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II. Secret Operations of Nature 

Some say that people find themselves in the forest. They discover, away from the babble of the city, what they are without constraint. 

Others maintain that people lose themselves in the forest. Humans are social animals; they are not fully human in the absence of companionship. Falling trees may make whatever noise they like, but people exist only in the plural. Alone, truly alone, something vital is stripped away. Whether this loss is a detriment or a benefit is a question on which commentators are divided. 

Acadia, as is its wont, keeps its own counsel on the issue. 

The call about the latest body came just after seven a.m. 

They dressed quickly; Mulder had warned Scully to bring layers, so she dressed carefully, with thermal underwear to wick away sweat from her body, a Polar fleece shirt over that to keep warm, and a Gore-tex parka on top, to shield her from the wind. Heavy jeans, thick socks, and sturdy boots completed the outfit. When she met up with Mulder in the main room, she was mildly amused to find that they'd even chosen the same dark colors for their parkas; they looked like they came from the same scout troop. 

The Blue Moon cabins were only fifteen minutes away from the park, and it was a much easier fifteen minutes with the thin sunlight guiding them. They were waved through the entrance this time, and they drove around the loop road just long enough to get to the entrance to Cadillac Mountain. The rental Taurus protested against the thirty degree grade, but Mulder just called it a piece of shit and stepped on the gas. 

Scully had never before been on a mountain from which she could see the sea. She scanned one of the ubiquitous brochures as they climbed upwards. Cadillac Mountain was the highest mountain on the East Coast, and also the easternmost. According to the park's self-congratulatory literature, visitors who wait for sunrise at the top of the mountain could be the first people in the continental United States to see the sun in the morning. The brochure made it sound, Scully thought, as if the Park Service itself had erected the mountain, just so the God-fearing tax-paying citizens of America could see an early sunrise. 

They pulled into the parking lot, almost empty except for the park vehicles. It had over a hundred spaces, by her quick appraisal, and apparently that wasn't enough to satisfy the demand, because, according to the rangers, during the summer cars were backed up all the way down the mountain, couch potatoes waiting for their turn as King of the Hill. There were restrooms and a small gift shop, too, she noted, though the latter bore a sign that it was closed for the season. 

The mountain was flat near the top, flat enough that making the parking lot probably hadn't been very difficult. Above the grey concrete, the mountain sloped upwards in smooth lumps, bare of most vegetation except for a few scattered bushes. The flat yellow-brown of the stone was punctuated by wooden signs indicating the directions of various trails down the mountain. 

A circle of rangers surrounded the tallest hillock. They were all facing outwards, as if they were unwilling to look again at what they were guarding. 

Mulder shouldered past them, opening up a space for Scully to slip through. They were standing around a trail marker. Since the ground was solid rock, and wood doesn't penetrate very well into rock, the marker was supported by a cairn of stones. Scully could see that there were at least three trails that passed this point. She couldn't see their names, though, because of the entrails hanging off of each pointed sign. 

Scully estimated that enough viscera to constitute one human being was strewn over the wooded post. 

"I don't see the rest of the body," she said, assuming that one of the rangers would reply if the rest had been found. 

Her faith was rewarded when one, still not looking inward, stiffened and said, "It's under the rocks." 

Scully looked down at the stones keeping the pillar upright, but couldn't see anything. 

"Over here," Mulder's voice came. "On the other side." 

She walked around and found him kneeling between a hand, outstretched in one final, pitiful attempt to find release, and a head. It was cool on the mountaintop, and there were as yet no visible signs of decomposition; she could see that the victim's eyes had been blue. 

Mulder looked up at her. "He'd have to have an incredible sense of balance to keep the sign upright while he stuck this guy in among the rocks." He pointed to a spiderweb, littered with the husks of insects, stretched in between the pillar and a few of the rocks on the top of the pile. One section of the web was stained where a splash of gore had hit it. "The sign didn't move at all. He's got a real feel for this." 

"For murder?" 

"That too. He's got a real feel for the park, Scully. I think he's more at home here than he's ever been anywhere else." 

Mulder stood, brushing dirt from his knees. "They've sent someone to get a camera, to get pictures of the scene. I guess you can do an autopsy of whatever they can scoop up, but I don't think we need to wait to decide the cause of death." 

Scully nodded. Mulder's eyes were unfocused, and she left him to his work. She confirmed with the rangers that a photographer was coming to record the scene, and that they would take all the body parts to the local police office as soon as the mortician showed up. Her quick examination of the scene produced no immediate leads, and if Mulder was right about their UNSUB, it wasn't likely that they'd find any evidence to connect him with a house or a job. 

She returned to Mulder's side when she was sure that each of the rangers knew what he or she was responsible for. If everyone had a task, the whole thing would seem more manageable, less sickening. It was odd for her to be managing people; it wasn't one of her best skills, but Mulder would have left the rangers standing there like trees all day. Actually, he was paying more attention to the trees.

He acknowledged her return by beginning to speak. 

"I want to walk the trail. To see what he sees when he looks around." His head was turning, scanning the scene in short, sharp jerks. Tracking. 

"You think that hiking will give you clues to our killer?" To Scully, this mountain looked very much like the others they'd seen. Trees, stone, dirt. Irregularity and disorder, quite natural of course, but civilization was built to conquer the natural. If Mulder thought the madman was enamored of natural chaos, he was probably right. 

"Hiking couldn't hurt–he's picked some of the park's main attractions–Thunder Hole, Bubble Rock, Cadillac Mountain. I want to see why the park's important to him." 

Scully sighed and checked her fanny pack. The canteen was full; she had trail mix and binoculars, and a Swiss Army knife, gauze, and antibiotic cream if anything went moderately wrong. Planning around Mulder, she knew, would admit of no more preparation than that. "So, let's hike." She hurried back to exchange a few last words with the silent ring of rangers, then followed Mulder's retreating form down the trail. 

"The rangers say we should be careful," she told Mulder when she caught up. "About a third of the trails are impassable in places, because of waterfalls from melting snow or snow cover that's still hanging on. None of them knew about anything dangerous on the main trail here, but don't go running anywhere. They say these rocks get slick." 

He just looked at her; she gave up, embarrassed. He didn't need to tell her that she wasn't his mother. Though, come to think of it, his mother didn't exactly seem like the overprotective type. 

They traveled mainly in silence. It was apparently still the off-season for birds as well as tourists, for there were very few noises from the forest around them. Scully only saw one bird in the first hour of the hike. She didn't recognize it. This was much further north than she'd ever come as a child. 

The forest was almost all evergreen. When they traveled over soil, the ground was as spongy as a mattress underneath their feet. The long winter finally over, rotted leaves had absorbed the melting snow and were at their richest. "Forest green" was a misnomer for the color, Scully thought as she looked around; the forest had a thousand shades of green at least, more when the light changed. 

The trail was well-marked, and years of hikers had left it mostly bare, with thick roots crossing it at intervals, breaking the descent into large natural steps. 

On lower ground, the forest floor was covered with last season's pine needles, reddish-brown and straight (like Scully's hair, Mulder said, just to tick her off, though she had to admit that the color was close). Runnels of water divided the ground in some places, runoff from the ice melting higher above. 

Everywhere she looked, it seemed, she saw trees with bulbous projections from trunk or branches. Some of the goiters were bigger than her head. They were smooth as eggs, roughened like basketballs, round and oblong and bulbous like clusters of insect larvae. They were far more varied than their uniform, upright hosts. 

Other trees were covered with white and brown fungus, growing like tiny shelves from the trees, some so thick than the underlying bark was invisible. Moss coated exposed roots, climbed up trunks, frothed over the path. Sickly green-white strands of something she could not name, but feared to touch, hung from other trees. Sometimes a tree's branches would be draped with the stuff while the trunk was covered with half-mushrooms or moss, so that there was very little tree left, as such; it had been completely converted into a host. 

The roots looked to her like arthritic fingers, curled over in pain, ugly from their lack of symmetry. Where they'd encountered obstacles to direct growth, they'd simply curled around–threading through rocks, crossing each other, and following the ground where it dropped sharply. The roots sought life, no matter how deformed. 

She had never hated an investigative site so much. 

Mulder looked back once, saw she was having trouble keeping up, and stopped, sitting down on a sizable rock by the side of the trail. "Do you need to stop for a while?" 

Pride and common sense warred briefly in her, and the victor was preordained. "I'm fine," she panted. 

He looked at her almost indulgently and blinked slowly a few times. He was all but batting his eyelashes at her, begging her to be a little easier on herself. She walked the last few steps down to him and sat heavily on the rock, her back brushing his. "Want some water?" she asked, pulling the canteen from the bag at her waist. 

"I'd be delighted," he said, accepting the bottle. He only took a few sips before handing it back to her. Sometimes his desire to deny himself made life a little easier for her, after all. 

"So," Scully said, after she'd drunk her fill, "what have you found out?" 

"Acadia's a beautiful place. It must be nice in the summer." Mulder was sweating lightly. Her covert glances at his face showed that the pupils were back to normal. His eyes were green today, complementing the forest. 

"In the summer there are hikers up and down this mountain like ants on an anthill." She sounded bitter, and that was unfortunate. She was unlikely to make it to summer, so she shouldn't begrudge the tourists their vacations. 

"Yeah, I guess the people aren't too pleasant." He was distracted. She was distracting him. He'd be better off without her. 

Scully slumped a little. Usually she was better at pretending that he needed her investigative skills. It involved an astonishing amount of denial, inasmuch as he'd relied on those skills oh, maybe twice in their partnership. But his voodoo for today would obviously work better if she were gone. Maybe there was a polite way to extricate herself from it. And she was so tired, already. 

"Would you come here for a vacation?" Mulder asked, breaking into her silence. 

She thought about it. "In the summer, the bluebottle flies and mosquitoes are everywhere. One of the rangers told me last night that he ends up dunking himself in a bathtub full of ice at least once every summer, to bring down the swelling." 

"You sure he wasn't trying to get you to help bring down his swelling?" 

A rush of goodwill surged through her. 

She tilted her head back, bumping him in the shoulder, and snorted. "Mulder, I know your vision's still for shit, but even before last week you should have been able to tell that I'm not at my most attractive. I've got Bloomingdale-size bags under my eyes and, what's worse, they clash with my hair, which is doing its best string impersonation. None of my clothes fit anymore. I look like Little Orphan Annie." 

She realized that she'd said more than she had intended to, and fell silent, the momentary contentment draining from her. 

Mulder shifted awkwardly on the rock, turning to touch her shoulder. She didn't look at him. "I–you look like you always do. I mean–" 

She forced a smile and reached up to grasp his hand. "I know what you mean." She let the silence settle back over them, and then shook her head to clear it. "Let's get going. I'm sure the rangers are worrying that we're the next victims by now." 

Mulder rose and set off down the hill again. Scully might have imagined it, but she thought that his shoulders slumped a little more. 

It was another half hour before he spoke again. Scully entertained herself with looking for the few living things with which they shared the trail–two birds, one squirrel, and a few slow-moving beetles were all that she could find. Then, finally, he cursed. Once again, she sped up to stand beside him, panting a little with exertion. 

Mulder looked down at the stone steps that had been carefully arranged on a steep part of the trail for hikers to use without endangering their ankles. The steps led between two old, well- entrenched trees; without them, the narrow path would have been too sharp a drop, and too uneven. 

"They cheated, " he said, and his whole body was stiff with outrage. 

"What do you mean?" 

"This isn't natural. This isn't showing people a trail through the forest. This is no better than paving a road through– look, the stone isn't even from this part of the park, it's from the other side, look how pink it is compared to the stone on the sides of the path. They rebuilt it so it would be easier, just like they built a road to the top of the mountain so you can drive up and be the first to see the sunrise without ever doing any honest work yourself." 

Scully stared at him. "I didn't know that you felt that strongly about preserving the natural environment." 

Mulder shuddered and put his hand on a nearby sapling. His hand encircled the trunk easily. "I don't feel that way. That's how he feels–he thinks it's cheating." 

He set off again down the hill, easily outpacing her. Scully took a few deep breaths and followed, trying not to lose sight of him. She got to the bottom of the stone steps, but then her foot hit a patch of rotting leaves and she skidded down the trail, only preventing herself from falling by grabbing on to a tree with all her might. The trunk hit her solidly across her upper left arm as her right swung around to embrace the tree, and she was grateful that Mulder didn't look back to see her communing rather too intimately with nature. 

She'd grabbed onto a tree covered with greyish fungus, and several of the dry things crumbled onto her arm as she pulled herself away. She brushed at the fragments, which had a texture like styrofoam. Under her jacket, the flesh of her arm crawled, overshadowing the pain of the impact. 

Scully regained her footing and continued down, realizing from the twinge in her arm that she'd added another bruise to the catalog. She bruised so easily now, whether from the drugs or the cancer itself she wasn't entirely sure. She told time less by the calendar these days, and more by what parts of her body were blue- black, or deep crimson, or brown-yellow as the healing slowly took place. 

She was going to die looking like an abuse victim, she thought sourly, still brushing absently at the dusty residue of the impact. 

God damn those trees. 

"Come on!" Mulder's voice was excited, impatient, his concern for her mercifully vanished because of whatever scent he'd picked up. Scully shook her head to clear it of self-pity and hurried down to where he was. 

"Look at this," he pointed to a hollow at the base of a large tree. Erosion had exposed many of the roots on the downward-sloping side, and a space large enough for a man had opened up. The roots and stony ground were partially covered inside the wooden cage by what looked like dried grass. Mulder knelt down and pawed at the faded green strands. 

She sighed and knelt down next to him, pulling out her gloves in case it wasn't too late for any evidence. Mulder produced a small flashlight and flicked it on; when she adjusted to the sudden brightness, she saw that the hollow went even further back than she'd first imagined. Something was killing the tree–the mini-cave not only went into the hill, it burrowed into the trunk as well, and the wooden ceiling was rough with decay. Small strands of pulpy wood hung down into the space, giving it an oddly furnished look, as if someone had carpeted the ceiling. 

Scully ducked her head down under the highest roots–she was able to lean further into the hollow than Mulder–and went in, trying to keep the tree-rot off of her hair. Keeping her head close to the ground made it easy to see the discolorations on the grass and underlying dirt. The stains had the familiar color of old blood (it could, she supposed, be spilt coffee, but somehow she was willing to bet on the obvious). 

She glanced around. It would be a claustrophobic space to sleep in, even for her, but probably better than staying outside where there was still snow. There was a churned patch of soil at the very back, and she was suddenly very grateful that her sense of smell was not all that it might be–it looked like their suspect's latrine area. "You think this is our suspect's nest or something?" she asked Mulder. 

"Or something…I don't think he's too big on wiping his feet before he comes in, that's for sure. I'm betting there's blood here from the Thunder Hole victim, and maybe even the one this morning– the first one was a little neater, we might not find anything from that one." Scully was scraping samples into evidence envelopes as he spoke; he would give her a new one whenever she held out her hand. 

"We should call for backup, have the rangers watch this place for him to come back," she suggested. 

He shook his head. "He won't come back. It's his nest and we fouled it; he'll find someplace else." 

"How will he know?" 

"Maybe the trees will tell him." 

She frowned. "Mulder…" 

"I think he knows we're here." 

She paused in her evidence collection efforts and looked at him. "I sense a theory coming on." 

"You're not going to like it." 

"That's a given, isn't it?… So, what do you think?" 

"I think…I think he senses me here. I knew we'd find this, I mean not just that we'd find a nest but that it would be here, about this far down the mountain. I think I can see through his eyes, some–and that means he can see through mine." 

Scully got the last of the blood-soaked soil and began to crawl backwards out of the tree's guts. 

"I know you think that what happened with Roche was a fluke, was me profiling in my sleep, but I don't know this guy's work, Scully, and I can still see him." 

"Where's the weapon, then?" It came out sharp and querulous. 

"Hanging from his belt, I guess. Look, I'm sorry, it's not like I've got a transmitter stuck in him, okay?" He paused, as if realizing that he hadn't made the most tasteful possible analogy. "I just…I get flashes, and sometimes I can interpret them, that's all. I wish–if I could make it work better so we could just go grab him and go home, believe me, I would." 

Mulder said that he wanted to keep looking, but she needed to get the soil analyzed to see if it really was stained with the blood of the victims. The tests were simple, even with the primitive equipment immediately available, so she took advantage of her freedom to go do the autopsy of the latest victim in the local funeral home. The building was a converted house still painted pink, perhaps to make the neighbors feel better about it, with a discreet sign and a scalloped awning over the front walk that signaled its current function. 

The room they gave her was in the basement, cold and clammy with the chill rising from the concrete floor and through the walls. They had a decent table, but she was glad that she'd brought her own knives. 

The victim was a trace technician's dream–or nightmare, for the lazy ones. He was covered in gravel and smaller fragments of dirt, leaves, shells, and other detritus. The blood had helped him collect his evidentiary cargo. She was almost grateful that her sense of smell was barely working; unlike the victim in the water, who'd been somewhat washed clean, this man was still covered with the wastes released when his sphincter and bladder muscles went slack. 

The killer was improving: He'd taken fewer practice cuts, gone for the joints with more confidence and success. She was willing to bet that the same hacksaw had been used, though confirmation would have to wait until they found the weapon. 

As she worked, weighing and recording, she considered the emerging pattern. He hadn't cut up the first one, but two dismembered in a row was beginning to look like he'd developed a strategy. Then she chided herself for trying to do someone else's job; mentioning her thought to Mulder would be worse than teaching her grandmother to suck eggs, whatever the hell that meant. 

Nearly ready to close up now. She bent over the torso. 

Time seemed to slow; she saw the shining drop of blood halfway between her face and the body, and dropped the knife she was holding in a desperate attempt to catch it. But her body was sluggish and gravity insistent, and it landed with a soft ploshing sound right where the man's navel had been. 

Scully reared back, trying to limit the damage. She almost put her hand over her nose, but just in time remembered what was on her gloves and pulled off the outer pair, letting her blood soak into the concrete floor, where it was indistinguishable from the other fluids of the dead. Still wearing the second pair of gloves, she tilted her head forward to keep the blood from going down her throat and choking her, pinching her nose closed to aid clotting. 

She kept the usual five-minute count, taking the chance to look around the basement. It could have been anyone's basement; the water heater hummed in one corner, the industrial-strength refrigerated units in the other. As suited the primary tasks of an undertaker, most of the tools on the tables around the sides of the room were cosmetic, designed to improve upon death and even, in some cases, on life. Wigs, lipstick, small plastic inserts that could fill out a face, larger ones for replacing the chest cavity, ties, scarves, even a few boxes of cheap earrings. 

She shivered, waiting for the flow to stop. The soil on all sides of her, behind the walls, transmitted its chill to the room, which was no doubt efficient but was still claustrophobic. The concrete walls had a few damp cracks in them, and occasional stains as if fungus had been scraped off. The floors were made of the same dark stuff, stained with runnels of dried fluids that stuck to the bottom of her boots as she walked around. 

Scully checked her watch and released her nose. Nothing more trickled down; she found some paper towels and wiped herself off, using her distorted reflection in the metal dispenser to guide the clean-up. 

Then she allowed herself to consider what had just happened. 

This wasn't like bleeding on a file folder. Everyone spilled things on case files; chocolate stained just as badly as blood, and coffee was worse because it was more likely to make ink run. But this was evidence she'd just compromised. Letting this go on endangered the investigation. What if, next time, it happened at the beginning of the autopsy and confounded vital trace evidence? 

Her shoulders hitched, once, twice, and then she controlled herself. She'd known that she'd have to quit eventually, when she could no longer perform up to the high standards the Bureau demanded, but she'd thought that it would be some sensory failure, or even dementia, that stopped her. Not a stupid nosebleed, not a symptom. 

Mechanically, she put on a new pair of gloves and finished the last few tasks, sewing the torso back together. Neat, even stitches. Would the pathologist who sewed her up be so careful? He'd better, or Mulder would–her vision blurred and she felt the sudden stab of a headache from holding the tears in. She prayed to God, automatically, for strength, feeling the futility even as she mouthed the words. 

When the body was back in its refrigerated cabinet, she took the samples she'd collected and headed up the rickety wooden stairs towards the ground floor and the Maine evening. At the top of the stairs, attached to the back of the door, there was a mirror. She'd gotten almost all of the blood; she licked her finger and wiped at the remaining spot. The dried blood was only faintly coppery to her reduced sense of taste. 

Aboveground, Scully called the rangers' station for a lift, and they said they'd send someone right along. The funeral home had a porch, like the homes that surrounded it, and she sat on a wicker chair, waiting to be picked up. She stared into the road, watching an occasional car go by and following leaves as they tumbled across her field of vision. 

There were arrangements that she should be making, that she should have made already, but she hadn't had the courage. She wanted an autopsy done, of course, and the tumor dissected and studied if it could do any good. But then what? A cremation, as her father had done? A memorial service for a few friends and family– which would make it less evident that she didn't have a large crowd of mourners, maybe. 

Cremation would be a good idea, she decided. Burning, disappearing, gone–and returning to the world, idiot dust, to be breathed in by thousands of people all around the world, carried by water and currents of air. It would be more influence than she'd achieved in life. And then there would be no rotting for her body. She'd seen enough rotting that she knew she'd rather avoid it. She'd leave a note for her mother, who didn't want to talk about it (she thought wryly) but would have to face facts soon enough. 

She imagined the memorial service. Mom would have a priest, no matter what she asked. The man wouldn't have known her, and would mouth meaningless generalities. She could see Skinner, Mom, Bill, Charlie and his wife–they didn't bring the children, who were too young to understand. Where was Mulder? She looked around in the church of her imagination and found only a dark nothingness. 

Tires chuffed on gravel; she opened her eyes and saw a Jeep with a grim-faced ranger waiting for her.

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