STRANGER THAN FICTION
A DARIA/THE X-FILES CROSSOVER
The following story is expressly a work of fan-fiction, and was not written with the permission, knowledge or consultation of either 20th Century Fox, which owns The X-Files, or Viacom, which owns MTV and Daria. All characters associated with these franchises are trademarked, copyrighted, patented, or otherwise off-limits for profit or publication. This story was written solely for the pleasure of the author, and any fans who might find it entertaining. It may be freely replicated or distributed for private enjoyment, but any attempt to alter, sell or otherwise profit from this work is strictly illegal and punishable by law, and the author waives all accountability.
This story is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual people or events is either unintentional and coincidental or used fictitiously.
For the timeline-conscious this story takes place in 1999. In the X-Files timeline it takes place after "Arcadia" but before "Biogenesis". In the Daria timeline it takes place between "Daria!" (the musical episode that launched season three) and "Lane Miserables." Daria has not been shown to have met Janeís family at this time.
Daria is officially seventeen years old now! If you donít believe it, see "Lane Miserables." While this story precedes that episode, we shall assume Daria has been seventeen for some unspecified time. She is probably near the end of her sophomore year of High School.
Evidence from the Daria episode "Speedtrapped" suggests that Lawndale is almost certainly in or near the state of Texas (which makes sense, since they moved from Highland, TX.) However implication should never be regarded as fact, so the state remains ambiguous for the purposes of this story.
Certain complex details and scenarios from the television shows (especially The X-Files) -- such as Krycekís supposed hold on Skinner via nanites; Agent Spenderís death; Agent Fowleyís true allegiance; Trentís dating habits -- have been omitted in the interest of readability and comprehension. The author, however, has taken care not to contradict such minutiae (and confesses to dropping the occasional in-joke for those "in the know." Pay attention! And expect more than a few surprise cameos.)
David Mitegerís last name is pronounced "Mitt-uh-grrr". To the best of my knowledge, it is not a real name and it is not meant to be.
Dariaís explanation about the town library being closed because it needed a new roof, and the project being delayed because the school library was open is TRUE! It happened in my home town.
"Frug" is pronounced "froog". Ask your parents. (Unless, of course, you were born in the 50ís or have an inordinate knowledge of outdated dance styles.)
Baron von Reichenbach was a real person, and his theories of odylic emanation were not invented for the purposes of this fiction. I was first introduced to the concept of reality as an illusiatory perception through Scott Adamsí book "The Dilbert Future", and solipsism through James Blishís "Spock Must Die!" They are real and ancient philosophies.
READ THIS FIRST!!!
For the majority of "intellectual property rights" that comprise the Worldís vast media franchises, crossovers are taboo. The rare exceptions are when a gimmick is needed or when each franchise will benefit from a stint with the other. Daria and The X-Files are two shows to which neither situation applies. For example, despite its origins in Beavis and Butt-Head, Daria has deliberately avoided exploiting this connection. Likewise, the sincerity of The X-Files is its gritty, uncompromising vision. Thus, the only X-crossover youíll likely ever see is the utterly absurd parody that became a wonderful episode of The Simpsons.
This doesnít necessarily mean that crossovers are intrinsically bad. Rather they are not often logistically possible for widespread distribution to an unyielding and discriminating fan base. The controversy generated among the canon-based majority alone would make the action difficult, if at all possible, to justify.
Enter the internet, and the wonderful world of non-canonical fan-fiction, where anything can happen and inevitably does. The viewer can read any story -- write it if it doesnít exist -- accept what they want and reject what they donít. A few short hours surfing the web were all it took for me to realize that infinity was the limit ... and within my grasp.
So why do a Daria/The X-Files crossover? I had several reasons. For one, I am an enormous fan of both shows. That ought to be reason enough. For another, the idea for the story-line just came to me. I was also interested in writing some serious fiction; exploring the limits of my skill and the boundaries of my self-expression. This was ... a "training novel" if you will. And probably the best reason why ... why not?!?
After all, thatís the purpose of fan-fiction, isnít it? We all know that the powers that be will never never ever so much as seriously consider such an obviously ludicrous project. Very well. Be it so. Such things are up to us. Weíre really the ones who enjoy them, anyway. Weíre also the ones with the proper imagination to make it happen.
Thereís a long tradition involved with the crossover story. Thereís something momentous and truly special about the merging of two worlds. Itís a guilty pleasure: throwing two ideas at each other and seeing what happens. With the proper love and care, the results can be outstanding. I love my Star Trek/X-Men comic book. The Critic/Simpsons episode is one of my favorites. Even more mundane crossovers, such as Spock on Star Trek: The Next Generation, are magical moments to me.
Why the thrill? Why the fascination? My theory is that its like shaking up two bugs in a jar to see if they fight ... except on a much more complex level. The crossover combines all the character and expectations of not one idea but two. What will happen?
This makes a crossover especially tough from a writerís perspective. Itís a daunting task! The two separate and distinct ideas must not merely coexist, they must come to some sort of union. At the same time, they must be their own definitive expressions. You cannot compromise one idea to fit the other or you defeat the purpose of a crossover.
On the other hand, this qualification allowed me as the writer to get involved in some really terrific concepts. I wanted to go beyond the surface of both shows, and explore some of the possibilities that lie beneath the personas. What is Daria hiding behind that cool veneer? How has Janeís family life shaped her thoughts and ambitions? As "cartoon characters", the cast of Daria represents some very real and powerful ideas, in addition to being a superbly witty comedy. Likewise, The X-Files has always been about what lies beneath the surface (and no stranger to humor, at that.)
Make no mistake about it, though. This story isnít one big psychological expostulation. That wouldnít be fair to either show. And itís not a script either (as some of my Daria Fan Fiction has been -- e-mail me for a list.) In this case, I did not feel it appropriate. The work you are about to read is a full-blown novel-length work of fiction. I took plenty of time with character and story development. In theory, an X-Files fan who has never seen Daria can enjoy the story and vice versa. Donít expect a quick read or rushed story, either. We donít even meet our protagonists until many pages in. It is my hope, however, that I have demonstrated the necessary skill to make the journey worthwhile for you the reader.
And another thing. This is a genuine crossover story. Itís not a dream sequence crossover. Itís not a nonsensical fantasy. It doesnít defy show canon. It is, for all intents and purposes, "real". The fact that The X-Files has been referred to in both the Daria TV show and books, and that Iím sure MTV or Beavis & Butthead are referenced somewhere in The X-Files; this fact is actually a part of the story -- and one of the mysteries our protagonists must solve. In addition, the respective cartoon and live-action natures of the show also play a part in the mystery. If you read the story through to its conclusion you will indeed discover that the principle behind this crossover is rooted in genuine scientific theory and philosophical speculation.
Oh ... and in a neat coincidence, this story would also help explain Dariaís susceptibility to paranoia in "The Lawndale Files."
While this story incorporates the natural humor of both shows, it is not exclusively comedic in nature. Much of it is quite serious and dark. Still, it wouldnít be a fair tribute to either show without healthy doses of sarcasm, dry wit and situation comedy. I tried my best to be faithful. You the reader shall be the judge of how successful I was.
In conclusion, a lot of care and love went into making this story. I hope it was successful. Please, if you enjoyed this story (or hated it) feel free to e-mail me at *DELETED*. I am quite eager for any sort of feedback that will help me in future endeavors.
Last but not least, acknowledgments are in order.
First, I offer my heartfelt thanks to Chris Carter, Glenn Eichler, and all of the many wonderful people and creative minds who have so thoroughly captured my imagination by making Daria and The X-Files such intelligent, fun and all-around great shows. And all those wonderful fans and webmasters who make fanfiction possible.
Specifically, I want to thank my good friends Jeff Shaw and Andrew Demshuk for taking the time to put red pen to hardcopy, offering immeasurable help. Also, special thanks to internet denizens Rey Fox, Bob (aka CrazyNutso), MJ Brault and Pat Leland who provided valuable feedback via the miracle of e-mail. And to Martin J. Pollard and the gang at Oupost Daria, whose positive energy gives me the courage to post this.
Remember: this work is for all of your free enjoyment! Feel free to download, forward or even post this story at your leisure. All I ask is that you notify me via e-mail, and agree not to change or edit content (consult with me about format changes, please.) I couldnít sue you exactly, but I did take out a cheap copyright out on this story. And it would be low-down dirty to mess with it.
We author-types are a sensitive bunch.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Part I: We Interrupt this Program ...
Part II: Crossover
Part III: Picture In Picture
Part IV: Networking
Part V: Crossed Signals
Part VI: Channel Surfing
Part VII: Montage
Part VIII: Alternate Frequencies
Part IX: Broadcast Interference
Part X: Final Jeopardy
Part XI: We Now Return ...
STRANGER THAN FICTION
A DARIA / THE X-FILES CROSSOVER STORY
"Heís dreaming now," said Tweedledee: "and what do you think heís dreaming about?"
Alice said "Nobody can guess that."
"Why, aboutyou!" Tweedledee exclaimed, clapping his hands triumphantly. "And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose youíd be?"
"Where I am now, of course," said Alice.
"Not you!" Tweedledee retorted contemptuously. "Youíd be nowhere. Why, youíre only a sort of thing in his dream! You know very well youíre not real."
-- Lewis Carroll
Through The Looking-Glass
"Please remember: this is only a work of fiction. The truth, as always, will be far stranger."
-- Arthur C. Clarke
Foreword to 2001: A Space Odyssey
"If truth is stranger than fiction, where are the flying monkeys?"
-- Daria Morgendorffer
The Daria Diaries
"Huh huh. Cartoons are cool."
Beavis And Butt-Head
David Miteger was hot and tired. Not very surprising when he considered the acres (a conservative estimate) of stone he had moved in the past thirteen hours. Stepping back to catch his breath, he wiped his sweaty brow on his flannel sleeve and leaned back on the heels of his boots, balancing on the balls of his feet. He grimaced as he felt mud squelch into the backside of his jeans, but they were ruined anyway after these past two weeks.
Two weeks! he thought angrily to himself, Two weeks of sweat and bleeding fingers, and what do I have to show for it? Nothing! Perhaps it was time for another break. After all, the enormous rocky upheaval was not two miles from his back porch. Once upon a time it had been a quarry of sorts. He didnít know what the red, dusty rock was, exactly, but it was obviously for some use in masonry or construction. Why the place had been abandoned was anyoneís guess. Theyíd probably found something better to build with. Or it had been too much effort. Effort he had experienced over the past two weeks. Now he considered that maybe it was time to call it a night. It was getting on 7:30 p.m. In Nevada at this time of year, that meant the intense heat would soon become bitter cold. Sand has a fickle disposition towards temperature, and allows for no middle ground.
No middle ground, David thought. Thatís why you came out here, isnít it? No damn middle ground! She slapped a 500 foot restraining order on you before you could blink. Canít even see your kids. Bitch ran off with half your life savings and the screwy lawyer you hired to "protect your interests" ran off with the other half. Your life reads like a mock-Shakespearean tragedy. He shook himself out of his bitter reverie. There were more important things to think about. At least, he hoped there were. Heíd be in a terrible temper for weeks to come if heíd done all this backbreaking work for nothing; to discover that the object that had fallen from the stars two weeks ago and made such a mess of the old stone quarry wasnít worth the effort heíd expended digging it out.
Of course, that wasnít likely. It could have been any number of things that would be worth his while: a fragment from a damaged aircraft; a fallen satellite; even space-rocks could be worth a lot of money. In his current situation of financial drought, David could use every penny. But, money aside, he couldnít help but feel strangely curious: compelled to discover just what it was the night sky had delivered into his backyard. And why. Was it fate? Destiny? A year ago, he wouldnít have given much credence to the notion of predestination, but now he wasnít so sure. It would definitely explain a lot. Like why events and actions were never in his control; why, despite his best efforts, every step he took towards a better existence seemed to backfire on him.
Running dirty hands through his short, dark-brown hair, and beating off several black flies (being the absolute worst part of this godforsaken area,) David stood and surveyed his work anew. For the past two weeks heíd been shuffling the broken chunks of red stone back and forth, creating some semblance of a path. Now heíd begun to reveal a small dark hollow nestled further in towards the center of the enormous mountain of stone. It was big enough for a dog to enter now. A little more work, and heíd be able to fit through. Still, heíd need to test the surrounding rock to make sure there was no danger of a cave-in. Heíd known heíd been going about the haphazard excavation in a sloppy, novice manner from the start, and was always sure to pack plenty of supplies; out here, if anything went wrong heíd be on his own. If he suffered any serious injury, the obstacles before him were challenging to say the least. Assuming he wasnít trapped, he would have to travel the two miles to his home, and if he needed a hospital, he could call for help or drive in his Jeep to the nearest ranch house ... thirty-seven miles away. For a moment, he pondered returning to his house (shack, more like it) and calling out an excavation crew, but he dismissed the thought immediately. Aside from the outrageous fee theyíd be sure to charge after traveling such distance, he wanted to reserve for himself the benefits of any glorious discovery he might make. After all, he didnít technically own the land the ancient quarry was on. No one did. It was unclaimed land -- a scarcity in the United States nowadays. In this case, the land was too much trouble to buy. But no one had to know that the object hadnít landed on his property. A trivial detail. He saw it fall; he was meant to find it, and to reap its rewards.
The sun was melting into the horizon as he watched. Resolving that he would attempt to finish the job tonight, David stretched, spit the grit out from between his teeth, and began working his way around the entrance to the small enclave, seizing chunks of cumbersome rock and tossing them to either side to land where they might. It was easier than he thought; the rocks surrounding the enclave were of a larger size than most of the surrounding rubble heíd been moving, and made a very equable doorway. Tentatively, he poked his head into the entrance he had created. The enclave was surprisingly shallow: roughly eight square-feet in area, and tall enough for a man to squat in relative comfort.
Then he saw it.
It was half buried in the far corner, but it was impossible to miss: a smooth, spherical object that appeared to be made out of glass or some other transparent material. His heartbeat quickening, David squirmed through the opening and shuffled into the corner to free his prize. His hands scrabbled in the dusty ground, raw fingers plying the cantaloupe-sized object out of the hard earth. Quivering with anticipation, he polished the glassy surface with his sweat-moistened sleeve. He wondered what it could be. Some fragment of an asteroid or comet, perhaps, superheated into molten glass during atmospheric entry ... if that sort of thing were possible. He didnít know. But he would find out, of course. Yes, and when he did, heíd make sure he got all the credit he deserved.
Then the unpleasant thought occurred to him that perhaps the object was worth nothing. Perhaps it was simply a large ball of glass. But itís lighter than glass, he thought. And the texture was wrong. Almost as if it werenít entirely solid. Sitting cross-legged on the dirt floor of the enclave, he held the globe up to the dim light. There was something odd about it. It was ... it was perfectly spherical. He frowned slightly. He would have expected it to be oblong, maybe even flat or shattered. How had it survived the crash? The odd thought struck him that perhaps the sphere had not fallen from the sky; that perhaps an ordinary meteor had fallen, and he had uncovered this strange thing while investigating. Musing, he fondled the smooth surface. Now that he felt more carefully, it did feel yielding ... almost spongy to the touch. He pressed a finger hard against the tactile surface, but instantly pulled it back and stuck it into his mouth, tasting salt and copper. He must have cut his already blistered finger while digging up the sphere. Now there was a red smear of blood over the transparent ovoidís smooth surface. He moved to wipe it off, but before he did something strange stayed his hand. Entranced, he watched as the blood actually sank beneath the surface of the sphere. The transparent material was porous! He watched in rapt attention as the last of the blood disappeared from the slick surface, oozing slowly toward the globeís center.
A sudden chill came over David. This is unnatural, a tiny voice screamed in his head. A freaked out space rock absorbing human blood! Instinct told him to drop the sphere; to smash it against the ground, shattering it into a hundred small pieces. But would it break? Somehow he knew the answer. But if it wouldnít break, he could set it down. He could hurl it back into the corner where he had found it and bury it deep beneath the earth. He could fling it away. He could hide it in a hundred different ways, but he couldnít bring himself to do any of them. It was if some phantom force had seized control of his body, preventing him from motion. Part of him was afraid. Part of him was heady with anticipation.
The small red drop reached the center ...
... and David Miteger was not alone inside of his head. A blinding light burst into the darkness behind his eyes, and all he could see was the globe -- the glorious globe -- shining with a radiance beyond belief, wiping out all other perceptions. David sank to his knees as a man facing his God. And the presence that existed with him; that comprised his entire universe, spoke with a voice that shattered in his ears and drowned out his senses.
I AM THE AUTHOR.
* * *
The house stood empty and alone on the windswept plain. The sun was taking its last fading glimpse over the horizon, and the cold would soon set in. The old building was a simple construct. A front porch led to a small, shag-carpeted living room with a flickering TV-set (it was equipped with cable, as the previous owners had subscribed and the company, through some oversight, had not canceled when the home changed hands) and a beat-up recliner. Straight ahead was the kitchen, with a sparse assortment of dishes cluttering the counter, a refrigerator and a rusty sink completing the picture. Not fifteen feet from the front door was the back door, which opened to reveal a long and empty wasteland of dust and sagebrush, which could be contemplated from the creaking rocker that was stationed on the rickety porch. To the right of the entrance was short hall that led to a tiny bathroom and an equally tiny bedroom, which was furnished with a respectable bed and an old trunk which contained all the worldly possessions of the houseís owner.
David Miteger, then a moderately successful consultant, had inherited the house six years ago from his fatherís uncle. He had made one trip to survey it before filing the deed somewhere deep in his cluttered file-cabinet. It would, he had surmised, have been too much trouble to have destroyed, and it would not have brought him enough money to consider selling it. He supposed someone might want to rent it someday, and so he hid the deed away and forgot about it. He never expected that six years later, a bitter divorce would force him to actually live there.
It was late now, and the moon was spreading its gentle glow across the cloudless sky. The stars were bright here in the desert, and almost rivaled the moon with their pale light. It was as if, with the warm blanket of the sun pulled away, the cold that had been so effectively restrained during the day was now free to descend from the countless glowing orbs; seeping across the sky as sweat from pores. All was utter silence.
Then the back door to the lonely house swung open from the outside, and a shadowy figure, breathing raggedly, caked in frozen sweat and red dust, and clutching a strange spherical object close to his chest with gnarled fingers, staggered inside. The door slammed behind him.
David Miteger had come home.
Like a puppet on strings, he walked -- lurched -- to the living room and collapsed in his chair. For a long time he sat there like a deflated balloon. Any one looking into his eyes at that point would have discerned an empty husk, devoid of all will or intelligence, and wondered if this human shell yet lived.
But David Miteger did live, and at last, regaining some control over his senses, he held up the globe in his left hand and flexed his right. "Who moves this hand?" he mused. He waited for an answer. If one came, it was audible to none but him. "Very well," he declared, and sank back into the chair, closing his eyes, and raising his right hand high into the air. Twirling it, he let his arm fall limp by his side in a random motion.
His fingers brushed the remote control lying on the floor next to him.
Of course, he laughed to himself, Itís so obvious! So perfectly clear! How absurd! How futile! How delightful! Giggling oddly, he leaned sideways, picked up the remote and cradled it gently. Across the room, the television set faced him: a blank page, waiting to be written upon. David smiled, cradled the globe carefully in the crook of his left arm and raised the remote control.
"Letís see whatís on tonight."
WE INTERRUPT THIS PROGRAM ...
Directly, FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder did not blow the cover of the warehouse surveillance team using only his pencil. Indirectly, that was probably the sum of it.
He blamed the system, really. The system was too damn boring. FBI procedure, not terribly interesting in and of itself, was thorough enough to exclude agents from bringing with them any items that might detract from their surveillance duties. Items such as "The Great Big Book Of Travel Fun," confiscated from one Special Agent Fox Mulder (who received a stern reprimand) thus providing the surveillance team with hours of puzzley enjoyment while Mulder babysat the practically self-driven snoop equipment.
So it was that Fox Mulderís pencil, its note-taking applications rendered obsolete by electronics, had no place to go but point-up in the ceiling of the cramped surveillance room. So it was that Fox Mulderís pencil found its way down when one Dana Scully -- partner of the aforementioned Mulder -- shut the door to the room, causing the utensil to strike her squarely on top of the head. So it was that Agent Scully, starting ferociously, stumbled onto a surveillance device, causing a feedback loop to whine across the hidden equipment in the suspect warehouse, alerting its criminal occupants. Three months planning, resources and money evaporated in three minutes time. Dana Scully glared at her wide-eyed partner. And he shrugged. So it was that Fox Mulder found himself seated in the office of Assistant Director Walter Skinner.
Walter Skinner was a patient man. It was a virtue he prided himself on. As an Assistant Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, it was often a necessity. He had learned it during his service in the United States Marine Corps a thousand times over: patience could get you through terrible times, when the chips were down and the leads were slow. Success was never quick, nor was it guaranteed in any form. More often than not, it was partial at best. The FBI demanded better. Someone had to work to keep the margin of error low and the success rate high. Someone had to suffer the hassles and hells of coordination, paperwork, optimization and accountability. Someone had to shoulder the burden of responsibility. Walter Skinner had devoted his life to becoming that someone, and that meant possessing patience.
Right now, however, it took all of his patience just to convince himself that Fox Mulderís life goal was not to test the limits of his patience and, having found them, force them down and proceed to triumphantly dance all over them. Skinner sat down in his desk chair and fixed his penitent subordinate with an annoyed stare. He sighed heavily and adjusted his wire-rimmed glasses. A scowl formed, itís nature exaggerated by Skinnerís baldness.
Mulder spoke. "Before you say anything, I want to apologize for what happened at the warehouse last night."
"It wasnít your fault, Agent Mulder," Skinner sighed. It was true. He couldnít truly blame Mulder. That didnít stop Skinner from being annoyed with him, but there was no culpability Mulder could claim. "Accidents happen, even in the FBI. Everyone acknowledges that. Despite this, three months of Federal time and resources have been wasted, and people want answers. In the absence of answers, they want someone to blame. That someone is me." Mulder began to protest, but Skinner cut him off. "As the man in charge of the operation, the failure was mine."
"Sir, Iíd be happy to accept respons--"
Skinner stopped him. "Forget it. ĎBureaucratic scapegoatí is part of my job description." A small grin escaped him at the thought. It was more than half true. But his usual somber expression returned in a moment. "Sometimes fate works against you."
"I donít subscribe to fate, sir," Mulder said. "Technically, I had the option of not engaging my writing utensil in Ďunofficial FBI practice.í "
"Then call it dumb luck. In any case, I didnít call you in here about that incident." Mulder raised an eyebrow. That was a surprise. Skinner continued. "As far as the Director is concerned, the warehouse case is dead. A junior investigative team under Assistant Director Kersh has been assigned to pick up the pieces."
"That ought to make him happy," Mulder replied, recalling Kershís dour, by-the-book manner. Kersh was a man who took great pleasure in coloring between the lines. Not so long ago, in fact, as part of a plan to rein in Mulderís maverick tendencies, Mulder had been given the "pleasure" of playing the part of Kershís crayon. Now, however, he was back under Skinnerís authority. "What do you have for me?" Mulder asked.
In response, Skinner pulled out a small portfolio from a desk drawer. "An X-file." Mulder leaned forward, his curiosity piqued.
The X-files were a special and often controversial branch of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Into the X-files went all the unsolved cases; often those which were so unconventional (or absurd) that they defied logical or reasonable investigation. Thatís where Fox Mulder entered into the picture. It was his job -- his chosen crusade, really -- to investigate the X-files; to solve, prove or disprove the often inexplicable material. Together with his (somewhat pointedly more skeptical) partner Special Agent Dana Scully, a qualified medical doctor, Mulder had made considerable headway towards exposing a vast international conspiracy: a conspiracy that threatened all of the worldís people with extra-terrestrial domination; a conspiracy that danced to the tune of one nameless cigarette-smoking man; a conspiracy that was responsible -- so he believed -- for the abduction of his young sister when he was just a boy. This fantastical situation which more closely resembled crude science-fiction than reality; this was the stuff of Fox Mulderís life. The X-files was his baby. The truth -- for Mulder championed the truth above all else -- was in there. But despite his devotion to the truth, his passion had more often than not earned him the ridicule and resentment of the majority of his associates and colleagues. "Spooky," they called him. "Spooky" Mulder. Such was his legacy.
True, Mulder was neither friendless nor alone. He had an ally in Skinner, confidantes in a trio of paranoid geeks who called themselves "The Lone Gunmen" (proud publishers of "The Magic Bullet" newsletter.) And of course Agent Scully, originally assigned to debunk his work, was now firmly in his camp.
Arrayed against him were most of his coworkers, many important government officials and agencies, a vast intercontinental conspiracy, and countless scattered cases around the country of people heíd blown-off, proved wrong or otherwise annoyed. With those odds, it was only his status as a possible tool to higher-ups who thought they could manipulate him that had kept him alive this long.
Now he looked with interest at the envelope on Skinnerís desk, wondering what supernatural mystery lay within. He speculated aloud on its contents. "Trans-human possessions? Shamanic spirit demons? Little Green Men?"
Skinner shook his head. "Poltergeists."
* * *
"Poltergeists?" Dana Scully raised her sharp eyebrows in mild apprehension.
Fox Mulder nodded earnestly. "Shadowy presences, haywire TV: the whole nine yards. Standard poltergeist phenomenon."
They were in Mulderís office now. Stowed away in the sub-basement of the Hoover Building, Washington D.C., it was a dark, cluttered place, filled with stacks of paper and bits of foodstuff. To anyone else it was chaos, but as Scully knew, Mulder was aware of the precise location of each and every scrap. On the wall was an old poster of a UFO that read "I WANT TO BELIEVE". With that image squarely framing him, Mulder was reclining in his chair holding the portfolio Skinner had given him. Scully was facing him across the desk.
Scully shook her head, brushing a few wayward strands of her reddish-gold hair off of her face. "Standard poltergeist phenomenon," she repeated. "Doesnít sound like the kind of thing the FBI would normally give much credence."
Mulder shrugged. "Since when has this field of investigation been normal?" Scully gave him a sideways look. He continued, "Look, I wholeheartedly agree that under ordinary circumstances itís perfectly reasonable to assume that this is a delusion or hoax of some nutcase whoís watched the ĎPoltergeistí movie one too many times."
"But ..." Scully ventured, sensing the inevitable other shoe.
"But thereís been a kidnapping."
"Whoís the lucky Carol Anne?" Scully asked.
Mulder flipped open the portfolio, revealing the picture of a man who was most definitely not Carol Anne. Balding and looking slightly confused, he was well past middle-age, with a sagging face and loose jowls. "This is Martin Veerhooven, 65, single. He disappeared from his hotel room last Friday. The landlady who reported the disappearance found one friend, Bud Archer at the scene, unconscious. Apparently, heíd come over to watch the game. When he came to, he started babbling about the television set ... something about it Ďsucking upí his pal Martin, who is now nowhere to be found. Eyewitnesses place him in his apartment at the time of disappearance, and the complexís security system shows no record of anyone entering or exiting the building. The television is still exhibiting strange electrical behavior that our techs canít account for."
Scullyís forehead wrinkled in mild consternation. "A kidnapping would help explain FBI involvement." Mulder nodded. "Buy why is this an X-file, Mulder? It seems much more feasible that this Bud character had something to do with the manís disappearance, and that he fabricated the poltergeist story as a response to the odd behavior of the television and an attempt to cover his tracks."
Mulder nodded in assent. "Bud is currently in FBI custody. The scenario youíve described is possible ... probable, actually. Thereís just the small matter of Bud himself. Theyíve diagnosed an unusual state of neural shock. Itís not harmful, but they havenít been able to determine the cause."
"That doesnít tell us anything," Scully challenged, "There are all sorts of physiological conditions which can lead to forms of neurological shock, many of them related to the kind of stress or struggle involved in a murder and cover up."
"Heís passed all his lie detector tests."
"He may believe his story is true. That doesnít mean it is."
Mulder shrugged. "That may be. But so far no one can explain the television set. Itís emitting frequencies of light and sound that random static or interference shouldnít be able to produce. The lab jocks are prepared to write it off as a power surge, but Skinner asked me to take a closer look."
"Whatís Skinnerís stake in this?"
Mulder rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. "He, ah ... after the recent surveillance ... accident ..."
"Fiasco," Scully amended.
"... he needs a success. This case is going nowhere fast. If nothing else, we might find something the initial sweep missed. And then there was the whole poltergeist thing ..." Scully looked suddenly tired. "Believe me, Scully, I sincerely hope this is all some scam." Her eyes narrowed. "Really."
Sighing, Scully slung her coat over her shoulder and walked out the door. Mulder looked affronted, calling after her, "Relax, Scully. Itís not like every case we investigate turns out spooky!" And as "Spooky" Mulder pondered his ill-chosen words, Scully disappeared from view without a backward glance. He slumped back into his chair. "Only the ones I pick," he pointed out to no one in particular.
* * *
It was, Agent Scully observed, exactly the type of apartment sheíd fervently attempted to avoid when sheíd first moved to Washington D.C. Dimly lit, there was just enough glow to reveal the hairline cracks along the dark gray walls and dirty blue carpeting. If she looked carefully, she could almost make out the roaches scurrying through the dark corners. The anteroom opened into the kitchen -- complete with leaky faucet and scummy tiled floor -- followed by a short hall which branched out to a bedroom and bathroom. To the left of the hall was the living room. Mulder was already there, the manila envelope that held the case file tucked securely under his arm, grimly surveying the dilapidated couch and discarded beer cans. The television, though plugged in, was currently off. Scully moved up behind him, eyeing the rubbish that was strewn around the couch.
"The original roach motel, eh Scully?"
"I think itís a reasonable assumption that Mr. Archer was drunk," she said distastefully. Kicking a can across the room, Mulder walked over to the outside wall. He set the case file down and brushed aside ugly yellow curtains to reveal all the splendor and majesty of a crumbling brick wall.
"Some view," he muttered. Then he pulled the curtains further open, revealing thick metal bars three inches apart. "Notice anything, Scully?"
"Theyíre barred?" she responded with mild sarcasm, "Itís not unheard of, Mulder."
"No, itís not. In fact, every window in this complex is barred. The only exits are the fire escapes on each floor, which are wired with electronic alarms, and the main entrance, which is under twenty-four hour surveillance. No one gets in or out of this building without the landlady knowing about it, but Martin Veerhooven disappeared without a trace. No alarm was triggered, and surveillance shows that no one left through the main entrance. How do you suppose a three-hundred-twenty pound man could fit through the three-inch space between these bars?"
Scully frowned. "That is odd. Is it possible that one of the grates or alarms was tampered with?"
"They checked for that. But all the alarms were functioning, and as you observed yourself: Bud Archer was drunk. In all probability, so was Martin Veerhooven. Even given that either of them possessed the incredible skill necessary to tamper with security devices so thoroughly that it escaped the scrutiny of a full-blown FBI investigation, such an act would have been beyond their current faculties. Scully, there is absolutely no physical evidence to point to any foul play on the part of either man."
Scully reflected for a moment. "Are there security cameras in the building?" Mulder shook his head. "Thereís a watchman on duty twenty-four hours at the entrance. He claims that Mr. Veerhooven arrived with Mr. Archer at 11:15 p.m."
"Were there any corroborating witnesses?"
"At 9:30 p.m., a convenience store employee testified that they both stopped for snacks in this neighborhood."
Scully frowned. "Thatís a long stretch, Mulder. In fact, considering the obvious possible explanation that the security guard nodded off at his post or was simply mistaken, Iím surprised this case ever got off the ground."
Mulder said, "It wouldnít have, if not for an absolute lack of motive for a murder or kidnapping. That coupled with no sign of Martin Veerhooven, the fact that all alibis check out, the eyewitness testimony and the behavior of the television set invited X-file-brand speculation. Speaking of which, why donít we see whatís on TV tonight." This said, Mulder ambled over to the television, leaned down and turned it on.
Scully had to admit she was surprised. She couldnít put her finger on it, but the swirls of motion and almost-color on the screen seemed fundamentally different than normal static. On top of that, there was an extremely sharp whine building in her ears. She rubbed them uncomfortably. "What do you suppose could be causing that?" she asked.
"I donít know," replied Mulder, his brow furrowing in concentration. He adjusted the battered rabbit-ears on top of the set. Nothing happened. "Thereís certainly no paranormal precedent. Most poltergeist television phenomenon are proven hoaxes. The few that arenít describe no such occurrences." He stared at the screen, momentarily mesmerized by the almost-pattern. "Itís like a window into another dimension," he murmured.
"Precisely," came a manís voice.
In an instant, Mulder and Scully were turned around, weapons drawn. Lounging on the couch, some sort of transparent glassy ball in his arms, was a ragged man in torn blue jeans and a dirty flannel shirt. He grinned at the FBI agents through a scruffy beard; fixing them with a playful yet intense stare. "I knew youíd come!" he said softly. He laughed. The sound was chilling. "Naturally, you had to come."
"How did you get in here, sir?" Scully was on top of the situation. "This is a crime scene; a restricted area." This seemed to amuse the man even more. He jeered at them sadistically.
"You take it all so seriously, donít you? As if any of it matters? As if you had a choice! You make me sick. Youíd never try so hard to preserve it if you knew what I know. Not that it matters. It doesnít do you any good to know. Itís all dead." Sullenly, he tapped the globe he held. "I suppose youíre wondering what became of good Mr. Veerhooven."
"What do you know?" Mulder asked cautiously, perplexed as to how this man had entered the apartment -- the door was presumably locked. Perhaps there was some secret crawl space or floor panel. Perhaps the man had snuck in earlier and been hiding. Or perhaps he had Martin Veerhoovenís key. Regardless, the strange man didnít seem to be taking any threatening action towards the agents. Either he had nothing to lose or he believed the situation was under his control. Either way, Mulder didnít like it.
Responding to Mulderís query about the missing person, the man waved his hand with an exaggerated air of noblesse oblige. "Heís right behind you."
Scully turned to look. To her extreme shock, Martin Veerhooven was indeed lying, unmoving and splayed out, on the floor between the agents and the television. "Mulder, heís here," she said in surprise.
Mulder took a quick glance, never moving his gun away from this mystifying intruder. Sure enough, the aged, heavy-set man lay limp on the floor, eyes closed and obviously not conscious. Sully bent down and felt for a pulse. "Heís alive," she declared.
"Yes and no!" the man proclaimed triumphantly. "Itís a riddle!"
Mulder began to advance. "Iím not going to play games with you, sir. Who are you and how did Martin Veerhooven enter this room. Iím a Federal Agent." This seemed to enrage the stranger, who sat bolt upright, clutching his bauble tightly between his rigid fingers. Scully and Mulder instantly went on the defensive.
"I?" he snarled. "I??? You DARE use that word? YOU, Fox are nothing!!!" Mulder narrowed his eyes. The man knew his name. Perhaps he had been waiting for him. Had he manipulated this situation with the intent of luring Scully and himself here? The implications were not good. The man continued his theatrical rant, gesturing wildly. "You do not, in fact, exist, my friends! You are a FIGMENT of the imagination!"
"Yours, I suppose," Mulder challenged. Heíd seen this type of behavior before, working with patient diagnosis in mental institutions. If the man believed what he was saying, heíd successfully convinced himself that he was responsible for imagining and thus creating the world around him.
"Hell, no!" the man snapped, as if it was the most ludicrous suggestion in the world, "Iím not any more real than you are! But this ..." he stood, holding up the globe triumphantly, "THIS is real! And I am the vessel!"
So this was a different kind of nut. This man, whoever he was, had gone beyond imagining that his reality was an illusion to the point where he could not separate himself from that illusion. It only made sense, therefore, that he should latch onto some talisman -- the strange globe in this case -- as a focal point ... something to cling to. Something "real".
Thinking to call for a squad car, Mulder pulled out his cellphone. But instead of a dial tone, all he heard was a terrible squealing noise. He turned to Scully. "My phoneís not working. Probably interference from the television. Iíll hold him here while you go radio for backup." Before them, the man was growing increasingly livid, and Mulder pondered his situation. While the man appeared to be unarmed, and posed no immediate threat, it probably wouldnít do to ignore him. If he turned hostile and Mulder were forced to shoot, things would turn out ugly for everybody concerned. He wondered if the man would try to stop Scully from leaving the room.
"Iíd appreciate your cooperation," Mulder said smoothly and evenly. "I want to make this easy for both of us. Weíre all a bit confused, but so far nobodyís died here--" The man cut him off.
"Nobodyís LIVED here!" he shrieked. "But you donít believe me!" Mulder noticed a hint of desperation creeping into the manís voice. "Youíve got to believe me."
"Why?" he asked carefully.
"Because," the man pleaded -- and he was pleading now: practically whimpering -- "I have to know!" With dawning awareness, Mulder realized that the man had not convinced himself of his own fantasy. He considered pointing out to the man that by requiring other individuals to acknowledge his claim before he considered it valid undermined his argument. But he decided against any course of action that could upset the obviously distressed man. This wasnít the time or place for therapy. The counseling would come later, once the man was secured in custody. In the meantime, Mulder thought, itís my job to keep him in one piece until backup arrives. He saw that Scully was moving towards the door, the man having withdrawn slightly. He was staring into the globe now, muttering to himself. He half-addressed Mulder, though he seemed to be ignoring the agents now.
"Thereís these things I have to do," he muttered. "It says I have to do them. But I canít be wrong. I canít be wrong. I have to know. I have to prove it before I can be certain-- AAGGGHHH!!!!" Scully, moving towards the entrance to the room, stopped abruptly at the sharp scream. The strange man was going into convulsions. His eyes and teeth were clenched in agony, and she could practically see his temples quivering.
Itís some sort of seizure, she thought. Despite the violent shaking, his fingers had constricted into wiry, rigid forms and he did not drop the orb. She moved towards him slowly, non-threateningly. "If you can hear me, Iím not going to hurt you. Iím a doctor." But at the sound of her voice, he released one hand to claw violently at her, and she stumbled backward, brushing against Mulder, whose gun was still drawn. Then the manís eyes opened.
Scully gasped despite herself. What had moments ago been the confused and disoriented eyes of a man in shock now blazed with the intensity of a madman, boring and penetrating and bloodshot. His jaw hung open at a crooked angle, and a dry croaking sound emerged.
YOU WILL BELIEVE
The voice came from the man; it had to have come from the man. But to Scully, it was as if it had burst from her own mind like a flood over a dam. Her ears were ringing, her vision blurring into a sort of haze. Time seemed to slow down. She was vaguely aware that beside her, Mulder was falling. Falling backwards. As if her mind had detached from her body, she saw herself grab his arm. But she fell with him. They fell together, and the flickering light from the insane television signal consumed her vision and then her world. Now she was floating, as if in a dream. She was Starbuck, a child soaring through the clouds in her fatherís arms; spiraling downward; downward and downward, until the rampant kaleidoscope of perception that was her universe coalesced into a perfect, unbroken blackness.
Fox Mulder was in hell. More specifically, he was in his old bedroom at Chepachet, frozen up against the wall, staring helplessly (he was unable even to close his eyes) as the silent form of his younger sister rose into a shaft of light and through the bedroom window.
Demonic red and blue auras strobed throughout the room, casting long shadows across the walls. The floor vibrated, scattering Stratego game pieces across the hardwood floor. "Samantha!" he screamed. "SAMANTHAAAA!!!" He raged at the dread force that was taking her from him. But there was no response. The light flared, a great noise filled the room, and then she was gone: gone from his life forever in an instant, and he knew beyond certainty he would never see her again --NO NOT TRUE I MUST I MUST I MUST FIND HER!
Then his world turned, and standing in the doorway, towering over him and leering like all the demons in hell was the sinister outline of a man. Acrid smoke curled from his lip and from the cigarette he held in his withered hand.
"Why so concerned?" the man spoke, his voice surprisingly smooth and melodious. "You know perfectly well itís not real." Relief flooded into Mulderís heart.
"A dream," he breathed.
"Yes. A dream. But certainly not yours." And the smoking-man stepped out of the shadows, and it wasnít the smoking-man Mulder knew at all, but the man from the apartment. And he laughed, holding his hand with the cigarette high. Except it wasnít a cigarette anymore; instead, the cruel smoke framed a glassy globe, which glowed fiercely red. Laughing, the man flung the globe at Mulder. It shattered over him, and the red hell within was released to consume his body in agonizing flame from head to heel.
And then there was darkness.
* * *
The first thing that occurred to Fox Mulder when he opened his eyes was that the grass was very green. Very, very green. Upon rolling onto his back, he then noted that the sky was very blue and that the clouds were very white. He smiled sleepily. He felt so at peace. After all, the nightmare was over and there was no reason at all to be fully awake at a beautiful moment like this one. No reason at all. Then he rolled to his right, saw Agent Scully lying not ten feet away, and got one.
There are moments in our lives, whether dreaming or awake, when we freeze our perceptions and ask ourselves whether one state of consciousness is truly not the other. For instance: the man who is asleep and dreams of discovering his personal holy grail -- whether a lost love or fabulously rare object -- holds it in astonishment and wonders if he is truly woken; or when the man who wakes and steps to the window to witness a paradise of snowfall or a wasteland of storm-wreaked havoc wonders if he should return to bed or if he is already there.
Such was the attitude of Fox Mulder as he laid eyes on his partner.
Dana Scully was a cartoon.
He blinked once. Twice. When the image before him failed to change, he squeezed his eyelids shut and slowly counted to ten. He opened his eyes. Nothing changed. Perhaps it was a picture. He stretched out his hand towards the very reasonable facsimile of his partner, but withdrew it at once when his arm entered his field of vision. He stared at it in fascination: the black outline; the uniformly flesh-colored interior of his hand. My God, he thought, I wonder how the rest of me looks.
Mulder sat up and surveyed his surroundings. He was in a grassy field. At least he assumed that the long expanses of green color were grass. If he leaned over and moved his face close to the bright green ground, lines appeared, denoting individual blades. He whistled in astonishment. Turning his head, he looked beyond a nearby tree and saw that a road ran parallel to the field. To his right, there was a shape that might be a distant town. To his left, he thought he could vaguely make out a highway of sorts.
He blinked uncertainly. Something was wrong with his vision. He rubbed his eyes, but he couldnít quite place his finger on it. It wasnít simply that his world had been transformed into something out of The Simpsons. There was something else that he couldnít quite pin down.
His tactile perceptions felt odd as well. The unusually bland tastelessness of the air, the unremarkably smooth texture of the grass beneath his fingers -- it was just like his vision: smoothed over and uniform. What kind of nightmare could shape his perceptions in this way? What kind of anything could have this sort of effect on him?
Hearing a groan behind him, he swiveled his head back towards Agent Scully. She was stirring. Lying on her back, she lifted her hands to her face without opening her eyes. Mulder took the initiative.
"Hey Scully!" he shouted. "Get a load of this." At the sound of his voice, Scully turned towards him and opened her eyes.
The reaction was instantaneous.
Scrambling to push her upper body into a sitting position she started backwards in shock. Shaking her head, she blinked and squinted at Mulder. Enough to make out his dopey grin.
Dream or not? Either way, Mulder figured, it was damn hilarious. Scully was not so amused. "Mulder?" she asked hesitantly.
"Present," he declared, waving an arm.
She stood up, brushed the dirt from her FBI-tailored suit and looked around in wonderment. "Itís a dream," she murmured.
"I donít think so." Scully turned to face Mulder incredulously.
"Of course you donít think so," she began. It was evident that she was talking more to herself than Mulder. "Iím dreaming. Iím in some sort of shock, and youíre here and being you, youíll believe anything ..."
"... as long as itís weird. My God, the apartment. That man must have knocked me unconscious. I remember a voice ..." She trailed off. Mulder was laughing. "Whatís so funny?" she demanded. Dream Mulder or no ...
Mulder joined her standing up. "Itís a dream, Scully? Then wake up."
"Mulder, if Iím physically unconscious for some reason other than being tired, thereís a good chance I may not be able to. Iím only humoring you because you obviously represent my subconscious irrationalities."
Mulder looked offended. "Fine then. Iíll shut up." There was a long silence. Scully looked confused. "Iím done," he continued, "dream segment ĎAí is over. Go on. Fly away or something. This is a lucid dream; affect something."
"I will." Scully answered indignantly. Looking around, she spotted a nearby tree. "Iíll fly to the top of that tree and prove it to you ... me." Gathering herself, Scully squatted down and sprang into the air ...
... landing with a thud as she hit the ground. Brushing her short hair out of her eyes, she glared at Mulder, who was trying very, very hard to keep a straight face. "That," she said slowly, "was a manifestation of my insecurities. I was afraid I wouldnít be able to do it. This is a dream; the fear came true."
"Or," postulated Mulder, "since I know that Iím real, Iím putting you through these motions for my general amusement."
Mulder nodded solemnly. "I expected you to say that."
"God, youíre even more incorrigible when youíre not really here."
"Iíll take that as a compliment." He considered the situation for a moment. "It makes sense, though. If each of us thought we were the dreamer and the other an illusion, our inhibitions would be lower than if we thought what we said or did actually mattered." He grinned. "Címere Ďní kiss me." Scully glared at him balefully. He shrugged.
"Try this then. Iíve never been able to do this in a dream. Close your eyes and focus on your natural bodily functions -- the rhythm of your breathing, your heartbeat, the feel of your tongue behind your teeth ... then open your eyes again."
Scully closed her eyes and breathed deeply for about twenty seconds. Mulder was perfectly silent. She opened her eyes. "Nothingís changed."
"I know," he said. "Now try something else. Cross your eyes." Scully raised a finger and drew it close to her nose. The finger got bigger. It did not blur, however, and in the background, Mulder did not waver and separate into two persons. She stared at him incredulously.
"Do people retain depth perception in dreams?" he asked.
"Yes," she said. "I think so. Iím not sure."
"It may surprise you that I did see your eyes cross."
Scully frowned. "Maybe this is some kind of virtual reality device."
Mulder shook his head. "I donít think so. Virtual reality is almost always constructed in three dimensions. Now itís possible that whatever input device is being used can only feed us two-dimensional perception ... but ... " With a flash of inspiration he dug into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper and handed it to Scully. She took it, unfolded it and looked it over.
"This is a gas station bill for $15.73. What does this have to do ..." She trailed off, dawning awareness spreading over her features. She handed the slip of paper back. "Iím starting to believe you, Mulder. I canít read a thing in my dreams. The words become scrambled."
"And a virtual reality device would have to be pretty damn accurate to know whatís in my pocket. Check something on yourself."
Prying beneath her collar with one finger, Scully withdrew a golden chain which was threaded through a tiny cross. She stared at it in amazement. "Mulder ... this is incredible."
"And probably not a virtual reality device. Weíre also probably awake -- or at least conscious. That leaves that this is some sort of hallucination ... or real."
"Iím opting for hallucination," Scully responded, "Some sort of drug-induced fantasy maybe. Iím still not entirely sure this isnít all in my head and you arenít really here."
"Are you hungry?" The sudden off-topic question caught Scully off guard.
"Now that you mention it, yes."
"Good. Because Iím starving. Another thing Iíve never experienced in a dream or hallucination. So I figure we can either sit here indefinitely until we get yanked back to the Ďreal world,í or we can assume that all of this is real and head for that town over there, get some food and find a place to stay. It looks like our cellphones and weapons are gone. We probably dropped them before we got wherever here is. But when we reach the town, we should also try to contact the nearest FBI office. In the meantime, we can scout around and find out if anyoneís seen persons matching the description of Martin Veerhooven or the man in the apartment."
"You seriously think that would get us anywhere?"
Mulder shrugged. "Beats sitting around here waiting. Although," he mused, eyeing the yellow ball of a sun "I could go for a good tan." Scully was not amused, and he took a deep breath. "Letís go."
But before heíd gone two steps, a wave of nausea and dizziness swept over him; his brain unable to process the rapid change in perspective. It took a massive effort to prevent himself from falling flat on his face in the grass. He stopped moving until the flash of disorientation ran its course. Slowly, he turned to face Scully, who was awkwardly balancing on one heel, trying her best not to collapse. When she regained her balance, she looked at Mulder and shook her head in amazement.
"Iíll try to flag down the next car," she said. She looked down at her jacket and checked the lapel. "Iíve still got my FBI badge at least." She moved cautiously towards the edge of the road. "And Mulder ... I wouldnít look directly at the sun. I know it just looks like a big yellow spot, but who knows what It would do to our eyes in this state." As she stepped forward, another wave of dizziness accompanied her, and she paused to steady herself. Mulder was having similar difficulties.
"You always take binocular vision for granted until itís gone," he quipped.
"Just pretend youíre watching TV," she shot back. Mulder managed a weak grin and moved forward. Looking up, he noticed a sign next to the road.
It read, "WELCOME TO LAWNDALE"
* * *
Daria Morgendorffer was bored stiff. As a stiff, she corrected herself. Iím certain the inside of a coffin lid would provide just as much entertainment value as the ceiling of my room. Possibly more if you take knotholes into account.
The bedroom itself was not what one would call representative of a normal seventeen-year old high-school girl. The walls for instance. Gray and padded, the room had formerly been occupied by the schizophrenic shut-in mother of the previous owner of the house. (As Daria had once commented, the room had its advantages and disadvantages: "You canít get hurt in it ... On the other hand, you canít hurt anybody in it.") The windows -- two pairs on adjoining walls -- were comfortably made up: the drab brown curtains nicely offsetting the sawed-off steel bars. There were two television sets in the room. One, mounted out of reach in the corner of the ceiling, was non-functional (the remote had been lost some time ago.) The second rested on a stainless-steel metal cart (which also provided a haven for a working telephone), and was functional. The roomís furnishings consisted of a plain bed, a dresser, upon which rested models of a human heart and a wedge of cheese, and a combination bookshelf/computer-desk next to the door. The only other decorations to speak of were a poster of a partially excavated human skeleton and a few scattered post-it notes. Strewn around the floor were various objects: a stereo, some CDs, a microscope, a box filled with an artificial skull and bones, and various other oddities.
Just the way Daria liked it.
Daria Morgendorffer was currently scrutinizing the flat gray ceiling from the convenient ceiling-scrutinizing location of her bed, contemplating the passions of high-school life. Perhaps you remember Daria from your high-school? Perhaps you were her? The quintessential misfit, brain and general social outcast, she had brown hair, large-rimmed glasses and wore no makeup. She was dressed in her typical outfit of a tan-orange shirt underneath a green, collared zip-up top; a drab black skirt; and shin-high clumsily-fashioned Doc Marten boots that were hardly suitable for hopscotch but perfect for delivering a swift kick in the pants. Not that Daria would ever consider doing such a thing. Daria didnít believe in resorting to physical violence as a means of revenge. No ... it was much better to destroy an opponent through multiple stages of psychological manipulation.
Unless, of course, one had saved up enough allowance to call upon the services of the Mob.
Daria was almost there.
A model of sarcasm, craftiness, and general cynicism, Daria had a ... unique take on the world in general. It was a take that usually left her disgusted; amused, if she could manipulate it to some gratifying end. She was quite intelligent; if she so desired, she probably could have been the most attractive, popular, amicable young lady in town. In short, everything she despised most in people.
All this is not to suggest that Daria was friendless. She had exactly one friend, thus eliminating her from that classification. That friend was Jane Lane, fellow-outsider: somewhat more emotionally "normal" (being an "artiste" per se) but just as cynical, and possibly more ruthless.
Daria also had a sister. Quinn was the Moriarity to Dariaís Holmes; the White Whale to her Ahab; the Klingon to her Kirk; the Gilligan to her Skipper. Such a pity Quinn had no idea who any of them were. Well ... maybe the Klingon one. Unbearably cute and insufferably aware of it, Quinnís life philosophy involved maintaining her date rotations (out of fairness to the men of Lawndale High), maintaining her status as vice-president of the Fashion Club, and maintaining the belief among her classmates that she was an only child who happened to share a house with her "weird cousin, or whatever."
Helen, Dariaís mother, considered herself both happy homemaker, formidable litigant, and as attractive as the day she entered college. Jake, Dariaís father and an ingenious (in his own mind) marketing consultant considered himself both successful and important. And if he ever started to suspect otherwise, well, he had pills for that.
All in all, they were one big happy family. Well ... they werenít really big. Or happy, exactly ... All in all, they were one average-sized, bordering-on-functional family.
Daria slumped deeper into the bed in boredom. Maybe she should call up her Aunt Amy. Her motherís sister was the closest thing to normal in the entire family -- and one of the few people period who Daria actually enjoyed talking to. It was a long distance call, but it was on her parentsí bill, and just might be worth it. She picked up the bedside phone and dialed. It rang for several seconds before an answering machine picked up. Daria sighed and hung up before the beep. So much for extraneous family-bonding.
Daria often wondered why they couldnít be more like Janeís family. With her parents usually gone and three siblings floating around North and South America, Jane shared the house with her older brother Trent. Trent was an independent musician. This meant that he was a college dropout who slept when he wasnít practicing. Or practiced when he wasnít sleeping. Whatever. In Trentís case, the two acts were difficult to separate.
Of course, there was more to Trent than met the eye. And Daria ... Daria was not going to think about it at the moment. Instead, she called to mind the phone conversation sheíd had with Jane yesterday ... and the reason she was staring at her ceiling on a Saturday afternoon. It went something like this:
DARIA: ... so I figure tomorrow would be the perfect day to gauge public reaction to psychological experiments in sidewalk chalk.
JANE: Sidewalk chalk is the devilís tool.
DARIA: I suppose youíre right. Weíd better use spraypaint.
JANE: As much as I live for petty vandalism, no can do. Motherís back in town. Sheís going shopping for new art supplies, and if I tag along I can usually slip a few "extras" into the cart.
DARIA: Ah, the time-honored shopping-cart method of survival. I guess Iíll just stay home tomorrow and stare at my bedroom ceiling. You never know when it might collapse on you.
JANE: Itís a rough job, but someoneís got to do it.
JANE: Iím on the phone, Trent. Have anything to say to Daria?
TRENT: Actually, yeah. Daria?
DARIA: Yes, Trent?
TRENT: I donít think Iíve ever told you how much you mean to me.
DARIA: Why, Trent ...
TRENT: Itís true. I wrote this song about it ...
WOAH! Ceiling-staring fantasies have gone too far. Daria shook her head. Sheíd come perilously close to acknowledging an emotion. Emotions made you weak. Better to live without them; cold bitter intellect would prevail! And if you needed to express yourself there was sarcasm and depressing literature! Still, in Trentís case ...
The phone rang, causing Dariaís heart to jump into her throat. But it was Janeís voice that came over the other line.
"Jane?" Daria asked. Jane wasnít supposed to be home until late, and it was only mid-afternoon. "What happened to shopping for art supplies with your mom?"
"Never got off the ground. Dad called. Evidently, Mom left him in Mexico."
Daria was not surprised. "Was he upset?"
"Not really," Jane replied matter-of-factly. "He found a large flea market tent outside the border. Heíll stay there until she comes and gets him. I probably wonít see either of them for a couple of weeks or so."
"I see. Iíll be right over."
"I wouldnít if I were you."
"Mother forgot to close the kiln before she left. Letís just say the house is pretty smoky."
"Oh?" Daria asked. Janeís voice had been noticeably free of coughs and other such smoke-induced augmentations. "Where are you calling from?"
"The roof outside my bedroom window," Jane replied smoothly.
"Ah-ha. Well, youíd better come over here then. My dadís not home yet and Quinnís shut up in her room with her latest Cashmanís infusion. All in all, it promises to be another dull day ..."
* * *
Usually it was Mulder who found the weirdoes.
In this case, it had been Scullyís turn.
It wasnít that there was anything truly abnormal about the man whoíd identified himself as Jake Morgendoo ... Morgenduffer ... differ ... something along those lines. In fact, the perpetual Prozac-grin he wore as he drove fit quite nicely with his squarish, cartoon face. But something about the man signaled that perhaps not every bulb was as firmly screwed in as it could be.
Fortyish, with a bountiful head of brown "executive hair" (toupee was more likely,) heíd panicked when Scully first flagged down his Lexus, flailing her FBI badge. "My God!" heíd declared, "Was I speeding? Is my tail light out? Dear Lord, is this an audit?"
"No sir," Scully had assured him, as if it were possible that two FBI agents standing alone by the roadside in the middle of a field, with no vehicle or equipment in sight, would be flagging down cars for speeding violations. Or ... auditing people? "Iím Agent Dana Scully, Iím with the FBI, not IRS." The man was not allayed.
"FBI? Itís about Daria isnít it?" he blurted out. "I knew sheíd end up on an somebodyís list someday! Tell me sheís alive!"
Scully rolled her eyes at this more ludicrous suggestion that FBI agents would attempt to inform him of any possible news concerning this ĎDariaí by flagging down his car from the front in the middle of a field. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. This was getting more and more surreal by the moment, and it was very hard to take this ... cartoon character seriously. Iím a cartoon, she reminded herself. And so is Mulder. So we have to make the best of things. She addressed the nervous man again. "Nobodyís in any sort of trouble, sir. My partner and I have been ... walking for quite some time. We were hoping you could give us a ride to the nearest town. We need to contact an FBI office."
Upon learning he was not in any sort of trouble, the manís whole demeanor had changed instantly, a relieved grin possessing his features. It was quickly replaced by a look of deep thought. "No FBI office in Lawndale," he said. The grin returned as an idea occurred to him. "You can come to my house!" he declared. "You can use the phone book there. Iíd let you use my car phone, but itís only good for local calls." Then he muttered, "Damn phone company! Well, hop on in!"
Scully looked at Mulder, who shrugged. "I call shotgun," he said, and then mouthed, "And you owe me." Scully sighed and got in, followed by Mulder.
"Jake Morgendorffer! Pleased to meet you," the man said. He squinted at Mulder. "Havenít I seen you somewhere?" Mulder shrugged. Frankly, he didnít have much time to devote to constructing a cover story; the motion of the car was making him rather ill, and he was preoccupied with the rather strenuous task of not throwing up all over the manís dashboard.
"I donít see how. Weíre ... new in town," he managed. The answer evidently satisfied Jake, and he began driving towards the distant town.
"Hey!" he said, "Do I get some sort of tax deduction for this?"
It was going to be a long day.
David Miteger was home again.
Once more, he sat in his tattered living room, the Orb in his arms. Thatís what he called it now. The Orb. That was the name the Author had given it. He was leaning forward in the chair, his back hunched, with his elbows on his knees, the Orb held up in both hands so that it practically touched the tip of his nose. Weird light from the flickering television set cast kaleidoscopic shadows across the room.
Yes, David Miteger was home again.
Watching the drama unfold.
Some might have been impressed at the resourcefulness of agents Mulder and Scully. Thinking harder, they would rather have been impressed with the mind of the man that created them, or the talents of the actors who portrayed them. But David Miteger was beyond even these, for as he knew, they were all of them puppets. Mulder and Scully were merely a script within a script. It was the Author who directed all stories and all scripts. And He had chosen to shape His story through the perspective of the character He had named David Miteger.
As he stared into the Orb, David Miteger pondered its mysteries. He thought on its beauty. It occurred to him what a truly splendorous thing it was: its smooth, unblemished surface; its perfect arcing symmetry; the knowledge that flowed forth from it. Truly it was the source of all; how could it be anything else? Of special delight was the pure light it gave forth: the ruddy aura that only he could perceive. It pulsed from the core of the sphere, with a rhythm and pulse all its own. But even magnificent as it was, the blood-red glory was less than it could be. Less than it should be. David knew it had so much more potential. He wanted to help expand the potential. He needed to. How glorious it would be then, the Orb drenched in blood, gaining shape and form in a new physical dimension, until it stretched out to encompass him, and David Miteger would truly be free, oh yes. Blood was the answer. He would get up and he would walk to the kitchen. He would open the big drawer, and take out the sharpest knife. Then he would incline his neck over the Orb. He would caress the Orb lovingly and raise the knife to his jugular vein. He would --
NO!!! David realized he was sweating heavily, salty fluid running down his forehead and nose to pool at his upper lip. He licked his lips nervously. Blood, he thought. Thatís what it wants. But he couldnít give it up. Not yet. The ultimate sacrifice (no, not sacrifice at all, for that would mean that David as a self had something to give) was yet beyond him.
The red aura of the Orb flickered, and David recoiled slightly and began to whimper. He couldnít do it. He hadnít the strength. There was still enough of David Miteger left to doubt. He had to be sure. He had to watch and wait. He would coddle and manipulate and plead if he had to, but Mulder and Scully would confirm everything. They HAD to. They were NOTHING! Sooner or later they would realize that he was right, and that none of it mattered. The fact that he could speak to them confirmed that! None of it mattered at all.
Then he could give the Orb what it wanted. Then it could drink deep drafts from the pool of its creation.
David Miteger just needed a little more time. To be sure.
DO YOU DOUBT?
David shrieked in terror as the Authorís presence pierced his mind. His face blanched and he cursed himself for forgetting that he had no secrets. Of course he did not doubt! He couldnít doubt! He was merely an extension of the Author. He was --
WATCH THEN AND KNOW.
And with sick fascination, David watched as his hand rose before his face. His head wavered for a moment like a viper, before he struck out with his jaw, his teeth cutting deep into the fleshy tips of his fingers. Pain lanced through his wrist and up his arm. In horror, he spat blood and saliva, and viscous red liquid dripped from his wounded hand to splash across the surface of the Orb. But within seconds, the Orb was unblemished.
And the ruddy aura was brighter.
Something in Davidís head laughed. And David, nursing his throbbing, bleeding fingers, the copper tang of his own blood fresh in his mouth, stared at the Orb with a deep despair. He knew -- deep in his heart of hearts he knew -- that if he did not reconcile things soon, his soul was forfeit (silly thing, you have no soul!) David Miteger would be destroyed, completely and utterly. That was not in dispute; it was written in the heavens above. It had to be.
And deep within him, a small voice cried out in the diminishing depths, IS IT?
He was running out of time. He had to know now.
It was time to raise the stakes.
PICTURE IN PICTURE
At the same time Daria Morgendorffer was hanging up the telephone, having invited Jane Lane over, her father Jake was pulling into the Morgendorffer driveway with two unusual passengers in tow.
Thankfully, thought Mulder, the man had not attempted to make more than a token effort towards small talk. Beneath his collected exterior, Jake was obviously somewhat disconcerted at transporting two FBI agents to his home. The good effect of that nervousness was that he hadnít asked any questions. Which was just as well so far as Mulder was concerned.
He didnít have any answers.
As Mulder and Scully exited the car and Jake guided them up the walkway to the front door, Mulder observed that he was finally beginning to adjust to his new perspective. The queasiness had settled, and his lack of depth perception was no longer so disorienting or noticeable. He found himself having to continually remind himself of the shapes, textures and colors things ought to have. It was, he reflected, similar to the adjustment that comes of wearing sunglasses or rose-colored lenses.
Any thoughts of adjustment were forced from Mulderís mind as he stumbled and banged his foot on the raised square of cement before the doorway. Scully reached to steady him, and he smiled sheepishly.
Jake, noticing nothing, fumbled for his keys and unlocked the door to his house. Mulder surveyed the premises. The house was a dusky red color, and two stories tall. From the ornamentation and large picture window above the door, he estimated it was a high middle-class home. That and the Lexus made him speculate that it was a double-income home. Jake opened the door wide for them.
"Come on in. Phoneís in the kitchen," he said.
So was Jakeís wife, Helen. A fairly attractive woman in her 40ís, she still projected a formidable air. Dressed in a magenta business suit (her power-wear of choice) that nicely complemented her virtual halo of lush brown hair, she looked up from the kitchen table where she had been going over papers and raised her eyebrows at the new arrivals in her house.
And it was a very nice house, thought Scully. The front door opened to reveal a carpeted stairway, a restrained yet tasteful living-room to the left, and a tidy, pleasantly done up kitchen to the right. While not ostentatious, there was a certain restrained elegance that once again pointed to a well-off family.
The woman at the table set down the documents she had been surveying. "Jake?" she enquired in a voice that, while pleasant enough, was reminiscent of Wilma Flintstone regarding Fred. "Sweetie, who are these people?" she continued in a tone that implied that there had better be a damn good reason two strangers in business suits were standing in the room without her prior notice. This, surmised Scully, was a control-freak.
Jake (like so many men) was oblivious to his significant otherís overtones. Perpetual grin firmly in place, he stepped forward. "Helen, these are agents from the FBI." He gave special emphasis to the letters in "FBI". Scully rolled her eyes.
Far from echoing Jakeís panicky initial reaction, Helenís eyes narrowed in suspicion as she scrutinized Mulder and Scully. "I presume the two of you have some sort of official documentation if you intend on intruding into the private sanctum of our home. Iíd hate for there to be any misunderstandings here. Perhaps you could tell me whatís going on exactly?"
Mulder coughed "lawyer" under his breath, and Scully nodded imperceptibly in silent agreement. Before Mulder could speak, however, Jake jumped to their rescue.
"Oh, thereís no trouble!" he said hastily. "Just commandeering the phone. Official government business, you know." He winked, as if he possessed some secret knowledge. "I went to military school, you know," he whispered to Mulder and Scully.
Helen leaned back, considering the situation. "Well, all right. But I hope it wonít be long-distance. I give quite enough of my hard earned credit to the Federal Government without paying their phone bills."
Mulder stepped forward. "It shouldnít be a problem, maíam. If we could just see a phone book, weíd be glad to be on our way." Given the womanís attitude, it might not be the best idea to stick around. They could easily walk to the nearest payphone or convenience store.
As Jake began rustling through the nearest drawer for a phone book, Helen gestured at the empty chairs by the table. "Please, sit down," she said as she swept the documents she had been reviewing into a neat stack and moved it to one side. Mulder and Scully took seats across the table.
"Iím very sorry for any inconvenience we may be causing you," Scully apologized.
Helen waved a hand dismissively. "Not at all. I donít believe my husband made proper introductions. Iím Helen Morgendorffer." Mulder and Scully shook in turn her proffered hand. "And you are ... ?"
"Iím Special Agent Fox Mulder and this is Special Agent Dana Scully," Mulder said, holding out his badge and ID wallet. Helen leaned forward to scrutinize them.
"Mulder ... hmm ... your names sound familiar for some reason."
Mulder raised his eyebrows and glanced at Scully, whose name was as equally far from the norm as surnames went.
Mulder shrugged. "With all the names the media throws around these days, you may have heard it. Agent Scully and myself havenít been through ... " He paused for a moment, recalling the name of the town. " ... Lawndale before."
Just then, Jake gave a small "A-ha" of triumph, and brandished a phone book high in the air. He brought it over to the table and handed it to Scully.
Next to Scully, Mulder shifted uncomfortably.
"Are you alright Mulder?" she murmured softly.
"Yes," he grunted under his breath. "Iím just experiencing another ... sensation which, the last time I dreamed it, left me with wet bedsheets." Scully grimaced, and Mulder turned to Helen, who was quietly conversing with Jake. "Do you mind if I use your facilities?" he asked.
"Go right ahead," Helen said, smiling. "Why donít you use the upstairs bathroom. The sink works in that one," she added, casting a critical eye at her husband, who shrugged.
Mulder nodded gratefully and rose from his position at the table. He leaned over to Scully and said, "Iíll be back down in a minute." Then he added softly, so that the Morgendorffers could not hear, "And Scully? Try to find out what state weíre in." That question had been gnawing at him for the entire car ride to the Morgendorffer house, but he figured asking someone would sound stupid. ĎStupidí was hardly the image he wanted to project at this point. He cast his eyes around for a stray newspaper or pile of junk mail, but nothing jumped out at him. Sighing, he mentally wrote it off as just one more mystery. He turned and began ascending the softly carpeted staircase.
At the top of the staircase, he found himself confronted with a hallway that led to several half-open doors, and he realized that Helen had neglected to specify which one led to the bathroom. Hesitantly, he peered into the first room.
The sudden infusion of pink into his vision almost made him stagger. His eyes quickly adjusted. Then he wanted to gag. The room was decked out in bright colors, stuffed animals, and other nauseatingly cute decorum. An insufferably cute teenage girl with long red hair the same color as Scullyís stood, her back to the door, posing in front of the mirror while holding up an obviously new outfit (the tags were still on, and there was an enormous bag bulging with clothes on the floor.) Mulder hastily withdrew, relieved that he had not been noticed.
He walked right past the second door on the left, which was slightly more ajar. He glanced in only long enough to ascertain that it was not a bathroom. Then he saw a marble countertop in the door to his right and he ducked inside. It was indeed a nicely decorated, neat and clean bathroom. He breathed a small sigh of relief, and began fumbling for his zipper. Then he paused as the possible ... details ... of being a cartoon occurred to him.
He closed his eyes.
The short hours heíd been in this crazy world already felt like weeks. And it was going to get longer.
* * *
Daria sat absolutely still on her bed. For several moments she was unwilling to move a muscle. Then she blinked furiously, raising her hands to push up her glasses so she could rub her eyes. She was definitely awake now, but she had to have dozed off. She had to have! After all, David Duchovny had not just walked past her bedroom door. And (there came the sound of a flush) he had not just used her bathroom. No, she had definitely fallen asleep with boredom, because he was not walking past her door again now, heading for the --
"Hey!" she called out as he disappeared from view. Sure enough, his head reappeared in the doorway.
"Yes?" he asked politely.
Dariaís eyes widened. She was at a loss for words. This was, without a doubt, one of the more surreal things that had ever happened to her. "Ummm ..." she began, "Is there an ĎX-Filesí convention in my house and somebody forgot to tell me about it?"
It was as if she had pushed a button and sent an electric current riving through the man standing in the doorway. In an instant, he was inside her room and one-hundred percent alert. "You know about the X-files?" he asked intently.
Mentally, Daria groaned. Thatís just great, she thought. A famous actor appears in my bedroom -- and itís probably the last time thatíll ever happen -- and he turns out to be a complete idiot. Oh well. At least thereís symmetry in my life. The man she believed was David Duchovny waited expectantly for an answer. Daria prepared a suitably sarcastic remark about the nature of celebrity, when she received a double-shock as a second person appeared. Of course, thought Daria, If David Duchovny is here, why not Gillian Anderson? The woman poked her head in the room and addressed her companion.
"Mulder, Iíve just tried calling four government agencies, including the FBI, and the second I tell them our names they laugh and hang up. Whatís going on here?"
Mulder looked puzzled and began to respond, but Daria was faster. "All right, whereís the hidden camera? Did I win some sort of contest I donít remember entering? Is that why youíre here at my house?"
Scully looked at the girl in puzzlement. "Mulder, whatís she talking about?"
Mulder shrugged. "She knows something about the X-files." Scully raised her eyebrows at that and Mulder turned to Daria. "Iím Special Agent Fox Mulder with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and this is my partner Special Agent Dana Scully. Whatís your name?"
Daria sat up on the bed, incredulity spread thickly across her features. "My name is Daria Morgendorffer. Iím here because I live here. I donít know why youíre here, but since youíre calling each other ĎMulderí and ĎScullyí and behaving in character, I assume this is some sort of surprise contest or something." Mulder and Scully exchanged blank stares. Daria sighed and continued. "And furthermore, I know about ĎThe X-Filesí because I watch it on television. Just like everyone else."
Mulder looked more confused than ever. "Youíre saying the X-files are on TV?"
Daria stood up and took a deep breath. When she spoke, it was very slowly, as if to a small child. "Alright, you can stop the charade. The exploits of Mulder and Scully are very amusing. On my television set. In my bedroom, fictional characters donít fly well." She stopped in alarm as Mulder appeared to become unsteady. Scully grabbed his arm to steady him, but the look of shock she wore matched his own and her arm was visibly trembling.
"Okay," Daria said, "Now Iím really confused. Whatís going on here?"
Mulder waved Scully away and rubbed his temples. "Youíll have to excuse me ... Daria ... but are you telling us that weíre not supposed to be real?"
"No ..." Daria replied suspiciously. "Donít worry ... as far as Iím concerned, youíre both Ďreal.í At least, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are real. They play you-- I mean Mulder and Scully on ĎThe X-Filesí. And incidentally, the fact that I have to tell you this implies either severe amnesia on your part or a severely lifelike dream on my part." She reflected for a moment. "Or youíre just not bright enough to know when to quit acting."
Scully moved further into the room, sidestepping the box of plastic bones. "Your reaction indicates that you may posses knowledge we need. We ... appeared outside your city a few hours ago. Before we woke up, we were made unconscious by someone who claimed we werenít real. He had some sort of transparent sphere."
"A transparent sphere," Daria said dryly. "Like a crystal ball."
"Yes. Why? Have you seen anyone of that description?"
"You think I had something to do with this person?" Daria asked.
"No. He might have come from this world ... we arenít sure."
Daria held up a hand. "Wait a minute ... Ďthis worldí ? What planet are you from?" she added wryly.
"Earth," said Mulder.
"Then why ..."
Mulder raised a hand to cut her off. Then he looked at Scully and shrugged. "We might as well say it out loud. We need someoneís help, and she knows about the X-files. Who knows ... maybe weíre supposed to tell her." Scully nodded reluctantly, and Mulder turned to Daria and fixed her with a deadpan serious expression, the tone of his voice completely earnest: "This may sound hard to believe, but as far as we can tell, this ... place ... is a cartoon."
Daria had had enough. She reached over and grabbed her remote, turned on the television set and flipped over to the Cartoon Network, where Scooby-Doo was tearing across the screen, a relentless bedsheet ghost on his trail. "That," she said emphatically, "is a cartoon. This," and she waved her arms expressively, "is not. Note the obvious differences. Dust. Fingerprints. The fresh smell of my sisterís hair-care products permeating the house."
"If it makes any difference," Scully said, taking a step back from her partner and throwing up her hands, "I think heís crazy. Unfortunately there doesnít seem to be any way to disprove him."
Daria just sat there, eyes narrowed. Mulder and Scully looked at each other, sizing up the situation. The girl wasnít believing any of it. But Dariaís reply had given Mulder an idea, and an odd theory was beginning to take freakish shape in his mind. "Perception," he said softly.
"What?" asked Scully and Daria in unison.
Mulder turned to Scully. "Perception, Scully. Remember what the man from the apartment said about the television? He said it was looking into another dimension. Theoretically, if we did move into another dimension, our minds might not necessarily perceive things like texture and color and depth-perception in the same way. That would also explain the odd behavior of the television, and why I canít tell the difference between you and Scooby-Doo." Scully glared daggers at Mulder, and he mentally resolved to frame his sentences better in the future.
"I wonít argue with you, Mulder. But only because your Ďtheoryí makes more sense than anything else at the moment. Still, itís hardly the kind of thing to assume. It could just as plausibly be the work of perception-altering drugs we were exposed to after we were knocked unconscious."
Scully suddenly became aware of Dariaís presence. Daria stood silently watching, her stoic features betraying no emotion. Mulder realized what they must sound like; the apparent absurdity of his arguments. It wasnít as if he hadnít voiced outrageous theories in the past, but this ... he was having a hard time believing what he was saying himself. The two agents fell into an uncomfortable and awkward silence. It was Daria who spoke first.
"I believe you," she said flatly. Mulder was surprised. Then she began looking left and right, doing a quick visual sweep of the room. "And since no hidden cameras, balloons or other signs of hilarity are popping up, I guess Iíll have to stand by that statement. If nothing else, I can write it off as a dream. Maybe some sort of pizza-induced hallucination. But thereís one condition youíll have to accept."
"And that would be?" asked Mulder.
"If I have to assume youíre really who you say you are, and you really donít know what youíre doing here, you two have to be willing to believe me when I tell you that as far as everyone here in ... Ďthis worldí is concerned, you two arenít FBI agents. You are actors who play FBI agents on a popular television drama on the FOX Network."
"Ouch," Mulder grimaced. Scully elbowed him in the ribs.
"Thatís fair enough," Scully said to Daria, and Mulder nodded.
But before Mulder could make any enquiries into the exact nature of his supposed double-life, he heard footsteps from the hall.
Jane Lane appeared in the doorway of Dariaís room ...
... and promptly turned around and left.
"Would you excuse me?" Daria said hastily, and ran out into the hallway to catch Jane by the shoulder. Janeís unevenly cut splash of black hair whisked across her angular face to part in the center, the two hemispherical sheaves framing her large gray-blue eyes. She was dressed in her usual outfit of black undershirt, blood-red overshirt, black cutoff shorts, black leggings and clumsy boots that rivaled Dariaís ( "Footwear is for walking all over people," Jane would occasionally philosophize, "Some prefer stiletto heels, but I like to crush my enemies slowly." )
Despite the circumstances, she looked half-awake.
"Where do you think youíre going?" Daria demanded.
Jane shrugged. "Iím obviously asleep, so Iím going back to bed. Then Iíll wake up and come back here."
"You arenít asleep."
Janeís eyes narrowed. "Oh arenít I?" She continued in accusatory tones, "Did I or did I not just see David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in your bedroom?"
"Yes and no."
"Oh. I just saw David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson impersonators in your bedroom then. It all makes perfect sense now."
"Theyíre the real Mulder and Scully."
Janeís face remained unreadable, save for one raised eyebrow. "Daria, have you been getting into Quinnís makeup again?"
"Look, Jane," Daria said in exasperation, "just trust me. I know it sounds weird, but the two people in there do not believe they are acting."
Janeís expression was a mixture of disbelief, pity, and weariness. "Iím going back to bed," she declared at last. "Wake me up tomorrow."
"Címon, Jane, this isnít the oddest thing thatís ever happened in Lawndale. Remember that whole ĎHoliday Islandí thing? Remember that weird hurricane?"
Jane waved a dismissive hand. "Thereís no way you can conclusively prove that we arenít both insane. Or in comas."
"Exactly," Daria declared. "Now come on in. Whatís the worst thing that can happen?"
Jane shrugged. "I could wake up in your sisterís body?"
With a grunt of frustration, Daria seized Jane by the arm and dragged her into her bedroom, shutting the door behind her. Mulder and Scully were waiting patiently inside. Jane folded her arms and sized them up.
"So youíre ... Mulder and Scully," Jane said flatly.
"Yes," Mulder replied.
"The real ... Mulder ... and Scully." Jane repeated.
"Yes," said Scully.
Jane turned to Daria. "Alright, where are the hidden cameras."
"I tried that already. No cameras."
"Freaky," said Jane. "Still, I guess thereís no harm in playing along. At least until I wake up in the hospital with lead poisoning. So, what brings you two Ďspecial agentsí to little olí Lawndale?"
"A crystal ball," answered Daria innocently.
Mulder laughed. "Actually, we arenít entirely certain. If there is such a thing as dimensional exchange, though, we may have just experienced it."
Jane nodded. "I suppose it would happen to the two of you if it could happen to anybody. Speaking of which ... now that Iíve got the two of you here, how come you two never k--"
Jane was abruptly silenced in mid-sentence by a sharp elbow in the ribs from Daria.
"What?" she whispered. "Itís the sixty-four thousand dollar question!"
"Some people," Daria whispered fiercely, "Prefer to keep things Platonic!"
"You should try out that theory on Trent," Jane shot back under her breath, and grinned deviously as Daria bristled.
"That brings up a question," Scully interjected, having given up on understanding the previous exchange. "How do you know so much about us? Whatís this TV show you mentioned?"
"You mean ĎThe X-Filesí ?" Jane asked.
Daria interjected. "Look, this is all very odd, and itís going to require a lot of explanation. But we probably shouldnít do it here. I mean ... my parents are going to start wondering whatís going on soon, and suppose my sister Quinn were to see you ... sheís the very last person youíd want in on your secret. I suggest we adjourn to a more private location."
"We can go back to my place," suggested Jane. "My folks will be gone for weeks. The only one there is Trent, and we might need his help -- heís got wheels. The smoke from the kiln ought to have cleared out by now."
Daria nodded in agreement. "Jane is right. I can stay over there for the weekend at least. Mom and Dad wonít mind. Iíve done it before."
"Just remember to pack your own pajamas this time," Jane grinned. Daria glared at her. She had vivid recollections of Trent walking in to the room while she had been dressed in a ridiculous pink nightgown that had belonged to Janeís grandmother.
Mulder looked to Scully, waiting for her interpretation of the current situation.
"Sounds like a reasonable plan." she said.
"Great," said Jane. "Weíve got necessaries and spare sets of clothes at my house if you need them."
"Just a moment," said Daria. She moved over to her dresser, opened the top drawer and began rummaging through, pulling out two pairs of sunglasses, a baseball cap and a hairband. She handed them to Mulder and Scully. "You should probably put these on just in case anyone recognizes you." Mulder and Scully slipped on the disguises. Mulder positioned the bill and struck a nonchalant pose.
"How do I look, Scully?" he asked.
"Iím not sure," she responded dryly, "But it definitely doesnít scream ĎFBI.í Maybe Ďjock litigant.í "
Mulder peeked out over the top of his sunglasses. "Scully ... itís the latest cartoon craze."
Jane was clearly puzzled.
"Oh yes ..." Daria explained. "They think weíre all cartoons." One of Janeís eyebrows slid up her forehead. Daria released a small sigh of frustration and addressed Mulder and Scully.
"Look, we should get moving. I donít know where exactly it is you two need to go or what it is you need to do ... here. But itíll probably take time, and itís probably not easy."
Daria suspected that if she really knew how very true those words were, she would probably have opted to stay in bed. But it was too late for that now.
Much, much too late.
Assistant Director Walter Skinnerís patience had run out.
Rifling through the papers on Fox Mulderís desk in his office in the basement of the J. Edgar Hoover Building which housed the FBI, Skinner desperately searched for any clue as to Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scullyís sudden disappearance. It was true that due to the nature of their assignments (and more than a little due to the rebellious nature of Fox Mulder) one or both of the duo had vanished on no small number of occasions. But never like this.
In the past, Mulder and Scully had vanished with no trace when what they were investigating was unable to be pursued or investigated to their satisfaction through normal channels available to the Bureau. Occasionally, Skinner had actually helped them in their unofficial pursuits. But sooner or later they would turn up in the hands of the military or find themselves reported by the local police. There was no precedent for this current vanishing act.
The apartment building Mulder and Scully had been investigating was under professional FBI surveillance, for one thing. The pair had been witnessed entering the building. Entering, but not exiting. For another, the case had nothing to do with alien abductions, government cover-ups or anything remotely conspiracy-oriented.
Instead, Mulder and Scully had vanished in exactly the same manner as the victim in the case they had been investigating -- the victim who had appeared at the scene with acute localized amnesia: he had no memory of Agents Mulder or Scully. The only rational possibility was that they were still in the building. But try as he might, no physical trace could be found, with the unhelpful exceptions of their cellphones, handguns and the case file lying on the window sill. Dogs, detectives and infrared devices had been over every square inch of the building twelve times. Surveillance tapes had been reviewed for hours on end. Floorboards had been pried up; entire walls had been removed and rebuilt.
Despite these efforts, nothing of any consequence had been revealed. The prospects were not good, and the situation was compounded by the fact that wherever Mulder and Scully were, they very likely had no weapons and no method of communication. That was an optimistic estimation of the situation, of course. Statistically, they were probably dead.
That didnít discourage Skinner from searching, however. Mulder and Scully were hardly average, statistically or otherwise. It was his duty as their friend and superior to do everything possible to try and find them. It was also important to his own position. Skinner gritted his teeth in anger and frustration. First the warehouse operation had been botched, and now two of his top agents -- agents whom he had invested a great deal of his future credibility and career in -- had vanished inexplicably in their very next assignment. Skinner had the sickening feeling that if progress was not forthcoming, he would find his head handed to him on a platter.
Swearing to himself, he silently prayed that there was a good reason for the agentsí disappearance. If Mulder had arbitrarily decided to vanish on a whim, one of his cockamamie schemes in mind, he would pay for it through the nose.
No sooner had Skinner thought this than he mentally chastised himself for being so callous. Naturally, he did not wish that Mulder and Scully were in any danger. He was sure that there was a very good and probably very dangerous reason that they had vanished. Still, he fervently hoped that the danger they faced justified the extreme difficulty that Skinner was undergoing for their sake. This was the kind of stunt that could get the X-files shut down: an event which had happened in the past. If it happened again, Skinner wasnít so sure he could rectify the damage sufficiently for them to be reopened once more. Certainly there were other factions with interest in the X-files whose power ranked above his own, but it was for the best that things never escalate to that point.
Now he was ready to bang the desk with his fists in frustration until it cracked and broke in two. He would have, if he thought it might have helped. None of the assorted papers or folders that littered Mulderís desk had revealed anything of possible consequence. A meticulous search of the rest of the office had revealed several ancient food-wrappers, obsolete faxes, and two unpaid parking tickets. Heíd even gone so far as to check the underside of Mulderís desk drawers, where he had hidden sensitive information in the past. This time heíd found nothing.
When all other measures failed, Skinner had invaded Mulderís personal computer. Heíd checked Mulderís e-mail, his faxes, his phone history and backed up the entire hard drive for further analysis ... heíd even gone so far as to cross-reference every pertinent detail of the Veerhooven case with the elements in Mulderís digital reconstruction of those X-files that had been burned to cinders several months ago.
Having shut down the computer, he stood wearily, shoulders slumped in defeat. He wiped his bald forehead and was surprised to discover that he was sweating hard. His anger and frustration welled up in him once more as he realized he had exhausted every resource at his disposal. What choice did he have now but to walk away? He needed to resume his duties. Still, they would not prevent him from keeping his eyes and ears wide open. The second he had a lead, he would pounce on it with tenfold vigor. He owed Mulder and Scully nothing less.
And if they failed to surface ... he knew what he had to do. He had committed too many injustices to fail in his duty. His loyalty to Mulder and Scully paled in comparison to his debt to the ideals for which they had been willing to sacrifice themselves. The truth was Skinnerís responsibility; it was his penance for the damage he had done covering it up. He knew that heíd done what was right at the time. Given the choice, heíd have done it again. But circumstances had given him the opportunity to help atone for his decisions, and it would be a greater sin to sit by and do nothing. The crusade for the truth would not vanish with Mulder and Scully. Someone had to continue; to persevere.
Skinner hoped to God he didnít have to do it alone.
Tucking his shirt in and straightening his tie, he walked towards the exit of the room. But as he reached the door, something in the wastebasket caught his eye. He hadnít searched the empty basket; the janitors had emptied it the day before. But there was something new inside ... something that sent a chill through his bones.
Mulder didnít smoke. But Skinner knew who did. He leaned over and picked up one of the blackened stems, holding it up to his nose and crushing the brittle tip between his thumb and forefinger. The acrid smell that invaded his nostrils conjured up chilling images of a man who Skinner had optimistically hoped never to hear from or see again; a man heíd fervently wished was dead. That man had evidently been in Mulderís office some time in the past few hours. This was a man who knew things -- he had access to more information than most of Earthís governments combined. If he had been to Mulderís office after his disappearance, it could possibly mean that heíd removed any evidence that would allow Skinner to find the agents.
But somehow, Skinner didnít believe that. The more likely explanation was that the smoking-man didnít know where Mulder was either. A man with the intelligence resources of half the globe and probably more; who played world politics like chess; this man had lost track of his most-often manipulated player, and heíd lost him in Washington D.C. of all places.
The implications of that terrified Skinner more than anything else, and as his heart sank in despair within his chest, he forced himself to admit that wherever Mulder and Scully were; whatever desperate game they were playing out; they probably didnít have a chance in hell of getting out alive.
The walk to the Lane house was uncomfortably surreal for all parties concerned. Daria and Jane led the way, keeping roughly ten feet ahead of their companions. They were generally silent as they digested the events of the past hour. Mulder and Scully, wearing their somewhat conspicuous garb, were equally restrained. They chatted quietly about what they were seeing as they walked ... the odd sensations of a phantom breeze; the fact that the grass and leaves didnít seem to move. They speculated on their future course of action. They did not, however, discuss their presumed "fictional" existences. That was a topic better avoided for the time being, and a discussion they desired to forestall as long as possible. So they walked in relative silence.
The walk to Janeís house seemed longer than the twenty-some minutes it actually took. In contrast to the Morgendorffer house, the Lane houseís beige paint was cracked and chipped in places, and the lawn was unkempt. The premises were hardly a wreck, but the haphazard bushes and spurts of weeds implied that none of the Lanes were much for gardening. Scully guessed that Mr. and Mrs. Lane, if they were truly away from home as often as Jane had said, didnít expend much effort on maintaining the homestead.
Scully bristled inwardly. Parents abandoning their children struck a particularly resonant chord with her. As a consequence of her abduction several years ago, she was unable to bear children. A year ago, when it was discovered that she shared DNA with a mysterious young girl named Emily, and that Emily was in fact a result of the genetic tests performed on Scully during her abduction, Scully had embraced her sudden motherhood with a compassionate heart and sincere love. But Emily had been taken from her -- a victim of the very biological experiments that had produced her. It was inconceivable to Scully that any mother would be willing to abandon her children. With such a gross lack of parenting, it was no wonder that Jane spoke about her older brother Trent in such terms as she did. He was undoubtedly her most influential role model, and probably a surrogate parent of sorts.
Given the girlsí sarcastic manners and sharp wits, and what she had gathered about their family lives, Scully guessed that their attitudes and mannerisms were a response to their environment. She supposed it was better than becoming outwardly or inwardly destructive. But cynicism had its drawbacks. Sheíd experienced them herself on more than one occasion.
Naturally, all of Scullyís speculation about Daria and Janeís character and lives were just that -- conjecture. But her long years of service in the FBI, both within the X-Files and the Violent Crimes division, had given her great experience piecing together the psyches and motives of far more complicated persons and with far less information than with Daria and Jane. While this sort of psychological profiling was Mulderís forte (it was his original job in the Bureau, and heíd been at the top of his field) Scully still ranked far above the common agent ... if there was such a thing as a common FBI agent. Mulder, she mused, would probably attribute her skill as a Profiler to his having "rubbed off" on her. She grinned wryly and stifled a chuckle. Though sheíd never admit it, he wouldnít be totally incorrect.
"Whatís so funny?" he asked softly as they walked up the pavement to the Laneís front door.
"Nothing," she murmured. "Iíll tell you someday when your ego has shrunk down to a manageable size."
Mulder looked wounded. "I think you just crushed it."
* * *
Trent took the news with his usual aplomb.
Mulder blinked in surprise. "Excuse me?" he asked, amazed that the youth accepted the situation so readily.
Trent shifted positions on the battered couch, running a hand through his mop of black tussled hair. He was thin and bordering on gangly; limbs draped about the furniture as casually as the discarded bits of clothing that lay haphazardly around the room. He wore drab clothing, with the only decorative elements being a small pendant around his neck and some sort of tribal tattoo that looked like it had been copied out of a magazine encircling his upper arms. Like Jane, he had three earrings in his left ear, and his right as well. He also shared her jet-black hair and her narrow chin ... except his framed a small black triangle that passed for a goatee.
Now Trent shrugged away Mulderís question. "The way I see it, if this is real, I might as well deal with it. And if Iím asleep, Iíll wake up sooner or later. Whatever. Iím probably asleep, though." His voice was soft, and surprisingly calm. This was a man whom it took a lot to phase, Mulder thought appreciatively.
Jane grinned, jerking a thumb at her brother. "I told you heíd be good for this."
They were currently in the Lane living room. It wasnít much to look at: battered television; old couch; ancient armchair; dusty family photographs; scattered piles of laundry or papers. Also strewn about the room were numerous samples of pottery in various designs and stages of completion. It was apparent that not much living took place in this room, but it was the largest in the house, and the best suited for this type of "conference." Mulder and Scully, Jane and Daria were standing around the room as Trent digested the current situation from his vantage point on the sofa. He looked at Daria.
"So they just appeared in your bedroom?"
"Not exactly," she replied. "Evidently they Ďappearedí just outside of Lawndale. They had to hitch-hike a ride with my dad."
"Oh," said Trent. "Iím sorry."
Mulder and Scully grinned despite themselves.
"Still ..." said Trent, peering at them intently, "there is something different about them." Trent bent over the side of the couch and began rustling through a pile of magazines and old newspapers. Scully looked at Mulder, wondering what Trent had meant. After a moment of searching, Trent pulled up an old TV-Guide magazine with a creased cover. He scrutinized it for a moment and then nodded.
"I was right." He held up the magazine for all to see, and Mulder started despite himself. There on the cover was himself and Agent Scully, heads held high, arms crossed, striking a ridiculous pose that any true FBI agents would blanch at. But ... there was something different about the two people in the photograph.
"Check it out," Trent told Daria and Jane. "They arenít exactly the same. His nose is a little bigger, and her mouth is a little wider. Not much. Just enough to make out with a photograph."
Daria looked from the photo to the agents. "Thatís uncanny," she said. "Iíd never have been able to see the difference without a picture as a reference point. Good eye, Trent." Trent grinned, and she turned away blushing slightly.
Scully took the magazine from Trentís hand and flipped it open. Inside was a brief article which she skimmed about how "The X-Files" was weird, hip and scary -- a testimonial to the abilities of "David Duchovny" and "Gillian Anderson". An odd feeling of deja-vu swept over her. The pictures evoked uncanny ghosts and wisps of memory. She turned the page and recoiled despite herself as the cigarette-smoking man stared back at her. Across the page Langly, Byers and Frohike -- the "Lone Gunmen" -- sat hunched over a computer. Mulder, peering over her shoulder, jabbed a finger at one of the pictures.
"Whoís this guy next to us ... them." Daria glanced at the page.
"Thatís Chris Carter. He ... Ďcreatedí you."
"I see," Mulder said. "And there are ... more of these magazines."
Jane nodded. "And videos ... novels ... comic books."
"You donít want to see the Rolling Stones issue," Trent said, grinning. "But I donít have anything else. I donít tape a lot of TV. Weíd have to wait for the show to be on. Tomorrow night maybe."
A strange notion was occurring to Scully. "Mulder, isnít it odd to you how familiar all this looks to us? It is exactly like a cartoon to us. Is that a coincidence? I mean, if they view us as a television show, isnít it possible that the people in our universe view them?"
Mulder frowned. "I donít know, Scully. I donít watch enough cartoons to know. Itís certainly conceivable, assuming weíd perceive it the same way here as we would watching it on television -- and thatís a big assumption, considering itís based on another assumption that we are indeed perceiving another dimension." He waved his hands towards Jane, Daria and Trent. "I couldnít tell you if this is a television show where we come from or not. Weíre not yellow and weíve got five fingers, so Iím assuming this isnít ĎThe Simpsonsí. Maybe ĎBeavis and Butt-headí or ĎKing of the Hillí ..."
Mulder stopped abruptly as a change came over Daria. Her spine stiffened and her eyes opened wide, as if sheíd just been stuck with a pin. "Excuse me? What did you just say?" she asked sharply.
Mulder frowned. " ĎKing of the Hillí ? Itís on..."
"No, before that."
" ĎBeavis and Butt-headí. Itís a cartoon show on MTV."
Daria sat down hard on the couch, narrowly missing Trentís foot. "Oh my God. I donít believe it. It canít be the same guys."
Jane looked confused. "What? Who are Beavis and Butthead?"
"Theyíre two morons from Highland, where I used to go to school."
Jane raised an eyebrow. "And one of them was named ĎButt-headí ?"
"Donít ask. His mother was on PCP or something. Theyíre the two biggest morons on the face of the earth. We didnít get ĎSick, Sad Worldí in Highland, but watching those two was almost as good." She paused for a moment in reflection. "Maybe itís a coincidence. Just a second."
Rising, Daria darted over to her backpack, unzipped it and began shuffling through old papers. "I think Iíve still got it somewhere," she said. "Ah. Here it is. Are these them?"
Daria unfolded a crumpled piece of paper and held it out to Mulder and Scully. Printed across the top in large boldface was, "WANTED BY THE FBI." Beneath this were the pictures of two hideous-looking teenage boys and two sets of fingerprints.
"Thatís them," Mulder affirmed.
Jane snatched the picture and looked it over. "Whereíd you get this?" she asked Daria. "They must have made somebodyís list."
"They made everybodyís list. That time they managed to get themselves involved in an international biological weapons-smuggling racket. When the NSA came to Highland looking for them, they busted into the high-school and beat up our teacher Mr. Van Driessen pretty bad."
Jane gave a mock-exasperated sigh and handed the flier back to Daria. "How come nothing cool like that ever happens in our school?"
"Itís not exactly standard procedure," Scully replied.
"Anyway," Daria continued, "they left a bunch of these fliers. I hung on to one to remind me that Iíll always have at least two reasons to be grateful I live in Lawndale now. Those two are probably single-handedly responsible for dropping the national I.Q. average five points, and now youíre telling me they have their own TV show?"
"And a major motion picture," Mulder added.
Daria groaned. "Please, God, please donít let me be a character on ĎThe Beavis and Butt-head showí! Please!"
"Wait just a minute, now," said Jane. "Donít get all worked up. Theyíre in Highland, right? Not Lawndale. You havenít seen them in years."
"Maybe weíre the spin-off," suggested Trent, grinning. "Call it ... ĎDariaí ."
Daria glared at him. "Thatís all I need. As if my life werenít humiliating enough."
Jane raised a hand. "Okay, okay. I think itís pretty clear weíre dealing with complexities beyond our understanding. I mean, we both know about ĎThe Simpsonsí, and our Mulder and Scully have Ďguest-starredí on that show." That got a surprised look from Scully.
"Sorry I missed it," Mulder said, smiling. "But regardless of whoís on TV where, the question now is what to do next. The man who may have sent us here seemed to have some knowledge of all of our worlds."
"And he claimed his source was that ... that crystal ball of his, if thatís what it was," Scully put in. "So whatís our next course of action?"
Mulderís brow furrowed as he thought. "Whoever he was, he implied that our destinies were Ďwrittení or foretold. Now I canít believe that weíre actually Ďcreatedí by beings in another dimension, and our every action dictated by outside forces. But maybe some perceptions leak between dimensions, forming the basis for flashes of inspiration that are labeled Ďcreativeí. It would help explain the amazing similarities between our different perceptions of each other. It would also mean that the creative process can be a subliminal reaction to other-dimensional events and situations. I still have free will, but someone else somewhere is sub-consciously in tune with my actions and consequences. They fill in the rest, and call it a television show or a comic book."
"Wouldnít that be implying that thereís no such thing as original thought?" asked Daria.
"No," Mulder responded. "Iím sure the vast majority of fiction is exactly that. At least as far as weíre concerned. Maybe there really is a dimension where anvils fall on talking rabbits. But if I invent two characters ĎSamí and ĎLouiseí that doesnít mean they exist in another dimension, or if they do, that my invention is not my own. Van Gogh saw the sky over the city one evening and painted Starry Night. The fact that the stars and the sky really exist doesnít detract from his art or his genius. When it all comes down to it, what is creativity but the degree of self-expression?"
Jane nodded appreciatively, and pointed across the room to one of her oddly shaped sculptures. "Sure. Iíd like to imagine ĎTulsor: Queen of the Pear-Peopleí still reigns supreme somewhere."
"Weíd all like to believe that thereís some validity to our imagination," Scully said. "Our hopes and dreams are the one thing that no one can take away from us. In a sense theyíre the only real possessions we have."
Mulder nodded. "A man whoíd lost faith in his hopes and dreams might be more open to concepts like fate and manifest destiny. Which would explain the man from the apartmentís behavior."
Daria, Jane and Trent sat silently. Witnessing this kind of intellectual exchange somehow brought home the reality of their current position.
Scully began pacing. "Letís assume weíve established the circumstances and the manís motives. We still donít know anything about his modus operandi, which is the key to getting us out of this mess."
Declining to sit down at the chair Jane offered him, Mulder leaned back against one wall to think. He realized he was nervously rubbing his fingers together, and he wished heíd had the foresight to have a package of sunflower seeds in his pocket.
"The globe," he said at last. "I donít think that was what it seemed."
"What are you suggesting?" Scully asked. "That it was alive? That it could tell the future?"
"Is it that hard to believe? Crystals hold a special significance in many forms of mythology, religion and even pseudo-science. The crystal ball plays a traditional role in the practices of mediums of fortune tellers."
"And psychic hotlines," Scully added dryly.
Not put off, Mulder continued. "Psychic or not, I believe that sphere was some sort of a device, possibly used to influence or control its owner. It may even be a catalyst for dimensional translation. Whether that force came from the man, inside the sphere, or some outside force, I donít know. Regardless, itís our best lead thus far, and is worth researching." He turned to Daria and Jane. "Is there a library in town."
"Well ..." Daria said, "the town had a library. But itís Ďtemporarilyí closed. Theyíre fixing the roof ... in theory." Mulder frowned. "There is another library," Daria continued. "But itís part of the High School. The good people of Lawndale hold to the theory that school is for learning ... and vice versa. As long as the school has a library, the town sees no reason to fix up the public one. But the school is closed on weekends, so if you want to go there, youíll have to wait until Monday."
Mulder yawned. "Tonightís out of the picture anyway. Iím bushed."
Scully nodded agreement. "If you donít mind, I think we could all use some sleep."
"I agree wholeheartedly," said Trent seriously. "Sleep is the backbone of American civilization."
"Iíll be fine right here," Mulder declared, flopping heavily into the ancient armchair and kicking back the reclining lever. A spring jutted into his back. "Just like home," he grunted. His waterbed had spoiled him to no end; heíd almost forgotten what it felt like when his bedroom had been obscured by a labyrinth of mystery boxes, their contents long since forgotten, and the long years of bedtime on the couch. Or easychair. Or floor.
"I call couch," Scully said in a tired voice.
"Dariaíll be upstairs with me," Jane told them. "Iíll bring down some spare pillows and blankets from Mom and Dadís room. You donít want to sleep there." She followed Daria up the stairs, dimming the room lights as she left.
Trent rose, gathering up several socks and a pair of old sweatpants. Scully gratefully assumed a prone position.
"Iíll just take these down to my room and sleep," Trent said. "Of course, I might be up for a while. Whatever. If you hear guitar music donít worry. Itís only me."
But Mulder and Scully were already asleep.
It wasnít fair, Martin Veerhooven thought as he checked the batteries in his remote control for the thirtieth time. There heíd been: looking forward to a nice relaxing night of beer and football, when heíd passed out and woken up to a roomful of FBI. Theyíd forcibly removed him from his home, worked him over real good (especially the bald man with the glasses), run him through all sorts of medical procedures, left him without an explanation, and then dumped him back at his apartment, which they had thoughtfully torn apart. They were probably watching him right now.
To top it all off, the TV was broken.
Martin didnít ask for much in life. A few beers, a few broads ... but television was a staple of his daily existence! It wasnít fair! The least the FBI could do was give him a new TV. But not only had they refused to do so, they had demanded that his broken television not be touched. They had wanted to keep him out of his apartment altogether, but Martin Veerhooven knew his rights. Heíd made such a stink throughout the J. Edgar Hoover building, threatening to sue and throwing around legal-type phrases heíd heard on Ally McBeal, that theyíd had no choice. Heíd shown them, alright.
Theyíd won with the television, however. Surrounded by police tape, they had forbid him to touch it, or any of the strange devices and gizmos that were now hooked up to and appeared to be monitoring it. Martin was sure all he needed to do was toggle between a few stations until one came in ... maybe jiggle the rabbit-ears up top. He would have tried except he was sure that there was a camera trained on the television.
But theyíd underestimated Martin Veerhooven. They didnít know about the remote control buried under the couch cushions. Or if they had, theyíd left it and forgotten about it. Yes, Martin Veerhooven felt pride well up in him as he realized heíd outwitted the vaunted Federal Bureau of Investigation. Heíd triumphantly begun pushing buttons from across the room ...
... and nothing had happened.
The damn remote wasnít working. And after changing the batteries three times, it still didnít work. Martin sighed, slumping backwards, his bulk settling into the threadbare depression in the center of his old tweed couch. His poor TV. It wasnít fair.
Just then the phone on the nightstand next to the couch rang, startling him and causing the remote to slip from his meaty hands to bounce to the floor. As the phone rang impatiently, he shifted his several hundred pounds to a more upright position and made several attempts to reach down and retrieve it. After a few seconds of unsuccessful downward lunges, he wiped his brow in frustration, cursed loudly, and answered his phone.
"Mr. Veerhooven?" The voice on the other line was collected and professional, and mildly impatient. FBI, he thought bitterly. He was right. "Would you please refrain from using the remote control? It is interfering with our instruments, and weíd hate to have to confiscate it."
"Yeah," Martin muttered impatiently, and hung up the phone with an angry slam. FBI jerks. What did they want with him anyway? Heíd told them all he knew. Heíd even mentioned the weird dream heíd had while he was passed out. The one where he was on Star Trek, talking to Spock and Captain Kirk; sharing drinks with Scotty. Some weird dream. Then the Klingons had shown up ...
Suddenly, Martin was aware of a sound coming from the hallway: a brief succession of quiet sounds. It was too deliberate to be roaches. A sudden queasy dread came over him. With a great effort, he pushed himself to his feet. He endeavored to do so silently, but found himself gasping and huffing for breath despite himself.
Timidly, he peeked into the hallway. There was nobody there. But his bedroom door was ajar. Mentally he steeled himself. Maybe he should go back and call the FBI. He hated to come crawling to them ... but what if they were waiting for something like this to happen? Maybe it was them and he had nothing to worry about. Yes, he would call the FBI.
Ducking back into the living room, he picked up the receiver he had been using moments before.
The phone was dead.
Hands shaking, he almost dropped the phone back on to its base. He became suddenly aware of the eerie shadows playing across the room, generated by the flickering television. Inwardly, he panicked. What was he going to do? He needed to defend himself. He needed a weapon. Quivering, he leaned over and unplugged the lamp next to the phone, removing the cover and gripping the body like a club in his clammy hands. It wasnít much, but it would do.
Ever so slowly, Martin inched into the hallway. His bedroom door was wide open now, blocking his view of the exit. Pale and sweating, trying heartily not to faint, he shuffled forward and peered into the darkened bedroom. He reached towards the inner wall with an unsteady hand, hefting the surrogate club in his right, and turned on the lights.
The room was empty
He heard the sound of movement even as it registered in his mind that the intruder was not in his bedroom at all, but rather the kitchen.
Martin Veerhooven did not weigh three-hundred plus pounds to no advantage. When his Ďclubí was yanked from his grasp from behind before he had the chance to even turn around, he flung himself backwards. He heard a "whoof" of surprise and felt a body crushed between his own and the open door in the hallway.
Heíd bought himself a few seconds at best. Not bothering to turn around to view his assailant, he fled back down the hall towards the living room. He had been lucky, and entertained no notions of being able to overpower the intruder and reach the safety of the outer hall. Instead, he would throw himself at his television set. He would tear into the wires and devices surrounding it, and when the FBI tried to call him to complain, they would find the line dead and come running to save him.
Bursting into the living room, he fought past the momentary disorientation the kaleidoscopic patterns of light caused and lunged at the television set.
Before heíd gone five feet, two hands lashed out and caught his ankles, sending him sprawling belly-first to the ground; mere inches from the yellow tape that marked the border of the television. In an instant, a knee was ground sharply into his spine, and a long arm was cocked firmly around his neck, cutting off his air.
As he choked and floundered on the floor, a jerk of the arm forced his head to one side, and through his peripheral vision, he saw a dark form bend down to whisper in his ear.
"Where are they?" the shape hissed, the voice intensely malevolent. "Where is the artifact?"
"I donít know!" Martin squealed in terror, "What artifact? I donít know what youíre talking about!"
"Wrong answer!" the voice snarled, and Martin felt a stabbing pain in the side of his neck, and a thickness spreading through his congested veins. Tears spilled from his eyes as he realized that he was going to die. His last thought before unconsciousness claimed him was a silent prayer that this was another dream, and that he would wake up quickly. He wouldnít even mind if the FBI were there. They werenít so bad. But his poor TV. It just wasnít fair ...
Then all was darkness.
It was a ragged, weary bunch that assembled in the Lane living room on Sunday morning. Of them all, only Trent managed to somehow look refreshed. Mulder had a history of sleepless nights and sluggish mornings, and long experience with jet-lag, but this dayís virulent strain of morning-sickness was made worse by the fact that he had dreamed (mostly) in the textures and colors of his "real" world. Upon waking, he found that the initial disorientation of the previous day was back, albeit not with such a fervor.
Perceptively, Jane managed to produce two steaming cups of coffee for himself and Scully, which, despite its cartoon nature, had no less of an effect on their senses. They gratefully accepted the Styrofoam cups, and Mulder nursed his even as he nursed the horrible crick in his spine.
Daria, Jane and Trentís outfits were identical to those of the previous day, though they appeared fresh and unworn. Scully closed her eyes and envisioned closets filled with hanger after hanger of identical outfits. She wasnít one to criticize, of course. Her own closet wasnít much better. An all-too-active career in the FBI didnít leave much room for a personal life, and most of her nicer clothes were packaged away in storage boxes.
"So whatís on the agenda for today?" asked Scully.
"I figured weíd break you into Lawndale," Jane said. "Seeing as we donít know how long youíll be staying here, I decided Iíd better pick up some supplies. Food. Clothes. Videos. That sort of thing."
"With what money?" Trent asked. "We probably shouldnít use the money Mom left for the mortgage payments."
"Of course not," Jane said, grinning slyly and holding up a stuffed envelope. "Thatís why Iíll use the money Dad left for the mortgage payments."
"Ah," said Trent. "Good thinking."
"So I figure you drop me and Scully off at ĎCranberry Cornersí on your way to the high-school to set up."
Trentís face was blank. "Set up?"
Janeís eyes widened. "You forgot? Donít tell me you forgot! You have a gig, remember? Godís honest truth ... an actual gig."
Trent shrugged. "Refresh my memory."
Jane sighed in exasperation. "Okay ... I talked Mr. OíNeill into advocating local talent to play for the next school dance. You agreed to do it, and he got it on Principal Liís agenda."
"Arenít dances usually on Friday?" Daria asked.
"Yes. But Mrs. Li had to change it to Monday this week because they had to rewire the gymís electrical system. You remember what happened at the science fair the other week?"
"Yeah," Daria said distastefully. "Upchuckís talking robot version of himself short-circuited and exploded after Brittany threw punch in its face. It burned down my slime-mold experiment. I was devastated, of course."
"So," Jane continued, "to reiterate: Trent drops me and Agent Scully off at the mall and takes Daria and Agent Mulder with him to the high-school. If youíre lucky," she said to Mulder, "you might be able to get into the library while Trent sets up."
"So youíre a musician?" Mulder asked Trent.
"Yeah," Trent said. "Iíve got a band. Itís called ĎMystic Spiralí. Or maybe ĎMangled Napkin.í Weíre thinking of changing the name. Oh. That reminds me ..."
The doorbell rang.
" ... Jesseís cominí over to help load my stuff. Is it eleven thirty already?"
In an instant, Mulder and Scully were on their feet.
"Should we go upstairs?" she asked.
Jane waved a dismissive hand. "Donít worry about it. Just put on your hats and sunglasses. Jesseís not the sharpest marble in the bag. Weíll just tell him youíre our parents. He wonít know -- heís never met them."
"Iíve never met your parents," Daria reminded her. "But Jesse? Hasnít he been Trentís best friend for the last fifteen years?"
Jane shrugged. "Donít worry about it."
"Disguise operational," Declared Mulder, creasing the bill of his hat and adjusting his sunglasses.
"Ready here," Scully affirmed, adjusting her hairband.
"Alright troops," said Jane, taking a deep breath. "Move Ďem out!"
* * *
Twenty-five minutes later, Jane, knocking a large quantity of "X-Files" videos into the shopping cart, where they impacted sharply against the stack of frozen pizzas and bottles of "Fizzy-Cola" brand pop, found herself the subject of Scullyís wry amusement.
"Youíre sure youíre not going a little overboard there?" Scully asked. "We probably arenít going to have a lot of time to watch TV."
"This is research material," Jane said firmly. "Besides ... these boxed sets of the TV-show are on sale for $25 apiece. And theyíre just the tip of the iceberg. You two are pretty popular. You even hit the big screen last summer. Donít tell me you arenít curious to see what itís like?"
"I wonít deny it feels strange seeing my face and my life spread out like this," Scully said. "Itís a bit disconcerting, if anything. I donít like the idea of my life -- even an interpretation of my life -- being on display, especially for anyoneís pleasure. But rationally, I know that itís not like Iím actually being watched constantly by other-dimensional beings. That would be paranoid, even for Mulder. In the long run, the knowledge that those tapes exist wonít affect my life at all.
"Also, thereís probably nothing in those tapes that I donít know. At this point, it wouldnít do me much good if there were. If anything, viewing them would probably bring back painful memories. My fatherís death ... my cancer ..."
Jane looked genuinely concerned. "Iíll put them back if you want," she said softly.
"No," said Scully. "Mulder may want to take a look at them. I just want to be sure you arenít spending money you need for something else."
Jane frowned and shook her head. "My parents are quite the survivors. We always scrape by."
Scully cursed herself inwardly for treading onto sensitive territory. But if Jane wanted to talk ...
"Me," Jane continued, "I never got into the whole nomadic existence thing. But I guess youíd know how that feels, being a navy brat and all."
Scully nodded. "My fatherís job requirements didnít exactly thrill me. Moving from base to base several times a year didnít exactly do wonders for my social life." She paused for a moment. "You seem to know an awful lot about me and Mulder. You have me at somewhat of a disadvantage. I take it youíve always lived in Lawndale?"
Jane blushed. In truth, she didnít go in for much science-fiction -- reality was strange enough. She was hardly an X-Files guru. That Scullyís family had traveled often was one of the precious few tidbits she knew. She shrugged in response to Scullyís question. "Weíve lived in Lawndale as far back as I remember. I canít be certain. Itís really not that important to me. As for the rest of my family life, thereís not much to tell as far as Iím concerned. When my parents are home, theyíre usually busy with some project or other. Iíve got a few assorted siblings floating around the country. Every so often one of them caroms off the pinball-spoke of Lawndale. They stick around long enough for me to remember their names. I think Iím somebodyís aunt, but thereís no way to confirm it."
Scully winced in sympathy, and a touch of empathic guilt. With her hectic job schedule, she felt too often the stranger among her own family. With her father and her sister already gone after such a short time ... it was her biggest regret that she hadnít made more family time.
"You and Daria must be pretty good friends," Scully ventured.
"Yeah," Jane said, eyeing one last video and tossing it on top of the pile. "We havenít killed each other yet."
Apparently satisfied with her current purchases, Jane wheeled the cart around, almost sideswiping several other patrons of the all-purpose store. She jerked a thumb down towards the next aisle. "Is there anything you want in the way of clothes? The jeans and slacks are over that way, and I think we can dig up some shirts for your partner over there in the ĎStar Warsí section."
Scully smiled. "Itís good to know some things never change."
Jane grinned, "Yeah, the corporate vultures remain the same."
"One less mystery to solve. Which reminds me ... Mulder and I forgot to ask last night. This may sound silly, but ... what state are we in, anyway?"
Jane told her.
Scully never would have guessed.
* * *
While the trip to and arrival at Lawndale High had been smooth -- Jesse had accepted Trentís parentage with a raised eyebrow and a cool, "Pleased to meet you" -- the library door had been locked. The janitor who had unlocked the back door of the gym for the foursome had also been less than cooperative. Heíd merely laughed at the suggestion that he perform any service not explicitly instructed to him by Principal Li ... something about dishonorable discharge. Daria had suggested a bribe, but Mulder had assured her it wasnít necessary. They could wait until tomorrow.
At least Mulder had gotten a good look inside the place while peering through the large glass windows. The tall cylindrical building was adjacent to the school courtyard and isolated from the main body of the school. Inside, numerous tall rows of bookshelves, crammed end to end with musty tomes, formed a complex series of passages. Daria assured him that the libraryís high quality was due to the fact that it was an enormous source of pride to the school principal, Mrs. Li. In other words, it was something she could boast about in newsletters and loan applications.
Now Mulder stood in the entrance to the large gymnasium, helping Daria hold the double-doors open as Trent and Jesse inched through with an enormous amplifier.
Jesse Moreno was relatively short; Trentís age, with shoulder-length brown hair that looked like nothing so much as a dusky brown haystack, fallen from the sky to land haphazardly on Jesseís head. His widely spaced eyebrows gave him a vaguely sad look, and his expression, while hardly boorish or devoid of intelligence, was noticeably lax and free of stress. His eyes, while not quite glazed over, were definitely not devoted to any of the deeper perceptions. Dressed in tight leather bell-bottoms that looked three sizes too small ("They donít hurt," heíd been quick to assure "Mr. Lane") and a shirtless black vest, Mulder surmised that this was a man who was content with the world as he saw it; who probably didnít make a lot of enemies or get worked up about much. And he evidently played a mean rhythm guitar.
For her part, Daria was remarkably silent as she watched Trent and Jesse set up their equipment. Part of this was due to the fact that she was around Trent, and words never came quite so easily to her in his presence. And Jesse wasnít exactly a fountainhead of conversation.
The other part was Mulder. Dariaís life rarely made sense, but this went beyond all extremes. She still wasnít entirely convinced it was real. She half expected a camera to pop out at any moment and consummate her suspected humiliation. In her bleaker moments, she wondered if she was even sane, let alone awake. At least the previous nightís sleep had certainly seemed real enough.
Despite the discomfort she was sure she was exuding (or possibly because of it,) Mulder approached her. He looked at her for a moment, then turned to take in their surroundings. His eyes wandered lazily across the many blue and yellow banners heralding the presence of the Lawndale Lions; extolling their virtues and athletic prowess. He grimaced briefly as his gaze fell upon a large banner featuring the grinning face of Principal Li, and he shook his head in amazement at the oriental womanís audacity.
"You must have had some times here," he mused to Daria.
"Sure," Daria said dryly. "Iíve had plenty of times here. Like the time I got stranded on the roof during a hurricane. Or the time I escaped attending a bridal expo. Or the many, many times Iíve narrowly evaded slipping into a coma during an assembly. And I think I slept through a dance here once."
To her surprise, Mulder actually smiled. Most people were instantly put-off by her sarcasm ... not that this was necessarily a bad thing (it was, indeed, often the objective.)
"I know what you mean," he said. "My sister Samantha was abducted when I was twelve ... you probably know that. Suffice it to say I developed certain hobbies and interests that didnít exactly enhance my social life." He paused for a moment. "I played a mean game of ĎStratego,í though."
"Did it ever get to you?" Daria asked. "Being so different and isolated from your peers?"
"Thatís a difficult question," Mulder said. He reflected for a few moments before continuing. "Rationally, I knew that there was no reason to care about social rejection from a group of peers whoís definition of Ďsocially acceptableí was immature and uninformed. Most of them were people who would cause me to reevaluate myself if they did begin to accept me.
"Then there was the larger picture. My sister ... Samantha. I had a goal. Purpose. It was easy to forget about my own petty concerns; to forget about the ignorant, simpleminded masses for her sake.
"Of course, if that magazine was anything to go on, youíve probably got me figured as some sort of hero for the American people: ĎFox Mulder: Bringer of Truth.í The truth is, I did what I did for myself. And with the grudging acknowledgement that I didnít want to see anyone, no matter how ignorant or stupid they were, hurt the same way I was hurt or victimized the way my sister was."
He fell silent for a moment, considering his thoughts; remembering the past.
"Still ... it hurt like hell when I was a kid. It still does sometimes. As human beings we have a basic need for dependency, and to live up to the expectations society places on us. Those of us unlucky enough to progress beyond societyís expectations find ourselves ostracized: cut off from the herd.
"Rationally, we can accept that. But we also realize the injustice of it. We grow frustrated with the inability to impart our perspective to others; others whose own vision is voluntarily narrowed to the point of evolutionary stigmatism, fostering an inability to grow mentally or further ones maturity.
"Irrational as it seems, we often see ourselves as inadequate for Ďfailingí to fit the social mold. I never saw the need to change myself to adapt to my surroundings. My lifeís goal was too important to me. I dared not risk losing myself to the vaguarities of a collective world. I had to work within the system to my best advantage, but I refused to bend to it. It was a philosophy that got me into a lot of trouble, and kept me a stranger and an enigma to my associates and colleagues.
"Itís also the attitude that got me where I am today. And what Iíve learned is that you reach a point where the inability of others to comprehend your uncompromising lifestyle doesnít matter anymore. Itís a moment that transforms you.
"Thereís a crossroads here: when you come to the realization that your life will be spent on a different plane than most people, three things can happen. You can let the world break you; consigning yourself to loneliness and isolation. This often leads to depression, suicide or worse. The saddest part is that most people who reach this junction do so without ever realizing it.
"There are other dooms. Some people decide theyíve risen above the masses, and that their special nature makes them ideally suited to lead, to manipulate or to rule. This is a dangerous path. It begets lies and denies the truth. It can bring great power and the illusion of purpose, but itís a dangerous path, and ultimately self-destructive.
"That path was almost mine. But I found the balance; I was spared that fate. Itís because I wasnít alone; thatís the secret. Even in my moments of deepest isolation, I had a companion: someone to share the burden of being different -- set apart from the rest. Someone who could actually understand, and did matter to me.
"We need people, Daria. All of us. Donít give up on life too early, or turn so cynical that human existence loses its interest. Not everything is pain. Not everything has to hurt. You arenít alone now. In that sense youíre lucky. As long as you have even one person to spend life with, youíre never truly alone at all."
Daria was almost unaware of the long silence that followed. Her mind was a tumult of emotions. How had he managed to reach her like this? To penetrate to the core motivation behind her simple question so eloquently and easily? Did "it" ever get to him ... The question was how "it" had gotten to her.
Suddenly she became aware of Trentís presence beside her. She didnít know how long heíd been there, or if heíd heard any part of Mulderís impassioned speech. She hoped he hadnít ... or did she really? She wasnít sure what to think.
Trent shuffled his feet and coughed lightly. Mulder turned. "Yes?" If heíd known Trent was there, he gave no indication of it. Had the speech been for his benefit as well as hers?
"If youíre done talking to Daria, I could use her help with some of the wiring."
Dariaís face colored. "Sure," she said quickly, and began walking towards the raised tier that now bore Mystic Spiralís equipment. In the midst of the drum-set parts and massive speakers, Jesse stood helplessly in a tangle of various cords and plugs. Trent nodded briefly to Mulder and then hastened to catch up with Daria.
Mulder smiled softly. Things really werenít that different through the looking-glass, and this world did bring back a lot of memories. Daria seemed to share shared some of his own inner conflicts. She also seemed smart enough to deal with them. In a way, she reminded him of Scully. Cool ... dispassionate ... intelligent ... He looked at her and Trent and could almost imagine himself and Scully if theyíd met at that age.
Scully ... perhaps he should --
All Mulderís thoughts shattered as a blinding light assaulted his senses, wiping out all other perceptions. He began to fall to his knees, but some phantom force caught him up in a queasy limbo.
"Daria!" he cried out. "Trent! Jesse?" The silence that answered him was stifling and absolute. What the hell had happened? Where were they? And where was he?
Without warning, Mulderís feet hit the ground, and he staggered slightly before regaining his balance. The blinding light began to subside, and, squinting, he held up his hand to his eyes.
From out of the whiteness, a figure coalesced. A figure in dirty plaid and ragged jeans. A figure that cradled a glassy orb in the crook of his right arm. Mulder blinked as he realized his vision was back to normal. This perception was no cartoon.
"You!" Mulder hissed. "This is your doing?"
The man threw back his head and laughed. "Of course!"
"Why?" Mulder spat. "What sort of game are you playing, and why drag in these innocent children? Whatís your agenda?"
The manís lip curled in rage. "You just donít get it, do you? There are no innocents here! No guilty! No absolutes!"
Mulder shook his head. "You wouldnít be here if you believed that."
Anger contorted the manís features. He raised his left hand violently and Mulder jerked back violently, an invisible hand seizing him by the throat and pushing him up into the air. He clawed frantically at his neck, spittle flying in futility from his sputtering lips.
"I have a thesis," the man said coldly. "And you are going to prove it for me." The invisible grip loosened, and Mulder plunged to the ground, gasping.
"Did you hear yourself?" he managed to croak. "You said ĎIí not Ďweí." He braced himself for another onslaught, but none came. Instead, the manís lip curled upward in a sinister sneer; demented light flickered behind his eyes, reflecting the ruddy luster of the silent globe.
"Not even the children are sacred," he said slowly. "Weíll prove it to you. Weíll take one of them. Weíll show them your world. Perhaps they will succeed where you fail!"
"No!" Mulder shouted, his mind racing. "Leave them out of this! Me, Iím the one you want! Iím an investigator. I can give you the truth."
"You think so? You think you possess knowledge? Youíre nothing! Youíre as childlike as the rest of them!" As if the sentence he had just said had given him an idea, an odd expression crept over the manís face, and a smile sprang up that made Mulderís blood curdle in his veins.
"Yes," the man declared, "Letís make things more interesting for you. You think this is a game? You think youíre unchangeable? Letís show you what kind of putty you really are!" Laughing wildly, he thrust the globe over his head with both hands. A red light poured out from it, and a thundering presence forced its way into Mulderís mind.
BE IT SO.
Mulder seized his head between his hands as a searing pain burst behind his eyes. He fell violently to his knees, and the shell of his senses seemed to destabilize ... and collapse ...
* * *
"Jesse, stop!" yelled Daria. "Donít move!"
His forward vision obscured by the massive bass drum he was carrying, Jesse halted in mid-step and turned his head towards Daria in confusion. Daria raced over to him and positioned him slightly to the left.
"You were about to step on this live wire here," she explained.
Jesse murmured his gratitude and shuffled off on his new heading, stepping lightly over the hazardous cable. Trent joined Daria as she bent down to inspect the bare metal cord cast loosely across the gym floor.
"What kind of idiots did Mrs. Li hire to fix the wiring in this place?" Daria asked rhetorically, shaking her head in disgust. "The power cord she had them leave out for the band isnít even insulated."
"Maybe they didnít finish?" suggested Trent. Darting back to the tier, he returned with a roll of electrical tape. Daria followed the cord to back to a corner of the wall and traced it up to a fuse-box. It was unlocked. Opening it, she located the proper switch and turned it off. Trent bent down and got to work taping the cord up.
"Hey, Trent," called Jesse, plunking down a microphone stand. "Thatís all my stuff. I gotta split, okay? Itís getting late, and I gotta get my hair styled for tomorrow."
Trent looked at Daria with a raised eyebrow. "Jesse ..." Trent said carefully, "You donít have a hairstyle."
"You think that," Jesse said seriously. "Thatís the genius of it."
Trent shrugged. "Whatever. Just donít be late for practice tomorrow. We need to rehearse. And get plenty of sleep."
"Do you intend to separate those two events?" Daria asked innocently. Trent chuckled appreciatively before lapsing into a coughing fit. To her surprise, Daria didnít blush or turn away. For the faintest moment; the briefest flicker of an instant, she let herself enjoy the fact that she had made Trent smile.
The moment evaporated as she nervously realized that Jesse was gone and she and Trent were alone together. She looked around the empty gym and the weak smile rising up in her turned into a concerned frown. Mulder was nowhere to be seen. When had he left? And where had he gone? Trent also realized that they were alone in the large room.
Dariaís anxiety took a different form as sounds of movement came from the other end of the tier.
"Hello?" she asked.
There was no answer.
Dropping the tape; leaving the wire half-finished, Trent joined her as she moved cautiously forward to look at the floor on the other side of the tier.
Daria gasped in shock.
There on the floor, eyes shut and attempting to push himself up ... was a teenage boy she had never seen before. Or had she? Her eyes widened in disbelief as she took in the details: the face; the hair -- she had the uncanny idea sheíd seen them before. Stenciled across the front of the shirt in black letters were the words, "I WANT TO BELIEVE."
"Agent Mulder?" Daria whispered in horror.
In an instant, Trent was at his side, helping Mulder steady himself as he tried to sit up -- that is, if it was really Mulder; and Daria had no reason to believe it was not, given the amount of crazy, impossible things that had happened over the past two days.
"Daria," Mulder managed to croak. "Trent?" His eyes wandered from face to face as Trent propped up his head. "Youíre ... youíre here." Abruptly, Mulder sagged to the left, and Daria moved to catch his shoulder.
"Man ... who did this to you?" Trent said in disbelief.
"Was it that guy you talked about?" Daria asked, still stunned. "The one with the crystal ball? Who sent you here?"
Mulder managed to nod his head.
"He said ... said heíd take you to ...." Mulder trailed off, his eyes momentarily losing their focus.
"Agent Mulder?" Daria asked in concern. "Agent Mulder whatís--"
Without warning, Mulder lurched violently upright, his eyes wide with panic. The move was enough to destabilize Trent, who fell backwards to land on the seat of his pants on the gym floor.
"NO," Mulder yelled, his hands casting about as he fought to stand up. "Not you! One of them! One of them!!!"
Abruptly he broke off and focused Daria with such a horrified expression that she felt faint. A terrible feeling came over her, running from the roots of her hair to the bottom of her boots. One of them? But she and Trent hadnít gone anywhere ...
"Jane," Mulder whispered.
Before Mulder finished speaking the name, Trent was halfway to his car; Daria right behind him.
* * *
Jane was having the time of her life.
As she entered the door that Agent Scully was holding open, her own arms wrapped impossibly around several bulging paper sacks, she felt as though nothing could take away the emotional high she felt.
As Jane crossed the threshold, one of the bags gave under the stress, spilling its contents (a stack of microwaveable dinners) at her feet. Scully was there in an instant to gather the fallen foodstuffs, laughing good naturedly as she did. Jane laughed in kind and wobbled into the kitchen, there to deposit the remainder of her grocery charges on the counter next to the refrigerator.
Scully walked into the kitchen behind Jane, who turned to meet her with a video in hand.
"My room can get pretty crowded between five of us," Jane said. "Iíll run upstairs and grab my VCR for the old TV in the living room."
Scully nodded, and seized a nearby roll of paper towels. "One of the frozen dinners wasnít quite as frozen as we thought. No--" she said hurriedly as Jane began to put down the video, "No ... I can handle it. You go get your VCR. Please ... itís the least I can do, I mean, after all the trouble youíve gone through ..."
Jane smiled gratefully; a little embarrassed, but glad she had made a good impression. Murmuring a "Thanks," she ducked out of the kitchen, a broad grin on her face. The camaraderie she felt with Agent Scully was something she hadnít felt on a long time; she felt surprisingly open; that she could be herself; enjoy herself. It was a feeling of understanding she shared only with Daria, and sometimes Trent. Sheíd never have figured Scully to be so receptive to her feelings. Perhaps they had more in common than sheíd thought. It was almost ... almost the feeling she thought she wanted when she was around her mother. If only. But that was beside the point now.
Jane skipped up the stairs to her room two at a time. She couldnít deny it: she was definitely enjoying herself. God help her, all rationale aside, and despite the dead-serious nature of the circumstances, somewhere inside her a little girl was squealing in delight at this fairy-tale adventure sheíd become immersed in. As an artist, Jane had learned long ago to stop trying to suppress her basic feelings and emotions. If there was something that bothered her, she worked it out; in her art usually.
That, she reflected, was the main difference between her and Daria: they both had generally similar outlooks on life; but Jane acted upon her emotions instead of suppressing them like Daria did. Someday Daria would learn to give a little. Jane would impart that much. Daria was her best friend -- her only friend -- and maybe ... just maybe, if Jane played her cards right ... she would be more than a friend. Sheíd be a sister.
For that was one of Janeís dreams; her most secret desire. Not to have a sister in the cold traditional sense of biology; Jane had two of those already for all the good theyíd done her. Who were they? Strangers. Daria was a friend; a co-conspirator; a confidante. That was half of the picture. The second half was becoming an in-law. Jane lived for that day, when, as the master chess player, she would win the match. Of course Daria would also win. And Trent. Jane smiled deviously. Her blood family was clearly dysfunctional. She didnít fit in there, just like she didnít fit in anywhere else. But so what if theyíd left her in the dust [re: Lawndale] ? She had Trent. She had Daria. She could build from there. And she would.
Spirits asoar, Jane entered her room via a hearty shove to the door. But before she could flick on the lights, she became aware that the television set was turned on. Funny, she thought, I donít remember leaving it on. For a moment, she was compelled to refrain from turning on the lights. Instead, she watched in silence for several moments as weird shadows and flickering shapes played across the dark walls and ceiling, adding strange new dimensions to the various paintings and sculptures that were placed artfully around the room. This was definitely odd.
Janeís eyes widened as she realized that the kaleidoscopic patterns on the television set were beginning to form textures and strange colors. In an instant, the bedroom light was switched on and Jane had dashed over to her easel and seized a paintbrush. Scully forgotten, she cursed to herself as she scrambled under her bed for paint, darting quick glances towards the television. This was too weird! And the colors ... they were almost undefineable. She had to try and capture them on canvas before they disappeared. Scully wouldnít mind a short delay.
She had just dipped her brush into the green when the TV screen abruptly went black. Jane gave a small noise of frustration, and marched angrily to the stand that supported the offending appliance. Her eyes narrowed in suspicion. The power indicator light was still on. She swore; sheíd missed her window of opportunity. She slapped the side of the television several times in rapid succession, hoping to jar whatever alignment quirk had produced the visual oddity back into place. As she did, her finger brushed the television screen ...
... and stuck.
There was a small static pop, which Jane dismissed as the electric fuzz that often forms an invisible coat over the glass of the screen. But then, all of the sudden, the strange static flashed back onto the screen with a surge that caused the lights in the room to flicker.
With a sickening snap, Jane watched in terror as her thumb seemed to pop into the screen, snapping into two dimensions. Desperately, she jerked her arm at the shoulder, but to no avail: her palm and wrist quickly joined her thumb behind the screen. With a detached objectivism she realized that her hand through the screen was composed of the same odd colors and textures she had seen before.
Another snap sucked in Jane up to her elbow, and her mind finally caught up with her perceptions. She screamed in utter terror for the first time. Part of her still didnít accept what her brain told her was happening, and as she was sucked in up to her shoulder, that part of her calmly observed that the scream had transmuted into a desperate cry for help, and a call for Agent Scully.
Then her face hit the screen and her pleas were silenced.
* * *
It was the sound of a car squealing into the driveway outside that first indicated to Scully that something might be wrong. The sudden scream from up the stairs confirmed it.
Scullyís FBI training snapped automatically into place, instinct taking over. But before she could act on it everything shifted: her vision; her perspective; her senses, and she realized in disorientation that she was changed in some way. In shock, she came to the knowledge that she was slightly shorter than before, and her hands plucked at the jeans and T-shirt she now found herself wearing. What the hell had just happened?
Another scream from upstairs -- her name, she realized -- caused her to push away all concerns about her unexpected metamorphosis. Bounding over the food-stained paper-towels that had fallen at her feet, she leapt up the stairs and kicked open the door to Janeís room in time to see a black boot disappear into the screen. For the briefest moment, she saw what she thought was Janeís face flicker across the television. Then someone -- Mulder? -- was beside her and Trent was forcing his way through the doorway.
"Janey!" Trent cried to the empty room. For a long moment, he stared silently and the flickering television. Slowly, as if in a trance, he turned to Scully, his eyes imploring and desperate; full of pain. Silently she nodded.
Jane was gone.
In shock, Scully slumped against the doorframe. Out of the knot of dread that had congealed in the pit of her stomach, a dull emptiness was beginning to emerge. At some time, Daria had entered the room. Numbly, she walked to Trent and he collapsed on her shoulder.
Mulder -- and it was Mulder, Scully realized; albeit much younger -- was standing upright in the doorway, his face blank; fighting off the ghosts of his sister Samantha that danced before his eyes. "The screen," he breathed to Scully, and her eyes followed his raised finger towards the television. There, clear as day, glowed the words "24 HOURS, FOX."
"What is it?" Scully managed over Trentís low sobs.
"Itís a message," Mulder said flatly. "Itís the amount of time I have to abdicate free will before everything goes to hell."
"Heís back, Scully ... the man from the apartment. And unless we play his game, Jane is gone forever."
It was hopeless. A lost cause.
That, at least, had been the conclusion of the Bureauís Board of Directors.
Walter Skinner sat alone in his office, very, very depressed. The only light in the room was that which filtered in through the venetian blinds that came with the window space generously allowed the Assistant Director. It neatly silhouetted Skinner against the far wall, amidst criss-crossing bars of vertical and horizontal shadow. Like a prison, he mused. Fitting.
Also appropriately, the phantom bars cast their pallor across the rest of the mundane trappings of the room: a plaque, a few framed honorariums, his diploma ... a photograph of himself and the President of the United States. None of it seemed to truly exist beyond the shadowplay; none of it aided in lending meaning to his existence.
Skinner leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes and exhaled deeply. It didnít help. He felt the tired frustrations within him rally and rise, only to be smothered beneath the weight of his fatigue. Inexplicably, as he so often feared would happen, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully were gone. And he had failed to help them. The Bureau had declared the case closed. The best Skinner could do was to open an X-file on the mystery. Of course, without Fox Mulder on the case ... perhaps someone else would pick it up. Perhaps Agent Diana Fowley would be right for the job. Sheíd proven to be extremely forthcoming over the past few months, and had a personal stake in Mulderís disappearance.
Still, he found himself forced to confront the fact that the unenviable burden that Mulder and Scully had carried for so long was now his. An interesting quirk of fate, considering his position. He didnít necessarily trust Agent Fowley, but he needed allies. He needed them fast.
As Skinner pondered his new responsibilities, his musings were intruded upon by a small beeping sound. Annoyed, Skinner clasped at his wristwatch before realizing that the sound came from an ashtray-sized blinking device on his desk.
In an instant, he was bolt upright, his hand already darting towards the phone. The device monitored the vast array of electronic surveillance equipment heíd ordered set up in Martin Veerhoovenís living room. While the Bureau had ordered all agents off the case, not having people to spare for a constant vigil, Skinner had his technicians prepare two devices that would sound the alert if there were to be any sudden flux in the energy field surrounding Martin Veerhoovenís apartment. Skinner had one. Agent Fowley had the other. She was probably already at the computer system adjacent to the extension Skinner was even now dialing.
"What have we got?" Skinner demanded into the receiver the moment the phone was answered. It was indeed Diana Fowleyís brisk voice that answered.
"The instruments are going haywire down here," she declared matter-of-factly. "Somethingís happening all right." There was a brief pause before Fowleyís voice came back urgently. "Martin Veerhoovenís line is dead. I canít reach him. Iíll assemble a team immediately to--"
"No," Skinner cut her off. "Iíll do it myself." There was a brief pause.
"Sir ..." Fowley said carefully "I respectfully suggest that you not place yourself into such a potentially dangerous situation. The Board of Directors--"
"To hell with them!" Skinner snapped. "I have too much at stake here. Youíre welcome to come along." With that he hung up the phone. He let out a long breath. The last thing he needed now were more complications. He had a job to do.
Three hours after the incident in Janeís bedroom, the Lane television was returned to normal and Fox Mulder sat alone. His now-boyish face taunt and sleep-deprived, heíd given up examining himself in the mirror; instead examining the numerous videos that Jane had so thoughtfully purchased for him before her ... departure.
Scully quietly entered the room and joined him sitting on the bed before the TV set. Mulder had the sound low, and the cartoon images flashing across the television set looked only slightly more absurd than they had themselves looked mere hours ago.
"How is it?" Scully asked softly after a short time. Her voice was odd to her ... different; slightly higher in pitch. She was still having a hard time adjusting to her partnerís new image, let alone hers. "Anything useful? Anything interesting?"
Mulder shrugged. When he spoke, the timbre of his voice was changed as well, though not the inflection. "I donít know. Iíve only watched a few tapes. I suppose it could have happened that way. I donít really remember exact conversations or random meetings from six years ago. Thereís a lot of stuff here that we never saw, but nothing we didnít surmise. And I seem to remember a lot more paperwork and procedure."
Scully nodded, and a long silence followed as they stared at the screen. But Scully could sense that Mulder was only staring, not watching; his thoughts were elsewhere.
"You canít blame yourself, Mulder."
He turned to look at her, anguish bathed over his features. "I should have warned them, Scully. I never told them about the TV. They didnít know."
"Mulder," she began, placing a light hand over his, surprised at how cold it was, "If anyone bears the responsibility itís me. I was here with Jane and I left her alone. I allowed myself to forget about the possible dangers of our situation.
"But even if I had been there with her, Mulder, I donít think the outcome would have been any different. Weíre dealing with a force that we donít understand and canít hope to combat. Not yet."
Mulder slammed a fist into the bed beside him. "Thatís why we have to get to the resource center. We need more information."
"Mulder, what do you hope to find? We know next to nothing about whatís going on here."
"Are you suggesting we give up? That we wait for the inevitable; risk the consequences no matter what they may be? We could all be dead, Scully!"
"Mulder, Iím not suggesting we sit quietly by, but we have to be realistic. We have next to nothing to go on here. The man who did this expects something from you. Heís been dropping you clues; pressing you. Eventually heíll reveal too much. As hard as it seems, we may have to wait for him to make his next move before we can make any progress."
Mulder rose angrily. "Thatís not good enough, Scully. His next move will be to kill either himself or one of us. Either way, we lose Jane for good and get stranded here, possibly forever. The key is the orb. Iím sure of it! And maybe there are clues in the past that will help us find a way to overpower him or stop him." Scully saw pain in Mulderís gaze.
"My sister was taken from me. Iíve worked to get her back for my entire life. This far Iíve failed. I know what kind of loss that is. And I am not going to let it happen again to someone else. No one deserves the pain Iíve felt."
"My sister was taken from me as well, Mulder," Scully gently reminded. "By a bullet. Nothing can bring her back now. At least you have hope."
"At least you have closure," Mulder returned bitterly. "All I have is ghosts."
The door creaked open and Daria appeared, her clothes rumpled and eyes bleary. "Trentís finally asleep," she said quietly. "You should be too."
"What about you?" Scully asked with concern.
Daria sighed, her breath wavering. She was probably still in shock, Scully thought. They were all probably still in shock.
"Iíll be okay," Daria said with little conviction. "I called home and told them Iím staying here to go to school tomorrow morning. They donít like it, but I wonít get grounded or anything." Her eyes narrowed in seething anger. "But I want to help. And if I get the chance, Iím going to kill that bastard who took Jane."
"That may not be necessary," Mulder soothed. "But Iíll need every resource at my disposal. Are there any computers with internet access in the library?"
"Yes," Daria affirmed. "You can come to school with me tomorrow. But youíll have to be careful; Mrs. Li always patrols the buildings between classes looking for stray students. She runs the place like a prison." She paused and reflected for a moment. "If anyone asks, youíll be my cousin ... no, scratch that. Quinn would know -- youíll have to watch out for Quinn, incidentally," she added with a nod towards Mulder. "Weíll introduce you as Janeís cousins. Weíll say sheís visiting your home town. Like a family exchange program or something."
Scully winced inwardly. The lie had to hurt. It wouldnít be easy to pretend everything was fine ... especially when the future was so uncertain.
Mulder considered Dariaís words briefly and then nodded. "Sounds good to me." He walked over to Daria and placed a hand on her shoulder. "Weíll get Jane back," he said softly.
"I believe you," Daria sighed, eyes downcast.
"I hope Trentís okay," ventured Scully.
"I hope so too," said Daria. "Itís really hard on him. But heíll still have to play at the school dance tomorrow. If he cancels now, Mrs. Li might start suspecting one too many things concerning the Lane family. Then sheíd call my parents and theyíd start asking me questions ...." She trailed off, the implications left unspoken. They all knew that their position was too delicate to risk any sort of close scrutiny. Freedom of movement was their most important advantage right now.
"Anyway, Trent will help us any way he can, which probably means transportation. In the meantime, youíd better get some sleep. Believe me, if youíre coming with me to Lawndale High tomorrow, youíll need every ounce of strength youíve got."
* * *
The first thing that occurred to Jane Lane upon regaining consciousness was that she was probably dead. The second thing that occurred to her was the idea that she was either in heaven or in limbo: this notion brought about by the complete and total lack of any physical sensation. Sheíd always assumed hell would be more painful. Or at least more interesting. Here, she felt nothing. It was almost relaxing.
The respite was temporary.
Like a flash flood, sensation of every kind burst over her. Bitter air rushed through her nostrils and cracked mouth to fill her lungs; an icy chill assaulted her exposed skin; the fabric of her clothes and the surface on which she lay rasped against her skin like dry stone; her blood pounded pins and needles in her veins; her ears were bombarded by an incomprehensible dull roar; and her brain ached at the myriad of intense light and imagery that seared through her fluttering eyelids. It was as if she was camped at the foot of the Hoover Dam and it collapsed, sending wave after wave of force over, into and through her.
Gradually the shock faded to a dull throb. With a great effort, Jane forced her eyelids completely open. She instantly regretted it. Sheíd had momentary disorientation upon waking up before. One often experiences feelings of confusion or surprise when one wakes after spending a nightís sleep at an unaccustomed place, believing themselves in a more familiar setting. But to Jane, the experience was not unlike waking on some alien planet, viewing a landscape that is not merely unfamiliar but inconceivable. To what freakish place had fate brought her?
For a long time she lay absolutely still, soaking in her new sensations. Somehow, she was given the impression that she was not alone; there were shapes that moved, and sounds that vaguely resembled voices speaking. She was grabbed, roughly, and experienced the brief sensation of motion. Weary and drained of energy, she gave up trying to interpret her environment, and she allowed her eyelids to close. Within moments, her world faded and unconsciousness claimed her once more.
When Jane came to for the second time (unable to tell how much time had passed,) the world was not so oppressive. In fact, the first thing her eyes fixated on was practically recognizable. It was very like a lamp. Very like a lamp. And when she squinted harder, she realized that indeed, it could be nothing else. And those were her boots up by the lamp, propped up on a cushion. With a dawning awareness she realized she was on a couch -- none too clean, either, if her nose told her anything.
It was the colors, she was startled to tell, that were throwing her vision off. The colors and the textures. Sheíd never seen anything like them. No -- she had: just before sheíd lost consciousness, on the television set in her room ...
The full impact of what had happened slammed into her. Daria, Trent, Agent Scully ... she wasnít in Lawndale anymore. She was somewhere else. Whatever happened to Mulder and Scully just happened to me. So where the hell am I.
For the first time since waking, Jane stirred, giving a small gasp of surprise as the rough cloth of the couch scraped across the hyper-sensitive skin on the back of her neck. In an instant, a man ducked into the room. Janeís eyes widened and her mouth hung agape. She hadnít thought about what people would look like here. His face seemed ill-proportioned: squashed in some places and stretched in others ... so ... so overdrawn, that was the word. He looked like a meticulously constructed caricature. Another dimension, she thought in amazement. Thatís what happened. I got sucked into another dimension. What was it Mulder said about perception? God, maybe this is how he sees things! This was followed by the thought, What the hell do I look like? Not pretty, sheíd bet.
Within half a second, the strange man was inside the room.
"Sheís awake," he called into what was presumably the hallway. "Alex! Sheís awake!"
And Alex stepped into the room.
A knot curdled in Janeís gut. Krycek ... Her mind froze. All she could think was that it must be a dream, it must be a dream, it must be ... But itís not. God, youíve seen the show enough times to know who he is -- the Smoking-Manís hired gun! It wasnít enough that two fictional characters show up in your world, you have to go to theirs.
Jane trembled. Not so much with fear as with uncertainty. Alex Krycek -- and it was certainly him; she could make out his face well enough -- walked over to the couch and bent over her. Calmly, he raised his right hand to her forehead as she stared in silence and in shock. His hand was surprisingly cold.
At his touch, Jane flinched involuntarily, and she realized she was shaking. A momentary panic seized her as she realized she wasnít breathing, and she gasped for breath, her lungs pumping in quick, inconsistent spasms. Smoothly, Krycek reached over to the end table behind her head and produced a small glass of water, which he held to her mouth.
"Drink," he said flatly. Obeying blindly, she tilted back her head and attempted to swallow the water that coursed over her lips. She was partially successful, but a good portion of the water ran down her chin to pool at her neckline, soaking into the fabric of her shirt. Satisfied, Krycek returned the cup to the table. He waited patiently while she recovered herself. Then he spoke.
"Whereís Mulder?" he asked calmly. Jane was momentarily taken aback. Krycekís eyes fixed her with an intense, penetrating stare. "Whereís Mulder?" he asked again, a hint of ruthlessness creeping into his voice. "And where is the artifact?" For a long moment Jane stared at him. She certainly hadnít expected this. The truth was she didnít know where Mulder was. What could she say? Another dimension? He probably wouldnít believe her. Then again ... she didnít know what Krycek knew. Or his superiors. Was this "artifact" Mulderís strange crystal ball? Perhaps it would be better for Mulder and Scully if she kept silent. Her mind made up, she looked Krycek straight in the eye and mustered the most resolute expression she could manage. He waited several seconds, content to meet her eyes in a silent challenge of wills. She almost cracked immediately, but managed to retain her composure.
At last he sighed. "Very well." Then he turned his head and called to his companion, "Bring in the old man!"
Jane gasped in horror at what Krycekís companion dragged into view. Even had her vision not been so distorted, she would have been hard-pressed to identify the broken apparition as human. As it was, the grotesque mass of broken and bleeding flesh was almost entirely a thing of nightmare: unrecognizable except for the fact that it was muttering and moaning. She felt her gorge rise and she sank backwards into the sofa. Krycek looked at her calmly. When he spoke, it was in hushed, almost reverent tones.
"This man had nothing useful to tell us either. Make the smart choice. The first consequence of silence is his death. The second is making you look like him. If you continue to resist, I can assure you youíll wish for number three."
Jane felt cold sweat breaking out over her brow. Iím in way over my head, she realized. There was absolutely no way she could hope to withhold anything from this man. Not with the hideous example of his capabilities quivering senseless on the floor before her. She hastily forced herself to avert her eyes. She somehow doubted he would have any difficulty exacting the same tortures on a seventeen-year old girl. No, she couldnít hope to help Mulder and Scully by her silence. The real and more terrifying question was: would what she said make any difference? Would she even be believed?
But before anything more could happen, Krycekís eyes abruptly lost focus and moved towards the barred window. Jane realized that she could hear cars -- several of them -- crunching over gravel, and doors slamming shut. Krycek quickly moved across the room, peering between the metal slats to view the lot below. He cursed softly to himself in what Jane thought sounded like Russian.
"FBI," Krycek snarled. He jerked a thumb towards Jane. "Letís get her out of here." Krycekís companion nodded, and the two advanced on Jane. Her heart raced. The FBI! Here was her ticket out of this mess! Krycek had seized her shoulder and was dragging her into the hallway now. If only there was a way to warn them! To escape. Krycekís partner was opening the door now. Intuitively, she sensed that the moment of action was now or never. They wouldnít be expecting a teenaged girl who was still recovering from shock to put up much resistance.
If Jane had been acting in her native dimension, she never would have made it. As it was, her heightened perceptions and speed worked to her advantage. At exactly the right moment, she twisted fiercely in Krycekís grasp, loosening his grip long enough to wheel around to his left side. With reckless abandon, she launched herself backwards through an open door, kicking it shut hard. Krycekís left arm struck out after her, and she gasped in shock as the heavy door slammed into it and the hand detached to fall at her feet. A prosthetic arm, she realized as she slammed the door shut with her heavy boots, bracing her shoulders and arms against the bed frame behind her. Krycek struggled with the door for a moment cursing. Then, without warning, a loud crack split the air and a bullet punched through the door to embed itself in the bed frame, mere inches above Janeís head.
More muffled cursing ensued, and Jane heard Krycekís colleague yell for him to hurry. There was more muffled cursing, and the sound of receding footsteps and a slamming door. Even so, it was several long seconds before Jane allowed her muscles to relax, and she lay, gasping for breath, splayed out on the floor.
Seconds later, additional footsteps jarred her back to alertness. Instinctively, she scrambled into the tight confines beneath the oversized bed, wincing as several springs dug into her spine and shoulder. Moments later the bedroom door swung wide open, and Jane held her breath in fear. A pair of neat black low-heeled womenís shoes stepped into view, and Jane could hear the sounds of people moving in the other rooms.
"This roomís empty, sir," called the voice attached to the heels. A pair of brown loaferís moved up beside them.
"So is the rest of the apartment," said the man attached to the second pair of shoes. The right toe poked at the severed prosthetic hand on the ground, and a flesh-and-blood -- though latex-gloved -- hand swooped into view to snatch it up. "Our mysterious intruder left something behind," came the manís voice -- and Jane almost recognized it. "Agent Fowley, any idea who this belongs to?"
"No sir," answered the second voice. Just then a third set of shoes entered Janeís view.
"Fire alarms just went off, sir," said an urgent male voice.
"Theyíre on the fire escapes," the woman snapped, and with a hurried clomp-clomp of feet, the room was clear. Jane let out a deep breath. The FBI was here. But she was unexpectedly in a position to keep her presence hidden from them as well. She was, she realized, in a very dangerous circumstances. She was in Mulder and Scullyís world now. She would have to play by their rules. "Trust no one" was the credo they lived by. Who would Mulder trust in this situation?
Jane thought she knew the answer. Quietly and ever so slowly, Jane eased her way out from under the bed, tiptoeing past the half-open door and inserting herself in a nearby closet; the prevalent smell of mothballs and dirty clothes -- made worse by her heightened sensitivity -- caused her nose to wrinkle in disgust, but she settled in anyway, listening for the FBI techs who were fiddling with their machinery in the living room; waiting for them to finish their work. She was alive, and that was good enough for now.
Half an hour later the techs were gone and she knew what she had to do.
* * *
It was an ominous preamble to Monday morning-- universally regarded as the worst time of the week -- as young Fox Mulder, equally young Dana Scully by his side, looked up at the brass lettering that pronounced "LAWNDALE HIGH SCHOOL" above the tall sets of double-doors, wondering if his last hours were destined to be spent within.
Mulder was nudged forward by an impatient Daria, standing behind him. "Keep moving," she whispered. "Donít attract attention. Iíd like to just sneak around the school and go directly into the library, but itís too easy to be seen and Mrs. Li wouldnít recognize you two. So remember: get lost in the crowd. Most of these kids are incapable of perceiving anything beyond their normal sphere of friends, clothes and makeup, so if you blend in you should be fine."
Obediently, Mulder forged ahead between the doors and into the blue and yellow-decked halls of Lawndale high. He tried his best to remain inconspicuous, but it was hard not to stare, wide-eyed, at a world so far in his past heíd nearly forgotten it. The bulletins and fliers tacked up along the walls and rows of tall lockers; the larger cliques moving through the halls in great masses; the vast array of uniforms and school colors; the sound of laughter, of casual chatter and derisive snickers; the occasional disapproving teacher emerged from their classroom to gaze in apprehension at the tumbled mosaic of teenage life. It was an image he rarely saw, and now found himself once more a part of.
Scully was having greater success feigning normalcy than Mulder, whose conspicuous manner was enough to earn him an elbow in the ribs. "You look like a tourist, Mulder," she hissed. Mulder was about to protest when the truth of her statement manifested itself in the form of a neatly dressed, dark-skinned girl who was carrying what appeared to be a portfolio. She was accompanied by a taller boy who might have been her brother but was probably her boyfriend. A practiced smile on her features, she stepped up to the trio.
"Hi. Iím Jodie Landon, Vice-President of the Student Council. This is Mack."
"Hey," Mack said in a friendly tone. The girl sized up Mulder and Scully, who were trying their level best to look natural.
"I donít recognize the two of you. Is this your first day in Lawndale?"
Before they could respond, Daria intervened. "This is Courtney and Adrian. Janeís niece and nephew." Jodieís eyes widened.
"Really. Um ... I didnít know Jane had any ... older siblings."
"Grandmama was a young mother," Mulder explained in an offhand tone, taking his cue. "Mom was younger. Weíre holding our breath with Courtney." Scullyís eyes widened briefly before settling into a baleful stare. Mulder shrugged innocently.
"Itís sort of a family exchange program," Daria quickly put in. "For one week every year. Jane gets sent to her sisterís and these lucky two get sent here." Jodie seemed to accept this explanation.
"In that case Iíd like to welcome you on behalf of the student body here at Lawndale High. We have a wide base of extra-curricular activities here at Lawndale. Iíd be happy to help register you for any sports or clubs. Thereís a great section in our yearbook devoted to exchange students ..."
"Thank you," Scully quickly interjected, "but we come from such a small school. Itís a real breath of fresh air to maintain a low profile. Weíd like to remain as inconspicuous as possible." Jodie nodded, and Scully thought she saw a touch of regret -- or possibly jealousy -- cross the young girlís features.
"I understand perfectly," Jodie said kindly, as she began to turn away. "But if you ever need anything, let me know. Oh ... one more thing," Jodie said, turning back. "Be sure youíve squared things away with Principal Li. You know how she feels about immigration." This last vaguely satiric remark was directed towards Daria, and Mulder and Scully looked at each other nervously. With any luck, they hoped to avoid the woman whom Daria had assured them was nothing short of totalitarian.
Mack lingered for a moment longer. "You play football, Adrian?"
"No," Mulder replied. "Iím not that big on pigskin. I prefer horsehide."
"Baseball, huh?" Mack grinned. "Well we get put through just about everything in gym. Catch you later, Adrian. Oh ... and watch out for Kevin. Stick to simple sentences and small words and he shouldnít get too annoying."
A loud cry of, "Yo! Mack Daddy!" sounded from further down the hall. Mack rolled his eyes. "Then again ..." he muttered, and was gone into the teenage tide.
"Come on," Daria said, looking at her watch. "Iíve got five minutes to smuggle you into the library. Lets head for the courtyard ... oh no." Dariaís eyes widened, and she seized Mulder by the hand and pulled him off towards another hall.
"What is it?" he frowned as Scully hastened to keep up.
"Too late!" Daria exclaimed, bringing her companions to a halt.
"The Principal?" Scully asked.
"Worse," Daria groaned, pointing emphatically as she uttered the dread syllable.
* * *
"Too cute" didnít begin to describe Quinn Morgendorffer. Popular, fashionable and adorable she was the antithesis of her sister in every way. Her walk was practiced, her look compelling and her forehead possessed of that remarkable smoothness that only comes with a strict abstinence from thought. Her trendy jeans were form-fitting, her shoes frames to the ankles and the yellow-smiley face on her bold pink shirt would have been right at home in the company of Bambi, Flower and Thumper.
As it stood, she was settling for Joey, Jeffy and Jamie (Jeremy?) -- her usual adoration contingent -- and enjoying the absence of the other three members of the Fashion Club. But always eager for more accessories, Quinn was ever vigilant in scanning the halls of Lawndale High. Not that she usually spotted anything.
So it came as a great surprise to see her normally anti-social sister standing in close quarters with two strangers ... and even a greater shock that one of them was absolutely gorgeous (those who disagree with Quinnís assessment will kindly remind themselves of the mindset of the typical teenage girl; most especially one with Quinnís ... credentials.)
Quinn frowned. Joey, Jeffy and Jamie (Jimmy?) were distracting her with their pleas for her affections as each insisted that it was his own turn to take her to the upcoming dance. Eyes fixed on her sisterís new friend, she shot them all down with a wave of her hand. Theyíd have to settle for other dates this time around. The trio was summarily dismissed (wouldnít they please carry her various books to her various classrooms so that they would be ready for her when she got there?) and despite Dariaís attempts at evasion, Quinn stood triumphantly before the newcomers.
"Hi," Quinn proclaimed in her bounciest voice, tossing her luxuriant length of red-gold hair to the side. "Iím Quinn. Daria didnít tell me she had any more friends."
"Actually, weíre just fill-in friends," Mulder explained quickly. "While Janeís away in Arizona. Iím Adrian Lane and this is my sister Courtney."
"Your sister," Quinn repeated with a satisfied smile that made Mulder decidedly uncomfortable. "You know, Adrian, Lawndale is a fascinating town. Maybe youíd like to take me out after school and I can show you some of it."
"Actually ..." Mulder began.
"Thereís a school dance tonight."
"We have plans, Quinn," Daria cut in firmly. "Now if youíll excuse us, weíre on the way to the library. You know. The place with all the books."
The dig was not lost on Quinn, and she narrowed her eyes, looking with some surprise from Mulder to her sister and back. "Very well," she whispered to Daria as she walked by. "Heís yours, for now. Try not to be too devastated when he comes to his senses."
The walk to the courtyard was thankfully uneventful. With two minutes to spare before her first class, Daria pointed the way out the glass doors.
"Donít look back," Daria said. "If Mrs. Li ..."
"If I what, Ms. Morgendorffer?"
Daria jumped despite herself. Behind her stood an professionally dressed oriental woman, imposing despite her stature, her piercing eyes glaring across the rim of her glasses. "Well. Isnít this a picaresque scene!" Mrs. Li snorted.
"I, um ..." Daria began.
"Donít explain," Mrs. Li cut her off. "And I donít want any excuses either. I picked out you and your unregistered friends on the video monitors the moment you set foot in Lawndale High."
"Excuse me," said Daria, "Video monitors? Would these be the same video monitors that were vetoed by the School Board?"
"Did I say video monitors?" Mrs. Li was momentarily taken aback. "I meant hall monitors, of course. Our fine network of hall monitors here at Lawndale High is second to none. Now if the three of you would please accompany me to the office, youíll have plenty of time to explain yourselves."
* * *
"We havenít done anything," Daria protested, facing Mrs. Li from across her desk. Mulder and Scully sat in chairs to her right, remaining silent. "Itís like I said. Courtney and Adrian are just visiting from out of town."
"And Ms. Lane. Explain her absence."
"Sheís visiting family."
"I see." Mrs. Liís eyes narrowed. "Thatís a very fine story, Ms. Morgendorffer. Well-constructed. Neatly explained. Convenient. Too convenient. Itís a shame nobody thought to inform me beforehand. Ah well. An oversight which can fortunately be corrected." Li reached for the telephone.
"What are you doing?" Daria asked nervously.
"Weíll see what Mr. and Mrs. Lane have to say about this.
Dariaís heart sank.
* * *
As it always made him do, Trentís first thought was that a rogue duck had managed to invade his bedroom. As it always was, his second thought was the realization that the rapid quacking was in fact the ringing of his stylized telephone. With a slow melancholy, he pushed his guitar to one side, forced his head to rise slightly off of the pillow, and picked up the receiver.
"Hello," came a brusque womanís voice. "Is this Mr. Lane."
"Umm ..." Trent hesitated. Usually people asking for "Mr. Lane" meant his father. Usually it was about the bills or the mortgage. "Whoís calling?"
"This is Principal Angela Li at Lawndale High School. Are you aware that two individuals claiming to be your grandchildren have silently infiltrated this facility."
"Grandchildren?" Trent was confused.
"Yes. The claim to be Courtney and Adrian Lane, and have accompanying Ms. Daria Morgendorffer. And might I also ask if you know the whereabouts of your daughter."
"My daughter?" Trent rubbed his eyes. "Who is this? I donít know what Monique told you --"
"This is Principal Li from Lawndale High. Jane Lane, your daughter, has not ..."
Suddenly Trent snapped to full alertness. The details of Dariaís plan came rushing back to him. "Oh, yeah ... Janeís um ... gone."
"And Adrian and Courtney Lane?"
"Yeah, ah ... visiting." There was a long silence.
"I see. Very well than. You realize, however, that I am forced to comply with local truancy laws."
"And might I suggest that in the future, you inform the proper authorities in the event of unscheduled, unexcused absences."
"And while weíre on the subject of your children, Mr. Lane, you might want to remind your son Trent about his numerous outstanding assignments if he wishes to have his transcripts released."
Trent eyed the pile of ancient papers just visible out from beneath his bed. "Iíll, ah ... Iíll have a word with him."
* * *
"Your story checks out," Mrs. Li informed the tense trio facing her across from her desk. "For now. Ms. Morgendorffer, you are excused for class."
Daria breathed a sigh of relief. Trent had come through. "In that case, Iíll be on my way. I was just telling Courtney and Adrian here about our wonderful library here at Lawndale High. Theyíll be checking it out."
"Theyíll be doing nothing of the kind."
Dariaís eyes widened. "But you said --"
"I said, Ms. Morgendorffer, that your story checks out. That does not give your friends any sort of diplomatic immunity. While they are under the roof of this building, they are my administrative responsibility. They can use the library during regulated hours like all the other students. In the meantime ..." Mrs. Li pushed two sheets of paper at Mulder and Scully, her lips forming into a cruel grin. "... here are some temporary schedules. Iíll expect you to perform as well as one of my own students."
Mulder looked down at the paper in his hands and breathed a sigh of frustration. His day had just gotten much more complicated.
* * *
Jane breathed a sigh of relief as she found the card she was looking for in the rolodex on Fox Mulderís desk. Her day had just gotten that much easier.
It had been a surprisingly simple thing to sneak away from her tour guide at the J. Edgar Hoover building. Despite rigorous FBI security, no one in the building seemed to place much importance on the basement. Which was probably why Fox Mulderís office had been located there.
Still, sheíd needed to employ her newfound hearing ability to avoid one or two personnel when she hadnít wanted to be seen. She hadnít been certain if the risk of getting caught -- and what that might mean -- was worth it. But the address she was searching for wasnít listed in any Yellow Pages. Fox Mulderís office was the only place she could hope to find it. She had to take the risk.
So it was with great satisfaction that she tore the index card from the rolodex, eagerly taking in the contents. Gratified, she reread the heading at the top.
"THE MAGIC BULLET c/o THE LONE GUNMEN."
It was time to hail another cab
Morris Fletcher was not an ambitious man. For his part, he was content to spend his life following orders. If he could eke out an honest living, provide for his wife and children, and still manage to have a little fun on the side ... well, heíd survive. Whatever fate had in the cards for Morris Fletcher, heíd given up trying to change it. No, he was most definitely a quiet, normal, unassuming man.
Who happened to work at Area 51.
Nothing particularly special about that. It just made reporting to the big boss that much more challenging. And bad news much more dangerous. Fortunately, Morrisís lack of ambition had cultivated a healthy lack of accountability. Besides, he wasnít here today, peering through that haze of smoke at his ultimate superior, with questions or demands. Today he had information.
Leaning back in the uncomfortably small chair in the equally small office, Morris assumed a pleasant smile. The gesture was not reciprocated by the humorless face of the man behind the desk. The dispassionate eyes merely moved down to stare in silence at the glowing tip of the cigarette held casually between thumb and forefinger. This, Morris thought, was a man so far above his underlings that not even the slightest customary politeness or perfunctory gesture was observed. Only efficiency mattered. Efficiency and obedience. Morris could respect that. But this man also cared about power. The world was his oyster, and his ambition was all-encompassing. As far as Morris was concerned, he was welcome to it.
"You have a theory for me." the smoking man spoke. It was not a question.
"Yes," Morris nodded. "While our teams have not yet located the artifact, we have projected the most likely explanation for its disappearance. The artifact is no longer inside this time or space." He waited for a response, but none came. Morris continued. "We suspect it happened when the aircraft transporting the artifact malfunctioned. Such ... occurrences are not unprecedented. Weíre looking at a case of probable dimensional translation."
The smoking man looked at him sharply. "What are the possible methods of retrieval? The artifactís permanent loss could have unfortunate consequences. Our ... constituents are not pleased."
Morris swallowed. This was the unpleasant bit of news. "Retrieval may not be possible." He braced himself, but the smoking man waited for him to continue. "Under ordinary circumstances, we believe that a breach in the space-time continuum will ultimately heal itself. Of course, in the case of the artifact in question, weíre dealing with a certain level of consciousness ..."
"Iím aware of the circumstances. I want options."
Morris swallowed. "Well, sir, it is conceivable that whatever influence the artifact is exerting will reverse itself. We suggest you look for changes effected by the breach. Watch them carefully and a window of opportunity may turn up." Morris paused as the smoking man regarded his smoldering cigarette-tip thoughtfully. "However," Morris continued, "the odds that this thing will fix itself are marginal at best. Our most prudent course of action is to follow standard procedure in these situations. Divert attention. Minimize the consequences. Eliminate the evidence.
"Yes," said the smoking man at last. "Standard procedure. There is one particular bit of evidence that continues to elude us." Slowly, he leaned forward and crushed the ruddy tip of his cigarette in the ashtray on his desk. "Temporarily, of course," he said as the cigarette gave forth its last wispy vestiges of acrid smoke. "But sheíll be found. Sooner or later sheíll pick up Mulderís trail. And then sheíll be ours."
With a wave of the hand, Morris was dismissed, and he was none too relieved when the door clicked shut behind him.
For Daria Morgendorffer it was just a matter of handling one more day of high school. Mulder and Scully, however, were out of their league.
* * *
"All right, class," said Mr. DeMartino, hands clasped behind his back as he stood behind his desk, his right eye twitching as if it had a life of its own within his harsh, angular face. "WHO would like to be the FIRST to comment on the state of EUROPE just prior to the FALL of the Byzantine Empire. Anybody?" Scully stifled a giggle. Each time the teacher emphasized a word, his right eye seemed to bulge from its socket, bloodshot veins stabbing forth from the circumference. At the small noise escaping her lips, DeMartino rounded on her.
"Ah, Courtney. Enjoying ourselves are we? I hope weíre making you at HOME! Iíd HATE to think that we havenít been maintaining a proper DISCIPLINARY atmosphere to match what youíre accustomed to."
"Then perhaps youíd like to ANSWER the question."
Scully took a deep breath. "The Byzantine emperor had capitulated to Roman supremacy in return for aid against the Moslems. The product of this action was the ineffectual Fifth Crusade ..."
* * *
"Now Adrian," said Mrs. Barch with a cruel grin that completed her witch-like appearance. "Kevin, in typical male fashion, has just demonstrated the ability to test the charge on a 9-volt battery. Please test the volatility of this car battery ..."
* * *
"And thatís a basic outline of consumerism," Mrs. Bennett cheerfully declared. With a flourish of the chalk, the stout woman criss-crossed the labyrinth diagram one final time. "Is everybody getting this? Are there any questions?"
"Just one," Scully muttered under her breath, scribbling furiously as hands shot up all around her. "Is this supposed to be Ďconnect the dotsí or Ďtic-tac-toeí ?"
* * *
"Thatís, ah ... quite interesting, Adrian," Ms. Defoe said carefully as she examined Mulderís canvas. "What is it?"
"Do you like it?" Mulder asked, placing the final brush-stroke on his masterpiece. It was a large oblong head framing two large almond eyes and a slit of a mouth. It was wearing a "Mets" cap. "I call it ĎThe Universal Pastimeí ... "
* * *
"Our assignment today," Mr. OíNeill said in his most gentle yet encouraging voice, "is to write down the mission of your ambition. And for those hungry for extra credit, see me for an extra-special assignment. Remember: go the extra mile with a sincere smile!"
"Iíd just as soon leave town with a frown," Daria said. "Itís my ambition."
At the desk beside her, Scully couldnít help but smile.
* * *
"Alright, STUdents!" Mr. DeMartino snarled. "WHO amongst you can tell me for WHAT reason the Pyramids were constructed?" Mulderís hand shot up. "Ah, Adrian. EnLIGHTen us."
"Thereís an increasingly widespread theory that the Pyramids are not of human design at all, but rather that their construction was accomplished or facilitated by extra-terrestrial intelligence for purposes undetermined, although a similar application for the ancient Mayan temples suggests mathematical or astrological functions for which we are not yet aware."
The silence was deafening.
* * *
Ms. Morris glared angrily at the stopwatch as Scully passed the mark. "1.5 seconds over the county Track average. You have a leg cramp. Why donít you go over there and stretch for a while."
Scully shook her head, breathing heavily. "Iím fine. Iím just still adjusting to --"
"I said STRETCH! Iíve got a meet tomorrow, dammit!"
* * *
Lunch arrived at last. Already wearied by their regressive experiences, Mulder and Scully were glad for the opportunity to rejoin Daria and gather their thoughts over a steaming plate of crumbling meatloaf and some sort of sickly green vegetable matter.
"Reminds me of the mess hall back at Quantico," Mulder remarked, prodding the gooey mess on his plate with his plastic "spork." "Remind me to open up a new X-file when we get home, Scully. I think the Blob has returned."
Daria nodded. "This is why I never ... okay, rarely ... complain about dinner at home. Even when my dad cooks. So. How was your first day of school."
Scully grimaced and rubbed her temples. "I spent twenty minutes recalling everything I learned about Medieval history and reciting it aloud to a completely non-participatory classroom. The history teacher didnít seem to want me to stop. That woman science teacher was fairly sympathetic, though. That was a refreshing change of pace."
Mulder almost choked on his cartoned milk-product-drink. "Are we talking about the same science teacher? Mrs. Birch?"
"Barch," Daria corrected as Mulder shuddered. "I see youíve met her. Donít worry. Someday weíll implement a gender-handicapped program." Scully smiled vengefully.
"Did the desks feel small to you, Scully?" Mulder asked, changing the subject.
Scully looked confused. "I ... Iím not sure. Why do you mention it."
Mulder shrugged, prodding his vegetables. "No reason. Itís curious though. They felt ... small to me somehow. Iíd have figured theyíd feel bigger since I was smaller, but ..." Mulder trailed off as a sickly green object exposed itself. "Never mind. Who makes this stuff, anyway?"
Daria pushed her barely-touched tray away and glanced at her watch. "Weíve got twenty minutes left before lunch ends. I suggest we donít waste them eating."
Mulder nodded. "Iím not really very hungry anyway."
"To the library, then."
But before Mulder could rise, he found himself flanked by three girls slightly younger than himself. Daria made a small noise of consternation. The tallest and foremost of the three bent over close, scrutinizing Mulder. Dark, fluffy locks framed an oval face, expertly made up to show off her large eyes and full lips. She wore form-fitting purple pants with a rose shirt. Mulderís eyes moved to the girlís companions. The one on the left was a pert oriental girl with shoulder-length black hair, a sleek blue dress and a petit purse on her shoulder. The one on the right wore her auburn hair in pigtails and wore a chic little jacket and skirt ensemble. All three girls were insufferably cute. This, he surmised, must be one of the local fashion cliques.
"Ahem," said the foremost of the trio who had moved closer. Her voice was deep, with a hint of a Californian accent. "So youíre Quinnís new friend Adrian." She turned to Scully. "And youíre, like, his sister or something?"
"Or something," Scully affirmed.
"Hmm." The girl leaned back taking stock of the pair, her eyes passing over Daria with little interest and mild disgust. She turned back to Mulder. "Allow me to introduce myself. I am Sandi, President of the Fashion Club." She paused, waiting for some sort of reaction. When none came, she indicated the oriental girl. "This is Tiffany, our Coordinating Officer ..."
"... and Stacy, our Secretary."
"What Vice-President Quinn neglected to inform you earlier today is that there is a school dance this weekend." Sandi smiled graciously at Mulder. "Iím afraid that I was asked out earlier this week by Roger Muntz, leaving Quinn dateless. An unfortunate situation to be sure."
Daria leaned over close to Scully. "Watch. Quinn was blathering about this the other day. Roger Muntzís car got impounded last Friday, but until now all the Ďgood datesí were taken. Sheíll try to shift him to my sister and pick up Mulder."
Sure enough, Sandi continued. "But then you arrived today, dateless, never suspecting a school dance lay around the corner." Stacy shook her head in sympathy. "But then Quinn called you to our attention. The members of the Fashion Club could never walk these halls with pride knowing that a fellow student was so unfortunate." Sandi bowed her head in restrained piety. "So it is with a humble head that I give up my date with Roger in the name of compassion."
"Youíre so noble, Sandi," Tiffany said in reverent tones.
Mulder had sat through the speech with an emotionless stare, betraying nothing as Sandiís intentions became clear. As she finished, he answered in his most even tone, "Thank you for the offer, but Iím afraid I could never take such a generous, thoughtful person away from poor Roger." Without another word, he turned back to Daria and Scully. Sandi scowled, speechless for a moment before wheeling around and marching away, her contingent firmly in tow.
"Well that was interesting," said Mulder.
"That was nauseating," Scully corrected.
"Weíre losing time," Daria said, looking at her watch. "Letís -- gah!" Quinn had apparently materialized over Mulderís shoulder.
"Quinn? What are you doing here?"
Quinn looked away, twirling her hair casually. "Oh, nothing, you know. Just walking through the cafeteria when I saw my sister and her new friends." Her eyes narrowed. "Talking with my friends. Naturally I was just a bit curious."
Mulder sighed heavily. Heíd forgotten more about teenage politics than heíd ever wanted to remember. "Iím not going to the dance with any of them."
Quinn brightened instantly. "Then youíre free."
"Iím not going to the dance at all, actually."
Quinnís mood reversed itself once more, and her nose scrunched up in frustration. She glared accusingly at Daria before plunging her hand into her pocket and retrieving a small square of paper. She placed it on Mulderís tray.
"You have business cards now?" Daria asked dryly.
"Itís my phone number. Call it," Quinn said to Mulder. "If you reconsider, that is," she added as an afterthought: such a surety that it didnít really bear conjecture.
"Weíd better hurry," Daria said once Quinn had disappeared. "Weíve only got ten minutes left."
But the trio didnít get very far. No sooner had they stood up than they were approached by a decidedly surreal duo. Mulder grimaced. These two really were something out of a cartoon. Mulder recognized the one on the left from science class. This was Kevin Thompson, the stereotypical -- and there was really no other way to put it -- "dumb jock." He was decked out in full football uniform, complete with football (he had been quick to inform "Adrian" of his status as the team quarterback.) A winning grin plastered across his face, he walked arm-in-waist with his steady date Brittany Taylor, the very blonde, hair-twirling, well-endowed captain of the cheerleading squad. She too was dressed in full yellow and purple/blue team regalia. Her eyes were wide and vacant and her lips curled up in an unnatural smile.
"Great," Daria said, rolling her eyes. "Dumb and Dumber."
"Yo, Adrian!" said Kevin enthusiastically. "I just wanted you to know I really digged all that stuff you said in Mr. DeMartinoís class about aliens and stuff. I mean, those Pyramids are BIG, man!"
"Yeah!" Brittany chimed in with a squeak. "Youíd have to be an alien to, like, know all that ge-om-etry and stuff."
"Yeah," Daria said sourly. "How else would they make all those crop-circles a whole 360 degrees?"
"Exactly, Daria!" Kevin grinned. "And the government cover-ups? Itís, like, for real." His eyebrows drew together in a simian mockery of earnestness. "I saw this X-Files episode, see, aní this chick pulled out her tooth --"
Brittany grimaced. "Ewww! Kevvy!"
Kevin held up his hands defensively. "No, babe! Itís true! And there was, like, this secret government radio gizmo under it." Daria sighed. "Aní then Mack Daddy goes to have his wisdom teeth operated on by the ortho-dentist and he misses practice for a whole WEEK!"
Mulder nodded seriously. "Yes, Kevin, I can see your point. Have you considered contacting Agent Mulder with this information?"
Kevin rolled his eyes. "What, do you think Iím stupid or something? Itís a TV-show. Thatís not his real name! Itís, like, one of those sumo-names, or somethiní. Hey, Adrian! Play any football?"
"Iím more of a B-ball man, myself."
Kevinís face fell slightly. "Oh. Thatís too bad. But, hey, if you wanna shoot some hoops or something, thatís cool too."
"And listen, Courtney," Brittany said. "If you, like, ever wanted to join the cheerleading squad, let me know, because Iím, like, the captain and stuff ..."
"Donít you mean Ďstuffingí?" Daria muttered, looking anxiously at her watch.
" ... so just let me know if you want to work on some basic cheers or something for a tryout! I promise I wonít make you spell anything."
"The horror," Daria said impatiently. "Listen, we really need to be..."
"No, itís okay," said Scully. "Thatís very kind of you, Brittany, but actually, I prefer chess. Do you play?" In the bat of an eyelash, Brittanyís spokesmodel smile had vanished and Kevin looked suddenly nervous.
"I just remembered," Kevin mumbled as he edged sideways. "I uh ... have to go remember something." And then the pair was gone.
"Iím impressed," Daria said to Scully. "The first time I met them it took me fifteen seconds longer to figure out how to get rid of them. Their extra level of density renders them impervious to most sarcasm." Her shoulders slumped as she looked at her watch. "Five minutes. I guess we might as well finish lunch."
Fifteen seconds later, three more empty trays lay stacked atop the trash bin.
* * *
Two hours following the end of the school day, Mulder, Scully and Daria met at one of the wooden tables towards the center of the library, surrounded by stacks of books and sheaves of computer print-outs.
"I suppose I should go first," said Daria. Her voice sounded tired. "I searched the internet backwards and forwards. But I didnít find much, especially with Mrs. Liís damn Ďprotectioní software. I could barely access a page before the content block or virus lock froze things up. I might have better luck at home.
"In the meantime, most of the information I gathered on scrying and crystal-gazing isnít very useful. Itís one of the more diverse divination techniques. And it doesnít have to be a crystal. It can be a plane of glass, a mirror, a drop of blood or even a human fingernail. That doesnít help us much. I certainly didnít find anything about intelligent crystals, or crystals with any other special powers. The opposite, actually. Everything on crystal lore seems to point to the scryer as the only source of power. The crystalís just a tool."
Mulder nodded. "Thatís consistent with what I know, and what Iíve been able to find here. Itís a common misconception in todayís popular culture that the occult believes that crystals or gems are themselves possessed of special powers or inherent magical properties. At best the crystal serves as a kind of focal point, or catalyst for piercing the veil, as it were. A glimpse into the unknown. Itís a technique that dates back to the Ancient Persians. Weíve used crystals to poke through time and space since the beginning of time."
"Maybe somethingís poking back," suggested Daria.
"Possession?" Mulder shook his head, tapping his pencil against the desk. "The notion occurred to me. Certain aspects of this case suggest it. But several things donít fit right. For one, such a phenomenon would appear to be unprecedented. At least in this field of divination. Itís just as possible that this man, whoever he is, is schizophrenic or possessed of other powers and is using the crystal as an outlet.
"Some methods of fortune-telling do involve the consultation or release of demons, or forays into the spirit realm. But scryers and crystal-gazers purport that their Ďscienceí is more objective, using crystals as a method of gazing into some greater aspect of time; a natural aspect of the universe."
Scully shuffled through some papers. "Actually, I did find something interesting along those lines. Have you ever heard of Baron von Reichenbach?"
"I think so. He was a scientist who worked with the occult in the eighteenth century?"
"Nineteenth," Scully corrected. "And his research originated in studies of magnetism. But he was fascinated by the concepts of mesmerism and scrying. He even went so far as to develop a theory. He called it odylic emanation. His claim was that he had discovered that all natural objects, especially magnets, crystals and the human body, were permeated by a strange force he called Ďodyle.í He claimed that humans were capable of viewing the odyle if it was sufficiently concentrated. Itís how he explained the aurora borealis: the Earth was a magnet of sufficient size to attract that quantity of odyle.
"The human brain, he claimed, was particularly rich in odyle. But it was human blood that allowed the connection to crystals."
"How do you mean?" asked Daria.
"Human blood is rich in iron oxide. So are the crystals traditionally used for scrying. Von Reichenbach believed that in close proximity with certain sensitive individuals, the iron oxide concentration helped perpetuate a sort of magnetic link with the crystal. A genuine clairvoyant would, in theory, be viewing interpretations of the odyle which permeates everything."
Mulder leaped up and snapped his fingers. "Thatís it!" he cried. "We still donít know where the manís abilities are coming from, but one thing is for certain. Heís definitely formed a link with the crystal, magnetic, psychic or otherwise. We need to disrupt it."
Scully frowned. "Hang on a second, Mulder. What if itís not the crystal at all, only the man?"
"We donít have anything more substantial to go on here, Scully. This is our best -- our only -- lead."
"So how do we Ďdisruptí this supposed link?" Daria asked.
Mulder considered for a moment. "If we assume what Scully has proposed is true -- and we really donít have much of a choice, all things considered -- we need to disrupt the magnetic field. We need a way to deliver a massive surge of energy ... some sort of delivery system. Electricity would do it ..."
"The loose cable!" Daria blurted. Scully raised a questioning eyebrow. "For the band. Itís on the gym floor. Trent and I covered it, but we can rig something up." Her momentary excitement lapsed. "But what about Jane? How will that help ..." Her voice trailed off as she realized that Mulder and Scully wouldnít have the answers to that question. Scully leaned over and placed a warm palm over the back of Dariaís hand.
"Weíll just have to trust that itíll work out for the best. Until then, we canít give up hope. Thereís always the possibility that whatever he did we can undo."
Daria looked up. "Thereís another problem," she said.
"What?" Mulder and Scully asked in unison.
"Our timeís almost up. This nut-jobís supposed to come back tonight, right?"
"So, we get there ahead of him, lay the trap and wait," Mulder said.
"Itís not that simple. Remember? The dance?"
Mulder groaned as the realization hit him. "Looks like weíre going after all, Scully. I wonder if they still do the ĎFrug,í " he mused, in an admirable attempt at humor. It fell short of the mark.
"Just a moment," Scully said. "How are we going to set up a booby-trap in a crowded gym full of high-school students?"
"Weíll figure out something," Daria said. She tried to sound confident. "In the meantime, you two go fill in Trent. Weíll need his help. Iíll make a quick trip home to check in with my parents. If Iím gone for too long theyíll start getting suspicious."
* * *
"Absolutely not, young lady! There is no way you are leaving this house tonight. You are grounded!" Helen stood imposingly in the Morgendorffer living room, arms crossed and eyes narrowed.
"What?" Daria was temporarily speechless.
"Imagine my surprise when I received a call from the school principal today." Daria cursed inwardly. "Apparently you brought some new friends to school."
"And here I figured youíd be happy for me."
"Donít try to change subjects on me, Daria. Where is Jane Lane?" Helen demanded, eyes blazing. Daria didnít have a chance to answer. "Iíll tell you where. Out of town. So just who were you staying with over at the Laneís? Strangers? Relatives? God knows, itís all the same in that family."
"Jane was there when I was there --"
"Oh really. And I suppose thatís why Trent knows nothing about this?"
Daria sagged inside. Trent wasnít the most resourceful person to begin with, let alone qualified to stand up to one of Helenís interrogations. "I was going to the school dance tonight. I figured youíd be happy I was broadening my social horizons." Daria put as much bitter irony into the statement as she could muster (which was more than most people were capable of detecting.) Perhaps if she could use guilt as a lever ... tweak her motherís plentiful parental insecurities ...
"Under normal circumstances Iíd be thrilled to see you reaching out to your fellow students. But right now Iím not sure I can trust you. So until I am, youíre going to march right on up to your room and stay there for the rest of the night."
Daria sighed. It was hopeless. There was no convincing her mother once she got like this. But she didnít have a choice. The stakes were too high. Somehow she would have to get away. Maybe she could appeal to her father. Heíd never win an argument with Helen, but maybe it would create enough of a diversion to sneak away. Maybe.
In the meantime there was nothing for it. Painfully aware of how little time she had before her life either righted itself or plunged irrevocably downward, Daria trudged up the stairs. Were her final hours to be consumed by this impossible nightmare? How much could a seventeen-year old girl be expected to handle? Fighting off the despair that clutched at her soul, Daria entered her darkened room and shut the door.
Jane exhaled in frustration and banged her fists against the heavy door for the tenth time. The door, however, remained firmly entrenched in the ruddy brick, and once more there was no response. The chill wind picked up slightly, causing the fine hairs on her arms to tingle. She shivered, grasping her arms close to her body for warmth, and once more cursed herself for not having the presence of mind to purchase a jacket with what little money she had left. Or some food. The hunger was especially acute here in this new environ.
She glanced at her watch then looked up at the bleak sky. She was adjusting to the look and feel of this world more quickly than she had imagined possible. If she could see past the thick, enveloping gray haze visible through the tall brick walls of the alley, she was sure she would find that the sun was well into the downward ark that would carry day into night. In Lawndale the temperature would be higher, but here in Washington D.C., the cloud cover seemed to act as a filter, dimming the light and leaching up the heat. It was miserable, and it looked like rain was not far off.
She pounded on the door once again, swearing in frustration. Much more of this and she would have no choice but to give up and find shelter. The uncomfortable thought occurred to her that perhaps the trio was not in. It would be just her luck. Sheíd been banking on the hope that whatever it was "The Lone Gunmen" did in their spare time, it could all be accomplished via the internet.
She had resolved to track down the nearest 7-11 and form a base of operations from which to launch a stakeout when the door-mounted camera, tiny gears whirring softly, swiveled around to fix her with its glassy, cycloptic stare. A hidden speaker somewhere above the door crackled to life.
"Who is it?" came a sharp voice.
Jane licked her chapped lips, suddenly nervous. What if they didnít believe her? Steady, Janey. You arenít exactly ĎMs. Credibleí. On the other hand, neither is anything else thatís happened to you these past few days. Youíre certifiable. Accept it. She took a deep breath. "A friend," she called.
"Oh yeah?" challenged the voice. "Whatís the password?" A second voice crept into the channel, barely audible. Jane caught, " ... donít have a pa--" "Shut up!" the first voice interjected. Jane sighed.
"I donít know the password."
"Ha!" proclaimed the voice triumphantly. "We donít have a password!"
"Look, gents, Iíd love to stand out here all day talking to the door, but itís cold and itís starting to rain and I donít know who may be after me." Then, remembering her chief motivation: "Oh ... and I know where Mulder and Scully are. And about the X-files."
There was dead air for several long seconds. "Would you excuse us?" came the voice, and the speaker switched off. "Hello?" Jane called. There was no reply. All the rage and frustration of the past several hours bubbled to the surface, and she raged silently for several seconds before violently kicking the brick wall next to the door. The vibrations the action caused brought her immediately to her senses. She inspected her boot, thankful sheíd worn her steel-toes. She was just about to resume pounding when the speaker switched back on.
"So where is he?" came the first voice without preamble.
"Iíd rather not say. If you geeks are half as justifiably paranoid as the sh-- I mean, Mulder says you are, your address is probably under six kinds of surveillance."
"Five, tops" said the second voice. "We scanned. Unless you count lip-reading."
"Shut up, you idiot! Not over an open channel!"
"How do we know this isnít a set-up?" came a third voice, more cultivated than the others. Jane considered.
"You donít," she said. "And since Iím not doing a strip for the camera to prove Iím unarmed youíll just have to take me at my word."
"Damn," the first voice growled. "Let her in."
Relief swept over her as the speaker shut off. Within moments, odd clicking noises began emanating from the perimeter of the door. She realized that they were the sounds of locks -- deadbolts, chains, metal slats ... she counted at least fifteen of them before the handle twisted downward and the door swung open. She barely got a glimpse of three shadowy faces before a hand seized her arm and spun her around, yanking her through the door, which promptly slammed shut behind her.
She could barely move. Her back was against the door, and she was surrounded on all three fronts by a member of the eccentric trio, their questing faces searching her face for any sign of duplicity. "So who are you," barked the leftmost of the trio. He was the shortest of the tree, thinning hair combed lopsidedly over beady, bespectacled eyes and a wide face.
"My name is Jane Lane," she said slowly. "And youíre the ĎLone Gunmen.í " She sized each of them up, turning to the tall one on the right, stringy blond hair brushing back over his BotConí97 T-shirt. "Youíre Langly ..." to the well dressed man in the middle with the aquiline features and closely-trimmed beard, "Byers ..." and to the scowling, toad-faced one (a cruel adjective, but she could think of nothing better.) She frowned, struggling to recall the third name. "Mohawk?"
"Frohike!" he snapped. "Sheís a fraud," he declared to his colleagues. "Throw her out."
Langly ignored him. "You know where Mulder is?"
Jane paused, her throat dry. Byers raised a concerned eyebrow.
"The room is secure."
"Itís not that," Jane said with a smile. "I think I need some water. And maybe a place to sit down. Itís been a long day, and I havenít slept in a while."
Byers was quick to step back and clear off a chair, giving Jane a clear view of the cramped office. It was a virtual honeycomb of raw electronics, interspersed throughout with the occasional computer monitor. The ceiling lights were barely visible behind the morass of wires, but the lamp that occupied one of the central desks was largely useless given the profusity of monitors, blinking indicators and other light sources. Papers, printouts, magazines and scattered bits of litter were strewn carelessly around the space. There were several twists and turns among the stacks of shelves and false walls to imagine doors or passageways that led further into the haphazard labyrinth of tech. Like a Borg cube, she thought wryly, then frowned. God, I watch way too much TV, she thought.
No you donít, protested another inner voice. If this is reality, you donít watch enough TV. Late night Star Trek beats the hell out of this!
Jane stepped forward, and gratefully accepted the seat. Byers had already procured a Styrofoam cup of water. "Thanks," she said sincerely, drinking the cup dry in a matter of seconds before handing it back. "I already like you best," she told him, with a sideways glare directed towards Frohike, who continued to scowl stubbornly.
"You still havenít told us anything about Mulder or Scully," he shot back. "Your story better get real interesting real fast." Langly nodded and Byers waited patiently. "Well ..." Jane began, "I guess Iíll just take it from the top. And you have to promise not to interrupt." The three heads bobbed simultaneously. Jane took a deep breath, closed her eyes and started to speak. "Alright. I was on my way to visit my friend Daria ..."
Langlyís eyes widened. "You mean ..."
"No interrupting!" Frohike snapped.
"Boys! Please! Iíve got a lot to say here, and you arenít going to help if you keep butting in. If youíll save your questions for the end, itís a distinct possibility Iíll cover it before then." Jane paused for a moment and then winced. "There, now see what you made me do? You made me paraphrase Mr. OíNeill. Iíd hoped to live out the rest of my miserable life without doing that." The trio fell begrudgingly silent.
Janeís tale took the better part of the following hour, with several pauses during which she would have to deal with brief flashes of heated debate among the three before they quieted down and allowed her to continue. She stopped with her account of how sheíd obtained their location.
"You just walked into Mulderís office?" Byers said. "Thatís risky. They could have tailed you."
Frohike was slightly more upset. "Weíre on his rolodex? Hell! What other security procedures has he breached? Are we on his e-mail registry? Heís probably got our website bookmarked!" Jane rolled her eyes. The "whimsical paranoia" was beginning to grate.
"Why donít you just hack into his computer and find out," she suggested sarcastically. Frohike nodded as if she had voiced his own thoughts, and spun his chair around to a nearby computer. Janeís eyes widened. "I didnít mean for real!"
Byers leaned forward. "Actually, we hacked into his computer as soon as we discovered he was missing. We didnít come up with anything useful. We even checked out the case he was working on. Nothing. Now youíre telling us Mulder and Scully are in another dimension altogether?"
"Not just any dimension," declared Frohike, his hacker business concluded. "But one where we have our own TV show."
"Itís their TV show," Jane corrected. "I think youíre guest stars or something."
"Can I talk now?" Jane turned. Langly was sitting on his stool, biting his lip impatiently.
"Go ahead," she said.
"There is a TV show called ĎDaria.í " Jane raised her eyebrows in surprise. "Itís on MTV. Itís a spin-off of ĎBeavis & Butt-Head.í "
Jane groaned audibly. "Why not ĎJane?í " she muttered to herself.
"Why is it Mulderís show for that matter," Langly sympathized. "We could have our own show."
"He watches cable when he ought to be doing surveillance," Frohike explained.
"Reconnaissance," Langly muttered. "And what do you know, anyway? Anyway ... my point is, she looks and sounds like she says she is. Itís weird, but I think sheís telling the truth."
"Of course Iím telling the truth!" Jane bit angrily. "You think Iíd make something this crazy up? Then come running to you guys? I barely believe it myself! But the fact is, Iím here, and I have almost no idea what Iím doing! I need help. I knew how to find you and I know Krycek means trouble. You jokers can fill in the rest!"
"Krycek," Byers murmured. "I thought he was dead."
"Idiot," Frohike snapped. "Krycek will be relaxing in his own private sauna when youíre six feet under for three years!"
"Heís bad news," Langly agreed. "And heís probably not working alone."
"Letís think about your story," Byers suggested, "See what we can come up with. You say it was a crystal ball?" Jane nodded. "Thatís more Mulderís field of expertise. But before we go searching for why it happened, letís try to agree on what happened in the first place." Byers began to pace in a tight circuit, running his hand across his beard.
"Letís assume there really are other dimensions," Langly said. "And Mulderís theory about being aware of them are true. How?"
"Reality is an illusion," Frohike said.
"All of it?" Jane asked.
Byers stopped pacing and looked up. "Thatís one theory. Some philosophers argue that reality is nothing more than a sequence of perceptions. I think itís solipsism that states that what we perceive is merely a compromise between what we truly are and what truly exists. Since even sight is a form of perception -- a kind of filter for your brain -- you can never see whatís truly there. This has led some to speculate that what we think is reality is merely the path our perceptions take through infinite possibilities.
"This argument lends credence to the Ďmultiple universeí theory. You and I are talking right now because the choices our brain has made have placed us in a position of common perceptions. Except in your case, someone else is doing the choosing."
Jane nodded slowly. "I can see how this helps to explain things. If this was true, then Mulder could be right. People are in tune with other Ďpossibilitiesí ... even if they donít truly Ďexistí to them. They fill in the details and call it fiction. Which would explain why Daria has a show in this reality -- that is too freaky, by the way ... sheíll flip -- and you guys appear on my television set every Sunday night. I mean ... someone could be watching us right now!"
"It gets spookier," Frohike said. "If this is true, what about all those psychics and fortune tellers? If weíre right, some of them might know more than the masses give them credit for. All it would take would be an ability to perceive the spectrum of possibility."
Jane laughed. "To Ďperceive possibilities?í Anyone with an imagination can ...." She trailed off as she realized what she was saying. "An imagination. Possibilities." She repeated. The implications were staggering, and more than a little confusing. "And weíre back to fiction. God. I think I need to lay down." Byers strong hand supported her shoulder. "Truth really is stranger than fiction."
"So what does a crystal ball do?" Langly asked. "Help them psychics see better? A kind of visual aid? Thereíd have to be some sort of science behind it."
"There probably is," said Frohike. "And Iíll bet the bastards that Krycek works for know something about it. Langly?" In a flash, Langly had sat down at the computer, typing at record speed. Jane felt a touch of hope rising up.
"Can you find out?" she asked. Byers and Frohike leaned over Langlyís shoulder.
"We have a database," Byers explained. "Of every possible front they might have set up, and every possible location."
"I can hack into anything," Langly said proudly. "I just need to know where." He frowned as an incredibly long character list scrolled up the screen at an incredible rate. "Weíre going to need to narrow the parameters just a little."
"Try the D.C. area," Frohike suggested. "Even if they were working on something somewhere else, they probably moved it here when Mulder went missing." Langly nodded. The subsequent list was shorter, but still too long to be of much help.
"Try a keyword search," Byers suggested. "Mulder or Scully."
Frohike gave him a sour look. "Too obvious," he grunted. But Langly typed in the names nonetheless. There was a moment of tense silence as the hard drive whirred furiously. Nothing came up.
"Itís no use," Langly said. "Whatever their code words are, weíd only be guessing. Iíll try programming in an algorithm to search for likely possibilities. But itíll take a long time and it probably wonít work."
"We might have to try drawing them out," said Byers. "Although that puts us at greater risk."
"Artifact," said Jane suddenly.
Frohike turned. "What?"
"Try doing a search for Ďartifact.í Thatís what Krycek said they were looking for. He might have meant the crystal."
Langly shrugged and turned back to the machine. After several sweaty palmed moments, a single name and location blinked onto the screen. Automatically, a map of the city prang to the fore, one lonely warehouse blinking red.
"Yes!" Jane sprang up out of her chair, her grin splitting her face until it almost hurt.
"Calm down," said Frohike. "We still have to get in. And we still donít know if itís anything useful."
Janeís elation was undiminished. "Maybe, but I donít care. Itís still a lead. Itís still progress. After all this ... this insanity!" She slumped back down in to the chair, the euphoria beginning to wear off. Frohike was right. There was still a lot of work to be done. And no guarantee of success. But she would be doing something. At least now there were answers to find.
"Itíll be a tricky infiltration," Byers said. "Weíre going in cold. No surveillance. We donít even know what kind of security they have."
"Weíll just have to wing it," said Frohike cheerfully.
"Are you sure itís safe?" Jane asked, concerned.
"No," Langly said. "Itís not safe. But Mulder and Scully might need us. Who knows whatís happening to them."
"Here," said Langly, typing furiously. "Iím going to have a look. No serious hacking, just a snoop job. See what I can see ..." his voice trailed off and his features went slack.
"What?" said Jane, peering forward at the screen. "What is it?"
"Holy ..." Langly broke off into a string of unabashed curses. "Iím sorry to say I know this code. Gentlemen, we are in serious trouble ..."
Intensely, Walter Skinner jabbed a finger from one computer window to the other. One surveillance video showed the entrance to Martin Veerhoovenís apartment complex. The other was from several floors down, in the basement of the Hoover Building.
"Itís the same girl," he said. "I canít believe this got past us. I got lazy. Never expected anyone to make such an obvious move. You say you cross-referenced her image against our database and nothing came up?" The tech seated at the computer surveillance station nodded. "And she just walked in to Agent Mulderís office and left one minute later." Skinner felt a twinge of irrational excitement. There had been a definite breach of security; a stupid one at that, and he would have to answer for it ... but he had a lead. "Get Agent Fowley on this. I want a forensics team down there in three minutes or less, understand?"
"Yes sir," said the Tech, punching in a series of commands. "There is one other thing, sir," he said. "Iíve accessed Agent Mulderís hard drive through the network. I was looking for information, like you requested, and I compared it against the backup files you downloaded the other day."
Skinner frowned. "What did you find?"
"Several files have been deleted. Within the last hour, too. A series of addresses and references." The tech handed Skinner a printout. "Do you recognize these, sir?"
Swiftly, Skinner scanned the page, an idea creeping into his head. He looked once more at the image of the girl frozen on the screen taken outside Mulderís office. In her hand she held a plain index card. "Enhance that paper sheís holding," Skinner told the tech.
"If youíre hoping to read whatís on it youíre out of luck. Even if we could increase the revolution to that level -- which we canít -- whateverís on that card is facing the wrong way."
"I donít need to read it, I just want a closer look." The tech shrugged, and punched in several commands. An electronic box formed around the girlís hand, and the image jumped in size to fill the screen. The resolution was horrible, but Skinner could vaguely make out from the bottom corner of the card that there was a dark spot, like a small hole. It was as if the card had been ripped out of a binder. Or a rolodex. He looked once more at the printout the tech had given him.
"Good work," he told the tech, as he reached for the coat heíd had the foresight to bring. "Youíll get a commendation for this," he said as he pulled the sleeves over his arms.
"Sir?" said the tech, puzzled.
"Just make sure Agent Fowley gets on this. Give her anything she asks for. Have any findings sent to my secretary."
"Yes sir." The tech was obviously confused. "Are you going somewhere, sir?"
"Yes," Skinner replied firmly, as he exited the room. "Iím going to check out a hunch."
When the phone rang in the kitchen of the Lane house, Mulder was the first one to answer it. The nerve-grinding tension of the past several hours had been enough to make that first, hasty jab for the receiver a thing of reflex. He didnít stop to consider that, depending on the caller, it might have been wiser for Trent to answer the phone. So it was doubly relieving when Dariaís cool tones responded to his hasty hello.
"Agent Mulder? Is that you?"
Mulder breathed a sigh of relief. "Yes, Daria, itís me." Behind him, Trent and Scully visibly relaxed. "Where are you? Weíve been calling for the past hour and a half, but we only get your sister. The second she finds out weíre not calling for her, she brushes us off and takes another call. She says youíre grounded?"
"Yeah," Daria said. "My mom found out about you two and she flipped after talking to Mrs. Li. I tried to call you guys, but Quinnís been on the phone for hours trying to get a date for the dance tonight. Sheís worried sick about it. I just now got the phone."
Mulder whistled. "You mean it took her this long to run out of guys to call?"
"No," said Daria flatly. "I think sheís still somewhere around the Bís."
"Then how ..."
"I reached outside my window and tossed some debris at her windowsill. Sheís outside right now searching for the imaginary beau. So Iíve got a few minutes."
Mulder frowned. "Are you going to be able to get out tonight?"
"Not easily, with my Mom patrolling the downstairs. But it can be done. I need two things, though. A diversion, and my sisterís cooperation."
"Can you get it?"
"Yes ... ah ... I think so. But Iím going to need your help." Mulder noticed a hint of uncomfortable resolve in Dariaís voice, and he felt a slight worry creep over him. "But Iím going to have to ask you to do something," Daria continued. "Something I wouldnít wish on anybody. Something no sane man would agree to."
* * *
Jake Morgendorffer answered the door with his usual cheery expression. You never knew when a client would drop by! It had happened before. Well ... it would happen someday, he was sure of it! The occupant of the Morgendorffer doorstep was merely a teenaged boy. Inwardly, he shrugged. A future client, then.
"Hello," the boy said. "Is Quinn there?"
"Quinn?" said Jake. "I thought she didnít have a date tonight?"
"Oh ..." said the boy. "There must have been a miscommunication then."
"Oh," said Jake, grinning. "Well, we can fix that. Come on in!" he declared, ushering the boy inside and closing the door. "Quiiiiinnn!" he called up the stairs. "Your daaate is here!"
Quinn was down the stairs so fast she appeared to have materialized at the bottom step instantaneously. Her eyes lit up in joy like a kid on Christmas morning. "Adrian!" she exclaimed. "You changed your mind! Omigod!" she declared, slapping her hands to her cheeks. "I havenít gotten ready at all! Wait right here! Iíll be down in a flash. Dad, keep him here -- I mean, entertained!" Then she dashed back up the stairs, leaving her grinning father flashing her the thumbs-up sign, and Adrian looking more than a little depressed.
* * *
It was only after she had shut the door to her room that Quinn noticed her sister leaning up against one bedpost with a smug expression on her face.
"Finally find that special desperate someone?" Daria asked with a smirk. Quinn put her hands on her hips indignantly.
"Arenít you grounded or something?"
"Technically, yes. But Iím going to the dance tonight anyway. And youíre going to help me."
Quinn narrowed her eyes. "Really? And why would I want to do that?"
"Because if Iím not waiting outside when you and Adrian leave the house, heís going to get in to his car and drive home. Without you."
Quinnís eyes widened in panic. "What?"
"Donít worry," Daria said, examining her fingernails in an offhand fashion. "He wonít be going to the dance as my date. Heíll still be Ďyours.í But I am coming with you."
Quinn sighed, relieved and slightly disdainful. "An ulterior motive. How typical."
"A new vocabulary word. How unprecedented."
Quinn moved behind a foldable dressing wall and pulled an outfit out of her closet. "You must really be desperate, Daria. So what do I have to do."
"Itís nothing too complicated," Daria said as her sister dressed. "You just have to keep Mom busy while I sneak out your window."
"Why canít you sneak out your own window?"
"Unlike Molecule-Man, I lack the ability to pass through solid metal. Your window isnít framed by sawed-off bars, remember?"
"Alright then?" Quinn moved out from behind the dressing wall, wearing a strapless pink dress and coordinated shoes, adjusting an ornate hair-clasp.
"Alright, Daria. Iíll help you this once."
"As if you had a choice."
"But if Mom catches you, Iíll deny everything."
"Deal," Daria said. She pulled a pillowcase out from behind Quinnís bed and began removing several pairs of sheets. Quinn frowned.
"What are those for?"
"Donít worry about it. You have other concerns."
Quinn shrugged with a theatrical sigh. No matter how hard she tried, she would never understand her sister.
* * *
Mulder shifted uncomfortably as he sat on the couch next to Jake. The manís gaze was paradoxically unnerving: vacant yet penetrating. The dopey smile didnít improve the situation. Nor did Mulderís clothes. The only appropriate evening wear had been a an old tuxedo of Trentís. It was faded, ten sizes too big and it smelled like mothballs, but it was the best they could come up with on such short notice. Daria had assured him that Quinn would be too desperate to care. Evidently, sheíd been right.
"So ... Adrian," Jake said. "Have I seen you somewhere before? You look awfully familiar ..."
Mulder shrugged, thinking of something to say that would prevent further speculation along those lines. "I donít think so. Maybe you met my father at a PTA meeting?"
Jake thought for a second. "A PTA meeting? So your father goes to PTA meetings, eh?" His look turned suddenly grim. "You donít know how lucky you are to have a father that cares about your education enough to go to PTA meetings." At the word "father," a strange transformation began to come over Jake. He was beginning to look angry now, and Mulderís eyes widened in alarm. Jakeís voice was somewhere between a whimper and outrage as he continued. "Instead, of getting shipped off to military school while the bastard sits at home with his bottle, oblivious to the daily suffering you undergo, no matter how many times you write home! Home? And what did home mean, anyway! Home was an asylum!"
Mulder was growing panicked. The man was flipping out, totally oblivious to Mulderís presence. "Maybe it wasnít the PTA meeting," he said quickly, attempting to change the subject. "I remember now! It ..." he searched for an appropriate scenario. "It was the game," he finished lamely.
"The game?" Jakeís hysteria evaporated instantly, replaced by a look of dawning comprehension. "The game!" he said at last, the familiar smile returning. "Of course!" Mulder nodded happily and forced a smile. Anything to keep the peace.
At that moment, Helen walked in from another room. "Oh," she said. "I didnít know we had guests."
"This is Adrian," Jake declared to his wife. "From the game."
"Um ... yes, of course dear. Youíre here for Quinn?"
"Thatís right maíam," Mulder said evenly.
As if on cue, Quinn appeared at the top of the stairs. "Hi," she announced. As she descended the steps in the grand tradition of Scarlett OíHara, her eyes met Mulderís, and he knew she had talked to Daria. Quinn approached her mother with a big smile on her face. "I thought we should talk about my curfew."
"Midnight," Helen said firmly.
"I was hoping more for two ..."
Helen turned to Mulder. "Young man, I want my daughter back by midnight, understood?" Mulder nodded quickly. "Good."
Quinn twirled a lock of red-gold hair and glanced at the clock on the wall. "Um ... didnít we agree I could take the credit card out tonight?"
Helenís looked at her daughter suspiciously. "I donít remember that, no."
"Really? Because I could have sworn ..."
"Some other time, sweetie," Helen said. The tone of voice did not invite challenge. Quinn began to say something else, but was interrupted by a muffled thud from what sounded like upstairs. Or maybe outside. Helen turned around "What was that?"
"Nothing!" Quinn said hastily. Helen looked at her daughter with a raised eyebrow.
"How do you know?"
"I, ah ..." Quinn said hastily. "I left my makeup table sitting on the windowsill!" she said with an embarrassed smile. "The draft must have sucked it right out. What a nuisance. Adrian will help me pick it up outside, wonít you Adrian?"
"Absolutely," Mulder said.
"Good," Quinn said. She extended her arm and fixed Mulder with a predatory smile. "Shall we go?"
Mulder sighed. It had been along time since he had a girl on his arm. Come to think of it, there were worse things. He stood up with a pleasant smile that was not entirely forced, and offered his elbow, to which Quinn swiftly attached herself.
On their way out the door, Quinn paused. "Oh, mom? Dariaís asleep. She said she was sorry, and sheíd talk to you more about it in the morning."
Helen smiled. "Thatís nice, sweetie, thank you for telling me. Have a good time tonight. Remember: back by midnight!"
"Donít do anything I wouldnít do, kiddo!" Jake called out as they shut the door. Quinn rolled her eyes. Mulder was startled by a sound to their left, but it was only Daria, limping slightly and massaging a lumpish bruise on one knee. She smiled weakly and held out one hand clutching a ragged piece of cloth.
"You know thing they always do in cartoons, tying bedsheets together to climb out of windows? Donít do that." Mulder smiled, helping Daria into the backseat of the Trentís car as Quinn settled into the passenger seat. "Whereís Trent and Sc-- I mean, Courtney?"
"They got picked up in the Jesseís van -- the Tank," Mulder said. "They took off early for the gym to ... set things up. I hope you got some sleep." Daria shook her head. "Too bad. Itís going to be a long night."
* * *
In Dariaís now-empty room, the television set yet flickered, speakers murmuring softly as the commercial break came to a close. "Double crossers double cursed!" came the cheerful voice of the announcer. "Next on ĎSick, Sad World!í "
If Helen, pausing as she passed Dariaís closed door, had thought to check the lock, or possessed the courage to wake up her eldest daughter for a conciliatory chat, she might have heard the low, dark laughter that permeated the room.
* * *
Jane couldnít recall ever being more cramped. But Frohike had insisted that the only safe way into the warehouse was the ventilation system. And even that needed to be bypassed. Which was why the four of them were stretched out in pairs along the edges of the four-by-two foot air corridor. Jane had ended up stretched out next to Langly, who was using his laptop and a small array of electronic equipment to bypass the ventilation seals that would grant them access. Then it would be Frohikeís job to neutralize any motion-detection. Frohike and Byers waited right behind them. All four had elastic straps around their foreheads that supported a small light.
"You can talk to me while I do this," Langly told Jane as his fingers flew over the miniature keyboard. "Helps me think, actually."
"Okay," Jane said hesitantly, adjusting her headlamp. "You said that this place has some sort of alien code?"
"It has coding algorithms that are essentially variations on the ones that have been used in the past in conjunction with extra-terrestrial artifacts ... fragments of UFOs tools, fossils, that sort of thing."
"Thatís bad. It means thereís going to be an extra level of security. One thatís tougher to crack."
Jane considered. "Do you think the orb Mulder talked about is from outer space?"
Langlyís brow furrowed. "If thereís some sort of science behind what weíve been speculating, and we assume that alien technology is more advanced than our own, then probably. What itís exact function and purpose is ... well thatís anyoneís guess. I canít imagine why it would want to kidnap Mulder and Scully and throw them into your world, or throw you into ours. Kicks, I guess. Weíre in."
"What?" said Jane, startled by the suddenness of it.
"Weíre in," Langly said again, louder for the benefit of Frohike and Byers. Behind Jane, the other two Lone Gunmen set to work prying open the shaft grill that lay beneath them. Raising it up, Frohike displayed a thin wire that had encircled the grate.
"We touched this thing off, weíd probably all be dead by now," he said with a cheerful grin. Pressing the plate against the inner wall, he reached over the hole and lowered himself down a precarious seven feet, landing with a muffled thud. Cautiously, Byers lowered Frohikeís bag. Then the trio continued to wait in silence.
Ten minutes later, Frohike appeared at the bottom of the hole. "All clear," he whispered up. "Ladies first," he smiled. Byers and Langly helped Jane position herself over the hole. When she had lowered herself sufficiently, Frohike caught her by the waist and lowered her the rest of the way. Byers and Langly followed swiftly, portable computer tucked under Langlyís arm.
Jane looked around, taking stock of their surrounding. They were in a dark room about as wide as an average High-School classroom, but much longer. Most of the room was occupied by stacks of nondescript cardboard boxes. To the right, the view was obscured by stacks of metal shelves, home of filing cabinets and more, smaller boxes. To the left was another set of tall cabinets, this one occupied by an array of electronic equipment, centered around an active computer that appeared to be compiling data. The room was lit with a few pale neon bulbs, but beyond the cabinets the light quickly turned to darkness, so that it was impossible to tell how far the room extended. As it was, Jane felt it might as well have gone on into infinity on both sides. It left her feeling odd, and strangely exposed.
Langly cracked his nuckles and headed for the computer. "Byers?"
"On it," Byers replied. He moved forward, pulling out a tiny black box from his coat pocket. "Itís my own invention," he explained to Jane, bending over and tracing the tangle of computer coils back to a variety of outlets on the far wall. "I splice it into the phone line and it intercepts the computerís networking cable, sending a repeating loop out. That way when Langly starts hacking and the computerís alarm system goes haywire, it dead ends in this device. The server, wherever it is, wonít know anythingís wrong." He pulled out a scalpel and began his intricate procedure. "It shouldnít be possible. The computer ought to know itís being tampered with. But you donít spend half your life working for the DOD without learning a few tricks. The device is also programmed to fool the network."
Jane whistled in admiration as Byers completed his task and signaled an OK to his colleagues. Langly nodded, easing himself into the standard office chair that faced the computer. Within moments he was in his element. Jane walked over to stand next to Byers and Frohike beneath their makeshift entrance.
Several long minutes later, Langly was in. "This is incredible," he breathed in hushed tones. Jane and the others moved behind him, watching the countless characters scroll across the monitor. "Iíve never seen anything like it. This computer has been in communication with something. But I couldnít tell you what. I couldnít even tell you how. Thereís no way Iíd be able to begin tracing these lines."
Janeís optimism began to falter. "What about the artifact?" she asked.
Byers shook his head. "Itís this code ... Iíve never seen anything this complex. The Thinker couldnít have cracked this. But it turns out Ďartifactí was a code word. Itís the only one I recognize. It translates to Ďcell.í "
Jane frowned. " ĎArtifactí means Ďcell?í What, like in biology? Are we supposed to believe that this crystal thing is a cell? Part of some larger organism?" Langly shrugged.
"Or," came a voice from behind them, " Ďcellí as in Ďprison cellí ... which is where youíll all be going if I donít get some answers. Right now." The four swung around in surprise. Standing behind them, directly beneath the hole in the vent was Walter Skinner, gloved and wearing a long trench coat, Sig. Sager handgun drawn, ready to be used at a moments notice.
"What the hell?" Frohike blurted. "You! Jeez, how the hell did you ..."
"I followed you," Skinner said angrily. I saw her," he jabbed the gun barrel towards Jane, and she flinched despite herself, "on our surveillance tapes, sneaking out of Mulderís office with an address. Your address. One of my techs noticed your little hack job. I got to your office in time to tail you here. Looks like it was worth it. Now perhaps youíd like to explain what youíve found about Mulder and Scully, and what exactly youíre doing here."
"Itís quite simple," came another, cooler voice, emanating from the shadows from beyond the computer array. "Youíre all going to die." Jane turned in shock as one shadow detached itself from its fellows and stepped into the light. The Cigarette-Smoking Man smiled sadly, the barrel of his gun aimed squarely between Janeís eyes.
* * *
All things considered, Mulder had been away from the dance scene for way too long. Red strobing beams, a kaleidoscope of bodies swirling across his vision in random fashion, and Mystic Spiralís deafening chords all added up to one gigantic-sized headache. He leaned against the wall and nursed his glass of punch. Quinn had been quick to abandon her wallflower date, and was playing hostess to a veritable congress of boys over at one corner of the gym. Occasionally, he would see a familiar face in the crowd. There were Mack and Jodie, dancing happily, taking the time to wave and give him a knowing smile. There went Kevin, steering Brittany towards the snack bar. Near the entrance, Mr. DeMartino maintained a scowling vigil, doubtless wondering what quirk of fate had landed him the detestable supervisory position. Trent was at the far end of the gym, delivering an incredibly impassioned performance. Unusually impassioned, Mulder suspected, since his fellow band members (Jesse, of course, and a few other names he remembered ... Nick ... Max ...) seemed almost restrained.
He frowned. Across the gym, a Goth chick was eyeing him between dancers in an uncomfortably intense fashion, her eyes rimmed with a vaguely Egyptian design. He tried his best to avoid her gaze, but as two of the only stationary figures in the room, it was difficult. Finally he flashed her his dopiest leer and she appeared to lose interest quickly.
He was thankful when Scully finally approached. Like Quinn, she was wearing a pink gown. But in Scullyís case, it was much too large, and even slightly worn around the edges. It had evidently belonged to Janeís grandmother.
"So whatís the plan?" he asked.
"Donít ask me how or why, but we managed to find a length of insulated cable under Trentís bed. We switched it with the bare one, which is still stretched out on the floor. The outlet weíve got it connected to isnít switched on, of course."
Scully motioned down towards the other end of the gym. "Sheís standing by the fuse box, ready to throw the switch. When our perpetrator appears itíll be our job to distract him. Trent will try to maneuver the cord and Daria will turn the power on." She sighed heavily. "Itís a sketchy plan at best, Mulder, and things could get very complicated very fast. The simple truth is, weíre going to have to wing it." She caressed her temples distractedly. "We donít have much time left. You do realize weíre banking everything on the hope that he appears here instead of whisking us off somewhere." Mulder nodded.
"Head bothering you?" he asked.
"God yes. The music is so loud. And some of the students ..."
"I beg your pardon," came a nasal voice. Mulder looked to see a strange student approaching them. He was thin and gangly, with freckles and curly orange hair. He wore a seedy approximation of a sly grin. And a leisure suit. "Arenít you the new siblings?" He winked at Mulder and made a small bow in front of Scully. "Itís an honor to meet you," he said, displaying a saucy grin and cocked eyebrow.
"Can we help you?" Scully asked with obvious distaste.
"I couldnít help but notice you werenít dancing," the boy said, still smiling. "I also noticed you came dateless."
"What a coincidence?" Scully offered.
The boy made a noise of guttural desire. "Feisty!" he declared appreciatively. "Allow me to introduce myself. They call me Charles Ruttheimer III. But you, dear lady, may call me ... anytime, anywhere and anything." He leered suggestively.
"I hear they call you Upchuck," Scully said dryly.
ĎUpchuckí waved a dismissive hand. If anything, his grin broadened. "The Plebian masses find it difficult to overcome their jealous natures. Iím usually too busy entertaining several young ladies to notice." He made a marked attempt to gaze deeply into Scullyís eyes. "Has anyone ever told you that you bear a striking resemblance to Gillian Anderson?"
Scully rolled her eyes, but did not get the chance to answer.
The entire student body had vanished.
In a heartbeat, Mulder went cold. All the waiting had not prepared him for the abruptness of it. The gym had gone from maximum capacity to utterly abandoned in less than a millisecond. Across the gym, he could see Daria standing next to the open fuse box. On the bandstand, Trent stood alone among the instruments, staring in shock as his last chord died in the air. Mulder felt Scully clasp his hand.
With a flash of light, the man who was David Miteger appeared; the orb he clutched bathing them all in its bloody glow.
Jane felt her knees turn to jelly as the Smoking Man stepped forward. With a single swift movement, he caught her by the arm and spun her around, one arm around her throat, the barrel of his gun jammed against her temple. The terror was almost overwhelming. Jane could barely think; the panic had forced all other sensations save fear from her mind.
In a hurried jumble, the Lone Gunmen backed off towards Skinner, whose gun had instantly sprung towards the Smoking Manís face. But her captor merely smiled.
"I suggest you drop the gun, Mr. Skinner. Or the girl dies now." Seething with rage, Skinner looked at Jane and dropped the gun, kicking it several yards across the carpeting. "Thatís better."
"How did you know?" Langly asked blankly. "We ... we took every precaution."
"Yes," the Smoking Man said flatly. "Youíre to be commended. A very nice job of it indeed. Iím afraid itís Mr. Skinner who places too much confidence in his ability to evade detection."
"What are you protecting?" Skinner snarled.
"The only thing worth protecting. My interests."
"The artifact?" Frohike demanded. "What is it? What does it do?"
The Smoking Man laughed bitterly. "You think I owe you answers? Iím not in the habit of disclosing information to thieves and saboteurs."
"Thatís okay." Jane was surprised to hear the voice was her own. If Iím going to die, she realized, itís not going to be with a whimper. "Iím a pretty good guesser," she continued. Her voice was raspy as she struggled to get air past the vice-grip of her captorís arm. "Itís a cell, isnít it? Not like we thought, though. Like he said." She jerked her head towards Skinner. "A prison." The Smoking Manís eyebrows raised in temporary surprise.
"It escaped, didnít it?" she hissed, fighting to squeeze the air down her throat. "I donít know how. Malfunction or something. But itís loose now. And you canít find it. You canít ... find it and you canít find Mulder and Scully because it ... took them. And youíve been talking," she jerked her head towards the computer. "Talking with them. Youíve lost their little toy, and now ..." she gasped for breath. "And now itís your ass in the frying pan!"
The Cigarette-Smoking Man, looked at her intently. His smile would have been kindly if not for the gun jammed painfully against her head. "Youíre wrong there," he said softly. "In the greater scheme of things, the artifact is irrelevant. Itís loss poses no long-reaching consequences to our enterprise."
"Then why all this?" Byers shouted.
"Because the sad casualty of this unfortunate circumstance is Agents Mulder and Scully. They are gone." He fixed Skinner with a deathlike stare. "And with their removal, you have become a liability. A hazard. We canít risk igniting a crusade, now, can we? So Iím afraid everyone in this room is going to have to die." He jammed the weapon deep into Janeís skin. "Starting with you."
"No!" Skinner cried. In one sweeping move, he dove for his gun, mere feet from where Jane was held. The Smoking Manís boot met his chin in mid-dive, and Skinner jerked backward to stare up in dismay as the gun leveled toward him. Out of the corner of her eye, Jane saw the Lone Gunmen charging forward and she made her move, bucking against the Smoking Manís arm so that his shot went wild. With a snarl, he twisted her around violently, using her as a shield against his attackers, digging the gun into the base of her neck so that it jabbed painfully up against her lower jaw.
"Back off!" he yelled. Hands up, the trio edged away. Skinner, massaging his bleeding jaw, dragged himself backwards as well. "Thatís better," said the Smoking Man.
And pulled the trigger.
* * *
For the longest time Daria Morgendorffer had considered Highland, Texas to be the very depths of hell. Upon moving to Lawndale, she had revised her definition to encompass the entire spectrum of Public Education; namely, Lawndale High. Now her nightmare was more of a reality than she had ever dreamed possible.
The glass of punch she had been nursing fell from her hand to splash across the hardwood floor. The Devil himself could surely not have managed to appear half so insane as the man who stood before her: eyes intensely distant; ruddy orb clutched close to his chest as he rocked it back and forth against the ragged flannel that served as a shirt. The bitter stench of metal was tangibly present in the air; it seemed to congeal sourly at the back of her mouth. Sheíd never sampled brimstone, but was sure it must be comparable. A low electric light seemed to throb -- or ooze -- from the glassy "crystal ball," bathing everything in a deep crimson. If Daria had continued to harbor any doubts that this object of which Mulder and Scully had spoken was a thing of power, they were immediately resolved.
The experience was disorienting enough that it was hard for Daria to recall that there was a plan, and that she was part of it. This was the monster who had taken her best friend -- one of the only people in the world she actually cared about -- and his method of arrival was not entirely unfortunate. At least they would not have to deal with a mass of panicky teenagers. Only one panicky teenager here. She forced herself to stifle the thought. For all intents and purposes, their plan was perfectly set up. Which meant that they actually stood a chance, given that any of what Scully had said about magnetic fields was true. If theyíd guessed wrong ... well, it didnít merit thinking about.
The strange man was at one end of a triangle. To his right was Daria and the fuse box. He was more or less facing Mulder and Scully, who were about a quarter-length down the gym. Behind him was Trent and the bandstand, the raw power cord halving the distance with several yards on either side. It was more than they had hoped for. Daria slowly reached her sweaty-palmed hand up to the power switch, ready to feint if the man should detect her movement. But he seemed fixated on the young versions of Mulder and Scully. Itís up to them now.
"So," the man spoke with a crooked gasp, his chest heaving unhealthily. "Twenty-four hours, Fox! Letís hear it."
Mulder looked at Scully and nodded. They began to move forward, advancing on the man. "Where is Jane?" Mulder asked. The man -- Daria wasnít sure it could be properly called such ... something in itís posture -- threw back itís head and laughed; a harsh, broken sound.
"She ... she doesnít matter. Only the Author matters. He that moves me. He is waiting to hear what you have to say."
"Jane does matter," Mulder said. "Bring her back and Iíll consider it."
SHE IS NOTHING.
The voice that invaded Mulderís mind was overwhelmingly powerful. More so than the last time he had experienced it. Daria and Trent were knocked to the floor immediately. A great clapping ring filled the air, and Mulder squeezed his eyes shut only to see fields of red. He felt as though his eardrums would burst.
The clamor seemed to go on forever. When the pain at last subsided, Mulder realized he was on the hardwood floor of the gymnasium. Clutching his head, trying to rub something resembling normal sound back into his ears, he staggered upright and opened his eyes. Across the gym, Daria and Trent were also forcing themselves upright. Then he turned to his partner. Scully was still on the ground, sitting up and staring at the blood that dripped from her nose into her hand. "It canít be ..." she was murmuring. From across the gym, Mulder heard laughter, but he ignored it, bending down instead to help his partner to her feet.
"Itís just a nosebleed. Just a nosebleed, Scully. Your cancer went into remission, remember?"
Scully looked up at him, her eyes still full of shock and pain. "Yes ... but ... no, Mulder, itís something ... the tissue is still new. I think the blast damaged it ..." she trailed off and a chill came over Mulder.
"But Scully ... you havenít developed cancer at this age. Are you sure ..."
Scully looked at him in confusion, the blood abruptly ceasing to drip. "I ... yes. That is to say ... Mulder, I feel fine now, but I know what I felt, and that was not a normal nosebleed. That was scar tissue."
Mulder turned to the creature inhabiting the center of the room. It was no longer laughing. Mulder surprised himself by filling the void with his own sharp exhultations. "You charlatan!" he shouted incredulously. "You fraud!"
"Mulder?" asked Scully. The look on the manís face was very dangerous indeed. But still, Mulder advanced, stabbing a finger forward, a fire growing behind his eyes.
"Itís all been a trick! You never really changed anything!" He whirled around facing Scully and spread his arms wide. "Look at me, Scully!" he demanded. "Look at me! Look at yourself!"
"Oh my God." It was Daria who spoke. In the space of a blink, Mulder had turned from teenager into man, still occupying Trentís old tuxedo. Scully looked down at herself in shock. A womanís body inhabited the pink dress. Mulder nodded grimly and turned back to address the smoldering fury of a man.
"You were affecting our perceptions. But thatís all, wasnít it. We were never really young, were we? It was an illusion you created. But it wasnít perfect. Thatís why all the desks felt too small today. Thatís why Scullyís bleeding from scar tissue she wonít develop for twenty years! The students are still here. You just ... moved us. Made us see another gym. Youíre a fraud! A joke!"
Some of the fury faded from the manís eyes and he looked suddenly panicked. "No!" he cried. "No! I canít fight it any longer! You promised!"
Mulderís expression was perfectly calm. "Bring back Jane," he said smoothly. "Bring her back and Iíll say anything you want. Iíll denounce everything. If you need collaboration to give you the excuse you need to play out your God damn delusions, you can have it. But first I see Jane. And I see her alive."
Scully held her breath. She looked across the room and saw an expression of hope in Daria and Trent.
There was also an expression of interest in the man. He was hunched over, suspicious -- making small, furtive motions. But hope was stealing over his features. Hope and something like relief. "Very well," he said. It was almost a whisper. Scully was shocked to find Jane suddenly collapse at her feet, exactly as she was when she had disappeared, clothes slightly worse for the wear. Her doctorís reflexes kicked in, and she bent down to scoop up the girl and feel for a pulse. She looked up and met Mulderís concerned gaze. "Sheís alive, but sheís in shock," she said. Mulder nodded, and turned back to their opponent.
"Say it," the man hissed. "Everything you know is a lie! That must be clear to you by now! We have power you never dreamed of! You can bargain all you like, it wonít change that!" The man reached a hand into his pocket and slowly, reverently, drew out a large pocket knife and flipped it open. "Then we will have blood. Say it!"
"No." The single syllable was so confident, so unexpected, that the man staggered back several steps.
"WHAT?" he roared, eyes flying wide.
"No. I lied." Mulder reached up with one finger and tapped his right temple for emphasis. "Free will and all. Sorry."
A terrible expression contorted the manís haggard face. He began to quiver violently and his eyes rolled up into his head. An electronic shriek filled the room like a siren, almost supersonic in tone. It took Mulder several seconds to realize that the hideous sound was originating from the manís gaping mouth.
"Mulder!" called Scully from behind. He turned to see Jane beginning to stir. Her eyes widened as she realized where she was. Her face cringed at the siren-like wail that reverberated throughout the gym. When she saw the man with the crystal her eyes widened, and she beckoned to Mulder. He leaned over.
"Jane, are you alright?"
Jane shook her head, her breathing labored but strong. "Iím fine. No time for that now. Iíll just assume thatís the guy you were talking about." Mulder nodded. "Listen to me! Iíve been to ... to your world, whatever you want to call it. That thing heís got ... that crystal ball ... itís some sort of holding device ... a prison! There is something inside and itís trying to get out. Somehow it got away from your chain-smoking friend, and heís been looking for it."
Mulder was absolutely still, his mind working at lighting speeds. "The last piece of the puzzle!" he said to Scully. She nodded in growing comprehension, and he turned back to their oppressor, who was shaking almost to the point of dropping the orb.
"Who are you?" Mulder shouted over the din. The banshee-like shriek seemed to waver slightly. "What is your name? Where are you from?" The man shook, gulping several deep breaths, and the sound seemed to flicker. The man almost seemed to hear ... to be aware ...
"WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE COLOR!" Trent threw out using one of the microphones. He looked at Mulder and winked. "YOU HEARD THE MAN!" Trentís voice booming across the massive speakers easily cut through the faltering screams. His efforts were rewarded when the man seemed to calm down to something resembling normality.
"Green ..." he murmured. "My ... my favorite color is green."
Mulder was only a few feet away. "Your name?" he asked softly.
"David. David Miteger."
"David," Mulder said slowly. "You have to understand this. I know youíre confused, but this isnít your fault. Are you listening to me? Thereís something inside that sphere you have. Call it an evil spirit or an extraterrestrial consciousness or whatever you like. But itís inside. And itís using you to get out." David shook his head in denial.
"Think about it David," Mulder continued, his tone firm and reasonable. "It wants blood, doesnít it? Did you think it was some sort of monster? A vampire? It needs the iron. Thatís what Scully said. And it needs a part of you. It bonded with you, David." The man continued to whimper pitifully, the orb burning bright in the clutching grasp of his gnarled fingers. "It tried to tell you that you werenít worth anything! That nothing was real, so youíd throw it all to hell! It showed you beautiful lies, David! Other worlds, other possibilities. It knows so much more about reality than we do. It fooled you, David. It fooled you to grow stronger, so it could break free of its prison."
David remained silent, but Mulder could see tears pooling in the corners of his eyes. "But where is it now, David? Where is it now? Youíre winning! You can beat this thing! You donít believe it, do you? You have a wife, kids, a family ..."
Davidís head snapped up violently and his face contorted into a hideous mask of rage. "MY FAMILY?" he roared, eyes blazing with red fire. "MY FAMILY IS NOTHING! YOU ARE ALL NOTHING!!!
Mulder staggered back, stunned. The voice that emitted from the cracked lips was neither entirely human nor the otherworldly presence that had forced itself into his mind, but rather something in between. He had miscalculated. Fatally. Davidís head snapped from left to right and back as he seethed, the hot spittle striking Mulder on the face. Then the eyes -- the horrible eyes -- fixated directly on him. David clutched the orb in his left hand, raising the opened pocket knife in the other.
NOW WE SHALL HAVE YOUR BLOOD!
But before the arm could fall, a horrible crash shattered the surrounding air. Mulder swayed in dizziness, as did the creature warring within Davidís body, and he realized that Trent had turned up the volume to full on the massive speakers that loomed behind them and smashed his guitar against the hard floor of the gymnasium. Mulder used the opportunity to lash out with the palm of his hand, slamming it into his opponentís chest and sending him reeling several steps backwards. With a vengeful roar, the thing made a violent motion in Trentís direction, causing the youth to fly backwards and slam into the Mystic Spiral drumset, where he lay motionless.
"Trent!" Jane and Daria yelled simultaneously. And as the thing turned itís attention back to Mulder, knife brandished, Scully noticed where the manís body stood.
"Daria!" she screamed. "The wire!"
At the fuse box, Daria was galvanized into action. With a violent motion she jabbed in the switch that activated the cord ...
... and nothing happened. Daria and Mulder were close enough to see the horrible reason why. David Mitegerís body was floating five inches above the ground. The thing chuckled madly: a deep, throaty noise that sent shivers of doom running up and down Dariaís spine.
DID YOU REALLY BELIEVE I AM SO BLIND? THAT I WOULD BE SO FOOLISH AS TO STUMBLE INTO YOUR CARELESS SNARE? The thing turned itís nightmarish gaze on Daria. Mulder attempted to move to her aid, but found he was rooted to the spot. His mouth worked in a silent display of futility, and the thing cocked its head back and laughed again. YOU WILL BE THE FIRST TO DIE!
"LEAVE HER ALONE!" At the hoarse shout, Mulderís eyes darted to the ruined bandstand. It was Trent, crouched in front, his guitar-strap curled around his hand, rubber-lining facing out. In it, he cradled the live cable. "No one kidnaps my sister!" he shouted. "And nobody messes with my friends!" The creature in Davidís body bellowed in rage. With an angry smile, Trent raised the wire up off the ground and gave it a sharp jerk, sending it arcing up into the air and striking Davidís legs. Sparks flew, and he twisted uncontrollably as Trent continued to cast the wire back and forth so that the creature became uncontrollably entangled beneath the waist in the shiny coils. Horrible arcs of electricity coursed through Davidís body, causing it to jerk and convulse even as it rose higher off the ground. The orb was floating now, flickering madly between red and stark white. Raw bolts of energy flowed across Davidís shoulders, casting stray bolts into the supercharged air.
The light from the orb intensified, and an ear-splitting shriek overwhelmed everything. Mulder had time to shield his eyes as the blinding light encompassed his entire vision and the universe shattered.
WE NOW RETURN ...
"He was part of my dream, of course -- but then I was a part of his dream, too."
-- Lewis Carroll
Through the Looking Glass
Daria Morgendorffer blinked, surfacing from the depths of her subconscious to a hazy, dreamlike awareness.
"Daria?" the nasal voice repeated, and she realized it was Upchuck, looking slightly concerned. Daria looked around, and realized that the gym was filled with the commotion of the student body, all under the dim pall of the emergency lights.
"What ... what happened?" she asked in confusion.
Upchuckís saucy grin returned. "You seemed to zone out there for a minute," he said. "Fear not, mademoiselle. ĎTis a mere power outage." He reached for her hand, presumably to stroke it comfortingly. Daria quickly took a step back.
All of the sudden there was a loud clamor from across the gym.
"Who spiked the punch?" boomed Mrs. Liís authoritative voice. "This drink has been contaaaaminated!!!"
Upchuckís smile vanished. "A pleasure as always, my dear," he said hurriedly, "but -- would you look at the time? -- I really must be going. Dadís expecting me on the Yacht by 11:30. Toodles." He sped off to the left.
"Daria?" Daria turned. This time it was Jane who spoke. Daria sized up her friend, who, apart from slightly rumpled clothes, looked unharmed.
"Jane!" Daria paused, noticing the blackened cable that lay across the floor between them. "What ... what just happened?"
Jane shrugged. "Power outage, I guess."
"I mean ... before that."
Janeís eyes narrowed. "Whereís Trent?" she asked suddenly. The pair turned to look behind them at the bandstand, where Nick and Max were arguing ferociously over a collapsed drum set. Jesse was intently examining a conglomerate of extension cords, scratching his head. Trentís shoes were just visible on the floor adjacent to the bandstand.
Heart catching in her chest, Daria followed Jane, who sprinted to the far side of the bandstand to find her brother sprawled out on the floor, motionless. Jane gasped, bending over close. But as she leaned over her closest sibling, her scared frown transmuted into an annoyed frown, and finally into a smile. Daria saw the slow rise and fall of Trentís chest and she understood.
"Heís asleep," Daria said in disbelief.
"Yep," Jane said happily. "Are you surprised?" She prodded Trentís arm with her boot. "Yo, bro! Get up!"
Trentís eyes flickered. "Whoa," he said slowly. "I just had the weirdest dream ..." Before he could continue, Jane dropped to her knees and gave her brother a fierce hug. Trentís eyes widened in surprise, but he returned the affectionate gesture. "Hey, Janey, itís alright." His eyes looked up and met Dariaís. "Hey, Daria."
A shadow fell across the scene, and Daria turned to find Mrs. Li tapping her foot with barely contained rage. "Mr. Lane!" she bit as Jane helped Trent to his feet. "I hope you and Musty Spiral are satisfied! This is the second time this month this facility will need to be rewired!"
"It wasnít Mystic Spiralís fault," Daria said. "You should have seen the hack job those contractors of yours did on the bandís power cable. Youíre lucky the whole place didnít burn down. I doubt the School Board would approve of such careless use of funding"
Li scowled impotently before forcing herself to take a deep breath. "Perhaps," she allowed, slipping into politician-mode, "I was a bit hasty in hiring the lowest bidder. I can assure you that from now on, I will accept nothing less than state-of-the-art electrical service for Lllllawndale High."
Without a backward glance, the principal spun around and marched off. As she departed, Daria caught a glimpse of red-gold hair, and, leaving Jane with Trent, hastened to catch up with her sister. Quinn was surrounded by her usual attendants and then some, and Daria could envision the remainder of the Fashion Club searching in vain for their vanished dates. In fact, the contingent of admirers was thick enough that Daria found it difficult to get near her sister. When Quinn noticed, she smiled benevolently and waved a hand. Instantly, a gap formed and Daria was allowed admittance.
"What do you want?" Quinn asked haughtily, as if Daria were a supplicant at the foot of her throne, come to beg favors.
"Whereís your date, Quinn?" Daria asked.
Quinnís facade cracked, eyes widening in alarm. "I donít know what youíre talking about, Daria."
"Your date," Daria pressed on, "Who brought you here tonight?"
Quinnís eyes narrowed angrily. "I finally decide to be nice for once and let you near me, and what happens? You try to humiliate me in front of all my friends! Why donít you go over there and mingle with that friend you have. Boys?" This last was directed at Joey, Jeffy and Jamie (Matthew?) and they promptly cut between Daria and Quinn, offering up praise to their mistress. Daria sighed and stepped away.
Jane was watching Mystic Spiral pack up, broad grin still firmly in place. Daria moved up beside her.
"Did any of it happen, Jane?" she asked. "What did we do this weekend?"
Jane shrugged, unperturbed. "Who knows, Daria? I mean, stranger things have happened. And the punch was spiked. Evidently." Daria looked down, unconvinced. "But to hell with it," Jane reasoned. "I have vague memories of getting thrown around, shot at, high-tech espionage ... the usual nonsense. But you know what? Iím here, youíre here, Trentís here and weíre all alive." She grinned sublimely.
"As far as Iím concerned, everything is exactly right."
* * *
In the warehouse Mulder and Scully spun dizzily into the midst of chaos. Suddenly disoriented, he glimpsed brief images of a gun, a computer, the grim face of his Cigarette-puffing nemesis, before a hand grasped his shoulder and he was yanked backwards into darkness. As his eyes adjusted, he found himself beside his partner as well as Director Skinner, the Lone Gunmen covering the rear as they slipped down the shadowy corridor and pushed through a pair of large metal doors. In a matter of seconds, they were outside on a crumbling Washington D.C. sidewalk, staring at each other beneath the pale glow of a nearby street lamp. Skinner stepped up to Mulder and Scully as the Gunmen eyed the warehouse entrance suspiciously.
"Are you all right?" Skinner asked, his labored breathing misting in the cool, humid air.
Mulder took a moment to check himself over. He met eyes with his partner, and her look told him that she too was unharmed. "Weíre fine, sir."
"Good," Skinner said. "Then perhaps you could explain where the hell you two have been. And what happened to the girl?"
"I think sheís okay," Mulder said. "I think sheís back where she belongs."
"Sir," Scully interjected. "Itís been a long couple of days. Why donít you take us back to the Hoover Building and Mulder and I can catch a cab from there. Iíll ... Iíll try to explain on the way."
Skinner frowned, but nodded in acquiescence. The Lone Gunmen moved up behind him. "We were worried about you," Byers said.
Mulder nodded. "Why donít you go on back to the batcave. Iíll call you from home." Frohike began to protest. "Okay, okay, Mulder amended. "Iíll stop by in person. Jeez. I donít know why you bother with a phone at all."
"We shouldnít" Langly said with a smile as the three walked off. "Catch you later, Mulder."
Mulder smiled in return as he ducked after Scully into the back seat of Skinnerís car. It was good to be home.
* * *
Back inside the darkened warehouse, the Cigarette-Smoking man was bent over the computer, eyes fixed intently on the glowing monitor. He was smiling. With one hand he held a freshly-lit cigarette. With the other, he flipped open his cellphone and pressed a button. The other line picked up immediately.
"Hello, Alex," he said calmly. "I am pleased to report that Mulder and Scully are once more among us."
"What should I tell them?" Krycek asked.
"It appears that our problems have solved themselves. Tell them everything is under control."
Taking another drag on his cigarette, the man straightened, tucking his cellphone back into his pocket. One fluid motion and he had disappeared once more, dissolving back into the shadows from whence he came. Through the space where he had stood, the computer monitor was clearly visible, two single lines blinking over and over on the screen:
RETRIEVAL IN PROGRESS.
* * *
Daria sat alone in her bedroom. It was past midnight. She switched on the desk light, picked up her pen and began to write.
Shakespeare wrote "There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Ironically enough, this consignment to the unknown is the only way I can possibly find it in myself to rationalize the events of the last few days.
Of course, this is assuming I ignore Janeís insistence that the weekend doesnít need rationalizing. Sheíll probably paint a picture about it and forget the whole thing by tomorrow. Trent certainly isnít any help -- a trait shared by my own dear sibling. Quinn continues to stubbornly refuse to confirm anything. Itís like trying to wring water from a stone.
Iím sure I could find some way to get the information from her. I could always cross-examine my parents, I suppose. But somehow Iím not motivated. Somehow, in the face of everything, in the grand, depressing scheme of things, it seems inconsequential. Whatís the use of confirming anything? Who will ever know or care? And will such knowledge even change anything? Will I live my life any differently?
The sad answer is no. Magical, marvelous, ironic as I may think I remember this past weekend ... Iím sorry to say it hasnít changed things a bit. Iíll still get up tomorrow morning, pack my bag, grab my toast and be off for another sick, sad day at school. Still ... I canít help but think there may be a bright side to all this mess ...
Mr. OíNeill, after all, is going to love my next short story.
* * *
In her neat apartment, Dana Scully sat at her computer, sipping a mug of hot cocoa and composing her report to the Bureau. She put down the cup and began to type.
While the events concerning myself and Agent Mulderís disappearance can not be completely explained, the FBI laboratories have determined that the byproduct of the strange electrical emissions from the apartment of Martin Veerhooven, now in recovery at the Memorial Hospital, may have been responsible for any number of effects, including but not limited to hallucination and memory lapse.
The source of this explanation depends upon the somewhat shaky evidence that Agent Mulder and myself have been exposed to a heretofore unidentified form of radiation, apparently in conjunction with the television. In the absence of material witnesses and the apparent return to normalcy, it is my recommendation that this case be closed and the file placed in the X-files, under the authority of Assistant Director Walter Skinner.
My personal account of the past three days remains unchanged. I can only bear witness to what I saw and experienced, physical evidence notwithstanding. As a scientist, I am willing to accept that what I went through was a product of natural forces. I hesitate, however, to qualify them so simply as radiation-induced hallucination. My work with Agent Mulder and the X-files has done nothing if not prepared me for the fact that not everything can be explained, categorized or easily referenced. The real truth may be that I will never know. And perhaps itís just as well. After all, where would we be if there were no more questions? Do we truly desire the answers we so desperately search for?
* * *
Fox Mulder sat up awake in the middle of the night. For what seemed like an hour, he stared silently into the darkness, allowing the many sensations of his environment to sink in. A cool draft was intruding gently into the room, moving the curtains in a languid cycle. It caused the fine hairs on his bare skin to prickle, brushing him with a ghostly ticklish sensation. Beneath him, he could feel the texture of the light fabric of his bedsheets, and the gentle heave and swell of his fully-filled waterbed. He turned to look at the clock. It was 3:26 a.m.
He closed his eyes for several minutes more, stumbling through the deep recesses of his memory, searching for answers. Eventually he gave up in exhaustion and began searching for sleep. Perhaps unconsciousness would reveal what evaded the waking mind.
But sleep would not come. He tried cracking open a few sunflower seeds, but he wasnít really hungry. So he lay flat on his back on the waterbed, staring at the ceiling. For some reason, his thoughts continued to stray to his childhood: vacationing at his parentsí summer home at Quonochontaug; nestled deep in the warmth of his overlarge bed as his mother read him stories from the childrenís books that occupied the space beneath his nightstand. What was it about the mystery of childhood that inspired such bittersweet nostalgia? The yearning for innocence? The fresh excitement of a new experience waiting around every corner, after every dream?
Drawing no conclusions, Mulder shook off the thought, feeling a twinge of frustration at his apparent bout of insomnia. Maybe he should be following Scullyís disciplined example and compose his report to the Board of Directors. The work might succeed in clearing his head. But he could not bring himself to attempt it. Nor could he bring himself to turn on the television, soothing as it usually was. Somehow, this night, he doubted it would bring him peace.
At long last he did lapse into unconsciousness, the hope of a new day lying just within his grasp. The hope of finding his sister. It was this hope that bore him gently downward; down and down into that darkness of thought so prone to amnesia when the dawn arrives at last; to sleep, perchance to dream ...
David Miteger was alive. He didnít know how he knew, but he was certain that he was not dead. An especially odd knowledge, considering he had no body. He was free of that shell. But he also knew that he had exchanged one prison for another. The glassy surface that dominated his every sense; that curved in every direction at once was the only body he had now.
But Iím alive.
The thought filled him with elation. And HE is gone! Heís gone! Heís gone and Iím finally free!
But how to get free physically? David realized that his surroundings has changed as well. He wasnít in the darkened gymnasium anymore, that was for sure. He could make out that there was green grass around him, ground beneath and blue sky above.
Too green. Too blue.
Where am I?
Then he was aware of a pair of sneakers on the ground beside him. Two pairs. A shadow loomed over him. A shadow with a shock of yellow hair and a manic grin.
"Whoa! Heh-heh! Check it out! Itís, like, a crystal ball or something! M heh!"
A second shadow leaned over him, with tangled brown hair and twisted features.
"Huh-huh. You said Ďball.í "
"Ohhh yeah. Heh. M heh heh."
The second figure reached down, and David felt himself rise. Two piggish eyes moved in close.
"Huh-huh. Check it out, Beavis. Iím, like, a fortune smeller. ĎI foresee that Beavis is a monkey-spank. He will never score.í "
"Ohhhhh yeah ... heh heh ... hey waittaminit! No way! It, like, must be defective or somethiní, cuz, like, um ... I just scored yesterday. Heh heh! Yeah! Twice!"
"Iím afraid that never happened, Beavis."
"No way, Butt-head! Cuz I, like, remember it I think. I forget. Dammit! Just chuck it! Heh heh! Yeah! Throw it at a car! Thatíd be cool!"
"Huh huh. Yeah."
David felt himself shift. Through the fishlens vision he possessed, he made out that he was moving towards a precipice of some sort. He panicked. Concentrating, he brought the entire strength of his will to bear on the being that clasped him between two grimy palms. But to no avail. Davidís will was too weak. He had subordinated himself too much for too long to muster up anything but fear and thoughts of powerlessness. The being continued to utter wordless sounds of amusement.
"Huh-huh. I foresee this crystal nad will land on a squirrel. It will be cool."
And in a moment of utter terror, David felt himself flung out in to open air. His dread stretched forward, and he waited for the inexorable pull of gravity to take hold of him. At least the hard ground would be merciful. If he shattered. Was that his fate then? To spend eternity in this discorporeal state? The mere thought was too much to bear. But try as it might, his mind could not lapse into unconsciousness.
So this is beyond fainting, a part of his mind noted objectively.
But the ground and all that it portended never came. Instead came the entirely surprising feeling of buoyancy. In shock, David realized that he was rising up. Inexplicably, he was leaving the ground behind at an incredible speed. In a matter of moments, stars became visible, and he realized with disbelief that he was surrounded by the starlit void of space.
It was beautiful.
But it was not to last. A moment later, he was sucked into some sort of metal tube and spun around. Dazed and confused, he felt himself lifted up once more, staring into a pair of large, black, lidless eyes. Eyes as ovoid as the head that contained them, and completely devoid of emotion.
Yes! David thought. They made this! They did this! They can free me!
But gazing into those emotionless eyes, David felt nothing. He frantically cast his mind out for some sort of recognition, but the eyes said nothing. Whatever the creature was, it had closed itself to him. Had he been capable of it, David would have broken a cold sweat. What then? Will they destroy me? He considered for a moment. Yes. At least then I will know peace.
The turmoil that was his mind quieted, his emotions falling into a sort of resignation. Had he possessed a head, he would have bowed it in submission as he was carried down a corridor and into a hall, through a small door.
The contents of the room shattered his newfound peace.
As far as he could see lay row after row, shelf after shelf, rack after rack of silent, unmoving crystal globes. Wordlessly, the being carrying David set him carefully on one of the shelves, side by side and indistinct among thousands of identical empty spheres. No ... he thought, a sudden terror possessing him. The wrong one! he thought, desperately casting out with his mind. Youíve got the wrong one! Itís not me you want!!! But there was no response; no other voice at all. In a complete state of mental paralyzation, David watched as the being turned and the great door shut, plunging the room into utter blackness.
And then David knew he would never move from the spot he occupied. Never perceive another sensation. Never taste. Never hear. Never talk. Never love. As he had so often believed; as he had so often convinced himself; he was at last ... truly ... nothing. That knowledge broke through all his mental barriers, dominating his every thought. David screamed from the farthest depths of his mind. He screamed, and he realized that a scream without lungs can last forever.
But nobody would ever hear.