like the thoughts in your head as you find yourself suspended on those last moments before unconsciousness. We couldn't decide if it sounded sad or hopeful.

The red-haired woman picked up the flashlight and held it front of her as she crept into the bedroom. She found Mulder in his bed, looking as wasted as the artifacts in his trailer.

She turned off the flashlight and laid it on the ground.

She slid her coat off her shoulders, letting it slide down her back.

Just as she undid the first button on her shirt, the music changed. Another sound was added to it, standing above the hum in the background. While the background music followed a careful pattern, this new sound had an aura of randomness. Yet it didn't clash with the first sounds. Rather, it used the background as a contrast. Everything it spoke was a reply to its aural family. They blended together in the same way humanity and Purity became the Joined.

No, it was an unity even better than that, we found ourselves thinking. At the time, we didn't consider such a thought to be strange. We didn't even speculate that the thought might not have come from our joined mind, but from only one part of it. All of our focus was on the woman as she removed her shirt...her pants...her bra...her panties...until she stood naked before the sleeping Mulder.

We saw her beauty now. Like the young Mulder, the beauty of this woman didn't overcome you at once. Perhaps it was due to the smallness of her height or the distant look on her face. As you looked at her more, the lovely curve of her face and her healthy, fit body gently enticed you into fascination. You realized that the look on her face wasn't distant. It held the same mixture of sadness and hope we were hearing in the music.

A warmth was spreading over our body. Again, we were supposed to have been shocked by this. These were the kind of feelings only supposed to be felt in a Chain Ceremony. Purity did not know how to be aroused, yet here we were...or here I was...or here somebody was feeling things never felt towards a woman before, including Sharon.

Then our arousal turned to disgust.

The woman had gotten into bed with the sleeping Fox Mulder.

She spread open his bathrobe and kissed his thin, pale chest. Her hands rubbed all the way down to his bony hips. A shudder went through us as she licked her tongue around one of his nipples.

In the name of the Origin, we thought, why is she doing this? How is she doing this? How can she stand the taste of withered flesh and the smell of alcohol and unwashed skin? Why would anybody debase themselves like this? We watched, our repulsion intertwined with a need to see more.

Mulder finally woke up. Or, rather, his eyes opened without him achieving full consciousness. The look on his face suggested a man under the influence of a drug. When the woman raised her face from his chest, he stared at her as if he couldn't accept her presence.

Then he said the name he had whispered so many times in his sleep.

"Scully..."

She smiled down at him. Under other circumstances, we could have appreciated that smile, but not when it was for him. Not when it was for Fox Mulder.

"Scully..." he said again as if it was a word whose definition he had forgotten.

Kneeling next to his prone body, she began to stroke his sexual organ as she talked. Her voice was muted and gentle like the melodies of the improvising musician.

"I came to tell you," she said. "that the plan goes ahead. You are still welcome to join us."

Mulder stared at her for a few moments, then he closed his eyes and shook his head. "Go away," he muttered.

This was the most astounding thing of all. Go away? You say "go away" to a beautiful woman who is...

We had to close our eyes. The sickness in our belly had spread all over our body. We were seeing too much and none of it made sense. We tried to remember why we were watching this at all.

Then we remembered something else.

We opened our eyes. We stared at the woman who was still smiling and still stroking Mulder despite his protestations. Of course, Mulder's resistance was weak. He didn't have the strength to make this woman stop. He really didn't want her to leave, either.

She stretched her body forward, still handling Mulder's sex organ as she bent down to kiss him on the mouth. She closed her own eyes before their lips touched. Just before her eyes were hidden to us, though, we realized that those eyes had been seen by us before.

They had been in my dream -- the dream we had after the failed Chain Ceremony. Those eyes had been the same shade of blue this woman had. Only they had been in a different face.

No.

It had been the same face.

The same face, only older. Much older. In my dream, this woman's face had been as lined as Mulder's. The exotic red hair had been replaced with a bald, scarred scalp. And there had been no kindness in that woman's eyes. It had been the face of a destroyer -- the face of a woman who gave no mercy and asked for nothing less than control. She was older, harder, more terrible...but the same woman, nevertheless.

It was after realizing this that I started to run.

**

Part NINE

**

We heard a patrolman yell at us as we rolled out one of the rope ladders. We must have screamed something very threatening back, because no one stopped us as we slipped down the ladder into The Off-Zone. The troops stationed near the wall watched in disbelief as a wild-eyed Stabilizer ran by.

Looking back, we wonder why we didn't use our P.T. For some reason, getting a P.T. started up seemed like too much time wasted. Or, perhaps we had enough sense to understand that we were in no condition to be driving now.

We suppose that we could have had someone else drive us, but we wanted to be alone. Alone with Fox Mulder. And Scully.

In any case, we ran. We remember a blur of lampposts, dark buildings, vigilant troops, the occasional Alone caught outside during curfew, the pavement slapping on our feet, the wind streaking across our face. We might have been stopped a couple of times. We're not sure.

When we arrived at Mulder's trailer, we didn't feel exhausted. The madness had charged our body to the highest level. We burst into the trailer and into the bedroom, flicking on the light.

Mulder was in a daze, still neither looking asleep or awake. An ejaculation had left a long, sticky trail up the bed and on his robe.

He was the only one there.

We slapped him in the face. Now, he was fully awake. "Wh-what?" he yelped.

"Who is she?!" we shrieked.

He just looked up at us in shock, touching the red palm print on his face.

"I saw her! Who is she?! Who is Scully?!"

The shock faded away from Mulder's face. He now just looked tired -- not just physically tired, but tired of his whole life. He regarded the psychotic in his bedroom with no fear. If we were to kill him now, he would have accepted it with no complaints. He said --

"Just what do you want from me anyway?"

Just like that, the fury inside us disappeared. The exhaustion being held back was allowed to overcome our body. We sat down on Mulder's bed, our shoulders drooping. We could have gone to sleep right there if the idea of nestling into those soiled sheets hadn't nauseated us.

What did we want? That question groped for an answer inside a mind almost devoid of thought. We could only give one answer.

"We want the truth."

Mulder pulled himself up so that he was sitting right next to us. He covered himself up with his bathrobe. We could only imagine what we and he looked like. In that moment, we felt as old as he looked.

Mulder sighed and said, "I was afraid you were going to say that." He rubbed his eyes and asked what time it was.

"Somewhere between midnight and one," we said in a dead voice.

He looked at us for a moment, then said, "You are so young."

A grin rose on his face like a shark fin poking through the water. "Too young to be cooped up in here," he informed us. He jumped to his feet, sparked by another one of his sudden outbursts of energy. "I'm going to take a shower and get dressed. And then..."

"Then, what?" we said.

He patted our shoulder. "I'm going to take you out on the town."

**

For the rest of the night, we were under the control of Fox Mulder. We submitted out of exhaustion and out of a need for answers. Our defenses had been shattered. We would do whatever Mulder would ask us to do and have faith that he would provide answers in his own fashion.

After taking what must have been his first shower in over a week, Mulder got dressed up in tan slacks, white loafers with tall black socks, a brown cap and a short-sleeved shirt painted with a riot of colors. He looked absurd, but he wore the clothes with a jaunty confidence.

"Let's move out!"

We followed him through the weeds and then down the streets of The Off-Zone.

We vaguely wondered what would happen if the troops found us and him. Mulder didn't seem worried at all. He strode through the dark slums as if he was on holiday.

After a few blocks, he called out "This is the place!" "The place" was a two-story building made of wood that had seen better days. Iron bars stood in front of the dark windows. A long sign rested above the front door and told anyone who cared that the building was called "The Bucket."

Mulder grunted when he saw a restraining bolt placed over the entrance. He peeked through the windows. "Where is everybody?" he asked.

"Curfew," we explained.

"What?!" Mulder exclaimed. "They can't close down The Bucket! It's the cultural mecca of The Off-Zone! Why, you can't find a finer..."

A P.T. turned a corner down the street. It immediately hit Mulder and us with a searchlight. "Do not move," an amplified voice ordered. Mulder and we remained unmoving as we blinked into the light.

The P.T. pulled up to the closed building. Two soldiers wearing the corporal insignia got out.

"You're going to have to..." one of the corporals started to say, but then Mulder interrupted.

"Boy, am I glad you two showed up! I take it you can unlock that damn thing across the door, right?"

The corporals looked at Mulder with blank expressions.

"If you can, then it would be a really big help. You see, my friend and I are trying to..."

"This establishment is off-limits until declared otherwise. You two shouldn't even be out in the street."

We decided to step in here. "It's all right, corporal. I'm Stabilizer Rush and I'm looking after..."

"Stabilizer Arthur Rush?"

"Yes."

"A bulletin had been put out for you, Stabilizer Rush. You are to be returned to the border as soon as possible."

We looked at Mulder and shrugged. What more could we do?

Mulder continued with a smile on his face. "Look, fellas, you'll be doing us a favor by helping us out here..."

"Sir, you're coming with us and..."

"...and you'll be doing yourself a favor."

The corporals went stiff. So did we.

"Sir," a corporal said. "are you threatening us and us?"

"Yes, I am, actually."

We felt a strong urge to clamp our hand over Mulder's mouth. The urge quickly dissipated. We just didn't care anymore. Whatever happened next, we would be nothing more than spectators.

The corporals fingered the triggers on their and their Neutralizers. "Sir, I think you better get up against..."

"Not with physical violence, mind you," Mulder said in a casual voice. "But I can have you two transferred to the Balkans. If you think the Alones here in America are a pain-in-the-ass..."

The corporals looked at each other. Mulder sounded a little too sure of himself and the look in his eyes was too knowledgeable.

"If you're not sure, here's a number you should call up." He recited a ten-digit number. We felt a tingling sensation. Only certain people answered to that area code.

"Go ahead. Call it up."

The corporals were and were caught between tossing Mulder into the P.T. and erring on the side of caution. One of them and them decided to go for the latter. Theyo pulled off a cube attached to theiro belt. It turned soft in theiro hand as theyo mentally contacted the number Mulder gave themo.

Mulder winked at us.

The tough, suspicious look on the corporal's face turned to surprise. Then it assumed the tense look of obedience. Theyo kept nodding as theyo had a silent conversation. After nodding several times, the corporal looked at Mulder, swallowed and said, "The...The Representative wants to know if you're sure you want to do this."

The other corporal straightened to attention. We closed our eyes and ran our hands down a smiling face. Of course. Mulder knew Representative John Byers.

Why shouldn't he?

"Tell the Representative that if he's...if theyo...are concerned with public safety, then tell...themo...that this ain't nothin' but a party. Is that correct grammar, Arthur?"

"Except for the 'ain't,' yes."

The corporal delivered the message and waited for a reply. Then theyo nodded one more time and put the cube back onto theiro belt. Theyo took out a key and unlocked the bolt.

"Excellent," Mulder said.

"If you need nothing else..." The corporal swallowed again. "...sir, then we and we will be on..."

"Oh, no. No, no, no. You're not done yet."

The corporals stopped in the middle of turning away.

"Now...you have to go round up people."

"For what?"

"I told you...this ain't nothin' but a party."

**

If it was a party, then the initial mood was a long cry from festive.

Instead, the atmosphere was suspicious and confused. How else is an Alone supposed to feel when a Joined soldier comes to his apartment and tells him to come down to the local bar? How else are an Joined soldier supposed to feel when you have a large gathering of Alones breaking curfew?

We would estimate that there were seventy-five Alones in the Bucket that night and at least that much gathered outside. Surrounding all these Alones were and were a wide circle of Joined soldiers who came as soon as they and they heard about "the party." Each side watched each the other in mutual hostility.

In the name of the Origin, we thought, what is Mulder trying to do here?

This has all the makings of a riot. And that would be just the thing to set off a full-scale war. Couldn't he at least ask Representative Byers to get those soldiers out of sight?

Maybe he couldn't. Maybe this was the extent of Mulder's influence with Byers or the extent of Byers's power.

Or maybe he was trying to prove something.

"Who the fuck is responsible for all this?" The man who had spoken was standing at the doorway to the Bucket, but not in it. He wouldn't have been able to fit. At around seven feet, he was the tallest man we had ever personally met. Judging from his long, muscular arms and his thick hands, he probably could have broken our neck before we could use our Aura.

He looked around at the crowds outside and inside the bar with deep brown eyes. "Well?" he demanded.

"That would be me," Mulder said, stepping forward. "Is this everybody who is coming?"

"You did this, Muldrake?" the tall man said in disbelief.

"I thought you would be pleased, Robbie. I got your bar opened up again."

Robbie did not look pleased. "I don't know how you managed all this, but I'm not going to keep my bar open as long..." He jabbed one of his long fingers at the soldiers. "...they are watching us with their beady little eyes."

"Well, they're not leaving."

"Then we've got a problem."

"Which I will now solve."

He went up to the corporals' P.T, still parked next to The Bucket. The corporals sat and looked nervous in the armored vehicle.

Mulder held out a hand. A voice-amplifier was given to him.

"Hello, there." His voice ringed rang out from one end of the block to the other.

"All right, people. This is the way it is.

"I don't need to tell you that things are bad. I don't need to talk about martial law or the Irregulars or any of it. You know where everything stands.

"What I'm here to say is that tonight doesn't have to be about any of these things. It doesn't have to be about paranoia or hatred. Why?

"Because it would be good to have a night like that. No other reason is required.

"We can have that kind of night right here...right now. But we can only have it if you make it work.

"See those soldiers over there? We can't make them go away. I mean, we can't make them and them go away. What we can do is not give them and them grief.

Just think of them and them as...the chaperones. Leave them and them alone and they and they will do the same for us.

"Now, let me say this to the soldiers. I don't know what you guys see here.

Most likely, you feel threatened. Well, let me tell you something...if you don't feel threatened, then there won't be a threat. There's nothing here but a bunch of people getting together to have fun. Hell, you can even join in. Or not. It's up to you.

"Now, I've just made a promise for everybody here. Whether you want to keep that promise is your decision. However, if you keep that promise, you'll never regret it. And I believe...that deep down...you know I'm speaking the truth. You knew the truth before I even spoke it.

"So, what is this night about? It's about...this."

That was the signal to someone in The Bucket. As the crowd had gathered here, Mulder had worked up a connection between the P.T.'s amplifier and the...what was it called again?...the jukebox inside the bar. At his signal, a button was pressed on the jukebox.

"Let's go crazy..." a voice sang through the amplifier. "Let's go, let's go!"

At first, no one was affected.

Then someone started to unconsciously move to the song's rhythm. The motions were picked up by the person next to him. The people around them did likewise. A feeling grew and there was nothing bad about it. Hands were raised in the air. No one cared how they looked. A person could find a partner to dance with simply because it felt right to dance with that other person.

Mulder smiled as the happy mood spread all over the street and into the bar.

We watched in astonishment. It was all becoming just what Mulder wanted it to be. It was nothing but a party.

"I think you better work the tabs, Robbie," Mulder said.

The tall man studied Mulder for a long moment. Then he smiled, shook his head and went inside the bar.

We looked over at the soldiers. They and they were as amazed as we were.

Over one hundred Alones were dancing before them and them and there was nothing to be done about it. Mulder had done nothing more than appeal to their and their sense of honor. Only the risk of shame kept them and them at bay, but that was the only thing needed.

We said that it was nothing but a party, but it was everything that a party could be. Mulder had created a perfect act of defiance. With their dancing and show of togetherness, it was as if the Alones were saying, "You may control our lives, but these lives have more meaning than yours." The symbol of the Irregulars had created his own unbeatable symbol.

And nobody knew who he really is, we realized. What could this man do if he announced his true name and became a leader?

Here was a better question -- why wasn't he doing it?

**

Part TEN

**

"Me and you, your mama and your cousins too..."

That was the song playing around two o'clock. We were sitting at a table in the corner of The Bucket. The bar was as ramshackle on the inside as on the outside, but no one cared. Everybody was dancing and laughing and drinking.

We had never seen so many happy people all at once. Outside, the crowd in the street had gotten even larger, all of them swaying to the music blaring out of the P.T.'s amplifier. The word was spreading over the whole Off-Zone -- a party was happening at The Bucket.

The man who had started all of this came to our table, carrying two glasses of golden liquid. He placed one glass in front of us and sat down in the other chair at the table. We and he looked at each other.

Then he laughed, laughed at the whole absurd thing he had managed to pull off. We shook our head.

"Come on, Arthur!" he said, slapping us lightly on the arm. "Just relax and go with it."

"We don't think so."

"Not a party animal, huh? Well, to tell the truth, neither am I. I never have been."

"What's this then?" we asked, pointing at all the people.

"Me at work," he answered and took a sip of the liquid.

And what is your work? we wondered. Mulder could tell by the look in our eyes that we still wanted information from him.

He sighed and said, "I have a deal for you."

"All right."

"I'll answer any question you have. In return..." He pointed at the glass in front of us. "...you drink a full glass for every question."

We looked down at the golden liquid waiting for us. Then we looked back up.

"Agreed," we said.

"Just a moment, then," Mulder said and went back to the counter where Robbie the bar-owner was very busy at serving drinks. Mulder came back with a full bottle of the golden liquid. He sat back down and said "First...you drink."

We picked up the glass. We opened our mouth and held the glass close to our lips, hesitating. A strong, unusual smell rose up into our nose.

Then we drank.

Purity can swiftly handle most viruses, diseases and harmful organisms invading a human body. However, it was probably put to a severe test by that liquid we had ingested. My head immediately felt light as the alcohol blazed long hot trails down my throat.

We put down the glass.

"Uh, Arthur, you don't have to drink it all at once."

"I'm fine."

"Ah, music to my ears."

"What?"

"Nothing. What's your first question?"

Question? What question? Oh, yes. We started off with what seemed to be the easiest one to answer. "How do you know Representative Byers?"

Mulder leaned back in his chair. His face didn't seem to know whether to smile or not. "Long before he became Representative of the United States of America...long before he even became one of the Joined...John Fitzgerald Byers was the member of a government watchdog group called The Lone Gunman.

I take it you never heard of them."

We shook our head, noticing the looseness in our neck.

"It had just three members. Four, if you count me, I guess. It was Byers, Melvin Frohike and Ringo Langly. They were my own three goofy sidekicks. Of course, I was goofier than any of them in my own way."

"What did they do?"

Mulder lifted an eyebrow. We felt the dread of having to imbibe another glass. Then he waved a hand. "I won't count that one," he said. "Not until you change to a different subject. Right now, we're just making conversation."

He sipped his own drink, then continued. "Now, you know about the collaboration between certain humans and the alien colonists. Well, back then, there were a few people who had found out about these collaborators.

Or had some inkling that they were up to something. In those days, they were called 'conspiracy nuts.' The Lone Gunmen were my favorite nuts. Very useful people, actually." He looked down at the table. "Very useful."

Mulder was quiet until we said, "And now Byers is the Representative."

"Yes...well...I didn't even know he was still around until he popped up in the media and declared his candidacy for the job. Hell, I didn't even know he was alive. When the virus was being spread, we had a protective shelter to use but Byers wouldn't join us until he found someone."

"Us? You mean, you and the other Lone Gunmen?"

Mulder cleared his throat. "Uh, no. Langly and Frohike were assassinated a couple of years before the Joining."

"Oh. And the person Byers was looking for?"

"Just...someone he was close to." Mulder took another sip of alcohol. "When Byers didn't return, I thought maybe he had become one of the incubated mutations..."

"The Errors, you mean."

"Yes, as you so charmingly call them." He let out a sigh. "He probably would have been better off that way."

"Why? He has come far among The Joined. The Representative is the highest elected post in the United..."

"It's a b.s. position. It's Top Level who has the power."

"Yes, but the Representative keeps them aware of the needs of the people."

Mulder gave me a smile. "Well," he said. "in any case, that's the story of me and Byers. As you can see, he hasn't forgotten about the old days. Not completely."

"Obviously since theyo gave you theiro private number."

"Which I've never used until now."

"Will you be using it again?"

"Ah, I think that counts as your next official question."

We drummed our fingers on the table. Then we said, "We would like to change our question then."

Mulder nodded and poured us another glass. We drank it slowly this time.

Purity had just gotten started on alleviating the effects of the first drink but here we were, adding to its job. Our head maintained a state of lightness.

"So...?" Mulder said.

"Who is Scully?" we said in a slightly hoarse voice.

It took twenty full seconds before Mulder started to speak again. We knew how long because there was an old, cat-shaped clock in our view. It hung against a wall, swaying its tail and shifting its merry eyes with each passing second.

Finally, Mulder said, "Scully was my partner."

"On the X-Files?"

Mulder tapped our empty glass.

"Goddammit, Mulder, you allowed us to ask more than one question when we..."

He tapped the glass again. We sighed and allowed him to pour. We managed to drink for the third time. There was a peculiar feeling in our body. It was as if our stomach was turning into liquid.

"Yes," Mulder said. "She was my partner. On the X-Files."

This time, we didn't speak. We just motioned for more information.

Mulder closed his eyes and slowly rubbed his forehead with his hands. A new song took over the jukebox. "Funny how time slips away..."

"There's not much to tell," he murmured. "She was assigned to work with me.

We did so for a long time. And that's it."

"What happened to her after the Joining?"

Without looking, Mulder tapped our glass. This time, we filled up the glass ourselves. "Okay. What..." We hiccuped. "...what happened to her after the Joining?"

"Scully was with me in the shelter during the plague. We stayed there until it was over. Then we..." He waved both of his hands. "...we just split up.

Haven't seen each other since."

Of course, we knew there was much more to it than that. For starters, who was it that erased her existence from the X-Files records? However, there was another question we wanted to get out. The way we were feeling, we weren't sure that our period of coherency had much time left. That's why we had our fifth (or was it sixth?) drink and then asked "Who was that woman with you tonight?"

Mulder lowered his hands and opened his eyes. He looked straight at us, carefully measuring which answer to give. Then he said, "That wasn't Scully."

We nodded. Or our head bobbed on its own volition. Suddenly, we didn't feel so great. The Purity was about to take drastic measures and expel the contaminants from our stomach. I ordered...

Yes. I.

I ordered it to do nothing of the sort. I didn't want...we didn't want...I didn't want to make a mess all over the table. Besides, I...

No, we.

We rather liked the feeling in our body right now. We liked the fluid, uninhibited sensation. It was as if we could go in every direction we had never been in before.

We poured another glass out of the half-empty bottle. Mulder said, "I think I just corrupted a minor."

"Shut the Null up," we replied. "We're mentally older than you were at our age. The Joined educhation...educaton... edwu...the Joined school system is far advanced than anything from your pitiful youth."

"I'll take your word for it."

We drank our glass down, all at once this time. For some reason, we now felt...taller. "Another question," we demanded.

"Sure."

"There's this...song that's been in our head. We have no...no idea where it came from. No goddamned idea at all. Maybe you can help me...us..."

"I'll do my best."

"Okay. Here it goes. Listen." We cleared our throat and then began to bellow. "'Nowhere to run to, baby...nowhere to hide."

Mulder gave us a blank face.

"So? Do you recognize that?"

Mulder got up from the table. We wondered if we had insulted him somehow. He made his way through the crowd and went over to the jukebox. He pressed a button for the next selection.

When his chosen song appeared, we instantly recognized its thudding percussion and joyous voices.

"Everywhere I go, your face I see..."

Mulder came back to the table.

"Is that it?"

"Every step I take, you take with me..."

We laughed. We laughed loud and hard. "That's it," we declared, reaching for the bottle again. "That's it exactly."

Mulder smiled.

"...so wide I can't get around it...so high I can't get over it..."

**

Our memory of the rest of that night is a thick, impenetrable blackness. We only have a vague remembrance of us singing along with one of the jukebox's tunes. The song was about a battle between a dog and a WWI fighter pilot.

("Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or more...") Otherwise, that period of time is forever lost. We can testify to no events between hearing the "nowhere to run" song and getting woken up by Robbie the bar-owner.

We felt that lengthy hand patting us on the cheek until we opened our eyes.

Robbie looked even taller than usual. Of course, everything looks taller when your back is on the floor.

"Uhhh..." we said as we rolled our head left and right. The red daylight from an early-morning sun was shining through the barred windows. It also looked like we and Robbie were the only ones left in The Bucket.

"Your ride is here," Robbie said in a tone that indicated no sympathy for our condition.

"What..."

He pointed to the front door. We rolled onto our stomach so we could look in that direction.

Two Joined soldiers were and were standing near the door. Between them and them were Supervisor Dwight Stoddard. Theyo were not smiling.

"Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!"

**

Part ELEVEN

**

Whatever happens with the rest of our life, we sincerely doubt that another incident will create such embarrassment and mortification on our part as when Stoddard found us lying on the floor of an Off-Zone bar. Before we could even make apologies or explanations, Stoddard jerked theiro head as an order to follow themo.

Outside, we got into a P.T. with our Supervisor and the two soldiers. One of the soldiers drove us and us out of the Off-Zone and back to Stabilizer Headquarters. Nothing was said during the entire ride. We had enough intelligence to keep our mouth shut. The only thing Stoddard said on the trip was a muttered "Stupid is as stupid does."

As Stoddard and we walked through the hallways of Stabilizer Headquarters, theyo abruptly stopped and pointed us in a different direction from theiros.

We understood the message. We were to wait in the office area with the other Stabilizers until theyo summoned us.

For the next few hours, we sat at our desk, bearing the looks of our co-workers. With our dirty clothes, unshaved face and dark circles under our eyes, we looked more like an impoverished Alone than a Stabilizer. No one bothered to ask us what happened. No one bothered to talk to us, period.

Everyone knew we were in trouble with Stoddard just by looking at us.

We only did one thing at our desk as we waited for Stoddard's summons. We called up Sharon and got ready for a conversation bound to be as unpleasant as our future one with Stoddard.

"Arthur, where the Null have you been?!" theya almost shrieked.

"We're sorry, Sharon, we're really sorry..."

"Don't you know how worried we've been?"

"We know."

"Just where have you been?"

"It's...it's very difficult to explain."

There was a pause, then Sharon said, "Then, don't bother." We then heard the hum of the other Bio-Communicator. We took our hand off the cube, slumped in our chair and wondered how we got into this position.

We couldn't blame it on Fox Mulder. This problem hadn't started when we had found him. It started after the Chain Ceremony. Ever since then, we had been carrying something heavy inside of ourselves. We didn't know what it was, but we did know this -- we couldn't recognize ourselves anymore. This Arthur Rush were different from the Rush of a couple of weeks ago. How and why were questions for which we couldn't find answers.

Or maybe we knew the answers and couldn't admit it to ourselves.

Two hours went by. Our Purity dissipated the effects of last night's alcoholic indulgences. However, sobriety only helped make the ridiculousness of ourselves clearer to our eyes.

Finally, the Bio-Communicater hummed. Time to go see Stoddard.

What could we possibly say to themo? How could we explain the red-haired woman? Or a song that we had first heard in our dreams? What could we tell Stoddard that wouldn't lead themo to conclude we weren't insane?

Nothing, actually. Frankly, what other conclusion could theyo draw?

When we entered theiro office, theyo weren't looking at us. Theiro brooding eyes were directed at a wall. We closed the door and said, "Sir, we..."

Theyo held up a hand for silence. Then theyo picked up a memo off theiro desk and held it out to us.

We took a breath, walked up to the desk and took the memo. We read it.

Then we read it again.

We looked up at Stoddard in amazement. "We...we don't know how to explain this."

Stoddard finally turned to us. Theyo just said, "Luck be a lady tonight."

**

We didn't feel lucky, especially when we returned to our house in order to clean ourselves up. Sharon wasn't there. In theira place was a note explaining that theya had gone to theira parents' house. It gave the reasons you might expect -- need for time away from each other, an opportunity for us to consider what was important. We read the note over a few times, then just sat in the living room for a few minutes.

After that, we showered, shaved, changed our clothes and went to the White House.

The White House was one of those relics from the Pre-Joining days still intact. It was preserved for the same reason that the currency was still printed with the faces of dead Presidents. It gave the older members of the Joined a sense of stability and a way of dealing with a world so different than the one they were born into. Of course, once that old generation died out, the old currency would be phased out and the White House would be demolished along with any last bit of pre-Joining symbolism.

For now, the White House served as the quarters for the Representative. It was fitting. The Representative was now the highest official elected by the public. Of course, as Mulder pointed out, the Representative's function was without any inherent power over the political machine. His purpose was to keep Top Level aware of the current mood of the public and any new concerns among...

How did Top Level become Top Level? For the first time, we found ourselves asking that as we drove our car to the White House. Along the way, we passed The Core. The huge brown building still had the extra number of armed guards posted there since the bombing. We thought about the fifty-one people making decisions in that building and wondered why Purity chose them and them to be the supreme power of the U.S.A. How did it chose anybody to be the leader of any country? For that matter, why had we been picked to be a Stabilizer? Why had Sharon been designated a home-maker?

Once again, our thoughts bounced from the public to the personal. If we had been upset by the failed Chain Ceremony, imagine what Sharon must have felt.

Theira assigned duty in life required thema to have children. Without children, theya would be considered a failure. We cursed ourselves. Our Partner needed support from us more than ever and here we were, getting drunk in the Off-Zone. We were tempted to turn the car around and drive to the house of Sharon's parents. Forget Mulder. Forget Scully who may or may not have been the red-haired woman. Forget the Irregulars and take care of your Partner.

However, when the Representative tells you to come...

We arrived at the White House. After getting cleared by security, we were led through several tight hallways to the Oval Office. Representative Byers looked up from theiro desk as the security guard opened the door for us. As we said before, we always liked Byers. When theyo said "hello," there was nothing phony or practiced about it. That face edged with a short, gray beard always seemed to convey understanding and compassion.

We entered the Oval Office and the door was closed behind us. The Representative stood up and came around the desk to meet us halfway in the Office. We shook hands and theyo said, "We are pleased to meet you, Stabilizer Rush."

"It's an..." we began to say, but then we became aware of another person in the room. We looked to the right and saw a man wearing dark glasses. Their black lenses covered the eyes looking back at us. Gloves were over theiro hands and a hat rested on top of theiro head, all articles of clothing the color grey to match theiro suit. The man's age was around the late twenties.

The trace of a sneer was on theiro lips. Theiro posture in the chair had a careless arrogance. It suggested an authority that was casually held and indiscriminately used.

We broke off our examination of the man and looked back at the Representative. "It's an honor to meet you, sir," we said.

Byers glanced between us and the man in dark glasses. That look told us a lot. It said that the Representative shared our unease about the man, but theyo couldn't make themo leave.

"Please sit down, Stabilizer," Byers said, indicating a chair in front of theiro desk. We sat down in the chair and Byers resumed theiro place behind the desk. The man in dark glasses were seated against the wall to our side, slightly behind us. If we wanted to look at themo, we would have to twist our neck around. We had to sit with the pressure of theiro gaze on our cheek.

"Well," Byers said. "do you have any idea why you're here?"

We cleared our throat and said, "We can only assume that it's about Fox Mulder."

Byers nodded and smiled slightly. "We always knew that we would hear that name again. Apparently, he put on a show last night. And you were in the middle of it."

"Something like that, yes."

"What do you know about him?"

We related everything Mulder had told us. As we talked, Byers leaned back in theiro chair. It was strange to relate a story that involved the man right in front of us.

When we were done, Byers said nothing for a moment. Then theyo said, "Yes.

That's a good chunk of Mulder's life there. And our life as well. Or, rather, the old life."

"So, you were a subversive in those days."

"That's a romantic way of putting it, but, yes, the old Byers was a subversive. It was him, Langly, and Frohike against the secret evil forces controlling the destiny of the world." Byers shook theiro head. Theyo looked almost amused.

"And Mulder was one of you."

"Mulder...was unique. The Lone Gunmen spent their lives arguing about the bullet trajectories in Dealey Plaza. Mulder found a conspiracy even deeper and stranger than the assassination of Presidents."

"You mean...the human collaboration with the alien colonists?"

"Oh, yes."

"How did Mulder find about that?"

"His father was one of the collaborators," the man in dark glasses said. Our head swung in theiro direction. Theiro voice was low and self-contented, like the purr of a cat.

"His father?"

The man in dark glasses smiled, taking pleasure in our surprise. "Yes. Maybe you've heard about him. Bill Mulder?"

"We...we found that name in the government files but...we had no idea."

The man in dark glasses turned theiro smile to Byers. Apparently, it was the Representative's turn to tell the story. The older man frowned, yet theyo leaned forward in theiro chair and asked us --

"How much do you know about the collaboration?"

"Just the bare facts. The collaborators were assisting the aliens in their colonization process. Secretly, they were trying to create a vaccine against the virus being used by the colonists. However, a rebel faction among the aliens killed the collaborators. The process of colonization went forward without them."

"Did you know that each collaborator had to turn over a member of their families in order to bargain with the aliens?"

"No. We...in the name of Origin, we didn't know." We jerked forward. "Was Mulder...?"

"No. His sister was the one taken by the aliens." Byers pressed a cube. A small image of a girl appeared, hovering over his desk. She was dark-haired and beautiful.

"Each abducted family member was experimented on by both humans and aliens," Byers continued, theiro voice with just a touch of anger under its controlled tones. "The idea was to create a DNA therapy that would give the collaborators and their families immunity to the virus."

"What happened to her and the other abductees?"

"After the Joining, the aliens took Samantha and the rest with them." Byers let out a breath, then turned off the image.

We took a moment before speaking again. "Is that why Mulder is in the shape he's in?"

"That's part of the reason," Byers said. "Here's the other part."

Even before Byers pressed the cube, we knew what would we see next. An instinct told us that the image of a beautiful red-haired woman would appear over the desk. We even knew what name Byers would give her. That's how we managed to keep the shock off our face.

"This," the Representative said. "is Agent Dana Scully. Do you know about her?"

"No. We mean, yes. Mulder told us that she was his...his partner on The X-Files."

"She was more than that."

"His lover?"

Byers tilted theiro head to the side as theyo considered that question.

"Maybe," theyo said. "The answer to that question is almost irrelevant. They had the closeness of a romance, whether they had sexual relations or not."

"He told us that they...'split up' after the Joining."

"Yes. They did. Ever since then, Mulder has been in the state you see him in now. To use a phrase from the old days, he doesn't give a shit about anything."

"We're not too sure about that, sir."

Before Byers could give an answer, the man in dark glasses said, "Neither are we." Theyo stood up and walked over to the desk. Now, we could easily look at themo, though we had to look up. We also noticed an odd smell about the man -- some scent we couldn't identify.

Byers pressed theiro lips together. Apparently, theiro turn for speaking was over.

"Why do you think Mulder created such a stir last night?" the man in dark glasses asked.

"We couldn't begin to fathom his motivation," we said. That was an honest answer, as far as it went. Nothing we saw last night could explain Mulder's behavior. Furthermore, we didn't feel like relating the whole story, especially not to this unnamed stranger.

"Is it possible that he might discard his apathy and get back in the game?"

"We don't know. What's the game, might we ask?"

Our rudeness didn't bother the man in dark glasses. In fact, theiro smile got a bit longer. "The game is called 'Saving the World.'" theyo said.

"Mulder has a chance to play it again."

"What the Null are you talking about? Save the world from what?"

"Why, from Dana Scully, of course."

**

Part TWELVE

**

We looked at the image suspended over the Representative's desk. Dana Scully was dressed formally. The expression on her face was equally formal calmly attentive and watchful. However, we saw touches of other emotions in her eyes just as we had seen in...that other woman. An empathy rested on her face like a faint shadow. Watch her for a minute and that guarded expression no longer seemed aloof. It was the face of a haunted person.

Then we thought about the Dana Scully we had seen in our dreams. There had been nothing empathic in those eyes. They showed nothing except a cruel rage.

Were any of these women the real Dana Scully? Was she the investigator or the woman who brought sexual favors in the night or the old woman with death in her eyes? Was it possible that she was all three? Our investigations had brought us to the real Fox Mulder, only to be confronted with the mystery of Dana Scully, and she appeared to be even more difficult to track down than her ex-partner.

The best place to start would be right here in the office of the Representative. "And just how is Dana Scully dangerous?" we asked the man in dark glasses. Theyo looked at Byers. It was now the Representative's turn to speak.

Byers opened a desk drawer, pulled out a leaflet and handed it to us. The leaflet was wrinkled and stained. It had been quickly drawn on with thick black ink. At the top was a circle with three dark triangles inside it.

Below were written these words --

THE SEVENTH EXTINCTION IS UPON US

THE HIGH PRIESTESS SHALL LEAD THE WAY

"What is this?" we asked.

"It's from a religious cult called The Church of the Seventh Age," Byers explained.

"We have never heard of it."

"It's not a group that likes to advertise itself too much. We have found few other leaflets like this in the Off-Zone, but it seems that this cult is known primarily by word-of-mouth."

"It is connected to the Irregulars?"

"Somewhat. There are Alones who are members of both groups. However, the Irregulars are involved in a very open and direct agenda. The goals of the Church are...unclear."

"Play the recording," the man in dark glasses said.

Byers gave the man an uncomfortable look.

"Play it."

Byers let out a breath, then pressed another cube.

At first, we heard only a man's rough, choked breathing. The breather sounded like he was on the verge of crying. Then we heard another voice deep and firm. "Who is the High Priestess?" the other man asked quietly.

There was no answer from the breather. Then there was a high-pitched sound and the breathing turned to a scream. We jerked up in our seat. Byers looked away from us. The face of the man in dark glasses didn't lose its expression of slight amusement.

The high-pitched sound faded away. The screams changed back into the loud breathing.

"Who is the High Priestess?" the interrogator repeated.

"She...she will be the one..."

"The one what?"

"The one...who will b-b-b-bring out about the....the Seventh Extinction. She w-w-will end the Seventh...Seventh Age."

"How will she do this?"

The breather resisted answering. We tensed ourselves just before we heard more of the high-pitched sound and the screams. However, even more unsettling was the sound heard after they went away.

Laughter. The man being tortured had broken out into wild laughter.

"She can do anything she wants!" he cried out. "She is the Origin!"

"What?" The shocked interrogator had lost the even tone in theiro voice.

"She is your blessed Origin! And soon she'll be your end as well!" The laughter went on even as the high-pitched sound started up again. The pain and the mockery in the laughter made it a deformed version of joy.

The Representative slapped the cube. Theyo coughed and said, "That was an interrogation of an Irregular at..."

"...Purity Control," we finished for themo. Before this, we had never heard any recordings of an 'interrogation' at that place. However, we knew only one organization could hurt a man like that. "That doesn't explain anything.

What is the Seventh Extinction?"

"This world has had six previous extinctions of the dominant life forms. The last occurred with the Joining. Of course, technically, humans were not extinguished. Just...changed. However, it was as dramatic a change as the death of the dinosaurs."

"So, the Seventh Extinction would be...the end of The Joined."

"You're finally catching on," the man in dark glasses said.

"Oh, we are," we responded, squirming in our chair. "What we don't understand is why this Church should matter a nutcraker in the Null. So, what if there is an apocalyptic cult among the Alones? Why should they be more of a bother than the Irregulars? And what does it have to do with Dana Scully?"

"We believe that Scully is the leader of the Church. What they call the High Priestess."

We hesitated before saying, "So?"

The man in dark glasses sat down on the desk and bent towards us. We could see ourselves reflected in those black lenses.

"Dana Scully has never been one to make idle threats," theyo said, as if theyo were addressing a child. "If she is preaching death for the Joined, then she is practicing what she's preaching."

That hateful, old face flashed inside our head. We pushed it away and said, "But why do you even think she is the High Priestess?"

"Because that captured Alone said the High Priestess was 'the Origin.'"

"And?"

"And...Dana Scully was the one responsible for creating the Joined."

**

When we returned to our house, there was a message from Sharon's father on the Bio-Communicator. "You and Sharon have much to talk about," Mister Webster said. "We suggest that you come over here as soon as possible." We sat on the living room couch, knowing that it would be a long time before we would be able to talk with Sharon.

We felt heavy. Weighed-down. Unable to move. Everything we had been told at the White House pressed down on us. The story we now knew sounded too fantastic to accept. Yet why would the Representative make it up? For that matter, why tell it to us?

When we finally stood up, we went to the book shelf and got the Book of the Origin. We opened it to the first page.

"'The Origin is the father and the mother of the Joined. It was the Origin which gave Purity to the lost human race. It was the Origin who protected the world in its darkest hour. Know the Origin and accept its ways. Accept its plan for..."

We shut the book. Whose plan? we wondered. Whose plan was it that guided this world? Was there even a plan at all?

There was no turning back now. A fantastic truth had been pulled into the light. We had to confront this truth and know what it meant for us. If necessary, we would sacrifice everything for it -- our career, our Partnership, our sanity and our life. All we wanted was a meaning for it all, if there was any. If there was nothing but the abyss to find, we would leap into it, headfirst and without hesitation.

It was time to go back to the Off-Zone.

Back to Mulder.

**

Part Thirteen

"I believe...yes, I believe...I believe to my soul...you're trying to make a fool out of me..."

Mulder was sitting in the open doorway of his trailer. The speakers inside were full of music. He was contemplating the dark buildings in the distance, the expanse of weeds, the stars across the sky. He didn't seem to notice our P.T. as it pulled up to the trailer. We turned off the headlights, stepped out of the P.T. and walked up to him. Still not looking at us, Mulder shifted to the side and allowed us room to sit by him in the doorway.

Neither us or he spoke for many seconds or even looked at each other.

Finally, Mulder said, "It's actually kind of pretty at nights."

"Enjoy while you can. This area won't be around for much longer."

As if to confirm what we said, a helicopter flew over the buildings, its searchlights aiming for some unseen target.

"Guess not," Mulder said. "Last night may have been the last good time the Off-Zone will ever see."

We turned to Mulder. "Last night, I was dreaming and I dug your plan," a singer cried out. "Saw you and your girlfriend walking hand-in-hand..."

"We met with Representative Byers today," we said.

Mulder slowly nodded.

"Theyo told us many things. Theyo said that it was Scully who created the Joined."

Mulder raised a glass to his mouth. We noticed that it contained water. He gulped down a mouthful, then ran a tongue over his lips.

"He said that Scully had found a means of fighting the alien virus," we continued. "It didn't produce the expected result, however."

"No, it didn't," Mulder said.

"What happened exactly?"

Mulder slowly turned the glass in his thin hand. "We had an ally...a friend whose body had been infected with nanotechnology. An early form of it, of course. Not as nifty as what you have now. Anyway, Scully found a way of turning the nano machines in this man into anti-viral agents. The idea was that we would attack the virus in its dormant form here on Earth. So..."

Mulder closed his eyes and pressed a hand against his mouth.

"Don't stop there, Mulder."

Mulder lowered his hand. "So...we found one of the locations that the virus inhabited in its oil form. Our friend...he let himself get attacked by the oil. The virus came into contact with the anti-viral agents and intertwined with them. On the day of the plague, the activated virus spread the cure along with the disease." He let out a sigh. "Of course, it wasn't exactly a cure. It just mutated the virus into a new independent being. And that's how the Joined came to be, good night and God bless."

"So, how...how did Dana Scully react?"

"Well, she was just a little shocked." Mulder took another drink of water, then said, "How about you? Are you feeling a little shocked?"

"We feel like we want to meet her."

"Can't help you there, I'm afraid. Like we said, we split up after we left the shelter."

"The Representative believes that she is here in the Off-Zone as well."

Mulder's face was as flat and emotionless as a rock.

"And that she is the leader of a cult called The Church of the Seventh Age.

Have you heard of them?"

There was still no reaction from Mulder.

"The Representative also believes that she poses a threat. The Church preaches an apocalyptic belief system and the Representative says that it's possible that Scully will put these beliefs into action."

Mulder finally looked at us and his eyes were now hot and mad. "The Representative can kiss my almost-dead ass."

We just said, "Hm."

Mulder stared at our unperturbed expression and shook his head. "Just what is with you, Stabilizer? Why do you keep coming back here?"

"You want our official or personal reasons?"

"Well...I don't know. Official, first, I guess."

"Officially...we are to investigate the Church of the Seventh Age in order to determine what their intentions are."

"That doesn't explain why you're here."

"We need your help."

Naturally, Mulder laughed. "My help?"

"Byers said that if Scully is the High Priestess, then we and we need you to find her."

"And why should I help you, young man?"

"To help Scully, too. Because it's possible that she's gone mad."

Mulder turned away from us, put down the glass and walked up to the edge of the weeds. In the trailer, a new song turned on. "They always find you all the time...they always find you all the time...they always find you all the time..."

We listened to the song and observed, "That's P.M. Dawn, right?"

"Yeah," Mulder said. "Right." He paused, then said, "I've heard...a few things about the Church. Sounds like they believe in a standard end-of-the-world theology that's been influenced by the Alone-Joined conflict. Why does Byers think that Scully is in charge?"

We told him.

"I see." Mulder placed his hands in his pockets. "You know...Scully was a deeply religious person. Especially in the final days I knew her."

He looked back at us. "If you found her...and discovered that she was a threat...what would you do then?"

"We were told to handle any possible threats to the Joined through any means necessary."

"Byers...Byers said that?"

"Not in those exact words, but...that was the implication."

Mulder rubbed his hand across his eyes.

"The Representative did not make this decision lightly. Theyo said that there were few people he had ever admired more than you and Scully. But the safety of everyone comes first."

"Oh, I'm sure he was just bursting with regret. God, Byers..."

"What else are Byers supposed to do, Mulder? We were told that Scully does not make empty promises. If she talks about bringing about the apocalypse, then you can be sure she is planning one."

"YOU DON'T KNOW HER!" Mulder yelled.

"No," we said, unmoved by Mulder's anger. "We don't. You knew her, Mulder.

Do you think it's possible that Scully is the High Priestess?"

Mulder just stood there looking like a weathered scarecrow in front of the weeds. The singer was saying "The gods that you create, let me be the martyr, because if I started to love you now, there'll be no end to you..."

When a lot of time had passed with no answer from Mulder, we stood up and went over to him. "We said that we were here for personal reasons as well.

Do you know what they are?"

Mulder shook his head very slightly.

We pressed a finger right between our eyes. "We don't know what's going on in here anymore."

For the first time, Mulder looked at us with real unease. Now, we were the one being strange, obtuse and mysterious.

"A lot of strange things have been happening to us over the past few days.

We have been thinking and feelings things that we can't describe. In all honesty, we're not sure if we're sane anymore."

"I, uh...I have days like that myself."

"We are a Stabilizer. Our duty is to learn the truth and uphold justice.

However, we've come to feel that truth and justice do not always go together. That sometimes the latter has to be sacrificed in order to obtain the former."

Mulder slowly nodded. He seemed less confused now. "Yes. I know."

"So...we have our orders. But those no longer really concern us. We just want to know the truth. The whole truth."

"Huh."

Muldera again kept silent for a long time. "Whoever loves me will have to be my killer..." the singer told us.

"What specific truth are you looking for?" Mulder finally asked.

"You said that the woman who was with you last night wasn't Scully. Is this true?"

"Well, hell, Arthur...Scully should be much older, shouldn't she?"

"Yes. She should. But this woman looked just like her, didn't she?"

A shiver went over Mulder's body as he remembered the touch of small hands and the warmth of lips. "Yes. She did."

"Has she ever visited you before?"

Mulder hesitated, then nodded.

"And you have no idea who she is?"

"No," he whispered.

"Last night, she made reference to a plan. Do you know what she meant?"

Mulder gave us an uncertain look.

"You can tell us anything now, Mulder. Don't be afraid."

"I just know...all I know is that the plan is something...big. Very important."

"Why does she come to you?"

Mulder lowered his head. The shadows crept up his face. He said"Scully sent her."

We let out a breath. We felt relieved in a way. Finally, we were on the right track.

"So Scully is here in the Off-Zone."

"M-hm."

"Is she the High Priestess?"

"I think so. Yes. I don't know who else it could be." Then he lifted his head just high enough to see us. "Does anybody else know about...the woman?"

"No. We haven't told anybody. And we've destroyed the Bio-Watcher recordings."

Mulder tilted his head back down. "Thank you," he murmured.

We placed a hand on Mulder's shoulders. "Is there anything else you can tell me?"

"No. That's all I know."

"Then let's find out the rest."

"How?"

"We can't find out. But Fox Mulder can."

Mulder raised up his head. He looked at Arthur Rush, the man who had forced themselves into his life. He knew then that -- in our own way -- we were on his side.

He smiled. We smiled back.

"...there'll be no end to you, there'll be no end to you, there'll be no end to you..."

**

Part Fourteen

We and Mulder left the trailer around midnight. Mulder didn't say why we and he had to wait that long. "Just hang in there," he told us. "There's somewhere I want to take you, but we have to wait."

So we waited. In the meantime, we went through Mulder's CD collection.

"Tutti-fruiti...on the rutti..." "Shakin' street has got that beat..."

"Don't know what I want, but I know how to get it..." "She cries your name, three times a day..."

Then midnight came and Mulder said, "Let's go."

We and he went through the field of weeds and back into the dark streets of The Off-Zone. This time, no soldier even bothered to stop Mulder and us. The word had gotten out -- the weird old man was untouchable. In fact, when Mulder nodded graciously as the passing soldiers, a few even nodded back.

After going down several streets and making many turns, Mulder finally stopped in front of a particularly ugly building. A homemade sign called it "MEETING HALL" while rusty, black letters on the front called it "Department of Motor Vehicles."

Mulder looked up and down the streets. No one else could be seen. Then he motioned us to follow him into an alley between the Meeting Hall and another building.

"Mulder, why are we...?"

"There's a meeting going on here."

"How do you know?"

"I heard it through the fucking grapevine. Now, be quiet."

He stopped in front of an iron door. Like all the other doors on the building, this one had a restraining bolt over it. He knocked five times on it. We were about to say that nobody could possibly be inside when we heard --

"Who do you trust?"

"No one," Mulder answered.

There was a few moments of silence, then the restraining bolt...unlocked itself. Mulder smiled at our surprise and opened the door.

Enough light was provided by long, weak bulbs on the ceiling to keep you from stumbling around. There was no one behind the door, just an empty hallway going past other doors. These doors had the names of employees and managers written on dirty glass. Dust was layered everywhere, but was disturbed by footprints and handprints.

"Come on," Mulder said. We followed him into the building. The door closed behind us.

And the bolt locked itself again. We stopped to look back at the door, then continued to follow Mulder.

The hallway led into an office area separated into cubicles. "Hello?" Mulder called out. "Is the lady or the gentleman of the house present?" His voice echoed against a ceiling built high above us. We went on through the office area until we reached a long counter. On one side were small, silent computers and old telephones arranged before curved chairs. On the other side of this counter was a wide space only occupied by a couple of benches.

"Gee," Mulder said. "the lines are really good at this time of..."

The light snapped on just as Mulder and we were passing around the counter.

Unlike the tepid bulbs on the ceiling, this light was intense and glaring.

It came from a wide lamp next to an obsolete camera.

As Mulder and we winced at its brightness, a voice said "Move and you're dead."

Of course, we didn't move. We noticed that the voice sounded muffled. It was coming from the office area. The speaker must have been hiding in one of the cubicles.

"Just so you'll know, Stabilizer, don't even think of using your Aura. I'm protected."

The speaker moved out of the office area to a different position behind the lamp. We could see enough to make out the metallic skin of a protective suit as well as the dark hole of a rifle. It was safe to say we were right in the middle of an Irregular stronghold.

"Why are you here, Muldrake? And why did you bring a Stabilizer?"

"Show more respect for your elders, sonny," Mulder replied.

"I repeat, why are you..."

"Yeah, yeah. Just put away that gun and I'll tell you why."

"You're not in a position to give orders, Muldrake."

"No, you'll do just what I say because Fox Mulder said so."

We had never heard any place get so quiet as it did then. The silence held itself like a man balancing on a rope.

Then we heard, "What do you know of Fox Mulder, old man?" The voice belonged to Robbie the bartender. It came from one of the many shadows in the building.

"Plenty, Inspector Bucket. For starters, he's me."

Another silence followed. Then, Robbie said --

"Prove it."

"Okay," Mulder said. "We'll do it the old-fashioned way. I'll show you my ID. Mind if I reach into my pocket?"

A brief pause occurred before we heard the permission given. Mulder pulled out an old wallet made of cracked and torn leather. He opened it up and held it above his head. We could see a wrinkled ID card with a picture of a younger Mulder. The letters "FBI" were also printed on the card.

"Toss it this way," Robbie said. Mulder complied. The wallet landed on the floor and skidded towards the cubicles. Our eyes were focused on the man in the protective suit so we didn't see Robbie step from the shadows. We did, however, hear the heavy sound of his feet.

After examining the ID, Robbie said, "All right. This is a photo of you in the younger days and it says Fox Mulder next to it. Any reason why I should believe this isn't a fake ID?"

"What do you know about me?" Mulder said.

"You mean, what we know about Fox Mulder? Well, for one thing, he wouldn't be hiding out in some trailer in the middle of nowhere when the world around him was crumbling."

Mulder gave us a grin. We were not as amused as he was.

"What else do you know?" he asked. "What was he like as a young man?"

Robbie hesitated. This was not a game he wanted to play for much longer. "He could always find the truth. He could take the smallest piece of information and imagine the larger whole from that one piece."

"Hmmm," Mulder said. We could tell from the look on his face that he had a trump card to play. We hoped that it was as good as he thought it was.

"Tell me," he said. "Which one of you has the brain tumor?"

The silence hovered over us again. We waited for it to be broken by a gun shot.

"I do."

That voice only could have been heard in this silence. It was so small and weak. Mulder turned to the voice. "What's your name?" he asked almost as quietly.

"Miranda."

"I mean, what's your real name?"

There was a brief pause, then the woman said, "Jane. Jane Williams."

Footsteps were heard. We risked looking away from the gun.

She couldn't have looked more different than the tall man next to her. She was just five feet tall and her body was too thin. Her skin had a pale, unhealthy tone, especially for someone in her early thirties. The darkness looked ready to swallow her up. Robbie looked between her and Mulder. If he thought that Mulder was going to hurt her in any way, he would break the old man in two.

"How did you know?" Jane said. Or, rather, Miranda said. From now on, we will refer to her and her compatriots by their code names.

"Kind of a guess, actually. I know that psychokinetic powers have been connected with brain tumors. And there has to be an explanation for how you were able to manipulate the restraining bolts. It also explains how the Irregulars have been able to make usage of Bio-Tech for their own purposes."

Mulder turned his body away from the gunman so he was facing Miranda directly. "You must be a very brave person," he told her.

The woman looked down and ran a hand through her thinning hair. "No," she murmured. "I'm not. I'm just dying."

"You're doing a lot more than that." Mulder walked slowly over to her. We noticed that the gunman kept his rifle trained on us, not on him.

"You're going down fighting. That's more than a lot of people would do. I knew a guy who was in the same position you were. You know how he spent the time left to him? Being a complete bastard."

He stopped in front of her. Robbie -- or Inspector Bucket -- looked at Mulder in the same puzzled yet admiring way that he did last night.

"And there are those of us who..." He paused before continuing. "We get hit hard by life so we just find ourselves a dark place to hide. Call it cowardice or disillusionment or whatever, but it doesn't do yourself or the world any good."

He placed a finger under her chin and lifted her gaze up to his hazel eyes.

She was trembling.

"I don't know what you've heard about me. But let me tell you this...Fox Mulder needs to be a lot more like you."

We all watched Miranda and Mulder. Everything depended on what she did next.

She let out a sob and wrapped her arms around him. The old man smiled and patted her on the back.

Inspector Bucket motioned his hand to the gunman who lowered his rifle. The lamp was turned off and we were in the darkness with everybody else.

**

There were three other Irregulars hiding in the Meeting Hall -- Rebecca Sharp, Stubb, Bosola. The one in the protective suit was Ender. After introductions had been made, they and we gathered in one on the cubicles. A portable lamp gave us light. The first thing anybody said was, "All right.

You're Fox Mulder. Why did you bring a fucking Stabilizer here?"

That was Rebecca Sharp. She was a woman in her late forties and her skin showed every year of it. She was smoking a cigarette and blowing smoke in our direction. We had to resist waving our hands in the air to clear away the smelly fog. The Joined don't smoke.

Mulder said, "He's here...excuse me, theyo are here..."

"You can call me 'he,'" we said.

"Whew. Thanks. He's here because he wants..." Mulder gave us a look. "Well, I'm not entirely sure what he wants. But the one thing he doesn't want is to arrest the lot of you."

Rebecca sneered at us. "What are you, some kind of fucking subversive?"

"No," we answered.

"Are you nuts?"

"Possibly."

Rebecca Sharp raised her eyebrows, but said nothing more.

"All right," Bosola said. "We'll accept his presence." He was the oldest person in the group -- mid-sixties from the look of him. His voice was deep and full of cautious thought. He moved around in a wheelchair. Inspector Bucket loomed behind him, arms across his chest, ready to deal with any threat to his leader.

"Which brings us back to you," Bosola said to Mulder. "Why have you chosen this moment to reappear?"

"I've come to you because of the Church of the Seventh Age."

The mention of the Church made eyes widen and shoulders tense.

"Any of you members?" Mulder asked.

"Some of us are," Bosola replied calmly. "Why do you ask?"

"Because I have reason to believe that the High Priestess is...someone I lost touch with a long time ago."

"And you wish to reacquaint yourself with this person?"

"I wish to find out if she's gone insane."

"Well, hell, insanity is just everyday life in the Off-Zone!" Stubb declared. He was the same age as Miranda. While Miranda looked haunted, Stubb wore shirts decorated with old cartoon characters and had a smile on his face.

"I'm wondering if her insanity is pushing events in directions they shouldn't go," Mulder said.

"Such as?" Bosola said.

"Tell me this -- why are the Irregulars risking so much right now? Why kill Co-Administrators? Why risk a crackdown on the entire Off-Zone? I assume that you're planning even more shit and the biggest is yet to come."

The Irregulars looked at us. We gave them back an unconcerned look. And we *were* unconcerned. They could have been planning to blow up the Core for all we cared.

"We are doing what we've always done," Bosola said. "Trying to fight Joined oppression."

"Yes, but why make your first big steps now? Does it have anything to do with the Church's prediction of an apocalypse?"

Bosola folded his hands together and placed them against his chin. His brooding eyes looked down at the floor.

"The High Priestess is not the leader of the Irregulars," he said. "But she is important to us. Perhaps you should hear what she has to say before you pass judgment."

"I would like that very much."

"Then you can attend a meeting of the Church tomorrow night." Bosola looked up, but at us and not Mulder. "Do you wish to attend as well?"

"Yes, we would."

"That cannot be done. Whatever Mulder might say, you are still a Stabilizer and not to be trusted.'

We considered how to respond to that. Then we said, "You have claimed responsibility for the deaths of Co-Administrators White and Michener.

However, you have not claimed responsibility for the disappearance of Maltese or the death of Armstrong."

"The bomb that killed Armstrong also killed fourteen Alones," Inspector Bucket said in a rumbling voice. "Why should we kill off our own kind? As for Maltese...we have no idea where he is."

We nodded, then said, "If you were not responsible for these events, then perhaps we can find out who really is."

"How does that help us?" Bosola said.

"I don't know if it does, but I can tell you this. Top Level has been hiding something about the deaths of White and Michener. Perhaps it has a connection with these other crimes. And perhaps there's a secret here that is damaging to Top Level."

Bosola frowned and shook his head. "You speak so...casually about betraying your side. Why are you here really?"

What could we say? The only thing that we could tell them was "We had a dream."

The response was silence at first. Mulder was giving us a peculiar look. He looked surprised but also pleased. It was as if my last statement was just the right thing to say.

Then, Miranda spoke up. All this time, she had been quietly listening to the conversation while holding Mulder's hand.

"I say we should trust him."

Stubb looked at her, then at us and burst out laughing. "Sure? Why not?"

Bosola looked at the others. Rebecca Sharp let out a puff of smoke, then shrugged. Inspector Bucket said nothing. Neither did Ender. He had been watching us with the head gear pulled off his protective suit, showing himself to be a teenager. His blue eyes hadn't blinked once as he cradled his rifle in his lap, rubbing up and down the long barrel with his hand.

The expressions on Inspector Bucket and Ender stayed unchanging to our eyes.

However, Bosola apparently had a subtle way of communicating with them because he turned to us and said, "It appears that the Irregulars have their first Joined member."

**

Part Fifteen

When we came back to our house, Sharon were still not there. We slept. When we woke up, we wondered if theya had returned by then. Theya hadn't.

We drove to the Stabilizer Headquarters.

How did we feel? To tell the truth, we didn't feel much of anything. One of the things we didn't feel was guilt. Here we were, collaborating with the most hated enemy of the Joined, and it didn't bother us in the slightest.

That may have been because we didn't think about what we were doing. Our main concern was finding answers to our questions. If being a collaborator with the Joined helped us learn more, then why shouldn't we be a collaborator? Besides, it wasn't like we were assassinating Co-Administrators. We were just getting some information.

This kind of specious reasoning could have only made sense in the state of mind we were in at the time. Or was it the state of mind *I* was in? This part of the story seems like a hallucination more than anything else. We remember the actions, but the motive behind them seems so distant.

"We had a dream," we had told the Irregulars. Maybe the proper answer was "We're having a dream."

The dream was interrupted by a meeting in the Headquarters garage. We had just parked our car and were heading for the elevator when we heard someone.

We smelled someone, too.

"Anything new to tell?"

We turned and saw the man in dark glasses step out from behind a stone pillar. Theyo had the same self-satisfied expression as before.

"No," we said. "We related what you told us to Mulder."

"And how did he react?"

"He doesn't believe that Scully has gone mad. Not yet."

"Really?" The man in dark glasses came closer. We realized that we had encountered theiro smell before, but from where?

"Personally, we think it's highly likely that Scully has gone mad," theyo said.

"Why?"

"Because of all the things that have happened to her. Do you realize what she went through when she was working on the X-Files?"

"I don't have the slightest idea."

"She became an abductee. They experimented on her. She almost died. She became infertile. And she also had to deal with the death of loved ones and family. Frankly, the only surprise is that she didn't go insane sooner."

"You seem to know a lot about her."

The man just smiled.

"We'll keep you posted on any further developments," we said, then turned to leave.

"How many times have you been to The Off-Zone?"

We looked back at the man. "I'm not sure," we said in a bland voice.

"It has its own seductiveness, doesn't it?"

"It's...an interesting place."

"Oh, yes. Too bad that it will go up in flames soon. Just one spark is all that it will take..."

"Who are you?"

Eyebrows went above the dark glasses. "Hm?"

"Who are you?" we asked, our voice louder than usual. "What position do you hold? What is your job?"

"Our job, Stabilizer Rush...is creating the future. And we are very good at it." Theyo pinched the rim of their hat and bent it slightly in my direction. "Good luck with your job, friend."

Theyo went theiro way. We felt a brief urge to charge at themo from behind.

Then we went to the elevator.

We went to our desk and got to work. We were left alone by Stoddard. While we were not officially working for the Representative, our Supervisor didn't have to be told that we were not to be bothered by the usual bureaucratic oversight. Occasionally, another Stabilizer would look at us, evidently wondering about our secret project.

We paid no attention to their suspicion. We focused our attention on the Bio-Network. We were looking for information.

We found just what we needed.

**

Going back to The Off-Zone gave us another chance to see what it looked like during daytime. However, the streets were not as active as before. Those Alones who were outdoors kept an eye out for the soldier's Neutralizer and the P.T.'s amplified command. No vendors were displaying their wares and no musicians were banging on plastic cans.

The largest outdoor gatherings were for the government trucks that came bearing supplements. Distributing food was a good idea, we suppose. The economic status of the Alones had plummeted ever since access to employment outside of The Off-Zone had been cut off. The trucks helped make sure that some families had dinner for the night. Hopefully, the distribution cooled down tempers. However, they were also another reminder of how much the army controlled The Off-Zone now. We saw a scuffle break out at one of these distribution sites. The combative Alone was restrained. The other Alones looked very tempted to help him.

Despite the unabated tension, we were not nervous about returning here. In fact, this time, we walked through The Off-Zone instead of traveling in a P.T. The border patrolmen had and had become used to our recurring presence.

They and they were bewildered, however, when we informed them that we would enter The Off-Zone on foot. We were called a lunatic and told that martial law did not make things any safer for a Stabilizer.

We weren't worried. We sauntered down the sidewalks with our hands in our pockets. We stopped to look at store windows, the murals painted on the ground and, of course, "Fox Mulder Lives!" Everybody knew that we were a Stabilizer. Even without seeing an ID, an Alone knows the scent of a Joined law enforcer. It's something in the way we walk, act and dress. Yet, even though no Alone talked to us, they did not look at us with hostility. They were uncertain yet also curious. The word was slowly being spread -- this was a Stabilizer to be trusted.

We passed by Stubb on our way. He was carrying a weighty-looking paper bag.

Making sure no one could see us, we smiled at him. He smiled back.

We were going to a particular address. When we got there, we found another apartment building in decay. Like the other buildings of the Off-Zone, it had been overcome with graffiti and murals as if it was a leaf bursting into color before it dies. We took the stairs up to the third floor.

Then we headed for Room 309.

We heard music as we got closer to the door. We stopped right in the middle of that smelly, badly lit hallway. We listened.

"Nowhere to run to, baby..."

The next thing we knew, we were kicking in the door. These were the things we saw in the small apartment after the door flew back A large, round mirror built on top of a dresser.

On the dresser, a tape player blaring out "...so wide I can't get around it..."

Several dresses hanging from a coat tree, ranging in design from elegant to pornographic.

Posters of beautiful women on all the walls.

A bed.

It was the bed which got our attention. Two people were on its thin, uncomfortable-looking mattress. The only thing covering their bodies were the stained sheets.

One of them was a beautiful woman with short dark hair.

The other was Co-Administrator Kenneth Maltese.

**

Part Sixteen

Anthony Maltese were...or we should say...Maltese was one of the sternest, hardest Co-Administrators Top Level ever saw. Despite having known life before The Joining, the fifty-year-old man spoke harshly of that time.

"Barbarity and immorality had overtaken the world," he had asserted. "The Joining brought about an order for which we and we should be forever grateful." Before he disappeared, he had been proposing a shutdown of The Off-Zone and forcing Purity on every Alone. That's one of the reasons why it had been assumed that the Irregulars were behind his disappearance.

The last place we had ever expected to find him was in the bed of an Alone.

Nor did we expect his reaction to be horror and then an uncontrollable sobbing. He covered his face and rolled towards the wall. "No, no, no!" he moaned.

After staring at him, we looked at the woman. As we said, she was a beautiful woman. Her dark hair had been clipped to inch-long strands. She looked back at us with gray eyes, her shock being pushed away by a cool, unafraid expression.

Turning away from us, she stroked Maltese on his naked, hairy back. "It's all right, Anthony," she said in a soothing voice. "Don't be afraid."

"I won't go back, I won't go back, I won't go back..." Maltese groaned.

She looked back at us over one of her smooth, muscular shoulders. "What do you want?" she asked.

"We're..."

"I know who you are. You're from the military. Or the Stabilizers. Or some kind of government agency."

"Stabilizers, actually."

"I thought so. You all have the same smug air."

"Hm."

"So, what do you want?"

We took a few seconds to think that over, then said, "Perhaps...we should step outside until the Co-Administrator calms down."

The woman listened to our suggestion and turned it over in her mind. It wasn't what she had expected us to say, but she nodded.

We stepped back into the hallway, closing the door behind us. The sounds of sobbing and the woman's gentle words continued. We leaned against a wall, shut our eyes and waited.

Some time later, the dark-haired woman stepped out into the hallway. She was dressed now in a white T-shirt and blue shorts. We noticed that she was as tall as we were.

"He'll talk to you now."

The Co-Administrator was seated on the bed, rubbing his hands. He was wearing boxer shorts and a white undershirt. He was still afraid, but the tense look in his eyes suggested a dog ready to attack.

"How did you find me?" he asked.

"We weren't...wait a minute. Did you say 'me?'"

Maltese looked at the closed window.

"Just what has happened to you, Co-Administrator?"

Maltese expelled a long sigh. "I assume you already know about the Gold House."

"We're afraid not."

Maltese quickly turned back to us. "Then how...?"

"We've been looking into the Alones who also died in the explosion which killed Co-Administrator Armstrong."

The mention of that made Maltese clench his throat.

"The one thing they all had in common was the lack of any concrete explanation for their presence outside of the Off-Zone. So, we considered this possibility -- perhaps there were others who were supposed to have been in that building. We examined the records for anyone who might have been in and out of the Off-Zone on the same day...someone who might had the same unusual freedom to leave the Off-Zone..."

"This has already been looked into," the dark-haired woman said.

"Excuse me?"

"When martial law had been imposed on the Off-Zone, some men came here tracking down the same lead you found." The woman's voice was very calm and detached, a marked contrast to Maltese's anxiety. "Like you, they searched the records and found Julia Ellison."

Maltese immediately looked at the woman at the mention of Julia's name, then turned away.

"Obviously, you're not Julia Ellison," we told the woman who was a half-foot taller than the blonde-haired woman we had come to see.

"No, my name is Susan Townes. And I will tell you the same thing I told the men who came here..."

"What men?"

"Government men. I don't know if they were Stabilizers or military. I told them that Julia gave me her apartment. She didn't explain why she had to leave and I don't know where she is now."

"Obviously, you left some things out," we replied, indicating Maltese.

Susan looked at Maltese. Her cool face warmed a bit. "She told me to take care of Anthony. I thought it was safe for him to stay here after the other men had gone away. I guess I was wrong."

We stared at Maltese. The old man looked down at his knees. We crossed over the small room to him. "Your absence has caused quite a stir, Co-Administrator," we said quietly. "We assume that you have your reasons."

"You're not going to make me leave," he mumbled.

"Look at us, Maltese."

He lifted his head up to us. We were very conscious of the thick capillaries in his nose and the lumps under his eyes.

"The road which has brought us here has been a very unusual one and difficult to explain. We assure you that we have no interest in exposing you. We don't have to give you our word on that. We don't have to promise anything to you. But we promise nevertheless.

"Now...tell me everything."

Maltese glanced over at Susan. She nodded at him. He looked back at us and said --

"The Gold House was a brothel."

"A what?"

"A brothel."

"What is that, Co-Administrator?"

"It's a place where people can buy a sexual act from another person."

We had to run that concept through our mind a few times before we could even imagine it. "Wait a minute. There were people in this place...who would perform sex for *money*?"

"They were Alones."

That cleared up one little mystery. The murdered Alones had been... "What do you call these people?"

Maltese smiled a little. "Obviously, you're of the post-Joined generation.

In my younger days, we used to call such a person a 'prostitute.'"

Prostitute. We contemplated that word. It was so alien and unusual. However, it did made sense that Alones could have such an occupation. They were the only ones who could perform the act at all, much less do it in an environment that sounded so degraded.

Suddenly, another part of the mystery became clear to us. The revelation was like a cold feeling in our stomach.

"You had used the services of this place, correct?" we said to Maltese, but sounding as if we were talking out loud to ourselves. "You and other members of Top Level."

Maltese's smile went away as he nodded.

"These people were more than just prostitutes," we continued. "They were...they were the mothers and fathers of Top Level's next generation."

Maltese spread out his hands in a pleading gesture. He spoke in a rush. "It was a necessity. Sometimes, you find yourself with a Partner who is, you know, unable to perform a Chain Ceremony. So, so, so it was decided to create The Gold House, a special place where our children could be created.

Female Co-Administrators could be impregnated there and...and an Alone woman could have the child that a, uh...a failed Partnership could not create."

We pressed our hands against our pants and clawed at them. We were thinking of the tears in Sharon's eyes as we and theya had laid helpless in the Chain Center. It took a great effort to control ourselves.

"We can understand that," we said in a tight voice. "However, it seems that the Gold House became more than just a source of propagation."

Maltese's eyes blinked repeatedly as he looked at some spot on the wall. "I had forgotten...what it was like. I had been with Purity so long that I couldn't remember how it was supposed to feel. How good it could be. Julia taught me how to remember."

"Julia was one of the prostitutes?"

Maltese looked at Susan. We glanced back at her. There was no expression on her face.

"Julia was more than that," Maltese said. "For the other Alones, it was just a way of making money. For her, it was...almost a religion."

"What the Null are you talking about?"

"She saw her occupation as a way of teaching the Joined. She wanted to give back to them...and them what they and they had forgotten. Sometimes, you didn't have to pay her. Sometimes...it was just about pleasure."

We wiped our hand across our brow. We were actually beginning to sweat.

Pleasure? How can any Joined find pleasure in sex?

"Well," we nervously said. "you were of the pre-Joined era. It's easy for you to find pleasure in..."

"It wasn't just me."

We just looked at Maltese and waited for more.

"There were others who were regular visitors to Julia. Two of them were born after the Joining."

"Who?"

"Michener and White."

It was hard to say what startled us more -- finding this connection or learning that two members of our own generation could actually enjoy the sexual act and they and they were members of the highest branch of government.

"That's ridiculous," we sputtered.

"Why?" Susan said. "Why is it so hard to believe?"

"Well, for one thing, White were a woman. It's impossible for two women to have..." The words in our mouth died out as we saw the amused and knowing look on Susan's face.

We shook our head to get rid of the images invading our mind. "All right," we muttered. "Who else were...were involved with Julia?"

"Armstrong." For the first time, Maltese gave us a straight and direct look.

"Seeing a pattern forming here, young man?"

"Are you saying all these people were and were killed because of Julia Ellison?"

"That's exactly it. And I'll be number four if I'm discovered."

"But Michener and White were killed by the Irregulars. Why would they..."

"Oh, for Christ's sake, there's no such thing as the Irregulars!"

We could only reply with silence. Maltese continued. "The Irregulars are just something made up by Top Level to keep people scared and obedient. Only now Top Level is using the Irregular myth as a way of dealing with unruly members."

"Mister Maltese...this is even more ridiculous. Not only do the Irregulars exist, but why would Top Level be killing off its own people? Simply over sex? As bizarre as it may be for anyone of the Joined to enjoy the act, that simply doesn't sound like a motive to have them killed."

"Which brings me to the next topic," Maltese said grimly. "Emphasize the word 'me.'"

"Yes, yes," we sighed. "How is that you are talking like that?"

"For awhile, it wasn't just me. It was Armstrong, Michener and White as well."

We had to sit down. We found a place on the dresser. Maltese and Susan waited for our next words.

"You've...you've gotten rid of your Purity?" we whispered.

"What was that phrase? 'The psychology of the virus?' Well, as far as I'm concerned...and as far as Michener, White and Armstrong were concerned...that psychology has no more relevance. Through pleasure, we all learned or remembered what it was like to be Alone. We decided that we weren't going back."

We looked at Susan. There was just the hint of a smile on her face.

"But how...how did Top Level find out?"

"I don't know. We covered our tracks well and we used the Joined language in the right places. But somehow they...I mean, they and they found out. I'm the last one."

Maltese stood up. His hefty stomach pushed over his shorts. There was a slight trembling in his legs. "You promised that you wouldn't tell. How can I know for sure...

"You don't." We got off the dresser. "But we'll keep our promise."

Maltese closed his eyes. "Thank you," he whispered.

"We do want you to stay with Miss Townes in case we need more information from you."

"Of course, of course. Anything you..."

"As for Miss Townes...we would like a word with her outside."

Susan nodded. She kissed Maltese on the cheek and said, "We'll be back in a little bit."

We and she stepped into the hallway. The old man inside the room looked like a meek child as Julia closed the door.

"How did you get involved in this?" we asked.

"Julia was a friend of mine. I'm a prostitute like her."

"Did you ever work at The Gold House?"

"No. Just in The Off-Zone. Julia was one of the lucky ones. There's a lot more money with Top Level customers."

"Not so lucky. She could have been dead with the others. Why wasn't she in The Gold House when it exploded?"

"I don't know."

We looked at the woman carefully. She regarded our examination with a smile.

"See anything you like, Stabilizer?"

"Just wondering why you agreed to help Julia."

Susan shrugged. "She paid me."

"But you seem to care for Maltese."

She looked at the door. "So many Alones hate the Joined. I don't. They and they can be as lost and confused as anyone else."

Then she turned back to us and said, "You're lost, too, aren't you?"

We made no answer to that. We just walked past her to the stairs. As we went down the steps, we looked back at her.

She was looking back at us as if she was expecting us to return.

**

"That's quite a story," Mulder commented after we had gotten done telling him of our encounter with Maltese. We were pacing in front of his trailer.

Hours had passed since the encounter. We had spent the time just wandering around the Off-Zone until we came to Mulder.

We stopped pacing and looked at Mulder sitting in the trailer's doorway. "Do you think this story is true?"

"It fits the facts."

"Not all of them. What's this about the Irregulars being a Top Level myth?

Those people we saw last night were no myth. If they were just an invention of Top Level, then why isn't Top Level using them to explain Maltese's disappearance and Armstrong's murder?"

Mulder thought about it, then said, "Here's what I think happened. The Irregulars killed Michener and White. Top Level became concerned that their deaths would expose the Gold House so they bombed it."

"What about Armstrong?"

"An accident, maybe."

"And so Maltese is...?"

"Paranoid. Paranoid with reason, but he's mistaken in thinking Top Level found him out."

We considered this, then shook our head. "No. It still doesn't jibe."

"So, you believe Maltese?"

"I believe...part of his story."

"Which part?"

"The part about giving up Purity because of sex."

"Why's that?"

We looked up at the stars for a long time

Then we turned back to Mulder. "We participated in a Chain Ceremony a few nights back."

"Ah."

"Ever since then...something very strange has been happening to us."

We said nothing more until Mulder spoke up. "Care to elaborate?"

"We don't know how to. But this...this act...this thing that you Alones can so easily do...it's more than just a physical experience."

"Calling Dr. Ruth."

"What?"

"I'm sorry. Forget it."

"You're mocking us."

Mulder sighed. "I guess I am. You know that book 'The Eros Conundrum?'"

"Of course I do."

"The writer was correct in what he said about sex. It *is* ridiculous. It *is* pointless. It *is* an incredible waste of time." Mulder lifted a finger. "But it's also one of the most transcendent experiences you can ever have."

"Don't be stupid. How can it be both?"

"That's precisely what's so mysterious about it. And in this age, it's even more of a mystery." He paused. "Or maybe this is the right time to solve the mystery."

We sat down on the barren ground next to the trailer. "We have enough mysteries to solve, thank you very much."

"Hm. That's true." Mulder checked his watch. "It won't be long before the Church service."

"Think we will find answers there?"

"Yes. I do. That's why I'm scared."

We looked up at him and saw his clenched hands and tense mouth. "Why are you scared?" we asked.

"This might be the first time I've seen Scully in years. Why the fuck shouldn't I be scared?"

The distant sound of a helicopter rippled across the air.

"We don't feel scared," we said. "We just...feel curious about what happens next. It's like we've been strapped to the front of a P.T. We have no control over the ride, but we want to see how the ride ends."

"What if the ride ends with crashing into a brick wall?"

"We suspect that our last thoughts will be...'That's a real interesting wall.'"

The conversation ended there. In a few minutes, we and Mulder left for the Church of the Seventh Age.

**

Part Seventeen

The military had overlooked the run-down theater. No restraining bolt had been placed over its entrance. Obviously, their intelligence networks had deemed it unworthy of attention. It resided in one of The Off-Zone's bleakest sections. There were a few other small buildings in the area but they were full of nothing but dust and broken glass. Decaying signs indicated their past usage -- "ADULT VIDEOS," "GUN SHOP," "WINE & BEER."

The theater looked as useless as they were. Mulder waved a flashlight over its empty ticket booth and the glass display cases containing posters for movies long since forgotten. Mulder had been using his flashlight ever since we and he had arrived on this street. No lamp posts gave light here. No P.T.

was present with its glaring searchlights. It was just a long stretch of darkness.

"This is the place?" we asked.

"This is where Bosola said to go."

"Where is everybody?"

"Inside, I guess."

"We don't hear anything."

"Maybe they're real quiet. Like Presbyterians." He let out a puff of breath.

"Well...let's go in."

We passed a front door with one hinge left. Inside, a thin grey carpet flowed under our feet. A concession stand had been long since looted of any food. Big cardboard displays for movies never to be released were toppled to the floor. There were two rooms for showing movies here in the theater one large and one small. We headed for the door of the large room.

Two hundred people were sitting quietly there

By quietly, we mean that they were utterly without sound. They didn't move.

They didn't even whisper. They just sat, watched the blank screen before them and waited.

We looked at their faces. Lit candles placed in bulbless lamps along the wall enabled us to see their stony expressions. They weren't waiting with anticipation or excitement. They were waiting because leaving would be a betrayal of their nature. Making them go would be like ripping a tree from its roots.

Mulder and we slowly walked around the people who were seated in the aisles.

Eventually, we found who we were looking for.

Miranda was seated near the middle. She was looking as wan as ever, but her face brightened when she saw us and Mulder. She motioned to the two empty seats next to her. Mulder and we squeezed by people who stood up or held back their legs without even looking at us.

Mulder took the seat next to Miranda. She immediately took his hand.

Like the others, Mulder and we waited.

In that time, we looked around us. We seemed to be the only one who was moving his head. We saw Ender in the back, his rifle hanging from his shoulder on a strap. We also saw Bosola in his wheelchair up front with Inspector Bucket sitting on the floor next to him. Like everyone else, they kept their eyes on the screen.

Minutes and minutes passed with nothing happening.

Then it started.

First, there was the sound of a drum. It snapped a few beats, then stopped.

It then appeared again, repeating the exact same sound.

Other sounds were layered on top of it. They reminded us of crickets and the grind of metal gears. A voice sang languorously over the sound. The woman singing seemed to be half-asleep. "What's the matter with it?...What's it trying to say?..."

Then, still photos were projected onto the screen. The first image was the ocean, stretched out to the sun descending below the horizon. Then we saw a desert, a mountain, a jungle, a wide sky.

"A mystical vision woke up one night...and strolled into the clear porch light..."

This was followed by photos of animals ranging from the whale to the ant.

The final animal to be seen was man.

"Moonlight on the hill...lights up the roadkill..."

We saw everything humanity had invented from the wheel to the microchip.

Photos of men and women flashed on the screen -- a short man holding his hand inside his jacket, a bespectacled man with a cigarette holder in his mouth,

a short-haired woman in armor. We saw the statue of a naked man, written notes on paper and a man dressed in baggy pants walking off into the distance.

"Moonlight on the hill...and the future is..."

The screen went black.

"...roadkill..."

The music was cut off with a loud thud that made us jump in our seat.

The blackness of the screen changed. We realized that we were not looking at a blank screen, but an image of the shiny, smooth texture of Purity.

A male voice came through the speakers. "All of our lives follow a design.

This design follows less the chance of nature and more the conscious plans of great powers."

Faces dissolved onto the blackness -- faces with huge foreheads, small jaws and black eyes.

"These were the beings that once controlled our fates. They came to change our world. Had they succeeded, their race would have been our future.

"They had help in this plan. Among humanity were men that sought to be a part of this future. One of these men was Alex the Traitor. Let him speak now."

A spotlight draw a wide white circle on a door next to the screen. An old man came shuffling out. He was dressed only in rags tied around his waist.

His legs had been chained together.

The entire audience stood up and booed him. They screamed insults. A few even hurled rotten fruit. There was a ritualistic quality to their anger.

Like the visual display at the beginning, this seemed to be part of the Church service.

Mulder and we had to stand up to look at him. Next to him and us, pale little Miranda was screaming as loud as anybody. We noticed a collar around the man's neck as well as the rope that tied his right arm to his body.

Nothing was needed to hold the left arm. It wasn't there. A stump existed in its place.

"Damn," Mulder said. "Damn, damn, damn."

"This is horrible," we said.

"Don't feel sorry for him. The bastard deserves this."

We looked at Mulder. There was no mercy expressed in his face. We turned back to Alex the Traitor. He seemed to agree with Mulder's harsh assessment.

He accepted the insults with a smile. A grey apple core flew through the air at him and got stuck in his long, tangled beard.

Finally, the crowd had vented enough anger. They sat back down and waited for Alex the Traitor to speak. The old man hobbled over to a microphone stand.

"It is true," his dry, cracked voice said through the speakers. "I did not create the plans, but I assisted in them. I turned my back on goodness and responsibility to become a lackey for the men who worked in secret. I was a coward...and a traitor."

Mulder just shook his head. "I cannot fucking believe this," he muttered.

"Fortunately," Alex the Traitor said. "there were people who would not travel the coward's path. People like...Walter the Sacrifice."

A photo of a man appeared. We were stunned at first, but then we almost laughed. We should expect things like this by now, we thought. On the screen was an image of the bald-headed man we had seen in our dreams. His muscular body was dressed in a formal suit. He looked back at the camera with a blunt, direct gaze.

Next to us, Mulder lowered his head and covered his face with his free hand.

Marinade turned to him, concerned. She whispered in his ear. He said nothing in return.

"He gave his life so that we all might live. However, in his death, a new beginning was created. From his cold grave came forth...The Seventh Age."

Images of the Core, the Two Worlds Festival, Stabilizer Headquarters and other symbols of Joined culture flashed by on the screen. Mulder kept his head down. We suspect that he knew who was going to speak next. He was hoping that he was right and hoping that he was wrong.

"As with all eras before it, the Seventh Age was the result of a conscious act. The creator of the Seventh Age did not intend to make it, but...she will take responsibility for it. Responsibility for its beginning.

Responsibility for its present. And responsibility...for its end.

"Let the High Priestess enter."

He bowed in the direction of the door from which he came. The congregation rose to their feet and again the singing woman came back on the speakers.

"What's the matter with it?...What's the matter with it?..."

Mulder was the only one not standing. He remained in his chair, still ducking his head. Miranda tried to gently pull him to his feet, but he refused. We were standing so we got to see the High Priestess before he did.

We recognized her immediately.

We also recognized the woman who was helping her into the theater.

The second woman was dressed in a white robe. Designed onto it was the same symbol that had appeared on the screen -- a yellow circle with three black triangles on the inside. We had seen her face before in the Alone Catalogue.

Her name was Julia Ellison.

The woman with her was also dressed in a white robe with a yellow circle.

She also wore a headband made of discarded computer chips. Computer chips also decorated the rings on her fingers. She walked with a slow step, but it didn't seem like a good idea to get in her way. The look in her eye was too sharp and forceful.

Alex the Traitor remained in a bowed position until the High Priestess reached him. Then Julia attached a chain to his collar and handed it to her leader. The High Priestess jerked the chain downward. Alex the Traitor fell down to his knees.

Julia stepped back, giving the High Priestess space but ready to rush forward in case of need.

The High Priestess turned to her followers.

Yes, she was Dana Scully.

Not Dana Scully the investigator.

Not Dana Scully with her sexual gifts in the night.

This was the old, hard Scully of our dreams. When she lifted a hand and then motioned everyone to sit, they did so because not doing so felt sinful. We felt the hold she possessed on the people gathered in the theater. When she motioned us to sit, we did so without thinking about it. She assumed control as easily as a wind blows away a dandelion.

Mulder still hadn't looked at her yet.

Then the music faded away and she spoke. The voice coming from the speakers was as quietly seductive as the one we heard in Mulder's trailer. Only now, it was not inviting you into the garden of pleasure. Now, it was leading you to the battlefield.

"I have often wondered what forces guided me to create the Joined."

Mulder looked up.

"Did God lead me down this trail? I had spent my life before the Joining in attempts to grasp onto justice and truth. I made a long, bloody journey in hopes that the end would be salvation. Instead, it all ended with the world turned upside down..."

He stared at the old woman.

"...and myself alone."

Tears seeped out of his eyes.

"For years afterwards, I wandered aimlessly, not understanding what had been done to the world. Why did God allow this to happen? Why did He let His own creation become so twisted into a blasphemous form of what He once cherished?"

Mulder began to tremble. We carefully touched his other hand.

"Then...I had a revelation.

"God appeared to me and said...

"'Your work is not yet completed.'

"He said nothing more than that. I did not know what He meant at the time.

However, the will of God cannot be ignored. I set out to discover what could be done to change the world."

She looked at the back of the theater. It seemed that her eyes were now taking in the whole world. "And I learned a new way."

Mulder's breathing was now a quick pant. "Mulder, be calm," we whispered.

"I learned how to change the world. I learned how to shape it back into what it had been."

The flesh in our hand was tensing. Feeling the same thing, Miranda looked frightened.

"I learned how to end this Age. And I knew that I was the one..."

"Mulder, no!" we hissed.

"...to end it."

Mulder bolted out of his seat. Our hand left long scratches down his arm as he pulled away from us. Standing straight up, he screamed, "NO!!!"

That shouted word was as dramatic as blood splattered onto the floor. Every eye was upon Mulder and we saw surprise and anger in all of them.

The High Priestess stared at Mulder.

Then, she said, "Who are you?"

"Scully..." Mulder said, his voice ravaged by grief.

"Who...are you, sir?"

"Scully...it's me. Mulder."

The name brought out many gasps from the followers and they whispered their amazement to each other. They were instantly silenced when Scully said in a steely voice --

"No. You're not."

**

Part Eighteen

Had Dana Scully ordered her followers to rip out Fox Mulder's heart, they would have done so in an instant. Instead, she ripped it out by herself with just her words.

"I don't know who you're supposed to be," she said. "Or who you think you are. But you're not Fox Mulder. You are a withered old man --- frightened, weak and alone. Crawl back into the pile of dust you came from."

Mulder just stood there. With his mouth hanging open and bewilderment in his eyes, he looked as weak as Scully said he was.

Scully looked over her followers. "Who brought this man here?" she demanded, her voice low but threatening.

Bosola cleared his throat. Scully turned to him. Inspector Bucket looked between her and Mulder, upset that his leader should be put in this position.

"You did, Bosola?" Scully said.

"I did, High Priestess," Bosola replied. His voice was as calm and reserved as ever, but this time it was only a thin cover for his fear.

"Why?"

"He said that he was Fox Mulder. I believed him."

Scully shook her head in disappointment. "We shall discuss this later." She turned back to the others. "Don't let this man fool you. Fox Mulder died a long time ago. If he had been alive, he would not have waited so long to make himself known. Fox Mulder was..."

"It is him!"

This was Miranda. She had leapt to her feet, still grasping onto Mulder's hand. "This is Fox Mulder!" she pleaded. "Please, High Priestess, believe him! He is the..."

Scully lifted one of her hands. Miranda silenced herself. When Scully spoke again, there was a touch of kindness in her voice even if the demand for obedience was clear.

"This man is a liar. I knew Fox Mulder, Miranda. He was not someone who would hide when others needed him. He was not frightened of chaos and danger. Can this man expect us to believe he can assume the mantle of that courage? Look at him. He couldn't even touch that mantle, much less carry it. He's just a broken-down fellow who saw 'Fox Mulder Lives' painted one too many times on a wall. Not only doesn't he bear the name, but he doesn't even come close to being the man Fox Mulder was."

Miranda turned to the old man beside her. His head was bowed down like a flower in a thunderstorm. The wit and strength we had seen before were gone.

He now looked just senile.

Miranda let go of his hand. She sat back down in her chair and stared at her feet.

We could have stood up and contradicted Scully. We had the proof of her mistake. However, even we were having doubts now. Could this human relic actually be Fox Mulder -- symbol of the Irregulars, son of a conspiracy that once tried to control the world, the man whose secrets we tried to learn?

He was, but that was now irrelevant.

"Leave now, old man," the High Priestess commanded. "And never desecrate the name of Fox Mulder again."

With his head still bowed, Mulder turned to the side. A path was cleared through the crowded theater. We stood up to let him pass and watched as the old man took a long time to exit. His step was sluggish and tired. Not a word was said as he almost crawled his way to the door.

There is nothing more he can do, we thought. He has been broken for good.

And there is nothing we can do for him except let him go back to his trailer and die.

Even as we thought this, we regretted it. However, we didn't know how to help him or even if we should try. It was difficult to think in a room filled with two hundred minds all under the control of one person. We looked around us for any sympathy to be had for Mulder.

We found it in the eyes of Julia Ellison. She didn't dare let the High Priestess see it but we knew her sadness. We saw the kindness she felt for Mulder.

We had seen those eyes before. Not eyes of the same color, but eyes with the same feeling -- the same empathy with weakness. We had seen it twice -- once in the eyes of the red-haired woman (Scully?) for Mulder and once in the eyes of Susan Townes for Maltese.

The door closed behind Mulder.

Then the High Priestess looked at us...

"Now, who are you, sir?"

...and everybody else looked at us as well. Our manner and clothing just screamed out a Joined Stabilizer. Our means of protection had just stumbled out the door. We could use our Aura, but we could eliminate ten, maybe twenty of the Church followers before the others overcame us. Ender had removed his rifle from his shoulder.

"Your presence here...is very unusual. Can you explain it?"

In situations like these, the truth is all you have left. We pointed a finger at Julia and said --

"Nowhere to run, baby."

She stared back at us in shock. The High Priestess raised an eyebrow at her.

"Are you the one with the explanation, Julia?"

Julia took a long moment of silence before she said, "I don't have one, High Priestess. But if you allow me to speak with this man, I believe that I can find one."

The High Priestess looked between us and her both several times.

Then she said, "You may use the other theater."

As Julia and we left, the High Priestess said, "Now, let us continue. Unless there are any other surprises?"

**

Julia lit a match and added flames to candles in the small theater. Then she sat in a chair, looked at me and said, "So...you know my favorite song. What else do you know?"

Standing above her, we examined this woman. Frankly, we had trouble believing she had led four Co-Administrators away from Purity. She didn't strike me as seductive. Her looks were rather plain. While she had a pleasingly gentle expression, she had neither the mystery of the red-haired woman or the strong body of Susan Townes.

We said, "We know about The Gold House. And about the four Co-Administrators you had been involved with. And we know where Maltese is."

She gave us a smile. "Then you know enough."

"No. Nowhere near enough. How did you escape the bombing on The Gold House?"

The smile went away. She crossed her arms across her chest and looked at our shoulder instead of our face. "When we came to The Gold House that night, Armstrong was there. He told us to leave. He said that we were in danger."

She sighed. "I wish that he had told me exactly what exactly was going to happen. I could have saved the others."

"But...he stayed there."

She nodded and brushed away a tear in her eye. "I don't think he wanted to live anymore. He was tired of hiding who he was. Michener, White, Maltese...they all had to hide for fear of what might be done to them."

"Maltese thinks it was Top Level who killed Michener and White."

"No. Whatever Maltese thinks, the Irregulars are very real." She shook her head. "And damn them for being so."

"Aren't you an Irregular?"

"I follow the High Priestess," she said sharply. "No one else."

"But you don't always agree with her."

She looked back at the man who was learning her secrets. "You know that man was Mulder," we said.

"So did the High Priestess."

Now, it was our turn to be surprised. "But...why..."

"I don't know why. But, obviously, I was wrong to invite him here."

"What do you mean?"

"I have come to him several times in the night. I told him that the High Priestess wanted him at her side. At least, that's what I thought the High Priestess wanted. But that was just a foolish, romantic notion. I see that now."

We stared at her, trying to make sense of what she had said.

And then we realized how it made sense.

"That was you," we whispered.

She gave us a bewildered look. We knelt down on one knee before her.

"We saw you. In the trailer. With Mulder. But you were..." We reached up to her hair and ran our hand through its blonde roots as if it might turn to auburn red.

"You watched us," Julia said not as an recrimination but as a statement of fact.

"In a way...you've been watching us, too."

Now, she was touching a finger to our bottom lip. That light touch made our mouth tremble. "Have you...have you had the dreams?" she asked.

We nodded.

She smiled.

The next thing we knew, her arms were tight around our back and her cheek was pressed against ours. "Who are you?" we whispered.

"I'm whoever you want me to be."

Our own arms came together around her. We said --

"Be Scully."

Her skin shimmered like water in our touch. She pulled back and Dana Scully was smiling before us. This was the Scully we wanted, the kind one and not the cruel prophet.

We almost threw her to the floor. Our hands tore off her robe as eagerly as she removed our suit.

The warmth of two naked bodies was more intoxicating than we could ever imagine. We had never conceived that the saliva flowing between two mouths could taste as sweet as honey. Never had we seen the female body as something to grip onto in a thousand soft spots. As for our own body, Julia revealed to us the loving sensitivity of...

No.

Oh, no.

Not us.

**

"When I go to the mirror to comb my hair...I see your face smiling there...Nowhere to run to, baby...Nowhere to hide..."

**

I felt the Purity screaming at me. The rush of blood in my veins was like a flood engulfing the blackness inside me. I supposed that it was painful yet I have no memory of pain. When my vision turned black, I continued to hold my penis inside Julia and moan in time with her. The sensation of Purity leaking from my eyes should have been like fire on my skin yet I was only conscious of the wetness swallowing me up.

The Purity slid off my chin and dripped onto Julia's breasts and face. She made no motion to brush it off. Instead, her sweating face just smiled. The Purity wormed its way off her and congealed in a tiny puddle next to us.

After we had exhausted ourselves (and no weariness had ever felt so precious), I saw that the Purity had hardened and cracked. It was nothing more now than a handful of ashes.

I looked at the woman with Scully's face. She said, "Hello."

**

Part Nineteen

When we look back at this part of the story, we think of Sharon and become ashamed. We can only imagine how theya dealt with the disappearance of a Partner. Nothing has been so difficult as explaining to thema what we were doing in the time we were missing.

The difficult part is telling her that while she was suffering, we...I was having fun.

We call the Arthur Rush of that time "I." Of course, it's a cheap way of distancing ourselves from what we...I...

"I" was a different person than "we." Let's leave it at that.

For the next three days, Julia and I didn't get out of bed. Or, if we weren't in bed, we found some secluded place to fuck away in. I wanted nothing else except sex. I desired nothing more than her pussy and her mouth and her ass.

Listen to that. I had learned to talk dirty, too. I whispered all the lurid ideas of my newly eroticized imagination into Julia's ear. She smiled as she made them reality. She could bring them all to life because she could be any woman I wanted her to be.

A brief explanation --

Julia had been infected with Purity at the age of four. However, it was assumed that she had escaped infection because she had shown no signs of being one of the Joined. In reality, she was something neither Alone nor Joined. A freak mutation of the virus had given her a new ability, one that she had discovered when she was nine and one that she had mastered by the age of sixteen.

She was a shape-changer.

She was also a whore.

A perfect whore.

If one body and face wouldn't satisfy you, then she would create another.

When she had been at The Gold House, she was different women to different people.

For Co-Administrator Maltese, she was Susan Townes -- strong and protective.

For Michener, she was Tabitha Ross -- an overweight woman with a lovingly foul mouth and street smarts.

White had Kate Foster, the one with hair down to her waist and a mystical nature.

Armstrong was a Preserver so he had Julia become beautiful actresses of the past.

I saw all of these women and played my games with all of them. However, the one which I used the most was Dana Scully. I couldn't let go of that small, shapely body. I loved the way she let her sensual thoughts rise gently in her eyes. I was mesmerized by how her smile could turn her adult graveness into a childlike joy.

Looking into her face made me conscious of my own features. Julia once caught me looking into a mirror. She nestled her head onto my shoulder, Scully's red hair tickling my cheek.

"You look fascinated," she commented.

"I just never realized...how young I was." I lifted up my hands to inspect them. "Or how dark my skin is."

She placed her white hands over my black ones. "You never noticed that you were black?"

"No, I knew. It's just that I never considered what that meant. Or how I looked."

"Well...I suppose that's one good thing about the Joined. Race is not a consideration."

"You sound like my parents. They lived in the Off-Zone when it was still part of D.C. They told me that the Joining was the greatest thing for them.

It lifted them out of poverty. It stopped racism."

"How do you feel about it?"

I turned to her. I smiled. "Get down on you knees, you dirty slut," I told her.

She did as I said. As always, she was smiling.

I was a beast over those three days. I had the sexual drive of a nineteen-year-old and the accumulated desire of a lifetime. We are ashamed for what 'I' did to Sharon, but we can't say that we regret the pleasure.

Did it bother me that Julia was a whore? To the contrary, it was what drew me to her. A whore was what I needed. I didn't mind that she was with Maltese or somebody else when she wasn't with me. Why should I? It was just the way she liked it. She loved everyone she fucked. She went from one person to another, granting them pleasure like candy left on their doorstep.

Because her mutated body was resistant to disease and pregnancy, there was nothing to worry about except how much pleasure you wanted. Her cunt was an endless treasure trove from which she gave freely.

Nor did it bother me that she took on the shape of the High Priestess. I could never make a connection between this young woman and the harsh, old crone. For me, there were two different people.

On the second night of my defection to the Alones, I was summoned by the High Priestess. Her sanctuary was located in the projection room of the movie theater. She was waiting for me, surrounded by junk. The room was full of microscopes, lasers, unwashed glass beakers, models of DNA, calculators, anatomy charts, containers for hazardous materials and periodic tables. They were old and outdated, but the High Priestess had found a new use for them.

They had been arranged into abstract sculptures and art works.

I stopped right in the doorway, astounded by the decor and unnerved by the commanding look of the High Priestess.

"Come in, Arthur," she said. I did so because she told me to do it. I stepped carefully across the room, wary of the myriad things to trip over.

The High Priestess was sitting on a black rug. Arranged in a circle around her were rusty surgical instruments. As I stood next to her, I saw that the scars on top of her shaved head formed the circle-and-triangle insignia of the Church.

With her was Alex the Traitor. She was feeding him scraps of meat from a bowl. An decrepit tape player was singing. "Through the mirror of my mind...time after time...I see reflections of you and me..."

Suddenly, she jerked the chain around his neck. "Leave us," she commanded.

The old man hobbled out of the room.

"I understand that you have left the Joined," she said as she looked down and picked up a scapel.

"Ah, yes. Yes, I have."

She didn't look at me. She stared at the scapel, slowly turning it in her hand. "And why have you done this?" she asked.

"Because of Julia."

"Only because of her?"

"Isn't that enough?"

She looked up. I noticed that the angle of the scapel was pointed at my chest. I took a step back. "I'm all alone in a world that's a distorted reality..." a female singer crooned.

"We are on the cusp of a new era," she said. "To choose one side over the other simply out of love..."

"I don't think my choice was due to love."

"Then, what?"

"I came to Julia...because I realized that I was missing something."

That's when the High Priestess smiled. Only one corner of her mouth lifted, but it looked startling on that hard face.

"Very well." She placed the scapel back on the floor. "You have chosen well in any case. The end of the Joined is near. The Seventh Extinction will come."

I didn't dare ask what she meant exactly. However, I did request permission to ask another question.

"You may ask," she said.

"How did Mulder die?"

She looked back down at the floor. For a second, she appeared sad and tired.

Then the iron mask of her self-control clamped shut and she said, "I don't know how. All I know is that he's dead."

"How?"

"After the Joining, I ran away from him. If he had been alive, he would have caught up with me years ago."

Then she waved her hand at me in dismissal. "Leave us now."

I walked away. "...reflections of...the way life used to be...reflections of...the love you took from me..."

Afterwards, I told Julia of the meeting. "What does she have in mind?" I asked. "What is The Seventh Extinction?"

She placed her hands on my shoulders. "You will see. You will understand."

I confess this was the only time that I thought of Sharon. I was frightened by the possible thoughts behind Dana Scully's angry eyes. I did not want to see Sharon in a reality built on those thoughts.

Then the other Dana Scully appeared in front of me, the one I lusted for. My fears were lost in a river of sweat and semen.

As for Fox Mulder --

I went to his trailer the day after Scully had shunned him. He wasn't there and there was no hint as to his current location. I took all his CD's and used them as background noise for lovemaking. "I got a woman..." "Why must I feel like that, why must I chase the cat..." "Doctor Feelgood is his name..."

I had stopped caring about Mulder or Sharon or the Stabilizers or the Seventh Extinction. A madness had overtaken me and I gloried in it. For a short time, I wanted nothing more than the excitement of the mouth, skin and cock.

Then I discovered that I wanted something more. I wanted revenge on the people who had denied me this pleasure. I wanted to hurt the Joined.

**

On the third night, Stubb visited me and Julia. "Hey there, lovebirds. Or you rutting weasels, anyway."

"Hey, Stubb," I said. "What's going on?"

"An Irregular meeting is going on. A major meeting. And you're invited. Want to come along?"

I did. Through dark alleys and hidden streets, Stubb led me past the patrols and to the Meeting Hall. After we gave the password, Miranda unlocked the bolt. This time, she was waiting behind the door instead of hiding like the time Mulder and I came.

"Evening..." Stubb started to say, but then he noticed a drop of blood running down from Miranda's nose.

"Miranda, you're..."

"It's nothing," she whispered. The restraining bolt snapped back into place.

She walked away from us, pressing a handkerchief to her nose. Stubb looked at me and, for once, he wasn't smiling.

Everyone was present, but the meeting hadn't started yet. Inspector Bucket and Bosola were talking privately in a corner. Rebecca Sharp was sitting on a desk, smoking a cigarette. Ender was cleaning his rifle. Miranda sat away from everybody, the handkerchief still pressed against her face below her sad eyes.

"Hey, Rebecca," Stubb said, his smile returning. "Still working on an early death, I see."

Rebecca made a fist and stuck the cigarette between her fingers in a gesture the Alones call "flipping the bird."

Stubb shook his head. "Tch-tch. I thought the upper class knew their manners."

"I'm not upper-class, you idiot. I haven't been upper-class for a long time."

"That's right. You've fallen into bohemian squalor just like your namesake did in the end. Of course, she learned to adjust."

"Excuse me?" I said. "Your namesake?"

"Every Irregular is named after a literary character," Stubb explained.

"Even the name of our group is derived from a book. Ever hear of Sherlock Holmes?"

We opened our mouth to answer, but Rebecca Sharp interrupted. "Of course, he hasn't, Stubb. He just became an Alone a few days ago. He doesn't know who Sherlock Holmes is anymore than he knows that Rebecca Sharp was some bitch from an eighteenth-century English novel."

"Nineteenth century, my dear."

Rebecca Sharp flipped another bird.

"What about you, Stubb?" I asked.

"Me? I'm named for a character from a novel called 'Moby Dick.' Stubb was a guy who could laugh at anything, even his own death. Which kind of fits me."

"And the others?"

Stubb indicated Ender who was examining his rifle with intense green eyes.

"Well, our brooding young man over there was named for a child military leader from a science fiction novel. Inspector Bucket was originally a name given by Charles Dickens to a very bad-ass police constable. And Bosola...well, that name may not be a compliment. Bosola was supposed to have been a real back-stabber, even though he had a last-minute change of heart. However, he was also a very crafty planner which does fit the man in charge over there."

"And Miranda?"

"Miranda. Hm. I'm not too sure about her. Her name has something in connection with our leader."

"Yes, your leader. Bosola mentioned him. Who is he?"

Stubb looked at Rebecca Sharp and grinned. She gave him a smile in return, albeit one that was tighter and more sarcastic. "Only two people know who he is," she told me. "Bosola and Miranda."

"Of course, there are all kinds of rumors about him," Stubb added. "One story is that he's someone close to Top Level..."

That's when Bosola declared that the meeting was in order. We all gathered in a circle. Bosola gave Miranda a look of concern when he saw her bloodied handkerchief. She made a quick motion indicating him to ignore it.

He turned to me and said, "Well, Mister Rush...you are one of us now."

"I am, indeed."

"I never thought that we would have a former Stabilizer on our side...but having one might be very useful for our next offensive."

I hesitated before speaking again. This was a step which would make me an irrevocable traitor. However, it was only a short hesitation.

"What kind of offensive?"

Bosola looked at all of us. "Two days from now, Miranda will interface with the Bio-Network like she did before. Only this time, the damage done will be far more intense. This time...we're planning a failure of the power grid and a disruption of the communication systems."

"And then what?"

"And then the Irregulars move in."

That certainly got everybody's attention. "We'll be moving in on all the major centers of Joined power," Bosola continued. "We'll even go after the Core, if we can."

"What about Stabilizer Headquarters?" I asked.

Bosola fixed his eyes on me. "That, too. And your experience would be useful there."

I nodded.

"You understand that the thrust of this attack will be property damage and a weakening of the Joined command structure. However, inevitably, there will be..."

"I'll help."

"Shit, you just jump in with both feet, don't you?" Stubb said.

"I do have a question, though. Why now? Why have you been so aggressive in your attacks of late?"

"Because it's part of our leader's plan," Bosola answered.

"You mean, The High Priestess's plan?"

Bosola frowned. "No. I mean, our leader Prospero."

"Sorry. I did not mean to offend. I just assumed since you were a member of the Church..."

"The Church is my religion, not my cause."

I nodded, but I wasn't satisfied. Bosola sounded too defensive. It was more likely Bosola was a Church member for practical reasons than for religious ones. It was obvious that the High Priestess had power of her own and Bosola had to acknowledge that power.

Was there a battle between Prospero and Scully for the minds of the Alones?

Was she giving people a more seductive cause than simple revolution? Perhaps the reason that the Irregulars were stepping up their efforts was to gain credibility in the eyes of the Alones.

The rest of the night was spent making preparations. After the meeting was concluded, I went up to Miranda. Before I could say anything, she said "Don't worry about me. This happens all the time." She looked down at the handkerchief. "It will all be over soon enough."

Neither one of us spoke until she lifted her eyes to me and asked, "What happened to that old man?"

"You mean, Mu...the man who said he was Mulder?"

"Yes."

"I don't know. I don't know where he is."

"You know...I hate the way he lied to me, but I can't help feel sorry for him."

"Me, too." I paused, then said, "May I ask you something?"

"Of course."

"Who has more power among the Alones? Prospero or The High Priestess?"

She smiled at me. "There's no struggle going on, if that's what you think.

It's just that Bosola really doesn't believe in the Seventh Extinction. He's only a Church member to keep up appearances. But..."

She looked around to make sure no one else was listening, then said, "Prospero is a believer. He told me so."

"Why does he believe?"

"Because he knew the High Priestess in her younger days. He said that if anybody could bring about the end of the Seventh Age, she can." She spoke of Prospero as if he was a beloved father and she spoke of the Seventh Extinction with the intensity of a true believer. That brings up an obvious question...

"What is The Seventh Extinction exactly?"

"That is the day on which the Alones will be free. I only hope that I live long enough to see it."

What did I make of all this? I wanted to know what the High Priestess was planning, but I was more curious than concerned. Besides, if the Seventh Extinction came, I just wanted to be fucking Julia when it happened.

Speaking of which, I returned to her in the dead of night and took her in our bed. We made love like we never would do it again.

That was closer to the truth than we realized.

**

Part Twenty

The attack on D.C. started out very smoothly. The disruption created by Miranda hit the city at four-forty-five. This time was chosen because that's the moment at which most people are planning to leave work for the comfort of home. It was intended as one more dent in the Joined psychology.

Conversations over Bio-Communicators were suddenly cut off. Lights went out.

Traffic signals became blinking strobes. Access to bank accounts and personal databases was severed. Business and government came to a halt.

That's when we moved in. We used our secret passages to get across the border. Then we inserted ourselves into key areas of D.C., ready for four-forty-five. No less than twenty government agencies, financial centers and businesses were targeted. When the inner workings of D.C. collapsed, all these targets were invaded by armed Alones.

I led the attack on the Stabilizer Headquarters. In less than ten minutes, Stubb, myself and fifteen other Irregulars had the building secure. Our attack apparently overwhelmed the Stabilizers, leaving them no choice but to quickly surrender. The same results were seen in most of the operation with only a few deaths occurring. Overall, the first stage of the attack had been quick and bloodless.

That should have warned us right away. We were too excited by the initial success to notice how easy it was, though.

For myself, I was too distracted by the stunned and angry expression on Supervisor Stoddard's face. At four-fifty-five, I was standing in theiro office. Windows to the outside provided late-afternoon light in the room. In other parts of Stabilizer Headquarters, lamps were being placed on desks and flashlights attached to large guns were slowly watching over Stabilizers on their and their knees.

I looked at Stoddard through the plastic shield on my head gear. Enough of my face was obscured so theyo didn't know who I was until I said, "Hello, Dwight."

"Ay, carumba!"

"I know, Dwight. I know."

The shocked look on theiro face turned to murderous rage.

"I don't want to hurt you, Dwight. Just do as we say and everything will be fine."

"Homey don't play that," theyo snarled.

"Well, homey may not, but you'll have to. Now, move back."

Stoddard stood up from theiro chair and moved up against a corner of the office. Keeping my gun pointed at themo, I went up to theiro desk and placed a brown, quarter-sized disc on one of the cubes. The Infiltration Chip sank into the softening cube and accessed the paralyzed Bio-Network. Miranda had fixed the Bio-Network so that they would only respond to the Chip. The idea was to get all the tactical information we could out of the Bio-Network, then destroy what couldn't be taken. Then every Joined person would be removed from the building. Outside, they and they could watch us blow it up.

I looked at the anger on Dwight's face and I felt a fair amount of guilt. I had worked with this man for years and now I was pointing a gun at themo. At the same time, I had no regrets about what I was doing.

If I was satisfied, the other Irregulars were ecstatic. "This is going great!" Stubb told me. Like all the Irregulars, we were wearing protective suits against Auras. The suits came equipped with headsets for communication. Stubb was outside the office in the main work area of Section Two. I looked through the glass around Stoddard's door. There were no windows to the outside in the work area so I could only see the passing of flashlights in the dark. I gave him a thumbs-up, nevertheless.

I thought about D.C., undoubtedly frightened and helpless now. I also thought about the military patrols in The Off-Zone who suddenly found them-and-themselves cut off from the world, alone with the Alones. I could imagine all the people coming out of their hiding places and apartments, marching in the street, building an unstoppable mob headed right for the border wall.

I also thought of Julia and tried not to get an erection.

Five minutes later, the Infiltration Chip was surfacing out of the Bio-Cube.

"We're almost done here," I said to Stubb.

"So are we," Stubb replied. "The explosives are in place. Man, when this place goes up, it will be a sight to..."

Then I heard silence.

"Stubb?"

"Whoops, sorry about that. I thought I heard...wait a minute..."

Another period of silence.

When Stubb spoke again, his voice was now rushed and panicky. "Oh, shit, we gotta get out of here!"

"What?"

"I've just heard from Tyrone Slothrop! There's a team of Stabilizers moving in! They've almost taken out everybody!"

I looked at Dwight. Theyo could see the fear in my eyes and I could see the knowledge in theiro eyes.

They and they had known we were coming.

"We gotta leave!" Stubb yelled.

Keeping my gun pointed at Dwight, I backed towards the door. "Okay, okay," I said. "Stay calm." My own voice was barely keeping an appearance of calm itself. "We'll take the escape route out the..."

The sound of grunts and tearing metallic fabric filled my headset. I looked out the glass in the wall.

In the work area, a flash of light burst into view, illuminating both the men it came from and the man who was receiving it. I could see the agony on Stubb's face as clearly as I could hear his scream.

I looked back at Dwight. Theyo shook theiro head at me. "I knew it was you, Fredo," theyo said.

What I did next was an almost thoughtless reflex. It was an action born out of terror and frustration.

I shot Dwight in the stomach. Theyo fell down, blood coursing from theiro shirt. Theyo screamed, screamed, screamed.

"UP IN THE SKY, IT'S A BIRD! IT'S A PLANE! HEY, HEY, HEY!

HERRRRRRE'S JOHNNY!"

I stared at themo, unable to accept what I had done and what was happening.

However, I had no choice but to accept the reality of the Neutralizer bolt that crashed through the window and struck my side.

"EH-OH! OH, ROCHESTER! LOUIE, THIS IS THE BEGINNING OF A BEAUTIFUL FRIENDSHIP! IN THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM, THERE ARE TWO SEPARATE YET EQUALLY

IMPORTANT GROUPS..."

The suit gave protection, but only enough to keep me from becoming completely unconscious. I dropped to the floor, my body twitching all over.

"MAY THE FORCE BE WITH YOU! SHE'S GONNA MAKE IT

AFTER ALLLLL..."

The door was kicked in. I was given another Neutralizer shot. As I was hurled into darkness, I was convinced that the last thing I would ever hear in life was Dwight bellowing, "SHOW ME THE MONEY! SHOW ME THE MONEY!"

**

Then I saw grey.

After awhile, I was able to comprehend more details. The grey was the color of a smooth ceiling. It was also the color of the walls and maybe the floor.

I couldn't look down to confirm the floor's color. Straps were holding me flat against a metal surface. A single bright lamp jutted out from a corner of the ceiling, as if it was peeking inside. A door was in my sight, a few steps away yet still unreachable.

I had never seen this place before.

I know where I was, though.

Purity Control.

**

Part Twenty One

It started out with questions.

I didn't answer them.

**

Fire.

**

The questions were asked again.

I just shook my head, letting out tiny gasps.

**

Now, it was cold. My skin shriveled and the straps had to be tightened to keep from being torn by my shivering body. The man working the controls looked at me like I was a math problem to solve.

The questions weren't asked again. Instead I was given a little food and a little warm water. Then they and they let me sleep.

I think I got two hours of rest before it all started again.

**

"There's no point in holding back information. The Irregulars no longer exist. We and we have destroyed them. Just answer our and our questions and it will be over."

"If...if the Irregulars are gone...why...are you asking me questions?"

I was taken into another room and beaten.

**

I was shown news footage of dead Irregulars. I saw captured Irregulars being lead into Detainment Vehicles with their hands on their heads.

I also got to see the final crackdown on the Off-Zone. Families were herded into trucks. Buildings were leveled and incinerated. I saw the Bucket Hole explode. "Fox Mulder Lives" was going to be erased completely out of sight, if not from memory.

"You see? Not only do the Irregulars no longer exist, but the Off-Zone is gone, too. Why do you continue to resist? What is the point?"

I just watched the Bio-Imager, feeling like my eyes were the only part of my body that still worked.

**

The blood seemed to fill my head to the bursting point as I hanged upside-down from the ceiling. I was stung with long rods that snapped and bit into my flesh. I was told that these were "cattle prods," a type of old technology used in the old days of torture.

How interesting.

**

They and they let me loose from the metal table. I wandered around my room all day, constantly walking in circles. I did this until I was tired. I fell asleep in a corner.

**

I smelled something. I opened my eyes and saw myself in two small black mirrors.

"They and they found Co-Administrator Maltese," a voice said. "The official word is that the Irregulars executed themo after a long period of torture.

Is this true or do you have something you wish to add?"

I closed my eyes, though I could still sense those black mirrors nearby.

Then I heard footsteps and the door opening and closing. I went back to sleep.

**

The Dream Invader has the ability to inflict pain on a victim while he's asleep and still keep him unconscious. Once the Dream Invader is used, the prisoner realizes that not even sleep can protect him from the torturer's power.

**

Blood pours from the speakers, gagging the sound of "...I see your face smiling there." Julia is lying on the ground, each part of her body different from the other. Mulder picks up a scapel and tears the black-and-white triangle on the movie screen. The High Priestess and the naked, bald man are running through the streets. They are being chased by men with heads that resemble lizards. The lizard-men catch up with their prey and sink their teeth into screaming faces.

I scream with them.

**

Martina Stoddard came to see me.

"You Null-sucking bastard. Dwight was your friend. How could you do that to themo? How could you do that to our Partner?"

Theya slapped me in the face. I mumbled "sorry" as theya ran crying out of the room.

**

What day is it now?

**

Rebecca Sharp, Inspector Bucket and Ender came to visit. They were all now Joined.

"It's incredible that we and we ever resisted this," Rebecca Sharp told me.

"Poor Bosola," Inspector Bucket said. "He killed himself rather than be taken away."

"Save yourself," Ender pleaded. "Give in. Tell them and them what they and they want to know."

I screamed obscenities until they and they left. Then others came and the fire was ignited again.

**

I thought about my parents. What would they and they say over the quivering body of Arthur Rush? Could they and they understand what brought their son here?

Because Arthur Rush wanted to fuck, mom and dad.

They allowed me freedom to walk around again. Instead, I masturbated and tossed my sperm on the walls. I laughed.

Then I looked at my sticky hands and I cried.

**

"Why don't you just give me Purity and be done with it?"

"You must show yourself worthy of Purity, Arthur. And your worthiness will only be proven when you answer our and our questions."

I was silent for a long time, then I said, "What were the questions?"

"We and we just want to know how you became an Alone."

I hesitated again.

Then I told them and them that I couldn't explain how.

Instead of hurting me, they and they just left.

A few minutes later, Sharon entered the room.

"Arth..."

I backed away from thema until I was pressed against the wall. I covered my head with my arms.

"Arthur, don't!"

"Go away!" I wailed.

Theya walked slowly up to me. I could feel hands that were so kind, so horribly kind. For a long time, Sharon just touched me. Then theya said "We will understand."

I looked up at thema. Theira eyes were loving and warm and honest. "Whatever you have to say...we will understand."

That was it.

I fell into theira arms and wept. When the others came back, I told them and them everything. The dreams, Mulder, Scully, the Church of the Seventh Age, Julia...everything.

Sharon listened to all of it as well. Theya were as confused and shocked as you can imagine. Theya never stopped holding me, though.

After I was done, Sharon was told to leave. Theya looked reluctant, but theya was told that no harm would come to theira Partner. "Go," I told thema. "I'll be all right now."

Theya gave me a hug and left.

**

Purity was given to me again.

And I...

...was now we.

**

We spent two more days in our cell. In that time, we had a visitor.

"Good EVE-ning."

We could only stare at Stoddard. Obviously, Purity and quick medical treatment had saved theiro life.

Theyo began to say, "The reports of my death have been greatly..." Then theyo stopped and looked at us. After doing that for several long seconds, theyo left our cell. We never saw themo again.

**

"Someone important wants to see you."

That was the only explanation given as we were taken out of our cell. Our heart beat wildly when we realized that we were leaving Purity Control itself.

Two guards drove us across D.C. We were taken to the White House. We were shown to the Oval Office.

Representative Byers was there. So was Fox Mulder. He said, "Where are my CD's, dipstick?"

**

Eventually, Mulder and we would go back to the Off-Zone one last time. We had a mission.

We had returned to kill Dana Scully.

**

Part Twenty Two

The decision to kill Dana Scully came out of our meeting with Byers and Mulder. The meeting started with our startled reaction to Mulder's presence.

It wasn't just that we had never expected to see Mulder again. The look in his eyes was different from anything we had seen before. It was hard, calculated, focused.

"Well?" he said.

"Uh...sorry, Mulder. I...we lost your CDs. We think. They were in the Off-Zone when it got eradicated."

Mulder sighed.

"Sorry."

He waved his hand as if he had expected no less than this. "Take a seat, Arthur."

We did. We sat in the chair next to Mulder's. Both of his and our chairs were in front of Byers's desk. The Representative had sunk into theiro own chair. The sadness that always lingered in theiro face had flourished. Theyo looked like Mulder did when we first saw him, only without the gallows humor. Theyo didn't say anything until Mulder snapped, "Well, Byers, are you going to get the goddamned ball rolling or not?"

Byers leaned forward. Theyo placed theiro hands together on the desk as if to keep themoselves upright. "You are aware, Mister Rush, that the Irregulars have been disbanded and the Off-Zone crushed."

"Yes, Representative."

"You're also aware that despite your confession and readmittance to the Joined, you are still a designated traitor and attempted murderer?"

"Yes, Representative."

"Now...while your career as a Stabilizer is most certainly over, you may be able to avoid the harsher forms of punishment. You can do so by co-operating with this office on an important matter. Would you care to take this opportunity?"

We breathed in and out. "Sir...we're not sure if we care what happens to us.

We only want two things -- safety for our Partner and to do what's right."

Byers looked at us, then turned to Mulder. The ex-agent smiled in a mean way and said, "Ah, to be young and virtuous again."

"All right," Byers said. "This is the situation as it stands. The Irregulars are gone, but that only leaves a greater threat on the horizon. The Church of the Seventh Age is still a considerable force. Furthermore, recent events will undoubtedly spur them on to the event they've been planning."

"The Seventh Extinction."

Byers nodded.

"We still don't know what that means exactly."

"Tell him, Byers," Mulder said in a low voice.

Byers looked down at theiro hands. "Our sources have told us and us that the High Priestess..."

"You mean, Scully."

It became silent in the Oval Office.

Then, Byers said, "Yes. Scully. We have reason to believe that she has adapted the anti-viral agents used on Purity years ago. Only now she has developed them into a new virus. This one is completely hazardous to Purity."

We nod. "So, she seeks to change the Joined into Alones?"

Byers looked up. "No. The effects of the virus are so deadly that it will kill the human host as well as the Purity. For that matter, it could be toxic to a sizable portion of the Alone population as well."

The eyes of Dana Scully burned inside our memory. Yes, we thought. She could do this. She could unleash such a thing onto the world. Onto Sharon.

"So, you understand the situation?" Byers asked.

"Yes, sir. We do. We have to stop the High Priestess."

"Through any means necessary."

"Oh, for Christ's sake!" Mulder shouted. "Quit dancing around the obvious!

There is only one means we can use!" The bitterness in Mulder's voice sounded like the final curse of a dead man.

"We're talking about Scully here!" Byers shouted back. "If there is another way..."

"There is no other choice, Byers." Mulder's voice had dropped to a low hiss.

"I have to do what you did years ago."

Byers closed theiro eyes. Theyo leaned back, pressing clenched hands against theiro mouth.

"Why is it something *you* have to do?" we said quietly.

Mulder looked at us. The expression on his face reminded me of the High Priestess. He had the same overwhelming desire to command -- a desire that you couldn't resist satisfying.

"She and her followers are still in the Off-Zone," he said in a flat voice.

"Don't tell me that it's just a wasteland now. Even in a wasteland, there are places to live. She's there, ready to unleash the virus. You know when she's going to do that?"

"It has to be during the Two Worlds Festival," we said automatically as if we were answering a superior's question.

"And that's the day after tomorrow."

We cleared our throat. Was it that soon? we thought. We had completely lost track of time in Purity Control. "That's...that's not a lot of time," we said.

"It's time enough. I'll find her. You will come with me. It'll just be you and me on this assignment. This operation is best conducted with a small group. If we go in with a full blazing army -- as seems to be everybody's style nowadays -- she'll know we're coming and hide even deeper."

The words didn't seem to be coming from his mouth. It was as if Mulder had detached himself and allowed a stranger control over his body.

He stood up, his bony frame jerking itself straight. "We better start right now. Come on."

"No."

Mulder lifted his hand slightly as if he was going to slap us.

"We wish to tend to a few matters. Then we'll come with you."

He lowered his hand. Then he turned away and left the Oval Office.

"This world...is more than anybody can stand," Byers murmured.

"Yes, sir." We paused before saying, "What did Mulder mean when he said..."

"Someone I knew became an Error after the Joining," Byers told us.

"I...we...I had to put her to rest." That was all theyo would say.

We nodded, then said, "There are a few matters that need to be cleared up."

"Such as?"

"The Irregulars had a leader -- Prospero. Do you know..."

"Prospero never existed. He was just a myth created by Bosola as an inspirational tool." Byers shook theiro head. "A lot of people seem to be relying on myth nowadays."

"I see."

"Is that all?"

"One more thing, sir. There was an Irregular we knew. Her name was Miranda.

We would like to know what happened to her."

"Actually...we know exactly what happened."

**

Modern-day surgery leaves no scars. However, you could tell that an operation had been performed on Miranda. As she laid in the bed of her guarded cell, she seemed different than before. Her skin was still the same wan color. In fact, she looked even sicker than before, but now there was also the sense of...loss.

"They did something to my tumor," she said. "They haven't cured it. It's too far gone for that, but they put some kind of...barrier around it. My abilities are gone." She passed a hand over her forehead. "Of course, they could have just killed me. Or given me Purity."

That was the fate being met by all the Irregulars -- death or Purity. Other Alones still had an option. They could either accept Purity or be taken away to one of the new detention centers in Alaska. Some had decided to be Joined. Others still clung to their identity. We didn't know whether to admire the latter or not.

"Luckily, I have a friend in high places," Miranda continued.

"Who?"

Miranda smiled.

We sighed. "Miranda...Prospero doesn't exist."

"Oh, yes, he does," she insisted, still smiling. "I've seen him. He told me that he'll protect me."

We said nothing to contradict her.

"How are you, Arthur?"

"We are Joined again."

"Do you miss being an Alone?"

"We do. But I'm afraid that we have ended up hurting people close to us."

She reached out with one of her tiny hands. We held onto it.

"Just because you hurt them," she said. "doesn't mean they don't need you anymore."

We and she held hands for a long time.

Then we said, "We have to go now."

She pulled our hand to her lips and kissed it. "It's coming," she said. "The High Priestess still lives."

"Yes. She does."

**

After seeing Miranda, we went back to our house and to Sharon. We told thema what we were doing and why we were doing it.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" theya asked.

"What do you mean? Do you think we're not up to this?"

"No, no. We mean -- are you sure this Scully has the virus?"

We realized that we had not seen any concrete proof of the virus's existence. This mission was being carried out on the vague basis of the Representative's "sources." Yet we simply could not imagine Dana Scully's plan resolving any other way. It was the only truth that could fit with her cold words and cold eyes. And besides --

"We can't take the chance. Not with so much at stake."

"What about this Mulder? Does he believe that she is capable of this?"

"Yes, he does believe." That was the most convincing part of all. If Mulder could see someone who had been so important to him as a threat...if he could now see a friend as an enemy...if he was willing to do this...

"You should go then," Sharon told us.

We nodded. Then we asked a question.

"Do we what?

"Do you still need us?"

Theya looked down at the floor. "Maybe that's a question we should ask you," theya almost whispered.

We thought about Julia. We looked at the woman before us.

We placed a hand on theira cheek. This time, theya didn't flinch at our touch. Instead, theya pressed our hand tighter against theira face.

"We need you more than ever," we said.

**

As we and Mulder drove to the Off-Zone, we asked about our dreams.

"Is this important enough to talk about now?" Mulder replied.

"It's important to us."

Mulder rolled his jaw around, then said, "Your dreams happened because of Skinner."

"Skinner?"

"The man with the nanotechnology in him. Or, as the Church calls him, Walter the Sacrifice."

"I see. But what does it have to do with our dreams?"

"It was the one flaw in Scully's plan. When Skinner let the virus invade his body, it took over his very consciousness as well. The virus absorbed that as well as the anti-viral agents. The combination of all three resulted in the virus becoming the new biological entity that created the Joined."

"You mean...Purity's consciousness is Walter Skinner's consciousness?"

"Not exactly. Skinner's mind was the base element for the collective mind of Purity. His identity became diffused until what made Skinner got lost. Or mostly lost, as it seems."

"We've seen him. We've seen him in our dreams."

Mulder smiled, the last time we would see him do so for awhile. "He's still alive and kicking in there. But he's nothing more than a dream now."

"But why did we see him now?"

"It wasn't 'you' who saw him. Not the you that is both Arthur Rush and Purity. It was the Arthur Rush who had a few seconds with his own mind in this world before Purity overcame him. It was just a few seconds, but that's enough for anybody to create just a glimmer of his own identity."

We closed our eyes for a second. "The Chain Ceremony."

"Yes. When you let go of Purity for the Ceremony, you allowed Skinner to come into you."

"But how did that allow us to dream of Scully and Julia and all the rest?"

Mulder shrugged. "I don't know."

"Then how are..."

"I don't want to talk about it anymore. I don't want to talk about dreams or Skinner or anything else. I just want to finish this job and never see you for the rest of my few remaining days. Got it?"

**

We have worked with many skilled investigators, but none of them and them were as good as Fox Mulder. As he shifted through the ruins of The Off-Zone, clues seem to literally jump out at him. He tracked down the smallest signs and hints pointing to the location of the High Priestess. It was a bewildering and amazing thing to see. What we could only see as a chaotic mess, he could see as an exact structure. His guides through this structure were a sharp intelligence and an uncanny intuition. We would have admired the process more if it weren't for the distant, inhuman manner in which he performed his tricks.

The search continued throughout the day and into the next one. He didn't sleep. We, on the other hand, needed a few hours of rest. It wasn't just a matter of weariness. We just wanted to shut out The Off-Zone for awhile. The area was too depressing to behold now. Even in its previous ailing state, it still had life and vitality. Now, it was nothing more than charred rubble and streets where only soldiers walked, looking for any Alones who had escaped the crackdown.

So, for awhile, we slept.

We dreamed.

"Don't let that stupid bastard do something he'll regret."

"Huh?"

"That asshole used to go so far on faith. Where is that faith now?"

"But...what else can he do? Scully has become insane. She wants to destroy us and us all."

Skinner rolled his eyes. "Are you kidding? What's the one thing you've learned by now if anything?" He waited for our answer.

As we tried to understand what he was talking about, we felt a hand shake our shoulder. We were jarred out of our dream. It was just then that we realized the answer.

"Things are not always what they seem."

Mulder jerked his head back. "What?"

As if we were still asleep, we slowly said, "Things...are not always what they seem."

Mulder stood up straight. We looked up at him from the P.T. in which we had been sleeping. Behind him were a wealth of stars in the sky. In a few hours, tomorrow would be here and bring the Two Worlds Festival with it.

For a long moment, he just stared down at us as if our words had affected him. Then he said --

"I found her."

**

Part Twenty-Three

The hiding place was located in an underground storage room missed by the military. To reach it, Mulder and we had to go through a long network of tunnels. The tunnels were full of traps and alarms, but Mulder bypassed them all as if he had built them himself.

We and he eventually found a locked wooden door. One hit of an Entrance-Maker turned it to splinters.

We found three people in that room. They were surrounded by some of the discarded scientific equipment we had seen in the sanctuary of the High Priestess. Like before, they were arranged into abstract sculptures that glimmered in candlelight.

Alex the Traitor was kneeling before Julia. She was feeding him out of her hand. Both of them turned to the exploded door and stood frozen in shock.

An old woman sat at the far end of the room with her back to the invaders.

She didn't stir a muscle as Mulder and we strode in.

Mulder didn't stop to look at anything. He headed straight towards Scully without slowing down. He brushed against glass beakers, pushing them over to shatter on the floor.

When Julia and Alex the Traitor saw the gun in Mulder's hand, they almost charged at him. They halted when we got in their way with a Neutralizer poised to fire.

"Arthur, stop him," she pleaded. She had her own face now, a face that was crying.

We said nothing. We kept our eyes on her and Alex the Traitor. From the quick sound of Mulder's steps, we were sure that he would shoot her as soon as he was within touching distance. This was not something we wanted to see.

Mulder stopped.

We tensed ourselves for the shot.

We didn't hear it.

We slowly turned our head in their direction.

The old man stood over the old woman sitting on a rug. He had little tremors over his neck and the hand gripping the gun. The woman, on the other hand, could have been a statue. She waited for whatever he was going to do next.

He did nothing except stand there and shake in his clothes.

Finally, she turned and thoughtfully examined the gun. It was an old piece of weaponry with rust on it.

"I see you finally got a gun you didn't lose," she said.

We stared at that side view of Scully's face. We had expected the righteous anger of a prophet. Instead...

...she looked sad.

Tired.

Old.

She looked up at a man as sad, tired and old as she was. If you hadn't been at the Church on the night she shunned him, you would have sworn that this was the first time in years they had seen each other. In the space between their eyes, we saw the years of togetherness and the years of being separate. We saw all the nights they had spent dreaming of the other, whether in love or in hate.

Now, they were two people just facing each other, knowing they had a bond that everyone wishes for and knowing the price that such a bond exacts. He had the means to decide what that bond counted for.

He had the means, but he didn't have all the control.

"Why are you here, Mulder?"

He muttered something we couldn't hear. Scully could, though.

"I see. Do you believe that?"

He said nothing.

"If you believe it, then you should shoot me right now. If you believe I'm a monster, then kill me. Because if you don't follow your beliefs, then you have nothing."

Julia wept. Alex the Traitor pressed his head against the floor and beat at it with his hands.

Then, a change came to Scully's face. What we saw was something that could never been lost with the passing of youth. It negated all the scars of age and violence on her face. It was something that could survive even in this dark room located under a wasteland made by an unforgiving world.

She looked up at him with hope.

"But before you kill me, you should look at yourself. Ask if you are completely lost to despair. Is there any part of you that refuses to bow down to darkness? Are you just the worthless old man I said you were? If that's true, then please shoot me. Because I couldn't live in a world where Fox Mulder has given up for good."

The gun remained pointing at the ground.

Then it rose.

It lifted itself up to Scully's head. She leaned forward to let it press tightly against her withered skin. Mulder closed his eyes. She kept her eyes open.

Fear burst suddenly and hotly inside us. We wanted to rush forward, scream, shoot Mulder with the full force of the Neutralizer.

Yet, we could do nothing. We knew that it was not our decision to make.

That's because only Mulder could have given an answer to Scully's question.

And he did have an answer.

"I did give up."

He opened his eyes...

...and lowered the gun.

"But you didn't," he said. "I can't believe that you would."

Alex the Traitor looked up. Julia stopped weeping.

"I did give up," Scully said. "For awhile. But I have found a new way to go now. You have to believe me when I say that it's not what you've been told."

"I do believe. I..."

Mulder dropped to his knees. The gun clattered onto the floor. Scully had to catch him before he fell completely over. He hadn't fainted. He just no longer had the power to hold himself up.

We watched her hold onto Mulder. Her eyes were shining with a hope fulfilled.

We could have done the execution ourselves, then. Like Mulder, though, we now believed. We looked at this woman and knew that hatred had not overwhelmed her soul.

"Thank you," Julia said. "Thank you." Alex the Traitor said nothing, but smiled and placed his hands against his chest as he rocked back and forth.

Mulder pulled himself just far enough away from her so he could look into her blue eyes. "This changes nothing, I'm afraid," he said. "They're coming.

They probably put some kind of tracking device on Arthur. Isn't that right, Arthur?"

"Yes," we said. "we hadn't thought of that, but ...yes, they and they probably did." For some reason, we didn't feel concerned.

"Nowhere to run now, Scully. For both of us."

"But you'll be here when they come, right?" she said.

"I ain't going anywhere. That's a fact."

"Then let's just wait."

We and they all waited. In a few minutes, a whole platoon of troops had stormed into the hiding place. Their and their entrance smashed almost all the scientific equipment in the room. We, Julia and Alex the Traitor scurried to a corner to get out of their and their way. We tossed away our Neutralizer and held our hands up.

Mulder and Scully faced the invasion with no fear or concern at all. They looked completely at peace.

Neither did their mood changed when a gloomy Byers walked in after the troops had secured the room.

However, when the man in dark glasses entered, their eyes widened and they both let out the same obscenity at the same time with the same intense volume.

The man in dark glasses smiled and pulled two items from theiro pockets. We then realized what theiro scent was. We had smelt it before in the presence of Rebecca Sharp.

It was the odor of burning tobacco.

Theyo placed the cigarette in theiro mouth, lit it up and blew a puff of smoke at Mulder and Scully through theiro grin. "Hey, there. Miss me?"

**

Part Twenty-Four

Mulder and Scully got up to their feet, giving the man in dark glasses the look fighters exchange before a bout.

"We're flattered that you recognize us," the man in the dark glasses cheerfully replied. "We looked a lot older when you saw us. We *were* a lot older."

"I shouldn't be surprised to see you here," Mulder said evenly. "I would like to know how it's possible, though."

"Don't know? Well, then..."

Theyo made a motion to the troops. They and they quickly marched out of the room, but would be close enough to respond at a moment's notice.

"Here's a little hint. And a little secret just between you and us."

Theyo took off theiro glasses. We saw brown eyes -- brown where they should have been white. The brown color surrounded irises black as midnight.

The gloves were removed to uncover webbed hands. Beneath the hat were green scales on top of the smooth, bald head.

"Get it now? Or do you need more help?"

Mulder stared at the man and whispered, "Doctor Joe Ridley..."

"M-hm."

"You found his research notes."

"Stuffed away in an old bus locker, would you believe it?" The man blew out another plume of smoke and noticed our confused face. "We think the rest of the class needs catching up. For your information, Mister Rush, Doctor Joe Ridley was a pioneer in age-reversal experiments. Unfortunately, his research data was stolen by a man who was later shot by...well, guess who?"

Theyo pointed at Mulder with a flourish. "It was thought that the work had been lost forever, but after the Joining, we had a little more time to search for it. And with the benefits of Bio-Tech, we were able to complete the project."

Theyo looked at theiro hands. "The treatment requires the cells of a salamander. As you can see, there are certain side effects..." Theyo looked up and smiled. "But it's worth it to know your twenties again."

Mulder looked at Byers. The Representative turned away.

"Ah, you're not going to chew out Byers, are you?" the smoking man said as theyo put back on theiro dark glasses and hat. "Theyo are just being practical. You can't deal with Top Level unless you deal with us. In fact, we got just about every aspect of the Joined power structure under our thumb." The eyebrows lifted above the dark glasses. "And just to be safe, we control the opposition."

Byers turned sharply towards the smoking man. "What do you mean by...?" Then the realization hit themo like a sharp pain. "You're Prospero."

The smoking man exhaled another mouthful of soiled air. "Why should you squash rebellion when you can bend it to your own purposes?"

"You had the Irregulars kill Michener and White," we said, a little dizzy.

Maltese had been half-right. The Irregulars had been real, but they really had been a creation of Top Level.

"We had been suspicious about Michener and White. They and they...or we should say, they seemed different, somehow. A discrete medical check revealed their secret. Maltese escaped before we could find out about him.

And Armstrong...well, Top Level was nervous about The Gold House being revealed so we and we had it bombed. We guess that letting himself get blown up was Armstrong's way of protesting the decision. In any case, the Irregulars have been very useful -- giving the Joined a hate object and giving the Alones a vent for their anger. However, the time came when they had to be discarded. If we hadn't put an end to them, they could have become an actual rebellion."

"Just who are you?" we demanded.

"We're your history. That's all you need to..."

The screech didn't make the smoking man flinch. Nor did theyo react when Alex the Traitor charged at themo with his long dirty nails.

"Alex, no!" Julia called out.

Alex the Traitor gave no thought to her warning. He should have. The moment he touched the smoking man, his intended victim glowed with a white light.

The Aura extended no further than an inch around theiro body, so everybody else only received a momentary blinding.

Alex dropped to the ground with a wood-like thunk. His skin was stretched tight over his bones to the point of transparency. His eyes were gone and all his teeth were exposed. He had stiffened into his last murderous pose.

The smoking man looked down as if theyo had just noticed the body. "Speaking of history...hello there, Alex."

Julia covered her face. Byers turned away in horror. Scully closed her eyes and whispered words. Only Mulder's expression didn't change.

"In any case," the smoking man said. "all the holes have been sewed up and the thread is once again yours truly. That brings us up to the important matter at hand. Byers, would you leave now?"

"What?"

"It's time for the grown-ups to talk alone."

Byers trembled all over. "If you think that we're going to just step outside..."

"That's exactly what I think, John-Boy."

Byers just stood there and trembled, ready to hurl themselves at the smoking man as well. Then theyo heard --

"John?"

Theyo turned and saw the kind, forgiving expression on Scully's face. "Go," she said. "We'll be all right."

Theyo sent back a look that spoke of the need to do so much more. Scully just nodded in understanding. With defeat dragging at theiro body, Byers shuffled out.

"And you..." the smoking man said. "You're Julia, aren't you?"

She lowered her hands and looked hatefully at the smoking man.

"Funny. You don't look like a good enough fuck to make Joined become Alones."

"You'll never know otherwise," she snarled.

"Trust us, my dear. We know pleasures far better than what you can provide.

Would you mind following the Representative?"

Julia looked at Scully who gave her a nod as well. Julia went towards the door. She stopped to touch us on the hand. "Arthur, I..."

"Mister Rush will stay here," the smoking man told her. "Theyo have been involved in this matter so long that theyo are entitled to witness the final act."

We squeezed back her hand, motioning her to leave for her safety. She left, holding her hands over her elbows.

"Now," the smoking man said, stepping over the burnt corpse of Alex the Traitor. "let's get to the real business."

Mulder said, "You mean, you came here with a purpose other than showing you're the world's best-preserved asshole?"

"We came here for the virus."

Both Mulder and Scully showed the blankest expressions we had ever seen.

"Oh, we know all about that. We know that Scully was planning to release it tomorrow. We would like to have any available containers of it."

"Are you going to tell us you are acting in the public good again?" Scully asked.

"We couldn't give a shit about the public good. Arguably, we never did."

"So, why do you want it?"

"We've been considering whether or not to release it ourselves."

We took a step forward, ready to do...anything, we suppose. Anything to harm or stop this man. It was a reflex action on our part, arrested by the smoking man lifting a single finger in our direction.

"Don't be foolish, Mister Rush." Theyo dropped the finger. We made no further movement.

"Uh...I may be a little slow," Mulder said. "but isn't this virus supposed to be harmful to the Joined?"

"That's what we know."

"So, why would you..."

"Speaking for ourselves, we already have facilities that will protect us through any plague. As for everybody else... well, like we said, we're considering our options."

Scully looked at the smiling face and whispered, "Why?"

"You ask me that? You? The Origin herself? Oh, come on, Scully. When you realized that you had created a whole new species, didn't it give you an indescribable sense of power? And weren't you trying to wield that power again by wiping this species out?"

"But you want that power instead."

The smoking man tilted theiro head down in an almost bashful-looking way.

"We used...or I used to tell myself that I did all the horrid things in my past because of my duty to the whole human race." Theyo looked back up and took another puff of theiro cigarette. "We know better now. We just want power. And power is entitled to those who want it. The idea of reshaping the world for the seventh time...it's enthralling. We could start literally from square one and mold the future in our image. At the very least, we would have let you play out your little apocalypse and then taken control of the survivors. But now...now, the choice can be ours. We could let the Joined become the dominant species or allow the Alones to rise again. It's an opportunity not to be missed."

"You're not going to get the opportunity," Scully said. "You won't even be able to find the virus."

"Oh, we will. It's somewhere nearby, we know. Of course, you could just tell us where. Maybe you'll do it after we tortured...oh, I don't know...that Julia woman for starters."

The smoking man pointed at us. "And then themo maybe." Theyo jabbed Mulder in his chest, making the old man jerk back a step. "Mulder would be the next-to-last in line. You being last, of course, Scully."

Theyo held the cigarette parallel to theiro face, rolling it slightly in theiro hand. "So...how long is it going to take before you've realized we've won again?"

Mulder and Scully looked at each other.

They looked at each other for a long time.

Then Scully smiled.

Then Mulder smiled.

Scully chuckled.

Mulder chuckled.

In a few seconds, they were both roaring with laughter. It was probably the first time they had laughed in years. They probably never laughed that loud ever.

We found ourselves laughing with them because we had realized just what was so funny.

The only one not laughing was the smoking man. The smile was gone from theiro face. "What the hell...

"What...

"Shut up...

"What the hell are you laughing at...

"Stop it...

"I said, stop it...

"WHY ARE YOU LAUGHING?!!"

Finally, Scully had settled down enough to talk. Her face had become an agreeable shade of pink. Mulder was leaning on her shoulder, still laughing.

"We're laughing...we're laughing because there's a very good reason why you won't find the virus."

"What? What is it?"

"It doesn't even exist, you stupid son-of-a-bitch."

Mulder fell to the floor, laughing like a madman.

**

Part Twenty-Five

"You're lying."

"Oh, no, I'm not."

"Don't play games with us. We've seen the proof. Our sources found..."

"Your 'sources' saw what I wanted them to see. You got fed exactly what I wanted to stuff in your mouth."

The smoking man stared at Scully through theiro dark glasses. Then theyo looked down at Mulder still rolling on the floor.

Theyo turned away and walked to a corner. Theyo seemed to be thinking intently as theyo smoked. Scully let themo take theiro time. Meanwhile, Mulder and we had finally exhausted our laughter.

The smoking man tossed down theiro cigarette, stomped on it and turned to Scully. "All right. So, the virus is a fake. What is your church about anyway?"

"What you have seen of the church is only its front. Our efforts have gone into places you haven't looked."

"What does that mean?"

"You know about what we have been doing at the Gold House. What if I were to tell you our efforts have been much wider than that?"

The smoking man's mouth tightened. Mulder sat up and looked at Scully like a child hearing a great story.

"You must have assumed that Julia used the Gold House because it was the only place in D.C. where an Alone could perform her kind of subversion in secret. Right?"

"Now, you're telling us we were wrong," the smoking man mumbled.

"Very wrong. You think that Top Level had the only hiding place in the Joined community where people show their forbidden desires? There are a dozen other 'Gold Houses' in the D.C. area alone. Julia has been to most of them."

The smoking man sucked in theiro breath at the same time as us. Of course, we thought. It was ridiculous to think that we were the only one who been drawn into this new life. How many others had encountered the same doubts as we had? How many had the same dreams?

"It's not just dissension of the sexual kind. These secret places can just be where people speak ideas they don't express in public. They're rediscovering the past that Purity has thrown away. They're extending themselves beyond the confines of Joined thinking."

"So...you're saying that there are other Joined people who have become Alones."

"I didn't say that."

"But you said..."

"Armstrong was still a Joined when he died."

We could actually see one of the smoking man's hands shake. "Apparently," Scully said. "the 'psychology of the virus' can change. Armstrong had become something new. A Joined with the attributes of an Alone. He...or theyo...or whatever he was...Armstrong was not the only one like this. There are signs of these changes in other Joined people as well. I guess we'll have to come up with a new word for them."

The smoking man tore out another cigarette. Theyo shoved it in theiro mouth and tried to light it. "And just how many of these blessed rebels are there supposed to be?" theyo snarled.

"I don't know. I only know about the ones who have made contact with the Church. Undoubtedly, there are many more who have arrived at this point through their own means. All I know is...they're everywhere. All over the world."

The smoking man stopped trying to light the cigarette. Theyo just left it hanging ridiculously from theiro mouth.

"But a lot of them found the way to us like Arthur did. Through dreams."

"Skinner!" we exclaimed. "Skinner gave us these dreams. He led us to you."

Scully smiled and nodded. "Alive and kicking," Mulder said in wonder.

"That's the church," Scully told the smoking man. "The real church. Not some cult with grand dreams of the apocalypse. It's people who want their freedom. What you saw was just the cover. A distraction from our real efforts."

The smoking man pointed a trembling finger at Scully. "You knew all along.

You knew that we were Prospero."

"Oh, no. I didn't know it was *you.* But I did know the Irregulars were a pawn of some rat bastard." She tilted her head to the side. "Actually, it was perfect for our goals that you were Prospero."

"What do you mean?"

Scully walked right up to the young man. She reached up to theiro face and pulled the glasses off. Those lizard eyes stared back helplessly as she tossed away the glasses.

"You believed the story because you could imagine the worst of me. You could buy the idea that I would kill millions of people out of some religious delusion. You thought that all the shit in my life had finally broken me, right? All the shit *you* did."

The smoking man said nothing. Theyo didn't have to say anything. You could see the answer in theiro face.

"Well, you didn't break me. You understand me? You didn't...break me."

"No," the smoking man said. "You're lying. We know you're lying. You are planning something for tomorrow. We know that."

"As a matter of fact...I am. It's already been done." Scully turned and walked back to Mulder. "While you've been chasing after imaginary viruses, the Church has been busy with the culmination of its work." She looked back at the smoking man. "I won't tell you what it is, but maybe Miranda will."

"What about her?"

"Miranda hasn't told you, but she has been using her powers to infiltrate the Bio-Network. She's planted something in it...something buried so deep you won't be able to get at it."

"That's ridiculous. Miranda wouldn't do anything without telling us..."

"Why? Because you've made her dependent on you? Turned her into some kind of surrogate daughter?"

The smoking man looked away.

"Oh, I know all about it. You made her feel loved, but all the time you were just using her."

"But why didn't she tell me?"

"Because I told her not to. I told her of my doubts. She didn't believe me.

She said that once the work has been revealed in its fullness, you would understand and support it." She sighed. "Guess she's in for a revelation about you, isn't she?"

The smoking man stood there quietly for a long time.

Then theyo picked up theiro glasses and put them back on. "Well...it seems that we've lost this round."

"You've lost the whole fight, that's what."

The smoking man's smile returned as theyo lit theiro cigarette. "Is that what you think? Miss Scully, the fight is far from over. Unlike you, we've got a lot of years left. Whatever damage you've caused, we can fix it."

"I'm not talking about the future. The fight between us is over, the one that started when I first saw you in Blevin's office. We're through. This is it. I'm sure you'll find some way to keep on scheming and planning until the end of time. But let me tell you this -- you'll always find somebody in your way. And that person will always stop you.

"Now...say good-bye."

**

We looked up at the night sky, admiring its sheer vastness and the mysteries waiting there. We were standing outside on an Off-Zone street. With us were Byers, Julia, Mulder and Scully. The smoking man and theiro troops had long since left.

"I feel...very tired," Scully said.

"Then maybe you should rest," Byers told her.

"You, too."

"No. No, we're far from a rest." Theyo looked at Mulder and Scully. "We know we can't be forgiven..."

"Don't apologize, Byers," Mulder said. "What you've done is nothing compared to what I did. Or what I didn't do."

Mulder then held out his hand. Byers shook it.

Scully went up to the Representative and kissed themo on the cheek. "Good luck, Byers. I hope by tomorrow your job is easier."

"We know it will be. Thank you. Thank you for everything."

With that, Byers got into theiro private P.T., and theyo were driven away.

"So, what have you done?" we asked Scully. "What did Miranda do to the Bio-Network?"

"She left a message. You'll see it. Everyone will. Of course, Miranda is going to realize how she's been used..."

"We'll take care of her."

"Thank you."

"But I wonder who will take care of you."

"Ah, hell," Mulder said. "She doesn't need anybody. She's a real independent kind of gal."

Scully turned to Mulder. The two old people looked at each other.

"Got any place to stay?" she asked quietly.

"Not really."

She hooked her arm around Mulder's. "Come with me," she said.

"All right." Then Mulder turned to us and said, "I guess I'll be seeing you around, Arthur."

"Of course, Mulder," we replied, knowing we and he would never see each other again.

Scully said, "I don't know if all of this was worth it, but...we'll know by tomorrow. In any case, Mulder and I are done. Everything is in your hands now."

"Thanks for the trust," we told her.

She smiled at us and said, "I'm glad I have trust to give."

With that, she and Mulder walked away. We watched them until they were out of sight. Just before they vanished into the darkness, Mulder rubbed her bald head and said something. She slapped him on the arm.

That left us with Julia.

"You need to go, too," Julia murmured, not looking at us.

"Yes. I need to go home."

She nodded.

We took her by the hands. "You gave us something wonderful, Julia. It's just that...we didn't have to come here for it."

She lifted her head, looked at us and then smiled. "If you've learned that," she said. "then I have no reasons to be said."

She kissed us on the forehead. Then she walked away. We left The Off-Zone and never came back.

**

Sharon met us at the door. Theya waited for us to tell thema what happened.

Instead, we said, "You've had the dreams, too, haven't you?"

Theya crossed theira hands together behind theira back. "We didn't know how to tell you."

"Is there anything else you want to tell me?"

"Just that ...we were too ashamed to tell you how we really felt. How we felt when you touched us in the Chain Center."

We freed theira hands from behind thema and we kissed theira palms. Theya shivered, but it was not a reaction of disgust. We felt the same shivers as we kissed thema on the neck, on the cheek, on the mouth. Theira lips pressed back on ours.

Inside us and us, the blackness felt the same pleasure. And wanted to feel more.

**

Part Twenty-Six

If you had been watching a Bio-Imager at the time, you would have seen Co-Administrator Johnson giving a speech about "the great gift of Purity"

and "that wonderful day on which the Joining occurred." Suddenly, the image was scrambled and replaced by the face of Dana Scully. Of course, it didn't matter if you weren't watching Bio-Imagers. Anybody connected to the Bio-Network at the time got the same message, whether they were making a call or pulling up information. Even the great crowds at the Two Worlds Festival got to hear it. We only wish we could have seen the look on Johnson's face when theiro image was suddenly overtaken on the enormous Bio-Imagers placed on the stage.

She didn't speak for very long. Maybe two minutes at most.

She talked to everyone who had been in hiding -- the people who found their thoughts and needs not in alignment with the world. To everyone who thought they would have to remain in secret forever, she told them of the others who felt as they did. And their numbers are great, she said.

She told them of the importance of hope and the promise of change. You can make this a different world, she assured them. Just speak out and you'll find your voice is just one of millions.

Speak out so the world will know you.

She vanished.

And they did speak out.

**

The smoking man had rushed over the moment theyo got the word. Theyo found us and Sharon in Miranda's cell. Miranda was now wearing clothes Sharon had brought. She didn't look at the smoking man when theyo entered.

"What are you doing?" theyo snapped.

"We're taking Miranda away from here," Sharon said.

"You have no authority to do that," the smoking man told thema and pointed at the guards. "If you think they and they are going to let you go..."

"Get out of our way," Miranda said.

Theyo looked at her. She lifted her head to reveal the hatred in her eyes.

She said," 'Tis a villain, sir, that I do not love to look upon." Then she headed for the door.

The smoking man stepped aside. What else could he do? Miranda left with Sharon and us. We hazarded a look back at one of the most powerful people in the world.

Theyo looked just like Mulder did. Mulder without Scully.

**

There isn't much that needs to be told after this. Or maybe there's too much to tell. The world is changing in ways that are both frightening and joyous.

The Seventh Age has really ended after all.

Sharon and we have made a new home far away from D.C. Miranda spent her final days with us and us. We hope that she found some peace there.

We have decided to keep our Purity. So has Sharon. It feels like too much of us and us to let go. Other members of the Joined have decided to do the same. Some haven't. Both races and the Alones are creating history.

What else to say then?

We did have one more of those dreams. In it, we saw Mulder and Scully.

"I believed it, too," he said. "I had believed you had gone insane."

"In a way, I did," she told him.

"But you could never have been the monster they said you were. I only realized it at the very end."

"Well...I know why you believed it in the first place."

Mulder said nothing.

"When I saw you at the Church...I was still angry with you."

"Even though you were the one who ran out on me?"

"We've ran away from each other before, Mulder. The difference here was...one of us didn't come after the other."

Mulder nodded. "Right."

"But you did come. And you did it just in time."

"And I'm glad that I still had trust to give."

Scully smiled and placed her head on Mulder's chest.

"I thought you should see that," Skinner told us. "Just to let you know how they are."

"Thank you."

"So...I guess I better get going."

"Going?"

"Son, I died a long time ago. I should act accordingly. I stopped by one last time to let you know you did good."

"Thank you."

Skinner began to fade away.

"By the way," we said. "is this a happy ending?"

Skinner's smile hung in the air before it dissipated like fog in the sunlight. Before he was completely gone, we heard him say "Damn straight."

**

AUTHOR'S NOTES:

"It would be a kinder, loving world to die in." -- John Cale Two things to mention -- if you are missing any parts of this story, please let me know and I'll e-mail them to you. Or you could try www.xemplary.com for the whole story.

And I should now list all the songs mentioned in this story. Here's hoping I get them all --

"Reality Used to be a Friend of Mine" by P.M. Dawn; "Nowhere to Run" by Martha and the Vendellas; "Heart-Shaped Box" by Nirvana; "Up on Cripple Creek" by The Band; "Head Like a Hole" by Nine Inch Nails; "I Cover The Waterfront," which has been covered by a variety of people; "Blue Suede Shoes" by Carl Perkins; "Aenima" by Tool; "Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa" by Otis Redding; "Living for the City" by Stevie Wonder; "Fight the Power" by Public Enemy; "I Can't Stop Loving You" by Hank Williams; "It's Just the Motion" by Richard and Linda Thompson; "Bela Lugosi's Dead" by Bauhaus; "Hellhound on my Trail" by Robert Johnson; "I've Got No Time to Cry" by Iris Dement; "The Message" by Grandmaster Five; "Glory Days" by Bruce Springsteen; "Like a Sex Machine" by James Brown; "Concierto de Aranquez" by Miles Davis and Gil Evans; "Let's Go Crazy" by Prince; "Elevators" by Outkast; "Funny How Time Slips Away" by Al Green (though it was originally a Willie Nelson tune, I think); "I Believe to My Soul" by Ray Charles; "Yang: As Private I's" by P.M. Dawn; "Tutti-Fruitti" by Little Richard; "Shakin' Street" by MC5; "Anarchy in the U.K." by The Sex Pistols; "She Cries Your Name" by Beth Orton; "Roadkill" by Rickie Lee Jones; "I Got a Woman" by Ray Charles; "Atomic Dog" by George Clinton; "Doctor Feelgood" by Aretha Franklin That should be it. Oh, yeah. There's a reference to "Snoopy and the Red Baron" by a group whose name I've forgotten. And Stoddard quotes "What's the Buzz" from "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Time Has Come Today" by The Chamber Brothers.

Whew. Anyway, that's all good music. (Well, okay, excepting Andrew Lloyd Webber.) May none of it become faded memories.


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