An Alex Krycek backstory for the Sanctuary universe
The Tunguska trip, and the challenge of
I'd spent close to a year planning this little excursion Mulder and I were on. I'd laid the groundwork, planned for contingencies, spent months in the gulag and weeks playing along with Mayhew and his pathetic band of pseudo-revolutionaries in order to set this up so Mulder'd buy it. I'd sacrificed one of my rock couriers and put up with Mulder's holier-than-thou ego trip. By the time we landed I should have been confident about how things were going, anxious to see the rest of it play out. But I wasn't. I was nervous as hell. A weak seam was starting to show in this little plan, and it had nothing to do with logistics or with Mulder changing his mind about where we were headed. It was me, and I hadn't even seen it coming.
It wasn't Mulder's bad cop/good cop turnaround a few hours before we landed; he was going to need me once we were on the ground and he'd be a fool not to realize it. I should have been pissed when he asked me what it'd been like having the Oil inside me, and maybe I was at first--until I realized he actually wanted to know. All of a sudden things were different, as if he were questioning an abductee like Duane Barry instead of interrogating the scum of the earth, which is what I'd always been in his eyes. Mulder'd believed in Barry and he hadn't cared if it showed in spite of the shit it'd gotten him from the agents listening on the other end of his wire.
But being reminded of having the Oil inside me wasn't what I needed just then. I pretty much deflected his question but it was hard to get the thought of the Oil out of my head after that. Especially since I was the reason he'd be living the alien horror for himself a few hours later. The fact that I was only doing it in an effort to save him didn't calm the gnawing in my stomach. If not for the focus I needed to watch out for stray roots and tree branches as we ran, I would've been a complete mess.
As it was, I was shaking inside but I don't think Mulder noticed. He'd made the connection between the Tunguska explosion and the Oil. Whatever he'd discover here was guaranteed to be alien and that fact alone was enough to keep him headed forward; I was nothing more than a footnote. We dug under the fence together, helped each other across a stream in our path, dove to the ground together when he first caught sight of the prisoners working the quarry. If it hadn't been for the sick buzz I couldn't shake, I would've enjoyed the teamwork. But I knew what was coming. I also knew I was going to have to keep my head to make it past the guards and contact Lev. Without that opportunity, Mulder and I might spend months here. We could die here.
I'd always had a beard when I came to the camp as my alter ego, the go-between for the research's anonymous financier, so it didn't surprise me that there was no recognition at all on the guards' part when they captured us. Mulder'd been whipped unconscious so he couldn't say anything to contradict my story. I told them we were American tourists and some locals in the last town had directed us here, luring us with tales of a fancy brothel hidden away in the woods. Stupid tourists, we'd fallen for it; we meant no harm.
I don't think they bought a word of it, but at least they threw us in a cell together. Mulder was bleeding from where the whip had cut his temple, but it stopped soon enough. I would've cleaned the wound if we'd had any water. Before Mulder came to, they hauled me out for questioning. The way this played out could be critical, because I needed to keep my identity hidden until they'd injected Mulder. Luckily I managed to sound unconvincing in my claim of knowing the camp commander and after some perfunctory threatens, they shoved me back in the cell. Mulder was awake by then and wound up tight. His gut reaction was to take his nervousness out on me but I wasn't about to play his punching bag. Not this time. I needed a clear head or neither of us was going to make it out of there. After a few seconds he backed off.
When they came around again, I knew I was going to have to make my move. The guard was ready to haul me off to be injected and I told him I needed to see the man in charge. I tried not to give too much away in case Mulder knew any Russian, but when we got outside the cell I said I had government friends in high places and if anything happened to me, there'd be hell to pay. He could lose his job... or worse. The appeal to his self-preservation did the trick. He left me with another guard and went away for about ten minutes. When he came back, I was hauled off to the captain of the guard, but the guy was finishing his lunch, so I sat in a locked room for about fifteen minutes waiting for him to show. I tried to stay focused on the arguments I'd have to make, but my mind kept wandering back to Mulder, wondering whether they'd taken him yet. Lev should jump at the chance for a fresh test subject; it wasn't like there was a glut of available bodies. My stomach was knotted from tension and hunger; it'd been way too long since we last filled our stomachs and neither of us had eaten the slop they brought us in the cell. I stared at the window ledge, not seeing a thing, listening to my breathing, fast and shallow, as if it were coming from someone else.
When the captain finally came in, I told him I'd talk only to him, not to his men, and he sent them outside. I said I was doing a security check for the project, that I knew Lev and I had to report to him about the security breach with this foreigner. He wasn't inclined to believe me until I was able to describe Lev's daily schedule, his choices in liquor and the dates of the only week he'd spent away from the camp, when we were at the dacha on the Black Sea. Finally the captain left the room and I spent another half-hour pacing, the minutes barely seeming to move.
It took Lev nearly ten seconds to recognize me. At first he stood there with his mouth open. I read puzzlement, then alarm, then a kind of relief on his face as he finally stepped forward to embrace me. I returned the greeting but inside I was wound like a spring. This was it. It was where I swam or sank.
Lev's the kind of guy who has to know he's got everything's under his thumb: his camp, the vaccine program, his prisoners and staff. But he didn't have a clue what was going on here, seeing me walking out of one of his lock-ups. His gut instinct to crack down and gain control was going to be fighting his need not to come down too hard on me, the source of his funding; the mix could light what I knew was a very short fuse. I was going to have to lead him through this quickly and cleanly. I told him we had a security breach on our hands, that I'd nearly taken care of it when his riders showed up, but now we had a definite problem. Looking concerned was easy. He sent the guards away and took me to his office.
I said I'd just happened to be in New York--lucky break--when a source tipped me about this americanets. He was a geologist; somebody'd given him a piece of Tunguska rock and he was on his way to Russia to look for more. I had just enough time to book myself onto his flight, figuring I could talk him out of it on the way over. If I could impress him with the danger of the woods, how easy it would be to get lost, and the fact that trespassing could still equal spying in the eyes of local authorities, he should get discouraged and all I'd have to do once we landed would be to put him on the first return flight to the U.S.
From the way he was crouched down in front of his little fireplace, jabbing at the glowing coals, I knew Lev was analyzing every word I said. Obviously, I hadn't been able to turn Mulder back and I made the mistake of letting the word 'stubborn' slip out. It was Mulder all over, but I knew as soon as I said it that it could be a bad thing. Lev only stared into the fire.
I'd planned to steer the americanets east of the camp, I said, let him wander in the woods until he'd had enough, then take him back to Kraznoyarsk and make sure he got on a plane. If he wanted to question anyone about the rock, I'd mis-translate and he'd find out nothing. He'd have his little excursion, come up dry and we'd be in the clear with no exposure and no threat of having him return. But then I'd pulled a muscle in my leg and by the time I'd caught up with the guy, he'd found the fence and tunneled under. I tried to get him to leave, but then the riders had shown up. Now damage control was our only option.
Lev had his own idea of damage control: kill Mulder when the vaccine's effects on him had been analyzed and bury his body in the woods. Not possible, I said; he's a professor with high-level connections. If he didn't return, we'd have an international incident on our hands, not to mention domestic publicity that could compromise the secrecy of the work.
Lev was cornered and he knew it. He couldn't afford to let the camp be put in the spotlight. I told him our geologist was quite the family man, that he he had a wife and two little daughters he'd never risk over a chunk of rock. He'd be easy enough to control. Lev stood, dug a cigarette from his pocket and lit up. It wasn't the kind of guarantee he wanted.
My plan? he asked. What did I have in mind?
Leave him in the cell a few days, I said. Let him think about spending a lot of years inside those walls. He'd be ready to deal. Tell him the price of his freedom was forgetting he'd ever seen this place. Then put him on a plane and send him home. Let him know we'd be watching him and his family. Hell, we could even give him a cover story to tell his friends.
I was putting Lev's trust in me in serious jeopardy. I'd never let a security risk go like that and I knew Lev wouldn't, either. But to Lev I was Mikhail Antonovich Sokolov, negotiator, not a hit man. What else could he have expected from me? And exposing the program was something he couldn't chance. Still, I watched every movement of his jaw, every pull of his mouth. As well as I could, anyway. Jet-lag was starting to do a serious number on me and I'd gotten damn little sleep in the past 72 hours. If I looked at the floor tiles at my feet for more than a few seconds, they'd start to waver.
"You," Lev said, nodding at me, his voice suddenly hard. "Why did you take so long to identify yourself?"
"I tried. I kept trying but your guards--" I shook my head and tried to keep my heart from pounding. "They wouldn't listen." I paused. "Did you expect them to listen to a prisoner?"
He shrugged, but the line of his mouth was thin and straight. There was a pop from the fireplace and a shower of sparks flooded the hearth. Lev reached for the screen and set it in place.
"Mikhail Antonovich," he said when he'd settled himself in the chair opposite me. He leaned forward, intense. "You've served in the army. When is it ever acceptable to leave a potential enemy standing, or let him escape?" He gave me a bitter smile. "The americanets would be pleased to know you lobby so strongly for him."
"I'm just pointing out the only practical option I see to avoid exposing--"
Lev turned and stared at the cold gray afternoon beyond the window. By now my heart was running like a trip-hammer.
"You look pale, tired," he said when he finally looked back at me. "Perhaps you should rest. We will speak of this later."
Time was the last thing I wanted to give him; he'd have a chance to rethink everything I'd said, to find the holes in my story. But we were two men sharing space on a tightrope. He'd had to bow to me because of my connection to the money and because he knew he couldn't afford to let the camp be dragged into the spotlight. This was my cue to bend. If I questioned his authority or judgment now, it would only make me appear disloyal. Maybe even suspicious. And he was probably right about the way I looked. My whole body was buzzing, exhausted.
"Belov will take you to a room," Lev was saying. "Rest. We'll talk this evening."
All I could do was nod acquiescence. Belov showed up and took me down the hall to a small room with a bed, a chair and a little window that looked out over the central courtyard. I started to think about Mulder, where he'd be right then, and realized I'd better not even start. There was a knock on the door and an old man appeared with a bowl of stew. I ate quickly; it was only the third passable meal I'd had in as many days. I flashed on Mulder. They wouldn't be giving him any of the stuff I got... if he was even conscious. I stood up, reminded myself to stay focused and set the bowl outside the door. Then I took off my boots and hung my jacket on the back of the chair. The smart thing would've been to spend the time strategizing, to go back over everything Lev had said and figure my possible moves and countermoves, but the fact was I could hardly keep my eyes open and the room was cold. I spread the extra blanket on the bed, got under the covers and felt myself start to slip away. I told myself I'd think better on a clear head. Anyway, I'd done what I could. The next move belonged to Lev.
When I woke, it was after nine. I wasn't ready to announce myself by turning on the light, so I lay there in the dark, thinking... or attempting to. My mind was thick. I'd only begun to catch up on the sleep I needed. Lev could have decided my story was full of holes by now. That remark he'd made about me defending Mulder... I couldn't afford to have him question my loyalty. If it came down to a sacrifice, how far would I go? Would I leave Mulder here, let him be killed, if that's what it took to save my tie to this program?
I couldn't afford to get emotional; too much was at stake. Besides, what I sometimes saw in my mind--Mulder and me moving in the same direction--was the remnant of a kid's fantasy, a brother I'd constructed in my head. Experience should have shown me how unlikely that scenario was. Hell, if he had the chance right now, if he could speak Russian and Lev would listen, Mulder'd find a way to crucify me.
I got out of bed, put on my jacket and found myself at the window, staring up at the stars. I tried to marshal up the memory of every time Mulder'd turned on me, or let me down, or beat me up, but damn if the picture stuck in my head wasn't of the old man's smug smile, that pseudo-benevolent thing I'd hated so much when he'd visit when I was a kid. As if it pained him to leave me there. As if he were making those trips for my sake.
But what was I supposed to do? I might not have a choice and I wasn't Mulder's fairy godmother.
But I wasn't the old man, either. I'd never be like him.
The room felt like a cell. For a long time I paced, willing the old man's image away. Finally I turned on the light. Within a few minutes, Lev was at my door.
Was I feeling better after six hours' sleep? Your, he said--your americanets--and my mind wasn't working fast enough to protest the connection. But it didn't matter; he had a plan. We'd tell Mulder he was going home. We'd take him to Kraznoyarsk. He'd be crossing a street and have a little run-in with a truck. The circumstances would seem obvious, there'd be no evidence of what he'd come for, or that he'd ever been to the camp. Lev would make sure there were witnesses to the accident.
"I will need a few days to make arrangements." Lev paused and raised an eyebrow. "This is much better, is it not, Mikhail Antonovich? To be assured that the threat is truly gone?"
I made myself nod agreement. I think I actually looked relieved. At least he didn't seem to suspect me. And we had a few days. It'd give me a chance to think up a plan for Kraznoyarsk.
Lev took me to his office and we shared drinks, then he sent me back to bed because it was pretty obvious how wiped out I still was. In the morning I was still moving a little slow, but I figured I'd be here a few days; I'd have plenty of time to catch up on lost sleep. And Mulder should be okay for another couple of days. Lev couldn't afford to hurt him before we left here. He'd want to make sure an autopsy wouldn't show anything that would raise a red flag. If Mulder and I left the camp intact, we'd have a chance. I had enough money in the bank to buy any kind of witnesses and story I wanted to leave behind, though I knew Lev wouldn't send the two of us off alone. He was cautious. He'd send someone along to make sure his agenda got carried out, but at least we had a starting place.
As it turned out, it was a careless mistake that set things in motion that morning. Mulder wasn't supposed to be in the loading area. There were orders to leave him in his cell, but apparently the word didn't reach the right guard. So I never even saw Mulder coming. I was joking with Lev, who was in good spirits thinking his crisis had passed, and then Mulder was on me with a homemade knife, the brother who, as usual, wanted nothing more than to kill me. He knocked me into the truck bed, stunned me and took off before I could get my bearings. By the time I could think clearly enough to worry about the cavalry Lev would be sending after us, it was time to bail from the truck because the brakes were gone. As I rolled toward the bushes, I thought about Mulder barreling down that road, about the irony of all the planning I'd done to bring him here, only to have him take off and kill himself in a truck with failed brakes.
I had no idea the danger would turn out to be mine, not his.
I'm not going into the details. I've replayed the whole thing a million times in my head but you know, it hasn't ever changed the facts. Not one damn bit. Things come and they go. Even parts of your own body. It's a possibility you don't think about until it's happened.
We'd been taking locals when we were short of test subjects, so I guess we had to figure there were people out there hiding from us, or doing what they could to avoid being turned into guinea pigs. But I didn't know anything about the men with the missing arms. Lev did, but I didn't know that until later. I guess I could have put two and two together when they found me--the fact that they wanted to help me, the fact that none of them had a left arm. But who'd believe a man would go that far--cut off his arm to save himself? Anyway, you know what they say about hindsight. At the time, my worst fear was that somehow they'd figure out who I was, that I was in some way responsible for the tests that were taking their friends away. And I hoped more than anything that Mulder had more than one life and that he'd survived the runaway truck. He needed to make it out of this and as far away as possible. Besides, if he were caught and they found someone to translate for him, he could undo all the groundwork I'd laid with Lev over the past year. My tie to the project would be history.
What I should have done was go right back to the camp; it would've allayed any possible suspicions that I was helping Mulder. But I didn't want to give Lev's men a lead on Mulder they might not already have. And the one-armed men found me pretty quickly; I'd messed up my right shoulder falling from the truck and I wasn't moving as fast as I would've liked. These guys knew from experience that if anyone escaped the camp, Lev's men would be crawling the woods in no time, so the first thing they did was take me to an underground bunker. We waited until their scouts spotted the search party and knew which way they were going. After that it was a matter of skipping from place to place, a rotating group of about six of them tucked away in with me in one bunker or another while the rest spread out as scouts, keeping an eye on Lev's men or bringing food from some household willing to help out. We must have changed locations at least half a dozen times before dark came and Lev's troops finally retreated to the camp. By then word from the grapevine had it that Mulder'd been found and was being hidden, too.
In a way, the one-armed men reminded me of the Afghanis I'd seen in the war. Watching your back is second-nature when you grow up in a place where big brother's always got his eye on you--maybe through the babushka upstairs, maybe through your best friend, and you never know who you can trust. But these men were bound together by the threat of a common enemy. This was their fight; it was their lives. And nobody forced them to stop and help me. I'd be nothing but a liablilty to them if I were found, able to identify them and the locations of their bunkers. But the fact that they'd gone out of their way for me was making my situation a lot stickier than it should have been. I needed to get back to the camp, especially now that I knew Mulder was safe. Lev needed to see me and be assured I was on his side in this. But I couldn't just walk away from where I was. I had no viable excuse for leaving and besides, my shoulder hurt like hell. It'd only gotten worse as the day wore on and once we were able to safely build a fire and eat, I was exhausted and the vodka they gave me made me drift off telling myself, the way I had the night before, that I'd be able to think up a better plan in the morning.
Funny how things work out.
It's a toss-up which was worse when it happened: being invaded by the Oil or what went on that night. But it's a stupid comparison in the end. When the Oil left, I got my body back intact. After that night in the woods, I wasn't ever going to be the same.
A couple of minutes after they cut into me I passed out from the pain and believe me, it wasn't any too soon. When I came to I was in another underground bunker, alone. I had no clue what'd happened the night before but as soon as I tried to move, the pain hit me and I passed out again. The second time I was awake long enough to realize what they'd done to me. I lay there shaking, just a constant thing I couldn't control, until the hatch to the dugout opened and an old man slipped inside. He took the bloody rags off the wound and bound it up better, then gave me some vodka and before I knew it, I was headed back to outer space. I heard talking but I couldn't make out what was said, or who might have been there beside the old guy.
Next time I came around I was with a boy of eleven or twelve who was either holding me prisoner or looking out for me, I wasn't sure which. My arm was gone and I had no idea whether these guys knew what they were doing when they cut me or whether I was infected or dying or just in shock. But if hell was real, I knew what it felt like to be in it. In Afghanistan I'd seen the badly wounded begging for death. I'd even shot that captured woman to stop what they were putting her through. I could understand being overwhelmed by the pain and I knew what it was to be backed against a wall. But I'd always figured I'd hang in there somehow, that I wouldn't be one of those men who gave in.
All of a sudden, though, there in the dugout, it was pretty damn clear how little l'd have to lose by letting go. Maybe that realization was just as terrifying as the mangled body I'd been left with: that my life and all my struggling and planning had gotten me nowhere. I'd made my debut on this planet courtesy of a mistake made by two pathetic excuses for human beings and after thirty years of running a treadmill, I was being pulled apart like a bug in the hands of a cold-eyed kid.
I don't know what kept me going but it wasn't force of will; I had none left. The kid who was with me came closer, gave me some water mixed with vodka and I drifted off again. When I woke the next time, I must have been on automatic. One thing played over and over in my head: that I had to get out of there and back to the camp.
The interim details are fuzzy. The two things I recall are the pain and working to convince the kid to take me back toward someplace I figured I'd likely be found. Last thing I remember was the gravel surface rushing up at me as I made it to the road. When I woke up, I'd been two days in the camp infirmary. Andrei was looking down at me through a haze. I couldn't make out what he was saying but I knew he was being way too calm, way too soft with me and that meant something was wrong. Eventually I was clear enough to realize what that something was.
I must have gotten out of hand, because every time I got to that point of realizing what'd happened, there'd be a needle and then nothing. So for a long time I was like a drowning man barely surfacing, bobbing up and then getting sucked under again, each time getting a clearer glimpse of the surface but not reaching for it, either. Why would I? It was a nightmare out there.
It had to be a nightmare.
Eventually I was forced to the surface, though. Andrei let the stronger painkillers wear off and I was left staring at a bandaged lump, a sick substitute for the arm I depended on. Five days: I was five days in an ongoing hell that didn't show any signs of letting up, or dissolving into a reality I knew how to deal with. My body was weak from the trauma and messed up from the anesthesia and drugs I'd been given. Andrei had reworked the hack job the guys in the woods had done on me, which shortened the stump by another inch and a half, but eventually I was going to need a prosthesis and my self-appointed surgical group hadn't used enough finesse to allow for that. It was more than I could wrap my mind around: a piece of plastic, like something you'd pull off a store mannequin. What the hell would I do with one of those?
They moved me into a room of my own once I was strong enough to stand up and move around a little. Lev would come by to check on me and let me know the latest on the hunt for the men who'd cut me. Andrei would drop by, too, as much to play therapist as doctor, though he hid it well enough. He'd try to sprinkle a little encouragement over me and then back off, while Lev was all grim efficiency, doing his damndest to show his loyalty to me and the money I represented.
They didn't find Mulder, not that Lev didn't turn the area upside down. There was blood in the truck when they found it. I said Mulder could have crawled off and died somewhere, or fallen into one of the creeks; it was late March and they were running pretty full. It would've been easy enough for his body to float away. I reassured Lev that if there were any kind of American inquiry, my employer would make sure the camp was never mentioned. I was hoping he'd back off so Mulder'd have a better chance of getting out. If he was still around here, that is. Or if he hadn't died from blood loss if they'd done to him what they'd done to me.
I kept with the program: ate what they gave me, did a little exercising to regain my strength, walked the hallways. Whatever it took to keep them happy and make them lay off me, because the thing I wanted most was to be left alone--no fake conversations, no special treatment, no attempts to rationalize away my situation. In the end, Lev and Andrei weren't going to be able to make this adjustment for me, master this life I'd been dumped into half-handcuffed. I worked on my balance and I worked out ways to do things I'd always taken for granted--zipping zippers or buttoning buttons or making a piece of paper stay in one place while I wrote something down. But how many times can you practice that kind of stuff? Especially when you're staring at an almost-new pair of boots you know you're never going to wear again because the last set of laces you were ever going to tie, you tied a week ago. I spent a lot of time sitting, staring out the window into the camp courtyard. Sometimes I thought. A lot of times I just let my mind go. I took the sleeping pills Andrei gave me. I went to bed early and got up late.
From my window I'd watch them load up quarry workers and move work crews around the camp itself. There were breakfast lines and dinner lines and the ever-present packs of gulag dogs straining at their leashes, waiting to wrap their jaws around the first poor son of a bitch to step out of line. Some career, if you think about it--some legacy--to breed dogs to be the jaws that let men in power distance themselves from the brutality they dish out. It's what I'd been for the syndicate: one of the dogs who did the dirty work so the inner circle could go home without blood on their hands and drift off to sleep secure in their delusion that they were saving the world.
My mind drifted, one image leading to another, and I let it, though I steered away from ones that were likely to kick me in the gut. I thought about tossing a baseball with Tyler Phillips. It still impressed me, the team the two of them had been--the way Carrie'd worked with him. I wondered what Tyler'd gone on to after he finished that miniature town he was building. I wondered what it'd be like to have somebody you could count on the way he could count on Carrie.
The kid in the dugout--Aleksei--hadn't been able to count on how I'd react. Some job for a kid, leaving him with a man in that kind of shape. I didn't remember what I'd said or done to make him suspicious, but then I didn't recall much of anything beyond what my body felt like and the need to make it to the road. I'd probably scared the hell out of the kid, though, in the shape I'd been in. I was lucky he hadn't taken off on me a lot earlier than he did. No telling if anyone would've found me in time, or what Aleksei's buddies would've done if they'd been the ones to run across me.
I thought about the vast expanses of Alberta, watching them from the open door of a rolling box car, and a clone girl with dark hair restless in her sleep in a bunkhouse. I remembered waves breaking ice-blue north of Malibu after dark and I remembered Mulder getting out of the pool, dripping wet and ready to play hostage negotiator, though they were using him. Laughing at him. He didn't give a damn what they thought.
The truck driver's gone, Lev said to me over dinner on the sixth night. He'd disappeared with his wife and son. When they'd gone looking for him, they'd found the house empty--no people, no clothes, dirty dishes in the sink. I remembered what the boy had said. I remembered the look he'd given me when he thought it was my brother who'd taken away his friend's livelihood.
Each day my body was a little stronger, but mornings were still a bitch, waking up all over again to the bandaged joke hanging from my left shoulder. I'd get up and focus on making it through my paces to show them I was okay. Then I'd retreat to my chair and space out. It was a relief--to just pull in and drift. I was a spectator, no demands on me, and that was fine. It should have had me worried, but I couldn't muster the effort to care. It took Andrei to give me a little wake-up call.
"This is not like you, Mikhail Antonovich!" He was shaking the empty sleeping pill bottle in my face; each of the past three nights I'd taken a double dose and used them up early. "You know there's a danger of addiction. Besides, you of all people have work to do."
What the hell did he know about what I did, or had to do?
He told me about his brother who'd had his leg blown off in Afghanistan and still managed to help save a comrade. In the hospital he'd gotten himself a wheel chair and gone on doctoring the wounded. I didn't give a damn; I wasn't his brother. But the fact that Andrei's kid gloves were off was a relief; I was tired of being treated like a piece of porcelain. I told him I wanted to be alone. He just stood there, not budging. My last ounce of composure was slipping away and I gulped against the pressure, but a kind of strangled gasp came out of me, which only sent me downhill. Andrei turned away and looked out the window to give me some privacy.
It was the pain, I ground out when I'd finally pulled myself together a little. I'd wake up at night feeling like my hand was being crushed in a vise--the one I didn't have anymore. That was one part of the problem, anyway. I didn't mention the nightmares.
He said the ghost pains were my brain trying to adjust to the cut nerve endings. There were ways to cope, he said. Different approaches helped different people. He'd work with me.
Then he came up with a new prescription: we were going to take walks. Okay, I figured; what the hell. Maybe it'd be better than the chair and four walls I'd memorized like a map. Maybe it'd shake me out of this limbo I was in. So we started to go out every morning. He'd take me away from the compound and onto the paths that went into the woods. Made me nervous as hell at first, knowing what had happened here, but the steady movement--one leg in front of the other--was good. The forest and the wind were good; they made me realize I was still living in the world. Andrei would go along pointing out birds or insects or the odd salamander as we went. At first I only listened to the sound of his voice. Eventually I started to hear what he was saying. He was concerned about the research--not just the vaccine but what it was preventing. He knew about what had happened to the Vaneks. He figured heat had to be the key--the heated lab the gestating sample had been kept in. In the camp they'd never witnessed the kind of development that killed the Vaneks, but the facilities where the Oil was kept and used were usually pretty cold.
"But, think: the disaster waiting to happen, Mikhail Antonovich, if the Oil were to be transported to someplace more temperate? Surely your employer must recognize this." He'd stopped in the middle of the trail. "He must be a man who understands the implications of this organism. Perhaps there is even some personal encounter that fuels his devotion to this cause."
I felt naked suddenly, as if he could see inside me and know just how close to the the truth he'd come. All I could do was swallow and nod.
"Then you understand. The importance of this research is far beyond the absurdity of developing it as a potential weapon. We could as safely breed wild dogs and turn them loose, expecting them to attack only our enemies." He paused and nodded toward me. "You have important work to do. Sometimes we must press forward not because we have strength, or will, but simply because the work demands to be done."
Back in my room, in my chair, Andrei's words ran a loop in my head. In my whole life I probably hadn't come across more than a dozen people who'd be worth saving from a sinking ship. I'd seen a hell of a lot of the opposite. So maybe it was Andrei's conviction that was carrying me and not any of my own, but I started to pull myself together. The world hadn't stopped turning because of what had happened in the woods that night; I was still going to have to deal with the world. If I got going, started moving forward, maybe I'd find a way to shake this half-dream I was stuck in. I still had strategic pieces on the board. As far as that went, I should be in better shape than before. I had to assume that Mulder was still alive. He was with people who'd keep him away from Lev's men; he'd find a way home. Vasily Peskow would've taken care of the little assignment I'd given him; he was dependable if the price--or the stakes--were right, and I'd made sure they would be. Which meant the syndicate's research would be back to square one. They'd be plenty eager for a vaccine now. Somehow the prospect of breaking into the inner circle didn't excite me the way it had before, but it was a means to an end--the next step.
I needed to check in with Peskow. I should contact the Brit, too, but I wasn't about to attempt it from the camp. Lev was a smart man; any calls I made would be tapped. But I couldn't afford to hang back until the advantages I had were gone.
By then I'd been two weeks in the camp. My stitches had just been taken out and the stump didn't hurt much... well, not if I was careful with it, and not during the day, anyway. I was off the sleeping pills and I'd started to get used to the looks I got when Andrei and I would go walking. Some men noticed and others didn't. Of the ones that did, most looked away and pretended they hadn't seen. But this was a prison camp, and I was on the side that wielded the power. It would be different in a city, all kinds of people watching. I wasn't looking forward to their stares, and I damn well didn't need their pity.
Andrei was torn between wanting me to stay a few more weeks to make sure I didn't show any signs of infection and wanting me to get going with what needed to be done. But the stump was healing well, Andrei'd taught me a couple of methods for making it through the bouts of phantom pain and I'd promised him I'd check in with a doctor at the first sign of anything going wrong. As I packed to leave, I felt a lot like a guy waking up at the crest of a roller coaster, already starting that downward plunge without having made the choice to be there. But since when does life wait until you're ready to face what it throws at you?
I got on that plane for St Petersburg and did the best I could. I didn't look forward to showing up on Peskow's doorstep at such an obvious disadvantage. The power balance between us was a touchy thing and while Peskow might be old, he was like an old scorpion. But it would be weeks before the stump was in any shape to be fitted for a prosthesis. In the end I think Peskow was impressed that I showed up without one. Inside, I felt like I was freefalling, but as long as he didn't know that, what difference did it make?
While I was in St. Petersburg I looked up a friend of Andrei's who had some background in prosthetics, but the choices were more than I was ready to deal with: cosmetic arm, mechanical arm, myoelectric arm. In the end they all had their advantages and their drawbacks for the user and I guess I still wasn't ready to see myself as three-quarters of a man dependent on a piece of plastic. So I put the decision off. Petrovich heard I was in town and he stopped by to see me, but later in the week he tried to send me a get-well gift, a little company for the evening. I know he meant well but I just about choked when I opened the door. The girl was gorgeous. I remember turning sideways in the doorway to hide my left side and then stumbling through some kind of excuse--something had come up at the last minute and I was on my way out to an appointment. I gave her a tip for her trouble, closed the door and collapsed against the wall. A few seconds later my legs gave out and I slid down to the floor. I sat there shaking, tears running down my face.
If I'd stayed in that room, I think I would've shot myself. Instead, I put on my overcoat and went out walking. The sun was just setting and buildings, sky and snow were stained a cool, frosty pink. I made my way along the canals, keeping up a steady pace. In my mind I could see Andrei gesturing with his usual intensity, though I didn't hear a word he was saying; it was like a movie with the audio shut off. When my legs were tired and my breath was coming in frosty gasps, I stopped by the railing.
The street was deserted, the only sound the occasional echoing crack of the ice starting its annual break-up in the river. I'd always been on my own but standing there, I was completely alone, one poor lost son of a bitch in a hollow world of ice and concrete. Maybe this was how it would be for the last guy standing after the colonists had dropped down from the skies and done their thing.
I shivered and watched the sun slip below the horizon. Not because you have strength, or will, I could hear Andrei say, but because the work demands to be done.
I turned and started back in the fading light, but I hadn't gone more than fifty yards when I saw something go down in the shadows at the far end of the block. When I got closer I could see it was a girl of maybe fourteen or so. She'd fallen and spilled a string bag full of little packages into a snowdrift by the curb. She was just lying there, sobbing, and she was nothing to me--just a grating noise I didn't need to hear. But the next thing I knew I was helping her up and gathering what I could find of her stuff. She put her things back in the bag, but the wrist she'd fallen on was swollen, so I ended up with one handle of the string bag and she took the other and between us we got her things up the stairs to the entrance of her building and inside the door. Before she could turn back to get a good look at me, I was outside again, my feet crunching snow in the dark.
Back in my room, I warmed myself by the radiator, swallowed a little vodka and crawled into bed, thankful for the down comforters I was wrapped in. When the phantom pains hit in the middle of the night, I started to massage the stump the way Andrei'd showed me, but what helped more than anything was a passing memory that hit me, Patty and I making love and laughing over some silly thing tha had set us both off. It was the complete opposite of the frozen moment I'd had a few hours earlier by the river. The picture itself was gone in seconds, but it left a spot of warmth behind, like coals in a fireplace, and I fell asleep loose and peaceful for the first time in months.
Morning threw me back onto that plunging roller coaster, though, when I made my call to the Brit. Pescow must have been losing his touch in his old age, because somehow they found out he'd killed Charne-Sayre, and the Brit realized right away who was behind it. His shrewdness showed, though, because he realized I wouldn't destroy both Charne-Sayre and her work unless I had something better to offer in the way of a vaccine. He was mad as hell about his lover, but not enough to make him lose his focus on the bigger picture. Unless I cooperated, he'd let the old man know I was still alive and what I'd done. I asked him about Mulder, trying to keep it casual, and he said Mulder'd shown up in the middle of some Senate hearing where Scully'd been stonewalling for him, and whatever it was they'd been trying to pull out of her about my rock courier got lost in the confusion. He didn't say anything about Mulder showing up one-armed, so I guess I had my answer there. Somehow my golden brother had ended up on the better end of things once again.
Actually, I tried not to think much about Mulder because when I did it was hard to escape the glaring fact that if not for Mulder attacking me and stealing the truck in one of his typical knee-jerk moves, I'd still have all my limbs. If I'd known this was the price I'd pay for a chance at his loyalty when things got tough...
Bah. Even thinking about it is quicksand.
I hadn't been looking forward to bringing Ché up to date, but in the end I couldn't avoid writing him. I got myself a laptop--one with a single latch for the screen, so I could open it--and sat around pecking out a mail with two fingers. I kept it brief, just said I needed some information on prosthetics--who was good, where few questions would be asked. I knew I wouldn't be fooling him. He'd connect the dots and then he'd worry about me, though it wouldn't come out in words. He'd just send the information I asked for and do the agonizing on his own time.
Sure enough, he came through for me. Two days later I was on a plane to Brussels.
The first few days were a little overwhelming. I felt like a lab sample under a microscope. Everything was the arm: measurements, charting, testing, comments about stumps and sockets and training passing from one lab coat to another. My conscious mind was telling me to step forward, to help them give me the best limb they could from all this, but another part of me was laughing like a loon at my show of optimism. A piece of plastic would never make me what I'd been before. It would never sense the spring in the trigger of a gun or know the heat of a woman's flesh or have the strength to push away an arm jammed against my throat. But I couldn't afford to listen to that voice. It would only pull me into a drowning pool and there'd be no Andrei this time to drag me out.
There'd be a week before they could start fitting me, so I forced myself to focus on learning as much as I could about my options in hardware. In the end I surprised myself by choosing the middle option, a basic mechanical arm. I figured it was a place to start; the hand would open and shut, it'd be something to brace a piece of paper with when I wrote, or hold a door ajar, or do any one of a dozen other everyday things I'd lost the ability to do. It wasn't any bionic wonder, but it wasn't nearly as heavy or as complicated as one of the high tech arms and I'd fill out two sleeves again. That in itself was critical; it would keep me from standing out, something I could afford to do even less than before with only half my former ability to defend myself.
I started physical therapy sessions, but they didn't exactly fill the day. In my spare time, I made myself start thinking ahead. More and more, I wondered who Mulder's source had been, the one who'd ended up supplying our travel documents. Was it somebody he could actually trust or one of the syndicate's people pretending to be an ally? If it was someone from the group, they'd know I'd been with Mulder and exactly where we were going. They could have had somebody on the plane with us, watching, or had a tail ready to follow us once we hit the ground. Beyond that, anyone following closely enough could have traced me to Brussels. But I didn't think so. If the syndicate had a line on me, they would have killed me already. They had no love for me and if they'd managed to find out about the tests and the vaccine, they already had everything they needed. The only logical thing to do would be to kill me off, the sooner the better. The old man could renew his ties to the program and be their in. The fact that I was still breathing indicated that they probably didn't know about me.
Whoever Mulder's source, though, I needed to find out what I could about him, how much he knew and who he was likely to share his information with. I remembered the street and building number where we'd parked that night, so I sent the address to Ché in the hopes that he could pull up something about whoever lived there. But it was a high-rise; it was almost a needle-in-a-haystack proposition. Still, if there were any way at all to get that information, Ché would find it. I wondered again what it was that had made me offer to help him that first time we met. Or what had taken me up to that girl who'd fallen in the snow in St. Petersburg. Actually, my head was filled with questions I couldn't even begin to answer.
I worked hard at my physical therapy and I worked hard at practicing with the new arm they were building me, but every step forward seemed to come with at least one step back. While I was practicing picking little wooden blocks off a counter, the voice in the back of my head kept whispering that no matter how good I got, nothing I could ever do with this glorified pair of tongs was going to be enough. I just put my head down and muscled through the best I could. And to fill my spare time, I did what I'd done in St. Petersburg: I walked. In the chill of early spring I could go out in an overcoat and people hardly noticed the empty sleeve. Sometimes when I caught sight of myself in a mirror I had to laugh, though. There I was, Mr. Respectable with the neat haircut, the expensive coat and slacks, and shoes to make the Brit jealous. I could have been some successful businessman: normal life, country estate, picture-perfect wife and kids waiting at the front door, half a dozen calls queued from people wanting to make deals. Everything a man could ever want.
Like my life--my world--was anything like that.
After the first week, I'd had my fill of city streets and squares and monuments, but I still needed to keep myself moving. One of my doctors suggested a private tour company, so I did a little research and found an outfit that would send me a car and a driver. I came to depend on Dirk. He had a good sense of when to talk and when to leave me alone. Anything away from the city, I told him; maybe the countryside suited my sense of isolation. He'd pick me up every morning at ten and we'd take off, out of the city and past farms and fields and old estates. I'd keep my mind on the scenery and eventually Dirk would pull off the road near a lake or a field or the dunes near the shore, places that were pretty much deserted in the still-chilly spring, and we'd share the food his wife had packed for us, and then I'd walk until I tired myself out. Sometimes I'd fall asleep on the way back to the hospital.
By mid-afternoon it was fittings, practice with the arm, rechecking of the socket, dinner, and maybe a little bit of conversation with the old white-haired guy who'd gotten a new leg and always asked how I was doing. He had an arm missing, too, one he'd lost in a military training accident in the '30s. He'd tell me war stories and then switch to tales about his grandchildren. Every time we talked he'd give me this look, a kind of twinkle in his eye, and say, "No wife? No children?" as if I were holding out on him. Did I really look like I could be that kind of guy? But then I guess everything about me looked pretty normal then--on the outside, at least. At another time in my life I would have considered the old guy a pain and avoided him, but for some reason it made you feel a little better just to see him sitting there in his chair. As if something were right in the world.
They'd given me a prescription for sleeping pills but I didn't dare fill it, though most nights I'd find myself awake in the wee hours from a bout of phantom pain or one of the jolting little scenarios my mind would come up with--my night in the woods, or the Oil flashbacks that'd decided to start rerunning themselves just for the shock value. When they weren't too bad, I'd lie there thinking and when they were worse, I'd get dressed, go downstairs and walk the maze of hedges in the courtyard garden. I'd think about the old man, what gave him the contentment he seemed to have, or I'd think about the girl in the snow. Yelena--that's the name a little kid had yelled from down the hallway when we'd gotten inside the building. I remembered her eyes, the wariness when she'd first seen me, not realizing I was only there to help. Would she have just lain where she was and ended up with pneumonia if I hadn't come along? Was her life not worth getting up out of that snow bank for? Could be the old story: parents married to the bottle, kids left to fend for themselves. And was her life any better or worse for my having taken a hand in it? Had I sent her on to something good or something she dreaded?
What were we doing on this rock in the first place when nearly everything about our existence was a deck stacked against us? What did it take to have something to live for, the way Andrei or his brother seemed to, instead of just living to avoid dying, or being stepped on, or crushed?
What had kept me going all these years and where was it now?
So many questions, and none of them ones I could answer. But the walking and the cold air seemed to settle me anyway. By the time I went back up to my room, I was ready for sleep. If it was a good night, the last image I'd see would be of Dirk's three-year-old daughter. We'd stopped by one day to check on her because she'd been sick, and Dirk's wife had brought her out to the car. She'd just reached out to Dirk and lay there draped over his shoulder with these pink cheeks and bright, wet eyes as if she were a part of him, totally content in spite of the way she must have felt. He was her shelter and she was safe; it was that simple.
By the time I left, I'd spent a month in Brussels. I can't say I'd resigned myself to the status quo, but I had a prosthesis that fit me and I was getting used to using it. I needed to find out who Mulder's contact in New York was, because my safety might depend on who he was connected to, though after weeks spent in the clean, orderly world of the hospital and my Brussels persona, heading back into the mine field that was my life seemed almost surreal. Before I left, I wished the old white-haired man well. Dirk and his family had been on my mind all that last week. On our last ride together, I left him a little bonus with a note to start a savings account for the kid.
It was time to bite the bullet and stop in at Ché's. Hopefully he'd made some progress at cracking the mystery of the New York informant. I wasn't looking forward to knocking on his door, though. I'd gotten used to the people in the hospital, and the looks of strangers in the street--when they noticed anything about the arm at all. But Ché was the first person I actually knew that I was going to have to face. Couldn't be avoided, though, so I gathered my things together, reserved a private jet to make myself harder to trace, and took off for D.C. I figured a week at Ché's, then a few days in New York to track down this source of Mulder's and decide what needed to be done about him, then on to the next thing.
Wrong again. I guess by now I should have known.
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