Give me your hand, my brother, search my face; Look in these eyes lest I should think of shame; For we have made an end of all things base. We are returning by the road we came.
"To My Brother" Seigfried Sassoon (1918)
Mulder abandoned the leaf he'd been shredding and slowly turned to Grey. His face bore the blank, slightly amused expression that inevitably signaled a smartass remark.
"Well, that would depend."
"Depend? On what?"
"Whether you're speaking geographically...or cosmically."
A soft snort drew Grey's attention past his brother's shoulder just in time to catch the roll of Dana's eyes. Propped against a log, her clothing rumpled and a smudge of dirt on her cheek, she looked as weary as Grey felt.
"See, darlin', that's why I admire Fox so much. He's never one to get bogged down in small details, always looking at the big picture." An elbow to the ribs turned his brother's smirk to a gasp. "How 'bout you start simple and we'll move on to the meaning of life stuff if we have time?"
Fox selected another leaf for torture, eyes abruptly dark and humorless. "You know why."
"I knew why we were here at seven. I even knew why at ten. But it's going on three in the morning, Fox."
"The timing is right. She's going to be returned tonight. You know that; the evidence is too solid to dispute."
Grey heaved a sigh, tugging the baseball cap from his head and running his fingers through his hair. "I know the pattern, yes--a child disappears without a trace, then returns forty-eight hours later."
"To the same location." Mulder gestured at the campfire's cold ashes with a jab of his hand. "Paige Thompson was abducted from this very spot Friday night. It's been forty-eight hours. Hence our presence, here, now." He lifted an eyebrow. "Shall we move on to the meaning of life stuff?"
Grey kept his voice even. "It's been more than forty-eight hours. Paige disappeared at around five in the evening. In every case so far, the kids have been returned within a couple hours of the forty- eight hour mark." He shifted, wincing. "As my numb ass can attest, we passed that point hours ago. Enough is enough."
Mulder tipped his head back and stared up at the stars, jaw clenched. "It's never enough, Grey. Not when you're the one left behind."
Bereft of a reply, Grey watched Scully run her hand down his brother's arm and tangle their fingers together. "Mulder, you know Grey wants this to work as much as we do. But he's right; something should have happened by now. We've been here nearly twelve hours. Just how long do you intend to wait?"
Eyes locked, a silent conversation passed between them. Grey turned away, almost, but not quite used to the feeling of exclusion when their universe narrowed to each other.
After a moment, his brother let out a soft puff of air and his shoulders slumped. "Okay, okay. Even I have to admit this place has lost its allure. Let's go." He stood up, extending one hand to Scully while the other dusted off the seat of his jeans.
Grey grimaced at twanging back muscles as he hauled himself to his feet. He shouldered his backpack and motioned for his brother and Dana to lead the way, swatting an errant mosquito that thumbed its nose at his liberal application of "Deep Woods Off." They trudged wearily through trees and a fine mist hovering where sun-warmed earth met cool night air.
Mulder brooded, his rigid spine and brisk stride a clear rebuff to communication. Scully endured his taciturn silence for several minutes before plunging ahead anyway. "Mulder, we were right to act on the information we had. There's no reason to believe our presence here had any impact on Paige's return."
Grey's eyebrows soared. "Is that why you've got your panties in a twist? You think we're the reason nothing happened tonight?" When Mulder didn't respond, he shook his head. "Fox, you can't possibly--"
Mulder cut him off with a sharp swipe of his hand. "Think about it for a minute. We've already identified the pattern--a child is abducted, MIA for forty-eight hours, then returned. In the cases we've been able to document, there's been little or no variation to that sequence of events. Until now." He stopped, propping hands on hips. "What's the one variable in this case that makes it different from all the others? You tell me."
Grey opened his mouth to argue, took in Dana's stricken expression, and shut it. His brother's lips compressed to a thin line and he nodded, then resumed walking. "That's what I thought."
Scully sighed, following with Grey at her side. "Mulder, we had to try. You know that."
Mulder's chin dropped and his steps slowed. "In my head. But, Scully, if our presence here tonight altered the course of events..."
Grey kicked a broken tree branch out of the way. "I had someone watching Kira's house when Claire was returned, remember? That certainly didn't seem to muck up the process."
Mulder shook his head, his reply short and impatient. "Outside. Not in her bedroom, six feet from where she disappeared."
"C'mon! I can't imagine--"
"I can. I've read the accounts, Grey, talked to people who've been there. Who've endured the experiments, the tests." He stopped, directing his words to Scully. "Dwayne Barry, Penny Northern...Max Fenig." Running a hand over his face, he turned back to his brother. "I've heard more than enough to imagine what it must be like, the pain, the fear. Damn it, I'm just saying that if we've done anything to delay that little girl making it home..."
Light flared, slicing through mist and shadow, blinding in its intensity. Grey staggered backward, hands reflexively coming up to shield his eyes. Then, just as abruptly, darkness returned and he was left blinking at the spots chasing themselves across his vision. His brother's voice pierced the confusion.
"Damn it! I knew we should've waited!"
"Mulder! Mulder, wa... Damn it, Mulder! Slow down."
Grey's caught a glimpse of copper hair as Dana dashed after Fox, who had already disappeared back the way they'd come at breakneck speed. Swearing under his breath as he stumbled over tree roots and slipped on damp leaves, Grey followed.
By the time he reached the campsite, Scully was kneeling beside the little girl's limp body while Mulder tried to coax a signal from the cell phone he'd extracted from his backpack. Scully's hands moved with confident efficiency as she checked the child's respiration, pulse, and pupils.
"She's alive, but completely unresponsive. Vitals are weak. Mulder, we need to get her out of here, right now."
Mulder stabbed the phone's buttons, growling in frustration. "I can't get a signal. Must be the trees--it worked back at the car." He hesitated, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
Crouched down beside Scully, Grey gritted his teeth at the tangle of dark curls framing a small, pale face. "Go." He flicked his hand toward the parking lot, then stood and shrugged out of his backpack, tossing it to his brother. "I'll carry her back. You worry about getting an ambulance."
A quick dip of his head and Fox took off.
Fifty minutes later the EMTs had stabilized Paige and were lifting her onto a gurney for transport. Scully consulted with the paramedic for a moment before returning to where Mulder and Grey leaned against the car.
"They're taking her to Mercy Hospital in Lynchburg. I said I'd follow."
Mulder chewed on his lip for a moment before speaking. "I was hoping to go over the area now. In another hour this place will be swarming with police and park rangers who have no idea what's really happened here. They could wind up trampling what little evidence exists."
Scully frowned. "I can't stay, Mulder. I'll need to brief the doctors on everything we've learned about her condition and treatment."
"Not a problem--Grey can drive you. I'll poke around here for a bit; talk to the locals when they show up."
Scully was shaking her head before he'd finished speaking. "That's out of the question. There's no way I'm leaving you alone out here, without back up."
"Forget it, Mulder. Every time I let you fly solo something bad happens. And let's face it--your track record with wooded areas leaves a lot to be desired."
Grey held up a hand before his brother could continue the argument. "Hang on, hang on a minute. There's an easy solution to this. Dana, you catch a ride with the paramedics. I'll stay to help Fox and we'll join you at the hospital later."
Scully hesitated, arms folded tightly across her chest. Before she could answer, one of the EMTs approached them.
"Agent Scully? We're all set. ETA should be about 30 minutes, if you'd like to follow us."
She smiled, her troubled expression switching to cool professionalism. "Actually I could use a lift, if that would be all right."
The paramedic, whose nametag identified him as "Topher," mulled over the request for a moment before nodding with a wry grin. "I guess that would be all right, considering the fact you're a doctor and a fed. You can ride up front with Steve."
"Thank you." Moving backward toward the ambulance, she cocked a finger at her husband. "Mercy Hospital, Mulder. You'll have to ask for directions."
One corner of his mouth turned up. "Scully, I tracked you all the way to Antarctica. I think I can manage."
Scully opened the door to the cab and slipped inside, popping her head out the open window. "Keep an eye on him--better still, both eyes," she warned Grey, but her lips twitched. "And for God's sake, Mulder, don't stick your fingers into anything."
Grey snorted. "Got it covered, darlin'. I won't let him out of my sight."
Rather than replying, Mulder's mouth snapped shut and he watched as the ambulance headed out with a spray of gravel.
As they started walking back to the campsite, Mulder huffed under his breath. "You know, just once, you could back me up instead of egg her on."
Grey pressed a palm to his chest with an exaggerated expression of bewilderment. "Me?"
"Yeah, you. While you're not letting me out of your sight I'd like to remind you who was right by my side during my last, less-than- stellar encounter with nature."
"That's cold, Fox. Seems to me you oughta be glad your partner has placed her trust in me to be here for you, to back you up in her absence. I know I personally am touched by her gesture of faith and--"
"You're touched all right. Look, do you even know what we're looking for?"
"Hovering spacecraft and small green men?" When Mulder merely quickened his pace, he lifted both hands in a pacifying gesture. "Sorry. Just a little paranormal humor."
"In answer to your question, since we're basically out in the middle of nowhere, we can't exactly check for power outages. So I'm guessing we keep our eyes open for signs of extreme heat, especially damage to the treeline and/or changes in the soil, the rocks. If you've got a compass we can see if there are irregularities in the magnetic field."
Mulder tripped over a tree root and pulled up short, staring at him as if he'd grown an extra head. "How...?"
"Been doing a little research on the Net. Even found some stuff by this guy who's supposedly an expert. Let's see, what was his name..." Grey snapped his fingers. "M. F. Luder."
Inwardly smirking, he plastered on the "innocent as the day I was born" expression until Mulder continued walking.
The smell hit him long before they reached the small clearing-- smoke and ash, the aroma of a campfire on a warm summer's night. Grey crossed to the cold fire pit, then slowly tilted his head back, gaze travelling slowly up the leafy boughs of the surrounding trees to their singed and blackened tops.
"I'll be damned." His voice sounded weak to his own ears. "How'd I miss that?"
"We were focused on the girl." Mulder bent and scooped something from the ground. He hissed, dropping it and clutching his hand.
Grey jogged to his side. "What's wrong? Did you cut yourself?"
Mulder shook his head, tipping his chin toward the object. "Not cut. Burned."
Grey trained his flashlight on a small, glossy black stone, its surface smooth as highly polished glass. He squatted and poked it cautiously with a finger, astonished by the heat it radiated. "Let me see your hand."
Mulder extended his arm and uncurled his fingers, tilting his hand toward the flashlight's illumination. Grey's breath caught at the sight of the angry red blister already forming on the palm. "Shit!" Muttering to himself, he dropped his pack and quickly found the small first aid kit.
Mulder peered over Grey's shoulder as he applied antibiotic cream and wrapped the hand in gauze. "It's just a little burn, nothing to worry about. I'm fine."
Grey snorted. "You think I'm worried about you? It's me that's going to catch hell when Dana finds out I broke my promise."
Grey wiggled his fingers in the air.
Mulder rolled his eyes. "Let's just finish this before the cavalry shows up." He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, gingerly wrapped the stone in it, and slipped it into his backpack.
Ten minutes ticked by as they canvassed the campsite. Grey's back, already stiff from the long hours on the ground, began to protest. He straightened with a groan, propping hands on hips and stretching, face turned up to the stars. With a bittersweet twinge he remembered huddling under a blanket with Kate, sipping hot chocolate and pointing out constellations.
And then one of the stars moved.
Grey blinked, certain his tired eyes were playing tricks on him. The circular pinpoint of light had detached itself from a group of stars and looked to be streaking earthward. Within seconds it had doubled in size.
"I..." Grey cleared a suddenly dry throat. The thing was closing on them at an alarming pace, growing larger at an exponential rate. "I think you oughta take a look at this."
The object was oval, studded with rows of colored lights, and emitted a low-pitched hum. That it was some type of craft was now obvious--but what? The odd shape, its incredible velocity, the way it moved not only horizontally but vertically...it was impossible that such a craft could exist.
On this planet, anyway.
Alerted by the tone of Grey's voice, Mulder's head snapped up. Shock melted quickly into wonder as a broad grin lit up his face. He seized Grey's arm, gesturing skyward, triumph blazing from his eyes.
"You wanted proof, Bubba? Try that on for size!"
The spaceship--yes, damn it, what else could you call it?--now hovered directly above them, blotting out the stars in favor of its own twinkling lights. Enormous, its diameter easily the size of several football fields, the rumbling buzz deafened him.
Grey tore his eyes away, the gooseflesh stippling his arms having nothing to do with the chill night air. "Little brother, I will be glad to listen to you say 'I told you so' from here to next week. But for now I think we should get the hell out of here."
Mulder dropped Grey's sleeve and fumbled with the straps on his shoulders. "Are you crazy? Do you know how long I've waited for an opportunity like this? This is it, this is what we came for, the proof I... SHIT! The video camera was in Scully's pack."
"Forget the damn camera, Fox. I've got a very bad feeling and I don't think--"
Grey's warning transformed into a gasp as a shaft of brilliant, blue- white light shot down from the ship to engulf his brother. Fox's eyes, huge in his now pale face, fastened onto Grey, and he flung out an arm to grab hold of his brother. A gentle pulse, the beam growing momentarily brighter, then subsiding, and the arm jerked to a stop. The shock, then panic in his Fox's eyes conveyed to Grey that he was desperately struggling against some form of restraint, yet he remained motionless.
Grey launched himself forward, intending to tackle his brother, stunned when he, too, remained solidly in place. "NO!"
"Grey! Grey help me! You have to--" The light oscillated again and Fox's plea cut off midstream, as if invisible fingers had wrapped around his throat.
Grey's limbs, heavy, leaden, could have been stone. He grappled with the paralysis, fingers straining toward Fox's outstretched arm, but found he could barely blink.
"I can't! Fox, I can't move." His voice cracked with frustration and anguish when he could not force his traitorous body to obey. "You have to fight, break free from the light."
Though his brother's resistance weakened with each continuing pulse of light, his expressive eyes remained locked onto Grey, eloquently communicating his impotence and the plea for help he could no longer utter. The next throb flared with greater intensity, as if whatever controlled it had grown impatient with Fox's refusal to capitulate. His brother's eyes flew open wider, a silent scream, then fluttered shut. His head flopped forward and his arms went limp.
"Fox!" Grey screamed the name, features twisting into a snarl. "Let him go, you bastards! I'll kill you, I swear to God. Foooox!"
One final pulse, then the light flared to white-hot radiance, slicing through Grey's head like a knife, blinding him. He screamed again, this time in agony. Then everything went blessedly dark.
Having done all she could for Paige and her parents, she ached to go home. The weariness bowing her shoulders and dragging her feet had as much to do with emotional fatigue as physical. One more child on the ever-growing list of victims, yet they were no nearer to obtaining the proof they needed, nor to finding the means to stop the abductions. She sighed. Tonight they'd come so close...
A nurse stopped her as she headed down the corridor toward the ICU doors. "Doctor Scully? There's someone waiting for you in the lounge. He says it's urgent."
"Thank you." Scully quickened her steps, hoping for a hot bath and Mulder in her near future. Her lips quirked. And not necessarily in that order.
Pushing open the swinging doors and walking toward the lounge, she spotted a lone figure, head bowed, pacing back and forth in front of the windows. Even at a distance she could easily identify Grey by his dark, unruly hair. Mulder was nowhere in sight.
"If Mulder's gone for coffee there'd better be a cup with my name on it. And not that sludge from the machine in the--"
She broke off when Grey's head flew up and he spun to face her. One look at the devastation on his features made her stomach churn. Shock the doctor in her noted clinically. He's in shock.
He started to speak but the words seemed to catch in his throat. "Dana, I..."
"Grey?" She forced her voice to be soft, calm. "Where's Mulder?"
He sucked in a breath, wrestling for control, then the words tumbled from his lips. "We...There were lights, a…a craft. Maybe the same one that brought Paige back, I don't know. I saw it, Dana- -did you ever think you'd hear me say that? I'm actually admitting to seeing a spaceship." His ragged laugh carried an edge of hysteria. "Fox wanted to stand there and film it, for God's sake. Can you believe it?"
Peripherally, she saw hands that clenched and trembled, heard a voice roughened by screams, but all she could focus on were his reddened, dazed eyes. And in her heart she knew.
"No," she whispered, tears clogging her throat. "Mulder."
Grey's face crumpled and he looked away, blinking hard. "I lost him. They took Fox, and I couldn't stop them. He begged me to help him, and I couldn't do a damn thing."
"Arrived just in time to find me passed out cold on the ground. They're still out there, searching the woods, even though I told them a million times they won't find him. One of them drove me here." He pressed the heels of his shaking hands into his eyes. "I'm sorry, Dana. I'm so sorry."
Two unsteady steps and she'd wrapped her arms around his waist, fingers clutching the soft fabric of his tee shirt. Slowly, his arms came down to enfold her. They held on to each other that way for a long time. When Scully finally released him and stepped back, scanning his face, her eyes were red but dry.
Uncomfortable with the scrutiny, Grey walked over to the window, hands dangling at his side and shoulders hunched. The body language, so similar to another's, twisted the dagger in Scully's heart. She drew in a breath and ruthlessly shoved the pain aside.
"There are two things I need you to believe, Grey. Without question, without compromise. Will you do that for me?"
He nodded without turning around, but she could tell he was listening intently.
"First, believe that I don't blame you. You are not responsible for what happened to Mulder--it's not your fault."
"What's the second thing?" His voice was sandpaper.
Scully walked over and stood beside him, linking their fingers and waiting until he met her gaze.
"We will get him back."
Continued in Chapter one