Chapter One: First Inversion
The man took a drag from his cigarette and watched the two men on his video monitor thoughtfully. Though these particular employees weren't the brightest bulbs in the bunch, what they lacked in creativity they made up for in size and strength. At least they had been able to set up the video feed properly. The day's last rays of natural light had ceased filtering through the dense foliage, but the man could still make out his operatives' boulderlike forms on the brilliant green and black screen. And so he leaned back in his chair and waited.
<*> <*> <*> <*> <*> <*> <*>
Halfway across the globe, the two men stood in uncomfortable silence. The evening air was muggy, but neither man felt like advertising their presence to whatever might be around the next tree. Heavy rain had been predicted for the evening and into the night, but a light, swirling mist was all that evidenced that particular forecast. The smaller of the two checked his watch quickly, then returned his hand to the protection of his pocket. The taller man grunted, then checked his own watch.
"They don't keep time like us, you know."
"You met one before?"
"Well, not me, but my mate Port has."
"They really ten feet tall?"
The larger man smiled a superior smile. "There's none out there taller than me, and that's a fact. They don't breathe fire or belch poison gas, and they don't eat nothing but plants. Oooh, you going to piss your pants?"
The smaller man puffed out his barrel chest in annoyance. "There ain't no need to be sharpish. I just asked a question. Besides, how d'you know if you never seen one?"
The taller man winced. "Just keep it down, will you? They may not be dangerous, but they's right tricky to deal with. You just keep your trap shut and let me do all the talking."
The smaller man narrowed his eyes, but said nothing more. He began digging his toe into the soil and kicking clods of it at the trees. The minutes dragged on in relative silence; occasionally a clump of turf would thud against a tree or disturb the leaves of a bush. Suddenly, the tall man grabbed the other by the arm.
"Stop that! I think I heard something," he hissed in the short man's ear. Sure enough, both men could hear hoofbeats and the sound of something powerful breaking through the brush. Whatever it was was getting steadily closer, and the men began to yell.
"Oi there! Get back! Keep 'way!" The short man’s voice cracked, and his partner elbowed him.
"I told you to keep quiet!" He took a deep breath and yelled in what he hoped was a threatening voice. "Stay away from us. We're armed!"
A rich chuckle came from the edge of the clearing, but its owner was obscured by the mist. "Since Jupiter is rising, I won't take offence."
"Did you bring the samples?"
The chuckle again, "My kind do not renege on deals. I won't insult you by asking if you brought what I want."
The short man tapped his foot against a cardboard box. "Right here, mate." The tall man glared at him.
"Very well, I shall move very slowly toward you with the samples in my left hand. I promise not to make any sudden moves. I will brook no aggression."
The tall man swallowed perceptibly. "Leave the samples on the ground where the box is. Keep away."
Both men took several quick steps back from the box and watched anxiously. From the bank of mist stepped a magnificent creature. His horse half was well-formed and dark chestnut, and his muscular human torso and head were equally so. His eyes were a soft brown, and his features were as sweet as a cherub's. The two men gaped at him.
"I believe these are what you requested," said the creature, who held out a small ice chest. The white styrofoam object seemed horribly incongruous with the unearthly being that stood before them. "May I?" he asked, gesturing toward the box.
The tall man nodded dumbly. The centaur knelt and placed the chest on the ground, then scooped the box under his arm. He smiled brilliantly, and nodded approvingly at the men.
"Everything seems to be in order. Thank you for your cooperation. I believe it is customary to shake on transaction of this nature?"
The men made no move toward the centaur's extended hand.
"Well then, we shall forego that formality and part ways." He turned to leave, but paused as an odd clicking noise drifted into the clearing. "Aah," he said softly, gazing up at the clouded sky. "Mars must be bright tonight."
With that, he leaped over a fallen log and was gone.
The tall man cuffed the smaller man on the back of the head. "Didn't I tell you to keep your gob shut?"
"You wasn't saying nothing, and it asked us a question!" The clicking sounds were louder, and the tall man looked uneasy.
"Grab the samples, and let's get out of here."
As the small man reached for the ice chest, a stream of viscous white fluid hit his hand. He yelled as more jets of fluid pelted him from various directions. He turned to run, but his hand was stuck fast in the rapidly hardening substance. The taller man tried to back quietly out of the clearing, but he ran into something hard, bristly, and enormous.
A voice hissed in his ear, "Stay, my pet. The feed has just begun." He felt a sudden pain in his shoulder which stung horribly, but suddenly there was no pain. All was very warm and the voice in his ear was hissing "Sleep, sleep, sleep" so sweetly. So tired. He wondered vaguely who was screaming, but his eyelids were so heavy. He closed his eyes, and darkness came.
<*> <*> <*> <*> <*> <*> <*>
Thousands of miles away, the man with the cigarette swore softly at the monitor in front of him. He spoke roughly into the intercom. "Get Malfoy, and make it fast."
"Certainly, sir!" came the too-cheery voice of his assistant.
A few moments later, an irritated voice snapped, "This had better be important. I'm entertaining some very important people."
The cigarette man's voice was smooth and even, "Lucius, my friend. This evening's business venture seems to have gone awry."
"What the devil do I care? I held up my end of the bargain, and I will do nothing until I see the results you promised. I can only keep my people waiting for so long before they become... restless."
The silk was gone from the man's voice "You are in no position to be issuing demands, Malfoy. It's your responsibility to find out what happened in the forest tonight and recover what is ours."
Malfoy's voice was icy. "You mean what is yours. If you were fool enough to send defenceless Muggles into that forest at night, then I will have no part in fixing your mistakes. I arranged for my equine contact to meet your operatives at great personal risk; I even affiliated them with my organization-"
"Then that was your own mistake," the Smoker interrupted. "Your organization, your responsibility. I have perfect faith in your ability to rectify the situation with minimal inconvenience to all."
Malfoy swore. "Have you any idea of the legal mess you’ve made for me?" He composed himself. "Of course, I will require more of the usual compensation. I’ll see that everything goes through all necessary channels. After tomorrow morning, they are no longer my responsibility. I trust your agent will contact me during business hours and let me know how we are to proceed. Good evening." The line went dead.
"Will you be needing anyone else, sir? My lunch break is coming up."
The man deftly tapped another Morley out of the package on his desk and lit it.
"Thank you, Doris. Will you get me Mr. Skinner on the phone before you leave?"
He inhaled deeply and rolled the familiar smoke around in his mouth before exhaling.
"Right away, sir!"
The cigarette man smiled wanly. Moments later, the intercom on his desk barked, "This is Skinner."
"Aah, Walter, how delightful to hear your voice again. I have a favor to ask you..."
<*> <*> <*> <*> <*> <*> <*>
Fox Mulder bent delicately over the innards of the machine lay on his desk, paintbrush in hand. He knew that Scully would be amazed if he could get the machine, a relic from a bygone era, working again. He began picking the larger clumps of dust from the cooling fan, then using the brush to remove the dust from the tiny areas his fingers couldn't reach. After a few minutes of painstaking work, he took a deep breath and blew at the dust as hard as he could. Shutting his eyes quickly against the cloud that rose before him and breathing in quickly through his nose, he grabbed a file folder from his desk and began fanning the cloud away from him.
The door opened and Dana Scully swept into the room, directly into the dust.
"Mulder!" she spluttered, "What have you been doing in here? Beating carpets with old magazines?" She sneezed loudly.
"Just repairing the old slide projector. You know what that means!"
She rolled her eyes toward the ceiling. "A slide show of the exotic place you'll undoubtedly be dragging me to at some ungodly hour? Wonderful. Just what I need." She flopped down in her chair and let her head fall back limply.
"The meeting went well, I take it?"
She groaned and lifted her head to look at him with narrowed eyes "If I hear the word 'streamlining' one more time I'm going to scream. Why is it that I'm the one who invariably has to attend these things?"
"Because we have a system, Scully. You attend the meetings on how to fill out paperwork, and I do the actual filling out. That way, we achieve the same level of efficiency as the rest of the Bureau." He snapped the projector's casing back together and began replacing the screws. "That should do it. What say I lift your spirits with good news and feats of audiovisual skill?"
A smile quirked the corners of her lips "I'll pass on the feats of audiovisual skill, but I could definitely use some good news."
Mulder shook his finger at her. "Now, now, Scully. First things first." He flicked the light switch on the wall and plugged in the projector. It whirred to life and lit up the adjescent wall. Mulder laughed triumphantly. "My creature lives!" He began fitting the carousel of slides into the machine, when it started making an odd grinding noise.
Scully wrinkled her nose. "Do you smell something burning?" Tendrils of smoke began pouring out of the projector, but Mulder didn't seem to notice. Scully strode quickly across the room to unplug the machine, but before she could pull the plug, the machine sputtered and died. The smell of hot metal and melting plastic was heavy in the air. Mulder's voice came sheepishly out of the darkness. "I guess you won't be getting the slide show after all."
Scully felt around for Mulder's desk lamp and turned it on. "So is that the good news or the audiovisual feat?"
"It was supposed to be both." He shurgged resignedly. "I might as well just tell you. Skinner called me into his office while you were at the meeting and suggested that we both take some time off."
"What?? He can't just remove us from duty! We're still behind on reports from the incident in Tulsa, we're slated to check out the weird elements in the Smithsonian break-in, and neither of us has been in trouble for months! Well, unless you count that thing with the vat of chocolate, but I thought you explained that when we returned."
Mulder cut her off. "Hold on a moment, Scully, we're not suspended or dismissed. Skinner heard about some strange things going on in England and he wants us to check them out."
Scully's brow wrinkled in confusion. "England? The Bureau doesn't have any authority over there."
"We're being employed strictly as consultants. One of Skinner's connections put out some discreet feelers to investigate some goings-on at the Brisbin Institute. I figured that with your background in the sciences-"
"The Brisbin Institute?" Scully interjected, arching an eyebrow in disbelief. "I don't have much research background in enzymology or cell biology, and certainly not enough to be of use to people at the Brisbin Institute."
"But that's just it, Scully. They need people with experience in our field. The unexplained. Paranormal phenomena. Our names were at the top of a very short list."
"I see." Scully sat on the edge of Mulder's desk and eyed the smoking slide projector for a moment. She paused before responding. "Well, I wouldn't mind getting out of this basement for a while. I hate to think of all the work we'll have to sort through when we get back, but-"
Mulder cut her off with a delighted whoop. "We'll have a great time, Scully! The Brisbins won't know what hit them. And it only took me a few minutes to convince you to come, even without a slide show! A personal persuasiveness record! My previous best was 15 minutes back in 1994 when I talked you into coming with me all the way to-"
Scully never found out which place she'd been too eager to visit, because at that moment the smoke from the slide projector set off the fire alarm and sprinkler system. Several minutes later when the entire Bureau was assembled out on the front lawn, Scully mused over their brief conversation. After checking in with her floor coordinator, she decided to worry about the absence forms when she returned from England. "After all," she thought, tucking a wet strand of hair behind her ear, "we have a system: I attend the meetings, Mulder does the paperwork."
She drove home, clothing sodden, but spirits considerably lighter than they had been an hour ago.
Story Index | Next Chapter >>
Back to Top | Stories by Author | Stories by Title | Main Page