The figures moved towards the doorway to the burial mound, each carrying an old-fashioned wooden torch. Once inside, they began preparing for the ritual. A fire was lit, but it smoked badly. The figures moved into a circle, chanting softly. Suddenly, without warning, there was a great crash, as part of the roof caved in.
People scrambled for where they thought the exit to be, amid the dust and smoke. By the time they reached the surface and had counted who was there, only half of their number remained. As they argued over what to do next, the entrance to the mound collapsed completely. There was now no way in or out. The matter settled for them, the remaining figures hurried back to the nearby town to call for help.
Fox Mulder was relaxing in the bar, sent to this nowhere backwater, along with Dana Scully, on some trivial assignment a clerical assistant could have dealt with. He was not in a good mood. This wasn't altogether helped when, a short time later, he was told that there had been some sort of accident up in what passed for hills and that volunteers were needed to help in the rescue operation. He grabbed his coat and followed after Scully, who was already half-way to the door.
Once up at the scene of the accident, it was obvious that nothing could realistically have survived in the mound. It had collapsed entirely by now. Still, the rescue work went on, just in case. By daybreak, though, tempers were running high. Most of what was left had been excavated, but not a single body – alive or dead – had been found. Most were beginning to think that it had been nothing more than a sick hoax. By nightfall, still nothing had been recovered. The townsfolk were seriously annoyed by now, their night disrupted and an entire day wasted, for nothing more than a prank. Those still there drifted away, angry at what had been done.
Mulder sat on a nearby rock, worn out. He hadn't bothered going back to the town, with everyone else. Why bother? It'd just mean back to the bar and he'd already spent more time than he really wanted to there. After a while, the presence of two other people nearby permeated his consciousness and he looked up. Two figures were poking about the remains of the mound, obviously looking for something. One of them, a tall man in a rather stern-looking suit, waved over his companion, a woman in a brilliant blue dress. Not exactly clothes suitable for such work, Mulder thought. The incredulity of the sight appealed to Mulder's rather odd sense of humour. He wandered over, curious.
The man noticed him first. "Special Agent Fox Mulder?" he asked, in a strong British accent.
Mulder looked mildly irritated. How was it that other people always knew who he was? "Yes, that's me. Who're you?"
"Who was here when this place collapsed?"
"Just some local kids. And you haven't answered my question. Who are you?"
The woman walked over to where they were standing. "Steel, there's something over here you should take a look at."
Mulder smiled inwardly. Well, at least he now knew one name. That was a start. This looked like it was going to get interesting.
The three of them walked back over to where the woman had been standing earlier. She pointed to some charred bits of wood. Mulder rolled his eyes. "The kids who had been here probably lit a fire, to stay warm. What's so amazing about that?"
The woman ignored him completely, talking only to Steel. "The wood is from an ash tree and is twenty five years old. The fire, however, was lit over a century ago."
This caught Mulder totally off-guard. Maybe these two were escaped lunatics. They didn't look dangerous, but comments like that were clearly absurd, even by his standards. Which, he was the first to admit, were fairly loose.
Steel looked at Sapphire. "This is where the time-break happened, then?"
Sapphire nodded. "The trigger being some sort of ancient ritual, from the looks of it."
Steel considered this, then turned to the totally baffled Mulder. "Is anyone missing, from the party of youths who were here?"
Mulder, by now, was both perplexed and annoyed. He'd not been questioned so hard since he'd been caught apple scrumping at Cambridge. And what was a time-break? "Why do you think we've been searching here, all day?"
"You tell me."
"A group of youths are said to have come up here, the roof collapsed on them and, according to them, only half returned."
Steel sighed. "We can't do what we came here to do, then, until we've got them back."
Mulder blinked, confused. "Back? Back from where?" he asked, hoping for some clue as to what was being discussed.
"You haven't the ability to understand.
"Mulder did not look too happy at that. He grabbed at Steel, but he might as well have tried to grab a solid block of metal, for all the difference it would have made. Steel swatted his hand away, absently, concentrating on the problem at hand.
"What time is it?" Steel asked at last.
Mulder glanced at his watch. "Eight thirty", he said.
Steel ignored him, waiting for Sapphire to reply.
"The present. June the twenty-second, to be precise." She said.
Steel nodded. "The day after the summer solstice. That's very significant."
Mulder blinked a few times, wondering if he was the one that was going mad, or if these two were seriously off the rails. The way they were talking about time, you might almost believe that they could travel through it. And as for not knowing the date... this was getting too much...
Back in her hotel room, or what passed for a hotel room, if you didn't look too closely, Scully mulled over the incident in her mind. Ancient structures tend not to fall over if someone leans on them – one of the reasons that those structures survived long enough to become ancient. She reached for her mobile phone, then paused. Maybe it would not be such a good idea to put ideas into Mulder's head. He was liable to forget why they were there and go off on some paranormal wild goose chase instead. Maybe a quiet look-around would be sensible. After they had finished the mission they were on. Real work had to come first.
Scully sighed and tapped away on her computer, completing yet another progress report. Officialdom loves reports, she thought, even when there's nothing to report, because of all the reports that had to be submitted. This was getting to be a joke. They'd been observing this person now for a week and a half and she still didn't know why.
The drudgery over, she got ready to go over to the bar where, by now, Mulder must've drunk the place dry, out of sheer boredom. She stepped out of her room and nearly collided with someone. They turned and ran before she could react. This was getting silly, she thought. I am not going to let myself become as paranoid as Mulder.
She crossed over to the bar and stepped in. No sign of Mulder anywhere. Odd. Normally, he stood out like a sore thumb. But a look round told her that there were only locals here. That was just like him. He'd probably guessed the same thing she had, but had put some spooky interpretation on it and had gone ghost-hunting. Just like him not to tell her what he was up to.
Returning to her car, she considered what she should do next. Go on a Mulder-hunt, or get some much-needed sleep? It was a tough choice, but sleep had the definite edge. She headed back to her room and fell sound asleep in moments.
In the meantime, Mulder was watching the two strange people carry out their survey. This appeared to consist largely of the woman touching bits of stone or wood and then, apparently, reciting the entire history of the item. Believer in the paranormal as he was, Mulder was finding it tough to accept this.
After a while, Sapphire stopped her survey and paused. "There is something else here. The time-break we know about, but that wasn't the only effect."
Steel looked puzzled. "What do you mean?"
Sapphire reached into the debris and tossed over to Steel a small, perfectly ordinary-looking wooden box. It looked, for all the world, like something you'd carry a travelling chess-set in. Steel opened it. Mulder, looking over, saw that it did indeed carry a chess set, but also noticed Steel's reaction to the find – he looked almost as if he'd been bitten by it, the way he jumped back.
"What is it?" Mulder called over."
You just sit there and let us get on with our work", Steel informed him.
Mulder blinked. He wasn't the sort to play spectator. He went over to the woman. "I'm sorry, but I'm afraid I still don't know your name."
Sapphire smiled back, her eyes almost hypnotic... "Could you pass me the remains of that torch, by you?"
Mulder automatically reached over, wrestling the torch from the debris, all concerns and questions forgotten for the moment. This was an investigation and he was an agent helping in it, his mind told him. There was nothing to think about...
By daybreak, Scully was getting concerned. There was still no sign of Mulder and he couldn't be reached by his mobile phone. She quickly finished her breakfast, swigged down the rest of her coffee and headed over to her car. She was just a little to distracted to notice anything odd about the car that was travelling in the same direction as she was, maybe fifty yards behind her.
Ten minutes later, she was at the burial mound. There was Mulder, just getting up. Obviously he'd stayed out here, no doubt following one of his wild hunches. She'd worried unnecessarily.
"Where are they?" Mulder mumbled.
"Where's who?" Scully replied.
"I'm not sure."
"Then I can't see how I can give you an answer."
"Where's Elvis when you need him?"
"No doubt down at the supermarket." Scully replied dryly.
Mulder sat up. "You saw him?"
Scully looked a little alarmed. "You're not normally this strange. Are you ok?"
Mulder looked abashed. "There were two people – agents of some description, possibly British – wandering round here last night. If you think I'm strange, they were seriously several cards short of a full deck."
Scully was impressed. It wasn't often Mulder admitted to being outclassed on the weirdness stakes. "Where are they now?"
Steel walked past, seemingly totally unconcerned about either Mulder or Scully.
"Is that one of them?" Scully whispered to Mulder, amused that some English tourist could have terrified Mulder.
Mulder nodded. "Yes. I only know his last name – Steel. They didn't use names, that much. They knew who I was, though."
Scully shrugged. "We've not exactly kept our names secret around here. You might have expected your name to cross from one end of the town to the other in minutes. Federal agents here must be the biggest news they've had in decades."
Mulder sighed. Explaining things to Scully when she was in a skeptical mood was an impossible task.
Sapphire walked up to them. "Special Agent Dana Scully?"
Scully nodded. "That's right. And your name is?"
"Could you come over here for a moment? I'd like your help with something."
Scully didn't move. "Your name, please."
Sapphire smiled. "Call me Sapphire, if you like."
"I don't want to know what I can call you, I'd rather have your name."
Steel wandered over. "Once you've quite finished, Sapphire, I'd like it if you could run a spot analysis on this." He handed Sapphire a large glass bowl.
Sapphire ran a finger round the rim of the bowl, almost absently. "It was made in the seventh century and is about two weeks old.
"Steel looked puzzled. "What's that doing with this lot?"
"An accident? Something taken in an earlier time break and somehow getting released this time round?"
"You mean, like the cafe?"
Scully and Mulder shared glances. They both quietly took a step back from these two English eccentrics. Scully turned to Mulder. "I'm sorry – they really are out-weirding you."
Sapphire turned to face them. "To put it in very simple terms, there are certain… ...capricious forces at work here. The collapse of the burial mound was not an accident, it was deliberate."
Scully looked skeptical. "Either you're insane or you're suggesting that someone sabotaged the place to collapse. Either way, it's nothing to do with us. It's a matter for a psychiatrist or the police, it's nothing to do with the FBI."
Sapphire smiled. "You reached the same conclusion some time ago and, no, the place wasn't sabotaged. Not in the way you mean. It collapsed because the inside of it was no longer there."
Mulder looked intrigued. These people were mad, there was no doubt about that, but he had a hunch that their explanation of what had happened fell very close to the truth. Scully saw the expression on Mulder's face and looked alarmed. "You can't tell me you honestly believe any if this?"
"It does make a kind of sense," he replied.
"You call that sense?!" she retorted.
"Have you a better explanation?" Mulder answered. Turning back to Sapphire, he thought for a moment before asking how they could be of help.
"These forces know about us, they know about our methods and they'll do what they can to obstruct us."
"I know how you feel." Mulder muttered.
"We'd like you to help us. You're an unknown to them and so they won't be as well able to block your investigations."
"We've real work to do, we don't have time to play some fantasy out!" Scully almost screamed at Mulder.
"This is no fantasy," Sapphire said. "It's real. Very real."
Scully backed off, slowly, visibly alarmed.
"I wouldn't go that way, if I were you." Sapphire called out.
Scully ignored her, continuing to back away. She reached for her gun and... ...vanished.
Sapphire sighed. "I did try and warn her. Well, at least we now know where one of them is."
Mulder rounded on Sapphire. "What's happened to Scully? Well?"
Sapphire sighed. "She's exactly where she was. It's one of the more basic traps that these entities use. That's why we've been telling you to be careful.
"Of course she isn't where she was! You only have to look to see that!"
Steel walked over. "Dana Scully. Look around you and tell me what you see."
By now, Mulder was getting angry. "She isn't here! Where is she?!"
A voice, quite definitely that of Scully, could be heard, from where she had been standing a few moments ago. "I'm safe, Mulder. Stop getting hysterical. Where am I?"
Steel answered. "You've been caught in some kind of projected image, intended for either myself of Sapphire. You're exactly where you were a moment ago. Everything you see is simply an image. We'll try and get you out, but we need to know something about the trap they've used, first. Now, tell me what you see."
"Are you still going on with that nonsense? Of course I'm not where I was. But, if it makes you happy, I appear to be in some sort of chamber. Probably some dug-out that I've fallen into."
Steel nodded and glanced at Sapphire. "Well?"
"It's not in there. Whereever it is, it isn't in there."
"Then what was the trap for?"
"To delay or distract. Even we can't be in two places at the same time."
"But if you take time back, then you'll undo whatever it has done. It can't be as simple as that..." Steel sighed. "Maybe there isn't a reason. Maybe there doesn't need to be. Take time back, Sapphire. Now."
"But if we…"
Sapphire nodded and stood still. Mulder watched on, fascinated, as Sapphire's eyes started to glow blue... Time wound back, first only a little... then a little further... Mulder vanished, re-appearing where he had been, moments earlier... The glow in Sapphire's eyes intensified, as she battled with time itself... There was a barrier there, but not directed at her, so she simply noted it... After maybe a minute, to Sapphire, Scully re-appeared. Time was now on a slightly different track, for good or evil. She almost collapsed, exhausted by the effort.
Scully and Mulder blinked, trying to come to terms with their memories of events that had no longer occurred. Mulder turned to Sapphire and Steel with new respect, no longer believing that their tale was the ramblings of the insane. Scully, though, was convinced she'd suffered from heatstroke or something and went to lie down.
Sapphire walked up to Mulder. "We need your help. We can provide you with assistance and information, but we can't get involved. It's too dangerous for us, but it's perfectly safe for you."
"Why would it be dangerous for you? Neither I nor Scully could have got out of that sort of trap, but either of you could just step out of it, just like that. We're the ones in danger, here."
Sapphire shook her head. "It's not as simple as that. Firstly, I'm not sure either of us could have escaped from inside that chamber. Secondly, we have only recently escaped from a far deadlier trap, ourselves. Largely by accident and entirely because of what happened in that burial mound."
"So? You're free now."
"For now, yes, but the beings who imprisoned us don't know that. Yet. Every time we act, we risk warning them. If they were to find out before we've finished here, there's a very grave danger that the time break will remain and that dangerous forces will break out, taking what they can, destroying what remains."
"I don't understand. Beings? You mean aliens?"
"In an extra-terrestrial sense, yes."
"Is there any other kind?"
"Yes, but it'd take too long to explain. Now, please. I need to find out what happened at this burial mound, one hundred and fifteen years ago, during the summer solstice."
"Is that all?" Mulder queried, looking a little concerned. That was a very tall order in rural America.
"For now, yes. We can't exactly go around asking – we'd attract too much of the wrong attention. You can, though"
Mulder sighed. "I'm not some kind of gopher, you know."
Sapphire looked puzzled.
"Gopher – someone who goes for this, or goes for that."
Sapphire smiled. "It's just this once. Please?"
Scully got up. "Don't, Mulder. I don't know what their game is, but don't play it. It may be some kind of trick, or trap."
Mulder looked past Sapphire at something. "Like those, maybe?"
Sapphire spun round. Three soldiers, looking for all the world as though they'd stepped out of the American Civil War, were heading towards them.
"They're just re-enactment soldiers," Scully said. "They must be."
Sapphire shook her head. "After-images. Ghosts, you'd call them."
"There's no such things as ghosts. That's a scientific fact."
"Maybe you'd like to tell them that."
The soldiers carried on marching... up to, and then through, the onlookers.
Scully looked almost ready to curl up. "No... no... I will not give into this. This isn't real. It isn't real."
"Isn't it?" Steel asked. "What proof... what evidence would it take to convince you that it was?"
Scully looked skeptically at Steel. "If something does not exist, then there can't be any proof that it does."
Mulder coughed noisily.
"And none of your wild explanations, either." Scully retorted.
"Would you rather go back to that surveillance work?"
Steel looked puzzled for a moment. Surveillance work usually means people working undercover, doesn't it? he thought.
Sapphire considered. Usually, yes. she thought back. It does seem a little odd.
More than a little. Steel retorted.
Steel walked over to Mulder. "Who... exactly... are you watching?"
Mulder looked stonily back. "I'm not at liberty to say."
Steel waved Sapphire over. Find out. he thought.
Sapphire smiled... ...her eyes hypnotic... "Tell me about your work here." she said.
Scully started to walk over. Steel reached out, putting a hand on her shoulder. She froze, unable to move. Every joint seemed to be locked in place.
"It was just routine surveillance work." Mulder said. "We were told to keep a watch on someone and report on what they did and who they saw."
Sapphire smiled. "But you're not exactly operating undercover, are you. They know you're watching them."
Mulder nodded. "Our instructions were specific on that. We were not to make any attempt to conceal the fact that we were FBI and observing them."
Steel frowned. That doesn't sound right. What can you tell me about Mulder?
Sapphire reached out and put a hand on Mulder's arm. Mulder. Fox. Agent for the FBI. Known as Spooky. Sister kidnapped in a joint US Government/Extra-terrestrial operation, for research purposes. He is a specialist – no, the only specialist – in paranormal and other exotic phenomena in the FBI.
The only specialist? Just happens to be assigned on a fake surveillance mission in an area we conveniently get placed in? Something is definitely very wrong.
Steel released Scully, who almost collapsed to the floor. Mulder ran over to help pick Scully up. "You two look worried. Our work has no connection with this, does it?"
Steel hesitated before answering. "It might. Now, could you go into town and get the information Sapphire asked for?"
Mulder nodded. Helping Scully to her feet, the two of them went over to the car and drove back down the dirt track.
On the way back, Scully turned to Mulder. "Why did you just blab about our work to them? You're normally a little more discrete than that."
Mulder blinked, confused. "I... I'm not sure."
Scully sighed. She trusted Mulder implicitly – she had to, in this line of work – but these last few hours worried her enormously. She decided to let the dust settle, before she filled in any more reports. She didn't want to cause any unnecessary problems.
Mulder glanced in the wing mirror on his side. "Scully? How long has that car been following us?"
"Following us? You're letting your imagination run away with you again."
"Scully – the road only goes up to that burial mound. It's not exactly filled with through traffic."
"Probably just tourists, who stopped somewhere else along the route."
"Yeah, you're probably right."
He settled back, quietly, just glancing in the wing mirror every so often.
Once in town, the reaction to their questions astonished them both. Whoever they asked, they got nothing but a stony silence and a glare. Getting answers wasn't going to be easy. Even in the small museum in the town, they could find nothing out.
As they were about to return to the burial mound, three rather heavily-built and very obviously armed men stepped up to them. "Keep out of this. It's not your concern." one of them said.
"Who are you?" Mulder demanded. The response was a fist in the stomach.
" I'll repeat, just in case you missed it the first time. Keep out of this."
Mulder nodded, unable to speak. The three men left as quietly as they came.
Scully waited a few moments, then followed, at a discrete distance. The three men turned a corner. By the time Scully got there, they'd vanished. "Damn. Lost them."
She returned to where Mulder was waiting, almost fully-recovered. "They got away."
Mulder nodded. "I really should remember never to talk to strangers."
Scully rolled her eyes. Typical. The only part of Mulder to be undamaged is his sense of humour, such as it is. "Maybe we should go back and talk to those two up at the burial mound. They obviously know more than they've told us. Maybe they know who those gentlemen were."
"I somehow don't think we're going to get many answers out of them." Mulder replied. "Let's get something to eat first."