I couldn't resist, so here's my effort at a crossover. I think it's an idea nobody else has had yet  -- at least I haven't seen it in any of the wonderful stories I've read in this newsgroup. So... y'all hop in and hang on, and when we're done write and let me know what you thought of the ride: Sarah, in care of Kelly Hays at windmill.com. Thanks!

DISCLAIMER: This original story, C. 1994-95 Sarah Hays, may be freely reproduced & distributed provided this paragraph is included, all copies/distributions are of the whole story, & no exchange of money is involved; contains characters that are copyrighted property of Ten-Thirteen Productions, TopKick Productions and the Ruddy Greif Company, all used without permission of the creators, including but not limited to Chris Carter, Glen Morgan and James Wong, Albert S. Ruddy, & Leslie Greif, & no commercial application nor infringement of copyrights belonging to the creators of the Fox Network series "The X-files" or the Columbia Broadcasting System Network series "Walker, Texas Ranger" is intended or should be inferred.

Steel and Stars   Part I

9:45 p.m. October 20, 1994

FM 875, outside Venus, Texas

   The redhead running down the barrow ditch looked like a deer in the headlights, Dawnelle McCloud thought. Ten years in the Texas Department of Public Safety automated her reactions: she slowed, pulling toward the running figure while calling the county sheriff's office.

  "This is McCloud," she said. "Looks like a one-vehicle accident, victim in the road. I'm going to see what I can find out, over." A static-blurred acknowledgment faded into electromagnetic noise as brilliant light shattered the night, outlining the

highway and everything on it in a flood of xenon radiance that spread upward and outward, blindingly.

   McCloud thought she heard a faint roaring sound behind the girl, who had reached the car, as she opened the passenger door. A wave of almost intolerable pressure enveloped them as the light descended rapidly.

  "Get in," McCloud yelled. "I'll get you out of here." The redhead, her eyes huge and her face pale with what McCloud took to be sheer fright, obeyed without making a sound. McCloud fought the wheel, turning the car hard, slamming the accelerator against the floorboard and heading back toward town.

   She told the dispatcher, "This is McCloud, do you copy? Somebody's chasing us, and I'm not sure what they're chasing us with. Send backup rolling this way -

- tell `em to look for the lights, Ellis County.

Whoever this is on our tail, they've got the biggest brightest spotlights I've ever seen -- like landing lights on a 747!"

  "Roger, McCloud," the dispatcher said. Miles unrolled beneath the car as minutes unwound. Behind her the lights gained altitude and glare.

  "Look, lady," McCloud said, "Your friends aren't doing this for fun. If we can't outrun them pull the seat down over you. I'll lock it so they'll think it's just the cargo deck, savvy?" The redhead nodded.

   McCloud noticed that she had stopped breathing so hard her chest heaved; the panicked look in her eyes had lost some of its glazed, fixed terror. "Who are

you, lady?"

  "I don't know," McCloud thought she heard the redhead answer, her voice soft, her accent definitely not from Texas.

   A high-pitched soundwave washed into the car, and the redhead cried out in pain. Her words melted into a mixture of some unknown tongue and moaning misery as the sound rose in volume; bright dots -- laser target markers -- danced across the windshield.

   The pressure upon them suddenly decreased as the car shot out of the light's perimeter. McCloud nearly lost control, writhing in pain as the frequency shuddered through her.

  "Get back here, and hide," she cried. The redhead disappeared under the fold-down, and McCloud latched it shut.

  "This is McCloud," she said into the radio. There was no response. Her headlights died; the lights on her dashboard flared, blowing out. The engine, too, fell silent. She jammed the gearshift into Neutral, hoping the car would coast, praying the shattering transaxle hadn't already locked her front wheels into a skid

nothing could alter, wishing her backup might appear before whatever had overtaken them could finish its business and disappear into the night.

   Across the highway, cresting a low rise, she saw the lights of a DPS Camaro flashing. She heard her flattened tires thump. McCloud opened her door as the

Daytona stopped, the troopers in the Camaro taking "covering fire" positions within their own vehicle's shelter.

   From above, in the center of the lights, she heard the high-pitched sound again; a red spot the size of a dime blossomed on her chest, and an instant later she

felt the bullet tear through.

  "Schwarzenegger and Stallone LIE," she cried, rolling onto the roadway's unpaved shoulder. Pain impaired her so much, she thought, she couldn't even throw up efficiently.

   That didn't stop her from throwing up, though. She shuddered as the slimy wetness spread around her; another half-dozen gunshots rang out overhead. The troopers were shooting back. Something whistled next her ear, and a rooster-tail of dirt sprayed briefly.

Cosmic mercy brought the dirt back down over her slightly-used supper.

   Bright red blood and waves of pain; excited voices, then blackness.

11:05 p.m.

Washington, DC

  "Mulder," said the lanky man with a hairless crown and black-rimmed glasses, stopping a tired-looking colleague. "Take a look at this."

  "What is it, Skinner?" The younger FBI Special Agent inquired softly. In addition to brush-cut hair and a slightly-thinner-than-stylish physique, he had dark eyes and a broodingly handsome face -- or it would have been, if he hadn't looked so completely exhausted.

  "Somebody down in Texas had a shoot-out with a UFO,"

Skinner answered, deadpan. The utter lack of mockery in his voice made Mulder raise an eyebrow. The Assistant Director of the FBI held out the single flimsy page.

"This just came in over the wire."

   Early in the day though it was, Skinner had shucked the coat of his suit and rolled up his sleeves.  He was older than Mulder in more ways than a chronograph could show, but between these men was a sense of trust born out of sharing memories of  sights and deeds no one should have to remember.

  "Want me to go down there and have a look around?"  asked Mulder, finishing the paper.

  "I thought so," the AD answered softly, "but now that I've seen you I'm not so sure."

   The younger man looked up at him, barely curious.

"What makes you say that?"

  "I know there hasn't been any official word on Scully, Mulder, but have you heard anything from her family?" The AD's eyes, unlike the rest of his carefully-controlled expression, held a real kindness as he waited for his agent's answer.

  "Her mother calls," Mulder answered. "She always asks if I've heard anything. I say no, and we try to say don't give up. We may be holding onto a ghost..."

fire flashed faintly behind his exhaustion. He raised his eyes to the AD's gaze. "I wish we could just know something. Anything... would be better than not knowing. I think her mother needs some peace of mind. I think I need ... a place to start getting even."

  "I know better than to tell you to sleep," Skinner said. "They tried to tell me that when I came back from Viet Nam. It was the worst advice I've ever heard in my

life. But ... don't push so hard we lose you, too. Officially I'm as helpless as you -- and unofficially it's worse, because my sources have nothing."

   Mulder's eyes darkened. "Have nothing, or share nothing?"

  "It would amount to the same thing," Skinner said.

"But some of these sources couldn't hold out on me if they tried, Mulder. You know how it is -- the things they carefully don't say tell you so much more than the

words they use. It isn't like that this time. I believe there's really no information out there about her."

   The younger man nodded, looking absolutely defeated.

"Thanks," he said.

12:45 a.m. Central Standard Time October 21

The Stockyards District, Fort Worth, Texas

  "I hate when this happens," Texas Ranger Jimmy Trivette said wearily. A young black man with an athlete's leanness and a too-seldom-seen attractive smile, he dropped himself onto a barstool with every sign of complete exhaustion.

   Once his lithe body had been his fortune; he had played pro football for the Dallas Cowboys as a wide receiver, the man everybody looked for on third down and impossible. But a shattered shoulder changed all that, and instead of gracefully arching into the air after a game-winning pass Jimmy Trivette snared

criminals these days, his instincts honed as finely as his muscles.

  "What, exactly, are you talkin' about, Jimmy?" C.D. Parker, the proprietor, a solidly-built man with salt-and-pepper hair, a walrus mustache and, usually,

twinkling gray eyes, approached with a mixture of curiosity and concern. A semi-retired Ranger himself, the older man often counseled Jimmy or his partner,

Ranger Sergeant Cordell Walker, on life's little inconveniences.  "You hate when so many things happen."

  "Dawnelle McCloud died," Trivette replied. "She never came to, C.D."

  "Jimmy, I'm sorry. She was somethin' special, and not just to you. What went down out there?"

  "I guess I know a little more about how Walker feels," Jimmy answered, indirectly. "I wish he was here now, C.D. It's hard watching anybody die; but

Dawnelle's the first female Ranger we had, and ... last night I had dinner with her. She was going home and she came across what she thought was a wreck with a victim in the roadway... now she's dead, for what reason?  We don't know."

  "What about the victim of the accident?" C.D. asked.

  "We don't know who that girl is we found in her car. She doesn't even know who she is, C.D. There are so many things about this case that are just strange --

and Walker always seems to know what that means before the rest of us do."

  "Well, I don't know when he's coming back," C.D. said. "Or Alex. She's stuck in a Federal court in San Antonio. Did she tell you why Cordell's in Austin?"

  "No," Jimmy said, momentarily distracted.

  "They promoted him," C.D. said.

  "Hey, that's great!" the younger man exclaimed.

  "Not from Cordell's point of view," the veteran Ranger answered slowly. "The promotion comes with a high price, Jimmy. Moving to El Paso, taking a captain's job. Leaving his home, us, -- maybe he'd do that, but I don't think he's ready to leave Alex Cahill."

  "That's not the problem, " Jimmy said softly. "He doesn't want them putting him behind a desk."

  "That might kill him," C.D. agreed. "I know it would kill me, stuck in an office watching young men  -- and women, now --   take risks I'd learned to avoid because they didn't have the experience to stay out of the line of fire."

  "As best we can tell," Jimmy said, "McCloud never knew there was a line of fire. The dispatcher's log said she'd reported a female running down the side of the road, then McCloud called for backup. Said they were being pursued, maybe by an aircraft. And troopers on the scene said they exchanged fire with shooters in

something that could hover like a helicopter. They said McCloud was taken out by a laser-sighting device; they both noticed the red target marker right before she went down."

  "She stopped to assist a female?"

  "Mm," Jimmy said. "If it wasn't this red-haired girl we found when we started through McCloud's car, I don't know who it could have been. Under the cargo deck in the back, curled up like an unborn baby and barely breathing, she was so scared. But I can't get a word out of her. She's in some kind of shock, the doctor in the ER at Parkland told me. They're going to keep her in the hospital for observation."

  "Red-haired girl?" C.D. paused. "How little,  Jimmy, a child? A teenager, maybe a runaway?"

  "Well, no," Trivette said. "I don't know ...  smaller than Alex, I guess, but around the same age. I'd have to say she's prettier than Alex, too,  C.D.  No wedding band, no jewelry at all.  She's been confined, probably against her will, but whoever she is she has pretty fair taste and decent money. We tried to take her fingerprints, see if she matched any bulletins, but. her fingers have been abraded, so there's no pattern to print. Other than that, she's not carrying any visible injuries or wounds, but looks like she's been very ill recently; maybe still is. They went through a whole rotation of nurses looking for one who knew what language she was speaking."

  "I thought you said you couldn't get a word out of her," C.D. reminded him.

  "About how Dawnelle died," Trivette answered, too tired to be testy. "She's not speaking English," he ticked off  languages on long, elegant fingers, "Dutch,

Spanish, French, Vietnamese, or Croatian; not Farsi, nor Italian. She's repeating five or six phrases as though she's trying to memorize them."

   C.D. pushed a mug across the bar, settling down to coffee. "Could it be something like pig Latin?"

  "What?"

  "It's a kids' game, or a simple code, Jimmy. You take the first letter off the word, put it at the end, and add a vowel sound. "

  "No," Trivette said softly, "I don't think so. Parts of it might be names, though."

  "Names?"

  "Fox," Jimmy answered, "and Duane, maybe Vary."

  "Fox?"

  "Yeah, I'm pretty sure I heard her say `No, Fox,' or maybe `Not Fox'. Strange about that, too. She sounds scared, but when she says Fox she sounds like Alex

talking about Walker."

  "Jimmy," C.D. said,  his manner gone from interested to determined,  mildly curious to intensely careful, "the voice Alex uses when she's talking about Walker,

but won't use when she's talking to him?"

  "Yeah," Trivette said. "Exactly like that."

  "Well then, what we have to do is find this Fox," C.D. said, "and get this red-haired girl back to him."

1:20 a.m. CST October 21, 1994

Fort Worth, Texas

  "That's a problem," Jimmy said, finishing his coffee.  C.D. obligingly poured more, starting a fresh pot.

"Stale coffee was one of the things I promised I'd never drink again when I retired," he muttered. "Seems like every time I turn around it's all the coffee I've got left.

Damn old age anyway. Don't do it, Jimmy. Pensions are highly overrated. Retirement's a bad joke."

  "Wish I could hear Dawnelle's opinion on that right now," Jimmy said, and the roughness of his voice startled them both. C.D. looked up from his coffee making

to see a tear sliding down Jimmy's cheek, and quickly looked away. He reached beneath his bar and handed the other man a handkerchief -- enormous, snowy, and

carefully folded, but free of starch.

   Trivette took the gesture for what it was: a sign of friendship's discretion. He was glad he had told C.D., and not Walker, that he very much liked the newest Ranger in their company.

  "One thing the troopers did say," he said, after a minute. "They thought they'd wounded the shooter before the aircraft left the area. That may be what caused it

to disappear."

   "Disappear?"

   Trivette nodded, not a happy man. "That's what they said. Its lights cut out and it was gone. Just like that. No contrail. No engine noise. Nothing. Out of there. Instant history."

  "Helicopters can do that. The army had some in Viet Nam, Cordell told me, that  could to lift straight into the air until you couldn't see them anymore in the blink of an eye. Something about rocket-assisted takeoffs."

  "Without a sound?" Jimmy asked, skeptically. "I don't think so. I've seen Bells, Sikorskys, Marine One ... helicopters make noise, C.D. Lots.  And rotor wash 

looks like a tornado's hit . When I was out there, this morning with daylight and everything, nothing had disturbed the scene the way a helicopter's downdraft

ought to have."

  "How do you mean?"

  "The blood Dawnelle lost, and the puddle where she threw up," Jimmy answered tightly. "Rotor wash would splash the fluids and spatter leaves, grass, debris

over the surfaces. I found one spot, no bigger than my hand, where a bullet plowed up the ground. Some dust fell where she threw up -- but that was all, C.D. No grass, no leaves, no debris. No dirt. How can a helicopter do that?"

  "It can't, unless it's really high," C.D. admitted.

"I've seen EMS choppers landing on hospital pads spray rocks as big as my thumb out of the gravel on the roof." The older man looked, suddenly, tired. "I see what you mean, Jimmy. I wish Cordell was here too."

5:40 a.m.  October 21, 1994

Dulles Airport, Washington, DC

   Fox Mulder, looking only a little less fatigued than he had in the hallway outside the Assistant Director's office, showed his boarding pass to the airline agent.

  "Yes, sir," she said, in that bright-humored, brainless-chatter tone the company trained into all its clerks, "will you be checking any luggage?"

  "Um," Mulder said, handing over the garment bag that had been hanging across his shoulder. He unconsciously tightened his grip on his briefcase.

  "Very good. That flight's already started boarding."

  "Thanks," Mulder said, walking through the entryway toward his seat aboard the jet. He found it: back in the two-seat-wide aisles toward the tail of the plane,

next to the last window in the fuselage.

  "First trip?" asked his seatmate, a very fat woman with short brown hair, who slipped out of her seat with surprisingly graceful movements to let him take his

place next to the window.

  "No," he said, shaking his head.

  "Not on an airplane," she confirmed. "But to Texas?"

   He paused. "Is it that obvious?"

  "You're not going home to Dallas dressed like that," she said calmly.

  "Maybe I'm getting off in Atlanta," he said.

  "Maybe that map you tucked in your briefcase when they called the flight was of Australia, too, but I don't think so." She grinned. "Look,  you're not interested in chitchat. What I'm trying to do here is talk you into trading seats with me. You're going to be reading, studying, whatever, with that stuff you've got in your briefcase. I'd really like to look out the window.  I even promise to be very very quiet the whole flight."

   Something about her tone of voice intrigued him.

"You just like looking out the window?"

  "Actually," she said, "I'm afraid not to. The only time I ever had to sit in the aisle for a whole trip on an airplane, I threw up. Looking out the window stops

me getting airsick."

   Mulder immediately said, "I'll be happy to trade with you, miss ... "

  "Badger," she said with a grin. "You're a gentleman. Goes with your scholarly pursuits, mister ..."

  "Mulder." He glanced at her, thinking, `if she only knew.' "You are going home to Dallas, then?"

  "Well, no," she answered, settling against the window the way a kitten snuggled into a warm lap. She wore faded jeans, a work shirt over a thermal, and boots: too western a  look for DC, but probably comfortable even in this weather. "But this plane gets to DFW in time to hop the first flight from Love Field to Odessa. So here I go."

  "Odessa?" Mulder made himself smile. "I thought that was a city on the steppes in Russia."

  "Ours is probably named after it," she answered.

   True to her promise, she became thoroughly quiet the minute the plane began to move. She stared raptly out the window during the entire trip. Mulder almost tried

to start a conversation with her once, but she had offered him privacy in exchange for the window seat, and he felt duty-bound to honor the bargain himself.

7:00 a.m. CST

Fort Worth, Texas

  "Well, Jimmy," C.D. Parker greeted his friend as the younger Ranger came in. "How's your case going? Find out anything on the mystery lady yet?"

  "Mmm," Jimmy said. "Remember that woman they found on the freeway in Houston? The one who didn't know who she was or where she was from or how she got there?"

  "Remember?" C.D. snorted. "I stayed up all night answering phone calls from people with 20-year-old missing-children reports who wanted to know if she

might be their little girl, found after all these years."

   Jimmy nodded. "We did, too. Except ours were missing persons, adult cases in the last four or five years. Some of those people called from as far away as Australia, C.D. Funny thing at the time was, half a dozen or so of `em mentioned that their missing persons were taken away by flying saucers."

  "Yeah, one or two of the calls I got were like that -- but they were kids who'd disappeared in the late `70s, early `80s. Much more recent than the cops calling from Oregon or Florida hoping a runaway had showed up without a pimp waiting nearby for a change."

C.D. looked disgusted. "Humanity, Jimmy, ain't what it's cracked up to be. I guess after a few decades, a police officer stops believing there's any good in anybody he or she doesn't know personally on an everyday basis."

  "It hasn't taken me that long," Trivette answered, surprising them both. "I've only been out of football seven years, C.D." Then he gave that a minute's thought. "Maybe football helped convince me, though. The difference between a professional athlete and a slave is that you bring more on the auction block."

   C.D. whistled softly. "Never knew you felt that way about it."

  "Didn't then," Jimmy said. "It was all fun and games. Hard work, yes, but fun, too, and there were people who wanted to meet you, have your autograph ... do all kinds of things for you. Plus the money --  it was much better money than a black man could make as,  say, a bus driver or an accountant someplace."

  "It's almost that way in law enforcement," C.D. warned. "Except every so often you'll run into someone you used to know, or some kid reporter will come by

wanting to do a story on the legend of so-and-so ... but it's a young man's game, too, Jimmy, just like football. They'll promote you one of these days, just like they did Cordell,  and then ..." he shook his head. "After that it's all downhill. You could end up tendin' bar down the street from the courthouse, just so you don't die from the lonesome." He cleared his throat, finished his coffee, and turned his back. "Why don't we go see that girl, Jimmy? Maybe she'll remember somethin' after she's had a good night's rest."

   Trivette grinned as he picked up his hat. "Sure, why not?  Maybe you'll recognize what she's saying; it's probably straight out of some old movie."

10:30 a.m. C.S.T. Parkland Hospital CCU

Dallas, Texas

   The woman looked even tinier, among all this medical machinery, than she had when they found her curled up under the cargo deck of McCloud's car, Jimmy said to C.D. in the CCU Waiting room. C.D. considered.

   "Who do you think she is, Jimmy?"

  "I have no idea," Jimmy said, voice low. "I guess I brought you here hoping you might. I don't think she's been missing for years, or even months; I don't believe

she just ran away. Now that I look at her, I don't think she's like that woman in Houston, suffering from traumatic amnesia. I think she's been kidnapped. She'd

gotten away from the kidnapper when McCloud saw her last night."

   The older man nodded, walking back toward the double doors across the hall. Beyond them, intense fluorescent lights gave the single huge room, with its horseshoe-shaped nurse's console at the center of a ring of  glass-walled cubicles filled with monitors, I.V. machines, respirators, oxygen lines and miles of exotic

electronic devices, a timeless quality. No windows marred the outer walls; the automatic doors, already closed behind C.D., kept out even the faintest hint of

an atmosphere external to this room. Medical equipment hummed in the suppressed hush; the voices of the nurses were barely distinguishable from the sounds of the breathing machines.

   He consciously stepped softly on the shining tile as he made his way to the bed Jimmy had indicated. The curtains between this cubicle and the one on the right

were closed; the next bed to the left was empty, and the curtain looking into that space was open. C.D. walked along the glass barrier with his hat -- an old-fashioned flat-crowned Stetson -- in his hand. He moved through the restricted space with the grace and caution of a great cat caught in unfamiliar territory, drawn to the bed where the mystery woman lay as inexorably as though magnetized.

   Looking at her, tears came into his eyes. She seemed so very small -- she wasn't as tall as Alex Cahill, the Assistant District attorney he had come to regard as his adopted daughter. Where Alex had a rangy, coltish grace and sharply chiseled beauty, this woman seemed more compact, more fragile and yet more energetic.

Something about her did indeed remind him of a red deer, or more properly a fawn.

   She gazed back at him, and finally smiled. Then she spoke, in a tongue he'd never heard before, as anxiety touched her wide bright eyes. C.D. wished that he could tell her everything would be all right, gather her into his arms and hold her until he could make it so again.

  "No," the woman on the bed said clearly. "Fox. Duane. Barry." She raised her voice, but the words that followed might as well have been in Aramaic for all

C.D. could make of them. The nurse moved to hush the woman, but she struggled, pushing herself onto her elbows and calling out to C.D. "Fox ..."

   C.D. stepped past the nurse, took one of the redhead's small fine hands in both of his, and said, "We'll find him. I promise you that, darlin'. We'll get you back to him somehow." He thought he saw the dawn of understanding in her eyes.

  "Sir, you'll have to leave," the nurse said firmly.

"Visiting hours are over now."

   C.D. let the redhead's hand slip from his grasp and nodded. He moved back, and when the nurse had cut off his view of the redhead's face he turned and walked rapidly out into the corridor. Something about this mystery lady compelled him, and he didn't know what it was. He'd known women in his life -- all his life -- and he'd loved them, in different ways at different times. But not like this before.

   He gestured quickly at Jimmy.

  "Well, do you know her?"

  "No, Jimmy, I don't." He looked determined. "Not yet, anyway."

11:20 a.m. CST

Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport

   Mulder picked up his garment bag from the baggage carousel, amazed. "Maybe we should investigate this airline," he murmured wryly, "and see if we can figure

out why they're so proficient at luggage, when no other one avoids its misdirection, eh Scully?"

   No familiar voice answered, either to continue the banter or reprove him, and Mulder's face showed his sudden feeling of loss.

  "Agent Mulder?"

   He looked into the chiseled-ebony face of a handsome man about his own age, about his own size, dressed in a Western-cut suitcoat, stonewashed Wranglers, boots shiny as mirrors and a white hat. Shining from a coat lapel was a badge, a silver star inside a circle, inscribed "Texas Ranger."

  "That's me," Mulder said.

  "Jimmy Trivette," the other replied softly, his voice well modulated but his accent more like Mulder's than the FBI man had expected from the Ranger's appearance. He had already run a quick appraising glance over Mulder, with his fatigued expression, his brush-cut hair and his clearly expensive, very loose-fitting suit set off by a crashing clash of an orange and lilac-figured necktie. "I didn't realize we were going to get this kind of response from the Bureau."

  "The local office doesn't know I'm here," Mulder said. "I'm not officially on an assignment. But the report of a woman found at the scene of this encounter

with an armed unidentified aircraft intrigued me."

  "I don't often get faxes from FBI agents on airplanes," Trivette said, hefting Mulder's briefcase. He whistled softly at its weight. "What kind of help

can I offer you?"

  "I'd like to see the woman as soon as possible," Mulder said.

  "Well, " Jimmy checked his watch. "It's a little over two hours before the next visiting period at Parkland Hospital. Why don't we start that direction and I'll fill you in as we go?"

  "I don't know this part of the country very well, and I'm beat.  Hungry, too," Mulder said, surprising himself. "Could you suggest a place to stay? Somewhere to eat?"

  "You bet," Jimmy said. "We'll stop at C.D.'s. It's not out of the way, and he makes the best chicken-fried steak in the Metroplex."

   Mulder didn't try to figure out what chicken-fried steak might be.  He hoped it didn't require a long wait; steak sounded interesting, and this Ranger talked

as though the food were homemade.  C.D.'s place was a bar, he saw with some dismay; but once inside he realized it wasn't a run-of-the-mill bar. For one thing there was no haze of cigarette smoke in the air; for another the interior had a bright, cheery but somehow homelike appearance. Even this early -- well before most bars would open -- there were several customers. Steaming mugs of coffee scented the air. Mulder's stomach rumbled.

   The jovial man in the snowy apron behind the bar hailed Trivette like an old and valued friend as they entered, and Mulder wondered why there weren't places

like this around his neighborhood.

  "C.D., this is Special Agent Fox Mulder, FBI," Jimmy said. "He's interested in the McCloud case."

  "Pleased to meet you," C.D. said, extending a hand. Mulder took it, not quite ready for the enthusiasm with which the Texas Ranger was prepared to shake. "Welcome to Texas. I'm C.D. Parker."

  "Nice meeting you," Mulder said, unable to resist a slow smile. The man across the bar looked like ... well, an overbarbered, slightly underage Santa Claus,

he decided, provided Santa Claus were a very competent lawman. "Ranger Trivette says you make a mean chicken-fried steak."

  "Best in town," C.D. said firmly. "Biscuits and cream gravy, onion rings and mashed potatoes, too. No salad, though, but there's plenty of peppers and

pickles if you want."

   Mulder looked startled. "I, uh, don't think I need peppers or pickles. Coffee, though."

  "All right," C.D. smiled. "You too, Jimmy?"

  "Well, no," Jimmy answered. "I smell your barbecue. I think I'd like some of that."

  "Okay, tomorrow when it's ready,  I'll save you some. Now what about today?"

  "Well," Trivette said, "I guess I'd like a chicken-fried steak, too, then."

  "Good. You boys pull up a couple of chairs, and it'll be ready in a few minutes."

   Mulder turned a questioning face toward Trivette, but the young man with the greyhound's build was striding rapidly down the bar. Before Mulder had time

to wonder where he was going Trivette had picked up a couple of wooden high-backed barstools from a corner and was moving gracefully back.

  "Have a seat," he urged, "and tell me about this missing person you think we may have found."

  "I don't know yet," Mulder said. "From the description it could be any of a number of missing persons in our current files. It's interesting that you found you couldn't obtain fingerprints."

  "It's not the first time I've seen that," Trivette said. "We've dealt with it before. My partner found out about it during Viet Nam. He told me about it last year, when we had a case where a man impersonated an officer from out of town to facilitate an assassination. Evidently there are ... organizations ... where this sort of unidentifiable person is extremely valuable. But in this case, it doesn't seem

to make any sense."

  "I believe some of those organizations are clandestine operations teams within the government," Mulder said. "Often we find they're men reported missing or killed, who later turn up employed as security cleanup specialists for unspecified companies. I've seen some in the course of my investigations."

  "Then you're familiar with ..."

  "Criminals are not the only people who intimidate witnesses, or even make them disappear," Mulder said bitterly. "In fact, it's possible your `mystery lady' is such a witness."

   C.D.'s jovial presence interrupted them, flourishing platters. Biscuits balanced at the edges and mounds of mashed potatoes contained lakes of gravy on each oval

dish. Atop the lakes were the chicken-fried steaks: breaded and fried a russety gold, with more gravy dolloped artfully across them. The size of the meal intimidated him; beside it C.D. set down steaming coffee in a pint-sized Mason jar with a handle.

  "Dig in," he invited, and Trivette, with a casual gesture, cut into a slab of steak with his fork. Mulder followed suit, taking a bite and finding, to his amazement, that it really was good.

  "You know, Jimmy," C.D. went on, "When you took me up to CCU this morning, I was prepared to see a lot of things I didn't understand. But you were right about the way the woman was calling someone's name, and the more I thought about it the more I thought it was a name I'd heard before. So I made a couple of phone calls, and sure enough, when Judge Wood was killed and we had federal agents down here thicker than flies on yesterday's roadkill, we had one named Duane Barry."

  "Duane Barry," Trivette repeated. "I've seen that name recently."

  "Which brings up another point, Jimmy. I remember this guy.  He taught me a few things about the computer identification system the FBI had back then. Sharp man, full of vinegar, smart as all get-out. Excited because they'd picked him to take their hostage negotiating course just before Judge Wood was killed." C.D. sighed.

"I remember thinking I wished he'd been in on that fiasco down in Waco. I can't help thinking he would've made a better ending to it than the Full-Bore-Idiot they put in charge."

   The older Ranger gave Mulder a thoughtful look.

"Present company excepted, Duane Barry's the only FBI agent I ever met who impressed me as anything but potential not lived up to like it ought to be. That

worries me, Jimmy. Scared as this lady sounds about him, she may not be the angel she looks like."

  "The name was on a warrant," Trivette snapped his fingers. Swallowing, he said, "Came over the wire weeks ago. He'd taken a hostage and hit the road. Hostage was an FBI agent, a female. I don't remember whether the hostage was ever found."

   Mulder succeeded in not choking to death, barely.

"Duane Barry's hostage was my partner, Special Agent Dana Scully."

   C.D. stared at him. "What's your first name, son?"

  "Fox," Mulder answered innocently.

   I apologize," C.D. said. "I think yours might be the other name she was calling."

   Mulder glanced at his watch. "What time did you say visiting begins?"

  "In a little over an hour," Jimmy said. "Let me finish this steak and we'll head over there."

   Impatience warred briefly with a sudden appetite, born of relief, within Mulder. He, too, fell to eating purposefully. But presently even C.D.'s oversize meals

had vanished down to the last crumb; Mulder drew in a deep breath: any less would be inadequate, but one more bite would have let him hurt himself.

  "That," he said, looking up at C.D. across the bar, "just exactly hit the spot."

   Jimmy picked up his keys. "Ready to go identify our mystery lady?"

   C.D. Parker chuckled, picking up the pair of $20 bills Mulder had laid on the table and handing them back. He spoke over his shoulder to a chunky, strawberry-blonde woman in an apron, then turned to Mulder. "I think I'd like to ride with y'all."

   Mulder, surprised, took the money. "Fine with me."

  "You see, son," C.D. said, his voice growing softer and warmer, "there are some things in this world that are worth a lot more than money. Friendship's one ... and the way you and this little lady talk about each other, I'm convinced that anything I can do to get the two of you back together is like being offered a gift: if I don't do it, I'll be sorry all my life. If I do, the worst thing that can happen is I'll wish it had

turned out a little differently."

  "How so?"

  "Like gettin' a red sweater for Christmas, when what you wanted was a blue jacket," C.D. said. "It's a triflin' thing, and you may find later that what you

got is better than what you thought you wanted."

  "That's not always so, C.D.," said a tired voice, "but if you're lucky you can always exchange."

  "Cordell!" C.D. sounded delighted, Mulder thought. 

"Cordell Walker, Fox Mulder, F.B.I."

   The man under the black hat, Mulder thought, looked the part of a Texas Ranger straight out of the movies: weathered, bearded, shrewd, solid, ready for anything.

The only detail that seemed slightly off was the automatic holstered within easy reach. Mulder had been expecting a pearl-handled Colt revolver, to go with the

cape-shouldered shirt, Wranglers and boots.

   Physically this man was not so large as either Trivette or Parker; Mulder himself was taller. But there was something about Walker: the sort of aura, Mulder realized, that a cat or a rattlesnake might carry -- a kind of sinuous grace, unobtrusive yet no less dangerous for its stealthiness.  He shook hands with the man whose dark eyes had run measuringly, over him. Mulder felt himself appraised, and approved.

  "Where are you all headed?" Cordell Walker asked quietly.

   Jimmy said, "I can explain along the way."

   Mulder wished for a moment that the tired-looking man might decline. He already felt more like he was trying to stay ahead of a stampede than about to be reunited with his partner. He wanted, very much, to have a few moments alone with Jimmy's "mystery lady."

  "I think I'll wait here. I'm hungry, I'm thirsty, I'm tired, and I'm really not fit company for someone who doesn't know me," Walker said.

   C.D. cleared his throat. "I can see that, Cordell. Why don't you grab a cup of coffee and some rhubarb pie? I'll run this young man over to Parkland on his

errand, and you and Jimmy can catch up."

   Trivette looked as though someone had hit him over the head with a two-by-four, Mulder thought.

  "Yeah, partner," the bearded Ranger Sergeant said quietly. "I heard we lost Dawnelle McCloud."

   The change in the younger man astonished Mulder. Jimmy's expressive face no longer showed puzzled dismay; now he fairly sizzled with outrage, the FBI agent thought. Maybe he'd underestimated this soft-spoken, well-mannered young man.

Jimmy's aura wasn't like his partner's.  He certainly didn't  have the hard eyes or the perfectly centered self-awareness of Walker; he didn't have C.D.'s elf-like humorousness, either, Mulder decided. Where the bearded blond man might be a

rattlesnake and the grey-maned proprietor Father Christmas, Trivette drew a picture in Mulder's mind of a fledgling hawk, just beginning to come to its peak of

graceful power and astonishing ability.

  "Come on, son," C.D. said. "We don't want to be late."

   Startled out of his reverie, Mulder followed the older man out of the bar. C.D. gestured at a dark-blue four-door Chevy Blazer, opening the driver's side door

himself. Mulder found, to his amazement, that the passenger door was unlocked.

  "Locking the doors," C.D. said, as though reading his mind, "doesn't keep out determined thieves. It just makes them break the glass. On the other hand, this

little truck isn't anything fancy, and I don't have a stereo in it, or any of those tempting do-dads. So there's not much bait in here."

   Mulder looked him directly. "Are all retired Texas Rangers telepathic?"

   The older man chuckled. "No. Most of the live ones develop it long before they retire. Jimmy hasn't, yet, but he's young. Cordell, now, sometimes he's absolutely

spooky."

   The word caught Mulder's attention. "How?"

  "He doesn't just catch the things I hear myself thinking," C.D. said. "He goes past them, anticipates the responses I haven't sorted out yet. Most of the time, anyway. I'm really going to miss him."

  "Miss him?"

  "He's been promoted. They made him a captain, effective the first of next month. He's taking over a company commander's office in El Paso."

   Mulder visualized the map of Texas he'd studied on his way here. Even for his first trip to this vast land, he realized the distance from one city to another

dwarfed the commutes from Philadelphia or Washington to New York or Baltimore that he was used to making routinely. "That's quite a transfer."

  "That's about the unhappiest I've ever seen Cordell in public," C.D. said. "Usually he's worried, or angry, or he's working out how to catch some rotten actor. But to have him admit he's hungry and tired, and not much company ... something must have really gone wrong down in Austin."

  "Sounds like he needed you to stay and visit with him," Mulder suggested.

  "I'll do that later," C.D. said. "For now he's interested in Jimmy's take on the killing of the Ranger who stopped to help the mystery lady. Let him rest and catch up on the case; when we get back, I'll have a chance to find out what's eating him without letting it interfere with what you need to do."

  "What is the story on that killing? The reports we got at the bureau said state troopers reported exchanging gunfire with a flying saucer," Mulder said.

  "That's as good a description as any," C.D. answered. "What else would you call something that hovers like a helicopter but doesn't have a rotor wash or a chopper's noise?"

  "Stealth?" Mulder asked.

  "Mmm," C.D. said, deftly negotiating a turn marked by a covey of emergency vehicles. In the flare of their lights Mulder saw twisted metal, scurrying EMTs and

blanketed forms on portable gurneys. "You're familiar with classified projects and so forth. Is there a stealth helicopter?"

  "At least one," Mulder said. "It's what the people who kidnapped my partner, after I caught Duane Barry, were using. I've seen it."

2:10 p.m.

Parkland Hospital

   Even for a hospital, Mulder thought, this place had an overabundance of emergency vehicles. The surprising thing was the number of ambulances that appeared to be leaving. Police cruisers and EMT supervisors' vehicles, too, seemed to be loading people out from the ER doors.

  "What the hell ..." he said.

  "Is going on here?" C.D. Parker demanded as a uniformed woman gestured, with a red-coned flashlight, for them to stop.

  "I'm sorry, gentlemen, we can't let anybody into the building," the woman said. "There's been a bomb threat, and we're evacuating the hospital as fast as we can."

  "We have a patient in CCU," C.D. said quickly. "Can we find out where she's being taken?"

  "All the CCU patients are gone," the woman said.

"That's the first place we cleared.. We're trying to secure the building for the bomb squad now.  A dozen cases have been discovered so far."

  "Cases?"

  "Stainless-steel suitcases, stuffed with some kind of plastic explosive. The timers are electronic solid-circuit work. The threat specified two dozen of them in various locations around the building. There's a hundred-million-dollar ransom demand."

   C.D. whistled. "Where were the CCU patients sent?"

  "We only had three," the woman said. "They're in transit  now, but no one hospital could take them all.

Let's see ... two to Methodist, both males, in their 60s, heart cases; a gunshot victim to Memorial."

   Mulder, in the passenger seat, looked sick at his stomach -- and shattered.

   C.D. said, "Thank you, ma'am. How do we exit?"

  "Go right around behind me," she answered pleasantly. "I hope you find your friend."

2:25 p.m.

Fort Worth, Texas

  "Bomb threat," C.D. said, as he  put his foot down. "My grandmother's wall-eyed cat."

    The little Blazer moved, Mulder allowed; but the lightheartedness he'd felt over his meal was gone, replaced by a feeling of doom. He'd been within minutes

of seeing Scully -- he could feel it in his bones; it had to have been her. No other explanation even remotely made sense. Now she was gone. The uncertainty, the worry, resumed its gnawing at the back of his mind.

  "I wish I could be sure," he said out loud.

  "Sure of what, son? Sure that the lady is who you think she is? Sure that she's all right?" C.D. looked at Mulder so intently the younger man feared for their safety as the Blazer picked up speed.

  "Sure of anything," Mulder answered, almost absently. "How do you remember Duane Barry?"

  "He wasn't your ordinary Full-Bore Idiot," C.D. said promptly. "Just like you in that respect. He knew things, although I'm not sure he realized it. What he didn't

know was how to take care of himself -- and from what I've seen of you that makes you too much alike."

"What do you mean?"

"This lady means a lot more to you than you're willing to admit, doesn't she?"

  "She's my partner," Mulder answered. "I'm almost certain of it -- especially now."

  "Mmm." C.D. gave his attention to the road,  threading through a nasty snarl of Dallas traffic. He wove the baby Blazer through the tangle like the veteran lawman he was,  years' incisions into his peripheral vision and reaction time more than

compensated for by his experienced sense of exactly where he was in relation to any other vehicle, and where both it and he would be in a few seconds' time. "Why

now, especially, Agent Mulder?"

  "Because somebody's kept me from seeing her," he answered almost absently. Mulder found himself watching and half holding his breath, not in fear but in a sort of trance:  what, he wondered, had this Texas Ranger with the merry expression and the eyes that could twinkle one instant and gleam as cold and hard as a gunbarrel the next, done in his lifetime? How had he come by this incredible calm, able evidently to move through the shifting spaces on a kind of autopilot? More to the point, how had he learned to do it at a secondary or even tertiary level of mental processing, letting him get on with other things while he drove, or conversed, or both?

  "Partners, now," C.D. said. "They're a wonder and a danger, son."

  "I know," Mulder said. "When she first started working with me Scully was one of the biggest problems I'd ever had in my life. I didn't know what to think about her.

 She was a woman -- is a woman, and a damned attractive woman at that. I didn't want to explore that part of her at first because I was afraid she'd be hostile about it."

   C.D. glanced at him, eyebrows raised. "Hostile?"

  "I didn't know her, and we'd just been through the Clarence Thomas thing. We were afraid of our own shadows, not to mention each other," Mulder said. "So

here she was: a watchdog whose purpose on behalf of the Bureau was to make sure I wasn't wasting too much time and energy on too many wild goose chases."

  "That must have made working together interesting," commented the Ranger, dryly.

  "But she wasn't a pit bull, out to get me. I could feel that about her. She's too deeply rooted in good old-fashioned common sense. She has to see to believe,

and even then she has to be sure of the empirical results. She's a scientist, and a skeptical scientist, an investigator who doesn't like the ambiguous."

   C.D. nodded. "No really good investigator's ever happy with a paradox, son."

  "She's also older than me in many ways," Mulder went on, as if he hadn't heard, "although I'm sure I'm ten or twelve calendar years older than she is. Scully has

a worldliness I never learned; she's at ease in all kinds of social situations and in relationships on levels I can't even identify, let alone react to. It's the biggest difference between us, but I think it's my fault. I always kept to myself. I worked hard, studied hard, put everything into being the best I could be at what I was doing. It seemed safer that way."

   Father Christmas' alter ego coughed gently. "Safer than caring about someone, so if they left you behind it wouldn't hurt so much?"

   Mulder, surprised at the insight, nodded. "So now I've known her nearly two years, and sometimes I want very much to explore that side of her I shut off at

first, and I can't bring myself to do it. It would disrupt everything we've built, working together; it would damage my trust in her, and hers in me."

   The older man said nothing, and in a moment, Mulder added, "I can't help looking at her, seeing how graceful and powerful she is; I can't not notice her face or figure, the way she all but shines with a kind of sexiness I never expected I'd be close to."

   He sighed softly, taking a breath. "But there's more to her importance to me than that. I'm not romantically inclined toward Scully. But I think ... I'm afraid to

say this even to myself. In a way beyond sexual attraction, even beyond those romantic daydreams we all have sometimes, I think ... I may love her."

   C.D. chuckled. "You'd be a damn fool if you didn't. That's what makes partnerships work. You love each other -- even when you're fighting like cats and dogs, nobody from outside better mess with either one of you, or they'll have both of you to whip.  "It's a law of nature, son. It's how a man has to feel about the person across the seat from him in a stakeout, or he'll never have a minute's peace. He won't be able to trust his partner to watch his back, and he won't want to watch his partner's back."

   The older man paused. "Now, the rules are a little different. There used to be work, and home, or at least off-duty, where we saw women. That's where we thought about romance, or looking for someone we could spend a lifetime with. Now it's harder, because we're exposed to people at work that we may want to spend a night with, or a lifetime with, outside the office. We may want to take off more than the badges we wear, sometimes, son, and that's all right.

  "Except you have to decide whether you're willing to give up your partnership for that ... you have to decide whether you're ready to let your emotions take over from your common sense. If it works out, there's no tighter team; there's nothing different between a really good partnership and a really good marriage.  But a bad match in either can make you so miserable dying looks like fun."

  "I know," Mulder said. "I saw my parents go through that, after my sister ..."

   C.D. had taken the exit for the Stockyards. Now he turned and looked at Mulder. The younger man, meeting that steady regard, saw nothing but an interest and an

empathy in those distant blue-gray eyes. "What happened to your sister?"

  "We don't really know," Mulder answered. "I believe I saw her taken from our home by an alien craft of some kind, but I'm the only one who believes that. I'm the only witness to that few seconds. I was supposed to be watching her while my parents were out; she and I got into a disagreement and I said one of those

stupid things kids say, like I wish you'd just disappear -- and she did."

   He sighed. "My parents were frantic. They were very concerned, very upset. They were, oddly enough, not angry with me -- at least, not directly. Later the anger tore through our whole relationship, dissolved all the bonds an ordinary family shares.

 We came to be worse than strangers; the distrust, the anger, the hostility went beyond anything a civil coexistence could withstand.

We were alienated, separated, made enemies."

   The older man was silent for a long time. Presently Mulder realized that he had drifted off, himself, into thoughts of the past and its effects on his family, the fragmentation of his life after his sister disappeared.

"We never found a trace of her."

  "Anywhere?"

  "No."

  "Then at least you know this much: chances are she's alive somewhere." C.D. made another unconsciously graceful turn.

  "How do you draw that conclusion?" Mulder asked.

  "You can feel it inside you when someone dies," C.D. said. "It's not

 mysticism. It's not rocket science. It's the connection each one of us has to the people we care about, son. Your sister -- do you think you'll find her, or do you expect someone to stumble on her remains someday?"

  "I hope I'll find her," Mulder said. "It's the thing that made me interested in law enforcement in the first place. I wanted to be able to look for her. I wanted to have the tools, the technology, the best access to information from all over the country, all over the world. I wanted  to find her."

  "You believe she's alive, then," C.D. said. "What about your partner?"

   Fox Mulder closed his eyes and let out his breath, long and slow and faint.

 He leaned back against the seat, looking utterly exhausted. "I'm afraid ..."

  "Don't be afraid, son," C.D. said. "She's out there somewhere. If it's

humanly possible to find her and bring her back to you, Jimmy and Cordell

and I will help do it. You're not in Washington anymore. The technology

and the information that make everything happen there aren't worth a pitcher of warm spit out here. But there's something else that is, and that's something you have plenty of too -- people who care."

   Mulder turned and looked at him then, really surprised. "Thank you."

  "Son," C.D. said softly, "This is important. The lady I saw this morning may or may not be the lady you're thinking of. Tell me what your heart says.

 Does your heart tell you -- can you feel it in your bones, that your partner's

 alive, somewhere?"

   Mulder shook his head. "I've never tried to follow that route," he began

   The dangerously competent Father Christmas cut him off. "Try now."

   Mulder leaned against the headrest. "There's no feeling either way."

  "Concentrate," C.D. said, almost hypnotically. "Close your eyes. Breathe deep; think about your breathing, son. Don't think on a conscious level. Make your mind a warm soft darkness."

   Mulder, in spite of himself, tried to obey. He made himself breathe, slowly and deeply, made himself relax, made himself listen to the gentle rhythm of the older man's voice.

  "Reach out, son," C.D. said. "Listen with your heart. Listen for her, calling your name, telling you where to find her, telling you where she is, telling you what's happening around her."

   Mulder sat bolt upright in the seat, his green eyes wide, a look close to panic on his face. "She's alive," he said, firmly. He said it as a man says a fact he's verified for himself, a rock-solid object rather than the shadow of a belief. This time he wasn't talking about something he wanted to believe. This time he knew. "She's alive ... but she's not all right. Not even close."

  "What do you hear, son?"

   Mulder stared, unseeing, past the older man. "They've got her," he said, in a voice broken with sobbing. "She's afraid ... and she's  in pain ... and they're taking her away ..."

   C.D. took his right hand off the wheel and gripped Mulder's shoulder.

 "Hang on. We'll find her."

   The younger man appeared to return to consciousness from a great distance,

with tremendous effort. For the second time that day C.D. found himself procuring a handkerchief and offering it to a colleague. He didn't look directly at the FBI agent, but he found himself revising, once more, his estimate of the man beside him. This one wasn't as good as Duane Barry had been, wasn't as good as Jimmy Trivette was becoming, C.D. decided. This Fox Mulder was better than either ... almost as good as Cordell Walker.

   And that, C.D. knew, was who they needed now. He wished there had been

more time, wished he could worry first about whatever had been eating Cordell's heart out, thought fleetingly that he ought to wish for Alex's help. The time for all those things had run out, he knew. With a concentration so fierce and so automatic that he didn't even realize he had engaged it, the semi-retired Texas Ranger swung his vehicle onto the most direct route back to the last place he'd seen Cordell Walker.

Washington, D.C.

5:50 p.m. Eastern Standard Time

   Assistant Director Walter Skinner glanced at the darkening sky. He had put in more than twelve hours already, and by the look of things he was four or five more hours from the end of his day's work. He picked himself up out of his chair and headed for the door of his office, thinking ruefully that he should put on his coat and at least go out for a real meal. He couldn't count the number of times he'd made the choices from the vending machines all three of his meals for a day, or even a week, at a time. He wondered where Mulder was, and what the younger man had found there. The Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex was half a continent away, and among the millions of residents it numbered a healthy contingent of federal agents.

   Skinner had connections with representatives of a dozen branches of the government there. Not a one of his contacts had picked up Mulder's presence. He sighed, deciding on an orange soda and a ham-and-cheese sandwich, with sour cream and onion potato chips for variety's sake. The meticulous training of his

youth prevented him from bagging his purchases and heading back to his office, although he knew before he left the building he'd probably fire up the four-cup coffeemaker he kept upstairs. He disliked making the trip to the deserted cafeteria for every cup of coffee he wanted after 8 p.m.

   Skinner chose the smallest table in the room; he had walls at his back and on his left that way, and despite the loneliness of the situation he took a combat veteran's comfort in knowing his back was covered.

 He'd stopped thinking of such things consciously ... what, thirty-five years ago? ... not long into his first year in Viet Nam, anyhow. It became a habit, this constant awareness of personal security, and then the habit sublimated as an instinct that provoked unreasonable, almost dissociative, discomfort whenever he acted against it.

   He didn't sleep with a firearm under his pillow, although he knew men who had learned that habit in Viet Nam and, presumably, still maintained it. His weapon, however, was never beyond his easy reach -- and keeping it that way was as much a part of his trained subconsciousness as hating to have to sit with a door or window behind him.

   Two or three other workers were sitting at tables around the area, some of them talking desultorily; one or two were working through their breaks, reading documents as they finished meals or snacks they probably couldn't have identified if asked.

   He had done that himself, years ago, but then he'd discovered that by consciously leaving his office behind and forcing himself to concentrate on choosing and consuming his food, he rested his mind and worked more efficiently afterward.

    Walter Skinner was not one of the legendary AD's who kept rolled sleeping bags and spare shirts in their coat closets, but he had met them. He had outlasted them.

   The beeper on his belt agitated its shell against his waist. Skinner sighed as he looked at the device. Ordinarily he would have used its voice mode, but he had left his office, and his purpose in doing that had been to get all the way away from the

puzzles and paradoxes over which he had been stewing all day.

   Now it offered him only a callback number ... 817 555 3441.

   Acting out of another habit he'd forgotten he'd acquired, he turned his emptied chip bag inside out, folded it neatly into a half-inch-wide flat roll, and tucked that into his empty orange soda can. Half his sandwich lay untouched, and it was a measure of the call's import that he wrapped it into a paper napkin and pocketed the bundle, dropping the can into a recycling container as he left the room. No trace of his presence remained behind.

   When he unlocked his office door and stepped inside he grimaced. The odor of cigarette smoke assaulted him; sitting in his chair, behind his desk, was the nameless man with whom he had recently had a confrontation regarding Agent Mulder and the X-files -- a confrontation in which he had ordered this man out of his office.

  "What are you doing here?" Skinner asked. It would be pointless to ask how the man gained access; experience told Skinner that the way to get rid of his unwelcome visitor most efficiently was to let him have his say.

"You have an agent in Fort Worth," the man answered, stabbing his cigarette into an ashtray. Four others, each less than half consumed, already lay there. Skinner stood perfectly still and said nothing. "He is not authorized to be there, Assistant Director."

   "What agent are you talking about?" Skinner asked. "I've got over three hundred agents in Texas at the moment. Our ordinary complement of permanent personnel has been swamped with the repercussions of the fraudulent savings and loan networks operating there, not to mention the aftermath of that most unfortunate event outside Waco."

  "No," the smoker said tightly. "I said an unauthorized agent. Mulder."

  "Mulder's on leave," Skinner said. "It's a disciplinary matter. He's on unpaid leave for the next ten days. I told him to get some rest before he destroyed his health."

   The man behind another  cigarette regarded Skinner coldly.

"We were not apprised."

  "A routine disciplinary matter is confidential. I'm sure you're aware of the paperwork," Skinner said, controlling his urge to smash the smoker and his ashtray against a wall. "It's in my filing cabinet."

   The smoker looked vaguely amused. "I've seen it." He blew out a plume of cancerous vapors. "Ten days ... do you regard that as a sufficient ... discipline, Assistant Director?"

  "I do," Skinner said. "Now if you'll excuse me, I'm working on other matters. Agent Mulder's whereabouts are not my concern so long as he returns from his leave on time.  I have no idea what he's doing in Dallas, nor any interest in finding out."

  "Fort Worth," the smoker answered casually. "Evidently he's made no contact with the Bureau."

  "You're keeping my agents under surveillance?" Skinner said, in a dangerously quiet voice.

  "A matter of routine," replied the smoker. "With agents from your bureau and other agencies. We keep an eye on a lot of people, Assistant Director. As many as give us reason to believe we need to."

  "As I said," Skinner replied indirectly, "I'm working on several other matters at the moment. But this will not go unnoticed."

  "Yes, it will, though not by your choice, perhaps," the smoker said idly. "Well ... do you want us to deal with this rogue agent of yours now, or do you want to have to repair the damages along the swath he's cutting through Texas?"

  "You said he had not made contact with anyone," Skinner replied evenly.

  "Yet," the smoker said, stubbing out his cigarette. "But it's only a matter of time. Only a matter of time until your decision making is no longer relevant to our actions."

  "Then stop wasting my time," Skinner said. "Get out of my chair and get out of my office."

   The smoker smiled, leaning back. He looked utterly world-weary. "I suppose you're about to threaten me by saying you'll have security remove me."

   Skinner grinned tightly. "Don't be naive. No one knows you're here except you and me. I don't need security ... but you might."

  "You shouldn't say things you're likely to regret later," cautioned the smoker.

  "It's not my habit," Skinner assured him. "Now, are you going to leave under your own power, or would you like me to assist you?"

   The smoking man rose from the chair with something languid in his manner. "I choose to leave."

   Skinner opened the door, saying nothing else. Once the man with the cigarette habit  had departed, he picked up the ashtray from his desk, walked out into the hallway and down to the men's room, and slammed the whole thing into the trash can there.

Washing his hands, he walked back to his office and pulled his door shut behind him. He picked up his telephone and dialed the number he had memorized from the pager display. A voice on the other end answered with an interrogative, "Hello?"

   Skinner took a deep breath, pressed a button on the top of his telephone's display board, and said, "You paged me."

  "Yes," the voice answered. "I did. Having a terrible time. Wish you were here."

   Skinner glanced at his watch. "It's too late to get a flight."

  "Try to join me tomorrow, then," the female voice on the other end of the connection replied. "Please. I miss you."

  "I'll do my best," the assistant director said. "But it's very short notice. It might have to be another day before I can leave. I'm ... in the middle of something."

   The female voice answered, "Well, I might just come home early. This would have been a wonderful trip with you. Without you ... I'm not enjoying anything."

  "I’m sorry," Skinner said, sounding as though he meant it.

"I'll call you as soon as I can."

  "Thank you," the voice answered. "I'll look for you tomorrow.

`Til then, good night."

  "Good night," and he clicked his receiver into its cradle.

   He gathered half a dozen folders from a locked drawer, relocked it, pulled on his suit coat and left his office, locking the door behind him. He walked down the hall to an office with a completely unmarked door, tapped a knuckle against a panel, and waited.

  "Mr. Skinner," said a voice, quiet and welcoming, from beyond the expanse of a desk that could not have fit in Skinner's office, "What can I do for you, this evening?"

  "Sir," the assistant director answered, speaking to the shadowed form beyond the xenon desk lamp, "I'm afraid there may be a ... situation ... building up in Fort Worth."

  "Then handle it, Mr. Skinner. Leave the rest of that flotsam on the table and go. Do you need a charter?" the shadowy figure's voice held no trace of anything but civilly-reserved approval.

  "I don't think so," the assistant director said. "My friend made no mention of red eyes."

   A chuckle from beyond the lamp, subdued and genuine. "Mr. Skinner, I congratulate you. I'm very impressed with your handling of the security breach in your office. I can't promise you won't be bothered again, but I believe I can prevent you from being unduly harassed in the future. I don't know if I can continue to protect Mr. Mulder, or Ms. Scully, should her whereabouts be ascertained. It is most unfortunate that we lost our regular mutual friend, in whom both of them had developed a certain confidence ... But perhaps I can find someone who can help all of us, although it may take me some time to make the arrangements. Do you require anything else this evening?"

  "No sir," Skinner said.

  "I commend you on your fitness," the voice said. "Please take care of yourself in the field, Mr. Skinner. It would not only be most embarrassing for your superiors should something untoward befall you. It would cause me a great deal of personal distress."

   Skinner barely kept his mouth from falling open, and said only, "Thank you sir."

  "And Walter," the voice said, "remember that we were not publicly fortunate the last time we intervened in a ... situation ... in Texas. It would be excellent if you could avoid another spectacular debacle. The Attorney General would doubtless prefer that the remainder of her tenure be notable for its lack of media-blitzed embarrassments. Remember the Alamo, Mr. Skinner. From the bitterest ashes of defeat may be born the most glorious phoenix of victory. In time, Waco may be seen in the same light."

   Skinner couldn't help wondering how the Mexicans viewed the Alamo, but refrained from saying anything out loud.  "I will be in touch."

  "Please," the voice beyond the light said. "But remember that you have excellent judgment of your own, and don't be afraid to use it." One last soft chuckle. "I'm trusting you."

   Stunned, the assistant director merely nodded and turned to leave. He had not expected anything like this overwhelming show of confidence and approval when he'd made the decision to walk into this office a few minutes ago. He wondered, now, what he would have said if he'd received the reaction he expected -- a

brush-off so quick and thorough as to indicate irritation -- instead of the confirmation of his conclusions.

   He didn't even stop at his office. He drove directly to Dulles International and, using his car phone, booked a flight for Dallas, leaving in two hours. Then he phoned the number from his beeper again.

  "Hello?"

   Skinner said, "I'm on my way. Um -- can you meet my plane? I didn't even take time to pack."

   The female answered, "My pleasure. What flight?"

   Skinner gave the number and expected ETA, and the voice said,

"Absolutely. No problem."

6:30 p.m. CST

The Stockyards, Fort Worth, Texas

   " ...I think," C.D. was saying. Cordell Walker pushed aside his coffee cup and turned to look at Fox Mulder. Another man might have discounted C.D.'s account of Mulder's relaying impressions of what was happening to his partner, but Walker came from a different world. In Walker's reality visions flew on the wings of eagles, and great distances dimmed to sparks flying upward from a fire.

   In the world Walker had grown up in Fox Mulder's feelings and experiences, and ability to speak of them, meshed perfectly into ordinary, everyday society.

   Cordell Walker's history, however, didn't end in the world where he'd grown up; there had been the years in Viet Nam, and the years since then, first rebuilding his life and then becoming a Texas Ranger. Now he felt, at last, that he'd reached the

pinnacle of his desire: he was a Sergeant in the Rangers, assigned not to Headquarters company in Austin where the politics got in the way of the work or to the Frontier Company in El Paso, where the work revolved around drugs, but to Company B, headquartered in Dallas/Fort Worth.

   Cordell Walker worked out of the Tarrant County Court House; his pleasure in his assignment lay in what it allowed him to do when he wasn't working, as much as in the variability and importance of his job: he lived on a ranch not far away, and his family was within easy driving distance.

   The Assistant District Attorney with whom he worked most often was Alex Cahill -- and her capability and loveliness had added tremendously to the friendship they had developed through the course of working together, although not without initial difficulties. In Mulder he saw himself, somewhat, for here was a man faced with the loss of someone about whom he cared and in whom he trusted. It was not the first such loss, but because the others were losses Mulder had had no power to recoup -- the disappearance of his sister, the breakup of his family afterward -- this loss hit the young man particularly hard, Walker divined.

   Earlier he'd looked at this young man -- in so many ways little more than a boy, really -- and been pleased with what he saw. But it had been a cursory sort of  look, a quick passing introduction.

   Now Walker studied Fox Mulder with the eyes of a Ranger, took note of the exhaustion lurking behind the green eyes, the sadness mixed with anxiety in the young man's stance, observed the bitter awareness of his inability to discover and retrieve Scully, instantly, in Mulder's battered spirit.

   Mulder hadn't been hurt as much by what happened to his partner -- being realistic, every law enforcement officer faced the possibility of being taken hostage, and most of them preferred to think of themselves in those terms, because of their training and knowledge of their own potential ability to turn the situation against their captors, than to think of helpless civilians, especially women or children, as hostages -- as by his own continuous demand of himself that he solve this case, that he find and free his partner.

   It was a feeling Walker had known more than once in his life. He'd seen his partner kidnapped; his friend C.D. taken hostage; and Alex Cahill held against her will, unable to communicate with him in any way. But he'd felt inside his spirit that Alex was a prisoner in the compound a pseudo-Messiah had built for himself,

and Cordell Walker had followed that feeling to Alex, eventually freeing her.

   He remembered that night -- and Alex's astonishing reaction when he'd finally reached her, and he knew in his spirit that the same thing lay ahead of Mulder. He couldn't see the path; the murkiness of the way to that victory convinced him it would be long, difficult, and dangerous. But the light at the end of it convinced him he had an obligation to tell Mulder not to give up.

  "It's going to be all right," Walker said firmly. "Tell me what you felt, when you were with her."

   Mulder looked at him in turn. So no-nonsense in appearance, so nearly brusque in speech, the man gave absolutely no outward sign of the sensitivity his voice held.

   Nothing about his looks said that Walker might be a believer in anything he couldn't see with his own eyes, or hold in his own hands ... and then Mulder caught the flashes: the soldier, in the jungles a lifetime ago, trying to save a child in the midst of a mortar attack ... the eagle, soaring free above the Texas wilderness, showing Walker where to find a missing man who needed him so badly; the belief that became knowledge about where Alex Cahill was and how to set her free ... and Fox Mulder believed, at least for an instant, that he could find help here.

  "She's cold," Mulder said, and his voice grew soft, distant, as though it were not his but another's. "So very cold, almost like being underwater. There's light. There's sound. Figures ... green figures with ... half a face ... eyes. They're all watching ... "He broke off, shuddering.

    Walker, with none of the awkwardness that another man might have showed, reached out and put a hand on Mulder's shoulder. He cupped his other hand and lifted the FBI agent's chin with it, as he might have done for a child distressed.

  "Fox," he said, "Listen to me."

   Mulder started to open his mouth, started to protest against the use of the name he hated, and then let it go as the Ranger drawled, quietly, onward.

  "I can't see her," Walker said. "I can't feel her. I don't know her. But you can see. You can feel. You can hear. You know her. She's a part of your life, Fox. She's alive inside your heart; she walks with your spirit and lives in your soul. You can't find her, because you're so close."

   The truth of it hit Mulder hard. "Too close to see what's outside, what's nearby."

   Walker nodded, and a sparkle of something undefinable began to glow in his strikingly dark eyes. "I can't find her because I don't know where to look. I don't have a link to her spirit. But you do, and between us we will find her. I promise you that."

   Mulder, and for a moment, felt like a child again, taking comfort from the promise. "Okay. Tell me what to do."

  "You aren't going to like this," Walker warned.

 Mulder's eyes widened. "You're not sending me away."

  "No," Walker said, and sighed. "I'm asking you to do something much harder. Wait. Rest. Keep your mind open, listen with your heart. Let us do the work. It's like a game, where we're looking for something you've hidden, and you're telling us whether we're getting warmer or colder."

  "You're right. I don't like that at all," Mulder said. "I can't do that."

  "You have to," C.D. said. "I saw that little lady this morning, son. I'll never forget how she looked when she called your name. Let Jimmy work the magic of his computers; let me call old favors in to run down the leads, and let Cordell do the tracking. We can do those things for you. What we can't do is cross the River Jordan to your partner."

   "It's not Jordan," Mulder said. "It's too wide. Like a lake."

  "See?" chided the grey-eyed Ranger. "We can't see it. You have to tell us where to look."

   Jimmy Trivette repeated softly, "Like a lake?"

   Mulder nodded, wondering whether to feel elated or miserable.  He settled for disbelieving. "But how does all this connect with that armed aircraft?"

  "The troopers think they hit it," Trivette said quietly.

  "You didn't say that before," Walker said, his interest sharpening. "Do you know whether they think they did enough damage to force it down?"

  "I don't know," Trivette said. "But I'll find out."

  "Cordell," C.D. said. "Do you remember a year or so ago, when the cattle were dying and the woman from out in Ellis County called in a UFO report?"

  "I remember," Walker almost groaned. "It was a con  job, C.D.  The guys she saw were in a helicopter and a semi truck, wearing chemical protection suits ... "

    "They're back," C.D. beamed, nodding. "Or somebody just like `em. She called and asked for you especially, since you were so nice to her before and didn't tell her she was just a crazy old lady seeing things in the night."

  "Wasn't she out toward Maypearl?" Jimmy asked.

  "Closer to Venus," C.D. answered. "The federal government was trying to run her off her land to put in that super conducting super collider thing, before they ran out of money and decided not to build it."

  "But the government had the land. They'd started building the tunnel," Mulder remembered out loud. "It seemed especially foolish to me that they would vote to discontinue funding for a project that was almost a third of the way to completion."

  "So is anything going on out there now?" C.D. asked.

  "The federal government is transferring the land and improvements back to state control," Mulder said. "I seem to remember reading that the process should be completed around the first of the year."

  "There've been a lot of reports of flying saucers out there,"

Jimmy said, "not a flurry, exactly. But several people -- a deputy sheriff and a couple of EMT personnel -- talked about aircraft that didn't exactly behave like aircraft normally do.  And if that's still under federal control, it's probably a

restricted area."

  "Except if you live on the other side of the barbwire fence around the back," C.D. said.

  "Or," Mulder said suddenly, "if you're flying in and out of there with a stealth helicopter."

  "Which would be an aircraft that didn't exactly behave normally," Jimmy noted.

   Walker looked Mulder in the eye. "What do you feel? Can you tell if she's there?"

  "She didn't know where she was," Mulder said.

   C.D. picked up his hat. "Cordell, there are lakes all over that part of the country. Everything from Granbury on the Brazos to Belton and Joe Pool, on Walnut Creek..."

  "Yeah," Walker said. "I know."

   A spectacular sunset flared as they sped down I-35, heading south and east. Mulder couldn't quite believe how quickly the Stockyards' rustic aura had faded into downtown, and then Fort Worth's urban jungle had given way to this rolling countryside speckled with colorful trees proclaiming the change of seasons.

It was a long way, he mused, from the barren weather of Washington, D.C.

   Mulder buckled himself into the front seat of the big Dodge Cordell Walker drove. The truck's gray color blended into the night as effectively as anything Mulder had ever seen; it wasn't exactly camouflage, but it was just as good.

   He glanced across at the driver: intent on the road, Walker looked businesslike, almost grim. Mulder remembered, as they sped into the ultramarine night, the expression on the oldest Ranger's face and the seriousness of his voice.

  "You go with Cordell, son," C.D. had said. "We'll find out everything we can and I'll keep y'all posted."

9:45 p.m. Eastern Standard Time

Atlanta International Airport

  "Assistant Director Skinner," said a voice in his ear, and Walter Skinner turned, startled. But the man in the aisle of the plane looked like any airline public

relations specialist: dressed neatly without distinction, a pleasant if unmemorable visage, a helpful, but not intimate, manner. "Would you come with me, please?"

   The man carried no weapons.

  "Something I can do for you?" Skinner asked.

  "I'm sorry, sir, there's an urgent call and we can't put it through the plane's system. Too much interference from the various kinds of radar around the airfield. I assure you it won't interfere with your flight. Please come with me, it's just off the ramp."

  "Sure," Skinner said, but something in the back of his mind kept him from following the young man too closely. He checked the edges of the debarking ramp as he stepped onto Atlanta's welcoming carpet.

  "Right here, sir, " the man held out a receiver.

   Skinner noted with surprise that it wasn't a courtesy phone as he said briefly, "Skinner.".

  "Turn around. Go back," the female voice said urgently. "They've found her, moved her from our site. She's in transit now. I'm discovered. Go back or your

cover will cease to exist ..."

   He heard the noise of a silenced pistol and hung up. He turned to the man from the airline. "Something's come up and I'll have to return to my office as soon as possible. Can you help me change my ticket?"   

  "Certainly, sir. Just step over here, and we can have you on your way in a few minutes ...."The rest of the pleasant young man's spiel went right over his head.

   Skinner cursed quietly inside his mind for several seconds. The woman in Dallas had been more than a colleague -- she'd been a trusted friend.

   He knew how Mulder must be feeling...except that Mulder wasn't in imminent, life-threatening danger.

Mulder's identity was known to both sides in this charade, Skinner thought bitterly, and that gave Mulder a protection he didn't even realize he had. But Skinner would not trade his own intact covert status for the tenuous security of a notoriety like Mulder's. Not yet.

   If the day came when that alternative appealed to him, he knew, he would be unfit to continue in this particular assignment.

  "Damn," Skinner murmured, taking up his replacement tickets and walking, practically on autopilot, toward the gate where the plane to D.C. would board. "I wonder how they got onto her ..."

   On the far end of the phone he'd hung up, a limp hand released a black receiver. It fell beside a lifeless, and no longer beautiful, form: a woman of exceptionally well-proportioned features now lay in a pool of blood spreading beneath her long brunette hair. As the black trenchcoat of her killer flapped briefly above her ravaged body, the woman's hand convulsed. Her thumb landed across the receiver's cutoff button.

   The killer exited the room at a quick pace. A pretty black nurse, who really did work at Parkland's CCU, had stopped outside the apartment complex. She was on her way to deliver a purse, accidentally left at work, to the woman who'd filled in for one of Parkland's regulars who had phoned in sick the night before. Her eye had been attracted to the strangely dressed woman hurrying away from the apartment building.

   Was that a gun the stranger was carrying? The nurse almost automatically made a note of what kind of car she had; the streetlights prevented her from copying

down the license number, but she managed to get the first two and last characters. She shrugged her shoulders, wondering why she bothered; it was probably

just an automatic reaction to seeing so many women in the trauma emergency room.

   She locked her car and headed up the steps, carrying the purse securely under one arm. The address had specified an apartment number, and when she got there she was glad to see the door ajar. That would make this awkward business easier, she thought, and called out the woman's name.

   When no one answered she reached up to knock. The door slowly swung open on the combined living/eating area of the compact residence ... and when she saw the

phone in the floor and the obviously fatally wounded figure beside it, the nurse gave in to her instincts and began to scream.

   Not long after that police arrived. The nurse told them what she had found, what she had seen on her way to this accursed place, and how she had somehow sensed

menace emanating from the departing figure. No, she didn't know if she were related to the slain woman; no, she didn't know what she might have been doing here.

But she had left hurrying, apparently trying to avoid attracting attention, and the nurse was sure she'd been carrying a gun.

   Fifteen minutes later, Jimmy Trivette looked up to see C.D. Parker's ordinarily genial expression turn hard and stressed. "Well, thank you, Captain. Yes, I'll tell Jimmy she's asking for him. You bet. We'll be right there."

  "What?" Trivette asked, as the older man terminated a telephone conversation.

  "Do you know Sharla Williams?" C.D. asked.

  "Sure, she's that foxy floor nurse at Parkland CCU," Jimmy said instantly. "I don't exactly know her, but I've asked her out a couple of times." He grinned briefly. "I figure one or two more cases where I'm up there half a night and all the next day and she'll quit turning me down. Why?"

  "There's been a killing. She found the body, and the police are trying to question her. She keeps asking for you," C.D. said.

   Jimmy leaped to his feet, grabbing his silver-belly Stetson. "Let's go."

   At that very moment a young man in Irving was telephoning police to report something very strange. "I was driving home over the Trinity River bridge, and the

vehicle ahead of me pulled into the wrong lane. There wasn't any traffic, or he'd have had a headon with somebody, but the guy driving threw a gun out his window, into the river. Yeah, I'm sure it was a handgun, I think a small automatic; it was silver and I got a really good look when it arced.  I don't know, gosh I hope he didn't see me; I was almost half a block behind him. Yeah, the license plate was ...."

9:48 p.m. C.S.T.

Outside Waxahachie, Texas

   Fox Mulder felt the pickup dropping speed. He glanced warily at the driver. They appeared to be in the middle of nowhere.

   Cordell Walker had let his mind run far afield as he drove; he'd kept his conscious thoughts close to the problem of finding Mulder's partner, or at least coming as close as possible, but something else had been nagging at him underneath.

   How was he going to get out of this promotion to Captain? How was he going to hang onto his life? Years of mortal danger had unreeled in his subconscious; nowhere in the lessons he'd learned from fighting with other boys in school, fighting beside other young men in Viet Nam, or out on his own in other jungles contaminated by that unholy war, had offered him a whisper of  hope. Nothing in the rebuilding of his life since his return from the jungle seemed apt; even the work he'd done with Alex and Jimmy and C.D. left him bereft of ideas.

  "Mulder," he said suddenly.

   Mulder, startled, said, "Yeah?"

  "Anybody ever offer you a promotion you really didn't want?"

   Mulder chuckled. "You mean, upwards or sideways?"

  "I don't understand," Walker responded, turning onto a much smaller blacktop road. The big Dodge hummed eagerly through the night, following the twin halogen beams of its headlights unerringly; Mulder wondered vaguely where they might be going, but didn't ask.

  "I've been in the Bureau long enough to earn one promotion I really wanted," Mulder answered. "I got the chance to leave a branch of the service and choose my

own assignments. I chose the ones most other agents wouldn't go near, the weird cases. Things with hints of paranormal activity, possible involvement of forces or

beings from an extraterrestrial origin, stuff nobody could explain. Then, after a little over a year, I was promoted sideways. My whole area was shut down. I went to work for higher pay, but in worthless scenarios; routine wiretap listening posts, transcribing banal conversations between suspects. It was a kind of punishment, I felt."

  "Mmm," Walker said. "What'd you do?"

  "I'm still doing it," Mulder answered. "My immediate superior has reopened my cases, given me back my division. I'm not sure why. I think it's because of his

conviction that I'm right about what happened to my partner. Somehow, somewhere, someone in the government is manipulating evidence, hiding the truth. Assistant Director Skinner seems to think I deserve a chance to find out who it is, and what they're hiding. He's come to that conclusion partly as a result of what happened to my partner. She was taken from her home by a former Special Agent. Your friend C.D. seems to have known him. His name was Duane Barry."

  "I met him," Walker allowed. "Smart kid. Couldn't fight his way out of a wet paper bag ... do they still teach y'all the same system of self-defense?"

  "It seems to be pretty effective for other agents,"

Mulder said. "But something prevents me from mastering it. It's getting to a point where the Bureau armorer hates to see me walk into his office; I've lost or damaged enough weapons to cause him real trouble, not to mention the health insurance costs I've incurred."

   Walker looked at him and grinned faintly. "You sound as if it doesn't bother you."

  "It doesn't," Mulder answered. "So long as I'm not killed outright I still have my work. I want my partner back; I feel very strongly that it's because of me that

she's in danger now. I should have been the one they took, you know. But whoever's in charge of all this knows that I'd be fundamentally more seriously deterred, more badly hurt, this way."

  "Mmm," Walker repeated. "Tell me about your partner -- before this incident began."

  "Agent Dana Scully is a forensic scientist," Mulder began, in the monotone a tour guide might lapse into after fifty trips through the same city describing the same sights to similarly clueless tourists.

  "No," Walker said. His voice was low, soft, yet powerful. Something in the way he used that sound electrified Mulder. "I don't want the agency's curriculum vitae. I don't want the nickel tour. Tell me about your partner, Mulder."

  "Scully," he said instantly. "She's amazing. I've never met another woman quite like her."

  "That's what I gathered," Walker said. "I've seen a photograph, from the missing persons file. She's an attractive young woman. Isn't it difficult working close to her all the time and not ... having trouble maintaining a professional detachment?"

  "No," Mulder said. "I've stopped trying to maintain a professional detachment. She's ... my partner, like Trivette's yours, I suppose. It's a different kind of affection, a different kind of bond. But your friend C.D. is right. It's a sort of love all its own. I can't imagine going on without her."

  "I don't think you'll have to," Walker said. "I can't promise to put her in your hands right away.

You'd know better than to believe it if I did.?"

   Mulder laughed bitterly. "We're all on the same team here, aren't we? We all know the rules. We've all seen how ugly losses can be. What makes you think this time is different?"

  "I don't know," Walker said softly. "I've seen a badger protect a fawn from vultures and wolves, Mulder.

I've seen a bear chase coyotes and snakes away from a calf and a colt. I can't explain those things either. I just don't take anything for granted any more."

  "I stopped doing that a long time ago," Mulder said.

  "So how'd you get out of the promotion you didn't want?"

  "I left my post," Mulder answered briefly. "I back talked my superiors. In general, I kicked up so much fertilizer they sent me back where I wanted to be to shut me up."

   Walker grinned. "That," he said softly, "sounds like a great idea." Presently a house appeared, across a wide yard. A farm dog bellowed from the porch. The truck stopped. Walker glanced over at Mulder and grinned conspiratorially.

  "You're about to meet a lady who believes she's seen flying saucers land in her back pasture. I've never tried to talk her out of that, although I know what she

really saw, and so does Trivette. Sometimes, it's easier to let people believe."

  "I know what you mean," Mulder said.

  "For right now, come with me and let me do the talking. I may want you to tell me what you think later, but the important thing is that I want someone else along to make note of all the details. This lady's not very young, and a lot of investigators would write her off as a loony old lady who sees things in the dark because she's been out here alone too long. They'd be wrong," the Ranger finished sternly.

   Mulder nodded, disengaging himself from the seatbelt. Walker dropped lightly to the ground -- a feat Mulder found impressive primarily because he himself considered the distance an awkward step. Both doors of the big gray Dodge slammed as one.

   On the porch, a portly, grandmotherly figure greeted them from behind a shotgun held at port arms, with a familiar ease that spoke of long acquaintance. "Who's out there?"

  "Texas Rangers," Cordell Walker said in his friendliest voice. "You called about a flying saucer?"

  "Ranger Walker," the woman said. The shotgun went to rest; the woman shushed the dog with some inaudible, to Mulder, phrase. "I didn't expect they'd send you out.

That whippersnapper on the phone sounded like he thought I belonged in an old folks' home."

  "I'm sorry about that, ma'am," Walker said easily.

"Could you tell us what it was you saw?"

  "Well, no," the old woman said, "not half so well as you can see for yourselves, if you'll come look out the back." She gestured for them to follow her and walked into her house.

   Walker glanced at Mulder, who had hesitated. "It's all right. The dog knows she wants us inside."

  "It's not the dog I'm worried about," Mulder said softly. But he followed the Ranger's businesslike stride in spite of his doubts. How, or if, this connected with Scully he still couldn't imagine.

   The woman's house was spotless; handmade crochet doilies covered every flat surface except the keyboard of an ancient piano. The worn linoleum floor gleamed in the lights she turned on in the living room as she led the way toward the back of the house.

   Mulder noted the almost painfully well-kept appearance of the place: photographs, some hand-tinted, dating back to the Second World War, and some beyond; furniture, ornate enough to be antique and battered enough to see everyday use, scattered in comfortable arrangements through the house.

   The kitchen had a wraparound window looking out onto a vast expanse of..Mulder swallowed hard. Lights.  Eerily powerful xenon and halogen lights, clustered about vehicles. He recognized humvees from a previous experience with military security vehicles.

   Under and between the lights, white-suited figures.

Some of them were working, frantically, around one of the biggest and least well-defined of the vehicles.  Mulder made out the shape of an airframe and the shadowy hint of huge twin rotors, nothing more; strobe lights, in red and green and white, began to alternate brilliantly across the distant scene.

   He realized that the woman's house must be several miles from the lights.

  "How ..." he began in a quietly puzzled voice.

   Walker raised a hand to silence him. "They must be on the SSC reserve."

  "You cain't see my fence," the woman complained. "I don't know if they're on the government land or in my pasture. They've been comin' here every night for a week, ever since that thing landed. It's still there in the daylight, too. Looks like a big mirror. I don't know what it is. But they brought another one in here last night, and they've been scurryin' around like ants the hill's kicked over ever since."

  "You haven't tried to go down there, have you?" Mulder asked, suddenly afraid for the woman.

  "`Course not," she snorted. "Whoever they are and whatever they're doin', they're up to no good of some kind. I'm an old woman and I'm alone out here, but that doesn't make me crazy, mister. If I went down there, and they did away with me, who'd let anybody know? How long would it take before I was missed and somebody came lookin'? They could easy be long gone by then and leave no more sign than a mockin'bird in the yard."

   Mulder looked at her again, a new respect dawning in his eyes. She was stocky, wrinkled, graying, dressed in plain and long-unfashionable clothes, but she was

nobody's fool. He found himself liking her.

  "What have they been doing?"

  "Workin' on whatever them flyin' things are," the woman said. "Last night they moved `em both out of here for a little bit, but the big one came back in less than an hour and the little one lit out like a dog after a jackrabbit. It wasn't too long before it came back, either, and there were sparks and smoke around it when it landed. They carried somethin' away from it, looked like it might a been a body."

  "Is there a road down to your fence?" Walker asked.

  "No," she answered. "But if you go back to the pavement and then a half mile south, you'll come to a turnrow that runs down to one of the government's gates. They used to patrol around there, but now there's no money to finish that hole n the ground they had goin' they've quit runnin' cars around here all hours of the day n night like decent folks couldn't be trusted to stay away from their foolishness."

   Walker turned briefly to Mulder, a whisper of a grin on his bearded face and a hint of laughter in his sparkling eyes. Mulder saw and acknowledged the look.

  "Thank you, ma'am," Walker said to the woman. "I believe we'll just go down there and have a look at what's going on. Do you want us to stop back by and let

you know what we find out?"

  "Oh, no," the woman said. "You could call me or send me a letter when you get time. I don't want you to put yourselves out on my account. But it would be good if somebody got to the bottom of this."

  "Yes ma'am," Mulder said, following Walker, whose pace had increased until the taller, younger man was forced to almost jog. "We'll be sure to send you word."

  "I `preciate that," the woman said. "You boys be careful down there now, you hear?"

   "Yes ma'am," Walker called as he pulled open the door of his truck. "Thank you."

   They were gone in a roar of engine exhaust and a spray of dirt from the old woman's driveway. Mulder didn't let his companion travel more than a hundred

yards before he opened his mouth, but Walker cut him off before he got half a phrase spoken.

  "You'll see -- and if you still don't understand we'll figure it out together after, okay?" he said.

   Mulder, looking stunned, nodded. "How did you ..."

  "What else would you have asked?" inquired the Ranger mildly. They drove on through a darkening wood, its mixed timbers reaching black arms skyward as if in

supplication to the ultramarine sky. Turning off the pavement, Walker lowered the lights. "Besides, I'm not sure we're in time here."

   Mulder bit his lip to refrain from screaming. He had been on the razor's edge of uncertainty for far too long; his normal composure had given way, some while

back, to a kind of exhausted resolution. But to come so close to Scully, and now to miss her twice in a handful of hours, was more than he could bear equably.

  "Look up there." As he spoke the Ranger killed the lights on his truck. Ahead, appearing to float against the backdrop of an eerily-illuminated hillside, Mulder

made out the familiar light pattern of a helicopter.

  "That's the kind that took her away when I caught Duane Barry," he said.

   Walker looked, if that were possible, even more grim than he had a few moments earlier. "I wish I'd known that before now."

   They stopped, though not of their own volition. Something simply choked the engine into silence. Walker glanced at Mulder, his one raised eyebrow obvious in

the dimming glow from the dashlights.

   Mulder mouthed, "Tell you later" and opened his door. A soundwave felled him instantly.

   He'd never heard anything like it. The intensity made his insides tremble; he felt the vibrations of this incredibly strong, unbelievably loud noise in his back teeth, in the bones of his fingers and toes, even in his groin as the powerful waves of sound grew so high in pitch that his ears could no longer identify the source of the painful assault on every nerve he possessed as a sound.

   Desperately, Mulder put out his hands and tried to press himself up into a sitting position; he could feel the strain in his muscles, at war with the jellifying effects of the soundwaves blasting down from overhead.  He opened his mouth to shout, and felt his teeth begin to resonate within his mouth. It took all his strength to keep his eyes open, and they hurt as though being pressed in a bookbinder's clamps.

   Abruptly the overhead spotlight switched off; the pitch of the object airborne above them changed instantly. Now the earth itself seemed to dance in the

grip of the tremendous vibrations, and Mulder felt a hand of blackness slapping him. The noise deepened, broadened, became a roar and switched to silence .... but the harmonics remained, making his stomach twist and his heart skip.

  "What the hell is that?" Walker, kneeling at his head, apparently in better control of his body than Mulder, demanded.

  "Stealth helicopter, "Mulder answered weakly, surprised that he could speak. In a moment or two he was able to sit, then stand; the waves of depression lifted and the vibrations of the tremendous amounts of sound, too deep in their cycling for human ears to comprehend, lessened as the craft sped away across the woodland.

  "Stealth, my grandma's wall-eyed tomcat," Walker spat.

   Mulder, leaning against the hood of the truck for support, nodded slowly. "Stealth," he said. "You have to be directly beneath it while it's running up its engines to hear anything. If you survive hearing it run up, how do you explain what happened to you? You were flattened to the ground even though you weren't

touched. There are no visible wounds or conventional indicators of trauma, although if you were under there long enough you could bleed to death through your ears and nose. If you were harboring an aneurism, of course, it would drop you like a rock."

  "A weapon based on sound waves?" Walker asked, not believing it.

  "Not a weapon," Mulder said. "If they had any idea of making a weapon out of this thing they'd have one that could vaporize your truck. It's a side effect from the engine technology and the aerodynamic and radar-evading design aspects. The people inside it probably don't realize it even has this effect."

  "What about ground crews, test monitors, people like that?"

  "There was an exceptionally high rate of accidental deaths and alcoholism among the developmental testing ground crews," Mulder said. "At the time the CIA reported a theory that these people were being targeted by agents from another government, and when they refused to turn over the information about the weapons system they were picked off one at a time.

  "None of the deaths that occurred within the U.S. appeared, under even close investigation, to be anything more -- or less -- than accidents resulting from driving under the influence of alcohol, except for the two heart attack victims. They had previous histories of heart disease."

  "And you people just let that go?" Walker said.

  "No," Mulder sighed. "I had looked into it myself at one point. The evidence just didn't exist to go any further. Four of the observers were killed in a single car crash; they had all been to a party at a bar that evening, and not a one of them had a blood alcohol level low enough for legal driving.

  "Two more of the ground staff had the heart attacks I told you about. Classical myocardial failures, induced by a combination of long-term tissue damage from untreated atherosclerosis and sudden stress beyond the weakened organs' ability to handle it."

  "Surely that wasn't the whole testing team?"

  "All but the pilots, and they're still working on refinements to the aircraft. Ground crew replacements have been rotated through, ever since that epidemic, as one-shot assignments. It's a 24-hour TDY, and we believe they're kept from seeing the aircraft, even if they're repairing it, as a complete assembly."

   Walker looked at him, keenly. Mulder nodded.

  "Observations have been changed, so that the tests are no longer carried out with live observers," he went on. "Computers record and analyze relevant data, and

there are more than a hundred cameras and monitors aboard the aircraft. I believe it is one of two or at most three prototypes built, although production could be a matter of hours away by now.

  "Test flights have been going on for at least five years, and I believe at least one of these aircraft was deployed to the Persian Gulf during that short-lived war, for a kind of high-profile testing in a combat environment."

   Walker, a veteran of Viet Nam and a difficult man to take by surprise, nodded. "You might be right." He drew a long breath. "What about that soundwave?"

  "I don't have the faintest idea," Mulder said. "It may be engine vibration funneled through radar-evading exhausts, it may be some advanced counter programmed sound to disrupt radar readings and disseminate the craft's image. I understand that the lower the pitch the less strain the engine is under, but that could be inaccurate."

  "One thing's for sure," the Ranger said grimly. "The higher the pitch, the more nearly likely it is to bring down the house."

  "Not necessarily," Mulder said. "Sonic vibrations too low for human hearing are in fact one of the most destructive side effects of natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes. These vibrations loosen and weaken everything from concrete to the connections in telephone junction boxes."

  "So it flies over and everything in its path is rocked by a sound nobody can hear," Walker said softly.

  "That's it," Mulder said.

   Walker whistled, very softly, a long note.

  "Do you think Scully was on board that thing?" Mulder asked suddenly.

  "No," Walker said. "I don't. Let's take a look around this place. I doubt if we'll find anything remotely close to a proper place to take care of someone kidnapped from an ICU."

   In the fifteen or twenty minutes that followed, Mulder came to realize how right the Ranger had been. There were tools and parts and boxes and bags, some of

them a kind of canvas mechanic's toolkit common to every aircraft-supporting branch of the military.

   He saw odds and ends: a coffeemaker, empty and abandoned, a cooler full of ice and canned Cokes, a stack of foam cups, someone's coat and a poncho, probably someone else's; cots in a Mobi-Flex tent, with blankets and pillows still in place, but nowhere in the facility, erected hastily and without permanence in the mouth of the partially-completed SSC tunnel, could they find a single scrap of paper or personal gear.

   Not even a discarded disposable razor or a shredded document occupied the mil-spec metal garbage cans; everything in them had been reduced to ashes. A second,

smaller Mobi-Flex contained two folding tables and a pair of generators, two folding chairs and a stack of boxed cases of MRE rations. In an open area a dozen or so yards away  -- far enough, Mulder surmised, so that the focused soundwaves beneath the aircraft wouldn't reach the tents -- they found splotches of wetness on

the ground.

   Walker dipped a finger in one, testing the scent. "Hydraulic fluid."

   Mulder checked another. "Kerosene ... or maybe jet fuel."

  "Probably," Walker allowed. "I know the Navy builds some awfully small reactors, but I doubt they'd use nuclear engines on an aircraft. Yet."

   Fox Mulder let his eyes go wide.

 The only other thing they found was the latrine: a third Mobi-Flex with two interior curtain-walls, each crescented for privacy's sake around a portable chemical toilet.

  "Classy accommodations," Mulder noted dryly.

  "Compared to some I've seen, very," Walker answered.

"Why wouldn't they leave anybody behind to watch over this place?"

  "They're not coming back," Mulder said. "It's been sanitized. Think about it: is there anything here that couldn't be explained away by a National Guard overnight deployment? Is there anything here that couldn't have been left over by the troops waiting around to see if they were going to march on that cult compound outside Waco?"

  "The hydraulic fluid's too fresh, and so's the spilled fuel," Walker answered automatically. "The ice on the cokes is too new."

  "Maybe somebody's coming back to clean that up later," Mulder said. "Maybe we frightened them into leaving a little earlier than they planned."

  "I don't get it," Walker said, stubbornly. "They should have posted sentries of some kind. Whether they were a military operation or not there should have been

more security spread around."

  "Maybe," Mulder said hopefully, "they're starting to slip. Or they're so shorthanded they didn't have the men to post sentries with."

  "Maybe," affirmed the Ranger. "Or there's more here than meets the eye. Come on. Let's see if Jimmy's learned anything."

   They went back to Walker's truck and left the area.

11:15 p.m.

Tarrant County Courthouse

   Trivette read the screen of his computer a second time, blinking in amazement.

  "Bingo," he breathed softly, and hit the button that would print his discoveries.

   Power throughout the building flickered, then failed; Jimmy's printer and monitor were as helpless as his eyes in the sudden blackness, and a scurrying of footsteps was the last thing he remembered before the galaxy seemed to self-destruct somewhere in the vicinity of his left ear.

   The lights came back on. A black-clad figure in fatigues, with a balaclava pulled over its face, rebooted Jimmy's console. Fingers in thin black gloves keyed up the queries Trivette had been running, and the black eyes gleaming behind the balaclava grew dark, slitting with anger.

   The black-clad hand closed around Jimmy's phone, punching a 1-800 number. Seconds later a tone issued from the receiver and the caller punched in another

code A second, different, tone: the squelchy sound of a modem, calling in vain for its mate. Jimmy's screen went blank.

   Placing a small device over the receiver's mouthpiece and laying a minuscule microphone atop Trivette's computer, the intruder operated a series of keys on this device that produced tones first to satisfy the modem's mating call, then to access the computer to which it was mated. From Jimmy's screen a series of images flashed; the intruder manipulated the keyboard deftly and swiftly as each one appeared, turning them all into blanks.

   Within two minutes the operation had been completed; the intruder rebooted Jimmy's computer and printer separately, disconnected his device and vanished into a second wave of blackness.

   No sooner had the door closed than the lights and power returned to normal. Moments later, Trivette began to moan, but not yet to stir, from his position on the

floor.

        Outside, in the hallway, the black-dressed intruder moved with the ease of familiarity. Here the door to the basement stairs, there the corridor between the musty stacks of old records and the roomful of humming new computer equipment that stored later records in their separate chambers; at the end of the narrow hallway was a door, and behind it a small room, well-ventilated, filled with electrical equipment, telephone junction boxes -- and, jumpered by a second black box, this one with a timer on its face, the breaker box supplying power to the second floor, its cover open and its innards compromised.

   Deft hands removed the electronic octopus that had enabled a pair of power outages to take place with precision timing, although no one had been here; the

cover was quickly restored to its rightful place and the breaker box closed. The black clad figure melted into the hallway, slipped silently up a corridor, and

vanished into a rest room.

   Moments later a remarkably beautiful woman stepped out, her fashionable black fatigue pants and scarlet silk blouse over a black turtleneck set off with a scarlet-and-black plaid vest. Over one of her shoulders was a scarlet leather handbag, matching the low-heeled boots she wore. Her long dark brown hair flowed down

her back in rippling waves; her black eyes sparkled, and her face looked as perfectly made-up as though she'd never worn a balaclava in her life.

   She barely even limped, although she had indeed been wounded by a trooper's bullet the night before while hanging out the cargo door of the smaller stealth

helicopter that had unsuccessfully tried to retrieve an escaped prisoner. The bullet had gone rather cleanly through the fleshy part of her upper leg, and she had been treated aboard the chopper, then again in the biggest tent on the site.

   Compression bandages and painkiller would be an ongoing necessity, but there had been no damage to tendon or bone and the faint lilt in her normally fluid stride had only gotten her whistled at a few more times than usual once she'd left the site.

   Like Dawnelle McCloud, she believed that the heroes of action movies habitually lied about the intensity of pain they suffered as a result of being shot, stabbed, hit by a car or otherwise traumatized. Unlike McCloud, she thought they over dramatized the pain.

   She had lost count of the times she'd sustained wounds that would have been mortal to most humans; years of freelancing for the highest bidder had given her lots of chances to discover new and improved ways of dealing with pain.

   She checked the latest installment of bandage; a faint slightly green stain was the only sign of the damage that she had sustained less than thirty hours earlier when she'd been knocked off the stealth chopper's skids by a flurry of bullets. She was home free, she thought.

   She hadn't counted on Walker, or Mulder.  At that instant, two floors above her, they were kneeling, one on each side of the still-queasy Trivette, anxiously asking him what had happened.

  "I was going to print out the records I found on ..." Jimmy stared at the computer, his face as blank as its brilliant, idiotic screen. "Where'd they go ..."

  "Your system's been down," Mulder said. "Looks like somebody rebooted it. You'll have to try the inquiries again."   For the next fifteen minutes Jimmy did

exactly that, time and again, until his frustration with the repeated "Access Denied" signal emanating from the FBI's national criminal investigation network prompted him to slam his fist into his keyboard so hard it broke in two.

  "Come on," Walker said. "I think it's time you called it a day."

   Mulder looked significantly less tolerant. "Do you have another keyboard around here, Jimmy? I want to fax a friend of mine in D.C. He'll send us an answer we can pick up first thing in the morning."

   Trivette sighed, pushed himself to his feet, and nodded. "Did you guys come up with anything?"

  "No," Walker said tiredly. "We found where this machine had been, but it left us behind."

  "Machine?"

  "Stealth helicopter," Mulder supplied. "Unless you're directly underneath it as it prepares to take off, and then leaves. In those circumstances it's more like an annihilator than a sneak thief."

   Jimmy, touching his head gingerly, noted the trickle of dried blood at the bottom of Mulder's ear. "I think it might be a good idea if Cordell ran us both over to the ER to get checked out."

  "I can do that," Walker said. They went out of the office almost as one, switching off the lights behind them and approaching Walker's truck, in the parking lot, with the wariness of frightened deer.

   Nothing menaced them inside the building or in the darkness between doors, and the truck, instead of refusing to start or exploding as they shut the doors, purred away toward the nearest emergency room.

   En route, Walker phoned C.D.

  "I'll close early and meet you there. I heard something really interesting about fifteen minutes ago. It just so happens I've got an old friend in flight operations at DFW," C.D. finished, " and he confirmed, a few minutes ago, that something was sitting on the ramp out where Carswell Air Force Base used to be. Unidentified aircraft, he said, that had been out there about half an hour. They'd asked for a VFR clearance out of DFW's airspace, beginning at 1 a.m. He said they were headed east."

  "How far away is this Carswell?" Mulder demanded.

   "From here, maybe ten minutes; this time of night maybe less, the traffic will be lighter." C.D. said.

"It's 12:15 now."

  "Let's go," Mulder said. "Forget the emergency room. Let's get out there."

Midnight Eastern Standard Time

Washington, D.C.

   Walter Skinner stepped off the plane. Misgivings weren't his style, but he hoped that whatever was happening in Texas could still be controlled.

   The loss of his contact in the area was as unmistakable as it was personally distressing. She had been one of the few women he'd met while he was a

Marine who wore the same uniform as if she deserved to wear it; his respect for her went back to his youth.

   She was gone now. Skinner knew he would not let her loss go unremarked. He did not know yet where, or how, he would exact his retribution against her killer; but he knew that he would.   First he had to make sure nothing like that happened to Mulder. He retrieved his car from long-term parking, paid the charge with a credit card, and drove back to his office. It was too late tonight to go home.

   He consulted a pocket-sized electronic address book, chewed his lower lip for a few moments, and then picked up his office telephone and dialed his personal calling code, to ensure any charges or traces of this call would not show up on the office's billing records.

  "Yes," he said when an operator answered. "I need a current cellular number for C.D. Parker in Fort Worth, Texas, please. This is an emergency."

   C.D. picked up his cellphone on the second ring.

"Hello, C.D.'s," he said, as any jovial host might.

  "Ranger Parker," Walter Skinner said. "I don't think you remember me. I'm Walter Skinner. We met briefly several years ago, working on the Judge Wood killing."

  "Yeah, you're the tall fella," C.D. recalled. "That was a while back. What can I do for you now?"

   Fleeting images of homemade food flickered in the back of the assistant director's mind; the vending machines at the office had definitely lost their charm.

  "I don't know if you can help me," he said, sounding so tired he could hardly believe it himself. "One of my people is in your area ... he's disappeared. Ordinarily I'd go to my own people to help me find him, but ... another one of my people, who was tracking him, is dead. I don't know if I have a renegade on my hands or a fiasco of even greater proportions."

   C.D. perked up. "What can you tell me about the missing agent?"

  "Statistics are six-one, one-sixty," Skinner said; "brown and brown, age 34, caucasian, light complexion, very intense personality. Physically I almost wish I

could say he was armed and dangerous; but the fact that he's probably armed renders him dangerous mostly only to himself. He's not the best gunhandler I've ever had. Still, it would pay to be careful with him, if you see him. I don't know if he's using his real name or some alias; he's Fox Mulder. He's one of our hostage

negotiators, a behavioral analyst, a very intelligent man. I would be ... distressed ... to lose him."

  "I can guarantee," the voice on the phone replied, "that the man you're looking for is no renegade. I met him this morning; he's broken bread with me. I've seen him work. He's as good an agent as you're going to find anywhere."

  "You have seen him?"

  "I'm on my way to meet him right now. He's travelling with Cordell Walker and James Trivette, two Texas Rangers' sergeants. Personally I'll vouch for either or both of them -- and your man Mulder, too." C.D. sounded very certain of his facts.

  "Even if I told you Mulder may have killed a suspect, a former agent of ours?"

  "Duane Barry," C.D. said. "I think you're wrong. But if what Mulder says about the man is remotely close to the truth, he's owed a medal for ridding the world of a

rabid animal, Mr. Skinner."

   Those words convinced the assistant director that the man on the other end of this connection was, in fact, the canny Ranger he remembered. No one else had

ever been as completely certain of one thing: a man gone bad, no matter how good or for what reasons, was like a dog with rabies, and the only cure was a bullet.

  "We have no conclusive evidence that Mulder's not to blame for the death," Skinner said wearily, "but we don't have anything to prove that he is, either. And

the man who was supposed to be working with Mulder at the time is missing."

  "Sounds like you're having leash troubles," C.D. drawled, a half smile on his lips. He'd liked Skinner, but the urge to needle a Federal official, any fed, could be overwhelming sometimes.

  "No," Skinner said wearily. "Not leash troubles. I'm having wholesale disappearance troubles. If my agents were livestock I'd be calling your boss for help finding the rustlers."

  "That's what we're here for," C.D. said. "Cordell and Jimmy are busy as we speak, trying to help your Mr. Mulder track down a woman who might be another missing member of your department."

  "Scully," Skinner breathed, softly, and C.D. clucked his tongue lightly against the roof of his mouth. "Are you sure?" the assistant director asked.

  "No, because none of us here have any idea what this Miss Scully looks like, except Mulder, and every time we've tried to put him in visual range of her she's

been spirited away from us almost like ... a mirage."

   The assistant director's head fell back on the top of his chair. He groaned so softly he could scarcely be heard; it was true, then. Scully was in the hands of that other outfit, that shadowy entity he'd hoped to outwit by patience and watchfulness. Mulder had attacked with dogged determination and incredible energy, and that hadn't worked either.

  "I suppose Agent Mulder's telling you she's being taken from place to place by little green men aboard flying saucers," Skinner said acidly.

  "No," C.D. replied. He described the woman he'd seen in the hospital -- had it really been only hours ago? -- to listening FBI agent. "I was driving Mulder to the

hospital myself, and we were turned back at the door.

They'd had a bomb threat and found explosive devices, and they were evacuating patients all over the Metroplex."

   Skinner groaned. "If you get your hands on the bomber, save me a piece."

  "Will you settle for a scalp?" C.D. asked.

  "If I have to," the assistant director said. "But I'd really like to be able to make a case myself."

  "I'll do what I can," C.D. promised. "Any messages for Mulder?"

  "No," Skinner said softly. "But one about him. Watch out. He's an extraordinarily talented man ... and his greatest gift is for getting everybody around him into trouble you've never even dreamed could happen to you."

   C.D. laughed out loud. "I'm a Texas Ranger, Mr. Skinner. I've been dealing with that for forty years."

  "All the same ... I'd like Mulder back safely," Skinner said, brusquely.

  "Will do," C.D. drawled. "`Night now."

  "Good night," Skinner answered, wondering why he felt both comforted and uneasy.

   On the other end of the phone, as he pulled himself into his Blazer and turned on the lights, veteran Ranger C.D. Parker smiled a little. "Wonder what he'd a said if I'd told him Mulder was chasin' his partner."

He pulled out into the street. "Prob'ly wanted to know which one. The Full Bore Idiots sure have a tough time keepin' up with each other, I'd say."

   With that he turned all his skills and attention to his driving.

   Cordell Walker's big Dodge sat just outside the gate of Carswell Air Force Base. Beyond the concertina-wire and chain link fence festooned with its Warning U.S.

Military Installation signs, a row of sleek black aircraft sat beneath sulphurously orange-hued floodlamps: although the Cold War was officially over, the alert force maintained its ability to put a lethal number of armed aircraft enroute anywhere in the world in a handful of minutes.

   Memories came back to Walker: airplanes, bigger and uglier than these and painted differently, flying low as thunderheads over the valleys and jungles of faraway lands, unleashing the mind-numbing destruction of Rolling Thunder and the Arc Light missions. He looked at the planes -- some of these still bore the victory signs they had acquired during Desert Storm -- and then beyond them. Over on the far side of the base, beyond its restricted areas and far fence, and another massive highway, lay one of the poorest neighborhoods in the Metroplex.

  "The Congress," he said dryly, "thinks the children in the shacks a few miles from here cost more and are worth less than these airplanes."

   The coldness behind his voice cut into Mulder like a blade forged from dry ice.

  "Congress," Mulder answered quietly, "thinks whatever is most likely to help it get reelected. That doesn't mean there's nothing wrong with its perceptions, or with its actions."

   Satisfied, Walker nodded toward a small vehicle turning onto the road by which they sat. "Here comes C.D."

  "Y'all follow me," C.D. said. "We're going over on the residential side. My friend's expecting us." Within a few minutes they had entered the base from a

different gate, and, escorted by C.D.'s friend, had traveled circumspectly through the quiet night of Base Housing's neighborhoods to a line of long low metal and concrete buildings, far away from the aircraft lined up on the alert pad and farther still from the control tower, transient hanger, and ongoing business of the maintenance organizations' night shifts.

   In the darkness a small sleek white executive jet sat on the tarmac, a loading ramp extending from its side, its anticollision lights rotating ominously. Two figures in white med-tech uniforms waited at the base of the ramp, a gurney between them. Halfway up the steps stood a third form, this one dressed in elegant and functional black accented with the unmistakable shape of a GAU-5 Colt carbine.

   Walker sucked in his breath. "Would you look at that."

   Mulder, having looked, nodded bleakly. "She's a pro.

Since the Wall came down a lot like her have gone freelance. It's easier for them because most people don't think twice about how dangerous a woman can be. But it looks like she might have at least started out on our side."

  "She probably thinks she still is," Walker answered.

    C.D. came over, eyes narrowed against the beams of the rotating beacons beneath the wings and belly of the beast, raising his voice to be heard over the jet's whine as its engines wound up. "They're waiting for a transfer from another aircraft," he said. "ETA two minutes, according to the readings my friend had before the end of his shift."

  "Then let's do it this way," Walker said. "Trivette, you go down along the fence and cover the path of that airplane out of here. If we don't stop it some other way, blow the nosegear tires."

  "Right," Jimmy said, glad for once to draw an assignment that might not get him hit over the head again, immediately or repeatedly.

  "C.D., stay close to your friend. We don't want to bring him any trouble. If you see that we're in over our heads both of you get out of here."

   The older man started to protest, but Mulder interrupted. "Look," he said, his voice firmer than either C.D. or Walker had heard before, "I appreciate what you're trying to do for me. And for my partner, if that's who this bird is waiting for. But the bottom line is, you're risking your careers and your lives for me out here tonight. I can't let you do anything that doesn't absolutely minimize the possible damage you could incur. C.D.," and the young man nearly managed an angelic smile; the tiredness in his face only slightly dulled it, "I can honestly say I've never had a meal like your chicken fried steak before. If something happened out here tonight that stopped you from cooking ... I just wouldn't want to know I'd been responsible."

   The appeal to his vanity stopped the semiretired Ranger from replying acerbically. "Son," he said instead, "don't you worry about me."

  "Ranger Walker," Mulder went on a moment later, "Thank you for helping me get here. I must ask you to stop assisting me now. Please, take Ranger Trivette and

Ranger Parker and leave. I ... wouldn't want you to be injured. I wouldn't want your blood on my head."

  "It won't be," Walker assured him gently, "and neither will yours be on ours. Look, Agent Mulder, if one of us were in D.C. and you were trying to help that

one find or free another of us, what do you think we'd expect from you? The best effort you could give us, or the politically expedient effort you could show us?"

   Mulder smiled tiredly. "You know better than that," he said. "My career has been marked by so many politically improper moves that one more couldn't possibly hurt me. I'd give you all the help I could."

  "Do us the same courtesy here, son," C.D. interrupted. "In the first place, none of us has to answer to anybody like your assistant director Skinner. In the second place, nobody knows we're out here except us and my friend, and he won't tell anybody. In the third place, I know how that girl feels about you, and how you feel about her -- and I know how your boss feels about her too. By the way, he wanted us to make sure you got home safe."

   A feeling of tremendous pressure descended upon them, accompanied by the faint roaring noise Dawnelle McCloud had heard moments before she died. Mulder looked up, prevented from continuing his conversation, to see a number of the Texas sky's bold stars disappear in what could best be described as a fast-moving void.

   Utter blackness fell out of the sky at tremendous speed; the blinding lights were not turned on, but the craft's crew had no difficulty settling their charge a few meters from the jet.

   Walker and Mulder began to run toward the thing, bent at the waist, flanking it from behind as it rotated to aim its debarking vestibule toward the jet. From beyond the flat-black craft came the gurney, propelled by the two men in white.

   From the belly of the matte-black monster opened a hatch; supported on what looked to Mulder like a giant spiderweb of steel cables, a narrow bundle descended

toward the gurney, parked directly under the hatch by the attendants who had hooked the latch doors into their open-lock positions.

   From the far end of that bundle spilled a cascade of bright-chestnut hair; secured to the nearer end of the bundle, supported and strapped in place, Mulder made out an I.V. bag. He couldn't see the face that went with the heartrendingly beautiful sweep of hair and the perfect curve of blanketed figure, but in his heart he knew, with a stabbing slicing certainty, that he saw Dana Scully obscured beneath the breathing mask.

   Walker made his move, going under the belly of the bird and taking out the camouflage-suited attendant who had come down on that end of the steel web. Mulder ran for Scully, only to have one of the gurneymen knock him aside. Unfazed he twisted his body back and started for the stretcher again, and this time the gurney attendant unlatched the webbing. The body Mulder believed to be Scully's settled onto the bed, and the sides of the gurney came up; a broad strap was buckled across the middle of the bundled body.

   Mulder reached for the strap, and the attendant almost negligently unhooked the hatch door; the heavy plate -- some kind of metal -- slammed across Mulder's

forehead, sending him sprawling.

   The gurneymen hustled their charge toward the plane; the black-clad woman had run down the ramp and opened fire now, beyond them, sweeping the area under the chopper. Walker went ahead and hit the deck, twisting his legs about his captive's neck.

   Mulder, still flat, didn't try to pull himself up.

   C.D. Parker and Jimmy Trivette together, from points forty-five degrees apart and a hundred feet away, fired at the black-clad woman. Trivette's bullet shattered

her shoulder; C.D.'s two slugs from his .357 Smith and Wesson with its eight-inch barrel broke her knees.

   The Colt twisted in her grasp and Jimmy, taking his second shot a fraction of a second after relining his sights, destroyed her other arm. Her weapon fell, and

her body crumpled atop it.

   The jet's ramp sucked into its side as the gurneymen secured their equipment; the hatch doors beneath the chopper sealed against the night, and both aircraft departed. Mulder, lying beneath the helicopter's belly, remembered what that had been like and rolled sideways, helped by the pressure waves, until he reached the grass. Once there he pushed himself into a sitting posture with both hands.

   Trivette had run toward Walker, only to have the chopper overfly him directly at a height of no more than thirty feet; he went down like an unstrung puppet.

The fast-moving black void lifted back into the night, circling away barely high enough to clear the lampposts along the highway, and vanished back into the blackness overhead. Trivette moaned weakly; Walker, like his captive another victim of the overflight, recovered first and flowed to his feet with the grace of a cat.

He yanked his prisoner off the tarmac, but was forced to let go when the uniformed knees buckled. He leapt backward by reflex as his hapless prisoner emptied the contents of its stomach onto the concrete.

   Having managed to escape the worst of the stealth chopper's sound zone, Mulder staggered to his feet and began to jog toward the woman.

   Trivette and C.D. joined him as he turned her onto her back; out of her eyes glowed a hatred so strong it was positively luminous. Mulder shuddered all over as he watched her open her mouth in a mockery of a smile, and then snap her teeth shut hard.

   C.D. yanked Trivette backward as the woman breathed out powerfully; a bitter aroma filled the air and Mulder staggered back, eyes stinging.

  "Cyanide capsule," Jimmy said. "I thought they only did that in movies and novels."

   Life left the woman within a matter of seconds; the luminous hatred in her eyes became instead a glassy emptiness, and the bitter scent faded into a more primitive smell of death.

   Walker, his captive slung over his shoulder in a fireman's carry, joined them just in time to see that the woman was, indeed, a suicide.

  "Well," he said, softly. "We've got this one, anyway."

   Mulder raised the head of the unconscious youngster -- a woman, too, he noted -- and was shocked to see a face he thought he knew.

  "Put her down," he whispered. "Please. I ... Scully?"

   The girl in the uniform stirred faintly. Her eyes opened. They were not Dana Scully's haunting hazel eyes; they were a doelike brown. Now that she wasn't

hanging upside down over Walker's broad shoulders, Mulder could see that she wasn't really Scully. But the resemblance was striking.

   This girl's hair was pulled back under the cap of her uniform in a military bun. When she spoke, her voice reminded him of his partner, too, but he knew it

wasn't Dana Scully.

  "Who are you? Where am I?"

   C.D. stared. "It's not the same girl," he said finally. "This one can talk."

  "In English," Jimmy added. "Who are you?"

  "What happened?" The young woman wanted to know.

  "You were helping in the kidnapping of a Federal Agent and we caught you," Mulder said, in a businesslike but not altogether pitiless voice.

  "Federal agent?" the girl looked absolutely disoriented. "No ... that's not what I ... where's my patient?"

  "Patient?" Walker asked.

  "Yes, patient," the young woman said. "I'm a nurse. U.S. Department of Public Health and United States Marine Corps Reserve, if you have to know. I work at

USAAMRID. I was taking a patient there. She may have been exposed to a level-three biological threat."

  "Level three?" Mulder said. "Explain that."

  "If she has it and if it doesn't kill her, she may be the only source for knowledge available to us," the woman said tightly. "Where is she?"

  "On the jet," C.D. answered, gesturing toward a light rising into the sky at the far end of the tarmac.

   The woman sighed. "Good. Look, who are you people?"

  "You first," Walker answered.

  "Amy Waters," she announced. "I'm a captain in the reserves. I'm a registered nurse with the public health service. The jet was supposed to take us to USAAMRID."

   C.D. helped her to her feet. "Why?"

  "Quarantine," the Marine reserve nurse answered briskly. "The agent she may have been exposed to is lethal. It's more toxic than hantavirus. We don't know

how contagious it is. Like a retrovirus, it acts on the DNA and RNA of its victims. We were taking her to the most secure and most advanced facility we have. We were trying to save her life."

  "Who was she?" Walker asked gently.

  "I don't know that. I only know she was patient number 18," the nurse answered. "I'm traveling with her because when patient number 14 crashed, I was his primary care nurse. I was infected. I became ill, but not as severely as my patient. I survived."

  "How many patients have you seen, with this disease?" Jimmy asked quietly.

  "She's the first one I've seen live," the woman answered. "The other seventeen are ... cadavers ... in research facilities now. We ... had trouble sterilizing the bodies to release to the families. So ... someone ... arranged for ... accidents. Accidents that left remains that could not be recognized; and the remains were positively identified by ... dental records, jewelry, things like that at the scene."

   Walker was in her face. "Where were the remains taken from?"

  "Unclaimed bodies in local morgues," the woman answered tiredly. "Look, it happens all the time.  Unidentified bodies are used for research; they provide

two-thirds of the corneas and skin grafts available in some of the bigger cities. Kids who o.d.; drunks who get hit by cars; homeless people who freeze in their cardboard boxes by the railroad tracks. It's a fact of life. Dallas is no different than D.C., or L.A., or San Francisco, or Seattle, or Chicago. It happens everywhere."

  "What about AIDS?" Mulder asked. "Isn't there a danger?"

  "The bodies aren't bodies when the hospitals get them," the woman answered. "They're victims. The blood tests are part of the admit routine with unidentified

patients. Yes, sometimes it goes wrong. There's a woman in Iowa in her eighties with AIDS. She got it from a bone marrow transplant. The donor hadn't been infected long enough to test positive for HIV; the disease finished developing after her surgery."

  "So why does this go on at all?" C.D. wanted to know. "It isn't safe. It isn't morally responsible."

  "Huh," the woman said. "That's all you know. It's a very profitable operation. It helps hospitals that are inundated with charity cases keep their doors open. It isn't as though it's being done for no reason. The people who get the skin grafts, the bone marrow, the kidneys, the corneas ... they're better off. The corpses won't miss the body parts, and if their families cared they wouldn't let them be unidentified

victims for burial in potter's fields anyway. And the hospitals, the doctors, they're paid. The insurance companies take care of that."

  "What about poor people, people who don't have insurance?" Walker wanted to know.

  "This is the `90s," the woman answered with a shrug.

  "I've never in my whole life," C.D. said tightly, "wanted to knock a woman's head off as bad as I do right now."

  "She's only a nurse," Mulder pointed out. "She doesn't have control of any of these things. Knocking her head off wouldn't solve the problem, or even help very much."

  "Might adjust her attitude," Jimmy said.

   "No," Mulder shook his head. "I don't think so. Her attitude is pretty much in tune with the feeling in this country right now, gentlemen. It's a feeling that the poor, the homeless, the disadvantaged are a drain on the economy. There's a spirit of vengeance and meanness in the air."

  "That's an understatement," Walker said.

   Mulder looked at him, and then at the handcuffed nurse whose shoulder he gripped with a hand like the talons of a lion.

  "She didn't have to tell us anything," he said wearily. "The other one didn't."

  "I think you should call your Mr. Skinner," C.D. said. "Tell him what you've heard out here tonight. Tell him we've got the prosecutable piece he wanted -- and the scalp I promised him."

   Mulder looked down at the older man and a gentle smile curved his lips for a fraction of a second. "I'll do that." He reached into his coat for his cellular phone.

  "C.D.," Walker said. "Can you take Jimmy to the hospital? I want somebody to make sure his head's not permanently damaged."

  "Sure," C.D. said. "What are you going to do?"

  "Get out of my promotion," Walker answered. "Agent Mulder needs a ride home. We can ship that body through official channels, but I think he and I would both feel better about the chances of this witness getting back alive if we took her."

   Mulder's eyes widened as he looked at Walker.

"That's a three-day drive."

  "We'd better start soon," the Ranger affirmed.

"Jimmy, when the hospital lets you go, tell the captain I'm out of town, will you?"

  "What about Alex?" Trivette wanted to know.

   Walker smiled: a bold and genuine grin. "Tell her I'll be back."

  "We'll take care of it, Cordell," C.D. promised.

  "I appreciate it," Walker said. "Agent Mulder?"

   Mulder turned, an inquiring look on his face.

  "I'll drive the first shift," Walker said. "You ready?"

  "You bet," Mulder answered. "What do we do with her?"

   Walker had begun marching his prisoner toward his pickup. "You'll see," he said, opening one handcuff. He passed the chain beneath the roll bar just above the bed, then snapped the cuffs shut on the woman's wrists again. Mulder, studying the effect, nodded.

   Walker climbed into the big Dodge and started it; Mulder swung aboard from the other side. As they drove away, C.D. and Trivette could hear the woman's voice, growing more and more agitated as distance lowered its volume. C.D. walked back to the car where his friend had waited, leaned against the driver's window and spoke softly for a moment. The man inside lifted a radio to his face.

   C.D. hustled back to his Blazer, throwing open the passenger door for Jimmy, and they too drove off toward the inconspicuous, but wide-open, gate in the chainlink fence. Both vehicles passed under the span of concertina wire, and the chain-link panels slid closed behind them. C.D.'s friend drove away into the base housing area, heading home.

   The End

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