Title: Into the Woods
Summary: Drawn into the forest to investigate the disappearance of five hikers in what may be a case of alien abduction, Mulder and Scully are caught in the middle of a life and death fight to find the abductees and get out of the woods - alive.
Author's Note: This was written for the Virtual Season 8 and a small reference is made to the story preceding this one. Knowledge of the story is not necessary, but you might as well go read all the episodes in Virtual Season 8 because they're all high caliber.
Bearhead Lake State Park
Amanda stopped where she was and let her backpack slide off her shoulders. She rotated her neck to the left and then the right, stretching sore muscles. She turned in a slow circle, taking in the quiet serenity of the snow-laden forest.
It felt right. She couldn't be positive, everything looked different in the winter, but she was sure this was the spot. Something inside her told her so.
"Mark, don't you think we should camp here tonight?"
A young man, no more than twenty years old, emerged from the trees, his panting breath obscuring his face with a white cloud. He dropped his pack next to hers and pushed shaggy black forelocks back under his cap. "Yeah, this is the place all right. Let's get the tent set up."
An hour later and they were seated around a small fire in front of their tent, warming their hands with hot cups of cocoa. Amanda took a sip from her cup, looking over the rim at her boyfriend. "Do you think they'll come tonight?"
Mark licked his chapped lips and looked at the sky. "Maybe. I dunno. We're just gonna have to wait and see."
Setting her mug down on a stump that served as a makeshift table, Amanda yawned. "God, I'm tired. I didn't know hiking took so much out of you. I don't remember being so tired last time." She rubbed her eyes with a gloved hand, getting cold snow in the face for the effort. Pulling off the glove, she rubbed again, this time succeeding in clearing away some of the sleep in her eyes. "How long do you think we'll have to wait?"
A high pitched noise and rush of wind startled them both, causing Mark to drop his cup of cocoa in the fire, the liquid hissing as it hit the flames. He pointed up at the sky. "Not long."
Together they tilted their heads up and gazed at the object hanging above them, its dark shape silhouetted against the sky, a few small colored lights casting an eerie glow on their white surroundings. Wind rushed about them, the trees creaking as their branches swayed under the weight of snow. The hikers flinched as a blinding light suddenly burst forth from the center of the object, shining directly on the two campers. It grew brighter and more intense with each second that passed until everything was indistinguishable in the whiteness.
Then, as suddenly as it had come, it disappeared, leaving behind a collapsed tent and smoking embers surrounded by stones.
Dana Scully's Residence
"Mommy!! Daddy!! Look at me!" the little girl shouted as she jumped up and down on the trampoline, her red hair bouncing about her head.
"We see you, sweetheart! You're doing wonderfully!" the tall man laughed, flipping the hamburgers over on the smoking grill. The woman next to him chuckled indulgently, a wide smile spread across her oval face. Hair that matched the child's crowned her head, but her eyes were blue, unlike the girl's own hazel pair.
The woman stepped away from her husband and watched the playing youth for a moment. "Sarah, be careful!" she called out.
Long arms encircled her waist. "She's fine, Dana, stop worrying."
"I know, Mulder, but I can't help it. My maternal instinct is in overdrive." She turned around and stood on her toes, reaching up to kiss her husband. Their lips were mere centimeters apart...
She sprang up in bed, her heart beating frantically. Glancing at the clock she sighed heavily and reached for the phone next to her on the nightstand. She picked the annoying appliance up and spoke groggily into it. "Do you have any idea what time it is??"
"C'mon Scully, don't tell me you're going to waste this beautiful Saturday morning in bed?" a too cheery voice asked.
"Mulder, it's five thirty in the morning! The sun isn't even up yet. If you called to ask me if I want to go for a run, I am going to make you do the expense reports on the next five cases." She wearily rubbed the sleep from her eyes.
"Actually, a run sounds great right now. But alas, we don't have time. We have to go to Minnesota."
"Did you just say what I think you said?? No, don't answer that. Mulder, it's Saturday, can't this wait?" she lamented.
Completely ignoring his partner's questions, Mulder continued. "It has come to my attention that there have been several disappearances in Bear Head Lake State Park. A total of five backpackers have vanished over the past month, each time bright lights were sighted near the area where the hikers were last seen."
Scully groaned. "What does this have to do with waking me up at the crack of dawn?"
A sigh could be heard from the other side. "Scully, I'm sorry, I know how much your time off means to you, but my hands are tied. Skinner called me half an hour ago; seems the last pair of hikers to disappear were Senator Huntsacker's daughter and her boyfriend. He already has us booked on a 7:00 flight to Duluth."
Her annoyance drained away as she took in this information. Mulder got called at five, but he waited until 5:30 to call her. He really *was* sorry to wake her. "All right, Mulder, it's not your fault. I'll get my stuff together and be ready by six thirty. You had better pick me up on time, I don't want to have to run to the gate like last time."
"Scout's honor. Pack something warm, I hear there's three feet of snow up there. Just think, it'll be a nice trip to-"
Scully's voice cut him off, "Don't!! Don't *even* say it."
Somewhere over the United States
Dana Scully took off her glasses and pinched the bridge of her nose with thumb and forefinger. She closed the file lying in her lap and reached for the next one, which was presently in her partner's lap. He had finished reading all the files in less than an hour and was now sleeping peacefully in the window seat. She envied the speed at which he could absorb information, easily accessing it with his eidetic memory.
But she also knew that his memory was a constant source of anguish for him. So while she envied him, she pitied him at the same time. He could remember the most minute details from his entire life except for the few times he'd had his memory 'wiped'. And of course, that fateful night twenty-seven years ago that shaped his entire life thereafter. It seemed as though he was sentenced to a life of false hopes and unfulfilled dreams.
Carefully removing the stack of papers from Mulder's lap, she thought back to her own dream. She and Mulder were married, had a child of their own. Was it some sort of reflection of her unconsciousness? If a dream was an answer to a question you haven't yet learned how to ask, what was this an answer to? They were still testing the waters of their new relationship and the topic of marriage had never come up. She smiled softly at the idea of growing old with her partner, but the smile soon faded as she remembered the girl in the dream. No matter how much she wanted it, she couldn't have children, and that was the end of that.
She blew air out in frustration. It was all too complicated, too much to think about while also trying to concentrate on a case. She would go by Scarlett O'Hara's philosophy - 'I'll think about it tomorrow. After all, tomorrow is another day.'
She yawned loudly and looked despairingly at the papers in her lap. This was going to be a long flight.
Mulder woke up to someone nudging his shoulder. "Huh?" Opening his eyes, he turned to find a flight attendant standing over him. "Sir, we are about to begin our descent, you should wake your wife."
"Thanks." He tilted his head to the left, where Scully had fallen asleep against him. A soft smile graced his lips as he took in her countenance. Lifting his hand, he gently brushed away a long strand of hair that had fallen in her face. "Scully," he murmured. She let out a tiny sigh and nestled closer to him. God, he hated to wake her up. "Scully, we're about to land." This time he trailed his finger up and down her cheek.
Her eyelids flickered open. "Land?"
"Yeah, looks like you dozed off for a bit."
Finally realizing what he was saying, she sat up, rubbing her eyes. "We're here already? I didn't finish reading the files." She sounded angry that her body had so betrayed her.
"Don't worry about it. This *is* supposed to be your day off, remember? I think we can let this one slide. Either that or we can ask the pilot to circle around some more until you finish your nap." He started to look around as though to spot a stewardess.
"No, that's okay," Scully said quickly, stamping her left foot on the floor of the cabin. The sooner she got off this cramped plane, the better. Her foot had fallen asleep along with the rest of her and it was on the verge of being painful.
Mulder chuckled. "Now you know how *I* feel every time we fly."
Mulder leaned forward over the dash, his eyes squinted as he tried to see the road through the veil of snow. "Why would anybody want to live here?"
"Most of the people here are of Nordic ancestry, they're used to it." Scully turned up the heat and then used her closed fist to wipe at the windshield so that her partner could see a bit easier.
"Thanks. Well, the news said that this storm should be over by tomorrow, so it looks like we'll have to hold off on our nature hike. We can have a leisurely lunch and then stop by the local sheriff's to get the details not in the files. Of course, at this rate we'll probably won't make it to Ely until dinner."
"We have to find a motel first. Then we can call the head ranger of the park and let him know that we won't be there until tomorrow."
"You're gonna love it, Scully. Tent camping, ice fishing, canoeing - though not in the winter, of course - snow mobiling, hiking; I could go on and on. Beautiful country up here, lots of wildlife. I believe it is a major reserve for timber wolves or something like that, I didn't get to read the brochure." Mulder dared to turn his head from the road and flash a smile at his partner.
"Mulder, isn't it possible that the missing hikers got lost? Were attacked by wild animals? Fell into a ditch or ravine that was hidden by all this snow?" she reasoned.
"Certainly. All we need to do is figure out which one of those, if any, it is."
"Mulder, what aren't you telling me?"
"What makes you think I'm not telling you anything?"
"I can tell by the tone of your voice. We're not up here looking for Bigfoot or the Abominable Snowman, are we?"
"Not at all. The Yeti is most commonly found in Asia, Scully, not North America. And, while Bigfoot seems to be an American phenomenon, it doesn't care much for colder climates." His face was serious.
"You're avoiding my question."
"Me? Never." An angry sigh warned him that he should proceed post haste. "All right, all right. Don't get your panties in a bunch. I ju- Ow! Jesus, Scully." He freed a hand from the wheel to rub his right shoulder. "You don't have to get violent. Maybe the Abominable Snowman *does* live here."
Scully pulled back her fist again.
"I'm sorry, okay? Really, I'm sorry." The fist dropped. "You know how I said they have lots of wildlife here? Well, this particular wildlife has a tendency to disappear. Over the past ten or so years, animals have been vanishing. No, not poaching, if that's what you're thinking. Because most of the animals are found later on. Some dead, some alive. The dead ones appear to have been sliced and diced, a few unidentifiable growths here and there. The ones that come back alive are different. Bigger, stronger, faster.
"Take a look at page twenty-eight. You'll see a report made by Robert Gustaffson, one of the researchers who worked up here. Natasha, a black bear that went missing for a month, normally weighed approximately four hundred pounds and stood five foot ten high. She was returned two hundred pounds heavier and four inches taller. Now, tell me that isn't odd."
"Perhaps it was a different bear?"
"Nope. The bear was tagged and had all the same markings, she was definitely the same one. Several other examples are listed. Black bears the size of grizzlies, wolves bigger than great danes, even a badger as large as a dog. But apparently it is only limited to non-herbivorous animals. You want to know what I think?"
"Tough, I'm going to tell you. I think that these animals were preliminary tests. Someone has been experimenting on them like lab rats and now they've reached the human trial stage."
"And who are these mysterious scientists?"
"C'mon Scully, it's obviously the Consortium. They're trying to come up with the ultimate human, one more easily hybridized with alien DNA. Stronger and more resistant to diseases or injury. You know They have been trying for years." He stopped at what he thought was an intersection and looked both ways before pulling ahead.
"Sounds like a B movie on the Sci-Fi Channel to me." Her eyes roamed over the map unfolded before her.
"Now that you mention it, I've been thinking of selling some of our case notes to movie companies. We could make a fortune in the B movie industry."
"I think there's a left turn up ahead. Why would the Consortium kidnap hikers when they have plenty of their own people to play guinea pigs?"
"Because these kids are special."
"Special? How?" She waved at a tiny blotch of red against the white surrounding them. "There's the stop sign."
"It's in the file, but I'll save you the trouble of having to read it. All five of the missing hikers claim to be alien abductees." He waited a moment. "Well?"
She quirked an eyebrow at him. "Well what?"
"Aren't you going to tell me that there is no way those kids were abducted, how ridiculous it sounds, and that there is no evidence to support my theory?"
"You're doing a fine job of that yourself, Mulder. Seriously though, don't you think it odd that all five of them were hiking up here recently? Maybe they have a cabin here that no one knows about."
"That's the point, Scully. All of them were drawn here after their abduction in February of 1998 on a field trip with the Science and Nature Club. We've seen it before."
Scully couldn't help but smile as she thought back on their first case together.
A tiny bell above the door let out a cheerful ring as the two agents walked into the restaurant. It was as though the bell signaled their arrival into another time, having been transported back to the 1950s. The cafe was sm all, a long counter stretching across its length with booths against the wi ndows. There was a jukebox in the corner to accent the other fifties deco r abounding as well as to provide the appropriate music. A woman behind the counter, dressed in a pink skirt, reading glasses, and wearing a white cap on top of curly brown hair looked at the two newcomers and smiled toothily . "Afternoon! What can I get you folks?"
Mulder couldn't help the grin spreading across his face. He looked down at Scully, who was similarly affected by the atmosphere. They stepped up to th e counter and took their seats, Mulder hesitating for just a moment until h is partner sat down before seating himself. "What's your special?" he asked the waitress.
"We've got Etta's Specialty Plate, which is a quarter pound burger with the works, a load of fries, all you can drink soda, and an ice cream sundae to top it off." The waitress, her nametag displaying the name 'Nadine', leane d toward them and whispered conspiratorially, "And since I can tell you two aren't from these parts, I'll have Earl throw in a cup of hot cocoa to war m you up."
Scully answered for them. "That would be lovely. We'll have two, thank you.= "
With that, Nadine gave the pair and wink and bustled off into the kitchen. Mulder chuckled softly, "Charming."
"I think she has her eye on you, Mulder," Scully said with an eyebrow raise d.
"Me?" His brows scrunched together. "Why do you say that?"
Dana feigned a world-weary sigh. "Mulder, don't you ever notice how women t reat you?"
He looked her directly in the eyes, his hazel orbs gazing straight inside h er. "None of those women are important to me."
There gazes remained locked for several seconds until Scully averted her ey es, cursing her Irish heritage as she felt heat rising in her cheeks.
Mulder decided to give her a moment to collect herself and turned back to t he waitress. He smiled warmly at her as he pulled out his badge. "Nadine, w e're with the FBI and I was wondering if we could ask you some questions."
"FBI? I didn't cheat on my taxes..." Nadine cried.
"No ma'am, I'm sure you didn't; besides, that's the IRS," Scully reassured her. "We were wondering if you've seen any of these young hikers over the p ast month." She pulled out large glossy photos from her bag and displayed t hem on the counter.
Nadine leaned her elbows on the tabletop and peered at them through her rea ding glasses. "Can't say I remember those three," she pointed at the first three hikers to disappear, "But this couple came in just a few days ago... Wednesday I think. Cute couple, nice for their age. Surprising considering young folks these days. Once a group of backpackers came in-"
Mulder interrupted before she could launch into an hour-long diatribe of th e evils of teenagers. "Can you remember anything strange or suspicious abou t them? Did they seem like they were afraid or worried? Anyone follow them?= "
Straightening up, Nadine pulled the pencil from behind her ear and stuck it in her mouth. "No, nobody following them. They weren't scared, certainly n ot, quite the opposite. So excited about going hiking they could barely wai t to eat."
Mulder cast a meaningful glance at his partner. Scully pursed her lips and gathered the scattered photos. A bell chimed and Nadine popped the pencil o ut of her mouth. "Speaking of eating, you're food's ready. Be back in a jif f."
The agents ate slowly, savoring the home-cooked taste and letting their min ds delve deep into the case. They finished and stood, not looking forward t o going back out into the formidable weather. Mulder thanks Nadine for her help, tipped her well and ushered Scully to the door.
They stopped and turned back to the counter.
"I don't know if it has anything to do with those kids you're looking for, but there have been a lot of lights flashing up in the forest." She shrugge d, "If that helps any."
Mulder have her his most winning smile. "Thanks again, Nadine."
Ely County Sheriff's Office
"The lights have been sighted here, here, here and about here." Sheriff Daw son pointed to red pins stuck in the large map on the wall depicting the en tire State Park. "We sent out search parties starting from these points and working outwards. We found four campsites abandoned but no sign as to wher e the kids disappeared to."
Mulder leaned back against a nearby desk, his arms folded as he contemplate d the map. He noticed a small space surrounded by black hatchmarks almost c entered in the forest and pointed to it, "What is this area?"
"Oh, that's an old wood mill that was here before the park became protected . It's been closed for years."
"Did you search there?"
Dawson blinked at the agent. "No, why would we? It's nowhere near the camps ites. There is no way those kids could have made it there in the time betwe en when they were last seen and when we sent out search parties."
Scully rummaged in her briefcase and withdrew a map similar to the one on t he wall. "Sheriff, could you show us the easiest way to the mill?"
"Don't know why you want to bother with that place, but okay." He spread ou t the map on another desk and stuck his finger on a square. "This is the Pa rk Information Center; take this road up along the the mountain - be carefu l, there are some sharp turns - and take it to the end. Now, that won't get you all the way there, there was an avalanche and the road to the mill was cut off. We never bothered with clearing it because the mill was closed an yway. So, you're going to have to hike the rest of the way in. It's only ab out a mile or so from the road, so it shouldn't take you more than half an hour to get there."
Scully memorized the places the Sheriff had indicated and folded the map ba ck up. "Thank you very much for your time. We'll keep you updated if we fin d anything."
Sheriff Dawson nodded and watched the FBI agents walk out the door, shaking his head. "All they're gonna find up there is snow, trees, and a broken do wn building," he muttered.
Black Bear Lodge
Mulder and Scully pushed open the large wooden door and stepped inside quic kly as a gust of wind tried to enter with them. They shook off the snow on their coats and moved in to the reservation office. The entire place was bu ilt from logs, fake candlelights illuminating the room and green and brown colored furniture abounded. A fireplace was set in the far wall, a large fire cheerfully crackling in it. The required amount of stuffed animal heads adorned the walls and a large chandelier made from antlers hung from the ce nter of the high ceiling. An old woman was sitting behind the reservation d esk, reading a magazine.
Mulder cleared his throat to get the woman's attention.
"Oh, my dears, I'm so sorry. Simply got too involved in my reading. I'm Aud rey Benson. You two must be the FBI agents Roy was talking about."
Scully raised an eyebrow. "Roy?"
"Yes, my husband, Roy. He's the Park Ranger and he called to let me know th at you two would be on your way. You told him you couldn't come up to the p ark until tomorrow and that you were going to check into a motel. Well, Bla ck Bear Lodge is the only motel around here, so we figured you'd be stoppin g by. He told me to give you our best cabin, free of charge."
"That's very kind of you," Scully said, throwing Mulder a glance that commu nicated her uneasiness about sharing a cabin. It was not that she had any q ualms about sleeping in the same room with him, in the same bed for that ma tter, but they were on a case and had made an agreement to keep their intim ate relationship separate from their work relationship.
Mulder simply shrugged and followed the old woman as she led them out the d oor, babbling about how much she hoped they would find the kids safe and so und and how this sort of thing never happens in Ely and...
Scully plucked the keys out of Audrey's hand when they reached the front st eps of the cabin, thanking her again for her hospitality, eager to end the woman's incessant chattering. Mulder asked her if she could let her husband know they'd be by his office around ten and then disappeared inside after his partner, leaving the old woman muttering to herself about what the worl d was coming to when kids disappeared in Ely.
The cabin was very cozy; a lower level contained a small living room with c ouch and television, kitchenette and table as well as bathroom. Upstairs wa s the bed, separated from the rest of the cabin only by railing.
Mulder looked up at the loft. "If it would make you feel better, Scully, I could take the couch," he offered.
"Don't be ridiculous," she answered. "We are grown adults and we can certai nly behave like it when we're sharing a bed."
Mulder leered. "Adult behavior in bed is my specialty."
She scowled at him. "That's not what I meant and you know it."
"Spoil sport." Mulder moved to the table by the kitchen and set his briefca se down on it, opening it and spreading its contents all over. He separated the papers into piles and sat down in the chair, lost in thought as he reg arded one of the piles.
Scully walked up behind him, peering over his shoulder. "Who are they?"
Mulder held up the photograph he was looking at. It was a picture of a grou p of thirteen people composed of eleven teenagers and two adults. "It's the Science and Nature Club: eleven kids and two teachers. What I want to know is if we are just seeing the beginning of the abductions or if the five wh o are missing are different from the others, specifically chosen?"
"Do they have anything in common?"
"They all participated in sports, three were in R.O.T.C. and that's about i t. They are healthy and strong, making them good candidates for testing."
"Do you have medical exam records?"
He handed her one of the piles and she slid into the chair next to him. "Lo oks like it's going to be a long night."
They studied the case notes for hours, offering and refuting possibilities,= wracking their brains for every imaginable reason these kids had been chos en. It was almost midnight when Scully forced Mulder to go to bed, reasonin g that they would be hiking tomorrow and needed their rest. They changed th eir clothes and climbed into the large bed, careful to keep a good distance between them.
Sleep came quickly and soon morning was upon them. Despite their efforts to the contrary, they woke up wrapped in each other's embrace.
Bear Head Lake Park
"It looks like you expect us to be spending a month in the wilderness!" Scu lly exclaimed.
Roy Benson was a friendly old man, his shoulders stooped and his blond bear d sprinkled with white. He wore a cowboy hat on his balding head and thick glasses made his eyes appear abnormally large. He spoke with a slight accen t and was deaf in one ear so that you had to make sure you were standing on his right side in order to be heard. At Mulder's request, Roy had supplied the gear they would need for their trek into the forest - which amounted t o two large backpacks outfitted with everything from canteens to sleeping b ags.
"Storms come up mighty sudden in these parts and you never know when or whe re you could get stuck. Better to be prepared then to be caught in freezing weather without the proper equipment," the old man reasoned.
"This is just fine, thank you for the precautions," Mulder said as he tosse d his smaller backpack in the back of the Explorer on top of the gear.
"You know where you're goin'?" The ranger sounded dubious.
"Sheriff Dawson showed us on the map. About how far would you say it is unt il the road ends?" Scully asked.
Roy stroked his short beard. "Hmm. I'd say it's about nineteen or twenty mi les in, though it'll take about two hours to get there 'cause the roads are winding and not in the best condition, 'specially in this weather."
"Then we had better get started." Mulder shook Roy's hand and got in the dr iver's side of the S.U.V., tapping his fingers impatiently on the steering wheel as he waited for Scully. She hurried over and had to climb into the l arge vehicle, throwing Mulder a dirty look that squelched any snide remark he was about to make regarding her height. Since she certainly couldn't wea r heels on this case, she had lost several inches and the top of her head b arely reached her partner's shoulder.
He just grinned and started the car.
Bear Head Lake Park
"Only fools are positive."
"And how many times have you been positive on a case? I think that sums up to you being one of the most foolish men in the world."
Mulder put a hand over his heart. "You wound me to the quick, woman."
Scully laughed and pushed open the door, having to jump to the ground, her boots crunching in the snow. She unfolded the map in her hand and double-ch ecked her directions. "The newest crime scene is a few miles hike to the we st."
Mulder was now out and around at the back of the vehicle, pulling out the b ackpacks. "Just in case," he said as Scully looked at him questioningly.
Once they were ready, they took a good look around them to place their surr oundings firmly in their minds and then headed off away from the sun. Mulde r started out at a fast pace, forcing Scully to jog to keep up. "Mulder, sl ow it down. Remember you've just recovered from broken bones; no need to st rain anything."
"Yes, Mother," he grumbled.
"Well, I wouldn't have to treat you like a child if you took better care of yourself," she reminded him.
"Oh yeah, it's all my fault that the bar blew up," he groused, tossing her a sour look.
Scully just returned his look.
It took them approximately an hour and a half to reach their destination, c oming upon it so suddenly that Scully let out a startled "Oh!"
The scene looked like a tornado had run through the campsite. The tent was leaning precariously to one side, its door flapping in the wind. The remain s of a campfire were partially covered with snow, ashes scattered about in a gray mush. A tree stump next to it had a coffee mug lying at its base, an y food long eaten as wild animals had most certainly carried it away. Scrap s of yellow crime scene tape fluttered from where they were tied around tre es, having been broken by the wind, animals, or a combination of both.
They stood and surveyed the area in silence, making initial observations. B irds continued to chirp and the trees creaked in the wind, normal everyday sounds of the forest. Scully thought it was somehow a violation of the abno rmality of the the crime scene. But nature was indifferent to the plight of humans. She shook herself to rid her mind of unwanted thoughts and turned to her partner. "Any sign of aliens?"
"Actually, no. No burn marks on the trees, no disturbances in the snow. Eve n if there had been snowfall in between the time of the abduction and now, there would be some evidence of tremendous heat."
"If it wasn't aliens, what happened to those kids?"
Mulder chewed on his lower lip as he stared blankly at the tent. "I don't k now."
They had only stayed for forty-five minutes, searching for any sign of what tragedy had befallen the campers, but to no avail. Giving up the investiga tion as futile, they headed back to the car. The hike back began in silence , each agent deep in thoughts of animal attacks, serial murderers, and cult sacrifices. Anything that might explain what happened. The quiet was broke n by a soft voice.
"Why do you pray?"
"I mean, if God gave us free will, why pray?"
"I don't follow."
Mulder paused in his forward trek and turned, placing his hands on his hips . "People pray to God because they think that it will in some way have an a ffect on their lives, right? That they can ask Him for things in hopes that He will bestow their wants upon them or influence events in their lives. B ut if God gave us free will, then it isn't up to Him to decide our fate, bu t us. So, why pray at all if it doesn't matter?"
Scully stood next to her partner, tilting her head slightly to look up at h im. "Why are you asking?"
A white cloud formed briefly in front of Mulder's face before it dissipated in the chill wind. "I was just looking around at the beauty and majesty of Nature and our place in it and I realized how insignificant we really are in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps people pray because they want to fee l important, they want to feel like they aren't at the mercy of uncontrolla ble forces. God is a safety net for those who need to believe that things h appen to them for a reason."
Scully pursed her pale lips, one gloved hand reaching up to push a damp str and of hair behind her ear. "I suppose that is one way to look at it. But, Mulder, who's to say that things don't happen for a reason? Yes, we have fr ee will, therefore things happen because *we* make them happen."
"True, but think of all the variables. There are over five billion people o n this Earth, all of them with free will, interacting with each other and m aking hundreds of choices every day. We can't control what other people do and so we have no real say in what happens to us that is not immediately wi thin our own limits. It's chaos theory - a butterfly can flap its wings in the Amazon and it rains in Central Park."
A bird warbled off to their left and Scully turned her head in that directi on, staring off into the pristine beauty of the forest. "No, we can't contr ol what others do, think, or feel; we can only deal with our own reactions to them. People pray because they look to God for guidance in helping them respond to events and to help them make the right decisions. He isn't a dic tator; He doesn't want to reduce us to mere automatons that follow His ever y word. He's a guiding hand whom we turn to for comfort in times of need an d for direction when we are lost."
"How can anyone receive comfort from a deity who is blind to the pain and d espair of so many lives? Who stands idly by as horrific crimes are committe d every single day? I'm sorry, Scully, but I can't find faith in something or someone that allows the things I've seen to happen."
"He doesn't allow it to happen, Mulder. It all comes back to free will, He gave it to us because He loved us enough to trust that we would make our ow n choices. Some people just make the wrong choices."
"Maybe they should have prayed harder."
It took just under two hours for them to reach the roadblock. Boulders and dirt had slid down the mountain and come to rest in pile fifteen feet high at the apex, directly in the middle of the road. The forest hemmed in the other side and it was obviously impossible for a car to get through. Mulder pulled the vehicle around so that it was facing the open road and put on the brakes. Having regained their emotional equilibrium on the drive over, their spirits were buoyed by the hopes of finding an explanation at the mill. "We're here."
"Thank you for clearing that up," was Scully's wry response.
"C'mon, Scully, if I didn't know any better, I'd say you weren't looking forward to this."
"Gee, I wonder why. Perhaps it's because of all the fond memories of other 'nice trips to the forest'." Scully pushed open her door and exited the car, walking around to open the trunk.
Mulder followed her, helping her pull up the back door. He removed his small backpack and slung it over his shoulder then turned to take the canteens from the larger packs. He stuffed one in his backpack then handed the other to his partner. "Well, we've learned from our mistakes, haven't we?"
"You mean after man-eating ancient bugs tried to devour us in Olympic National Forest? Or after an enormous alligator sunk our boat in the Blue Ridge Mountains? Maybe after you were chased through the Siberian forest by Russian spies? Perhaps when mothmen sucked us into a pit full of bodies in Northern Florida? No wait, it was after we spent time inside a giant goo-spouting fungus in the Brown Mountain region. Then again, it could be-"
"Okay, okay, I get the point! Jeez, will you ever let me live it down? It's not like I knew we would run into so many problems." He cringed at the venomous look she was giving him. "All right! So I did have my suspicions in a lot of those cases, but that doesn't mean I expected them to turn out the way they did."
"And this time is going to be different."
She sighed, a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. "Mulder, sometimes I seriously worry about you. Now get your ass in gear and let's get moving."
Mulder jerked in surprise at her command and, relieved at her improved mood, mock saluted her. "Yes, Ma'am!"
They started heading east, circumventing the avalanche debris and hiking up the slope leading deeper into the forest. Their footsteps crunched in the snow and birds chirped happily as the trees closed in around them.
The hike to the mill was uphill, all talking at a halt as they saved their breath for the exertion. As they neared the top of the incline, they began to hear sounds that had no business being in the middle of a national park. There was a flat voice being emitted through a loudspeaker, issuing what sounded like commands. The hum of engines and the chant of many voices in unison were painfully familiar.
"I'd say that sounds more like a military base than an abandoned wood mill," Mulder remarked. Scully nodded in agreement and they crept up to the top of the rise, ducking down below the edge so as not to be seen by any of the people in the valley below. Mulder's observation had been correct - it was a military base.
It was a low building with fences surrounding it, groups of men marching across the open fields in front. A helicopter was positioned off to the side, large searchlights suspended from its frame. Mulder pointed at it. "Looks like we found our UFO."
"What would the military want with the hikers?"
"It could still be the Consortium, they work with the military, you know. My best guess is that, if it is the military, they are probably trying to create a superior soldier. They've been trying for years and that would explain the condition of the animals..." Mulder pulled the backpack off his shoulder and rummaged around until he withdrew a pair of binoculars. Peering through them, he was able to make out the words on one of the doors. 'Biohazardous materials inside - Level 2 Decontamination Suit required'.
He handed the binoculars to Scully and pulled a camera out of his pack, using the long lens to capture as many details on film as possible. Scully, who had also read the signs and was now scouring the rest of the camp. "No sign of the hikers, most likely inside. I don't see any way in except through the main gate and I doubt they'll let us just waltz right in."
Mulder pondered the implications for a while. "Let's stay here and see what we can, get as much information as possible before we make any decisions. There might be a way in that we can't see, or they might bring the kids out. If nothing else, we'll have good evidence to get a whole police force up here."
Scully accepted this as the best possible plan and scooted down in the snow, making herself as comfortable as possible, preparing herself for a long wait.
An hour passed and they had nothing more than photographs to show for their time. There was no hint as to the whereabouts of the kids, no clues into the true purpose of the compound, and no indication of any other entrance. The light was fading fast, a light snow drifting down and Scully didn't want to stay out here in a blizzard at night. She nudged her partner, whose eyes were glued to the binoculars. "Mulder."
"It's getting dark, we should go."
Prying himself from his search, he turned and looked at her, then the sky, then back at her. "You're right, we should- wait a minute!" Mulder turned to his left where he had seen something move out of the corner of his eye. Squinting into the dense forest, he saw it again. He put the binoculars up to his face and had to move them around a bit before he pinpointed what he had seen.
It was a troop of men in white jumpers, each one armed with machine guns. And they were heading straight for the FBI agents.
"Scully, run!!" Mulder sprang to his feet and began sprinting back the way they had come, pine needles slapping him in the face as he crashed through branches, dodging rocks and low hanging limbs. Scully instinctively followed, not even questioning his sudden command. He glanced behind him every few seconds to make sure she was keeping up.
Suddenly bullets were flying around them, making little 'thwack' sounds as they hit trees and whizzed by their bodies. Suddenly, Mulder hear an "Oomph!" behind him and turned his head just in time to see his partner fall. "Scully!!" he cried, skidding to a halt in the muddy snow. He whirled around and ran back to where she was pulling herself out of a pile of snow. Mulder grabbed her arms and hauled her up, frantically asking, "Are you all right??"
She nodded, breathlessly adding, "Snow drift." Then they were off again, Mulder holding tightly to Scully's hand, pulling her after him at a breakneck pace. He heard several more 'thwacks' to his right and a sharp pain in his side made him stumble slightly. He ignored the fire quickly spreading across his abdomen and continued down the path they had just made a little over an hour and a half ago. He could see the car, its blue shell standing out starkly against the whitened wilderness. "Almost there!!" he shouted over his shoulder.
The second he reached the vehicle he pulled open the driver's side door, thanking his foresight in leaving it unlocked, and threw Scully inside. She scrambled across the gearshift to settle into the passenger seat. The 'thwacks' became 'pings' as bullets peppered the car, shattering the back left window. The second Mulder closed the door behind him, he started the engine and yanked the shift to four wheel drive. He slammed his foot on the gas pedal and prayed that the snow chains would work. For a few terrifying moments, the wheels spun ineffectually, but just as the white clad figures appeared out of the trees, the car lurched forward down the slippery road.
They sped through the forest, windshield wipers at full blast as the snowfall thickened, Mulder calling upon every ounce of strength he had to control the vehicle. They almost skid right off the road around one corner, only to have Mulder pull them back with a sharp wrench of the steering wheel. He was starting to believe they'd lost their pursuers when the sound of a helicopter roared overhead. "Damn it!!" He hit the steering wheel with an open palm. "We're not going to lose them like this, we need to turn off the headlights!" he shouted over the noise.
"We're on the main road, they'll be able to follow us no matter what!" Scully returned as her partner flicked off the beams of light, using the last few remnants of daylight filtering through the clouds to drive by.
Mulder's mouth set in a grim line as he stared at the ever-increasing snowfall in front of them. All of a sudden, an idea sprang into his mind. "Wasn't there a maintenance road up here somewhere?? The trees overhang and the chopper wouldn't see us!" He yanked the wheel back to the right to avoid a fallen tree. More bullets rained down on them, kicking up sprays of snow and a few decorating the hood with small holes. It was hard to see without the headlights, but he could just make out the edge of the forest, keeping them on the road - barely. So concentrated on staying on the main road was he, that he almost missed the turn off onto the maintenance road. Scully hadn't though.
"Mulder! There!" She pointed to the dark opening in the trees that constituted the entrance to their escape route. Mulder braked, desperately pulling the wheel left to make the sharp turn. The back of the car slammed into a thick tree trunk, fishtailing the vehicle slightly, but not enough to send them off course. Mulder slowed a bit, carefully navigating through the dark tunnel of trees, not willing to turn on the headlights for even a second. They could still see the helicopter circling above, its searchlight flicking back and forth over the main road.
Mulder continued, wanting to get as far away from the men in white as possible. It was getting harder to concentrate though, the pain in his side was growing, persistently sending shooting pains across his stomach, back, and up his chest. His eyes were becoming heavy, sounds were muffled, and breathing was starting to become a chore. But he kept his foot on the pedal, putting as much distance between them and the soldiers as he possibly could.
Scully wiped the fogged window beside her and peered into the darkening sky. The light from the chopper was nothing but a tiny pinpoint, the only sounds left were her own heavy breathing and the grumble of the car's engine. She looked back at her partner, her eyes wide with appreciation at his skilled driving and their luck at losing the helicopter. His eyes, however, were at half-mast, almost struggling to stay open. His breaths were coming in shallow gasps, sweat beading his forehead. He blinked several times, his jaw clenched tight, and his body leaning forward.
"Mulder?? What's wrong?" The clouds had consumed all the light and she could barely see his face anymore.
She could hear him swallow before answering. "I... I think I-" he was cut off as the car jerked suddenly, the wheels sliding on a bad patch of ice, throwing Scully against her seat belt. "Hold on!" Mulder shouted as he fought with the steering. They continued to slide, the back end swiveling around so that they were moving sideways at a frightening speed. The car slammed into a pile of boulders, glancing off them right before crashing into the trees, crushing the hood.
The forest was silent now, as if Mother Nature was holding her breath. Scully broke the silence by whispering a heartfelt "Thank God." She quickly checked herself for injuries, and finding none, turned to her partner. His head lolled towards her, his eyes glowing in the dim light. "You okay?" he asked hoarsely.
"I think so." He tried to shift in his seat so that he could face her fully, but the movement seemed to make his side explode in agony. He groaned and arrested his movement, waiting impatiently for the pain to recede.
Scully was frantic with worry, her heart constricting in her chest at the sound of her partner's suffering. "Mulder?? What's wrong?"
"I think one of the bullets might have grazed me," he confessed.
"What?? Where??" She reached out blindly, finding his hand in the darkness. "Show me."
He took her hand and guided it to his side, shuddering involuntarily when he pressed her palm to the source of pain. She could feel something thick and warm ooze between her fingers, soaking the jacket underneath her hand. "Jesus," she mumbled. "You call that a graze?"
"You don't think so?" he asked, his voice quiet.
"I won't know unless I can look at it. Lie back," she ordered. Now that her eyes had become accustomed to the night, she could see Mulder more clearly, his features painted a pale gray by the bit of moonlight peering through the clouds. He reclined his seat and began unbuttoning his coat, the fabric rustling noisily. He gasped as she peeled the underlying sweater and wet shirt back to reveal a dark patch on his skin. Pursing her lips at the thought of such unsterile methods, she grabbed the Kleenex box from the back seat and dabbed at the area.
Clearing away enough of the blood, she saw a small, yet ragged, hole about an inch below his last rib. This was *not* a graze. She had to check for an exit wound. "Mulder, I need you to sit up for me now, okay?"
He nodded, complying slowly, hoping it would be less painful that way. No such luck. Scully lifted up the layers of clothes on his back, finding a twin to the hole on his front. "All right, I'm done." Mulder sighed gratefully and sank back into the seat.
He looked at her troubled face. "So?"
"It went through, which is a relief. The cold should keep the bleeding to a minimum but I want you to move as little as possible." It had gone through on his left side, maybe hitting his spleen but more likely cutting through some intestines. At least there were no major organs hit and she thanked God for small miracles. He had to get to a hospital soon, there was no telling what kind of internal damage the bullet had done. However, it didn't look to her like there was any possibility of that in the near future. The car was useless and the soldiers could still be out there.
"We'll have to wait until daylight," Mulder said, as though reading Scully's thoughts. "Too dangerous to hike at night."
Not to mention the fact that he was probably too injured to hike. Scully bit her lip in fear. This was a nightmare. She and her injured partner were stranded in the middle of the wilderness with a military special ops unit after them, no help for miles around, cell phones were useless, and where temperatures dropped below zero at night. There was no way. Absolutely no fucking way.
Despair threatened to overwhelm her, but suddenly Mulder's hand squeezed hers. "We'll make it. Rest tonight and set out in the morning."
Scully smiled, thanking him silently for bringing her hope, however faint it was. She managed to push away all the obstacles facing them in the future and focused on the here and now. First thing first - get Mulder warm. He was due for a heavy case of shock, and the snow outside continued to fall. "At least the snow should keep the helicopter out of commission for a while."
"It didn't seem to stop it earlier," Mulder commented wryly. "Must be one of those unmarked helicopters - they can fly in any weather."
"Great. Reverse engineered from UFOs, I'm sure." Scully smiled back at him. Then she climbed into the back seat and rummaged around in the trunk area, hefting her backpack over the seat. She untied the sleeping bag and tossed it up front before removing the metal rods that kept the pack stable. She unzipped the largest compartment and removed all the clothing that she felt might come in handy over the next 24 hours, praying that twenty-four hours was all that she need plan for. Next, she wadded up the backpack and shoved it into the gaping hole that was once the left window, ignoring the sharpness of shattered glass beneath her knees, making sure that no cold air was leaking in around the edges of her makeshift insulation.
She returned to her seat and unrolled the sleeping bag she had deposited a minute ago, scrunching it up slightly so that there was enough room to completely unfold it. She unzipped it all the way around, creating a very large flannel blanket. She laid it over Mulder, whose teeth had begun to chatter loudly.
"I th-think now would be a g-good time to test that n-naked person in a sleeping b-bag theory," Mulder said, a tiny gleam in his eye.
To his surprise, Scully paused and thought it over. "Actually, I think you may be right."
He was so shocked that he couldn't even come up with a witty reply.
"You know, I'm rather disappointed."
"This wasn't exactly what I was imagining when I brought up the idea of sleeping bags."
Scully lifted her head up from her partner's chest to look at his face. "This is as close as you're gonna get any time soon, so enjoy it while it lasts."
Mulder smiled softly. Despite the fact that they weren't naked - Scully had insisted they leave on their light layer of underclothes - he was enjoying himself tremendously. It wasn't every day he got to snuggle up to his partner in such tight confines and on a case. They lay together quietly for a while, each one immersed in their own thoughts.
Scully shifted against Mulder's side, pressing herself closer to his body. "Mulder?"
"It's my sidearm, I swear."
Dana burst into giggles, her body shaking his with her laughter. He gasped, "Ah, watch it."
"Sorry." She stilled and surreptitiously moved her hand down to feel the bandages she had applied earlier to make sure they hadn't soaked through.
Damn, he noticed. "I know, but humor me, it's for my own piece of mind."
"I said, it's for my-"
"No, I mean you were going to ask me something."
She was silent for a moment. "Do you think those kids are still alive?"
Mulder considered her question for several minutes. "I don't know, I hope so. Some of the animals came back, if a bit altered, so there is a chance."
"Isn't it an awfully big risk to kidnap five teenagers, one of them a senator's daughter? It's like the military isn't worried about anyone coming to look for them."
"Remember, these kids are all abductees from a couple years ago. Not only do the military have all the samples from that initial abduction in order to decide which ones were best suited for mutation, but they also established a reputation of incredulity concerning the teens' whereabouts. It would be a waste of time, money, and manpower to find new subjects. Add to that the fact that most people think that the kids are nutcases because they claim to have been abducted by aliens, and you have a recipe for your own little workshop, with no interruptions."
Scully pondered this new information. "Well, somebody obviously didn't buy it, or we wouldn't be here."
"That's because the Senator believes his daughter was taken the first time by kidnappers who brainwashed her into believing she was taken by aliens. He was certain that they were planning on ransoming her but something went wrong and they had to dump her. He's been paranoid ever since about where she goes and what she does. He's the perfect example of an overprotective parent."
Dana thought about how she would feel if one of her children was taken and came to the conclusion that she would act very much the same as Senator Huntsacker was. The little redhead from her dream flashed before her eyes and she shivered.
"You still cold, Scully? Because I could take off-"
"Shut up, you need to conserve your energy."
Bear Head Lake State Park
Scully searched the bank for the most stable patch that would hold her weight and allow her to obtain more water. Finally finding what appeared to be a snow covered plot of rocks, she gingerly stepped onto it, cautious of the slightest hint that it might give way beneath her. Relief flooded through her as the ground held and she knelt down to dip her canteen into the water.
She quickly filled the container and screwed the lid back on, leaning back on her heels as she did so. As a matter of course, she checked her surroundings and was taken aback by the beauty of the snow laden forest. The yellow glow of the early morning sun glinted off the white blanket, casting blue and purple shadows throughout the trees. Birds chattered happily and the constant thrumming of the river was a melodious backdrop to the serenity before her.
She stood and was about to turn away when a loud splash caught her attention. She looked straight across the river and was shocked to find an enormous black bear staring back at her. The ursine was almost as big as a grizzly, only lacking the longer hair and silvered tips of the larger bear. The animal was wading out into the river, heading right in her direction, its large golden eyes intent on the motionless woman. Once it had almost reached the middle of the swift river, it found that the water was too deep to cross at that point. Frustrated by this obstacle, the brute let out a tremendous bellow, startling a flock of birds into flight. Scully was so overwhelmed by the noise that she forgot the cardinal rule of dealing with bears - never run. She scrambled backwards, automatically reaching behind her for her gun as the monstrosity across the river paced back and forth. In her haste, she wasn't as mindful of her steps and as she moved back her left foot slipped on the icy rocks. With a cry of dismay she tumbled into the frigid water, losing her gun as she flailed for purchase on anything and everything within her reach.
"Mulder!" she yelled, cold water splashing into her face. She had fallen into a deep spot and the fast moving river was keeping her from getting out. Her numb hands clung to a branch as she was swept down river and she called again for her partner, in the slight chance that he might hear her. But she held out little hope, for he was in no shape to come to her rescue let alone detect her shouting.
Scully held fast to the wet branch, trembling with cold and fear. She was trapped in a river that was freezing, being hounded by a bear in the middle of the forest, and her seriously injured partner was far away. This nightmare was only getting worse.
The car rocked slightly as he jerked forward violently, his breath catching in his throat. A moment passed before the spots dancing across his vision faded and the fire in his side abated enough for him to think clearly.
Something was wrong.
He didn't know what it was but he couldn't dismiss the feeling of dread that pulled him from his sleep. Glancing to his left, he found that he was alone in the vehicle and his sense of foreboding doubled. Where was Scully? He closed his eyes and played back recent events until he reached the few minutes previous to his drifting back to sleep. She had gone to get water, that was it. She still must be out, that was all.
But how long ago had she left? Had it been more than five or ten minutes? What if something had happened? What if the soldiers had found her? The more he thought about it, the more concerned he became. The very idea that his partner was captured was enough to make up his mind - he would have to find her.
Pushing the thick sleeping bag onto the passenger seat, he carefully maneuvered himself into a sitting position. He turned slowly and pulled his sweater and parka from the back seat, gritting his teeth as the action twisted his side. Getting his sweater on over his head was a major endeavor and by the time he was done he was sweating with pain. A few deep breaths to gain his equilibrium and he opened the door, automatically shivering as a cold blast of air bombarded him. Monumental effort was needed to get from the car to the ground and to get his leaden arms through the sleeves of the parka, but he managed with only a minimal loss of time.
Scanning the new fallen snow, he easily found the tiny footprints that marked Scully's passing. Before heading off in that direction, Mulder made sure to retrieve his gun from the glove compartment and check to see if he still had an extra clip. Opening the back door, he snatched his small backpack off the pile of gear, slinging it onto his shoulder. Armed and as ready as he could be, he marched off into the wilderness.
Following Scully's footprints, Mulder traveled fifty yards or so before his body forced him to stop. Leaning heavily against a pine tree, he concentrated on breathing and focused on remaining upright. Finally the pounding in his ears diminished and he was able to make out the rumbling of moving water.
He was close, there was no time to waste. Gathering his strength, he pushed off the tree and stumbled towards the sound, keeping Scully's tracks before him as assurance that he was heading in the right direction. The crunching of his feet in the snow and his labored breathing were the only noises joining the water to penetrate the stillness of the forest. Those and one of the most terrifying sounds Mulder had ever heard - his partner screaming his name.
Scully clawed at the branch in an effort to pull herself from the frigid river but the bark was too wet. Water splashed into her eyes and she turned her head towards the forest. The trees and snow were a gray and white blur with yellow highlights of sunlit ice. Blinking rapidly, she cleared her vision enough to make out a shape moving among the trees. Had the bear found a way to cross the rapids?
Peering over her shoulder, Scully saw a large dark brown blur pacing on the opposite bank. No, not the bear then. She turned her head back and found that the shape was closer now, sharpening into the form of a human. Fingers numb from the cold, Scully clung tighter to the branch and lowered her head to just above water level, hoping that she would not be noticed by what she was sure was an soldier.
Her eyes, which had been shut so that the water splashing around her face wouldn't blind her, popped open and she stared at the man floundering through the snow to reach her. Shock and relief warred for dominance as she watched Mulder drop to his knees on the riverbank and hold out a hand to her.
"Grab my hand, Scully!"
For a moment she couldn't comprehend the fact that her partner was there but when he repeated his plea her mind finally started working again. She strained every muscle, trying to make her body obey the simplest instructions. Her wet gloves sliding along the wood, she managed to bring herself a few inches closer to the bank. She reached out her hand only to find that she was a good foot from Mulder's fingers.
"C'mon, Scully, you can do it! Just a little farther!" Mulder coaxed, scooting a bit closer to the edge of the rushing water.
An enormous roar echoed across the water, pulling at their attention. Mulder looked up at the great monster pacing along the opposite bank - it was getting ready to plunge into the river. If that bear reached them they were both as good as dead. He glanced back down at Scully and then back at the animal. He had to do something. Now.
Pushing himself up from the bank, he reached into his coat and pulled out his weapon. Taking careful aim at the bear, Mulder shoved aside any qualms against killing the animal and fired. At first it looked as though he had missed, the only reaction from the bear a slight jerk at the sound of the shot. Then its pacing began to slow until the huge animal came to a stop, its drooping head staring vacantly at the pair of humans. For a few moments nothing but the racing water moved and then the bear finally turned and shuffled off into the forest, leaving behind red-stained footprints in the snow.
Sending up his thanks, Mulder dropped to his chest and tried once again to reach his partner. Neither of them said a word, too focused on averting disaster. They strained their arms and fingers but they were still too far away. Inching forward further, he placed some of his weight on the branch Scully was holding on to. They were so close, their fingertips brushing slightly, when suddenly the branch gave way, plunging Mulder's upper torso into the river. Making a desperate grab for the wood, he managed to get a grip on the branch. His relief was short-lived however, because although he had kept Scully from being swept away, he found himself being dragged into the water.
He dug his knees into the crumbling snow, pulling on the branch with all his might as he pushed aside everything else - pain, cold, fear - and focused on getting his partner safely to shore.
Closing his eyes, he pulled with all his might, letting out a strangled cry as he put every fiber of his body into the effort. Then a hand clamped onto his arm and he opened his eyes to find Scully's gloved fingers wrapped around his forearm. He grabbed at her coat, hauling her to the shore. Then it was all over and they were lying side by side on the bank, gasping. Mulder allowed himself a few more seconds to regain his strength and dragged himself upright. He had to get Scully out of her wet clothes.
He pulled off his wet coat and then stripped off his sweater and turtleneck, leaving on his undershirt before replacing his coat. Then he did the same to his partner, but taking off everything except her bra. She didn't seem to notice his manhandling at first and simply allowed him to dress her in his own garments. Then she let out a slightly hysterical laugh as he finished buttoning up her damp coat.
"What's so funny?"
"This is th-the second t-time that you've had t-to do th-this," she chattered.
A flash of the Arctic and an enormous crater ran through his head. He smiled indulgently at the thought. "We'll make it through this too." He pulled her to her feet, grimacing as he did so.
"I c-can hardly m-move my legs," Scully stuttered.
Mulder looked down at her soaked jeans, shaking his head. There was nothing he could do about that, they would simply have to dry on their own. "I can't carry you this time, so just lean on me as much as you have to."
Luckily, since his partner didn't weigh much, Mulder wasn't too burdened by her. They stumbled together through the trees, away from their crashed vehicle. Mulder knew that the soldiers had heard their shots and would be coming to investigate. He didn't know where he was going, but he knew he had to be anywhere but here.
They hobbled along for an hour, Scully's weight growing heavier with each step as Mulder lost strength. He looked down at her face, her pale skin a deep contrast between the red tendrils of her hair. Her lips were slightly blue but, he was relieved to note, not a hypothermic shade. All this walking was keeping them warm but burning precious energy in the process. His coat had finally dried and his pants were damp from the knees down. Scully's jacket and jeans were also less wet, though not enough for his peace of mind. His mind and body warred over whether to keep going or allow himself a moment of rest. His body made the decision for him, his left leg collapsing underneath him. Scully landed on top of him with a startled "Oh!"
He gripped the trunk of a tree about three inches from his face, glad he hadn't hit the wood instead, and dragged himself into a sitting position against it. Scully crawled up next to him, settling her body as close to his as humanly possible. "Muld-der?"
"Peachy." He leaned his head back against the rough bark, his mind whirling with the desperation of their situation. Staring off into space, he was startled when a tiny white ball landed on his nose. He groaned - it was starting to snow again. At least it would hide their tracks. His head lolled to the right, looking back at their trail through the snow. Then something caught his eye. At the bottom of a rather large snowdrift they had passed there was a hole. It was small and right next to a tree so that the branched covered it. It was so well camouflaged that anyone would miss it unless the light hit it just so. If only it was big enough for two...
"We need to get up before my butt freezes to the ground." She snorted at the comment but started moving. After a few moments and a lot of effort, they made it to their feet and Mulder was leading them to the hole. He propped Scully against the tree and knelt down, feeling his belt cinch across his wound. He felt little pain, it had been numbed by the cold a while ago.
Digging at the base of the hole, he discovered that it was larger than he had first imagined, at least wide enough to allow someone to crawl through. He looked over his shoulder at his partner. "Be right back." Scooting forward on his hands and knees he was enveloped by darkness and he paused, waiting for his eyes to adjust. There appeared to he enough room for two, although it would be cramped. There was a dark spot just in the corner and he scrambled forward to investigate. He cried out in surprise as he suddenly tumbled down a small ladder and landed in a spacious cave.
He reached in his pocket and pulled out a lighter, flipping it on to give him enough light to see. He was dumbfounded by what he beheld. There was a cot by one of the walls, a clay oven against the opposite side that had a chimney leading up into the ceiling of the cave, and a crudely constructed cabinet with one door hanging open to reveal tools and jars.
"Mulder, where are you?" Scully's voice from above brought him out of his amazed stupor. She had crawled into the first section of the cave looking for him after he had yelled. Going up the ladder, he almost came up right underneath her.
"You'll never believe this, Scully." He took her arm and led her down the steps, holding the lighter high so she could see everything.
She let out a long breath in appreciation of the discovery. "Somebody worked hard to make a place that wasn't easily seen. Do you think anyone's been here in a while?"
"I don't care. It's shelter and it's a good hiding place, that's all I care. We can lay our clothes out to dry and curl up on the cot to get warmer. We can't risk a fire during the daylight."
Scully nodded. There was no way they were going to make it much farther today, despite the fact that it wasn't even noon. They were both freezing and needed to get warm. After a night of rest and dressed in dry clothing, they would make much better progress tomorrow. She looked at her partner who was breathing heavily as he pulled off his coat, the bandage underneath soaked red.
They just had to last until tomorrow.
Scully couldn't sleep. Despite the fact that she was exhausted, she couldn't seem to sleep. Pressed up against Mulder's body and covered in a blanket of animal fur, she was careful not disturb her slumbering partner. After changing his bandages - she thanked her foresight in packing his small backpack with the essentials - they had curled up on the cot and regained the precious body heat they had lost. When they finally felt like the last bit of cold had seeped from their bones, they had eaten the simple meals that she had also stowed in the pack. Then it was back to the cot, keeping each other as warm as possible until it was safe to light a fire.
Her mind was too full of questions for her to sleep. Would the soldiers find them? Would the ranger come looking for them? Would Mulder last long enough to get out of here? Who lived here before? What the hell was poking her in the back?
Rolling over slowly, she reached under the small space below the cot and felt around until her fingers bumped against something. Feeling around its edges, she recognized its shape and took a firm grip, pulling it out. Settling back against Mulder, she looked at the book in her hands, noticing the layer of dust on it. Whoever had lived here before certainly hadn't been here for a very long time. Opening the cover to the first page, she discovered that it was a journal by the previous occupant, dated November 7th, 1997.
**I escaped last night. After a month and a half of planning, of memorizing the guards' routines and the doctors' rounds, I did it. Left two guards dead so they couldn't sound the alarm. I feel no guilt, they made me what I am. I found a small cave that had an outlet into a larger one that could be made into reasonable living quarters. I've already decided not to return to civilization. There is no way I would be accepted, not after what I've become.**
Scully flipped through the next few pages and stopped on one from December 28th, 1997.
A sweeper team came by today. They didn't find my hideout but it took all of my willpower to resist the need to kill. My mutations have been useful however in my daily life in the wilderness. I eat what I kill and hone my hunting instincts as well. It's a good thing there are no campers this far north, I can't be held responsible for my actions.
She turned to an entry on January 19th, 1998.
Something is wrong. My hands shake all the time and sometimes I black out without warning. I know it has something to do with what they did to me but I don't know if this is a natural side effect of going off the drugs or if it is a sign of worse things to come. The urge to kill is almost overpowering now and I have to stay in my cave to keep from giving myself away
February 11th, 1998.
**I know now that what is happening to me is not what the doctors planned. The blackouts have gotten so bad that I cannot hunt for more than ten minutes without taking the risk that I might lose consciousness out in the open. I remember one doctor saying something about cell rejection and shutdown. I think he was talking about what I'm feeling. My cells are rejecting my mutation and my body is shutting down. I am going to die and there is nothing I can do about it. The only thought that brings me comfort is that their experiment failed.**
February 16th, 1998.
My moments of lucidity are outnumbered by delirium and unconsciousness, it won't be long now until it is all over. For me at least. Last night the helicopter was out, which can mean only one thing: New subjects. Obviously the doctors have given up their attempts to find me and have now gone in search of fresh guinea pigs. I wish them a swift and painless death instead of what I've had to endure. At least this is one guinea pig that got away. For good.
That was the last entry.
When Mulder woke up, Scully showed him the journal and he read through it as she cleared the snow from the chimney and started a fire. Sitting in front of the crackling flames, they tried to decide on a course of action.
"We've got to get those kids out of there."
Scully raised an eyebrow. "And how do you propose two FBI agents in less than perfect condition are going to get into a high security military lab and sneak out with five of their test subjects who may not be in any shape to help?"
"I don't know but we have to do something. You read what happened to this guy," he held up the journal, "Their bodies are going to shut down because they can't handle the mutations."
"It's been over two years since then, the doctors have probably made adjustments to their experiments."
"Are you willing to take that chance? Willing to bet the lives of five innocent people on it?"
Scully pressed her lips into a thin line. "No. You're right, we have a responsibility to those kids."
"Besides, if we face the facts, there is no way we're going to be able to hike all the way back to the ranger's station. At least the compound is closer and we might be able to steal a car."
Nodding in acquiescence, Dana tried to hide the fear in her eyes by throwing another log on the fire. Her partner was right - there was no way he could hike very far. The food they had eaten earlier seemed to cause him no problems, so she prayed it was a sign that his intestines weren't damaged, but he was still bleeding. He was very tired and had slept almost the entire time they had been in the cave, blood loss and the cold making him lethargic. He seemed to be handling the pain well, but she knew that he was struggling, she could tell by the lines at the corner of his eyes and mouth. She doubted he was up to anything resembling a rescue mission but he had surprised her before and hopefully would again.
She must have given something away in her silence because Mulder's hand on her cheek turned her to face him. "We can do this. Tomorrow morning we'll start hiking back to the compound. We can take what we need from here, like some of the tools in the cabinet. Are clothes are dry and we have plenty of water and some food left. You can bandage me up nice and tight, the bleeding is hardly noticeable now and the cold will work as a painkiller. As long as there's no blizzard, we can do this. I promise."
Reaching down, he squeezed both of her hands, looking her straight in the eyes. Then he stood up, trying fiercely to hide his grimace and moved over to the ramshackle cabinet. He opened one of the doors carefully so it wouldn't fall off the hinges and looked inside for anything useful. What he found were knives, a hatchet, a bow and some arrows, a Sig Sauer with two extra clips and, of all things, a lock pick set. Mulder smiled to himself, whoever this man had been, he had certainly believed in being prepared.
Bear Head Lake State Park
Scully hefted the backpack over her shoulder despite her partner's protests. "If you expect me to go along with this harebrained scheme of yours, you do what the doctor orders."
Looking at the stick in his hand with dismay, Mulder sighed in martyrdom. Scully had demanded he use the long branch she had cut off a tree with the hatchet as a makeshift cane. Add to the fact that she also insisted she carry all the supplies, and he was feeling the blow to his manly pride. At least he still had his weapon.
After checking their position with the sun, they headed towards the road, intending to follow it back to the roadblock and then around to the base. They set a steady is slow pace, keeping alert for any sign of the soldiers who had pursued them. It took over four hours for them to reach the avalanched road and by then Mulder was glad for the stick he had leaned on for the past three hours. They decided to take a moment's rest in a small alcove of the avalanche debris to gather their strength for the uphill climb.
"I'm surprised there doesn't seem to be any activity in this area. Either they don't think we're important enough to bother with, or they assume we're dead," Mulder said in hushed tones.
"Maybe they think we got away," Scully whispered hopefully.
Mulder just blinked at her. "Whatever the reason, I still think we should be as cautious as possible and circle around to the site instead of straight up to it. Take maybe another hour."
Scully shifted her pack. "You ready?"
"As I'll ever be. Let's get going."
They moved out past the roadblock and headed in a wide circle that would bring them around to what they believed would be the back of the compound. About fifty minutes later they had reach the rim of the valley that contained the base and they ducked below the edge, keeping out of sight.
"Awfully quiet down there," Scully commented.
"Maybe the snow shut down activities?" Mulder wondered, breathing heavily.
"Doubt it." She peeked over the edge, her eyes scanning the area. "There's no sign of anyone. No soldiers, no vehicles, nothing."
"I have a bad feeling about this." Mulder raised his head next to hers. "You think they decided to evacuate?"
"Maybe. It's possible they thought there was too much interest in this site and they needed to move their base of operations somewhere else." She removed the binoculars from the backpack and got a closer look at the building. "Of course, they could be inside waiting for us to show up and shoot us the second we reveal ourselves."
Mulder took a deep breath. "Only one way to find out." He stood up suddenly, swaying slightly with dizziness.
"Mulder," Scully hissed, grabbing at his jeans.
He ignored her and raised his arms, waving them back and forth. There was no reaction from the building. He looked down at Scully. "Well, I'm not full of holes."
"One is enough," she replied icily as she climbed up next to him. "It appears the place is deserted."
"Let's invite ourselves in." Mulder started down the incline, Scully stumbling as she followed him hastily. By the time they reached the fence, they was still no activity from inside the compound. Mulder made quick use of the lock pick set and they were inside the gates, pausing automatically as they expected an alarm to go off.
Mulder shrugged and pointed to the door with a sign that read 'Authorized Personnel Only'. "Let's see what's behind door number one."
After a moment with the picks they were inside a long hallway, leading to the right and the left. Everything seemed as though it had been bleached clean, not a speck of dust in sight. Mulder sniffed. "Smells like a hospital."
"You'd know," Scully huffed, still angry at his foolhardy stunt.
Mulder ignored it. "Left or right?"
"Right." They moved down the hall, stopping at each door, which all opened easily. There was nothing but empty rooms, the machinery and equipment had been stripped.
"They didn't leave behind anything, did they." Mulder shook his head at the thought, dismayed at the thought of once again having the evidence disappear right under his nose.
"Let's hope they left something," Scully said evenly. He knew she was referring to the missing hikers. "They usually keep the test subjects fairly close to the labs for easy access. If these are all the experiment rooms, the holding cells must be back the other way."
They turned around and headed back down the hallway. After passing the door they had entered through they had to walk almost forty yards before reaching another door. This one was locked and Mulder shot a significant look at Scully before making quick work of the lock.
Inside was another hallway, much shorter than the last and lined with three doors on each side. The doors all had small windows three-quarters of the way up that showed the contents of each room. And those contents were the kidnapped hikers.
The cell doors were harder to breach than the others - code panels opened them. After trying several combinations, Mulder gave up and simply shot the panel, the door sliding open a few seconds later.
A young man was standing in the corner, his eyes wide with fear. "Who are you?" he stammered, noting the gun in Mulder's hand.
Scully squeezed between the doorway and her partner. She held out her hand, "We're with the FBI, we're here to bring you home."
The youth looked shocked for a moment and then smiled widely. "Thank God! I thought no one would ever find us!"
Mulder, who recognized the boy as Randy Dettweiler from his picture, asked about the others. "Have you had any contact with Mark Schumacher, Amanda Huntsacker, Casey Ryburg, and Steve Micheals?"
"They're all here," Randy answered. "We've all helped each other get through the tests as well as possible." The young man shuddered.
Scully put a hand on his shoulder. "Everything's going to be okay. Let's get the others."
Four destroyed code panels and quick explanations later, the group of two adults and five hikers were standing in the middle of Casey's room. She was the first one of the kids who had been taken and so had been subjected to more tests than the rest. At the moment she was huddled on her bed, not responding to any of the others.
"She's been like that for the last few days, won't do anything but stare off into space," Steve explained.
"Traumatic shock," Scully guessed. "Casey? Casey, I'm Agent Scully and this is Agent Mulder, we're with the FBI, we're here to help you." She kept her tone soft and soothing. "We need you to come with us so we can take you home."
"C'mon, Case, let's blow this joint," Randy cajoled.
Soft words came from cracked lips. "Blow this joint."
"Did she say something?" Steve asked.
"Yeah, she said 'blow this joint'," Randy replied.
In fact, Casey was repeating the three words over and over. She began to rock back and forth, hr head hitting the wall with a dull thud as she moved.
"We're going to have to carry her out of here. I don't know if anyone is going to come back, but I'd rather not take the chance and want to be long gone if they do." Mulder gestured to Randy and Steve. "Take her by the arms. Be gentle but firm."
The two boys took Casey by an arm and hauled her to her feet. She started to wilt to the floor but they held her. As the pair stepped forward, she shuffled along with them, her feet automatically moving. She continued to chant rhythmically.
Mulder gave her one last look, hoping that the psychological damage could be undone and then turned, leading the way out of the building. They were halfway down the long hall when suddenly the lights went out, plunging them into darkness.
Casey started screaming, struggling against Randy and Steve. "Blow this joint! Blow it! Blow!!"
Abruptly a red light switched on, bathing the clear hall in an eerie glow. Scully stared at Casey, wondering why the girl would suddenly panic. She looked at Mulder and saw that his lips were moving. It took her a second to realize that he was saying the same thing as Casey, his mind deciphering her pointless rambling.
"Jesus Christ," he murmured. He whirled around to the others. "We've got to get out of here, right now!!" He ran for the door, slamming it open, the bright daylight blinding him momentarily. "Move, come one, let's go!!"
Not questioning his sudden haste, the group chased after him, piling out of the doorway as fast as possible. Mulder cursed under his breath when he saw the small square of material on the wall to his left that confirmed his suspicions. "They've got the whole place wired with C-4."
Scully sucked in her breath as she saw the same thing her partner did. "They didn't want to leave any evidence behind."
"We've got to get as far away from here as possible." Mulder pointed up to the ridge where he and Scully had fled from just two nights ago. "Head for those trees, don't stop running until you get there!"
Needing no more urging, the group broke into a run, their feet and hearts pounding. They had almost made it to the top of the ridge when there was a cry from behind. "Agent Mulder, we can't get Casey up any farther!" Randy shouted.
Mulder stopped his ascent and looked down to see the boys struggling with Casey's leaden body. He scrambled down to them. "Steve, go with Agent Scully, I'll help Randy with Casey."
"But..." Steve stammered.
"Go!" Mulder turned away from him, not bothering to see if he had obeyed, and focused on the task at hand. "I'll get her by the arms, you grab her feet," he instructed Randy. They picked her up together and started making a slow ascent. It was a cumbersome way to travel, but there was no way Mulder was going to let any of these kids down. Gritting his teeth as the pain in his side flared, he kept his feet moving, bringing them closer to safety.
He reached the top out of breath and with spots dancing in front of his eyes. Randy smiled, also breathing heavily, "We did it."
Letting out a sigh of relief that they had finally made it to the top, Mulder automatically turned and looked behind him. He barely had time to register the explosion before he was knocked off his feet by the shock wave. He tumbled forwards, taking the girl with him, he twisted frantically so as not to land on her. Randy, who had lost his grip on Casey when the blast hit, was lucky enough to grab onto a nearby tree with an out-thrown arm.
The other two rolled down the hill, trees and snow whirling by in a blur as they rolled. Mulder tried to protect Casey with his body but he could still hear her grunts of pain as they bounced over rocks.
With a suddenness that knocked the wind out of him, they hit the level road, sliding to a halt just before they slammed into the avalanche debris. Uncurling himself from the girl, Mulder rolled onto his back staring up into the sky. He could hear his partner calling his name but she seemed so far away. He thought about trying to fight the impending darkness but, deciding that their mission was accomplished, he let himself drift into peaceful unconsciousness.
Scully hesitated when Steve and Randy told her that Mulder had insisted they go one without him, but she knew that the lives of civilians were at risk and that was her first priority. She waved them along and they headed down the slope as quickly as possible. The explosion that rumbled through the ground made them stumble and she clutched a tree to keep herself from toppling over.
The first thought that came to her mind when she steadied herself was her partner and Casey. She didn't have to wonder about their fate for long, because they shot past her in a tangle of limbs and snow. She clambered after them, appalled at how fast they were going. She almost lost sight of them when the road opened up before her and she saw the pair come sliding to a stop. Mulder moved enough to separate himself from the girl and then he went limp.
"Mulder!" She skidded up next to him, falling to her knees. She checked his pulse, closing her eyes as she felt the rapid flutter under her fingers. She was about to check on Casey as well when the girl moaned, sitting up and rubbing her head.
"What just happened?"
The rest of the group had made it down the hill by now and were standing in a semicircle behind Scully. Steve snorted. "About time you got with the program."
The girl blinked. "There was a bomb. They were going to blow us up to make sure that nobody knew what they did to us. They didn't think I could hear them but I did. They didn't think I could understand anything because I wouldn't talk."
Randy, who was kneeling next to her, gave her a little shake to stop her rambling. "You're okay now."
Casey gave him a slight smile that turned into a frown. She bent over the prone form lying next to her. "Agent Mulder? Agent Mulder, are you all right?"
To Scully's relief, Mulder groaned, his eyes squeezing tightly shut. "Now I have a headache and about a hundred bruises to go with all my other aches and pains."
Everyone laughed in relief as Scully helped Mulder to his feet but she noticed that he was guarding his left side. Biting her lip, she knew he was putting up a front for the others and didn't call him on it.
"Where do we go from here?" Mark asked.
"That explosion was probably heard all the way back to town and I bet that anyone at the ranger station can see that big cloud. They're going to send someone up to check on it and they'll have to use this road. Our best bet is to stay here until they show up." Scully pointed at the rubble caused by the avalanche.
They settled themselves at the base of the roadblock, the three boys gathering wood to build a fire and Amanda helping Scully care for Casey. The girl had several dark bruises forming and some cuts cause by branches or rocks. Scully still had some antiseptic left and treated the girl's scrapes, thankful that she hadn't broken any bones. Declaring her as healthy as could be after doing a precursory head injury test, Scully turned her attention to her partner.
"Your turn, Mulder."
He complained jokingly, winking at Casey who grinned back. Just then the boys returned, dumping their load in a pile at their feet. Mark had brought a bunch of large rocks with which to build a fire ring and they began to set it up, eager to have the warmth and security of the flames. They had been dressed in fairly thick clothing but nothing that was meant for being out in the weather for an extended period of time.
As the kids were preoccupied with getting the fire started, Scully had Mulder lie back, opening his jacket and lifting up his layers of clothes. Her eyes narrowed as she saw the red stained bandage. Any healing that had been gained by their rest last night had been completely undone. She pulled off the gauze, nothing the color of the wound as she wiped the blood away. The edges of the wound were tinged an angry red, infection beginning to set in. Scully brushed away the panic that threatened, reasoning that they were lucky that it had taken as long as it did.
A gasp from behind her shook her out of her thoughts. She looked over her shoulder to see Amanda, her eyes wide and her hand to her mouth in shock. The others were coming up next to her to see what had startled her. She swallowed convulsively and cleared her throat. "Is Agent Mulder okay?"
Mulder propped himself up on his elbows, tilting his head to the left to see the group of kids. "Nothing a few days in a nice warm hospital bed won't cure. Don't worry, I'm in good hands."
Only slightly reassured, they went back to the fire, only Casey remaining. She sat down next to Mulder, folding her legs Indian style. "Did you land on a branch or something?" She felt responsible for any injuries he had acquired during their trip down the hill.
Mulder chuckled, wincing. "No, just a bullet. One of the soldiers from the base took a few shots at us the other night."
"You've been shot??" Casey paled at the thought.
"Yeah and I really should have learned by now that it is not real fun," he said sardonically.
Scully snorted. "You? Learn? Like you learned about our trips to the forest?"
Mulder sighed dramatically. "You're never going to go camping with me, are you, Scully?"
She just shook her head and finished up applying the new bandage.
Roy Benson kept one hand on the wheel, the other on the radio he was speaking into. "I'm just coming around the last turn, should see the end of the road any time now. The smoke has thinned out a bit but I can still see it. It's definitely coming from the old mill. I think - holy shit!" He slammed on his brakes as he came around the corner and found seven people just in front of his bumper.
"Roy, what is it?" came the voice of Cliff, his deputy ranger.
"It's our FBI agents, it looks like they found those missing kids." Roy clicked off the radio and got out of his truck, putting on his cowboy hat as he went to meet the group.
Scully reached him first. "Ranger Benson, I can't tell you how glad I am to see you. I need you to radio for a medivac helicopter to transport us to the nearest hospital. These kids have undergone illegal biological testing and need to be thoroughly checked out. Agent Mulder is suffering from a two day old bullet wound and the sooner he gets to the emergency room, the better."
Experienced enough to know when not to ask questions, Roy jogged back to his truck, getting on the radio to Cliff. In the background he could hear the kids cheering.
Agent Scully's Log
After gaining helicopter transportation to Lincoln Hospital, Agent Mulder was admitted for his injuries and treated. The bullet passed through him just below the spleen and managed to miss his intestines, causing remarkably little internal damage. He is recuperating well and can be expected to be released within a week. The five missing hikers were subjected to every test that might possibly show some evidence of what they had been through. The only mentionable finding is that their adrenaline levels were higher than normal. Undergoing a psychological evaluation, the experts have declared them fit and ready to return home, with the exception of Casey Ryburg, who has been referred to a specialist to deal with her traumatic experience.
Senator Huntsacker has expressed his overwhelming thanks and Assistant Director Skinner has added a commendation to our files. Our continuing luck regarding cases that place us in forested surroundings inevitably creates in me a sense of foreboding. Though this case had an overall satisfactory result, the missing hikers being found and illegal testing of unwilling patients stopped, I still cannot feel a sense of peace. Perhaps because I cannot be certain that the group responsible for the abduction of the hikers will cease their activities. Or perhaps it is because I know that it is only a matter of time before my partner again takes me into the woods.
North Sterling State Park
Russell Napier trudged along the barely discernible path, breathing in the crisp clean air. This was the life - out in the country with no pollution, no noise, no office, and communing with nature. He pushed through some thick undergrowth and emerged into a small clearing, the trees forming a circle around him. He stopped and placed his hands on his hips, turning around to get a good look at the area. It seemed like the perfect place to set up camp.
Whistling happily as he set up his supplies, he soon had a small fire going and his sleeping bag unrolled next to it. Laying back on the thick padding, he gazed up into the sky, marveling at how many stars you could see without the lights of the city.
Suddenly a dark form obliterated his view of the stars and a blazing white light flashed on above him, blinding him with its intensity. He tried to move but could seem to get his muscles to obey him. As his body was lifted up into that frightening brilliance he couldn't even scream.
I love camping. Honest. But if I ever see bright lights, I'm getting the hell outta there. Remember - a few seconds off your fingers, a lifetime in the heart. Feedback, you know. firstname.lastname@example.org