Not My Lover *NC17* 1/2
Deslea R. Judd
ARCHIVE: Yes, just keep my name on it.
DISCLAIMER: Characters not mine. Interpretation mine.
RATING: NC17 for sex and language.
SPOILERS/TIMEFRAME: Mytharc Ascension to Requiem.
CATEGORY/KEYWORDS: romance, angst, mytharc, Krycek/Covarrubias.
SUMMARY: In a world of changing allegiances, only Alex and Marita will have the strength and permanence with which to lead the Russian project. But will they have strength to survive the American agenda? Tells the mytharc from Alex and Marita's perspective.
MORE FIC: http://fiction.deslea.com/
FEEDBACK: Love the stuff. email@example.com
AWARDS/ELIGIBILITY: Top 3 Finalist, Spooky Awards 2000, Outstanding Krycek Characterisation and Outstanding Other Series Character Romance. Commended in the B.I.T.T. Awards 2001. Cover Art was a finalist in the 2000 F.O.X. Awards (Outstanding Krycek Story Cover Art)
Not my lover.
Marita was not my lover.
A colleague, a fellow conspirator, a foil. And, yes, an enjoyable companion, whether bantering at my side or sighing beneath me, or in the company of decadently naked friends.
But not my lover.
The dark man introduced us. He was playing both sides against each other - feeding information to one side, preserving the lies of the other. He was grooming Marita to be his successor when his deception became known, as deception always does. For the dark man, ideology was delineated by truth and lies, good and evil - black and white, if you will. He didn't know that Mare's ideology was more concrete - vaccines and deals. Where the dark man hoped fruitlessly to prevent colonisation, Mare hoped to survive it.
For my part, I was a lackey of the team he had neatly designated "lies". As such, he made himself known to me, and delegated me to his would-be successor. Mare was to keep an eye on me, and so she did. I didn't mind. I was young and naive, but I understood one rule of the game already: watch, listen, and be prepared to switch sides to live. It was the one rule which Mare and I considered sacrosanct. Trust was necessarily fluid, disclosure never total.
And so she was not my lover.
She would become my beloved, my heart, my soul.
But not my lover.
I turned, closing the flip of my cell phone with a snap. "There you are. I've been looking for you."
"And I've been looking for you," she said playfully, threading hands through my pockets. She pulled my hips to hers, her touch maddeningly close to my groin. "I was hoping to whisk you away-"
Something in my face must have communicated my distress, because she suddenly let go, withdrawing her hands, and used them to take my own. "Alexi?" she asked quietly. "What is it?"
I gently extricated one hand, holding up my cell. "That was Spender." Then, tentatively, I explained, "He wants me to take care of Bill Mulder and Dana Scully." That I was reluctant to carry out my orders was a concession in itself - one I didn't like to share - but I intuited that it was safe to share this with her.
Her voice was gentle - uncharacteristically so. "Alexi, I'm sorry. Are you all right?" My fleeting fear that she would not understand dissipated, forgotten.
I shook my head; said at last, "Bill Mulder is one thing - he's up to his neck in this - but Scully's an innocent." Then, my voice hoarse, I rasped, "I never wanted to kill anyone I knew, Mare." A flicker of compassion lighted on her features, and she wound her arms around me.
"I know," she said, her voice muffled against my neck. I felt so cold. I could feel her hot breath on me, and it seared through me, comfortingly. I heard her whisper at last, "I hope that's not something ever asked of me."
I pulled back roughly. "If it is," I demanded, taking her by the shoulders, "you tell me. I'll do it for you." Her eyes widened; her lips parted, but no sound came out. My hold on her arms tightened. "Promise me you'll never kill, Mare. Only in self-defense."
She stared at me for a long moment, as though puzzled by the strength of my reaction, or perhaps deliberating my words. At last, though, she nodded. "I promise." She slid arms around my neck once more. "You're so cold. Let me make you warm."
I nodded, burying my face in her hair. "Mare," I breathed, smelling it. "Oh, God, Mare, please."
She turned her face to mine then, and kissed me; first my cheek, then my mouth; her lips warm, her mouth warm, and she made me live once more. My throat constricted as she cradled my neck with her hands, adoring me, and I remember a flash of something more, some empathic passion, something to do with her, her face, her heart; but it was gone before I could grasp what it might be.
There were no preliminaries. No long, languid strokes; no massages or kisses in all those strange and beautiful places a woman has - the point where her ribs end, the inside of the elbow. Shirts were pulled over heads; jeans were tossed heedlessly in both directions. We clasped one another, naked, falling onto the bed, our mouths at war, tongues dancing against one another, each seeking possession of the other. She started to pull away at one point - perhaps to take me into her mouth, I don't know - but I pulled her back, holding the length of her body against mine. "Don't go," I said mindlessly; and again, she understood, content to kiss, to hold and be held. No preliminaries, but we stayed there, touching faces, holding one another's gazes, exposed and raw. I explored her face with my fingertips in wonder, wonder that she would let my bloodied hands touch her.
At last, I kissed her forehead, and started to move towards the nightstand. She stilled me with a touch.
"I want you bare," she whispered.
My eyes flew open. In an instant I understood what she really was asking. Monogamy, if not actual, then symbolic; for neither of us would risk the other by doing this unprotected with anyone else. I understood, too, the gift she was offering. Acceptance...belonging. She was prepared to own me, and allow me to own her, despite the things I had done...the things I would do. I stared at her in shock; took in the guarded, hunted look she gave me.
"You're sure?" I asked, at last.
She nodded, her lips drawn tight, seeming not to trust herself to speak.
So I entered her, bare, as she had asked; and as we moved in rhythm, I stared into her eyes, searching for answers; because my own held none. I knew only that her gift made me need her even more. That, and that the intoxicating shudders radiating through my body were but a fragment of what I felt for her. And when I came, it was not an expletive or a deity or a mindless sound on my lips, but her name; and I kept saying it, kissing her, until she was asleep in my arms.
I was preparing to leave her when she stirred. "Alexi?" she said softly, peering out beneath half-closed eyelids.
"Hush, Mare," I said quietly, tying my shoes. "Sleep."
"You don't have to do it," she whispered earnestly.
I stared at her. "I don't understand."
"Something could go wrong. She could outsmart you. You could get the wrong person." As I watched her with sudden understanding, she whispered, "You don't have to get it right, Alex. This is not your fight."
I frowned; then, rising, I said evenly, "I have to go. I'm meeting Cardinale in an hour."
She opened her mouth to speak again, but then she closed it. She nodded. I went to her, and kissed her forehead. "I'll be okay."
She nodded again. "If anything does go wrong-"
"It won't," I said, with more surety than I felt. I smiled at her fondly, and went to the door. She called my name, and I turned.
"Don't let Cardinale leave you alone."
Frowning, I nodded, and I left her.
Not my lover.
Not my lover, but I remembered her words when I shot high over Scully's head at Mulder's. I remembered them when my surveillance indicated that Melissa Scully would arrive at Scully's home when her sister was out. I remembered her words when I stood over the woman, also an innocent, and couldn't stifle a sound of remorse. It wasn't my fight...none of it was.
I remembered her words when Cardinale left me alone in the car, and when the clock flashed zero. I remembered them when, after making it clear of the blast, I felt in my pocket and discovered I still had the digital tape containing the MJ-12 documents. I remembered them when I fled, an outlaw. And when I had nowhere else to go, it was Mare I trusted.
She sheltered me in Baltimore. She took leave from the United Nations. For weeks, we poured over the data on the tape, consulting computer and Navajo experts alike. We worked all day; we loved, newly tender by night.
She worked hard.
And she haunted me.
Then came the day when I watched her from across the room.
She wasn't doing anything special. Flipping through CDs, her straw-coloured hair falling across her profile. She tucked it back behind her ear absently, and looked up, her fingers marking a Phil Collins case. Her lips parted as though to speak, but then she stopped, her eyes meeting mine, marking me.
"Alexi?" she asked in a whisper.
God only knew what she saw on my face. I was aware of nothing there - no love, no scrutiny. I was just watching. And yet her voice and her gaze freed in me some awe, some enthralled fascination; and I crossed the room in three strides, capturing her face between my hands. "I *want* you," I declared, and I knew it was the wrong word, both diplomatically and descriptively; but I said it with such surprised wonder, such cherishing awe that she knew, had to know, that it was love that I meant.
"I want you, too," she whispered earnestly, her smile gentle. "So much."
I leaned down and kissed her, tenderly, as though for the first time. After a long moment, she pulled away, and smoothed back my hair lovingly.
"Let's get back to work."
At last, we decoded it. The knowledge we gained from that tape left us, in the extremity of it, cradled together, spooned around one another as we puzzled over what it all meant. For two days, we stayed in bed, drinking, talking, arguing about what to do with what we had learned.
It had not been my fight, but now...it was our fight now.
She milked the information for her own uses; I knew that. Equally, she assisted me, connecting me with Jeraldine Kallenchuk, whose ability to sell information was rivalled only by her preparedness to engage in treason. For some months I sold useful information from the MJ-12 files to interests all around the world.
But we kept the real secrets for ourselves.
I'm still an American, dammit.
Jeraldine's death was the purest of bad luck. Selling the location of the American submarine, the Zeus Faber, had seemed like easy money. I had been impressed that she'd found a buyer for it, in fact. I knew of the unusual occurrences on board the Faber, of course; but it had never occurred to me that the lifeform on board could stay alive for forty years.
Much less escape.
The first I knew of the catastrophe was when Jeraldine turned up at our Hong Kong rendezvous handcuffed to Mulder. As I ran off, leaving Jeraldine dead and Mulder to an uncertain fate at the hands of the Consortium lackeys, I quickly made all the necessary connections and understood that something had gone very wrong on the Zeus Faber. I did not fully understand the significance of Mulder's presence until he caught up with me at the airport. Predictably, he wanted to kill me over his father; less predictably, he let me live because he wanted the digital tape. That meant he was becoming more aware of the nature of the Consortium and its involvement in his investigations. Mulder was finally becoming a player.
He threw me a few punches, of course; no escaping that. I took them and didn't fight back. I guess he'd earned a few free blows. When he was done, I went to the bathroom to clean myself up, and that was when I was infected.
Being infected with the alien pathogen was an interesting experience from a scientific perspective, though I wouldn't recommend it. I was conscious throughout the alien's possession of my body. It gained my knowledge in an instant, and while there was no telepathy, I somehow knew Its will and was compelled to obey. I saw, though my sight was dark and filmy. I saw, I think, through the lens of the alien organism, rather than my own; but it's hard to be certain. My voice was my own, but I had no control over my speech. I was Its voice. Despite this, I retained my own will throughout the ordeal. It was as though the connections between the will and the body were irrevocably severed. I gained a unique insight into what it was to be a drone; and it terrified me. I had seen the collapse of the woman who had infected me after it was done, and I was certain I would die in the same way when I was no longer of use. That she lived was something I would learn only much later.
Fortunately for me, I was of considerable use to It. I obtained the digital tape and took it to the Smoker. It wanted to return to Its ship, and Spender was happy to oblige by way of trade for the tape. The deal was done, and I was thrown into the missile silo with the salvaged UFO. My fear turned to cold, flint-like terror. I knew that the UFO was radioactive, and I also knew that once I was no longer infected, my protection from the radiation would disappear. Once that occurred, I had about a two-minute time window in which to escape without becoming burnt or seriously ill. During that time, the alien enzymes that interrupted the abnormal cell reactions associated with gamma radiation would be slowly absorbed by my T-lymphocytes, leaving me defenseless. Even if I got out during that time window, I had a fifty-fifty chance of contracting multiple cancers. I was used to living on the edge of death, but cancer isn't a pretty way to go. Neither is radiation sickness.
Knowledge is not always a good thing.
As I coughed and sputtered, as the black evil thing left me, I tried to make some sort of sense of my life and my death. Mulder and Scully's voices drifted in to me, maddeningly close, and then other voices spirited them away. Scully screaming out that there were men in there with radiation burns. It occurred to me that if this was what colonisation would be like, if this was what it was to be a drone, perhaps I had been spared.
At last, it was over. I was myself again. If my eyes and mouth and lungs hurt, that was insignificant, because I had only minutes to live. At least I would die in my right mind and in control of my body. I stared at my watch in the dark. Its performance was affected by the alien craft, but it was still possible to use the seconds' needle to mark the passage of time. One hundred seconds...ninety...eighty...seventy.
At sixty seconds, I heard what sounded like a clattering sound. It became louder through fifty. At forty, I heard a series of gunshots. At twenty-five, I heard her voice.
"Alexi!" she screamed. "Alexi!"
I ran to the door and banged. "Mare! Silo ten-thirteen! I'm with the UFO!"
She came flying down the corridor and wrestled with the door. "How long have you got?" she cried through the thick window.
"About fifteen seconds to nil protection. Sixty seconds off lethal levels. Hurry, goddamn it!"
She stared at me in horror for a precious second, then worked the bolt with renewed fervour. I stopped watching my watch, not wanting to know how close to death I was anymore. Finally, she wrenched the heavy door open. I grabbed her face between my hands and kissed her. "Am I glad to see you," I cried.
So saying, I grabbed her hand, and we ran.
We made it.
I collapsed outside the base, writhing with pain. Marita struggled to take care of me, fighting back the hysteria that threatened to overwhelm her. In a moment of clarity, I felt empathy as I perceived her fearful panic, before my pain overtook me once more. She manhandled me into a car I didn't recognise, and we sped off.
"I heard gunshots," I said weakly.
"There were men with radiation burns," she said softly. "Two were still alive. They were in agony," she added haltingly. "I know what we said about killing-"
"That's not killing, it's euthanasia," I said thickly. "You did the right thing." I doubled over in spasms of coughing, wiping bitter black oil from my mouth. "Where are we going?"
She started to answer; but I passed out.
The next few hours passed in a blur.
I came to in a motel room, eyes hurting, sinuses agonising. Marita was there, pushing and pulling me into the shower, both of us still dressed. She pulled my ruined clothes off me and washed me, tenderly flushing my eyes with saline over and over. She made me blow my nose, again and again until the stringy trails of black oil stopped coming. She dried me off and tucked me into bed with the tenderness of a mother. I drifted in and out of sleep fitfully.
She was still crouching at my side when I woke an hour later, when I looked at her and really saw her for the first time that day. Her white suit was wet and stained with oil. Her hair was damp and straggling. Her makeup was ruined with water and tears. And in that silent way she had, she was weeping.
I sat up. "Mare - God, get those clothes off," I said vaguely, knowing I was attacking the wrong problem, but wanting to do something for her - anything. I stripped her off and wiped her face, and realised she was shaking - from cold or shock, I couldn't have said. I pulled her into the bed, both of us naked, and guided her down next to me. I held her, trying to warm her and calm her down. She wasn't crying anymore, but she was still trembling. She clung to me silently. I buried my face in her hair, troubled by her distress.
We stayed that way for a long time. "What's wrong?"
She gave a short, dull laugh. "Just where would you like me to begin?" she asked bitterly.
"You know what I mean," I said evenly, smoothing her hair back off her face. I cradled it, making her face me, moving my thumb back and forth across her cheek. "Talk to me."
She was very still for a moment, the twitching muscle in her cheek the only hint of the tears she held at bay. At last, though, she spoke, in a more even voice than I had expected. "I just can't do this anymore, Alex. I can't lurch from crisis to crisis as though it's just us playing strategy games with the Consortium. What we know makes demands of us. We have a duty to do what we can. Otherwise what happened to you today will happen to us all." Her voice was fearful, tentative; yet paradoxically strong and resolute.
"I know." I kissed her hair pensively. "I got a birds-eye view of the life of a drone today. Profiteering doesn't seem so important right now." I felt her sigh gratefully, and I knew she had feared I would object. Rightly, perhaps. But that was before today.
"We have money, thanks to Jeraldine," she pointed out. "We could use it to find a vaccine. The Americans will never find one - they're too busy holding up their part of the hybridisation deal. That's not our problem. We could go to Russia and set up operations there. It's cheap, and there's the old UFO crash site near Norylsk that could be a good source of the pathogen for testing."
"Tunguska. Yes, it's possible," I said. Then, at last, "It's risky."
"We'd probably both get the death penalty for treason if we were caught," she agreed, but her objection was without conviction. We were going through the motions - playing devil's advocate.
I shrugged. "The Consortium would never let us get to trial. I think we'd probably both get a nice painless injection myself."
She shot me a filthy look. "That consoles me no end," she said grimly.
"The risk is more to you than I," I said in a low voice. "I'm already wanted for murder, and I've no doubt Mulder will add treason to the charges when he makes it back to Washington. I have comparatively little to lose, besides the money. But you-" I broke off. "Right now, you're safe."
"I don't want to be safe," she protested. "I want to do what's right." Then, softly, "I want to be with you."
I drew her close then, my arms around her, and kissed her hair. "Are you sure?"
I pulled back and held her face between my hands once more. "Then marry me." She stared at me in shock. "What's the matter, Mare? You think a guy like me can't make an honest woman of you?" But I spoke teasingly, because I knew that wasn't it at all.
She stroked my cheek. "Marriage sounds so *normal*. It's one of those things like having babies or going on camping trips - things that happen to normal people. They don't happen for people like us."
"They can," I told her. "We can make them happen."
"Do you really think so?"
"Maybe not the camping," I teased.
She smiled faintly. "You really want me to be your wife?"
"Mare, you're my wife already. I just want to make this one part of my life right. Will you?"
She looked at me in bewilderment, as though not quite understanding that an answer was called for. I felt bubbling mirth at her expression. "Of course, I'll *marry* you," she said in astonishment, as though that was already settled. I did laugh then, and after watching me quizzically for a moment, she laughed, too. And then I was kissing her, and we were making love, and I felt as though there was hope for us both after all.
We were married in Russian Georgia.
We found a little Russian Orthodox chapel in Ateni dating back to Byzantine times. The church was in communion with the Roman church, so we were able to be married there in a Catholic ceremony concelebrated by Catholic and Orthodox clerics. Marita had been raised Catholic, and I Russian Orthodox, so it suited us well. She spoke only halting Russian, but the Roman priest spoke fluent English, and he assisted the Orthodox cleric, who spoke none. We were able to take advantage of a provision in Catholic law for secret marriage where danger existed. That meant that the marriage was binding, but record of it was retained in the Bishop's secret archive at the Curia. That extra protection gave us peace of mind, for our marriage must be kept from the Americans at all cost, lest we be used as leverage against one another.
That secrecy was painful for us both; so, in the comparative safety of Georgia, we flaunted our marriage. Marita signed her name beneath mine on the marriage register, 'Marita Krycek', embracing my name in a way she could never do in life. We used our own names at the hotel, and we wore ostentatious matching wedding rings. I even had our marriage certificate framed, if you can believe that, relishing the look of our names, Alexei Nicolai Krycek and Marita Elena Covarrubias, entwined in Cyrillic lettering. Who'd have thought sleazy old Alex Krycek would turn out to be a sensitive new age guy, hopelessly in love with his wife?
I guess there's a little hope for everyone.
We travelled to Kazakhstan and met with the highest comrades of our opposing numbers. I had assumed that we would have to bargain for power, that we would be taken in by a larger force with similar aims to our own; but we found the former Russian operation in the same disarray that characterised the rest of the region. Worse, it was in the same abject poverty. They were happy to give us whatever people and information we needed to run the project, and I could have total control - but we would have to fund it ourselves.
That made for some major changes to our planning. Our capital would establish the project, but to a large extent its ongoing costs would be funded by Marita's income from the Consortium and whatever money I could obtain myself, by fair means or foul. Fortunately, labour and supplies were relatively cheap, and there was no shortage of weaponry left over from the old regime in old warehouses and storage facilities, just waiting to be smuggled overseas and sold. The Russians gave me diplomatic immunity with a tacit approval for these activities, with the proviso that the weapons were not to be sold to political forces or terrorists who might target the region.
Marita stayed in our homeland with me for a month, helping me to establish the operations in Tunguska, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan before returning home. She hoped to align herself with the Englishman, Donovan, who was working half-heartedly on the vaccine in America. When she left me, I felt as though I was ripped in two; for who knew when we would be as man and wife again?
She was not my lover.
My sorrow, my joy, my life, my wife.
But not my lover.
Not my lover.
That's what he said of me in Kazakhstan as I prepared to leave him. "Fare thee well, Lover," I had teased; then, more seriously, the back of my hand stroking his cheek, "'til next we meet."
"Not my lover," he said softly. "My life, my wife."
He meant it as homage, I know; but I felt some twinge of pain. Our joining could never be total as long as we lived the life we lived. I craved the simple pleasure of sharing our joy with others, of consummating our marriage in a shared life. It was the one thing I feared I would never have. These last few weeks, living openly as man and wife with the Russians had not assuaged my unhappiness, but rather refined it.
He must have seen my pain, my dilemma, because he brushed my eyelashes with his fingertips, wiping away tears not even shed. "Survival first, perfection later," he counselled wistfully.
I nodded resignedly; and I straightened, resolute. I turned from him to the wind, and climbed the steps into the little seven-seater. I looked over my shoulder at him, and our eyes met for just a second. I thought of this gloomy land, and how I loved it for what it had given me.
The pilot began to close the door; but I stayed his hand, sensing before I saw that he was running towards the craft. "Alexi!" I cried into the howling wind.
"Mare!" He raced up the steps, and I started down them to meet him. He clasped me in his arms. "I don't want you to go!" he exclaimed, wryly, as though amused by his weakness.
He pulled back, and I was laughing even through my tears. I held him, my hands at his neck. "God, Alex, I don't want to go," I said ruefully.
"I've got to find that vaccine," he said urgently. "Being away from you is killing me, and you're not even gone yet."
"You'll find one," I told him firmly. "I have faith in you."
He said softly, "You're the only one who ever has." He stroked my hair, tucking it back behind my ear, and rested his forehead against mine. "I love you, Marita Krycek."
I held his face between my palms, our foreheads and noses touching, his mahogany eyes inches from mine. The air between us was hot with our breaths, his closeness suffocating; but I couldn't bear to pull away. "I love you," I whispered. My lips found his, cherishing him, my first love and my last.
We stayed that way for a long moment, before the pilot cleared his throat. "Comrades Arntzen," he said in Russian, using our diplomatic names, "we have to leave if we're to reach St Petersburg by nightfall." We turned, two identical stricken faces. He said to Alex sympathetically, "You could accompany us and return in the morning if you like - there is room."
We looked at each other longingly, but reluctantly, we both shook our heads. "You're needed here," I said softly. He kissed my forehead, and I wrenched myself from his arms. His smile was bittersweet, and I felt it reflected in my own. "Be well, Alexi."
So saying, he backed down the steps, and I moved back into the craft, allowing the pilot to shut the door. The older man motioned towards the seat at the window, his expression kind. I thanked him in halting Russian, but sat towards the aisle. To watch him recede into the distance as we took off was more than I could bear just then.
Never had I felt so acutely the cost of our sacrifice as I did then.
Not my lover.
The words haunted me as I stared at my wedding ring in the middle of the night - a ring I could never wear publicly. I replayed in my mind over and over again our marriage, the pictures and tapes of which I could see only when I dared venture to my safety deposit box in a bank vault in Manhattan. I replayed making love and other tender moments, too, the way a woman does when she loves a man; but our marriage had become talismanic in my mind, symbolic of all that we shared and all that we had sacrificed.
We wrote often by e-mail, and sometimes in conventional letters, too. The longer he spent there, the more flamboyantly Cyrillic his handwriting became. They were sometimes cryptic, always detailed - not only for the exchange of information for the work, but because we found they helped us to live with our separation. Phone calls were a rare and risky exercise, and while we occasionally used them for light-hearted banter or phone sex, we more often reserved them for bonding. Love talk, be it silly or sentimental, dominated those.
It was funny, really: Alex had killed Bill Mulder half a year earlier, only to become him, sole advocate for the development of a vaccine. Meanwhile, I continued in my work at the United Nations for Spender and the dark man, gradually aligning myself with the Englishman, Donovan. I hoped to attach myself to Donovan when the dark man's time was over, little dreaming at that point the part I would play in his demise.
I searched for the definitive expert in the variola virus, the most biochemically similar pathogen to the alien organism, and found one in Benita Charne-Sayrre. I recruited her and converted her to our cause; and she pursued it with fervour. We made a formidable team, maintaining low concentrations of the alien organism in delicate balance in human subjects, patients in Benita's nursing homes. Benita tested the vaccines on her patients; then Alex did more thorough testing on an array of unlucky subjects in Tunguska and Norylsk, subjects infected with the organism at full strength. I risked introducing her to Donovan, and Donovan did the rest, recruiting her into his work, as well. Benita got double the pay, and we got double the information. It was a win-win situation. It wasn't until later that I found out that Donovan was getting a piece of the action, too...in more ways than one.
I look back on it all with anger and dismay. I trusted all the wrong people. I should have trusted the dark man. Instead, I trusted Benita, believing that her scientific ideology would lead her to give us her allegiance. But that was not my worst mistake, for that one still reaped considerable reward.
My worst mistake was trusting my mother.
I watched her, smoking.
"I wish you'd tell me what's troubling you," my mother said pensively. She pointed to the delicate silver cigarette case on the table, the intricate bronze lighter, both new. "Those things aren't going to solve the problem. Neither are the joints I found in the bedroom."
"Oh, Mother, honestly," I said in exasperation. "Everyone does a little weed now and then. What's the big deal?"
My mother had little time for bullshit and even less for misdirection, and now was no exception. "Everyone does it? What is this, high school? I don't care about the weed. I care that you're doing dumb stuff you haven't done in years. I'm not a fool, Marita. Something's wrong."
I sighed heavily. "Mother, believe me, you don't want to know. It could compromise you."
She shot me a look. "I can look after myself, thank you very much. I've been tangoing with Spender and his friends since before you were born. You think an ex-KGB girl can't handle those assholes?"
My anger flared. "Is that why you pushed me into working for them too? What kind of a mother does that?" I demanded in a low voice.
She laughed at that. "Honestly, Marita, you'd think I sold you into prostitution to hear you talk. And for the record, no one forced you into anything. You went to nice schools, and you could have had a perfectly respectable life on the outside. You took one look at the eighty grand a year you would have made on the outside and decided that a quarter million with the group was preferable." Shamefaced, I made a gesture of concession, and she went on, "Now, I'm sure old grudges aren't what's worrying you, so what about you filling me in?"
I put out my cigarette and held another to my lips. I picked up the lighter, but reconsidered under my mother's withering gaze. I pushed it away irritably, and it slid across the table with a clatter. She caught it neatly and set it down. With a look of defeat, I put the virgin cigarette in the ashtray. She shot me a satisfied look, not unkindly. She waited.
"Have you heard of a man named Krycek? Alexei Nicolai Krycek?" I said at last.
My mother nodded. "Sure. He's a Russian-born child of Cold War immigrants. They came out here when he was three. He showed promise in criminology and political theory at college, but he wasn't given a lot of opportunity to shine at the FBI. He was pretty dissatisfied, so when Spender approached him he came over to the Group. They used him as a hired gun for a while, but the general consensus was that he made a bad hitman - they should be dumb, unprincipled and obedient, and that's not Krycek. He caused a lot of trouble last year when he got away with a digital tape of the MJ-12 documents. He was indirectly responsible for a French salvage attempt of a UFO a couple of months back - sold the location of the downed escort submarine, I believe."
"That's right," I said nervously.
"You were monitoring him at one time for the black man, weren't you?"
"I wish you'd use his name," I said, diverted by an old argument. "'The black man' sounds really racist."
"Rubbish," my mother dismissed. "The man's black, isn't he? Should I deny what I see? You call him 'the dark man' yourself. And I've never been able to pronounce his name."
"This, from the woman who has fired people for mispronouncing Covarrubias," I snorted. "'Dark man' is not the same at all - it's about his personality, not his skin. He's been very good to me. It wouldn't kill you to play nice."
"Fine, Marita, consider it done," she said, irritably, and utterly without conviction. "Now, what's this about Alex Krycek?"
I cast my eyes heavenward for a long moment. This was the only person I had to confide in? I experienced a moment of doubt, but dismissed it. She was my mother, after all. If I couldn't trust her, who could I trust? Our bickering was mother-daughter malaise, a phenomenon as old as time, nothing more.
I watched her for a long moment, but at last, I reached into my shirt, and withdrew my gold chain. I unfastened the clasp and detached my wedding ring from it, handing it to her. I watched her turn it over in her hands, and hold it up to the light, looking at the inscription inside. She handed it back at last. "Those are yellow sapphires embedded into it, aren't they?" she said, bemused. I nodded. "One thing about Krycek," she reflected, "he doesn't do anything by halves."
I laughed ruefully. "No, you're right about that."
"How long have you been married?" she asked curiously. "It was this year, I can see that. Was it when you went to Europe?"
I nodded. "It was, but we didn't go to Europe. The photos I sent were done by one of my men. We were married in Russian Georgia, near where you and Papa lived before you defected." More quietly, I added, "Papa died two years ago. I saw his grave."
She betrayed no reaction to this news. Instead, she demanded, "Jesus, Marita. Why Russia, of all places? You're a Covarrubias. You could have been in danger."
I shook my head. "I'm not a Covarrubias anymore," I said, not unkindly, "and Russia isn't the same place now. Those old grudges don't matter anymore."
"They will always matter," my mother said darkly. I sighed, ready to argue the point, but she held up a hand, forestalling me. "Where is he now?"
"He's still there," I said. Then, cautiously, "I don't know exactly where at the moment."
She looked at me piercingly. "You're holding out on me," she accused. "Being separated because your husband is in hiding is unfortunate, but it's not enough to do this to you," she said, touching the lighter. "You're made of stronger stuff than that." A new thought occurred to her. "You're not pregnant, are you?"
I felt a sudden pang of sadness, because that was one dream that would be out of reach for years to come. I said nothing of this - my mother, singularly unsentimental about parenthood, would not have understood - and said only, "No, Mother, I'm not pregnant."
"That's a small mercy," she said wryly. "What, then?"
I hesitated, but under her gaze, my resolve faltered. Haltingly, I admitted, "We're working on a vaccine."
"With the Russians?" she demanded, horrified.
"Minor co-operation, but it's mostly our own operation."
My mother gave a sharp, cynical laugh. "You silly girl. Silly, stupid girl! If by some miracle you manage to make one, they'll take it. They'll keep us all hostage."
"It's not like that anymore. We're working in the Republics - we're protected by their disorganisation and disunity." Then, anger flaring once more, I railed, "What should we have done, Mother? Left it to the goddamn Americans? They made the hybridisation deal with the alien race to get the alien genetic code, and what are they doing with it? Nothing! Only Donovan is working on a vaccine, now that Bill Mulder's gone! They're chasing their tails hybridising everything that moves, taking ova from women like Dana Scully and making doomed children in a fruitless bid to save their own lives! Our only protection is a vaccine, and the Americans aren't *doing* anything!"
She stood then, furious. "This country gave us shelter from the regime! I don't care what you think of their efforts, you have no right to deal with the Russians! No right! This Krycek, is he a Communist?" she demanded.
"Alexi loves this country!" I shouted, rising. "We *both* do!"
My mother paced. "You could be charged with treason. And that's nothing to what the Consortium will do to you if they find out you're playing double agent. God, Marita, what a mess." There was genuine sympathy in her voice, and I felt my anger dissipating.
We stood that way for a long moment, a silent standoff, but suddenly, my mother slumped, her fury gone. "Marita, Marita, Marita," she said in exasperation. I was suddenly overtaken with real mirth - whether rooted in anxiety or relief, I couldn't have said. I collapsed in my chair in floods of hysterical laughter, and my mother, not unreasonably, looked as though I'd lost my mind. "What the hell's the matter with you?"
"Nothing," I sputtered. "It's just -" I broke off, choking back even more laughter, tears streaming down my face. She watched me, looking even more perplexed. Finally, I blurted, "You just look like you really need a cigarette."
She gave a short bark of laughter, and came back to the table. She sat down, calm now, and opened the cigarette case. She got out two.
"I think we both do."
When my mother finally left late that night, I felt easier in mind than I had in months. She had even, wonder of wonders, hugged me when she'd said goodbye. "I love you, Marita," she had told me, and I had heard that from her only a handful of times in my life.
My relief was short-lived. Two hours later, a series of loud knocks at my door woke me. When I opened it, there was my mentor, the dark man, dishevelled and visibly upset. I let him in, a dull ache in the pit of my stomach. "Sir?" I said, confused. He was wet - it had been raining outside. And clearly, he had walked here - probably from the group's offices in Upper Manhattan. That was miles away. My panic levels rose a notch.
"Marita, do you have some suicidal tendencies that didn't show up in your psych evaluation?" he demanded furiously. "Larissa Covarrubias has always been one of the key campaigners against dealing with the Russians. Whatever made you think you could trust her?"
My breath caught in my chest. "She's my moth-" I broke off. "Wait," I said suddenly, "You - knew?"
"Of course I knew. I brought you and Alex together in the first place, and I was, thank God, one of the few people who ever saw you together. Anyone could see you were committed to one another," he added, and it occurred to me fleetingly that it was odd phrasing - very deliberate and specific. "I didn't know the specifics, of course, but I knew. Who do you think leaked the location of the missile silo to you when Alex was trapped?" he demanded.
I put my hand to my mouth. "That was you?" I whispered. I went to him, and embraced him. I kissed his dark cheek tenderly. "Thank you," I said gently. "Thank you so much."
Taken aback, he pushed me just far enough away to look at me curiously. "I can't believe you two got married," he said incredulously. "Alex Krycek, family man. Who'd have thought it?"
I smiled broadly. "How about that?" I laughed. Suddenly, my laughter became tears, and I sat down miserably. "My own mother. Fucking hell!" I blurted in frustration. "Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!"
The dark man took off his coat and hung it up. He sat down before me uninvited. "Does your mother let you use language like that, Marita?" he chided gently.
I looked up at him through my tears in disbelief. "The dark man cracks a joke. The Apocalypse is near."
"Something like that." His expression darkened. "Marita, your position is severely compromised here. You need to go back to Russia."
I shook my head. "I need to stay in the American loop," I said in frustration. He looked unhappy, but didn't argue the point. "Who did she tell?" I demanded.
"Just me for now, but that won't keep," he warned. "You have no more than a week before Teena Mulder either recovers from her stroke or dies, and Spender is back on deck. And when your mother does tell him, it will come out that I shielded you." I started to speak, but he held up a hand. "Now, I can take care of myself. All I'm saying is, your protection won't last. You'll be in custody for treason within the week, and probably dead in your cell a few days after that, unless you strike pre-emptively." He shot me a smile, dead white and chilling against his dark skin, which I knew was meant to be affectionate. "For what it's worth, I'm proud of you, Marita. You've become a player - and in the best of possible ways."
"That means a lot to me," I said fondly, a bittersweet lump in my throat. I loved this strange man, this mentor who had guided and sheltered me; but why could I not have heard those words from my mother? I shook my head to clear it of these useless thoughts. "If I talk to her - maybe I can convince her not to talk," I said; but my voice was without conviction.
"The only way you'll stop her from talking is with terminal force," the dark man said quietly. "I know that's hard to hear, but true just the same."
Drawing my breath in sharply, I shook my head. "No, I can't. Not my mother." I looked at him, stricken. "Could you?"
He conceded, "Probably not."
"Besides, I promised Alexi I would never kill," I said softly. "He said he would do it for me if it was ever necessary - but I can't ask him to kill my mother." The dark man gave a wry sound. "What?" I asked.
He shook his head. "Nothing. I just - Alex surprises me sometimes. So much evil and so much good wrapped up in the one man." He misread my startled look as anger, and said, "I'm sorry. We're discussing your husband."
"No, actually, I think that's true," I agreed.
He watched me for a long moment. "Let me make a proposal," he said at last. I nodded. He continued, "Let me decide what force is required. It will be my decision and my responsibility to carry out." I had been bracing myself for the word 'execute' there, and I was glad he didn't use it.
"In other words, I don't have to get my hands dirty," I said bitterly.
His look was kind. "I wouldn't put it like that. This is a difficult decision. It must be made and enacted by someone objective. That's what a mentor is for." At my doubtful look, he said, "I have to go to Washington tomorrow. You can reach me on the cell phone. Please just think about it."
"All right," I said reluctantly. "I'll think about it."
In the end, my decision counted for nothing.
Ideology, my mother explained when I confronted her the following day. Ideology that could see her only child put to death for treason. "You know nothing of ideology!" I yelled at her furiously. "Ideology is saving the world at the expense of political boundaries! Don't you understand that in the face of this threat we are one world?" She was weeping but unrepentant when I left her, disowning her in my heart.
I spent two long torturous hours sitting in the rain on the shore at Staten Island, not far from my mother's home. In the end, it came down to a choice between my mother and Alexi. I could frame it as self-preservation, or as protecting the dark man, and there was some truth to those pictures; but I knew in my heart of hearts that I would never have killed my mother to save myself, or even my mentor. It went against my every instinct. But I understood in an instant the truth of the rite of marriage: the act of forsaking all others, of leaving my family to form a family of my own - a family that had been far more true than the one from which I had come. If I let my mother live, Alexi would see his wife in the gas chamber for the crimes we had committed together, if only in the narrow boundaries of the law. It would destroy him, and it would be the end of the life and the work we had shared, and sacrificed so much to make happen. Our work could save the world - it wasn't as simple as preserving our marriage or my life - but they were so bound up together that in another way, our marriage was what it really came down to.
I knew then, amid anguish and betrayal, what torment it is to want to die but to seek desperately to live for the love of another. I loved and hated and loved him, thousands of miles away, for a dilemma of which he knew nothing. I thought of the feminist mantra, that I was a woman with my own heritage and that that heritage was something I owed a loyalty to; but again and again I came face to face with its falsehood. I had made this life with this man, given myself over and accepted his gift of himself, chosen of my own free will to surrender my understanding of myself as a Covarrubias, separate from him. It was not a surrender he had ever asked of me; it was one I had made in the silence of my heart, a linear outcome of the truth that we were one. And finally, I understood that I had chosen him in my heart long ago.
At last, I made the call to the dark man, in Washington passing information to Mulder, and told him to do as he chose. Then I went back to the beach, knelt there in the sand, and wept.
When I woke, it was early morning. I was wet and cold, having slept straight through the assault of the rain on my body. Shuddering, I made my way to the car and drove back to Manhattan. By the time most people were arriving at their places of work, I was immaculately dressed and ready to face the day, my appearance giving no hint of my ordeal. Certainly, it gave no hint that I expected to receive word of my mother's death. But the bearer of that news was not whom I expected.
The first hint that things had gone terribly wrong came at nine that morning. Spender arrived at my office at the United Nations - something he had never done before. That fact alone was enough to frighten me. That he had dragged himself from Teena Mulder's bedside to do it was enough to fill me with utter terror. I steered him into an anteroom, and sat before him, my heart beating with painful force. I seated myself closest to the door, and I was very aware of my firearm at my side.
"I must apologise for my inhospitable behaviour when you arrived, Sir," I said evenly. My throat felt very dry. "I felt it best to move you somewhere more discreet."
He waved this aside. "Not at all, Ms Krycek."
I felt very cold. "My name is Ms Covarrubias."
He wasn't perturbed. He said easily, "I was under the impression that you weren't a Covarrubias any more. At least that's what your mother says. She's very upset."
"There's no reason for her to be," I said coolly. Damn my indecision! I'd been too late, and now both my mentor and I would pay.
Spender lit a cigarette. "Well, strictly speaking, she isn't - now." I closed my eyes painfully. He went on, "It may not console you, but it will at least relieve your mind to know that she died of a cerebral haemorrhage last night at my hotel in Providence - not long after we spoke, in fact." My eyes flew open as I realised that she had fallen victim, not to the dark man, but to the man before me. At my horrified gasp, he added with some gentleness, "There was no pain."
I bowed my head for a long moment in silent agony. I made no sound, and he let me be, sitting back, watching me, smoking.
After perhaps ten seconds, I took several deep breaths, and composed myself. I sat upright, and I faced him, head held high, resolute. He sat there, impassive, until I was quite ready. At last, I said with deceptive calm, "What now?"
He shrugged. "I have great respect for the institution of marriage, Ms Krycek - or do you prefer Ms Covarrubias? I can't keep up with you young women." His voice was mildly disapproving.
"I prefer Ms Krycek, but Ms Covarrubias is more appropriate," I said in a level voice, determined not to be goaded.
"Very well, Ms Covarrubias. As I was saying, I have great respect for the institution of marriage. I'm married myself," he added, and I had to bite my tongue to prevent myself from pointing out that he'd taken not only a wife of his own, but a few other men's, as well. "I don't have to ask you to give your husband to me, and I'm not going to. Just keep walking the line, and no-one gets hurt."
I watched him coolly. "I presume there is to be a loyalty test?" I said; deathly quiet, because I already had an idea of what it would be. I had already heard about the photos of Spender and Teena at Quonochontaug, and the Elder's opinion that the leak was from within. The dark man's deception was not far from being exposed, if it had not been exposed already.
Spender held up his hands in a what-can-I-do gesture. "Well, you know, Ms Covarrubias, I know that you're loyal to your husband and the Russian project. I need to know that you're also capable of being loyal to me."
I nodded slowly, unsurprised. I knew how the game worked. "All right," I said resignedly. "I'll bite. What's the test?"
Spender lit a cigarette. "Would you like one?" he offered. "I'm told you're smoking again."
"I quit," I said in a tightly controlled voice.
He gave a slight, deferential nod. "Good for you." He dropped a sliver of ash on the table, right in front of a No Smoking plaque. "Your mentor has been busy in Washington," he said idly. "I hear he's been feeding information to Mulder. Do you know anything about that?"
"Not at all, Sir," I lied. "Could he be playing Mulder for his own purposes? Serving the interests of the group?"
"That's quite likely, of course," Spender allowed, "but some of the information is quite removed from the interests of the group. Your mentor apparently has other loyalties."
"So do I," I pointed out.
"Yours can be used." I was silent, and Spender continued after a moment, "I have suspected your mentor for some time, and to some extent I have been using him; but now the group has become aware of his activities. I am under some pressure to eliminate him." His brow flickered for a moment, and he didn't need to tell me that he needed to reconsolidate his position after losing the digital tape and concealing the fact.
"And I'm the lucky winner," I said coldly.
Spender raised an eyebrow at that. "Yes, you are. You get to live. And so does your husband."
"For now," I retorted.
He shrugged. "I could kill you both now," he pointed out. "You think I don't have men in Russia? You started your work after you got the information off the tape. Obviously your base of operations is Tunguska. I could have Alex with a phone call." I kept my expression neutral, but I knew I was unnaturally pale. "And for what? Your mentor still dies. Martyrdom is honourable. Futile martyrdom is just stupid."
"You know nothing of honour," I said in a low voice.
"Be that as it may, there is an offer on the table. Do you accept?"
The dark man's face swam before me. I blinked twice to clear it.
I will never forget his face.
The elevator doors slid open, and he saw me, my gun trained on his chest. A fleeting look of disappointment crossed his features, followed by resignation. We stood there for agonising seconds, staring at one another, frozen. I stood firm, but there were tears streaming down my cheeks.
I heard footsteps. I flinched; half hoping it might be some other henchman of Spender's, here to finish us both; but then I knew who it was.
I felt waves of relief that he was here, of shame at what I had almost done...at what he would do for me. And then he was at my side, and his hands were pressing mine, easing them down, gently coaxing the weapon from my fingers. I relinquished it gratefully.
**I'll do it for you. Promise me you'll never kill, Mare.**
His left arm slid around my shoulders, drawing me close. His right rose the weapon abruptly, and fired it. My heart breaking, I saw the dark man's chest explode with blood; saw him stagger back, his expression one of supreme surprise. And then, I broke away, and ran to his side.
"Forgive me," I begged. I could hear Alexi tapping his foot anxiously, and I could sense him darting his eyes back and forth, wondering who might have heard, who might be calling the police. "Forgive me, please."
The dark man stared at me a moment; then, laboriously, he gave a slight movement that might have been a nod. He tried to speak. I leaned closer. "Benita...Donovan...compromised." I turned my head, meeting Alexi's gaze. "He's...playing you. Same goals," he managed, blood starting to bubble from his mouth, "different allegiance." With painstaking effort, he croaked out, "Go." My tears were flowing freely now; and I shook my head, determined to be with him until it was over. He looked imploringly at my husband.
Alex came, and, gently yet firmly, he led me away.
We didn't speak for several hours.
Wordlessly, we returned to my hotel, and I sat numbly in a chair while Alex destroyed the clothing we had worn at Mulder's. When he returned, we went to bed in our clothes, settling in one another's arms. Silently, he cradled me, kissing my hair, until I was ready to talk. It was the early hours of the morning when, finally, I spoke.
"How did you know?"
"Benita Charne-Sayrre," he murmured into my hair. "I've been back in the country for nearly a day now, and when I couldn't reach you in New York, I contacted her."
"She knew I was to kill him?" I demanded angrily. That anyone knew of this shameful thing was intolerable.
"Not exactly. Donovan heard of your mother's death - the group had a minute's silence for her, if you can believe that. When he got word that your mentor was also to die, he thought that was a shade too convenient. He expressed his suspicions of you to Benita." His voice was gentle. "I thought Spender might have found out about our work somehow, and killed them to protect you."
I nodded. "That's about right." My voice was thick with pain.
"I was certain there would be a price, a loyalty test," he continued. "I knew from Benita that Mulder was with Jeremiah Smith. When I saw the X on Mulder's window, I was sure you were there, waiting." He stroked back my hair from my face. "Why didn't you tell me, Mare?" he demanded, his voice incredibly gentle. "Why didn't you tell me you were in trouble?"
"My mother," I said brokenly. "She was going to hand me over for treason. If you'd come home, you might have been tried too. There was no time to call you - I didn't know you were in America. Spender offered me a way out, and I took it." My voice lowered. "Thank God you're here, Alexi."
He held me close, then, his head resting against my own. "I'm always here," he soothed. I felt my face grow hot with shame at the horror I had brought down on us - all for trusting the wrong people. I clung to him, craving his warmth. I felt so cold.
"My own mother," I said at last, my voice muffled by the wool of his sweater. "She would have seen me dead, all in the name of the goddamn Project."
"I believe they call it patriotism," he said dryly, cradling me. "They didn't make you kill her, did they?" he asked without reproach, pulling back to look at me.
"No, he spared me that, at least. I only found out this morning." My voice was bitter. "He knows about you and I, and about the vaccine, and he's guessed we're using Tunguska. He'll shield us...as long as I stay loyal."
"You mean as long as it's expedient," he retorted, smoothing back my hair. I touched his lips, my nod a concession. I waited for his anger - anger I'd have felt if he had compromised us this thoroughly - but none came. Instead, he kissed my forehead, as though sensing my guilt and pain. "You're cold," he said presently. He drew me closer.
I feared I would never be warm again.
I wept when I saw the photographs of the crime scene. So much blood. How much blood is there in the human body? It never seems so much until it's yours.
Or until you're the one that spilled it.
The dark man had scrawled a legend in his own blood at Mulder's door. **SRSG**, the letters read accusingly - letters which led Mulder to me. At first I thought the letters were intended to implicate me; but as the full extent of Benita Charne-Sayrre's betrayal became clear, we understood it to be an aid. The dark man knew before we did that Mulder's help would be essential - so essential that he delivered Mulder into the hands of the Consortium through me.
I thought of him a lot in those days. He knew, obviously, far more of my work with Alexi than my mother or I had told him. If he had gleaned such information in his final days, he clearly had used his time well.
And he had never told a soul.
Instead, he had passed his information to we, his killers, and allowed us to do with it what we chose.
Of all of us, I think now, only the dark man knew what ideology really meant.
Not I, and not my lover.
I don't think she knows just how much I love her as she is now.
This is my favourite Marita - strong, principled, truthful. I hate that she hurts, but I love why she hurts. She hurts because we killed a man, a man she had loved, and it is not in her to shy away from that truth as I do with my numbness and my silence. She faces it and lives it, carrying its weight in the lines of her face like a mark of Cain.
The irony of it is that she considers herself weak. She speaks of the dark man's death, and our part in it, as though she had the power to prevent it. She speaks of it with bitter self-loathing, and the fact that she was exploited by everyone - by her mother, by Spender - means nothing to her. She sees not the powerlessness of her situation, but her own, personal powerlessness to act; and she condemns herself for it. And though I took the gun from her trembling hands, and killed him in her stead as I swore I would do, still she looks on what she did as murder.
Killing is never easy. It is not, as those who have not killed suppose, a bridge you cross once, never to return. You don't become a monster on your first kill, or your second, or your third.
But you lose a little of your soul each time...never doubt that.
Killing the dark man was no easier than my first kill, that of an innocent lift operator on Skyland Mountain. I was more technically experienced, that's all. But this time, perhaps, there was a glimmer of redemption; for I killed him that my wife would never know the coldness that I know, that I carry with me like an ache.
The coldness of the dead.
Thankfully, that cold was tempered on this occasion. Whatever judgement the dark man may have had for Mare, he either forgave or pretended to forgive her, to give her some measure of peace. And whatever he thought of me, he chose in the extremity of death to tell us what he knew, that we might continue the work.
The damned work.
It had been six months apart, and I had felt every day of them. I ached for Mare, as though for some missing part of myself. I look back on those freshly-written words with considerable amusement, because even a year before, when I was beginning to love her, I would have dismissed them as nonsense...the stuff of fairy tales written by middle-aged women wistful for lives which weren't their own.
You know what? They were right on the money all along.
I hadn't had a lot of time to think of her, though; that was a blessing. I carried her in my heart like a talisman, but I was spared the torture of dreaming of her and remembering her: there was no time. Even the coldness and emptiness of my bunk in Norylsk was only a fleeting pang, because I slept, exhausted, almost at once. Managing the Russian operation was a full-time job, and I had the task of raising its ongoing costs, as well.
I wonder if you can imagine the magnitude of that responsibility. You can't support a testing regime on a hundred prisoners on Marita's income, even in Russia. We were paying Benita Charne-Sayrre fifteen thousand a month, and that was about what Mare made from the Consortium. Most of her modest United Nations income supported the Tunguska compound. That left me with the task of supporting Norylsk, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. I made a dozen trips to Morocco, selling Russian weaponry. We were only just breaking even.
In the end, I decided to risk a trip to America. I was wanted there, but the market price for weaponry was much higher. I escorted a container of merchandise to Saskatchewan. A neo-Nazi group just over the Canadian border had promised a dazzling figure that could support all five of the gulags for six months. The deal was made, funds were exchanged, and I made my way to New York and put the money in Mare's safety deposit box in Manhattan. Marita would put the money in and out of casino chips over several months, then wire it to me. This served a dual purpose: it legitimised the money as gambling wins, and it supported a rumour we had carefully orchestrated of a significant gambling habit. Some months Mare lived on less than a thousand dollars, and on her income, she needed a plausible reason why.
The money was not the only thing I left in the safe deposit box. I left a vial - a precious, precious vial. A vial with a miracle inside - a secret miracle, only a few weeks old.
A weak vaccine.
I went to her apartment, eager to surprise her. It was empty, and a phone call to her office revealed she was away for several days. No forwarding number. Her cell was turned off. Suppressing my alarm, I telephoned Benita Charne-Sayrre. I intended to tell her of the vaccine, but she pre-empted me with news of a new wealth of information: hard drives containing the US government's smallpox identification data, recovered by Scully while investigating the Jeremiah Smiths. She had already sourced copies, and they were en route to Norylsk. My jubilation at this admittedly fantastic find was muted; I knew Benita, and she was using her Worried Voice. It was then that I learned of the death of Larissa Covarrubias, and of the planned hit on the dark man.
"What do you make of this?" I asked cautiously.
"Maxwell thinks it's awfully coincidental that Marita's two closest affiliations will have died in twenty four hours. He thinks Larissa was sanctioned. That's my feeling as well."
Filing away her easy use of the Englishman's name for future reference, I said only, "I'm inclined to agree."
"Do you think she could be in danger of being exposed?" Benita asked. "Could someone be protecting her?"
"If so, there will be loyalty test," I mused. "I wonder what-" I broke off with a gasp. "Oh, hell. Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
"The mentor," Benita said firmly. "No doubt about it."
"Can you find out where she went?" I demanded harshly.
Benita's voice was dubious. "I can try, but you can't stop it, Alex. If she doesn't do it, they'll kill her."
"No," I agreed gravely.
"But I can do it for her."
I was in time - just.
I found her at Mulder's, about to put a bullet into the dark man. I coaxed the gun from her trembling fingers and drew her against me, shooting him myself. She gave in without a fight, leant against me with a sound of agony. And then we had left him - but not before hearing his final words.
"Alexi?" Mare said softly the following morning. The timbre of her voice was still bruised, still more husky than usual; but she was more like the Mare I knew. I felt my worry for her ease a little. It would be a long time before the scars of the last forty-eight hours faded, but she would come through. We both would.
I said nothing of this, but only looked up at her questioningly. She was brushing her hair vigorously. She went on, "Do you really think Benita is compromised?" I don't think she truly doubted her mentor. She was sounding me out.
I looked back to the mirror and shrugged. "It's possible. She knows a hell of a lot about the American project," I pointed out, rinsing my razor. "Why would Donovan give a scientist the Jeremiah Smith hard drives? I know it's variola related, but that's hybridisation material, not vaccination material. It's not need-to-know if she's really doing the work for him she says she's doing."
Mare nodded slowly. "Okay. But why side with him? He's probably paying more, but she's independently wealthy. We have the best data and the least compromised operation." She put the finishing touches on her coif, or whatever the hell women call it. Severe-looking bun thing, lots of pins. "She's always said that's why she wanted to work with us."
"I think they might be lovers," I said in a low voice. "There was an intimacy about how she said his name - I'm almost sure of it." She opened her mouth, about to play devils' advocate, but I forestalled her. "It could just be a fling - or she could have done it to get information..." I trailed off.
"But funny things happen to loyalties sometimes when people make love," she supplied, frowning. At my nod, she went on softly, "You and I know that, of all people." Her voice was suddenly husky, and my gaze locked on hers. She flushed. Then, in a whisper, "Alexi."
I hadn't been aware of the desire - the longing for her, always simmering just below the surface - but suddenly I was crossing the room to her, grasping her arms, lowering my mouth to hers. "God, Mare, it's been too long," I whispered urgently, my lips brushing hers as I spoke. Her warm breath on me was intoxicating. "Too damn long."
"Alex," she breathed. "Every day I wish-"
There was more, but it was lost as her mouth opened beneath mine, as she wound her arms around my neck, pulling me closer. I slid my hands down over her arms, the fabric of her dress catching, and I felt her breath against me quicken. I held her, one hand in the small of her back and the other higher up, pressing her torso to mine; and still it wasn't close enough. I could still breathe air that wasn't hers, could still see and hear things that weren't her...still my senses were assaulted by that which wasn't her, and so it could never be enough.
She kissed me, hard, backing up to the dressing table. I followed her, stumbling. I lifted her onto it, dragging up her demure dress to the waist, finding her bare beneath. A teasing line of fire shot through my veins, from my hand straight to my groin, and I gave a low sound against her mouth. "Going commando today?" I said thickly.
She gave a low, indulgent laugh. It was throaty, delicious. "I haven't finished getting dressed yet, you idiot." I laughed too, but my laugh became a sharp gasp as her mouth found mine once more. I'd been lifting my hands to touch her somewhere - breast, neck, between her legs, it didn't matter - but I let them fall again, realising the uselessness of it. I couldn't remember the last time I'd caressed her, or given to her with my mouth, or she to me...the fire between us was just too strong for that. We kissed, we held, and we had to have each other, right now; because the point wasn't the thrill of technique, or the languid teasing, as much as I loved those things. The point was her - her scent, her taste, her touch; and everything else was both too much and not enough.
She rocked against me, a single cry of need escaping her in a hiss; and that sound undid me. Urgently, I picked her up and carried her to the bed, holding the length of her body against mine, my mouth finding hers once more. I laid her out on the bed, and she made only the mildest, most teasing of protests:
"You're going to *ruin* my hair."
"Yes," I growled. "I am."
I stayed in America.
My reasons were many, chief among them an urgent need to be with my wife; but undeniably the most pressing one was the need to monitor Benita Charne-Sayrre. I commuted between Washington, Florida, and a half-dozen other hotspots in her work, along with fortnightly trips to Tunguska. I was still wanted for multiple counts of murder and treason, so it stood to reason that I should shelter with others in a similar predicament - in this case, a couple of my Canadian gun buyers. I did not dare live with Mare; but I based myself in New York, close enough to see her, close enough to touch her, and close enough that if she ever had to flee from Spender, we could run together.
"I think we need a safe house," I said abruptly one day.
"A safe house," Mare echoed, standing a plate in the rack. She didn't question me, but simply waited. I turned and watched her in mischievous silence for some seconds. It doesn't pay to be that predictable. At last, she said fondly, "Being elliptical doesn't work with me; you know that."
Dammit, she was laughing at me.
I shot her a mildly reproachful look, but gave in good-naturedly. "Somewhere we can run to," I explained, turning back to the basin. "Somewhere each of us can go if we're ever separated to wait for the other."
She was nodding. "Good idea. Any thoughts on places?"
"Maybe Morocco," I suggested, handing her a bowl. "Lots of points of entry. It's pretty neutral as far as the alien agenda is concerned. Who knows what could change down the track - we could have the Russians or the Americans after us, or both," I pointed out.
She looked alarmed. "You're not planning a double-cross, are you? The Russians have been good to us, and we're well established there." She stopped wiping to look at me.
I shook my head. "Not at all. But they might sell us out, too." A look of pained surprise crossed her features. I understood her reluctance to consider this possibility, but it had to be said. "Aside from our problems with Spender, I have some concerns about Mikhail. I'm just being cautious."
She nodded slowly, reluctantly. "Fair enough. What about Tangier? That's accessible by sea from Spain if necessary, and it's not as busy as Casablanca," she pointed out. "It's supposed to be beautiful," she added, her voice suddenly wistful.
"It is," I said, brushing a stray soap bubble from her nose. She shot me a gorgeous smile that made me almost forget about safe houses. I had planned something utilitarian, but I suddenly decided to get something nice - something we could live in together when all this was over, if it ever was. Somewhere we could wash dishes together for all eternity if we wanted.
Jeez, Alex, you've got it bad.
I said nothing of this; only, "Okay. Remember - if we get separated, we wait in Tangier for the other to appear. No matter how long it takes."
"As long as it takes," she agreed softly. The lines of her face were suddenly softer, as though I had addressed some fear she had not expressed. I thought I knew what it was, too: the thought that we might one day have to run and lose track of one another haunted me.
We washed in silence for a while. I studied her thoughtfully from the corner of my eye. She wore domestic day garb - faded jeans, paint-spattered shirt, hair pulled back in two braids. Braids, for God's sake. I'd married a schoolgirl, I reflected; and yet she was so right, so *Mare*. So removed from the cool, manufactured Marita who was called upon more and more these days, largely because of me. I had a sudden, mental flash of lifting her onto the bench, of sliding into her in an instant. It was a crude image, but it disguised a deeper truth: that *this* was the Mare I loved, that I craved, that I belonged to; and I longed to give her the kind of life where she could be that Mare all the time.
"Are you going back to Flushing tonight?" she asked at last, arranging her dish cloth neatly on the rack.
I nodded; said with distaste, "Neo-nazi scum meet tonight."
"You're going to slip up and call them that to their faces one day," she warned, opening a cupboard. She began to put cups away, her voice grave. "I know they've been a source of protection, but there have got to be other ways."
"It's not going to be for too much longer," I revealed. "They're planning a major bombing next month, and I'm not going to let it happen."
"And how do you plan to prevent it?" she demanded, whirling to face me, aghast. "It's not like you can turn State's evidence against them."
"I'm going to give them to Mulder." The cup she was lifting stopped, mid-air. "Goodwill gesture. We're going to need him sometime down the track." She put the cup up, more slowly than before.
"That's not bad," she said with some admiration. "Not bad at all."
But as it turned out, we needed him sooner than we thought.
Benita was, indeed, compromised.
Donovan was receiving as much information about our work as we were about his. He was playing us, anxious for us to find a vaccine that he could copy and present to the Consortium in order to halt the hybridisation deal. That would be fine - as much as I owed the Russians some fealty, my interest was salvation, not politics - but if the Consortium got the vaccine before it was in general circulation, there was a significant risk that the alien race would find out, and speed up the colonisation timetable. Mare and I would receive nothing for it - neither power nor money - and would probably wind up where we'd been not so long before.
Facing the death penalty.
There aren't too many geniuses out there, though, so we continued to use Benita. Marita misreported results in the nursing homes, directing her towards another, similar formula, hoping for clues on how to refine the formula that worked. Benita continued, following the same biomedical trail, unaware that she had already passed the biggest hurdle. Vaccine and alien samples were trafficked merrily between us. Everything was going well.
Until someone spilled it.
Our couriers had been trained, hypothetically, about what to do if ever such a thing were to happen; but none of them thought it would. For his part, our man was a perfect courier - polite, inoffensive, and totally forgettable.
But not, perhaps, a man equipped for an emergency.
It happened in Honolulu. Our man flew in from the Republic of Georgia, en route to make a sample delivery to Benita. For reasons known only to Customs, he was subjected to a search in spite of his diplomatic passport. Our courier panicked. The canister containing the alien pathogen was opened, and an officer died. Our courier was taken into custody and, we presume, passed on his limited information before being killed. He could give them little - places and a few names - but it was enough to bring us to the attention of the group. And while Donovan and Spender had each quietly allowed our work to continue for their own purposes, once we came to the attention of the others, they were forced to act.
I was on one of my jaunts to Tunguska, and the first I knew of what had happened in Honolulu was when I received a coded message from Mare. It was brief - one of our agents had fallen. A lowly one at that. Nonetheless, I knew our work had been irrevocably compromised, and I flew back to America at once.
Within thirty-six hours of her message, Mikhail, my second-in-command in Tunguska, contacted me with the news that an American intruder had stolen a piece of Tunguska rock. Mare and I had an emergency meeting, and she agreed more emphatically than I had expected when I broached the subject of terminating Benita and her work. But her expression darkened when I spoke of the dark man and his dying words.
"He knew something like this was going to happen," she said softly.
I nodded slowly. "I think he understood a lot more about this than either of us gave him credit for."
"I should have brought him over to our side," she said bitterly.
"Don't do this to yourself," I reproached. "You didn't do this. Your actions were forced by Larissa and by Spender. You were used, Mare."
She nodded. "Yes, I was used. And a man died." She looked away for a moment, then faced me once more. "Do you think he knew we would need Mulder? Do you think that's why he led him to me?"
I thought on this; said at last, "I think so. Mulder can be manipulated. If we play him right, we can use him to get back that rock."
Marita looked nervous. "We'd better. The difference between our operation and theirs has always been the availability of the alien pathogen in dormant form. All the samples they've had have been sentient and capable of generating radiation - they haven't dared use them for vaccine testing. They're at a disadvantage, and it's crucial that they stay that way."
I made a sound of exasperation. "Damn it, if the group gets a vaccine before we refine ours, we can kiss our lives goodbye. That's the only reason Spender and Donovan haven't done it - we're their insurance."
She was shaking her head. "I just don't understand why it leaves the subjects so weak. What the hell does it *do* to them?"
"Benita would know," I said sardonically. "Pity we can't ask her."
"It's infuriating! Without the vaccine, we're strong enough to beat the alien race with numbers and brute strength, but we're defenceless against the pathogen. With the vaccine, we can beat the pathogen but we're too weak to fight them. Oh, hell, why do I keep rehashing this?" she demanded, upset.
"Easy, Mare," I said softly, though I shared her frustration. "We'll work it out. We have a vaccine - that's the main thing. The rest of it will work itself out, as long as we can keep the group at bay."
"All right." She bowed her head for a minute, breathing deeply, then looked up once more, calm. "Do you have someone in mind for Benita and the rest of the cleanup?" she asked. "My position is risky right now. I can't be involved in that."
"I have a man in St Petersburg. Why is your position risky?" I demanded, worried.
"There are a lot of questions being asked about my lifestyle - or rather, why I don't have one. People are starting to ask why. The rumours about gambling debts are wearing thin." I nodded slowly. I'd been expecting this.
"We can't have that. Pull a hundred grand from Switzerland. Get this place redecorated - really rich lavish stuff, antiques; the whole deal. Get a car and a new wardrobe and an expensive watch. We need you in the American loop."
She protested, "Alexi, that only leaves four hundred thousand for the Russian operation aggregate total. You can't fund medical research on that, even in Russia. How much are you going to pay your man in St Petersburg?" she demanded.
I shrugged. "Multiple crimes in multiple jurisdictions...risking execution for treason...maybe a hundred grand," I hazarded.
"Leaving three hundred thousand in Austria. And the Austrian currency is low. It could stay low for six months. We don't have Jeraldine to sell secrets for us anymore, Alex."
"Let me worry about the money, Mare. You worry about staying alive and in the loop. Use whatever you have to. We can cut corners on the Russian operation." At her querying look, I elaborated, "We can trim Norylsk, Georgia and Azerbaijan back to admin and pathology research - get rid of the prisoners and the guards. I'd shut them altogether, but having them makes the governments feel like they have a stake in us so they leave us alone. But I'm not cutting corners on you."
She sighed. "All right." A new thought occurred to her, and she said suddenly, "Mulder would know about the UFO crash in Tunguska. Once he finds out where the rock is from, there's at least a fifty-fifty chance he'll decide to go there - you do realise that, don't you?"
I met her gaze thoughtfully, wondering where she was heading. "Actually, I hadn't given it any thought, but you're right," I agreed.
"Just an idea I had," she said softly. "He's going to be useful - especially if we can't prevent colonisation. He'll probably be a major player in the American resistance, if he doesn't self-destruct first."
"Most likely," I agreed. I looked at her with sudden awe. "You think we should try to make him immune?" I demanded admiringly.
"It's worth a shot. It would only take one test series to be sure of his immunity, and you could fast track that - say a week at the Tunguska compound. He'll be sick for a while, but I don't think the Consortium has anything planned that would require him to be on duty, from our perspective."
I nodded, my mind rapidly ticking over the possibilities. "All right. We'll play that one by ear - see if we can play him in that direction. That will be your job - if I do more than direct him to the rock, it will look too much like a put-up job. I want him to think I'm a pawn, too." It felt good to be conspiring with her again. I felt the lethargy of helplessness lifting, my sense of control over our situation returning. My blood was pumping with it.
She nodded her agreement. "There's something else. Mulder may have some immunity to the retrovirus carried by the morphs, thanks to his adventure in Alaska a couple of years back. Might be worth taking some blood, seeing if we can synthesise a vaccine. If the alien race can't control us with the pathogen, eliminating us with the retrovirus could be the next prong of attack."
"Will do. I'll have someone standing by to work on that in Tunguska." I shook my head. "Damn it, if only we didn't have to lose Benita. The woman's a genius."
"We'll find another genius, Alexi. Just get Mulder in and out of the compound alive. Everything else will fall into place."
We made these plans, and we parted reluctantly, the need to touch white-hot after weeks apart. Our fingers brushed as we said our farewells, and it galvanised us into action. We found one another instantly, held one another's faces between our palms, mirroring each other; kissed with a strange, urgent tenderness. We broke apart reluctantly, for there was no time. I felt her cheeks beneath my palms, felt how perfectly they fit there, and captured forever in my mind how she looked when I held her that way.
It was the last time that I touched her with both hands.
I returned to my fascist friends easier in mind.
I e-mailed Mulder his final tip-off, alerting him to the location of the Canadians. Meanwhile, I played up to my role as the psychotic genius, spouting at length about the Black Cancer. When they got that glazed-over facial expression, I knew I'd had the desired effect. After the bust, I expected, they would give Mulder anything he wanted to hear about their traitor. Hopefully, he would start to put things together from that, and come up with as much of the picture as I wanted him to know.
When the time came, I handed them over to Mulder. Once that goodwill gesture had been accepted and I'd taken the obligatory punch, he and Scully and I settled down to talk.
I told them about the incoming courier from Russia with a diplomatic pouch, and waited patiently as they took off after the American thief. When they returned, diplomatic pouch in hand, I was relieved to find that it indeed contained the Tunguska rock. With little choice, I submitted to custody, knowing Mulder wouldn't leave me in the county lockup. The rock would go somewhere secure and comparatively independent with Scully, and I would get a safe house.
A relatively safe house.
Mulder and Scully left me with Skinner, who threw a punch of his own - a real one, not the pissy ones Mulder does - and left me to freeze, handcuffed to the railing on his balcony. The next morning, he threw some toast at me, glowering, before storming off to work. I thought Skinner's reaction was a little extreme, given that I'd really only punched him a couple of times.
But then I remembered Duane Barry's death and the heat he took for that, not to mention Scully's sister and Scully's abduction - he'd always had a soft spot for her - and that asshole Cardinale had shot him, too; maybe he thought I was part of that. I had a bit more understanding of his attitude then, and chalked one up to bad karma. God knew, I'd earned a bit of that.
I was still cold, though, dammit.
The American thief broke into Skinner's apartment later that day. As Mare explained to me later, conflict had broken out in the group about the vaccine in the wake of the rock incident. The courier had wisely not given himself into custody; but instead hoped to recover the rock and save his own hide. I was more worried about my own: caught between a rock and a high place, I threw myself over the seventeenth storey balcony and prayed the cuffs - and my wrist - would hold. When the courier found me, I wrestled with him and pulled him over the side - the longest ten seconds of my life. No guilt on that kill - it was the only defense I had.
I was still there, dangling between life and death when Mulder retrieved me a half-hour later. "Stupid-ass haircut", he says with a punch, when I just damn near got killed in the so-called safe house he'd set up.
One of these days I'm gonna quit playing penitent for his father and slug him back, I really am.
When I woke, I was alone.
I was still handcuffed to the steering wheel, my shoulder aching, my wrist abraded and bruised. We were parked outside Mare's, and Mulder was gone. I was refreshed in mind, if not in body.
I watched the lights and shadows of the windows, trying to work out what was going on. Mare was moving back and forth - I could tell from the shape of the head - but there was no sign of Mulder. His cell phone was on the dash, plugged into the car charger; and after an hour had passed, I decided to risk using it. I phoned Mare, and after several busy signals, I got through.
"Where are you?" she asked urgently.
"Right under your nose. Mulder has me handcuffed to the steering wheel of his car downstairs." The curtain flickered as she peered down at me. "Can you speak freely?"
"Yes - he's asleep. I'm just about to wake him and feed him the pouch information. I'm not going to give him Tunguska - just the entry point in Norylsk. I think it's better if he works it out for himself. You know what he's like."
I nodded slowly. "Good. It's all arranged with Mikhail - they're expecting us." Then, "Did you hear about the courier?"
"Yes," she said grimly. "What happened?" At my explanation, she said furiously, "Damn it! They had no right to put you at risk like that!"
I laughed at that. "You're like a mother hen sometimes, Mare." It felt good, that someone got that angry on my behalf.
"You're my husband," she said simply.
"It wasn't a criticism," I said gently. "I like it when you get protective."
She smiled indulgently - I could hear it in her voice. "There have been some Consortium developments," she said. "Donovan's buddy Senator Sorenson is calling a congressional enquiry into the American courier's death. Total smokescreen leading to nothing, but Donovan wants to publicly distance the group from the rock theft. Seems some of our Russian comrades aren't too happy with Camp Spender right now," she added sardonically.
I smiled faintly. "The enquiry doesn't really affect our position, and the more preoccupied Donovan is, the more exposed that leaves Benita. I'd say let it be." Then, as an afterthought, "It could even be to our advantage, if it buys Mulder's work some protection."
"That remains to be seen."
"Let's worry about what we can change," I counselled. "Speaking of which, can you have the billing entry for this call wiped from Mulder's phone bill?"
"Piece of cake. You should see my newest hack program," she added gleefully. "You could co-opt the government of a small country with it." I had to laugh - she was such a computer nerd. "I'll go wake him now - get him moving. You must be cold down there." Her tone was solicitous. I could imagine her serving me chicken soup in my sickbed with that voice. The image amused me very much. What had Mare said once? Something about things that happen to normal people, and not people like us?
She was waiting for a response. "More like profoundly relieved," I snorted. "I swear, if he hits me one more time-"
"You two always did like a bit of B&D," she laughed.
"That was a long time ago," I said irritably. "I'm serious, Mare, he's driving me nuts."
"Mulder drives everyone nuts. Even Scully shot him." We laughed, but then she sobered. She cautioned, only half-joking:
"Don't kill him. We need him."
He did hit me again, and I didn't kill him. How much of that was self-control and how much the handcuffs, I don't know.
My little display at the airport was fortunate, but totally unplanned. I was pissed off and humiliated. Twenty-four hours with Mulder and I'd been punched on at least four separate occasions and left to dangle in the cold over the side of a seventeenth-storey balcony. Pissing in the wind, you might say. His snide remarks were not much more than schoolyard bullying, and that was about how they made me feel. I cursed him in English, and then my English left me as it sometimes did when I was very worked up, and I cursed him in Russian.
That was when he decided to bring me to Tunguska with him.
I suspect, though, that he intended to bring me all along. I think in retrospect that the whole thing was just one more bit of bullying. I wondered if Scully ever saw this side of him. I doubted it.
We arrived in Tunguska without incident. Mulder backed off a bit, perhaps realising he had pushed me too far; or perhaps just concerned about alienating his only interpreter. Regardless, we were imprisoned, and I was immediately taken to Mikhail. I directed him on Mulder's vaccination program, and had them throw me back in with Mulder once more. I convinced him that I had been interrogated, and he responded by shoving me against the wall.
Like you couldn't have predicted that.
"What did you tell them?" he demanded.
"That we were stupid Americans lost in the woods," I snapped. His breath was hot on me, and I had a fleeting memory of another time; but I dismissed it. I shoved him away, sick of being his punching bag. "Don't touch me again."
Mulder stared at me as though I had lost my mind. "Don't *touch* you?" he demanded, misinterpreting my words. Maybe I wasn't the only one with a memory of other times. "What are you, married or something?" I turned and glowered at him, and he scoffed incredulously, "You're kidding! Who? La Femme Nikita?"
"Fuck you," I snapped, turning back to look out the barred window. "You're such an asshole, Mulder."
We each paced for a bit, avoiding one another as well as we could in such close quarters. Subjected to the cold and the filth and the stench, far worse than the already-awful conditions I lived in myself in Norylsk, I felt pity for my prisoners; but it was only fleeting. They were all violent criminals, otherwise destined for the death penalty. They had all accepted this arrangement in exchange for parcels of land and money for their families. In the circumstances, their consent wasn't exactly free and heartfelt, but whose is to anything in life? Mine sure as hell wasn't. And it wasn't as though Marita and I were living in the lap of luxury - we worked our asses off to feed and shelter them. That creepy geologist in the next cell was the worst - he'd taken a rock with the alien pathogen and used it to wipe out his wife, her lover, and her family. Only the wife got the vaccine in time, but she came out catatonic.
At last - partly to make peace and partly to pass the time - I said quietly, "You know, Mulder, sooner or later you're going to have to come to terms with the fact that if it hadn't been me that night at your father's house, it would have been someone else."
"Yeah," he grunted by way of concession. His voice was not that of fresh anger, but dull with bitterness. "But it *was* you." He leaned against the wall, his arms folded, watching me.
I nodded with some understanding, but said only, "If I had said no, Mulder, they would have killed me or mine."
"You mean your wife."
"We weren't married at that stage," I said, looking up at him from my stance on the floor, "but yeah."
He thought on this. "Does she know you swing both ways?" he asked curiously. Then, before I could answer, "Does she know what you *do*? I mean she doesn't think you're a travelling encyclopedia salesman, does she?"
"She knows everything," I said darkly. "Everything."
He looked at me quizzically. "But doesn't she - well, mind?"
"Of course she minds," I snapped. "We both do. You think this is the life I grew up wanting?" I demanded bitterly.
He frowned, but didn't reply; and after that we spoke no more.
Next time I decide to take Mulder prisoner, remind me to take a straightjacket.
After I was removed from the cell, we ran the treatment on Mulder. We drew some blood and sent it to Norylsk to attempt to isolate the alien retrovirus. We gave him the vaccine. We gave him the pathogen. We continued this way, vaccine and oil in turn, for much of the night. We had been trialling it this way, incrementally, attempting to overcome the terrible malaise that struck the subjects in the aftermath of the treatment, but to no avail.
Every rule has an exception, though.
We weren't expecting any trouble from Mulder the following day. Usually, the newly- tested prisoners were only semi-conscious, stumbling blindly to keep up with their comrades. Exchanging small-talk with Mikhail, I didn't even look for him, expecting that he was passed out in his cell. He was almost on top of me before my guards and I realised what was happening; and by the time I came to myself, he had me in the back of a hurtling truck, several miles from the compound. I knew of the sometimes-erratic effect of the vaccine on the psyche, and Mulder struck me as someone predisposed to that outcome. The danger was real.
So I jumped.
I fell on my left arm - the same one that was hurt from the balcony episode and the cuffs. Hopelessly lost, I ran in the unfamiliar territory of the woods, clutching it, little dreaming that I would soon crave the feeling of pain it sent through me. At that point, I thought I would be quite happy for the damn thing to fall off and be done with it.
God and irony conspire in their little jokes sometimes.
When I encountered the boys, I was relieved. Naturally, I knew of them, local boys and men who had cut off their left arms in a bid to avoid being tested. It was a pointless exercise - we only ever tested convicts, and some of the boys were too young to have ever received the smallpox inoculation anyway. But one loose- lipped guard had spread the word of a one-armed prisoner we had refused, and then suddenly Tunguska was filled with amputees. I thought the whole thing was darkly funny - it appealed to my sense of the macabre. I still do, actually; though it's taken me a while to reach that point.
I convinced the boys that I was an escapee, my main concern. They would have killed me if I hadn't. Laughable. I was their enemy, in their eyes; but I would no more have harmed them than a butterfly. Like I said...God and irony.
I will draw a curtain over what happened next. I have never spoken of it, not even to Mare; and in that uncanny way she has, she has known not to ask. I will put it baldly for posterity; but details are something I cannot give, even now.
They waited until I was asleep, and then they cut off my arm.
Deliberate choice of words. Amputation just doesn't fit, you see. There was nothing clean and efficient about it. They took a hot knife and sawed at my arm until it was gone, and by then I was hysterical, screaming incoherently with pain.
When it was over, I found myself locked in terror, paralysed by a chilling fear that they would maim me in some other way. I knew it wasn't true - that their violence was not malicious and their interest was in my protection - but I was beyond all reason. I flinched when they came near me to feed me or bandage my arm; and I refused to go with them when they decided to move deeper into the woods. I couldn't have: I could barely move. The shock and the cold were slowly overtaking me.
It was a relief.
Mare found me.
As she explained later, she had arrived in Norylsk just hours after Mulder's escape from the camp in Tunguska. She had taken advantage of Spender's absence, as required by the enquiry, and followed us, aware that her own position might be tenuous in the aftermath of Benita's death. Upon learning of Mulder's escape and my disappearance in his wake, she had taken a crew and followed the near-perfect tracks in the frozen ground. They knew where I fell from the truck: I lost a shirt button. Yeah, you read it right. I laughed when they told me that.
A fucking button. Who but a wife would know me by my button?
They searched the area - the whole crew by day; just her and a dedicated guard by night. That information washed over me when I heard it - I had expected nothing else of her - but later, when I really thought about it, it was so damn comforting. She did that for three days. By now, given the sub-zero temperatures, she was too worried to bother with subterfuge.
"Alexi!" she screamed. "Alexi!"
I heard her crying out that way for hours; but, hoarsely paralysed by hypothermia, shock and blood loss, I couldn't respond. I fought for consciousness, and in the extremity of hunger, I gnawed on the remains of my own limb, discarded by my misguided saviours. I toyed with my wedding band, now on my right hand, and waited patiently, knowing that she would never give up. And she never did.
At last, her hoarse cries drew near, and I cried out as best that I could. I heard her footsteps grow nearer, heard her break into a run. I hid my arm under leaves and, pulling myself into a sitting position, I pulled my jacket around me, wanting to spare her the shock. I would tell her - warn her.
She ran into the clearing, gasping for breath, and she slumped with exhausted relief at the sight of me. She came to me, dropped to her knees in front of me. Wordlessly, she threw her arms around me, silent tears streaming from crystal-clear eyes. I held her with my one arm, and I felt her stiffen as she registered the absence of the second. I felt her right arm, which embraced my left side, tighten, instinctively looking for that which should be there but was not.
She pulled back, her face querying, the suspicion not yet fully formed, not yet articulate. She knew that something was wrong, but not what it was. She cried out in Russian for her crew to stay back, and I knew I should tell her before she worked it out, but I couldn't speak.
I remember the exact moment when she realised; when the pieces of the puzzle came together. Her querying look was flooded with horror, as though she had been slapped, when she remembered the rebel amputees. She pulled my jacket aside, but did not look, still staring up into my eyes. I stared back, afraid of her grief, her disappointment, her rage; for then I must feel my own.
She felt her way, her hands tentatively finding my shoulder. They moved down my stump, and when she found the sudden absence mid-bicep, I saw her breath catch in her chest. Her fingertips moved fearfully over the sodden bandage, and it hurt so much, teasing over the deep wound, even as my phantom itches clamoured for her touch. But somehow I couldn't ask her to stop: I needed to confront her with it, to see her pull her bloodied hand away and accept it anyway.
Maybe then I could accept it, too.
"Oh, Alexi," she whispered, and pressed her mouth to mine.
We stayed there for a long moment, but finally, she pulled away, her silent tears dried to powdery ice on her cheeks. She said softly, "Where is it? This cold - even after this time, perhaps it can be saved -" but I shook my head before she could finish.
"They took it?" she demanded.
I shook my head, and motioned with my head to the pile of leaves, reluctantly. It was a direct question, and I had never lied to her. I waited while she uncovered it, seeing it as though in slow motion. Her movements slowed as she saw the teeth marks and the desecration, and she stared up at me in horror as she realised what I had done. I averted my head, ashamed; but she said sharply, "Look at me." I shook my head, and she said with fresh tears, "Look at me!"
At last, I complied; and she said softly, "If this is how you stayed alive for me, I'm glad, Alex. Don't you ever be ashamed of this."
I shook my head again, my face twisted with pain. The gulf I had perceived between us, when I had killed and she had not - the unworthy bloodiness I felt - it was nothing compared to this. I felt an essential, unnavigable wall rise between us, and I was sure it could never be breached. I heard her saying, dimly, "Don't do this, Alex; don't leave me," but I retreated into myself, staring off into the distance, far from her.
She watched me for a long moment; but then, at last, she came to me, carrying my arm. She crouched in front of me and waited patiently for me to look at her. At last, I did it, watching with numb horror as she lifted my arm in front of me. "Look at it, Alex. Look at what you did. You did it for us. And so will I."
I stared at her, bewildered and perplexed, as she used her fingernails to pull off a few twisted strands of tissue from the bone. They were frozen; little beads of ice crumbled through them. She looked at them for a long moment, steeling herself in a way I understood all too well, and then put them into her mouth, closing her eyes briefly as she swallowed hard.
When she opened them, I was still staring, unaware of my tears until she brushed them away. "We all do what we have to do to survive, Alexi," she said gently. "You don't have to punish yourself - or me." She looked down at my arm. "We are man and wife. Your sins are my sins. There is no room for punishment between us."
And then, at last, I gave way; and she held me; and I was comforted.
She took me to St Petersburg.
We slept fitfully on the plane, and the hospital was a whirlwind of doctors and specialists, who proclaimed me to be in surprisingly good condition for my ordeal. The prosthetic specialist was optimistic about my prospects for rehabilitation. I would be able to drive a car and button my clothes and all of that. I wondered aloud if I would be able to knit, but Mare said she thought I would only be able to knit as well as I did now. I told her that didn't bode very well. She just laughed, a little wanly, but a laugh just the same.
My stump itched and it would take time to heal - certainly I would not be able to use a prosthetic for a while - but I was able to try one on. "I look like a Thunderbird," I said disgustedly.
"Thunderbird?" she echoed, bewildered.
"Sixties British kids' show. The parts were played by marionettes." I started humming the theme and did a little impression, tip-toeing across the room, bobbing the prosthesis up and down. She really laughed then, and it made me feel that I might be able to laugh again too.
Back at the hotel, when at last we went to bed, she spooned against me as usual; and I felt more potently than ever my loss. We lay there against one another, and I couldn't hold her. That hurt in a way that all the little irritations had not. I tried to compensate by nuzzling her neck; but at last, I pulled away in distress. She rolled over, trying to get close, but I turned away.
She watched me for some time, but finally, she rose. I heard her moving behind me, before she came around the bed into view. She knelt before me, saying diffidently, "Alexi, make love to me."
"Mare," I protested weakly, but she cut me off.
"Do it, Alex. Show me that you love me. Show me that you want me. Make me know."
I sat up on the side of the bed, cradling her cheek with my hand, and leaned against her, my head on her shoulder. I didn't intend to do as she asked; but I inhaled her scent, and it was intoxicating. It was sex and heat and lust; it was the gentle warmth of comfort and compassion; it was adoration. She was my lover, my mother, my wife. Everything I'd ever craved in another person. In the depth of my loss, I felt every part of me reach for her, needing her close; and then I was cradling her with my arm, holding her to me as I kissed her urgently, needing her comfort and her warmth.
She touched my face wondrously with her fingertips. "Alexi," she whispered. Her arms wound around me, not at my shoulders or my waist as usual, but one arm at each, bridging the gap where I would normally have held her. She was compensating for me, freeing me to touch her with my hand. She moved closer to me between my legs, pressing herself against me, moving with me as my lips found hers, as I sought her taste and her scent hungrily. I touched her, craving the feel of her under my palm, missing its mate but not minding as much as I'd expected.
I opened my eyes, and hers opened at the same instant, our gazes locked in breathtaking union. Her eyes were like quartz, her irises such an elusively pale green that they were almost clear, trailing delicately around blue- black pupils, bottomless and unfathomable. They spoke of great pain and great love, and it made me ache to know that I was responsible for both. I rested my head against hers for a long moment, breathing her name in an erratic melody. Her hands were at my neck, cradling me like something precious. I felt loved.
I touched her.
Cautiously, tentatively, I moved my hand over her skin - skin I had touched a thousand times before. I touched her with wonder, the feel of her beneath my hand a revelation. I trailed curious fingertips down over her flesh, over the thin silk of her nightshirt. I found her nipple with the back of my hand, and I teased it, relishing the feel of it moving across my hand, catching at each knuckle; the feel of the silk rustling over it, a mere sliver of a barrier between us. I slid my hand beneath her shirt and took her breast in my hand, explored it curiously, and found out what she liked all over again. I toyed with it, gentle yet childlike, treasuring as though for the first time that simplest of pleasures: that of touching my wife. I was oblivious to her need and my own, fascinated by the feel of her beneath my palm. I explored further, my hand drifting over her belly, and felt her shudder against me. It was only then that I saw her predicament, or was conscious of my own. She was watching me, her skin flushed, her eyes bright; and my need was white-hot.
I kissed her fiercely; whispered, "I'm sorry - I just-"
She stopped me. "I know." She took my hand in hers and guided it back to her belly, and kissed me, hard. "Do it, Alex," she gasped between breathless kisses, her harsh whisper scraping across my desire like a knife. "Touch me. Anywhere you want."
"I want you everywhere."
And then we were kissing once again, ravenous for one another. I pushed at her with my head, chased her with my mouth, devouring her, unable to get enough. She stood, pulling me up, moving backwards, letting me push her. The solid wall behind her, she pressed herself into me, flinging her head to one side. Roughly, I pulled aside the shirt and nuzzled the soft hollows of her neck like a man possessed. She leaned against me weakly, making soft sounds of longing. "God! Alex," she cried out, her breasts pushing into me, her body swaying in agonising need. "I want you so bad."
"I can't wait," I breathed, grabbing the silk of her shirt in my hand. "I want you, I need you." I lifted the shirt over her head, awkwardly, and she made a low sound as the fabric dragged on her nipples, teasing them. I dropped the shirt, heedless of where it landed.
She drew me close. Her fingertips dragged across my shoulder, the top of my dressing, her smooth skin skittering across the raw nerves there. I felt the ruthless twinges of new flesh forming, and they sent ripples of pleasure through my veins, right on the knife-edge of pain. I sank to my knees before her, my head pressed against her, moaning with the exquisite pain/pleasure of it. She cradled my head against her stomach, bending to kiss me with sudden tenderness.
I held up my hand to her, and when she took it, I pulled her down to straddle me. The floorboards were hard and cold against my back, but I was heedless, drunk on her, craving her like an addict. I wanted to fill her in every way, to make her forever mine, because I was hers. We rolled around the floor like animals on heat, knocking furnishings and our belongings about carelessly; yet what I felt for her then was not primal, but spiritual. It was that gift of God, of soul meeting soul. I cradled her head with my arm - the only time I truly grieved the absence of its mate - and I worshipped her.
At last, we staggered up, and I laid her face down on the bed, stripping her silk trousers and my own. I parted her thighs, laying her open for me, and knelt between her slightly bent knees, moulding my body to hers. I kissed the back of her neck, pushing her hair up and away, breaths heavy with aching desire. She took my hand in her own and drew it under her shoulders so that my arm cradled her. She laid her cheek against my palm, waiting a moment for me; but then she realised my dilemma, and reached beneath her to guide me inside her. I laid my head against her shoulder, pushing into her, felt her body part willingly to make room for me. She was slick and ready, and she gave a shocked gasp as I filled her, thrusting back at me stroke for stroke, pushed to the hilt at last yet seeking more. Her face deep in the bed, I heard her crying out in breathless need as she came, felt her grow hard and tense, then relax, shuddering, in the cradle of my arm. And when at last I emptied myself into her, and we fell apart, she was weeping; but her tears were of blissful exhaustion; and she turned over, laughing joyfully through them, and pulled me down to her. I was alive, we were man and wife, and we had made love. My arm was gone; but the world was back more or less the way it should be.
And I felt whole once more.
How much will we suffer?
I must ask the question, because our sacrifice never seems to end. This vaccine, this resistance which will save the world has come at a cost which sometimes seems too great for any two people to bear.
I feel the money, of course. Last month I lived on four hundred and twelve dollars. Although I no longer had to pay Benita, the new vaccine had to be synthesised, and Alexi was out of commission because of his arm, so there was no gun money. There was my flight to Tunguska and his prosthesis. I know there are people who live this way all the time, but I don't know how to do it. Money was never a problem for me before all this happened.
But the money isn't the point. The money is the most pressing sacrifice, the one I live with in every corner of my life; but it is the one I feel the least. Walking home from work because I can't afford a taxi and a bus would raise questions is inconvenient...vexatious. But it doesn't tear at my soul.
The thought of my husband, maimed, living in a filthy little bunker in the bowels of a gulag half a world away does that.
So I have to ask...how much will we suffer?
I haven't even begun to make sense of my mother or the dark man. They haunt my dreams, images indelibly imprinted on the backs of my eyelids, dancing before me whenever I close my eyes.
Hell, sometimes even when they're open.
I can turn from that image if I really want to, though. Benita Charne-Sayrre is waiting just behind it for a turn of her own. Patient woman, Benita was. Useful trait in a scientist. More useful in a ghost, maybe. I have an awful feeling that by the time this thing is over there will be a long line of the dead queuing at my psychic door.
I called a counselling hotline one night, if you can believe that. I didn't get into the alien vaccine business - I wanted counselling, not forcible psychiatric care - but I did explain that my mother and my two closest friends had been murdered in a short period. The woman was very kind, and she let me ramble incoherently for a while before referring me to a couple of grief counsellors. I didn't use them. It wasn't the grief that undid me.
It was the realisation that there was no one left that I could call at three in the morning.
The corollary of that is that I have no one I can call upon now. No-one, but a man I met for but an hour, a man who skirts the edges of my dark world, a man who should not be pulled into the abyss. But I have no other choice. Just lately, that could be said of most things.
I am beginning to believe that choice is a lie.
"I think it's some kind of experiment."
I'm not sure how convincing my control looked, but it felt lousy. The sounds of weeping mothers assaulted my ears, and I felt a dull ache in my stomach. In the face of dying children, the mental gymnastics of dealing with the Consortium seemed like so much bullshit that I thought I would scream.
"An experiment?" I forced out at last.
Skinner spoke reluctantly. "Using bees as carriers."
"That's what was in those packages?" I said sharply, stifling a sound of horror. Spender had said nothing about a test - I had been asked to travel to Payson solely to monitor Skinner. I knew the bees would be the mode of delivery of the alien pathogen, but I had believed testing was still two years away, and colonisation another three after that. If they were testing with variola now-
"Have you told Agent Mulder this?" I asked harshly.
Skinner hesitated. "Not yet," he said reluctantly.
"Why not?" I demanded, though I knew perfectly well why not. Mulder didn't know of Skinner's deal with Spender for Scully's life. Skinner was supposed to be covering this up, not spilling the beans.
"I can't," Skinner said softly, and I felt a moment of pity.
"Are you involved in this, Mr Skinner?" My tone was interrogative - though not for the reasons he probably thought.
"I didn't-" he stopped; then, "No, I'm not involved."
"If you know who is behind this, you have to come forward, Mr Skinner," I counselled urgently. "No-one else can."
He looked at me; then, as though by common agreement, we turned to look at the children. There weren't many left now, mercifully; most were covered with sheets, their mothers choking out their grief, clutching at lifeless hands. I felt the bile rising in my chest; felt the suffocating heat of shame. Beneath it all lay terrible, mortal sadness.
"They'll never know what it is to grow up," Skinner said thickly.
"They'll never know what it is to be compromised," I countered in a low voice. Skinner turned back to me, his expression one of fury. If not for the children, I would have laughed - I spoke not of him, but of myself. I met his gaze; insisted, "Talk to Agent Mulder."
Skinner shot me a look I knew all too well. It was a trapped look - one I met in the mirror more and more of late. "I can't." I challenged him, my eyes flashing:
"You have to."
I returned to New York with a heavy heart.
I worked through the night, stopping only to e-mail Alex with the latest developments. Increasingly, I was being asked by the wider group to monitor Spender, and I called him in the early hours of the morning for an update, another operative at my side. I almost laughed when Spender reported Skinner's threat to kill him, and had to restrain myself from cheering the latter aloud. It was four in the morning before I finally returned home, cursing myself: my body was no longer equipped for this kind of abuse.
I got out of my car with a caution that had become as natural as breathing; and I turned quickly, scanning for the unfamiliar, or for that which was too mobile or too still.
It was the unfamiliar which caught my eye - a government fleet sedan with Washington plates. I felt for my firearm; but then I recognised the slumped figure behind the wheel. Breathing out in a hiss, I stalked over and tapped on the window. Skinner woke, grabbing for his weapon; but then his hand fell back into sight. He opened the window.
"What are you doing here, Mr Skinner?" I demanded in a low voice. "It's four in the morning. And how do you know where I live?"
"I'm sorry," he said, genuinely contrite, stifling a yawn. "I was driving through the night - I wanted to clear my head after today," he added, and I nodded, understanding more than he thought. "By the time I realised where I was, I was in New York. I wanted to see you about this business in Payson anyway. I was going to wait until a decent hour and then come up and knock."
"You came to New York to sleep in your car and see me. Don't you have a life?" I demanded irritably.
"Yeah, but I'm hoping for an exchange."
"That might be funny to someone who's slept in forty hours," I conceded. "You may as well come upstairs, but I'm not promising talk until I've slept. On the upside, my apartment is warmer than your car."
We walked up the stairs in silence, but at the door, Skinner suddenly said piercingly, "Will this compromise you?"
I shot him a look. He had discerned more than I'd thought that day. "No. Will it compromise you?"
"I don't know."
I opened the door and motioned for him to enter. "Make yourself comfortable," I said, throwing my keys on the table with a clatter. "Tea?"
"Only if you're having one."
I wasn't going to, but I made one anyway. When I returned to the lounge, I'd stripped off my makeup and clothes and put on my pyjamas - the chaste navy flannel number I used when Alex was out of town, not the sultry silk. My jewellery was gone, my wedding ring moved from my chain to my hand as usual. I might not have done that if I'd really thought about it; but when it was done, I decided, looking at it, that there was no real harm. It wasn't as though Skinner would discuss me with anyone, save possibly for Mulder. Shrugging, I put on my dressing gown. Not exactly elegant, but dammit, a guy comes to your place at 4am, you're not going to dress up.
Well, maybe if it had been Alex.
Nah. Straight to bed, don't stop for trifles.
Skinner was sitting on the lounge, his coat neatly hung up, his tie loosened. He looked a little closer to the land of the living, as though he'd taken a bit of my discarded facade and made it his. "Thanks," he said as I set down his tea. He drank from it gratefully. Then, "Are we alone?"
"I hope so," I retorted, annoyed. Why did the idiot come here if he thought it wasn't secure?
"No," he said hastily, motioning to my hand. "I mean, I thought your husband might be here."
"Oh," I nodded. "No. He's overseas." I was mildly amused that he'd done the wedding ring spot-check. He was an attractive man. I was flattered.
"Ah. Well, I wanted to talk to you about Payson. I was wondering if your enquiries turned up anything about who sent those packages." He stopped a moment, then went on hesitantly, "I'm almost sure it would have been a government agency."
"No-one else would have access to smallpox stocks," I conceded. His head jerked up, looking at me. "One of the doctors told me you were asking about that. The first round of autopsies are through, and you were right," I explained. He sat there, frowning. I went on, "When you said you thought it was an experiment - testing what?"
"A method of delivery," he said in a low voice.
"Delivery of what?" I queried, wondering how much he knew, how much he had put together, and how much he had tied in with Mulder. He was not a stupid man; I suspected he had a reasonable picture.
"Smallpox?" I said cautiously.
"No. Something else. It would have to be something biochemically similar." He asked interrogatively, "Are you familiar with a congressional enquiry held by Senator Sorenson earlier this year?"
"Yes. Mulder believes that there is a pathogen transmitted in a black oil-like substance. Scully determined that it originated in fossilised rock from Mars." I met his gaze, wondering whether he had pursued that line of thought to its natural conclusion, and realised from his expression that he had. "If they're testing it - that would mean they plan to use it."
We looked at one another for a long moment in the dim light.
"Mulder thinks that the compound in Tunguska that you directed him to is working on a vaccine. Is that true?" he queried, at last.
"I'm afraid I can't tell you anything about that," I said, and that was technically correct. "I only gave Mulder the port of entry for the diplomatic pouch. He found Tunguska on his own."
"We need that vaccine," he said urgently.
"What for?" I demanded. "So the men who did this can control it? Is that what you want?" At his frustrated look, I went on, "I want what you want, Skinner. But blowing this wide open the way you and Mulder and Scully would like isn't the way to do it. Even if there is a vaccine, if it goes through those channels there will be FDA approvals and pharmaceutical patents and a thousand other ways that the formula could become known to those who have the pathogen. They'll spread it before we have a chance to vaccinate."
Skinner was nodding thoughtfully. He said tentatively, "Mulder thinks - alien colonists."
"What do *you* think?"
He hedged. "I think it doesn't matter whether they're alien or human. It has to be stopped."
I shook my head firmly. "You can't stop it unless you know and understand and believe. Know thy enemy, Mr Skinner."
"And who is my enemy?" he asked, exasperated.
"That's the wrong question."
"All right. Who *isn't* my enemy?"
It was a fair question, and I thought a moment. "There is an Englishman. Maxwell Donovan. Scully and Mulder have both met him, though I don't believe either of them knows his name. He works with the group and is aligned with Senator Sorenson. You mustn't trust him, but equally you would do well to shield him if ever the need arises."
He nodded slowly. "All right. Who else?"
"Alex Krycek," I said with the inimitable bias of a wife. "Whatever you think of his methods, you and he are on the same side."
He frowned a little at that one, but didn't comment. "Anyone else?"
"No. Your allies are few, Mr Skinner, and your enemies are many. And even allies can be compromised. Be careful."
"I know I haven't given you what you wanted-"
He cut me off. "Actually, you've given me a lot. I came here looking for pieces. You gave me the skeleton of a big picture."
"Can I make contact again?"
"If you need to, but use caution. Like I said - even allies can be compromised," I said emphatically.
"Point taken." He rose. "I should let you get some sleep."
"Thank you." I sat there thoughtfully; watching him put on his coat, I hesitated. At last, I said quietly, "She's going to live, Mr Skinner."
He whirled around, his expression startled - and anguished. "What do you know about that?" he demanded urgently.
"Not enough to help," I said with genuine regret. "But I know they want Scully alive almost as much as you do."
I explained, "The same things that make Mulder and Scully a problem now - their knowledge, their experiences, their relentlessness - those things will make them vital to the resistance." At his look, I went on, "There will come a time, in the final stages before it begins, when there are no immunes or abductees left. I think Mulder and Scully will survive that time."
He jumped on that statement. "Is Mulder immune? Is that what they did to him in Tunguska?"
"I honestly don't know if he's immune. That's an unknown, and for now it's best if it stays that way." Rising, I warned, "If he is immune, and the group were to find out-"
I moved past him, reaching for the door. "Drive safely, Mr Skinner."
I opened it, but then stepped back with a hiss. There were four soldiers in the doorway, one with a hand raised to knock. Skinner and I both reached instinctively for weapons; my hand fell away again when I realised I'd taken mine off. Skinner's hand changed course, and he pulled out his ID.
"Marita Covarrubias?" the knocking soldier said.
"Yes?" I said, shooting a look at Skinner.
"Ms Covarrubias, you are being detained. You will be escorted to Fort Marlene, Maryland for the purposes of infection control. I do this under the authority of the United States Department of Defence and the Federal Emergency Management Agency."
Skinner and I stared at one another. "What?" I demanded harshly. "But I'm smallpox immune, just like all the other adults that were in Payson today."
"Ms Covarrubias, we've received information that you're expecting a child. Is that correct?" My eyes widened.
*No-one was supposed to know that.*
My hand tightened on the doorknob, my mind running over the implications of this development at lightning speed. Skinner was watching me closely. I held on to my control, but I could feel the blood drain from my face. I felt my free hand twitch, moving instinctively towards my abdomen, but I stayed it.
"No," I said coldly. "I had a termination."
The soldier wrote something on her clipboard, exchanging a look with one of her colleagues. "Can you prove that?"
I shook my head. "No. I went to an anonymous clinic. I paid cash. I didn't want anyone to know," I added pointedly.
"I see. And you would be willing to submit to a sonogram examination to verify that?"
I was beaten, and we all knew it. Skinner was looking at me compassionately; the soldiers in mild irritation. My mouth was dry, my breathing shallow.
"What do you want with my baby?" I whispered.
She didn't answer - I knew she wouldn't. "You may pack toiletries, books, magazines, medications, and a change of clothes for your release. Any item you take into quarantine which is not able to be sterilised will be destroyed when you leave."
"What do you want with us?" I demanded, this time in a fury of fear and despair. "I'm not coming until you tell me!"
Four hands moved to four military-issue weapons. "You don't have a choice."
Skinner stepped in, flashing his badge. "She's not going until you answer her question."
The soldier was singularly unimpressed. "You have no jurisdiction here, Mr - Skinner?" she finished, reading his credentials.
"I've got enough jurisdiction to blow what happened in Payson wide open," he warned. It was an idle threat, and I think they knew that, but they exchanged worried looks. "This woman is a respected emissary to the United Nations - not a criminal. How about a bit of decency?"
More looks, but at last, they nodded to each other, and the woman turned back to me. "This particular strain of the pathogen is known to cross the placenta, even in immune mothers. You need to be quarantined until it's over."
"Until what's over?" I asked, a cold hand of dread closing around my heart.
"The bleeding." At my bewildered look, she said quietly, "Ms Covarrubias, the foetal death rate is 100%."
"No," I said faintly, shaking my head. I turned away shakily and sat, my head in my hands.
Dimly, I heard Skinner arguing with the woman. She said implacably, "If she haemorrhages in a medical facility, she could infect medical personnel or other patients. She must be cared for in a secure quarantine facility." I stared up at her, hating her.
"How long will she be there?"
The woman shrugged. "She probably won't start to bleed for a few days, then it will be five to ten days, then a D&C and a few days recovery. I'd say between two and three weeks."
"I want a few minutes with her." Skinner spoke peremptorily. "Back off."
The soldier looked annoyed, but she capitulated. "You've got five minutes."
Skinner came and sat at my side. "You okay?" he said softly. Wordlessly, I shook my head. My hands were wet with tears I hadn't realised I'd shed. "Is there someone who can be here for you? Family?"
I shook my head miserably. "I don't have any family." I hated the pathetic way that sounded.
He was nodding, and I realised Skinner was in a not dissimilar predicament. "Can your husband get back here to be with you?"
I hesitated. "It's not as simple as that," I said at last. "He would find a way, but I can't contact him. Any calls I make from Fort Marlene will be monitored - mostly to make sure I don't call a journalist at the New York Times - you know how it works," I added. He nodded. "There are people who would like to know where he is."
"Can I contact him for you?"
I looked up at him. "You don't know what you're offering," I said at last. "It would involve turning a blind eye to someone and something you might not feel you should."
"I've been doing a bit of that lately," he said grimly. "Why don't you try me?"
I hesitated. I was uncomfortable with this on a host of levels, beginning with the enmity between Skinner and Alex and ending with the fairness or lack thereof of involving him; but when I got right down to it, I knew I couldn't endure these three weeks without him. There was a more practical consideration, too: If Alex couldn't contact me for that long, he might endanger himself trying to find me.
Skinner was watching me. His look was kind, but neutral. If I said no, he would not press me; but I reluctantly realised that I didn't have that option.
"All right," I said at last. Then, in a low voice, "My husband is Alex Krycek."
He sat back a little, breathing out audibly. "I wasn't expecting that," he said quietly.
"If you don't feel you can-"
He cut me off. "Where is he?"
"Does he need any help getting into the country?"
I shook my head. "He has diplomatic papers. He'll need help getting in and out of Fort Marlene, though. I'll be in minimum-security quarantine, I expect - the danger only seems to be direct blood contact, from what they're saying."
"I can handle that."
I shot him a reproachful look. "Do me a favour and don't punch him this time. He gets enough of that from Mulder."
"All right," he said grudgingly. "How do I contact him?"
I pulled out my diary and tore out a page. I wrote quickly. "This is the number you need to call and the Russian phrase you'll need to use to talk to an English speaker. Ask for Nicolai Arntzen. You'll be asked for your name and who gave you the number. You'll say Dmitria Arntzen. You'll also need to say that it's Condition Bright Orange - that's an urgency rating. It means of the highest urgency but not involving a danger to life." I gave him the paper. "Repeat it back."
"Nicolai Arntzen. Dmitria Arntzen. Condition Bright Orange." He said, "Am I getting myself into anything I should know about?"
I shook my head. "I don't think so. The Smoking Man will eventually find out you helped us, but he won't care - not for something like this." He nodded, seeming to accept this. I said curiously, "Why are you doing this?"
He glanced at me sideways. "Call it an act of contrition. My wife - ex-wife went through this a few years ago. I wasn't there," he admitted. "Just one in a long line of sins of omission." He shrugged. "Besides - even Krycek can't be all bad if the Smoking Man wants him."
I shot him a wry smile. "Thank you." I slid my hand around his.
He squeezed it, rose, and left me.
We arrived at Fort Marlene two hours later.
I stood at the desk, shivering; the cold of the floor seeping through my paper slippers. My gown was like an oversized coffee filter, and provided about as much warmth. I looked longingly at my pyjamas on the counter, waiting to be put in safe custody with my other personal effects.
"Name?" the soldier demanded briskly. It was the same soldier from my apartment. If I'd hated her then, I loathed her now.
"Marita Elena Covarrubias," I said dully.
"Date of birth?"
"April 19, 1971."
"Place of birth?"
"Ateni, Georgia, former Soviet Union." That one always puzzled me. Was I supposed to say Soviet Union, as it had been when I was born, or Republic of Georgia, as it was now?
"Naturalised American. Don't you have all this on file?" I said irritably.
"We have to be sure of our information, Ms Covarrubias. Residential address?"
"You should know; you apprehended me there," I snapped angrily.
The woman shot me an annoyed look, but filled in the information herself. I turned away, wanting to collect myself.
That was when I saw it.
Another computer screen, recently in use, a file on screen, a familiar name catching my eye. As I noted the dates, I understood what I was reading, and I felt a glimmer of excitement, even through my worry and my distress. I scanned it as quickly as I could, memorising the information. Dana Scully...Emily Sim...Marshall and Roberta...Dr Ernest Calderon...Pharngen Pharmaceuticals.
I turned back. "What?" I growled furiously, baring my teeth at her.
"I said, have you been bleeding?"
"No," I said in the same tone, "but you might be if you don't get me to a room and leave me the fuck alone."
"There's no need to be unpleasant about it, Ms Covarrubias."
"There is on my side of the counter," I snapped.
At last, they led me away, and I was given a room and a bed, and for the next twenty hours, I only wept and slept.
Alexi had stared at me for a long moment, then let out a whoop and swept me up by the waist. He'd even turned with me, like a jock with his high-school sweetheart. It was the sweetest, silliest thing. "Pregnant?" he laughed; and I laughed too, gazing down at him, letting go of my fear for a precious moment. "How? When?"
"I think it was St Petersburg. I missed my pills while I was looking for you in Tunguska," I explained, sliding my arms around his neck, and I found myself smiling at his joy. I wished - how I wished - I wished it wouldn't fade.
"Who cares?" he burst out. "We're having a baby!" He twirled me a bit more, holding me close against him; but then he suddenly stopped, letting me down. "Wait - we're having a baby?" he said in a sombre voice.
I nodded, my lips drawn tightly together, not trusting myself to speak.
"We - we can't have a baby," he said in a low, shocked voice. "I'm - I'm running guns...you work for the most dangerous men on the planet." Then, slowly, "We can't even keep ourselves safe."
"I know," I said thickly.
"Look at the Donovans," he said softly. "Diana sees those children twice a year. They're raised by old Donovan's nannies while she mixes it up in Tunisia. I don't want that for our child."
"I don't either."
He stroked back my hair tenderly. "Oh, Mare." He rested his forehead against mine. He sighed, said in a low voice, "What the hell are we going to do?"
"There's abortion," I said reluctantly; but there really wasn't, because it just wasn't something I could do.
He dismissed this at once. "No, there isn't. You don't want an abortion, and neither do I." I breathed a sound of relief. He pulled back to look at me piercingly. "You've got to get away from the group," he said suddenly. "There's no other way."
I stared at him. "We need their information. We need their money, Alex! If I stop working for them and the UN, that's twenty thousand dollars a month we have to find someplace else. We've cut back to Tunguska and Kazakhstan - there's nowhere left to cut!" I longed to do as he said, I really did; but I just couldn't see it.
"We don't need their information," he said eagerly. "We know more than they do. We can find money some other way. I've got some intelligence on a World War II bunker full of army seizures in Belgium." He was smiling again, glimmer of his earlier joy. "We'll find a way, Mare."
I was smiling too. His optimism was infectious. "They're watching, Alexi," I warned. "If they get wind of me liquidating assets, they'll know I'm going to run. And Spender knows exactly where I'll run to."
"No, he doesn't. He knows about Tunguska, but he doesn't know about Kazakhstan. We'll move it all down there - shut Tunguska down." He shot me a beatific smile. "We could live together like a normal family, Mare. This could be a blessing. This *is* a blessing."
"I know," I said, smiling tearfully. "But I don't know if they'll let me go." His smile faded.
"We won't give them a choice."
I wonder if they knew.
I wonder, now, if Spender's surveillance turned up the fact of my pregnancy and my cautious moves towards cleaning up my affairs. I don't think I did anything obvious. I didn't see a doctor. I purchased prenatal vitamins in cash. I was oh, so careful not to make conspicuous visits to the bathroom at work. I sold some shares and bullion, but I left my mother's estate alone. But who knows what level of surveillance is in place? It is something I dare not contemplate, because the constant speculation and paranoia would drive me mad.
But they apprehended me on the information that I was pregnant; they must have known. And Spender, that bastard Spender, knowing of my plans and my reasons, sent me into the smallpox test zone, knowing that I would lose my child, knowing that without the child, I would stay and continue to be used. Because whatever Alexi said, we needed the money and the information they could give.
I have never hated anyone so much as I hated him then.
His voice was a mere whisper, harsh, anguished. I stared at him, transfixed.
He stalked over to me and sat on the bed beside me, pulling me to him with a choked sound. I sank into him gratefully, my incoherent weeping muffled by his sweater. He buried his face in my hair, his fingers twisting their way into it, as though to bind him to me. He rocked me, and I realised that in that silent way he had, he was weeping, too. Dimly, I registered Skinner's tact withdrawal.
"I hate them," I said tearfully. "I hate them so much."
"So do I," he whispered.
I pulled away. I said urgently, in a low voice, "The date is set, Alex. It's closer than we thought. If we can't refine that vaccine we're never going to have another chance for a child. No one will. No more babies, no more children, no more people. Just - drones." Then, miserably, through fresh tears, "Maybe this child was spared."
He shook his head. "Don't you talk like that. Our child was murdered, and people are going to pay for that." His voice was raw...hurting. "We're going to make that vaccine work. We're going to survive the holocaust, if only so we can make them pay. We're not giving up and we're not turning back."
I made a sound of pain. I whispered helplessly, "Alexi, it's so awful to feel this life inside me dying, and to know there's nothing I can do to stop it. Every time they examine me, the heartbeat is a little bit slower and a little bit fainter." I was weeping again now. "It's not fair. None of it's fair." My hands moved protectively to my stomach, and then I realised his hand was already there.
He bowed his head against mine for a long moment, then lowered it to my abdomen, kissing me there with a tenderness I had never known from him. "Goodnight, baby," he whispered thickly, and I shook with wracking pain, sure that no-one could hurt this much and live.
I took his hand in mine. "Goodnight," I wept in turn. And then he was there, cradling my cheek, his agony mirroring my own, and his embrace was chaste, selflessly adoring, seeking not to take pleasure or comfort, but only to bring shelter and solace.
And for a little while, it did.
"Do you think there will ever be justice?"
I was toying with the infant, tracing my fingers over the sweet-looking curves, the delicate features, the soft curls. I ran my fingertip down the nose sadly.
When there was no reply, I looked up. Alexi was standing by the tree, ornament in hand, watching me, his expression wistful. I realised what I was doing, and hastily returned the porcelain figure to the nativity. Still, he didn't speak; but the lines of his face were etched with grief and compassion. His scrutiny bothered me - mainly because I suspected he had a greater insight into my state of mind than I did.
Uneasily, I said, "You hear of all these war crimes tribunals. Men who did terrible things fifty years ago finally being brought to justice. It makes me wonder if the Consortium will ever be called to account for what they did...for the Dana Scullys and the Emily Sims of this world." And for the unborn, I added mentally, but I didn't say it.
He was still watching with that wistful expression, but he shook his head. "I think they'll be long dead by then. History will hold them accountable, but they won't see trial." He went on hesitantly, "We might, though. You ought to be prepared for that."
My jaw dropped. I hadn't considered that.
"Our test subjects are convict volunteers, that's true; but they consented to the tests with only execution as the alternative - albeit legal execution after due process. There's a human rights abuse right there. At a stretch they could even be classed as prisoners of war. And the tests themselves may be judged down the track as a form of torture. That's your crimes against humanity. Yeah, I can see it." He said gently, "You should keep your journals safe, Mare. They might exonerate you."
"We set up those compounds together, Alex. Just because I never whipped a convict doesn't mean I'm innocent."
He returned his attention to the tree, putting the ornament in place. "In the eyes of the law, it might," he countered, picking up another. "Those are my crimes, not yours."
I shook my head. "No, Alex. You do these things so that I don't have to. You take my guilt and make it yours. And I love you for it," I added, smiling faintly; and he shot me a bittersweet look. "But you can't take my culpability - that's as great as yours." I watched him for a long moment, then quoted softly, "Your sins are my sins."
Sighing, he put down the box of baubles. He came over and dropped to a crouch in front of me. "Mare, whatever judgement history has for us, we know that we have done as we've done because it was the only way. Maybe not the right way, but the only way." His gaze locked on mine. "If we had done nothing we would be worse than them."
I smoothed back his hair tenderly. "If anyone knew how you worked and how you suffered for what we do, they would get down on their knees to you."
He smiled at that, but shook his head. "You're crediting the wrong person. I don't care about the world, Mare. What has the world ever given me? I care about you. I want the world to live so that I can grow old with you. It's as simple as that."
"I love you, Alexi. So much."
"I love you." He leaned into me, gently drawing me to him, his lips meeting mine. He lingered there for a long moment. "How long have we got until Skinner gets here?" he asked, breaking away.
"A couple of hours. Long enough."
"Not nearly long enough," he retorted, "but it will do." He pulled away, his look chagrined. "Tell me again why we're doing this."
I sighed. "Because we need friends, Alex. People who can put aside ideology now and then and just be people with us." My voice was earnest...almost pleading.
"Skinner might be your friend, but he isn't mine," he retorted. "I offered to shake with him after he helped me see you that time - I thought he was going to shoot me."
"But he did shake, didn't he?" I argued. "He might tell what he knew if he believed it was right, but he wouldn't do it for the highest bidder. He wouldn't do it just to sell out. If that's not a friend I don't know what is." At his doubtful look, I said, "We need connections. We don't have a home, or a family besides each other. Neither of us has friends - that's just part and parcel of what we do. We need to set some roots down - I mean in ourselves. Don't you feel that? Don't you feel it in your bunk at Norylsk when you go to sleep at night after yet another day of talking to no-one but Mikhail?"
"Of course I do," he said in a low voice. "But why Skinner?"
"Because he was there, and because he understands how we live even if he doesn't know exactly what we do, and because he's even more disconnected than we are. That's why."
He sighed. "And you're still hell-bent on playing Yenta to him and Scully?" His look was mildly reproving.
I laughed. "I didn't say that. All I said was, they'd be good together. God knows he loves her. Did you see his face when he talked about her remission?" I shook my head. "No, I'm not going to intervene. They'll find one another on their own."
Alexi looked concerned. "I worry about Mulder. I don't want him to self-destruct - we need him. The resistance needs him."
I made a negating sound. "Mulder's not going to self-destruct over Scully and Skinner. He sleeps with women if they happen to be there, but they aren't his passion - not even Scully. You know that, of all people." He flushed. "She keeps him stable, granted; but I also think he's more grounded in himself than you give him credit for."
"Maybe." He looked at me interrogatively. "Are you still going to give her Emily's location?"
"You don't think I should." It wasn't a question.
"I think it's the *right* thing to do," he said slowly, "but I don't think it's the *safe* thing."
"For us, or for them?"
I watched him for a long moment, nodding. He was right, I knew that; but he was also wrong. "I can't carry this knowledge and not tell, Alexi. You of all people should know that."
His look was kind. "Mare, the digital tape said that they got over a thousand ova from Scully. Probably two hundred viable embryos in the end. Are you going to track them all down and give them to her? Then will you move on to all the other women?" He sounded worried. I understood why, too: it was something that could become a fixation in the light of our loss.
"Of course not. But this one, Alex - I know where this one is. And if she were mine, no matter how she was made, no matter that she was going to die, I would want to know." More gently, "Wouldn't you?"
He looked at me; then, at last, he gave a grudging nod of agreement. "How are you going to do it?"
"I've got a recorded message queued. I'm going to re-route it through the exchange so that it traces from the Sim residence. I should re-do it, actually - the program went crazy when I was making it, and it sounds more like a woman than a computer-generated voice. Very strange."
"Do you think it could expose us?"
"I don't see how it could. It doesn't sound like anyone I know. Maybe the filters got mixed up. I can hack into the CIA, but do you think I can conquer Windows?" I shot him a chagrined look.
"Forget about it, then," he suggested. Then, mischievously, "We have other things to do before Skinner gets here."
"Like what?" I asked, leaning forward, licking my lips teasingly.
He pretended to give this some thought. "I was considering making love to my wife."
"Is that right?" I enquired curiously.
"Yeah," he said, rising, pulling me up with him. "I was going to hold her like this," he explained, manoeuvring me to the wall. "And then I thought I'd touch her hair and push it back, a bit like this," he added, suiting the action to the word. I shot him a smile. "And then I thought I'd lean into her-" his voice dropped to a whisper "- and she'd be so warm, and I'd be able to smell her, and if I moved just a little bit more I could taste her, too."
"Why don't you demonstrate?" I suggested helpfully.
He brought his mouth to mine, his lips brushing me as he spoke. "I would kiss her," he breathed. "I would worship her." He kissed me, first chastely, then slowly building in fervour, until he was teasing me insistently with his lips. I felt myself opening beneath him, felt my mouth welcoming him, drawing him in. His taste was exquisite; it was wine, it was honey. We were breathing deeply, slowly, in rhythmic unison; and I felt as though our hearts were as one. How can that sound so damn fluffy, yet be so utterly, profoundly true? He started to pull away, perhaps to speak, but I chased him with my mouth, capturing him with my lips, drawing him back. His kiss was delicate, yet devouring; but my wanting had nothing to do with technique. I wanted him because it was his smell and his taste and his touch that did this to me, no one else's. "You see," he said at last, pulling back a little; "my wife is very beautiful. A goddess. But I don't think she knows," he whispered, his fingertips dancing exquisitely on my neck, "because whenever I try to tell her, I find that I can't breathe."
"Maybe you should-" I caught my breath with difficulty "- show her." He hadn't even really touched me...but, oh, his voice, his lips... "Because, you see, I know something about your wife."
"Yeah?" he managed.
"I know that she likes you to be close...so close that there's nothing else in the world for her but you." I pressed myself further back against the wall. "No escape, no space, just you-" I broke off with a low sound as he moved in on me "...relentless..." and then he was moving with me, running his hand over me through my dress "...because she doesn't want to be free. She wants to be yours." I pushed open his shirt, pushed it back off his shoulders. "She is yours."
"I'm hers," he said thickly. "Oh, God, Mare."
That was the last time we made love before it all went to hell.
It was the smell that really got to me.
The visual was nothing. The bodies were charred beyond recognition. They could have been lumps of roughly-sculpted wood, or papier-mache, or fibreglass intended to roughly resemble the human form.
Or, of course, they could have been incinerated bodies.
But I had rinsed pathogenic oil from my husband's eyes and nose, had tended the remains of his arm. I had watched a man I loved die in a pool of his own blood. I had engaged in the mercy killing of two horrifically burnt soldiers. Visual gore was nothing to me.
But the smell...the smell was enough to drive a woman mad.
"This is a mission of mercy," I said at last. There was none of the tantalising thrill that might otherwise have arisen from such play- acting, especially after four months apart. Our conflict was contrived; its gravity was not.
"This is a mission of fear," Alex snapped. "Yours, and the men you work for."
My blood ran cold. Beneath the little parody we were acting out, I could see his fear. I could smell it, even through the acrid smoke and the carrion smell of the dead. This man was my husband, after all; I knew the things that made him wake in a cold sweat in the middle of the night; the things that made his mahogany eyes flash ebony.
And what had happened here took all those fears and blew them away as nothing.
"I don't know what you're talking about," I said, truthfully.
"You go back and you tell them what you've seen here, what you've found." My eyes widened. He wanted me to play it reasonably straight with the group. That meant that what happened here transcended political boundaries: it constituted a threat to the entire resistance.
"My name is Marita Covarrubias," I flared, mostly as a warning to his soldiers - my soldiers - that I was in character. "I am a Special Representative to the Secretary General of the United Nations."
"I know who you are and I know who you work for," Alex said coldly.
Is this how they see you, Alexi? Is this why they hate you?
"Now you go back and tell them-"
"Tell them what?" I demanded urgently. "What happened here?"
His face flickered with worry. "Tell them it's all going to hell." He half-turned and ordered our men to take the boy away; but his eyes were watching me the whole time.
"Does the boy know?" I asked urgently.
He only looked at me, then turned away.
"Did he see?" I cried. He turned back to me, his expression furious. He spat to the left of my feet contemptuously. He spat:
"You can tell them to kiss my American ass."
It was nightfall when I reached Norylsk.
I raced down the corridors with a pallet truck, going from lab to lab, butchering computers in a bid to extract hard drives. I worked feverishly, trembling with the adrenaline that surged through my veins. Stalking into pathology, I pulled out all the vials of vaccine and other vital samples. I went to my office, rarely used, and removed diplomatic papers. I included our policy book on the treatment of prisoners, too - I hadn't forgotten Alexi's caution about being held accountable for our actions later.
I was prising open yet another computer tower when the lights flooded on, the low hum of the generator assaulting my ears. I retreated into the shadows. There was no hiding my presence - not with a pallet truck full of evidence - but perhaps I could get in a clear shot first.
A familiar voice spoke sharply in Russian - not official Russian, but the local dialect. "Come out with your hands where I can see them and identify yourself." I breathed a sigh of relief.
"It's just someone who wants to kiss your American ass, Alex," I said dryly, stepping into the light, dangling my weapon from my finger.
Breathing out with a hiss, he lowered his own and came to me. He held me for a fleeting moment. "I was worried. My courier didn't come back to the compound. I was afraid you didn't get my message."
I shot him a filthy look. "He's dead, and I'm really pissed with you about it. He killed one of my men, and another opened fire in self- defence." My voice was reproachful.
"That's probably my fault," he conceded. "I told him to get the note to you at any cost."
"I'll tell that to my peacekeeper's mother," I snapped.
He pursed his lips in a grim line. "Marita, it's been a fucking hard day, and I've lost a hell of a lot more men than you have. Good men - scientists. The ultimate brain drain."
I took his hand for a moment, chastened. "*We've* lost men." I sighed. "Desperate times and desperate measures, I guess. I'm sorry I was harsh."
He nodded, smoothing back my hair. "Yeah, I know. Sorry," he added endearingly. He released me and sat on the edge of a desk. I sat on the desk opposite him, cross-legged like a child as I finished extracting the drive. I waited.
At last, he said, "The firestorm was the work of aliens. I don't think they were after the vaccine, though. Their eyes and mouths were stitched shut - I think to prevent infection with the black oil. That means they're afraid of their own kind."
"Rebels," I guessed, tugging on a recalcitrant IDE cable.
"Got it in one," he said. "The MJ-12 documents mention a conflict among the alien race - a certain group which considers the hybridising to be a dilution of the race. That group has killed hybridising scientists before - the Gregors, for instance. I think that's what was happening here."
"They thought we were hybridising here," I realised. Then, with foreboding, "That means they'll go after all the test facilities."
Alexi nodded. "Probably abductees, too. Those damn implants will lead the rebels straight to them."
"What about *our* work?" I demanded, detaching the drive from its frame. I discarded one screwdriver for another disgustedly.
"Well, I'd closed Tunguska down, of course; but they still razed it, yesterday. They managed to obliterate the pathogen from the mine - I'd love to know how they managed that."
"Neat trick," I agreed, pulling the drive free. I handed it to Alex.
"Kazakhstan fell last night. Georgia fell at lunchtime, Azerbaijan an hour ago. I'd say Norylsk is next on the list. We have to get what we can and get out of here - which I see you've been working on." He motioned to the pallet truck. "I have a truck outside. I'll escort the cargo to New York."
"All right. Anything else I need to know?"
"Two things," he said, rising. He climbed onto the pallet truck, and I followed. "Firstly, you have to get the hell out of Russia tonight. Tell your peacekeepers that you have intelligence that there's a kidnapping plot." At my questioning look, he explained, "My second-in- command - remember Mikhail? He's gone power- hungry and has convinced some of our comrades that *I* am responsible for the firestorm."
"What?" I sputtered, swerving the pallet truck a little. "That's absurd!"
"Easy," he reproved, straightening the wheel. "Some of them are buying it. They think that I did this so that I could shut them down and smuggle the intelligence back to America. I figured I shouldn't disappoint them," he added ruefully. "I confiscated the vaccine vials that weren't destroyed in the firestorm." He gave a mirthless grin. "We could become the first people wanted for treason simultaneously on two different continents."
I stared at him in disbelief. "That means we have no base, no protection, no test subjects, no scientists, no useable passports, and almost no pathogen or vaccine. God, Alexi, what a mess," I said, horrified.
"That brings me to the second thing," he said as we pulled up in the loading bay. I pulled the brake and manoeuvred the lever, setting the pallet in place on the back of the waiting truck. "To establish ourselves somewhere else to refine the vaccine, we're going to need to get clear of the Consortium. You know what that means?"
I nodded, thinking of my more or less stable life in New York, the United Nations job that I truly loved; but in an instant, I surrendered those things in my heart. "It means we have to run," I said softly.
"Yeah." His look was kind. "I'm sorry, Mare." He took my hand.
"It had to come someday," I said philosophically. I squeezed it a second before letting go.
His voice became resolute. "Before we do, I want everything they've got. It's our last chance to get it."
"How?" I demanded. "Short of surrendering the vaccine, you don't have anything to deal..." I trailed off. I looked at him expectantly. He nodded. He looked rather proud of himself, albeit in a grim kind of way. "Oh, very nice. You've got the boy, haven't you?"
"Yeah. I infected him with the last stocks of the pathogen," he admitted, shamefaced. "I didn't know how else to transport it on such short notice - Mikhail was only a half hour behind me, and I didn't have any biohazard containers. If they give us what we want, they get the boy's testimony and the pathogen to work with. We get our freedom, and maybe the chance to end this once and for all."
I thought on this - thought hard. "I really don't think they'll play ball," I said at last, "but all right." I jumped down from the pallet truck, and he followed suit. "Alex - you do realise that the alien race might decide to proceed with colonisation now, don't you?"
He nodded. "Sure, if they decide that hybridisation isn't important enough to restart the work for. It depends on whether the rebels manage to take Fort Marlene."
"Have you taken any precautions?" I demanded.
"I did, but my personal stockpile was lost when Kazakhstan fell. We do have an earlier, less effective formula of the vaccine in New York; but that's all."
"That's all right; I have precautions for both of us." I put my hand in my pocket and withdrew a long, silver barrel with a small cross on the top. I handed it to him.
"What's this?" he asked, perplexed.
"It's called an oil stock. Priests in the Roman rite use them to carry consecrated oils. I'm not sure if your lot does it," I added, referring to his Russian Orthodox heritage, but he just shrugged.
"I'm not sure. We weren't very observant."
"We were *very* observant. No pretence of faith about it - my mother just liked the outward practice of religion," I said dryly. "She thought it gave a person structure and self- discipline. I think she was quite puzzled by people who were genuinely pious." I shrugged. "That's Mother for you. Anyway, you'll notice it's in three sections, and each section screws into the next, watertight." At his nod, I went on, "They're labelled CAT, CHR and INF. INF as in infirm - it's the oil they use to anoint the sick. There's a pathogen sample in there - you'll remember because of its association with illness." He nodded again. "CAT is for the oil of catechumens, which we use in baptism. That has the vaccine against the black oil. You'll remember because baptism saves us from slavery to sin, and the vaccine saves us from slavery as drones. Got it?"
"Yeah, I got it. INF is the pathogen that makes us sick, CAT is the vaccine that saves us." He was looking at the oil stock intently.
I went on, "CHR is the oil of chrism, used in confirmation. That has the antibodies to the retrovirus we synthesised from Mulder's blood...the first stage of a retrovirus vaccine."
He looked at me questioningly. "How will I remember that?"
"Because it's the only one left," I said, amused.
"Officials tend to respect religious items unless they're obviously suspect," I explained. "If you were stopped, you would say they're consecrated oils that you've taken from somewhere important for your home church. If you were coming from the near or middle East, you'd say Jerusalem. If you were coming from Europe, Vatican City. Get the idea?"
"Yeah. I assume you have one of these?"
"Yes, and a third will be in safekeeping with Skinner. He's expecting it, but he doesn't know what it is." At his look, I said, "I couldn't think of anyone else who wouldn't sell us out."
"Fair enough," he said grudgingly.
I hesitated a moment, but at last, I said, "If the rebels get all the facilities, these could be the only supplies left. We only use them to save ourselves from infection, or to barter for our lives, agreed?" He gave a slight nod, and I went on, "Not for money, not for information. I didn't go through all this to become a martyr to the cause. If it comes down to a choice between the work and ourselves, we choose ourselves. If push comes to shove, it only takes two immunes to keep the race from extinction."
"Agreed," he said. He reached into his jacket. "I have another insurance policy."
"What is it?" I demanded.
"These," he said, handing over eight CD- ROMs - two bundled sets of four. "All the essential data so far. It's not complete - that's ninety-seven CDs - but it's the data needed to continue the work. There's a set for you and a set for me. I have a spare - you may as well leave that with Skinner, too. If he's going to have us by the balls we may as well let him do it properly," he added ruefully. Nodding, I took my copy and Skinner's and put them into my pockets.
I thought about the CDs. "You don't think we're going to be able to get this stuff out, do you?" I asked, motioning to the truck.
"With the Russians *and* the rebels after us? Not a chance."
"Then why are we here?" He bolted the truck closed.
"We have to try."
"What about my UN vehicle?"
"Leave it," Alex said, reversing the truck. "We have to get this stuff out of here - not to mention him," he added, motioning to the boy beside me. I looked at the boy properly for the first time, noted the stitched up eyes and mouth in the dim light. I remembered what he had said about the mutilations on the alien rebels. Instead of keeping the pathogen out, Alex was keeping it in. Staring at him, I felt sick, that we had come to this.
I swallowed painfully, looking at Alexi, wondering how the gentle man I knew could have done this. I had always respected his capacity to do whatever was needed, but I didn't always understand how he *could* do it.
My expression must have conveyed something of my feelings, because he said softly, "I know how he looks, Mare, but we were careful. His optic nerves are fine, and we didn't damage the soft tissues of his mouth very much. If he survives the pathogen and the group, he'll be okay."
"That's a big if," I said, but my voice was mild. I recognised, as he did, that there had been no other choice.
"It's a big if for all of us at the moment," he countered, starting the truck forward.
"Alex!" I shouted suddenly. "Ahead!"
"Wh-" he began, and then he saw the movement, the faint glow of headlights. "Dammit! Mikhail!" He looked in the rear-view mirror. "Behind us as well! We're trapped!"
"I'll get the boy," I said, opening the door. I yanked the boy by the hand, and he came, willingly. He was docile from shock - too docile. He couldn't be incited to run. I ran as best that I could, the boy ambling comically after me. Then Alex was there, dragging him with me. We ran, and I didn't dare look behind me; but I felt the heat and the wind when the firestorm began. I heard the screams of our former comrades as the rebels blew up the vehicles, and I waited for them to take us too; but they were more worried about the compound.
We did have two pursuers, rebels who followed us, closely but seemingly without direction. When we finally lost them more than an hour later, we three collapsed on the ground, exhausted. My legs cramped excruciatingly. I moaned in agony, and Alex rubbed them, kneading the muscles in my calves with his hand, though his legs surely hurt just as much as mine. The boy was crying, and I held him, his head in my lap; and he sobbed blindly until he was unconscious. "God damn it, how did they track us so far when they can't see?" I demanded between heaving breaths. "Neither of us are abductees!"
Alex jerked up his head, his expression afraid. "They didn't do anything to you at Fort Marlene, did they?"
"No," I gasped out, feeling the back of my neck. "I don't remember anything. There's nothing there."
"Let me check," he said, coming around me. He smoothed my hair aside and waved his mag light over it. "No, nothing," he agreed after a long moment. I breathed a sigh of relief.
"And they didn't get you?" I said piercingly.
"Never," he said at once.
"Then how-" I stopped. "Give me that." I grabbed the mag and flashed it down on the boy, saw the telltale red mark. "Fuck! He's a fucking abductee!"
"Oh, shit," he said in frustration. "Of course he is. That's why he was at the camp in Kazakhstan. He was drawn there like the other victims." He sighed. "Well, he won't be for much longer." He hunted in his pockets. "Got a lighter?"
"I'm not smoking. Sorry."
He pulled out his pocketknife. "Any other time I'd be glad to hear it. Ah, here's one." He flicked the lighter and ran the flame over the blade, and I suddenly knew what he intended to do.
His voice was firm. "Mare, he'll lead the rebels to us!"
"No, he won't!" I protested. "It's not like radar - they can sense an implant if they're close enough, and they can use it to draw an abductee to them, but they can't use it to find one that isn't close by."
"It's still a risk," he retorted.
I shook my head. "Not a great one. He'll die if you take it out, Alex. Two years at the most!"
He was angry; I could see that. "Damn it, that's a better life expectancy than he has now! He'll be killed if we don't!"
"We don't know that," I argued. "And maybe we can prevent that. But there's no saving him if you take that chip out." Then, in a low voice, I said deliberately, "Are you really going to hold him down and take a knife and cut out such an important part of him, to save him from a threat that might never be?"
His face was working in the dark, his eyes unnaturally bright. His hand went automatically to his maimed shoulder; and he said thickly, "That's so low, Marita."
I reached for him then, my palms cradling his face. "I know," I said gently, blinking back tears. "And I'm so sorry. But he's just a kid, Alex. We can't."
He leaned into me for a long moment, sighing; but finally, he nodded, reluctantly. "All right. All right!" He looked unhappy about the whole thing - which I guess made two of us. He went on with grudging fondness, "But if this kid beats me up trying to get to the rebels, you're really gonna kiss my American ass."
"Oh, bite me," I teased.
"As long as I can kiss your American ass."
There was a firestorm raging in New York.
There was great debate when I reported back to the group. Not only debate, but conflict. And it was explosive. It was as though the rebels had set off another flare, this one in the factions of the Consortium.
Donovan wanted to side with the rebels. He argued bitterly for it. Resistance was in our grasp, he proclaimed in an increasingly gravelly voice, the death knell of a man weakening but not yet aware of the fact. The others, afraid for their lives and their loved ones, wanted to hand over a rebel they captured at an American firestorm.
But Donovan was no longer convinced that co-operation would save their families. His son had been killed the previous year in a scuffle with an alien bounty hunter. I didn't know the details, but I knew that his widow, Diana, was on the warpath, determined to join forces with Mulder and undermine the hybridisation project. To that end, she had aligned herself with Spender just before the latter's death, with Donovan's blessing. There were plans to place her and Spender Jr in the X Files by the end of the year.
Now, Donovan found himself more and more alienated from the group - pardon the turn of phrase. He had become the sole advocate for the vaccine in a group that had discarded long-term strategy for short-term appeasement. I could see even now that his time was short. Continued dissent was a recipe for a hit. I gave him six months, and I thought even that was being generous.
But this was not what alarmed me. Squabbling about hybridisation and vaccines was not an unusual occurrence among the group. Even their plans to hand over the rebel didn't worry me especially, though we could well have used his help in thwarting colonisation; because normally, Mulder could have been manipulated into engineering the his rescue. What worried me was Mulder's recent outburst at a paranormal convention, during which he disavowed any belief in the alien agenda. He no longer believed in the colonisation threat; rather, he believed the threat to be purely human, thanks to Spender and Michael Kritschgau. Thanks a lot, guys.
But it wasn't just a matter of the help the rebel could give - we could live without that. What I feared was that the rebel had knowledge of the work on the vaccine, either in Russia or Stateside. If so, and he was handed over to his own kind, he might give up that information, either on pain of torture or by way of trade for his life. In that case, the hybridisation deal with the Consortium would almost certainly be cancelled, and colonisation would begin.
I shuddered at the thought. Now that the Russian operation had fallen, the only immune we knew of was Mulder, and, if we used our stocks, Alex and I. The spare stock could possibly be split between Skinner and Scully, assuming she survived the firestorms; though in purely Darwinian terms that was pretty pointless, given her infertility. The difficulties survival posed in that case were bad enough; the genetic quality of a race with Alex and I - or, at most, myself and three different fathers - as its sole progenitors wasn't something I liked to think about.
No, colonisation now would leave the human race nonviable. Extinction would necessarily follow. We had to get that rebel out before he was handed over - and only Mulder could do it.
But Mulder didn't believe.
I had a plan.
It hit me all at once, and the adrenaline of relief and anticipation surged through me. Despite my fears, the sense of limbo of the last two years - the fear, the struggle, the sacrifice that seemed to be without end - that sense was lifting. Things were moving.
I went to meet Alex on an exhilarated high. Soon, we would be in a new land, living a new life, working without hindrance. We would be far from the Consortium, living together as a family...maybe even able to add to it. We would be able to take the vaccine and recover without fear of our weakness being used against us, and we could survive the holocaust. The idea of being free of those odious men, able to live something approaching a normal life left me breathless with anticipation and relief.
I watched Donovan squirm when Alex telephoned, demanding all their work on the vaccine in exchange for the boy. I watched the men debating what to do, watched their fear and their disunity, and I felt just a glimmer of restitution...for the dark man, for my mother, for my child, for my husband, for myself. It wasn't enough - nothing would ever be enough - but it was something. And in watching them, power, normally so insignificant to me, ran darkly through my veins like a drug. These men had killed almost everyone I loved, and we had them on their knees.
It was bitter...but it was intoxicating.
When I reached Alexi at New York Harbour, he was as hot as I was, and we stumbled blindly from the bowels of the ship, to the wharf, to my car in the loading dock, clinging to each other all the way. Neither of us was fit to drive, though, so he took me there against a wall, urgently, heedless of those who might have come across us. It was fast and frenzied and wanton, so different from anything I'd ever known. I craved him - intensely, aggressively - always; but this was different: we were drunk on power, on freedom, on each other. It was pure celebration of a future that was finally in our grasp.
When it was over, we sat there on the wharf, our legs hanging over the side, me leaning into his shoulder, holding hands like a couple of kids. I remember it seemed strange that we could be so dark together, and then so damn cute in the space of minutes. It was as though the bond between us had purged the darkness. Come to think of it, that was pretty much the story of our life.
I told him of the alien rebel and my fears about Mulder, and he reluctantly concurred with my assessment. That Mulder should believe, and intervene in the handing over of the rebel, was paramount - even more so than extracting information from the group. He entrusted me with the task of delivering the boy to Mulder and convincing him of the alien agenda once more. Meanwhile, he would stall the group until I could get the boy back. That shouldn't have been a problem; we expected the group would argue about the deal for a while at any rate. I left him, our kiss tender, and I returned to the boat.
I retrieved the boy without incident, and led him to the car and belted him in like a child. I frowned, angry with myself, when I realised my error: in staying with Alex at the harbour, I had missed the bank. I had planned to get Skinner's oil stock and CDs from the safety deposit box and send them, in case either Alex or I met a nasty fate with the rebels or the group. That danger seemed more acute now that I had the boy.
I thought it over as I drove, and it seemed to me that my danger that day was more from the rebels; and neither the oil stock nor the CDs could save me from that. So, at last, I decided to send my own personal supplies to Skinner, the ones I carried on my person. If all went well, I would retrieve the other supplies from the bank the following day; if not, then Alex and Skinner would have to go on with the work. But I didn't really think it would come to that. Neither the rebels nor the group had any way of knowing I had the boy; the boy was infected, but he was infected with the dormant virus, not the sentient one, and his mouth and eyes were secured. So I packed the precious supplies in the prepaid courier envelope I'd had on hand for the purpose, and left it at the dispatch office along the way.
I stopped at a payphone on the I-90 and contacted Mulder. I had picked the location for its desolateness, but it occurred to me that there was a lot of traffic on the road. I watched the steady stream of sole drivers, staring at the road intently; and I had a sense of deja vu, a flash of memory, but it was gone before I could identify it. I felt distinctly nervous, though; I looked over my shoulder at the boy the whole time. And when I looked up and saw him before me, his stitches free, the oil leaving him, I suddenly realised what I had been struggling to recall.
It was the bodies in the cars in Kazakhstan.
And then everything went black.
I blame myself.
Looking at her, so white and still, a mess of tubes and leads, I feel the searing heat of shame and the stunning shock of grief. This is not the first time she has lain in a sickbed in this place, but it is the first time she has been truly at their mercy. And I blame myself, because her illness - her frailty, her brokenness - and most of all, the evil possession that makes her a prisoner in her own body could have been prevented.
My mistakes were twofold. The first was in acquiescing to her demand that I leave the boy's implant in place. What she insisted was, certainly, the right thing. But it was not the safe thing - for the boy or for us. Marita has a history of choosing what is right over what is safe, necessary counterpart to my ruthlessness. But I knew that in the wake of the firestorms, it was ruthlessness that would keep us alive. If I had overruled her, she would have submitted to my judgement, just as I sometimes submitted to hers. But instead, I did as she asked; and ultimately, the boy died regardless.
I don't feel so bad about that. He'd been living on borrowed time from the moment he saw the firestorms in Kazakhstan anyway.
My second mistake, far greater, was in allowing her to take the boy to Mulder, unaccompanied. We were fooled by his harmlessly docile demeanour, fruit of the inactive pathogen. But the greater force of the implant could overcome that docility. It was something I had never considered: we had never tested the pathogen on an abductee. And when confronted with the irresistible draw of the rebels, the boy blindly, instinctively sought to remove that which prevented his compliance: the pathogen, and my wife.
Would you have made the same choices if you had foreseen this, Mare? When you held his sobbing face to you like a mother and let him fall asleep with his head in your lap, when you found the telltale mark of the abductee, would you have still argued for his life? Knowing that your choice would leave you helpless, your eyes coated with delicately trailing oil, your veins blue-black with it? Knowing that your choice would leave you at their mercy?
Damn it, I think you would.
I really think you would.
I returned to the ship in a good mood.
I was exhilarated by the prospect of freedom, of something approaching a normal life; but the compelling frenzy of it had been tamed. Mare and I had spent our urgency and our tense excitement in each other; and there was peace in the aftermath. When she left me there on the wharf, I felt great hope, and a pervading sense of calm. For the first time in a long time, I felt genuinely good.
That was until I reached the cell.
The smell assaulted my senses as soon as I walked in, its weight washing over me. It was a civilised smell, a cultured smell, so distinct amid the filth of this place. I looked around me in alarm, because I identified it at once. It was the sort of scent a man used as his signature.
A man like Donovan.
"Well?" came a gravelly voice behind me. "Where's the boy?"
"Donovan," I said in a hiss, turning to face him. I swallowed a little at his firearm; there was a good possibility that he knew I'd ordered the hit on his beloved Benita. I already knew he'd ordered the death of the hitter, Vassily Peskow; Peskow had died badly. Did he want the vaccine badly enough to keep his need for revenge in check?
"Where is he?" he demanded again.
"Somewhere safe," I said angrily.
"Is that right?" he said mockingly. "It's good that you think so highly of your accomplice." He came to me, pulling out a pair of handcuffs. "We'll soon see if your faith is warranted."
So saying, he cuffed me to a pipe, and he left me.
"You're probably thirsty."
I looked up at Donovan coldly. "Remind me to complain to the captain about the service."
He dipped a cloth into a bucket of water. "You may have that opportunity. This ship is bound back to Vladivostok tomorrow. I gather there'll be quite an enthusiastic homecoming." He wrung out the cloth over my mouth; I moved my head, struggling to drink, then spat the liquid out, disgusted. It was vinegar.
"Do you have the boy?" I demanded. I'd had all night to stew about the fate of the boy. As for Mare - I hadn't dared contemplate her. After this, would they let her live?
"No. Ms Covarrubias took him," he said, and I felt a rush of relief wash over me. They hadn't caught her, then. "Your alliance with her was as misguided as ours, but it appears she was unaware of the consequences of her deception." My eyes opened very wide as I realised that he believed she had double-crossed me. Hot on the heels of that, I realised that Benita had never told him we were married. If that were true, and I could convince him that Marita was acting in their interests-
"You were clever," Donovan went on. "Infect the boy to ensure infection of anyone who tried to learn what he knows, who would cheat you." His words hit me like a slap. I felt a chill of panic, from my stomach, spiralling out.
Mare was infected.
"Then where's the boy?" I snapped, stalling for time. How could I get her back without letting him know he had me over a barrel? Without revealing that she was to me as Benita had been to him? I needed to think.
"Dead. Victim of another mysterious holocaust. Unable now to tell what he knew or saw."
"Then you got no choice but to deal with me," I insisted. If I could deal with him - if I could convince him I wanted to kill her myself -
"I'm afraid there's no deal to be made."
"I'm the only one who knows what those incidents are," I argued, my heart hammering in my chest. "What they mean. I know what that boy saw."
Donovan said scornfully, "You've as much as told me what I need to know."
"You know nothing," I snapped, my fury a poor camouflage for fear. It was beginning to overtake me; I could feel it in my stomach and my chest. The adrenaline was pumping through my veins; and, given no release, it was painful. My capture made fight/flight a torturous little instinct to have.
"If the boy was your trump card, why infect him unless you could also cure him with a vaccine developed by the Russians? One that works," he amended, and I realised in a flash that he knew nothing of the Russian pathogen - that its properties made it valuable in its own right. "It would mean that the resistance to the alien colonists is now possible."
"You're dreaming!" I spat. What did this mean? Could I deal with just the pathogen? Could I keep something back for us to continue the work, and still get her out alive?
"Do you have the vaccine?" he demanded furiously.
"You need what I know," I insisted. If I could only think - but there was no time; Mare had been gone twenty hours, and the vaccine had to be administered within twenty-six.
His face was working, contorted with desperate urgency. "Do you have the vaccine!" He kicked the bucket into me, furiously, and began to walk away; and I felt a great swell of relief. His need was not for revenge - it was for the vaccine. That meant there could be a deal.
"Give you the means to save Covarrubias after what she did?"
He turned, still shaking. "The means to save yourself."
He stalked out, and I panicked; because when push came to shove, the work meant nothing. She was everything.
There was a moment of dead silence as his footsteps came to a halt. I called out, "I'm going to give you what you want, Donovan."
Slow, satisfied steps. "Is that right?" he enquired, appearing in the doorway once more.
"One condition," I warned sharply.
Donovan shook his head. "You're not in a position to make conditions, Mr Krycek."
"I'm in a position to make this one," I countered in a low voice, "because if you don't meet it, I'll take my chances in Vladivostock."
He opened his mouth, probably to argue, but decided against it. He started again. "What is it?"
I watched him steadily; said with a mildly interested calm that I didn't feel, "You use it to save Marita." I held his gaze, unblinking, hoping against hope that he would not perceive my desperation. I prayed it seemed idiosyncratic - an indulgence to a man accustomed to having his number one babe at his beck and call - and not heaven and earth to a man utterly, irrevocably in love.
"Save Covarrubias? After what she did?" he mimicked, his brow creasing.
I made a gesture of concession. "You got me. I knew she was taking the boy to Mulder," I admitted easily.
That shocked him. "Why?" he asked, genuinely puzzled. I said in confusion, "To convince him again of the alien threat. To get him to stop the handover of the captured rebel." At his look of horror, I said in realisation, "You didn't know, did you? You didn't know they were going to give him up."
"Give me that vaccine," he insisted; but his face was flushed with anger and dismay. I had hit a nerve. I shook my head, demanded:
"Take me to her."
She seemed so still.
I walked to her, feeling every footstep like a heartbeat. I touched her face for a long, lingering moment, then opened one of her eyes, catching my breath at the telltale sheen of oil over the iris. I looked into its emerald depths, searching for any sign of the Mare I knew; but it was absent. Only one person had ever seen me shed tears in adulthood - Mare - but on that day, Donovan came close to being the second. I fought them, and won - just.
The older man's voice came from behind me, dimly, implacably. "Give me the vaccine." Still watching her numbly, I nodded, reaching into my jacket. I removed the oil stock, unscrewed the bottom segment, and turned to him, holding it out. He took it, but I didn't let go.
"Save her," I insisted, staring at him, eyes blazing.
He tugged on it uselessly, his hand closing over mine. "What is she to you, Krycek? You wouldn't do this for a business partn-" he stopped short, his grip loosening, and I felt his forefinger moving over my hand curiously. He looked down, and I followed his gaze to my ring finger; saw the realisation spread over his face at the white-gold band with the yellow sapphires, so incongruous with my casual garb. And I remembered that Mare's would have been on her chain around her neck when they found her.
"She's your wife," he said in disbelief.
"Save her," I hissed, my voice thick and harsh with pain.
He nodded slowly. "All right." I let the stock go.
"And one more thing." At his questioning expression, I insisted, "I'm not leaving her side."
That was how I came to live at Fort Marlene.
I came out of the anteroom, passing Donovan blindly. I went to Mare's side and stood, looking at her morosely.
"She's comatose. There's no radiation, no dominance." Nodding, I lifted her arms, one at a time, rearranging the sheet so that she was covered to the neck. It was a cold room. Behind me, Donovan went on in a worried voice, "Is it a different strain?"
I shook my head absently. "No. Biochemically it's identical." Reaching up, I tilted the overhead light away from her eyes. "Benita believed it was injured, for want of a better term, in the Tunguska crash. She thought it was roughly analogous to what we would call brain damage. Basic survival functions - infection and propagation - but no higher or conscious activity."
Donovan was watching me with interest - whether at my ministrations or because of my information, I didn't know, and didn't much care. "That's why you were able to create a vaccine. Why you were able to test successfully."
I nodded. "We could test without the lifeform being aware of it, without risk of retaliation." I turned to face him.
"Did any survive the holocaust?"
I nodded. "I have a sample. I'm going to give you that, too," I revealed, surprising myself. "No deals - just direct co-operation."
"Why?" He seemed genuinely interested.
I shrugged. "My operation has fallen to the rebels. I can't do it alone, and I won't do it with anyone who would use it for money or power." He caught the inference, that I knew enough of him to know that he wouldn't do that, and nodded, frowning. "The work must continue. The politics are secondary. Agreed?"
"Agreed." He looked at me piercingly; said in his gravelly voice, "Do you want to be part of it?"
I stared at him, demanded, "What kind of a question is that?"
"A real one. If you say no, you and your wife can have a normal life," he pointed out. "Say yes, though-"
I shook my head. "We can't have a normal life. Not til the vaccine is in circulation. Ideology aside, Mare is the only immune female - maybe the only immune, full stop. Think about it." His eyes widened, and then he nodded.
We were silent for a long moment. "Your aims and mine are more aligned than I'd thought, Alex," Donovan said at last. At my enquiring look, he said in a low voice, "You were right about Mulder."
"I don't understand," I said, confused.
"The group are going to hand over the rebel," he revealed; and his level voice couldn't totally disguise his anger and defeat at the fact.
I stared at him in shock. "Despite the vaccine?" I demanded in disbelief.
Sight nod. "Despite the vaccine."
I frowned, turning away, pacing. Those stupid, stupid men! I turned to face him once more. "What can I do?"
"Don't let it happen."
I went to Mulder, and I convinced him of the alien threat. He went to the exchange, but the rebel was handed over regardless. However, because of his intervention, the rebel was killed outright, without revealing what he knew. The immediate threat had been averted.
The next three months passed in a blur. Mare regained consciousness in April, just in time for her birthday; but she was terribly, terribly weak. We remained at Fort Marlene, my days spent keeping her company - reading to her, talking to her, involving myself in her rehabilitation. I worked in the adjacent vaccine lab with two trusted scientists when she slept.
Donovan turned out to be, not exactly a friend, but certainly a companionable ally. He proved surprisingly sensitive, arranging a more comfortable bed/sitting room for her after she woke, and - after walking in on us asleep together on her cramped bed - even arranging for a double bed. There was no question of making love - she was far too weak for that - but being able to hold each other as we slept was an incredible comfort to both of us. She was not exactly a prisoner; but nor was she free to come and go, even if she had been able. He understood, as I did, the danger. It was something that had not yet occurred to Mare.
"Alexi?" she said tentatively in May.
I pressed her bent leg firmly against her body with my hand, and her foot up with my prosthesis. She winced slightly, but bore the pain stoically. I looked at her, holding it. "Yeah?"
Her face relaxed and she breathed out in a rush when I let go. "I want to get out of here."
I straightened her leg, massaging the joint of her knee with my thumb. I was very conscious of having only one hand to work with. "You're not well enough."
"I can walk when I really have to, I can wash myself, I can toilet myself," she protested impatiently. I flexed her foot back and forth, rolling it at the ankle. "So what's the problem?"
I rotated each of her toes in turn. "You're not well enough," I repeated implacably. I was frowning, but I don't think she could see it.
"That feels good," she sighed. "It's so good to feel the blood moving." I shot her a smile. She went on, "I am well enough, Alexi. You can help me, and I can make do for myself at home when you're out. You care for me pretty much full-time here anyway."
I went to her side, and she put her arm around my shoulder. I lifted her so that she sat up. "You can make do for yourself," I conceded, putting the cover over her to the waist. I handed her book to her and, grabbing my own, sat at her side. "But can you keep yourself safe?"
She was starting to open hers, but she stopped, frowning. "What do you mean?"
I shifted to face her, my gaze locking on hers. "Do you have any idea how valuable a commodity you are?" I demanded, piercingly.
"What are you talking about?" she said in bewilderment.
"Marita, don't you understand? You're Eve," I said urgently. "The first woman!" Her jaw dropped a little, her brow creasing. "You think being under Donovan's nose is bad? Wait 'til someone like Saddam Hussein finds out there's a fertile, immune woman!"
She stared at me - stared at me for a long moment in utter stupefaction. At last, she protested in a low voice, "We don't even know if the immunity is hereditary yet."
"No, we don't," I agreed. "And I can think of a dozen tinpot dictators who would love to find out." I smoothed back her hair, tucking it behind her ear like a parent, and she smiled faintly; but it was a weak, worried smile. "They could take you. They could demand ransom. Or they might just make you pregnant and see what happened." I didn't use the word rape, but the slight catch in her chest told me that she understood the implication.
"God," she said in a whisper.
I stroked her cheek with the back of my hand. She leant into it a little. "I don't want you scared, Mare, but I want you safe. We're not leaving here until you can take me down from ambush. And I'll fight you harder than I've ever fought you before. I'll fight you as hard as I'd fight to get you back."
She nodded slowly. She was very white. "All right." I leaned in and kissed her forehead. Pulling away, she said, "But will you talk to the occupational therapist? Tell her I want to work more intensively?" I nodded, looking up as Donovan appeared behind her in the doorway. I made a vague greeting gesture. He returned it, but didn't enter. "I want to be well, Alexi," she said insistently. Then, thickly, "I hate this place."
I took her hand in mine. "I know. I'll talk to her." I squeezed it a second, then let go.
Donovan cleared his throat, and Mare turned, composing herself. "Hello, Maxwell."
"Good afternoon, Marita. How are you feeling today?" he asked, not unkindly.
"Strong," she said firmly. "I walked up the corridor this morning. No walker."
He smiled, almost paternally. One thing I had to say for Donovan: his closeness with his grandchildren meant he had the fatherly thing down pat. "That's excellent, Marita. I'm very pleased." He turned to me. "Alex, can I borrow you for a few minutes?"
"Sure. I'll be back," I said to Mare. She nodded, shooting me a smile, and settled down with her book; but she still look troubled. Frowning, I rose, and followed Donovan into the corridor.
"What was that all about?" he asked me in a low voice, nodding towards the room. He asked with genuine solicitude, "Is there something I can do to make her more comfortable?"
I shook my head. "It's nothing like that. Mare has some bad memories of this place. We both do." At his querying look, I explained quietly, "We were pregnant last year. Spender knew." I swallowed hard, fighting to keep the awful, overwhelming sadness of that time out of my voice, but not quite succeeding. "He sent her into the smallpox test zone in Payson. They kept her quarantined here until she lost the child."
He stared at me, slack-jawed with horror. "Dear God."
I could feel my hand clenching with anger. "Controlling, murdering son-of-a-bitch. I'm glad he's gone." My voice was bitter.
Donovan looked worried. "Then you're not going to like what I'm about to ask you to do."
"What do you mean?" I demanded. Donovan looked uncomfortable.
"It's Spender - he's alive."
I didn't like it, but I went along with it.
Spender was indeed alive, and I was sent to his hideout to bring him back. Bring him back? When I'd have happily sent him to hell?
I damn near did it, too.
I had an accomplice, of course; but he was inept, and he paid for his ineptitude with his life. Spender and I were alone, and when I had him at gunpoint, I held him for a long moment - one of the longest moments of my life. I thought of Mare, weeping for her mother. I thought of her at the dark man's side, begging his forgiveness. I thought of her, exposed to radiation rescuing me from the missile silo. I thought of her buried in my arms, our child dying within her. And I wished - vehemently, bitterly, I wished that I could squeeze my finger around the trigger.
But I didn't do it, because Donovan was our ally, our protector; and if he wanted Spender back, then I would do it.
So I brought him back.
To this day, I don't understand why the group wanted him. I wasn't privy to that information: as far as the group was concerned, I was Donovan's right hand. A senior lackey, but still just a lackey. They knew nothing of my work on the vaccine. They believed I had stolen it and surrendered it in exchange for my life, nothing more. Donovan feared that if they knew I had been responsible for its development, I could be in danger. He believed my apparent insignificance would keep Marita and I safe.
As far as Spender went, while it's true that we had little control over the FBI without him, it seemed to me that the recovery of a child, even a child gifted with precognition - and especially a child guarded by a Consortium plant - should have been simple. But then, perhaps the plant was the problem. Diana Donovan - Diana Fowley, I corrected myself - was a mother of three. Her eldest was only a little younger than Gibson Praise. I don't think she would willingly have handed him over. Whatever the case, Spender retrieved the boy. He and Donovan exchanged words, and Donovan bundled the boy into the car, and got in himself.
"I've got a nice, straight shot," I said in a low voice.
"No. He's useful," Donovan countered. He looked at me meaningfully. "And you may need him in the future." I frowned - we had discussed the danger to him more than once. Donovan's days were numbered, and we both knew it.
We drove on, and in the rearview mirror I saw the boy's face darken as we passed Spender. "What's the matter, kid?" I asked, interested. The boy apparently didn't like him, which meant he probably had good instincts.
"That man hurt the lady," he said reproachfully.
"The redhead?" I said curiously. Scully had been guarding him too, I remembered. It didn't occur to me that he might mean Diana - I thought Spender was smarter than that. She and Donovan were thick as thieves.
"No, the other one. Agent Fowley."
Donovan said nothing, but I saw his hands tighten in his lap. I thought sympathetically that he was thinking of his grandchildren. "That's disgusting," I said with feeling. "You don't take women with little kids. Not if there's another way."
The older man looked at me curiously. "A more antiquated sentiment than I'd have expected from you, Alex."
"I know where to draw the line," I retorted. "Mothers are usually off-limits. So are kids, always," I added pointedly. "So if you want this kid dead, you're going to have to find someone else." I went on grimly, "Apart from anything else, Marita would kill me."
Donovan shot me a look, then laughed. "You're a fraud, Alex. You act so tough-"
"I love my wife, and I'm proud of it," I snapped. "You got something to say about that?" He remained silent. I insisted, "I don't kill kids." He looked at me with interest, then revealed:
"I have no intention of killing Gibson Praise."
"Why are you sad, Alex?"
I stared at the screen intently. "What?" He waited while I zapped a few aliens. Silly-looking green things. Don't these people read alien lore? One of them took out my avatar effortlessly, and I gave the boy the joystick in disgust. "You're in my head - don't you know?"
Gibson shook his head, his face blue-green in the light of the screen. "In your head isn't the same as in your heart."
I nodded slowly. That made sense. "My wife is very sick - I suppose you knew that part," I hazarded, and he nodded. "I just miss the things she used to do. She always used to sing in the shower, and she's an awful singer - just awful," I added with a grin. A flicker of amusement passed over the boy's features. "But she doesn't sing anymore, and I miss that. She had a birthday a little while back and I got her this gold bracelet, because she was too tired to enjoy anything else, you know?" He nodded, and I went on, mostly to myself, "She's too tired to laugh or smile or joke or make lo-" I bit off the end of that, but he knew what I was going to say, of course. "Sorry. This is nothing to tell a kid."
He shrugged. "When you see into grown up heads, you don't stay a kid for very long." On-screen, his avatar exploded in flames, and he handed me the joystick once more.
"No, I guess you don't."
"They're very dark," he said presently. "Why are grown ups so dark?"
I shifted, trying to manoeuvre the joystick the way I wanted, without success. I frowned. "I don't know," I said at last, handing over to him. He took it, but didn't play. "But not all of them are like that."
"You mean like your wife."
I glared at him. "Get the fuck out of my head, kid. Yeah, like my wife." I watched him for a moment, then relented. "You're a good kid, Gibson. You don't deserve to be dragged into this." He looked up at me, his expression oddly adult.
"Neither do you."
The next few weeks passed without incident. Gibson was ensconced in quarters at Fort Marlene, and I made an effort to settle him in. Donovan received my suggestion of a tutor for him with favour. In time, we hoped, the boy could be persuaded to take a role in the project - in which case, the group might allow him to live. But that would not be on the agenda for several years. Meantime, we endeavoured to keep him happy and stimulated, and to ease his separation from his family.
Mare and I talked about the boy at some length. I was aware of his value as a commodity, but both Mare and I believed he could not be used. The boy was strong: he would only be used if he allowed himself to be used out of his own ideology. But we both agreed that he should be protected, on both strategic and humane grounds.
I brought him to meet her, and they got along well. Mare thought so much about the baby we'd lost, living in that place; and it was good for her to be able to take an interest in another child. I wouldn't call her relationship with Gibson maternal, exactly, and certainly I wasn't paternal; but we both enjoyed him, both felt fiercely protective of him.
It seems odd to think of those days as domestic bliss, but in a way, they were. For me, it was a welcome interlude of stability after four years of chaos. I usually knew where I would spend my days and my nights, and those places were clean and civilised. I wasn't called upon to undertake unsavoury work. Mare and I slept together and read together and ate together - things we had never been able to do for more than a few weeks at a time before. We had a loose network of associates - my scientists and assistant, and Donovan and Gibson - and we had an identity as husband and wife. It was something loosely resembling a normal life.
Mare said once that there were certain things that only normal people could have - things that didn't happen for people like us. I'd told her, a lifetime ago, that they could happen - that we could make them happen.
But I was wrong.
I looked up, my brow creasing. My assistant looked to me for my approval, and I nodded. "That's fine, Georgia." I looked at Donovan. He was pacing, fidgeting. I had never seen him so shaken. "Sit down, Maxwell," I said quietly. "You're making me nervous."
"You should be nervous," he said in a low voice, but he complied. He waited until the door snicked shut, then spoke. But his words were ones I could never have predicted.
I blinked, staring at him in bewilderment. "What?"
"Fossilised pathogen has turned up in Texas," he said gravely. Then, deliberately, "An infected man grew an extraterrestrial biological entity in his abdominal cavity."
My eyes opened very wide, and I sat back in my chair, stunned. "Oh, God." I brought my hand to my mouth, breathing deeply; I could feel the blood draining from my face.
"It gets worse," Donovan went on implacably. "The EBE disembowels the host in the course of being born. It goes on to perpetuate itself by infecting whomever it finds." He looked at me piercingly; said in a low voice, "You know what this means?"
I could feel the bile rising in my chest - anger, fear, and betrayal all at once. I said in mounting horror, "It means infection isn't just slavery - it's digestion and elimination. They've lied to us all along!" Donovan was nodding, his expression a grimace of fear. I got to my feet and paced; then turned back to him at last. "What now?" I demanded. "Are there plans in place to fight?"
Donovan said in a controlled voice, "My colleagues do not yet understand the need to fight the future." At my stunned look, he said tightly, "They're going to turn over the man and demand an explanation."
I stared at him in utter disbelief. "You're kidding."
"I only wish I were, Alex."
I breathed out heavily, thinking fast. I started pacing again. "All right," I said decisively. "We'll get Mulder and Scully on board. You can get Diana and Senator Sorenson. I can probably get Skinner - he hates me, but he's fond of Mare. We'll have a crisis meeting - see if between us we can't dig up enough skeletons to pressure the group. The X Files have been shut down. They don't have anything to lose. With them on board, we could take it to the Senate - make them justify their decision and formulate a defence strategy." I could feel the blood pumping, my sense of control returning - but Donovan was shaking his head.
"It's not as simple as that."
"What do you mean?" I demanded fearfully.
Donovan was grimacing again. An insane voice in my mind remarked that if the wind changed he'd stay like that. "They fear Mulder will expose them in exactly the way you suggest. To prevent that, they've taken Scully. She's infected." I closed my eyes for a long moment, dismayed.
"God. Where is she?"
"The installation in Antarctica."
I stared at him. "We have to give Mulder the vaccine - there's no other way." I was starting to feel a bit like a caged rat.
He protested, "There's a UFO on anchor there. If the vaccine gets into the treatment system, it will also get into the craft. It could alert the alien race to our work." His voice was rising: he was close to raw panic, and coming from such a controlled man, that fact frightened me more than anything else.
"We might have to risk that. We can't go public, even just to Congress, without her - Mulder's seen as a crank. Skinner won't back him without her, and I'm betting your buddy Sorenson won't come to the party without Skinner. Losing Scully will destroy everything." I looked at him. "You think a resistance of eight is bad? A resistance of a man who doesn't exist, a man wanted for murder and treason, and a single immune - that's worse."
He sighed heavily, pondering my words, and he saw that I was right. With three feds, an FBI executive, and a senator, we could achieve what we needed to achieve. We could fight the future, and there was even a small chance we might come out alive. But without-
"Where are we up to on lag times for the vaccine?" he said at last.
"It can be successfully administered within ninety-six hours now. Maybe a hundred for Scully," I added. "She'll seroconvert more slowly in the cold." I went to a locked cabinet, and opened it, removing five vials. I separated one and put it in a pouch with a needle, and put the other four in a second. I handed them to him. He looked at the second pouch questioningly. "For Diana and the kids," I explained. "Once you've given Mulder the vaccine, get them somewhere safe and make them immune. I'm going to do the same for Gibson. There's no guarantee we're going to be able to stop this."
He nodded slowly. "Thank you, Alex."
I held out my hand. "Go safely, old man." He shook it.
I never saw him again.
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