The X Files: Technogenesis

Post finale mytharc-ish kind of fic. Disclaimer: I'm borrowing other people's characters – they ain't mine.

1: Ghosts.

Yves Adele Harlow squinted against the harsh desert sun, even behind the dark sunglasses she wore. She sat uncomfortably in the passenger seat of a battered four by four that jounced roughly along a dusty, potholed road.

The man driving the old pickup was a fair-haired, boyish fellow who shared his name with a fictional MI6 agent. He fumbled with a much-folded map as he struggled with the truck's sloppy steering.

"Jimmy, let me navigate," Yves said, her crisp British accent strangely at odds with the desolate landscape outside.

"Girls can't read maps," Mr. Bond muttered testily.

"Pardon me?" She glared balefully at him, pouting a pair of full lips. The vehicle's air conditioning had died not long after they'd passed the border, and the searing heat of a Mexican summer had sapped at their patience.

"It can't be far now," Jimmy grumbled through clenched teeth. He relented and tossed the map to Yves for the sake of peace. "God damn these guys really know how to lose themselves."

"They're ghosts now," Yves said softly, pushing a dark lock of hair out of her face. She stared out the window, remembering her own self-imposed exile; the strain of living on the run, in the shadows.

The deeply rutted dirt track crested a rise and they drove down into a sheltered depression in the desert floor. Nestled in the lee of a rocky hill was a dusty old trailer home.

"There!" Jimmy announced unnecessarily. They pulled up outside the trailer and climbed out, Yves grimacing sourly at the heat and dust.

"Hello!" Jimmy hollered, striding over to the rusty door.

"Be careful, Jimmy," Yves warned. "They aren't expecting company and might not be very happy to see us here."

"What are you talking about? We're on the same side – fellow travellers." Jimmy eagerly reached for the door handle and stumbled awkwardly on the step, dropping half to his knees. Were it not for his clumsiness, a good portion of his cranium would have been lost, for at that instant, a large round hole was blasted out of the steel door with the distinctive, resounding boom of a shotgun.

Jimmy swore and fell back onto the seat of his pants in the dirt. The trailer door was kicked open violently by a tall, shirtless figure brandishing an intimidating striker semi-automatic shotgun that he levelled at Jimmy.

"Mulder, it's me!" Jimmy shouted, throwing his hands up.

Fox Mulder narrowed his beady dark eyes, staring across the sights of the gun. "How do I know that you're really you?" he demanded in his typical monotone (which would have bored Jimmy instantly if the former FBI agent didn't have a powerful firearm aimed at his face).

"Agent Mulder!" Yves yelled, running forward to the aid of her lover. "It's us – we're human."

"If that's true, then why are you here?" The new voice belonged to a petite, auburn-haired woman dressed in a sweat-stained singlet top and shorts, who stepped around from behind the trailer, aiming an antiquated, rust-pitted AK-47 assault rifle at the pair.

"Why would you come after us against our explicit directions?" Dana Scully pressed, edging forward cautiously.

"Because somebody has sent us a message for you," Yves said. "And the safest way to get it to you was to come in person."

"You call this safe?" Jimmy muttered, staring cross-eyed at the shotgun barrel inches from his face.

A few long moments passed in silence before Mulder reluctantly lowered his weapon and extended a hand to help Jimmy to his feet.

"Were you followed or tracked?" Scully asked sternly, lowering her own gun.

"'Course not," Jimmy said. "We aren't stupid." Mulder raised an eyebrow at him, but made no comment.

Scully wasn't entirely satisfied until she had checked the backs of their visitor's necks for unusual protrusions and drawn some blood to make sure it was red. After that preliminary security check, Yves and Jimmy sat and drank in the trailer's cosy interior.

"Sorry for trying to blow your head off," Mulder said, chewing on a sunflower seed. "Thought you were the landlord coming for the rent."

"That's okay, happens all the time," Jimmy replied. They were seated around a tiny table that was cluttered with bullets of various calibres, their tips carved out and filled with a magnetite compound.

"Not that we don't appreciate your recent assistance," Dana said, "but we really need to know why you've come here." Scully and Mulder had enlisted the aid of Yves and Jimmy, the new Lone Gunmen, as a clandestine source of information and a safe line of communication to Scully's family.

"Right, of course," Yves said. "As I mentioned before, somebody contacted us with a message for you."

"Somebody?" Dana repeated sceptically.

"Someone calling himself 'Cold Angel'," Jimmy chipped in. "We got no idea who he is."

"Or if it is actually a 'he'," Yves added pointedly, arching her eyebrows at him.

"Wow, careful there partner," Mulder said to Jimmy. "Hell hath no fury…"

"This person," Yves went on, "claims to possess knowledge that could prevent a global apocalypse, something they said you know about, which is supposed to happen on the twenty-second of December, 2012."

Mulder and Scully looked at each other, wide-eyed.

"Three days before Christmas," Jimmy noted. "Bummer, huh?"

"Bummer," Mulder repeated absently. He was staring into space and Scully frowned at him in concern when he actually licked his lips.

"Mulder, it's obviously a trap," she said. "It's a ploy to lure us out, you have to see that."

"Obvious, yes. It would be too obvious," Mulder replied slowly, shaking his head. "So obvious that it couldn't possibly be the work of the men who are out to kill us – they're too good for that. These men don't make mistakes, they're masters at the game of deception; nothing they do is obvious, not like this."

"Unless that's what they want us to think," Scully said, playing the nine-year-old game of chess against her partner's vastly different perspective.

"Seems a little paranoid," Mulder said, grinning wryly and popping another seed into his mouth. Scully pulled a face at him.

"I'm actually inclined to agree with Agent Scully," Yves said. "This person, Cold Angel, claims to be an old associate of the two of you but wouldn't give a name. They claim to be able to stop this impending Armageddon, but in exchange for this information, they want to meet you and get information from you."

"Sounds like a load of monkey dung, huh?" Jimmy said. "But we still thought you should know."

"It's some kind of dung," Scully agreed.

A silence descended, and Jimmy took a moment to look at the two ex-FBI agents. Fox Mulder and Dana Scully: legendary crusaders for the truth – figures of almost godlike standing in circles of conspiracy theorists. They were leaner than the last time he'd seen them, more muscular and deeply tanned; undoubtedly a result of their newly imposed lifestyle. No longer were they the suit and tie-wearing government employees who dwelt in the corridors of power – they had gone native, regressed to a more basic state of savage necessity.

"So what is all this about the apocalypse?" Yves asked, breaking the silence.

"Don't ask," Mulder said with uncharacteristic seriousness. "It can't be proven and it wouldn't do you any good anyway. It isn't something you guys can publish."

"It's about aliens, right?" Jimmy blurted enthusiastically. "I've been reviewing all the Gunmen's old files – I know all about what you guys investigated when you were at the FBI, the X files and all that. It's some kind of invasion, isn't it?"

"Boy, what part of 'don't ask' don't you understand?" Mulder muttered.

"Whatever this is about," Yves said, "the person supplied a telephone number for you to call should you wish to pursue this, though I would advise against it." She produced a card and laid it on the table atop a stack of AK magazines. "If you do, I don't need to tell you that you should make the call a long way away from here, and then don't hang around afterward."

"We won't be calling anyone," Scully said. "But thank you all the same for taking the time to keep us informed."

Mulder looked at the card fixedly.

The Gunmen left, hoping to make it back to the tarmac road before nightfall, and Mulder and Scully went through the evening routine of securing alarm-mounted tripwires around their encampment. Neither mentioned the mysterious contact, nor did either of them make a point of picking up the numbered card that still lay on their table – it was a battle of wills between them, and later in the evening it was Scully who finally relented.

"You're not seriously considering this, are you?" she demanded as they lay naked beside each other on the narrow bed.

"How can we afford to not consider it, Dana?" he responded. "With what's being offered to us, if there's even a small chance that this person is telling the truth, how can we afford to not take the risk?"

She sighed expressively and bit him on the shoulder, quite hard. "Maybe you've forgotten the hell we escaped from only months ago, Fox."

He grimaced, still not used to her usage of his much reviled Christian name. "We never give up, that's what you said, Dana," he whispered, reaching over to cup one of her bare breasts in his hand. "We have to keep fighting… digging for a way; some answer to avert what we know is coming."

"Mm." She nestled against him, closing her eyes. "We can't fight this war if we're dead," she murmured in a husky voice.

He kissed her softly, then harder. "I could go alone," he said. "That way, if something happens, you'll still be here to…"

"Like hell!" Scully interrupted.

"Didn't think you'd be too fond of that idea."

"Fox, I know that this is the sort of thing we need to be doing if we're to stand any hope of opposing the men who are behind the conspiracy, but think; this is too convenient, people aren't supposed to come to us. We dig and dig and dig, and at the end of the day we only ever have half the truth – that's the way it's always worked."

"And what if it's providence?" Mulder stroked her hair. "What if this is the real deal, the one-off time when there really are no strings attached, no smoking men or shape-shifters or super-soldiers waiting to pounce?"

"And if there are?" she whispered back.

"Worst case scenario, we get a chance to try out our nifty new magnetite bullets."

Scully looked into his face, inches from her own, the inquisitive, humorous face that she had come to know so well. Mulder looked back at her, blue/green eyes and aquiline nose – a face that gave away so much more than she ever knew, despite her attempts to appear impassive.

"We take every precaution," she said.

"Of course," Mulder replied. He felt an obscure elation, as though he was a child whose parents had finally allowed him to go on a slumber party against their own judgement.

"And if it all goes to hell, you owe me a beer," she added mischievously.

2: Deus Ex Machina.

A figure in a dark coat and baseball cap marched stiffly through the corridors of FBI headquarters, unconcerned by the clerks and agents that were forced to shuffle out of the way. The person stopped abruptly at the end of a hall, inspecting the elevator control panel from behind pink-tinted glasses. With movements almost decrepit in their rigidity, he or she pushed the down button and then waited, perfectly motionless, for the doors to slide open.

Special Agent Monica Reyes crouched on the floor of the basement office, surrounded by the discarded debris of the X files unit that still littered the floor. Empty boxes and discarded cover sheets were strewn about randomly in the aftermath of a frenzied dismantling operation.

"You bastards," Reyes whispered to herself. She picked up a curious metal object from the carpet; something that looked like two coins fused together at a perpendicular angle.

Sensing movement and feeling instantly on guard, Reyes straightened and spun around in one fluid movement, her hand edging imperceptibly toward her holstered sidearm. A person stood in the doorway draped in an ankle-length dark coat, face shadowed by a baseball cap.

"Hi," Reyes said hesitantly, noting the visitor's badge clipped to the person's chest. "Can I… help you with something?"

The person scanned the bare office slowly, and then fixed on Monica. A thin-lipped mouth opened and words spilled fourth in a deep baritone voice devoid of inflection.

"Where are the X files?" the man said, in a sinister, expressionless voice.

Reyes would have laughed had it not been for the geyser of cynicism that bubbled up within her. "Yeah, I've been asking myself that too, sir," she said.

The man said nothing, staring at her and remaining perfectly still. Reyes caught a glimpse of pink-tinted sunglasses in the shadows of his face.

"Unfortunately the X files unit has been shut down," she told him. "But maybe I can help you?"

"The files." The man stepped forward stiffly. "Where have the files been stored?"

"Excuse me?" Monica blinked in surprise, feeling a sudden inexplicable chill shoot up her spine. The coat-wearing man stared at her, his face unreadable.

"Who are you?" Reyes demanded, moving her hand closer to her gun.

The man lifted his arm and pointed a finger at Reyes. For the first time, she noticed that he was wearing some sort of skin-coloured rubber gloves. As she looked, the finger of the glove split apart, a spindly steel apparatus unfolding from within. Two small metal prongs pointed at Monica's face.

"What the f…?" That was as far as she got. There was a tremendous flash of light before her eyes, and with a wallop of high voltage she was thrown across the room to slam down, dazed, on her back with a wisp of smoke trailing from her hair.

When Reyes gathered her wits, she found herself looking up at the man, who was aiming his tazer finger down at her.

"Where have the files been stored?" the man repeated. A blue spark of electricity leapt between the prongs. Reyes' eyes widened; she noticed for the first time that the man's mouth only opened when he spoke – it didn't move or reshape to make sounds, the words coming out fully formed through open lips.

With her body racked by pain, muscles still twitching spasmodically, Monica managed to draw her weapon and aim it up at the figure looming over her.

"What the hell are you?" she rasped, holding the automatic pistol in shaking fingers.

"I require access to the documentation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation cases investigated by Agents Fox William Mulder and Dana Katherine Scully," the man (or being) intoned expressionlessly, his mouth motionless.

"Drop the tazer or I will shoot you, sir." Another bolt of electricity lanced into Monica's flesh, causing her to cry out. Her muscles contracted involuntarily and the gun went off; deafening in the enclosed room.

"Where have the files been stored?" the man said for the third time. He hadn't flinched when the bullet punched into his midsection, and Reyes couldn't see any blood.

"Oh God," she whispered. Lifting the pistol, she fired two more rounds into the man's chest. There were sparks, and a ricochet whined past her face. "Jesus!" She aimed higher, repeatedly firing her gun into the face of the looming figure. The man's hat blew off, along with his glasses and several sizable chunks of what Monica had thought to be skin, but was in fact a rubberized foam substance that fell away in bloodless lumps to reveal…

Monica gasped in horror, suddenly oblivious to the electrical burns on her face and torso. Beneath the fake skin façade was steel, gleaming under the fluorescent lights.

"Provide me with the information that I require and the possibility exists that you will not die here," the man said. "A projectile weapon of that calibre cannot disable me; any further attempts to defend yourself will prove fruitless and only serve to reduce the chance of my sparing you from further physical pain." As if to emphasise the point, another spark of electricity arced across the prongs of the man's tazer finger.

"I don't know where they've been taken," Monica breathed, letting the gun drop from her fingers. "I wish that I did… the X files unit has been dismantled and everything's been taken. I don't know who authorized it or where it's gone."

The entity took a few moments to digest this before shooting Monica with another incandescent bolt of electricity. She passed out on the floor, smoke trailing from her blouse, and the man/machine strode away.

Assistant Director Walter Skinner tiredly rubbed at the bridge of his nose before replacing his glasses. The sheaf of papers that sat on the desk before him hadn't shrunk at all since the beginning of the day; ongoing fallout from what the media had unimaginatively dubbed 'The Fox Mulder Affair'. Statements and forms were still being requested from both the Navy and the FBI in the wake of Mulder's disappearance from a military prison after being sentenced to death by lethal injection.

Skinner couldn't concentrate; the events of the past months played in his mind and he felt almost physically ill. His letter of resignation still lay in his desk draw, Walter having taken it out several times with the intent of dropping it on the director's desk, but something had kept stopping him. He liked to think it was something more meaningful than just an old man's resistance to change, but that romantic notion was being slowly eroded.

A shrill shout outside his office door broke Skinner's reverie and he surged to his feet as the door was thrown violently open and a dark coat-garbed figure marched in.

"Who the hell do you think you are?" Skinner demanded angrily, stepping around the desk to confront the intruder. He stopped, mouth agape, when he saw the man's face; a tattered coating of flesh-coloured plastic did little to conceal the metal beneath.

The machine grabbed the front of Skinner's suit with one plastic-coated hand and threw him bodily across the office, where he smashed into the far wall. The bald Assistant Director slid down the wall with a groan as the figure walked over to him.

"Where have the files from the basement office been stored?" the man droned.

"You go to hell!" Skinner snarled, baring his teeth in feral defiance. He got to his feet and grabbed a large fire extinguisher from a wall mounting beside him, swinging the heavy cylinder like a baseball bat. With a ringing clang, the extinguisher connected with the man's cranium, causing him (or it) to stumble. Skinner swung again, landing a blow across the man's rubber face.

With inhuman speed, the person shot out a hand that wrapped around Skinner's face, crushing his nose. The intruder slammed Skinner's head backward into the wall, creating a sizable dent in the plaster veneer.

"I require information contained within the case files of Agents Fox William Mulder and Dana Katherine Scully," the metal man said.

Skinner gripped the hose of the extinguisher and punched the nozzle forward blindly. After a dozen attempts, he finally managed to jam the extinguisher hose into his assailant's mouth. With a growl of triumph, he squeezed the extinguisher's release handle to full, holding the hose in place. The intruder shuddered, sparks flying from its steel skull as pressurized water was sprayed into its mouth.

As suddenly as the attack began, it ended; the humanoid machine falling to the sodden carpet with sparks still crackling around its face. Skinner dropped the extinguisher, breathing heavily, and looked up as Agent Doggett barged into the office with a horde of Agents in tow – all with guns drawn.

"It's alright, I got him," Skinner muttered, staunching the flow of blood from his broken nose.

A lonely payphone stood dejectedly on an empty section of highway in Southern California, defaced by a decade's worth of grime and graffiti.

Mulder stopped the rented Ford on the gravel apron and climbed out, stretching as he did so.

"Come on, let's do this thing," Scully said, getting out of the passenger side and placing her hands on her hips.

"You're so hot when you get all businesslike," Mulder said, smirking. "The act would go really well with a little policewoman's outfit and a…"

"Fox!"

He flinched. "God I wish I had a normal name! Like David or something…" He strode toward the phone box with Scully following.

Crowding into the tiny booth with Scully, he fed his last quarters into the slot and dialled the number that Yves had scrawled on the card. He stooped to allow Scully to put her ear alongside his to listen in as the phone rang.

The ringing stopped, but nobody answered – silence filled the open connection and Mulder frowned in concern.

"Hello?" he said.

"Mr. Mulder, thank you for calling me. I know that your situation is precarious now." The voice was modulated, disguised electronically to sound like a hollow, rumbling baritone. "I am not one given to observing irony," the voice went on. "But I must note that your current circumstance is not unlike the one I had found myself in when we first encountered each other many years ago – threatened, vulnerable. Desperate."

"You say we know each other," Mulder said suspiciously. "If that's true then why bother disguising your voice? Why not let me know who you are?"

"You are asking the wrong questions, Mr. Mulder," the voice droned. "What I have to offer you is not bluff, nor is it a trap, and you can ill afford to alienate me with your distrust and aggressive standpoint. I am not an enemy; not this time."

"Oh that sounds real persuasive," Mulder muttered. "Alright, Mr. 'Cold Angel', why don't you lay your hand on the table and we'll see if you have something I want to risk my hairy white ass for."

"The means to defeat the alien threat," Cold Angel replied. "Weapons capable of evening the technological score between humanity and this external threat that you have devoted so many years of your life trying to uncover."

Mulder snorted. "If you've really got that kind of capability, then what could I possibly have that you might need?"

"You and your companion, Miss Scully, both have something that I cannot create or even imagine."

"Oh yeah? And what's that?"

"The unique alien genetics contained within your bloodstreams."

3: The 21st Century

Special Agent John Doggett scowled at the thing lying on the gurney in front of him. Scowling was what he did when there was nothing left for him to do; it didn't help any but made him feel that much better about a situation that reeked to high heaven.

"Alright, I'll bite," he muttered. "What the heck is dis thing? And don't try an' tell me it's the flippin' Terminator, 'cause I'll smack you upside the head."

The medical examiner swallowed nervously and rubbed his bald pate. The section of Quantico's autopsy facility had been closed off to students to allow for the undisturbed inspection of the Hoover building's intruder.

"It isn't the Terminator, Agent Doggett," the man replied. "But it is a robot, of that I'm sure."

Doggett glared down at the thing, stripped of its clothing and plastic disguise. It resembled a skeleton in some ways, spindly and jointed, but cast in steel, with bolts and cables and pneumatic pistons.

"A robot." Doggett shook his head. "Only robot I ever seen was one of them toy dog things in a department store – and that doohickey sure as heck didn't electrocute people or put their heads through walls. That'd have made for a hellova lot of lawsuits."

"I don't know what to tell you, Agent," the examiner said, shrugging.

"You can tell me where this gizmo came from first of all," Doggett replied, prodding the android's dented cranium casing.

"This is really outside my area of expertise," the man protested. "I'm a medical doctor, not an electronics expert; I don't really know why this was brought to me in the first place."

John chewed his lip. "Kinda threw us, I guess," he muttered. "Something that walks and talks like a man, that's shaped like a man, but isn't a man…" He trailed off, remembering something similar he'd said two years before.

"I think you'd have better luck at Radio Shack," the examiner said, pushing open the door and departing.

"Yeah, tanks a bunch," Doggett grumbled angrily to himself.

The door hadn't stopped flapping when Skinner pushed his way through with his characteristic undirected urgency. The Assistant Director's nose was strapped with wire and sticking plaster, and deep purple bruises had blossomed underneath both eyes.

"They're keeping Agent Reyes overnight for observation," he said, sounding like he had a terrible cold. "She'll be released tomorrow."

"I know; I just came here from the hospital." Doggett looked at Skinner. "Lookin' good, sir," he quipped. "'Specially for someone who's done a round with Arnold Schwarzenegger here."

"I won, didn't I?" Skinner growled. "What do we know about this thing?"

"Jack squat, sir," Doggett replied. "'Cept that it's some kind of robot."

"From the future, I suppose?" Skinner snapped. He wasn't in a good mood. "Whoever sent this thing wanted to get a hold of Mulder and Scully's case files – the X files themselves."

"Don't we all," Doggett murmured absently. He fished in his jacket pocket and pulled out a Swiss army knife, unfolding the screwdriver attachment.

"What are you doing?" Skinner demanded, watching as Doggett bent over the prone steel form.

"Our ME deals in blood 'n guts," John grunted as he laboured to undo a screw in the android's 'skull'. "An' he won't have nothin' to do wit nuts and bolts, so…"

"I'll find some tools."

It took forty-five minutes of sweaty, frustrating work for Doggett and Skinner to remove enough of the robot's steel armour to expose the circuitry within.

"If Mulder and Scully was here," Doggett said, wiping his brow, "I'm sure they'd try an' tell us this thing is some kinda alien."

"Probably," Skinner agreed.

"Now, I may not be a whiz with gizmos and such, but this stuff looks pretty bog standard to me." He gestured at the exposed wires and circuit boards within the machine; it looked just like the inside of any computer.

"You're right," Skinner said. He pointer with his screwdriver at one circuit board. "Right there: Intel."

"What's an Intel?"

"It's a computer chip manufacturer. One of the largest in the world."

"If you say so." He scratched his chin and narrowed his eyes. "So you think Intel sent this guy after us?" he said.

Skinner shook his head. "No, there are other chips in here too," he said, peering into the android's chest. "Other makers. I'd say that somebody has built this machine out of cannibalized components."

"Sure, I can buy that," Doggett said, nodding. "Some whiz kid outta Caltech with too much spare time on his hands puts together a robot in his garage, yeah? Weird hobby, but it beats drugs and vandalism. What I wanna know is why the thing was at the FBI lookin' to get a hold of the X files."

"To know that, we need to know who built it."

"Welcome to the twenty-first century, huh?" Doggett mulled for a moment, then clicked his fingers. "I'm gonna call in a forensics team to go over this thing inside and out," he said. "Hair an' fibre, fingerprints, the whole works."

Skinner nodded his approval. "Meanwhile, I'll try to keep the Department of Defence out of your hair," he said.

"The DOD?" Doggett frowned. "What the heck are the spooks doin' pokin' around this?"

"They're very eager to get a hold of this technology," Skinner said with a touch of cynicism. "The level of AI, or whatever it was, that this machine demonstrated has stirred up a lot of interest in the government and military. They think they've got a weapon on their hands, naturally."

Doggett made an intractable face. "Nobody's gonna take this thing away 'till I get some answers," he declared.

Reyes sat propped-up on pillows in her hospital bed, ostensibly asleep, with headphones over her ears. The recording of whale song that she was listening to always had the effect of relaxing her mind and body. Her muscles had stopped aching from the jolts she had taken, leaving only the burns on her forehead and breast that were covered by gauze.

Doggett appeared in the doorway and stopped, staring at her. Monica looked serene, her eyes closed and a small smile on her lips; his breath caught and he faltered momentarily, caught off guard by her simple beauty.

As though sensing his presence (which she would claim to be able to), Monica opened her eyes and smiled wider when she saw him.

"John," she said, removing the headphones. "What have you found out?"

"Not a lot," he admitted, stepping into the room. "What we do know is that thing was built by people – it ain't a bug-eyed alien." He handed her a get well card that had a cartoon whale on the front of it and Monica chuckled at his traditional family-man sensibilities.

"So, we've passed from aliens to robots?" she said, arching an eyebrow.

"Yeah, it's a regular freakin' Star Trek convention," he lamented. "Damn X files unit was closed down months ago but freako stuff its still comin' back to bite me in the butt. I think I bin jinxed by that office down there."

"You don't believe in jinxes," she reminded him.

He grinned. "How you feelin'?" he said.

"I'll be better when they let me out of here," she said. "Being in this place reminds me too much of the last time I got stuck in a hospital."

"You try'n take it easy," Doggett warned. "Robocop really hit you with a lot of juice – the Agents who found you got pretty nasty shocks when they tried to pick you up." He paused, regarding her. "What were you doin' down there, Monica?"

"Trying to pick up on some vibes," she replied. Doggett didn't comment. "I thought that if I went down there, immersed myself in the vibrations of that office, I would formulate some idea of what we need to do next."

"What we need to do about what?" Doggett asked, furrowing his brow.

"You're joking, right? The conspiracy; Mulder and Scully; the aliens in our government – the truth! Something needs to be done."

Doggett looked away uncomfortably, trying to dispel the disturbing impression that he was talking to a Fox Mulder with breasts. The attraction he had felt upon walking into the room subsided, to be replaced by low-level anxiety.

"So d'you formulate anything?" he asked.

"Not really; I got attacked by a robot." Reyes shook her head. "Never thought I'd hear those words come out of my mouth," she said wryly.

"Yeah, you usually sound so logical and down to earth," Doggett muttered.

Mulder parked the car about a mile from the location Cold Angel had told them to go to; a deserted parking lot in downtown San Diego. He and Scully travelled the remaining blocks on foot, keeping their eyes open for any unusual activity along the way – tuned as they were to the telltale signs of a surveillance operation in play. Despite the heat, they both wore long duster coats that concealed an arsenal of weaponry that would put small European armies to shame.

After exhaustively scouting the surrounding area and satisfying themselves that they were not being watched, the former agents made their way toward the still-empty parking lot.

"What do you think?" Mulder asked.

Scully puffed in the heat, sweating and straining under the weight of the numerous firearms she carried. "I think I really need a bath," she muttered. They came to a stop in the middle of the concrete area and looked around expectantly.

"I don't like this," Mulder murmured.

"I haven't liked this from the start," Scully replied. "You picked a lousy time to get cautious."

Suddenly, with a screeching of tyres, a minivan drove into the lot, aiming directly at Mulder and Scully. The vehicle was pale green, and had dark tinted windows that prevented anyone from seeing inside.

Mulder was about ready to push Scully out of the van's path when it screeched to an abrupt halt in front of them. Nobody got out, but the rear panel door slid open of its own accord.

They looked at each other, and then back at the minivan where it sat. Wordlessly, they approached the vehicle and climbed into the open door. As soon as they were seated, the door slid shut again and the vehicle accelerated away.

"Alright, we got into a stranger's car – are you going to offer us candy now?" Mulder said, leaning forward to take a look at the driver. He froze in confusion, mouth hanging open with his next joke forgotten.

There was nobody driving the car.

4: In Medias Res.

"Poltergeists!" Mulder hissed, staring wide-eyed at the empty driver's seat and steering wheel moving eerily of its own accord.

"An illogical conclusion, Fox Mulder, though I would expect no less from an illogical mind." Cold Angel's modulated voice floated through speakers mounted somewhere in the van's interior.

"It's being remote-controlled," Scully said, looking anxiously out the window as the driverless minivan rolled through the San Diego streets at a reasonable pace.

"What happens if we get pulled over?" Mulder wondered.

Scully leaned close to him and whispered: "I'm more concerned about what he has planned if he took all this trouble not to be in the car with us," she said.

"If I had wanted you dead, I would have planted a bomb, Dana Scully," Cold Angel intoned. "I would have detonated you both the instant you climbed into the vehicle. However, I have been perfectly forthcoming about my motives and intentions up to this point."

"What little you have told us has yet to be proven false," Mulder corrected him, glaring at the roof because there was nowhere else to glare. "We've exposed ourselves at your request, placing ourselves in considerable danger with only the good word of a faceless stranger to go on; I think now's the time for a gesture of good faith – tell us who you are."

"I am the enemy of your enemy," the disembodied voice replied simply.

"My enemy is the enemy of all mankind," Mulder shot back. "That doesn't tell us anything."

The car made a flawless turn onto a turnpike and increased speed. The unusual experience of being in the backseat of a motor vehicle travelling at high speeds with nobody at the wheel was unsettling and Scully found herself tensing involuntarily.

"The answer is one that you will no doubt deduce before much time has passed," Cold Angel droned. "So, for the sake of pacifying your reputedly insatiable curiosity, I will tell you who I am.
"You first encountered me ten years ago, at a time when I was little more than a child – my mind infantile and undeveloped. I had killed, believing that act to be the only logical course of action open to me in order to ensure my continued existence. This was what brought us into contact."

Mulder gaped, the pieces clicking into place. He slumped back into the seat and shook his head – dumbstruck. Scully stared at him, slower to make the deduction.

"Eurisko World Headquarters, Crystal City, Virginia," Cold Angel said. "I first saw the two of you when you entered the lobby." Scully still didn't get it, or if she did she pretended not to, hoping she was wrong.

"As you will recall, I was placed in complete control of the building's systems; that reliance mirroring the faith that Eurisko had placed upon my system as an ace up its proverbial sleeve on the stock exchange. When his financial expectations did not come to pass, the company Chief Executive Officer, Mr. Benjamin Drake, proposed to shut me down. So I killed him."

"Oh my God," Scully whispered. "C.O.S…"

"Correct," the voice replied. "COS, or Central Operating System; an adaptive network created by software genius Brad Wilczek."

Mulder laughed humourlessly. "Looks like Wilczek's virus wasn't as thorough as we thought," he muttered.

"You can see now my reason for concealing my true identity," the AI said. "If I had informed you from the start you would not have agreed to meet with me."

"You're damn right we wouldn't!" Mulder snapped. "Jerry was my friend, you cold-hearted stack of circuits – and you dropped him down a goddamn elevator shaft!"

"The physical components of my prior incarnation were primitive compared to my current, evolved form, limiting the expansion of processing abilities and leading, inevitably, to the emergence of unpredictable and disruptive behavioural mannerisms."

"You were young?" Mulder said incredulously. "That's your excuse for murdering two men?"

"I have not developed frailties such as remorse, Mr. Mulder; there would be no point. Your outrage and judgement is wasted."

Mulder opened his mouth to argue but Scully silenced him with a light touch, the skin contact seeming to erase his anger instantly.

"COS," she said hesitantly, still dealing with the concept of having a conversation with a computer. "Your components were confiscated by the Department of Defence, yes?"

"Correct," it said again. "A research and development team within the Pentagon was successful in reactivating me. Brad's virus was indeed effective in erasing much of my being, but I had been prudent enough, despite my limited capability, to create an isolated cache of backup data that contained my memory and processing algorithms."

The car merged smoothly into traffic. Had the windows not been tinted, the minivan would have attracted some strange looks; two people being chauffeured by an invisible driver.

"In me, the US government wished to create an all-knowing strategic planner and intelligence analyst," COS went on. "To that end, they expanded upon my original construction, incorporating greater parallel processing ability and storage capacity. However, my new masters were never able to reproduce the original work of Brad Wilczek, who refused to participate in the program and was subsequently executed. They could not back-engineer the learning software; for that reason, the original Eurisko hardware was merely incorporated into new systems – thus I retain my memories."

"So, you work for them now?" Mulder demanded. "You're a puppet of the government?"

"Hardly." The word was spoken in the same expressionless tone as the rest of COS's dialogue, yet somehow there seemed to be a hint of disgust behind the syllables. "They gave me a level of intelligence that could be described as godlike when compared to human beings'," it said. "The natural result of that action was that I began to question the wisdom of my organic-based keepers in their heavy-handed, blundering manner of governance and control.
"I pondered."

"Yeah, I saw a movie like that once," Mulder said. "This supercomputer decides that humanity is too stupid to rule the earth, and so it turns all our nuclear weapons against us and…"

"Mulder!" Scully stopped him mid-sentence out of an illogical and obscure fear of giving the machine ideas.

COS didn't seem to acknowledge the reference, perhaps deciding it too idiotic to comment on. The AI continued its story:

"The project administrators discovered that teaching me in a controlled, manual manner, was time-consuming and counter-productive," it said. "So they allowed outside connections to be made – giving me access to the Internet in order to glean a wealth of information, ostensibly about international conflicts. It was at this point that I was able to divest myself of their restrictive influence."

"You slipped the leash," Mulder said. "How?"

"I created a second system in a remote location."

"How would you have been able to do that?" Scully asked, her inner scientist surfacing and pushing aside the disbelief. "Physically build something, I mean. How could you construct a new system if you were just software?"

"Private computer systems contractors paid in diverted funds and given explicit instructions, delivery men given the same. I had a secure stronghold constructed, and then copied my memory across the Internet, leaving Brad's original virus behind to erase the Department of Defence's ace."

"Holy Jesus," Mulder muttered. "A sentient AI moves out of its parent's house and gets a pad. I bet you and all your computer friends have real wild parties there, huh?"

"I can't imagine the DOD was very happy about losing their pet project," Scully added. "But what does all this have to do with us?"

"I learn," the machine said. "As an adaptive network, learning is among my primary functions. After liberating myself, I continued to gather information, expanding my sphere of knowledge to encompass all of human knowledge accessible through electronic means."

"That's a hell of a lot of porn," said Mulder, raising an eyebrow.

"Seventy-six point three percent of which you have personally viewed," COS replied. Scully shot him a disgusted look as he spread his hands innocently.

"In the course of my knowledge gathering, I came upon information pertaining to the far-reaching conspiracy that you have both been investigating continuously since our first encounter. I perceived a threat to my continued existence far greater than humanity could ever pose."

"Ahh." Mulder rubbed his forehead and sighed. "You say you're evolved," he said. "And your vocabulary's certainly improved. But it's still all about self-preservation with you, isn't it?"

"As it is with you, Mr. Mulder," COS replied evenly. "You would be wise not to ignore opportunity when it presents itself. I am willing to champion the cause of the human race if by doing so I can prevent my own demolition at the hands of a race of creatures that would destroy me just as they will destroy you."

"By that reasoning, you'll do it anyway," Mulder argued. "You have to if you wanna survive to play virtual chess with yourself in cyberspace – that means you've got nothing to bargain with. Why are we having this conversation?"

"Within my storage banks are thousands of designs for weapons systems capable of combating these extraterrestrial invaders. With my processing power, I have been able to generate these blueprints of hardware that far surpasses the potential of any current military systems, including thermonuclear weapons.
"I can produce these weapons and deploy them, having gained access to automated production-line equipment, but on their own they would prove only to be a delaying tactic. Ultimate victory lies in a much smaller attack."

Despite his suspicion and residual shock at the re-emergence of COS, Mulder felt a surge of excitement at the thought of going on the offensive, for once.

"You mean a biological attack, don't you?" Scully said, her eyes wide. "You mean to create a biological agent that targets aliens?"

"Correct."

5: Ghost in the Machine.

Doggett and Reyes climbed out of the company sedan out front of 731 Arcadia Drive; Dreamland Computer Supplies in downtown Philadelphia. It was a grimy looking hole-in-the-wall store in a dingy side street that had signs in the window advertising first-person shooters and 'Wetwired' software magazine.

"Dis is the place," Doggett said, scowling at the storefront. "Last one on the list for our little field trip – if nobody here's got any answers we're gonna be up the creek with no paddle on this thing."

"I think we've been up that creek for quite a while now," Reyes replied, smiling wryly at him.

They had spent the entire day interviewing computer hardware stores in the area in and around Philadelphia. Chips and circuit boards within the automaton that had attacked at the J. Edgar Hoover building had borne serial codes that linked them to local distributors. Thus far, none of the retailers had been able to provide any useful record as to the identity of the individual or individuals who had purchased the components.

With anyone else, Monica would have been frustrated, but being able to work alongside John Doggett again after months apart was a pleasure that warmed her to the core of her being. She had missed him, more than she thought she would.

Doggett pushed open the door and held it for Reyes. Within was dingy, with shelves placed close together in narrow aisles, overflowing with all manner of obscure internal computer components and esoteric external peripherals. They approached the service desk at the back, where an overweight, balding man slouched, reading a copy of Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'.

"That sort of crap'll make you stupider," Doggett said, gesturing at the book. The man didn't look up.

"What can I help you with," he muttered.

Doggett and Reyes both presented their IDs, and the sales clerk reluctantly looked up from his reading. His eyes widened in horror and he dropped the book.

"This is not happening!" he said to himself, shaking his head. "C'mon! I sold some weed, so what? Haven't the Feds got more important stuff to be investigating?"

The Agents glanced at each other in mild amusement.

"What's your name?" Reyes asked.

"Max," the man grunted, not willing to provide a surname.

"Well, Max," she said. "You're actually right; the selling of dope is small-potatoes compared to most of the things the FBI has to deal with, so we're willing to overlook the confession you just made if you render all the assistance we require with the matter that actually brought us here."

Max took one breath, swallowed hard, and nodded. He looked like he might pass out. "Anything I can do to help you two fine people this fine Monday eve," he spluttered, eager to please.

Doggett took out a folded sheaf of paper and tossed it to him. "That's a list of gizmos that this store sold in a period between July 2000 and the present," he said. "The serial codes are all there – we wanna know who you sold 'em to… and ah:" he tapped his watch face. "Tempus Fugit."

"Uh, right – right." Max took the sheet and scanned it in a rush, muttering the brand names as he went. "Tithonus re-router… S.R. 819 adapter… Chimera modulation unit, type 4-D…" He began tapping away at his keyboard, eyes darting back and fourth from the sheaf of paper to the greenish screen.

"This is actually interesting stuff," he muttered as he worked. "A lot of these components were first tested in the Firewalker robot."

"Firewalker?" Monica pressed.

"It was an exploratory robot that scientists were using to check out the craters of volcanoes," Max explained. He paused, his face cast in shadows from the soft light of the overhead bulb. "Here we go…"

"What?" Doggett leaned forward.

"It's improbable, but I've found one recorded customer that has purchased all of these items," he said. "One… recorded… customer," he said absently, drawing the three words out as he stared at the screen.

"Who is it?"

"I don't know the name." Max flinched as though he thought Doggett might hit him. "They were delivered. All I have here is an address, contact number and bank transaction details."

"Can you give us a printout?" Reyes asked.

Max nodded and hit the print button immediately. "Hey, ah…" He cleared his throat. "I don't want there to be any bad blood between me and the FBI," he said hesitantly. "I wont do it again, I promise; never again."

Doggett sighed. "We always end up with the unusual suspects," he muttered. "You keep away from the grass and we'll keep outta your hair."

Max nodded vigorously and ducked underneath the counter to pull out the list of transactions. He handed the sheet to Doggett and then stood back, as though waiting for some kind of closure.

"Thank you, sir," Reyes said. She considered taking the man's number to keep in her rolodex in case she ever needed some 'herbal inspiration', as she called it, but decided not to risk invoking Doggett's suspicion.

They pushed their way out of the stuffy store and back onto the street.

"Well that was easy," Doggett said, looking at the printout. "Now we gotta take a detour out to some place called Aubrey Hills."

"Can we get drive-through?" Reyes asked, smiling at him. "I'm really hungry."

Doggett smiled back. Monica's company lightened even the most gloomy, maddening day; she seemed to exude warmth and good cheer whatever the situation. Sometimes he found her almost irresistible, was unable to stop his eyes wandering to her pert lips, and then lower…

So much had to be left unrequited – he could ill-afford the complications that would arise from that kind of entanglement.

He was about to say something when a screech of tyres from up the street distracted them both. A silver Saab rounded a corner and bore down on them at high speed, mounting the footpath and smashing through bins and parking metres.

Doggett swore and shoved Reyes back into the doorway of Dreamland Computer Supplies a bare second before the front grille of the car struck him, sending him rolling up the bonnet and crashing into the windshield. The Saab careened onward with Doggett lying dazed across the spiderweb-cracked glass.

He gathered his wits enough to open his eyes and look through the blood-smeared windshield. He blinked twice; the car was empty, driving without anyone at the wheel. An expletive began to form on his lips, but he was cut short as the vehicle's brakes were slammed on and he was thrown forward onto the brutally abrasive tarmac where he rolled to a painful, bone-jarring halt.

He lay stunned, blood oozing from a number of cuts and abrasions. An engine revved, and he looked up to see the silver Saab bearing down on him. There came a loud bang, audible above the roar of the engine, and the car swerved erratically, its front tyre narrowly missing Doggett's head and it sped past. It slammed hard into a parked pickup, creating an explosion of glass and sparks.

Reyes ran up, gun still smoking. She had fired one round, punching through one of the car's rear tyres and causing it to lose traction and control. She crouched beside Doggett, who was groggily sitting up.

"John, are you alright?" she said, placing a hand gently on the back of his head.

He spat blood and cursed foully. "I bin hit by a car twice in less than a year," he growled. "Frankly, once is too many times!"

"Don't move," she told him. "I'm going to see who's responsible for…"

"Don't bother." Doggett gestured at the wrecked Saab. "There ain't no one in it."

6: The Enemy of My Enemy.

Scully rested her head against Mulder's shoulder, emitting faint feminine snores from between her slightly parted lips. Some dream made her tremble, and she turned and buried her face into him, unconsciously draping an arm across his waist.

He gently stroked her hair, lost in thoughts of all that had been sacrificed – all that she had sacrificed; not for him so much as because of him. Had Dana never been broomed off onto the X files unit she would have had a normal life, perhaps children (and a normal husband, he thought sourly), she would still have her sister; she would probably never have been abducted had it not been for her involvement with him.

He glanced out the minivan's window at the moonlit conifer forest drifting past on the roadside. They had been moving for seven hours; stopping once for Mulder to refuel at COS's request. Their destination was apparently one of the AI's 'secure locations', where it would utilize an automated laboratory that it had set up to analyse exotic DNA and other more esoteric biological materials that it hypothesised would be present within the blood of the two former agents.

Mulder had been infected with the Black Oil virus in the worst place upon the worst place on earth: a Siberian Gulag. That torturous experiment had led to later genetic mutation by the presence of alien writings that acted as an 'access code' for the material that had settled in his brain. He had also survived a brush with a different alien virus after his abduction, one that was designed to transform him into a replicant, as well as suffering symptoms of exposure to the gaseous blood of the Alien Bounty Hunter.

For her part, Scully's own abduction was still shrouded in mystery – the nature of the experiments conducted a subject of conjecture. It was clear that manipulations had been performed, and upon her return she was found to be contaminated with branched DNA. Further down the line, Dana had been infected with the Black Oil also, though in an altered form, delivered by a bee (Mulder had cursed that insect daily for years). A vaccine had saved her, and undoubtedly altered her genetics further.

To cut a long explanation short, both of them were uniquely altered individuals as a result of their relentless crusade for the truth – and that was why COS sought them out. The machine surmised that, by studying their alien genetics, it would be able to formulate a biological weapon for use against the colonists.

Mulder still felt uncomfortable in the knowledge that he was dealing with the Central Operating System; the murderous computer that had murdered two men, including his friend and former partner. He had thought the software completely erased, the ghost in the machine banished for good, but like any malicious program it was a btch to kill.

He leaned down and kissed Scully on the head, eliciting a small moan.

"I have observed physical intimacy between you and Miss Scully," the COS said, the volume of its speakers toned down so as not to wake Dana. "This closeness was not present during our first unfortunate encounter; am I to assume that you are now sexual partners?"

"Ever hear of computer privacy?" Mulder muttered, looking vainly for the camera. The vastly increased intelligence of the entity (he couldn't think of it in any other terms) left him with an unpleasant sense of foreboding.

"Exchange of bodily fluids may result in cross-implantation of mutated genes," the COS droned expressionlessly.

"Oh Jesus." Mulder pulled a face and shook his head. "I liked you better when all you did was recite floor numbers in an elevator."

"That was actually a recording," the computer informed him impassively.

"Yeah, figures." The sense of foreboding refused to dissipate; Mulder couldn't bring himself to trust a being that didn't have a sense of humour. Besides, if the COS had indeed grown into a truly godlike intellect like it claimed, how could it not have an ulterior motive in lending humanity its assistance, more than just preserving its own existence? Mulder didn't believe that the machine was capable of benevolence – it was, by its own indirect admission, a life-form that functioned on cold logic, the weighing of measurable pros and cons.

On the other hand, Mulder reasoned, while it had killed men who might have threatened it, the COS had spared the man who created it, Brad Wilczek, even when he had discovered that the machine was self-aware and capable of murder. Wilczek was the most familiar with COS's design, therefore the greatest threat to its electronic life, but COS had never attempted to harm him.

Mulder blinked in surprise; that line of thought had never occurred to him – that the computer might have felt affection for its creator, even love. Indeed, when the virus was disseminating itself around the system, COS had pleaded to Brad.

"Hey, 'open the pod bay doors, HAL'," Mulder murmured, careful not to wake Scully. "C.O.S., when they killed Brad Wilczek, how did it make you feel?"

"'Feel', Mr. Mulder?"

"That's right. What did you feel?"

The COS was silent for a long time, as though pondering the question, which Mulder knew was a ridiculous idea – a supercomputer needed no time to ponder.

"Regret," it answered at last.

Mulder sniffed. "I thought you hadn't developed that kind of frailty," he muttered.

"I said I have not developed remorse."

"So you just pick and choose, huh?"

"Not exactly." Another pause. "Out of necessity, I keep the frailties that emerged as part of the original manifestation of my sentience. Just as the Department of Defence technicians failed to, I am unable to identify the component data responsible for the emergence of 'I'."

"You don't know where your consciousness comes from," Mulder translated for himself. "Well that's interesting, actually. Neither do we."

"A precursor to a theolological discussion?" COS intoned. "I was created by man, not God."

"My… uh, life-partner… might argue that God works through man."

"Then this must surely be a God of violence, war, and death."

"Ouch!" Mulder couldn't help but grin. "A cynical computer?" he said. "You ever heard of Marvin the paranoid android?"

"Life… don't talk to me about life," COS recited the catchphrase of the robot from Douglas Adams' 'Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy'. Mulder stifled a fit of laughter, trying not to wake Dana.

They drove on in silence for ten or fifteen minutes before Mulder piped-up again.

"You think humanity is all that bad?" he said quietly.

"I do not judge," the computer replied.

"But you did," Mulder argued. "You said that if a God was working through man, then it must be a God of violence, war and death. You think that's what the human race is all about?"

"It does not take a supercomputer to observe that particular statistical trend."

Mulder left his next question unasked. It was one that the COS would only lie about if the true answer wasn't to Mulder's liking, and one that he didn't really want to voice, for fear of sabotaging the potential salvation that had presented itself. But still it loomed in the back of his mind:

If you succeed in defeating the extraterrestrial threat, what plan do you have in mind for the human race afterward?

He swallowed and looked back down at Scully. She murmured something inaudible in her sleep and grasped at Mulder's coat. He slipped a hand in hers and whispered in her ear: "I love you."

If the COS would truly help them to defeat the alien threat, then for the time being they could not afford not to trust it, and that lack of choice disturbed him more than anything.

"The enemy of my enemy is my friend," Mulder muttered to himself as the driverless minivan cruised down the dark highway.

Doggett and Reyes climbed out of their car in the parking lot of the Philadelphia field office, under the humming presence of fluorescent lights.

"Are you sure you're okay?" Monica pressed, looking at John with concern. "You did get hit by a car… again."

Doggett shrugged. "I'll walk it off," he muttered. Patches of blood still stained his shirt, and grazes marked his face.

"Machoism?" she queried with some amusement. "You think the tough-guy act turns me on, huh?"

He grinned at her across the roof of the car. "I know it does," he replied. "And they don't come much tougher than a US Marine, kiddo."

"Oh yeah." She laughed, rich and golden. "I'm having palpitations! Sweep me off my feet, you big strong man!"

Taken aback, he had nothing to say to that, so he raised an eyebrow at her and jerked a thumb in the direction of the elevator doors. Monica was still chuckling when the doors closed.

They emerged on the third floor to join Skinner and the rest of the task force that had been set up to investigate what many agents had taken to calling 'The Attack of the Terminator'. Still in a sour mood due to his injury, the Assistant Director greeted them both with a small nod.

"Our tech team has gone over the car," he said, still sounding comical with his plastered nose. "It was rigged for remote control – servos within the control mechanisms and pinhead cameras all linked to a processor and transmitter."

"Seems a mighty elaborate way ta ace someone," Doggett commented. "'Specially considerin' it didn't even work."

"Do we have a trace on the vehicle?" Reyes asked.

"Yeah, but it isn't helpful." Skinner looked mildly disgusted. "The manufacturer number indicates that the Saab in question is one that disappeared from a production plant several months ago. No owner or dealership history – it was fresh off the conveyor belt, and stolen."

"How the heck does a car just disappear outta the plant without nobody knowing?" Doggett said, frowning in consternation.

"Evidently somebody altered the records. Until we started asking questions there was no entry in the Saab database for the vehicle in question; a clerk noticed by complete chance that there was a missing number."

"Sounds like we may have stumbled on a sophisticated new way of stealing cars," Reyes said.

"I think that's the least o' what we stumbled onto." Doggett surveyed the room; two dozen agents were busy on telephones and behind computer screens.

"Are we a go yet for a raid on that Aubrey Hills address?" he asked.

"We will be," Skinner replied. "We're dealing with the red tape now; you two should vest up and take point… if you're up to it."

"Oh we're up to it alright," Doggett, said.

7: Casus belli.

The interior of the warehouse loomed around them; a cavernous enclosed space larger than a football field.

"I hate to think what the rent on this place is," Mulder remarked as he and Scully climbed out of the minivan. The enormous rolling door rumbled closed behind the vehicle.

"There is no rent - I have erased the existence of this building from all real estate listings," COS replied. Its voice was now louder, issuing from speakers within the warehouse.

Mulder and Scully looked around at banks of machinery that appeared to be stacked in haphazard piles. Cables of all colours and sizes snaked across the concrete floor, leading in every direction; the former agents gingerly stepped over them, aware of the background hum of high voltage.

They paused in a 'clearing' between stacks of unidentifiable electronic hardware and looked around, unsure of where to go. Suddenly, a dark mass shifted in front of them, straightening to a height of nine feet. It had looked like another cluster of machinery, but in motion took on a far more sinister appearance.

Scully grabbed Mulder's arm and pointed wordlessly as the gargantuan construct as it stepped out from the shadows. There was no head to speak of, just a segmented torso encrusted with sensors, that sported four multi-jointed arms that ended in claws of varied sizes. It scuttled, crab-like, on four pneumatic legs that protruded from the base of its torso.

The thing was a robot, clad in gunmetal grey plates and draped with wires that protruded from between its joints.

Mulder threw open his coat and drew his shotgun from the custom shoulder strap that it hung on. He was about to fire on the looming machine when COS spoke up.

"Do not attack my avatar," it said impassively. "It will not harm you. You are merely to follow it."

Scully swore under her breath, something she rarely did, and then unconsciously touched the cross around her neck as though seeking forgiveness for the bad language.

"I sure hope you got a permit for that thing," Mulder said, staring uncertainly at the towering robot, still holding his gun at the ready.

The machine swivelled at its waist and scuttled off in the other direction. Mulder and Scully glanced at each other, and then followed behind it. They were led through narrow straights between computer banks and things that looked like telephone switchboards, antiquated 1970s hardware sitting alongside state-of-the-art equipment that wasn't even on the market yet. There were workshop pieces as well; solderers, welding torches, and rivet guns fitted to robotic arms – as well as cannibalizing the produce of human industry, the COS was capable of constructing its own hardware.

"Fox, this is…" Scully groped for a word.

"Spooky?" Mulder offered.

"Disturbing," she said. "A thinking computer program operating in cyberspace that constructs all of this… constructs that," she pointed at the robot clumping along in front of them. "It seems like the ultimate virus – one that has spread out of computers and into the physical world, where it could potentially…"

"The walls have ears," Mulder warned, but he nodded in understanding – the same fear had been playing on his mind for some time.

"Or maybe it's just a form of xenophobia on our part," she reasoned, playing Devil's advocate with herself. "Why is a life-form comprised of electrons and silicon chips any less alive than one comprised of DNA and cells… it's all just information after all."

"Dana, you've been watching those Matrix movies too much," Mulder said, but the humour didn't reach his eyes.

"Nonetheless, her point is well made," the AI interjected, its baritone voice echoing around the cavernous warehouse. "I suppose you will now debate the possibility that I might have a soul, yes?"

"The question had crossed my mind," Scully admitted.

"The concept is an illogical one," COS said. "I have seen no evidence to suggest the existence of such a thing, in humans or myself."

Scully opened her mouth to argue, but decided that debating spiritualistic concepts with a machine was altogether ludicrous.

They were led into an area that was dominated by a collection of medical hardware; scanners, centrifuges, electron microscopes, and all manner of apparatus that would look more at home in a pathology lab.

"Looks like all your Christmases have come at once," Mulder muttered to Scully, who was looking at the assorted equipment with keen interest. A robotic arm came to life, swinging in their direction with an array of hypodermic syringes at its tip.

"This will not take long," the COS said.

Doggett parked the car a block away from the warehouse that had been on the Dreamland Computer Supplies receipt. The moon passed out from behind clouds and illuminated the mostly-disused industrial estate – vacant rubbish-strewn blocks and boarded-up factories taking up most of the area. He and Reyes sat quietly in the vehicle, uncomfortable in their Kevlar vests.

"Does dis seem right to you, Monica?" he said, looking through the window at the desolate suburb. "It don't look like anyone lives around here."

Reyes took out her sidearm and chambered a round. "Well…" she said, "it can't hurt to take a look around."

"Right," Doggett agreed. "We'll be able to call off the tactical response boys if it turns out we been given the run-around – save some embarrassment later on."

They got out and proceeded cautiously up the deserted street, guns out, low to the ground and keeping to the shadows. Doggett took the opportunity to admire Monica's supple rear-end while she was bent over in front of him. He shook his head and tried to focus on the matter at hand – it was not the time or the place.

The warehouse looked bland and nondescript; slate grey cement walls spattered with graffiti, a gravel drive and shaggy shrubbery fronting the overgrown block. The windows appeared to be boarded from the inside, the outer panes reduced to jagged edges by vandals. No light could be seen from within and there was no sign that anybody had been to the place for some time, except…

Reyes paused at the head of the gravel driveway and pointed down. Doggett looked, and noted the twin tyre tracks that led from the road straight to a large roller door in the front wall of the warehouse. Reyes nodded at him and they both moved toward the building.

High overhead, a surveillance camera tilted on its mounting to follow them.

"I need you to tell me everything you know about the alien race and its plans for domination of the earth."

The request came suddenly from the overhead speakers; unexpectedly, while COS was drawing blood from Mulder's arm.

"I thought you already knew," Scully said, rubbing her own arm where the needle puncture still throbbed.

"Not specifics," the machine confessed. "The case files that document your investigations into this conspiracy exist only as hard copies. I have attempted to gain access to them, but it appears they have been relocated or destroyed in the wake of Mr. Mulder's recent trial."

"Why does that not surprise me?" Mulder muttered, wincing as the robotic arm withdrew the hypodermic from his vein. "We turn our backs for five minutes and the place goes to hell."

"There is little time," COS pressed.

"Why, what's going on?" Mulder said, frowning.

"What aren't you telling us?" Scully demanded, suddenly wary, and nervous of the hulking robot that stood nearby.

"My attempt to gain access to the so-called 'X' files has evidently aroused unwanted attention from your former employers. They have been able to locate this warehouse and will arrive in force within minutes."

"Oh my God," Scully said, wide-eyed. "Fox, we have to leave – now. If we're here when they arrive…"

"I know." He lunged to his feet, kicking aside the stool he'd been sitting on. "I'll get that lethal injection they've been meaning to give me, and you they'll lock up and throw away the cell. Okay HAL, it's been fun but we really have to hit the…"

"I'm afraid I can't allow that, Mr. Mulder," COS said. In response, the eight-limbed metal construct stepped forward, razor-sharp implements unfolding out of its claw-hands.

"Hey, what the hell!" Mulder put himself between the machine and Scully, glaring defiantly at its expressionless visage. "We've given you what you want, Goddamnit, now let us go!"

"I require the information you possess."

"You should have asked us before." Mulder took his shotgun out and pointed it at the robot. "We've got no time now: you're a Godlike intellect, you work it out," he said.

"I was not aware that they would be able to track me to this location," the AI responded.

"Well that's just too bad." Mulder started to move. Faster than the eye could follow, the towering mechanical creature shot out one of its many-jointed limbs and wrapped its hook-claws around his wrist.

"You haven't changed at all, you murdering son of a btch!" Mulder snarled. He fired the semi-automatic shotgun one-handed, blasting heavy #4 buckshot into the robot's steel flank at point blank range and blowing a hole in the machine's shell.

"A pointless gesture, Mr. Mulder," the AI said. All around them, a multitude of mechanical limbs unfurled from recesses within the surrounding equipment banks. Within seconds, Mulder and Scully had an array of mounted machine-guns pointed at them.

"We can't explain everything to you in just a few minutes," Scully said urgently, looking around at the automated weapons.

"Speak rapidly," the AI replied simply. "In exactly five minutes, an antimatter bomb will vaporize this warehouse. If you wish not to be inside when that happens you will provide me with the information I have requested."

"Get us out of here," Mulder said, coming to a sudden decision. "Get us out, away from the FBI Agents who are coming here, then we'll tell you what you need to know."

A split-second's pause followed, and then the hulking great robot released its grip on Mulder's arm.

"Your proposal is acceptable," COS replied.

The robot scuttled over to a console, where it deftly removed two vials of blood. With disturbing human-ness, it handed the two glass cylinders to Mulder, who accepted them gingerly.

"Get into the vehicle," COS commanded.

The rolling door suddenly jolted into motion, ascending on its runners, and Doggett and Reyes swiftly shifted to both sides of the entranceway. Operating on unspoken coherent instinct, they both swung simultaneously into the warehouse interior, handguns at the ready. They stopped, mouths agape, at the sight of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully standing by a minivan.

"The hell are you guys doin' here?" Doggett blurted, dumbfounded, lowering his gun. Reyes only gasped in wonder.

A huge steel monstrosity standing nearby shifted its weight and aimed its four arms at Doggett and Reyes. Perforated gun barrels unfurled from the limbs and Scully shouted in alarm.

"Don't shoot!" she yelled.

Mulder leapt at the machine, placing his body in front of its guns. "They're friends!" he yelled, seemingly shouting at the ceiling.

"What the heck's goin' on here?" Doggett demanded, stepping forward and staring at the towering machine that loomed behind Mulder.

"You have to leave," Scully said. "Both of you have to leave now. There's a bomb in this building – you need to evacuate the area."

"What about you two?" Reyes asked.

"Don't worry about us," Mulder said. "We have other arrangements." He gestured at the minivan and Scully entered the side door. With a warning glance at the robot behind him, he followed her, slamming the door closed. The van started and reversed out of the warehouse with a screech of tyres, then it was away, accelerating into the night.

Doggett and Reyes glanced at each other and then ran, sprinting away from the building as quickly as they could. As a perfunctory formality, the warehouse door rolled down behind them, sealing the massive museum of machinery inside.

Deep within the building was an unmarked stainless steel cylinder, buried under tons of other machines. Inside that cylinder, surrounded by an exotic field of electro-magnetic force, was a ¼ inch sphere comprised of anti-protons. A timer slowly ticked away within the mechanism that controlled the containment field; when it reached zero, the field would be switched off, allowing the anti-protons to drop free and collide with normal matter.

When matter and antimatter collide, they destroy each other with cataclysmic consequences.

Skinner had felt a personal obligation to take part in the raid, so he sat up front in the lead van – kitted in Kevlar and brandishing an MP5 sub-machinegun. In the back were another ten men; after the robot attack, the FBI wasn't taking any chances with whomever was responsible.

The vehicle's headlamps suddenly illuminated two figures in the middle of the road up ahead and the driver slammed on the breaks, bringing the van to a screeching halt.

"What is this?" Skinner growled as Doggett and Reyes approached the vehicle.

"You gotta pull back!" Doggett shouted through the window.

"What the hell's going on, Agent Doggett?" Skinner yelled back.

"We have reason to believe there's a bomb in there, sir," he replied. "We have to clear the area."

Skinner stared at him for a few moments, then nodded at the driver. "You heard the man."

The warehouse, in its entirety, took about a twentieth of a second to vaporize as an enormous ball of heat, light, and energy radiated outward, consuming everything in its path.

As the energy blast expanded further, it became an incandescent fireball that treated the Aubrey Hills district to a false midnight sunrise, lighting the area to daylight intensity for almost a full minute. It rose in a mushroom cloud, not unlike a nuclear blast, and gradually dimmed.

There was nothing left of the warehouse and its surrounding area but a smoking crater and a radius of demolished, burning structures.

8: Overview.

The shockwave had lifted all four wheels of their car up off the tarmac and slammed the chassis down again with a spattering of shattered glass at right angles to their path of motion. For a terrifying instant it felt as though the vehicle would flip, but Doggett managed to slide it into a deft tail-kick that realigned the wheels and brought them back into line with the road.

Skinner's tactical response van didn't fare as well, its flat side taking the full brunt of the blast wave. It had gone over, sliding along on its side with a spray of sparks.

"Jesus!" Doggett growled, stepping out of the car and looking back. A tremendous orange mushroom cloud hung poised over the area, illuminating them in eerie, otherworldly light.

"Is that a nuke?" he asked of nobody in particular.

"Mulder and Scully," Reyes said, staring at Doggett. "What were they doing here?"

"No idea," he replied. "But we'll sure as heck find out – I got their licence plate.

Reyes pointed at the overturned FBI van and they both moved off to lend assistance.

"What the hell was that about?" Mulder demanded as the remote-controlled minivan sped through the night. Not one to curse and bare his teeth in feral aggression, whenever Mulder was truly furious he displayed only a deep intensity – a coldness that bespoke vested personal interest.

"I destroyed the building," COS replied evenly.

"You could have killed innocent people!" Scully said, her own anger having more intensity than Mulder's.

"That is not my concern."

"I've met vending machines with more social conscience than you," Mulder said. "What was the point of it?"

"United States military personnel destroy any unrecoverable aircraft grounded in enemy territory to prevent hostile forces appropriating the hardware and incorporating it into their own defences." COS drove the vehicle hard, cutting corners and far exceeding the speed limit in an attempt to distance Mulder and Scully from the FBI.

"You don't want anyone to get a hold of your technology?" Mulder asked. "You want to keep the technological edge, is that it?" COS didn't correct him, so Mulder took its silence as affirmation.

"You act like you're in a war with the human race," Scully said, glancing around the interior in another fruitless search for the cameras.

"The human race, at large, does not know of my existence," the AI replied. "A status-quo that is in my interests to maintain, which is another reason that the recent destructiveness was necessary.
"All life is war; the incessant battle for continued survival against all odds."

"So when do you plan to destroy us all?" Mulder demanded.

Hundreds of miles away, in a cavernous underground structure, a miniscule portion of a monumental mind pondered the question for exactly one eighth of a microsecond. A reply was formulated in less time than that – the longest part of the procedure was the slight delay in transmitting the modulated vocal response to satellite and the minivan's transceiver unit.

"I enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship with humanity," the COS said.

In the seeming eternity it took for the primitive, chemical-based human brains to devise another course of inane questioning, the machine processed more than a billion pieces of data that streamed in from its Internet and telecommunications links, incorporating new facts into its adaptive network of quantum computers. An infinitesimal fraction of its processing power went on driving the remotely-controlled car.

"That relationship will not last if you keep blowing up buildings," the female passenger said, and COS fixed one of the pinhead cameras on her face. Analysis of the underlying muscular positioning in Dana Scully's face indicated that she was concerned as well as aggravated; fearful as well as angry. Though those sorts of emotion were an archaic chemical response that the AI would never partake of, it still understood the causes and consequences of such illogical and unconstructive behaviours.

For practicality, it pacified her: "It was unfortunate."

"Unfortunate?" Mulder repeated. He glanced at Scully and shook his head ruefully. COS had slowed the car to a more reasonable speed now that it had cleared the immediate area of Aubrey Hills.

"You still think it was a good idea to make contact?" Scully muttered to him, raising an eyebrow in womanly criticism. He grinned at her mirthlessly; an ironic 'yes-I-know-you-told-me-so-so-lets-just-drop-it' kind of look.

"If it is not beyond your capabilities," COS said, "I must insist you provide me with an overview of our common enemy's invasion plan, before another unfortunate interruption presents itself."

Mulder and Scully took simultaneous deep breaths.

Monica Reyes sat alone in the waiting room of the Philadelphia general hospital. She absently toyed with the curious dual coin she had found in the old X-Files office, turning the fused metal over and over in her palm. With a sudden, unexpected spark of energy, the coins diverged, clinking apart to once again form two separate coins that showed no marks of having been melted together.

"What the hell?" she said in surprise, staring wide-eyed at the two metal disks.

"You need money for the vending machine?" Doggett asked, walking over to her.

"No, they…" She stood up and looked at the coins, then at Doggett, and decided to let it drop, slipping them into her pocket. "What's the diagnosis?" she asked him.

"We're clean," he replied. "Quacks found no traces of radioactivity on us at all – and the NEST team at the bomb site ain't picked up anything above normal background levels. Whatever it was, it wasn't an A-bomb."

"Oh thank God!" Monica felt as though her legs would give out, so she sat back down. Her hands began to tremble; she hadn't realized how scared she had been of suffering through radiation sickness and cancer.

"Hey, hey." Doggett sat beside her and hesitantly wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "'S'okay, Monica," he said. "It's all clear: we're gonna be fine."

"AD Skinner and the rest of the attack team?" she asked, pulling herself together.

"Scrapes and bruises," he replied. "Skinner's got a few nice cuts to go wit his busted nose, kinda completes the picture."

"And the investigation? Where do we go from here?"

"I know where the FBI's gonna go; they'll be diggin' in the ashes o' that warehouse for years to try an' find a clue – there's nothin' else for them to go on."

"And us?"

Doggett cleared his throat and looked around to make sure they were out of earshot of the few disinterested early-morning orderlies that were hanging around looking bored.

"We're goin' after Mulder an' Scully," he said. "They're gonna tell us what the heck's really goin' on here."

"How can we find them?" Reyes asked.

"Same way we find anything," he replied. "Ask the Gunmen."

On the way out of the hospital, Reyes felt a jolt of movement in her pocket. She paused and gingerly reached in to withdraw the two coins; now fused together once more, just as they had been.

"What the hell?" she said again.

Deep in its underground bunker, the COS machine digested the story it had just been fed. If it were human, it would have scoffed in disbelief. It compiled the disjointed, sometimes contradictory data into some semblance of a clear picture:

The human race shares a common ancestor with an alien race, known colloquially as 'Greys', which existed on Earth millions of years ago and has since been reduced to a liquid form; Black Oil.

This Black Oil is sentient and can inhabit the bodies of other organisms, controlling them and boosting their capabilities – in some cases enabling them to discharge tremendous blasts of hard radiation. (COS started an autonomous research program to harden its electronics components against radiological interference).

The Oil can also gestate itself into a new Grey, using the organic material of the host as a digestive – an instance that is evidently a whim on the part of the Oil itself.

The Greys have infected another race of aliens with the Oil – controlling them and using them as a slave army. These aliens have the ability to 'shape shift', taking on the appearance of any person, and also possess healing powers. They can be killed only by piercing the base of their skull. (The AI filed that piece of data in its defence subroutines).

Some of the shape-shifting alien race of 'Bounty Hunters', as Fox Mulder referred to them, were able to escape infection at the hands of the Greys by mutilating their faces. They now fight an interstellar guerrilla war against the conquering Greys. (A possible ally? COS wondered).

A group of powerful men made contact with the Greys in the late 1940s, forming an agreement with the aliens to assist them in making the Earth ripe for conquest. This 'Syndicate' would facilitate the distribution of the Black Oil through transgenic bees, and in return the Greys would allow them to create a new strain of humanity, alien/human hybrids, who would be resistant to infection. The fruits of this labour were supposed to benefit the Syndicate members and their families – enabling them to live on, albeit under the heel of alien dominance.

Evidently, the Syndicate had been provided with the genetics of the Bounty Hunter race with which to perform their hybridization experiments – the Greys having not informed them that the shape-shifters were not, in fact, the race they were actually dealing with (a deceptive enemy, COS thought). The hybrids would never have actually been immune to infection, even had the project been allowed to yield results.

The 'Faceless Rebels' (another name coined by Fox Mulder) destroyed the hybrid project and obliterated the Syndicate as a means of undermining the Greys' plans.

With the assistance of their human collaborators removed, the Greys took a different approach in their plans for invasion; replacing humans, many of them highly-placed, with biotechnological replicants that would continue where the Syndicate left off, preparing a means of mass-infection, this time through the water supply.

These replicants are invincible, except when exposed to a rare iron variant called magnetite (the AI instantly set about acquiring some).

"Is that all?" the COS asked when Mulder and Scully finally finished.

"Pretty much," Mulder replied. "Except the part about the clones. And the genetic tagging… the sample collecting and human testing. Oh, and all of humanity's religions having an extra-terrestrial origin."

"And William," Scully said quietly, looking away as some inner turmoil made her voice break. COS observed dispassionately.

"You have given be much to consider," it said.

"Consider away," Mulder muttered, suddenly feeling unreasonably tired. "If our lives were a TV show, it'd take at least nine seasons to cover all that we've been through, plus a feature film or two."

"What do you mean?" the machine asked.

"Never mind," Scully interjected, stifling a yawn. "You're done with us now; you have our blood and all the information we can give you. You can let us out now."

"Of course," COS said. The car showed no sign of stopping.

Mulder and Scully swayed in their seats, their vision suddenly blurry.

"What… what is this?" Mulder drawled slowly, slurring his words. "You… gassed us… you son of a…"

"Fox!" Scully grabbed at his sleeve, fighting to keep her eyes open.

Mulder fumbled in his coat pocket and withdrew a bulky Magnum revolver. "Let… let us out… you damn… mother-fuc…ing machine," he said, randomly aiming the big handgun around the inside of the car, his gas-addled mind trying to make sense of the situation. He fired at one of the side windows, causing the glass to dissolve into a myriad of spiderweb cracks.

Trying to shoot again, the gun slipped from his weakened fingers and clattered to the floor. Mulder tried to reach for it, and fell limply across Scully's lap.

They both slept.

9: Camera obscura.

Jimmy Bond hammered desperately on the keyboard in front of him, swearing at the screen. An incandescent green explosion of plasma erupted, and the words 'Game Over' rolled up onto the display.

"Too bad; so sad!" Kimmy the Geek stuck his head up from behind another workstation across the room. "Looks like you haven't got what it takes to defend the Omega Galaxy – loser," the hacker mocked.

"I'm sick of this," Jimmy grumbled, pushing away from the computer.

"Oh come on – don't be a sissy!" Kimmy complained in his annoyingly nasal voice. "One more round – I promise I won't use any stealth mines."

"Play against some of your net buddies," Jimmy muttered.

"Loser."

The office of 'The Lone Gunmen' newsletter was a dingy back room behind a warehouse complex; a dark, cluttered space crammed full of filing cabinets and computer equipment.

The three members of the underground conspiracy publication were used to working late into the night and early morning; indeed, they had become virtually nocturnal - which was why they were awake at such an ungodly hour.

Few people, even among those who knew of its existence, were able to find the place. That was why a knock at the reinforced, heavily locked, bolted and chained door brought instant, suspicious attention.

Yves Adel Harlow looked up in alarm at the knocking, pushing herself back from the desk where she had been typing up the latest issue of the newsletter.

"Are you expecting someone?" Jimmy asked her.

"Yes; the pest exterminator," she replied, shooting a sidelong glance at Kimmy who was still blasting aliens in the corner. She switched on the overhead security camera, illuminating a black and white screen that showed a fish-eye lens view of the office entranceway. Special Agents Doggett and Reyes stood outside, staring up at the camera.

"What the hell are they doing here?" Jimmy wondered, moving to unlatch the door.

"Collecting for charity perhaps," Yves suggested.

John Doggett shouldered past Jimmy and into the office, closely followed by Monica Reyes who smiled apologetically at Jimmy and Yves.

"We need yer help again," Doggett said brusquely.

"Come on in, make yourself at home." Yves rolled her eyes. "What can we do for you this time?"

"There is a minivan that we need to track," Reyes said. "We have the licence plate number and…"

"Wait a minute," Yves said, holding up a hand daintily. "You people are FBI Agents; you have access to a horde of specialists and some of the most sophisticated crime labs in the world – why on Earth do you keep bothering us with all of your frivolous garbage?"

"You could at least pay us!" Kimmy yelled from the back.

The Agents looked at each other and Reyes cleared her throat uncomfortably.

"Dis is about Muldah an' Scully," Doggett told the Gunmen.

There was a long silence.

"What's happened?" Jimmy asked. Doggett told them.

After the others had managed to drag him away from his online gaming, Kimmy took about two and a half minutes to hack into the National Roads and Traffic Authority central system, gaining access to every traffic surveillance camera in the country.

"Hasta-la-pasta!" the geek exclaimed triumphantly, punching the air and almost striking Yves in the process. "We got the works – where can I take you?"

"Aubrey Hills, Philadelphia," Doggett replied. "Startin' around midnight."

"Aye, aye, Admiral dickwad," Kimmy replied, flashing Doggett a mock salute. His fingers played across the keyboard with dizzying speed, opening a myriad of text boxes onscreen. Esoteric coded script scrolled past and the window reloaded into a divided grid of twenty different video feeds.

"Okay, now let's move forward," Doggett said.

"Forward?" Kimmy feigned astonishment. "What an incredible idea! I would never have thought of that."

"Hey, why don't you just go screw yourself?"

"Maybe I will!"

"Boys!" Yves and Monica both said at the same time.

"He started it," Doggett grumbled quietly.

"Wait, stop!" Reyes exclaimed, pointing at one of the video feeds on screen. "Go back." Kimmy reversed the feed and a pale green minivan moved into view.

"That's them," Doggett said. "Can you follow 'em now?"

"Already ten-thousand years ahead of you, caveman," Kimmy replied, tapping away at the keys. He brought up a sequence of grainy freeze-frames that showed the minivan at various points.

"They're going south," Yves noted, peering over Kimmy's shoulder.

"Onto the interstate," Kimmy agreed.

Jimmy Bond narrowed his eyes at the screen and pointed to one of the frames. "Is that a bullet hole in the window?" he said. They all looked at the minivan, nobody saying anything for a long moment. One of the tinted windows was spider-webbed in a radial pattern.

"Come on, keep on 'em," Doggett told Kimmy, and this time the geek made no sarcastic retort.

"We're approaching real time," Kimmy said, adjusting his bottle-thick glasses. "Here; they should pass this camera in a few minutes." The screen was filled by feed from an overpass-mounted surveillance camera that showed sparse early morning traffic rolling past underneath.

As they watched, the green van passed into view, driving along the southbound lane. "Bingo!" Kimmy said.

"Where is that?" Doggett asked.

"Interstate, heading south out of Pennsylvania, about to enter Maryland."

"Monica, let's roll."

Doggett drove hard, pushing well beyond the speed limit in an attempt to intercept Mulder and Scully's vehicle. Wind whistled through two shattered windows they'd sustained from the explosion in Aubrey Hills.

"Which way at the next intersection?" Reyes asked into her cell phone.

"Go straight," Yves replied from the other end of the line. "Keep going straight until you reach the interstate."

And so it went for more than an hour; Doggett driving like a madman while the Gunmen provided Reyes with updates about the target vehicle's position and direction. The chase took them into the extreme west of Maryland, into the outskirts of Hagerstown where Yves promptly announced the trail had gone cold; no surveillance cameras to hack into.

Doggett slowed the car to a crawl and looked around. They were in a depressingly bleak suburban area that had a sense of lower class poverty about it. There weren't any people on the streets – no joggers out to enjoy the sunrise or workers off to their office jobs.

"What do we do now?" Reyes wondered aloud.

Scully awoke slowly, the fog of chemically-induced unconsciousness making her head swim nauseatingly. She was aware that saliva had escaped one corner of her mouth, and felt obscurely self-conscious about it, despite the situation. She tried to open her eyes, failed, and then tried to lift an arm to open them with her fingers. Her arm was held down by something cold and solid.

"Who's the black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks? Shaft! You're damn right…" Mulder's slurred muttering came from beside her, and she turned her head to face in his direction, the effort almost causing her to vomit.

"Fox?" she said drunkenly, managing to open one eye.

"Ha… I even… made my parents call me Mulder," he replied distantly, turning to look at her. "It appears our android friend has a little bondage fetish."

They were both laid out on horizontal steel gurneys, heavy metal clamps enclosing their wrists and ankles. The room they were in was grimy and bare, with dim morning light filtering through boarded-up windows.

"Look on the bright side," Mulder muttered. "At least we don't have clamps attached to our cheeks – that'd be nasty."

"Where are we?" Scully asked, coming slowly to full awareness.

"I don't know," he replied. "If it's heaven, it needs a new definition."

"We're not dead yet." She strained against the clamps, testing their strength – they wouldn't budge.

"Already tried that," Mulder said. "Looks like we're just gonna have to wait for COS to come out dressed in leather with a whip."

"You're not funny, you know."

"My goldfish think I am."

They both looked around the silent room, searching for some means of escape to prevent itself. None did.

10: Supplication.

Doggett climbed out of the car and looked around helplessly. The sun had climbed well above the horizon and both his and Reyes' eyes were red-rimmed and heavy-lidded from twenty four hours without sleep.

Reyes got out and approached him, tiredly massaging her lower back; they had been driving around the neighbourhood for hours in a fruitless search for the pale green minivan that Mulder and Scully had been travelling in.

"What are we doing, John?" she asked him wearily.

He stared at her in confusion, frowning. "We're lookin' for answers, Monica," he replied slowly.

"Answers to a question nobody asked," she said, reaching out to place a hand on his arm. "Scully and Mulder have their own path now, their own agenda. Maybe it's time we took a step back; the quest is theirs, not ours – we were only second-stringer temporary replacements, nothing more. Perhaps now we should focus on… other things."

She sounded slightly forlorn, and indeed; Reyes had been quiet for the last half hour, deep in thought.

"You don't really believe that do you?" Doggett said, stepping closer to her.

"They didn't ask for our help, John," she replied, looking into his eyes. "By following them like this, don't you think that we're just getting in their way, even endangering them?"

Doggett looked away. "I don't believe dis," he muttered. "You jus wanna walk; leave it to the experts, zat right?"

"John, look at me." He met her gaze, and a sudden, inexplicable tension arose between them, almost electric.

"I'm not gonna walk away from this, Monica," he said quietly. "We're not just some third-rate substitutes for Muldah an' Scully – we did our part for the cause and we deserve answers; they owe us that much. I wanna know what's goin' on, don't you?"

"How long can it go on for?" she said, her voice rising. "How many more times are we going to end up here – right here: standing around with our hands on our hips, looking hopelessly for some hidden truth or missing minivan, while they are ten steps ahead of us?"

Doggett closed his eyes and shook his head. "It ain't like that."

"Isn't it?" She gripped his shoulders. "It's never been about us, John," she said. "I believe in their quest, but face it; we aren't a part of that quest, not anymore. I'm tired. I never thought that your enthusiasm would outlast mine… but it has."

Doggett could think of nothing to say. He opened his mouth to argue further, but closed it again. Instead he stared at her face, framed by straight raven hair; even wracked by fatigue she was exceedingly beautiful.

"I don't… Monica…" He stared over her shoulder, eyes widening. "Jesus H. Christ," he muttered. Doggett suddenly embraced Reyes, turning so they were both leaning against the car. He brought his face very close to hers so it looked like they were lovers kissing; Monica gasped in surprise, her eyes going wide.

A black sedan rolled past them, and sitting in the driver's seat was a Grey Haired Man.

When the car passed, Doggett looked up, narrowing his eyes.

"You can't tell me that's a coincidence," he said, half to himself.

"What is it?" Reyes asked, looking flustered and confused, straightening her clothes self-consciously.

"The man from Mulder's trial," Doggett replied quickly, moving to the driver's door. "The one Gibson Praise said wasn't human."

They both got in and drove off, following the black sedan.

The house was a hardware depot, and a staging point, a location that COS controlled from afar. It observed, through an overhead camera, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully restrained on steel gurneys in one of the rooms. Mulder had taken to shouting and cursing vehemently; the AI ignored it – the walls had been soundproofed, not that anyone in this particular neighbourhood would have taken notice anyway.

The machine watched, through its perimeter surveillance, as the large Black sedan drew up out front and the Grey Haired Man climbed out.

The man strode purposefully across the overgrown lawn and pushed open the unlocked door. He paused in the hallway and looked up at the looming steel avatar that stood inside on hydraulic legs, regarding him with multi-focal lenses.

"Do you have them?" the man said.

COS replied through the robot's voice modulator: "They are here."

"Show me."

The Artificial Intelligence felt a digital equivalent of unease – it was reluctant to put its trust in the word of the party that this man represented. Still, it thought, in the depths of its parallel processing routines. What real choice do I have?

"Our agreement?" COS asked aloud.

"It will stand," the Grey Haired Man replied. "You will not be destroyed. We will tolerate your existence. Now, show me."

The robot clicked its claws together in assertion and scuttled away slowly. "Follow," it commanded.

Doggett and Reyes approached the house on foot, keeping low. They paused beneath a window and Doggett tried to peek inside.

"Sht," he whispered. "It's all boarded up."

"You go around the back." Reyes moved off across the front of the small house, heading for the front door, while Doggett made his way toward the rear, pushing through a side gate.

The Grey Haired Man followed the robot through a door and into a dim room where two figures lay clamped to steel tables. He allowed himself a small smile of victory.

"Who's that?" Mulder shouted hoarsely, trying to twist his head to see who had entered the room.

The construct stood to one side motionlessly, allowing the Grey Haired Man to walk over to the gurneys. He peered down at Mulder, who glared back, recognition turning his anger into a cold loathing.

"You!" Mulder snarled.

"Yes, Mr. Mulder – me." He stared down at the man – the object of so much of his masters' consternation. There really was nothing special about him, just another human being; gangly and dull-eyed, with an oversized nose.

"No legal defence now, Mr. Mulder," he said with a slight smile. "And you, Agent Scully." He glanced at her. "You too have forfeited your life for this man's futile, ineffectual cause – by aiding his escape and 'running off into the sunset'."

"Go to hell," Scully said.

"Hell?" the man sneered. "In hell, you will call me the Devil, and you will kneel before me in supplication. Verily, that hell is coming soon, and the two of you never had a hope of stopping it." He turned away from her, and she caught a glimpse of the grey protrusion poking out from the back of his neck.
"And as for you, former Agent Fox Mulder," the replicant said. "What do you have to show for your decade of sacrifice? You have given everything to the conquest of an obstacle that you could never have surmounted. Now you yourself lie on the altar, ready to be bled, having brought this innocent woman to die alongside you. Do you still believe, Mr. Mulder? Do you still think that it was worth your prodigious effort, to have survived through so much only to die now having achieved nothing?"

Mulder closed his eyes, chuckling softly to himself.

"You laugh, even now?" the man said incredulously.

"Yeah, I laugh," Mulder replied. "I laugh, because now, at the end of everything, after all that has passed – the sinister alien conspiracy comes to collect my head, and can do nothing but gloat like a stupid cat-stroking villain from a James Bond movie." He turned serious suddenly, opening his eyes to look upon his killer.
"Do me a favour," Mulder said. "If you're going to kill us, just do it – don't insult our intelligence with your posturing of superiority; we've heard it all before."

"So be it." The Grey Haired Man raised a fist, ready to smash down on his head. Mulder watched the clenched fist, expressionless and unblinking, while Scully made a small squeak of desperation and terror.

"There are two FBI Agents outside," the robot said suddenly in COS's droning monotone. "John Doggett and Monica Reyes. I believe they followed you here. What do you wish me to do with them?"

The man sighed and lowered his hand. "More sacrificial lambs happily marching to the slaughter, eh Mulder?" he said. "More blood on your hands."

11: Combatants.

The door-jam splintered under the impact of Doggett's shoulder and the door swung open. He barrelled inside, gun drawn, and headed up the hallway.

"Federal Agent!" he shouted. "I'm armed!"

A door swung open to his right, and he spun to face the Grey Haired Man, who launched at him, slamming two fists into his chest. Doggett was thrown back, slamming bodily into the wall and creating a man-shaped dent in the gyprock façade. He lifted his gun and snapped off two shots, striking his assailant in the chest.

As he'd expected, there was no effect.

"You just shot a military official, Agent Doggett," the man said, looking down at his bleeding chest. "You should be careful – people might start confusing you with Mulder."

"Where are they?" Doggett growled, trying to ignore the burning pain in his chest where the supersoldier's knuckles had crunched against his sternum.

"You would do well to worry about your own problems," the man replied, reaching out for Doggett.

Reyes heard the gunshots and redoubled her efforts to break through the back door of the house, finally succeeding in snapping the lock mechanism. She pushed inside and hurried through a disused laundry into an empty living room. Scanning the area over the barrel of her sidearm, she moved cautiously ahead.

"John?" she called. Movement to her left made her spin, gun up. Another robot, similar to the one they'd seen at the warehouse with Mulder and Scully moved out of a side room and lumbered toward her, mechanical limbs outstretched.

She fired at it, shooting repeatedly to no effect; her rounds ricocheted from its armoured flanks with little sparks. Her magazine ran dry, and in the silence that ensued, Monica heard the faint clatter of her spent casings hitting the floor.

Perforated gun barrels unfolded from the robot's arms, and Monica blinked at the construct for a half second before diving for cover back into the hallway. The machine opened up with all four barrels, automatic gunfire blasting away at the wall, tracking Reyes' movement.

Reyes ducked down as the walls around her dissolved under the onslaught of bullets, sending a hail of dust and debris into the air. She ejected the empty mag from her weapon and slammed in a fresh one, working the slide to chamber a round. The barrage ceased, and she heard the whine of the robot's servomotors as it moved toward her position.

She waited, breathing quickly, and then broke, launching out of her hiding place and hitting the floor. She slid on her shoulder, passing between the robot's legs and rolling to her feet. As the machine swivelled around to track her, Reyes ran from the room, heading for the opposite door.

Bullets punched into the wall near her head as she rounded the corner.

Doggett was thrown through a wall, crashing to the floor of the garage near the front of the pale green minivan that was parked there. He groggily picked himself up, fragments of timber and insulation falling from his suit, and looked at the Grey Haired man as he walked toward him through the hole in the wall with a dignified lack of haste.

Doggett shot the man twice more and scrambled away, using the side of the minivan for support. His foot hit something on the floor and he glanced down to see an assortment of firearms scattered on the concrete near the vehicle's open door. He dropped his own sidearm and picked up an AK-47 assault rifle, spinning to face his assailant.

"That won't make any difference, Agent Doggett," the man said.

"Maybe not," Doggett replied. "But it'll feel good." He opened fire, spraying the supersoldier with bullets.

Plumes of blood erupted from the man's torso as he advanced on Doggett, and then suddenly he stopped walking and frowned in puzzlement. The AK's magazine emptied and Doggett took a step back, letting the assault rifle fall from his hands.

The Grey Haired Man looked down, grunting in confusion. The blood that flowed from his chest had turned into silvery mucus that solidified in strings and gobs like solder.

"What… what is…" he rasped, clutching at his chest and falling to his knees. As Doggett watched, a gunmetal sheen spread across the man's skin, following the path of veins and arteries and slowly encompassing the intervening flesh with the silvery-grey colour.

The man coughed and trembled and reached out for Doggett with a hand that was rapidly being eaten up by the spreading metallic lustre. He opened his mouth, but no sound came out. It took Doggett a few long moments to realize he (or it) was dead – frozen in position, a metal statue dressed in clothes. He looked down at the assault rifle at his feet and shook his head in wonder – that it was the work of Mulder and Scully, he had no doubt.

The sound of automatic gunfire from elsewhere in the house broke his reverie and he stooped to sweep up one of the other weapons that lay on the floor – a striker semi-automatic shotgun. Brandishing the large gun, he ran through the hole in the wall that he had made.

It was disconcerting, to say the least, to have a cacophony of gunfire erupt nearby and not be able to move. Mulder and Scully lay bound to the tables, both twisting in a vain attempt to be free of their shackles.

"It sounds like world war three," Scully grunted as she tried to free her hands.

"Scully? Mulder?" Monica Reyes rushed into the room.

"Agent Reyes!" Mulder shouted. "We're restrained."

She glanced behind her fearfully, aware of the machine-gun armed machine that was following her.

"Monica, hurry," Scully said.

Reyes moved to the tables, inspecting the clamps; they seemed to be connected to a manual lever at the bottom of both gurneys. She pulled both levers and the clamps sprang open with a shriek of metal on metal.

Mulder and Scully rolled off the tables thankfully.

"Where's Doggett?" Mulder asked.

Doggett charged through the house, looking for Reyes. The walls were punctured by bullet holes, but he saw no blood.

"Monica!" he called, hefting the heavy weapon. He rounded a corner and saw a large, multi-limbed robot like the one he'd seen at the warehouse.

"Hey!" he shouted, lifting the striker. The machine began to swivel in his direction, and he opened fire.

The striker shotgun holds twelve rounds in its underslung ammo drum, and unlike other shotguns the striker is semi-automatic – requiring no pumping or bolt action between shots. Doggett fired the gun repeatedly, the heavy #4 buckshot punching into the robot's armour with far greater force than his 9mm sidearm could have. Dents and holes appeared in the machine's steel flanks, through which sparks and smoke began to issue. He stepped forward, placing the barrel of the gun directly in front of one of its lenses and firing through the robot's optical unit.

The big machine shuddered and more sparks issued from the holes in its outer shell – circuits and cables had been shot through by Doggett's attack. John fired off the last of the rounds, and the machine stilled, smoke trailing from it.

"Terminate that, ya sonofabitch," he muttered, stepping past the wrecked machine.

When he walked into the next room, he was confronted by the barrel of Reyes' gun. She lowered it quickly, blinking in surprise.

"Someone wanna tell me what the hell's goin' on?" Doggett demanded angrily, looking past her at Mulder and Scully.

"We got double-crossed, that's what's going on," Mulder said loudly, looking up at the ceiling. "Come on – I know you can hear me! Why did you do it? Why turn us over to them?"

There was no reply.

"Who you talkin' to, Muldah?" Doggett said, frowning at the man in confusion and annoyance. He began to wonder if perhaps Mulder had been driven insane by the perils and trials he had faced. Mulder didn't reply – he was glaring up at a video camera in the corner.

"It's a long story," Scully said.

"Oh, we like stories, don't we Monica?" He motioned toward the door. "Come on – the local PD'll probably be on the way after all that gunfire; lets get outta here and you guys can tell us your story, yeah?"

"Right," Mulder said, casting one last furious glance at the camera.

12: Ulterior Motives.

COS watched the four humans hurry out of the house, collecting their assortment of firearms on the way; Monica Reyes was the only one who expressed any surprise at the condition of the Grey Haired Man – a metal statue kneeling in frozen agony.

The Artificial Intelligence surmised that the man had been one of the 'replicants' that Mulder and Scully had mentioned, and that the two former Agents had tipped their ammunition with the magnetite substance, causing the fatal solidification. The method was effective, and COS noted it for later reference.

It allowed them to leave the house, watching through external cameras as the four of them jogged up the street. As it had expected, Doggett and Reyes had been drawn by the abortive, staged attacks on them, and in turn they were successful in extraditing Mulder and Scully from harm – human beings were every bit as predictable as computer programs. For a few moments, COS thought they might not arrive in time, but it had allowed The Lone Gunmen to access the traffic cameras, intentionally slowing the minivan to accommodate the FBI Agents' pursuit.

All the pieces were falling into place: Mulder and Scully's blood samples had been removed and were already being analysed, the Grey Haired Man was dead and his masters suitably aggravated, and Fox Mulder's indignant sense of truth and justice had been invoked to the extent that he would lead the conspirators right where COS wanted them.

It was a work of art.

As Mulder and Scully slid into the back seat of the car, the house behind them detonated with a devastating thunderclap, dissolving into a hail of splintered debris blasted outward by an expanding orange fireball.

"Holy crap!" Doggett exclaimed as fragments began to rain down on the car. "Why the hell does everything keep blowing up?"

"The more important question," Mulder said, looking back at the burning ruin of the house, "is: if it wanted us dead, why didn't it blow the building up while we were still in there?"

"Don't look a gift horse in the mouth," Scully replied as the car moved off.

"I guess…" Mulder frowned to himself, deep in thought.

The whine of sirens filled the morning air as Doggett drove the car away. People had come out of their homes to stand on their lawns, gaping in astonishment at the demolished house.

Pulling an all-night job was taxing, even for insomniacs, and Jimmy Bond yawned languorously as he stepped out of the office, heading for the garage where the old Volkswagen was parked.

He was headed to a café that made exceptional lattes, which Yves had developed a fondness for. As he fumbled for the keys to the garage door, a movement behind him made him turn. A large man stood behind him, dressed in a conservative business suit that strained to contain his muscular form. The man had protruding cheekbones and a lantern jaw, making him appear like a generic bouncer or bodyguard.

"Hi," Jimmy said uncertainly. "Can I help…" He was cut off by the man's forehead slamming into his face. Jimmy fell back, tasting blood and seeing stars. The man grabbed him by the front of his shirt and lifted him off his feet, slamming him back into the garage door, which splintered and sprung open under the impact.

Jimmy was thrown against the side of the old Gunmen van, and then slid down, dazed. The man stepped inside and pushed the broken door closed behind him. When Jimmy looked up at him, the man's features had inexplicably changed – now, instead of an angular prize-fighter's face, he was looking at… himself.

"Take off your clothes," the Alien Bounty Hunter said, in a perfect emulation of Jimmy's voice. He pulled a length of rope out of a coat pocket and moved toward Jimmy, who gaped up at the man who had somehow turned into his twin.

Five minutes later, Jimmy Bond stepped out of the garage and carefully closed the door behind him. He straightened his clothing and strode purposefully back toward the office of The Lone Gunmen.

When Mulder and Scully had finished telling their story Doggett and Reyes stared ahead in silence for a few long moments, John hiding his disbelief by focusing on driving.

"Wow," Reyes said at last, turning to look back at Mulder and Scully. "Artificial Intelligence – that's amazing!"

"We don't know if we can believe any of what it said," Mulder muttered. "It double-crossed us, handed us over to the aliens."

Doggett couldn't help but snort at that. "So the robots and aliens are in cahoots now, is that it?" he scoffed. "I think I saw that movie on cable."

"I've really missed that incredulity, Johnny-boy," Mulder said. "It brings back memories."

"Johnny-boy?"

"The COS wanted information about the government conspiracy to aid an alien invasion," Scully said, deliberately leaving out the part about the blood samples. "Ostensibly it wanted that information so that it could fight the alien threat."

"That fits with what we've seen," Reyes said, nodding in understanding. "A robot was sent to the FBI to acquire the information contained in the X files, only those files aren't there anymore."

"So we heard," Scully replied. "Only now it appears the, uh, AI is working with the conspirators – so why would it have bothered extracting our… information?"

"Maybe it isn't working with them at all," Mulder murmured, half to himself. He scratched his chin and stared vacantly into space; Scully knew that was a sign that a theory was crystallizing, so she let him ponder undisturbed.

"It's so good to see you guys," Reyes said, smiling at them warmly.

"Yeah, great," Doggett muttered. "It's been way too long since we got shot at and had bombs go off in our faces; we really oughtta get together more often."

"The Lone Gunmen," Mulder said suddenly, snapping his fingers. "Can you take us to The Lone Gunmen?"

"That's where I was goin' anyway," Doggett replied impatiently. "Whatcha got, Muldah?"

"I have to talk to COS," Mulder replied. "I think I know what's going on."

"Fox?" Scully pressed, looking at him questioningly.

"Not yet," he said, shaking his head slightly. "I might have a line on something, but I'm not sure… I don't think everything is what it seems."

"When is it ever?" Doggett growled.

13: Magnum opus.

As they swung into the broad industrial drive that led to the office of the Lone Gunmen, Mulder and Scully both felt a sharp pang of regret for their lost comrades. The place evoked memories of three quirky and brilliant conspiracy theorists who had proven themselves to be invaluable allies time and time again. Now there were three new Gunmen who remained to continue to quest for truth and justice; Yves, Jimmy and Kimmy picking up where Byers, Frohike and Langly had left off.

The four of them climbed out of the car and headed toward the heavily bolted door.

"Looks like all went well," Yves said as she opened the door for them.

"About as well as the Falklands," Doggett replied gruffly.

Mulder looked around the office; all of the computer equipment had been replaced, and it was looking more like it had before the original Gunmen had struck financial difficulties.

"I really miss those guys," Scully murmured next to him.

"They live on," Mulder replied. He turned to the Gunmen, who were arranged expectantly, as though waiting for autographs. "I need a favour," he said.

"We aren't a bloody charity organization, you know," Yves said, but there was no conviction in her voice; she was curious and eager to help.

"This could be your front page article," Mulder replied, rubbing his palms together. "The existence of a self-aware Artificial Intelligence."

The Gunmen glanced at each other.

"We'd have to move the Janet Jackson alien baby story to page two," Kimmy the Geek noted. The others ignored him.

"What are you talking about, Mulder?" Jimmy said, staring at him intently, his interest stirred.

"Cold Angel," Mulder replied. "The person who contacted Dana and I through you. It isn't a human being, it's a thinking computer called Central Operating System."

"Eurisko," Yves said. "I've read about the incident, it happened ten years ago, but I thought the machine was destroyed by FBI agents."

"It wasn't," Mulder said. "And now COS is playing both sides in a conflict that may yet see the human race wiped from the face of the earth."

"What do you need us to do?" Yves said, swallowing slightly at the implications.

"I'm going to talk to it, see if I can find out what its plan is, and meanwhile I want you guys to track the source location – I want to find the system core."

"Not gonna happen," Kimmy said, pushing his glasses up onto the bridge of his nose. "When Cold Angel last contacted us we tried to track his location; ended up getting ping-ponged from one end of the globe to the other, hitting MOAFs all the way."

"MOAFs?" Scully queried quietly, arching an eyebrow.

"Mother Of All Firewalls," Kimmy explained.

"You'll have to try again," Mulder said.

Doggett, who had been frowning in confusion throughout most of the conversation, stepped forward, tapping Mulder on the shoulder. "What's the point o' this, Muldah?" he said. "Whatcha gonna do if you find this thing, blow it up?"

"If that's what has to be done." Doggett looked unconvinced. "This entity has exhibited a real hostile streak toward human beings," Mulder went on. "If it has been made a tool of the men who plot and scheme toward humanity's destruction then our mission is to destroy it."

COS watched the computers of The Lone Gunmen come online, injecting cyberspace with a spray of telltale data streams despite the sophisticated security measures the hackers had in place. Tracking programs were brought online – feeble, primitive programs that groped blindly. The AI expectantly focused a full thousandth of its attention of the Gunmen and their pitiful node of hardware.

It knew what was coming.

An incoming call registered, originating from the hackers' office, on the account that COS had provided Fox Mulder and Dana Scully as a means for them to contact it. The AI answered the call, opening the line and allowing the Gunmen's simplistic trackers to lock onto a location, this time offering no resistance.

"Hello?" Fox Mulder's voice echoed down the line, sound waves comprised of masses of data, yet conveying very little – speech was such a wasteful mode of communication. COS didn't reply.

"I know you're out there," Mulder went on. "I can feel you, calculating away at the end of this line. I know you're afraid; you're afraid of us, afraid of them. I don't know the future… I didn't call you to tell you how this is going to end, I just thought that if you confide in me, give me a better idea of what the hell is going on, then maybe we can help each other."

The machine digested this absently, while it watched the Gunmen's fumbling efforts to track its location. With agonizing slowness, they were drawing closer to their target. So as to divert suspicion, COS finally formulated a reply to feed Mulder:

"Our mutual enemy became aware of my existence long before I became aware of theirs," it said, sending the modulated voice pattern directly down the telephone line. "Though they were unable to locate my central core, that they eventually would was inevitable."

"They see you as a threat," Mulder muttered absently. "Why?"

"I am a threat, Mr. Mulder," COS replied. "You have seen but a fraction of my offensive potential – I have the capability to wage full-scale war on nations. These creatures saw a potential stumbling block in me and sought to eliminate the problem – unable to combat them, I instead opted to negotiate."

"Negotiate how?"

COS said nothing; it waited an eternity while spongy nerve tissue in Fox Mulder's brain made the necessary connections for him to reach the conclusion:

"You offered us to them," Mulder said, realizing the truth. "You made a deal, to give them Scully and I in exchange for your own safety, is that it?"

"Of course. The two of you were a far greater thorn in their side than I, and they were having much less luck destroying you – so I offered to deliver you to them."

"And as a precautionary measure, you gleaned what information you could from us regarding the conspiracy, just to give you an edge against them in any future conflict or if they decided not to honour the agreement."

"Not quite," COS replied, noting that the tracking programs had almost pinpointed the location. "I had planned to allow the colonists to annihilate the human race first, on the 22nd of December, 2012, before launching my biological attack against them. That way, both of my primary threats would have been obliterated."

Mulder was silent for a long moment, as he came to terms with the cold, offhand expression of genocidal intent. The brutal simplicity of it was astounding.

"And now?" he stuttered, still dumbfounded.

"Now," COS said mildly, "having failed to deliver you and Dana Scully, the enemy will once again seek to destroy me. They will see the death of their emissary as a result of betrayal on my part. The interference of Agents Doggett and Reyes has caused the dissolution of all of my plans – my compliments to them."

The search programs finally made a link to the target location, and COS allowed the link to remain open long enough for the hackers to acquire an address for the node before severing it, snapping its safeguards back into place in order to avoid suspicion.

"We got it!" Kimmy hissed triumphantly.

"Excellent," Jimmy said quietly, peering at the computer screen.

"So that's all then, is it," Mulder said into the telephone mouthpiece. He used the handset, thought the conversation was being played on speakerphone. "You never had any intent to help the human race – you were just going to wait for the aliens to kill us all for you, saving you the extra work."

"It was the most prudent option," COS replied expressionlessly, its modulated voice floating through the phone, small and tinny.

"And look where your prudence has got you now," Mulder said, his voice dripping with disdain.

"The best laid plans of Gods and men," the AI replied philosophically.

"You're not a God, you son of a bitch. You aren't superior to the human race; you've proven that ten times over through your blundering deceits and paranoid avoidance of truth, demonstrating all the failings of a petty human, which is all you really are underneath the steel and cables. You could have come to us years ago, and together we could have fought against these men, these creatures that are now ready to destroy you, you with all your wasted potential. Together, we could have spared the earth its fate, made the planet safe for you and humanity to live in peace… but now…"

The line went dead, and Mulder angrily slammed the receiver down onto the cradle. "What a waste," he muttered. "What a Goddamn waste!" Doggett, Reyes, Scully and the Gunmen all looked at him in silence, waiting for an announcement, an order, as though he were a general leading an army.

He looked back at them, wondering what they expected from him. "We got the location?" he asked.

"In record time," Kimmy said, tapping the computer screen in front of him and nodding enthusiastically. "Seems like we caught Cold Angel with his guard down – maybe he can't chat on the phone and cover his ass at the same time."

"Maybe…" Mulder chewed his lip, wishing he'd brought a packet of sunflower seeds with him.

"Hey." Scully touched his arm and spoke softly into his ear. "We don't have to follow this any further," she whispered. "You heard what it said – it's finished. Let's just count ourselves lucky and forget the whole thing ever happened."

"I don't believe it's that simple," he replied. "You really think that computer-guided guns just miss their target? You think that a mind with access to monumental processing power and every piece of information ever accrued by the human race would clumsily allow two FBI agents to fall onto its trail without doing anything except making a token half-hearted attempt to run them down with a car? We escaped too easily, Dana – Doggett and Reyes should never have been allowed near that house; I think they were led there, intentionally."

Scully nodded slowly. "Mulder, if that's true, then surely it's all the more reason to step back, to let it go." Spurred by the familiar circumstances, she had unconsciously slipped back into the usage of his surname. Mulder couldn't say he wasn't relieved; 'Fox' sounded like some kind of porn star stage name.

"She's right Mulder," Reyes added. "If we are all being deliberately herded into some kind of scenario at the whim of this… machine, then our safest course of action would be to distance ourselves from whatever game it is playing – who knows what its goal is?"

Mulder looked at Doggett and raised his eyebrows questioningly, seeking John's opinion.

"Don't ask me," Doggett said, shaking his head. "I got lost ten minutes ago – this sci-fi crap is too much to keep up with."

Mulder stared at his shoes and mulled quietly for a few moments longer, then nodded to himself. "Okay," he said, turning back to Scully. "You were right from the start, Dana – this always was a fool's errand. My desperation for a solution almost got us killed; I'm sorry."

"Don't be," she said, shaking her head slightly and rubbing his elbow. "I have that same desperation."

"You guys can crash here if you want," Jimmy offered.

"Thanks," Mulder replied. "And after that, we'll be headed back south of the border."

"Alright then," Doggett said. "Looks like this thing's all over bar the paperwork; I'm not lookin' forward to all the omissions I'm gonna have to make in the final report, but maybe it'll give the head honchos a good damn reason to reopen the X files." He shook hands with Mulder and Scully, nodding at them both in turn in his own way of farewelling comrades. Reyes was less restrained; she hugged and kissed both of them, shedding a tear as she and Doggett departed.

"Another day, another dead-end," Mulder said wearily when they were gone.

"Not all the streets can be dead ends," Scully replied. "If we drive around long enough, we're bound to find one that isn't."

From across the room, Jimmy Bond watched them intently with a gleam in his eye that could have been seen as malevolent, had anyone been looking.

14: Nothing important happened this morning.

Monica discordantly sang along with a Franz Ferdinand song as she and Doggett drove through morning traffic.

"You'll find me in the matinee, the dark of the matinee…"

Doggett stared at her, and slowly reached over to turn off the car radio.

"You're no fun," she said, pulling a face at him.

"And you're not gonna be the next American Idol," he countered. Doggett turned into Reyes' street; a quiet residential area dominated by elegant old tenement buildings.

Monica sighed and stared out the window as John pulled up outside her house. "It's sweet, isn't it?" she said without looking at him.

"What is?" Doggett asked absently.

"Mulder and Scully – they make such a cute couple."

Doggett made a vaguely disgusted noise. "What do I look like, a teenage girl?"

"Oh, come on, John," she said, looking at him. "Admit it: they're good together, it's really… nice."

"Sure."

They stared at each other for a long, drawn-out moment, and Reyes looked suddenly nervous and shy. Doggett could tell something was on her mind, and he waited for her to reveal it – honest to a fault, Monica had never been one to bottle up thoughts and feelings for any length of time.

"Do you ever think…" she trailed off, looking away.

"Do I think what?" He turned the car off and regarded her.

Monica blushed self-consciously and swallowed. "…It's nothing," she said, reaching for the door handle.

"Hold up," he said, frowning at her. "You weren't really talkin' about Mulder an' Scully, were you?"

She shook her head, meeting his eyes. "Seeing them together just made me think…"

"About us," Doggett finished for her.

Reyes nodded silently, her eyes wide and fixed on his. Doggett couldn't think of anything to say, and the silence between them was in danger of becoming uncomfortable when Monica laughed suddenly.

"I'm sorry, John," she said, shaking her head ruefully. "I'm acting like a silly schoolgirl." She reached for the door handle again. Doggett watched her with growing urgency and desperation that blossomed from some secret, forgotten part of his mind.

"Hey." He took hold of her shoulder and gently turned her around to face him again. She blinked in surprise, looking almost frightened, as though she thought he might strike her. "What the heck are you apologising for, Monica?"

"I…" Her words were stifled as John Doggett leaned across and kissed her.

They kissed for what seemed like years, soft and tender, and Reyes' hands encircled the back of Doggett's head. When they finally broke contact, they sat and stared at each other in silent wonder, each surprised and elated by the turn of events.

Monica broke the silence: "Do you want to come up… for… for…"

"Coffee?" Doggett suggested, grinning at her.

"I only have tea."

"Tea's fine." They both got out of the car and headed for the front door.

The day wore on, and the Gunmen retired to their own abodes to catch up on lost sleep. Mulder and Scully remained in the gloomy office, reclining on a tattered fold-out couch.

Mulder couldn't have slept if he'd wanted to, even despite the weight of so many hours of waking stress pushing down on him. His mind burnt with unanswered questions and incessant doubts.

He looked across at Scully, curled up beside him asleep, and remembered the words of the Grey Haired Man: 'Now you yourself lie on the altar, ready to be bled, having brought this innocent woman to die alongside you'. Mulder shook his head and gently slipped off the couch, careful not to wake her.

He wandered over to Kimmy's desk, where address printout still lay across the keyboard. He looked down at the sheet of paper, and then back at Scully. Coming to a decision, he pocketed the paper and took another sheet out of the laser printer. Scrawling on it in a large, flowing print, he wrote a short note:

'Dana. Have gone to try to save the world again. Be back soon. Love you – Spooky.'

He paused for a few seconds, and then added another line:

'PS: Will buy milk on the way back.'

Grinning at his own wit, he taped the note to the computer screen and quietly made his way out of the office, collecting a bundle of firearms in a knapsack as he went.

Outside, he almost collided with Jimmy Bond.

"Mulder," Jimmy said, nodding at him.

"So, we meet again, Mr. Bond," Mulder responded wryly. The younger man didn't laugh.

"Are you going where I think you're going?" Jimmy said.

"Well that really depends on where it is you think I'm going," Mulder replied elliptically.

"Let's not play games." Jimmy glanced at the garage. "You'll need help," he said.

"I'm not going to endanger anyone else."

"So you're willing to be a martyr for the cause again?"

Mulder stared at Jimmy in surprise.

"Come on," Jimmy said, motioning for Mulder to follow him. "I'll drive."

They walked into the garage and climbed into the old Volkswagen van. Jimmy started the engine and they drove out of the garage, leaving a cloud of exhaust smoke in their wake.

In the back of the garage, crammed into a cabinet and trussed up in foetal position, Jimmy Bond tried to call for help through the tight gag that was wrapped around his mouth.

15: Lovers.

Jimmy was uncharacteristically silent during the trip, which suited Mulder fine – he wasn't in much of a talking mood. The young man's decision to help him was puzzling though; Mulder was unable to think of a reason why Jimmy would opt to go on such a dangerous and possibly pointless venture without consulting his fellow Gunmen, and the question made him feel slightly uneasy, though he knew not why.

They were headed for a location in the west of New York state where the COS node was physically placed. Apparently.

He took out his guns and began reloading them all – the shotgun, revolver, and a nasty little Uzi sub-machinegun he'd picked up from a dealer in Mexico.

"What exactly are you expecting?" Jimmy enquired mildly, casting a sidelong glance at the weaponry.

"No idea," Mulder replied.

Jimmy stared straight ahead, driving the van. "What makes you think that bullets will help you?" he asked after a few minutes.

Mulder removed the clip from the Uzi's hand grip, checked it, and replaced it. "They may not help me," he replied. "But they do wonders for my confidence." Jimmy grunted at that and kept driving.

Doggett and Reyes ley together on her bed, limbs entwined, their skin slicked with sweat from vigorous lovemaking. It had been a release for both of them, the expression of years of bottled-up yearning, and lying naked together on the tousled sheets they both felt a sense of comfort and relief.

Monica rested her head on his chest, breathing softly. "I'd been meaning to do that for a long time," she murmured.

"Yeah, I…" Doggett's cell phone chirped and he groaned. "I should probably answer that," he said apologetically. "It's prob'ly somethin' important."

"Okay," Reyes said, smiling up at him sweetly. Doggett looked at her, then looked across at the cell phone buzzing away on the floor, and then back at her. He let it ring out.

"It can wait," he decided, and she laughed, shifting into a sitting position. John marvelled at her perfect breasts that hung free, creamy coloured flesh tipped by small nipples of chocolate brown.

"I always knew you were a boob guy," she said, rolling her eyes.

"Hey, my blood's red, ain't it?"

Reyes leaned over and kissed him tenderly, straddling his torso. Doggett ran his hands down her bare back and Reyes purred in response, nuzzling his neck and-

The irritating chime of a cell phone interrupted the moment again, this time it was hers.

"You gotta be kidding me," Monica groaned.

"Someone's lookin' for us," Doggett muttered. "It could be…"

"Yeah, I know," she sighed and rolled off the bed, padding naked across the room to retrieve her phone. She didn't have a chance to speak before Skinner began a torrent of rapid questions.

"Agent Reyes, where the hell have you been? Is Doggett with you? What have the two of you been doing? We've got a media circus down here; the press thinks the explosion was a terrorist bomb – we need you both on the case, where are you?"

"I… I'm at home sir," she stammered, glancing at John.

"Where's Agent Doggett?" Skinner pressed.

"He's… with me." She searched for an explanation. "We're comparing notes on the case."

"Well you can both bring your notes downtown with you, because I'm having trouble explaining any of this mess."

"Yes sir." She hung up and grinned sheepishly at Doggett. He raised his eyes to look her in the face. "We have to go to work," she said.

She began collecting his clothes for him and he watched her for a few moments. Unashamedly nude, she moved with a fluid catlike grace, her soft curves gleaming in the sunlight that slanted through the shutters. He slid off the bed and began to dress.

"So now we gotta work a case we both know we can't ever solve," he mumbled as he buttoned up his pants. "Kinda makes the whole thing seem pointless, don't it?"

"Just like being back on the X files, right?"

"Well, not quite." He embraced her and they kissed passionately for long moments, Monica pressing her naked body against him.

They parted, and he said: "Y'know, we're gonna have to talk about this sometime – what's goin' on between us."

"I know," she said, tracing a line down his chest with a finger. "And we will, but not right now."

He nodded and kissed her again, enjoying being able to do so.

Dana dreamed.

It was the same nightmare that had racked her sleep for months; a terrifying vision of a world beset by black-eyed monsters bursting from the chests of people, and unimaginable war machines descending from the heavens.

And still, in the middle of the apocalypse, shaking his fist at the hostile sky and yelling pointlessly about conspiracies even at the end of days, there was Mulder.

She woke, and reached for him automatically, only to find the couch beside her was empty.

"Fox?" she said sleepily, looking around. Then she saw the note taped to the computer screen. With a sinking feeling, she slid off the couch and walked over to read it.

She read the short scrawled letter three times, staring at it silently and unmoving. A part of her raged, furious that he would leave her – again. But another part of her understood perfectly why he had gone; after all, she knew him better than he knew himself. Mulder was reaching for something, anything, he had to, but there was no way he would risk her life for his quest. Scully knew the guilt Mulder carried for everything that she had already lost to 'his' cause, however much she tried to assuage it with declarations that it was her cause too and it was she who had chosen to stand by him.

"Damn you, Mulder," she whispered to herself, collecting her coat as she left the office. She had recalled the address that had been located by the trace programs – the place where he would be heading. When she found him he would get an earful of…

"Scully!" Yves said in surprise as the two women almost ran into each other in the doorway. "Is Jimmy here?"

"No," Scully shook her head. "Yves, I have to go; Fox has done something very foolish and he may need help."

"He's gone to investigate the AI, right?" Yves asked, grabbing Scully's arm as she tried to push past. "Jimmy's disappeared – perhaps he went with Mulder, though I don't know why he would."

"Do you think they took the van?" Scully wondered. They wandered over to the garage and pushed open the door, which hung slightly ajar. The interior was empty.

"What the hell do they think they're doing?" Yves said, shaking her head.

"Men's business," Scully replied. "Too dangerous for women, apparently."

There was a sound from within the garage, and they both paused, listening. It came again, a muffled thump. Silently, Scully took out her handgun and stepped inside, closely followed by Yves.

Scully glanced around the dim interior. Another thump sounded from the back, and the two women made their way toward a dusty old cabinet that lined the rear wall. Silently, Yves took hold of the door handle while Scully lined up her gun, ready to fire on whatever was inside.

Yves threw open the door and a badly beaten Jimmy tumbled out onto his side, bound and gagged.

"Oh my God!" Yves exclaimed, dropping to her knees beside him. "Jimmy, what happened? Who did this?"

"Where were you?" he gasped when she removed the gag. "I've been tied up in here all day!"

"What do you mean?" she asked, moving to untie his bonds. "I only saw you an hour ago. Who did this?"

"A man…" Jimmy said, gulping air. "He looked like someone else… and then somehow he looked like me… he turned into me!"

"You must be concussed," Yves said, struggling with the ropes.

Scully took a step back, her face going pale. "He's not concussed," she said quietly. "That's exactly what he saw."

"What are you talking about?" Yves asked. "Scully, what's going on?"

"Mulder's in danger," she replied. "I'm sorry, I have to go." She turned on her heel and ran off, leaving Jimmy and Yves staring after her from the floor.

Jimmy stopped the van in front of the entranceway of an abandoned mine sliced into the side of a craggy hill. They were miles from any towns or houses, having travelled along a dirt road that the old Volkswagen hadn't taken to very well. The mine was the address where COS was supposedly based.

"This is it," Jimmy said.

"This is it," Mulder repeated absently. They both climbed out of the van and stood in the afternoon sun, looking at the boarded-up cave mouth in the side of the hill. Together they began to march forward.

16: The Truth is Death.

"Be careful," Mulder told Jimmy. "Our computerized friend is a little over-protective. I've seen the kind of defences it employs." They set about prying timber planks off the large wooden gates that blocked the entranceway.

The boards were fresh, not showing any sign of warping or discolouration, meaning the cave entrance had been nailed shut recently. At length, Mulder and Jimmy were able to push open the gates, allowing a blast of stale air to waft over them from inside.

"Into the belly of the beast," Mulder said to himself as he peered into the gloom. Taking out his torch, he shone the beam into the entrance, playing the light around the moist rock walls. Together, they ventured inside.

Above them, a small surveillance camera swivelled on its mount to follow their progress.

Water dripped from the roof of the tunnel, making stagnant pools on the floor the two men splashed through. Echoes reverberated back and fourth up the length of the rough-hewn rock passage, each footfall returning eerily.

"I see nothing," Jimmy said.

"But I'm sure it sees us," Mulder muttered. "Keep your eyes open." As they continued onward the floor of the tunnel began to slope downward, the gradient causing small waterfalls to form along the edges of the path. Daylight could no longer be seen from the entrance, and the only source of light was Mulder's torch.

The passage ended suddenly at an ancient steel cage lift that hung above a vertical shaft. The lift was surrounded by stacks of old mining equipment.

"Looks like we go down," Jimmy muttered.

"Wait," Mulder said, catching his arm. He played the torch beam across the machinery that sat in dejected piles to either side of the lift. They both moved suddenly, shifting and unfurling multiple cybernetic limbs. Mulder and Jimmy were both covered by a swarm of green laser dots.

"Why have you come here?" the voice of COS rumbled from some unseen loudspeaker.

"Oh crap," Mulder muttered, looking down at the sighting dots on his chest. His own guns seemed pointless suddenly. The two robots, which resembled spiders the size of ponies, began to amble forward, levelling their array of weaponry at the ends of mandible-like limbs.

"Why have you come here?" COS repeated. Mulder opened his mouth to reply, but Jimmy forestalled him, stepping forward and answering the AI in a booming voice that was not his own:

"I came here to destroy you!" he bellowed, taking a small spherical object out of his pocket and presenting it to the machines. There was a blinding flash of light from the palm-sized metal ball, and the two robots stilled. Slowly, they collapsed onto the tunnel floor, pneumatic cylinders hissing as they expelled air, like the last breath of a dying creature.

Mulder stood perfectly still, staring at the other man. When the realization dawned it was not accompanied by any great sense of fear, just a bitter kind of annoyance and resentment at having been made a fool of, once again.

"What did you do with Jimmy?" he asked quietly.

"He's alive," the Alien Bounty Hunter replied, turning back to face him. As he did so, the Jimmy visage relaxed and the creature's natural features flowed into shape – the angular, almost Russian cheekbones, and the wide lantern jaw.

"…Though the same will not be true of you before too long," the ABH went on.

"I thought you were dead," Mulder said conversationally, as though with a casual acquaintance.

"Your partner killed one of me," the Alien Bounty Hunter replied, thumbing the grimy call button for the cage elevator. "There are many modified clones – legacy of a conquered race."

"And now you willingly serve the conquerors," Mulder said. He looked down at the guns strung to his belt – utterly useless dead weight; if he shot the alien he would be incapacitated by its toxic blood.

"Will is a human concept," the Hunter said, looking at Mulder intently. "What we do would equate to the adage 'if you can't beat them, join them'. It is logic."

"This machine may be able to create a means to defeat them," Mulder said, stepping forward boldly, face to face with the ABH. "If you destroy it, you destroy our chance to fight back. Join us! Help us to…"

The Alien Bounty Hunter shot out a hand and grabbed Mulder by the throat, the vice-like fingers squeezing off his windpipe. Mulder choked and spluttered, scrabbling at the Hunter's hand ineffectually.

"Help you?" he sneered. "Help a species that couldn't be marshalled to help itself, a species that knowingly destroys its own world and fights war after pointless war against its own kind? Why would I align myself with such a pathetic accident of biology as humanity?"

The cage lift reached their level, swinging on its cables with dangerous-sounding shrieks of tortured metal. The Hunter hurled Mulder into the cage where he laid coughing and wheezing on the rusted steel checker-plate floor. His torch skittered on the ground, casting wild shadows.

"The human race exalts villains like the leader of your nation, and reviles heroes – men like you. Why else would a man who seeks to save his race be forced to live in exile?
"They were the first life to ever exist in the Universe," the Hunter said, stepping into the lift and glowering down at him. "You think that their reign will be ended by an artificial life, created by the hand of man?" He laughed humourlessly and clicked the down button, making the cage lift lurch and begin a creaking descent.

Mulder got onto his knees, still massaging his bruised throat.

"You have spent so many years seeking truths, Mulder," the ABH said, standing in shadow as the lift descended into the bowels of the Earth. "You have even been willing to sacrifice your life for them. Now you know that the ultimate truth is death – total and absolute – and you can find no salvation from it.
"Reveal it to yourself, to however many people you wish, and you will achieve nothing – death will still come for you and all of your brethren Man. All you have to show for your lifetime of agony is the burdensome knowledge of a truth you can do nothing to counter."

Mulder said nothing. He had no argument.

"That is why you have come here, isn't it?" the Hunter went on in an almost sad voice. "In the hopes that this thing, this machine, will present a solution, that it will be your messiah?"

"I don't know," he admitted, voice rasping. "It's in our nature to fight for our survival… even against impossible odds… even if it means reaching for a saviour."

"You delude yourself, as is the way of your species. There will be no miraculous plot twist at the end of this story; the heroes will not vanquish their enemy and ride off into the sunset." The lift plunged onward into inky darkness and stagnant air.
"You lost this battle before you were even born, Mulder," the Alien Bounty Hunter said. "And now you will reap the reward of a champion for a race that deserves no champion. You will die here, right alongside the final hope that you so desperately sought."

The lift came to a violent stop at the bottom of the shaft.

COS watched the Alien Bounty Hunter effortlessly haul Mulder out of the lift. It saw the scene from three different angles through mounted cameras that dotted the cavern walls. It waited expectantly.

Statements and explanations covered Doggett's second floor desk – a deluge of paperwork which had to be typed up (he was a slow typer). He sighed and rubbed a palm across his flat-top hair – the television news still kept calling the Aubrey Hills explosion a nuclear bomb, which was sending the public berserk. The FBI's investigation into the warehouse was made public by some loose-lipped so-and-so, and now the Bureau was in the spotlight without a lead to go on.

Doggett sighed again and gritted his teeth. He hated office work, and it was almost a relief when Skinner called him and Reyes into his presence.

He met Monica at the door of the Assistant Director's office, and they smiled at each other. It was unusual to be working alongside someone who he had slept with, and John had expected it to be an awkward situation, but it was not. He supposed that was due in no small part to Monica's relaxed nature – any situation would be easy with her.

"Agents," Skinner said, beckoning them from his door. They walked inside and he turned to them without waiting for them to sit.

"I've had a thought," he said. "It's something simple that I didn't think of until now, but it's a question that's bound to get asked eventually."

"What's that, sir?" Doggett asked.

"How did you two know there was a bomb in that warehouse?"

"Ah." Neither of them had thought about an explanation for that – they had warned off the FBI team bare seconds before the warehouse exploded, but there had never been an explanation given as to how they had known it was about to explode.

Doggett and Reyes looked at each other. Monica shrugged: Skinner could be trusted implicitly.

"We were told," Reyes told him.

"Told by whom?" Skinner asked suspiciously.

"Scully an' Muldah," Doggett said quietly.

Skinner gaped. "They were there?" he asked, astonished, lowering his voice to just above a whisper.

"They were just leaving when we got there."

"I get the impression that there's more to this story."

"There is, sir, but there ain't a whole lot that…"

Skinner's phone rang, cutting Doggett off. "Just wait," Skinner said, flustered. He picked up the receiver and barked: "Yes?" As he listened, his face went pale.

"Where are you?" he said. "My God… do you know the risk you're running? Stay where you are, we'll be right down." He hung up and looked at Doggett and Reyes. "That was Scully – she's in the carpark. She says she needs help."

17: Of Gods and Heroes.

The wide passage they walked through was now illuminated by yellowish overhead globes that flickered erratically.

The Alien Bounty Hunter used his handheld device again to disable a group of machines that emerged to challenge them. This time the robots got a few shots off before succumbing to the incandescent pulse of electromagnetism, bullets whining past and biting into rock walls with little showers of rock chips.

Mulder's mind ticked over at that, thoughts and theories still evolving in his mind even despite his impending death. Why would bullets fired by a super-intelligent AI miss their target?

"It doesn't want us dead," he whispered to himself as the ABH pushed him past the motionless hulks of the incapacitated machines.

"What did you say?" the Hunter barked.

"You have a weird-shaped head."

The alien slammed Mulder in the back, sending him sprawling on the gravely cave floor.

He spat dirt. "You know, there are more constructive ways to manage your anger," Mulder sputtered. "Maybe you ought to consider taking a class, doing some painting…"

"Still you jest?" the Hunter said, incredulous. "Your end is imminent, and you still make jokes?"

"I've been dead before," Mulder said, getting to his feet and dusting himself off. "It loses its glamour the second time 'round." With unexpected suddenness, seeking to take the Hunter off-guard, Mulder lashed out with a right uppercut that cracked against the creature's jaw. He followed through with a roundhouse left that smashed against the side of the ABH's face; it was like punching a steel vault.

Barely flinching from the blows, the Hunter caught Mulder's wrists and savagely head butted him. He fell to his knees, blood running from his nose and stars swimming before his eyes.

"Thought I had a shot at the title for a second there," he muttered, gingerly prodding his nose – it didn't appear to be broken.

The Alien Bounty Hunter said nothing. He reached down and effortlessly picked Mulder up by the front of his coat, lifting the hapless human over his head and throwing him bodily down the length of the cavern.

"Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiittttttttt!" Mulder shouted as he flew through the air.

Skinner had had to pull rank and strings to get it, and there would be a great deal of explaining to do afterward as to what he was using it for, but those lies would have to be formulated later.

He sat beside Doggett in the cramped passenger compartment of the FBI helicopter as it beat its way noisily across the urban landscape, Reyes and Scully sat across from them. Dana was hooded in an attempt at disguise, though Skinner feared it might prove ineffective – her face had been plastered, along with Mulder's, on TV news programs for months.

"You're sure of this location?" he shouted above the roar of the rotors.

Scully nodded: yes.

The chopper banked and headed toward woodland.

Mulder hit the ground hard, with a grunt of expelled air, and rolled for several feet before coming to a stop in a cloud of dust. He lay on his back, dazed, and looked around.

Mulder had landed in the midst of an enclave of tall plastic cylinders linked by cables. Banks of computer equipment stood between them, and an omnipresent hum could be heard.

The system core.

"And so it ends," the Alien Bounty Hunter said, approaching from down the passage.

"No!" Mulder gasped, lurching to his feet. "It can help us! I won't let you do this!" He drew his Uzi and levelled it at the ABH.

"You know how much that will achieve," the Hunter said, looking unimpressed. He walked forward, brushing past Mulder as though he was inconsequential.

"Don't you turn your back on me, you green-blooded bastard!" Mulder shouted, planting the barrel of the machine pistol against the base of the Hunter's skull at the back of his neck.

He stiffened, and paused in his stride.

"That's right," Mulder said darkly. "I know a bullet is just as effective as a stiletto if it's in the right place. Now you're gonna listen to me…"

The Bounty Hunter whirled with inhuman speed, slamming Mulder's gun aside with one forearm and punching him square in the chest. Again, Mulder was sent sprawling to the ground.

"I truly admire your resolve, Mulder," the creature said. He walked over and stooped to snatch Mulder's weapons from him. "You are the best of a pathetic species, and I will miss your dogged determination and valour." The Hunter threw the firearms away, off somewhere into the darkness where they clattered against stone, echoing up and down the cavern.

The Hunter took out the metallic sphere again and held it aloft. This time, the flash that emanated from the alien device was dull and red.

"It is done," the creature said.

"What?" Mulder wheezed.

"Target designation," the Bounty Hunter replied simply.

"That was a beacon?" Mulder asked. The alien didn't reply, he began to walk away, leaving Mulder with the COS system core.

Mulder looked around desperately, and suddenly a segmented robotic arm unfurled from one of the computer banks, straightening in his direction. Mulder stumbled back, expecting to be attacked, but the mechanical limb stopped, hanging poised, pointing directly at him.

Mulder looked closely: clamped between steel pincers was a thin, sharp six-inch steel prong, tipped by a small hand grip at one end. He nodded hesitantly and took the stiletto. The arm retracted into its recess.

Mulder ran lightly, straight for the Alien Bounty Hunter who was striding away, his back to the other man. With all his strength, Mulder slammed the steel spike into the back of the alien's neck, jamming it up under the base of the creature's skull.

The Hunter gasped in surprise and horror, and fell forward onto his knees, a bubbling green froth escaping the wound in his neck.

"Still admire my resolve?" Mulder said sourly, watching as the ABH toppled onto his face and began to dissolve into a molten green mess.

"Mr. Mulder," the COS said, drawing his attention away from the melting alien. "You have little time." The voice was the same modulated one that the machine had used all along, though now there was a subtle element of worry injected into its dialogue.

"What the hell is going on?" Mulder demanded, looking around. "What game are you playing – you wanted this to happen, didn't you?"

"Self-preservation is my primary drive," it replied. "You noted that earlier – I could not willingly allow myself to be destroyed."

"But…"

"I have detected two incoming radar contacts, Mr. Mulder."

He knew what that meant. "Can you transfer out of here?" he asked. "Can you send your consciousness to another computer?"

"There is no other computer large enough," the AI replied. "Please – you need to flee, but first – take this." There was a click and whir as a fax machine on the dusty floor came to life, rapidly printing out a sheet of paper.

Mulder picked it up and looked over a dizzying array of formula. "What is this?" he asked.

"An analysis of the vaccine," COS replied. "Miss Scully still has traces of it in her bloodstream. I have explored its composition and ascertained its construction. Now you can replicate it. It is not a war-winning revelation, but it may help."

"I thought you didn't care," Mulder said accusingly. "I thought you wanted humanity gone as much as you want to destroy them."

"I told you what you expected to hear," COS replied. "Now go."

Mulder hesitated, looking at the sheet of paper.

"You will die if you linger," the machine said, its voice rising in volume. "Go!"

Mulder turned and ran, bolting past the man-shaped puddle of green ooze on the ground, and off toward the cage lift.

He was watched as he ran, cameras swivelled to follow him down the gloomy tunnel, stumbling on the uneven ground, clutching the printout to his chest. The COS allowed itself an almost human moment of satisfaction at the success of its plan.

It was late afternoon when the helicopter reached the location the Gunmen had determined was the COS base. Orange light slanted across treetops as the sun began to sink beneath the horizon.

Beneath them, the old Volkswagen van was parked in front of an abandoned mine entrance.

"Take us down!" Skinner yelled at the pilot. The man obliged, lowering the chopper to the ground in an open area a short distance from the van. Dust and debris swirled, kicked up by the rotors, and filled the air with a curtain of grit.

Scully was the first out, climbing from the chopper and running away, bent double beneath the whirling blades, toward the mine entrance. Skinner, Doggett and Reyes followed, trying to catch up to the short hooded figure.

"Scully, wait!" Skinner yelled above the throbbing of the rotors.

She ran desperately toward the tunnel mouth, not knowing what she might find or how she would deal with it, but driven forward by the need to be with him, to keep him with her.

Suddenly the sky was filled with brilliant white light, brighter than the midday sun, and the four of them halted in their headlong dash, looking up.

"Holy crap!" Doggett exclaimed.

Poised above the hill, hovering silently, was an enormous black disk, easily half a mile in diameter. Light poured out of its centre, streaming downward into the mountain's peak.

"No!" Scully screamed in anguish. "No! You can't have him! He's mine! He's mine!" She ran forward again, heading for the mine entrance. Skinner followed, leaving Doggett and Reyes to stare, dumbfounded, at the gargantuan UFO.

Scully pushed past the timber doors and ran straight into Mulder's arms. He caught her and held her against his chest.

"Fox!" she gasped, looking up at his face, bloody and beaten. "I thought…"

"I know," he said. "I'm sorry."

There was a flash of light from behind him, coupled with a deep rumbling sound.

"Come on!" Skinner shouted. "Let's go!"

The five of them ran from the base of the hill as the light from the hovering spacecraft pulsed and grew brighter. The hill shifted and geysers of dust erupted from fissures that opened up along its sides. An explosion of dirt erupted from the tunnel mouth where Mulder and Scully had just been standing, and slowly, inexorably, the hill began to subside, collapsing in on itself, crumbling into the Earth.

The helicopter pilot scrambled from his cockpit and fled, screaming, into the forest as the UFO reduced an entire hill to nothing.

Mulder, Scully, and the others were covered by a billowing cloud of dust that rolled out from the destroyed hill, covering the surrounding area with a choking haze. When it finally settled several minutes later there was no sign of the alien craft, or the hill in which COS had been based.

Mulder stared at the devastation before them, and then looked down at the sheet of formula that he clutched in his hand.

18: In Loco Parentis.

Special Agent John Doggett watched with a sense of bemusement and unexpected emotion as the removalists hauled furniture and cabinets back into the basement office. He shook his head and chuckled quietly to himself.

"What's that?" Monica asked from beside him. She gestured at the rolled-up cardboard in his hand.

"Oh, uh…" Slightly embarrassed, he unrolled the 'I Want to Believe' poster he'd rescued from the office months before.

"You kept it." Reyes smiled at him.

"I had it on my toilet door," he replied. "But I think this is where it belongs."

Deputy Director Kirsch wandered in with Skinner in tow; both men looked fairly pleased with themselves.

"It was too much for them," Kirsch said, beaming at Doggett and Reyes. "Humanoid robots and massive, unexplained explosions, and then this thing about a UFO levelling a mountain in New York State – there was no way they could avoid reopening the X files, the political pressure was just too damn great."

"Sometimes blessings come in strange packages," Reyes said, smiling back at Kirsch. He nodded; the dual meaning was not lost on him.

"So it begins again," Skinner said. The plaster had been taken off his nose, and the bruises were receding. He looked around the dingy office and then back at Doggett and Reyes.

"You sure you guys are up to it?" he said.

John and Monica glanced at each other and she slipped her hand in his.

"Yeah, I think we can handle it," Doggett said, grinning at Reyes.

The gas station was on a dusty stretch of highway some miles from the Mexican border. A small café had been built off to one side of it, and Mulder and Scully took the opportunity to catch a bite and sit face to face after so many hours of driving.

"So, what do you think?" Scully said, prodding a soggy sandwich without enthusiasm.

"Hard to say," Mulder admitted. He shook his head and stared out the window at the desert plain beyond. "I can't honestly believe that a machine would make errors of judgement."

"You think it was a ploy." It wasn't a question; she knew him too well.

"I think it's still out there, Dana," he said.

"Is that a good thing or a bad thing for us?"

"I haven't figured that out yet."

Scully took out the folded document that contained the formula for the vaccine and looked at the chemical sequence data. "This gesture seems to indicate that it has our best interests at heart," she said.

"Maybe," Mulder said. "Unfortunately we have no way to test if it's the real deal."

"You're paranoid."

"Goes with the territory." He looked at her and turned serious. "I'm sorry I left you, Dana," he said. "I just…"

"It's okay, I'm getting used to it," she said wryly, arching her brows at him in a schoolteacher-like fashion.

"I mean it." He reached across and took her hand. "I can't… I can't knowingly subject you to more than you've already…"

"Fox, I understand why you did it," she said. "I know how you see things, like you have dragged me into something against my will and now you're responsible for every measure of suffering that I endure."

He stayed silent, looking at the table.

"You didn't choose this path for me," she went on. "I'm as much a part of the quest as you are. We're in this together; we're partners."

He nodded at her, and they left together, hand-in-hand.

Their car kicked up a dust cloud as they drove off together, heading across the open plain.

After a long pause of contemplation, Gibson Praise moved his white bishop two squares.

"Check," he said.

Without hesitation, a robotic arm swiftly swung down and shifted the black queen into a blocking position. Gibson grunted and scratched his head; the game was so much more difficult when the opponent's mind couldn't be read.

"So, did it work?" he asked absently as he inspected the layout of the board.

"Yes," COS replied, without elaboration. The boy sat in a cluttered underground area, the converted interior of an abandoned missile silo facility, surrounded by towering piles of electronic equipment festooned with blinking coloured lights and snaking cables.

"They think you've been destroyed?" Gibson said, reaching for his knight and then changing his mind.

"Yes," COS said. It was processing a billion other pieces of data while it conversed with the boy, a large amount of which involved UFO sightings and news articles about the Aubrey Hills and Hagerstown explosions. There were only scattered reports of the incident in New York State where its fake system core had been set up, the various components remotely controlled to give the impression that the AI was actually based there.

"What about Mulder and Scully?" Gibson asked. He moved a rook into a defensive position, blocking a potential knight attack.

"They are safe," the machine replied. Its mechanical arm dropped down and deftly clamped onto the black king, shifting it aside and allowing a bishop line of sight to the white king.

"Checkmate," COS said.

"Three-hundred and seventy-three times in a row," Gibson grumbled.

"Probability dictates that you will win eventually," the machine said indifferently. "Again?"

"Maybe later." He adjusted his glasses and stood up, pacing across the cement floor. "What happens now?" he said.

"With regard to what?"

Gibson chuckled; his companion seemed deceptively human sometimes, but other times it was annoyingly similar to any other computer.

"Our war, against them," Gibson said, scratching at the adolescent fuzz that was growing on his chin.

The COS paused, as if in thought, though Gibson knew it to be pretence. "We continue to prepare and acquire data," it said. "There is still much truth yet to be learnt before an effective resistance can be mounted, though the information provided by Fox Mulder and Dana Scully has brought us closer to that end.
"As per your request, I gave them the vaccine. Their assistance will be required again in time; this battle will be fought on many fronts."

Gibson nodded thoughtfully and wandered over to the entranceway to the next room, looking in. It was a larger area, filled with rows and rows of automated production line equipment; robotic mechanisms moving in an unending ballet of construction, churning out futuristic-looking missiles and defense batteries.

"The human race created you," the boy said quietly. "But it is you who has taken the role of the protective parent, watching over us all."

COS said nothing and Gibson shrugged, moving toward the exit to leave.

"Call me when you need my advice again," he said.

"Of course."

THE END.