Chapter Sixteen: Subito
Scully knew that mass spectrometers were useful for characterizing molecules, but that was as far as it went. Fortunately Cho knew a great deal more, and was keen to share. Most of Cho's lecture had penetrated, though Scully had to force herself to concentrate. It was amazing to her that she was being encouraged to play with a machine that was worth over her yearly income.
Forty minutes later, they had results. Scully tried to hide her disappointment in the simple black and white graph that was produced.
"I'm hoping that this means something to you."
Cho shrugged. "Well, yes and no. This narrows it down to being one of about a gazillion proteins. The samples we took had a really impressive variety of nonhuman compounds- mostly enzymes and molecules too small to do much with. I managed to spin out the largest of the molecules, which is this peak here, at 27 minutes on the graph, and this is the one we're analyzing. This just confirms what I found before. We're looking for a large protein. The last step is doing MADLI on this, which will give us the sequence and a better idea of its structure."
Scully grinned. This was familiar territory. Having the sequence of the corrosive substance would allow them to search thousands of online databases for sequence and structural homology, potentially revealing the substance's source.
"Should I go fire up a workstation then?"
"Sure, and check your e-mail while you're at it. I'll have the sequence for you in a few minutes."
Scully perused recent headlines while Cho buzzed around another machine. Each was so engrossed in her task that neither noticed the pale face watching them from the window in the laboratory door.
Scully was halfway through an article on the quipu of the Inca when an acrid chemical odor drifted past.
"What is that smell?"
Cho printed out a sheet of paper, got up from the machine and sniffed the air. "That's odd. Those are the rope samples that we took from the body. They've been soaking up solvent for the past hour. But they're in the hood. We shouldn't be smelling them if the hood's fan is working properly."
She handed Scully the sheet of paper, which was half full of letters. "Dana, I'd like you to meet our mystery protein. If you can start searching for matches, I'm going to go see if I can't improve the air quality."
While Scully typed, Cho examined one of two fume hoods that ran alongside the lab benches. She pulled a large bottle from the cabinet below the working space and attempted to tighten the cap. Finding that it was already as tight as it could be, she turned on the second fume hood and placed the soaking samples inside.
After calling maintenance to let them know about the malfunctioning fume hood, she returned to Scully, who was waiting for results.
"It's amazing," said Scully. "You managed to get the sequence from our samples in about fifteen minutes, and it takes these databases twice as long to analyze it."
"Well," said Cho as she pulled up a chair next to Scully, "These sites are written and maintained pro bono. You get what you pay for, I suppose."
While the computer ground away at the analysis, Scully filled in Cho on the events of the previous night, which already seemed to be part of another world. To be fair, as Cho had pointed out, they had been.
Cho had been most amused by Snape's disguise as Percy's brother.
"That Gryffindor hothead!" she exclaimed. "I used to play against him in quidditch, and he plays dirtier than the Slytherins! Even worse, because the Slytherins don't have the gall to play the injured party when the referee catches them in the act. I'll bet Snape hated every second."
"He did. And incidentally, you're going to have to explain to me the significance of the school houses. Severus tried, but he seems a bit biased."
"That's putting it mildly. Snape's the Head of Slytherin, and favors his house almost as much as the Gryffindor head of house does her own. The other two houses are Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw, which is by far the best house."
"And the one you were in."
Cho pretended to blush. "Does it show? But seriously, traditions says that Ravenclaws are wise, Hufflepuffs are loyal, Gryffindors are brave, and Slytherins are cunning, but it's a fairly superficial designation, really. Like any school with an inter-house competition, the whole idea is to encourage kids to obey the rules and participate in classes."
"Severus seemed to think that your house brands you for life."
"Well, it did in his case, didn't it? He came back to be head of his old house. And he did manage to fall in with a bad crowd. I didn't know until after the War just how bad."
Scully nodded, but made no comment.
Cho correctly interpreted her polite silence. "How much do you know about the War, anyway?"
"Not very much. I'm a little over halfway through 'My Friend Harry,' but have no idea how it ends. Seeing as we're having this conversation now, I'm assuming Dumbledore and company were victorious."
Cho smiled. "Astute deduction, Dr. Scully. Voldemort was defeated about a year and a half ago. The Magical Community of Britain is still rebuilding, but we're all very optimistic and glad that the damage wasn't greater."
"Since I doubt I'll ever get the book back from my partner, I'm curious to know why Voldemort was so difficult to defeat. It's obvious that he was a very powerful wizard, but surely there were others who were equally powerful."
"As powerful, yes," said Cho thoughtfully, "But Voldemort also had a great gift for finding people's weaknesses. The wizarding world is far from perfect, and he would wedge himself and his followers into every fault he could find. The shrink would probably call him a sociopath."
Scully smiled at Cho's new epithet for Mulder and filed it for later use.
"But his skill at spreading enmity was only the political problem," Cho continued. "The greatest physical challenge we faced was the fact that Voldemort managed to make himself into a kind of spirit parasite, similar to a ghost, only with the ability to take over living bodies."
"Sounds eerily similar to a case Mulder and I investigated about a year ago. How did they manage to defeat him?"
"Immediately after killing his body, no mean feat, by the way, they managed to trap his spirit in a lower life form. A flobberworm, to be exact."
Scully wished she'd looked through Mulder's copy of Fantastic Beasts. "What's a flobberworm?"
"It's big brown worm that secretes emulsifier. Other than that, they are notable for being pretty much immortal, unless you feed them too much lettuce, as we discovered my fourth year."
"So where is this flobberworm?"
"Nobody knows. Well, I assume Dumbledore knows, but most people think the secret died with him."
Further questions were precluded by a soft "ping," indicating that their sequence had been analyzed.
Eagerly, Cho and Scully examined the screen.
"Our protein has 63 homology with known protein sequences," said Cho, eyes alight. "Do you know what this means?"
"We're looking at a completely new molecule?"
"Exactly! With only 63 homology, we may even be looking at a new family of molecules."
"40 identity with a molecule called TXP5. I'll look that up," Scully's cheeks were flushed. This was the sort of chase she savored.
"I'll take sphingomyelinase D, which is a 37, match" said Cho, clearly as excited as Scully.
Cho turned on another computer, and began typing furiously. The phone on the wall behind Scully's desk rang. She picked it up, hesitantly.
"Hello, this is Liangru Chang. Is Cho Wei available?"
"Liangru, this is Dana Scully, and I'm with Cho."
"Dr. Scully! How delightful to speak with you again!" His laugh was nearly as infectious over the phone as it was in person. "I was hoping to tempt Cho to tea when she finished with her experiments. Would you like to come as well?"
Scully glanced at the clock. It was nearly two o'clock, and her stomach was growling. "We'd be happy to. Where and when should we meet you?"
"I'll be in my office. Will fifteen minutes give you sufficient time to complete your experiments?"
"We're through with the first batch and reviewing literature at present. Let me make sure Cho isn't planning anything else complicated." She covered the receiver with her hand. "Cho, what would you say to tea with your father in fifteen minutes?"
Cho blinked as she pulled herself from the article she was reading. "Tea? Sure. Oh, we haven't even had lunch yet! A quarter hour will give us enough time, I think."
"We'll see you in fifteen minutes," confirmed Scully.
"Excellent. Until then, Dr. Scully."
Scully had barely replaced the phone in its cradle when an excited squeal came from Cho.
"Dana, you have to see this!"
Scully raced to Cho's side and began reading over her shoulder.
"The protein enzyme sphingomyelinase D actively dissolves cell membranes, causing tissue necrosis! The homologous structures on our protein could be the cause of all the eaten-away bits on the body we examined."
"Sphingomyelinase D is found in the venom of loxosceles reclusa, which is common in North America. The brown recluse spider," Scully read aloud. " It's impossible that this damage was caused by a spider venom," she said. "Spider bites deliver less than half a microliter of venom. To cause such widespread tissue damage, the body would have to have been practically dipped in the stuff. To even collect a milliliter of the venom would take months."
Unless, said the voice of Mulder in her head, there was a really big spider.
Scully shook her head. There really was no escape from the man.
Cho pulled up another article on her screen. "I did manage to find a little bit about TPX5. It's another spider venom, from a type of tarantula. This one's a polypeptide venom that has been implicated in blocking stretch-activated ion channels in cell membranes. So our protein has a cysteine knot sticking out somewhere. How bizarre! This is definitely a new protein, if we had any lingering doubts."
"Two different toxins integrated into a single protein," mused Scully. "It seems too perfect. How difficult would it be to synthesize this protein?"
"Well, the polypeptide is hydrophobic, so that might cause problems for some applications, but the genes are well-profiled and easy to get. It could probably be done, but synthesizing such a large protein would be very difficult. Beyond the size of the protein, we also run into the same problem of creating large quantities. Even expressing a liter of it would take some serious time and effort."
"I doubt effort and time are limiting factors, given the number of groups that would give their eyeteeth for an unknown, deadly agent like this, especially one that bears such a remarkable similarity to natural toxins."
Cho stood briskly. "Well, I think that's one problem solved and only a few dozen more mystery compounds to analyze. I don't know about you, Dr. Scully, but I'm getting hungry. If we hurry, we can grab something healthy down in the cafeteria before so we don't fill up on chocolate biscuits at Linangru's tea."
Scully held the lab door open for her. "Now I know why they call you a genius, Dr. Wei."
They had nearly reached the cafeteria on the first floor when the lab exploded.
Back at the hotel, Mulder heard what he thought was thunder, and decided against going back to the British Museum that afternoon in favor of some Magical research.
He kicked off his shoes, peeled off his socks, and grabbed his new copy of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. After chuckling his way through the introduction- Scamander had to be a friend of Albus's- he perused a section on defining beasts and beings. This required many jumps into various sections of the A-Z of Magical Beasts, so as to find out exactly what Diricawls and Fwoopers were in the context of the article. He soon abandoned looking them up, and promised himself that he'd read all the beasts in order after he finished with the introductory articles.
He couldn't help but feel validated by this confirmation of existing legendary creatures, especially realizing that there were entire governmental departments devoted to hiding them from him. Still, he felt that this book was an excellent starting place for learning a little bit about the behaviors of magical creatures. He might not be able to do much about a fully trained wizard with a wand, but now he knew better than to listen to Fwooper song for any extended length of time.
Finally, he came to the beginning of the A-Z listing, and eagerly began reading the first "A" creature, the acromantula.
His breath caught in his throat.
Scully and Cho nearly fell to the ground as the building shook and all the lights went out. The initial roaring blast was soon forgotten when the alarms shrieked to life.
Cho's eyes were wide. "What in the name of Agrippa was that?"
Scully's training kicked in and she dragged Cho to the floor as black smoke began pouring out of the stairwells.
"Explosion and fire somewhere on the upper levels," she yelled over the deafening alarms. "We've got to get out of here. Stay low. Smoke inhalation is a much greater threat than fire at this point."
Cho pulled her arm out of Scully's grasp. "I've got to find Liangru!"
"Cho, you'll be killed!"
Cho pulled her wand out from a holster hidden on her ankle. "I'll be fine. Will you come with me?"
If Liangru needed immediate medical care, Cho would need her. She pulled her own wand out of her pocket and nodded.
The smoke in the hallway was getting thicker, so Cho cast a charm on herself and Scully that made a large bubble of air appear around each of their heads. She followed this by a charm that sounded like flammis titillando, but Scully had no idea what it did. It had to be some kind of protection charm, but she wasn't familiar with the word titillando.
She and Cho charged up the stairway, breathing their clean air and passing a few dozen survivors on their way out. Several were in biohazard suits- they must have been in some of the high security labs, and they were fortunate enough to have their own air supply.
As they reached the fourth floor, which housed Liangru's office, Scully could make out tongues of flame on the stairway above them.
"The explosion must have happened on the fifth floor," yelled Scully to Cho. She wasn't sure if her voice would carry through the air bubbles, but Cho nodded.
The smoke was so thick on the fourth floor that Scully couldn't see. Entire rooms were on fire, and they passed an unconscious figure on the floor, but it wasn't Liangru. Scully felt for a pulse.
Cho nodded, and tore down the hallway to her father's office.
They found him slumped over his desk, though his office was miraculously free from flame. A quick examination confirmed that Liangru was still alive, but his pulse was dangerously faint. Cho cast an air bubble over his head and slung him over her shoulder with strength Scully wouldn't have guessed she possessed.
"I can apparate with one other person- will you be able to make it out on your own?"
"I'll be fine."
Cho's face was fierce as she and her father disappeared with a loud pop.
Mulder ran into the street, gesticulating wildly. He knew there was something terribly wrong when nobody answered his call to the Brisbin Institute. Fortunately, the cabbie he had been hailing squealed to a stop a few feet in front of him.
The driver's face was pale, but he managed some habitual sarcasm. "Need a cab, mate?"
"The Brisbin Institute, and step on it!"
"Traffic is shite, I was just over that end of town."
Mulder banged on plexiglass barrier. "Just go, man! Go!"
The cab sped off.
Scully ran down the hall toward the far stairwell, clutching the sheaf of papers she'd taken from Liangru's office- the case file for their investigation. The ceiling had collapsed near the stairwell they'd come up, and the beams overhead were groaning horribly. She came across a body in the stairwell, another victim of smoke inhalation, and stopped short. A vision of Severus swam in her mind. He was slumped in the doorway of his lab, unconscious, and with a large knot on his head.
As quickly as it had come, the vision vanished, and she raced down the half-flight of stairs to Severus's hidden laboratory on the third floor.
The smoke was blinding, but she found him immediately, just as he had appeared to her moments before. Something must have fallen on to his head during the explosion, and he likely had lost consciousness as he tried to escape.
He was still alive, but Scully didn't know the charm to make an air bubble for him. She cursed herself for not listening more attentively to Cho. She threw herself to the ground and pulled Severus into the hallway, keeping him as low to the ground as possible. She began dragging him down the hall, mind awhirl.
If creating a new air bubble wasn't a possibility, could he share hers? A loud crash from above indicated that the fourth floor had collapsed, and a huge piece of burning ceiling crashed down where Severus had lain a moment ago.
Spurred on by the imminent collapse, she yanked Severus's head close to hers and tried to put his face into her air bubble. The surface of the bubble gave, rather like the surface of a water balloon, but his face stayed resolutely outside. Dismayed, she put all of her efforts into dragging him into the stairwell, which she hoped would be less smoky than the hall.
When they reached the landing, Scully was able to pull his arms around her neck and lift him across her back. Wobbling dangerously, she stepped deliberately down the stairs, focusing on staying upright and not injuring him further. With step after grueling step, she realized that the edges of her air bubble were fading. If it dissolved completely they would both die- they were still two floors above the ground.
Suddenly, it came to her. She lay him gently on the stairs, and pulled out her wand.
Her heart soared as his limp form rose to hover a few inches and floated gently toward her. Focusing her entire mind on keeping moving toward her, she ran down the stairs and into the cavernous lobby, where her air bubble dissolved, just as Severus's unconscious body knocked into hers. Exhausted from keeping the spell active for so long and breathing the smoke-choked air, she fell to the ground, unconscious.
Mulder stared testily at the unmoving sea of automobiles around him. "Why is there so much traffic? It's Saturday afternoon!"
"Got me, mate. Last time traffic was this bad, some nutter was threatening to jump from a high-rise."
Mulder swore. "Which way is the Brisbin from here?"
"About four blocks East, five blocks North."
Mulder shoved a twenty pound note through the change slot. "Keep the change." He opened the door of the cab and started running.
Percy returned to his flat after a perfectly wretched luncheon with his family. Fred and George had delighted in telling their mother about Percy's "date," and his mother spent the rest of the time trying to convince Percy that there was nothing wrong with his not having a girlfriend, which she very obviously didn't believe herself. She spent the rest of the afternoon moaning that Ron's auror training never allowed him to come home for their weekly brunch or that Ginny spent too much time with her boyfriend, or that Bill hadn't brought the children by in ages. Never "Oh Percy, it's so good of you to come," or "Percy, I hope you know how much we appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to visit regularly!"
He loved his mother, but wished that he didn't always have to be an audience for grievances against other family members. Fred and George kept themselves entertained by vehemently agreeing with her and snorting into their scones. They'd also managed to dose him with an Alliteration Allsort before he was able to excuse himself. His mother's yelling still rang in his ears.
Only last night, he'd made his debut at the DuBonnay club. He'd dealt with Draco Malfoy with enough professionalism to impress Severus Snape. He'd shared ice cream with the most interesting lady he'd met in years. And now he was back to being Perfect Percy, Poncing Prat.
He threw himself bodily onto the sofa, forgetting the large pile of files he'd left there. They reacted to being violently displaced by scattering themselves all over the floor and coffee table.
Cursing, he rubbed his head and tried to re-sort the files into approximate piles, when he a flash of orange caught his eye. The disturbance had unearthed the map assigned to tracking Scully. He hadn't looked at it since Dumbledore assured him that she would be protected at all times. However, the map was flashing orange- a sign that she was in mortal danger, and the red haze around her unmoving dot in the lobby of the Brisbin Institute indicated magic. And Severus Snape was with her, also unmoving.
Percy apparated to her side without a second thought.
Jogging several miles a week was one thing. Sprinting nine city blocks was quite another, Mulder decided. His lungs were already on fire, and his throat was painfully dry. Emergency vehicles wove noisily through the stopped traffic, blaring horns and sirens. He seized his opportunity when a fire truck passed him on the sidewalk, and he leaped on board, stitches searing his sides as he fought to catch his breath.
The firemen riding on the outside of the truck protested his presence- they obviously did not think that his FBI badge was the genuine article- but they were not so inhumane as to throw him off, at least not until the truck came to a stop.
They rounded a corner and Mulder gasped at the inferno ahead. The Brisbin Institute's upper stories were completely engulfed in flame, and smoke poured out of every entrance. From what little Mulder knew of large building fires, the Institute was too far gone to be saved.
Mulder leaped from the fire truck as it pulled up next to the many emergency vehicles that were already lined up in front. Fortunately, the fire truck had deposited him inside the perimeter of police, who were keeping back spectators.
Yellow suited firemen swarmed on tall ladder trucks, which were aiming blasts of water at the third floor, where the fire appeared to be spreading, while dozens were running in and out of the lobby, laying hoses and carrying the odd survivor- or victim- out of the building. Mulder stared helplessly at the billows of black smoke pouring from the front doors. His eyes and lungs were stinging. About twenty yards away, he made out a group of survivors being tended by ambulance crew. If Scully had made it out alive, that's where she'd be.
He covered his mouth and nose with his t-shirt and ran over to the ambulances, brandishing his FBI badge to ward off any officious emergency workers. Thus far, about fifty people had been pulled from the fire. Some were being loaded into ambulances, and others were stable enough to talk with police about what had happened.
Mulder scanned the crowd for Scully's red hair but didn't see her. He tried to assure himself that if she were alive, she would have been taken away in an ambulance already. But he knew in his heart that she was still inside the building.
He had to go in.
No sooner than he had made the decision, a flash of red caught his eye at the entrance of the building. Four figures, two upright and two being carried came pelting out of the pouring smoke. Heedless of the smoke, he pelted toward his partner, who was being carried by a firefighter. He barely registered the smaller man, unprotected by fire gear, dragging a dark figure to safety.
The firefighter shoved him off, intent on getting her to an ambulance, and he realized that she was unconscious. He turned and was surprised to find Percy, dragging Snape who was also out cold. Percy's eyes were bloodshot, and his face and clothes were covered with soot. His breathing was rough and interrupted by violent coughing, but he doggedly pulled Snape by one arm.
Without a word, Mulder took Snape's other arm, and the two men carried him to the ambulance, where several of the crew had put an oxygen mask over Scully's face and were checking her vital signs.
Percy bent over and coughed up an awful black bolus of soot, relinquishing Snape to Mulder, who yelled at another ambulance crew to help him. Once oxygen had been provided and Snape's head wound was being examined, Mulder returned to Percy, who was drawing grateful breaths off a small oxygen tank someone had provided.
He looked gravely at Mulder. "Surely Scully and Severus should abscond to safety, sans stalling."
He grimaced as soon as the words left his mouth.
Mulder gestured toward the cluster of EMTs surrounding them. "How do you suggest we do that? They're a little tied up at the moment."
"Albus always affords agents absconding aids," he said, holding up a glittering pocketwatch.
Mulder grinned. "So is our rescue at hand? Or should I say, this terrific timepiece will terminate the threat?"
Percy glared at him. "Twins' tomfoolery. Inquire in immunity."
"Fine, I'll ask later. How does that thing work?"
"Gather group. Clasp chronometer in communion."
Mulder and Percy wove between the stretchers and gurneys, finding that Scully was being loaded into an ambulance. Percy's frantic look indicated that this was very bad. Without having to be told, he pushed Severus's gurney to the ambulance into which Scully was being loaded. Mulder was pulling a Markinson on one of the EMTs who was helping with Scully. With a pang, he realized that pulling a Markinson on someone was a lot less credible with only one person. Fortunately, Percy was able to pull Severus within an arm's length of Mulder and Scully before the EMTs had Mulder forcibly removed.
Percy sent up a silent prayer that his superiors would forgive him this use of magic in front of Muggles, grabbed Mulder's outstretched hand, and activated the portkey. He felt the familiar pull behind his belly button and the world of chaos swirled into the familiar brownstone walls he had grown to love during his tenure.
Mulder, who was clearly unused to magical modes of travel had managed to fall on the floor. He gazed in wonder at vaulted ceilings and the moving portraits that covered the walls.
"What is this place?"
"Hogwarts's hallowed halls," he replied. And for the first time, the alliteration seemed appropriate.
The persistent whispering had finally drawn him to consciousness, in spite of his body's demands that it remain in the realm of Morpheus. It hurt to breathe, it hurt to think, and it hurt to be conscious. It also hurt to growl.
"He's awake at last, thank Merlin!" cried the familiar voice of Poppy Pomfrey.
"Medea's babysitter," Severus swore, "if you don't keep your voice down, I will forcibly remove your trachea with my bare hands."
His eyes were burning, and his mouth tasted vile. The explosion. The bottle of alligator bile had fallen on his head. He immediately began coughing.
Undaunted, the nurse produced a dose of potion –expectorant, judging by the smell- from the folds of her robe. "Take this, and no grousing."
He recovered from his fit enough to swallow the potion and immediately began coughing up vile black sputum into the pan held patiently by the mediwitch.
"That's it, Severus," she pounded his back, encouraging his cough. "Once your lungs are clear, I can get you some painkiller for that knot on your head."
His vision swam as the racking coughs continued to come, and he felt the need to vomit. Fortunately, Poppy had foreseen this as well, and a nod from her brought a second pair of cool hands wiping his forehead with a damp flannel while his body purged itself of all the soot and smoke it had absorbed.
Finally, the heaving of his stomach and lungs quieted, and the nurse let him lie back in bed to rest. His eyelids dropped almost immediately and his breathing returned to normal.
He was on the verge of sleep when a timid voice asked, "Will he be all right?"
"He'll be fine after a good night's sleep. The worst is past, now that all that awful smoke is out of his system. You did the right thing when you went after them. Neither of them would have made it if they had been in that smoke for much longer."
He had been rescued. How could anyone have known? He heard someone pull a chair up next to his bed. "Dana will be fine too, won't she?"
"Of course she will. She was exposed to the fire for less time than Severus was. Her partner has been sitting up with her. Poor thing, he was so upset. Now, Mr. Weasley, there's something I would like to know. Where on earth did you get a portkey into the hospital wing?"
Weasley. Of course. Albus had given him a portkey into Hogwarts. Trust Weasley to get caught by the school nurse. But, he amended, Weasley had saved him.
"It was a gift from the Headmaster many years ago. He told me to keep it with me at all times." Severus was surprised to realize that he didn't know if the boy was lying or not.
"Rest his soul, Albus Dumbledore always did have incredible foresight," said the nurse fondly. "Now back to bed with you, or I'll have you eating gruel."
She bustled in the direction of the dispensary, as if to make good on her threat. Severus remembered Poppy's gruel none too fondly. He hoped that if he slept the night he might be spared. He felt a hand smooth his hair back from his forehead, and then he remembered no more.
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