Author's Notes:

Please don't flame me if I offended any X-File sensibilities. This is probably my only cross with that universe anyway. And remember this story is "out there" so the science facts are mainly bogus. Please don't give me any references to a physics website. I don't care that much.

There are references to my stories, The Haunting and Speaking For The Dead. I'm calling the universe these stories inhabit the Supernatural Series.

P.S. If Jim seems maybe a bit too mellow :-) in this one, remember at the beginning he says he's being guided by forces he doesn't understand.

EXTREME POSSIBILITIES

by

D.L. Witherspoon

(Posted 5-26-98)

(Revised 7-16-99)

This story and its sequel, "Circle" is available in fanzine form. Please visit www.agentwithstyle.com for information on ordering "The Ellison/Sandburg File". Also, Circle is now available on the net.

Prologue

"Sentinel, what do you see?"

Jim Ellison glanced at the old Chopec shaman just to reassure himself this was only a dream, then looked in the direction the man pointed. He saw a town. Main street. The hardware store. Aunt Jemma's Eatery. Blockbuster Video. Jim smiled at the last one. At least he hadn't been sent back in time. He would have hated that. But something was missing in this Middle America scene. "Where are the people?" Even the video store was empty.

"You tell me, Sentinel."

Jim rolled his eyes at his taciturn spiritual Guide, and sent his special senses poking into the quiet tableau laid out before him. His eyes caught no movement. His ears heard not a single heartbeat. But his nose caught a whiff of something unknown. Without realizing it, he started walking toward the town, his curiosity getting the better of him. He wasn't surprised to see in his peripheral vision that his spiritual Guide had morphed into the black jaguar, and slinked along beside him.

His foot grazed a pile of powder-like material on the sidewalk, and he stopped as some of the dust floated up to his nose. What was that smell? It wasn't the one which had caused him to investigate. This one was familiar in a way.... The knowledge of what it was struck with a blow that drove him to his knees. His stomach heaved, but he was not just the Sentinel but also a detective, and the cop in him forbade him to contaminate a crime scene. And in some horrible, unimaginable way, a crime had taken place here because the powder was really the remains of what had recently been a human.

"Who did this? What did this?" he cried to the large cat that sat staring down the long street. Jim followed the gaze and saw more piles of powder, as far as his powerful eyes could see. My God, he thought, outrage and horror meshing inside him. The whole town had been completely devastated. "Why am I here?" he shouted in anguish.

"To stop this." The jaguar was once again the man.

"How?" Jim rose from the sidewalk, regaining control of his emotions now that he had a purpose. Belatedly, he remembered these "dreams" were usually portentous, meaning whatever he was seeing hadn't happened yet. There was a chance it would never happen. Not if the Sentinel had anything to say about it.

The scene around him faded and he found himself in the middle of the universe, well, the way his mind pictured the center of the universe would be--the standard black void, chunks of debris floating around planets, a distant star or two illuminating the darkness. Thank you, George Lucas and company, he thought dryly. Suddenly bands of light began swirling around him. The streams were different colors and although they crossed over and under each other, they never touched.

"Your people call these bands dimensions," the Guide intoned. "Realities like your own but unlike. They co-exist but never meet. It is the way it is meant to be."

So this was the part of physics he'd slept through and in a way, he supposed, he was sleeping through it again. "I'm guessing you're about to tell me something has gone wrong with 'meant to be'. Am I right?"

The Guide beamed a beatific smile. "Very astute, Sentinel. You have learned much since our last meeting." Jim shrugged. It was true that he was much more open to psychic bunk, mystical crap, and assorted other derogatory terms for what his roommate called "extreme possibilities." Life as a Sentinel, and as a partner to Blair Sandburg, had exposed him to the impossible too many times. "Watch," the Chopec ordered.

Jim saw a red line cross a green one. Then the red began to bulge, stretching until it brushed against the green. Where they touched, the green faded to black. "What the hell was that?" he asked as the bulge subsided, and the two bands parted ways.

"Science."

"Ours or theirs?"

"Theirs."

Shit. He knew the old Indian was going to say that. "How do I stop it?"

"Tell them."

"I just love these conversations I have with you," Jim muttered sarcastically. "I'm starting to think history recorded it wrong. My people weren't greeting yours with 'how'. They were asking a question because your people were so damn cryptic."

"You alone can see the meeting place. You must confront them, and alert these scientists to the harmfulness of their actions."

Jim nodded. "And they're going to understand and listen to me, right?"

"You are the Sentinel. Make them understand. Make them listen. Make them believe."

Chapter One

"Sandburg, there's a car waiting below to take you home."

"Simon, I can't leave him alone."

"And I can't let you fall apart on him, either. You need to eat, sleep, and definitely shower. Besides, you won't be leaving him alone. I'll stay until you get back. Preferably some time tomorrow."

"You have plans with Daryl this weekend."

"He understands, Blair."

Jim forced his eyes open and glanced at his visitors. "Can't a guy catch a nap without the two of you bickering over babysitting duties? Have you started charging by the hour or what?"

"Jim?"

"Jim!"

He felt a grin spread across his face to match the two greeting him. "Hey, guys. Someone want to explain why I'm once again a guest at Cascade General? I recognize the decor."

"Uh, could it have something to do with the fact you went to bed Monday night and it's now Thursday?" Blair Sandburg asked as he neared the bed. He wanted to reach out and touch his partner to make sure he wasn't dreaming. For three days he had sat by the bed praying for this moment to come. He had prayed because there was nothing else he could think of to do. Jim was a Sentinel, which meant he had all five of his senses heightened. There were problems inherent in that. Sudden noises, bright lights and strong smells could overwhelm him. Then there were times when Jim zoned, when he concentrated so much on one sense that he lost contact with the world around him. As Jim's Guide, it was Blair's job to help him with his senses. He helped him focus, warned him about noises, lights, etc. and when he zoned, Blair watched his back, and then called him from wherever his mind had wandered. But this, whatever this was, hadn't been a reaction to stimuli or a zone. This had been different.

Blair had been surprised when his alarm woke him Tuesday morning. Normally, Jim was up first (a military background provided him with an accurate internal clock) and once he finished in the shower, he would stop by Blair's room with a rather loud, "Time to get up, Chief." So had Jim overslept? When the noise of the alarm wasn't followed by the noise of Jim complaining, he concluded Jim must have left early. If he had, there would be a note by the kitchen phone.

He headed to the bathroom and showered, worry tickling the back of his head when he saw the hamper was empty. Where were Jim's wet towels? His could have been anywhere, but Jim was a stickler about things in their proper places. Dressing quickly, he went into the kitchen and when he couldn't find a note, he raced up the stairs to Jim's room. Jim lay peacefully in his bed, but Blair knew something was terribly wrong. When no amount of shouting, jostling, or downright pleading awakened the detective, he had dialed 911. Then he had called their captain, Simon Banks.

Jim read most of the story in Blair's expressive turquoise eyes and he reached out, enfolding his hand around his partner's wrist. "I'm sorry I scared you, Chief."

"What happened, Jim? I had the lab check everything I put into the casserole I made Monday night, thinking maybe you were reacting to some chemical I didn't know about. The peppers were supposedly organically grown, but I bought them from a new vendor and I thought maybe some kind of insecticide--

"Blair, stop," Jim commanded. "It wasn't your casserole, okay? It was nothing you could control. I just had to 'go' somewhere." Never would have guessed the dream had lasted three days. Guess those trips to the center of the universe take a while.

"Without your body?" Blair asked excitedly, his anxiety no match for his academic curiosity. "There have been studies--"

"I know, Chief, and I'll tell you what I remember as soon as I'm sprung from this place. Call Dr. C. and tell her I'm ready to leave." Dr. Mandy Cuthbertson was a friend as well as their "family" doctor. She could be counted on not to get caught up in finding an explanation for one of his "spells," strange bouts of coma that were really zones most of the time.

"Uh, it's not going to be that easy, Jim. Dr. C. is at a conference. You have a 'real' doctor, if you know what I mean."

"That explains why I can feel nine separate puncture wounds in my arm. Did he/she leave me any blood to live on?" Jim sighed. He didn't have time for this doctor to get tired, and give up looking for the cause of his non-responsive state.

"You can feel each needle mark?" Simon asked sympathetically. He'd been quiet during their discussion of the "out of body experience." Granted, he had somehow become involved with this Sentinel business, but he was only going to go so far, and a trip to the astral plane was definitely over the limit. "No wonder you bitch every time I order you to go to the E.R."

"Does this mean you'll stop making that order?" Jim asked hopefully.

"You haven't been asleep that long, Ellison."

Jim shrugged. He'd just have to remind Simon about the painful needles the next time the captain thought he should be checked out by a doctor. "I really need to get out of here, guys. Simon, my boss, my friend, would you go to the nurses' station and irritate them until they call for my doctor?"

"Such flattery won't get you anything except a nice long rest," Simon threatened. "You've been flat on your back for three days, Jim. Your diet has consisted of sugar water. You're in no condition to leave. That's what the doctor is going to tell you."

"So, while you're bugging the nurses, tell them to find one of those Release Against Medical Advice forms and have it ready for me to sign."

"Jim--" the captain began.

"Simon, it's important," Jim implored. He didn't want to go into detail, knowing the captain really didn't want to hear the details, anyway. Simon read that knowledge in his eyes, and left.

"So this journey of yours.... Some kind of premonition?" Blair asked. As a student of anthropology, he had studied and actually lived with cultures that accepted psychic experiences as the norm.

"How much do you trust me, Chief?"

"A whole heck of a lot further than I can throw you," Blair joked. The older man had him in height, weight, and muscle.

"I'm serious, Blair."

"You know how much I trust you," Blair said solemnly. "With my life."

"Is that enough to follow me? Where? I don't know. For how long? Same answer."

"Yes."

Jim looked deep into his partner's eyes. "I am being guided by forces I don't understand, Blair. This 'dream' was pretty intense. I know what I have to do, where I have to go, but my destination was unnamed. I only know I will know it when I reach it."

"What do you have to do when you get there?"

"Stop the end of the world."

Their gazes met and held. "How can I help you, Jim?"

"Go home and get us some clothes. Then gas up the truck and meet me here. We're both a little ragged, so we probably won't get far tonight. But I think the idea is to just get started."

Blair nodded. "Since I rode here in the ambulance with you, I guess I'll take Simon up on that offer of a ride. By the time you and the doctor fight it out, I'll be back with some clothes for you."

"Better empty the trash and clean out the refrigerator too, Chief. I don't know how long we'll be gone," Jim warned. Blair nodded and headed for the door. "You sure you want to do this? You have responsibilities at the university."

"You have responsibilities at the police station. Do you want to do this?" Blair countered.

"I have no choice in the matter."

"Then neither do I. Back in an hour. By the way, you may as well break the news to Simon."

"Keep the truck running, Chief," Jim said with a grin, anticipating the captain's reaction. "I may have to dress on the fly."

*****

"Mulder, are you pouting?" Federal Agent Dana Scully asked her partner, who was oddly quiet in the rental car's passenger seat. Fox Mulder usually had something to say about everything, especially when they were on a case. But lately, he just hadn't been himself.

"Can't a man be contemplative without being accused of pouting?" he replied, making sure his lips were not overextending. "So, what are we looking for again in Belle's Beauty, Wyoming, population 579?"

"If you had paid attention to the preliminary report we received before we left D.C., you would know the population was now 577."

"So, we fly for four hours and drive for two more all because two people died in Belle's Beauty?"

Scully wondered which would give her more satisfaction: bashing her partner's head into the dashboard or her own? She couldn't believe she was wishing the old Mulder was back, the one that had them zipping across the country investigating anything that seemed remotely out of the ordinary. Exsanguinations, self-immolations, swamp devils, fluke men, killer bees... Ah, the good old days. But now Assistant Director Skinner had handed them a case where human bodies had been instantly reduced to their base elements, and Mulder was acting put out.

"Mulder, we're not talking about a simple homicide, suicide, or any other kind of 'cide. If there was ever a case that deserved to be an X-file, this is one."

"The operative term is 'if,' Scully."

She sighed, and concentrated on her driving. She tried to understand her partner. She knew what he'd been through, the various stresses he'd been subjected to in the past few months. Mulder had spent his entire adult life searching for the truth he thought he knew; that when they were children, his sister Samantha had been abducted by aliens while he watched. He had desperately believed that the government was perpetuating a huge cover-up of these alien contacts, and he had used his outstanding reputation in the Bureau to be able to work with the X-files, files so named because they defied other labels. In these files, he thought he would find his truth.

A few months ago, however, he was provided evidence that the alien myth was the real cover-up. The government had used UFO sightings, and staged various events, to hide and fund other nefarious activities. For some reason Scully had yet to fathom, Mulder had grabbed on to this version of the truth, and had decided that his whole life and career had been based on a lie. Now he was foundering without direction, and she was at a loss as to how to help him regain his path.

From the beginning, Scully had been a skeptic. She was a scientist, a medical doctor in fact. Little green men from Mars were for the Saturday Morning television set, or just tales to be told around the campfire. She'd been partnered with Mulder and his X-files because she was to debunk his work, show him the error of his ways. But the more she got to know the man, the more cases they worked together, the more she saw that her precious science couldn't explain, the more she started to believe-- in things, in events, in occurrences that she would have snootily dismissed with a shake of her short auburn hair before.

Trusting in Mulder and his work had come at a great cost. Her credibility at the Bureau had suffered. Her sister had been murdered, she herself had almost been killed several times, and even worse, she had been physically violated. She'd been abducted and experimented upon, leaving her with an implant in her neck, a cancer in remission, and a child she hadn't even known existed, dead. She had survived that, and more, because she had believed in her partner. And now he no longer believed in himself.

Life was definitely a bitch.

Chapter Two

"He checked himself out of the hospital, and now they've disappeared?"

"That about sums it up."

"What does Captain Banks say?"

"Even he doesn't know where they are. It's starting to get to him, too. Haven't you noticed how often he looks at the phone? They haven't contacted him, and he's starting to worry."

"They shouldn't treat him that way. He's always covering for them. Damn it, if I got into as much trouble as they do, I'd be a security guard over at the high school by now."

"Don't go jumping to conclusions. If they've disappeared on the captain, they've got good reason."

"What kind of good reason?"

"Probably something to do with the Feds. You know how whenever they get in a jam, they always come looking for him. And wherever he goes, you know he's not going alone."

"You wanna put your money where your mouth is? I bet they're off camping somewhere, trying to get over this last hospitalization. Hell, I bet half of their paychecks go toward health insurance."

"And I say they're doing something for the government, something so secret they even had to keep it from the captain."

"I'm with you on this one. But how are we going to know who's right?"

"Oh, there will be signs. There always are."

"It's a bet, then?"

"Yeah. Anybody else want in on the action?"

Hands went up all through the break room of the Cascade P.D.

*****

"This is where we found them," Sheriff Howard Tate was saying as he pointed to two chalked outlines on the hardwood floor of Eva and Bill Tuttle's living room.

Mulder shook his head. He didn't know anyone still used chalk anymore. Of course he hadn't known there were still towns like Belle's Beauty, either. Houses with big porches and flower gardens. Clean streets without a hint of gang symbols or meaningless graffiti. Not even a smiley face scratched into wet cement. Scary. "How did you get an outline if the people were, uh, you know, reduced to their base elements?"

"Their clothing and the remains. We didn't find them in a big pile, you know. What was left was left in the place it was supposed to be when it happened," the sheriff explained.

"What exactly do you think 'it' was, Sheriff?" Mulder asked.

"My first thought was fire, but as you can see, this room hasn't been touched. Then I had the wild notion of spontaneous combustion. I saw on one of those educational channels that stuff like that actually happens. But their clothes, which I have in evidence, are perfectly unaffected. No char marks, no smoke stains, not even a scent.... Anyway, I ran out of guesses and called you people. For all I know, it could be the work of aliens."

With a snort of disbelief, Mulder raked a hand through his thick hair. "Why aliens, Sheriff Tate? Why not the hand of God or something?" he asked flippantly. Then he remembered his partner's Catholic background and hastily muttered, "Sorry. I think I'll wait outside while you go over the premises with the sheriff, Scully."

She nodded, and worriedly watched him leave. There had been a time when a statement like the one the sheriff had made would have eagerly sent him searching for clues. Now, he just left in disgust. This new Fox was definitely going to take some time getting used to. "How were the victims discovered, sir? Did someone see or hear something out of the ordinary which made them check on the Tuttles?" she asked, turning her attention to the sheriff. Apparently this investigation she was going to have to handle on her own.

"Nah, it was nothing like that. Harry and Christine Robbins next door came over to watch TV--the Tuttles have a satellite dish-- and they found the remains."

"How did they get in?"

The sheriff scratched a patch of stubble on his cheek. "Not many of us around here lock our doors, Agent Scully, especially if we're expecting someone."

Great, Scully thought to herself. So any and everyone had access to the house. Even if they could discover how the desiccation was performed, they would have a hell of a time narrowing down a suspect. She asked the sheriff a few more questions, studied the layout of the house, then requested she be taken to the morgue to personally view the remains.

Mulder was staring toward Main Street when they joined him on the porch. "Sheriff, you know those guys?" He pointed toward two men who seemed to be idly wandering along Belle's Beauty's one major road. Since it was a Sunday afternoon and the town closed down on Sundays, they and their blue and white pick up stood out.

The sheriff squinted in the appropriate direction. "Nah. Can't say that I do. And I'm on a first name basis with everyone in the county. Why you ask? They acting funny?"

Mulder shrugged. "I've just been watching them, and I don't think they're tourists."

Scully immediately saw what he meant. The pair were exhibiting movements similar to a search pattern used by law enforcement. "Could the press have found out about the Tuttles?" She'd seen crime reporters mimic the pattern when getting their stories.

"Didn't want to scare the populace, so I told Robbins and his wife to keep it under their hats. The county coroner, too."

"Those men are not here to sample Belle's Beauty's nightlife," Mulder said, already walking in their direction. "Let's see why they're really here."

*****

Blair was following behind Jim, who was mumbling something about the sky turning dark red, when he noticed the approaching "welcoming committee." Jim must have noticed them, too, but his partner just kept right on doing whatever it was he was doing, so Blair figured that meant he was to handle the situation.

Since leaving Cascade two days ago, Blair had just been reacting to Jim's non-responses. The first few hours of driving, he'd kept waiting for Jim to give him directions, asking if he should turn here or there. After a while, he had learned just to keep driving straight ahead until Jim would softly say, "Turn right," or "Turn left." And what was so weird about it was that Jim would appear to be sound asleep when he would tell him to take a turn, and before Blair could say, "What turn?", the road appeared. There were definitely forces at play here that they had never dealt with before, and while the social scientist in him considered it fascinating, the man in him thought it eerie.

"Hi, there!" he called, making sure he kept both hands in plain sight when he saw that at least one of the approaching figures was a cop. Oh, the things he'd learned by working with the Cascade P.D.

"Afternoon," the sheriff said, frowning as he saw the visitor's hair was swept back in a ponytail. Only the Native Americans in the area could get away with that. "I'm Sheriff Tate. Something I can do for you, son? Maybe you and your friend are lost?" He didn't need a beatnik and his friend in town, not with these strange deaths happening.

Okay. I guess that's our cue to mosey on. Gee, Jim, you pick some of the friendliest places. "Uh, maybe if you could tell me where we are, maybe I could tell you if we're lost," he said, trying not to make the words sound challenging. He didn't like the way the sheriff's companions were eyeing him, and especially the way they were looking at Jim. He turned to see what Jim was doing. Still gazing at the sky. Shit. Please don't zone on me now, big guy.

The sheriff thought maybe it was safe to relax. People often took the wrong turn in this part of the state. Road signs weren't a high priority. "You're in Belle's Beauty, Wyoming."

Blair smiled. "Nice name," he said. "Didn't know the people of Wyoming were so poetic."

The corner of the sheriff's lips went up into something akin to a smile. "Got nothing to do with poetry. Belle was the local lady of the evening back when the town was searching for a name. To get back at the ladies who were starting a suffragette movement, the men decided to name the town after the only woman, according to them, who didn't want to wear the pants in the family."

"The women accepted this?' Blair asked incredulously.

"Well, you need to understand these were pioneering women, practical to the bone. Said as long as Belle was allowed to vote, the men could name whatever they wanted after her."

"Now there's a doctoral thesis for you, Chief," Jim said as he joined the small group.

"You're a grad student, Mr.--?" Scully asked. That would probably explain what they were doing out in the middle of nowhere. He looked like an archaeologist or anthropologist. Plenty of old Native American sites to visit in the area. She remembered passing a few on the way in.

"Sandburg, Blair Sandburg," he said, reaching out to shake her hand. "I'm studying anthropology."

Bingo, Scully thought smugly. She tried to peg the older man as easily, but couldn't. Whoever he was, he wasn't a student and he didn't seem to be a teacher, either. From his excellent build, straight stance and the casual way he scanned them, she would guess he was maybe a former military officer. But what was he now? Other than kind of cute. Very interesting eyes.

"Well, son, if you tell me what you're looking for, maybe I can tell you how to get there," Sheriff Tate offered.

"Thank you, Sheriff, but we're exactly where we're supposed to be," Jim said politely.

"And just where is that?"

Jim stared at the tall, lanky man who had spoken for the first time. The man stared back, and Jim recognized the intensity of the scrutiny. He'd been under similar before. "Maybe that's the question I should be asking you, Agent--?"

If Mulder was bothered by the fact Jim had recognized him as FBI, he didn't show it. "Mulder. This is my partner, Scully."

"I'm Detective Jim Ellison, and my associate has introduced himself."

"A little out of your jurisdiction, aren't you, Detective?" Mulder asked, pointing to the Washington plate on the truck.

"I guess you could say we're just scouting the countryside, in search of..." He shrugged as if the answer didn't matter.

"I don't see a video crew with you," Mulder stated, referring to the old television show hosted by Leonard Nimoy.

"I don't think this is something you want televised."

"Sir, is there something we should know?" Scully asked politely, yet firmly.

"You already know, ma'am, or you wouldn't be here."

The sheriff saw a family heading toward them, and looked at his watch. It was time for the picnic at the church. "Maybe we better take this inside," he suggested. It was bad enough the townspeople were going to see the rental car and the out-of-state truck, and start to ask questions. They didn't need to hear the discussion, too. "My office is just around the corner."

Inside the office, the sheriff scuttled around looking for enough chairs. Four visitors was more than he had in a given week, and now he had four at one time. Seeing that it was his town, he thought maybe he should establish right away that he was the one in charge.

"This doesn't have to be one of those jurisdictional conflicts, " he began as he leaned back in the big leather chair he had inherited from the former sheriff, his uncle. "Maybe we all just need to share what we know, and work together."

"The detective has yet to say what it is he knows," Mulder pointed out.

The sheriff looked at Jim.

"From the presence of the FBI, I would say you have had a death in your town that could be considered slightly left of normal," Jim said diplomatically. He saw the sheriff's eyes flick to the agents.

"Explain 'slightly left of normal,'" Scully quickly asked. It sounded as if the man knew what had happened, but he could be fishing. Maybe he had heard rumors....

"Powdered people."

Chapter Three

Jim figured his comment would either cause the agents and sheriff to a) burst out laughing, b) demand he tell them what was going on, or c) call the boys with the net to round him up. However, the reaction he received was none of those options.

"Who are you working for?" Mulder demanded. "What government agency are you affiliated with? The Department of Defense? What the hell have they done now, and how do you fit into it?"

Jim exchanged startled glances with Blair. Maybe they should be the one calling for the guys in white jackets. "I'm just a Major Crime detective for Cascade, Washington. Look, call your office in Seattle. They will vouch for me and Sandburg."

Mulder saw Scully had already pulled her cell phone. "Fine, Detective. Tell me how you knew to come here."

"I just knew," Jim said defensively.

"The sheriff requested your cooperation, Detective. Surely that's not too much to ask."

"I'm not trying to be difficult, Agent Mulder. I just don't have an answer for that question."

"What about you, Mr. Sandburg?"

"Leave him out of it," Jim said before Blair could answer. "He's just here to support me."

"Support you in what, Detective?"

"In ending this."

"You're saying you can stop this? What exactly are you going to stop?" Mulder questioned as he saw Scully motion that she was stepping out of the office, so she could make the call in private.

"How many are dead?" Jim asked.

"You don't know?"

Jim balled his fists together, trying to keep his temper. "If I knew, I wouldn't be asking."

"Two," the sheriff answered, wondering what kind of crap his town was involved in.

"When?"

"Two days ago."

"Before you woke up, Jim," Blair said softly, knowing his friend was probably feeling guilty for not getting there soon enough. Jim had briefly explained the dream to him, the hope that he could stop the events before one life was lost.

"Woke up?" Mulder asked curiously.

Jim cocked his head to one side, signaling he was listening, so Blair answered for him. "He was in a coma for a couple of days."

"Wait! Let me guess," Mulder said glibly. "And while he was in this coma, he had a vision, and it told him to come here and stop this terrible thing from happening, right?"

Blair heard the sarcasm, and knew they were going to get nowhere with this agent. What had happened to the pretty redhead? Maybe she was more open-minded. "That's basically it, sir. And if you can tell me that these two people didn't die as my friend said, that every drop of water in their bodies was not somehow consumed, you have my permission to laugh out loud. But if there is a grain of truth in what he said, you don't have any right to dismiss his mission."

"His mission? What--"

"It's about to happen again, Chief," Jim said anxiously, getting to his feet. "That smell. And the air. Can't you feel it? The shift in pressure?"

Blair stood, too, his hand reaching out to clasp Jim's upper arm. "No, I can't, Jim. Can you describe what you feel?"

He shook his head. "I need to go outside. I need to see where it's going to strike."

"Whoa, Det. Ellison," Mulder said. "I'm not through talking to you yet. Your associate mentioned a mission? What kind of mission, and for whom?"

"Look, we can discuss this later. I need to see the sky. I need to know where the door is." He took a step toward the entrance, and found it blocked by Mulder. "Move out of the way, sir," Jim warned softly.

"Who are you working for?"

"Move." Jim knew the contact point was approaching. In his mind, he pictured the swelling of the "walls" of the other universe, reaching out to touch and destroy his. When Mulder did not give way, he shoved the agent into the sheriff, who was coming to back him up, and ran out the door. If he heard the two men pull their weapons, he didn't stop.

Blair knew what was going to happen, and he was ready when Jim reacted. As soon as Jim ran through the door, he was right behind him. He watched him pause for just a second to scan the sky, then take off again. He started to follow, but heard Mulder yell, "Stop or I'll shoot."

Blair stopped, and turned to face the agent, blocking his path. When Mulder tried to go around him, he moved in his way again. How long this would have gone on, Blair didn't know, but he was relieved when he saw Mulder's partner run up to them.

"Stop it, Mulder. Go, Mr. Sandburg," Scully said breathlessly. It had taken quite a sprint to catch up to the men.

"What the hell are you doing, Scully? These men know what's going on!"

"I'm sure they do," she said calmly, as she reached out for his arm when he moved to follow. "And we're to let them do whatever it is they have to do."

"Why?"

"Because Assistant Director Whitney says so." Jordan Whitney headed the Seattle Bureau.

"You talked to Whitney personally?"

Scully nodded. "As soon as I requested information on a Detective Jim Ellison, I was immediately transferred to his office. He said, and I quote, 'Give Ellison and his partner your full cooperation and whatever you do, don't get in their way.' However, it's too late to tell you that now, I suppose."

Mulder frowned, trying to figure out what was going on. "Did Whitney give you any idea why this man has carte blanche? I thought in most cases the Bureau considered the local cops merely obstacles to step on or around."

"He refused to name any specifics, but I received the impression that Ellison and Sandburg did the Bureau a favor or two in the past."

"When you did that direct quote thing, you said Whitney referred to Sandburg as Ellison's partner. Sandburg said nothing about being a cop."

"That's because he's not. He's an observer assigned to the Cascade P.D., but everyone, including the Seattle Bureau, considers him Ellison's full partner."

"I think we've discovered the real X-file here, Scully."

"Just tell me why you were chasing after them, Mulder. When I left the room, everyone was seated and talking. Then you're all running out the door, except for the man you almost knocked over who was coming in the door."

Mulder vaguely recalled bumping into someone. "Ellison started mumbling something about it happening again, and that he needed to look at the sky. The man has serious problems, Scully. Do you know he was in a coma two days ago? Had some kind of vision which 'caused' him to come here."

"That doesn't explain the chase, and the waving of your gun," she reminded him.

"I told him I needed more information before he could leave. He didn't appreciate the delay," he added, rubbing the bruise he felt forming over his sternum.

"He assaulted you?" she asked in concern.

"More like 'shoved.' He was actually quite polite about it."

"But you unholstered your weapon nevertheless?" Scully clarified with a frown.

"Reflex. Besides, I wasn't planning to shoot."

She rolled her eyes, hearing him trying that excuse on Assistant Director Whitney. Then she had a sudden thought. "Ellison says there's been another occurrence? Damn it, Mulder. Why didn't you say so? Which way did they go?"

"I did say so," he muttered as he pointed to the last place he had seen the fleeing men. Scully jogged away, he following in her trail.

A block later, they saw the two men sitting on one of the porches, a large satellite dish shading them from the bright Wyoming sun. As they approached, Scully saw that something indeed must have happened because Ellison appeared to be in shock. He stared wide-eyed into the distance, his breathing ragged, his hands clasped in tight fists. Sandburg sat beside him, rubbing his shoulder and whispering words too low for her to understand, even when she was right next to them.

"Can I help?" she asked. "I'm a medical doctor."

Ellison gave no indication that he was aware of her presence, but the young anthropologist turned quickly to her. "Help us by staying the hell out of our way! Why don't you and your partner take a peek inside? And, oh, be sure not to miss the cradle!" Then he turned back to his partner, and began the soft whisper again.

Scully exchanged glances with Mulder, and went toward the door. At least these people had locked their door. However, the splintered frame showed the lock hadn't stopped Det. Ellison from entering. The first "body" they discovered in the living room. Male, as indicated by the clothing. The other two victims were found in the nursery, and even Scully with her medical background, was sickened by the tiny sprawl of residue in the crib.

"I think I just earned a shitload of demerits," Mulder said denigratingly.

Scully looked at the remains beside the crib, an infant's booties arranged where a hand was supposed to be, and agreed whole-heartedly with her partner.

Chapter Four

Mulder, accepting the blame, stayed with Scully as she conferred with the sheriff and the county coroner, a wizened old man who looked as if he should be doing an autopsy on himself. When she and the coroner began talking in medical-ese, he and the sheriff drifted to the porch.

"Where are the other visitors?' Mulder asked. He wasn't worried that they had left town. Ellison took his "mission" seriously. He wouldn't leave until whatever was happening was under control. Mulder felt his guilt rise to the surface again. Delaying Ellison could possibly be the reason a young couple and their infant were dead. And what had he gained from the delay? He still knew absolutely nothing.

"The young one asked for the whereabouts of a motel. I sent him to the one you're staying at."

Oh, you mean the only one within ten miles, Mulder thought dryly. "How was the detective?"

"Silent. I have to say, Agent Mulder, I would appreciate it if you wouldn't get in his way next time."

Well, guess it was unanimous, then. "Why is that, Sheriff?"

"One, I'm tired of my people dying."

"And you think Ellison could have stopped this?"

He shrugged. "You know that man you knocked over going after them? Well, his name is Billy Whiteowl. He's the medicine man for the tribe over in the western part of the county. Before you put your nose up in the air, I just think you ought to know Billy has a Ph.D. from Harvard."

Mulder hated when people expected him to be a snob just because he worked for the FBI. If they only knew what he had seen, had learned.... Of course, considering the way he had treated Ellison and Sandburg, maybe the sheriff had a right to think him prejudiced. "What did Dr. Whiteowl have to say?"

"The signs told him that an evil had befallen Belle's Beauty. But he hadn't come to warn me because he knew the evil wouldn't last."

"Why is that?"

"Because the guardian was also in Belle's Beauty. Billy only came to see me today because another vision told him I was rejecting the guardian, and standing in his way."

"And if you stand in the guardian's way, the evil will prevail," Mulder finished for him.

"Wrong, Agent Mulder. Those who stand in the guardian's way will be moved by the guardian's powerful companion."

Mulder tried not to smile as he thought of Sandburg. Powerful? No way. Then the smile faded as he remembered the determined man who put himself between a gun and his partner. "Don't worry, Sheriff. One of my superiors has told me the same thing. By tomorrow, we'll probably be out of here."

"Not really, Mulder," Scully said as she and the coroner came out of the house with three black plastic bags. " Whitney said we were to stay and assist Det. Ellison anyway we could."

"Well, according to his partner, that would be by leaving," Mulder pointed out. Scully gave him a patented "we'll see" look and followed the coroner down the stairs.

*****

Scully knocked on Unit 8 of the Belle's Beauty Motor Lodge and waited for one of the men to answer. Appeasement was a part of her job that she could do without, but this time she and her partner had been in the wrong. Not that she believed the detective was psychic or anything, but they hadn't given him time to explain what had brought him to the town. Nor had they allowed him to explain what he thought was going on, and how he planned to stop it.

"Yes, Agent Scully?"

She looked into the face of an apparently still angry Blair Sandburg, and nervously cleared her throat. "I've come to apologize to you and your partner."

"Why?" He stepped out of the room, and closed the door behind him.

The question threw her slightly. "Because we were wrong."

"In what way?"

"Mulder shouldn't have pulled his weapon."

"That's true." He stared at her, his deep blue eyes penetrating as he waited for her to continue.

Well, this is going great. "I'd like us to continue the conversation that was started in the sheriff's office, Mr. Sandburg."

Blair started to reply when he remembered her first words. "How do you know I'm Jim's partner? We never referred to each other as such. Wait a minute," he said, knowledge causing a gleam in his eyes. "You left to call Seattle. You talked to Assistant Director Whitney and he told you what? That Jim and I are partners? What else did he say? Is this why you're apologizing? Because you were ordered to?" Her silence told him everything he needed to know.

"Mr. Sandburg, we all want the same thing here--" she began.

"No, Agent Scully, I don't think we do," he said, interrupting her. "Jim's taking a shower at the moment. I'll talk to him, and get back to you."

"I'm out, Chief," Jim said as he carefully opened the door, aware that Blair was leaning against it. He shrugged into a T-shirt, then patted his partner on the back. "Why don't you hit the showers now? The hot water feels good after spending two days in the truck. Takes those kinks right out of your muscles."

"That does sound good, man." He glanced at Scully, then back to Jim. "You sure about this?"

"I'll keep my back to the wall at all times," he promised solemnly, smiling as Blair reluctantly went inside. "May I buy you a drink?"

Scully looked at him in confusion. A town that closed on Sundays surely was as dry as... well, as dry as the victims they'd found. She grimaced at the analogy she'd made. Poor taste. Definitely three Hail Marys for that. Jim grinned as if he'd read her thoughts. See what you've done to me, Mulder? A man can't even smile at me without me wondering if he can read my mind. Then the detective pointed toward the vending area between units twelve and fourteen. She shrugged, and walked companionably beside him. After all, she was just following orders. Play nice.

"Sorry about Sandburg," Jim said as he handed her the requested Diet Coke. "He doesn't really think you'll shoot me in the back. He's just protective of me at times."

"Does he have cause?" she asked, as they drifted in the direction of her room.

Jim's glance swept over her. "Excuse me?"

"I've reviewed your medical records, Detective. This is not the first time you've been hospitalized for an unexplained seizure that results in a catatonic or fugue state."

"It always amazes me when I find out just how little the government values my privacy. You would think I'd be used to it by now. Slow learner, I guess," he said with a faint, but derisive smile.

"Do you profess to having visions during each of these occurrences?" She leaned against the rental car, then decided to go all out and sit on the hood.

"No, ma'am," Jim answered as he'd been expertly coached by Cascade's D.A. Answer only the question, and be respectful. If opposing counsel wants details, make him beg for them.

"But you did have a vision this time?"

"Yes, ma'am." He slid onto the hood beside her.

"And what did you see in this vision?"

He started to tell her, then shook his head. "I would prefer to only go over this once. Perhaps the details can wait until the others are present?"

"So, you are willing to sit down and talk with us?"

"Whitney didn't tell you I was a reasonable man?"

"To tell you the truth, Detective, the assistant director wasn't very forthcoming."

"Occupational hazard with you people. And by the way, my name is Jim. Feel free to use it. Despite what your partner may think, we're not enemies. The four of us are here for the same reason: people are dying and we want it to stop."

She nodded. "That's true. But the problem is that you are a couple of steps ahead of us, and that makes my side nervous."

"I seriously doubt my explanation is going to ease that, Agent Scully."

"Dana," she said distractedly. "Jim, just for my peace of mind, and to thwart a potential situation with my partner, I'm going to ask you a question. Please don't read anything into it. Not my beliefs or fears.... This doesn't have anything to do with aliens, does it?"

Although she appeared calm on the outside, Jim could sense how much this question meant to Scully. What had she and Mulder run into before? "No, not in the sense you're talking about."

She didn't like the ambiguity of the answer. "What do you mean?"

"I assume you're talking Martians, or the like?" She reluctantly nodded. "Nah. But the problem we're dealing with does not originate here on earth."

"Can you be more specific?"

"After we have dinner. The sheriff mentioned a steak house a few miles away."

Her lips turned up in a rueful smile. "Drinks and dinner? Good thing I'm not married or involved, Jim, or I just might find myself spending several hours in confession after this case."

He laughed. "I'm flattered. Guess we'll have to drag our partners along to make sure our minds stay on business."

"Deal. But this time I'm paying. Unless Mulder is correct, I'm the only one with a government expense account."

"No explanation needed, Dana. I'm a nineties, equal opportunity kind of guy. If the woman wants to pay, I'm all for it." Then belying that attitude, he held out his hand to help her down from the hood. "Two hours okay? I need some time to get my thoughts together."

"And maybe rest, too?" she asked in concern.

"So, you noticed how much of a basket case I was at the scene, huh?"

"You were in shock. That's nothing to be ashamed of."

"I usually don't get that way at crime scenes. Wouldn't be much of a detective if that happened. But I was frustrated because I hadn't been able to stop those people from dying, especially the baby. Children shouldn't die, Dana," he said emphatically.

Her mind flashed back to the empty coffin that was supposed to contain the remains of her daughter. But they hadn't even left her that much to mourn. She remembered the words of her family and friends as her daughter lay dying, and then she looked at the man beside her who couldn't even accept the death of a stranger's child. He wouldn't have told her "it was for the best" or "it was God's will". He would have told her that her Emily "shouldn't have died". It would have been nice to hear that.

"You're right, Jim. Children shouldn't have to die."

Something in her voice made him look at her, and he was stunned by the sadness in her eyes. She caught his glance and looked away, signaling this was something she didn't want to discuss. Knowing that feeling well, he tried to lighten the mood.

"You think Agent Mulder would like riding in the back of the pick up?" Jim teased. "On our way here, we passed a farmer who had his dog in the back. His tongue was hanging out, and the breeze had his fur all ruffled. Looked like he was having the time of his life. Maybe we couldn't get your partner to hang out his tongue, but his tie could flap, and he does have a head full of hair.... I'd even drive real carefully, so he wouldn't bounce around too much."

She laughed. She couldn't help it. The picture of Mulder sitting in the back of a pick up like a faithful dog eager for adventure was just too much. "We'll take the rental car. But thanks for the imagery, Jim."

He winked at her, warmed by her laughter. "You're welcome, Dana."

Chapter Five

Mulder had walked away from the window by the time Scully knocked on his door. With the phone against his ear, he opened the door and signaled for her to enter. "Okay, Frohike. Let me know if you guys come up with anything else." He clicked off the phone, and handed her a tissue. "You still have some drool running down the side of your mouth."

Her brow knitted in confusion, then she got mad. "You were spying on me!"

"I was checking on you. After all, you are my partner," he argued.

"And a grown woman, capable of sitting and talking with a man in broad daylight. And for your information, I have not been drooling. I was doing my job, making amends for earlier accusations and getting Jim to agree to meet with us again."

"Well, I've been doing my job, too. Frohike managed to shed some light on your Jim. Seems the man was an Army Ranger. Disappeared for eighteen months and was presumed dead in a Peruvian jungle when, lo and behold, he appears, having completed his mission."

"So far, I fail to see any importance in what you've been told, Mulder," Scully said.

"He was missing for eighteen months! He could have been indoctrinated into a covert government agency in half that time. What if this is some operation gone bad, and he's the one sent to clean up their mess? What I don't understand is why he resigned his commission to become a cop in Cascade, Washington. What's the significance of Cascade?"

"Next thing you'll be telling me is that Jim was on the grassy knoll, too," she said dryly. "Can't we just listen to what the man has to say before we start making asinine conclusions about what he's here to do?" Scully took a deep breath, knowing there was no use arguing with him when he was in the mood to be stubborn. At times like this, it paid to be direct. "Mulder, we are going to dinner with these men. I'm going to be nice to them because I think they're nice people. You are going to be nice to them because you are under orders to. We get into enough trouble with these X-files. We don't need another assistant director on our asses because you want to act like one. Got it?"

He clicked his heels together and saluted. "I will be on my best behavior, sir!"

Scully shook her head and left. Despite his promise, she was sure it was going to be a long evening.

*****

Sheriff Tate was waiting for them when they arrived at the restaurant. "Figured you all would be along directly," he said as the waitress ushered them to a private room in the back. "Mavis at the motel said she saw you pile into the car, and I couldn't figure out anywhere else the four of you would go together. Hope you don't mind me tagging along."

"The more the merrier," Mulder said, watching Ellison seat Scully. For the life of him, he couldn't think what attracted her to him. Maybe he emitted some pheromone that called to women. Even the waitress had seemed partial to the man.

Blair watched Mulder watch Jim and Agent Scully. So, which way did the wind blow with the two of them? Jim said Scully told him she was unattached, but that could mean a lot of things. Like she and Mulder could have been together at one time, or maybe one wanted the other and had been rejected, or maybe it was something never discussed because they worked together.... Very interesting.

Small talk dominated the conversation as they ate. In Blair's opinion, there wasn't a cop alive that didn't have at least one story he liked sharing, and when in the company of other cops, that number tripled. Mulder explained that he and Scully mainly worked the X-files, then spoke of some of the bizarre things they had seen. It was obvious that he was leaving a lot out, but Blair could understand. There were some things that no one could understand unless he or she were present when they happened. That was something figured out quickly when working with a Sentinel.

Speaking of which, Jim began telling them what he knew about what was happening in Belle's Beauty. Blair knew the big guy was nervous; he hadn't eaten nearly enough. But Jim did well, focusing on the physics of what was occurring instead of how he'd come by the information. Mulder followed along quite well, and Blair was beginning to think the agent wasn't such a bad guy. It didn't fit how skeptical of Jim he'd been at first, considering the kind of cases he and Scully handled, but maybe everyone had just gotten off on the wrong foot. A simple territorial clash perhaps. Then Mulder made a comment that brought the evening to a resounding close, and made Blair realize his initial reaction to the man was on target.

"So, Ellison, did this really come to you in a dream, or are you in contact with a spirit?" Mulder asked, as the sheriff excused himself and went to the dessert bar.

Jim exchanged glances with Blair. "I beg your pardon?" he said politely to Mulder.

"Tony Bozeman says you talk with ghosts, that you are one hell of a gifted psychic. If you had just said so in the beginning--" Mulder stopped talking when Jim abruptly stood up and left the table.

"Jim?" Scully called, then looked at Blair when the detective just kept walking. She'd thought the anthropologist looked fierce when he'd told them off at the house earlier, but that was nothing compared to the way he looked now. The anger he emitted was almost visible.

"Do not mention that man's name again," Blair said softly. "He is a despicable creature who uses and manipulates people for his own gain. And if you're anything like him, I suggest you keep the hell away from Jim. In fact, why don't you keep the hell away from him, just in case you start to act like Tony. You Feds have enough death threats as is."

"Jim has threatened Dr. Bozeman?" Scully asked. She only knew Tony Bozeman through his reputation as a Bureau profiler, which Mulder had been at one time.

"He basically told him he would kill him if he was ever in the same building with him. But you don't have to worry; I'll get him myself if I ever find him in the same city as Jim," Blair vowed. As a whole, he abhorred violence, but when he remembered the pain Jim had been in during both the times they had worked with Bozeman, murder didn't seem like a bad idea.

"Sheriff," he said to the man entering the private room with a plate of cookies and pastries, "when you finish, Jim and I would appreciate a ride back to the motel. But take your time. We need a cooling off period, anyway."

Sheriff Tate looked at the back of the retreating man, then to the table. "Just not the kind of person who listens, are you, Agent Mulder?"

"I didn't do anything this time," Mulder defended himself. "All I did was mention a mutual acquaintance, and they both went nearly postal. Tell him I'm innocent, Scully."

"It's true you didn't know mentioning Dr. Bozeman's name would be such a catalyst, but Mulder, you accused the man of talking to ghosts!"

"Neither of them denied it, did they?" he pointed out.

"Well, let me tell you something, sir," Sheriff Tate said, as he finished a nice soft sugar cookie. "I don't care how low on oil his dipstick is, if the detective can stop what's happening in my town, he has my full support. If that means kicking you out of here, so be it."

Mulder didn't take him seriously. "Your friend was right about the guardian's companion, Sheriff. The benign anthropologist actually sat there and threatened the life of a federal agent in the presence of two others. That took more balls than I figured he had."

"The quiet, passive ones are the ones you need to watch, Agent Mulder," Tate advised. "Sneaky bastards, every last one of them."

"So if I turn up dead?"

The sheriff nodded, and closely inspected one of the brown chunks on his plate. Damn. No nuts. "I'll be sure to make them my number one suspects, after they've done what they came here for. Want a brownie?"

Scully dropped her face into her hands. Mulder had thus far managed to alienate the only person who had any idea of what was going on, his companion, the sheriff, and Assistant Director Whitney, which also meant their own Assistant Director Skinner... She heard that limb they were perennially out on start to crack. With a sigh, she took out the car keys, and handed them to Mulder. "Sheriff, if it's all right, I'll catch a ride with you also."

Tate scowled. "Let me get the waitress to bring me a doggie bag."

"Et tu, Scully?" Mulder questioned softly as the sheriff flagged one of the servers.

"Mulder, you're out of control. I think you need time to pull back and analyze your responses. And that's something you have to do alone. If you need to talk later, you know where I'll be." She looked at him with a mix of sympathy and exasperation, then followed the sheriff out of the restaurant.

Mulder looked around at the empty table. "Well, hell," he muttered, and headed toward the ice cream machine.

Chapter Six

"Any word?"

"Good morning to you, too."

"Good morning. Any word?"

"No. According to the captain's worry lines, they haven't contacted him yet. Rhonda says she'll let us know if something comes through during business hours."

"It's been three days, guys. Shouldn't a hospital be calling by now?"

Laughter rang throughout the Major Crime bullpen. But for those trained in listening, echoing beneath that sound was uncertainty and worry, emotions that would be present until a certain "lost" team found its way back home.

*****

Jim stretched outside the door of Unit 8. He felt the need to run, to push his body and feel the usual burn. Usual. That was the key word, the one thing he was searching for. Lying in that so-called queen-sized bed, he realized he was submerged in the unusual and was close to drowning in it. The bed wasn't right, the smells of the carpet and the drapes were foreign. The sound of tweeting birds was nice, but where was the roar of rush-hour traffic, the distant whine of sirens as crime got off to an early start in Cascade? The only thing remotely familiar was the beating of Blair's heart, but even it was too nearby to be normal. So, without waking Blair in the other bed, he slipped into his sweats and running shoes, and went outside. Although he didn't look up, he knew someone else was doing the same.

"I would say that line about great minds," Mulder called from the doorway of Unit 20, also dressed to run. "But I'm not sure if you'd appreciate having your mind compared to mine."

"You have a fine mind, Agent Mulder. Wouldn't have the reputation you have in the Bureau otherwise," Jim replied, checking the laces of his shoes. "Funny how you asked me about talking to ghosts, when it's you they call Spooky."

Mulder laughed. "Touché, detective. I'm guessing you have friends in high places."

They started out toward downtown Belle's Beauty. Neither of them made a conscious decision to run together. They just did.

"I have friends, Agent Mulder. How and where they get their information doesn't concern me as long as it's accurate."

"How can you know it's accurate if you don't know the source?"

"Trust, Agent Mulder."

They ran in silence for a few minutes. "You don't strike me as the trusting type, Ellison."

"Didn't at first. But life made it inevitable. The key to trusting is to carefully pick those you trust in."

"And if they betray you despite your careful choices?"

They didn't speak as they hit a busy Monday morning Main Street. Men, women and children stared at them as if they'd never seen two men jogging before. Then one of the ladies heading into Aunt Jemma's Eatery whistled, and they both looked down to see if they were fully dressed. Sweatpants and athletic-style undershirts. Everything appeared to be covered except their bare arms. Just how small a town was this? Both men shared a grin of disbelief as they rounded the block and headed back toward the motel.

"Betrayal is something I'm familiar with, Mulder," Jim said when the streets were clear again. "Comes with the territory when you're working for the government. That's why I got out. But then, I didn't get in for the same reason as you did."

"And what reason was that?" Mulder asked, curious as to how good Ellison's source was.

"I got in because I wanted to belong. You got in because you were searching for the truth."

So, my life is an open book to someone. Didn't know I was so well-known. "Stupid of me to go looking for the truth in the paramount den of lies, huh?."

"Not really. The greatest of lies must rest on the greatest of truths; nothing else could support its weight."

Mulder stopped running. He had to, since all the air had been knocked out of him by that simple statement. He rested his hands on his thighs and tried to regain his focus, a status he hadn't reached in quite some time. He thought he'd lost his path because of all the lies. But what if the truth lay at the bottom of the tangle, giving the lies not only a solid foundation, but an illusion of truth as well? What if someone had deliberately given him a glimpse of the truth to make it appear a lie? He shook his head. This was going to require some thought. He looked up to find Ellison waiting patiently for him.

"Damn, you're good," he said with honest respect.

"At what?" Jim asked as they started running again.

Mulder ignored what he considered to be a rhetorical question. "I didn't know Tony's name was verboten, or I never would have mentioned him last night. He didn't say anything about bad blood between the two of you, only that he had worked with you, and that you had real talent."

"Tony tells you what he wants you to know in order to manipulate you. Did he request a full report of this operation in exchange for the information?"

"As I said before, you're good." The motel came into view. "Let's stop by the office. A fax was supposed to arrive for me this morning. You may be interested in it. I made a few calls last night to some guys I know at MIT and CalTech. Told them what you'd said about the convergence of the two dimensions. They were going to run some simulations, and fax me the results. Maybe the information can help you figure out what you're supposed to do."

"I wasn't even sure you believed what I was saying last night," Jim commented as they slowed to a cooling walk.

Mulder shrugged. "I've worked with the X-files too long to casually dismiss seemingly outrageous claims. No matter how hard I try, I can't ignore what I've learned in the past."

"Perhaps you should stop trying."

Mulder looked at his new friend. "Yeah, maybe I should."

They were flipping through the pages of the information when they entered the courtyard of the motel and saw their partners standing together in front of Unit 8. Blair was the first to notice the animosity between the two men was gone. "Agent Scully and I were just debating whose partner was on the lam, and whose was in a shallow grave," he teased, looking for telltale signs of bruises and scratches just to make sure they hadn't settled their differences "the old-fashioned way."

"How did you know we were together, Chief?"

Scully answered, noting the relaxed atmosphere between the two also. "Sheriff Tate called. Said you were running through his town, distracting the good folk of Belle's Beauty. He wanted to know if a peace treaty had been signed, or were you just acting as back up for each other against the natives."

"If I wanted back up, I would have come to you, Scully," Mulder said. "So, breakfast at Aunt Jemma's, Ellison?"

"Sure. Maybe if we're fully dressed, they won't stare so hard. Here's your report."

"Nah, you keep the MIT one, and we'll switch at breakfast. Come on, Scully, I'll pretend to be a gentleman and walk you to your door," Mulder said.

"What happened?" she asked as Jim and Blair disappeared behind their door. "Last night, Jim couldn't stand to be in the same room with you. This morning, you're buddies sharing faxes and going to breakfast together?"

"Oh, you and Sandburg are invited, too. Thought you understood."

Her blue eyes flashed in anger. "Understand you're going to have a pretty pissed off partner if you don't answer my question, Mulder. What did you do?"

"I didn't do anything, but decide to run. Then he took over. Your detective is a smooth one, Scully. If I thought anyone would try, it would have been the anthropologist. After all, it's basically his field, and the sheriff misdirected me by all that talk of the guardian's companion. Wonder if that's the way they always do it? So you won't know where it's coming from until the deed is done?"

Scully grabbed his upper arm, despite the sweat on it. "What are you talking about, Mulder? What is it that Jim has supposedly done?"

"No supposedly to it, Scully. Ellison profiled me. Analyzed my every weakness, scoped out my defenses, then carefully chose the words that would make me capitulate. An excellent job, considering the timeframe."

She looked closely at him and saw a familiar sparkle in his eyes. "You're serious, aren't you? He cut through whatever has been bothering you for the past few weeks. How?" Scully demanded. She could have sworn she knew Mulder better than anyone. How had a virtual stranger managed what she had tried to do and failed? Maybe because Jim was a stranger, and she was.... What exactly was she and Mulder? More than others expected, but less than some suspected. Hey, Mulder, there's an X-file for you.

Mulder shook his head, and fished his room key out of his pocket. "There's more to that man and his partner than we will ever know, Scully. But that's a riddle for another day. Here, want to look at these sims from CalTech while I shower?"

Scully glanced at the door of Unit 8, then the door of Unit 20, and wondered why anyone ever thought women were the more complicated of the sexes.

Chapter Seven

"I think I might have the answer to why these particular places are being hit," Blair said as the four of them sat in the sheriff's office, discussing the faxes they had received from the colleges. "I think it's the satellite dishes that are attracting the phenomena. If you add that factor into the calculation, we might be able to predict where it will strike next. What's your contact's e-mail address at MIT, Agent Mulder?" He readied his trusty laptop to send the message.

"It's too late for that, Chief," Jim said softly, and they all turned to look at him.

"Jim?" Blair questioned, and his partner nodded. "Let's get you outside, then."

"No rush. I recognize now that I was feeling it when I got out of the truck yesterday; I just didn't know what was happening. Now, I do." He led the group outside, and looked at the sky. How could they not see it? Dark red swirls amidst the fluffy white clouds. It was almost as if the sky were bleeding. Which meant he needed to track where the blood was coming from.

Feeling like the head gander in a flock of geese, Jim took the team through the center of town, past the two houses which had already fallen to the alien science, and finally paused before a third. "This is it," he decreed.

Another house. Another satellite dish. "The Talbots," the sheriff informed them.

"Anyone home on a Monday afternoon?" Jim asked.

"The wife and a four-year-old daughter."

"Get them out of there."

Sheriff Tate went up to the house and explained to Mrs. Talbot that there may be a gas leak in the house, and that she and the little girl needed to go across the street to the neighbor's. Jim didn't bother to tell the sheriff that he could have left out the gas leak tale. As soon as Mrs. Talbot got to the neighbor's house, both ladies were wondering if what was happening was related to the mysterious disappearances of the Tuttles and the Andersons. In small towns, secrets lasted perhaps a minute, but only if the phone lines were down.

When Blair turned to ask Scully a question, Jim pulled Mulder aside, and handed him a small white card. "If something goes wrong, contact Captain Simon Banks. He'll take care of everything...including Sandburg."

"We're starting to get a handle on this. If you'd rather not do--"

Jim shook his head. "Give me a half an hour, then it should be safe to enter. Whatever it takes, don't let Sandburg inside. I don't want.... Please, Agent Mulder, spare him that sight."

Mulder held out his hand. "You have my word, Detective."

"Last minute strategy session?" Blair questioned as he came over to the two of them.

"Just covering all my bases, Chief," Jim said easily. "Guess I better get inside, and start figuring out what I'm supposed to do."

"Uh, Jim? Wouldn't it be more prudent to do that out here?" Blair asked nervously. He'd gotten so caught up in the study of what Jim was doing that he'd briefly forgotten what the outcome could be. Or, maybe, he'd just been fooling himself.

"No, Blair. I'm just going to have to wing it. That's the only way."

Blair lay his hand on Jim's arm. "If that's the only way, then that's the way you'll do it, Jim."

"Keep the faith, partner," Jim said as he mounted the steps to the house.

"In you, Jim? Always."

*****

Scully glanced at her watch, then looked at the anthropologist who was seated in a lotus position in the middle of the sidewalk. For the twenty minutes Jim had been inside, his partner had meditated in complete silence. Onlookers had stopped by in curiosity, and the sheriff had shooed them away, but nothing had disturbed Sandburg in what Scully could only call his vigil.

"How long did he say wait?" she asked Mulder.

"Ten more minutes." He nodded to the sheriff, who signaled he had his handcuffs ready. If Det. Ellison failed, he would see to it that his final request was granted.

"Jim!" Blair was on his feet before the two men could react, and Mulder cursed as he raced to grab the grad student before he reached the stairs. "Let me go, damn it!" Blair cried as the FBI agent grabbed his arm.

"Stop, Sandburg! Ellison said--" Mulder paused as the door to the house opened, and the detective stumbled out. Shocked, he released his hold.

Blair ran up to Jim, then stopped cold. "Oh, Jim," he said softly.

"I'm okay, Chief."

But he wasn't. Blair could see that immediately. Whatever had baked the water right out of the others had tried to do so to Jim. His face was red and peeling, his eyes swollen shut beneath the singed eyebrows. Blair reached out, then pulled back when he saw Jim's hands were in even worse condition, blisters already forming. "What happened?"

"Guide me to a chair and I'll tell you."

"If I touch you, man, I'll hurt you."

Jim smiled, his seared lips cracking. "No, you won't, Chief. I'm maintaining," he whispered. Although he couldn't see, he sensed the presence of the others and knew he couldn't explain about turning down the pain dial until he really wasn't feeling anything at all. Blair lightly touched his shoulder, and led him to a rocker on the porch.

"Jim, it's me, Dana," she said unnecessarily. Jim knew her scent. "I need to know how badly you're hurt. I'm going to open your shirt, okay?"

"Isn't this a little fast, Dana?" he said in the direction of her voice. "We just met yesterday. What kind of guy do you think I am?"

"Man, you pick the strangest times to utilize your sense of humor," Blair groaned. "Let the lady do her job, okay?"

"Okay, Chief, but only if you promise to take deep breaths. Your heart's about to come out of your chest," Jim cautioned.

"I got a medical chopper coming," the sheriff said as he joined them on the porch.

"Your town is secure, sir," Jim reported. "I can't provide any proof, but you and Belle's Beauty can relax."

The sheriff shook his head. The man was damn near cooked, yet he was offering reassurances about the town. "I don't need any proof, son. I'll take your word for it. Thank you, guardian."

"Guardian?" Jim and Blair repeated at the same time. That was another word for Sentinel.

"Yeah, that's what the neighborhood medicine man calls you, and Billy always knows what he's talking about." He winced as Agent Scully pushed back the shirt to reveal more burns. Oddly enough, the fabric was untouched. Just like in a microwave, he thought sickly.

"Jim, you were going to tell us what happened," Blair prompted, knowing the best way to keep Jim from pain was to keep him from thinking about it.

Jim smiled again, and Blair reached into his backpack to snare a tube of lipbalm. Rubbing it first on his finger, he lightly applied it to Jim's lips.

"Thanks, Chief. Thanks to all of you, actually. I couldn't have done it without your help. This is going to sound weird, but because of what I'd learned from those faxes, I was able to construct a shield to protect myself from the worst of the radiation. By the way, Mulder, tell the MIT guys the first coefficient is off by two."

"I'll be sure to tell them that, Jim. You say you constructed a shield?" This was all fantastic, in the truest sense of the word. Mulder glanced at Scully, silently asking if the man was lucid. She telegraphed that despite his condition, and the pain he should have been in, he appeared to be mentally competent.

"Blocks of matter just formed beneath my hands, and I manipulated them like the physics formulas we'd worked with. Guessing at the coefficient left me a little singed, but I was able to stay in contact long enough to get my point across. That line of study is completely closed," he pronounced with deep satisfaction.

"How'd you convince them, Jim?" Blair asked eagerly. "Did you flash them mental images of babies at play, or let them hear that symphony I took you to for your birthday, showing them the greatness we are capable of accomplishing?"

"Uh, no." If his face had been capable of turning a deeper red it would have from sheepishness. "I didn't think of things like that, Chief."

"So, what did it, Jim? What convinced these beings to give up what had to have been an exciting avenue of research?" Blair pondered, and Jim could feel the vibrations as he bounced in his typical fashion.

"Remember the scene of Atlanta burning in Gone With The Wind, Chief? And the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima? The television reports of the Vietnam War, the missiles going off in Desert Storm? I hit them with all that, Chief. I also let them know what happened to me in Peru, and then I explained that that was what we had done to ourselves. Then I showed them the formulas we had for reaching their dimension. Told them we'd destroy ours, if they destroyed theirs. It was pretty much a done deal after that."

The four onlookers were silent, realizing all it took to scare away the alien scientists was a close-up look at themselves. The thought was strangely unsettling.

*****

"Rhonda says he's on the phone with the FBI right now."

"How will we know if it's about them?"

"Leave that to me."

"Shhh. Here he comes."

"So, Captain, when can we expect Ellison and his partner back?" So very casual.

"The medivac chopper is due in at Cascade General in a few hours."

Medivac? Even the ones who had won the bet were subdued. "Cascade General? Who, and how serious?"

"Ellison. First and second degree burns on his body, third degree on his hands. He's going to spend at least a week in the burn unit. I need to get over to the hospital and start the preliminary paperwork. If anyone comes by looking for me…" Simon left the bullpen and headed for the elevator.

"--We certainly won't tell them where you are."

"Damn Feds! Why can't they ever return them in good condition?"

"No wonder the country's going to hell in a handbasket. If you borrow something, you're supposed to take care of it!"

"Speaking of taking care, they're going to need our help. We all know Sandburg's going to park himself in the burn unit until they release Ellison."

"And then Ellison's not going to be able to use his hands for a while. We're going to have to pitch in."

"I'll start a roster. Two-hour periods sound good?"

"During the day, yeah. But we're also going to need some night-shifters."

"Not a problem. I could use a break from my girlfriend, anyway. Put me down for the first night they get home. And about my part of the bet, leave it in the pot for whatever necessities they may need."

"Mine, too," was chorused throughout the room.

"Okay, I'll talk to the others who were involved, see if they want to leave theirs in, too. What about relief for the captain?"

"As of this moment, only the highest priority cases will be run by Captain Banks. The rest we can handle ourselves. At the beginning of each day, we'll list someone as 'the man to see' if you're having a problem."

"Well, gentlemen, we have work to do if we want to be ready by the time the chopper comes. Let's get to it."

Epilogue

"Come on, Mulder. Skinner wants to see us in his office. What have you done this time?"

"Me? I'm offended, Scully," he said as placed the folder labeled Ellison/Sandburg in the file and closed the drawer.

"Well, be offended on your own time and come on. By the way, I called Cascade. Jim is doing remarkably well. You might want to add that to the file you insist on keeping on them."

"You know, he wasn't your type at all," Mulder commented, as he searched his desk for something urgent to do so he didn't have to meet with his superior. More than likely Scully was right; he had done something. What never really mattered anymore.

"You're right, Mulder. Everyone knows I'm attracted to the puny, academic types."

"You mean Sandburg?"

"Yeah, I guess he fits the category, too." Turning to hide her smile, she walked into the hallway.

"Too? Who else, Scully? Who are...." His words trailed off as he obediently followed her out the door.

*****

"You actually held blocks of matter in your hands?" Blair asked as he fed Jim his Jell-O. Seemed like every meal in the burn unit concluded with Jell-O. Good thing the big guy was partial to the stuff.

"At least that's what my mind told me they were, Chief." He pointed to his eyes which had finally opened enough to tell his vision hadn't been damaged. "I couldn't see, so I had to rely on touch."

Jim shook his head at the proffered spoon of gelatin, and Blair started to put it back in the bowl. Then he gave a what-the-hell shrug, and popped it into his mouth. Not bad. "This is so incredible, Jim."

"No. Incredible is how our friends are rallying around us. Incredible is how my bed's going to feel when I finally get out of here," he said with a smile. "And incredible is the way you accept all this. With everything you've told me about Sentinels, speaking with the dead and interdimensional travel weren't mentioned. What's going on?"

"I don't know. Maybe it's the evolutionary process. Maybe as the world grows increasingly complex, so must the Sentinel." He shook his head, wishing he could give Jim a definite answer. But he just didn't know. "Maybe it's just you, man. You have been chosen for this. Why? Because of your Sentinel abilities? Because of your background, your training? Because of your compassion, your willingness to sacrifice for the good of others? The reason doesn't matter. You were called, Jim, and you accepted."

"But did you? No way you can put this stuff in your dissertation and not be laughed out of the university. I'm sorry I turned out to be so complicated, Chief."

"Don't you dare apologize for being who you are, Jim Ellison!" Blair protested. "I am honored to have a role, however peripheral, in your very special life."

Jim reached out a mittened hand to clasp his partner's. "Never peripheral, Chief. Always in full sight. Especially when dealing with the extreme possibilities."

Blair looked at his flesh entwined with the padded fabric. "The most extreme possibility was the two of us meeting, Jim. The rest can be dealt with because of that."

Jim nodded, knowing his friend was right. If life was a river, his was destined to be filled with whitewater turbulence, plunging waterfalls, and fish that had a heck of a bite. Hell of a place to be without a riverbank in sight. But it didn't matter. After all, he was the Sentinel, and he had a Guide who would see him through.

THE END

Comments? D.L. Witherspoon