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Futures Past 09: From the Ashes - Part 1

by Arvy

Futures Past 08:
Sweet Dreams...
Home Futures Past 10:
Tchaikovsky Unbound

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

RATING - PG
CATEGORY - C(rossover), R(omance)
SPOILERS - The End(XF), Sub Rosa(TNG)
KEYWORDS - X-files/Highlander/Forever Knight/Star Trek: TNG crossover, Mulder/Scully Romance

SUMMARY

Seven missing children, an untested partner, and a threat millennia in the making... will this be the key to the agents' quest? Meanwhile, the future faces a similar threat that only they can defeat.

DISCLAIMER

None of these characters belong to me, and like so many worthy people before me, I'm only borrowing them for a short while. All characters referred to herein belong to CC, or 1013, or Fox, or Rysher, or Paramount, or Pocket Books, whoever owns the rights to them.

Author's Notes

Now that I've satisfied my yen to write a Voyager piece, I'm going to go back to the present. Sort of. Since this is also a Star Trek: The Next Generation crossover, I'm going to be jumping back and forth between the timelines, and hopefully the story will parallel somewhat.

As I've said previously, this series veers off from X-files canon immediately after season 5, and before the movie. Timeline wise, the current events in this story are set sometime during what would be the sixth season of the X-files, around Dec 1998. The future events are set about three months after All Good Things (TNG finale), between the DS9 episode, The Search, where the identity of the Founders is revealed, and Voyager's first episode, Caretaker.

Finally, this extra long piece of work, which also took close to forever to get done (Xaz needed extra coffee near the end;) is dedicated to all you great fans who kept writing me while I stumbled through the story. Your subtle ;} nudges were just the incentive I needed to get this done already. So here's to y'all. I hope you enjoy this.

As always, any missing parts can be found at my website at http://unmai.cjb.net/arvy or at Gossamer or Seventh Dimension, once they update. Send feedback to unmai@bigfoot.com, let me know what you thought. Meanwhile, l'histoire awaits...


The Milky Way
The Archean Eon
Approx. 4 billion years ago

They had many names.

Future generations of space explorers would call them the Preservers. Several races had synonymous descriptions for them, including such appellations as the Wise ones, the First Ones, etc.

They were explorers, charting and colonizing a major portion of what would one day be known as the Milky Way galaxy. They were scientists, capable of the most astounding achievements, inventing ways and means to bend the laws of space and time to suit their purposes. They were architects, the worlds they occupied sporting beauteous monuments, a testament to their prowess, causing all who looked upon them to exclaim at the wondrous sight they beheld. They were artists, and artisans, their work praised and revered by their people throughout the known galaxy.

They were dying.

And there were no other races, no other beings to share in their wondrous achievements. No others to learn from them, to teach them. No others who might know, who might understand them.

No one who might remember them after they were gone.

The project was launched with the utmost haste. Once they realized what was happening to them, not that they fully understood the final ramifications of the changes, they wasted no time in putting together the most massive preservation effort in their lonely history. Countless solar systems were seeded with their DNA, with the basic molecules that defined their very existence. And within these molecules, these protein chains, they encoded a message. For their children. A message for their progeny, so they might one day come together, traversing the reaches of space to solve the puzzle. A message of peace and goodwill, in the hope that one day they might know, might remember their common genetic ancestry.

Then they changed.

And waited.


This particular solar system was not unlike countless others. The explorers had found among the planets the requisite gas giant, the frozen iceball, the blazing furnace of molten rock orbiting too near the system's sun. But, unlike most systems, there was not just one but two planets capable of supporting life.

Had they more time, they might have delved deeper into the planets' ecology, might have more precisely determined the long term effects of their actions. The third planet posed no problem. Their seeds took root, combining readily with the already forming carbon based biological matrix. On the fourth planet, however, their actions caused something they had not expected, hadn't foreseen.

The existing biological matrix on the planet was silicon based, not carbon. With the addition of carbon based DNA into the matrix, the resulting lifeforms were a unique combination of the two. Composites, ones that evolved with characteristics of both, yet neither. There were the requisite lifeforms, the single celled organisms, the bacteria, the viruses, the most simple ones that formed first.

Evolution continued, but something happened as the first multicellular organisms came into being. A cosmic phenomenon not uncommon, as stellar phenomena went. Something similar would happen to the third planet in the far future, although not with such terrible severity, or with such widespread devastation.

The comet slammed into the fourth planet with enough force to completely destroy any chance for the existing lifeforms to evolve any further. Entire oceans vanished, the biosphere irrevocably shattered. The cloud of ash and red dust hung over the planet for millennia. The only living things that survived the disaster, the emergent multicellular life, a hardy virus that had somehow evolved to survive even such harsh conditions, lay dormant within several pieces of rock that were thrown clear of the planet's gravity due to the collision.


Tunguska Region, Siberia, Earth
Tuesday, June 30, 1908
6:53 AM

The wind died down.

The entire tundra woodland froze, almost as if its denizens knew what was about to occur. Even the flow of the Lower Tunguska river seemed unnaturally still. The herd of reindeer moved back from the water, pushing among themselves, moving restlessly, almost as if they were being stalked by an unseen predator. They could feel the change in the air, but their limited intelligence couldn't ascribe a cause to the sensations. Their instincts warned them to run, but their senses couldn't provide a direction to run towards or away from.

When it finally came, the fireball created shock waves that could be felt more than 400 miles away. The explosion caused thermal currents that set entire tracts of woodland afire. The resulting mushroom cloud and 'black rain' that followed inflicted an undiagnosable disease on several reindeer herds in proximity to the area. Of the herd directly below the explosion, however, and of much of the indigenous animal and plant life, there was no sign after the event, so severe was the destruction.

The remoteness of the area caused it to remain unencroached upon for another 19 years. When Russian scientists finally mounted an expedition to visit the slowly recovering region, they did not find any meteorite fragments; none had survived the terrific explosion of the meteor crash. What they also did not find were the newly awakened lifeforms that had seeped into the rock.

They had already claimed several herds of reindeer and various other fauna during the initial incident. However, the dearth of new life to infect soon killed off the few organisms that remained above ground. The only remaining ones, those that had successfully buried themselves into the rock, waited patiently. After all, they had already done so for millennia. What was another half century.


Tunguska gulag, Siberia
Thursday, May 31, 1979
7:03 AM

The light fell across his face, rousing him from the slight stupor. He didn't dare allow himself any deeper rest. He had heard the screams, every night since he'd been brought here. He had tried to shut them out the first few times, but they were slowly driving him insane. He had come to ignore them, had come to care less and less about his fellow prisoners. He simply prayed he would not be next.

He had the singular honor of being one of the first prisoners to be interned in the gulag since it had been constructed almost two years ago. Piotr Vorshin, tried, convicted, and exiled to this wasteland for crimes against the people, pushed the stringy blond hair out of his eyes as he got up to get ready for the daily tasks. First would come the cockroach infested breakfast, although it would be a miracle if he was able to keep any of it down. Then, the march along with the other prisoners to the quarry, where they were to dig up more of the black rock.

He did not know what it was, although he knew it was dangerous. A prisoner had cut himself on one of the rocks. He had cried out, and in front of the other prisoners, he had started seizing uncontrollably. Piotr and a handful of others had rushed to his side, hoping to get him to his feet before the guards arrived.

And they found death.

The blackness swam in the man's eyes as he stared blankly at the sky. There were tiny worm like creatures crawling under his skin, worms that made Piotr's very skin crawl just thinking about them. They had fallen back with a cry, many of them crossing themselves in fear. Then the guards arrived.

Piotr shuddered as he tucked away the memory. It would not do to lose control like that. He had to be careful when he began his work in the quarry. Never touch the actual rock, he repeated to himself quietly as he shuffled to the corner of his little cell, waiting for the guards to open the door.

When the door swung open, he saw the shadow fall across the room. Instead of the usual guards, the bald man with the glasses glanced at him, then gestured to the men at his side. They strode in, each grabbing one of Piotr's arms, pulling him out into the corridor behind the bald man in the doctor's smock.

Piotr struggled, to no avail. He didn't know what was going to happen to him. But he had heard the screams. He silently wondered if he could provoke the guards into killing him before he had to endure what was in store for him.

But they were too strong. He was dragged into a small laboratory, where the doctor pulled out a syringe filled with a sickeningly yellow liquid. Without a word, the needle was thrust into his arm, the contents emptied into his bloodstream.

Beyond the slight sting, he could barely feel any pain. In fact, his arm was starting to become numb. Before he could say a word, he felt the darkness surrounding him as he lost consciousness.

He awoke to the feel of metal wire on his face. He couldn't turn his head. There was what felt like chicken wire covering him, confining him to the table he lay upon. He waited a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, then realized he wasn't alone. There had to be at least a dozen other tables similar to his in the dark room.

He saw movement above him. The pipe that ended a few feet above his head started shaking. He squinted to get a better view, his eyes widening at what came out of the pipe. He struggled, shaking against his restraints, but they held fast. The first few spatters fell on his chin and neck, then a bigger black mass directly onto his face. He could feel the worms working their way into his body, through his nose, his mouth, his ears, his eyes. He could feel them crawling around inside.

And he knew without doubt that his eyes were no longer clear. The darkness claimed him again, a more complete darkness this time.

The screams began...

... and in the cell two floors above, Nikolai Verdi, two-time convicted thief and murderer, crossed himself as he prayed he would not be next.


Arvada III colony, Arvada System
Howard family homestead
Sunday, October 13, 2335

"Happy birthday to you.
Happy birthday to you.
Happy birthday dear Beverly,
Happy birthday to you."

The sound of applause filled the room as the little girl blew out the candles. There were more of them than the number of fingers on her hand, and she knew that that made her very old indeed. Why, she was practically a grownup.

She watched as her mother cut the cake, carefully removing and placing aside the candles as she did so. She put the first piece of cake on a little plate and handed it to her. The little girl smiled up at her mother, taking the plate and reaching up to plant a wet kiss on her cheek. She waited until the cake had been distributed onto the other plates and among the rest of the guests, then ran off to join her friends in the living room, her red gold curls dancing around her head.

They finished the cake and were in the midst of her favorite game, kadis-kot. Her best friend, Melissa, from the farmhouse next to theirs, hooked a finger under the small cross on the chain around her neck, holding it up to examine it closely. "Oooh! Bev, where'd you get this?"

"It's so pretty," Melissa's sister, Anne, chimed in, crowding in to get a closer look as well.

"Yeah!" the girl responded, eager to show off her newfound acquisition. "My Auntie Day gave it to me. She said it was an old family tradition," she added.

"I..." Melissa began, but was cut off at the loud clatter from the kitchen. Both of them turned towards the sound, startled.

"I'll be right back," Beverly said, laying her game piece aside and getting up. Melissa and Anne watched as she scurried into the kitchen, where she'd left the adults only moments before.

She saw Nana and Auntie Day, leaning over her mother, who was lying on the floor, a tray with the remains of the cake scattered beside her. "Mama!" she cried, rushing towards the prone body. She was stopped, literally scooped up into the air by a pair of strong hands before she could reach her mother.

"There, there, princess," the voice behind her said. "Your mommy just slipped. She'll be just fine. See, Auntie Day is taking care of her." The person holding her turned her around to face him.

She was only eleven. But she could tell when she was being lied to. She had seen Auntie Day using her black baggie. And Auntie Day was a doctor, just like Mama. If she was using her bag, then her mommy must be really hurt indeed. She squirmed and wriggled until she found herself free of her uncle's grip. She slipped to the floor, then rushed past Nana and kneeled down by her mother.

What she saw would remain imprinted in her memory for the rest of her life.

Auntie Day held her mama's eye open and shone a light into it. But what terrified little Beverly was the inky black oil that floated over the eye. It flowed like gelatin, but was inside her mother's eye. It was inside... And the worms under mama's skin... She recoiled. She knew, even with her limited knowledge, that this was wrong, very wrong.

She screamed...


46th Street, New York City, NY
Thursday, May 28, 1998
6:19 PM

"... As for our intrepid agents, we won't need to worry about them for a while. I'm sure Assistant Director Kersh will do a better job of curtailing their interest in our work than Mr. Skinner did. Have the results of the hearings been determined?"

"Yes sir. The hearings are due to last another couple of weeks at the most. But the outcome is a foregone conclusion. With this much evidence against them, there is no question..."

"Good. And the main project?"

"Proceeding as planned, sir. The vaccine we managed to procure from the Russians has been remarkably effective in the laboratory tests. We should be ready for the first trial runs in the field within the next few months."

"Excellent. Very well, that will be all."


Unknown location
Tuesday, April 6, 2371
4:32 PM, local time

He scrolled down the list on the PADD, reviewing the reports on various ongoing projects. He stopped on a line indicating the status of a project he had a personal interest in.

"I see project 273 has reached the next stage," he observed, looking up at the man standing in front of him. "Has a suitable planet been found?"

"Yes, sir. A Horta colony in the Belisar system. Our teams are in place; we're just waiting for clearance to proceed."

The man seated behind the desk blinked, his mind searching for any information it contained about the system. Isolated, he recalled. Not on any major traffic routes, situated as it was near the Federation border. More important, at least a week away from any aid that could pose a significant threat to the operation. Barring anything unforeseen, of course. Which, in a manner of speaking, was why his people existed in the first place.

An excellent choice, he mused. Not that they had many to choose from. Not with a physiology like that of these colonists. Ironic, he chuckled silently, that the ones most similar to their newfound enemies should be so... solid. Yes, they would make an excellent trial run.

He nodded, "Very well. I'll take care of the clearance." He turned his attention back to the PADD, scrolling down to the end before returning it to the aide. "That will be all," he dismissed the man.

As soon as the door closed, he turned to his personal comm unit, calling up a familiar number. He waited as the connection was requested, wondering if he was doing the right thing. The man had already been used so much, perhaps it was better to let him...

The thought vanished as the logo on the screen faded into a view of an airy office. He could just make out the towers and cables of the Golden Gate outside the window on the far side of the room. The image was quickly hidden by the older man who moved in front of the vidcom.

Surprise was evident on his face at the clearly unexpected caller. "Luther...?" Surprise, and nervousness.

"Owen, how are you?" He leaned back in his seat, watching as the other grew increasingly agitated. "Oh, calm down, Admiral. You didn't think I'd call you on an unsecured line, did you?"

The nervousness gave way to thinly disguised hate. "Why are you calling me? I thought we'd decided, after last time..."

"We decided nothing," he responded sharply. "As I recall, you were the one making all the demands."

"We have nothing to talk about," the other ground out. "There's nothing you can hold over my head anymore. My wife is dead. You can't touch my daughters, and my son is finally safe from you." His voice turned bitter. "And I am long past caring what you do to me."

"Oh, didn't you know?" he affected a surprised look. "Your precious Katie has requested your son's services as observer for her first assignment. In fact, Admiral Patterson should be pushing through the transfer from Auckland any day now." He watched with satisfaction as the face on the viewscreen paled visibly. He smiled to himself. Sometimes it was necessary to give small reminders of exactly who was in charge. He placed his elbows on the arms of his chair, his chin resting on his clasped hands. "I wonder how his presence will be received by all those Starfleet officers onboard Voyager."

"Damn you, Luther," the hoarse whisper came. "Damn you to hell." Bitterness, defeat, sorrow, all intermingled in his words as his shoulders slumped. "What do you want?" The words of a broken man.

"A simple clearance request. We have a project scheduled for a certain colony in the Belisar system. We need you to make sure no missions get assigned near that system for the next two months."

The Admiral sighed. "I'll take care of it." He paused, then added sarcastically, "Anything else, Director Sloan?"

If he caught it, he chose to ignore the barb. "No, that will be all. Good day, Admiral."

"Paris out."


Elsewhere on earth, in a small room in the basement of an unassuming building, a display monitor came to life, lighting up with various pieces of information about its current activity.

The system had been alerted by a transmission to a certain office in the Admiralty, secure and encrypted though it had been. Data streamed in, was processed, then sent to a decryption queue. The appropriate headers were attached, indicating the date of transmission, the parties involved, and other pertinent information. Once the message was in the queue, the monitor flicked itself off, waiting for the next piece of data to head its way, while the decryption algorithms began their work.


Dana Scully's Apartment
Saturday, June 13, 1998
9:13 AM

The soft strains of Tchaikovsky floated through the room as he swam up from unconsciousness. He kept his eyes closed, reaching out beside him. He felt the pillow beside him, pulling it close. A deep breath, and he could smell her. Intoxicating... He remembered the night before, a very satisfied smile stretching his lips as he burrowed further into the covers.

He would be the first to admit his usual insomnia simply vanished when he was with her. There was a time he couldn't have imagined a night he'd slept through without waking up from one nightmare or the other. But now, even the impending closure of the OPR hearings in a couple of days couldn't dampen his enthusiasm.

Slowly, reluctantly, the eyes opened as he heard the faint sounds coming from the bathroom. He pushed back the covers and jumped out of bed, moving towards the other half of himself. He came upon her, lying in the tub, completely relaxed. He took another look, grinning as he realized she'd fallen asleep. Not too surprising, considering how late they'd been up the night before, engaged as they'd been in some rather... worthwhile... activities. What did surprise him was the next piece that started up on the stereo. How appropriate, he thought to himself.

Quickly washing up, he moved to kneel beside her. Her hair was pinned up, a crown of flame against the fair skin. The water in the bubble bath lapped against her throat, which lay invitingly bared to any advances he might choose to make. He contented himself with simply staring at her for a moment, marveling at her beauty.

Once again, he found himself wondering what he could have possibly done in his miserable life to have deserved such a reward. And, just as he'd always done, he immediately shied away from following such thoughts through to their inevitable conclusion. After all, he'd wished for something, and looking at her, there was no doubt the wish had been fulfilled. Looking said gift in the mouth would hardly be the height of wisdom.

She awoke to the feel of lips starting at the base of her neck, slowly moving upwards. She felt the smile tugging at the corner of her lips, but refrained from showing it, keeping her eyes closed. Not that she didn't appreciate this way of waking up, no. Quite the contrary, it was all she could do to keep the fire that had suddenly erupted within her from claiming her. Her hands twitched at her sides, itching to reach up and pull him closer.

The lips had reached her jaw, tracing slow nibbles and kisses along the bone as they headed for their target. She was having a hard time keeping from shouting at him to speed up the maddeningly slow pace. Finally... finally, the lips met their destination, caressing hers, tortuous, incensing. Her eyes shot open as the tongue traced her lips, begging to be allowed in. She melted into the kiss, stretching the moment into a seeming infinity.

"It worked!" the hoarse, yet wondrous whisper traveled along her skin, evoking a sensuous shiver even as the lips moved close to her ear. "She awakens!" A bit puzzled at his words, her face cleared as she heard the faint sounds of the Valse from Sleeping Beauty float in from the bedroom. "My prince," she whispered back, just as softly. She turned to the side, her lips tracing his cheek. "My hero!" She felt the hand trail down her neck, tracing her collarbone, then her ribs as it traveled down. She felt it touch her, and gasped.

"Why Scully," the grinning query came, the movement of his hands disturbing the opaque layer of soap, "do the bubbles tickle your Tchaikovsky?"

She growled wordlessly, her hands reaching up to get a grip on his body, then pulling him down towards her.


46th Street, New York City
Thursday, April 8, 2371
4:43 AM

"Steve?" A tousled head of dark hair peered out from under an assortment of covers, looking around the dark room for the missing occupant. "Steve, honey?" she called out again in a sleepy voice. "Come back to bed."

"In a minute, Barb," the reply floated out from the adjoining room.

"Great!" came the muttered reply before the woman on the bed dropped her head back down onto the pillow. Within moments, she was fast asleep.

In the next room, however, the man seated at the communications terminal promptly forgot his promise as he saw the images appear on the screen. The transmission was slightly garbled, a testament to the efficiency of Starfleet's encryption codes. On closer examination, he could make out a second layer of encryption as well, obviously belonging to the anonymous caller. No wonder the decryption routines had taken almost... he glanced at the header information, his eyebrows rising... one and a half days!? The best encryption routines he'd ever come across took less than a day to breach using his resources. He sucked in a breath. Who the hell had the Admiral been talking to?

As the decrypted information finished displaying on the screen, he grinned. "Talk about the judgement of Paris," he murmured. It looked like their hunch had paid off after all. He'd been sure that Paris was the key, the one who could lead them to the ones they were really after. And now, they just might have found a way...

He saved the information, then carefully went about covering his tracks. By the time he was done, no one would even suspect a leak in Starfleet's supposedly secure communications network, let alone finger his terminal as the destination of the leaked information.

It was beginning, he thought excitedly. Exactly what it was, he didn't know yet. But it was what they had been waiting for. His fingers danced over the controls as he packaged the information, disguising it within layers upon layers of encryption. "Computer, verify encryption seal, authorization Steven Byers."

"Seal verified," the computer replied.

"Record message." He waited for the confirmation chirp, then continued, "Hey Felix, long time no see. How are ya, you old goat? Anyway, just thought I'd call and say hi. Oh, and give my best to Denise. Later... End message."

He punched in the destination codes, then carefully piggybacked the encrypted information on top of his message before transmitting it. With a sigh, he got up, switching off the terminal.

"Is everything all right?" the woman mumbled, waking up slightly as he climbed back into the bed.

"Everything's fine, hon. Go back to sleep."

"Ok. I love you."

"I love you too, sweetheart." He heard the faint snores coming from beside him. He continued to lie quietly on the bed for a few minutes, thinking as he gazed up at the ceiling. Finally, uttering a quick prayer for his friends, he closed his eyes and followed his wife into slumber.


Chief Medical Officer's Quarters
USS Enterprise-D
Friday, April 9, 2371
0512 hours

... and screamed until her voice was hoarse.

Her eyes shot open.

"Mama!" The soft whisper barely escaped her lips. The screams from the nightmare, however, echoed inside her head. She blinked the rest of the sleep away from her eyes.

"Computer, time?"

"The time is 0513 hours," it replied in its precisely modulated voice.

She sighed. Too early for comfort, yet too late to try to go back to sleep. She resigned herself to an early morning, stifling a yawn as she roused herself off the bed. She padded to the ensuite, her nerves still tingling from the aftereffects of the dream.

It had been so real. She hadn't had that particular dream in so long. Not since... She frowned. It had been so long... Not since before she met Jack.

More than two decades.

She wondered what had triggered the dream. "Oh, god. I'm finally going psychic, just like Nana warned," she muttered to herself as she went about her daily morning routine.


Bridge
0817 hours

"Captain's log, stardate 48269.4. We're on our way to the Parmen sector to chart the collapse of a local neutron star in the Endicor Nebula. Stellar cartography has informed me that the presence of the gases in the nebula will cause heretofore unseen properties to emerge in the resulting quantum singularity. I hope the mission will give the crew a much needed break from the hectic schedule Starfleet has forced upon us these past few weeks.

First however, we will be making a brief, unscheduled stop to deliver our guest to his home on Belisarius IV. In the meantime, I have enjoyed having him on board. He has provided some very unique views in his work on the relationship between geophysics and archaeology."

"Mr. Data. Estimated time of arrival at the Belisar system?"

The android seated at the Ops console hit a few keys, then responded, "Three hours, forty three minutes, Captain. We will be within hailing range in a few minutes."

"Thank you, Mr. Data. Would you inform our guest as well? Well, Number One, how did the Admiral find his accommodations? I realize we were a little rushed with the last minute schedule changes."

The bigger man turned to look at the captain, a small smile on his face. "He seemed to like the modifications we made, Captain. Said it felt like a bit of Janus VI itself. All the comforts of home, and much more luxurious than his quarters aboard the original Enterprise. However, he did complain that dinner was somewhat rich for his taste. Too igneous, I believe, were his exact words."

"Indeed," the captain smiled, his eyebrows rising in amusement. "I wonder if that's a matter for the ship's galley, or the geophysics department."

"I took the liberty of notifying both, sir." The first officer's eyes twinkled merrily. "I'm sure Admiral Naraht won't find any fault with his breakfast today." Both the senior officers turned their heads as the sound of the turbolift opening caught their attention. "Speaking of the Admiral..." They stood up, turning to greet the new arrival.

The bridge crew of the Enterprise was treated to a sight not often witnessed aboard a Federation starship. They saw what appeared to be a sizable chunk of granite slide smoothly out of the lift, almost seeming to float as it glided down the ramp.

Admiral Naraht was one of the few Hortas in Starfleet. A hatchling from the eggs guarded by the mother Horta discovered on Janus VI by the crew of the original Enterprise, he was also one of the first to pursue his species' innate curiosity. His acceptance into Starfleet had paved the way for the slow, but steady initiation of the Horta culture into the Federation. Now, after almost a century in Starfleet, he was retiring to one of the numerous colonies his people had settled.

"Ah, good morning, Captain Picard. Commander." The mechanical voice floated out of the voder strapped onto his carapace. "I must say, today's breakfast was much better. Just the right amount of hornblende and rhyolite." If the voice box could express emotion, the tone of the Admiral's voice would have been humorous. "My compliments to your chef."

"Excellent," Picard replied, turning to smile at his first officer. "Admiral, if I may ask, you specifically requested the Enterprise for transport to Belisarius IV..."

A sound suspiciously similar to a dry chuckle emanated from the Horta. "I was wondering when you'd get around to asking that, Captain. As you know, the original Enterprise was the first ship I served on. And the starships Enterprise have always held a special place among my people, ever since Captain Kirk's initial mission to Janus VI. When I noticed that the Belisar system was not that far out of your way, well, I just couldn't resist. Besides, what good is being an Admiral if you can't throw your weight around."

The comment earned muted laughter from both Riker and Picard. "Well, Admiral, I hope you enjoyed your stay..." Picard began.

"Captain...," Data cut in.

"Yes Mr. Data."

"Sorry to interrupt, sir, but I'm not getting any response to our hails from Belisarius IV."

"Probable cause?"

"None that I can determine sir," Data replied with a slight tilt of his head. "Diagnostics indicate nothing wrong with our equipment. Nor do sensors indicate any spatial anomalies that could interfere with the communication. Therefore, the cause for the lack of response is on the other end."

"Admiral?" Picard turned to the Horta questioningly.

"Not a clue, Captain," the mechanical voice replied. "I suppose it's possible there's something wrong with the colony's equipment."

"Very well. However, better to err on the side of caution. Helm, increase speed to maximum warp."

"Increasing to warp nine," the ensign at conn acknowledged.

Turning back to the Ops console, Data added, "Revised ETA is thirty-four minutes."

Leaning back in the command chair, Picard turned from the Admiral to Commander Riker. Raising an eyebrow, he mused, "Well, gentlemen. It appears we might have a mystery on our hands."


Larkspur Horse Farm, Charlottesville, VA
Tuesday, December 1, 1998
8:13 AM

The door to the farmhouse slammed forcefully as the man came striding out. His wrinkled face was drawn tight in anger as he stormed into the adjoining stables.

How dare they... This time they've gone too far! His racing thoughts came to a halt along with his stride as he approached the farthest stall. Opening it, he forced himself to calm down as he reached out and stroked the mare that stood inside.

He sighed. It had been more than two years now, but he still missed Bonita Charne-Sayre. Her touch had always seemed to calm him, her presence a reassuring constant in his life. She might have started out as his personal physician, but she had come to mean so much more to him. And he hadn't been able to do anything except stand and watch as his work took her away from him. And now...

"It's always difficult, isn't it? Losing the ones you love?"

The voice from the shadows startled him, causing him to step back in surprise. "Who's there?" the cultured british accent asked in return, weathered eyes squinting, trying to make out shapes in the darkness of the stables.

From the far wall, a figure detached itself from the shadows, moving forward towards him. He watched with barely concealed amazement as it approached him.

"Hello John. I'd say you're looking well, but circumstances being what they are...," the newcomer shrugged, his gesture conveying exactly what he meant.

"Yes indeed," the seemingly older man looked down at the other. "And it would appear that the group needs to keep better track of its mistakes. Problems we considered taken care of seem to keep coming back to haunt us."

That brought a chuckle and a nod from the shorter man. He moved past the Englishman, turning to lean against the horse stall.

Gaunt features narrowed at the other's nonchalance. "What is it that you want?"

"I heard about your granddaughter," came the quiet reply.

Nevertheless, it managed to elicit a sharp gasp from the hitherto stoic man. He closed his eyes in pain, repeating, "What do you want?"

"I came because you are going to need my help for what you are about to do."

"Indeed? And what is it that you think I'm about to do?"

"Why don't we go inside and we can talk about it?"


Office of the Asst. Director
J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building
Thursday, December 3, 1998
11:49 AM

Walter Skinner leaned back in his chair, taking off his glasses and placing them over the file on his desk. He reached up, tiredly rubbing his eyes as he contemplated grabbing a few seconds of sleep before his appointment. A glance at the clock quickly dispelled that notion.

He'd been in his office since five in the morning, ever since the report had come, or rather been brought, to his attention. He'd spent the bulk of his time since then on the phone, trying to find some way to deal with the situation. Unfortunately, with each unsuccessful call, it was becoming clear that every channel of action was closed to him, his every recourse denied.

Not that he was surprised. He'd been expecting something like this ever since mid-June. Ever since that farce of an OPR hearing... He could still remember the look on their faces that day, one of defeat, of betrayal by the very institution that was supposed to back them up. There were, of course, only two agents even remotely qualified to handle this particular assignment. And, very unsurprisingly, they had been conveniently reassigned.

"Domestic Terrorism, my ass," he muttered as he put his glasses back on. His eyes fell on the personnel record file that lay on his desk. With a sigh, he leaned forward and opened it. After exhausting every possible avenue of hope, he'd come down to his last option. It was one he was loathe to choose, involving someone so... unknown was the first word that sprung to his mind. But then, what choice did he have? He didn't dare do anything overt. No, he'd do all that he could, and hope that events would unfold for the best. Besides, this particular agent had come with some most unusual recommendations.

A quick glance at the clock, followed by the slight growling in his stomach, let him know that he'd better get a move on if he intended to keep his lunch appointment. He sighed as he put away the file and stood.


Sally's delicatessen
12:05 PM

"Here ya go. One tuna with everything on rye. That'll be two-fifty."

"Thanks." He grabbed the sandwich, slapping down the money on the counter as he made the exchange. His eyes roamed the small restaurant, seeking then finding his target.

His first impression was one of softness. As he came up behind her, he took in the long blonde hair, pulled back into a professional knot. As he moved past her, a glance at her face almost caused him to back away. Jesus Christ! She's just a goddamn kid! What the hell was Joe thinking? The photo in her personnel file hardly did her justice.

Before he could do so, however, the woman looked up. Her eyes... they were the first indication that maybe he'd been a bit off in his initial assessment, that maybe this woman might have lost some of that innocence already. Cool Nordic features stared back at him, momentarily startling him out of his appraisal.

"Do you mind if I sit here?" The words were out of his mouth before he could stop himself.

"Assistant Director Skinner..." She seemed about to say something else, but instead gestured towards the empty seat in front of her. "Please."

"Thank you Agent... Horton, is it?" he asked as he sat down.

"Yes sir." Her eyes quickly went to her lapel, wondering if she'd forgotten to take her ID off, before delicate eyebrows rose in confusion as she hurriedly tried to determine if and when she'd met the man in front of her before. She couldn't think of any reason an Assistant Director of the FBI would happen to know offhand the name of a relatively green agent in the Violent Crimes Section.

She watched him settle in and take a bite out of his sandwich. Her own lunch was temporarily halted as she glanced at the man nervously. She jumped when she noticed his eyes staring back at her.

"You recently transferred into VCS, didn't you?"

"Yes, sir. This July, from the Seattle field office," she stammered, desperately trying to hide the blush that had started creeping up her face at being caught staring.

The big man nodded, as if coming to a decision, before continuing, "I understand you've been assigned a new case."

The woman swallowed, nodding. "Yes sir," the words came tumbling out as she tried to remember what was in the file she'd hurriedly glanced through before coming to lunch. Something about an investigation into several disappearances down in rural Virginia.

"Who are you partnered with, Horton?"

"Umm... I haven't been assigned a partner yet, sir. This will be my first field assignment since my transfer, and I was given the choice of selecting a partner."

"I see," he smiled in reply, his attention back on the food in his hand. After a few moments, he added, "You know, it isn't unusual for a new agent to request to be partnered with an already established team. In fact, it is actually a recommended course of action, designed to let you get your feet wet safely."

The woman sat back, narrowing her gaze at her superior. Was he trying to imply that she was incapable of handling this case on her own? His next words, however, caused her to rethink her opinion.

"Although, considering the reason you transferred into this division, you might have already thought of making some such arrangement? Especially considering this case's possible connection to domestic terrorism?" The statement was more of a suggestion than a question.

Her eyes widened almost imperceptibly. Was he implying what she thought he was? She had been waiting almost five months for this opportunity.

Finishing his sandwich, Walter Skinner gathered the empty wrapper and stood. "I trust you'll make use of whatever resources you feel are necessary to get this case solved, Agent Horton." With that he turned and strode out of the deli.

Behind him, the seated agent wondered if it was finally time.


Belisarius IV colony, Belisar System
Friday, April 9, 2371

The planet was not particularly appealing in any humanoid sense. The climate was harsh, the heat and near toxic gases barely qualifying it for Class M status. Rocky and mountainous, with much of its surface covered with active or dormant volcanoes, the mineral rich planet was, however, ideal for those who had chosen to colonize it.

The familiar hum sounded amid the arid landscape. A few seconds later, four figures materialized on the rocky surface.

The away team looked around, finding themselves at the mouth of a large cave. Outside, a few structures stood, in deference to any humanoid visitors. However, the Hortas themselves preferred a subterranean habitat. Nodding to the rest of his team, Riker turned and entered the opening.

A few feet within, the entrance widened into a large cavern. On the far end, numerous tunnels forked in various directions and angles, an indication of the environment preference of the inhabitants of the colony.

"Commander!"

Riker was headed towards one of the bigger tunnels when he heard Dr. Crusher call for him. He turned toward the cry, watching the woman run to the side of the cave. He gestured for Data and Worf to go on ahead, then walked over to stand beside her kneeling form, watching as she ran her tricorder over what he'd initially assumed to be a piece of rock.

"Doctor?"

She sighed, shaking her head. "It's dead," Crusher replied, punching various commands into the tricorder as she tried to make sense of the readings she was getting from the once living rock. "I'll need to transport it back to sickbay for a more detailed analysis. All I can tell you right now is that there seems to be a high degree of degradation in the silicate components of its system."

"Any probable cause?"

"Not that I can determine here."

"Commander Riker?"

Riker sighed and stood back up, tapping his communicator in reply. "Yes Data?"

"I've located the colony's subspace transmitter. The lack of response was not due to equipment failure." There was a pause, then, "Sir, there doesn't appear to be anyone left alive who could have responded."

Their eyes met in puzzled surprise. Riker waited for Crusher to stand, then hurried into the tunnel after the rest of their team. Catching up to the other two, they found themselves in another cavern. They looked around, drawing in a sharp breath at what they saw. Amidst the few pieces of equipment, there were at least a half dozen dark, unmoving shapes.


"That's 42 and 43, Commander," the ensign said, walking up to the two Hortas.

It had taken almost two hours of searching to find all the remaining colonists. Unfortunately, the differences between a dead Horta and the surrounding rock was not enough to be easily detectable by sensors, especially in the subterranean environment. So the search was carried out more by visual inspection than anything else. A hurried report back to the ship, and there had been almost two dozen officers engaged in the search.

Riker walked up to the two husks, nestled in the side tunnel. He crossed off the last two entries on his tricorder, his eyes coming to rest on the forms of the two colonists in front of him.

It had been a shock for the entire crew, and even more of one for Admiral Naraht. Forty-three colonists, all dead with no discernable cause. And with their unique physiology, Doctor Crusher had commented on the difficulty in quickly determining one. Even as the away teams combed the caverns and tunnels for the last of the colonists, the medical team onboard the Enterprise worked furiously to solve the tragic mystery.

The movement caught his attention out of the corner of his eye. His head jerked in the direction of the farther corpse. Riker frowned. He could have sworn he saw something move across the lifeless shape. Get a grip, Will, he chided himself as he approached the dead Horta.

He blinked, sure that it had only been his imagination, or a simple trick of the light. He leaned closer, and uttered a small gasp as he saw the dark oil like substance flow across the Horta. It couldn't be! Memories almost seven years old suddenly flashed across his mind as his hands reached out to the carapace. Memories of Vagra II and what they had lost there. He could almost see the flash of light as a dear friend had been so casually tossed aside, so senselessly... Oh, Tasha! He had a sudden vision of being covered, being smothered by the oily substance. He shuddered, his fingers brushing against the rocky exoskeleton. He frowned. Nothing. But he could have sworn...

"Commander? Is something wrong?"

The hesitant question broke him out of his reverie. Riker shook his head as he turned back. "It's nothing, ensign. Let's get the locator beacons on them," he said, motioning towards the colonists. Under his breath, he muttered, "The sooner we get out of here, the better."

A few minutes later, they watched the two forms disappear as the transporter whisked them away.

"Riker to Enterprise. Those were the last two colonists. Prepare to beam..." He paused, suddenly feeling... strange. He brought his hand up to wipe his face when he saw it. His eyes widened at the sight of the thin wormlike substances crawling just under his skin. He gasped, his fingers scratching at the skin on the back of his palms. He could feel them, crawling, moving subcutaneously up his arms, his neck, his face. "Armus!" The whisper was barely uttered when he felt the world turning dark.

"Commander!" The ensign was already moving towards him, reaching out to prevent Riker's fall. "Ensign Stoker to Enterprise," he said urgently. "Medical Emergency. Two to beam directly to Sickbay."

Waiting for the transporter effect to claim him, Stoker never noticed the thin black film on his boots, blending almost perfectly against the dark material. A few seconds later, the cavern stood empty.


FBI Bullpen
Thursday, December 3, 1998
2:12 PM

The sound of a muffled curse pulled her attention away from the stack of inventory reports in front of her.

"I'm going to go feed the vending machine. Wanna join me?"

Blue eyes glanced up to meet hazel, eyebrows lifting in a silent question. "Yeah. I need a break from this anyway."

She watched her partner throw her a lopsided grin as he blanked his computer screen before standing up. She rose, following him through the maze of tables and desks as they wound their way to the coffee room.

"Mulder?"

He stopped in the empty hallway, an inquiring gaze of his own directed at his partner.

"What's up? I know you wanted us out of the public eye for a reason."

"Well I couldn't very well ravish you in front of a bullpen full of agents now, could I? I mean, whatever would they think?" he asked with mock shock.

"Oh, yeah. I really wanna do it in the coffee room, Mulder," she shot back dryly. "How... romantic."

"You mean, you've never fantasized about me and you against the vending machine, Scully?" he asked, grinning.

"Well," she said, pursing her lips as if in thought, "our old office desk, sure. Skinner's couch, sometimes." She smirked at the incredulous look on his face. "But the vending machine, Mulder? Lord knows what crap gets collected on that thing."

"Skinner's ...! Oh, Scully. The things you do to me...," Mulder began, his mind already conjuring up images of sneaking into Skinner's office after hours.

"Can it, Mulder," she cut him off, her tone becoming professional once again. "So what was so important we had to take it to the coffee room?"

Mulder immediately got the look in his eyes that Scully had come to recognize. It was the one that said that he'd gotten some sort of information about a possible X-file, and in all probability, was going to lead them into another unauthorized case. He leaned away from her, his back against the wall. "It's starting, Scully."

"What?"

"I just received some email... Don't ask," he said, warding off the immediate question. "It was sent anonymously. Anyway, it looks like the reason behind our transfers is finally manifesting itself." He paused for a moment. "How do you feel about a trip to Charlottesville, Virginia?"

Scully blinked at the sudden leap in topics. "And what exactly is in Virginia, Mulder?"

"Latierny elementary school, of course," he replied, as if that made everything perfectly clear.

"God, Mulder. Getting information out of you is like pulling teeth. Spill, already."

"Oh, all right. Although you're taking all the fun out of it, you know." He smiled at the mock glare she shot at him, then continued, "Seven children, ages 8 through 11, disappeared under mysterious circumstances from Charlottesville General. The only thing they have in common is that they all went to Latierny elementary."

"And what exactly is the connection to the X-files, Mulder?"

"Who said anything about an X-file?" Mulder affected an air of thoughtful speculation. "Why, this might be some sort of plot cooked up by some malcontent Virginia farmer with too much fertilizer on his hands. Right up our alley, don't you think?"

She shook her head ruefully. "Only you could draw a connection between kidnapped children and domestic terrorism, Mulder." She sighed. "Okay, so what's really going on down there?"

"Ah, but that's what we're going to go down there to find out. Now, then, about those sunflower seeds..." Mulder turned, moving past Scully as he headed for the coffee room.

Scully glanced at his receding figure. Damn! He did it again! she thought to herself. Shaking her head, she followed him.

She stopped, almost running into Mulder when he came to a halt just to the side of the open door. Curious, she leaned past him when she heard the voices.

"Don't do this Lynn," a vaguely familiar voice rang out of the coffee room. "You'll be throwing your career away. You know what happened to her. The same thing'll happen to you, Lynn. They're poison. Stay away from them."

Scully turned to her partner, seeing her own quizzical look mirrored on his face. She shrugged.

A new voice, obviously the person who'd been called Lynn, answered heatedly, "I am an agent in the FBI, Agent Colton. I will decide how to pursue any investigation into the case I've been assigned to, and I'll thank you to not stick your nose into something that is none of your business."

"Damn it, Lynn. This is my business."

Mulder cleared his throat, stepping into the doorway. "Is there a problem, agents?" he asked.

Two heads turned to take in the newcomers, shooting angry glares in their direction.

"Not anymore," the woman replied, blue eyes flashing icily back at her companion. "Is there, Agent Colton?"

Agent Tom Colton took a deep breath, then released it. "No, I guess not. I hope you know what you're getting yourself into, Lynn," he said quietly. He turned abruptly, tossing another glare at the former X-files agents as he stalked out of the room.

"Sometimes, that man..." the woman trailed off. "Aargh!"

"I know exactly what you mean," Scully said, giving her a knowing look as she walked up to the vending machine. "Looks like Colton hasn't changed much. I didn't know he was assigned back to DC. I guess he's still trying to fit the square pegs..."

"Yeah," Mulder muttered, "right up his a..."

"Mulder..." Scully cut in warningly.

"Was that idiot bothering you?" Mulder asked. "You know you have the right to lodge a complaint, Agent...?"

"Horton. Alynna Horton. And as for Tom, I should apologize. He means well. It's just..."

"You're defending him?" Mulder asked incredulously, "That man is an insensitive, loudmouthed, arrogant..."

"He's my fiancÚ," Horton cut in, a smile on her face.

Mulder paused, blinked, then turned to his partner. He saw a similar look of shock on her face. "Umm... Scully? Could you help me with my foot here? I think I've stuck it in deep this time."

A musical laugh sounded from the woman. "Don't worry, Agent Mulder. I know he doesn't always bring out the best in most people."

"I apologize, Agent Horton. Seriously though, what do you see in him?"

She shrugged. "He makes me laugh?" she replied, although the soft tone of her voice implied much more.

Mulder smiled, nodding as he moved forward to join his partner. He was about to dump a handful of change into the machine when Lynn interrupted.

"Umm... Agents?" she began nervously as the two agents turned to look at her. "Actually the reason Tom and I were arguing was because... well... he disagrees about the course of action I planned on taking with a new case I've been assigned to. I was wondering if I could ask you... umm..."

Scully raised an eyebrow, moving back to the counter and pouring out a cup of coffee. She sat at the small table, gesturing Horton towards one of the empty chairs.

Mulder grabbed a bag of sunflower seeds from the vending machine, then joined the women as he leaned against the counter. "You know, Agent Horton. Colton was being an ass, but he was right about one thing. Are you sure you want to risk the stigma of associating with the VCS untouchables?" His tone was jovial, but there was an undercurrent of pain lacing it. "It definitely won't do your career any favors to be seen hobnobbing with us, especially if you're new here."

The blonde's eyes flashed. "I think I'm capable of making those kinds of decisions by myself, Agent Mulder."

"As you most emphatically told Tom Colton," Scully interrupted. Looking from Mulder to Horton, she sighed. "How can we help you, Agent Horton?"

"Lynn, please. And the suggestion to ask for your advice came from Assistant Director Skinner." She watched as both agents reacted visibly to the information.

Each shot a glance at the other, silently agreeing to notch up the importance of any forthcoming information.

"Informally, of course," Lynn hastened to add. "And only in the vaguest of terms. But, well, you see, it's a kidnapping case. Down in Charlottesville, Virginia..."


Sickbay
USS Enterprise-D
Friday, April 9, 2371
1431 hours

"Are you sure he said Armus?"

The nervous ensign nodded at Worf as he watched Dr. Crusher run past him. "Yes, I'm sure. I didn't realize it was anything important at the time. I just thought you should know. It was just as he was collapsing. He whispered that one word, then lost consciousness." He felt someone walk up beside him. Turning to see Captain Picard standing beside him, he said, "Captain." Then, looking back at Worf, "If that's all, Lieutenant...?" At a nod from the Klingon, he quickly turned and headed out of sickbay.

"Captain, it could not have been Armus," Worf immediately said. "Vagra II is still under heavy quarantine. He could not have escaped."

"Would you be willing to risk Commander Riker's life on that, Mr. Worf. Or that of all these other crewmen?"

Both men turned to look at the biobeds filled with unconscious members of the away teams. Within minutes of Riker's beamout, six others had been transported to sickbay in similar condition. The medical team that had started working almost immediately on the first officer was now scattered among the seven crewmen, trying desperately to keep them alive.

Worf's glance turned in the direction of Dr. Crusher's office, taking in the dark-haired woman who stood there, watching the same events through the window. He knew that Deanna had been in here almost since the moment Riker had been brought in. When he'd returned from the planet along with the last members of the away team, he had not been surprised to find her here. As soon as he'd seen her in sickbay, he'd gone to her side, hoping that his presence would comfort her. She'd smiled at him wanly, turning her attention immediately to the flurry of activity near the Commander's biobed. He knew that she'd probably felt... something... when Riker had been hurt. Worf wondered briefly if she would ever feel anything like that bond with him.

"It's not Armus."

The calm voice of Dr. Crusher brought him out of his reverie. Worf and Picard looked up as the doctor walked past them into her office, then followed her in. Crusher walked over to her personal replicator unit, requesting a cup of coffee before sitting down at her desk.

She sipped at the hot beverage while looking at the three people in front of her. She had been working on the away team members since they had been brought in almost three hours earlier. Her hooded expression was a testament to how exhausted she was. With a sigh, she started to explain her comment outside.

"What it is, I can't tell you yet. But whatever it is, it's not Armus. With Tasha, there were definite signs of neural degradation that are simply not present in Will or any of the others."

"Then why would Will have said that?" Troi asked.

"I wish I could tell you. Ensign Stoker did mention that the cavern they were in was dark. Maybe Will was mistaken. Or maybe Stoker misunderstood his words." Crusher sighed, looking from Picard to Worf to Troi. She noticed that the counselor had gained a measure of control over herself, her face not betraying the emotions she had seen on her face earlier. "Deanna...?"

"He's scared, Beverly," she said softly.

The men turned startled glances at her. Even Crusher was surprised at the revelation.

"They all are. I can feel their fear. It's as if they're trapped, somehow. Their minds... whatever it is, it's preventing their conscious minds from surfacing." She let out a pained breath. "All they can feel is the pain... and the fear."

"Sensory deprivation," Crusher nodded. "If they were somehow aware of their conscious minds being suppressed, the lack of sensory input could easily terrify a person. As for what it is... I'm not even sure if it is a virus, or if it's connected to the dead Hortas down on the planet. Hell, it could be some sort of goddamn allergic reaction to something down there, for all I know. I've got them stable for now, Captain, but I'd recommend we set course for the nearest starbase with a medical facility."

"Doctor!"

The cry from the nurse brought all four of them rushing outside.

"What is it, Alyssa?" Crusher asked as she moved close to the biobed the nurse was standing at.

"There was a drop in his neurotransmitter activity, and when I checked...," Ogawa trailed off, looking back down at the crewman in shock.

When they came close enough, the reason for the nurse's agitation became apparent. They could clearly see the organisms under the crewman's skin, crawling in various directions. And his eyes, which Ogawa held open, were covered with a black substance, the whites almost nonexistent.

Crusher drew in a sharp breath. She was vaguely aware of the senior staff moving back to give her room, but she was already in motion. She glanced at the readouts on the nearby monitors, specifically the ones displaying the crewman's brain functions. As Troi had noted, there seemed to be some sort of inhibitor at work, suppressing the neurotransmitter activity in his cerebral cortex. As a result, his sensory and motor functions were effectively neutralized. And, unless she was mistaken, several of the cortical areas that controlled memory and reasoning were also being affected.

"Cortical stimulator," she barked, hoping she could forestall the cascading failure in his brain. "Put the rest of the patients in stasis," she added. She had no idea how to stop this yet, and she dared not let any of the others get any worse until she had figured out how to do so. She felt Ogawa move away, going to make sure her orders were carried out. At the same time, she felt the cool comfort of the familiar instrument as it was slid into her hands. She placed it over the crewman's forehead, noting even as she activated it that his neurotransmitter levels had dropped dangerously low.

Suddenly, another readout caught her attention. Several of the other displays monitoring the crewman's vitals started flashing warnings. A glance at the numerous readouts caused her to utter a muffled curse. Whatever it was, it was attacking every single vital system in his body. And from what she could make out, it seemed like his very genetic codes were being broken down.

"Doctor, his cortex is shutting down," one of the attending nurses cried out.

Crusher looked back at the neurotransmitter readouts, and gasped. The levels were practically negligible. Damn, too many things were going wrong all at once. "Twenty ccs tricordrazine." She watched as the nurse pressed the hypo against the crewman's skin, then glanced back at the readouts. Nothing. "Another dose."

"Doctor?" the nurse looked back at her in shock. Twenty ccs was already close to a dangerous overdose. Another one like that...

"You heard me, nurse," Crusher said, her eyes flashing. She pulled up a readout of the man's cellular activity as the nurse rushed to comply with her order. Oh, god! No!!, she cried out silently. She saw the bonds breaking, the carbon molecules that formed the basis of almost all known life in the universe virtually disintegrating before her very eyes.

"Doctor, brain activity has ceased," the nurse said quietly.

Crusher drew in a deep breath, hanging her head in defeat. "Record time of death," she paused, swallowing painfully, "as 1443 hours." If the lack of brain activity hadn't killed him, she thought, he would have been dead moments later of massive organ failure.

When she looked back at the man's face, she let out a horrified gasp. "Oh my god!!" With widening eyes, she saw the black organisms flow out of his facial orifices. They dripped out of the corners of his eyes, his ears, his nose. She quickly reached back, activating the force field around the body. She then called for a nurse to secure the organisms for testing.

Turning to the three officers standing back near her office, she slowly closed her eyes for a moment, then moved towards them. A thought nagged at her subconsciously, and she wondered at the eerie familiarity of the entire situation. She was sure she'd never come across anything like this in her medical history, but nevertheless, she knew she'd seen this somewhere before.

"That must have been what Commander Riker saw down there," Picard whispered when she reached them, still stunned at the sudden loss of a crewman.

Crusher nodded. "It's definitely related to what happened to the Hortas down there. In both cases, the organisms attacked the neurotransmitters in the nervous system, causing a cascade failure in the cerebral cortex of the crewman, and its equivalent in the Hortas we examined. Also, the organisms seemed to break down the carbon and silicon bonds in their victims. Either method would be enough to cause a quick death by themselves. Together, the victims never had a chance."

She blinked, a memory coming to the surface as she remembered something... It appeared that her dream that morning had been precognitive after all. Had that been only today? Suddenly, it felt like she hadn't slept in ages.

"Captain," she said, turning to him, "I... we just don't have the facilities here to treat Will and the others."

"I already called the bridge, doctor. We're on our way. But it will still take a week at the very least before we reach anywhere even remotely suitable. Do you think they will...?"

"I'll do my best. But...," her voice lowered as she continued, "Jean-Luc, I think I've seen this before, back on Arvada III."

Picard's eyebrows rose. "You think this is related to what happened there?" He knew that the incident had deeply affected her, shaping her life, and eventually contributing to her decision to enter the medical field.

"Yes, I do. Jean-Luc...," she said, pausing to collect her thoughts. "When I was in medical school, I tried to access Starfleet's information database on what had happened there. But every single time, I found that the entire incident had been classified way above my clearance level. In fact, even now, I think I might need your level of authorization to look up those files on the computer."

"That's absurd. Why would Starfleet classify information about a medical disaster, especially to a doctor? Wouldn't they want any knowledge of treatments to be readily available?"

"My point exactly," Crusher replied. "Unless, of course, they didn't want anyone learning about the cause of the disaster in the first place."

"You mean..."

Crusher nodded as she saw her meaning register on the captain's face. "I'm starting to wonder if either Arvada III or our current situation was just an accident."

Picard's expression hardened. If either incident had indeed been deliberate... Someone was going to pay for this, he silently vowed. "Very well, Doctor. I'll expect a report..." He stopped, noting the exhausted expression on Crusher's face. "... tonight. Meanwhile, Beverly," he continued softly, "get some rest." With that, he turned and strode out of sickbay, followed by Troi and Worf. If any of them noticed the counselor lightly brush her knuckles against Riker's cheeks as she passed his biobed, none of them chose to comment on it.


Saturday, April 10, 2371
1121 hours

Crusher paced anxiously in her office, glancing every once in a while at the blue screen on her desk with the Federation logo on it. As she waited for her communication request to be processed and routed through the Federation subspace network, she thought about the events that had led her to placing the request in the first place.

After the crewman's death the day before, she'd gotten to work wading through the computer's files on the Arvada III colony disaster. As she had suspected, she had needed Picard's clearance authorization to even get the computer to acknowledge that said files indeed existed. However, upon opening the files, she had looked at the screen with incredulity. The information was sketchy at best, and what was available was contradictory, vague, and in some cases, blatantly untrue, as far as she could remember.

And worst of all, there had been no mention of the disease itself, let alone a cure or method of treatment. Yet she knew for a fact that her grandmother and aunt had single-handedly been responsible for saving a sizeable percentage of the colonists' lives, owing to their medical expertise and knowledge of natural medicine.

Then came the next piece of bad news. She'd been in her office trying to make some sense of the files when she'd been summoned back to Sickbay. When she had seen the comatose bodies of Ensign Stoker and his wife, she knew the situation had just gotten much worse. Amanda Stoker had not been down on the planet. For her to have become infected, the ensign would have had to have been a carrier. Which meant that the two dozen or so officers who had formed the away teams, including her, were now under quarantine, along with anyone they might have come into contact with since their return. She herself had been lucky enough to escape infection thus far, the only member of the original away team to do so. Which meant that, for all intents and purposes, she was living on borrowed time.

An analysis of the organisms had provided little information. They were multicellular, yet displayed all the characteristics of a virus. They seemed to be a combination of silicon and carbon based life, which would explain how they could have had such similar effects both on the Hortas and on the humanoid away team members.

But Crusher still had no idea why some of the crew were affected so readily while others didn't manifest the symptoms until much later. All she could determine was that the virus itself was impossible to detect within the body. They couldn't isolate it within the bodies of the infected victims for the transporter biofilters to beam them out. Which also explained how they'd gone undetected while the away teams had beamed back aboard. And, first sickbay, and now, one of the cargo bays was slowly filling up as crewman after crewman got infected.

She had tried going through the personal effects her grandmother had left her in her will. Unfortunately, most of the items she possessed had been more personal than anything. There was little or no mention of the events surrounding the disaster in any of her diaries. She had finally decided to contact the one other person with personal knowledge of those events.

Which brought her back to staring at the bright blue screen as she waited for the contact to go through to the Renard Foundation. The organization had been listed as the contact point for her aunt, and she had been unable to find any other information listing for her anywhere else. With a start, she realized that the logo on the screen had been replaced with the image of a rather impatient looking Tellarite.

She blinked. "Uh... Hello. This is Dr. Beverly Crusher. I was looking to reach Dr. Dana Howard, and you were listed as the contact..."

"One moment please..." The Tellarite said gruffly as he turned to the side, a hoof reaching out to hit a control panel outside Crusher's field of view. The screen reverted to a logo, of the Foundation this time.

Crusher tried to ignore the faint chords of the hold music as she waited. A few seconds later, the image dissolved to reveal a human with close cropped reddish hair, and a pleasant open face.

"Ah, Dr. Crusher!" he began, smiling warmly, "My name is Steven Byers. How can I help you?"

"Hello, Mr. Byers. I was looking for contact information for Dr. Dana Howard. Her last known forwarding address was given in your care."

"Is that right?" Byers said slowly, stroking his short beard thoughtfully. "If I might be so bold, may I ask why you need to speak with her?"

Crusher was first confused, then angered by his question. "My reasons are personal, Mr. Byers. If you could just give me...," she began, her voice rising.

"Unfortunately, Dr. Crusher," Byers interrupted, his smile not quite reaching his eyes anymore, "we are listed as Dr. Howard's contact because of privacy concerns. Unless you can give me a good reason, I'm afraid I'll have to deny your request."

"You can't do that," Crusher spat back.

"I just did," Byers countered, his face showing no hint of the smile anymore. "Now, as pleasant as it has been, good day, doctor..." He reached forward to disconnect the channel.

"Wait," Crusher held up a hand. She was relieved when she saw Byers pause. "I'm sorry, Mr. Byers. I've been under a bit of pressure lately, and..." She sighed. "But it's still no excuse," she said, shaking her head. "Dana Howard is my aunt. I wanted to get in touch with her because I wanted her opinion on something she worked on about 36 years ago."

"Oh?" Byers leaned back as he considered her request. A few seconds later, he looked back up to meet her eyes. "I'm sorry, Dr. Crusher. I regret to inform you that your aunt passed away some time ago."

"W... What?" Crusher had known her aunt for less than a couple of months when the incident had occurred at Arvada colony. And she had not seen her since. She had always wondered why the older woman had not kept in touch. But the news of her demise still came as a shock. "That can't be..." she said softly.

"I am sorry for your loss, doctor. However, if I can be of any further help, please don't hesitate to ask."

Crusher closed her eyes for a moment in regret of lost opportunities. When she opened them again, she found Byers staring at her expectantly. "There is something. Did she work for you?"

Byers smiled faintly at that. "In a manner of speaking. Why do you ask?"

"That would mean that you might have a record of her notes on file. Would it be possible for me to access them?"

"I'm not sure, but I can check," Byers answered. "What exactly are you looking for?"

"Around October of 2335, she was on Arvada III. I'm looking for any of her notes of her work during that time. She and my grandmother helped to find the cure for the disease that struck the colony then. Unfortunately, I can find no records of what happened in Starfleet's medical database."

Byers sucked in a startled breath. "Arvada III? Your grandmother was Felisa Howard?" At Crusher's nod, he whispered, "Well, I'll be damned." He looked back at her. "Doctor, am I to understand that you have a... similar problem on your hands now?"

"Yes," Crusher answered guardedly, surprised that he had made the connection. While it was possible that Byers intended to help her, it was also entirely possible that he was involved with those keeping the information she sought from her in the first place. Her concern was alleviated somewhat when she heard the string of soft curses the man let escape.

"I am sorry, doctor, but I can tell you without checking that we have no records of your aunt's work during that time. However," he paused, as if weighing what he was about to tell her, "I can point you towards someone who might be able to help you. I happen to know that, careerwise, your aunt's daughter followed in her footsteps. I'm sure she can give you the information you're looking for."

"Very well. How do I get in touch with her?"

"Well, from what I remember, she is currently somewhere near the Parmen sector. I can send her a message to contact you."

"Hmm... We're in the same sector," Crusher informed him. "These are our current coordinates and heading," she added, transmitting the data to him. "I'll be waiting for her call. Thank you, Mr. Byers. I appreciate your help."

"It was nothing. Dr. Howard's a dear friend. Anything I can do to help her family..." He shrugged, smiling at Crusher. "Good bye, Dr. Crusher. And good luck."

Crusher leaned back, lost in thought as the screen winked off.


Dana Scully's Apartment
Thursday, December 3, 1998
8:29 PM

"Thanks for letting us know, Byers. We'll talk later." The redhead snapped the cell phone shut. "Well, that was certainly unusual." She leaned back in her chair, turning to look at the tall man seated across from her.

"So? What did he have?" Mulder's eyes searched her face for any clue about whatever Byers had told her.

"About the children?" Scully asked, her eyes drifting to the computer by her side, then back to Mulder. Her eyebrow rose. "Or about our new partner?"

"Both," he replied, shrugging. "Either." He rose from the couch, moving to stand behind her. His hands automatically went to her shoulders, squeezing unconsciously as he leaned down to look at the information on the screen.

She sighed, leaning into his hands. She could make out the faint scent of him, reminding her that this would probably be their last night together for a while. By mutual consent, both had long since agreed upon a hands-off policy while in the field. And while they had not had to adhere to that rule in a while, what with their reassignments and enforced desk-duties, their return to field work would once again necessitate certain... precautions perforce. The rolled up sleeves tickled the back of her neck as she forced herself to concentrate on the information Byers had emailed her.

"Okay, Horton first. It looks like most of what the Gunmen had, we already knew from her official file. Pretty cut and dry stuff. In fact, Byers mentioned that her personal life was more interesting than her professional one." Scully glanced down the screen. "Alynna Horton, 27," she read. "Originally from Seattle. We already know she graduated from the University of Washington in 93, with a bachelor of arts in sociology. Let's see, applied to join the Bureau about a year after that. Accepted into the program in 95, finished two years later. She's been with the Seattle field office since then."

"Her transfer request to DC went through in July," Mulder continued reading. "That's a couple of weeks after our hearing, wasn't it? You think there's any connection?"

"It was a couple of weeks later, Mulder. If she is a plant, wouldn't they have put her in earlier? Besides, why would she ask for our help?"

"Hmm... Maybe the case is a distraction. Or maybe we're being given rope to hang ourselves with." He shrugged. "I just don't want this turning into another Gibson Praise," he said softly. He met his partner's gaze, then looked away to glance back at the information. "Let's see, personal info. Hello..." Mulder raised an eyebrow, scrolling down the information. "What's this? Her fiancÚ fell out of her father's balcony? I thought she was engaged to Colton."

"No, look here," Scully corrected him. "She was engaged once before, to someone named Robert Bancroft. It was probably before she even met Colton. It says Bancroft died in 93, and..." Scully paused, clicking on a cross reference.

"Curiouser and curiouser," Mulder muttered, reading the new file, a missing persons report. "Her father apparently disappeared soon after that. Police found him missing when they tried to question him about Bancroft." He stood and walked around his partner to perch on the desk. "What is going on here, Scully?"

She looked up from the computer, meeting his eyes. "I'm not sure, but it does list Bancroft's death as an accident."

"I wonder... Her father disappearing so soon after that seems just a bit too coincidental for my tastes."

"I'm sure that's what the people investigating thought too. But it says there wasn't any evidence of foul play, so..."

"Okay," he said, holding up his hands. "Maybe it's unrelated to the case. I'd still keep my eye on our Ms. Horton though." He sighed. "But enough about her. What about the children? The stuff Horton gave us wasn't exactly overflowing with information."

Scully obligingly clicked over to the next file, pulling up the short screenful. "Well, there isn't much more here either. It says here that all seven fainted on the playground at their school. Cause of the collapses was still undetermined that night, which is when the nurse on duty reported them missing. There really isn't anything about any of the children themselves, or about their medical condition. Even Byers thought it was strange how little information he was able to dig up about this case."

Mulder nodded. "I guess that will take some good old fashioned footwork, once we get there."

"Well, at least we won't have to hide our investigation, now that Horton officially asked for our help."

"Yeah, I bet Kersh was pulling out his hair trying to figure out a way to deny her request," Mulder chuckled in reply. "I hope you're packed already, cause I don't think we'll have time tomorrow morning."

"You didn't have to book our flights out so early tomorrow morning, you know," Scully shot back at him, adding a glare for good effect.

"Ah-ah," Mulder admonished, shaking a finger at her. "Don't you know it's the early bird that catches the worm, Scully? Besides," he said, standing up from the desk. One hand went to the computer screen, shutting it off, the other reaching for one of Scully's hands. "It's not even nine yet. If we went to bed now, we'll be sure to get up in time to meet Horton at the airport." He smiled. "Why, we might even have the time to get in a coffee before our flight."

"Oh, is that right, Agent Mulder?" Scully allowed herself to be pulled up, a faint smile tugging at the corner of her lips. "You mean you don't want to stay up all night working out all the angles on this case?"

"Nah," he replied, leading her towards the bedroom. "A person needs their beauty sleep if they're to function well in their day to day activities. I think I read that in one of your women's health magazines."

It earned him a chuckle from his partner. "So says the king of insomniacs," she said, shaking her head ruefully. "And what were you doing, reading up on women's health?"

"Well, it was either that, or read up on the latest surgical procedures in your medical journals."

"Hmm... I thought I had some fiction somewhere in..."

"Eewww... romance... ick," Mulder cut her off, making a face.

"Mulder, you are a pig," she smirked.

"Oink, oink," he replied self-deprecatingly. "Besides, what do they know? I suppose one could live vicariously through a fictional character's romance, but they pale in the light of the real thing." He affected a grandiose stance, one hand on his hip, the other ushering her into the bedroom. "I'll show you romance, m'dear, the likes of which will have you swearing off even the steamiest of those novels of yours."

"Mulder," she cried exasperatedly, allowing him to lead her inside. "There is a difference between romance and unbridled lust, you know."

He pushed her backwards onto the bed, leaning in close to her, kissing her softly on the lips. "Are you complaining?" he asked softly, earning him a reply in kind.

"Hell, no!"


Private Vessel Eagle
Saturday, April 10, 2371
1153 hours

"Thanks for letting us know, Byers. We'll talk later." The redhead watched the face on the viewscreen wink out. "Well, that was certainly unusual." She leaned back in her chair, turning to look at the tall man seated across from her.

"Curiouser and curiouser," her husband agreed, nodding. "Those coordinates are almost on top of the Belisar system. What are the chances that this is just a coincidence?" Seeing the raised eyebrow, he grunted. "Yeah, my thoughts exactly."

"Byers wouldn't have risked calling us, even over a secure frequency, if he didn't think it was worth it."

The man nodded in agreement. "How far away are we from the Enterprise?"

The woman turned back to the console, punching in the necessary commands. "It's a good thing we were already near this sector when we got Byers' first message. We should intercept Enterprise in...," she said, glancing at the readouts, "a little over 14 hours at our current speed."

"Scully?"

She turned to her husband, a questioning look on her face.

"Do you think this is such a good idea? What if she remembers you?"

"Mulder," she replied exasperatedly. "Beverly was 11 years old when she saw us last. Besides, we weren't at Arvada for more than a couple of months. I hardly think she'll recognize me. And even if I do ring any bells, she'll probably chalk it up to family resemblance."

"It's just... I've got a bad feeling about this one, Scully. And what about me? They'll definitely recognize me."

"I know. You'll just have to stay on the Eagle. I can probably pass it off as isolating you from any possible contagion."

"Still..."

"Mulder, you know if there's even the slightest chance, we have to..."

Mulder sighed. "I know. The last thing I want is another Arvada III on my conscience." He got up slowly, moving to the rear of the craft. "Why don't you give your niece..." He chuckled. "Sorry, ... your cousin a call," he continued softly. "Let her know we're on our way."

Scully shook her head, a small smile on her face as she watched him enter the living area. Once she was sure the door was closed behind him, she put in a comm request to the Enterprise.


Charlottesville General Hospital
Friday, December 4, 1998
11:09 AM

To say it had been an uncomfortable plane trip would have been putting it mildly. While it had been years since the X-files agents had been partnered with anyone else, the idea of partnership had been equally non-existent for their newest colleague. As a result, the forty minute plane trip had passed in relative silence.

Once they had arrived, it had been a mutual decision to go to the hospital first, since that had been the last place the children had been at. Each agreed that they simply needed more information on exactly why the children had been admitted in the first place. Which brought them to their current situation.

"Dr. Kelso will be with you in a moment. Please have a seat." The receptionist gestured towards the seats behind them.

They nodded and moved into the waiting area.

"What do you think?" Mulder asked once they were seated.

Horton started when she realized the question had been directed at her. "About what?" she asked confused. The question had come out of the blue.

"About this case. Why do you think Skinner asked you to talk to us about it?" If Mulder thought he saw a flash of uncertainty cross her face, it was immediately hidden.

"I'm not exactly sure, Agent Mulder. I assumed it had to do with your experience in..."

"The X-files were concerned with paranormal or otherwise unexplained phenomena, Agent Horton," Mulder cut her off. "Or do you think this has something to do with our recent exile into domestic terrorism?" he added sarcastically.

There was a faint hint of a blush on her face as Horton looked from Mulder to Scully back to Mulder again. "I don't know," she sighed, shaking her head. "I wasn't even aware he knew who I was or what case I'd been assigned. He came to my table when I was having lunch, and suggested I ask..." She paused, then continued smoothly, "... ask you for your help. It seemed as though he didn't want anyone to think my request had anything to do with him."

Mulder nodded, glancing at his partner. She simply shrugged, accepting Horton's answer for the moment.

"Ok, so what do you know about this case," Scully asked.

"Well, I already gave you everything I had on it, which I admit wasn't much. It almost seems like they're reluctant to just hand over any information about the specifics of the children's condition at the time of their kidnapping."

"Maybe they weren't kidnapped," Mulder muttered, earning him a questioning glance from Horton, and a chastising one from Scully. Before Horton could ask him exactly what he meant by the remark, they were interrupted.

"Hello, I'm Dr. Kelso. You are the FBI agents in charge of this case?"

"Yes we are," Horton said, rising to shake his hand. "I'm Special Agent Horton. These are Agents Mulder and Scully. We wanted to ask you a few questions about the children. We weren't given much to go on in the official reports."

"Understandable," Kelso replied, nodding. "We didn't see how the condition of the children had any bearing on the case itself. Perhaps we could discuss this further in my office." He turned, leading the way to one of the recessed doors on the side.

"Please have a seat," he gestured, sitting down. "So what did you want to ask me."

"Dr. Kelso," Scully began, "we were told that all the children had been admitted on the same day. That would indicate that they were all admitted for the same reason. However, there seems to be no mention of any diagnoses in the police reports."

"I don't see that there would be," he replied, smiling at them. "It was just a simple case of food poisoning. They were treated immediately, and were recovering. They were being held for observation overnight, when they disappeared. I doubt that their medical condition had anything to do with why they were kidnapped. The person responsible for this probably saw an opportunity to get his hands on several children in a weakened condition, and took it. I don't know if you were aware of this, but all the children came from rather... affluent homes."

"Ah, then you expect there to be ransom demands soon." Horton meant it as a statement more than a question.

"I wouldn't be surprised," Kelso answered, shaking his head in agreement.

"Dr. Kelso, we were told that you hadn't yet determined the cause of the children's collapse as of the time they were reported missing."

He shrugged. "A simple misunderstanding, I'm sure. The nurse on duty that night was relatively old. I assume she simply misread the patient's charts."

"Could we take a look at the charts?" Scully asked. At his hesitant look, she added, "I'm a medical doctor. I need to know if their prevailing health might pose any threat to them in their captor's hands."

The doctor sighed. "I suppose it wouldn't do any harm." He stood and went to one of the cabinets that lined the back wall. He pulled out a folder, walking back and handing it to Scully.

She quickly scanned through it. "I'd like to make a copy of this if you don't mind," she said, looking back up at him. When he nodded, she turned to Mulder, who had been quiet during the entire interview.

Horton watched Mulder nod. "Dr. Kelso," the agent's voice reverberated around the room, causing Horton to look at him in surprise. She could feel the cadence of his voice change. She couldn't put her finger on it, but the words somehow made her want to relax into them. She looked over and saw the same effect on Kelso.

"In your medical opinion, what was the children's condition at the time they disappeared?" Mulder continued.

Kelso blinked, then frowned. "I told you, agent. They were relatively healthy. We had already treated them for the food poisoning. They were in no danger. They just needed rest."

Horton shook her head to clear it. For a moment, she thought she'd fallen asleep. What had Mulder asked? Something about the children's health. She wondered why he'd repeated the earlier question. Turning back to Kelso, she asked, "The nurse who reported the missing children... could we speak with her?"

"I'm sorry," Kelso replied sadly, shaking his head. "Nurse O'Malley died of a myocardial infarction a few hours later. As I mentioned, she was rather old. I'm afraid the shock was somewhat more than she could handle. Too bad, really. She was due to retire in a month."

"I see," Mulder replied. He looked to the other agents, then rose. "Thank you for your time, Dr. Kelso."

"My pleasure agents." Kelso grinned as he stood and escorted them out the door. He watched them walk away, the grin fading almost immediately. He returned to his office and picked up the phone.


"Well?" Mulder stood outside the hospital, taking in what little there was of the noon sun.

"It was rotten luck that the nurse died. She might have seen something that could have helped us," Horton sighed, walking toward their car.

"Very rotten," Mulder agreed. "Practically stinks, in fact."

Horton stopped in her tracks, turning surprised eyes on her partners. "You don't think she had a heart attack?"

"You said it yourself," Scully reminded her. "She might have seen something. And now we'll never know, will we? Besides, she was the only one who said that the cause of the children's collapse hadn't been determined. And now we find a neat little explanation for that."

"What was in the charts, Scully?" Mulder asked.

She sighed. "Food poisoning, Mulder. Just like Kelso said. A classic textbook example of it, in fact. And nothing in it would give anyone any reason to believe otherwise."

"Then why..." Horton began.

Mulder glanced at Scully before replying, "Call it a gut feeling." He was about to open the door when something caught his eye. "Excuse me," he said, reaching into his pocket as he walked away.

Horton and Scully saw him approach a nearby car. More specifically, they saw him walk up to a woman in a nurse's uniform, his hand pulling out a box of matches. They looked at each other, then walked towards him.

"Wouldn't you know it? A cigarette break, and I get stuck without a light. Thanks," the nurse said, taking a puff on her cigarette.

"No problem," Mulder replied. "I'm Special Agent Mulder from the FBI. These are my partners, Agents Scully and Horton. I was wondering if I could ask you a couple of questions."

The woman seemed slightly startled, but then shrugged. "Sure. My name's Linda. What do you want to know?" She paused as a thought occurred to her. "Say, is this about those missing children?"

"Do you know what they were in the hospital for?" Scully asked.

"Hmm... I'm not sure. You'd have to ask their doctor or the attending nurse," she said, leaning against her car as she blew out a puff of smoke. "Oh wait, it'll have to be Dr. Kelso. Their nurse, Gretchen O'Malley, god rest her soul, died a couple of days ago."

"Do you know what she died of?" Horton ventured.

"A heart attack, the poor thing. It's actually kinda ironic, in a way," Linda mused.

"Oh, why's that?" Mulder asked, curious.

"It's just, well, she was strong as an ox, Gretchen was. Don't get me wrong. She was pushing seventy if she was a day. But she had so much energy, you know. I guess I just never expected... well." Linda shook her head sadly.

"Did she say anything to you before she died?"

"No, not really. It was the night those kids disappeared. She was doing her rounds after the police left. And she just collapsed. Me and one of the other nurses found her just lying there on the floor. She was delirious, I think. She was spouting nonsense, gasping for air. I guess being in a hospital didn't help her much, huh? Dr. Kelso said her heart simply gave out. We all loved her so much. It was such a shock."

"Spouting nonsense? What did she say?"

"Like I said, it didn't make any sense. She kept repeating the same thing over and over. 'Black eyes' or something like that. 'They had black eyes.'" The nurse sighed.

Mulder darted a surprised glance at Scully before donning an impassive mask. "Thanks Linda. You've been a great help," he said.

"No problem," the nurse replied, glancing at her watch. "Well, I've got to get back. I just hope you find those kids," she said, walking away.

"Black eyes?" Horton asked. "Does that mean anything special to you?"

"Maybe," Mulder narrowed his eyes in thought at the retreating figure of the nurse before turning to head back to their car.

Horton sighed in exasperation. "What did he mean by that, Agent Scully? What aren't you two telling me?"

"What do you mean?" Scully asked.

"What I mean," Horton snapped, "is that both of you have been acting as if there's something more to this case than a simple kidnapping. So far I've not seen anything to indicate that."

Scully smiled to herself, reminded of the first few cases after she'd been partnered with Mulder. For some reason, it was exceedingly funny to see someone else go through what she'd had to endure early in her assignment to the X-files. The half baked ideas that she'd slowly come to accept as viable possibilities, the uncanny leaps of logic that were Mulder's particular forte. Of course, having been told beforehand that there was more to this case than met the eye by one of Mulder's informants didn't exactly hurt either.

She tossed a glance at Horton, belatedly realizing it for what it was. The trademark Mulder look, one that conveyed pained tolerance, condescension, and smug superiority all in one stroke. One she'd come to despise, until she'd earned his trust and respect. He wasn't as bad as he'd once been, but it seemed she'd picked up the habit. She bit her lip to keep the smirk from showing on her face as she walked to their car, leaving an exasperated agent behind her.

"I think our new partner is starting to get annoyed with us, Mulder," she said as she slid into the passenger seat. "And since when do you carry matches around with you anyway? You don't smoke."

"Since the last time we found ourselves in the woods without being able to light a fire," he answered defensively. "And you look like you're enjoying yourself." Mulder smirked, glancing at her. Catching her guilty look, he laughed. "Shame, Scully. She's an impressionable little agent. Maybe we should show her some pity."

"Oh yeah. Like you showed me when we were first partnered? I don't think so," she snorted. "Let her suffer."

"I never figured your evil streak ran so wide, Scully," he teased, shaking his head.

"Hey, I learned from the best," she replied, leaning back in her seat, watching Horton continue to stare at them from where she'd left her. "I didn't want to say it in front of Horton, but what happened with Kelso?"

"I don't know. I suppose it's possible he was telling us the truth..." His partner's disbelieving snort revealed what she thought of the idea. He chuckled. "My thoughts exactly. Which means he either truly believes what he's telling us, or..."

"Or...?" Scully prodded.

"Or he's simply a resistor." Mulder sighed, "We've run into them before, Scully. There's just no way to tell." He shrugged, watching as Horton slowly made her way to the car.

Horton quietly slid into the seat behind them. "I assume we're going to the school now?"

Mulder nodded. "I want to take a closer look where the kids fainted."

"You don't expect to find anything there, do you?" Scully questioned. She knew that if this were some sort of cover-up, any evidence would most likely have been cleaned up by now.

"You never know what I might spy with my eagle eye, Scully," he replied as if in jest.

"So are you two going to tell me why you think there might be more to this than a simple kidnapping?" Horton asked. "Not to sound ignorant or anything, but just in case it does turn out to be a kidnapping, shouldn't we try to keep any avenues of investigation in that direction open?"

"You're absolutely right, Agent Horton," Mulder agreed, starting the car. "In fact, I think we should go about this case as if it were just that. The only reason we have to believe it might be anything different is because we've seen something similar to this before. We just don't want to overlook any avenues of investigation, as you put it, in this direction either."

Horton stared quietly at the duo in the front seat, her face not betraying her thoughts. Finally she seemed to come to a decision. She nodded. "I suppose I can go along with that..." She leaned back in her seat. "For now, anyway," she added to herself.


Latierny elementary school
2:33 PM

They could hear them, even from around the corner. The agents rounded the bend, pulling up to a stop behind a yellow bus. There were children everywhere, running and shouting as they waited for the buses to leave or their parents to come and pick them up.

"Those were the days, eh Scully?" Mulder quipped as he walked through the schoolyard, heading for the entrance.

"Oh, I don't know about that," Horton piped in, looking around at all the activity. "Look at them. Did you notice that none of them are coming near us?"

The X-files agents paused to take a better look at their surroundings. Horton was right. The children were being careful to give the agents a wide berth, even in the midst of their play. On closer look, they noticed several of them looking at the agents curiously, others more warily.

"I guess it's only natural," Scully replied. "We're not exactly dressed like parents. With their friends missing like this, I'm not surprised they're being a bit cautious. At least they're being taught to be on their guard."

"Yeah," Mulder agreed as he came up to the entrance. "Well, let's do this." He pushed open the door and headed in.


The agents were led out to the side of the school. They stood in front of a clearing that extended to the woods beyond. The school was nestled against a wooded area, enclosing it from behind.

"It was during recess." The thin mousy woman who accompanied them turned to face them, pushing up her glasses as she explained. "The break was almost over, so it was just a little before noon. I was one of the teachers assigned to supervise them that day. Several of the kids were playing over there," she said, pointing to a portion of the clearing near the trees on the far side. "One of them came up to me and told me that Billy had suddenly fallen down and gone to sleep. He seemed so agitated, I was worried."

"So you followed him to Billy? Can you show us where he was, Ms. Garvin?" Mulder asked.

"Sure, this way." The teacher led them to the area where she'd come upon the child. "He was lying right here. It looked like he was sleeping, but I could tell there was something wrong. I tried to awaken him, but he wouldn't wake up. When I looked around, I noticed that several of the other children were down on the ground as well."

"Where exactly were these children lying?" Scully walked over to where Ms. Garvin stood, kneeling down to get a better look at the ground.

"Oh, just a few feet away," came the reply. "All of them collapsed pretty close to each other."

"This food poisoning seems very territorial, doesn't it?" Mulder muttered to Horton, then moved next to his partner. "What about the other children in the yard?" he asked. "We were told by the hospital that it was a case of food poisoning. None of the others seemed to be affected?"

"No, not that I remember. It was just those seven kids. They must have been particularly sensitive or something. We made sure to get rid of the food in the cafeteria and had the food for the next day checked for any sign of contamination. But as for the other children, by the time I found the unconscious ones, most of the others had already returned to their classes. No one else reported any problems."

"Ms. Garvin, this may sound a little strange, but did you see any marks on any of the seven children?" Scully asked, standing up.

"Marks?"

"Yes, anything out of the ordinary on any part of their body that was exposed. Their arms, or their face maybe."

The teacher frowned in thought. "No, nothing really springs to mind. Of course, when I saw them, I immediately rushed back to the school to call the hospital and have the parents notified. I wasn't really by their side for too long."

"Hmm... Thanks, Ms. Garvin. If you don't mind, we'd like to take a look around before we leave."

"No problem. If you need anything, I'll be around," she replied, pointing back towards the school building.

Horton walked up to the other two agents, waiting until the teacher was out of earshot. "What marks were you looking for exactly?"

"I'm not really sure. Something that would indicate how these children were infected," Scully replied, watching as Mulder slowly walked around the area where the children had been found unconscious.

"Infected!?" Horton asked incredulously. "Infected by what? What do you think happened to them?"

Scully stared at her, eyes narrowing questioningly. "You still think it was just food poisoning?"

Horton paused, taking a deep breath as she considered her words. Finally, she shook her head. "No, not anymore, I don't. Whatever happened to those kids was more than a simple accident. Agent Mulder's comment about all of them collapsing so close to each other makes sense. Whatever it was, it hit them at the same time, probably while they were playing. Besides, none of the others in the school reported any illness, even though they all ate the same food." She stopped her deductions, pinning Scully with a piercing glance. "But I still have no idea what really happened to them. And I get the feeling I'm the only one," she continued accusingly.

Scully shook her head. "Neither of us has any solid evidence either, Lynn," she said softly, stumbling slightly over the unaccustomed use of the other's familiar. "It's just..." She trailed off, seeing Mulder stare quizzically at a point along the edges of the clearing. She frowned as his face paled, his eyes focused on one particular spot. When she saw him dart toward one of the trees lining the clearing, she started towards him. "Mulder?" she called out. "Did you find something?"

She came upon him, Horton at her heels. He knelt in the grass, lightly brushing aside some of the dead leaves and brush. "Looks like they missed something," he whispered when the others came to a stop beside him.

Scully gasped at what Mulder was staring at, then immediately scrabbled in her pocket. She wordlessly pulled out an evidence bag and handed it to her partner.

Horton frowned as Mulder placed the tiny object into the bag and held it up. "I didn't think bees were common this time of year."

Mulder stared at the small insect through the clear plastic. Quietly, he answered her, "As far as I know, they're not."

Continued in Part 2

Futures Past 08:
Sweet Dreams...
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Tchaikovsky Unbound