Future Perfect: 1. Part One


Skinner paused, fighting for breath, his chest rising and falling in heaving gasps. He glanced up, searching the dark sky for his silent enemy. He heard a noise, saw the faintest glimmer of a light above, and somehow found the strength to change direction and run again, ignoring the sharp stabbing pain in his side. He charged through the undergrowth in blind terror, fighting nausea, fighting the limitations of his own weak, all too human flesh, and then he found himself falling, tripping over an outstretched hand on the mossy forest floor. He fell to the ground with a thud, winded, only to find himself staring into a pair of dead blue eyes shining out from the white face of a corpse, the dead woman’s forehead framed by copper red curls…


“NO!” Skinner woke up, screaming.


“Shut the fuck up, man,” someone grumbled, and Skinner stared disorientated at the opposite bed, trying to make sense of his surroundings. Reality flooded back in, slowly. He was in a large, airy, white dormitory containing three other occupants, in the Qundi compound. He was fine. He was safe – whatever safe meant these days. Skinner reached out a shaking hand for the tumbler of water on the nightstand, and watched, as if from a great distance, as his hand shook, uncontrollably, making it impossible for him to pick up the drink. He recognized the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder all too well. He’d been here, done this, many years ago, another lifetime ago, and he knew how it went. Time had taught him only one way of soothing himself after this kind of nightmare. He sat up in bed, wrapped his arms around his knees, then rocked, back and forth, lulling himself back into a state of calm. His breathing began to slow, but he could feel the cool slick of sweat trickling down the side of his hot face.


“She isn’t dead,” he told himself firmly, rocking in an endlessly repeating motion. “She isn’t dead. It was just a nightmare. She isn’t dead.” Time would heal. Time had healed him before, but he had been younger then, and the future…well, the future had never looked less certain.


He closed his eyes, and carried on rocking. It was a technique that worked as well now as it had when he had been a battle scarred 18 year old, fighting a different war. Finally, after an hour or so, he felt able to slide down beneath the sheets, and sink back into an uneasy sleep. The dream returned with full force, almost immediately. He was running again, crashing through the undergrowth, making too much noise in his desperate attempt to escape from the Qundi ship. He could smell them in the air, could feel the breeze on the back of his neck as the tiny ship hovered close; any minute now they’d fire, and he’d be caught, and dragged back to god knows what…he turned, changed direction, but his legs wouldn’t move.


Not that way, the trees seemed to whisper.


That way lay her dead body, outstretched on the grass, crumpled, like an old rag doll. His feet changed course again, of their own volition, and he was running, seeking sanctuary, and the escape that was so close he could almost touch it. Just a few seconds more… He gave a jagged, inarticulate cry as the forest above was suddenly filled with bright light, then the ship was upon him, and he felt his legs give way as he was caught in a Qundi paralyzing beam. He thudded to the forest floor again, the ship lowering down, down, down until it was almost upon him. Shapeless alien forms descended, smothering him, their flesh stinking that acrid Qundi scent. Skinner tried to scream, but was denied even that, his whole body paralyzed. He lay, in numb, wordless horror as the Qundi surrounded him, and he wished he could close his eyes so that he wouldn’t have to look at their ugly, slimy flesh. One of them was standing over him, and he felt hands on his shoulders. Puzzled, he looked up into the alien’s face, backlit by the light from the hovering ship, and almost jumped out of his skin with surprise. He was gazing into a pair of familiar, unfamiliar hazel eyes. His cry was wordless, and it echoed and reverberated in his mind, shattering the silence of the forest.






Nobody could say that the Qundi neglected their captives.


Skinner stretched, and ran his hand over his distended stomach. He was stuffed to the gills after yet another filling, if bland meal. After three years of eating on the hoof, and frequently consuming the kind of food that he’d have retched over in happier times, he had forgotten how content a square meal could make a man; and content sure as hell wasn’t how he wanted to feel. Skinner cracked his knuckles, a habit he had somehow managed to acquire over the past few years, and fought the ever-present anxiety that gnawed in his belly. Apart from the nightmares that tore into his every night, he was more rested than he had been in a long time, and, glancing down at the navy blue overalls he was wearing, he could see that he was even gaining weight. When he’d first woken up in the Qundi compound, nearly two months ago, these overalls had hung on his lean, battle-worn frame. Now he was beginning to fill them out. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that. He had grown used to his old, hard body, and now he felt that he was growing softer, and more mellow, with every passing day.


Skinner strolled over to the gate. It had taken him some time to stop running everywhere. Running, and ducking the paralyzing beams of light that usually came from above, from the bellies of the small, darting Qundi ships. His body had adjusted slowly, almost painfully, to its new life of leisure, luxury, and indulgence.


Skinner reached the gate, and glanced at his watch, waiting. The gate would open at precisely 2pm, and allow them into the gardens, as it did every day after lunch. The Qundi were nothing if not punctual. Skinner gave a wry grunt as he considered that. Yes, the Qundi were punctual; he wouldn’t be surprised if even their invasion of Earth had been carefully timed to the nearest solar second.


At 2 pm precisely, the gates swung open, and a small crowd of men and women, each and every one of them clad in navy blue overalls, swarmed into the gardens like so many dark, foraging insects. The Qundi had an obsession with cleanliness and hierarchy; it pleased their sense of order to clothe their prisoners alike. For they were prisoners: no matter how luxurious the prison, or how kind their captors, each and every person in the compound was fitted with a tracking device, inserted under the skin in the neck, that effectively prevented escape.


Each day, the former rebels took exercise in the gardens. Each day they soaked up the sun, and sat under the tranquil blue sky. Each day they ate the fine meals provided, and amused themselves in the library, or games room, or on the tennis courts, or in the swimming pool. It was 5 star kind of prison, and that, Skinner assumed, was the point. He watched the resolve of his fellow rebels weaken as each pleasant day passed, until he was no longer sure that even the most ardent of them was as committed to their cause as they had once been. He remembered a quotation, something about any population being only three meals away from revolution – Skinner supposed that the opposite was true as well. Feed people well, and they lost their will to fight. It was, after all, hard to maintain any kind of anger with a full belly.


He didn’t know what the Qundi wanted from them, but the sense of waiting was frustrating him. The soothing confines of his luxurious prison, far from placating him, irritated him instead, like an open wound. He was worried about Scully, and their son, and his anxiety gnawed away inside him, keeping him hungry for the one thing the Qundi didn’t provide in their luxurious prison: news. Any contact with the outside world was forbidden, and there was, in any case, no way of bypassing the Qundi security. He knew because he had tried. Several times. Each escape attempt had ended up with him waking up, flat on his back, in the Compound sick bay, caught within the same paralyzing beams the Qundi used to disable all their captives. The first time it had happened, he had feared some kind of retribution, but it hadn’t been forthcoming. He had merely been reunited with his fellow prisoners, until the next escape attempt – and the next. Last time it had happened, he had woken up in the Sick Bay with a shout of total frustration in his throat at finding himself back at square one yet again. He was reminded of a Science Fiction show he had watched, years ago, where a man was imprisoned in a remote village, unable to escape. That was what he felt like. He grew to resent the Qundi precisely because they didn’t ever punish him. It was almost as if he wasn’t important enough. That he was a life-form so inferior to their own that he wasn’t even worth making an example of. And, of course, the truth was that he was little threat to them. His continued inability to escape was proof of that.


Skinner knew from experience that once one of their number was captured, they never escaped and returned to the rebel base. Nobody knew what happened to them once they disappeared behind the faceless facades of the Qundi compounds. They might as well have been wiped from the face of the earth. Rumors abounded about mass slaughter, and death camps, as rumors inevitably did in wartime. Skinner remembered stories about the Vietcong eating babies during the last war he’d fought. It was common enough propaganda, but the truth was that nobody knew what befell the rebels inside the Qundi compounds because nobody ever escaped to tell the tale. Now, having experienced the aliens’ hospitality first hand, Skinner knew that this was the last thing any of the rebels expected. He almost wanted to find Scully just to tell her about these hotel-prisons, knowing it would make her throw back her head, and laugh – that deep belly laugh that still had the power to surprise him, coming as it did from within her slight frame. There were many things about Dana Scully that had proved unexpected. Skinner stopped walking, and bent over, placing his hands on his knees, suddenly winded by the memory of her. Damn, but he missed her so much! They had barely spent a night apart for the past three years. They had lived side by side, often in the most appalling conditions, and fought shoulder to shoulder against the invading Qundi forces. He missed her pale, pointed face, and the way her eyes shone so darkly, determinedly blue. He missed the unexpected timbre of her rare laugh, and the way her cropped red hair glowed in the sun. He missed holding her slender body at night, and reminding her that they were both human, capable of the most sublime pleasure even in the midst of this apocalyptic nightmare. He missed the feel of her soft lips pressed against his, and the way she curled up against his large body, like a wild animal seeking shelter and heat in the bitterly cold nights. He missed her child, as well; the boy he had taken care of like his own, nursed when he was sick, or teething, changed his diaper, and held when the little one cried.


“All right, mate?” He looked up, into Regan’s gray eyes. The other man, a Brit, had been with them since early in the campaign, and he had been captured on the same day Skinner had been taken.


“Fine…just…” Skinner managed a faded smile that said everything.


“Another nightmare?” Regan’s eyes were sympathetic. “It’s all right, mate. We all have them.”


“I dreamed about Dana. She was dead,” Skinner said bluntly, staring into space.


“Just a dream.” Regan shrugged. “Nobody’s going to kill that woman, Walt. Nobody would dare – not even the Qundi.” They exchanged wry smiles. Dana had a formidable reputation amongst the rebels. “She’d kick our asses from here to the fucking Qundi home- world for the way we’re lying down and letting these guys walk all over us.” Regan spat whenever he said the word Qundi. It was a habit they had all picked up in the rebel camps.


“I wonder what she’s doing now?” Skinner sat down on a bench, and steepled his fingers. Was she planning another attack? Was she moving, running, and fighting, changing base constantly to avoid capture as they had both been doing for the past few years? Or had she been taken too? Was she even now imprisoned in another sunny compound, just like this one? He wasn’t stupid. They had been fighting non-stop for three years, and they had lost ground on each and every day. He knew the fight was nearly over, and the Qundi were preparing their final invasion force. He knew it, and he hated it, and he would have fought to the last drop of blood in his body to prevent it.


“I dunno, mate. No point thinking about it.” Regan shrugged. “If she’s out there, she’ll still be fighting the Qundi motherfuckers, that’s for sure. I never saw a woman fight like her. You’re a lucky bastard, Walt.”


“What do they want with us, Regan?” Skinner looked up helplessly into the other man’s eyes.


“I dunno.” Regan shrugged again. “But I feel uncomfortably like a turkey in December.” He gave a wry grin. Skinner raised a questioning eyebrow. “Being fattened up for something. Fuck knows what.” He glanced down at what had once been a scrawny frame. Like Skinner, he had filled out, and the sores on his face had disappeared as a result of all the enforced rest, and good nutrition.


“That’s not a good thought.” Skinner gazed impassively at his hands, fighting his gnawing frustration. “I dreamed about someone else last night,” he murmured.


“Oh yeah. Was she pretty too?” Regan grinned.


“It was a man. Someone I used to work with,” Skinner said, still staring at his hands. Regan watched, and waited, expectant. “His name was Mulder.” Skinner said the name as if in a dream, then said it again. “Mulder.” He let the name linger on his tongue, as if he could taste the unfamiliar arrangement of vowels and consonants. “Christ, it’s been so long since I even thought about him. He was taken right back at the beginning, before the colonization began. We never saw him again. I suppose…it’s possible that he could be in a compound like this somewhere,” Skinner glanced up at Regan, his expression hopeful.


“Possible, but not exactly likely, Walt,” Regan said bluntly. “We don’t know what happened to any of the abductees.”


“I miss him,” Skinner said, in a low, hard tone. “When the Qundi came, I wished he’d been here. I don’t think he’d have got a kick out of being proved right after all the years of taunting and derision. That wasn’t the kind of man he was, just that I think he would have known what to do. Maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe that’s wishful thinking on my part, but he had a clearer understanding of all this than any of the rest of us. I feel like I’ve spent the past three years just muddling through, losing battle after battle, always one step behind. Mulder had a kind of effortless talent for being able to figure it all out. I wish I knew what had happened to him.” Skinner got up, and began pacing restlessly, full of frustration. “Christ I can’t stand much more of this waiting. Why are they keeping us, Regan? Why are we here?”


“You always did ask too many questions, Walt.” Regan grinned. “It was the first thing I noticed about you. Asking goddamn questions like you fully expected someone to answer them. That’s when you weren’t yelling orders.” He got up and slapped Skinner’s shoulder in a gesture of reassurance, and then their attention was distracted by some kind of commotion from the main Qundi office by the gates.


Skinner was startled out of his reverie by the sight of several Qundi exiting the compound where they lived. This was unprecedented in itself, but now they were gliding across the gardens, their skin flushing a shade of pale green, which Skinner had come to associate with agitation. They were always slightly clammy, and glowed whenever they came out into the warm sunshine. Skinner wasn’t sure if this was a normal reaction to Earth’s climate, or whether they found conditions on his world uncomfortable. It was hard having a conversation with the Qundi, mainly because they had no concept of speech. The very act of communicating with them was such an intensely horrific experience that just the memory of the few times it had happened brought him out in a cold sweat.


The Qundi delegation was clearly on a mission, as they swept across the grass in formation. There were six of them, in a neat, orderly pyramid, the most senior Qundi at its apex, their tendrils waving in the breeze. They were peculiar looking – not the large-faced, huge-eyed, small-bodied creatures of recent cultural myth, but something altogether more alien, and less humanoid. Their bodies were insubstantial, shifting shades of bluey green. Mulder had been wrong, Skinner thought, with a wry grunt – the aliens were little green men after all. Although the term men was undoubtedly incorrect: Skinner had no idea whether the Qundi had any gender differentiation. There was no outward sign of it, and his mind shied away from even thinking about how they reproduced.


The Qundi pyramid came to a halt in front of the main crowd of prisoners, their tendrils curling and unfurling in a gesture that Skinner approximated to the human gesture of clenching and unclenching fists in anxiety, although for all he knew this could be their attempt smiling. The leader of the little group emitted a sound like a sonic boom, and the prisoners clapped their hands over their ears, wincing in discomfort. The Qundi toned it down, and flushed an apologetic yellow – or at least that was how Skinner had come to interpret that particular shade on the Qundi skin coloration spectrum.


The other five Qundi stepped out from behind their leader, and each laid a tendril on the arms of the nearest prisoner. Skinner shuddered. It didn’t matter how many times he witnessed this process, it still made him want to throw up. The prisoners submitted, resigned, as the Qundi trilled at them, their tendrils fluttering wildly. Experience had taught the rebels that there was little point attempting to outrun a Qundi when he wanted to talk. It was better just to give in, and hope the whole thing would be over as soon as possible. Skinner swallowed back his bile as the captive’s skins began to take on the same unearthly shade as their captors. They were soon glowing a sickly pale green, and looked decidedly ill. Usually, when the Qundi approached and laid tendrils on a whole group like this, they wanted to communicate with all the humans within a nearby radius, and this seemed to be the only way they knew how, intensely unsettling though it was for all concerned.


Skinner closed his eyes, and tried not to fight the process. Sure enough, a few seconds later, he heard a whisper forming in the back of his mind, like the soft hush-hush of trees blowing in the wind. He wasn’t sure how the telepathy worked, or how, by touching one human, the aliens were able to communicate with many, but that seemed to be the way it worked. By choosing five humans, they were boosting the power of the telepathic signal in order to reach all the humans in the compound, and Skinner had to admit that it did work. After a fashion. He gritted his teeth as the whispering grew louder, booming inside his mind. Whatever it was the aliens wished to communicate seemed to be both urgent and complicated. They didn’t speak in words, but in a series of constantly shifting images, some of them clear, and easy to understand, but some so bizarre that they ranged from profoundly disturbing, like the special effects in a horror movie, to almost humorous.


Thus, a picture of a piglet squealing in a hut, morphed into an ominous, dark green shape sliding across the floor of what looked like a spaceship. Skinner winced, wondering what the hell they were trying to say.


Search. The word finally became clear in his mind. Us, searching…one of you. A big blue tower crumpled into dust in his mind, and the debris lay on the floor of a forest. One of the Qundi flushed a deep pea green, and Skinner wondered what the hell that was all about. Searching for this, the baying voices hissed, and he was treated to a sudden mental image of a huge, resplendent superhero. Someone chuckled, and Skinner even managed a smile himself. It was a very amusing image. The man they were looking for was at least 20 feet tall – he was actually towering over buildings, and he was massively muscled, like a competitor in a Mr. Universe competition. His broad chest and wide shoulders positively rippled with energy and power. He had a slim, six-pack stomach, and very long legs. Impossibly long, Skinner thought. Ridiculously and stupidly long, like the legs on a cartoon character after being flattened by a steamroller. The man was almost bald, with a square jaw the consistency of granite, complete with a little Kirk Douglas cleft, and full, strangely sensuous lips, which barely hid a set of straight white teeth. A small nose was set under the deepest, darkest, most intense eyes Skinner had ever witnessed, hidden behind a set of glasses. The man was dressed in a white shirt that was so starched it positively crackled when he moved, which he did with a lethal grace, prowling back and forth like some kind of dangerous, caged animal. Skinner grinned, wondering how the hell they were going to find this guy, when he noticed that some of his fellow prisoners were staring at me.


“What the…? It sure as hell isn’t me,” he growled. The superhero chose that exact moment to say something in a terse, angry tone, and Skinner almost jumped. The voice was his. “Christ, it is me,” he muttered, startled.


Skinner swallowed hard, wondering whether he should step forward. He had never yet managed to ascertain quite what the Qundi could see, but it was clear that they had trouble telling humans apart – the same way that humans had trouble telling the Qundi apart. He suspected that to them humans all resembled so many wobbling, jellified, warm-bloodied, unclean blancmanges, just as to humans the slickly smooth-skinned, glowing, faintly acidic-smelling Qundi had no distinguishing features whatsoever.


The Qundi were becoming more agitated, and the humans they were holding began to buckle at the knees. Skinner decided he had no choice, and stepped forward.


“I think you’re looking for me,” he said. “Possibly. Although maybe I’m not tall enough?” He offered hopefully. The Qundi released their captives with an immediacy that made the unfortunate men and women sink down, unsupported. One of them passed out before he thudded to the ground, and another heaved the contents of her stomach onto the green grass. Skinner could sympathize. There was no such thing as a nice, easy chat with the Qundi. The process of communication was uncomfortable for all concerned. Even the Qundi were glowing an unhealthy shade of sludge green, their tendrils whirling anxiously, a thin sheen of slime trickling down their smooth skins, and their scent was more acrid than usual, making Skinner cough and gag.


The Qundi in charge examined him closely for a long time, and Skinner had the uncomfortable feeling that he was being measured against the superhero in the image. He wasn’t sure what the Qundi used to look with – they did have a set of glistening orbs that could possibly be eyes, but Skinner was by no means sure. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the lead Qundi whirled his tendrils and turned. His fellows turned with him, en masse, as if they were one entity, all of them waving their tendrils at Skinner in what appeared to be a clear directive that he should accompany them. Skinner fell into step, his stomach churning. He had no idea whether the Qundi tortured their prisoners, or whether they had other, more sophisticated methods of obtaining information. Certainly he had information – valuable information – concerning the rebel bases and their plans for future attacks. Maybe the Qundi knew that. Maybe that was why they had been searching for him.


“Good luck, mate,” Regan called as he went, and Skinner waved a hand in his friend’s direction, wondering if he’d ever see him, or anyone else, again. He had never known the Qundi come looking for anyone before, and he had no idea why they had picked him.


He followed his captors into a cool, empty room containing one chair. He had never seen the Qundi sit, so he guessed it was for him, and sat in it obligingly. The head Qundi wafted its tendrils and they turned a gentle shade of green, so Skinner guessed he had probably done the right thing. Certainly the Qundi delegation seemed much calmer now. They glided towards him, and he fought back a wave of nausea as they surrounded him, and began to emit a high-pitched sonic hum.


“Oh shit. You want to talk,” he muttered, before their tendrils descended on him.


He felt as if he was drowning, and fought it, choking for air. He could smell that acrid scent more clearly than before, and he knew they were sweating, hating the process of conversing with him as much as he hated it. He hadn’t realized before just how unpleasant a process it was for them, but then he’d never been in a one to one conversation with them before – or one to six, as this was.


“It’s not fair. I’m outnumbered,” he growled, in ironic complaint, just before he lost consciousness.


He was standing in a room that he dimly recognized as his old office, back at the Hoover building. He was talking to Scully…and Mulder was there. Skinner’s heart leapt. It had been three years since his agent had disappeared in the woods, a captive of the early Qundi scouting ships, and there had been many times when he had longed to talk to Mulder again. Nobody had ever understood the possibility of invasion and colonization the way Mulder had. He was sure the other man would have been an invaluable weapon in their fight against the Qundi. More than that though, last night’s dream had awakened all his old, confused emotions towards his subordinate. He had an almost overwhelming urge to grab hold of Mulder, and envelop him in a bear hug, but he was aware that he was trapped inside an unalterable memory, condemned instead to watch as it played out in front of him. It felt strange. He was in two places at once – in the Hoover building, moving around of his own volition, holding a conversation he couldn’t even remember having, and at the same time in the white room, being held down by half a dozen Qundi, several years in the future. Mulder was saying something – arguing, with his boss in a way Skinner remembered with a hazy sense of nostalgia, although at the time he seemed to recall that Mulder’s frequent verbal battles used to give him a headache. Skinner wanted to shout that it didn’t matter, that within a year Mulder would be abducted, never to be seen again, and soon after that Skinner and Scully would be fighting for their home planet against alien invaders. Instead he found himself drinking in the sight of his subordinate, loving the sound of Mulder’s voice. It was a sound he had missed. Mulder was more slender than he remembered, his slim body more animated than he recalled, and the voice more laconic, almost lazy. Skinner wished they could stop living in the memory for just a second, and talk, really talk again. He would have loved to tell Mulder that he had been right all along. That there had been a colonization planned, that a date had been set, just as Mulder had warned, but he couldn’t.


The image faded, to be replaced by one of a huge silver starship, landing on the White House lawn. That wasn’t a memory. As far as Skinner knew, it hadn’t happened – at least not yet. The scene changed, almost immediately, to him running through a forest that was familiar to him both from his nightmares and his capture several weeks previously. This was a true memory, and so real he found himself reliving that terrible moment all over again, an unwilling spectator inside his own mind. Scully was beside him, running fast. He heard a muffled scream, and turned, to see her falling, her mouth open, startled, as she thudded to the forest floor. The Qundi were almost upon them, and he had a split second to make his decision, but it didn’t take that long. He couldn’t let her fall into their hands. He turned back, ignoring her terse command that he should leave her, and save himself, hauled her to her feet, and half carried, half ran with her towards the safety of the underground caves, which, for some reason, the Qundi feared, and would not approach.


A Qundi ship materialized overhead, and a squad of six Qundi landed just behind them. Skinner threw Scully in front of him, and turned, aiming his gun as he went, in a swift, well-practiced movement. He fired into the belly of one of the Qundi, and the alien emitted a high pitched shriek, and then slid to the floor of the forest, its green body shot through with shades of dark purple, acidic green “blood” oozing from its corpse. Skinner felt his throat burn, and his eyes started to water as he inhaled the chemicals secreted in the blood of the fallen Qundi. The other Qundi were shaken, momentarily, by the loss of their leader, and it took them a moment to regroup, which won Scully enough time to reach the caves. Skinner wasn’t so fortunate. He was nearly there, when he felt his legs stop moving, and, looking down, he realized he had been caught in the beam of whatever strange weaponry the Qundi used. He went down, heavily, unable to even put out a hand to stop his fall, completely paralyzed by the beam, and landed with a thud, gazing, unblinkingly, at the patches of blue sky he could see through the gaps in the trees. He had a flashback to another forest, in a different, hotter land, thirty years before, when he had been fighting a more human enemy. In that split second before the Qundi seized him, and transported him to their ship, he was aware of the irony that humans had ever wasted time doing battle with each other, when there was this kind of foe to fight, and then he lost consciousness.


Skinner came back to the present with a start, his arms and legs thrashing wildly as the Qundi held him down. He felt ill, and opened his mouth to scream, only to vomit over the nearest Qundi. The alien turned an appalled purple, and then wilted, visibly, its tendrils waving in feeble agitation. All the other Qundi turned a paler shade of purple, perhaps in sympathy. Then they all, as one, turned towards the door, expectantly. Skinner tried to remember how to breathe, as the acidic stench in the air stifled him, making his mouth dry, and his nostrils burn. The door opened, and a new delegation of Qundi stood in the opening. With his tormenters’ attention focused elsewhere, Skinner took advantage of the situation, and struck out, one booted foot landing on the sleek, slippery skin of the nearest Qundi. He fought back nausea as his fist connected with a sickening crunch on the tendril-framed surface of another Qundi, and then he was free, and running towards the door. He elbowed the Qundi in the doorway aside, easily knocking their slight frames down, like a ball in a bowling alley, and staggered down the corridor. He had never been inside the Qundi area of the compound before, and the endless white walls, and white doorways confused him. He had no idea which doorway, if any, might lead to freedom. Hearing a sound in front of him, he tried one of the doors, only to find it unyielding beneath his fingertips. There was no handle. Frustrated, he glanced over his shoulder, to see the purple-hued Qundi floating towards him, their tendrils glowing an angry red. Nobody had ever outrun a Qundi, but that didn’t mean Skinner wasn’t going to try. He was more than prepared to go down fighting. Stubbornly, he changed course, and, with surprise on his side, barged through the contingent of Qundi, ran back the way he had come…and then stopped in his tracks as his feet were caught in the familiar light of a paralyzing beam. He just had time to murmur “oh shit” before he fell to the floor, unable to do so much as blink.


He lay there, waiting, as the Qundi returned to his side. The original Qundi were joined by the second delegation from the doorway, and Skinner was aware, when they came into sight, that it was this new group of three who were leaning over him, peering at him. A tendril came into his field of vision beside his face, and the next thing he knew he was back in the white room, with the new Qundi delegation. He lay, paralyzed and helpless in the chair, as they advanced on him, smelling that familiar, gagging stench as they pushed their way into his mind. This time there were no visions from his past. He assumed that these Qundi were more skilled in communication with humans, because after the usual preamble of jumbled images, none of them from his own memories, a hesitant speech kicked in.


“You…The Skinned One. You will be the…” They spoke a word that sounded like radio static, and Skinner winced. “You will work with him,” they added.


“Who?” He formed the question clumsily, inside his mind, and wasn’t even sure if they had understood. There was silence for a moment, and then a fuzzy, confused reply.


“You will be the…” Again, that word; a fuzzy, sonic mess of sound. “You will slide into the hierarchy, as the serving one to the…” More static.


“I don’t understand,” Skinner hissed, trying to twist away from the sickening stench that was emanating from them, but finding himself held fast by their tendrils.


“You will take your place!” The head Qundi pronounced. “You will serve the new leader, the…” Skinner winced before the Qundi even formed the word, and the alien paused, and one of his orbs blinked – visibly. Skinner felt something push inside his mind, searching through his vocabulary. “Caesar!” the Qundi said finally, in a tone of great triumph. “You will serve the Caesar.”


“What the fuck is a Caesar?” Skinner growled. “Outside of ancient fucking Rome that is.” He saw no reason why he should make their task easier.


“Overlordprelatesuzerainpresidentking…” The Qundi intoned the list in one long string of words that made Skinner’s head ache.


“All right, I don’t need a fucking thesaurus, and I’m not serving any goddamn Qundi overlord either,” Skinner snarled.


“You will serve him. You will be…” There was a clicking sound and he had the image of himself, bowing. Behind him, was the mass of humanity, in front of him, were a dozens of Qundi ships. “Crossover…linkage…” The Qundi attempted to explain.


“You mean some kind of liaison, between us and you?” Skinner suggested. The Qundi emitted a loud sonic boom that made Skinner wince, but which was clearly a triumphant, affirmative.


“Liaison. Yes. Communicator. You, speaking for your people with our chosen one. Linkage. You will belong to the Overlord.”


“Not the most tempting offer I’ve ever had,” Skinner muttered, his whole body shaking with the effort of conversation, convulsing against their slimy bodies. They were sweating profusely now, and his throat hurt from inhaling their scent. He felt their tendrils unfurl from his body, and then, thankfully, they withdrew from his mind. His head crashed back onto the chair with a resounding thud, and he stared at the ceiling. Who, or what, was this Overlord? he wondered, and what would belonging to, and serving him, entail?


Skinner spent the next week in solitary confinement in the Qundi area of the compound. He was fed, and kept comfortable, but his nightmares grew worse as each day passed. Every time he closed his eyes he saw images that scared him. Sometimes he could make sense of them, but more often it was the sense of impending darkness that filled him with fear. It was like being stuck in a suspense movie, unable to get to the end and release the tension, and it took its toll on him. He lost weight again. What was left of his hair was long since gone. The Qundi had no mirrors, but Skinner knew by looking down on his body that the past few years had changed him physically. He was still strong, his muscles built up from years of fighting, but his body was more scarred than ever before, and even Qundi medicine hadn’t managed to cure his persistent cough.


He tried not to think about what might lie ahead of him, but in the silence of that small room, he came to a decision. He wasn’t going to serve any goddamn Qundi overlord. The first chance he had, he’d strike. Even if it meant his own death, if he took this important Qundi bastard with him it would be worth it, and, somehow, he knew that Dana would approve. That thought made him smile, and he gave himself over to the fantasy of making slow, tender love to her. He imagined taking her slender body in his arms, and kissing her white, round breasts, lingering over the soft, pink nipples, sucking them tenderly, making her moan…only to find his mind shifting out of focus. The body in his arms grew longer, harder, flatter, and he found himself kissing a man’s solid chest. Looking up in surprise, he encountered a pair of laughing, hazel eyes, looking back at him. Skinner didn’t know what the hell to make of that fantasy. It wasn’t the first time he’d had erotic thoughts about his former subordinate. There had been a time when it disturbed him to be fantasizing about another man, but now so much had changed that he was almost pleased to welcome back the familiar daydream.


One day, about a week later, he woke to find a set of clothes lying on the chair beside his bed. They weren’t the navy blue overalls he had been wearing since he arrived in the compound either. Skinner got up and examined the clothing with a puzzled expression. It was a formal dress suit, of the kind he had once worn to work every day: white shirt, wool pants, a slim black leather belt, shiny black shoes, and a tasteful navy and white tie. Skinner stared at the clothing dumbly for a moment. He hadn’t worn clothes like this in years. He wasn’t even sure he wanted to. This kind of clothing belonged to an old Skinner, a Skinner who had died when the first Qundi ships touched down on Earth three years ago. He assumed he was supposed to wear the clothing, so he took a shower, and then dressed himself, his fingers fumbling with the unfamiliar formality of the clothing. For three years he had dressed for comfort, and battle in combat fatigues, or sweats and jeans. This felt so strange. Like donning a memory.


When he was done, he sat on the bed, and waited, his gut churning in anxiety. He had no idea what would be required of him next, although he presumed it had something to do with this new overlord he was supposed to serve. His resolve had settled into his stomach with a characteristic hardness. He had made up his mind to kill this overlord, or die trying. He would never serve the Qundi.


They came to collect him a couple of hours later, took him out of the compound, and prodded him onto one of their small ships, locking him in yet another of their trademark small white rooms. The journey took almost twenty minutes, but during that time they must have covered at least 200 miles, because when they arrived at their destination, Skinner stared, slack jawed, as he stood on the ramp of the landing bay. He was gazing, dumb-struck, at a place he wasn’t even sure still existed: the White House. Not only was it still there, but it was untouched by the turbulence of the past few years, gleaming a perfect white in the bright sunshine.


The Qundi hustled him out onto the lawn, and it was only then that he realized they were in the middle of some kind of huge gathering. There were Qundi everywhere, all neatly arranged in formations of three, six, or nine, and even a few humans, less well ordered, standing, staring at the sky, just waiting. The Qundi who had brought him here emitted several loud, sonic bursts, causing Skinner to put his hands over his ears, and then they assumed their place at the front of the waiting parade, Skinner nestled between them, like a precious possession. Half an hour passed, and he grew hot under the bright, afternoon sun. He loosened the collar of his stiff shirt, feeling uncomfortable. Christ, when had he last worn a suit and tie? He knew they had once been his everyday uniform, but that seemed a lifetime ago; a different time, a different Skinner. Now, the collar felt restrictive, too tight around his throat as if it were strangling him. The trousers felt stiff, and heavy. The suit, with its memories of long meetings in air conditioned offices, and an endless round of bureaucracy and political maneuverings, was no longer part of him, the way it had once been. He had worn it once with the authority of one who belonged to that world, but it was a world that had long since gone, and the suit didn’t fit him like the second skin it had once been. It chafed, and itched.


Skinner sensed a mounting excitement in the Qundi surrounding him, and then, as one, they suddenly turned their heads, and gazed into the sky. Skinner couldn’t see anything, but he heard the unmistakable sound of a Qundi starship. It came into view a few seconds later, silver, and curiously graceful despite its size. It was huge, the biggest ship he’d ever seen, and he’d seen a few since that fateful day when he’d seen his first as it carried Mulder off into the unknown. The ship slowed, and descended in an elegant, spiraling arc, coming to hover a long way above the immaculate White House lawn. It was so big it covered half of Washington, and was far too big to land. An expectant sonic hum went up from the gathered Qundi and Skinner pressed his hands over his ears, as the noise became increasingly high pitched and uncomfortable. He was so intent on filtering out the sound that he barely noticed the starship’s doors opening, and a solid beam of light shining from the belly of the great ship onto the grass a long way below. Then the sonic hum cut out, abruptly, and he looked up in surprise. Something was moving in the depths of the starship, and the waiting Qundi each took two steps forward as if on cue, and stretched their fluid body into what looked like an imitation of a bow. Skinner gazed, helplessly at the prostrating Qundi, wondering what the hell he was supposed to do. He wondered how the fanatically hierarchical Qundi elected their overlords, and whether the new Qundi supervisor would be taller, or differently shaped from his fellows, like the Queen bee in a hive. He was interrupted in this train of thought by tendrils nudging against his jacket, and he found himself being pushed to the front, and then pressed down so that he, also, was in a bowing position. He growled in frustration, fighting the tendrils that held him fast, but he knew from experience that it was a lost cause. The Qundi had muscles that could bear three times their own weight, and he didn’t stand a chance against them. He submitted in poor grace, bending his head under the onslaught, and waited for the Qundi overlord to put in an appearance, gliding down from the Mothership on a beam of light like some kind of archangel descending from heaven. An expectant hush enveloped the crowd, and the tension was almost palpable. Skinner held his breath, trying not to breathe in the stench of excited Qundi. He had never been surrounded by so many of them before, and the bitter smell hung over the gathering like a pall of smoke. Finally, there was movement inside the ship, and the waiting Qundi shifted, as one, letting out what sounded like a collective sonic sigh. Skinner swallowed hard. He had no intention of striking the new overlord down when he was so outnumbered. He’d wait, and bide his time, and hope that whatever was required of him in the meantime would not be too onerous.


He heard a sound, and clenched his fists, unable to look up because of the pressure of the Qundi tendril on the back of his neck, but he knew the Overlord was close by the way the Qundi were all flushing a deep crimson colour. He swallowed hard, fighting down the bile that was rising in his throat as the Qundi Overlord crossed the lawn to stand in front of him. Would the Qundi want to talk to him? Would he wrap him up in those foul smelling tendrils and force his way into his mind, confusing and terrifying him with those jumbled images that made him want to vomit? Skinner tensed as he felt something land on his shoulder, and then something else, on his other shoulder, and then the pressure on the back of his neck eased.


“Oh god, I should have known they’d force you to do this bowing shit,” a voice said, and Skinner would have fallen over if it hadn’t been for the hands on his shoulders holding him upright. He looked up, startled, to find a pair of hazel eyes laughing at him. He couldn’t speak for a moment, and when he did, no sound came out. It took him three attempts to form the words from between his shocked lips.




Skinner stood there, gaping like a goldfish, as he tried, and failed, to make sense of this situation. He gazed at his old subordinate, trying to understand. Mulder looked…different. He hadn’t grown any tendrils, but all the same, there was something indefinably different about the man. His hazel eyes were deeper, and more vivid than Skinner remembered them, and they were shining now as Mulder smiled at him, his straight white teeth gleaming.


“Mulder?” Skinner said again, louder, taking hold of the other man’s arms, his expression still one of total and abject shock. “Oh god, Mulder, what the hell happened to you? Are you really this overlord they told me about? Can you talk to them without throwing up? Shit, I can’t believe it’s you. Shit. Oh shit.”


Mulder laughed out loud and Skinner shook his head, still bemused.


“Mulder.” Skinner held the other man at arm’s length and looked at him for what felt like an eternity, grinning inanely. Mulder was dressed in a flowing robe, that partially obscured his body, but he seemed well. He looked taller, fitter, and, strangely, younger than Skinner remembered him. He was still handsome, still knew how to smile that lazy smile, full of affection, with just a hint of flirtation. “It is you, isn’t it?” Skinner asked anxiously. “You’re not one of the others in disguise? One of the shape-shifters?”


“It’s me, old friend. Don’t worry.” Mulder circled Skinner’s shoulders with his arm, and pulled him in close, then, without embarrassment, placed a gentle kiss on Skinner’s bemused lips. Skinner had a sudden memory of falling leaves, and sunflower seeds, like a whisper inside his mind, and then it was gone. “And you are still you. I knew they’d find you,” Mulder said, caressing Skinner’s cheek with infinite affection, suddenly full of wonder at the reunion.


“You gave them that description of me?” Skinner asked, flushing as he remembered the Superhero.


“Of course.” Mulder nodded.


“Then we really have to talk about the way you view the world,” Skinner commented dryly, still unable to believe that he was touching someone he thought he had lost forever. Mulder snorted in amusement, and Skinner suddenly lost his grip on reality. “I can’t…Christ, I thought we’d lost you – I thought I’d lost you. I blamed myself…I can’t believe…How did this…? I don’t…” He felt a lump rise in his throat, and stared helplessly at the other man, his eyes filling with tears. He shook his head angrily, annoyed with himself, and turned his face away to hide from that compelling hazel gaze.


“It’s okay, Walter. I’ll explain everything. We’ll have time to talk later,” Mulder said softly, still not relinquishing his hold around Skinner’s broad shoulders, his strong arm warm, and reassuring. “We have a lot of catching up to do, old friend, but yes, I am Overlord of the Planet Earth. Grand title, huh? And this for the guy who used to be known as spooky!” He gave an ironic chuckle, and Skinner couldn’t help smiling along with him. The anxiety that had been his constant companion, settled in the bottom of his gut for the past three years, had gone, to be replaced by an emotion he never thought he’d feel again: hope.


End of Part One


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