Black Sails

AUTHOR: Nina Smith
DATE: November 29, 1995
CATEGORY: Crossover (X-Files)
RATING: PG-13 for harsh language
ARCHIVE: May be disseminated if unchanged, author credit given in full, and no money changes hands.
DISCLAIMER: The X-Files and all associated personnel belong to Chris Carter; ER and all associated personnel belong to Michael Crichton. Used without permission. No copyright infringement intended. Your indulgence warmly appreciated.
AUTHOR'S NOTES: With thanks and affection to all those who sent me such generous comments about "A Dark Smear Under the Sky"; I hope you like this one as well.
UNCANONICAL CONTENT WARNING: In this story, the rift between Krycek and Cancer Man seen on the show (in "The Paper Clip") has not occurred. Maybe it's just me, but I think they're made for each other. Like bondage and discipline. And as for my version of "The Truth" (of which Mulder gets a snootful), well, it's about damn time somebody gave the carcinogenic _eminence noire_ the benefit of the doubt.
INTRODUCTION Nature abhors a vacuum, but Melodrama simply cannot abide a perfectly good McGuffin left at the bottom of a river ... This story is a continuation of "A Dark Smear Under the Sky," and as such it is strongly recommended to read the earlier one first. Once again, no sex or romance, quite a bit less bloodshed this time, but the indispensable over-the-top villainy has been retained - in the form of someone we all know and "love" (you're probably way ahead of me). SUMMARY: Sequel to Dark Smear Under the Sky
Now return with me to the Windy City, where it's an ill wind indeed that blows no good for our heroes and the unsuspecting human race ...

The darkness swirled around him, pulsing like blood, burning. Blind, he was blinded by it, with the pain sucking at his skin, but he couldn't move, couldn't even scream out the terror and agony as he hung paralyzed in the darkness that shrouded the earth, at once shadow and flame ... it throbbed around him, his own heart forced to pulse with the rhythm as a slave obeys the drum, and the words roared across his awareness:

*You are MINE, John Truman Carter.*
*You belong to ME.*
*Your body is MY vehicle.*
*Your blood is MY food.*
*Your soul is MY prey.*
*Now and forever you are MINE.*
*MINE ... *

With a gasp he bolted upright out of his tortured sleep. His skin dripped cold sweat; his bed reeked of it. For a long minute John Carter sat immobile, every muscle stiff, sucking the stale air of his bedroom and waiting for his heart to slow down. Returned, it had returned: the dream, the voice, the horror ...

The young man slowly turned his gaze toward the glow of the bedside clock. Three-ten AM. He groaned quietly as he dropped back down against his pillow. Sure, he'd close his eyes once more, but that was just for the sake of form. There'd be no more sleep tonight. At the rate things were going, there would be no more sleep ever again.

Dr. Peter Benton cast a cold, appraising glance at his sub-intern as the haggard boy half-stumbled into the emergency room of Cook County General Hospital. "Carter, you look like hell," he commented evenly.

"I'm sorry, Dr. Benton," Carter answered, rubbing his reddened eyes. "I haven't been sleeping very well - "

"Well, whatever is keeping you awake, I strongly suggest you give it up unless you want to wash out of the surgical sub-i, because with the way you look now, I wouldn't trust you to help a barber shave someone, much less assist me with this morning's appendectomy." The surgical resident's handsome dark face was not quite sneering. Brown eyes hard, he turned abruptly away. "Go crash for an hour in the lounge. Dr. Morgenstern and I will be expecting you fully awake and scrubbed in OR Three at exactly eight-thirty."

"Yes, sir." Suddenly it hit him exactly what his teacher was offering: rest time. Unprecedented rest time. The familiar smile lit Carter's lean, fine features for the first time in days. "Thank you, Dr. Benton!"

The other's receding voice stayed cold. "Go rest, Carter. Eight-thirty."

"Morning, Susan!"

"Oh, hi, Carol." The charge nurse's voice pulled Dr. Susan Lewis out of a tumbling waterfall of thoughts and back into the ER. "What's on the board?"

Carol Hathaway glanced at it. "Looks like you have a fever in Two. Little Susie make it to the day-care center okay?"

"Yes." Lewis checked through the charts, quickly finding that of the patient in Examination Room Two. "If I can get a break, I'll go up and give her the ten o'clock bottle. If I can't - "

"LET ME GO! PLEASE! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, LET ME GO!" The scream ripped through the ER, followed by a meaty thump; heads snapped up and spun in the direction of the doctors' lounge.

At the desk, Randi the new clerk almost swallowed her gum. "What the hell was that?"

"What, I don't know," Jerry replied, leaving his post beside her and heading for the lounge. "As for 'who' - " he raised an authoritative finger, "definitely Carter." The big man swung the door to the room wide open and stepped aside to let Hathaway and Lewis dart in.

Carter was tumbled onto the floor beside the worn-out couch. Slowly he raised himself to a sitting position, head nodding painfully as if he'd struck it in his fall; his skin glistened with the sweat of fear. Suddenly he noticed the many eyes staring at him from the open door, and glowed red from throat to hairline.

At once there was a beautiful woman to each side of him. To his right crouched Hathaway, dark eyes calm in a face framed by dark curls. "What happened, Carter?"

"Are you all right?" He turned to the voice at his left and the lovely face of Lewis. A lock of her golden hair almost brushed his cheek, and his blush deepened.

"Nothing ... nothing really. Just a bad dream. I'm fine, really I am!" The young man struggled to his feet, shying away from the touch of the two women as they tried to help him. "What time is it ... I should be in the OR soon ... "

"It's only ten to eight," Lewis replied.

"Seriously?" He checked his own watch. "Oh, God, not again ... "

Lewis put a gentle yet firm hand on her young colleague's shoulder. "Carter, something is wrong here. Very wrong. You are not well, and I have to know how and why." She was looking straight into his weary, frightened brown eyes; her voice dropped. "Please, Carter, talk to me. I'm your friend."

Hathaway nodded understanding and caught Lewis' attention. "I'll go check on that fever in Two." As she stepped from the room, the curious clustered at the door read the message blazing in her face and obediently returned to their duties.

"Thanks. I'll be there if you need me." The blonde doctor switched her full attention back to Carter. "What's happening to you ... John?"

He looked back at her, then suddenly dropped his eyes. As she waited in patient silence, he worked his lips wordlessly for a moment, then raised his gaze again to her face. "Dr. Lewis ... do you think I could stay at your place for a few days?"

That was the last thing she expected to hear. "What?! Stay with me? Why?"

He swallowed his embarrassment hard. "I can't sleep, Dr. Lewis. The nightmare - after only a few minutes it wakes me up, no matter how tired I am. And I ... I don't want to spend the night alone." His voice dribbled away; Lewis was left mulling over his words for a moment. Then he resumed, brightness forced into his tone. "Please, Dr. Lewis! I can drive you and the baby home so you don't have to take that noisy El. And since I can't sleep anyway, I can take care of little Susie tonight so you can!"

Now there were two tempting thoughts, especially with her own pathetic car stuck in the shop again. But before Lewis replied, something suddenly occurred to her: "Carter, these nightmares - would they have anything to do with what happened to us a couple of months ago ... and the heart?"

The student reddened again. "How did you know?"

A cold shadow seemed to fall across Susan Lewis' own heart, and she was afraid. Her voice fell almost to a whisper. "You're welcome to stay with me for as long as you want, Carter. But I think we should tell Dr. Greene and Dr. Ross about this."

He answered her in the same whisper. "I think you're right."

It wasn't often that Dana Scully was the first into their basement office in the morning. Still, she only beat her partner by as much time as it took her to shed and hang up her coat, sit down and start sorting the weeks of accumulated paperwork left over on her desk from yesterday. She'd barely gotten her reading glasses on when Fox Mulder sauntered in, looking far too chipper for a gray morning, even if it was a Friday.

Scully looked up as he entered, but her gaze never got to his face; instead it was seized and held on the way up by his tie. A new one. A colorful one. A VERY, EXTREMELY colorful one - look at it too long and she was sure to get a headache, but she looked at it all the same. He'd never worn it before that she could recall, but somehow it looked familiar. Like that skunk roadkill seen on their last assignment to North Dakota.

"Like the tie?" he asked, grinning.

"Honestly? I don't."

"And why not?"

"For starters," she replied tartly, "it's loud enough to be overheard in Baltimore. Where on earth did you get it?"

"Ordered it off the TV. It came yesterday."

Off the TV? Mulder wasn't one for cable shopping channels - *WAIT A MINUTE!* shrieked recognition across Scully's mind. "Mulder ... that's a Rush Limbaugh tie!"

His grin widened. "Yet another example of the keen observational skills of the trained agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation - "

"Since when do you watch RUSH LIMBAUGH?"

"Since I can't sleep and I've seen everything Vincent Price has ever been in about six times." He shrugged, shed his suit jacket and turned to hang it up.

Scully was not about to let him off easily. "But why Rush Limbaugh? I'd almost rather it were those videos of yours!"

Still smiling, he pulled open a drawer, came up with a bag of sunflower seeds and dropped them atop a file pile on his desk. "Those get boring faster than you'd think, Scully. Besides, Rush can be fun. Did you know he's on the Lone Gunman mailing list?"

"WHAT?!" This was getting worse by the second ...

"He is; Frohike told me. He sent them a really nice e-mail thanking them for their special report on the Vince Foster murder." The smile took on a slight, wicked glint. "Besides, Rush and I have something in common." He marked her stare of utter incredulity, and explained. "You know, the daily relentless pursuit of the Truth - "

The sunflower seed bag suddenly came flying at him, striking him clean in the forehead and bursting; black hail scattered over his desk, and amid the rattle of the seeds rang Scully's voice, "Damn it, Mulder, I have gone to the edge with you and back way too many times, almost getting killed running around after aliens and poltergeists and the curse of the chocolate off-ramp, and I DON'T NEED THIS KIND OF GRIEF FROM YOU!!" Her fury spent, she fell back heavily into her chair and sat there steaming, refusing to look at him.

Heavy silence sealed the office for a long minute. Quietly Mulder said, "I didn't realize you felt so strongly about it. I'm sorry. Here, I'll just take the tie off and won't wear it in front of you again."

Now his partner looked up to see the sincerity in his downcast expression. Shame burned on her cheeks. "No, it's I who's sorry, Mulder. I shouldn't have exploded at you like that; it's only a tie and a stupid TV show. I don't feel any better to confess it was just the stress talking, not me."

"No problem, Scully. " Blue and hazel eyes met, and the bond forged in three years of fire became just a little stronger.

Scully helped Mulder sweep up what they could of the litter of seeds; then she turned to her neat, chronologically ordered stacks of leftover paperwork, he to his almost pulsing mass of same. They went at it quietly for a little while until Mulder broke the spell of silence. "Scully?"

She looked up, lowering her reading glasses. "Yes?"

"What the hell is 'the curse of the chocolate off-ramp'?"

Neither could stop laughing for about seven minutes.

"I can barely remember when Rachel was this small," purred Dr. Mark Greene, cuddling the cooing blanket-wrapped bundle that was Lewis' niece.

Grinning, Dr. Doug Ross swung into the armchair beside his friend's. "Doesn't matter if you see a hundred of them a day, they get you every time, don't they?"

"You ought to know, Doug," Greene replied to the pediatrician. "Well, Susan, this looks like a good time to tell us why we're here tonight."

Their hostess curled catlike in a corner of her living- room couch; at the other corner sat a stiff, nervous Carter. "I really think it's for Carter to say." She looked to him expectantly; the other two doctors followed her gaze.

And the student swallowed hard to begin. "I guess everyone's noticed that I've been in pretty bad shape for a week or so ... it's because I can't sleep."

"This morning you mentioned a nightmare," Lewis prompted gently.

"Yeah. The same one every night, every time I fall asleep." He stopped, looked at his hands and then at them. "Do you all remember, a couple of months ago, those maniacs Locke and Bragg, and the - the heart?"

"God, yes," replied Ross in a grim voice. How could anyone forget that terrible day and night at the mercy of two madmen, their troop of mindless slaves, and the powerful, incomprehensible, utterly evil being they served ... "I've had a few nightmares about it myself. But enough already, Carter; it's long over! They're just dreams."

Carter looked hard into Ross' eyes, strength and anger gathering in his tone. "It's NOT over, Dr. Ross. And they're NOT just dreams. That thing, the black heart - it's talking to me. Calling me. Whenever I try to sleep, it's there in my mind, swearing to have me, my body, my soul." Again he stopped and gulped. "Locke and Bragg may be dead, but that thing is alive. And it wants me."

"My God," whispered Greene. "What can we do?"

The younger man let his head slump into his hands. "I don't know. Wait. Wait until it finds some other power- hungry sociopaths to serve it ... and wait until they come for me with knives."

"Oh, Carter, no!" Lewis gasped softly, moved closer to him across the couch. "That can't happen again! Even if that monster heart can get someone to do its dirty work, it'll need a surgeon and an OR with a full team to - to get transplanted into ... " She couldn't finish, unable to say the word 'you.'

"It'll happen again." Carter's voice was heavy, dull and final as slate. "Maybe the thing will get Benton to do it. Can you imagine how thrilled he'd be at the chance to do his first heart transplant?" Ross chuckled; a glare from Greene silenced him. "I'm marked. Chosen by that evil thing. I only hope you guys won't be dragged into it this time."

Now Lewis was right beside him, her hand soft on his shoulder. "We won't let it get you, Carter." He raised his head, met her gentle blue eyes and saw the beginning of tears. "You can stay here with me as long as you need."

Greene handed the soft bundle of baby to Ross and dived into his shoulder bag. Pulling out pen and prescription pad, he dashed off a line, ripped the sheet away, and handed it to Carter. "First thing we've got to do is see that you get some sleep. This ought to knock you out deep enough so that nothing could disturb you for a few hours."

"Thanks, Dr. Greene." He took the prescription in shaky fingers.

"There's a pharmacy two blocks down," said Lewis. "Open until ten, and it's still only eight-forty-five."

Now it was Ross' turn to hand off the child. He rose to his feet. "Here, little Susie, time to go back to big Susie. Mark and I really should be going." A look at Carter. "We'll walk with you; it's on our way. And don't worry; we'll be watching out for you."

Stillness bloomed among them for a moment; no one moved, no one spoke. The four colleagues were one in the knowledge of a bond beyond mere friendship, forged in the crucible of their grisly adventure. Then the spell passed, the usual farewells and thank-you's were exchanged, and the three young men headed for the door.

Ross and Greene had seen the student to the door of the drugstore and were continuing on their way to the El station and, eventually, Ross' apartment. "So that thing might still be alive," the pediatric resident was musing. "Seems like only yesterday we were celebrating our escape from its little friends Locke and Bragg."

"Yeah, I know," Greene agreed, then his tone changed slightly. "You know, Doug, you really did celebrate a bit too hard that night. Dr. Kronk shouldn't have had to drive you home."

But the other only chuckled. "Hey, lighten up, Mark! The great Dr. Aaron Shutt and the even greater Dr. Jeffrey Geiger were picking up the tab, and who am I to refuse their generosity?"

Greene sighed a little and said nothing.

Lewis gently, so gently, laid the tiny baby in her crib. God, little Susie was so perfect. Pure beauty, pure innocence ... pure helplessness. Was there ever a more terrifying obligation than a parent's? She found herself thinking of her sister Chloe. Feckless, thoughtless, useless Chloe ... *Oh, Chloe, how could you have left her? How long can you flee responsibility? The only place to avoid it entirely is the grave.*

On the subject of responsibility, now she'd taken on some more: Helping Carter. Poor boy, he was really convinced that the being that had seemingly wanted his body before would return with a way to get it. Maybe a couple of evenings at her apartment and some stiff, sedated sleep would help him recover. If not, there were other measures he might agree to take.

He was certainly taking his time tonight. Lewis checked the wall clock; ten of ten already?! Why should he still be at the drugstore after an hour? It didn't take that long to fill a prescription for a common generic sedative. Maybe he'd gone on another errand ... no, he knew she needed to sleep and couldn't do so until he'd returned and been let in. This wasn't like the John Carter she knew ...

She had only just settled down at the kitchen table to kill time reading her mail when the soft knock sounded on the door. So considerate, not risking waking the baby with the doorbell - now there was the John Carter she knew. Lewis rose, approached, and opened the door.

And gasped in astonishment. It wasn't Carter. Not by the wildest stretch of her imagination. The tall trenchcoated Afro-American gazed down at her with eyes like burning black diamonds. "Dr. Lewis." The voice that emerged from within his white-blazed beard was deep as the sea and every bit as pitiless.

"Who - who are you?" She staggered back a step in surprise - and fear.

He came forward over the threshold, driving her back farther, and stood straight as a gallows before her, hands hidden in the pockets of his coat, intentions hidden far deeper than that. "Dr. Lewis, I will tell you only that John Carter is now beyond your reach. Do not attempt to find him. You will not be able to find him, and by trying to do so will only succeed in jeopardizing your own life and those of your colleagues and the child in your care." She stared in shock, unable to respond. The dark man made a curt nod, as if her silence justified him. Smoothly he brought one hand out of a pocket to show her the gleaming automatic pistol clutched in it. "I trust I have made myself clear, Dr. Lewis."

She almost lost control of her body when she saw the gun. "Who are you? What do you want? What have you done with Carter?" she implored.

"Farewell, Dr. Lewis." The gun went back into the coat; the man turned with military precision and strode out. The door shut behind him as if trying to hide the last glimpse from her.

Dana Scully switched off the television in the middle of the late local news. Amazing, the trivialities they so often went to such lengths to cover. She yawned, stood, adjusted her robe a little - then turned as the telephone rang. She responded with a sigh; no doubt Mulder couldn't sleep yet again and wanted to talk. It certainly beat the thought of him watching the Rush Limbaugh show ...

She picked up. "Scully." The voice on the other end wasn't Mulder's; she was taken aback to hear a woman. A scared woman. "Yes, Dr. Lewis. No, no, I don't mind you calling me this late at all. Yes, I know it's an hour earlier in Chicago." Her own voice was gentle, but probing. "Is something wrong?"

The story came spilling out; Scully fumbled for paper and pen and took furious notes. "My God ... Would you recognize this man if you saw him again? ... Good ... You're sure? ... Can you think of a possible motive? ... I see ... How long did Mr. Carter say it had been going on? ... I understand." The federal agent took a deep breath and addressed the doctor in as calm and calming a tone as she could muster. "Please do as I say now, Dr. Lewis. Stay home. Lock your door and open to no one. And stay by the phone. I'm going to speak to my partner; then I'll call you back directly. Give me your number." Scully scribbled it down. "Thank you, Doctor. Please sit tight and try to stay calm. I'll get back to you as soon as possible."

Scully broke the connection and hit the speed-dial. Two rings, and a welcome voice. "Mulder. Oh, hi. What's this about, Scully?"

"Mulder, I just got a call from Dr. Susan Lewis in Chicago."

"I remember her," he replied. "From the Locke/Bragg case."

Scully nodded at her end. "And do you also remember John Carter?"

"The Warlord of Mars?"


He forced the grin off his face. "Sorry, Scully. Yeah, I remember him. The med student Locke was using as his transplant subject."

"Well, there's something you ought to know ... "

Mulder listened carefully, soundless, as Scully quickly filled him on the call. When she had finished, he rubbed his eyes, drew a deep breath, then repeated part of it back to her. "A tall black man with a white-streaked beard, wearing a trenchcoat, carrying a gun he seemed willing to use."

"That's what Dr. Lewis said." Scully looked grim.

"Mr. X," he muttered. "God ... " His voice died for a moment, then revived. "You know, it's getting pretty damn dull around here. About time I took a little vacation. Say, a weekend out of town."

"If we hurry," she replied, "I'm sure we can catch a redeye to Chicago tonight. But how will we explain the expense to Skinner? This isn't even a case, let alone an X-file!"

"Who says Skinner has to know? I've got more than my share of frequent flier miles - so do you - and neither of us is exactly saving to put kids through college."

Something stung a little behind Scully's eyes. "Yes, I know. I have to dress and tell Dr. Lewis we're coming." She thought gratefully of the pre-packed suitcase at the back of her coat closet. "Meet you at Dulles in two hours?"

"I'll book the flight and see you - " he tilted the clock to check, "at one-thirty at the Delta information desk. Next stop the Windy City ... "

The aging man, his face like Roman parchment and his clothes rank with the smell of stale tobacco smoke, brought out another cigarette within a minute of crushing out his last on the metal tabletop before him. Lighting up, he leaned back in the steel folding chair and blew a gray plume towards the ceiling of the windowless, lead-shielded room that only he was permitted to enter, by his own order. And no one here would dare disobey that order - or any other order he chose to give.

The telepathic voice, or whatever one chose to call it, sounded in his mind again.

*You cannot do this to ME.*
*I thirst.*
*Give ME blood.*

The man answered it out loud. The thing had to be picking his words up telepathically - after all, it had no ears or eyes, nor much of anything else - but it seemed to prefer being spoken to in a normal voice. "Not now."

The shriek - there was nothing else to call it - of rage and hunger seared his mind like a branding iron on a slave's stripped back. But the man was not afraid. The man was not afraid of anything. He looked almost casually into the lead-crystal bell jar at the center of the table and watched the black heart throb within. Its pulsation was weaker now; it needed more fresh blood, the quicker the better. Still, it wouldn't die without it. The man knew he could count on that. It had lasted two months dormant at the bottom of the river; no one would ever know how long it had lasted before that. Years. Centuries. To arrive at last in his hands. The man smiled as he felt the thing raging on.

*Feed ME, and you will be forgiven.*
So it was trying blandishment again. "I do not need forgiveness."
*The power is MINE.*
*Help ME become complete.*
*Find ME a body, and you will gain a world.*

It burned another one of those visions across his brain. Again, it centered on the image of people - vast, horizon-spanning masses of people, chanting his name, falling to their knees as one. He shrugged it off. Once one had wielded world-spanning power in secret, could order the death of men who would never know why they died, the thought of mob worship held little attraction. A hundred television actors could boast of that.

He breathed smoke at the bell jar and the palpitating thing inside it, and spoke again. "I have the man YOU want. The body."

It seemed to beat a little faster.
*Give him to ME.*
*Make ME complete.*
*You must give ME MY body.*

He chuckled. It was pathetic to observe how the thing pleaded in the guise of giving orders. "In due time. When it suits my purposes."

The mental shriek was even hotter this time, more jagged, and it lasted much, much longer. When the man remained unmoved, it roared on in the depths of his brain, thundering the hatred and frustration of a thousand years.

*You may not do this.*
*No man dares do this to ME.*
*You will pay for defying ME.*
*Heed MY oath.*
*This city, this nation, this continent will burn.*

But he only sneered, adding counter-creases to his creased face, as he stood up and mashed out his cigarette against the side of the crystal jar. "Listen to me, whatever YOU are. YOU have no power here. This is where I'm the master. I say when YOU will get a body, and I say what will burn when YOU do." He strode from the room, locking the lead- lined door behind him.

And the black heart throbbed alone.

"May I help you?" Jerry looked straight into the huge blue eyes of the lovely redhead who'd just come through the emergency room entrance into Cook County General. He couldn't spare a glance for the tall man with her, but he had only one pair of eyes and always used them to best advantage.

He almost reconsidered when she flashed the badge at him. "Federal agents. We're looking for Dr. Susan Lewis."

Now Jerry remembered. "How could I forget? Welcome back to Chicago, Agent ... Scully, isn't it? And Agent Mulder, of course. If you'll wait just a minute ... "

There was a blur of snow over grass; a lean, bespectacled man in green scrubs and a white lab coat came hurrying from Trauma One. "It's you! Thank God you made it."

"Hello, Dr. Greene," Mulder replied. "Dr. Lewis - ?"

"Stabilizing a GSW in Trauma One. It's well in hand; she should be out in a few minutes. Come this way."

"I assume she told you we were coming and why?" Scully asked the attending physician as he led them across the ER to an empty examination room.

"Yes." His tone was austere. "Dr. Ross knows too."

"Anyone else?"

"Not that I know of. We discussed calling Chicago Hope, but decided it'd be more considerate to leave them out of this."

"And face it by yourselves," said Mulder. Mark Greene only shrugged. The agent's face showed nothing, but he knew a brave man when he saw one.

Again there was a gathering in Susan Lewis' apartment when the shift was over - a grimmer gathering, with Carter in unknown hands. This time Scully held the infant Susie as Lewis told her appalling story again. Mulder was nodding slowly as she described the intruder again; the implacable face, the stony voice, the awful message.

Greene didn't miss the clue. "Do you know him, Agent Mulder?"

"Yeah, I know him." Mulder almost groaned. "I know him as Mr. X."

"It's a start," chirped Ross. Greene shot him a look, then asked Mulder to go on.

He did. "He sometimes acts as ... an informant for me." He stopped, looked across the faces of the three young doctors. *Trust no one ... * The thought burned in his perfect memory. The faces of others who had helped in his quest and paid for it with their lives burned even brighter - the memory was a curse. Fox Mulder looked to his partner, asking without words: *Dare I tell them?*

Scully pursed her garnet lips and softly said, "Careful, Mulder."

He squeezed his eyes shut, rubbed and reopened them, and spoke again. "For years now, I've been looking for solid evidence against a conspiracy. A conspiracy at the highest levels. I believe this man to be part of this conspiracy, or at least aware of it, and either using me against other members for his own reasons, or even to subvert the whole conspiracy itself - I've no way to know. He sometimes permits me to contact him, gives me leads." Bitterness scored his voice. "Not much has come of them."

Ross narrowed his eyes skeptically. "What's this conspiracy up to?"

"It'd be safer for you if I didn't say."

The pediatrician snickered. "Didn't I see this in some made-for-cable movie about a week ago?"

Mulder looked at him, eyes smoldering. "Dr. Ross, I have been dealing with these people for a long time, and I'm fully convinced that the only reason why I am still alive is because my death wouldn't suit their purposes. I'm also fully convinced that if you and your friends were to learn anything of importance about them, they would kill all of you without a moment's pause. I'm convinced of this because I've seen it happen ... to people I cared about."

No one answered. The three doctors exchanged silent, pregnant glances. Finally Greene said it for all of them: "Tell us what you think you can, Agent Mulder."

"They have your friend." No one dared dispute the declaration. Mulder rubbed his hands against his cheeks, then continued. "And I think they must have the heart."

"The WHAT?" grunted Ross.

"Locke's disembodied heart. Possibly it went into a dormant state after falling in the river two months ago. If that's so, apparently it's regained whatever inhuman form of consciousness it had before. That would account for Mr. Carter's dreams."

"So you think it's now out of the river," Ross probed.

"And in the hands of these men." Mulder's voice had gone flat and hard, and so had his eyes. "Somehow they've recovered not only the organ itself, but the original transplant subject."

Lewis winced. "Could you please not refer to Carter that way?"

"Sorry, Dr. Lewis."

Scully had been listening quietly, expression unreadable, the baby cradled on her lap, but now she spoke. "They must have learned about it, and Mr. Carter, from our case reports."

"Easiest way." Mulder nodded. "And it'll be easy for them to recruit medical personnel to help them. Where Locke failed, they aim to succeed." Ross rolled his eyes and flung himself back against his chair; Lewis gasped, her face paling. "No ... no," came the soft whisper from Greene's lips; his voice strengthened a little to ask, "What are they trying to accomplish by it?"

A harsh, ironic smile marred Mulder's face. "What was Locke trying to accomplish?"

From within the warmth of her blanket and Scully's arms, little Susie suddenly began to cry.

John Carter gradually raised his head. But he didn't bother to look around; in the tiny, bare cell with its dead- white walls and sealed door, there was nothing to see. He tested his wrists against the plastic band securing his hands behind his back, and found it both secure and cruelly tight. Slowly he leaned back into the corner where two of the featureless walls met. Drawing and blowing out a deep breath, the young man closed his eyes, thought of the nightmares and of a quiet, dreadful certainty as to why he'd been taken and what his fate would be. *The heart ... please God, not the heart ...*

His eyes snapped open again when the doorlock clicked. The portal set in the plane of white swung inward, and two men passed through. They stood above him, silently studying their prisoner. It took Carter only a moment to study them back, searching their faces for mercy, for kindness, for any reason to hope ... his throat tightened, and he had to drop his gaze.

The younger of the two chuckled softly. Carter had noted that this one was just about his own age and every bit as handsome. He was well and solidly proportioned, and wore his leather bomber jacket with a touch of dash. Thick dark hair, soft oval face with a creamy complexion, an almost prim little rosebud of a mouth ... but the eyes were chips of stone.

Beside him, the older one dragged deeply on a cigarette, then let the smoke seep slowly out of his thin crack of a mouth. It was hard to look at him; Carter had never before seen so sallow and ravaged a face. It could have been molded of pale clay and baked, then shattered and reassembled in the dark. Set deep within the ridges of thin flesh, the lizard-green eyes were icy, pitiless, grown old with too many secrets. The smoker took another puff, thickening the gray cloud that hung about his head. "John Carter," he said in a quiet, deep, emotionless voice. It was a simple statement of fact, wanting no answer.

His companion grinned. "Nice to have you here, Johnny. Cheer up! You're going to be a hero ... or at least a martyr."

"Quiet," commanded the older man, in the same affectless voice; the younger gave a slight start and obediently went silent, all amusement gone, and Carter was addressed next. "You won't suffer."

The prisoner felt his heart turn to cold lead and the blood drain from his face, but his captor gave no sign of noticing, switching attention to the dark young man. "Come." He could have been calling a dog to heel. The two departed as smoothly and coldly as they had entered, the door locking behind them, and Carter called on all the strength he had to hold back tears of despair.

As the two men walked back upstairs toward the safehouse's aboveground rooms, away from the secret facilities and the prisoner below, the younger man's soft lips parted in a sneering smile. "Nice-looking kid. Whatever that thing of yours is, it's got good taste." His companion turned and looked at him with just a touch of revulsion, but he didn't notice and rattled on. "We're going to a hell of a lot of trouble to accommodate that black lump. Sure hope the transplant takes!"

Now the older man stopped and stared hard, forcing the other to meet his eyes through the stinging cloud of smoke. "You'd better hope it does, Alex, because if it doesn't and this boy dies, we'll have to try again ... using you." Alex gasped and froze in place on the steps, mouth open like a wasp trap. The older man made a single curt nod, dropped and crushed out his cigarette, and walked on alone.

He eventually arrived at his office at the back of the house. The curtains were open, letting in the moonlight and revealing the shadowy forest covering the grounds. The room was well chosen, quiet and away from the road, hospitable with its rich oaken paneling, thick wall-to-wall carpet, and antique furniture. He paused a moment to consider the oak desk, its top clean but for his laptop computer and an overflowing bronze ashtray, before settling down in the chair behind it. The tufted leather creaked agreeably beneath him. Switching on the computer with one hand and shaking another cigarette out of the pack with the other, he lit up and began checking the file for the current project. Names ... yes, there they were: the anesthesiologist, the scrub nurse, the three technicians, the surgeon's assistant. All reliable people, all guaranteed to keep quiet. They'd be contacted in the morning and brought out in more than enough time for the operation.

His eyes lingered on the last line and the name of the surgeon, and he smiled. It was a damn good thing that Kate Austin was now in Chicago. The thought of having to convince the likes of Jeffrey Geiger to participate ... The sallow man sucked smoke hard and blew it out harder, remembering his perusal of Geiger's file and the field report on the Locke/Bragg case. The best damn cardiothoracic surgeon in the country, exactly what was needed, but that rabid gryphon of a man would die a thousand deaths before taking part in this. Fortunately, this Austin was almost as good, and even more importantly, would do it. He gave a smoky chuckle as he thought of the doctor. Confident enough to leap at this chance to test her skill, trustworthy enough to keep silent once she'd promised to, naive enough to be excited by the secrecy and cloak-and-dagger atmosphere of the project ... and best of all, silly enough to believe every word he'd told her. Stupid chirpy bitch. The project should go as smoothly as gliding down the road paved with good intentions.

He turned away from the screen to look out the window at the moonlight silvering the blackness of the woods. That the project should go smoothly ... it would mean that the end was in sight. The end, the dream of final victory - time to wake up and find it a reality. Fifty years in the tunnel, and at last a gleam of light.

The excitement tasted sweet on his dry tongue; his heart began to beat a little faster, as it hadn't in so very many years. And how simple it all was! How deliciously lucky that he'd taken the trouble to read Fox Mulder's and Dana Scully's reports on what could have been just another serial-killer pursuit; how efficiently the diving recovery probe had been designed and used; how easy it had been to harvest both the object from the river and the young man from the street.

The young man ... another chuckle, borne on wisps of smoke as he thought of the file on John Carter and his family. The only surviving son of the multimillionaire Roland Carter would be gone, never again to be seen by human eyes. All the elder Carter's wealth hadn't been enough to save his firstborn son from leukemia; no doubt he'd expend a king's ransom in desperate search for his last child, and every penny spent, every tear shed, in vain ...

*I shouldn't laugh,* he thought as he did. Though sentiment was forbidden in his line of work, it wasn't necessary to be cruel. Still, it DID make the work easier. And what would be the point of pity, anyway? With everything at stake, what was one more shattered family? There had already been so many.

He stabbed the cigarette dead in the bronze ashtray, and sat staring into the night as the gray haze around him slowly dissipated. Finally they had their chance to win, to take it all, to laugh at the enemy's threats, maybe even to enjoy seeing his terror as they took him by the throat at last. And their weapon would be this boy, this unassuming nobody of a medical student - transformed. The body of a man, the power of a god.

Part man, part god: the fantasy of the ancient Greeks. Yes, the Greeks; they would have understood. The son of Aegeus had been the child of a woman, a man and a god, much like John Carter would soon be. Old Aegeus must have felt exactly like this as he stood on the cliffs above the sea that was to bear his name, watching the ship depart, the tribute ship, with its black sails and dreadful, precious cargo, as he had watched the black sails dip over the horizon for so many despairing years ... but daring to hope that this time would mark the end, that the yoke would break and the black-sailed ships would sail no more forever.

"One element of this doesn't make any sense - " Mulder began.

"ONE element?"

"Be quiet, Doug!" Greene's voice was quieter as he returned his attention to the agent. "You were saying, Agent Mulder?"

"Once these men had their hands on your friend, you had no way to find him by yourselves. It'd be as if Carter had dropped off the edge of the earth. They were safest with you wondering but never knowing. So why would Mr. X bother warning you?" He paused to exchange uneasy gazes with his partner. "Unless ... "

Lamplight glinted off lenses as Greene leaned forward. "Unless what?"

"Unless he was expecting you to contact us." He left them to consider this, then addressed their hostess. "Dr. Lewis, do you have a roll of masking tape I can use, and may I move this lamp over to the window?"

With the baby cuddled comfortably in one big, steady arm, hungrily and quietly sucking as he held her night bottle, Doug Ross quietly patrolled the shadowy apartment. He knew he wouldn't wake anyone (fortunately, as he didn't want to be seen in his underwear), and it was best that someone be up on watch at all times. Just a feeling. He looked down at the FBI man recumbent on the couch, and smirked. Mulder had claimed insomnia, said he'd be up until morning; now look at him, still fully dressed in his much-put-upon suit, sleeping like a rock. *Guess you can't relax when alone at night,* Ross mused; *maybe you should get yourself a family.*

On this night in particular, Susan hadn't wanted to be alone, not with the baby. Even after the two agents had offered to stay, Greene and Ross weren't about to walk out on their shaken colleague, and in the end they had all remained. Agent Scully was with Lewis in her bedroom, the two other doctors shared the second room with little Susie, and here was Mulder on the couch, snoozing away in the light of the lamp he had placed at the window and the shadow of the taped letter X.

Ross looked down at the infant and smiled. "One o'clock and all's well, little Susie," he whispered. "No sign of Mr. Mulder's mysterious ninja spies - " That was when he whirled to the rustle of the envelope sliding under the front door.

Once he'd propped the bottle to free one hand, he claimed it. Plain manila envelope, about five by eight inches, closed but unsealed. No marks. Ross cast a quick glance toward the couch and the sleeping man - *Should I wake him?* - before snaking his fingers in under the flap. Wad of paper inside, pretty thick ... it came out to reveal itself in the light of the window lamp: a road map.

A floorboard creaked, and Ross whirled again, this time to see his friend and supervisor approaching from the nursery, rubbing weary eyes before slipping on his glasses. "Isn't she back to sleep yet - what do you have there, Doug?" Mark Greene whispered.

"Just came under the door," Ross whispered back. "Looks like a map of the area. Come on, let's go back in the baby's room so we can check it out."

"It's probably not meant for us," Greene said suspiciously. But even so, he followed the other back in.

Ross handed baby and bottle to Greene, switched on the small pink cribside lamp, and began spreading the map. Excitement glinted in his eyes. "Well, would you be so kind as to look at this!"

Greene followed the other's pointing finger and saw it: a yellow stripe of highlight clearly marking a route out of the city to ... "Lake Forest."

Ross peered closer. "Seems to start right about here where we are - " he touched the bright line where it began on Lewis' street, traced its full length north - "and terminate at this corner." A razorlike smile. "What odds, you think, that Carter's there?"

"Even money." Greene came erect from over the map and turned attention to the child he held, noting her closed eyes and lips loose on the nipple. Placing the bottle beside the lamp, he bent over the crib to lay her down and tuck the quilt around the tiny body. "Little Susie's out at last. Do we wake Agents Mulder and Scully now, or wait until morning?" He raised his head from the crib, looked toward Ross, and felt his jaw drop in astonishment. "Doug, mind telling me what the hell you're doing?"

"Getting dressed. What's it look like?"

The other drew a deep breath. "This is a stupid question: Why?"

"Because I'm going out there."

"NOW? Yourself?"

Quick fingers climbed a white shirt, using buttons as rungs. "Unless you want to come with me."

Greene's round eyes grew narrow, and he took another deep draw of air. "Dr. Ross, have you gone stark raving mad under the stress of your career and personal life? You are doing no such thing!"

"And why not?" The other sounded cheerful, even jaunty. "It'll be fun. I've got the Firebird tonight; take it north while the road's empty, give the place a quick once-over, come right back. No one'll even notice I'm gone. I'll have a nice report for Mulder when he wakes up."

"You HAVE gone nuts." Greene was having a hard time keeping his voice down to the necessary whisper. He came in close, gripped his friend's arm. "Didn't you listen to Agent Mulder at all? This isn't exactly the Harper Valley PTA we're dealing with - these people are killers!"

"Yeah, right. I saw the movie, too. You know, my arm won't fall off if you let go of it." Self-conscious, Greene released him; Ross smiled a little and went on. "Thanks. Relax, Mark, nothing's going to happen. I'm just going to take a look; I won't even try to get inside. I'm leaving the map here for our fed friends, plus a little note explaining where I went in case they wake up early." He adjusted his trousers, closed his belt buckle. "Everything'll be fine."

"Then give me a minute," rejoined Greene, resolve quiet in his voice as he picked up his own clothes. "I'm not letting you do this alone."

Ross didn't respond, but the smile on his face grew wider and warmer.

The Edens Expressway diminished into Route 41, but Greene's nervousness didn't diminish with it. "I have a feeling this little stunt of yours could get us both killed, Doug," he observed to the driver.

"You didn't have to come along," came the deadpan reply. Greene said nothing in answer, but the look in his eyes as he turned toward his friend was all the answer needed.

Ross had memorized the marked map well. The blue Firebird gradually slacked speed and pulled off the main road into the leafy darkness of the suburb. The purr of its engine was the only noise marring the comfortable peace of a North Shore night; huge, silent houses lay dormant behind heavy masks of foliage, shielded by high fences and locked, forbidding gates. Now and then they'd note the wan glow of a streetlight or a solitary lit window - light gone to waste in the solitude and silence.

As they passed one memorably grand home, Ross grinned. "Someday, Mark, all this will be ours."

"Not if we stay in the ER." Greene grinned back. "Although if I could offer her one of these, Jen just might agree to move back ... What's that cross street we're looking for again?"

Catching sight of the sign, Ross hit the brakes. "Right here. And THIS - " his gaze swept along the lawn and through the trees to his left - "must be the place."

Greene's eyes followed, but to little avail. The corner house was only a deeper darkness bulking against the dark, rising vaguely out of the mass of surrounding oak and maple like a cloud of black smoke frozen in place. No gates. Here and there might have been the bright grace-note of a lighted window, but none could be seen through the shield of leaf and branch. "So dark," Greene almost whispered, "so quiet."

"No doubt you expected to hear the screams of the dying," Ross rumbled jovially. "Been in the ER too long, pal. Well, here goes nothing."

Greene jumped against the seatbelt when he heard the click of the driver's door. "Where are you going?"

"To take a quick look around. Be right back!" Ross shut his door softly, but it was still thunder in the quiet night, and an astonished physician watched his colleague amble easily toward the dark form of the building.

Quickly Greene snapped himself free of the belt and tumbled out after the other. "Doug! Please!" he hissed in a stage whisper. "We've seen it; now let's get back! You don't know what you're risking - "

There was a muffled crack as Greene stepped on a twig, then a louder, colder sound: the click of a rifle bolt. Then another. Narrow bright beams suddenly flashed out of the trees and pinned the two men, blinding them, and hard voices bruised their ears: "YOU! Freeze! Keep your hands where we can see them!" They obeyed.

Now came the tread of booted feet as the armed men emerged from the shadows. Squinting against the dazzling searchlight, Ross counted four midnight-black uniforms and leveled assault weapons; as they swarmed around him and his friend, Ross realized bitterly that he probably wouldn't get a chance to admit that Mark had been right.

With a start, Mulder was suddenly awake. It took less than a second for the confusion to lift, and he'd oriented himself solidly. On the couch in Dr. Lewis' apartment, everyone else presumably sound asleep ... how did HE ever come off sleeping so soundly himself? Maybe the air here in Chicago was good for that sort of thing.

The big X was still emblazoned on the window in tape; by the lamp backlighting it, Mulder checked his watch. Just about two-forty-five. Lots of time left to enjoy some more unaccustomed, nightmare-free sleep, as soon as he'd made a quick check of the place to make sure everything was all right. And that was when he saw the map and the pale envelope on the coffee table, and the quickly scribbled note lying atop them.

The agent snapped on another light and scanned the note. Something turned over hard in his stomach; Mulder rose to his shoeless feet and silently padded into Dr. Lewis' bedroom. There she was ... He bent over the female figure at the left edge of the big bed, and whispered into the spread of copper-colored hair, "Scully ... please, wake up, Scully. We've got a problem."

Three adults - the only ones remaining in the apartment - gathered around the map. A still-sleepy Lewis rubbed misty blue eyes and pushed some loose blonde hair away from her pale face. "They've gone?"

"Gone here." Mulder stabbed at the map with a forefinger, pointing out the terminus of the bright yellow path. "At least that's what this note says."

"It also says they'll be back as soon as they can," Scully observed.

A shadow deepened in her partner's hazel eyes. "Meaning never. Those bastards won't let them leave alive."

All the fog was instantly dispelled from Lewis' head. Her eyes widened with incredulity and fear. "My God ... Agent Mulder, you don't mean ... " Her words died away.

"I wish I didn't." The answer sounded all the grimmer for its flatness. "Not to insult your colleagues, Dr. Lewis, but they just made what's about the stupidest mistake possible." Lewis turned a pleading look to Scully, then turned back. Studying the yellow stripe on the map, Mulder declared, "I've got to get out there. Now."

Scully was silent. As her partner perused the marked map, sealing it in his perfect memory, she reached for the envelope it came it. First she checked it carefully for any further marks. None. Then she raised to to the light and peered inside. "Mulder, what's this?"

The small slip of white paper bore two neat lines lightly printed in pencil:
"Right basement window unlocked.
Rear guard changed at 4:00 AM."

She almost smiled as she passed him the note. "With love from Mr. X to you, Mulder. Unless, of course, it's a trap."

"Of course." He considered the message and her words for a moment in the light of his hostess' worried eyes. "Damn lucky that your friends missed this, Dr. Lewis. Can we get to Lake Forest in enough time?"

"Not easily," was the tense but even answer. "But you ARE going to try?"

Mulder rose, tucked in his rumpled shirt, reached for his jacket. "We'll make it. Ready, Scully?"

She was, with parting words for Lewis. "It would be best if you went back to sleep, Doctor. There's nothing more you can do; we'll take it from here. Report to work in the morning normally. You'll receive word as soon as we have something." The young doctor nodded grimly; Scully nodded back. "And please - " her eyes rose, gazed wistfully at the door of the silent nursery - "take good care of that beautiful little baby."

Route 41 rolled away under the wheels of the speeding Ford Taurus. Scully didn't even want to think about the speed they'd averaged; it seemed miraculous that they hadn't been stopped and ticketed. She gave a little snort of rueful laughter as she pictured it: the implacable, mysterious conspirators, Mulder's mortal foes, getting away with whatever sinister plans they'd laid as long as the local traffic cops did their job ... She turned to the driver. "Mulder," she began softly, "what if this IS a trap?"

"Then Mr. X has betrayed me."

"But you don't seem to have considered the possibility seriously."

He inhaled hard, blew out the air. "I can't afford to, Scully." Another deep breath. "If I do, I'm paralyzed - and those men are dead for sure. This way, there's a chance. Whatever the ring is up to, with the heart and John Carter, Mr. X wants it stopped."

"But why?"

"Maybe he thinks that releasing that thing, whatever it is, is too risky. Maybe he's fond of innocent, scared med students. God, I don't know ... but it's got to be something."

Not another word passed between them as Mulder found the exit and glided off the highway into the deceptive peace of the quiet local road. He made sure to park several blocks from the corner marked on the map, then turned to Scully. "Got your flashlight?"


"Your weapon?"

She flashed him a look. "Of course."

"Good. Don't leave home without it." With that, they stepped from the car and began their hurry through the night. The plan was as simple as desperation itself: Swing wide around the adjoining lot and come at the house from the back, using the woods for cover, and at precisely four o'clock, when the guards were rotated, make a dash for the unlocked "right basement window" of the note ... and pray it wasn't a lie.

John Carter was silent and his eyes were closed, but he wasn't sleeping. In the featureless white cell, it was the only way to avoid the sight of the two other prisoners, his teachers and friends. There was no way while he lived to avoid the knowledge that they had come here to attempt his rescue ... and that when they died here, he would thus be responsible. Oh, they'd tried to persuade him otherwise, but he couldn't listen, and now with Mark Greene and Doug Ross silent as well, there was nothing left to listen to. All that remained was the waiting ... the three of them waiting on the cold floor, with bound hands numb behind their backs ... waiting for a transplant operation and two executions.

In the quiet, the sudden click of the lock snapped them all to attention and stopped all their hearts for a moment. Who would have expected their time to come so soon ... They watched as the door swung inward to admit -

"Agent Mulder?!" Greene's voice was a whisper of incredulity.

"The note was a good idea!" Ross observed, struggling to his feet.

"Yeah, well, joyriding out here without telling us wasn't," Mulder growled softly. He switched his gun to his left hand and dug in one pocket for a penknife. "Scully's in the hall, and so's a guard who just traded his access cardkey for a major concussion. You don't have much time." Quickly he sliced through the plastic strips securing the three men's hands. "Out!" he commanded, herding them toward the door, giving Carter a little shove as the boy moved unsteadily, rubbing sore and benumbed wrists. "Scully, get them back to the window, the woods and the car, FAST!"

As they gathered on the cold tile of the darkened hallway, beside an unconscious black-clad body, Scully gave her partner a stunned look. "Aren't you coming?"

"Get them out of here, Scully; I'm going to find that heart."

"Mulder, you can't!" Blue horror swam in her eyes. "What if you're caught?"

"I can't let that thing remain in THEIR hands!"

"What will YOU do with it? You can't even touch it safely; it might take you over like it did - " A rumble of combat boots sounded around the corner. Scully instantly seized hold of Carter's arm and commanded, "This way, all of you!" With no choice, Mulder brought up the rear behind the doctors, Sig Sauer at the ready, as they tore along the corridor towards the open window that was their only chance.

The corridor forked just ahead, with the way to freedom to the right - suddenly more boots thundered down that very hallway, with the ring of shots. Leading the way, Scully saw a muzzle flash, the dark mass of troops barreling towards them, felt a bullet flash by her hair. Instantly she pushed her young charge down the last remaining path, to the left. The two doctors were right behind them, and Mulder returned fire as he followed.

The left hallway was only a few yards long, ending in a metal door; beside it on the access card slot, the light blinked red like an imp's eye. Scully bit her lip; either she held the right card, or it all ended here ... The stolen cardkey slid into the slot like sword into sheath, red flashed into green, and with one good push they were all inside. Mulder slammed it behind them, and instantly pumped two shots into the corresponding locking mechanism on the doorframe inside the room, sealing it against their pursuers. For now.

Curses and orders and stamping boots sounded outside their uncertain haven. Greene at last caught his breath and said what had to be said: "Thank you."

"Not yet," replied Mulder. "We're trapped like rats."

He snapped on the lights, then glared at the ruined cardkey slot and its shattered indicator light. "Anyone taking bets on how long this'll keep them out? Not to mention that we're kept in?"

But Scully wasn't listening. She had turned around, away from the door and the pursuers' noise, and now stared spellbound at what she saw. "Mulder ... look."

All four men turned and did. A steel folding chair, a plain steel table ... and atop it dead center, a crystal bell jar. Sealed in the jar, black, throbbing, alive ... the heart.

Carter let out a soft gasp of fear, and swayed on his feet; Greene reached his side to support him. "Don't be afraid, it can't get you - "

Suddenly it seared across all their minds like flame: hunger, rage, naked need -

*That body must be MINE.*
*Give it to ME.*
*All mankind will be your reward.*
*MY body.*
*MINE ... *

Carter wailed as if in pain and collapsed into Greene's arms; Ross dashed over to help his friends. Scully stared helplessly, paralyzed by horror, by disbelief, by the hot, ravenous malice of the voice in her head.

Mulder gritted his teeth, trying to block out the voice by sheer will; he stared at the thing in the jar with cold resolve and something akin to hate. "Well, hello," he snarled at it, not knowing whether it understood and not caring. "I'm not planning to die here in vain, YOU know ... YOU did a good job keeping YOUR last tool alive with a hole in his eye, but how much damage can YOU take?"

"Mulder, NO! Don't touch it!" Scully cried as he gripped and raised the bell jar.

"No intention of that, Scully," he answered in deadly calm. As his four companions watched in horrified fascination, Mulder's gun rose, trained on the pulsing black mass ... The blast of the Sig Sauer roared off the lead- lined walls, mingling with the telepathic shrieking of the writhing thing as Mulder emptied his gun into it. Once the pistol clicked empty, he calmly extracted the empty clip, jammed in his reload, and emptied the gun again. As the final shot died away, the agent used the barrel of his weapon to sweep the bit of ragged black flesh to the floor and land a final blow with his heel. The screaming in their minds had long since ceased for good.

But Mulder's weapon hadn't been the only thing booming through the room. Blow after blow was raining against the fortified door from outside, until with a final crash it burst inward, tumbling the black-clad soldiers after it. Rifles rose, clicked ...

"No." In the darkness behind his men a suited figure hovered, his face in shadow behind the red ember of a cigarette. "I want them alive."

Hands tied, five prisoners were hustled back into the white cell and flung to the floor. The soldiers remained in a ring around them; through the door were visible more troops, and among them a leather-clad civilian Mulder knew only too well. "Nice to see you again, Ratboy."

"Watch your mouth AND your ass, Mulder!" the other growled back. "Or I'll see if I can get 'em to touch."

Carter looked quizzically from one man to the other and back. "You know each other?"

"Like the back of my - oh, never mind," replied Mulder. "Gentlemen, may I introduce Alex Krycek: errand boy extraordinaire, liar for hire and the murderer of my father."

Greene only stared. "Charmed," said Ross with just a drop of venom.

"Enough of this shit." Krycek stamped his way over to Mulder, the uniformed guards giving way for him. "Time to go, Foxy. A friend of mine wants to talk to you. For the last time." He locked a hard hand onto the agent's shoulder to pull him to his feet, but Mulder shrugged him off fiercely and rose erect unassisted. But once he was up, Krycek planted his palm on Mulder's back between the shoulders and pushed him hard; Mulder stumbled into the grip of two of the uniformed men. "You know where to take him," said Krycek with another sneer.

A sigh slipped between Scully's lips. She raised her head, the bright copper hair flowing back to reveal to Krycek and the guards her pale, beautiful face and the agony in her eyes. "Krycek," she implored, "please ... take me too. I want to go with him."

"Sorry, Dana darlin', I've got my orders." His grin glinted. "Maybe you and I can discuss the matter in private. I do owe you some ... personal attention."

"Damn you, Krycek," Mulder rumbled, struggling against his bonds and the leaden hands of the soldiers, "if you lay a hand on her, I'll - "

"You'll do what? Bleed on me?" He barked coarse laughter. "Man, you really fit the stereotype, Mulder. I'm going to miss you." A command was tossed to the guards: "Get him out of here."

Struggling at every step - and struggling in vain - Mulder was forced through the door of their prison, disappearing down the long gray hallway, at length even the sounds of his struggle fading away. Scully turned away, trying and failing to stop her tears. Krycek followed Mulder with his eyes, satisfaction shining cold in their dark depths. Suddenly he turned to a voice at his feet.

It was Greene. Quietly and calmly, his eyes meeting and holding Krycek's, he spoke. "What are you going to do with the rest of us?"

"Yeah, I guess that would be the big question now, wouldn't it, Doctor?" sneered the double agent. "That's up to my friend as well, once he's done with your pal Mulder." He stopped to chuckle and to pin the three men and Scully with his merciless gaze. "I've put in a request for you, Scully, but you knew that already. As for you guys, maybe if you're really lucky, he'll have all of you shot ... but I'm pretty sure you'll be turned over to our interrogation specialists for practice instead."

The room was gray. Gray walls, floor and ceiling; gray steel desk between two matching chairs; and beneath a low cloud of gray smoke, in a gray suit, a man. Face like parchment, eyes like ash. He watched from behind the desk as his men shoved Mulder into the other chair; then he nodded in apparent satisfaction. "Wait outside." The guards moved out into the hall, gray door swinging shut behind, and the two were alone.

Unarmed and bound under the other's gaze, Mulder raised his own eyes to return it. "You know we've got to stop meeting like this," he smirked.

"After today, Mr. Mulder," came the cool reply, "we will." He produced a cigarette pack, shook out a smoke and lit it, and there was silence as he allowed his words to sink in. His snake-scale eyes never left the face of the prisoner.

Under the freezing stare, Mulder weighed his dignity against the lives of three innocent men and his partner; they did not balance. He broke the silence. "You have me. Scully knows nothing. Those doctors know less. And the boy's no use to you anymore." His lips and eyes softened. "Let them go."

"Mr. Mulder - " the smoke-scarred voice seemed to drift out of an abyss - "have you any idea what you've done?"

Yes, he did, and with a sort of desperate pride he answered. "I've prevented you from releasing a powerful, unearthly and completely malevolent force on the human race for your own warped purposes, and destroyed its menace, hopefully forever. Next question."

The other chuckled in quivers of smoke, but the laughter - bitter laughter - never reached his eyes. "Which makes you the hero of the hour. Oh, I know you, Mulder, how well I know you, how I hear the music playing in your head. The hero's _leitmotiv_. 'Clamour over ocean of the harsh, pursuing Trumpets / Trumpets of the vanguard that have sworn no truce with Kings!' You'll never understand what you've done."

Mulder now freed his own bitter laughter. "You'll never understand what you almost did, you carcinogenic son of a bitch! Trying to give that thing a body, set it free, hand it humanity on a plate ... did you really think you'd be able to control it, you arrogant bastard?!"

"Yes, we did!" His certainty was absolute, conviction cracking the words. "It was all figured out. Anesthesia would have kept it under once in the body - "

"The body of an innocent man, you goddamned BUTCHER!"

" - Until it had been delivered to the target zone."

"The 'target zone'?" growled the prisoner. "Is your brain as diseased as your lungs? Were you going to send that poor guinea pig John Carter to Russia or something and hope that the black thing would satisfy its appetite THERE?! On THOSE people? The last freeze of the goddamned Cold War - "

"SHUT UP!" He was on his feet, leaning over the desk, smoke assaulting his captive's face. "You ignorant, presumptuous little BASTARD, who are you to talk that way to me? Do you know what I can do to you? What I WILL do to you?" He sank back down into his chair, smashed out the cigarette with killing strength, and took out another as he slowly seemed to tame his seething temper.

Lighting up, he sucked and released gray mist and spoke softly. "The Cold War's over, Mulder, long over, if it was ever more than just a sideshow in the first place. And the United States was always going to win; it had the money, the human resources, the resolve. 'Make ye no truce with Adam-Zad / The Bear who walks like a Man!' So the weapons were built, the amazing, devastating weapons of the Arsenal of Freedom." Suddenly he spat laughter and smoke. "Freedom! They're useless, every goddamned one of them, useless!"

Mulder stared at his captor in open-mouthed astonishment, not daring to answer yet. And the low, dark, gravelly voice ground on. "We watched them, watched them build their toys to play what they thought of as the Great Game, their silly little dance of the eagle and the bear. We few - and not a happy few, Mulder. Only we know; only we play the game that truly counts, locked in the last dance ... always treasuring the hope that one, just one of those weapons might be THE ONE." He blew a slow plume toward the ceiling, met Mulder's gaze again. "Wasted hope. So we do what we can to find the weapon we need. You remember a man with a remarkable shadow, Mulder: the shadow of death." He chuckled as the other's eyes narrowed with the memory. "Nothing's come of it so far. There have been others, all in vain. This one - HIS heart - was the best chance we'd ever had."

"You madman." Mulder's voice was reedy, straining, sharp as a pike. "You goddamn vampire. You and your equally sick, evil pals - looking for a way to take over the whole goddamn world and run it to suit your sick selves... ready to release HIM on humanity if that's what it takes - "

Suddenly Mulder stopped, mouth still open in mid- accusation. He had to stop; he'd lost his audience. His captor had burst into laughter.

The laughter was as cold and stony as the speaking voice, only less human, far less. It sounded more like a death rattle than a noise of pleasure or joy. And when it rattled to a close, the voice resumed, its edge sharper and more jagged. "What a hero. In his own tiny mind he's a player in the great chess game of Fate, moving whatever pawns he can find and his beautiful, brilliant white queen, and he's got to win the game for White. No matter the cost, Black can't be permitted to win. No, no, the forces of evil must be defeated, White must win." Suddenly he was back on his feet, rage and smoke spitting from his thin cold lips again. "You IDIOT! Did it ever occur to you that no one will ultimately give a shit whether Black or White wins if I and mine CAN'T KEEP THE GAME GOING?! It's out there, neither Black nor White but Gray - GRAY, Mulder! And while we play our little game piece by piece, an advance by White and a capture to Black ... when? When will Gray come down, the long rubbery gray arm with a strength not of this earth, to SWEEP THE BOARD CLEAN?!"

The freezing green gaze bored into his captive's spirit like an emerald drill. Mulder's face was drained of its color; he forced out words: "My God ... "

"THEY are MY god, Mulder. The merciless, enigmatic, jealous god I've got to serve - and would give my soul for a chance to destroy. I've given my soul already. That black heart and the being it bore would have been that chance. Give HIM that boy's body, but keep it asleep, drugged to the gills until they got it on their next ship and back to whatever circle of Hell they came from ... and then, let it awaken not among us, but among THEM ... "

There it was - a salient little point Mulder could seize like a terrier and hold onto, and maybe thereby hold onto his sanity ... "And what if you couldn't keep HIM asleep? What if your drugs didn't work? What THEN?"

"A risk worth the taking," came the icy reply.

The truth - the truth worth any sacrifice - went flashing across Mulder's brain like electricity. "Extraterrestrial intelligence," he breathed. "They ARE real; they have come. And you and your foul little circle are not only keeping the truth from the public, out of some sick jealousy you're trying to destroy the aliens too! Like you'd destroy all life if you had the - "

A hand slammed across his cheek, nearly knocking him from the chair. "Mulder, you make me sick. You're stupid, you're arrogant, and what's worse, you've got no goddamned imagination at all. You hate me so much you can't even see the gallows in the middle of the town square, can you? You bet your worthless life we're keeping the truth from the public!" With an eerie calm, he went back behind his desk, seated himself again, crushed out his smoke, readied another one. "What would you have us tell them, Mulder? 'Ladies and gentlemen, the aliens have come. Their technologies are centuries beyond ours, our weapons are useless against them ... and you are their prisoners. Every single last man, woman and child on this planet is now a slave.' How do you think your precious public would react to THAT?"

"They have a right to know the truth!" He was shouting back, barely conscious of what he was saying.

"They have a right to peace! They have a right to hope! They have a right to whatever pathetic happiness they can find before the end!"

But then Mulder's voice went low and hard. "And the abductees? Where's THEIR right to those lovely things?"

"Ah, yes. The abductees." He leaned back in his chair, and his voice was soft and cold with deadly irony. "You read Kipling, Mulder? My favorite. And like he said, 'Once you have paid him the Dane-geld / You never get rid of the Dane.' You know that one?"

"What are you talking about?"

"We do what we're told, Mulder. No choice. They tell us what they want, and we see to it that they get it. Like Minos of Crete could demand tribute from Athens, and Aegeus had to send it. Seven each of virgin boys and girls in the annual tribute ships. Under black sails." He spat smoke. "Minos was easily satisfied. THEY aren't. Now we no longer have our Theseus to send ... and the Minotaur lives."

"Tribute," the prisoner repeated in a whisper. His heart felt on fire. "Then Samantha ... my sister ... ?"

"Gone into the Labyrinth, Mulder. To the maw of the Minotaur. No one knows what's become of her - what's become of any of the ones who don't return. It destroyed your father - you know that better than I do - but he wouldn't take from another father what he wouldn't sacrifice himself." A long, slow drag and a plume of gray fog. "He was too good a man for this."

Too stunned to weep, Mulder gasped, "Why don't you just stop?"

" 'Just stop'?" He barked laughter. "Stop sacrificing a few? And what would happen to the rest of us then?"

The word almost didn't make it out. "Conquest?"

"That's happened already, Mulder, and they didn't have to fire a shot. Try: annihilation! Try: the surface of this world burned clean of life! I'd say they were worth it - your sister, your partner, and every one of the rest of them!"

*My sister ... my partner ... * Mulder closed his eyes.

Suddenly he thought of Scully's scattered, agonizing memories, and the testimony of so many abductees: *That's it!* His confidence bubbled back up. "You're lying, you bastard! The multiple abduction victims - their memories DO return eventually ... and they say that it's men performing those tests on them, men who violate them over and over again, not aliens or anything else! Men! And you and I both know who those men are!"

"Really?" The mock innocence was ugly. "And who are they, Mulder?"

"You know better than me! The human vivisectionists of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan are continuing their work, thanks to you! Trying to create some unholy hybrid of human and alien - "

"And you think it was their idea? They're following orders, just like they did during the war. They're really good at that." He gave a ghastly chuckle. "When our masters hire locals to do a job, someone's got to make sure they get the ones who'll do it well and enjoy the work."

*He's got an answer for everything - what if he's right ... oh, dear God ... * Mulder felt the terrible doubt beginning to grow; it seemed to be squeezing his lungs, his breath shallow and voice thinning: "And how do I know you're telling me the truth?"

"I guess you'll just have to trust me on this one, won't you, my suspicious young friend?" came the mocking, smoky hiss. "Definitely trust me on this: With HIS heart, we had a chance to free ourselves, but you destroyed both heart and hope. The secret slavery will continue ... " He extinguished his cigarette. Then a drawer of the steel desk screeched open; he reached a hand in. "I believe I'm going to enjoy this." The hand came out again, gripping the hilt of a gleaming Ka-Bar combat knife.

Mulder watched as the other rose from behind the desk and slowly advanced on him as he sat bound and helpless. He opened his mouth to snap a last defiant crack, but found his mind exhausted, his strength gone, his spirit empty. The quest was over at last ... and this was, indeed, a fitting end to it. *Samantha, Scully, I'm so sorry ... *

Above him, his captor suddenly stopped and gazed down on him, gleaming eyes reflected in the blade of the dagger. In that ravaged, hideous face burned a hatred Mulder could not imagine in a human soul, and his voice was a flame of pure malice: "This is exactly what you deserve!" The knife flashed downward.

Mulder tensed for the blow - then stared upward at his ancient enemy in astonishment as the bonds were sliced open and his hands were freed. The scream of rage and bitterness rang off the walls: "So now you know! Are you satisfied now, you lunatic, you obsessive wretch, you fearless little shit?! You have your truth; now eat it, Mulder! Eat it, and may it stick in your throat for the rest of your life! May you sleep no more!" The wrinkled, defeated man flung the door open, then turned away. "Go. Your partner and your three stupid friends are free and waiting for you at the front door. Now get out."


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