Title: Belphegor's Prime
Author: prufrock's love
Rating: Strong R
Classification: Novel, MSR, Post-Colonization
Summary: When someone wrote Time Travel for Dummies, the guidebook should include a chapter titled "Love as a Form of Self-flagellation." Or "She's Your Touchstone, You're a Stranger." Mulder's old files documented time travel, parallel universes, and wormholes. Back in the day, he'd been a regular G-man with a hot partner, a hazy job description, and a plan to thwart an alien invasion. Then the world ended. Scully vanished. And none of his X-files offered any guidance on romance in a time of pleated pants and shoulder pads.
Spoilers: Through season 7
Disclaimer: Not mine; don't sue. This isn't intended for profit.
No archive permission is given except for Colonization Headquarters and Gossamer.
May 21, 1993
7 hours, 2 minutes remaining
Life could change course in an instant. When a stranger returned a smile or a suspect drew a weapon. When a child vanished without a trace. The moment a drugstore pregnancy test turned blue. Or a heart ceased beating. In that second, the world tumbled end-over-end until it came to rest orbiting a vastly different star. When a beautiful forensic pathologist had navigated the maze of service corridors in the basement of the Hoover Building and announced herself as his new partner, fate -- his, hers, humanity's - took a turn. But this wasn't the moment when Fox Mulder's life had changed; this was the mundane Friday evening beforehand.
Mulder loitered in an innocent land where everything seemed squarer, slower, and more cumbersome. Yet more formal and vibrant. The cars in the parking lot, a secretary's hair color and pantsuit, and the FBI agents' ties and the cadets' uniforms all looked like he'd applied the nostalgia filter to a photo on his iPhone.
Despite having survived 1993 -- Arctic brain worms, the Jersey Devil, and several close encounters of the third kind -- Mulder had somehow forgotten the era. In the early 1990s street corners still had telephone booths. Unlocking a car door required inserting a metal key into a lock. Everything was warm. People paused to exchange niceties. Nothing dotted the sky except clouds, stars, and the occasional jet trail. No one was immune to the Purity virus. The resistance's vaccine and implant research had been in its infancy. People still smoked cigarettes: in restaurants, in offices, in anyplace lacking a no smoking sign and an oxygen tank. The few individuals who had e-mail accounts paid for internet use by the minute. A dozen people in Vermont actually recycled, but everyone talked about recycling. Telephones, cameras, and computers were three separate devices, with only one of those considered portable by the general populace. People lived in blissful ignorance of the alien ships encroaching light-years away.
Mulder owned a 2009 Range Rover, and he'd driven an early 80s one during his time at Oxford. Which would have been less than a decade ago, if he'd been himself in this time stream. Still, as he sat behind the wheel of a 1992 model, fidgeting, he couldn't remember what all the buttons on the dash and radio did. With the windows rolled down -- literally: rolled -- the breeze smelled of fresh asphalt and mulch and honeysuckle. Whoever owned the SUV until forty minutes ago had set the FM radio to the Washington DC top 40 station. The speakers played a set-list of dead singers: Whitney Houston, Kurt Cobain, Michael Jackson, and Freddie Mercury. Mulder passed time by watching the back door of the pathology lab at Quantico while playing name the artist. At 7:18, the sun glowed just above the horizon. Few cars remained in the staff parking lot, but any curious passerby would see a clean cut, middle-aged Caucasian man behind the wheel of a luxury SUV with proper tags. Tall, slim build, clean-shaven, wearing a simple gold wedding band. Dark hair, dark eyes. He should list being invisible - or at least, unmemorable -- as a skill on his resume, but if need be, he could produce a valid Virginia driver's license with his year of birth blurred and an FBI badge with the same badge number as always. He'd owned the pistol in his shoulder holster since Clinton's inauguration. He wore the oldest tie, dress shirt, pair of suit pants and loafers he possessed, kept shifting in the driver's seat, and occasionally announced "Depeche Mode" at the radio.
Mulder couldn't cheat quantum physics, the Virginia Tech professor had promised. Not even with alien technology. The past was written and the ink dry.
Beneath Mulder's dark blazer, a blue Nautica button-up shirt he'd bought at Lazarus in 1997, and white T-shirt hung a small gold cross on a dainty chain. The necklace, he always wore, but today he'd tucked a Harry Potter Lego figurine in his pants pocket. As the dashboard clock reached 7:30 and the sun sank lower, he ran his hand over the little Lego bump high on his thigh, then the cross at the base of his throat. The clock made his heartrate quicken, and touching the cross still made his whole chest ache.
Mulder flipped down the mirror on the visor. His 48-year-old reflection had lines on his face and gray at his temples. He'd done the math. In 1993, Fox Mulder would have been 31, recently divorced, and in an exclusive relationship with a cabinet of X-files he'd discovered in the basement of the Hoover Building.
She'd be -- She was 29. Dana Scully was 29 years old, and an instructor at Quantico. The car she'd owned in 1993 remained parked in a space kitty-corner and a row over from where he sat. Monday morning, she'd meet with Section Chief Blevins and be assigned to the X-files to debunk Mulder's work. To be the relentless skeptic to his believer. Insist that the truth was observable, quantifiable, and replicable. Be a beacon in the darkness as he searched for the truth. Which she would do. Except for her abduction, she'd spend the next decade as his partner. But Scully didn't know that. As of tonight, she'd never met Fox Mulder.
He drew a deep breath, smacked the visor up, and told the radio, "Bryan Adams. 'Please Forgive Me.'"
The radio announcer agreed, and then enthusiastically announced a smash hit by R.E.M.
The Bureau shrink, drawing on six months of experience and a degree from a state university with a shitty AA basketball team, thought Mulder needed closure. The wet-behind-the-ears shrink probably meant closure in terms of putting a message in a bottle or something characters in a Nicholas Sparks novel did. Mulder thought it wise to steer clear of liquor bottles these days, and the closest he'd come to reading a Nicholas Sparks novel was once accidentally DVRing the credits of The Notebook.
Instead, Mulder visited 1993.
Mulder's therapist also thought Mulder was a normal G-man who'd lucked into a window office, a six-figure salary, a hot wife, and a rather vague job description. Mulder's role in saving humanity was beyond the shrink's security clearance.
A swath of yellow light spilled into the spring evening as the lab's fire door opened. The last three agents out of the building had been male. A safe bet: in 1993, most of the FBI had been male. Now, a small, slight female silhouette emerged. For a second, Mulder sat motionless. Not breathing. Not sure he believed his eyes. As if he'd poked a hole in space-time, risked everything, yet not truly expected to find her. Then, once the cool mist of certainty settled over him, his heart beat even faster.
He'd hoped for a boxy suit and high heels, but Scully wore green hospital scrubs and tennis shoes. She must have been doing autopsies this evening, not teaching. She lugged two cases - a giant 1993 laptop case and a soft-sided briefcase so heavy she struggled with it. Her hair, the shade of dark auburn she'd been born with, passed her shoulders and was pulled into a thick, low ponytail. Several strands had come loose from the elastic band. A gold cross glittered at the base of her throat. She didn't have on makeup, and if she carried a weapon, she had it in a bag.
He watched from the Range Rover like a love-struck adolescent as she opened the trunk of her Ford Taurus and hoisted both cases inside. Closed the trunk. Stretched her arms over her head, rolled her shoulders. She opened the driver's door and slid behind the wheel of her car.
The engine turned over, ran wincingly rough for about two seconds, then backfired and died. After that, her car wouldn't start at all.
Potentially because Mulder had the fuses for the ignition coil and the fuel pump relay in his glovebox.
She tried the key three times before she got out, looking frustrated. She raised the hood, propped it up, and inspected the engine with what Mulder knew was a fair amount of mechanical expertise.
His hand shook as he switched off the ignition and opened the door. To be at the FBI Academy after-hours, he had to be with the Bureau. Still, from a non-threatening thirty feet away, he called, "Do you-" but the words became a choked whisper. He cleared his throat, remembered to breathe, walked two steps closer, and tried again. "Do you need some help?"
When she turned and looked at him, he had to clench his teeth so he didn't cry.
"I don't know what's wrong," she called. "It's a brand-new car. There's no logical reason for it not to start."
He saw the breeze rustling her hair. The angry pink of her cheeks. She looked like a baby, but she looked like Scully. He sniffed. Blinked. Blinked again.
"This makes no sense," she announced. "It was running perfectly this morning."
Despite arriving at the intersection of Nirvana and Heartbreak, Mulder got his shit together enough to step closer and offer, "I might have jumper cables."
"The battery looks fine," she insisted, and resumed examining the engine. "The terminals are clean. The plug wires are tight, the air filter's clear." As he approached the car, she gestured to each area under suspicion in the manner he remembered from a thousand autopsies. "It isn't low on oil or out of gas, and I didn't leave the lights on." Her voice grew increasingly annoyed. "There's absolutely nothing wrong with this car."
He remembered, when William was born, how much he'd yearned to hold the baby. He'd seen it moving, heard crying, but Mulder desperately wanted to reassure himself it was alive and okay. Even though Scully was bleeding, even with a Lollapalooza of super-soldiers, it took everything Mulder had not to reach for his son.
Now, standing three feet away, not touching Scully was harder.
To him, his voice still sounded shaky as he said, "That's your verdict? There's no cause of death?"
She told the engine, "I'm a medical doctor. There's always a cause of death. You just have to know where to look and what to look for, A.D...." She twisted to peer at him. "or S.A.C?"
"Agent," he supplied. "Special Agent Fox Mulder."
"The profiler?" A shadow of puzzlement crossed her pretty face. He knew she'd heard stories of the VCU's golden boy. Boy being the key word.
She wiped her dirty palm on her pants leg, then extended a hand. "Special Agent Dana Scully. I'm honored to meet you, Agent Mulder. I've read your work, and I've heard a great deal about you."
Her palm and fingers felt warm. Real. As he grasped her hand, his mind chanted You have to let go. You have to let go. Still, the handshake lasted a second past perfunctory. Two storms blew inside him: one of effervescent joy, and the other, as her fingers left his, of searing loss. He covered that by quipping, "Hopefully you've heard I'm a brilliant, by-the-book guy adored by his superiors and fellow agents."
When she said dryly, "Well, I've heard brilliant," breathing got a little easier.
"Conducting your own investigation, forming your conclusions. Good work, Agent Scully." He shoved his hands in his pockets and nodded again. His palms were sweaty. Their shadows stretched across the asphalt and into infinity.
A young man's voice called, "Dr. Scully? Is something wrong?" from the edge of the parking lot. Two Quantico cadets wearing gray jogging suits approached. The taller of the wannabe G-men used his powers of observation to determine, "Your car won't start?"
Scully's tired, flustered air vanished. She squared her shoulders, faced her eager rescuers, and answered, "Everything's under control. Don't interrupt your run."
Ignoring her, they leaned over the engine. Scully stepped back from the car and crossed her arms unhappily. One guy seemed to know a little about auto mechanics; the other checked her windshield wiper fluid. As Mr. Mechanic investigated the same suspects Scully had, she got a barrage of questions: was she getting the oil changed and had the starter been acting up and was she sure she hadn't left the lights on?
"Very sure," she answered coolly. "Really, I'm fine."
Mr. Wiper Fluid said, "I don't mind," then glanced at Mr. Mechanic and amended, "We don't mind. Do you have a screwdriver, Dr. Scully?"
Scarlet, orange, and violet clouds filled the western sky, and Mulder saw her roll her eyes.
He gave her a sympathetic grin.
Her chest rose as she inhaled. "If you want to help, could one of you locate Agent Willis for me? Tell him I need him. If he's not in his office, check the firing range."
If Mulder recalled correctly, Willis's office and Quantico's firing range were as geographically distant from each other as Quantico allowed. Still, both young men's heads popped up like eager groundhogs with high-and-tight haircuts. "Sure, Dr. Scully. Will you be okay?"
Ten years from now, Dr. Dana Scully -- aided by her brilliant partner -- would develop the vaccine that saved 90% of the human population. While still breastfeeding. Then, she'd coordinate the World Health Organization's mass implantation of microchips, pull 36-hour shifts at the CDC during the invasion, and do what she could as a doctor against the famine, hypothermia, and vitamin D deficiencies during the Long Winter without ever missing an opportunity to boss Mulder around. He doubted she would descend into a crying jag over a non-functional sedan parked beneath a streetlight and dead-center on a secure Marine base. Still, to hasten the boys' departure, he offered, "I'll wait with her."
When he spoke, the cadets seemed startled. As if they'd just noticed him. Mulder wondered if this worked like being a ghost: people couldn't see him unless he wanted them to.
The shorter of the aspiring agents -- the one who checked the air filter, not the air conditioner -- looked familiar. In 1993, Mulder had given several lectures at Quantico; in all likelihood, they'd been in the audience.
The cadet said uncertainly, "Agent Mulder?"
Mulder felt an odd, visceral repulsion. A need to distance himself from the young men. Not a distaste; an unseen natural force compelling him away. A wave of nausea passed through his abdomen. From the cadets' expression, the same queasy, need-to-be-someplace-else sensation hit them, too. Mulder didn't move, but both cadets stepped back.
"Go find Agent Willis," Mulder urged.
"I'll- We'll-" Their eyes shifted to Scully. One said dully, "We'll find Agent Willis."
As they turned away, she said, "Don't forget the reading I assigned in class."
Neither responded. They jogged across the parking lot in step, not glancing back, like two Roombas with a common course. The nausea and the bizarre revulsion faded.
Mulder stepped closer to her car. "I think I passed Jack Willis leaving as I drove in."
That was a lie. He had no idea as to Willis's whereabouts.
Scully put her hands on her hips. "Not unless you drove in from upstate New York. Jack's on a fishing trip with his brothers." She rolled her head in a circle, stretching the muscles. Her neck popped. "In One Crazy Summer, when the Cub Scouts yell save him and wrap Hoops head-to-toe in bandages even though he's fine? That's what I'm trying to avoid here. Gallagher and Wilson mean well, but they're going to have my car up on blocks with the seats removed so they can check the battery."
Mulder said, "Ah," and nodded knowingly as he tried to remember anything about Hoops and One Crazy Summer. "Is Demi Moore in that movie?"
"Demi Moore is in everything. John Cusack? Curtis Armstrong? Bobcat Goldthwait?" she prompted.
Except for sympathy at a man answering to Bobcat for a quarter-century in order to earn a living, Mulder drew a blank.
"My sister likes John Cusack." She sighed and leaned against the fender. "The dealership's closed. I hate to call my dad. Regardless of what I say, he'll insist on driving all the way down here. He claims he sees fine, but Mom doesn't like him driving after dark."
"I can call a tow truck," Mulder offered, and as her lips parted, added, "which will take forever on a Friday night, I know. If you want, I could drive you-"
As if to thwart him, she announced, "I bet it's just a fuse."
"I-Uh- A fuse?"
"A blown fuse. I just have to figure out which one." He tailed her to the driver's seat, where she had the fuse panel open before he could think of a way to distract her. She leaned sideways, opened the glove compartment, and rooted through paper napkins, and registration and insurance cards. "Where is my owner's manual? Why isn't it in here?"
Her owner's manual was also in the glovebox of Mulder's stolen Range Rover. Without consulting the chart in the manual, he hadn't known which fuses made the fuel pump and ignition work, either.
Mulder put a hand on the roof of the car and leaned toward her. The car's interior smelled like her. Her soap, her shampoo and detergent. Of her skin: sunshine and warm lemons and freshly-bound books. "It's a new car. Are you sure they gave you a manual in the first place?"
"It had one when I test-drove the car at the dealership. Maybe the manual cost extra. The salesman did try to convince me Ford Motor Company considers tires an after-market option, like tinted windows and undercoating. Unless I wanted to drive it off the lot on four rims, he said he'd have to charge me an extra $400." Once she'd disemboweled the glovebox to prove the bulky manual's absence, she shoved everything back in and slammed it shut. "Damn it."
"I'm using my expertise as a profiler to predict you didn't fork over the $400."
"No." Her brows remained irritably close. "Since he had a picture of his wife and three children on his desk, I did mention that I'm a medical doctor and the stiffness in his fingers and wrists was a potential sign of advanced gonorrhea. Often asymptomatic in males for years, but highly contagious to their partners."
He chuckled nervously. "Isn't that a direct violation of your Hippocratic Oath?"
"I just said it was a sign." She gave the edge of the steering wheel a displeased smack. Then she peered up at him. "Do you ever feel like the world's out to get you, Agent Mulder?"
It shouldn't, but his belly fluttered a little. "More than you could possibly know, Agent Scully."
She sat back in the driver's seat. After a couple seconds of consideration, she said, "I'm not calling Dad. I'll get a ride to the train station, and then I'll take the Metro back to my apartment. Tomorrow morning, I'll call AAA or the dealership and sort this out."
"The train?" Public transportation to her old apartment meant a commuter train from Quantico, then either a taxi or the Metro and a long walk to her apartment. Two hours on a good night. Especially unpleasant carrying an overloaded briefcase and a 15-pound laptop. "Where do you live?"
"Baltimore? Seriously?" He gave her a perplexed look. "Are you a masochist or going for some commuter world record?"
"Yes and yes. I'm subletting. Med school loans," she explained.
Her eyes scanned him quickly and with a trained observer's thoroughness. He saw her note his wedding band. He wouldn't have described her demeanor as flirtatious before, but he noticed a slight cooling. Which boosted Mulder's middle-aged ego immeasurably.
In response, he sighed like he did when a kid announced at 8 PM that they needed poster board or cupcakes for school the next morning. "That's a bad neighborhood." That was true even in 1993; in 2010, Cherry Hill, like much of America, was a wasteland of gangs, vagrants, empty HUD apartments, and abandoned strip malls. He looked past her and at the low office building. "What if-"
"I'll be fine."
"You're sure?" He stepped back and continued sounding paternal. "If you want to wait, I'll drive you. It's no trouble."
"No, I'm fine. Thank you. I'm gonna call security and have them give me a lift to the station."
"Okay. I'll be inside if you change your mind." He backed farther. "Dr. Fleischer's office. Or his lab, or whatever. This is the forensic pathology building, right?"
She shook her head. "Dr. Fleischer's gone."
Mulder stopped, feigning disbelief. "You're kidding me."
"No. He left at 4:30." She put one foot out of the dead Taurus. "He leaves every day at 4:30."
"The secretary said he always works late."
She had two feet on the pavement. As much as he wanted to fool her, it bothered him how easily he could. The woman who'd spent years as his partner would have smelled a rat. This woman told him, "In our department, we use Dr. Fleischer works late as a euphemism for drinks himself into a stupor."
Mulder flung an angry hand skyward. "I got a babysitter. I drove all the way down here. What the hell am I supposed to do about my case?"
Keys jangled. She was out of the car and walking toward him. "I'm a forensic pathologist who's obviously not going anywhere anytime soon. Is there something I could help with?"
"No, it's-" He shook his head irritably. "There are these files- The X-files. Unexplained, paranormal crimes. I have an assailant who appears to have entered a locked room via a 12-inch wide ventilation shaft, removed the victim's liver, and left behind bizarrely elongated fingerprints. The tech who lifted the prints estimated a hand span of 18 inches."
"That's impossible. The widest human hand span on record is 13 inches."
"Of course it's impossible," he responded, scowling, "and that's not even the weird part. That's why I need to talk to Dr. Fleischer. Blevins said Fleischer's been head of forensic pathology for decades."
She stopped in front of him and crossed her arms. The top of her head reached his chin, and her blue eyes scanned his face. "What's the weird part?"
He sighed and tipped his head to one side. "No. When you think guys are lying to you, you convince them they have the clap."
"I promise I won't diagnose you with gonorrhea without a proper swab. What's the weird part?"
He hesitated again. Fiddled with his wedding band. Then relented. "The pattern is seven victims in the course of a few weeks, each found dead in a locked room with their liver removed. I did some checking. There were 7 identical murders reported in 1963 and 1933 and-"
"That's an extremely long latency period," she interjected. "The assailant had to be incarcerated or institutionalized or in some way prohibited from killing."
"Oh, I'm still not to the weird part." He looked down at her. "Seven murders in 1963 and 1933 and in 1903. I had to stare at microfiche for hours, but there were seven murders within two weeks, locked rooms, liver extracted, same neighborhood, in April 1903."
She formulated a scientific explanation in milliseconds. "Familial serial killers aren't without precedent. The Bender family -- a mother, father, adult son, and adult daughter -- murdered more than a dozen visitors to their inn. The González sisters lured 91 individuals into their Mexican brothel over a period of 15 years. Pietro Pacciani murdered 16 individuals in 30 years. Richard Biegenwald, Ali Asghar Borujerdi, Karl Denke, and Caroll Cole," she listed, "were serial killers active for decades before being apprehended."
Mulder furrowed his brow, now puzzled rather than displeased. "What's a-" He pronounced the word slowly and uncertainly. "-serial killer? Is that what you think this is? An old guy with a pathological hated of Honey Nut Cheerios?" He held up his hand, fingers splayed. "Who needs really big gloves?"
She ducked her head sheepishly and tucked some loose strands of hair behind her ear. "Agent Mulder-"
"No, no. You're on to something." His wide-eyed eager act started losing ground to laughter. "Do you think he puts the livers in his Honey Nut Cheerios, Dr. Scully? Maybe with a banana? Some potassium to cut the taste of the bile?"
Her shoulders and breasts jiggled as she chuckled. "All right. You've made your point. I'm a medical doctor, not a profiler." The crimson sky was beautiful, but her smile would have stolen the show from the most glorious sunset. "However, a father-son team with Marfan syndrome is a logical conclusion. Tall, slim, long-limbed individuals with large hands and hyper-flexible joints. It's an autosomal dominant disorder with a 75% heredity rate but an average expected lifespan."
An egg couldn't be unscrambled. The Virginia Tech professor had likened time travel to pushing pause on a movie to study the scene. Mulder could spectate, even zoom in, but the plot didn't change. As soon as he left 1993, Scully's car would start and her memories of Fox Mulder would begin as they always had. Some yuppie would find his Range Rover in a commuter lot off I-95 where he'd left it. Provided this pinhole in space-time didn't hiccough and scatter Mulder's atoms throughout the universe, in a few hours the wormhole closed, leaving no imprint of his presence. Scientifically, time travel involved a hella-lot of risk, all worth it to see her expression, one last time, when he announced, "The prints from the 1903 crime scenes and the prints from this year match perfectly. It's the same individual."
The white skin on her forehead crinkled as if she thought she'd heard wrong. Her lips pursed. Her head moved backward and took on a skeptical angle. An eyebrow rose. She held her car keys in her right hand, but raised the index finger to stipulate a scientific fact. "Your killer isn't 130 years old, Agent Mulder. The oldest human male on record died at 114."
"Maybe he's a spry 130." He bet she still yearned to inform him how many foods supplied more potassium than a banana. "Or he's cheating. Those 30-year periods: aren't there Russian peasants who fall into something akin to hibernation?"
She, of course, rattled off, "The inhabitants of the Russian Pskov district do fall into a sleep-like stupor during the winter to conserve energy, but they don't truly hibernate. Humans can't hibernate. If our metabolism slows that much, our bodies cool, build up excess calcium, and we suffer cardiac arrest. Even if -- for the sake of argument -- your killer could somehow withstand a body temperature of less than 28-degrees Celsius for an extended period, humans lack any mechanism to trigger the energy necessary to re-warm our bodies. If paramedics pull a drowning victim from an icy lake, in the ER I can raise his body temperature, perform CPR, and with medication maybe get the heart beating again, but the victim can't do that for himself."
Again, his heart both ached and threatened to explode. That probably had to do with calcium.
"Agent Mulder, your serial killer isn't a centenarian with some bizarre mutation that allows him to hibernate for decades."
"Who loves liver and onions." He held up his hand again. "And really big gloves."
"Show me the casefile."
"I- I-" He glanced back at his vehicle. The dome light glowed; in his haste, he'd left the door ajar.
Her lecture continued. "The fingerprints only prove the fingers were present at the crime scene. I can fingerprint a conventionally embalmed body years after burial. I can rehydrate mummified tissue with glycol and lactic acid, softening the fingertips. In a bloated body, injecting saline plumps the fingers, or I can remove the finger skin and mount it on a slide to get a fingerprint. I have a horizontal ink roller, finger straighteners, printing spoons, bone sheers... If a corpse has skin, I can get a print."
His abdomen fluttered again. "Is that on your business card? If it has skin, I can print it?"
She stepped closer. "Had you considered that a grandfather committed the first murders in 1903, then in a macabre family ritual, his son and grandson carried on his legacy after his death, preserving his fingers and wearing them to commit the subsequent murders like-" She raised her hand, fingers splayed. "-really big gloves?"
She had a rebellious streak and Mulder could be self-absorbed, so they'd done things a little out of order. The first time he realized he loved her, she'd been six month's pregnant and mid-autopsy at 3AM in the funeral home of some Podunk town. She'd taken her time in reciprocating his affection. They'd gotten married only after William was born. Mulder tried not to play the mental coulda, shoulda game. Sometimes he succeeded. Now, though... The parking lot held his borrowed Range Rover, her new Ford, and an early 80s wood-paneled station wagon. The streetlamp overhead flickered on. Every window of a distant dorm showed the silhouette of a cadet at a desk, pouring over books and notes. Mulder had been one of those eager J. Edgar Juniors, once. So had Scully. They'd sworn fidelity, bravery, and integrity. This was their homeland. Where they'd begun, what started them on the path to the people they'd become. Now, he took a deep breath and looked away, like he did when he found his gaze lingering too long on a nineteen-year-old college co-ed.
From the corner of his eye, he saw her lower her hand. Her chest rose. She said, "Let me see the file, Agent Mulder," in an amiable tone, as if trying to persuade him.
He glanced at the SUV again, though Eugene Victor Tooms' file was in 2010, not the Range Rover. "I don't have it," he admitted. "I remember, though. Every detail. I can tell you anything that's in it."
"No adult has ever demonstrated a truly eidetic memory under scientific conditions." She sounded skeptical.
"I remember everything. Always have, always will." He felt as if the layers of him had started to peel away, exposing increasingly tender skin. "You wanna put me under a microscope or you wanna help me catch a liver-eating, 30-year-hibernating contortionist wearing his grandfather's clown gloves?"
Three seconds of silence passed. Mulder was studying his ancient Hush Puppies loafers when her voice said, "Hibernating animals do live about 30% longer than others, possibly because of less exposure to predation and starvation."
He nodded. "Good to know. You want a ride, Agent Skeptical?"
"To the train station?"
He put his hands in his pockets, curled the fingers into fists, then looked at her. "My kids are at their grandmother's house in Baltimore." He jerked his chin toward the SUV. "Get in. You can quiz me and call me crazy for 75 miles."
She responded by closing the hood of her car and opening the trunk. Mulder transferred her laptop and bulging briefcase to his vehicle. When he slid behind the wheel, she sat in the passenger seat. Like she had ten thousand times. They could have been on a case or heading to the house or going for pizza. The invisible knife filleted another long strip from his soul.
He shook it off and, without thinking, put his palm on the center of the steering column. In 2010, the WHO microchip implanted in his upper arm kept him from dying of cancer; the Apple chip in his right palm unlocked doors, paid for gas, and held his medical records. When the Range Rover didn't start, he remembered the old tap-the-gas, turn-the-key technique.
Scully fastened her seatbelt, seeming eager to get on the road.
As the engine idled and the storm continued inside him, he studied her. "Where's your weapon?"
She blinked. "In my briefcase."
"Which I just put in the back seat, out of your reach," he reminded her. "You haven't seen my badge. You've never met me. The only proof you have that I'm Fox Mulder is two cadets I could have easily paid twenty bucks to pretend they know me." His words were clipped. "Your new car won't start, I'm waiting in the deserted parking lot, and now you're alone in a vehicle with me? How do you know I didn't disable your car?"
Her lips parted wordlessly.
"Tell me you forgot something in your office," he ordered in his dad voice, "and go inside, call a neighbor, and tell them you're in a 1992 charcoal Range Rover, Virginia tag 65P JR2, and should arrive home in a little over an hour. If not, they should call the police. Then get your holster and put it on in case I'm some necro-maniac who wants to keep your fingers in his freezer. Jesus, Scully -- what are you thinking?"
Three puzzled lines marred her forehead. "Are you a necro-maniac?"
He got his emotions in check. "No. Just an FBI profiler and the father of a tween girl." And a guy who loved her. Always had, always would.
She obediently unfastened her seatbelt, leaned between the seats, unzipped the top of her briefcase, and retrieved a revolver in a paddle holster. She clipped her weapon to her waistband and buckled up again. "What's a tween?"
"A kid between 10 and 12. A pre-teen."
"Oh." She seemed to wear the holster to appease him rather than herself, and gave no sign she intended to return inside to call anyone. "Did you disable my car?"
"Yes," he admitted. "That's my thing. I leave my kids and drive 90 minutes, claiming I'm trying to solve a crime but really just to chauffeur you around for the next few hours. Also, I'm from the future."
"So you know what happens on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine?"
"Sisko saves the world and joins a non-linear timeline." Mulder put the vehicle in gear. He pulled out of the parking lot and onto the windy, narrow road, toward the front gate. The first stars appeared in the eastern sky. He could navigate Quantico blindfolded, but the evening seemed darker than usual. Maybe his night vision was going. He did the mental math on, from Scully's standpoint, whether he was closer to her father's age or hers.
When the road straightened, Mulder covertly studied Scully's profile as she looked out the open passenger window. The breeze blew the strands of her hair that had worked loose again.
"While I have you hostage, I have another case I wouldn't mind an opinion on," he said conversationally. The radio played Sting, "If I Ever Lose My Faith in You." "Do you know anything about math?" he asked the woman who wrote a thesis disputing Einstein. "Something called Belphegor's prime number?" He raised a hand to his shirt pocket, where he'd tucked the old notecard. "I found-"
"Lights," she responded.
He turned his face toward her again.
"Your headlights," she clarified. "It's getting dark. Don't they have headlights in the future, Agent Mulder?"
"Yeah," he said sheepishly. He turned the knob. The pavement, bushes, and signs became more visible. "But they run on Apple software and cold fusion."
5 hours, 50 minutes remaining
Back when the X-files were called Unexplained Phenomenon and filed under U, a man arrived at the Tokyo International Airport carrying a suitcase and a passport from his homeland of Taured. In 1954, dozens of officials and passengers witnessed the confusion as the man attempted to board his flight. They said he seemed perplexed by the immigration officials' questions, and he claimed the country of Taured had existed between Spain and France for the past 1000 years. His driver's license was also issued by the non-existent nation of Taured. Unsure how to proceed, Japanese officials collected the documents and detained the man overnight in a guarded hotel room. According to the file, the next morning the man from Taured had vanished, along with his passport and driver's license.
Another century, another file: in late 2000, as the world wide web became more than a novelty, a Florida soldier named John Titor had conducted an extended Q&A regarding the year 2036 on an internet bulletin board about time travel. Working on the same logic as Kirk and Spock jumping back in time to retrieve a humpback whale, Titor claimed he visited the past to retrieve an IBM 5100 computer to debug future programs. His secondary mission: prevent a future in which the US descended into civil war, the Y2K bug caused chaos, and people either returned to an agrarian lifestyle -- as his family had -- or froze to death after WWIII. As early as 1998, Titor faxed similar warnings to an AM radio show, and his internet posts ended abruptly in 2001. Some postulated John Titor accomplished his mission and went home, while others adhered to a many-worlds theory, claiming Titor traveled from a future that never existed for their timeline in the first place.
If the accounts were credible, neither time traveler adhered to the rules as Mulder understood them. Quantum leaps weren't accidental. They took energy -- a lot of it. Nothing in the past or future could be altered. Nor could Mulder remain in 1993. In a few hours the StarGate closed, sling-shotting him back to 2010. But there wasn't a Time Traveling for Dummies book, and the research, like everything taken or retro-engineered from the alien ships, was highly classified. Volunteers had returned to the present impaled or frozen or scrambled. Or never returned at all. When the government scrapped the project, a Virginia Tech professor secretly relocated the lab to the basement of his vacation cabin and tweaked the technology. A chrono-crime was the sort of treason Mulder got paid to know about, of course. With the upgraded time travel chamber and an alien flux capacitor the professor hadn't returned to DARPA, Doc Brown started sending pets back to WWII and the Jurassic Era. Frenchie the bulldog survived The Blitz and the T-Rex. After Mulder filled the guy's alien technology wish-list last week, the professor claimed he'd witnessed Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech on Monday then hopped back to see Josephine Baker perform in Paris on Tuesday afternoon.
Maybe for John Titor and the man from Taured, quantum physics worked differently. Maybe their technology was homegrown rather than alien: barely comprehended by the best scientists and basically Klingon to Mulder. Or maybe the old stories were hoaxes. He didn't know. From Mulder's perspective, he left the kids with Grandma, drove to the mountains, stepped into a humming sphere designed by Dr. Frankenstein, and emerged in 1993.
To take Scully to dinner at Subway. And explore true love as a form of self-flagellation.
When someone wrote that Dummies time travel book, there should be a chapter about romantic entanglements. Call it "She's Your Touchstone; You're a Stranger." Or "Missing the Person Right Next to You." Maybe "How'd You Think This Was Gonna Feel, Buddy?"
Except for the handshake earlier, he hadn't touched her. He kept the conversation casual and about work. He used a turn signal. He didn't sing the lyrics of "We Didn't Start the Fire" when the song came on the radio, like they used to. He remembered to ask where she lived, though he knew the way by heart. When her belly growled, he suggested dinner and she pointed at an exit ramp. Fortuitous, since Mulder felt a little dazzled by all the cheery billboards and brightly-lit restaurants and buildings. Hell, he marveled at a well-maintained highway system, a 70-degree May evening, and being able to see entire constellations at once. He'd panicked momentarily at the prospect of using 2010 currency to pay for 1993 sandwiches, but Scully beat him to the cash register. A nice gesture in exchange for a ride home. Just two recently acquainted FBI agents helping each other out. He drove; she bought sandwiches and spouted science.
The chambers of his heart were opposing tectonic plates. Sometimes -- for ten, even fifteen minutes -- the plates played nice. Sometimes they ground against each other. Sometimes, he looked at her and California risked falling into the sea. All the while, the visceral aversion he'd experienced with the cadets at Quantico, earlier: he felt the opposite for her now. He wanted to embrace her, surround her, be inside her. Even for a second. He wanted that contact the way a junkie wanted heroin.
His private emotional rollercoaster detracted from his roast beef sub.
Mulder sat down across from her at a picnic table outside the restaurant before he realized he'd bought three cookies in addition to his sandwich. He always did that, at least in the future. Two chocolate chip to take home to the kids; one oatmeal raisin to split with her. Dana Scully was the only person he'd ever known who liked cookies with raisins. On his own, Mulder shared the kids' preference for chocolate chip.
Behind Scully, traffic whizzed down the interstate. Nearby, rows of tractor-trailers idled in a huge lot behind a gas station. He remembered an abandoned Fotomat kiosk dotting the north end of the lot, but either he had the wrong exit or the kiosk had been torn down. The moon was a silver sliver. The air smelled of fresh-baked bread and cigarettes and exhaust. She ate; Mulder held his sandwich and tried to memorize every molecule of her face while avoiding looking directly at her.
Maybe that chapter on unrequited love in the Dummies time travel book could be "Waiting for a Boat at the Airport."
He shook it off, took a sip from his paper cup of soda, and then pushed his food aside. "That number I asked you about earlier- Belphegor's prime. What-"
He didn't get to finish his sentence. She swallowed a barely-chewed mouthful of food and informed him, "It's a palprime. A palindromic prime. A prime number is divisible only by 1 and itself, and a palindrome means something is the same backward as forward, like the word madam or kayak."
"I went to Oxford," he responded. "I know about palindromes and prime numbers-"
"Did you know the longest palindrome in the English language is tattarrattat, an onomatopoeic word James Joyce devised for a knock on a door?"
Mulder did know that; she'd shared that trivia in 1995 and worked it into casual conversation several times over the years. He shifted on the hard bench, put his elbows on the table, and asked, "What would Belphegor's prime number mean to someone like you? A scientist?"
She took another bite, seemed to consider, and shrugged.
"A 1 followed by 13 zeros, then 666, another 13 zeros, then 1," he prompted.
Once her mouth was empty, she asked, "Is that really Belphegor's prime? I always wondered. A degree in physics and then Stanford Medical School, and no one would ever tell me."
He smirked. "You're not over my Honey Nut Cheerios crack, are you?"
She held up a hand, fingers splayed in imitation of Tooms' alleged clown gloves. "Are you allowed to tell me any other secret numbers, Agent Mulder? Pi or Napier's constant? The golden ratio?" Her sarcasm was razor sharp. The flirtatious little smile after her words: able to launch a thousand ships.
"I- You-" He needed Scully to like him. Trust him. That's all this is. A means to an end. Mulder glanced at his wedding band, shifted again, cleared his throat, and said, "We'll talk about it when you're older. We keep all the mathematical constants in the Restricted Section at Hogwarts with the other dark arts books."
"In the what section at where?"
"Let's agree we're both very smart. Our children will be intellectual giants with your freckles and my baseball ability." Their children had neither her freckles nor any interest in baseball. He took a breath. Keeping his voice steady, he said, "A woman disappeared. A doctor. A scientist, like you. Kids at school, groceries in the fridge, no sign of a struggle. Just gone. Her husband found this." He produced a notecard from his shirt pocket and set it on the table. The cardstock had yellowed and the blue lines faded. In Scully's neatest handwriting across the center of the card was 1000000000000066600000000000001. "Does that mean anything to you?"
She barely glanced at the card. "No." After a second, she added, "The script is probably feminine."
He moved it closer to her on the table. "What if you were younger? You- She must have written this years ago."
When she shook her head, the tectonic plates in his chest squared off again.
"Think," he insisted. "There must be something you can tell me."
"Agent Mulder, Belphegor's prime has more cultural than mathematical significance. It's one of the beastly primes, since 666 is said to be the mark of the beast. In Revelations chapter-"
"I know the verse in Revelations," he interrupted. "I know Belphegor was one of the seven princes of Hell. He tempts the lazy with elaborate, seemingly magical devices. I know priests caution against looking too long upon beastly prime numbers, and I know the woman who disappeared would think that's bullshit. I've had this number converted to ASCII characters and run through computer cyphers. I've tried binary and medieval chromatography. I've consulted the best cryptographers in the world, and now I'm asking you. What does Belphegor's prime number mean to you? To Dana Scully?"
She hesitated long enough to give him hope. It had been a secret code she'd used with a childhood pen pal. Her junior high library card number. The password for admission to the girls' undergrad math geek clubhouse. Something about her life that, even after sixteen years, Mulder didn't know.
When she said apologetically, "I'm sorry," the San Andreas Fault gave way, causing a tsunami of pain. "Is there another case I could help you with?"
"You're sure?" he said hoarsely.
"Agent Mulder, scientifically, it's not-" Again, she paused. "Consult someone with expertise in the occult. Doomsday religious fanatics are fascinated with the number 666. Though, in the oldest surviving manuscripts, the number of the beast is actually 616."
Mulder stared past her, at the lot of idling semis. He'd wanted to sit outside in the warm evening. Remember how the world used to look: alive and bustling. Now, he saw the trucks but the sound of the engines was oddly muted. On the highway, the car headlights formed silent psychedelic streaks. Everything seemed hollow and far away.
A hand touched his, the fingers cool, the palm warm. "Agent Mulder-"
He looked down. Then at her.
"I can make some calls," she offered. "I know a few-"
The evening breeze sent the old notecard spiraling off the table and into the weeds. Mulder didn't go after it. Skinner, the professor, the police detective: everyone was right. It was just mislaid debris. A mathematical curiosity she'd jotted down for some college quiz and long forgotten. No more meaningful than her old to-do lists or datebooks or lab notes. Scratch that: The National Archives requested her lab notes. It was Mulder who saved the to-do lists and datebooks.
"Agent Mulder," Scully's voice repeated.
He pulled his hand away, stood, and got up from the picnic table. As one of the tractor-trailers lurched forward, the driver sounded the horn. Fists clenched, Mulder considered drawing a weapon, chasing down the trucker, and pistol-whipping him. Shooting a man for blowing a horn seemed excessive. Not that it mattered. Nothing Mulder did in 1993 mattered. In less than six hours he'd still wake up in 2010. Alone.
There'd been no ransom note, no sightings. Like Samantha, Scully had vanished without a trace. Aliens couldn't have taken her; the colonists were as dead as their spaceships. The consortium hadn't abducted her, either. Mulder was the consortium.
Behind him, he heard fabric slide against rough plastic. Then light footsteps. When Mulder looked, Scully had retrieved the old notecard and brought it to him.
The cardstock fluttered in the wind. Strands of hair blew around her face. She repeated, "I'm sorry."
"Hugging a Cactus." Another excellent chapter title for that Dummies book.
An employee inside the Subway restaurant locked the front door, closing for the night.
When Mulder didn't move, Scully tucked the notecard in his shirt pocket. "We can't solve every crime, Agent Mulder." She lowered her hand but remained close. "They teach us that on day one at the academy."
He meant to nod. Maybe he did.
He felt the heat from her body. The warm breeze. Behind her, headlights blurred and hookers worked the trucks in the parking lot. Overhead, a hundred stars sparkled against the blackness of space. In the future, alien ships still pockmarked the sky, the lingering exoskeletons of a failed invasion. Beneath that, 2010 looked like mankind had retrieved it from an Arctic scratch and dent bin, and set it outside to thaw.
"You can't save the world," she told him.
He continued watching the distance. "You can. You will."
"Well, that remains to be seen."
"Not true," he answered. "I'm from the future, remember?"
She crossed her arms. "Agent Mulder, time travel's scientifically impossible."
If he'd lean down, he could kiss her. He suspected, if he did, she wouldn't object. He knew how her mouth would taste, her lips would feel. How her breathing would quicken. He knew how it felt to make love to her, to wake up next to her. And he knew how it felt to live without her.
"Love as a Form of Self-flagellation." That was the chapter title. Final answer.
"Being impossible doesn't mean it can't happen." He sighed and took a step back. "I have a case in which a terminal brain tumor appears to give a man the ability to psychically push his will onto others. Scientifically-" He drew out the word. "-that's impossible, Scully."
She turned toward the restaurant. The interior was dark. On the battered picnic table chained to a cement slab out front, her sandwich lay half-eaten and his untouched. "Technically, can't happen is the very definition of impossible."
"Robert Patrick Modell -- a guy underwhelming in every way - escaped FBI custody by convincing one experienced, mentally sound agent to drive in front of a tractor trailer and another to commit self-immolation. According to eye witnesses, Modell's only interaction with each agent was to verbally suggest suicide. Psychokinesis. Similar abilities have been documented in other individuals with brain tumors."
"Documented by whom?" Her arms remained crossed, and her head had a skeptical but slightly flirtatious tilt. "Is it even a frontal lobe tumor?"
She'd always claimed love was biochemical. A function of neurons and neurotransmitters, instinct and opportunity. Two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen always created water. Rivers inevitably flowed to the sea. Following her logic, two people destined to love each other would always feel that bond, even if they intersected at a point outside their normal timeline.
Mulder told himself what happened in this multiverse stayed in the multiverse. To a point. He still had to live with himself tomorrow morning. Or whatever time of day he returned to 2010.
He really needed that Dummies book. John Titor's primordial internet posts never mentioned this sort of thing, and the Virginia Tech professor was in an exclusive relationship with his bulldog and his own greatness.
"It is a frontal lobe tumor," Mulder confirmed. He put his hand on her back, guiding her toward the table. "You want half of an oatmeal raisin cookie?"
4 hours, 48 minutes remaining
As Mulder drove down the smooth highway with flowers blooming in the median, he entertained Scully with the case of the youthful-looking cannibals of Dudley, Arkansas, and their mad cow disease. And Gerry Schnauz and his icepick lobotomies and thought-o-graphs. Mulder regaled her with the tale of Eddie Van Blundht's tail and rape babies, but left out her inviting Mr. Van Blundht in for vino. Scully interrupted Patrick Crump's X-file with a lecture on electromagnetic radiation and the permeability of human tissue. She'd educated Mulder about the genetic impossibility of the Peacock family's baby, and the non-existence of vampires, genies, and ghosts. They hadn't even touched on aliens.
He wanted to wrap the time with her in tissue paper and save it for later, but the Range Rover's dashboard clock kept nibbling away at the night.
Mulder drove exactly 70 miles-per-hour in the slow lane on I-95, and came to a full stop at every intersection in her neighborhood. Then the God of Parking, plotting against him, provided a space directly in front of her apartment building. Mulder parked, left the engine running, and switched the headlights off.
The streetlight closest to the apartment building had been shot out, but the security light above the entrance flickered. An empty malt liquor bottle lay on the front stoop. Scully didn't move to get out.
Mulder didn't suggest she leave, either.
After a moment of siting in the dim SUV, she asked, "Where does your mother live?"
"My mother-in-law." Mulder shifted his hand on the steering wheel. The radio played Meatloaf. "I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)." "About twenty minutes north. Less razor wire, more manicured lawns, window boxes, and ceramic garden gnomes."
"That sounds like my parents' neighborhood." She twisted toward him in the passenger seat. "How old are your children?"
"William's nine, Rebecca's eleven." He gave the steering wheel a needless rub with his palm. "Their grandmother loves having them, but they wear her out. And vice-versa. By tomorrow morning, her living room will look like Jonestown except with cupcakes and a Disney movie on the television." Now he picked at a little nick in the steering wheel's leather. "They're safe. They're okay. We're okay," he promised her.
Scully's quizzical expression made him wish he hadn't said that.
"You, however-" He gestured toward the dark little bathroom window of her first-floor apartment. "You might want to consider putting some bars on there until I can do something about that geriatric, liver-eating contortionist."
He got a long pause from the other side of the SUV. Then, "That notecard you showed me earlier. The missing woman is your wife, isn't she?"
A pain jabbed his shoulder exactly where she'd shot him years and years ago. Mulder closed his mouth, gritted his teeth, and nodded.
"I'm so sorry. How long has she been missing?"
"Since September. Almost eight months."
"Can we not play twenty questions?" His chest felt tight. "Not now, not about that. I haven't swallowed a bullet. The kids get to school, they get their teeth cleaned. I'm not great with them, but I make sure they eat a vegetable every now and then, and I don't leave them with Grandma more than overnight. We're okay," he repeated.
She echoed softly, "Okay."
He took a shaky breath. When the pain in his shoulder relented, he looked at her. "Do you want to see them?"
She said "Yes," in a manner suggesting she wasn't sure if he planned to pull out his wallet or drive her to Grandma's house.
Mulder fished in the backseat for his coat and extracted his iPhone from the inside pocket. When he turned on the screen, the battery was at 40% and the digital phone searched frantically for a signal in an analogue world. Three text messages remained unread from the evening before he'd left 2010. The clock at the top read 9:41 PM, and a little countdown at the bottom, 4 hours, 39 minutes.
Scully looked at the phone like it might explode. Mulder understood. Pre-invasion, his Blackberry and USB flash drive were state-of-the-art. After the computer industry got to pick over the alien ships, humanity's scientific learning curve skyrocketed straight up. Those few who could afford the technology marveled. Those who couldn't afford it stole it and sold it to feed their families.
"The, uh-" Mulder touched the photo icon. "The digital cameras the military's using? This is a digital picture frame." He found a photo where Thing 1 and Thing 2 weren't fighting or pouting, enlarged it, and showed her. "Rebecca and William Mulder. Will and Becca."
William wore a red fleece pullover, a Gryffindor scarf, and glasses identical to Harry Potter's. With Scully's features and his brown hair chronically in need of a haircut, all the kid lacked was a wand and a scar on his forehead. Rebecca had the same wavy brunette hair, but green eyes and Mulder's broad, angular jaw. She sported her usual slouchy sweater, jeans, ponytail, and Converse sneakers. Becca favored comfort over fashion, books over people, and was disappointed every time the eye doctor said she didn't need glasses.
Scully leaned closer to look at the screen. "The pixel count and spatial resolution are amazing."
"Thanks," he said dryly. "I'm very proud. My progeny are rather remarkable, too."
He dragged his thumb across the screen, moving to the next photo. It featured less sibling affection, more shoving.
"William's grades are better," he said. "For a while, he'd just sit in class and do nothing. I got him a puppy. Hermione. Rebecca's joined the chess team. She wants to go to Space Camp, so I just mailed that check. Between them, they've refused to sign up for baseball, basketball, football, soccer, lacrosse, volleyball, and hockey." A third photo: the same fight but a few seconds later. "Despite the family resemblance, their distaste for sports makes me want to revisit a discussion about a good-looking pizza guy and how often Deputy Director Skinner stopped by when I wasn't home."
"Assistant Director Skinner?" She studied the photo.
"Yeah. That's what I meant." The next ten photos were selfies Rebecca took while making dramatic faces at the phone. Then three photos of the puppy. Mulder switched the cell service, then the screen, off.
"Your wife worked for the Bureau?"
"Are we back to twenty questions?" He tossed the phone on the dash. "Yes."
"Do you..." She looked away.
"Do I think I'll ever find her?" Mulder asked for her. "No. With the technology and resources I have at my disposal..." He shook his head. "At this point, I'm just looking for answers."
Her nod seemed sympathetic.
The dashboard clock read 9:44 PM. He looked at her, then at the clock again.
Scully didn't open her door. Mulder sat still and didn't speak, as if she was an animal he wanted to avoid scaring away. In all likelihood, once she went inside, he'd spend his remaining hours in this parking space, watching her apartment windows.
He sat. She sat. Rod Stewart sang "Rhythm of My Heart." Mulder noticed himself mouthing the lyrics.
At 9:46, she said, "Let me see the notecard again."
He pulled it from his shirt pocket and handed it to her.
Mulder thought he'd done everything short of dissecting the old notecard. Between 9:46 and 9:49, Dana Scully managed a more thorough examination. Upon completion, she announced, "A mathematician would read this number as one nonillion, sixty-six quadrillion, six hundred trillion one using the short scale, and one quintillion, sixty-six billiard, six hundred billion one in the long scale. Have you run it through a cryptographic algorithm as a string of phonemes rather than individual digits?"
Since Mulder didn't understand anything she said after read this number as, he felt, "No," was a safe bet.
"I assume you've looked at hexavigesimal and tridecimal configurations in addition to binary, ternary, and hexadecimal," she continued, "but what about Mayan or Devanagari nomenclature? A unary system? Fifty-four digits: that could be a 4 by 13 configuration if the numbers represent images."
"As a poly-alphabetic cypher, the zeros are problematic," she insisted. "Regardless of the code, they're too long to be placeholders or words." She frowned at the notecard. "Could they be phonetically Navajo?"
"No." He said it firmly, and reached for the card. "You've answered my question. This number on this card doesn't mean anything to you. That's all I wanted to know."
"Come inside and let me make a few calls." She unfastened her seatbelt. "I know a professor of Kabbalistic Judaism at Berkeley. The number 666 is highly symbolic in the Kabballah."
He tucked the card in his breast pocket. "You know a professor who'll answer the phone at this time of night?"
"California is three hours earlier," she pointed out. "She might even still be in her office."
Mulder's seatbelt stayed latched. He repeated, "No," in the same determined manner. "That's not why I'm here."
Her brows had an impatient convergence. "I'm trying to help you, Agent Mulder."
"You're inviting an older, powerful, emotionally-damaged man into your apartment at almost ten o'clock at night." He gave her a scornful look. "Subtle, Scully. Way to deviate from your norm."
"What are you talking about?"
Mulder looked away, out his window and at her apartment building. A figure passed behind a curtain on the second floor. A gray cat slept in the uppermost right window.
Her voice asked, "Agent Mulder?"
He inhaled. In a carefully conversational tone, he asked, "Monday morning, you're meeting with Section Chief Blevins, right?"
She must have nodded and waited for his response, because after a few seconds she announced, "Yes," like he'd called a vote. "At 8AM."
"He'll assign you to work with me, on the X-files. As my partner," he told the Range Rover's window. "He'll tell you to keep me in line and provide scientific explanations for phenomena that defy science. Liver-eating mutants, fluke-men, alien-human hybrids, losers with telekinetic brain tumors... Good luck to you. I'm a giant pain in the ass and I shirk my share of the paperwork. Also, you don't get a desk."
"How do you-"
Now Mulder focused on the sleeping cat. "In late 1994, you'll be abducted by a man named Duane Barry and used as genetic breeding stock in an illegal government experiment. As a result, several years later, you'll discover you're unable to conceive traditionally. You'll also learn the experiment produced a terminally ill child who is biologically your daughter. Emily. After her death, you'll pursue in vitro fertilization, asking your friend and partner to donate." He glanced at her. "That's me, by the way."
Her brow furrowed and her lips parted in stunned silence.
"On the fourth try, it works. You're thrilled. I'm boffing my ex-wife: a friends-with-benefits arrangement that ended in her helping drill holes in my head and me attending her funeral. So don't think I'm judging your taste in sex partners, because I have no room to talk." Mulder paused to roll down his window. "The head trauma knocked some sense into me, and I took a sudden interest in protecting you and your pregnancy. And that's what it was: your pregnancy. My part was a sterile cup, and you're like a beautiful magnet for serial killers and violent whackos."
He took another deep breath. Even at night, the air warmed his lungs.
He continued. "Avoid the alien assassin, flush the pills from the mad scientist doctor, figure out which one's the real sonogram, blah, blah, blah: you have Rebecca. Again, you're thrilled. I'm your partner, I've forfeited my rights to your daughter, and I'm so in love with you that I can't see straight. Luckily, my affection was eventually contagious." Though he faced away from her, he smiled at the memory. "One night, amid thwarting monsters and shadowy government agents, you asked me to stay. Not at this place." He pointed vaguely at the building. "At your next apartment. You'll like it. There are fewer crack pipes and more fireplaces. A big bed. A walk-in shower with a sturdy shelf. Anyway, we're happily investigating mutants and alien abductions at work while making the most of our nights, and you miraculously get pregnant."
"Are you kidding me?"
"No," he insisted. "Really. I'm good on five hours of sleep, and that shelf in your shower was certified to safely support 150 pounds. You're 120 pounds soaking wet and don't weigh more than a buck-thirty-five at seven months pregnant."
An industrial steam iron couldn't get those creases out of her forehead.
He continued in the same casual manner. "Super-soldiers chasing us, alien DNA in the amniotic fluid, giving birth in hiding, blah, blah, blah: we get William. We figure, after two kids, we might wanna make things legal. So, there's that." He held up his left hand briefly, showing her the gold band. "The alien virus you contracted- Shit." He had to back up in his story. "Post-Emily, pre-Becca, we're doing a quasi-romantic dance in my hallway when you were stung by a bee carrying a virus. Not just any virus: an alien reproductive virus that gestates and hatches inside a human host. I was able to find you and administer a vaccine, saving your life and making you immune to the virus. Fast-forward to about 2002. Me being brilliant and heroic, you in a lab, lots of test-tubes and microscopes, and you figure out how to replicate the vaccine. By the time the alien ships showed up in 2005, the World Health Organization's vaccinated and microchipped almost 80% of the population. A few nukes, a slight ice age, a Nobel prize, and life goes on. You saved the world and you looked damn good doing it."
He checked the passenger seat. Her face was priceless.
"Last fall- Fall 2009, the school calls me at work. You haven't picked up the kids. I round up the crew and rush home, but you're not there. You're not at Quantico or the CDC. I tell my office to locate your microchip. But they can't. The chip in your arm, in my arm-" He tapped his shoulder. "-we tell the public it isn't trackable, but it is. Anywhere on Earth. In or out of the body. As long as it's functioning, I can ping it. Find it," he clarified. "But if it's not functioning, within weeks a malignant tumor forms in the brain, causing death inside of six months." He looked at her: the play of light and shadow on her lovely face, the dark blue against the white of her eyes. "It's been almost eight months."
Her head tilted. "Agent Mulder, I don't know whether to ask if you're putting me on or accompany you to the nearest emergency room for a psychiatric evaluation."
"I'm not crazy. Ask the Bureau shrink. Skinner's making me talk to him. In 1993 my therapist's..." Mulder had to count. "...in junior high."
"You're not my husband from the future," she insisted. "Is this your idea of a joke?"
Mulder picked up the phone from the dash, opened the scanner app, and showed her the screen. Then he touched his middle finger to the microchip in his right palm. The chip glowed deep red. As she watched, he aimed the phone's camera at the chip. Instantly, the screen lit up with his name, photo, badge, and buttons to access bank accounts, medical information, calendar, and the kids' records. "In the future, you're either Apple or Windows. No middle ground, and Windows is for guys who wear socks with sandals. Unless you're a government employee." He set the phone down in order to activate the microchip in his other hand, which glowed a humiliating green. "Steve Jobs runs my life, but Bill Gates gets me into the Hoover Building and confirms my security clearance."
Her shoulders were two inches higher than normal. "Your picture frame stores your datebook and account numbers?"
"It's a computer," he explained. "A very small, very powerful computer." He switched to the photo app, opened the pictures from 2007, and handed her the phone. "Here." He showed her how to swipe from one picture to the next.
In 2007 the world began to thaw but William and Rebecca still wore snowsuits in the photos from late spring. Will, then 6, rode a bicycle with training wheels down the snowy sidewalk in front of their house. Rebecca had her own bike with streamers and a basket on the handlebars, but it leaned against the fence. She watched her brother with the slightly stunned expression she still had, sometimes. William pedaled toward the camera for a few photos, then away from it. A shot of Rebecca with a sweet but forced smile. After that, she rode her bike behind Will as he wobbled, learning to balance without the training wheels.
2007 Scully, in a parka and snow boots, steadied William as he pedaled. Her cheeks were pink in the cold. She had a green knit cap pulled low on her head, but wisps of dark auburn hair stuck out around her face. Old spaceships polka-dotted the bright blue sky, a few intact but others missing or partially disassembled.
In the passenger seat, 1993 Scully swiped through the photos faster. Riding bicycles became a neighbor kid's birthday party. Her future self appeared in the photos, helping with a piñata. Then flotsam: a sign for lot 14F in long-term parking at the airport, a screenshot of a memo from Skinner, a receipt from the dry cleaner, and a photo of the grocery list on the fridge (Scully's handwriting listed apples, bananas, chicken breasts, peanut butter, bread, cream, coffee beans; Mulder's writing said stuff for enchiladas and that fruit dip).
He took the phone from her, tapped the screen a few times, and played a video from the no-training-wheels day. William wobbled, Scully jogged beside him, and Rebecca followed on her own bike. From behind the camera, Mulder's voice called encouragement. Another video: Mulder filming the three of them making brownies with her mother. Scully and her mother wore aprons; William and Rebecca wore the brownie batter.
"That's- That's Mom's kitchen. Her- her new mixer," Scully pronounced. She scrutinized Mulder. "How are you and your children in my mother's kitchen?"
"They're probably in your mother's kitchen now, only making cupcakes and seventeen years in the future," he explained.
"This is not possible." She confiscated the phone and brandished it as Exhibit A. "How am I in these photos and video recordings?"
"I think I've covered that."
Her voice was loud. "Time travel isn't scientifically plausible. Agent Mulder, you're crazy."
Mulder couldn't help himself. He chuckled. "Say that again," he requested.
4 hours, 11 minutes remaining
Technically, Scully hadn't arrested Mulder. However, detaining him without just cause constituted illegal search and seizure. She'd made Mulder lug her laptop and briefcase into her apartment, a huge violation of the 13th amendment. And she'd confiscated his cookies.
He sat on her living room sofa with orders not to move. She had his phone in her hand, her holster on her waist, and an expression suggesting she planned to get to the bottom of this nonsense. His badge, wallet, and pistol were on a shelf across the room, all thoroughly vetted. Like her car, the apartment smelled familiar. His fingertips recalled the texture of the sofa's upholstery. He recognized her old trench coat hanging beside the front door. The lamp on her computer desk: also on a side table in their house in 2010.
The red light on her answering machine blinked angrily.
He leaned back on the couch cushions and rested his arms along the top. "We're not having sex," he informed her. He crossed his ankles casually. "That would be exploitative and morally reprehensible on my part. Sex is absolutely not happening." When she frowned at him, he made a sweeping gesture with his right hand and said, "Just putting it out there."
"Agent Mulder, I assure you I don't have sexual intercourse with crazy strangers."
Since Scully was the one with a gun, he bit his lip.
She'd been studying him from across the room, but stepped closer. "I want to know who created these photos and videos." She held up the sleeping iPhone. "Are you following me? Following my family? Did you disable my car?"
"I may have pulled a couple fuses."
"Why?" she demanded.
"I wanted to drive you home, to ensure I had your full attention."
She approached until they shared the same rug, but it was a big rug. "That's what you're doing now, isn't it? Maintaining my attention? That's why you told me that cockamamie story."
"That cockamamie story's the truth."
Hand on her holster, Scully took another step closer. "My mother's in those videos and photos, Agent Mulder."
"There are other videos and photos on that phone that, trust me, your mother's not in." He slouched comfortably. "You're getting stuck on the scientific plausibility, Scully. Look at what you've witnessed this evening. I'm no threat to you. I'm willing to manipulate you into spending time with me, but not to your detriment. There's no gain to me in confessing who I really am. In fact, the gain to me would have been in keeping my mouth shut and letting the night go where it was headed. Doesn't that kinda sound like a guy who loves you?"
Her mouth was a flat angry line. "I don't care who you love or who you think you are. Or that you're the FBI's golden boy and I'm just the new instructor in the pathology department. I will cuff you, arrest you, and haul you into custody unless you start talking."
He made the same face he did when a dessert menu listed only Jell-O. "Handcuffs are really more your thing than mine."
"How to you think the Bureau would respond to one of their profilers sexually harassing a female agent?"
"In 1993? Given your level of hotness? Probably with a high-five and a promotion. Call 911," he dared her. "If you really think I'm lying, call the Baltimore PD or the Bureau, tell them I'm stalking you, and make me their problem."
Her jaw broadened. She still clutched his phone. With her other hand, she drew her revolver. "You- You-" She gestured angrily with the weapon. "Explain how this is happening. If you're the Fox Mulder I'll meet Monday morning, and we have children who are with my mother in 2010, how are you here?" she demanded.
"I don't understand how the technology works, exactly. It's retro-engineered from the alien ships, and I'm not a-"
She stood over Mulder with the revolver aimed at his chest. "How?" she barked.
He pressed back against the sofa cushions. "Honey, I couldn't fix the dryer, remember?"
When she said, "No," her voice waivered, and his sarcastic armor developed a chink. She lowered the gun, shoved it back in her holster, and sank into an armchair. "No, I don't remember. Everything you're saying is impossible, but those children... That little girl could be my sister as a child."
"Becca brushes her teeth for 120 seconds; she times it. She reads books about chess. She just wrote a five-year life plan that includes -- I kid you not -- the phrases develop breast buds and onset of menses. I promise her resemblance to your sister is only skin deep." Mulder glanced at a pile of reused liquor store boxes neatly stacked in the corner of her living room, as if being stored. In Magic Marker, they were labeled yearbooks and linens and kitchen in Scully's writing, but the duct tape job was too chaotic to be her work. "Missy's on the road again? Where now?"
Scully looked at the floor. "Sedona, maybe. The last postcard I got was from Flagstaff. There's a drummer in a band-"
"It's always the drummer with her. They're like her percussive Achille's G-spot."
The fabric of her green scrub top stretched taut across her slumped shoulders. "I suppose you can tell me which drummer Melissa's dating in 2010?"
Her living room had an old fireplace covered with a metal rectangle. On the mantle above it, Scully had photos of her sister and two brothers. Bill with Tara, before their children were born. Charlie's kids, now teenagers, as a toddler and infant. Her parents. Her father in uniform. In 2010, more of those people were dead than alive. Her father and sister died long before the spaceships arrived, but Charlie's wife died during the riots. Bill's children didn't survive the cold.
Despite her warm apartment, a chill passed through Mulder.
Scully sat up straight, watching him. His hesitation hadn't gone unnoticed. After a moment, she said neutrally, "People claim what makes you a brilliant profiler is the ability to observe and deduce so accurately and rapidly you appear impetuous. Psychic. Spooky. But you aren't flying by the seat of your pants or making super-human intuitive leaps, Agent Mulder. You note every datum and plan every move. Intercepting me tonight, gaining my trust, maintaining my attention... What you've told me, shown me -- and what you haven't -- was all carefully choreographed. Now, what I'm trying to ascertain is: choreographed to what end?"
She stood. Her revolver remained holstered, but the couch creaked as Mulder leaned even farther back.
She continued in the same cool, clinical voice. "You keep saying your children- Our children," she corrected, "are at my mother's house. That's inaccurate. It's my parents' house, Agent Mulder: twenty minutes from here with window boxes and ceramic garden gnomes. My mother and father bought it in 1982. My father's Rear Admiral William Scully. Even if my father's overseas in 2010, it's still his house. How did you name your son after your father-in-law yet forget his existence?"
Mulder swallowed. "William Scully- William was my father's name, too."
She loomed over him again. "That notecard is meaningless to me, but you knew that an hour ago. Yet here you are, verbally sparing with me and looking quite pleased with yourself. One hypothesis: you're crazy, this is all an elaborate hoax, and Fox Mulder missed a detail or misspoke. My alternate, quite far-fetched hypothesis: you're telling the truth and beneath your glib bullshit, you have some other motive for visiting 1993. If you are the man you claim to be-"
"Scully." Mulder looped his fingers through his necktie, loosening it. As she watched, he opened the top and second buttons of his shirt, and pulled the fabric apart to show her a little gold cross. "I am the man I claim to be."
Her hand went to the identical necklace she wore. "Is that Missy's?"
"It's yours. The one your mother gave you. I found it on our dresser."
His phone remained in her left hand. "That can't be-" As she reached out to touch his chest, her expression changed from surprise to distaste. His abdomen churned and the room developed a murky green tint. But then she stopped, her fingers inches from his throat, seeming disoriented.
When he covered his necklace, his queasy revulsion faded.
Scully stared blankly.
Mulder leaned away, keeping the cross concealed. He waited for her to snap out of it.
The iPhone slipped from her hand and fell to the rug with a soft thump.
"Scully." He fastened a button, then jostled her shoulder. "Hey."
She remained frozen.
When he said, "Sit down," she moved with the same dull obedience as the young men at Quantico. Mulder guided her to the couch he'd just vacated and knelt in front of her. "Hey. I'm sorry."
Her chest moved as she breathed. She blinked.
"Scully." He tried gently shaking her again. "You're okay. It's just the necklace. Come back to me, Scully."
Her eyes focused on him but her face gave no sign of recognition.
"Can you hear me, partner?"
She nodded, barely moving her head.
"Speak to me. Say something. You were on a roll a second ago. Call me incorrigible or, or off my rocker. Tell me to go to Hell." He joked nervously, "Come on. I've never been so eager for you to boss me around."
She blinked again. "Something," she said flatly. "Incorrigible. Off your rocker. Go to Hell."
"God, I wish I thought you were playing a joke on me." He tucked the stubborn wisps of hair behind her ears and stroked her face. "That would be funny, but this isn't. Honey, please wake up."
Goosebumps rose on her forearms. She began shivering.
"Stay right here," Mulder ordered. "Continue all life functions. I'll be back." He stumbled against the corner of the couch as he darted for her bedroom. He jerked the comforter off the unmade bed. In the kitchen, he grabbed the only clean mug in the cabinet, blasted it full with the kitchen faucet, then shoved it in the microwave, jabbed the minute button, and took the comforter back to the living room.
In accordance with his instructions, she hadn't moved. It occurred to Mulder that he had no idea how long this lasted. For all he knew, those two cadets might still be jogging around Quantico, hunting for Jack Willis.
Hands shaking, Mulder knelt in front of the sofa and wrapped the comforter tight around Scully. Through the bulky fabric, he rubbed her arms and shoulders. Talked to her. She continued staring numbly at his chest.
He reached inside his shirt and grabbed the chain, considering. Her apartment building had a furnace in the basement maybe hot enough to melt gold, but that meant leaving her. Instead, he yanked the necklace off and flung it. Seconds later, he heard the cross plink, then slide across the floor.
Scully took a deep breath.
"It's gone," he informed her. He reached beneath the comforter, took her hand, and placed it on the necklace she wore. "Feel. That's what's real."
He knelt so close he saw the freckles on her nose, the little mole above her upper lip. Her hand was warm and small and familiar beneath his. Her eyes: huge and sapphire blue. He felt her heart, the firm, reassuring rhythm of life.
Not a moment passed that he didn't miss this woman.
"I'm just an echo." His heart pulsed in time with hers. "A memory you haven't had. A journey you haven't taken yet."
He put his forehead against hers and added in a softer voice, "A journey I wish would have ended differently. That's why I'm still here. I love you and I'm being a selfish bastard."
The microwave trilled, bringing him to his senses.
"You're okay?" he asked, because he wasn't.
She nodded, then managed to say, "Yes."
"I'm-" He hunted for a reason to be elsewhere. "I'm gonna get you something to drink."
He looked back. She watched him walk away.
In her kitchen, he went through the mundane ritual of making a cup of tea. Open the teabag, get the sugar. He couldn't find a clean spoon, so he washed one. His hands still shook.
He should be crowned King of Denial. Nothing in the age of Walkmans and camcorders could bring back his Scully. Nor was he merely spectating. His asinine stunt with the necklaces... She wasn't a ride at Disney or his personal Holodeck. This glitch in space-time would reset, but his memory of it wouldn't. Before, she'd just been gone. Now, the beautiful, brilliant, no-fucks-given-that-day woman who always had his back: she was just a room and a wormhole away.
The first rule of Heartbreak Club: don't commit treason and a chrono-crime to visit Heartbreak Club.
He heard light footsteps approach. Then, "Agent Mulder? What are you doing?"
"I'm doing the Humpty Dance." He sounded angrier than he'd intended. He picked up the warm mug and turned to face her. "You were cold. You like tea. What's it look like I'm doing, Scully?" He nodded toward the dirty bowl and cup and skillet piled in the kitchen sink. "You want me to wash these dishes?"
She put a hand on the doorjamb. "I want to know what just happened."
"Temporal cognitive dissonance," he explained. "Akin to the grandfather paradox, I think. Those cadets at Quantico saw Fox Mulder recently; they know I'm not forty-eight years old in 1993. You know I shouldn't be wearing the necklace currently around your neck. I'm bending spacetime but if I try to fool it, it gets pissy. Apparently, you get the worse end of the deal."
She stepped toward him. "That's how this is possible? String theory? A wormhole? How are you circumventing cosmic censorship? Our planet revolves and orbits the sun. Our galaxy rotates, our universe is expanding. To visit the past, you didn't just travel through time; you also moved in space. How?"
He shrugged. "For me, it's the same date and time of day in 1993 and 2010, but that's because I said My wife was the scientist one too many times during the professor's explanation of quantum physics and he decided I needed to time travel on the short bus. I obtained the power source he requested, left a cabin in the Shenandoah Mountains, and stepped into the commuter lot on I-95 near Quantico; I have no idea how. Well, I understand how I stole alien artifacts from DARPA, but aside from that... I do know that the past can't be changed, and once I leave, you won't remember any of this because it never happened."
"But you'll remember?"
He nodded. "Do you want your tea?" He offered the steaming cup.
As if he hadn't spoken, she said, "You're my husband? We have two small children?"
"Technically, I'm a widower. In 2010, you're presumed dead."
She said hollowly, "I'll be forty-six years old."
"Forty-five." He cleared his throat. "When you disappear, you're forty-five."
"In the future, humans have trackable microchips, but mine's been destroyed." She seemed to organize facts aloud. "Either removed and destroyed, or destroyed along with my body."
He set the mug aside and made a small stipulation. "I can track the microchips. It's a job perk and a federal crime punishable by life in prison. My role in saving humanity is behind the scenes, but you're the face of the vaccine. You're like a MILF-ie Jane Goodall or Sandra Day O'Conner in Armani and Louboutin. Your-"
"Hot," he translated. "Your disappearance was the lead story on every news network for weeks. You weren't kidnapped. You didn't drive into a snowbank or fall into a lake. You vanished."
"How could I just vanish?"
"That's what I came to 1993 hoping you could tell me."
She wrapped her arms around herself. "My father and sister are dead, aren't they?"
"Space aliens tried to colonize our planet. A lot of people are dead."
"You won't tell me?"
He shook his head. "To borrow your phrase: to what end?"
"That seems unfair, Agent Mulder."
He ignored the instinct in the back of his brain urging him to comfort her. "My mother, father, other father, sister, and wife are gone. I set out to expose the truth and save humanity, and ended up neck-deep in lies and genocide. If you want to compare injustices, I promise I can go toe-to-toe for twelve rounds."
Her ponytail had become an abstract concept rather than a firm actuality. She smoothed the loose hair back from her face. "Then tell me what made you think the number on the notecard was significant."
Mulder leaned back against the countertop. "A gut feeling. A profiler's hunch combined with years of paranormal experiences. Last month, I was trying to get Will's puppy to stop crying so everyone could sleep," he explained. "The internet said to make it a bed, so I went to the attic, grabbed a box, dumped the box out, and tossed in an old towel. An hour later, since I lack a backbone but have a shit-ton of survivor's guilt, Hermione's asleep in William's bed. At midnight, I was cussing and tossing everything back into the box. My old textbooks, my Oxford student ID, cap and gown, class notes, research papers. Crap from decades ago. In the middle of the pile is that card, in your handwriting. I hadn't opened that box since I joined the FBI." He rotated the mug he held and watched the amber liquid. "Every now and then my hunches prove wrong. Inclusive of tonight, in my entire life, this makes once."
"What if..." Scully approached another few feet. "Is it possible to travel into the future?"
"If I do, I can't come back. See also: our two small children." He looked past her. "If you're okay and I'm free to leave, we're headed down a path I don't want to take. There's nothing you can tell me about that notecard."
"I said I'd make some calls."
"Nah. I think I'll browse a Blockbuster for a few hours. Maybe check my AOL account." Standing up straight took more effort than usual. "See if that convenience store a couple blocks from here sells Dunk-a-roos or Brownie Bites or Zima. Afterward, I'll buy a boom box, stand beneath your window, and play that Peter Gabriel song like the guy does in One Crazy Summer."
"That's the wrong John Cusack movie." Her eyes scanned his face. "Agent Mulder, you come to me with an impossible story about aliens and our life together and my-" Her voice broke. "My death. You, you've left our children to travel through time-" Her face flushed. She got louder. "-and you want me to tell you how I died based on an old notecard? Would you drop the glib act?"
He curled his fingers against the edge of the counter so hard the joints hurt. "It's not an act. It's a defense mechanism. Glib lets me get out of bed each morning. I can take the kids to school, go to work, pick the kids up, and drive home. Buy groceries, pay bills, mow your mother's grass." He inhaled. "After a few months, neighbors stop bringing casseroles. Friends stop inviting us places because they feel sorry for us. There's a BMW SUV in my driveway that hasn't moved in eight months. Our children go to the front window, watching for you to come home. At night, there's no one in bed beside me and the house is so-" He struggled to keep his voice steady. "It's so fucking quiet. You want the God's honest truth, Scully? The choices are glib or broken, and I can't be broken. Not unless it's on my own time."
"On my own time, I call your cell and listen to your voicemail message over and over." He'd stopped looking at her again. The words kept tumbling out. "I stand in your closet and breathe in the smell of your skin. On my own time, there's a blackhole inside me. Every time the phone rings and it isn't you, I hate whoever's calling. When I can't sleep -- which is always -- I sit in the dark, watching videos of you."
"Agent Mulder, the first year after a loss-"
He shied away from the hand she put on his shoulder. "It's not a loss. I didn't lose you. Someone took you." He shoved his hands in his pants pockets. If he'd worn his regular clothes, his fingers would barely fit; in this ancient pair of trousers, the pockets and front had room to ball up his fists.
In his peripheral vision, her brow furrowed again. "You just said I vanish. I vanished," she corrected. "I will vanish."
"Conjugation's hard in a non-linear timeline." He kept his hands in his pockets. "Maybe that's the subtitle of the guidebook on time travel. Or, 'Love in a Time of Pleated Pants and Shoulder Pads.' What do you think?"
"Now we're back to glib." A few seconds passed as she seemed to take stock of him. "I think I'm amazed I didn't kill you after sixteen years of this crap."
"It wasn't for lack of trying. You've shot me once. You refused to spring me from a psychiatric hospital twice -- once while pregnant with my child. You take out catheters and stitches with no regard for human suffering. Numerous times, you've mentioned how 3 milligrams of fentanyl produces-"
"Produces a cardiac arrest that appears due to natural causes." She crossed her arms. "Especially if you know how to conceal the needle mark."
The storm inside him shifted again. Now, giving her yet another reason to doubt his sanity, he almost grinned. He removed his hands from his pockets and wiped the damp palms on his pants. He looked up, at the light hanging from her kitchen ceiling. "We're a good team, Scully. You are everything I'm not, and everything I ever needed you to be. Your courage, your passion-" He took a deep breath. "It's what saved me. You're my touchstone and my bedrock. I owe you a debt I can never repay, but I strove, and I still strive, to be the man you saw when you looked at me."
He heard a catch in her voice when she said, "Agent Mulder-"
"I'm gonna go. I'm not okay, Scully, and I don't need to be here. I told myself I wouldn't-" He stepped away from the counter. "The Robert Modell act, upsetting you, this verbal cat-and-mouse... That's not what I want."
"What do you want?"
He wanted her assurance she didn't blame him for the death of more than a billion people. That everything he'd done to ensure humanity's survival, his family's survival, had been worthwhile. He wanted to be the man she believed he was. Instead of telling her those things, he inhaled, stepped forward and said, "I think, since about next Thursday, I've only ever wanted you."
He didn't kiss her; vast cosmic forces and the bonds between electrons conspired to pull him toward her. Predictably -- if an FBI profiler was the one predicting -- Scully let him. Her lips tasted sweet and milky and familiar. Her skin felt warm and velvety smooth. He exhaled at a molecular level.
Her mouth moved against his. Her fingers slid down his jaw, rasping against the stubbly shadow of his beard. He kissed her earlobe, her throat. His hand, acting independently, navigated the curve of her waist and cupped her breast. "I'm not doing this," he insisted, despite evidence to the contrary. "That's not why I'm here."
"You could have fooled me." She gathered up the hem of her scrub top and pulled it over her head. The fabric drifted to the kitchen floor. The flesh-tone bra she wore was so sheer it might as well have not been there. Her looking young enough to still get carded mattered to him less and less.
His ancient necktie purred approvingly as she pulled it from his collar.
He knew every inch of her, every spot that was sensitive or ticklish. When to be gentle, when to be rough. How to make her moan, gasp, shiver, beg. He could write an instruction manual on how to make love to this woman, and it would put The Story of O to shame.
He slid his hand inside her pants and panties, and down a familiar path. Her breath was hot against his neck, and between her legs, slick. Swollen. She'd probably been aroused as they talked in his Range Rover, but unwilling to admit it to herself. She didn't like to admit what she liked. At least, not at first.
"Agent Mulder," she said breathlessly, but he was done talking.
He pushed her against the counter beside the sink and grabbed the back of her hair, pulling her head back and holding tightly. Then he put his lips and teeth to her breast, through the flimsy fabric. And his hand in her scrub pants and little panties again. She gasped and arched her back as he pushed two fingers inside her, but she couldn't pull away.
He rubbed. She moaned and dug her fingernails into his shoulders. Her thighs quivered.
"Don't come," he whispered huskily. "Not yet. I want you to wait."
"Then you better reevaluate your approach, Agent Mulder."
In response, he did take his hand out of her pants. He stooped, jerked off her tennis shoes and flung them. One sounded like it knocked over something metal in the living room. He ripped the holster off her waistband. He yanked down her scrub pants and panties in one tangle, and tossed them after the shoes. He picked her up and set her on the counter. Then he paused.
A little crock nearby held a long-handled wooden cooking spoon, a slotted spoon, a spatula, and a ladle. Mulder chose the wooden spoon. He laid it on the counter, between her and the untouched cup of tea. "Don't come," he repeated.
She looked at the long spoon warily.
Hands on her hips, he jerked her forward to the edge of the counter and pushed her legs apart. He pressed her hands flat on the countertop and covered them with his. Then he bent down and put his mouth between her legs. She smelled musky. When he exhaled a warm breath, she moaned.
"Don't come," he warned her. "Wait until I'm inside you."
He touched the tip of his tongue to the swollen nub of flesh.
She made a sound best described as a hyper-aroused whimper. "You've gotta be kidding me."
He was so hard he hurt. "Shush. Wait."
"How long?" she asked breathlessly, like it was open for negotiation.
"I'll fuck you when I want to fuck you." He licked again, and she convulsed and cried out. "Be quiet, and don't come until I'm inside you. Be a good girl, or you might not like what happens."
He looked up as he pushed his tongue inside her. Her face was flushed, her hair tousled. She struggled to move her hands, close her legs, but she bit her lip, trying to stay silent.
He stopped long enough to say, "Hint: you're not a good girl. You will like what happens."
Then he returned his attention to her most intimate anatomy. Her legs opened wider. The mug crashed to the floor and warm liquid splashed his pant leg. He heard her gasp, "Fuck, Agent Mulder. Oh, my God. Jesus Christ," which violated his directions and the fourth commandment.
The wooden spoon might leave marks, but his open hand wouldn't. And she had such a lovely ass. She had a lovely everything. They'd made love at least a nonillion times. He knew exactly what she liked.
As for Mulder, he just liked her. And not having to miss her for a little while.
1 hour, 16 minutes remaining
Mulder woke to a sound extinct in 2010: the shrill handshake of a dial-up modem connecting to the World Wide Web. The lamp on the bedside table burned. A woman lay facing away from him in the bed, wearing white bikini panties and a gray T-shirt. Fair skin. Shoulder length, tousled auburn hair. No tattoo on the small of her back. On the far side of the bed, the glowing screen of an ancient laptop showed the Declaration of Independence.
After watching her a moment, Mulder shifted and asked, "A little light reading?"
Without looking back, she told him, "In the 1880s, a series of encrypted pamphlets was published, purportedly as directions to a buried treasure. The so-called Beale papers are regarded as a hoax by modern cryptographers, but they were encoded using a simple book cipher. Each digit in the code corresponds to a word of some text. In the instance of the first Beale pamphlet, the Declaration of Independence was the key, but the Bible is also widely used to encrypt documents."
Mulder pushed up on his elbow. Her nightstand held a large Bible and a hardbound edition of Moby Dick. His shirt lay beside her bed with the rest of his clothes, but she'd propped the old notecard up beside her alarm clock. The beige phone cord connecting her laptop to the web stretched across the floor. Scully had a legal tablet, a pencil, and a mission. Every possible configuration of Belphegor's prime number covered her current sheet of yellow paper, and she'd already folded back more than half the tablet.
According to the clock, Mulder just slept away two of his eight hours in 1993.
Instead of telling her fooling with the number was pointless, he moved closer and kissed her shoulder. "Hey, beautiful."
He got a distracted, "Hey," in response.
"I didn't mean to conk out on you like that."
His future late wife scribbled rapidly. "Agent Mulder, it's perfectly understandable. Sleep deprivation is common in bereaved spouses, and the prolactin, oxytocin and vasopressin thought to induce post-orgasmic male sleepiness are produced in far greater amounts during sexual intercourse than solitary masturbation."
"As long as there's a scientific explanation." He scooted higher in bed. The sheets remained, but most of the pillows had hit the floor. As far as he knew, the comforter was still in the living room. "Have you figured out the location of the Holy Grail?"
"I spoke with my friend at Berkeley. Were you aware Belphegor's prime number is represented as a bird-like glyph in the Voynich Manuscript, which is a medieval pharmacopeia thought to be written by Roger Bacon in a yet-to-be deciphered code based on Latin or a Germanic language?" Her whole sentence came out in one breath. "This is a very interesting number, Agent Mulder."
"It's the life of the math party." He addressed the back of her head. "Scully, if I swear we've made love in ways that would get us arrested in Georgia, and tonight doesn't even crack the top 100 on the naughty list, is there any chance you'll just relax?"
He got a distracted, "What?"
"You're catapulting facts at me, which is your go-to method of avoidance."
Her pencil continued its scratchy journey across a yellow expanse. "Would you like me to stop trying to derive some secret meaning from a random prime number in order to discuss the cognitive dissonance involved in me going to bed with a sexually adventurous stranger who's obviously made my carnal satisfaction his end game for a decade?"
"Ibid, and I rest my case." With his index and middle finger, he traced the outline of her shoulder and left arm. "I love you."
In response, she leaned forward to study the screen of a laptop that belonged on exhibit in the Smithsonian.
After a moment, Mulder stopped waiting for her to say it back. Of course she didn't love him. She didn't know him. Mulder, for his part, kept reminding himself that his baby-faced partner was a consenting adult woman and, aside from committing treason and the crime of time traveling, he wasn't breaking any laws. This wasn't adultery. Technically. Also, the way she kept calling him Agent Mulder was kinda hot. Mulder might not be the worst human being on the planet; somewhere in 1993, the Smoking Man drew breath.
"Did you say I'm not comfortable with that degree of emotional intimacy, but the sex was quite nice, Agent Mulder?" he asked. "I might not have heard you over my internal monologue."
The pencil finally stopped moving. "I'm not sure nice begins to describe it." Her posture relaxed a little. "Maybe surreal. I'm torn between ordering a full neurological and psychiatric workup on myself, and asking if you could come back tomorrow and bring wine."
"Will has Indian Guides tomorrow." He kissed her earlobe and ran a hand over the curve of her ass. "Maybe Monday afternoon, though. I could take a long lunch, whore my security clearance, flaunt federal law, and risk making our children orphans to revisit 1993 and get laid." He remembered to add, "By endearing myself to a woman I know intimately, but who has no memory of me. That should earn me father, husband, and G-man of the year."
"I'll clear my schedule." Her laptop keyboard clicked. Then the typing paused. "You're joking, right? Obviously, your grasp on the science of time travel is tenuous, but the margin of error must be minuscule. You can't endanger yourself. You're the only parent our children have."
"That's what 2009 Scully tells me inside my head, too." Mulder flopped back on the pillow and stared at the ceiling. "The movie where Cusack keeps trying to kill himself and the paper boy yells I want my $2 over and over -- is that One Crazy Summer?"
A disdainful, "No."
"The one where he's an assassin at his high school reunion with Minnie Driver?"
"What? No. I've never even heard of that film."
"I'm starting to think you made up a John Cusack movie." He turned his head, looking at an open dresser drawer. The bed had been unmade, earlier, with a pillow on the floor. There'd been dirty dishes in her kitchen sink -- something he'd never known her to leave more than momentarily. "Scully, did you leave in a rush this morning?"
Her fingers danced across the keyboard of her laptop. Now the Gettysburg Address loaded on the screen one painfully slow line at a time. "Ethan might have. He had a mid-morning flight out of BWI. He's headed to Cannes."
Mulder raised his head. "Who?"
She looked over her shoulder. "Ethan. My boyfriend. He's a filmmaker."
"You had a boyfriend? You have a boyfriend?"
"From your expression, I'm surmising the relationship's not going anywhere."
"A correct assumption." He grimaced. "The I love you stands, but I kinda wish you'd mentioned the boyfriend before I had my mouth between your legs."
"Now you're a prude?"
With a dramatic sigh, Mulder rolled out of bed. He grabbed his underwear off the floor as he left the bedroom. In her kitchen, he found a clean glass in the dishwasher and half of a cup of orange juice left in the carton in her refrigerator. Mulder decided Ethan was probably the kind of guy who drank directly from the carton and put it back. On principle, Mulder threw the nearly empty carton away, opened a new one, cleaned up the broken mug and spilled tea from earlier, and wiped a few crumbs off the counter.
In her living room, he found his phone and, out of habit, checked to see if he'd missed a message from Maggie Scully. Or from Becca. Or Will using his iPad: sending silly videos, items for Santa's list, or one side of some sibling dispute. In 2010, at 5:35 PM, Maggie sent a photo of the kids holding a pan of undecorated cupcakes. At 5:39 PM, Becca asked how many cupcakes she could eat. At 5:41 PM, it looked like Mulder had texted himself, but it was William using Mulder's Apple ID and complaining his sister wasn't letting him do the icing. Then his phone lost cell service, Mulder left 2010, and for seven hours, nothing.
It was an odd kind of emptiness: being so far from them. Not miles away. More than a decade away. The top of his phone's lock screen read 1:21AM, and the count-down at the bottom, 59 minutes. Keys clicked as Scully continued typing on her laptop in the bedroom. The Gettysburg Address cypher must not have worked out, because he heard her say, "Damn it," and papers rustling.
Sophie's choice: whether Mulder willed the phone's counter to move faster or slower.
When he carried the juice glass and the iPhone to the bedroom, Scully now compared her legal pad with her copy of Moby Dick. The front of her shirt read FBI Academy Quantico. Mulder had the same T-shirt at home; his was ancient, hers looked new.
He sat on the edge of the bed, beside her laptop. "If each digit of the number corresponds to a word in the text, you're gonna need a book with zero words or with one nonillion."
She stopped working long enough to take a sip from the glass he offered. "Thank you, Marky Mark. I'm aware of that." She indicated the place on the tablet where she'd written 10(13)666(13)1 and 1 013 666 013 1. "In 1993, we have something called scientific notation."
"In 2010, we have super-computers that fit in our pocket." He wrinkled his forehead. "Marky Mark?"
She ran the pencil eraser along the waistband of his boxer briefs.
"Oh. Standard issue. Even Will wears them. These days, Marky Mark's making Martin Scorsese movies, not modeling underwear." He drank the rest of the orange juice and set the glass aside. "Is there any chance of tearing you away from this low-tech Enigma machine act?"
"You have a hunch this number is significant, and I suspect your hunches are generally correct."
"Find a pair of jeans," Mulder requested earnestly. "Maybe a sweater. We're driving to an all-night tattoo shop and you're getting that inked on your forearm. Mulder's hunches are generally correct. It will save us years of arguments."
Her pencil tapped the legal pad in a displeased manner.
"I have news from our progeny, Dr. Scully." He showed her the latest picture of Thing 1 and Thing 2 on his phone. "As of yesterday evening, the cupcake wars have begun."
The pencil stopped in mid-air. She peered at the photo. "The girl looks so much like Melissa."
"I have-" He closed the text messages and switched to the group of old photos imported from his computer. He had to hunt to find the picture he wanted. A little girl with a dark blond bob, younger then than William was now. "This is Emily. Your other daughter. She'd be about sixteen, and you said she looked more like Melissa. Emily had autoimmune hemolytic anemia."
She found a scientific fact to quote. "The mortality rate of autoimmune hemolytic anemia is highest in very young children, but it is generally treatable."
"Not in her case." He curled up behind her again and held the phone in front of them. "You did everything you could though, which was make sure she was comfortable. I was there. When the time came, she just..."
He watched her profile. Based on her expression, he swiped to the next old photo, which featured a living child.
"Rebecca, a few hours old." On the screen, Scully sat on a hospital bed holding a tiny white bundle. Then, home from the hospital, in a robe, rocking the baby. In a third picture, Rebecca looked skeptical about getting a bath. Scully had one arm supporting the baby, and the soap, washcloth, syringe, clippers, and lotion laid out the way a surgeon prepared for surgery.
None of the photos included Mulder.
"One day soon," he said to Scully, "either someone'll tell Rebecca how she came to be or she'll get wise to her birthdate and her parents' wedding anniversary. She's gonna ask if I wanted her." In the photos, the baby grew until she could push up, then sit unsupported. Finally, in a picture some crime scene photographer took, Mulder held her while Scully examined a corpse. It had been the middle of the night, in an alleyway in Front Royal, Virginia. Again, Becca seemed dubious; Mulder looked like someone expected him to defuse a bomb. "Of course I wanted her. Of course I love her. I just look at her and see a miniature you, Scully, and everything about that aches now."
Scully shifted so her head rested on his outstretched arm.
The next photos, Mulder had taken with a digital camera. He and Scully in bed, looking up at the lens. Her in his kitchen, wearing his white dress shirt as she made coffee. In an autopsy bay in scrubs, appearing much as she had earlier. Carrying Rebecca around a lab. The three of them having ice cream near the National Mall. Rebecca's second birthday, and Mulder's fortieth. Then an ultrasound. Scully pregnant. Many, many photos of Scully pregnant. Finally, the prophesized son made his appearance.
"Will was four when the alien ships arrived," Mulder said. "He's naturally immune to the Purity virus -- the alien reproductive virus - but everyone else- We vaccinated and microchipped as many people as possible. Some remote areas, the teams couldn't reach or get the locals to cooperate. In rural China and the Australian outback, people removed their microchips and, of course, died of cancer within months. That didn't make for good PR. The conspiracy theorists screamed the government was using the vaccine to give them AIDS or make them sterile. That we'd use the chips to track them. North Korea, Zimbabwe, and Sudan wouldn't let the WHO doctors in the country. We had time to save everyone, Scully; everyone just wouldn't cooperate in being saved."
She'd taken over the phone. As Mulder spoke, she swiped through the photos, watching the kids grow. She stopped on a picture of a UFO over the White House. Mulder had taken the shot with his Blackberry, capturing the moment humanity now called the EOLAWKI. The End Of Life As We Know It.
He said, "That was as I drove in to work. Will was with me, headed to preschool. You were taking Becca to school. Within an hour, the sky was covered with ships. It was pitch black. I couldn't even see stars."
The next picture, UFOs polka-dotted the horizon. There'd been exponentially more ships minutes after that; Mulder had just been focused on something besides taking photos.
"There'd be pandemonium."
"There was. You took Rebecca to Quantico, I was in DC. Phones didn't work. The roads weren't passable. I couldn't leave, and I wasn't putting Will on a military helicopter alone. You and Rebecca were safer at your office than trying to reach me. Very few people in the US should have died, yet they were rioting and shooting each other over flat-screen TVs. Overrunning hospitals and police stations. All of Texas tried to take down the ships with their hunting rifles, and there was no convincing Qaddafi and Kim Jong II not to fire nuclear missiles."
She'd reached the last photo in the album: a blurry shot of her with Rebecca, both looking a little worse for wear. Days after the ships arrived, Scully had sent the picture with a Marine headed for DC, who'd shown it to Mulder. Unable to share the image electronically, Mulder had taken a photo of the photo on the Marine's phone. He'd sent back a shot of himself with Will, and the message: Have faith. We'll be home soon.
Soon had ended up being eighteen months. Mulder wanted Scully and the kids evacuated to a government bunker. Predictably, that didn't fly with Dr. Scully. Once he'd sprung her from Quantico, they compromised by doing things her way: Will and Becca spent the weeks after the invasion in Mulder's office and the White House's war room while their mother triaged patients for the CDC.
"All we had to do was wait them out," Mulder told the image of Scully and a six-year-old Rebecca on the phone's screen "They're an efficient species. They reach a new planet, expecting to reproduce, at the end of their lifespan. Except they arrived to find most humans immune."
"What about the humans who weren't vaccinated?"
He shifted. "They had to be destroyed. The President asked, and we- I-" He used the correct pronoun. "I'd witnessed newly-hatched aliens. They're virtually indestructible. It had to be a scorched earth policy. That's what we did. In the US, hospitals diverted infected victims to CDC biocontainment facilities and, once the public got wise, the military did house-to-house sweeps. Most countries followed suit, but in some places the virus spread to the point we just sent in bombers and... Scorched earth."
"The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few."
"That's what you told me. Many, many times." He laid the phone down. "Then it got cold. So unimaginably cold, Scully. There was radioactive ash in the atmosphere, and the nation's infrastructure in shambles, and the dead ships still in low Earth orbit, blocking out the sunlight. At first, the astronauts would dock with a ship, cut it up, salvage whatever seemed interesting, and let the rest burn up in the atmosphere. Taking apart one UFO took months. You wanna guess what the Air Force uses now?"
She thought for a few seconds. "An orbital airship?"
He nodded. "Yeah. Basically, space blimps. During the worst of the Long Winter, we stayed in our old basement office in the Hoover Building. You could get to the hospital using the Metro tunnels, and at night, if we were lucky, the temperature inside didn't drop past twenty below. We'd sleep in our coats. I'd put Will inside my parka and you'd wrap Becca in yours. Even in sleeping bags, huddled together under blankets, it was so cold. I could hear William breathing. I could reach over and touch you and Rebecca. You were alive. All those freezing, dark months, you were there."
"What about food? Potable water? Fuel?"
He stroked the fine, transparent hair on her shoulder. "My biological father and the father who raised me: I considered them self-serving monsters until the day the human monsters took a backseat and the alien monsters came for my family. I started out trying to save humanity. Then I settled for saving the humans who'd cooperate. Then, I saved us. You, me, Will, Becca..." He inhaled slowly. "... and the sun eventually came out again and life went on. When I take the kids to school or appointments -- while my wife is being interviewed on CNN or advising some Senate committee -- the teachers and nurses call me Mr. Dr. Scully like it's 1982 and I'm your assistant. I'm not Mr. Mom. I'm the man in the shadows responsible for experiments not dissimilar from my fathers' horror show. For lying to American citizens and telling other governments to do the same. For genocide." Her skin was powdery soft beneath his fingertips. "You knew all that, and you still put our children in the backseat and said Take care of them, Mulder."
"Which you do," she said quietly. After a long moment, she added, "It sounds like I have more faith in you than you have in yourself."
"Maybe that's why I'm here," he admitted. "I needed to hear that one last time." He ran his fingers through her hair, smoothing out the tangles as he worked up to his next confession. "I always thought, when karma came calling, it would be one of the kids. I thought William or Rebecca would be abducted, I'd be powerless to help, and I'd have to face you." He inhaled. "I never worried you'd vanish and I'd have to face them. Alone," he added.
Had Mulder been on the receiving end of this story -- a spouse from the future, the invasion of earth by aliens, the date of his own demise - he'd have peppered her with questions. Demanded answers. Burst into tears. Possibly needed to breathe into a paper bag. Dana Scully responded by taking a deep breath and quoting Arthur C. Clark. "Human flight, splitting the atom, your digital picture frame or computer or whatever this device is that holds unfathomable megabytes of data: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. But you aren't here by magic. This device-" She nudged the phone "-isn't magic, and in 2009, I didn't just magically vanish. But I don't know where to start with this notecard. Why would I write this number? If it's a code, what key would be meaningful to me?"
She spoke faster. "A homophonic substitution cipher using my copy of Moby Dick, obviously, but that isn't what this is. If I wrote it for you to find, wouldn't something like the Zodiac Killer's cipher be more familiar to a profiler? Except the Zodiac Killer used glyphs, not digits. This number isn't-"
He repeated, "Scully," more forcefully. He hadn't traveled back in time to save her. He couldn't save her. He'd come trying to save himself. "Please stop."
When he'd entered 1993 at 6:20 PM, he'd had a sense of forward momentum. As if he'd been propelled just past his mark and had to race to regain his balance. Now, as his time with her dwindled, Mulder felt the universe beginning to pull him away.
"I don't need you to derive any secret meaning from that notecard. I just need you to be with me. Just for a little longer. Please. I don't have much more time." He reached over her and picked up his phone. Forty-six minutes remained on the countdown. He opened the camera app, held the phone high, and put his face close to hers. "Look up. At the screen." He touched the phone, and instantly, their image appeared. His salt and pepper stubble and sleepy eyes, her messy auburn hair and the cross at the base of her throat "See? We are magic."
He took another photo. In this one, she looked perplexed. By the third, enthralled.
He switched to recording a video. "You and me, Scully." He kissed her cheek. "Magic."
Two taps, and the screen replayed the kiss. Mulder's voice said Magic.
"This- Everything you've said and shown me," she said, "Agent Mulder, it defies belief."
"You might wanna get used to that." He gave her the phone, pushed her laptop closed, and curled close to her. "What percentage are you certain tonight is all a delusion brought on by argot poisoning or psychedelic mushrooms?"
She replayed the kiss video. "High 80s, low 90s. I'd also like to rule out a seizure disorder and cryptococcal meningitis." Always a quick study, Scully navigated to the other videos on the phone. She chose a recent one. On the screen, Rebecca sat behind a chessboard early in a game, studying the pieces pensively. In the background, other young players at the chess competition made their moves. Parents filmed with phones and iPads. Becca studied the board. And studied it. And studied it. Scully said, "I see what you mean about her resemblance to my sister being only skin-deep. Missy would have tried to flirt her way to victory by now."
"Spoilers," Mulder warned, "but at three minutes and nineteen seconds, Becca almost touches a knight. At six minutes, Will says he has to go to the bathroom and we make our escape. Here-" He leaned over her again and touched the phone, switching to a different app. The black screen requested a six-digit PIN. "These are more interesting. Put in Pi."
She tapped the digits on the screen. It turned blue. At the change in color, a warm, pleasurable pressure formed in Mulder's groin. Like he was Pavlov's dog and someone neared the bell.
"Now Napier's constant," he prompted. "You get two tries. On the third, everything deletes."
"Napier's constant to the sixth digit?" She hesitated a couple of seconds, then entered the code. The screen became a pretty mauve.
"Now the Golden Ratio."
Her brow furrowed as she typed. "Is this a math test?"
"Yes. One our sneaky, genius, unathletic children can't yet pass." Video icons filled the screen. All featured her. Few featured clothing.
She moved the screen closer. "Oh my God, Agent Mulder. Are these what I think they are?"
"Justification for you torturing me to death with every instrument in your extensive arsenal, reviving me, and doing it all over again if anyone besides you or me ever lay eyes on the contents of this app? Yes."
He chose a favorite, filmed on an old digital video recorder. The camera had been on a shelf high in the walk-in shower in her apartment, overlooking her fancy rainfall showerhead. In the video, she faced the camera, nude, hair wet, going through the motions of a shower. Mulder, facing her, helped. He focused his bathing efforts more on some areas of her anatomy than other parts. Then she eased back on the shower's built-in shelf. Mulder knelt, and put her thigh over his shoulder and his mouth between her legs. Her back arched, her fingers ran through his hair, and neither of them complained.
The sound on the video was mostly the water hitting the tiles. Sometimes the squeak of a wet hand or foot. She'd known the video camera was there and recording. A moment later, as he fucked her, her legs open wide, her moans getting louder, she'd looked directly at the recorder.
In the bed, Mulder adjusted his pillow and watched the old video with her. "I told you that shelf was sturdy. I guess it was more of a ledge, maybe."
"Am I pregnant?"
"Yeah." He ran his palm the length of her bare thigh, then up her hip, across the fabric of her panties, and to her abdomen. "A little."
"This is surreal." She moved the phone an inch closer and tilted it. "I feel like I should be embarrassed that you have this." Though she didn't sound embarrassed.
The warm, insistent pressure in his Marky Mark shorts increased. "You like losing control." He kissed her shoulder and caressed the place on her ass that he'd spanked earlier. "I like watching."
The video ended with Mulder's flushed, wet face reaching up for the camera. The screen became a grid of video clips, some fifteen or twenty minutes long, some forty or fifty seconds. Some as old as Y2K, and one made a couple weeks before she disappeared.
She repeated, "This is surreal."
His pillow rustled. He said, "I bet it is," and continued touching her.
"There must be hours of videotape on here." She glanced back at him. "How many megabytes does this computer hold?"
Mulder chuckled. "A lot. Just go with it, Scully. Pick another one."
She touched a clip in the middle of the screen, like this was tic-tac-toe and she wanted the center square. This time, they'd filmed in his office; his new fancy shadow-government office, not their old basement office. Mulder sat in his desk chair and she knelt in only a lacy black bra and a skirt, fellating him. And doing it very well. Her hair was shorter and a lighter auburn; his cock was red and swollen, like her lips. As the camera watched from the edge of the desk, his left hand ran through her hair. He shifted. She paused to look up and ask, "Is the door locked?" Mulder's breathless voice answered that it wasn't. She gave him a wicked little smile, and the blowjob continued.
In 1993, Scully asked, "Do I have a tattoo?"
"Yeah. Let's not talk about how that happened." His slid his hand slowly down the front of the little cotton panties. The hair felt silky and warm. Then, farther down, crisp. After that, his fingers found hot and slick.
He closed his eyes. He heard himself on the phone, talking to her, chanting her name. Then moaning, gasping. He eased the cotton panties down and off. She shifted her hips to let him. He shucked off his shorts so he was nude. She still wore the Quantico T-shirt. When he pressed his erection against her, she made a throaty, appreciative moan.
"Agent Mulder, this is like Somewhere in Time invited over the insatiable Ghost of Sexual Future." She shifted closer. "Can you really- This soon?"
"I'm older than you. I'm not old enough to qualify for AARP."
He recognized the next video by the sound. She'd chosen bottom row, second from the left. On the screen, they'd be in their bed at the house, him behind her, much as they lay now. The camera recorded from the nightstand. For a while, there was kissing and touching and slightly inebriated laughter and fumbling. Once, both of them stopped, looked past the camera, and listened, checking that the kids hadn't woken. Then, more hushed giggles. Mulder whispered in her ear, her head nodded. Her eyes closed; his didn't. His hips pushed forward. She gasped and grabbed a handful of the sheet. Again, the same tentative, shallow movement, the same response from her.
Scully asked slowly, "Are we doing what I think we're doing?"
"Yeah." Mulder didn't open his eyes. "I'm fucking a Nobel Laureate in the ass."
Her body tensed. "Oh my God." Then facts: "Anal sex was a common practice in Greek and non-western cultures. While most prevalent among male homosexuals, research indicates up to ten percent of married couples- Oh my God."
"We're married. We're also drunk." He caressed her breast and rubbed his cock against her slick sex. Everything seemed in slow motion. The sounds of passion from the phone, the feel of her body in front of him. He opened his eyes and watched her as he stroked her clitoris. Slid his fingers inside her. She arched her back and said his name, and he wanted this to last forever. Or, at least - he checked the time -- 43 minutes.
In the video, they'd picked up the pace in the drunken anal sexcapade. The sheet had fallen away. She was flushed, sweaty. He fucked her in earnest, and her gasps and pleas urged him on. Then she was on her hands and knees in front of him in the bed, and he was deep inside her ass again. His fingers dented the skin of her hips. His head fell back, his mouth formed silent vowels of pleasure. He tried to keep the same rhythm as she came, but couldn't. His thrusts became jerky. With a final gasp, he convulsed as his body emptied into hers.
In 1993, Mulder continued touching her, taking his time. Exploring every curve and valley of her. Between her thighs, beneath her breasts. The downy hair on her ear, the elegant muscles of her leg and shoulder.
"That night," he said, and kissed her neck, "led to a household ban on buying boxes of wine."
"Understandably." The phone's screen was a series of tiles again. "Jesus, Mulder, what happens when we buy tequila?"
"Third row, far right." Her breast fit perfectly in his hand, and his cock between her thighs. She moved against him like a cat luxuriating in petting. In the briefing about time travel, the Virginia Tech professor had mentioned a singularity: a point in the universe where time ceased and everything converged. A bridge between two worlds, perhaps. If someone condensed Mulder's universe, he imagined his singularity felt like this.
On the phone, Scully's voice asked, "Mulder, are you okay?"
Scully had opted out of the tequila video and chosen another center tile - a clip from early 2007 he kept but never played. The dim screen showed the dark line of trees beyond their snowy back yard, then a night sky speckled with looming black discs. The camera panned slowly right, recording the gaps in what had once been a net of UFOs around the Earth.
Unseen, and sounding more concerned than sarcastic, Scully said, "You know, NORAD gets paid to keep track of those ships. Or do you and your Crackberry just miss the days of blurry UFO videos?"
The camera kept filming, now angled higher and moving left across the sky. Mulder had been on the veranda outside their bedroom the first night they'd returned to the house after the Long Winter. The electricity and phone lines and heat worked. The beautiful colonial revival brick home was still in a great neighborhood -- except some of the neighbors had frozen to death - with excellent schools and a reasonable commute to DC and Quantico. Will and Becca's rooms held clothing and toys they'd long outgrown. The spray-painted mark on the front door recorded the Urban Search & Rescue team's appraisal last month: no structural damage, no hazards, no deaths. Theoretically, after almost two years of fighting for food and shelter and enough warmth to stay alive, Mulder's family emerged unscathed.
"Mulder, it's freezing out here," Scully persisted. Footsteps approached. The camera kept panning. In retrospect, he wasn't certain what he'd been searching for. New ships, of course, but also any sign of life inside one of the dead hulls.
Scully said sharply, "Hey." The phone recorded her in a thick navy blue robe with her hair wet and brushed back as she confiscated his Blackberry. "Enough. No more filming the ships. No more pouring over classified files of the house-to-house sweeps or nuclear strikes. No more tallying the dead. This has to stop."
The screen was a blurry blue nothing, but the phone's microphone had recorded his confession. "What if I stop and it's not over? Or what if I try to stop, and I can't remember how?"
Now she sounded soothing. "Mulder..."
"Can you remember the people we were when we bought this place?" he asked uncertainly. "Remember when we thought a vaccine would save everyone?"
"I remember experiencing tachycardia at the mortgage payments."
He insisted, "You saved people, Scully."
"So did you."
"I didn't save the people in Sudan or North Korea. The hippies in Portland or rioters in LA. I didn't save the three Guardsmen who discovered Will doesn't have a vaccine scar, or the guy who tried to jack our kerosene heater. I didn't save-"
"You made choices." Her breathing shivered as she inhaled. "We made choices." She stressed we. "Excruciating choices, but decisions that had to be made. At last count, billions of people are still alive because of those choices, ourselves and our children included. We're alive, and it's over."
In 1993, Mulder lay still with his arms around Scully, and watched the iPhone's dark blue screen. Over the speaker, in 2007, his voice argued, "What if it's not over? In a cosmic Stephen King story, humans are the twelve-year-old boys who've just seen their first dead body. We know other alien lifeforms exist, but we don't know if more ships are coming. We don't know who out there is looking to colonize or consume us."
"Even if that's the case, you can't do anything about it by standing outside in sub-zero temperatures with your cellphone." Her teeth chattered. "Will and Rebecca are waiting for you to read Harry Potter."
A distant siren wailed.
The microphone recorded him taking a step toward her and the house. "Surviving comes at a cost. All this-" The screen remained dark as she'd held the phone with the camera pointed at her robe, but Mulder recalled gesturing to the broad back yard and the world in general. "-has a cost, and that bill inevitably comes due. When it does... You know how sometimes you just know things, Scully?"
She sounded exasperated. "I know we're minutes from hypothermia. You're in jeans and a sweatshirt. Get inside, Mulder."
He said, "I don't want it to be you," and a long silence followed. The police siren grew farther away. "My father lost Samantha." After a moment, he worked up the courage to confess, "When the universe squares its tab with me, I don't want it to be by taking you."
House slippers took three steps across the frozen wooden boards. "You aren't your father," she informed him. "You don't make deals with the Devil, and you don't choose who lives and who dies."
Her voice barked, "Enough! This is ludicrous. You won't have to choose between our children the way your father chose between you and Samantha."
"I'd choose William," he admitted, and a tense epoch elapsed. Even listening to the recording, Mulder grimaced. "I'd keep Will. Not because he's a boy, not because of the prophecy. Because... Whatever that doctor did during your pregnancy, I wait for Becca to get sick the way Emily got sick. With Will - I know how we got our son. If I have to choose, I don't want to watch another little girl die. I'd rather she just vanished. Hell, it's a family tradition." A pause. "Still want me to come inside and read bedtime stories, Scully?"
Now the silent seconds ticked like a bomb counting down. Instead of an explosion, Scully's voice said finally and with certainty, "You're not your father, Mulder, and you're not going to keep punishing yourself like this. You're coming inside, you're reading Harry Potter to the crew, and Monday morning we're finding a therapist with a high enough security clearance that you can be honest with him. Here," she said, and the phone blurred past the brick exterior of the house, then captured Mulder's tennis shoes. "Turn this damn thing off."
The recording from 2007 ended. In 1993, Scully rolled to face Mulder. "What's Harry Potter?"
"Kids' books about a British boy wizard. Their school is Hogwarts, and Hermione is basically Harry's version of you with a wand. The first six books were published before the invasion, and now the seventh book is finally coming out. William is beside himself. Before the ships arrived, there were a couple movies, but some of the actors died during the Long Winter and the others grew up too much to play teenagers. Don't worry, though: Hollywood got in all three shitty Star Wars prequels."
She ran her finger over his bare shoulder. "Did she- I ever get you to talk to the therapist?
"Scully, my therapist doesn't even know my actual job, let alone what really happens inside my head. Although we're making excellent progress on his co-dependency." He nodded to the phone she held. "Top row, far right: we're on Martha's Vineyard and the ending is much happier."
She wouldn't be dissuaded. "I can hear how much she-" She corrected herself again. "I love you, and how I hate seeing you torture yourself." Now her fingertip traced his pectoral muscle. "You think I was abducted in order to punish you?"
He opened his mouth to lie, to say those were only dark, paranoid delusions fueled by guilt and grief. But his lips moved, "Yes. Maybe not literally, but I think, at the least, karma came calling."
She set the phone aside, and then studied his face. "You wish it would have been our daughter?"
"No, Scully. I wish it would have been me." He exhaled and closed his eyes. "I know how to teeter on the brink of self-destruction in pursuit of some noble truth, and I know I can always count on you. Without you and without being certain I'm one of the good guys, I'm lost."
"You're not lost tonight." Her bedroom was warm, and smelled of sex and clean laundry. Her body felt smooth, and her touch, purposeful. Nearby, the ancient laptop chirped occasionally, and a clock ticked toward morning. "Tonight, you're in 1993, and my bed. You're my future, and I have faith in you."
"You don't know me."
"I know me." She kissed his chin, his shoulder, the center of his chest. A tightly-wound string inside him began slowly, finally, to loosen. "I know the woman in those tapes loves you."
The pillow rustled as Mulder nodded.
She whispered, "I know you'll remember this, even if I don't."
That didn't sound like a question either, but he nodded again.
12 minutes remaining.
Mulder got up and dressed for the same reason dying patients were known to rise from their hospital beds and pack their bags: he sensed he was going somewhere. Time pulled him like a current, eager to return him to his proper place.
Scully had wrapped herself in a white robe and joined him in watching the clock. She sat on the bed. The only light came from the lamp on the nightstand and whatever filtered in through her bedroom window. The pillows, her laptop, her books and notepad littered the rug.
Perhaps he imagined it, but the man in the bedroom mirror seemed more permeable than usual.
As he tied his necktie, Mulder watched the reflection behind him and asked, "Is One Crazy Summer the Molly Ringwald movie where her sister's getting married? John Cusack's in that, right?"
She answered, "That's Sixteen Candles."
"What about the one where they've all graduated from college, but they hang out at their old college bar? Demi Moore's in that one."
"That's St Elmo's Fire," she answered, "which stars Demi Moore and every member of the Brat Pack except John Cusack."
He turned toward the bed. "I think you're making up a movie." He started to step toward her. He intended to, at least. His feet seemed magnetized to the floor. He could have moved but the effort of it felt disproportional.
The portable telephone beside her bed rang, and the one in the living room echoed it, jarringly loud in the still night. She glanced at the clock, then reached for the phone. Her hand remained in mid-air. Her eyes grew wide. "Mulder, I can't move."
"It's okay. We're not supposed to. Just let it ring."
The answering machine kicked on. After a banal message saying she wasn't home and a beep, Jack Willis's voice said, "Dana, I'm hoping I don't wake you, but I got a weird message from some cadets saying your car wouldn't start and you needed me. Security said you already left Quantico, so I called a tow truck, which gave the ETA for your apartment as about now. You don't have to do anything; the tow truck's just gonna drop it off. We're heading out on the lake in a few minutes, but I'll be home Sunday afternoon, and I can come over to take a look at it for you. Or, I'll go with you to talk to the dealership, which I bet is the plan. It has to be some factory defect." The voice paused, then spoke quicker. "Okay. The three stooges say the boat's about to leave without me, sweetheart, but if there's any problem we're at the same hotel I took you to, and the front desk can take a message. Okay, bye."
As soon as the message ended, the feeling of trying to wade through sand faded. Mulder smirked. "Sweetheart? Really? Your ex-boyfriend's gonna be so disappointed when time resets itself and he never has a chance to come over and check under your hood while your current boyfriend's out of the country."
Her brows indicated displeasure. "Mulder, Jack's on vacation. Arranging a tow truck is incredibly nice of him."
"Yeah, if it was 1963." He walked to the bed, put his fingertip to her brow, and rubbed the wrinkle away. "I met Jack. Trust me, in 1993, he's still interested in checking your oil."
She pushed his hand aside. "Is that how this works? Everything just resets itself?"
"I don't know exactly. I presume, from your perspective, I vanish and everything resets to your normal 2 AM with your car parked outside, your coffee cup unbroken, and your fidelity to your boyfriend intact."
"I'd appreciate that. It's been an eventful night. My fidelity's a little sore right now."
"Oh, you're welcome," he said sarcastically. "Give my regards to Ethan." He sat beside her on the bed like they awaited a bus.
After a moment, she announced, "I'm composed of elements from the periodic table and governed by the laws of physics. I'm sentient. Even if you engineered tonight in a parallel universe, I am real. For both of us, this reality exists. Time and matter can't cease to exist. It doesn't rewind and start over. If I'm real, my timeline continues." She sighed. "Or maybe we're both bat-crap crazy."
"Definitely a possibility." When he smoothed his hand over his pants leg, he found the little bump of a Lego figurine. He fished out the plastic toy and stood it on the edge of her nightstand. "That's Harry Potter. The Boy Who Lived. It's William's."
She stared at the Lego figure, and then glanced at the yellow legal pad. "If I write a note to William and Rebecca, can you take it to them?"
"I don't think so. Nothing here can change the future."
"But you will change the future," she argued. "The calories you consumed last night will continue to metabolize in 2010. Trace evidence will be on your skin and clothing. The memories will remain with you. The secret codes on your computer? Pi, then Napier's constant, then the golden ratio? Those are the same constants in the same order I said them earlier tonight. That's not happenstance."
"There are theories that déjà vu and, alternately, the little details people think they get wrong -- being certain you parked on the opposite end of the mall or the gas tank's on the other side of the car - aren't human fallibility." He informed her, "It's reality seeping from another multiverse. Memory debris tracked in from other timelines, from time loops. I'm certain you remember a John Cusack movie that I don't. For you, in this timeline or multiverse or wherever I am, that movie exists. You have a boyfriend you've never mentioned to me, and I'm pretty sure there's an old Fotomat near that Subway and this apartment building didn't allow pets."
"I'm not debating a Fotomat," she responded. "I'm saying, what's the difference between memories and residue from the past, and bringing a note from the past?"
"Not getting counted tardy for first period in time traveler jail? I don't know, Scully. I'm not the scientist. Here." He leaned down and picked up the tablet. "Write a note."
On the yellow pad, after the failed Moby Dick cypher, her handwriting recorded 10(13)666(13)1 and 1 013 666 013 1 in a series of alpha-numeric cyphers: simple substitutions of letters for numbers. For 1 013 666 013 1 if A=1, she'd written J A6 F3 A6 J. Similarly, if A=0, that might be K A(12) G3 A(12) AB or KA1 2G3A 13B or K A12 G3 A13 B.
His eyes stopped halfway down the page.
K A12 G3 A 13B
Mulder's last year at Oxford, his flat - Phoebe's flat, actually - was 13B, and the license tag on his second-hand Range Rover: KA12 G3A. Scully couldn't possibly know either of those things.
"You saw me." He held the tablet in mid-air between them. "In 1986, while I was at Oxford, you observed me. My apartment number, my license plate." He pointed to the series of letters and numbers. "That's what this is. You rewrote it in quintillions or nonillions or something, probably asked my girlfriend to give it to me, and Phoebe tossed the notecard in with my stacks of papers and books. I packed it and shipped it home. That's how that card got there."
"In 1986, I was a med student living on Ramen noodles and tutoring gigs. I promise you I wasn't visiting Oxford, England."
The little gray Lego figure studied them from the nightstand.
"I didn't say you at twenty-two years old, Scully. The you in the future saw the me in the past. It could have happened any time since we've been able to travel back in time. Last year. A couple months ago, even. Any time before I opened that box in our attic and discovered the notecard." Now he clutched the tablet with both hands. "What if you're still there?" His certainty sent down a taproot and sprouted branches and leaves. "That's why I can't find you in 2010. I've made some powerful enemies. One of them kidnapped you and sent you back to 1986. Permanently."
Her skeptical crease returned. "Your grasp of physics seems derived from a Schoolhouse Rock video, but you're certain your time in the past is finite. I suspect that's because the duration of a stable wormhole is proportional to the amount of energy expended." She pressed her fingertip into the fitted sheet, making an indention. "Imagine I'm pushing against time rather than fabric. My pressure against the sheet is energy, which creates a momentary dent into which I can drop matter. The harder I can press, the greater the distance traveled," she explained. "When my energy subsides, the dent evens out and the matter -- or time traveler -- is expelled." She lifted her hand. "A permanent wormhole would require a perpetual power source, which is scientifically impossible."
He nodded that he understood, but reminded her of a fact. "We have access to alien technology. We don't understand how most of it works, but it does. Scully, those spaceships crossed galaxies at faster than the speed of light. Schoolhouse Rock taught me that's scientifically impossible, but those ships still exist. Again, something being impossible doesn't mean it can't happen."
She turned toward him and pulled the top of her bathrobe more tightly closed. "For the sake of argument, let's say an infinite source of energy exists. Let's presume I'm 45 years old and stuck in 1986. Why wouldn't I just write This is your missing wife. I'm trying to communicate with you from 1986, or if I wanted to be cryptic This is your old apartment number and your license plate. Figure out how I know? Maybe This is my location. Send Carl Sagan and a SWAT team. Hell, since I'd never met you, why wouldn't I just hand you a report detailing exactly what happened and tell you not to read it until 2009? Why write out Belphegor's prime and leave it for you to find?"
He checked the cell phone in his jacket pocket. The battery was on its last legs and countdown had reached the two-minute mark. Mulder's heart pounded. "Maybe so I'd come back to 1993 and ask you." He didn't remember setting the legal pad down, but it slid off the edge of the bed and to the rug. "So I'd know what happened to you." He swallowed hard. "So I could see you-" His voice broke. "-one last time. Because you don't think I can find you."
"But you're wrong," he informed her. "I've always found you. I've always saved you."
"Mulder-" She tried to interrupt again.
He stood up on instinct, not because he wanted to leave. He stepped back from the bed. A receding tide of time carried him away from her. He moved toward her front door as slowly as possible, but he couldn't have stopped any more than he could stop breathing.
She got up and followed him. "Mulder, your wedding band: it's silver." She hugged herself with her arms.
He looked down. She was right. The band was narrower and more worn, and a different color.
"It was gold." She reminded him like he hadn't been wearing it for years. "We're changing the future. Right now, you being here is changing the future."
"Shit." He fumbled with his phone and tried to walk slower. The screen showed different apps, a different background. His hands shook so much that opening the photos took a couple tries.
In 2010, he couldn't find pictures of Becca playing chess. He didn't see Will with the puppy. In 2007, Scully didn't help their son balance on a bike. Or her mother bake brownies. Instead, he had a few photos of Scully that looked like he'd taken them at work, and hundreds of pictures of Diana Fowley. In the oldest images, he saw Diana and himself and two little boys. Everyone looked happy. Birthday parties, visiting the zoo, touring NASA. He thumbed between photos as fast as possible. The boys grew. Then the alien ships arrived, and one kid stopped appearing in the pictures. By 2008, Diana vanished, and the remaining brown-eyed teenage boy had a sad, lost expression. In the last snapshots, Scully sat at a table in a fancy kitchen with the boy; she wore a suit and helped with algebra homework. From the way the camera focused on her, Mulder bet this phone had a pass-coded, secret app that contained hundreds of covert photos of his beautiful, loyal, long-time partner.
Light flashed outside her living room window. The tow truck had arrived to deliver her car. In her kitchen, a coffee mug sat on the counter with a teabag still steeping but steam no longer rising.
Mulder turned the phone to show Scully a snapshot of Diana holding a baby and Mulder with a toddler. "My ex-wife. She died in 1999. We never had children."
He'd reached the apartment's entrance, and every second became a struggle not to get sucked into an invisible abyss. She'd stopped a couple yards from the door. She stared at him with huge, frightened blue eyes.
"I gotta go," he told her unsteadily. "In the interest of normalcy, I'm just gonna open the door and leave. I don't know what happens for you after that. But I'll find you."
Behind her, the ceiling light grew overly bright and somehow closer. The world developed a mechanical hum.
"Don't," she ordered in a hoarse whisper. "Don't go to 1986, either. Don't go searching through the past for me. Even if the past resets and the future remains unchanged, don't risk it again. Stay with our children and let me go."
"Scully, right now, we don't have our children."
She repeated, "Don't, Mulder."
As much as he didn't want to, he promised, "Okay. I love you." He felt his hand on the doorknob. He saw her mouth open. Her lips moved, but the humming noise grew so loud he couldn't hear her. The lightbulb on the ceiling expanded until the glow filled the room, and the white of her robe became a bright flash.
Everything became disjointed at a molecular level. Then, like the Leviathan emerging from the abyss, the universe grabbed hold and pulled him down and down and down. Into a dark, bottomless, hungry void. Then nothing. For a moment -- or an eternity - Mulder stood in the quiet blackness of death, and he realized he'd left his coat in the stolen SUV.
A distant pinpoint of light appeared. Like the bulb in her apartment, it grew larger and closer until he felt the gravity of it. Then a supernova engulphed him, and the Leviathan let go.
When Mulder could see again, he stood inside what looked like a spherical, steampunk tanning bed. He had his weapon in his shoulder holster, his phone in his hand, and his wallet and badge in his pocket. Once the deafening hum faded to background noise, outside the chamber he heard the Virginia Tech professor's little French bulldog barking and a Josephine Baker record playing on the Hi-Fi.
May 21, 2010
No time had passed. Nothing inside the vacation cabin's basement had changed. But the Harry Potter figure wasn't in Mulder's pocket. The professor sipped a snifter of cognac and didn't seem to grasp the cosmic importance of a little gray toy's absence.
Mulder's iPhone was dead. His charger was in the SUV, and despite being an expert on quantum physics, the professor was the only wealthy human alive who didn't own some Apple product. In desperation, Mulder ripped off his tie. He lost a button opening his collar. He stuck his hand beneath his shirt and T-shirt.
He had a scar from an old gunshot wound on his shoulder. But not the cross necklace around his throat. His heart pounded on his ribcage to be set free.
Mulder bounded up the basement steps two at a time. He crossed the living room in five strides and yanked open the cabin's front door. The little bulldog chased Mulder, yipping at his heels.
Outside, as well as Mulder could tell, the patchwork of dead spaceships in the murky sky hadn't changed. Gray clouds spit snow at him and obscured the time of day. The planet kept turning. It resembled late winter rather than the spring he'd just left. Patchy snow dotted the ground between the trees. The remote cabin had a Small Hadron Collider in the basement, but no phone. No internet. No TV. No neighbors. Mulder had no way of knowing what lay at the end of the gravel road that wove down the mountainside and into darkness.
He had a sense, though. And it wasn't good. The world felt wrong. As if some horrific event had shattered lives and flattened cities, but Mulder had napped through it. Like he'd turn on a TV or pick up his phone to find life forever altered.
His ESP radar didn't detect Will or Rebecca.
Back inside the over-decorated cabin, the professor stressed that Mulder had visited a parallel universe which now divulged from their own. A world with an extra John Cusack movie and a Scully whose existence and actions had no bearing on Mulder's 2010. Mulder had visited a Scully. Not his Scully. Not necessarily the woman who'd vanished eight months ago.
Nothing in the present should have changed. Theoretically.
Going back to 1993 -- to that Scully or any other - required another alien battery to power the sphere. If Mulder stole another flux capacitor or whatever the hell made the time machine work, Doc Brown needed two other items currently under lock and key in the DARPA warehouse. Alien technology he hoped would increase the sphere's efficiency. Still, he gave the same odds: Mulder would probably return from the past without his head on backward or an arm sticking out of his throat.
The nonplussed professor was full of cognac and hypothetical best guesses, so Mulder climbed behind the wheel of a 2009 Range Rover, touched his palm to the center of the steering wheel, and began the long, winding journey back to the city he'd left a few minutes and seventeen years ago.
William's Lego figure sprawled in a cup holder, arms raised in protest or surrender. Scully's cross necklace hung from the rearview mirror.
The toy forgotten in the car: likely. Will left a trail of Legos and Hot Wheels cars the way Hansel and Gretel left breadcrumbs. But Mulder wouldn't have hung Scully's necklace where William and Becca could see it. As he navigated the treacherous mountain road, Mulder scanned the Range Rover for a ponytail holder or spiral notebook or some sign of Rebecca. A girl's sweater. A little Bonnie Belle lip gloss. A brunette hair longer than a few inches, even.
He smelled Scully on his hands, his clothes.
In Harry Potter, the school staircases moved randomly, leading one place one day, another room on a different day. Walls pretended to be doors, and rooms appeared and vanished randomly. Mulder's reality felt like that, rearranging itself at will with no set floorplan.
Long before he'd driven far enough to have cell service or the iPhone to charge enough to turn on, Mulder had to pull off the road, stumble out of the vehicle, and vomit up a Subway roast beef sandwich, some orange juice, and half an oatmeal-raisin cookie.
After a moment, he knocked the snow off his shoes and got back in the SUV. Got his shit partially together. And, in absence of any other option, kept driving.
Twenty minutes later, the gravel road intersected with two lanes of patched and re-patched pavement. Dirty mounds of snow melted alongside it. A few miles later, he passed a 24-hour convenience store closed at sunset and probably the rest of the day, too. After that, two fast food places and a general store had paper over the windows and empty parking lots. Swaths of America had died during the invasion or never awakened from the Long Winter. Those who survived now clawed out an existence in a thawing, almost bankrupt country. Food shortages and power outages were common. Even modest neighborhoods like Maggie's had become gated communities. Schools worked like Fort Knox, and public playgrounds required a background check and a security code to get inside. Kidnapping wealthy individuals -- or their children -- and demanding a ransom for not removing the chip was big business. Mulder and Scully had always carried a sidearm and let the kids play where they wanted.
Now, on his own, Mulder liked Will and Rebecca inside the gate at Grandma's house. Which is where they were, he assured himself. Everybody was fine. Time would self-correct and everything and everyone would be okay. Except Scully, who was stuck in the land of acid-washed denim and "Poppa Don't Preach," and made Mulder promise he wouldn't try to rescue her.
Jesus, his cell phone still wouldn't power on. Mulder wondered if it hadn't survived the quantum leap.
He tried to think and steer around potholes at the same time. The time travel experiments were classified and for now, suspended. The Virginia Tech professor faced a decade of jail time for possessing the equipment and probably a firing squad for using it. The same type of devices the professor had in his basement, Mulder had seen in the DARPA warehouse, returned from MIT and Caltech, and sitting silently beneath sheets of plastic. Even if another researcher duplicated the technology, they'd need an alien flux capacitor to power it. Stealing that required the highest security clearance: being the head of the NSA, the CIA, or the FBI. A top military official. Occupying the Oval Office or a desk damn close to it. When Mulder tried to match someone who knew the technology existed to someone who could access it, the pool of names got small.
The Range Rover chirped, then Rebecca's voice spoke over the speakers. "Daddy?" The word echoed over the spotty connection. "Daddy? Are- Are you with the President?"
Mulder let up on the accelerator and took a shuddery breath. Once he could speak, he answered, "No, honey. I'm not with the president. Are you-" His heart pounded so hard it hurt. "Are you and your brother okay?"
The disembodied little girl's voice reported, "William said he's allowed to eat all the cupcakes he wants. He didn't eat any fruits or vegetables at dinner. None at all," she stressed. The phone found a few more bars and her voice became clearer. "He ate two chicken strips with ketchup, and ketchup's not technically a vegetable."
In all likelihood, Becca ate three chicken strips, no ketchup, and some applesauce, and felt nutritionally superior to Will. In his mind's eye, Mulder envisioned her standing over her phone with her arms crossed and Scully's annoyed wrinkle between her eyebrows. His nose started dripping. He sniffed and told her, "You both have to do what Grandma says."
After a long, disappointed pause, she said, "Fine," sounding exactly like her mother.
The phone crackled. Mulder's nose dripped again.
"Daddy, are you coming down with a cold?" the little voice demanded.
"I hope not." He took a breath. "I'm on my way to get you, but it will be a few hours. Play nice with your brother and don't give Grandma a hard time. Does Will want to say hi?"
A pre-pubescent version of Scully's voice said scornfully, "William's eating cupcakes."
"Then you better get one before he eats them all. I love you, Becca."
She said "I love you," back, but sounded disappointed with his ruling on the cupcake case, added "Bye, Daddy," and ended the call.
Mulder found a wide place on the windy mountain road and pulled off with two tires in a snow bank, two on the berm, and the vehicle tilted about ten degrees to the left. His phone loaded texts and emails and alerts at glacial speed. Rebecca had sent a full report of her brother's activities since 5:45 PM. The Devil didn't keep track of sins as well as Becca Mulder did, at least when it came to her brother. William had sent pictures of cupcakes and the puppy. Of the puppy eating a cupcake. Notification that the puppy had then thrown up a cupcake thankfully came in text, not pictorial form, from Will.
The cross necklace no longer hung from the rearview mirror. Mulder located it within seconds, around his neck.
He had no memory of putting it there, but infinite relief at finding it.
He checked the photos on the phone. However he'd veered off-course in the past, now the images matched the ones in his memory. So did the videos. The kids' stored birthdates and medical information and school stuff looked correct. Only then did he think to look down at his hand. He wore a plain, medium-width gold wedding band. The one he'd chosen with Scully.
His risk of cardiac arrest began to pass.
Rebecca sent a photo of herself defiantly holding three cupcakes. Will reported the puppy had eaten the vomited cupcake a second time.
The big engine idled. Sleet dotted the windshield. Mulder's foot still rested on the brake.
Halfway down the screen, a text messages came from a five-digit number. He opened it, expecting notification he'd paid a utility bill. Instead, a four-second video clip played of his stubbly face close to Scully's youthful image as they looked up at the camera. On the screen, Mulder said Magic and kissed her cheek. In 1993.
Mulder rubbed his jaw. In another six hours, he'd have stubble like that, but he didn't now. He didn't understand how the video-
Another text chimed. The phone displayed three photos of him and Scully in her bed, looking up at the camera. In the early hours of tomorrow morning, after a night of sex, seventeen years ago.
He didn't understand how this was possible. Mulder didn't know how any of this worked, and the guy who did understand was on top of a mountain, drunk on cognac and baby-talking to his bulldog.
After playing the video a dozen times, then staring at the last picture -- the one of Scully smiling in wonder -- for ages, Mulder touched the chip implanted in his left palm and said, "Access the secure network and call DARPA. Authorization November-nine-bravo-golf-two-six-India." He checked his mirrors for traffic, though he'd been the road's sole occupant the entire trip.
The sound system responded cheerfully, "I can't find a contact for DARPA Authorization."
"Call the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency in Arlington," he said irritably. "On whatever line I'm supposed to use based on my security clearance. You're programed to do this."
A pause. Then happily, "Do you mean the number for -" The voice became flatly automated. "-The Arlington School of Self-Defense?"
"Fuck you." He shoved the SUV into park and picked up his phone. "Siri, call the DC FBI switchboard." He asked for a secure line. He told the DARPA operator to put him through to the Non-Terrestrial Archive Division and gave his badge number and authorization code so she'd admit the warehouse existed. When the guy on duty picked up, Mulder got to repeat his badge number and code yet again, old school. Once that got entered in the DARPA security system, the soldier started saying sir a lot.
"I want a visual inventory of items 6576 and 6579," Mulder demanded. The vast warehouse should have three time travel spheres and seventeen flux capacitor energy devices. Virginia Tech had returned a dummy sphere and power source, and the professor had created a second bogus capacitor so Mulder could do an Indiana Jones swap last week. Still, the count should be three and seventeen.
A moment later, the soldier reported three spheres and seventeen power sources. That didn't mean others weren't counterfeit, though.
"Turn them on," Mulder ordered. "Shove a big gray metal shoebox into the slot in each sphere and power them on."
"Sir, I'm not authorized to do that, sir."
The connection crackled a moment. "Sir, with respect, no one's authorized to do that. I'm gonna hafta contact my superior."
"Look at your computer screen." Mulder said succinctly, "I am your superior. Turn them on."
The soldier jabbered. "Sir, these devices don't work. Two of the original five spheres exploded, each killing dozens of people."
"Well, those two spheres aren't there now, are they?" If he'd had a cigarette, he would have taken a draw from it in homage to his father. "Do you love your girlfriend, soldier? Your wife and kids? Your parents? Do you want them waiting for you when you get home?" Mulder didn't bother awaiting a response. "Power the devices on, toss in a quarter, close the door, and hit send. Look through the little window and tell me what you see."
Mulder heard plastic rustling. Metal clanking. Then a hum.
"Shit. It's gone," the soldier announced shakily. The loud hum continued. "Christ. I put in some coins, and they're gone. Where in the hell did they go?"
"Now the next sphere."
"I don't have any more coins."
Mulder told the phone coolly, "I suggest you improvise."
The cycle of powering up a device, opening and closing the door, and sending something took about forty-five seconds. Then the soldier reported, "My cigarettes are gone."
"Good. It's a nasty habit. One more."
Mulder didn't know what the third sphere would do. The professor just said it was a duplicate. It could be a working duplicate. Or an exploding duplicate. From the scientific perspective, the devices functioned. They sent things through time and space. They just lost their passenger or returned a human scramble. And sometimes caused an unplanned nuclear reaction.
In a loud voice, over the mechanical hum, the soldier called, "I don't think this one is fully functional, sir. It powers on, but I can still see my Metro pass." A second later, a despondent, "It's melting my Metro pass, sir."
"Power them down before you have to hitchhike home, soldier."
So, two real spheres and the professor's duplicate. Checking for authentic power devices seemed pointless; teams were still pulling new ones out of the spaceships, and any nonfunctional flux capacitors could be dummies or exhausted or merely damaged. Either someone had constructed a fourth functional sphere or they'd sent Scully back in time from inside that warehouse.
"My coins are all jacked up, sir," the soldier said, bringing Mulder back to reality. He remained parked on the edge of a potholed road in the Shenandoah Mountains, holding his phone. "Like they're inside out, cut in half, and welded back together." The humming stopped. "My smokes are the same way. Shit."
"You should try the patch," Mulder advised, "and you should forget we had this conversation."
The soldier was quick to agree. "Yes, sir."
Mulder hung up uncertain if he'd made progress or not. Or if what Scully told him in 1993 even applied to this universe. She'd been right about one thing: if she wanted him to know she was trapped in the past, she'd picked a bizarre means of communicating that.
He got the notecard out and studied it a while.
Using the phone's browser, he searched K A12 G3 A 13B, which brought up links to engine schematics, algebraic equations, homework help websites, and patents. He tried adding quotation marks, and then taking out the spaces. With the resources of the entire US government at his disposal, Mulder sat alone on a mountainside in the dark with spotty cell service, Googling.
Unless Scully tried to communicate the drivetrain of a Mazda, this was pointless.
The sky had gone from bruised purple to pitch black. To reach Maggie's house before midnight, he needed to get on the road. Despite the instinct to turn around and drive back to the cabin, he continued down the mountain. He tapped his wedding band against the steering wheel as facts spun in his mind like clothing in a dryer.
He could only interact with a past Scully he'd never met. Logically, he'd time travel a date just before she became his partner. She'd known the 1993 version of herself would figure out the code, but tell Mulder not to risk another quantum leap. Scully also knew he'd never keep the promise he just made.
Or Scully was dead, the notecard was meaningless, and Mulder was grieving and bat-crap crazy. Which seemed to be the professor's, Skinner's, and everyone else's appraisal.
The road straightened out and brought Mulder to an empty intersection and the sign for the highway. He idled at the stop sign far longer than it took to look for traffic.
"I need a hint, Scully," he told the windshield. "Where are you, partner?"
Over the stereo, Siri asked, "Do you want to call Dana Scully?"
His abdomen tightened and his chest hurt again. "Shut up." He grabbed the phone and held it up like he could punch a digital assistant. The screen still showed his K A12 G3 A 13B search.
He stared at the results. Math homework websites, technical manuals. Nothing remotely relevant to Scully. While Mulder had slept, she'd devised thousands of sequences of numbers and letters from Belphegor's prime. Mulder and Scully had dozens of license plate and apartment and office numbers. Social Security numbers, high school locker combinations, alpha-numeric passwords. Birthdates, badge numbers. Hell, Scully could manipulate 1000000000000066600000000000001 into William's Blue Cross/Blue Shield policy number and Becca's GPA. In Mulder's head, her voice said Logically, some of those sequences will correspond to something relevant to you or me.
She'd say he was reaching. Seeing what he wanted to see.
He wanted to see her. And he had. At least, he thought he had. Maybe he hadn't gone anywhere. Maybe the spheres merely created the illusion of visiting the past, implanting false memories now indistinguishable from his own. Or maybe he was insane. In the scheme of self-serving delusions, this one let him tell her goodbye. He even got answers about her disappearance and absolution for his sins. His shrink should be thrilled.
Mulder couldn't tell if he still smelled Scully on his skin or just imagined he did.
He sighed and dropped his head back against the headrest. At a lower elevation, steady drizzle rather than sleet fell on the windshield. The wipers cleared a view of headlights on the highway, far in the distance. The phone grew warm in Mulder's hand.
He glanced down. The screen showed algebraic equations and mechanical schematics, but no links. He must have touched the image tab. He didn't remember doing that, though.
He looked closer. The first image wasn't a graph or diagram. It was a tiny photo of Dana Scully holding up a sheet of paper with -- Mulder expanded the image until it became pixels -- Shut off the device written in black marker. She wore a gold wedding band. Her nails were manicured. Her curly hairstyle and floral blouse looked mid-80s, but otherwise she was the woman he'd kissed goodbye in 2009 when he left for work.
In 1986, the internet consisted of ARPANET. The DOD, the National Science Foundation. CERN in Switzerland. The National Physics Laboratory in the UK. Maybe some universities. The world wide web hadn't existed. Computers sent data packets over telephone lines. To get that photo to show up in 2010, she'd have to access ARPANET and plant the image. In the 90s, the earliest search engines would pick it up. As long as a picture labeled K A12 G3 A 13B remained on some antiquated mainframe connected to the internet, Google would take it from there.
A sharp rap on the glass of the driver's side window startled Mulder.
A second series of urgent staccato raps. A weathered man's voice called, "Mister?"
Mulder turned his head. An old man in overalls, with a grizzled beard and a blaze orange vest, peered in at him. Behind the man, an ancient pickup truck idled.
"You okay in there, mister?"
Mulder started to lower the window before he remembered that was a poor choice these days. Instead, he inhaled and nodded. He felt a sense of urgency, but as if it stemmed from a dream he couldn't quite recall.
"You need me to call an ambulance?" the man asked.
Mulder blinked again. He still sat behind the wheel of the Range Rover, but the headlights cut through pure night and illuminated a snowbank and dark trees rather than road. The dashboard clock said nine minutes had passed. His phone screen had gone black. He looked around. The intersection and the stop sign were behind him. The engine growled irritably. He must have taken his foot off the brake, coasted across the pavement, and into a heap of snow.
The old man stepped back warily and demanded, "Are you on drugs, mister?" He turned toward the truck. "Phyllis, call the law."
"I am the law," Mulder replied. He put his foot on the brake and lowered the window a few inches. "I'm fine, thanks. I guess I dozed off."
"You need some rest," the geriatric good Samaritan advised.
Still feeling dazed, Mulder nodded. The old man turned and limped back to the truck.
Another minute passed as Mulder sat with his hands at 10 and 2 on the wheel. The old couple's taillights grew distant, then vanished. The photo of Scully, the notecard, the trip to 1993, Shut off the device, even Will and Becca's cupcakes: Mulder remembered. Or at least, he thought he did. Rather than forming a coherent narrative though, each piece of information seemed pulled randomly from a hat.
After two more minutes, his mental fog cleared enough that he put the vehicle in park and checked his phone again. He found a Weather Service alert about a freeze warning tonight, some work emails, another text from Becca, and no picture of Scully from 1986. No weird texts from 1993, either.
The K A12 G3 A 13B search remained on his phone and in the browser's history; it just didn't turn up the miniscule image of Scully. He tried again. Algebraic equations, patent applications, and engine schematics. No Scully.
He rolled down his window, took a couple breaths of cold air, and checked his typing. Added quotes, removed spaces. Nothing.
Minutes ago, the search engine had found the picture. Mulder hadn't imagined it, though a frightened, desperate organ in his lower abdomen quaked as he second-guessed himself.
If he'd found the 1986 photo, then the mile-long prime number wasn't meant to confound Mulder. At least, not forever. She'd chosen it to appear innocuous to her kidnapper. Which it had. To shut off an operational time travel device, Mulder first had to know one existed. Finding the notecard guaranteed he'd do whatever it took to visit 1993 in search of answers.
She'd left Mulder a trail of clues. If he'd really seen the photo.
Scully's message said to shut off the device. Mulder thought of her explaining a wormhole by pressing her index finger into her mattress. When the power source stopped, the tunnel collapsed and the time traveler returned.
The demon Belphegor tempted lazy men with elaborate, seemingly magical devices.
Mulder rolled up the window and had Siri call Margaret Scully as he backed out of the snowbank and swung the big SUV around. Tires squealed as he headed back toward the mountains.
The professor didn't need another alien flux capacitor. He hadn't even needed the one Mulder stole last week. The guy returned a counterfeit device to the DARPA warehouse in the first place. To send Scully back in time, the professor's device worked eight months ago. And it had been on ever since. The alien batteries sailed spaceships across the universe. This one wasn't exhausted and it never stopped humming. The noise got louder when the sphere activated, but beneath the Josephine Baker records and the stupid barking dog, it always hummed.
The first call to Grandma's house got dropped. Mulder jabbed the phone and tried again.
A lazy man had grown accustomed to the magical device the government decided didn't work and demanded that he give back. Mulder and the military kept the alien technology secret and locked away, but the professor knew it existed. So, he found a way to get anything he liked from that DARPA warehouse.
"Pick up," Mulder requested when Maggie answered. Once the speakerphone clicked off and only she could hear him, he asked, "Can you keep the crew a little longer?"
"Of course, Fox." She used the soothing tone of a mother reassuring a child. "I wasn't even expecting you back tonight."
He heard shrieking in the background, Becca yell, "You're such a little imbecile!" and something thud.
Maggie called, "William," warningly. Then in the soft voice, "Fox, they're fine. Why don't you get some rest?"
"I'm sorry. I have something I need to do." He grimaced as he hit a series of potholes at sixty miles per hour. "I'll be there soon."
She repeated, "Of course."
"I need to call Skinner before I lose cell service. Shit." He managed to avoid a buckle in the pavement, but it cost him some tire tread. "Maggie, I'm not sure how this is going to go down. I'll try to keep it quiet, but if news crews show up, keep everyone inside. Keep them off the internet. Don't turn on a TV or tell the kids anything yet."
She held the phone close and whispered, "What's happening? Fox, can you tell me?" Over the years, his long-suffering mother-in-law often lacked the security clearance to know where Mulder was or exactly what he was doing. "Is it Dana?"
He inhaled. "She's alive." Saying it sent a vibration through his body and made it real. "Dana's alive."
She said, "Fox," drawing out his name sadly and using that pacifying tone again. "Fox, it's been eight months this time. Dana's-"
"She's not dead," he snapped. "I'm not crazy, Maggie."
The phone transmitted a disapproving silence from Mrs. Scully with a barking puppy and a sibling brawl in the background.
He amended, "Okay, I'm not completely crazy. Dana's alive. She was kidnapped and sent back in time. She's alive and in 1986."
"Fox, that's impossible."
He smacked the steering wheel. "Everyone keeps using that word. Remember all those times I ranted about aliens and government conspiracies, and no one believed me until the sky went dark? Your daughter's alive and I'm bringing her home. Impossible doesn't mean what you think it means."
May 21, 2010
Time had an odd way of presenting itself. The hours Mulder spent in 1993 with Scully passed in an instant, but the minutes as he waited on the SWAT team stretched eons.
On the phone earlier, Skinner had made a good point. Scully might not be the only person the professor held hostage in the past. In the chaos of the invasion, the riots, and the Long Winter, millions of people disappeared, presumed dead. Politicians, heiresses, Hollywood A-listers. The professor could be extracting money, influence, or access from any of those individual's families. The victims might be trapped in Florence during the Black Death, or Genghis Khan's harem, or a slave ship, or the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Opening the biological floodgates to the past required CDC HAZMAT teams. The SWAT team needed briefed, though Mulder had an agent from his own department on clean-up detail: a guy with double-secret security clearance to wipe everyone's memory and provide a plausible cover story.
Mulder wanted Scully out of the Reagan administration, but he tried to care about national security and other potential victims, too.
Crouched in the soggy snow in the dark forest, he cocked his pistol and tried really, really hard to care. His coat still hadn't returned from 1993. When he'd made the call, he'd planned to wait in his vehicle for a headset and backup. Upon arrival, Mulder compromised. He waited half a mile from his vehicle, without a headset, freezing, and fifty feet from the cabin. He presumed the FBI and CDC crew would figure the plan had evolved and catch up.
The low, steady hum from the sphere droned in the otherwise silent night.
As soon as he heard a distant helicopter and crunch of tires on the gravel road, Mulder moved. He crossed the clearing in the darkness, jogged up the steps, and -- utilizing decades of FBI expertise -- knocked on the door. The French bulldog barked hysterically.
When the professor answered, Mulder shot him in the head and stepped inside.
The cabin interior looked like Sherlock Holmes lived there, and felt uncomfortably warm. A fire crackled, and a Josephine Baker record played on an old Hi-Fi. Downstairs, the large, closed sphere was dark, but the basement sounded like a giant hive. The device probably had an off switch, but Mulder improvised. He yanked out the flux capacitor, slung it across the cement floor, and put three slugs in it.
Outside, voices yelled "More shots fired! Shots fired!" which meant now would have been a good time to have a headset.
The stupid dog yapped continuously, but the hum had stopped.
Mulder fired a fourth and fifth time in case the alien power source had second thoughts about dying.
Overhead, heavy feet hurried across the floor. Someone had the sense to shut off the record player. Mulder didn't answer when the agents yelled his name. Really, the dead body should be a clue.
He peered through the little porthole into the dark sphere. He couldn't see anything, so he used the flashlight on his phone. Still, the time travel device looked empty. Maybe he had to completely destroy it. Or the power source. He yelled "Somebody bring me a sledgehammer" at an agent descending the steps.
Hell, he'd call in a nuclear strike if necessary. He needed Scully to step out of that device, and he needed her in the condition she departed the twenty-first century. Alive.
The basement's high little windows lit up. Time hiccoughed and seemed to slow. Mulder stared at the glow. He took a step closer, but then heard a helicopter landing outside.
He clenched his teeth and put a sixth slug in the flux capacitor.
When a member of the SWAT team pointed out, "That's classified federal property," Mulder pointed the pistol at him.
Then Mulder holstered his sidearm and checked the sphere again. Scully hadn't appeared inside. He unlatched the door and yanked it open. The interior was the size of a small fitting room. It was cold and dark and unquestionably empty. He closed the door and resumed staring through the porthole the way his children watched the front window. He shone his phone flashlight around, making sure he didn't overlook her.
Maybe the time necessary to return was proportional to the amount of time spent in the past. Or possibly, bullets didn't completely destroy the power source. The soldier in the DARPA warehouse said the cigarettes and coins came back as soon as the spheres there shut down, though.
He put his hand on his chest. The notecard had vanished.
Maybe Mulder's time didn't correspond to hers. Perhaps she'd been stuck in 1986 for a century. Or maybe she'd died decades ago but her ghostly clues remained. Or she could have returned to the point in time she'd left, now eight months behind Mulder's timeline. Or to an alternate universe. He didn't understand how any of this worked. He just wanted Scully back.
Without looking away from the porthole, he demanded, "I need a physicist. Get me the Caltech or MIT lady."
Scully's voice answered shakily, "Will U of Maryland do?"
When he turned, she stood halfway down the steps, wearing a lavender robe with white pajamas and slippers, with her auburn hair in the same curly bob as the 1986 internet photo. His muscles mutinied and refused to move. He couldn't even speak or breathe or blink.
She descended a step, seeming disoriented. "I- I was getting ready for bed. There was a bright light." Her teeth chattered and her eyes were wide and frightened. "Where am I?"
"You- You're home. Not our home, but the right year. You were abducted. The man who kidnapped you, who sent you back in time: he lives here. I just shut off the device. Why, why aren't you inside it?"
"I don't know." She hugged her waist with her arms. A member of the SWAT team looked through the doorway and discovered a missing-presumed-dead Nobel Laureate in pajamas. More yelling commenced upstairs. Scully focused on Mulder and asked hollowly, "Why are you dressed like that?"
Mulder glanced down. "I was in 1993." Now words tumbled out. "My coat's still in 1993. I wasn't kidnapped. I went to talk to you. I found the notecard. I found the picture you put on the internet."
She stepped down again. Mulder hadn't budged from beside the sphere. "How did you stand Phoebe Green?"
"I- I was twenty-four. She was nineteen and good in bed," he stammered. "The crazy's less bothersome when she's naked. You and me, in 1993: events transpired."
Because confessing to sex with her in some parallel universe was of vital importance right now.
A female agent brought a blanket and draped it around Scully's shoulders. Scully wrapped it tighter. The rest of the SWAT team spectated from the doorway at the top of the steps, watching Mulder warily. The SAC whispered into his com system.
"He used chloroform," Scully told Mulder, keeping up her end of this disjointed discussion. "The man who abducted me. I recognized the smell. I stepped outside the house, and suddenly there was a cloth doused with chloroform over my mouth and nose. Who sedates someone with chloroform in 2009?"
Mulder swallowed dryly. "He had a flair for the dramatic. He's um, he's dead. I just shot him."
"What did he want? Unrestricted access to extraterrestrial technology?"
Mulder nodded. "To see his project reach fruition. Or maybe just an unhealthy fixation on Josephine Baker."
She reached the second step from the bottom. "I was- When he abducted me, I was-" She blinked and inhaled as if trying to clear her mind. "Did you pick up the kids from school?"
He answered, "Yes," but then realized she meant the day she was kidnapped, not this afternoon. "Scully, it's not September. It's Friday, May 21, 2010. You've been missing for eight months."
Her head moved slightly side-to-side. "That's scientifically impossible. I should return to the same point in time that I left."
"You didn't." He managed a stilted answer, a breath, and two paces toward her. "And eight months is an epoch in Mulder years." Another verbal deluge struck. "Maybe the device hiccupped when I destroyed it. Or the professor programed an ace in the hole: if anyone else shut down the sphere, you lost time in the present. Hell, maybe you beamed in from some parallel universe, missed your exit, and ended up here. In which case, I'm invoking quantum finders keepers."
She stared at him. Then, instead of a wordy rebuttal, her eyes darted around the basement. "William and Rebecca?"
Another few steps. His chest pounded. If he hadn't suffered a heart attack in the last twenty-four hours, Mulder figured he was safe for the next fifty years. "They're okay. They're with your mother."
She stood on the last step, eye level with him. "I want to go home."
"You can. As soon as the CDC people check you out. The agents will want to interview-"
"No." Even as dazed as she seemed, the word had a dangerous finality. She radiated the kind of quiet horror and fury that ended in either tears or murder. "No one's examining me. No one's questioning me." She spoke softly and deliberately. "If I just missed eight months of my life, the FBI and CDC can sort this out on their own time. You and I saved humankind. We're going home."
"Okay," he agreed. "We'll pick up Will and Becca from your mom's, and we'll go home."
She let go of the blanket to put her cool palm on his jaw. Her hand shook but his world steadied. "Are you afraid you're hallucinating or dreaming?"
Mulder bit his lip and nodded.
She confessed, "So am I."
He hugged her against him like he could pull her inside his body. He kissed her cheek and told her hair hoarsely, "It's a really nice hallucination. I'm sorry it's scientifically impossible."
The way he loved her, the pain of losing her, the relief and completion he felt now: the half-life on emotions like that was roughly forever. It could probably power spaceships.
Continents moved before he did. Then, he realized he still clutched his phone, flashlight on. As soon as he had cell service, she could Facetime her mother and the kids. For now, he followed Scully upstairs and into a gaggle of CDC people and FBI agents dressed for a party that had ended as they arrived. Scully must be the only victim who returned. The same agent who'd brought the blanket now soothed the bulldog.
"Don't so much as sneeze or stumble," Mulder cautioned Scully. "All these people will yell save her and swarm us like in that John Cusack movie."
"One Crazy Summer," she informed him. At the front door, she stopped at the professor's corpse sprawled on an Oriental rug. Blood pooled around his head, and his eyes stared up at nothing. After glancing over the body, she asked, "How many bullets in your clip, Mulder?"
She held out her hand. Mulder passed her the pistol but mentioned, "He's already dead."
A deafening shot echoed inside the cabin, then a second. Blood and bone spattered. After putting two bullets in the professor's chest, Scully's third pierced his forehead. "I missed my anniversary," she told the corpse so icily Mulder stepped back. "My daughter's birthday. Giving the keynote address at the International Virology Symposium. Eight PTA meetings and an entire season of Mad Men."
The FBI agents gave her a wide berth, and the CDC people pressed back against the cabin's walls. With the cold breeze swirling through the open front door, the fireplace crackled and popped angrily.
Scully announced, "Now he's really-most-sincerely dead," and handed the warm pistol back to Mulder. She gestured to their spectators. "Wipe their memories."
Mulder promised, "I was gonna do that," like she'd reminded him to take out the trash.
She stepped over the corpse, through the doorway, and onto the cabin's porch. Outside, black SWAT vans filled the driveway and a helicopter powered down on the lawn. The sleet continued. She pulled the blanket tight around her. "It's freezing. I'd almost forgotten the cold. Where are we?"
"The Shenandoah Mountains."
She must have decided that was too far from home to walk. "Where are you parked?"
He put his arm around her shoulders. She trembled. "Down the hill. About half a mile."
The crowd trailed after them, seeming unsure how to proceed. Mulder should have them search for evidence of other kidnappings. It seemed unlikely the professor launched his chrono-crimes by abducting a famous doctor. There'd be earlier victims who, if they hadn't returned, must not have survived. Their families deserved answers. Justice, even if both came in a sanitized version.
Mulder would get on that first thing tomorrow.
As if it was the next logical question, Scully asked, "Did you take Will and Becca to mass?" as her delicate slippers and his old loafers crunched on the frozen grass, then wet gravel. She'd gotten the professor's blood on her toe, and spatters of red decorated her pale purple robe.
"I took them to the dentist. I got Will a dog and Rebecca an iPhone."
Her teeth chattered. "That's not the same, Mulder."
The helicopter's black blades turned slowly and silently. The moon was a lighter glow behind the gray clouds.
She asked wearily, "How'd you leave your coat in 1993?"
"I think that's self-explanatory." The bits of ice stung his forehead and cheeks. "I'm taking it as a sign we need an extended vacation someplace warm."
Her head barely moved as she nodded. "Bora Bora."
"Okay. I don't think I bombed them."
Mulder kept walking. The SWAT team followed. Despite the blanket, Scully shivered in earnest. She winced as she walked across sharp gravel in her thin slippers. The cabin fell into darkness behind them. When the last perplexed agents abandoned their ambling pursuit, Mulder asked softly, "Do you want me to carry you?"
She didn't speak, but she nodded again.
He gathered her up with the blanket around her. She put one arm outside the blanket, making carrying her easier. Her hand smelled like gunpowder. "Give me twenty minutes, and I'll have cell service and you can talk to your mother and the crew," he promised.
Her head nodded against his shoulder. "I think I'm going to vomit."
"I know a good spot."
A Lincoln Navigator running lights and a siren rounded a sharp turn, tires sliding, gravel flying. The headlights bounced closer on the bumpy road. The driver was tall, broad-shouldered: a silhouette suggesting the Deputy Director of the FBI. When the luxury SUV skidded to a stop beside Mulder and lowered the window, Skinner skipped all niceties. "The SAC said she's alive, conscious. That you're both acting crazy. Are you taking her to a hospital? Get in."
The sleet redoubled its efforts. Mulder stood on the edge of the gravel road, arms full of Scully. "I'm thinking Subway. The restaurant. Once we get the kids and her stomach settles down."
Scully raised her head. She'd stopped shivering, and sounded tired. "That sounds really nice." A bloody slipper dangled from her toe a few feet from Skinner's face. "Are they still open?"
Mulder adjusted his grip on her thighs. "The one at the Pentagon's open 24-hours. We could get cookies. Oatmeal raisin for us, chocolate chip for the crew."
She nodded approvingly.
The Deputy Director's forehead and mouth folded into a puzzled scowl. "Agent Mulder, I hate to obstruct her homecoming or your children's access to baked goods, but explain how you discovered an illegal time travel device still in operation, let alone determined Dr. Scully's circumstances."
"I stole equipment from DARPA's Non-Terrestrial Artifacts Department believing it was necessary for time travel to 1993. Upon returning, I ordered the other archived devices activated as well, and with some help from ARPANET, Google, and Scully, I deduced the scientist with whom I'd been colluding also held Scully hostage in 1986." He shifted Scully again. She'd seemed lighter the last time he carried her from a crime scene. "Then I shot the unarmed scientist while he posed no threat to me, I damaged federal property, and I'm probably obstructing several missing person cases right now. Also, Scully shot him. It's been an exciting Friday night that's spanned three decades, and now we're going home."
Skinner's face twitched as he seemed to tally that laundry list of crimes. "Dr. Scully?"
This time her head didn't move. She mumbled, "What Mulder said."
Mulder assured the Deputy Director of the FBI, "Don't worry; my guy's coming with the blinky-memory thing," before he turned and continued down the rutted gravel road. Remembering his manners, he called, "Have a nice evening," from the darkness.